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Friday, September 09, 2005

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

There have been many attempts to determine who the greatest pro basketball players of all-time are. The NBA has selected official all-time teams in conjunction with its 25th, 35th and 50th anniversaries. The first of these, the Silver Anniversary Team, consisted of the ten greatest retired players at that time (1971): Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, Bob Davies, Joe Fulks, Sam Jones, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes and Bill Sharman. Red Auerbach was voted the greatest coach. Keep in mind that Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were still active players at that time and thus not eligible for selection.

Ten years later the NBA expanded the roster to 11 and modified the selection process to allow the inclusion of active players; the 35th Anniversary Team included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Jerry West. Abdul-Jabbar and Erving were still active players at that time. Red Auerbach was again voted the greatest coach and the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers were dubbed the greatest individual team.

In 1996 the NBA honored its 50th anniversary by creating a list of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. This list included everyone from the 25th and 35th Anniversary Teams except for Davies and Fulks. The youngest player on the list was Shaquille O’Neal and some questioned his worthiness for such an honor at that time since he had only been in the league for four seasons and had yet to win an MVP or a championship. Bob McAdoo was the only former NBA MVP not included in the 1996 list.

In 1999 an Associated Press panel voted for Basketball Player of the Century. The top ten finishers were Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Most observers would probably agree that this list includes the pantheon of professional basketball—-one could make a case for any of those players being the greatest player of all-time and, other than possibly Shaquille O’Neal, there is no one not on that list who would receive much serious consideration for that title.

In some ways, trying to rank the players within this pantheon is silly and futile—-how does one properly compare players who played different positions or who played in different eras or who played under different rules? The late Walter Payton, who at the time was the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, once said that ranking the greatest running backs of all-time is pointless and impossible and that instead we should simply savor and enjoy the unique traits of each of the worthy candidates. He was right, of course, but it seems to be an essential part of human nature to attempt to create order, to rank things, to classify items—and to argue with those who order, rank or classify things differently!

The two main approaches to ranking players are (1) relying on statistics and (2) focusing on subjective observations/historical context. There are numerous variations within these two methods: the statistics can be examined on a per minute or a per game basis, they can be adjusted to emphasize certain categories and they can also be normalized to account for changes in pace over the years; observations of teammates, opponents and the media who covered these players can be used to bolster or minimize the importance of certain statistics.

The greatest player of all-time must display both durability and a high peak value; durability means sustaining a long career (at least 10 years) at or near the top of the game. Peak value refers to the top level that the player reached, even if he stayed there only briefly in the midst of a longer career at a lower but still exceptional level. As an example of peak value, consider Julius Erving’s performance in 1975-76 for the New York Nets. Dr. J ranked first in the ABA in scoring, fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Incredibly, Erving actually increased his production in the postseason, culminating in these numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets: 37.7 ppg (including 45 points and the game winning shot on the road in game one), 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. The Doctor led both teams in all of these categories during the series—and he was putting up these unbelievable numbers against high quality opposition. Guided by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, the Nuggets finished 65-19 that season, featuring two Hall of Famers (Dan Issel and David Thompson) and one of the best defensive forwards of all time (Bobby Jones). After trying in vain to stop the Doctor, Bobby Jones offered this appraisal of Erving’s heroics: “He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught—that one man can’t do it alone.”

One could make a case that no one has ever played basketball better than Dr. J did in that season, particularly his playoff performances against deep, talented San Antonio and Denver teams; in fact, Newsweek’s Pete Axthelm, in a May 1976 article titled “Sky King,” suggested that Erving was indeed the greatest player the game had seen at that time. ABA Commissioner (and Hall of Fame forward) Dave DeBusschere offered this oft-repeated summary of Erving’s impact: “Plenty of guys have been ‘The Franchise.’ For us, Dr. J is ‘The League.’”

Erving did not quite reach that level of statistical dominance combined with championship winning performance before or after that campaign, but he made the All-Star team in each of his 16 seasons and won three other regular season MVPs. Erving combines a high peak value with impressive durability, ranking among the best players in the game for most of his career.

Part II will look at the peak value of other members of pro basketball’s pantheon

posted by David Friedman @ 6:14 AM

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