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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part I

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. Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were still active players and thus not eligible for consideration.

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 chosen as the greatest 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 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 the 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 the AP 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 few, if any, legitimate candidates for that title are missing from that group.

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 in different eras under different rules? 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 “standardized” 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 players in basketball’s pantheon display both durability and a high peak value, which I would define in the following fashion: durability means sustaining a long career (at least 10 years) at or near the top of the game and 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 during which he performed at a lower but still exceptional level. 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 and so forth. Of course, the further back we look the fewer 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?

Taking our lead from Payton’s sage advice, instead of ranking the members of pro basketball’s pantheon this series of articles will look at how each player exemplifies the traits of durability and high peak value, starting with Bill Russell and then proceeding chronologically through the list. Along the way we will also examine the pros and cons of “standardizing” statistics when making intergenerational comparisons of great basketball players. We will conclude by considering whether the pantheon should open a new wing to include current stars such as Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

Bill Russell’s durability can be easily summarized: 11 rings, 10 fingers. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, after previously winning an Olympic gold medal and two NCAA titles. Russell is the greatest individual winner in North American team sports history. He was without question always the most important player on his team, despite not being a big time scorer. Russell controlled the game with his rebounding and his shot blocking. He was also a good passer and ran the floor very well as a trailer on the fast break.

Bill Russell’s production was remarkably consistent throughout his NBA career. It is difficult to pick one or two seasons to represent his peak value because his prime seasons almost look like carbon copies statistically: he averaged more than 21 rpg for 10 straight years, never averaged less than 18.6 rpg and never ranked lower than fourth in the league in rebounding. Russell averaged 15.1 ppg and 22.5 rpg in the regular season and increased those numbers to 16.2 ppg and 24.9 rpg in the playoffs. He never averaged 20 ppg in a season nor did he ever score 40 points in a game but he averaged between 14.1 ppg and 18.9 ppg in his first nine seasons. Russell shot only .440 from the field and .561 from the free throw line but he had such an impact defensively and on the boards that he won five MVPs and he would have won a bunch of Finals MVPs if that award had been given out during the prime of his career. If blocked shots had been officially recorded during his career it is a safe bet that he and Wilt Chamberlain would rank 1-2 all-time and would be significantly ahead of everybody else in NBA history.

There is a generation of basketball fans that only knows Elgin Baylor as a Los Angeles Clippers executive who for many years seemed to have a seat reserved at the NBA Draft Lottery. That’s a shame, because Baylor put up some amazing numbers: career averages of 27.4 ppg and 13.5 rpg in the regular season and 27.0 ppg and 12.9 rpg in the playoffs. He averaged more than 34.0 ppg for three straight seasons (1961-63) and during that time he never averaged less than 14.3 rpg or 4.6 apg; no other forward in NBA history has done that, so Baylor’s peak value is quite extraordinary. After the second of those seasons, 1961-62, Baylor set a playoff record by scoring 61 points in a 126-121 victory in game five of the NBA Finals. The win gave Baylor’s L.A. Lakers a 3-2 lead over Russell’s Celtics but Boston won two straight—including an overtime triumph in game seven—to take the title. Baylor’s mark stood until Michael Jordan needed two overtimes to score 63 points in a 1986 playoff game; Baylor’s total is still a record for a regulation length playoff game and for an NBA Finals game.

During the prime of his career Baylor suffered a series of devastating knee injuries that robbed him of a lot of his explosiveness. He persevered well enough to earn 10 All-NBA First Team selections and join the select group of players who accumulated more than 20,000 points (23,149) and 10,000 rebounds (11,463).

Part II will look at the accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson and whether or not some of their statistics should be “standardized” when compared to the numbers of current players.

Links:

1) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

2) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:

http://www.nba.com/history/players/50greatest.html

posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM

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