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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Remembering Hall of Famer and NCAA/ABA Champion Bobby "Slick" Leonard

Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and was finally inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, passed away earlier today at the age of 88. Leonard earned Hall of Fame induction as a coach, but he had an accomplished playing career as well. He was a two-time All-American at Indiana University, and he made the game-winning free throw in Indiana's 69-68 1953 NCCA Championship Game victory over Kansas. Leonard averaged 9.9 ppg during his seven season NBA career. During his time with the Lakers, Leonard's teammates included  Jerry West, and the recently departed Elgin Baylor

I first met Leonard in 2004 when I was researching my article about Roger Brown, the Pacers' great forward who had won the 1970 ABA Playoff MVP after outdueling Rick Barry in the ABA Finals (Brown scored 53, 39, and 45 points in the last three games of that series). Brown had inexplicably and unjustly not yet been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Leonard told me, "Roger Brown was a money player. Anytime the game was on the line, Roger was always there. Roger had tremendous ability--one of the greatest small forwards to ever play the game. I've seen everyone that came down the pike in the last 50 years--playing against them, coaching them or broadcasting them. Roger Brown deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

It was fascinating and a joy to speak with Leonard, who could provide informed takes about players from the 1950s all the way through the 2000s. It was wonderful to hear Leonard's insights about five decades of basketball history as we had wide ranging conversations about Sam Jones, James "Captain Late" Silas, and the NBA's current stars. Right after the Detroit Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace, Leonard told me during a one on one interview that the Pistons would win the 2004 title. In 2006, Leonard went against the grain, and did not list Steve Nash among his top MVP candidates. Leonard stated that Nash simply was not as good as Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant (Nash went on to win his second consecutive MVP, with Nowitkzi winning in 2007, Bryant winning in 2008, and James winning in 2009-10 and 2012-13).

Of course, we often talked about the many great players he coached with the Pacers, including Gus Johnson, the Hall of Famer who won his only championship ring as a key Pacers reserve in 1973. The Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA, yet it was nearly 40 years after the ABA-NBA merger before Leonard and the key players from the Pacers' championship dynasty received Hall of Fame recognition. I tirelessly promoted the Hall of Fame candidacies of Brown (who was finally inducted in 2013) and two-time ABA regular season MVP Mel Daniels, who was finally inducted in 2012. Brown passed away in 1997 and I never met him, but I had the privilege of interviewing Daniels on several occasions. Daniels passed away in 2015

Leonard shared with me his memories of the"Interstate 65" rivalry that pitted Leonard's Pacers versus the Kentucky Colonels. The Pacers beat the Colonels in playoff series in 1969 (coming back from a 3-1 deficit), 1970, and 1973, with the latter matchup taking place in the ABA Finals (the Pacers switched to the Western Division for the 1971 season). The Colonels won the final two playoff matchups, defeating the Pacers in the 1975 ABA Finals and in a 1976 first round miniseries (after the ABA got rid of the division format in the league's final season).

During his Hall of Fame speech, Leonard proudly spoke about his time in the ABA

We had some great times in the ABA...They talk about the ABA like we were a minor league to the NBA. Well, I played in the NBA and that's not true. If you want to go back and look at the players we ended up with in the ABA before the merger, you're looking at Moses Malone, you're looking at the Iceman--George Gervin--you're looking at Dr. J--Julius Erving. I can go on, Dan Issel--by the time the merger came, and David (Stern) was there then, we had the players and they needed our players as bad as we needed them, 'cause we'd gone broke...I had a frontline with the Pacers--and I've seen them all, all the frontlines that have come down the pike in the last 60 years or so--with Mel Daniels in the middle, George McGinnis at one forward and Roger Brown at the other forward. Those guys could have competed against any frontline that I've seen. Those were great, fun days. I had that frontline and in the backcourt I had Freddie Lewis, Donnie Freeman, Billy Keller, Tommy Thacker. Backing up the guys up front I had Darnell Hillman and Bob Netolicky.

After Leonard's coaching career ended, he spent more than three decades as a broadcaster for the Pacers. In recent years, he suffered several health setbacks that prevented him from going to road games, but he still did radio commentary for the Pacers' home games. Leonard was the first inductee in the Indiana University Sports Hall of Fame, and he is also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the Indiana Sports Writers and Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Leonard's trademark "Boom baby!" call for a Pacers' three pointer is used in a current national advertising campaign featuring Reggie Miller, the Pacers' Hall of Fame guard who played for the team from 1987-2005.

Ted Green made the documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" and he followed that with the documentary "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier." I recommend both films for anyone who wants to learn more about two Hall of Famers who the Hall of Fame almost forgot.

One thing is certain: real basketball fans will never forget player/coach/broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:57 PM

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Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Rick Barry and Julius Erving Top the Nets' 40 Point Game List

Kyrie Irving scored 40 points last night as his Brooklyn Nets defeated the New York Knicks 114-112 despite Kevin Durant not playing at all and despite James Harden playing just four minutes before exiting the game due to his recurring hamstring issues. Irving has tallied seven 40 point games in less than two full seasons with the Nets, prompting ESPN to post a graphic incorrectly stating that Irving already ranks third in Nets history for regular season 40 point games, supposedly trailing only Vince Carter (17) and John Williamson (eight). The truth is that Rick Barry is the Nets' all-time leader (28), including a franchise record 16 such games during the 1971-72 season. Barry also had five playoff 40 point games as a Net--and he accomplished all of that in just two seasons with the team!

Julius Erving had 21 regular season 40 point games as a Net from 1974-76, and he also had four playoff 40 point games as a Net while leading the team to ABA titles in 1974 and 1976. Erving had back to back 40 point games (45 and 48 to be exact) in the first two games of the 1976 ABA Finals en route to averaging 37.7 ppg during that series while also leading both teams in rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). 

The NBA and ESPN ignore Barry and Erving when discussing the Nets because Barry and Erving played for the Nets in the ABA, prior to the 1976 ABA-NBA merger--but no matter how much the NBA and its media partners/co-conspirators try to pretend that those games never happened and that those statistics do not exist, the reality is that those games happened and those statistics are every bit as real as Joe Namath's record-setting 4007 yard passing season in 1967, which the NFL rightfully acknowledges even though it happened while Namath's New York Jets played in the AFL prior to the NFL-AFL merger.

I saw a video clip on YouTube recently that superimposed Wilt Chamberlain's one-legged fadeaway over Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway:


The clip included footage of numerous Chamberlain fadeaways, the point being that Nowitzki did not invent or perfect this shot. While the footage played, Julius Erving spoke a voiceover and he described how--presumably when he worked at NBC as a commentator in the 1990s--the league instructed NBC to not show highlights from prior to 1992. Erving declared, "People are going to watch basketball and a generation of followers are going to be affected by this. Why wouldn't they let them know about what happened prior to 1992?" I have heard Erving state in other interviews that he felt like he was placed in a no-win situation regarding basketball history during his time at NBC: if he said nothing, the league and the network would just rewrite history, but if he spoke up he felt that it would be perceived as self-serving because he was part of the history that was being wiped out, particularly in terms of the ABA statistics. I think that Erving is too nice and too deferential, and that he should have loudly complained every time the NBA and NBC pulled these shenanigans until he either shamed them into behaving properly or they got rid of him, but I know that is not his personality--so I will complain loudly on his behalf, and on behalf of the preservation of pro basketball history. They can't fire me or silence me because they never hired me and they have no control over what I write or say!

The NBA is so overly zealous about promoting what is happening this very instant that it long ago lost sight of the value and importance of remembering and celebrating its history (and the league barely acknowledges ABA history at all). This is disgraceful, and this deliberate misrepresentation of history goes hand in hand with the shameful way that the NBA treated the "pre-65ers" for decades and the shameful way that the league is biding its time until the remaining ABA veterans die off without receiving full pension benefits. The league could go into its proverbial petty cash drawer and easily take care of the ABA veterans--who should be receiving full pensions based on their years of service prior to the ABA-NBA merger--but the league just keeps dragging its feet as more and more retired players get ill and pass away. 

The best thing about the convergence of Durant, Irving, and Harden in Brooklyn is that every time one of those guys supposedly sets a Nets record that is not really a Nets record it will provide me with a great opportunity to remind basketball fans of the history that the NBA and its media partners never talk about.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:16 AM

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

"Sports Economists: Always Wrong About Everything"

The headline is an exaggeration--slightly--but the article is a great read, a combination of insightful analysis and biting humor: "Sports Economists: Always Wrong About Everything."

It is important to understand that intelligent critics of sports economists are not Luddites who hate numbers and who do not understand statistical analysis; we are analytically-minded people who are frustrated with people who--through some combination of ignorance and bias--twist numbers to fit a preconceived narrative.

The author of the article cited above tears to shreds a lot of nonsense from a variety of sources, but he has a laser focus on Dave Berri, who I wrote about over a decade ago and then forgot about until I stumbled onto an article describing how Forbes fired him in 2018 for submitting work that was "misleading," "sloppy," "polemic," and "just bad reporting."

I long ago grew tired of reading Berri's nonsensical basketball rants, and I scarcely paid any attention to what he said about other sports, but apparently he is versatile enough to provide horrible analysis about more than just basketball. You should read the above article for all of the gory details, but here is the devastating conclusion (the Birnbaum cited is Phil Birnbaum, whose excellent work I have cited before as well):

When you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Berri's hammer is regression analysis, and he goes about hitting everything he can find with it until he finds something that seems vaguely nail-like from a certain angle. Then he proclaims a group of extremely well-paid subject matter experts dumb. When challenged about this, he says things like "regressions are nice, but not always understood by everyone." He calls the protestors dumb.

This is more than a logical fallacy: it's a worldview. In a post on a cricket study by another set of authors, Birnbaum points out the assumption built into a lot of economics studies. It, like most of Berri's work, runs a regression on some data and reports back that something fails to be statistically significant:

The authors chose the null hypothesis that the managers' adjustment of HFA [home field advantage] is zero. They then fail to reject the hypothesis.

But, what if they chose a contradictory null hypothesis -- that managers' HFA *irrationality* was zero? That is, what if the null hypothesis was that managers fully understood what HFA meant and adjusted their expectations accordingly? The authors would have included a "managers are dumb" dummy variable. The equations would have still come up with 4% for a road player and 10% for a home player -- and it would turn out that the significance of the "managers are dumb" variable would not be significant. Two different and contradictory null hypotheses, both which would be rejected by the data. The authors chose to test one, but not the other.

Basically, the test the authors chose is not powerful enough to distinguish the two hypotheses (manager dumb, manager not dumb) with statistical significance.

But if you look at the actual equation, which shows that home players are twice as likely to be dropped than road players for equal levels of underperformance -- it certainly looks like "not dumb" is a lot more likely than "dumb".

The goalie example is the most illuminating here: by adjusting the parameters of your study you can arrive at radically different conclusions. I'm not sure if Berri is intentionally skewing his results to get shiny Moneyball answers, but given how dumb his justifications are for the NFL study that's the kinder interpretation. Running around saying that we don't know that the average sixth rounder isn't John Elway waiting to happen because they can't get on the field is obtuseness that almost has to be intentional. On the other hand, he does blithely state he's "not sure there is much to clarify" about his assertion that NFL general managers are on par with stock-picking monkeys when it comes to identifying quarterbacks, so he may be that genuinely clueless. (The Lions tried a stock-picking monkey. It didn't work out.)

It is very important to emphasize that Berri's critics are not people who reject statistical analysis; we are people who reject flawed statistical analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM

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What Happened to Dave Berri?

Dave Berri is a name that I have not thought about in quite some time. More than a decade ago, I wrote a few articles debunking his flawed and tendentious NBA analysis; he declared, among other things, that Allen Iverson was a barely above average NBA player, that Dennis Rodman was more productive on a per minute basis than Michael Jordan, and that Andrew Bynum was more valuable to the Lakers than Kobe Bryant.

Later, during the 2011 NBA lockout, Berri--who is an economist by training--incorrectly asserted that the NBA's owners behave like socialists and he displayed a lack of understanding of how a sports league functions; in contrast, I correctly predicted that the lockout would be long, and I correctly anticipated the broad parameters of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement: the second longest work stoppage in league history did not end until, as I put it, "the players finally accepted the reality that the NBA's broken business model had to be fundamentally changed." Up to that point, the players had been receiving nearly 60% of the league's revenues even though many teams were losing money; once the players realized that such an arrangement is not feasible in the long run, the owners and players agreed to terms.

After Henry Abbott disappeared from ESPN--thus depriving Berri of one of his main media promoters--Berri's name came up much less often. Berri stopped posting at his main blog in 2011, he then started a new blog, and he stopped posting at the new blog in late 2015. Apparently, he got a gig as a writer for Forbes, but that proved to be short-lived, and I somehow missed the news of how his tenure there ended in disgrace in 2018: Forbes cuts ties with sports business columnist, deletes piece about WNBA player salaries.

Forbes' editors explained the decision to fire Berri by stating that the final article Berri submitted to Forbes was "misleading," "sloppy," "polemic," and "just bad reporting." Forbes also released this statement: "The article was removed because it failed to meet Forbes' strict editorial standards for accuracy and fairness. Specifically, the contributor intentionally omitted facts and context from an authoritative source that would have undermined his thesis. As a result, David Berri was removed as a Forbes contributor."

This does not surprise me, because I have firsthand experience with Berri engaging in similar behavior. 

In Why Would LeBron James Become Captain of the Gotham Titanic?  I wrote:

Last year, many Knicks' fans--and even some national commentators--were thrilled at the prospect that D'Antoni and his fabled "seven seconds or less" offensive system would improve the Knicks so much that LeBron James could be the final piece that would make the Knicks a championship contender. However, by the latter portion of the season, I pointed out that D'Antoni's Knicks were clearly heading in the wrong direction; they were lousy defensively and on the boards and--most ominously--both of those trends steadily worsened throughout the season. Despite all of the buzz about D'Antoni, his Knicks finished 32-50 in 2008-09, one game worse than the Knicks finished in Thomas' first season as their coach (2006-07).

After I told the truth about the Knicks' plight, diehard Knicks fan Mike Kurylo wrote a barely comprehensible screed in response, misspelling my name and betraying complete ignorance not only about NBA basketball but also about basic journalistic methods (he suggested that I spelled out "fourth" instead of writing "4th" because of some diabolical psychological plot to "visually" mislead readers when the reality is that it is standard practice to spell out ordinal numbers less than 10th). I refuted Kurylo's nonsense, concluding "Mike K. declares that I 'cherry picked' numbers in a 'dishonest' attempt to tell a biased story but the reality is that I simply cited the relevant numbers regarding the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Knicks, indicated that the D'Antoni Knicks have yet to surpass the level that the Thomas Knicks reached in 2007 and suggested that the Knicks need to make personnel and philosophical changes in order to become a good team."

"Stat guru" Dave Berri also jumped into the mix, incorrectly suggesting that my article compared the 2009 Knicks to the 2005 Knicks--a lie that distorts the meaning of what I wrote and that Berri refuses to retract--and offering up his usual numbers-based rhetoric to suggest that the Knicks are in fact moving in the right direction.

I posted a comment on Berri's now-discontinued website asking him to correct his mischaracterization of what I wrote, but he never issued a correction or retraction.

Here is the conclusion of my analysis of the 2009 Knicks: "How will the Knicks be able to justify to their fans the suffering of the 2009 and 2010 seasons if the Knicks do not sign an elite player in the summer of 2010? Moreover, even if the Knicks bring in an elite player they still would struggle to win more than 45 games without doing a major restructuring of the rest of their roster and a complete overhaul of their all-offense, no-defense/rebounding philosophy."

After I asserted that the Knicks were not improving and would not be able to sign a top tier free agent, the Knicks went 29-53 in 2009-10. The Knicks failed in their attempt to lure LeBron James to come to New York and instead signed injury-prone free agent Amare Stoudemire, who was only healthy and productive in the first of his five seasons with the Knicks. The Knicks went 42-40 in 2010-11 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. D'Antoni resigned after the Knicks started 18-24 in 2011-12. 

Bottom line: 

(1) I was correct that the Knicks were not headed in the right direction under D'Antoni, and I was right that the Knicks were foolish if they thought that LeBron James was going to become captain of the Gotham Titanic. 

(2) Media assertions/hopes that D'Antoni would turn the Knicks around were wrong; Berri misrepresented what I wrote, and then he agreed with incorrect analysis about the team's prospects while rejecting the analysis that I provided that proved to be correct.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Elgin Baylor's Underappreciated Greatness

you had

         to see

Baylor

         before his knees went

           how

           he could

           dance

"Elgin Baylor" by Mark Shechner

My earliest memory of getting some small sense of Elgin Baylor's greatness is not of a highlight or of a statistic, but of a free verse poem by Mark Shechner published in Daniel Rudman's 1980 anthology Take It to the Hoop. The final lines of that poem are the epigraph to this tribute to Baylor, the basketball icon who passed away on Monday at the age of 86. Shechner's poem is at once laudatory but also filled with lament both at what could have been for Baylor, and what was missed by those who did not see Baylor before his knees went.

Baylor is not only one of the most significant figures in basketball history, but he is on the short list of the greatest players in basketball history. Baylor played a major role in the Lakers' successful transition from Minneapolis to L.A., and he set a standard of play matched by few others. Baylor is the first player who scored at least 70 points in an NBA game, and his 71 point explosion on November 15, 1960 stood as the Lakers' single game record until Kobe Bryant erupted for 81 points.

For a time, Baylor simultaneously held the NBA records for most points scored in a regular season game, most points scored in a playoff game, and most points scored in one half of a playoff game. Those marks have since been broken, but they are now held by three different players as opposed to being in one player's figurative trophy case. In 1962-63, Baylor became the first NBA player to finish in the top five in four different statistical categories (scoring, rebounding, assists, and free throw percentage). There is an unfortunate tendency to depict high flying, artistic players as one dimensional, but the reality is that Baylor, Connie Hawkins, and Julius Erving--perhaps the three players who did the most to literally and figuratively elevate the game--were great all-around players.

Baylor's greatness is not recognized widely enough today, which also means that comparisons to Baylor are not well understood: when informed basketball observers in the early to mid 1970s favorably compared Erving to Baylor, that meant something deep that is not appreciated now--but the point of this tribute is not to rank Baylor or Erving or anyone else, but to emphasize that any informed discussion about the greatest basketball players of all-time must place Baylor on the short list.

A few uninformed readers questioned why I included Baylor in my pro basketball Pantheon. There is no doubt that Baylor belonged--and still belongs--in the Pantheon. My only concern about discussing Baylor was that I gave full credit to his greatness despite not having firsthand knowledge of his game. Any serious basketball scholar who researches NBA history and NBA records understands Baylor's importance (just one example: Baylor, Chamberlain, and Bryant are the only players to score at least 45 points in at least four straight games).

A credible case can be made that Baylor's peak value is as high as that of any basketball player ever, as I discussed a few years ago

PRO: First rate scorer, rebounder and passer who ranks third in career regular season scoring average (27.4 ppg) and 10th in career regular season rebounding average (13.5 rpg) and who finished in the top 10 in assists four times. Baylor possessed elite athletic skills and is the prototype for the modern small forward. During his first seven seasons before suffering a serious knee injury, Baylor posted the most dominant points/rebounds/assists numbers of any forward in pro basketball history. Only three pro basketball players averaged at least 24 ppg, 10 rpg and 4 apg overall during their first seven seasons: Baylor (30.2 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 4.3 apg), Abdul-Jabbar (30.0 ppg, 15.6 rpg, 4.4 apg) and Erving (26.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.5 apg). In five of his first seven seasons Baylor averaged at least 24 ppg, at least 10 rpg and at least 4 apg; Abdul-Jabbar reached those levels in six of his first seven seasons, Erving did so in four of his first seven seasons, Robertson accomplished this in three of his first seven seasons and no other player in pro basketball history did it more than twice.

CON: Injuries hampered the second half of Baylor's career. Baylor never won a championship despite playing most of his career alongside West, another greatest player of all-time candidate. Baylor was not an elite defensive player. The 1971-72 Lakers went on a record 33 game regular season winning streak right after Baylor retired early in that season, en route to posting a then-record 69 victories before capturing the championship that had eluded Baylor and West for so long.

ANALYSIS: Baylor's body had broken down by 1971, so it is not fair to suggest that his retirement was the missing link to the Lakers' success. Baylor's peak value is as high as any other player's, but ultimately his lack of durability and his failure to win a championship make it difficult to rank him ahead of every player in pro basketball history.

Although Baylor never played on a championship team, it would not be fair to say that was his fault, nor would it be fair to say that the lack of a championship defines Baylor's overall legacy or even his playoff legacy. Baylor was the first NBA player who regularly scored 30-plus points in playoff games:

Elgin Baylor is on the short list of the most dominant playoff scorers in pro basketball history. He was the first player who made 30 point playoff games seem routine and automatic. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1959, six out of nine in 1960 (including three games with at least 40 points), 10 out of 12 in 1961 (including five games with at least 40 points), 12 out of 13 in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points, topped off by the single game playoff record 61 points that stood until Jordan scored 63 points in a 1986 playoff game), 10 out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points) and five out of 14 in 1966 (including two games with at least 40 points). Baylor started having knee problems in the early to mid 1960s, he suffered a serious knee injury in 1965 and he played the second part of his career at a fraction of his previous physical capabilities, but he still earned three of his 10 All-NBA First Team selections after wrecking his knee. No playoff performer has had a sustained five year run of consistent 30 point performances like the one that Baylor had from 1959-63. Baylor's Lakers made it to eight NBA Finals during his career (he only played in seven Finals, missing the 1965 Finals due to his knee injury) but he never led the Lakers to a championship; he retired after nine games in the 1971-72 season due to his knee problems and that turned out to be the year that the Lakers won their first title as an L.A. based team.

After Baylor's passing, Jerry West, the other half of the Lakers' devastating one-two punch with Baylor during the 1960s, issued a statement that read in part, "I will forever cherish my days spent with him as a teammate, he was one of the most gifted and special players that this game will ever see and he has never gotten his just due for what he accomplished on the court."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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Friday, March 19, 2021

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

In an October 20, 2017 article published on The Undefeated.com, Mike Wise and The Undefeated staff did a "remix" of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. Wise and his group did not rank the players, but just listed them in alphabetical order. Here is their "remix" (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

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

Thus, The Undefeated added Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Allen IversonLeBron James, Jason Kidd, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Dwyane Wade, and did not include Nate Archibald, Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Clyde Drexler, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich, Robert Parish, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens, and James Worthy.

The Undefeated voting panel consisted of Jerry Bembry, Michael Fletcher, Domonique Foxworth, Brittany Grant, Martenzie Johnson, Monis Khan, Brent Lewis, Marcus Matthews, Steve Reiss, Marc Spears, Brando Simeo Starkey, Justin Tinsley, Jesse Washington, Khari Williams, Lisa Wilson, and Mike Wise, with Wise and Spears listed as the leaders. Wise is the only writer mentioned by name in the byline for the article.

The Undefeated sought input from Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal, Isiah Thomas, Bill Walton, Dominique Wilkins, and Earl Monroe, plus other unnamed players. The Undefeated consulted with retired NBA writers Harvey Araton, David DuPree, Jack McCallum (who was one of the voters for the NBA's official list, and whose 2016 updated list I examined in Part V of this series), and Roscoe Nance, but none of those players and writers participated in The Undefeated's voting process.

The Undefeated justified their selections mainly by noting the tremendous changes that have happened since the NBA's official list came out, including the increased usage of the three point shot and the diminishing emphasis on post play: "Gone are a group of centers and power forwards who specialized in fierce rebounding on both ends and a soft touch from 5 feet in. DeBusschere, Walton, Robert Parish, Wes Unseld and Dolph Schayes were all victims of a game that time forgot."

One flaw in that thought process is the assumption that only players who could thrive under today's rules and conditions merit inclusion on the list. Could today's players thrive in a more physical game that did not have the three point shot? That question/comparison is at least as valid as framing the question/comparison the other way.

Another flaw in that thought process is the assumption that players from previous eras could not adapt their styles to the modern game. Dolph Schayes was a great shooter. If he played today, he would be capable of draining three pointers while still being an elite rebounder and passer; bring prime Dolph Schayes to 2021 and he would probably be an MVP caliber player whose style and effectiveness would be similar to the style and effectiveness of Nikola Jokic.

Wise wrote a companion piece in which Bill Walton expressed his dissatisfaction with both the voting process and the outcome: "I am not into throwing people off the bus, nor am I into self-immolation," Walton declared. Walton argued that the list should be expanded to 70 players, with no one removed and 20 players added to the original group. Walton named 18 players who he would put on the expanded list (apparently leaving it up to Wise and The Undefeated to select two more players):

  1. Ray Allen
  2. Kobe Bryant
  3. Stephen Curry
  4. Tim Duncan
  5. Kevin Durant
  6. Kevin Garnett
  7. Pau Gasol
  8. Manu Ginobili
  9. Allen Iverson
  10. LeBron James
  11. Reggie Miller
  12. Steve Nash
  13. Dirk Nowitzki
  14. Tony Parker
  15. Paul Pierce
  16. Dwyane Wade
  17. Russell Westbrook
  18. Yao Ming
Walton dismissed the notion that players should be removed from the original list so that the number of players honored is still 50: "This goes back to that qualitative, binary decision-making process that we've been forced into as a media that always wants lists, that wants best, that wants worst. It doesn't work like that. It's not yes or no. It's hopefully. Maybe. Possibly. Yes!"

In Part I of this series, I listed four methodologies that should be used in no particular order to compare players from different eras:

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


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


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


4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?  

This article will not only examine The Undefeated's list and the players Walton mentioned, but it will also unveil my 50 Greatest Players List as of 2021. After researching NBA history for decades and after writing this series of articles for the past three years, I am more convinced than ever that there is not one definitively correct list--but there are many lists that are demonstrably wrong! 

These decisions involve a lot of subjective factors:

Is dominance, even for a brief period, more important than durability?

How can one objectively compare the competition level in eras that are decades apart and that operated under different rules and conditions?

How important are championships?

There are perhaps 15-20 players who make the cut no matter how you weigh the factors. Then, there is a group of perhaps 50 players who legitimately deserve consideration for the final 30-35 spots. Could a reasonable case be made that my list omits players who are at least as good as some of the players who I included? Absolutely.

All I can say is that I put a lot of thought into this, and I was as objective as I am capable of being. My list is intelligently crafted, but it is not definitive because no such list is definitive.

Starting with the players added by The Undefeated, in Part II I called the inclusion of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan "obvious and indisputable." The same should also be said of (in alphabetical order) Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwyane Wade. In Part V, I explained why I would not have added Stephen Curry to the list in 2016, at least not at the expense of some of the players who Jack McCallum removed when he created an updated 50 Greatest Players List. However, by the time The Undefeated made their list--and certainly by 2021--I would add Curry. 

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, Kidd, and Iverson. Capsule resumes are provided in Part III for Durant, James, Nowitzki, and Wade. A capsule resume for Curry is provided in Part V, but I will update and expand that resume in this article to explain why I would add him now. 

Capsule resumes are provided in Part III for Miller, Nash, and Pierce, explaining why I would not have added them as of 2015. My opinion about each of those players remains the same.

The one player added by The Undefeated who I have yet to write about in this series is Ray Allen. Ray Allen never ranked in the top five in MVP voting, and he only finished in the top 12 twice (11th in 2001, ninth in 2005). He never made the All-NBA First Team, but he made the All-NBA Second Team once (2005) and he made the All-NBA Third Team once (2001). He made the All-Star team 10 times. Allen led the NBA in three point field goals made three times (2002-03, 2006), and he retired as the career leader in three pointers made, a mark that will almost certainly soon be broken by Stephen Curry. Allen played in the NBA Finals four times (2008, 2010, 2013-14) and he was a member of two championship teams (Boston 2008, Miami 2013). His game-winning three pointer in game six of the 2013 Finals helped the Heat avoid elimination, paved the way for their game seven victory, and will likely always be remembered as one of the most iconic and significant shots in NBA history. Allen never led the league in free throw percentage but he ranks sixth in ABA/NBA regular season career free throw percentage (.884). Allen ranked in the top 10 in scoring three times, including a career-high 26.4 ppg (sixth in the league) in 2006-07. Allen scored 24,505 points and he ranks 29th in ABA/NBA regular season career points.

Allen had one of the purest shooting strokes in basketball history. When he was a young player he had the ability to play above the rim and create his own shot off of the dribble, but as his career progressed he became more of a spot up shooter. Allen was a solid rebounder for a guard (4.1 rpg career average), and he was never a primary playmaker (3.4 apg career average). At best, he was an adequate defensive player--not a defensive liability, but not a defensive stopper.

Walton nominated five players who I have not evaluated during this series: Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, and Yao Ming.

Pau Gasol won the 2002 Rookie of the Year award. He never received a single MVP vote, nor did he ever make the All-NBA First Team but he did make the All-NBA Team four times overall (twice on the Second Team and twice on the Third Team). In his prime, he was a mobile big man who could score in the post and facing the hoop. He rebounded and passed very well. His skill set weaknesses included a lack of strength--both psychologically and physically--and his defense, which was average at best.

It is difficult to think of a player in NBA history whose legacy benefited more from a trade than Pau Gasol. Before the Lakers acquired Gasol, he was a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 playoff record (three first round sweeps). Gasol was the second best player on the Lakers as they advanced to three straight NBA Finals (2008-10) and won back to back titles (2009-10). Perhaps Gasol would have been selected to the Hall of Fame anyway based on his FIBA career, but his accomplishments with the Lakers likely clinched it as he made the All-NBA Team in each of his first three seasons with the team. Unfortunately, that three year run may have fulfilled Gasol's ambitions as a basketball player, because his level of play dropped in his last four years with the Lakers. Kevin Ding, the most insightful beat writer covering the Lakers during that period, noted that Gasol's passivity is the main reason that the Lakers did not return to the NBA Finals in 2012.

There is no rational way to defend placing Gasol in an expanded greatest players list.

Manu Ginobili did not play in his first NBA game until he was 25 and had already enjoyed a successful FIBA career. He received MVP votes in three different seasons, never finishing higher than eighth (2011). He never made the All-NBA First Team, but he earned a pair of All-NBA Third Team selections (2008, 2011). Ginobili was a two-time All-Star. He played in four NBA Finals (2005, 2007, 2013-14) and he won three championships (2005, 2007, 2014). Ginobili spent most of his career as a sixth man, and he won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2008. At his best, he could create a shot for himself or his teammates, he rebounded well for a guard, and he was a very good defensive player. However, he was never the best player on his team, nor was he ever close to being one of the top five players in the league, and he should not receive any consideration for the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, or even Walton's expanded list of 70 players.

Think about it this way: the NBA has existed for over 70 years, so making a 50 Greatest Players List involves choosing less than one player per season. By definition, the list must consist of MVP level players, because if a player at his peak was not among the top five players in the league then how could he be one of the top 50 players of all-time? Even winning an MVP does not guarantee a player a spot on the 50 Greatest Players List, because some MVPs either should not have won the award and/or spent a short period of time at that level compared to other players who did not win an MVP but were legitimate MVP contenders for substantial portions of their careers.

Tony Parker spent most of his career playing alongside Ginobili. Parker joined the NBA as a 19 year old, and he played until he was almost 37, spending his first 17 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs before playing one season for Charlotte. Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP, he was a member of four championship teams (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), and he played in five NBA Finals (2003, 2005, 2007, 2013-14). He finished in the top 10 in regular season MVP voting four times, peaking at fifth in 2012. Parker made the All-NBA Team four times, with three Second Team selections (2012-14) and one Third Team selection (2009). He made the All-Star team six times. Parker was listed at 6-2, 185 but he was probably smaller than that. He had tremendous quickness and he was a great finisher at the hoop despite lacking both size and elite jumping ability. Parker was a scorer by nature, but he developed into a very good playmaker. He was not a great defender, but he always had Tim Duncan in the paint to erase his mistakes, and he also always had elite wing defenders (including Ginobili) who could match up with the other team's most dangerous guard.

Parker earned more honors than Gasol or Ginobili did, Parker's peak lasted longer than theirs, and at his best he may have been a top five player in a given season, but Parker does not belong on the 50 Greatest Players List or even a list expanded to 70 players. Size matters in the NBA, and my 50 Greatest Players List has just four "small" (6-1 or under) guards (in chronological order): Bob Cousy, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Allen Iverson. Cousy was an elite player for most of his career, and he won one MVP plus six NBA titles while establishing himself as a historically significant innovator with his ballhandling and passing. Thomas was the best player on two championship teams, the only player of his size to accomplish that feat--and he did it in an era during which he competed against (and beat) Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson to win those titles. Stockton never won an MVP or a championship, but he is the all-time leader in assists and steals who was remarkably durable while also being valuable at both ends of the court. Iverson won an MVP while leading a flawed supporting cast to the NBA Finals. A "small" guard is not going to make my list without being a legitimate MVP contender or the best player on a championship team or an elite playmaker/defender for well over a decade while playing for teams that seriously contended for the championship.

I predicted early in Russell Westbrook's career that he would inherit Kobe Bryant's mantle as both the league's best guard and as an underrated superstar, and Westbrook fulfilled both prophecies.

Westbrook's resume is impressive but far too often ignored or minimized. He won the 2017 MVP, he has finished in the top five in MVP voting for four straight seasons (2015-18), and he has had two other top 10 finishes. Westbrook won the All-Star Game MVP in 2015 and 2016--he is one of the few players who still plays hard in the All-Star Game--and he has made the All-NBA Team nine times, including two First Team selections (2016-17) and five Second Team selections (2011-13, 2015, 2018). Westbrook is a nine-time All-Star. He has led the league in scoring twice (2015, 2017) and he has led the league in assists twice (2018-19). No other player has led the league in both categories more than once, and only four other players have led the league in both categories at least once (Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Archibald, LeBron James, James Harden).

For most of pro basketball history, Oscar Robertson was the only player to average a triple double for an entire season (he remains the only player to average an aggregate triple double over a five season span)--until Westbrook averaged a triple double in each season from 2017-19. Westbrook ranks second all-time in NBA regular season triple doubles (complete ABA numbers in this category are not available, but there is not an ABA player who has more triple doubles than Westbrook) with 158, trailing only Robertson (181). Westbrook also holds the single season triple double record (42 in 2016-17, breaking Robertson's 1961-62 mark of 41), and he is the only player who has two seasons with at least 30 triple doubles.

This season, Westbrook is averaging 21.3 ppg, 10.1 apg (second in the league), and 9.4 rpg (14th in the league, a remarkable ranking for a 6-3 point guard) but his name was not even mentioned when commentators talked about the All-Star team (he was not selected as a starter, a reserve, or an injury replacement). Oscar Robertson had three 21-10-9 seasons (1962, 1964-65), and Westbrook has already had three such seasons (2017-19). As Tony Kornheiser would say, "That's it. That's the list." Robertson made the All-Star team and the All-NBA First Team in each of those seasons while finishing third, first, and second in MVP voting. Westbrook won the MVP and made All-NBA First Team in 2017, but in 2018 he finished fifth in MVP voting and dropped to the All-NBA Second Team, in 2019 he finished 10th in MVP voting and fell to the All-NBA Third Team, and it would appear that this season he will receive no consideration in the voting for MVP or the All-NBA Team. 

Westbrook has open disdain for certain media members who do not understand basketball and who ask him stupid questions, and Westbrook's testy interactions with some media members have undoubtedly had a negative impact on the coverage that he receives. It is indisputable that Westbrook plays hard and impacts his team positively in multiple ways, but he never learned--or does not care about--the old expression regarding not getting into feuds with people who buy ink (or, in this era, soundbites and bandwith) by the barrel. It is interesting to speculate what Westbrook would have to do now to receive MVP and All-NBA Team votes: would averaging 20-15-15 be enough? The media bias against Westbrook is stunning at times. After Westbrook posted 57 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists while leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 21 point comeback that clinched a playoff berth in the first season of the team's post-Kevin Durant era, one media member griped that Westbrook's performance was "hardly flawless," which prompted this retort from me

When crime strikes Gotham City, the Bat Signal alerts Batman to spring into action; is there a "Daft Signal" that alerts "stat gurus" and their media acolytes to spring into action when Kobe Bryant (in previous seasons) or Russell Westbrook has a great game? I mean, the nets were still figuratively scorching from Westbrook's 57 points and the first words that come to mind for some fool who is actually paid to cover NBA games is that Westbrook was "hardly flawless"?

If you watch a player drop 57-13-11 while almost single-handedly erasing a 21 point deficit and "hardly flawless" is the best description you can muster then you need to have your eyes checked, your brain examined and your game credentials revoked. Sure, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion but when you are being paid to accurately report/commentate and you are simply unwilling or incapable of performing that task at a minimally acceptable level then it is time to seek out another line of work.
The notion that Westbrook pads his statistics but does not contribute to winning is demonstrably false. He was the second best player on teams that advanced to the Western Conference Finals four times, including one trip to the NBA Finals. Here are two other points to consider: (1) During the 2017-19 time frame, Westbrook led the league in go-ahead field goals in the final minute of the game; (2) Westbook has been highly productive in playoff games when his team faced elimination, including a stretch of three straight such games during which he scored at least 45 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds. There is also the ludicrous criticism that Westbrook's rebounds do not matter because his teammates supposedly get out of his way to let him have them, and that someone else on his team would have gotten those rebounds if Westbrook had not been on the court, a topic that I addressed in Are Rebounds Fungible?

Westbrook is the best rebounder his size in pro basketball history, he is an elite playmaker, and he is an elite scorer. Defense is not his strength, but he is not as bad defensively as the media depicts, and he is capable of defending at a high level thanks to his incredible athletic ability. He is a poor three point shooter, and although he was consistently a very good free throw shooter for the first nine seasons of his career he has been an average to poor free throw shooter for the past four seasons.

The in depth coverage of Westbrook in this article should not be interpreted to mean that Westbrook is my favorite player, or that I would put him in my Pantheon. I expect a negative response to putting Westbrook on my 50 Greatest Players List, so I am anticipating and refuting the likely objections. Westbrook belongs on the 50 Greatest Players List, even if Bill Walton and I may be the only people who are willing to say so publicly. The Pantheon is a separate matter; as a 6-3 guard, there is a ceiling on how great Westbrook can be, and the only player of comparable size in my Pantheon is Jerry West.

Injuries cut Yao Ming's NBA career to just 486 games, the equivalent of six full seasons. He never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, nor did he ever make the All-NBA First Team, but he did make the All-NBA Second Team twice and he also made the All-NBA Third Team three times. He was an eight time All-Star, but that is largely because of his popularity with the fans: he made the All-Star team as a rookie averaging just 13.5 ppg, and he made the All-Star team in his final season despite playing just five games. Yao was an excellent shooter, a gifted scorer, a solid rebounder, and a good passer even though he put up modest assist totals. His lack of mobility hurt him on defense, but his size enabled him to block shots and protect the rim.

Yao had the necessary skill set to potentially rank among the top 50 players of all-time, but he did not play long enough nor did he reach or sustain elite level for long enough to be placed on the 50 Greatest Players List.

The players from the original 50 Greatest Players List who The Undefeated did not include in their updated list should not just be discarded without acknowledging their accomplishments. 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." In Part II, I discussed my reasons for not including Sam Jones, Robert Parish, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens and James Worthy, and I explained why--as of 2008--I still considered Dave DeBusschere to be a Top 50 player (in Part III, I agreed with the Boston Globe that DeBusschere should no longer be ranked as a Top 50 player). In Part III, I explained why I would not include Dave Bing and Bill Sharman, and I discussed why I would still include Dave Cowens and Pete Maravich. In Part IV, I explained why I would still include Dolph Schayes. In Part V, I explained why I would not include Nate Archibald. Thus, the only player who The Undefeated removed who I have not written about in this series is Clyde Drexler.

Clyde Drexler finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, including second place in 1992. He made the All-NBA Team five times, including a First Team selection in 1992. Drexler made the All-Star team 10 times. Drexler ranks ninth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2207). Drexler played in three NBA Finals (1990, 1992, 1995), and he won a championship in 1995 with the Houston Rockets. He averaged at least 20 ppg for six straight seasons, and in three of those seasons he averaged at least 25 ppg.

Drexler was one of the most devastating in game dunkers in pro basketball history, but he was also a great all-around player who could rebound, pass, and defend. His career rebounding and assist averages (6.1 rpg, 5.6 apg) are comparable to Michael Jordan's (6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg). Drexler had 25 career triple doubles, which is two more than Walt Frazier, three more than Kobe Bryant, and just three fewer than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Drexler was the second best shooting guard in the NBA behind Jordan, and during his prime Drexler was consistently one of the top 5-10 players in the league.

I agree with 10 of the additions made by The Undefeated: Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwyane Wade. However, instead of adding Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, and Paul Pierce, I would keep Dave Cowens, Clyde Drexler, Pete Maravich, and Dolph Schayes. 

For the reasons just listed above, Drexler earned his selection to the official 50 Greatest Players List, and 25 years later he still ranks among the 50 greatest players. Cowens was a dominant scorer and rebounder for two championship teams. He was very mobile and had a good shooting touch, so arguably he might be even more prolific in today's game than he was in the early to mid 1970s when he battled in the paint against bigger centers. I have discussed Maravich extensively during this series, so here I will just emphasize again that his skill set, peak value, and historical significance combined are more than enough to warrant his inclusion despite the relative brevity of his career. As mentioned at the start of this article, Schayes would thrive in today's game--and he was a durable and dominant player from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Don't be fooled by his low field goal percentage; he shot .849 from the free throw line during his career, which is a more accurate representation of his shooting touch, because a variety of factors negatively affected field goal percentages during Schayes' era, including the roughhouse nature of the sport during its early pre-television days, the generally shabby playing conditions, and the travel and lodging arrangements that were not conducive to peak athletic performance. In the NBA's early days, the players were shooting with a lopsided ball while playing in cold arenas that were primarily used for hockey; these are facts, not excuses. Also, the rules were still evolving, as the league widened the lane, added the 24 second shot clock, and made other changes. 

Allen, Miller, and Pierce have no All-NBA First Team selections between them. Readers who are aware of my criticisms of MVP voting and All-NBA Team voting may wonder why I mention those accolades during this series. Those honors provide a sense of the status that a player had during his career. Yes, some players won MVPs who should not have won MVPs and there have been mistakes in All-NBA Team voting, but in general the career totals provide at least an approximation of a player's ranking/dominance. One could quibble about specific votes, but the reality is that Allen, Miller, and Pierce never ranked among the top two or three at their position during their careers and that they were never legitimate MP contenders. As mentioned above, a 50 Greatest Players List is comprised of less than one player per year over the course of the NBA's seven decade history. Allen, Miller, and Pierce were great players, but not great enough to make the cut for this list.

Regarding Nash, he won two MVPs but during his 18 year career he only had one other top five finish (second in 2007 after winning back to back MVPs), and he did not finish higher than eighth in any other season. Nash won his MVPs as a result of a perfect storm: rules changes made it more difficult to guard perimeter players, Nash's Suns enjoyed great regular season success while playing a style that is fun to watch, Nash is a relatively normal-sized person in a sport typically dominated by players who are 6-6 or taller, and for various reasons--a subject beyond the scope of this article--the MVP voters did not feel like voting for the four greatest players of that era (listed in alphabetical order here): Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal. No serious basketball observer can argue that Nash is a greater player than any of those guys, nor can a serious basketball observer argue that in either of Nash's MVP seasons he outperformed all four of those players. Nash was a great point guard, but objectively he was was the Mark Price of the 2000s--and that is not an insult: Price was a great player who was briefly the best point guard in the league before injuries brought him down. If you look at the two players in terms of size, playing style, and statistics, the similarities are undeniable. Yet, Price was never a serious MVP candidate during his prime, much like Nash was not a serious MVP candidate for 15 of his 18 seasons. The perfect storm that briefly elevated Nash to perceived MVP status does not influence my evaluation of historical greatness. Nash deserves consideration for the top 50, and would be in my top 70 if I expanded the list, but I cannot justify ranking him above any of the players who made my final cut. It is worth noting that Jack McCallum, who wrote a book about Nash's Phoenix Suns, did not include Nash on his updated 50 Greatest Players List published five years ago.

Bill Walton's belief that players should never be removed from the list is idealistic, but not realistic; if we just keep adding players then eventually the list will become so large that it will be meaningless. Maybe 50 is the ideal number, maybe not, but for the purposes of this series I am holding the line at 50 and making the tough cuts when necessary. So, I evaluate the 18 players Walton listed not as additions to the original list but rather in terms of whether I would place them in the top 50. Eight of Walton's choices are no-brainers who I have already discussed throughout this series: Bryant, Duncan, Durant, Garnett, Iverson, James, Nowitzki, and Wade. I would not have included Curry in 2015 (a topic that I explored in Part V) but since that time Curry has won a second MVP plus two more titles. Curry is a better version of Nash: better shooter/scorer who is more willing to score (Nash hurt his teams by not shooting more than he did), and a better (but not great) defender. Curry is not on the same level as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard--Curry, like Nash, made a jump several years ago from underrated to overrated--but he is a great player and he has sustained his peak level for long enough to merit inclusion. I agree with Walton that Westbrook should be added. 

I disagree with Walton and would not add Allen, Gasol, Ginobili, Miller, Nash, Parker, Pierce, or Yao.

When I began writing this series of articles, I did not intend to make my own 50 Greatest Players List. I just had some thoughts that I wanted to express about various lists that I had seen over the years, and I planned to use this series as a way of providing insights about how I evaluate players from different eras. Working on this project not only made it clear that there is not one "right" list but it also made me feel like putting my own list on the record.

I did not rank the players in my Pantheon and I will not rank the players in my 50 Greatest Players List, who are presented below in alphabetical order:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  3. Charles Barkley
  4. Rick Barry
  5. Elgin Baylor
  6. Larry Bird
  7. Kobe Bryant
  8. Wilt Chamberlain
  9. Bob Cousy 
  10. Dave Cowens
  11. Billy Cunningham
  12. Stephen Curry 
  13. Clyde Drexler
  14. Tim Duncan
  15. Kevin Durant
  16. Julius Erving
  17. Patrick Ewing
  18. Walt Frazier
  19. Kevin Garnett
  20. George Gervin
  21. John Havlicek
  22. Elvin Hayes
  23. Dwight Howard
  24. Allen Iverson
  25. LeBron James
  26. Magic Johnson
  27. Michael Jordan
  28. Jason Kidd
  29. Kawhi Leonard
  30. Karl Malone
  31. Moses Malone
  32. Pete Maravich
  33. Bob McAdoo
  34. Kevin McHale
  35. George Mikan
  36. Dirk Nowitzki
  37. Hakeem Olajuwon
  38. Shaquille O’Neal
  39. Bob Pettit
  40. Scottie Pippen
  41. Willis Reed
  42. Oscar Robertson
  43. David Robinson
  44. Bill Russell
  45. Dolph Schayes
  46. John Stockton
  47. Isiah Thomas
  48. Dwyane Wade
  49. Jerry West 
  50. Russell Westbrook 
I have already written about many of these players during this series, and the ones who I have not written about but retained from the original list should not be controversial to any informed basketball fan. I hope that readers do not need an explanation for why Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are on the list!
 
There are three players I added who rose to prominence recently enough that they were not included in any of the previous lists that I analyzed.
 
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning two-time MVP, the 2017 Most Improved Player, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, and the 2021 All-Star Game MVP. His scoring/rebounding/assist averages during his MVP seasons were 27.7/12.5/5.9 and 29.5/13.6/5.6. This season, he is averaging 29.1/11.8/6.2 but he has lost favor with the media because his Milwaukee Bucks have not won a championship despite posting the best record in the NBA each of the past two seasons. Antetokounmpo has established a minimum performance level of roughly 27 ppg, 10 rpg and 5-6 apg for four straight seasons. His skill set weaknesses are well known--free throw shooting, three point shooting--and yet he is still a dominant player despite those weaknesses, much like LeBron James was early in his career. Antetokounmpo has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a hard worker and a team-first player. It is too soon to say how high up the list he may move by the end of his career, but he has already accomplished more than enough to merit inclusion. He is a 7-0 player who scores, rebounds, passes, and defends at an elite level. It is true that he has not won a championship, but his dominance and impact are undeniable.
 
Kawhi Leonard is the "dynasty killer." He hastened the breakup of Miami's Big Three by winning the 2014 Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs dismantled the two-time defending champion Heat. Then, his injury in the 2017 Western Conference Finals and subsequent falling out with the Spurs killed the Spurs' dynasty. In 2019, he won the Finals MVP as his Toronto Raptors ended Golden State's dynasty. 
 
Leonard averaged just 7.9 ppg as a rookie in the 2011-12 season but his scoring increased each season after that until his injury-shortened 2017-18 season, during which he played just nine games. He has averaged at least 26 ppg each of the past three seasons. In addition to his two Finals MVPs (2014, 2019), he has finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting three times (2016-17, 2020), he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award twice (2014-15), and he won the 2020 All-Star Game MVP. Leonard has made the All-NBA Team four times, including two First Team selections (2016-17), and he has made the All-Defensive Team six times, including three First Team selections (2015-17). Leonard is a great all-around player who has methodically attacked his skill set weaknesses until he eradicated them. He began his career as a defensive specialist with a limited offensive repertoire but now he can score from anywhere on the court and he is an excellent playmaker as well. He may not generate many highlights or soundbites but he belongs on the list.  

It is easy to forget--and many people seem to have forgotten--how dominant Dwight Howard was during his prime. Howard won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards (2009-11), the only player to accomplish that feat. Only Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo have won more Defensive Player of the Year awards (four each) since the honor's inception in 1982-83 (it is safe to call Bill Russell, whose 13 season career ended in 1969, the unofficial career leader in this department). Howard finished in the top five in MVP voting for four straight seasons (2008-11), including second place in 2011.
 
He has made the All-NBA Team eight times, including five consecutive First Team selections (2008-12). Only two centers in NBA history have earned more consecutive All-NBA First Team selections than Howard: Shaquille O'Neal made the All-NBA First Team seven straight seasons (2000-2006), and George Mikan made the All-NBA First Team six straight seasons (1949-54, including one All-BAA First Team selection prior to the merger of the BAA and NBL to form the NBA). Artis Gilmore made the All-ABA First Team in each of his five ABA seasons (1972-76).

Howard has made the All-Defensive Team five years in a row (2008-12), including First Team selections from 2009-12. Howard has made the All-Star team eight times.
 
He has led the league in rebounding five times (2008-10, 2012-13); the only players who won more rebounding titles are Wilt Chamberlain (11), Dennis Rodman (seven), and Moses Malone (six). Howard averaged at least 10 rpg in each of the first 14 seasons of his career, and his career average of 12.1 rpg ranks 17th in ABA/NBA history. The only player active in the past 20 years who has a higher career rpg average is Andre Drummond (13.8 rpg). Howard has ranked in the top 10 in rebounding 13 times.
 
He has led the league in blocked shots twice (2009-10), and he has ranked in the top 10 eight times. Howard led the league in field goal percentage in 2010, and he has ranked in the top 10 12 times. He has averaged at least 20 ppg four times, including a career-high 22.9 ppg in the 2010-11 season.

Howard was the best player for the 2009 Orlando Magic team that defeated the LeBron James-led, league-best 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs en route to losing to Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals (side note: James' 3-6 playoff record versus teams led by Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, and Dirk Nowitzki raises the interesting question of how many titles James would have won if his teams had faced squads led by Bill Walton, Elvin Hayes/Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Robert Parish, which is the challenge Julius Erving faced in the late 1970s/early 1980s). Howard played a key role for the Lakers' 2020 championship team, including starting seven of their 18 playoff games.

Howard was a dominant rebounder, defender, and scorer in the paint for over a decade. There is no question he belongs on the 50 Greatest Players List.

A few other players deserve to be mentioned. Paul Arizin is on the original list and was not removed from any of the lists that I have written about during this series, but I did not include him on my list. I hate removing players from the original list, and I particularly hate removing players from the NBA's earliest days because I think that those players are often underrated, if not completely forgotten. Arizin had a 10 year career, and he lost two prime years while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Arizin finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, including second place in 1956. He made the All-NBA Team four times, including three First Team selections (1952, 1956-57). He made the All-Star team in each of his 10 seasons. Arizin won a scoring title in 1952 prior to his military service in 1952-54, and then he won a second scoring title in 1957. Arizin also led the league in field goal percentage in 1952. Arizin was the NBA's top playoff scorer (28.9 ppg) in 1956 as he led the Philadelphia Warriors to the championship.

Arizin was one of 10 players selected to the NBA's Silver Anniversary All-Time Team in 1971. Eight of those players were selected to the 50 Greatest Players List (Bob Davies and Joe Fulks were not chosen), and five of those eight players are on my 50 Greatest Players List (I removed Arizin, Sam Jones, and Bill Sharman). The 1971 All-Time Team only included active players, so Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West were not eligible. A decade later, Arizin was not one of the 11 players selected to the NBA's 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (that squad included active players); newcomers on that All-Time Team included active players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, plus Chamberlain, Robertson, West, and the recently retired John Havlicek (who was active in 1971).

Arizin was one of the greatest players of the pre-shot clock era, and he continued to thrive in the post-shot clock era. He won a scoring title in both eras. He averaged 21.9 ppg in his final season, and he retired not because he could not play but because he had a good job lined up and he did not want to move to San Francisco, the new home for the Warriors (yes, that was a different era during which players could have job opportunities that paid much better than pro basketball did).

Arizin is a tough cut for me, but there is no denying the simple math that in the decades since he retired he went from being top 10-15 to top 25-30 to fighting for a top 50 spot. He was a better and more dominant player than many of the top players of recent years who are household names, but he falls just outside of my list.

I discussed Hal Greer and Jerry Lucas in Part II regarding Athlon Sports' 2008 list that did not include either player. As of 2008, I would have kept both of them on the list, but I would not include either of them in 2021. When Greer retired he ranked fifth in career scoring and seventh in career assists. He was the third best guard in the NBA during an era when two Pantheon guards--Oscar Robertson and Jerry West--dominated the All-NBA First Team, so he was perhaps not as dominant in his era as Arizin was a decade earlier. Greer is with Arizin in that group of 50 players battling for the final 30-35 spots, but in my estimation Greer does not make the cut; there are too many players who have arisen who sustained MVP level production for several years in a row, which Greer did not do.

Lucas has the fourth highest career rpg average (15.6), trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Bob Pettit. He was a rugged inside player who also could hit the outside shot. He would do quite well in the current era. This will sound repetitive, but the final decisions come down to a numbers game: there are more worthy players than there are open slots. If someone else kept Arizin, Greer, and/or Lucas and left off players who are not in the Pantheon or in the group just below the Pantheon I could understand that. I wish that all basketball fans appreciated the history of the game, and the greatness of players from previous eras, whether or not those players are ranked among the top 50 right now.

Readers may wonder about several players who I did not include and have not discussed in this series.

James Harden has won an MVP, three scoring titles, and two assists titles. He has made the All-NBA First Team six times. His statistics and accolades would suggest that he belongs on the 50 Greatest Players List. I suspect that many commentators would include Harden. I look beyond the numbers and the accolades to consider his skill set and his impact. Harden is a prolific scorer and a crafty passer. He rebounds well. He is a solid post defender, but overall he is a subpar defensive player.

Harden is a skillful offensive player, but he is overrated by media members who prefer to promote various narratives, including ones pertaining to "advanced basketball statistics." I did a skill set comparison of Harden and Westbrook during the 2017 season when those two players were vying for an MVP award ultimately earned by Westbrook (Harden won the award the next season), and I concluded that Westbrook is the better player. I have not seen anything in the past four years--including the time that they spent together as teammates in Houston--to alter that analysis; the Rockets were at their best last season when Westbrook was at his best--when, in fact, Westbrook was playing at an MVP level--and the Rockets fell apart after Westbrook was limited by injuries and the aftermath of his bout with COVID-19.

Harden is a high variance player who annually chokes in the playoffs, and his body of work demonstrates that he cares more about individual glory than about winning championships. Harden has repeatedly clashed with All-Star teammates who are more committed to preparation, defense, and team success than he is.

Harden is being touted as an MVP candidate this year because of the recent success of his new team, the Brooklyn Nets. What a horrible message it would send if he wins the award! Harden quit on the Rockets and forced his way out of Houston. That happened this season, in case anyone forgot, and that fiasco comprised nine games out of a 72 game season. The MVP award is for the entire season, not just for a good stretch of games during the season.

Would my opinion of Harden change if the Nets win a championship? It depends on the circumstances. If the Nets win a championship with Harden as the second or third best player on the team, that would just reinforce what I have been writing about Harden for nearly a decade. If Harden commits himself to playing the right way and maintains that commitment throughout the playoffs, and if he is demonstrably the best player on the team--not the media calling him the best player, but if he actually is the best player--then that would represent a major change from what Harden has done throughout his career. I don't expect that to happen, but if it does then I will adjust my evaluation of Harden accordingly.

What about historical impact? Harden's high variance style of play and his flopping have had a historical impact, but I would question if that impact is (1) lasting and (2) positive. The way Harden played basketball in Houston was almost unwatchable. In a small sample size of games with Brooklyn, Harden has played both more effectively and in a more aesthetically pleasing manner than he did in Houston. I consider Harden's Houston years to be a historical anomaly that failed to produce a championship, in contrast with players like Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, and Magic Johnson whose playing styles made a positive impact that is still felt decades later. It should be noted that Erving and Johnson had a historically significant impact on playing style while winning championships.

Carmelo Anthony is moving up the all-time scoring list but he does not belong on the 50 Greatest Players List. Even in his prime he was not a great all-around player. He was a championship player in college who regressed in terms of having a championship mentality in the NBA, which is unusual. Most NCAA champions who have the necessary physical talent to excel in the NBA--which Anthony obviously does--hone the championship habits that they formed in college, but Anthony did not. He was never the best player at his position, he played for talented teams that did not seriously contend for the championship, and he resisted when his coaches tried to guide him toward having more of an impact on winning.

Tracy McGrady is a first ballot Hall of Famer. When he was selected for the Hall of Fame, I wrote, "During McGrady's brief, absolute peak, it was reasonable to compare him to Kobe Bryant and not be absolutely certain who was the better player--but, while Bryant was blessed with good health and thus able to sustain All-NBA First Team level dominance for an extended period, McGrady had a short run as an elite player and a slightly longer period (but not nearly as long a period as Bryant did) as one of the league's 10 best players. Some would argue that this is not enough to merit Hall of Fame induction but I perceive at least three categories of Hall of Fame players: Pantheon, Top 50, other great players. McGrady is not a Pantheon level player and at best he would be a fringe Top 50 player if objective voting were done today but McGrady is solidly in the top 75 or 80 players of all-time. There are not any particular statistical plateaus for pro basketball players that point to automatic Hall of Fame selection, nor should there be some arbitrary limit on how many players can be selected." 

It would be logical to ask why I include Maravich but exclude McGrady. Both players had short stints at the absolute top and both players did not lead their teams to playoff success during their primes. The difference is historical impact. Pete Maravich changed the game. A generation of players copied him, and his Showtime style became so embedded in the sport that even players who may not have heard of him or seen him play are copying (or trying to copy) his moves. McGrady was a great player for a short period of time--one of my favorite players to watch--but he narrowly misses my top 50. If I went the Walton route and expanded the list, McGrady would be in that next group.

I will close by briefly reexamining the careers of three players who were not included on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List.

In Part IV, I discussed Sam Smith's 50 Greatest Players List and I explained why I agreed with him that Dominique Wilkins should have made the cut on the NBA's official list: "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." I added, "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."

Although I would have included Wilkins on the original list, in the past 25 years there have been at least 10 players who entered the league and proved to be clearly superior to Wilkins. I respect Wilkins and I enjoyed watching him play, but several players have to be removed to make room for the new generation of all-time greats. As great as Wilkins was, his signature playoff moment was game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals, when he scored 47 points as his Atlanta Hawks lost to the Boston Celtics, for whom Larry Bird scored 34 points (including 20 in the fourth quarter). Yes, I realize that my list includes players who did not win championships or have signature playoff moments, but the guys I included were the best player at their position for a time and/or sustained MVP-caliber play longer than Wilkins did. Wilkins was never the best forward in the NBA, and he never reached the level of the all-time greats of his era.

In 1996, I would have included Walt Bellamy on the original list, as I discussed in Part II, and I would have included him at least as recently as 2008 (as I discussed in Part IV), but by 2021 he falls prey to the same numbers game that keeps several other great players off of my list.

Sam Smith included Bernard King on his list, but I would not have included King over the players who Smith removed and in Part II I explained why it would have been a close call for me in 1996 whether or not to include King: "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." In short, King and Wilkins had valid cases to be on the list in 1996, but it would be more difficult to justify adding them now.

This six part series consists of over 30,000 words, so it is a short book detailing how I would analyze and evaluate the greatest players of the NBA's first 70-plus years. It has been fun, but time-consuming, to put this together; I am glad that I did this, and I am also glad to be finished doing it!

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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.

Part IV of this series can be found here.

Part V of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:01 AM

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