Kenny Smith tells one of my favorite NBA stories.
It was May 1995 and San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson had just been awarded his first and only regular season MVP. Later that evening, in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals, the top-seeded Spurs were slated to play the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets, led by the previous year’s MVP Hakeem Olajuwon.
Olajuwon was, by most accounts, the better of the two centers yet Robinson was that year’s consensus MVP, garnering 73 first place votes. Shaquille O’Neal, only 22 years old at that point, finished second in that year’s voting, Olajuwon finished fifth.
As Smith tells it, Olajuwon told his teammates in the locker room prior to the game, right as Robinson was receiving the trophy, that he was going to remind Robinson who was the better center.
He did. He dropped 41 on Robinson that night.
In fact, Olajuwon had his way with Robinson for most of that series. He was the leading scorer in five of the six games, posting 27, 41, 43, 42 and 39 on their way to their second straight NBA Finals, which he would eventually win.
Even the Admiral would admit… that series was a clinic.
This Saturday evening, Milwaukee Bucks’ phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second straight MVP, in the minds of many, deservedly so.
He had the highest ever (as in the history of the NBA) player efficiency rating… whatever that means.
Giannis, however, is out of the bubble right now. His team underachieved and got bounced by a far better – and far better prepared – Miami Heat team. The Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James, who finished second in MVP voting, are still alive and playing, three wins away from an NBA Finals appearance.
Upon hearing that he had finished second in MVP voting (receiving only 16 first place votes to Giannis’ 85), let’s just say that Bron Bron was a little miffed. While he didn’t pour in 41 like Olajuwon did so many years ago, he proceeded to destroy his opponent for the evening, the Denver Nuggets. After three quarters of play, the Lakers led by 24 thanks in large part to LeBron controlling the game.
Your last four stat-stuffing NBA MVPs (Giannis twice, James Harden and Russell Westbrook) have not led their teams to a Finals and while you might agree that those players all had the best individual seasons statistically and respectively, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that in any of those four years they were the best player in the league.
Prior to that, you have Curry’s back-to-back awards (hard to argue against), Durant’s lone regular season award and LeBron’s back-to-backs (the Miami years). Moving backwards chronologically, you have Derrick Rose’s MVP season in Chicago and another two for LeBron (the early Cleveland years).
Then you have Kobe, Dirk and Steve Nash’s back-to-back years.
In case you’re not getting my point, let me spell it out for you. The MVP Award has forever been vague and left up to the voters. So, I ask you, if the late Kobe Bryant is commonly considered one of the top ten greatest players of all-time, how is it that he only has one regular season MVP award?
Back in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan cast a shadow over the league, everyone knew he was the best player in the NBA. Yet in 1993-94, they gave the award to Charles Barkley. Jordan would eventually best Barkley’s Suns in that year’s Finals. In 1996-97, voters would name Karl Malone the league MVP. Jordan would later go on to beat Malone’s Utah Jazz in the Finals. In other words, don’t poke the bear.
I’m not suggesting they revise the process in which they award league MVP. Hell hath no fury like a real MVP scorned. I’m just suggesting that perhaps we not lend as much credence to the award if its winner can’t get his team to the conference Finals.
Michael Jordan has five regular season MVPs… but six Finals MVPs for each title he won. Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant center of his generation, has one regular season MVP… but three Finals MVPs for each title he won in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant has one regular season MVP… but two Finals MVPs for the years he brought Los Angeles a title sans Shaq. Olajuwon has one regular season MVP but two Finals MVPs the years he led his Rockets to victory. Tim Duncan, one regular season MVP but three Finals MVPs. I think you’re getting my point.
The NBA MVP is a fine piece of hardware that very few men own. This is not meant to discredit Giannis’ or anyone else’s accomplishments. But perhaps the MVP tally is not the best measure of a player’s overall greatness. And if it fires up the also-rans into out-performing the actual award-winner, then I ask you, who is really more valuable?