The ballad of Russell Westbrook: The best one-man teams in NBA history
[A tumbleweed dances across a desolate street as the low shuffle of a guitar drifts in on the wind] There’s a man, as Johnny Cash once wrote, going around taking names. A lone ranger who conjures Thunder out of blue skies and lightning from his fingertips. He leads a rag-tag crew of hired hands across the plains in search of validation, revenge, and, perhaps, even an MVP. His name? Russell Westbrook—a relic of glorious ball-hog NBA in an era of teamwork, off-nights, and superstar collusion.
In honor of The Man in Blue's gunslinging season (in which he averaged a triple double, won the NBA scoring title, and propelled an OK OKC squad into Western Conference contention), we decided to take a look back at the best single-star teams in NBA history. Sure, the assist totals weren’t always great and the titles weren’t always there, but in terms of pure hardcourt heroics, they don’t get much better than this.
Rick Barry’s 1974-75 Golden State Warriors
Before KD went from OKC to Oaktown, the Splash Bros unleashed their NBA-altering tsunami, and Sprewell well, you know, the Golden State Warriors were defined by one man and one man only: Rick Barry, an infamously unlikeable small forward who shot free throws underhand and spent the prime of his career bouncing around the ABA. In 1974-75, however, Barry put together one of the most-dominant NBA seasons ever, averaging 30.6 points per game with an astounding .904 free throw percentage while leading an anonymous Warriors squad to a sweep of the league-best Washington Bullets. Needless to say, next time you go to bag on your buddy’s granny shot, think of Rick Barry.
Clyde Drexler’s 1991-92 Portland Trailblazers
In 1991, at the height of MJ’s pre-“baseball” powers, the real race in the NBA was for second place. Enter distant MVP runner-up Clyde Drexler, who put a solid, if entirely unspectacular, Blazers group on his back and drove them all the way to a 4-2 Finals loss to the aforementioned Bulls. Along the way, “The Glide” averaged 25 points and 6.7 assists per game, earning a spot on the following summer’s “Dream Team” as a consolation prize.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1993-94 Houston Rockets
The more cynical (read: seasoned) NBA fan might see Michael Jordan—or lack thereof—as the single most influential entity in the Houston Rockets’ very first championship season, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Hakeem Olajuwon. Compared to some of the other one-star teams on this list, the ’93 Rockets boasted a solid supporting cast including Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith, but the big man was (literally) head and shoulders above the rest, leading the team in blocks, minutes, points, and rebounds while outperforming his nemesis Patrick Ewing in a brutal seven-game Finals face-off.
Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 Chicago Bulls
While MJ’s five previous championships were byproducts of audacious skill and savvy team-building, 1998 was a triumph of sheer will—the last gasp of the most talented, prideful, and stubborn career in American sports history. With Scottie Pippin sidelined for much of the regular season due to a bad back and role players like Luc Longley and Tony Kukoč getting big minutes, Jordan started all 82 games, took home his 10th scoring title, 5th MVP award, and led a grueling playoff run in which he averaged 32.4 points and 41.5 minutes a game at the age 35. Oh, and before you go ahead and fire up the whole Phil Jackson argument, just ask a Knicks fan how well the triangle offense works without Mike (or Kobe) there to run it.
Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
In the pantheon of heroic one-man NBA performances, A.I.’s 48-point game 1 in the 2001 NBA Finals—against a Shaq- and Kobe-helmed Lakers, no less—is up there with the best of them. But that was just the exclamation point on an incredible run for The Answer, who laid the groundwork for stars like Russell Westbrook by taking home the scoring title and league MVP honors while leading a limited Sixers team (Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill, et. al) to their best season since 1984-85. Maybe practice was overrated, after all…
LeBron James’s 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlović, Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejão, and Eric Snow (again). If you’re wondering how this team made the playoffs, let alone the Finals, there is only one logical answer: LeBron James, who, at 22 years old, averaged 13 more points per game than the next closest player (Hughes) while making $8 million dollars less. Forget about the ensuing Finals sweep, the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals loss, and The Decision. In 2007, Cleveland’s crown prince became The King.
Dwight Howard’s 2008-09 Orlando Magic
One year before LeBron teamed up with Chris Bosh and D-Wade in Miami, the alien talent that once inhabited Dwight Howard’s body orchestrated what may well be the last great big-man (and one-man) season ever. And while that may be hard to believe given the current state of his career, in 2009 Howard was a Top 5 player, becoming the youngest defensive player of the year in NBA history while logging obscene postseason stat lines like a 24-24 in Philly, a 23-22 in Boston, and a 40-14 in a decisive Game 6 against Cleveland. Things have a changed a lot since then—both for Howard and the Association as a whole—but let’s be honest: No amount of, ahem, magic was getting Hedo Türkoğlu, Rashard Lewis, and pre-Clippers J.J. Redick out of the first round without help from Superman himself.