The Finals MVP Award: A true gauge of the greatest of all-time
What is the criteria to be deemed the greatest player of all-time? It's a mantle that can't ever truly be awarded or bestowed, but it's a subjective debate that rages on eternally, nonetheless. Is it Michael Jordan? Is it LeBron James? Kobe Bryant? Wilt Chamberlain? Magic Johnson? The list goes on just like the perpetual journey to basketball immortality.
Ostensibly speaking, there are some accolades or parameters than can measure a player's greatness. Statistics are such a huge component of basketball and production on the court is, of course, paramount to a player's value. They live and die by their output and putting up career-high numbers can be the difference between the paltry $981,348 Hassan Whiteside has earned this season and the almost certain max-contract he will enjoy following free agency this summer.
But that's money, not a man's legacy. Being the greatest pertains to winning and hanging banners in rafters. Titles on their own don't equate to legendary status; being a functioning cog on a very successful team doesn't grant the same superstar billing as the standout performers in those units. For instance, Bill Russell holds the record for most NBA titles with 13 throughout his illustrious career, but the next seven on the list are teammates he had with the Boston Celtics through the late '50s and '60s.
Does that make them as great as the legendary Russell? Of course not. Is Robert Horry, who won seven titles with three different franchises, therefore, the second greatest player of all-time? It makes him a great teammate, but not the best player to ever lace up his sneakers. Conversely, there have been plenty of incredible players to never enjoy the good fortune of a championship-winning campaign. Allen Iverson is one of the finest point guards to ever grace the hardwood.
His blink-and-you-miss-it crossover and explosive speed made his handles almost impossible to deal with. Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Elgin Baylor all have empty fingers, too. Some of the greatest in the world today like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, for all their All-Star accomplishments and various awards, have not been able to hang a championship banner in their respective rafters.
So, if titles do not necessarily equate to the lofty perch of the game's greatest, what does? The regular-season MVP award has served as a broad indicator of who is the best player in the league since the 1955-56 campaign. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record for MVP wins with six, closely followed by two more household names; another formidable center in Russell, and now Charlotte Hornets owner Jordan, with five. LeBron James is the only active player within touching distance of the record and at 31-years-old, with four MVP awards under his belt, two more certainly wouldn't be out of the question.
"One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships." - Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is a virtual bible for motivational quotes. These aren't epiphanies and life directives from a part-time shop assistant on Facebook, these were the inner-workings of one of the most decorated stars the game had ever seen. The six-time NBA champion shared his outlook on personal accolades versus team goals: “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren't willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships."
And who are we to argue with somebody as great as Jordan? However you measure the G.O.A.T, Jordan is one of the first names in that conversation. The problem with gauging who deserves such a mantle with the regular season MVP award is that it negates our previous point: what has that player really won? Just from our list of greatest players never to win a title; Barkley, Iverson, Malone, Nash and Durant have all won the MVP award, some more than once. But, is the true sign of a great player leading their team to glory? Earning such a status in the regular season before hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy is surely only half of the job.
Longevity is a part of the equation, too. Jordan averaged a record 30.1 points a night over the course of his 15-year career and that's frankly absurd. Stephen Curry claimed the MVP award this year by unanimous vote for the very first time and that's the exact average he exhibited. As the current back-to-back MVP, Curry has led the Golden State Warriors to their first NBA title in 30 years and to within one game of retaining the trophy this year.
That would be a tremendous achievement on his part, but the Davidson product did not win the Finals MVP last year and has been far from his best in the current series with the Cleveland Cavaliers as well - bar game four. Is that an indication that the 28-year-old cannot show up when it truly counts? The Finals are just a maximum of seven games, after all. As esteemed as they are, Curry's accomplishments for the near 100 games in the season before that drove the Warriors to this position have to weigh heavily too.
Another hot area of debate centres around the difference in eras. There is little denying the NBA used to be a far more physical league in the days of hand checks and such; we'll never know how today's stars would have fared with Dennis Rodman breathing down their necks or a road trip to the Bad Boy Pistons. Charles Barkley told Fox Sports Radio's The Herd last November that he believed the Warriors are born out of today's circumstance rather than being truly great and they would have been 'mauled' in his day and age.
Barkley said: "We would have just mauled them. You're not gonna let guys come off those picks. They changed the rules — it's kind of like the NFL where you can't touch the wide receiver. The defence is at a disadvantage, all these cornerbacks in the NFL are really at a disadvantage. And a guy like [Stephen Curry], who is amazing, you can't put your hands on him, you can't hand-check him. It's a totally different game."
That's all ifs, buts and maybes, though. Nobody has a say in the climate they compete in and players can only be judged on the environment they operate in. It's useless making time a factor; all the connotations that are then associated with whatever decade you discuss make it a never-ending concession of the real value of the debate - who is the greatest player? We've established that the NBA isn't the most auspicious league to come up with a definitive answer, but maybe a combination of all the aforementioned categories can justify why a select few can enjoy luminary, unparalleled status?
The Finals MVP can do that. There's nothing ostentatious about being the best player on the biggest stage. It's not about opulence either and securing the next big contract. It's about being the best when it matters the most, and one could argue the true greats prove their worth when it's all on the line. Curry, for all his inhuman feats of excellence, has yet to do that. Andre Iguodala earned the award when the Dubs hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy in 2015 for his stellar defensive work against King James of the Cavs.
This year, it's a tough one to call. Apart from pouring in 38 points during game four, Curry has been an afterthought during the Finals and in the first two games - which the Warriors won - Curry only put up a combined 29 points on 11-of-26 shooting from the field. The Warriors No. 30 scored 29 points or more in the regular season 41 times. Even after serving a one-game suspension, Draymond Green is potentially in the running alongside Curry's Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, should the Warriors win, leaving the point guard trailing in his teammates' wake again.
The names to grace the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award make up a staggeringly impressive list. Since it's inception in 1969, there has been 30 different winners of the prestigious award with Michael Jordan a record six-time winner, three clear of his next rival. You have to remember with Jordan, he took six trips to the Finals and never lost. He never even went to seven games. As impressive as LeBron James' seven Final appearances are, six of which are consecutive and counting, MJ's record is the pinnacle of excellence.
Jordan was the composite basketball player who contributed in every kind of way with incendiary talents that, coupled with his legendary mouth, made him a relentless beast that refused to be anything but the best. That drive and title-centric outlook helped define Jordan's career. In any sport, players will emerge with natural-born talent, but only those who can channel their ability into a team and feed off that desire and winning focus can truly ascend to the top. That was Jordan's best weapon - his desire to win. There can't be any greater evidence of his insatiable traits than the former Chicago Bulls star's record in the Finals. As the award appears out of Curry's grasp again, the horde of veteran doubters will gain some credence.
"There’s kind of an historical kind of expectation of the all-time greats in this league that have had great Finals moments." - Stephen Curry
Fouling out of game six this year when his team needed him most won't have helped his case, but, for what it's worth, Curry doesn't appear fazed by the increasingly elusive Finals MVP award. The Ohio-born star said ahead of game six of the ongoing Finals: “I don’t really worry about (what people say), I mean, there’s kind of an historical kind of expectation of the all-time greats in this league that have had great Finals moments and had these kind of numbers and these kind of numbers. None of them played for this team and understood how I try to help my team every single night."
Should Curry never win the award, that's not to say he hasn't had a profound effect on the sport; it could be argued that, alongside Klay Thompson, the Dubs guard has converted the NBA into a shooters league and has diminished the long-standing value of the big man. The three-point shot has never been so prevalent and, for better or worse, Curry is one of the pioneers that has helped stretch the floor and usher in the so-called 'small ball' era. However, as we have discovered with Jordan, there certainly is a correlation between the very best and their ability to deliver with the entire world watching.
How many men can say they have thrived in that scenario? The award itself is about leading your team to victory. In the 57 years the award has been in existence, only one man has ever captured the award as a member of the losing side. That man was Jerry West for the L.A. Lakers in the award's maiden season, and the feat has been considered blasphemy ever since. Every player to ever receive the award has gone on to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the exception of the 2003 winner, Detroit Pistons guard, Chauncey Billups.
Out of the active players still in the NBA today, Tim Duncan is the oldest winner after collecting the first of his three honours back in 1999. The next eligible for the Hall of Fame is two-time winner Kobe Bryant, and he will have to wait the mandatory five years until he can take his rightful place with the most celebrated players in history.
The next names on the list include Dwyane Wade - arguably Miami Heat's greatest ever player - Tony Parker - the first ever European winner - Paul 'The Truth' Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki - the second ever European winner - Kawhi Leonard and, as we mentioned earlier, Andre Iguodala.
One man that has been left out from that esteemed list, wedged in between Nowitzki and Leonard, is King James. We would be remiss not to acknowledge the incredible journey that that Akron, Ohio-native continues to travel. Even in spite of his surreptitious intentions entering free agency back in 2010, Cleveland has welcomed their favourite son back with open arms after witnessing the potential-fulfilling triumphs he produced in Miami. The four-time MVP might be a tad esoteric on social media sometimes, and he has a penchant for rubbing the public the wrong way with his justified belief in his own phenomenal talents, but opposition fans just like painting him as the villain if truth be told.
He's not the absolute best at everything, but it can scantly be denied that he is the best all-around basketball player on the planet. Boasting career averages of 27.2 points, 6.9 assists, 7.2 boards and 1.7 steals is frankly outrageous. He ranks third in all-time triple-doubles only behind Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson and that shows the vast influence he has on proceedings when he is on the hardwood.
Russell Westbrook is the closest comparison in today's league to an all-action player in the same mould as James, and although he led the league with 18 triple-doubles during the 2015-16 campaign, his career averages of 21.5 points, 7.6 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals shows the Oklahoma City Thunder star has a way to go yet.
"He’s [James] the best player in this era at this point." - Kareem Abdul Jabbar"
When LeBron listed himself, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on his 'Mount Rushmore' of NBA greats back in 2014, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took exception to his claim. What the former Lakers center had to say about James epitomises the delicacy about this entire argument.
“LeBron James was talking about how he’s the best ever, but he never saw Wilt play,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “If he had, he wouldn’t say that. Whenever he averages 55 points a game, then I might want to listen to what he has to say. I’m not trying to put LeBron down. He’s awesome. He’s the best player in this era at this point. But he didn’t see Bill Russell play. When his team wins eight consecutive NBA championships, maybe I’ll compare him to Bill Russell.”
It would be fair to say it was a totally different game in the '50s and '60s compared to today. A three-point shot didn't even exist then, let alone exploring the differences in contact and physicality and nor was there 30 teams competing for the title. As it happens, LeBron is coming off back-to-back 40-plus point playoff games to keep the Cavaliers alive in this year's Finals. With game seven taking place at the Warriors' Oracle Arena on Sunday, Cleveland could become the first team in history to win the Finals after trailing the series 3-1.
In just game six, James recorded 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks to literally drag his side to a 101-115 victory. That might not be 55 points, but it's pretty damn impressive. Should the Wine and Gold go on to complete an incredible comeback, LeBron will almost certainly be the Finals MVP for the third time in his career. Even if the Warriors win, the 31-year-old would arguably have a case for becoming only the second man ever to receive the honour on the losing side.
A pillar of the league who cannot be left out of the conversation is recently retired Lakers-lifer, Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba left an indelible mark on the NBA when he departed the game for the final time off the back of a historic 60-point outing against the Utah Jazz to close out a miserable regular season for the Purple and Gold. At 37-years-old and 234 days, Kobe became the oldest player to ever hit that many points and in the 20 years he spent at the Staples Center, he drove them to the playoffs in 15 of them.
Considering the franchise began to sink in the past three years in an effort to rebuild, that makes his achievements all the more impressive. Kobe departed the game in April with five championship rings, a regular season MVP award and a tied record of four All-Star game MVP awards. But, it's his two NBA Finals MVP honours that show his true pedigree and helps define him.
Shaquille O'Neal grabbed the first three Finals MVP awards that were available to Kobe when the Lakers recorded their three-peat at the turn of the millennium. After Diesel packed his bags for Miami in the summer of 2004, Kobe would endure three frustrating seasons where they would qualify for the postseason twice, but fall at the first hurdle both times.
Even though Bryant dropped a historic 81 points on the Toronto Raptors in 2006 - which is the second most ever in an NBA game behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points back in 1962 - and was the back-to-back regular season scoring champion from 2005 to 2007, it wasn't until the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol in 2008 that their fortunes would truly change. Kobe drove his beloved Lakers to the Finals three years in a row managing to win the latter two, cementing himself as, in Magic Johnson's words, 'the greatest Laker of all-time'.
"He [Bryant] is not only a great and unbelievable sports icon, but also, he's the greatest to wear the purple and gold." - Magic Johnson
Nobody has played for a single franchise for longer in NBA history. That says something about Kobe's palpable effect and ability to keep a team relevant for so long. In fact, a certain LeBron James, along with an entire generation of players, credits Kobe with making him the player he is today. James said: "I wanted to be just like him, man. I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant. I knew he was in the gym and I knew he was working on his game. And I knew he was great. So every day that I didn't want to workout or every day I felt like I couldn't give more, I always thought of Kobe."
It seems that Kobe was just paying it forward like Michael Jordan did for him. Vino said in February as his retirement tour was winding down: "Because as a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video, so I studied everything. I studied every player. Then once I came back to the States, [and] I realised I wasn't going to be 6'9", I started studying Michael exclusively.
"And then when I came to the league and [was] matching up against him, what I found is that he was extremely open to having a mentor relationship and giving me a great amount of advice and an amazing amount of detail, strategies, workout regimen and things like that. Seriously, I don't think people really understand the amount of impact that he's had on me as a player and as a leader," Kobe revealed.
That begs the question, who will James help lead the NBA into the next generation? If there is anything we have learned from exploring all the credentials that make an NBA legend, it's that while all the accolades and statistics are open to interpretation and whilst eras do matter, they don't circumvent prior or future triumphs.
What cannot be disputed are a player's performance on the biggest stage of them all, when it matters the very most with everything in their profession on the line. The Finals MVP award is the closest representation of that and given Jordan's pristine record in those scenarios, it doesn't matter what era you place those accomplishments in - they stand the test of time.