Winning the NBA Most Valuable Player award is one of the highest individual honors in the league. The title will put your name under the bright lights and signify that you now have a place among the all-time greats.
It’s great and all, and your legacy is certainly taking a big jump, but as Spiderman famously taught all of us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Receiving the award comes with a massive amount of pressure to win at all costs.
While many have risen to the challenge, we’ve also seen cases where the MVP completely failed to meet expectations and made the award questionable.
We’ll list down the worst of the worst, so cases like Russell Westbrook in 2017, where he and the Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the first round as an underdog, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976, where he and the unheralded Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs, won’t be included.
Let’s begin with the most recent: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks – 2020
Season averages: 29.5 PPG / 13.6 RPG/ 5.6 APG / 55.3 FG%
Playoff finish: Lost to the Miami Heat in the East Semifinals, 4-1.
Well, it’s quite fresh in our memories as it happened just a week ago. Giannis and the Bucks were lighting everyone up until they met the Heat in the second round, who are one of the few teams that matched up with them really well. A upset ensued.
The Greek Freak had his moments in the series, but he was tamed by the wall defense for the most part, and they went down, 0-3, with little resistance. He wasn’t even able to finish the series as he got injured in Game 4 trying to will the Bucks back.
Dirk Nowitzki – Dallas Mavericks – 2007
Season averages: 24.6 PPG / 8.9 RPG / 3.4 APG / 50.2 FG%
Playoff finish: Lost to the Golden State Warriors in the West First Round, 4-1.
The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks had a great regular season. They started 0-4 and finished 67-15, and were also the first team in NBA history to have three 10-plus game winning streaks in a single season, thanks in good part to 2007 MVP, Dirk Nowitzki.
Unfortunately, they ran through the worst team they can possibly match-up with in the first round. Like the Bucks to the Heat this year, the ’07 Mavs had no answer to the ’07 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors, who were athletic, played fast, and had nothing to lose. That Warriors team also had the Mavs’ former coach, Don Nelson.
Dirk averaged a double-double of 19.3 points and 11.3 rebounds but was held to just 38.3% shooting. When they were eliminated in Game 6, he only scored eight points and shot just 2-for-13 from the floor.
LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2010
Season averages: 29.3 PPG / 7.3 RPG / 8.6 APG / 1.6 SPG / 50.3 FG%
Playoff finish: Lost to the Boston Celtics in the East Semifinals, 4-2.
In 2010, the Cavaliers recorded their second-straight 60-plus win season and were able to maintain their place as serious title contenders. LeBron James was expected to mature as a superstar and team leader, and he lived up to that by winning his second consecutive MVP.
Then, it came crashing down in only the second round. He and the Cavs just weren’t ready against the Boston Celtics, who were more cohesive, battle-tested, and well-rounded.
After going up, 2-1, the Cavs lost Games 4, 5, and 6, with James showcasing lacklustre performances. He put up 21.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.0 assists in that stretch but shot a horrid 34%.
In the all-important Game 5, which turned out to be James’s last game in Cleveland prior to leaving for the Miami Heat, he went 3-for-14 for only 15 points, looking lethargic and lacked any sense of urgency.
Karl Malone – Utah Jazz – 1999
Season averages: 23.8 PPG / 9.4 RPG / 4.1 APG / 49.3 FG%
Playoff finish: Lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the West Semifinals, 4-2.
Because of Michael Jordan’s retirement, the Chicago Bulls dynasty’s disbandment, and the lockout, the 1998-99 season became one of the blandest regular seasons ever. There was one clear storyline, though: the Utah Jazz, who lost to the Bulls in the last two finals, may finally have had a shot to win the championship.
Everything looked great as the Jazz finished 37-13. Karl Malone was an ageless wonder who can still score against the best, so he rightfully won the MVP.
The tough luck of the playoffs then hit them hard as they faced the younger, faster, and stronger Blazers squad, who had Isiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, and Damon Stoudamire, just to name a few. They had too much firepower for the 35-year-old Malone, 36-year-old John Stockton, 35-year-old Jeff Hornacek,, and ‘3 and D’ guy, Bryon Russell.
Facing elimination in Game 6, Malone only scored eight points on 3-for-16 shooting.
Magic Johnson – Los Angeles Lakers – 1990
Season averages: 22.3 PPG / 6.6 RPG / 11.6 APG / 1.7 SPG / 49.3 FG%
Playoff finish: Lost to the Phoenix Suns in the West Semifinals, 4-1.
Even after Kareem’s retirement in 1989, the Lakers were able to maintain their status as one of the NBA’s elite teams. Pat Riley was still at the helm and Magic Johnson was still doing supernatural things on the court.
The 1989-90 season was just like any other Lakers campaign in the decade. They finished with a league-best, 63-19 record, and they had Magic, the game’s best showman and most versatile player. With Kareem gone, his stats were even more insane than years past. He won the MVP with little debate.
Sadly, Riley and Magic had no clue what the Suns had in store. The brash Suns were poised and unintimidated with the Lake Show’s legacy, unlike most opponents. They just played their game and trusted their core, who had plenty of offensive firepower from Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, and Dan Majerle.
Magic turned into a scorer in Games 4 and 5 as he tallied 43 points on both occasions, but the Suns didn’t even blink. Phoenix won both games and sent the three-time Western Conference Champions packing.