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The Best Player in the NBA

Posted by Justin Kubatko on February 26, 2008

(Note: This article was inspired by a similar article written by Bill James on Bill James Online. James used Win Shares in his analysis, but I decided to take a slightly different route.)

Who is the best player in the NBA? I don't necessarily mean statistically, but rather the general consensus. One way to measure this is to look at MVP voting. While the best player may not win the MVP award every year, I think it is reasonable to assume that a player who has received significant MVP support over a period of years is a candidate for the title of best player in the NBA. We can measure MVP support by looking at something called award shares. An award share is simply award points won by the player divided by the maximum number of award points. Let me give you an example. In 2006-07, Dirk Nowitzki won 1138 points in the MVP voting. Had he received every first place vote, Nowitzki would have won 1290 points, so his award share is 1138 / 1290 = 0.882. Now that we have a way to quantify a player's voting support, we'll need to come up with a way to measure his established value in a given season. I decided to use the following formula:

  • 0.4 times his MVP award share in season x, plus
  • 0.3 times his MVP award share in season (x - 1), plus
  • 0.2 times his MVP award share in season (x - 2), plus
  • 0.1 times his MVP award share in season (x - 3)

Here's another example. As we said above, Dirk Nowitzki's MVP award share in 2006-07 was 0.882. In 2005-06, 2004-05, and 2003-04 his MVP award shares were 0.435, 0.275, and 0.003, respectively. Thus his established value in 2007 was 0.4 * 0.882 + 0.3 * 0.435 + 0.2 * 0.275 + 0.1 * 0.003 = 0.539.

The MVP award was first handed out following the 1955-56 season, so let's start with 1959 (this gives us four season of voting data for each year) and use the method outlined above to determine the greatest player in the NBA for each year.

The first winner is …

1959  Bob Pettit            .453

Bob Pettit seems like a reasonable choice for the first best player. From 1955-56 through 1958-59 Pettit finished 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 1st in the MVP voting. Pettit also managed a 3rd place finish in 1959-60, but it wasn't enough to hold off the storm that was coming behind him.

1960  Bill Russell          .420
1961  Bill Russell          .503
1962  Bill Russell          .584
1963  Bill Russell          .660
1964  Bill Russell          .551
1965  Bill Russell          .532
1966  Bill Russell          .364

Bill Russell took over the throne following the 1959-60 season and held it for the next seven years. During that time he won four MVP awards and never finished lower than 4th in the MVP voting. However, that 4th place finish following the 1965-66 season set the stage for a new face at the top.

1967  Wilt Chamberlain      .507
1968  Wilt Chamberlain      .635
1969  Wilt Chamberlain      .434

From 1965-66 through 1967-68 Wilt Chamberlain won three consecutive MVP awards. Following the 1968-69 season Wilt did not receive any MVP votes, but thanks to the combination of his strong performance the previous three years and the gradual decline of some all-time greats (mainly Russell and Elgin Baylor) he was able to hold the title for one more year.

1970  Willis Reed           .345

Willis Reed is probably the oddest name on this list, but it's not that surprising when you consider:

  1. he finished 2nd in the MVP voting following the 1968-69 season;
  2. he won the MVP award following the 1969-70 season;
  3. his team, the Knicks, won the NBA championship in 1970;
  4. Russell had retired;
  5. Chamberlian had missed most of the 1969-70 season with an injury; and
  6. Oscar Robertson was showing signs of aging.

Reed's stint at the top of the list was short-lived, though, as a young man by the name of Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) burst onto the scene.

1971  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .499
1972  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .646
1973  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .595
1974  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .583
1975  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .390

Abdul-Jabbar was named the Rookie of the Year following the 1969-70 season, then followed that up with the first of his record six MVP awards in 1970-71. Kareem stayed on top for five years, let Bob McAdoo take over for one year, then took over the top spot for five more years.

1976  Bob McAdoo            .440

In a three-year span starting with the 1973-74 season McAdoo finished 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in the MVP voting, so I think it's reasonable to conclude that at that time he was viewed by more than just a few people as the best player in the game.

1977  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .482
1978  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .322
1979  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .219
1980  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .363
1981  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   .385

Abdul-Jabbar's success in the MVP voting is astonishing. Starting with his rookie season, Abdul-Jabbar finished in the top ten for 17 (!) consecutive seasons, including 15 top five finishes.

1982  Larry Bird            .462

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were both rookies during the 1979-80 season (Bird was the Rookie of the Year), and the two superstars dominated for most of the next decade. Bird was the first to hold the title of best player, lost it for one year, then got it back for five more years.

1983  Moses Malone          .657

Moses Malone should probably be listed instead of Larry Bird above, but that's neither here nor there. Following the 1982-83 season Moses won the last of his three MVP awards. Combine that with the Philadelphia 76ers great season (they went 65-17 during the regular season and won the NBA championship in "fo-fi-fo") and I think it's clear that Moses was probably regarded at that time as the best player in the NBA.

1984  Larry Bird            .682
1985  Larry Bird            .812
1986  Larry Bird            .906
1987  Larry Bird            .718
1988  Larry Bird            .664

Bird had a remarkable run in the MVP voting. He followed up three consecutive 2nd place finishes from 1980-81 to 1982-83 with three consecutive MVP awards from 1983-84 to 1985-86. Just for good measure, Bird finished 3rd following the 1986-87 season and 2nd following the 1987-88 season. But Larry Legend missed all but six games of the 1988-89 season with an injury, and thus he could no longer hold off Magic.

1989  Magic Johnson         .722
1990  Magic Johnson         .734

The two years above came at the end of a run of three MVP awards in four years for Magic. The 1991 NBA Finals marked the passing of the torch, though, as Magic's Lakers lost in five games to the Chicago Bulls and the heir to the throne, Michael Jordan.

1991  Michael Jordan        .781
1992  Michael Jordan        .848
1993  Michael Jordan        .760

Jordan stayed on top for three years (winning two MVP awards), took a sabbatical to play baseball, then ascended to the top for two more years.

1994  Hakeem Olajuwon       .551

While Jordan was goofing around with the Birmingham Barons, Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles. Hakeem won his only MVP award following the 1993-94 season, but he relinquished the top ranking to another Western Conference center in 1995.

1995  David Robinson        .602
1996  David Robinson        .609

From 1993-94 through 1995-96, David Robinson had three of the greatest seasons in modern NBA history. The Admiral finished 2nd in the MVP voting following the 1993-94 and 1995-96 seasons and won the MVP award following the 1994-95 season. That second place finish in 1995-96 was to Jordan, who came back to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season. Had Jordan not left the NBA to play baseball, it is likely that he would have stayed at the top of the charts for eight consecutive years.

1997  Michael Jordan        .631
1998  Michael Jordan        .822

Jordan retired for the second time following the 1997-98 season, making room at the summit for the player whose team the Bulls had vanquished in the 1998 Finals, Karl Malone.

1999  Karl Malone           .677
2000  Karl Malone           .544

Malone or Shaquille O'Neal? From 1996-97 through 1999-00, Malone finished 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 4th in the MVP voting; O'Neal finished 9th, 4th, 6th, and 1st.

2001  Shaquille O'Neal      .528

Shaq's 1999-00 season was amazing, probably one of the five greatest seasons in modern NBA history. That combined with another great campaign in 2000-01 pushed the big fella to the top of the list, albeit for just one year.

(Funny thing about Shaq: I have heard many people complain that Shaq has been "robbed" of more MVP awards than any other player. I find this to be a stretch. In fact, I believe that the only season that Shaq should have won the award but did not was the 2000-01 season, when he lost to Allen Iverson.)

2002  Tim Duncan            .577
2003  Tim Duncan            .685
2004  Tim Duncan            .684
2005  Tim Duncan            .515

Tim Duncan in these four years: two MVP awards, one 2nd place finish, one 4th place finish, two NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards.

2006  Steve Nash            .548
2007  Steve Nash            .704

There have been way too many words written about Steve Nash's back-to-back MVP awards following the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, and I'm not about to step into that briar patch. Let me just say this: Nash finished 1st, 1st, and 2nd in the MVP voting in consecutive years, so there must have been more than a handful of people who thought he was the best player in the NBA.

So what have we learend? Well, in this time period there were 16 different players who held the title of best player in the NBA:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar     10
Bill Russell             7
Larry Bird               6
Michael Jordan           5
Tim Duncan               4
Wilt Chamberlain         3
Magic Johnson            2
Karl Malone              2
Steve Nash               2
David Robinson           2
Moses Malone             1
Bob McAdoo               1
Hakeem Olajuwon          1
Shaquille O'Neal         1
Bob Pettit               1
Willis Reed              1

A few comments and then I'll wrap this up:

  • While Abdul-Jabbar may not be the greatest player in NBA history (then again, he may be), I think it's fairly obvious that he was the most consistently great player. Had McAdoo not taken over the top spot for one year in 1976, Abdul-Jabbar would have been rated as the best player in the game for 11 consecutive seasons.
  • Nine of the players on the list above are in the Hall of Fame: Abdul-Jabbar, Russell, Bird, Chamberlain, Johnson, Moses Malone, McAdoo, Pettit, and Reed.
  • Four more players will be elected to the Hall of Fame within the next three years: Olajuwon in 2008; Jordan and Robinson in 2009; and Karl Malone in 2010.
  • The three remaining players (Duncan, Nash, and O'Neal) are active and will surely make the Hall of Fame when they are eligible.

I don't necessarily agree with all of the selections made above, but then again I think most of the choices are solid. There are, of course, many ways we could tweak this: use more years, use fewer years, change the weights, use something like Win Shares rather than MVP award shares, etc. But part of the beauty of this is that there is no "right" answer, and whatever analytic approach we take will yield results that seem strange to someone.

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