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Friday, April 05, 2019

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

In late 2015, the Boston Globe published a list of the Top 50 NBA Players of All-Time, ranking the players in order and providing a brief bio of each player written by Gary Washburn. Here is the Boston Globe's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Bill Russell
3) Wilt Chamberlain
4) Magic Johnson
5) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6) Jerry West
7) LeBron James*
8) Oscar Robertson
9) Larry Bird
10) Kobe Bryant*
11) Shaquille O'Neal
12) Elgin Baylor
13) Julius Erving
14) Bob Pettit
15) Karl Malone
16) Tim Duncan*
17) John Havlicek
18) Hakeem Olajuwon
19) Rick Barry
20) John Stockton
21) Bob Cousy
22) Kevin Garnett*
23) Elvin Hayes
24) Moses Malone
25) Charles Barkley
26) Isiah Thomas
27) Jerry Lucas
28) George Gervin
29) George Mikan
30) Dirk Nowitzki*
31) Patrick Ewing
32) Kevin McHale
33) Kevin Durant*
34) Scottie Pippen
35) Nate Archibald
36) David Robinson
37) Robert Parish
38) Allen Iverson*
39) Walt Frazier
40) Dwyane Wade*
41) Hal Greer
42) Dennis Rodman*
43) Paul Arizin
44) Clyde Drexler
45) Steve Nash*
46) Lenny Wilkens
47) Reggie Miller*
48) Gary Payton*
49) Paul Pierce*
50) Dolph Schayes

Thus, the Boston Globe added LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Dennis Rodman, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton and Paul Pierce to the list and did not include Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton and James Worthy.

Similar to Part II in this series--which examined the 50 Greatest Players List compiled by Athlon Sports in 2008--this article will not reconsider the entire 1996 NBA list but instead will focus on comparing the 13 players added by the Boston Globe to the 13 players that the Boston Globe did not include. Thus, a player who made the cut in my estimation when examining Athlon Sports' choices may not make the cut when examining the selections made by the Boston Globe.

In Part II, I called the inclusion of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan "obvious and indisputable." Similarly, Kevin Garnett is a worthy choice and Allen Iverson's selection should not be controversial, though some may disagree. By 2015, it was also obvious and indisputable that LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade had earned their way on to the list.

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Iverson.

James is still adding to his long list of accomplishments but at this writing he has won four regular season MVPs (2009-10, 2012-13; he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting 13 times), three Finals MVPs (2012-13, 2016), three All-Star Game MVPs (2006, 2008, 2018) and the 2004 Rookie of the Year award. James won the 2008 regular season scoring title and he has led the league in playoff scoring average three times (2009, 2012, 2018). He has made the All-NBA Team 14 times, including 12 First Team selections to break the record of 11 held until last season by Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone. He has made the All-Defensive Team six times, including five First Team selections. He has made the All-Star team 15 times, tied for fourth on the all-time list with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19), Kobe Bryant (18) and Julius Erving (16, including 11 NBA and five ABA) have made the All-Star more than 15 times.

James ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season scoring (32,543 points), first all-time in ABA/NBA playoff scoring (6911 points) and third all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1687).

Early in his career, James had a few skill set weaknesses--free throw shooting, midrange shooting, three point shooting, post up game--but he has worked hard to minimize, if not eliminate, those weaknesses. James has a power forward's body (he is approximately the same height and weight as Karl Malone) but the scoring skill set of a small forward and the passing/ballhandling skill set of a point guard. No other player in pro basketball history has the combination of size, speed, jumping ability and diverse skill set that James has. Magic Johnson had the height, the passing and the ballhandling but not the same scoring ability and jumping prowess; the (few) others who could compete with James as a scorer and jumper lacked James' passing and ballhandling skills. James has the necessary physical attributes and basketball skills to be on the short list in the greatest player of all-time discussion. James has been the best player on three championship teams (2012-13, 2016) but his teams are just 3-6 overall in the NBA Finals. James falls short of being the greatest player of all-time for reasons that are outside the scope of this article, but there is no question that he has earned a place not only among the top 50 players but among the top 10.

Dirk Nowitzki won the 2007 regular season MVP and he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times. He won the 2011 Finals MVP and he has made the All-NBA Team 12 times, including four First Team selections. Nowitzki has made the All-Star team 14 times, including 2019 when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tapped him and Dwyane Wade as "special team roster additions." He ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season minutes played, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57,446) and Karl Malone (54,852), neither of whom Nowitzki will catch as this is almost certainly his last season. Nowitzki ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season games played, trailing only Robert Parish (1611), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1560) and John Stockton (1504). Nowitzki needs to play 34 games this season to pass Stockton. Nowitzki is one of just eight players in ABA/NBA history to score at least 30,000 career regular season points.

Nowitzki entered the NBA as a 20 year old with no U.S. playing experience, though he had played professionally in Germany. During his rookie season he had a rough adjustment to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, but by his second season he was already a solid player (17.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, .379 3FG%) and by his third season he was a member of the All-NBA Third Team (oddly, he did not make the All-Star team until his fourth season).

Nowitzki is perhaps best known for his shooting prowess, both from three point range and with his unstoppable turnaround in the post/midpost area, but during his prime he was an elite rebounder--especially during the postseason; he averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg for seven different playoff years and he is one of just four players in pro basketball history to have career playoff averages of at least 25 ppg and at least 10 rpg (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other three). Nowitzki had four straight playoff games with at least 30 points and at least 15 rebounds, a feat that had not been accomplished since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had done it three decades earlier. Nowitzki ranks ninth all-time with 29 playoff games during which he scored at least 30 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds; that is four more such games than Larry Bird had and Nowitzki only trails Elgin Baylor (the all-time leader with 56), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Pettit and Tim Duncan in this category. That combination of scoring and rebounding prowess in a playoff setting probably is a surprise to casual fans and maybe even to some NBA commentators.

Nowitzki was never a great individual defender but he used his length to contest shots and he made an important contribution as a defensive rebounder. Nowitzki was never a playmaker but he developed into a reasonably effective passer; he was never a ball-stopper or a player who interfered with the effective operation of the team's offense.

He led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals and the Mavericks went up 2-0 on the Miami Heat before losing four straight games. Next season, the Mavericks won an NBA-best 67 games and Nowitzki was given the regular season MVP but his reputation took a hit after the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors. Nowitkzi and the Mavericks avenged the Finals collapse and the first round upset by upsetting the star-studded Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Outdueling LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in that series eliminated any doubt--real or imagined--that Nowitzki is an all-time great. During the fourth quarters in that Finals, Nowitzki duplicated the scoring output of James and Wade combined. The Mavericks became just the fourth team in NBA history led by one current All-Star to win the Finals against a team that had three current All-Stars.

While Nowitzki is rapidly approaching the end of the road, Kevin Durant is in his prime and has already put together an impressive resume. Durant won the 2014 regular season MVP and he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting six times, including three second place finishes. Durant won the Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018, plus the 2012 and 2019 All-Star Game MVPs and the 2008 Rookie of the Year award. Durant has led the league in regular season scoring four times (2010-12, 2014) and he has led the league in playoff scoring average four times (2011, 2013-14, 2016). He has made the All-NBA Team eight times, including six First Team selections. He is a 10-time All-Star.

Durant's NBA career had a bumpy start largely because Coach P.J. Carlesimo played him out of position at guard but after Carlesimo was fired his replacement Scott Brooks moved Durant back to his natural forward position and the rest is history. Durant is not a great post up player but other than that he has a complete repertoire as a scorer, from the three point shot to the midrange shot to the ability to drive/finish in traffic to the ability to draw fouls and then convert free throws at a high percentage. Durant has led three teams to the NBA Finals (Oklahoma City in 2012, Golden State in 2017 and 2018) and won two championships (2017-18).

Dwyane Wade ranked in the top five in regular season MVP voting twice. He won the 2006 Finals MVP and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP. Wade won the 2009 NBA scoring title and he led the league in playoff scoring in 2010. He made the All-NBA Team eight times, including two First Team selections, and he was chosen for the All-Defensive Team three times. Wade made the All-Star team 13 times, including when he joined Nowitzki in 2019 as a "special team roster addition" selected by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Wade has played in the NBA Finals five times, winning titles in 2006, 2012 and 2013.

Wade never developed a reliable three point shot; he never shot better than .320 from three point range for a full season, and in 10 of his 15 full seasons he shot worse than .300 from three point range. Wade is a solid free throw shooter whose seasonal free throw percentages range from .714 to .807. His main offensive weapons are (1) driving to the hoop, (2) drawing fouls (he averaged at least 9 FTA/g for six straight seasons) and (3) his midrange jump shot. He played exceptionally well during Miami's run to the 2006 title--culminating in a Finals performance during which he earned MVP honors--and he was very solid during Miami's 2012 title run but he averaged just 15.9 ppg during the 2013 playoffs as the Heat secured back to back championships and he has averaged less than 20 ppg in five of his 13 playoff appearances. Wade is an excellent shotblocking guard, and he has amassed the second most career regular season blocked shots for any guard since that statistic has been officially recorded (1972-73 for the ABA, 1973-74 for the NBA).

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Rodman and Payton.

Steve Nash won two regular season MVPs (2005-06) and he ranked in the top five in MVP voting three times. He led the league in regular season assists five times (2005-07, 2010-11) and he led the league in playoff assists four times (2004-07). He won two regular season free throw percentage titles (2006, 2010). Nash made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three First Team selections. He made the All-Star team eight times.

Nash had four 50/40/90 seasons (FG% of at least 50, 3FG% of at least 40 and FT% of at least 90), ranking first on the all-time list. Larry Bird did it twice and only five other players have accomplished the feat one time each since the NBA started using the three point shot in the 1979-80 season. Nash's career regular season shooting percentages are .490, .428 and .904 respectively, meaning that he was nearly a 50/40/90 player for his entire career.

Nash ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season assists (10,335), second all-time in ABA/NBA regular season free throw percentage (.904) and ninth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season assists average (8.5 apg). He also ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1061), is tied for sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff free throw percentage (.900) and ranks eighth in ABA/NBA playoff assists average (8.8 apg).

Nash is one of the greatest shooters of all-time and also one of the greatest passers. He was a below average defensive player and the regular season numbers that he put up in 2005-06 would not historically have been sufficient to win MVP honors. Nash's MVP awards are very anomalous when examined in the wider context of pro basketball history, both in terms of his individual productivity and also in terms of his lack of team success compared to other multiple MVP winners.  Nash's numbers through his first 12 seasons are very similar to Mark Price's numbers for his 12 year career (15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg, .472 FG%, .402 3Pt FG%, .904 FT% for Price, 14.3 ppg, 7.9 apg, .485 FG%, .431 3Pt FG%, .897 FT% for Nash) and Nash did not do anything in his last six seasons to materially add to his legacy (Nash's career numbers are 14.3 ppg, 8.5 apg, .490 FG%, .428 3Pt FG%, .904 FT%). Mark Price was a very good player, an underrated player and a player who perhaps could have been a Hall of Famer had his career not been shortened by injury--but, even at his best, he was never a serious MVP candidate, nor a player who would be considered among the 50 greatest players of all-time.

Nash's teams advanced to the Conference Finals four times in his 18 seasons and he never made it to the NBA Finals; his former team, the Dallas Mavericks, made it to two NBA Finals after he left, winning the 2011 title. While it is true that the Mavericks made many roster changes after Nash's departure, it is unusual for a team to lose a future multiple MVP winner and still be a serious contender. For instance, the Boston Celtics won 11 championships in Bill Russell's 13 seasons but then missed the playoffs two years in a row after he retired and did not reemerge as a contender until adding Dave Cowens--a future MVP and Top 50 player in his own right--to the roster. The Philadelphia 76ers posted the worst record in NBA history shortly after Wilt Chamberlain's departure. The Nets were awful after losing Julius Erving, as were the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan's final retirement. The struggles of LeBron James' ex-teams in recent years have been well documented. This was not the case with Nash in Dallas. In Phoenix, the Suns were declining from contender status as Nash aged--they went 40-42 in Nash's last full Phoenix season, then they went 33-33 the next year with Nash in the lockout shortened campaign--and they dropped to 25-57 in their first full season without him (albeit with other roster changes as well).

Nash is one of 15 players in ABA/NBA history to win at least two regular season MVPs. Other than Karl Malone, each of those players won at least one championship. Of those 13 championship winners, 11 of them won at least two championships and 10 of those 11 won at least one of their MVPs during a season in which their team won a championship.

Reggie Miller never finished in the top 12 in regular season MVP voting and he never made the All-NBA First Team or the All-NBA Second Team, though he did make the All-NBA Third Team (which did not exist prior to 1989) three times. Miller made the All-Star team five times in 18 seasons. He is one of just 26 members of the exclusive ABA/NBA 25,000 point club.

He led the NBA in regular season free throw percentage five times and he ranks 11th in ABA/NBA regular season free throw percentage (.888). Miller is most famous for being a three point shooter but, while he did at one time hold the regular season career record for most three pointers made (2560, now second to Ray Allen and soon to be third behind Stephen Curry), he ranks just 58th in ABA/NBA regular season career three point field goal percentage (.395). Miller ranks even lower in ABA/NBA playoff three point field goal percentage (67th, .390). Miller averaged at least 20 ppg in just six of his 18 regular seasons, but he averaged at least 20 ppg in 11 of his 15 playoff runs (seven of those 11 postseason appearances lasted six games or less). Miller played in the NBA Finals one time (2000), as his Indiana Pacers lost to the L.A. Lakers.

Miller's primary skill set strength was shooting. He was not much better than average at any other aspect of the game such as rebounding, passing, ballhandling and defense. Early in his career, he ranked in the top 10 in free throw attempts in three different seasons, an indication of his ability to draw fouls, but later in his career he did not excel at that, though he did flop to the extent that the league made a rule against players who kick out their legs unnaturally while attempting a shot in an attempt to draw a foul; such a play was not only against the spirit of the rules--before it was formally outlawed--but it was dangerous as well.

In a 1998 interview, Miller told Dan Patrick that there were only a few great players in the NBA, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill and Shaquille O'Neal on that list. Miller included himself among some "very good" players who are in a separate category underneath the great players. Patrick asked Miller why he was not great and Miller replied that he did not have the same athletic gifts and that he worked very hard just to establish himself as a very good player. That is a more objective assessment of Miller's ranking than one generally sees in the media. Miller was a great shooter, he was very durable--remarkably so, considering his slight frame--and he had some memorable playoff moments but there is no way he should be seriously considered for listing among the top 50 players of all-time.

Paul Pierce never ranked in the top five in regular season MVP voting and he only finished in the top 10 once (seventh place, 2009), He won the 2008 Finals MVP. Pierce never made the All-NBA First Team but he earned Second Team honors once and made the Third Team three times. He made the All-Star team 10 times. He averaged at least 20 ppg in eight of his 19 regular seasons and, like Miller, he is a member of the ABA/NBA 25,000 point club.

Pierce's greatest skill set strength was his ability to create his own shot in a variety of different ways; he could drive, he could post up and he was a deadly shooter out to three point range. He was a solid rebounder, playmaker and defender. Pierce was the leading regular season scorer for Boston's 2008 championship team and for the 2010 Boston team that lost in the NBA Finals. 

The players from the original 50 Greatest Players List who the Boston Globe did not include have impressive accomplishments worthy of recognition and acknowledgment. As I wrote in Part II, "Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras." Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for DeBusschere, Jones, Monroe, Thurmond, Unseld, Walton and Worthy.

Dave Bing ranked in the top five in MVP voting twice, he won the 1976 All-Star Game MVP and he was selected as the 1967 Rookie of the Year. Bing led the league in scoring in 1968 when the scoring title was determined by total points and not by scoring average; he ranked second in scoring average that season. Bing averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first seven seasons. He ranked in the top five in assists five times, including the year that he won the scoring title. He made the All-NBA First Team twice and the All-NBA Second Team once. Bing was a seven-time All-Star.

Bing was a top notch scorer and playmaker for a decade and he was still a solid player in his final two seasons. He also rebounded well from the point guard position and he was a decent defensive player, who improved at that end of the court as his career progressed.

Dave Cowens won the 1973 regular season MVP, the first of four straight years that he finished in the top five in MVP voting, including second place in 1975. He also won the 1973 All-Star Game MVP and he was the 1971 NBA Rookie of the Year. Cowens made the All-NBA Team three times. He made the All-Defensive Team three times, including a First Team selection in 1976. He was an eight-time All-Star.

Although Cowens never led the league in rebounding, he averaged at least 13.9 rpg in each of his first eight seasons, finishing second for three straight years (1974-76) and never ranking below seventh. He ranks ninth all-time in ABA/NBA career regular season rebounding average (13.6 rpg). Cowens led the NBA in playoff rebounding in 1975 (16.5 rpg) and 1976 (16.4 rpg). He ranks seventh in ABA/NBA playoff rebounding average (14.4 rpg).

Cowens was an undersized center but he was fast and agile. He had a good shooting touch and he also could drive to the hoop. He was a first rate rebounder and passer. Cowens was a key member of Boston teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for five straight years (1972-76). Boston's 1973 team went 68-14, which was the third best winning percentage at that time and which still ranks as the sixth best winning percentage. The 1973 Celtics lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury. Boston won the 1974 championship, tied for the best record in the NBA (60-22) before losing to the 60-22 Washington Bullets in the 1975 Eastern Conference Finals and then bounced back to capture the 1976 title.

Billy Cunningham won the 1973 ABA regular season MVP and he ranked in the top five in MVP voting three times, including third in 1969 in the NBA and fifth in 1970 in the NBA. Cunningham was an All-League selection five times, including three straight All-NBA First Team selections (1969-71) and one All-ABA First Team selection (1973). Cunningham made the All-Star team five times--four times in the NBA and once in the ABA. He led the ABA in steals in 1972-73 (the first season that either league officially recorded that statistic).

Cunningham began his career as the sixth man for a Philadelphia 76ers team that featured fellow future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker, plus other talented players such as Luke Jackson and Wali Jones. Cunningham was the fourth leading scorer (18.5 ppg) for the 1967 76ers, who set the record--since broken--for best regular season winning percentage (68-13, .840). The 76ers routed Boston 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals (ending the Celtics' run of eight straight NBA titles) and then beat the San Francisco Warriors to win the NBA title.

Cunningham jumped to the ABA's Carolina Cougars in 1972 and won his only MVP award after leading the team to the best record in the league, 57-27. The Cougars lost to the 56-28 Kentucky Colonels in game seven of the Eastern Division Finals, denying Cunningham the opportunity to win a championship in both leagues. Cunningham was just 29 years old and seemed poised to be an elite player for years to come, but injuries and health problems limited him to just 132 more games before he retired at age 32.

Cunningham was a left-handed player known for his jumping ability, stamina and quickness. He was a top level scorer, rebounder and playmaker; Cunningham averaged at least 23 ppg for five straight seasons, at least 10 rpg for five straight seasons and at least 4.9 apg for three straight seasons. Each of those streaks ended in 1973-74, when kidney problems (which ultimately required two surgeries) limited Cunningham to just 32 games.

Pete Maravich finished in the top five in MVP voting once (third in 1977 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton). He made the All-NBA Team four times, including First Team selections in 1976 and 1977. Maravich led the league in scoring in 1976-77 and was leading the league in scoring more than halfway through the 1977-78 season before suffering a season-ending knee injury from which he never fully recovered. He averaged at least 21.5 ppg in eight of his first nine regular seasons (though he missed at least 30 games in two of those eight seasons) and he ranked in the top five in scoring four times. Maravich ranked in the top 10 in assists twice and he finished in the top 10 in free throws made five times, including first one time and second two times. He was a five-time All-Star. He averaged 25.5 ppg during the playoffs while leading the Hawks to the postseason in each of his first three campaigns but Maravich's career playoff scoring average took a hit after his final season, when he scored 6.0 ppg in just 11.6 mpg for the Boston Celtics during their run to the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals.

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?

Maravich was not blessed with great longevity, which negatively impacted his ability to post high rankings in key statistical categories. However, Maravich does very well by the other three criteria. He made the All-NBA Team four times despite having just five seasons during which he played at least 70 games.When healthy, he was an elite guard for a significant portion of his career, a player who could score in a variety of ways, draw fouls, create shots for his teammates and rebound well for his position. Maravich's skill set would fit in perfectly with today's game; the rules changes and the rules interpretations heavily favor offense, particularly for perimeter players, and it is reasonable to suggest that a healthy Maravich would easily average more than 30 ppg and at least 8-10 apg under today's conditions. Regarding historical impact, Maravich's legacy is indisputable; many of the great players who followed him, including Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, have credited Maravich as a primary influence.

Willis Reed is the first player to win the All-Star Game MVP, regular season MVP and Finals MVP in the same season (1970). Michael Jordan (1996 and 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) are the only other players who accomplished this feat. Reed also finished second in the 1969 regular season MVP voting and fourth in the 1971 regular season MVP voting. His trophy case includes the 1973 Finals MVP and the 1965 Rookie of the Year award. Reed made the All-NBA Team five times, including one First Team selection (1970, the year he earned his only All-Defensive Team selection, also to the First Team). His New York teams advanced to the NBA Finals three times (1970, 1972-73) and won two titles (1970, 1973).

Reed never led the league in a major statistical category but he averaged at least 11.6 rpg in each of his first seven seasons and his career average of 12.9 rpg ranks 13th in ABA/NBA history. While Reed could post up and he had a good hook shot, his New York Knicks often ran an inverted offense featuring guards Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe attacking the hoop while Reed and forwards Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas bombed away from outside. Reed did not display three point range--which, of course, was not necessary or desirable at a time that the NBA had not adopted the three point shot from the ABA--but he had a reliable shot in the 15-18 foot range. Reed was an excellent defensive player and he had great physical presence. He was not a great passer but he contributed offensively not only as a scorer but also as a screen setter.

While Reed put up impressive statistics during his prime, he is most famous for a game during which he scored just four points: in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals versus the L.A. Lakers, a hobbled Reed limped on to the court after missing game six due to a hip injury and he made his first two shots from the field, providing inspiration as the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 victory. Walt Frazier had 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds in game seven but Reed received the Finals MVP after averaging a team-high 23.0 ppg plus 10.5 rpg during the series (Reed averaged 26.8 ppg during the first five games of the series before suffering the injury).

Bill Sharman ranked in the top five in MVP voting once (fifth in 1956; he also finished seventh in 1958) and he won the 1955 All-Star Game MVP. He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including four straight First Team selections (1956-59), and he was a seven-time All-Star. The All-Defensive Team had not been created at that time, but Sharman was a physical player despite being just 6-1, 190 pounds, and he was considered a tenacious and pugnacious defensive player. Jerry West once said that Sharman had more fights than Mike Tyson!

Sharman's .426 career field goal percentage may not look impressive at first glance but that is deceptive. Field goal percentages during his era were lower than in subsequent eras for a variety of reasons. Sharman was one of the greatest shooters of all-time. He not only ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage five times during his 11 seasons but he also led the NBA in free throw percentage for five straight seasons (1953-57) and seven times overall; the only other player who led the league in free throw percentage seven times is Rick Barry (six times in the NBA, once in the ABA). Sharman's .883 career free throw percentage ranked first all-time when he retired and is still 14th in ABA/NBA history.

Sharman played on four championship teams (1957, 1959-61) as a member of the Boston Celtics, for whom he played 10 of his 11 NBA seasons.

Although not relevant to his worthiness for inclusion on the 50 Greatest Players List, it should be noted that Sharman is the first North American professional sports figure to win a championship as a player, as a coach and as an executive. He coached a championship team in the ABL, the ABA and the NBA. Sharman personified championship level success throughout his career and he is on the short list of people who have been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Tommy Heinsohn are the others).

Before providing my take on the Boston Globe's list, I must emphasize that all of the players discussed above had great careers and made a significant impact on the sport. There is not one definitive top 50 list or only one correct way to construct such a list. All of these players deserve tremendous respect and appreciation.

I agree with nine of the additions made by the Boston Globe: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton. However, instead of adding Dennis Rodman, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller and Paul Pierce, I would keep Dave Cowens, Willis Reed, Billy Cunningham and Pete Maravich. Cowens and Reed were dominant MVP centers who were strong contributors to multiple championship teams. Cunningham and Maravich both had careers cut short by injury/illness but here I am looking at peak value and, particularly in Maravich's case, historical impact on the game. Nash was a great passer and shooter but he was a reluctant scorer who had significant defensive liabilities. Pierce was an excellent player who had a long career but he was never an elite player like Cunningham and Maravich were in their primes. Rodman, as discussed in Part II, was a great rebounder and defender but I cannot place him on the list ahead of power forwards who not only rebounded and defended but also were top notch scorers.

In Part II, I discussed my reasons for not including Sam Jones, Earl Monroe, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens and James Worthy.

As for Dave Bing and Bill Sharman, it is particularly difficult to leave out Sharman. He was a great two-way player on four championship teams and he is one of the best shooters of all-time. However, I just cannot quite rank him ahead of the players who the Boston Globe added whose careers took place subsequent to the creation of the original list; if the list remains limited to 50 players then this becomes a numbers game and it is inevitable that some great players will not make the cut. Bing did not have quite the two-way impact that Sharman did but he was a worthy member of the initial list who, like Sharman, is just not as good as some of the all-time great players who have come along in the past two decades or so.


Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

Part II of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM


Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Russell Westbrook Joins Wilt Chamberlain in the 20-20-20 Club

Russell Westbrook is on the verge of clinching his third straight season of averaging a triple double--an unprecedented feat that is, inexplicably, largely being ignored--and he is doing so with style: during Oklahoma City's 119-103 win over the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday night, Westbrook posted 20 points, 20 rebounds and 21 assists, just the second 20-20-20 game in pro basketball history. As you probably would guess if you did not know, Wilt Chamberlain was the first player to accomplish this, with 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists in Philadelphia's 131-121 win over Detroit on February 2, 1968.

After Westbrook's jaw-dropping performance, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas--serving as a TNT commentator during the "Players Only" telecast--said that in an era of great point guards Westbrook is not mentioned enough. Thomas also declared that Westbrook is the "most dominant" point guard of this era. That is true. No other point guard is equally dominant as a scorer, rebounder and passer the way that Westbrook is. Westbrook can match anyone in the league bucket for bucket as a scorer, he rebounds better than most centers and he has become the league's best playmaker, defying the critics who used to say that Westbrook was a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard.

The best thing about Westbrook, though, is the thing that we should be able to take for granted about pro athletes but is in fact an increasingly rare quality: Westbrook plays hard, all the time. He would agree with Jeff Van Gundy's oft-repeated statement that the idea of "load management" is a load of something else.

Westbrook does not always shoot well (he shot 8-23 from the field versus the Lakers) and he gets too many technical fouls but no matter the circumstance he competes hard. Some of the perimeter players who are putting up gaudy numbers now would not fare so well in earlier eras, but Westbrook is a throwback; he would have fared well in Chamberlain's prime during the 1960s, and during the 1970s, and during the 1980s, and during the 1990s.

This is Westbrook's eighth 15-15-15 game, tying him with Chamberlain for second on the all-time career list; Oscar Robertson--who, before Westbrook made the triple double season an annual occurrence, was for decades the only player to ever average a triple double for a season--holds the career record with 14 such games.

Speaking of 15-15-15 games and underrated/unappreciated players, Westbrook's feat brings to mind one of the most remarkable--and probably least known--playoff stat lines: Rookie Julius Erving tallied 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists as his Virginia Squires defeated the New York Nets 138-91 in game one of the 1972 ABA Eastern Division Finals. Let that marinate for a moment: Erving was a rookie when he posted those numbers in the Eastern Division Finals, while playing for the opportunity to advance to the ABA Finals (Erving's Squires lost that series but he later led the Nets to championships in 1974 and 1976). If a player put up those numbers in the Conference Finals today, the internet might implode--unless Westbrook does it, in which case it will be either dismissed or just ignored.

I understand--but don't accept--that media coverage of basketball is largely driven now by hype and memes and highlights and tweets, but how many NBA players are actually better at playing basketball--at scoring, rebounding and passing--than Russell Westbrook?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM