The Moments That Won the Last 20 NBA MVPs Their Award

The Moments That Won the Last 20 NBA MVPs Their Award article feature image
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USA Today Sports. Pictured: LeBron James, Michael James

  • Every NBA MVP campaign is solidified by one moment. Rob Perez (aka @WorldWideWob) took a look back at the past 20 winners and theirs.

NBA MVP is continuously one of the most scrutinized, discussed and cogitated awards in professional sports.

The reason why it receives so much attention year after year is because the process of selecting the winner is purely subjective. Since 1980, the MVP has been chosen by members of the media who cast votes for their first to fifth place selections. First-place votes are worth 10 points, second worth seven, third worth five, fourth worth three and fifth worth one.

Some voters are former players, coaches, executives and team employees. Some are not. It’s a wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences within the game voicing opinions and making an influential decision — which when you think about it, makes Steph Curry’s unanimous MVP campaign of 2015-16 even more absurd.

Curry was so damn good that he UNANIMOUSLY convinced a collection of humans with varying agendas, fandoms, emotions and job responsibilities to ALL vote for him. Do you understand how difficult that is in today’s age of #TwoAmericas and “well, actually…”?

You have to be just unfathomably, absurdly, unequivocally the best at what you do to even be in the market for a decision like this.

This season we are as far from a consensus, unanimous MVP as possible. Two candidates are as deserving of the award as an MVP has ever been: James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The case has been made for both, and you can’t go wrong voting for either. For every jaw-dropping statistic and eye-popping highlight reel Giannis produced, Harden has one, too.

So, how do we chose?

For the past two decades, all MVPs have one thing in common: A “holy shit, that’s the MVP” moment. A moment that, when it happens, has you frozen in time — you naturally know when it happens — a screenshot of when and where you were when it happened is uploaded straight to your anatomical iCloud.

It’s the highlight that runs on loop when the player is included in any future montages and will be engraved in the MVP shrine at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

Let’s take a look at those moments for the past 20 winners.

1998: Michael Jordan (92 First-Place Votes)

Second place: Karl Malone (20)

Jordan’s final game at Madison Square Garden as a Chicago Bull.

With the playoffs approaching and no guarantee that the Knicks and Bulls would inevitably face each other gain in the conference finals, Jordan came out and dropped 42 points, grabbed eight rebounds and six assists — including a no-look over-his-head layup down the stretch, which all but reinforced the notion that no mortal human was going to beat this man in a seven-game series.

It wasn’t his last hoorah at MSG, but it was his closing argument and a reminder that he was not only the best basketball player on Earth, but still, somehow, having the best individual season of anybody.

1999: Karl Malone (44)

Second place: Alonzo Mourning (36)
Third place: Tim Duncan (30)

This is one of the most controversial winners ever — one which narrative, experience and IOUs from the Jordan era superseded all.

Malone averaged the second-lowest point per game average of his career (23.8) and rebounds per (9.4) during the NBA’s shortened 49-game schedule following the lockout. In addition: He got outplayed by (rookie!) Tim Duncan in the Jazz’s final two games against the Spurs, both losses, forfeiting home court.

All three podium candidates were worthy of the award, but Malone won it when he proved that the Jazz were not even close to being that same championship contender from the season before without him — going toe-to-toe with who would eventually become the NBA’s greatest power forward ever.

2000: Shaquille O’Neal (120)

Second place: Kevin Garnett (0)

Sixty-one points. Twenty-three rebounds. On his birthday.

You will likely never seen a grown man physically emasculate other NBA players like this again.

2001: Allen Iverson (93)

Second place: Tim Duncan (18)

We all know what the true “holy shit” moment was — especially Ty Lue — but since this is a regular-season award, it was won the night Iverson dropped 54 points while attempting only 30 shots on the second leg of a road back-to-back after just scoring 41 less than 24 hours before.

He wasn’t just the entire Philadelphia 76ers franchise in this moment, he was the city. After this, nobody came even close to bearing his burden and producing at this level.

2002: Tim Duncan (57)

Second place: Jason Kidd (45)
Third place: Shaquille O’Neal (15)

One of the most impressive individual campaigns of all-time, Duncan led the league in field goals, free throws and total rebounds. He scored 25.5 points per game on 51% shooting while playing all 82 games and averaging 40.6 minutes per night.

He was the anchor of the league’s top rated defense, single-handedly blocking 7.5% of opponents’ total shots throughout the season.

In the final game of the regular season, he took the Jazz to the woodshed, posting 26 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and SEVEN blocks while holding Malone to 3-of-13 shooting. The Spurs locked up the 2-seed in the West, and it was at this moment that Tim Duncan wasn’t “coming” anymore — he was here.

2003: Tim Duncan (60)

Second place: Kevin Garnett (43)
Third place: Kobe Bryant (8)

Tim’s best season as a pro.

23.3 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.9 BPG, 51% shooting

Only one player in the history of basketball had put up those numbers before him — a man named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not even Wilt.

In the final game of the season, against those same Jazz, Duncan once again torched Malone for a stat line of 21 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and six blocks.

This wasn’t even close to his most impressive performance of the season, but it was the reminder we all needed — once again — that he was the best player on the floor that season. Nobody was even close to being this efficient, and it once again took until the final game for everyone to realize it.

2004: Kevin Garnett (120)

Second place: Tim Duncan (0)

The greatest assist of Garnett’s career in the middle of one of his best performances ever: Feb. 1, 2004 against the 76ers.

When he drops that behind-the-back, no-look dime through the entire city of Philadelphia — even before he single-handedly won the game for the Wolves late in the 4th quarter — the world knew: “Yup, this is his time.”

Just look at the voting numbers if you need any proof.

2005: Steve Nash (65)

Second place: Shaquille O’Neal (58)

In Nash’s first season back in Phoenix, he goes berserk against Allen Iverson and drops a 12/13/12 triple-double where every single statistic could have been its own highlight reel.

Broadcast to the world on ESPN: This was the year that Nash became the immortal point guard he always had the “potential” to be.

2006: Steve Nash (57)

Second place: LeBron James (16)
Third place: Dirk Nowitzki (14)

Some of the things he did with the ball are still inexplicable to this day.

2007: Dirk Nowitzki (83)

Second place: Steve Nash (44)
Third place: Kobe Bryant (2)

Shawn Marion in his grill, tie game, TNT … the moment we all decided his jump shot had evolved to becoming truly unguardable.

2008: Kobe Bryant (82)

Second place: Chris Paul (28)
Third place: Kevin Garnett (15)

He single-handedly carried a team of Vladimir Radmanovic, Derek Fisher, Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom to the Finals — but in March, against the Warriors, Bryant went off for 36 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and THIS at the end of the game to prove: It wasn’t just Greg Maddux who could still be the league’s best player after losing his fastball.

2009: LeBron James (109)

Second place: Kobe Bryant (2)
Third place: Dwyane Wade (7)

Happy learned how to putt. Uh oh.

2010: LeBron James (116)

Second place: Kevin Durant (4)
Third place: Kobe Bryant (0)

And now you’re all in big, big trouble.

2011: Derrick Rose (113)

Second place: Dwight Howard (3)
Third place: LeBron James (4)

Goran Dragic, what are you doing? We still want to know.

2012: LeBron James (85)

Second place: Kevin Durant (24)
Third place: Chris Paul (6)

The personal 17-0 comeback run to beat the Nets, the only regular-season sequence of events that can ever be compared to LeBron’s closing of the Pistons in 2007 when he scored the last 25 points for the Cavs.

No other words are needed.

2013: LeBron James (120)

Second place: Kevin Durant (0)
Third place: Carmelo Anthony (1)

Some say they’re still recovering fossils from the dig site today.

2014: Kevin Durant (119)

Second place: LeBron James (6)
Third place: Blake Griffin (0)

The moment it wasn’t LeBron 1, Durant 2 anymore — it became 1a and 1b.

2015: Stephen Curry (100)

Second place: James Harden (25)
Third place: LeBron James (5)

The Steph Show had always been performing, but it was now the main event.

2016: Stephen Curry (131)

Second place: Not Relevant

What made this even more special is that it might have been the first ever Mike Breen double bang. Only an Earth-rattling shot in a moment of this magnitude could ever solicit such a response.

2017: Russell Westbrook (69)

Second place: James Harden (22)
Third place: Kawhi Leonard (9)

NBA record 42nd triple-double in one season and the game-winning buzzer-beater in a key playoff positioning game.

Not a single James Harden statistic mattered from the second the ball went through the net here — the Brodie was no longer a cult hero, he was mainstream.

2018: James Harden (85)

Second place: LeBron James (15)

One of — if not the — most disrespectful moments in NBA history.

And so here we are. The present.

When it’s time to vote, are you going with Harden’s most impressive individual performance of all-time?

Or blocking the NBA’s self-proclaimed “most unstoppable player” into dust?

No matter who gets the hardware in June, one thing is clear: The “holy shit” tradition has continued on for yet another year, and isn’t stopping anytime soon.

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