August 19, 2017

The 6 NBA MVPs with worst regular season records shows what “most valuable” means

2017/08/12 12:33 pm 12:33 pm12:33 pm0 0 comments

With Russell Westbrook winning the 2016-17 NBA MVP award on an above average Oklahoma City Thunder team, that brought out the perennial debate to the ‘most valuable’ designation and what should be considered when awarding the NBA’s premier individual trophy.

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How much should voters value winning? How heavy should that player’s contribution weigh in the decision?

What Factors Determines “Most Valuable”

What does “most valuable” mean?

The NBA MVP award has quickly become a yearly discussion in how to define it, what criteria should be weighed and which factors should have the most influence? There are several angles one can take when discussing the merits of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, but the argument every year seems to boil down to two main interpretations of “most valuable”.

The first argument isn’t complicated; it’s basically the best player on one of the top four teams in the league (record-wise).

The other argument takes “Most Valuable Player” much more literally; they argue that the “most valuable” is exactly that — the player that means the most to their teams. The hypothetical that’s used most often is if we removed that player from the team and replaced with an average player, the team would be a complete mess.

Most seasons, those two conversations coalesce and make voting for the two or three MVP candidates easy, but every few years there’s a player having such an extraordinary season that despite his team’s record, he forces his name into the conversation. The player is no doubt one of the best players that season, yet their team isn’t in any serious conversations for the NBA Championship.

Which Teams had the NBA MVP and Fewest Wins?

An extraordinary player playing on an ordinary team isn’t rare, it happens every season. In the annals of NBA history, there were plenty of players that were special, but weren’t able to lead their teams to the enough playoff glory.  A few of the names that come to mind are Dominique Wilkins, Chris Webber, Alex English, Tracy McGrady, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. These players may have played on some very good teams, but they were never won an MVP (nor did they ever play in an NBA Finals as the #1 option).

Having an extraordinary player on an “okay” team as a serious MVP candidate begs the question — which MVPs played for the “worst” teams in NBA history? Worst in the sense of wins/losses during the regular season. And was there ever a team that featured the MVP and had a record that fell below .500?

Yes. And we have the answers below sorted by their teams’ win percentage.

MVPs on the Worst Teams in NBA History
Rank % MVP Season Team Record
1 .458 Bob Petit St. Louis Hawks 1955-56 33–39
2 .488 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Los Angeles Lakers 1975-76 40-42
3 .561 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 1981-82 46–36
4 .573 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 1978-79 47–35
4 .573 Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder 2016-17 47-35
6 .598 Bob McAdoo Buffalo Braves 1974–75 49–33

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We only included those “MVP teams” that were below 60% winning percentage.

As you can see, the “MVP team” that was the worst of the worst was the NBA’s first ever MVP, the St. Louis Hawks and Bob Petit. In 1955-56, Petit’s Hawks ended with a record of 33-39, placing them sixth out of the league’s eight teams.

Those Hawks were just one of two of the teams on this list that fell below .500 for the season.

Even with a better winning percentage, Kareem’s 1976 Laker team wasn’t much better. That team tied for ninth out of the NBA’s 18 teams at the time. KAJ’s team is the only one on the list not to make the NBA playoffs. Yikes.

Russell Westbrook’s Amazing Season Yields MVP

The most recent example was Westbrook’s MVP award for a 47-35 Thunder team. Their record was sixth in the Western Conference and the tenth best record in the league. Still, Russ’s unbelievable season of triple doubles and clutch performances were enough to convince the voters that he was more valuable than James Harden‘s Rockets (55-27) as well as other great players on great teams that season: LeBron James‘ Cavs (51-31), the Warriors’ Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (67-15), Kawhi Leonard‘s Spurs (61-21) and Isaiah Thomas‘ Celtics (53-29).

Winning Matters Most for MVPs (Usually)

It’s insightful to have the MVP’s team records to evaluate when and how the trophy has been awarded in the past. Of the 63 NBA MVPs from the 1955-56 season to the 2016-17 season, here’s how their teams fared:

  • 39 played for the team with that year’s best regular season record.
  • 23 of them won that season’s championship.

Since 2000, only two MVPs has fallen below .600 winning percentage

MVPs and Team Records Since 2000
Year MVP Team Record Team Win% Seed
2017 Russell Westbrook 47-35 0.573 6th
2016 Steph Curry 73-9 0.890 2nd
2015 Steph Curry 67-15 0.817 1st
2014 Kevin Durant 59-23 0.720 2nd
2013 LeBron James 66-16 0.805 1st
2012 LeBron James 46-20 0.697 2nd
2011 Derick Rose 62-20 0.756 1st
2010 LeBron James 61-21 0.744 1st
2009 LeBron James 66-16 0.805 1st
2008 Kobe Bryant 57-25 0.695 1st
2007 Dirk Nowitzki 67-15 0.817 1st
2006 Steve Nash 54-28 0.659 2nd
2005 Steve Nash 62-20 0.756 1st
2004 Kevin Garnett 58-24 0.707 1st
2003 Tim Duncan 60-22 0.732 1st
2002 Tim Duncan 58-24 0.707 2nd
2001 Allen Iverson 56-26 0.683 1st
2000 Shaquille O'neal 67-15 0.817 1st

Only once in the last 18 years did a player win the MVP with a win % less than .600 — Westbrook in 2017 . Outside of that, it wasn’t even close. The other 17 MVPs were on teams that were won well-above 60% of their regular season games. In fact, they were all above .650. The next closest was Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns with a relatively-weak .659.

With that in front of us and seeing as there’s only been seven MVPs that had teams that finished below .600 in NBA’s 60+ years, it’s safe to say that winning is the biggest factor when determining the league’s MVP. Putting it another way, approximately 9% of all regular season MVPs were given to players that had a very special season, but their teams weren’t nearly as great record-wise. On the other side, more than 90% of the time an MVP’s team finished well above the .600 mark and was usually one of the top one, two or three teams in the entire league. If we’re looking at NBA history, winning matters the most when looking at “most valuable”.

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