Why Julius Erving Belongs in the Greatest Player of All-Time Conversation--and Other Pantheon-Related IssuesShaquille 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 PM