The Ultimate "Five Tool" PlayersThis article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 1/31/07
Versatility is a prized trait in all sports. Baseball scouts have a name for it: a "five-tool" player is someone who hits for average, hits for power, runs well, has a strong throwing arm and fields his position well. The basketball version of this is a player who scores, rebounds, assists, steals the ball and blocks shots. Only five players in NBA/ABA history have led their teams in each of those categories in the same season: Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady.
The ABA began officially recording steals and blocked shots in 1972-73 and the NBA followed suit a year later--so it is possible that there were some five-tool players in previous years; six players had a total of 10 seasons in which they led their teams in scoring, rebounding and assists. Wilt Chamberlain accounted for three of those seasons. He certainly led his team in blocked shots during those years but it is almost just as certain that he did not lead his team in steals. Maurice Stokes and Dolph Schayes probably did not lead their teams in steals, either. Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek each are about 6-5 and probably did not lead their teams in blocked shots, although the young, pre-knee injury Baylor was an exceptional leaper. Connie Hawkins, a 6-8 forward/center who won the regular season and playoff MVPs in the ABA’s first season, may very well have led the 1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers in steals and blocked shots; the knee injury that slowed him down a bit did not happen until the next season.
What about Oscar Robertson, who was putting up triple doubles before the term was even invented? He led the Cincinnati Royals in scoring and assists during his prime, but Wayne Embry or Jerry Lucas led the team in rebounding during those years.
Julius Erving put up the first--and most impressive--five-tool season. In 1975-76, he led the ABA in scoring (29.3 ppg) and ranked in the top seven or better in the league in each of the other four categories. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Erving actually came very close to being a five-tool player in each of the three previous seasons, missing by just .6 apg and .2 spg in 1972-73, .8 rpg in 1973-74 and .6 spg in 1974-75. All of that was just a warm-up for Dr. J’s final dramatic operation in the ABA, when he led the New York Nets to the 1976 championship over the Denver Nuggets, topping both teams in all five statistical categories during that series: 37.7 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. Performances like that inspired the two quotes that best summarize Erving’s impact on the game: ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere once said, "Plenty of guys have been ‘The Franchise.’ For us, Dr. J is ‘The League’"; Pat Williams, the 76ers General Manager who acquired Erving shortly after the 1976 ABA Finals, later said of Erving, "There’s never been anyone like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."
Erving is the only five-tool player to win an MVP or lead his team to a championship during that season. This makes sense, because if one player is leading his team in every category that means that he is not only exceptionally talented but that his supporting cast is probably not doing enough. Dave Cowens’ five-tool effort is an example of the latter. He ranked third in the NBA in rebounding for the 1977-78 Boston Celtics, but had less than overwhelming numbers in the other categories. The Celtics went just 32-50 that year and did not qualify for the playoffs.
Scottie Pippen’s five-tool season happened in 1994-95, year two of Michael Jordan’s first retirement. Pippen actually had slightly better numbers in 1993-94 but Horace Grant led the team in rebounding and blocked shots that year. Grant signed with the Orlando Magic prior to the 1994-95 season and his departure left a serious void in the paint, but Pippen’s all-around greatness helped to keep the Bulls afloat. They were 34-31 and had won eight of their previous 10 games before Jordan returned to the team. Jordan’s comeback with 17 games left--and the 1995 acquisition of rebounding specialist Dennis Rodman--ensured that Pippen would not have another five-tool season and signified the beginning of another three-peat.
While the Bulls were winning titles, the next two five-tool players were adjusting to jumping to the NBA straight from high school. Kevin Garnett soon showed the ability to excel in all categories but he was usually paired with a playmaking guard who led the Timberwolves in assists (Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups). In 2002-03, Troy Hudson was the team’s starting point guard and Garnett led Minnesota in assists for the first time, enabling him to have a five-tool season; he was already well established as the team’s best scorer and rebounder, ranking ninth in the league in scoring and second in rebounding that year. Minnesota won 51 games but lost to a 50 win L.A. Lakers team in the first round of the playoffs. The next year, Sam Cassell led the team in assists and in 2004-05 and 2005-06 Eddie Griffin led Minnesota in blocked shots, while Garnett took the top spot in the other categories. Another indication of Garnett’s versatility is that he has averaged at least 20 ppg/10 rpg/5 apg in six seasons, breaking Larry Bird’s record of five.
Tracy McGrady became a five-tool player in 2002-03 by the narrowest of margins, averaging 1.653 spg (124 steals in 75 games), just eclipsing Darrell Armstrong’s 1.646 spg (135 steals in 82 games). McGrady, then playing for the Orlando Magic, led the NBA in scoring (32.1 ppg) and posted a healthy apg average (5.5). His team leadership in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and blocked shots (.79) reflected the Magic’s weakness in the paint more than anything else, although his numbers were quite good for a guard, particularly one who carried such a heavy scoring load. Orlando went 42-40 but jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs versus the 50-32 Detroit Pistons. McGrady made a now infamous comment about finally making it to the second round of the playoffs but Detroit won the next three games to close out the series. Although his words turned out to be premature, McGrady certainly did his best to help his team advance, leading the Magic in scoring, assists and steals versus Detroit, tying for the team lead in blocked shots and ranking second in rebounding. Detroit acquired Rasheed Wallace in 2003-04 and won that year’s championship, so for McGrady’s barely .500 Magic to have a 3-1 lead in the first place is more remarkable than the fact that the better team eventually won the series.
Playing alongside Yao Ming in Houston, McGrady is unlikely to have another five-tool season. Few current players have the skills to even think of accomplishing this and those who do play alongside a teammate who specializes in one or two of the five categories; for instance, LeBron James will not lead Cleveland in rebounding or blocked shots as long as Zydrunas Ilgauskas is on the team. Garnett is the only player who has a realistic shot at being a five-tool player in 2006-07. He is Minnesota’s best scorer, rebounder and shot blocker by a wide margin and also leads the team in steals. He, Ricky Davis and Mike James are in a dead heat in assists. Garnett may very well become the first player to have two five-tool seasons but it is extremely unlikely that he--or anyone else--will equal what Erving accomplished in 1975-76 (9/25/07 note: Garnett led Minnesota in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocked shots in 2006-07 but finished second to Ricky Davis in assists; Garnett now of course plays for Boston and considering the current makeup of the team he has a shot at producing a five-tool season in 2007-08).
"Five Tool" Players
Dave Cowens..1977-78..Celtics..18.6..14.0(3)..4.6..1.32.. .87
Tracy McGrady..2002-03..Magic..32.1(1)..6.5..5.5..1.65.. .79
"Five-Tool" Players led their teams in PPG, RPG, APG, SPG and BPG in the same season.
"Multiple-Tool" Players led their teams in PPG, RPG and APG before the NBA and ABA officially began recording steals and blocked shots (1972-73 for the ABA; 1973-74 for the NBA).
Numbers in parentheses indicate league ranking if the player finished in the top ten; prior to 1969-70 NBA statistical leaders were ranked by totals instead of averages.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 AM