But what happens if the Mavericks lose? Let us imagine, for arguments' sake, that the Heat take out the championship in a seven-game series. Let's also pretend that Games 4, 5, 6 and 7 were all close-fought affairs—nail-biters. We'll also assume that, like so far in the series, it was Nowitzki who kept his Mavs in the running, continually bringing them back from double-digit deficits with unguardable jump shots and near-perfect foul shooting.
In such a case, is there a precedent for giving a member of the losing team the Finals MVP hardware?
As it happens, there is.
In that series, Russell's Lakers raced to an early 2-0 lead, using home-court advantage to full effect. Boston won the next two at home, evening the series. In those days, the league had yet to go to the current 2-3-2 Finals format. So the teams went back to L.A. for Game 5, where the Lakers were again successful at home. In Game 6 at Boston, the Celtics too were successful defending their home turf.
With both teams 3-0 at home, the decider took place in Los Angeles. The Lakers were up 106-104 with 20 seconds to, when Lakers reserve Keith Erickson committed a fateful turnover, leading to a Don Nelson jumper and a heartbreaking 108-106 loss to the Celtics.
Let's take a look at some of the statistics for the leading players on each team. Statistics are—highly unfortunately—not available for solely the NBA Finals series that year, but here they are for the playoffs in the entirety.
On any reading of those statistics, Jerry West comes out on top, but those are for the playoffs overall. What did he specifically do in the Finals?
In Game 1 he hit 53 points, in Game 2 he had 41 points and in Game 7 he had a triple-double, with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
West averaged 38 points per game over the series, and is the only player in NBA history who was awarded the Finals MVP Trophy after his team lost.
Now let's take a look at Nowitzki's performance in the postseason so far.
As the competition has gotten stiffer, Nowitzki hasn't just kept up his game, he has stepped it up. His free-throw shooting in particular is an amazing statistic, considering he he has been to the line 164 times in 18 games, making 154 of those for an average 8.6 free throws made out of 9.1 attempted every game. He leads all players in free throws made these playoffs (Durant is second, with 140), and is second in total free-throws attempted (Durant has attempted three more, with 167).
Now let's compare Player Efficiency Ratings and Win Shares for key players throughout these playoffs.
Eliminating Paul, Howard and Durant—since they are no longer in the championship race—it seems clear from all the above data that the three players competing for the NBA Finals MVP honors are Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James.
If the Mavericks win, it's almost a certainty Nowitzki will win the Finals MVP. But is there a case for Nowitzki taking home the hardware even if the Mavericks lose the championship?