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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Revising the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, Part II

In 2008, Athlon Sports published a list of the 50 Greatest Pro Basketball Players, ranking each player in order and providing a one sentence summary of each player's accomplishments. Here is Athlon's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3) Bill Russell
4) Wilt Chamberlain
5) Oscar Robertson
6) Magic Johnson
7) Larry Bird
8) Jerry West
9) Karl Malone
10) Elgin Baylor
11) Bob Pettit
12) John Havlicek
13) Shaquille O'Neal
14) Hakeem Olajuwon
15) Tim Duncan*
16) George Mikan
17) Kobe Bryant*
18) Julius Erving
19) Moses Malone
20) Bob Cousy
21) John Stockton
22) Kevin Garnett*
23) Charles Barkley
24) Dolph Schayes
25) Rick Barry
26) Scottie Pippen
27) Isiah Thomas
28) David Robinson
29) Elvin Hayes
30) Allen Iverson*
31) Bob McAdoo*
32) Nate Archibald
33) Dave Bing
34) Bill Sharman
35) Billy Cunningham
36) Kevin McHale
37) Dave Cowens
38) Walt Frazier
39) Jason Kidd*
40) George Gervin
41) Patrick Ewing
42) Clyde Drexler
43) Willis Reed
44) Pete Maravich
45) Gary Payton*
46) George McGinnis*
47) Connie Hawkins*
48) Paul Arizin
49) Dennis Rodman*
50) Walt Bellamy*

Thus, Athlon's added Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Bob McAdoo, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, George McGinnis, Connie Hawkins, Dennis Rodman and Walt Bellamy to the list and did not include Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, James Worthy and Lenny Wilkens from the NBA's 1996 list.

This article will not reevaluate the entire 50 Greatest Players List but will only compare the 11 players Athlon's added to the 11 players Athlon's did not include. Keep in mind that Athlon's list is from 10 years ago, before LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook had won a single MVP or championship. The Top 50 candidacies of those players--and other players of more recent vintage, including Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade--will be discussed in a future article in this series.

Duncan and Bryant had not entered the NBA when the original list was selected. Garnett had just completed his rookie season and Iverson was just starting his rookie season. This raises an interesting question: Is there some "magic" number of players who should be included on a greatest players list or should the list size continue to grow as the league gets older and more great players complete their careers?

This is a subjective question and my subjective answer is that any greatest players list that is larger than 100 is a bit too large to wrap one's mind around as a fan and probably a bit too large to properly construct as an analyst. My inclination is that 50 is not a "magic number"--it was only chosen originally because the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary--but it is a good number and that there is nothing wrong with Pantheon-level players like Duncan and Bryant knocking some players off of the list. However, I also do not have a serious problem with pushing the list to 75 or even 100.

In Part I of this series, I listed four methodologies that should be used in no particular order to compare players from different eras:

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?
2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?
3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?
4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?

Using those standards (or just about any other standards, for that matter), the inclusion of Duncan and Bryant is obvious and indisputable.  

Duncan won two regular season MVPs (2002-03; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting nine times), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), one All-Star Game MVP (2000) and the 1998 Rookie of the Year award. He made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant for the most all-time), including 10 First Team selections. Duncan made the All-Defensive Team a record 15 times, including eight First Team selections. He also made the All-Star team 15 times.

Duncan ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (15,091), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season blocked shots (3020), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points scored (5172), third all-time in ABA/NBA playoff rebounds (2859) and first all-time in ABA/NBA playoff blocked shots (568). Blocked shots have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking blocked shots in 1972-73.

Duncan could score in the post or facing the basket within 15-18 feet. He was an excellent screener and a very good passer. Duncan was a top notch defender and rebounder. Perhaps his only skill set weakness was free throw shooting (.696 career free throw percentage, including four seasons below .640).

Duncan did not force rules changes or influence shifts in style of play but he was the centerpiece of one of pro basketball’s most dominant franchises for nearly two decades, playing a major role on five San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Bryant won one regular season MVP (2008; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting 11 times), two Finals MVPs (2009-10) and a record-tying four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011). He won two regular season scoring titles (2006-07) and he led the league in playoff scoring average three times (2003, 2007-08). Bryant made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied for the most all-time), including 11 First Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Karl Malone and LeBron James). Bryant made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including nine Frist Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett). He made the All-Star team 18 times, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19).

Bryant ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season scoring (33,643 points), fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points (5640), ninth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1040) and sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff steals (310). Steals have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking steals in 1972-73.

Bryant is one of the few players in pro basketball history who had no skill set weaknesses. He could
score in the post, facing the basket or off the dribble. He was an excellent free throw shooter and a great passer who excelled at drawing double teams; even when he did not make the pass that led directly to the basket, his presence often tilted the defense to create the scoring opportunity. Bryant was an elite defender for most of his career and he was an excellent rebounder for his position.

Bryant's combination of high level athleticism grounded in solid fundamentals emulated Michael Jordan. Some people criticized Bryant for copying Jordan but why not copy someone who has a similar body type and is the greatest ever at that position (and arguably the greatest player of all-time)? Bryant was an All-NBA level performer for five championship teams (2000-02, 2009-10), plus two other teams that advanced to the NBA Finals (2004, 2008).

Kevin Garnett did not dominate to the same extent that Duncan or Bryant did but he is a worthy addition to the 50 Greatest Players List. Garnett won the 2004 regular season MVP and he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting five times. He won the 2003 All-Star Game MVP and was selected as the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett made the All-NBA Team nine times, including four First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including a record-tying nine First Team selections. Garnett was a 15-time All-Star. He won four regular season rebounding titles (2004-07).

Garnett ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,662).

Garnett's greatest skill set strengths were defense and rebounding. He also had a very high motor and his energy/enthusiasm could be contagious. Garnett had a reliable face up jumper out to 15-18 feet. He could score in the post but he was not a dominant post player and he preferred to face the basket. Garnett was an outstanding screener and a good passer. Garnett needed more help around him to win a championship than Duncan or Bryant did but when Garnett had that help his Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title and advanced to the 2010 NBA Finals.

Although Garnett was not a three point shooter, his versatility and his preference to play facing the basket from the power forward position presaged to some extent the “stretch four” role that has now become prevalent in the NBA.

Allen Iverson should not be a controversial selection but some people may balk at adding him to the list because of his off-court controversies and/or because his playing style did not translate well in terms of "advanced basketball statistics." Iverson won the 2001 regular season MVP, he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times and he won two All-Star Game MVPs (2001, 2005). Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award. He captured four regular season scoring titles (1999, 2001-02, 05) and he ranks seventh in ABA/NBA regular season scoring average (26.7 ppg). Iverson also led the league in playoff scoring twice (1999, 2005) and he ranks second to Michael Jordan in ABA/NBA playoff scoring average (29.7 ppg). Iverson made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three First Team selections. Iverson was an 11-time All-Star.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iverson's career is his durability, which is even more incredible considering that he was listed at 6-0, 165 pounds. Iverson ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season mpg (41.1) behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. Iverson led the NBA in regular season mpg seven times (1999, 2002-04, 06-08), a mark exceeded only by Chamberlain’s nine. Iverson averaged 45.1 mpg in the playoffs, third behind Chamberlain and Russell, and he led the NBA in playoff mpg three times (1999, 2001, 05).

In addition to his durability, Iverson's greatest skill set strength was his ability to relentlessly attack the basket to score, get fouled or draw so much defensive attention that his missed shots were--as Doug Collins astutely pointed out--essentially assists that enabled his teammates to have easy putbacks. He was not a great three point shooter but he could hit them in the clutch at times. Iverson was an underrated passer who averaged 6.2 apg during his career and who four times ranked in the top 10 in assists. Iverson was not a great one on one defender but he excelled in playing the passing lanes; he ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season steals per game (2.2). Iverson was a solid rebounder considering his size and the other responsibilities that he shouldered.

Iverson's personal style and attitude carried significant cultural influence, plus his ability to excel in the NBA at his size inspired many of the players who came after him. He would thrive even more in today's era of drive and kick basketball during which handchecking is not permitted.

Bob McAdoo won the 1975 NBA regular season MVP and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. He was the only player who had won an NBA regular season MVP as of 1996 who was not selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. I would not say that winning a regular season MVP should automatically qualify a player for top 50 status but I would say that a player who was the best player in the league during a given season should probably make the cut provided that he sustained excellence for a reasonable period of time; McAdoo certainly fits that description and he should have been on the original list.

McAdoo was an elite player in the mid-1970s, winning three straight scoring titles (1974-76) and making the All-Star team five consecutive times (1974-78). He won the 1973 Rookie of the Year Award and he earned two All-NBA selections, including a First Team nod in 1975.

He bounced around to a few different teams in the middle of his career before becoming a valuable sixth man for two L.A. Lakers' championship teams (1982, 85). Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers to five championships during the Showtime era, has stated that the Lakers would not have won the 1982 and 1985 titles without McAdoo’s contributions at both ends of the court.

Stylistically, McAdoo was a hybrid big forward/small center who had tremendous shooting range. The NBA did not adopt the three point shot until midway through his career and the trey did not feature as a prominent weapon in the league until after McAdoo retired but his ability to operate facing the basket on offense combined with his mobility and his ability to defend multiple positions mean that he would be a prototype "stretch four" in the modern game.

Jason Kidd shared the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with Grant Hill. He never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five twice, including a second place finish to Duncan in 2002. Kidd made the All-NBA Team six times, including five First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including four First Team selections. Kidd was a 10-time All-Star.

Kidd led the NBA in assists five times (1999-01, 2003-04) and he ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season apg (8.7). He also ranks second in ABA/NBA regular season assists (12,091). Kidd ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1263), trailing only Magic Johnson, John Stockton and LeBron James. He is second in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2684) and seventh in ABA/NBA playoff steals (302).

Kidd resurrected a moribund Nets franchise, leading the team to consecutive NBA Finals (2002, 03). He was a key contributor for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks team that upset the favored Miami Heat in the Finals.

Kidd showed remarkable skill set development during his career. The player who was derisively called "Ason" because he had no "J" transformed himself into a very good three point shooter while also elevating his free throw percentage from the high .600s to the high .700s/low .800s. Kidd was always a superb playmaker and top notch defensive player. Above all, Kidd was a winner who consistently helped his teams improve, while teams that he left consistently got worse.

Gary Payton's career largely overlapped Kidd's and for several years they battled for the unofficial title as the league's best point guard. Payton never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five once and he finished sixth five times. Payton made the All-NBA Team nine times, including two First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, each time receiving First Team honors (tied for the most all-time First Team selections). Payton won the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year award, the same season that he led the league in steals for the only time. Payton made the All-Star team nine times.

Payton ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season assists (8966) and he finished in the top 10 in apg in seven seasons. He ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2445).

He was a below average free throw shooter and outside shooter. Payton's main strength was his tremendous defense. He was also a good playmaker and a capable scorer who was an outstanding postup player at 6-4. Payton was a solid rebounder who averaged a career-high 6.5 rpg in 1999-00 but never averaged more than 5 rpg in any other season. He helped lead Seattle to the 1996 Finals. He started--but did not play well--for the Lakers team that lost in the 2004 Finals. Payton rode Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to the 2006 title, averaging just 5.8 ppg on .422 field goal shooting during Miami's playoff run that season (though Payton did make a couple big plays).

Payton was a flashier player than Kidd and a more explosive scorer but Kidd was the superior all-around player and he had a bigger impact on winning. A valid case could be made to add Payton to the 50 Greatest Players List but a valid case could also be made to not include him; Athlon's ranked Payton 45th and I would not place him any higher than that.

George McGinnis shared the 1975 ABA regular season MVP with Julius Erving and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. McGinnis won the 1973 ABA Playoff MVP award. He made the All-ABA or All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. McGinnis made the ABA or NBA All-Star team six times and he won the 1975 ABA regular season scoring title (29.8 ppg).

McGinnis played a major role on two Indiana ABA championship teams (1972-73) and on the Philadelphia team that advanced to the 1977 NBA Finals. He was a dominant player in the ABA and a very good player for several NBA seasons but his performance level dropped dramatically at the age of 29. By the age of 31 he was out of the league. In terms of peak value, a credible Top 50 case can be made for McGinnis but his overall body of work is not quite good enough to make the cut.

Connie Hawkins had Top 50 talent without question but he was blackballed from the NBA during a significant portion of his prime. He began his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters and then he enjoyed a brief but very successful run in the ABA, winning the 1968 regular season and Playoff MVP awards while leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league's inaugural championship. Hawkins won the regular season scoring title (26.8 ppg) that year and he also led the league in playoff scoring (29.9 ppg).

An injury limited Hawkins to 47 games in his second ABA season, by which time he had settled a lawsuit that enabled him to jump to the NBA. Hawkins made a sensational NBA debut in 1969-70, earning All-NBA First Team honors and finishing fifth in MVP balloting. The years and the mileage soon caught up with Hawkins. He finished his career with three top five MVP finishes, three All-ABA/All-NBA First Team selections and five All-Star Game appearances.

Hawkins was a flashy player whose huge hands and tremendous leaping ability foreshadowed the brilliant moves made more famous by Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. In terms of peak value and overall impact on the sport Hawkins deserves a spot on the 50 Greatest Players List but in terms of long term sustained excellence he falls short of the mark.

Dennis Rodman was a rebounding machine and a ferocious defender who could guard any position in his prime. He captured seven straight regular season rebounding titles (1992-98) with some rpg averages that had not been seen since Chamberlain and Russell patrolled the paint. Rodman's off court antics seem to have cost him a bit in terms of receiving awards/recognition but he made the All-NBA Team twice and he was a two-time All-Star. Rodman made the All-Defensive Team eight times, including seven First Team selections, and he won back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards (1990-91).

Rodman only averaged 10-plus ppg once during his career but he was a valuable offensive player not only because of his prodigious offensive rebounding but also because he was an excellent screener and an intelligent passer.

Rodman was a key member of two Detroit championship teams (1989-90) and three Chicago championship teams (1996-98). His personal style and his playing style were both unorthodox but his impact on winning is unquestionable.

Walt Bellamy never made the All-NBA Team and never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He won the 1962 Rookie of the Year Award and he made the All-Star team four times. Just based on those facts, one might wonder why he is in the Hall of Fame, let alone being potentially considered as one of the 50 greatest players--but Bellamy's career is not so simply summarized. His rookie campaign is one of the most dominant ever: 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, league-best .519 field goal percentage. As I noted in my 2013 obituary for "Big Bells," "Bellamy averaged at least 22.8 ppg and at least 14.6 rpg in each of his first five NBA seasons...Just seven players other than Bellamy have had multiple 22.8 ppg/14.6 rpg seasons and only 18 players in NBA/ABA history accomplished this feat even once." Bellamy ranks eighth in ABA/NBA career regular season rpg average (13.7) and he also averaged 20.1 ppg during his regular season career. No matter how one accounts for pace/style of play/era/level of competition, those numbers are impressive. If Bellamy had not played in the same era as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, he would probably have been a perennial All-NBA Team member.

The players who Athlon's removed from the list have impressive accomplishments worthy of recognition and acknowledgment. Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras.

Dave DeBusschere never received serious MVP consideration and he made the All-NBA team just once but he made the All-Star team eight times and he earned six straight All-Defensive First Team selections. DeBusschere was an elite defender, so when looking at his career honors it is important to remember that the All-Defensive Team was first selected in 1969--the seventh season of his 12 year NBA career--and he thus received First Team recognition every season that he could have possibly done so. The Defensive Player of the Year award did not exist during his career and neither steals nor blocked shot became official NBA statistics until his final season.

Field goal percentages were lower and pace was higher during DeBusschere's career, so more rebounds were available than in later eras, but by any standard he was a very good rebounder: he averaged 11.0 rpg during his career and after his first two seasons he never had a season during which he averaged less than 10 rpg.

DeBusschere was a key member of two New York championship teams (1970, 1973). Although he was a rugged defender and rebounder, on offense he often played outside of the paint, spreading the floor by firing long jumpers. The NBA did not have a three point shot during that era but if he played in the current era he would have easily added that weapon to his repertoire.

Hal Greer was the third best guard during an era when two of the best guards in pro basketball history played: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Thus, Greer made the All-NBA Second Team for seven straight seasons but he never received a First Team nod. Greer also earned 10 All-Star selections and he won the 1968 All-Star Game MVP.

Greer was a vital member of the 1967 Philadelphia team that went 68-13 during the regular season--the best record ever at that time--and broke Boston's eight year stranglehold on the NBA championship; Greer averaged 22.1 ppg during that season and he increased his scoring to 27.7 ppg during that year's playoffs, best on a squad that included Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker. In 1980, this 76ers team was selected by the NBA as the greatest team in the league's first 35 years.

Greer's career regular season point total (21,586) currently ranks 39th in ABA/NBA history but it must be noted that when he retired he was the fifth leading scorer in pro basketball history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Greer currently ranks 82nd in career regular season assists (4540) but he ranked seventh in career assists when he retired.

Sam Jones' legacy is defined by winning and by clutch performances. He won 10 championships (1959-66, 68-69), more than any player in pro basketball history other than his Boston teammate Bill Russell (11). Jones posted a 9-0 record in playoff game sevens with the Boston Celtics, averaging 27.1 ppg in those contests.

Jones twice finished in the top five in MVP voting but--like Greer--because he played in the same era as Robertson and West he never made the All-NBA First Team. Jones earned three All-NBA Second Team selections and he made the All-Star team five times.

Jones scored 15,411 career regular season points, which does not look like an eye-popping total now--but he ranked 12th on the NBA’s career scoring list when he retired in 1969. He also ranked third on the NBA's career playoff scoring list when he retired, trailing only Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In the context of his era, Sam Jones was a big-time scorer.

Jerry Lucas was one of the greatest rebounders in pro basketball history. His 15.6 career regular season rpg average ranks fourth in ABA/NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit. Lucas' 12,492 career regular season rebounds ranked fourth all-time when he retired in 1974 (trailing only Chamberlain, Russell and Walt Bellamy) and Lucas still ranks 18th all-time more than 40 years later. Lucas twice averaged at least 20 rpg during a season; the only other players who averaged at least 20 rpg during a season are Chamberlain (10 times), Russell (10 times), Nate Thurmond (two times) and Bob Pettit (one time).

Lucas won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award and the 1965 All-Star Game MVP. He finished fifth in the 1966 regular season MVP voting and he made the All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. He was a seven-time All-Star. Lucas was a member of the 1973 New York Knicks' championship team.

Like his New York teammate DeBusschere, Lucas was a rugged player who also had an excellent outside shooting touch. Lucas shot .499 from the field during his regular season career, the fifth best mark in pro basketball history when he retired, and he led the NBA in that category in the 1963-64 season. Lucas ranked eighth in the NBA in free throw percentage in 1964-65 and he shot .783 from the charity stripe for his career, a very good mark for a big man in that era.

Earl Monroe won the 1968 NBA Rookie of the Year award. The next season, he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection and he made the first of his four All-Star Game appearances. He scored at least 21.9 ppg in each of his first four NBA seasons with the Baltimore Bullets. Monroe was traded to the New York Knicks early in the 1971-72 season and he blended his talents with fellow future Hall of Famer Walt Frazier to form the "Rolls Royce" backcourt that led the Knicks to the 1972 NBA Finals before winning the 1973 championship. Monroe's scoring dipped early in his Knicks tenure but then he averaged 20.9 ppg, 20.7 ppg and 19.9 ppg in the three seasons after he turned 30; this is one example of individual numbers not telling the whole story: Monroe sacrificed personal glory for the greater good of winning a championship and then when the Knicks needed more scoring after some of their other great players retired, Monroe stepped up.

Players should be evaluated on skill set and impact and not just on statistics. Monroe had a tremendous skill set as a scorer and ballhandler and he had an outsized impact on the sport that goes far beyond his numbers. Before becoming an NBA star, Monroe set many records at Winston-Salem State while leading the team to the 1967 NCAA College Division title. Monroe averaged 41.5 ppg and he earned the "Earl the Pearl" nickname after a newspaper published a list of his high scoring games titled "Earl's Pearls." On the playgrounds, Earl was already known as "Black Jesus."

Robert Parish finished in the top five in the regular season MVP voting once and he earned two All-NBA selections but his prime years overlapped with the careers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone so he never made the All-NBA First Team. Parish made the All-Star team nine times, including seven straight selections during the 1980s (1981-87). He never averaged 20 ppg in a season, nor did he ever average more than 12.5 rpg in a season; his career was defined by consistency and durability as opposed to dominance. Parish was a key member of three Boston championship teams (1981, 84, 86) and he formed the "Big Three" with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, a trio that is perhaps the best frontcourt of all-time. Parish lasted in the NBA until he was 43 and he picked up a fourth championship ring as a little-used reserve for the 1997 Chicago Bulls. Parish never led the NBA in rebounding but he accumulated 10 top 10 finishes and he ranks ninth in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,715).

Nate Thurmond finished second in the 1967 NBA regular season MVP voting but he never made the All-NBA Team while playing in an era dominated by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (the MVP voting was conducted by the players at that time, while the All-NBA Team was selected by the media). The All-Defensive Team was not created until Thurmond's sixth season but he still made the squad five times, including two First Team selections. Thurmond was a seven-time All-Star.

Thurmond specialized in defense and rebounding but he averaged at least 20 ppg in five straight seasons during his prime. He averaged at least 10.4 rpg in each of this first 12 seasons but despite twice averaging over 20 rpg he never won a rebounding title. Thurmond was a great center who was overshadowed by Chamberlain and Russell early in his career and then Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed and Dave Cowens later in his career; each of those centers won at least one regular season MVP.

Unseld won the 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year and the 1969 NBA regular season MVP; that dual feat has only been matched by Chamberlain (1960 NBA) and Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA). He also earned his only All-NBA First Team selection that season. Unseld had a very good career but he never made the All-NBA Team after his rookie season and he never again finished higher than eighth in regular season MVP voting, though he did win the 1978 Finals MVP after leading the Washington Bullets to the title. Unseld made the All-Star team five times.

Unseld averaged at least 10 rpg in 12 of his 13 seasons, falling short only in his injury-riddled 1973-74 campaign--but he bounced back to lead the league with 14.8 rpg in 1974-75 and he also led the NBA in field goal percentage in 1975-76 (.561). Unseld's strengths were rebounding, passing (particularly outlet passing) and screen-setting. He never averaged more than 16.2 ppg and he only averaged more than 10 ppg once in his final eight seasons.

Bill Walton is perhaps the most difficult Top 50 candidate to evaluate. He led the league in rebounding and blocked shots in 1976-77 before capturing the 1977 Finals MVP as his Portland Trailblazers defeated the favored Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. Walton won the 1978 regular season MVP despite being limited to 58 games due to injury; the Trailblazers began the season 50-10 when Walton was healthy before going 8-14 down the stretch without him. Injuries forced Walton to miss three of the next four seasons and he only played 14 games in 1979-80.

Walton played in just 33, 55 and 67 games in the 1983-85 seasons, with his minutes per game averages declining each year. He was a solid player when he was on the court but he was not an All-Star; Walton's only All-Star selections happened in 1977 and 1978 and those were the only years that he earned All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors, making the All-Defensive First Team both seasons and the All-NBA First Team in 1978.

Walton joined the Boston Celtics for the 1985-86 season. Playing less than 20 mpg, he appeared in a career-high 80 games, shot a career-high .562 from the field and earned the Sixth Man of the Year Award as a key contributor to arguably the best of Larry Bird's three championship teams. Injuries limited Walton to 10 games in 1986-87 and he retired at 34 years of age after playing in just 468 regular season games.

Walton is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but of course the Hall of Fame also recognizes a player's collegiate career--and Walton is one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time. Walton played the equivalent of less than six NBA seasons. When he was healthy he was an elite player but he was healthy for a very limited amount of time.

James Worthy made the All-NBA Team just twice (as a Third Team selection in 1990 and 1991) but he made the All-Star team seven times and he won the 1988 Finals MVP. He was a key contributor to three Lakers' championship teams (1985, 87-88). He shot at least .531 from the field in each of his first eight seasons, using a tremendous first step and an outstanding ability to finish above the rim to frustrate even the league's best defensive players. Worthy averaged at least 20 ppg in four different regular seasons but he could have scored more points if he had not been playing alongside fellow future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He earned the nickname "Big Game James" and he lived up to that by increasing his scoring average from 17.6 ppg in the regular season to 21.1 ppg in the playoffs. He was a below average rebounder considering his 6-9 size and his leaping ability; Worthy never averaged more than 6.4 rpg in a season and he finished his career with a 5.1 rpg average. He was a solid passer and a decent defensive player. 

Lenny Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the 1968 NBA regular season MVP voting and he won the 1971 All-Star Game MVP. He made the All-Star team nine times and he led the league in assists in 1969-70 but he never was selected to the All-NBA team. Wilkens ranked in the top 10 in assists 12 times in his 15 seasons and he finished his career second on the all-time regular season assists list (he currently ranks 14th). Wilkens was primarily a playmaker but he was also a first rate scorer: he averaged at least 20 ppg in three different seasons and he has a higher career regular season scoring average (16.5 ppg) than several guards who are perhaps more renowned for scoring, including Gary Payton, Joe Dumars and Tony Parker. Wilkens, John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn are the only individuals inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach; Wilkens was inducted a third time as a member of the coaching staff of the 1992 United States Olympic "Dream Team."

Before evaluating Athlon's choices, it is clear from the capsule biographies above that the 11 players Athlon's did not include each accomplished a lot and each played at a very high level. There is a lamentable tendency in many quarters to reflexively discount the meaning or significance of anything that happened more than 20 or 30 years ago.

That being said, if the size of the list is being kept at 50 then Duncan, Bryant, Garnett and Iverson--four players who had not achieved prominence as of 1996--clearly deserve inclusion, which means that several players have to be removed to make room. McAdoo should have made the cut the first time. Kidd had such an impact on winning that I cannot leave him off of the list. Payton's longevity as a two-way player is noteworthy.

So, among the 22 players that Athlon's shuffled, I disagree about six of them: I would keep Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere in the Top 50 and I would thus decline to include Hawkins, McGinnis and Rodman. My reasoning is that Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere sustained a high level of play for longer than Hawkins and McGinnis, while Rodman was not quite multi-dimensional enough to move past Lucas or DeBusschere—two championship winning forwards who not only rebounded and defended but who also scored. It is tough to not include MVP winners Hawkins and McGinnis--who would each likely be on a list of the 50 most talented players of all-time--but sustained excellence is important.

Regarding the other players mentioned in this article, none of them quite measure up to their counterparts. Jones was a clutch performer but his individual resume does not stack up against his contemporary Greer and he was never in the running for best guard in the league like Kidd and Payton later were. Monroe had a short peak and was not as versatile as the guards ranked ahead of him. Parish and Thurmond were great centers but they were never the best or even second best in the league at their position during their careers. Unseld had one great year and then many very good ones; if he had not won one MVP then he probably would not be considered at all, so that one outlier season does not outweigh the body of work produced by the players ranked ahead of him. If Walton had been healthy, he might have been a top 10 or top 20 player--but he was not healthy and thus we are forced to evaluate him based on what he actually accomplished, not what might have been. Worthy was never close to being the best forward in the NBA and, while he may have posted gaudier individual numbers as a headliner for a less talented team, he benefited greatly from playing alongside many other great players. Worthy's resume is impressive and it is Hall of Fame caliber but it is just not enough to make this list; he should not have made it over, for instance, McAdoo back in 1996 and Athlon's was correct to leave him off in 2008.

---

Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

62 comments

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62 Comments:

At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 12:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Are there any other players you'd add (I assume at least Lebron and possibly Curry), and if so who would you subtract?

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 12:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

There are players who I would add but in this series of articles I am going to proceed step by step. The Athlon’s list that I evaluated here came out 10 years ago so I am saving my thoughts about LeBron and others for future articles that analyze lists of more recent vintage.

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 1:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iverson had a shortish career for all-time greats. He made 11 AS, should've been just 9. Only 7 all-nba teams(3 1st teams), 7 top 10 finishes for MVP(3 in top 5). He wasn't a good teammate overall, and only played on 2 teams that won 50 games. In 2 seasons with Melo, he managed just 1 playoff win. Not a whole lot of winning with AI. I know you're high on him, but other than being a volume scorer(a great volume scorer btw), it's hard to see his style and leadership(or lack thereof) as very conducive to winning.

Kidd had a great career, but I think it's overblown a bit much. Only 6 all-nba teams(5 1st teams). 5 top 10 MVP finishes with 10 AS teams. When he went to PHO, DAL didn't really get worse, and PHO didn't really get better(until later on when more pieces arrived). He won 1 playoff series in 5 seasons in PHO. He did well with the Nets, but he had a solid cast, and still managed just 1 50+ win season. He made 2 Finals, but the East was even worse back, not the same if in a tough conference. By the time he came to DAL, he was pretty much a full-blown role player.

Payton had 9 all-nba selections(though just 2 1st teams), 8 top 10 MVP finishes, and 9 AS teams. SEA won no fewer than 55 wins in 6 straight seasons from 93-98.

All 3 of these guys have strong cases overall, and against each other. But, I'm surprised why you think of Payton as clearly the weakest case between the 3. He sure seems to be overall better winner of the 3 and has mroe accolades, not including all-defensive teams, but clearly when you do include them. Iverson certainly has the best peak. Payton's peak is better than Kidd's though. Kidd was better passer/rebounder, but not scorer than Payton. Payton was a slightly below-average shooter, but managed a high FG pct., whereas Kidd finished at .400, which is terrible, even if he became an adequate 3-pt. shooter. Kidd maybe slightly better all-around player, but maybe not. If we include defense in that, even with Kidd's 9 all-defensive teams, Payton was still much better defensively, hard to say, but probably not.

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 1:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Gotcha.


A different question, then: Is there anyone who WOULD make your "50 Greatest Basketball Players" list but not "50 Greatest NBA Players?" Guys like Roger Brown, Arvydas Sabonis, etc?

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 1:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comments about McAdoo. Not sure if he deserves merit or not, his case seems close, but not arguing one way or another about him. But, if what you're saying about McAdoo is applied to everyone, then you're going to have to include Harden very very soon, if not already maybe. Unless something strange happens this year, Harden will win MVP(deservedly and clearly) this year. And Nash as well, though his MVPs were kind of fishy.

McAdoo had 7 seasons, maybe 8 tops of sustained excellence. This is Harden's 6th such season of excellence. So, if we're saying an MVP winner with sustained excellence deserves merit, and 7-8 seasons is sustained excellence, I'm liking Harden's chances. Harden already leads in AS selections: 6-5. McAdoo made just 2 all-nba teams(1 1st) to Harden's likely 5th this season(4 1sts if he gets 1 this year, which is likely). McAdoo had 4 top 10 MVP finishes(3 top 2). Harden will have 6 top 10 shortly(3 top 2). Harden's looking really good in comparison.

Harden already has a higher scoring average, and that's with 3 years coming off the bench, though McAdoo more-or-less played a full career, though only 852 games, meaning scoring goes down for players on the down-swing of their careers. McAdoo's only substantial playoff runs were as a role player with LAL. Riley might be right about needing him to win, even though coaches usually talk up about their players, but looks like McAdoo was only 7th man on those LAL title teams he was on.

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 3:01:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Also, a correction: Walt Bellamy was not on the original 1996 list but appears here without an asterisk. Not sure off the top of my head who they removed to accommodate him.

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 3:04:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Eyeballing the list, I think he replaced James Worthy with Walt Bellamy (which is probably defensible in a vacuum, though whether all the other remaining players are more, er, worthy than Worthy is a separate issue).

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 6:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Melo has not done a lot of winning in general, not counting his participation with Team USA. Iverson will always be a controversial player but his scoring and passing impacted the game more than you suggest.

You raise some valid points about Payton but my eyeball test rates Kidd ahead of him. I just trust Kidd more as a leader and as an all-around player. That is a subjective take and reasonable minds can disagree.

I don't know what to make of Harden now. He is having a bit more sustained regular season success than I expected and it will be interesting to see how far he can take Houston in the playoffs as a number one seed. Obviously, if he keeps adding to his resume in terms of MVP(s) and All-NBA selections then at some point he would merit Top 50 consideration but I just cringe at saying that about a player who is so lacking as a leader and as a defender.

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 6:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

This article (or, at least significant portions of it) disappeared multiple times due to Blogger malfunctions. Somehow, when I finally copied over the Word text into the template I just flat messed up. You are of course right that Athlon's added Bellamy and subtracted Worthy. The article has been fixed accordingly. Thank you for pointing this out. Unlike some media outlets, I will acknowledge and correct mistakes (I am still waiting for Chess Life Online to admit that they misspelled the name of U.S. Chess Hall of Famer Anatoly Lein in their obituary for him and I am appalled that instead of admitting their error they just deleted my comment about it; they eventually fixed the mistake but they never noted that they had to make a correction).

 
At Tuesday, April 03, 2018 9:21:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

No worries, happens to the best of us. Glad I could help it.

On the Harden point, I'd need to see him do something of merit as the best guy on a playoff team before I'd consider him worthy of even entering the conversation, but his regular season numbers and results are certainly adding up. Ditto for Westbrook, actually.

I know you're not getting to it yet, but for funsies these are the current players I think are definitely/obviously worthy of inclusion:

Lebron
Curry


And here are the "I think so, but I'd have to see who I'd take off":

Durant
Wade

And, just for funsies, here are the retired guys I'd also think about (beyond those already mentioned):

Artis Gilmore (definitely)
Bernard King (borderline but probably not once you add in the Kobe/Duncan/Nowitzkis of the world)
Roger Brown (darkhorse)


Last but not least the "not yet, but I won't be shocked if you get there eventually""

Giannis
Anthony Davis
Klay/Draymond*
Westbrook/Harden**
Chris Paul***

*If the Warriors dynasty gets long enough, it will get harder and harder to keep them out. Winning is part of the equation, and while Curry/KD are better, those two are a big part of their winning, similar to Jones/Cousy/Sharman/Havlicek on Russell's Celtics.

**If they translate their videogame numbers into meaningful postseason success and/or improve defensively.

*** He'd probably need to be the best player on a title team to break into the conversation at this point, but if Golden State is hobbled and Harden chokes again, that could theoretically happen this year.

There are a few others who are too young to seriously consider yet but might have the upside (thinking especially of Ben Simmons here, whose ceiling might be "Magic on O, Pippen on D" but it's wayyyyyy too soon to predcit something like that yet).


So, as you noted, there's probably about 75-100 legit contenders for fifty spots. Fun project, can't wait to see where your list ends up!

 
At Wednesday, April 04, 2018 4:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't comparing Melo to AI, Kidd, or Payton or debating his case against them. What I was saying was that AI was playing alongside another star, who most would say was DEN's best player in 07/08, and AI(and Melo) could only manage to go 1-8 in the playoffs in 2 seasons. I don't see a whole lot of winning out of either of them. Since you brought up Team USA, it is worth noting Melo has played key roles on several gold medal teams, whereas AI(and Duncan) led Team USA to a pitiful bronze in 2004, easily the worst showing for Team USA ever in the Olympics.

Harden has already surpassed McAdoo in almost every way and then some as far as accolades go, and I suspect he'll have several more high-quality years left in him given his great durability. It seems like you think McAdoo should be considered top 50 given what you wrote about him. Harden has already done more in the playoffs as a #1 guy than McAdoo, too. I'm confused why you think Harden needs to do even more to merit 'some' consideration.

Maybe Harden isn't a great leader or defender, but you're way overexaggerating this stuff. Olajuwon led his HOU teams to just 5 50-win seasons out of 17. Harden already has 4 50-win seasons out of 6 with HOU, plus the only 60-win season in HOU history this year. He's doing something right. Not saying Harden is better than Olajuwon, but this is quite impressive. This year's HOU team is probably his first real chance to win a title.

His defense is bad, really bad, sometimes, and had 2-3 not-so-good years. But, he was a good defender with OKC, and his defense has really picked up. He's definitely not going to be considered for all-defensive team. But, even the top 50 list is littered with guys who were really never or should've never been considered, too. Steals/blocks might not mean much sometimes, but he's an elite steals/blocks guy for his position. He defends the post well for anyone, but especially for his size. He gets lots of deflections, and is an elite defensive rebounder for his position. He does lots of good things on defense.

 
At Wednesday, April 04, 2018 4:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, how in the world are you putting Curry ahead of KD? Or even Curry ahead of Wade? I bet Curry will never win Finals MVP. Wade should have 2, if James didn't choke in the 2011 Finals. Wade was probably best player in that series, too, but his team didn't win. Maybe when Curry retires, he'll be ahead of Wade, but not yet.

What we're seeing this year is a reoccurring theme for Curry. He almost always gets hurt every season or at the very least wears down in the playoffs. This is partially what happened in the 2015 Finals, where he was probably only the 3rd best player in that series, same in the 2017 Finals(maybe just 4th best player that series).

KD has been a much better performer consistently and peak for the regular season and playoffs than Curry for the careers. KD has clearly been GS best player once he joined them.

 
At Wednesday, April 04, 2018 5:24:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick, curious about Wade. My opinion on him is, he had arguably the greatest season of any shooting guard not named Michael Jordan. But, his peak was maybe 7 years. He's only averaged something like 65 games a season, and he was the best player on a championship team once. To go with David's methodology, he was never the best player in the NBA (though, you could argue he had the best season back in 09), his peak was short, and as we see currently, his game doesn't even translate the entirety of his career, let alone across all generations of hoops. He is a subpar freethrow shooter, and for much of his career, a below subpar three-point shooter. He makes the top 100. But not my top 50.

 
At Wednesday, April 04, 2018 6:39:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

All fair points, and part of why I wasn't willing to just say "he's in." That said, I think he's probably the fourth or fifth greatest two-guard of all time and it's hard for me to imagine him missing out on that logic (which is not to say there should be exactly ten players from every position, more just a gut feeling). Looking at the other sub-Kobe/West 2s already in the list-- Sam Jones, George Gervin, Dave Bing, Clyde Drexler-- I feel like I'd take Wade over most or all of them. The real question is whether or not there's still room for him after adding in all the "definitely should be there" types like Kobe/Duncan/James or if they bump out all the lower-tier 2s before he gets a chance to.

I'd say Wade was pretty darn good from '05 to about '13, with starts and sputters for a few years thereafter. I think that prime (8 years) is competitive with guys like Bing (11 years, probably a 7 or 8 year prime), Jones (11 years, 7 year prime), etc. Drexler and Gervin had longer primes but accomplished less, and neither were ever the best player on a title team... though I'd hesitate a little before taking Wade over Drexler, I do think his peak value is higher.

 
At Wednesday, April 04, 2018 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan, why do you think Wade's 09 season was so great? MIA lost in the 1st round, and Kobe was still the best player in the league. There's probably at least 8-9 seasons of Kobe that I'd take over Wade's best season.

Fair points about Wade; however, I wouldn't say a .767 FT shooter isn't subpar. I could be wrong, but I generally think of an average FT shooter around .750ish. He was a bad 3-pt shooter, but so was Jordan and others. Having about 7 peak years with 12 AS selections, that's better than several other top 50 players. He's won 3 titles, and was arguably the best player in 2 of his 5 Finals appearances.

There's plenty of guys in the top 50 who were never the best player in the NBA for any given time. Some of the guys I talked about earlier(Iverson, Payton, Kidd) were never the best player in the NBA among others. Iverson should never have won that MVP over Shaq. I'd take Wade over these 3 guys. A good point by Nick, that if you're a top 5 player for your position, it's kind of hard to not make the top 50. And it'd be pretty hard to not think of Wade as at least the 5th best SG of all-time.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Regarding your earlier question, I am not sure how I would construct a list of 50 Greatest Basketball Players. How does one compare Oscar Schmidt to the greatest NBA players of all-time? Should Cynthia Cooper and other WNBA superstars be in the mix somehow? Such a list would be interesting but I am not quite sure how to do it. For now, I am going to stick to this NBA Greatest Players project.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 7:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

1) McAdoo excelled as an elite scorer, rebounder and shotblocker in an era that featured much more physical contact. To this point, I do not find Harden's scoring/playmaking to be equivalent to McAdoo's skill set. McAdoo would thrive in this era; Harden would be an All-Star in any era but--unless he played a lot differently--his numbers would be much lower in earlier eras, because defenses would be able to get away with hand checking and many of Harden's assists would not be tallied as assists.

2) My point about Melo is not that Team USA performance should be factored into putting together a Top 50 list but rather that as the best player on a team he has never had much impact on winning (outside of his brief time at Syracuse, of course). I disagree with the notion that Iverson had less impact on winning than Melo did/does.

3) I mentioned Harden in this comment only because you specifically compared him to McAdoo, but regarding Curry, Durant, Wade and other players not mentioned in Part II , those players will be discussed in future articles in this series; I am going to hold off on comparing them to each other or to players on the 1996 list until I publish those articles.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 11:38:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Follow up question, then: for this particular project, would ABA production still count (since the leagues merged, you could argue it's part of the same lineage)? While Doc/Moses probably make it either way, I imagine that could matter quite a bit for guys like Barry and especially Gilmore.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 1:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

1) I always cringe when you or whoever mention the greater physicality of different eras. The rules have changed now(for the better, I might add). It's not even possible for that type of game to occur today, nor should it. Players are more athletic and stronger today than ever before, too. I'm confident today's players would do just fine in any era. Cleaning up the game is a good thing. They changed the continuation rules this year, primarily because of Harden, and he's still averaging 10+ FT/game. Most of the all-time greats knew how to get a bunch of FTs/game in any era. I'm sure Harden would've figured out a way, especially as strong as he is.

I think you're missing my point completely though. You're saying an MVP winner with sustained excellence should probably make the cut. I don't know if I agree with that necessarily, but you need to be consistent applying that same logic to everyone. I might've been generous giving McAdoo 7-8 years of sustained excellence when he only made 5 AS teams, while Harden has 6-7 years of excellence with 6 AS teams already, including better accolades overall, and who knows what the future will bring, but I suspect at least 3-4 more seasons like this from Harden. Plus, and possibly most importantly, Harden has been a much better winner(regular season and playoffs) than McAdoo was, unless you want count McAdoo's 2 titles as a 7th man late in his career as being weighted a lot in his favor. That's like David Lee or David West on recent GS title teams. We can quibble about who was better overall skill-wise or whatever, not gonna get into that much, but Harden's already averaging 23, 5, 6 on a very efficient .608 TS% for his career even with 3 seasons coming off the bench. He matches up extremely well.

2) I wasn't saying Melo was a better winner than AI or had a higher impact on winning than AI, but he has a case. DEN hadn't made the playoffs in 9 years until Melo arrived, which they made it every year he was with them. AI had some better playoff runs(barely), but he missed the playoffs a lot more, when each were in their primes. And if AI played in the West, his runs would've been worse. He wouldn't have made the Finals if he had to go up against the 09 Lakers either. It'd be tough comparing these 2. Neither was a good teammate, and not as good as their stats might indicate, plus not enough winning.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 4:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting you bring up the criticism Kobe often gets for somewhat imitating Jordan's game. This is kind of weird because when people talk about this, it should be a positive, not a negative. Why more players today don't do this is beyond me. And there's only so many moves possible with possible additional minor tweaks. For example, everyone has a crossover to some extent today if you're a ball-handler.

Also, what most don't realize or say is that Jordan did the same thing with previous greats before him to an extent, and so forth down the line. Kobe is probably the player who takes moves from previous/current players the most when he played though, it wasn't just Jordan. He took stuff from Oscar, Olajuwon, even Dirk, to name a few. And then added his own flare and his new moves sometimes, usually improving on the moves from those he learned from. Every player is different, but it doesn't really make much sense to keep reinventing the wheel.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 4:33:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Anonymous, just to clarify, I mistyped. Meant to say, “best player in the NBA at his position.” Iverson (MVP), Payton (DPY, went to finals against MJ, best player on an NBA finals team), and Kidd (2 trips to the finals as the lead engine) could all make that claim. But as you pointed out, Kobe firmly had hold of that title during Wade’s prime.

I don’t know if Shaq deserved the MVP more (my inner Laker fan believes “eff yes he did”), despite clearly being the NBA’s best player that season. Shaq had a better cast and a just about to hit superduperstar status Bryant on his team. Iverson’s team was built of elite defensive players, but none of them were much better than average offensively, and didn’t space the floor. I see Iverson and Wade similarly. Wade was a better defender, but Iverson played a lot more minutes and never had just-past-his-prime Shaq or in-his-absolute-prime Lebron to play with.

Regarding Wade’s 08-09 season, I honestly put that in there to qualify my entire argument against him. But, just looking at what he was able to accomplish that season, with that supporting cast (which rivals Bryant’s Kwame/Smush/Walton/Odom 05 season) is jaw dropping. He averaged 1.3 blocks and over 2 steals, 30 points, 7 dimes, and shot 49% from the field and dragged that team into the playoffs. Yeah, they only won 43 games and lost in the first round to a Hawks team that got swept in the second by Lebron, but again, Wade’s supporting cast was…not good (J O’Neal and Marion only played a combined 70 games for the team that year, the next best player was Mario Chalmers or Michael Beasley).

As for Wade’s 7-8 peak years, my feeling is that should come with an asterisk. If you go from age 23 to 29, he’s got a pair of 51 game seasons. If you go from 25 to 31, he’s still got that pair, but adds in a 49-game season. And, strictly by the numbers, age 30 and 31 seasons aren’t all that elite. I agree with you and Nick about top 5 players, however, is Wade? Wade was not durable and could only be counted on for 65% of any given season on average. Whereas guys like Ray Allen or Vince Carter, while not as high of peaks, certainly had more sustained success. I’m not rating either over Wade, but career totals, not just averages certainly should be a big factor in determining greatness. If we’re strictly talking peaks, I’d rate McGrady over Wade. McGrady had no skillset weakness and carried an even worse Orlando Magic team to the playoffs. And, McGrady never played with any truly elite healthy talent (not counting his stint with Kawaii and Duncan). There’s a strong argument to be made for Clyde Drexler as a top 5 shooting guard as well.
When you factor in how many other truly elite players there are at other positions, even if Wade is a top 5 shooting guard, that doesn’t necessarily place him in the top 50.

So…Wade. His entire case is based off of 3 truly elite seasons (one of which only consisted of 51 games and resulted in a first round sweep), his epic Finals against Dallas, and his 3 rings. All-Star selections were in a weak East and as a popular player, he was typically voted in by fans. Outside of that, the only other outstanding differentiator that sets him apart, is his ability to block shots.

My biggest beef against him, is he never added to his skillset. Give him credit for altering his play style to accommodate the King, but he never evolved as a player. He never improved his weaknesses (which...to me, will also be the argument against Harden if his career continues along its current trajectory regardless of his video game like numbers. He's like tripled down on his 3s and freethrows style, we'll see how that works out in the playoffs. (It's also the argument against Nash...who tbf, wasn't blessed with the body of Harden or Wade, let alone Kobe or Jordan)).

I mean, look at how Lebron’s game has changed. Kobe changed his game. Jordan changed his game. Wade…is still the same Wade he was back in 03. Just minus the elite athleticism.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 6:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I don't think as simple as "who won the most" or "who had the highest peak" or "who had the longest peak." It's a combination of all of them, right? I'd take Wade's peak over everyone else we're talking about (including T-Mac, who was never the same kind of defender apex Wade was IMO), and I think his success is pretty impressive too. Your points about his injury issues are well taken, but a guy missing twenty games a year is still making a consistently significant impact for his team in a way, say, Bill Walton or Ralph Sampson couldn't.

Wade vs. Drexler is a tough one for me, and Allen is an interesting case as well (and probably should have been on my initial maybe list), but I'd still take Wade over Bing, Sam Jones, Gervin (though I love Gervin), T-Mac, and just about anyone else. Gun to my head, I'd take him over Drexler or Allen, too--I think Wade's advantages in peak value and team success outweigh their superior durability, but that's probably a question of personal preference-- I just wouldn't feel great about it.

I don't feel like Carter is in the same league as any of those guys, personally, but different strokes. He never made the Finals, and a case could be made that several of the playoff teams he joined were actually stronger without him (New Jersey and Orlando). Great scorer, and he eventually evolved into an interesting role player, but he was never much of a winner (and was a mostly poor defender in his prime).

If there's something that keeps Wade out for me (and I don't know, I haven't sat down and attempted the list) it'd be because the preponderance of great players at other positions squeezed out every other 2 guard except Jordan/West/Kobe. Not ruling that out, but at a gut level I feel like the 4th best 2 is probably better than the 15th best 5. I might be wrong there, but for now my hunch says I'm not.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 7:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that you're going to discuss Nowitzki in a future article but would you say that he was a top 50 player by 2008? Athlon has Garnett at 22nd and it seems hard to believe that he is thirty or so spots ahead of Dirk even in 2008, especially considering that Dirk completely outplayed him in the 2002 playoffs. I also realize that Nowitzki's stock was at its lowest in 2008 after several unthinkably disappointing postseasons.

 
At Thursday, April 05, 2018 11:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan, I was referring to your first sentence claiming Wade had the best season ever for a SG not named Jordan, or maybe that's what you were clarifying, not sure. Kobe had many better seasons than 2009 Wade.

I wouldn't say Wade had enough to win a title or anything, but he had a lot more help in 2009 than 2006 Kobe did after looking at their rosters. And 2006 PHO was much better than 2009 ATL.

Wade has actually played just over 80% of possible regular season games, not 65%. But, you're right that he's been injury prone. But, that's still a lot of games played, especially since he's averaged 34.6mpg for his career.

There's some other quality SGs out there: Gervin, Drexler, Iverson, Allen. But, I like Wade over all of them, except maybe Drexler. Wade hasn't had as much longevity as most of these other top SGs, but he played a very high level longer, and his peak was longer/better. Drexler had 7 seasons averaging 20ppg and 5 all-nba teams. Wade had 10 seasons averaging 20ppg and 8 all-nba teams plus 3 all-defensive teams. And Wade was the best player on a title team plus the #2 guy on 2 other title teams. I'm taking Wade over Drexler. Maybe someone likes Drexler better or maybe Allen or Iverson better potentially, but it's so hard to keep Wade outside of top 5 for SGs.

McGrady played with Yao for several years and had some quality casts, but still didn't win a playoff series.

Wade put up some pretty big numbers each season from 05-11. And then he had to take a backseat to James for several years after that, but still had very good seasons from 12-17, that looks better than Drexler to me, but I see what you're saying. Wade made 12 AS teams, but a couple look a little weak. Drexler made 10 AS teams, but 4-5 of his look weak. They each missed a substantial amount of games in several of their AS seasons.

I understand your disapproval of Wade not changing his game, but this should have nothing to do with how we analyze/compare players. It's not about what we'd like to see or potential in a player, it's about what they actually accomplish. Obviously, Wade isn't even close to Kobe or Jordan, nor would he still be if he worked on his game more throughout his career, though he'd be closer. If you can get away with 1 move or limited moves or whatever, then so be it.

I understand what you're saying about Harden, though he excels everywhere except midrange, which is more of his team philosophy than his inability in that part of the game. Harden draws double teams by driving mostly, not from posting up. There's different ways to go about it. But, I do think HOU's philosophy leads to move volatile results and ups/downs for their team and for Harden at times. However, having too many options is sometimes a bad thing. It's often better to simplify things. If the pick n roll is working, then keep doing it. Not to get into tennis too much, but this reminds of Dimitrov or Kyrgios. They're phenomenal talents and can make all the shots, but this is a bad thing as they try things they should rarely try too often.

And no, #4 or #5 at a position doesn't necessarily qualify you for top 50 status, but after looking at all who's in there, including guys with strong cases like Iverson/Kidd/Payton, I'm pretty confident putting Wade clearly in there.

 
At Friday, April 06, 2018 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree in principle that cleaning up the game is a good thing. My point in this context is that 30 ppg in the current era--particularly by a perimeter player--is not the same as 30 ppg in an earlier era. The evolution of the game's rules has helped guys like Nash, Harden and Curry tremendously. Those guys would be All-Stars in any era but I am not sure that they would be MVP candidates in any era (particularly Nash and Harden).

Regarding specific rankings for several of the players being discussed in this thread, I am going to hold off until I post the subsequent articles in this series. The focus of each article is breaking down a specific list that was created subsequent to the "official" one. In the end, all of the relevant players will be analyzed but because of the approach that I am taking it would be unwieldy to not only analyze the 20 or so players each new list shuffled but also the players not mentioned.

I hope that make sense and I appreciate everyone's interest/patience as I post each article in the series.

 
At Friday, April 06, 2018 7:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The original 1996 list includes the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Athlon's list is the 50 Greatest Pro Basketball Players. Although this series of articles contains NBA in the title, I am taking an approach more in line with Athlon's. That being said, I don't think that any "pure" or predominantly ABA players will make the cut; for instance, Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins belong in the HoF without question but when I look at Pantheon or even "just" Top 50 I think that longevity at high peak value is important. It would be very hard to make my Top 50 or Pantheon with careers like Brown's or Hawkins' (or Walton's, to cite a purely NBA guy), because there are just too many great players who sustained high level success for longer periods. There is not a cap on the number of HoFers, but there is a cap for Pantheon and Top 50 status, so one of the ways to separate players is longevity.

 
At Friday, April 06, 2018 11:11:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That's fair. It's always tough to make that secret sauce of peak/longevity/success, though. I may not have Walton/Hawkins/Brown on my Top 50 guys I'd want for a career, but they'd probably all make my Top 50 guys I'd want for a season, a series, or a game.

My ABA question most affects Gilmore, I think. Barry's probably in regardless (and Doc/Moses definitely are), and as you pointed out Brown/Hawkins don't have the longevity. I am curious where you end up landing on Gilmore--who was probably the second best center of the 70s IMO, but had his very best years in the ABA before he lost his explosiveness--and to a lesser extent, Billy Cunningham (whose resume definitely benefits from his ABA play, though his prime may be too short even with it).

 
At Friday, April 06, 2018 2:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, if we look back at scoring/defense in every era, it was often much easier to have high averages in many other eras. Today's team defenses are much more sophisticated today. In other eras, star players played probably 6-10 mpg more than they do now. However, this fact probably led to these players getting hurt more and playing fewer seasons, similar to how most MLB teams handle their pitchers. And pace was often much quicker in the past. There's no magical formula to account for pace. But, if I remember correctly, McAdoo's 1975 team had 10 more possessions/game than 2018 HOU does, plus he played 6-8mpg more in 1975 than Harden does this season. That's a lot more possessions to work with. You bring up easier rules today; however, defenses are better, and there's other variables to look at, too. I'm not convinced individual scoring is easier today. I see advantages/disadvantages in most eras, hard to often tell. I only brought up Harden because I know how low you are on him, but by looking at his career(which is likely far from over) compared to McAdoo's, I don't see much to put McAdoo ahead of him right now even. For the record, Harden likely shouldn't be in top 50, even with 3 top 2 MVP finishes and 4 1st teams after this season is over likely. But, if you're saying McAdoo likely should, then Harden should, too.

I just looked up Cousy, who was a great player. He averaged 6.2 FT/game for his career for a small, non-bruiser PG. He also averaged 5.2rpg for his career. I'm pretty sure a big, physical guard like Harden or Kobe or whoever who were attackers would be averaging plenty of FTs in Cousy's era. Plus, with all the extra possessions floating around in his era with higher minutes played from stars and often shorter rotations, Cousy looks like an elite rebounder for a PG. I suppose that's possible, but I highly doubt it.

 
At Friday, April 06, 2018 5:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After looking at Unseld deeper, I'm confused why he won MVP, strange voting that year. Wilt averaged 20.5/21.1 and led the league in rebounding/FG pct/MPG. And his MVP season doesn't even look like his best season. There seems to be many better choices than him in 1969, maybe even on his own team. Getting swept in his lone playoff series doesn't help his case either.

It's interesting you say Unseld led his team to the title in 1978, but did he really, even though he won Finals MVP, which doesn't seem like he should've? And he doesn't even look like a special case like Kawhi or Iggy only being their team's best player in the Finals or almost primarily just the Finals. He was 3rd on his team in mpg and just 9th in ppg for the regular season. Rebounding was his strength, but he didn't even lead the team in rebounding either. In the Finals, Elvin Hayes was the dominant force, not Unseld. Unless Unseld was playing amazing defense, which he wasn't known for, making no all-defensive teams for his career, it doesn't quite add up. Looks like he was an importance piece to the team, but hardly the team's best player. Hayes was the only AS on the Bullets in 1978. Dandridge would make it in 1979. Unseld's last AS campaign was 3 years earlier in 1975.

 
At Saturday, April 07, 2018 1:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that defenses are more sophisticated today--but in previous eras the game was much more physical and the three point shot did not exist prior to the 1979-80 season (except in the ABA, of course). So, players who depend on spacing the floor, shooting three pointers and drawing fouls at the slightest contact would be at a disadvantage in earlier eras. That is all that I am saying about guards of recent vintage, particularly players like two-time MVP Steve Nash and this season's presumptive MVP Harden, neither of whom likely would have been MVPs in previous eras.

I agree with you that there are many variables to consider, but the change in physicality is a very significant one.

I agree that Unseld's regular season MVP is anomalous. I think that he had a HoF caliber career but not a 50 Greatest Players caliber career. Unseld was valued for intangibles that he contributed such as outlet passing, screen-setting and leadership but you are correct that Chamberlain had a better season and should have won that particular MVP.

 
At Saturday, April 07, 2018 11:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Players will eventually adjust to different rules. We see this yearly when there's rule changes. Today's players aren't suddenly worse than previous eras, actually quite the contrary. And bigger/stronger on average, too, meaning they should do better in a more physical era than the players that played in those eras. We can't see how today's players would do in a more physical era or vice versa. I see advantages for great individual offensive players back in older eras, too.

There's not too many MVPs who didn't rely on getting to the line a bunch in any era. As I already mentioned Cousy as one example. If he's doing it, I have no doubt guys like RW or Harden would be able to get the line a lot in that era. 6.2 FT/game for a small PG who played below the rim seems like quite a bit to me even if he was very active. I'm not going to look into it much, but I suspect the amount of fouls/team/season has been fairly consistent in NBA history, but I could be wrong. I actually just looked at 2 different seasons: 2018 and 1968. I guess I was wrong. Teams average 21.7 FT/game in 2018 compared to 37.1 FT/game in 1968. That's pretty alarming. Looks like it was much easier to draw fouls and get FTs in the 'physical' era.

Harden's putting up 30, 5, 9 as clearly the best player on his team with very efficient shooting on a 64-16 team, who has easily been the best regular season team this season. His numbers are ridiculously great, and better than lots of previous MVP seasons. He's playing in an era with James, KD, RW, and Curry, who are all potential top 30 all-time players possibly, plus who knows what we'll see from the current younger players like Giannis and Simmons to name 2. He stacks up very well, at least for the regular season.

Unseld seems like a weird case, and he probably should've been barely top 10 in MVP voting the year he won, but his team had the best record, and the voters must've deemed him the best player on his team plus had voter fatigue on others probably amongst other reasons to vote for him or vote against others. I contest he was his team's best player in 1978 though. Maybe he was in the Finals, though that looks very dicey and unlikely but maybe his intangibles were so great possibly, but Hayes looks clearly like the team's best player overall.

 
At Sunday, April 08, 2018 9:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

We are talking about two different (or perhaps several different) things. You make some valid points but you are not addressing my point. My point is that the game has been officiated much differently for the past decade or so. Harden, Nash and others benefit from the fact that if a defender gets anywhere near them then a defensive foul is called. So, this is not just about fouls called or free throws attempted but also about a general freedom of movement on the perimeter. I did not say that this is a bad thing (or that it is a good thing); I simply have emphasized that it is difficult to directly compare statistics (particularly those of perimeter players) across eras. Harden's 30-10 is just not the same as Nate Archibald's.

Regarding free throw attempts, bear in mind that the NBA used to have a 3 to make 2 rule. Also, teams often intentionally fouled Wilt Chamberlain (and, presumably, other bad free throw shooters) and in a league with fewer players/teams that can skew the free throws attempted numbers.

The changes I am talking about have nothing to do with players being bigger and stronger. Harden is a big, strong dude who whines every time someone breathes on him. If he had done that in previous eras, he would have been knocked to the ground or guys would have fought him to get him to stop those antics. He would have faced a much different playing environment than the one that he is in now. I don't want to say that it is easy to get 25 or 30 ppg, because such numbers are not easy in any league, but let's just say that Harden is in a perfect situation: right era, right coach, right supporting cast. It is quite telling that Harden's production and consistency typically plummet in the playoffs, when the game slows down and becomes more physical (i.e., it becomes more like it was in previous eras). His playoff performance this season will tell us a lot more about who he really is (or has become) as a player.

 
At Sunday, April 08, 2018 2:57:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

David,
while I agree with your arguments on previous eras, I think players like Harden would either adjust and played the way it was played back then, or be out of the league. It's mentality thing and Harden in say 60s wouldn't be the same Harden as in 2018. He would probably evolved as other players back then. So even mental exercise of putting today players back then is severely lacking.

 
At Monday, April 09, 2018 2:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I get your point about the game being officiated differently now than in previous eras. However, a lot less fouls are being called now with fewer FTAs/game. I don't think you're understanding this last part. Even with what you're saying, it still doesn't really support your conclusion on the matter.

Just looking at 3 different spread-out seasons:

1968: 37.1 FTA/game, 26.3 PF/game
1983: 28.3 FTA/game, 25.6 PF/game
2018: 21.7 FTA/game, 19.9 PF/game

These are huge differences. You make a good point about the 3-FT rule, which was changed in 1982. However, players/teams in previous eras were still getting more FTA/game and many more PF were being called. There's several reasons for these differences probably. Defenses weren't as good back then is one. But, even with all of this increased physicality and supposedly lack of whistles(which doesn't look to be the case), players were getting more FTs than nowadays. There's strong evidence to suggest guys like Harden and RW would get even more FTs back in previous eras.

Back to the 3-FT rule and what you're saying Wilt. Even if teams are routinely intentionally fouling someone like Wilt, this would make almost no sense back in the 3-FT rule days. Wilt's career FT pct. is .511, which is terrible. However, if he was able to get 3 FTs to make 2, his pct. would be predicted out to be .767, which was above average. And at that pct., his team offense would be the best offense of all-time if he shot FTs at that pct. on each possession. Nobody is going to intentionally foul a .767 FT shooter. Plus, Wilt's defense would be able to get set after his FTs. And, teams had fewer players and shorter rotations in Wilt's day, meaning that's there less invaluable guys to be able to waste fouls. This couldn't last long.

Not sure what Cousy's FTA/game would be today or without the 3-FT rule, but he shot .803 for his career. He was still getting a lot of FTAs. Harden would definitely get a lot more than him in that era.

Harden's hardly the one player who whines. Almost every NBA player does, and guys like KD, RW, and Howard whine much more than Harden. James does a lot, too. Kobe did, Jordan did. It's been going on for awhile. Wilt/Russell would be whining a lot today, too. It's the culture of the NBA now. If today's players played in the 60s, they'd be whining a lot less if any. You can't just say because someone does such and such today, that they'd be in trouble 50 years ago, and it goes both ways. That's just too simplistic.

There are some great scorers in the NBA today, and only one of them is averaging 30ppg. Harden's numbers are down in the playoffs, but they're not plummeting. He's still been putting up huge numbers lately on average. And defenses are typically much better in the playoffs than what you see on average during the regular season. The problem with him, which you've talked about before, is that his game is volatile and subject to a lot of ups/downs, which I agree with. He has some phenomenal games, but then some really bad games. That's the nature of his team's philosophy shooting lots of 3's.

 
At Tuesday, April 10, 2018 7:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Again, you are missing my point. My point is not about merely how many fouls are called per game or how many free throws are attempted. If you breathe on a perimeter player now, that is a foul. This means that perimeter players have freedom of movement now that they did not have in past eras. Prime Jordan would average 40 ppg on .550 shooting every season under these rules.

Players may have adjusted to the new rules and thus have fewer fouls called against them now than in the past but that does not alter the validity of my point; in fact, it emphasizes it.

Even if more fouls were called in previous seasons, that does not prove that the game was less physical. The literal definition of a foul has changed--and the way that games are called/managed has changed--and that has implications in terms of how the game is played as well as the statistics posted by various players. Maybe Harden would adjust to other rules, maybe not--but the reality is that his 30-10 numbers are not being posted under the same circumstances as Nate Archibald's. As I noted, Harden's poor playoff numbers hint at how he would do under different rules, because the playoffs are more physical than the regular season. Harden has been a subpar playoff performer, which is something even his strongest advocates admit.

 
At Thursday, April 12, 2018 4:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, again, no I'm not. I understand what you're saying, but the bottomline is that much fewer fouls are being called today than in 'the physical era' with fewer FTs being handed out. The officials are still letting the players the game and/or today's players have learned not to foul as much. This hardly supports your point of today's players being able to draw a lot of fouls in previous eras. With all the fouls called and sloppy defense from the past, great players who know how to draw fouls in any era would be cashing in at the FT line. Jordan played in a very-high efficiency era where guys could barely breathe on him for most of his career. I wouldn't expect him to score more today.

The NBA's rules don't change in the playoffs. Most players do at least slightly worse in the playoffs as compared to the regular season, depending on what defense you go up against. Harden went up against 2 top-notch defenses last year with great defensive players hounding him constantly. Yes, he shot worse and his production decreased from the regular season, naturally, but he still put up big numbers. And averaged 10.5 FTA/game during the 2017 playoffs. He still gets a huge amount of FTs in the playoffs.

 
At Friday, April 13, 2018 2:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

What you call "players learning not to foul" is what I call perimeter players having a license to kill. Harden is a big, strong dude who roams around outside untouched. When he goes into the lane, he flails and begs for the foul; defenders either back away or get called for fouls. Smart defenders who play Harden straight up with "high hands" (as Popovich instructs the Spurs to do) are rewarded with Harden misses, particularly in the playoffs, but it is tough to guard a guy like Harden when the rules are so stacked in favor of the offense now.

If Jordan had played in an era when no one could touch him he would have been unguardable. Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg one year as a non-three point shooter who knew that he would be slammed to the ground on many of his drives. In the current era when defenders flee to avoid being posterized as opposed to contesting shots at the rim, there would have been no way to stop Jordan from shooting a very high percentage from the field--and we know that Jordan would have not thought twice about shooting 25 times a game.

On the flip side, if Harden knew that he might be slammed to the ground on a drive then he probably would not drive as much and he definitely would not flail/flop as much. All of those dramatics would have just been turnovers in the 1980s. If Harden did continue to drive, then he would take a pounding that would wear him down over time and that would affect his statistics.

To get a sense of how the game has changed, listen to some of the old referees talking to players before playoff games in previous eras; I remember a Philly-Lakers game in the 1980s which Philly was complaining about the Lakers being physical and the ref told both teams something to the effect that the game would be played body to body in the paint and you would have to jump to get rebounds. If there was body contact after that, then a foul might be called. Today, guys lock arms and the whistle blows before much contact at all has been made. Compare the All-Star Games of recent vintage to the All-Star Games of the past and the difference in physicalilty/intensity is obvious. Up to half of the league is actively tanking; do you think those teams care if Harden scores 30 points against them?

Arguing that today's game is as physical or more physical than the game was in previous eras is, honestly, just asinine. I have tried to be polite in this conversation but you are either deliberately missing the point or just not able to follow what I am saying.

Also, if you really think that the NBA is not officiated differently in the playoffs then I don't know what to tell you.

You are so focused on the FTA part of the equation that you keep missing my main point: in today's game, defenders cannot touch perimeter players and that gives the offensive players a major advantage. That advantage manifests itself not just in FTA but also in the ability to easily get open.

 
At Friday, April 13, 2018 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

I agree with you that offensive players too often get the benefit of the doubt in today’s NBA. At times, and especially with a player as divisive as Harden, to a frustrating degree. But I think Anonymous’ overall point is valid. Smart players (crafty, sneaky, cheap – choose your descriptor) in any era found ways to get to the foul line based on the rules/playing styles of that era.

While today’s game is a lot less physical (especially for wing players, as bigs still take a beating), the NBA has evolved. Today’s defenses are far more sophisticated. The majority of NBA players (or, the most successful ones) take full advantage (and, to be honest, even taking half advantage is still light years ahead of where players were 20 years ago) of video. Video of the opposing team’s offensive sets. Video of the specific tendencies of every player. Video in super slow ultra-HD. Video broken down by people whose sole job is to break down video. And we’re not talking about just the last couple games, you can break down video of every single play of every single player for every single game over the past 5+ years, from multiple angles. Kobe talks about how when he came into the league, he had to have an old school VCR TV combo rolled up to his hotel room. Now, players can access all the above off of a tablet they can watch while taking a dump.

This hyper awareness and visibility extends to team defenses, which can throw multiple different looks (including zone) that just weren’t utilized in the past due to rule changes or just the advancing strategy of the sport in general.

For these reasons and others, I disagree with your assessment of the ease with which Michael Jordan would average 40 in today’s game because it is overly simplistic (which is surprising for you, as you typically look at all aspects before rendering your opinion). If we purely take Jordan as he was as a player, he’d represent a relic of the past in today’s NBA regardless which Jordan you took, be it the isolation one man wrecking athletic freak or the devastating post player. Jordan never had a consistent or reliable 3-point shot (his best years beyond the arc, took place when the line was moved in). Jordan also wasn’t the passer (or even ballhandler) that most of today’s top wings are.

pt 1/2

 
At Friday, April 13, 2018 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

pt. 2/2


Then, you’d have to take into account what kind of team Jordan played on. Even then, without the above qualities, it’d be tough for him to thrive in today’s NBA. If he was on the Rockets (replacing Harden), with shooters all over the floor, the game plan would be to stay home on all the three point shooters and let Jordan drop 60 from midrange. With such a heavy emphasis on three pointers, and the significant uptick in scoring league-wide, most teams could beat that offensive game plan. Jordan isn’t the passer Harden is, nor the pick-and-roll player. So, he would not have the same success as an offensive fulcrum on the Rockets. There is an argument to be made that the Rockets could win with better defense as Jordan is in a different stratosphere from Harden in that category…but, Jordan was never tasked with guarding power forwards.

If Jordan was on the Thunder replacing Westbrook, they’d probably look a lot like the current Thunder do. Packing the paint, winning with defensive effort, and a sort of sludgy, iso-heavy, slog of an offense. I love Westbrook, but until he gets shooters around him, his team is going to struggle to win in today’s NBA. Again, Jordan isn’t the passer that Westbrook is, but he’s certainly a far superior defender (but even he couldn’t make up for the tragedy that is Carmelo Anthony on defense).

Also, I know we’ve had disparate views on this particular subject, but I believe that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, and more athletic today than they were 20-25 years ago. There are athletic freaks all over the NBA – and not just guys that can jump high, but guys that are speed demons, agile, and quick. With so many guards that are just faster today along with their ability to spread the floor in ways that the NBA just didn’t see 25 years ago, Jordan may not be the defensive pitbull he was back in his time when he faced slower, less agile, less skilled players who didn’t spread the floor, and whom he could just handcheck and/or grab with impunity.

Sure, given all that, Jordan would still be Jordan. And, you may be right, he’d probably average 40. But, I don’t think his team’s would win all that much.

 
At Friday, April 13, 2018 5:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

My point is not just about FTAs. My point is that the current rules significantly favor offensive players, especially those on the perimeter. It is nearly impossible to effectively guard any perimeter player who has even just one or two basic offensive skills.

Jordan, as Kenny Smith likes to say, was perhaps the first completely fundamentally sound player who also possessed supreme athleticism. Contrary to what you write, Jordan was a vastly more skilled and fundamentally sound offensive player than Harden in every category (except, obviously, three point shooting). It is simply not possible to guard Jordan under today's rules. Look at what Kobe did in the mid-2000s and Jordan in his prime would do the same or better, every year for a decade.

When Doug Collins put Jordan at pg briefly in the late 1980s, Jordan ran off a string of triple doubles. Jordan was a better passer and rebounder than Harden, without question.

There is a recency bias to favor the players who we are watching right now but Harden is in no way comparable to Jordan.

Jordan's teams would win in this era if he had a decent supporting cast, which is true of every other superstar. Jordan and Kobe showed that they could carry mediocre supporting casts to the playoffs and decent supporting casts to championships. Harden has a team and coaching staff tailor-made to his strengths. It will be interesting to see how far he can take Houston in these very favorable circumstances.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 9:08:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Just a quick point, the decline in FTA over the past is also probably related the decline of post play and re-orientating of the game to the perimeter. More jockeying for rebounds and dunks and putbacks around the basket means more fouls generally, and would also account for why players used to score at such a higher percentage compared to now. So the decline in FTA and shooting percentages doesn't necessarily mean that players are better at not fouling now or that guards don't have more leeway (though it doesn't disprove it either).

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 4:51:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

Current rules do favor offensive players, if you mean the removal of hand-checking, defensive 3-seconds, the arms’ length rule, and being overly harsh on what constitutes a flagrant foul. These changes have allowed skills and agility to shine more so than brute strength, force. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to score today than back in the day.

Yes, “easy” layups seem to happen a lot more frequently. But, this is almost by design, as the main concern of elite defenses is to limit/contest three-point shots, prioritize funneling the offense into the mid-range, and attempt to limit fouls. Statistically and stylistically this makes logical sense, which has evolved the fundamental way the game is played and thus defended. Also, players are just faster, so getting blown up looks a lot more egregious. Also, because the rules try to limit hard fouls – the old adage of “no easy buckets” has faded.

Pick a team, and you’ll find at least 2, if not more players across every roster (except maybe the Thunder lol) that possess the ability to and/or routinely shoot from deeper than 25-feet (3s are arguably the most difficult shots). Furthermore, the league-wide trend has moved towards position-less basketball, where 1-5 can guard multiple positions and shoot from anywhere on the court.

While I still believe an elite midrange game is key to advancing far in the playoffs (unless you’re just better than everyone like Lebron), that part of the game has largely been eradicated from the vast majority of the NBA. There are some teams that are zigging (Spurs, Wolves), but for the most part 3s, layups, and freethrows are the money shots.

These trends have warped the floor in ways Jordan never saw. Jordan’s NBA still had positions. Still worshipped isolation hoops and post play. Still had hard fouls. Threes were no longer a novelty like in the 80s, as evidenced by players building their playing styles off of the three (Reggie, Ray, Peja, etc.), but the shot was nowhere near as prolific as it is now (Jordan’s career high in 3-point attempts was around Harden’s career low). Which meant, spacing was much different. There were behemoths patrolling the paint, but the offensive game was geared towards them, which meant, the bulk of scoring occurred inside and dictated pace. This made mid-range shooting an invaluable skill (for guards). 2 points = 2 points. But today? A midrange expert, even shooting 50%, will statistically lose more often against an above average 3-point shooter.

pt. 1/3

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 4:52:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Pt. 2/3

Being able to compromise a defense and still score over huge players, made MJ the GOAT. But, without a 3-point shot…I mean, he’d still be able to dominate (look at what Westbrook has done), I just don’t know how far he’d be able to go on a team level unless his team was tailored specifically for him. As you point out, Harden’s team IS specifically tailored for his exact skillset.

You talk about me having recency bias, I think it's possible that you are nostalgic. I never once wrote nor do I think James Harden is anywhere near as good as Michael Jordan. But, to say "Jordan was a better passer...without question." That, to me, fails to acknowledge what a passing artist James Harden is. I mean, even if today’s rules make it "easier for offensive players" or not, there's no question that Harden is the fulcrum of a historically great offense (by the numbers, the greatest). This is difficult for me to write, because I’ve been a loud anti-Harden apologist. I dislike his style, his attitude, and his gimmicks. But, the man can play hoops and he puts up big numbers, and those numbers have translated to regular season wins. A lot of them.

Jordan ran the triangle, and when it would break down (whether he broke it or the defense did) he would iso in the post, or eradicate players from mid-range, and/or soar to the rim and yam on guys. He was arguably the best (ever) at doing all three of those things and those three things would certainly translate to today’s game. But, he didn’t run much pick-and-roll, he was never tasked with being the main ball handler once Pippen arrived. And, to some degree, he never had to guard the opposing team’s best player (again, Pippen).

Jordan didn’t have a Euro-step, didn’t throw successful lobs 3-4 times a game, and never averaged double digit assists. The eye test, the Youtube video-montages of Harden and Jordan assists highlights, the stats (both advanced and basic), all show that Harden is the better passer (better passer, NOT player). To me, it’s like you’re arguing MJ was a better passer than Jason Kidd or Steve Nash.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 4:53:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

pt. 3/3

Also, you posit that it’s easier to score in today’s NBA. Perhaps. I don’t think defense has gotten worse. I think the defensive lapses are highlighted a lot more now. Also, when you get beat, guys just “give up.” I don’t know if this happens more than back in the tough, more physical, better 90s era. But, I know that thanks to YouTube/Vimeo/Instagram etc. etc., we see it a lot more now. The most casual fan can see every single defensive lapse. The more egregious the more views.

This idea that players are lazier than in years past is certainly recency bias. Vlade Divac used to smoke cigarettes at halftime. Charles Barkley never worked out (Shaq admitted to recovering on company time and routinely showed up out of shape) and especially in his Phoenix years, rarely played defense, while being an utter black hole on offense (and I still loved him). Magic Johnson used to…um, party. There’s a whole list of players from the 80s that would snort coke and take the court. Hell, Stephen Jackson admitted to playing stoned. All of them, even Jordan, gave up easy buckets during games. It’s just that, during their time, no one in the building had a cell phone that could take 1080p video and/or snap crystal clear photos. Now, every single person in every single stadium (save maybe some of the kids), has the ability to capture every tiny failure and share it with the world via the internet.

I learned from you, from this site, from your writing, to attempt to take every nuance into account when evaluating players. This is what I’ve tried to do. Nuance matters. No matter how much it may fly in the face of what we believe. It certainly helps us get a better understanding of what it is we are witnessing, experiencing.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 8:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I agree with a lot of what you said, and disagree with a little of it. A few associated thoughts-

*Jordan would probably have a three point shot if he played today; like Kobe and Lebron, he tended to come out of the offseason with a new trick every year. I see no reason why he wouldn't add the 3 within a season of playing in the "modern" game.

*Even without a three, Jordan could still dominate today. It is easier than ever to get to the rim today, and any reasonable GM would surround him with shooters to give him the most room to do that. Look at how effective Harden is on ISOs (or, if you prefer someone with no 3, Ben Simmons), and then think about how much more explosive Jordan was (to say nothing of his superior hops, finishing, or midrange ability). 40 points a game in the modern era is a near-mortal lock for Jordan (or Doc, or Barry, or West...) on any team where they had to do the bulk of the scoring without a clear #2 option, assuming that team also had enough shooting to give them a little room.

* Harden is a great passer, but I think comparing him to Nash and Kidd is going perhaps a step too far. While he's an extremely accurate passer he is not a tremendously creative one, and his court-vision is not in the same league as theirs. The advantage he has over Nash (but not Kidd) is size, which enables him to make certain passes that Nash could not. But most of his assists come off either simple dump-offs in the post, one-handed kickouts to pre-positioned corner 3 shooters, or textbook PnR lobs to Capela. Nash could do all three of those, as well as about a dozen weird no-look circus passes that kept defenses guessing. Nash was also much better at maintaining his dribble, with opened up a larger variety of angles and passing.

Weirdly, I think Harden is better at generating assists (as the threat of his scoring forces more defensive attention than Nash's did and therefore makes it easier to find an unguarded man), but Nash was a better technical passer.

1/2

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 8:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

* Jordan was a better passer than you're giving him credit for. His gigantic hands opened up passing opportunities for him that Harden simply doesn't have. Now, he was a less willing passer (and better scorer) than Harden, minus that one season he got horny for triple doubles, so his assist numbers were never in Harden's league. I would probably stop shy of saying Jordan was a better passer than Harden, but I wouldn't laugh someone out of the room who did. He certainly wasn't the volume passer Harden was, but then he also didn't have the same kind of weapons to pass to Harden does. He never had an at-rim finisher like Capela and his only true three point snipers were Kerr and Armstrong, who played much of their minutes while he was sitting. He certainly never played meaningful minutes with 3 or 4 40% 3-pt shooters lining up around him.

* It is definitely easier to get to the rim today. The modern game is designed to make it easier, because it makes a better product. Harden would struggle to earn the same FTAs per possession in the older eras. He might make them back thanks to extra possessions due to the faster pace, but he also might not be able to play at that pace for an entire game (as he's fairly large for his frame and those guys sometimes can't go all-out all the time (see every Lebron James cramp or Amare Stoudemire blown knee)).

* So much of Harden's offensive game relies on the threat of his three pointer that I think he'd be seriously hampered trying to break down guys pre 1970. Harden is a master of using your own positioning against you, but you could happily live with him draining 40% of uncontested 30 footers if they were only worth two points, and the ability to handcheck would complicate his preferred driving tactics (namely flailing for a cheap call or Eurostepping past someone who can't touch him).

* Some guys are better or worse suited to translate across eras; Pistol Pete would be way better today than he was in his prime for many of the same reasons Harden (or Curry) would be worse if you made them play in 1975. Other guys with less specific gimmicks could thrive in any era (Jordan, Doc, Barry, etc,) but guys who have built their entire game around an element of the sport that doesn't exist in a given era probably would struggle in that era. |

TL;DR: I think many of your larger points about the ways the different eras work are good ones but I think Jordan and Harden are both poor test cases for those hypotheses as they are, in their own ways, sort of the exceptions that prove the rules.

2/2

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 5:15:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

As always, quality post. I appreciate your insight, and agree with a lot of it. I wasn’t trying to say Harden is definitely better than Jordan as a passer (though I think he is). My point: it’s certainly not an open and shut case…“no question.”

Nash is one of my all-time favorite players, so comparing him to one of my all-time least favorite players is a tough pill to swallow. But, they both became MVP-worthy playing under D’Antoni. And while there are specific differences in the systems/offenses they operate, Nash and Harden appear to me to be ideal players to cross evaluate. I would certainly give Nash the nod as a superior passer to MJ (and Harden). Although, perhaps that’s my own recency bias.

You’re right about Jordan having huge hands that enabled him to make passes that Harden cannot, lacking the shooters/tools around him, and being a less willing passer. But, I’d counter with the idea that passing is an art form. And like any art form it takes skill and ability. MJ had both in spades. He also was just preternaturally gifted.

But the best passers have vision, have that feel, have that innate sense of timing and court awareness. I believe Harden has that, but now that we’re discussing this, I concede that perhaps he’s less along the lines of Nash/Kidd and more along the lines of Chris Paul. Let me explain, a guy like Nash or Kidd or Ricky Rubio (I think he’s brilliant) sees things develop and/or anticipates things that develop. Yes, they create a lot of this, but it’s more instinctual and free-flowing. It’s creative and sublime.

Guys like Paul and Harden (imo), orchestrate situations to make everything look natural/free-flowing, when in fact, they manipulated the entire scenario. Harden surveys the landscape, knows exactly where all of his players will be once he gets thing in motion, and then breaks his man down with the dribble or a pick. At that point, everything that happens is some version of the same play. Harden understands where everyone will/should be, understands what he has to do, and then reads the second level of defenders to make a decision as to what he’s going to do.

1/2

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 5:17:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

As you pointed out, Harden is great at generating assists. However, I will disagree with your premise that he makes simple passes. The level of difficulty in many of his passes is quite amazing. He’ll do these like shovel bounce passes that clear razor thin margins (his bounce passes are beautiful to watch). He’ll feint one way, cross the key off of a pick, and then lob it across his body to Capela for the jam. He’ll throw crosscourt, one-handed passes to corner shooters, or launch back up to the top of the key for an Eric Gordon 3. His passes are anything but simple, which is also why he racks up a ton of turnovers. He takes risks and threads space. It’s truly incredible to watch (I love passing, which is why I’m a Nash fan). Harden’s frustrating AF for me, because as you pointed out, he sets up all of that with—for lack of a better word—bullshit.

The stepback 3 is a blatant travel that never gets called. He 95% of the time initiates contact on his drives, hooking his arms up under his defenders to get calls. His and-1 three point shots are the most BS of them all (though thankfully, the league started watching out for that more this year). All that stuff makes appreciating him as a player a difficult task. Still, the refs/rules let him do it, so he does it. Taking full advantage of the system is his right and his privilege. It shouldn’t cloud how we view his overall effectiveness and ability.

• You say Jordan would have learned to shoot 3s. I don’t disagree with that. But, while Harden hasn’t expanded his game, fleshed it out to be without skillset weakness (another beef I have with him), he certainly has improved. He’s added wrinkles to his game to maximize his effectiveness. He’s basically tripled down on his style.

• It’s a bit unfair to credit players of the past with abilities they never exhibited but undoubtedly could learn, while penalizing today’s players for being unable to adjust to past times. Harden’s a big, strong dude. He wouldn’t be as effective as he is today, but he’d still be an elite player in any era.

• I agree Pistol Pete would be a monster in today’s game. He’d be Curry with Jason Williams flair (that’s White Chocolate Jason Williams).

• I’m not disagreeing that Jordan would average 40 in today’s NBA. I’m only pointing out that depending on the team he played on, is supporting cast, averaging 40 a game would not be nearly as effective / conducive to winning today as it was back in Jordan’s time. League trends of 3s and spacing are just one aspect. But, also the fact that the best teams have elite benches and typically go 8-10 players deep. Having one guy absorb that many shots every night would stunt development. Your point about Westbrook and Oladipo/Sabonis comes immediately to mind.

• “Guys who built their entire game around an element of the sport that doesn’t exist in a given era probably would struggle in that era.” This is why I think Shaq wouldn’t be as good in today’s NBA. A somewhat similar (in overall theory) argument to why Jordan wouldn’t be as good either.

• “40 points a game in the modern era is a near-mortal lock for Jordan (or Doc, or Barry, or West...)”. I think Barry had enough F you attitude to at least go out and gun for 40 every night. Kobe for sure would average 40. We’ve seen him do it multiple months of his career. And, give him free reign to chuck 10 triples a game…I think Doc and West were both too much “basketball players” to average 40. They’d adjust and win, but especially Doc could affect the game in a variety of ways. I’d say his closest contemporary comp is Giannis.

TLDR: I appreciate how you digest the game of basketball. Your insights often align with mine own. And even when they don’t, I can always respect/see your POV. Jordan is hands down > than Harden. But, I still believe: 1. Harden is a better, more intuitive passer and 2. Jordan could average 40 today, but it wouldn’t necessarily be conducive to winning.

2/2

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 6:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

Those are good points about how the decline of post play has likely impacted FTA/per game numbers.

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 6:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I understand the points that you made but I would still contend that a player with Michael Jordan's skill set/mentality is much more likely to adjust to and thrive in the current era than a player with Harden's skill set/mentality is likely to adjust to and thrive in the 1980s/1990s. The champion's mindset--playing both ends of the court, not quitting, not pouting, not choking in big playoff games--transcends eras. The fundamentals of footwork, court awareness (at BOTH ends of the court), dribbling without carrying/palming/traveling and shooting transcend eras. There is no doubt that Jordan--a deadly 18-20 foot jump shooter--could have extended his range by five-six feet if necessary/desirable. It is my opinion that Harden would have found it much more difficult to be a 30-10 guy in a league that did not reward flopping and permitted perimeter defenders to make physical contact with offensive players.

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 6:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

When I evaluate passing, I look at assist numbers but I focus on skill set. Jordan could feed the post when he was outside, he could hit cutters/outside shooters when he was double-teamed in the post, he could run screen/roll actions--basically, he could make any fundamental pass necessary to be an elite playmaker. Pippen's emergence as a an elite playmaker plus Phil Jackson's implementation of the Triangle Offense meant that Jordan would never again put up the assist numbers that he did when Doug Collins played him at pg, but that does not mean that Jordan was not a great passer.

I recall seeing a stat that Marbury and Oscar Robertson were in an elite category in terms of most seasons averaging 20 ppg/8 apg. Clearly, Marbury was not remotely in Robertson's class but Marbury was able to score and able to amass certain assist numbers. Harden is better than Marbury but the same principle applies: just because Harden is averaging 30-10 in a particular era in a particular system does not necessarily mean that it is valid to compare/equate him with Jordan or Robertson or other great players of the past.

Harden has had a greater impact on regular season winning this year than I would have ever expected/predicted but I still think that the flaws in his game will be on display during the postseason. It will be interesting to observe the Rockets' playoff run this year and, assuming that the team stays together/healthy, in the next few years.

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 9:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I likewise always appreciate your viewpoint. I also enjoy your capacity to communicate it, particularly when we disagree, without getting heated or personal. You're good people.

* I shouldn't have used the word "simple" to describe Harden's passing. What I more meant was "conventional." The vast majority of his passes are either short dump-offs, line-drives, or swing kickouts to the corners. He does occasionally throw out a circus pass, and many of the passes he makes are high degree of difficulty (and many more would be difficult were it not for his size). I do not find his vision to be in the same league as Nash/Magic/Bird/Pistol Pete/guys like that who seemed to have Daredevil's radar sense. He instead knows where guys are *supposed* to be in the system that's been built for him, and hits those spots. The guys are usually there (assists!) but sometimes aren't and he throws it anyway (turnover!).

* Jordan =/= Westbrook. I don't think that's a fair equivalency, for a lot of reasons, but primarily 3: Jordan was an extremely efficient scorer who could probably get 40 a night on 25-28 shots (plus FTs) in the modern age. RWB is famously inefficient, but even if you discount his potentially worst of all time (given volume of attempts) three point shooting, his career best 2pt FG% would be only the 10th best of Jordan's career. His career average would be higher than only Jordan's two seasons in Washington and his 17 game stint in '95. This is before accounting for a likely increase in Jordan's FG% given the hand-check rule (Kobe, for instance, had 6 of his top 7 2pt FG% seasons after the rule change and 9 of his top 13). So, RWB shooting 30 times looks a whole lot different, scoreboard wise, than Jordan shooting 30 times.

Second, Jordan was a world-class defender while Russell Westbrook is probably one of the six or seven worst defensive starting PGs in the league today. I continue to believe that matters.

Related to #2, Jordan was a (psychopathic) leader who both led by example and by, for lack of a better phrase, bullying and intimidation. As a result, he generally got great performances out of his various sidekicks. RWB has not had the same sort of consistent success with his supporting cast, and many of them have instead seemed to blossom the second they got away from him.

All that is to say, just because RWB doesn't win a ton in the modern era doesn't mean Jordan wouldn't. I think if you put Jordan on the current OKC team in RWB's place, they're probably hanging out around 60 wins, instead of 48.

1/2

 
At Tuesday, April 17, 2018 9:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

*Shaq vs. the modern era is such an interesting thought experiment. On the one hand, could he guard anyone? On the other... could he average 50 points on 25 shots per game? There's nearly nobody left in the league who could even pretend to guard him. I tend to believe that apex 2001ish Shaq would probably dominate, but any of the more poorly conditioned variants (that is to say, almost any other year) would struggle to get up and down the court quickly enough consistently enough.

* I don't disagree that some modern players could thrive in previous ages, but I think Harden is particularly poorly suited to it. He's refined his existing skills every year, yes, but he rarely if ever adds new ones, and the skills he's best at (long-range shooting, flopping, setting up other long-range shooters) has don't translate (especially to pre 1980s ball). He'd certainly still be a viable player--and probably even make a few All-Star teams-- but I don't think he'd be anywhere near the MVP discussion and his assist numbers would crater. I'm dubious that he could play extended stretches at the pace of the 60s/70s game, either, given his bulk (and the fact that he's already too "tired" to try on defense in the modern era), but could certainly be wrong.

As an aside, I think he'd almost certainly be 4 (given his size) rather than a guard if he played in the 60s or 70s. Nobody would want him to try and guard the Walt Fraziers/Jerry Wests/Pistol Petes of the world.

2/2

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 6:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I am not necessarily saying that defense in today's game is "worse" (other than in the All-Star Games, where little to no defense has been played for several years now, a marked contrast to the competitive All-Star Games of the event's golden years in the 1980s and earlier) or less sophisticated; in fact, several years ago, I wrote an article about the "Art and Science of NBA Defense" that detailed how defensive techniques and preparation have evolved tremendously.

What I am asserting is that the rules changes and the style of play make it easier for perimeter players who are primary ballhandlers with high usage rates to score and to accumulate large assist totals. I am also asserting that if prime Michael Jordan or prime Kobe Bryant were to play under these rules then they would put up even better numbers than Harden, Westbrook, Curry et. al. (not necessarily in each category--no guard is likely to match Westbrook's rebounding--but from an overall standpoint of dominance).

I am also asserting that several of today's top guards (most notably Harden) would find it more difficult to thrive in earlier eras, while the top guards from earlier eras possessed the mindset and skill set to thrive in today's game.

It is not really that long ago that a 40 year old Michael Jordan playing essentially on one leg could average 20-plus ppg in the NBA--and his Wizards won at a playoff qualifying pace when he played (though of course they missed the playoffs as Jordan could not stay healthy). A younger Jordan would have dominated in this era AND (contrary to your assertion) would have led his teams to a lot of wins (and to championships provided that he had a reasonable supporting cast).

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 7:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Regarding players being "lazy," let's just focus on the elite (not Stephen Jackson, et. al.). Jordan rarely missed a game and rarely took a play off. Bryant missed more games than Jordan but he basically had to be dragged off of the court because his arm was hanging out of the socket or his Achilles had rolled up the back of his leg. Jordan and Bryant were outstanding two way players for most of their careers.

LeBron James is a remarkable player but he admits to having a "chill mode." Even if he had never admitted it, we can all clearly see when he enters that mode. Harden can be a solid post defender when motivated and he gets some steals but his defensive effort is often pathetic. It took James years to finally add a post repertoire to his game (and it is not surprising that he only started winning titles after he did that). Harden's game has not evolved much over the years, other than D'Antoni giving him the green light to travel (I mean, shoot "step back" three pointers).

I am not saying that every modern star is "lazy" or that every star from previous eras was flawless. However, there are few stars in this era who consistently play as hard as the stars in previous eras did. That is one reason Westbrook is so special and why I consider him underrated; he never cheats the game and he always plays hard.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 7:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not ignoring your comments, but most of my above responses to Jordan also address points that you made and you seem to largely be in agreement with Jordan's take.

Regarding Shaq in the modern era, Shaq and Kobe talked about this very analytically and objectively during their recent NBA TV special (well, Kobe was a bit more analytical than Shaq but that is to be expected). Kobe said that the matchups between the 2000-02 Lakers and the 1991 Bulls, Showtime Lakers and current Warriors would be fascinating contrasts in styles but he asserted that three quarters of having to guard Shaq would wear those other teams down to the extent that they would not be the same in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Kobe would be fresh and ready to take over the final stanza. He made some other points as well, but that is the gist of his argument and I agree with him (at least concerning the modern teams; the Bulls and Showtime Lakers may have had some answers that the modern teams would not).

So, Harden's Rockets could try to shoot 50 threes versus the Shaq-Kobe Lakers but at the other end of the court the ball is going into Shaq and Shaq is either dunking on Capela every time or he is fouling Capela out in the first quarter. The pace of the game slowing down and the ensuing foul trouble would not allow the Rockets to play as freely as they do against current teams. If Harden's Rockets or the current Warriors were to double team Shaq, then two passes out of the double team would result in a wide open three (the Lakers had some good three point shooters who would thrive in this era) or in Kobe dunking on someone. I am not saying that the Lakers would necessarily dominate but I disagree with Jordan's notion that the teams from previous eras could not compete successfully now. We are not talking about an old George Mikan struggling to adjust to the shot clock era; the adjustment for Shaq and Kobe would not be nearly as steep, nor as challenging to their skill sets.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I'm somewhere between you and Jordan on most of this.

As for Shaq, I tend to be of the opinion that you're right, but only about apex in-shape Shaq. I would take the 2001 Lakers over the modern Warriors but I would not take the '03 or '04 Lakers.

I also think, much like Harden/Jordan as cross-era examples, I don't like the '01 Lakers in that role either. They're one of the few older teams that actually did have the shooting to play the modern game (Fisher/Horry/Fox/Shaw). They'd likely be fine today, as would a few choice other classic teams (86 Celtics, '94 Rockets, etc.) but there are also a lot of teams that would struggle in the modern era. The Hayes/Unseld Bullets, for example, would have a hard time keeping up with the pace of the modern game, and would struggle to manufacture space on offense.

I think the 2nd threepeat Bulls would fare much better than the 1st threepeat Bulls. Much more switchable defensively and a little more shooting on the roster.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 6:34:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

You are right. Jordan and Westbrook are not equal. And, yes, Jordan was a much more efficient player than Westbrook. The arguer in me wants to talk about competition level, athletic ability, team-specific roles, etc. during Jordan’s time, but I’m perfectly content in settling on our common ground and moving on with our lives. Or, at least onto other fun topics.

I think the Shaq thought experiment is a fun one. And, for the record, I don’t know if he could do it, but I’d love to see Embiid give it a go against Shaq. Embiid is like a taller, stronger, better Rasheed Wallace. In fact, there’s several centers that I think would at least make it interesting, before probably failing. I’d be curious to see how the Stifle Tower would respond or an antelope/gazelle like De’Andre Jordan or a stretch, semi-bulky, uber smart Marc Gasol. But, yeah, not too many guys in today’s NBA that could even pretend to guard Shaq. Oh, I may be interested in seeing Draymond “kinda today’s Rodman (as a defender)” Green give it a go too. He’s got the wingspan, the quick hands, and the low center of gravity that would at least give him a fighting chance. He’d be a problem for Shaq to guard too.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 6:35:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

I know Jordan would be successful in any era. This is Michael Jordan we’re talking about here. I don’t think I’ve ever misrepresented my respect for how transcendent a player he was, or the fact that I think he would dominate in any era. (Still hated him as he knocked off Magic, Barkley/Majerle, Penny, and Payton…a few of my all-time favorite players).
My contention is the surety you had that he would easily average 40 points per game in today’s NBA. And, my retort to that is, sure, he could do it, but it may not be conducive to winning. Also, the winning aspect would directly correlate to the type of supporting cast he had. So what constitutes a “reasonable supporting cast”? I don’t know what reasonable means. Is Westbrook’s team reasonable? Because, while talented, they certainly don’t fit well around him. Whereas, Harden’s teammates fit him perfectly.

If we take Jordan as is, whether it was late 80s Jordan, early 90s Jordan, or mid 90s Jordan, he didn’t have a lot of reps as a pick and roll player and he didn’t have a consistent 3-point shot. Those are irrefutable facts. We can posit that based on what we know of him (since, you know, we saw his entire career play out), he’d probably develop a 3-point shot, and he’d figure out how to get to the line a lot (ie learn referees tendencies, learn what rules he could bend, etc.). He’d also get to show skills he had but never really got to show, like his passing ability.

I just think it’s unfair to say with certainty that current “star” players wouldn’t make similar adjustments. You wrote in your playoff comments about Bill Cartwright questioning Jordan’s ability to win two seasons before he won six titles. I mean, Harden is 28. He’s the prototypical guard for today’s NBA. He’s statistically improved every season since he’s been in Houston as has Houston’s record. He’s going to win this year’s MVP and he now has a…er…quasi-MVP level sidekick for the first time since his Thunder days when he was riding backseat shotgun.

I mean, could it possibly be we’re pulling a Cartwright here…?
I’ll be the first to admit that I never thought Harden would be this good. Favorable rules, playing styles, easier offensive opportunities, excessive foul calls, etc. etc. regardless. I never ever thought he’d be MVP worthy. I, like you, am very curious to see how he fares in the playoffs as he’s fallen mostly flat in the postseason over the last four.
Anyway, I feel a bit foolish for seemingly arguing in favor of a player I honestly can’t stand (Harden) and am not-so-secretly hoping fails.

Oh, and for the record, I never said teams from previous eras couldn’t compete now. I…don’t know where you pulled that from. I said I don’t believe Shaq would be as dominate today, under these current rules, as he was back in the early 2000s. I never said that the 2001 Lakers could not win today. I never even mentioned the Lakers or teams in general. That roster was ideally suited to win in today’s NBA like Nick pointed out with Fox, Fisher, and Shaw all shooting near 40% from 3 and Horry chipping in from the forward spot at 35%. Oh, and Frobe. (Speaking of that team, little remembered, one-time NBAer Mike Penberthy (39%) would have loved playing in today’s NBA, and today’s NBA would have loved him right back).

Just one final note. If any player over the past 35 years of NBA basketball, should be allowed to occasionally go into “chill mode”, I’d say Lebron has earned it. Bron didn’t get any seasons off like Jordan (his first two retirements and his second season he missed with injury); Bron’s played in multiple international competitions (Jordan played in one); and he’s made it to the finals 7 years in a row (all of which took place with 7-game series for each round, while Jordan spent his entire playoff career, only needing 3 wins in the first round). So, while Kobe spoiled me by playing in as many games as he possibly could, as a reasonable human being, I’d say Lebron has earned his “chill mode”.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 3:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, I am definitely referencing peak Shaq from the three-peat years, not "healing on company time" Shaq or "I ate the whole box of Krispy Kremes" Shaq. Shaq from Orlando would also do well in today's game based purely on his physical prowess, even though he had not yet learned to fully think the game from Phil Jackson and Tex Winter.

You may be right about the second-threepeat Bulls. Kobe stated in the show that based on his conversations with Jordan that Jordan considered the '91 team the best of his six championship teams, and that is why Kobe cited that one when comparing across eras.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 4:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

MJ averaged 37.1 ppg in one season and 35 ppg in another, in the midst of many 30-plus ppg seasons. I don't think that saying he would easily average 40 ppg at least once if he played in this era is much of a stretch. That is one extra 3 FGM a game--and MJ would undoubtedly add the three to his repertoire (he averaged 37.1 ppg while hardly shooting at all beyond the arc).

I just can't see MJ having much problem being a pick and roll standout if he were asked to do so. MJ was very fundamentally sound.

This is the first season that Harden has really surprised me. Up to this point, he pretty much did what I expected: scored a lot, put up gaudy numbers, lost early in the playoffs while performing worse in the playoffs than in the regular season (and sat the bench in key moments during a fluky WCF run). As favorable as D'Antoni's system is for Harden, I did not foresee 65 wins and being the favorite (on paper) to win the title (though I still don't think they will do it). Are we pulling a Cartwright with Harden? Time will tell.

I guess that I extrapolated from your comments about Shaq that you don't think he would be leading a three-peat in this era. Sorry if I misunderstood you or put words in your mouth.

I don't think that any player earns the right to go into "chill" mode. I would rather play with Kobe or Westbrook than LeBron any day of the week, because "chill mode" would drive me bonkers. That is why Shaq drove Kobe nuts, because Shaq had his own version of "chill" mode. Maybe everyone or most everyone paces themselves consciously or not but explicitly saying that you are "chilling" in the middle of the season just leaves a bad taste with me.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 4:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think Kobe and I were talking about two different things with the Bulls; he was comparing them to his Lakers teams, as I understand it, while I was trying to put them against the modern Warriors. He might be right that the early 90s Bulls (with Pippen in his athletic peak) stand a better chance against his 2001 Lakers (though they might miss Rodman in that series), but I feel that the positional versatility of guys like Rodman, Harper, and Kukoc and the longer list of capable shooters on the 96 edition would make them better suited for the current ruleset/style.

 

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