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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sporting News Selects All-Time NBA Team

Sporting News' 125th anniversary issue contains several all-time teams for various sports, including this 15 player NBA squad:

First Team

PG Magic Johnson
SG Michael Jordan
SF Larry Bird
PF Bob Pettit
C Bill Russell

Second Team

PG Oscar Robertson
SG Jerry West
SF Julius Erving
PF Elgin Baylor
C Wilt Chamberlain

Third Team

PG John Stockton
SG Kobe Bryant
F Karl Malone
F Tim Duncan
C Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The greatness of each of those 15 players is indisputable. My Pantheon--which totals 10 retired players not picked by position--contains nine of SN's top 10 selections. It is nice to see Bob Pettit receive some much deserved recognition; I did not include Pettit in my Pantheon (he barely missed the cut) but he is on my list of the greatest power forwards of all-time.

SN used some strange, inconsistent positional designations, presumably so that they could select this specific group of 15 players--but it would have made more sense to simply list the 15 greatest players of all-time than to supposedly choose players by position when in fact some of the players in question did not play the positions assigned to them by SN. Elgin Baylor certainly rebounded like a power forward (or even a center) but at 6-5, 225 pounds he was not a big forward even in his era and he generally filled the small forward role while playing alongside various power forwards, including Rudy LaRusso and Happy Hairston. Baylor may be the fourth greatest forward of all-time--as SN's list suggests--but he was not a power forward. The strange thing is that SN's Third Team includes two power forwards who are simply listed as "F" (as opposed to SF or PF). Perhaps SN ran out of SFs after choosing Bird and Erving (and moving Baylor to PF) but if SN wanted to select a squad strictly based on positional designations then Rick Barry should have been the Third Team SF--and Karl Malone should have missed the cut entirely: Malone's field goal percentage dropped from .516 in the regular season to .463 in the playoffs, a stunning decline in efficiency indicating that Scottie Pippen was not kidding when he said during Game One of the 1997 Finals, "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday." Malone's durability and productivity certainly earned him a spot among the top power forwards of all-time but it is a stretch to put him ahead of Tim Duncan or to rank him among the 15 best players of all-time. It is also odd to see Stockton on such a list; Stockton racked up assists and steals while shooting a very good percentage from the field but he just could not take over a game--let alone a playoff series--like Isiah Thomas. Stockton made the All-NBA First Team just twice in his 19 year career and never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting, while Thomas made the All-NBA First Team three times in 13 seasons, finished as high as fifth in MVP voting and led his team to back to back championships, capturing the 1990 NBA Finals MVP. I would also take Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier and Jason Kidd ahead of Stockton--and I would not rank any of those players among the top 15 all-time unless I restricted myself by using positional designations, a restriction that SN artificially imposed and then selectively employed.

Putting Kobe Bryant on the Third Team seems like some kind of compromise choice; I excluded active players from my Pantheon precisely because it is difficult to fully appreciate someone's historical significance when that person is still making history but since SN decided to include active players strong consideration should have been given to at least putting Bryant on the Second Team. Bryant has excelled as a scorer, passer and defender and after serving as an All-NBA level partner to Shaquille O'Neal on three championship teams he was clearly the best player on the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship teams, squads that did not contain another certifiably great player (if Pau Gasol eventually makes the Hall of Fame it will be because of a combination of his FIBA success with Spain and the afterglow of winning rings alongside Bryant, as opposed to his individual dominance/greatness--remember that Gasol made just one All-Star team and did not make the All-NBA Team prior to becoming Bryant's sidekick). In contrast, Robertson and West each won one championship apiece and neither player was the Finals MVP during that championship season (West won the 1969 Finals MVP even though his Lakers lost to the Celtics in seven games); West and Robertson each needed to hook up with an all-time pivot great (Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar respectively) in order to capture a title, while Bryant won two rings alongside Gasol, a big man who was never considered to be elite until he started benefiting from all of the defensive attention Bryant draws.

Some fans no doubt think that LeBron James merits consideration for SN's list at the small forward position but the ebbs and flows of James' career are precisely the reason that I did not include active players in my Pantheon; prior to the 2010 playoffs, James certainly seemed to be on course to rank among the 15 or even 10 greatest players of all-time but after two straight seasons in which he quit during the playoffs it is clear that James--regardless of his impressive individual statistics--simply cannot yet be listed among the greatest of the great. James has the talent to earn his way into that group but he has not done so just yet; think about how Julius Erving almost single-handedly carried the New York Nets to the last ABA championship over the more talented Denver Nuggets (leading both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and how Rick "Superman" Barry similarly led the underdog Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA title--and then contrast that kind of effort and statistical dominance with the stunning image of LeBron James literally just standing around in the corner while other players decided the outcomes of the 2010 Boston-Cleveland series and the 2011 Dallas-Miami series. James is the most productive regular season player in the NBA today but he has not earned Pantheon status.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 AM



At Wednesday, November 09, 2011 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

It's notable that even though their careers overlapped, John Stockton and Michael Jordan were never 1st Team All-NBA at the same time. Anyhow, as you said, allotment of spots by position can be misleading : In 94 & 95, Patrick Ewing averaged about 24 ppg, 11 rpg and didn't make the All-NBA team either season. Do we really think that he wasn't a top 15 player at that point?

At Wednesday, November 09, 2011 1:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Ewing finished in the top five in MVP voting in 1994 and 1995 but did not make the All-NBA teams in either of those seasons. Positional designations make sense for selecting annual All-NBA teams but when selecting an all-time NBA team it seems more logical to just select the 10 or 15 best players regardless of position. The problem with SN's list is that SN tried to have it both ways, shifting Baylor to PF to place him on the Second Team but then putting two PFs on the Third Team while calling them Fs; it also seems like the only reason Stockton made the cut is that SN chose a PG for each team, though even by that standard I would have picked a few PGs ahead of Stockton.

At Wednesday, November 09, 2011 4:52:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Well, no surprise another magazine with quite a perplexing list. I'm not sure what I have more of a problem with: russell ahead of wilt and kareem, pettit even mentioned, or kobe on 3rd team. And yea, the way they did is very weird.

I guess I'm not much of a russell guy. That's just no way that russell was anywhere near as good as Wilt. It's not even close in my eyes. And none of the supposed elite players of all time have been so 'average'(if that) offensively, except for russell. And russell was 6-9, 215, the same exact size as durant. There's no way he would be anywhere near as good of a center today, and he could've even play center today, possibly 4, but more likely a 3. Wilt was constantly double and triple teamed. Did opposing teams even have to send 1 guy at russell? His guy probably just sagged off most of the time.

I know how good Pettit is, but top 15 all time, let alone top 5? I mean if he and russell are on this list, then where's mikan/havlicek/cousy?

I don't get how or why anyone could/would choose West over Kobe. Surely, west was a great player, but compared to Kobe? At least finally, the past few years, that some logical, real expert observers have noticed Kobe's greatness, winning 2 consecutive titles with perhaps the worst supporting cast of all time for consecutive titles, that many have said, he's only 2nd to jordan, is jordan's superior, better than jordan in several areas of the game. I mean, fine, if you're going to make a list by positional rankings, then he has to at least be on the 2nd team. One thing about west is that he's listed at 6-2, 175, tiny SG. Well, you say he's maybe 6-3/6-4. Hard to say. But, I remember when Kobe was listed at 6-7, and I've heard some say he's taller than 6-6. Anyway, let's say Kobe's 3 inches taller, and probably has a good 30-40 lbs. on west, not to mention no weaknesses and much more superior athletically to west, with all the titles, etc., just really scratching my head at that one.

If we're going by positional rankings, for me, then kareem/duncan are first, kobe and west swap, probably isaiah 3rd, wilt 2nd, shaq 3, I guess malone 2nd, barkley 3rd, I still like pippen over baylor for 3rd, rings have to count for something, and it's 6-0.

At Wednesday, November 09, 2011 5:47:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

This is one of the problems with the Great NBA History Book. The author just used the All-NBA teams to designate a player as Top 5, Top 10 or Top 15 for a given season. This further illustrates the problems with the notion that basketball players can be precisely ranked.

Good call on Barry, though I suspect some would make a case for Havlicek.

And since I like to get your pressure going, check this nugget from an ESPN personality in the aftermath of the Finals (hint, not a big Lebron fan):

"My top 5 all-time point guards: Magic, JKidd, Nash, Oscar, Stockton. I'm huge Isiah fan, but not really PG. Scorer on team didn't need PG."

At Wednesday, November 09, 2011 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we are not simply comparing careers but players at their best then Barkley and Baylor are toss-ups, as would be KG and Duncan, and Shaq would be selected over Wilt who played against lesser competition and despite his gaudy numbers was like Shaq considered too feckless for his ability. Shaq at 2000 would've destroyed Wilt at Golden State. But lists like these always disappoint someone, and generationally skewed.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 12:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Sporting News does an excellent job with their season-by-season rankings of the best players in the NBA. The panel that votes on those lists consists of an impressive aray of former/current players and coaches, some of whom are Hall of Famers.

This 15 man all time NBA team is not well organized, and one could very easily argue that many selections are blatantly incorrect.

I see the problems with the list coming down to two factors:

1. The criteria seems to be inconsistent.
2. There seems to be a bias towards players from the "old school."

For 1, I illustrate with the example of Wilt vs. Russell. When it comes down to brass tacks, the only thing that makes Russell's career more impressive than Wilt's career are the 11 championship rings. There's nothing wrong with using that to decide "who's better." But if you go by that logic, Bryant, Duncan and Abdul-Jabbar are both two low on the totem pole.

For 2, let's put it this way: Say you take the members of the 1st team and ask someone to pick the one name that doesn't belong. Bob Pettit will be the answer 9 times out of 10.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 5:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One would not expect that a 6-7 guy could dominate seven footers on the glass but Rodman accomplished that feat in the 1990s; Russell was wily and he was freakishly athletic, so I would not automatically assume that he could not play center in today's NBA. Also, if he were playing today he would benefit from a better diet and better training, so he probably would weigh at least 240-250. Ben Wallace was the starting center on a championship team despite not being nearly as skilled as Russell.

Pettit was a great player but I agree with your reservations about placing him in the top five.

I did not say that West was/is 6-4; I reported that he said this in his book. I have never met West--who may, in any case, be shorter now than he was as a young man--so I don't know exactly how tall he is. Kobe is a legit 6-6 to 6-7 and he is significantly taller than Dwyane Wade, who is listed at 6-4 but is scarcely taller than I am (6-2); Kobe towers over me, while I can pretty much look Wade in the eye (I don't know if we were both standing perfectly straight or if our shoes had different sized heels but, whatever the case, I doubt that Wade is a legit two inches taller than I am).

West matched up well with Robertson, who was taller and bigger, but I agree that based on size, skill set and overall accomplishments it is increasingly difficult to rank West ahead of Bryant.

Pippen is my second favorite player of all-time and one could definitely make a case for him as the Third Team SF but I'd still take Barry narrowly over Pippen; Barry was a much better scorer, they both were great passers and Pippen was a better defender, but not by the same margin that Barry exceeds Pippen as a scorer.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A good case can certainly be made for Havlicek, who excelled at both SF and SG. About 25 years ago, Red Holzman chose his All-Time Team and he included Havlicek.

Nash is going to be on a lot of such lists because he won two MVPs but if you just look at his stats and his skill set it is difficult to put him much above Mark Price, who was a very, very good player but not an all-time great. Isiah Thomas has become such a polarizing figure that I think people either forget or just don't want to acknowledge just how great he was.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 6:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Presumably an All-Time team ranks players based on entire careers, not just peak value, though in my Pantheon series I tried to take both factors into account.

I would take Baylor's peak over Barkley's, Duncan's peak over KG's and Wilt's peak over Shaq's: in his prime, Baylor ranked in the top ten in scoring, rebounding and assists, Duncan always had a better, more reliable low post offensive game than KG and Wilt actually faced more HoF centers than Shaq; you say that Wilt faced watered down competition but at that time there were fewer teams and smaller rosters so it could actually be argued that Wilt faced tougher competition. Sure, Shaq faced Olajuwon and Ewing but he also faced Ostertag, Dudley, etc. Wilt faced Russell, Thurmond, Reed, Bellamy, Abdul-Jabbar and other top talents.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 6:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't think that SN's All-Time Team was picked by an esteemed panel; it seems like it was either picked by the writing staff or maybe even just by the author of that particular article.

The Chamberlain-Russell debate has raged for decades and will likely rage for many more decades. I see both sides of the argument. Chamberlain was clearly the more dominant player individually but Russell was more fierce and he seemed to be more focused on bringing out the best in his teammates. Not that Wilt couldn't or didn't bring out the best in his teammates but Russell always focused on this, perhaps because he did not have the individual talent that Wilt did. I have tremendous respect for both players and hate to see anyone denigrate one to elevate the other.

Pettit was a great player who deserves more recognition than he gets but it is difficult to justify putting him on the First Team of an all-time squad.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 10:54:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

I know what you're saying about wallace and rodman. But, even while russell could or couldn't or should've put on more pounds if given a better chance, he probably wouldn't have because he is so wiry, but that's speculation, just like it's speculation to say he could've put on more pounds, so I'll leave it at that. That is one thing to think about, diet/training, etc., but I try to focus on the product that we see on the court, and I just don't see that with russell.

As for wallace/rodman, those 2 aren't anywhere near consideration for elite status. Sure, rodman made the HOF, barely, and wallace probably never will. But, even at that, they're nowhere near elite status. And they seem like better athletes than russell. Wallace was great as a help defender center, but only for a short period of time. He wasn't that great of a man-man defender, at least against the top centers. There's just no way wallace could defend shaq well by himself, just like there's no way russell could defend wilt well on his own, or even with help. Size is a huge factor, which when I see wilt is much bigger/stronger than russell and much more skilled, it's a no brainer to me. Maybe if we saw wilt with competent players/coaches for his entire career, then we would've seen some real records.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

David : My problem isn't so much that he underrated Isaiah (he claimed to bed a fan) as it is was his assertion that Isaiah wasn't really a PG, which is basic.

Perhaps if I were constructing an actual All-Time NBA Team I would take Pippen but I suspect his streaky shooting was exploitable in a way that Barry's defense wasn't. Scottie probably has a better chance to make this list of he is counted as a PG.

Bill Russell at his prime was about the same size as a young Moses Malone, at the very least as big as Larry Bird and taller than Rodman & Barkley, both of whom are probably shorter than their listed heights. All of them were excellent rebounders.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 1:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are of course correct that Isiah can only be listed as a PG; in fact, Isiah at one time held the single season assist record.

Pippen played multiple positions but it would be a stretch to actually list him as a PG; he was a SF who could match up with every position defensively (even center at times--he guarded Ostertag in the Finals sometimes) and who had a lot of ballhandling/playmaking responsibilities but he was not truly a PG.

As I indicated, I am reluctant to assume that a player from a previous era would not be effective now based purely on his listed height/weight; we have seen players of various sizes sometimes have surprising success and it is also apparent that if an "old school" player were transported to this era he likely would be heavier/stronger (and perhaps would even be taller, because height is at least somewhat linked to nutrition/environment).

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 1:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My point with the Rodman and Wallace examples is that it may seem obvious that someone of a certain size could not rebound/defend against modern post players but that is not necessarily true. Russell was a track star who was almost certainly more athletic and more skilled than Rodman and Wallace, so I would expect him to rebound at least as well as those guys did in the 1990s and 2000s while also being a very savvy, effective defender.

The reality is that it is very, very difficult to realistically compare players from different eras and that is why I did not rank the players within my Pantheon. Chamberlain and Russell both belong on the short list of greatest players ever.

At Thursday, November 10, 2011 4:07:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I guess some of this goes back to one of our previous disagreements, about how you can't fault players for not making a certain part of the game a skill to be used, primarily the 3 pt. shot, 20-30 years ago. Sure, someone like Kobe, who intently studies all the past greats and tries to take weapons from these players to be used by himself if possible, has an advantage. But, he's allowed himself to become as successful as he can, working intently on 3's one summer, or working with Hakeem, or countless hours in the weight room. He truly has no weakness.

Now, I still don't buy the argument that just because other players aren't doing it, then that's an ok excuse for you to use for not being good in a particular skill. I'm sure underhanded FTs weren't too popular, but Barry did it and became a great FT shooter. Guys like Maravich had no 3 pt. line, but that didn't stop him from becoming a great long distance shooter. Who was really doing skyhooks befor Kareem? Someone had to start shooting fadeaways at some pt. etc. There's countless examples of this. So just because most other players weren't stronger back then, I don't buy it. Wilt was probably the strongest player to ever play. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you're stronger, you'll be better. Russell wasn't as wiry as Durant, but let's just see Durant put on muscle. But, I seriously doubt Durant will ever get that big or that strong. Sure, he could put on some muscle, but his body type greatly limits how much he can put on. I bet he's been trying for a long time, too, to put on weight, but just can't put much on.

Sure, russell could play today and be a good player. Great player? I seriously doubt it, but nobody knows that. Your rodman/wallace examples are good ones, but they weren't elite players, and all 3 of them weren't that good offensively. Russell could maybe be a great defender today, but he still, actually he'd most likely be much worse, be an average at best offensive player. He could be a good help defender like wallace, but I seriously doubt how effective he would be against someone like howard/shaq/yao/ewing in man-man situations.

I do kind of like how you just include a list of elite players, without numbering them. I guess for me, I want answers and to get to the bottom line, even if that's basically impossible.

At Friday, November 11, 2011 1:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is easy to say that anyone could have lifted weights/eaten better 40 or 50 years ago but the reality is that training methods, weightlifting equipment and dietary knowledge are all vastly improved now compared to two generations ago.

Auerbach told Russell that scoring average/shooting percentage would never come up during contract negotiations; Auerbach brought in Russell to fill the void that the Celtics had (rebounding/defense) and he did not need for Russell to be a big-time scorer. Russell's deft passing, however, was an important part of Boston's offense. Sure, Russell could have worked on long distance shooting but would that have really helped the team? Russell did what Auerbach asked him to do and what the Celtics needed for him to do. That does not make him better (or worse) than Chamberlain but it is important to understand a player's career in proper context.

I don't know for sure if Russell could have or would have put on weight had he played in the modern era but I think it is a mistake to just pluck someone out of the 1950s or 1960s and automatically assume that he is too small/too short to play in the 2000s. Body types are influenced by environmental conditions (diet, exercise, etc.) and various players have succeeded in different eras despite having seemingly disadvantageous body types. Someone once asked the recently retired Russell how he would have fared against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell replied, "Young man, you have the question backward." When Rodman played for the Bulls they put him on Shaq at times and he did a credible job despite giving away half a foot in height and perhaps 100 pounds in weight. I am not at all convinced that Bill Russell would have been incapable of defending against today's centers, many of whom rely purely on their physical skills as opposed to possessing the all-around games of Russell's contemporaries (Reed, Thurmond, Bellamy and others).

Would Russell have won 11 titles in the modern era? That question is unanswerable--it depends on who his teammates were and who he played against. Jordan did not win a ring in his first six seasons and then he captured six rings in the next eight (despite sitting out nearly two whole seasons during that time).

Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar--in some order--comprise the short list of greatest centers of all-time. Shaq does not quite make the cut, in my opinion. Olajuwon and Moses Malone also fall just short. Mikan dominated his era but the pre-shot clock era is so different even from the Chamberlain-Russell era that I honestly have no idea about how to fairly compare Mikan to the players who came after him.

At Friday, November 11, 2011 12:23:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I see your pts. But, I know how you dislike using speculation. All I'm saying is that the product we see on the court is that Russell was much less skilled and effective than these other elite centers. Rodman was much stronger than Russell. A more accurate comparison against Shaq would be using Wallace, same height as Russell, a leaner body, and i still can't see Russell being as big or as strong as wallace, and wallace did not do well against Shaq in iso situations. And again, rodman/wallace weren't elite players.

Fine, russell did what Auerbach wanted him to do, which was focus on one end of the court. If auerbach knew russell could dominate both ends, like Wilt, don't you think he would want russell to do exactly that? Russell just wasn't capable of doing that. It's fine for russell not to be a good long range shooter, that's actually not smart for most centers to try doing that, but at least be a good shooter from 15 ft. in and try to hone your offensive post moves, which he wasn't and didn't, no excuse for that. And the overall defense in russell's day is a shell of what it is today. It's interesting, but possibly the most athletically gifted NBA player of all time played at the exact same time as russell, in wilt chamberlain, which makes the argument of better training practices, etc. much less relevant. I'm not going to deny that with medical advances, athletes can train better today, but there were still many things russell and others could've done to become even better players. That's why when I look at Kobe, he has done everything possible to become as good as he could, which I've never seen from any other player. If Phil told him to just focus on the defensive end, you can bet he'd still be working on his offensive game.

At Friday, November 11, 2011 3:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Wilt came along today then maybe he would have been even more advanced athletically than he was at that time; Wilt was a track and field star (as was Russell) and the records in those events have progressed significantly in the past few decades. Russell was very advanced athletically in his time and there is no reason to assume that he would not have been similarly advanced if he had been born 40 years later.

The point is not whether or not Rodman and Wallace were elite players (Rodman is in the HoF, by the way); the point is that even though one might have assumed that a 6-7 PF or a 6-9 C could not be very effective in the 1990s and 2000s respectively those two players had significant roles on championship teams. You say that because Russell was roughly the same size as Durant he would be overwhelmed by today's centers but I think that is a flawed statement for the reasons I have indicated in my previous comments.

Auerbach's teams relied on balance as opposed to one player being dominant--which is the same template that Wilt's two championship teams used. Some have suggested that Wilt's early coaches went along with Wilt monopolizing the ball because this sold tickets and because those teams were not going to win the championship anyway. Again, there are a lot of ways to view their careers and the only thing that I am comfortable saying definitively is that Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar (in some order) are the three greatest centers of all-time (or at least of the shot clock era, since I don't know how to compare them with Mikan).

You are assuming that Russell did not work on his game or improve in various areas but I don't believe that is the case. Russell was a first rate rebounder, defender and passer. Most of the great centers did not shoot free throws very well, so Russell is hardly unique in that regard. As for his field goal percentage, it is important to remember that shooting percentages in that era were lower in general. For instance, in Russell's rookie year he shot .427 from the field--but the league average was .380. Russell's best field goal percentage was just .467 in 1960--but the league average that season was .410 and Russell ranked fourth in the league in field goal percentage! Russell actually ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage in each of the first four seasons of his career. Why were field goal percentages so low back then? Travel conditions, poor arena conditions and various other factors have been suggested. The bottom line is that, in the context of his era, Russell was not as inept offensively as you are suggesting.

Kobe certainly deserves praise for working on his game but let's also keep in mind that modern players can work on their games year round because they do not have other jobs; during Russell's era many players had off season jobs and actually used training camp to get back in shape for the season. It just is not correct to somehow suggest that Russell was not a dedicated player or that he did not work on his game. Praising Kobe for his work ethic does not have to involve denigrating every other great player in NBA history.

At Friday, November 11, 2011 7:41:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Ok, by praising Kobe isn't necessarily me denigrating other players, though it may seem like that's would I was implying. All I'm saying is that there's a significant difference between how some players work on their games. I understand how all the differences from now as opposed to 40+years ago, but the fact remains the athletes of today(whether it's a fair comparison or not) are just so much more athletically gifted on average as opposed to even 20 years ago, let alone 40-50 years ago. The only thing we know for sure is what we see when we watch russell/wilt/havlicek, etc. when they played, and by watching them play, it seems obvious to me that only wilt would still dominate today.

But, then again, obviously hard to compare eras. I know you don't like to speculate, and also rate players based on skills, which is why it's puzzling to me that you put russell in wilt's class. We can debate all day about whether russell could be anywhere near as dominant today as when he played and get nowhere, but during their era, wilt just destroyed russell head to head, unfortunately for wilt he didn't have anywhere near the teammates/coaches as russell did, and even at that russell's teams barely escaped many times. Wilt dominated on both ends, russell only on one end, and wilt was athletically superior in every way to russell. You mention how good of a passer russell, but he still wasn't anywhere near as good as wilt, who led the league in assists one year. Wilt had to be at least doubled if not triple teamed every time, surely making it easier for his teammates to score, and they changed so many rules because of wilt. I've never heard of rules being changed because of russell.

I'm not so sure just because everyone else shot poorly that .410is still good, though. Those shooting pct. back then coupled with awful defense as compared today tells me how bad of shooters most everyone was. I wouldn't hang my hat on that.

But, thanks for telling me about the past, haven't heard some of that stuff. The thing is, I've just never seen any true elite player that couldn't dominate on both ends, or even more specifically not being more than just an above average offensive player. Even someone like Howard, who hasn't exactly honed his offensive skills is much superior offensively to Russell, and Howard's achilles heel in FT% is still better than russell's FT%.

Another thing I saw is that one would expect a much lower FG% from wilt with all the double/triple teams he faced, but he shot 54% compared to 44% for russell for career FG%. Russell was great in his era, sure, but for me I just don't understand why anyone would think he was anywhere near as good as wilt.

At Saturday, November 12, 2011 1:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Chamberlain and Russell simply played one on one then Chamberlain would of course be the heavy favorite--but when trying to figure out who is the greatest player of all-time or who belongs in the Pantheon of the top 10-15 players, the question is not simply who would win a one on one game but which player would have the most impact on winning. I have no interest in denigrating either Chamberlain or Russell but the reality is that Russell's teams dominated his era. It is true that Russell benefited from having a better (and more stable) coaching situation and that Russell had the superior teammates in most seasons but, as Russell would say, he also did things to accentuate his teammates' strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They are both great players, two of the greatest players of all-time and I simply disagree with your belief that Russell would not be dominant--or even effective--in the modern era; it is impossible to standardize everything (advances in diet, training, playing facilities, travel, etc.) but if there were some way to control for those factors then I think that Russell would be a great player in the current era (i.e., if he had been born 20-25 years ago with the same genetics but benefiting from the advances that modern players have benefited from then he would still be great). You can't just pluck Russell's physique and stats out of one era and plop them into another.

At Saturday, November 12, 2011 3:58:00 PM, Anonymous 3xAmazing said...

Spending my Saturday recovering from a hangover, ignoring my law school assignments, and reading your old posts. I got to say, though I only recently discovered your blog I am now a massive fan. Can't wait to get a NBA season rolling so I can follow with you.


At Saturday, November 12, 2011 7:01:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I should also note that Russell averaged 20-2- in college and won twon National Championships at the University of San Francisco, which wasn't and obviously isn't the basketball power that Chamberlain's alma mater, Kansas, is.

The late Ralph Wiley said something about Rasheed Wallace which I think is very important when making these assessments : "Well, you know what I've noticed is that Rasheed is really a complementary player. I mean that in the best sense, Dan. I mean he plays best in the context of five-on-five where the ball is being moved around."

So yeah Chamberlain is clearly the more dominant individual player but it is ultimately a TEAM game.

At Saturday, November 12, 2011 10:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

At Sunday, November 13, 2011 5:56:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Well, sure it's a team game, but even in basketball where 1 guy has so much control of the game as compared to baseball or football, you don't necessarily win even when you have the best player, by a long shot, in the world.

What really confuses me is that you talk all the time about lebron and wade, each with the same skill set strengths/weaknesses, but since lebron is bigger, he's better, and I more or less agree with that. For wilt/russell, the size difference again is a huge discrepancy, and then we have wilt with a lot more strengths and a lot less weaknesses than russell, that's what I'm looking at, and I don't understand how anyone can say russell is in wilt's class. You can say one of the russell's strengths for a big is passing, but guess what, wilt was even better of a passer. And I really don't understand why you keep saying Russell acentuates his teammates, while not saying this about Wilt. I know you realize when someone is double/triple teamed how this opens up scoring opportunities for his teammates, and this is what happened with wilt, not really with russell. And by saying wilt is a lot better than russell doesn't denigrate russell. It's just like saying lebron is better than wade, that's not denigrating wade, it's just a fact.

Kobe's an easy example, so I'll use him, but he was clearly the best player in the NBA in 06/07, and his teams couldn't make it out of the first round. So, by just saying, oh he just wins, sure that's great if he wins, but there's a lot more to it than that. Sure, it's obvious russell was a great in his era, that's all we can say definitively. But, his teams most years had 6-7 HOFers on them. What other team in the history of the nba has had a monopoly on the nba like celtics did? It's like the heat right now, except add howard and paul to the team, and poppovich as coach. There's just no way they can lose.

At Monday, November 14, 2011 6:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are making a very spirited case for Chamberlain and backing it up with some valid points but keep a couple things in mind:

1) I have not placed Chamberlain above Russell or vice versa precisely because I think that it is very difficult to differentiate among the Pantheon level players. You can look at peak value, sustained excellence, impact on winning, statistical dominance and many other factors; as I wrote in my Pantheon articles, a case could be made that each member of the Pantheon is the greatest player of all-time and, indeed, it is easy to find articles and/or books making such a case about each of those players.

2) There is a difference between evaluating players historically and evaluating players who I have seen in live action; also, there is much more footage available of players from the past 20-30 years than there is of players from the Chamberlain-Russell era.

Your Chamberlain-Russell/James-Wade analogy is subtly flawed. The size difference between James and Wade is more substantial than the size difference between Chamberlain and Russell. Listed heights and weights differ at various sources (and a person's weight changes during his career) but Chamberlain was probably about four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Russell during their primes (Chamberlain eventually weighed over 300 pounds but he was very lean during his early years). James is at least 6-8 (possibly 6-9) and 270+ pounds, while Wade is 6-2/6-3 and maybe weighs 220 pounds.

Also, I cannot think of any skill set area in which Wade is superior to James; therefore, it is natural to conclude that if Wade is--at best--equally skilled (and I am not even sure that is true) then James still holds the edge because he is much bigger.

In contrast, it could be reasonably argued that Russell was a better defender than Chamberlain and that Russell was more temperamentally suited to blending his talents with the talents of his teammates. Chamberlain clearly held the edge as a scorer and they were probably equal as rebounders. Passing cannot be fairly evaluated just by looking at assists.

Chamberlain had a size advantage and some skill set advantages but Russell also had some skill set advantages and his teams dominated an entire era in an unprecedented fashion. It is reasonable to rate Chamberlain ahead of Russell based on the criteria you mentioned but a case can also be made for Russell.

At Tuesday, November 15, 2011 11:48:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

My lebron/wade comparison to wilt/russell comparison about size really isn't that far off. Ok, It's not exactly the same, but it's pretty close, not substantially different. But, I'll say this, it's a lot closer to an analogy as your wallace/rodman comparison to russell, mainly because rodman/wallace aren't/weren't elite players. As far as finding great defending PF sized players who weren't that good offensively, then yea, but finding another supposed elite player, then no.

But, comparing sizes of wade and lebron is only necessary in evaluating who the better overall player is, coupled with the fact of their strengths/weaknesses, but they would rarely if ever guard each other if they played on opposing teams. The reason why comparing the size differences of wilt and russell is much more relevant in the whole scheme of things is because they played the same position and would guard each almost every possession, if not every possession. Wilt wasn't only much bigger than russell, he was much much stronger as well.

Well, I'm not sure how Russell was better than defensively than wilt. I think that mostly has to do with the legend of russell, a great defensive player. You don't hear people saying Wilt was great defensively because he was the dominant offensive player in nba history. All I know is that russell couldn't guard Wilt very well, which is not true of wilt's ability to guard russell.

At Tuesday, November 15, 2011 3:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I never suggested that Rodman and Wallace are Pantheon-level players. I brought them up because of your contention that Russell--who you described as being the same size as current SF Kevin Durant--simply could not play center in the modern NBA. My point is that before Rodman and Wallace came along I am sure that many people thought that a 6-7 forward could not lead the league in rebounding for seven straight seasons and that a 6-9 (at most) center could not be a defensive powerhouse for a championship team that would defeat a team anchored by the most dominant center of his era (Shaq's L.A. Lakers). I disagree with your assumption that Russell's size would have prevented him from being a great player in the modern NBA--and I also think that if Russell had been born 20 or 30 years ago then he likely would have become bigger and stronger than he did in the 1950s/1960s.

The crux of the issue regarding Chamberlain and Russell is that Chamberlain dominated statistically but Russell's teams dominated collectively. The irony is that the two times Chamberlain won championships he played more like Russell than he did in other seasons, lowering his scoring and focusing even more on defense, rebounding and passing. Could/should have Chamberlain done that earlier in his career? Or was that not feasible because Chamberlain did not have the complementary talent around him that Russell had? This is a fascinating debate that has been going on for decades. My position is that Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar--in some order--are the three greatest centers of all-time; beyond that, it is very difficult to determine how to rank those three Pantheon members.

The job for Chamberlain and Russell defensively was not exclusively to guard each other but also to control the paint in terms of rebounding and blocking shots. Chamberlain was an excellent defender and shotblocker but Russell--who came along slightly earlier--was a trendsetter: before Russell, coaches used to teach players not to jump to block shots but Russell turned the blocked shot into a deadly weapon.


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