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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.

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."

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. 



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. Wilkens was a marvelous two-way player but in a 15 year career he never made the All-NBA First or Second Team and it is just hard to accept the notion that a player who was never ranked among the top four at his position during his career should be listed among the top 50 players of all-time. Wilkens did finish second in MVP voting once but he just was not quite as dominant as the some of the other all-time greats. Worthy was never close to being the best forward in the NBA and--while it is possible that he would have posted gaudier individual numbers had he been a headliner for a less talented team--it must be noted that he benefited a lot from playing alongside many other great players. Worthy's resume is impressive and it is Hall of Fame caliber but he just did not accomplish 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.

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Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Maurice Cheeks, Charlie Scott and Rod Thorn Are Among the Basketball Hall of Fame's Newest Members

In September, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will welcome 13 new members: Ray Allen, Maurice Cheeks, Lefty Driesell, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dino Radja, Charlie Scott, Katie Smith, Tina Thompson, Rod Thorn, Ora Mae Washington and Rick Welts. Many media reports state that this class is "headlined" by Allen, Hill, Kidd and Nash--but this article will focus on Cheeks, Scott and Thorn, three individuals who have been eligible for induction for many years but have been overlooked by the Hall until now.

Maurice Cheeks was the starting point guard for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, who set a record by going 12-1 in the playoffs en route to sweeping the defending champion L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals. Cheeks also started for the 1980 and 1982 Philadelphia teams that lost to the powerful Lakers in the NBA Finals. He made the All-Star team four times and earned five All-Defensive Team selections (including four First Team honors).

Cheeks never led the league in a statistical category but he was a consistently excellent performer who ranked first in career regular season steals and fifth in career regular season assists when he retired; he now ranks fifth and 13th respectively in those categories, ahead of many players who were inducted in the Hall of Fame before him. Cheeks posted an outstanding .523 career regular season field goal percentage, a testament not only to his shooting ability but also to his judicious shot selection. Cheeks understood when to shoot and when to deliver the ball to fellow Hall of Fame teammates such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley.

Cheeks had a Hall of Fame moment as a person during his tenure as Portland's head coach. Prior to a 2003 playoff game, 13 year old Natalie Gilbert froze as she was singing the National Anthem. Cheeks walked over, put his arm around her and helped her finish singing. "It was like a guardian angel had come and put his arm around my shoulder and helped me get through one of the most difficult experiences I've ever had," said Gilbert.

Kidd, arguably the greatest point guard of his era, summed it perfectly upon learning that Cheeks will be joining him in the 2018 Hall of Fame class: "Mo Cheeks is who we all wanted to be."

Charlie Scott was the University of North Carolina's first black scholarship athlete. Scott made the All-America Team twice and he twice led the Tar Heels to the Final Four. He won Olympic gold with Team USA in 1968. Scott was drafted by the NBA's Boston Celtics but he signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires, winning the 1971 Rookie of the Year award after averaging 27.1 ppg. Scott also finished third in MVP balloting behind Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Zelmo Beaty. The next season, rookie Julius Erving joined the Squires and Scott led the ABA in scoring (34.6 ppg) before leaving the Squires to jump to the NBA just before the playoffs. Scott joined the Phoenix Suns and the Suns sent Paul Silas to the Celtics as compensation since the Celtics owned Scott's NBA rights.
Scott spent three seasons with the Suns before being traded to the Boston Celtics for Paul Westphal in 1975. Scott played a key role for Boston's 1976 NBA championship team. His Hall of Fame selection is well deserved based on his outstanding amateur career in college/the Olympics, plus his high performance level as a pro in the ABA and NBA.

Rod Thorn was selected to the Hall of Fame as a Contributor after a long and successful basketball career during which he filled many roles, including player, coach, executive and league administrator. Thorn was an All-America performer at West Virginia before being selected second overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1963 NBA draft. He had a solid NBA playing career before becoming an assistant coach on Kevin Loughery's staff with the ABA's New York Nets, who won the 1974 ABA title largely thanks to Erving's spectacular all-around play. Thorn later became the Chicago Bulls' General Manager. He drafted Michael Jordan in 1984. From 1986-2000, Thorn served as the NBA's Executive Vice President of Operations. Thorn rejoined the Nets in 2000 and was selected as the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2002 after building the team into a championship contender.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 PM

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