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Friday, September 04, 2015

Why Julius Erving Belongs in the Greatest Player of All-Time Conversation--and Other Pantheon-Related Issues

Shaquille O'Neal has been criticized for his recent comment that Julius Erving should be included in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Talking heads on SiriusXM NBA Radio who by their own admission did not see Erving in his prime--and whose limited knowledge of Erving's career is derived from watching internet video clips--emphatically declared that Erving belongs no higher than 10th-20th on the all-time list. Bill Simmons, perhaps the most overrated NBA commentator of all-time, has made similar remarks about Erving prior to O'Neal jumping into the fray.

It has become increasingly clear that few people take a serious, objective approach when comparing the great players from various eras and that even fewer know enough about pre-1990 players to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation. Jeff Van Gundy is one of the best commentators about the modern game but--considering that he ranks James Harden above Jerry West--he is apparently uninformed about players from previous eras.

How should players from previous eras be compared to each other and to recent players? Is it necessary to have seen each player in person? Is it necessary to have played or coached at a certain level of the sport? Is it necessary (or even helpful) to rely on internet videos or "advanced basketball statistics" or selected quotes from teammates, opponents, coaches or other respected individuals?

There is not a definitive answer to the question of who is the greatest individual player in a team sport; for that matter, there is not even a definitive answer to the question of which individual single season team is the greatest team in a team sport (though a convincing case could be made that Bill Russell's Boston Celtics are the greatest dynasty in pro basketball history).

My approach when addressing such issues is to consider all available, relevant information, including firsthand knowledge from reputable sources, old video clips, statistics placed in historical and analytical context and quotes from insiders whose perspective seems intelligent and unbiased.

This is not just about numbers or seeing a player a handful of times or one quote from a respected Hall of Famer. It is important to look at skill set and impact. A player can average 20-plus ppg and not even be a great scorer, let alone a great all-around player. Michael Adams averaged 26.5 ppg for the Denver Nuggets in 1990-91 but that number was inflated by the run and gun system implemented by Coach Paul Westhead; Adams did not average more than 18.5 ppg in any other season of his 11 year NBA career and he finished with a respectable but unexceptional 14.7 ppg career scoring average. So, if one were to compare Adams' numbers to other guards one should take into account the context in which Adams posted those numbers; this does not necessitate implementing some kind of "advanced" calculation but it does require an awareness and understanding of basketball history.

I do not mean to pick on Adams or to suggest that anyone has vaulted Adams into the greatest player of all-time conversation; the point is that numbers--and videos and quotes and even firsthand observations--must be placed into relevant context in order to be meaningful. A video of a player's best (or worst) game should not be the basis of that player's all-time ranking, nor should a quote from a respected Hall of Famer who had a personal beef with that player, nor should a firsthand observation from someone who had a reason to place that player higher or lower than that player should be placed.

Nearly 10 years ago, I first described my basketball Pantheon. I subsequently expanded that two part series into a five part series. I refrained from ranking the 10 players within my Pantheon but I suggested that a plausible case for greatest of all-time status could be made for each player based on peak value and/or durability (defined not just as sticking around for a long time but rather being one of the top players in the game for at least a decade). I subsequently have been asked at various times to make the case for (or against) certain Pantheon players being the greatest player of all-time. Philosophically I still adhere to Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton's contention that the greatest of the great in any field should be appreciated in their own right and not set against each other--but since so many unqualified people are determined to weigh in on this subject I have decided to shed some light on how such comparisons should properly be done.

The 10 players in my original Pantheon, listed in chronological order, are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. My Pantheon only included retired players but the fifth Pantheon article looked at the careers of "The Modern Era's Finest" (as of 2008): Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. O'Neal subsequently retired, while Duncan, Bryant and James are not only still active but each won at least one championship since I finished my Pantheon series.

Here is a summary--yes, a summary, not a comprehensive examination, which would fill a book--of my take on the best case for and the best case against each of those 14 players for being considered the greatest basketball player of all-time (all statistical rankings include the ABA and the NBA where applicable).

Bill Russell

PRO: Greatest winner in North American professional team sports history. Led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Won championships in high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA. Revolutionized defense with his shotblocking in an era when it had previously been considered poor technique to leave one's feet on defense. One of the best passing centers of all-time, ranking in the top 10 in the NBA in assists four times. Won five regular season MVPs (tied for second all-time) and ranks second all-time in career regular season mpg (42.3) and career regular season rpg (22.5).

CON: Russell's listed measurements put him at roughly the same size as Larry Bird, so some critics question if Russell would even be a center in the modern era, let alone a dominant center (but Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace dominated the boards and were tremendous post defenders in recent times for championship teams despite being even smaller than Russell).

Russell's .440 career regular season field goal percentage looks atrocious by modern standards for a dominant center but it is important to place that number in context; he ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage four times with numbers ranging from .427 to .467, so in an era that featured a brutal travel schedule, no modern training techniques and no flagrant fouls Russell's shooting percentage was above average. However, it is true that Russell had a limited offensive repertoire; he thrived in the running game and he had a decent lefty hook shot but he was not a player who could be relied upon as a consistent back to the basket low post scoring threat. 

ANALYSIS: I have spoken with many old school players who contend that if Wilt Chamberlain had been blessed with Russell's teammates then Chamberlain would have won at least 11 championships but that if Russell had been saddled with Chamberlain's teammates (and with Chamberlain's rotating crew of coaches instead of working for Red Auerbach before serving as player-coach) then Russell might not have even captured the two titles that Chamberlain won. There is something to that argument, because when Chamberlain was asked to sacrifice his scoring and be a dominant defender every night he was willing and able to do so; it seems unlikely that Russell would have been able to score 40 or 50 ppg if his team had needed or asked him to do so. Chamberlain dominated Russell individually in their head to head battles but Russell's teams usually won. Russell has called Chamberlain his toughest opponent but Russell also made derogatory comments about being smarter or tougher than Chamberlain when it really counted.

If you believe that Russell's tenacity, defense and determination to do whatever it takes to win translate across eras then you can rank Russell as the greatest player of all-time despite his offensive limitations; if you believe that Russell is too small and too offensively limited to dominate in the modern era then you cannot rank him as the greatest player of all-time.

Elgin Baylor

PRO: First rate scorer, rebounder and passer who ranks third in career regular season scoring average (27.4 ppg) and 10th in career regular season rebounding average (13.5 rpg) and who finished in the top 10 in assists four times. Baylor possessed elite athletic skills and is the prototype for the modern small forward. During his first seven seasons before suffering a serious knee injury, Baylor posted the most dominant points/rebounds/assists numbers of any forward in pro basketball history. Only three pro basketball players averaged at least 24 ppg, 10 rpg and 4 apg overall during their first seven seasons: Baylor (30.2 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 4.3 apg), Abdul-Jabbar (30.0 ppg, 15.6 rpg, 4.4 apg) and Erving (26.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.5 apg). In five of his first seven seasons Baylor averaged at least 24 ppg, at least 10 rpg and at least 4 apg; Abdul-Jabbar reached those levels in six of his first seven seasons, Erving did so in four of his first seven seasons, Robertson accomplished this in three of his first seven seasons and no other player in pro basketball history did it more than twice.

CON: Injuries hampered the second half of Baylor's career. Baylor never won a championship despite playing most of his career alongside West, another greatest player of all-time candidate. Baylor was not an elite defensive player. The 1971-72 Lakers went on a record 33 game regular season winning streak right after Baylor retired early in that season, en route to posting a then-record 69 victories before capturing the championship that had eluded Baylor and West for so long. 

ANALYSIS: Baylor's body had broken down by 1971, so it is not fair to suggest that his retirement was the missing link to the Lakers' success. Baylor's peak value is as high as any other player's, but ultimately his lack of durability and his failure to win a championship make it difficult to rank him ahead of every player in pro basketball history.

Wilt Chamberlain

PRO: Most individually statistically dominant player in pro basketball history, ranking second in career regular season scoring average (30.1 ppg, in a virtual tie with Michael Jordan for first place), first in career regular season mpg average (45.8), first in career regular season rpg average (22.9 rpg) and first in total career regular season rebounds (23,924). The pro basketball record book could be renamed "The Wilt Chamberlain Story," as he still holds dozens of records--including the record for holding the most records. Chamberlain's records for single season scoring (50.4 ppg) and rebounding (27.2 rpg) will likely never be seriously approached, let alone broken. He led the league at least once in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and minutes played. Other than free throw shooting, he had no skill set weaknesses (Russell was also an awful free throw shooter, but this is often forgotten because Russell's teams won so many championships). Chamberlain was the key player on two of the most dominant teams in pro basketball history, the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers. When critics knocked his passing or his defense he responded by proving that he could be a great passer and a dominant defender.

CON: Some people would argue that Chamberlain cared more about his individual numbers than he did about winning. Chamberlain was very sensitive to criticism and it has been suggested that he reacted extremely to negative media coverage, sometimes not shooting the ball to prove how well he could pass or shooting the ball almost every time to prove that even late in his career he could still drop 50 or 60 points in a game. While Russell did whatever his team needed him to do to win, Chamberlain seemed focused on refuting his critics.

ANALYSIS: As noted above, Russell played for one franchise and two coaches. Russell's role was always clearly defined and he was always surrounded by multiple Hall of Famers. Chamberlain played for several coaches and several different franchises. When Chamberlain's coaches asked him to score, he set scoring records; when they asked him to shoot less and exert himself on defense, he dominated at that end of the court. It is easy to picture Chamberlain spending his whole career as a rebounder and defender if he had been asked to do so and it is also easy to picture him spending most of his career averaging 35-plus ppg if he had been asked to do that. Russell made the most of his individual talents and the opportunities that he had to win titles but Chamberlain had a more diverse skill set. Chamberlain was undoubtedly more talented and versatile than Russell. There is no "right" answer in the Chamberlain-Russell debate; a compelling case for greatest of all-time status can be made for either player.

Oscar Robertson

PRO: No skill set weaknesses. Invented the triple double before the term was even coined, averaging double figures in scoring, rebounding and assists overall for the first five seasons of his career, including 1961-62 when he became the first and only player to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg). Vital contributor for Milwaukee's 1971 championship team, helping a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar win his first pro title. Retired as the all-time leader in total assists (9887) and still ranks sixth in that category. Ranks ninth in career regular season scoring average (25.7 ppg) and fourth in career regular season apg average (9.5 apg).
CON: Did not win a championship during his prime when he was the best player on his team. Some would argue that he monopolized the ball at times and that he was too critical of his teammates, though there have been many other great players who kept the ball in their hands a lot and who had little patience with their teammates.

ANALYSIS: Inch for inch, pound for pound, Robertson is as good as any player who ever played. Robertson insists that he was as good--if not better than--Michael Jordan and the numbers that Robertson put up make that a reasonable assertion. Robertson had the necessary mental and physical attributes to excel in any era.

Jerry West

PRO: Incredible competitive drive. Perfect jump shot. Tenacious defender. Won a scoring title and an assists title, a feat only matched by Chamberlain and Nate Archibald. Only member of the losing team to win the Finals MVP. Ranks sixth in career regular season scoring average (27.0 ppg) and was the career playoff scoring leader when he retired (4457 points, currently ninth on the all-time list).

CON: His Lakers went 1-8 in the NBA Finals, including four game seven losses. West earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" because of his propensity for making big shots but it could be argued that if he is the greatest player of all-time then he should have made more out of all of those opportunities to win championships, particularly the four times that the title came down to one game.

ANALYSIS: West carried the Lakers to the 1965 Finals without the injured Baylor, averaging 40.6 ppg during the playoffs. He persevered through injuries to win the 1969 Finals MVP in defeat, posting 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists while playing all 48 minutes in a 108-106 game seven loss to Russell's Celtics. If you look at West's productivity it is almost obscene to suggest that he was a loser just because he only won one title. West was not LeBron James standing passively on the perimeter or getting outplayed by the likes of Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard. West's Lakers lost to Boston teams that were stacked with Hall of Famers and, in West's later years, to New York teams that were younger and also had several Hall of Famers. West had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court. The main legitimate argument against him is not so much that he only won one title but rather that he was barely 6-3 in a sport where size matters. West is the smallest Pantheon member and it is probably not coincidental that he battled injuries throughout his career.

For those who are too young to have seen West play and/or who have not thoroughly researched basketball history, it is important to categorically state that Van Gundy's preference for Harden over West is a crime against basketball sanity. Harden's greatest team accomplishment to date is being the third best player on a team that advanced to the NBA Finals once, while West carried several teams to the Finals and was the prime offensive threat on one of the sport's all-time single season juggernauts, the 69-13 1971-72 Lakers. Individually, Harden is a poor defender who has a very limited post up game and a very limited midrange game, while West had no individual skill set weaknesses.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

PRO: Durable and brilliant, combining Chamberlain's scoring prowess with Russell-esque presence in the paint defensively. His skyhook was the most unstoppable offensive weapon in basketball history. Broke Chamberlain's regular season career scoring record more than 30 years ago and still holds the crown now with 38,387 points. Also ranks third in career regular season blocked shots (3189) and fourth in career regular season rebounds (17,440). Won a record six regular season MVPs, plus six championships and two Finals MVPs (including one in 1985 at the age of 38). Finished third in MVP voting in 1969-70 as a rookie and fifth in MVP voting in 1985-86 at the age of 39. Key contributor in 1987-88 at age 40 for first team to win back to back championships since Russell's Celtics in 1969.

CON: Abdul-Jabbar developed a reputation for not playing hard all of the time and for not being as aggressive on the boards as he could have been, which brings to mind a sentiment that Ralph Wiley once expressed about baseball great Rickey Henderson: if he accomplished that much and he was not even trying hard then he must have been the greatest of all-time. Abdul-Jabbar averaged double figures in rebounding for the first 12 seasons of his career, ranking in the top 10 each year and winning one rebounding title, so the rebounding critique is not well founded.

ANALYSIS: Erving said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. It is likely that Erving would own two more NBA titles if not for Abdul-Jabbar's impact during the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals. Robertson did not win a title until he teamed up with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson would not likely have won all five of his titles without Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar's presence shaped Pantheon history (in terms of championships and MVPs won)--and pro basketball history--like no player other than perhaps Russell and Jordan. Abdul-Jabbar is probably the most underrated great player of all-time.

Julius Erving

PRO: All-around force of nature who carried a limited 1976 Nets team to the ABA's last championship by posting perhaps the most remarkable stat line ever in a playoff series, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) while shooting .590 from the field as the Nets beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the Finals. Erving is one of only four players in pro basketball history to win three straight regular season MVPs (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird). Critics say that Erving won those MVPs because the ABA was weaker than the NBA but most of the three-peat MVP winners accomplished this feat early in their careers and that factor is the relevant one, because if you just eliminate the first five years from any pro basketball player's career you will greatly impact his resume, as I noted in ABA Numbers Should Also Count:

No player's resume would emerge unscathed from such drastic revisions. Take away Michael Jordan's first five years and you erase one MVP, his two highest scoring seasons, his only Defensive Player of the Year award, two scoring titles, one steals title and his playoff single game scoring record of 63 points. Larry Bird would lose two of his three championships, one MVP, one NBA Finals MVP and his best single season totals in rebounds and steals. Magic Johnson would forfeit two of his five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, two steals titles, one assists title and his single season bests in rebounding and steals.

In 1981, Erving became the first non-center to win the NBA regular season MVP since Robertson (1964). Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83, guiding the team to four NBA Finals and one title. Moses Malone was the best player on that 1983 championship team, but during that season Erving made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting at 33 years old so he was hardly just along for the ride.

Erving retired as the regular season career steals leader (2272, currently seventh on the all-time list) and the third leading regular season career scorer (30,026 points, currently sixth on the all-time list). Erving was the first non-center to break the 30,000 point barrier and he scored at least 1000 points in each of his 16 seasons. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).

Erving is one of the most dominant and consistent Finals performers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 20 points in 10 of his 11 ABA Finals games, including his last seven. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 NBA Finals games, the second longest NBA Finals 20 point scoring streak at that time in league history behind Jerry West's 25 game streak. Erving now ranks fourth on that list behind Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Shaquille O'Neal but if those seven ABA games are included then Erving's 26 game streak trails only Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.

CON: Erving did not sustain the dominant performance level of his first five years throughout his entire career. When Erving arrived in Philadelphia, the management and coaching staff urged him to blend his talents with those of All-Stars George McGinnis and Doug Collins. Erving accepted first among equals status for several years as the Sixers came close to winning a title but never got quite over the hump. By the time Erving won an NBA championship, he was no longer the best player on the team. Based on the way that Erving lifted his game circa 1980-82 when the Sixers no longer asked Erving to sublimate his game to appease lesser players, it is reasonable to assume that Erving could have posted much better numbers from 1977-79 if that had been needed or wanted. The question is whether Erving should receive credit for being a good teammate or if he and his team would have been better served by operating with a different philosophy more in line with the way that Phil Jackson handled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in their respective primes.

ANALYSIS: Erving deferred to his teammates and coaches, particularly in the NBA, in a way that most other Pantheon members did not. Erving has been lauded as a great teammate and there is no doubt that--based on how he played in his first five years--he was willing and able to do more when called upon to do so. Should Erving have been more assertive with the coaching staff and management, a la Magic Johnson in 1981 or Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant at various stages of their careers? It is hard to fault Erving in light of all that he accomplished, though. His peak value is top shelf and his durability is impressive as well. If he had snagged one more NBA MVP and if the Sixers had captured the 1981 title (instead of blowing a 3-1 lead against eventual champion Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals) then Erving would likely be viewed differently by the casual fan and the uninformed commentator. However, based purely on the merits of what Erving accomplished a good case can be made that at his best he was better than anyone else.

Magic Johnson

PRO: Instant impact. All-around player. Underrated defender within team concept. Revitalized Abdul-Jabbar's career. Gave the impression that he could take the court with four guys he picked up off of the street and beat all comers. The media elevated Bird over Magic for the first several years of their careers, giving Bird the Rookie of the Year and three straight MVPs even though Magic took the early lead in championships won and was never surpassed by Bird in that category. In the end, Magic won five rings compared to Bird's three and he matched Bird's MVP total as well. Magic led the Lakers to back to back titles, a feat that had not been accomplished in nearly 20 years.

CON: Magic was not a great outside shooter, though he did become a great free throw shooter. Magic was not a great individual defender. Although Magic made a lot of lesser players look good, he was also blessed with the opportunity to play with greatest player of all-time candidate Abdul-Jabbar plus Hall of Famer/Top 50 player James Worthy, Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, All-Star Norm Nixon and many other very good players.

ANALYSIS: During the 1987 Finals, an exasperated Bird conceded that Magic was the best player he had ever seen. After that series, most people who ranked Bird ahead of Magic or who considered the two rivals to be equal started to realize that Magic had the edge. Bird inexplicably has the better reputation as a defender even though the Celtics routinely hid Bird against the weakest frontcourt player while Magic handled a variety of defensive assignments, including guarding Erving for portions of the 1982 Finals.

Larry Bird

PRO: Tremendous rebounder early in career. Opportunistic help defender. Clutch shooter. Deft passer. Transformed Celtics from 29 win team to 61 win team in rookie year. Won three straight MVPs in the mid-1980s, beating out several greatest player of all-time candidates plus a host of other very talented players.

CON: Bird was a subpar individual defender. Bird had little chance of effectively guarding elite small forwards or power forwards, so Kevin McHale always handled the toughest defensive assignment. If Bird had not played alongside McHale and Robert Parish then his defensive liabilities would have been exposed. Bird was also not a great shooter early in his playoff career. His poor shooting cost him the 1981 Finals MVP and he shot better than .500 from the field just three times in 12 postseason appearances, while shooting .427 or worse on three occasions (Erving shot better than .500 from the field in seven of his 16 postseason appearances, he had two more appearances in which he shot at least .488 from the field and he never shot worse than .471, which is nearly as good as Bird's career playoff field goal percentage of .472).

ANALYSIS: Bird was a tremendous player but there was clearly a "great white hope" aspect to some of the praise he received. The media elevated him above Magic until there was no way to justify doing so and the media gave Bird the 1984 MVP when the consensus among the league's players was that Bernard King deserved that honor (King won the 1984 Sporting News NBA MVP, selected by the players). Jack McCallum's March 3, 1986 Sports Illustrated paean about Bird is typical of the way that media members raved about Bird at that time but it is interesting to read McCallum's piece carefully and consider how some of Bird's actions would be viewed if another player had done them. Here is McCallum describing Bird's attitude and focus:

"I think Larry gets bored out there sometimes," says teammate Danny Ainge. "I notice that he passes up these incredibly easy shots, and you can sense him thinking, 'Well, why don't I drive down the lane, get a few guys on me and see what happens?'" Bird confirms that. "It happens. I do get bored. Then I look for a way to make it interesting," he says...

Bird does take--and miss--many low-percentage shots, horrible shots that would earn a lesser player pine time. But that is part of his game, part of his aura. He is constantly communicating the idea that he can do anything out there, and indeed, some of his off-balance uglies go in. "I'm like a gymnast," says Bird. "I'm into degree of difficulty."

Substitute Kobe Bryant's name for Bird's in that quote and imagine the negative outcry that would ensue. Why is taking low percentage shots "part of his game, part of his aura" for Bird but some kind of crime against basketball humanity for Bryant?

There is another interesting Bird-Bryant comparison. After Bryant set the Madison Square Garden scoring record with 61 points the critics howled that Bryant is a selfish gunner, even though Bryant shot a crisp 19-31 from the field in just 37 minutes while playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. Bryant did not deviate from the game plan or take crazy shots; he set the record within the flow of the game. Contrast that approach with what Bird used to do; he would find out what the scoring record was in a given arena and try to break it, including his career-high 60 point game in Atlanta when the Celtics--with the win well in hand--kept fouling the Hawks to get more possessions so Bird could pad his scoring total. There are some media members whose heads would explode if Bryant pulled a stunt like that, but when Bird did it this supposedly showed his great competitive spirit.

The bottom line is that Magic beat--and outplayed--Bird in the 1979 NCAA Championship and won the 1980 Finals MVP as a rookie yet it took seven years before the consensus view was that Magic was the better player. Magic was always a pass first player and a winner, while Bird cared a lot more about scoring records and statistics than many people want to admit or remember. Even if one bought the hype that as of 1984-86 Bird was the greatest player of all-time (a questionable proposition in any event), it is evident that Magic surpassed Bird and also evident that Jordan subsequently surpassed Magic, making it difficult to now suggest that Bird is the greatest player of all-time.

Michael Jordan

PRO: Relentless scorer who could also effectively play point guard at times. First rate defender both individually and within team concept. Led the Chicago Bulls to two three-peat championship runs interrupted by a retirement to play pro baseball. Jordan had no skill set weaknesses and was one of the most explosive athletes ever to play the sport. Won five regular season MVPs (tied for second all-time with Russell) and a record six Finals MVPs.

CON: Jordan never made it past the first round without Scottie Pippen. Few Pantheon members had the privilege of spending virtually their entire careers alongside a player as great as Pippen. Jordan did not show the capacity to singlehandedly carry a limited team in the playoffs like West in 1965 (40.6 ppg in the playoffs with LeRoy Ellis second on the team in playoff mpg) or Erving in 1976 (34.7 ppg in the playoffs). After Jordan's first retirement, the Bulls replaced him with Pete Myers, posted virtually the same regular season record and were one horrible Hue Hollins call away from making a serious title run with Pippen leading the team in virtually every statistical category.

ANALYSIS: Jordan became a legend in his own time thanks to a perfect confluence of his talents, his team's success, the growth of the NBA and some very deft crafting/marketing of his image. Jordan deserves credit for the work he put into mastering his craft but it is arguable that, given a similar confluence of events, Erving could have won as many championships and scoring titles as Jordan. It is also arguable that if Jordan had played in the center-dominated 1970s and 1980s he would not have won six championships or five regular season MVPs. Jordan is the default greatest player of all-time choice for many people and a great case can be made for him but it is important to realize that there were some great players before and after Jordan as well.

Shaquille O'Neal

PRO: The most physically dominant player of his era. When he was motivated and in shape he was unstoppable. Led the Magic to one Finals appearance, led the Lakers to four Finals appearances and three titles and helped the Heat win the franchise's first championship.

CON: O'Neal did not possess the work ethic or drive demonstrated by most other Pantheon members. His deficiencies in those areas caused a rift with Bryant, whose work ethic and drive are unsurpassed. O'Neal heavily relied on simply bulling over opponents and did not possess the polished offensive repertoires displayed by Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar. Despite his dominance he only won one regular season MVP.

ANALYSIS: O'Neal accomplished a lot but he left too much of his potential untapped to be considered the greatest player of all-time. He was not more statistically dominant than Chamberlain, he did not come close to winning as many titles as Russell and he was not as multifaceted or durable as Abdul-Jabbar. It is easy to say that Russell would have been way too small to guard O'Neal but during the 1990s the Bulls went extended stretches with Dennis Rodman guarding O'Neal; leverage, toughness and smarts are very important qualities and Russell possessed all three to an even greater extent than Rodman.

Tim Duncan

PRO: Duncan has been efficient and effective at both ends of the court throughout his career. Duncan is a low maintenance superstar who has never complained--at least publicly--about minutes or shot attempts or anything else. Duncan's defensive impact is underrated and has remained high even as he has accepted a smaller role on offense during the second half of his career.

CON: Duncan is not nearly as statistically dominant as most other Pantheon members; his career-high scoring average (25.5 ppg in 2001-02) is lower than the career scoring averages of several Pantheon members and in the past eight seasons he has not once averaged 20 ppg.

ANALYSIS: Duncan had a dominant stretch in the early to mid-2000s and his role on the last two San Antonio championship teams is underrated but it could at least be argued that he has not been the Spurs' best or most valuable player for eight years. An excellent case could be made that Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time (the best way to attack that premise is to argue that Duncan has actually been a de facto center for much of his career). Duncan is a model of all-around consistency and I would take him over any power forward (and most centers) but his peak value does not quite measure up with the peak values of some Pantheon members.

Kobe Bryant

PRO: Scoring machine with no skill set weaknesses. He was the second leading scorer and the primary playmaker on three championship teams before being the leading scorer and primary playmaker on the Lakers' back to back championship teams in 2009-10. Bryant has set a host of scoring records, he turned around USA Basketball after the squad had several dismal and embarrassing performances without him and at his peak he was both a lockdown defender and a tremendous help defender.

CON: Bryant's critics say that he shoots too much, is overrated defensively and has a personality that negatively affects his teammates. Somehow, despite all of these alleged deficiencies, Bryant has managed to be an All-NBA level performer for five championship teams and he has also carried some awful teams to the playoffs. The players who the media elevates as model teammates and leaders--such as Steve Nash and Chris Paul--have enjoyed far less individual and team success than Bryant, which is the ultimate refutation of Bryant's critics: whatever one might think of Bryant's methods, those methods have worked not only for Bryant personally but also for his many teammates who enjoyed career seasons (and won championships) playing alongside him.

ANALYSIS: Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan since Jordan retired--and that is no small accomplishment--but it is difficult to argue that Bryant is better than Jordan. Although Bryant is criticized for not making his teammates better, the reality is that there is a long list of players who performed much better with Bryant than they did during the rest of their careers, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker). LeBron James is considered the ultimate teammate, yet his teammates (including Chris Bosh and Kevin Love) have to sacrifice a lot to play with James, while Bryant's teammates enjoy greater individual and team success than they did prior to and/or after playing with Bryant.

LeBron James

PRO: James has Karl Malone's body combined with the skill set of a much smaller player. He is one of the most dominant scorers in pro basketball history (his 27.3 ppg career regular season scoring average ranks fourth all-time) and he is also an accomplished rebounder, passer and defender.
CON: For many years, defense, post up game and outside shot were three prominent weaknesses in James' game. He has become an excellent defender and a very good post up player. James' outside shot has improved as well but he is still prone to losing confidence and/or effectiveness from distance when the stakes are high. James has a perplexing and exasperating propensity to either disappear in big games or else put up superficially good numbers in those games without actually impacting the ultimate outcome. Some say that James quit in those games, while others suggest that when James is faced with a situation that he does not expect or understand he becomes passive and analytical while trying to figure things out; for instance, when the Spurs dared James to shoot from the outside in the NBA Finals James seemed perplexed and uncertain whether he should take those shots, drive anyway or pass the ball--but a player like Jordan or Bryant would have accepted that challenge and made the other team pay (not that teams were likely to blatantly concede open shots to Jordan or Bryant, which is another reason to not rank James ahead of either player).

ANALYSIS: James has exhibited impressive all-around statistical dominance but something seems to be missing, at least in terms of the greatest player of all-time discussion. James has been the best player in the league for several years and his teams have amassed tremendous regular season win totals but he has just a 2-4 record in the NBA Finals. Teams do not win 60-plus games by accident or purely based on the efforts of one player, so it is wrong to suggest that James has not had good supporting casts. James' teams have been good enough to post the best record in the NBA and to repeatedly advance to the NBA Finals but once James arrives in the NBA Finals he has been outdone not only by legends (Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki) but also by players who are not even close to Pantheon status, including Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala and even Jason Terry, who killed James in the clutch in the 2011 Finals. Most Pantheon members have a better Finals winning percentage than James and when the other Pantheon members lost in the Finals it was usually to a team featuring one or more Pantheon level players. If Earth is putting together a team for a winner take all, one game showdown with aliens and the fate of humanity is on the line, I would feel nervous about picking James. Will he be passive or disinterested? He is seemingly in marvelous shape yet he comes up with leg cramps at the most inopportune moments in the NBA Finals; James is useless if he is standing passively on the perimeter or if he is sitting on the bench while the trainer massages his legs.

Of course, the LeBron James story still has a few unwritten chapters. He may add a couple more rings to his collection while continuing to fill up box scores. However, as things stand now it is difficult to rank him at the very top of the Pantheon because his failures have been too grand, too frequent and too inexplicable. In their primes, I would take Erving, Jordan and Bryant all day every day over James; this is not about numbers but about the way a player rises to the occasion and figures out what needs to be done. James would not have led the Nets to the 1976 title, he would not have led the Bulls to six titles in eight years and he would not have won back to back titles surrounded by Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant) and some role players. If James had been in those situations he would have complained about not having enough help and about being fatigued.

Concluding Thoughts and Observations about the Pantheon Level Players

There is a certain limited but reasonable calculus that can be made based on concurrent careers, namely that Magic was better than Bird and Jordan was better than Magic. Some would extend that logic to say that Bird was better than Erving but the record is not so clear about that since their primes did not coincide; Erving more than held his own against Bird individually and in terms of team success until Erving was 35 and Bird was at his absolute peak, so it is very doubtful that prime Bird would have had much success against prime Erving.

Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan since Jordan retired but Bryant does not have quite the midrange efficiency of Jordan. The "stat gurus" would elevate James over everyone but by the eye test it is hard to put James above Bryant, who did whatever it took to win and never made excuses.

Chamberlain versus Russell is the rivalry that launched many books and is still the defining individual battle in the sport's history. When I was younger and before I began covering the NBA professionally, I leaned toward Chamberlain. Now I vacillate, alternately valuing Chamberlain's statistical dominance and Russell's intelligence, athleticism, defense and tenacity. I cannot definitively say that Russell  is the greatest player of all-time but in a seven game series with my life at stake I would much rather have him on my side than on the opposing side.

Abdul-Jabbar has always been very underrated. If someone eventually comes up with "advanced basketball statistics" that truly capture every player's value accurately I would not be astounded if Abdul-Jabbar topped the all-time list.

So what is the takeaway from all of this? First and foremost, everything cannot be figured out in 140 characters or less; intelligent conversations about this subject necessarily involve more than a Twitter post or some off the cuff comments by an unprepared radio host who is filling time between commercials. Jordan is the popular choice now and he is not a bad choice but if you strip away the mythology and just look at skill sets and dominance then other players deserve to be in the conversation, too. Put Jordan in an era featuring Abdul-Jabbar on a legit squad and it is doubtful that Jordan racks up six titles in eight years. Put Erving in a later era and let him loose and he would be as good as anyone.

I just wish that people would spend more time examining context and nuance instead of just mindlessly and endlessly arguing in favor of "their guy," whoever that guy might be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 PM


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At Saturday, September 05, 2015 2:26:00 AM, Blogger Adam said...

This was a very entertaining read, as I've come to expect when I visit your blog. I know this has been discussed elsewhere, but I am curious as to your opinion regarding Bill Russell and his hall of fame teammates. Specifically, was he just blessed to be with hall of fame teammates, or did his play actually elevate many of them to great players? You've mentioned many times Gasol and his fairly sad playoff record before Kobe, so I'm curious how much of an impact Russell had on his teammates, relatively speaking. The one constant in Russell's basketball career seems to be winning championships at every level. Also, the fact that he was the friggin' coach of his own team and somehow won 2 championships doing that. In the list of things that will never happen again, that has to rank at least as high as Wilt's 100 point game, doesn't it?

At Saturday, September 05, 2015 11:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

One important distinction to make between Gasol and Russell's Hall of Fame teammates is that there was no chance that Gasol was going to make the Hall of Fame prior to playing with Kobe Bryant. Zero. Gasol had made one All-Star team and not won a single playoff game. Even factoring in his FIBA accomplishments, Gasol would not have made the cut. Now, with two NBA titles and multiple All-Star selections, Gasol will almost certainly be inducted. Playing with Bryant--being pushed to be excellent and winning championships along the way--transformed Gasol's career.

Regarding Russell's impact on his Hall of Fame teammates, none of them--except for John Havlicek (see below)--would likely have won any championships without Russell. Championships are a big boost to a Hall of Fame resume, so in that sense Russell helped all of his teammates. That said, most of his Hall of Fame teammates would likely have made the Hall of Fame even if they had not played with Russell.

Bob Cousy had already made four All-Star teams and won four straight assist titles prior to Russell joining the Celtics. Cousy won his first and only regular season MVP in Russell's rookie year and won four more assist titles playing with Russell. Cousy would certainly have made the Hall of Fame even if he had not teamed up with Russell.

Bill Sharman was a perennial All-Star and one of the best shooters in the league before teaming up with Russell. He would have made the Hall of Fame even if he had not played alongside Russell.

Sam Jones was one of the best guards--and top clutch players--of his era. He would have made the Hall of Fame even if he had not played with Russell.

Tommy Heinsohn was a great scorer and solid rebounder. He probably would have made the Hall of Fame without Russell but playing alongside Russell and winning championships boosted his resume above other players who posted similar statistics.

Frank Ramsey was the NBA's first sixth man. If he had not had so many talented teammates, he would have started and probably made multiple All-Star teams. His career would have looked a lot different if he had not played with Russell and the others but I think that he probably would have made the Hall of Fame either way.

John Havlicek is arguably one of the top 20-25 players in pro basketball history. He played a major role on two Boston championship teams after Russell retired. He was a lock as a Hall of Famer no matter who his teammates were.

K.C. Jones made the Hall of Fame as a defensive specialist/solid playmaker. If he had not played with Russell and won multiple championships then his career would probably have been overlooked by the Hall of Fame.

Clyde Lovellette made the All-Star team four times and won a championship prior to spending the last two years of his career as a role player for Boston's championship teams. He had already achieved Hall of Fame status before playing with Russell.

Tom Sanders, a top notch defender for Russell's championship teams, earned induction to the Hall of Fame as a contributor, not a player, so his Hall of Fame status does not really apply to the question you asked.

At Saturday, September 05, 2015 2:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Excellent, excellent article. Love it when you dig deep on stuff like this. My thoughts on a few of the players/ideas, and a feeble attempt to narrow it down, below:

"Bird inexplicably has the better reputation as a defender even though the Celtics routinely hid Bird against the weakest frontcourt player while Magic handled a variety of defensive assignments, including guarding Erving for portions of the 1982 Finals." This is true, but not quite the whole story of that Magic/Erving matchup. Nobody on LA could stay in front of Erving even a little, so the Lakers basically resorted to "just try and steer him towards Kareem and hope for the best." They gave Magic the assignment not because he could stop Erving, but because he could keep him off the boards- and because Magic had a hard time keeping up with Mo Cheeks. Still, Magic *was* the only guy who could kinda keep Erving off the offensive boards, and the Lakers probably lose that series if he doesn't. That said, Bird was a comparable rebounder and in the same system could have probably fulfilled the same role of "point him at Kareem and dive for the glass."

I don't think either Bird or Magic has a legitimate claim to "best ever" because I don't think either is elite defensively; by the same token, I take Russell off the list for his relatively unspectacular offense. I think Wilt and Shaq disqualify themselves on free throw shooting by a similar token; obviously these players are dominant, but it is difficult to take them over guys like Erving/Jordan/Duncan who have no similarly glaring weaknesses.

I think Bryant and James both suffer from being fresher in our memories; their warts- or perceived warts- are easier to remember than Magic losing track of anybody who could dribble or Bird being the last man down the court as a small forward. Still, I can't in good conscience put Bryant or James at the top, either. Bryant's critics are overly dramatic, but not entirely baseless, and James has been inconsistent too many times in too many big moments.

Baylor was not a great enough defender in my opinion (as you mentioned) to make the cut, and his lack of championship- whatever the context- is still a lack of a championship. He was also a limited jump shooter (although in the modern era were it matters more, he'd likely learn).

Oscar and Jerry are the hardest cuts for me, but the hard truth is that neither ever won a title as the no-question best player on their team. Jerry probably had the more complete skillset (better shooter and defender), but Oscar was a physical nightmare in a way Jerry wasn't, so picking between them is a Sophie's choice I won't make right now.

That leaves, for me, Jordan, Duncan, Erving, and Kareem alone at the top. I'm comfortable with a four-way tie, but forced to choose I'd put Erving and Duncan ahead of Jordan and Kareem on the basis that they both were able to win titles with atrocious supporting casts (in '76 and '03), while Kareem and Jordan never got it done without another pantheon- or near pantheon- level guy riding shotgun.

Between Erving and Duncan I'd take Erving by a hair; Duncan's free throw shooting was shaky when he was a dominant scorer, and by the time it shored up he wasn't able to control the game on offense at the same level. Duncan had more help, and one of the two greatest coaches ever, while Erving's '76 team was coached by Dog Moe.

Duncan was more dominant on defense, but Erving could more often be dominant both ways, and his '76 performance is untouchable in terms of peak value. Also, I hate the Spurs.

That all said, there are a few other guys I'd probably take above some of the lower-tier Pantheon guys above, or at least consider. I'm not sure that Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Rick Barry, Bob Pettit, or Moses Malone weren't better than Elgin Baylor, for instance.

At Saturday, September 05, 2015 2:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Addendum: Somehow forgot to put John Havlicek on my list of Pantheon potentials. Brainfart. I'd take Havlicek over Baylor in a heartbeat, on longevity and defensive value.

Addebdun 2: Forgot to mention Isiah Thomas as well. This game is hard.

At Saturday, September 05, 2015 2:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ugg. Addendume 3: Kevin Loughery, not Doug Moe. Teach me to post while sleepy.

At Sunday, September 06, 2015 3:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's 4 guys who have distinguished themselves above the others based on peak, lasting peak, longevity, offensively, defensively, rings, and accomplishments, and each have a case to be the greatest: Kobe, Jordan, Wilt, and Kareem. Kareem and Kobe have the most years at elite level and their peaks are phenomenal.

Have felt that Duncan was better than Shaq for awhile now, but not so sure. Shaq's at least equal with Duncan with # of elite years, and likely more, but he kills Duncan during those elite years for each, being so much more dominant, offensively and defensively. While he underachieved, he had the most dominant 3 year stretch in nba history.

Kobe is the only player in nba history with no weaknesses. But not only that, he excelled at every part of the game. James possibly could be put in this mix with no weaknesses but he doesn't excel in everything, and he has still holes in his game: mentally and perimeter shooting. Jordan was a bad long-range shooter. Also, whatever Kobe's role is, he could do it and excel at it. If his role was to be a Magic-type PG, he would do it and do it better than Magic, since he would be a more lethal scorer and a much better defender. Certain players need a specific system to thrive, like Nash. Jordan would also excel in any system, but Jordan was too worried about scoring, and couldn't fill a facilitator role, though he didn't ever have to because Pippen. While Kobe doesn't want to play facilitator over the long term, he could, though his teams have needed him to score more than anything else.

Concerning Russell, he only had to win 2 and then later 3 series for the title, never 4 series. He had arguably the greatest coach ever, had HOFers coming off the bench. The C's had a monopoly on the game. None of that would happen today. He was a glorified role player, greatest role player ever probably, but still a role player. Was a 3rd to 4th option on offense throughout his career. Terrible shooter despite playing in a very non-athletic and bad defensive era. I'm sure he could play together and possibly make an AS team or two, but would be far from a dominant player. He'd be an undersized center for sure. The fact that Wilt absolutely destroyed him individually should put the Wilt/Russell debate to bed. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Russell's teams/coaches were just ridiculously better than Wilt's, that's pretty much it. And Russell's teams barely beat Wilt's a lot of those times as well. For his era, sure, Russell was great, but that's all we can say for sure. Wilt's probably the most athletic player in nba history. He could fill any role asked for a big man, even led the league in assists one year. When he had to fill a Russell-type role, he did it much better, and led 2 of the greatest teams in nba history. Joakim Noah, who's far from being an elite player, reminds me most of Russell. He hustles, plays great defense, and is the garbage man on the team. Not a very good shooter but still better than Russell, and not that gifted offensively, but finds ways to score, and is a good passer.

The fact that Rodman and Ben Wallace are the examples used to compare Russell to, should clearly show why Russell really shouldn't be considered in the greatest discussion. Rodman was a headcase and fortunate to make the HOF and never the star of his team. He was never considered an elite player remotely. Wallace probably won't make the HOF. If he does, just barely. He was possibly considered elite for 1-2 seasons, and borderline best at that, and only because of his defense. Much like Russell, Wallace was an undersized center. He was best at help defense. And much like Russell, a great offensive center would kill him man-to-man. Wallace needed a lot of help to even slow Shaq and wasn't much of a match for him. Russell is the only player on the imaginary best-player list who wasn't an elite offensive player, and not even close at that.

At Monday, September 07, 2015 3:10:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Kobe Bryant career 3pt percentage: .333
Michael Jordan career 3pt percentage: .327

So... .007 is the difference between "bad long range shooter" and "no skill set weaknesses"?

At Monday, September 07, 2015 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...


Fair point. Also fair to note that Jordan's 3-point % is skewed as he enjoyed three seasons with the 3-point line closer. 22-feet is the same as the corners. That's a huge advantage--as every coach and GM (save Byron Scott) understands the benefits of taking and making the shorter, easier, corner 3. I mean, that's Bryant's regular jump shot distance. This is an example of where the eye-test trumps the stats.

Still, despite being a Lakers fan, hard to consider Bryant over Jordan, though Anonymous presents as solid and compelling a case as possible. Elite longevity is the main thing Bryant has over him, and in many ways, it's equally impressive. I also agree that in a vacuum, Bryant was more skilled than Jordan (it's the nature of evolution). But Jordan's resume is just that much better. In the GOAT convo, Bryant can't be ranked ahead of MJ. I think even Kobe has come to peace with that reality.

Where I very much disagree with Anonymous is on how he values Rodman, and to a lesser extent Ben Wallace (4-time Defensive Player of the Year is nothing to sneeze at). Rodman could be considered a top-5 defender of all time based off of versatility and his uncanny ability to rebound. As a team defender he was second to none--capable of bothering Shaq, Robinson, Duncan. He was also a terrific man defender pestering Magic, Larry, Malone, Jordan (in the playoffs and finals no less). It's no coincidence that teams that had Rodman were elite defensive teams. One could make a case for his HOF induction based solely on his rebounding, but add in his defense and his ring count, and his induction into the HOF is without question.

Anonymous is right about Russell as GOAT though. While Rodman was a surefire HOFer, he's not remotely near the GOAT conversation. In fact, Russell would have been Rodman without the wedding dresses and colored hair. He'd have made the Hall in any era. But he had too many glaring skillset weaknesses (rudimentary offense, terrible freethrow shooter) to be GOAT. Ring count be damned.

Great, informative article David, as always. Thank you!

At Monday, September 07, 2015 1:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


I agree that Kobe's best argument is longevity, but even there he loses out to Kareem and Duncan. I don't agree that he was necessarily more "skilled' than Jordan, though I suppose that's a fairly nebulous term... but Jordan's career numbers beat Kobe's in almost every category (except, as mentioned, 3pt FG%). Jordan's FG% advantage is much more impressive than it looks on paper, too, when you realize that Kobe's played about a decade of his career with the hand check rule giving him much easier access to the rim than Jordan ever got (as an aside, that rule is another reason I think Doc's crazy underrated; guy got mugged on the way to the rim in his day, today he could probably shoot 60% if he wanted to). Jordan's got better career assist numbers- despite never passing to a Shaq or even Pau Gasol-type interior scorer- better rebounding numbers (though that may be at least partially function of pace), and better defensive numbers.

Kobe's still great, obviously, but for me there's an easy line to draw between the true GOAT contenders- IMO Doc/Jordan/Duncan/Kareem- and the second tier guys like Kobe, Lebron, and Wilt. Reasonable men can- and likely will- differ.

At Monday, September 07, 2015 5:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that when Pat Riley switched Magic on to Doc in the 1982 Finals the reason was primarily to limit Doc's offensive rebounding. Whether or not Bird "could" have done the same thing, the reality is that most of the time when Doc's 76ers played Bird's Celtics the Celtics put Maxwell or McHale on Doc, in addition to trying to funnel Doc to Parish. Doc did not always guard Bird but he guarded Bird more often and more effectively than Bird guarded Doc.

Russell, Wilt and Shaq were all poor free throw shooters, so the free throw shooting cancels out when comparing them. I think that Russell's basketball IQ, his passing skills and his leadership are underestimated by those who believe that he would not be great in today's game. His ability to defend modern centers at 6-9 is also underestimated. My point with the Rodman/Wallace comparison to Russell is that those guys are even smaller than Russell and were great defenders in the modern era. Russell had a higher basketball IQ and more skills than those players did and would thus be even more dominant defensively and more effective offensively.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Moses Malone and Scottie Pippen are outstanding players and I agree that one could make a case for each of them to be considered Pantheon players as well.

At Monday, September 07, 2015 6:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree Russell would be great today; I was only pointing out his flaws in pursuit of splitting the hairs between a top 10 player and a top 1 player.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 11:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Havlicek and Thomas are outstanding players as well. At some point, one has to make choices or the Pantheon becomes a bit unwieldy but I agree that solid cases could be made for the players you mentioned.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 11:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just looking at percentages tells you basically nothing, except FT %. You should know this by now. Jordan's 3 pt. % was also enhanced with 2 extra years at a shorter distance, which his % skyrocketed during those 3 years from 95-97. Jordan didn't take many 3's overall compared to Kobe, and only had 2 years above .312 from normal distance. There's a reason why he and everyone else was surprised when he hit 6 3's in 1st half vs. Portland in playoffs one year. Jordan's 3 pt. % drops to .288 if you take out 95-97. Given how up and down, mostly down, he was from 3 during his career, this seems about right, and that's a terrible %. Jordan was also not shooting anywhere near as many 3's as Kobe does at the end of shot clocks or at ends of games to try to keep his team close if there was even a remote chance of winning. I'm not saying Jordan would tank it in, but he wouldn't shoot these end of games like Kobe does. For example, if Lakers were down 10 with 1:30 left, you got to make up points quickly and in bunches, and the easiest way to do this is from 3. Also, defenders weren't closely guarding Jordan from 3 like they do with Kobe. Lots of variables to consider.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 11:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not saying Rodman or Wallace weren't great defenders, because they were. What I'm saying is that nobody considered them elite players for their careers, and only possibly Wallace was considered elite for 1-2 seasons. Neither would be trusted to lead their teams to titles. Maybe Wallace was best player on 04 Pistons, but that was an outlier year for a title team and Billups was the leader. Also, Rodman/Wallace were complete liabilities on offense. Again, Wallace couldn't guard Shaq by himself. And while Rodman had some limited success guarding guys like Shaq at times, he wasn't doing this over an entire game or series. Neither will be considered all-time greats, and both are fringe HOFers at best.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 11:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Nick, if you look at how the nba progressed from Jordan's era to Kobe's era, even with the hand-check rule, defenses have gotten much better and FG % have decreased. Jordan played in an offensive haven for much of his career for efficiency/volume. I often hear this, and just have to shake my head. While many think the nba was more rugged 'back in the day', and while there' some truth to this, the game is so physical today and players are much more athletic and bigger overall. Overall skills aren't going to decrease year-to-year. If it's actually easier to score today, then it should be happening.

Also, a huge factor in Jordan's shooting efficiency, which really isn't much better than Kobe, despite several other variables deterring Kobe, is that Jordan didn't have to be a facilitator since he had Pippen. Kobe's always had more team responsibilities than Jordan did.

Once the triangle and Phil arrived, Jordan's assist #'s went way down. Plus, it's hard to tell what assists are actually telling us. While Jordan didn't have a Shaq-type center, he did have Pippen and much better teams overall. I'm sure Jordan did too, but Kobe makes the plays that lead to buckets/fouls, but often doesn't get credited for an assist.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 11:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Already talked about Duncan/Kobe debate in other threads. The fact remains that Duncan has had better teams overall throughout his career than Kobe and still has had fewer team success. Kobe's teams have a winning record vs. Duncan's teams in playoffs. Kobe's had much more individual success, longer elite status, and a much better peak. Kobe could also take over games much more and in many more ways than Duncan could. Duncan was amazing, but he just couldn't take over like Kobe, Jordan, and certainly not Shaq when Shaq was still on his game.

And this a big one. Whenever Kobe has 'the team', his team gets it done and make the finals at least. Duncan's had 2 instances now where he's had a title contending team and lost in the 1st round. Sure, he was probably only the 2nd best player on those teams, but that's even more of a red flag. His Spurs lost in 1st round as a #1 seed one year to a Grizzly team that had lost their leading scorer. How does that happen? If you actually look at everything, it's very hard to even consider putting Duncan ahead of Kobe.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 1:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Shaq's peak value was better than Duncan's but Duncan has been more consistent and durable.

I disagree that Russell was a "glorified role player" or that he could not be dominant today with the same size and skill set. He was the best player on championship winning teams almost every year that he played organized basketball, from high school to college to the NBA (and including one appearance in the Olympics as well). That time frame extends from the early 1950s until 1969. Russell revolutionized the game with his shotblocking and he was an important offensive player as an outlet passer, as a passer to cutters in the half court set and as a finisher on the break/on screen and roll actions. The Celtics had multiple Hall of Famers on their roster before acquiring Russell and never won a championship.

I cannot speak for others, but the reason that I use Rodman and Wallace as comparisons for Russell is to refute the idea that a 6-9 player could not defend the post or be an elite rebounder in the modern game (with modern having an ever shifting meaning that in this context refers to post-1990). Russell was far superior to Rodman and Wallace in terms of overall basketball skills and athleticism (Russell was a better leaper than either player, by far, and Russell ran the floor much better as well). Russell ranked in the top ten in assists several times and also ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage. Shooting numbers in the 1960s were lower than today because the game was more physical (hand checking was permitted, there was no flagrant foul rule and often a player would not be ejected even for throwing a punch). Also, the travel grind was brutal and the medical treatment/rehab was not as advanced, plus players had to play hurt or potentially lose their jobs.

Russell was a tremendous player and he would have been a tremendous player in any era. It is difficult to choose between Chamberlain and Russell because their circumstances and styles were so different but I have no doubt that Russell would be a dominant player today.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 1:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Russell is rather like the defensive version of Magic. The same way that Magic's game elevated his teammates by making them better offensively, Russell elevated his teammates by making them better defensively. The Celtics had a potent offensive team prior to Russell's arrival and did not need or want him to score a lot. The Celtics needed defense and rebounding. Russell provided that. He was also a great finisher on the break and in the screen/roll situations. Russell's screens also helped his teammates get open as well. Russell was a better offensive player than many people realize, though of course he was not a dominant scorer a la Chamberlain.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 1:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that Rodman and Wallace were not considered elite players or, at the most, they were considered elite players for a very short period of time. However, as I mentioned above, the point in comparing them to Russell is to refute the idea that Russell was somehow too small to be a dominant rebounder or defender in the modern (post-1990 era). Russell was a much better athlete and overall basketball player than Rodman or Wallace. He won five MVPs, which matches Jordan and is more than anyone other than Abdul-Jabbar. He would have won at least that many Finals MVP awards if the award had existed during his prime. Russell was a revolutionary player; he changed the way that the game is played by proving that shot blocking is a effective, not a low percentage maneuver. Russell understood leverage and psychology and angles as well as anyone who has ever played the game.

At Tuesday, September 08, 2015 6:26:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Just a note on Jordan's three point shooting: Jordan didn't shoot many three pointers early on in his career overall and only averaged more than 1.0 three pointer a game once in his first five seasons. He was admittedly not a good shooter overall when he first joined the league but improved. Starting in the 89-90 season, his three point attempts shot up and he averaged a very healthy .376 on 3.0 three-point attempts a game that year at the original three point line length. The following seasons before his first retirement, Jordan shot .312 in 1991, .270 in 1992, and .352 in 1993.

Jordan also shot .320 or over from long distance regularly in the playoffs, even at the original three point line length, when he tended to average more three point attempts overall. Kobe is a much more prolific shooter than Jordan and I agree that overall Kobe has the edge on Jordan on shooting and long-distance makes, but Jordan was hardly a "bad" long-distance shooter.

Anyway, thank you David as always for a well-written article on the all-time great pantheon!

At Wednesday, September 09, 2015 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I don't wanna rehash the entire Kobe/Duncan argument, but it basically comes down to disagreement on four points:

1) How important is defense/how much impact does each guy have? David and I agree that big guys- with very few exceptions- have a much greater impact on defense than perimeter players; nature of the game. Duncan's one of the four or five best defensive bigs ever, and basically single-handedly guarantees an elite defense. His defensive impact is orders of magnitude beyond Kobe's, which ranges from "elite help defender who can often lock down one guy in the fourth" (first half of his career) to "lazy gambler who openly refers to himself as a Designated Hitter and is a defensive liability" (second half of his career). Duncan, on the other hand, has had a defensible case for DPoY most seasons of his career (he's also the all-time leader in All Defense selections, if you care about those).

2) Who was elite for longer? I think Duncan's still elite- his impact just goes way beyond the box score. He's still one of the five or six most valuable players in the NBA; I'm not sure there's ever been a season when he wasn't, in fact. Kobe was elite for about 14-15 years; I'd argue Duncan's past that. Just as a for instance, Duncan made the Finals 15 years apart as, at worst, one of the two best guys on his team. Kobe made the Finals 11 years apart. It took him longer to get elite- Duncan was instantly an MPV contender- and he fell off faster (granted, largely because of injury, but still).

3) Who's teams were better when, and how much does that matter? Kobe's best teams are leagues better than Duncan's (there's no Pantheon level help in SA), and his worst are worse (though not by as much as you think; 2002-2003 is a tirefire). On balance they're maybe comparable. I'll take Duncan never winning less than 50 (or lockout equivalent) over Kobe winning one more ring when he has other All-Stars, and I'll take Duncan's consistent-ish health over Kobe's in-and-out routine the last three years (though tbf Kobe plays a higher minute load). Both have five rings, but I'd argue that Kobe was the best player on two of his title teams, while Duncan was the best player on all five of his. Reasonable men can differ here, but Leonard/Parker simply didn't have the same impact on both ends their respective Finals MVP years that Duncan did/does. He's 25/15 any night he needs to be while completely changing the complexion of the game on D, setting some of the best screens in the league, and making a billion little non-box-score plays that help his team when. I'll take that over the extra 5 ppg or whatever you're getting from any perimeter guy all day every day.

4) How much do numbers matter, and which ones do? Kobe's got better scoring numbers for sure, but that's never been Duncan's primary job (though he can excel at it when he needs to). I'll take Duncan's rebounding, rim protection, and intangibles over Kobe's scoring all day every day, but I know that most people are easily swayed by showy scoring numbers, and not necessarily wrongly so.

At Wednesday, September 09, 2015 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Thoughts on a few other topics:

Russell would absolutely still be an All-Star, but he might not win 11 titles.

I agree that making the Pantheon 21 guys is perhaps "unwieldy" but at the same time I don't know that excluding players who are better (or at least arguably better) than the guys in it isn't a bigger issue. Of course, if you really believer that those 14 guys are all better than the 7 I mentioned, it's totally fair; I just don't agree (most significantly about Baylor, but I'd take Hakeem over Magic, Kobe, Lebron, Bird, Oscar, West, Wilt, Shaq, and Russell, too. I don't think the other six guys are as good as Hakeem, but I think some of them are better than some of the others I just listed). Again, once we're talking about these 21 guys we're splitting hairs, but it's still fun to discuss.

Regarding shooting, I didn't mean to suggest that Jordan was a better long-range shooter so much as that either Jordan's not a "bad" one, or that if he is, then Kobe's at least not "without a skill set weakness". Jordan did absolutely benefit from a shorter line, but then Kobe benefitted from gravity-bending interior presences creating space for him; we can argue context for either guy, my point was just that the gap on that front's not nearly as big as the OP suggested. Neither guys is a great long range shooter, and neither is terrible.

At Wednesday, September 09, 2015 12:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just not high on Russell. Again, for his era, he was great, that's all I or anyone can say for sure. Anthony Davis already looks far superior to Russell. Of course Russell was a revolutionary player in his era. His era was basically the first era of the nba, and he was a top player in that era. Completely different game and setup back then. Only 8 teams for awhile, only needed to win 2 series, and only finals was a best of 7 for some years. Being in a top 10 category then isn't the same as it is today

Unless Russell found himself on a great team today, he wouldn't win any titles and certainly no MVPs. While he did an awesome job at it, he had a role, and he fit it. Guys like Kobe and Wilt could fit any role in any system asked of them for their positions, and dominate doing it. The C's still would've been able to win some titles without Russell. And they were still squeaking out many of those as is. If you took away Havlicek or Cousy or Jones as well, how many titles do they win? Not many. You have Jones/Havlicek combining for 63 points in game 7 of the ECF in a 110-109 win. I'm sure Russell did his thing and played great, but he only chipped in 15. There's no way the C's even come close to winning that game without having all 3 of these guys and also their other 3-4 HOFers. Wilt had help in that game, too, as every player needs, but not like Russell did.

There's lots of glue players in the league at any point. Kobe and Jordan are two players who would also do anything it took to win games, and were elite defenders and offensive players at the same time. I look specifically at the Wilt/Russell matchup, and see Wilt not just winning that battle, but absolutely killing Russell. There's a reason why all the elite greats in nba history are phenomenal offensive players(other than Russell), and why you have never named anyone else as an elite player that isn't a great offensive player. Individual offense is so much more important than individual defense, and the main way to take over games. Sometimes a great defensive player can have little impact on certain games.

Keith, yes, Jordan had a couple of good 3 pt. % years with the normal distance, as I mentioned before, but that's it. These are outlier years if you look at his entire career. Once the 3 pt line moved back to normal distance in 98, he stunk again shooting .238. Taking out 95-97, he's at .288 for his career, and that's with a lot less pressure being guarded than guys like Kobe or T-Mac, who were much better long-range shooters, and fewer 'hand grenade' shots as David says. It's just not a skill Jordan had. Could he have developed it? Possibly, but he didn't. Did he need to? Doesn't seem so, but it still could've helped him more. Not to necessarily say Kobe was better than Jordan. I was just saying Kobe was more skilled and had an overall more complete offensive game than Jordan, though this doesn't mean Kobe was better offensively, and Jordan was certainly better in some areas offensively. As far as just shooting goes, Kobe was better. Jordan could also just focus on scoring pretty much solely, while this has never been the case with Kobe.

At Wednesday, September 09, 2015 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"Jordan could also just focus on scoring pretty much solely, while this has never been the case with Kobe."

Buh? Wha? The better passer, rebounder, and defender of the two was more focused on scoring? You can argue Kobe was more of a facilitator, but there aren't really any numbers that back it up. Yes, Pippen helped as a facilitator but Jordan still initiated the offense very often. If Kobe was more of a facilitator, and passing to stronger scoring options (which he was), it doesn't scan that his assist numbers are lower, even allowing for the inherent noise in that statistic.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 11:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Yes, the general perception in nba history is that bigs have more defensive impact than guards, but I'm not so sure that's the case. Overall, probably, yes. On an individual basis, could be a much different story. Your analysis of Kobe's defense is continues to be extremely baffling. Duncan might have a slight edge overall, but barely. Each position has different responsibilities. If Duncan didn't have a great defense and great defensive scheme, he would be rendered useless, much like Chandler in DAL. Kobe's a much more versatile defender than Duncan was. And he leads all guards in 12 defensive team selections, 3 more than 2nd place, and has more 1st teams than Duncan. While Duncan probably is a top 4-5 defensive big in history, it's hard to argue Kobe isn't the greatest defensive guard in history. Duncan's always been that nice steady player, elite player at times, but never a truly dominant force like a Jordan, Wilt, Shaq, or Kobe were, defensively or offensively.

2. If Kobe was elite for 15 years, that means he started in 1999. I'd put him there in 2000. Even if you say Duncan was elite in his rookie year, he was only 22. Kobe finished his 2000 season at 21, so no, Duncan wasn't elite younger. Duncan was already clearly slowing down by 2006, and hasn't averaged 20ppg since 2007. Much less is asked of him than is of Kobe as well. Also, if Duncan was so elite for so long, why is he losing in the 1st round with great teams multiple times?

3. Only reason why Kobe's best teams were better than Duncan's best teams were because of Kobe. While he had Shaq, there wasn't much else. SA's 5 title teams were all the best teams in the league the years they won, but they underachieved many other years. Duncan certainly had more help almost every year than Kobe did from 08-10. Duncan has never won back-to-back titles, which is much harder to do than spacing them out. While a case could be made for Duncan being the best player on each title team, his play from his 2014 title team was much worse than Kobe's during any of his 5, and probably his 07 title team, too. Best player on title teams is often overblown, which is confusing you think this is so important since you rate Dr. J the best ever, despite never leading his team to a nba title. Kobe's only had a chance to be the best player on a title 3 years, and he cashed in 2x, and was 2 wins from a 3rd, losing to a much superior team in BOS. Duncan's had 15 or so chances, also losing to Kobe every time along the way, except 2003, when Kobe has even a resemblance of a title team.

Wait, you're really arguing that Jordan was at least as much of a facilitator as Kobe was? Jordan was probably barely a slightly better rebounder. He wasn't a better passer, and possibly barely a better overall defender. They're both basically even on each of these 3 things. There's no make-believe number to say who's a better facilitator. What are you talking about? You have to watch the game. Assists don't correlate with passing or who's a better passer/facilitator. Different eras, paces, etc. Should be obvious Kobe was certainly more of a facilitator than Jordan was. Kobe was was always the primary playmaker and often the only playmaker on his teams. Jordan had Pippen to help him with these responsibilities for most of his career.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 12:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few other things. Simmons is a clown, but saying Dr. J. is in the top 10-20 range of all-time players didn't sound that bizarre, or just barely off. Maybe he deserves top 10 recognition. Though, never leading his team to a nba title, even just once, makes it really tough to put him in the elite elite, but he's probably in the next grouping. Never thought he was better than Bird, but maybe, after reading some stuff here. Breaking down Dr. J vs. Magic's game, Dr. J. wins, but that's not how it works in the world. And as David pointed out before, if any player fit the bill of 'making his teammates better,' it was probably Magic. Though, Magic's teams were completely stacked for most of his career. James has the best combination of skill/athleticism we've ever seen, but he's still clearly not even the best player of his era yet.

Hakeem might be slightly underrated, but his career is so up and down. His teams would often underachieve. He had one great run, and then his team underachieved again during the 95 season before getting their act together and winning another title while having the best team, in the Jordan-less nba. He has a strong case to be ahead of Baylor for sure, and probably should be, along with West, Oscar, and maybe a few others. But, clearly not Magic, Kobe, Wilt, Shaq, or even probably James.

Baylor's the huge outlier here. He never won a title, even as a 2nd or 3rd wheel, and his team got a lot better without him immediately. His defense was also awful. Also, Oscar had some great teams before joining Kareem and never won, and then won only one title. I look at someone like Karl Malone, who had a phenomenal career. His 2 teams that made the finals were good, but not that good. He's clearly not a Kobe, Shaq, or Duncan, but he deserves some mentioning if some of these others do.

I know one weakness about West, which he admitted, is that he couldn't dribble with his left hand. If that's not a weakness, and a huge one at that, I don't know what is. And I seriously doubt West didn't have other weaknesses. He was a tiny, unathletic guard, by today's nba standards. I doubt he had much of a postup game as well, especially if he's playing his usual SG position where his defender would almost always be much bigger. Postup game for guards would be helpful, but a very low necessity of the rest of the skills usually. But, agree that if he's to even be considered the greatest or even in the elite elite, he should've won more. He didn't capitalize on his chances to win as much as guys like Kobe or Jordan did.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 2:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


Our opinions of how defense works appear to be irreconcilable. Even the best defensive guard can only influence possessions which involve either his man or his help assignment; Duncan influences every single half-court offensive possession when he's on the court. Great shot blockers challenge an offense just by virtue of being on the court; players will choose not to drive, or drive with hesitation, just by virtue of being aware that Duncan is there. His career defensive rating of 96 (Kobe's is 105) speaks to this, despite playing most of his career minutes cleaning up after defensive punchline Tony Parker.

Similarly, you care far too much about scoring numbers. You say Duncan fell off as a scorer; I say Tony Parker and Manu improved, so he no longer needed to carry that load the same way, and instead contributed on offense by setting picks/drawing bigs out of the paint/sucking defenses into it/whatever else he had to do that no one else could. His teams kept winning 50 games, so obviously it wasn't hurting them. And to this day he can uncork a 26-15 or whatever when the occasion calls for it. I'd rather have the 6 extra rebounds and 1.5 blocks Duncan offers (worth, on average about 10 or 11 points a game) thank Kobe's extra 6 points anyway.. and that's before factoring in the shots Duncan changed rather than blocked.

You keep ranting about Duncan losing in the first round. There are mitigating factors, and considering that Kobe hasn't actually seen the first round in three seasons, it's a silly argument to make. The Clippers and Grizzlies teams that beat him were strong. Particularly for this season, it's risky to underestimate the toll two consecutive finals trips can take on a team not only physically but psychologically; particularly an older team like SA. Don't forget, after his repeats Kobe got- with team in-tact- swept by a Dallas team sporting Jason Terry as their second best player. After losing Shaq, he missed the playoffs entirely (though granted his supporting cast was awful).

We also disagree on the supporting cast issue. In '03, Duncan's second best player was either the ghost of David Robinson (all 20 minutes of him) or Stephen Jackson. You're right that they *were* the best team in the league... but only because they had its best player. Take him off that roster they don't make the playoffs; take Kobe off the '00-'04 Lakers, they're still a second-rounder. The 09-10 Lakers are probably an easy first round out, but they're still probably a firs rounder.

p 1/2

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 2:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


Kobe was a great man defender the first half of his career, and an elite help defender longer than that. That said, I've never seen him as a lockdown artist on the order of a Bobby Jones/Moncrief/prime-Artest or, yes, Jordan. I suppose reasonable men can differ here, but you'll be hard pressed to find knowledgeable NBA minds who rate Kobe ahead of Jordan as a defender. Kobe's All-D selections are impressive, but that's undercut somewhat by his own coach openly doubting them.

The stat we have for facilitating is admittedly a flawed one- assists- but Jordan's numbers there beat Kobe's.. and kill them in '89, when Pippen wasn't a full-time starter yet nor the primary ball handler. Even in '05-'07 where Kobe near-totally dominated the ball, Kobe's assist numbers never rose above 6. Jordan broke 6 three times and 8 once, even in seasons where you claim Pippen was taking care of all the facilitating. Pippen, by the way, only had three seasons over 6 assists for his career himself.

The evidence for Kobe as the superior facilitator seems to be made up entirely of you saying so; Jordan's at least got the assist numbers, in spite of sharing the job of primary facilitator with Pippen, and despite never playing with an elite finisher like Shaq or Pau.

I agree with you that Baylor is an outlier.

I disagree that Doc never being the best player on an NBA title team is a huge deal; he was the best player on two ABA title teams, and in the second case beat a Denver team that likely could have waxed that year's NBA champion Celtics. it's also worth noting that while he was probably the second best player on the '83 76ers, there's a strong case to be made that he was also the second best player in the entire NBA that season. Finally, in '80 and '82 he was up against All-Star teams with relative little support; he certainly didn't have the support Baylor (Jerry West) had against the All-Star Celtics, or even a near-elite sidekick like Kobe had (Pau). He was up against teams that featured Kareem, Magic (MVPs in their primes), Bob McAdoo (MVP out of his prime), Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon (All-Stars), and Michael Cooper (elite defender). He still took them to 6 games, though.

While Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks (and Bobby Jones) are awesome, they're not on the level of the supporting casts Bird (McHale, Parish, Johnson/Archibald, Maxwell) or Magic (above) had. Doc had no business making those Finals, let alone contending in them.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 3:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I mentioned earlier, Russell won a championship in almost every year that he played organized basketball. He was the best and most dominant player on those teams, spanning a time period from the early 1950s until 1969. I would not rank Davis above Russell.

You contradict yourself when you say that, on the one hand, the Celtics barely won some of their titles even with Russell but, on the other hand, they would have won several titles without him. The Celtics would not have won any titles in that era without Russell. He was the cornerstone of the team.

I agree that Kobe carried a heavier facilitator load than Jordan. Kobe was the primary facilitator on all five of his championship teams. You are right that this is not about assist totals but about eye test/role on the team.

For the reasons that I stated in this article and in several other articles (including my four part series about Julius Erving's playoff career), I think that Erving belongs securely in the top 10. The problem with Simmons in this regard is not just where he ranked players but also the reasoning that he used to justify some of his rankings.

I agree with your contention that Olajuwon's overall career was a bit too up and down for Pantheon status.

A lot of the great players--including West--favored their dominant hand and were still unguardable. You are wrong about West's athleticism. He dunked with two hands easily and he was a great shotblocking guard and rebounder. West was a superior athlete and he would be a superior athlete in today's game as well.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 5:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Quick note on Simmons/Erving: I agree that Simmons is wrong, but it's worth noting that his rankings explicitly ignore the ABA- as David noted above, without Erving's first 5 years he falls a bit, as would any great player.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 6:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

More on D-RTG:

2015 NBA league average: 105.6

Kobe career average: 105
Jordan career average: 103
Duncan career average: 96

That by itself speaks to the idea that big guys have a bigger impact on their teams defensively. FWIW, Kobe's best 4 D-RTG seasons came while he played with Shaq, as well as 7 of his top 10. His best season is a 98 (very good), followed by a few at 102 (still pretty good).

Duncan, by contrast, would be pissed if he got a 102. It'd be the worst D-RTG of his career. He led the league in the stat 4 times, and despite his alleged decline was 3rd last season. He was only above

Jordan's is slightly better than Kobe's, though of course he didn't get 8 years of Shaq (he did get 3 of Rodman, and a bunch of Pippen, which obviously helps). Still, as great as Jordan was, and as dominant as his Bulls teams were, his best single season was a 100 (1996). Shaq's, by all accounts a very good but not "All time" level defender- has 5 seasons below 100, and a career rating of 103.

Big guys matter more on D. In fact, the top 20 all-time career D-RTGs belong to bigs, as well as 28 of the top 30... or all 30, if you decide to count Bobby Jones and Steve Mix as 4s (both played both forward spots). As an aside, Julius Erving is 32nd, the fourth highest rated perimeter player on the list, of 2nd, if you count Mix and Jones as 4s. The first guard on the list is Manu Ginobili at 42... but he's helped somewhat by having played his entire career with #3 Tim Duncan. Manu is the only guard in the top 50, incidentally. The next one is Quinn Buckner at 60- but then he played most of his career backed by either Kareem or Robert Parish. The first guard on the list who's his team's clear defensive MVP (i.e., didn't play most of his career with a higher ranked big man) is Don Buse at 133 (Jordan is 133). Kobe's not on the master list, though he is 220th on the NBA only list. Shaq, incidentally, is 55th on that list (65th overall).

Big men are OVERWHELMINGLY dominant by this metric, which, yes, is noisy... but noisy in a way that favors players who play with other dominant defenders; that being the case, you'd think it'd be somewhat A-positional... but it's almost entirely 4s and 5s.

It does help players who played their whole careers alongside elite defenders- Tony Parker is 223rd overall, and like Manu he's dragged hundreds of spots North of where he should be simply by virtue of hanging out with Duncan- but that helps guys like Kobe and Jordan (who played alongside Shaq/Artest/Rodman/Pippen), not hurts them.

Duncan's defensive value is so far beyond any perimeter player (Doc's the closest among pantheoners at 32, and is a special case as a perimeter guy who could protect the rim) it's not even funny. Even flawed defensive big men do well by this metric (Pau Gasol outranks Kobe and Jordan), because rim protection is a massive deterrent in a way an elite perimeter stopper just can't be.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 7:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

More numbers!

Last time a guard was in the top 5 for a season without a higher ranked big man teammate: Jordan at #5 in 1992. It's also one of exactly two times a guard made the top 5 ever.
Top 10 seasonal finishes for relevant players/teammates: Duncan (16), Jordan (4), Bryant (0), *O'neal (4) Pippen (5), Rodman (10), Ginobili (4), Bowen (0), Gasol (0), Robinson (14)
Top 5 seasonal finishes for discussed players/teammates: Duncan (14), Jordan (1), Bryan (0), Oneal (1), Pippen (1... but that one he ranked #1, and he's the only non 4/5 to score that rank in the NBA) Rodman (4), Ginobili (2) Bowen (0), Gasol (0) , Robinson (11)
Top 1 seasonal finishes: Duncan (4), Pippen (1) , Robinson (5)

*Highest is #2, in '00. Two of his seasons are alongside Kobe, but Kobe does not make the top 10 despite playing alongside an elite defender who makes the list himself.

Now, you'd think Robinson/Duncan benefitted from each other, but actually both made it to #1 at least once (4x for Duncan) without the other. It's apparently much more important to have one rim protector than two (though they did share the top 5 every season they played together).

I just don't see any evidence for perimeter players having the kind of impact defensively big guys do. Doc and Pippen can kinda sniff the conversation, but both are forwards who could play bigger than they were, and they still kinda just sniff it.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 8:03:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Anonymous: I think you missed my point a little.

I meant to emphasize that along with his good shooting years during the regular season, Jordan shot above .300 almost regularly in the playoffs. As high as .389 in 1993 at the original line. Even in 1998, when the line was moved back, he still shot .302 in the 1998 playoffs. Jordan was regularly called to shoot more from the three point line in the playoffs than in the regular season, thus he accordingly shot better. His 3 point attempts per game during the playoffs were regularly higher than they were in the regular season and he accordingly shot better.

You mentioned the 1992 finals earlier when Jordan made his famous 6 three pointers in a half during Game 1. If you go back to watch the tapes I believe you'll hear Jordan, as quoted by Marv Albert, talk about how he believed he could shoot from 3 just as well as Clyde Drexler but that generally he chose not to.

That is my position as well. Considering Jordan was often surrounded by excellent shooters such as John Paxson, Steve Kerr, BJ Armstrong, Craig Hodges, and others, it makes sense he wasn't called upon to shoot the three point shot very much. However, he clearly demonstrated he could do so at a high level. You do not make 6 three pointers in one half of an NBA finals game by accident.

At Thursday, September 10, 2015 8:06:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

One last point because I fell into this research hole:

Kobe's D-RTG is generally within a point or two of his team's. His teams are either slightly worse (no big man), slightly better (Shaq era), or about the same (Pau era, end of Shaq era). He's about as good defensively as his team is, and that's fair enough. Can't really ask for more, but it hardly screams "Elite Defender" the way he's being advertised in this thread.

Duncan, on the other hand, has a better D-RTG than his team every single season of his career, usually to the tune of 4-6 points per 100 possessions. This pretty neatly torpedoes the argument that Duncan's advantage is that he had better defensive teammates, I think; he outperformed all his teammates, while Kobe got his butt kicked by Shaq, Pau, and probably others. Heck, the team was two points better with Kwame than they were with Kobe in '07. Like I said before; big guys- even crummy ones- just matter more on defense.

Jordan, for his part, is usually 2-4 points better than his team until '97, at which point he's about even with them till his first retirement. As a Wizard, he was still about 1 point better than his team; without a Pippen to play beside him, he looks better relative to his team (though obviously not relative to his previous numbers), even though his game had declined.

Finally, and just for fun, Doc was more erratic, but generally was about 2-3.5 points better than his team. He did finally fall below his team in his last two years, but only by a point. Doc's biggest edges are when he was 4 points better than his league-leading defense in '76 and '74. His individual Virginia #s don't exist, but the team got 5 D-RTG points better when he joined and 5 worse when left, so we can make some reasonable assumptions there. Doc perhaps had the most defensive help of anyone from about '80-'84, with an elite defensive big (Moses or Caldwell Jones), a great defensive PG (Cheeks), and the best defensive forward of all time (Bobby Jones), yet he's still consistently a point or two better than his supporting cast (he even beats Bobby and Caldwell a couple times. Only Moses beat him for the three years they played together, and only barely... once again, big guys really, really matter.

Just going off the above, I'd rank it Duncan > Erving = Jordan (Jordan's average edge is slightly better but he wasn't working with shot blockers like Caldwell Jones and Mo for half his career) > Kobe. Pretty much what I'd expected coming in, but it's nice to see the numbers back me up.

At Friday, September 11, 2015 4:15:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

I really appreciate the pantheon way of looking at players. GOAT style arguments are demeaning to the players involved, it too often devolves into negatives which doesn't do justice to how good all of these players are.

With regard to Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant I think the argument above is devolving to this level. The two players are apples and oranges, mostly becaue the two teams are apples and oranges. They were constructed very differently, and succeeded very differently.

At Friday, September 11, 2015 1:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Well said and I agree with you.


Regarding D-Rtng, this stat was created by Dean Oliver, a "stat guru" whose work I respect--and we should give credence to the limitations that he ascribes to this stat. He has noted that it favors big men, which he does not think is a problem because of his subjective opinion that big men have a greater impact on defense than perimeter players. Even if you and I may agree with that premise to some extent, it is important to understand that D-Rtng does not confirm the validity of this thesis but rather was designed by someone who subjectively believes in this thesis and thus does not mind that D-Rtng numbers are skewed in favor of big guys. That is not at all the same thing as designing a completely objective statistical defensive rating that proves that big men have a greater defensive impact in general or that a specific big man (call him TD) has a greater defensive impact than a specific perimeter player (call him KB). Also, Oliver concedes that D-rtng understates the impact of good perimeter defenders who do not accumulate many steals or blocked shots (Joe Dumars is the most obvious example).

A bigger problem with D-Rtng is that it assumes that all five players on the court have an equal impact on a team's defense on possessions that do not end in a steal or blocked shot by a particular player. So, the team's defensive rating is calculated, an individual's steals and blocks are factored in and all other defensive possessions are weighted equally for each player who was on the court. The limitations of Oliver's method should be obvious when considering this hypothetical example: a perimeter player (call him KB) guards his man so effectively that his man has to pick up his dribble and waste time pivoting back and forth before he can make a feeble entry pass into the post. The post player obtains an advantage against an overmatched big (call him PG) but KB doubles down, swipes at the ball and forces the post player to give the ball up to the guard who passed it to him. KB then jumps back out on that guard, who flings a shot attempt that barely beats the shot clock and barely grazes the rim. A journeyman player on the defensive team corrals the rebound. KB completely disrupted the opposing team's offense but because he did not get a steal or a block his impact on that possession is factored equally into his team's defensive rating with his other four teammates, none of whom did much of anything and one of whom (PG) would have probably been beaten for a layup if not for KB's help.

It may be comforting to think that one can look at D-Rtng and know exactly what is happening and why it is happening on defense but that stat is just not that good. It may tell us something but it does not even come close to telling the complete story--and, to the extent that anyone is convinced that just looking at D-Rtng enables one to reach definitive conclusions about individual defense, the stat is a hindrance to actually figuring out the effectiveness of individual defenders.

At Friday, September 11, 2015 2:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'll allow that there is wiggle-room in the stat and said as much, but I was more interested in making the point that it argues (loudly) for the superiority of interior defenders. As does literally every other defensive "advanced' stat they've come up with that I could find:

Defensive Win Shares: Top 11 are 4/5s, Duncan is 2nd (behind Russell), Erving is 14th, Jordan is 22nd, and Kobe is 46th.
Defensive Box Plus/Minus: Top 14 are 4/5s, Duncan is 8th, Erving is 57th, Jordan is 161st, Bryant isn't top 250.

So, what I have is three slightly flawed-but still useful- stats that indicate that there is a massive disparity between the defensive impact of a big guy and a perimeter player.

In addition to that, I have common sense: a big guy is between- or close enough to potentially get between- a player and the rim on let's say 80% of that player's offensive possessions, or 95% if he's that player's matchup. A perimeter guy is really only in the way of anyone other than his man maybe 30% of the time (on help assignments like you described, mostly). No matter how *talented* the perimeter defender is, he simply cannot influence the same number of possessions. He can deny his man the ball- but that's about it on possessions where he's not nearby enough for a (warranted) double team. Doc is a weird exception here because his unique combination of athleticism and shot-blocking ability allowed him to meddle more often than most perimeter players, which is why he generally outranks all other perimeter types on these lists... but even Doc doesn't do as well by these metrics as the Duncan/Olajuwon/Russell family- nor should he.

On top of that, I have the eye test, which shows me Duncan influencing a lot more drives/shot attempts/offensive sets per game than Kobe (or anyone else but Hakeem and Russell, by the way).

On top of that, I have Kobe himself openly referring to himself as a DH, and his own coach doubting his All-Defense cred.

On top of that, I have played basketball before. The guy lurking around the rim has a much better chance of stopping me than the guy guarding one of my teammates on the opposite side of the floor.

We're using Kobe as the test case here, because that's where the argument started, but Duncan is more defensively valuable- and by a lot- than ANY perimeter player (that Kobe isn't, by any of the metrics above, quite top tier (mostly, i suspect, on account of loafing on D the second half of his career dragging his peak numbers down)on that front either is a separate discussion).

Now, sure, you can make the argument that all these defensive statistics, observations, and things players/coaches said are wrong... even though they all happen to agree with each other. But that'd be quite a coincidence, I think. There's literally no defensive metric that supports the "Kobe's as good a defender as Tim Duncan" case, and very little evidence of any kind whatsoever.

At Friday, September 11, 2015 2:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

PS: Your example of Kobe's help D is not lost on me, but by the same token, how many shots per game are missed- or even not taken- because of Duncan's looming? How many sets broken up by him calling them out to his teammates? Yes, it's true that D-RTG underrates "intangible" plays... but does any defender make more of them than Tim Duncan?

At Monday, September 14, 2015 3:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Russell, was probably the biggest winner in basketball history. However, era is hugely important to remember. And most of these top guys are winning a lot in HS and college, especially back in the day, that doesn't prove anything. A lot less teams, the sport wasn't anywhere near as popular today, and a lot less blacks playing. Russell had a great team in college and played with another HOFer while he was there. How many players or teams have that type of luxury in history?

I'm not contradicting myself. It's a fact that the C's had huge advantages over Wilt and everyone else and did barely squeak many of their titles. At the same time, I believe they would've won at least 1-2 without Russell. With a legendary head coach and multiple HOFers, this seems as safe a bet as any. Also, if you took away Russell's #2 every single year he played, he would likely have no more than 3-4 titles. He had enormous help, that's basically what I was trying to say. Russell had many limitations on offense, and even defense where he thrived. He needed major help to even contain Wilt. The supposedly greatest defensive player in history shouldn't need this type of help or get lit up like a Christmas tree by the true greatest player of his era.

I didn't say West wasn't athletic. I just said by today's nba standards, he wouldn't be considered a great athlete, and especially at 6-2. Almost every nba player can dunk with ease today. Even with average athleticism, he could potentially thrive, look at Nash or Stockton. The best players under 6-3 in history other than West are Iverson and Thomas probably, and they were great players for a time, but neither considered amongst the greatest. West was able to thrive in his era. If he played today, he possibly would be a great player and could make the HOF, but it would be hard to see him be a true great.

At Monday, September 14, 2015 3:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keith, Jordan shot .332 from 3 in the playoffs vs. .327 during the regular season, pretty much the same. Usually, but not always, when a players shoots more, his pct. decreases. Jordan was more selective, which having great 3 pt. shooters around him, as you alluded to, probably had something to do with this. Being able to be more selective along with not having to shoot nearly as many 'hand grenade' shots along with his defenders not guarding him nearly as closely from 3 as say someone like Kobe, his pct. should be much higher if he was actually a good 3 pt. shooter. We've seen players often go crazy and 'get on fire' with their shots. This doesn't mean at all that that player necessarily has this skill over the long haul.

Jordan had a lot of advantages that Kobe didn't have to allow him to shoot a much higher pct. from 3, and he didn't. Taking away 95-97, which is apt, and especially seeing his horrible 3 pt. pct. in 98, it is fair to say Jordan didn't have this skill. Now, did he need this skill? That's an entirely different conversation. Or, could he have developed this skill? We don't know, but that's now what we're talking about.

The only year Jordan shot even a decent pct. from 3 in the playoffs while taking over 2 3's per game was 1993, other than the shortened distance years in 95/96. He shot .194 from 3 in 97 even.

At Thursday, September 17, 2015 1:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


All of the "advanced" defensive statistics are flawed to some extent. I am not agreeing or disagreeing with your larger conclusions--as I do not have the time or inclination to explore this subject in depth right now--but I am just suggesting that "advanced basketball statistics" are not good evidence to prove the points that you are asserting.

At Thursday, September 17, 2015 1:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There is no evidence to suggest that the Celtics would have won titles without Russell. The Celtics had a lot of talent prior to acquiring Russell and they never won anything.

Russell contributed significantly on offense as a passer, screener and rebounder. His field goal percentage was better than average for the era and he was a solid double figure scorer.

West was an exceptional athlete for his or any other era. If he were in his prime in the modern era and could exploit the training techniques/medical advances/dietary knowledge of our time then he would be even better. By the same token, modern players transported to his era would suffer. It is difficult to make cross-era comparisons but West is a much better athlete and basketball player than you acknowledge.

At Thursday, September 17, 2015 4:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I agree that all advanced stats are flawed to some extent- and said as much. But that hardly means they're completely without merit, particularly when they agree with every other available piece of evidence- team defensive performance, traditional defensive stats, the eye test, All-Defense bids, player or coach testimonials, conventional wisdom, basic geometry- they certainly help to paint a pretty obvious picture. It's important to place Advanced Stats in context, yes, but then isn't your whole point above that every piece of evidence must be considered in context? The context here is that Tim Duncan's teams thrive with him on defense, that he's continued to make deep playoff runs even as his scoring has declined, that everyone in the league regards him as an elite defender, that his teams thrive defensively despite starting defensive liability Tony Parker for over a decade, etc.

ALL stats are noisy, even the most basic one of all: points. 20 ppg for a guy who creates his own shot is a whole lot different than 20 from a guy who just finishes PnRs, or a guy who spots up in the corner. Rebounds in and of themselves don't tell the whole story either; who else is on that team boxing out, and what's the scheme in play? It's silly to dismiss a stat just because it's noisy, especially when it corroborates what other stats/evidence/observations suggest. If we're ignoring all stats that don't tell the whole story, then we must necessarily ignore all stats, and it becomes very difficult to compare players beyond a "well I like this guy better" level.

That all said, you're 100% right about Russell and West. It took Boston five years and another All-NBA level Center to get back to the Finals after he left, despite the bevy of HoFers Anonymous is claiming would have won without him. You can't stop a Wilt or a Bob Pettit with Tommy Heinsohn.

At Friday, September 18, 2015 11:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are using DRtng in an attempt to prove that Duncan is a superior defensive player to Bryant and/or that Duncan has greater defensive impact than Bryant by virtue of being a big man who predominantly plays in the paint. There is some merit to your argument but your argument is not strengthened by using DRtng because (1) the creator of DRtng admits that this system inherently favors big men and (2) DRtng weighs the defensive contributions of all five players who are on the court equally on all possessions that do not end in a steal or block by a particular player. It should be obvious why reason (1) means that using DRtng to compare Duncan and Bryant is inapt. Regarding reason (2), I think that weighing the defensive impact of all five players equally is a serious flaw. In an earlier comment, I cited a hypothetical example to demonstrate why but in general it should be clear that any "system" that presumes that all five players are having equal defensive impact is a very imprecise system.

You say that DRtng simply confirms what we supposedly already know but I am not aware of any specific comparisons that reputable basketball minds have made publicly concerning Duncan's value as a defender compared to Bryant's. Bryant's critics love to take out of context one statement that Phil Jackson made in a diary of a particular season but even that comment says nothing about Duncan versus Bryant. I agree with most of what you say about Duncan but I think that you vastly underrate Bryant. I also do not buy the equation you present that Duncan is nearly as valuable as Bryant offensively and much more valuable defensively so therefore Duncan must be considered the better player. Basketball is more complicated than that and, as Anonymous mentioned, the Spurs and Lakers were built to complement their best player. If those rosters had been constructed differently then other facets of Duncan's game and Bryant's game may have been revealed.

You are right that I believe that size matters in the NBA and that, all things being equal, a bigger player is more valuable than a smaller player--but one can obviously take that too far: Kwame Brown was not better than Kobe Bryant, of course. However, the issue is subtler than such clear cut comparisons. Some try to argue that Gasol was more valuable than Bryant but if one watched those teams with understanding then it was clear that Bryant was elevating Gasol's game far more than Gasol was elevating Bryant's.

One can go around and around about such topics endlessly. I agree with you that Duncan is great and underrated but I disagree with your assessments of Bryant's defense and I disagree with your unsupported assertion that all of the evidence is on your side regarding Bryant's defense.

At Friday, September 18, 2015 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"I disagree with your unsupported assertion that all of the evidence is on your side regarding Bryant's defense."

Ok, which evidence is on Bryant's side in a defensive comparison? I don't disagree that Bryant's probably more valuable on offense- and whether that gap is wider than the gap between their defense is a different and more even argument- but I have yet to see a single piece of any kind of evidence that suggests Bryant is an equivalent or superior defender to Duncan, which is the premise I most take issue with. There aren't stats that say that, there aren't accolades that say it, there aren't (to my knowledge) testimonials that say it. The basic principles of defense disagree with it; like you always say, size *does* matter, and on defense position perhaps matters even more just based on the geography of basketball. Duncan's teams are consistently defensively excellent, to the point that 17 of his 18 teams were top 10 defensive outfits (and 15 of them top 5), and the other one was 11th. Kobe's teams, on the other hand, have finished in the bottom half of the league eight times (or 6, if we justifiably ignore his last two injured seasons), and dead last once. I cannot conceive of a roster you could construct around Tim Duncan that would finish dead last defensively.

You attack using D-RTG; that's fine, and would be a valid criticism if I were using it in a vacuum. But when D-RTG agrees with everything else I can find, then it's probably not totally useless. Yes, it's a system that favors bigs defensively... but then so is basketball. Almost every title team has an elite defensive big man; many of them do not have an elite defensive wing. This is not a coincidence.

You say D-RTG is irrelevant comparing a big and a wing? Ok, that's fine. What about rebounding? Blocks? Defensive win shares? Team defensive rating? Points allowed? Defensive box +-? You call my assertion that all the evidence is on Duncan's side "unsupported" but haven't offered any evidence on Bryant's side. If you don't have the time or inclination to argue his case, that's fine, but don't go halfway and just say "well, that's unsupported, here's no competing evidence."

But, hey, I've always got more evidence. Here's a couple of articles criticizing Kobe's D. Think you can find any credible ones about Duncan?

http://basketbawful.blogspot.com/2007/03/tex-winter-agrees-with-basketbawful.html - this one I especially like, as it's got one of Kobe's coaches and heroes - Tex Winter- calling out his defense during Kobe's absolute apex as a player (2007).
http://grantland.com/the-triangle/an-open-letter-to-kobe-bryant-about-his-defense/ - this one is the very credible Zach Lowe ripping Kobe's late-career D
http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/16/sports/la-sp-ln-robert-horry-rips-kobe-bryant-defense-20130116 - this one is Robert Horry- a very good defender in his own right and former Kobe teammate- calling Kobe out for gambling too much

Now, please note my case isn't that Kobe is a *bad* defender- in point of fact he's one of the greatest perimeter help defenders ever, and had a stretch of his career where he could legitimately lock down opposing scorers- only that positing he's anywhere near as good as Duncan on that end is silly. Feel free to provide evidence to the contrary, if any exists.

At Saturday, September 19, 2015 1:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I said, I do not have the time or inclination to compare Duncan's ability as a defender with Bryant's. I think that it is a more complex issue than you suggest and, even if you are right about their respective defensive impacts I do not accept your conclusion that this proves that Duncan is the better overall player because Duncan's alleged edge defensively is greater than Bryant's edge offensively. I just would not structure the analysis in that fashion. I think that it is more relevant to look at overall impact and not just bifurcate the analysis into two categories of offense and defense.

That said, I agree with your general assessment of Duncan's defense and I disagree with your general assessment of Bryant's defense.

What I consider "unsupported" is your contention that all available evidence supports your position. There is plenty of evidence that Bryant is a better defender than you suggest but you choose to disregard that evidence. For instance, Bryant earned nine All-Defensive First Team selections, tied for the most all-time with Garnett, Jordan and Payton. You will dismiss that by saying that Bryant received some of those honors based on reputation but I have yet to see an explanation or analysis of which players made the All-Defensive Team on reputation and which ones made it on merit. I have yet to see a plausible theory about why only Bryant would receive the benefit of voter largesse. I have yet to see an analysis of other players' All-Defensive Team selections. As far as I can see, Bryant is supposedly the only player in history who repeatedly made the All-Defensive First Team based solely on reputation.

There is also good reason to believe that some of the evidence that you cite--specifically, DRtg--does not prove much of anything because it is inherently flawed. You say that the nature of basketball is that interior defenders are more valuable than perimeter defenders, so it does not bother you that DRtg is slanted that way. That is circular reasoning. The stat should not favor any kind of player and then we could look at the numbers to test the hypothesis that interior defenders are more valuable. The fact that Dean Oliver, the creator of DRtg, admits that the stat favors interior defenders disqualifies this stat as evidence to support the particular argument you are making. Think of it this way: if someone came up with a defensive stat slanted in favor of players who get a lot of steals and against player who get a lot of blocks then you would say that this is the wrong stat to use when comparing Duncan and Bryant.

Also, DRtg assumes that, after accounting for individual steals and blocked shots, all players on the court contribute equally to a defensive stop. That is absurd. Again, I do not have the time or inclination to figure out if that actually favors Duncan or Bryant in the comparison that you are making but it does not take much time or thought to realize that a stat constructed in this way has very limited value and does not in any way prove (or disprove) what you are trying to prove.

At Saturday, September 19, 2015 1:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Regarding the articles that you cited, the first one is atrociously bad. That site may be the worst basketball site I have ever seen. Many years ago, I refuted some of the garbage that they posted but their work was so ridiculous and their responses to me so ad hominem in nature that I just stopped paying attention to them at all. Here is the response that I wrote to the article in question:

Tex Winter Compares Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan

The Lowe piece did not impress me very much. He said that if Bryant made the All-Defensive Team in 2013 then he would never cite All-Defensive Team selections as valid evidence. I am sure that Lowe was relieved when Bryant did not in fact make the All-Defensive Team that year and I guess, by Lowe's bizarre reasoning, that means we can still accept the validity of Bryant's previous selections.

Horry's comment, in it entirety, was that the Lakers would be better served putting Bryant on the other team's best perimeter player as opposed to having Bryant guard a lesser threat to play the passing lanes. I interpret that as an indictment of Coach D'Antoni's defensive plan (and I use "plan" in the loosest sense of the word) more than an indictment of Bryant. In fact, when D'Antoni switched Bryant on to the best opposing perimeter players Horry remarked, "You solved the problem." If Bryant is best served guarding the best player on the other team that is hardly evidence that he is a bad defender, an overrated defender or someone who does not have an impact defensively.

So, I do not think that the articles you cited as evidence in any way support the assertions you are making.

I agree with you that Duncan is a great defender and that in general big men have a greater defensive impact than perimter players. I disagree with you about Bryant's overall defensive impact. I have no definitive answer about whether Duncan or Bryant is a better defender and I disagree that you have proven that Duncan is a better defender and/or better overall player than Bryant. You have raised some interesting questions but I do not think that you have proved your case beyond any doubt.

In 2007, Bryant received more All-Defensive First Team votes than any other guard. Here is what I wrote about Bryant's defense that season:

NBA Coaches Select Kobe Bryant as League's Best Defensive Guard

That article does not compare Bryant to Duncan but in terms of the level of Bryant's defense I stand by the analysis and conclusions that I provided.

At Saturday, September 19, 2015 11:32:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

You seem to be framing my argument as "Bryant is a bad defender" when in actuality my argument is "Bryant is a great defender, but great perimeter defenders can't make nearly the same impact as great interior defenders such as Duncan, so it's ludicrous to suggest he's as good defensively as Duncan." I've happily lauded Bryant's defense throughout this argument- though I (and just about everyone else) feel he started slacking on that end about halfway through his career.

Regardless of BasketBawful, the direct quote from Winter is the part that matters. I read your article, and it doesn't change the fact that Winter- Bryant's coach- is openly complaining about Kobe's defense, no matter how you rationalize it.

You choose to dismiss Lowe, that's fine. I happen to respect the hell out of him, as do most sharp basketball minds- Jeff Van Gundy and Frank Vogel, for instance, are two of his biggest fans.

Your article about Kobe's defensive guard status is largely irrelevant here; I'm not arguing that Kobe isn't a better defender than most guards. I'm arguing that he isn't a better defender than the best defensive player of the last two decades (no guard is, for the record).

While I am using those articles to poke holes in Kobe's defensive resume- and there are holes there, regardless of how much you try to twist the context of Winter's words- my larger point is that there's just no evidence that Kobe is better than Duncan, not that there is no evidence that Kobe is good. Kobe is obviously good. But in every comparable head-to-head defensive metric I can find- be it defensive BPM, defensive win shares, team defensive performance, or even your precious All-Defense selections- Duncan comes out ahead. You claimed there is no evidence for my assertion- well, my assertion is that Duncan is a greater defensive force than Kobe Bryant, and every available stat as well as their teams' respective performances, and their respective reputations, serves as evidence in support of that assertion. I do not take issue with the claim that Kobe is a great defender- only with the suggestion that his defense is somehow of even comparable value to Duncan's.

You glance off the argument of who's had more defensive help; it's probably Duncan overall, but I hardly think that makes for the difference between a #30 ranked defense and a #1. Kobe had plenty of help- including peak-Shaq, an All-Defensive big man himself- and still his teams finished in the bottom half of the league three times during the Shaq era, and plummeted to dead last after Shaq left- despite the additions of Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Chris Mihm, all solid (though not elite) defensive players. When Duncan lost David Robinson, his team was 1st in the league defensively the very next season. When he lost Bowen, his other best defensive teammate, his team dropped from 5th all the way to 8th.

In fact, Kobe has never played on a good defensive team that didn't feature either an All-Defensive level center (Shaq/Howard), or the three-headed length-monster of Bynum/Gasol/Odom. On the other hand, in the seasons Duncan played without elite perimeter defenders between Bowen's retirement and drafting Leonard, his teams were 8th and 11th, respectively. His second best defensive teammate during that stretch was probably George Hill, Tony Parker's backup, playing 20-something minutes per game. Parker is atrocious, as is Richard Jefferson, the two Spurs who played the most minutes on the perimeter during that time.

It's almost like interior defense is more important the perimeter defense, or something.


At Saturday, September 19, 2015 11:32:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

If the issue here is that I'm "picking" on Kobe, then we can widen the scope: Duncan's more defensively valuable than Jordan or Doc, too. He's even more defensively valuable than Bobby Jones or Scottie Pippen. The only guys he's not more defensively more valuable than are Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon.

If you make the argument "Is Kobe a good defender?" obviously you'll win that one. If you look at the argument "Is there any evidence Kobe is nearly as impactful a defender as Duncan?" however, you're going to find that the answer is no. I asked you to find some last post, and you responded with an article YOU YOURSELF WROTE about how Kobe's the league's best defensive guard; it's a good article, but as a sharp legal mind I'm sure you'll agree that if asked to present evidence supporting your position in a courtroom and you reply with "well, here's a paper I wrote saying that I agree with me, and also it's not actually about the question we're discussing" it probably wouldn't do much good in convincing anyone. Tim Duncan is not a guard, and my position is that he's more valuable defensively than every guard who's ever played the game, including Kobe. The numbers back that up.

At Saturday, September 19, 2015 2:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You have a tendency to bash Bryant and then attempt to deny doing so--not just in this thread, but in general. Perhaps you are not consciously aware of this but your tendency to do this leads to certain kinds of replies from me and other commenters who focus on correcting some of your more extreme and unsupported anti-Bryant assertions.

In this thread specifically, in one of your earlier comments you said that Bryant has been a "lazy defender" for the second half of his career. I disagree with that assessment and so do the coaches who voted Bryant to the All-Defensive Team during several of those seasons during the second half of Bryant's career.

Winter's comment has to be taken in the context that (1) he spent most of the interview favorably comparing Bryant to Jordan overall (that was the focus and subject, not Bryant's defense, so to pretend otherwise is disingenuous) and (2) Winter is known for nitpicking the games of every HoFer that he coached, going all the way back to Elvin Hayes. Winter never said that Bryant was a bad defender or a lazy defender and Winter critiqued the Lakers' breakdowns in pick and roll defense (which were the fault of the big men, as I noted in my article). The Winter comment just is not strong enough or broad enough to support an indictment of Bryant's defense for the entire second half of his career. I never had the opportunity to interview Winter but I have spoken with people who did and I know that Winter has a very high opinion of Bryant's game. Winter was much more critical of Shaq, both to Shaq's face and in public comments. Winter considered Shaq lazy and almost uncoachable. That context is completely missing from AwfulBasket's article. Grabbing one snippet of an interview out of context and then trumpeting it as definitive proof of anything is just sloppy thinking and sloppy writing. I stopped reading and responding to their stuff because it just is not worth the time of any person who has higher thinking skills to deal with total nonsense.

Lowe's article focused on Bryant's defense in 2013. No one, including the coaches, selected Bryant as an elite defender that year, so whether or not Lowe's assertions are correct about 2013 they do not shed any light on the previous years. Again, you asserted that Bryant played lazy defense for the second half of his career. I disagree. I agree with the coaches that, circa 2013, Bryant was no longer an elite defender over the course of an entire season.

I already said that I am not going to engage in the Duncan-Bryant debate at this time. My responses to you have focused solely on (1) the inadequacy of DRtg as a metric in general and as a metric to prove your specific assertions and (2) my disagreement with your assessment of Bryant as a lazy defender. I quoted my own articles not as some form of courtroom evidence but for specific purposes relevant to your comments, namely (1) to refute the first article you cited (no reason for me to write something new now, as I dealt with that article when it came out) and (2) to give you some insight about my take on Bryant's defense circa 2007 as I analyzed it circa 2007. That is the best that I can do right now in terms of providing my take about Bryant's defense.

Again, I agree with most of your assertions about Duncan's value, though I do not think that DRtg adds to that analysis. I disagree with your broad negative characterizations of Bryant's defense during the second half of his career. Frankly, most of the media members who write about defense have no idea whatsoever what they are talking about. They do not understand defensive schemes, they do not know the context of quotes from coaches and they are very often biased for and against certain players.

At Monday, September 21, 2015 12:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

That's all fine- you and I actually *mostly* agree about how good Kobe' D is, we just differ on whether or not he started phoning it in- particularly during the regular season- around '08 or so. I thought you were attacking the arguments I was making that Duncan is more valuable defensively- which is a truth I hold to be almost self-evident - so I was challenging that perspective. If all you were getting at was that you disagree that Kobe declined, and you don't like D-RTG for comparing players, then cool. We've gone round and round on Kobe's second half career D and it's pretty clear that no amount of evidence will convince you and no amount All Defensive nods will convince me; agree to differ.

Whether Duncan or Kobe is more valuable over all is a much more complex/even argument, and while I'd still take Duncan, in that arena I can at least see/understand the argument for Kobe. It's on D where I felt it was silly to suggest that a perimeter defender- even a best case one, even if he was at his defensive peak for 16 straight seasons and never took a play off- is as valuable as Tim Duncan, a "greatest defender ever" candidate who influences almost every defensive possession in his team's favor when he's on the floor.

At Monday, September 28, 2015 5:10:00 AM, Anonymous A said...


What is your ratio/weighting of a player's overall skillset to statistical numbers when comparing players? I don't know if you agree on this or not but I think when comparing players you can have two categories, one for overall achievements & legacy and the other simply on overall basketball skillset and what they were able to do in the game. For example, you have the freakishly gifted players that were able to dominate the game despite having average overall skills namely, O'Neal & Chamberlain. On the other hand, you have players that weren't as gifted physically but had great skills for instance, Olajuwon & Jabbar. In my opinion Olajuwon was the most skilled center to ever play the game, obviously his achievements weren't as great as the likes of Russell, Chamberlain, Jabbar & O'Neal. If I was to pick who was the better basketball player out of all these great centers I would no doubt choose Olajuwon.

Another example I can relate to, and since people above have commented on is Bryant and Jordan. From an overall achievement and legacy point of view it's no doubt that Jordan is greater than Bryant. But if you take out everything and simply look at their basketball skillsets alone they are neck and neck. Durant in a recent interview has also commented on this comparison that in terms of skills they are 1A and 1B. In my opinion the major differences that separates Jordan and Bryant is Jordan's amazing million dollar hand and his supreme athletic ability.

Bryant is no doubt a great athlete, but Jordan was on a whole another level. Many analysts say that James runs faster and jumps higher than Jordan is ludacris. Jordan at his athletic prime was quick as a cat and so explosive at the rim. His supreme athleticism allowed him to get past his defender with ease, created more separation on his jumpshots and fadeaways and also finish over the top of bigs or maneuver past them with his creativity and hangtime. His big hands enabled him to have more control of the ball especially when finishing at the rim. All of these contributed to his field goal percentage and efficiency which explains why he has a higher field goal percentage when compared to Bryant. Not to mention during his earlier years when he hasn't fully developed his outside shot he was mainly attacking the basket and playing free throw line below, and like you mentioned that he played in an era that wasn't center dominant. The other thing that Jordan was slightly better than Bryant was that he was probably more patient on offense and was a bit less inclined to take tough jumpshots.

At Monday, September 28, 2015 5:11:00 AM, Anonymous A said...


Cont: I don't understand why fans and stats gurus put so much emphasis on field goal % especially when concerning Bryant. No other player gets as much criticism on field goal percentage & field goal attempts as great as Bryant does.

Just want to add my opinion on the Duncan and Bryant debate since people have been going back and forth with you. I think that it's hard to compare these two even though they play in a same era and have faced each other multiple times in the postseason. This is because they play completely different positions and play in a totally different system. Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward to ever play but he is also blessed to have the stability in his career something which Bryant didn't have. He has played for the same coach in his entire career and has been blessed to have a consistent core. After David Robinson retired he was blessed with the core of Parker and Ginobili and now Leonard. Bryant on the other hand has played with multiple coaches and multiple systems and to say that Bryant's 08-10 Laker teams were miles more talented than the Spurs is totally absurd. It's so funny when people say that those Laker teams were so talented and stacked.

All these comparisons is great for conversation. It's great to read and great to be a part of the debate. But like Jordan have eluded in a past interview, it's unfair to compare Bryant, James and all other greats against him because they play in a different era, different systems, different rules and different opponents. He never played against an Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or Julius Irving so there is no one definite greatest player of all time. But I think for most people including myself if we had to choose one, it would probably be Jordan himself.

At Monday, September 28, 2015 1:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


Just a note, when I've in the past made reference to Bryant's '08-'10 teams being superior to Duncan's cast, I'm specifically referring to the '03ish Spurs, when Robinson was old and Parker/Ginobili weren't any good yet. Over the course of their careers, Duncan has had more consistent help, though I'd argue Kobe had the best single teammate (Shaq). I just think that- in terms of the "more with less" argument David sometimes likes to bring up- Duncan dominating the league and winning the title with the '03 Spurs- who didn't feature another All-Star- is at least as impressive as Kobe winning with the Gasol/Bynum/Odom/Artest-Ariza core.

But, to clarify, Kobe certainly hasn't been as fortunate as Duncan season to season when it comes to support. Duncan's also only ever played for a top 2 coach, while Kobe has had to play for a lot of coaches who aren't on that level- and he hasn't much luck when he has. It's interesting to speculate how much better Kobe's career could have gone if he'd only ever played for Phil, or how much worse Duncan's might have gone if he'd been saddled with Byron Scott or whomever.

At Monday, September 28, 2015 1:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


Also, totally agree on Olajuwon. In terms of pure skill set, nobody's been bigger.

Don't totally agree on Shaq, though. Extremely skilled in addition to being huge. Great footwork, and he was an absolutely elite low-post passer.

I also disagree that Jordan was faster than Lebron, at least in the open court. The only guys I've seen who seemed as fast as Lebron in the open court were ABA Doc and perhaps Bernard King- thought Giannis isn't far behind with those giant spaghetti legs of his.

At Thursday, October 01, 2015 2:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I consider both skill set and accomplishments when ranking players but I don't have a set formula for how to do so. Regarding Chamberlain, I think that his skill set is greater than you suggest. For instance, he was an excellent passer. He was also very nimble and mobile, particularly early in his career before his knee injury. Chamberlain was not just someone who overpowered opposing players. O'Neal was not as skilled as Chamberlain but O'Neal--particularly in his Orlando and early L.A. years, before he put on so much weight--had some finesse to his game as well.

I agree that peak Jordan was at least as fast, if not faster, as James. What makes James unusual is that he has Karl Malone's size plus the speed of a smaller man.

At Thursday, October 01, 2015 2:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that FG% (or TS% of whatever metric one prefers) is very context dependent and that many commentators neglect to supply proper context when citing such numbers.

I also agree with your comments about how much stability has benefited Duncan's career and that Bryant's supporting casts have been overrated by many commentators.

At Thursday, October 01, 2015 2:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I like your comment about ABA Doc (though NBA Doc was still pretty explosive in the open court as well) and Bernard King.


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