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Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

In Part I, we looked at Julius Erving’s sensational 1975-76 regular season and playoffs, culminating in perhaps the greatest Finals performance ever. While Erving played at an elite level for a long period of time, it is clear that this was the high point of his career statistically. High peak value is a characteristic shared by all pantheon members but it is very difficult to meaningfully compare the peak value seasons of different players; this is a subjective exercise unless one uses either a linear weights system (add up all the “good” stats—points, rebounds, assists, etc.—and subtract all the “bad” stats—turnovers, missed shots, fouls; some systems assign more or less emphasis to various statistical categories) or a more complex statistical analysis that takes into account pace, how a player’s team did during the minutes that he didn’t play, etc. Of course, the further back we look the less available statistics there are, so these methods lose a lot of precision when they are used to evaluate players who played before turnovers, steals, blocked shots or other categories were officially tracked. Systems using linear weights can provide a rough ordering, but do not tell us anything about context—did a player force double teams, take charges or do a host of other “intangible” things that are not measured in conventional statistics but increase his value?

It is not possible to discuss peak value in basketball for very long without mentioning Wilt Chamberlain’s name. He had the ultimate peak value season in 1961-62, averaging 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg. Chamberlain shot .506 from the field (ranking second in the league) and averaged an astounding 48.5 minutes per game; since a regulation NBA game lasts only 48 minutes, he literally played nearly every second of every game, including some overtime action. His scoring and minutes played averages are all-time records that will never be broken, while his rebounding average is the third best ever, exceeded only by two earlier Chamberlain seasons.

The next best single season scoring average is 44.8 ppg, posted by Chamberlain in 1962-63. The next best after that is 38.4 ppg, posted by Chamberlain in 1960-61. The next best after that is—well, you get the point. There is a reason that someone once suggested that the NBA Record Book should be renamed “The Wilt Chamberlain Story.” Chamberlain posted the top four single season scoring averages in NBA history. The non-Chamberlain record is Michael Jordan’s 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. Chamberlain’s 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors scored 125.4 ppg in a league in which teams averaged 118.8 ppg, while Jordan’s 1986-87 Bulls produced 104.8 ppg when teams averaged 109.9 ppg. Some observers suggest that Chamberlain’s scoring average is inflated by the faster “pace” of his era. Mathematically, this makes some sense; after all, the more shot attempts there are per game, the more opportunities a player will have to score. To cite an extreme example, when the NBA did not have a shot clock and teams routinely scored less than 85 points there was very little chance that someone would average 50 ppg for a season.

Yet, to simply crunch a few numbers and declare that Jordan’s 37.1 ppg is somehow approximately equal to Chamberlain’s 50.4 ppg flies in the face of logic. Regardless of the overall pace of the game, Chamberlain still had to continue to keep pace, so to speak, to average 50.4 ppg. No one else in his era—or any other time—has come close to doing this. Jordan’s 37.1 ppg may “project” to a higher average in 1961-62, but who is to say that the faster pace would not have fatigued Jordan or led to wear and tear that would have predisposed him to injury? Maybe the slower pace in 1986-87 would have suited Chamberlain even better and made it harder for teams to defend him. Without having to run up and down the court so frequently to get back on defense perhaps Chamberlain would have been more energized, while his opponents would have been worn down by the pounding they took trying to stop him in the paint; maybe a young Chamberlain would have scored 55 or 60 ppg in 1986-87. Let’s be clear—I’m not saying that this is what would have happened; I’m saying that I don’t know and neither does anyone else. It makes just as much sense to hypothesize that a slower pace would help Chamberlain as it does to “standardize” his numbers downward. All that we know for a fact is that Chamberlain scored 50.4 ppg and in nearly six decades of NBA action no one else has come close to matching that. Showing that Chamberlain and Jordan’s scoring production is mathematically equivalent is not the same as proving that Jordan would have in fact scored 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 or that Chamberlain would have been “held” to 37.1 ppg in 1986-87.

Standardization is much more useful for comparing players who played in the same era but for different teams than it is for comparing players across eras. To compare players across eras there has to be some way to account for differences in rules, officiating (how the written rules are interpreted and applied), talent (does the current era feature more talented athletes drawn from a wider, more international talent pool or has expansion diluted the talent today in comparison with earlier eras when the NBA only had 90-100 players?) and a myriad of other factors both great and small. Until someone explains how these factors can be accurately measured statistically, Chamberlain’s 1961-62 season is without question the ultimate example of peak value—he set the all-time single season scoring and minutes played records by wide margins while also having the third best rebounding season ever and ranking second in the league in field goal percentage. The fact that Chamberlain’s main competition in the record book in the single season scoring, rebounding and minutes played categories comes from other Chamberlain seasons highlights even more the greatness of his accomplishment in 1961-62—he set the bar so high that he is the only player who could even come close to it.

Shaquille O’Neal is often referred to—and often refers to himself—as a modern day Wilt Chamberlain, so the reader may be interested to see O’Neal’s best single season numbers in scoring, rebounding and minutes played: 29.7 ppg (1999-00), 13.9 rpg (1992-93) and 40.0 mpg (1999-00); obviously, none of those numbers are even close to Chamberlain’s 1961-62 production—and O’Neal posted those statistics in different seasons. Standardization proponents will vigorously argue that O’Neal is at a tremendous disadvantage in the rebounding category because today’s game features a slower pace than Chamberlain’s era did. Again, mathematically this makes a lot of sense, but great players in any era seem to operate under their own statistical rules. No rebounding champion averaged 16-plus rpg between 1979-80 and 1990-91—then Dennis Rodman accomplished this in four straight seasons. Judging by pace alone it would not have seemed possible to do this, but Rodman did, in the process far exceeding the production of the other top rebounders at that time. In Chamberlain’s last season he led the NBA with 18.6 rpg, 1.5 rpg better than the second place finisher in a league in which the average team scored 107.6 pgg on .456 shooting. Are we to believe that a younger Chamberlain playing in 1972-73 would not have been able to average 25+ rpg, regardless of pace? When Rodman averaged 18.7 rpg in 1991-92 the average NBA team scored 105.3 ppg on .472 field goal shooting.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 AM

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