The MVP of Meeting MVPs

My last post, on the employment connections between Presidents, put me in mind of some network diagrams I once put together on the other major topic in American history: the NBA. Specifically, I was interested in MVPs who have played together on the same team in the same season. I didn’t care what stage of the career either guy was in; as long as both of them were ever on a team together and won the MVP sometime—even far in the past or future from the season they shared—they were still connected. Here’s the result:


The colors of the edges are based on the shared team (I approximated team colors, which I guess I’ll list in the footnote to this sentence), and their weight (line thickness) is based on how many years the two connected guys played together.1  The nodes are sized based on betweenness centrality. As you can see, by this one metric no one in NBA history has ever been as important as Bob McAdoo. A little more on him in a second.

The headline, I suppose, is that MVPs are fairly highly interconnected, even by this narrow criterion. In the NBA, if you get past first-order connections, you pretty quickly get to a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon situation, as you can see for yourself using this tool from Slate.  For instance, you can get from Kyrie Irving to George Mikan in six teammates—impressive when you consider that Mikan’s career predates the NBA.2  But direct connections like you see here are much tougher; Kyrie will never play with most of the people in the league today, much less retirees. MVPs tend to have long careers—they’re generally highly employable—so that ups their odds of playing together, but they also often stick with a team (the Lakers weren’t about to trade Kobe Bryant), and their contracts are usually expensive, so I was a bit surprised to see how many had played together at least once. All told, of the 31 guys who have been MVP, only 9 never shared a roster with someone.

That said, some of these connections are ridiculous. Here are a few of the more absurd ones, in order of ascending tenuousness:

  • Steve Nash is only connected to Kobe because of the time he and Dwight Howard tried to form a super-team in LA. Nash was already 38 and in his 17th season, and he spent the most of the time injured. Dwight left the next year. The team was not super.3 
  • Karl Malone is only connected to anyone because of the time he and Gary Payton tried to form a super-team in LA. He was 40, and in his 19th season, and missed half the games because of injuries. And then the Pistons won the Finals anyway.
  •  Shaquille O’Neal concluded his career—largely spent on a super-team in LA—by roaming from team to team like a gigantic, increasingly ineffective samurai. He joined Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns, where, according to distraught Wikipedia phrasing, he “all but ended their fast-paced offense which had brought them on the cusp of a Finals appearance”. Then he moved on to LeBron James’s Cavs, and helped them get slightly less far in the playoffs than they had the year before. Finally, he journeyed to the Celtics, where Kevin Garnett’s recently-built super-team was coming off a Finals appearance; they have not been back since.
  • Moses Malone similarly refused to retire. His connection to David Robinson stems from his 21st season, when he was 39. This was 1995, and he was the last active player from the ABA, which folded in 1976. He managed to play just 17 games, averaging about 9 minutes a game. But in his last game he hit an 80-foot buzzer-beating three, so it was probably worth it for everyone involved.
  • Bob Cousy did retire, but then he unretired, which was probably worth it for no one. In 1970 he was coach of the Cincinnati Royals, and decided to play himself to boost ticket sales. This happened even though: A) He had last played a game in 1963—long enough ago that his absence effectively coincides with the entire existence of the Beatles; B) He was 41, C) He was a point guard, and this team featured Oscar Robertson. In the 7 games he played, Cousy amassed 34 minutes and 5 points—not on average, but in total. And yet, this is still a more meaningful connection than:
  • That between Moses and Bob McAdoo on the 1977 Buffalo Braves. They were together for two games, during which Moses played 6 total minutes. His stat line: 0/1/0/0/0 with 1 foul. But there’s one thing you can’t deny: They were technically on the same team in the same season.

That’s the perfect transition back to McAdoo. What’s his deal? If you’re like me you know him mainly as a trivia answer, a guy who led the league in scoring and won an MVP in the mid-70’s for… some team (turns out it was the Braves). He was a great player, but I get the sense that he’s generally considered one of the weaker MVPs. In any case, he definitely moved around a lot after that successful early period in Buffalo. From there he went to New York for a while, then stopped by Boston for 20 games in 1979, just long enough to get a connection with Dave Cowens. After stints in Detroit and New Jersey, he actually stuck around with the Lakers for four years, so his connections to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are pretty substantial. And then he retired like he worked: By first playing 29 games in Philadelphia with Charles Barkley and Dr. J. The network above doesn’t quite show it, but Moses was there too—coming full circle after their 6-minute connection on the Braves. Those two were real journeymen, but the crazy thing with McAdoo is that he was only 34 when he retired; he played just 14 seasons, but still got to 7 different teams.

One of the initial motivations behind this project was to show that the situation we’ve got on the Warriors next year—Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, two very recent MVPs, still in their prime—isn’t that unusual. But in spite of its fairly high connectivity, I think you really see just the opposite here. Only a few of these guys played together at our near their peak: Definitely Kareem/Magic and Shaq/Kobe, probably Cousy/Russell, and it’s reasonably close for Oscar/Kareem, Dr. J/Moses, and Duncan/Robinson. Everyone else is off somehow; in some cases both parties are past their prime. So that line between Durant and Curry should be pretty unique.

Still, I like all these tenuous connections. It’s the reason the two clusters are so connective, the top one connecting the 2000’s from Karl Malone to LeBron, and the bottom one stretching (thanks to Cousy’s marketing tactics and McAdoos’ travels) all the way from the 1950’s to Tim Duncan, hitting every major period in between.

Now that Duncan has retired, though, that cluster may be done. The last hope is probably Kawhi Leonard, who stands a decent chance of winning MVP sometime in the next few years. But then he or someone else will also need to migrate. Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury. Bill Walton is the best analogy there—a dominant force in 1977, he could’t stay healthy enough to keep going, missing multiple entire seasons. That’s probably the only reason he wound up on the Celtics, where, unlike the examples above, he was a major contributor to a title team while creating his connection to another MVP in Larry Bird. And finally, these connections often back-form; look at Moses and Robinson, or Cousy and Oscar. There’s still time for LeBron to have a late-career Shaqesque spirit journey.

One last thought: These sorts of networks get more connected very quickly if you add either a few extra nodes (more players = better odds that any one player has a teammate out there somewhere) or another principle of connection. I thought about using family members. Dell Curry, for instance, played with both Karl Malone (Jazz, ’86) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Raptors, ’02), connecting the two big clusters, and he’s the father of Steph Curry, connecting everyone to him and Durant. And the Warriors have also forged a connection to the most important man in the MVP network: In July, they re-signed back-up forward James Michael McAdoo, second cousin to Bob.



1. Celtic green = Celtics; Dark green = Bucks; Yellow = Lakers; Dark blue = 76ers; Red = Rockets; Gray = Spurs; Light blue = Mavericks; Pinkish purple = Suns. A few are easier to describe based on the connection: Cousy<->Robertson = Cincinnati Royals; Shaq<->James = Cavaliers; Moses<->McAdoo = Buffalo Braves. 

2. Kyrie played with Anthony Parker, who played with Rick Mahorn, who played with Wes Unseld, who played with Bob Ferry, who played with Slater Martin, who played with George Mikan. One cool thing about the Slate tool is that it incorporates other sports at the same time; for instance, LeBron James is evidently 4 degrees of separation from Mike Trout (via Damon Jones, Mark Hendrickson (who played in the NBA and MLB), and Scott Kazmir). One caveat, though, is that their data only goes to 2013.

3. This experiment and Shaq’s late-career wandering (see below) are the only reasons Dirk Nowitzki is connected to a larger network, instead of just to Nash. There’s a certain dignity to isolation in this network, I guess.

The Parable of the NBA Talents

One of the many complaints attached to Kevin Durant’s recent decision to join the Warriors is that it will wreck any semblance of parity in the NBA. There were two players who posed a threat to that team and one of them just joined it, seemingly killing all suspense about who will win the title next year (unless thinking about injuries counts as a form of suspense). It makes sense that a lot of people are mad/disgusted about this, but I think these arguments miss a key feature of NBA history: the league has almost never had parity, and it’s better when it doesn’t.

You don’t have to get too detailed to see just how skewed the NBA is (although if you want to, this Forbes article explains the financial influences pretty well). In my lifetime (30-ish years), just nine teams have won the NBA title. In the NFL, to get to nine champions you have to go all the way back to… 2007. That’s just ten seasons—nearly every time it was possible, someone new won. The NFL is often held up as the parity model to follow, and there’s a certain logic to that, since they’re the league that makes the most money even though they’re an obvious ethical catastrophe. But the NFL model just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the NBA.

If you delve a little further into the history, you see this kind of thing going all the way back. Even before it was called the NBA, the league had started a dynasty, with the Minneapolis Lakers. They won five of the first eight titles, and from there the timeline of non-parity looks like this:

NBA Non-Parity: A Timeline

1947-1954: Lakers dynasty (5 of 8 titles)

1955-56: Open season!

1957-1969: Celtics dynasty (11 of 13 titles)

1970-1979: Open season again!

1980-1989: Celtics and/or Lakers in every single Finals

1990-1998: Bulls win 6 of 8 (Rockets get the other two)

1999-2010: Lakers or Spurs in 11 of 12 Finals

2011-Present: LeBron James

You might have noticed that I switched from titles to Finals appearances partway through—when you consider these, the league looks really skewed. There have been 70 NBA Finals; the Lakers have been in 31 of those. The Celtics have appeared in another 21. So that means two teams have appeared in better than 70% of all possible Finals (12 of those times, they were playing each other).correction

Why is this like this? I have no idea. One theory is that individual players matter more in the NBA, so a transcendent talent on a particular team means more. It’s definitely true that the league still looks unequal when you phrase it in terms of individuals: Every Finals since 1999, except one, has featured LeBron, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. In fact, you can get back to 1957 with just 14 players1:

A History of the NBA Finals in 14 Players

14 NBA Finals Players Corrected - Edited

I wanted to include that because I think it’s cool, but I’m not sure the Great Man theory actually explains that much. I mean, it’s true that Russell, Magic, Kobe, and LeBron personally account for half of all NBA Finals. But LeBron had Wade, Kobe had Gasol/Shaq, Magic had Kareem, and Russell had a crappy rigged 8-team league. (I don’t like the Celtics. What was I talking about? Oh right, that obnoxious dynasties are good.) Point being, the greats required other greats to win, and it seems like a league with parity could simply have distributed some of those greats elsewhere—put Kobe on the Jazz, say, or Magic Johnson on the Pacers.2 As far as I can tell, the lack of parity just doesn’t have a great explanation (though the salary structure has clearly been the key driver in the last few years).

As you may have noticed, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can see in the little timeline above that the 1970’s were an open season. In that period eight different teams won, six of them for the first and last time (the Warriors were the seventh in that club until 2015). Compare that to the four teams of the 1980’s and it looks like a Golden Age—except that, as every curmudgeonly sportswriter agrees, the 1980’s were the real Golden Age, and the 1970’s were terrible. The league kept diluting the talent with nonsense teams (the Phoenix(?) Suns(!)), half the players were on cocaine, and there was a cooler, but not very good, competing league until halfway through the decade. It was the nadir of the NBA. The 80’s are supposed to be the Renaissance from that, the moment when the league reached its modern form, began to compete with the other major sports, and found stars who could sell things all over the world. And basically that meant two guys played each other over and over until they physically couldn’t, at which point Michael Jordan handled everything himself for the next decade.

Long story short, the NBA has never been about a fair shake for 30 teams. It has always been about a tiny oligarchy of geniuses in markets rich enough to pay two of them to trounce everyone else. If you love the NBA, apparently this is what you want to see. The people who say Kevin Durant has damaged his legacy with this move have to confront a pretty overwhelming history: Callous disregard for parity is the legacy of the NBA.


1. It’s possible there’s a more efficient way to do this, but this is the best I’ve found. To make the graphic more interesting I picked players who appeared in a lot of Finals, but in three cases (Dr. J, Larry Bird (surprisingly), and Clyde Drexler) you can swap them with any random player from 1977, 1981, and 1990, respectively, since those are the only Finals in which they appear without someone else on the list. One other combination I found that also involves 14 players would swap Wade for LeBron. This gets you the Heatles titles plus 2006. Then you can eliminate Shaq (Kobe covers the rest of his) and make up LeBron’s difference with Steph Curry (or Iguodala, Kyrie, Draymond, Dellavedova, etc.). I went with LeBron since I mention him a lot elsewhere in the article.

2. Technically I had to imagine this in order to write it, but I still feel like I can’t quite imagine it.

This post has been corrected: Originally I had the Celtics going to 20 Finals, and the two teams meeting 11 times. I’m not sure what happened—I guess I overlooked one.