The 12 Greatest Individual NBA Seasons
Fifty years after Wilt averaged 50, these season-long feats deserve renewed attention.
by Bijan C. Bayne
Basketball by the numbers. Fantasy owners play it, and by all accounts, Wilt Chamberlain was fascinated with it. Others (including some of the greatest winners in the history of the pro game), not so much. The object of the game is, however, to outscore the opposition. Other skills and tactics contribute to that goal.
In light of all that, what have been the dozen best seasons modern pro basketball players have ever had? Awarding no player more than once, here’s my take (I took ABA seasons into account because teams such as Denver, San Antonio and Indiana originated there):
ELGIN BAYLOR, L.A. LAKERS, ’61-62
Vitals: 48 games, 38.3 ppg, 18.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists
Elgin Baylor was the reason the Lakers moved to Tinseltown—Showtime before it had a name. In 1961, with tensions between the US and USSR heightened due to the onset of the Berlin Wall, Baylor’s reserve number came up. He thus only served the Lakers on leave and weekends. He couldn’t practice with the club. Nonetheless, the NBA’s first frequent flyer’s average of nearly 40 points, 19 rebounds was a routine evening, and when double-teamed, the creative passer dissed to open teammates. The dude attempted 13.1 free throws a night! His Lakers met Boston in the 1962 NBA Finals. One wonders in retrospect what manner of career digits Baylor may have amassed had he not hurt one knee badly during the 1963 campaign, and shattered his other kneecap in 1966. Or if arthroscopic surgery had existed then.
OSCAR ROBERTSON, CINCINNATI ROYALS, ’61-62
Vitals: 30.8 ppg, 12.4 rebounds, 11.5 assists
It is one thing to be a team’s playmaker. It is generally another to be a 30 ppg producer. For NBA guards, however, only Oscar has managed a season where double-digit rebounds were the norm. No one else has come remotely close (even in this era of larger guards). We’re talking about a one-man revolution—a guard who, as a rookie in ’60-61, destroyed the season scoring average record for guards by 8 points per game! Robertson’s contemporaries say he was the first player they ever picked up on defense at three-quarters court length. Silky feints, deft, pinpoint passes, tenacity under the boards—the three-time NCAA scoring champ had it all, and this season was a testament.
SPENCER HAYWOOD, DENVER ROCKETS, ’69-70
Vitals: 30 ppg, 19.5 rebounds
Surprised? Don’t be. The JuCo player who became Olympic Games MVP at age 19 was only 20 when this season began. Blessed with agility, enormous hands and the confidence of a king, Spencer was a man-child long before Darryl Dawkins, Shaq or LeBron. This was no brute—he shot better than 81 percent on his free throws in six seasons, huge mitts and all (compare that to Shaq and Wilt). He could play a little defense, too. Court woes over jumping leagues and other problems hampered his NBA career, but in 1970 and other seasons, Haywood demonstrated why he was the first “hardship case” to be allowed to play ABA or NBA ball before his college class graduated.
RICK BARRY, SAN FRANCISCO WARRIORS, ’66-67
Vitals: 35.6 ppg. 9.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists
Before the 1965 NBA Draft, some GMs fretted that Miami scoring machine Rick Barry might prove to frail for frontcourt play. Teams slated to select early instead focused their sights on Princeton’s mercurial Bill Bradley, 6-8, 230-pound Davidson phenom Fred Hetzel, and 6-7, 250-pound Michigan bulwark Bill Buntin. The Warriors took a chance on the Hurricanes’ whippet as the fourth pick overall, and in his second campaign, he put up the aforementioned numbers. Barry thus became the first NBA player to lead the circuit in scoring since ‘59-60 whose last name was not “Chamberlain.” More on the other guy later.
The early Barry was not the deep shooter 1970s fans recall, but a slasher in the mold of contemporary Billy Cunningham (minus “The Kangaroo Kid’s legendary hops). He could give it to you underhand, reverse, hook, or stuff it in your face. Barry is also widely considered the best passing small forward other than Larry Bird who has ever played the game (Baylor fans would differ). As for his trademark underhand free throws, Barry sank 88.4 percent of those this sophomore season. Oh, and the kid led ‘Frisco to the NBA Finals. No wonder ABA owners in Oakland lured him away. As for Michigan’s Bill Buntin? He can tell his grandkids, “I was drafted before Rick Barry.”
WILT CHAMBERLAIN, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS, ’65-66
Vitals: 33.5 ppg, 24.6 rebounds, 5.2. assists, 47.3 minutes per game
Nobody roots for Goliath, but numbers don’t lie. This less selfish version of The Big Dipper, teamed with capable scorers such as Hal Greer and Chet Walker, shared the basketball, dominated the backboards, and led his new team to the NBA’s Eastern Finals vs the rival Celtics. The Big Guy, never fouled out (a stat he maintained for his entire career), and played nearly every minute of every contest, despite double teams, covert banging, responsibilities on both ends of the floor. If they had dunk contests at All-Star Games in those days, perhaps he’d have donned a Superman cape as Dwight Howard recently did. Even Bill Russell couldn’t stop Wilt, though the Celts as a team often bested Wilt’s Warriors and Sixers (though not the next season, when Chamberlain averaged 7.8 assists and Philly won 45 of its first 49 games en route to a title).
NATE ARCHIBALD, KANSAS CITY-OMAHA KINGS, ’72-73
Vitals: 34.0 ppg, 11.4 assists, 84.7 FT%, 48.8 FG%
“Tiny,” by NBA standards, he was. Timid, he was not. Archibald was every bit as fast as Allen Iverson, only he focused his drives north and south. The southpaw possessed a masterful handle, spectacular court vision, and the guts of a burglar. In an era of burly bigs such as Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier and Wes Unseld, time after time, he slipped into the lane to magically score.
Contrary to popular belief, he was not “the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring and assists.” Oscar Robertson accomplished the feat in ‘67-68, but since “The Big O” only played in 65 games, due to injury, Dave Bing won the League’s scoring crown, which was then awarded the player with the most total points, not the highest average. By today’s standard’s, Robertson’s 29.2 ppg and 9.7 assists led in both. Spotting Oscar at least five inches, and 50 pounds, “Tiny” became the second player in the history of the Kings franchise, and indeed the League, to be the premier scorer and playmaker in the same season.