6 NBA MVP Seasons Nobody Saw Coming

Preston EllisContributor IApril 22, 2020

6 NBA MVP Seasons Nobody Saw Coming

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The NBA's most unsuspecting heroes had to overcome substantial odds to steal the game's most significant individual award.

    From players with relentless and unforgiving injury histories, to extraordinary youth, to guys who were competing with all-time greats, each of these six MVPs were hardly frontrunners as their seasons progressed toward their apex.

    May some have been the beneficiary of voter fatigue? Possibly. But rest assured each contributed enough to make themselves worthy by marrying individual excellence with collective team success.

    Here are the six overachievers who gave us MVP seasons none of us saw coming.  

Steph Curry 2014-15

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Picking this baby-faced assassin as an MVP favorite at an earlier point in his career may have earned you a temperature check, given his troubling injury history. 

    Ethan Strauss reported the Warriors sought to move Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in 2011 while Curry was dealing with ankle issues. That same offseason, the Warriors shopped Curry for eventual Warrior Andrew Bogut before eventually dealing Monta Ellis, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.  

    Two seasons later, Curry began the first of back-to-back MVP campaigns by leading the Dubs to a shocking 67 wins. Only six teams in NBA history have won more games in a season. Curry would finish eighth in scoring, seventh in assists, third in three-point percentage and first in made threes (an NBA record at the time). 

    The MVP victory was absolute, as Curry would seal it with 100 of 130 first-place votes, losing 25 to James Harden and five to LeBron James en route to his first of three NBA titles. 

    Proving doubters wrong wasn't enough. Curry would go on to score over 1,700 points and 500 assists in five consecutive seasons, joining Oscar Robertson as the second player to do so. He'd also lead the NBA in three-point shooting in each of those seasons while leading in steals in two.  

Karl Malone 1996-97

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    JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

    This isn't an indictment of Karl Malone's single-season achievement in 1996-97. His numbers (27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 55 percent shooting) are more than worthy of consideration in any era. 

    Coming off a seven-game heartbreaker to the Seattle Supersonics in the Western Conference Finals, Malone and the Jazz funneled their energy into the 1996-97 season with conviction, winning 64 games with the league's second-most-productive offense. 

    The surprise came in stealing the Maurice Podoloff Award from His Airness one season after what may be considered the best in NBA history. Never one to be complacent, Jordan answered with another 69-win performance (third-most in NBA history). He led all scorers again with 29.4 points to go along with 5.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. It wasn't enough, though, as Malone collected 986 votes to Jordan's 957. 

    Was there Jordan fatigue following Jordan's MVP return and championship in 1995-96? Did he still deserve the award? Possibly. 

    But Malone deserves his place in NBA history, having amassed nearly 37,000 points (second all-time), approximately 15,000 rebounds (seventh) and over 5,000 assists. It merely came at the wrong time. 

    If hindsight were 20-20, would NBA journalists have saved Malone's trophy for 1998-99?   

Steve Nash 2004-05

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Steve Nash became just the second foreign-born player ever to steal the MVP trophy in 2004-05, only one season after Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks failed to match an offer of just four years, $20 million

    Can you imagine having a two-time MVP on a $5 million annual contract today?

    The 30-year-old responded with his best season yet in head coach Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense and helped lead the Phoenix Suns on an improbable 62-win season, including 31 of their first 35. He'd also exact his revenge on Cuban's Mavericks, besting them in six games in Round 2 of the playoffs before ultimately falling the San Antonio Spurs in five. 

    How unusual is a first-time MVP for a 30-year-old? Only three others had done it (Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone). 

    Nash didn't crack the top 50 in scoring, but he led the NBA in assists with a solid line of 15.5 points, 11.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game on a near 50/40/90 split, a feat he'd be the first to accomplish the following year (among those to attempt 50 threes or more). 

    It was a perfect time for a pass-first sniper to steal the award from the typical high-threshold scorers. Nine of the 10 leading scorers in the NBA failed to shoot above .500, and the one to shoot above was teammate Amar'e Stoudemire.

    His strongest competitor may have been Miami's Shaquille O'Neal, who earned 53 wins with 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 blocks per game. An argument could be made that Nash's award is a team award, but Nash was the clear winner and a shocking one after having been all but dismissed by Dallas just months prior.  

Derrick Rose 2010-11

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    No one saw Derrick Rose coming in 2010-11. ESPN and Sports Illustrated left him out of their discussions of the top candidates. It's hard to blame them. Claiming the trophy was unprecedented for someone his age, and Rose was the first third-year vet to win the award in 35 years and just the ninth in NBA history.

    Arguing the validity of the victory is valid, and revisionist history may seek to give the trophy to LeBron James. After all, this trophy could have been the filling in what would have been a remarkable five- MVP sandwich for LeBron. 

    But fans and media alike were ready to move on, if only for a season. Coming just months after his "decision" and pompous preseason victory lap, NBA fans had reason to root against the NBA's answer to WCW's NWO. 

    Rose and his Chicago Bulls were the proverbial knights in shining armor, winning an NBA-best 62 games and earning the first seed in the Eastern Conference behind Rose's 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game

    LeBron and his Heat would have the last laugh in the Eastern Conference Finals, though, shutting down the Bulls in a gentleman's sweep

Wes Unseld 1968-69

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    Smith/Associated Press

    Wes Unseld earned his nickname, "The Wide U," for setting some of the nastiest picks in the NBA while gobbling every rebound that ricocheted off the iron. Despite standing just 6'7", Unseld burst into the NBA as one of only two players to win Most Valuable Player as a rookie (Wilt Chamberlain was the other). Yes, they selfishly also took home Rookie of the Year. 

    "He was thick. He was a man's man," Spencer Haywood said of Unseld

    Imagine a time 50 years ago when defense-first boardmen took home the game's most coveted individual award. Well, back in those days, you could score just 13.8 points per game and do just that. 

    Don't give up hope just yet, Clint Capela! 

    While Baltimore Bullets teammates Earl Monroe and Kevin Loughery each scored nearly twice as much as Unseld, the latter would finish second in the NBA in rebounding, ahead of Bill Russell and Elvin Hayes. As one of the NBA's best defenders, he helped the Bullets win 21 more games than the previous season for an NBA-best 57 wins.

    Was that enough? It would have been surprising to see a rookie have that dramatic an effect, but the New York Knicks swept his squad in the first round. 

    Was he the beneficiary of voter fatigue? Wilt Chamberlain, fresh off three consecutive MVPs, led his Lakers to 55 wins and the NBA Finals for the second successive season. Granted it's been 50 years, but his per-game stat line of 20.5 points, 21.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 58.3 percent shooting looks well above Unseld's 13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 47.6 percent shooting. Similarly, Chamberlain's Lakers teammate Elgin Baylor put up 24.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. 

    Did those two steal from each other's tallies? 

    Despite the reasoning, Unseld remains one of two rookies to win MVP as well as one of two 22-year-olds alongside Derrick Rose, making him arguably the most shocking recipient of the award ever.

Bill Walton 1977-78

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    Jack Smith/Associated Press

    Defying the odds is something Bill Walton has refused to shy away from despite his body's limitations. 

    After overcoming a fairly significant stutter, Walton became one of the legends of basketball sportscasting, even earning an Emmy in 1991. 

    Of course, that opportunity never would have presented itself without the athleticism and diligence that made Walton a Hall of Fame, generational athlete. 

    Those gifts came at a cost that shortened his career, nearly finishing it before it even began. In an NBA.com profile, Walton is reported as having broken an ankle, a leg and several bones in his feet and undergoing knee surgery in high school. That would be followed by tendinitis at UCLA in his knees and a back injury. 

    This before playing even a minute in the NBA. Foot injuries would continue to inhibit "Big Red," limiting him to just 35 games in his rookie season. 

    Those maladies would only be the beginning, as the profile continued"During his first two years in Portland, Walton had sprained an ankle, broken his left wrist twice and dislocated two toes and two fingers. He even broke a toe on a water sprinkler and hurt his leg in a jeep accident."

    In 1976-77, Walton would put together his best season to date, leading the NBA in rebounds and blocks en route to an All-Star selection as well as placement on the NBA All-Defensive first team and All-NBA second team. He'd lead those Blazers in a 4-0 sweep past Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals before upending the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

    Walton had cemented himself as one of the NBA's most formidable players when he won the MVP in 1977-78. The big man's trophy has still come under scrutiny because he missed the final stretch of the season in a year that saw Kareem amass per-game averages of 25.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists against Walton's 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.

    However, the Blazers were once again the NBA's most intimidating squad, winning an NBA-best 58 games, 13 more than Kareem's Lakers. Walton would lead the Blazers to 50 wins in their 60 games before his season came to an end thanks to yet another foot injury

    Walton overcame his health just long enough to do the improbable, sealing his MVP performance despite missing the final 24 regular-season games. 


    *Stats via NBA.comBasketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass and ESPN unless otherwise noted. Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis).