Although the NBA crowns an MVP every season, it doesn’t always go to the best player in the league that year. Narratives heavily influence voters when casting their ballots, but fans and media members these days can usually separate the game’s greatest player from a player deserving of MVP in a single year. Sometimes that player is the same, and other times it’s a fresh face.
A player like LeBron James could have won several MVPs in the 2010s. He ended up with three in the decade, allowing for other deserving players to shine even though he was the best player in the league for a long while. So to give the proper recognition to the NBA’s true best players, let’s count down the top players each season since 1980.
In deciding which player is deemed the best, the player’s individual accomplishments and team success are factored in. Someone like Michael Jordan accumulated gaudy statistics and accolades in the 1987-1988 season, for instance, but Magic Johnson also similarly dominated the league while elevating his team to a championship level, so he would get the nod.
1980-1981: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The 1980-1981 season was Abdul-Jabbar’s last as the NBA’s premier player, a title he held for over a decade until he began showing signs of age. He won his sixth and final MVP the previous season and his Lakers were the reigning league champions this year, although an injury to Magic Johnson held the point guard to just 37 games and Los Angeles couldn’t defend its title.
The Lakers still won 54 games and Abdul-Jabbar led the league in win shares (14.3), according to basketball-reference, an impressive feat considering he was 33 years old. The MVP went to Julius Erving as his 76ers won 62 games, but Abdul-Jabbar was still the top dog as far as individual abilities were concerned.
He averaged 26.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks on 57.4% shooting in the regular season before falling to the Houston Rockets in three games in the Western Conference First Round. In that series, he tallied 26.7 points and 16.7 rebounds per game in a truly great battle with the next player on this list.
1982-1983: Moses Malone
Moses Malone won back-to-back MVPs in 1981-1982 and 1982-1983, the first with the Houston Rockets and the second in Philadelphia. He led the league in rebounding both seasons and helped the 76ers finally get over the hump and beat the Lakers in the 1983 Finals.
Malone was the Finals MVP and easily outplayed Abdul-Jabbar, effectively cementing his place as the league’s top player. In these two seasons, Malone averaged 27.8 points and 15 rebounds with a staggering 6.3 offensive rebounds per game. Yes, some of those offensive rebounds came from his own missed layups, but he always put the ball right back through the hoop.
Malone and the 76ers never replicated their success after 1983 and eventually age got the best of him, but for these two seasons, few players have been a more dominant interior presence than Malone was at his peak.
1984-1986: Larry Bird
Bird’s three consecutive MVPs rightly coincided with him being the league’s best player from 1984-1986. His Celtics won two titles in that span and went to the Finals in all three years, only falling to the Lakers in 1985.
Bird’s peak epitomized what a great player can accomplish within a team-first system. He averaged 26.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.8 steals over these three seasons while also leading the league in PER, VORP and win shares for two of the years.
His play was largely the same if not better in the playoffs. He hit several clutch shots in the most pressurized of moments and truly struck fear into his opponents whenever he had the ball in his hands. He was out-thinking and out-shooting the competition like no other.
1987-1990: Magic Johnson
Johnson won three MVPs in this four-season span, his best year being the 1986-1987 season when Lakers coach Pat Riley handed him the reigns as the team’s primary offensive option over the aging Abdul-Jabbar. His scoring increased a few points as a result and the Lakers won over 60 games in three of these four years, as well as back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988.
Los Angeles’ loss in 1989 was the last time Abdul-Jabbar put on an NBA uniform, but Johnson managed to lead the Lakers to the Finals one last time in 1991. By then the next player on this list was too much to overcome. Still, Johnson was the consensus player at the top of the league until that Finals loss and his subsequent abrupt retirement.
1991-1993: Michael Jordan
Once Jordan’s Bulls overcame the Pistons and demolished the Lakers in 1991, Jordan sat upon the NBA’s throne. He was the league’s most popular player and made the NBA a global sensation. At his peak, Jordan was as untouchable as any athlete in history.
Jordan led the league in scoring with over 30 points per game in all three seasons and won the MVP twice. His Bulls were the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell’s Celtics, which lifted Jordan’s all-time status above that of Johnson and Bird by the time of his surprising 1993 retirement. He left the game at the peak of his powers, leaving the door briefly open for this next player to cement his legacy.
1994-1995: Hakeem Olajuwon
With Jordan gone, Olajuwon took his place as the most unstoppable player in the NBA. The Rockets legend won back-to-back titles and one MVP and embarrassed 1995 MVP David Robinson when the two met in the Western Conference Finals. Olajuwon felt the award was still rightfully his and proceeded to fool Robsinson repeatedly with moves and fakes no one had ever seen.
Olajuwon in his prime was the ultimate combination of athleticism, agility and skill at the center position. He was unbelievably sound on both ends and had the right teams around him to accentuate his talents as Clyde Drexler became his running mate for the second title run. Olajuwon took Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing all to school in the playoffs just to make sure there was no doubt who the game’s best player was.
1996-1998: Michael Jordan
Unfortunately for Karl Malone, Jordan’s return to the NBA thwarted his best chances to win a ring and become the league’s top player. Jordan’s game evolved during his second three-peat to feature less breathtaking dunks and more post-fadeaways, which proved equally effective at winning championships.
Jordan in his 30s was arguably the best mid-range shooter ever and was still capable of playing at a First-Team All-Defense level. Combining a player like that with a seasoned Scottie Pippen and Hall of Famer in Dennis Rodman seemed almost unfair to most other teams.
Jordan won two MVPs and was first in scoring each season in these three years. His 72-win Bulls team is regarded as one of the best teams of all-time, marking just another resume-building accomplishment to Jordan’s G.O.A.T. resume.
1999-2002: Shaquille O’Neal
For dominating the NBA for four seasons like no one other than Wilt Chamberlain ever has, O’Neal somehow ended up with only one regular-season MVP to show for it.
His Lakers were the last team to three-peat and O’Neal won all three Finals MVPs, but he didn’t garner the respect from the voters that he deserved. He was as determined in these four seasons as he ever was in his career. A locked-in version of O’Neal is perhaps the best center in history.
He led the league in shooting percentage (57.5%) and PER (30.3) in all four of these seasons, correctly conveying his unstoppable nature. His strength, fearlessness and confidence gave his opponents almost no chance of slowing him down. Eventually, though, injuries and weight issues slowed him down and let this next player take the league over.
2003-2005: Tim Duncan
Duncan did win the MVP in 2002, but his loss in five games to the Lakers in those playoffs indicated O’Neal still had the upper hand. From 2003-2005 Duncan and his Spurs became the premiere performers in the league and won two titles as a result. Duncan won the MVP and Finals MVP in 2003 and maintained that level of play through this entire stretch.
Considered the best power forward ever, Duncan’s defense sets him apart. He was a perennial All-Defensive player and had some of the best instincts and positioning in history. He was a clutch leader with criminally underrated competitive fire, and many players suffered his subdued rath.
2006-2011: Kobe Bryant
After O’Neal and Bryant’s beef led to the center’s departure to Miami, the Lakers became the Bryant show. Without O’Neal, Bryant carried two pedestrian Los Angeles teams to the playoffs by averaging 35.4 points in 2005-2006 and 31.6 points the next season. He put together some of the most prolific scoring stretches in league history and scored 81 points in a single game. Bryant was a true scoring machine.
Pau Gasol’s arrival in L.A. altered Byrant’s legacy for the better. The two would take the Lakers to three-straight Finals, winning two, and help Bryant earn his lone MVP in 2008.
Bryant was the league’s best scorer, a top-tier defender and the player everyone would pick to take the last shot. Sure, LeBron James won two MVPs in this span, but he never got it done in the playoffs. Bryant did and his legacy was forever changed from O’Neal sidekick to the “Black Mamba.”
2012-2018: LeBron James
James has the longest stretch as the NBA’s best player out of everyone on this list. Following his embarrassing 2011 Finals performance, James came back the next season with a reinvented mindset and determination to finally win a championship. He’d win back-to-back MVPs and titles in Miami and another championship in Cleveland in 2016 soon after, causing many fans to put him in the G.O.A.T. conversation alongside Jordan. That’s about as high of praise as there is.
For seven seasons James was atop the basketball world. He was, and still is, the game’s most popular player. His play was unrivaled until Stephen Curry ascended to stardom, but even he needed to join forces with Kevin Durant to keep James at bay.
James’ 2018 playoff run at age 33 is perhaps one of the most impressive stretches of basketball ever played, albeit against a weak Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, James’ ability to lengthen his prime is a testament to not only modern sports science but also his commitment to taking care of himself. He’ll forever be in the record books as a result.
2019: Kawhi Leonard
Leonard’s departure from San Antonio was strange and unclear. No player had previously pushed-back against the highly-respected Spurs, so no one knew what to expect when Leonard was traded to Toronto of all places. What occurred was a strange yet productive regular season in which Leonard missed 22 games, primarily from “load management,” and later one of the league’s most memorable playoffs runs when he averaged over 30 points per game.
His bouncy Game 7 buzzer-beater against the 76ers will forever be replayed. His dethroning of the Warriors will forever be celebrated. Leonard bringing a title to Canada, though, is the stuff of legend. No one thought he and that supporting cast could beat the Milwaukee Bucks with the Raptors down 2-0. Somehow, Leonard did it all without barely cracking a smile and proved once and for all that he could do it without the Spurs’ structure.