The NBA announced the addition of four postseason trophies honoring the game’s legends on Thursday. The Larry Bird and Magic Johnson trophies, respectively, will honor the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. The Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson trophies will go to the teams that win the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.
The institution of these awards in 2022 naturally raises the question: Which players would have won it? East first, because Let Me Tell You, the history of this game has just so much greatness.
5. Michael Jordan in 1991 – Chicago Bulls
29.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.8 blocks, .535/.600/.833 shooting
Defeat Detroit Pistons 4 games to 0
33 points, 7 rebound, 7 assists, 3 steals, 5 blocks, 1 turnover, 11-19 fg, 11-12 ft
Game 3 win (113-107)
The Bulls had been eliminated by the Pistons the previous three playoffs in a row in 5, 6, and 7 games. The Pistons were reigning back-to-back NBA champs and back-to-back-to-back East champs. Jordan would not be denied again. Pippen showed out like crazy all series long, too. His emergence put Chicago over the top.
4. Bill Russell in 1965 – Boston Celtics
15.6 points, 25.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 44.7% shooting, probably a whole mess of blocks
Defeat Philadelphia Warriors 4 games to 3
15 points, 29 rebounds, 8 assists, 7-16 fg, 1-2 ft, 48 minutes
Game 7 win (110-109)
This time, like most times, Bill the Hill got the better of The Stilt. We don’t realize the number of battles that Wilt and Bill had. You can’t have a series closer than 7 games, Game 7 decided by one point. This game is eternally remembered for John Havlicek’s steal on the final play of the game to seal the series victory. The most famous radio call in basketball history. “Greer is putting the ball into play. He gets it out deep,” intones the late great Johnny Most. “Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!”
3. Larry Bird in 1987 – Boston Celtics
27.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 486./214./940 shooting
Defeat Detroit Pistons 4 games to 3
37 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks, 13-24 fg, 1-2 threes, 10-10 ft, 48 minutes
Game 7 win (117-114)
The last Eastern Conference Finals that Bird would win, and the last loss before the Pistons took the Bob Cousy trophy three years in a row. The guard wasn’t ready to change quite yet. Bird was masterful throughout. He was the Celtics’ leading scorer in their last three wins, all coming by single-digits, as well as the leading rebounder and assister in most games.
2. LeBron James in 2018 – Cleveland Cavaliers
33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.4 ast, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks, .524/.409/.692 shooting
Defeat Boston Celtics 4 games to 3
46 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, 1 block. 17-33 fg, 5-7 threes, 7-11 ft
Game 6 win (109-99, facing elimination)
2018 is best known as the year LeBron had no help. Kyrie had just been traded to these Celtics for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, but didn’t play in the series. Kevin Love had 0 points in that Game 6, exiting after five minutes with an injury that left LeBron without his best teammate in a road Game 7 at the Garden. They still won. 35-15-9 for Bron in that one.
1. Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 – Philadelphia Warriors
21.6 points, 32.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists, unknown steals and blocks, .556/.519 shooting
Defeat Boston Celtics 4 games to 1
29 points, 32 rebounds, 13 assists
10-16 fg, 9-17 ft, 47 minutes
Game 5 win (140-116, series clincher)
We talk about how Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 years all the time. The first loss was in his second season. This loss was the one that upended a perfect decade. The Celtics had won eight straight NBA championships prior to this season, and would go on to win two more in a row after this season. But these 1967 76ers are one of the best teams ever put together. 68-13 was the best record ever at the time, and still stands as the fourth-best. Wilt and co. BODIED the C’s, letting Boston only get the gentleman’s sweep game. Wilt held Billy Russell to just 35.8% shooting.
Best performances in a loss
LeBron James in 2009 – Cleveland Cavaliers
Lost to the Magic, 4 games to 2
James averaged 38.5 points, the most ever in a Conference Finals series; and yes that’s including Wilt. Plus 8.3 boards, 8.0 dimes, 2.4 stocks on 49% shooting. Dwight Howard just beasted them inside to the tune of 26-13-3 on 65% shooting and 11.2 fta. We’re all familiar with barren Cavs 1.0 roster. Dwight’s performance is an honorable mention for sure for sure. I wonder who would have won the trophy for this series.
Lew Alcindor in 1970 – Milwaukee Bucks
Lost to the Knicks, 4 games to 1
Kareem’s only Eastern Conference Finals (Bucks were in the West otherwise). He posted 34.2 points, 17.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 55% shooting. Willis Reed gave him 28 and 12 back, but come on. 34-18-5. That’s stupid. Not real. Fake. Efficiently, too. The Knicks were the champs that year, though. And the fact those numbers still only managed to take one game proves how dire the situation in MKE was. Thank goodness Oscar came through.
6. Elvin Hayes in 1978 – Washington Bullets
23.7 points, 15.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 4.9 stocks, 45% shooting
Defeated Dr. J’s 76ers from the last year’s Finals in 6 games. That team also featured George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free, and Steve Mix. That’s 6 All-Stars, all between the ages of 24 and 27. Darryl Dawkins and Henry Bibby were also on that team. Hayes and teammate Wes Unseld are the most underrated frontcourt ever.
7. Julius Erving in 1977 – Philadelphia 76ers
28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.2 blocks, 57% shooting
Defeated Moses Malone, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, John Johnson, and the Houston Rockets in 6 games. That’s four All-Stars and three Hall of Famers.
8. Kawhi Leonard in 2019 – Toronto Raptors
29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 44% shooting
Defeated the one-seed Milwaukee Bucks in six games, taking four straight after a 2-0 hole. This series is famous for the Raptors just figuring out Milwaukee, and stomping them out with The Giannis Wall. Just like Kareem, this was his only CF in this conference.
9. Jason Kidd in 2003 – New Jersey Nets
23.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 3.1 stocks
The Nets swept the 1st seeded Pistons, the Pistons that would win the championship next year. The Pistons whose legacy and run was crazy. The Nets won the East back-to-back years in 2002 and 2003, but ran into peak Kobe-Shaq and peak Spurs. Rough breaks. We put Kidd up in the top 5 point guards ever conversation if he brought home a title as the best player, and his Mavs ring would suddenly give him as many as Isiah Thomas.
10. Ray Allen in 2001 – Milwaukee Bucks, Allen Iverson in 2001 – Philadelphia 76ers (tied)
It’s my article, so the 10th spot is the first-ever and only series where the awards voters tied.
27.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 stocks
47-51-97 shooting (seriously)
30.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.5 stocks
This series went 7 games, and the 76ers came out on top. Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson averaged 20-6-3 and Sam Cassell averaged 16-6-7 for the Bucks. Dikembe Mutombo put up 16-17-3 blocks and 6th Man of the Year Aaron McKie put up 16-5-7-2.4 steals. The round before this was the last series the Bucks would win until 2019. A year and a half after, they traded Ray Allen to the SuperSonics for Gary Payton, who left the Bucks in free agency after 28 games. Desmond Mason was the other main piece. Yes, Gary Payton was on the Milwaukee Bucks.