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Friday, September 09, 2005

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time

Everyone--former players, members of the media, avid fans--likes to discuss and debate the topic of the greatest basketball players of all-time. The all-time leading scorer can be looked up in a record book, but "greatest" is a subjective term. To one person it may suggest individual dominance, to another it might mean winning the most championships. The NBA has selected three different official All-Time Teams and the Associated Press chose its Basketball Player of the Century in 1999. In The Greatest Basketball Players of All Time, Part I, I examine those efforts to identify the greatest basketball players and discuss peak value and durability, two factors that I consider to be of prime importance in evaluating great basketball players.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 PM

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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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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Air Jordan and Flash 80

Jerry Rice announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday, concluding a 20 year career during which he set numerous records, including the regular season career marks for receptions (1549), receiving yards (22,895) and receiving touchdowns (197). He is 448 receptions, 7961 yards and 67 touchdowns ahead of second place in each of those categories—those numbers would represent an excellent career by themselves!

You are probably thinking, “Great, but what does this have to do with basketball?”

The connection is that when I see Jerry Rice I think back to his rookie season in the fall of 1985 and I remember that another icon in the making was in his second year in the NBA—when Flash 80 began his great run with the San Francisco 49ers, Air Jordan had just been cleared for takeoff with the Chicago Bulls. In the spring of 1986, Michael Jordan scored a playoff record 63 points against the Boston Celtics, inspiring that season’s NBA MVP, Larry Bird, to suggest, “That’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

In addition to the records that they set and the championships that they won, Jordan and Rice embodied the beauty of playing for the love of the game. Jordan actually had a “love of the game” clause in his first Chicago Bulls contract that stipulated that he could play in pick-up basketball games in the off-season, something that teams frowned on—or explicitly forbade—at that time, fearing that the player risked injuring himself in unsupervised competition.

Jordan simply loved to play basketball and loved proving that he was the best player on any court at any time. Early in his career Jordan insisted that he would retire before his skills diminished. His first retirement in 1993 after leading the Bulls to three straight championships seemed to fulfill that prediction—but Jordan came back in 1995, only to retire on top again in 1998 after his famous shot over Utah’s Bryon Russell capped off the Bulls’ second three-peat in an 8 year period. However, citing an itch that had to be scratched, Jordan came back again, this time in 2001-02 with the Washington Wizards, for whom he had worked as a team executive. He could still score, but not as prolifically or smoothly as he did during his prime, and he still had a good all-around game, but he had slowed noticeably and was no longer the best player in the game. He spent much of his Wizards career gamely fighting tendonitis that often left him playing on one leg. Michael Leahy writes in his book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback that the Wizards closed practices to the public so that word would not get out about how much Jordan’s right knee was hindering him. He pushed his body to the absolute limit before the “itch” was sufficiently scratched.

Rice shared the same love of the game. When he suffered a torn ACL and a torn MCL after a vicious Warren Sapp face-mask tackle in 1997, the 35 year old Rice—whose place in NFL history was already secure--set a goal of becoming the first NFL player to return from such an injury in the same season (Rod Woodson missed a whole season but came back in the same season’s Super Bowl). He made it back and had a stirring Monday night football performance, including a touchdown reception—but on that play he shattered the kneecap on the same leg, a result of weakness in the joint because he came back too soon from the previous injury.

Rice recovered from the broken kneecap to catch 492 passes in the last seven years of his career. He made the Pro Bowl in 1999 with the 49ers and again in 2003 with the Oakland Raiders, after a season in which he was a major contributor to the Raiders (92 receptions, 1211 yards, 7 touchdowns—and he turned 40 early in that season!) making it to Super Bowl XXXVII. His totals after the two devastating knee injuries surpass the career numbers of some Hall of Fame receivers.

There is a beauty and a sadness to the way that Jordan and Rice’s careers ended. There is great beauty in loving the game so much that you continue to play even though you have nothing left to prove and you risk being mocked by cynical writers, young fans who don’t remember your greatness and jealous rivals who couldn’t touch you in your prime but salivate at the chance to embarrass you now. Yet, there is sadness when one watches a singular performer unable to dominate the game in his usual manner. Ray Lewis can be heard on NFL Films saying, “The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry.” Watching the end of Air Jordan’s career and the conclusion of Flash 80’s run, I understand that statement perfectly. I take two memories from Jordan’s Wizards career: first, his soaring, two handed block of Ron Mercer, pinning the ball to the glass to preserve a win against Jordan’s old team, the Chicago Bulls. That clip was later shown in a Nike commercial, with a Jordan voiceover intoning “Love is playing every game like it’s your last.” I’m not ashamed to say that I got goose bumps every time that spot ran; second, the image of Jordan dragging his bad leg up and down the court, trying to act like everything was fine—his heart and determination made you smile and the intimations of his (and our) mortality made you cry. For Rice, my two memories of his dénouement are the aforementioned Monday night comeback from the ACL injury and the fact that last year, on a Seattle team with wide receivers who drop so many passes they should change their names to Edward Scissorhands, Seattle did not even attempt to utilize him at the end of a 27-20 playoff loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Jerry Rice’s retirement leaves me feeling the same way that I did after Michael Jordan’s last season with the Wizards: I am sad that Jerry Rice will no longer play in the NFL—and yet I am glad that he left now rather than spend a season sitting on the bench. Yes, the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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