Rare Champions

3 Pistons title winners didn’t have a top-six MVP finisher

Isiah Thomas
Though he won two championships in Detroit, Isiah Thomas only received one vote for MVP in those championship seasons.
Dick Raphael (NBA/Getty Images)
There have been 56 NBA champions crowned since the league instituted the MVP award. In 45 of those seasons, the champions were led by a player who finished among the top-four in MVP balloting.

Twenty of those NBA champions, in fact, featured the league MVP. (Twelve players have won MVP in the same season their team won the NBA title. Two players have done it four times each, two others have done it twice apiece. Pretty exclusive little club. Can you name them? Answer at the bottom.)

And in case you think that’s a case of the spoils going to the victors, MVP balloting is done before the playoffs begin. If anything, the correlation between MVP winners and NBA champions validates the credibility of awards voters.

Only eight times has an NBA champion not had someone from its team finish in the top six in MVP balloting. Those eight champions include the three Pistons teams that brought NBA titles back to Detroit. (And, really, even that doesn’t do justice to how rare those Pistons champions really are. Keep reading.)

It would be tough to argue that the 1988-89 Pistons weren’t the best team in franchise history. They won 63 regular-season games and went 15-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in the NBA Finals. (The 2005-06 Pistons own the franchise record for regular-season wins at 64, but after a 39-6 start they finished 25-12 and went 10-8 in the playoffs, losing in the conference finals to Miami. The 1989 champions started 33-15, then finished the regular season on a 30-4 sprint before sweeping three of four playoff opponents.)

But if you’d have tried to project the NBA champion simply by looking at the results of the 1989 MVP balloting, you’d probably have guessed a handful of other teams before settling on the Pistons.

The top six – and, remember, history tells us there’s an 86 percent chance the NBA champ will have a top-six finisher – were all no-brainer Hall of Famers: Magic Johnson of the Lakers, Michael Jordan of the Bulls, Karl Malone of the Jazz, Patrick Ewing of the Knicks, Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Charles Barkley of the 76ers.

Cleveland would have been a good guess as NBA champ, based off the MVP ballot. The Cavs had Mark Price 10th, Brad Daugherty 11th and Larry Nance 13th. No wonder Magic predicted the Cavs would be the team of the ’90s. But the Cavs couldn’t get out of the first round that year. They lost a deciding Game 5 at home to the Bulls when Jordan hit one of the most famous shots of his career, a buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo to give Chicago a one-point win.

Utah would have been another solid pick. In addition to Malone at No. 3, John Stockton finished seventh and Mark Eaton – Mark Eaton! – was 13th. Even Phoenix had two top-10 finishers in Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers.

The Pistons? The greatest team in franchise history? The team that had won 63 games – best in the league that year by six games, even though they played in a Central Division that, incredibly enough, had five teams with 47 or more wins? The best they could do was Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, picking up one measly point apiece to tie for 17th on the ballot, four spots behind Mark Eaton.

The following year, when the Pistons again rolled to the NBA title, winning 59 games and going 15-5 in the playoffs, their results were much the same. Again, it was only Isiah and Joe D getting votes – again, one apiece. This time, there were only 12 names ahead of them on the ballot, so they tied for 13th, up four spots.

When the Pistons won in 2004, they again had only one player named on the ballot. But he finished seventh with 24 points.

Twice NBA teams have won the title without having anyone on the ballot, but in both instances – Washington in 1978 and Boston in 1968 – it came when players, not media, voted and, more critically, only five players were put on each ballot, not 10. It’s really an apples and oranges comparison for anything that came before 1980.

So in addition to 1978 and ’68, throw out Seattle 1979 (Jack Sikma finished seventh) and New York 1973 (Walt Frazier seventh, Dave DeBusschere tied for 11th). That leaves the three Pistons champions and a most unlikely bedfellow, the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers. Magic Johnson finished eighth that year and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finished 10th.

Here were Magic’s averages that year: 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.7 steals and a .537 shooting percentage. You think he probably should have finished higher than eighth? Yeah. Me, too.

OK. Did you guess the two four-time MVPs who won championships the same year? Bill Russell (1961, ’62, ’63, ’65) and Michael Jordan (1991, ’92, ’96, ’98). The two two-time winners: Kareem (1971, 1980) and Larry Bird (1984, 86). There were eight solo winners, including Bob Cousy (1957), Wilt Chamberlain (1967), Willis Reed (1970), Moses Malone (1983), Magic Johnson (1987), Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) and Shaquille O’Neal (2000).

The current eight-year drought for MVP winners as champions matches the NBA’s previous longest, which came between Abdul-Jabbar’s two double dips. Kareem is the only multiple MVP champion to accomplish the feat with two franchises, his first coming with the Bucks and his second with the Lakers.