With the NBA Finals now done, we now have a new NBA champion - The Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo helped lead the Bucks to their first NBA championship in 50 years. For his incredible performances in the series, Giannis was named Finals MVP, and deservedly so. Giannis had one of the all-time great Finals performances, especially in Game 6. But where does his performance rank among the all-time great NBA Finals debuts? Let's take a look.
Kobe Bryant - 2000 (Los Angeles Lakers vs. Indiana Pacers 4-2)
NBA Finals Stats: 15.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.4 BPG
Kobe was incredible in his first Finals series. At just 22 years old, Bryant looked like a star against the Indiana Pacers, averaging 15 rebounds, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. But he was clearly the second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal, who was dominating as no other player has before or after. While the Lakers wouldn’t have won the NBA Finals without Kobe, he didn’t do enough to make the list here.
Kobe would go on to have better Finals series, in the next two NBA Finals. And while he performed very well for a 22-year-old, he wasn't the number one option at that time. It was clear that head coach Phil Jackson was going to use him in the same way he did Michael Jordan. But Kobe was just too young to have a massive impact on the series.
LeBron James - 2007 (Cleveland Cavaliers vs. San Antonio Spurs 0-4)
NBA Finals Stats: 22.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG
There is not enough praise in the world for LeBron James and what he did in 2007. Taking a very mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team all the way through to the NBA Finals will still go down as one of his greatest accomplishments in NBA history. But if we’re just talking about the NBA Finals, then LeBron misses out on the top 10.
He averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists against the San Antonio Spurs, which are really solid numbers. But the Spurs were able to keep LeBron relatively quiet at the time and swept him and the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games.
10. Steph Curry - 2015 (Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2)
NBA Finals Stats: 26.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Steph Curry’s first NBA Finals was coming off the back of his breakout season as a superstar. He won the MVP for the 2014-15 season, as the Golden State Warriors revolutionized the NBA. And in the Finals, Steph was no different. Going against a highly motivated LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers, Curry was incredible throughout the series. He was bringing the hammer down for the Warriors, leading them in scoring. Curry averaged 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists.
His performance was absolutely crucial, and he didn’t shy away from the big moment during the game. Despite Andre Iguodala getting the Finals MVP for his defensive performance on LeBron James, Curry made more than a respectable case for him being the recipient of the award.
9. Hakeem Olajuwon - 1986 (Houston Rockets vs. Boston Celtics 2-4)
NBA Finals Stats: 24.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 1.8 APG, 2.3 SPG, 3.2 BPG
Hakeem Olajuwon was the standout athlete from his draft class, including Michael Jordan. Without knowing their trajectories, the safest bet is to take the 7’0 star as the number one overall pick in the draft. And within two years, Olajuwon would deliver on the potential that his initial years suggested.
He was able to take the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals, and Olajuwon was a superstar in action. He averaged 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. But the Rockets still lost in six games to a Celtics team that was an absolute juggernaut. Make no mistake about it: The Rockets lost in spite of Hakeem, not because of him.
8. Kevin Durant - 2012 (Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat 2-4)
NBA Finals Stats: 30.6 PPG, 6.0 RBG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG
KD is often slandered for joining a 73-9 Warriors team to win his only two NBA championships. But people forget how good his debut Finals in 2012 was. Kevin Durant was the star player for an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had a young Russell Westbrook and James Harden as the cornerstones of the franchise. Furthermore, they were taking on a hungry Miami Heat team that got humbled in the previous year’s finals.
Despite facing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their prime years (LeBron more so than Wade), Durant was an absolute beast for OKC, especially in their shock Game 1 win over Miami. Through the series, Durant averaged 30 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists a game. Against another opponent, KD’s performances would have won him an NBA title.
7. Larry Bird - 1981 (Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets 4-2)
NBA Finals Stats: 15.3 PPG, 15.3 RPG, 7.0 APG, 2.3 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
Larry Bird was a game-changer for the Boston Celtics. Right after they drafted him in 1978, they became one of the solid contenders in the Eastern Conference. But it was in 1981 that they made a three-headed monster. After drafting Kevin McHale (who actually didn’t feature much during the Finals) and acquiring Robert Parish, the Celtics became the team to beat in the NBA. And that season, no one could.
The Houston Rockets were dismantled by the Boston Celtics in six games, and that was in large part due to Larry Bird. Bird averaged 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists throughout the series. While his scoring numbers don’t stand out, it was the rest of his game that puts him on this list. And while he had better Finals series, it was his first that really served as his calling card going forward in the NBA.
6. Tim Duncan - 1999 (San Antonio Spurs vs. New York Knicks 4-1)
NBA Finals Stats: 27.4 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.2 BPG)
Tim Duncan often gets passed over when it comes to the all-time greats conversation. Because he wasn’t the flashiest star in the game, his incredible performances usually went under the radar. But there is no doubt that Duncan had one of the most incredible debuts in NBA Finals history.
In his first Finals with the San Antonio Spurs, Duncan averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. He was the key player for Gregg Popovich as he won his first NBA title. And the fact that Duncan surpassed David Robinson in the hierarchy thanks to his incredible performances shows how ground-breaking Duncan’s NBA Finals were.
5. Shaquille O'Neal - 1995 (Orlando Magic vs. Houston Rockets 0-4)
NBA Finals Stats: 28.0 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 0.3 SPG, 2.5 BPG
The fact that Shaquille O’Neal is able to make this list despite being swept in his first NBA Finals speaks to how truly dominant Shaq was. ‘The Diesel’ was the best player on a young and hungry Orlando Magic team and was tearing through the Eastern Conference. Shaq, along with Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant, were an all-around strong trio as they entered the NBA Finals.
But they were just no match for Hakeem and the Rockets. Fans often said Hakeem was able to keep O’Neal quiet through the series. But Shaq was able to average 28 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks. And if that was Hakeem keeping Shaq quiet, then we definitely got to see the loud Shaq during his Lakers days.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 1971 (Milwaukee Bucks vs. Baltimore Bullets 4-0)
NBA Finals Stats: 27.0 PPG, 18.5 RPG, 2.5 APG
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lou Alcindor) would have better NBA Finals series in his career. But his debut in the Finals had a lot of hype around it. Kareem was considered the greatest collegiate player of all time, and his entry to the NBA was much awaited. In his first season, he came agonizingly close to bringing the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals, only to be defeated by the New York Knicks.
But the next season, when Jabbar took the Bucks to the Finals, he was absolutely dominant. He averaged a monstrous 27 points and 18 rebounds, as he and the Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets 4-0. In just his second season, Kareem had been able to carry a team to a championship. His first Finals appearance was also the last time he took the Bucks to the Finals, as he eventually left Milwaukee for the City of Angels.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo - 2021 (Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns 4-2)
NBA Finals Stats: 35.2 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.8 BPG
From one Milwaukee star to another, it would be easy to dismiss Giannis Antetokounmpo’s position on this list as recency bias. After all, it hasn’t even been 24 hours since Antetokounmpo and the Bucks closed out their NBA Finals series with the Phoenix Suns. But the truth is, Giannis put on one of the all-time great performances in the NBA Finals.
After a difficult first two games, Giannis ramped up his offensive performances. And in turn, his performances spurred on the rest of his teammates to follow suit. Giannis averaged a spectacular 35 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, along with a block and steal per game. And his performance in Game 6, where he put up 50 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocks, will go down as one of the greatest single-game closeout performances in NBA Finals history. So his position on this list is fully deserved, despite its recent nature.
2. Magic Johnson - 1980 (Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers 4-2)
NBA Finals Stats: 21.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 8.7 APG, 2.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG
What sets Magic Johnson’s performance in the 1980 NBA Finals is the fact that he was just a rookie. He had only begun playing at the start of the season before. To make it more impressive, Magic was the best player in the Finals for a Lakers team that had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson was a threat on all ends of the court, as he averaged a spectacular 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists, along with 2 steals a game.
Magic stole the show and gave the first indication that we were witnessing the greatest point guard in NBA history make his mark. While Johnson would go on to win multiple championships in the future, his debut in the Finals is arguably his greatest ever performance on the NBA’s biggest stage. Johnson defied expectations placed on him as a rookie and delivered a showing for the ages.
1. Michael Jordan - 1991 (Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers 4-1)
NBA Finals Stats: 31.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 11.4 APG, 2.8 SPG, 1.4 BPG
Michael Jordan had to wait almost seven years before he could reach the NBA Finals. It seemed as though he wasn’t going to be able to overcome Larry Bird and the Celtics, or Isiah Thompson and the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons. But when he was finally able to get past the Pistons, after sweeping them 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, we got the chance to see what MJ could really do.
His first game was a poor one, as he and the Bulls lost to Magic and the Lakers. But that loss only helped motivate Jordan for the rest of the series. He ended up averaging 31 points per game, along with 11 assists. Jordan was pivotal for the Bulls and helped close out the series in five games. In his debut NBA Finals, Jordan showed why he was going to be a mainstay in the championship picture going forward. And that is exactly what he and the Bulls did for most of the 1990s.