Who should have won the NBA's new conference finals MVP awards in recent seasons?
Earlier this month, the league introduced new awards named after legendary rivals Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers to honor the most valuable player in the Eastern (Bird) and Western (Johnson) Conference finals -- the first time an MVP honor has been extended in the playoffs outside of the NBA Finals MVP. On Thursday, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors became the first winner of the Earvin "Magic" Johnson West finals MVP.
With that in mind, we looked back over the past decade to see which players would have been deserving conference finals MVPs in both the East and the West based on their performance in those series.
Throughout the NBA season, I answer your questions about the latest, most interesting topics in basketball. You can tweet me directly at @kpelton; tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to [email protected]
In addition to the main question, this week's mailbag also examines playoff success for high-usage stars.
"Who would have won the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson conference finals MVP awards if they had been given out the past 10 years?"
Larry Bird Eastern Conference finals MVP:
2012: LeBron James, Miami Heat
2013: LeBron James, Heat
2014: LeBron James, Heat
2015: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016: LeBron James, Cavaliers
2017: LeBron James, Cavaliers
2018: LeBron James, Cavaliers
2019: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
2020: Bam Adebayo, Heat
2021: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Stop me when you notice a trend. Honestly, the creation of this award came at the worst possible time for LeBron. A decade earlier and he'd have piled up a seemingly insurmountable number of conference finals MVPs (he surely would have won in 2007 and 2011 before our time frame), reflecting the way James' teams dominated an entire generation of Eastern Conference postseasons.
A decade later and LeBron would have been an obvious namesake for a conference finals award.
None of LeBron's MVPs are particularly debatable. The closest might have been 2017, when three Cleveland players averaged at least 22.6 PPG in the team's 4-1 win over the Boston Celtics, with Kyrie Irving shooting 62% from the field and 50% from 3-point range and Kevin Love making 53.5% of his 3s and averaging a double-double (12.4 RPG). Still, James shot 58% from the field and averaged 29.6 PPG, 6.8 APG and 6.4 RPG, so he would have been the clear choice.
After LeBron went West and ceded the award to the equally dominant Kawhi Leonard, we get more interesting debates. Miami rode a balanced scoring attack to the 2020 Finals, with four different players averaging at least 19.0 PPG in the six-game conference finals win over the Celtics (Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro). But Adebayo led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks while delivering the signature play of the series (his game-saving block of Jayson Tatum), so he gets the nod.
Last year's East finals featured a somewhat similar debate to the 1980 NBA Finals MVP, recently brought back to life in the HBO series "Winning Time." Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980, Giannis Antetokounmpo was probably the best player over the course of the Bucks' win. But Middleton played the Magic role, lifting Milwaukee to a closeout victory without the injured Giannis, with 32 points in the clincher after 26 points, 13 boards and eight assists in Game 5. Like Johnson, I think he would've won the award.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson Western Conference finals MVP:
2012: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
2013: Tony Parker, Spurs
2014: Tim Duncan, Spurs
2015: Stephen Curry, Warriors
2016: Stephen Curry, Warriors
2017: Stephen Curry, Warriors
2018: Kevin Durant, Warriors
2019: Stephen Curry, Warriors
2020: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2021: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
So maybe we did need conference finals MVPs after all. Winning Finals MVP is famously the missing piece on Curry's resumé as an inner-circle Hall of Famer, but by my reckoning, this year's award would be his fifth out of six conference finals wins for the Warriors.
Remarkably, Curry led Golden State in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric all six times, though I think voters would have favored Durant in 2018 after he averaged 30.4 PPG against the Houston Rockets, including 34 points in Game 7. (Curry, who finished a rebound away from a 27-point triple-double, wasn't too shabby either.)
The other debatable Curry win was 2016, when Klay Thompson's 41-point effort helped the Warriors stave off elimination in Game 6 in Oklahoma City. However, Curry was the best player on the court in Game 7 (36 points, eight assists) and better than Thompson over the course of the series.
The most recent two West MVPs would have been interesting debates. LeBron, bidding for a ninth conference finals MVP (but his first in the West), rated better by WARP in 2020. At the same time, Davis averaged 31.2 PPG and hit the biggest shot of the series at the buzzer to win Game 2, which tips the scales in his direction.
On a per-minute basis, the best Suns player last year was Paul, who averaged 24.0 PPG and 8.8 APG after missing the first two games of the series in health & safety protocols. Devin Booker led Phoenix with 25.5 PPG but shot just 38% from the field and 29% from 3-point range. Deandre Ayton was also in the mix after averaging 17.8 PPG and 13.7 RPG. Any of the three could have won, but I imagine voter sentiment would have favored Paul, who reached the NBA Finals for the first time.
@kpelton, do you happen to know what has been the highest player usage % on a championship team? Wondering about usage rate's correlation with scaling to championships.— Dspeedz (@dspeedz) May 25, 2022
Here are the top 10 players on championship teams by regular-season usage since player turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78:
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1992-93: 34.7%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1997-98: 34.1%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1995-96: 33.5%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1996-97: 33.3%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1990-91: 32.9%
• Dwyane Wade, Heat, 2005-06: 32.6%
• Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks, 2020-21: 32.6%
• Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers, 1999-00: 32.5%
• Kobe Bryant, Lakers, 2009-10: 32.4%
• Kobe Bryant, Lakers, 2008-09: 32.3%
From this list, you can easily pinpoint the exact year where conventional wisdom changed from favoring balance to a single dominant scorer. Before Jordan led the Bulls to a title -- albeit with a lower usage than his record of better than 38% in 1986-1987 -- such high usage was considered at odds with team success. By sacrificing a little and getting an ideal star teammate in Scottie Pippen, Jordan proceeded to flip that notion on its head in the 1990s.
Here's a similar, Jordan-heavy list for playoff usage on championship teams:
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1992-93: 38.0%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1991-92: 37.1%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1997-98: 36.6%
• Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, 1994-95: 35.9%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1996-97: 35.5%
• Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors, 2018-19: 35.0%
• LeBron James, Heat, 2011-12: 33.4%
• Kobe Bryant, Lakers, 2009-10: 33.2%
• Kobe Bryant, Lakers, 2008-09: 32.9%
• Michael Jordan, Bulls, 1995-96: 32.9%
Lately, the idea of high-usage stars being a challenge has come back to a degree -- in a slightly different context. Just three players -- Jordan, Bryant and Allen Iverson -- had exceeded a 37% usage rate in the regular season before 2014-2015, doing it once each. Since then, it's happened seven times in the last eight seasons, including both Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid during 2021-2022.
Within this trend toward heliocentrism, it is accurate that the highest-usage players haven't typically played deep into the postseason. This year, Doncic is the first of the group to even reach the conference finals.
At the same time, there's more than a little "chicken or egg" element to this question. Are teams actually struggling in the playoffs because they're so dependent on the stars, or are they so dependent on their stars because they don't have enough supplementary shot creation? I suspect the answer is much more likely the latter.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are an interesting case study. Giannis' 38% usage in 2019-20 was one of the 10 highest on record. After Milwaukee was upset in the second round of the bubble playoffs by the Miami Heat and added All-Star Jrue Holiday via trade, Antetokounmpo's usage rate declined to 33% -- still good enough for top 10 among champions but no longer a historic outlier. I'd say the Bucks won because of adding Holiday, not because Giannis' usage rate was lower.