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We’re currently in the midst of the 2023 NBA Finals, and one of the Denver Nuggets or Miami Heat will come away with an indelible identity as this year’s champions. One player will also forever join the names of others who have been recognized as an NBA Finals MVP.
Though the first NBA Finals was played in 1947, the league didn’t award its first Finals MVP until 1969. Thirty-three different players have won the award in its 54 iterations, with No. 55 incoming this summer.
Every performance worthy of winning the NBA Finals MVP was a great one, but even great things come in different degrees. In this article, we’ll rank the 10 best performances from NBA Finals MVP winners in the award’s 54 years of life, plus answer some of the most common questions that surround one of the Association’s most notable individual accolades.
Who Gets the MVP?
The NBA Finals MVP is awarded to the player deemed to have been the most valuable in the Association’s ultimate series. Since 2009, the award has been named the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award to honor one of the game’s greatest.
A panel of 11 media members determines the winner each summer. They vote as soon as the last game of the NBA Finals ends. The player with the most votes wins this prestigious postseason prize.
10 Best NBA Finals MVP Performances Ever
10: Larry Bird | 1984 | Boston Celtics
Larry Bird famously called out his teammates for playing like “sissies” after a Game 3 defeat that saw the Celtics trail the Lakers, 2-1, in the series. He backed up that talk in Game 4 with 29 points and 21 rebounds, bolstering Boston to even the series. Bird posted game highs in scoring and rebounding in Game 5 (34 and 17). In all, he averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks per contest as the Celtics defeated the Lakers in seven to win the franchise’s 15th NBA championship.
9: Bill Walton | 1977 | Portland Trail Blazers
It was the first appearance in the playoffs for Portland, but you wouldn’t have known it with its six-game success in the 1977 NBA Finals. The Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers after going down 0-2 to start the series, winning four in a row to claim the franchise’s first championship, in large part thanks to Bill Walton. The big man was too much of a load for Philadelphia to handle as he averaging 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.7 blocks per game in the series. In each of the contests, Walton held the game-high on the glass and notched a points-rebounds double-double.
8: Tim Duncan | 2003 | San Antonio Spurs
In a low-scoring, defensive series between the Spurs and Nets, Tim Duncan was the dominant force. His 5.3 blocks per game is the most among NBA Finals MVP winners, and he swatted approximately 8.6 percent of the Nets’ two-point attempts while he was on the floor. Not only did the center protect the rim impeccably, but he also accumulated some other gaudy numbers: 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. In my opinion, this is the crown jewel of an incredibly impressive NBA Finals career for San Antonio’s star.
7: LeBron James | 2016 | Cleveland Cavaliers
Playing for his local team, down 3-1, and aiming to end Cleveland’s championship drought, LeBron James delivered an all-time performance in the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. To earn his MVP, James put up 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game in the series, but his performance is best remembered for individual plays; “Oh, blocked by James!” is one of the most iconic moments in NBA Finals history in perhaps the greatest single game in NBA Finals history.
6: Michael Jordan | 1992 | Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan has won six NBA Finals MVP awards, earning the recognition with every championship he won with the Chicago Bulls. When you’re that great, it’s tough to narrow down the best performances, but I felt that 1992 had to be included. His numbers were fantastic – 35.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field, better than 89 percent from the charity stripe, and achieving a true shooting percentage of .617 – but it wasn’t just that. The famous shrug came in Game 1 of this series after Jordan hit his sixth-straight triple in an eventual 122-89 rout in favor of Chicago. The Bulls defeated the Trail Blazers in six, and Jordan posted game-high point totals in five of those contests.
5: Magic Johnson | 1987 | Los Angeles Lakers
In the 1987 NBA Finals, Magic Johnson recorded one of two times in which the series MVP averaged a double-double on points and assists. Johnson scorched the Celtics with 26.2 points, 13.0 assists, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game while connecting on 54.1 percent of his field-goal attempts and 96 percent of his free throws. The defining play of this series came at the end of Game 4 when Johnson shocked Boston with a hook shot to give the Lakers a one-point lead with seconds to go. The shot capped off a 12-2 run that solidified LA’s advantage in the series and was ultimately key to adding the 12th title to the franchise’s trophy cabinet.
4: Giannis Antetokounmpo | 2021 | Milwaukee Bucks
This isn’t recency bias, Giannis Antetokounmpo really had that amazing of a series in the 2021 NBA Finals. En route to becoming the third international player to ever win NBA Finals MVP, Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.2 steals per night while shooting 61.8 percent from the field – the best mark ever for an NBA Finals MVP – and achieved a game score of 31.9. The Greek Freek had multiple 40-plus point performances in the series, but no showing outshined what he dd in Game 6 to secure Milwaukee’s first NBA championship in 50 years: 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, a true shooting percentage of .749, and a 94 defensive rating. If Giannis wasn’t destined for the Hall of Fame before this series, he sure is now.
3: Shaquille O’Neal | 2002 | Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers swept the Nets in the 2002 NBA Finals, and Shaquille O’Neal was no passenger. The Big Aristotle is known for his playoff performances, and he delivered in a big way in 2002 to the tune of 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.8 blocks per contest. O’Neal ran the glass and paint for Los Angeles, and New Jersey had no answer. The championship marked the third triumph in a row for the Lakers and the third-straight acknowledgment of Shaq being the best player on the court during the biggest series of the season. It concluded one of the best individual NBA Finals runs in the league’s history.
2: Shaquille O’Neal | 2000 | Los Angeles Lakers
If 2002 wasn’t good enough for you, try 2000 on for size. O’Neal produced something even more remarkable two years prior, leading the Lakers with 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.7 blocks per night, one of the most impressive stat lines ever seen in the NBA Finals. His points average is second among NBA Finals MVPs, his 61.1 percent connectivity from the field ranks third, and his rebounds and blocks both stand at sixth. In all six showdowns of the 2000 NBA Finals, Shaq led the game in scoring or rebounding, and he topped all players in both categories in five of them. The Lakers outlasted the Pacers to win their 12th NBA championship and start what would become a three-peat for the ages.
1: Michael Jordan | 1993 | Chicago Bulls
No player has scored more points per game in the NBA Finals than Michael Jordan did in 1991. In his debut in the ultimate series, his Airness registered a whopping 41.0 points per outing, tearing Phoenix apart every time he stepped out onto the court. That Phoenix Suns team was no slouch – Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, and Kevin Johnson rounded out a few of the names on that squad. But that didn’t bother Michael, who also amassed 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per contest while shooting better than 50 percent from the field in the six games of the series. In a three-overtime thriller in Game 3, Jordan nearly had a triple-double. He scored 55 in Game 4, which is still tied for the second-most points in a single NBA Finals game. Jordan had four 40-point performances in this series alone – barely anyone else has had that many in their entire careers.
NBA Finals MVP FAQs
1: Who Has Won the Most NBA Finals MVP Awards?
Michael Jordan has won the most NBA Finals MVP awards with six (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998).
2: Can You Get Finals MVP If You Lose?
Yes, you can still win the award even if your team fails the series. This has happened one time in NBA history – in 1969, the year the Finals MVP debuted, Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers claimed it in a losing effort to the Boston Celtics. In seven games, West scored 37.9 points per contest, the third-highest all-time among NBA Finals MVP winners. He also dished out 7.4 assists and hauled in 4.7 rebounds per night, but the Lakers lost Game 7 by two, and West had to settle for MVP as his consolation prize.
This could theoretically happen again, but given the 53-year precedent set against it, it’s not likely something we will see a second time. It would take an unbelievable performance from an incredibly unlucky player for history to repeat.
3: How Many NBA Players Have Won Multiple Finals MVP Awards?
Twelve players have been named NBA Finals MVP more than once in the history of the award: Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls – 6), LeBron James (Miami Heat/Cleveland Cavaliers/Los Angeles Lakers – 4), Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs – 3), Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers – 3), Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers – 3), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs/Toronto Raptors – 2), Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors – 2), Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers – 2), Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets – 2), Larry Bird (Boston Celtics – 2), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee Bucks/Los Angeles Lakers – 2), and Willis Reed (New York Knicks – 2).
Twenty-one players have won the award once: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics), Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs), Dwayne Wade (Miami Heat), Chauncey Billups (Detroit Pistons), Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons), Joe Dumars (Detroit Pistons), James Worthy (Los Angeles Lakers), Moses Malone (Philadelphia 76ers), Cedric Maxwell (Boston Celtics), Dennis Johnson (Seattle SuperSonics), Wes Unseld (Washington Bullets), Bill Walton (Portland Trail Blazers), Jo Jo White (Boston Celtics), Rick Barry (Golden State Warriors), John Havlicek (Boston Celtics), Wilt Chamberlain (Los Angeles Lakers), and Jerry West (Los Angeles Lakers).
4: Who Won the Last NBA Finals MVP?
Steph Curry was named the 2022 NBA Finals MVP after the Golden State Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics, 4-2.
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