Winning the NBA championship is the single most important aspect of completing an NBA season as the eternal goal of every player that was a part of the roster. It takes a lot of talent, skill, and luck for a team to win a championship because only one team out of thirty is crowned every season. It could be as impressive when a single player has the biggest impact in a Finals series to win the coveted Finals MVP trophy. Normally, the player on the title-winning team is in contention for Finals MVP, as only one player has managed to win the award despite losing in the Finals and that was “The Logo”, Jerry West.
We have collected all the Finals MVP award winners from 1981 to 1990, and it is very interesting to notice that one player stands out from the rest in terms of individual dominance on the court. It is also interesting to note that almost all of the players who hoisted the Finals MVP awards during the decade were either part of the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. Without further ado, here are the NBA Finals MVP winners from the 1981 season until the 1990 season.
1980-81 Finals MVP Award Winner - Cedric Maxwell
17.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Cedric Maxwell’s Finals MVP award at the end of the 1981 season was one of the most unexpected endings of the year. Locked in a battle with the talented Houston Rockets team led by Moses Malone, Larry Bird was expected to be the driving force (and Finals MVP) for a Celtics team that was still considered the favorite at the time.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they did not have enough to counter what Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Nate Archibald were doing on the court together. But in the end, it was up to Maxwell, the only player on his team to average at least 16 PPG to overcome the Finals MVP odds and get the job done for his side. Of course, he would accomplish that with a terrific Finals performance.
Maxwell dropped 17.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, and 1.0 BPG on an incredible 56.8% field goal shooting. The forward constantly came through for the Celtics, even outplaying his superstar teammate, Larry Bird (15.3 PPG, 15.3 RPG). Thanks to “Cornbread’s” efficiency and leadership, the Celtics managed to overcome a rampant Moses Malone to win the title and Finals MVP.
1981-82 Finals MVP Award Winner - Magic Johnson
16.2 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 8.0 APG, 2.5 SPG, 0.3 BPG
For the second time in his career, Magic Johnson won the Finals MVP award with the Los Angeles Lakers after guiding his side past the Philadelphia 76ers in a 6-game series in the 1982 NBA Finals. The superstar point guard averaged 16.2 PPG and 10.8 RPG in the series, once again taking over a Finals series by being the best playmaker and floor general on the court. Even if Magic was outscored over the six games by Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, and Bob McAdoo, the point guard was the driving force behind the Finals victory.
Shooting 53.3% from the field and 84.6% from the foul line while also chipping in 8.0 APG, no player was as dominant as the legendary point guard. All eyes and all the pressure were on the superstar point guard to make the difference in the Finals because the 76ers were stacked with talent in the form of “Dr. J” Julius Erving and Andrew Toney (who posted 26.0 PPG in the Finals series).
The Lakers were considered the favorites at the end of the year, however, as the squad finished with a 57–25 record, which ranked 1st in the Western Conference. They were even more flawless in the playoffs as they both swept the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals, and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. It took a triple-double by Magic in Game 6 (13 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists) before the Lakers closed out the 76ers with the point guard winning his second Finals MVP award.
1982-83 Finals MVP Award Winner - Moses Malone
25.8 PPG, 18.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.5 BPG
In one of the strange endings during the 1980s, the Philadelphia 76ers managed to capture an NBA championship at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the first of two (1989) championships won during the 1980s that did not feature the Lakers or Celtics capturing the NBA title. Moses Malone and the 76ers won the NBA title with their superstar center earning the Finals MVP award. Moses was elite across all facets of the game, dominating the court on both ends of the floor with 25.8 PPG, 18.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG.
This was the ultimate revenge for the 76ers, as they had lost the previous two meetings in the Finals with them. The difference was Philadelphia’s acquisition of Malone from the Houston Rockets because the team finally had a man who could match Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem was the only force that was tipping the Finals series’ in the Lakers’ favor, but the 76ers finally leveled the playing field and perhaps tipped the scale in their own favor.
Moses 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.
1983-84 Finals MVP Award Winner - Larry Bird
27.4 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG
In what can be considered the year of Larry Legend, the Boston Celtics would reach the NBA Finals with their superstar forward leading the way in a showdown against the rival Los Angeles Lakers. With fans glued to the screen, the Celtics and Lakers series went to 7 games with Bird and Magic Johnson putting up superstar performances. Both rosters were stacked, with Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish joining Bird on the Celtics. The Lakers were led by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
Even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 26.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, and 4.4 APG, he could not usurp Boston's elite team play spearheaded by Bird. Larry Legend, at age 27, captured Finals MVP for playing some of the best basketball in Finals history by averaging 27.4 PPG and 14.0 RPG on 48.4% from the field and 66.7% from three. The series was back and forth from the start, however.
The Lakers would take Game 1 and Game 3 in convincing fashion, with the latter ending in a 33-point blowout win. Not to be outdone, the Celtics would take Game 2, Game 4, and a pivotal Game 5 where Bird dropped game-highs 34 points and 17 rebounds. Larry chipped in 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7, ending the Lakers in a spectacular series. For his efforts, Bird captured his first Finals MVP award to add to the MVP award he won in the regular season.
1984-85 Finals MVP Award Winner - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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 going to battle. For the second straight season, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would go to war for the coveted NBA championship.
Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were dominant in the series for the Celtics and put up a strong fight throughout the series. The reigning Finals MVP, Bird averaged 23.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, and 5.0 APG on 44.9% shooting. McHale, one of the most dominant power forwards ever, scored 26.0 PPG and 10.7 RPG on 59.8% shooting from the field. Despite the brilliance of the duo, the Lakers got the job done thanks to Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and the rampant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
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. Kareem scored a game-high 29 points in a closeout Game 6, ending the series 4-2 in favor of the Lakers. As great as McHale and Bird were, Kareem was the man and captured his second Finals MVP award.
1985-86 Finals MVP Award Winner - Larry Bird
24.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 9.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG
In the 1986 season, Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics took on the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals for a rematch showdown from the 1981 Finals. The Rockets were led by superstar center Hakeem Olajuwon, while Boston took them on with a stacked roster featuring Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge. The Celtics were heavily favored due to their All-Star talent and experience, and as expected, the series ended in 6 games.
Bird captured his second Finals MVP award by leading his team in rebounds, assists, steals, and free-throw percentage. Showcasing his unbelievable all-around game and efficiency (48.2% FG, 36.8% 3-PT FG, 93.9% FT), Bird was the undisputed king of the court. The Rockets tried to make it a series by winning Games 3 and 5, but only Hakeem Olajuwon (24.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 3.2 BPG) was an actual threat of taking over games.
To make sure the result went the Celtics’ way, Larry Bird got very little rest during the six-game series, competing in 269 out of a possible 288 minutes of floor time. Anytime a player plays that many minutes and puts up a near triple-double, it will be certain that he will be named the Finals MVP for that year. The 1986 season marked the Celtics' 16th championship in 40 years and it would actually be their last championship for a 22-year-span until the 2008 season.
1986-87 Finals MVP Award Winner - Magic Johnson
26.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 13.0 APG, 2.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG
The superstar point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers was at his best in the 1987 season, clearly getting back to his elite level in terms of efficiency and numbers thanks to the quality of teammates surrounding him. Magic was surrounded by Hall of Fame talents in James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he was the leader on and off the court. In yet another Magic Johnson and Larry Bird showdown, the Lakers faced the Boston Celtics for all the marbles.
In what would be the tenth time in NBA history that the Lakers and Celtics met on the court, Magic was the standout star by averaging 26.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 13.0 APG while leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. The superstar point guard had the biggest moment in the series with a game-winning baby hook in Game 4 which led to a 107-106 victory to give the Lakers a convincing 3-1 series lead.
By making the biggest shot of the series in Game 4, Magic basically ensured a 1987 Finals victory because we had not seen a 3-1 comeback happen in the Finals until the 2016 season. Other than his clutch bucket, Magic was a sensational playmaker and all-around player, outplaying Larry Bird (24.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 5.5 APG) and winning his third Finals MVP award. In NBA history, only LeBron James and Michael Jordan have more Finals MVP awards.
1987-88 Finals MVP Award Winner - James Worthy
22.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.4 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG
A lot was expected from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988 because head coach Pat Riley essentially promised fans a repeat championship. It is certainly easy to feel confident when a roster has the likes of Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a Finals showdown against the soon-to-be called “Bad Boy” Pistons, it was Worthy who would have key performances in the series to earn the victory for his side. Despite the best efforts of Adrian Dantley (21.3 PPG and 5.0 RPG) and Isiah Thomas (19.7 PPG and 9.0 APG), the Pistons could not keep up with an extremely talented Lakers roster, losing a pivotal Game 7.
Worthy averaged a team-high 22.0 PPG on 49.2% shooting over the 7 games, leading his team on both ends of the floor. With Kareem at the age of 40, Worthy needed to step it up a notch which is why he is known as “Big Game” James. Possibly the most impressive moment in the series actually came from Isiah Thomas, because he injured his ankle badly in Game 6, only to score 25 points in the third quarter alone. Somehow, the Lakers won the game and tied the series 3-3 to force a Game 7.
The defining performance from Finals MVP James Worthy came in Game 7 when he dropped a game-high 36 points and 16 rebounds in his greatest performance yet. The swingman was not going to let the Lakers lose Game 7, and gifted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar his 6th and final championship. Big Game James Worthy was the star of the game, with Thomas clearly hobbled by his ankle injury.
1988-89 Finals MVP Award Winner - Joe Dumars
27.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.3 BPG
In one of the two Finals during the 1980s decade that did not end up with the Lakers or Celtics winning the championship, the Detroit Pistons regrouped for a rematch against the Purple and Gold. During the regular season, Magic Johnson was the league MVP after posting averages of 22.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 12.8 APG while shooting a career-high 91.1% from the free-throw line. The Lakers were still the team to beat, even with Kareem past his 40s. But it was time for the “Bad Boy” Pistons to reign supreme.
The Detroit Pistons, led by their rough and physical play, dismantled the Lakers in a 4-game sweep. The Lakers stood no chance in terms of physicality and aggression and were outplayed on both ends of the floor. Finals MVP Joe Dumars was at his absolute apex during the series, averaging 27.3 PPG and 6.0 APG on 57.6% from the field and 86.8% from the free-throw line. With Dumars’ ability to carry an offense and also play aggressive perimeter defense, the Pistons thoroughly earned their championship.
For the sake of fairness, the Lakers were nowhere near full health with Magic Johnson only playing in 3 games during the series while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper were showing signs of age. With Dumars (25) and Isiah Thomas (27) in their prime, the Pistons were simply the better and more aggressive team and they earned their 1989 championship and the following season’s title run as well.
1989-90 Finals MVP Award Winner - Isiah Thomas
27.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Isiah Thomas would win his first Finals MVP award during the 1990 season, the same year the superstar point guard would lead his Detroit Pistons to a second-straight championship. The Pistons became just the third franchise in NBA history at the time to win back-to-back titles other than the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Thanks to the play of their tough-as-nails point guard, the Pistons had the confidence to finish the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.
The superstar point guard posted very solid averages of 27.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 7.0 APG against the Trail Blazers led by Clyde Drexler. Drexler had a good series on paper, posting 26.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 6.2 APG while also coming up with 1.8 SPG. Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter each contributed 19.0 PPG each, but it was not enough to meet what the Pistons (and specifically Isiah Thomas) were doing on the court. After tying the series 1-1 after Game 2, the Trail Blazers would not win another game in the series as they faced the “gentleman’s sweep”.
With the 2nd championship and 1st Finals MVP in his grasp, Isiah Thomas firmly entered the race for being one of the top-five greatest point guards of all time. His scoring was absolutely needed throughout the series, as he posted 33 points in Game 1 and 29 points in the close-out Game 5. With Thomas’ ability to slice towards the rim and also score from mid-range, the Trail Blazers had to play him closely or risk the point guard setting up his teammates including reigning Finals MVP Joe Dumars who averaged 20.6 PPG in the series. In the end, Thomas and the Pistons were too hungry for the title and too aggressive for the Trail Blazers.