Numerous biomolecular interactions involve unstructured protein regions, but how to exploit such interactions to enhance the affinity of a lead molecule in the context of rational drug design remains uncertain. Here clarification was sought for cases where interactions of different ligands with the same disordered protein region yield qualitatively different results. Specifically, conformational ensembles for the disordered lid region of the N-terminal domain of the oncoprotein MDM2 in the presence of different ligands were computed by means of a novel combination of accelerated molecular dynamics, umbrella sampling, and variational free energy profile methodologies. The resulting conformational ensembles for MDM2, free and bound to p53 TAD (17-29) peptide identify lid states compatible with previous NMR measurements. Remarkably, the MDM2 lid region is shown to adopt distinct conformational states in the presence of different small-molecule ligands. Detailed analyses of small-molecule bound ensembles reveal that the ca. 25-fold affinity improvement of the piperidinone family of inhibitors for MDM2 constructs that include the full lid correlates with interactions between ligand hydrophobic groups and the C-terminal lid region that is already partially ordered in apo MDM2. By contrast, Nutlin or benzodiazepinedione inhibitors, that bind with similar affinity to full lid and lid-truncated MDM2 constructs, interact additionally through their solubilizing groups with N-terminal lid residues that are more disordered in apo MDM2.