David Robinson Was the Best Player of the 1990s, at Least According to IBM

Ask any random person on the streets who the best NBA player of the 1990s was, and there’s a 90% chance they would say “Michael Jordan.” It’s the natural answer. His individual and team honors throughout the decade speak for themselves. Six NBA champions, six NBA Finals MVPs, four NBA MVP awards, and the list goes on and on. But there was one award that remained just out of his grasp throughout the 1990s – the now-defunct IBM Award.

What was the IBM Award?

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For basketball statisticians and analytics nerds, the IBM Award would have been the ideal way to crown the NBA’s most valuable player. Specifically, it rewarded the player who contributed the most to his team during the season. Instead of a panel of voters, the IBM Award relied on a specific mathematical formula that factored in key offensive and defensive statistics, as well as the team’s win total from the season.

The first IBM Award was first issued at the end of the 1983-84 season, with the Lakers’ Magic Johnson winning. Early on, the award was known as the Schick Pivotal Player Award, named for Schick’s “pivoting” razors. At some point, IBM took over the title sponsorship.

David Robinson, IBM darling

San Antonio Spurs C David Robinson
David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets | Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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The metrics of the IBM Award really seemed to favor San Antonio Spurs big man David Robinson. He took home the prize five times in a seven-year stretch between the 1989-90 and 1995-96 seasons. Robinson paired an IBM Award with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 1994-95, one of three players to do so. The others were Shaquille O’Neal and Robinson’s future teammate, Tim Duncan.

Ironically, when Robinson won the one prize that really mattered – the NBA championship in 1999 – another big man won the IBM Award that season. That player was Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks.

In fact, despite team wins playing a part in the formula that determines the award winner (or perhaps because of that, who knows), there was very little correlation between the winner of the award and the winner of the NBA Finals. Only one player won both an IBM Award and a championship in the same season — Shaquille O’Neal, who pulled it off in both 2000 and 2001 with the Lakers.

As for Michael Jordan, he did win the award twice. However, both of those awards came during the 1980s, well before his championship-winning days.

Final rundown

Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs won the final IBM Award after the 2001-02 season. With both him and Robinson, the Spurs received six. The next-closest teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers won three. In the 76ers’ case, all three of theirs went to one player, Charles Barkley.

While the IBM Award may not necessarily have been an indicator of which team would win the NBA Finals, it did pave the way for more advanced statistical analysis in basketball. Years after the award was retired, John Hollinger devised the player efficiency rating (PER), a more reliable means of tracking players’ overall contributions. While PER has its own critics, it is considered the benchmark of basketball statistics today.