The San Antonio Spurs lead the Miami Heat 3–2 in the 2013 NBA Finals and will have a chance to finish the series tonight in Miami (8 p.m. Central Time on ABC). With the Spurs so close to a title, the question, “Could—or should—Danny Green be the NBA Finals MVP?” has been coming up a lot on blogs, social media, podcasts, and among people who are paid to kill time debating such topics.
Of course, it would be imprudent to assume a Spurs victory. When the Miami Heat last lost consecutive games, the Ottoman Empire was still in power. If the Heat can continue their trend of not losing back-to-back games, they’ll have the benefit of hosting Game 7.
But San Antonio could conceivably clinch the championship tonight. If they do, Green will certainly be in the NBA Finals MVP conversation. The Spurs guard has led the team in scoring with 18 points per game and has hit an NBA Finals-record 25 three-pointers with at least one, and possibly two, games yet to play. (Ray Allen set the previous record, 22, in a seven-game series.)
But Green’s three-point proficiency isn’t nearly as impressive as his efficiency. He has hit 66 percent of his shots from beyond the arc during this series. He has also played solid defense, even when he draws the unenviable LeBron James assignment, and has averaged a respectable four rebounds per game.
Green is by no means a lock to win the MVP award. At least one game remains, and based on the results from the first five games, Spurs stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker would also warrant consideration. Duncan has averaged 15.6 points and 11.2 rebounds while anchoring a very impressive Spurs defense and Parker – who has averaged 16.2 points and 6.6 assists despite missing a big chunk of Game 3 with an injury – is responsible for setting up a lot of those Green three-pointers. But “Finals MVP Danny Green” is very much in play right now.
And that’s remarkable. Danny Green is a role player and, historically, role players don’t win Finals MVP.
The Cleveland Cavaliers picked Green in the middle of the second round in 2009. He played 20 games as a rookie for the Cavs, but Cleveland cut him after one season. The Spurs picked up Green in 2010 but waived him twice during the 2010–11 season. That year he played eight games with the Spurs and also made appearances with two D-League teams and a squad in Slovenia. Green became a rotation player with San Antonio last season and a full-time starter this season, averaging 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Those are nice regular season numbers for someone who was picked 46th overall and did multiple tours in the D-League, but they aren’t the sort of numbers we’re used to from NBA Finals MVPs. The MVP of the NBA Finals is almost always an All-Star and a Hall of Famer in the making.
In the entire history of the Finals MVP award, which was first handed out in 1969, only three players won Finals MVP without having first been named to an All-Star Team: Cedric Maxwell of the Boston Celtics in 1981, Joe Dumars of the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and Chauncey Billups of the Pistons in 2004. Maxwell is the only Finals MVP to date who never played in an All-Star game. Dumars made his All-Star debut in 1990 and appeared in five more All-Star games during his hall of fame career. And while he wasn’t regarded as one of the league’s top players when he was named MVP of the 1989 Finals, he had been selected for the 1989 All-Defensive First Team.
Some players are rewarded with an All-Star selection on the strength of their performance in the previous year’s playoffs. That didn’t happen for Billups after his 2004 NBA Finals MVP performance. He made his first All-Star roster in 2006 and was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons.
Only two Finals MVP winners who are eligible for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame are not enshrined there, and one is Maxwell. The other is Jo Jo White, who played in seven All-Star games, won two titles, and had his number retired by the Celtics. (Don’t be surprised if the Veterans Screening Committee eventually gives White a ticket to Springfield.)
Among more recent Finals MVPs, who are not yet eligible, all but one will be voted into the hall of fame, barring any major performance-enhancing drug scandals. There is no question that Duncan (1999, 2003, 2005), Shaquille O’Neal (2000–2002), Dwyane Wade (2006), Tony Parker (2007), Paul Pierce (2008), Kobe Bryant (2009–2010), Dirk Nowitzki (2011), and LeBron James (2012) will be immortalized in Massachusetts.
The only recent Finals MVP not to make the cut is Billups. As much as I’d like to see Chauncey in the hall of fame, he’s not going to get there unless the “Good Guy Triple Crown”—winning the Citizenship Award, Sportsmanship Award, and Teammate Award—becomes a thing. (Billups won the inaugural Teammate Award, making him the first and only player to win all three.)
In 44 years only two or three Finals MVP winners were not Hall of Fame-caliber players, and only one, Maxwell, was not a perennial All-Star. But even Maxwell had played All-Star-worthy seasons by the time he won the award. He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds on 58 percent shooting in 1978–1979 and 17 points and nine rebounds on 61 percent shooting the following season. He’d dropped off a bit by the Celtics 1980–81 championship season—the addition of Larry Bird probably had something to do with that—but was still the team’s third-leading scorer. Danny Green was fifth in points per game for this year’s Spurs team.
It makes sense that most NBA Finals MVPs would be all-time greats. First, many of these players are all-time greats because they have a tendency to do great things in big moments. Second, when there isn’t a clear choice for finals MVP, voters tend to lean toward the best player on the winning team, even if he didn’t have a great series by his standards. Bryant’s performance from 2010 is an example.
So, yes, Danny Green winning NBA Finals MVP, beating out three future Hall of Famers on his team and as many as four on the opposing team, would be a big deal. He would be the least accomplished and least obvious winner in the history of the award.
On the other hand, when we consider most of the past winners of this award, we can’t help but think of their entire careers. Dennis Johnson, for example, is in the Hall of Fame, but when he won Finals MVP for the Sonics in 1979, he was a third-year player who had only appeared in a single All-Star game. Green has only spent two seasons as a full-time player, and one of those was shortened by a lockout. Perhaps 15 years from now, “NBA Finals MVP Danny Green” won’t sound so strange.
But, for now, it kind of does.