The Most Valuable Player (MVP) is the most prestigious individual award in the NBA. Over the league’s entire history, the greatest among the greats have won the award. When a player wins this award, you’d expect him to be on a great team and make a deep run into the playoffs. In most cases, the MVP is on a team with a very high seed. Usually among the top 2. Consequentially, they tend to have easy matchups in the first round with home court advantage. However, for the players we are going to discuss today, that was not the case. These players had great individual seasons but their teams didn’t really do very well and they were bounced out of the first round. For this list, we are going to exclude Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s MVP season where his team, the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs entirely.
#1. Wes Unseld
Aside from Wilt Chamberlain, Unseld is the only NBA player to have won the MVP award in his rookie season. As the second pick in the draft, Unseld entered the 1968-69 season with high expectations. He joined a Baltimore Bullets team which had only won 36 games in the previous season. Unseld’s presence had an immediate impact and the team won 57 games in the season. However, Unseld’s MVP award, especially for that time, was extremely strange. Most of the best players were praised for their high scoring abilities. Unseld was the opposite of that. He only averaged 13.8 points per game and was the fifth leading scorer on his own team. However, MVP voters acknowledged his impact. Despite being a 6’7″ center in the land of giants, Unseld’s impact was profound. He impacted the game in a similar way to Ben Wallace. He did many great things on the court besides scoring and won the MVP as a result.
However, in the first round of the playoffs, Unseld and the Bullets were swept 4-0 by the New York Knicks. Led by Willis Reed, who had finished second in the MVP voting behind Unseld, the Knicks demolished the Bullets with ease. Reed played like a real MVP and averaged 28 points per game in the series, including a 43 point game 4.
#2. Russell Westbrook
After Kevin Durant’s infamous departure to the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder became the Russell Westbrook show. Westbrook played at a frantic level of intensity and breathed competitive fire every night. He broke all kinds of triple double records, including the near impossible ‘averaging a triple double for a season’. He was the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to do so. On top of that, Westbrook also led the league in scoring with 31.6 points per game. He also broke the record for the most triple doubles in a single season with 42.
Unfortunately, all of that individual brilliance didn’t translate into dazzling team success. The fact that the Thunder play in the ultra-competitive Western Conference didn’t help. They won 47 games for the season, which was only good enough for a sixth seed. Devoid of home court advantage, the Thunder matched up against a superior Houston Rockets team led by James Harden. In a lopsided affair, the Rockets thoroughly outplayed the Thunder and won the series 4-1. Russell Westbrook’s playmaking and decision making near the end of games was heavily criticised.
#3. Moses Malone
As years have passed, Moses Malone has become one of the most underrated legends of all time. His quiet and unassuming personality is a big reason behind his lack of popularity with modern day NBA fans. Malone was a 3 time MVP, 12 time All Star, an NBA Champion and the greatest offensive rebounder of all time. However, his early years were spent in Houston and when he won his first two MVP awards, his team lost in the first round in both those years. In the 1978-79 season, Malone won the MVP award and led his team to 47 wins. However, the Rockets were swept out of the first round by the Atlanta Hawks 0-2. Back then, the Rockets played in the Eastern Conference and the first round was a ‘best of three’ format. Three years later, Malone won another MVP and led his team to 46 wins. However, the Rockets, now playing in the Western Conference, lost 1-2 to the Seattle Supersonics in the first round. Similar to Westbrook’s in 2016, Malone’s teams were in the middle of the pack and had to go up against superior teams in the playoffs. It wasn’t until 1983 when Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers with Julius Erving (and Charles Barkley an year later) that he started winning in the playoffs.