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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part III

The basic premise of the Pantheon series is that instead of crowning one player as the greatest of all-time we should look at and appreciate the body of work produced by 10 players who could legitimately claim that title. Those players, who were the top finishers in the AP's 1999 vote to select the greatest player ever, are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. The Pantheon series examines the careers of each of these players, focusing on peak value and durability; the final part will assess the accomplishments of several active players who may soon be Pantheon-worthy, if they are not already.

Sticking with my idea of not ranking players within the Pantheon, the series proceeds roughly in chronological order (with some shifting done for certain thematic purposes and also to make sure that each article is roughly the same length): Part I looks at Russell and Baylor, while Part II talks about Chamberlain and Robertson.

Part III discusses West, Erving and Abdul-Jabbar. West and Erving each won only one NBA title (Erving also claimed a pair of ABA championships) but they rang up some of the greatest Finals performances ever and their individual numbers at that level of competition were consistently excellent. West is the only player from the losing team to win an NBA Finals MVP, while Erving's exploits in the 1976 ABA Finals represent some of the finest all-around basketball that has ever been played. Abdul-Jabbar is the standard bearer for basketball durability; his numbers and accomplishments after the age of 35 alone measure up favorably with the complete careers of some Hall of Famers. What many people have forgotten--or never realized--is how dominant he was as a scorer, rebounder and shot blocker during the first decade of his career.


Younger fans know Jerry West primarily as “the logo” (his silhouette is displayed in the ubiquitous NBA logo) and as the Lakers executive who drafted Kobe Bryant and signed Shaquille O’Neal. However, they may not be aware of just how great West was as a player. There are many reasons that he became “the logo,” that he earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” and that for many years he and Oscar Robertson were considered to be, without question, the two greatest guards in pro basketball history.

West was a prolific scorer, a skilled passer and a great defensive player. He scored 25,192 points in 932 regular season games (27.0 ppg). He ranks 18th all-time in NBA/ABA career regular season points and he is fifth all-time in career scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg), Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg), Allen Iverson (27.8 ppg) and Elgin Baylor (27.4 ppg). When West retired in 1974 he ranked third on the career scoring list behind only Chamberlain and Robertson. His playoff scoring resume is even more impressive: West ranks sixth all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff points (4457), trailing only Jordan (5987), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5762), Shaquille O’Neal (5045), Karl Malone (4761) and Julius Erving (4580). West’s career playoff scoring average ranks third all-time behind Jordan (33.5 ppg) and Iverson (30.0 ppg). West still holds the record for highest scoring average in a playoff series (46.3 ppg versus Baltimore in 1965) and most consecutive playoff games with at least 40 points (six).

Bill Russell (11) and Jordan (six) each won many more championships than West (one) and may be the greatest defensive and offensive players respectively in NBA Finals history, but West’s Finals performances were quite extraordinary. West ranks first in career Finals points (1679), third in career Finals scoring average (30.5 ppg, trailing only Rick Barry—36.3 ppg—and Jordan—33.6 ppg) and fourth in career Finals assists (306). He scored at least 20 points in 25 straight Finals games, a record that stood for more than two decades before Jordan (35) surpassed it. West scored at least 20 points in all seven games of a Finals series three times; no one else has done that more than once. West and Jordan are the only players who scored at least 45 points in three different Finals games; West has the most 40 point games in NBA Finals history (10; Jordan had six). West also had 18 assists in a Finals game, just three short of the record in that department. West remains the only player who ever won the Finals MVP despite playing for the losing team; he had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the Lakers’ 1969 game seven loss to the Celtics.

West amassed 6238 regular season assists (6.7 apg), ranking 24th all-time in total assists and 31st in assists per game. West ranked fourth in total assists when he retired. Assists averages have gone up in recent seasons even though overall scoring is much lower than it was when West played, a strong indication of how liberal the definition of an assist has become; West’s assists average was very high for his era.

West’s defensive prowess is difficult to quantify because steals and blocked shots were not officially recorded until his final season (1973-74), during which injuries limited him to just 31 games. However, considering that he was a banged up 35 year old by that time, West’s 2.6 spg and .7 bpg give a strong indication of what kind of defender he was. He made the All-Defensive Team every year after its creation in 1969 except for his abbreviated final season.

Injuries caused West to miss a lot of games during his career but he had enough durability to make the All-NBA First Team 10 times. He never won a regular season MVP, but he did finish second on four different occasions (1966, 1970, 1971, 1972). West’s peak value season was probably 1965-66 when he averaged a career-high 31.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 6.1 apg during the regular season while setting a record for free throws made (840) that still stands; in the playoffs he averaged 34.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.6 apg while shooting .518 from the field, an amazing percentage for a 6-2 guard who took the volume of shots that he did. Late in his career, West won a scoring title (31.2 ppg in 1969-70) and an assists title (9.7 apg in 1971-72), a feat matched only by Nate Archibald, who amazingly captured both crowns in the same season (34.0 ppg, 11.4 apg in 1972-73).

One of the greatest peak value seasons in pro basketball history has never received the attention it deserves because it took place in a now-defunct league. In 1975-76, the New York Nets’ Julius Erving 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’s career combines high peak value with impressive durability; he ranked among the best players in the game for most of his career, as indicated by his 12 combined All-NBA and All-ABA selections (including nine First Team nods, five in the NBA and four in the ABA). Erving was an outstanding clutch performer who generally played his best in the biggest games; he averaged 24.2 ppg in his regular season career but increased that number to 28.1 ppg in 33 NBA/ABA Finals games, winning three championships in six appearances. Erving’s career scoring average of 25.5 ppg in the NBA Finals is the eighth best all-time and he scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 Finals games, including his first 19, a streak that still ranks among the longest ever. In his two trips to the ABA Finals, Erving averaged 33.4 ppg, scored at least 20 points in 10 of 11 games, topped 30 points eight times and had three 40 point games. His output in Finals games mirrors West’s in many ways—and he won more championships than West did—but because Erving’s two most spectacular Finals’ performances happened in the ABA (and his third best happened in 1977 in a losing cause) many people don’t realize just how well Erving performed in those situations.

Erving’s 1981 NBA MVP ended the nearly two decade long stranglehold that centers had over that honor and paved the way for other non-centers to win the award. Erving was the first NBA/ABA, NFL, MLB or NHL player to be a member of 16 straight playoff teams, a record since broken by Karl Malone (19) and John Stockton (19).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps the ultimate example of basketball durability: he holds the career regular season records for minutes played (57,446) and points (38,387), he won a record six regular season MVPs and he earned the 1985 Finals MVP as a 38 year old. Early in his career he battled Wilt Chamberlain in the playoffs and by the end of his career he faced Hakeem Olajuwon, who was born 27 years after Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 21.5 ppg in each of his first 17 seasons; the first time he failed to reach that mark he was 40 years old. He played in his final All-Star Game when he was just shy of 42 years old, he was a 14.6 ppg scorer on a championship team at 41 years old, he made the All-NBA First Team at 39 years old (ranking 10th in the league in scoring at 23.4 ppg) and he made the All-Defensive Second Team at 37 years old. Like Jerry Rice, he put up good “career” numbers after the season in which he turned 35, including eight All-Star selections, four championships won, four All-NBA Team selections, one All-Defensive Team selection and one Finals MVP.

Abdul-Jabbar’s career ended in 1989, which means that today’s high schoolers had not even been born by the time he played his last game. Although his late career achievements are impressive, his prime years took place over three decades ago, which means that even some people who are approaching 40 years old may have only vague memories of when Abdul-Jabbar was dominant, particularly considering the sparse television coverage that the NBA received at that time. During Abdul-Jabbar’s first 11 seasons he won six MVPs, two scoring titles, one rebounding title and led the league in blocked shots four times in the seven years that those numbers were officially tracked. After his first six seasons he had the highest career scoring average in NBA history (30.4 ppg; to be fair, Chamberlain had a much higher scoring average than that in his first six seasons before “settling” for a 30.1 ppg career average). Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 14.0 rpg in each of his first seven seasons--a level that Shaquille O’Neal never once reached--and he averaged at least 10.3 rpg each year until he was 35. People who only saw the second decade of Abdul-Jabbar’s career might be under the mistaken impression that he was not a dominant rebounder or defensive player but those numbers clearly put that fiction to rest. He was also a gifted passer, a good ballhandler and a decent free throw shooter.

Abdul-Jabbar was a versatile player who could score in a number of ways but he also had perhaps the most deadly signature shot in the history of the sport: the skyhook, which he could deliver with deadly precision from either baseline and which was unblockable and unguardable once Abdul-Jabbar got post position. Even in his early 40s, Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook still confounded defenders.

Considering his peak value and his extended dominance, one could definitely make the case that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest basketball player ever (and we have not even talked about his amazing collegiate career). Erving has repeatedly said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever played against; Erving would almost certainly own a couple more NBA championship rings if not for Abdul-Jabbar’s commanding presence in the paint for the Lakers in the 1980 and 1982 Finals.

Part IV will discuss Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Links:

1) Part I of this series can be found here and Part II is here.

2) 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

3) 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

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM

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