28 Players have won the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award (a recent change to the name), with LeBron James’ fantastic playoff and finals performance for the Miami Heat making him the latest inductee into what might be the most prestigious club of elite NBA players.
The award was first handed out in 1969, with Jerry West (Lakers) as the first recipient. So far, he’s been the only winner from the losing team, as the Lakers, as usual in those days, lost to the Boston Celtics in 7 games. The award’s name was changed into the ‘Bill Rusell…’ in 2009, after the 11-time NBA champion who never got a chance to receive it himself.
Willis Reed, 2 Wins
Before LeBron James had his return to the game moment; Before Paul Pierce faked an injury only to come back and get the Garden all pumped up, there was Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, entering the Madison Square Garden, hobbling, while everyone thought he won’t be playing. That was enough to carry the Knicks to their first NBA title, beating the Lakers in 7. Reed won the award a second time three years later, in what was Wilt Chamberlain’s final game.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 2 Times
When Kareem won his first NBA Finals award, he was still Lew Alcindor, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title in 1971. It was 14 years later, playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, when Kareem won the award for a second time, leading the Lakers to a 4-2 win over the Boston Celtics in the finals, averaging 25.7 points and 9 rebounds in the series. He is the only player to win the award with two different teams.
Larry Bird, 2 Times
Larry Bird won his first NBA Finals award in the very tough and sometimes violent 1984 series against the Lakers, with the McHale clothesline on Rambis and the Lakers beating the Celtics by 33 in Game 3. Bird made his famous ‘Sissies’ quote, and went on to win three straight games, averaging 30.3 points and 17.3 rebounds in the closing games.
In 1986, a team that Celtics fans consider as the greatest of all time, beat the Houston Rockets with their twin towers of Sampson and Olajuwon. Bird averaged 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9 assists in the series, having two triple doubles.
Hakeem Olajuwon, 2 Times
If Michael Jordan wouldn’t have retired for a year and a half, was Olajuwon still going to be a two time NBA Champion? Interesting question for another time and another post or debate. He’s one of four players to win the awards on consecutive seasons, along with Jordan, Bryant and O’Neal.
Olajuwon led the Rockets in scoring all through the 1994 Finals, including two games, especially Game 7 (25-10-7) in which he led the team in all three major statistical categories. The Rockets beat the Knicks in an ugly, physical series, with Olajuwon outscoring Patrick Ewing each and every night, averaging 26.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and nearly 4 blocks per game.
In 1995, the Rockets were supposed to be underdogs against the young Orlando Magic, but Shaq and Penny Hardaway completely disappeared in the finals, as Olajuwon hit the winning shot in overtime with a second left on the clock. The Rockets swept the Magic and Olajuwon won his second Finals MVP averaging 32.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Kobe Bryant, 2 Times
Kobe Bryant was already a three time NBA champion when he reached the NBA Finals for a sixth time in 2009 against the Orlando Magic, but it was his show, his show alone unlike earlier in the decade.
Bryant led the Lakers to an impressive 4-1 win over the Orlando Magic, leading his team in scoring and assists each and every single night. He averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists in that series, for those who complain the Bryant never shares the ball.
The year later it was much tougher, much harder, as Bryant needed a lot of Pau Gasol to finish off the Boston Celtics in 7 games. Bryant won the MVP again (some say undeserved), averaging 28.6 points in the series. On the two games he scored over 30 points, the Lakers lost.
Magic Johnson, 3 Times
Magic Johnson won the award for the first time in 1980, the only rookie to ever win the Finals MVP. His famous Game 6 against the 76ers is still considered one of the greatest performances in Finals history, playing as a Center, finishing with 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
In 1982, again against the 76ers, Magic led the Lakers to another 4-2 win, closing out the series with another impressive game – A 13-13-13 triple double. Johnson wasn’t the point guard for most of the series, playing in different positions while Norm Nixon was running the point.
In 1987, after beating the aging and hobbled Boston Celtics in six games, Magic became the first player to win the award three times. Magic averaged 26.2 points, 8 rebounds and 13 assists, including 20 assists in Game 2 of the series.
Shaquille O’Neal, 3 Times
O’Neal has 4 NBA titles, but in the last one, 2006, he was more of Dwyane Wade’s sidekick. During the Lakers’ three-peat, he was the main attraction, although Bryant was getting more and more prominent with each passing year.
In the 2000 series which was also the closest of all three, the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers 116-111, averaging 38 points and 16.7 rebounds in the series. In 2001, beating the Philadelphia 76ers in 5 games, he averaged 33.8 points and 15.8 rebounds. In 2002, a sweep against the Nets, Shaq ran amok again, averaging 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Tim Duncan, 3 Times
With Duncan and the Spurs, it was never about the show or about one player. Sure, Tim Duncan was the one who was clearly the leader and most of the time the best player, but the other pieces around him – David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and others always got the recognition they deserved. Duncan has 4 NBA rings, winning the MVP award on his first three trips to the final – 1999, 2003 and 2005.
In 1999, beating the New York Knicks in 5 games, averaging 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, helping David Robinson finally win one. In 2003, against the New Jersey Nets, it took the Spurs six games, with Robinson and Steve Kerr retiring after the series. Duncan averaged 24.2 points and 17 rebounds, including one incredible close out game, with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks.
In 2005, it was one of the series that NBA fans remember the least, because not a lot of people were watching. Only one time did one of the teams (Spurs – Pistons) pass the 100 mark and the opening game was a slug fest ending 84-69. Duncan averaged 20.5 points and 14.1 rebounds.
Michael Jordan, 6 Times
Way above the rest, in another stratosphere. Jordan is the only player to win the award three consecutive times, doing the three-peat thing twice. Who knows how it would’ve ended without the 1993 retirement and even the one after that. Averaging 20 points when he was touching 40 makes you wonder about lost years.
In 1991, the Bulls beat the Lakers in Magic Johnson’s final finals appearance after 5 games. Jordan averaged 31.2 points and 11.4 assists per game, including a 29-9-9-4 steals game in game 3.
1992, the Bulls beat the Blazers in six games. Jordan averaged 35.8 points and 6.5 assists, including a 46 point game in Portland when the series was tied at 2-2.
1993, and what might be the greatest finals series of them all, beating Charles Barkley and the Suns in six games. Jordan averaged 41(!!!) points in the series, scoring 55 points in Game 4 and having a near triple double in Game 2 with 42 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists. His first ‘last’ game of his career was a 33 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists game.
1996, the greatest team ever (??), after a 72-10 season, had a rough time with the Sonics, and especially Jordan with Gary Payton. Jordan scored over 30 points only once during the series, which was much more about Scottie Pippen stepping up as Jordan was very frustrated by one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game, averaging ‘only’ 27.3 points.
1997, And the beginning of the Utah Jazz saga. As usual with the Bulls, it took six games. Jordan averaged 32.3 points in the series, saving the best for last, with a triple double (39-10-11) in the final game. That series also had the famous Flu game (game 5), with Jordan scoring 38 points in Utah.
1998, Jordan’s second ‘last’ time, which is how it need to end. No one remembers the 33.5 points or the 45 he scored in Game 6. All people remember is that small shove on Russell, and his final shot in an NBA playoff game. Making it, of course.