Projected Finals MVPs from 1947 to 1968

With the Finals over, now is the time for reflection and historical queries. The NBA Finals date back to 1947 when the league was called the Basketball Association of America. Kawhi Leonard etched his name into history, but the Finals MVP has only existed since 1969. Fortunately, I built a Finals MVP model to predict the winners, and this can be used retroactively to fill in the winners from 1947 to 1968.

First of all, I have to mention the caveats.

It’s difficult enough to assess NBA value through box score stats, but this time period includes no turnovers, blocks, or steals. Then more stats drop out, including assists, minutes, rebounds, and field goal attempts. (For some reason, people thought a box score needed points, free throws, and field goals made, but never attempts in the early days.) However, what I’m doing is mimicking the whims of the voters, and they are very impressed with points. As long as I have points (and rebounds in the Russell-era) the method will be decent given the available information.

For a brief introduction to the method here, I’m using the game score formula here with a couple tweaks. One is that I use rebound percentage instead of raw rebounds, and another is that I add a boost for usage% and assist% (basically a boost for playmakers.) Also, your odds are based on your competition, so the ratio of a player’s game score to the max one in that series is used. For more details, there’s a previous article.

Finals MVPs pre-1969

Without further ado, here are the projected winners for the NBA finals from 1947-58:

Season Player Team Odds%
1967-68 John Havlicek BOS 72.0
1966-67 Hal Greer PHI 32.1
1965-66 Bill Russell BOS 67.8
1964-65 Bill Russell BOS 59.8
1963-64 Sam Jones BOS 67.3
1962-63 Bill Russell BOS 55.2
1961-62 Bill Russell BOS 77.3
1960-61 Bob Cousy BOS 66.3
1959-60 Bill Russell BOS 55.0
1958-59 Tom Heinsohn BOS 43.3
1957-58 Bob Pettit STL 55.6
1956-57 Bob Cousy BOS 57.4
1955-56 Paul Arizin PHW 80.0
1954-55 Dolph Schayes SYR 90.5
1953-54 George Mikan MNL 93.8
1952-53 George Mikan MNL 49.8
1951-52 George Mikan MNL 77.2
1950-51 Arnie Risen ROC 41.5
1949-50 George Mikan MNL 99.1
1948-49 George Mikan MNL 97.6
1947-48 Connie Simmons BLB 39.6
1946-47 Joe Fulks PHW 98.0

I’m surprised Russell only won five, but looking at it year by year I think that’s reasonable. Sometimes another player would shoot great, like Sam Jones or Havlicek, and Russell would sometimes have a series where he scored very little with a poor field-goal percentage. I don’t think the argument about voters being tied to the team’s star player is applicable here, as we’ve seen in the cases of Cedric Maxwell and this year’s Kawhi Leonard. For instance, here’s an article about Frank Ramsey standing out in 1959 (Ramsey had the second best odds behind Heinsohn at 32.9%.) However, Russell’s impact is not measured well by box score stats.

Russell, nonetheless, looks pretty dominant anyway, and it’s the same with Mikan in the 50’s. Wilt was barely edged out by Greer in ’67 (you can tell by the low odds), and that might be one of the few instances where I disagree with the model’s output (the others involve Russell.)

Joe Fulks was the first MVP, and he nearly repeated in 1948 despite being on the losing team. He was barely behind Simmons at 35% thanks to a 23.5 points per game average in the Finals. If that doesn’t sound like much, adjust it for the shot-clock era: teams averaged 72 points per game that season. Fulks scored 32% of his team’s points, and for comparison in 2006 Kobe scored 35% of his team’s points when he averaged 35 a game, and Durant scored a mere 30% of his team’s points this season. Known as Jumpin’ Joe for his athleticism and signature shot, Fulks was the first superstar in the league, and he helped progress the game as one of the innovators of the jump shot. He scored 63 points in one game, an astounding total for the era. His jump shot was actually a crazy turnaround jumper, which you can see in the highlights video from the first game of the 1947 finals here.

If you’re looking to compare Finals MVP totals of every player with the list, I’ve done it for you:

FMVPs Player
6 Michael Jordan
5 Bill Russell
5 George Mikan
3 Magic Johnson
3 Shaquille O’Neal
3 Tim Duncan
2 Bob Cousy
2 Hakeem Olajuwon
2 John Havlicek
2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
2 Kobe Bryant
2 Larry Bird
2 LeBron James
2 Willis Reed

Miscellaneous Notes:

If we tweak the coefficient for winning the title so that the model thinks West was the deserving winner in ’69, like it happened in reality, do any other “losers” win the MVP? (Note: the model has low odds for West winning despite his great series because it was a rare occurrence that only happened once.) The only losing players with the best odds are West, of course, Joe Fulks in 1948 (he nearly won without the tweak), and LeBron James in 2014. Whatever you think of him, he fought valiantly.

A full list of all losers with 10% or greater odds is mostly one of star scorers who lost to the Russell Celtics plus a few interesting guys:

2014 LeBron James 23.9%
2011 Dwyane Wade 18.6%
1977 Julius Erving 10.2%
1974 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 20.3%
1970 Jerry West 14.5%
1969 Jerry West 32.5%*
1966 Jerry West 13.5%
1964 Wilt Chamberlain 14.2%
1963 Elgin Baylor 12.7%
1962 Elgin Baylor 12.4%
1961 Cliff Hagan 11.4%
1948 Joe Fulks 35.0%
*Finals MVP

Unless it’s versus the Celtics, who usually had balanced scoring, it’s quite rare for a losing player to play so well relative to his competition on the other team.

Another list, and this time it’s for the best performances for my modified game score metric since 1978 (when turnovers were available in box scores):

Year Player GmSc
1991 Michael Jordan 33.82
1993 Michael Jordan 33.78
2002 Shaquille O’Neal 32.98
2000 Shaquille O’Neal 32.79
1987 Magic Johnson 31.48
2001 Shaquille O’Neal 30.28
1992 Michael Jordan 29.64
2006 Dwyane Wade 28.48
1997 Michael Jordan 27.74
1995 Hakeem Olajuwon 27.62
1980 Kareem Ab.-Jabbar 27.52
2012 LeBron James 27.42
2009 Kobe Bryant 27.31
1988 Magic Johnson 27.12
2003 Tim Duncan 26.27
1986 Larry Bird 25.92
1993 Charles Barkley 25.77*
2014 LeBron James 25.74*
2011 Dwyane Wade 25.71*
2013 LeBron James 25.68
*Did not win title

Jordan and Shaq, of course, dominant the top end, but Magic joins them in the esteemed 30-score club. And yes, by this metric LeBron played better this year than last year when he won. Almost every post-merger superstar known for the playoffs is represented here.

Looking back at history, what we saw in 2014 was fairly remarkable.

Since the 80’s, balanced teams don’t usually win titles, and we rarely have a player excel in a losing effort while his teammates crumble. It’s a testament to the game as a team sport, not one-on-one streetball. Russell may have won only 5 Finals MVPs by my method, and maybe he deserved another three, but he wouldn’t have cared; he wanted the championship for the entire team.