The Most Valuable of All

The basketball season is winding down.  March Madness is over, and the NBA playoffs are almost here.  This year, the NBA playoff season will involve even more hype than usual over the greatest players, and whichever team wins the championship, there may well be talk of the “greatest player ever” thing.  If Kobe wins a sixth ring, the hype around him tying Jordan for championships will result in inevitable comparisons.  If LeBron’s Heat gets the title, even with him sharing the glory with Wade and Bosh, the talk of whether King James finally ranks on the all time greats list will be rekindled.  If the surprising Spurs follow up on their great regular season to get a 5th title for Tim Duncan, everyone will be reminded of what a steady and superb all-around big man he has been, and the comparisons to the all time great buy guys will be in full throttle.  And speaking of all time great big men, a 5th title for Shaq, and 2nd title for Garnett, by the Celtics will spur lots of talk about how their greatness compares with the big men basketball gods of the past.

For us basketball history nerds, such discussions are always great fun.  There have been many all time greats lists put together over the years, and the debates those lists generate are a blast.  But I’m going to make the argument that the conventional wisdom standard for the all time greatest player which is assumed by so many writers – that Michael Jordan is the undisputed number one against whom all other players have to be measured and found wanting – is like most conventional  wisdom – wrong.

Best Player vs. Most Valuable Player

Let me dig into this argument and make my case.  I start with one premise: the only way to have an intelligent discussion on the issue is by pretending you are a GM in a heavenly realm where you are putting a team together from all of history, and you have your pick of every player at the peak of their careers.  Your goal is to win a championship in this all-heaven league, and you have to pick the single player of all time that is most likely to help you win a championship.

Every other “great player” conversation to me becomes pretty uninteresting pretty fast.  Trying to compare whether George Mikan was more dominant in the early 50s that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the ‘70s or trying to make intricate statistical analyses to show whether Jordan or Dr. J had the strongest drive to the basket – it all gets pretty circular and subjective in the end.  But a close student of basketball history who is playing the role of all-time GM knows a whole lot of very objective things you can make judgments on.  You know every player’s height and weight; you know their stats; you know from the all-defense teams and the reports and memories of the old timers who the grittiest defensive players were; you have a good sense  from film and memory of the best shots and moves of all the players, and their general quickness and athleticism; you have a sense from the stories and memories  of their intangible qualities of leadership, toughness, unselfishness; you know how inclined they were to injury, and whether they tended to play with pain when it counted; you know who could hit shots in the clutch.  Perhaps most importantly of all, you know how their teams performed – before the players joined the team, while they played, and after they left.  You know who won the championships, and who improved their teams.

Some of the above has some subjectivity to it, but in the important broad outlines, they constitute pretty solid “data” for rating a player.  You could debate whether Michael Cooper or Bruce Bowen had the edge as a defender, for example, but there is no doubt that they were both superb at it.  You could argue whether Tiny Archibald or Allen Iverson was quicker, but everyone agrees they were both lightning in a bottle.

My final point before getting to the main event: if this is how I am going at this question, the intangible character questions matter an enormous amount as to which of the great players would be my top choice.  How well does a player lead a team toward victory?  Which of the great players builds positive chemistry on a team?  I know there will be some readers who argue that these kinds of things are irrelevant to the greatest player discussion – the point of the discussion, they argue, isn’t who was a better leader or did the kumbaya thing better, but who was the best player.  Their focus would be solely on who was the most unstoppable scorer, the greatest defender, the most dominating rebounder, the most superb passer.

The problem is that basketball is a team game, and rating greatest individual players without embracing that concept is a lot less interesting, and a lot less important, in terms of what matters in basketball.  But look, if you prefer to have that argument, I’ll indulge you long enough to say that MJ doesn’t get that award either.  The best individual basketball player ever to play the game was Wilt Chamberlain.  Wilt easily beats out Jordan as the dominant scorer ever, even given the inflated scoring of the early ‘60s: if you took the average points scored in a game, and lowered Wilt’s average to correspond with the lower total in Jordan’s era, his average in his 50 ppg year still beats Jordan’s best average by over 5 per game.  His margin of lead over the next highest scoring players beat Jordan’s easily as well – in the 50 point season, he led Baylor (who played only 48 games) by more than 12 a game, and he led the next highest scorer by 19. The next year, he averaged 44 a game, and had an 11 point margin over the 2nd highest scorer.  Jordan’s highest margin ever was 8.  And Wilt was doing all this without a 3-point line to keep more defenders at home guarding other players, or other strong offensive players on those early 60s teams, meaning that virtually every time he touched the ball he was triple-teamed (or more)- if you don’t believe me, look at the old game films that are still available. In spite of all that triple-teaming, he was 1st or 2nd in FG% every season after his rookie year except one when he was hurt, and another when he was number 3.  Wilt was the first to shoot over 50% in a season, the first (and only) to shoot over 65%, and the first (and only) to shoot over 70% in an era where FG% was generally quite a bit lower than today.

Let’s go to rebounding.  No one expects a guard to get as many rebounds as a center, but the magnitude of the difference is very important.  Jordan was a good rebounding guard, in the top 20 of all time.  Wilt was the best rebounder in the history of the game, period.  Russell was close, but Wilt consistently got more, and no one else was even close.  Even taking the rebound inflation of Wilt’s era (because of lower shooting percentages) into account, Wilt still would have had seasons in the low 20s and high teens, far above what anyone has averaged since.

OK, you say, but it’s no surprise Wilt was a lot better rebounder.  Jordan was a really good passer, right?  He was.  Jordan was a strong passer for the scoring guard position, probably in the top 20 for the position all time.  But there were at least 8 scoring guards who were better passers, all of whom were, like Jordan, great scorers as well.  Wilt was the greatest passing center by far, and arguably the best front court passer even as well.  He was the only front court player ever to lead the league in assists, and averaged more than 8 in his peak year in an era when assists were far less credited – in this era, he would have easily averaged in double figures.  The only other center in the league to ever reach the top 5 in assists was Russell.  He and Wilt both did it 4 times, with Wilt generally getting more.

Ah, you say, what about defense, where Jordan excelled?  Jordan was a more consistently excellent defender than Wilt, but even there the difference wasn’t as big as you might think.  Neither one of them was ever noted much for their defense in their first few years, unlike other all-time greats like Russell, Havlicek, Jabbar, Duncan or Kevin Garnett.  Jordan got on his first all-D team in his fourth year, while Wilt started getting lots of defense notice in his 6th.  Jordan was a truly great defender, both one-on-one and in terms of generating steals and general disruption of the other team’s offense, but he also never had to cover the best offensive player on the other team – Pippen handled that on the perimeter players, and Horace Grant or Rodman did it on the bigger players.  Jordan was only the third best defender on some truly great defensive teams.  Wilt, on the other hand, was an under-rated defensive player because of playing in the same era as Russell.  But Wilt was a great shot blocker and intimidator.  A little side note: the first five years of the NBA naming all-defensive teams were Wilt’s last 5 in the league, and it was arguably the greatest era for legendary defensive centers of all time.  Russell retired in the first of the those years after being the starting center on the first team, but those 5 years also featured defensive legends like Nate Thurmond, Dave Cowens, Jabbar, Willis Reed, and Wes Unseld.  Who was the only one of those standout centers, all playing at near their peak and all considered among the top dozen defensive centers of all time, to win first team all-D center two of the five years?  None of them, but Wilt did it in his mid-30s at the end of his career.  So on defense overall, go ahead and give the edge to Jordan, but not by much.

So Wilt vs. Jordan was a more dominant scorer (the best of all time), a far superior rebounder (the best of all time), a much better passer (the best front court passer of all time), and close to as good on D. The only thing Jordan was a lot better at was free throw shooting. Wilt was definitely the better individual player.  And Wilt was better in the clutch than people give him credit for given that he played in the same era with the greatest clutch player and team of all teams.  Wilt led 2 teams to championships (both considered among the 5 greatest teams of all times), and 3 more to the finals (2 of them going to game 7), and 2 more to 7 game thrillers in conference finals with the Celtics (one of which when Wilt scored 6 points on a row in the closing seconds to bring the 76ers within one before “Havlicek stole the ball” in perhaps the most famous moment of NBA Playoff history); he was the only player to outplay and defeat a healthy Bill Russell team in the playoffs in Russell’s career (incredibly, Russell’s only other playoff loss was when he hurt his leg in his second year finals); he hit plenty of clutch shots and had several of the biggest monster playoff games ever.

But you know what?  I’d still take Jordan above Wilt if I had the first pick in the all-time player draft, because he would be more likely to produce championships for me.  And some of the reason has nothing to do with basketball skills.  Wilt frequently did not get along with the coaches or other players; his ego and arrogance were out of control; he was a terrible practice player and set a bad example for his teammates; he could be a head case at big moments, probably costing his teams 3 titles by letting himself get psyched out.  Jordan was a strong leader for his title teams, set a great example by out-working everyone else on the team in practices, and was single-minded about winning.

Which gets me back to my main point: the best way to think about the “greatest player” argument is, ironically, not to think about who the greatest player is but who is the most valuable – who would be the player most likely to bring championships to your franchise.  Basketball skills are of course important, but the intangibles – leadership, toughness, coolness under pressure, hustle, ability to build chemistry with the team, willingness to take criticism, unselfishness – all matter just about as much.

You can certainly make a great case for Jordan.  He led his team to 6 championships in 8 years.  He was one of the most complete players ever: probably the second best scorer ever, a great defender, a strong rebounder and passer for an off-guard, a very good free throw shooter, and one of the greatest crunch-time players ever.  Comparing him to the all time greats, he was a better scorer than everyone but Wilt; a better defender than Magic, Bird, Shaq, or Wilt; a better free throw shooter than Wilt, Russell, Shaq, Duncan or Garnett; and among the very greatest clutch shooters anytime (although there were a few that deserve recognition as being equal or maybe even a touch better.)

The Most Important Factors

But as GM of the all-time all-time league, I have to look at everything, every factor that might help me determine which player is going to most help my team win. Here’s the most important:

1. Team impact. This to me is the ultimate measure, and I think MJ comes up short here in spite of the 6 championships.  The only two players to ever lead teams to titles in their rookie year – a truly stunning accomplishment – were Russell and Magic, both of whom took pretty good teams who had never won a ring and turned them into dynasties.  The Celtics were 36-36 and 39-33 in the two years before Russell got there, while the 70s Lakers in the couple of years before Magic’s arrival were 45-37 and 47-35.  Neither team had been to the finals in years.  To go from teams like that to the kind of powerhouse champions and contenders for the entire rest of Magic and Russell’s careers – both played in the finals for titles in their last year before retirement, Russell winning, Magic losing – was a testament to their incredible value.  That is especially true over a long career, with the early co-stars of both (Cousy, Sherman, Hensohn for the Celtics, Jabbar and Copper for Magic) retiring before Russ and Magic did.

Russell and Magic weren’t the only big early achievers.  Bird took his team from 29 wins the year before he arrived to 61 in his rookie year, and won a championship in his second year.  Tim Duncan took a previously ringless San Antonio team to a title in his second year.  Jabbar did the same for Milwaukee.  Hakeem Olajuwon took his team to the finals in his second year, Shaq did the same for Orlando in his third.  Jordan, on the other hand, didn’t win a ring or even get to the finals until his 7th season.  In his first season, the team improved by 11 games, not bad but not exactly Bird, Russell, Magic or Duncan material.  It wasn’t until MJ’s 4th season that the Bulls got past the first round, and not until the 5th did they make the conference finals.

So then Jordan and the Bulls won 3 rings, and he quit the team.  As a prospective GM, I have to admit that bothers me.  I can’t imagine Magic or Bird; Russell, Duncan, Hakeem, or Shaq; Garnett or Havlicek quitting on their team in their prime, or for that matter one moment before their body told them they had to.  But Jordan was selfish enough to cost his Bulls any chance at Russell’s Celtics’ 8 in a row record.

Here’s the other interesting thing about MJ’s absence: the Bulls weren’t that much worse without him.  The Bulls were one bad call away from returning to the Finals the first year without him, and actually played worse in the playoffs the next year when he came back mid-season.  When Jordan got his rhythm back and – even more importantly – Rodman and Ron Harper joined the team the following year, the Bulls returned to championship form, but Jordan’s absence reinforced in my mind that Phi Jackson’s coaching and the Bulls’ supporting cast were pretty damn important in getting him his 6 rings.  (When Jordan left after his 6th ring, everyone else important did, too – Phil Jackson, Pippen, Rodman, Ron Harper – so it’s impossible to know what would have happened then.)

Just to make a quick comparison on this: when Russell left the Celtics, even though they still had the amazing Havlicek, it took them 5 years to get back to title form; when Magic left the Lakers due to AIDS, the same team that had made it to the Finals with Magic collapsed without him; when Bird blew out his back, the Celtics were mostly awful for the next two decades; when Shaq left the Lakers, even though Kobe was still there, it took them several years to return to championship form; when Garnett and Lebron left their teams in recent years, they both completely collapsed without them.

One final note on team effect: you have to include Jordan’s disastrous 2-year stint with the Wizards, where his presence as a player actually worsened team chemistry and performance.  Yes, he was older and not the player he had been, but seriously, team chemistry was abysmal with Jordan on the court.  It’s not supposed to work that way: great veteran players are supposed to help their team work together better.  Jabbar was important to winning the Lakers two championships at 41 and 42; players like Stockton, David Robinson, Nash, Kidd, Gary Payton, Shaq all played valuable roles for teams late into their 30s; Tim Duncan is much diminished athletically right now in his mid-30s, but his team is burning up the league because he has accepted a smaller role.  But with Jordan, it was all about him, and in my all-time GM role worried about team chemistry, I have to think about a player’s effect on the team their whole career.

2. The level of competition. The best argument for Jordan getting the all-time MVP award is the 6 championships in 8 years, the most dominant run in the NBA by a team since the Russell era.  It was a truly remarkable stretch, especially because the Bulls so dominated the teams they played: in all those years, they only had one game 7, which they won easily over the Pacers.  Here’s the issue, though: you need to take into account the level of competition.  Winning the NCAA title doesn’t count in the NBA, winning the European title doesn’t either: the level of your competition matters a lot in trying to determine how good you are.  And Jordan’s competition didn’t measure up.

The ‘90s were the weakest era of competition in league history outside of the last half of the 1970s (when too much cocaine and weaker teams from the ABA really diluted the quality of play).  The most impressive thing the Bulls did was in their first championship year, when they finally made their way past the defending champion Pistons and then beat Magic’s last Lakers team in the Finals.  But both of those teams were on the last legs of a long run and were fading.  The only Piston who wasn’t past his prime that year was a young Rodman.  For the Lakers, a rookie Vlade Divac (who wasn’t a particularly good player in his peak years) was playing center instead of Jabbar; defensive genius Michael Cooper (who could have slowed MJ down some) was retired; Magic, Worthy, and Byron Scott were all past their prime.

After that first title, the teams the Bulls had to beat to win their next 5 championships were not a strong list:

  • Ewing’s Knicks, who could never win a title with or without Jordan in the league.  They were good physical defenders, but their offense was slow and clunky, and they never seemed to hit the clutch shots.
  • The Pacers, whose best player (Reggie Miller) was a great shooter but couldn’t play D, pass, or rebound.
  • Portland, who had a decent team that made it to two finals in 3 years and then got beat easily both times.  Drexler was their only really good player.
  • Phoenix with Barkley and KJ.  All offense, no defense.  They never made it to another final.
  • Seattle, who flamed out in the first round of the playoffs both the year before and the year after they went to the Finals against the Bulls.
  • The Jazz with Stockton and Malone.  Unfortunately those two were their only good players, and the years the Jazz finally got to the Finals to pay the Bulls, they were both on the downhill slope.

None of those six teams ever won a title, none ever really challenged the Bulls, and only two of them even made it to the Finals more than once.  None except Seattle had a perimeter defender who could even slow Jordan down, and none except Ewing had a shot blocker inside who could made Jordan and Pippen’s penetration easier to handle.  None had more than two really good players to compete with a Bulls team that had Jordan, Pippen, Horace Grant or Rodman, and Kukoc/Ron Harper for the last 3 titles.

Contrast that with Russell’s era.  People sometimes forget because of their utter domination of the league in terms of championships that the Celtics had to fight through 4 historically outstanding teams to win their 11 titles:

  • Bob Petitt’s St. Louis Hawks in the late 50s/early 60s.  The Hawks took Boston to a 2-point double overtime 7th game in Russell’s rookie year, beat them when Russell was limping around on a bad leg in the finals in his second year, and took them to 7 again a couple of years later.
  • The Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.  They were the best team that never won a title in the history of any sport, but they gave Boston a hell of a run, including a 3-point overtime 7th game in ’62, and a 2-point 7th game in ’66, along with 4 other finals match-ups.
  • The 76ers of Chamberlain, the one team to beat the Celtics when Russell was healthy.  Philly took Boston to 7 games in ’65 (the game Wilt scored 6 in a row before Havlicek stole the ball), and 7 games in ’68 as well as beating them in ’67.  The ’67 team is widely considered one of the best 5 in NBA history.
  • The Lakers of West and Chamberlain.  Baylor was still playing, his knees mostly blown out by then, but Wilt on the inside and West on the outside made them a terrific team, one that went to 5 finals and a few years later would win 69 games (33 in a row) and also be considered one of the best in history.

The Celtics beat all 4 of these very strong teams, surviving 7 very competitive game 7s to win titles.  For Russell to win rings 11 times in 13 seasons with that kind of competition is truly awe-inspiring.

As to the 80s, they were the most competitive decade in NBA history.  Magic’s Lakers won 5 titles and went to 9 finals.  Bird’s Celtics won 3 rings and went to 5 finals.  Isaiah Thomas took the Pistons to 3 straight finals, winning twice. The ’83 Philadelphia 76ers with Moses Malone at his peak, Dr. J, and Mo Cheeks was considered another of the greatest teams ever, and even without Moses, Doc took the team to the finals 2 other times.  And don’t forget, both Hakeem and MJ started their careers only 4 years into the decade and played for up and coming future champions.  The ‘80s Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons, plus the ’83 76ers and the Twin Tower Houston teams in the middle of the decade were all far, far better teams than any of those ‘90s teams the Bulls had to win their rings over.

One final note: while it would have likely been a hell of an interesting set of series to watch, I think it unlikely that the Chicago of the ‘90s could have beaten any of the great teams of the 80s.  They didn’t beat the Pistons until they were past their prime.  Of course you could argue the Bulls were not yet at their peak, but in the years they got beat, Jordan, Pippen and Grant had all been in the league for a few years, so I’m not sure that argument holds.  Jabbar (even as he was fading), Moses Malone, and Parish would have dominated the Bulls’ centers; Michael Cooper was better at his peak than any defender Jordan ever faced, and could have slowed him down for the Lakers, while bigger athletic guards like Andrew Toney for the 76ers and DJ and Ainge for the Celtics, might have been able to do some defensive damage; all were well-balanced teams with lots of weapons, and all were good defensive teams (although nobody was as good on defense as the Bulls with Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Ron Harper). I’d give the Bulls team that won 72 games a decent shot at beating a couple of those teams, but that’s it.

I’ll end the ‘80s comparisons on this note: Bird was stopped from getting to the finals by two other great champions, the 76ers and the Pistons, and was beaten in the finals by the Lakers.  Magic was stopped from getting to the finals by a Moses Malone team when he was at his peak, by the best of the Hakeem/Sampson teams, and by a Portland team that made it to two finals.  His Lakers lost in the finals to 3 teams that won at least one other championship, and were all standout teams, plus the ’83 76ers team that’s been rated as one of the top 5 of all time.  If his competition had come from the decade before or the decade after, his 5 titles could have easily been doubled.

3. What a player adds to a team, and what they take away. The big question for your mythical all-time GM is who brings the most to your team’s chances of winning while taking away the least.  In this you have to look at scoring capacity, defensive ability, rebounding, and passing as your big four basketball capabilities, but also smaller but important things on the court: free throw shooting, ball-handling, pick-setting, charge-taking, hustling after loose balls, and who’s going to make the least stupid mistakes like turnovers and missed defensive assignments.  Finally, you have to look at the intangibles: leadership, mental toughness, clutch play, unselfishness and – arguably most important of all – what they add to (or subtract from) team chemistry.  Let’s look at the greatest players, starting with those guys from current times I talked about in the very beginning who will be trying to win a ring this May and June.  (I’m not including Wilt and Jordan because I spent so much time on them earlier.)

LeBron. If LeBron has a long healthy career with a half-dozen or more rings, some of them won because of his clutch shots rather than Dwayne Wade’s, he might then be ranked as one of the top players of all time, worthy of being in the conversation when the all-time best is being discussed.  But between his last two playoff flameouts, especially the quitting against the Celtics last year, and the choice of teaming up with Wade rather than leading a team himself, the odds of that seem pretty long right now.

LeBron brings one of the all-time toughest physical match-ups to the history of the game: a player with Jordan’s athleticism and basketball skills combined with Karl Malone’s size, he ranks as difficult as Shaq and Wilt in terms of trying to figure out how the hell to guard him.  He is not quite the scoring demon that MJ was, but probably would be if he wasn’t a better passer and playmaker; they are in the same ballpark as defenders, but LeBron has more versatility in who he can guard; and he is a better rebounder and assists man by a couple per game each.  He is also less selfish on offense, a big plus for me.  However, unless he proves out better in the big playoff moments, he can never be ranked as high as most of the greats described below.

Kobe. Two years ago, I didn’t even have Kobe in my top 30 in my mythical GM rankings, but every time he proves he can lead a team to a title, he rises in those ratings.  He is a great scorer, although not on the level of Wilt, Jordan, Jabbar, or a few others; he is as good a rebounding guard as MJ, and like MJ is a very capable passer when he decides he wants to do it; he is a better defender than MJ, unlike him usually taking the best perimeter scorer on the other team; and while not in Jordan’s or Bird’s or Jerry West’s league as a clutch scorer, he is pretty great in that category.

But blowing up championship teams is a pretty huge downside, as is the fact that his refusal to trust his teammates after Shaq left delayed the Laker’s return to title form for a long time.

Kevin Garnett. Garnett is not the stone cold killer in the clutch that a lot of the greats on the list are, but those kinds of players are actually easier to find than a player like KG.  And you combine him with a player like that, as the Celtics did with Paul Pierce, and you have a hell of a one-two punch.

Except for lacking the alpha dog killer instinct at crunch time, KG has literally everything else you would want in a basketball player.  His combination of size, athleticism, passion for the game and fundamental skills (especially on defense) is unmatched in NBA history. He is capable of being a solid scorer from the low post, facing the basket for medium range shots, driving to the hoop, and an athletic wing man finishing on the break.  He is one of the best defensive players in the history of the game, and one of the very, very few (Artest and Rodman are the only other ones I’d put in this category) capable of doing a good job on any player from any position – watching him guard Iverson in one game and Shaq in another a few days later, and doing a good job on both, is a delightful memory from a few years back.  He is one of the top 10 rebounding forwards ever, and one of the top passing forwards as well.  And his unselfishness, intensity, and willingness to do every kind of dirty work is a huge plus for team chemistry.

Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental, as he is sometimes called, is another great all-around player.  He doesn’t have Garnett’s athleticism to guard anyone on the court or consistently be able to drive the ball to the hole, and his lack of outward passion has sometimes let teams counting on his leadership to fall asleep, but he is a stand-up guy in the clutch.  And like Garnett, he is good at just about everything: a great low-post scorer who can also hit medium range face-the-basket shots, a strong interior defender and shot-blocker, a great rebounder, and a terrific low-post passer.  He is also one of the most consistent players in the game’s history.

Duncan’s only downsides are some shaky free throw shooting and that seeming lack of intensity – if your team needs a vocal fired-up leader, he’s not your guy.  But it’s not much of a downside given everything else.

Shaq. I rate Shaq so high simply because he was so dominant inside for so long.  The combination of size and footwork were impossible for mere mortals to guard one-on-one, and he was a strong passer out of the double teams, making him a dominant offensive player.  He was also a good defender and shot-blocker, and a strong rebounder as well.

There are some downsides, thought.  Kobe wasn’t the only culprit in breaking up that great LA Lakers team, and being on so many different teams (6, far more than any other player in the all-time great list) speaks to some problems the big man had in terms of not helping team chemistry. The fact that he only was able to win titles with both a couple of the greatest coaches of all time, and a couple of the greatest guards ever, in spite of his dominance at his peak does raise some big questions. His free throw shooting, of course is awful .  And his relative lack of mobility, quickness and speed would have made it tough for him to guard some of the great athletic centers of the past like Hakeem and Wilt.  But for what he could add to a team at his peak, I would rate him as one of the top dozen ever.

In terms of the old-timers, here’s the list of folks that need to be at least mentioned in the conversation:

Oscar Robertson. The Big O had the second best all-around regular season stats ever, trailing only Wilt.  He actually averaged a triple double for a season once and came close several others, and in 5 seasons he averaged over 30ppg and 10apg simultaneously.  No one else actually averaged a triple double for a season, and only Tiny Archibald- one time- did 30 pgg+ and 10apg in the same year.

But Robertson’s stats did benefit from the point and rebound inflation of the 60s,; he wasn’t an especially strong defender; he was such a perfectionist he didn’t help team chemistry; and he only managed a single title, one he got with Jabbar late in his career as a supporting cast member.

Jerry West. The earliest prototype of the great-at-everything player: a brilliant scorer (including being one of the best long range shooters of all time – had he played with the 3- point shot his career average might have been 3 points or more higher), a superb defender, the best passer for an off guard in NBA history, and a remarkably good rebounder for a 6-3 guard.  He was one of only two non-point guards to lead the league in assists (the other being Wilt); was 1st team, all-NBA 10 times in an era with a ton of great guards; and was such a great clutch player his nickname was Mr. Clutch.

The only negatives you can say about Jerry West was that he was the unluckiest guy in terms of titles ever, only winning once despite his brilliant playoff play; and that he’s a little small for the off-guard position in the modern game.

John Havlicek. It is very hard deciding whether to rate West or Havlicek higher.  West was a better outside shooter, but both were great passers, defenders, scorers, and all-around clutch players.  Havlicek was a couple of inches taller and about 25 pounds heavier, allowing him to play small forward as well as guard, and he won a lot more rings, so I’d give the slightest edge to him.

Havlicek was a consistent mid (and sometimes high) 20s scorer, and averaged 9 rebounds and 8 assists a game in his (long) prime.  He led the mid-70s Russell-less Celtics to 2 titles, along with winning all those rings with the big guy.  He was a brilliant defender, and was just as good coming off the bench as starting.  And he hustled after every loose ball, took every charge, set great picks – he was just a great, great team player.

Jabbar. Jabbar was a great player for longer than anyone in league history, and the second best low-post scorer (behind Wilt) to ever play the game.  He was a great shot blocker and very good all-around defender (although particularly strong or athletic players sometimes made him look him bad), a good rebounder, and a good passer out of the low post.  He was very dependable in clutch situations.

I don’t rate Jabbar as high as Wilt or Russell, though.  If Magic hadn’t come along, he would have likely ended up with only one title, even though the prime of his career was in the 70s, a very weak competitive era in NBA history.  He wasn’t the kind of player that helped team chemistry much at all, being kind of a jerk at times with his teammates and coach.  And he was nowhere near the rebounder that Russell or Wilt was.

Hakeem. Of all the biggest stars in NBA history, Hakeem is easily the most under-rated.  He was  the second best interior defender to Russell all-time, just a stunningly good all-around defender.  His low-post game was virtually unstoppable.  He was a strong passer, rebounder, and free throw shooter.  In his second year in the league, he took a very young undermanned Houston team to the Finals by completely dominating Jabbar (who was still one of the best centers in the league), and then helped his team to 2 wins against the Celtics even though Ralph Sampson fell apart and Bird and DJ dominated the Rockets’ perimeter guys.  His team stayed in the series only because Hakeem completely outplayed Parish, who was in his prime.  In the two Rockets title years, Hakeem took a team without another great player to those championships.  (Drexler, who joined the team late in the 2nd title run, was well past his prime), completely man-handling every other great center in the league – Mutombo, Shaq, Ewing, and David Robinson twice. He was even a good free throw shooter.

There are no flaws to Hakeen’s game except not being a rebounder at the level of Wilt  or Russell. Robert Horry, who also played with Shaq and Duncan over his career, said Hakeem was the best of the 3.

Bird. Bird was a stunning all-around player.  A consistent high 20s scorer on a team with several good scoring options, he could score from the low post, mid range, on drives to the basket, and was probably the best clutch 3-point shooter ever (in an era when the 3-point line was further away than today).  He was the greatest passing forward in history, and the 2nd best rebounding small forward ever (only Baylor was better).  He was not as great a defender as Jordan, but good enough to make 2nd team all-defense twice.  He was one of the top 10 free throw shooters ever, probably the best ever in the clutch.  He was every bit as good as Jordan or Jerry West or any other shooter at crunch time.

Bird won 3 rings and got to 5 finals in the most competitive basketball decade ever.  The only reason to rank Jordan, Magic and Russell a little higher was that the team surrounding him (Parish, McHale, DJ are all top 50 all-time players) was probably a little stronger than those other players’ supporting cast.

Magic. Magic’s only weakness as a player was his one-on-one D, but he partially made up for it being one of the best ball thieves in history, and by having the size to guard any position: because the Lakers wanted him to concentrate on O, they just had him guard the weakest scorer on the other team regardless of position.

Magic never had the scoring average of Jordan or some of the other greats, but his scoring average went up when the team needed it.  As Jabbar faded, Magic became a mid-20s (rather than high teens) scorer.  In the meantime, he was the best rebounding guard ever (Oscar had slightly better numbers but played in an inflated rebounding numbers era).  He was the best passer ever, with his size and strength allowing him to pass to anybody anywhere on the floor.  He was the best fast break leader ever, beating out even Cousy and Kidd in that regard.

Magic led his team to 5 rings and 9 finals in the most competitive era ever, beating Bird’s Celtics (twice), Dr. J’s 76ers (twice) and Isaiah’s Pistons.  And as has been noted, he led his team to a title in his rookie year, something only Russell also did.

Bill Russell. The best defensive player ever (completely changing the game of basketball). The best shot blocker ever. The second best rebounder (to Wilt).  The second best passing center (to Wilt).  The second best outlet passer and pick setter (to Wes Unseld in both categories).  The best by far at guiding his blocked shots to teammates to start fast breaks.

Russell carried him teams to titles in his rookie year and his last year and every year in between except one when he was hurt and the one time Wilt beat him, even though his Celtics played against several great teams with comparable or superior talent.

The only downside to Russell was that he was a terrible free throw shooter and was never a great scorer, although at both things he was better in the playoffs and better when he needed to be better for his team to win.

He was a little smaller than most centers today, so he might need to play power forward or hit the modern nautilus weight machines.

Rating the most valuable players of all time

The players analyzed above are the ones I would rate as the most valuable ever.  There are a few others who got close – amazing, all-around point guards like Frazier, Payton, Kidd, Thomas, and Stockton; players with eye-popping stats like Baylor; underrated but incredibly valuable clutch role players like Horry, Michael Cooper and Dennis Johnson.  But here are the players in reverse order who I wouldn’t have any hesitation in taking as my pick in an all-time draft:

15. LeBron James. So far, he has proven he can do it all except carry his team to a title.  Pair  him with a stone cold clutch killer like Billups or Reggie or Paul Pierce (or Dwayne Wade, maybe?) and you’d have something.

14.   Oscar Robertson. His perfectionism wasn’t good for team chemistry, but he sure knew how to fill up a stat sheet.

13. Kobe Bryant. You never know when he’ll blow up a team, so I can’t rank him higher, but he is the complete package.

12. Kevin Garnett. Like LeBron, don’t count on him to carry you to a title, but pair him with a killer, and you have a great team.

11. Shaq. He is a little over-rated in my book, as his scoring, rebounding, defense, and passing was all inferior to multiple other great centers.  But he was so damn hard to stop, he still has to be rated as one of the best ever.

10. Jerry West. He is the best pure shooter on this list, one of the top 3 or 4 passers, one of the best defenders, as good as anyone in the clutch.

9. John Havlicek. Another great all-around player, and his ability to play 3 positions and come off the bench make him even more valuable.

8. Tim Duncan. Mr. Fundamental has done it all, and is as unselfish as anyone on this list.  A great all-around big guy.

7. Hakeem Olajuwon. A more athletic version of Duncan with the most stunning footwork of any big man in history.  The second best all-around defender to Russell.

6. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Great stats, 6 rings, incredible consistency and longevity.  Not the rebounder of some on this list, and not the best at team chemistry, but an amazing player.

5. Wilt Chamberlain. As I said earlier, the best individual player ever.  His ability to wreck team chemistry and his flakiness in the clutch move him from No. 1 to No. 5 on my all-time list, but in spite of the team chemistry issue (which is huge with me), he was so incredibly great at everything except free throws I still put him in my top five.

Now comes the hard part, because the last four players were all so good at so many things, and were all incredible winners.

Russell was the by far the most dominant defender, always taking the best inside player and completely shutting down penetration.  He was one of the two best rebounders ever, compared to Jordan not even being in the top 10 guards in rebounding.  He was a far better passer than MJ.  And his brilliant ability to get the Celtics’ fast break started, to pass out of the post, to keep the ball in Boston’s hands because of his offensive rebounding, to set brutal picks, and to score when needed from inside made him a huge offensive contributor. And of course there’s that little 11 rings in 13 years thing, easily the most dominant run of title success that any athlete has ever experienced.

Jordan was the best scorer and second best defensive player of the top four.  But Bird was a far better outside shooter, free throw shooter, rebounder, and passer, and he was within range as a defender.  Magic was a lot worse as a one-on-one defender, but he stole the ball more and his position versatility kept the Lakers’ defensive problems to a minimum. Meanwhile, he was a much better rebounder and a far, far better passer and floor leader – the best in both categories in the history of the game.  And both Magic and Bird could have scored much closer to Jordan’s numbers if they hadn’t been such great and unselfish passers.

Finally, you just can’t ignore the comparable competition factor and the effect on team play factor.  For Magic and Bird to get the rings and finals appearances they did in the toughest competitive decade by far in NBA history was amazing; for Russell to win 11 times in 13 years in the 2nd most competitive era was even more so.  Jordan’s 6 rings and 6 finals appearances, while impressive, doesn’t rank with the other 3 players’ achievements given the incredibly weak competition in the 1990s.

On team impact, there is also a huge difference.  Bird took the Celtics from 29 to 61 wins in his rookie year, and to a championship in his second.  Once he got injured, the Celtics went downhill very fast.  Magic took a slightly above average team that had never been to the Finals to a title in year one, and his last team – even without Kareem or Michael Cooper or Mychal Thompson – made it to the finals.  Once he left, the Lakers became a very weak team.  And Russell, as noted, took a team without a title to the championship his rookie year, his last year, and all but two in between. In contrast, Jordan improved the Bulls by just 11 games his rookie year, and then it took him 7 seasons to finally win a ring.  When he quit for the first time 3 years later, his team was almost as good without him, and might have won a ring except for that terrible call in game 5 of the conference finals.  And when Jordan joined another team after his second retirement, although he was still a very good individual player, the team got no better at all.

Given all this, I rank the last 4 like this:

  1. Jordan. A great, great individual player, the second best ever.  But only the 4th most valuable.

3.   Bird. Better than Magic at just about everything but passing, steals, and floor general-ship, but Magic’s teams with a slightly weaker supporting cast won 2 of 3 times head to head, and finished with 5/9 vs. 3/5 rings/finals overall.

2.  Magic. The best passer and floor leader ever, and arguably team chemistry guy ever.

1.  Russell. You just can’t beat 11 rings in 13 years (with one of the two losses being with him playing badly hurt).  He won young and won old, won on teams under-manned late in his career, won against a player 50+ pounds heavier and 4+ inches taller, won with a wide array of talent around him.  As a GM looking to put together a champion, I’d take the guy with the best winning record in sports history over any of the rest.

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  1. Posted April 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Just a great analysis, and the conclusion is dead-on, too.

    The only thing I regret when I read something like this is that, had he not encountered drug and injury problems, David Thompson would have been in the top five, hands down. But this ain’t the woulda/coulda/shoulda list….

  2. Paula
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for spelling Dwayne Wade the way his momma should have, but unfortunately didn’t. It’s funny that I’m so acclimated to his misspelling of Dwyane (even though alternatively spelled names are a pet peeve) that you spelling it the common way jumped out at me.

  3. Guy Saperstein
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Mike: First of all, let me thank you for taking 6 weeks to think this through and write such a brilliant, entertaining analysis, which, unlike so many sports commentaries, doesn’t overemphasize current players on the vague theory that everyone is getting better, more athletic, blah blah. You honor the past and that gives the analysis balance.

    I could quibble with a variety of things you say, but let me get to the conclusion first: I have said a 1,000 times in these kinds of discussions, if I were a GM choosing from all the players who ever played the game, the first player I would pick would be Bill Russell and the second would be Magic. We are in total alignment on that. [My third would be Bird]

    In my opinion, it is impossible to argue with results: Russell took a mediocre team that had never won anything and won 11 NBA Championships in 13 years—a feat which never will be duplicated. That puts him in the league with only one other person in the history of basketball—John Wooden. Arguably, Wooden’s achievement was even greater, as he had to win with a constantly changing cast of players, while the nucleus of the Celtics remained substantially the same, but of course we are talking about players and Russell’s achievement as a player is unparalleled.

    When speaking about Russell, we have to think not just of stats, or even wins, but his internal drive to excel, his ability to rise to the occasion, the way he prepared for Wilt, who surely had more physical talent [he was a world-class high-jumper and 400 meter hurdles guy in college, in addition to being the strongest player ever to play in the NBA] and more offensive weapons than anyone who ever played in the NBA, his barfing from tension before big games, his demanding 100% of himself, his absolute love of facing the best, his ability to play mind games with Wilt on and off the court [Wilt, for all his physical talent, was seriously out-thought by Russell], his ability to use his smaller physical size as a mind-fuck against Wilt—who would wonder, how is this little guy outplaying me?—his brilliant mind [I used to listen to him broadcast, and it was amazing how often he would tell you exactly what was happening and the next thing that was about to happen, then, bingo, that's what would happen], his unwillingness to lose a big game. You could also add that he carried the burden of being the first black player on a white team in a racist town [Boston was terribly racist in the 60s] and he was a proud black man who, unlike Jackie Robinson, never backed down from an argument or political issue. He was a fucking powerhouse not just on the court, he was a powerhouse off the court. No one fucked with him and if they did they paid a price. So, he not only carried a team, he carried a shitload of racial pride at a time when that really counted for the black community [are you listening Tiger and Michael? Russell was the gold standard of strength and integrity and by comparison Tiger and Michael are two sell-out chickenshits].

    Russell had the strongest mental game in bball history, he would not accept defeat, he would never be second-best, and he used it to drive himself and everyone around him. And then, of course, the ultimate test of value—Russell made everyone around him better, he made his team better more than anyone who ever played the game and it is, of course, a team game.

    A close second on making a team better is Magic. All you need to do to understand this, and understand why he was infinitely more valuable than Jordan, is to watch perhaps the greatest bball team every assembled—the Olympic Dream Team. When Jordan was on the floor, the team was stagnant, everyone standing around waiting for Jordan to do something. When Magic came on the floor, the whole team came alive, everyone was moving, everyone was involved, and Magic was driving the action and distributing the ball. Go watch the tapes, if you think I’m making this up. And to this we need to add his incredible versatility; he could have played any position in the NBA, except shooting guard. Recall the NBA playoff final game when Jabbar was injured and Magic jumped center, played center and scored 42 points in a finals-clinching win. It was like watching a man play with children, he was so dominant. And the utter joy he expressed while playing, his amazing force of personality, just pulled his whole team, and the crowd, with him in the same way Russell’s single-minded devotion to winning drove his team.

    Jerry West: You clearly appreciate his talents, but I would have put him a bit higher. In my All-Time NBA backcourt, I have Magic and Jerry. Jerry did everything well. He was the best defensive guard of his generation [he had incredibly long arms] and he always guarded the best scorer on the opposing team; he was the best pure shooter who ever played in the NBA and if the 3-point shot had been in place, his lifetime scoring average would be 5-points higher. You know how good a shooter he was, but let me tell you a short story:

    As you may know, my uncle Abe founded the Harlem Globetrotters and I would hang with them when they came to town. Back in the 1960s, they played a matinee game in Oakland and after the game the whole team piled into a bus to drive to the San Francisco Cow Palace to watch the Lakers play the Warriors. On the way over, all the Trotters talked about was “Jerry.” “Jerry this,” “Jerry that,” but mostly, “watch Jerry shoot.” The only reason they were going to the game was to watch Jerry and during the game it was all “Jerrrrrry, Jerrrrrry.” Jerry lit the Warriors up for 52 and the Trotter players absolutely could not stop talking about Jerry. Keep in mind, this wass the race-turbulent 60s and these are black guys rooting for a white guy from West Virginia. That’s how good he was. And on teams with some of the greatest offensive players who ever played in the NBA, including Wilt, Baylor and Goodrich [a great shooter himself], when the Lakers absolutely needed to make a shot, the ball went to Jerry. He once even hit one from half-court at the buzzer to win a playoff game.

    Shaq: I met him several times, I know his agent Arne Tellum, and I think Shaq is just a wonderful, funny, young man with a lot of integrity. I love the guy. But I just don’t think he plays basketball very well. Forget the stats for a minute: He can’t do a single thing with a basketball better than me. He can’t run faster, he can’t shoot FGs better, he can’t shoot FTs better, he can’t do a fucking thing better that isn’t dependent on one thing—SIZE. Take away his size and he couldn’t letter in high school bball. So, despite his impressive stats and his rings, I’ve always had a hard time accepting him as a premier player.

    Lastly, someone missing from your list—Bill Walton. Walton is arguably the best player in the history of college bball. Three College Player of the Year awards, 88 wins in a row, 44 points in an NCAA Championship game on 21-22 FGs, and, INHO, he was the best outlet passer and fast-break center who ever played the game. And in the NBA, for 1 1/2 seasons, he played the greatest center in the history of the game—yes, better than Russell, Wilt, Jabbar. Great scoring, great defense, fabulous passing, speed, great leadership [read Halberstam's book about the 1977 Trailblazers to see how dominant his leadership was on a team with very strong personalities, like Maurice Lucas]. But he had fragile feet and his lifetime stats, which were good enough to get him picked as one of the top 50 All-Time NBA players, don’t match up to the players like Jabbar who had greater durability. So, put Walton someplace in your top 20, perhaps with an asterisk.

    Fun stuff, Mike. I encourage you to write more about sports.

    • Mike Lux
      Posted April 16, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink


      It is great to get your perspective. You know as much about basketball history as anyone I know. Here are my reactions to what you said:

      1. You are very convincing on Jerry West, and I do love him dearly. The only reason I rated him as low as 10th on my all time GM pick list was because of his size. He’s the smallest, thinnest guy on my top 15 list, and is small for a 2-guard in today’s game, so I hesitated to pick him higher. But I think you made a very strong case, and I will likely move him up in my thinking next time.

      2. I don’t think Shaq is quite as bad as you suggest, although I have to admit I’m sympathetic to the argument as I’ve always thought him over-rated. But he was a solid defender and shot blocker, a good rebounder, and a good passer out of the low post. And because of that size thing, he really was a monster to defend. He is not in Russell, Wilt, Jabbar or Hakeem’s league for sure, and I’d take Duncan over him too, but I still have to leave him in my top 15.

      3. When Walton wasn’t injured, he was surely in the top 5 of all time. But my all-time GM has to look at injuries and endurance as part of what they consider in their picks, and a guy that prone to injury just can’t be one of your top picks in my view. He could never even put together 2 full seasons in a row. If you could guarantee me he would be the player he was for that one glorious season Portland won its title… But you can’t. One of the saddest stories in all of sports history, because he was amazing.

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