The NBA’s Most Valuable Player award is given out each season to the player whom a select panel of media members vote for the most. Sportswriters and broadcasters submit their top-five selections and the star with the most total points based on the value of those votes takes home the trophy.
Although the media is supposed to be objective in their voting, many fans and players sometimes see the award race as more of a popularity or narrative-driven contest than an indication of who the best basketball player in the world is, and occasionally the winner is controversial as a result.
The NBA didn’t institute media-based voting until the 1980-1981 season after superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award six times in 10 seasons, but even the most recent winners are debated by the sport’s followers. So here’s a list of the five most controversial MVP winners since 1980:
Moses Malone 1981-82
Malone might have been the best center in basketball by the beginning of the 1980s, but he was wasting away on a struggling Houston team before helping Philadelphia win a title in 1983. In 1981-1982, Malone was as dominant individually as anyone with averages of 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds, but the Rockets were just 46-36.
One team out East in particular was not only more formidable but had an individual player worthy of winning MVP. For Boston, third-year Larry Bird was fresh off an NBA Finals victory and was dominating the league. The Celtics won 63 games that season behind Bird’s 22.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. His energy and play style was not only infectious to his teammates but the fans also, but this appears to be a case where the media didn’t want to anoint such a young player the status of MVP.
It’s true Bird had superior teammates who likely helped make the game easier for him, and perhaps that makes Malone’s efforts more impressive on a game-to-game basis, but a 17-win gap is hard to ignore. Malone ended up winning the award by a fair margin, 101 total voting points, so it seems the panel of voters didn’t value winning as much as it did seniority back then.
Magic Johnson 1989-1990
Johnson had a spectacular season in 1989-1990 worthy of MVP consideration, but there’s two issues with him winning the award. Firstly, his 22.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game were all slightly lower numbers than the year before when he also won MVP. Even without Abdul-Jabbar, who retired after the previous season, Johnson was able to help improve the Lakers to 63 wins in 1989-1990, up to six from the year before with mostly the same roster. But that roster still included productive versions of James Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green, all former champions who helped Johnson and the Lakers achieve the league’s best record.
Charles Barkley, conversely, helped his team improve its win total by seven to 53 without many other comparable players, especially defensively. Barkley’s 25.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game on 60% shooting carried his team to the second-best offensive rating in the league. His play truly helped his team overachieve, while Johnson continued the Lakers’ strong stretch of play in the decade.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls also earned a 55-17 record behind his 33.6 points and 2.8 steals per game, both NBA-leading numbers that season. The team also improved by eight wins that season, making Chicago and Philadelphia the only true challengers to the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons.
This year is deemed controversial not just because Barkley got 11 more first-place votes and still lost by 24 total voting points to Johnson, but also because Johnson won twice in the previous three seasons and many felt someone like Barkley or even Jordan deserved more recognition. It appeared like the media was clinging somewhat to Johnson and the Lakers dynasty instead of letting new faces come front and center. Both Jordan and Barkley, however, would win the award in the coming seasons.
Karl Malone 1998-99
The 50-game lockout season of 1998-1999 surely led to some odd happenings throughout the NBA season, but the three-man MVP race between Malone, Duncan and Miami’s Alonzo Mourning was a true battle. Each of them made both the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams and led their squads to the top records in their conference (Spurs and Jazz both tied at 37-13, but San Antonio was the top-seed).
The thrilling three-way battle was invariably going to finish in controversy, but the award went to the aging Utah power forward. All three big men put up comparable numbers, each around 20 points and 10-plus rebounds, but Malone had every advantage when looking at his team’s structure.
Utah was coming off of back-to-back Finals appearances and had basically the same roster for the last several seasons, so they were surely going to put together a good record against a league with many teams in disarray from the lockout that didn’t have time to gel. The Jazz had a formula and stuck to it, and Malone did his job, just slightly worse than in years past since he was 35-years-old.
Duncan was in just his second season but already established himself as one of the best players in basketball. He carried a washed-up San Antonio roster to the top-seed in the West at age 22 and beat Utah 2-1 in the season series while slightly edging Malone in the individual matchup.
Mourning had his best statistical season in 1998-1999, highlighted by his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game that helped the Heat earn the No. 1 seed in the East with a 33-17 record. He had a solid team around him that was coming off a 55-win season, but there was little continuity since only six Miami players appeared in more than 33 games that year.
In the end, Malone got 44 first-place votes to Mourning’s 36 and Duncan’s 30, but it was an instance where the media should have awarded the young stars instead of the declining superstar. It really seemed like they wanted to give another trophy to Malone after coming up short in several previous years despite him winning the award in 1996-1997.
Tim Duncan 2001-02
Duncan is obviously one of the best players of his generation and is deserving of being a back-to-back MVP winner, which he was from 2001-2003. His first time winning the award, though, didn’t come without debate.
There were several worthy candidates that year ranging from Chris Webber who led Sacramento to a league-leading 61-21 record, to O’Neal who went 51-16 in his 67 games for Los Angeles before completing his championship three-peat in June. Still, the two who received the most votes were Duncan and New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd.
Like Nash, Kidd benefitted from changing teams that offseason. His addition to the Nets helped the team add 26 wins and earn the top-seed in the Eastern conference, as well as the league’s best defensive rating. During the slow-pace era of the early 2000s, Kidd was the ultimate stat-sheet stuffer and averaged 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 2.1 steals, albeit on just 39.1% shooting.
Duncan was already an established superstar on the Spurs by 2001 and won a title during the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, but was missing an MVP trophy to truly put him among the league’s elite. He finished second in the voting to Allen Iverson the previous year and was top-five in all four of his seasons previously, so he seemed due to winning one after increasing his numbers to 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while also remaining one of basketball’s best defenders. He finished with 12 more first-place votes and 57 total voting points above Kidd.
What makes Duncan win controversial is that there were more deserving players that everyone knew wouldn’t be able to match that season’s production ever again. Webber was the only true star on a small-market team that had the best chemistry in the league and Kidd brought the lowly Nets out of the gutter with a team of slightly above average talent. Duncan didn’t have too much help either with an aging David Robinson and a rookie Tony Parker, but he had a great mix of veterans and young talent on his team that provided more depth than any other team in the league. Duncan’s following season would be even better and he was more than deserving of that MVP award, but in 2002, it should have gone to Kidd or Webber for their work turning historically poor franchises into the top teams in their respective conferences.
Steve Nash 2004-2005
The Pheonix Suns point guard’s production exploded in the mid-2000s after the NBA instituted rule changes to make the game less physical than in previous years, and Nash earned back-to-back MVPs as a result. While many believe he was deserving of an MVP for his immediate impact on the Suns becoming one of the league’s top teams and developing a fresh and fast play-style, him having more MVPs than Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t make much sense to most basketball fans.
You can make the case against Nash getting the award for either season, but his closest award race came during his first campaign in Pheonix. Nash and O’Neal both joined new teams that season — Nash leaving Dallas for the Suns and O’Neal ending his Lakers dynasty to join an up-and-coming Miami Heat squad — so their narratives were similar. The only difference was each player’s career up to that point.
Nash developed into an All-Star on the Mavericks by the beginning of the decade but was second-fiddle to Dirk Nowitzki. After he signed with the Suns as a free agent in the summer of 2004, however, he revived the franchise and helped add 33 more wins to the team in his first year, good for a league-best 62-20 record, according to basketball-reference. His numbers were modest by MVP standards, 15.5 points and 11.5 assists per game on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits, but his impact was immense.
O’Neal was the complete opposite of Nash in many ways that season. Aside from the obvious size, positional and play-style differences, O’Neal’s career was also declining while Nash’s was ascending. Fans and the media experienced the center’s dominance for over a decade at that point, so his 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game on a league-high 60.1% shooting wasn’t as impressive since he’d tallied better numbers previously. Even though the Heat’s 59 wins with O’Neal were 17 more than the season before, his effect was more expected than Nash’s.
The voting race was close but Nash edged-out O’Neal by just seven first-place votes and 34 total voting points, with his fresh story and surprising success likely the deciding factors. O’Neal, who only has one MVP trophy from the 1999-2000 season, contests to this day that he was robbed by the media in favor of Nash, but Nash would surely give up the trophy for one of the center’s championship rings.