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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Elgin Baylor's Underappreciated Greatness

you had

         to see


         before his knees went


           he could


"Elgin Baylor" by Mark Shechner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM



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