Who Have Been the Best Players in the NBA According to MVP Voting?

According to MVP award shares, who have been the best players in the NBA every year?

Bill James is one of my favorite writers in sports. No one else can take such complex issues and innovations and talk you through them conversationally and make you feel like you’re contributing to the groundbreakingness that’s happening. Sometimes in my spare time, I’ll go through old articles of his and read to see if there’s anything new I can find that’s applicable to other sports.

I ran across this article on finding  “The World’s Number One Starting Pitcher” and thought perhaps I could do the same for the NBA. However, it’s not quite that easy in a sport like basketball or football, where things aren’t just one-on-one battles. Tennis, pitchers, golf…you can isolate statistics; in basketball or football, things just get too messy.

But then I ran across this article by Justin Kubatko from 2008 on Basketball Reference.

Anyway, the point of this article was to find the world’s best player, short of just “who had the highest win shares that year” or some other all-in-one metric. Justin’s idea was to take MVP award shares, weight them over the last couple of seasons, and see what we have. In Justin’s words, “While the best player may not win the MVP award every year, I think it is reasonable to assume that a player who has received significant MVP support over a period of years is a candidate for the title of best player in the NBA.”

Thus, he came up with the following formula:

  • - 0.4 times his MVP award share in season x, plus
  • - 0.3 times his MVP award share in season (x – 1), plus
  • - 0.2 times his MVP award share in season (x – 2), plus
  • - 0.1 times his MVP award share in season (x – 3)

Justin went way back to the beginnings of the NBA, starting with 1959’s winner Bob Pettitt, but obviously ended with 2007’s winner Steve Nash. Well, today’s article is to update Justin’s idea and see where we’ve stood since his article was last written.

Let’s recap the historical winners and then get to the recent ones:

Year Player Score
1959 Bob Pettitt 0.453
1960 Bill Russell 0.420
1961 Bill Russell 0.503
1962 Bill Russell 0.584
1963 Bill Russell 0.660
1964 Bill Russell 0.551
1965 Bill Russell 0.532
1966 Bill Russell 0.364
1967 Wilt Chamberlain 0.507
1968 Wilt Chamberlain 0.635
1969 Wilt Chamberlain 0.434
1970 Willis Reed 0.345
1971 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.499
1972 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.646
1973 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.595
1974 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.583
1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.390
1976 Bob McAdoo 0.440
1977 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.482
1978 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.322
1979 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.219
1980 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.363
1981 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 0.385
1982 Larry Bird 0.462
1983 Moses Malone 0.657
1984 Larry Bird 0.682
1985 Larry Bird 0.812
1986 Larry Bird 0.906
1987 Larry Bird 0.718
1988 Larry Bird 0.664
1989 Magic Johnson 0.722
1990 Magic Johnson 0.734
1991 Michael Jordan 0.781
1992 Michael Jordan 0.848
1993 Michael Jordan 0.760
1994 Hakeem Olajuwon 0.551
1995 David Robinson 0.602
1996 David Robinson 0.609
1997 Michael Jordan 0.631
1998 Michael Jordan 0.822
1999 Karl Malone 0.677
2000 Karl Malone 0.544
2001 Shaquille O'Neal 0.528
2002 Tim Duncan 0.577
2003 Tim Duncan 0.685
2004 Tim Duncan 0.684
2005 Tim Duncan 0.515
2006 Steve Nash 0.548
2007 Steve Nash 0.704

Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, Steve Nash was legimately considered the best player in the NBA, at least for two years running. During the Lakers run of three straight championships, we only have one year with a Laker -- Shaq in 2001 -- meanwhile, the rest of the early 2000’s were completely dominated by Tim Duncan and Nash.

So where have we been since then according to this forumla?

Year Player Score
2008 Kobe Bryant 0.549
2009 Kobe Bryant 0.613
2010 LeBron James 0.767
2011 LeBron James 0.695
2012 LeBron James 0.777
2013 LeBron James 0.850
2014 LeBron James 0.805
2015 LeBron James 0.672

Kevin Durant getting on this list probably won’t happen because of how much it will drop you to lose a year to injury. Stephen Curry is probably the front-runner to overtake LeBron James next year, but even that is unlikely. Curry would have to beat LeBron in terms of total percentage of shares by over 20% -- something he did this year, to be fair -- but one that I don’t see happening again.

Anthony Davis is probably the dark-horse (or favorite depending on who you ask) to win the MVP next year, and it won’t be long before he runs through this list much like Russell in the 60’s, Kareem in the 70’s, and LeBron in the mid-teens.

However, it probably won’t be next year. Even if Davis takes 0.998 of the award shares (highest ever by LeBron in 2013), LeBron himself would have to take only about .200 of the shares (it’s not zero-sum, if you haven’t figured it out by the way) to still lead over him. However, doing that plus anywhere in the top-three the following year would nearly ensure the beginning of his reign.

So who is the best player in the NBA? According to this: LeBron. But maybe not for long.