Ranking the Biggest Finals MVP Snubs in NBA History
Crowning an NBA Finals MVP is usually a fairly straightforward, controversy-free, minimally debated process.
The pool of participants is so small and only narrows further if everyone from the losing side gets removed from consideration. Rare is the Finals MVP competition that's, well, an actual competition. It is instead an exercise in the obvious.
Every once in a while, though, the selection demands in-depth conversation. And that discussion doesn't always lead to the right choice—or at least, in hindsight, what feels like the more warranted choice.
Our mission today, should we choose to accept it, which we have, is to identify the situations throughout NBA Finals history that don't sit quite right.
This won't put every questionable, could've-gone-either way decision under the microscope. Jerry West's victory in 1969, the inaugural Finals MVP that remains the only one ever awarded to someone from the losing team, is not on the relitigation block. It definitely could've gone to John Havlicek, but West was hashtag ridiculous over the course of those seven games, averaging 37.9 points and 7.4 assists. That choice is still far from egregious.
Flimsier decisions are our focus—instances in which, when looking back, it feels like there's less of a debate and more of an actual snub who deserved Finals MVP acclaim. Rankings will be determined by keeping one question in mind: If it was done all over again, how likely is it the voting outcome would be different?
5. Stephen Curry/LeBron James: 2015 NBA Finals
Actual 2015 Finals MVP: Andre Iguodala
Just look at the on-off splits, courtesy of NBA Canada's Scott Rafferty:
- LeBron per 36 minutes with Iguodala on the court: 26.1 points, 7.0 assists, 2.9 turnovers, 38.1 percent shooting, 30.0 percent three-point shooting, minus-9.5
- LeBron per 36 minutes with Iguodala off the court: 34.9 points, 6.6 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 43.9 percent shooting, 33.3 percent three-point shooting, plus-16.6
That is a pretty stark drop-off, particularly when looking at LeBron's per-minute plus-minus. These returns are heavily influenced by the lineups in which Iguodala played, but he was mission-critical to optimizing the Golden State Warriors' play style. They didn't need to switch too often when he guarded LeBron, and his promotion to the starting five didn't mark the birth of the Death Lineup but took it to new heights.
That all matters. And if you wish to use it as fuel to bounce LeBron's snub consideration from the purview, by all means, go ahead.
He still averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists and ferried a decimated Cleveland Cavaliers roster within two wins of a championship against an eventual dynasty. But his efficiency wasn't pretty, and the standard for snaring Finals MVP amid a series loss is almost unprecedented.
But this doesn't explain Stephen Curry's finish.
He averaged 26.0 points, 6.3 assists and 1.8 steals while downing 38.5 percent of his threes for the series. And though Iguodala shouldered a sizable workload of his own—16.5 points and 4.0 assists per game on 40.0 percent shooting from distance—it was Curry who owned the Warriors' largest net-rating swing over the final three games after Iggy joined the starting lineup. Golden State was a minus-14 in the mere 18 minutes he sat on the bench and plus-56 with him on the floor.
Iguodala deserves a ton of credit for his 2015 Finals exploits. And relative to other might-be snubs, his MVP is less egregious and more debatable. His body of work on LeBron helped turn that series. But Curry was the basis for everything that Warriors team did, bending defenses, both on and off the ball, in a way that made them who they were more than any defensive matchup or lineup tweak could.
4. Dave Cowens: 1976 NBA Finals
Actual 1976 Finals MVP: Jo Jo White
Jo Jo White cobbled together one hell of a 1976 Finals performance, the merits of which I am by no means attempting to diminish. He led the Boston Celtics in scoring and assists during their six-game set with the Phoenix Suns, including a masterful 33-point, nine-assist eruption in a do-or-die Game 5 that served up a championship-clinching opportunity in Game 6.
Over the course of the entire series, though, Dave Cowens registered as Boston's most impactful player. Not only did he score at a comparable clip—20.5 points per game compared to White's 21.7—but he grabbed 16.5 boards per night and, most importantly, functioned as the fulcrum for a defense that represented more of the Celtics' identity.
It was likewise Cowens who churned out the bigger night in Game 6. He went for 21 points, 17 rebounds and three steals, keeping in line with his overall Finals averages while spearheading a late scoring spurt that sealed the win and Boston's title. His general importance was also a recurring theme throughout the postseason, during which he led all players in win shares and value over replacement player.
This could be spun as more of a toss-up decision without much resistance. But Cowens' motor was a barometer for the Celtics. His hustle in what was an otherwise sluggish Game 6, after he fouled out in Game 5, was absolutely huge—the ultimate advantage, even.
"We were able to keep Dave on the floor," John Havlicek told the CBS broadcast at the time (h/t CelticsBlog's Cort Reynolds), "and that made the difference."
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 1980 NBA Finals
Actual 1980 Finals MVP: Magic Johnson
Arguing against Magic Johnson, even rookie year Magic Johnson, feels all sorts of icky. He was spectacular during the Los Angeles Lakers' six-tilt romp versus the Philadelphia 76ers in 1980, nearly averaging a triple-double to the tune of 21.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists, not to mention his 2.7 steals per game.
No one will soon forget his performance in the championship-completing Game 6. It was ethereal, something out of a bedtime-story fairy tale.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unable to play after suffering a sprained left ankle in Game 5, the 20-year-old newbie jumped center for the Lakers at the opening tip and then exploded for 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals—a Finals stat line only ever rivaled by 2016 LeBron James, who mirrored Johnson's assists and steals, grabbed one more rebound and scored one fewer point. (Related: Holy, wow, whoa.)
"The trouble for the 76ers tonight was Magic," Lakers head coach Paul Westhead told the New York Times (h/t The Undefeated's Rhiannon Walker). "Our Magical Man, our Houdini. Who would have thought we could win in Philadelphia without Kareem and with Magic playing center?"
Indeed, on its face, suggesting that Kareem deserved Finals MVP runs counter to the logic (spoiler alert!) applied to the 1970 Finals. If a banged-up Willis Reed shouldn't have earned the nod over Walt Frazier, especially after the latter's title-determining kaboom, why is this instance of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson any different?
Because Kareem was something more than Herculean in the five games he did play. His averages of 33.4 points, 13.6 points, 3.2 assists and 4.6 blocks are unreal—a cheat code's cheat code. How do you vote against that? Are the results different if he actually makes the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6? Who knows. And to Magic's credit, he was absurd—not just in Game 6, but all series.
Kareem was just...better.
2. Tim Duncan: 2007 NBA Finals
Actual 2007 Finals MVP: Tony Parker
Props to 2007 Tony Parker. Seriously. He was ridiculous during the San Antonio Spurs' Finals sweep of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. He led all players, on both teams, in scoring with 24.5 points per game, which he amassed on 56.7 percent shooting inside the arc.
Still, this decision, even at the time, felt very Sixth Man of the Year-ish. Let's go ahead and reward the highest-volume scorer and call it a day.
That undersells Parker's scoring. Again: He was molten. Four-game decisions are also arguably the most difficult to deliver. The sample is so tiny that all differences feel negligible. But even over just four games, it should've been clear that Tim Duncan was the heart and soul of the Spurs.
Who cares that he didn't score as much as Parker. His 18.3 points per game weren't nothing. His 44.6 percent shooting wasn't so, ahem, fundamental, but Parker had his own warts; the point guard hit just 52.6 percent of his free throws (10-of-19).
More than that, though, Duncan paced the Spurs in rebounds, assists (yes, assists), steals (tied with Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley) and blocks. And this says nothing of the tougher-to-measure impact he had on LeBron and Cleveland's offense around the basket.
"Tim Duncan. He defines the Spurs' defense and makes or facilitates a huge percentage of their points," TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote when making his 2007 Finals MVP pick. "I appreciate John Hollinger's case for Tony Parker as co-MVP of the Finals. Pending what happens in the rest of the series, I think that would undersell Duncan. Admit that if you were Coach Gregg Popovich and had to face the Cavs in a seven-game series without one of those two players, Parker would be on the bench, right?"
Any push-back is fine. Parker caught fire in three of the four games. Co-MVP with Duncan would've been cool. Giving him the leg up over the Spurs' actual lifeline, though? Eh.
1. Walt Clyde Frazier: 1970 NBA Finals
Actual 1970 Finals MVP: Willis Reed
Willis Reed, the 1969-70 regular-season MVP, was named the 1970 Finals MVP after the New York Knicks' seven-game slugfest with the Los Angeles Lakers. Though he appeared in just six of those tilts, including a sub-nine-minute stint during Game 5, his candidacy was hardly questioned. It felt apropos of the moment.
Reed suffered a torn right thigh muscle in Game 5 and ended up missing all of Game 6, which the Lakers won to force a Game 7. Nobody was quite sure if he'd play in the championship-clincher. He wasn't with the Knicks when they came out for warmups.
But, in what remains a flashpoint moment for the franchise, he eventually joined his teammates after receiving an injection to stem the pain of his injury. He took the opening tip and scored the Knicks' opening two baskets. While those were his only points, his presence and 27 minutes served as a rallying point.
Which is awesome. Seriously.
But Finals MVPs should be emblematic of on-court value, not anecdotal boons. It's tough to even argue that the Knicks wouldn't have won without Reed playing. They took Game 5, in which he logged just eight minutes.
Meanwhile, Walt Frazier went on to have one of the greatest lost-to-history games in playoff lore, pumping out 36 points, seven rebounds and 19 assists in the clincher. His scoring wasn't as gaga throughout the rest of the series—three Knicks, including Reed, put up more points per game—but he still averaged 17.6 points and 10.4 assists while serving as a driving force of the offense in all seven contests.
Even if the MVP verdict boiled down to a singular performance, Frazier's case verges on unimpeachable. Jerry West is the only other player to drop more than 30 points and 15 assists in the Finals, making Frazier's detonation a contribution New York simply could not have won without.