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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pro Basketball's "Five-Tool" Players

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

Baseball scouts are always looking for "five-tool" players, rare athletes who can hit for average, hit for power, possess good speed, have strong throwing arms and are excellent fielders. It is also difficult to find basketball players who excel in the sport's five major statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Only five players in NBA/ABA history have led their teams in all of these departments in a single season: Julius Erving (1975-76 New York Nets), Dave Cowens (1977-78 Boston Celtics), Scottie Pippen (1994-95 Chicago Bulls), Tracy McGrady (2002-03 Orlando Magic) and Kevin Garnett (2002-03 Minnesota Timberwolves). LeBron James is currently leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in ppg, rpg, apg and spg and is only .1 bpg behind Ben Wallace for team-high honors in that category, so he has an excellent chance to accomplish this rare feat.

The uniqueness of this achievement is demonstrated by the fact that from 1950-51 (the first year that the NBA compiled rebounding statistics) until 1973-74 (when the NBA first kept statistics for steals and blocks), only five NBA players led their teams in scoring, rebounding and assists in the same season: Maurice Stokes (1955-56 Rochester Royals), Dolph Schayes (1956-57 Syracuse Nationals), Elgin Baylor (1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers; 1960-61 Los Angeles Lakers; 1967-68 Lakers—Jerry West actually posted higher ppg and apg averages in this season, but appeared in only 51 games due to injury), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66, 1966-67 and 1967-68 Philadelphia 76ers) and John Havlicek (1969-70 Celtics); from the ABA’s inception in 1967-68 until 1972-73 (the first year that the ABA recorded steals and blocks), only Connie Hawkins (1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers) joined this distinguished group. One name that is noticeably absent from this list is Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double for the 1961-62 Cincinnati Royals (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) but finished second on the team in rebounding to Wayne Embry (13.0 rpg).

It is clear that there have been very few "five-tool" players in pro basketball history, even if one makes the generous (and doubtful) assumption that each of the above players also led their teams in steals and blocks. One might think that any team that is so heavily dependent on one player cannot be successful but this is not necessarily the case. During the seasons mentioned above, Erving, Chamberlain (1966-67) and Hawkins each won championships and Baylor (1958-59 and 1967-68) appeared in two NBA Finals; only Stokes, Havlicek and Cowens failed to lead their teams to the playoffs.

Julius Erving's 1975-76 campaign is one of the most remarkable seasons in pro basketball history. Dr. J ranked first in the ABA in scoring, fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Not surprisingly, Erving won the regular season MVP award. Dr. J missed leading his team in the five major categories by very small margins in each of the three previous seasons (.6 apg and .2 spg in 1972-73, .8 rpg in 1973-74 and .6 spg in 1974-75). ABA Commissioner (and Hall of Fame forward) Dave DeBusschere commented, "Plenty of guys have been 'The Franchise.' For us, Dr. J is 'The League.'"

Incredibly, Erving actually increased his production in the postseason, culminating in these numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets: 37.7 ppg (including 45 points and the game winning shot on the road in Game One), 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. The Doctor led both teams in all of these categories during the series—and he was putting up these unbelievable numbers against high quality opposition. Guided by Coach Larry Brown, the Nuggets finished 65-19 that season, featuring two future Hall of Famers (Dan Issel and David Thompson) and one of the best defensive forwards of all time (Bobby Jones). After trying in vain to stop the Doctor, Bobby Jones offered this appraisal of Erving’s heroics: "He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught—that one man can’t do it alone."

As a result of the NBA-ABA merger, the cash-strapped Nets sold Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers before the 1976-77 season. The Nets immediately plummeted to the bottom of the standings, while the 76ers made it to the NBA Finals. The Sixers would return to the Finals three more times in the next six seasons, finally winning the title in 1982-83 after adding Moses Malone to the roster. A few years back, Pat Williams, long-time NBA executive and the General Manager of the 76ers when they acquired Dr. J, offered this assessment: "There’s never been anyone quite like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."

Dave Cowens achieved "five-tool" distinction during one of the dreariest periods in the storied history of the Boston Celtics. In 1977-78 Cowens was basically the last man standing from the teams that had won championships in 1973-74 and 1975-76—Charlie Scott was traded to the Lakers in the middle of the season, Jo Jo White only appeared in 46 games and John Havlicek was in his 16th (and final) season. Against the better judgment of Red Auerbach, Celtics' ownership acquired players who had posted gaudy statistics earlier in their careers but did not possess the mindset of champions. It was around this time that one of these players, Curtis Rowe, supposedly informed young teammate Cedric Maxwell, who did not take well to losing, "Look, kid. They don’t put W's and L's on your paycheck." In 1977-78, former NBA MVP Cowens placed third in the league in rebounding (14.0 rpg) but did not post particularly impressive numbers in the other categories. The Celtics finished the season with a 32-50 record.

Scottie Pippen’s "five-tool" effort came in 1994-95, the second season after Michael Jordan's first retirement. Pippen actually posted slightly better numbers in 1993-94, but Horace Grant led the Bulls in rebounds and blocked shots that season. Many commentators seem to have forgotten how well Pippen performed during the period that Jordan spent playing minor league baseball; it became chic in some quarters to suggest that Pippen was not that great of a player without Jordan. While Pippen's late career numbers did not match his production during his halcyon days with the Bulls, this comparison fails to take into account Pippen's advanced age and several injuries (back, foot, elbow) that curtailed his athleticism after the disbanding of the Chicago Bulls dynasty.

The Bulls were not considered to be contenders after Jordan's shocking retirement announcement shortly before the start of the 1993-94 season. Their 4-7 record out of the gate seemed to confirm this notion, but Pippen missed several of those games due to the lingering effects of off-season ankle surgery. When Pippen returned to the lineup the Bulls immediately became one of the top teams in the league, finishing the year 55-27, only two games worse than the season before. Pippen won the All-Star Game MVP, finished third in regular season MVP balloting, fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams. Foreshadowing his "five-tool" effort in 1994-95, during the playoffs Pippen led the Bulls in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and three pointers made while finishing third on the team in blocked shots.

In 1994-95, Horace Grant left the Bulls for the Orlando Magic, John Paxson retired and Bill Cartwright signed with Seattle. Starting center Luc Longley missed the first 22 games of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg, during which time the Bulls went 11-11. While the Bulls did not immediately drop off the map after Jordan's retirement, they did slide toward mediocrity when the loss of Jordan was compounded by the absence of other players. When Jordan returned to the team toward the end of the 1994-95 season the Bulls were 34-31, although they had won eight of the previous 10 games as Longley returned to the lineup and the team adjusted to new players. With Jordan, the team finished 13-4 down the stretch and lost to the Orlando Magic in six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (the same round of the playoffs that the Bulls had reached without Jordan the year before). Jordan fully returned to form by the following season and the addition of Dennis Rodman to replace Horace Grant paved the way for three more championships. After the 1994-95 season Pippen finished seventh in MVP voting, again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams and was selected the "Best All-Around Player" in the NBA in a poll of players, coaches, trainers and general managers conducted by USA TODAY.

Tracy McGrady achieved "five-tool" status by less than one steal, averaging 1.653 spg in 2002-03, just edging out Magic teammate Darrell Armstrong (1.646 spg). McGrady led the league in scoring (32.1 ppg) and ranked in the top 20 in assists (5.5 apg). It is quite an accomplishment for a guard to lead his team in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and blocked shots (.79 bpg) but his numbers in those categories also indicate that the Magic's big men were not particularly productive.

Kevin Garnett did not have much of an opportunity to be a "five-tool" player when point guards Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon and Chauncey Billups racked up assists in Minnesota but in 2002-03 Troy Hudson became the Timberwolves' starting point guard and Garnett averaged a career-high 6.0 apg (13th in the NBA) while also leading the team in scoring (23.0 ppg, ninth in the NBA), rebounding (13.4 rpg, second in the NBA), steals (1.4 spg) and blocked shots (1.6 bpg).

Pro Basketball's "Five-Tool" Players









Julius Erving^



29.3 (1)

11.0 (5)

5.0 (7)

2.5 (3)

1.9 (7)

Dave Cowens




14.0 (3)




Scottie Pippen






2.9 (1)


Tracy McGrady



32.1 (1)





Kevin Garnett



23.0 (9)

13.4 (2)




Other Notable “Multiple-Tool” Players







Maurice Stokes




16.3 (2)

4.9 (9)

Dolph Schayes



22.5 (3)

14.0 (3)

3.2 (10)

Elgin Baylor



24.9 (4)

15.0 (3)

4.1 (8)

Elgin Baylor



34.8 (2)

19.8 (4)

5.1 (9)

Wilt Chamberlain



33.5 (1)

24.6 (1)

5.2 (7)

Wilt Chamberlain



24.1 (3)

24.2 (1)

7.8 (3)

Wilt Chamberlain



24.3 (3)

23.8 (1)

8.6 (1)

Elgin Baylor



26.0 (2)



Connie Hawkins^



26.8 (1)

13.5 (2)

4.6 (4)

John Havlicek



24.2 (8)


6.8 (7)


^ABA statistics

“Five-Tool” players=Players who led their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots; “Multiple-Tool” players=players who led their teams in scoring, rebounding and assists before the NBA and ABA began recording steals and blocked shots (1973-74 for NBA players; 1972-73 for ABA players).

Numbers in parentheses reflect league ranking, if the player finished in the top ten.

Prior to 1969-70 NBA statistical leaders were ranked by totals, not averages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:34 AM



At Thursday, February 14, 2013 9:40:00 AM, Blogger namwani said...

Tmac was NOT a five tool player in 02-03. http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/orl/year/2003/orlando-magic

great article nonetheless.

At Thursday, February 14, 2013 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Welcome to 20 Second Timeout and thank you for the compliment.

Never rely on ESPN for statistics, facts and/or analysis. In order to officially lead a team in statistical category, a player must meet the qualifying minimum; Steven Hunter did not play in 70 games or block 100 shots for the 2002-03 Orlando Magic, so his 1.09 bpg average in 33 games does not make him eligible for team leadership.

At Tuesday, January 02, 2024 5:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Olajuwon is an elite 5 tool player. Period

At Wednesday, January 03, 2024 1:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


For the purposes of this article, I defined a five-tool NBA player as a player who led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocked shots in the same season. Olajuwon never accomplished that feat. There are a few other players--including Wilt Chamberlain--who may have accomplished the feat before the NBA officially tracked steals and blocked shots.

I have discussed Olajuwon's elite versatility in many articles, including Pro Basketball's Greatest Ball Hawks


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