Ranking the 10 Greatest Individual Seasons in NBA History
Comparing two different players in the same season is not a straightforward task as there are countless factors to take into account and consider.
Do you go just by statistics or team success? Or a combination of both? Is that player the number one option on their team? And do they make their teammates better?
As you can see, there are already several variables in play that make comparing individual players a challenge. So imagine the difficulty in comparing players across several years, or even several decades. That is the challenge that I took to hand in attempting to rank the top 10 seasons in NBA history.
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below but keep in mind that all of these great players are worthy of recognition and that the main aim of this article is to appreciate and admire the true legends of the game. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did researching and writing it.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are a variety of ways in which to compare and contrast individual players. Hence, it is important to set out some kind of criteria in the rankings. The players will be measured upon the following points:
- Statistics recorded in the traditional sense as well as advanced stats such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares.
- Team success measured in regular season record as well as postseason performance.
- Regular season performance combined with playoff and Finals performances.
- Two-way dominance—was the player in question a threat on offense as well as defense?
- Accomplishments such as All-NBA selections, MVP awards and leading the league in a particular category.
- Historical significance such as scoring the most points in a single season or averaging a triple double.
There are also some unwritten rules set in the interest of the reader. As great as they were, I didn't want the list to be dominated by only two or three players. Having a variety of players from different eras makes the list more enjoyable to read and to write.
Therefore, preference was given to players who had not appeared on the list at all previously. For example, I probably could have included four or five seasons of Michael Jordan, but deliberately overlooked some in order to acknowledge other great players. I also tried to exclude back-to-back seasons (sorry Kareem) in order to gain a little more breadth in the list.
Honorable Mention: Oscar Robertson (1961-62)
Statistics: 30.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 11.4 APG, 47.8% FG
Team: Cincinnati Royals (43-37)
Accomplishments: All-NBA First Team, All-Star, led the league in assists.
Oscar Robertson won an MVP in 1964 and a championship ring in 1971 but his entire legacy hinges on his historic ’62 season in which he famously averaged a triple double.
Despite his gaudy statistics, Robertson finished third in MVP voting, behind Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, in just his second year in the league.
The Big O finished second in minutes played, fourth in field goal percentage, first in assists, third in points, fourth in Player Efficiency Rating and third in Win Shares. There have been many great all around players throughout NBA history, but Oscar is the only player to ever average a triple double for an entire season. That feat alone is enough to get him a mention on this list.
So why doesn't Oscar rank higher? For starters, his team was only three games above .500 and they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the underdog Pistons. Secondly, basketball was a lot different back in the 60s and the breakneck speed of the game was enough to inflate many players’ statistics. For example, Oscar’s Royals averaged over 105 shots per game in 1962 which was the sixth most in a nine-team league.
By comparison, the 2012 Sacramento Kings led the league in shots per game this past season, averaging less than 86 for the year. More shots leads to increased scoring and rebounding which can help to explain the eye-popping numbers that some players were putting up.
While I am not trying to take anything away from the legends of the past, it is important to note that the game was much different back then and comparing individuals from season to season is no easy task.
Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double in 1962 and that’s all that really matters.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James (2008-09)
Statistics: 28.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 48.9% FG
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
Accomplishments: MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star.
LeBron James made an indelible mark on the league in 2009, capturing the first MVP award of his career and leading the mediocre Cavaliers to a league best 66 wins.
Although the Cavs were unable to win a championship, LeBron’s dominance is well documented in both the regular season and the playoffs. James received 109 out of a possible 121 first-place votes in the MVP race, finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and subsequently made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First teams.
He led the NBA in PER, Win Shares and finished second in the league in scoring. He upped his level of play during the playoffs by recording an astronomical PER of 37.4 in the 14 games played. In the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron averaged 38.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 8 APG but received little help from his teammates and was sent packing in six games.
Despite that, LeBron James had produced what was one of the greatest single seasons in NBA history. His season PER of 31.67 is the fourth highest mark ever and his Win Shares per 48 (.3183) is the sixth highest of all time.
James asserted himself as the best player in the league in 2009 and has rarely looked back since.
Honorable Mention: Larry Bird (1985-86)
Statistics: 25.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.8 APG, 2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 49.6% FG
Team: Boston Celtics (67-15)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Star, Three-point Shootout champion.
The 1986 Boston Celtics are, in my opinion, the greatest team in the history of the NBA. This is largely due to the talent and leadership of the great Larry Bird.
While ’86 wasn't Bird’s best year statistically, it was the year his team peaked and it therefore became an iconic season. Bird was still spectacular, however, averaging almost 26 points per game to go along with nearly 10 rebounds and seven assists.
The vaunted Celtics won 67 games in the regular season and went 50-1 at home during the playoffs and regular season. Bird received 73 out of 78 first-place votes in the MVP voting and was as efficient as ever during the season, leading the league in PER and falling just shy of 50/40/90 shooting averages.
In the playoffs, Bird did shoot 50/40/90 and increased his assist numbers to 8.2 per game. Facing off against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, Larry Legend almost averaged a triple double, posting 24 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 9.5 APG in the six-game series.
Bird was not known for his defense, but he did lead the league in Defensive Win Shares in the regular season (he also led the league in Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 for the second year straight). He was known as one of the league’s premier clutch performers and deservedly took home his second Finals MVP award to go along with his third championship ring.
Leaving Larry Bird out of the top 10 was not easy to do.
10. Michael Jordan (1987-88)
Statistics: 35 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 53.5% FG
Team: Chicago Bulls (50-32)
Accomplishments: MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, Slam Dunk Contest champion, led the league in scoring, led the league in steals.
The hardest part of Michael Jordan’s inclusion in this list was deciding which seasons to name. There’s a reason he’s known as the greatest player to ever play the game; Jordan had so many dominant all around seasons and was a part of multiple championship teams in his prolific career.
I chose his phenomenal ’88 season namely because of the laundry list of honors he accumulated over the course of the season. He’s the only player in NBA history to win a scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year award in the same season.
Jordan also recorded 200 steals and 100 blocks for the second year straight. Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen are the only other two players to ever achieve that feat even once. Such two-way dominance on both ends of the floor in unrivalled—Jordan was arguably the best player on both ends of the floor in ’88.
Because of this all around superiority, Jordan picked up his first of five MVP awards. He also led his team to 50 wins in one of the strongest eras for the NBA.
As if that weren’t enough, MJ also upheld his reputation as the most exciting young superstar in the league by successfully defending his Slam Dunk Contest title and being named MVP of the All-Star game.
Statistically, Michael had few peers as he averaged 35 points per game, shooting at over 53% from the field. He recorded the highest Player Efficiency Rating of his career at a staggering 31.7 which easily led the league and ranks as the third highest mark of all time and the highest ever since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976.
The Bulls were spurned by Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, but Jordan proved once more that he was a big time player, averaging 36.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 4.7 APG in the postseason. He’s the only player in NBA history to record back-to-back 50 point games in the playoffs, which he achieved against the Cavaliers in the first two games of the ’88 postseason.
Jordan’s excellence, however, was merely a sign of things to come.
9. Magic Johnson (1986-87)
Statistics: 23.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 12.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 52.2% FG
Team: Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Star, led the league in assists.
Magic Johnson’s 1987 season ranks as one of the best seasons ever because of his uncanny ability to run the offense as efficiently as possible and make everyone around him better.
After the ’86 Celtics made their mark on the league by destroying almost everything in their path, Magic Johnson and the ’87 Lakers returned with a vengeance to win 65 games in the regular season and capture the NBA title.
With the greatest point guard of all time at the helm, the Showtime Lakers ranked second in the league in points per game, second in field goal percentage, first in assists and first in three-point percentage. Magic led the league in assists for the fourth and final time in his career, shot above 52 percent from the field and led the league in both offensive Win Shares and Win Shares per 48.
Facing off against the rival Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, Magic was simply brilliant. He averaged 26.3 PPG, 8 RPG, 13 APG and recorded more steals than turnovers. He shot over 54 percent from the field, missed only one free throw and easily won his third Finals MVP in eight years. In the closeout Game 6 in Los Angeles, Magic had 16 points, 19 assists and 8 rebounds as the Lakers stormed to a 106-93 victory.
Johnson was far and away the best player in the league in 1987 and his ’87 season ranks as the best season ever by a point guard.
8. Wilt Chamberlain (1961-62)
Statistics: 50.4 PPG, 25.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 50.6% FG
Team: Philadelphia Warriors (49-31)
Accomplishments: All-NBA First team, All-Star, led the league in scoring, led the league in rebounding.
Wilt Chamberlain rewrote the record books in 1962, averaging over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game and establishing himself as one of the most dominant players to ever grace the court.
In terms of raw statistics, Wilt’s ’62 campaign is easily the greatest season ever. Words cannot accurately describe how much better Wilt was compared to the rest of his competition at the time. 1962 was simply a season for the ages.
Chamberlain scored 4,029 points in 80 games, over 1500 more points than his nearest rival that year. Only one other player has ever scored more than 3,000 points in a season (Michael Jordan, 1987). Chamberlain did it three times.
He led the league in PER, Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 by a substantial margin and even averaged 48.5 minutes per game. He did this by playing almost every regular season minute, plus overtimes. He grabbed over 250 more rebounds than Bill Russell on the way to the rebounding title, accumulated the second most defensive Win Shares, shot at the second highest percentage from the field and never fouled out of a game.
Perhaps most notably, Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game on March 2, 1962 against the New York Knicks. Only Kobe Bryant (81 points) has even come close to touching that mark.
Despite his overwhelming dominance, Chamberlain’s memorable ’62 season somewhat foreshadowed the narrative of his career. Wilt averaged 50, but Russell bested him in the playoffs and won MVP and the title.
Even in the All-Star game, in which Chamberlain dropped 42 and 24, the Western Conference All-Stars won by 20 and Bob Pettit took home the MVP award.
Throughout his career, Wilt’s unparalleled dominance was unfairly overshadowed by his lack of team success—and this trend was never more evident than in 1962, a year in which Wilt Chamberlain owned like no other.
7. LeBron James (2011-12)
Statistics: 27.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 53.1% FG
Team: Miami Heat (46-20)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star.
As we all know, 2012 was a year of redemption for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The King finally silenced his doubters and won a championship ring, solidifying his place amongst the greatest players of all time.
But LeBron’s entire season should not be overlooked for he put together one of the most well rounded displays of versatility and dominance the NBA has ever seen.
In the regular season, LeBron was just as efficient as anyone has ever been. He shot at a career high 53.1 percent from the field—an outstanding number for a high volume perimeter scorer—and recorded a PER of 30.7, the third time he has exceeded an efficiency rating of 30 in the regular season.
LeBron now joins Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to record at least three seasons with a PER above 30 (no one else in NBA history has even done it twice).
James was equally dominant in the postseason, took home his third regular season MVP in a landslide and was the unanimous MVP of the Finals. James also finished top five in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and was nominated to the All-NBA Defensive First team for the fourth straight year.
When taking into consideration LeBron’s epic playoff run, it becomes clear that 2012 was his best year yet.
6. Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94)
Statistics: 27.3 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 3.7 BPG, 52.8% FG
Team: Houston Rockets (58-24)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star.
No one benefited more from Michael Jordan’s absence than Hakeem Olajuwon.
The seven foot center from Nigeria won an NBA title, MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award in ’94 and produced a playoff and Finals run for the ages.
During the regular season, Hakeem finished top five in points, defensive rebounds, blocks, PER, Defensive Win Shares and total Win Shares.
In the playoffs, he led a team with no other All-Stars and eclipsed Drexler’s Trail Blazers, Barkley’s Suns, the Stockton/Malone Jazz and Ewing’s Knicks to become an NBA champion.
Few players succeeded as much with as little help as Olajuwon had in 1994 and 1995. His playoff line: 28.9 PPG, 11 APG, 4.3 APG and 4 BPG.
In the Finals, he held Patrick Ewing to 18.9 PPG on just 36.3 percent shooting from the field and averaged 26.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.6 APG and 3.9 BPG. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Hakeem had 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks.
His dazzling array of moves in the post helped him become an unstoppable basketball machine who played at an incredibly high level defensively, passed extremely well for a big man and performed well when it mattered most.
5. Tim Duncan (2002-03)
Statistics: 23.3 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.9 BPG, 51.3% FG
Team: San Antonio Spurs (60-22)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star.
The greatest power forward to ever play the game put together a truly special 2003 campaign, winning almost every relevant individual accolade and leading his Spurs to the NBA title.
Duncan anchored his team on both ends of the floor and was beyond dominant in the playoffs and Finals. He led the NBA in Win Shares, finished third in PER and was named to both the All-NBA and All-Defensive First teams.
However, the truly remarkable aspect of his season was his unbelievable playoff run where he single-handedly carried San Antonio at times. Duncan’s numbers in 24 postseason games: 24.7 PPG, 15.4 RPG, 5.3 APG and 3.3 BPG.
In the Finals, Duncan stepped it up another notch, averaging 24.2 PPG, 17 RPG, 5.3 APG and 5.3 BPG. He held Kenyon Martin (an All-Star the following year) to 34.3 percent shooting and broke the Finals record for blocks.
In the closeout Game 6, he fell two blocks shy of a quadruple double, finishing with 21 points, 20 rebounds 10 assists and eight blocks (he also held Martin to 3-23 shooting).
Of course, The Big Fundamental was the only choice for Finals MVP. He had no other All-Stars on his team in 2003 and received little help from an aging David Robinson (8.5 PPG and 7.9 RPG in the regular season) which makes his historic season even more impressive.
Duncan accumulated 5.94 Win Shares over the course of the playoffs, the most in NBA history.
He picked up his second straight MVP award in the regular season and finished top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Few players have ever played at the level Duncan did in 2003.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-71)
Statistics: 31.7 PPG, 16 RPG, 3.3 APG, 57.7% FG
Team: Milwaukee Bucks (66-16)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive Second Team, All-Star, led the league in scoring.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) had a marginally better 1972 season statistically, but in 1971 he led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 66-16 record as well as the NBA championship.
The all-time leading scorer in NBA history was a forced to be reckoned with offensively and defensively as he led the league in scoring and shot at a phenomenal 57.7 percent from the field.
He led the league in PER by the second biggest margin of all time, recorded the fourth most offensive Win Shares ever and accumulated the fifth most total Win Shares ever.
Blocks were not recorded until 1974, but Abdul-Jabbar led the league in blocked shots four times after that so it is likely he would have been a terrific interior defender—he was named to the All-Defensive Second team.
The Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals and Kareem picked up his first Finals MVP award after averaging 27 PPG, 18.5 RPG and 2.8 APG, shooting at over 60 percent from the field.
1971 was just his second year in the league and he picked up his first MVP award after finishing third in his rookie season behind Jerry West and Willis Reed.
The ’71 Bucks, featuring Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge are considered to be one of the greatest teams ever assembled. They won 66 games in the regular season and only lost two games in the entire postseason behind Kareem’s legendary performance.
3. Michael Jordan (1990-91)
Statistics: 31.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, 1 BPG, 53.9% FG
Team: Chicago Bulls (61-21)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, All-Star, led the league in scoring.
Jordan’s seventh year in the league was arguably his best as a pro.
He finally overcame the Detroit Pistons by sweeping them in the Eastern Conference Finals and then proceeded to win his first championship ring by defeating Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Jordan was unstoppable throughout the regular season and the postseason, capturing his second MVP award and his first Finals MVP. He led the league in scoring, PER and Win Shares as well as making the All-NBA and All-Defensive First teams.
His Bulls won 61 games in the regular season and only dropped two in the playoffs. After losing the first game of the Finals, Jordan famously proclaimed that the Bulls would sweep the rest of the series. They did exactly that, winning four straight games in relatively convincing fashion.
During the Finals, MJ showed off his ability to take on multiple roles within the offense. He played point guard for much of the series and ended up leading the Bulls in both points and assists. His final line: 31.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 11.4 APG, 2.8 SPG and 1.4 BPG.
Jordan shot above 55 percent from the field and consistently found open looks for his teammates—Horace Grant averaged 14.6 PPG on 62.3 percent shooting largely due to Jordan’s penetration and willingness to get others involved.
In Game 2 of the series, Jordan produced one of his vintage Finals moments. His “spectacular move” capped off a run of 13 consecutive made field goals by ‘His Airness’ and paved the way for Chicago to take control of the game in front of a raucous home crowd.
1991 Jordan was the perfect blend of athleticism and willingness to defer to his teammates at times and that’s ultimately why the Bulls won the championship.
Michael Jordan was at the peak of his powers and rest of the league didn’t even stand a chance.
2. Wilt Chamberlain (1966-67)
Statistics: 24.1 PPG, 24.2 RPG, 7.8 APG, 68.3% FG
Team: Philadelphia 76ers (68-13)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Star, led the league in rebounding, led the league in field goal percentage.
1967 was the year everything finally came together for Wilt Chamberlain. At 30 years of age, he was still in the middle of his prime but he finally had an adequate supporting cast to compete against Bill Russell’s Celtics.
The ’67 Philadelphia 76ers featured the likes of Chet Walker, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham alongside Wilt and they cruised to a 68-13 regular season and Wilt’s first championship.
Although Chamberlain did not lead the league in scoring, he shot an astounding 68.3 percent from the floor and ranked third in the league in assist per game. He also led the league in rebounding, PER and Win Shares as he deservedly won his third MVP award.
The Finals MVP award did not come into existence until 1969, but we can safely assume that Wilt could have won that as well. He averaged over 29 rebounds and nine assists whilst playing almost every minute in the postseason, an indication of Wilt’s incredible athletic ability even later in his career.
This season ranks as one of the greatest of all time because Chamberlain finally understood what it took to win and harnessed his unique ability as a basketball player. The fact that he averaged almost nine assists per game as a center is an unbelievable accomplishment (Wilt actually led the league in total assists the next season).
This combined with his astronomical rebounding numbers and field goal percentage makes it a phenomenal year by any measure.
1. Shaquille O'Neal (1999-00)
Statistics: 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.5 SPG, 3 BPG, 57.4% FG
Team: Los Angeles Lakers (67-15)
Accomplishments: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive Second Team, All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, led the league in scoring and field goal percentage.
That’s right, the greatest single season in NBA history belongs to the Big Diesel, Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq was the most dominating player since Michael Jordan, but this season was perhaps even greater than anything MJ did in one year. From start to finish, O’Neal was absolutely unstoppable.
He fell one first-place vote shy of being the only unanimous MVP in league history (Allen Iverson inexplicably received one vote) and dominated the Finals like no other. He led the league in scoring, field goal percentage, PER, Offensive and Defensive Win Shares and Win Shares per 48.
O’Neal was never known to be a tremendous shot blocker, but he averaged three blocks per game in the regular season and finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. He’s an underrated passer who averaged 3.8 assists from the center position and for a guy who never led the league in rebounding, 13.6 a game is pretty darn good.
But the true measure of Shaq’s dominance transcends even the most complex statistics. O’Neal was literally unstoppable in his prime, and there’s no better example of this than in the ’00 season.
He collapsed defenses which created easier scoring opportunities for teammates, he demanded double teams at all times and he was an imposing force in the paint on both sides of the court. He carried the Lakers to a league high 67 wins and did so as possibly the most likeable and entertaining superstar in the league.
In the playoffs, Shaq averaged 30.7 PPG, 15.4 RPG and 3.1 APG. He upped that to 38 PPG, 16.7 RPG, 2.3 APG and 2.7 BPG shooting at above 61 percent from the field in one of the best Finals performances in NBA history.
In the regular season, O’Neal exceeded 40 points on nine different occasions, including a 61 point, 23 rebound outburst against the Clippers on his birthday. In 23 playoff games, Shaq dropped 40 or more five times including three 40 point nights in six Finals games.
However, Shaq’s Achilles’ heel was free throw shooting. This was the only true evidence that he was a mortal human being in the year 2000 and it was eventually exploited by teams that adopted the Hack-a-Shaq technique. The true measure of dominance is when your opponents have to foul you because they’re afraid of the alternative.
There are simply not enough words to fully elaborate on what was the most dominant season in NBA history. Just know that for 102 games in 1999 and 2000, Shaquille O’Neal played at a rare level that has rarely been matched before or since.