The 12 Greatest Individual NBA Seasons
Fifty years after Wilt averaged 50, these season-long feats deserve renewed attention.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, MILWAUKEE BUCKS, ’71-72
Vitals: 34.6 ppg, 16.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 57.4 FG%
The man fans had become accustomed to calling “Big Lew” had all the gifts. He was graceful, he had rise, he could handle the basketball the length of the floor, and he had a nice touch. Forget the balding Laker pivot with the goggles—this was a dominant force for several seasons. No center has averaged 34 points since, and none might. The rebound average speaks to a Jabbar with a lot of spring in his step and tenacity in his game. The dimes? This was the second season Oscar Robertson was schooling the 7-2 former UCLA star to the ways of passing out of the double-team. These Bucks went 63-19; the season before, they’d swept a talent-laden Bullets team in the NBA Finals.
MICHAEL JORDAN, CHICAGO BULLS, ’88-89
Vitals: 32.5 ppg, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 2.9 steals
This was Jordan before he became Lord of the Rings—when his teammates included Sam Vincent, Brad Sellers and Charles Davis. Of whom much is given, much is asked. Probably the closest anyone has come to putting up Robertson-esque numbers, 32, 8 and 8 is a standard King James might shoot for. All achieved by a player often charged with watching the most dangerous offensive member of the opposition. Bird and Magic Johnson were garnering the headlines and the jewelry, but the 25-year-old Bull was the darling of the Dunk Contest, and the hardest working man in pro sports.
ADRIAN DANTLEY, UTAH JAZZ, ’82-83
Vitals: 30.7 ppg, 6.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, made 9.7 of 11.3 FT per game, 58 FG%
The face of the Utah franchise before the arrivals of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Few NBA or ABA combatants 6-4 and under have posted a shooting percentage of better than .550. AD did it six times, five of them in consecutive seasons. One has to have pretty savvy post moves to play power forward when one’s giving up five to seven inches in height to one’s average opponent. This was a season for the books, accomplished far from the limelight. Hall of Fame careers are not comprised of a season, but Dantley netted similar numbers from 1980 to 1986. Remember the context, too—on a nightly basis, he faced players such as Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins, Marques Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and George McGinnis. Young guns seeking a primer on post play and the triple-threat position would do well to study Dantley’s feints, moves and balance.
LeBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS, ’07-08
Vitals: 30 ppg, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2. assists, 1.8 steals, 48.4 FG%
Had The King attended college for four years, ‘07-08 would have been his rookie season in the League. He’s the reason the Cavs went 45-37 that year. It’s not easy being a marked man every night and finding teammates for open shots. Ball-handling duties, leadership and court awareness mark his game. Unlike most of the legends listed above, he was just getting started. Given his size, smarts, handle and athleticism, he could some day approach Jordan’s best numbers in the major categories. The Heat are not as dependent on his scoring as were the Cavaliers.
The game has changed too much (less shots taken, less available rebounds) for LBJ to average the unthinkable triple-double, though he’s far more suited to reach that status than were Kobe Bryant or Jason Kidd. In the final analysis, the only number MJ was concerned with was the final score. In Miami, The King has far better teammates with which to pursue equaling six rings won by Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, respectively.
BILL RUSSELL, BOSTON CELTICS, ’63-64
Vitals: 15 ppg, 24.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists
Often, I wish the NBA had charted blocked shots when Russell, Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond played. Only then would today’s fans truly appreciate the intimidation and evolution each brought to the game. Russ changed what had existed as basic basketball strategy for six decades before he played—work the ball as close to the basket as possible for the highest percentage shot. He had a staggering 25-rebound average. What’s considered outstanding now was a night’s work for No. 6. He could dish, too—the Celtics’ half-court offense, such as it was, ran through the lanky lefty. But Red Auerbach’s teams preferred to run, and Russell’s rebounds triggered many a fast break, and 11 famous Championships in 13 seasons.
HAKEEM OLAJUWON, HOUSTON ROCKETS, ’89-90
Vitals: 24.3 ppg. 14 rebounds, 4.6 blocks, 2.9 assists, 2.1 steals
If you’re looking for a quadruple-double on a given night, The Dream and Nate Thurmond are your men. Scoring, assists, blocks, steals, boards—Olajuwon was a stat-sheet filler and a born winner. While Russell was an agile, leaping defensive genius, no other center was as cat-quick on the offensive end as this half of Houston’s Twin Towers. In his heyday, he had as many moves as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and embarrasses enemy pivots on the regular. Not even David Robinson could react quickly enough, or avoid being faked out of position by “The Dream Shake.” His 1990 numbers illustrate his superstar ability despite regular competition such as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Robert Parrish.
Though by its very nature, and number of players per team, basketball is the ultimate team sport. Still, the prolonged individual efforts cited above are the gold standard of professional play. Some were achieved under a bright spotlight, others, by 2012 measures, in relative anonymity. Fifty years after Wilt averaged 50, all the aforementioned deserve renewed attention.