While doing the play-by-play of a Miami Heat game earlier in the season, commentators Steve Kerr and Marv Albert got in a heated discussion about the MVP race.
Kerr asserted that voters are less inclined to vote for the same player three years in a row and may choose to "spread the wealth" of the award around instead of rewarding a player for a third time. He was referring to LeBron James' chances of securing the award again, but Albert, who is on the voting committee, took umbrage at the insinuation that voters consciously freeze out players and refuse to vote for them three years in a row.
Kerr, whose former teammate Michael Jordan was denied an MVP 3-peat twice in 1993 and 1997 is the most obvious example of when a player should have won the award but didn't due to reasons not readily accepted by the general public.
Their conversation certainly brings to mind a few times in NBA history that the winner of the MVP award drew complaints rather than applause from some not directly connected to the committee.
So here they are, the eight most controversial MVP winners.
Should have been: Tim Duncan or Alonzo Mourning
The MVP race in 1999 was quite fun to watch, and it came down to a photo finish in the final weeks. Although, if the race was won by a nose, the MVP voters completely misread the evidence on the photo.
Mourning had the best season of his career in 1999. He averaged 20.1 ppg and 11.0 rpg, while leading the Miami Heat to the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in franchise history. Tim Duncan led his Spurs to the best record in the West (by virtue of a tie-breaker with the Utah Jazz) and Duncan performed brilliantly, posting 21.7 ppg and 11.4 rpg. His Spurs began the season a disappointing 6-8, but since their rough start he led them to a 31-5 record afterward and established himself as the leader of the Spurs, despite David Robinson's presence.
The Utah Jazz were tied with the Spurs for the best record, but they led the league in wins for most of the season before slumping in the final month. Generally, slumps by teams heading into the playoffs hurt MVP candidates, but it did not effect Malone's candidacy in the minds of voters.
To be sure, Malone had a great season. He posted 23.8 ppg and 9.4 rpg, while leading his team to a tie for the league's best record. But as strong as those number may seem, they represent one of Malone's worst statistical seasons since his rookie year. Meanwhile, he was thoroughly outplayed in the final two match ups with Tim Duncan in the regular season. Many sportswriters argued that these match ups would "decide the MVP race," but ultimately voters went with the safe bet in Malone.
Mourning never really had a chance. Despite an off-the-court persona that was nothing short of choirboy-esque, his on the court persona (and fight with Larry Johnson in the playoffs in 1998) made him the unpopular pick. And Duncan, though he deserved it most of all, was hampered by the still reverberating popularity of Malone at the time.
Nevertheless, Duncan wound up winning the title while Malone lost in the second round.
The Winner should have been: Jason Kidd
Perhaps it was because voters felt that they snubbed Tim Duncan for MVP in 1999, or it was because Jason Kidd's arrest for spousal abuse in 2001 just biased them against him, but many believed that Tim Duncan did not deserve the MVP award in 2002.
Jason Kidd, despite his off the court issues, led the New Jersey Nets to one of the greatest turnarounds in league history in his first year with the Nets, as the team experienced turning a 26-win team into a 52-win team by basically adding Kidd.
Kidd's numbers were also special that year, as he averaged 14.7 ppg, 9.9 apg and 7.3 rpg. He also contributed many intangibles to the team as well, such as his defensive tenacity and his incredible will to win, eventually leading the Nets to its first ever trip to the finals.
Duncan, to be sure, had a great year. He averaged 25.5ppg, 12.7 rpg, and 2.5 bpg. However, these numbers aren't vastly different from his numbers the previous year when he averaged 22.2 ppg, 12.2 rpg and 2.2 bpg.
But if the measure of an MVP is leading one's team to regular season success, it was hard to make the case that Duncan did. His Spurs won 58 games, the same as they'd won the previous year. But at least in 2001 the Spurs were the conferences top seed. In 2002, they were only third.
Kidd should have won the award that year. He had all the ingredients to secure the award, except a clear public image.
Should Have been: Rick Barry
OK, for those unfamiliar or too young to remember this MVP race let me set the scene: In 1975, the MVP voters were made up of players rather than media pundits, and it was an even greater popularity contest than it is now. Rick Barry was not a particularly popular player around the NBA. Meanwhile, McAdoo was fairly well liked across the NBA.
This popularity skewed the results against Barry, as he would finish a distant fourth in the voting behind McAdoo, Dave Cowens, and Elvin Hayes.
First of all, I find it a bit curious the fact that Berry finished behind Cowens in MVP voting, yet Cowens didn't even make the All-NBA First Team that year while Berry did.
McAdoo led the league in scoring this season with 34.5 ppg and that played a large role in his win, but his scoring was only slightly higher than Berry's 30.6 ppg. McAdoo's Buffalo Braves (later to become the Los Angeles Clippers) won 49 games in his MVP year, which was good for only the third best record in the conference.
Meanwhile, Barry's team, while winning the same number of games, led Golden State to the best record in the West. Berry also led the league in steals at 2.85 per game and free throw percentage at (.904).
Of course, the benefit of hindsight would cast judgement on the decision as Barry would advance to the finals and win a title in one of the greatest upsets in finals history, while McAdoo would lose in the second round of the playoffs.
Granted, Derrick Rose has not actually won the award yet, but the general consensus around the league appears to be that you're more likely to see the Mayor of Cleveland declare "LeBron James day" in the city than for Rose not to win the award.
For the record, I think Rose is very deserving of the award. The Bulls have secured the top seed in the league and Rose has become the unquestioned leader of the team. But one question I have is: Is his win a manifestation of the LeBron James-hate brigade, or would he have won regardless of the controversial "Decision" broadcast that turned the entire voting poll against James this year?
When critics defend Rose they will acknowledge that his statistics are technically not better than James', and they won't argue that he is as dominant a force as Dwight Howard. But they say that he led his team to the East's top seed despite injuries to two "All-Star Caliber" bigs, while the Heat wound up only the second seed, and Howard's Magic were fourth.
These things are true, but in defense of Howard and James, both players had to make bigger adjustments and sacrifices to their games throughout the regular season than Rose did. James was playing for a different team, in a new role with half the country rooting for him to fail. No one expected him to secure stats that look remarkably similar to those of the previous year with better teammates.
He came into the league with the most pressure to preform and did so admirably as the Heat led the East in road wins, despite every game having a playoff atmosphere. It was a testament to James' great play.
As for Howard, he started the season with one team and would end the season with a totally different team. Yet, he has proven time-and-time again that he can make the team a playoff contender and top defensive team just by his mere presence. Not too many teams can have their supporting cast change early in the season, yet still maintain their defensive identity despite the turnover. That equates to a valuable player in my book.
Additionally, there is a question over whether the Bulls success derives more from Tom Thibodeau's system or Rose's play. If you put Deron Williams on the Bulls instead of Derrick Rose could they win 60-games under Thibs defensive philosophy? Maybe.
Can you put any other center in the league on the Magic and have a No. 4 seed considering the struggles of everyone on the team? Unlikely. If you take James off and replace him with any other small forward in the game, could they get the same intangibles they get from James? No.
So while I acknowledge that I agree with the pick of Rose, I don't think it is as open and shut as has been reported.
Should have been: Charles Barkley
The 1990 MVP race would prove to be one of the closest in league history as Magic Johnson edged out "Sir Charles" by a mere 22 votes. Curiously, even though Magic Johnson won the award and Johnson's team won a league best 63 games (the league's only 60-win team that year) and Barkley's club only won 53 games, Barkley received more first place votes (38-27).
Magic Johnson had a spectacular year in 1990. It was his first full season without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and he maintained a sustained level of excellence for the Lakers despite the retirement of the team's hall-of-fame center. It also benefited Johnson that he added a new weapon to his arsenal this season (3-point shooting), which the voters appreciated.
But the knock against Johnson this season, similarly to those leveled at the Big Three in Miami this year, he still had more help than Barkley. Can he be the most valuable player if his team has more talent and experience than the team of another MVP contender?
Johnson was without Jabbar, but he still had James Worthy, A.C. Green, Byron Scott and a young Vlade Divac. That's not that bad a supporting cast. Barkley, on the other hand, won only 10 fewer games than Magic with teammates like Mike Gminski, Johnny Dawkins, Ron Anderson and Derek Smith. No, I never heard of them either. Hersey Hawkins provided a bit of scoring, but Barkley clearly had less talent to work with.
Stats-wise Johnson and Barkley's numbers were both very strong: Barkley averaged 25.2 ppg, 11.5 rpg, while Johnson averaged 22.3 ppg and 11.5 apg. But since the evaluation is "most valuable player" rather than best player (which Jordan had on lockdown with his 33.6 ppg and 2.77 steals, both tops in the NBA), one could say that Barkley's team wouldn't have even made the playoffs without him.
Should Have Been: Shaquille O'Neal
Upon winning the 2005 NBA MVP, there were plenty of audible gasps from around the league. Certainly Steve Nash had a good year and led the Phoenix Suns to the best record in the league that year at 62-20.
But his numbers: 15.5 ppg and 11.5 apg seemed awfully meager for the league's most valuable player. Could it have been possible that Amare Stoudemire's stronger 26.9 ppg and 8.9 rpg could have played a larger part in the teams success?
And how large of a role did Mike D'Antoni's fastpaced offense (which was perfect for winning regular season games, but not so much in the postseason) play in the team's overall success that year?
Meanwhile, Shaq—playing in his first season with the Miami Heat—led the team to the top seed in the conference and a 59-23 record. He averaged 22.9 ppg and 10.4 rpg. It represented a 16 game improvement for the team over the previous season.
Now, this is not to say that Nash's impact on the Suns was not felt. He transformed the team into a legitimate contender this season. But he had one of the least impressive stat lines of any MVP winner in recent memory, and that is why his victory was so hotly debated.
Should have been: Kobe Bryant
The first time, we could chalk it up to an NBA that was simply looking to shed its image in the recent wake of the "Malice in the Palice" and clean up the league by highlighting more agreeable faces to spotlight the game. But by the second time, it was getting serious.
Steve Nash is the only repeat MVP winner that has never appeared in an NBA Finals game. Nash received credit for leading the Suns to a solid 54-28 record despite playing without his All-Star big Amare Stoudemire for most of the season. And his numbers were improved from the previous year: 18.8 ppg and 10.5 apg.
But when considering the select company of repeat MVP winners, Nash stood with LeBron James, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, and the players that only won once in Shaq, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon, or never won in Isiah Thomas, Jerry West.
Did Nash really belong in that distinguished company?
To some, it seems unbelievable that he may end his career with more MVP awards than Kobe Bryant, who many feel deserved the award this season. Granted, the Lakers were only a 7th seed this season and won 47 games to make the playoffs after missing them the previous year. But Kobe Bryant was just sensational this season, posting 35.4 ppg (first in the league), 5.3 rpg, and 4.5 apg.
Many argue that the Lakers would have been a lottery team without Kobe in 2006, and one glance at the roster appears to back that claim up: Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, Kwami Brown. Ouch. Although Lamar Odom was on the team, he has always served the Lakers best off the bench rather than a second option.
This was also the year of Kobe's great 81 point game.
Should Have Been: Michael Jordan
The general opinion across the NBA when Karl Malone beat out Michael Jordan for MVP in 1997 was: "Oh, so the voters decided to give it to someone other than Jordan." This may seem like a slight to Malone, and in truth Malone had a phenomenal season in 1997, but Jordan should have won the award.
Malone averaged 27.4 ppg and 10 rpg. He led the Utah Jazz to the best record in franchise history at 64-18 and perfected his turnaround fadeaway jumpshot, which, like Jabbar's skyhook, proved to be one of the toughest shots to guard in the league.
Jordan, as usual, had a great season: 29.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 4.3 apg. Jordan led the Bulls to an incredible 69-13 season (tied for second best of all-time) despite losing starting center Luc Longley and sixth man of the year Toni Kukoc for around 25 games apiece due to injuries.
Certainly Karl Malone had a spectacular year, and he led them with one of the best seasons statistically of his career. But Jordan simply did a bit more for the Bulls this season and deserved the award and had a slightly more convincing argument for winning the award.
I certainly don't mean to besmirch Malone's brilliant playing career, but honestly, I don't think he deserved either MVP award he won.