DOES THE LEAGUE’S BEST PLAYER USUALLY WIN IT ALL?July 7th, 2013
After reading Lee Jenkins’s terrific wrapup of the NBA finals, which was centered, as it should’ve been, on LeBron James,
it got me thinking about the BPITL Factor. That stands, of course, for Best Player in the League.
No other sport has as easily a recognized BPITL as the NBA. In the NFL it’s almost impossible most of the time to determine which player is “best” among players with such diverse assignments as, say, running the ball and blitzing the quarterback. Same for baseball. Who’s “better” between a pitcher who wins 30 and an outfielder who hits .350? (Not that either of those happens much anymore.)
But when you have a guy like LeBron who runs the team from the perimeter or the post, makes the key outside shots and penetrations, grabs rebounds, guards the opposition’s best player and shows up nightly on the interview podium, well, you have a pretty clear BPITL.
Also specific to the NBA is the close correlation between BPITL and championship. Now, it’s legitimate to ask: How do you determine the BPITL? My glib answer is that it’s my column, so I’ll determine it any damn way I want to, thank you very much. And to a large extent it comes down to that. The designation of BPITL is ineffable. It can’t be determined by statistics or even MVP votes.
Anyway, if to do nothing else than start an argument, here are my BPITLs starting with the 1979-80 season, which was both the Magic-Bird entry year and the year when I started looking at the league with a more or less professional eye. Let’s see how often having the BPITL correlated with winning the championship.
BPITL: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers
COMMENT: As all historians realize, Magic Johnson, the Finals MVP, had more to do with the Lakers winning the championship than did Kareem, who was injured for the climactic Game 6 and Johnson’s legendary triple-double performance.
Incidentally, I hadn’t remembered that Magic was neither a first- nor second-team all-league choice in his first two seasons. He finally made it as a second-teamer in ’82, his third season. George Gervin made it ahead of him both years along with Paul Westphal (1980) and Dennis Johnson (1981). I loved all three of those guys as players, but clearly Magic got screwed.
BPITL: Julius Erving, Philadelphia 76ers
CHAMPION: Boston Celtics
COMMENT: Erving was at the peak of his powers in this season with 24.6 points, 8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals … and 9 million style points.
BPITL: Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
BPITL: Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
COMMENT: With Magic and Bird coming into their own—not to mention saving the league—it’s easy to forget how dominant Mumblin’ Mo was in these two seasons. He averaged 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds in ’82 and 24.5 and 15.3 in ’83, when his ’fo-’fo-’fo Sixers swept the Lakers.
1984, 1985, 1986
BPITL: Larry Bird, Celtics
MVP: Bird all three years
CHAMPION: Celtics in ’84 and ’86, Lakers in ’85
BPITL: Magic Johnson, Lakers
MVP: Magic in ’87, Michael Jordan in ’88
CHAMPION: Lakers both years
COMMENT: There’s little doubt in my mind that Magic was slightly undervalued in his early years, at least in relation to Bird. But I do think Bird was the more consistent player, and thus the BPITL, until their eighth year in the league. That’s when Magic took over, leading the Lakers to back-to-back titles, then a monumental achievement in a league that hadn’t had consecutive champs since the Celtics in the late-60s.
1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993
BPITL: Michael Jordan, Bulls
MVP: Magic in ’89 and ’90, Jordan in ’91 and ’92, Charles Barkley in ’93
CHAMPIONS: Detroit Pistons in ’89 and ’90, Bulls in ’91, ’92 and ’93
COMMENT: One could argue that Magic was still a better player until Jordan won his first title in ’91. I don’t agree, which is not a slight on Magic. Jordan began his dominance as the BPITL in ’89 when he averaged 32.5 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. That’s getting damn close to a triple-double, folks.
True, Jordan couldn’t get by the Pistons in ’89 and ’90. And those Bad Boys were an interesting mix. Detroit never had anything close to a BPITL despite going back-to-back. In fact—and I was astonished when I looked this up—their best player, Isiah Thomas, wasn’t even a third-team all-NBA player in the championship seasons. Besides Jordan and Magic, the guards who beat him out were John Stockton and Kevin Johnson (second-teamers in both ’89 and ’90) and Dale Ellis and Mark Price (’89) and Clyde Drexler and teammate Joe Dumars (’90).
I’m guessing that Isiah, who had been a first-teamer in ’84, ’85 and ’86, could muster up a good sneer about that.
BPITL: Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
MVP: Olajuwon in ’94, David Robinson in ’95
CHAMPION: Rockets both years
COMMENT: There is wiggle room for argument here. The first year was Jordan’s absent year and ’95 was his return-in-March year. Olajuwon won the MVP in ’94 and clearly deserved it, and I think his unpredictable athleticism still gave him the BPITL nod over Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and Robinson in ’95.
1996, 1997, 1998
BPITL: Michael Jordan, Bulls
MVP: Jordan in ’96 and ’98, Karl Malone in ’97
CHAMPION: Bulls all three years
COMMENT: He came back, he saw, he conquered. End of story.
BPITL: Karl Malone, Utah Jazz
CHAMPION: San Antonio Spurs
COMMENT: Any player who played as long, as consistently and as honorably as the Mailman deserved to be the BPITL at least once. I’m giving Malone this season, which was an MVP year.
2000, 2001, 2002
BPITL: Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers
MVP: Shaq in ’00, Allen Iverson in ’01 and Duncan in ’02
CHAMPION: Lakers all three years.
COMMENT: We can always debate about whether Shaq gave his all. And there are arguments to be made for Duncan, demon competitor Kevin Garnett, small-man miracle-worker Iverson, triple-doubler Jason Kidd and a kid named Kobe, who challenged Shaq for supremacy on his own team. But these were the Diesel Years. The man dominated when he wanted to dominate, which was a lot of the time.
2003, 2004, 2005
BPITL: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
MVP: Duncan in ’03, Kevin Garnett in ’04, Steve Nash in ’05
CHAMPION: Spurs in ’03 and ’05, Detroit Pistons in ’04
COMMENT: Those ’04 champion Pistons were a lot like their champion predecessors. Ben Wallace was the only Detroiter chosen on the first three all-NBA teams and he couldn’t have gotten you 20 if he was shooting alone in a gym.
It’s worth noting that Duncan, the Big Fundamental, is still having great seasons—maybe not BPITL seasons but GREAT seasons—a decade later.
2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
BPITL: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
MVP: Steve Nash in ’06, Dirk Nowitzki in ’07, Bryant in ’08, LeBron James in ’09 and ’10
CHAMPION: Miami Heat in ’06, Spurs in ’07, Celtics in ’08, Lakers in ’09 and ’10
COMMENT: I’m not forgetting Dwayne Wade, who in 2006 was the clear BPITF—Best Player in the Finals. He dragged the Heat to that title in a way comparable only to the way Jordan did it for the Bulls in the 90s. Looking back, Wade was a second-teamer in the backcourt that season behind Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
And speaking of Nash, why was he never a BPITL when he won back-to-back MVPs? Well, because … he just wasn’t. To be clear, I voted for Nash as MVP in 2005 (though not in ’06) and truly believed that he deserved it for the way he lifted the Suns from mediocrity to contenderhood. (Note: 2005 was NOT the year I followed Phoenix for Seven Seconds or Less. That was the following year.) So my contention is that you can be MVP but not the BPITL. Nash, bless his large, overachieving heart, has never been better than Kobe or LeBron.
2011, 2012, 2013 (and probably on into the near-future)
BPITL: LeBron James, Miami Heat
MVP: Derrick Rose in ’11, LeBron in ’12 and ’13
CHAMPION: Dallas Mavericks in ’11, Heat in ’12 and ’13.
COMMENT: Look, it’s admittedly arbitrary as to when LeBron passed Kobe as the BPITL. Could it have been as far back as 2009 when the King won his first MVP? I suppose, but I always held that Mamba’s superior competitiveness gave him the edge, not to mention back-to-back Laker championships.
But now it’s clearly LeBron. And it will be interesting to see when—or if—someone in the league right now (Kevin Durant? a rehabbed Derrick Rose? Chris Paul?) takes over the mantle of BPITL.
In the 33 seasons since 1980, teams with the BPITL have won the championship 23 times. That’s my calculation anyway. Let the argument begin.