The other day I was glancing through a list of players who had won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and it struck me that many of the winners were not able to sustain their success after their award-winning season.
In other words, these were just cases of players having fluke seasons, statistical anomalies in otherwise ordinary careers. That led me to the question that motivated today’s post: What were the biggest fluke seasons in NBA history?
I used a couple of formulas to help me along the way, but in the end this more art than science. When making the selections I eliminated cases where an established star was having his peak season. For example, Tracy McGrady’s 2002-03 season stands out in his career line, but it’s hard to call it a fluke given that McGrady was a seven-time All-NBA selection.
Here are my choices for the six biggest fluke seasons in NBA history, presented in chronological order. Please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments, and let me know if you feel that I’ve missed someone.
Don May, 1970-71
May, an All-America forward out of Dayton, had two nondescript seasons with the New York Knicks before he was selected in the NBA expansion draft by the Buffalo Braves in 1970.
May had a breakout season with the Braves, averaging 20.2 points per game on .471 shooting from the floor and .791 shooting from the line, all three figures good for the top 25 in the NBA.
Following the season May was traded by the Braves to the Atlanta Hawks. But May never came close to duplicating his 1970-71 campaign, and after just four more seasons he was out of the NBA.
Marvin Webster, 1977-78
Webster was a solid player in a limited role for the Denver Nuggets in 1976-77, but he truly emerged with the Seattle SuperSonics the following season.
Webster averaged 35.5 minutes per game and finished in the top 10 in the league in games played (first), offensive rebounds (second), defensive rebounds (seventh), total rebounds (fifth), and blocks (seventh). He also received a first-place vote in the NBA MVP voting.
In the playoffs, Webster averaged 16.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game to help lead Seattle to the NBA Finals, but the Sonics lost to the Washington Bullets in seven games.
In the offseason, Webster signed a five-year contract with the New York Knicks*, but due in part to illness and injury he never reached the heights he attained during the 1977-78 season.
* The Knicks apparently didn’t learn their lesson from the Webster signing, as in 2005 they signed Jerome James — another Seattle center coming off of a breakout playoff performance — to a ridiculous five-year, $30 million deal. As you can probably guess, that signing didn’t work out either.
Don MacLean, 1993-94
MacLean was drafted in the first round of the 1992 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, but before he played his first game he had already been traded twice: first on draft day, to the Los Angeles Clippers, and then about a month before the season started, to the Washington Bullets.
After an uninspiring rookie season, MacLean took a big step forward in 1993-94, tripling his playing time and increasing his offensive rating by about 13 points per 100 possessions. For his efforts, MacLean received the league’s Most Improved Player award.
MacLean’s career ended on a down note, as in 2000 he become the first NBA player suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. The 2000-01 season ended up being the last of a disappointing career that had carried so much promise just seven years prior.
Dana Barros, 1994-95
Barros set career highs in every category listed above, plus some others not listed such as effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, assist percentage, and offensive rating.
Barros’ 12.7 win shares were good for sixth in the NBA, a total that led the Philadelphia 76ers by a whopping 9.1 win shares. Unfortunately for Barros, that was the only time in his career that he finished a season in the top 75 in win shares.
Barros’ accomplishments did not go unnoticed, as he earned the only two major honors of his career in 1994-95: he was selected to play in the 1995 NBA All-Star Game and he won the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Barros parlayed his big season into a six-year, $21 million free agent contract with his hometown team, the Boston Celtics, but he never again played at or near the level that he did in that magical 1994-95 season.
Brent Price, 1995-96
After missing the 1994-95 season due to a knee injury, Price came back with a career year in 1995-96. Playing for the Washington Bullets, Price became just the third player in NBA history to make at least 45 percent of his three-point attempts while taking at least 300 shots from downtown (it’s been done eight times since*).
* The complete list: Dale Ellis (1988-89), Dana Barros (1994-95), Price, Glen Rice (1996-97), Steve Nash (2001-02, 2006-07, 2007-08), Joe Johnson (2004-05), Anthony Morrow (2009-10), Stephen Curry (2012-13), Kyle Korver (2012-13). It should be noted that Barros, Price, and Rice had the advantage of a shorter three-point line.
Although he fell short of the minimum requirements, Price’s career-best .602 effective field goal percentage was higher than that of the league leader, John Stockton. Price also had the best free throw percentage of his career, the second highest assist percentage, and the lowest turnover percentage, all contributing to an offensive rating of 124, a career high by about 13 points per 100 possessions.
In the offseason Price signed a free agent deal with the Houston Rockets, but he was never again the same player, thanks in part to various injuries (broken humerus, knee, back). Price ended his career with 12.0 win shares, with more than 60 percent of them (7.4) coming in the 1995-96 season.
Mike James, 2005-06
Heading into the 2005-06 season, James had been something of a basketball nomad, playing for five different teams in his first four years in the NBA. But he found a home — albeit a temporary one — with the Toronto Raptors in his fifth season.
After never shooting better than .386 from three-point range over his first four seasons, James shot .442 on 382 three-point attempts in 2005-06, good for fourth in the NBA. James’ success from downtown led him to achieve career highs in effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and offensive rating.
Following the season James’ peripatetic ways continued, as he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Timberwolves. James did not last long in Minnesota, as within a year he was traded to the Houston Rockets. All told, James has played for 11 different NBA franchises, one short of the league record.