The Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award is often one of the most
confusing additions to a player's legacy.
Logically, it doesn't make much sense to apply so much weight to
an award tied a tiny seven-game sample size at most. But Finals MVP
recognizes the ability to elevate one's game to new heights while
on the greatest basketball stage in the world. It's a touchstone
for the series, and that season, and its place in the history of
But the small sample also allows some players to make a
surprising mark on a Finals. These five award-winners may not have
been the odds-on favorite entering the showdown, but they all took
command in high-stakes moments and became X-factors for their
respective franchises. Though these are the most "unlikely" Finals
MVP winners, all of them deserve praise for contributing to
Magic Johnson, 1980 Los
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was ruled out for Game 6 of the 1980
NBA Finals with an ankle injury, the Lakers had to turn to one
rookie point guard from Michigan State to bring home the title.
Magic Johnson was less than a year removed from being selected
first overall, but was already blazing his trail as a basketball
In that pivotal Game 6, Johnson put up 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7
assists and 3 steals -- as the team's center -- in a 123-107
championship-clinching win over the Philadelphia 76ers. At age 20,
he is still the youngest Finals MVP winner in league history and
the only rookie to receive the award. Johnson's star would only
continue to rise; he took home three Finals MVP trophies in his
Jerry West, 1969 Los Angeles
Only one player has ever won Finals
MVP as the leader of a losing franchise. Ironically, it came in the
first year of the award, and even as trophy namesake Bill Russell
and the Boston Celtics won in seven games. But it's tough to go
against West's unreal series, in which he averaged 37.9 points
(without a three-point line!), 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per
West scored 53 points in the Lakers'
Game 1 victory and 42 points in the 108-106 Game 7 loss. He beat
out John Havlicek, who put up 28.3 points and 11.0 rebounds per
game for Boston, to win the award. I'd bet against seeing another
losing MVP winner for now, unless they can put up the same gaudy
numbers as West.
Cedric Maxwell, 1981 Boston
Maxwell is the lone winner before 2000
to not be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. During his
11-year career, the small forward made an impact as a dynamic
scorer and rebounder, but never made an All-Star team or averaged
over 20 points per game.
But Maxwell did capitalize on a
sluggish Finals between the Celtics and Houston Rockets. As a
25-year-old, he put up a team-high 17.7 points to go with 9.5
assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and
Robert Parish were all on the roster, but all three were still
growing into their roles as a Big Three. Maxwell carried the torch
in advance while helping hold Houston to just 38% shooting as a
team during the series.
Andre Iguodala, 2015 Golden
During the 2014-15 regular season,
Iguodala was no more than a serviceable bench piece for the
Warriors, averaging just 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. But
he transformed in the Finals, putting up 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds
and 4.0 assists while helping the Warriors begin their dynasty with
the 2015 championship.
There's skepticism around this award,
as Warriors superstar Stephen Curry also dropped 26.0 points, 6.3
assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game in the series. But
Iguodala was the front man for defending LeBron James, and led a
Warriors fortress that kept the Cavaliers from surpassing 100
points in any game. Both Curry and Iguodala deserve praise for
delivering Oakland a title.
Wes Unseld, 1978 Washington
Of all the awards handed out, this one stumps me. Unseld was
no-doubt an amazing NBA player, a well-deserved Hall-of-Famer and a
key piece for the Bullets. But the power forward won Finals MVP in
1978 while averaging just 9.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists
per game. Scoring isn't the only way to impact the game, but Unseld
was seventh on his team in that category, and others such as Elvin
Hayes and Bob Dandridge consistently stepped up in the seven-game
series win over the Seattle SuperSonics.
In fairness to Unseld, he is one of the supreme connectors in
league history. Unseld's play often transcended the box score,
which was especially limited back in the 1970s, and his defense
against Jack Sikma and the SuperSonics was notable. It's just such
an outlier from other MVP-caliber performances. Hayes and Dandridge
each shouldered the scoring load and pushed Washington ahead in
some gritty contests.