The Lost Finals MVP: 1959
Boston's annoying teamwork on display
Boston won its first NBA title in 1957. In 1958 they lost their crown to the St. Louis Hawks. In 1959 they swept the Minneapolis Lakers to regain their lost crown.
The fairly easy victory for the Celtics leads to quite a dilemma.
There’s too many qualified but flawed Finals MVP candidates.
In total there are five, yes FIVE players to consider for this award and they break down into two big groups.
Group 1 is the highly efficient scorers: Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, and Bill Sharman. Group 2 is the inefficient scorers who glued the team together in other ways: Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
As you can see, the efficient scorers really kept to the scoring. Heinsohn was the most well-rounded of them contributing good rebounding. However, all three of the Group 1 players averaged between 29 and 31 minutes per game.
Meanwhile the Group 2 fellas (Cousy and Russell) each played 46.5 minutes per game in the series. Basically they never left the court. However, their scoring was atrocious. Look at those percentages! Awful even for the era.
(Average FG% in 1959 was .395 and average FT% was .756)
However, Cousy and Russell greased the offense of Group 1.
Cousy averaged a shade under 13 assists per game including a 19-assist effort in Game 3 that tied Cousy’s own single-game Finals record from 1957.
And make no mistake. Averaging 12.8 assists in a playoff series was a Herculean task in this period. No one had done it before and it’d be awhile till someone did it again.
Walt Frazier managed to tie the average in the 1969 Eastern Division Semi-Finals. It wasn’t surpassed however until Norm Nixon (13.0 APG in the 1979 WCQF), but that was a first round mini-series. It wasn’t until the early 1980s with Magic Johnson (14.0 APG in the 1983 WCF) and Johnny Moore (14.2 APG in the 1983 WCSF) that a player surpassed Cousy’s effort in a best-of-seven series.
The 19 assists in a game was also a heroic effort. In all of NBA history since then, only Frazier and Magic have tied that number of assists in a single Finals game, while Johnson is the only player to surpass it (two 20-assist games and one 21-assist game).
So clearly the Cooz was dishing the ball mightily.
Of course, Russell’s defensive contributions are hard to gauge statistically in this period since blocks and steals weren’t tallied. But his 29.5 RPG give a hint at his effort on the defensive end.
But you can’t overlook those shooting numbers. Yuck.
Well, let’s see what the newspapers have to say…
GAME 1: they make note of Frank Ramsey pacing all Boston scorers with 29 points off the bench as Boston won 118-115. Not much help here.
GAME 2: Boston won 128-108… Oh! We have something! The Boston Globe noted that Ramsey was inserted at key moments to stave off Minneapolis runs. Okay, good. Sharman had a streak of 50-consecutive free throw makes as he scored 31 points in this game. Wow, he could make them freebies. And Russell had seven blocks. Wow! Can’t believe someone noted that!
GAME 3: Another Boston win, 123-110. Sharman made all his FTs, so now had 56 straight makes. No word on Russell blocks, but Cousy had his 19-assist outburst.
GAME 4: Boston held on for a 118-113 win. No one stood out. The Boston Globe described all of our five candidates making important contributions down the stretch be it scoring or rebounding.
That didn’t help at all.
This is where I, unfortunately, make a HISTORICAL LEGACY CALL and decide that Bob Cousy is the winner. Consider this an ode to the little men who rarely get this honor.
In an era where assists were hard to come by, Cousy put on a passing and assisting display that wasn’t really seen again in the NBA Finals until Magic Johnson. He tied his own record for assists in a Finals game. Set a record for APG in any playoff series that held for a couple decades. Plus had a triple-double (21 pts, 15 asts, 11 rebs) in Game 2, which I think was the first in NBA Finals history.
As for our other competitors…
Bill Russell is about to get a whole bunch of Finals MVPs. Trust me. He’ll be fine.
Bill Sharman was basically all scoring and no rebounding or assists.
Tom Heinsohn gave some rebounding with his scoring, but played way fewer minutes than Cousy. Ditto for Frank Ramsey.
This close call was a testament to Boston’s great team.
And they had Sam Jones and KC Jones as backups on this squad.
Ridiculously stacked. Minneapolis and Elgin Baylor didn’t stand a chance in this series.