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Thursday, March 11, 2021

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

In a February 9, 2016 Sports Illustrated article reflecting on the nearly 20 years that had passed since the announcement of the NBA's 50th anniversary all-time team, Jack McCallum--one of the selectors of the NBA's official 1996 list--not only provided his personal update to the list, but he ranked the players in order, "something we didn't do on the politically-sensitive original panel," notes McCallum.

Here is McCallum's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  3. Wilt Chamberlain
  4. Magic Johnson 
  5. LeBron James*
  6. Oscar Robertson
  7. Larry Bird
  8. Bill Russell
  9. Jerry West
  10. Tim Duncan*
  11. Elgin Baylor
  12. Kobe Bryant*
  13. Bob Pettit
  14. Moses Malone
  15. Shaquille O'Neal
  16. Hakeem Olajuwon
  17. Karl Malone
  18. Julius Erving
  19. Elvin Hayes
  20. Charles Barkley
  21. Walt Frazier
  22. John Havlicek
  23. Scottie Pippen
  24. George Mikan
  25. Dwyane Wade*
  26. George Gervin
  27. Rick Barry
  28. David Robinson
  29. Isiah Thomas
  30. John Stockton
  31. Stephen Curry*
  32. Bill Walton
  33. Jerry Lucas
  34. Kevin Garnett*
  35. Clyde Drexler
  36. Dave Bing
  37. Dirk Nowitzki*
  38. Bob Cousy
  39. Patrick Ewing
  40. Willis Reed
  41. Hal Greer
  42. Dave Cowens
  43. Kevin Durant*
  44. Jason Kidd*
  45. Allen Iverson*
  46. Bill Sharman
  47. Chris Paul*
  48. Dolph Schayes
  49. Kevin McHale
  50. Paul Arizin

Thus, McCallum added LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, and Chris Paul, and did not include Nate Archibald, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Lenny Wilkens, and James Worthy.

Similar to previous articles in this series, this article will not reconsider the entire 1996 NBA list but instead focus on comparing the 11 players McCallum added to the 11 players McCallum did not include.

In Part I of this series, I listed four methodologies that should be used in no particular order to compare players from different eras:

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?

In Part II, I called the inclusion of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan "obvious and indisputable." Kevin Garnett is a logical choice and Allen Iverson's selection should not be controversial, though some may disagree. By February 2016, it was also obvious and indisputable that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and Jason Kidd had earned their way on to the list. At that time, Curry had won one MVP (he earned his second MVP a few months later) and one championship (he won two more titles in the next three years, but only after Kevin Durant joined forces with him and captured two Finals MVPs while Curry took a secondary role). Paul has not won an MVP, and by February 2016 he had not even reached the Conference Finals once despite playing for some very talented teams.

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, Kidd, and Iverson. Capsule resumes are provided in Part III for Durant, James, Nowitzki, and Wade. To avoid confusion, it should be emphasized that a capsule resume includes all statistics and awards at the time I wrote the article in which the capsule resume appears, but the analysis of which players to include or exclude is based on the statistics and awards at the time the list being discussed was posted; for players who have been retired for a while that does not make a difference, but for some players--including Stephen Curry--it makes a big difference. Curry's complete resume is presented in the next few paragraphs, but near the end of this article I will discuss whether or not Curry merited inclusion on the 50 Greatest Players List in February 2016.

Stephen Curry has won two regular season MVPs (2015-16; he has ranked in the top five in MVP voting three times). He won the 2016 regular season scoring title, and he has led the league in free throw percentage four times (2011, 2015-16, 2018). Curry led the NBA in three point goals made for five straight seasons (2013-17). He led the league in total steals twice (2015-16), and he led the league in steals per game once (2016). Curry has made the All-NBA Team six times, including three First Team selections. He is a seven-time All-Star. Curry has played in the NBA Finals five times (2015-19), and he has won three titles (2015, 2017-18).

Curry is often referred to as the greatest shooter of all-time. That is a subjective designation. Is Curry a better shooter than--to name just a handful of great shooters--Jerry West, Pete Maravich, Reggie Miller, or Ray Allen? The answer depends on the criteria used to make the determination.

Curry ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA regular season three point field goal percentage, and he has never led the league in single season three point field goal percentage. Curry ranks first all-time in ABA/NBA regular season free throw percentage. 

Curry is one of 12 ABA/NBA players who have won at least two regular season MVPs and at least two championships; the list includes Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mel Daniels, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. Daniels and Curry are the only members of that group who did not win a Finals MVP.

Curry is an average defender at best. He gets a lot of steals because of his quick hands and his ability to anticipate plays, but opposing teams often set screens and run other actions specifically to target him. His durability has been erratic; he played at least 78 games in five straight seasons (2013-17), but he only played 26 games in 2012 and five games in 2020. Essentially, he missed two complete seasons before the age of 32, and it is unlikely that a 6-3 guard will become more durable as he enters his mid-30s.

Chris Paul ranked in the top five in MVP voting four times, including a second place finish in 2008. He won the 2006 Rookie of the Year award. Paul led the league in regular season assists four times (2008-09, 2014-15), and he led the league in regular season steals six times (2008-09, 2011-14). No other player has led the league in steals more than three times. He led the league in playoff assists three times (2008, 2011, 2014), and he led the league in playoff steals once (2014). Paul has made the All-NBA Team nine times, including four First Team selections, and he has made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including seven First Team selections. Paul is an 11-time All-Star.

Paul ranks sixth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season assists (9953), and he ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2273).

Paul is so often praised as the best leader in the NBA that it has become a running joke on TNT's "Inside the NBA" every time Charles Barkley mentions Paul's leadership. Paul is a feisty and combative player at both ends of the court. He seems to have had a positive impact on winning with certain teams, but his abrasive personality has not always been well received by teammates, and has not resulted in championship level playoff success. Paul has only reached the Conference Finals once, and he has never played in the NBA Finals. Paul seems to wear down during the playoffs, perhaps at least in part due to his size (he is listed at exactly six feet tall, but he is probably shorter than that). Paul has missed the playoffs three times, and he has lost in the first round six times. The ultimate mark of leadership in a team sport is team success.

The players from the original 50 Greatest Players List who McCallum did not include in his updated list should not just be discarded without acknowledging their accomplishments. As I wrote in Part II, "Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras." In Part II, I discussed my reasons for not including Sam Jones, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Lenny Wilkens and James Worthy, and I explained why--as of 2008--I still considered Dave DeBusschere to be a Top 50 player (in Part III, I agreed with the Boston Globe that DeBusschere should no longer be ranked as a Top 50 player).

Nate Archibald ranked in the top five in MVP voting twice (third in 1973, fifth in 1980). In 1972-73, he became the first--and remains the only--player to lead the league in scoring (34.0 ppg) and assists (11.4 apg) in the same season. He led the NBA in mpg in 1972-73 (46.0 mpg), and he ranked in the top 10 in mpg three other times. Archibald won the All-Star Game MVP in 1981, the same year that he was the starting point guard for Boston's championship team. Archibald led the 1981 Celtics in assists, and he ranked fourth on the team in scoring.

Archibald made the All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. He was a six-time All-Star.

Archibald is a historically significant player because he put up dominant statistics despite being barely six feet tall in an era dominated by big guys. Prior to Archibald, Wilt Chamberlain was the first player to win at least one scoring title and at least one assists title, but Chamberlain did not lead the league in both categories in the same season. More than 30 years after Archibald retired, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and James Harden each won at least one scoring title and at least one assists title. Westbrook is the only player who has won at least two scoring titles and at least two assists titles. Assists are awarded more generously now than they were when Chamberlain and Archibald played, and the style of play has also changed significantly as the three point shot has become a primary weapon, the rules no longer permit hand checking on the perimeter, and it is much less common for offenses to revolve around a big man posting up.

Despite Archibald's historical significance, his superb 1972-73 season, several other quality seasons, and the likelihood that his skill set would serve him will in today's game, I agree with McCallum's decision to not include Archibald on the 2016 updated list. Bryant, James, Duncan, Durant, Garnett, and Nowitzki each won at least one regular season MVP, each were perennial MVP candidates during their primes, and each had longer primes than Archibald. Wade, Kidd, and Iverson also sustained All-NBA level production longer than Archibald did, so I agree with McCallum adding those nine players.

As of February 2016, I would not have removed Cunningham or Maravich. It was too soon to add Curry, and if I were to have added Paul at that time it would not have been at the expense of Cunningham or Maravich. Thus, of the 22 players that McCallum switched around, I disagree about four of them.

In Part III, I argued that Cunningham and Maravich were both Top 50 players as of 2015: "Cunningham and Maravich both had careers cut short by injury/illness but here I am looking at peak value and, particularly in Maravich's case, historical impact on the game." Durability is important, and durability is accounted for in my evaluation methodology in terms of all-time statistical rankings, but it is also important to look at how great a player was during his era, how complete and/or dominant his skill set was, and the player's historical impact. Also, although Cunningham and Maravich had shorter careers than many great players did, both of them played at least a decade. When Julius Erving was still playing, he was asked about comparing active players to retired players, and Erving responded that you need to let each player play at least 10 seasons before trying to rank players. That 10 season mark does not have to represent an absolute minimum requirement, but it is a good guideline, and in that context it should be noted that Cunningham's pro career lasted 11 seasons, while Maravich's career lasted 10 seasons.

Cunningham not only won the 1972 ABA MVP but he also finished in the top five in NBA MVP voting twice. His skill set was complete: he scored, defended, rebounded, and passed at a high level. His 21.2 ppg regular season career scoring average ranks 41st on the all-time ABA/NBA list, ahead of--among others--David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Elvin Hayes, John Havlicek, and Dirk Nowitzki--and not far behind Dwyane Wade and Hakeem Olajuwon. In the 1960s and 1970s he played very much like the great small forwards of the 1980s would play, and his versatile game would serve him well during any era.

If you buy the premise for including Maravich on the original team--and I not only do, but I would rank him in the top 30 all-time as of 1996--then you cannot take him off of the list merely due to the relative brevity of his career; he can only be supplanted by players who have a higher peak value, because the case for putting Maravich on the team is based on how great he was at his best.

Maravich was the best guard in the NBA during his prime, an incredible scorer whose playmaking skills were ahead of his time--and often baffled his teammates, who sometimes fumbled his passes because they did not realize that they were open (or that they were open for a player like Maravich). Maravich's 24.2 ppg regular season career scoring average ranks 20th on the all-time ABA/NBA list, slightly ahead of Julius Erving, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, and Shaquille O'Neal, and just behind Kobe Bryant, Dominique Wilkins, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Damian Lillard, Larry Bird, and Adrian Dantley. Maravich had three point range, but the NBA did not add the three point line until his final season. He was a better athlete and leaper than casual fans may realize, and his skill set/flair would fit in perfectly with today's game: in 2021, Maravich would be a smaller, quicker version of Luka Doncic with a much better outside shot, and it is reasonable to say that Maravich would average at least 30-35 ppg, 8-10 apg, and 6-7 rpg. Maravich is one of the most historically significant players of all-time, and he influenced the great point guards of the next generation, including Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Before Magic Johnson made "Showtime" famous, that description was applied to and associated with Maravich. Maravich is not a Pantheon-level player, but he is in the category right underneath the Pantheon and he is a Top 50 player.

McCallum wrote brief blurbs about each of the 50 players he included on his updated list, but he did not provide many details explaining his choices. He noted that he cut Billy Cunningham--"one of my all-time favorites"--because "his time at the top wasn't that long." McCallum said that he removed Wes Unseld because "for all his rebounding, outleting and intimidating, Big Wes wasn't that great of an offensive player." McCallum wrote of Pete Maravich, "Remember we're talking about the NBA, not college, where Pete might be in the top 10 in history."

I agree with McCallum about taking Unseld off of the list, though the way that McCallum described his reasoning reminds me of a story that Kenny Smith tells about Tyson Chandler's early detractors, who complained that all Chandler does is play defense and rebound. Smith noted that those are rather significant contributions to team success. Chandler is obviously not an all-time great, but the point is that defense and rebounding are important categories to consider when comparing and ranking forwards and centers. The correct justification for not including Unseld is not his offensive game, but rather that he was not one of the elite players of his own era, let alone one of the elite players of all-time. Unseld won the regular season MVP and made the All-NBA First Team as a rookie, but he never again made the All-NBA Team and he never again finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting, though he did win the 1978 Finals MVP. Unseld is without question a Hall of Famer, but he was a fringe Top 50 player in 1996, and he was not a better player than the numerous perennial MVP candidates who entered the league since that time. Two more recent players who share some similarities with Unseld are Ben Wallace and Draymond Green. All three players are undersized power forwards/centers who are unselfish, rebound well, and defend well. Unseld was one of the best outlet passers of all-time, while Green is the best open court playmaker among these three. Wallace ranks third in this group as a passer, but first as a shot blocker. All three are great players and champions, but none of them belong on a 50 Greatest Players List.

By February 2016, Curry had won one regular season MVP and one championship while making the All-NBA First Team once. Curry added to his resume in the next few years, and he would be a worthy choice now, but not in 2016, and not in place of Cunningham or Maravich. When McCallum made his updated list, Maravich's resume was longer than Curry's and Maravich's peak value was no worse: Maravich earned two All-NBA First Team selections, won one scoring title, was on his way to back to back scoring titles before blowing out his knee, and he finished third in the 1977 MVP voting behind two of the greatest centers of all-time (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton) when both centers were at the peak of their powers in a league then dominated by big men. McCallum ranked 2016 Curry ahead of not only retired players who had better overall careers, but also ahead of Curry's contemporaries Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitkzi. A great player who is 6-9 or bigger is almost always going to be more valuable than a great player who is 6-3 or shorter. McCallum is deservedly respected as a basketball writer and analyst, but he ranked Curry higher than Curry should have been ranked in 2016.

McCallum added Jason Kidd and Chris Paul, but in 2016 I would not have added Paul (and I would not add him in 2020 over Cunningham and Maravich, though I might consider adding Paul in place of another player, but that would be outside the scope of this article).Younger fans who did not see Kidd in his prime may question taking Kidd over Paul. I discussed Kidd's resume in Part II, but it is interesting to contrast Kidd's career with Paul's career. Many of their career accolades and career statistics are similar but I would take Kidd over Paul because of Kidd's consistent and demonstrable impact on winning.

Many players are praised for their leadership, but often the reality does not equal the hype. In contrast, there is tangible evidence that Kidd was a great leader who had tremendous impact on team success. Kidd's teams made the playoffs in 17 of his 19 seasons. Teams tended to improve when Kidd joined the roster, and then regress after he left: the Dallas Mavericks improved from 13-69 to 36-46 in Kidd's rookie season, and they regressed to 20-62 in the first full season after Kidd was traded to Phoenix. Phoenix went 40-42 in 1996-97 (including 23-10 with an 11 game winning streak after acquiring Kidd from Dallas) and 56-26 in 1997-98 during Kidd's first full season with the Suns. The Suns went 51-31 in 2000-01 (Kidd's final season with the team), and they went 36-46 in 2001-02. Meanwhile, the Nets went 26-56 in 2000-01, and they went 52-30 in 2001-02 in Kidd's first season with the team. Kidd led the Nets to back to back Finals appearances in 2002-03, the franchise's first trips to the Finals since the ABA glory days when Julius Erving was the best player in pro basketball. The Nets have advanced past the first round of the playoffs once since they traded Kidd to Dallas in 2009, and they have missed the playoffs eight times during that period. Kidd joined the Mavericks in 2009, and they advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in three years. Two years later, they won their first (and only) NBA title. Kidd signed with the Knicks as a free agent in the summer of 2012. Without Kidd, the Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999-00, and the Mavericks have not won a playoff series since 2011. With Kidd, the 2012-13 Knicks posted the franchise's best regular season record (54-28) since 1996-97, and they won a playoff series for the first time since 2000. Kidd retired in 2013, and the Knicks have not made the playoffs since he retired. Kidd is not solely responsible for the good--and bad--fortune described above, but there is no question that throughout his career he had a significant impact on winning--and winning is the most important statistic.

Although it is true that teams tended to improve after Paul arrived and regress after Paul departed, the movement in either direction was not quite so dramatic with Paul as it was with Kidd; further, Kidd's impact on winning was also felt during the postseason, as he lifted the Nets to two NBA Finals and he helped the Mavericks win the franchise's first (and only) NBA title. All great players impact winning to some extent and Paul is no exception to that rule, but Kidd's impact was more profound. The great effect that Kidd had on Team USA is also worth mentioning; Team USA squads in the 2000s that did not have Kidd (and, it should be noted, Kobe Bryant) failed to win gold medals despite having very talented rosters, but Kidd's teams went 46-0 in five FIBA competitions, capturing Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2008.

Early in his career, Kidd was sometimes referred to as "ason" because he had no "J." In his rookie year, Kidd shot .272 from three point range and .698 from the free throw line, but he finished his career with a .349 three point field goal percentage and a .785 free throw percentage. He shot at least .800 from the free throw line in 10 seasons. Except for his rookie season, Paul has always been a good three point shooter, and he is also a better free throw shooter than Kidd; perhaps one could argue that Paul did not do as much skill set work at the NBA level as Kidd because Paul arrived in the league as a better shooter than Kidd, but Kidd deserves credit for working so hard on his shooting even though he was already a top player. Skill set development is also about figuring out how to mesh one's skills into the team concept. Kidd not only improved his shooting, but he demonstrated that he could play different roles; as his career progressed, he evolved from being a drive and dish point guard to a player who could not only set up his teammates but could also open up the court by making timely three pointers. Paul's game has remained the same throughout his career, and he places the onus on his teammates to adjust and adapt to how he plays.

"Stat gurus" have always loved Paul, and they probably still believe that Paul should have won the 2008 regular season MVP instead of Kobe Bryant (they were wrong to believe that then, and they are wrong if they still believe it now). Paul is a great player and a first ballot Hall of Famer, but I would choose Kidd over Paul without hesitation; I would rather contend for championships with Kidd as my point guard than try to figure out why my team is not contending for championships despite Paul having great "advanced basketball statistics."

Put it another way, based on peak value in 2016 I would have taken Curry over Paul and, as noted above, I would not have put Curry on the list at that time.

Analyzing McCallum's list makes one thing very clear: the emergence in the 2000s and 2010s of several of the greatest players of all-time--players who are not just Top 50, but Top 25 and even Top 10--has pushed several outstanding players off of the 50 Greatest Players List. In 1996, I felt that every player who had won at least one regular season MVP probably should be on the list, but as the number of MVP winners has grown--and as some questionable MVP selections have been made--I would no longer say that winning a regular season MVP automatically qualifies a player for the 50 Greatest Players List.


Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

Part II of this series can be found here.

Part III of this series can be found here.

Part IV of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:18 PM



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