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Saturday, January 05, 2019

Is James Harden the Best Offensive Player of All-Time?

Houston Rockets General Manager claims that James Harden may be "the best offensive player of all-time." Morey emphasizes that his assertion is not "GM speak or coach speak" but based on a "whole bunch of ways to measure it," though Morey did not specify which metrics he is using.

Although Harden is in the midst of a gaudy scoring streak at the moment, the idea that he is the best offensive player of all-time is, frankly, offensive in its blatant disregard for the accomplishments of many players who are demonstrably greater than Harden. Rather than just dismissing Morey's assertion out of hand, it is instructive to use this as a teachable moment to educate Morey--and any other interested parties--about basketball history and basketball greatness.

How should one try to objectively measure or determine who is the best offensive player of all-time? Five criteria are most relevant:

1) Dominance
2) Versatility as a scorer/passer
3) Longevity/consistency
4) Efficiency
5) Skill set (maximum amount of strengths/minimal amount of weaknesses)

Dominance refers both to the ability to physically dominate opponents (by speed, size and/or quickness) and the ability to set records that other players are not able to match. Wilt Chamberlain is the most physically dominant player in pro basketball history. He combined the speed/agility of a track and field athlete (which he was prior to joining the NBA) plus tremendous size and strength. No one--not even the great Bill Russell--could guard Chamberlain one on one.

Wilt Chamberlain dominates the record book like no athlete in any major sport, as noted by Fran Blinebury in a 2011 article (though Blinebury neglected to mention that Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg in 48 games in 1961-62):
• Consider that after Wilt's 50.4 mark for the 1961-62 season, the second-highest scoring averaged in NBA history by a player not named Chamberlain was Michael Jordan's 37.1 in 1986-87. That makes Wilt's number 36 percent higher than Jordan.

• The highest batting average for a season in Major League Baseball over the past 70 years was George Brett's .390 in 1980. To exceed Brett by 36 percent, a batter would have to hit .530.

• The all-time single season rushing record in the NFL is 2,105 yards by Eric Dickerson in 1984. To exceed Dickerson by 36 percent a runner would have to gain 2,863 yards.

• The NHL single-season record for goals is 92 by Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82. To exceed Gretzky by Chamberlain's pace, a skater would have to pump in 125 goals.

The truth is, in American sports, only Babe Ruth transcended and transformed his sport like Chamberlain.
There are many remarkable and famous Chamberlain statistics. Here is one that may not be as well known as the 100 point game or the 50.4 ppg season scoring average but provides another example of his dominance: in the 1967-68 season, Chamberlain averaged 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg, ranking third, first and first respectively in those categories, the closest that anyone has come to leading the league in the three major statistical categories during the same season. Chamberlain remains the only player who has ever led the league in scoring (seven times, second most all-time), rebounding (a record 11 times) and assists (once).

James Harden is a 6-5 shooting guard who possesses good strength for his size/position but he is not even close to the same category as Chamberlain in terms of physical dominance. Harden's footprint in the pages of the basketball record book does not match the footprints of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, let alone that of Chamberlain.

Therefore, Harden is not the best offensive player of all-time based on dominance. There are many other players more physically dominant than Harden and/or more dominant in the record book, but to refute Morey's thesis it is only necessary to prove that there is one and Chamberlain more that fits the bill.

Harden has an ongoing streak of nine straight games during which he has scored at least 35 points and passed for at least five assists, breaking a record set by Oscar Robertson (who had two such streaks of seven games each). Is Harden really as versatile of a scorer/passer as Oscar Robertson?

Robertson averaged an aggregate triple double during the first five seasons of his NBA career (30.3 ppg, 10.6 apg, 10.4 rpg) and he became the first player to average a triple double for an entire season (1961-62: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg). Robertson led the league in assists (which was then determined by total assists, not average) four times during those five seasons and during each season he finished no lower than third in total points and no lower than fifth in scoring average. The only player who has come close to matching Robertson's extended triple double virtuosity is Russell Westbrook, the first player to average a triple double in two seasons (2016-17, 2017-18). Westbrook is averaging a triple double nearly halfway through the 2018-19 season, meaning that he if he keeps up that pace for another two and a half seasons he could match Robertson's feat of averaging an aggregate triple double for a five year span.

Harden has averaged over 9 apg once, when he led the league in assists with 11.2 apg in 2016-17. He has averaged over 30 ppg once (30.4 ppg in 2017-18) and he averaged 8.8 apg that season, well below Robertson's standard of 30-plus ppg combined with 10-plus apg. Harden is averaging 33.6 ppg and 8.6 ppg through 33 games this season. The only players other than Robertson to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg during the same season are Nate Archibald (1972-73) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17). Robertson did it a record five times, as indicated above.

Another measure of scoring/passing versatility is The "25-5-5" Club , which includes players who averaged at least 25 ppg, at least 5 rpg and at least 5 apg during the same season. LeBron James holds the record with 14 such seasons, breaking the mark of nine set by Oscar Robertson. Next on the list are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (seven each). Harden has four such seasons, which is not close to the top of the list.

It also must be mentioned that scorekeeping standards for assists have loosened over the years, making it easier for modern players to accumulate assists than it was for players in earlier eras; the rule book definition remains the same--an assist is only supposed to be awarded for a pass that leads directly to a score--but in practice if a player, particularly one who has a reputation as a playmaker, makes a pass to a player who eventually scores then the passer will receive an assist even if the recipient of the pass went through the entire Kevin McHale repertoire of moves before shooting. 

It further must be mentioned that Chamberlain, Robertson, Archibald and Jordan dealt with handchecking defenders and a level of physicality that disappeared from the sport quite some time ago. There is no telling what kind of numbers those players would put up under today's rules/playing style, nor is there any way to be sure how much the physicality would limit Harden and some of today's other high scoring players.

All of that being said, even with the liberalized application of the assist rule and the freedom of movement that is fueling a league-wide offensive explosion, Harden has not matched the scoring/passing versatility displayed by Robertson--or, for that matter, his contemporaries James and Westbrook.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar must be mentioned first as the standard bearer for scoring longevity. In 1984, he broke Chamberlain's career scoring mark of 31,419 points, and more than 30 years later no one has come close to reaching Abdul-Jabbar's final total of 38,387 points. Chamberlain also set a career record by averaging 30.1 ppg but for a three year period in the 1970s Abdul-Jabbar broke that mark, peaking with a career average of 31.4 ppg in 1972-73. After Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring average fell below 30 ppg, Chamberlain regained the record and held it until Michael Jordan surpassed him in the 1988-89 season. Jordan's career scoring averaged peaked at 32.8 ppg in 1990 but by the time he retired for the third and final time he was just barely ahead of Chamberlain (30.12 ppg compared to 30.07 ppg).

Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 seasons and he averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 17 seasons. He shot .559 from the field during his career, in no small part because he developed the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport, the skyhook: no one could block it, few could meaningfully contest it and his opponents just hoped that he missed (which did not happen very often). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was consistent and deadly. He could shoot it with either hand from anywhere on the court within 15 feet or so of the basket. Although Abdul-Jabbar may not be primarily thought of as a playmaker, he was a first rate passer who averaged at least 4 apg from the center position in nine seasons.

Harden is currently in his 10th season. He has averaged at least 20 ppg in six full seasons and is on pace to do so this season as well. Harden's career scoring average is 23.5 ppg, so it is unlikely that he will become the all-time leader in total points or scoring average. His career field goal percentage is .443, much lower than Abdul-Jabbar's. It has recently become popular to say that Harden's stepback shot is unstoppable but if that were true then his field goal percentage would reflect that (unless one argues that Harden's shot selection is suboptimal in that he does not utilize his "unstoppable" shot as often as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used the skyhook). The reality is that Harden is a high variance player; he might shoot 6-9 from three point range one game and then 1-9 from three point range the next game. Analytically speaking, that looks good on paper (21 points on 18 shots) but 6-9 three point shooting does not guarantee a win while 1-9 three point shooting results in so many empty possessions that it significantly increases the chances of losing. It is no coincidence that teams anchored by Abdul-Jabbar in the post won six championships and made 10 Finals appearances, while Harden's lone Finals appearance came as the third wheel on a team led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Maybe Harden will average well over 30 ppg for the next decade and erase Abdul-Jabbar's records but at this point it is premature to rank Harden as the best offensive player of all-time based on longevity/consistency.

"Stat gurus" will tell you that Harden is efficient and some "stat gurus" will argue that Harden is the most efficient scorer ever because his repertoire consists almost exclusively of three pointers, free throws and layups, the three kinds of shots that "stat gurus" love the most. The numbers look good on paper or on a spreadsheet but the problem, as mentioned above, is that Harden's style is high variance. When it works, it looks great, but when it does not work it is extremely inefficient (and not very fun to watch, unless you are the opposing team). Exhibit A of that is game seven of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when Harden shot 12-29 from the field (including 2-13 from three point range) as his Rockets missed a record 27 straight three pointers and blew a 54-43 halftime lead versus the Golden State Warriors. Analytically, Harden did everything right, scoring 32 points on 29 field goal attempts while shooting almost exclusively from his preferred, "efficient" spots but the reality is that this is not winning basketball and it is not more efficient than feeding Abdul-Jabbar in the post (or running an offense through Jordan or Bryant in the midpost area).

As long as Harden plays the "efficient" way that he does now, he will set some regular season records but his teams will always fall short in the playoffs.

Regarding having a complete offensive skill set, Michael Jordan is probably at the top of the list. He had no skill set weaknesses as an offensive player: he could post up, he could finish with either hand, he could shoot from midrange, he could draw fouls, he shot a very good free throw percentage, he could create his own shot and he could create open shots for his teammates. One could quibble that Jordan was not a great three point shooter--but he was good enough, and he was so great at everything else that "good enough" was more than sufficient. Jordan's skill set was so complete that he led the league in scoring during 10 of his 11 full seasons as a Chicago Bull, a unmatched combination of consistency with statistical dominance.

It could plausibly be argued that Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook combined with his other post moves, his better than average short to midrange jumper, his adequate free throw shooting and his excellent passing made him the most offensively skilled player. Would you rather have Jordan's more versatile skill set or Abdul-Jabbar's somewhat more limited but perhaps more dominant skill set? That is an intriguing and not easy to answer question.

Kobe Bryant was the closest player to Michael Jordan in terms of skill set completeness. Bryant did not match Jordan in terms of field goal percentage but Bryant shot a comparable three point percentage on a much higher volume of three point attempts so Bryant's spreadsheet efficiency is closer to Jordan's than a comparison of their respective field goal percentages would suggest. Bryant had scoring binges the likes of which had not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor and he did so repeatedly and for extended periods of time

For many years, LeBron James was a top scorer despite having several skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, three point shooting, midrange shooting, post up game). James has minimized or eliminated most of his skill set weaknesses (his free throw shooting is still inconsistent at times), though in crucial moments he sometimes seems to "forget" that no one can stop him when he attacks the paint aggressively. James' skill set is not as complete as Jordan's or Bryant's but when James has the right mindset his almost complete skill set combined with his physical advantages make him an unstoppable scorer. No, he is not a "pass first" player but he is a great scorer who is also a great passer. If James stays healthy, he could be the first player to mount a realistic challenge to Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record. James is already the career playoff scoring leader by a country mile with 6911 points, breaking Michael Jordan's record (5987). Abdul-Jabbar (5762) ranks third now, but he was the career leader for many years after breaking Jerry West's mark (West ranks ninth in pro basketball playoff scoring with 4457 points).

Harden's skill set, in contrast to the players mentioned above, is limited. He is an excellent free throw shooter and a solid three point shooter; Harden is depicted as a great or unstoppable three point shooter but his career percentage of .366 barely cracks the top 200 all-time; players with similar career three point shooting percentages include Jud Buechler and Patrick Patterson. Elite three point shooters (top 40 all-time) shoot .400 or better. Harden has a strong, compact body that enables him to finish effectively at the hoop. With his size, he should be a good post up player but he and the Rockets consider post ups to not be efficient so Harden rarely posts up. Harden does not have or utilize much of a midrange game.

The elephant in the room regarding Harden's skill set is that he is officiated differently than any other player: he is allowed to travel, he is permitted to push off on his drives and he is bailed out with foul calls on jump shots when he initiates contact with defensive players by making movements that are not part of a natural shooting motion. I always thought that Reggie Miller should have gotten a technical foul every time he kicked his leg out to the side while shooting a jump shot and I feel the same way about Harden's various contortions. If an offensive player deviates from a normal shooting motion and the defensive player maintains verticality without swiping down then the defensive player should not be hit with a foul; there should be no call, or the offensive player should be called for a foul.

When considering 1) Dominance, 2) Versatility as a scorer/passer, 3) Longevity/consistency, 4) Efficiency and 5) Skill set (maximum amount of strengths/minimal amount of weaknesses), it is apparent that Harden is not even close to being the best offensive player of all-time. Players who are superior to Harden include but are not limited to Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

When considering the high variance nature of Harden's game and the liberties that he is granted by officials, Harden's style of play may be the most "offensive" ever, but that is not quite what Morey meant.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 10:35 PM

71 comments

71 Comments:

At Sunday, January 06, 2019 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree with basically all of that*, and I would mention a few additional players as clearly better offensive players than Harden:

*Though the historian in me must quibble that Kareem's shot was not *quite* unblockable. I have personally seen at least Hakeem, Wilt, Nate Thurmond, and Ralph Sampson block it, and I have read accounts of Artis Gilmore and Connie Hawkins blocking it as well. Still, if only four of the greatest ten defensive centers ever, one of the greatest leapers ever, and a guy who's 7'4 can block your shot, it's pretty damn good.

Steph Curry:

Harden is currently averaging a career high 33.7 on .618 true shooting percentage. Even putting aside Curry's additive effect on his team's offense (more on this in a moment), in his best season he averaged 30.1 points on .669 true shooting. Put another way, he scored 3.6 fewer points on two fewer shots and five and a half fewer free throw attempts . Even if you limit yourself purely to "analytics," Curry beats Harden in efficiency while approximating his scoring (their career scoring averages are within 0.1 points while Curry's career TS% is .623 to Harden's .609).

This of course comes before factoring in the effect of Curry's spacing, off-ball movement, and range, which makes him an additive offensive element even when he does not have the ball. There is no one stat that adequately captures this, but let's consider this: Curry's Warriors have been statistically the best offense in the league three of the five seasons (the others they were 2nd and 3rd respectively). Harden's Rockets have been the league's top offense only once (last season, when Curry happened to miss 31 games) and top 5 only three times.

Using another analytic tool, Harden's current pace, in the unlikely event he maintains it for a full season, would give him the third highest Offensive Box Plus Minus of all-time... but he'd still trail Curry's 2016 season (first all time) by a full two points. Additionally, Curry also has the fourth best OBPM season ever, while Harden's next highest is 10th (Curry's third highest is 11th).This despite Curry playing with superior offensive help, which generally mutes those numbers (the second best OBPM season ever, for instance, is Westbrook's 2017 one man show).

Steve Nash & Magic Johnson:

Neither was the volume scorer Harden was but they were comparably efficient (Nash thanks to superior shooting numbers across the board but lower FTA, Magic due to his superior post-up game) while being dramatically better passers who much more strongly correlated with elite offensive production. Nash led 10 straight Top 5 Offenses (including 6 #1s and 3 #2s) by ORTG, and 7 times his teams led the league in PPG.

Magic, though admittedly with about as stacked a cast as anyone's ever had, led 11 Top 5 Offenses (Including 7 #1s), though his teams surprisingly only led the league in PPG once (owing largely to overlap with the 80s Nuggets and 90s Warriors, I'd guess).

Like Curry, these guys not only generated strong individual numbers, they made the entire operation around them better (Harden... doesn't.)

1/2

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

All three of these guys were playoff assassins, in stark contrast to Harden's history as a playoff meltdown artist. All three trump him in playoff assists, ORTG, and TS%, while Curry also beats him as a scorer. Nash did not outscore Harden in the playoffs but notably Nash adds about three PPG in the playoffs vs. his regular season numbers while Harden drops a point and a half. They also all beat him in assist to turnover ratio (in both playoffs and regular season).

Ultimately, Harden posts gaudy regular season stats that do not consistently correlate to winning, and his gimmicky offensive game invariably abandons him in the playoffs, where he scores fewer points on static attempts while also tanking his assist to turnover ratio.

Other not-yet-covered perimeter players who were, I think, clearly better offensive players than Harden (happy to explain each/any as requested, but in the interest of ink saved, starting with a list): Jerry West, Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Miller, Kevin Durant.

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 2:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

With his statements about Harden being a "foundational player" and perhaps the "best offensive player of all-time," Morey reminds me of a carnival barker trying to persuade people to buy tickets. "Come see the bearded man do things that have never been done before!"

It was rare for Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook to be blocked in a straight up, man to man situation. I am not saying that it never happened but it was very unusual. Chamberlain once said that Kareem was the first player he faced that he felt he might not be able to handle one on one (granted, Chamberlain was nearing the end of his career and had already had knee surgery that had forced him to miss almost an entire season but he was still a very good player and that is quite a statement).

I agree with you about taking every player you mentioned over Harden as an offensive threat. Basically, you could take almost the entire Top 50 list (other than a few defensive specialists) and then take a bunch of players who did not make the list. One could literally write a book about players who are better than Harden offensively. My idea is that since Morey said that Harden is the greatest based on objective metrics, I would define some relevant metrics and prove that Harden is not the best based on any of those metrics.

It would be fascinating (and humorous) to hear Morey attempt to defend his outrageous statement. I get the sense, though, that Morey likes tweaking conventional wisdom and does not mind being told how foolish he sounds. He believes that he knows more about this than just about anyone else and he is comfortable publicly expressing that belief.

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 3:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

It was definitely rare for the skyhook to get blocked. Of the times I've seen it blocked, I believe only Thurmond and Olajuwon did it in straight up, man-to-man situations. Olajuwon also got it at least once in help defense, and if I recall correctly the times I've seen Wilt and Sampson block it were also in help situations, though of course they could have blocked it more than once/in games I haven't seen.

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 10:39:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Excellent article. I agree with your points and would also like to add Kevin Durant to this list of players who are far superior in scoring/offensive ability than Harden.

(Also, really digging our correspondence game at the moment.)

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 11:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you. I agree that Durant is on the list as well.

Yes, our Chess.com game is very interesting. I don't usually play the longer time control games online but this one has been fun.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 9:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew that you would have more than a few things to say about this. Even if Harden were actually playing at the highest offensive level ever it would still be asinine to call him the greatest ever based on a hot streak in the middle of his tenth season. Of course, Harden absolutely isn't playing at said level which makes such a proclamation even more insane. There is no way Harden is even the greatest offensive player in Rocket history. I don't care what the numbers or calculations say, Harden hasn't done anything even remotely comparable to leading a 47-35 sixth seed to a championship while averaging 33.0 ppg on .531 for the entire playoff run, not to mention how infinitely superior Olajuwon was to Harden on the other end of the floor.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 11:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Piggy-backing on the very-right things Anonymous just said...

Beyond all that, it's worth noting that while Harden wilts in the playoffs, Hakeem added about 4 PPG and jacked up his shooting by about 1.5% whenever he got to the postseason. Harden, meanwhile, loses about 1.5 PPG and drops 2.3% off his shooting. He also drops about 4% off his 3pt FG%, and lowers his free-throw rate.

Hakeem also led the playoffs in scoring and blocks three times apiece, and rebounding twice. Harden's never led the playoffs in any counting stat, except for Turnovers Per Game in 2015 and 2016 (he was second in 2017 and has never finished lower than 6th in his time in Houston).

Also, Harden gets his points--by design-- exclusively on "easy" shots; free throws, layups, open-ish threes (his ability to create those looks is laudable, but they are still good shots). He can't generate those shots in the playoffs, and his offense usually crumbles as a result. Meanwhile, Hakeem took extremely difficult shots, against tight defense from All-Defensive bigs like David Robinson, Kareem, and Shaq, and made them at an elite clip.

It's nuts to call Harden the greatest offensive Rocket ever (See also: Moses Malone, Tracy McGrady) nevermind greatest offensive player period. Morey is likely cheerleading because he knows Harden is an ego-driven head case, so I can't fault him for trying to get the best out of his "foundational" guy... but that doesn't make it any less of a stupid thing to say.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 11:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You are correct that Hakeem Olajuwon's name can be added to the long list of names of players who are greater offensive players (and greater players, period, for that matter) than Harden.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 11:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Harden's offensive game is heavily dependent on charitable officiating and regular season tempo/circumstances and his annual playoff failures are predictable. Although I did not specifically predict Houston's 27 consecutive missed three pointers (no one can make a prediction that is that accurate and dire), I wrote before the playoffs that Harden is a high variance player who would disappear when Houston needed him most. I write that, or something like it, about Harden every year before the playoffs begin and every year I have been right.

Although no one has said it yet in this comment thread, I expect someone to say something to the effect of, "What is Morey supposed to say about his team's star player?" My answer to that is (1) He can praise his star player without going overboard and sounding like a fool and (2) if Harden's ego is so fragile that he needs to be praised far beyond any reasonable appraisal of his abilities then there is something seriously wrong with him.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 11:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I've been right there with you betting against Harden in the playoffs every year. Only time I lost money doing it was when I thought OKC might upset him in 2017, even with their garbage cast. Figured it was nearly an even money bet but the odds at the time were much more charitable.

I think both 1) and 2) are true. 2 probably moreso, as it may be so dire that it necessitates risking 1. Keep in mind this is a dude who fled a team with two All-NBA First Teamers AND an upper-tier rim protector to cover for him for a brighter spotlight, proclaimed himself the best player in the league, and yet still never felt like he ought to try on defense. .

Even if Morey can be excused for saying such a dumb thing in pursuit of helping his mercurial star, he still deserves some blame for constructing an entire team around the idea that particular star is good enough to win a title. To Morey's credit, it would be hard to build a more perfect supporting cast for Harden's game than what he's assembled in the modern cap climate... but to his greater detriment, he assembled a "perfect' cast for his star and still hasn't won jack.

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 12:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You nailed it: Morey has done a very good job building the perfect supporting cast around Harden but it says something that even under ideal circumstances this team has yet to make it to the Finals once. I thought that Houston could possibly be a 50-plus win team with the right cast around Harden but I will admit that last season's 65 win aberration surprised me a bit.

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 2:40:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@David and @Nick,

First, I agree without doubt, Morey's comment is asinine. It's Bill Walton hyperbole sans the Bill Walton goofy charm.

That said...and as much as it pains me...can we at least give the Beard some credit? He is playing like the MVP right now. I mean, look at this run the team is on. He's carried the Rockets to wins over the Spurs (one of the hottest teams currently), OKC (was the hottest team last month), Boston (early season finals favorite), Denver (best record in the west), and Golden State AT Golden State. Most of those wins came without Chris Paul, and the last couple without Eric Gordon. He's dragged the Rockets from out of the playoffs, to currently the 4th seed in the stacked West while averaging like 40 points and 8+ dimes a night. Yah, Capela is beasting and is an excellent player that will probably make his first all-star game this year. But of all the MVP candidates right now, there's a decent case to be made that he's the worst second banana.

Harden is my least favorite player in the NBA, and even I am like...dude is lighting it up. Now, I don't think he'll finish the season as strong unless CP3 comes back and can carry a significant burden again (unlikely as he's Chris Paul...injury prone, small player, that always wears down by the playoffs...oh yeah, and he's ancient for an NBA player, especially one under 6-feet tall). But, I think if we ignore the hot takes, and focus on what the man is doing -- regardless of how cheap or playoff-ineffective his style is -- we can appreciate the historic run he's on.

Ok, gonna go wash the vomit from my mouth now. :P

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 4:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

He's definitely playing well. I don't think he's playing MVP well-- Giannis should win unanimously if the season ended today IMO, and Kawhi is the clear #2, but then I'm just a cranky old man with outdated notions like "MVPs should at least pretend to play defense."

That said, yes, Harden is on a tear and more impressively his team is winning. I am perhaps harder on him than I would be on somebody like Curry or Durant if they were on this kind of run because... it's smoke and mirrors. It's sound and fury signifying nothing. We've seen this movie; Harden will light it up in the regular season, then crumble in the playoffs. Until he proves otherwise, his regular season antics are more of a sideshow for me than a true indicator of basketball value.

Also, and mostly unrelated, but while we're talking about defense it's worth noting that the other player I historically torch for that has actually been busting his ass on that end this year: Russell Westbrook. Now, yes, we've seen him start the season defensively engaged then tail off several times before, but I don't think his effort has ever lasted this deep into the season and it's showing in the standings, even with his offensive footprint somewhat reduced. Whether it's a product of having more energy, the apocryphal conversation with Paul George in the offseason* that I hope is true, or maybe just an unrelated Eureka moment, he's finally putting in the effort. He's still error-prone in certain situations, but they're errors born of over-engagement (biting on fakes, plastering into screens) which I'm more forgiving of than errors born of apathy (ignored rotations, loafing in transition). I would still not consider him an elite defender but I would for the first time consider him a clear plus defender this season, and his athleticism means that his ceiling on that end is incredibly high.

*The conversation, which AFAIK has been reported on Twitter but nowhere else:
Paul George: Have you ever made an All-Defensive team?
Russell Westbrook: No.
Paul George: Why not?

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 5:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan/Nick:

Harden is playing well but he is not playing as well as the hype suggests and, as Nick said, this is all smoke and mirrors signifying nothing. As I noted earlier in Harden's streak, Houston has a positive plus/minus number during this run of games even with Harden on the bench. As often happens when a player becomes a media darling, his profile is elevated while his supporting cast is deemed to be trash. Harden is the featured player in D'Antoni's system and every featured guard looks good in that system, at least during the regular season. Chris Duhon averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.2 apg during the 2009-10 season under D'Antoni. Duhon's career averages are 6.5 ppg and 4.4 apg, so he almost doubled his scoring and assists in that system! Harden is a 20-22 ppg/6-7 apg player in a normal system and if he were the second or third option his team might actually have a realistic chance to win a title.

Regarding Westbrook, I agree with Nick that Westbrook's defense is very good. I disagree about previous seasons but we don't have to revisit that.

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 6:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Regardless of how good or bad we see his defense as in the past, would you at least agree that RWB this year is improved? Or does he seem the same to you?

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 6:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Improved this season. We agree on that.

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 7:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I thought we might. In light of that, I think I've realized that our biggest point of disagreement usually/almost always come down to how we evaluate/value perimeter defense; the three players we seem to most often disagree on are Westbrook, Kobe, and Baylor, and all three are cases where the gap is largest when talking about their defense. I think generally I'm harder on their perimeter D than you are. I think this has also colored smaller disagreements we have/had about Oscar, Magic, and Durant, as well.

I think it comes down primarily to three things:

1) While we both value it highly, I think I value it a little bit more, at least proportionate to offense. I think we both agree that for perimeter players offense is more important, but I think we disagree by a fair margin about how much more important.

2) I think I am in general a tougher crowd for defense and more unforgiving of (real or perceived) defensive failings. Another basketball fanatic I respect recently only half-jokingly accused me of believing that there are no good perimeter defenders in the league since Raja Bell retired. He was exaggerating to tease me, but the criticism is perhaps fair; there are probably only 25-40ish guys in the league at any given time I consider to be particularly good perimeter defenders.

3) I think we also weight different subsets of defense differently. This probably comes down to personal preference/philosophy.

As an honorary fourth point, we draw very different conclusions from the same tape in terms of defensive effort exerted. Not sure how to explain this one, but it's definitely true, at least in the cases of Kobe and Westbrook (although as an interesting aside, on this specific point we tend to agree about Lebron).

None of that makes either of us right or wrong, but I think it does explain why we're comparatively far apart on those specific players when we seem to usually be in the same zipcode on most other evaluations. I do think that the case of Westbrook shows that we are perhaps not as far apart as I thought; we both see the same improvement, we just disagree on the valuation of what he improved from.

 
At Tuesday, January 08, 2019 11:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I think that is a very good and very insightful overview/explanation of why we differ on how we evaluate certain players. You are correct that in general we agree.

I also think that you may value certain "advanced" defensive metrics more than I do. I tend to be skeptical of "advanced basketball statistics" when applied to individual players, particularly when using small sample sizes of data and even more so when applied to individual defense. So, with defense I rely a lot on the eye test, plus the commentary/analysis of experts whose opinions I respect (though I do not always agree with even the experts who I respect).

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 12:43:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That is possible. I try to use "advanced" metrics primarily as a confirmation test for what I see on the tape/in the standings. Usually if they don't line up I can figure out why (i.e., D-RTG has a bit of a "rising tide lifts all boats" problem, so someone like Tony Parker grades out much better than he should and it's really much more useful at the team level than the individual). That said, I do sometimes cite them when making a case, as while no defensive metric is perfect, I find using some makes having a conversation a bit easier; it helps to have numbers to work off of instead of just "Well this is how I feel about it from the tape." It at least gives the conversation a place to start, and hopefully if there is a flaw either in the metric's output or my usage thereof, it will surface as in the process of investigation. I recall, for example, a conversation about Kobe and Duncan years ago where you correctly pointed out that D-RTG inherently favors bigs, and as such I've since limited my usage of it to positional comparisons (and even there the previous caveat still applies).

I also, in general, try not to use to "advanced" metrics to compare across positions much. There are exceptions to this-- I think, for instance, that On/Offs can be instructive when comparing two different starters on the same team-- but in general I try to keep things as apples-to-apples as I can. This is especially tricky, though, when we're having Pantheon-adjacent conversations like "Who was better: Hakeem or Magic;" about the only apples there are that both players are great, so then it comes down to mostly harder to define abstracts-- longevity, peak value, quality of help, etc.-- and when applicable, perhaps a few statistics... though with players of that era, few of those are particularly "advanced."

I do think the other point we differ on most, which is not defense specific, is results vs. context. I don't think we're miles apart there, but I do think that in some cases you may be more interested in what happened (or didn't) and I may be more interested in why it happened (or didn't). Here I am speaking primarily of ring totals or early playoff exits, which I don't think either of us consider first, second, or even fifth when comparing players, but must factor into the equation eventually.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 4:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am interested in the "Why?" in addition to the "What?" but sometimes it is hard to determine why something happened, or at least it is harder to determine why as opposed to what. We know that LeBron James has a 3-6 Finals record. Why he has that record could be because he has quit several times or could be because of his supporting cast or could be because Golden State is the greatest team of all-time or it could be for some other reason (or it could be because of some combination of all of those reasons, plus other reasons not listed). So, the "Why?" question is a lot more speculative than the "What?" question. Perhaps I focus more on "What?" because that can be clearly defined. Also, I do tend to think that barring unusual circumstances due to serious injuries or tremendous bad fortune, the greatest of the great figure out how to win at least one title. Baylor is the only exception to that rule in my Pantheon and one could argue that he experienced unusual circumstances due to injuries and bad fortune (if Frank Selvy makes an open jumper at the end of regulation of game seven of the 1962 NBA Finals then Baylor wins a ring; that Selvy miss does not change my evaluation of Baylor's greatness, as Baylor averaged 40.6 ppg and 17.9 rpg during that series).

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 4:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I mostly agree with most of that. I didn't mean to imply that you weren't interested in the "Why," only that I weight it more heavily. Perhaps that is a subconscious overreacting on my part to the talking heads shrieking that MJ is the greatest ever simply because he won 6 rings (he might be, but that isn't why) or the unearned "choker" label applied to guys like Baylor and Nash, but it is how I feel.

I also agree that in general, the greats find a way to win at least one ring. I do put a few more people in the "unusual bad fortune" category, though they are not people I consider Pantheon contenders in the "Top 14 all-time" sense, but I do believe that at least Steve Nash and Reggie Miller were absolutely good enough to lead a team to a title and were foiled by a combination of injuries, questionable team construction, and sheer bad luck (Reggie spending most of his prime in the same division as the MJ/Pippen/Phil Bulls, for example, or Nash's series of comical misfortune from '05-'10).

I could probably be talked into adding Charles Barkley to that list but would not feel great about it given his defensive inadequacies (not that Nash was some ace defender, but there is considerable evidence that his offensive value is Magic-esque so I am more forgiving there). Maybe Bernard King, if I'm feeling especially charitable. But it is a very short list and I agree wholeheartedly with your larger belief that anyone who wants to be in the "Potential best ever player" conversation should be able to get at least one ring; that is perhaps part of why we differ as much as we do on Baylor... though even there it is the difference between you ranking him in the Top 14 and me ranking him somewhere in the 19-26 range (though full disclosure--since it's especially relevant to this conversation specifically-I tend to operate with a general "You need a ring to be in the Top 20" policy so gun to my head I would probably not put him higher than 21st).

For me, I have Baylor hovering around guys like Pettit, Wade, Dirk, and Isiah Thomas; guys just outside of the "greatest ever" conversation.

I think the only people I have definitively above him that you do not are Hakeem, Barry, Moses, Havlicek, and Pippen, all of whom won at least one ring and had considerably better injury fortune (leading to longer peaks). I know you do not agree that those players were better than Baylor but I also suspect that you can at least respect the arguments for them, even if you disagree.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 5:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I would perhaps weigh the "Why?" more heavily if it were possible to evaluate the "Why?" objectively but that is very difficult to do. Also, since I am inclined to believe that the greatest of the great will win at least one title I probably do place more value on "What?" than on "Why?" Thinking purely locally and in a different form of competition, I have won a record 10 championships at my local chess club. If things had broken differently, I could perhaps have won 11 or 12 but it is also conceivable that if things had broken differently then I would have only won 8 or 9. The "What?" here is that 10 is four more than anyone else has won. We can assume that there are many "Why?" questions concerning each of the top competitors over the years but, barring extreme circumstances, 10 compared to 6 or less speaks volumes. We can say the same thing about Russell overall and about Jordan in the post-Russell era (though of course a team championship is different than an individual one).

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 5:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Yeah, I'd feel very differently if we were talking about an individual sport like tennis, boxing, or chess. I just think that in basketball there are *so* many additional factors beyond an individual player's control.

For instance, let's say the Bulls hadn't swung a trade for Pippen, and he ended up in Houston somehow instead. Does Jordan ever win a ring playing with Olden Polyniece? Does Hakeem win 4 or 5 or 6 instead of 2 with an elite perimeter star alongside him for twelve years?

Does Tim Duncan win anything at all if he spent his career being coached by Mike Dunleavy instead of Greg Popovich? How many rings does Baylor win in a world without, specifically, Bill Russell's Celtics in his way?

I do not definitively know the answer to these questions-- though my guesses would be no, yes, no, and three or four, respectively-- but they do seem like important questions when trying to compare players in a historical sense.

Saying simply that Russell has 11 rings and, say, Moses only has one strikes me as essentially meaningless; Russell spent his career with several of the greatest ballplayers of his generation and the greatest coach of his era (and in an era where many teams were... let's call it "shy"... about signing many African American players). Moses spent the bulk of his career bouncing from underwhelming team to underwhelming team (minus a few years with a great 76ers outfit).

I would take Russell over Moses but my reasoning has way more to do with skillset, tape, and context than it does with rings.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 5:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I think I can articulate a little better/differently:

I think 9/10s out of ten, the biggest reason a team wins a title is their best player. However, I think that with VERY few exceptions, that player deserves a plurality, not a majority, of the credit for that title.

For instance--and these are of course illustrative percentages more than scientific ones-- I would say that for the '96 Bulls title Jordan might deserve 40% of the credit. Phil and Scottie probably each deserve at least 20%. Rodman probably 10%. The rest of the cast another 10%, or what have you.

I think maybe only six or seven times in post-shotclock basketball history has a single player been more important to a title than the entire rest of the team/coaching staff: Barry in '75, Doc in '76, Hakeem in '94, and Duncan in '03. Maybe Wilt in '67 or Russell in the early 60s somewhere, but I would need to do more research to feel super confident about those.

So, allowing that a player by himself is rarely if ever the majority of the reason a team wins, it is difficult for me to fully credit a player like Russell or Jordan or Magic who benefitted from consistent HoF support and all-time coaching for their title runs, and it is equally difficult for me to look down on a one-or-two title winner like Hakeem or Barry who rarely had the horses to compete with he teams around them.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 6:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Just one last data point to illustrate why I struggle with this:

For his 17-year Houston career, Hakeem Olajuwon played with 7 total All-Star selections (3 for Sampson, 2 for Drexler, 1 for Barkley, 1 for Thorpe), two total All-NBA selections (Sampson (2nd) and Drexler (3rd)) and two total All-Defensive selection (both McCray, one first team).

Any four-year stretch of Magic's career beats all of those totals. Over 12 years, he had 20 All-Star selections for teammates (including 8 years where at least two of his teammates made the team), 8 All-NBA teammate selections (including 4 First Team selections), and 12 All-Defensive teammate selections (including 7 First Teamers and two seasons in which had two All-Defensive teammates and two where he had the DPOY).

From 1987-1994, Hakeem played with 2 All-Star selections (Sampson in 87 (who then got injured) and Thorpe in '92). Magic never played a season without at least one All-Star teammate.

Given all that, regardless of who I think is "better" between the two players, before even factoring in that Kareem is much more than just an All-Star teammate, it is very hard for me to assign much significance to Magic winning 5 rings vs. Hakeem winning 2.

Or, to compare him to someone from his own draft class...

During his Bulls career, Jordan had 6 All-Star teammates, all Pippen (although BJ Armstrong and Horace Grant were both All-Stars in his off year, as was Pippen). His teammates over those 12 years made 9 All-Defensive teams (7 First teams) and 6 All-NBA teams (2 First Teams).

Almost all of those selections were concentrated in the 6 years he won titles; on average, a Jordan title team had 1.3 All-Defensive Teammates, 0.67 All-Stars, and 0.8 All-NBA players.

The average Hakeem title team has 0.5 other All-Stars, 0 All-Defensive teammates and 0.5 All-NBA teammates. I also don't think it's a stretch to say Jordan's All-NBA teammate (peak Pippen) is better than Olajuwon's (post-peak Drexler).

Neither won jack when they had numbers much below those averages, Jordan just had more seasons with that kind of support.

Given all that, it's likewise difficult for me to take too much away from Jordan having 6 rings to Hakeem's 2. I have Jordan above Hakeem (albeit not by much) but rings aren't why.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 7:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Made myself curious with that last post and looked up some stuff. I think these facts are more interesting than anything else.

The 14 players in David's Pantheon have won, I think, a combined 49 rings. Of those:

32 came without another member of the Pantheon.
11 came without another current All-NBA/ABA team member.
2 came without another Hall of Famer (assuming that Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, and Kyrie Irving make the HoF). Both ABA, incidentally.
2 came without another current All-Star (Jordan's 91 ring, though Pippen made the AS team in both '90 and '92, and Duncan's '03 ring).

By my count, only 5 titles all-time came without another current All-Star (Barry in '75, Jordan '91, Olajuwon '94, Duncan '03, Dirk '11). All five of those teams featured someone who either had or would make an All-Star team within 2 years. All but the Duncan and Olajuwon teams featured someone who made the All-Star team either the year before or immediately after. All except Hakeem's Rockets featured at least two guys who'd made/make an All-Star team within three years of the title, in fact.

At a rough estimate, a title team since 1957 averages between 2-3 All-Stars, 1-2 All Defensive players, and 1-2 All-NBA players. The most stacked team ever, by those metrics, is probably either the '83 76ers, who had 2 All-NBA First Team players, 3 All-Defensive First Team players, and 4 All-Stars (as well as the season's MVP, the second most recent MVP and, the 6th Man of the Year), or one of the Magic/Kareem title teams.

No wider point, just a snapshot of how loaded title teams tend to be beyond their top guys.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 9:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I disagree that the ring total disparity between Russell and Moses Malone is "meaningless" but I agree with you that ring count is not necessarily the primary reason to rank Russell ahead of Malone.

 
At Wednesday, January 09, 2019 11:37:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Meaningless was perhaps too strong a term. Obviously Russell's ability to summon his A-game and rise to the very top when it counted most 11/13 years is nothing short of astonishing. But I'm skeptical he could have done that if his best teammate had been, say, Happy Hairston instead of Jones/Havlicek/Cousy/whomever.

And I don't think Moses left many titles on the table, given the relative strength of his supporting cast/competition for most of the non-76ers years of his career.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 11:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan averaged 28.3 ppg/6.5 rpg/5.9 apg as a rookie and won Rookie of the Year honors, whereas Pippin averaged 7.9 ppg/3.8 rpg/2.1 apg as a rookie who came off the bench. Pippen may have become a decent player for another team in time, perhaps even eking out an All-Star caliber career. But there's no way he becomes an top-50 All-Time player and Dream Teamer without Michael Jordan's tutelage.

I think that Pippen's emergence as a great player, perhaps the best small forward of the nineties, can be largely attributed to Jordan molding Pippen in his own image. Jordan made Pippen into his complement. I get the sense that Jordan's monomaniacal fury came out day in and day out in practice and that everyone on the Bulls had to rise up to his level of dedication to winning championships, which is what brought that championship esprit de corps to the Bulls during their two three-peats. Pippen was caught up in that championship fervor, which, make no mistake, was instantiated by Jordan's unparalleled will to win. One has to look to other sports for similarly driven athletes, think Bobby Fischer in chess, Rafael Nadal, especially at the French Open, perhaps Ty Cobb in baseball.

Basically, I'm arguing that Pippen became Pippen the all-time great thanks to Jordan taking practice seriously and thus forcing his teammates to shape up to his standards of championship excellence, or shape out. Pippen, to his credit, was docile and indeed had the talent to live up to Jordan's standards. But they were Jordan's standards that Pippen, and every other Bull, lived up to.

I think the fact that Jordan, understanding that he needed another player approaching his level of greatness, created one of his own in Scottie Pippen is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career in that it got him the six championships. Pippen is less the Robin to Jordan's Batman, more the Monster to Jordan's Frankenstein.

Another reason why Jordan is the GOAT. Not only the greatest offensive player of all time, but the greatest player of all time, when you factor in his defensive excellence as well as his offensive excellence.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Anonymous-

That is an extremely interesting and creative take, but I'm not sure I can agree with it.

Pippen was drafted fifth overall, so obviously people thought he could be a star from go. I do not think the fact that Jordan was a star as a rookie while Pippen--arriving, unlike Jordan, arriving to a team that already had a clear young star--took a few years is really meaningful evidence, as most (modern era) stars take a few years; heck, Kobe started as a bench guy. Jordan was an exception, and exceptional, but Pippen's arc was more traditional.

I disagree that Jordan deserves the lion's share of the credit for what Pippen became. Pippen's leap from "good starter" to "perennial All-Star" happened to coincide with Phil Jackson's arrival, so if we're going to insist on giving most of the credit for Pippen's greatness to someone who isn't Pippen (and for the record I don't think we should), that'd be the place to start.

Moreover, if Jordan had the ability to mold people into MVP-type players through sheer tyranny of will, why not do it more than once? Why was Pippen the only All-Star he played with in his whole Chicago career (despite the fact that several of his other teammates were All-Stars in seasons where they played without him)? Or even at a lesser level, if he had that ability to remake players into their best selves, why didn't he turn BJ Armstrong into Mitch Richmond, or Horace Grant into Larry Johnson?

Which is more likely? That Jordan was a mad scientist who could turn any fringe star into a Top 25 all time guy as an act of whimsy, but only played with one fringe star he could do it to in his 12 years in Chicago? Or that Pippen-- a 6'8 athletic marvel with the court vision of a top-tier point guard and the defensive instincts of Bobby Jones--who led the team to the brink of the FInals *without* Jordan in '94-- was already going to be one of the best 10 small forwards of all time, and playing with Jordan just helped boost him a spot or two on that list?

I think it's the latter. Moreoever, I think the implication that Pippen would only "eke out" an All-Star career elsewhere is a bit of an insult to one of the greatest of all time.

It is worth noting for the record that Pippen's career without Jordan was a lot more successful than Jordan's career without Pippen, incidentally. I wouldn't give either the credit for the other, but I would say they made each other their best selves.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yeah, I am not sure that Moses Malone left that many potential titles on the table but it is fair to say that Russell maximized his chances going all the way back to high school. I don’t have the number in front of me but between high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA Russell won something like 20 titles in 22 seasons. He is a remarkable competitor.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous/Nick:

Pippen entered college as a non-scholarship team trainer and emerged as a first round draft pick, so his dedication to maximize his potential preceded being Jordan’s teammate. Pippen, who was a little bigger and longer, if perhaps not quite as quick or strong, as Jordan, pushed Jordan and competed with Jordan in practice and they each helped the other to become greater.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Totally agree. I would say for context that I think it is much easier for a transcendent player to single-handedly carry a high-school or college-team than an NBA team, as the talent pool is much more diffuse.

That said, Russell absolutely maximized his chances and it's pretty much impossible to pick nits with his record; he stands alone on that front. Everyone else has at least one year they lost when they at least arguably should have won, or retired for two years in the middle of their prime, or couldn't coexist with their similarly talented co-star, what have you.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Totally agree re: Pippen & Jordan. Did not know the detail about joining the team as a trainer, that's amazing.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 2:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I should have said student manager, not trainer, but basically he collected the towels and picked up after the team. He walked on to the team and the rest is history.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 2:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick,

Jordan was 21 and Pippen was 22 when they started their NBA careers, so they were at roughly the same stage of development age-wise during their rookie seasons. But Kobe was an 18-year-old rookie straight out of high school. As a 21-year-old Kobe averaged 22.5 ppg and then as a 22-year-old he averaged 28.5 ppg, and both seasons he displayed all-around brilliance. I submit that Kobe established himself as the best perimeter player in the league by the time he was 22 years old. My point is that Kobe's talent is comparable to Jordan's, and at around the same age they were similarly accomplished. Kobe, of course, was not quite as good at the GOAT (nobody is), but Pippen is on a whole 'nother level below Jordan's and Kobe's shared tier of greatness. Pippen is probably the best small forward of the nineties. Jordan is the greatest shooting guard ever, and I'd argue that Kobe is the second best at the position. Pippen is not nearly as talented as Jordan or Kobe. He would have to be at the Julius Erving or Larry Bird or Lebron James level of small forward, which Pippen simply never was.

This is in reply to your point about Kobe starting his career on the bench. Dude was 18 years old.

I do concede that Phil Jackson deserves a lot of credit for putting together the system that enabled Jordan and Pippen et al. to win six championships. Nor do I mean to disparage Pippen's accomplishment as the second-best player on one of sport's great dynasties. It just seems to me that people are not understanding how truly great Michael Jordan was, which had so much to do with his "sheer tyranny of will", as you put it. I say again that Pippen did have the talent to approach Michael Jordan's level of greatness. I give him due credit for that. But it's players like Kobe, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and yes, Lebron James, that have the level of talent to actually RIVAL the likes of a Michael Jordan.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 6:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Anonymous-

I wasn't suggesting that Pippen or Kobe was better than the other, just pointing out that it is not uncommon for stars to start out on the bench/not putting up All-Star numbers. If you would prefer a non-highschool example, John Havlicek, Kevin McHale, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and any number of other All-NBA/HoF level guys started on the bench and didn't establish themselves as stars until a few years later. None of them played with Michael Jordan, so I don't think the idea that Jordan "made" Pippen into what he was--or at least the idea that Pippen's rookie numbers support that point--holds water.

I do not meaningfully disagree with your characterization of Jordan's place in the game's history-- I have him as one of the four guys with the strongest possible GOAT cases, and the only guard in that conversation-- but I think you are somewhat dramatically underrating Pippen, and I disagree intensely with the idea that PIppens' greatness is primarily a product of anyone other than Pippen.

I do not know if you are the same anonymous who posts most often around here (my guess is that you're not, but I don't want to assume), but in case you haven't seen me mention it before, I prefer to rank the all-time greats in a tiered system, rather than strictly numerically.

I have Jordan in the first tier, with guys like Kareem and Doc; those who (I believe) have the strongest cases for the Greatest of All Time and anyone in that tier can win that argument depending on what you value more (i.e., if longevity is your bag Kareem might win, if sustained dominance is the priority it's probably MJ, if highest peak is the barometer it might be Doc).

I have Kobe in my third tier, defined essentially as elite two-way players who don't have a strong GOAT case for one reason or another (in Kobe's case, it's because Jordan is clearly better). This tier covers the 8th to 12th best players of all-time, in my estimation.

I do have Pippen in the next tier after that, though, alongside more heralded guys like Magic, Bird, or Oscar. You are right that he's not the greatest SF ever... but he's a strong contender for third or fourth, and I believe that he would have been with or without Michael.

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2019 9:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick,

I hear you and I don't really want to take away from Scottie Pippen's career accomplishment. Ultimately, he was self-made and David makes a really good point about Pippen being a college walk-on who came to the game relatively late. Maybe Pippen would have been as accomplished as Jordan or Kobe by the age of 21 or 22 if he'd put in the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that both MJ and Kobe had put in by that age. Not as accomplished offensively, of course, but in terms of his all-around game and defensive prowess.

Maybe I should be clearer about my larger point. Michael Jordan worked with what he had and took on the challenge of Chicago, a perennial loser when he was drafted in 84. Leading up to that first three-peat he groomed Pippen and Horace Grant to complement him so that the three of them made up the best 2-3-4 combination in the league up until Jordan's first "retirement". Jackson, of course, was the team's guiding light, but Jordan was undoubtedly the driving force of all six championships.

Jordan didn't whine to management about needing more help or needing another All Star, at least not in a public way. Instead of looking for outside help, he essentially created his own help. I think this aspect of Jordan's leadership is what gives him that "alpha male" quality, a term that often gets overused. The intangible of Jordan's first-rate leadership may not have created Pippen like I suggested with the Frankenstein's Monster metaphor. But the emphasis on metrics have caused many fans to underestimate how important group psychology is in team sports, especially basketball. Jordan was a master psychologist who knew how to manipulate his teammates, commanding them as needed, and he knew how to manipulate his opponents. Remember when Jeff Van Gundy called Jordan out as a "con man"? Even if Jordan was not quite Frankenstein to Pippen's Monster, Jordan was certainly the superior talent who, at the very least, catalyzed Pippen to a level of greatness that I just don't see Pippen quite achieving elsewhere.

 
At Friday, January 11, 2019 12:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

I want to say one other thing about the Pippen/Jordan thing. I don't think that the give and take between Pippen and Jordan was as equivalent as you suggest. I submit that Jordan made Pippen a better player but Pippen did not make Jordan much better than he was and was going to be. In your most recent post you note that Bobby Knight, during the 84 Olympics, said that Jordan was the best athlete he'd ever coached. Before Jordan had ever heard of Pippen, no less than Larry Legend said he was "God disguised as Michael Jordan". Jordan was gonna be Jordan regardless. I just don't see how the same can be said of Scottie Pippen. I get that people tend to underestimate Scottie Pippen's greatness, and your concern about that is right on. For example, I recall during an NBC broadcast during the 90s Bill Walton backhandedly describing Pippen as "the greatest role-player in NBA history." Pippen was a great player in his own right and I don't share Walton's low opinion of Pippen. But it seems to me like you may be overcorrecting and overestimating Pippen a bit by suggesting that he's like 1B to Jordan's 1A when the reality is that he was 2 to Jordan's 1, Robin to his Batman. Kobe was 1B to Shaq's 1A during their three-peat. During the Lakers' two-peat in 87-88 damn-near-retired Kareem was 1B to Magic's 1A. But Scottie was never 1B. He was always 2. A clear second fiddle.

 
At Friday, January 11, 2019 1:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

1) Jordan publicly stated after at least one NBA Finals that he and Pippen were co-MVPs who were going to split the car and the trophy.

2) Jordan told the Bulls that he would retire if they traded Pippen.

3) Jordan went 0-3 in playoff series and 1-9 in playoff games without Pippen. Pippen led the 1994 Bulls to within a horrible Hue Hollins call of the ECF and he was the best all-around player on Portland’s 2000 WCF team that pushed the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to seven games.

4) Chuck Daly said that Pippen was the best player on the 1992 Dream Team.

5) Pippen finished third in 1994 MVP voting and a good case could be made that he should have won.

So, no, for the reasons listed above and many others, I am not buying what you are selling about Pippen. Pippen may be the most underrated great player of all-time.

 
At Friday, January 11, 2019 1:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Anonymous/David-

I'm much more in David's camp, and agree with everything he just wrote, though while a case *could* be made Pippen should have won the MVP in 1994 I certainly wouldn't want to be the one to make it; Hakeem was on another planet that year. That said, Pippen absolutely had an MVP-caliber season, I just think Hakeem had a better one (and played eight more games, as well).

I think Scottie Pippen is one of the 15-20 best players ever, and one of the five or six best forwards ever. I think Jordan is one of the four greatest players ever and the best guard ever. I don't think either needs to be torn down or downplayed for those things to be true, and I don't think either "needed" the other in order to be great; though of course having each other around helped them win more than they would have individually.

 
At Friday, January 11, 2019 4:44:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous,

Just to add my two cents as I tried to post here several times, but was just too slow. Lol.

Jordan began his hall of fame speech talking about how Scottie was with him every step of the way through those 6 championships.

I actually believe you can make the opposite argument from yours...the only reason Jordan is widely considered the GOAT has more to do with Pippen, than Pippen being an all time great has to do with being teammates with Jordan.

As David pointed out, and as I try to elaborate on whenever I get into a discussion about Pippen/Jordan, is the fact Pippen did more without Jordan than Jordan did without Pippen. Now, that statement lacks all context, but it is factual and for the most part, when you drill down into the context, it supports this point.

Pippen allowed Jordan to be Jordan, while filling in ALL of the other gaps. He facilitated/initiated the offense. He was the primary defensive stopper. He was the secondary scoring option. He was the glue that held both 3-peat teams together. Replace him with a Pete Myers-level SF, and I'm not sure the Bulls get much further than a horrific call of the Eastern Conference Finals with Jordan sans Pippen.

I understand averaging 30 points per game is eye-opening and impressive (MVP-worthy), especially back in the 90s, under those rules and with the style and pace of game that was played. But Pippen's contributions to those Bulls team were invaluable and he proved that by carrying the same exact team sans MJ to almost the ECF.

 
At Saturday, January 12, 2019 6:37:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Nick,

Off the top of my head, bird, erving, havlicek, barry, baylor, gervin, king, lebron, durant, duncan, garnett, barkley, malone, mchale, big e... top forwards... who r u taking over pippen (ur top 5 or 6 forward comment)...

I would probably put pippen among top 10 small forwards ever, just to be safe...

 
At Saturday, January 12, 2019 9:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jackson-

That is a good question and I will try to answer it to your satisfaction. In some cases it may not be quite as simple as "who would you take" but let's see.

Without blinking, I would take Doc and Duncan over Pippen. That is no slight to Pippen, but I think Doc and Duncan have two of the four strongest "greatest of all time" cases out there (along with Kareem and Jordan).

I would take Lebron over Pippen for a career or for a season but I might take Pippen over Lebron for key playoff game or series. Still, in a vacuum, I would take Lebron and feel mostly good about it; even with his weird mental warts, both his ceiling and his longevity trump Pippen's.

I have Barry, Bird, and Havlicek all ranked in the same "tier" as Pippen, and I do not usually like to rank within my tiers. Who I would like better between those four largely depends on the parameters of the rest of my team-- if I'm already very strong defensively but lacking a key scorer, for instance, I'm more likely to take Bird-- but in general I think any comparison between those four has pros and cons on each side.

Forced to rank without more specific parameters, my gut says Barry > Bird > Pippen > Havlicek. I think Barry has the highest ceiling and I think Bird's got the best five year stretch (ending in '87). I think Pippen is the best defender but he is not far ahead of Havlicek. Bird probably has the least complete skillset--the others were all better defensively-- but is the best shooter and probably the best passer (though Barry can compete) of the bunch, and has much more scoring value than Havlicek or Pippen. He also has the shortest prime, however. Havlicek is in many ways the proto-Pippen and their skillsets are very similar but gun to my head I'd take Pippen over him owing mostly to size/the ability to guard one extra position on switches. The hardest two for me to choose between there are Bird and Pippen; Bird's apex is undeniably higher but Pippen played roughly 300 more games and played most of them very well. On the wrong team, Bird could theoretically introduce a defensive weak point but it is difficult to conceive of a team that gets weaker in any area by adding Pippen. That said, I think there's a lot of intangible value to Bird's leadership as well as his specific type of passing and his off-ball value, and I'd take him by a nose over Pippen given that. Ask me again tomorrow, I might change my mind.

I would not really have any issue with any alternate order within those four, so I guess I should have said I see Pippen as a top 4-7 forward as opposed to 5-6.

1/2

 
At Saturday, January 12, 2019 9:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

As for the guys I would mostly not take over Pippen:

I do not really trust Malone or Hayes in the playoffs. I would take either over Pippen if the conversation were merely about regular season, though.

I would probably take Barkley's peak season over Pippen's, but there are too few years when Barkley had both his mind and his body in the right state to contend for a title.

McHale is tough to evaluate here as he spent his entire prime with Bird and does not have an equivalent "limelight" season to Pippen's '94. Ultimately as great as he was I just think Pippen does more things well, and does them more consistently. McHale has a comparatively short prime and had injury issues on top of that.

Gervin and King are two of my favorite players but both have fairly narrow skillsets and I would only take them over Pippen if my team badly needed scoring and was pretty well covered in every other area. Longevity/health is also a factor for King.

Garnett is perhaps the toughest cut here, but I don't trust him enough offensively in crunch time. I would take him over Pippen as a regular season performer or if I already had a closer on my team. Ultimately I am not sure I can win a title if he's my best offensive player but I think I've got a shot if Pippen is (assuming the rest of the cast is competitive).

Baylor has a comparatively short career, a narrower skillset, and injury issues. There is also some evidence that he did not have the same impact on winning his astonishing box scores would suggest. That said, I would take him if my team's top need was scoring or rebounding. In a vacuum, I'll take Pippen's great skill diversity/portability/longevity.

If Durant retired today I would take Pippen but that may change by the time all is said and done. As it is, Durant has never been a great defender and has only spent a few seasons as a good (if overrated) one, and it is hard to give him too much credit for his recent playoff success given that the team had already won without him. He is clearly a better scorer than Pippen but Pippen is a much better defender, much better passer, and arguably better rebounder; while Durant's career RPG is slightly higher, he has not yet played the twilight years of his career, and those numbers will likely decline. Pippen's two best rebounding seasons both trump Durant's best so far, and at the eye-test level Pippen more consistently boxes out while Durant tends to either leap for the rebound if he thinks he can get it or leak out in transition, but rarely boxes out in the traditional sense. I also have fewer concerns about Pippen's mentality/moodiness/caprice than I do about Durant's.

2/2

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Olajuwon had a great 1994 season and certainly played at an MVP level. However, for a significant portion of the season I believe that Pippen was considered the front runner but he lost some ground with the voters due to a variety of off-court issues that received negative coverage and I don't think that the MVP voting should so heavily depend on such things.

It is important to remember that it was widely assumed that the Bulls would struggle to even make the playoffs sans Jordan (I won several low-stakes wages with friends about that one; I am not much of a gambler but I had tremendous confidence that the Bulls led by Pippen would vastly exceed popular expectations). You mentioned that Pippen missed more games than Olajuwon did that season but it should be noted that the Bulls went 4-6 without Pippen and 51-21 with him. Olajuwon missed just two games, during which Houston went 1-1. That is too small of a sample size to determine how well the Rockets could have done without Olajuwon but it is fair to say that the Bulls would not have done very well without Pippen. Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong each earned their only All-Star selections with Pippen running the show. The Bulls replaced Jordan with Pete Myers--who had struggled to even last in the league at all prior to that season--and their only other meaningful addition was rookie Toni Kukoc, who had some good moments but who also had his share of first year struggles.

I take nothing away from Olajuwon but the Pippen for 1994 MVP argument is not hard to make at all.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Pippen is not well-liked by some media members and fans but I universally found that players (teammates and opponents), coaches and scouts who I interviewed rated him much higher than popular opinion often did.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I do not disagree that Pippen played at what would generally be considered an MVP level nor that the Bulls were/would have been trash without him. I do not recall the negative coverage but will happily take your word and agree that should not be the determining factor in who wins MVP. However, I do believe that Olajuwon was both the better player that year, and meant more to his team, regardless of who was considered the early-season frontrunner.

You are correct that he missed only two games (and the Rockets went 1-1) but if we expand the sample size to the seasons immediately after he missed 10 games and the team went 3-7 without him (despite having a very slightly post-peak Clyde Drexler for most of those games, a luxury they did not possess in '94) so I think it is safe to suggest that the Rockets would likely not have had much success in '94 without their only star.

I think Pippen is perhaps the greatest perimeter defender of all-time (maybe playing second to Bobby Jones) and he was undoubtedly the team's best offensive player that season, but I think Hakeem is in the Top 3 interior defenders of all-time (and I think interior D is substantially more valuable than perimeter D) as well as a superior offensive player even to peak Pippen (although unlike PIppen he of course was not his team's primary initiator, but the offense nonetheless primarily flowed both through and around him).

As such, it is difficult for me to see a justification for Pippen-over-Hakeem other than "look how good they were despite losing Jordan." As narratives go that's a very good one, but as we recently discussed I am reluctant to dole out narrative-driven MVPs in the absence of mitigating or extreme circumstances and/or the absence of a clear value-based frontrunner. Given that, and the 10% or so disparity in games played, it makes it difficult for me personally to see a PIppen (or anyone else, really) case that year that resonates (although again I do think he played at the level of a traditional MVP; I just think Hakeem was better/more important).

Still and all, I probably *do* think Pippen was the second most valuable player in the league that year, so this may be hair-splitting.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 1:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson/Nick:

Jackon's question pertained to "bird, erving, havlicek, barry, baylor, gervin, king, lebron, durant, duncan, garnett, barkley, malone, mchale, big e... top forwards... who r u taking over pippen (ur top 5 or 6 forward comment)..."

I would say that Gervin spent most of his career at shooting guard, so I would not compare him to Pippen as a small forward. Duncan, Garnett, Barkley, Malone, McHale and Hayes are all power forwards. I rank Duncan as the greatest power forward of all-time.

Among small forwards, Baylor, Erving, Bird and James are in my Pantheon. Havlicek, Barry and Pippen (listed in chronological order) are just below Pantheon level, thus ranked somewhere between 15-30 all-time overall. King's peak was tremendous but it was too short to put him in that group. For a year or year and a half you could perhaps argue that King was the best player in the NBA (the players voted him MVP one of the years that Bird won the official award) but he did not play at that level prior to that point and injury prevented him from sustaining that level.

Nick rates Barry a bit higher than I would and he rates Baylor lower than I would but I agree with many of Nick's general comments above about the various forwards he discussed.

Conventional wisdom probably ranks LeBron James first and Larry Bird second but I feel like both players are overhyped to some degree (you can be a Pantheon player and be overhyped). I have discussed James at length here, so I am not sure that I need to add anything other than this summary: his individual numbers are great but he has quit more than once in the biggest moments and he often seems more concerned about controlling the post-game narrative than actually doing what has to be done to win. As for Bird, his greatness is undisputed but if you lived through that time then you know that there was a "Great White Hope" aspect to a lot of the coverage about him (to Bird's credit, he never fed into that and he even once said, "I am just a white guy playing a black man's game" or words to that effect). Bird made the All-Defensive Team when he was always a below average individual defender. He was consistently rated ahead of Magic Johnson even though Johnson's teams consistently beat Bird's teams and even though Johnson's stats were no worse than Bird's. It was not until 1987 or 1988 that the media began to realize that Johnson was actually better. Bird had some struggles offensively in the playoffs, particularly early in his career, but not much was ever said about that (in contrast, Magic Johnson's play was constantly overanlyzed and critiqued). Circa 1986, the media was widely promoting the idea that Bird was the greatest player of all-time, which always struck me as absurd.

Removing the hype and looking at Bird objectively, he was a great shooter, a great passer and a very good rebounder (particularly early in his career). He was a subpar individual defender but he had good instincts as a team defender. He won three championships and three MVPs. Erving, whose career overlapped with Bird's, won three championships and four MVPs. Erving's teams went 2-2 versus Bird's teams in the Eastern Conference Finals, which includes one matchup when Bird was at his absolute peak and Erving was a 35 year old who retired two seasons later. During Bird's first five years--when Erving was still an All-NBA player--Bird won two MVPs and two titles, while Erving won one MVP and one title. Bird did not clearly surpass Erving until Erving was well into his 30s; Bird never reached the level that Erving played at in his ABA prime. So, it baffles me that so many people just automatically rank Bird ahead of Erving without really analyzing their careers.


 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 1:38:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I know in general you decline to rank within your Pantheon but I also know you sometimes make exceptions to that rule in threads much like this one (and indeed even in this one you mention that you think Magic > Bird). Is it fair to infer from your last comment that you would take Erving over Bird and/or James? If not, is it fair to infer that you would therefore take Magic over Erving?

If you do have him above LB and LBJ, would you go so far as to say you think Erving is the greatest SF of all time? Or even if you have him above Bird/James, do you still see it as too-close-to-call with Baylor*?

*Who, yes, we do differ on, but largely that is because of differing criteria more than differing analysis. I know we agree in general about his longevity and I think we're pretty close on his defense, we just weight those elements differently when it comes to all-time rankings. Ditto my (perhaps unfair) insistence that anyone in the GOAT conversation win at least one ring.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 2:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I have mixed feelings about getting too in depth about ranking within the Pantheon. I feel good about the Pantheon players being greater than everyone else but ranking within the Pantheon is tricky due to differences in eras, positions, rules and so forth.

However, within the Pantheon I rank Jordan as the greatest shooting guard of all-time. I don't see a convincing argument to do otherwise.

I rank Magic ahead of Bird. If you go back and look at the coverage at that time, the biases are fascinating. They were both Midwestern kids from middle class/lower middle class backgrounds who played fundamentally sound basketball but Bird was supposedly the product of hard work while Magic was generally depicted as flashy and naturally talented. It was just a subtler version of stuff that had been written 50 years or so earlier that stated that Jews were the best basketball players because Jews are inherently clever and crafty.

LeBron James' individual numbers by the time he retires are going to be so gaudy that few people are even going to be willing to discuss the possibility that he is not the greatest small forward of all-time. I would take peak Erving over James without hesitation. If James keeps up what he is doing for another year or two, there could be a serious argument that James wins the longevity argument hands down, as Erving played 13 All-ABA/NBA caliber seasons plus three legit All-Star seasons while James is still MVP level in season 16 (though he did start younger than Erving and was not All-NBA level his first year). However, let's keep an eye on LeBron's current injury. I hope that he recovers quickly and fully but the injury looked worrisome to me; I knew that he would not be back in a game or two (as most of the talking heads expected) and I immediately wondered if this is going to be a less serious but similar situation to Kobe's Achilles. Kobe was playing at an MVP level until all of a sudden he suffered an injury that permanently changed his trajectory (though he could still go out on a given night and drop 60, which I suspect should not have been medically possible if one looked at MRIs of his knees, shoulder, Achilles, etc.). Maybe this is just a 10 game or so bump in the road, but I would not be shocked if that injury may in retrospect be the end of LeBron's days as an MVP level player. Father Time is undefeated.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 2:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

James versus Bird is fascinating. Bird was so much mentally tougher. James has more physical tools and comparable skills but I could see Bird getting into James' head if they were matched up one on one. Bird even got to Doc once, late in Doc's career, and Doc threw a punch for the only time in his 16 year pro career.

So, I would take ABA Doc over either guy but I would take James based on physical skills IF (and this is a big IF) I knew that he would not quit--but how would I ever be sure of that? For sustained excellence, James may surpass Erving soon but we'll see.

Most, if not all, of the guys who played with/against Baylor and also saw young Doc said that young Doc was better. Other experts concurred. For instance, Adolph Rupp (who did not have a horse in the race, so to speak) saw young Erving in person and said, "Up until now, I always thought that Jerry West was the greatest basketball player I ever saw, with Oscar Robertson right behind him, but I think right now that Julius Erving is the best." I presume that Rupp had seen Baylor as well.

The argument for James being the best is that he is bigger, stronger and (perhaps) faster than Erving, that he is a more prolific passer and that his individual numbers (other than rebounding) are gaudier. The counter-arguments are that Erving was nearly as tall, could probably have put on more mass while playing in this era if he had been so inclined and Erving may very well have been just as fast and an even better leaper. Regarding statistics, Erving never chased numbers the way that James does. Erving told me that it is "tacky" to be padding one's numbers in blowouts; he said that the bench players work hard in practice and deserve to play. If you go back and look, even when Erving was scoring 28-30 ppg he was always talking about 25 ppg being the ideal number, because it was important to keep everyone involved (despite James' "pass-first" reputation, Erving was without question a better and more loyal teammate). However, in the big games Erving almost always came through, unlike James. Erving scored at least 20 points in 31 of his 33 Finals games and his streak of 26 straight such games (ABA and NBA) is second only to Jordan's 35.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 2:47:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Thank you for answering. Given that and everything else you've written, I'm now curious if, Pantheon-aside, you have an all-time starting 5 (in terms of your top players at each position, not necessarily who'd fit together best)? From that comment above and some of your previous articles I feel comfortable assuming the following (though please correct me if I'm wrong):

C: Either Wilt, Russell, or Kareem
PF: Duncan
SF: Erving (with the window slightly open for Lebron to eventually surpass him with sufficient longevity)
SG:Jordan
PG: Either Magic or Oscar (unless you consider West a PG as well, in which case him too)

I would be super curious to hear who you'd take as the greatest Center or PG but understand if you'd prefer not to pare it down like that.

As an aside, I seem to recall you saying at some point both that Michael surpassed Magic and that Duncan did not quite have the peak that some of the other Pantheon guys did to be considered as the true GOAT. Am I remembering either of those properly? If so, would you say it'd be fair to suggest that while every member of the Pantheon has a GOAT case you find Wilt/Russell/Kareem/Erving/Oscar/Maybe West to have the most compelling cases? Or are West/Oscar not quite in tippy-top contention due to size?

Totally fine if that's going too far down the ranking road, I'm just curious and got a little detectivey about it.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 2:48:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

PS: That Erving punch weirds me out every time I watch it. It feels so out of character, which I guess in a weird way is a credit to Bird.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 9:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not going to rank within the Pantheon beyond what I have said and I still maintain that every Pantheon player has—or, at least at some point, had—a legit case for greatest of all-time consideration. As time has passed and more players came along, some of those cases became weaker (Jordan made it really tough for any other guard) but the Pantheon players remain special.

As for Doc’s punch, it was completely out of character. He refuses to autograph pictures of it and he made a point of approaching Bird and shaking his hand before the next game that they played against each other.

 
At Sunday, January 13, 2019 3:10:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Totally fair, thanks for engaging this far.

For what it's worth, the "at least at some point, had" qualifier takes me from like 80% agreeing with your Pantheon to something closer to 95%. I personally feel like some guys like Baylor and Robertson had much stronger cases in their day than they have today, but they absolutely had cases in their day.

 
At Monday, January 14, 2019 1:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You're welcome.

I don't think that I have ever said or implied that each Pantheon player has/had an equally compelling argument to be deemed the greatest player of all-time but rather that such an argument could/can be made on behalf of each of those players, and also that it is harder to make such an argument for any player not included in the list.

 
At Monday, January 14, 2019 2:41:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Gotcha. Good clarification. I would still respectfully disagree in some corner cases (most dramatically, for me personally it'd be much easier to make that case for Hakeem than for Baylor) but the in "in their day" element of it softens that pretty significantly; Hakeem's case the day he retired would be pretty similar to his case today, whereas Baylor's case the day he retired likely looked a lot better than his case would look today, as so many other great SFs have come along in the interim for him to compete with (and even the only two that were anywhere near his level* at the time--Barry and Havlicek-- still had their best days ahead of them); as far as Hakeem goes, no all-time level center debuted after his heyday (though of course Shaq's highest peaks were after Hakeem had left his prime).

*A case also probably exists for Connie Hawkins if we are looking purely at talent/skill, but unfortunate circumstances beyond his control shaved too many years off his career for him to be in the conversation otherwise, I think.

By and large, though, we're still mostly on the same page; my Top 12 (or my top 3 tiers) features only two players your Pantheon doesn't (Hakeem and Moses), and is as a result a bit overloaded with frontcourt guys (six centers + three forwards + three guards... and one of the forwards is Duncan), and the few players in your Pantheon who aren't in my Top 12 are all just outside of it.

 
At Tuesday, January 29, 2019 3:34:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I don't know where else to post this, but needed somewhere to discuss. How good can Lebron really be if he needs to always create super teams? I may be salty, but I think the Lakers are about to make a huge mistake and take years of careful work and planning and throw it all away for a superstar that hasn't been able to win as the main guy, is ball dominant, is on a completely different timeline than Lebron, and has proven to be injury prone (never played in more than 75 games).

For all the criticism Harden gets on this sub (most definitely warranted), I think wanting to be the man and venturing off on his own should be commended in this era of "superstars" feeling the need to team up with other "superstars" in order to win. I never liked Lebron because, he's always playing the game of thrones. Savvy business man. Stellar person in terms of keeping a clean public image (never ever any controversy). Otherworldly talent. But, the fact he chose to come to the Lakers knowing what the organization is trying to do, and barely across the halfway point of his first season, he's trying to get Walton replaced and move half the roster to accommodate his desires...all while he's sat out the past month injured.

Pat Riley did it right and put him in his place. It appears Magic is simply going to lob an assist...We've seen how well that's worked out in Cleveland...twice.

When Kobe made his demands, he had spent 2 years of his absolute prime doing everything in his power to carry the team. Lebron started the season slow, ramped up, then got hurt and is now dictating the organization's direction.

If the Lakers trade away all of their cost-controlled, blossoming talent, to get an injury-prone superstar who will be overpaid -- how will the rest of the roster fill out? While you need superstars in the playoffs, you need a deep roster to navigate the regular season and/or a starting group that plays team ball. Sure, Ball, Ingram, Zubac, Hart, and Kuzma are not all-stars this year. But all of them have shown flashes despite all of them having to completely adjust their games to accommodate one person who has now missed a 1/3rd of the season. None of them can legally rent a car...and the mainstream media already knows that none of them will pan out.

Trading for AD is a mistake. I don't care if the Lakers win 1 championship with AD/Lebron (no guarantee with how good other TEAMS are nowadays), in 2 years, Lebron will no longer be the best player in the league (could be legitimately argued he's already not) and will be grumbling at another missed game from AD as he tries to carry a squad of two-way contract players and over-the-hill veterans. Where have we seen this movie before (Cleveland, Miami, Cleveland)?

Am I overreacting? Someone tell me that AD is worth gutting an entire roster for? I don't trust any of the current mainstream talking heads.

 
At Wednesday, January 30, 2019 11:58:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

If you're not going to be happy with a single title during the Lebron era, you're going to be disappointed no matter whether or not they trade for AD. As you noted, his window is narrow.

That said, it makes sense that LA would try to maximize their title chances during what's left of his semi-prime; as you noted, there's no guarantee any of those young guys turn into true stars, so from at least that point of view it makes sense to go all-in while they have a for sure superstar. Particularly if there's any fire beneath all that Kyrie-to-LA smoke.

So, I can see the case for giving up a bunch of young talent to bring in more stars. Whether or not AD is the right star is another question entirely.

As you noted, he's injury prone. He also prefers to play power forward, which requires a certain kind of center next to him and mitigates his own defensive value a bit (it also means Lebron can't play PF in those lineups, which is a shame, as that's likely to be his best position as he ages).

If you have the wink-wink incoming Kyrie, I think it's probably still worth the swing; you know that if everything breaks right, you can win a title with Lebron/Kyrie/frontcourt star, and AD is better than Kevin Love was. Additionally, LA has five pretty interesting young guys; they're unlikely to give up more than three of them in the deal, I imagine.

I personally don't think Lonzo's ever going to justify his draft position. I'm not sure Kuzma's going to get much better than he is right now. Jury is out on Ingram. Flipping those three guys for AD wouldn't bother me too much, so long as my goal was to contend for a title as soon as possible.

But, if you're more concerned with the long-term health of the franchise, bringing in an injury-prone big man in place of all your young prospects is definitely a bad move.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that it makes sense for what the Lakers are trying to do, but not for what you, as a Lakers fan, would prefer they try to do.

 
At Friday, February 01, 2019 2:03:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Appreciate your feedback. Looks like Magic is throwing a lob. Sigh. Out in LA, on ESPN Radio, the Lakers have commercials with Lonzo, Kuzma, Luke Walton, and McGee all saying, "The King plays here." I want to vomit. I may push pause on my Lakers fandom for the next 4 years...seriously.

 
At Friday, February 01, 2019 11:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I tend to not write very much about matters that are more speculation than fact. We don't know if/when Davis will become a Laker, or join some other team.

That being said, I agree with you that it detracts somewhat from LeBron James' status that he is always undermining his teammates and coaches to try to control everything around him.

I also share your skepticism about both Davis' impact and his ability to stay healthy. How much prime time James has left is also a valid concern.

On the other hand, I have never been as impressed with the Lakers' young talent as many observers have been, so if the Lakers can package those guys for an established star that probably is the best way to maximize James remaining MVP-caliber seasons. As Nick said, though, there are legitimate reasons to doubt if Davis is the right star or the best star who is (or will be) available.

 
At Tuesday, February 05, 2019 6:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

With current reports being that the Lakers offered 2 1st round picks plus all five of Kuzma/Ball/Ingram/Zubac/Hart (and KCP) and a willingness to take back Solomon Hill, I would like to amend my previous analysis.

The Lakers should pull that offer right this second. Hill + Davis + Lebron I believe closes them off from a hypothetical third star, and you're going nowhere in the West with Solomon Hill or Rajon Rondo as your third best guy.

Three of those guys and one first rounder would probably be as high as I'd reasonably go, and even then I'd blink at taking on Hill's money unless I was confident I could re-route him in time for free agency.

 
At Wednesday, February 06, 2019 12:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick/Jordan:

It is not a great look for the NBA that attention is diverted from this season's on-court product to LeBron James--via his mouthpiece Rich Paul--dictating terms to a team whose star player is under contract for the next year and a half. If I were running the Pelicans, I would not be in a great rush to make a deal with the LeBrons--I mean, the Lakers--since the LeBrons are actively undermining the value of the Pelicans' franchise. The Pelicans should decide what they believe Davis is worth and they should not accept a penny less than that. Davis' value will go up, not down, after the trade deadline. Boston becomes a player after July 1 (due to the rules regarding Kyrie Irving's contract), and other teams could possibly jump in the mix as well. These teams are going to want to trade for Davis as opposed to waiting for him to become a free agent, so--at least for the next few months--the Pelicans have the leverage.

Granted, if the Pelicans wait too long they could lose leverage but that is not going to happen by the trade deadline. If I ran the Pelicans, I would tell the Lakers to go pound salt and I would ride out the season with Davis--unless the Lakers make an offer so good that the Pelicans cannot refuse it.

 
At Wednesday, February 06, 2019 11:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Apparently Davis has said that he will not re-sign in Boston, so the Celtics may be less of a threat than initially believed, but in general I agree with you.

My point was more that the Lakers were, in their lust for another star, dramatically overpaying for an injury-prone big man they can probably get for the same price or cheaper during the summer.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 9:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

There are so many rumors floating around--and so much disinformation--that it is hard to know what to believe. The "experts" were sure that Paul George would leave the Thunder to join the Lakers but of course the "experts" were dead wrong. So, I have no idea whether or not Davis would re-sign in Boston, and even if he feels one way now he may feel differently in July.

I think that Davis is a bit overrated AND the Lakers' young core is a bit overrated, so I am not sure how many of the Lakers' young players constitute a reasonable package for Davis.

That being noted, it says a lot about James that he preached patience when he he signed with the Lakers and he indicated that he wanted to help the young core grow but now he is apparently willing to get rid of all of them, and the coach as well. It is odd to me that LeBron is portrayed as a great, loyal teammate. I would much rather go into battle with a guy like Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook, because I know that if I play hard and do my job then they will be loyal to me until the end. I could do my best alongside LeBron and he would still probably sell me down the river if he thought that it would benefit him or one of his side businesses.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 4:19:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan/David-

Interesting that the Lakers traded Zubac. He was part of the package NO reportedly wanted, and not having him to throw in an offer potentially hurts LA's offer this offseason.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 6:01:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I'm disgusted by this entire process. The team has zero chance of making the playoffs now. I mean, Lebron just destroyed the morale of the entire roster. Fans at the Pacers were chanting Lebron's going to trade you every time one of our young guys stepped to the line. There are radio commercials in LA where Kyle Kuzma, Luke Walton, and Javale McGee say, "The King plays here". I want to vomit. Magic Johnson has embarrassed the organization and the city. Trading Zubac for...an average NBA player is the kind of short term thinking that sunk the Pelicans.

I think the Lakers should offer the Pelicans Lebron for AD. Instead of tearing down an entire team for one player, why not add one player to the entire team? AD is 25. The rest of the Lakers core is 21 to 23. Lebron is 34 going on 50,000 minutes played. Trade Lebron. He doesn't have a no trade clause. I can't stand him or Klutch. Lakers fans came out even when the team sucks. If we start winning, the fanbase will come. The Lakers fans that smeared the Lebron murals...they kinda had it right, despite the low class response.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 8:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Trading Zubac seems like an odd decision but apparently the Lakers' General Manager LeBron James conferred with the Lakers' Coach LeBron James and the Lakers' All-Star player LeBron James and decided that LeBron James would like to add a shooter to the roster. The Lakers make all of their decisions by consulting with their leadership committee, which consists of the three aforementioned individuals. The remaining Lakers players who have not yet been traded but could possibly be traded at any point after the season ends are simply delighted by the upstanding and intelligent way that the leadership committee is ruining--I mean, running--the franchise.

It is a shame that the False Bucket website is defunct, or we could be educated about how all of this is actually Kobe Bryant's fault. That is the only part of this drama that is missing.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 8:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

No, no, no. You are do not understand the correct narrative. Let me help: LeBron James is a wonderful teammate and he also deserves to be voted Executive of the Year, Coach of the Year and MVP.

How dare you suggest that LeBron James brings with him endless drama and that we may be approaching the point where the negativity of the drama outweighs his on court contributions!

What could Pat Riley have possibly meant after James left the Heat and Riley said that he was glad to be rid of "smiling faces with hidden agendas"? He must have been talking about Mario Chalmers, right? He could not have meant LeBron James. No way!

 

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