10) Dirk Nowitzki (Forward, Dallas Mavericks), 2011
Dirk Nowitzki earned his only championship playing against “the Heatles,” the Miami super team formed when perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade, yet another perennial All-Star. Game 1 of the series immediately gave the oddsmakers reason for concern. In a tense, low-scoring affair in Miami, Nowitzki used a splint to shrug off an in-game torn tendon in his left hand before hitting the game-winner with the very hand he injured. He then won Game 4 despite having a sinus infection and a fever of 101F, confirming his now undisputed ability to play excellently through trying circumstances.
9) Jerry West (Guard, Los Angeles Lakers), 1969
1969 was West’s sixth finals appearance – and he had lost all five previous matchups to the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics. Despite this track record, West played incredibly, averaging 38 points per game throughout the series, including a 53-point performance in Game 1 and a 40-point triple-double in Game 7, which the Lakers lost to give Boston the title. West’s inspired performance wasn’t lost on his opponents: Russell famously remarked that “Los Angeles has not won the championship, but Jerry West is a champion.” The powers that be also recognized the quality of West’s play, awarding him the first ever-finals MVP award and the only one ever given to a player on the losing team.
8) Hakeem Olajuwon (Center, Houston Rockets), 1995
Sometimes lost amid the 1990s’ other superstars were two years of quiet dominance by the league’s first international superstar, Hakeem Olajuwon. One of several performances on this list that are defined by the exceptional quality of his opponent, Olajuwon’s Rockets swept a Shaquille O’Neal-led Orlando Magic that had just knocked Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls out of the playoffs (the only team to do so in the 90s). Olajuwon scored 30+ points in every game and tipped in the game-winner off a teammate’s miss in Game 1.
7) Dwyane Wade (Guard, Miami Heat), 2006
Wade’s play in 2006 is, to this date, the best Michael Jordan impression anyone has ever done on the finals stage. He was an unlikely candidate to be the series MVP – after all, his teammate was O’Neal, a three-time finals MVP in his own right. Yet, after losing the first two games, it was Wade who scored 42, 36, 43 and 36 points in four straight wins to bring Miami their first championship. And, according to the (often controversial) compound statistic known as player efficiency rating (PER), Wade’s 2006 series was the best individual performance in over 20 years.
6) Bill Russell (Center, Boston Celtics) 1962
OK, so this award didn’t exist until 1969, but such was Russell’s dominance we’re giving him one anyway. In his 13 years in the league, Russell’s Celtics won the championship 11 times, including eight straight titles.
Russell’s defense-oriented style never translated well into statistics but, as he famously noted, “The way I play, my team wins.” This was particularly true during his dominant 1962 performance against West’s Lakers. In very un-Bill-Russell-like fashion, he led his Celtics in scoring that series. He played all 53 minutes of Game 7, which went to overtime, racking up 30 points and 40 rebounds in the process.
5) Shaquille O’Neal (Center, Los Angeles Lakers), 2000
To a certain generation of fans, Shaq was a real-life superhero: he even played one in a (admittedly, not great) film. His powers peaked at the turn of the millennium when he and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight titles. During the first of those runs, in 2000, Shaq was almost unstoppable. After being just one vote shy of winning the regular season MVP unanimously, Shaq dominated the Indiana Pacers by averaging 38 points and 16.7 rebounds across six games. If it’s possible, Shaq was even more dominant than the numbers suggest.
4) Magic Johnson (Guard, LA Lakers), 1980
In 1980, at just 20-years-old, Johnson became the youngest player ever to be named finals MVP. In the series’ most famous moment, Johnson started the clinching Game 6 as his team’s center (traditionally the tallest position on a team) despite normally serving as the team’s point guard (traditionally the shortest position). Johnson would rotate playing through all five possible positions during the game on his way to earning 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists in a title-winning performance.
3) Willis Reed (Center, New York Knicks), 1970
Willis Reed may be the most unfamiliar name on this list to the casual fan, but the hall of famer’s stoic leadership in Game 7 of the 1970 series is still regularly referenced by pundits to this day.
Reed averaged more than 31 points per game through the first four games, serving as the New York Knicks’ leading scorer. The Knicks led the series 3-2 after five games, but their Game 5 victory came at a high cost – Reed was injured, tearing a muscle in his right thigh. The caused injury to him to miss Game 6, which the Knicks lost by more than 20 points.
To the surprise of Knicks fans, the injured Reed limped out for Game 7. He took, and made, the Knicks’ first two shots and spent most of the first-half defending Wilt Chamberlain before his injury forced him out of the game. The Knicks would go on to win both the game and the championship. His presence that evening inspired all those watching, leading legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell to tell Reed, “You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer.”
2) Michael Jordan (Guard, Chicago Bulls), 1993
As anyone who watched The Last Dance can confirm, Michael Jordan has many, many final performances to choose from. His first championship, against Magic Johnson’s Lakers in 1991, gave us his “spec-TAC-ular move.” Jordan’s second finals, in 1992, introduced us to the nonchalance of the “the shrug.” He clinched his fourth title in 1996 on Father’ Day, a coincidence which likely further compounded Jordan’s raw, emotional response to his first title after his father’s murder. The list goes on – there’s “the flu game” in 1997, and his title-winning shot with five seconds left in 1998.
Jordan’s greatest overall finals performance on the court, however, is also the one hardest to summarize in single phrase or moment. In 1993, Jordan’s Bulls won their third championship in a row, a feat no team had achieved since Bill Russell’s Celtics. At an absurd 41 points per game, Jordan averaged the (still-standing) record for the most points per game in a finals series.
1) LeBron James (Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers), 2016
It’s almost a toss-up between Jordan’s high-scoring highlights in 1993 and LeBron James all-around excellence in 2016. But, when examined closely, it’s clear that James’s 2016 achievement is undeniably unique.
Let’s start with his opponent – James and the Cavaliers were playing the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a team led by Steph Curry in a season in which he became the first–ever unanimously elected MVP. Curry’s Warriors had also won 73 games during the regular season, breaking the record previously held by Jordan’s Bulls.
James’ situation was bleak. After Game 4, the Cavs were down 3-1, a deficit no team had ever overcome in a finals. Yet, in the final three games, James was unstoppable. He scored 41 points each in Games 5 and 6 before capping off the series with a triple double in Game 7. He led every major statistical category for the series, something no other player has ever done in the playoffs. And, on top of all the statistical excellence, James crafted his own signature play. “The Block” (it has its own Wikipedia entry) was a breathtaking chasedown of reigning finals MVP Andre Iguodala that preserved a tie score in the final moments of Game 7.
The victory also ended Cleveland’s title drought across all major professional sports, which had stretched back to 1964. Not bad for a kid from nearby Akron.