Closest MVP Races Ever
Editor’s Note — This article was originally published in May 2021 and does not reflect the 2021 and 2022 MVP results.
Some of my favorite NBA retrospectives regard close MVP races from years past. It’s always enjoyable to recollect each candidate’s accomplishments and discuss each winner’s merit. One of the logical progressions of these conversations it to debate the closest or most divisive MVP races in history. Unfortunately, these attempts are often subjective. This is understandable, as there is an immense variety of factors that make it difficult to easily measure one year against another. These variations include differences in the total number of voters, differences in voting structures and formats, and even differences in who does the actual voting. These vast inconsistencies make it difficult to confidently state that one year’s MVP race was closer than another’s. Furthermore, these obstacles often result in recency bias creeping into these debates, as it is much easier to compare races from the past thirty years or so as they all follow roughly the same voting format. This is unfortunate as there are several neck-and-neck races from the first half of the league’s existence that deserve consideration. In an attempt to curtail recency bias and fairly weigh every MVP race in history, this article is going to review the closest MVP races using solely objective measures.
There are three measurements which can be employed: the difference in total points won¹ between the winner and runner-up, the difference in first-place votes between the winner and runner-up, and the difference in award share² between the winner and runner-up. Award share is my favorite metric of the bunch, as I feel that it is the best at weighting different eras equally and provides our best mechanism for fairly incorporating all races across history. Measuring by award share lessens the intrusive impact of the many variables, particularly the different voting formats and the ever-changing total amount of voters.
However, total points won appears to be the preferred method in many of the other attempts I’ve read that cover this topic. This makes sense, as total points provide a simple, round number with which to compare. Although, two important reasons cause this approach to be unconducive for measuring across eras. First, a handful of MVP races collected first-place votes only, which makes the point scoring system for those seasons notably different and difficult to integrate. Second, there is a different number of voters each year, resulting in different totals of points each season. For example, it is not uncommon for an MVP runner-up to have fewer first-place votes than a player or players who finished lower in the rankings. This issue also hurts the viability of measuring by first-place votes only. Nevertheless, though I’m less confident in these last two indicators, they remain helpful as an alternate view. Ideally, the truly close races will overcome the variables and still appear in these lists regardless of criteria.
Given my preference for award share, this article will start with a detailed top-ten list of the closest MVP races based on this metric. We’ll then follow-up with a quick review of the top-ten results of the other two metrics and then cross-reference all three lists. Hopefully, a few races jump out as clear candidates as the closest ever! Lastly, these lists will focus on the first and second place finishers only. I’m sure there are several races where the third-place finisher was in close contention, but, for simplicity’s sake, we’re sticking to just the top two vote-getters.
Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on Difference in Award Share
- 1976 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (0.442 award share) over Bob McAdoo (0.425 award share) The 1976 race was the impetus for this entire article. By nearly any measure, objective or subjective, this is one of the closest MVP races ever, though it is often neglected in general discussion and absent from contemporary articles on close MVP races. While Kareem and McAdoo finished in the top two, this was actually a three-man race with Dave Cowens also in the mix³. Cowens finished third with a 0.409 award share, though he actually had one more first-place vote than McAdoo. Kareem was clearly the best player on paper, as his advanced stats are far and away the best of the group, with the exception being Cowens’ slightly superior rebounding rate. In terms of counting stats, McAdoo had a higher PPG average than Kareem, but Kareem was more efficient. So why was this race so close? That boils down to one simple answer — Kareem’s Lakers had a losing record. In fact, this is the only instance in NBA history where a player from a losing team won the MVP, a distinction I suspect will stand for a long time. However, this was a unique season when it came to parity. McAdoo’s Buffalo Braves weren’t world-beaters by any measure, but they had a comfortably above average record of 46–36. Meanwhile, Cowens’ Celtics possessed a 54–28 record. While 54 wins doesn’t seem like much in the modern era, it was comfortably the second best in 1976. In fact, the entire league was a morass of mediocrity, as 13 of the league’s 18 teams finished within the range of winning percentages of .400 and .599. This competitive free-for-all presented ripe circumstances for a fierce MVP race. Additionally, the players themselves were voting for the award at this point in time. I strongly suspect that if this had been a media vote, then Kareem’s losing record would have precluded him from winning and would’ve resulted in a win for McAdoo or Cowens. However, I also suspect that the players were more likely to disregard team records, particularly in a year like this one, and simply identify the best overall player. In this case, that was undoubtedly Kareem. Altogether, this was an interestingly unique MVP race due to the extreme team parity and its resultant dearth of dominant MVP candidacies. It is a fitting, albeit oft-forgotten, race to kick off the list.
- 1990 — Magic Johnson (0.691) over Charles Barkley (0.667) Perhaps the most infamous MVP race in history (and certainly much more prominent in modern memory than the 1976 race), this is the only race to date in which the runner-up had more first-place votes than the winner. Not only that, Barkley had significantly more first-place votes than Magic with 11. That’s amazing! For context, the next closest difference between first-place votes separating the winner and runner-up is two fewer for the runner-up. Magic’s victory resulted from the fact that nearly all of the voters who placed Barkley in first also placed Magic in second, whereas a significant portion of the voters who placed Magic in first placed Barkley farther down their ballots than second. To illustrate this, 65 out of 92 voters (roughly 71%) placed Magic in the top two of their ballots and just 53 of the 92 (roughly 58%) had Barkley in the top two. Furthermore, two of that year’s voters didn’t even place Barkley in the top five on their ballot. This speaks to Barkley’s divisiveness. We touched on this in a segment on Barkley in an earlier article, and this race encapsulates that argument. Barkley seemed to be universally hailed as one of the best players in the league at the time, though his off-court distractions and controversies likely persuaded some voters to stay away, even if he was a logical choice. This was likely the case here, as Magic was a far friendlier face for voters. That being said, Magic was undoubtedly a worthy winner. He was second to John Stockton in about every passing stat, second to Michael Jordan in most prominent advanced stats, and, most importantly, his Lakers won a league-best 63 games. Barkley had a similarly strong case with equally impressive advanced numbers, better efficiency, and a winning record despite a mediocre supporting cast. Altogether, either player would have been a worthy choice, and perhaps Barkley’s off-court behavior swung the difference.
- 1957 — Bob Cousy (0.288) over Bob Pettit (0.263) We’re going way back to the second ever MVP race for number three on this list, and another race that typically doesn’t get mentioned in modern articles. This race is emblematic of the difficulty in measuring across eras. The 1957 race only collected first-place votes and had a small voter pool, which resulted in significantly lower amounts in the points won and win share areas. Cousy won the award by collecting just two more first-place votes than Pettit. This is an incredibly narrow margin. The historical implications on the legacies of these two players is interesting. Pettit had won the preceding year’s MVP, so had he won here then he’d have had back-to-back MVPs in the first two votes ever, and three total for his career. Would he be more remembered and revered in today’s landscape if things played out that way? Conversely, if Cousy had never won an MVP, would he be more likely to be disregarded as an overrated product of the plodding 1950s? As it stands, I’m glad Cousy got his hands on an MVP, as he was a truly transformational talent who shouldn’t be diminished as anything less.
- 1997 — Karl Malone (0.857) over Michael Jordan (0.832) 1997 is the race that coined the term “voter fatigue.” The historical narrative is that there was universal agreement at the time that Jordan was the best player on the planet, but it was becoming monotonous to hand him the MVP each and every year, so the voters unjustly allowed Karl Malone to slither forth and swipe the win. I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth to this admittedly exagerrated narrative, but it has become so embellished over the years to the point that mocking Malone is commonplace, almost encouraged. It’s unfortunate that Malone’s legacy seems intertwined with Jordan in the sense that Malone is portrayed as an unworthy, inferior fake who usurped Jordan’s glory. This narrative feels Promethean in that Malone stole from a basketball god and is now punished with an eternity of ridicule. In reality, it seems foolish for mocking someone who simply had the gall to be good at the same time as Jordan. And that’s the thing, Malone was really good. He fit the era perfectly and had both the stats and wins to back it up. Simply put, Malone was an MVP caliber player. All that being said… Jordan should’ve won the award this year.
- 2005 — Steve Nash (0.839) over Shaquille O’Neal (0.813) Another one of the all-time controversial races, 2005 was representative of a shift in eras. It was a battle over the style, if not the soul, of basketball. Shaq reflected the relentless pound and power of 90s basketball, whereas Nash reflected the future run-and-gun nature of the 2010s. In hindsight, both players had fantastic cases for the award (in addition to Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, both of whom had similarly great years) and it’s tough to split the difference. When it comes down to it, Nash likely edged out for two reasons. First, he had the narrative of turning around a moribund Suns team from 29 wins to 62, whereas the Heat were already .500 prior to Shaq’s arrival. Second, both players missed a handful of games that year and the Suns were 2–5 without Nash, but the Heat were 6–3 without Shaq, likely due to the heroics of a young Dywane Wade, who finished eighth in MVP voting that year. Combined, this was likely enough to sway many voters to Nash and it feels like just enough justification to defend Nash’s win in my eyes, but I won’t argue against anyone who stoutly states that Shaq should’ve won.
- 1981 — Julius Erving (0.658) over Larry Bird (0.613) I was surprised to find this race finish so high, as I had no idea it was much of a debate. Erving not only had the stats and the wins to warrant the award, but he had the aura. It must have felt like Erving was due the award at the time, which is why Bird’s close call is so surprising. This was only Bird’s second season and although his counting stats were very good and comparable to the Doctor’s, they had yet to explode into the all-time best range that they would reach in the ensuing years. However, Erving blows Bird out of the water in just about every advanced metric. Considering advanced stats weren’t available to voters at the time, the fact that Bird was already supplanting Erving as the co-face of the league alongside Magic Johnson, and the fact that Bird was clearly the catalyst on a great Celtics team, it makes sense that Bird came close to winning in retrospect, but it still feels surprising that Erving wasn’t a runaway winner.
- 2002 — Tim Duncan (0.757) over Jason Kidd (0.712) This is one of my favorite MVP races ever in that it pares a traditionally pragmatic mindset against an impulsively intangible one. I would argue that both approaches are good and that a healthy mix of each is necessary in the consideration of MVP candidates, but 2002 represented a clear delineation between the two. Duncan was the obvious statistical choice — He was far and away the best player in the league from a statistical and advanced standpoint and his team was among the best in the league. But he was boring. The Spurs were always good and they weren’t flashy. Duncan’s MVP case was ho-hum. Meanwhile, Jason Kidd wasn’t nearly as dominant as Duncan. His stats were good, some advanced stats even just mediocre, and his team was good but not great. But his story was so fun⁴. He joined the Nets in the 2001 offseason and inspired a 26 win improvement. Not only that, they were fun to watch. To put it simply, Kidd had the “narrative,” and it was fascinating to see the narrative go up against traditional touchstones of greatness in Duncan. At the time, I was rooting for Kidd to win, but, in retrospect, Duncan was clearly the right choice. He wasn’t the fun pick, but he was the right one. Still, there’s nothing wrong with an MVP case like Kidd’s when the circumstances align just right.
- 1999 — Karl Malone (0.701) over Alonzo Mourning (0.655) While the 1997 race tends to dominate most of the discussion around Karl Malone’s MVP wins, 1999 was also a surprisingly close affair. Alonzo Mourning was perhaps at his peak in 1999, though the Jazz were a well-oiled machine at this point in time and possessed the joint best record in this lockout-shortened season. Malone also continued to post stellar numbers and led the league in win shares, so this win feels much less sour than his 1997 triumph.
- 1970 — Willis Reed (0.643) over Jerry West (0.590) As noted in earlier articles, Jerry West was a serial runner-up. Of his four MVP runner-up finishes, this was the closest he came to the award. A win here would have done wonders for West’s legacy, but it would have been just as unfortunate for Reed to miss out on his lone win. Both players were superb, so it is clear to see why voters were torn. Willis Reed’s mythologized leadership and his symbolism as “The Captain” reflect some important intangibles that likely made him all the more valuable and worthy of this win, though it is important to note that Walt Frazier was as good, if not better, when we solely view on-court accomplishments. Regardless, it’s tough to argue against Reed’s win.
- 1978 — Bill Walton (0.403) over George Gervin (0.338) We end with a historically controversial race, as Walton’s 58 games played this season is the fewest of any MVP in a non-shortened season. Meanwhile, Gervin played a full 82. However, Walton’s Blazers won nearly as many games in his 58 (48) as the Spurs did in Gervin’s 82 (52). In fact, the Blazers this season were 48–10⁵ with Walton in the lineup and 10–14 without. That being said, while Walton’s individual stats were fantastic, they also weren’t exceptional⁶, as the likes of Gervin, Kareem, Lanier, and Thompson were comparable in many advanced metrics. This, twinned with Walton’s low game total, make the 1978 race a truly fascinating case study in the value of winning. Does the Blazers’ historically great wining rate over those 58 games with Walton matter more than Gervin’s Spurs’ solid-if-unspectacular winning over 82 games? How should we value the notable drop-off in form of the Blazers without Walton? If Walton’s numbers were great, but not historically great, does that indicate that the Blazers’ winning rate resulted from actions performed by Walton that don’t show up on a stat sheet? And should availability be a key criterion in MVP discussions? I tend to give Walton the benefit of the doubt and subscribe to the idea that he had a winning style of play that didn’t always pop on a stat sheet, so I’ve never been perturbed by this win, though it’s unfortunate that it came at the expense of Gervin’s best shot at an MVP win.
A few items jumped out at me from this list. First, both of Karl Malone’s MVP wins appear on the list, revealing just how close he was to having an MVP-less career. Second, the three races that seem to appear most often in contemporary conversation and media (1990, 1997, and 2005) all make the top five here, though none take top spot. Lastly, there’s some strong balance across decades, as the 1970s and 1990s have three entries each, the 2000s have two, and the 1950s and 1980s have one each. Only the 1960s and the 2010s don’t appear here⁷. Now let’s see how these races hold up when viewed with the remaining measurements.
Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on Total Points Won
- 1957 — Bob Cousy (23 Total Points) over Bob Pettit (21 Total Points)
- 1956 — Bob Pettit (33) over Paul Arizin (21)
- 1978 — Bill Walton (96) over George Gervin (80.5)
- 1976 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (409) over Bob McAdoo (393)
- 1990 — Magic Johnson (636) over Charles Barkley (614)
- 1997 — Karl Malone (986) over Michael Jordan (957)
- 1958 — Bill Russell (228) over Dolph Schayes (198)
- 1981 — Julius Erving (454) over Larry Bird (423)
- 1965 — Bill Russell (53) over Oscar Robertson (21)
- 2005 — Steve Nash (1,066) over Shaquille O’Neal (1,032)
This top ten is emblematic of the difficulty of using points won as a measurement, as the races in which only first-place votes were collected skew the results. Each of the top three (1957, 1956, and 1978), as well as ninth place (1965) were races which only included first-place votes and their differences in points won are much narrower as a result. If we were to remove these races from the list, then 1976 would repeat in top spot and the four years that would slot in at the bottom as a result would be 1970, 1999, 2002, and 1989.
If we set concerns aside, we find that seven of the races from the top ten based on award share also appear here. Of the three new entries, 1956 jumps out the most given it’s number two ranking, but both this race and 1965 were first-place-only voting years, and both races weren’t actually that close when viewed through the award share prism. However, the remaining new addition, 1958, is a different story. That race would have slotted in at eleventh in the previous ranking based on award share and it did include more than just first-place votes. This race is particularly interesting, as it was Bill Russell’s first MVP and it was Dolph Schayes’ closest MVP finish⁸. A win for Schayes would likely have catapulted his legacy, whereas Russell’s legacy would undoubtedly remain in tact if he had one fewer MVP win⁹. Of all of Russell’s wins, 1958 may be his weakest case, as this is the only win in which Russell’s Celtics didn’t eclipse the 50 win total. It’s also arguably his weakest statistical season of the bunch and Schayes does outpace him in a few key advanced categories. Russell was still undoubtedly deserving, but closer inspection does reveal Schayes as an outstanding candidate who was unfortunate to miss out.
Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on First-Place Votes
- 1990 — Magic Johnson (27 First-Place Votes) over Charles Barkley (38 First-Place Votes)
- 1957 — Bob Cousy (23) over Bob Pettit (21)
- 1976 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (52) over Bob McAdoo (47)
- 2005 — Steve Nash (65) over Shaquille O’Neal (58)
- (Tie) — 1958 — Bill Russell (33) over Dolph Schayes (25)
- (Tie) — 1981 — Julius Erving (28) over Larry Bird (20)
- (Tie) — 1999 — Karl Malone (44) over Alonzo Mourning (36)
- 1970 — Willis Reed (61) over Jerry West (51)
- 1997 — Karl Malone (63) over Michael Jordan (52)
- (Tie) — 1956 — Bob Pettit (33) over Paul Arizin (21)
- (Tie) — 2002 — Tim Duncan (57) over Jason Kidd (45)
Amazingly, there are fifteen instances where the second-place MVP finisher accrued fewer first-place votes than at least one of the players who finished behind them¹⁰. Of those fifteen, there are five instances where the runner-up had fewer first place votes than more than one player to finish behind them. However, of the entries in the above top ten, only 1976 is a season where the runner-up had fewer than the third, as Dave Cowens had one more first-place vote than McAdoo as previously mentioned.
Once again, this list reflects fairly closely to the top ten of the award share measurement. There are six races that appeared on all three lists: 1957, 1976, 1981, 1990, 1997, and 2005. The 1990 race dominates this particular list and there aren’t any new additions that hadn’t previously appeared on the first two lists. This consistency of results paints a fairly clear picture of which races are truly the closest ever.
All in all, I feel comfortable stating either the 1976 or 1990 races as the closest ever. If I absolutely had to pick one, then the absurd difference in first-place totals makes 1990 tough to argue against. Beyond those two, I think 1957 is a clear third-place despite its status as a first-place-votes-only draft. Cousy’s margin of victory is so slim that it could reasonably be argued that Pettit may have surged past him had second and third place votes been collected that year. Given that 1981, 1997, and 2005 also appeared on all three of the above lists, I think they would have to be placed in some order for the fourth through sixth spots. I’m still confused as to how the 1981 case was as close as it was, so I think that year should be sixth. My gut instinct was that 1997 should be fourth, but I ultimately went with 2005 for that slot for one main reason — I was shocked that the difference in first-place votes for Karl Malone’s 1999 victory over Alonzo Mourning was smaller than the difference in 1997 over Michael Jordan. That had me second-guessing just how close Jordan really was to surpassing Malone in 1997. 1997 may reasonably remain as the most egregious MVP decision ever, but I don’t think it was as close of a vote as people give it credit for.
So there’s my hypothetical two cents on an impossible to answer debate! I’m sure there are tons of subjective or informal measurements that never occur to me that could be used to measure races against each other, and that’s the fun of it. There’s no definitive answer to this question and we can argue it in perpetuity. Hopefully we get some more interesting and close MVP debates to join this conversation in the years to come.
¹ Total points won takes into account the number of first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place votes a player received. However, the value of these votes have differed across seasons. Some seasons only collected first-place votes and allotted a point total of one for each vote. Some seasons collected a top three and allotted five points for first, three for second, and one for third. And the modern system provides ten for first, seven for second, five for third, three for fourth, and one for fifth.
² Award share is calculated by dividing a player’s total points won by the maximum number of possible points a player could receive in that year’s race.
³ Rick Barry also had a good case for MVP this season as his Warriors were clearly the best team in the league in the regular season and both his basic and advanced stats were top-notch, but he finished fourth for the award and wasn’t really close to a win, so he’s left out of this discussion.
⁴ At least it was at the time. Kidd pleaded guilty to domestic abuse in 2001 and societal attention toward this behavior was much more subdued at the time. In retrospect, it feels a bit foolish to root for someone so wholeheartedly when they were in the wake of being guilty of such a reprehensible act.
⁵ This would be an .827 winning percentage. Keeping this pace over the course of a season would’ve given the Blazers a tie for the sixth best NBA season ever. Of the six historical teams with better or equal records in this hypothetical scenario, four of them had a player who won league MVP in that particular season (Curry with the 2016 Warriors, Jordan with the 1996 Bulls, Cowens with the 1973 Celtics, Chamberlain with the 1967 76ers) and the other two produced MVP runners-up (Jordan with the 1997 Bulls and West with the 1972 Lakers).
⁶ This feels very similar to Jason Kidd’s 2002 case to me. Both Kidd’s and Walton’s numbers were great, but not necessarily eye-popping. However, they both were clearly influencing something great on the floor. Counterintuitively, this may have made their MVP cases even more compelling.
⁷ For what it’s worth, the closest race of the 1960s by award share was Wilt Chamberlain (0.407) over Jerry West (0.227) in 1966 and the closest of the 2010s was Russell Westbrook (0.879) over James Harden (0.746) in 2017. Neither of these even cracked the top fifteen.
⁸ As mentioned in earlier articles, Schayes had five First Team All-NBA appearances in the years preceding MVP voting, so it is possible that he would’ve had a similarly high or higher finish at some point prior to 1956 if the award had existed then.
⁹ Instead of being tied with Jordan for second most MVPs ever, Russell would instead be tied with Wilt and LeBron in third.
¹⁰ Two of these instances feel like a stretch. In 2000, Shaq garnered all but one first-place vote, with the outlier vote belonging to seventh-place finisher Allen Iverson. Similarly, LeBron collected all but one first-place vote in 2013, with the exception in that year going to third-place finisher Carmelo Anthony.