Into Week 7 of our ongoing NBA Tuesdays series on award winners from the past, we finally get to the era where a vote was taken by “experts” to pick the NBA MVP. This means it’s not just us anymore looking at this stuff; we have a measuring stick from the past to work with—or against—in making our choice(s).
Our methodology is explained here, just for transparency, so here we go!
1956 MVP: Bob Pettit (original), Neil Johnston (revised)
The league was down to just eight teams, with seven of them making the playoffs in this year—the third seed in the Eastern Division needed a tiebreaker to decide which team made the real postseason.
The only team to miss a chance at the title was the Rochester Royals, who finished last in the Western Division with a 31-41 mark. Will that impact our MVP decision? Stay tuned.
Four players finished in the Top 5 for both Win Shares (WS) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER): Philadelphia Warriors center Neil Johnston, St. Louis Hawks center Bob Pettit, Syracuse Nationals power forward Dolph Schayes, and Fort Wayne Pistons center Larry Foust.
Strangely, only two of these men received official MVP votes from a body of NBA players casting ballots, with one of them winning the award and the other finishing in a tie for fifth. Two of the four best players in the league this season, therefore, did not even get a nod from their fellow players. That’s odd.
The Warriors (with a league-best 45 victories) won the Eastern Division by six games over the Celtics, while the Hawks finished third in the Western Division with 33 wins. Syracuse posted 35 victories in the Eastern Division, and Fort Wayne was the best team in the Western Division with 37 wind.
Pettit won the MVP Award, and Schayes finished in a tie for fifth, but Johnston was No. 1 in WS (13.92) by a sliver over Pettit (13.75), and Pettit topped Johnston in PER (27.34 to 25.08). The Warriors were obviously a better team, as the Hawks were just two games better than the worst team in the league.
How could players not recognize Johnston’s value? He did have help on his roster from small forward Paul Azirin, our 1952 MVP pick. But is being the best player on a bad team really worthy of an MVP, especially when Pettit wasn’t that dominant at all?
Pettit did lead the NBA in scoring (25.2 points per game), but he shot just 42.9 percent from the field to do so. He took 21 shots a game, while Johnston led the league in shooting percentage at 45.7 percent, taking just 15.6 attempts per game to score his 22.1 ppg.
The Hawks star also made just 73.6 percent of his free throws, while the Warriors star connecting on 80.1 percent of his charity-stripe attempts. Johnston was a better shotmaker, for sure, while Pettit compensated with volume. Sound familiar?
Pettit did have more rebounds (16.2 rpg to 12.5 rpg), but how many of those were off his own missed shots, which were plentiful? Johnston was the better passer, benefitting from his overall team strength to outpace Pettit in assists (3.2 apg to 2.6 apg).
Either way, these two guys were the best in the league, and one led his team to the best record in the NBA, while the other only elevated his team out of the basement by two games in the standings.
To us, that means Johnston had a lot more value than Pettit, even if one could decide that the latter had the “better” season: Playing high-stakes minutes for a division title tops playing no-stakes minutes for the worst team to (barely) qualify for the postseason.
The voters got it wrong in 1956.