Every once in a while, an NBA player has a season so spectacular that he rises above the rest of the league en route to several accolades. For a player to win regular-season MVP and a championship in one year, so many factors have to fall in place. Most of the few who reached this elite level only did so once, with only 10 players in total accomplishing this feat.
The “triple-crown” in basketball can be defined in several ways depending on what your requirements are. For this list, though, let’s rank the 10 players to win the regular-season MVP, NBA Finals and earn Finals MVP in the same season, with the separating factors being how many times they did it and what they overcame to do so.
10. Willis Reed (1x, 1969-1970)
Reed had arguably his best season in 1969-1970, in which he averaged 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds over 81 games, according to basketball-reference. His Knicks won 60 games, good for the league’s best record by a good margin, and began the season 23-1.
What earns Reed a spot on this list is his legendary Finals performance. Facing the formidable Los Angeles Lakers with Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, Reed carried the Knicks in the first four games of the series. His 31.8 points, 15 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in that span kept New York afloat, but with the series tied 2-2 going into Game 5, Reed tore a muscle in his thigh after eight minutes of play. Although the Knicks would win that game, Reed’s absence in Game 6 was apparent. Chamberlain tallied 45 points and 27 rebounds in a 22-point blowout win — the largest margin of victory in the series — to force a Game 7.
With not even his teammates knowing if he’d play the deciding match, Reed received pain-killing injections in his thigh and was met with thunderous applause as he limped to the court for warmups, according to nba.com. He didn’t put up much of a stat line, but he nailed two jumpers and disrupted Chamberlain enough to seal the victory behind Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists. Reed’s performance was one of the gutsiest in NBA history, and because he still led his team in scoring despite two games where he was injured, he rightfully was named Finals MVP and completed the triple-crown.
9. Tim Duncan (1x, 2002-2003)
Duncan followed up his first MVP campaign in 2001-2002 with an even more stellar season. He put up largely the same numbers, 23.3 points and 12.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game on a 60-win team, but this season his Spurs ended the Lakers’ three-peat in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals. Once San Antonio vanquished their worthy Western foes, there was little doubt they’d beat the Nets in the Finals.
Duncan carried his team in that series despite New Jersey being overmatched. The three players on the Spurs who took the most shots in the series after Duncan — Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili — all shot under 40%. Duncan led the way with 24.2 points, 17 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks per game while holding Kenyon Martin to just 34.3% shooting. Few have dominated a Finals on both ends like Duncan did in 2003.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon (1x, 1993-1994)
The first of Olajuwon’s back-to-back titles was his most legendary season. He won the championship and MVP without Clyde Drexler, who came the following year and took the mantle as basketball’s best player in the first season of Michael Jordan’s first retirement. Olajuwon averaged 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game en route to 58 wins in the regular season.
Olajuwon turned his play up another notch in the playoffs, though, and carried a bunch of role players to glory. His Rockets went seven games with Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in the Finals in what was dubbed a battle of two of the game’s best big men. Olajuwon came out on top of Ewing in both the scoreboard and the box score, holding the New York legend to just 18.9 points per game on 36.3% shooting in the series. Olajuwon finally put the pieces together in 1994, and the triple-crown cemented his legacy as one of the best players ever.
7. Moses Malone (1x, 1982-1983)
Malone won the regular-season MVP the season prior on a mediocre Rockets team, but his move to Philadelphia took the 76ers over the hump they’d failed to cross the previous few seasons. Malone’s dominant inside presence complemented the rest of Philadelphia’s athletic and balanced roster, and the team cruised to a title as a result, winning 65 games and losing just one playoff game.
The 76ers faced the Lakers in the Finals as they did the previous seasons when they lost in six games. With Malone, however, Philadelphia handily swept Los Angeles to win the team’s first championship in 16 years. Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offset each other in points, but Malone’s effort on the glass was the separating factor. Malone averaged 18 rebounds per game to Abdul-Jabbar’s 7.5, and Malone had two more total offensive rebounds in the series than Abdul-Jabbar had total defensive rebounds. The 76ers center was on a mission that season and not even “Showtime” could stop him.
6. Magic Johnson (1x, 1986-1987)
Johnson is a three-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP and five-time champion, with 1986-1987 being the lone year he won all three in the same season. What made that season arguably his peak was how he started taking on more of the bulk of the team’s scoring as Abdul-Jabbar showed signs of aging. The Lakers came off a disappointing end to the previous year when they were upset in five games in the Western Conference Finals by a young Rockets team, so coach Pat Riley decided to change the team’s offensive approach.
With a more aggressive Johnson, Los Angeles won 65 games and went 15-3 in the playoffs, eventually beating the reigning-champion Celtics in six games in the Finals. Johnson led the way with 26.2 points, eight rebounds, 13 assists and 2.3 steals per game while out-dueling rival Larry Bird in the last time the two would meet in the championship series. This season marks the ascension of Johnson from primarily a facilitator to offensive Alpha-dog, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1991.
5. Shaquille O’Neal (1x, 1999-2000)
O’Neal probably should have won more than a single MVP trophy during the Lakers’ three-peat. Nevertheless, the first of the team’s championship seasons saw arguably the best, most focused version of O’Neal in his entire career. He was in shape, determined and hungry — in a good way.
Behind O’Neal’s league-leading 29.7 points per game, the Lakers won 67 games. They met some fierce resistance from Portland in the Western Conference Finals in which Los Angeles needed a fourth-quarter comeback in game seven to advance, but once O’Neal got to the Finals, he wouldn’t allow his team to lose again as his Magic had in 1995. He obliterated the Indiana Pacers for 38 points and 16.7 rebounds per game on 61.1% shooting, with his scoring average still being the second-highest mark in an NBA Finals series. Kobe Bryant shot 36.7% in the series and Indiana still didn’t stand a chance. That’s how dominant O’Neal was at his peak.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1x 1970-1971)
Abdul-Jabbar’s triple-crown total is even more surprising than Johnson’s. He has six MVPs and six championships, but somehow only managed two Finals MVPs. He was robbed of another triple-crown opportunity in 1980 when he should have won Finals MVP, but Johnson’s legendary game six Finals performance was too captivating to ignore.
The 1970-1971 season was Abdul-Jabbar’s best. It was only his second season in the NBA, yet he was already the league’s top player. Once he was paired with Oscar Robertson, the Bucks had no trouble cruising to a championship. With Abdul-Jabbar averaging a league-high 31.7 points and 16 rebounds per game, Milwaukee won 66 games and went 12-2 in the playoffs. Abdul-Jabbar overmatched Wes Unseld in the Finals to complete the first of his many legendary seasons.
3. Larry Bird (2x, 1983-1984, 1985-1986)
Bird was the first player to win the triple-crown twice and did so just one-year apart. His three-straight MVPs in the mid-1980s marked a dominant stretch of Boston basketball, during which Bird averaged 26.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists in the regular season. His teams won an average of 64 games in that span and went to the Finals each year, twice against the “Showtime” Lakers and once against the Rockets.
All three Finals performances by Bird were exceptional. His 1986 Finals performance against Houston was his peak, as Bird averaged nearly a 24-point triple-double for the series. His 1986 67-win Boston team is regarded as one of the best, and Bird was the engine who made them go. His three-year apex aligned with the Celtics realizing their full potential as a team, giving fans some of the best team-basketball ever played. Bird’s unselfishness, despite his dominance, played a major role in developing that winning culture.
2. LeBron James (2x, 2011-2012, 2012-2013)
Following the disappointing finish to the inaugural big-three Miami Heat season in which James both didn’t earn MVP, which he the two previous years, and lost in the Finals embarrassingly. Over the following two seasons, though, James took his play to another level with a renewed mentality and confidence, and two Finals MVPs and regular-season MVPs were the results.
The first of James’ championships did come in a lockout season, but that shouldn’t detract from what he accomplished in these two years. He averaged 26.9 points, eight rebounds and 6.8 assists while leading the league in almost every advanced metric and making the All-Defensive First Team. His 37-point performance in game seven of the 2013 Finals was the pinnacle of his time in Miami. His dagger jump shot with under a minute to go cemented his legacy as one of the greats of his era and a player capable of making the clutch bucket, and also marked the end of Miami’s best days as they’d lose badly in the following Finals and break up soon after.
1. Michael Jordan (4x, 1990-1991, 1991-1992, 1995-1996, 1997-1998)
Jordan, of course, ranks at the top of this list. His two three-peats in the 1990s assured that he would win multiple MVPs and Finals MVPs in the same season. When looking at it objectively, he probably should have five or six in total, but voter-fatigue is real and no player wins MVP for too many seasons in a row. With averages of about 30 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game in his championship years, it’s hard to argue that Jordan wasn’t the league MVP every season.
His most famous Finals performance of these four seasons was game one of the 1992 Finals. The Bulls hosted the Trailblazers and Clyde Drexler, the player most compared to Jordan at that time. To ensure that no one would see them as equals ever again, Jordan put on one of the greatest playoff performances in history with 35 points and six triples in the first half, capped off with a shrug toward Magic Johnson, who was commentating the game.
Jordan’s most legendary moment, however, came in one of these seasons as well in his series-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Go watch the final minute or so of that game if you haven’t already. Jordan snatches his sixth title with such force that he completely takes over and controls the game. Few players ever had reached that level of play, and Jordan was somehow able to muster it up in the final moments of a championship game.