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Friday, September 30, 2016

Fred Kerber's 12 Man All-Time NBA Team

Veteran New York Post basketball writer Fred Kerber selected his 12 man All-Time Pro Basketball Team in his February 11, 2015 column. Kerber fully recognized the difficulty of this task, noting, "Picking a 12-man, all-time All-Star team is about as easy as picking the best color, the greatest movie, the finest ice-cream flavor." Kerber quoted Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed: "It's all in who's doing the looking. Older guys are partial to the older players, younger guys go with more recent players. Pick a team and you can probably come up with a second team that could beat the first any given night."

Several years ago, I selected a Pro Basketball Pantheon comprising 10 retired players (in chronological order, those players are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan) plus four (then) active players who I projected to be Pantheon-worthy (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). I did not rank the players within my Pantheon, nor did I fix the size of the Pantheon at 10 or 12 or 14; I simply considered those 10 retired players, plus the four top contemporary players, to be in a group above the next category of players. That next group would include (but not be limited to), in chronological order, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen--all-time greats but players who did not have quite the peak value, dominance, versatility and/or longevity of the Pantheon members. Of course, as Reed noted, intelligent observers could easily come to different conclusions/rankings.

Kerber divided his 12 players into two groups. His starting five is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Kerber's seven reserves are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving. Kerber tapped Red Auerbach as the coach. He did not formally select an honorable mention group but he did single out Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek and John Stockton as an extraordinary quintet that, in his estimation, just could not make the cut versus the 12 players listed above.

Kerber pointed out that his starting five won a combined 30 NBA titles, led by Russell's 11 and followed by Jordan's six, Johnson's five, Duncan's five and Bird's three. He also wrote a paragraph about each of his 12 players, plus Coach Auerbach. I will quote briefly from each of those capsule summaries and then add some of my own comments:

Jordan: Kerber stated that this might change "in 100 years" but for now "Jordan universally is acknowledged as the greatest ever."

I would not say that Jordan is "universally" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever, because Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain certainly have their supporters as well. A good case could be made for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but he alienated so many members of the media that seemingly no one wants to publicly make that case. Still, it would be more precise to say that Jordan is "widely" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever. I think that it is indisputable that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of the post-ESPN era and the player who many, if not most, of today's superstars admire the most. Jordan is also the only player from the past 40 years who can honestly say that he was the best player on six NBA championship teams--and the fact that Jordan went 6-0 in those Finals while winning six Finals MVPs creates a mystique that will be almost impossible for any player who follows Jordan to overcome.

Johnson: "A five-time NBA champ, three-time Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, 12-time All-Star, Johnson forged a rivalry with Larry Bird dating to the NCAA Final that became legendary--and the basis of a Broadway play."

The media elevated Bird over Johnson for most of the 1980s--tapping Bird as the 1980 Rookie of the Year (Johnson had to "settle" for the 1980 Finals MVP) and as the 1984-86 regular season MVP--before Johnson won regular season MVPs in 1987 and 1989-90. During the late 1980s, some pundits were starting to proclaim Johnson to be the greatest basketball player ever. Even Bird joined that chorus, shaking his head in disbelief after Johnson's "junior, junior skyhook" sunk Bird's Celtics in the 1987 Finals; Bird called Johnson "The best I've ever seen." However, Jordan defeated Johnson in the 1991 Finals--with a lot of help from Pippen--and Johnson's HIV positive status forced him to retire, preventing a possible Finals rematch in 1992.

I think that Johnson, more than any player in pro basketball history, could be teamed up with any four decent players and turn that quintet into a very competitive team. That does not necessarily mean that Johnson was the greatest player ever--he was not as good defensively as Jordan or Russell or several other Pantheon members--but it puts him in a special, hard to define category. Young fans may believe that LeBron James has that quality but what I see from James is a mixed bag: he has won three championships but he has also left several championships on the table because of inexplicably passive play. Johnson never left any championships on the table; he lost to all-time great players/teams in their primes (the Malone/Erving Sixers, Bird's Celtics, the Bad Boys Pistons, the Jordan/Pippen Bulls). There is no footage of the 1980s equivalent of Jason Terry outdueling Johnson in the fourth quarter of key NBA Finals games.

Back to the point about Johnson's incredible versatility as a teammate. Russell needed a point guard and someone to be a scoring threat. Jordan needed Pippen (and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs without him). You can go down the line and most of the great players needed a certain kind of accompanying star and/or supporting cast to maximize their greatness--but Johnson legitimately could play all five positions and he exuded a team-first ethos that smoothed over any potential ego conflicts (Abdul-Jabbar was hardly a barrel of laughs to play with for most of his career and it was amazing to see the joy that radiated from him after he had played with Johnson for a little while). Johnson won a championship while paired with point guard Norm Nixon in the backcourt and then he won championships paired with shooting guard Byron Scott. Johnson won championships with Abdul-Jabbar as the main post up scoring threat and then he won championships as a post up scoring threat when Abdul-Jabbar had to accept a lesser role due to his age/declining skills. Johnson made it to the Finals with an aging James Worthy, a young Vlade Divac, journeyman Sam Perkins and not much else in 1991--and it took the combined efforts of Jordan/Pippen in their primes to prevent Johnson from winning a sixth title.

I think that the sudden, shocking end to Johnson's career combined with Jordan's immediate meteoric rise has actually resulted in Johnson being somewhat underrated by today's commentators.

Duncan: "(His) brilliant consistency and superb skill set, especially for a big man, has led to five titles, three Finals MVP honors and two regular season MVP awards."

Although his playing style is different from Abdul-Jabbar's, Duncan is similar in that (1) he is underrated and (2) a main reason that he is underrated is that he never sought out media approval. Abdul-Jabbar was actively hostile to the media for much of his career, while Duncan was indifferent as opposed to hostile, but the result has been the same. Abdul-Jabbar won more championships than anyone from the end of the Russell era until the emergence of Jordan but his name often gets pushed aside in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Duncan is not as great as Abdul-Jabbar but he is similarly underrated. In the post-Jordan era, Duncan has five rings and Kobe Bryant has five rings. It is true that neither player was the best player on all five of those championship teams but both players were vital contributors to all five of their respective championship teams and both players were the best player on multiple occasions.

It will be interesting to watch the Spurs this season. On paper, Duncan's replacement Pau Gasol is a better player now than Duncan was last season (though Gasol is also past his prime) but I suspect that Duncan had an impact (particularly on defense and as a leader) that is not captured statistically--but will be evident in the won/loss column.

Bird: "He did it with scoring, passing, rebounding and an ability to bring out his best in the clutch." The statistics may not bear this out but there has never been a player I rooted against who I feared more in the clutch than Bird in his prime (I rooted against him because I was--and am--a diehard Erving fan). It just felt like if the game was close and Bird got the ball then he was going to make the shot.

What people forget is that during Bird's first few seasons he rebounded like a center and he was not a particularly productive three point shooter. As the game changed and the players around him developed, Bird's role changed; he became more of a scorer and more of a perimeter player. People also forget that for the first four years of Bird's career he and Erving had the best rivalry in the sport. Erving started slowing down at age 34, just as Bird hit his peak, but before that they were very evenly matched--and it is a safe bet that the ABA version of Erving would have run circles around Bird; a lot of people may scoff at that idea but that does not make it untrue.

By 1986, the mainstream media had pretty much decided that Bird was the greatest basketball player of all-time (look at magazine cover stories from that time if you doubt this)--but then Johnson led the Lakers to back to back titles (a feat not accomplished since Russell's Celtics did it in 1968-69), with one of those championships coming at the expense of Bird's Celtics, and Johnson's 5-3 championship lead over Bird (including 2-1 in their head to head matchups) made it difficult to take seriously the idea that Bird was greater than Johnson. Both players had great supporting casts but after a decade of battling for supremacy Johnson led in the category that mattered most--rings--and thus people stopped declaring Bird to be the greatest player of all-time.

Russell: "The guy won 11 championships with the Celtics, OK? Joe DiMaggio won nine, Babe Ruth won seven." The modern commentator has all the answers about Russell: Too small to play center against Shaquille O'Neal, not a good enough scorer to win without great teammates, benefited from playing in an era with (supposedly) watered down talent compared to the NBA today which has players from all corners of the globe. Regarding the size issue, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace proved that undersized players can be dominant rebounders in the modern NBA. O'Neal lost playoff series to Olajuwon (who was not much bigger than Russell, despite being listed at 7 feet) and to a Chicago team that guarded him with (at different times) Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and even the 6-6 Rodman. Russell won championships in virtually every season that he played organized basketball from high school through the NBA: 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, two NCAA titles in three seasons, two high school state championships; that works out to 15 championships in an 18 year period, plus an Olympic gold medal, so to suggest that such a dominant winner could not adopt his game/skill set to the modern era is an insult to Russell's greatness. He thought the game through as well as anyone who has ever played and he had a mean streak (in the best sense of the term, as an extremely competitive person) that takes a back seat to no one, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

When I first started studying basketball, I was sure that Wilt Chamberlain was greater than Russell and that if they had switched teams then Chamberlain would have accomplished at least as much as Russell did--but now I am not so sure. I still think that Chamberlain got a raw deal from the media and I certainly think that in more ideal circumstances Chamberlain would have won a lot more than two championships but Russell's mindset was just so much different than Chamberlain's that I am not sure Chamberlain could have ever sustained the team success that Russell did, no matter the circumstances. It is kind of like comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James; James has the more impressive physique and perhaps the more impressive statistics (depending on how you evaluate the numbers) but Bryant just figured out how to win on a more consistent basis.

My favorite Bill Russell story is about his final game, the seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals. The L.A. Lakers had planned to release balloons from the ceiling of the arena and have a band play "Happy Days Are Here Again" after they beat Russell's Celtics to win the title. Russell got a copy of the plans and took it to the locker room, where he addressed his team (he was the player-coach) and told them that a lot of things could happen in this game but what could not happen is for the Celtics to lose--and they would have a lot of fun watching the Lakers take those balloons down one by one. The Celtics won 108-106.

Abdul-Jabbar: "None matched Abdul-Jabbar for excellence over the length of a career." The young Abdul-Jabbar gave Chamberlain--who was still a force to be reckoned with--all that he could handle in the early 1970s and in the mid to late 1980s Abdul-Jabbar was still making the All-NBA Team ahead of a crop of younger stars including Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Patrick Ewing. Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport; it was unstoppable and he could deliver it with either hand out to a range of 15 feet. Abdul-Jabbar was an excellent rebounder for the first half of his career (i.e., a solid decade, which is a full career for many players), he was a great passer and he was an intimidating defensive presence in the paint. He was listed at 7-2 but I have stood next to him and am not the only person who thinks that he is even taller than that; the first thought that I had when I met a then nearly 60 year old Abdul-Jabbar was "What would it have been like to drive the lane 20 years ago and try to score over this guy?" Erving has consistently said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. Abdul-Jabbar blew me off for an interview--twice--like he blew off many other people (and it's a shame, because I was actually going to ask him intelligent questions that would have led to a great dialogue) but I don't have to like the guy to give him his proper respect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most underrated great player in pro basketball history.

Chamberlain: "'Nobody roots for Goliath,' Chamberlain said numerous times." Chamberlain is without question the most statistically dominant player in pro basketball history. He holds the record for having the most records! Some of his records--like career scoring--have been broken but many others (including 50.4 ppg average for a season, 22.9 rpg average for a career) will never even be approached. He is wrongly tagged as a loser despite winning two championships with arguably the two greatest single season teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers). Did Chamberlain focus too much on his own stats and not enough on winning? Maybe, but it could be argued that he did what his teams needed him to do and what his coaches asked him to do. He is criticized for his poor free throw shooting but no one mentions that Russell's free throw shooting was almost as bad. Purely based on his productivity in three fundamental basketball skills--scoring, rebounding and passing (he is the only center to lead the league in assists)--it is difficult to argue against the proposition that he was the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, there is this guy named Russell (see above) whose teams routinely outperformed Chamberlain's. The Chamberlain-Russell debate is one of the great ones in all of sports. I have talked with a lot of players who played with and/or against both men and the firsthand opinions are very divided. As I mentioned before, I used to lean toward Chamberlain but the more I study and learn about the sport the more I start to lean toward Russell. When I watch LeBron James, I feel like I am watching the modern day Wilt Chamberlain; he has the most impressive physical tools and he sets amazing statistical records and he wins a lot--but yet it feels like something is missing. "He" in that sentence could apply to Chamberlain or James.

James: "There are hype and expectations. And then there was whatever you want to call it that physical specimen James faced jumping to the NBA out of high school." Maybe I seem overly critical of James at times but I feel like to whom much has been given much should be expected. James cannot be evaluated based on the standards applied to normal people or normal NBA players, because he is not normal. Kerber is right that James faced enormous hype and that James has delivered a lot despite all of the pressure and expectations. James became one of the greatest players of all-time and things could have easily gone the other way: he could have gotten injured or become complacent or just crumbled underneath all of the scrutiny. James has had a remarkable career--but I believe that he left some championships on the table and I don't think that he is wired quite the same way as Russell, Jordan or Bryant. If I could have any one of those four guys (each in their respective primes) for a game seven, James would be my fourth pick; mind you, I would take James over all but a handful of players in the history of the sport but I would never trust him in that situation more than I would trust any one of the other three. Maybe that is not fair, maybe I am wrong, but that is my take.

Bryant: "No human could do it. Only health--three serious injuries in three years--has been able to slow down the Lakers great." Bryant never really lost his skills--they were just taken away from him, in a cruel moment, when he ruptured his Achilles while trying to carry an undermanned Lakers squad to the playoffs. Bryant was never the same after that injury, an injury that has completely ended many careers; Bryant fought hard to come back and he ended his remarkable career with a stunning 60 point outburst but he never regained the MVP form that he displayed up to the second when his Achilles popped. The "stat gurus" never much liked Bryant's game and the mainstream media always preferred the gregarious O'Neal to killer Kobe but all Bryant cared about was winning rings and he collected more of them than anyone in the post-Jordan era except for Duncan (and Robert Horry, who bagged seven as a key contributor alongside Olajuwon with the Rockets, O'Neal/Bryant with the Lakers and Duncan with the Spurs). Bryant was the first of the presumed heirs apparent to Jordan who actually made a credible run at matching Jordan's greatness; he did not quite make it, mind you, but a case could be made that Bryant is the best player of the post-Jordan era. Many would take James and some would take Duncan but Bryant at least has to be in that conversation.

West: "His bite-you-to-death defensive style supplemented his 'Mr. Clutch' shooting skill that produced a .474 career mark." West is supposedly too small to be great in the modern era? Really? He's just as big as Stephen Curry and a much better athlete who was an elite performer at both ends of the court. West would be unstoppable today with the no hand checking rule and he would also be the best defensive guard in the NBA as well.

Robertson: "Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double in 1961-62: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists." The "stat gurus" will minimize Robertson's numbers by citing pace and the small number of teams in the league and who knows what else. All I know is that pro basketball has been around for almost 70 years and Robertson is the only player not only to average a triple double for an entire season but to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his career, which is even more remarkable. Robertson will tell you to this day that he was every bit as good as Jordan and a lot of Robertson's contemporaries feel the same way

Erving: "Erving was as universally admired and respected for his class and dignity as for his skills." Erving is renowned for his leaping prowess--he won the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest at 26 and came in second in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984 at 34--and he is praised for being an ambassador for the sport but what too often gets lost in the mix is just how great of an all-around player he was. Erving absolutely belongs in the greatest player of all-time discussion, both based on peak value (a credible case can be made that no one has ever played basketball better than Erving did in the 1976 ABA Finals, when he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and on sustained excellence over a long period of time (as detailed in my four part series about his extremely underrated playoff career).

A player who retired almost 30 years ago and who spent nearly the first third of his career in a forgotten league that did not have a national television contract is not going to win a battle for recognition against global icons Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I get that--but anyone who objectively looks at what Erving accomplished and how he accomplished it has to give Erving much respect.

Auerbach: "Auerbach won 938 games, nine NBA championships (in 10 years) with eight consecutively. He also oversaw seven more titles as Boston's president and general manager." Auerbach bristled at being compared to Phil Jackson, who eventually broke Auerbach's record by winning 11 titles as an NBA coach; Auerbach growled that he both built and coached his championship teams, while Jackson inherited ready made teams that he then coached. Auerbach is no doubt smiling down now as he watches Jackson struggle to put together a winning squad in New York; maybe Auerbach was right all along when he compared himself to Jackson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM



At Friday, September 30, 2016 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Excellent article, David!

I disagree mildly on a few points, but they're all relatively minor.

"Russell needed a point guard and someone to be a scoring threat. Jordan needed Pippen (and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs without him). You can go down the line and most of the great players needed a certain kind of accompanying star and/or supporting cast to maximize their greatness--but Johnson legitimately could play all five positions and he exuded a team-first ethos that smoothed over any potential ego conflicts"

I agree with this, but I would contend that the support that Johnson needed was on the defensive end; he is probably the worst defensive player in the "greatest of all time" conversation (though a case could likely also be made for Bird or maybe Baylor). I rate him/them a bit lower than most people do largely due to that; everyone else on that list is an elite contributor defensively.

That said, there is similarly a case to be made that none of them are quite as valuable as Magic offensively, for the reasons you stated.

* I have Duncan one spot ahead of Kareem on my all-time rankings, but it is probably the closest margin between any two players on my list and I think Kareem's case is about equally strong; I mostly take Duncan because I felt he thrived with less help, while Kareem's success came exclusively alongside other GOAT candidates. Either position is defensible, in my opinion.

* On Russell, I think there is a middle ground between "he wouldn't adapt to the modern game" and "he'd be exactly as dominant." He would probably, I think, be the rich man's Rodman or Ben Wallace; still certainly All-NBA level good, but his free throw shooting and iffy scoring game would be greater liabilities in the modern game than in an era where things were generally much less efficient. The inverse of my criticism of Johnson probably applies to Russell.

* I think Olajuwon is historically underrated, and belongs on basically any top 12 list, but agree that it becomes very difficult to figure out who to cut; I usually have him between 5th and 8th on my list, usually about even with Wilt and Russell and just below my personal "Big Four" of Doc, Duncan, Kareem, and Jordan.

* Lebron's story isn't done yet, so it is difficult to place him historically. I presently have him in my "just outside the top ten" category alongside (in no order) Shaq, West, Bryant, Bird, Magic, and Barry. He is likely to ascend higher if he maintains his level of play a few more years.

* On West, I agree that he would be dominant in today's game but think he would have to move to PG full time (he often played the 2 with Goodrich); he lacks the size to guard the Wades/Butlers/Hardens of the world.

Other Top 20 players I rate, I think, somewhat differently than most but don't have a longer thought on at the moment:

I think I am higher than most on Barry, Pippen, and Moses (all of whom have previously been in my top 10).

I think I am lower than most on Baylor, James, Bryant, Bird, and Robertson (though both Bird and Robertson are sometimes in my top 10, they are generally in the 9 or 10 spot when they are).

Obviously, I am higher than most (but not David) on Doc, who is my gun-to-my-head pick for greatest ever.

At Friday, September 30, 2016 1:56:00 PM, Blogger HP said...

Great write up, David. The Bird/Magic and Tussell/Wilt comparisons are always entertaining to read and could be argued either way convincingly.

As far as you last comment of taking LeBron 4th in a game 7, I find it ironic you'd say that when LeBron not only holds the highest elimination game scoring average in NBA history, but has authored two of the greatest Game 7 performances in the Finals. Meanwhile, Kobe's lone Game 7 Finals performance is not remembered for any greatness his performance displayed but by him shooting 6-24 and the Lakers feasting on the boards against an undermaned Celtics team.

Looking forward to your NBA coverage this season, as this year has all the makings of an intriguing ride.

At Friday, September 30, 2016 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you!

My point about Magic is that I think he could have won with a wider array of "help" than perhaps any other Pantheon member. We agree about his defense (although I think that Magic's size and intelligence compensated to some extent for his relatively poor lateral movement and I sense that you disagree about that) but Magic could have played point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward or center at a high level for a championship team. Chamberlain and Russell played one position. Maybe they could play power forward, though it would be odd to do so. Most great players need a certain kind of supporting cast but Magic could have probably won a championship with four other good players who play any position, with Magic then filling in at the empty position.

As great as Rodman and Wallace were at their roles, I still think that it greatly undersells Russell to suggest that he would just be a "rich man's version" of them. Russell was a dominant player in college, the pros and the Olympics. If he played today I think that he would average at least 15 ppg, 20 rpg, 5 apg and 6 bpg--and have an impact on winning that is not fully captured even by those numbers.

West had a wiry strength and modern-level hops--he dunked the ball two-handed with ease despite barely standing 6-2/6-3--and he would likely have been the best shot blocking guard in the league if those numbers had been tracked throughout his career. West was not as flashy as Curry and perhaps not quite as good of a shooter (it would have been interesting to see West adapt to the three point line if it had been introduced during his career) but I would rate West ahead of Curry as an overall scorer, as a passer, as a rebounder and--obviously--as a defender. In this post-2000 era of rules changes and guard-oriented play during which both Nash and Curry won two MVPs apiece, West would have captured several MVPs.

At Friday, September 30, 2016 3:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The problem with LeBron is not his ability to perform well in a game seven situation, because--as you note--he has done so. The problem with LeBron is the uncertainty. Will he "quit"/be passive/be assessing the situation instead of reacting (his explanation for what looks to the outside world to be quitting/passivity) or will he attack the hoop relentlessly? Even in last year's Finals, we saw a mixture of aggressive LeBron and passive LeBron, with aggressive LeBron ultimately seizing the day.

Russell, Jordan and Bryant were always aggressive. Yes, Bryant did not shoot well in game seven versus Boston but he got to the free throw line and he grabbed 15 rebounds as a shooting guard. That was a game in which everyone shot poorly, so free throws and rebounds were golden. Similarly, Bryant took over in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics, preventing the kind of collapse that had happened in Team USA's previous FIBA events when Bryant had not played. Bryant had numerous other big-game moments throughout his NBA career, including stepping up in the Finals versus Indiana when Shaq fouled out and numerous huge performances against the Spurs, the Kings, etc.

LeBron dominates the ball. Even when he plays poorly or does not make the correct play, he will still have gaudy numbers but they are not always winning numbers and that is the problem with comparing players purely by using statistics. Kobe played in a system in which no one player is going to rack up a lot of assists but he was the main playmaker for the Lakers throughout his career. His passing/facilitating are very underrated.

LeBron has three rings now, so he has amassed some "pro" evidence to balance out his earlier failures but I still say that his effort/mental game are not as stable/dependable as those of Russell, Jordan and Bryant. I put LeBron in my Pantheon and if I were a voter he would have won even more regular season MVPs than the media has given him but within that Pantheon I am more hesitant to put him at the very top than some other people are. We just saw him beat Golden State in the Finals, so there is a recency bias in LeBron's favor--but what he accomplished is not necessarily greater than what Jordan did in the 1993 Finals or what Doc did in the 1976 ABA Finals.

I favor historical context and resist the temptation to say that the current greatest player must be the greatest player of all-time (not that you are necessarily saying that LeBron is the greatest of all-time; I am just clarifying my approach).

At Friday, September 30, 2016 3:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


Re: Magic

Oh, I actually agree with that. I misunderstood your original post as being more skill-focused than role-focused. I think there are a few others who could win with a very wide array of "help" (Erving, Duncan, Olajuwon, and Kareem among them), but would not meaningfully quibble with the idea that you can put almost any four good players around Johnson and have a contending team.

Where Magic ultimately ranks as a defender is largely influenced by whether or not you consider rebounding separately; if rebounding is lumped in as part of defense (and there's a case to be made it should be), his excellent defensive rebounding bumps him up considerably... but in terms of stopping his own man or making crisp rotations/proving solid help, he was, in my opinion, well below average for a GOAT candidate, though in the interest of fairness it is worth noting that he notched a high number of steals (though in the further interest of context, that is a dangerous stat to judge a player by).

Re: Russell

I think those numbers are tad optimistic- 20rpg particularly- but conceivable. I do think he'd be "hacked" in crunchtime, I think defenses would cheat off of him offensively and dare him to shoot jumpers, and I think his pick-setting would be- while still very good- less effective against the larger bodies that currently occupy the NBA. I still have him in my top 10, I just think that there is a middle ground between "he couldn't adapt" and "he'd be just as dominant," and that his troubles would come mostly on the offensive end; he had the speed, timing, and smarts to remain an elite defender and rebounder in any era.

Re: West

I totally agree that West would be better than Curry. Curry is a mildly above average defender; West is a historically great one. Curry is probably a better shooter even with a modern-raised version of West (Curry is such a shooting outlier even among current players it seems unfair to suggest anyone would be in his league), but I agree that West is a better rebounder and passer as well. I have West lurking around the edge of my top 10, while I don't have Curry in my top 20. My point was only that I think West would struggle to play the Shooting Guard in the modern NBA, where he'd be asked to guard much larger players than himself, in terms of not only height but also bulk/weight/strength. I think he'd absolutely be the best PG in the league on day 1.

In fact, if you choose to interpret West as 1 instead of a 2, he'd have strong case for Greatest PG ever.

At Saturday, October 01, 2016 2:34:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Re: Russell

He is my best of all time. Most of the arguments against him are statistical, except they ignore the most amazing stat; winning at all levels and 11 of 13. Like David my appreciation of Russell developed over the years and in general I think there is a lack of understanding of how difficult to repeat his achievements are. They are further into the never again territory than any other record in my opinion.

The problem with obsessing over stats in these arguments is that some stats are given too much importance and interpreted without context. Interpreting a complex system like a basketball game off a few numbers is absurd out of context, especially given the fact there are actions that get lost in numbers. When I play basketball I play at centre, and depending on whether I get back on d before the ball gets up there saves us at least 10 points a game. There is no stat for beating the fast break back and thus stopping it, but I know from experience we win or lose on that play. That is just one of thousands of little things each player does or doesn't do each game to help their team win, and we have stats that model only a small number of these things.

That's not to say that advanced stats aren't useful. I enjoyed the Dennis Rodman Argument, not because I think DR is the best of all time but because I think it gave us an interesting look at why the guy was so valuable to teams. Similarly whilst I think PER is a terrible stat that encourages bad basketball, it can be an interesting way at looking at some player's more statistically dominant seasons. Often I don't take issue with the stats in and of themselves, I just hate the way they are used.

Bringing it back to Russell, I wouldn't even venture to guess what stats he would get, but I do think he would win more than anyone. That guy knew how to win, whether he had his effect on the court or off the court, he is my first pick all time if I'm a GM.

At Saturday, October 01, 2016 6:58:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent article... a very good treat for lifelong basketball junkies like me...

At Saturday, October 01, 2016 7:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you! I had been looking forward to writing this piece for a while but had to wait until I had enough time to do it right. I filed away a lot of things that were written and said about pro basketball while I was in Law School and I will be writing about those things as my schedule permits. The Termine and Kerber pieces are a couple of items that have been on my to do list and there are more still to come!

At Saturday, October 01, 2016 7:36:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...


Not brown nosing you, but it would be a treat watching the playoffs/championship series with you over scotch.. especially now that you have mellowed a bit...

Bucket list, buddy...

At Saturday, October 01, 2016 8:27:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...


Nice... looking forward to those articles...

At Sunday, October 02, 2016 7:04:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

David, I think you should also go ahead and pick the teams for the other decades as well. And I agree with Jackson 888 - I'd like to watch a NBA game with you in person one day.

At Monday, October 03, 2016 3:19:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

would be great to watch a game with David commenting on Twitch at the least... if only it wasn't illegal

At Monday, October 03, 2016 11:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you. Yes, it would be fun to watch a game together sometime!

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 2:40:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Charley Rosen replied to my questions in today's article:

My questions were why would he rank Kevin McHale ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon in his ranking of the best bigmen in NBA history, as well as Shaq over Wilt. I posted my comment in that article, and he emailed me:

FYI - I'm only seconding the opinion of Tex Winter!
Plus McH was a MUCH better 1-on-1 defender than Hakeem
But thank for your feedback

At first I thought it was a troll comment from the article and put it off.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 8:03:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hey David, I was wondering if you have an opinion in this area: Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson? I was thinking of my all-time starting 5 and usually I go with the Oscar over Magic at the point guard because Oscar is the type of player I like. All around player with a great work ethic. A better all around defender than Magic though I don't think Magic was necessarily a slouch. Averaged a triple double in a season and over the course of several years together.

That said, Magic has a height advantage and as you mentioned, incredible positional versatility. He was also a natural leader. Oscar seemed more in line with the Kobe/Jordan type of being a demanding perfectionist. Magic also won more at the highest level though Oscar only really got the sort of help he needed late into his career.

I'm a little torn. Any thoughts?

At Sunday, October 16, 2016 12:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You provided excellent "scouting reports" for both players.

Tough choices like this one influenced my decision to not rank the players within my Pantheon!

As I have mentioned before, I think that a good case for greatest player of all-time could be made for any of the Pantheon players.

I am still disinclined to start ranking players within my Pantheon.

If I had to choose between Magic and Oscar, though, here are some considerations that I would weigh:

1) Oscar probably has the better skill set: they are probably equal as rebounders and passers but Oscar was the more prolific scorer, he was a more consistent shooter and he was a better defender.

2) Magic probably has the better intangibles: he could be an All-Star at any position in any era and, subjectively, it seems like it was easier to play with him than it was to play with Oscar.

The choice depends on how much value you place on skill set over intangibles or vice versa.

At Sunday, October 16, 2016 4:10:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I'd offer a third option: why not take Jerry West as your PG? He's not quite the rebounder the other two are, and maybe a very slightly weaker passer, but he's a significantly stronger scorer and defender.

At Sunday, October 16, 2016 6:57:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


Jerry is a very nice pick too. I like West a lot as someone who definitely got the most out of his potential as a player.

Generally though, I'm inclined to take Robertson over West given that Robertson was bigger, more durable, and arguably more dominant from the get go. Robertson was a prodigy in high school and college and effective immediately in his first season in the NBA.

Jerry West seems to be more of a rising star who developed himself as his career went along. West had advantages as a shooter and defender I'm sure but I haven't seen enough footage personally to say how definite they are. I think West has also said that he considers Robertson in his absolute prime to be the better player, though I'm sure they were very close.

Generally, my all-time starting five based on skill-set looks like this: Robertson, Jordan, Erving, Duncan, and Abdul-Jabbar.

I can see what David means by not ranking his pantheon. These are all tough choices and each person has their case.

At Monday, October 17, 2016 1:08:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'd mostly agree with your starting 5 individually, Keith, but in putting an actual team together I'd personally take Jerry's superior shooting to open up the floor for Doc/Jordan/Duncan/Kareem; otherwise, you're working with a team of five guys where none of them are much of a threat from outside and facing a very packed paint (though Doc or Jordan could make them at an acceptable rate on the right night).

Head-to-head, I go back and forth on West vs. Oscar (and ruleset matters too; giving West the 3 point line makes him even more deadly). Today, gun to my head I'd take West, but if you'd asked me even two weeks ago it might have been Oscar.

I'd take either over Magic without much worry, though. Positional versatility is great, but Magic was a vulnerable defender at any position, whereas West/Oscar didn't "take anything off the table," to borrow a phrase from David's semi-nemesis Bill Simmons.


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