Worst NBA MVP Winners of All Time
Since 1956, the NBA Most Valuable Player Award — known as The Michael Jordan Trophy as of 2023 — has been one of the most coveted individual honors in professional sports.
NBA players determined the award through a vote until 1980, when voting was taken over by a group of sports writers and broadcasters who have determined the winner ever since. Most years, they get it right. Sometimes they get it really, really wrong.
With the rule that a player can only take up one spot on the list — 10 spots for 10 different players — here's a look at the worst NBA MVP winners of all time.
10. Russell Westbrook (2017)
Born: November 12, 1988 (Long Beach, California)
High school: Leuzinger High School (Lawndale, California)
Height/weight: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds
Position: Point guard
Career: 16 seasons (2008-present)
Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-19), Houston Rockets (2019-20), Washington Wizards (2020-21), Los Angeles Lakers (2021-23), Los Angeles Clippers (2023-present)
Career highlights: NBA MVP (2017), nine-time NBA All-Star (2011-13, 2015-20), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (2015, 2016), nine-time All-NBA Team (2011-13, 2015-17, 2019, 2020), NBA All-Rookie Team (2009)
Bottom line: Russell Westbrook (2017)
Our collective obsession with Russell Westbrook becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson in the 1960s to average a triple-double during the regular season led to this MVP award. It also led to us overlooking the most important thing to consider: Westbrook's amazing stat line came at the sacrifice of his team.
The Oklahoma City Thunder went 47-35 in 2016-17 and lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It was the first of three consecutive years Westbrook averaged a triple-double and each time the Thunder were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
9. Magic Johnson (1990)
Born: August 14, 1959 (Lansing, Michigan)
High school: Everett High School (Lansing, Michigan)
College: Michigan State
Height/weight: 6-foot-9, 220 pounds
Position: Point guard
Career: 13 seasons (1978-91, 1996)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers
Career highlights: Five-time NBA champion (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), three-time NBA Finals MVP (1980, 1982, 1987), three-time NBA MVP (1987, 1989, 1990), 12-time NBA All-Star (1980, 1982-92), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1990, 1992), 10-time All-NBA (1982-91), NBA All-Rookie Team (1980), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Magic Johnson (1990)
Magic Johnson won the NBA MVP award in 1990 despite getting nine fewer first-place votes than Philadelphia 76ers power forward Charles Barkley, who averaged 25.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 60 percent from the field. The 76ers were also very good, going 53-29 while winning the Atlantic Division and finishing second in the Eastern Conference.
Magic, who had already won NBA MVP twice, only had a career-high in one category, shooting 91.1 percent from the free-throw line in his first season after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's retirement.
8. Joel Embiid (2023)
Born: March 16, 1994 (Yaounde, Cameroon)
High schools: Montverde Academy (Montverde, Florida)/The Rock School (Gainesville, Florida)
Height/weight: 7-foot, 280 pounds
Career: 10 seasons (2014-present)
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers
Career highlights: NBA MVP (2023), five-time All-NBA Team (2018, 2019, 2021-23), six-time NBA All-Star (2018-23), three-time NBA All-Defensive Team (2018, 2019, 2021), NBA All-Rookie Team (2017)
Bottom line: Joel Embiid (2023)
Joel Embiid's career got off to an unusual start — he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014 but sat out the next two seasons with injuries and didn't actually play in a game until the 2016-17 season.
Since then, Embiid has been magnificent, leading the NBA in scoring twice and making the All-NBA Team five times. Still, when Embiid finally won his much sought-after NBA MVP award in 2023 it was difficult to feel good about it because of his constant complaining and whining about not winning the award the previous year, then ducking the smoke from 2021 and 2022 NBA MVP winner Nikola Jokic when the two had a late-season showdown in which Embiid sat out with "right calf tightness."
One thing NBA fans don't appreciate? Sitting out when you can play.
7. Julius Erving (1981)
Born: February 22, 1950 (East Meadow, New York)
High school: Roosevelt High School (Roosevelt, New York)
Height/weight: 6-foot-7, 210 pounds
Position: Small forward
Career: 9 seasons (1976-87)
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers
Career highlights: NBA champion (1983), NBA MVP (1981), 11-time NBA All-Star (1977-87), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1977, 1983), seven-time All-NBA Team (1977, 1978, 1980-84), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Julius Erving (1981)
It's not a reach to think Julius Erving may have had more than one NBA MVP award had he not spent the first five seasons of his pro career in the ABA, where he won three consecutive MVP awards from 1974 to 1976.
But in 1981? That MVP award should have gone to Houston Rockets center Moses Malone, who led the NBA with 14.8 rebounds and was second in scoring with 27.8 points. Malone also led his team to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics, not Erving's Philadelphia 76ers.
Malone and Erving would be teammates two years later and lead the 76ers to the 1983 NBA title.
6. Bill Walton (1978)
Born: November 5, 1952 (La Mesa, California)
High school: Helix High School (La Mesa, California)
Height/weight: 6-foot-11, 210 pounds
Career: 13 seasons (1974-1987)
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers (1974-1979), San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers (1979-1985), Boston Celtics (1985-1987)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (1977, 1986), NBA Finals MVP (1977), NBA MVP (1978), two-time NBA All-Star (1977, 1978), two-time All-NBA Team (1977, 1978), two-time NBA All-Defensive Team (1977, 1978), NBA Sixth Man of the Year (1986), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Bill Walton (1978)
Under the NBA's new rules, Portland Trail Blazers center Bill Walton wouldn't have even been eligible for the NBA MVP award in 1978 because he only played in 58 of 82 regular-season games — seven below the current standard to be eligible for the award.
Our sentimental pick would have been San Antonio Spurs shooting guard/small forward George Gervin, who averaged 27.2 points along with career highs of 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals while playing in all 82 games.
5. Derrick Rose (2011)
Born: October 4, 1988 (Chicago, Illinois)
High school: Simeon Career Academy (Chicago, Illinois)
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 200 pounds
Position: Point guard
Career: 13 seasons (2008-present)
Teams: Chicago Bulls (2008-2016), New York Knicks (2016-2017, 2021-23), Cleveland Cavaliers (2017-2018), Minnesota Timberwolves (2018-2019), Detroit Pistons (2019-21), Memphis Grizzlies (2023-present)
Career highlights: NBA MVP (2011) three-time NBA All-Star (2010-12), All-NBA Team (2011), NBA Rookie of the Year (2009)
Bottom line: Derrick Rose (2011)
Looking back, this is one of the more bizarre MVP winners of all time. Derrick Rose will likely be the only NBA MVP winner in the first 70 years of the award who doesn't end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
This seemed like the opposite of when an actor or actress gets a make-up Oscar for a role that's not necessarily their greatest but the Academy wants to honor them for their work — it was kind of like Rose was being honored for what everyone thought he was going to do moving forward.
Rose won the NBA MVP despite not making either of the All-Defensive Teams while fellow All-NBA picks LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard all did — and LeBron beat Rose in every statistical category except assists. Bizarre.
4. Wes Unseld (1969)
Born: March 14, 1946 (Louisville, Kentucky)
Died: June 2, 2020, 74 years old (Baltimore, Maryland)
High school: Seneca High School (Louisville, Kentucky)
Height/weight: 6-foot-7, 245 pounds
Career: 13 seasons (1968-1981)
Teams: Baltimore/Washington Bullets (1968-1981)
Career highlights: NBA champion (1978), NBA MVP (1969), NBA Finals MVP (1978), five-time NBA All-Star (1969, 1971-73, 1975), All-NBA Team (1969), NBA Rookie of the Year (1969), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Wes Unseld (1969)
You hate to take anything away from a 6-foot-7 center who dominated in the post as few players have in basketball history, but there's no way Wes Unseld should have won the NBA MVP award in 1969 after he averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds.
Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain remain the only players to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same year, but they shouldn't. The Los Angeles Lakers had two players who probably should have won the award instead of Unseld with Jerry West and Chamberlain.
But 13.8 points? Come on now. Even for the 1960s that's bad.
3. Bill Russell (1962)
Born: February 12, 1934 (Monroe, Louisiana)
Died: July 31, 2022, 88 years old (Mercer Island, Washington)
High school: McClymonds High School (Oakland, California)
College: San Francisco
Height/weight: 6-foot-10, 215 pounds
Career: 13 seasons (1956-1969)
Teams: Boston Celtics
Career highlights: Eleven-time NBA champion (1957, 1959-66, 1968, 1969), five-time NBA MVP (1958, 1961-63, 1965), 12-time NBA All-Star (1958-69), 11-time All-NBA (1958-68)
Bottom line: Bill Russell (1962)
Boston Celtics center Bill Russell is the greatest winner in professional sports history and one of the five greatest NBA players of all time. There's also no way on heaven and earth he should have been the NBA MVP in 1962.
The reason? Philadelphia Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain averaged an NBA record 50.4 points that season — 30 points more than Russell. Chamberlain also averaged 25.7 rebounds, two more than Russell, and Chamberlain's 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62 also still stands as the NBA record.
2. Steve Nash (2006)
Born: February 7, 1974 (Johannesburg, South Africa)
High school: St. Michaels University School (Victoria, British Columbia)
College: Santa Clara
Height/weight: 6-foot-3, 178 pounds
Position: Point guard
Career: 19 seasons (1996-2015)
Teams: Phoenix Suns (1996-1998, 2004-2012), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-2015)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA MVP (2005, 2006), eight-time NBA All-Star (2002, 2003, 2005-08, 2010, 2012), seven-time All-NBA Team (2002, 2003, 2005-08, 2010)
Bottom line: Steve Nash (2006)
One of the true travesties in NBA history is that the late Kobe Bryant only won the NBA MVP award once in his 20-year career. Steve Nash absolutely robbed Bryant of the award in 2006.
Nash averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists for the Phoenix Suns — he still wasn't playing defense — as his team went a respectable 54-28. Bryant averaged 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.8 steals (he always played defense) as the Los Angeles Lakers went 47-35 with a group of absolute bums on the roster. This was also the season Bryant had his famous 81-point game against The Toronto Raptors.
What a shame.
1. Karl Malone (1997)
Born: July 24, 1963 (Summerfield, Louisiana)
High school: Summerfield High School (Summerfield, Louisiana)
College: Louisiana Tech
Height/weight: 6-foot-9, 250 pounds
Position: Power forward
Career: 19 seasons (1985-2004)
Teams: Utah Jazz (1985-2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2003-04)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA MVP (1997, 1999), 14-time NBA All-Star (1988-98, 2000-02), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1989, 1993), 14-time All-NBA (1988-2001), four-time All-NBA Defensive Team (1988, 1997-99), NBA All-Rookie Team (1986)
Bottom line: Karl Malone (1997)
The NBA Most Valuable Player snub to end all MVP snubs was when Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone won the award in 1997 — much to the chagrin of Chicago Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan.
Jordan was famous for using any slight to fuel his competitive fire and this was one of the more egregious slights of the six-time NBA champion and five-time NBA MVP's career. Jordan got his revenge by beating Malone and the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals then doubled up by beating them again in 1998 — although this time he did it as the NBA MVP.