Defining the ten greatest seasons of all time is no easy matter. For one thing, it’s clearly arguable. When you’re comparing players across different eras, with different rules, schedules, competition, and statistics there are just too many variables to account for. That being said it would be absolutely zero fun to talk about if we knew with 100 percent certainty.
So, in my opinion, what defines greatness? To be great you have to separate yourself from the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m looking for people to standout individually, and I’m looking for said player to lead his team to a championship. While postseason success doesn’t automatically ensure greatness, the ultimate goal of every sport is to win. It’s hard to put a player on this list who did not reach that plateau. In the same breath, Robert Horry, who won seven championships, will never be considered better than Charles Barkley, who won zero championships. To be truly great you need to win and standout, even beyond the victors. So my list is comprised of ten players who did just that. Each player in the season listed won a regular season Most Valuable Player (MVP), a Finals MVP, and a championship. It’s not a surprise that every player on this list is, or will be in the Hall of Fame. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are exactly ten players who have won an MVP and a Finals MVP on the way to a ring in a single season.
Before I begin, the argument against Wilt Chamberlain:
Chamberlain’s storied 50-point, 25-rebound per game season is undoubtedly special. However there is clearly a reason he didn’t win the MVP award that season. Wilt’s commitment to maintain his legendary stat line was more important to him then winning. Wilt posted ridiculous numbers but he was denied the crowning achievement of the regular season and his team lost in the playoffs where he was unable to maintain his numbers — although it’s only fair to say they were still incredible.
Chamberlain did win the MVP award in 1967 on the way to a championship with the Philadelphia 76ers. But despite monstrous regular season numbers, Wilt failed to clearly register himself as the man on that title team. Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer all went on to have their own Hall of Fame careers and each of Chamberlain’s three mentioned teammates outscored him in the Finals. Wilt was likely still “the guy” on that team but there is enough to make us question it as one of the ten best seasons ever.
The argument against the infamous triple-double season:
The “Big O” Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double in 1961-62 season. However the numbers didn’t help them achieve any real success as the franchise went 43-37. The Royals were defeated 3-1 in the first round and that was that. As impressive as Robertson’s raw numbers were, I’m sure he would have sacrificed them in a heartbeat for a championship. The Big O also finished third in the MVP voting that season behind Bill Russell and Chamberlain.
The argument against one of the many fantastic Bill Russell seasons:
Russell was a defensive force. We know, like any other elite player of the era, his numbers were preposterous. However, this is a guy who won 11 championships. Russell, his teammates, and coach Red Auerbach just figured it out first. Russell was the driving force behind the Celtics dynasty but no player in history has had more supporting talent. I’m not dismissing the greatness of the Russell era — his rebounding numbers were the main thing that stand out. We will never see dominance like that again in the NBA. However the Celtics’ overall talent, the dominance of the franchise in their era, and the lack of individual numbers separating Russell from other bigs of the time period forced me to leave him off this list.
Finally, why there are no duplicates:
Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Larry Bird are the only players in history to win the MVP, Finals MVP, and championship in the same season on more than one occasion. I have chosen only one season from each. I took the season I believe to be their greatest collective showing. By doing this I allowed all ten players who have reached the highest level of success in an individual season to be recognized.
*Age listed is from the start of the championship season.
*Every player on this list won an MVP, Finals MVP and championship during the listed season.
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10. WILLIS REED, 1969-70
Championship #: 1
Knicks record that season: 60-22, In the playoffs 12-7
Regular Season: 21.7 PPG, 13.9 RPG, 2 APG, 50 FG%, 20.3 PER, .575 TS%, .236 WS/48
Postseason: 23.7 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 47 FG%, 20.1 PER, 507 TS%, .168 WS/48
Number 19 for the New York Knicks was a member of the only two championships the franchise has ever won. Reed is also the only Knick to ever win the Most Valuable Player award. Nicknamed The Captain, Reed and Walt Frazier highlighted the golden era of Knicks basketball. Reed became the first player in NBA history to win an MVP, All-Star MVP, and Finals MVP in the same season.
The Knicks won 60 games behind their All-Star center. Reed and Frazier were co-number one options offensively but it was Reed who carried the defense. The Knicks were ranked first in the league in terms of opponents points per game. Reed led the league in defensive win shares and was nominated to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He finished the regular season with 61 of 71 total first-place MVP votes, adding the esteemed Maurice Podoloff trophy to a long list of his in-season achievements.
The Baltimore Bullets gave the Knicks all they could handle in the first round, forcing the series to seven games. In the second round, as rookie Lew Alcindor tried to carry the Bucks past the Knicks, Willis Reed averaged 28 points over the five-game series. Advancing to the NBA Finals, the Knicks were matched up against the Lakers lethal trio of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, who finished second in the MVP voting. Reed quieted his critics early on, scoring 37 points in the series opener. Reed and the Knicks would emerge triumphant in a grueling seven-game series.
9. LARRY BIRD, 1983-84
Championship #: 2
Celtics record that season: 62-20, in the playoffs 15-8
Regular season: 24.2 PPG, 10.1 TRB, 6.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 49 FG%, 24.2 PER, .552 TS%, .215 WS/48
Postseason: 27.5 PPG, 11 TRB, 5.9 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 52 FG%, 26.3 PER, .607 TS%, .236 WS/48
Larry Legend had some better statistical regular seasons but Bird was at his best in the 1984 Playoffs. In the regular season, Legend led the Celtics to 62 wins. Bird, often thought as a non-athletic, pure shooter by the younger generation, led the league in defensive win shares. On the way to his MVP, he was also listed to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team. The Celtics team was top eight in both offensive and defensive points per game.
When the season ended, nine players were given first-place MVP votes. Bird was awarded 52 of the possible 76 first-place votes but it should be stated it was not unanimous. Bird would face five of the eight remaining MVP candidates in the playoffs, sending each man packing before he called it a season.
In the first round, the Celtics defeated the Baltimore Bullets 3-1. Jeff Ruland was the leading point scorer and rebounder for the Bullets; he was also the ninth man in the MVP voting. In the semifinals, the Celtics played the Bernard King-led Knicks. This was significant; the Knicks fan base was surging behind King’s incredible scoring and King finished second in the MVP voting. Bird was phenomenal in the series, as he averaged more points, and shot a better percentage than rival King. In Game 7 at the Garden, Bird had 39 points, 12 rebounds, and ten assists to secure the Celtics trip to the conference finals. (In King’s defense he had not one, but two 40-point games in the series. The Legend was just too much.)
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics squared off against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were in the conference finals for the second year in a row. Don Nelson‘s Bucks were led by Sidney Moncrief, who won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award and finished fifth in MVP voting. On the season the Bucks led the league in opponents points per game at 101.5 per game. The Celtics averaged 116.2 points per game in five contests in the series and were set for a Finals matchup with Magic and the Lakers.
The Lakers had been in the Finals each of the previous two seasons and boasted a talented roster including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jamal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper. It was a superstar showdown to be sure. In the Finals, Bird led all players in points, rebounds, steals, free throws, and free throw percentage. Tied two all in the series, Bird took over. He scored 34 points on 75 percent shooting, and dumped in 17 rebounds to secure the series edge. The Celtics would lose Game 6, but bounced back and win the championship in Game 7.
It was the only postseason in history Bird led the playoff field in win shares per 48 minutes. Though Abdul-Jabbar and Magic finished third and fourth on the MVP ballot, the Celtics overcame. The Legend’s 27.5 points per game in the playoffs were also the highest of his career.