With the 2019-2020 NBA awards soon to be given out, it’s helpful to reference previous award-winners in predicting which player will be crowned next. Even some voting media members use the standards set for past recipients as a guideline when casting their ballots, especially for the MVP.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and James Harden are the three MVP finalists for this year. Each of them had a stellar regular season and are worthy of the honor, and whoever wins surely etches himself amongst the best MVP campaigns of the past decade because of the tumultuous nature of this year.
To put this MVP race into perspective, let’s rank the last 10 MVP seasons, differentiating each based on a combination of individual and team success.
10. 2010-2011: Derrick Rose
(113 first-place votes)
Rose elevated to superstar status in 2010-2011. He averaged a career-high 25 points and 7.7 assists in 81 games, leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins, according to basketball-reference. His breathtaking athleticism and fearlessness excited basketball fans everywhere.
But some felt Rose wasn’t the best player in the league that season and didn’t deserve the landslide MVP win. Dwight Howard and LeBron James both accumulated better overall statistics than Rose and enjoyed similar team success. Rose was third in Win Shares of the three players yet gained extensive attention and praise because he was the “next big thing.”
There’s no doubt Rose was integral to Chicago’s elite level of play and put together a spectacular individual season. It just wasn’t as impressive as the other nine winners on this list, and his team eventually lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to James and the Heat in five games.
9. 2016-2017: Russell Westbrook
(69 first-place votes)
In his first season without running-mate Kevin Durant, Westbrook averaged a league-leading 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season. It was one of the main storylines throughout the regular season as people didn’t believe he could actually do it. But he never took his foot off the gas and made history as a result.
The only problem was that his gaudy statistics came while playing for a sub-par team. The Thunder’s 47 wins this year are the lowest of all the teams with an MVP on this list (not counting the 2011-2012 lockout season). Oklahoma City needed every one of his record-setting 42 triple-doubles — the team went 33-9 when he recorded one and 13-25 when he didn’t — just to earn the sixth seed in the conference. They then got dismantled by the No.2 MVP vote-getter James Harden and the Rockets in five games in the first round.
For as unbelievable as Westbrook’s season was, there was something about it that felt hollow. He was criticized for stat-padding and purposely trying to get triple-doubles, a notion that didn’t make much sense but was a media narrative nonetheless. His MVP trophy felt somewhat like a consolation prize for being dumped by Durant and breaking a record rather than an award justly deserved for the best player on the best team.
8. 2018-2019: Giannis Antetokounmpo
(78 first-place votes)
After continuing to progress into a superstar the previous season, it was only a matter of time before Antetokounmpo won an MVP. It came in 2018-2019 when he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game and led the Bucks to a league-best 60 wins. He also used his length and tenacity to dominate on the defensive end, manning the NBA’s best defense and making the All-Defensive First-Team.
Antetokounmpo accomplished all of this playing just 32.8 minutes per game, far less than the next two MVP finalists in Harden and Paul George. Some felt, however, that Harden deserved the award because Houston needed every bit of his 36.8 points per game while Antetokounmpo benefitted from playing on a well-rounded and well-coached team in a weak conference now without James and with Kawhi Leonard missing games due to “load management.”
Antetokounmpo also led the NBA in Win Shares per 48 minutes (0.292), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (4.1) and PER (30.9), but his total Win Shares (14.4) were less than Harden’s 15.2 in a tougher Western Conference. It was a close race throughout the season, but both players lost in the conference finals.
7. 2009-2010: LeBron James
(116 first-place votes)
James followed his first MVP season with an even more impressive campaign in which he averaged 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game and earned First-Team All-Defensive honors. He once again led a Cleveland roster without another All-Star to the league’s top record (61 wins) and ranked No.1 in almost all the significant advanced metrics.
The issue was that the Cavaliers were slightly worse than the year before and still not viewed in the same class as true title-contenders like the Lakers, Celtics and Magic and even Nuggets. James simply wasn’t viewed yet as a crunchtime performer and someone with the leadership skills necessary to be atop the NBA’s leaderboard. He could wrack-up all the numbers he wanted and was the most talented player in the league. James just hadn’t matured yet and appeared to quit on his team in an elimination Game 6 against Boston.
6. 2017-2018: James Harden
(86 first-place votes)
Harden was twice the MVP runner-up before finally winning the award in 2017-2018. He led the NBA in scoring (30.4) while also averaging 8.8 assists per game. His offensive dominance carried the Rockets to a franchise-record and league-best 65 wins despite the newly acquired Chirs Paul missing 24 games.
Harden also ranked first in most advanced metrics because of his high usage-rate and the unique play style of Houston. He almost always had the ball in his hands and was required to manufacture offense essentially by himself. Some criticized him and the Rockets for their way of playing and said his lofty numbers were a result of that, but if you watched him play this season you recognized how special an offensive display he was putting on every game.
This was the season Harden mastered his stepback 3-pointer, a move he’s made his signature ever since. No player in history hit contested triples like Harden did in 2018. He also became the first player ever to record a 60-point triple-double, which he accomplished against Orlando on Jan. 30, 2018. Unfortunately, though, without Paul for games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals, Harden couldn’t carry his team to another victory against Golden State after being up 3-2 in the series. The Rockets infamously missed 27 3-pointers in a row in Game 7 and lost after securing a halftime lead.
5. 2013-2014: Kevin Durant
(119 first-place votes)
James’ back-to-back MVP streak was broken a second time in 2013-2014, on this occasion by Durant. Durant finally developed into an all-around superstar this season instead of just a prolific scorer — which he still also was. He averaged a league-leading and career-high 32 points per game, as well as 7.4 rebounds. His most impressive statistical feat, however, was increasing his assists to a career-best 5.5 per game while playing with the adept passing and highly-used Westbrook for about half the season.
Durant led the Thunder to the second-best record in the league, 59-23, despite Westbrook missing 36 games. Without Westbrook taking the bulk of the team’s ball-handling duties, Durant showcased his extreme offensive versatility and capacity for scoring like no player had since Kobe Bryant in his prime.
Oklahoma City, unfortunately, met a vengeful Spurs team coming off a heartbreaking 2013 Finals loss in the Western Conference Finals and lost 4-2. Had Westbrook not shot horribly in the series, Durant might have had a chance to win his first title against a banged-up Heat bunch and completed one of the great seasons in recent NBA history.
4. 2011-2012: LeBron James
(85 first-place votes)
Following an embarrassing 2011 Finals loss in which he seemingly succumbed to the scrutiny he endured in his first season in Miami, James came into the 2011-2012 lockout-shortened 66-game season with a renewed commitment and poise. He read and meditated before games and shed the “villain” persona he adopted the prior year.
This led to James recapturing the MVP he’d lost in 2010-2011 and eventually winning a championship that eluded him for so long. He carried Miami to the fourth-best record in the league (46 wins) even though Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh missed a combined 28 contests. James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists on a then-career-high 53.1% shooting. He ranked first in nearly every advanced metric and was a First-Team All-Defensive member for the fourth season in a row.
Durant was James’ biggest challenger for the MVP this season, but the Thunder superstar didn’t quite yet have the all-around dominant game James possessed. What made this MVP season so spectacular for James was that it symbolized his growth into a champion and leader capable of controlling his destiny. Take his performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with Miami’s backs against the wall, for example, in which he tallied 45 points. He became even more of a legend after this season.
3. 2014-2015: Stephen Curry
(100 first-place votes)
You could argue that Curry this season wasn’t as individually incredible as some others on this list. He only averaged 23.8 points and 7.7 assists, numbers less eye-popping than Rose’s MVP season. But you’d be wrong to say it wasn’t one of the best MVP campaigns in recent NBA history.
The reason this season is amazing is that Curry led the Warriors to 67 wins seemingly out of nowhere. Steve Kerr replaced Mark Jackson as Golden State’s head coach and all of a sudden the team was destroying the rest of the league and hitting 3-pointers at a historic rate.
Curry didn’t lead the league in every advanced metric but ranked first in three of the most significant, them being Win Shares per 48 minutes (0.288), Offensive Box Plus/Minus (8.2) and overall Box Plus/Minus (9.9). He broke the record for triples made in a season with 286, which he set himself the previous year, and began the long-range revolution paramount in today’s NBA.
Yes, the Warriors did have some fortunate matchups in the playoffs since a number of their opponents were injured, but Curry still led them to their first title since 1975. Oh, and he should have won Finals MVP.
2. 2012-2013: LeBron James
(120 first-place votes)
James should have been the NBA’s first-ever unanimous MVP in 2012-2013, but one foolish media member gave Carmelo Anthony (of all people) a first-place vote and withheld James from history. It was very unfortunate, but James still dominated the NBA this season like few have before or since.
He built upon his previous MVP campaign the year before to ascend to an even higher level. He averaged 26.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.3 assists on an absurd 56.5% shooting while also leading the league in nearly every advanced metric. James even earned the fourth-highest Win Shares per 48 minutes mark ever (0.322).
With James playing at an all-time great level, Miami had its best season in franchise history. The Heat won a franchise-record and NBA-best 66 games before going down 3-2 in the Finals against a seasoned Spurs team. It took Ray Allen making perhaps the most clutch shot of the modern-basketball era to give James a chance to finish his stellar season with a championship. He did just that, compiling 38 points and hitting the clinching jumper in Game 7 to complete his legendary MVP season.
1. 2015-2016: Stephen Curry
(131 first-place votes)
Curry didn’t win a championship in 2015-2016 as some others on this list did in their MVP seasons, but it’s hard to argue that his performance this year wasn’t one of the greatest MVP campaigns in NBA history.
He averaged a league-best 30.1 points per game, shattered his record for 3-pointers made in a season with 402, ranked first in almost every advanced metric and led Golden State to the most wins in a single season with 73. Curry was simply on fire and his unselfishness fostered a team-first culture on the Warriors, producing some of the prettiest basketball ever played.
Curry truly changed the game forever with his performance this year. His long-range shooting prowess influenced teams around the league to emphasize the long ball. His gravity on the court was so profound that teams were guarding him 40-feet from the basket, yet he still lit up the scoreboard.
Part of the reason he came up short in the Finals was that he got hurt twice in the first two playoff rounds and wasn’t 100% healthy by the time his team blew a 3-1 lead to Cleveland. Had he won his second straight title and earned his first Finals MVP, there might not have been a better singular season by any other player ever. Still, what Curry did was the stuff of legends and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.