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Da Real MVP – Part 2: Performance


In the previous post, we discussed MVP votings in detail. Today we are going to dig into the following:

  • Stats of MVPs: how they evolved through the years
  • Other awards and selections: how often in the MVP season respective player was also a leader in some of the other categories and how often a player was picked for other selections/awards
  • Team performance: what does it mean to have MVP on your team. How far will your MVP take the team?

Please note the following:

  • Data used in this post is accurate through the end of the 2019-20 NBA Season.
  • In order to view the graphs and charts clearly, please use a bigger screen. If you are on a mobile device, use the landscape orientation for a better view.


As mentioned before, the MVP award goes back to season 1955-56. In the beginning, big men were notably dominant. If we look closely at the first 25 seasons of MVP winners, only Bob Cousy is an anomaly. During that period, we had Cousy (20.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 7.5 apg ) and Oscar Robertson as exceptions. Big O was an Avangard of that time, with his impressive all-around game (31.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 11.0 apg) bringing a new approach to the game. Besides these two guys in the first 25 seasons, MVP never averaged less than 10 rebounds per game. We had 2 different players (Wilt and Russell) in that era averaging more than 20 rebounds per game, we also had 5 different players averaging more than 15 rebounds per game. Of course, this period also brought some prolific scorers, we all know how Wilt could score that ball. In addition to Wilt, Bob McAdoo also was scoring high (staggering 34.5 ppg), together with an impressive 14.1 rpg. Yes, here and there some exceptions, but the first 25 MVP awards did go to the big hands of tall guys. Dr. J would win it in 1981 and that would mark the start of an era of all-around players leaving their mark in the league. Before Dr. J’s win, MVPs would average 24.6 ppg, 17.8 rpg, 4.5 apg. Although, after 1981, we had another big guy (Moses Malone) winning it twice. But after Big Mo, there came 10 years of big three dominance: Bird, Magic, and MJ. Since the first time Bird won it in 1984 until today MVPs are averaging 26.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 6.5 apg. We can see that scoring and assists went up a bit, while rebounds have decreased by more than a half.
On the next chart, you can see basic stats (ppg, rpg, apg) through the years.

One, without doubt, that stands out is Steve Nash, as the only MVP in the last 41 years to average less than 20 points. And he did it twice. He is also the only guard to accomplish this, as opposed to other players who were big tall guys (Russell, Unseld, Walton), dominating the post, grabbing the boards, and shutting down the paint. At a glance, Steve’s numbers look least impressive, but my opinion is that his MVP titles were deserving. He transformed that Suns side into a winning team. After all, he was close to winning it for the 3rd time in a row in 2007, when Nowitzki got around 11% more votes. For more details use the chart above, where you can get an overview of every MVP season so far.

League leaders, other awards and selections

When I started researching this topic, I was rather curious about how often MVP is leading the league in other categories (points, rebounds, assists, etc.) and specifically does your MVP plays solid defense, as this is always highly debated. Before we go into details, it is important to know the history of the league. To be more precise we need to know that not all stats and awards have been present as we know it today. Here is a short summary:

  • Scoring, rebounds, assists: tracked since the start of the league
  • Finals MVP Award: since the 1969 NBA Finals
  • All-Defensive Team: since the 1968–69 season
  • Blocks: introduced in 1973–74 season
  • Steals: introduced in 1973–74 season
  • Defensive Player of the Year Award: since the 1982–83 season
  • Win shares, win shares per 48 minutes: calculated back since the start of the league

Now we can, with a bit of context look at the chart below and see how often MVP is also present in other areas.

As described before, some awards/stats were only introduced after the MVP award was already established, hence we have some “N/A” data in the chart. At first glance, we can see that winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award in the same year as MVP is a rarity. It has been accomplished only thrice so far: Jordan in 1988, Olajuwon in 1994, and Antetokounmpo in 2020. Also, leading the league in blocks per game during an MVP season has happened only twice, both times by K.Abdul-Jabbar (’76, ’80). In contrast, leading the league in Win shares and win shares per 48 minutes is something that is most often accomplished during MVP season. Furthermore, quite often MVP is selected in the 1st or 2nd All-Defensive Team.
If we would calculate every award/selection from the chart as 1 point, I was intrigued to see who would get the most points. And the answer is Michael Jordan in 1988 with 6 points. That season, along with the MVP award, MJ led the league in points and steals per game, was DPOY, and was of course on 1st All-Defensive Team. On top of that, he led the league in both Win Shares and Win shares per 48 minutes. Quite impressive, without a doubt. It is important to remind one more time, that some guys that have played earlier couldn’t get some of these awards/selections. We can only speculate how much that would improve Wilt’s or Russell’s accolade list.
On the other side of the story are players that haven’t led the league in any of those categories or been selected for any of the other awards. Looking back since 1983 (season since the latest award, DPOY, was introduced) 4 MVPs had all blanks: Magic in ’89 and ’90, Barkley in ’93, and Rose in 2011.
Full details for every MVP you can find in the table below, if you want to search for a specific player just type in the search bar year or player’s last name.

Team performance – how far MVP is taking the team?

Frequently, following the MVP voting, we have the identical discussion: which metrics have bigger value, individual stats, or team success?
As we already analyzed individual performance let’s have a look at how the MVP’s team is performing. Again, before we throw the numbers on a table a bit of the context. NBA announced 82 games for the 1967-68 season, while before that there were several periods with different numbers of the games. Even since then we had 2 additional exceptions, fewer games played due to the shortened seasons (lockout): K.Malone ’99 and L.James ’12. Of course, season 2019-20 was shortened due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
So let’s look at some specifics, regarding the regular-season team performance of MVP:

  • MVP’s team only twice had below 50% wins in the regular season (Pettit ’56, Kareem ’76)
  • Only once MVP was not participating in the playoffs: Kareem ’76
  • Only 2 times MVP’s team won 70 or more games: Jordan ’96, Curry ’16
  • Only 1 time since 1982 that MVP’s team won less than 50 games: Westbrook ’17 (not counting shortened seasons)
  • Most MVP’s teams will get between 60 and 69 wins (51% of the times)

The next step in our analysis would be to combine 3 parameters:

  • Regular season performance
  • Playoffs achievements
  • Individual performance

Therefore, let’s have a look at the chart below. The position on the chart is determined by the winning percentage of the team (vertical axis) and win shares of the player (horizontal axis). I am aware that there are some disputes about Win shares as a statistical criterion, but on the other hand, it is a really solid approach to mark the player’s all-round contribution. Other metrics are showing the number of playoffs wins in that respective season as well as the final playoffs result.
For detailed info please hover/click on the player’s bubble on the chart. You can do filtering also by clicking/hovering the colored circles at the top of the chart.

MVPs Playoffs achievement

Recently, there has been a lot of noise, concerning how well MVP is performing in the playoffs. Actually, most of that noise was about how far can MVP carry his team. One thing that added an extra layer to this discussion is the league moving the award ceremony to June. While we arrive at the moment of handing the award to the winner, a lot will happen. For example, the 2017 winner, Russell Westbrook, lost with his Thunder against the Rockets in the 1st round. And that highly affected the narrative, together with media, and fans view of it. That is one of the things that fans complain a lot about to the league, and I completely agree with it. This is an award for the most valuable player during the regular season, and this is how we should treat it. Putting players under so much scrutiny, the very same moment they win the award it is extremely unfair. Additionally, connecting the regular-season award with the playoffs run sounds crazy a bit. But we are going to do it anyway, so let’s have a look at our donut chart below, to see how far MVPs can lead their respective teams in the postseason.

No matter all the pressure we mentioned, MVPs are still leading their teams to great results. Winning the ring is the most often outcome of how they end their season. If we look back through history, on 2 occasions there was an 8-year streak during which the MVP didn’t win the NBA championship. These streaks happened from 1972 to 1979, and from 2004 to 2011.
Only 3 different players managed to win consecutive MVP awards and NBA Championships: Russell (’61, ’62, ’63), Jordan (’91, ’92), and James (’12, ’13).

Losing in the 1st round of playoffs as an MVP is without a doubt a tremendous disappointment. And of course, media and fans all over you, criticizing, analyzing, bringing historic failure as a key point. Here, I would like to bring one interesting point: every MVP that has lost in the 1st round of the playoffs bounced back and got the title during their career. This is also valid for Kareem, the only MVP that has missed the playoffs so far.

This would be it for this post, hope you enjoyed it. In the next one we will try to answer some of the questions like how high MVPs are picked at the draft, at which age they win the title, and similar stuff. Stay tuned.

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Sources: , Wikipedia,

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