Beckett Basketball Ranks the 50 Greatest PlayersHow did "50" Become a Magic Number?
Beckett--a company best known for producing sports card price guides--has become the latest organization to make a list of the 50 greatest basketball players of all time, issuing a Summer 2010 magazine titled "Beckett Presents Basketball Greats."
Since 1996, when the NBA officially selected The 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, "50" has been the magic number when someone decides to rank basketball's greatest players. The 1996 list included 50 players simply because the league was then celebrating its 50th anniversary; there is no logical reason that such a list must be that size and the NBA's first two official All-Time Teams were actually much more exclusive: the Silver Anniversary Team, selected in 1971, consisted of just 10 players, while a decade later the 35th Anniversary Team honored 11 players while also naming Red Auerbach as the league's greatest coach and the 1967 76ers as the greatest team ever.
The NBA's 1996 list received criticism for several reasons:
1) Some people felt that players from the 1950s and 1960s--particularly members of the Boston Celtics--were overrepresented.
2) Others argued that Shaquille O'Neal had not been active long enough to justify being ranked as an all-time great.
3) There were some particularly glaring omissions, most notably Bob McAdoo, the only NBA regular season MVP winner not chosen.
It is very difficult to fairly compare players who played several decades apart, so the best way to assess the players from the league's early days is to look at how they ranked among their contemporaries: players who won MVPs, dominated their position and/or consistently made the All-NBA/All-Star teams certainly deserved consideration for the 50 Greatest Players List; younger fans may not be fully aware of the accomplishments and talents of "old school" players but that would not justify leaving worthy players off of the list.
O'Neal had only played four seasons by 1996 but he was already a four-time All-Star, a three-time All-NBA selection and a one-time scoring champion who had led the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals; a good case could clearly be made that he was already a Top 50 player and it seemed pretty obvious that he would rank significantly higher than that by the time his career had finished.
While I hesitate to single out a player to be removed from the 1996 list, it is obvious that McAdoo should have been included. The real problem is that even back in 1996 "50" was an arbitrary number chosen more for marketing reasons than anything else; based on what one could infer about the selection criteria, at that time there were probably about 10 other players who were just as qualified as whoever you might consider to be the "last" 10 players on the official list (the NBA did not rank the 50 players).
Now that another decade and a half has passed, it makes even less sense to try to shoehorn just 50 players on a list that should either be cut down to 10-20 truly elite players or else expanded to about 75 very great players. In 2003, Slam Magazine actually did a Top 75 list that was pretty solid; you could quibble a little about the order in which they ranked those 75 but Slam did a good job of honoring players who many people thought should have been on the 1996 list--including McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins--while also making room for a new generation of stars such as Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Unfortunately, Slam took a step backward in 2009, as I explained in Slam Top 50 is a Typically Sloppy Production; Slam restricted the list to 50 players and many of the accompanying thumbnail articles were poorly written.
Slam's 2009 list replaced 12 players from the NBA's 1996 list--Nate Archibald, Paul Arizin, Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich, Robert Parish, Bill Sharman, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens and James Worthy--with these dozen players: Walt Bellamy, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Bob McAdoo, Steve Nash, Gary Payton, Dennis Rodman and Dominique Wilkins.
Similarly, Beckett's 2010 list replaced 11 players from the NBA's 1996 list--Archibald, Arizin, Bing, Dave Cowens, DeBusschere, Greer, Jones, Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Walton and Wilkens--with these 11 players: Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, Iverson, James, Kidd, Reggie Miller, Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Payton and Wilkins.
The Slam and Beckett lists are very similar: they agreed about the removal of nine of the 1996 players and they also agreed about nine players who should be added. Not surprisingly, all of the nine players who were removed by both Slam and Beckett had their best seasons prior to 1980 and most of them had their best seasons prior to 1970; I seriously doubt that the writers at Slam or Beckett could string together three intelligent sentences about any of those players without doing serious research, so it is very important to provide some idea about why those players were honored in 1996 and why every one of them is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame (Wilkens, Sharman and John Wooden are the only three people to be inducted in the Hall of Fame as both players and coaches):
* Archibald, a 6-1 guard, made the All-Star team six times, earned All-NBA Team honors five times and is still the only player in NBA history to win the scoring and assist titles in the same season, averaging 34.0 ppg and 11.4 apg in 1972-73. Despite his diminutive stature, Archibald fearlessly drove into the lane, leading the league in free throws made three times. He ranked in the top 10 in assists eight times and was the starting point guard for Boston's 1981 championship team. An Achilles tendon injury during his prime cost him a season and a half of his career and robbed him of some of his trademark quickness but he persevered to earn three of his All-Star appearances--and his championship ring--after that setback.
* Arizin, a 6-4 forward, made the All-Star team in each of his 10 seasons, earned All-NBA Team honors four times, won two scoring titles and was the leading scorer in the 1956 playoffs (28.9 ppg) when the Philadelphia Warriors won the NBA championship; he ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage five times, leading the NBA in that category the first time that he won the scoring title and placing seventh in that department the second time that he led the league in scoring. Military service during the Korean War cost him two seasons early in his career but he did not miss a beat upon returning to the league. Arizin was one of the first deadly jump shooters and he was also a good rebounder and well regarded defensive player.
* Bing, a 6-3 guard, made the All-Star team seven times, earned All-NBA Team honors three times, won the 1968 scoring title and ranked in the top ten in assists eight times. Bing suffered a serious injury to his left eye as a child and then overcame a serious injury to his right eye during the prime of his NBA career. I wrote an article about Bing that appeared in the January 2007 issue of Basketball Times.
* DeBusschere, a 6-6 forward, made the All-Star team eight times, earned All-NBA Team honors once and made the All-Defensive First Team six times. He averaged at least 10 rpg for 10 straight seasons and he started for two New York championship teams (1970, 1973). In 2006, I did a piece about his classic battles with fellow Hall of Famer Gus Johnson.
* Greer, a 6-2 guard, made the All-Star team 10 times, earned All-NBA Team honors seven times and was the fifth leading scorer in NBA history (21,586 points) when he retired in 1973. He was the second leading scorer--and leading playoff scorer--for the 1967 Philadelphia team that set a record (since broken) for most regular season wins; those Sixers ended Boston's record eight year streak of winning championships and were selected in 1981 as the greatest team in league history. In January 2006, Hoop magazine editor Ming Wong experienced a rare moment of lucidity and actually published a well written and well researched long form article: my profile of Greer (Under Wong's direction, Hoop now prefers to publish short articles that are poorly written and sloppily researched; Wong's Hoop also "borrows" other people's work without proper attribution).
* Jones, a 6-4 guard, made the All-Star team five times and earned All-NBA Team honors three times. He played on 10 NBA championship teams--more than any player other than Bill Russell--and he helped the Celtics to go 9-0 in seventh games by averaging 27.1 ppg in those contests, including a 47 point outburst versus Oscar Robertson's Cincinnati Royals. When Jones retired he was the third leading playoff scorer in NBA history behind only Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. My profile of Jones appeared in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
* Sharman, a 6-1 guard, made the All-Star team eight times and earned All-NBA Team honors seven times. He led the NBA in free throw shooting seven times, a record that has stood for nearly 50 years, and he still ranks 11th on the career free throw percentage list (.883), just a few tenths of a point behind two of the most renowned marksmen in basketball history, Larry Bird and Reggie Miller. During his 11 year career Sharman ranked in the top ten in scoring seven times and he ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage six times. Sharman played on four championship teams.
* Walton, a 6-11 center, made the All-Star team twice, earned All-NBA Team honors twice, made the All-Defensive Team twice and won one regular season MVP, one Finals MVP and one Sixth Man of the Year award during his injury-riddled career. He played on one championship team as a dominant force early in his career and then earned a second championship ring late in his career as a very productive sixth man.
* Wilkens, a 6-1 guard, made the All-Star team nine times. A potent scorer who averaged at least 18 ppg in six different seasons, Wilkens led the NBA in assists in 1969-70 and he ranked in the top 10 in that category 12 times, tied with Mark Jackson for fifth most in NBA history behind John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson.
Slam and Beckett concur that the above nine players no longer rank among the NBA's top 50 players of all time--but it is far from obvious that this is true. I have already made it clear that the "50" number is poorly chosen but if we are going to stick with that figure then it is inevitable that some players who deservedly made the cut in the past would have to be dropped after some even greater players emerged: I think that there would be a general consensus among informed observers that Bryant and Duncan not only are Top 50 players but that they are at least Top 20 players. If O'Neal deserved the Top 50 honor in 1996--and he certainly did--then James is likewise an easy choice now. Kidd's prowess as a playmaker, defender and leader make him a worthy Top 50 selection.
I had always believed that all regular season MVPs should make the Top 50 cut (at least until some point far in the future when the league has honored more than 50 MVPs), which would mean that Iverson (2001), Garnett (2004), Nash (2005, 2006) and Nowitzki (2007) should be included (obviously, O'Neal, Duncan, Bryant and James are also post-1996 MVP winners)--but after Nash first was given the 2005 MVP over Shaquille O'Neal and then received the 2006 MVP despite Kobe Bryant's historic performance that season I started to reconsider: Nash is a legitimate Top 50 candidate but he is hardly a Top 50 lock. Leaving out Nash's MVPs for a moment and just looking at his skill set, is it really clear that he is greater than Archibald, Bing, Greer, Jones, Sharman and Wilkens? Comparisons of raw numbers across decades during which rules and playing conditions drastically changed are very difficult but the "old school" guards listed above were each very dominant in their respective eras: Archibald was at one time the league's best scorer and passer, Bing was at or near the top in both scoring and assists for many years, Greer's career scoring was only eclipsed during his era by titans named Chamberlain, West, Baylor and Robertson, Jones has to be considered one of the great clutch players of all-time, Sharman was one of the most efficient scoring guards of the 1950s and Wilkens--like Archibald and Bing--was a great scorer/passer in an era when assists were not handed out as liberally as they are now. I am still not convinced that Nash is significantly better than Mark Price, let alone that Nash is better than the guards listed above. Nash is a great player but he is thriving in an era during which the rules favor perimeter players and during which the media award voters give more credit to passers than they do to finishers (the opposite was the case when Karl Malone and John Stockton teamed up during the same time period when Price played).
I am sure that to some people--particularly the "stat gurus"--including Iverson on any Top 50 list is much more questionable than including Nash but Iverson was amazingly productive and durable, winning four scoring titles, ranking in the top ten in scoring 11 times (tied with Dolph Schayes and Michael Jordan for third all-time; only Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did so more frequently) and ranking in the top ten in minutes played 11 times (tied for third all-time with Bill Russell and Elvin Hayes; only Wilt Chamberlain did so more frequently). Yes, Iverson was not always the most efficient player but he still somehow managed to carry the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals and in 2008 he led the league in mpg, ranked third in scoring and finished ninth in assists to help the Nuggets post their best win total since 1988.
I do not have a huge problem with either Iverson or Nash being on a "new" Top 50 list but I do object to the way that it seems like the accomplishments and skill sets of some of the "old school" players are just blithely cast aside. Both Slam and Beckett should have explained the rationales justifying the players that they dropped and the players that they added.
It is very difficult to make a good case that Reggie Miller should have supplanted any of the "old school" guards that Beckett evicted. During an 18 year career, Miller made the All-Star team five times, earned three All-NBA Third Team selections (never once making the Second or First Team) and only received MVP votes in two seasons, finishing 13th in 2000 and 16th in 1998; Miller was never close to being the best player at his position during his career and he was a very one dimensional player, contributing little other than his shooting prowess. Miller deserves credit for being a clutch player who hit many big shots and who increased his productivity during the playoffs but he was not better/more productive/more dominant during his time than the "old school" guards mentioned above. Miller is probably a Top 75 player but he is definitely not a Top 50 player.
Beckett and Slam disagree most vociferously about Pete Maravich: Slam left him off of their list entirely, while Beckett ranked him as the 11th greatest NBA player of all-time! Even though I like Pete Maravich so much that I wrote a poem as a tribute to him shortly after his premature death I cannot agree with putting Maravich just ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving and Elgin Baylor and several spots in front of--among others--Tim Duncan and Bob Pettit. Maravich has to be placed on the short list of the greatest collegiate players of all-time but as an NBA player he falls short of what I would consider Pantheon level. Maravich is a solid Top 50 choice--so Slam messed up in that regard--but it is ridiculous for Beckett to assert that Maravich is among the dozen best players in NBA history.
As for the forwards and centers, Slam and Beckett are correct to add McAdoo to the list. Nowitzki will probably always receive criticism for what happened to the Mavericks in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs but he has been an extremely productive and consistent player and he has actually performed even better in the postseason than he has in the regular season. Garnett has had some questionable performances in clutch situations but his consistency as a rebounder/defender is undeniable.
The bottom line is that there have been so many great NBA players that any Top 50 list assembled from this point forward will inherently be problematical; while there may be a certain degree of consensus about the Top 10-20, there is a logjam of equally worthy (or nearly equally worthy) players from about 20-75: picking Michael Jordan over Nate Archibald or Steve Nash is pretty easy but choosing among Archibald, Nash, Iverson, Greer and many other guys who played guard in different eras under vastly different conditions is extremely difficult, as is juggling the merits of frontcourt players whose career trajectories and playing styles are as disparate as Paul Arizin, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Walton, who is the NBA's Gale Sayers--a brilliant player whose career numbers were truncated by injuries. Since Beckett's list is apparently intended as an update to the 1996 list, it would have been great if Beckett had included some thumbnail sketches (like the ones I provided above) to remind readers about the greatness of the "old school" players.
Beckett Canonizes Jordan
Like Slam's 2009 list/accompanying articles, the "Beckett Presents Basketball Greats" magazine features writing that is average at best--no style, no flair, no passion and no real insight into what made these players great. The magazine is also poorly edited, containing numerous typographical, spelling and factual errors: to cite just two examples, on page 20 there is a reference to Jerry West's famous game-tying shot in the 1970 Finals taking place when "the three point shot was still decades away"--but in fact the ABA had already been using the three point shot for several years and the NBA first used the three pointer in the 1979-80 season, less than a decade after West's heave versus the Knicks; on page 78, it is asserted that Julius Erving's 76ers only defeated Larry Bird's Celtics one out of four times during their playoff matchups--but the Sixers actually prevailed in both 1980 and 1982.
While the pedestrian writing is disappointing and the errors and general sloppiness are distracting, what immediately catches one's eye is that Beckett acts as if it is a foregone conclusion that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever: the cover boldly asks "Will anyone ever surpass Jordan?", one article headline declares "Michael Jordan is, without question, the greatest basketball player of all time" and another article headline says "It's easy to select Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time."
Longtime NBA writer Bob Ryan has repeatedly made the excellent point that any serious discussion about ranking the greatest players has to separate the big men from the perimeter players: how can one really compare Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson? The first group of players impacted the game in a different way than the second group of players: big men patrol the paint and provide a forceful physical presence, while the great perimeter players operate from more areas of the court but are usually less overpowering.
I have never published my own Top 50 list but my five part Pantheon series discussed 10 retired players who each could arguably be called the greatest player of all-time plus four active players who seem to be well on course to join that Pantheon. Although I did not rank the players within my Pantheon, I looked at their careers from two perspectives: durability and peak value, terms that I define in the following manner: "Durability means sustaining a long career (at least 10 years) at or near the top of the game and peak value refers to the top level that the player reached, even if he stayed there only briefly in the midst of a longer career during which he performed at a lower but still exceptional level." By either of those standards, an excellent case can be made that Jordan is the greatest player ever--but an excellent case can also be made on behalf of each of the other players in my Pantheon. Jordan was the most productive and most accomplished player of the 1990s but there is no objective way to compare his individual scoring/defensive prowess in that era to, say, Russell's individual rebounding/defensive abilities during the 1960s.
Jordan may very well be the greatest player of all-time but I am just not sure how one really proves (or disproves) this; repeatedly trumpeting him as "without question" the greatest player of all-time is nothing but a gimmick to sell more magazines.
Beckett Selects the NBA's Greatest in Various Categories
"Beckett Presents Basketball Greats" includes an article purporting to rank the NBA's greatest in seven different categories, selecting one player as "the best" in each category and then listing four others (not in any particular order) as "the rest."
Miller is anointed as the greatest shooter, followed by Ray Allen, Drazen Petrovic, Glen Rice and Steve Nash. If "greatest shooter" is defined purely by the ability to hit uncontested shots then Ted St. Martin (who holds the world record with 5221 consecutive free throws made) has to receive consideration; obviously, in terms of pro basketball the "greatest shooter" should be determined not just by shooting percentages but also by the ability to create one's own shot (either off of the dribble or by deftly using screens) and the ability to hit shots against a certain amount of defensive pressure. Steve Kerr, Hubert Davis and Jason Kapono rank 1-2-3 in career three point shooting percentage; they may be better "pure shooters" than Miller, Allen, Petrovic, Rice and Nash but they are not greater shooters in terms of having the complete package of accuracy, shot creation and ability to hit shots against defensive pressure.
Miller is the all-time leader in three pointers made, though Allen will probably catch him next season. Miller ranks 40th in career three point field goal percentage (.395), but many of the players ahead of him on that list were role playing catch and shoot specialists, not All-Star scorers. Miller ranks 26th all-time in effective field goal percentage (.544), a statistic that adjusts field goal percentage to take into account the extra value of a three point shot; most of the players ahead of Miller on the EFG% list are big men who mainly attempted dunks and layups, with a few exceptions (most notably, Steve Nash and John Stockton). Miller ranks ninth all-time in career free throw percentage, though the difference between ninth (.888) and third (Peja Stojakovic, .895) is minuscule.
Beckett's list is not bad, though Mark Price deserved serious consideration: Price not only could create his own shot both off of the dribble and by coming off of screens but he is the all-time free throw percentage leader (.904) and he ranks 20th in career three point field goal percentage (.402). Larry Bird's shooting percentages are not quite on par with the players mentioned above but he had the complete package: size, touch, the skill to create his own shot and the ability to hit clutch shots with defenders draped all over him.
Bill Russell is Beckett's choice as the greatest defender of all-time, with Dikembe Mutombo, Michael Cooper, Sidney Moncrief and Michael Jordan receiving honorable mentions. Russell's defensive impact is unquestioned and unparalleled and was the major reason that the Boston Celtics transformed from being a good team into being the greatest dynasty in the league's history. The other four players are each great defenders in their own right but, keeping in mind Bob Ryan's comment about separating big men and perimeter players when making comparisons, how can one lump Mutombo and Cooper into the same category? They played completely differently. For that matter, was Cooper really a better defender than Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Furthermore, whatever criteria were used it was a grave omission to not mention Scottie Pippen; Pippen could play lock down one on one defense versus point guards, shooting guards and small forwards plus he also was probably the best help defender in league history: when he did not have a lock down assignment he could guard "one and a half men" better than anyone. Kobe Bryant carries a much greater scoring load than Pippen, Moncrief and Cooper did but his defensive skill set is on par with theirs. I suspect that if we had defensive statistics for Jerry West's entire career his steals and blocked shots numbers would be astounding. Beckett really should have had at least two separate defensive categories, honoring Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dikembe Mutombo among big men and recognizing Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Sidney Moncrief, Michael Cooper and Kobe Bryant as the best wing defenders (Jerry West and/or Bruce Bowen also could be included). A possible third defensive category would honor players like Dave DeBusschere, Bobby Jones and Dennis Rodman who were neither perimeter players nor were they intimidating shot blocking big men (though the lanky Jones did block a lot of shots).
Beckett selected Magic Johnson as the greatest passer, ahead of John Stockton, Bob Cousy, Jason Kidd and Oscar Robertson. I cannot argue with those choices.
Wilt Chamberlain is Beckett's choice as the greatest rebounder, followed by Bill Russell, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman. Again, I cannot argue about that list, though Jerry Lucas would also have been a worthy choice.
Leadership is obviously a very subjective trait. Beckett taps Magic Johnson as the NBA's greatest leader, while also mentioning Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and Tim Duncan. It is not clear what criteria Beckett used; these five players are great leaders but I am not sure how to determine who was the best leader. My subjective choice would be Russell first and Johnson second. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are also great leaders because they set standards of individual and collective excellence on their respective teams; they worked hard on their own skills/conditioning and they forced everyone around them to also work hard and to accept a standard that anything less than winning a championship is not acceptable.
Beckett honored Jerry West as the best clutch shooter, ahead of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That is a very good list; some people probably forget--or may not even know--how many clutch shots Abdul-Jabbar made during his career. Younger fans may feel like Reggie Miller should be on this list but if you are only going with five players I cannot see bumping one of those guys in favor of Miller.
Beckett chose Michael Jordan as the best winner, followed by Bill Russell, George Mikan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I do not understand this one, much like I do not understand Beckett's insistence that Jordan is "without question" the greatest player ever. Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons. Jordan won six championships in 15 seasons. What am I missing here? I would be the last person to say that players should be evaluated solely by numbers but what context justifies elevating Jordan above Russell as a winner when Russell won nearly twice as many championships? There is actually more justification for saying that Jordan was a better individual player than Russell: that case rests on the fact that Jordan did not have any skill set weaknesses, while Russell was a poor free throw shooter and not a big time scorer (the counterargument would be that Russell's dominance as a defender and rebounder nullified his weaknesses and enabled him to have even more impact than Jordan did with his scoring/all-around excellence). Jordan simply cannot be ranked as a better NBA winner than Russell.
The NBA, Slam and Beckett lists all fail to explicitly mention the ABA but each list includes several players who played in both leagues (including Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Moses Malone); however, the ABA's Unsung Heroes--including some great players who spent most or all of their careers in the ABA, like Roger Brown and Mel Daniels--were passed over in favor of contemporary NBA players whose resumes were, at best, no better than those of their ABA counterparts. I have complained about this kind of injustice many times--including this 2007 piece that I wrote for NBCSports.com when that site (briefly) provided serious coverage of pro basketball--so even though the ABA is not a focal point of this particular article I do not want anyone to think that I have given up the good fight to obtain proper recognition for the ABA collectively and for that league's great players individually.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:11 AM