In the era of 7-game first round series in the NBA, only one eventual regular season winner has been knocked out along with his team without winning a single playoff series that season. Pretty soon, we’re probably going to have two of them.
The Houston Rockets, with James Harden, an MVP candidate and probably the one who’ll finish second when the final votes are revealed, knocked out the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, winning in five games. The Thunder had Russell Westbrook among their ranks, a player who finished the regular season averaging a triple double and posting 42 of them during the season. He also averaged a triple double in the 5 games. He’s the favorite to win the MVP award.
In 2007, Dirk Nowitzki, fresh off a disappointing loss in the NBA finals against the Miami Heat, helped the Dallas Mavericks to a franchise-best season of 67 wins, landing them the #1 seed in the West. However, that pitted them against the one team they didn’t want to face, the Golden State Warriors, stunning the playoff favorites in the first round. Not just a #8 over #1 seed upset, but Nowitzki, the eventual MVP, finding himself out of the playoffs before winning a series that year.
That’s something that hadn’t happened in a very long time. How long? The previous regular season MVP to find himself in summer vacation without winning a series was Moses Malone in 1982, when he was still playing for the Houston Rockets. 12 players won the MVP between Moses and Nowitzki: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash; none of them matches their MVP winning season with a first round exit.
Not even Derrick Rose, who many consider the least-worthy MVP in quite some time, got bounced that quickly – his 2011 Chicago Bulls reached the conference finals before starting their offseason.
Does this mean anything? No. The award is for the regular season, although no one still knows what the criteria is. In any case, Westbrook’s triple-double crusade is probably going to land him with the award he’s been coveting since Kevin Durant won it in 2014. Deserving or not (personally I’d pick both Kawhi Leonard and James Harden over Westbrook), it doesn’t matter. But you usually expect a player good enough to win the MVP to follow it up in the playoffs, at least in the first round. LeBron James has never lost a first round series, just so you know. And he’s pretty much the golden standard when it comes to MVPs, with four of them in the regular season and 3 in the finals.