Continuing our series of Finals MVP winners per position, it is time to uncover which centers managed to win the coveted award. It is amazing to consider that it has been two decades since a center managed to win the Finals MVP, meaning it is very rare that a center gets over the hump to lead a team to a championship in the modern era. Of course, the NBA has changed tremendously over the years to accommodate guards or forwards.
But even still, centers have proven to be the most dominant players in the game of basketball, mainly because of their size and imposing presence. A superstar center is large enough to have a physical impact on the game, while those with exceptional skills can impact other areas of the floor tremendously, from rebounding the ball to scoring a minimum of 20 PPG efficiently. Centers in the modern era are now required to space the floor, and defensive versatility is key when it comes to guarding multiple positions and doing multiple things on the court.
Looking back at the very start of the NBA until the end of the 2022 season, here are the Finals MVP winners at the center position. It will be seen that big men have historically had a massive impact on the court, although things have changed in recent years. Without further ado, here is every Finals MVP award winner at the center spot in NBA history.
1969-70 Finals MVP - Willis Reed
Finals Statistics: 23.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.8 APG
The New York Knicks were locked in battle against a rampant Los Angeles Lakers team led by Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1970 NBA Finals. In many ways, the Lakers looked terrifying on the court with two all-time great players on both the perimeter and inside the paint. In the Finals, West was exceptional by averaging 31.3 PPG and 7.7 APG, while Wilt chipped in 23.3 PPG and 24.1 RPG. This should have been enough, but Willis Reed’s impact was too great.
The clutch big man of the Knicks held his own, posting 23.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 2.8 APG in 37.7 MPG of action. Amazingly, Reed was the best player on the team but missed Game 6 due to injury and was a shell of himself in Game 7 of the Finals as his teammates came through for him. Walt Frazier chipped in 36 points to seal a 113-99 victory. For his leadership and efforts, Reed was awarded the Finals MVP award.
1970-71 Finals MVP - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Finals Statistics: 27.0 PPG, 18.5 RPG, 2.8 APG
For the second-straight year, a center won the Finals MVP award. This time it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won the Finals MVP and NBA championship in only his second NBA season. The center was spectacular in the regular season, posting 31.7 PPG and 16.0 RPG to win his first scoring title and first MVP award. He took his game to another level by delivering on the biggest stage of them all at just 23 years old in the 1971 Finals.
Locked in a matchup with the Baltimore Bullets, Kareem proved to be the difference maker as he dominated the paint. The superstar center posted 27.0 PPG, 18.5 RPG, and 2.8 APG in 42.0 MPG while shooting 60.5% from the field. Kareem was simply unstoppable, and the Bullets had no answer other than Jack Marin (18.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Earl Monroe (16.3 PPG, 4.0 APG). But obviously, this was Kareem’s time, and he captured his first Finals MVP award.
1971-72 Finals MVP - Wilt Chamberlain
Finals Statistics: 19.4 PPG, 23.2 RPG, 2.6 APG
Wilt Chamberlain had won his first NBA championship in 1967 with the Philadelphia 76ers, but his only Finals MVP award came in 1972 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. At age 35, Wilt finally earned the award that he was missing on his incredible resume. Wilt posted 19.4 PPG and 23.2 PPG for the Lakers, who also had solid contributions from Jerry West (19.8 PPG, 8.8 APG) and Gail Goodrich (25.6 PPG).
Chamberlain dominated the paint, owning Walt Frazier (23.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 8.0 APG) and the New York Knicks. Wilt was an immovable force inside, pulling almost every rebound that came off the rim while also being difficult to score against. Nailing 60% of his shots from the field and accepting to be the third scoring option on the Lakers in the series, Wilt’s impact meant everything for the Lakers as Jerry West also earned his only championship. Finally, Chamberlain was a Finals MVP in his second-to-last NBA season.
1972-73 Finals MVP - Willis Reed
Finals Statistics: 16.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.6 APG
For the second time in his career, star big man Willis Reed earned the Finals MVP honor as a member of the New York Knicks. Reed posted 16.4 PPG and 9.2 RPG in the series, ending the Los Angeles Lakers in 5 games. Again, the Lakers were led by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Gail Goodrich. But Wilt was 36 years old, West was 34, and the Knicks were a simply more balanced team. Reed was the undisputed leader of the team, finishing 3rd in scoring on the team and 2nd in rebounds.
The series only lasted 5 games, as the Knicks followed up a Game 1 loss with 3 straight close victories. Finally, Game 5 was a blowout as the score was 102-93 in favor of New York thanks to an 18-point, 12-rebound, 7-assist performance from Willis Reed. Leadership was in his bones, as Reed earned his second Finals MVP award to go along with his 2nd NBA championship for the iconic Knicks franchise.
1976-77 Finals MVP - Bill Walton
Finals Statistics: 18.5 PPG, 19.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 3.7 BPG
Bill Walton was the Portland Trail Blazers' outstanding big man, dominating the paint and doing a ton of things on the floor at a superstar level, including using his leadership skills, defending, and rebounding. He was practically unstoppable in those aspects and completely took over the NBA Finals in 1977. He maintained his supremacy during the NBA Finals, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games with 18.5 PPG, 19.0 RPG, and 3.7 BPG. Walton was undoubtedly a commanding presence on the court as he won his first MVP honor in the Finals.
Not to mention, the 6’11” big man ended up winning the Finals MVP award at only 24 years old, where he was ahead of the game in terms of maturity. Bill Walton would not be able to stay healthy, unfortunately, because he only played at least 80 games one time when he was 33 years old. If Bill could have stayed healthy for most of his career, he could have gone down as a top-5 center of all time based on his incredible success early on.
1977-78 Finals MVP - Wes Unseld
Finals Statistics: 9.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG
The Washington Bullets completed an incredible 7-game series against the Seattle Supersonics courtesy of their elite frontcourt. Wes Unseld was the star of the show, dominating the paint by posting 9.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG, and 3.9 APG for the Bullets alongside Elvin Hayes (20.7 PPG, 11.9 RPG). The Bullets, in actuality, were stacked with a ton of two-way players with exceptional professionalism. Meanwhile, Seattle had their own stars.
Fred Brown led the team in scoring at 19.1 PPG, while Dennis Johnson (16.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and Gus Williams (16.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG) were also critical to Seattle's Finals run during the playoffs. But in the end, Wes Unseld was dominant inside the paint on both ends of the floor, as evidenced by his rebounding numbers. A winner and paint protector, Wes had the last laugh as the Bullets won a highly anticipated Game 7, 105-99.
1982-83 Finals MVP - Moses Malone
Finals Statistics: 25.8 PPG, 18.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.5 BPG
The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship in one of the strangest endings of the 1980s. The first of two (1989) championships were won in the 1980s without the Lakers or Celtics winning the NBA championship. The 76ers had lost their previous two encounters with them in the Finals, thus, this was their final act of retaliation. The team's acquisition of Malone from the Houston Rockets made a difference because it gave Philadelphia a player who could finally compete with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Moses Malone and the Philadelphia 76ers won the NBA championship, and their great center was named Finals MVP. Moses dominated the court on both ends of the floor with 25.8 PPG, 18.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG. Moses was outstanding in every aspect of the game. He led all players in points and rebounds in the series, outplaying Kareem and guiding his side to a convincing 4-0 sweep. Nailing 50.7% from the field and also putting up solid defensive statistics with 1.5 SPG and 1.5 BPG. Moses completely owned the Finals en route to his first and only Finals MVP award to go along with his first and only championship.
1984-85 Finals MVP - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Finals Statistics: 25.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.5 BPG
The 1985 Finals was one of the most interesting series in NBA history, mainly because we got to witness a highly anticipated rematch between the two best teams led by arguably the two best players in the league, with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers going to battle. For the second straight season, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would go to war for the coveted NBA championship. But there is no question that Kareem was the best player on the Lakers during the 1985 Finals (25.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.5 BPG) because he came through in massive moments for his squad.
In a pivotal Game 5 with the series tied 2-2, the superstar center dropped 36 points and 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 blocks to spearhead a 120-111 victory. The superstar center then led the charge in Game 6 to deliver the goods to Los Angeles and overcome their greatest rivals. With his second Finals MVP award in his grasp, Kareem was already the greatest center of all time in terms of individual accolades. To many, he was already building the case as the best big man ever, with only Bill Russell (11 championships) rivaling him.
1993-94 Finals MVP - Hakeem Olajuwon
Finals Statistics: 26.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 3.9 BPG
The best big man and all-around player in the NBA following Michael Jordan's retirement, Hakeem Olajuwon, had his best season in 1994. By guiding the Houston Rockets to the second seed in the Western Conference, The Dream won MVP and finished third in scoring. Hakeem's real contribution, of course, was made during his team's outstanding Finals performance.
Hakeem won the Finals matchup with the New York Knicks due to his unstoppable post-game and exceptional basketball IQ. The New York Knicks had no response due to The Dream's scoring, which topped all players in the series with 26.9 PPG. Hakeem would go on to win his second straight championship after a fantastic season in 1995 shortly after.
1994-95 Finals MVP - Hakeem Olajuwon
Finals Statistics: 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG
The legendary Houston Rockets center captured the Finals MVP award in 1995 again, posting monster two-way statistics while leading his team to a convincing sweep of the Orlando Magic in the Finals. In fact, Olajuwon even handled a young and dominant Shaquille O’Neal shockingly well. Shaq was tremendous for Orlando, posting 28.0 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, and 2.5 BPG alongside Penny Hardaway (25.5 PPG, 8.0 APG).
But even if the big men were the biggest story of the series, Hakeem ultimately came out on top. Shaquille O’Neal was the bigger and stronger player by far, but he was simply out-skilled and outclassed by his veteran opponent. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon outscored Shaq (32.8 vs. 28.0) and carried the Rockets to another convincing Finals win at the expense of O’Neal and the Magic. In fact, Olajuwon posted 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 SPG, and 2.0 BPG in the Finals, blowing away the competition in only 4 games.
1999-00 Finals MVP - Shaquille O’Neal
Finals Statistics: 38.0 PPG, 16.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.7 BPG
In the 2000 season, the same year the big man won his first NBA title, Shaquille O'Neal received his first and only MVP award. Shaq, together with Kobe Bryant, led the Los Angeles Lakers to a league-best 67-15 record and totally dominated the NBA Finals, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the best player in the league during that particular season.
Against the Indiana Pacers, the superstar center recorded absurd statistics of 38.0 PPG, 16.7 RPG, and 2.7 BPG. Rik Smits, Dale Davis, and Austin Croshere were just a few of the opposing bigs that the Diesel destroyed. Shaq had no serious rival since no one could match his strength and explosiveness, and the Lakers prevailed in six games.
2000-01 Finals MVP - Shaquille O’Neal
Finals Statistics: 33.0 PPG, 15.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 0.4 SPG, 3.4 BPG
Because the big man flat-out demolished Dikembe Mutombo, a multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year, in the post, Shaquille O'Neal's 2001 campaign ranks among the most dominant in NBA history. The storied Lakers center was unstoppable during the NBA season, winning his second straight championship and earning his second consecutive MVP award for the Finals after dominating the Philadelphia 76ers.
In the Finals series against the 76ers, Shaq averaged 33.0 points per game and made the decision to enforce his will after Allen Iverson stole Game 1 of the series. Shaq had his chance to block the lane and control both ends of the floor at the rim during this series, even though Kobe Bryant was outstanding (24.6 PPG). His Finals numbers were just ridiculous in 2001, as he completely outmatched 34-year-old Dikembe Mutombo (16.8 PPG, 12.2 RPG) on the court.
2001-02 Finals MVP - Shaquille O’Neal
Finals Statistics: 36.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.5 SPG, 2.8 BPG
For the third-straight year, Shaquille O’Neal won the Finals MVP award with the Los Angeles Lakers and once again put up ridiculous numbers across the board. The superstar center averaged 36.3 PPG in the series, once again taking over the series by outscoring the likes of Jason Kidd (20.8 PPG) and Kenyon Martin (22.0 PPG) with the New Jersey Nets. New Jersey was a strong team on both ends of the floor, but there was still no answer for Shaq in the post.
This marked the third straight year in which Shaquille O’Neal was the nightmare in the West because teams could not stop him from averaging at least 30 PPG in the Finals and he was also a force in the paint. Every time an opponent drove to the rim, they were forced to either get blocked or get knocked on their behind. In many ways, O’Neal was the grim reaper of the paint. With his third straight Finals MVP in his hands, Shaq was already considered one of the most dominant stars ever and only Wilt Chamberlain truly rivaled him in terms of physicality and intimidation.
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