Is the best player in the series always on the winning team? Statistically speaking, it seems highly unlikely that Jerry West is the only deserving candidate. To investigate, I have pulled NBA Finals box scores since 1981 (when turnovers started becoming an official game statistic) to identify series where the player with the highest average GameScore on the losing team. Before you start complaining, yes, I know, this is not the most rigorous game impact measure. I am simply using it to identify candidate series, and take a closer look at those qualifying. Below is a tool can be used to break down each series.
Click here for a full screen version.
I will break the qualifying series into 3 categories:
Still Right: All things considered, the right player won the Finals MVP
Toss Up: It could go either way, but it makes sense to give the MVP to the player on the winning team
Wrong: The player on the losing side should have won the MVP
2004 Pistons beat Lakers 4-1: MVP Chauncey Billups vs. Shaquille O’Neal
The Pisons game plan was basically to let Shaq do what he does and hold everyone else in check. This worked like a charm, as Shaq put up big numbers in futile efforts. Billups put up efficient numbers and played great defense. Aside from Shaq’s massive Game 4, Chauncey was as good or better than Shaq from a box score perspective, and also played great matchup defense that didn’t show up in the stat sheet.
2014 Spurs beat Heat 4-1: MVP Kawhi Leonard vs. Lebron James
Kawhi Leonard hit the big stage and put up some huge games against Lebron. Matched up against Lebron for most of the series, he was a two-way monster whose impact could not be captured by box score alone.
2018 Warriors beat Cavaliers 4-0: MVP Kevin Durant vs. Lebron James
Lebron had a truly ridiculous Game 1 followed by a historic Game 3 from KD (featuring another DAGGER). KD was the go to scorer for much of the series and delivered in every game. It’s tough to make a case for a player who couldn’t come out with even 1 win (Thanks JR).
1982 Lakers beat 76ers 4-2: MVP Magic Johnson vs. Julius Erving
Dr. J put in some work on the show time Lakers, and had his best games when he was directly matched up against Magic. Magic Johnson was basically a walking triple double at this time and had 13 PTS-13 REB-13 AST in the series clinching game, so it’s hard to say he didn’t deserve the award.
1990 Pistons beat Trail Blazers 4-1: MVP Isiah Thomas vs. Clyde Drexler
Clyde the Glide had some massive games in this series, especially in Game 4, posting a 34-8-10 stat line. Isiah Thomas had some great performances as well, and two game clinching shots in Game 1 and Game 4, and posted a series statline of 27.6 PPG-5.2 RPG-8 APG.
1996 Bulls beat SuperSonics 4-2: MVP Michael Jordan vs. Shawn Kemp
Both players had some strong and some weak performances, and neither performed exceptionally well in the pivotal Games 5 & 6. Dennis Rodman could easily have been in the running for this award, as he was key to the success of the Bulls in this series with some ridiculous rebounding totals. Michael’s point totals make it hard to argue against him taking home the trophy (despite his inefficiency).
2005 Spurs beat Pistons 4-3: MVP Tim Duncan vs. Chauncey Billups
This was a classic series. The Pistons were able to keep Tim Duncan from having any huge games, but he was still able to put up his typical 20-10 numbers with regularity. Billups had some great statlines, but his defense wavered on critical moments like the unforgettable Big Shot Bob game winner in Game 5.
2011 Mavericks beat Heat 4-2: MVP Dirk Nowitzki vs. Dwyane Wade
Another classic. D Wade had some very efficient games, but Dirk had some signature moments, including one of his best games ever coming off the Flu and a game clinching shot in one of the biggest comebacks in NBA history. D Wade fumbled in the clutch where Dirk thrived.
1981 Celtics beat Rockets 4-2: MVP Cedric Maxwell vs. Moses Malone
This series was very tightly contested. Moses Malone had some serious grown-man games, leading the series in points, rebounds and blocks. Aside from a huge Game 5 from Maxwell, a case can be made the Moses Malone had a better game in all other matchups.
2015 Warriors beat Cavaliers 4-2: MVP Andre Iguodola vs. Lebron James
Andre Iguodola didn’t even have the best series among players on his own team. Lebron was clearly the best player on the court in this series and had the numbers to back it up.
All data provided by Basketball Reference.