There have been 51 Finals MVP awards since the award was introduced in the 1968-1969 season. A total of 31 players have won the award, with 12 players winning more than once (32 awards amongst those 12 repeat winners). The repeat winners list consists of names like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and other all-time great players.
Normally, the award is given to the best of the best. However, a few times, we have seen Finals MVP winners with numbers that wouldn’t even warrant an All-Star bid.
In this article, we will look at the 5 worst Finals MVP winners. ‘Worst’ will only be distinguished by that player’s numbers (Game Score to be exact) in their respective Finals series, dating back to ’68-’69.
5. Kawhi Leonard
2014 NBA Finals: Spurs vs. Heat
15.8 Game Score
Stats: 17.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG
61.2 FG%, 57.9 3P%, 78.3 FT%
In the 2014 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard impressed the NBA world with his performance as a 22-year old budding star in the Gregg Popovich system. While he played alongside 3 future HOF players (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili), Kawhi proved to be the team’s most impactful player while having the task of guarding LeBron James.
Kawhi’s numbers in the series were fairly impressive. And most fans remember Kawhi for ‘frustrating’ LeBron through the series, helping the San Antonio Spurs get their revenge win after losing to the Miami Heat the previous season. The Spurs didn’t win the series behind Kawhi’s efforts, but more so because the Heat was essentially LeBron and not much else in the series.
Without LeBron, the Heat scored 63.4 PPG on 43.8% shooting (down from 91.6 PPG on 47.2% shooting with LeBron). The supporting cast around LeBron played significantly worse than the players surrounding Kawhi. This leads to Kawhi being 5th on this list.
His shooting numbers were highly efficient, and his overall counting stats were solid, but they were far from MVP-like numbers. We have seen quite a few players put up those numbers as the 2nd or 3rd option on Championship winning teams, not winning the Finals MVP.
4. Paul Pierce
2008 NBA Finals: Celtics vs. Lakers
15.6 Game Score
Stats: 21.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG
43.2 FG%, 39.3 3P%, 83.0 FT%
You can argue that Paul Pierce deserved Finals MVP (in the Boston Celtics’ Finals win over the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers) after sticking with the Celtics for years, despite the team’s lack of sustained success in his tenure.
If you look back at those numbers, Ray Allen’s numbers were more impressive in that series. Allen wasn’t head and shoulders above Pierce, but his efficiency compared to Pierce’s while putting up nearly the same production is what stands out. Not only did Allen finish the series with a higher Game Score (16.7 vs 15.6), but he also shot lights out from the field and from deep.
Pierce finished the series shooting 43.2% from the field, 39.3% from 3, and 83.0% from the free-throw line (58.8 True Shooting %). Allen shot 50.7% from the field, 52.4% from 3, and 86.7% from the free-throw line (70.8 TS%). He did this while only averaging 1.5 fewer points than Pierce. Pierce also averaged 3.7 turnovers per game while Allen averaged 1.8 TPG.
Pierce’s ability to create shots for himself versus Allen’s catch-and-shoot style is another reason why Pierce may have gotten the nod for Finals MVP. With that said, Pierce’s numbers in the series were still All-Star worthy.
3. Cedric Maxwell
1981 NBA Finals: Celtics vs. Rockets
14.8 Game Score
Stats: 17.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG
56.8 FG%, 0.0 3P%, 75.9 FT%
By numbers alone, the 1981 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets was a poor series. Only one player averaged over 20 PPG in the series, Moses Malone, and he shot only 40.3% from the field on the losing team.
On the Celtics side, we witnessed an average series performance from a future legend in Larry Bird. Bird put 15.3 PPG, an impressive 15.3 RPG, 7.0 APG, and 2.3 SPG but shot poorly from the field.
These performances from the series’ 2 stand-out stars left Finals MVP to Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell. Maxwell entered the Finals with averages of 15.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 2.6 APG on efficient shooting through the team’s 1st 2 playoff matchups. Maxwell improved those numbers slightly, just enough to nab the Finals MVP award.
He undoubtedly posted quality numbers, but they would barely give him an All-Star nod in the regular season. Maxwell essentially won the award by default as Bird’s efficiency was poor despite him leading the team with the best all-around numbers.
2. Andre Iguodala
2015 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers
13.6 Game Score
Stats: 16.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG
52.1 FG%, 40.0 3P%, 35.7 FT%
Andre Iguodala’s Finals MVP nod was and still is a questionable choice. Iguodala’s introduction into the starting lineup was a large reason why the series turned in the Golden State Warriors’ favor after the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead, but his numbers weren’t all that impressive.
He won the award based on 2 narratives that were at play in those Finals: 1) Steph Curry was shut down by Matthew Dellavedova; 2) Iguodala locked up LeBron James. Both statements are false can be proven false when you look at the numbers.
Curry was undeniably bothered by Dellavedova early in the series after Kyrie Irving went down with an injury after Game 1.
In Game 2, Dellavedova held Curry to 19 points on 5/23 shooting from the field and 2/15 from 3.
After Game 2, Curry figured out Dellavedova’s defense. Through games 3 to 6, Curry averaged 27.8 PPG while shooting 49.4% from the field and 47.7% from 3. Curry should have won Finals MVP for his performance, but the narrative was already set in place.
Iguodala’s defense on LeBron in the series was largely overrated. Yes, Iguodala is and was a great defender, but LeBron still managed to average nearly 36 points and 9 assists in the series. What helps Iguodala is LeBron’s lack of efficiency, but that was largely due to the Cavaliers missing 2 stars in their lineup (Irving and Kevin Love).
LeBron was forced to have a ridiculously high usage rate (40.8) while trying to fight the Warriors. Though Iguodala did make a huge impact on the series, he did not deserve Finals MVP over Curry with the numbers he put up.
1. Wes Unseld
1978 NBA Finals: Bullets vs. SuperSonics
10.9 Game Score
Stats: 9.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG
52.0 FG%, 0.0 3P%, 55.0 FT%
Wes Unseld had a ‘Bill Russell-Esque’ impact on his teams, the ’77-’78 Bullets in particular. In the 1978 Finals, Unseld didn’t put up gaudy numbers. He also didn’t put up great defensive numbers (though the accuracy of the blocks and steals being recorded is questionable).
What he did well, is compliment his teammates well. Unseld finished the series 6th in scoring on his team (12th in the whole series) and 2nd in rebounding on his team (3rd in the series). That doesn’t normally lead to a player getting Finals MVP. In the series, Unseld was unquestionably outplayed by 2 of his teammates (Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge).
Hayes ended the series with averages of 20.7 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG, and 2.0 BPG. Dandridge ended the series with averages of 20.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, and 1.0 BPG. Both players had key moments that helped the Bullets win the series, but somehow Unseld was awarded Finals MVP in the 7-game series.