Finishing the regular season as a leader in any individual statistic can be an overlooked part of a player’s career resume. It should be more recognized as the terrific achievement it is. A player can boast the fact that among all their peers, they were the best at one particular, important aspect of the game. For at least one season, they were the elite of the elite.
1996-97 in the NBA was an exciting time for the game of basketball. Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to the promised land for back-to-back seasons and the 5th time in seven years. It was also the rookie season of arguably the best draft class in league history, featuring future legends such as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ben Wallace, Ray Allen, and many more. Among all of this talent, stands the statistical leaders of this historic season. Let’s take a look.
PPG: Michael Jordan - 29.6
2nd Place: Karl Malone (27.4), 3rd Place: Glen Rice (26.8)
For the 9th time in his illustrious career, Michael Jordan would take home the scoring title in 1996-97. He averaged 2 more points per game than the next closest player, eventual MVP, Karl Malone. He was also 1 of 4 players to average more than 25.0 PPG and record more than 2,000 total points that season. The other 3 were Malone, Glen Rice, and Mitch Richmond.
After being passed up for NBA MVP, Jordan took it personally when he met Malone and the Jazz in the Finals. MJ would torch Utah with over 32.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, and 6.0 APG in the 6-game series. Jordan would have the last laugh with his 5th championship and 5th Finals MVP of the past 7 years, something Malone would never accomplish.
RPG: Dennis Rodman - 16.1
2nd Place: Dikembe Mutombo (11.6), 3rd place: Anthony Mason (11.4)
Dennis Rodman is one of the greatest rebounders the game has ever seen. Not only did he lead the league in RPG, but he also led in total offensive rebounds with 320. Impressively enough, he did all of this while playing in just 55 games, 20 games less than any other player in the top 10 for RPG. Only Dikembe Mutombo and Ervin Johnson finished with over 900 total rebounds on the year, whereas Rodman fell just shy with 883.
Rodman’s rebounding skills and defensive abilities proved pivotal to Chicago’s 1997 championship run. The numbers were not nearly as impressive as the regular season, but to be fair, he was coming back from a knee injury that cost him the last 13 games of the regular season. Nevertheless, Rodman averaged 8.4 RPG for the entirety of the playoffs and 7.7 RPG matched up against the NBA MVP Karl Malone in the Finals.
APG: Mark Jackson - 11.4
2nd Place: John Stockton (10.5), 3rd Place: Kevin Johnson (9.3)
Despite being 5th all-time in total assists, 1996-97 would be the only season Jackson ever led the league in assists per game. He would finish with 935 total assists on the year, 75 ahead of the next closest player, John Stockton. Jackson and Stockton were the only 2 players to record over 800 total assists for the season.
Nearly halfway through the year, Jackson was traded from Indiana to the Nuggets. Mark averaged 12.3 APG in 52 games for Denver to propel him to the assist title. The Nuggets were historically bad, winning just 21 games and missing the playoffs by a mile. This would mark the 1st time in Jackson’s 10-year career thus far that he would not be on a playoff qualifying team.
SPG: Mookie Blaylock - 2.7
2nd Place: Doug Christie (2.5), 3rd Place: Eddie Jones (2.4) and Gary Payton (2.4)
The race for the steals title was a close one all season long. Mookie Blaylock finished with 212 total steals and Doug Christie right behind him with 201. Gary Payton fell just shy of 200 steals with 197, and Eddie Jones finished with 189. The presence of the elite defensive guards was heavily felt during this time.
Mookie Blaylock is probably one of the most underrated defensive point guards ever. This was the first of back-to-back steals titles for his career. Blaylock was consistently great defensively as well. Every season from 1991 until 2011, Blaylock averaged at least 2.0 SPG for the year.
BPG: Shawn Bradley - 3.4
2nd Place: Dikembe Mutombo (3.3), 3rd Place: Alonzo Mourning (2.9) and Shaquille O’Neal (2.9)
This was one of the closest BPG races in NBA history. Shawn Bradley finished just 0.1 BPG ahead of runner-up Dikembe Mutombo. This is no doubt attributed to the 7 more games that Mutombo played. Bradley finished with 16 fewer total blocks than Mutombo on the year with 248. Bradley, Mutombo, and Ervin Johnson were the only 3 players to reach the 200 block plateau.
This would be the only time in Shawn Bradley’s career that he would lead the league in blocks. He was still a force on the defensive end, standing 7’6" and weighing 235 lbs. Bradley actually averaged 3.0 BPG or better every season for the first 6 years of his career. He finished his career with 2,119 career blocks, good for 17th all-time.
TOV: Allen Iverson - 4.4
2nd Place: Latrell Sprewell (4.0), 3rd Place: Jerry Stackhouse (3.9)
Allen Iverson’s rookie year was spectacular, but despite taking home Rookie of the Year honors, Iverson also turned the ball over more than anyone in the game. Iverson and Latrell Sprewell were the only players to average 4.0 TOV or more in a game. Iverson, Sprewell, and Jerry Stackhouse were also the only players with 300 or more total turnovers on the season.
This wouldn’t be the only time in Iverson’s career that he would lead the league in turnovers. This also wouldn’t be the only time that the turnovers would be overshadowed by all of the other tremendous things he did on the floor. During the 1996-97 season, A.I. averaged 23.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 7.5 APG en route to taking home Rookie of the Year honors.
MPG: Anthony Mason - 43.1
2nd Place: Glen Rice (42.6), 3rd Place: Latrell Sprewell (41.9)
Leading the league in minutes played shows us a few things about a player. It shows how hard a player works and is willing to be called upon at any given moment. It also shows the coach's trust in his player that he can be productive with such a high workload. Anthony Mason was that player for the Hornets in 1996-97.
Anthony Mason and teammate Glen Rice were 2 of the most important players for a Charlotte team that was able to sneak into the playoffs. It should come as no surprise that they finished 1st and 3rd respectively for MPG on the season. Anthony Mason also led the league in MPG the previous season with the Knicks. Rice led the league in total minutes played while Mason finished 11th, having played 6 fewer games.
Field-Goal Percentage: Gheorghe Muresan - 60.4%
2nd Place: Tyrone Hill (60.0%), 3rd Place: Rasheed Wallace (55.8%)
Starting 69 games for the Washington Bullets in 1996-97, Gheorghe Muresan took home the FG% title, shooting 60.4% on 7.4 attempts per game. This was the 2nd year in a row that Muresan led the league in efficiency. He shot 58.4% on 10.5 attempts during the 1995-96 season.
1996-97 was the final time that we saw a fully healthy Gheorghe Muresan. Although he took less than 550 shots, it is not uncommon to see FG% leaders with less than 1000 attempts. Chris Webber, Shawn Kemp, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone are the only 4 players in the Top 20 of FG% to do so with more than 1000 attempts. Due to various injuries, Muresan was out of the league by the year 2000, at just 29 years old.
Three-Point Percentage: Glen Rice - 47.0%
2nd Place: Steve Kerr (46.4%), 3rd Place: Kevin Johnson (44.1%)
Glen Rice was a borderline superstar in 1996-97. He finished 3rd in the league in scoring, shooting 47.7% overall and 47.0% from beyond the arc. He started 78 games, making 2.6 three-pointers for every 5.6 attempts. He did this while attempting 440 threes, good for the 11th most attempts in the league.
1996-97 was the 2nd of 3 consecutive All-Star selections for Rice, the only 3 selections of his career. His 47.0% from three is the highest percentage of his career, and the only time he led the league in that category. Rice made the most of his 3 years with the Hornets averaging 23.5 PPG on 4.8 attempts at a 44.4% rate from three-point territory.
Free-Throw Percentage: Mark Price - 90.6%
2nd Place: Terrell Brandon (90.2%), 3rd Place: Jeff Hornacek (89.9%)
Mark Price is a career 90.4% free-throw shooter. In 1996-97, he led the league for the 3rd and final time in his 12-year career. It marked the 7th time in his career that he shot over 90% from the charity stripe. He never averaged more than 4.6 attempts per game for a season.
During this season, he knocked down 2.2 out of his 2.4 attempts. Do not let the low attempt amounts fool you. Mark Price is nearly a career 50-40-90 shooter. He did achieve the elusive feat for an entire season once in his career in 1989 with the Cavaliers. Price spent 9 seasons with Cleveland, where he is still considered one of the greatest to put on their uniform.
Three-Pointers Made: Reggie Miller - 229
2nd Place: Mookie Blaylock (221), 3rd Place: Glen Rice (207)
It is well-known that Reggie Miller is one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in history. This season was no different, with Reggie knocking down over 200 shots from beyond the arc. He was only 1 of 5 players to make over 200 shots from that range. Mookie Blaylock, Glen Rice, Mitch Richmond, and Tim Hardaway were the other four.
This season Miller took the 3rd most 3-point attempts while shooting at the 6th highest efficiency in the league. It was a career-high for Miller in made three-pointers and the 2nd time he led the league in that statistic. Reggie Miller held the NBA record for most three-pointers made in a career until Ray Allen broke it in 2011. This past season, in 2022, Steph Curry became the new all-time 3-point king.