Every year the NBA MVP is determined by the ballots of a select group of sports media members. The merits of the award are often debated, with many still unclear whether the MVP trophy anoints the “best player in the league” or “who has the biggest impact on winning for one’s team.”
The award is often awarded to the consensus top player in the league, but sometimes narratives play a major role in the voting. A player’s journey throughout a season can be so captivating that he garners more hype and attention than someone who may be the better player, so the winner isn’t always the player whom general managers would start their teams with.
Finishing near the top of the MVP voting is an accomplishment in itself, but fans often forget those who finished second or third in most seasons. It can be hard for truly great players to win the award several times since people come to always expect high-level production from them, so to give these legends their proper respect, here are the top-10 players with the most top-3 finishes in MVP voting.
Note: James Harden (including 2020 voting), Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and David Robinson all have five top-3 finishes, but the tie-breaker was given to those with the most wins.
* = year he won the award
10. Bob Pettit - 5
(1956*, 1957, 1959*, 1960, 1961)
Pettit was the NBA’s top player before Bill Russell entered the league. He isn’t mentioned much in discussions of the greatest power forwards ever, but Pettit possessed all the skills necessary to dominate the league for the second half of the 1950s.
His two MVP wins, 1956 and 1959, came when he averaged the most points per game in the NBA, according to basketball-reference. Pettit averaged 25.7 and 29.2 points, respectively, showcasing an array of inside-out scoring moves. He was one of the early marksmen from the forward position.
In the six seasons from his first top-3 finish to his last, Pettit averaged 26.4 points and 17 rebounds per game. Although his 43% shooting percentage in that span is low by today’s standards, many players in Pettit’s era had similar efficiency because of the fast-paced and raw style of the game.
9. Tim Duncan - 5
(1999, 2001, 2002*, 2003*, 2004)
Duncan was the most consistently effective two-way player of the early 2000s. He wasn’t as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal or as athletic as Kevin Garnett, but his teams rarely lost and he was one of the best interior defenders ever.
In the lockout season of 1998-1999, a sophomore Duncan finished third in MVP voting and later led his team to the first of his five titles. He was at his best from the 2000-2001 season until 2003-2004, during which he finished twice as both the award winner and runner-up. For a player lacking flair and charisma, Duncan was almost the first player to win four consecutive MVPs.
Duncan’s knee troubles, coupled with the improvement of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, kept him from earning significant MVP consideration after 2004. From 1999-2004, though, Duncan averaged 23.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 50.2% shooting. He also led the league in Win Shares in his two MVP seasons with 17.8 in 2001-2002 and 16.5 in 2002-2003.
8. Karl Malone - 5
(1989, 1995, 1997*, 1998, 1999*)
One of the remarkable aspects of Malone’s career was his durability and consistency. He averaged over 25 points per game for 10 straight seasons from 1989-1999, missing just two games in that span.
The crazy part is that Malone earned four of his top-3 finished in his 30s. He became the oldest MVP winner in NBA history in 1999 at the age of 35, doing so in the 50-game lockout season following his nemesis Michael Jordan’s retirement.
Malone remained highly productive because he always stayed in peak physical condition and played a grueling and powerful brand of basketball. He wasn’t reckless or a high-flyer. He simply abused players in the post, nailed midrange jumpers and ran the floor as well as any forward ever. In 1996-1997, his first MVP season, Malone led the league in PER at 28.9. In 1998 and 1999 he led the league in Win Shares at and 16.4 and 9.6, respectively.
7. Wilt Chamberlain - 7
(1960*, 1962, 1964, 1966*, 1967*, 1968*, 1972)
Back in Chamberlain’s heyday, the MVP was decided by the players instead of the media. This often led to some whacky votes of which he both benefited and suffered from. How is it that Chamberlain won MVP in his rookie averaging 37.6 points per game and not in 1961-1962 when he averaged over 50 points? Many players were clearly biased and didn’t like the seemingly selfish style Chamberlain played, often favoring Russell instead.
Still, Chamberlain is one of three players ever to win MVP in three straight seasons, which he did from 1966-1968 on the 76ers. He even came in third in 1971-1972 when his Lakers won a then-record 69 games with substandard averages of 14.8 points, 19.2 rebounds and four assists.
There was perhaps no player who accumulated more gaudy statistics than Chamberlain did in his prime. He’d probably have more trophies had the media voted for MVP back then, however, since he averaged 36 points, 24.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the first nine seasons of his career.
6. Larry Bird - 8
(1981, 1982, 1983, 1984*, 1985*, 1986*, 1987, 1988)
Few players dominated a decade like Bird did the 1980s. He was an MVP-caliber player from the moment he stepped on an NBA court until getting surgery on both his Achilles tendons in 1988. He could do it all despite lacking in athleticism and breathed new life in the dying league that was the NBA before his arrival.
After Moses Malone won his final MVP in 1983, the award was a two-man race between Bird and Magic Johnson for the next several years. They were the stars of the league’s two best teams and constantly tried to one-up each other. Bird had the upper hand early and Johnson near the end of the decade, but Bird was the one who won three MVPs in a row.
Bird is one of the few players ever who didn’t have a real weakness. There was nothing he couldn’t do and he always brought his A-game even if while dealing with injuries. He averaged 25.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game from 1981-1988, earning the utmost respect of his peers and fans along the way.
5. Magic Johnson - 9
(1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987*, 1988, 1989*, 1990*, 1991)
Like Bird, Johnson was the face of basketball in the 1980s. His Lakers were the most exciting team in the league as Johnson brought “Showtime” to Los Angeles with his fast-paced play and knack for flashy passes. He was the ultimate performer who had just as much, if not more, substance to his game.
Playing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar arguably hurt Johnson's MVP case in his early years. It was easy to make the argument that Abdul-Jabbar was still the team’s best player — he led the team in scoring, after all — even though Johnson often lead the NBA in assists and triple-doubles. It wasn’t until the 1986-1987 season when coach Pat Riley told Johnson to be more aggressive on offense that the accolades came rolling in. Johnson then increased his scoring average to over 20 points per game and won three of the next four MVP awards.
Bird’s injuries and Michael Jordan’s lack of team success early surely helped Johnson win the award in the back half of his career, but by then he mastered how to control the game. He developed from a buoyant showman into a shrewd winner. Jordan dethroned him for good in the 1991 Finals, yet Johnson was top-billing until the day of his retirement.
4. Bill Russell - 9
(1958*, 1959, 1960, 1961*, 1962*, 1963*, 1964, 1965*, 1967)
Russell is the third player to win three consecutive MVPs and he finished in the top-3 in voting for eight seasons in a row. You could argue he benefitted, unlike Chamberlain, from players voting for the award instead. Russell was a beloved teammate and respected for his work ethic and unselfishness, once again unlike Chamberlain, so it’s understandable for his peers to favor him.
He was the game’s best defender and second-best rebounder in his prime. Russell revolutionized the way players protect the rim and the way centers initiate the offense. His only weakness statistically was his scoring, but he played with such great teammates that he wasn’t asked to shoot nearly as much as other big men in the league at that time. Russell was content making his great teammates even greater.
Russell averaged 15.9 points, 23.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game during his MVP-caliber run. Had they tracked steals and blocks back then, his stats would be even more well-rounded.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 9
(1970, 1971*, 1972*, 1973, 1974*, 1976*, 1977*, 1980*, 1981)
With Russell gone and Chamberlain past his prime, Abdul-Jabbar assumed the mantle as the NBA’s premier player during the uninspiring decade of the NBA that was the 1970s. Fan interest was low and the league had issues with drug use, yet Abdul-Jabbar was one of the few shining stars who transcended sports. He wasn’t particularly charismatic or entertaining to watch, but he was perhaps as singularly dominant for a decade as any player ever.
With players still choosing the award’s victor, Abdul-Jabbar won five of his six MVPs in the 1970s and never finished outside the top-5 in voting. It was painfully obvious how much better he was than his peers, and he even won the first media-selected MVP in 1980.
Johnson joining Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles, along with age, gradually lowered the center’s statistics in the 1980s, but his skyhook and basketball I.Q. allowed him to remain a star until the ripe age of 40. During his MVP reign, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 28.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.4 blocks per game on 55.6% shooting.
2. Michael Jordan - 10
(1987, 1988*, 1989, 1990, 1991*, 1992*, 1993, 1996*, 1997, 1998*)
You could argue Jordan was the best player in the league every season he played after 1987. Jordan led the league in scoring for all 10 of his top-3 MVP finishes and was the game’s best offensive player and perimeter defender, which combined with unmatched competitiveness and star power, made him the darling of the NBA by the 1990s.
Jordan is perhaps the first victim of extreme voter fatigue. Were Charles Barkley or Malone better than him in the 1990s? No, but it was simply too obvious to vote Jordan for MVP every year. The media loves narratives and new faces, and because Jordan dominated every time he played, many became numb to his greatness and let others enjoy some of the spoils.
His dramatic and highly-successful return to basketball in 1995-1996 and Chicago’s tumultuous 1997-1998 season helped him overcome some of that voter fatigue, yet it’s unclear how the voting would have changed had Jordan not retired in the middle of his prime in 1993. Could he have been the first player to win four consecutive MVPs? Or would he have an even more absurd amount of top-3 finishes?
It doesn’t matter, though, because Jordan proved who the game’s best player was once the Finals came around. He vanquished every threat to his throne, averaging 32 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.5 steals in his MVP-caliber seasons, as well as leading the league in PER, win shares, VORP and several other advanced statistics for most of those years.
1. LeBron James - 11
(2006, 2009*, 2010*, 2011, 2012*, 2013*, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020)
James narrowly tops this list at 11 top-3 finishes since the NBA recently announced the three MVP finalists for 2020. He is the ultimate victim of voter fatigue because, like Jordan, you could argue James being the best player alive from 2005-2006 until last season, but narratives play a role in basketball now more than ever. His greatness is so consistent that he gets criticized for looking human.
James is the top stat sheet-stuffer of his era. He’s averaged 27.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game over the past 10 seasons and can do almost anything asked of him on the court. Playing on some truly great teams — many of which he orchestrated — in an exceptionally weak era of the Eastern Conference certainly helped his MVP case every season, but he was still the No. 1 draw of the NBA for over a decade.
Leading the league in assists at age 35 is maybe one of the more impressive statistical feats of James’ illustrious career. It’s made all the more impressive since he’s doing so in a loaded Western Conference and clinched the No. 1 seed. Both these facts make his MVP narrative this season more compelling than ever.
It’s unlikely James will finish top-3 in the voting moving forward. In the past two seasons, he’s shown true signs of decline for the first time ever and appears poised to pass the Alpha-dog torch to Anthony Davis soon. If this is the last MVP-caliber season James has in him, he at least passed Jordan in another ranking.
Thanks to Slam Studios for the idea.