If there was ever any season that served as perfect evidence that the NBA MVP is an incredibly difficult award to win, it was the 2014-15 season. Stephen Curry, the eventual winner, had a remarkable season in which he led the Warriors to a 67-win campaign while averaging 23.8 points and 7.7 assists per game, doing so in efficient fashion by shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 44.3 percent from behind the arc.
While Curry received the league's top accolade, no one would have complained had the award gone to James Harden, the runner-up in the voting, or LeBron James, who is still the best player in the game in any given season. MVP votes can be very close, and there have been many outstanding players who were deserving of an MVP award but just never managed to win one. Harden, for example, just had an MVP-caliber season but may not have a better opportunity to win one for the remainder of his career.
Whether that is the case for Harden remains to be seen, as he still has plenty of years left in the NBA to win the MVP, but with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Curry and James all in the league, he will have plenty of competition for the award for many years to come. If he does not win one, he will not be the first great player to miss out on the MVP Award. When the NBA announced its selections for the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996, only 20 of the 50 players honored had ever won an NBA MVP award.
Why have so many great players been overlooked in the MVP voting? There are a number of factors at play, and as any player who played during the 1980s and 1990s is likely aware, just a few transformative players can keep others from ever winning the MVP award. From 1984 through 1998, for example, there were only four seasons in which someone other than Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan won the award, and there are several other eras in which similar circumstances kept all-time greats from ever winning the MVP. What follows are the 15 greatest NBAers who have never won an NBA MVP, a list that excludes active players (except for one who, at 37, is very unlikely to win one before he retires).
*All stats taken from Basketball-Reference.com.
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15 Scottie Pippen
It was hard enough to win an MVP award during the Jordan era, but playing alongside the game’s best player is surely going to limit any opportunity to win the award. After all, how can the league MVP go to a player who is not even the best player on his team? Even though it was never likely that Pippen was ever going to win an MVP, he is still rightfully considered one of the game’s greatest players, and without him the Bulls would not have been nearly as successful.
One of the best defenders to ever play the game, Pippen was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team 10 times, eight of which were First Team selections. A seven-time All-Star and six-time NBA Finals champion, Pippen’s only MVP came during the 1994 All-Star Game, when he scored 29 points and collected 11 rebounds. Over his 17 NBA seasons, Pippen averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists, and was named one of the NBA’s Greatest Players in 1996 despite only being halfway through his career at the time.
14 Kevin McHale
Like Pippen, McHale was never going to win an MVP while playing alongside Larry Bird. One of the greatest power forwards to ever play in the NBA, McHale was known for his dazzling array of post moves and his ability to score at will in the paint. His best season came during the 1986-87 campaign, when he averaged 26.1 points and 9.9 rebounds while leading the league with a 60.4 percent shooting percentage. In the MVP voting following that season, McHale finished fourth, trailing Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. A seven-time All-Star and three-time NBA champion, McHale was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and scored over 17,000 points during his 13-year NBA career.
13 George Gervin
Gervin starred with the San Antonio Spurs during the late 1970s and early 1980s following the ABA-NBA merger, and the “Iceman” led the league in scoring in four different seasons, two of which included seasons in which he averaged over 32 points per game (33.1 in 1979-80, and 32.3 in 1981-82). Despite his prolific scoring talents, Gervin never took home an MVP award, coming up second to Bill Walton in 1978 and Moses Malone in 1979, and then third in 1980 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. A smooth scorer who delighted fans with his frequent use of the finger roll, Gervin averaged 26.2 points per game over the course of 10 NBA seasons and was named to the All-Star team in nine of those seasons.
12 Lenny Wilkens
Wilkens, one of the few Hall of Fame inductees to earn enshrinement as both a player and a coach, was a nine-time NBA All-Star as a player and an NBA champion and a winner of the Coach of the Year Award as a coach, but he was never able to earn an MVP during his 15-year NBA playing career. Wilkens came close during a season in which he scored 20 points per game while averaging 8.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds, but he ultimately finished second in the award voting in 1968, losing out to Wilt Chamberlain. The 1968 season was especially illustrative of just how dominant Chamberlain was, as not only did he beat out Wilkens in scoring (24.3) and rebounding (23.8), but he also averaged more assists than the MVP runner-up, handing out 8.6 assists per game to Wilkens’ 8.3.
11 Paul Pierce
Pierce has had an interesting NBA career, as it was not until Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston that the longtime Celtic started to get his due nationally. Many of his prime years were spent playing on some very bad Celtics teams, and the fact that Pierce averaged 24.8 points and 6.7 rebounds from the 2000-01 season through the 2006-07 season is typically dismissed as nothing more than a good player putting up great numbers on a bad team.
Now that he is the cagey veteran on an upstart Wizards squad, Pierce’s incredible career is starting to look a lot better in retrospect: 10 All-Star Game appearances, an NBA Finals MVP and five selections to the All-NBA team. Though he has been consistently among the game’s best players, he has never done better than seventh in the MVP voting and did not even crack the top ten until his age-31 season. His best individual seasons as a pro were largely overlooked because of his team's lack of success.
10 Dominique Wilkins
The Human Highlight Film’s inability to win an NBA MVP has everything to do with his career coinciding with Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's prime years in the 1980s and Michael Jordan's prime years in the 1990s. A nine-time All-Star in consecutive seasons from 1985-86 through 1993-94, Wilkins was always among the scoring leaders, taking home the title in the 1985-86 season by averaging 30.3 points per game. It was following that season that ‘Nique came closest to winning the MVP, finishing second to Larry Bird as the only other player to receive first-place votes. Despite never winning the NBA MVP, Wilkins was able to take home a Greek Cup MVP in 1996 while playing overseas for Panathinaikos.
9 John Stockton
One of the game’s greatest passers, Stockton is still the all-time leader in assists and steals, with 15,806 assists and 3,265 steals collected over a 19-year NBA career. He led the league in assists for nine consecutive seasons from 1987-88 to 1995-96, and his career average of 10.5 remains second all-time behind only Magic Johnson’s mark of 11.2. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team five times and earned a spot on the All-NBA Team in 11 seasons, but he never finished better than seventh in the MVP voting throughout the entirety of his career. It should be noted, however, that the season in which he finished seventh (1989), he trailed six future Hall of Famers who were all still in the prime of their careers: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.
8 Clyde Drexler
Drexler’s lack of MVP hardware is mostly a product of the era in which he played. The 10-time All-Star and member of the Dream Team starred for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets, winning an NBA championship in 1995 and finishing a 15-year NBA career with averages of 20.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Despite being one of the best players of his generation, Drexler missed out on winning the MVP, finishing second in the voting in 1992 to Michael Jordan. That season Drexler had averaged 25 points, 6.7 assists and 6.6 rebounds for a 57-win Portland team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals, only to lose, perhaps fittingly, to Jordan’s Bulls.
7 Jason Kidd
One of the best all-around players to ever play in the NBA, Jason Kidd was a triple-double machine and a consistently outstanding distributor throughout his 19 years in the NBA. Over the course of his career, Kidd was named to 10 NBA All-Star teams, nine NBA All-Defensive Teams and six All-NBA Teams, five of which were First Team selections. A two-time gold medalist with Team USA in 2000 and 2008, Kidd won his only NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, but despite his many on-court accolades, he was never able to take home an NBA MVP.
The closest Kidd ever came to winning the award was in 2002, following a season in which he transformed a moribund New Jersey Nets franchise into a legitimate title contender. The Nets improved by 26 wins after Kidd’s arrival in New Jersey, winning 52 games and making it all the way to the NBA Finals. Kidd’s impact on the Nets was clear, as the point guard averaged 14.7 points, 9.9 assists and 7.3 rebounds while playing alongside Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson. Despite the Nets’ turnaround, Kidd lost out in the MVP voting to Tim Duncan in a close vote in which Kidd received 45 first-place votes and Duncan received 57.
6 Patrick Ewing
For the same reason that Ewing is also among the greatest players to never win an NBA title, the era in which Ewing played figures prominently in why the longtime New York Knicks center never took home an MVP trophy. The NBA was just loaded with talent throughout Ewing’s best years, as the 11-time All-Star and the all-time scoring leader for the New York Knicks enjoyed his prime years during the same years as many of his teammates on the 1992 Dream Team. Ewing averaged a double-double for nine consecutive seasons during his most productive years, and for his career he posted averages of 21 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
As for the MVP Award, Ewing was in the top-five of the voting on six different occasions, but he was never able to finish higher than fourth. In each of the six votes in which Ewing was a top-five finisher, every player that finished ahead of him in the voting is either in the Hall of Fame or is a lock for enshrinement: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal. The individual talent in the league was just incredible, and it certainly did not help that some of the best post players to ever play the game were roaming the paint during Ewing’s prime.
5 Isiah Thomas
Like so many others appearing on this list, Thomas’ best years were in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan had a stranglehold on the MVP award. The 12-time NBA All-Star never fared very well in the MVP voting, and his best finish was when he finished fifth in the 1984 vote. In his best statistical season (1984-85), Thomas averaged 21.2 points and led the league in assists per game at 13.9, but he still finished just ninth in the MVP voting, behind several good -- but certainly not great -- players in Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings.
4 Elgin Baylor
Baylor is one of the game’s greatest players, and he played all of his 14 seasons with a Lakers franchise that was still in Minnesota for his first two seasons as a pro. An 11-time NBA All-Star, Baylor came to the Lakers as something of a savior, as the Lakers had gone 19-53 in the season before Baylor arrived but were able to make the NBA Finals on the strength of Baylor’s Rookie of the Year campaign in the 1958-59 season.
For his career, Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and he was a First-Team All-NBA selection in each of his first 10 seasons in the league. He finished in the top-six of the MVP voting in eight different seasons, and he was in the top-three in four of those seasons. The Lakers legend and Hall of Famer never won the award outright due to the fact that from 1960 until 1968 -- Baylor's prime seasons -- only one player other than Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain won the award. That one player was Oscar Robertson, who averaged 31.4 points, 11 rebounds and 9.9 assists during his MVP season of 1963-64.
Baylor’s best shot at winning the award came following the 1962-63 season, when he finished second to Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. That season, Baylor put up 34.0 points per game and pulled down 14.3 rebounds, all while handing out 4.8 assists per game. The Lakers won 53 games that year, making it to the NBA Finals but ultimately losing out to Russell’s Celtics in six games.
3 Elvin Hayes
Hayes had one of the most impressive debut seasons ever, as he led the league in scoring (28.4 points per game) and was sixth in rebounding (17.1 rebounds per game) as a rookie in the 1968-69 season. Even then, Hayes was beaten out for Rookie of the Year by Wes Unseld, who had such an outstanding rookie campaign that he was also named the league MVP. Just as Hayes fell short in the Rookie of the Year voting despite his excellent season, he would also fall short in the MVP voting on several occasions despite having MVP-worthy seasons.
The 12-time All-Star led the league in rebounding twice, despite a playing career that coincided with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton. Though he was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, Hayes never finished better than third in the MVP balloting. In the 1975 MVP vote, Hayes finished behind Bob McAdoo and Dave Cowens, despite averaging 23 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. He again finished third in 1979, this time losing out to Moses Malone and George Gervin, a season in which he scored 21.8 points and pulled down 12.1 rebounds per game.
2 John Havlicek
One of the greatest scorers to ever play for the Boston Celtics, “Hondo” averaged 26.1 points, 8 rebounds and 7.1 assists over a stretch of four seasons from 1969-70 to 1972-73. He won eight NBA championships with Boston and was named the NBA Finals MVP in 1974, the seventh of those eight titles. The all-time scoring leader in Boston franchise history, Havlicek is one of the most revered Celtics ever and was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in Boston sports history when he stole an inbounds pass to secure victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the final game of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1965.
Havlicek popularized the notion of the sixth man, and he was named to 13 NBA All-Star teams along with eight NBA All-Defensive teams. Despite being one of the most decorated players in the history of the NBA and a legendary member of one of the sport’s best franchises, Havlicek never won an MVP award, partially due to the fact that he played alongside so many legendary players, including five-time MVP Bill Russell. Hondo’s best finish came in the 1972 voting, when he placed fourth behind Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain despite putting up 27.5 points per game while averaging 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists. He finished in the top-five of the voting again in the following season, but Havlicek's Celtic teammate Dave Cowens won the award.
1 Jerry West
The man who is so synonymous with the NBA that his silhouette serves as the league’s logo is also one of the greatest players to have never won the MVP award. Like Havlicek, West played alongside some of the game’s greatest players and also had his prime coincide with those of some of the most legendary players in the history of the NBA. West finished second in the MVP voting four different times, losing out to Wilt Chamberlain in 1966, Willis Reed in 1970, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 and again in 1972. In the 1965 ballot, West finished third, behind only Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.
West’s accomplishments in the NBA are vast, as the 14-time All-Star and 5-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection is also the only player to have been named the NBA Finals MVP despite playing on the losing team in 1969. He won one championship as a player in 1972, and led the league in scoring (31.2 points per game) in 1970 and in assists (9.7 assists per game) in 1972. West holds career averages of 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game, and there was never a season in which he played that he was not named an All-Star. “Mr. Clutch” won six more championships as an executive,and was twice named the NBA Executive of the Year, but there is no MVP Award in what must be an expansive trophy case.
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