When Lebron James was awarded his first Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award last Thursday he must have felt like he had shaken a gorilla off his back. In fact, the first thing he said after winning was “It’s about damn time.” No other athlete has been scrutinized quite like James since entering the league nine seasons ago. Up until Thursday he had been known as a player with all of the talent in the world but who lacked the intestinal fortitude to show up in big moments. By being the best player on the floor en route to his first title, James solidified himself as the best player in the NBA. But before we place him amongst the all-time greats, let’s take a look at who’s ahead of him. Here is a list of nine of the greatest clutch performers in the history of team sports, all with multiple championship MVP awards to their credit. All the athletes here highly deserve to be on this list, but you’ll probably notice some glaring omissions such as Babe Ruth and Bill Russell. It’s not because they don’t belong, but because their playing careers predate the existence of their sport’s final round MVP awards. But enough with the disclaimers, let’s get started.
Being the only player ever to win World Series MVP awards with two different teams, there is nobody better to kick off the list than Mr. October. In five World Series appearances, Jackson averaged .357 at the plate, hit ten home runs and drove in 24. He also amassed an impressive 1.212 OPS and was awarded World Series MVP in 1973 with the Oakland As and 1977 with the New York Yankees. The self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink” set two records in the 1977 World Series when he belted five home runs, including three in the game six clincher, and had 25 total bases.
9. Reggie Jackson
Even in a shortened career, Sandy Koufax was able to become one of the greatest World Series pitches of all time. Koufax’s Dodgers made it to the World Series four times in his career winning in 1959, 1963 and 1965. Koufax made seven World Series starts and posted a minuscule 0.95 ERA with four complete games and two shutouts. He was awarded the World Series MVP in 1963 and 1965. It was in 1963 that he set the record for most strikeouts in a World Series game when he fanned 15 Yankees in the series opener (that record would be broken by Bob Gibson five years later. ) Koufax’s spot on this list is well deserved, but who knows how high he could have climbed had he not been forced to retire at age 30 due to an arthritic left arm.
8. Sandy Koufax
Nobody wanted to be on the mound when the stakes were highest more than Bob Gibson. He appeared in the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals three times in 1964, 1967 and 1968. With Hoot anchoring the pitching staff, the Cardinals were able to capture titles in 1964 and 1967. Gibson was awarded the World Series MVP in both. In his nine Fall Classic starts, Gibson went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 92 strike outs. He completed eight of his starts and posted two shutouts. The Cardinals came up short in 1968 despite Gibson’s brilliance. It was in game one where he broke Koufax’s record for strike outs in a World Series game with 17.
Don’t let his demeanor fool you, Tim Duncan is one of the greatest closers in NBA history. The unassuming superstar led his San Antonio Spurs to four NBA championships between 1999 and 2007. He captured NBA Finals MVP honors three times in 1999, 2003, and 2005. During his finals career, Duncan averaged 22.7 points per game while adding 14.4 rebounds and 3 blocks. The Spurs eliminated the Nets in game six of the 2003 Finals behind a near quadruple-double from Duncan in which he scored 21 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, dished 10 assists, and blocked eight shots. In that same series, Duncan set the record for most blocks per game in a finals series with more than five.
6. Tim Duncan
Being one of the most dominant big men the game has ever seen and winning three NBA Finals MVP awards is enough to earn Shaq a spot in the top five. O’neal has six Finals appearances and four championships to his credit. He won his first three titles and all three of his Finals MVPs with the Los Angeles Lakers in consecutive years from 2000-2002. His fourth title came with the Miami Heat in 2006. Over his 6 Finals runs Shaq averaged 28.8 points per game and added 13 rebounds and two blocks. Although Shaq set records for most points scored and most free thows attempted in a four game series in 2002, his most impressive performance was in 2000. He averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds as the Lakers dismissed the Pacers in 6 games.
5. Shaquille O'Neal
I know what you’re saying: How can a guy with only two Conn Smythe trophies be ahead of other athletes who have won the award more times in their respective sport? Well, they call him “The Great One” for a reason. Gretzky appeared in 6 Stanley Cup Finals, five with the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-85 and 1987-88 and one with the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. He won four Stanly Cups during his career and was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy in 1985 and 1988. The hockey record book is dominated by Gretzky. Among his Finals accomplishments are the records for most assists with 35 and most points in a finals series with 13, which was set in 1988 against Boston.
4. Wayne Gretzky
Magic Johnson is one of the greatest performers in NBA Finals history. With nine trips to the Finals during the 1980s and early 1990s, Magic’s “Showtime” Lakers were the gold standard of the league for more than a decade. Magic has five titles to his credit, and on a team stacked with stars and hall of famers, it makes it all the more impressive that he was able to earn Finals MVP honors three times in 1980, 1982 and 1987. In his Finals career, he averaged 19.4 points per game and added 11.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds. In the greatest performance ever by a rookie, Johnson led his team past the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 Finals while starting at center and playing every position on the floor. He is still the only rookie to ever win an NBA Finals MVP.
3. Earvin Magic Johnson
Perhaps the most difficult Finals MVP award to capture is the NFL’s Super Bowl MVP. But nobody has won it more times than Joe Montana. In four Super Bowl appearances, Montana led his San Francisco 49ers to victory in each of them and was awarded the game’s MVP three times in 1985, 1989 and 1990. His Super Bowl career includes a hearty 127.8 passer rating as he completed 68 percent of his passes and threw 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. He holds records for the most Super Bowl completions with 83 and most pass attempts without an interception with 122. As if the numbers were not enough, he added several highlights which include a 92 yard touchdown drive capped off by a touchdown pass to John Taylor against the Bengals to win Super Bowl XXIII.
2. Joe Montana
As if there was any doubt, “His Airness” Michael Jordan earns the top spot on this list. Nobody in NBA history relished the big stage of the Finals quite like MJ. He led his Chicago Bulls to six championships in six appearances from 1991-1993 and 1996-1998. En route to winning his six Finals MVP awards, Jordan outdueled some very heavy competition while compiling a very impressive stat line. He averaged 33.6 points per game while adding 6 assists and 6 rebounds. His 41 points per game during the 1993 finals is a record that still stands today. In a career packed with big shots, he hit perhaps his biggest in the 1998 Finals when he famously pushed off of Brian Russell and buried the game winner to beat the Utah Jazz for his sixth title.
1. Michael Jordan
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