The 20 Best Individual NBA Seasons of the Past Decade
With autumn giving way to winter and the close of the 2010s bearing down, forgive us for feeling a little nostalgic.
The upcoming calendar change got us thinking: What's the best NBA development we've witnessed over the last decade?
Turns out, that's far too broad a question to ponder. From the rise of the Golden State Warriors' superpower to the Big Three's formation in South Beach to the recent trend of building with dynamic duos, there are myriad storylines to relive from the last 10 years.
So, we're narrowing our scope to this: What's the best individual season we've seen over that time span? With no shortage of analytical tools at our disposal, that's an inquiry we're more than happy to tackle.
Finding the best anything is a subjective exercise. But given the wealth of data available in today's Association, this conversation can largely be shifted over to objectivity.
How, you ask? By trusting the adage about numbers never lying and letting the stat sheet do the hard work.
More specifically, we're letting four catch-all advanced metrics tell the story: win shares (WS), player efficiency rating (PER), box plus/minus (BPM) and value over replacement player (VORP). Qualifying single-season stats—anyone eligible for the scoring title—from 2009-10 to 2018-19 were ranked, and the average ranking in those four categories, which we'll call season score, helped decide this debate.
Since we're looking at an average ranking, the scoring system works like golf's: the lower, the better.
In the event of a tie, subjective measures would break it. Anything from league impact to notable achievements to strength of supporting cast could be used to edge one elite season past another.
Sounds simple enough, right? Let's get to the rankings.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2013-14 (Season Score: 24.75)
It's lazy and misguided to label Love's production over his tenure in the Twin Cities as empty calories. Sure, the Wolves didn't do a lot of winning, but that was their fault, not his. The numbers he put up in his final go-round were silly: 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Add 2.5 triples to the mix and you're looking at a stat line that hadn't been done before and hasn't been duplicated since.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, 2014-15 (Season Score 27.25)
This is the closet the Brow came to cracking the list, which seems wild when this was only his third year in the league. Wilder still is that in his age-21 campaign, he paced the league in PER (30.8) and blocks per game (2.9). If not for nagging ailments—he's never played more than 75 games and suited up just 68 times this season—he might have several top-20 entries.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs, 2016-17 (Season Score: 29.0)
Can we all pause to collectively send our condolences to the Silver and Black? This was Leonard's most dramatic climb up the NBA's mountaintop, as he paired an All-Defensive first-team selection with a then-career-high 25.5 points. But he was injured during the subsequent playoff run, and the handling of that situation led to his split from the Spurs in July 2018.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers, 2014-15 (Season Score: 29.25)
While the Point God had several near-misses—if this list had the top 40 seasons, he would've made four appearances—this landed nearest to the top 20. It was the only time he played all 82 games, his shooting rates were all among the best of his career (48.5/39.8/90.0 slash), he captured the assist crown with 10.2 helpers per game, and his Clippers won 56 games despite Blake Griffin missing 15 contests.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets, 2018-19 (Season Score: 30.5)
It was all laughs for the Joker in 2018-19 as he toyed with defenders and joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only 7-footers to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Jokic ranked sixth or better in WS, PER, BPM and VORP last season, and he was by far the biggest reason Denver jumped from a feisty 46-win pest to a powerful 54-win force in a single calendar.
20-16: KD, LeBron, Wade, Harden, Westbrook
20. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2015-16
Season Score: 22.25
Notable Numbers: 28.2 PPG, 5.0 APG, 8.2 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.2 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 14.5 WS, 28.2 PER, 7.9 BPM, 6.4 VORP
It feels all too appropriate that this list starts with a statistical tie between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the two biggest win-share suppliers over the last decade. Each has multiple featured entries, starting with KD's final run in OKC.
He's such a statistical powerhouse that even numbers this rich don't jump off of his Basketball Reference page. But at the time, this set a career high in boards, was his second-best season in assists and established a high mark for threes he's still yet to clear (2.6). As usual, the walking mismatch was ruthlessly efficient and posted a pristine 50.5/38.7/89.8 slash line.
19. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2015-16
Season Score: 22.25
Notable Numbers: 25.3 PPG, 6.8 APG, 7.4 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 13.6 WS, 27.5 PER, 9.1 BPM, 7.6 VORP
The King has his crown for a reason. He surfaces so often here that the list almost functions as a career retrospective.
This was two seasons into his Cleveland return, and he was surely seething after consecutive Finals losses the two years prior. He opened the campaign with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double and closed it by scoring 34 points on 16 shots. In between was plenty of similarly unguardable dominance.
While he doesn't get bonus points here for bringing the Larry O'Brien Trophy home to Cleveland at the end of the season, that stands as one of his greatest career accomplishments.
18. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat, 2009-10
Season Score: 21.25
Notable Numbers: 26.6 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 13.0 WS, 28.0 PER, 9.4 BPM, 8.0 VORP
Spending his twilight years alongside LeBron surely cost Wade more recognition here, but his last season before the Big Three's formation still secured him a top-20 spot.
He did everything for this team, willing it to 47 victories despite the fact its second-leading scorer was—wait for it—Michael Beasley. Wade would never average more shots, points or assists again, while all four advanced categories were also the highest he'd post from that point on. His 27 games with 30-plus points were the third-most of his career.
17. James Harden, Houston Rockets, 2014-15
Season Score: 18.0
Notable Numbers: 27.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 16.4 WS, 26.7 PER, 8.4 BPM, 7.8 VORP
Harden's first two seasons in Houston produced his All-Star introduction and Houston's ascension to contending status. But in Year 3, the Beard's numbers started taking on historical significance.
Armed with personal bests almost across the board, Harden became only the ninth player to average 27 points, seven assists and five rebounds. He tallied more minutes, points, free throws and free-throw attempts than anyone, and while Stephen Curry captured the official MVP award, Harden earned the nod at the first-ever NBPA Players' Awards.
16. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2015-16
Season Score: 17.0
Notable Numbers: 23.5 PPG, 10.4 APG, 7.8 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 14.0 WS, 27.6 PER, 10.0 BPM, 8.3 VORP
Remember way back before the Brodie had numbed the basketball world to consistent triple-doubles? Well, he was dropping loud hints those days were coming.
This was still Oscar Robertson 2.0 stuff, only minus all the headlines. At the time, Westbrook joined the Hall of Famer as the only players to average 23 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Tack on the two steals and the hyper-athletic point guard was in a statistical class all his own.
15-11: LeBron (2x), KD, Harden, Steph
15. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2010-11
Season Score: 17.0
Notable Numbers: 26.7 PPG, 7.0 APG, 7.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.6 WS, 27.3 PER, 8.6 BPM, 8.2 VORP
Wrestling wishes it could have a heel turn this compelling. When James ditched his Northeast Ohio digs for South Beach, he was ready for all the vitriol hurled his direction.
"I've kind of accepted this kind of villain role that everyone has placed on me," James told reporters in Jan. 2011. "I'm OK with it."
That season, James shot a then-career-high 51.0 percent from the field and led the league in PER for the fourth straight year. And remember, this was when he and Wade were still stepping on each other's feet as they tried to iron out a pecking order on the fly. Whether you respected James' decision or not, you couldn't knock the numbers.
14. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2012-13
Season Score: 16.75
Notable Numbers: 28.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 7.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 18.9 WS, 28.3 PER, 7.7 BPM, 7.6 VORP
It speaks volumes about the jaw-dropping skill in today's game that this season doesn't check in even higher. Durant not only joined the famed 50/40/90 shooting club, but he also gained entry while matching the second-highest scoring average ever paired with that slash line.
His points per game were more than he'd averaged the previous two years, which grows more notable considering he was the scoring champ in both of them. His field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, assists, steals and blocks all set or tied his career-best marks at that point.
13. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2017-18
Season Score: 14.5
Notable Numbers: 27.5 PPG, 9.1 APG, 8.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 14.0 WS, 28.6 PER, 9.6 BPM, 8.9 VORP
The phrase "LeBron isn't fair" has been used approximately two billion times throughout his career, but it might have reached a fever pitch in 2017-18.
In his age-33 season, he played all 82 games for the first (and still only) time. He also paced everyone in minutes per game (36.9) because basketball cyborgs apparently don't age. This was the seventh time he'd averaged at least 27.2 points; he shot 54.2 percent from the field, more than three points higher than any of the other six seasons (51.0).
His assists set a personal best. His rebounds matched his career high. This was his age-33 season. I know I've already pointed that out, but sheesh.
LeBron really isn't fair.
12. James Harden, Houston Rockets, 2016-17
Season Score: 13.5
Notable Numbers: 29.1 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.0 WS, 27.4 PER, 10.1 BPM, 9.0 VORP
Go find the world's greatest 2K20 player and let them manipulate the sliders. They still might have trouble reproducing Harden's 2016-17 line.
This was only the third time a player had averaged 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, and it was the first time said player wasn't named Oscar Robertson. What's more astounding is while Robertson's Cincinnati Royals averaged at least 115.8 possessions per 48 minutes in his two seasons, Harden's Rockets only went through 100.0 trips per 48.
But almost every time Houston had the rock, Harden was adhering to whatever the math directed him to do. If he wasn't launching threes, he was getting to the basket. If he wasn't finishing at the rim, he was getting to the foul line. And if he wasn't calling his own number, he was dishing out one of his 11.2 assists per night: a career-high mark by nearly 2.5 per game.
11. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2014-15
Season Score: 13.25
Notable Numbers: 23.8 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.7 WS, 28.0 PER, 9.9 BPM, 7.9 VORP
We probably don't talk enough about the sacrifice Curry made to turn the Warriors into a historically dominant superteam. And I say that knowing full well the topic has been discussed at great length.
This season was the start of his NBA takeover.
He broke his own record for three-point makes in a season while burying 44.3 percent of his long-range looks. He started 80 games for the first time in his career, had his second-best season in assists per game and led the league in total steals. He captured his first MVP award and punctuated the campaign with his first title.
After welcoming Durant to the fold in 2016, though, Curry's stats were never the same. In fact, he only makes one more appearance on this list, which doesn't seem possible given his gigantic impact on the sport.
10. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2013-14
Season Score: 12.25
Notable Numbers: 27.1 PPG, 6.3 APG, 6.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.9 WS, 29.3 PER, 8.9 BPM, 8.0 VORP
In 2012-13, James shot an absurd 56.5 percent from the field. Given his game, his career-high 40.6 three-point percentage might've been the less believable number. By year's end, he'd captured his fourth (and perhaps final) MVP award and second title.
Then he showed up at the following training camp and issued a warning to the rest of the league.
"I know you guys are tired of hearing me say this, but I got better," James told the assembled media.
It was a frightening prospect, but he made good on his word in a couple of areas. He somehow found room to nudge his field-goal percentage even higher (56.7), and he bumped his scoring average up from the previous year's 26.8.
His 2012-13 campaign ultimately graded out higher, but that's in no way a slight to this season. These kinds of numbers are beyond the imagination of almost every player in the Association.
9. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2011-12
Season Score: 12.0
Notable Numbers: 27.1 PPG, 6.2 APG, 7.9 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 14.5 WS, 30.7 PER, 11.0 BPM, 7.6 VORP
If the basketball gods held James' southward migration against him, they got over it by his second season in South Florida.
By then, he and Wade had fine-tuned their working relationship with the latter ceding control to the former. Back in the driver's seat, James became a more efficient version of himself. His 53.1 field-goal percentage was the highest he'd recorded. Same goes for his 36.2 percent perimeter success rate.
He looked comfortable, and not only due to Wade's transition to a Robin role. James wasn't the villain anymore, at least not in his own mind. He seemed to have an extra spring in his step—perhaps due to the lockout season's shortened schedule—and he crushed 134 dunks in only 62 games, or eight more slams in 17 fewer games than the previous season.
He won his third MVP in convincing fashion, then he capped the year with his first championship.
8. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2016-17
Season Score: 12.0
Notable Numbers: 31.6 PPG, 10.4 APG, 10.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 13.1 WS, 30.6 PER, 15.6 BPM, 12.4 VORP
The reaction to Westbrook's MVP season was sort of like the fiery floor general himself: all over the place.
Some saw his near-nightly triple-doubles as no more than stat-padding. Others might have questioned why an arbitrary distinction (10-plus in three different categories) was supposed to be so significant.
Here's the thing: the numbers loved it. Among our decade-long sample size, Westbrook's 2016-17 season produced the highest BPM and VORP, while it landed eighth in PER. It's worth noting, as ESPN's Kevin Pelton did in 2017, that Westbrook's gargantuan usage rate and rebound percentages inflated the BPM and VORP marks based on their formula, but these were nevertheless stats for the ages.
The impact of this production was easy to spot, too, as the Thunder went 33-9 during games in which he triple-doubled. Plus, it's hard to just gloss over the fact that he was only the second player ever and the first in 55 years to average a triple-double, or, as ESPN's Royce Young pointed out, that Westbrook's numbers actually blew Oscar Robertson's out of the water:
"In putting up his 30-10-10 averages, he did it in nearly 10 fewer minutes per game and 25 fewer possessions per game than Robertson. Increase Westbrook's workload to the 44.3 minutes per game Robertson played in 1961-62, and Westbrook would be at 39.9 points, 14.6 rebounds and 13.3 assists per game."
No matter your view on Westbrook's season as a whole, you probably won't ever forget it.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, 2018-19
Season Score: 11.75
Notable Numbers: 27.7 PPG, 5.9 APG, 12.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.5 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 14.4 WS, 30.9 PER, 10.8 BPM, 7.6 VORP
Giannis Antetokounmpo was a historical trend-setter well before last season's MVP emergence. In 2016-17, he became the first player ever to rank among the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. In 2017-18, he was the first in nearly 30 years to average 26 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while shooting 52-plus percent from the field.
Turns out, those were merely appetizers.
His 2018-19 performance felt like the apex of positionless basketball. He was equal parts unstoppable force and immovable object. He took bronze in the scoring race while shooting 57.8 percent, managed a top-20 assist average and finished runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting—all in the same season. He comfortably won what could've been a nail-biting MVP race and carried his club to a 60-win season.
He was as dominant near the basket (76.9 percent inside of three feet) as maybe anyone we've seen since prime Shaquille O'Neal. And remember, Giannis is someone Basketball Reference labels as a "Power Forward and Point Guard and Small Forward and Shooting Guard."
This felt like watching the future of basketball unfold before our eyes.
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets, 2017-18
Season Score: 9.75
Notable Numbers: 30.4 PPG, 8.8 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.4 WS, 29.8 PER, 10.9 BPM, 8.3 VORP
After rubbing elbows with the NBA's elite for several seasons, the Beard officially launched into orbit during the 2017-18 campaign.
He snared his first scoring title while outperforming his career shooting rates from the field (44.9, up from 44.3) and distance (36.7, 36.4). He joined Stephen Curry as the only players to connect on at least 3.5 triples per night. His 61.9 true shooting percentage was the eighth-highest ever recorded by a 30-point scorer.
This marked the first (and so far only) time Harden paced all players in PER and win shares per 48 minutes (0.289). ESPN's real plus-minus credited him with a league-best 16.03 RPM wins; James, Westbrook and Davis were the only other players to top 14.8.
The Rockets were a 65-win juggernaut that season, and Harden was their high man in minutes, points, assists, triples and steals. When MVP voters hit the booths, the Beard was an easy and obvious choice.
5. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2013-14
Season Score: 9.25
Notable Numbers: 32.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 7.4 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 19.2 WS, 29.8 PER, 8.8 BPM, 8.5 VORP
With Westbrook limited to 46 appearances by injury, the Thunder needed more from Durant than usual. So, naturally, he uncorked perhaps his greatest offensive effort to date.
The scoring alone was special. He was only the fourth player in the 2000s and the first since Kobe Bryant in 2005-06 to average 32-plus. Adding efficiency to the equation put Durant in even more exclusive company. He was only the seventh player overall and the first since Michael Jordan in 1989-90 to average that many points while shooting 50-plus percent from the field.
Durant is already an all-timer. He and James are the only active players Basketball Reference sees as having a 100 percent probability of Hall of Fame enshrinement. But this was Durant on a different level. The points, PER, win shares and VORP were all league-leaders, and they're still career highs for the 10-time All-Star.
"Everything in my life, I had to take it," Durant said in his MVP acceptance speech. "... This was another case, if I wanted to win the MVP, I had to go take it. I felt that this was the year I did that."
While Durant has become an NBA champion and donned two different jerseys since, he has yet to recreate this combination of volume and efficiency.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets, 2018-19
Season Score: 6.75
Notable Numbers: 36.1 PPG, 7.5 APG, 6.6 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 15.2 WS, 30.6 PER, 11.7 BPM, 9.9 VORP
The Beard went berserk last season.
From the middle of December through late February, he went on an almost unprecedented scoring binge. Starting with a 50-point triple-double(!), he scored 30-plus points in 32 straight games. Only Wilt Chamberlain had a longer such streak when he cleared the mark 65 straight times from Nov. 1961 to Feb. 1962.
After Harden's run came to a close with "only" a 28-point effort—naturally buoyed by a 14-of-16 showing at the stripe—the scoring guard seemed relieved the streak (and all the surrounding attention) was over.
"Yeah, I am," Harden told reporters. "It was cool, but I knew I wasn't going to get to No. 1."
Once the checkered flag finally waved, Harden's scoring average sat at a ridiculous 36.1 points per game. Only three players—Chamberlain, Jordan and Elgin Baylor—had ever reached such deafening volume, and none had done so since MJ averaged 37.1 in 1986-87.
Harden's 378 triples were the second-most in NBA history, and his 754 free throws placed him seventh on the all-time list. The only thing more outlandish than those numbers is the fact he's on pace to top both this season.
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2015-16
Season Score: 3.25
Notable Numbers: 30.1 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.4 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 17.9 WS, 31.5 PER, 12.5 BPM, 9.8 VORP
Want to know how fortunate we are as modern hoops fanatics? The NBA has only had one unanimous MVP in its entire history, and the numbers say it was only the third-most-impressive season we've witnessed in the last decade.
Curry's 2015-16 season was a mind-boggling blend of almost unfathomable production. His 402 triples were the most in league history. His career-high scoring average topped his personal best by nearly three points per game. He paced the entire league in steals per game and total thefts (169).
But more than all of that, he warped our expectations for shooting efficiency.
He not only splashed his way into the 50/40/90 club, but he also did so with the highest points-per-game average the club had ever seen. He joined Steve Nash and his head coach, Steve Kerr, as the only members of the 50/45/90 club and set that group's scoring mark by more than 13 points per game. His 66.9 true shooting percentage was the best ever posted by a 30-point scorer.
Oh, and his team set an NBA record with 73 wins, which somehow feels like a footnote when discussing his majestic campaign.
"He wants it," Kerr said during Curry's award ceremony. "There's no ulterior motive. He's constantly trying to improve with no agenda. ... This is incredibly improbable. But there's a reason this is happening."
It should be hard to imagine that anyone has authored a more impressive campaign over the last 10 seasons. But then again, that other hoops prodigy born in Akron does exist.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2012-13
Season Score: 3.0
Notable Numbers: 26.8 PPG, 7.3 APG, 8.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 19.3 WS, 31.6 PER, 11.6 BPM, 9.8 VORP
Are spoiler alerts required when the information to be spoiled should already be known?
There's perhaps no better way to sum up the past 10 seasons—on an individual level, at least—then for King James to occupy the top two spots on this list. Moreover, his two remaining campaigns even share the same season score.
Choosing between them is like picking a favorite child. Truth be told, the 2012-13 season might have witnessed LeBron at his apex. He's never enjoyed such a high connection rate from distance (40.6) and only once had more shooting success from the field (56.5). Within our designated sample (2009-10 to 2018-19), he never had a higher PER or generated more win shares.
The Heat lost Wade for 13 games and Chris Bosh for another eight and still won 66 contests, including 27 in a row at one point. Sure, this squad was overloaded with talent, but it went from outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions with James to being outscored by 3.9 without him.
He not only ran away with his fourth MVP award, but he also fell just one vote shy of a unanimous honor. The lone voter who didn't select him, Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, even felt compelled to craft a column explaining why.
This version of James was unreal, even by his otherworldly standards. But since he engineered similar success on the team and individual levels with far less help around him in another year, this "only" qualifies as the second-best season of the last decade.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2009-10
Season Score: 3.0
Notable Numbers: 29.7 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Advanced Metrics: 18.5 WS, 31.1 PER, 12.5 BPM, 10.9 VORP
James' initial tenure with the Cavaliers was equal parts frustrating and fascinating.
The frustration stemmed from the club's inability to construct a full-fledged contender around him. The fascination came from the fact he almost rendered that inability meaningless.
Case in point: The 2009-10 Cavs were 61-game winners. They had the NBA's fifth-best offense and eighth-best defense, making them one of only two teams (along with Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic) to have top-eight efficiency marks on both ends of the floor.
Do you remember James' top teammates from this squad?
The other three double-digit scorers were Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal. Williams ended his 13-year career with a perfectly average 15.0 PER. Jamison, who played 25 games for Cleveland that year after a midseason trade, was 33 years old and two seasons removed from his final All-Star selection. This was O'Neal's age-37 season and second-last in the league.
That's the kind of assistance James had, and he still put together a season like this. It was impossible to ask him to win a title without a second star, but one-man-wrecking-crew LeBron was a sight to behold.
In the heart of his athletic prime and with free agency awaiting at season's end, he rampaged through the 2009-10 campaign and delivered the most productive, jaw-dropping effort we've seen in the last 10 years.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.