Pro Basketball's Most Decorated PlayersThis article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 2/25/07; it has been updated to include the 2006-07 season
It is difficult enough to compare the statistics of two players from the same era and the task becomes that much more challenging when it involves players whose careers are separated by decades. Sure, it is possible to parse the raw numbers into per minute calculations and attempt to factor in variables such as pace, but how realistic is it to compare shooting percentages or rebounding averages when the rules, arena conditions and size/speed of the players have all changed so dramatically?
One interesting thing to consider is how a player was viewed during his own era. If someone is a dominant figure for an extended period of time then this largely validates his claim to greatness. It is possible to roughly ascertain how dominant a player was (or at least was perceived to be) by looking at how many MVPs he won and how many times he made the All-League Team. Why "All-League" as opposed to "All-NBA"? Simple--I am including both All-NBA and All-ABA selections, just like pro football historians consider NFL and AFL accomplishments in the same breath (the AFL’s Joe Namath is recognized as the first player to pass for more than 4000 yards in a season). If you think that the ABA was just some sideshow league then you are sorely mistaken. Check out the All-NBA first and second teams in 1976-77, the first post-merger season: four of the ten players first starred in the ABA, a very disproportionate representation by the upstart league considering the small number of teams that it possessed.
Recognition for a solid decade as being the best at your position is a strong indication that a player stands out above his contemporaries. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar achieved that and then some. He is probably better known to the younger generation as a mentor to the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum but Abdul-Jabbar’s name should always be on the short list of players who can legitimately stake a claim to being the greatest of all-time. He won a record six MVP awards, made the All-NBA team a record 15 times in 20 seasons and made the All-NBA first team 10 times, just one shy of Karl Malone’s standard in that category. Abdul-Jabbar finished third in MVP balloting in his rookie season, won the honor after his second and third campaigns, and did not finish lower than fifth in the balloting until his 13th season. In other words, from the moment he entered the league until the time that he was a 35 year old veteran he was considered to rank among the best of the best. No other player has been that highly regarded for that many consecutive seasons.
Karl Malone holds the record for most All-NBA first team selections with 11; he and Abdul-Jabbar are two of the seven players who earned at least 10 All-League first team selections. Malone won a pair of MVPs and is one of just 13 pro basketball players who have won multiple MVPs.
Bill Russell, the greatest winner in North American team sports history (11 NBA titles in 13 seasons after winning two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal) won five MVPs but made the All-NBA first team just three times. Playing at the same time as Wilt Chamberlain can do that to you (for what it’s worth, the players voted for MVP at that time and the media voted for the All-NBA teams). Russell received eight nods for the second team, while Chamberlain nearly reversed Russell’s numbers with seven selections to the first team and three to the second team.
Russell deservedly gets a lot of credit for the Celtics’ nearly annual championship runs in the 1950s and 1960s, but Bob Cousy--the point guard on several of those teams--made the All-NBA team 12 times, including 10 first team selections. At 6-1 he is the shortest player to reach those milestones. Cousy won the MVP award in 1957, Russell’s rookie year and the first season that Boston won an NBA title.
Michael Jordan is the only other five-time MVP winner. He could have added to his 10 All-NBA first team selections by not retiring in 1993 and again in 1999. Jordan made the second team as a rookie and then became a decade-long fixture on the first team, missing the cut only when he broke his foot in 1986 and when he took a sabbatical from 1993-95 to play baseball. Jordan’s six Finals MVPs are unprecedented and that record will be even tougher to break than Abdul-Jabbar’s regular season tally.
Julius Erving is well regarded for his mid-air theatrics but many people do not realize how great his all-around game was. This is largely because he spent his prime physical years (ages 21-26) in the ABA, which did not have a big time national television contract. His statistics from those seasons literally don’t exist in some record books because the NBA does not consider ABA numbers to be "official." If Larry Bird’s career were treated similarly he would have one fewer MVP and five fewer All-NBA first team selections. Erving earned selection to an All-ABA or All-NBA team 12 times in 16 seasons, including nine times as a first teamer. He won four MVPs, the same as Chamberlain and trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Michael Jordan.
Only three active players appear on the lists of most MVPs won or most All-League selections: Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash. O’Neal has been an Abdul-Jabbar-like fixture on the All-NBA teams, making the cut in 13 of his 15 seasons--every time but his rookie season and the 2006-07 season. He has been helped a bit in this regard by the addition of a third All-NBA team in 1989 (three of his selections were third team nods). Despite his well chronicled dominance and the vital role that he has played on four championship teams, O’Neal has only won a single MVP award. It used to be suggested that the voters tired of giving Jordan the award every year even though he was the best player; O’Neal’s lack of multiple MVP trophies can be explained by a couple factors: voters looking for an excuse to vote for an underdog candidate and O’Neal’s tendency to get injuries that limit his conditioning and number of games played during the regular season. It should also be noted that O’Neal has won three Finals MVP awards.
Duncan has won two MVPs and three Finals MVPs. He has already earned nine All-NBA first team selections and one second team honor. Duncan will turn 32 during the 2007-08 season and if he can stay healthy for a few more years he could make a run at the marks set by Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone for total All-League selections and most first team selections.
Nash is a relative newcomer to elite status, winning his two MVPs in 2005 and 2006. He has made the All-NBA team five times--three as a member of the first team--and has too much ground to make up to earn a spot on the list of players who have earned the most All-League selections. However, if he wins his third MVP this season Nash will join a very elite group whose members differ from him in two ways: they all stand at least 6-6 (Nash is listed at 6-3); they all (with the possible exception of Moses Malone) have been mentioned in national publications at one time or another as a contender for the title of greatest player of all-time.
Kobe Bryant has earned nine All-NBA selections--including five to the first team--meaning that he has a good chance to rack up a total of 12 or more before he retires. It is possible, albeit less likely, that he will match his idol Magic Johnson with nine first team selections. Kevin Garnett has made the All-NBA team eight times, Allen Iverson has earned seven All-NBA selections and Jason Kidd has done it six times but is tied with Bryant and trails only O’Neal and Duncan among active players with five first team selections. Gary Payton does not figure to add to his career total of nine All-NBA selections, seven of which were to the second or third teams.
Pro Basketball's Honor Roll
Most Regular Season MVPs
* 1 NBA, 3 ABA
^ 2 ABA
Most All-League 1st Team Selections
^^ 5 NBA, 4 ABA
** 5 NBA, 4 ABA
Most All-League Selections
Player...Total...1st Team...2nd Team...3rd Team
** 5 NBA, 4 ABA
*** 2 NBA, 1 ABA
Notes: NBA MVP first awarded after 1955-56
season; All-NBA Third Team first selected
after 1988-89 season.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM