Greatest MVP Seasons of Decade: Shaq, Duncan, KG and LeBron

In my “greatest seasons of the past decade” series I have thus far talked about the two extremes of outstanding solo missions  and best ringleaders.  Today I will hit the middle ground area that most people seem to think of when talking about the best: greatest MVP seasons of the "aughts".

Winning the NBA MVP requires a nice balance between winning and perceived teammate help, which is why none of the great “solo mission” or “ringleader” seasons came with an MVP trophy.  The finalists in this category mark the three most dominant across-the-board statistical seasons of the last 10 years as well as a fourth that led what many consider to be an underwhelming supporting cast all the way to the title with his own individual brilliance.  Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, Tim Duncan in 2003, Kevin Garnett in 2004, and LeBron James in 2009 all won the MVP award while leading some of the most impressive campaigns of the decade.  There is no clear-cut number one from this list, but the foursome breaks down well into two sub-categories: not-quite-solo-missions and ringleaders-without-overwhelming-talent, with two members in each subcategory. 

Brilliant not-quite-solo missions: 

LeBron James 2009, CLE: Team record 66 – 16, Lost ECF to Magic (4 – 2)
Traditional stats: 28 pts, 8 reb, 7 ast, 1 blk, 2 stl, 49% FG, 78% FT
Advanced stats:  PER 31.7, On/off +/- 21, 20.3 Win Shares, +23 Net ORTG-DRTG, 27.8 Wins Produced
Accolades: MVP, All NBA 1st team, All Defensive 1st team, playoffs led team in points/rebounds/assists/steals

LeBron in 2009 posted the highest PER and the most Win Shares since Michael Jordan was in his prime, the 2nd highest on-court/off-court +/- since 82games started tracking the stat in 2002 (behind only Garnett in 2003), led his team to 66 wins, and won the MVP by one of the largest margins ever with 97% of the highest MVP share possible.  To put it in perspective, the only players since the NBA/ABA merger to post a higher MVP share than LeBron in ’09 were Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, and Kevin Garnett.  In the postseason LeBron posted the second-highest playoff PER in NBA history and swept through the first two rounds before running into a Magic team with more talent that was just a terrible match-up for the weaknesses of the Cavs.  He also had one of the signature moments of his career by hitting a game-winning buzzer beater 3-pointer to steal game two against the Magic in the ECF.

Kevin Garnett 2004, MIN: Team record 58 - 24, Lost WCF to Lakers (4 - 2)
Traditional stats: 24 pts, 14 reb, 5 asts, 2 blks, 2 stls, 50% FG,790% FT
Advanced stats: PER 29.4, On/off +/- +20.2, 18.3 Win Shares, +20 Net ORTG-DRTG, 30.5 Wins Produced
Accolades: MVP, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 1st team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds/assists/blocks

Garnett in 2004 received more than 99% of the maximum MVP share possible, second to only Shaq in 2000 for the most lopsided MVP vote since the NBA/ABA merger.  He did this by becoming the only player since the merger to lead the NBA in both points scored and rebounds in the same season.  KG also posted the highest PER and most Win Shares in a season by a power forward in NBA history, the 3rd highest on-court/off-court +/- 82games has ever recorded (KG 03, LeBron 09), and led his team to 58 wins and a #1 seed in a stacked Western Conference.  In the postseason KG continued to put up huge counting stats as he carried the Timberwolves to their only playoff series wins in team history by playing every position from point guard to center.  And he had the signature game of his career by notching 32 points, 21 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 steals while scoring all of his team’s 4th quarter field goals in the first game 7 of his life to lead the Wolves to the Conference Finals.  When the Sam Cassell and Troy Hudson injuries forced KG to run the PG in the WCF the Wolves were doomed, and eventually they fell to the Shaq/Kobe/Karl Malone/Gary Payton Lakers.

Outstanding ringleaders-without-overwhelming-talent: Duncan in 2003 and Shaq in 2000 both led talented but not stacked squads to NBA championships, the only two times this decade that a player won an MVP and a title in the same season.  Their paths to the Finals MVP trophies were very different, though.

Tim Duncan 2003, SAS: Team Record 60-22, Won Finals over Nets (4 - 2)
Traditional stats: 23 pts, 13 reb, 4 asts, 3 blks, 1 stl, 51% FG, 71% FT
Advanced stats: PER 26.9, On/off +/- +14.3, 16.5 Win Shares, +18 Net ORTG-DRTG, 25.8 Wins Produced
Accolades: MVP, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 1st team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds/assists/blocks, Finals MVP

Duncan in 2003 actually had the weakest regular season stats of the four Finalists, but his numbers were still outstanding and strong enough for him to win his second straight MVP trophy.  He led a team lacking a second All Star to 60 wins and the #1 seed in an ultra stacked Western Conference.  The Spurs gave him excellent support as defensive teammates in a great system, but Duncan was the engine on offense and the general on defense to lead them in a way that few could match.  Meanwhile, in the postseason Duncan exploded for an efficient 25 points, 15 boards and 5 assists and one of the higher playoff PERs by a power forward in NBA history.  He led his team past the 3-peat Shaq/Kobe Lakers in the 2nd round then overwhelmed the New Jersey Nets in the Finals.  To many, Duncan leading a team without a second full-time star (David Robinson was old and playing only half the game) to a title is as impressive an accomplishment as Hakeem Olajuwon doing the same a decade before. 

Shaquille O'Neal 2000, LAL: Team record 67-15, Won Finals over Pacers (4 - 2)
Traditional stats: 30 pts, 13 reb, 4 asts, 3 blk, 0 stl, 57% FG, 52% FT
Advanced stats: PER 30.6, On/off +/- N/A, 18.6 Win Shares, +20 Net ORTG-DRTG, 28.2 Wins Produced
Accolades: MVP, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 2nd team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds/blocks, Finals MVP

Shaq in 2000 was the exact opposite.  He posted a statistical season that joins LeBron’s ’09 and KG’s ’04 as the only candidates for most dominant of the decade: Led the NBA in both scoring and field goal percentage, posted the 2nd highest PER and 2nd most Win Shares in a season by a center since the NBA/ABA merger (David Robinson, ’94), and led the Lakers to a whopping 67 wins and a #1 seed in the West.  Shaq had the most help of any of the finalists with a young-but-All NBA Kobe Bryant, a shooter in Glen Rice, and several battle-tested veteran role players like Robert Horry, Ron Harper and AC Green all led by the Zen Master Phil Jackson.  Nevertheless, Shaq Diesel was the engine for that ship and his dominant season led to the most lopsided MVP landslide win in NBA history with 120 of a possible 121 1st place votes.  In the postseason Shaq continued to shine as an individual, and though the Lakers struggled to get past a star-riddled Trail Blazers team in the WCF they went on to convincingly handle the Pacers in the Finals. 

On the message boards, many consider Shaq in 2000 the most dominant player of this generation and on-par with the greatest of all time.  Me, I say all four of these finalists could hold up their season against any played by any player in my lifetime without shame.  And these four seasons make a fitting end to my series, wrapping up the greatest individual seasons of the 2000 – 2009 decade.


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