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Saturday, February 03, 2018

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

On October 29, 1996, the NBA commemorated its 50th anniversary by unveiling its 50 Greatest Players. The NBA had previously selected official all-time teams to commemorate its 25th and 35th anniversaries. Those first two all-time teams included 10 and 11 players respectively but the 1996 edition constituted a bolder, broader attempt to sharply delineate a larger group of players who should be separated from all of the other players in NBA history. The 50 Greatest Players List seemed to generate more controversy than the first two lists. This is partially because by 1996 the NBA was a global league receiving a lot more media attention than it ever had before but also partially because it is probably more difficult to select a large list of great players as opposed to a smaller list of the very greatest players.

In 2005, I first described my pro basketball Pantheon, comprising the 10 retired players who each could potentially be considered the greatest player of all-time (listed here in chronological order): Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. My Pantheon was constructed in the spirit of the first two NBA All-Time Teams and was not an attempt to list the "merely" great. I subsequently expanded my two part Pantheon series into a five part series that also discussed The Modern Era's Finest, referring to four active players who had already performed at a Pantheon-caliber level: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. I later wrote a supplementary article analyzing the case for each Pantheon player to be considered the greatest player of all-time.

Until now, I have never systematically critiqued the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, nor have I attempted to create my own such list--though I have written about specific players who I thought should have made the Top 50, most notably Bob McAdoo, and I have critiqued two attempts to improve the NBA's list: Slam Magazine's Sloppy 2009 List and Beckett Basketball's 50 Greatest Players List from 2010.

I have watched with keen interest as many others have attempted to revise, expand or completely redo the 50 Greatest Players List; this article is the first part of a series of articles that will (1) describe methodologies that can be most effectively used to select such a list and (2) analyze several Greatest Players lists that have been compiled since 1996.

It is not always easy to compare players who played in the same era, as there could be a number of contextual factors that are difficult to measure--including quality of teammates and differences in playing styles between each player's teams. It is even more difficult to compare players who never faced each other; in those instances, there are at least four methodologies that should be considered (not necessarily in this order):

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?
2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?
3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?
4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?

The greatness of a player in his own era can be determined in several ways: (1) Statistical rankings in key categories, (2) MVP/All-NBA/All-Star/All-Defensive selections, (3) Championships won during which that player performed a key role. Quotes and stories from reliable sources--including but not limited to teammates, opponents, scouts, informed media members--also can provide meaningful evidence about how great a player was in his own era.

A player's overall ranking in key statistical categories is easy to look up but, of course, context matters; for instance, assists are awarded more liberally now than they were in previous eras or than they should be based on the rule book definition, so the career rankings in assists and assists per game are somewhat skewed.

Skill set evaluations are subjective to some extent but an informed talent evaluator should be applying the same standards to all players (or, at least, to all players who play the same position/perform the same or similar roles).

Determining a player's historical impact is subjective but it is a significant factor worth considering. The Associated Press named George Mikan the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century. Mikan was such a dominant force in the paint that the NBA widened the three second lane from six feet to 12 feet and instituted a 24 second shot clock to prevent teams from stalling to reduce the number of possessions in which he would receive the ball.

Similarly, Wilt Chamberlain was so dominant that rules changes were enacted to contain him by preventing offensive basket interference and by further widening the lane. While no rules changes can be directly attributed to Julius Erving, Magic Johnson once neatly summarized Erving's impact on the sport by declaring that Erving "made the playground official!"

Players like Mikan, Chamberlain and Erving had an impact that transcends numbers and that kind of impact should be considered when compiling a greatest players list.

The remaining articles in this series will apply the above four standards to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and to several greatest players lists that have been published subsequently.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM



At Tuesday, February 06, 2018 6:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Seems to me like a fifth criterion that's missing but that's sorely needed is floor generalship, as in how good a leader is the player in question. Is he a true alpha? How much does he inspire his teammates, "make them better," so to speak? Team sports operate more by horde instinct than herd instinct, is why this is so important. I figure that you mean to include it in the first criterion, but I think leadership warrants its own separate category.

Responding to your post about the 30,000-point club, I mentioned "angry joy" as an emotion that MJ and Kobe, for example, inspired in their teammates. But my impression is that Tim Duncan, to name another pantheon-level player of Kobe's generation, led more by example than by command. His leadership was no less effective for that. On the other hand, Lebron suffers by comparison because of his lackluster leadership. Barkley recently referred to his "passive aggression," which inspires no angry joy in his teammates. Nor does Lebron effectively lead by example re: "chill mode." Not to keep beating up on Lebron, but he's a really good example of what separates the very best of the best. You've compared him to Wilt Chamberlain in terms of underachievement and I think that's an apt comparison. I would add that Wilt and Lebron have both lacked leadership. Compare Wilt to Bill Russell, who was such a good leader that he was actually a championship-winning player-coach!

So, speaking in terms of their prime, I'd take Lebron over Tim Duncan because he's that much better than Tim Duncan in terms of skill-set, even though Duncan was a better leader than Lebron. But I'd take Kobe over Lebron even though Lebron is slightly better than Kobe skill-set wise (size is the difference-maker here), because Kobe is so much better at leadership. MJ I'm taking hands down over Lebron because he's better at leadership, but purely in terms of skill-set (again, factoring in size), I'd say that MJ and Lebron are about equal.

At Wednesday, February 07, 2018 12:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that floor generalship/leadership is important and that is a factor that I strongly consider when I rank players.

You are correct that, as great as LeBron James is, he is lacking some essential qualities as a leader.

James is perhaps the most paradoxical great pro basketball player ever: he has a tremendous skill set, a perfect body for basketball and a high basketball IQ, yet he lacks the drive/determination/alpha characteristics that Russell, MJ and Kobe (and a handful of others) exemplify.

As you suggest, James is so great that one would still choose him over most other players, but I agree with you that there is no way I would ever take James over MJ or Kobe.


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