The MVP Award is the greatest regular-season achievement for a player because it shows that they were the best player over 82 games. This award is given to not only the best player for their team, but the most impactful player taking into account individual stats, team success, and overall impact. But the vast majority of players would trade an MVP Award for a chance to win a championship.
NBA champions are the happiest with their careers because they achieved the pinnacle of the sport in arguably the hardest league in the world. But how do NBA champions feel when they were never the best player in the league? In order to discover both sides, we will compare past MVP winners who do not have NBA titles against NBA champions without MVP Awards. It is safe to say, all 16 players featured in this article have arguments for being top-75 players of all-time.
MVPs Without Championships
- Karl Malone
- Charles Barkley
- Steve Nash
- James Harden
- Russell Westbrook
- Derrick Rose
- Nikola Jokic
Clearly, all 8 of these players are Hall of Famers or will be in the Hall of Fame when their careers are up. Karl Malone is the greatest player on this list, winning the MVP twice after averaging 27.4 PPG and 23.8 PPG in both seasons. As a two-way power forward with an unstoppable offensive game, Malone never won a championship thanks to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Similarly, Allen Iverson was a fantastic individual talent that came up against a dominant opponent in the NBA Finals. The greatest little man ever won MVP in 2001 by averaging 31.1 PPG and making the Finals against Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers. Of course, Iverson had zero chance against the Lakers despite stealing Game 1.
Charles Barkley, one of the greatest power forwards ever, was also a ringless MVP. Barkley won MVP in 1993 by averaging 25.6 PPG and 12.2 RPG, but once again thanks to Michael Jordan and the Bulls, the Hall of Famer retired without ever winning an NBA championship. Steve Nash, the point guard with 2 straight MVPs, is also a ringless (future) Hall of Famer.
Many feel that Nash did not deserve MVP in 2005, but the point guard nonetheless won the award that year and one year later. The Canadian superstar played on some very good teams including the uptempo Phoenix Suns but never had a true shot against the better teams in the league. This is the same situation James Harden faced when he was a member of the Rockets because he was a dominant individual player without a shot against better teams including the juggernaut Golden State Warriors.
Russell Westbrook absolutely deserved MVP in 2017, leading the NBA in scoring at 31.6 PPG and averaging a triple-double for the first time since Oscar Robertson. But without Kevin Durant or anyone else that is a star, Westbrook did not have any postseason or championship success that year. 4 years later, Westbrook has yet to play in the Finals without Durant by his side.
Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP ever in 2011, averaging 25.0 PPG and 7.7 APG at only 22 years of age. Rose was growing into a dominant offensive superstar with the potential to be one of the greatest point guards ever, but his peak was cut very short due to injuries. As a result, Rose never got back to that level and never won a championship.
Nikola Jokic captured the MVP last season by posting averages of 26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 8.3 APG and leading the Denver Nuggets to the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. The Serbian center was a dominant passer and scorer, often drawing double teams at the expense of defenses giving up layups or open threes. Jokic is still early in his career, so a championship is not an unachievable target.
Champions Without MVPs
- Kawhi Leonard
- Dwyane Wade
- Scottie Pippen
- Paul Pierce
- Jason Kidd
- Kyrie Irving
- Gary Payton
- Pau Gasol
Kawhi Leonard is not only a two-way superstar but one of the most impactful players of his generation. The Claw is easily a top-35 player of all-time because 2 championships and 2 Finals MVPs on his resume is very fitting for the Hall of Famer. Leonard has had unbelievable championship success, but he was never the best player in the NBA (thanks to LeBron James and Kevin Durant) and that means he doesn’t have an MVP.
Dwyane Wade is one of the greatest players to never win an MVP, but he certainly won’t mind because 3 championships and a Finals MVP trophy mean much more. Wade is a winner of the highest order, and his 2006 Finals run will always be iconic after he averaged 34.7 PPG to dominate the series.
A 6-time NBA champion and one of the most decorated athletes ever, Scottie Pippen never came close to winning an MVP as the sidekick to Michael Jordan. But the dominant defensive player came very close in 1999 when he finished 3rd in MVP voting as the dominant star of his team. Pippen is an all-time great and missing out on an MVP will not hurt his legacy much.
The Truth, Paul Pierce, was a fantastic scorer and one of the most clutch players ever. The Celtics legend was incredibly consistent, averaging over 21 PPG for 7 straight years despite playing on a bad team. Pierce was rewarded for his loyalty thanks to the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen trades, and he became a champion and Finals MVP as a result. An MVP escapes him because a lack of team success destroyed his chances every year.
One of the best leaders at the point guard position, Jason Kidd was a great player for the majority of his career. Making the NBA Finals twice as a member of the New Jersey Nets, Kidd was incredibly impactful as a two-way superstar and leader. But Kidd won his first and only championship in 2011, acting as a role player to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks.
Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot of the 2016 Finals, nailing a go-ahead three-pointer over Stephen Curry to help the Cleveland Cavaliers capture the NBA championship. The point guard is a future Hall of Famer thanks to his incredible scoring ability, but he never had a shot at MVP because quite frankly, he was never a top-5 player in the game at any time.
Arguably the most dominant defensive point guard ever, Gary Payton was incredibly successful in his NBA career. 9 All-Star appearances, 9 All-Defensive Teams, and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy are accolades suitable for Hall of Fame induction. Payton made the Finals with the Seattle SuperSonics, but Michael Jordan shut down his chances to win a ring. Payton won his only title as a role player for the Miami Heat in 2006.
The perfect sidekick to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Pau Gasol was the man responsible for cleaning up boards and scoring whenever his number was called. Gasol knew Bryant owned Los Angeles and embraced his role as a second option every season. That led the Lakers to 3 straight Finals and 2 straight championships, solidifying the Spaniard as one of the all-time great big men.
Which Team Is Better?
It is incredibly hard to distinguish between both sets of players, but the slight edge has to go to the NBA champions. The MVPs have better individual scoring talent across the board, but the champions have intangibles that cannot be taught. The likes of Leonard, Wade, Pippen, Pierce, and Kidd won titles as clutch performers and their big-game intangibles came through for their teams.
While Malone, Iverson, Barkley, Nash, and Harden are incredibly talented offensively; their weaknesses were very evident throughout their careers. Malone had a tendency to miss crucial free throws, Iverson only prospered on teams where was the focal point, Barkley was undersized, Nash could not spell defense, and Harden has yet to show his worth in the playoffs. The list goes on because Westbrook has the same demons Harden has, and Rose had his peak finish after 3 seasons. Jokic is completely unproven despite playing 7 years in the league. The champions do not have these weaknesses and have found ways to be effective in the biggest games no matter the case. Whether it was big-game shots, defensive plays, or leadership; the champions have that little something extra in the chest that got the job done.
Credit for an idea: NBA Reddit