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The NBA’s Conference Finals MVP Award Is New This Year. But What If We Had Always Had It?

When the NBA conference finals each wrap up, the league will award two new trophies: the Larry Bird Trophy for the Eastern Conference finals MVP and the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Trophy for the Western Conference finals MVP. Bird and Johnson are fitting namesakes for these awards given that their struggle for supremacy from opposite coasts is often credited with reviving the NBA in the 1980s.

Yet the first question that popped into my mind when the league announced the awards was: “If the NBA had been awarding this honor all along, would Magic and Bird have racked up the most of the trophies now named for them?” Thankfully, Basketball-Reference.com1 has cumulative box scores (and individual game boxes) for every playoff series in NBA history, so I set out to answer my own question. 

To award retroactive conference finals MVPs, I first needed to settle on a consistent metric. After some experimentation, John Hollinger’s Game Score seemed like the best fit in terms of matching voter intuition (by rewarding players who dominate the box score) and availability (it can be applied to any complete box score since player turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78 and can still provide useful direction when some less essential statistics are missing). One important thing to note about Game Score is that a score of 10 is indicative of an average, run-of-the-mill game, while 40 is legendary. Across a series, an average Game Score north of 20 is very good and 25 is great, while over 30 for a full series is nearly unheard of. 

While average Game Score told me who had the best series, I also wanted to be realistic: Series MVPs are almost always awarded to a player on the winning team.2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have dominated the 1970 Eastern Division finals statistically, but his Bucks lost to the Knicks in five games. This means the best player on the Knicks in that series (Willis Reed) was my winner. I left some wiggle room for losing players to win MVP only if the series went seven games, they played excellent in their Game 7 defeat and the winning team didn’t have a player whose performance was as impressive.

And how far back can we award our retroactive MVPs? The first NBA postseason was in 1947,3 but from 1947 through 1957, the path to the NBA Finals was inconsistent in terms of formatting. From 1958 on, though, every team has needed to win a best-of-seven semifinals series to reach the NBA Finals. The NBA was split into divisions instead of conferences until 1970-71, but those earlier division finals served the same function as the current conference finals, with the two last teams standing from the East and the West, respectively, facing off for the right to represent their division in the NBA Finals. 

Basketball-Reference.com has complete data on average Game Score for every playoff series back to 1984, which was the first season of the “modern” playoff format (though the first round was best-of-five, rather than best-of-seven, at the time). For earlier seasons, some estimates were needed for things like the split of offensive/defensive rebounds,4 blocked shots, steals and turnovers. For seasons before 1978, turnovers were completely removed from the equation since they were not tracked at all. Same for blocked shots and steals before 1974. (This may have cost Wilt Chamberlain in 1972 since he reportedly blocked 10 shots, unofficially, in the L.A. Lakers’ Western Conference finals clincher.)

So then, who are the leaders in our retroactive conference finals MVPs? Here are the players with at least four trophies missing from their mantels:

LeBron James, 9 (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about LeBron’s count is that it’s not 10. His 24.1 average Game Score in the Lakers’ 2020 Western Conference bubble win over the Nuggets was just a hair (or a brow, perhaps?) behind Anthony Davis’s 24.4. Incredibly, James’s best conference finals performance was in a loss. His 29.3 average Game Score in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals would have garnered serious consideration had the series gone seven games and if Dwight Howard hadn’t been so excellent for the winning Orlando Magic. 

Michael Jordan, 7 (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)

No surprises that MJ has at least six, as it’s a given that he was the Chicago Bulls’ best player each year he went to the NBA Finals (where he also won a record six MVPs). But where did he “win” his seventh? That’s from his seven-game loss in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. MJ had a 24.8 average Game Score, while the victorious Detroit Pistons were led by Isiah Thomas’s 16.2. Jordan scored 31 in the seventh game and came two rebounds and one assist short of a triple-double, while his teammates combined to shoot 15-for-63 from the field (23.8 percent). Jordan was also the best player in the Bulls’ 1989 conference finals loss to the Pistons, but with Detroit winning that one in six, the MVP goes to Thomas. 

Bill Russell, 7 (1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1969)

Russell won 11 rings, but his first retroactive conference finals MVP award comes in one of his two seasons in which he wasn’t an NBA champion: 1958. He likely would have won the award in his 1957 rookie season, but I’ve excluded that from this exercise since it was a best-of-five series. Russell’s career was played when this series was known exclusively as the division finals, and it’s impressive that he comes out the winner so often even with the lack of detail on his shot-blocking and offensive rebounding, the former of which would have definitely padded his average Game Scores. Russell loses this honor to a teammate only once (John Havlicek in 1968), but he is surpassed three times by seven-game losers with incredible performances: Chamberlain in 1962, Oscar Robertson in 1963 and Chamberlain again in 1965.

Magic Johnson, 5 (1982, 1983, 1984, 1989, 1991)

While Magic is not the all-time leader in retroactive conference finals MVPs, his five are enough to give him a share of the Western Conference record, making it appropriate for the trophy to bear his name. Though his Lakers teams also won the West in 1980, 1985, 1987 and 1988, he was beat out by teammates on his well-balanced squads in each of those series. Turns out Johnson was good at sharing more than just the rock.

Jerry West, 5 (1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1973)

The Logo is the man tied with Magic Johnson for most retroactive Western finals MVPs. Since Magic got the trophy named after him, we can only assume that West got the whole conference named for him. After serving as a great second option to a dominant Elgin Baylor for many years, West took his first retroactive MVP by leading the Lakers past the Baltimore Bullets in 1965. With Baylor sidelined, West averaged 46.3 points per game in the six-game set, still a record for most points per game in any playoff series in NBA history. A major part of West’s legacy was playing on teams that came up short in the NBA Finals, where he lost eight of his nine appearances, but he did manage to win a ring in 1972, teaming up with the next player on my list …

Wilt Chamberlain, 5 (1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969)

Chamberlain’s five retroactive MVPs include two from series (1962 and 1965) in which his Philadelphia teams lost to the Celtics in Game 7s by a combined 3 points, while he led all regulars in points, rebounds and field-goal percentage. His tally also includes a pair of wins in Western finals (1964 with the Warriors and 1969 with the Lakers). But the most impressive might be his 1967 Eastern Division final series against the Celtics, when he ended the reign of the eight-time defending champions in five games with absurd averages of 21.6 points, 32.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game. Seven retroactive MVPs posted estimated average Game Scores over 30; Chamberlain is responsible for four of those seven despite not getting any credit for all of the shots he was “unofficially” blocking.

Stephen Curry, 4 (2015, 2016, 2017, 2019)

This exercise has taught us that Curry, leading the Warriors in average Game Score through four games of the 2022 Western Conference finals, could tie the theoretical Western record with another honor this season. He was the clear MVP in the Warriors’ wins over Houston in 2015 and Portland in 2019. He also eked out decisions over opponent Russell Westbrook in a seven-game win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 and teammate Kevin Durant in a 2017 sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. Durant had a slight edge (21.0 to 19.2) in the Warriors’ 2018 win over the Rockets.

Tim Duncan, 4 (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014)

True to his understated reputation, three of Duncan’s four wins came in series in which he did not have the highest average Game Score. Instead he led his team to convincing wins over the teams with high-scoring performers (Amar’e Stoudemire’s Phoenix Suns in 2005, Deron Williams’s Utah Jazz in 2007 and Westbrook’s Thunder in 2014). His first win came in 2003, when he dominated the Mavericks (who featured two future league MVPs in Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash) with a 27.2 average Game Score. Teammates David Robinson (1999) and Tony Parker (2013) earned the retroactive MVPs in Duncan’s pair of other victorious conference finals appearances.

Kobe Bryant, 4 (2001, 2008, 2009, 2010)

While Shaquille O’Neal was the clear NBA Finals MVP in each of the three titles he won alongside Kobe from 2000 to 2002, Kobe’s excellence in the 2001 Western finals sweep of the Spurs (25.4 average Game Score) was enough for him to snag a retroactive conference finals MVP during the three-peat. Additionally, he was the best player in each of his three straight conference finals appearances from 2008 to 2010.

Shaquille O’Neal, 4 (1995, 2000, 2002, 2004)

Shaq, a three-time NBA Finals MVP, can add four retroactive conference finals MVPs to his theoretical trophy case. His first win came in the Magic’s seven-game series win over the Pacers in 1995, when he overwhelmed a rugged Indiana frontcourt with an average Game Score of 21.6. With the Lakers, he was the MVP of their conference finals wins over the Portland Trail Blazers (2000), Sacramento Kings (2002) and Minnesota Timberwolves (2004).

Larry Bird, 4 (1981, 1984, 1986, 1987)

Larry Legend’s four retroactive conference finals MVPs rank him fourth all-time in the East, behind James, Jordan and Russell. But four is nothing to sneeze at considering the strength of the Eastern Conference during Bird’s prime. Bird made eight appearances in the conference finals, winning five of the series. The three losses came against Philadelphia (twice) and Detroit with all-time greats Julius Erving (1980, 1982) and Isiah Thomas (1988) taking those MVPs. Bird won the MVP in four of the five Celtics series wins during his career, with Kevin McHale taking the honor in a 1985 win over the 76ers.

Who would have added to their trophy cases?

Retroactive conference or division finals MVPs, as determined by average Game Score during the series, since 1958

Year Conf. or Division Winner Team Avg. Game Score
2021 East Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks 23.3
2021 West Deandre Ayton Phoenix Suns 18.5
2020 East Bam Adebayo Miami Heat 21.5
2020 West Anthony Davis Los Angeles Lakers 24.4
2019 East Kawhi Leonard Toronto Raptors 23.4
2019 West Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 28.3
2018 East LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 25.1
2018 West Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors 21.0
2017 East LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 25.2
2017 West Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 25.8
2016 East LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 25.0
2016 West Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 20.9
2015 East LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 23.5
2015 West Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 24.7
2014 East LeBron James Miami Heat 19.0
2014 West Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 15.3
2013 East LeBron James Miami Heat 23.4
2013 West Tony Parker San Antonio Spurs 20.1
2012 East LeBron James Miami Heat 24.8
2012 West Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder 25.7
2011 East LeBron James Miami Heat 21.9
2011 West Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks 23.5
2010 East Paul Pierce Boston Celtics 19.8
2010 West Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 28.8
2009 East Dwight Howard Orlando Magic 22.9
2009 West Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 26.8
2008 East Kevin Garnett Boston Celtics 17.7
2008 West Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 20.7
2007 East LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 22.9
2007 West Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 17.4
2006 East Dwyane Wade Miami Heat 21.7
2006 West Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks 24.3
2005 East Richard Hamilton Detroit Pistons 17.6
2005 West Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 23.1
2004 East Richard Hamilton Detroit Pistons 15.1
2004 West Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers 19.1
2003 East Jason Kidd New Jersey Nets 19.0
2003 West Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 27.2
2002 East Jason Kidd New Jersey Nets 17.0
2002 West Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers 21.8
2001 East Dikembe Mutombo Philadelphia 76ers 18.6
2001 West Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 25.4
2000 East Reggie Miller Indiana Pacers 14.7
2000 West Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers 20.6
1999 East Marcus Camby New York Knicks 15.5
1999 West David Robinson San Antonio Spurs 16.4
1998 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 22.4
1998 West Karl Malone Utah Jazz 23.3
1997 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 18.7
1997 West John Stockton Utah Jazz 19.9
1996 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 23.9
1996 West Shawn Kemp Seattle SuperSonics 16.2
1995 East Shaquille O’Neal Orlando Magic 21.6
1995 West Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 28.2
1994 East Patrick Ewing New York Knicks 17.3
1994 West Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 24.4
1993 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 24.4
1993 West Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns 23.1
1992 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 22.7
1992 West Terry Porter Portland Trail Blazers 25.0
1991 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 26.3
1991 West Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 21.0
1990 East Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 24.8
1990 West Clyde Drexler Portland Trail Blazers 16.9
1989 East Isiah Thomas Detroit Pistons 15.3
1989 West Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 21.4
1988 East Isiah Thomas Detroit Pistons 17.6
1988 West James Worthy Los Angeles Lakers 20.6
1987 East Larry Bird Boston Celtics 22.5
1987 West James Worthy Los Angeles Lakers 24.1
1986 East Larry Bird Boston Celtics 23.2
1986 West Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 28.3
1985 East Kevin McHale Boston Celtics 20.5
1985 West James Worthy Los Angeles Lakers 20.8
1984 East Larry Bird Boston Celtics 21.9
1984 West Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 22.3
1983 East Moses Malone Philadelphia 76ers 18.6
1983 West Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 23.6
1982 East Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers 15.0
1982 West Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 22.4
1981 East Larry Bird Boston Celtics 22.2
1981 West Moses Malone Houston Rockets 21.0
1980 East Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers 19.7
1980 West Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Los Angeles Lakers 26.9
1979 East George Gervin San Antonio Spurs 22.7
1979 West Gus Williams Seattle SuperSonics 14.5
1978 East Elvin Hayes Washington Bullets 19.2
1978 West Marvin Webster Seattle SuperSonics 16.4
1977 East Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers 27.4
1977 West Maurice Lucas Portland Trail Blazers 22.4
1976 East Dave Cowens Boston Celtics 17.5
1976 West Alvan Adams Phoenix Suns 16.6
1975 East Elvin Hayes Washington Bullets 19.9
1975 West Rick Barry Golden State Warriors 21.5
1974 East John Havlicek Boston Celtics 25.9
1974 West Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Milwaukee Bucks 35.7
1973 East Walt Frazier New York Knicks 22.4
1973 West Jerry West Los Angeles Lakers 21.2
1972 East Walt Frazier New York Knicks 20.4
1972 West Jim McMillian Los Angeles Lakers 16.1
1971 East Jack Marin Baltimore Bullets 18.1
1971 West Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Milwaukee Bucks 22.1
1970 East Willis Reed New York Knicks 22.0
1970 West Jerry West Los Angeles Lakers 28.3
1969 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 19.6
1969 West Wilt Chamberlain Los Angeles Lakers 22.9
1968 East John Havlicek Boston Celtics 23.3
1968 West Jerry West Los Angeles Lakers 28.8
1967 East Wilt Chamberlain Philadelphia 76ers 32.0
1967 West Rick Barry San Francisco Warriors 19.3
1966 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 20.2
1966 West Jerry West Los Angeles Lakers 26.8
1965 East Wilt Chamberlain Philadelphia 76ers 32.5
1965 West Jerry West Los Angeles Lakers 33.0
1964 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 19.2
1964 West Wilt Chamberlain San Francisco Warriors 34.1
1963 East Oscar Robertson Cincinnati Royals 30.9
1963 West Elgin Baylor Los Angeles Lakers 22.6
1962 East Wilt Chamberlain Philadelphia Warriors 30.4
1962 West Elgin Baylor Los Angeles Lakers 26.7
1961 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 25.1
1961 West Bob Pettit St. Louis Hawks 23.6
1960 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 21.4
1960 West Bob Pettit St. Louis Hawks 22.3
1959 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 21.6
1959 West Elgin Baylor Minneapolis Lakers 21.8
1958 East Bill Russell Boston Celtics 18.6
1958 West Cliff Hagan St. Louis Hawks 24.7

Players in bold were on teams that lost that conference or division final in seven games and had by far the highest average Game Score.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

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Footnotes

  1. I am the director of data at Sports-Reference.com, which operates several sports statistics sites, including Basketball-Reference.com.

  2. Jerry West is the only player to win the NBA Finals MVP on a losing team, when he won the inaugural award in 1969.

  3. The league was known as the Basketball Association of America before it merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA three years later.

  4. For 1958-73, all player rebounds are assumed to be 30 percent offensive and 70 percent defensive, since that was approximately the leaguewide rate the first several seasons it was tracked.

Mike Lynch is the director of data at Sports-Reference.com. His work has been published in ESPN the Magazine, ESPN.com and The Ringer.

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