I was chatting with my colleague Daniel Olinger, and he mentioned that if the Philadelphia 76ers traded Ben Simmons to the Houston Rockets in exchange for James Harden, the Sixers could potentially have two top-five MVP candidates. That doesn’t feel like a crazy claim. Harden has finished second, first, second, and third in MVP voting over the last four seasons. Joel Embiid’s highest finish was seventh in the 2018-19 season, but he’s off to a fantastic start this year, and it could be argued that adding Harden would make things even easier for Embiid.
It made me think, though — how rare is it for the same team to have two top-five MVP vote-getters? And how well have those teams fared in the playoffs?
Using Basketball Reference, I looked through MVP voting for every season since 1980-81 (the year when voting switched from players to the media). In those 30 seasons, there have been ten teams with two players finishing in the top five in MVP voting (never two teams in the same year). There also has not been a team with more than two players finishing in the top five. Below is a list of all ten teams, their two players (and where they finished in MVP voting), and how far the team made it in the playoffs that season.
1981-82 Boston Celtics
- Larry Bird (2) and Robert Parish (4)
- Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers (4-3)
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
- Moses Malone (1) and Julius Erving (5)
- Won the NBA Finals, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers (4-0)
1983-84 Los Angeles Lakers
- Magic Johnson (3) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (4)
- Lost in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics (4-3)
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
- Magic Johnson (2) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (4)
- Won the NBA Finals, defeating the Boston Celtics (4-3)
1985-86 Los Angeles Lakers
- Magic Johnson (3) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5)
- Lost in Western Conference Finals to the Houston Rockets (4-1)
1986-87 Boston Celtics
- Larry Bird (3) and Kevin McHale (4)
- Lost in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
- Michael Jordan (1) and Scottie Pippen (5)
- Won the NBA Finals, defeating the Seattle SuperSonics (4-2)
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
- Shaquille O’Neal (3) and Kobe Bryant (5)
- Won the NBA Finals, defeating the New Jersey Nets (4-0)
2002-03 Los Angeles Lakers
- Kobe Bryant (3) and Shaquille O’Neal (5)
- Lost in the Western Conference Semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs (4-2)
2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder
- Russell Westbrook (4) and Kevin Durant (5)
- Lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors (blew a 3-1 lead)
Of these ten teams, one lost in the conference semifinals, three lost in the conference finals, two lost in the NBA Finals, and four won the NBA Finals. And although there have been ten teams with two top-five NBA MVP vote-getters in the last 30 years, there has been just one since Shaq and Kobe did it in the 2002-03 season. Six of these ten teams achieved the feat six years in a row in the 80’s, and two sets of teammates combined for five of these ten instances. Lately, such a feat has been exceedingly rare. The Los Angeles Lakers came close last year, winning the NBA Finals with LeBron James finishing second in MVP voting and Anthony Davis finishing sixth.
As Daniel Olinger also pointed out to me, there have been numerous instances recently when two teammates were widely considered to be top-five players, but never finished in the top five in MVP voting in the same season. Two notable examples are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat in 2011 and 2012 (the seasons in which Wade was still healthy and at his peak), and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant with the Golden State Warriors.
With all the rumors surrounding a potential trade for James Harden, it’s worth reflecting on what some of the all-time great NBA duos have accomplished. The Sixers could soon be forming another.