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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pro Basketball's Most Decorated Players

This 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


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...6
Bill Russell...5
Michael Jordan...5
Wilt Chamberlain...4
Julius Erving...4*
Moses Malone...3
Larry Bird...3
Magic Johnson...3
Bob Pettit...2
Mel Daniels...2^
Karl Malone...2
Tim Duncan...2
Steve Nash...2

* 1 NBA, 3 ABA
^ 2 ABA

Most All-League 1st Team Selections

Player...1st Team

Karl Malone...11
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...10
Elgin Baylor...10
Bob Cousy...10
Michael Jordan...10
Bob Pettit...10
Jerry West...10
Rick Barry...9^^
Larry Bird...9
Tim Duncan...9
Julius Erving...9**
Magic Johnson...9
Oscar Robertson...9

^^ 5 NBA, 4 ABA
** 5 NBA, 4 ABA

Most All-League Selections

Player...Total...1st Team...2nd Team...3rd Team

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...15...10...5...0
Karl Malone...14...11...2...1
Shaquille O'Neal...13...8...2...3
Bob Cousy...12...10...2...0
Julius Erving...12...9**...3***...0
Hakeem Olajuwon...12...6...3...3
Dolph Schayes...12...6...6...0
Jerry West...12...10...2...0

** 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



At Wednesday, September 26, 2007 9:06:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Jordan should have 7 MVPs. There is no way Barkley in 92-93 and Malone in 96-97 was better than Jordan. From Jordans first title to his last (when he wasnt retired) he was the best and most valuable. Barkley and Malone had great years during their MVP year but they werent better than Jordan. I know the reasons why they got MVP but they shouldnt have.

At Wednesday, September 26, 2007 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree. I just listed the reason why MJ did not get more MVPs; I did not say that it was right.

At Wednesday, September 26, 2007 11:33:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

I didnt say you said it was right, David. No need to defend yourself. I was just commenting. My repsonse sounds like im disagreeing with you but Im not.

That Game 7 book is great too.

At Wednesday, November 06, 2013 6:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im suprised that MJ didnt have the most MVPs but he did retire because his dad died to play baseball for 2yrs

At Friday, June 13, 2014 8:32:00 PM, Blogger Pablo Novi said...

Hey David,
Hopefully I haven't already asked this of you. (I have never been able to figure out how to email you - it always says that there's some technicality preventing it).

I've searched for dozens of hours and have never found this: A year-by-year COMPLETE Voting-Results for all the All-League Selections.

Not just the results, but the actual voting totals (including for those who did not make the teams but did get votes.)

My question: Does such a list exist; and if so, do you know where I can get the link?


P.S. I've recently tried to "catch up" on b-ball advanced stats. I wouldn't say I have a great grasp; but it's now adequate enough I feel for my needs. What I notice is that: no individual stat (advanced or not) nor any combo of them compares favorably to just using the All-League Teams results.

I've been a rabid Lakers & NBA fan for 55+ years, and the All-League Team results very closely match "my eye test" of who the best 2-3 players at each position were each year. Better and much more complete than the MVPs.

For example, in 4 early-year cases, The All-NBA 1st Team better reflected who was best than did the MVPs (Russell getting MVPs over Pettit, then over Wilt; Cowens getting the MVP over KAJ.)

At Friday, June 13, 2014 11:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My email address is listed in my profile and you should be able to contact me at Doc319@yahoo.com.

I do not know of a complete listing of All-NBA voting but if do you an archival search of old Sporting News magazines and/or SN NBA Guides you should be able to find such data for many seasons. Other books/publications list such data for a particular season but you are right that it is hard to find comprehensive data. If you poke around NBA.com you probably can find all of the All-NBA Team voting for the past decade or so at least.

During the era that you referenced, the players voted for the MVP and the media voted for the All-NBA Team, hence some of the discrepancies that you noticed.


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