Closest MVP Races Ever

Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on Difference in Award Share

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on Total Points Won

  1. 1957 — Bob Cousy (23 Total Points) over Bob Pettit (21 Total Points)
  2. 1956 — Bob Pettit (33) over Paul Arizin (21)
  3. 1978 — Bill Walton (96) over George Gervin (80.5)
  4. 1976 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (409) over Bob McAdoo (393)
  5. 1990 — Magic Johnson (636) over Charles Barkley (614)
  6. 1997 — Karl Malone (986) over Michael Jordan (957)
  7. 1958 — Bill Russell (228) over Dolph Schayes (198)
  8. 1981 — Julius Erving (454) over Larry Bird (423)
  9. 1965 — Bill Russell (53) over Oscar Robertson (21)
  10. 2005 — Steve Nash (1,066) over Shaquille O’Neal (1,032)

Top Ten Closest MVP Races Based on First-Place Votes

  1. 1990 — Magic Johnson (27 First-Place Votes) over Charles Barkley (38 First-Place Votes)
  2. 1957 — Bob Cousy (23) over Bob Pettit (21)
  3. 1976 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (52) over Bob McAdoo (47)
  4. 2005 — Steve Nash (65) over Shaquille O’Neal (58)
  5. (Tie) — 1958 — Bill Russell (33) over Dolph Schayes (25)
  6. (Tie) — 1981 — Julius Erving (28) over Larry Bird (20)
  7. (Tie) — 1999 — Karl Malone (44) over Alonzo Mourning (36)
  8. 1970 — Willis Reed (61) over Jerry West (51)
  9. 1997 — Karl Malone (63) over Michael Jordan (52)
  10. (Tie) — 1956 — Bob Pettit (33) over Paul Arizin (21)
  11. (Tie) — 2002 — Tim Duncan (57) over Jason Kidd (45)

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