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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sporting News Selects All-Time NBA Team

Sporting News' 125th anniversary issue contains several all-time teams for various sports, including this 15 player NBA squad:

First Team

PG Magic Johnson
SG Michael Jordan
SF Larry Bird
PF Bob Pettit
C Bill Russell

Second Team

PG Oscar Robertson
SG Jerry West
SF Julius Erving
PF Elgin Baylor
C Wilt Chamberlain

Third Team

PG John Stockton
SG Kobe Bryant
F Karl Malone
F Tim Duncan
C Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The greatness of each of those 15 players is indisputable. My Pantheon--which totals 10 retired players not picked by position--contains nine of SN's top 10 selections. It is nice to see Bob Pettit receive some much deserved recognition; I did not include Pettit in my Pantheon (he barely missed the cut) but he is on my list of the greatest power forwards of all-time.

SN used some strange, inconsistent positional designations, presumably so that they could select this specific group of 15 players--but it would have made more sense to simply list the 15 greatest players of all-time than to supposedly choose players by position when in fact some of the players in question did not play the positions assigned to them by SN. Elgin Baylor certainly rebounded like a power forward (or even a center) but at 6-5, 225 pounds he was not a big forward even in his era and he generally filled the small forward role while playing alongside various power forwards, including Rudy LaRusso and Happy Hairston. Baylor may be the fourth greatest forward of all-time--as SN's list suggests--but he was not a power forward. The strange thing is that SN's Third Team includes two power forwards who are simply listed as "F" (as opposed to SF or PF). Perhaps SN ran out of SFs after choosing Bird and Erving (and moving Baylor to PF) but if SN wanted to select a squad strictly based on positional designations then Rick Barry should have been the Third Team SF--and Karl Malone should have missed the cut entirely: Malone's field goal percentage dropped from .516 in the regular season to .463 in the playoffs, a stunning decline in efficiency indicating that Scottie Pippen was not kidding when he said during Game One of the 1997 Finals, "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday." Malone's durability and productivity certainly earned him a spot among the top power forwards of all-time but it is a stretch to put him ahead of Tim Duncan or to rank him among the 15 best players of all-time. It is also odd to see Stockton on such a list; Stockton racked up assists and steals while shooting a very good percentage from the field but he just could not take over a game--let alone a playoff series--like Isiah Thomas. Stockton made the All-NBA First Team just twice in his 19 year career and never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting, while Thomas made the All-NBA First Team three times in 13 seasons, finished as high as fifth in MVP voting and led his team to back to back championships, capturing the 1990 NBA Finals MVP. I would also take Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier and Jason Kidd ahead of Stockton--and I would not rank any of those players among the top 15 all-time unless I restricted myself by using positional designations, a restriction that SN artificially imposed and then selectively employed.

Putting Kobe Bryant on the Third Team seems like some kind of compromise choice; I excluded active players from my Pantheon precisely because it is difficult to fully appreciate someone's historical significance when that person is still making history but since SN decided to include active players strong consideration should have been given to at least putting Bryant on the Second Team. Bryant has excelled as a scorer, passer and defender and after serving as an All-NBA level partner to Shaquille O'Neal on three championship teams he was clearly the best player on the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship teams, squads that did not contain another certifiably great player (if Pau Gasol eventually makes the Hall of Fame it will be because of a combination of his FIBA success with Spain and the afterglow of winning rings alongside Bryant, as opposed to his individual dominance/greatness--remember that Gasol made just one All-Star team and did not make the All-NBA Team prior to becoming Bryant's sidekick). In contrast, Robertson and West each won one championship apiece and neither player was the Finals MVP during that championship season (West won the 1969 Finals MVP even though his Lakers lost to the Celtics in seven games); West and Robertson each needed to hook up with an all-time pivot great (Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar respectively) in order to capture a title, while Bryant won two rings alongside Gasol, a big man who was never considered to be elite until he started benefiting from all of the defensive attention Bryant draws.

Some fans no doubt think that LeBron James merits consideration for SN's list at the small forward position but the ebbs and flows of James' career are precisely the reason that I did not include active players in my Pantheon; prior to the 2010 playoffs, James certainly seemed to be on course to rank among the 15 or even 10 greatest players of all-time but after two straight seasons in which he quit during the playoffs it is clear that James--regardless of his impressive individual statistics--simply cannot yet be listed among the greatest of the great. James has the talent to earn his way into that group but he has not done so just yet; think about how Julius Erving almost singlehandedly carried the New York Nets to the last ABA championship over the more talented Denver Nuggets (leading both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and how Rick "Superman" Barry similarly led the underdog Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA title--and then contrast that kind of effort and statistical dominance with the stunning image of LeBron James literally just standing around in the corner while other players decided the outcomes of the 2010 Boston-Cleveland series and the 2011 Dallas-Miami series. James is the most productive regular season player in the NBA today but he has not earned Pantheon status.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 AM

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