First introduced in 1969, the NBA Finals MVP is the grandest individual NBA playoffs accolade of them all. There’s no bigger acknowledgement than being recognized as the main man behind a team’s triumphs.
But that’s not all that the award does.
It helps stars take the leap to superstardom and cements legacies. In the modern day, it also helps in settling (or further confusing) basketball debates.
Like other awards, the NBA Finals MVP is also decided by a voting process. An 11-member media panel casts votes to decide the winner. Los Angeles Lakers star Jerry West won the inaugural award in 1969, despite the Boston Celtics winning the NBA title that year. He remains the only player from the losing team to win the award.
More than 30 different players have now been named NBA Finals MVP since the award’s inception. The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (2021) and Stephen Curry (2022) both managed to stake their claims very recently. But who rules the roost in this department? Let’s find out.
Six: Michael Jordan (1991-93 and 1996-98)
While basketball fans may never agree on the GOAT debate, there’s no debating this Michael Jordan accomplishment. Jordan had already won an NBA Most Valuable Player award and a Defensive Player of the Year for the 1987-88 regular season with the Chicago Bulls, but he won this award for the first time in 1991. Fresh off a sweep of the defending champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, Jordan went on to average 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds against the Lakers as the Phil Jackson-led Bulls won their first Larry O’Brien Trophy. Jordan’s most impressive outing of that series was Game 2 with 33 points on 15-for-18 shooting and 13 assists as the Bulls dominated the Lakers 107-86.
His Airness would go on to average over 30 points per game in each of the next two NBA Finals, as both the Bulls and he three-peated as NBA champions and the Finals MVP winners.
Among their first three titles, it was the Finals against Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in 1993 where MJ was at his peak. Jordan averaged 41 points per game in that series, still the record for the highest by any player in a single Finals series. He also scored 40+ points in four straight games and is still the only player to do so in the Finals. This included a 55-point outing in Game 4, which is tied for the second highest individual effort in an NBA Finals game.
An older Jordan would return to the NBA Finals again in three straight seasons starting 1996 and win another three awards. His overall scoring average of 33.6 points per game in the NBA Finals is bettered only by Rick Barry (36.3) among players to have played more than one Finals series.
Four: LeBron James (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020)
LeBron James has made 10 trips to the NBA Finals, a record bettered only by Celtics teammates Bill Russell and Sam Jones. He had to return empty handed on the first two occasions, falling to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 while with the Cleveland Cavaliers and in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks while with the Miami Heat.
LeBron cracked the code in the 2012 NBA Finals against a young Oklahoma City Thunder team. It was also the first time that King James averaged over 25 points per game in an NBA Finals series as the Heat clinched their second NBA ring in five games.
King James followed this up with a dream run in 2012-13 season as he won the MVP, finished as the runner up in the Defensive Player of the Year award, followed by selections to both All-NBA First Team and All-Defense First Team. LeBron recorded a 32-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple double in Game 6, then went on to score 37 points in the series-clinching Game 7 while scoring the winning basket.
LeBron was able to repeat his exploits three years later in 2016 with the Cavs in what will likely be remembered as the most clutch Finals performance by the kid from Akron. Down 3-1 to a record-setting Golden State Warriors team, LeBron scored 41 points in back-to-back games as the Cavs forced a Game 7. James put up 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and three blocks, including that one on Andre Iguodala, to secure the biggest series comeback in NBA Finals history and deliver Cleveland its first NBA title.
LeBron James claimed his most recent NBA Finals MVP in 2020, pushing the Lakers across the finish line against the Jimmy Butler-led Heat in six games. King James was close to averaging a triple double in that series, finishing at 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game.
Three: Magic Johnson (1980, 1982, 1987)
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson hit the ground running right from the get-go and won an NBA Finals MVP in his rookie year in 1980, remaining the only player to achieve this feat to date.
While the illustrious Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 33.4 points per game in the Lakers’ series against the Philadelphia 76ers, he was sidelined with an ankle injury for the pivotal Game 6. That’s when the 20-year-old Johnson rose to the occasion with 42 points for his highest single-game scoring mark in an NBA Finals game. He added 15 rebounds and seven assists to claim his first Finals MVP trophy, as the Lakers beat Julius Erving’s 76ers 123-107 to win the NBA title.
Johnson and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals again in 1982, this time with head coach Pat Riley, and faced the 76ers again. The ‘Showtime’ Lakers once again finished the series off in six games, and Johnson claimed his second Finals MVP.
Johnson then made five out of the next six Finals while averaging 12.5 assists per game for the highest mark in NBA history. His last Finals MVP accolade came in 1987, when his Lakers beat the Celtics in six games. Johnson averaged 26.2 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds per game in the series to lead the LA outfit in each category.
Three: Shaquille O’Neal (2000-2002)
Shaquille O’Neal had already made an NBA Finals in 1995 with the Orlando Magic, but it was not until he went back with the Lakers in 2000 that he was really able to leave his impression.
In the six-game series against the Indiana Pacers, Shaq led both team in scoring and rebounding in each of the first five games. Game 2 of this series also saw arguably the most intense use of the Hack-a-Shaq tactic, where O’Neal was sent to the free throw line 39 times, and missed 21 of those attempts, both being the highest in NBA Finals history.
O’Neal could always score at the basket, but in the following Finals, he truly unleashed his rim-protecting ability. He finished with 3.4 blocks per game in the 2001 Finals against Philly, including an eight-block outing in Game 2 where the Lakers won 98-89. He averaged 33 points per game to claim his second NBA Finals MVP, while the Lakers earned their 12th banner.
Shaq spearheaded the Lakers’ charge once again in the 2002 Finals against the then-New Jersey Nets, averaging 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game to become just the second player in league history to three-peat as the NBA Finals MVP.
Three: Tim Duncan (1999, 2003, 2005)
The foundational piece behind the San Antonio Spurs’ five NBA title triumphs, Tim Duncan earned his first Finals MVP honors in his sophomore year with his side beating the New York Knicks 4-1 in the 1999 NBA Finals. Aided by the physical presence of David Robinson, Duncan averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds per game as San Antonio win its first NBA title.
It was in 2003 that The Big Fundamental truly dug in. The Spurs beat the Suns, the Lakers and eventually the Mavs to book a date with the Nets in the 2003 NBA Finals. Duncan recorded 20-20 outings in games 1 and 6, the latter extending into a triple-double. He averaged 5.3 blocks per game in the six-game series, the highest mark by any player in an NBA Finals series, to go along with 17 rebounds per game.
Duncan’s final NBA Finals MVP award came in 2005 with the Spurs beating the Pistons in a seven-game thriller. The triumvirate of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili was already in full force by then but the former was still the most instrumental player of the lot. He registered a double-double in all seven games of the series, becoming only the second player to do so in the last 50 years alongside Magic Johnson (1984).
NBA Finals MVP List
|Finals MVP count
|Michael Jordan – Chicago Bulls
|LeBron James – Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers
|Magic Johnson – Los Angeles Lakers
|Shaquille O’Neal – Los Angeles Lakers
|Tim Duncan – San Antonio Spurs
|Hakeem Olajuwon – Houston Rockets
|Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
|Willis Reed – New York Knicks
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers
|Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
|Larry Bird – Boston Celtics
|Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors
|Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors
|Moses Malone – Philadelphia 76ers
|Jerry West – Los Angeles Lakers
|Joe Dumars – Detroit Pistons
|Rick Barry – Golden State Warriors
|John Havlicek – Boston Celtics
|Tony Parker – San Antonio Spurs
|Cedric Maxwell – Boston Celtics
|Jo Jo White – Boston Celtics
|Andre Iguodala – Golden State Warriors
|Paul Pierce – Boston Celtics
|Chauncey Billups – Detroit Pistons
|Isiah Thomas – Detroit Pistons
|Dennis Johnson – Seattle SuperSonics
|James Worthy – Los Angeles Lakers
|Dirk Nowitzki – Dallas Mavericks
|Wes Unseld – Washington Bullets
|Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat
|Wilt Chamberlain – Los Angeles Lakers
|Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
|Bill Walton – Portland Trail Blazers
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