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Friday, June 05, 2015

LeBron James Did a Lot--but not Quite Enough--in Golden State's 108-100 Game One Win Over Cleveland

LeBron James scored an NBA Finals career-high 44 points on 18-38 field goal shooting last night but the Golden State Warriors still prevailed over his Cleveland Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead. James also had eight rebounds and six assists. Stephen Curry led Golden State with 26 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, plus a game-high eight assists.

Recent media coverage of James has focused on his poor shooting percentage during the 2015 playoffs and attributed this at least in part to James shifting from being a pass-first player to being more of a scorer because of the injuries that have knocked Kevin Love out of the lineup and limited Kyrie Irving's availability. That description of James' play is false, contrived and does not match reality. James did not suddenly emerge as a great scorer. James has the fourth highest regular season career scoring average (27.3 ppg) in pro basketball history and the highest regular season career scoring average among active players. He also ranks fifth in playoff career scoring average (28.0 ppg). Entering the 2015 NBA Finals, James did not rank in the top ten in NBA Finals career scoring average and that helps explain why James owns four regular season MVPs but only two Finals MVPs while posting a 2-3 record in his previous Finals appearances. James has always been a great scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he scores a lot of points. Sometimes, James has played passively in the Finals after spending the whole regular season and playoffs putting up big point totals and in those situations his teammates understandably could not compensate for James' reduced scoring. It is to James' credit that he is also capable of passing the ball very well but James' greatest asset is his ability to use his size, strength, athletic ability and shooting touch to score.

The first quarter of game one of the 2015 Finals is yet another example of how James' team thrives when he scores a lot. James scored 12 points on 4-9 field goal shooting as Cleveland led by as many as 14 points before settling for a 29-19 advantage after the first 12 minutes. James played all 12 of those minutes and clearly earned his +10 plus/minus rating.

James did not quite maintain that scoring pace the rest of the way and Golden State shot much better from the field in the final three quarters of regulation but with less than 10 seconds remaining James had scored 42 points and he had the ball in his hands with the score tied at 98. One more basket would have given James 44 points (nearly the 48 point pace he had set in the first quarter) and would have given Cleveland an upset win. James had the necessary time and space to attack the paint and take a high percentage shot but instead he let the clock wind down before missing a low percentage fadeaway jump shot. Running the clock down with just seconds remaining in a tied game is good strategy--the offensive team in that situation should either win or go to overtime but should not give the defensive team any time to score--but the fadeaway jump shot only makes sense if Cleveland had inbounded the ball with less than two or three seconds remaining. James should have attacked the paint around the five second mark with the mindset of scoring, getting fouled or dishing to an open teammate (if help defenders engulfed him).

Golden State scored the first 10 point in overtime. James shot 1-4 from the field in overtime--including 0-2 on three pointers--and he committed two turnovers; his scoring during the first four quarters nearly carried Cleveland to victory and his lack of scoring in the overtime doomed Cleveland to defeat. Is that analysis too dramatic or oversimplified? Not really. The great, iconic players have usually carried a heavy burden during championship runs. A few well-balanced teams spread out the scoring and the glory but most championship teams (and almost all championship-winning dynasties) have one player who carries a significantly larger weight than his teammates.

James had a plus/minus number of -3 during game one of the Finals. Does that mean that Cleveland was better off without him? No, because Cleveland was +5 during regulation time when James was in the game; James authored a dominant performance in the game's first 48 minutes and nearly led the Cavaliers to a road victory in the NBA Finals against a team than won 67 regular season games. However, James took a low percentage last second shot to end regulation and he came up empty in overtime save for Cleveland's lone basket of the extra session, a hoop that even James termed "meaningless." Taken in isolation, that plus/minus number of -3 can be misinterpreted but placed in proper context it provides some illumination about the ebbs and flows of game one.

I mention James' plus/minus number--and how to correctly understand what it means--because I have previously noted that James Harden had a negative plus/minus number throughout the entire 2015 playoffs. There are apparently few basketball sins worse than merely suggesting that Harden might not be one of the two best basketball players on the planet, so some diehard Harden fans accused me of selectively using the plus/minus statistic against Harden after allegedly not using it in my analysis of other players and games. The latter accusation is easily refuted; my coverage of Team USA in FIBA play--which can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page--includes many references to plus/minus. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic. It must be used judiciously and placed in proper context. With my Team USA coverage, I provided very detailed explanations of why Team USA performed better when certain players were in the game. With my Harden coverage, I noted that during the playoffs the Rockets had extended periods of meaningful time when they did better with Harden on the bench. The "noise" from plus/minus often comes from numbers that are skewed by garbage time but this was not the case with Harden; in fact, on multiple occasions in the playoffs, Houston made important fourth quarter runs with Harden on the bench--and Harden actually padded his individual numbers, if not also his plus/minus numbers, by staying in some blowout losses and getting buckets while his team trailed by more than 20 points. I do not lend much credence to individual statistics that are padded by garbage time points but I do take note when a supposedly MVP caliber player is on the bench while his team makes series-defining runs with home court advantage on the line (versus Dallas in game two) and with elimination on the line (versus the L.A. Clippers in game six).

A player's plus/minus number for a game, a playoff series or even an entire season is "noisy" and, without context, does not mean very much--but a plus/minus number combined with observation and analysis can be helpful in determining what factors led to a team's success or failure.

LeBron James had a great game one. He was not flawless but no great player is flawless. He did a lot to put his team in position to win. With each great game that he plays in the NBA Finals, James is diminishing the weight of his earlier failures in the NBA Finals. After his travails and triumphs in Miami, he finally seems to understand how large of a burden a great player must shoulder to win an NBA championship. This one particular series will not define James' legacy any more than any one particular series defined Kobe Bryant's legacy or Michael Jordan's legacy. James has already earned the title of NBA champion and no one can take that away; only James can determine how far he will climb within pro basketball's Pantheon and that determination will not be based on one game or one series but on his entire body of work.

It could turn out that this series is not about James as much as it is about Curry. Curry did not arrive in Golden State accompanied by all of the hype that preceded James' jump from high school to the NBA but Curry has developed from solid pro to All-Star to All-NBA player to MVP in a very short period of time. Curry is the best player on a 67 win team and he may cap off that season with Finals MVP honors. He has authored one of the greatest years ever by a 6-3 and under player. I about fell out of my chair when I heard Jeff Van Gundy say during a radio interview that Harden is better than Jerry West; that is one of the most absurd player comparisons ever made by an otherwise sensible analyst. However, while Harden is receiving unwarranted praise, Curry may very well be playing his way into the ranks of the greatest guards of all-time; he is a peerless shooter, a deft ballhandler/passer and a more than capable defensive player.

James, by virtue of his physicality, individual numbers and team accomplishments, is a magnet for attention, analysis and criticism but when we may look back on the 2015 NBA Finals we may realize that the main story really was not about him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 PM

51 comments

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51 Comments:

At Friday, June 05, 2015 5:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"He was not flawless but no great player is flawless." This is a great sentiment, and if you have time I'd be curious to hear you list what you think the single greatest flaw of your various "pantheon" level players is? The two I have the most trouble identifying a major flaw in are Doc (mediocre 3-pt shooter in an era before it much mattered) and Olajuwon (sometimes too passive on offense?) Jordan's is also difficult to identify, though his 3pt percentage is basically the same as Doc's but came at least partially in an era where it was a larger part of the game; beyond that it is hard to find warts in those three games. Some players it's fairly easy to identify (Magic, for example, was a willing but middling defender on the ball and Bill Russell was an ultimately inefficient scorer). It should be noted that these are picked nits, not serious criticisms; I just think it's an interesting analytic exercise to try and find cracks in the armor of the greats.

If I recall correctly, for reference, your pantheon was:
Russell
Wilt
Baylor (?)
West
Robertson
Abdul-Jabbar
Erving
Malone
Magic
Bird
Jordan
Olajuwon
Duncan
Oneal
Bryant
James

I mostly agree with that list, though I might add Rick Barry, Roger Brown, and/or Bob Pettit (though Pettit's era is difficult for me to evaluate.

TL;DR: What do you think the greatest flaws of the game's greatest players are?

 
At Friday, June 05, 2015 7:41:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

I can just imagine the cries of "selfishness" and "hero ball" if Kobe had taken 38 fields goals in a game where his team lost. But when it's LeBron he's "carrying the team" without any help.

ESPN published a stat that LeBron's Game 1 was the least efficient 40-point playoff game of the last 30 years with a 48% true shooting. He also holds the 3rd and 6th least efficient 40-point games in playoff history.

While we're on the topic of TS%, Kobe's career playoff TS% is 54% and his highest playoff TS% was in 2006 (58%), when he was supposedly at the height of his selfishness.

It's funny how advanced stat folks revert back to old school analysis when the numbers don't support their opinions. This probably reads like Kobe homerism, but it's insane the double standard the media holds these two superstars to.

 
At Friday, June 05, 2015 8:08:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

CR-

I agree that the critics are too harsh on Kobe or not harsh enough on Lebron (or both; let's hold everyone to the same standard, please), but I also think it's fair to ask- depending largely on the year in question- if Kobe did over-shoot sometimes. '06 is not one of those times; his team mostly stunk.

I also think it's fair to note that Lebron's best post scoring option (besides himself) was Tristan Thompson, not Pau Gasol or Shaq Oneal. In addition to necessitating more scoring by Lebron, it also allows GS to pack the paint against him somewhat, which may contribute to his lowered efficiency. Kobe was undeniably great, but his career playoff TS% certainly benefitted from usually having a beast in the post to attract at least some attention; Lebron's has also benefitted somewhat from playing Wade/Bosh, no doubt, but neither of those guys' styles are the defense-vacuum that Oneal or Gasol were.

Of course, Kobe didn't have that helpful interior presence in '06 or '07, so credit where it's due there.

'06 is a weird case because he only played one series, against a team that overall was poor defensively, but had an elite defensive player on Kobe in Raja Bell. Kobe absolutely played great ball in that series (and nearly gave me a heart attack doing it, as a Suns fan), but if I remember correctly that was also the series when Raja clotheslined him and missed a game. If memory serves- though I could be wrong- that the game Raja missed was the one in which Kobe scored 50, and quite likely helped his efficiency as well. Moreover, it's somewhat easier to post a higher efficiency against an up-tempo team playing Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion as their "bigs" than it is against the league's best defense, so it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Lebron would also likely similarly benefit from spending a game guarded by Leandro Barbosa. A more fair comparison would probably be looking at Kobe's efficiency against Boston in '08 or '10; I don't have the numbers handy, but I doubt they're as high as his numbers against Phoenix.

 
At Friday, June 05, 2015 11:06:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

Nick F,

I should have clarified that I don't really have a problem with the way LeBron is playing in these playoffs. My problem is with the sports media's hypocrisy in their treatment of the two players, but I guess I shouldn't seem so surprised.

You're right about LeBron's lack of post scoring options, but I also think big man post scoring is not as valuable today as it was in Kobe's heyday. The lack of illegal defense rules makes it much easier to deny a big man the ball. Rim protection, rebounding and the ability to play pick n roll on offense from your bigs are much more important to the success of a team in today's NBA.

I think Kobe could have been just as successful if he had been paired with an all-time great wing sidekick (see: Pippen, Scottie), and some reliable post defenders who were just merely average on offense but rebounded and played solid defense.

As far as Kobe's efficiency numbers against those Boston teams, I know they are lower than his overall averages - those were historically great defensive teams, especially for the era.

I believe David has actually shared the stats in a prior blog post that show Kobe's playoff averages against Boston are superior to LeBron's. LeBron, of course, had the famous meltdown against Boston in 2010. LeBron did not develop a reliable outside shot until around 2011-2012.

 
At Friday, June 05, 2015 11:16:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

Nick F,

Regarding flaws of the greats, I think Jordan's would probably be 3-pt shooting like you said. Don't forget his mediocre career % is also inflated by those couple years when they moved the 3-pt line in a few inches.

For Kobe, I am not really sure if he has any flaws in pure physical basketball skills. Perhaps his greatest flaw was his overconfidence? I feel like he might say that too. Later in his career, his defensive attentiveness in regular season games was an issue. But he usually still brought it in the playoffs on that end.

 
At Friday, June 05, 2015 11:41:00 PM, Anonymous A said...

Nick F:

You made some really good points there about not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. But I just want to point out that Gasol was not a 'defense-vacuum' like Shaq, nor did he draw as much attention as Wade/Bosh on the offensive end.

Wade wasn't a great 3 point shooter but his cuts to the basket is one of the game's best, most notable is his curl and backdoor cuts. So when Lebron is driving to the basket Wade's defenders can't take their eyes off of him because as soon as Wade sees an opening he will make one of those cuts and get a pass from LBJ for an easy hoop. Bosh on the other hand was a stretch big man who is also happens to be one of the best 3 point shooting big man in the game. Gasol could shoot from mid-range but he wasn't as great as the shooter Bosh was.

Another point to note is that Lebron's teams have always had some really good 3 point shooters to open up the floor for him, eg, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, James Jones, Jr Smith etc. Kobe never had any great 3 point shooters like them on any of his championship teams.

Gasol was definitely very versatile and one of the game's best big man but if you watched the Lakers during their run from 08 - 10 most of Gasol's points came from pick and rolls with Kobe or Kobe drawing the big guys in the paint and dish it off to Gasol for the hoop. He wasn't a dominant low post player that could bang against the bigger and tougher defenders like a Dwight Howard, Kendrick Perkins, Tyson Chandler etc.

 
At Saturday, June 06, 2015 2:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcel

David the warriors are 80 and 18 this season. No spurs team has ever been as gud for one season as this warrior team. They belong with the 96 bulls 87 Lakers 2001 Lakers and 86 Celtic .

Stephen curry is greatest shooter ever and best NBA player. He can shoot off dribble off catch and make shots in traffic. He can also pass well and is a decent defender. That mans handles are crazy. He will be a lock hall of famer if he stay healthy and a all time great player

 
At Saturday, June 06, 2015 4:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron's 44 points on 18/38 shooting is certainly commendable but I remember when Westbrook had 54 points on 21/43 shooting he took an absolute pounding for the 43 shot attempts while LeBron's 38 shot attempts are being viewed as heroic and proof that he has no help. Both players had a phenomenal game and did everything they could to will their team to victory so I don't understand how 21/43 is viewed considerably more negatively than 18/38. Of course, Westbrook's 43 points on 20/32 shooting in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals also deserves mention.

 
At Saturday, June 06, 2015 3:53:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

A-

I'm not saying Bosh and Wade didn't attract defensive attention; just that they didn't do it in the way that a dangerous back-to-basket scorer does, bending the defense around them in an effort to keep them out of the paint/deny them the ball. Bosh's range and Wade's skill absolutely helped Lebron, but it's not the same as having an entire defense wetting themselves at the prospect of Shaq catching the ball. Yes, Gasol is no Shaq, but especially in the title years he was deadly in the low post and defenses spent a lot of time trying to keep him away from the rack both to prevent his scoring and to mitigate his awesome offensive rebounding. Lebrun's never really played with an interior force like that, making A to A comparisons difficult; by the same token, Kobe's never played with a Wade or Bosh analogue, but again, I don't know that it's really possible to make an apples-to-apples comp in this case.

As for Westbrook, it probably hurts his case that those sorts of shot attempts numbers are much closer to the norm for him than the exception, and in the case of that Finals game he DID have help; he was playing with Kevin Durant. I personally think Lebron tried to do a little too much in game 1 as well. There was a pretty great discussion about the intangible value of ball-movement and sharing shots on the Lowe Post yesterday with Shane Battier, and it more or less summarizes my feelings about basically anyone taking more than 35 shots in a game if they're not red-freakin'-hot while doing it. The short version is that there's a ripple effect and everybody else on the team gets passive; this is an arguable point, but I think Shane Battier can certainly be seen as a guy speaking on it with some authority.

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 11:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My Pantheon was restricted to retired players and included Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. I added Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal Tim Duncan, LeBron James as the four active players most likely to challenge for a Pantheon spot.

I don't really have time right now to give a proper response concerning the flaws of each of those players. That actually would be a good subject for a 20 Second Timeout article at some point in the future.

The Pantheon series focused on what made those players great and also on distinguishing between highest peak value versus sustained excellence.

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 12:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

CR:

There is no question that even though LeBron James receives criticism he is judged on a much more forgiving standard than the one usually applied toward Kobe Bryant. If Bryant had a losing Finals record and had blatantly quit in multiple series we would never hear the end of it (Bryant has been accused of quitting in one game in one first round series when his team was greatly overmatched but that allegation is easily refuted).

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 12:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

A:

I agree with your analysis. Gasol is a very good player but no one talked about him as an All-NBA player--let alone a future Hall of Famer--until he teamed up with Kobe Bryant. It is not an exaggeration to say that Bryant took Gasol to another level. Bryant attracted so much defensive attention that Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding went up, which is unusual for a big man at that stage of his career.

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 12:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Are you giving up on LeBron as the best player and anointing Curry in his place?

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 12:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Except for Skip Bayless and one or two others, the media will generally give LeBron a benefit of the doubt that is not granted to Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook. If LeBron shoots a lot, that supposedly means he has no help. If LeBron does not shoot a lot, that supposedly means he is emulating Magic.

In contrast, if Kobe or Westbrook shoot a lot, that supposedly means they are selfish gunners. If Kobe or Westbrook do not shoot a lot, that supposedly means they are pouting and trying to prove a point.

Rarely do commentators actually examine the flow of the game to determine what happened. They just make favorable comments about players who they like and they bash players who they don't like.

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 1:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Hakeem's not in the pantheon?!

 
At Sunday, June 07, 2015 2:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I limited the Pantheon to 10 players, otherwise the series could have spiraled out of control in length. I could have made it 12 or 15 but even then there would always be someone left off.

Olajuwon is certainly worthy of consideration but who would you take off of the list to add him? I can't rank him ahead of Russell, Wilt and KAJ (in no particular order) at center. Baylor, Erving and Bird (in no particular order) were clearly the top three retired forwards at the time I wrote the article. Should a center who is no better than fourth at his position go ahead of one of the top three forwards? Robertson, West, Johnson and Jordan (in no particular order) were clearly the top retired guards at the time I wrote the article. I would not take Olajuwon's peak value or his overall body of work ahead of any of the peak values/bodies of work compiled by those four guards.

Olajuwon and Moses Malone merited consideration but just did not quite make my top 10. I can see good arguments for putting them there but I think that there are better arguments in favor of the players who I selected.

Julius Erving has an interesting solution to this problem. He says that his all-time team "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." He means no disrespect to the players who came along later but those were the players who influenced and molded him and they will always be his all-time team. I think that as time passes, those players are no longer as appreciated as they should be and that it means a lot for an all-time great in his own right like Erving to make a point of recognizing their enduring greatness.

 
At Monday, June 08, 2015 2:18:00 AM, Anonymous A said...

David:

Yes, Gasol was a very a good player and a very important piece to the Lakers' back to back titles. But I still find it blasphemous that people on the internet especially on youtube videos saying that Gasol should have gotten the Final's MVP in 2010. The argument they always bring up is game 7 of 2010 against the Celtics where Kobe shot 6/24. There is this video on youtube called "Kobe Bryant Game 7 vs Celtics Rare Highlights" showing all of his misses.

But those who don't understand basketball or didn't watch the game should take into consideration that almost no one shot well on both teams for that game. It was an old school grind it out type of game. If I remember correctly, Bryant himself admitted that he was trying too hard and things got away from him, and Phil also second it.

In that video also showed that a large chunk of his misses were from late in the shot clock heaves, or in your terms "hand grenades". I don't think there is anyone in the game today and history as well that takes as many "hand grenades" for his team as much as Bryant does. The criticism regarding his FG% and shot attempts to diminish the body of work and greatness this guy has put on time and time again is unwarranted and flat out disrespectful.

 
At Monday, June 08, 2015 2:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'd probably take Olajuwon over Magic and Baylor, at least. I think Hakeem's defensive value's comparable to Magic's offensive value, and I think Hakeem's offense is much better than Magic's D. Magic won more rings, but had a much, much better supporting cast. Hakeem's a monster for both peak value (1995 playoffs, for example), and sustained excellence (20/10 easy for 12 or 13 straight years). I don't know Baylor quite as well, but he never won, and played the second half o his career on an extremely strong team (that won without him right after he left). I don't think positional designations are a good reason for taking one guy ahead of another, but reasonable men can differ. The same argument could be applied to some of the others as well; the only guys who are really in his league on both ends of the court are Jordan, Doc, Wilt, Kareem, Duncan, maybe West (haven't seen enough of him to say), and maybe peak-era Shaq or Lebron.

Franklly, the only guys who impacted the game on defense at the level he did were Russell and maybe Duncan. Anybody else who wants to be ahead of him should logically be at least as much better on offense as he is on D, and given how good he was on offense, that's a tall order.

He's also one of the only Pantheon guy who absolutely waxed all of his greatest rivals in his prime; he ate Shaq, Ewing, Kareem, and Robinson all for lunch in various playoffs. For me that counts for something.

I might take Hakeem over most of the rest of the Pantheon, too, but I'd have to think harder on it.

Moses I feel less strongly about; I rank him about dead-even with Shaq. Huge peak value, didn't win as much as he should, dominated when he felt like it.

 
At Monday, June 08, 2015 1:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

A:

You may have misunderstood my comment (or I may be misunderstanding your reply). I agree with you that Bryant receives unwarranted criticism. My recap of the game seven you referenced noted the defensive milieu of that game and placed Bryant's FG% in proper context. Also, Bryant came up huge in that game on the boards and he was also huge in the fourth quarter with the championship on the line.

 
At Monday, June 08, 2015 1:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

That is a very reasonable pro-Olajuwon argument. In terms of Magic versus Olajuwon, I could see Magic winning in a wider variety of circumstances than Olajuwon. Magic played multiple positions and filled multiple roles. Regarding Baylor versus Olajuwon, I cannot hold Baylor's lack of a championship against him considering the opposition he faced and how well he performed. It is not fair to Baylor to allude to the 1972 championship as if it is a mark against his legacy; by that time, injuries had reduced him to a shell of his former self, so while it is true that the 1972 Lakers performed better with a mobile McMillian at small forward that is not an indictment of Baylor in his prime.

There might be 15 legitimate candidates for a top 10 list and there might be only a few consensus choices. I would have assumed that Magic would be a consensus choice but he did not make your list. I would assume that Jordan would be a consensus choice but there are probably a few people out there who disagree. Comparing players from different eras is inherently subjective to some extent. The same thing holds true in tennis. I know how Nadal looks against Federer because I have watched them play. I have some thoughts about how Borg would look against Nadal or Federer but it is not really possible to prove my thoughts right or wrong.

 
At Monday, June 08, 2015 2:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea, don't really understand the positional requirements you initially made. If the top 10 players of all time are centers, for example, then so be it. And if you initially limited it to 10 players, then shouldn't it be the same now as well? Should still be 10 players.

For all the players in nba history, there's certainly more than 10 decent choices for top 10, but only 10 can fit top 10, so you have to win at least one title, and most likely at least 2-3 minimum. All the choices for mythical top 10 have had several very good choices to win multiple titles. Baylor and West for that matter had great casts around them, including having Wilt for some years. Even with BOS having a monopoly on the nba for some time, if they truly belong in the elite elite, then they needed to win a few more or even one for Baylor. While it might be slightly unfair to blame Baylor for no titles, I also don't think it's that much of a coincidence that the Lakers win the year he retires.

Hakeem has a slight case for top 10. I'd definitely take him over West/Baylor. No other player was even close to as small as West or as unathletic(other than Bird) as him on any mythical top 10 list. Hakeem might've been better, but Shaq still had a great finals in 95. Magic vs. Hakeem is interesting, though. I'd definitely take Magic, but he had great teams around him, but so did Jordan, Russell, and many more. Never been high on Russell. He was great for his era, sure. He would still be a good player today, but great or even elite? I doubt it. Anthony Davis already looks better than Russell ever was, but he won't be playing with 5-6 HOFers at any given time either. Russell is the only player on any top 10 list that not only wasn't an elite offensive player, but not even close to a great offensive player.

Tennis is actually a lot different, though matchups like basketball mean a lot. One player could have another player's #, but that doesn't necessarily mean that player is better. Plus, playing surface changes from tourney to tourney and even year to year and is a huge factor, among many other things.

 
At Tuesday, June 09, 2015 3:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Marcel

Nick and David top ten all time is this



Jordan
Bird
Magic
Russell
Wilt
Robertson
Kobe
Lebron
Kareem
Shaq



Baylor oljuwan isiah Thomas jerry west petit or Karl Malone my next five.

The top ten are mvp finals mvp and all dominant players who won a title. This is a no brainer

 
At Tuesday, June 09, 2015 2:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Marcel-

Your list has a disturbing lack of Tim Duncan (3 Finals MVPs), He's got more than Kobe, Lebron, Kareem, Robertson (who has zero, incidentally), West, or Bird, and the same number as Magic, Wilt, and Shaq. He's got more rings than everybody but Russell, and in a much more competitive era with comparatively weaker support.

Olajuwon, incidentally, also has more Finals MVPs than Robertson or West, and the same number as Kareem, Bird, and Kobe.

Julius Erving also somehow didn't make your list; he's got two.

 
At Tuesday, June 09, 2015 8:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I guess you're right about Baylor's state in 1972, but I still think "won a title" is a qualifier for top tier status, regardless of level of competition. The Celtics were monsters but not unbeatable- both Philly and St Louis beat them, and Baylor got close enough that it was clearly possible a few times, too.

The Magic/Hakeem debate is an interesting one, but I totally disagree that Magic could thrive on more teams. I think that Hakeem could defend in any system- while Magic needed to be a little protected- and Hakeem made the Finals as the best player on two teams running completely different offensive systems. He could play on a perimeter oriented team as the post fulcrum, and he also worked well beside interior players like Sampson, Barkley, and Thorpe. I have a hard time thinking of a system he couldn't play in; he was faster than any other Center, he could guard both front court positions while still protecting the rim, and he had 20 ft of a range and a way above average passing game.

Magic, for all his prodigious talents, was at his best on an uptempo team. He'd see his effectiveness reduced somewhat on a grind-it-out Thibs style team that plays in the half-court, and he'd struggle to execute defensively without judicious cross-matching by his coach and a decent rim protector cleaning up after him when speedier players burned him.

Don't get me wrong, Magic is probably the best or second best (behind Oscar, if you wanted to make that argument) PG ever, but if we're picking teams to play for my life, and the best two guys on the board are Hakeem and Magic, I'm taking Hakeem and I'm probably winning. He's a guaranteed great defense and 22/12/4 on the other end.

 
At Tuesday, June 09, 2015 8:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

PS: I'm not sure Magic's not in my top ten, I just know he's below Hakeem if he is in it. Like you said, narrowing to ten is difficult; my pantheon is about 15ish guys, personally.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 10:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The point of my tennis analogy is that in both tennis and basketball it is much more difficult to compare players from different eras than it is to compare players who played against each other.

I did not make a hard and fast positional requirement when I made the Pantheon list. I was just explaining some reasons to include the players I did as opposed to including Olajuwon. A valid case can be made for Olajuwon but I would still stick with my list.

The NBA has selected several All-Time teams and the number of players has varied. The 25th Anniversary team (1970) had 10 players, the 35th Anniversary team (1980) had 11 players and then for the 50th anniversary the NBA selected a list of 50 greatest players. The selection processes varied. So, I think that my Pantheon made sense at the time I created it but that does not mean that the next time I do a Pantheon it will only have 10 players or only feature retired players. I wanted to honor and recognize the retired greats at that time while also providing some thoughts about how to compare players from different generations. I also wanted to provide some thoughts about Shaq, Duncan, Kobe and LeBron even though those players were still writing their stories (and, except for Shaq, they all won at least one more championship after I wrote those articles).

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 10:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

As Nick noted, Duncan deserves consideration if you are including active players. Erving also belongs on the list.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 10:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Baylor was the originator of hang time, at least at the NBA level, and he was a tremendous scorer-rebounder-passer. The Philly team that beat Boston may be the best single season team in NBA history. Russell was hurt during the latter part of the St. Louis series or that outcome may have been different.

Baylor played extremely well in the Finals, so I don't hold the team outcome against him. If he were playing today he would be right up there with LeBron and he would be clearly better than every other player in the league.

Magic could play all five positions. Olajuwon was a back to the basket player for the most part. Yes, he was mobile and he had a solid jump shot but he was primarily a post-up player. You could give Magic basically any four decent teammates and he would turn that group into a very good team. Olajuwon needed a point guard to get him the ball and he did his best work when he was surrounded by good three point shooters. There is nothing wrong with that but he was not as versatile as Magic.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 12:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Hmm. I guess we're hitting out usual disagreement here, where I'm looking at offense and defense as equal factors- perhaps wrongly, there's an argument against it- while you're emphasizing offense. I agree that you put Magic with any four guys and you have a good offense, but he needs a strong defense around him at least as much as Hakeem needs somebody to pass him the ball. Hakeem, more than most centers, could also work off the dribble a bit, so he could get a shot even if he got the ball at 15-18 feet. By the same logic, Hakeem and any four guys is a good defense. Additionally, similar to a point you once made about Russell Westbrook, if no one was passing Hakeem the ball he'd simply go get the offensive rebound and get himself the ball.

I don't disagree that Baylor was great, but I also don't see anything on his resume that says to me "better than Hakeem." I'd absolutely have Baylor in my top 20, but it's difficult for me to take a guy who was only maybe the best player on his own team over a two-time Finals MVP and transcendent defensive player- a case could be made that he's the best all-time on that front- who put up over a decade of 20/10s. If the argument is a positional one, I suppose that's fine, but i think it's odd to factor positions into the makeup of your top-ten; it should be the ten best players, not the three or four best players at each position.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 4:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about Magic playing all 5 positions. I think this is a greatly exaggerated myth about him, since he started at C in a finals game and was supposedly the C for 2-3 minutes, while still performing his normal PG duties. And is this offensively or defensively? Steve Nash was 100% a PG offensively for his entire career. However, he often played SG or SF defensively, guarding whoever was the worst offensive player on the opposing team. At 6-9, Magic couldn't guard quick guards or big, bruising centers in the slightest. He probably wasn't a bad defender, but certainly not a great one either.

Magic was a great all-around offensive player, and playing PG at 6-9 makes his team always biggest the team on the court, and much harder for the opposition to play defense. I don't really know about any four decent players necessarily, though probably true. Magic always had a great cast, so we don't really know about that.

If we're breaking down players strengths/weaknesses like you usually do, Hakeem certainly beats out Magic, though. While Magic is probably better offensively, Hakeem has a case to be better, and is at least close. Defensively, Hakeem is much better, and a bigger, more durable player as well. I don't entirely agree with this line of thinking, though. As we've seen throughout nba history, individual offense is much more important than individual defense, which is one big reason why almost nobody would choose Hakeem over Magic.

There's no way Baylor should be ahead of Hakeem, though. No rings, and he had his chances. He had a much shorter career as well, a bad defender, and a bad shooter. Hakeem had an interesting career, though. Almost never does a team not try very hard to build around a superstar. His HOU teams were so up and down over his career, very mediocre or slightly better than mediocre often. In 87, the year after they lost in the finals, they only win 42 games, do a good job to make 2nd round, but then lose to a 39-win team. A lot of underachieving, but he cashed in when given the chance.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 8:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcel

David and nick. If I put Tim Duncan in. Who do I take out? OK I'll take out the big o. But too me that the top eleven players. There could be no argument made for doc j or Baylor west or anyone else. None of them are better than the 11 I named. Doc j was not a winner he choked 4 time in the finals. Jerry west and Baylor 1 title in 9 tries. Rick Barry is in my top 25 not close to top ten tho. Isiah Thomas would be twelve for me three finals app two ring . I feel top ten have to be MVP NBA champion all NBA def and off. And been best player on a title team. Dr j and jerry west was not best player on title teams. Moses and wilt was those years.

 
At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 9:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Dr. J was the best player on two of his three title teams, actually. You could make a case for the third, though I personally wouldn't. He also fits all your other qualifications. At any rate, his performance in '76 is arguably the best six game stretch of basketball a human being has ever played, as he led the ABA Finals in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, steals, (and maybe FG%? I don't recall off hand) while dismantling what was basically an All-Star team and being guarded by one of the five best defensive forwards of all time. Not only does Doc belong on the list, there's a decently strong case to be made he belongs on the top of it.

As for his Finals losses, worth noting that the '80 and '82 losses he was playing against a team (or teams) with Magic, Kareem, Cooper, Nixon, McAdoo, and Wilkes. His supporting cast- while good- didn't have anyone on the level of Magic or Kareem, and you could argue that Toney wasn't significantly better than Wilkes or Nixon (though I might not). Once he got a teammate at that level, they easily swept the Lakers the next year. If you're going to ignore the quality of teammates, then why didn't Jordan win every year of his career? He wasn't significantly better in '91 than '90, and Kobe was arguably worse in '09 than he was in '08. Teammates matter, so does level of competition. Titles matter, too, but I think once a guy has two or three of them, you can probably stop worrying too much about the specific number unless they're astronomical (Russell). If it's all that counts, than all the best players are Celtics and Robert Horry.

Oscar, incidentally, was never the best player on a title team. He was past his prime in '71, and Kareem was dominant. Still great, but by your definition, shouldn't be a top ten guy.

 
At Thursday, June 11, 2015 2:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcel

Nick and David. Dr j might have been better than I thought. But I don't believe he was as good as anyone I had on my list. Shaq wilt magic Russell Duncan was clearly more dominant and bigger. Bird routinely gave him the buisness. To the point dr j started a fight with Larry cause he out scored him 35 to 6. Kobe Jordan lebron to me was more accomplished. Mvp finals MVP rings all NBA teams all NBA def teams etc.

Dr j said he thought Kareem was the best ever. And I haven't heard anyone who played against him or watched him play say he was better than any of those guys I mentioned. Except you. I was born in mid eighties so I didn't see him play.

 
At Thursday, June 11, 2015 3:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Magic was not as bad of a defensive player as you are suggesting. For instance, in the 1982 NBA Finals, Pat Riley put Magic on Dr. J because Dr. J was killing the Lakers on the offensive boards and Magic did a very good job of limiting Dr. J's offensive rebounding. In contrast, even though Bird played small forward he rarely guarded Dr. J, Nique or other top small forwards.

The 1991 Lakers were not highly talented but Magic took them to the Finals. Olajuwon played for several teams that lost in the first round, so the evidence shows that he could not just carry any supporting cast. Also, if Jordan had not retired Olajuwon might not have won any rings at all. Olajuwon deserves credit for his skills and what he accomplished but to put him ahead of Baylor just based on ring count does not take into account the total context of their careers.

 
At Thursday, June 11, 2015 3:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Magic could play center at both ends of the court, depending on matchups. He obviously could play either guard position, I just cited an example of him guarding an elite small forward in the NBA Finals and he also could play power forward in some lineups as well.

The "underachieving" that you mentioned is a major strike against Olajuwon, particularly in comparison with Baylor, whose teams were perennial contenders due in no small part to Baylor's extraordinary scoring, rebounding and passing.

 
At Thursday, June 11, 2015 3:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

When Erving retired, he ranked third in regular season scoring and first in steals. His teams advanced to the "Final Four" 10 times in 16 years. As Nick mentioned, Doc's 1976 Finals performance may be the best six game stretch any basketball player has ever had and he did it against a great team with a great defensive forward.

In 1976, Pete Axthelm wrote an article laying out the case for Erving being the best basketball player of all-time. This was before Magic, Bird and Jordan but the article came after Russell, Wilt, Baylor, West, Kareem, Robertson, etc. Adolph Rupp also said that Erving was the best player he had ever seen.

Bird did not "routinely give him the business." Check out my article about their rivalry. The fight that you referenced happened when Doc was near the end of his career and Bird was in his absolute prime but for the first several years that they faced each other the battle was hotly contested both individually and collectively. It is also worth noting that Erving would guard Bird but Bird rarely guarded Erving.

 
At Friday, June 12, 2015 4:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose Magic could play center or any other position. I mean, if Mozgov can play PG last night(against Livingston) and do a good job, then Magic could play center, etc.

Hakeem didn't have West and Wilt to play with like Baylor did. Hakeem's overall size, athleticism, skills, longevity, and defense, and rings propel him past Baylor. It's a lot more than just rings. Baylor was great, but really hard to put him ahead of Hakeem.

Marcel, your order is a little strange, but a decent list. Lebron shouldn't be in top 10 yet. Duncan should be in there for Robertson or Russell. Dr. J. probably in there, too.

 
At Sunday, June 14, 2015 12:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Magic could legitimately play five positions and not just do so as a gimmick. His ballhandling and passing skills made him a natural point guard but he could play either guard position and either forward position without any trouble. While it is true that he probably could not play center in any matchup, he could play center against more than half of the teams in the NBA during his career. He could also play center in today's game, easily.

As I said, a good case can be made for Olajuwon but the many years in which his teams were mediocre also speaks against him being Top 10 dominant. Baylor is vastly underrated. If he were playing today with the skills he had in his prime then he would be neck and neck with LeBron for best player in the league honors. During his prime, he was among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding and assists. Baylor would fit in perfectly in today's game with the emphasis on versatile, all-around players. Today's perimeter defensive rules that don't allow handchecking would make Baylor virtually unguardable.

Wilt, West and Baylor did not play together in their primes. Wilt suffered a serious knee injury early in his Lakers career, Baylor had already suffered multiple knee injuries and even West, the healthiest of the trio, was not at his absolute best (though of course he had some great moments in the late 60s and early 70s and even performed at an MVP level at times).

 
At Sunday, June 14, 2015 1:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I disagree that Baylor would dominate today. He wasn't a good enough shooter for today's version of the game, and from what I've read (I've only seen maybe 10-15 Baylor games so the eye-test is less reliable) he wasn't in Lebron's league as a defender. Also, at 6'5 today he'd be playing the 2 more likely than the 3, where his shooting would be more of a liability.

His rebounding would be interesting at the guard position, though. In today's slower and bigger league he wouldn't still average 15 boards or whatever, but he'd probably outpace the Westbrook/Harden rebounding guard category.

He'd certainly be good, but I don't see too much in his skillset that would make him dominant today. Much of his advantage in his prime was that he was much more athletic than most of the league, but the league's gotten a lot more athletic since, and that advantage would be somewhat diminished. It's true he'd score more easily without the hand check rule, but smart teams would just pack the paint against him and let him whiff jumpers.

 
At Sunday, June 14, 2015 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

As for Magic/Hakeem I usually count rebounding as kinda its own thing more than I count it as defense, since it happens during loose ball, possession-less play, but if you categorize it as defense then yes, Magic was good at that. He wasn't good at guarding opposing guards (he tended to guard the other team's SF or be hidden on a non-scorer), and while he was heavy enough to post up, he wasn't athletic enough to be much of a rim protector. He wasn't a terrible defender by any means- he was willing and active and fairly smart- but he wasn't a very good one, either.

Comparing their teams' records strikes me as dubious, since Magic was perennially surrounded by All-Stars and Hakeem wasn't. Even Magic's '91 team had, you know, James Worthy, Vlade Divac, and AC Green, as well as Scott and Perkins. That's five good to great players beside Magic. When Hakeem had help, he was generally a title threat. Magic never played on a team (not counting his short aborted comeback) who's second best player wasn't at least as good as James freakin' Worthy, so while it's fair to ask why Hakeem didn't win more if he's so great, it's equally fair to ask if Magic would have done as well without Kareem, Worthy, and Cooper.

Ultimately, it depends whether you think defense and offense are of equal value. Hakeem's one of the best defensive players ever, and Magic's one of the best offensive players ever. For me, that roughly cancels out, but Hakeem's a top 30 all-time offensive player and Magic's not a top 150 all time defensive player. And while Magic was a good rebounder, Hakeem was a better one. I'm fine accepting the argument that offense matters more even if I don't agree with it, but if you- like me- think both sides of the ball are equally important then I think it's pretty tough to make much of a case for Magic over Hakeem.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2015 2:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't understand the handchecking comment. While that rule has changed, other rules have as well. Team defense is a thousand times better today than during Baylor's day. Team and individual scoring are both considerably down in today's game. There's absolutely no way Baylor could approach his scoring/rebounding averages in today's game. And Nick is actually right about Baylor likely playing SG and not SF. He wouldn't have anywhere near as much of an athletic advantage today as to when he played.

Nick's mostly right about Magic/Hakeem's player analysis, though I'd say Magic is better offensively than Hakeem was defensively. And individual offense remains much more important than individual defense(look none further than Baylor-who's prowess has nothing to do with defense or Bruce Bowen who was a big-time defender, and will never be mentioned amongst the greats, and rightfully so). A great offensive player can carry a team, but you can't carry a team being a great defensive player. Hakeem was bigger and more athletic, though. But, Magic's offensive talent and leadership amongst other things put him ahead of Hakeem. Magic had better teammates, but his teams still shined. While Hakeem probably shouldn't be blamed for not winning more titles, he should've gotten more out of his teams. They underachieved too often. He had a great run in 95, maybe greatest ever, but why were they the 6 seed to begin with? On paper, they look better than any other team in the league that year. And on paper, Hakeem looks better than Magic, but the games aren't played on paper.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2015 8:15:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

The '95 Rockets were a much better team after the midseason trade that brought them Clyde Drexler; before that trade, Hakeem was struggling to single-handedly carry the team, explaining their low seeding.

I disagree that a great defensive player can't carry a team. Bowen is a great perimeter defender, but in terms of impact that has a fraction of the value of a Bill Russell/Hakeem Olajuwon/Tim Duncan in the middle. Guys like that affect forty or fifty shots over the course of a game, to say nothing of the drives/shots that aren't attempted because of their very presence, which is more than any offensive player besides maybe Melo or Westbrook is likely to take.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2015 9:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

95 HOU was actually 17-18 with Drexler, 30-17 without him, so no, HOU was definitely not much better after getting Drexler. Especially with Drexler coming over midseason, there's no excuse for HOU finishing that low that year, especially coming off of a title the previous year.

Disagree about Bowen, and defenders being able to take over a game. Bowen was as good of a man defender for several years as we've ever seen. Guys like Duncan/Hakeem can't do anything about guarding smalls. Especially given the rules today, a great perimeter defender is a higher commodity than a great interior defender. If the perimeter defenders are sieves, letting their men do whatever they want, a great interior defender won't be able to do a thing, much like DAL this year. There's very few 7 footers that aren't going to be altering/blocking shots on a routine basis as well. Kwame Brown was a below-average NBA player, but he played good defense, but he didn't even approach taking over games defensively, neither do Noah, Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, etc, who are/were all considered elite defenders currently or in the past. Duncan/Hakeem are great mainly because they were great offensive players. Add on that they played very good defense, that's a huge bonus, but they didn't take over complete games especially on a routine basis based on defense alone. Russell had a great coach plus 5-6 HOFers to play with. He could barely hit a shot to save his life. His teams were stacked, and we're never seen or claimed someone to be an all-time great since him that was a great defender, but a fairly pedestrian offensive player, certainly not even close to elite offensively.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 11:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

It is hard to prove how well a player from one era would do in another era but I believe that the skill sets of great players would transfer well. Some people would say that Cousy is too small to succeed today but why wouldn't he do well playing against Nash, Curry and other small guards who benefit from today's rules (and today's improved workout regimens, sports medicine, etc.). So we will have to agree to disagree about how dominant Baylor would be today.

I don't think that every player comparison can be broken down as simply as saying that X is better than Y on offense but Y is better than X on defense. Do you think that from circa 1985 to circa 1991 when their careers overlapped that many GMs or coaches would have taken Olajuwon over Magic? Olajuwon was dominant in two Finals runs and deserves credit for that but his reign at the top (as arguably the best player in the league) was relatively brief, while Magic was in that conversation for roughly a decade.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 12:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The point of my reference to the handchecking rule is that Baylor--whether he played forward, shooting guard or both in today's game--would likely have spent a lot of time facing up and attacking the basket from the perimeter because that was the strength of his offensive game. Today's rules do not permit defenders to touch perimeter players who are facing the hoop and that would greatly favor Baylor just like it favors Stephen Curry and today's great perimeter scorers. Yes, today's pace is slower than the 1960s pace but in the 1960s you could also handcheck players and even slam them to the floor. Throwing a punch did not guarantee ejection. Today's superstars who flop and complain and whine would struggle to adapt to the 1960s style, while players from the 1960s would love to play in today's wide open game. Teams that would try to double team Baylor would fall prey to his deft passing to open three point shooters. I could see Baylor being like LeBron in today's game for that reason. Rebounding also translates well. Baylor might not average 16 or 18 rpg but he would average 10-12 rpg in today's game and rank among the league leaders just like he did in his era. Baylor's athletic ability and knowledge of the game far exceed that of most of today's players.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 2:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never agreed with today's players not being able to adjust to 1960s/1970s play. It's just a different NBA today. If they started in the nba in 1965, they would be fine. Today's players are much bigger and much more athletic than 50 years ago overall. They would actually punish those past players more than vice versa with their increased physicality. The nba has slowly cleaned up the game throughout the years, which is a good thing, it's not that the players are suddenly softer, though the style/rules of the game would affect that as well. It's silly to say today's players couldn't handle a more physical game.

Come on, Baylor wouldn't even approach 10-12 reb/game. A 6-5 guy isn't going to be amongst the league leaders in rebounding. Look at James, who is a very good rebounder, but not great, for his size. He's averaged 6.5rpg for his career, never higher than 7.6rpg for a season, and was at 6.0rpg this past season. Baylor might've been a better rebounder than James for his size, but he's 3 inches shorter than James and would be playing SG probably, while James plays SF/PF, which means Baylor would be farther away from the basket if he played today and compared to James, which means fewer rebounds. Possibly 7-8rbp for Baylor today, but even that's stretching it some.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 6:04:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I actually do think most coaches during the peak Olajuwon/Magic years would have taken Olajuwon- or at least most good coaches. You've said it yourself so many times, that perimeter players struggle to have the same impact as post players. While Magic is absolutely a dominant offensive force, he's only mildly more dominant on that end than Hakeem (who bent defenses and created a lot of open looks for his teammates; many of today's most successful teams are built on the 90s Rockets blueprint of 1-in-4-out), while Magic was an average-ish (or worse) defensive player and Hakeem was a total game changer. I think it's easier to find a player who can carry an offense than one who can carry a defense, and it's CERTAINLY more difficult to find a player who can carry both. Magic was more-or-less a one way player (plus admittedly stellar defensive rebounding), whereas Hakeem was a top ten player on both sides of the ball for over ten years.

Perimeter guys like Doc or Jordan who were also top 10 (or at least top 15) on the defensive side of the ball can make a case against the Duncans/Hakeems/Kareems of the world, but for my money guys like Magic can't. As great as Magic's rep is, his teams led the league in offense 7 times in 12 years. That's awesome. But so did Steve Nash (who was actually a *better* offensive player than Magic thanks to his superhuman shooting and ability to space the floor) and nobody in their right mind would take Nash over Hakeem. Magic's obviously better than Nash thanks to his rebounding and less embarrassing D, but are we really saying that if Steve Nash grabbed five more rebounds per game and was an average level defender he'd be in the GOAT conversation? No. To be in the GOAT conversation, you have to be awesome on both sides, not just acceptable on one of them. Hakeem is, Magic isn't- at least in my opinion. It's the same reason that for all his titles, I struggle to put Russell on the same level as the Doc/Jordan/Duncan/Kareem club; he only dominated one way, no matter how much he dominated that way (also, the league was friggin' weird in the 60s and his team was super stacked).

Finally, I have to go back to support. The Lakers were the fifth best offense in the league the season BEFORE they got Magic. That team was a playoff team without him. Hakeem's All-Star support during his career: Ralph Sampson (4x), Otis Thorpe (1x), Drexler (2x), Barkley (1x). On average, he had one All-Star teammate about every other season (also, Thorpe stunk, Drexler and Barkley were post-prime, and Sampson was often injured). Magic had: Kareem (10x), Worthy (7x), Wilkes (2x), Nixon (1x), Green (1x). He averaged almost two All-Star teammates per season, including a contender for best player of All-Time for 10 freakin' seasons. Comparing their records is ludicrous; Hakeem's best helper (either '95 Drexler or '86 Sampson) wouldn't have even been the third best guy on some of Magic's teams. If you prefer All-NBA, Magic's got 7 (4 1st teamers), Hakeem's got 2 (no first teamers). All Defense? Magic's got 12 (7 1st team), Hakeem's got... 3 (2 1st team), and none during his peak years. No great player can do it alone; Hakeem missed the playoffs only once in his prime; considering the flotsam he was saddled with from the mid 80s till the mid 90s, that's a credit, not a criticism. Most of Magic's teams would have made the playoffs without him (although they'd have won less once they got there). None of Hakeem's teams would have.

Hakeem scored more, rebounded more, played longer, and dominated on both ends. Magic guarantees you a great offense, no question. But Hakeem guarantees you a great defense, and a very good offense. For me that's a no brainer.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2015 4:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop Nick, with your "Nash is a better offensive player than Magic" stuff. And yes, if Nash averaged 5 more rpg and played average defense, he probably would have at least one ring. Magic might've had better teams than Nash, but Nash had lots of great chances, and played with multiple AS for most of his career. He also wasn't even a legit #2 until he was 28-29. And Magic was the best player on his teams as well, and he excelled in the playoffs much more than Nash could ever dream of doing.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2015 7:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

My point was more that even if you give Nash Magic's rebounding and defense, he's still not a true GOAT contender, not that Nash was anywhere near as good as Magic. I have Nash around 40 all time and Magic around, like 9-12ish. Offensively both guys more or less guarantee you a top 5 offense (top 1 if you've got a decent offensive big for them to play with); Magic gets to the line more, Nash is a more efficient shooter and a better floor spacer. Both are top 5 all-time passers with similar turnover rates and it's more or less impossible to pick between them on that front. It doesn't actually matter which is better offensively (though obviously I have my opinion), but obviously Magic being a stellar rebounder and better (though still far from great) defender puts him well above Nash overall.

My real argument is that a guy who excels on one end of the court is never more valuable than a guy who excels on both, even if he's better on that one end. Hakeem is a massive asset on both sides of the ball, Magic is a transcendent one on one side. But if there's, for the sake of argument, 200 possessions during their court time per game... Hakeem's affecting all 200 of them, Magic's affecting 115 of them. I just don't see the math for an average perimeter defender who spends most of his time in most games (Doc series aside) hidden on the least threatening opposing wing player being as valuable as an elite big man, no matter how good he is on the other end.

 
At Thursday, June 18, 2015 11:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

There is often a tendency to say things like "Cousy wouldn't be a great player today because he was only 6-1" or, as you suggested, Baylor would not be a big-time rebounder in the modern era because he was only 6-5. Greatness transcends any era. Cousy was great at 6-1 in the 1950s, Isiah was great at 6-1 in the 1980s and guys like Iverson, Nash and Curry have been great in the 2000s. Regarding rebounding, Rodman put up huge rebounding numbers in the 1990s despite being only 6-6. Baylor had great athleticism, strength, timing and positioning. He would have been a great rebounder in any era.

 
At Thursday, June 18, 2015 12:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, I have noted in the past that size matters when evaluating great players. However, some players transcend size considerations and I think that Magic is one of them. For that matter, at 6-9 he was not even that much smaller than Olajuwon, who by some accounts was closer to 6-10 than 7-0.

 

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