A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Retro Player of the Year Project

with 4 comments

I’ve just finished running a project on the RealGM called the Retro Player of the Year (RPOY).  I think it was one hell of a project, so I want to give y’all a summary of it.

–          The idea behind the RPOY was that the NBA MVP award isn’t good enough. It only factors in the regular season, and really, the award that everyone wants when they do comparisons of players is an all-season Player of the Year award.

–          Now, this isn’t strictly an MVP for all seasons, because that wouldn’t work.  If the guy who has the best regular season is on a mediocre team, he’s not going to contribute as much value to his team in the playoffs as the star of the champion, so you’ve got to be a bit less literal than that.  The need for some fuzziness opens the door to people voting with different philosophies, but really that happens with the MVP any way. And still, we kept a focus where voting had to be based on what a player actually did that year, not what he could conceivably have done in the right circumstances. If a guy has a down year in the middle of his prime, even he was dealing with a moron of a coach and a tyrant of an owner – he suffers in this project.

–          RealGM is a website that has a variety of things on it, but the flagship of the public facing end of it is the basketball message boards.  I strongly believe they have the best basketball message boards on the internet, which is why I’ve been a moderator for them for several years.

–          The voting panel was semi-open.   By that I mean, at the beginning of the project, I let in all established posters from the site who wanted to be included, but afterward I only let in posters who impressed me.  I won’t claim that the members of the panel were necessarily the most prestigious of folks compared to actual MVP voters.  However, there were some powerhouses in this project I feel privileged to have been able to work with, and if you look at the votes, I think you’ll find that there are less “crazy votes” than what you see in a typical MVP vote.

–          The project took about 6 months to complete, starting from the ’08-09 season, and going back to the beginning of the shot clock era, with one digression to evaluate ’09-10 after the Lakers won their second title in a row.

Without further ado:  Here is a site made for the project which displays and tabulates the results, and here is the main message board page for the project.

Now, some results, and some thoughts on all this:

POY Shares

We had people vote for the POY like they would an MVP vote:  10 points for 1st place, 7 for 2nd, 5 for the 3rd, 3 for 4th, and 1 for 5th.  Basketball-reference.com has an MVP share leader board based on MVP votes, and likewise we tallied up POY shares.  The idea behind both “shares”, is that in any particular year your share is the fraction of voting points you won relative to the amount you could have won.  A unanimous 1st place finish will get you 1 vote share for example.

To give you a sense of our conclusions here’s our top 10 share recipients, with their rank by MVP shares in parentheses:

  1. Bill Russell (5)
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2)
  3. Michael Jordan (1)
  4. Wilt Chamberlain (8)
  5. Magic Johnson (4)
  6. Tim Duncan (9)
  7. Larry Bird (3)
  8. Shaquille O’Neal (6)
  9. Julius Erving (26)
  10. Karl Malone (7)

The one man from the MVP share missing is Kobe Bryant.  He was 10th in MVP shares, but 14th in POY shares.


1)      Russell & Chamberlain did better by our metrics.  Why?  Well, largely because the NBA voting methodology has not always used a 10-7-5-3-1 system.  In some years back in the day voters would only give their 1st place vote, which denies also-rans the fractional share they get nowadays.  Recognizing this inconsistency was one of the reason I wanted to do this project.

2)      Jordan fell 2 spots.  Why?  Interestingly, Jordan didn’t actually get hurt by this metric.  He earned a record 9 POYs, compared to 8 for Kareem, and 7 for Russell.  And of course 9 POYs for Jordan far exceeds his 5 MVPs.  Given that improvement it’s hard to imagine him being surpassed, the other two made even bigger leaps.  For Kareem the leap came from a tendency among the panel  to be far more consistent in their placement of him than MVP voters were in the 70 – although that still wouldn’t have been enough to surpass Jordan without Kareem’s unreal longevity.  For Russell, well when you use the 10-7-5-3-1 system on a superstar who won 11 titles in 13 years, he becomes very hard to beat.

3)      Larry Bird takes a hit down from 3 to 7.  Why?  This really stems from the inclusion of the playoffs – and the fact that that would hurt Bird so much undoubtedly comes as a surprise.  However, Bird’s Celtics were upset an incredible 7 times in his career, often times with him having disappointing series.  This isn’t enough to make him less than an all-time great obviously, but it’s bound to decrease estimation of your season from where it was when the MVP voting took place.

4)      Tim Duncan rises above a few legends.  Why?  Opposite of Bird which I’m sure shocks some people.  Duncan’s done significantly better in the playoffs than in the regular season.  His play, and free throw shooting, may not scream clutch, but the accomplishments speak for themselves.

5)      Julius Erving leaps from 26 to 9.  Why?  Not nearly as exciting as you’d think.  In the NBA-ABA years, we included players from both leagues in our voting.  Again a reason why I wanted to do this project to see how others thought the leagues stacked up.  Clearly, the Doctor proved highly respected.

Personal Thoughts and Observations

For the 00s, the most interesting player was Garnett. He got a lot more support than I expected. It hasn’t drastically swayed my opinion of him, but it’s definitely made my opinion of him unstable. By that I mean, I’m not entirely satisfied with it. There’s a part of me starting to think he was better than Duncan, and I’m not willing to either accept it or dismiss it.

I was surprised at how poorly Kobe fared. I thought there was a good chance he’d ranked much higher in the voting that my opinion of him because of there is a significant segment of the population who thinks he’s earned a spot in conversation with Jordan.  Instead he actually finished lower than where I’d rank him. Quite interesting, and I think it really goes to show how this voting panel of voters differs not only from the mainstream but from typical RealGM posters. To reiterate, there was nothing stopping people of whatever bent to join this project – but the people who tended to participate are known for either being quite balanced in their viewpoint, quite into advanced statistics (where Kobe never does as well as his supporters think he should), or both.

For the 90s, I don’t mind at all that Malone beat Olajuwon. I’ve said before, that this isn’t an exact measurement, and we not all equal ranking performances are equal. However, my voting for Malone came out VERY high. Higher than Bird, Erving, or Shaq.  We did have a champion for Malone, someone who clearly felt very strongly about him and made excellent arguments on his behalf.   The end result unfortunately, is that I don’t actually put that much stock in my own voting of Malone.

In the 80s, I ended up voting for Jordan at #1 for 3 years before he won a title, as did most voters, and I’m second guessing that. The more I look at Magic the more impressed I am.

In the 70s, the big question every year was Kareem, and I’m still not completely settled with my votes there. However, from a GOAT ranking perspective it doesn’t matter too much. He’s not going to surpass Russell on my POY share list, and Jordan’s not going to surpass him – so GOAT determination between the 3 is about things beyond the POY.

It was good to really think about Rick Barry, and about shooting efficiency. In the end, I’m left with the feeling that he’s overrated as a scorer (with his poor shooting efficiency), but possibly underrated as an overall player. Funny how that works. That championship year, I don’t think there’d have been major issues if he’d scored significantly less – but the fact that he won a title essentially with a platoon squad is stunning.

Frazier & Reed. I was really glad to think this through. Before this project, the arguments I’ve heard hear for Frazier resonated with me, but I never really felt comfortable have a strong opinion about it.  I’m not quite comfortable saying that I think Frazier had the better career, and even gave him my vote for POY in ’72-73 where a confluence of events really diminished the candidacy of Kareem and others.

60s – This was just great debate.  Anyone who wasn’t a part of this project who wants to learn more about the 60s should read the threads, first and foremost because some heavy research was done by both members of the voting panel and other observers. It’s so much more clear to me now how it is Boston had the success they did (their defense was just ridiculously effective – “ridiculously” isn’t even acceptable – there’s no adverb worthy of describing it). My respect for Russell grew. My opinion of Oscar stabilized – I won’t say it went up or down, I’m now more confident that he was a smart offensive player, but also more confident in saying that wasn’t enough to make him a candidate for best player of the era.

Wilt? Oh Wilt. My opinion of Wilt really dropped. More so than my votes suggest. It’s just clear in how many ways he wasn’t living up to potential. Not that all those ways were his fault – but it’s clear why his actual impact over the years just wasn’t what a cursory glance would have you believe.

I’ve been having the Russell vs Wilt debate in my head for years, and I’d say that’s over. Now it’s more of a question of Wilt vs Shaq, Wilt vs Hakeem, etc.

As far as my GOAT at this point, before the project it had been Jordan, Kareem, Russell for a few years. Right now, gun to my head, I’d move Russell up to #1. This is not a stable opinion – I’m still going back and forth. The thing that I keep thinking though: We have a tendency to dismiss outlandish achievements of the past as being impossible today, and thus essentially curving things downward. But here’s the thing, Russell had essentially the perfect career, and Jordan really didn’t. 6 rings today isn’t equivalent to 11 rings back then – we may soon see Kobe surpass Jordan’s ring total and Kobe’s obviously not a GOAT candidate. Bottom line, while 11 titles today may be impossible, earning say 8 titles clearly is not, and Jordan made some choices that prevented him from getting there.

On the meta-level, running this project:

I’d say it’s my favorite project I ever ran, and I’ve run a few at RealGM over the year, some of them very successful. It’s something that just has more inherent meaning, and forced people to go back into history not simply to get ammunition for their players, but to think objectively.

I stand by the strategy to have a semi-open committee. Whenever we have a successful project and keep the voting open, we always find some tremendous posters, and this was no exception.  I continue to marvel at how many exceptionally knowledgeable basketball people there are on the internet, as well as how much less impressive the discourse is anywhere else.

I’m looking at you sports radio.

4 Responses

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  1. […] be doing the Player of the Year Watch.  For more explanation on what the POY concept is, here’s the post I introduced it to this blog.  Quick & dirty though, think of it is as my MVP Watch, except […]

  2. I deliberately didn’t involve myself in reading the RPOY project due to personal time constraints, but I’m going to be really interested to do a retrospective on it, especially the 70s, which seem to be a really fractured time in basketball (not just due to the ABA, drugs and the (partly racialised) ghettoization of bsaketball on the overall scene) make it a really interesting zone, and one I’m not greatly familiar with.

    Well done in running it, though, you managed a lot of partisan opinions pretty well from my cursory examination.


    November 12, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  3. Thanks for the kind words raven. I will say it is not easy managing everyone’s expectations in a project like this. If I hadn’t ran other projects before, this project would have been much more difficult for me. As it was, it’s still difficult when someone you respect tells you they’re fed up and about to quit if something isn’t done about X. So glad it turned out well.

    I find the 70s, in comparison to the 60s in basketball, totally fascinating. I think the really interesting point can be summarized with this: The baby boomers are the dominant generation on the landscape, and thus everything from the 60s, when the they were coming of age, becomes legendary. However it is the 70s where the baby boomers actually came of age as NBA/ABA players. The 60s play was actually dominated by the pre-war depression generation, where child birth was at its nadir. Obviously there’s more than 1 thing going on, but I think it says a lot about humans that what gets romanticized is not the time period where the most populous generation actually takes over, but rather the time period where that generation is in their formative years.

    The NBA/ABA relation is also very interesting, as is the debate about Reed vs Frazier. In a lot of ways, it’s the 70s that really makes us ponder the toughest questions as basketball fans, and yet they get so little respect compared to the 60s and the 80s. So strange.


    November 15, 2010 at 9:14 pm

  4. […] For those interested, during last off-season I ran a project over on RealGM I called the Retro POY project where we determined the player having the best season for all seasons back to ’54-55, the first year of the shot clock era. My post on this blog introducing the project and summarizing key findings is here. […]

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