My dad was adamant that Scottie Pippen deserved the award that year for what he did defensively in the series, but that series might have been the first time I heard dad say anything along the lines of, "You or I could score 40 if we should the ball over 30 times" referring not only to Jordan's 45 points on 35 attempts in his now-legendary Game 6 performance but also his 27.3 attempts per game during the series. Yet I think underlying most of his defensive observations — I was brought up learning that defense would get me on the floor no matter what I was capable of offensively — was the sentiment expressed by Jody Genessy of the Deseret News back then: "So you're tired of Michael Jordan getting all the recognition, all the glory, all the accolades? Then try this for a change: Scottie Pippen, MVP."
Interestingly enough, there were articles from both Utah and Chicago media advocating for Pippen as the MVP for the same (basketball) reasons my dad was arguing: his defense and all-around game enabled Jordan and the Bulls to be great. Or as Harvey Araton of the New York Times wrote in support of Pippen as Finals MVP after the 1997 Finals, no less, "Pippen couldn't win without Jordan, but Jordan has never won anything without Pippen."
I'm not asking you to agree with any of that exact line of reasoning now. That discussion would likely be so much different if shaped by the current governing principles of basketball theory that it's hard to revisit honestly.
There's no question that Jordan dominated that series, more than doubling Pippen's scoring average in an era which the average observer was far less fluent in the language of usage and efficiency and far more likely to make evaluations on the basis of averages. Looking back now, Jordan averaged a series-high 33.5 points per game with the highest usage rate in Finals history at 41.2%, according to Harvard Sports Analytics (for perspective, that's 0.4% higher than what LeBron James' usage in this year's Finals. Amazingly though, Jordan has a TS% of .516 compared to James' .477. That's, um, crazy to think about in retrospect...because James looked like an unstoppable force at times this year).
But if ever there was a player who had the narrative working squarely against any chance of him winning the award, it was Pippen.
pushed Bryon Russell to the ground and hit a game-winning shot for the ages, led his team in scoring, and it ended up being his last series in a Chicago Bulls uniform after winning the 1998 MVP award for his feats in the regular season (which included leading the league in scoring). In some ways, everything in Jordan's career leading up to that Finals moment made him not just the favorite to win the award but the person who we expected to win it — giving it to him was almost a matter of confirmation bias.
I bring that up not at all to re-open the 1998 Finals MVP "debate", as it were, but moreso to contrast it with the second time I felt any sort of real emotion about the Finals MVP award: Andre Iguodala, a player often compared to Pippen for good reason, winning the 2015 Finals MVP award immediately reminded me of those discussions with my dad.
Game-by-game 2015 Finals recap
Let me be totally clear: Iguodala was not quite in the same situation as Pippen, though I think Iguodala had two narratives working against him that I figured would dictate the outcome of award voting. Rather than drone on here, I'll just blend the MVP debate into a game-by-game recap of the series, with a look back at the top Warrior Wonder vote-getters on IQ's link posts in order to take our in-the-moment feelings into account. Links to the headers are to our storystream with full coverage of the game.
Warrior Wonder: Andre Iguodala (40%)
Runners-up: Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights (4%)
The tough thing about making the case for Iguodala as MVP is that the numbers simply don't immediately make a strong case for it. And given that we're mostly making the case for Iguodala begins with his defense, it might be even more difficult for some people to see the merit.
LeBron James had 44 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists in Game 1, quite the feat even if we take into account his 38 shots. But the more important thing to look at is the effect of putting Iguodala on him: as written about quite a bit after Game 1, LeBron shot just 4-for-13 against Iguodala and 56% against all other defenders. That's impressive stuff against a guy who has just absolutely punished opponents in single coverage situations this season.
Iguodala's ability to contain James to any extent made the Warriors' defensive strategy of not double-teaming all the more possible...at least until James began to destroy it.
Warrior Wonder: Klay Thompson (11%)
Runner-up: Steph Curry (8%)
Let's be honest with ourselves: just about everyone got too cocky after news of Kyrie Irving's season-ending injury came out. I remember considering the idea of a sweep and then dismissing solely because I predicted James would win at least two games in this series by himself.
But in the event you're ever tempted toward over-confidence again, please remember Bram Kincheloe's words after Game 2:
Life is a strange circle of stomping and being stomped. As Warriors fans, we know this. We know not to get ahead of ourselves. Know not to get carried away in the hype. Just because Kyrie is out doesn't mean it's going to be a goddamn cake walk to the championship.
Life is pain. Life is agony. Life is also joy. And fulfillment. All actions and acts equally deserve the stomp.
LeBron stomped out any notion that this series would be easy for the Warriors against a Kyrie-less Cavs.
Klay Thompson came up big with a team-high 34 points in a game in which Steph Curry missed a Finals record 13 threes, but it wasn't at all enough to contend with LeBron's triple-double. And, if you hadn't already had a healthy fear of James, watching him roll into Oracle Arena and win one on the road should've been plenty reason to begin feeling it.
Warrior Wonder: David Lee (28%)
Runner-up: Andre Iguodala (7%)
Folks have already discussed Lee at length on this site, so this as good a time as any to discuss LeBron James' MVP credentials since the Cavs took a 2-1 lead after Game 3.
11 steps to being as awesome as the Warriors
If you follow these totally repeatable and not-at-all-absurd steps, your team can be just as cool as the NBA Champions.
James nearly recorded back-to-back triple doubles, which — efficiency aside — is a pretty remarkable feat in that it simply does not happen often; considering that only five other players have ever recorded two Finals triple-doubles in their careers, according to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com's All-Time list (Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Frazier, Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird) we witnessed something really special from LeBron. And he did eventually get that second triple-double of the series in the Cavs' Game 6 loss.
You could easily argue that LeBron James had one of the most dominant individual performances ever in the NBA Finals even in loss; more pessimistically, or perhaps more accurately, you could call it the worst awesome performance in Finals history, as Chris Chase of USA Today called it. And Games 2 & 3, when he actually led his team to wins with the help of a feisty Matthew Dellavedova, were probably the most persuasive arguments for his MVP case.
Statistically, I had thought LeBron's ball-dominance in a Finals performance was only comparable to that of Allen Iverson in the 2001 Finals in terms of the highest usage performances ever — that Jordan had three Finals appearances with a usage above that of Iverson, including that 1998 Finals performance, is rather amazing to think about in light of the way the Cavs and Sixers relied so heavily on James and Iverson, respectively (and more specifically amazing to think about when you consider how much Iverson had to do for the Sixers all year, as in being just about the only player on the roster who could reliably create efficient scoring opportunities).
LeBron, by most standards, is the best basketball player currently in existence, was forced to do incredible things and for a time in this series there was reason to believe he'd pull it off.
Warrior Wonder: Andre Iguodala (56%)
Runner-up: David Lee (9%)
I won't say much more about LeBron's MVP case because I think others, like Ben Golliver of SI, have already made a compelling case for his selection. But, as ironic as it might sound, Iguodala's MVP Finals case was inextricably linked to LeBron's seeming unstoppability over the first three games and how he turned the tide by starting in Game 4.
I previously wrote that the key to turning the tide in the series was not necessarily the small ball on its own as much as finding a lineup that gave the team more energy. And there are two sub-points to that, which I'm not sure I articulated clearly: 1) as Ronaldinho mentioned after Game 3, Andrew Bogut was not playing well — even looking injured to some — and getting killed by Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson as a starter; 2) as Jim Barnett said about Iguodala during the Warriors' championship parade, he just brought a mental toughness and calming veteran presence to the floor that I just don't think the team had in the first three games.
With Bogut not playing well and Iguodala being responsible for guarding LeBron anyway, the move made a lot of sense even if it wasn't at all what anyone predicted — all credit to the coaching staff for being willing to go with their best five to start even though it ran against conventional wisdom (as though there's anything truly conventional about this team anyway).
Had Bogut played better or Iguodala not overcome his soreness from previous rounds, that lineup may not have ever come about nor worked. But as it worked out, the Cavs simply weren't ever able to come back from that.
Warrior Wonder: Stephen Curry (37%)
Runner-up: Andre Iguodala (8%)
Crazy to think that it wasn't until Game 5 that Steph Curry truly had a Curry-the-NBA-MVP performance, but it was right on time as he scored 17 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter — it seems that people have forgotten that the game was tied at 77 with just 8:19 left.
But this is also where I figured Curry's regular season MVP narrative would catch up and carry him to the Finals MVP title: although Iguodala was without question a huge part of why the Warriors won this series, Curry put up some pretty remarkable numbers of his own.
With a usage rate of 29.5%, Curry scored 26 points on a TS% of .585 and a 28.5% assist percentage. Beyond the numbers, the attention that he drew helped to create space for guys like Iguodala and/or Draymond Green to score. The question, as people might have said about Scottie Pippen back in the 90's, was whether there's an extent to which Iguodala's ability to defend LeBron and be the focal point on the defensive end enabled Curry to lift the team as he did on the offensive end. Would Curry have been able to carry the team to a championship in this series without the leadership and defensive ability of Iguodala?
It's a counterfactual that we (thankfully) didn't have to endure, but sometimes it's easier to make a MVP argument through imagining a player's absence.
Warrior Wonder: Andre Iguodala (10%)
Runner-up: Steph Curry (4%)
With Iguodala being the highest usage starter (30.2%) and having a team-high tying 25 points in the clinching Game 6, perhaps his MVP candidacy is a lot more palatable. But I thought Marcus Thompson II best described why I'll always remember his Finals performance this year (along with LeBron's):
He was exactly the player many Warriors fans thought he would be when the Warriors signed him. He was aggressive and productive on offense. He was great on defense. I still think his facilitation is one of the most key contributions on this team...In the NBA Finals, he was ready for the biggest assignment, defending LeBron James...The trick now will be to get him fresh and ready for the postseason, since the Warriors figure to be a contender next year as well.
It was an impressive series for Iguodala and I think there's certainly room for debate over whether one of the other more prominent stars entering this season/series might have deserved it more. Perhaps similar to Pippen in some way, he faced the challenge of overcoming a high-scoring NBA MVP teammate who had all of the narrative momentum needed to reserve a spot among the all-time greats.
The list of NBA Finals MVPs since its inception in 1969 is a collection of Hall of Famers, reasonable Hall of Fame candidates (Chauncey Billups? Tony Parker?), Boston Celtic Cedric Maxwell, and two dudes who made things really hard on LeBron James to help their teams win a championship.
Of course, the jury is still out on whether budding San Antonio Spurs star and 2015 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard will put together a career worthy of the Hall, but Andre Iguodala, unfortunately, is more of a long-shot than 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell according to Basketball-Reference's Hall of Fame probability rating. Curry just seemed like the more likely candidate for Finals MVP, given that the award sometimes seems more like a confirmation of what people wanted to believe to begin with.
But I won't say anymore: who do you think deserved Finals MVP? Vote in the poll below and defend your choice in the comments.