A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The top 50 players of all time (by my standards)

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Bill Russell posing with other NBA Legends and...

Almost there, Bill (Image via Wikipedia)

If you’re a RealGM member, you probably know about this project, attempting to rank the top 100 players of the post shot clock era. (which among other reasons, allows us to avoid the impossible task of ranking George Mikan against everyone). We just completed the top 50, (note: Chris Paul made 50th, the thread hasn’t updated yet). I have some greivances about the overall list – let’s just say it’s 90% right and 10% wrong, but that 10% sticks out to a perfectionist. But shortly after it started I decided to update my own list one at a time in coordination with the main one, it is found halfway down the linked thread. This is my analysis in short at the halfway point, with 50 spots finished:

Tier 1 – The Greatest of All Time contenders

1. Michael Jordan

2. Bill Russell

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

These are the 3 players I primarily consider for greatest of all time candidcy. None need much introduction if you are a basketball history fan. Bill Russell at #2 is the most controversial choice here – True, Kareem’s game is as complete as you can get for a center with elite scoring, floor spacing, strong passing, strong rebounding and an ability to anchor a defense – and he’s a superstar for a decade and a half. If you hard to choose between every player’s career in a draft, it’s be really, really hard not to take Kareem. That’s the biggest argument for Kareem. Yet it’s not just about your game but what you do, and Russell and Jordan were not only spectacular players, but perhaps more importantly, impossibly clutch in big games.  Jordan’s candidcy needs little explanation, but since Russell has more doubters – His defensive impact is simply specactular. This is a strong statistical backing for his one of a kind defense, enough for the Celtics to dominate the league even with sub average offenses. I’ve also begun to support Russell’s defensive impact as applicable to modern day for two reasons a) He still dominated in 1968 and 1969, a climate of athleticism and rules not very different from the 1980s and against very modern Sixers and Knicks teams in those years. b) Nate Thurmond is usually seen as the prehistoric Dikembo Mutumbo type defensively strong, offensively questionable center, but Bill Russell dwarfs his impact. Both players cannot be a Mutumbo.  If Thurmond was that good defensively and couldn’t elevate his teams half as much as Bill, it’s reasonable to say Russell perhaps was just in his own galaxy of defensive impact. The more I read of Bill Russell’s words, the more it becomes obvious his defensive approach is completley psychological and the more I am convinced he was simply a basketball genius and outlier in that category. Overall, while I do think Kareem was more unfortunate than the other 2 to play his prime generally with weaker teams – it’s hard not to put the two most unbeatable players of the post shot clock era on top.

Tier 2  – True franchise makers

4. Tim Duncan

5. Magic Johnson

6. Larry Bird

7. Hakeem Olajuwon

8. Shaquille O’Neal

The part that may stick out here other than Wilt not appearing (I’ll get to that in the next section) is Tim Duncan beating both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Tim Duncan, really? The truth is, when I sat down and looked at it, Duncan’s playoff consistency came off as absolutely incredible. The guy virtually never puts up a poor statistical playoff game, and he’s someone who’s defensive impact should allow him to have more consistent impact in the playoffs anyways. Magic and Larry are amazing performers, but have a few more blemishes in playoff consistency. True the common logic for Magic and Larry over Duncan is they’re just more spectacular, but since they are offensive impact players and Duncan is a legendary defense/rebounding player, they need that to make up that gap. When I looked at the success of the Spurs and the players Duncan had, it’s hard for me to make any argument that his impact wasn’t as high – advanced statistics also say Duncan is as strong as them. So why isn’t Olajuwon over them too? Because Duncan, Magic and Bird appear to have a stunning intangible, superior culture creating impact on their teams. Their leadership had its impact throughout the entire roster and system. It’s just barely enough to create that gap but I can’t in good faith put Olajuwon over them when at least for the first half of his career, the Rockets didn’t have quite the team culture and he gained a reputation as a headcase. Shaq is Shaq – Dominant player, not a great leader, has some health issues. 8th all time is nothing to be ashamed about but the other players did more to ensure maximum success to me.

Tier 3 – Marvellous careers, but perhaps never the very best

9. Wilt Chamberlain

10. Kevin Garnett

11. Kobe Bryant

12. Jerry West

13.  Julius Erving

14. Oscar Robertson

Here’s my deal with Wilt Chamberlain. When he gets it right, I think he peaks at a top 5 all time type of level. 1967 as an all around scoring/passing/defensive force, 1972 and 1973 as a dominant defender and finisher. The problem is consistency. At times he scored too much, at times he passed too much, and he had more trouble adjusted on the fly than most stars. A player who’s not at his best in the postseason is a major concern to me as it can sink your whole team (see: 2010, 2011 Lebron, perhaps the closest we’ve seen to Wilt’s questionable postseason losses). I would say he overthought the game at times.  Just comparing him to Shaquille O’Neal, Shaq had less dimensions to his game and it was a good thing. I heard NFL analyst Michael Lombardi once say you’re better off as the restaurant with 10 dishes that you do incredibly well, than one with 50 dishes but none of them mastered. Shaq was the restaurant with 10 dishes and that’s why he was better. He didn’t have to change his style of game because he had one game and he learned to be extremely effective and consistent with it in the playoffs. Shaq was the better playoff performer in a way because he thought less – he knew what he was going to do and did it. When Shaq had his most talented teams from 2000 to 2002 he won 3 titles in a row. When Wilt had his most talented teams from 1967 to 1969 he won in 1967 and slightly disappeared in the 1968 and 1969 playoff runs most crucial moments. Shaq proved he should be above Wilt to me. Likewise with the other players, they may have peaked at less impact but they were the same guy their entire careers and their teams used that to their advantage.

For the rest of the marvellous players, Kevin Garnett is the one usually not listed that high. With the advent of Adjusted Plus/Minus stats where he crushes the field in the 2000s decade and his dominant impact since he came to Boston – I believe he just caught a short stick with caliber of teams and otherwise should be considered top 10 for the same reasons Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon are. They are dominant defensive anchors with exceptional offensive games and having that combination is exceedingly rare and easier to build around than a Bryant or West where they dominant to a greater extent offensively, but not enough to make up for Garnett’s massive defensive impact. Bryant, West, Erving and Oscar all have fantastic all around careers as franchise players, they all win rings, and can all be argued as the 2nd or 3rd best players at their positions ever.

Tier 4 – I don’t have a better name for this so I’ll just say “King PFs”

15. Karl Malone

16. Dirk Nowitzki

After his 2011 playoff run, I now believe Nowitzki deserves to be ranked right beside Malone. I believe Nowitzki is actually the better scorer despite Malone’s higher points per game – Dirk’s skill level is more adept to dominant playoff runs and he spaces the floor as well as any player in history. Give me a choice between Malone and Dirk and I have to think about it very hard.

Tier 5 – Can be the best player on a title team but I have some questions

17. Lebron James

18. Charles Barkley

19. Moses Malone

20. Steve Nash

Evaluating Lebron is of course tricky with the shameful way he bowed out the last 2 seasons. At the same time, I can’t just not give him credit for seasons where he killed in the playoffs like 2009, 2008, 2007 simply because his team wasn’t good enough that year. And even in 2011 he was outstanding the first 3 rounds, flat out carrying his team to 2 Finals appearances i not a bad thing. Lebron has no excuse to not land top 12 on this list eventually, but we’ll see if he can show up in some more Finals 4th quarters. The other 3 players are strictly offensive impact players which lowers their value, but boy are they dominant and they do lead very succesful teams repeatedly. Moses is the one of these 4 with the ring, but he also played on by far the most talented team to get it

Tier 6 – 3 is a group, 13 is a party

21. Bob Pettit

22. David Robinson

23. Patrick Ewing

24. John Havlicek

25. Scottie Pippen

26. Dwyane Wade

27. Elgin Baylor

28. Isiah Thomas

29. Rick Barry

30. Paul Pierce

31. Clyde Drexler

32. John Stockton

33. Gary Payton

This is a really large group, but when I sat down and looked at it, I saw no reason to be sure the players near the bottom were better than the ones at the top. The hardest guy to rank on this list is Dwyane Wade because he’s the one who’s truly been dominant and would deserve to be in the Lebron, Barkley group with more longevity. But nonetheless it’s credit enough for him to be grouped with players who gave their teams twice as many years at a still superb level. Some people have Bob Pettit higher as he was a true superstar for his time, but I believe even for his time, Pettit’s scoring skillset was strong but not spectacular like a Barkley or Dirk’s. David Robinson is also a tricky player to rank because he’s a top 15 regular season player at his peak, but drops off hard in the postseason. It made sense for me to say he drops down to roughly Ewing’s value as a result. I like the combination of John Havlicek and Scottie Pippen together – Both are good but not exceptional scorers and are elite athletes and defenders. Paul Pierce may seem high to people – But why shouldn’t he be next to Clyde Drexler? I’d actually argue Drexler is a worse scorer because he’s the better fastbreak scorer, but Pierce’s shooting and isolation ability makes him a harder guard in the halfcourt – and give me halfcourt ability any day over fastbreak ability. Pierce is this high not because he’s better than everyone else at something, but because he has very little holes in his resume. Comparing skillset, I believe comparing Pierce to Rick Barry is accurate as well. John Stockton is also higher on many lists than this one – He was not a dominant player creating his own scores, as an extremely strong passer and defender he’s a fit on most teams, but I believe one can draw a comparison between him and Pippen and Havlicek as players more complete than dominant.

Tier 7 – Franchise players who’s candles didn’t burn quite as long so they had their party card rejected

34. Dwight Howard

35. Kevin Johnson

36. Alonzo Mourning

37. Walt Frazier

38. Willis Reed

These 5 players have very little holes in their games at C for Dwight, Zo and Reed and PG for Johnson and Frazier. The first group are two way centers and the second group are score/pass PGs. They all proved they can lead elite teams – Howard, Johnson and Mourning had lead 55 W+ teams without superstar partners, and Frazier and Reed won 2 titles together. But all 5 also have questionable longevity of prime years which puts them a step below the big group of 13.

Tier 8 – The Halls of Very Good-Maybe Excellent

39. Artis Gilmore

40. Reggie Miller

41. Dominique Wilkins

42. Kevin McHale

43. Dave Cowens

44. George Gervin

45. Ray Allen

46. Elvin Hayes

47. Pau Gasol

48. Bob Lanier

49. Alex English

All of these guys are studly franchise building blocks, but in all liklihood, they need to be paired with someone else at least in the top 75 to contend for a title. I feel the 5 players in the group above them have a clearly better chance to be the driving force of a title winning team, which is enough to give them the edge despite less years. Reggie Miller may seem high to some, but he’s been a beneficiary of advanced stats where he’s looked excellent, he anchored great teams throughout the 90s, and most importantly, he bumps his production up in the postseason while most stars decline. Pau Gasol may also stick out, but I feel he has a complete game as a big man with scoring, defending, passing and has proven himself a true champion. I do not feel McHale vs Gasol should be automatically discounted, McHale is the more proficient scorer but Gasol has a more well rounded game.

Tier 9 – The Lonely Soul

50. Jason Kidd

Just missed the last group. I have concerns about Jason Kidd in the halfcourt due to the fact that he’s not a dangerous scorer and may have defenses play off him. He has things you don’t expect from a PG, but is also missing parts of the game you expect every starting PG should have.

Stay tuned for the next 50 in about 3 months, or you can just follow our work thread by thread on RealGM…

One Response

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  1. Like it, but I think Steve Nash and Patrick Ewing are too high. Nash over David Robinson and Scottie Pippen?! He has no D at all, and that includes steals, blocks and rebounds.

    I also think Payton is ranked too low, but that might just be personal preference.

    Gary Payton’s best season:
    82 GP 24.2 points 6.5 rebounds 9 assists 2.7 TOs 1.9 steals

    Nash’s best season:
    79 GP 18.8 points 4.2 rebounds 10.5 assists 3.5 TOs 0.8 steals

    And we KNOW who the better defender was.

    Nash’s %s are better, but I’m confident GP’s % would look similar if he were as selective with his shooting as Nash was.

    My PG ranks are:


    Totally agree with the high ranking on Garnett though. If he had been fortunate enough to be on a good team in his prime, I think he’d have a chance of being a top 5 player of all time. But nobody could have carried that Timberwolves team. When you look at his stats from his prime and add in his Defensive impact…wow…


    October 17, 2011 at 12:43 am

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