Harden or Westbrook will have company: 10 best NBA seasons that didn’t win MVP

It’s easy to forget because the NBA regular season ended, well, about two-and-a-half months ago, but
Russell Westbrook
and
James Harden
both put up absolutely historic numbers in 2016-17.

Westbrook set the NBA record for most triple-doubles (42) became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Harden, on the other hand, became the first player to both score and assist on 2,000 points in a single season, and accounted for the most points in league history with 4,554.

Their final regular season averages:

  • Westbrook: 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds, 13.1 win shares 
  • Harden: 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 15.0 win shares

And the thing is, one of those guys is NOT going to win the MVP. It got us thinking, what other remarkable seasons missed out on the league’s top individual award?

The most difficult part about deciding who gets the MVP is that there’s no clear definition. For this list, in addition to traditional statistics, we factored in win shares — an estimate of the amount of wins added by a player to his team in any given season.

With that in mind, here is a list of the best statistical seasons in NBA history not to win the MVP award.

10. Tracy McGrady, 2002-03
Orlando Magic

Stats: 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 16.1 win shares

Winner: Tim Duncan (23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 16.5 win shares)

People tend to forget what a prolific scorer T-Mac was when healthy. McGrady played 75 games in 2002-03 and led the league with a career-best 32.1 points per game. McGrady joined Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as the only players in league history to average at least 32 points, five rebounds and five assists per game for a full season (
Kevin Durant
joined them in 2013-14).

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Did they get it right? Yes. It was close, but with the win shares that close you have to go with the guy who does it on both ends of the court. Duncan’s 7.2 defensive win shares trumped McGrady’s 2.9 by a wide margin. More importantly the Magic finished with a paltry 42-40 record, while Duncan’s
San Antonio Spurs
won 60 games.

9. Kevin Durant, 2012-13
Oklahoma City Thunder

Stats: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 18.9 win shares

Winner: LeBron James (26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 19.3 win shares)

Durant had already established himself as a premier scorer in the NBA, but in the 2012-13 season he did something he’d never done before (and hasn’t done since) — he put up a 50/40/90 season, shooting 51 percent from the field, 42 percent on 3-pointers and a league-leading 91 percent from the free throw line. Prior to Durant’s season, the only other player to have a 50/40/90 season while averaging at least 28 points per game was Larry Bird, who did it in back-to-back seasons in 1986-87 and 1987-88. Steph Curry did it during his MVP season last season as well.

Did they get it right? Unfortunately for Durant, they did. While Durant’s season was truly remarkable, what LeBron did was just a hair better. Durant’s Thunder finished with 60 wins, but LeBron’s
Miami Heat
won 66. More win shares + more wins = MVP. What’s pretty remarkable is that LeBron missed becoming the league’s first unanimous MVP by one vote, and that vote didn’t even go to Durant — it went to
Carmelo Anthony
.

8. David Robinson, 1993-94 San Antonio Spurs

Stats: 29.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.3 blocks, 20.0 win shares

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Winner: Hakeem Olajuwon (27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.7 blocks, 14.3 win shares)

Robinson led the league in scoring while leading the Spurs to 55 wins. His 20.0 win shares are good for 18th on the all-time single-season list. The Admiral anchored the defense and pretty much single-handedly led an offense whose only other double-digit scorers were Dale Ellis (15.2), Willie Anderson (11.9) and Vinny Del Negro (10.0).

Did they get it right? No. This one is an extremely close race, though the voters at the time didn’t seem to think so. Robinson earned only 24 first-place votes to Olajuwon’s 66 despite nearly identical statistics and team records (the
Houston Rockets
won 58 games to the Spurs’ 55). When it’s that close you have to look at win shares, where Robinson had a significant advantage partly due to his lackluster supporting cast. Basically, those Spurs would have had zero chance of winning 55 games were it not for Robinson’s incredible season.

michael-jordan.jpg

Michael Jordan was thwarted twice by Magic Johnson in the late 1980s for the MVP.
Getty Images

7. Michael Jordan, 1986-87
Chicago Bulls

Stats: 37.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 16.9 win shares

Winner: Magic Johnson (23.9 points, 12.2 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 15.9 win shares)

Coming off a season in which he only played 18 games due to injury, Jordan announced himself to the league as a 23-year-old, putting up the highest single-season point total in NBA history by a man not named Wilt Chamberlain.

Did they get it right? Despite Jordan’s slight edge in win shares, they did. With little offensive help, Jordan only led his Bulls to 40 wins compared to Magic’s 65-win
Los Angeles Lakers
. When the discrepancy is that high, it’s a no-brainer.

6.
Kobe Bryant
, 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers

Stats: 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 15.3 win shares

Winner: Steve Nash (18.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 12.4 win shares)

Unleashed from any restraints that playing with Shaquille O’Neal might have brought, Kobe torched the league for the eighth highest single-season scoring average in league history. Almost more impressive was the fact that Bryant led a starting five of himself, Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Brian Cook to a 45-37 record, good for the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Did they get it right? No. Nash was a tremendous player and had won the MVP the season before. The
Phoenix Suns
won 54 games and were the talk of the league, while the Kobe Bryant ballhog narrative (accurate or not) was at an all-time high. Kobe’s win shares with a horrific roster easily trumped Nash’s, and if anyone had claim to the MVP it was a 21-year-old
LeBron James
, who averaged 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists with 16.3 win shares for a 50-win Cleveland team.

5. Michael Jordan, 1988-89 Chicago Bulls

Stats: 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 19.8 win shares

Winner: Magic Johnson (22.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 12.8 assists, 16.1 win shares)

Michael Jordan was no stranger to scoring (he averaged 37.1 points in his third NBA season), but the 1988-89 season was when his all-around game came together. Jordan never averaged more rebounds or assists than he did that season, and he still managed to lead the league in scoring as he began to challenge Magic and Bird for the title of the NBA’s best player. Jordan’s age (25) also likely factored into his not winning the MVP, as it didn’t take much for voters to prognosticate that Jordan had plenty of MVP awards waiting in his future. 

Did they get it right? Yes, but this one is tough. The win shares indicate that Jordan was the most valuable to his team, but the Bulls finished with a mediocre 47-35 record, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference. Magic, on the other hand, led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference at 57-25. Because of the win difference, you probably have to give it to Magic.

4. Wilt Chamberlain, 1963-64 San Francisco
Golden State Warriors

Stats: 36.9 points, 22.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 25.0 win shares

Winner: Oscar Robertson (31.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 11.0 assists, 20.6 win shares)

Chamberlain put up more gaudy statistical seasons over the course of his career, but this one was special. Largely because of a significantly increased assist total, Chamberlain recorded the best win share total of his career, and the second-highest ever for an NBA season.

Did they get it right? No. Robertson’s near triple-double average and the fact that his Cincinnati Royals won seven more games than Chamberlain’s Warriors (55 to 48) clearly persuaded the voters. But Chamberlain accounted for the second-most wins in NBA history, so how could anyone else have been more valuable to his team?

oscar-and-kareem.jpg

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson could easily have more MVP hardware.
USATSI

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1972-73
Milwaukee Bucks

Stats: 30.2 points, 16.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 21.9 win shares

Winner: Dave Cowens (20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 12.0 win shares)

Abdul-Jabbar dominated the NBA immediately as a rookie in 1969 and didn’t stop until almost 1990. But his 1972-73 season was one of his best. His averages were great, of course, but what stood out were the 21.9 win shares, good for seventh on the all-time single-season list.

Did they get it right? Oh dear. This could be the most egregious MVP snub of all time. Cowens was clearly given the award in part because the
Boston Celtics
won 68 games, the second-highest total in NBA history at that point. But it’s not like Kareem’s Bucks were mediocre — they won 60 games and won their division. In addition to victories in every statistical category, Abdul-Jabbar nearly doubled Cowens’ win shares, and demolished him in field goal percentage, 55 percent to 45 percent. Kareem had won the MVP two years in a row prior to that season, so the only logical explanation is that voters didn’t want to give it to him three straight years. He was third in first-place votes, behind Cowens and Tiny Archibald.

2. Oscar Robertson, 1961-62 Cincinnati Royals

Stats: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists, 15.6 win shares

Winner: Bill Russell (18.9 points, 23.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 15.5 win shares)

Robertson long held the distinction of being the only player to average a triple-double for an entire NBA season, but Russell Westbrook joined him this year. Robertson also held the record for the most triple-doubles in a season with 41 … but Westbrook broke that one as well. Still, the Big O had one of the most impressive statistical seasons in NBA history. Teams averaged far more points back then (118.8 in 1961-62 compared to 105.6 in 2016-17), leading to more shot attempts, which ultimately leads to more rebounds and assists. But even with the inflated stats, nobody had ever done what Robertson accomplished, so that counts for something.

Did they get it right? No. Bill Russell shouldn’t have won the MVP, but Robertson shouldn’t have won either. Both had similar win shares, but were far inferior when compated to another candidate who had probably the best statistical season of all time …

1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors

Stats: 50.4 points (not a typo), 25.7 rebounds (also not a typo), 2.4 assists, 23.1 win shares

Winner: Bill Russell (18.9 points, 23.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 15.5 win shares)   

The two biggest MVP snubs in NBA history both came in the same season. Wilt is the only player to average 50 points per game in an NBA season, and he only did it once — during the 1961-62 season. He finished second in the MVP voting, and actually only garnered the third-most first-place votes, behind Russell and Robertson. On the surface, Chamberlain’s lack of votes comes down to wins. Russell was the best player on a 60-win Celtics team that went on to win the title, while Chamberlain only led his team to 49 wins. 

Did they get it right? That’s a big fat no. Wilt’s monumental advantage in win shares (the fourth-highest in a single season of all time) suggests that Chamberlain took what would otherwise be a mediocre team and led them to a 49-31 record. That, in addition to the historical averages should have been enough to win him the award.

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