The NBA is an unforgiving place. Due to the small roster sizes, great players receive more scrutiny than in any other professional sport. In the NBA, one great player can be the difference between 30 wins and a spot in the lottery or 50 wins and playoff glory. Plenty of bad teams have made deep post-season runs of the backs of great players (Think Allen Iverson's 76ers in 2001 or LeBron Jame's Cavaliers in 2007). However, those performances often end up being all for naught if the men beside them aren't up to snuff. Basketball history is littered with incredible players who never won a championship. Look at Chris Paul: the man's one of the best ten point guards to ever play the game and he's never even been to the conference finals, despite being an absolute beast in the playoffs. Hell, Karl Malone, the second all-time leading scorer in NBA history, doesn't have a championship ring. The NBA is a cruel mistress.
This list is dedicated to the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. The following 15 men may not have won championships during these seasons, or even during their whole careers, but they etched their names into basketball lore anyway, by racking up awards, stuffing the stat sheets, or just being downright legendary.
15 1961-1962 Oscar Robertson
The first entry on this list is one of the most legendary seasons in NBA history, from one of its most underrated performers. In the 1961-1962 season, Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double. Again, just for clarity: HE AVERAGED A TRIPLE-DOUBLE! He averaged 31 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11 assists a game. It's worth noting that he did this on a fairly unspectacular Cincinnati Royals team, in an era where most of the great players were consolidated between Boston and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Big-O didn't win MVP or scoring leader that season because his astonishing campaign just so happened to coincide with Wilt Chamberlain's ridiculous season of legend (More on that next). Still, Oscar deserves an infinite number of props for what he achieved that season. Today, people freak out if a player has consecutive triple-doubles. Oscar Robertson had 41 in an 82 game season. That's incredible.
14 1961-1962 Wilt Chamberlain
Today, Wilt Chamberlain isn't looked at as a basketball player, he's considered a mythical figure. In a lot of ways, the myth of Wilt Chamberlain has surpassed the player. He's known for his 100 point game, his neurotic stat stuffing, and, allegedly, sleeping with 20,000 women. His performance in the 1961-1962 season was one of the main proponents of that myth. He averaged 50 points (50!!!) and 26 rebounds (26!!!) a game, along with an NBA season record 48.5 minutes a game and a 31.82 PER, for the Philadelphia Warriors. However, the biggest part of that absurd season was the 100 point game. It's an achievement nobody has ever, or maybe will ever, beat. The closest anyone has ever gotten was Kobe Bryant with 81. The strangest part of that season was, despite playing like a video game character, he didn't win MVP. Bill Russell did. That feels like a mistake.
13 1970-1971 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor, was a freak of nature. Pure and simple. He played 21 seasons in the NBA, almost all of them at a high level. He had the most unstoppable shot in the history of professional basketball, the Skyhook. It's difficult to pick one season by which to define him, but if it must be done, his 1970-1971 season stands out above the rest. In his sophomore season, Kareem averaged 32 points and 16 rebounds a game for the Milwaukee Bucks. He won his first MVP award and was the league's top scorer. Most impressively, however, was the fact that he led the Bucks to the mountaintop in their third year of existence, bringing them their only championship in franchise history. He did so alongside Oscar Robertson, who, while still effective, was clearly in the twilight of his career, and an underwhelming supporting cast.
12 1986-1987 Magic Johnson
The man known to the world as Magic is a lot of things: he's an HIV survivor, he's a failed talk show host, he's a basketball unicorn (A point guard with a power forwards body and unparalleled court vision), and he's the greatest floor general to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Magic's crowning achievement in a career full of legendary moments (BABY SKYHOOK!) was his performance in the 1986-1987 season. After arch-rival Larry Bird won a championship the previous year with one of the most brilliant teams in NBA history, Magic was determined to up the ante. He averaged an otherworldly 24 points and 12 assists a game for the Los Angeles Lakers, leading them to 65 regular season wins. He won the MVP award and brought the Purple and Gold back to the Finals, where they defeated Larry Legend and the Boston Celtics in 6 games.
11 1987-1988 Michael Jordan
In all honesty, half the entries on this list could be glowing praise of Michael Jordan. He's the greatest basketball player to ever live and he has no shortage of amazing seasons. Most people would probably take his 1995-1996 season, where he led the Bulls to 72 regular season wins, over any other, but his 1987-1988 was his greatest individual season, even if he didn't win a championship that year. It was his true star-making season. He led the league in scoring with 35 points per game on 53% shooting and led the league in steals with 3.2 per game for the Chicago Bulls, along with a 31.71 PER, the best of any player ever not named Wilt Chamberlain. He won his first MVP award and the Defensive Player of the Year award, becoming the first man in NBA history to win both in the same season. He and the Bulls bowed out in the second round of the playoffs, but this season was a sign of things to come for the young GOAT.
10 1993-1994 David Robinson
Along with being a gigantic basketball playing demi-god seemingly carved out of indestructible steel, David Robinson is also an American hero. He was drafted in 1987, but he served in the Navy for two years before ever hitting the court for the San Antonio Spurs. When he finally did, he was magnificent. The Admiral turned the Spurs fortunes around immediately, winning them an extra 35 games just his rookie season. As consistently great as he was in San Antonio, his best season may have been 1993-1994. He didn't win the MVP award or Defensive Player of the Year, but he was scoring champion. He averaged 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks a game on-route to 55 regular season wins. His high scoring output was capped off by a 71 point explosion against the Los Angeles Clippers, a performance that allowed him to narrowly win the scoring title over Shaquille O'Neal.
9 1999-2000 Shaquille O'Neal
It's safe to say that there are very few people on Earth who don't know Shaquille O'Neal. He's a unique guy. He had a platinum selling rap album, his failures at the free-throw line are the stuff of NBA legends, and he's maybe the most dominant big man to ever play the game of basketball. Maybe. He was a force of nature, an immovable object that could do whatever he wanted around the basket. This was most evident in the 1999-2000 season, the first season of his three-peat with the Los Angeles Lakers. Alongside a young Kobe Bryant, Shaq averaged 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks a game, with a 30.65 PER, for an all-time great team that won 67 games. Shaq won the scoring title while hitting a league high 57% of his shots. With him at the helm, the Purple and Gold claimed the NBA championship and Big Aristotle won the Finals MVP.
8 2000-2001 Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson is an icon. He changed the NBA landscape so thoroughly that they had to create new rules because of him. He made David Stern so angry, he instituted a dress code. He was also a damn good basketball player. Regarded as the best pound-for-pound player to ever live (Interpret that as you may), AI got stuck with some of the worst teams imaginable and still came closer to championship gold than many players ever do. His 2000-2001 season exemplifies that fact. Armed with a team starting such luminaries as Eric Snow and Tyrone Hill, Allen Iverson averaged 31 points and 2.5 steals a game, carrying the Philadelphia 76ers to an Eastern Conference best 56 wins. Iverson won the MVP award, scoring title, and steals title, and brought the Sixers to the Finals, where they were defeated four games to one by the mighty Lakers. It's worth noting, however, that Iverson handed Shaq and co. their only loss of the playoffs.
7 2002-2003 Tracy McGrady
Tracy McGrady's career could have, and should have, been much better than it was. One of the most dynamic players to ever grace the court, he was brought down by a mixture of bad teams, injuries, and his own hubris. Had he stayed in Toronto with Vince Carter, they may have created one of the deadliest combinations ever seen in the NBA. However, he never won a championship, or saw much of any playoff success, which is sad, because prime T-Mac was an incredible player. His best season came in 2002-2003, when he led a severely undermanned Orlando Magic team to the playoffs behind a night in, night out herculean effort. He averaged a league high 32 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game, registering an absurd 30.27 PER. Even though the team exited in the first round of the playoffs, T-Mac's all-world performance cannot be denied and was a fantastic glimpse into what might have been.
6 2003-2004 Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is an ultra competitive, sometimes genuinely frightening man. He famously doesn't allow his teammates to use their cell phones or listen to music in the locker room. After winning the championship in 2008, he yelled "Anything is possible!" into a microphone. This fire has made him one of the game's greatest defenders. In what's becoming an annoying trend, the Big Ticket didn't play for many good teams, at least during his first tenure in Minnesota. His best teammate on the Timberwolves was probably beloved basket case Latrell Sprewell, a decade removed from his best season. However, that didn't stop KG from going all-out in 2003-2004. He averaged 24 points, a league high 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game, while winning a Western Conference best 58 games and winning the MVP award. He managed to carry the T-Wolves to the Western Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the titanic, but chaotic, Los Angeles Lakers.
5 2005-2006 Kobe Bryant
No list of NBA superlatives is complete without the Black Mamba. Kobe Bryant is one of the most celebrated ballers to ever grace the hardwood. He won five championships with one of the legendary franchises in professional sports, he's the league's third all-time leading scorer, and his drive, ambition, and work ethic are legendary. That makes it especially strange that his best season came when he wasn't winning much of anything at all. In 2005-2006, Kobe played out of his mind for a Los Angeles Lakers team starting the likes of Kwame Brown (Just horrible) and Smush Parker (Top 5 name of all time, tho). The Mamba averaged 35 points a game and even scored 81 points (81!) against the Toronto Raptors, the second most any player has ever had. However, despite his superhuman play, Kobe didn't win the MVP award, instead losing out to Steve Nash, one of most controversial snubs of all time.
4 2008-2009 Chris Paul
More or less the inspiration for this list, Chris Paul, the Point God himself, has had one of the most disheartening superstar careers in NBA history. Paul has never been less than extraordinary, in the regular season or the playoffs, but he's never so much as reached the conference finals, either because of sup-bar supporting casts or the failure of good teammates to back him up (or because the Clippers are cursed). However, his individual greatness should never be in question. The ultimate testament to his abilities was in the 2008-2009 season. He averaged 23 points on 50% shooting, 11 assists, and 3 steals a game, the latter two being league highs, with a 29.96 PER, all while carrying the New Orleans Hornets to 49 wins. He probably would have won the MVP award if it hadn't been for LeBron James and his own brand of historic dominance that season.
3 2008-2009 Dwyane Wade
The man whose name you've probably been spelling wrong your whole life, Dwyane Wade has had a veritable roller coaster of a career. Drafted by the Miami Heat in 2003, he was quickly teamed with Shaquille O'Neal after the big man's flight from Los Angeles. The duo prospered, winning the championship in 2006. However, soon after, Shaq left, along with many of the veteran players that made up that championship squad, and D-Wade had to lead the team himself. Surrounded by an uninspiring cast, Wade refused to let the team be bad and the 2008-2009 season was his shining moment. He averaged 30 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2 steals a game with a 30.36 PER, dragging the Heat to 43 wins and a playoff berth. His persistence in the face of adversity, that season and next, was rewarded when the Heat recruited LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, helping Wade win two more championships.
2 2008-2009 LeBron James
The greatest player of this generation, LeBron James has never truly had a bad season. In fact, this list could probably just be a compilation of LeBron, Jordan and Wilt seasons, and it would still be accurate. The epitome of athleticism in basketball, and maybe all sports, LeBron has long been a dominant force, especially young LeBron, who was essentially a tank that morphed into a human and learned the game of basketball. No season better represented that dominance than the 2008-2009 season (Man, that was a really good season). The King averaged 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists a game with a 31.67 PER, helping the Cleveland Cavaliers win 66 games. He claimed the MVP award and managed to bring the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, deterring a possible Finals mega-clash between himself and Kobe Bryant.
1 2015-2016 Stephen Curry
The most recent addition to this list, (WARDELL!) Stephen Curry had one of the most ridiculous, video game-esque offensive seasons ever in the history of professional basketball. First off, he led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA record 73 wins, which means they only lost 9 games, which is insanity. He averaged a league high 30 points (in under 35 minutes, the only player in NBA history to do that), 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals a game with a 31.46 PER. He joined the ultra prestigious 50-40-90 club, the only scoring leader in history to receive the honor. Most importantly, he hit over 400 three point shots. No other player in NBA history has ever hit more than 300 and Steph ran through that like it was nothing. He won the MVP award and actually got a few votes for Most Improved Player, which is ludicrous. Even though the Warriors may have fallen in the Finals, Curry's brilliance can never be denied.
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