Julius Erving's All-Time Starting FiveJulius Erving told USA TODAY's Chris Colston that his all-time starting five "was, is, and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."
Erving's choices are interesting for several reasons, though I'm sure that the first thing that will grab the attention of most people is that Erving did not include Michael Jordan. In my newest article for ProBasketballNews.com I discuss Erving's list and offer my thoughts about the challenges involved with selecting an all-time starting five (2/25/09 Edit: the link to my PBN story has been disabled, so I have simply pasted the text of that article into this post):
USA TODAY's Chris Colston asked Erving to select an all-time starting five and Erving replied, "My starting five was, is and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."
Erving's list is interesting for several reasons: (1) he omitted Michael Jordan, who many people consider to be the greatest player of all-time; (2) Hawkins is a Hall of Famer but does not appear on most lists of the five or 10 greatest players of all-time; (3) he never played a regular season game with or against any of those players (Erving faced Chamberlain, Hawkins and Robertson in 1972 in the second NBA-ABA All-Star Game). Erving has said on several occasions that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--winner of a record six NBA MVPs—is the greatest player he ever played against. Speaking of Abdul-Jabbar, he responded to Colston's question by saying that it is "impossible for me to narrow it down to five."
At various times I have considered several different basketball players to be the greatest of all-time but in recent years I concluded that in a team sport like basketball it is virtually impossible to single out one player for that honor. In my five part "Pantheon" series, I profiled 10 retired players who have at one time or another at least briefly been considered for that title. These are players whose accomplishments have stood the test of time (listed in alphabetical order): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Earvin Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Jerry West. In the final article of the series, I mentioned four active players who have played at a Pantheon-worthy level: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal.
There are several reasons that it is difficult to cut that Pantheon list down to a starting five, let alone choose one player for the top spot:
1) Various eras had different rules, different styles of play and different challenges: The three point shot, the restricted area and the defensive three seconds rule are just three examples of how much the NBA game has changed over the years. Also, in the "old" days the league consisted of a much smaller number of teams who played each other over and over; virtually all of the players were born in the United States and long after the league was officially integrated there were (unofficial) quotas restricting how many black players each team had. Now, there are 30 teams and there has been an influx of talent from outside the United States. Expansion usually means that talent is diluted but the NBA is also drawing from a wider pool of players, so it is hard to say definitively whether or not the "old school" players faced tougher or easier competition than the current players do—but there is no question that today’s game is vastly different from yesterday’s game in many ways and that makes it very difficult to compare the statistics and accomplishments of players from different eras.
2) A player's statistics are influenced by the position he plays and his role on his team: Chamberlain set numerous all-time scoring records before completely changing his game to focus primarily on defense and passing (he was a great rebounder during both phases of his career). In the ABA, Erving's teams needed him to be a big-time scorer but when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers the team's management explicitly told him that they preferred to have three 20 ppg scorers as opposed to having one 30 ppg scorer. Johnson became a more prolific scorer to pick up the slack during the latter stages of Abdul-Jabbar's long career. There are similar examples in the bios of every one of these great players, which makes direct comparisons of their statistics very misleading unless one provides the context in which those players produced their numbers.
3) Greatness can be defined in various ways: When evaluating performers in individual sports like boxing or tennis, winning is the ultimate barometer, though even in those sports there can be arguments about levels of competition and other contextual issues. However, in a team sport like basketball, greatness can be manifested in many different ways. Is the greatest player of all-time defined by his ability to lead his team to championships, is he the player who was the most difficult to stop or is he the player who had the most complete overall skill set? Depending on how you answer that question, you could choose Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson as the greatest player. Although Michael Jordan did not win as many championships as Russell, average as many points in a season as Chamberlain or average a triple double for an entire season like Robertson, he embodied a little bit of each of their traits: he certainly demonstrated the ability to lead his team to championships, he was the most difficult player to guard during his era and his skill set did not have any serious weaknesses during his prime.
Julius Erving’s all-time starting five (plus sixth man Connie Hawkins) is certainly formidable but one could select another starting five from the Pantheon—Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Erving, Jordan, Johnson—that could give them quite a game: a battle between a young Chamberlain and a young Abdul-Jabbar would be epic, Bird was roughly the same size as Russell and usually guarded whichever frontcourt player was the least dangerous offensively, a Baylor-Erving matchup would be classic, the West-Jordan duel would feature two guards who were equally deadly at both ends of the court and the Big O versus Magic confrontation would pit the father of the triple double versus the man who made the term a regular part of the basketball lexicon.
Perhaps the best thing about Erving’s choices is that by selecting those players Erving paid homage to five legends who helped to build the NBA—and by mentioning Hawkins he reminded people of the feats of a player who would have put up much bigger numbers were it not for being wrongly banned by the NBA during his prime years. I think that Erving meant no disrespect to contemporaries of his such as Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Johnson and Jordan but rather he wanted to acknowledge the greatness of the players who dominated the game during his childhood, adolescence and young adult years.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM