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Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Nuggets Grind Out Game Five Win, Clinch Franchise's First Title

In a game during which most of the players seemed to be trudging through mud while hurling bricks at the hoop, Nikola Jokic carved out a masterpiece--28 points on 12-16 field goal shooting, 16 rebounds, and four assists--while leading the Denver Nuggets to a 94-89 win over the Miami Heat that clinched a 4-1 NBA Finals victory and the first championship in the franchise's 56 year history dating back to the ABA's first season (1967-68). Jokic won the NBA Finals MVP after averaging 30.2 ppg, 14.0 rpg, and 7.2 apg versus the Heat while shooting .583 from the field (including .421 from three point range) and .838 from the free throw line. Remember when the "experts" said that the Nuggets cannot win a game when Jokic "only" has four assists? Remember when the L.A. Lakers thought that they had "found something" by having Rui Hachimura guard Jokic? Hachimura versus Jokic was not a defensive scheme; that was unintentional comedy. Borrowing a line that then-Houston Coach Del Harris said about Julius Erving after Erving torched his Rockets, Hachimura could not have stopped Jokic with a hockey stick--but neither could anyone else: Jokic is the first player to lead the playoffs in scoring (600 points, 30.0 ppg), rebounding (269 rebounds, 13.5 rpg), and assists (190 assists, 9.5 apg), and he is the first player to log 10 triple doubles in one postseason. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Joel Embiid participated in the 2023 playoffs, but Jokic left no doubt that he is the league's best player while outplaying James and Durant head to head as the Nuggets swept past the Lakers and blotted out the Suns en route to winning the championship.

As Jokic would be the first to emphasize, though, Denver's triumph was a team victory and not just a one man show. Michael Porter Jr. continued to struggle with his shooting (7-17 in game five), but he contributed 16 points and 13 rebounds. Jamal Murray shot poorly (6-15) and had six turnovers, but the Nuggets needed every one of his 14 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (11 points) and Bruce Brown (10 points) scored in double figures in a game in which each point was precious and hard-earned. Collectively, the Nuggets' defense, rebounding, and timely paint scoring wore down the Heat.

Jokic and Murray are the first duo in playoff history featuring players who each averaged at least 25 ppg, at least 5 rpg, and at least 5 apg. They are the third highest scoring playoff duo to win a title (56.1 ppg), trailing only Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal (59.8 ppg for the 2001 Lakers), and Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry (56.6 ppg for the 2017 Warriors).

No starter for either team other than Jokic made half of his field goal attempts in game five. Jimmy Butler scored a team-high 21 points, but he shot just 5-18 from the field. Bam Adebayo did as much as he could--finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 9-20 from the field--but Jokic's size and skill overwhelmed him by the end of the game: in the second half with the game up for grabs, Adebayo had two points on 1-7 field goal shooting while snaring just three rebounds as Jokic dominated with 19 points on 8-10 field goal shooting with eight rebounds.

The Heat led 51-44 at halftime, but that small margin should have provided little comfort for the Heat: the Nuggets missed many open shots--including 1-15 (.067) three point field goal shooting--and the Heat could not pull away. The Nuggets won the third quarter 26-20 as Jokic scored nine points and the Nuggets outscored the Heat 14-10 in the paint; unlike "analytically correct" teams, the Nuggets did not keep bricking three pointers and then say after a loss "We missed shots we normally make." No, the Nuggets exploited their size advantage to find a way to win as opposed to coming up with excuses to explain why they lost. 

"This is absolute mayhem right now," ABC analyst Van Gundy declared early in the fourth quarter with Denver clinging to a 79-76 lead. Van Gundy noted that there are "bodies strewn all over the floor" as both teams ramped up their defensive intensity. The game was ugly in terms of missed shots, but it was also beautiful in terms of two teams playing very hard.

The Nuggets outscored the Heat 24-18 in the fourth quarter--including 12-4 in the paint--and they seemed to be taking control after Jokic scored in the paint to give them an 83-76 lead with 4:43 remaining, but the resilient Heat had one more run left: Butler hit back to back three pointers, and then he made all three free throws after Aaron Gordon's groin fouled his foot (according to the referees, who made a bizarre call that was upheld even after a coach's challenge). The teams traded baskets until Bruce Brown's putback at the 1:31 mark put the Nuggets up for good. The Heat could have tried to extend the game by going for a quick two pointer but instead--as far too many teams do now--they went for an all or nothing three pointer that Butler missed. Some players and teams act as if the three point line is a fence around the paint instead of an option that can be utilized judiciously.

Other than Jokic, the Nuggets struggled to make shots all night long, but they outscored the Heat 60-44 in the paint and outrebounded the Heat 57-44. The Nuggets shot 5-28 (.179) from three point range, but they clinched their first championship because they attacked the paint on offense while playing excellent defense and completing their defensive possessions with rebounds. Yes, in the "pace and space" era the championship formula still includes paint scoring, defense, and rebounding.

Don't expect the "experts" to understand what they witnessed, or to be persuaded by the evidence. Amin Elhassan of Sirius XM NBA Radio recently declared that defense is overrated, a sentiment that is not surprising coming from someone who (1) worked as a scout for a team (Phoenix Suns) that did not play much defense and therefore never reached the NBA Finals despite being stocked with talented players, and who (2) no longer works as a scout but instead is paid to bash Russell Westbrook and denigrate Bob Cousy (which is not to suggest that every single thing Elhassan says is idiotic--at times he provides cogent basketball analysis--but it is to suggest that he spouts more nonsense than one would expect to be uttered by someone who brags about being an NBA "insider").

Shooting is important, and it is obvious that if no one makes a shot then a game would end in a 0-0 tie--but defense is based on effort and game plan discipline, so you can depend on defense to keep you in the game long enough so that one or two timely shots will decide the outcome.

The Nuggets proved to be the better team led by the best player, but both teams deserve praise and respect for their maturity, intelligence, and toughness. Asked what stuck out about the game's frantic final minutes, Butler--who scored 13 fourth quarter points as the Heat made their last stand--did not praise himself or complain that he needs more help. He said simply, "I turned the ball over." Then, given an opportunity to use an ankle injury that he suffered two rounds ago as an excuse, Butler stated flatly that his ankle is fine, that the Nuggets beat the Heat, and that there are no excuses. Butler does not have Pantheon-level talent, and he may never lead a team to an NBA title, but if I were an NBA player I'd go to battle with him any day: he's tough, he works hard, he gives effort at both ends of the court, and he's confident in his abilities but he makes no excuses when his team loses. I look at the teams that did not keep him around--most notably Minnesota and Philadelphia--and seriously question if organizations that do not value a player like Butler can win a championship as presently constructed.

The 2023 NBA Finals were a treat because we saw two professional teams conduct themselves in a professional manner. There were no histrionics, no cheap shots, no excuses, and no dudes acting like every bump or bruise may be a fatal blow to their health requiring pampering and "load management."

It all culminated with the best basketball player in the world winning his first NBA title and then stating, "The job is done and we can go home now." Jokid did not beg for respect. His play earned respect, and that was more than enough for him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM



At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 7:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The finals were a treat because both teams were led by hard-working stars with good attitudes. Unless we get a rematch of these teams, I'd be surprised to see a similar good-character matchup anytime soon (who knows, maybe Wembanyama?!). Now the league turns its attention to the Morant suspension, which should be 40-50 games, in my opinion

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 12:29:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I watched some postgame interviews and I'm amazed about how dumb questions came out of so called journalists.... and how players/coaches managed to almost ignore them and talk about something vaguely related to them to give any sensible answer.

So much patience is required during those press conferences... and players rolling their eyes were fun to watch. And this was final game of the season. Whoaaah.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 12:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


in my earlier comment I didn't mean to detract from the Finals by mentioning Morant. By stating that the Morant suspension had been determined but would only be announced after the Finals, so as to avoid detracting, Adam Silver cast the shadow. He should've just said that he would not comment on it during the Finals, without stating any timetable for announcing the suspension.

Jokic's shaking hands with the Heat was refreshing. his play itself shows his commitment level, without needing a public display of emotion if he felt uncomfortable or was otherwise disinclined to doing so

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 12:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have often referred to the stupid questions asked by journalists at NBA press conferences, and I recently wrote about the stupid questions asked at the World Chess Championship press conferences:

Why Do People Who Ask Idiotic Questions Receive Media Credentials?

"You've Got to be Kidding": Ian Nepomniachtchi Says What We Are All Thinking During World Chess Championship Press Conference

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 3:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Yes, in the "pace and space" era the championship formula still includes paint scoring, defense, and rebounding.

If you look at the last decade or so, only the Warriors have been successful with a superficially "pace and space" strategy. Of course, the truth is they won championships thanks to a very good defense, and the moment that defense was no longer there, such as this year, they were not contenders anymore.

But other than that, it was the Nuggets with Jokic, the Bucks with Giannis, Lakers with AD and Lebron, Cavaliers prior to that with Lebron again, and the Raptors with Kawhi playing a generally traditional wing role, i.e. a lot of big men playing in the paint and putting effort in on defense. Same as it ever was.

Nobody won just jacking up three pointers and playing small ball. Not even the Warriors -- they were an anomaly made possible thanks to how exceptionally good shooters they were while also playing incredible defense, and still, when they didn't have KD they were always having to be 100% or be on the edge of losing.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 4:19:00 PM, Blogger anon said...

nice round up. congrats to the nugs - they could be doing the same thing next june. I'm sure D'Antoni and Don Nelson agree with Amin about defense; that's why they have the same number of championship rings.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 5:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


All due respect to Jokic, who is clearly the best player in the league right now. But I'm sure you'd agree that when we start talking about all-time centers we should make a distinction between BEST CENTER and BEST ALL-AROUND CENTER. Jokic may very well be the best all-around center ever, especially from a skill-set standpoint. But that doesn't mean that he's the all-time BEST. No, he's not better than Shaq was in his prime. Moving to the perimeter, we might say the same thing about Lebron. Yes, Lebron is probably the best all-around player in NBA history, but I think that Jordan and Kobe were better players. In tennis, Andre Agassi won a career grand slam; it almost seemed like Pete Sampras was allergic to clay. Agassi was better all-around but very few would say that Agassi was BETTER than Sampras.

If Jokic dominates the league for the next 5-10 years, plays in a few Finals and wins at least a couple more championships, we might start thinking about putting him in the Pantheon or seeing about listing him among the top-five centers of all time. But it's way too early for Pantheon talk just yet.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Post script:

Another point on all-around greatness has to do with defense, which is not Jokic's strong point. He's not a liability, necessarily, but he's no rim stopper neither. Jokic will probably never overtake Hakeem Olajuwon in terms of all-time greats, for example, in light of the latter having won Defensive Player of the Year twice and being on the All Defensive Team on the regular. Jokic rivals Olajuwon on offense, but he's nowhere near The Dream on defense. (Defense is one reason why I put Jordan ahead of Lebron by the way.)

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 8:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Give denver the credit they won they little title beating 2 7 seed and a 8th seed

They won't win another. There not a good defensive teams

They beat offensively challenged teams

And everything fell for them

Jokic is great he is a all time great

But he not top 30 all time currently

He not better historically than his peers Steph curry, KD, giannis, etc

Dirk and giannis won 1 title

The separation is 2 3 or 4

U can't be Pantheon with 1 title u really need 3 but 2 can do

Also the health of Murray and mpj is not good year in and out

I just don't see it with Denver long term

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 9:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that in the past decade or so only the Warriors have won a title with, as you put it, a "superficially 'pace and space'" team that, in reality, relied heavily on their defense.

Paint scoring, paint defense, and overall defense are still critically important to winning championships, even though a lot of "stat gurus" and self-proclaimed "experts" have been paid a lot of money to argue otherwise, and to build teams that never won anything of consequence.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 9:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you! Glad that you enjoyed my Finals coverage.

D'Antoni and Nelson were very innovative with their offensive sets--that sets them apart from Elhassan, who has not produced any innovations--but you are correct that their teams would have benefited had they paid more attention to defense.

I agree that the Nuggets will be a strong contender next season (with the usual caveats about injuries, which can be said about every team).

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 9:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Most of the players in my Pantheon won multiple titles while playing at an All-League level during those championship seasons, and most of the players in my Pantheon played at an MVP level for a decade or so. You are correct that Giannis and Jokic have not reached those levels. It could be argued that Durant and Curry have reached those levels, but I have not decided if I will expand my Pantheon, create a new Pantheon from scratch, or pursue a third (as yet undetermined) approach.

Regarding Jokic's defense, he is not the liability that he used to be. He uses his size well, he blocks some shots, and he is a tremendous defensive rebounder who can take the rebound and go. He does not look like Jason Kidd or Russell Westbrook when he gets a defensive rebound and leads the break, but he is at least as effective as those guys were at that during their primes.

Olajuwon did not make my Pantheon in part because he was not an MVP level player for a solid decade (he finished in the top five in MVP voting six times during his career, which is not a perfect measurement but confirms what the eye test showed during much of his career). We will see if Jokic can maintain MVP caliber play for a decade or so.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 9:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Good to see that you have recovered from the shock that the Triumphant Trio did not lead the Lakers to the title. Your comment is quite interesting, particularly in light of your previous comments. Here are some bullet point responses:

1) If the Nuggets' title is "little," then how small is the Lakers' "Bubble" title that they won after getting months off for LeBron to go into chill mode and for "Street Clothes" to recover from his numerous nearly fatal injuries? The Lakers sure have looked great since the "Bubble," right? They really proved that their title was not a fluke, huh?

For those who may have forgotten, since the "Bubble" the Lakers lost in the first round, missed the playoffs, and then sneaked into the playoffs via the Play-In Tournament. The "little" Nuggets swept the Lakers even though the Lakers have two Top 75 players plus the Triumphant Trio that they obtained in exchange for future Hall of Famer Russell Westbrook.

2) People who scoff at the Nuggets' path to the Finals must have failed basic math. The Nuggets earned the number one seed by having the best record in the West. The number one seed always plays the eighth seed in the first round, and then plays either the fourth or fifth seed in the second round. The format has been the same since the 1980s. Every single number one seed that reached the NBA Finals beat an eighth seed and a fourth or fifth seed! As for the Heat, the Heat beat the top two teams in the East in this year's playoffs after having the best record in the East last season, and after playing in the "Bubble" Finals versus the Lakers in 2020. Be careful about knocking the Heat too much, because what you are really saying is that it did not mean much when the Lakers needed two Top 75 players to take care of Butler and Bam in six games in the 2020 "Bubble" Finals. Remember, Jokic and company took out the Heat in five games, and they had to win two games in Miami to do that, while the "Bubble" Lakers played all of their playoff games on a neutral site with no hostile fans.

3) I'm not sure where Jokic ranks all-time, but this playoff season he beat LeBron and AD together and he beat Durant and Booker together. Current or former MVPs Embiid, LeBron, Durant, Curry, and Giannis participated in this year's playoffs, and Jokic emerged as by far the best playoff performer, setting a record with 10 triple doubles in one postseason while becoming the first player ever to lead a single postseason in points, rebounds, and assists.

4) You "didn't see" Denver in the short term--you assured me and all of my readers that LeBron, AD, and the Triumphant Trio would win the 2023 championship--so I am not surprised that you "don't see" Denver in the long term. I am not sure what Denver will do in the long term, but I am sure that right now the Nuggets are much better than you are suggesting, and they swept your Lakers 4-0, so if the Nuggets do not have good long term prospects then what should we think of your Lakers?

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 10:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Please forgive me if this has already been explained in more detail elsewhere, but I did a cursory search and couldn't find a piece about it.

Do you hold all Pantheon members to that "10+ MVP-level years" standard? It is hard for me personally to grock Baylor, Robertson, Bird, or Shaq having a strong case for that many. Baylor and Bird fall off after injury, Robertson's teams have comparatively few good seasons in his prime, and Shaq abandoned defense and conditioning around '02 or so (though he did briefly rediscover it in '05).

I know there are a few seasons in that span where Ewing, Robinson, or Shaq may outscore Hakeem for a year, but I think he's similar to Duncan in that his tremendous defensive gifts provide even more value than his scoring even if counting stats do not always reflect that. The three centers who might otherwise be his competition during his prime all suffered decisive defeats at his hands in the playoffs, as well.

I think also that the MVP award tends to heavily reward team success (which is how you sometimes get sham results like Harden or Nash). Hakeem for much of his career did not have competitive teams built around him but that is hardly his fault. He got the usual results a superduperstar gets with a lackluster team: 40-50 wins, first or second round exit. Same sort of results Jordan got pre-Pippen or Kobe got in between Shaq & Pau. Very few MVPs have been won with Rodney McCray or union equivalent as the team's second best player (though it has been known to happen rarely, most famously when Westbrook averaged a triple double for the first time in 50 years).

It seems to me that whether or not he was an MVP, Hakeem was the best center in the league from about '86 until whenever we think Shaq overtook him. I would think that could be no earlier than '96 or '97 given what The Dream did to him in '95. Is there anyone else with a clean "I was the best at my position for a decade" case who is not Pantheon caliber (I would have guessed Curry, but you just mentioned him as a candidate)?

He also played in an era where it was less en-vogue to vote centers for MVP--only he and Robinson won one between '83 and '00--so his having "only" six Top 5 finishes may be as much a function of era as it is of talent. It's sort of the inverse of only one non-center winning from '60-'80 or whatever it was.

I guess I'm just curious more specifically what qualifications keep a Hakeem out while allowing a Baylor, Robertson, or hypothetical Curry in?

At Tuesday, June 13, 2023 11:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Pantheon series can be found in the right hand sidebar on the 20 Second Timeout home page, and I have discussed my player rankings in other articles as well, including my series about the 50 Greatest Players List and my article about the 75th Anniversary Team. Therefore, I am not going to provide a comprehensive response in this comments section regarding things that I have already written about.

My short answer is that Olajuwon and three-time regular season MVP Moses Malone both are very close to being Pantheon level.

The initial Pantheon concept involved selecting the top 10 players of all-time, with an eye toward maintaining some semblance of positional balance (I was not going to pick eight players from any one position, for example). I later added four modern players who I thought had clearly played at Pantheon level for extended periods (it was still early in LeBron's career, but it was obvious that he would stay at that level barring a career-ending injury). There is not a magic number or magic set of accomplishments that guarantees inclusion in the Pantheon. Broadly speaking, I would say that most Pantheon members played at or near MVP level for a decade or so while being key contributors to multiple championship teams; those traits are not the only reasons that I selected the players who I selected, but they are commonalities, with just three exceptions: Baylor is the only Pantheon member who never won a title, but when he retired he was probably the greatest forward in history up to that point, while West and Robertson "only" won one title each, but when they retired they were the two best guards in history. The other Pantheon members all won multiple titles with long stretches of MVP level play.

Olajuwon did not clearly pass "old" Kareem until Kareem was pushing 40, so I have trouble ranking young Olajuwon ahead of prime Kareem. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, it was legitimately debatable whether Olajuwon, Robinson, or Ewing was the best center in the NBA--and neither Robinson nor Ewing is close to Pantheon status. Olajuwon was the best center in the NBA briefly in the mid-1990s but then Shaq surpassed him not just in the moment but also from a historical standpoint.

Olajuwon is probably the non-Pantheon player who I get asked about the most. I understand the case for him, and I am not saying that he missed by much, but I just can't take him ahead of (chronologically) Russell, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq, nor can I put him in the Pantheon at the expense of guards or forwards who dominated their positions and played at an MVP level for longer than Olajuwon did.

Regarding Baylor, he made the All-NBA First Team 10 times despite his injuries. He may be the most underrated truly great player of all-time. Before Erving emerged, Baylor was widely (and justifiably) considered the best forward of all-time.

Bird won three MVPs and had eight top three MVP finishes overall. By mid-career, many considered him to be the greatest player of all-time (I never agreed with that assessment, but there is no way to keep him out of the Pantheon).

Robertson won one MVP and had nine top five MVP finishes in a center-dominated league. When he retired, he was the all-time assist leader and he ranked second in career scoring behind only Wilt. People who think that LeBron was the first player who regularly scored 25-30 ppg while also having a high number of assists are wrong; they forgot about (or never learned about) Robertson.

Reasonable people can disagree, and I can't say that my Pantheon is definitive because no such list is definitive, but I can say that my Pantheon is very well thought out by a person who has extensive knowledge of pro basketball history; most people who talk or write about this subject quickly betray either bias or a lack of historical knowledge.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 2:46:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

it's worth noting that Nuggets built their title team "traditional" way, with smart drafting, patience and hard work... no tanking miracles, no superteams and no overpaying to superstars who don't deliver

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 2:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for answering.

I find the positional concern most credible out of what you've said, though I wonder if that becomes more complex if you do end up adding Durant, Curry, and Giannis, as all of a sudden both guards and forwards would outnumber centers. Though of course there are twice as many guards or forwards per team as centers, so perhaps that's fine.

I think Hakeem had pretty convincingly surpassed Kareem by '86, and the playoff series between them that year spoke to that. From there Hakeem only improved and Kareem declined.

It may have been debatable in the late 80s if Ewing or Robinson were better than Hakeem, in the same sense that people "debate" if Harden or Dame is as good as Curry, or how people once "debated" if T-Mac was as good as Kobe: a debate held by prisoners of the moment who aren't seeing the forest for the trees. While there is a year here or there where Ewing or Robinson looks comparable in the regular season, neither of them showed up with either the consistency or impact in the playoffs that Hakeem did, and that was true in the 80s as well as the 90s.

By way of a simple snapshot, Ewing had two playoff runs in his career averaging over 25 ppg (both terminating in the second round). Robinson also had two (one ending in the first, the other in a demolition at Hakeem's hands in the WCF). Hakeem meanwhile had seven, including three Finals runs, with four of them coming between '87 and '93. If you wholly remove his Finals runs, he still as many seasons of 25 PPG in the playoffs as the other two combined.

His efficiency was generally much higher as well, as his post repertoire made him much more difficult to counter than their face-up games. Robinson and Ewing each have four playoff runs over 50%, usually ending in the first or second round (except for Robinson's '03 run, which is after our range). Hakeem has eleven (including all three of his Finals runs).

Playoff rebounding is much the same story, as Hakeem has five playoff runs over 13 RPG to Robinson's three (two of which coming after the range we're discussing) and Ewing's zero.

Hakeem was obviously a better defender than either, good as they were. He was also the better passer, increasingly so into the 90s.

Hakeem did miss the playoffs in '92, of course. But his team went 40-30 when he was healthy and 2-10 when he was hurt... I think demeriting him for that season would be a bit of a stretch

TL;DR: I can grock the idea that if there must only be four centers in the Pantheon, Hakeem is not one of them, but I pretty vociferously dispute that there was any point between '86 and '97 where a truly persuasive case could be made that either Ewing or Robinson were actually a better player than Hakeem, at least not without ignoring their relative playoff performances and overall skillsets.

I imagine the reason you are most frequently asked about Hakeem is that he is likely the best of the players you did not include, and seeing him kept off a list that has Baylor or Oscar in it can prompt a double-take on first glance. It makes more sense with the positional element explicated, thank you.

One final musing... are we certain that Shaq was better than Hakeem? Is the difference in their records one of dominance, or is it simply the difference between over a decade of Penny, Kobe, & Wade vs. a couple years of aging Drexler? Shaq's leanest years in the late 90s before Kobe was ripe bear more than a passing resemblance to Hakeem's barren early 90s cupboard...and even then Eddie Jones or Nick Van Exel would have been the second best player on some of those Hakeem teams!

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James is a better all-around player than Jordan, but not Kobe. Kobe is the most complete player in NBA history. But yes, back to what you're saying, that doesn't necessarily mean he's better. And nobody says Agassi is better than Sampras.

Jokic beat an older Durant who had very little to work with. If Jokic/Durant swap teams, Durant wins with Denver too. Jokic deserves credit, but his cast outperformed every other top player's cast and the best team he faced won 45 games.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 1:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree, and I have contrasted Denver's approach with the way that the 76ers and other teams have relied on tanking to little avail.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 1:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome.

Kareem was the Finals MVP at 38 (1985) and First Team All-NBA at 39 (1986), finishing in the top five in regular season MVP voting in both years. As I said, Olajuwon did not clearly pass Abdul-Jabbar until Abdul-Jabbar was pushing 40. I'm taking prime Kareem over prime Olajuwon without any hesitation.

Ewing and Robinson are legit Top 50 all-time players, and they were legit MVP candidates in their prime years (unlike Harden and Lillard, who have both been pumped up by the media).

I have followed the NBA quite closely for over 40 years, and I remember the late 1980s/early 1990s very clearly. During that time, Olajuwon had not developed into the player or the leader that he became in the mid-1990s. Ewing and Robinson were much closer to being Olajuwon's peers in the late 1980s/early 1990s than is true of the examples you cited with Harden, Lillard, and McGrady.

I agree that an argument could be made that Olajuwon is the best player who I did not include in the Pantheon, particularly if we are not counting the players who emerged since I created my Pantheon. Moses Malone is a legit three-time MVP (i.e., he deserved all of his MVPs, unlike many later MVPs) who also ranks highly among non-Pantheon players.

I am confident that peak Shaq and overall Shaq are superior to peak Olajuwon and overall Olajuwon. Others may disagree, but one should not be swayed too much by peak Olajuwon versus young Shaq in the 1995 Finals. Olajuwon outplayed Shaq in that series, but not by the margin that some may think, and Olajuwon had the benefit of a veteran, championship-winning supporting cast. Olajuwon would have had major problems dealing with peak Shaq.

Again, I don't claim that my Pantheon is definitive, but I do claim that it is well-researched, and that it is free from the knowledge gaps and biases that are evident when other people list their Pantheons.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 1:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would take Kobe over LeBron and MJ over Kobe, for reasons that I have discussed extensively in several articles.

Durant has been lauded as an All-NBA First Team caliber player and MVP candidate even after his comeback from injury, and I don't think that he suddenly aged during the 2023 playoffs. Jokic led Denver to a convincing series win against a Phoenix team that was supposed to have one of the best offenses ever, led by Durant and Booker. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if Durant and Jokic were swapped. Who on Denver could guard Jokic? Jokic and Booker could be even deadlier than Jokic and Murray, while Jokic and Ayton could be an even better lob combination than Jokic and Gordon. I would pick Phoenix in your hypothetical matchup.

Regarding Denver's playoff matchups, Denver faced the same path that every number one seed faces: eighth seed in the first round, fourth or fifth seed in the second round, followed by the second seed (or a team good enough to beat the second seed) in the Conference Finals. The Nuggets won so convincingly that it is easy to forget how the Suns and Lakers were perceived prior to playing the Nuggets. The Nuggets were hardly the consensus favorites in either series, and I remember some commentators even suggesting that Minnesota could give Denver problems. The Nuggets made this championship run look so easy that their dominance is being held against them.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 3:09:00 PM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...


Hakeem is thorny to place historically for two reasons, both of which extend beyond David's Pantheon and affect every other list of this sort as well.

The first is that the thing Hakeem was best at is the thing that's hardest to precisely quantify, namely defense. Depending on your feelings about the portability of the 60s stars, a case could reasonably be made that Hakeem is the greatest defender ever. He certainly as the statistical markers for it, but then stats are a poor way to evaluate defense. He also aces the eye test.

But, even if we allow that he is the "greatest" or second greatest defender ever, how valuable is that? And how close behind him are his competition? Is his defense worth an extra ten points per game for his team? Twenty? Thirty? Five? Hard to say. Is his defensive more impactful than, say, Tim Duncan's by 40% or 4%?

How do we compartmentalize or value the discouraging/intimidating presence merely seeing a guy like Hakeem or Russell or Dikembe in the paint brings?

There is no easy answer. If you believe (and it is reasonable to believe so, especially given Russell's results) that great interior defense is the single most valuable skill a player can possess, then it is easy to make a case for Hakeem as not just a Top 14 player but even Top 5, especially allowing that he is still a 25-30 PPG scorer with good passing chops on the other end.

But most pundits, David included, value offense much more than defense, and in that case Hakeem struggles to crack the Top 15. Many of this lists (including this one) are full of players who are dominant on offense but average or worse on defense; for those players to be "better" than Hakeem, offense much be much more valuable, and perhaps it is.

The other problem with any of these lists is that they assign individual value for a team sport. The one true only thing that all 14 Pantheoners have in common is that they spent most or all of their careers playing with other Hall of Famers. This is not the case for Hakeem, and it influenced not just his wins and losses, but likely his MVPs, All-NBAs, etc. Voters love winners more than they love skills.

Even within the Pantheon, most won absolutely nothing without other HoF teammates, even in their theoretical prime years (though Erving is a notable exception). Kareem missed the playoffs twice between Magic & Oscar and didn't make it deep when he did get in. Kobe didn't win a series between Shaq and Pau. Shaq's Lakers didn't start really winning until Kobe was ready to help, etc.

The problem is that "solving" for this requires tremendous speculation. You or I may personally believe that if you swapped Hakeem and Shaq's supporting casts, Hakeem would win more rings and Shaq would win less, but it is a hard argument to "prove."

So, more often than not, when someone makes these lists, they err on the side of team results and voter-selected awards because at least they are concrete, whereas individual defensive skill and quality of support are much more open to interpretation. That leaves Hakeem, most of all the great players, systemically uniquely out in the cold, as the first penalizes his greatest attribute and the second emphasizes his greatest obstacle.

At a pure skillset level, Hakeem was likely one of the ten greatest players ever. But pure skillset it not all that we must evaluate on. But results must matter too, and a combination of bad luck (Sampson) and executive incompetence (failed attempts to replace Sampson) mean that Hakeem's results are not generally as strong as those of Pantheon-class players who got the luxury of playing with other great players. It is what it is.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 3:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Durant has obviously slowed since his prime/achilles injury in 2019. He's only played 137 games out of a possible 308 or 44% since 2019. His numbers look great still but his impact pre-injury isn't the same. He's 34 now, big difference from being 28 or 29.

Jokic needed 6 games to beat a very deficit, compromised Phoenix team. That's hardly something to laud about. Denver was basically playing 5 on 3 vs. Phoenix for most of the series. Phoenix's #3 Ayton was a no-show, too. Nobody on Phoenix could guard Jokic either as it was.

Denver's title run should be easy as they had 4 mediocre to slightly better than mediocre to play against. They obviously deserve credit, I would any title would've been fairly easy with the opps they faced and when they faced them. Lakers/Heat not chumps but certainly not contenders and were definitely worn out by the time Denver played them, too.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 3:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How was Harden not a legit MVP candidate. Just because you don't like him nor his playing style doesn't mean he wasn't. He put video game numbers for several years while leading Houston routinely to high win totals. When he finally won MVP in 2018, his team won 65 games, 6 more than the next best team while putting up huge numbers without any other AS or all-league teammate. That's not the media making that stuff up. In fact, he rarely had any such teammates until after Houston. His 2019 season was even better, maybe the best statistical non-MVP winning season or very close other than Wilt.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 8:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

Olajuwon was an elite defensive player, but I am not buying that he was a better defensive player than Bill Russell (nor do I rank Olajuwon as the second best defensive player ever behind only Russell).

I also do not buy your suggestion that Olajuwon is one of the five greatest players ever. Merely asserting that individual interior defense is the greatest or most important skill does not prove that this is true, let alone prove that Olajuwon is the greatest ever at that skill.

Team defense is very important, but in terms of individual talent it is easier to find (or train) players to play defense well within a system than to find a player who can be a dominant scorer. A great offensive player surrounded by four average players can win a fair number of games. A great defensive player surrounded by four average players is not going to win many games.

So, I disagree that I value offense more than defense overall, but I understand the difference between team defense and individual defense.

My Pantheon is not based in any way on speculation. I evaluate and rank based on what happened, not what might have happened or what could have happened.

Voter-selected awards are not part of my evaluation process. I mention them sometimes as a proxy to explain or contextualize my selections, but my choices are not based on voter-selected awards, and I often disagree with who the voters select.

I am not convinced that Olajuwon is one of the 10 greatest players based on skill set. For most of his career he was a mediocre passer. He was a great scorer, but far from one of the 10 greatest scorers ever. He was a great rebounder, but not one of the 10 greatest rebounders ever. He may have been one of the 10 greatest defensive players ever.

Each of the players in my Pantheon could, at some point, have credibly been considered the greatest player ever at his position, if not the greatest player of all-time. That just is not true of Olajuwon.

I don't want this to seem like I am knocking Olajuwon. He is a great player, and one of the greatest players who is not in my Pantheon--but I feel comfortable with my decision to not include him.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 9:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Durant plays he still plays at an All-NBA First Team level, and he played versus Denver in the playoffs.

I disagree that Denver was playing five on three versus Phoenix. The Suns' starters are better than the Nuggets' starters overall, but of course the difference is that Jokic is by far the best player on either team.

I don't understand this rush to create revisionist history about the 2023 playoffs. Before the playoffs began, commentators said that this would be one of the greatest playoffs ever, that there were several "teams nobody wants to face" and that whoever wins the title will have really accomplished something. Many people picked the Lakers, and suggested that if LeBron led the Lakers to a title versus such a competitive field then this would cement his GOAT status. Now, after Denver ripped through that playoff field with a 16-4 record while personally dispatching LeBron, Davis, Durant, Booker, and "Playoff Jimmy," we are supposed to believe that the Nuggets had an easy path. Sorry, I am not buying that at all.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 9:41:00 PM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...


Respectfully, I think you misinterpreted some of what I wrote. I was not claiming most of those things, I was using them to illustrate that even if someone does believe the rosiest possible version of Hakeem's impact and skillset, they are difficult to quantify relative to "MJ has 11 scoring titles and six rings" or "Lebron was an All-NBA player for two decades."

The only thing I did claim declaratively on his behalf was that he was "likely" one of the ten most skilled players ever. Without getting too into the weeds on it, I think he was one of the best 20 offensive players ever and one of the 5 best defensive players ever, and I doubt that there are ten or more other players with strong "Top 5/Top 20" cases (Wilt is the only one who immediately leaps to mind, for me, perhaps West or Kareem with a sufficiently charitable defensive read), but that is, to the larger point, dependent on subjective analysis and your results may vary.

I was also not claiming that your Pantheon is based on speculation. In fact, I was claiming the opposite, that to put someone like Hakeem who was largely screwed by circumstance into a Pantheon-like list requires significant speculation. Perhaps he might have won more rings than Magic or Jordan if only he'd been drafted to Portland instead of Houston, but we do not need "if only"s to count Magic or Jordan's rings.

I will argue slightly that I don't agree that every player on your list could at some point be considered the greatest ever at his position. At what point would you say it would have been credible to argue for Kobe over Jordan or Shaq over Kareem/Russell? I also don't like Bird's case over Erving, though I understand it was very popular at the time (and I'm sure it had nothing to do with Bird's race, nosireebob).

I am also not advocating for Hakeem's inclusion, I was simply trying to explain to the Anonymous who was arguing for it why Hakeem's case for lists like these tends to be a bit more difficult to make than most, in spite of his obvious talent. It's very difficult to argue Hakeem's case without either making claims about his defensive impact that are hard to quantify or making suppositions about what he could have done with a better supporting cast that are hard to prove.

Put another way, most of the Pantheon-class players can make their cases without needing to quantify non-statistical impacts or play "what if?" games about their supporting casts, but to make a case for Hakeem you must do one if not both. While that does not necessarily mean he doesn't belong it does mean his case is a lot more open to interpretation than, say, Kareem's.

I have read you for a very long time and I respectfully disagree with your assertion that you do not value offense over defense, but that's not terribly important in the greater scheme of things (and even if you do I am not sure you would be wrong to do so).

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 9:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for asking about Harden. That is a great reason for me to post some links to articles in which I explained my take on Harden as an MVP candidate:

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

A Tale of Two Game Sevens: The Difference Between Being a Superstar and Being an All-Star

James Harden's Scoring Streak and His Motivation

MVP Musings

The Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison

To put it mildly, there is no Harden season that I would rank even close to any of Wilt's prime seasons. Harden's numbers are inflated by rules changes, the style his teams used, and the license that he was given for several years to flop, flail, and travel. He has the skill set of a 20-25 ppg scorer (which is not shabby) but he has some inflated 30 ppg seasons on his resume. Those seasons did not and do not convince me that he deserved to win an MVP. He was never the best player in the NBA, nor was he particularly close to being the best player--certainly not any closer than any of the other two dozen or so All-Star caliber players in the league at any given time. Harden is not at the same level as (in no particular order) LeBron, Durant, Curry, Giannis, Jokic, and several others.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:07:00 PM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...

Anonymous & David-

Regarding Harden, he is tough to evaluate in MVP terms because in theory the MVP award ignores the playoffs, where Harden routinely turns into a pumpkin, but at the same time is supposed to go to the best player in the league, which someone who turns into a pumpkin every playoffs by definition cannot be.

I understand both of your points of view but I err more on David's side. Harden's numbers and even regular-season win totals may sometimes look MVP-ish, but at no point has he really been better than the players David listed. Tellingly, his teams tended to play fine when he missed games due to injury.

Of course, you can apply that same standard to a slightly lesser extent to a lot of other "technically he' an MVP"s, too. Most guards who win the MVP post-Jordan (minus Kobe & Curry) don't survive the same scrutiny, nor do a few of the forwards (though they get closer IMO than Harden does). Iverson was not better than Shaq, Nash was not better than Kobe, Rose was not better than Lebron, Westbrook was not better than Durant or Curry, etc.

For that matter, Embiid was not better than Jokic.

The MVP is a weird award and while I understand why it exists I think we probably make too big of a deal of it. Jerry West has zero and Karl Malone has two, obviously it's not a perfect metric for greatness.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'll give jokic this he brought the big post player back

They was 25th in three pointer attempted Denver.

They proved post play still matters

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

Perhaps I misunderstood the points you were trying to make, but it did give me an opportunity to clarify my positions on several Pantheon-related issues.

I would not take Kobe over Jordan, but there have been respected commentators who at least rank Kobe equal to Jordan. At worst, Kobe is the second best shooting guard of all-time. I am not sure that any credible commentator would rank Olajuwon as the second greatest center of all-time.

I agree that there was not any time when Shaq should be ranked ahead of Chamberlain or Russell. As I mentioned before, there is not one hard and fast rule that applies to every Pantheon player. In general, Pantheon players credibly were the best ever at their position at one time, but upon strict scrutiny that is not true of every single Pantheon player.

I am with you regarding Bird and Erving. It is unfortunate that popular belief generally ranks Bird ahead of Erving. If the 76ers had won the 1981 ECF after taking a 3-1 lead then Erving likely would have won a championship without Moses (and against Moses, ironically), which may have changed perceptions about Erving and Bird. Erving in his early 30s gave Bird everything he could handle, so it should be obvious that prime Erving would have given Bird the business.

I value both offense and defense, but I don't believe that I significantly value offense over defense. I clearly put more value on defense than many other commentators who wax poetic about "small ball" and "pace and space."

We agree that including Olajuwon in the Pantheon would have required a level of speculation not needed for the players who I included.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

It is important to have an MVP award to honor individual greatness. The NBA intentionally never defined criteria for the award, so voters are free to use their own interpretations of "most valuable."

I have mentioned before that I believe that the MVP voting started going off of the rails in the 1990s when voters decided that it would be too boring to keep voting for Jordan, so they started searching for reasons and narratives to support giving the award to Barkley and Malone. Ever since that time, the voting has been hit or miss. It is ridiculous that Shaq and Kobe combined have the same number of MVPs as Nash. Rose won his MVP due to backlash against LeBron, Harden won his MVP because many voters like to promote "stat guru" narratives, and in general it seems like at a certain point the voters just decided to not give any more MVPs to LeBron. I hesitate to lump Westbrook into the undeserving category because he did something historic by averaging a triple double, and it is even more incredible that he accomplished this as a 6-3 guard. He carried a subpar OKC team to the playoffs that year, so he certainly played at an MVP level even if it could credibly be argued that LeBron is the better all-around player.

I will always insist that Harden was never a top five player, regardless of what his boxscore numbers, "advanced statistics" or any other numbers suggest.

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 10:51:00 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Although I consider Hakeem a pantheon caliber player it is pretty refreshing seeing a list that doesn’t include him. As great as he was it seems his legacy gets greatly bolstered by the 94/95 rings where the Bulls were not in peak form and the Sonics (his kryptonite) were getting upset in the first round both times. Outside of that his career was pretty underwhelming but I also don’t believe he was in a good situation in the late 80s and early 90s

But then even in the late 90s when the Rockets started surrounding him with HOFers he still saw little success

As for the Nuggets title run, they had a better run than detractors want to admit. They probably had a tougher title run than most champions since the 2011 Mavericks

The entire season they were slept on and people were clinging to established teams. Kind of reminds me of how the 15 Warriors were perceived before they won and that was a team I would argue actually had an easy (and lucky) road to a title. Nuggets have the recipe of a dominant team (led by a dominant big) and faced really good teams

It will be interesting seeing how the rest of the league responds. I’ve believed for years that teams have gone too far into pace and space concepts and forgot the fundamentals of size and defense, as mentioned earlier most teams won like that even now but most teams copy the Warriors offensive blueprint (even though their team defense had more to do with their success). I’m hoping with Jokic and Giannis winning 2 of the last 3 titles (coincidentally in years where they and their teams were healthy) and the Lakers having a big team in 2020 that teams go back to traditional team building with the twist that the 3 ball is emphasized more now than back then

At Wednesday, June 14, 2023 11:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If I put in Olajuwon then I probably have to put in Moses, and then I have to start putting in the fifth or sixth best guards and forwards, and pretty soon a roster-sized Pantheon has 25 players, which is then no longer a Pantheon but just an abbreviated Top 50 List. Prior to the 50 Greatest Players List in 1996, all-time teams actually were team-sized. I like the Top 50 and Top 75 concepts, but I also like having a list/club that is much more exclusive.

I would be very happy to see the league embrace post play spiced up by three point shooting as opposed to mindlessly jacking up three pointers regardless of score, time/situation, and matchups.

I don't know if the Nuggets are an all-time great team or a dynasty in the making, but every championship team does not have to be the best championship team ever. The Nuggets are a worthy champion that had an outstanding playoff run.

I agree that if we really look deeply into recent championship runs we would find several that were easier than the one the Nuggets just completed. It is hilarious to see the same people who picked the Lakers or Suns to win it all now assert with straight faces that the Nuggets did not beat any good teams en route to the title. More than a knock against Denver, that is really a knock against LeBron, Davis, Durant, and Booker. If those Hall of Famers can't beat a team that supposedly is not that good, then how great are those players? Jokic and his disrespected crew blew the doors off of the "teams nobody wants to face." If the L.A. and Phoenix super teams are actually not that good, then everyone needs to stop comparing LeBron to Jordan and Kobe, and they can pump the brakes on elevating Durant and Booker as well. I refuse to let people have it both ways.

I'm also still waiting for apologies from the Lakers fans who liked it when I justifiably stood up for Kobe but did not like it so much when I told the truth about LeBron, "Street Clothes," and the Triumphant Trio. I am not pro-Lakers or anti-Lakers, but just pro-truth, and my assessment of the Lakers turned out to be correct: I said that the fabled trade did not get them any closer to winning a title--and if the 4-0 loss to Denver did not prove that the Lakers are far away from being a contender then I don't know what will convince delusional Lakers fans that one Bubble title, one first round loss, and two Play-In Tournament appearances are not impressive results for a team with two Top 75 players. Full credit to LeBron for delivering at least one title to each city where he played, but outside of the Bubble (and setting the career scoring record) his Lakers tenure has been a major disappointment.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 12:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Second Time, Long Time-

I see your point, but only in conjunction with David's point about positional balance. Otherwise, I think guys like Oscar and Baylor who were never the best player on a title team need just as much speculating/benefit of the doubt as Hakeem does if not moreso.

I dunno, I guess I think Hakeem is pretty clearly a Top 14 player, BUT I wouldn't necessarily put him ahead of any of the other centers on the list (though I'd at least think about it for a second with Shaq or maybe Wilt, whom I didn't see live but whose results sort of seem like underachieving relative to his talent and cast some years).

Everyone in David's Pantheon I'd take Hakeem decisively over is not a center, so accepting that the list shouldn't be mostly centers makes it easier to leave him out. Like, I think he's definitely better than Giannis/Curry/Durant who aren't in yet, and I think he's definitely better than Oscar/Baylor who are, and I'm not positive he isn't better than Kobe/Bird/West/Erving/Magic (I think those calls are basically coinflips), either... but I don't feel strongly that he's better than any of the four centers (or Duncan, who's only technically not a center), so fair enough I guess.

Heh, reading it all written up like that I guess Jordan is the only guard/forward I think is definitely better. I guess that also speaks to David's point about positional balance.


Thank you for humoring us. I'm sure it must get tiring having to repeatedly relitigate your Pantheon for us plebs.

I know you're not going to add any pre-2006 players to the list, but FWIW I don't think the Pantheon necessarily loses its merit by expanding. NBA history has expanded by about 20-25% since you wrote it, so increasing the Pantheon by the same percent would make sense to me. I think that'd be 3 players, more or less mathwise.

But IDK if the new additions, if I were doing it, would all have to be pre-2006 guys. It's hard for me to grock much argument for Durant, Giannis, or Jokic being better than Hakeem (at least so far, though there's a lot of time left on the clock for those last two), and the only argument I can see for Curry would be based on team success/ring counting, not individual impact.

If you added Hakeem/Durant/Curry, that'd be a proportional increase and would keep the ratio of guard/center/forward basically the same. Feels a little soon to me for Giannis/Jokic with their one Finals appearance/2 CF appearances apiece, personally.

But it's your Pantheon not mine so how I see it doesn't ultimately matter the littlest bit, just leaving two more cents on it.

(I do still think it's silly to claim Robinson or Ewing were ever better than him during his ten-year prime, though :p )

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 6:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous here who first brought up Hakeem's defensive prowess as a reason why I don't think Jokic will ever overtake him on the list of all-time greats.

The MVP award is very subjective and I agree with David that Iverson, Nash, and Rose have some undeserving awards. There were stretches where Jordan on the one hand, and Lebron on the other, should basically have won it every year. I think that what David is saying is that the MVP, bottom line, should go to the league's best player, perhaps weighted a bit towards the "best player on the best team" metric. For clarity's sake let's imagine the following hypothetical. Some cosmic being, a basketball god, says that you can pick any 12 players all-time, each in their prime, for your team. You're pitting your team against a random stranger's. You both choose 12 all-time players, in turn. You're going to play a best of seven series. If you win the series you live and if you lose it you die. Vice versa for the opponent.

The basketball god insists that the first four players chosen must be centers.

Now, I think that Wilt and Kareem are indisputable first and second choices. Not necessarily in that order. If I had the third choice I'm taking Hakeem.

As a 70-plus percent free-throw shooter Hakeem's more reliable than Shaq or Russell, who were both atrocious from the line. So was Wilt, but his superlative offensive game made up for his poor free-throw shooting.

Hakeem's defense as well as his post game puts him at no. three all-time for centers in my opinion. If it came down to my life on the line (free throw line) I'd rather see Hakeem there than Shaq or Russell.

By the way I think Shaq takes that fourth spot.

You could start out the hypothetical from each of the five positions. With the basketball god saying your first four picks have to be point guards, or shooting guards, and so on. I think that this exercise in hypothesis would bring clarity to questions of all-time greats and the "Pantheon". Who you gonna choose when your life is on the line?

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 9:45:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

I know that the Nuggets probably couldn’t care less about the media’s perception, or misperception of them and their dominant championship run but I think many of the talking heads who are trivializing their championship are still sour about the Nuggets sweeping the Lakers. They are aching to anoint LeBron James as the undisputed greatest ever and the Nuggets got in the way of that.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 11:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Robertson retired, he was widely considered the best all-around basketball player of all-time. Some historians would still rank him that highly, or at least close to the top, five decades later. His place in the Pantheon is secure. Put differently, he was greater at guard than Olajuwon was at center.

I don't think it makes sense to pick a Pantheon in which one position dominates. That is not how a team is built, and the Pantheon is, in essence, the greatest team of all-time. Some may think that this approach slights a great player from a position that is already fully represented in the Pantheon, but I disagree, for reasons that I have explained in depth in many articles.

That being said, even forgetting about positional considerations, I would not take Olajuwon over Kobe/Bird/West/Erving/Magic. All of those players dominated at an MVP level for longer than Olajuwon did--and I am referring to my evaluation of MVP level, not just the selections made by the voters.

No matter how much the league has expanded, a team's roster is still essentially the same size (10-15, depending how you count players who are active but don't play much barring injury/foul trouble). A Pantheon of 14 players is roster-sized. A Pantheon of 17, 20, 25, or more is something else. If I do a top 17, 20, or 25 list, I doubt that I will call it a Pantheon; my original Pantheon would remain unchanged, and I would have a new list called something else, much like the official NBA list increased from 11 players to 50 between 1980 and 1996.

Regarding Ewing, Olajuwon, and Robinson, I did not say that Ewing or Robinson were better than Olajuwon. I said that in the late 1980s/early 1990s it was not clear who was better. We should be careful to not let what happened circa 1995 to change our understanding what happened in earlier periods. Olajuwon's dominance of Robinson in their only playoff series understandably made a major impression, but Robinson's regular season head to head record against Olajuwon was 30-12. In those games, Robinson outshot Olajuwon from the field .488 to .441, though Olajuwon outscored Robinson 21.9 ppg to 19.6 ppg. Their rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots were virtually identical. Their overall career numbers are also very similar. To be clear, I would rank Olajuwon over Robinson, but my point is that the difference is not as stark as some people who think only about 1995 might think--and, circa 1988-1994, it was not at all clear that Olajuwon was the best center, which is relevant to an earlier comment that Olajuwon had a decade long run as the league's best center.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 11:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are placing too much value on free throw shooting. Russell won 11 titles, Chamberlain won two titles, and Shaq won four titles despite none of them shooting better than .570 from the free throw line. Olajuwon's .712 free throw shooting is not providing that much extra value over players who shot in the .500s but were much more dominant as scorers, rebounders, or shot blockers.

Hack a Shaq rarely if ever worked, because .500 free throw shooting equals a point per possession, plus getting into the bonus (which helped Shaq's teammates who were good free throw shooters) and getting the fouling team into foul trouble while also letting Shaq's team set up their halfcourt defense. Hack a Shaq may make sense if you are up by three with five seconds to go or something like that, but just doing it possession after possession during the course of the game is, frankly, not very smart (and I say that realizing that some otherwise smart coaches tried this).

If your hypothetical game is decided by any of our centers shooting free throws then we may be in trouble--but with Wilt, Russell, Kareem, and Shaq at center flanked by the Pantheon guards and forwards, I expect to have a comfortable fourth quarter lead.

Russell often is downgraded or dismissed in these conversations. I understand that he retired over 50 years ago, before I was born and long before many current fans were born. However, film is available, stats are available, and quotes from teammates and opponents are available. Russell was not only a rebounder and defender but he was a solid double figure scorer and elite passer. He played two decades of organized ball (high school, college, Olympics, NBA), and his teams won the championship almost every year that he played. His impact on winning was unprecedented in North American team sports. You can't just say he was a poor free throw shooter who scored less than 20 ppg and then put several other centers ahead of him. There is a very strong case that Russell was the greatest basketball player of all-time. There is a strong case that Olajuwon was the best center of the 1990s, but he did not surpass Russell, Wilt, Kareem, or Shaq from a historical standpoint.

Blocked shots were not an official statistic when Russell and Wilt played, but Harvey Pollack and others did some informal counting, and there is good reason to believe that those guys were regularly blocking at least 8-10 shots per game. Wilt was still leading the league in rebounding in the early 1970s as an older player after suffering a serious knee injury; there is no reason to not believe that Wilt would be the best rebounder in any era, and probably the best shotblocker other than Russell in any era. Kareem was dominant for nearly 20 years, and still made an impact into his 40s. Shaq was not as dedicated or focused, but he was quite dominant as well. I can't put Olajuwon over any of those players just because he schooled Robinson in one playoff series, beat Shaq in one Finals, and won two championships when Jordan was not a factor. Russell, Kareem, and Shaq all won more titles than Olajuwon, and Wilt's two titles happened with the two most dominant single season teams in league history up to that point. Wilt's teams were title contenders more often than Olajuwon's, but Wilt had to go through Russell (and, as an older player, a young Knicks team stacked with HoFers in their prime years) to win titles.

If I were building a team to contend for the next 10-15 years, I would choose Russell, Wilt, Kareem, or Shaq (listed chronologically) over Olajuwon and I would feel very comfortable with that choice. I would be less sure about Moses Malone versus Olajuwon, and that is why neither of those great centers made the cut into the Pantheon. Moses versus Olajuwon intrigues me more than Olajuwon versus any of my four Pantheon centers.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 11:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that many media members have an obvious agenda to pump up LeBron James and denigrate almost anyone else. I wrote about this a lot during the whole debacle involving Russell Westbrook and the Lakers.

There are many media members who owe their livelihood to following James around, and claiming to be privy to his inner thoughts. They might lose the access essential to their careers if they don't tout James' greatness. So, I understand why these media members do what they do, even if I am disgusted by their lack of fidelity to journalistic ethics. I wish that they would have the courage to write and speak objectively, but millions of ESPN dollars are hard to turn down.

James is one of the greatest players of all-time. He does not need sycophants exaggerating his greatness--but he likes having that, and there are many people happy to accommodate him to further their own ambitions.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 1:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That 30-12 record is not indicative of the time period under discussion at all, though it is indicative of Tim Duncan being better than any of Hakeem's teammates, and of Robinson being younger than Hakeem, with most of the wins, and only one of the losses, coming after the Duncan draft. Here's how Robinson did against Hakeem year by year in the time period under discussion:

1990: 2-2
1991: 2-0
1992: 2-2
1993: 1-3

During that span, Hakeem averaged 23.5 on 44% shooting against Robinson, with 14 rpg and 4 bpg. Robinson averaged 20.7 on 47% shooting against the Rockets with 11.7 rpg and 3.7 bpg.

Now head-to-head regular season records aren't the best way to determine these things (*glares at Embiid fans still screaming about that one game he was better than Jokic*), but those are a pretty clear win for Hakeem. The teams only went .500 against each other, but I think you'd probably agree that guys like Maurice Cheeks, Terry Cummings, Dale Ellis, Sean Elliott and Rod Strickland were better than Hakeem's best teammates at the same point.

Given the wider context of Hakeem's superior playoff performances up that point and his superior defensive skillset, I didn't feel in the 80s or early 90s that Robinson was at his level, and I don't really see how anyone else did at the time, either, beyond the usual ESPN narrative-crafting. That you had to lump in the Duncan-era/Older Hakeem numbers to give Robinson a fighting chance speaks to that, I think.

As for Robertson, I disagree that he was greater at guard (or Baylor at forward) than Olajuwon was at center--he wasn't much of a consistent winner without Kareem--but I find your positional-based argument persuasive and I get why Hakeem does not make the cut for a positionally balanced Pantheon.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 3:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I clearly noted that 30-12 is the overall career record. I look at both peak value and overall career. Olajuwon beats out Robinson in peak value--though perhaps not by as much as some may assume--but their overall careers are very similar.

We could go back and forth about contextual factors--relative value of teammates, strength of opposition (the Rockets won their titles in years that they did not have to face their Seattle nemesis or the Jordan/Pippen Bulls), etc.--but I think that I have provided a clear, in depth description of why I made the choices that I made.

I agree that Olajuwon was a great player, and--arguably, along with Moses Malone, the greatest player not included in my Pantheon. I disagree that his Pantheon case is as strong as you suggest that it is, and I still believe that I made the correct decision to not include him.

Robinson did not receive serious Pantheon consideration, so even if I were convinced that Olajuwon was significantly better (and I am not convinced of that) I would not change my mind about Olajuwon's Pantheon status.

I agree that head to head matchups of individuals in a team sport is not the best way to rank players, but I brought this up in this conversation to balance what I believe to be a common perception that not only did Olajuwon beat Robinson in a playoff series, but Olajuwon dominated him throughout their careers. That is not true on an individual or team level. Even the stats that you provided for a specific period do not reflect domination. Robinson shot better, blocked shots just as well, and was not too far behind in scoring or rebounding, particularly considering the relatively small sample size that can be greatly affected by one game.

I am not sure why you are so convinced that Olajuwon had a "superior defensive skill set" to Robinson, or how one would even prove that. Both centers were mobile shot blockers who could switch on to smaller players while also controlling the defensive backboards. Even the older, less mobile Robinson was a defensive force on two championship teams.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 3:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is interesting that you apply contextual factors to explain the performance of Olajuwon's teams but you do not give the same consideration to Robertson. How many titles should even the greatest all-around guard of his era be expected to win in a center dominated league when the best teams in the league featured Pantheon centers Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain? Your speculations about how many titles Olajuwon could have won with a different supporting cast apply at least as much to Robertson.

Prime Baylor put up insane numbers for Lakers teams that repeatedly reached the Finals only to lose to Russell's Celtics. The margin in one of those losses was a missed jumper by Frank Selvy. If Baylor and West won that title together without Wilt, would that make them greater players? Baylor and West played well enough to win more titles than they did, and they played better than lesser players who won more titles.

In general, great centers are more valuable than great forwards, but since I did want to make a Pantheon consisting primarily or exclusively of centers at some point the greatest forwards and guards are placed ahead of the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth greatest centers. Put another way, I would rather have Baylor and a pretty good center than Olajuwon and a pretty good forward; I just assess Baylor to be the greater player. Baylor and West repeatedly made it to the Finals without Hall of Fame centers. Olajuwon made it to three Finals in his entire career, and the first time around he was paired with an even taller center who was probably just as talented (but, sadly, cursed with injuries that later derailed his career).

These comparisons are more subjective than many people realize. Even a conversation rooted purely in numbers is subjective, based on which numbers are used and how those numbers are used. I see Olajuwon as a great player in the top 15-25 or so, while you see him as perhaps even a top five player. I am confident that he is not top five, but I suppose it is possible that he is 13th and not 16th, though I have yet to be convinced of that.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 4:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with both you and Long Time that these comparisons are subjective, that's how we can both disagree without thinking less of the other person :)

Speaking of disagreeing, I don't think applying that context does Oscar many favors in the comparison. He had four years of a Pantheon teammate (to Hakeem's zero) and less playoff success, in addition to having multiple Hall of Fame teammates for most of his career. He played zero seasons without a Hall of Fame teammate (but really one, as Lucas barely played in '70). He also played with several non-HoF All-Stars like Norm Van Lier and Tom Van Arsdale.

It is perhaps legit to argue that Oscar couldn't win a ring without a Pantheon center in the era of Russell, but even with those star teammates he had five seasons in his first ten where he was at .500 or lower. Hakeem had only one season at .500 in his first ten years, with none below (he had one more at .500 in '98, but at Year 14 his prime was pretty well over by then).

Is the inverse fair to point out for Hakeem, by the by? Every ring won from '80 to '98 except two by the Piston's and Hakeem's included a Pantheon-level perimeter player, and every ring except Hakeem's first one included at least one and usually two All-NBA level perimeter players. Is it fair to have expected Hakeem to win more than he did in a perimeter dominated era? No Finals MVP went to a non-Hakeem center between '86 and '99, either , and only two between '80 and '99 (though '99 is really a technicality as that team functionally had two centers).

Hakeem had no Hall of Fame teammates for the bulk of his prime, from '89 to '94. He had Sampson prior to that, but Sampson was generally injured after '86 and his HoF case is largely based on his college career, not his NBA career, where he was a one-time All-Second team member before succumbing to injury. Hakeem had exactly one All-Star teammate between Sampson and Drexler (Otis Thorpe, whom I don't think anyone is taking over Norm Van Lier, let alone over Jerry Lucas, Jack Twyman, or Wayne Embry).

I also don't think Sampson was "just as talented." Even by '86, Year 2 Hakeem was outscoring and outrebounding him, and those gaps grew starker in the playoffs.

I am sure Oscar could have won more with a better supporting cast, but I suspect Hakeem could have won more with a cast equivalent to Oscar's, and Oscar would have won much less with a cast equivalent to Hakeem's.

It is true that Hakeem never faced Jordan in the playoffs but Jordan also never faced Hakeem, and I am not sure that either year would have been an easy win for him, with '94 coming off the strain of three straight Finals runs and '95 featuring a barren frontcourt and a reinforced Rockets team with Drexler. Jordan famously said Hakeem was the only player who scared him, and prior to the Rodman acquisition that gave Chicago a defensive option against him, Hakeem was 11-5 vs. Jordan (it was a slimmer 13-10 in Hakeem's favor by the end), for whatever regular season results are worth. I think Jordan is a greater player than Hakeem for their careers but I do not love his chances against him in those two precise years.

As for West and Baylor, they had each other (and eventually Wilt). I think you would probably agree that adding the best guard (Jordan) or forward (Bird) of Hakeem's era beside Hakeem for his entire career would probably goose his Finals appearances. His three Finals appearances with no Pantheon teammates would rank behind only Russell (12), Lebron (10), Jordan (6), Bird (5), and Erving (5) among current Pantheon members (it would tie with Kobe, putting him about dead in the middle of the pack).

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 4:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for Robinson, I do not dispute that he was great (probably a Top 25-40 player in his own right) but what he did against Hakeem after the period we were discussing does not seem relevant to me in the discussion of whether or not a strong case could be made for him during that period. I thought that's what we were arguing, but if it wasn't I would agree that Robinson's post-Duncan era is more successful than Hakeem's post-tile era, it just doesn't factor into whether or not Hakeem had a clean ten years as Best Center.

I maintain that he surpassed Kareem in '86, and that he held the throne until surpassed by Shaq in either '97 or '98. Even if we want to say that Ewing or Robinson steals a year (I disagree), he has a couple to spare.

I think only Shaq of your actual Pantheon picks has a "clean" ten years, and only if we don't count Duncan as a center. Wilt and Russell screw up each other's case, and Kareem's best unbroken run is at most '71-'76, before Walton and Moses start muddying things up (and Wilt still beat him in '72, while his win against Wilt came with no West in '71).

To answer your other question, Hakeem was a better defender than Robinson because he was quicker laterally, had faster hands, was less prone to biting on pump fakes, had a quicker jump (partly mitigated by Robinson's greater height but still very relevant in rotation scenarios), and his slighter frame gave him a conditioning edge where Robinson (and Ewing) would often seem a bit lead-footed at the end of close games (especially so against Hakeem, who tended to keep them dancing). His better footwork also made him a bit more agile against screens, though you didn't see nearly as many "screen the center" plays in that era as you do now so that is of minor importance.

I would also argue he was a superior shotblocker, but Robinson is probably a Top 10 shotblocker himself so that margin is not huge.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 6:52:00 PM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...

I think I've largely said my piece on Hakeem (he has a case, but to make it you must speculate and contextualize more than you do for David's chosen centers), but for the theorycrafting of the Pantheon I wonder if the solution is not to make it larger, but smaller?

David, I know you have resisted ranking your Pantheon in the past but you have made enough comments/rulings that we can safely rule the bulk of it out of "best player ever" consideration. Unless my memory is failing me you have taken Jordan over Bird/Magic/Kobe/Lebron, you have taken Wilt/Russell over West/Robertson/Baylor, you have taken Kobe over Duncan (and therefore also Jordan over Duncan), and you have taken Kareem over Shaq.

That narrows the Pantheon down to a starting lineup of 5 players (though it does clutter up the positional balance a bit, forcing Russell and Kareem into forward spots and Erving down to guard).

Perhaps, then, there are two Pantheons. Most polytheistic religions have sort of a tiered structure to their Pantheons themselves; most famously the Greeks have the 12 Olympians, but many other lesser gods besides. The Hindu religion is more complex and fragmented but to my understanding generally has between 3 and 7 "top" gods and then dozens or hundreds of lesser gods and demigods, etc. The Norse I believe have around 8 main gods (give or take a God by region), and so on.

Perhaps, then, it would make sense to have an "Olympian" or "Deific" Pantheon of 5 or 12 or 14 or whatever number players are "true" GOAT candidates as the Inner Circle, but a more inclusive 18-25 player "Pantheon" to accommodate positional or era-specific greatness that does not quite meet the "potential GOAT" bar? Kobe or Curry have no case as the GOAT, but they are obviously the greatest guards of their respective eras, so this would be a way to honor/lionize them without implicitly elevating them to Jordan's "tier" (and at the risk of devil's advocating, to anonymous' point, Hakeem is pretty definitively the greatest center of his, and might indeed have a better case in an expanded system like this one).

An alternate execution would be a "starting lineup" of the best player of each position, and a "bench" of whoever else meets whichever bar, though this would force you to pick between Kareem/Wilt/Russell at center which I know you are loathe to do.

The goal here would be to have your cake and eat it too; maintaining exclusivity for the truly GOAT-level players, while also accommodating recognition for players who are indeed "deific" in basketball terms without quite being valid "the best" options.

Just a thought.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 8:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have already discussed many of these contextual factors in various articles, so I am not going to repeat myself. You make some interesting points, but I remain comfortable with my decision to exclude Olajuwon from the Pantheon. I disagree that he is better than anyone in the Pantheon, and I am not convinced that he is ahead of others by a large enough margin to add him without adding several other players. He may very well be the best player not included in the Pantheon, but I don't agree that the margin is as large as you suggest. For one, I consider Olajuwon and Moses Malone to be comparable. It would feel odd to add either without adding the other.

Sampson is clearly not as accomplished as Olajuwon, but a 7-4 player who can shoot, rebound, pass, and defend is rare.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 8:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I think of Moses much the way you think of Hakeem: the best guy who isn't in the club.

That said, in a head to head comparison I think Hakeem has a skillset advantage in every area except rebounding. As scorers I think they are similar in the regular season but Hakeem's resistance to playoff-caliber defense led to much more prolific playoff scoring; Moses' highest scoring playoff run would be Hakeem's sixth, and he only has two runs above Hakeem's career average, and with Hakeem shooting considerably better than him from the field in the playoffs as well.

I also think Moses struggles much more than Hakeem to meet your "ten year" test. He surpasses Kareem, at best, from '79 to '85, but it is easy to argue the range is shorter than that (Kareem won the MVP in '80 and Moses' production is a little weaker in '84 and '85 than it is up to that point).

He does have an edge on Hakeem in overall longevity, but I think it hurts him that he has so little team success after '85. Yes, he has ten more years of decent numbers but he wins no playoff series and misses the playoffs entirely several times. So, that longevity does not to me outweigh Hakeem's higher highs or more complete skillset.

I also think the degree of difficulty between their titles is very different. Moses' title team's fifth best player would have been the second best player on the '94 Rockets, and the third best on the '95 Rockets (and his second best player was not much worse than he or Hakeem, either). Their '81 and '95 underdog runs are similar (though Drexler is better than Murphy by a fair margin), but the difference of course is that Hakeem ultimately wins his.

Hakeem ultimately doubles his playoff assist, blocks, and steals, speaking to his wider kit (though Moses does again beat Hakeem as a playoff rebounder).

I do think Moses has the unique benefit of being able to say he was the best player on perhaps the greatest team of all time, but somewhat similar to Durant joining the Warriors, that is a double-edged sword as he joined an already title-caliber (or close) team, though he did so in a lot less cowardly fashion than Durant IMO, and to some extent was skiing downhill.

I think the case that they are tied requires giving more weight to Moses' post-contention years than I'm ultimately comfortable with; despite Moses playing for much longer, often with better teammates, Hakeem played in 45 more playoff games.

I guess the thing I'm most curious about now, is, with you considering expanding the Pantheon, would you consider any of Durant, Curry, or Giannis to be greater than Hakeem? Or would their inclusion be more positionally/timeframe-oriented?

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 8:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My larger points regarding Olajuwon versus Robinson are (1) they should not be judged based on one playoff series or a small, arbitrarily selected time frame, and (2) even if we focus on the time frame that most helps Olajuwon's case he hardly dominated Robinson individually or in terms of team success.

Even if we accept the notion that Olajuwon was king of the centers from 1986-1997, he was the king by a much smaller margin than the margin that separated Chamberlain/Russell from the pack, or even the margin that separated Abdul-Jabbar and Shaq from their respective peers. Ewing and Robinson were legitimately in the discussion for best NBA center in the late 1980s/early 1990s, despite your protestations to the contrary. Olajuwon separated himself in 1994-1995 by winning back to back titles while outdueling Ewing, Shaq, and Robinson head to head--but that does not retroactively make Olajuwon the best center for the previous several years.

I am not sure that I agree with your subjective impressions of Olajuwon's advantages over Robinson as a defensive player, nor am I sure how to quantify the factors that you cited. Olajuwon may "look" quicker to you and may seem less apt to go for pump fakes, but I would say that they were both elite defensive players who blocked shots, stole the ball at a very high rate for a center, and controlled the defensive backboard.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 9:15:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Olajuwon was an excellent player but the front half and back half of his career tend to get ignored when his legacy is talked about in full. Young Hakeem and the Rockets struggled for a good while after the 1986 Finals appearance. Older Hakeem was blessed from 1997 - 1999 with the presence of two other Top 50 players on his team, with Drexler/Barkley and Pippen/Barkley, and could not get past the conference finals. You could object that these players were well past their primes and varingly injured at this point and you'd be right, but the 1997 and 1998 Jazz teams they lost to were not exactly spring chickens either.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 9:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


We mostly agree about which factors to consider in the Malone-Olajuwon comparison, though your take gives Olajuwon more of a clear advantage than my take would. Malone won three MVPs in a five year span in a league that included four Pantheon players (Kareem, Erving, Magic, Bird) for four of those five years (and Kareem and Erving for the first year). His MVPs were not weird, unjustified MVPs like many of the MVP awards of the past 20 years or so. Peak Malone was physically overpowering more so than arguably any center in history other than Wilt and Shaq, but peak Malone could also run the floor and even make 15 foot jumpers. Peak Malone carried a relatively weak Houston team to the Finals, and then two years later he was the best player on perhaps the best single season team of all-time, meshing his talents brilliantly with Erving in their first year together (even some of the best duos of all-time did not win the title in their first year together).

I have a soft spot for Malone because Dr. J is my favorite player and the '83 Sixers are my favorite team (along with Doc's ABA championship teams), but I think that I am objective about Malone, and I acknowledge that Malone rather quickly slid from MVP caliber to solid All-Star. It is not obvious why that happened, either. He was not old, he did not seem out of shape, and he never suffered a serious injury that would have had a long term effect on his game (the orbital fracture prevented him from playing in the 1986 playoffs, but he had already dropped off by then, and he was fully healthy for the 1987 season).

I would likely not take Curry over Olajuwon. I would take Durant over Curry, but I'm not sure about Durant versus Olajuwon. It is a little soon to say with Giannis. I think that Giannis is a better all-around player than Durant, but Giannis has only had two deep playoff runs, albeit one was a great run leading to a title.

I am pretty sure that if I expand the Pantheon or create a different all-time list my gateway question is not going to involve ranking current players versus Olajuwon, though. I would have to do a complete reassessment, determine the criteria to use, set the size of the list, and then see who makes the cut.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 9:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

I strongly prefer to not do a 1-14 ranking within my Pantheon, though you are correct that I have made comments and observations over the years that indicate to some extent how I would rank a few of those players.

Your concept of different tiers within the Pantheon is interesting, but my feeling now is that if I do something else I would be inclined to leave the Pantheon as is and come up with a new list. The NBA's 50 Greatest Players List did not replace the 35th Anniversary Team; it was put together in a different way at a different time.

I think that the Pantheon has stood the test of time for over 15 years, much like the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team did; I don't think that any of my selections look ridiculous with the passage of time, nor is it clear that anyone since that time has without question surpassed the 14 players I chose.

Perhaps I should create a new list, or maybe even a new concept such as ranking the Pantheon for each position, which would eliminate the concern about leaving out a great player from a certain position in order for a list to have positional balance.

At Thursday, June 15, 2023 9:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are getting to the crux of why I just can't put Olajuwon in the Pantheon; the bottom line is that if you take out the 1995 regular season and playoff run, he is a one-time champion, one-time MVP whose resume is arguably not as good as Dirk Nowitzki's (and no one is talking about Nowitzki as a Pantheon candidate, which is not a knock against Nowitzki but just an indicator of how exclusive the Pantheon is).

I can't think of a Pantheon member whose candidacy would be so affected by the removal of one season.

To be fair, the 1995 season and playoff run happened, and those things are on Olajuwon's resume--but you are right that people are so enthralled by that one year that they tend to gloss over the rest of his career. I also think that Olajuwon has kept his name alive to a greater extent than many of his peers because of the way that he has tutored current players to help with their footwork and post moves. Olajuwon deserves credit for that, though of course he is being paid for his time, but just because he played in a beautiful yet also fundamentally sound way he is not automatically better than other, less-remembered players who went toe to toe with him for the bulk of his career.

At Friday, June 16, 2023 3:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



I don't think I agree that only Olajuwon's resume would be that hurt by losing a specific year.

Take away Oscar's '71 or West's '72 and they're suddenly ringless, even after Russell retires and gets rid of the easy excuse. I think they get lumped in with Barkley in that case, particularly Oscar, though West still at least has a bunch of near-misses to point to. Kind of just turns Oscar into old-timey Westbrook, with a bunch of triple doubles, one Finals run as the second guy, an MVP, and five or six years where nothing much happens for his team even though his numbers are great.

Take away Wilt's '67, he never beats his nemesis, and he looks like Kevin Durant, slinking away from defeat to frontrun on an already contending team (and still not picking up a ring until Russell is gone).

Take away Kareem's '71 and he looks a bit like Magic's sidekick instead of his partner (missing the deciding game of the '80 Finals really hurts his optics here if he hasn't "proven" he can win a title as the guy yet).

Take away Bird's '84 and instead of looking like the Daffy to Magic's Bugs, he becomes his Elmer, a clumsy yokel who puts up a fight but can never beat the real star.

Magic, Russell, Erving, Elgin, and Jordan can all weather it fine (though taking away Jordan's '91 does leave him at 1-3 against other Pantheoners in the playoffs and with no Pantheon-level Finals opponents and weakens his argument as best guard over Magic).

Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, and Lebron can all mostly take it in stride as well, though if you take away Kobe's 2010 it might look to some like 2009 only happened because he didn't have to play Boston.

Take away Hakeem's '95 though and he still has '94, which is itself one of the most impressive titles ever. It's I believe one of just two titles with only one HoF player on the team, and the other is 2004, which will likely fall off the list eventually when Billups or Sheed gets in on a slow year. 2016 may end up as one on a technicality because Kyrie is such a weird bigoted loser, but his on-court resume would otherwise be an HoF lock. Maybe 2021 too, but if the Bucks stay title-caliber Middleton and/or Holiday will probably sneak in, especially with a second or third ring.

Honestly I think the '94 run is more impressive than '95, to me. '95 has the "four straight series on the road" thing and the better narrative with the "heart of a champion" story and the Robinson/Shaq beatdowns. But it's also got Drexler riding shotgun, who was not that far removed from being good enough to be the best guy on two Finals teams. Hakeem scores more in '95 but otherwise the numbers are similar (and the blocks and steals are decently better in 94), and part of that could be from the difference between scoring on the Magic (league average defense) and scoring on the Knicks (historically great defense).

It is sort of crazy that both his titles are one-of-ones, actually. '94 with no HoF teammates, '95 with four straight on the road. Does anyone else have two titles that are quite that historically unique?

I don't think the Dirk comparison holds up beyond a superficial level. Hakeem has better numbers in all five major statistical categories (and only assists are very close) and much less HoF or All-NBA level support (on the other hand, take away Dirk's 2011 and he looks like the biggest choker this side of Harden). Plus Hakeem is an upper-crust defensive player, while Dirk vacillated between poor and average throughout his career without any clear advantages offensively beyond the three point shot... but he didn't take enough of them to build much of an efficiency edge over Hakeem's post scoring.

At Friday, June 16, 2023 3:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for the earlier reply, I think you're sort of having your cake and eating it too when you say Hakeem's margin over Robinson is smaller than Wilt/Russell's margin over the third place guy for them... because you're holding them to a standard of "better than the third place guy" and Olajuwon to "better than the second."

I also don't know that Kareem's lead was that huge most years. In the first eleven years of his career, he wins six MVPs, which is unprecedented... but the other five years, someone else at his position wins it. And part of that's without a few of the best centers in the world contesting it since they were in the ABA at the time. Unlike Hakeem, several of his closest positional rivals (Reed, Cowens, sort of but not really Chamberlain) got more titles than he did in the era where he was "on top." All three of those guys do pretty ok against him in the playoffs, as well (and Walton and Moses both beat him later on, too).

Don't get me wrong, on an eleven or twenty year timeline he's greater than any of those guys by far, but in a lot of those individual years they have stronger cases against him than I think Robinson ever has against Hakeem. Hakeem didn't lose to one of his positional rivals in a playoff series until Shaq finally got him near the end, but Reed, Cowens, Wilt, Walton, and Moses all beat Kareem, and he only really "got his win back" against Wilt (and very late bench Walton, technically).

Shaq's peak sort of didn't overlap with any top 20 centers besides the very end of Hakeem's (similar to Hakeem vs. Kareem, actually), unless you count Duncan, but if you count Duncan I don't think Shaq has much if any of a margin over him.

Back on the Robinson/Hakeem defensive analysis, I guess a lot of this is subjective to some extent (or at least evaluating it is... something is objectively true about who's faster/better, but it may be impossible to prove/convince because we're humans with opinions and biases and flaws) but I feel pretty secure arguing both that Robinson was bigger/stronger and that Olajuwon was faster/more nimble. Watching them play Hakeem always looks smaller, though they're listed at the same size to my surprise, but the NBA works heights like they're the WWE. Weight, too, apparently as Hakeem is listed as being twenty pounds heavier than Robinson which... sure, Jan.

15 minutes later

This non-plussed me enough that I kept looking, and according to Hakeem himself he was actually 6'9/220 in his playing days rather than 7/250, which makes more sense to me (I always thought he was 6'10), while according to at least some Spurs' gameday programs from the era Robinson is "actually" 7'1/250, not 7/225, which also makes more sense to me, but for all we know could also be over or under-reporting.


Anyway, assuming that's all true or true-adjacent (and honestly who knows, but I feel at least very comfortable saying Robinson was taller, regardless of listing, because I have eyes) I don't think I'm too far off the reservation suggesting that the smaller lighter one was faster than the bigger stronger fella. The rest of it I feel strongly about it too but am not really sure what more I can add about it to bolster the argument beyond "this is what I saw/think." Like the Long Time said upthread, defense gets hard to objectively quantify pretty fast.

I agree that Moses' decline is weird, but I don't have an answer for it. That '84 series against the Nets is maybe the playoff series in NBA history that makes the least sense to me, and he's never quite a tippy top guy again after it.

At Friday, June 16, 2023 4:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Sorry, not buying any of that.

Do you really think that Oscar and West are Pantheon-worthy solely or primarily because of winning one championship late in their careers? The criteria that I describe in my Pantheon articles bear no resemblance to that kind of thinking.

West without the 1972 season is the Elgin Baylor of guards--the greatest or second greatest guard ever up to that time. If Baylor had played one more season and been a part of that championship team he would not be more Pantheon-worthy, nor would West be less Pantheon-worthy without that season.

Similarly, Robertson was already established as a Pantheon-worthy player prior to 1974, Chamberlain was already a Pantheon-worthy player prior to 1972, and Abdul-Jabbar was already a Pantheon-worthy player even without the 1971 title.

We have a fundamental disagreement about how to evaluate Olajuwon's overall career as well as his peak value years, so that will be reflected in every player comparison, as we have seen throughout this exchange of views. To a lesser extent, we also disagree about how to evaluate some of the Pantheon players, particularly those from the 1960s who won two or fewer titles.

At Friday, June 16, 2023 4:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Chamberlain and Russell were 1A and 1B in the 1960s, and there is a good case that they are 1A and 1B all-time. Rather than trying to determine who was 1 and who was 2, I just grouped them together to make the larger point that Pantheon centers dominated their respective eras to a greater extent than Olajuwon, who was mainly--at best--first among equals for most of his career. I realize that we disagree about that, but I am just explaining my position, and why I grouped Chamberlain and Russell together in the context of comparing Olajuwon to the Pantheon centers.

Put a different way, one cannot reasonably write the history of pro basketball without including each Pantheon player; take out any of them, and you are excising significant portions of basketball history, and the evolution of the game. Olajuwon was a great player, but you can write a complete history of the sport without mentioning him. Post shot-clock era (which is the time span of the Pantheon), the sport was dominated individually and collectively by Russell, Chamberlain, West, Robertson, Baylor, Kareem, Erving, Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, and LeBron. Granted, the past past 6-8 years of history would require mentioning the Warriors, but the Warriors emerged almost a decade after I created my Pantheon.

Olajuwon had a great career, and he won two titles in the gap between Jordan's dominance and the emergence of Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe. I am not saying that it would be right or ideal to leave Olajuwon out, but the general sweep of individual and team dominance does not have to include him. It has to include each Pantheon player, because the Pantheon players set the most significant individual records while also leading the majority of the championship teams.

You are correct that the listed heights and weights of NBA players are often not accurate or precise, but that is not very relevant to what we have been discussing.

At Friday, June 16, 2023 11:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right that we have a fundamental disagreement and I don't want to go back and forth forever, but at the general level (I'm sure there are exceptions) I think going from two rings to one damages a resume less than going from one to zero, and I think how impressive Hakeem's resume is even without that year insulates him somewhat. I also thinks optics and confirmation bias matters and a Kareem who doesn't win until he gets together with Magic feels more like KG than he does the Kareem as we know him (ditto Wilt/Durant).

I will clarify that I don't think taking those years away would disqualify most of those players from Pantheon consideration, but I do think it would hurt their resumes more than losing '95 would hurt Hakeem's, who could still boast ten years of individual greatness capped by a uniquely heavy-lift title.

Your point about the "story of the league" is interesting but I don't see it the same way. I think it's fairly easy to tell that story without Oscar, who's at most the fifth or sixth most important "character" of the 60s and a footnote in the 70s. Russell is the star, Wilt is the foil, and West & Baylor are, unfortunately, pretty much the Washington Generals for Russell to beat up on year after year.

I don't know that Oscar is terribly influential, either, relative to some of the other "stars" of this story. I don't recall a preponderance of back-to-the-basket post-up guards following his peak. Nor were there many rebounding-focused guards that I can recall following him; West seemed the much greater influence on the 70s crop.

On the flip side, Hakeem is pretty obviously the second most important "character" of the 90s after MJ.

I think in the 70s the leads are clearly Kareem and Erving, and in the 80s equally clearly Magic and Bird. In the 00s it is Duncan plus Shaq and Kobe, though Kobe gets more important as Shaq gets less.

Then in the 2010s it's Lebron and Curry.

The 2020s may well turn out to be Giannis and Jokic.

At Saturday, June 17, 2023 7:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My Pantheon is not based on ring counting, though I do consider how well a player performed in the playoffs and Finals.

You are more impressed by Olajuwon’s 10 best seasons than I am, and that is the unresolvable crux of our disagreement, compounded by your blithe dismissal of the historical significance and impact of Baylor and Robertson. I have discussed both players at length in previous articles. Regarding Robertson, I will emphasize that he retired as the all-time assists leader and second leading scorer behind only Chamberlain. He was the only non-center to win a regular season MVP for a two decade span. Similarly, Baylor was a dominant scorer and rebounder who was also an elite passer. Both players were more dominant at their positions for a longer time than Olajuwon.

At Saturday, June 17, 2023 11:50:00 AM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...

I have to say, I think Anonymous here actually may have a point on Oscar, though his reasoning on some of the others is a bridge too far for me.

Oscar is already a significant outlier in the Pantheon in terms of his playoff record, missing the postseason four times, and winning just eight total series. I don't think any other Pantheon player misses more than twice (putting aside well past-prime cases like post-Achilles Kobe or Wizards MJ, at least). I am not sure who has the next fewest series wins but I am confident every other member has well over ten(though several of them benefit from an extra round to compile such wins, but by the same token that also means they had to outrace more teams to qualify). Grading him just against his era peers within the Pantheon, Baylor has 14, West has 16, Wilt has 18, and Russell has a preposterous 27 (and only three of those came against Oscar, so Russell's dominance cannot fairly be blamed for Oscar's lack of playoff volume).

Comparing him, as the debate dictates, against Hakeem, he has 16. If you discount the first round, he has "only" 8.

If you deny him the '71 run, he wins five playoff series in his career. Everyone currently in the Pantheon (and yes, Hakeem) can point to a three-year run where they win at least six. And in this scenario, two of Oscar's five wins would come in '74, at the end of his rope as the fourth leading scorer on his team. Only two come without Kareem.

While many of your commenters in the past have questioned Baylor's inclusion in light of his lacking a ring, you have rightly pointed out that he was a consistent playoff savant who led his team very close to a title on multiple occasions; without '71, Oscar does not have a similar fallback with regards to playoff performance. He has two years of valiant, statistically impressive second-round defeat, but you can find dozens of non-Pantheon players who can say the same.

This is not to say that Oscar isn't still spectacular. As you cite, he would still be one of the two best players at his position for a decade, still be an MVP, and still have retired as the second-leading scorer.

However, the same would be true of Karl Malone, who is not Pantheon caliber. Much is rightly made of Malone's struggles in the deeper rounds of the playoffs, but he was nonetheless a playoff fixture for twenty years who won in them often enough to credibly argue he was the best player on two Finals teams, and the third best on a another. He generally played at or near an MVP-level throughout the regular season. Like Oscar, he retired as the second-leading scorer, but unlike Oscar he did so against a much more crowded field, and while Oscar has since fallen out of the Top 10, Malone is still #3.

Oscar was clearly a better passer, but Malone's camp could accurately argue that he was a much greater defensive player in addition to being much more durable and long-lived. Their rebounding peaks are similar but Malone maintained his for longer (and in a slower-paced league). As scorers they have very similar numbers, but Malone is much more efficient (though both were very efficient relative to their peers) and less reliant on a positional size advantage that might not fully translate consistently across eras.

He is a reprehensible man and I do not like praising him, but in purely basketball terms his resume is at worst competitive with a no-'71 edition of Oscar.

Fortunately for us, Oscar did win in '71, so his lack of a hypothetical title cannot be held against him the same as it can for someone like Malone or Barkley, and we can easily (and rightly) write them off as playoff failures while giving Oscar his due as a Pantheon member.

As for Hakeem, we are back, as we always are with him, to hypotheticals. Robbed of '95 he would probably still look like the best of the one-title crew (exempting West and Oscar for positional purposes), but most of those players are not in the Pantheon either.

At Saturday, June 17, 2023 12:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Diff Anonymous,

Following with interest, not weighing in on Hakeem or Oscar, but for Pantheon stuff, just chiming in that I like the idea of new lists.

Maybe a Top 5 at each position? Though that doesn't solve your Moses vs. Hakeem problem....

At Saturday, June 17, 2023 3:06:00 PM, Anonymous TR said...

This was a pretty difficult regular season to be an NBA fan. I’m grateful that we have an inspiring champion to come from it, at least.

At Monday, June 19, 2023 3:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

I am not going to discuss Robertson's career in depth here, as I have already done so elsewhere. I will just add that playoff series won/lost devoid of any context had nothing to do with how I selected my Pantheon. Robertson is one of the few players in pro basketball history with no skill set weaknesses. A credible case could still be made that he was the best all-around player in pro basketball history. He retired as the all-time assist leader (a mark that stood for over 20 years) and as the second all-time leading scorer. In his prime with the Cincinnati Royals, he averaged 29.7 ppg, 9.4 apg, and 9.3 rpg during the playoffs. His Cincinnati teams lost in the playoffs to either the Bill Russell Celtics or the Wilt Chamberlain 76ers. Later in his career, he was the floor general and veteran leader for the dominant 1971 Bucks.

When I brought up the hypothetical about taking away one year from various players' careers, my point was that Pantheon members built deep resumes that could withstand one year being removed. I thought that the examples I cited proved that point, but apparently there are some strong feelings in favor of Olajuwon and in opposition to 1960s stars, so I regret clouding the issues with hypotheticals. The reality is that I selected my Pantheon based on what actually happened, not hypotheticals. In the real world, Robertson played a key role for one of the greatest single season champions of all-time.

Karl Malone should not even enter into this conversation. Larry Bird was the best forward in the NBA early in his career, Barkley was arguably as good as Malone in the early 1990s, Scottie Pippen was the NBA's best forward in the mid-1990s, and then Tim Duncan was the best forward in the NBA from the late 1990s until LeBron James hit his prime. Malone's teams regularly lost in the first round (and not against teams with players like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain), and he was a notorious playoff choker whose efficiency plummeted in the postseason.

There is no reasonable way to assert that Malone's skill set or impact on basketball history are comparable to Robertson's.

At Monday, June 19, 2023 3:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


For now, I am content to let the Pantheon stand on its own for what it is, and as a tribute to the greatest players of the NBA's first 60-plus years. It is not clear how to expand the Pantheon or reformulate the Pantheon in a meaningful way at this point; it is not clear that the best players from the past decade or so who are not in the Pantheon clearly belong there either in place of an established member or as part of an expansion process. I understand the Pantheon arguments for Durant, Curry, Giannis, and even Jokic, but there are arguments against each of those players as well. The Pantheon has stood the test of time in a way that many other such lists did not. For example, the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team of 11 players includes several who would no longer be considered close to the top 11 all-time, and the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List had some glaring omissions; I don't intend to relitigate all of that here, but my point is that my Pantheon made sense when I selected it, and still looks quite sensible more than a decade later (even if those who don't know about or appreciate great players from the 1960s may disagree with that assessment).

At Monday, June 19, 2023 3:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Nuggets are a worthy champion that dominated the postseason with a 16-4 record, and I share your positive feelings about them. It would be great if starting next season the NBA promoted the Nuggets instead of recycling tired narratives about LeBron's alleged GOAT status, the 76ers quest to "tank to the top," and Kevin Durant's futile efforts to sign with a team that meets his expectations. The Nuggets won their championship by doing the right things from top to bottom within their organization, an example that should be praised and emulated.

At Monday, June 19, 2023 12:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know that if I (or Long Time) don't "know about or appreciate" the 1960s players, we just reached different conclusions about some of them. I'd be lying if I said I saw them play live but I've tried to learn as much about them as I can absent that opportunity.

You said Oscar's Royals lost to either Russell or Chamberlain in the playoffs, and they did five times, but they also lost to Gene Shue's Pistons, and missed the playoffs four times. Is there anyone else in the Pantheon who missed the playoffs four times in their prime?

Hakeem also has some less than awesome playoff years himself, don't get me wrong, but I'd take his playoff resume over Oscar's every day of the week.

The Malone point isn't mine so I won't try and defend it, but I do think Malone is in general a good object lesson that statistical dominance can be kind of meaningless in context. I'm not saying that necessarily applies to Oscar, who at least proved he could be a title-caliber second-banana, but of all the Pantheon players I think he's probably the one who most has to lean on his statistics to make his case (followed by Baylor, but Baylor at least has a litany of Finals runs behind him).

I do think it's interesting that your 14-player Pantheon spanning (essentially) 60 years includes such disproportionate 1960s rep, especially given how weird the talent pool for that era is with stuff like secret quotas, military service, and dayjobs. I'm not even saying you're wrong (my main disagreement with the Pantheon is that I think one specific guy in Hakeem is better than a few of the dudes in it, not that those dudes are themselves unworthy), I just find it interesting to think about.

Nobody else in your Pantheon is only the fifth best guy of their era (and by definition one of the 60s guys must be), or really any worse than 3rd (and most are cleanly Top 2 for their primes), so it ends up sort of implying that the 60s were the apex of the sport, which I personally struggle with conceptually, especially when the second-best player of the 90s can't crack the list.

At Monday, June 19, 2023 5:04:00 PM, Anonymous Long Time, Second Time said...


Part of the reason I don't like to post very often because I'm fairly sensitive and don't enjoy heated arguments, which I sense this is in danger of becoming, so I'll bow out here.

I will say in parting that it does seem that you hold Robertson to a much slighter standard vis-a-vis the playoffs than you do most players, but perhaps you know something I don't. I certainly haven't done the degree of research you have.

Anyway, enjoy your writing, and I hope you had a nice weekend.

At Tuesday, June 20, 2023 1:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As discussed above, the "different conclusions" about 1960s players are unsupported by evidence, and thus do not dissuade me from standing by what I wrote in my series of articles about the Pantheon.

The criteria for selection to my Pantheon are explained quite clearly, so I am not going to repeat them here, nor am I going to analyze Robertson's career year by year here.

If anyone can make a convincing argument against selecting the players I selected based on the criteria I used, that is one thing--but citing out of context statistics that have little to nothing to do with the criteria I used does not persuade me. Based on skill sets, I feel quite comfortable saying that the 1960s players who I selected would be dominant in any era, including the watered-down NBA of the 2020s. Expansion dilutes the overall talent pool, and the league has expanded from eight teams to 30. Granted, the creation of new talent pools in Europe, Asia, and Africa has deepened the overall talent pool, but not to the extent that one could seriously argue that the overall talent pool is more concentrated today than it was in the 1960s. In the 1960s, players and teams faced legit Hall of Famers in almost every game; in the 2020s, players and teams not only regularly face weak teams, but they regularly face teams that are intentionally losing (tanking).

Regarding Robertson specifically, a 6-5, 220 guard who can shoot, pass, defend, and rebound would be a perennial All-NBA First Team member in today's NBA, just as he was in the 1960s. Robertson is Luka Doncic with a higher basketball IQ, better physical conditioning, and better shot selection. Many people believe that Doncic is on track to be an all-time great; there is good reason to believe that Robertson would be even better than Doncic in today's game (and, disregarding the hypothetical scenario mentioned above, the numbers that Robertson posted are better than Doncic's numbers).

Olajuwon received three All-NBA First Team selections in the 1990s, and I am not convinced that he was shortchanged in any other 1990s season, so no matter how many times you call him the best center of his era or second best player of the 1990s you have not actually proved those things to be true. All-NBA selections are not the basis of my Pantheon, but I bring them up to point out that you are arguing against consensus without presenting evidence that the consensus was wrong. You have a strong subjective belief about Olajuwon, but that is all.

I have said that Olajuwon and Moses Malone are perhaps the two best players eligible for the Pantheon who I did not include (by using the word "eligible," I am discounting for the moment players who emerged after I made my Pantheon, to avoid further muddying the waters). However, I am not persuaded that I made a mistake by leaving Olajuwon out, because I am not persuaded that he is demonstrably greater than Malone, or even that he is far enough ahead of several other players such that one could reasonably include Olajuwon without being forced to expand the Pantheon beyond roster size.

I keep saying that this discussion is going nowhere. I have made my points, and supported them with evidence in the original articles plus evidence that I have mentioned in this comments section. If you feel that strongly about Olajuwon, you should consider creating your own website, and compiling your own Pantheon or equivalent list; you will no doubt find that some people agree with you while some people disagree with you, which is the nature of doing this type of writing and analysis.

At Tuesday, June 20, 2023 2:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Long Time, Second Time:

As I mentioned above, the criteria for the Pantheon are explained in the articles. I am not holding Robertson to a lower or higher standard than any other player based on the criteria that I used.

Prior to the emergence of Magic and Michael, I doubt that any knowledgeable basketball historian would have ranked Robertson lower than the second best guard of all-time (behind only Jerry West), and many if not most would have ranked him first. Without getting into ranking Robertson versus Magic and Michael, I am not persuaded by the notion that since the 1980s Robertson dropped all the way from first or second best guard of all-time to someone who is not even among the 14 best players ever. Other than Magic and Michael, the only post 1980s guard eligible for the Pantheon who could be considered to be in Robertson's class was Kobe (again, by "eligible" I refer to players who established their greatness prior to when I selected the Pantheon).

During Robertson's career, the playoffs consisted of fewer rounds than in more recent eras, and no one could get very far without beating a team led by Chamberlain or Russell, so I don't see much value in just counting up playoff series wins devoid of context.

There is a popular notion that athletes have evolved so much that players from the 1960s could not compete today. I don't buy that at all. Wilt Chamberlain was still a dominant rebounder, defender, and passer in the early 1970s, and teams were actively trying to persuade him to come out of retirement in the 1980s, so it does not seem odd to me to suggest that the best 1960s players could have thrived in any era; if "old" Wilt was still a sought after commodity in the early 1980s, it is safe to assume that young Wilt would have been a beast in the 1980s (and beyond).

I will take this opportunity to reiterate a broader point about great players from the past (not just the 1960s). J.J. Redick and others who disparage great NBA players from the past sound like clueless buffoons to anyone who has studied basketball history and knows how to do skill set analysis. I am much more confident that Bob Cousy would be great in today's game than I am that Redick would claim a roster spot in the 1960s with his one dimensional game; no one talked about "two way players" back then because everyone was expected to play at both ends of the court. Sure, some players were better defenders than others, but one dimensional specialists did not tend to have long careers. A 6-1 point guard like Cousy who can pass, who can push the ball, who can rebound against bigger players, and who can score when needed would do quite well today; a 6-4 guard like Redick who relies on shooting from 25 feet would not be in high demand in the 1960s.

Many people are most impressed by that which is most recent and most familiar to them, but I am fine with standing up for the great players of the past even if doing so is not popular or well understood.

At Tuesday, June 20, 2023 2:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a whole long thing but I don't want to be the "posts three times" guy and it seems you're pretty tired of this conversation, so I'll address what I can in one post then smile and wave.

Your stated Pantheon criteria are durability and peak value.

I don't see an argument for Oscar having superior durability. Hakeem played longer, made equal or greater numbers of All-Star/All-NBA teams, and stayed good longer.

Peak value you defined as Oscar's five year run of averaging a triple double. Westbrook has since proven that particular feat is not a guarantee of Pantheon production (though Oscar's were more efficient). During that span Oscar wins one MVP and has one 50+ win season. He wins two playoff series, loses to Boston twice, Philly and Detroit once, and misses the playoffs once.

If we set Hakeem's peak at '93 to '97, he wins two DPOYs, two Finals MVPs, an MVP, and has three fifty win seasons in that span, and does not miss the playoffs. He plays with fewer HoFers or All-Stars per year vs. Oscar. Both are elite scorers and rebounders, so the case for Oscar over him for that stretch is the idea that Oscar's passing is more valuable than Hakeem's defense or playoff achievements, which I cannot agree with (especially since the structure of that Houston offense meant Hakeem was creating a lot for his teammates, though often in ways that did not equate to an assist).

Oscar perhaps has a case for being the best player in the league in '64, though Wilt/West/Baylor/Russell are all in contention. I'd argue Hakeem makes a pretty declarative best player in the world case in '94 and '95, winning both titles, an MVP, and demolishing all his closest competition in Shaq/Robinson/Ewing/Barkley in playoff series.

So, I would take Hakeem's peak over Oscar's.

Finally, I don't agree that the early 60s are more talent dense/deep than this era or any other. It was a majority white league (80% in 1960, slowly improving from there). In Oscar's best year, 9 of the All-Stars were white Americans. Even if we triple the size of that All-Star team to accommodate for expansion, would you really argue there are anywhere near nine American white guys who would be in the Top 60 for the current NBA?

I don't believe white guys were that much better at basketball in the 60s. I also don't believe an underpaid league where, per Jerry West, most players had offseason jobs to make ends meet, and there was no national scouting/development apparatus like we had today, was garnering the same level of interest from potential players.

Kids today grow up dreaming of being in the NBA. What percentage of kids growing up in the 40s and 50s even saw a game? Oscar, Baylor, Russell, etc. helped make the NBA into an actual national past time in way that allowed the league to attract much more talent than it could in their day, but it seems very naive to me to suggest that a majority white league in its infancy was more competitive than a globally beloved one with all those advantages, even if there were fewer teams.

I am aware there are a lot of Hall of Famers from the 1960s. Most of them were in the HoF before too much competition had emerged, and they were graded against their era, in which they rarely if ever had to play against teams with more than three Black players. I am not sure how many of the back half of 1960s Hall of Famers would get in if they were up for nomination today against the usual pack of Kemp, Billups, Marques Johnson types.

I think it's fine to leave Hakeem out on the logic of positional balance. I think absent that his case is stronger than Oscar's. Oscar falling from being the 2nd-4th best guard in the 80s to off the list now is not ludicrous to me; if he's the fifth best guard and misses out, that just puts him in Hakeem's current boots as the fifth best center and missing out.

Anyway, I've enjoyed the conversation and I'm sorry that it seems to be upsetting you. Hope you have a good week!

At Tuesday, June 20, 2023 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ranking these players is futile. even if you could build a time-machine, you'd still have to decide which teammates to match them up with and under which set of external conditions/rules. and there would be better uses for the time machine. just enjoy the brilliance that they brought

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 3:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You keep indicating that you are signing off, and then you keep trying to get the last word by expanding the conversation to bring up points that are further and further afield from what we have been discussing, even though I have made it clear that this conversation is going nowhere. It is obvious that you are not going to persuade me, nor am I going to persuade you. I don't feel like I am learning anything about basketball history or player evaluation from this conversation, nor does it appear that you feel that you are learning anything since you obviously find great fault with my methods and conclusions.

You are not going to get the last word about my Pantheon on my website.

In my first Pantheon article (September 9, 2005; revised/expanded on September 6, 2006), here is how I summarized the selection criteria:

"The two main approaches to ranking players are (1) relying on statistics and (2) focusing on subjective observations/historical context. There are numerous variations within these two methods: the statistics can be examined on a per minute or a per game basis, they can be adjusted to emphasize certain categories and they can also be 'standardized' to account for changes in pace over the years; observations of teammates, opponents and the media who covered these players can be used to bolster or minimize the importance of certain statistics.

The players in basketball's pantheon display both durability and a high peak value, which I would define in the following fashion: durability means sustaining a long career (at least 10 years) at or near the top of the game and peak value refers to the top level that the player reached, even if he stayed there only briefly in the midst of a longer career during which he performed at a lower but still exceptional level. It is very difficult to meaningfully compare the peak value seasons of different players; this is a subjective exercise unless one uses either a linear weights system (add up all the 'good' stats—points, rebounds, assists, etc.—and subtract all the “bad” stats—turnovers, missed shots, fouls; some systems assign more or less emphasis to various statistical categories) or a more complex statistical analysis that takes into account pace, how a player's team did during the minutes that he didn't play and so forth. Of course, the further back we look the fewer available statistics there are, so these methods lose a lot of precision when they are used to evaluate players who played before turnovers, steals, blocked shots or other categories were officially tracked. Systems using linear weights can provide a rough ordering, but do not tell us anything about context—did a player force double teams, take charges or do a host of other 'intangible' things that are not measured in conventional statistics but increase his value?"

So, contrary to what your comment indicates, this is not a simple equation involving calculating peak value and durability. There is a lot more nuance involved, including application of historical context when evaluating statistics and accomplishments. Ultimately, that application of historical context amounts to my subjective opinions about how various factors should be weighted. I consider myself very informed about such matters. Others may disagree, and they are free to create their own lists using whatever criteria they prefer weighted in whatever manner they see fit.

I don't see the point of trying to tell me how I should apply my own criteria. I put a lot of thought into this, and applied my own criteria in the way that makes the most sense to me. As I keep repeating, we have fundamental and unresolvable disagreements about how to evaluate 1960s players and how to evaluate Olajuwon in comparison not only to 1960s players but also in comparison to other great centers of the late 1990s through the mid 1990s.

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 3:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure why you are bringing Westbrook into a conversation about Olajuwon's Pantheon-worthiness, but I disagree with your take on Westbrook. Westbrook's triple double accomplishments do not prove that averaging a triple double is not an indicator of Pantheon level production. To the contrary, I would argue that Westbrook is underrated. I would not put Westbrook in the Pantheon, but I find it bizarre to suggest that because Westbrook averaged a triple double that makes Robertson's triple doubles less impressive and somehow lifts Olajuwon ahead of Robertson. None of that makes any sense to me, but this is just another example of why I believe this conversation is going nowhere.

I am not even going to get into all of the other stuff that you brought up. As I have discussed elsewhere in great depth, for every argument stating that basketball is more competitive and played at a higher level now there is a compelling counterargument that basketball was more competitive and played at a higher level in the 1960s. To cite just a few examples, in the 1960s assists were handed out less liberally than they are now, the triple double did not exist as a statistical milestone so no one was chasing it, no players or teams were tanking or load managing, and the players had subpar training, equipment, and travel accommodations compared to today's players. Rules changes also greatly benefit perimeter players on offense in today's game. A player with Oscar Robertson's skills would be unguardable in today's game, and he would be in even better physical condition thanks to improvements in playing conditions, training, etc. Assuming that players transplanted from the 1960s to today retained their attitude about competing and playing heavy minutes, they would feast on today's softer players who don't want to play heavy minutes and who look for excuses to miss games. The 1960s game was much more physically demanding than today's game.

You no doubt disagree with most if not every point that I just made. I cannot prove to your satisfaction that I am right, but I am basing what I am saying on watching most of the available footage, on talking to players and coaches from that era, on reading the contemporary source material, and on being familiar with how the history of the game has been written/depicted through the decades. I may be wrong, but telling me that Olajuwon is better than Robertson because in Robertson's second season his team lost a playoff series to the Pistons is just wasting my time, to be quite frank.

You are free to form whatever opinions you want based on whatever factors you deem credible. To the extent that you find my writing informative or entertaining, enjoy. I am not making money off of this, nor am I charging money for anyone to read this, so anyone who finds my commentary lacking should spend their time consuming content that better matches their beliefs/biases/opinions.

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 4:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In my Pantheon series, I made it clear that there are inherent limitations involved with comparing players, particularly players from different eras, and I cited Walter Payton's exhortation to enjoy greatness instead of trying to rank and quantify greatness--but, with all of that being noted and said, I find it interesting to make a serious attempt to evaluate, as objectively as I am capable of evaluating, the greatest players of all-time, and I enjoy discussing what made various players so great.

If such evaluations and discussions frustrate you because you deem them "futile," then this website is probably not going to provide much value to you, and I encourage you to find a website better suited to your tastes.

I am not charging money for my content, nor am I wasting time trying to figure out what to say/how to say it to generate the most page views. My goal is to generate intelligent content that interests me, and interests like-minded readers.

It is fascinating to me that some of the most successful and widely published writers get the most basic facts wrong. I am not perfect, and I am sure that within the millions of words that I have posted here in nearly two decades I have made mistakes (I have corrected every mistake that I found or was pointed out to me, but I am sure that some still exist). However, I would be surprised (and disappointed) if any of my articles contained errors about basic, fundamental, easily researched facts.

In contrast, ESPN touts Mike Wilbon as a great basketball historian with great insight about the game. Wilbon is a great columnist about sports topics in general, but he does not have any special insight about basketball, and he often gets the most basic facts wrong. Charley Rosen is a writer who I find entertaining, and sometimes insightful (particularly regarding some aspects of player evaluation)--but Rosen has an unfortunate habit of getting the most basic facts wrong (when he has his facts right, his analysis is often quite good).

I discuss Wilbon and Rosen in Player Comparisons and Analysis Must Be Based on Facts .

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 8:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon from "futile" comment

Look at the context of my comment. It's after 70 comments on Olajuwon v Oscar. Pantheon is fine. But readers debating it ad naseam, taking it too far -- and you continue to engage. It's entertaining but as you say in your last message, no one's mind is being changed at this point, I e. "Futile". I'm well aware of deficiency of Wilbon and that whole crew -- it would never occur to me to listen to them expecting anything of substance, in the first place. Cheers

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 9:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that I should have disengaged sooner. I kept thinking that my next comment would conclude the discussion on a good note and hopefully clarify matters, but I was mistaken. You are correct that the Pantheon is fine, but debating with readers who are unwilling or unable to understand the points that I am making is futile.

My point about Wilbon and the rest is that anyone reading my articles who thinks that better content is available elsewhere can test out that theory, but that the quality of that other content is not only poor analytically but also often lacking basic factual accuracy.

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 11:36:00 AM, Anonymous Sixth or Seventh Anonymous said...

I don't know, one of my favorite things about this site is reading these kind of back and forths when they come up. David usually "wins" to the extent these sorts of arguments can have a winner, but the journey is always fascinating unless it's just a breathless Lebron or Harden stan with no point of view behind him. Both the posters arguing with David here seem to know their stuff far too well to be happier reading Wilbon, and their positions are based on identifiable logic, data, and subjective valuations, not just "Hakeem teh best, Oscar suxxorz."

It reminds me of that great Sorkin quote: "If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you."

David has curated himself an audience of smart people who occasionally disagree with him. I think it would be a shame, at least for us neutral readers if not for David himself, if they all went elsewhere.

At Wednesday, June 21, 2023 11:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sixth or Seventh Anonymous:

I would never want smart people to go elsewhere (and I am not concerned that smart people will leave), but there is a point where certain conversations have run their course. I don't see what else can be said about Olajuwon, Robertson, and the 1960s in this particular conversation.


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