Ranking the 10 Best MVP Seasons in NBA History
The NBA MVP award has been given to the league's most valuable player since the season 1955-56.
Many of the recipients of the NBA's most prestigious honor remain as the greatest players to ever pick up a ball. Some are continuing to build a legacy.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the MVP count with six. Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain each earned this honor five times throughout their illustrious careers, and Bill Russell and LeBron James have won it on four occasions.
So which single seasons are the all-time best?
I was able to narrow down my list to the top 10, with the exception of a few honorable mentions who barely missed the cut.
There are usually several factors that are considered when determining who deserves the MVP award.
For my rankings, I accounted for all major statistical categories, as well as considering one's player efficiency rating (PER).
PER is a computational formula developed by John Hollinger that analyzes a player's statistical averages. These stats include: points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, turnovers, fouls and misses. Those averages are meshed into one final output, evaluating the player's effectiveness on a per-minute basis.
However, dominating in the win-loss column is indicative of a great player as well. So along with the raw statistics, the player's team record is also considered.
Additionally, I analyzed the player's other accomplishments that season, such as winning a scoring title, defensive MVP or another distinguished award. I put the player's performances into perspective with other previous records and accomplishments.
Lastly, because the MVP award is announced near the beginning of the playoffs, I only took into account the player's regular season. Or thus, the reason why he won the award.
Larry Bird, 1985-1986
Statistics: 25.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 9.8 RPG
Bird's third straight MVP season was his best. The veteran finished first in the NBA in PER, free-throw percentage and three pointers made. He also was fourth in scoring, seventh in rebounds, 14th in assists and ninth in steals.
Bird finished 0.2 rebounds away from a double-double average, again showcasing his multifaceted repertoire. In the process, he led the defending-champion Celtics to the NBA's best record.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1970-1971
Statistics: 31.7 PPG, 3.3 APG, 16.0 RPG
Abdul-Jabbar went on to post his usual mammoth numbers. He led the league in scoring, PER, finished fourth in rebounds and fueled the Bucks to the best record in the NBA.
Abdul-Jabbar fills up the record books in an array of categories. His first MVP award marked the start to one of the most illustrious careers in NBA history. While some of his later years were even more revered, his 1970-71 campaign was extremely impressive.
Abdul-Jabbar is a basketball mogul due to his excess of length and uncanny skill. He put the NBA on full notice with his first of six MVPs in 1970-71.
Kevin Garnett, 2003-2004
Statistics: 24.2 PPG, 5.0 APG, 13.9 RPG
Garnett earned his only MVP award en route to leading the Timberwolves to the second-best record in the NBA. He had a fantastic statistical season, finishing third in points and first in rebounds.
Garnett turned around the franchise upon his progression, and with the additions of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, he was able to lead the team to the most wins in franchise history.
The 7-footer completely dominated in the post on both ends of the floor. The Big Ticket utilized his length and showed off his immense skill with his patented fadeway baseline jumper. Upon his abilities, he remains as one of the great leaders the NBA has ever seen. Garnett's greatest overall season came in his only MVP campaign.
No. 10: Allen Iverson, 2000-01
Statistics: 31.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.8 RPG, 2.5 SPG
Meanwhile, he poured in 31.1 points per game en route to his second career scoring title. The Answer finished second in the NBA in steals, with 2.5 per game, and placed second in free throws made.
His lack of high PER is adequately explained by his usage from the 76ers, as he led the NBA in minutes. With virtually no second scoring option, Iverson was forced to will his team to every accomplishment that it desired.
And he did.
The 6-footer led the 76ers to 56 wins, the franchise's most in 16 years. Meanwhile, Iverson dropped 40 points on 15 separate occasions through the months of December and January.
In simple terms, Iverson was essentially a one-man team. He completely embodies what the MVP stands for because his sheer value to the team's well-being was absolutely necessary to their success. In gauging his value, consider this: the next highest scorer on the Sixers recorded only 12.4 points per game, a whopping 18.7 fewer than Iverson.
How could a 6'0" shooting guard with essentially no scoring help lead his team to the best record in the conference? This remains a mystery, but it is a testament to Iverson's greatness.
He might be the greatest pound-for-pound player in the history of the NBA. But in the 1999-00 season, Iverson was the best player, period.
No. 9: Wilt Chamberlain, 1966-67
Statistics: 24.1 PPG, 7.8 APG, 24.2 RPG
Wilt Chamberlain's 1966-67 campaign wasn't his best statistical season, although he still produced monstrous numbers. It was so remarkable because he improved his efficiency, led his team to an outstanding record and rounded out his overall game.
Chamberlain, known for his scoring and rebounding, actually passed for the third-most assists in the NBA in this year. He finished first in rebounding, minutes played and PER, while still remaining in the top five for points.
Most of all, he drastically reduced his shot attempts. His average shots per game was an incredible 25.3 attempts fewer than his most attempted in a season, while still averaging 24.1 points per game. Most notably, Wilt the Stilt recorded the second-highest shooting percentage in NBA history at 68.3 percent.
His improvement was also evident in the team's record. Chamberlain's 76ers recorded 68 wins, the most of his career and a record at the time.
Chamberlain ditched his demanding ways both on and off the court and his success subsequently followed. Many don't recognize the well-roundedness to his game, but it was on full display in this incredible MVP season.
No. 8: LeBron James, 2008-09
Statistics: 28.4 PPG, 7.2 APG, 7.6 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 1.2 BPG
This was the season that LeBron James put everything together.
He led a pedestrian Cavaliers team to the NBA's best record, 66-16, and morphed point guard Mo Williams into an All-Star. He helped make serviceable options like Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas lightyears better, all in the hope to stage a deep playoff run.
However, that didn't happen.
But James led the NBA in PER, finished second in the league in scoring and ranked in the top 10 for assists and steals. His PER ranks at second all-time since the merger.
Additionally, he made the leap as a premier defender. He maximized his superior athleticism on the defensive end, gaining his first NBA All-Defensive First Team honors of his career. James recorded a career high 1.2 blocks to go with 1.6 steals.
The King did it all, showcasing his ubiquity once again. Remarkably, James led the Cavs in every single major category, including points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.
Since that season, James' full potential has materialized. But it was the 2008-09 campaign when we saw his ability begin to scratch the surface and move towards historical levels.
No. 7: Oscar Robertson, 1963-64
Statistics: 31.4 PPG, 11.0 APG, 9.9 RPG
Oscar Robertson still stands as the lone player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of an entire season. In the 1963-64 season, the Big O was a slight 0.1 rebounds per game away from averaging that.
Robertson finished second in the NBA in scoring, first in assists, first in free throw percentage and ninth in field-goal percentage.
That season, he benefited greatly from an improved supporting cast, including Jack Twyman, legendary center Jerry Lucas and Wayne Embry. That core group led the Cincinnati Royals to a 55-25 record and reserved the No. 2 seed in the East.
Robertson's all-around statistics are baffling, and it is somewhat unexplainable how a guy who averaged a triple-double over his first five years only won the MVP award once. However, in an era so immensely dominated by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, it is a testament to Robertson's abilities that he even won the award.
Part of the reason why those star players were able to produce the monstrous numbers they did was because of the high shot frequency in the 1960s. They had more opportunities to score, rebound, assist and so on, which partially explains why the modern day NBA will probably never see players produce at such an incredible rate.
Regardless, Robertson can be seen as debatably the greatest all-around NBA player to ever suit up. He showcased his do-it-all ability in his only MVP season.
No. 6: Michael Jordan, 1995-96
Statistics: 30.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.3 APG and 2.1 SPG.
How is it possible for a player to return from a two-year absence from the game to dominating so convincingly? Only Michael Jordan could.
Jordan's return to the NBA is completely unthinkable. Despite momentarily returning and then losing in the 1995 season, he returned in 1996 with a vengeance, leading the Bulls to an unbelievable 41-3 start to the season.
Yes, he had officially returned.
Along the way, the 33-year-old cruised to his fourth MVP. Returning to his previous form, he won his eighth scoring title, led the NBA in PER, finished second in made free throws and third in steals.
The veteran also led the Chicago Bulls to an NBA-record 72 wins.
Jordan's full return to the game of basketball couldn't have gone more smoothly. He reminded everyone why he is considered the greatest to pick up a basketball by setting multiple records in his first full season with the team.
His 1995-96 campaign wasn't one of his greatest statistical seasons. But this MVP campaign was so impressive given the circumstances and the heights he returned to so quickly. That Bulls team is considered by many as the greatest team ever, which is proven by their unreachable record.
Michael Jordan's historic greatness was truly validated in the 1995-96 season.
No. 5: LeBron James, 2012-13
Statistics: 26.8 PPG, 7.3 APG and 8.0 RPG
LeBron James' 2012-13 season ranks incredibly highly from an efficiency standpoint, yet he still maintained extraordinary production.
James strung together a six-game stretch with 30 points or more on 60 percent shooting. In the process, the Miami Heat won 27 straight games, which is the second-longest streak in NBA history.
James shot a remarkable 57 percent, while shooting 41 percent from three. His PER ended at 31.6. And for the sixth straight season, he led the NBA in PER.
Why isn't the statistic just named after him?
From a numbers standpoint, the King completely dominated. He is one of four players in league history to average 26.8 points, 7.3 assists and eight rebounds in a single season.
If it weren't for one mere vote, James would have been the first unanimously selected MVP in NBA history.
He also finished second in the NBA for Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if it were up to the coaches, he would have won it. While the media is relegated to voting for Defensive Player of the Year, the coaches are assigned to vote for all-defensive teams. James actually received the most votes from the coaches who scheme to beat him.
His relentless production through his first nine years may allow him to end in a class of his own. Barring any setbacks, James has a realistic chance to finish in the top five all time for points and assists. That's an unthinkable accomplishment for a once-in-a-generation player. How fitting.
His 2012-13 season was truly brilliant and speaks to his all-around greatness.
No. 4: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1971-72
Statistics: 34.8 PPG, 16.6 RPG, 4.6 APG
Formerly known as Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's greatest MVP season came with the Milwaukee Bucks at the age of 24. The former UCLA Bruin registered his career-best in points per game, free throws made and field goals made.
Abdul-Jabbar took the reins as the NBA's best front court player in the wake of Bill Russell's retirement and Wilt Chamberlain's decline. Oscar Robertson joined forces with the up-and-coming Abdul-Jabbar to form a dangerous tandem, and the two helped Milwaukee reach 63 wins in the 1971-72 season.
Abdul-Jabbar led the NBA in scoring, finished second in rebounds as well as field goal percentage and led the next-highest player in PER by a whopping 6.8. In the waning years of Robertson's career, Abdul-Jabbar was forced to handle the load offensively in just his third season.
He certainly did.
Also, the NBA didn't start tracking blocked shots until two years later, but Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most dominant shot-blockers in NBA history. He ranks third all-time in that category.
Standing at 7'2", Abdul-Jabbar coined possibly the most unstoppable move in NBA history, the skyhook. His size, athletic leap and deadly accuracy from within 15 feet was simply unguardable.
Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA and has registered the most MVPs (six). The 1971-72 season was clearly his best scoring year, and it was only a sign of the sustained greatness that he showcased over a decorated 20-year career.
No. 3: Shaquille O'Neal, 1999-00
Statistics: 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG
Shaquille O'Neal's 1999-00 season originally marked the first time that a player finished one vote shy of a unanimous selection for MVP.
He was that dominant.
The Big Diesel led the NBA in scoring, field goals, free-throw attempts, field-goal percentage and finished second in total rebounds. Despite crushing the field in shots made, Shaq finished fourth in attempted field goals, which displayed his efficiency.
O'Neal finished third in the NBA in blocked shots with three per game, helping earn him a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He emerged as an elite defender and became the league's best two-way player.
The Big Diesel is arguably the most physically imposing big man the NBA has ever seen. At 7'1", 325 pounds, Shaq could back down any player in the post. His mini-hook was nearly automatic in the low post, he had great hands and was deceptively quick. Above all, however, was his overbearing power in post-up opportunities and pick-and-rolls.
O'Neal put it all together in his MVP season. He was an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor and led the Lakers to the NBA's best record at 67-15.
The scariest part about O'Neal's game was that he always had one glaring flaw: his ineptitude at the free-throw line. He led the NBA in attempts but shot an awful 52.4 percent at the charity stripe in his MVP-winning season. Shaq was so dominant yet had such a gaping weakness.
Regardless, O'Neal's MVP season remains as one of the greatest.
No. 2: Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60
Statistics: 37.6 PPG, 2.3 APG, 27.0 RPG
Wilt Chamberlain has posted some of the gaudiest statistics the NBA has ever witnessed. And he wasted no time doing it.
His 1959-60 campaign was his first season in the NBA, yet he went on to break eight separate records, including points per game (37.6) and rebounds per game (27.0).
The former Kansas Jayhawk dominated in a way never seen before.
He poured in an astounding 43 points and 28 rebounds in his inaugural NBA game and showed no signs of his youth. The rookie also led the league in minutes per game, PER and finished second in free throws made.
Additionally, he immediately helped lead the Philadelphia Warriors to a 49-26 record.
His rare combination of size, skill and athleticism was completely foreign to the NBA at the time, despite his relative similarity to Celtics great Bill Russell. In comparison, Chamberlain stood three inches taller and was nearly 60 pounds heavier than Russell.
Wilt the Stilt's rookie campaign marked the start of a revered career, but his rookie season was one of his greatest. In measuring his greatness, it's worth noting the differences in the game back then.
In 1959-60 season, the lowest average point total of a team was 107.3. Conversely, in the 2012-13 season, the highest average point total by a team was less than that, at 106.1. The frantic pace of the NBA game in the 1960s is noticeably different than today's. Thus, the averages skyrocketed because the players had more possessions to work with.
This can partially explain Wilt's unworldly numbers throughout his career. It's difficult to gauge his accomplishments with those of modern day players because of the difference in pace of play.
However, production is production, and the nuances of the 1960s' NBA don't to take away from his tremendous accomplishments.
Chamberlain is one of the greatest players ever, and his rookie campaign ranks right up there with the best MVP seasons.
No. 1: Michael Jordan, 1987-88
Statistics: 35.0 PPG, 5.9 AST, 5.5 RPG, 3.2 SPG and 1.6 BPG.
It makes sense that the greatest player of all-time orchestrated the best MVP season.
The 1987-88 season was only Michael Jordan's fourth year in the league, yet he completely dominated in every facet of the game.
His season PER currently ranks as the highest all-time since the merger, at an astounding 31.71.
Jordan led the NBA in points per game by nearly five points on an efficient 53.5 percent shooting. He was also the league leader in field goals made, free throws made and steals.
Along with those feats, Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year, setting an NBA record for most blocks by a guard in a season with 131. Additionally, he led the Bulls to a 50-32 record.
Yes, he failed to win an NBA Championship this season, being upended by the Pistons for the first time in three consecutive years. But consider this: Jordan is the only player in NBA history to win the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
He was so heavily relied on by his teammates that the next leading scorer on the team registered a remarkable 22 points fewer than him.
He won 50 games with that team? That is unfathomable.
Jordan was the only player on the Bulls who resembled an all-star and remained as the lone guy capable of creating his own shot. That team would have likely been one of the worst in the NBA, yet Jordan morphed them into a legitimate threat, as the team captured the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
While most would view his later years as the most memorable of his iconic career, Jordan's 1987-88 campaign is the epitome of a true MVP season.