We’ve watched great MVP races throughout the course of NBA history. Nash vs. Shaq, Giannis vs. Harden, LeBron vs. Rose, Bird vs. Magic, you name it. That’s what comes when you have the most competitive tournament in professional sports.
However, not even the best MVP races you could think of can compare to what happened in 1961-62. Back then, the league had 8 legit candidates that could make a strong case for being the league’s Most Valuable Player, even though – obviously – just one could take the award home.
Up to this day, that season’s award is still a subject of controversies among basketball pundits. That’s why today, we’re going to let you everything there is to know about the greatest MVP race of all time, so you’ll be the judge as to which player should have won it:
8. Bob Cousy
15.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 7.8 APG, 28.2 MPG, 39% FG
Bob Cousy was basketball’s first point guard. He was the ultimate leader for the Boston Celtics and the veteran presence in the locker room during the 1961-62 campaign. Despite being already 33 years old, he averaged just under 30 minutes per game that season.
Coached by Red Auerbach and with Cousy pulling the strings of the offense, the Celtics had a 60-20 record that season. Cousy was an 11-year veteran and he had already led the Celtics to three NBA Championships. That year, they won their fourth in franchise history.
7. Richie Guerin
29.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 6.9 APG, 42.9 MPG, 44% FG
It’s been a while since the New York Knicks had a player among the league’s leader in the MVP race but back in the day, there were few scorers in the league that could outplay Richie Guerin, an athletic and offensive juggernaut at both guards spots.
Even so, the Knicks’ major struggles hurt Guerin’s chances to take the award home. They ended up the season with a 29-51 record and had one of the worst offenses in the league. They were one of the three teams that didn’t even make the playoffs that year.
6. Bob Pettit
31.1 PPG, 18.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, 42.1 MPG, 45% FG
Bob Pettit was just unstoppable in his prime. He put up insane numbers on a nightly basis and there weren’t too many big men on earth that could hold his own vs him and his long arms back in the day, especially during the 1961-62 season.
Sadly, just like in Richie Guerin’s case, the St. Louis Hawks were a bit of a lost cause that season, which hurt his chances to be the league’s MVP despite his incredible averages. They won just 21 games and didn’t make the playoffs either.
5. Jerry West
30.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 5.4 APG, 41.2 MPG, 44% FG
We already know what Jerry West was capable of back then. But even among his great seasons, the 1961-62 campaign stands out from most of them because of the fact that he was just entering his sophomore year and was already an MVP candidate.
West was one of the most dominant two-way players to ever set foot on a basketball hardwood back then. His contributions helped the Lakers win 54 games that year and make the NBA Finals but they lost to Bill Russell and the Celtics in 7 games.
4. Elgin Baylor
38.3 PPG, 18.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, 44.4 MPG, 42% FG
Just like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor took the league by storm right out of the gate. He was considered the best small forward on earth and for good reason, as he was averaging nearly 40 points per game with 18.6 rebounds a night, which is something no other on his position could do nowadays.
Baylor was a fearless scorer that was always going to get what he wanted in the paint. He led the Lakers in scoring en route to that 54-season and the NBA Finals berth but as you may know by now, it was the Celtics the ones to celebrate at the end of the year.
3. Oscar Robertson
30.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 11.4 APG, 44.3 MPG, 47% FG
Triple-doubles aren’t that impressive anymore nowadays but back in 1961-62 Oscar Robertson did something no other player had ever come close to: he averaged a triple-double throughout an entire campaign. More impressively, he was a point guard.
Robertson could do it all on both ends of the floor. He was a strong leaper with great athletic traits that allowed him to dominate the glass. However, his impressive milestone was overshadowed by the 47-win season of the Cincinnati Royals, so that hurt him in the MVP voting.
2. Wilt Chamberlain
50.4 PPG, 25.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 48.5 MPG, 50% FG
Up to this day, I still can’t understand how Wilt Chamberlain didn’t win the MVP award for that season. He set the record for the highest scoring average (50.4 ppg), the most points ever in a season (4,029) and came pretty close to breaking his own record of most rebounds per game as well.
Incredibly, he did so by averaging a whopping 48.5 minutes per game (no load management there, huh). Still, even if the best players of today played all 4 quarters they couldn’t come close to his season averages. The Philadelphia Warriors won 49 games but he still didn’t take the award home.
1. Bill Russell
18.9 PPG, 23.6 RPG, 4.5 APG, 45.2 MPG, 45% FG
Even though Bob Cousy was the Celtics’ leader, it was Bill Russell the one who truly made a difference. He anchored their defense to a 60-win season and another NBA Championship and continued to establish himself as the greatest defender on earth.
Russell didn’t post the most impressive averages among the players on this list, not by a long stretch. Still, the league thought that him being the best player on the best team in the league was enough to win the MVP award. That seems like fair criteria but it’s still crazy to take a look at all the players he beat in that race.