Throughout NBA history, there have been countless memorable championship runs. It’s often the individual players who make these title runs so special and deserve the credit for leading their teams to victory. It’s tough to whittle the list down to such a small number, but these are the five best individual championship runs of all-time.
The criteria consider a player’s competition, performance, and help from teammates for all four rounds of the title run.
5. Dirk Nowitzki – 2011
In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki caught lightning in a bottle and steamrolled through several formidable opponents en route to a ring. This run was extraordinary because it marked Nowitzki’s first and only championship after years of playoff heartbreak.
But this run wasn’t just notable because of what was at stake for Dirk; it was legendary because of the road he took to get there. Dirk and the Dallas Mavericks rallied off one of the more memorable title runs in NBA history. Despite an inspiring game four performance from Brandon Roy, Dallas took down the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, then swept the defending champion Lakers, and beat the young Big 3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder to make the finals. Nowitzki was awesome in these series, averaging 28.4 points and leading the Mavs to a 12-3 record through the first three rounds.
However, this run wasn’t expected to last, with another Big 3 in Miami standing in the Mavs’ way. That newly-formed team featured the all-star trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. This Heat team looked dominant coming out of the eastern conference and were deemed the favorites. The two teams last met up during the 2006 NBA Finals, where Wade’s Heat upset Nowitzki’s Mavs in controversial fashion.
But even with the odds against him, Nowitzki led the Mavs to victory. Nowitzki made several clutch shots and capitalized off of Miami’s blunders down the stretch of games. He didn’t have the best stats in the series, but his impact went far beyond the box score. The Mavs won in six games, and Dirk won Finals MVP, capping off a top-five title run of all time.
4. Tim Duncan – 2003
A common narrative that fans float around is that Tim Duncan’s legendary career resulted from the team around him. And while it’s true that Duncan played in an ideal situation, his 2003 ring featured no such thing.
Hall of Fame center David Robinson was playing in his last year at 37. Other household names in San Antonio such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were on the team. However, they were still a year or two removed from developing into all-star caliber players.
Despite his lack of help, Duncan was excellent in the playoffs. He had one of the best carry jobs of all-time, averaging a stat line of 24.7/15.7/5.3/0.6/3.3. To cap it off, he put up a near-quadruple double in the Finals clincher over the New Jersey Nets. Those Nets weren’t the most formidable opponent, but his competition in the earlier western conference rounds was undoubtedly strong.
His Spurs became the first team since the 1999 Spurs to beat the Kobe-Shaq Lakers in a playoff series, as Duncan helped neutralize Shaquille O’Neal to a below-average 25.3 points per game in the series. The Spurs then went through the Dallas Mavericks, a series in which Duncan again outperformed another superstar in Dirk Nowitzki.
Duncan finished the 2003 playoffs with averages of 24.7/15.7/5.3/0.6/3.3 on 57.7% true shooting and an impressive +24 net-rating.
3. Hakeem Olajuwon – 1995
Following his impressive first title run in 1994, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon replicated playoff greatness a year later in 1995.
For one, Olajuwon’s path to a second ring featured extreme competition. His playoff opponents averaged an unreal 59.25 regular seasons wins, which ranks the highest of all time. Additionally, these weren’t just regular teams that happened to have great records. These were elite teams whose records were representative of their greatness. Olajuwon squared off against the Suns with Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, and Kevin Johnson, followed by the Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Spurs with an MVP David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, and finally the Magic with a young Shaq and Penny Hardaway.
Even with opponent winning percentage disregarded, this is undoubtedly a top-tier championship run in terms of the overall competition. Those teams mentioned above also boasted a combined total of seven top-twelve finishers in the 1995 MVP voting. Five of them are also typically regarded as top thirty players in NBA history.
But it wasn’t just competition that made Olajuwon’s second championship so impressive. As an individual, he performed tremendously in the playoffs, averaging 33 points per game. It didn’t matter that he was facing all-time great big men as the underdog — Olajuwon produced no matter the circumstances. He even outscored David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal (the two other best centers in the league) in 9 of 10 matchups he played against them.
Not to mention, Olajuwon observed a fast during Ramadan for much of this postseason, making the run all the more legendary and incredible.
2. Michael Jordan – 1997
For a player like Michael Jordan, there’s plenty of elite championship runs to choose from. But none stand out more than his run in 1997 to capture his fifth ring.
In 1997, Jordan didn’t stuff the stat sheet as he did during his earlier runs, but he still played at a high level given the circumstances. Offensively, Jordan was in a less-than-ideal situation. He had only one other teammate average over 8 points in the playoffs and his supporting cast combined for the second-lowest scoring average of any supporting cast during a title run.
Granted, much of the Bulls’ excellence came primarily on the defensive side of the ball, but this lack of scoring help made things tough for Jordan nonetheless. Additionally, defensive stalwart Dennis Rodman averaged a modest stat line of just 4.2/8.4/1.4 in an uncharacteristically low 28.2 minutes per game, all of which were well below his season averages.
Jordan’s teammates’ scoring struggles were only part of the challenge. Jordan faced elite competition in the playoffs, particularly elite defensive competition. According to SRS (a measurement of competition based on opponent winning percentage), the 1997 Bulls faced the second toughest playoff competition of any title run in history. Jordan’s path to a ring also went through six all-defensive team players and two 60-win teams (Miami Heat and Utah Jazz). Miami boasted the league’s best defense, while Jordan faced three top-10 defenses in this playoff run overall.
Jordan cemented his spot on this list with a win over the Stockton-Malone Jazz in the finals. He averaged 32.3/7.0/6.0 that series, again with just one teammate scoring above 8 points per game. That finals also included Jordan’s famous flu game, where he scored 38 points in a crucial game five. He then followed it up with a 39-point double-double in the decisive game 7 to capture his fifth championship.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon – 1994
If his performance in 1995 wasn’t enough, Hakeem Olajuwon makes another appearance on this list with his unreal path to a ring in 1994.
Olajuwon faced worse competition in 1994 than he did in 1995, but he still dealt with incredibly tough opponents. Just like 1995, he went through Charles Barkley’s Suns and the Stockton-Malone Jazz in his own conference. The run then culminated with a 7-game victory over Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in the finals.
Again, Olajuwon was phenomenal in these playoffs, averaging 28.9/11/4.3/1.7/4. He led his team in these major statistical categories, an incredibly tough feat for a center.
Not only that, Olajuwon’s Rockets were among the worst supporting casts to ever appear in the finals. Olajuwon had no all star-caliber teammate and wasn’t accompanied by any 15-point per game scorers. He had solid role players that did their job, but they were far from superstars.
Olajuwon was essentially a one-man wrecking crew who led the charge on both ends of the floor. He was Houston’s primary source of offense as a scorer and playmaker and anchored the defense. His defense came in especially handy during the finals, as he held Patrick Ewing to a poor 39% true shooting.
The biggest reason why this run takes the top spot is because Olajuwon stands out from other all-time great centers. Throughout history, nearly all big men had an elite guard teammate when they succeeded. Russell had Cousy and Jones. Chamberlain had Greer and West. Abdul-Jabbar had Robertson and Magic. Shaq had Penny, Kobe, and Wade. But in 1994, all Hakeem had was Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell.