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Wednesday, October 02, 2019

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

Part II and Part III of this series looked at the NBA's 50 Greatest Players lists published by Athlon Sports (in 2008) and the Boston Globe (in 2015) respectively. Both of those lists were compiled many years after the NBA released its official list in 1996, so those newer lists incorporated the next generation or two of NBA players. Before continuing our chronological examination of various NBA's 50 Greatest Players lists, it is worth considering the selections made in 1996 by two well-known NBA writers who were not members of the 50 person panel that selected the NBA's official list.

In an October 21, 1996 Chicago Tribune column published a few days before the NBA released its official list, Sam Smith--author of the book The Jordan Rules--chose his 50 Greatest NBA players, in order (the official list did not rank the players). Also, in an October 29, 1996 USA Today column published just before the NBA's official list was revealed, Bryan Burwell declared, "But 50 is too easy. Fifty allows a lot of room to work, and fewer egos to bruise. I prefer smaller numbers...The real challenge is gleaning all that greatness down into a more condensed digest of 20." Burwell ranked his all-time top 20 NBA players. We will first look at Smith's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Wilt Chamberlain
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Magic Johnson
5) George Mikan
6) Bill Russell
7) Oscar Robertson
8) Larry Bird
9) Jerry West
10) Elgin Baylor
11) Rick Barry
12) Julius Erving
13) Hakeem Olajuwon
14) Isiah Thomas
15) Bob Pettit
16) Bill Walton
17) Earl Monroe
18) Bob Cousy
19) Charles Barkley
20) Scottie Pippen
21) Moses Malone
22) Pete Maravich
23) Willis Reed
24) Kevin McHale
25) John Havlicek
26) Elvin Hayes
27) Wes Unseld
28) Karl Malone
29) Walt Bellamy*
30) Gus Johnson*
31) Walt Frazier
32) Lenny Wilkens
33) Joe Fulks*
34) George Gervin
35) Dave Cowens
36) Bernard King*
37) Jerry Lucas
38) Nate Archibald
39) John Stockton
40) Hal Greer
41) Dominique Wilkins*
42) Nate Thurmond
43) Bob McAdoo*
44) Robert Parish
45) Clyde Drexler
46) Dennis Johnson*
47) Slater Martin*
48) David Robinson
49) Paul Arizin
50) Sam Jones

Thus, Smith's list included eight players who were not on the official list: Walt BellamyGus Johnson, Joe Fulks, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo, Dennis Johnson and Slater Martin. Smith's list did not include these eight players from the official list: Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman and James Worthy.

Smith's 2019 selections would undoubtedly be different, but here we will only consider his 1996 list based on what had happened up to that time.

In Part I of this series, I mentioned a set of criteria (in no particular order) for comparing great players from different eras:

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?

2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?

3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?

4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?
 
Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bellamy and McAdoo.

Gus Johnson made the All-NBA Second Team four times, he made the All-Defensive First Team twice and he earned five All-Star selections. After playing nearly 10 seasons in the NBA, he finished his career by playing a little more than half a season as a valuable reserve for the Indiana Pacers' 1973 ABA championship team. Johnson was one of pro basketball's first high flying dunkers, but he was more than just a rugged and flashy athlete. Earl Monroe, Johnson's teammate with the Baltimore Bullets, praised Johnson's all-around game: "Gus was ahead of his time, flying through the air for slam dunks, breaking backboards and throwing full-court passes behind his back. He was spectacular, but he also did the nitty gritty jobs, defense and rebounding." Johnson averaged 16.2 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his pro career, ranking 18th in ABA-NBA career rebounding average.

Joe Fulks played the first three seasons of his professional career in the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which then merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA in 1949-50--but the NBA includes BAA statistics from 1946-49 in its official records, so Fulks is considered the NBA's first scoring champion (1389 points in 60 game in 1946-47, when the title was decided by total points instead of ppg average). The regular season MVP award did not exist during his career and the first NBA All-Star Game was played during his second to last season, but Fulks made the All-Star team each of the two times he was eligible and he made the All-League Team (BAA or NBA) four times, including three First Team selections. Fulks was one of the pioneers of the jump shot and he was the leading scorer in both the regular season and the playoffs in 1947 when his Philadelphia Warriors won the championship. The argument against Fulks' Top 50 candidacy is that he was a 6-5, 190 pound forward who starred in the pre-shot clock era when the NBA was largely segregated, and it is not clear how well his skill set would have translated even 10 years after his prime, let alone several decades later.

Bernard King finished second in the 1984 regular season MVP balloting and he likely would have finished higher than seventh in 1985 if he had not suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his season after just 55 games; King averaged 26.3 ppg in 1983-84, and then he led the league in 1984-85 with a 32.9 ppg scoring average, picking up where he had left off after topping the NBA in 1984 playoff scoring (34.8 ppg). King became the first player to make the All-Star team after tearing his ACL; it took him nearly two full years to return to action--surgical techniques and rehabilitation regimens for ACL injuries were not nearly as advanced in the 1980s as they are today--and he triumphantly regained All-Star status in 1991, before missing all of the 1992 season due to injury and then retiring after playing just 32 games in 1992-93. King made the All-NBA Team four times, including First Team selections in 1984 and 1985. He also earned four All-Star selections. In his prime, he was one of the league's deadliest finishers on the break and he owned a lethal turnaround shot on the baseline.

Dominique Wilkins ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times (including a second place finish in 1986). Wilkins won the 1986 scoring title (30.3 ppg), one of four seasons during which he averaged at least 29.0 ppg. Wilkins averaged at least 25.9 ppg for 10 straight seasons (1985-94, including 1992 when a ruptured Achilles limited him to 42 games). He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including one First Team selection. Wilkins made the All-Star team for nine straight seasons (1986-94). He is known for his ferocious dunks, but Wilkins scored 26,668 career regular season points and he is fond of pointing out that he did not score all or even most of them on dunks. Wilkins was a solid rebounder from the small forward position, with a career average of 6.7 rpg.

Dennis Johnson earned the nickname "Airplane" because of his high-flying exploits as a 6-4 guard who could rebound and block shots just as well as players who were much taller. He won the 1979 Finals MVP while leading Seattle to the NBA title, he finished fifth in regular season MVP voting the next season and in 1981 he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection. Johnson also made the All-NBA Second Team in 1980 and he made the All-Star team five times. Johnson made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including six First Team selections. He spent his first three seasons in Seattle, played his next three seasons in Phoenix and then finished his career with seven seasons in Boston, where he played a key role as the starting point guard on two championship teams (1984, 1986). Larry Bird once called Johnson his smartest teammate ever. Johnson was not a great shooter but he had a well-deserved reputation for making clutch shots, and he averaged 17.3 ppg in his playoff career compared to 14.1 ppg in his regular season career.

Slater Martin made the All-NBA Team five times and he made the All-Star team seven times. He ranked in the top 10 in assists six times and he was the starting point guard for five championship teams (four times with the Minneapolis Lakers, one time with the St. Louis Hawks).

The players from the official 50 Greatest Players List who Smith did not include accomplished a lot during their careers. Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for DeBusschere and Worthy, and in Part III for Bing, Cunningham, and Sharman.

Patrick Ewing won the 1986 Rookie of the Year award and he finished in the top five in MVP voting six times. He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including one First Team selection (1990). He made the All-Defensive Team three times and he made the All-Star team 11 times. Ewing entered the league as a rebounder and defensive specialist but he quickly proved to be a dominant scorer and one of the best shooting big men of all-time. He averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg in nine straight seasons.

Shaquille O'Neal won the 1993 Rookie of the Year award. He won one regular season MVP (2000) and he finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting eight times. He won three Finals MVPs (2000-02) while playing on four championship teams. O'Neal led the league in regular season scoring twice (1995, 2000) and he led the league in playoff scoring once (2000). O'Neal led the league in field goal percentage 10 times, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's record of nine. Among ABA/NBA career leaders, O'Neal ranks fourth in field goal percentage (.582), ninth in blocked shots (2732) and 10th in points (28,596).

Dolph Schayes finished in the top five in MVP voting three times. He made the All-NBA Team each of the first 12 seasons of his career, including six First Team selections. Schayes also played in 12 straight All-Star Games. He ranked in the top 10 in scoring 11 times, led the league in rebounding once and he finished in the top 10 in assists three times. For nearly six years, Schayes was the NBA's career scoring leader, before being passed by Bob Pettit and then Wilt Chamberlain.

Based solely on the players' career statistics and accomplishments as of October 1996, I agree with three of the players Smith added: Walt Bellamy, Bob McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins. I agree with three of the players Smith did not include: Dave Bing, Bill Sharman and James Worthy. Thus, I would not have added Joe Fulks, Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson, Bernard King and Slater Martin, and I would not have left off Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Patrick Ewing, Dolph Schayes and Shaquille O'Neal.

Bellamy was a dominant scorer and rebounder; critics suggest that he did not always play hard, which brings to mind Ralph Wiley's comment about baseball great Rickey Henderson: if he put up those numbers while coasting then he must be the greatest player of all-time. I am not suggesting that Bellamy is even a Top 10 player all-time, but he was a Top 50 player as of 1996.

McAdoo was the only NBA regular season MVP who did not make the original Top 50 list. He was a "stretch four" (or even a "stretch five") before the term was invented, and McAdoo also rebounded and blocked shots. Pat Riley has said that the Lakers would not have won their 1982 and 1985 titles without McAdoo.

Wilkins was the eighth leading scorer in NBA history/11th leading scorer in ABA/NBA history when the original Top 50 list was selected. He was a pure scorer who was somewhat underrated in other areas of the game, and he belonged on the original list.

While a case can be made for Bing, Sharman and Worthy, equally good--if not even better--cases could be made for other players even in 1996, as I discussed in Parts II and III of this series.

I am puzzled by Smith's inclusion of Fulks, Martin, Dennis Johnson and Gus Johnson. While all four players are clearly deserving Hall of Famers, none of them should receive serious Top 50 consideration. Fulks was the only member of this quartet who was statistically dominant in his own era, but Fulks had a short career in the NBA's formative years and there just is not enough evidence to rank him in the Top 50. Martin and Dennis Johnson each served as the point guard on multiple championship teams and Johnson was even the best player on one championship team, but most of the time they were not even the second best player on their championship teams. Gus Johnson was a fantastic player but neither his peak value nor his short career justify ranking him in the Top 50.

A good case could be made for Bernard King: he had at least one 20 ppg season in three different decades, he had a stretch as an MVP-caliber performer and, were it not for the knee injury, he displayed a talent level that may very well rank him among the top 30 players of all-time. It is tough to leave him off, and I would not argue strenuously against including him in 1996, but he and Wilkins were similarly skilled players, with Wilkins sustaining a peak level for a longer period of time than King did. It could very well be argued that perhaps King deserved inclusion over players not discussed in this article, but focusing just on who Smith included and who Smith left off compared to the official list, I would reluctantly leave King off.

I would have kept Billy Cunningham and Dave DeBusschere on the list in 1996. Cunningham was a top notch scorer, rebounder and playmaker; he won an ABA MVP and he twice finished in the top five in NBA MVP voting. DeBusschere was a rugged power forward who could score inside and outside, rebound and defend. He was the final piece to the Knicks' championship puzzle. DeBusschere would not make my Top 50 in 2019, but he deserved inclusion in 1996.

The main argument that could be made to keep O'Neal off of the list in 1996 was that he had only played three seasons. However, by that time he already owned a scoring title, a Rookie of the Year award, two top five MVP finishes and two All-NBA selections, in addition to leading the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Perhaps it was premature to include a third year player, but it was also obvious that if he was not included the list would look silly pretty soon. In Smith's defense, he made his list before the NBA announces their list, and perhaps Smith just neglected to seriously consider anyone who had not played at least five or six seasons.

Less understandable are Smith's omissions of Schayes and Ewing. Schayes was a dominant scorer/rebounder/passer for a dozen years, and he continued to perform at a high level after the introduction of the shot clock and after the talent surge of the 1950s and early 1960s added Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and others to the mix. It is particularly odd that Smith included Fulks--who had a shorter career, mostly in the pre-shot clock era--but left out Schayes, a bigger and more dominant player who proved that his skill set fit in even as the NBA evolved to become faster paced and more athletic.

Ewing never won an NBA title, and his demeanor probably did not win him many fans in the media, but you have to give the man his due: he scored, rebounded and defended at a very high level for more than a decade. No offense to several of the players listed above who Smith included, but no general manager or coach in his right mind would take those players over Ewing.

Regarding Burwell's list, as noted above he decided to select just 20 players, not 50. Every player he chose made the cut both for the NBA's official list and for Smith's list, which is not surprising considering that those lists were more than twice as long. Here is Burwell's list:

1) Michael Jordan
2) Wilt Chamberlain
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Magic Johnson
5) Larry Bird
6) Bill Russell
7) Oscar Robertson
8) Julius Erving
9) Jerry West
10) Elgin Baylor
11) George Mikan
12) Isiah Thomas
13) Rick Barry
14) Earl Monroe
15) Bob Pettit
16) Hakeem Olajuwon
17) Bob Cousy
18) Charles Barkley
19) Pete Maravich
20) Moses Malone

Burwell's top four is identical to Smith's top four. Smith had Mikan at five, while Burwell placed him at 11. Mikan is the toughest case; he was voted the most dominant basketball player of the first half of the 20th century, but he played his best basketball in the pre-shot clock, largely segregated NBA, so it is very difficult to figure out how his skill set and dominance would have translated even into the 1960s, let alone later decades. In terms of how he dominated his era, Mikan is a top five player of all-time, but in terms of how his skill set would have translated there is no way to say with any confidence; that is why I restrict my player rankings to the post-shot clock era.

I thought that Smith ranked Erving a little low (12th), so it is nice to see Erving at eighth on Burwell's list, and that is a more accurate reflection of educated conventional wisdom at that time (I could make a good case to rank Erving higher, but most analysts at that time would have probably put Erving in the bottom portion of the top 10).

The second part of Burwell's list raises some eyebrows. Isiah Thomas is arguably the greatest little man in pro basketball history but it is questionable to rank him as the 12th best player overall. Earl Monroe at 14th jumped out at me, and Smith had Monroe at 17th; I cannot recall any other list--certainly not one made after the early 1970s--that would rank Monroe that highly. Monroe was a tremendous player, a Hall of Famer and easily a Top 50 choice in 1996, but I am baffled that anyone would rank him above--to choose just two MVPs--Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone. Monroe deserves credit for being an innovative ballhandler and scorer, as well as for accepting a lesser role statistically to help the New York Knicks win the 1973 title, but that still should not have placed him in the Top 20 even back in 1996.

Burwell ranked Pete Maravich 19th and Smith ranked Maravich 22nd. Maravich is one of my favorite players of all-time, so it is great to see him receive appreciation, and I think that as time passes/memories fade he is becoming underrated.

Maravich was the best guard in the NBA in the mid-1970s before he suffered a serious knee injury, but his peak was brief and his career only lasted 10 seasons. Maravich was way ahead of his time, and if you transplanted him to today's game with his skill set he would average something like 35 ppg and 10 apg, but based on what he actually accomplished during his pro career both Burwell and Smith ranked him a few spots higher than I would have at that time.

---

Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

Part II of this series can be found here.

Part III of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM

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