SOMETIMES EVEN YOUR BEST JUST ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH. That was the theme for a loaded 2010s decade of NBA basketball dominated by LeBron James, Steph Curry, and a trio of former Thunder players.
It’s really, really hard to win NBA MVP. You need eye-popping numbers and an incredible individual season plus just enough help from teammates to accrue a high win total, but not too much help so we don’t take your credit back away. In an unprecedented era of superteams and hero ball, the MVP race got more heated and contentious than ever this decade.
So what was the single best individual season of the 2010s that didn’t win MVP? That’s the question we’ll ask today, not necessarily which season came closest to actually winning MVP but how these seasons stack up next to each other all time. Earlier this week we looked back fondly at the best non-title teams of the decade. Now it’s a chance to appreciate the greatest individual efforts of the 2010s that came up just short in the MVP race…
TIER VI — THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
Kevin Durant 2010, 2012
The 2010 Durant season was probably closest to making my rankings and may have deserved a spot. At 7.5 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), this KD season rates highest of any of the honorable mentions and would place him safely into the top 15. It was Durant’s monster third-season breakout at age 21, leading the league in scoring at 30.1ppg in his first season in Oklahoma City. His 2012 season culminated in his first Finals appearance, but he got a lot more help from James Harden and Russell Westbrook that season.
Chris Paul 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017
Chris Paul is so good he gets four honorable mention seasons — and these aren’t even his best years. The 2011 season was his last with the New Orleans Hornets, when he shot 46/39/88 with elite advanced metrics and dragged a pretty terrible roster to 46 wins and the playoffs in the loaded West. Then he was traded to the Clippers and was elite in all three years reference but missed 20, 8, and 21 games. Los Angeles went 127–61 with CP3 on the court in those seasons but 24–28 without him. That’s the difference of raising of raising a 38-win team to a 55-win team.
Stephen Curry 2014
The year before his two MVPs, perhaps we should have seen this coming in hindsight. The Warriors were already really great on defense, but Steph was almost the entire offense and already quite good at 24ppg on 47/42/89 shooting splits. The next year he took one more leap and that was that.
Russell Westbrook 2015, 2016
These were Westbrook’s last two years with Durant, and not coincidentally of course, the two years before his MVP season and triple-double explosions. Russ finished 4th in the MVP race both years but was better in 2015 when he pushed the Thunder to the brink with Kevin Durant sidelined for all but 27 games, his 38% usage a preview of things to come. He might have finished even higher if he hadn’t missed 15 games himself.
Okay, enough honorable mentions. Let’s get to the top 18 non-MVP seasons of the 2010s…
TIER V — JUST NOT ENOUGH MINUTES
18. Chris Paul 2013
17. Chris Paul 2012
More great CP3 seasons. Not much to say about 2013, ho hum, just another great season for Chris Paul but only 70 games played. In 2012, he played only 60 but it wasn’t exactly his fault since it was a strike-shortened season. That was his first year with the Clippers and it was his best per-minute season with them. His 9.2 BPM (Box Plus-Minus) would rate sixth of everyone on this list, and he led the league in steals and scored just under 20ppg, his highest in L.A.
16. Anthony Davis 2015
What a decade of basketball for New Orleans! Imagine lucking into a decade of Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and Zion Williamson. Davis had higher scoring seasons for the Pelicans, but this was his best all around effort. He led the league in blocks as a weakside help defender before moving to more of a center the following season, and he also led the league in PER touting his overall production. Davis didn’t have much help other than a half season of Jrue Holiday, but the 21-year-old dragged the Pelicans to 45 wins and a playoff sweep by the Warriors… and all while missing 14 games.
15. Kawhi Leonard 2016
This was the rise of Kawhi, his first All-Star season in San Antonio. The Spurs were absolutely incredible, with some metrics rating them even better than the 73–9 Warriors, a team they pushed all season long. Kawhi was best on the team and eked out a second place MVP finish over LeBron, but he played only 33mpg in 72 games, buoyed by an incredibly deep and balanced roster that was so good he just didn’t have to do as much as some of these other candidates. If you’re wondering why this season doesn’t rank higher, remember we’re ranking value, not best player.
TIER IV — WHEN YOUR BEST IS NOT ENOUGH
14. Nikola Jokic 2019
I’m not positive people realize just how awesome Nikola Jokic is, maybe in part because they overrate names like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris around him. Jokic is a one-man show on offense and rates much better defensively than you’d think. He’s going to be an MVP contender for a long time.
13. Chris Paul 2015
One final CP3 season for the road, eh? Paul actually made it through all 82 games (value!) and helped the Clippers win 56 games as the league’s #1 offense. He also came only a few buckets short of joining the 50/40/90 club. That’s seven seasons this decade for CP3 and it doesn’t even include his best two seasons in 2008 and 2009. He’s really good, guys.
12. Kevin Love 2014
Love barely got an MVP sniff his final year in Minnesota, understandably so for a team that finished a game below .500. But he was an absolute monster, putting up over 26 points, 12 boards, and 4 dimes a game on huge usage and 59% true shooting. The Wolves had the metrics of a 48-win team and it was a one-man show. Love had the second highest BPM in the league, which means LeBron abandoned a team to join up with the league’s second highest rated player not once but twice this decade.
11. Kawhi Leonard 2017
The Spurs were better in 2016 but turned over even more of the team to Kawhi the following season once Tim Duncan retired (though the team was arguably better with the younger Pau Gasol). San Antonio won 61 games with the league’s #1 defense and a top-10 offense, and Kawhi had his best all-around season as a pro. He only finished third in the MVP race, and with load management paving his future, this sadly may be as close as he ever gets to a regular season MVP.
TIER III — LEBRON IS REALLY, REALLY GOOD
10. Kevin Durant 2016
9. LeBron James 2016
The 2016 MVP race was over by December after the Warriors opened the season 24–0 and Steph Curry ran away with things, but it’s a real shame because the race for the next few spots featured some truly terrific seasons. Durant returned after a lost injury season and dropped 28/8/5 on nearly 50/40/90 shooting, but he missed 10 games and the Thunder went 3–7 without him. That incredible season only cracked fifth in the MVP race because it wasn’t even as good as LeBron’s. James didn’t quite match KD’s numbers but got only 53 so-so games from Kyrie Irving while Durant had an elite season from Westbrook, yet LeBron’s team won more games.
8. LeBron James 2014
We think of all four Miami years as the Heatles, but there’s a reason LeBron left the Heat for dead after 2014. Their roster was in shambles. Dwyane Wade’s body was done, and Chris Bosh never played another full season, and the team had zero depth. LeBron was mostly a one-man show and carried the Heat to 54 wins even with Wade missing 28 games, though the team went only 18–10 without him.
7. Dwyane Wade 2010
Wade finished fifth in the 2010 MVP race because the rest of his pre-Heatles roster wasn’t any good, but he was the second best player in the league. We remember Wade for his 2006 title run, but he peaked individually in 2009 and 2010 and might have won an MVP if not for LeBron. He was an elite defender and obviously even better on offense, the full package with a monster 35% usage for a 47-win team whose next best player was… Michael Beasley?!
6. LeBron James 2011
Voters did pretty well with MVP voting this decade, but this was their one egregious mistake. Folks were still pretty upset about The Decision, but LeBron was clearly the best player in the league with his usual 27/7/7. He didn’t do quite as much as he had in Cleveland because of Wade and Bosh, but he also had a trainwreck of a roster after that and had to do more than he was credit for. Derrick Rose had a terrific season worthy of runner-up MVP, but James should have won it. Instead, he finished third, behind Dwight Howard too somehow. Remember, this isn’t ranking the seasons in order of who should have won MVP, or this would rank first. It wasn’t a great MVP year.
TIER II — THE ONE-MAN SHOWS
5. James Harden 2015
If you don’t like James Harden, you should probably stop reading this article now, cuz you’re about to get a lot of him. The Rockets tried to get Harden a star teammate in 2015, but Dwight Howard stunk (literally, half the time) and missed half the season. Harden was awesome anyway, just short of one of those 27/7/7 LeBron lines. The Rockets won 56 games, despite Trevor Ariza being the second best player on the roster, and Harden finished runner-up in the MVP race before losing to Steph’s Warriors in the WCF.
4. James Harden 2017
With the Dwight experiment over, the Rockets went fast instead, turning the team over to Mike D’Antoni and installing Harden as the de facto point guard in his last season before he got a true second star teammate. Can I interest you in 29/8/11 on 61% true shooting? There were a bunch of perfectly nice role players on this team like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and Clint Capela, but Harden was a one-man show and turned this team into the league’s #2 offense in his first year running point for Mike D’Antoni.
3. LeBron James 2018
Harden finally won the MVP in 2018 — and deserved it — but LeBron had a worthy runner-up season. Just like his last season with the Heat in 2014, the 2018 Cavs stunk and were a complete one-man show. Remember, Kyrie Irving is gone now, replaced by awful, injury-plagued seasons from Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. The team lollygagged through the season with the league’s second-worst defense and Kevin Love was finally good again in a bigger role, but LeBron was the stud that dragged this team to 50 wins and then 12 more in the Eastern playoffs before getting mercifully swept in the Finals.
TIER I — SUPER ELITE MVP WORTHY SEASONS
2. Kevin Durant 2013
Durant’s best season of the decade came one year later when he take one more step and won the MVP for his mama, but this was an MVP-worthy season all its own. The Thunder were coming off a Finals appearance but traded James Harden anyway, and Durant made sure they stepped forward and not backward, pushing them to 60 wins for the first time with terrific defense and his fourth of five straight seasons leading the league in scoring, this time at an incredible 65% true shooting. It was a great season worthy of an MVP but happened in LeBron’s last super-elite individual year and final MVP win, as the Heat won 66 games, including a 27-game winning streak.
1. James Harden 2019
I know everyone is sick of Harden’s flopping and foul drawing, but… are we totally sure he shouldn’t have won MVP last year?
This man averaged 36.1ppg, the seventh highest scoring season in NBA history, and he did it on 62% true shooting. It was probably the most efficient massive volume scoring season in NBA history. And I do mean massive usage. With Chris Paul struggling through 58 games injured and not much else on the roster to help, Harden amassed a ginormous 40.5% usage, second highest in NBA history, sandwiched right in between Westbrook’s 2017 post-KD season and Kobe’s mythical 35.4 season in 2006. Jordan 1987 and Iverson 2002 are the other seasons near the top of the list. Iverson finished below 50% true shooting that year, and the others top out around 55 or 56%. Harden just kept shooting and shooting and remained one of the most efficient scorers in the league. There was truly no upper bound to his volume.
Harden’s 9.3 Offensive Box Plus-Minus rates fourth highest in NBA history. That’s a top-five all-time offensive season, and the 8th best overall BPM ever! Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in MVP voting, his third runner-up status of the decade, but are we sure he shouldn’t have won? Harden played 509 more minutes than Giannis (value!!) and led him in BPM, VORP, win shares, and pretty much every other advanced metric. The Bucks were far more talented around Giannis but Antetokounmpo won 56 games while Harden won 51, so exactly which player was more valuable?
James Harden had the best non-MVP season of the 2010s… and maybe the best non-MVP season of all time. ■