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Thursday, October 03, 2019

2019-20 Western Conference Preview

The Golden State dynasty is over after the Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn in free agency, and lost Klay Thompson for most, if not all, of the 2019-20 season due to a knee injury. While the Western Conference is more wide open than it has been for quite some time, there is still a clear separation between the contenders and the pretenders; what has narrowed is the yawning gap that used to separate the (healthy) Warriors from everyone else.

Kawhi Leonard took his talents from Toronto to the L.A. Clippers, and he persuaded the Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George to join him. The Clippers won 48 games last season despite injuries to key players, the midseason trade of leading scorer Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. and not having a single All-Star on the roster. Now, the Clippers have added arguably the league's best two-way player, plus a perennial All-Star. This is a team that could win 60-plus regular season games and must be considered the preseason favorite to win the NBA championship. Doc Rivers has already won a championship while coaching the 2008 Boston Celtics and he has proven his chops with multiple franchises.

Two other Western Conference contenders made headline-grabbing moves.

The L.A. Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, after months of maneuvering and shenanigans. It remains to be seen if LeBron James can stay healthy as he ages, if the often injury prone Davis can stay healthy, and if the Lakers possess the necessary mentality and focus to win a championship.

The Houston Rockets acquired 2017 regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, who has an ongoing record-setting streak of three straight seasons averaging a triple double. Westbrook is also the only player in NBA history who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018, 2019). The Rockets now have a player who is good enough to relegate James Harden to being an off of the ball second option; unfortunately for Houston fans, Daryl Morey thinks that Harden is a better offensive player than Michael Jordan, and if the Rockets base their game plan on that concept then they will not win a title.

The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are two other teams that will battle the three teams listed above for a top four seed and home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) L.A. Clippers: Kawhi Leonard does not produce flashy highlights or headline-worthy soundbites. He just makes winning plays at both ends of the court. Leonard won the 2014 Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat's "Big Three" and last year he won the 2019 Finals MVP after leading the Raptors to their first championship by beating the two-time defending champion Warriors. Leonard is a dynasty killer; in between killing the dynasties built by the Heat and the Warriors, he killed the Spurs by forcing his way out of San Antonio. Leonard dictated to the Clippers that he would only come to L.A. if he could play with Paul George, and the Clippers delivered. Offseason surgeries to both shoulders will keep George out of action until at least November, but with Leonard leading the way the Clippers should be able to start the season on a strong note before hitting their full stride after George returns.

2) Houston Rockets: The Daryl Morey era in Houston began in 2007, amid much hype and fanfare. Here is my take: "During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?"

Morey took a huge risk when he overpaid Chris Paul, but he rectified that mistake this summer by swapping Paul for Russell Westbrook. If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders.

If the Rockets continue to be the James Harden show then they will not win a game of consequence.

It really is that simple. The Rockets now have enough talent to win a title, but they need to have the right mindset from the top of the organization down. I am not sure what to expect from this team, but three scenarios seem most likely, in this order: (1) 55-60 regular season wins, playoff flameout as Harden pulls his usual disappearing act; (2) 45 regular season wins and first round exit because Harden will not give up the reins, relegating Westbrook to standing in the corner watching the Harden show; (3) 55-60 regular season wins and a championship as the Rockets give up on the delusion that Harden is a "foundational player," let Westbrook run the show, and follow Westbrook's lead in terms of playing hard all of the time.

3) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets posted the West's second best record in 2018-19 before losing at home in in the seventh game of the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers. Based on seeding, that was an upset, but Denver only won one more game than Portland during an 82 game season. Denver did not make any blockbuster moves during the offseason, but the acquisition of Jeremi Grant improves the team's depth and helps at both ends of the court. The Nuggets will again fight for the top seed, but the question in the playoffs will be whether or not Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray can outduel the superstar duos from the conference's other elite teams.

4) L.A. Lakers: To say LeBron James' first season in L.A. was a disappointment is a vast understatement. James left Cleveland for ostensibly greener pastures, but the Lakers won just two more games with James than they won the season before without him. The Anthony Davis saga fractured the locker room and, although James put up superficially impressive statistics, James' effort level was suboptimal--particularly on defense--and his teammates followed his lead in that regard.

We are supposed to believe that the acquisition of Davis and the firing of Coach Luke Walton will cure all of the team's ills. Maybe, but there are reasons to be skeptical: James is an aging player who seems more focused on his other interests than on basketball, Davis has never won anything of consequence, and it is far from certain that James will respect new Coach Frank Vogel any more than he respected Walton (or David Blatt or Mike Brown).

Placing the Lakers fourth is a bit of a compromise; if everything goes perfectly, this could be the best team in the West--if not the entire league--but if everything goes south the Lakers could be in the bottom half of the playoff picture. So fourth may end up being wrong, but it represents the middle of a wide range of possibilities.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: After making their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2000, the Trail Blazers are fully committed to Coach Terry Stotts plus their ace backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, Portland made significant changes to the rest of the roster and will rely on newcomers Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver in particular to quickly fit in and make meaningful contributions.

How far Portland advances will mainly be determined by how well Lillard and McCollum perform versus the other top duos in the West. Portland's Western Conference Finals run last season looks like an outlier; based on skill set and size, it is difficult to picture Lillard and McCollum consistently outdueling the likes of Leonard/George, Westbrook/Harden (if Houston plays in optimal fashion), Jokic/Murray or James/Davis. Yes, Portland beat Denver's Jokic and Murray in seven games last season, but Denver appears to be a team on the rise while Lillard and McCollum have likely peaked.

6) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs will receive a major boost with the healthy return of guard Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season because of a torn ACL. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are an excellent 1-2 scoring punch, with each averaging over 21 ppg last season. Rudy Gay is a solid third scoring option who shot a career-high .504 from the field in 2018-19. San Antonio pushed second seed Denver to seven games in the first round last season, so regardless of how the Spurs rank in the regular season they will likely once again be a tough out in the postseason.

7) Utah Jazz: Last season, I overrated the Jazz, who finished fifth in the West and lost in the first round after reaching the second round each of the previous two seasons. The Jazz reloaded by acquiring Mike Conley, Emmanuel Mudiay and Bojan Bogdanovic and they may in fact have a better roster this year than they did last year. However, the teams ahead of them last year improved to a greater extent, and even a couple of the teams behind the Jazz last year look better than the Jazz now (Lakers, Spurs). Utah is heading toward a second consecutive first round exit.

8) Golden State Warriors: We heard a lot of noise during last year's playoffs that the Warriors are a better team without Kevin Durant because they have better ball movement and because they are able to fully exploit Stephen Curry's "gravity." This is no longer a theoretical exercise on someone's spreadsheet; now we will be able to test that hypothesis with a full sample of 82 games. Even without Durant, and with Klay Thompson sidelined for most--if not all--of the season due to an ACL injury, the Warriors have two-time former MVP Curry and three-time All-Star/2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green leading a strong supporting cast. The Warriors acquired 2019 All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the sign and trade deal that sent Durant to the Brooklyn Nets. There is no excuse for this team to not at least make the playoffs--but, as the 82 game season will demonstrate, the notion that the Warriors are better without Durant is absurd.

The Western Conference has several teams that could push for a playoff berth before falling short. The Dallas Mavericks are one of those teams. Their future, anchored by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, looks bright. The New Orleans Pelicans are a chic pick to qualify for the playoffs despite losing Anthony Davis, but they are a bit too young and inexperienced. The Sacramento Kings finally seem to be moving in the right direction after many years of being adrift, but they are not quite good enough to crack the top eight.

On paper, Oklahoma City has enough talent to compete for a playoff berth, but the reality is that Chris Paul will probably get injured, get traded or both. The Thunder are focused on acquiring draft picks, not on winning games this season, and their final record will reflect that focus.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot of young talent but Jimmy Butler not so subtly suggested that the young talent lacks drive/focus, and the team's arc after Butler's departure to Philadelphia seems to confirm that.

Six years after the firing of Coach Lional Hollins after he led the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference Finals, Memphis fans are still waiting to see the benefits of the front office's "forward-thinking" analytics--but perhaps the franchise took a step in the right direction in April by reorganizing the front office and putting Zach Kleiman in charge. Kleiman will not be able to turn around this long-sinking ship in one year, but maybe better days are ahead.

The Phoenix Suns have turned into the New York Knicks West, with Robert Sarver playing the role of James Dolan.



I correctly picked seven of the eight 2019 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: 6/8
2017: 7/8
2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2019 Total: 90/112 (.804)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM


2019-20 Eastern Conference Preview

The Eastern Conference has been depleted of star power in recent years. LeBron James moved from Cleveland to L.A., Paul George was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City, and this past summer Kawhi Leonard departed Toronto to join forces with Paul George, forming a power duo that makes the L.A. Clippers a legitimate championship contender for the first time in franchise history. Leonard is the first reigning Finals MVP to change teams the year after winning the award.

There is a lot of hype about the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Milwaukee Bucks should be the class of the East now that the Toronto Raptors will be taking a step backwards. Although the 76ers look good on paper and arguably have the best staring lineup in the Eastern Conference, I question the long term chances of a team that relies on the injury-prone Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who has skill set limitations and seems to lack a consistently aggressive mentality.

The Boston Celtics should still be a strong team after essentially swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker, but losing Al Horford to Philadelphia hurts them at both ends of the court while also strengthening a key rival.

The East is wide open from the standpoint that there is not one dominant team, but the reality is that--barring injuries or unforeseen developments--the three above teams will most likely emerge as a cut above the other teams in the conference.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as the heir apparent to LeBron James as the league's best all-around player. Like the young James, however, Antetokounmpo will have to refine and complete his skill set in order to have the same impact in the playoffs that he has in the regular season. Antetokounmpo won the 2019 regular season MVP and earned his first selections to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team after posting career-highs in scoring (27.7 ppg, third in the league), rebounding (12.5 rpg, sixth in the league), assists (5.9 apg) and field goal percentage (.578). His averages for blocked shots (1.5 bpg) and steals (1.3 spg) both slightly exceeded his career averages (1.3 and 1.2 respectively).

However, his production and efficiency dropped a bit during the playoffs, as Antetokounmpo proved unable to consistently make jump shots, which affected his ability to attack defenses that sat in the paint and waited to thwart his drives. He averaged 25.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.9 apg in the playoffs, but his field goal percentage slumped to .492. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA (60-22) and the team's first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2001, yet his game still has room for growth. The good news for Bucks fans is that Antetokounmpo has displayed a relentless work ethic, and thus there is every reason to believe that he will continue to develop as a player.

The Bucks declined to overpay Malcolm Brogdon and instead traded him to the Indiana Pacers. Other than losing Brogdon, the Bucks return intact the key rotation players from a squad that ranked third in field goal percentage, first in points scored, first in defensive field goal percentage and first in rebounds. The Bucks are elite both offensively and defensively, and they have the sport's best individual player. They are clearly the best team in the East; that is not the same as saying that they are the best team by a wide margin, but they are a step above every other team in the East.

2) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers tanked for four seasons to produce a squad that has lost in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two years. This summer, they lost two starters--Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick--plus rotation player T.J. McConnell, but they acquired Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Trey Burke. The projected starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson is arguably the most talented in the East, but does not include any players with NBA Finals experience, let alone championship experience.

Embiid has playing time restrictions and often misses games due to injury and/or "load management." He is very talented but it is far from certain that he can lead a team to a title. Simmons has seemed to lack a high rev motor dating back to college; the comparison with Magic Johnson is ludicrous, and does Simmons no favors. If he can evolve into an All-NBA player that would be a step up, and still leave him a few steps short of reaching Johnson's level.

Horford will improve the 76ers at both ends of the court, but late game half court execution will likely remain a problem for this team. At least Butler could take--and make--key shots down the stretch. It is not clear who is willing and/or able to do that for the 76ers now.

The ongoing devolution of the East may result in the 76ers reaching the Eastern Conference Finals but this is a flawed team that could be headed toward its third straight second round elimination.

3) Boston Celtics: Last season was disappointing for the Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned from injury to join a young nucleus that had advanced to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, but in 2019 the chemistry was never right and Boston bowed out 4-1 to Milwaukee in the second round.

Irving left Boston to join forces with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, and then the Celtics largely replaced Irving's scoring--but not his playmaking and his playoff experience--by signing Kemba Walker. Enes Kanter is a nice addition as well, though obviously he cannot replace Horford.

This season will tell us a lot about Boston's young nucleus: are the young guys truly stars in the making who just needed for Irving to give them a chance to shine, or were Irving's not so thinly veiled complaints correct? As for Walker, he has played in 11 playoff games during his eight season career and he has not advanced past the first round. Can he be the best player on a contending team, or is he one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot" (players who put up gaudy regular season statistics for mediocre or bad teams but who are not able to carry a good team very far)?

Boston will be in the mix at the top of the conference, and could win the East if things break right--i.e., the Bucks suffer injuries--but most likely the Celtics will lose in the second round of the playoffs.

4) Indiana Pacers: In the past four years, the Pacers have won between 42 and 48 regular season games and lost in the first round of the playoffs four straight times. Victor Oladipo has made the All-Star team in both of his seasons with the Pacers, but he missed the 2019 midseason classic after suffering a season-ending right quad tendon rupture. Oladipo is not expected to be able to play until December or January, and it is uncertain what level his game will be at when he returns. He made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team in 2017-18 but he was not playing at quite that level even prior to the injury; his scoring dropped from 23.1 ppg to 18.8 ppg, his field goal percentage slumped from .477 to .423, his free throw percentage declined from .799 to a career-low .730 and his spg average fell from a league-best/career high 2.4 to 1.7. It is not clear that he ever was good enough to be the best player on a championship team, and it is even less clear that he will ever again be as good as he was two seasons ago.

The Pacers lost their second leading scorer (18.0 ppg), Bogdan Bogdanovic, to the Utah Jazz. Wesley Matthews signed with the Bucks and Tyreke Evans was suspended by the NBA. Brogdan and T.J. McConnell will fill the void in the backcourt, while T.J. Warren (acquired from the Phoenix Suns) will bolster the frontcourt.

The net result of all of those moves will probably not be much different from what we have seen the past several years: the Pacers will be a solid team that could possibly advance to the second round, but they will not go any further than that.

5) Brooklyn Nets: Last season, the Nets returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. First-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell led the team in scoring (21.0 ppg) and assists (7.0 apg) but he is with Golden State now in exchange for two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who will miss the entire season after rupturing his Achilles. The Nets also signed Kyrie Irving, who will be the focal point of the offense this season. This is at least the fourth distinct stage of Irving's career. He was a "looter in a riot" in Cleveland prior to LeBron James rejoining the team, he was an Andrew Toney-like clutch assassin during Cleveland's four straight Finals trips (including the 2016 title), he was a lightning rod for criticism in Boston last season as the Celtics failed to live up to expectations and now--at least until Durant makes a healthy return--he is the face of a young Brooklyn team. We will learn a lot about Irving this year. Can he parlay his playoff experience from the Cleveland years to lead Brooklyn to the playoffs sans Durant, or is he destined to be remembered as a very good second option who cannot carry a team? My hypothesis is that Irving is better than his worst critics suggest and that the Nets will have a solid season without Durant.

The Nets have a very good coaching staff and a strong organizational culture. The Nets do things the right way and that is why I expect them to be even a little better than last season despite a lot of roster turnover and despite Durant not being available. The Nets will fight for homecourt advantage in the first round, and could advance to the second round, depending on matchups and health.

6) Toronto Raptors: Congratulations, Toronto! You are the first non-American based team to win an NBA title and the first team to watch the reigning Finals MVP leave to play for another squad. Kawhi Leonard came, he "load managed," he saw, he conquered and he moved on to what he expects to be greener, sunnier pastures.

What Leonard left behind is a well-coached team that has a solid nucleus including a five time All-Star guard (Kyle Lowry) and a rising young talent (Pascal Siakam). The Raptors have zero chance of contending for a title as currently constructed without Leonard, but they will play hard and smart and they will be a tough out for someone in the first round of the playoffs. Observers who believe that Toronto's 17-5 regular season record without Leonard foreshadows Toronto being among the top three teams in the East will learn that just because something is true does not mean that it matters; it is true that the Raptors were very good without Leonard last season during a small and skewed sample of games, but that does not tell us much about how the team would fare over 82 games without Leonard.

7) Miami Heat: Pat Riley's teams do not tank and they do not make excuses. The 30-11 run during the second half of the 2016-17 season was a mirage, and it turns out that the Heat were who we thought they were: a team that can win 40-48 games while annually contending for a playoff spot.

Miami has the second highest payroll in the league, and they have not yet received much bang for those considerable bucks. Even in view of the Monopoly money being thrown around to anyone who has a pulse, Goran Dragic's contract has not turned out to be a good value: he has been with the Heat for four and a half seasons, during which time he has made the All-Star team once and the team has advanced past the first round once. Dragic is not the only, or even biggest, mistake that the Heat made but when a one-time All-Star is making over $19 million as the team's second-highest paid player your roster is not constructed to go very far.

The Heat acquired a true All-Star by signing Jimmy Butler. The four-time All-Star, four-time All-Defensive Team member and two-time All-NBA player is by far the best player the Heat have had since the ending of the "Big Three" era. Unfortunately, the Heat lost their leading scorer (Josh Richardson) and their best rebounder/shot blocker (Hassan Whiteside), so the 10-15 wins that Butler is probably worth will just offset the 10-15 wins that those players are worth.

The net result will likely be that the Heat narrowly make the playoffs after missing the cut last season.

8) Detroit Pistons: Under Dwane Casey's leadership, the Pistons made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2016. That was just their second postseason appearance in the past 10 seasons.

Detroit added some interesting pieces--including Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris--to a roster that already included Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. This is not a great team by any stretch of the imagination but it is a well-coached team with a pretty solid starting lineup. If injury-prone players like Griffin, Jackson (who played all 82 games last season for the first time in his career) and Rose stay healthy then the Pistons could finish as high as fourth or fifth, but another eighth seed seems more likely.

As for the rest of the East, the Orlando Magic made no substantive roster changes while several other Eastern Conference teams improved. The Magic will still fight for a playoff berth, and could obtain one if things break just right, but I expect them to fall just short. Atlanta should improve by a few wins, but not enough to make the playoffs. The Charlotte Hornets are in trouble after essentially losing All-NBA guard Kemba Walker for nothing. The Cleveland Cavaliers will improve but not be close to playoff contention.The New York Knicks will again be terrible, but RJ Barrett is a rookie who could make some noise. The Chicago Bulls will remain awful. The Wizards need to reboot.


I correctly picked six of the eight 2018-19 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: 6/8
2017: 5/8
2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2019 Total: 83/112 (.741)

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM


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