Ranking Every NBA Finals MVP from the Last Decade

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2019

Ranking Every NBA Finals MVP from the Last Decade

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The NBA Finals MVP award is a handy way to define a playoff run. For some players, it's one of many accolades; for others, it's a marker of a particularly great individual series. All but two eligible Finals MVPs are in the Hall of Fame, with Chauncey Billups and Cedric Maxwell the exceptions.

    Kevin Durant has won the last two Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors, and they're back for a fifth straight time and looking to be the first team to three-peat since the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers. But with Durant missing at least the beginning of the series with a calf injury, it's unlikely he'll win it. Maybe this is Stephen Curry's year to win Finals MVP, the one hole on his resume.

    On the other side, the Toronto Raptors are led by another former Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, who won the award with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. If Leonard wins it this year, he'll join LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to win the award with two different franchises.

    Not all Finals MVPs are created equally. Here are the last 10, ranked.

10. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (2010)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's tough to pick a deserving MVP from the 2010 Finals, in which nobody had a dominant series-length performance. Bryant won almost by default because he was the leading scorer on the winning team, but this wasn't his best playoff series by any means.

    In addition to his infamous 6-of-24 shooting effort in the series-clinching Game 7, Bryant had a much worse series than the previous year when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in five games.

    Against the Boston Celtics, he shot 40.5 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three-point range.

9. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors (2015)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Iguodala won this award essentially for playing better defense on LeBron James than anyone else did. James was so dominant in these Finals—averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game—that four of the 11 voters picked him to win MVP even though the Cavs lost the series. It would have been the first time a player on the losing team won it since Jerry West in 1969.

    In Game 4, with Golden State trailing 2-1 in the series, Warriors coach Steve Kerr made the bold choice to move Iguodala into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bogut, shifting Draymond Green up a position to center. It established the reputation of what would later come to be known as the "Death Lineup," which included Iguodala, Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes (later Kevin Durant).

    The Warriors won the next three games after Kerr's adjustment to earn their first championship as a franchise in 40 years, and Iguodala's defensive performance on James was a primary reason why. It helped his case that Curry, fresh off winning his first career regular-season MVP award, had bad shooting nights in the closeout Game 6 (3-of-11 from three) and Game 2 (2-of-15 from deep).

    Iguodala's own stats don't jump off the page, but the Warriors wouldn't have won the 2015 title without him.

8. LeBron James, Miami Heat (2012)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    By anyone else's standards, James' 2012 Finals performance—28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game—would have been an all-timer, but it was easily the least memorable of his three championship-winning performances.

    That says more about how great James was in 2013 and 2016 (more on those later) than anything else, but this five-game series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder isn't the first thing that comes to mind when discussing James' greatest moments.

    James' real Finals MVP effort that year came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. With Miami down 3-2 in the series, James had arguably the greatest game of his all-time great career, putting up 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting along with 15 rebounds and five assists to take back control of the series.

    It's easy to forget now, but at the time, there were plenty of questions about James' abilities as a clutch performer, and in the final two games of the series against Boston, he answered those doubters once and for all.

    From there, beating a young, inexperienced Thunder team in the Finals was a formality. Miami dropped Game 1 but won the next four handily as James captured his first career championship and first of two in four years with the Heat.

7. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (2009)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    A year after losing to the Celtics in the Finals, the Lakers won their first championship since their turn-of-the-century three-peat ended in 2002. This title was huge for Bryant's personal legacy, as it was his first one since the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami in 2004.

    O'Neal was the most dominant player in the NBA in the immediate post-Jordan era and won Finals MVP in all three titles of the three-peat. With the 2009 Finals win over the Magic, Bryant proved he could be the best player on a championship team.

    He was much better in these Finals than he was the following year, in 2010. He scored at least 29 points in all five games and shot the ball more efficiently than he did in either the 2008 or 2010 Finals, his other two appearances of the post-Shaq era.

    With great games from surrounding players including Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers beat a good Orlando team in five games. Bryant lived up to his billing in this series, which will be the one to remember when discussing his ability to win as a first option.

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (2018)

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Just a boring, run-of-the-mill 28.8-point, 10.8-rebound, 7.5-assist, 2.3-block series for Durant to take home his second straight Finals MVP in two years since joining the Warriors.

    The impact of this one was a little less because of the feeling of inevitability with Durant leading arguably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on an NBA roster.

    The Cavaliers team Golden State swept in 2018 was clearly overmatched, even after overhauling two-thirds of its roster at the trade deadline around LeBron James. The Cavs almost took Game 1 on the road in Oakland, until JR Smith infamously forgot the score in the final seconds.

    After that, it was a foregone conclusion that the Warriors would win.

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (2014)

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    Like Andre Iguodala the following year, Leonard's Finals MVP was largely an award given for defending LeBron James well. He wasn't San Antonio's leading scorer in the series—that would be Tony Parker—but the 22-year-old followed up a breakout campaign in the 2013 playoffs with an even better all-around effort in 2014.

    The 2014 Spurs may have been the best team of the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era, which is no small accomplishment given that it came 15 years after their first title and seven years after their last. This team was deep, consistent and played a beautiful, ball movement-heavy brand of basketball that was a precursor to the style the current Warriors later perfected. 

    With Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili aging, the Spurs were searching for their next superstar to keep this unprecedented run of consistent winning going. With his 2014 Finals performance, Leonard proved he could be that guy. He backed it up in the following two seasons with two straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and firmly placed himself in the conversation of the best players in the NBA.

    Things ultimately fell apart between Leonard and the Spurs last season, resulting in his offseason trade to the Toronto Raptors. His falling out with the Spurs was a long, drawn-out ordeal that left nobody looking good. But all the proof of why Leonard was worth that drama in the first place can be traced back to the 2014 Finals.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (2011)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Perhaps no title run of this era did more for one player's reputation than the 2011 Mavericks' championship did for Nowitzki.

    By this time, he'd accomplished everything there was to accomplish on an individual level: 10 straight All-Star appearances, league MVP in 2007 and 11 All-NBA appearances. But the Mavs consistently came up short in the playoffs, most infamously in the 2006 Finals against an earlier version of the Heat led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.

    Nowitzki already spent much of his career battling widespread (and unfair) stereotypes about "soft" European players; if he'd never won a championship, he wouldn't be thought of historically the way he is now.

    The 2011 Mavericks were unlikely champions. They entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference without much star power around Nowitzki, and after getting through the West, they were widely expected to lose to the newly formed Heat superteam.

    The story of that Finals was LeBron James' uncharacteristically subpar performance, but Nowitzki was excellent throughout the series. Over six games, he averaged 26 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45.7 percent from three-point range. It was a validation of his career and vaulted him to another level in the annals of NBA history.

3. LeBron James, Miami Heat (2013)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The most iconic moment of the 2013 Finals came from Ray Allen, who hit a game-tying three-pointer just feet from the Spurs' celebration preparation, forcing overtime and ultimately a Game 7. But the series, and the Finals MVP trophy, rightfully belonged to James.

    He capped off arguably the best season of his career, in which the Heat won 27 straight games and he took home his fourth career regular-season MVP trophy, with a dominant playoff run that included outlasting the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and a great San Antonio team in the Finals.

    James' numbers were predictably solid—25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game over the seven games—but the real story was his shooting. If there was one weakness in his near-flawless game over the course of his career, it's been that he hasn't been a good outside shooter. He had a career year from that range in 2013 and shot 35.3 percent from deep on 4.9 attempts per game in the Finals.

    Winning his second straight title with the Heat only further cemented James' standing as a playoff performer after years of silly questions about his "clutch-ness."

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (2017)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Durant joined the Warriors in 2016 because he wanted to win championships, and he accomplished that goal right away. However you feel about his decision to join one of the greatest teams in NBA history, there's no denying its effectiveness in helping him achieve what he set out to achieve.

    The Warriors swept all three rounds of the Western Conference playoffs and only lost one game to the Cavs in the 2017 Finals. Durant was the best player on either team in the series, putting up 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steal per game while playing stellar defense and shooting an unreal 47.4 percent from three.

    As unexciting as the series was, Durant's dominance was clinical, and it got him to the level of winning that he'd always wanted.

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (2016)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    No matter how you want to measure it, James' 2016 Finals towers above the rest.

    Statistical production? He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. He had a triple-double in the deciding Game 7 and two consecutive 41-point performances in Games 5 and 6.

    Narrative? The Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit against the greatest regular-season team in NBA history, the 73-win Warriors, to win their first title in franchise history and the first championship by a Cleveland sports team in over 50 years.

    When James returned to Cleveland from Miami in the summer of 2014, he spoke of unfinished business, of wanting to bring a title to his home state. He did that, healing old wounds from The Decision in 2010 and cementing himself as untouchable in northeast Ohio.

    Iconic moments? James' chase-down block of Andre Iguodala late in Game 7 immediately became one of the all-time NBA Finals highlights.

    Having already won two titles in Miami, James had nothing left to prove as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. But what he did in 2016 was his crowning achievement.