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In a Box: The NBA MVP Award

Posted by Justin Kubatko on March 3, 2009

My favorite contemporary writer, the incomparable Bill James, has used an "in a box" format in several of his books. Basically what James does is choose a topic (e.g., a manager) and then makes an idiosyncratic list of the topic's defining features. I think the concept works well for a blog post, so today I would like to introduce the first of our "In a Box" series...

The NBA MVP Award "In a Box"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 7'2" (1970-71, 1971-72, 1973-74, 1975-76, 1976-77, 1979-80)

Fourteen of the 53 MVPs (26.4 percent) have been 7'0" or taller.

Allen Iverson, 6'0" (2000-01)

Only three players shorter than 6'4" have won the MVP award: Allen Iverson, Bob Cousy, and Steve Nash (who won two MVP awards).

Median Height

Shaquille O'Neal, 300 lbs. (1999-00)

They might want to recalibrate the scale they used to weigh Shaq.

Allen Iverson, 165 lbs. (2000-01)

Forty-four of the 53 MVPs (83 percent) have weighed 200 pounds or more.

Median Weight
215 lbs.

Most Points
Michael Jordan, 2868 (1987-88)

Jordan's point total in 1987-88 ranks sixth all time. Oddly enough, Wilt Chamberlain has four of the top five single season point totals, but won his four MVP awards in other seasons.

Fewest Points
Bill Walton, 1097 (1977-78)

Bill Russell has 5 of the 10 lowest point totals for an MVP.

Most Rebounds
Wilt Chamberlain, 1957 (1966-67)

Chamberlain grabs the top four spots here.

Fewest Rebounds
Steve Nash, 249 (2004-05)

In what shouldn't be a surprise, the four shortest MVPs have the four lowest rebound totals.

Most Assists
Magic Johnson, 988 (1988-89)

Magic has the three highest assist totals for an MVP…

Fewest Assists
Moses Malone, 101 (1982-83)

…while Moses has the three lowest.

Best Team Winning Percentage
Michael Jordan, .878 (1995-96 Chicago Bulls)

The Bulls went 72-10 in 1995-96, the best record in NBA history.

Worst Team Winning Percentage
Bob Pettit, .458 (1955-56 St. Louis Hawks)

The Hawks made the playoffs that season, losing to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division Finals.

Team Made Playoffs
52 out of 53 (98.1 percent)

The only MVP to play for a team that did not make the playoffs was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76. Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Pettit in 1955-56 (see above) are the only MVPs to play for teams that finished below .500.

Team Won Championship
20 out of 53 (37.7 percent)

Unanimous Selections
Zero, zilch, nada.

Shaquille O'Neal came the closest (see below), getting all but one first place vote in 1999-00.

Largest Award Share
Shaquille O'Neal, .9975 (1999-00)

An award share is equal to points won divided by maximum number of points. In 1999-00, Shaq had 1207 points in the voting. If he had received every first place vote, his point total would have been 1210, so his award share was 1207 / 1210 = .9975.

Smallest Award Share
Bob Cousy, .3647 (1956-57)

In 1955-56, 1956-57, 1964-65, and 1976-77 through 1979-80, voters could only list one player on their ballot. The smallest award share in a year where voters could list multiple players on their ballot was .4067 by Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.

Most Award Shares, Career
Michael Jordan, 8.14

Followed by Karem Abdul-Jabbar (6.20), Larry Bird (5.69), Magic Johnson (5.13), and Bill Russell (4.83).

Most Wins
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 6 (1970-71, 1971-72, 1973-74, 1975-76, 1976-77, 1979-80)

Most Consecutive Wins
Bill Russell (1960-61 through 1962-63), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66 through 1967-68), and Larry Bird (1983-84 through 1985-86), 3

Most Years Between Wins
Wilt Chamberlain, 6 (1959-60 to 1965-66)

Most First Place Votes, Career
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 762

Followed by Michael Jordan (530.5), Wilt Chamberlain (348), Bill Russell (289), and Larry Bird (271).

Most Years, First Place Vote
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 13 (1969-70 through 1980-81, 1983-84)

I find this more remarkable than Abdul-Jabbar's six wins. In thirteen different seasons, at least one voter thought Abdul-Jabbar was the most valuable player in the league.

All-MVP Team

PG: Oscar Robertson (1963-64)
SG: Michael Jordan (1987-88)
SF: Larry Bird (1984-85)
PF: Kevin Garnett (2003-04)
C: Wilt Chamberlain (1966-67)

Robertson is the choice at the point over any one of Magic Johnson's three MVP seasons. Jordan has to be the shooting guard, and 1987-88 was his best MVP season. Bird and Garnett are my forwards, with a nod to Bob McAdoo. Center is the toughest choice. I went with Chamberlain's 1966-67 season because he led the league in rebounds, was third in points and assists, shot an amazing 68.2 percent from the floor, and led the Sixers to a 68-13 record.

Wes Unseld, 22 (1968-69)

Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain are the only rookies to win the MVP award.

Karl Malone, 35 (1998-99)

Malone is also the oldest first-time winner, as he won his first MVP award at the age of 33.

Median Age

Worst Selection
Dave Cowens (1972-73)

Cowens did not lead the NBA in a single category in 1972-73. Tiny Archibald, meanwhile, led the league in minutes played, field goals, field goal attempts, free throws, free throw attempts, assists, and points. Archibald's KC-Omaha Kings did not make the playoffs that year, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks did, finishing first in the Midwest Division with a record of 60-22. Although Archibald had the flashy stats, I probably would have voted for Kareem. So why did Cowens win? The Celtics exploded for 68 wins in 1972-73, and the voters just had to give the award to somebody from Boston. If forced to pick someone from that Celtics team, I probably would have gone with John Havlicek. The All-NBA voters got it right, as they put Archibald, Abdul-Jabbar, and Havlicek on the first team, but put Cowens on the second team.

Most Winners, Franchise
Boston Celtics, 10 (1956-57, 1957-58, 1960-61 through 1962-63, 1964-65, 1972-73, 1983-84 through 1985-86)

The Lakers are the runner-up in this category with eight winners.

13 Responses to “In a Box: The NBA MVP Award”

  1. Chris Says:

    All I gotta say is, the comparison tool is great. I thought Duncan's first MVP season was better than KG's, so I plugged it into the player comparison finder and lo, KG just edges out Timmy. I love this site.

  2. Johnny Twisto Says:

    I'm not clear what you are doing with your All-MVP team. Just choosing the best (MVP-winning) season anyone ever had at each position?

  3. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Mr. Twisto, yes, that's what I'm doing.

  4. AYC Says:

    Dave Cowens is a worse MVP than Unseld?!?

    WU: 13.8 ppg, 18.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, .476 fg%, .605 ft%, 57 wins, 82g
    DC: 20.5 ppg, 16.2 rpg, 4.1 apg, .452 fg%, .779 ft%, 68 wins, 82g

    Who had the better year, again? Yes, Hondo was better than Cowens; but Unseld wasn't the best player on his team either, Earl Monroe was. DC's MVP year compares favorably to Willis Reed's and Bill Walton's:

    WR: 21.7 ppg, 13.9 rpg, 2.0 apg, .507, .756, 60 wins, 81g
    BW: 18.9 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, .522, .720, 58 wins, 58g

    Cowens is one of the most underrated centers of all time; he was better than Reed, he just didn't play in NYC.

  5. Justin Kubatko Says:

    AYC, I didn't mean Cowens had the worst season of any MVP, but rather, given the other choices available, I think he was the worst selection. I hope that makes sense.

  6. AYC Says:

    I get it, but I'm not sure I buy it; yes, '69 was a weak year for MVP candidates. Superstars like Wilt, Russell and Oscar had disappointing teams, while the good teams didn't have dominant stars. But Unseld was still a terrible choice, based on his stats, and the fact that he was nowhere near being the best player at his position, or on his own team. Reed, Monroe and Billy Cunningham were the best choices from good teams.

    It's worth noting that Cowens played exceptionally well against Kareem, besting his Bucks in the 74 finals. Archibald put up his stats on a terrible team; point guards on bad teams always put up inflated stats. So based on your criteria, I still think Unseld was the worse selection

  7. Justin Kubatko Says:

    AYC, I'm not convinced that Monroe was the best player on that Bullets team, and if he was it's certainly not as clear-cut as you make it out to be. Also note that Unseld was first team All-NBA in 1968-69, but Cowens was second team All-NBA in 1972-73. But that's fine, we can agree to disagree.

  8. DWarner Says:

    Nice piece.
    Gotta agree with AYC on the Unseld issue however...Cowens season does seem superior statistically and in the context of the time more appropriate. With the 68 W's it was strongly held belief that Boston would go on to the title that season so it seemed justifiable that the most valuable Celtic get recognition. Hondo was the veteran leader but I think he recognized Cowens value in the middle. On the other hand you have to wonder if the young,dynamic Monroe, and the other productive veterans on the squad couldn't help but feel slighted when the rookie of the team gets greater acknowledgment that they did. Wes Unseld was a tenacious, under-sized yet over-achieving rebounding, who may have thrown the greatest outlet passes in NBA history, but his MVP in '69 does appear to have been a little shaky...

  9. bob mcadoo Says:

    even though im a celtics fan I do think bob mcadoos mvp season was much better than kgs

  10. Keith Ellis Says:

    Not to pile on, but in defense of AYC, Wilt Chamberlain adjudged the Unseld MVP a farce & considered Cowens a fearsome rival as a running Center for the '73 Celtics. Cowens was the Center Wilt least wanted to face.

    In '69 rookie sensation Elvin Hayes led the expansion Rockets to greater improvement in Wins than Unseld did for the better-established Bullets. Ironman Big E was League Leader in Minutes & Points, back when standardized stats-per-minute were given short shrift next to total production-per-season. Hayes' leading the league in Rebounds the following year placed him w/ Haywood & Chamberlain as the only pros to attain such laurels by his sophomore season.

    Thus if Elvin didn't deserve MVP over Unseld, despite being a better Defender (two All-NBA 2nd teams) & Offender, surely Dipper did by fitting in w/ West & Baylor, outrebounding Unseld by 200 boards, scoring 20 ppg, & shooting a hundred points higher FG%.

  11. penbeast Says:

    Why Unseld as MVP? . . . the year before he came, the Bullets were the worst team in the Eastern Conference despite Earl Monroe. His rookie year, they had the best record in the league with pretty much the same personnel and coach despite losing Gus Johnson for half the season. The difference? Defense . . . (probably not attributable to Earl Monroe).

    I think it's pretty reasonable . . . similar to Walton's impact in Portland in his one healthy year which wassn't just about raw numbers.

  12. penbeast Says:

    E took the Rockets from a dog-poor confused expansion team to a .439 record . . . Unseld took a .439 team to the league's best record. It's a lot harder to make the second jump.

  13. LeBron23MVP Says:

    LeBron is the best player in the NBA, and he's going to win his first MVP this year because he have the 3rd highest PER in NBA History.