Ranking Every NBA MVP Since 2000

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 17, 2020

Ranking Every NBA MVP Since 2000

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    It's as if the NBA's MVP award is designed to provoke debate. Opinions diverge on the definition of "valuable," and consensus only gets tougher to build from there.

    In ranking the last 20 MVP seasons, we'll consider the award-winner's statistics, his team's success, his impact on said success and any compelling narrative elements that add something extra. This is a sort of holistic look—heavily influenced by the numbers but also, hopefully, not a straight math exercise. The stories of these seasons matter.

    A good rule of thumb when trying to compare 20 achievements that are, by definition, remarkable: Look for the unprecedented. If an MVP fundamentally changed the sport, that'll help his ranking—as long as the numbers are there to back it up. They always will be, of course, because these are MVPs we're talking about.

    All 20 of these seasons are awesome, but somebody's going to rank last. Just don't confuse that for a slight. When you're comparing 20 diamonds, you've got to embrace the search for tiny imperfections.

1. Stephen Curry 2015-16

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    Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games in 2015-16. Of the many record-breaking points from which we could start our defense of Curry as the best MVP of the last 20 years, this seems like the best one as team success is indivisible from this specific award. There's a reason 19 of the last 20 MVPs have come from a team seeded first or second in its conference.

    Those 73 wins had several sources; Golden State was young, deep and motivated. Draymond Green stopped everyone. Klay Thompson never missed. Andre Iguodala filled in all the gaps.

    But nobody mattered more to the Warriors' ridiculous record than Curry, whose presence on the court coincided with a plus-17.7 net rating. When he sat, the Warriors actually got outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. That net swing of 23.1 points is the largest of any MVP season under consideration.

    How did he make such an overwhelming impact? By playing basketball in a different way than anyone ever had.

    His 402 made triples are still an NBA record, surging past the 286 with which he set the all-time mark in 2014-15. This wasn't just volume shooting. Curry hit 45.4 percent of his triples, the most efficient conversion rate of any MVP we'll discuss. His 66.9 true shooting percentage isn't just the highest generated by anyone in this field; it's the highest ever produced in a season involving at least 1,000 field-goal attempts.

    Curry's 2015-16 campaign was the greatest offensive year in NBA history, an assertion supported by the fact that it ranks first all-time in offensive box plus-minus. He went 50/40/90 and led the league in scoring.

    In hindsight, of course Curry became the first player to ever win the award unanimously. He was primarily responsible for redefining the way offense could be played, and he blazed that new trail while leading his team to a win total never before seen.

    Even in a collection of seasons this remarkable, Curry's stands apart.

2. LeBron James 2008-09

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    LeBron James is going to show up here three more times, but this award, his first, is special.

    Call it the "arrival" MVP.

    In his age-24 season, James led the Cavs to a franchise-record 66 wins with averages of 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists. He accounted for seven of the 30 triple-doubles recorded in the league that year and set a new career high in total blocks—all while playing the fewest minutes per game (37.7) of his career to that point.

    The catch-all metrics make a strong case for slotting this MVP season ahead of Curry's unanimous selection. James' 2008-09 ranks first among the 20 MVP seasons we're considering in box plus-minus, value over replacement player and win shares. The figures he posted in all three categories remain career bests.

    It's fair to argue that the breakthrough season for the best player of this (and possibly any other) generation is as historically significant as Curry's paradigm-shifting 2015-16 campaign. This was the year James went from being the guy most believed was the best player in the league to the guy officially recognized as such.

    James' on-off impact narrowly trailed what Curry managed in 2015-16; he "only" improved Cleveland's net rating by 22.7 points per 100 possessions. Though not as prolific or efficient a scorer as Curry was that season, James' across-the-board contributions were more robust.

    James didn't fundamentally change the game like Curry did, though. His team won fewer games, and he didn't carry it to new heights while revolutionizing offense. In a race this close, qualitative stuff like that makes the difference between first and second.

3. Shaquille O'Neal 1999-00

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    The earliest eligible MVP season on our list, Shaquille O'Neal's 1999-00 campaign can't be forgotten just because it happened before a handful of active NBA players were born.

    By this point in his career, O'Neal had put on significant bulk but had only sacrificed a bit of the quickness that defined his Orlando Magic days. In terms of sheer physical ability, this was as overwhelming as Shaq ever got.

    We don't have on-off data to quantify O'Neal's impact on the 67-win Los Angeles Lakers, but it seems reasonable to suggest his 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks per game made a difference. On that point, he missed only three games, which resulted in a 16-point loss, an 18-point loss and a three-point win.

    O'Neal led the league in scoring, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating, offensive and defensive win shares, BPM and VORP. And if a bunch of advanced stats don't do it for you, please enjoy a less subtle illustration of how thoroughly Shaq smashed everyone in his way.

    Sure, that one comes at the tail end of the 1998-99 season. But it helps convey the sense of helplessness prime O'Neal inspired in opponents.

    Rik Smits played at 7'4" and 250 pounds, and he was the man tasked with guarding Shaq in the 2000 Finals. His assessment, per Kent Babb of the Washington Post: "He'd just run through you."

    O'Neal's 1999-00 season is tops in the 20-season group in total made field goals, defensive rebounds and blocks. He fell one vote short of a unanimous award and hasn't exactly gotten over it.

4. LeBron James 2012-13

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    This is going to sound strange because we've already ranked one of James' other MVP seasons higher, but 2012-13 might have been peak LeBron.

    This was his third year in Miami, and though his 26.8 points per game were his third-lowest scoring average to that point in his career, James reached new heights in efficiency and top-down control over everything that happened on the court. This happens with lots of players: They hit a sweet spot at which their physical abilities are still at an apex level, but their experience raises their understanding of the game to a new one.

    Obviously, since this is LeBron—a player whose physical gifts and basketball IQ were both off the charts to begin with—the confluence was spectacular. Miami won 27 straight games at one point this year and finished at 66-16. Narratively, the Heat were dominant in their title defense and had long shaken off the disappointment of 2010-11.

    It's probably not a coincidence that LeBron played this season with supreme confidence and total freedom.

    He cracked the symbolically important 40-percent barrier from deep, draining a career-best 40.6 percent of his treys while also nailing 56.5 percent of his shots overall. The resulting 64.0 true shooting percentage was his highest ever to that point in his career.

    This was also the last season James would make the All-Defensive first team. It's easy to forget now as he picks his spots defensively, but it was common in 2012-13 (and for the preceding several years) to see him completely suffocate opposing players at four positions—all while waiting to pounce on errant passes whenever he was off the ball.

    The defining characteristic of this MVP season was the way everything looked so easy for James. Case in point: He set the modern-era record, which still stands, by scoring at least 30 points while shooting 60.0 percent or better in six straight games.

    Oh, and like Shaq before him, James was a single first-place vote shy of winning MVP unanimously.

5. Kevin Garnett 2003-04

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    Kevin Garnett led the Minnesota Timberwolves to 58 wins in 2003-04—a relatively low total but still the franchise's most successful season—while averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar produced the only other season in which a player matched those five-category averages.

    Among the 20 seasons we're pulling from, Garnett's ranks third in VORP, sixth in win shares and eighth in BPM. He's the only entry in the field whose season included at least 100 blocks and steals, and he swung the Wolves' net rating 20.7 points in the positive direction. Only the top two seasons in these rankings included a larger on-off split.

    KG logged all 82 games, led the league in rebounding and committed just 212 turnovers, the second-lowest figure in this group.

    Consider the competition, too. Power forward in the West during this period was an absolute minefield. Garnett got his numbers and played some of the best defense in the league against the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber, Pau Gasol, Rasheed Wallace and Elton Brand.

    This was the summit for Garnett and the Wolves. It was his fifth straight year averaging at least 20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He'd finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in four of the previous five years and was in the midst of six straight All-Defensive first-team nods. Though it doesn't necessarily count toward his ranking here, it may have mattered most that KG led the Wolves to the 2004 conference finals after seven straight first-round outs.

    Only three members of the 123-person electorate gave their first-place vote to someone other than KG.

6. LeBron James 2009-10

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    This makes it three of the top six spots for James, and we've already lauded his statistical ridiculousness (2008-09) and technical mastery (2012-13) in two prior entries.

    The justifying angle this time: a total lack of quality teammates. If a player's value is at least partly measured by what would happen to his team if he weren't there to do all the heavy lifting, James' case here is airtight.

    The 2009-10 Cavs got outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions whenever LeBron sat, the third-worst figure posted by any MVP's team in this sample. With him on the floor, Cleveland topped opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions. That's a plus-16.6 swing, the fifth-largest in our group.

    The names make this easier to understand than the numbers.

    Mo Williams was Cleveland's second-best player in 2009-10, and his BPM of 1.8 ranked 43rd in the league. It's not a stretch to say LeBron, who led the NBA with an 11.8 BPM, guided these Cavs to 61 wins without another top-50 player on the roster.

    Anthony Parker started 81 games and logged 2,289 minutes, third on the team. Anderson Varejao was fourth in minutes. J.J. Hickson was fifth. There's nothing close to an All-Star in that mix of role-fillers and journeymen, and let's not pretend a 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal was much help, either.

    James' 2009-10 season was his last with Cleveland before joining the Miami Heat, and it ended with a disappointing second-round elimination. But with averages of 29.7 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds on a career-best (at that point) 50.3 percent shooting, James' production was unassailable. Despite receiving no help whatsoever, James' 2009-10 ranks in the top five of our 20-season field in BPM, VORP and win shares.

    In hindsight, the failure to surround him with talent, which precipitated James' exit, is even more glaring than it seemed in the moment. No wonder he left.

7. Kevin Durant 2013-14

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    Kevin Durant's 2,593 points in 2013-14 are the most scored in any of the 20 MVP seasons under consideration. Imagine what he could have done if the Oklahoma City Thunder had actually moved the ball or run an offense.

    OKC's style and supporting cast are relevant here, as some might argue this is too high a ranking for KD given that he shared the floor with Russell Westbrook, a future MVP himself. Russ only played 46 games that year, though, and the Thunder went 25-11 without him.

    It's also telling that in the 46 games Westbrook played, OKC virtually never let him see the floor without Durant by his side. Cleaning the Glass' numbers have the Thunder down for just 87 "Westbrook without Durant" possessions for the entire year.

    When they played together, OKC's net rating was plus-7.6. When Durant took the floor without Westbrook, that number climbed to plus-8.5. So no, there's really no case for saying Russ made things easier for KD.

    Durant's 63.5 true shooting percentage is the highest ever posted by a player averaging at least 32.0 points per game, and it's the fifth-best accuracy rate among the 20 MVP seasons we're judging. The 192 threes he made rank fifth, and the 703 free throws he hit are the second-highest total in the last 20 MVP seasons.

    In terms of advanced metrics, KD's 2013-14 has the eighth-best BPM, fifth-best VORP and third-most win shares.

    Narratively, this season marked Durant's arrival as the main challenger to LeBron James as the league's best player. KD had led the NBA in scoring three times before, but he'd never taken on such a high-volume role. This year still stands out as his highest-usage season, and it remains his apex in terms of player efficiency rating, win shares, BPM and VORP.

8. Tim Duncan 2001-02

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    Rate stats, percentages and efficiency figures dominate the statistical conversation these days, but it's important to appreciate old-school volume every once in a while.

    This is one such case.

    A player's MVP-worthiness is connected to how often he's on the court providing all that value, and Tim Duncan logged an incredible 3,329 minutes during the 2001-02 season. That's the highest total on our 20-season board, coming during a year in which a 25-year-old Timmy also led the NBA in field goals, free throws and rebounds.

    His 25.5 points per game were a career high, and he was also the only guy in the league to average at least 3.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game that season.

    He was also an All-Defensive first-teamer for the fourth straight year.

    Duncan was a better player than David Robinson from the moment he joined the Spurs in 1997, but 2001-02 was the first healthy, non-lockout Robinson season that didn't involve an All-Star nod. That lent Duncan's MVP honor a little extra "changing of the guard" vibe.

    From this point on, the Spurs officially belonged to Duncan. 

9. Stephen Curry 2014-15

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    Because nobody knew the true revolution was still a year away, Stephen Curry's 2014-15 season felt like the real deal.

    He set the league record with 286 made triples, landed his first All-NBA first-team honor, led the NBA in steals and became the shortest player ever to average at least 23.0 points per game with at least a 63.0 true shooting percentage.

    He did all that while leading the Warriors to a new level, lifting them from frisky playoff team to true contender. Golden State won a then-franchise-record 67 games and its first title since 1975. Though the latter distinction doesn't matter in an MVP conversation, it underscores the degree to which Curry elevated his team.

    Another illustration: The Warriors' net rating was minus-3.5 whenever Curry sat but leaped to plus-16.3 when he played. That plus-19.8 swing is the fourth-largest of this 20-season group. And though the 9.9 BPM he posted looks quaint compared to the 11.9 he threw up in his unanimous 2015-16, it still led the league and ranks 10th in our field.

    In terms of intangibles, this is really the first year Curry moved beyond being a deadly scorer. His craft reached a new level, his ball-handling improved, and he developed the rest of his game in ways that made life easy for teammates.

    Steph was an All-Star in 2013-14, but this was the beginning of his prime. This was the year Curry became a true phenomenon.

10. Giannis Antetokounmpo 2018-19

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo's 2018-19 season might already be underrated.

    He's on pace to better his point and rebound averages in 2019-20 despite playing fewer minutes per game, and his Milwaukee Bucks are in line to top the 60 wins they amassed the prior year. Knowing 2018-19 wasn't Antetokounmpo's peak may have had the effect of diminishing what he did.

    That's unfair, and it underrates the novelty of that incredible 2018-19 effort.

    At the time, Antetokounmpo was only the second player to post averages of at least 27.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in a season. He also finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting while becoming just the sixth guy in league history to average at least 27.0 points on 64.0 percent true shooting. Curry is the only other player to ever post a usage rate above 32.0 percent with a true shooting percentage as high as Giannis' 64.4.

    Milwaukee was 9.4 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor, and the team's offense simply couldn't function the same way when he wasn't playing. The Bucks employed five-out spacing precisely because Antetokounmpo couldn't be stopped by one defender with nothing but empty paint behind him.

    He added ball-handling skill, turned in as many highlights on defense as offense and overwhelmed the league with length and power. Physical dominance like that hadn't smothered the league since Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime.

    If indispensability is value, Antetokounmpo's critical role in Milwaukee's system made him singularly important. He was also responsible for the rise of a new NBA powerhouse, which adds to the narrative value.


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    11. Steve Nash, 2004-05

    Nash's 2004-05 season doesn't deserve a position this high based on statistics alone. The same pioneering spirit that helped Stephen Curry land at No. 1 is at work here.

    Nash's teams ranked first in scoring efficiency every year from 2001-02 to 2009-10, but this particular 2004-05 season had the largest impact on how the game would be played going forward. Whatever we're calling the current era has its roots in Nash's and head coach Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns.

    Nash averaged 15.5 points in 2004-05, which didn't lead his team (that's a first on this list). But he handed out a league-best 11.5 dimes per contest and was a handful of missed foul shots away from his first 50/40/90 season. He'd go on to have four of them, starting in 2005-06.

    Phoenix won 62 games, and Nash juiced its net rating by 14.9 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best mark in the field. Because he wasn't a volume scorer or a positive influence on D, his catch-all numbers are rough. This season checks in dead last in BPM, VORP and win shares.

    We're keeping it out of last place because it nudged the league toward pace-and-space and established that a pass-first player could elevate a team in ways most thought were only possible through individual scoring.


    12. Russell Westbrook, 2016-17

    There's ample room to criticize Russ' stat-hoarding style, inefficiency and obscene ball dominance, as well as the Thunder's underwhelming 47 wins in 2016-17. But don't overthink this one; Westbrook averaged a triple-double, led the NBA in scoring and was almost entirely responsible for OKC's league-leading clutch offense.

    The process may have offended the sensibilities of team-first basketball purists, but Russ' ruthless, attack-everything-that-moves mentality got results.

    At some point, the sheer physical difficulty of what Westbrook accomplished has to override the legitimate concerns about his record-setting usage rate and stubborn refusal to temper his relentlessness with a more nuanced approach. In plain terms, I'm not sure anyone else would have had the mental edge or physical wherewithal to pull this off.

    OKC's net rating was minus-7.3 whenever Westbrook was off the floor. In our 20-season sample, only James' 2008-09 Cavs were more helpless without their star.


    13. James Harden, 2017-18

    The Rockets went 59-13 in the 72 games Harden played, ultimately hitting 65 wins on the year and amassing a plus-10.0 net rating with him on the floor. If there's a knock on Harden's season, it's that Houston was still very good without him, outscoring opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions.

    Harden's 36.1 usage rate ranks second to Westbrook among MVP seasons on our list, but he crushed his current teammate in the efficiency department, posting a 61.9 true shooting percentage. He also led the league with a 29.8 PER, 15.4 win shares and an 11.0 BPM. Those last two figures are 12th and 11th among the 20 seasons we're ranking, so this spot feels about right from an advanced-stat perspective.

    Harden's 2017-18 Rockets were the first team to attempt more threes than twos over the course of a season, and that probably wouldn't have been possible without him drawing so much attention as an isolation scorer and pick-and-roll ball-handler. Until Harden did it, nobody had ever averaged at least 10.0 three-point attempts and 10.0 free-throw attempts per game.

    He's since done it twice more while averaging more points per game in both seasons since winning the award. If anything, Harden's rank suffers because he's had better seasons than this one.


    14. Dirk Nowitzki, 2006-07

    A first-round elimination at the hands of the "We Believe" Golden State Warriors really put a damper on Nowitzki's award, which he had to accept after his 67-win, top-seeded Mavs got bounced. Still, this was the first MVP for a European-born player, and it remains the only 50/40/90 season by a 7-footer.

    Nowitzki had five seasons with a higher scoring average, but this was the last time he'd lead the league in win shares and BPM. It's worth mentioning that his 2005-06 season featured a higher PER and more win shares—and that he might have deserved the award over former teammate Steve Nash that year.

    No MVP on our list had fewer turnovers in his award-winning season than Nowitzki's 167, but nobody registered fewer than his 263 assists, either. Dirk wasn't exactly slinging the ball around. Nor was he bombing away. He made fewer than one three-pointer per game, a sneaky giveaway that Nowitzki's reputation as a perimeter sniper never really included a ton of three-point volume.


    15. Tim Duncan, 2002-03

    Nash is the only MVP on our list to average fewer than the 23.3 points per game Duncan scored in 2002-03, but Timmy made up for that relative lack of scoring in other ways. His 1,043 rebounds were third in the field, while his 237 blocks narrowly trailed Shaquille O'Neal's 239 in 1999-00 for the overall lead in that category. 

    The 2002-03 Spurs won 60 games, and Duncan's 16.5 win shares were the most in the league. He also had better on-off splits than he did in 2001-02, which, in conjunction with the fact that San Antonio went on to win the 2003 championship, suggests Duncan might have actually been a better overall player in this, his age-26 season.

    Further evidence: His block, rebound and assist percentages were all marginally higher this year than in his previous MVP campaign. It may seem like Duncan's back-to-back MVP seasons are indistinguishable, but there's one key difference.

    In 2002-03, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki were less than half a win share behind Timmy for the league lead. The season before, which checked in at No. 8 on our board, Duncan crushed the field. His 17.8 win shares were 4.2 more than Elton Brand's 13.6, the second-highest total that year.

    This was a fantastic year, but it wasn't as good relative to the competition.


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    16. Kobe Bryant, 2007-08

    That Bryant won his only MVP in what was, charitably, his third-best season, goes to show how much teammates matter to individual awards.

    Kobe wasn't any better in 2007-08 than he was in either of the two previous seasons, which included significantly higher scoring averages and superior BPM figures. But the addition of Pau Gasol juiced the Los Angeles Lakers' win total and made voters more comfortable voting for Bryant.

    Nobody wanted to celebrate the scoring machine on the 45-37 or 42-40 Lakers teams of the prior two seasons with an MVP. But suddenly everyone was cool with it when the retooled Lakers won 57 contests in 2007-08.

    The irony is that Bryant wasn't the best player in the league this season. Chris Paul and LeBron James had objectively better years, and Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki were similarly valuable. Bryant led the NBA in total points and field-goal attempts, but that was about it.

    It was an excellent season. But it wasn't Bryant's best, and it wasn't the best in the league.


    17. LeBron James, 2011-12

    This is as high as we can rank a lockout season. Everything just gets weird after a work stoppage, and though there's really no argument against James being the best player in the league during 2011-12, the short season (66 games) and strange competitive landscape (everyone but Miami seemed gassed by the condensed schedule) is enough to slot James' fourth entry this low.

    This season marks the first time James shot over 36 percent on threes (36.2), but it was oddly his lowest-volume year from deep. He only took 2.4 long balls per game and set a career high in attempt frequency from 16-23 feet. That's not an ideal shot profile, though it obviously didn't hurt James' overall effectiveness too badly. He still topped the NBA in every catch-all stat of note.

    This was also the only year in which he led the league in defensive box plus-minus, producing a fourth-place finish in DPOY voting.


    18. Steve Nash, 2005-06

    Nash shot the ball a bit better in his second MVP season, upping his effective field-goal percentage from 55.7 to 58.3 (it would peak at 61.3 percent in 2006-07), and it's doubly impressive that he was more productive despite getting just three games from Amar'e Stoudemire.

    But Nash's first MVP was more significant for its ties to a revolutionary new style of play. This was really just more of the same. It was a terrific season individually, but the Suns only won 54 games, and Nash's on-court net rating boost was just 9.1 points per 100 possessions—a strong number in isolation but only 14th among the 20 seasons we're comparing here.


    19. Derrick Rose, 2010-11

    Rose's Chicago Bulls won 62 games and posted a plus-7.8 net rating that led the league. But they were plus-5.8 whenever their star point guard was off the floor. None of the other teams in our sample were that good without their MVP, and that has to hurt Rose in these rankings.

    Yes, it's still impressive that he became the youngest MVP in league history. And it's true he was the heart of an excellent team that profiled as a serious contender. But Rose's BPM, VORP, win shares and effective field-goal percentage are all bottom-five figures in our 20-season field.


    20. Allen Iverson, 2000-01

    Iverson led the NBA with 31.1 points and 2.5 steals per game while hauling an otherwise scoring-challenged Philadelphia 76ers team to 56 wins. In a great example of how different things were just 20 years ago, Iverson's 42.0 minutes per game didn't lead the league. They were only good enough for a tie with Michael Finley, who played 82 contests to the Answer's 71.

    Also unfathomable: This was the third in what would become a 10-season streak in which AI averaged at least 40.8 minutes per night.

    Load management? What's that?

    As you'd expect, Iverson's counting stats look worse when adjusted to a per-minute perspective, and his 51.8 true shooting percentage is last by a mile among our 20 MVP seasons. The next-lowest was Kevin Garnett's 2003-04 at 54.7 percent.

    His sheer physical endurance was remarkable, and it'll never be anything short of spectacular that a little guy (generously listed at 6'0" and 165 pounds) thrived in a game for which size always matters. But efficiency is a major problem here, and it was always difficult to escape the thought that these Philly teams could have been more balanced and successful if Iverson weren't completely commandeering the offense on every possession.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.


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