Dissecting the NBA Finals MVP Choice

By Carlos Pena-Lobel

Two nights ago, the Warriors beat the Cavs in the NBA finals 4-2, and Andre Iguodala was awarded the NBA Finals MVP by a 7-4 vote, following a tradition that the MVP comes from the winning team that is practically as old as the trophy itself.  Jerry West is the only person who has lost the Finals and won the Finals MVP, in the trophy’s inaugural year in 1969.   Many this year felt that LeBron James should have joined this exclusive club of losers to win the MVP because of the eye-popping numbers he put up against a heavily favored Golden State team.  Amidst this, Stephen Curry, the regular season MVP, didn’t receive a single vote for the Finals MVP, but many commentators, ranging from NBA analysts to internet trolls, felt he should have won the award as the best player on the winning team.  This post is a short look comparing Iguodala, James and Curry to previous Finals MVPs, to see how they would’ve stacked up.

However, as a quick aside, is this the era of the Small Forward?  Using Basketball Reference’s positions for each of the Finals MVP, a 10 year running count of the breakdown by position reveals that early on the award was dominated by centers (Willis Reed, Kareem, Wilt, Bill Walton), followed by an era of SG dominance (Jordan, and post-baseball Jordan).  Now we have Pierce, LeBron (for 2nd Finals MVP in Miami he was classified as a PF), Kawhi and now Andre (Figure 1).  Will Durant or Paul George be the next to break through?

Figure 1

Now back to the argument: do LeBron’s numbers make up for how inefficient he was in getting them?  And on the other side, does defending LeBron count as enough to make up for the fact that Iguodala had some of the weakest offensive stats of NBA Finals MVPs?  And Curry may not have been spectacular, by why was he so utterly disregarded?

First and foremost, I will take an approach similar to what Neil Paine did, and look at the sum of the three main stats: points, rebounds, and assists (because steals, turnovers, and blocks weren’t tracked until 1978).   However, I will adjust all the number to account for minutes played.  Similarly to what Paine found, even when controlling for time played, LeBron’s numbers are historic.  LeBron’s 2015 (60.95) edged out Shaq’s 2002 (60.44) which may be the best NBA Finals performance of all time in terms of efficiency and sheer volume (Table 1).  Meanwhile on the other end, Iggy’s numbers were historically bad, totaling almost half of what LeBron totaled at 33.95.

Table 1

However the complaint about LeBron in this series was never that he couldn’t put up huge numbers, but instead that he needed tons of shots to do it.  Indeed when sorting by PTS/FGA (Table 2) you find that LeBron’s numbers are historically bad.  However, this helps show how special Shaq’s 2002 Finals were – not only did he have the 2nd highest scoring finals (per 48 minutes), but he was also the 3rd most efficient in getting them.

Table 2

To visualize this in a different way, I created two graphs, to compare Usage Rate and Effective Field Goal Percentage to Offensive Rating.  This shows just truly how poorly LeBron shot.  He would’ve had the lowest FG%, and 2nd lowest EFG% of any Finals MVP.  On the other hand, Andre had the lowest Usage Rate of any Final’s MVP, and was the only Finals MVP to not start every game.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Breaking these charts down by position reveals how different positions have different standards (with an admittedly tiny sample size).  SG and PF were tolerated with having much lower shooting percentages, and SG and C were often tasked with carrying much more of the load.

Figure 4

Figure 5

In conclusion, LeBron didn’t have good enough numbers given that he lost the Finals, and Iggy didn’t do enough to warrant the MVP honors himself.  If I had had a vote, it would have gone to Curry.  Curry wasn’t magnificent but he didn’t have any glaring holes like Iggy or LeBron did.  The eyeball test also gives the MVP to Curry.  The Cavs weren’t playing Hack-A-Curry at the end of games; instead, they were throwing double teams at him nearly every time he touched the ball.  While Curry set the bar ridiculously high with his video-game-like regular season, his Finals shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Disclaimers:  all data was taken from Basketball Reference, and positions were determined based on what BR labeled as the player’s position from that year of the playoffs.  This is not endorsed by HSAC and is only the opinion of one (less disgruntled) Lakers fan.

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