One-man teams are rare in the NBA these days, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the current era is “soft.” The league simply broke out of the norms that stood for decades. It happens.
Besides, with all the growing talent, a team would need a really crappy general manager to do it, as well as an All-Star martyr-enough to play with role players or, at best, mid-level starters.
The closest thing we have today are probably the Golden State Warriors, who, through tough luck, have lost their superteam and are now mostly banking on Stephen Curry’s greatness – not to take anything away from elite defender Draymond Green.
As we’ve seen in the past week, it’s pretty up and down – one day he’s scoring 62 and leading the Dubs to a victory, and the next day he’s getting limited to 13 points while they take a beating, and back again. He’ll need to be in the zone for pretty much every game for them to win, and there will be times where he’ll score 40-plus and they’ll lose by double-digits.
So, as inspired by Steph’s big-time efforts, we’ll take a trip down memory lane and quickly discuss the best and most memorable one-man armies from of all-time.
There will be a criteria. The team will need to have at least two of these three factors: 1) the star will need great production, 2) his supporting cast would have to be borderline mediocre at best, and 3) the team would need a decent record.
Because certain one-man teams stretched for multiple years, it will also be narrowed down to the particular squad’s best season.
Michael Jordan – 1987-88 and 1988-89 Chicago Bulls
You can argue that Michael Jordan was capable of being a one-man team for his entire career, but his ’87-88 campaign was just unreal. He averaged a league-leading 35 points and 3.2 steals per game, led the Bulls to 50 wins, and, as a guard, unprecedentedly won Most Valuable Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. With his heroics, Chicago reached the second round.
The 24-year-old MJ’s best teammates at that time were two guys he shared the same age with: Charles Oakley and Sam Vincent, who both averaged under 13 PPG.
Jordan was just as good in ’88-89 (32.5 PPG, 8 RPG, 8 APG, 2.5 SPG), and they took a step forward by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and pushing the Detroit Pistons to six games before bowing out. His best teammates? Second year forwards Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen, both still a year or two away from truly breaking out.
The ’89-90 season was excluded as Pippen was named an All-Star and was the year before they became the legendary ‘Unstoppa-Bulls’.
Russell Westbrook – 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder
The ’16-17 Thunder were reeling from the departure of former league MVP, Kevin Durant, so they leaned heavily on their remaining superstar, Russell Westbrook. A certified explosive guard with or without Durant, Russ went nuclear right away, and by season’s end, he became just the second player to average a triple-double in a season (31.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 10.4 APG). He did it in three consecutive seasons but ’16-17 was when he was an all-time one-man team.
Westbrook powered OKC into the playoffs with a 47-35 record. His best help was Victor Oladipo, who was admittedly out of shape that whole season, and Steven Adams, a defensive center who
Tracy McGrady – 2002-03 Orlando Magic
Tracy McGrady leapt into All-Star status as soon as he joined the Magic in 2000. By 2002, he was already a well-recognized superstar, boasting elite athleticism and scoring ability.
He won the scoring title in ’02-03 (32.1 PPG) and guided Orlando to a 42-40 record. Though they blew a 3-1 lead to the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, it was still a solid showing overall for an eighth-seeded team.
T-Mac’s best scoring help were Mike Miller, who was traded midseason, an aging Darrell Armstrong, and rookies Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek.
Kobe Bryant – 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers
While it wasn’t his most complete and mature year, the late great Kobe Bryant was as lethal and explosive as they come in the ’05-06 season. He treated it as a path to redemption after the three previous seasons saw him get swarmed by criticisms.
Birthing the Black Mamba mantra, Bryant finished ’05-06 with a league-leading 35.6 PPG, highlighted by a historic 81-point masterpiece on January 22, 2006. He guided the Lakers to a 45-37 record and pushed the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns to seven games before getting bounced. Like T-Mac and the Magic, they too squandered a 3-1 lead, but again, it was still good as they had no business being that competitive against a top-tier opponent.
Kobe’s best teammate that season was Lamar Odom, who eventually became a very reliable player, borderline All-Star even. The rest, however, ranged from mediocre to terrible.
Bernard King – 1983-84 New York Knicks
Bernard King is one of the forgotten stars from the star-studded ‘80s that got dominated by a slew of all-time teams. He epitomized our theme during the first half of the decade, though, especially during his ’83-84 campaign. King carried the Knicks to a 47-35 card while averaging 26.3 PPG, and he went berserk in the playoffs by putting up 34.8 PPG on 57.4% shooting.
Through King’s play, New York advanced into the East Semis and pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games. His supporting cast was headlined by Bill Cartwright, Ray Williams, Truck Robinson, and Rory Sparrow, who combined for 40-plus NBA seasons and one All-Star appearance.
LeBron James – 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers
After years of having talent-laden squads, LeBron James went back to old days in 2017 when All-Star teammate Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland. It was a bumpy ride but James pulled through, pouring in team-highs 27.5 points, 9.1 assists, and 1.4 steals per game and steering the Cavaliers to 50 wins.
With an injury-riddled Kevin Love as his most reliable cohort, James powered the Cavs into the NBA finals with one great performance after another. He boasted a 34-9-9 average in the postseason, including one 51-point game and seven 40-plus point games.
They got swept by the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, who had Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Kevin Garnett – 2002-03 Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Garnett carried the Minnesota Timberwolves by himself for many years, but what arguably was the best overall was ’02-03, when he was entering his absolute peak. He had all-around numbers 23.0 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.6 steals per game on 50.2% shooting, and was a top candidate for MVP. The Timberwolves finished with a 51-31 slate, the most wins they had as a franchise at that time.
In the playoffs, Garnett and the T-Wolves went to six games against the then-three-time defending champion Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. KG’s supporting cast was headlined by Wally Sczcerbiak and Troy Hudson.
Allen Iverson – 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
This might be one of the most beloved and memorable one-man teams of all-time. Allen Iverson is simply a legendary player and a relentless scorer – to top if off, he was a very influential figure too.
The ’00-01 season best-illustrated the way Iverson carried the Sixers. He posted league-highs 31.1 points and 2.8 steals per game, guided the Sixers to an Eastern Conference-topping 56-26 record, and rightfully took home the MVP award.
AI’s postseason saw him average 32.9 PPG and bring Philly to its first finals appearance in 18 years – the franchise hasn’t been back since. In Game 1 of the finals, he outdueled Shaq by dropping 48 points and gave the Lakers their only loss in that postseason.
While Iverson did have ’00-01 DPOY Dikembe Mutombo and ’00-01 6MOY Aaron McKie as teammates, it can be easily argued that it was through AI’s play and Larry Brown’s brilliant leadership, who won Coach of the Year.
LeBron James – 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
Sorry, LeBron haters. The King deserves two spots on the list. We have to admit: the ’06-07 Cavs were utterly terrible outside LeBron James.
As a 22-year-old that season, James averaged team-highs of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. He then came of age during Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. With the series tied at two apiece, LeBron willed Cleveland to a gutsy, double-overtime 109-107 win, unloading 48 points and scoring 29 of the Cavs’ last 30.
The Cavs went to the finals thanks to James’s guidance, where they were swept by the dynastic San Antonio Spurs as expected. Don’t be quick to blame everything on James, though. They were arguably the worst finals team in history. His best teammates were slowpoke Zyndrunas Ilgauskas, a banged up Larry Hughes, and average forward Drew Gooden.
Rick Barry – 1974-75 Golden State Warriors
We’ll close this one out with the only true one-man team to win an NBA championship. It’s among the most underrated playoff runs of all-time, and it’s unfortunately buried in history as it came during the NBA’s dark periods.
Though more well-known for popularizing the underhand free throw, Barry was one of the most prolific scorers in his prime. In ’74-75, he proved that and more as he put up 30.6 points, 6.2 assists and a league-best 2.9 steals per game while lifting Golden State to a 48-34 slate. The supporting cast, meanwhile, all averaged below 14.2 PPG.
Barry marched the Warriors into the finals to meet the formidable Washington Bullets, who won 60 games and had future Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes and All-Star Phil Chenier, plus head coach KC Jones, also a Hall-of-Fame coach and all-time great.
Coming in as the ultimate David to the Bullets’ Goliath, Barry and the Warriors pulled off an insane upset and swept the heralded opponents.