Nikola Jokic was named NBA MVP for the second season in a row, but this year’s award was probably the most contentious since Russell Westbrook’s win in the 2016-17 season.
Each of the three finalists — Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo — had a legitimate case for winning the award, but the controversy surrounding Jokic’s win was the fact that the Nuggets were just a sixth seed, again harking back to Westbrook’s win.
Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game, and had one of the all-time great individual seasons. In the past, however, an MVP is usually on a dominant team that goes on deep playoff runs.
There have been occasions when the MVP went on to see their team knocked out in the first round. While sometimes this may be due to the MVP belonging to a lower-seeded team (Hi, Russ!), some huge upsets have also been recorded in the league’s history (hello, We Believe Warriors!).
Still, after the Nuggets’ loss to the Warriors in the first round this season, Jokic joined a small list of MVPs that failed to take their team through the opening stage of the NBA Playoffs.
Who are the other MVPs that failed to progress to the second round of the playoffs?
Wes Unseld (1969)
Besides Wilt Chamberlain, Unseld is the only player to win both Rookie of the Year AND MVP in the same season.
Unseld did just that in 1968-69, averaging 13.8 points and a whopping 18.2 rebounds for the then Baltimore Bullets.
RIP to NBA legend Wes Unseld.
– NBA Champion
– NBA Finals MVP
– NBA MVP
– 5x NBA All-Star pic.twitter.com/SbssGnc9fr
— Basketball & All (@BasketballnAll) June 2, 2020
The Bullets won 57 games and finished first in the Eastern Division, but when it came to the playoffs, they were swept by the Wille Reed-Clyde Frazier duo of the New York Knicks.
Moses Malone (1979, 1982)
Malone was named NBA MVP three times in his career. On two of those occasions, he was bounced out in the first round.
In 1978-79, Malone averaged 24.8 points, 17.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the regular season and was named the league MVP, but the Rockets were sent home early by the Atlanta Hawks.
Look back at images & highlights from Moses Malone’s legendary career
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) September 13, 2015
Malone again won the MVP as a Rocket in 1981-82 with averages of 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds. He repeated as the NBA leader in rebounds and was the runner-up for the league’s scoring title to George Gervin (32.3), but the Rockets were knocked out in the first round again, losing to the Seattle Supersonics 2-1.
Incidentally, Malone would switch teams to the 76ers for the following season where he once again won league MVP honors, and also an NBA championship in his first season in Philadelphia.
Dirk Nowitzki (2007)
Following Malone’s 1982 first-round exit, it would be 25 years before another MVP had an early end to his season.
In 2007, the Dallas Mavericks were primed to make a deep playoff run and erase the memories of the 2006 NBA Finals series. They had won 60 games en route to the Finals the previous season and improved on that by seven games in 2006-07 to finish with a league-best 67-15 record.
Their franchise player, Dirk Nowitzki, averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists while playing in 78 games in the regular season. Dallas had every reason to believe its series against Golden State would be a formality.
But the belief was all the Warriors.
Dallas lost in six games in a shocking upset, becoming just the third first-seeded team in NBA history to be eliminated by an eighth-seeded team in the playoffs, following the Supersonics in 1994 and the Miami Heat in 1999.
Russell Westbrook (2017)
In 2017, Westbrook became one of two players in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season, along with Oscar Robertson in 1962. It truly was a historic season as Westbrook recorded 42 triple-doubles, breaking another Robertson record.
Following the departure of Kevin Durant the summer before to the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder would need every ounce of Westbrook’s brilliance in 2017 just to remain competitive.
The enigmatic point guard obliged by averaging 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists for the Thunder as he willed them to the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
They would eventually be beaten in the first round by the Rockets in five games.