Saturday, March 5, 2011

The 50 greatest NBA players of all-time

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Given the team's record right now, Raptor news is a bit boring these days; eventually I will take another look at how the individual players have been playing, but Nerd Numbers is down (and the Game Splits tool - which I had just started to rely on for my weekly player evaluations - has been down for a while now). So today I will write about a topic that is barely even tangentially related to the Raptors - my version of the NBA's 50 greatest players.

This all started with a list from Mosi Platt of Miami Heat Index. Mosi used Wins Produced to determine which players from the turnover era (1978 to present) should be on the NBA's list of the 50 greatest NBA players, but he also didn't remove any of the players who played the majority of their careers before 1978 (which left players like Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, and Dave Bing on the list). This is quite understandable, because, due to the poor stat-keeping practices of the NBA back in the day, Wins Produced can only be accurately calculated from the 1978 season onwards. But I have a problem with leaving in all the older players...not all of them deserved to be on that list (surprising, I know). The NBA's 50 Greatest list was inspired by the Basketball Hall of Fame, and it's pretty obvious that the Hall of Fame is biased towards players who played in the late '50s and the '60s. And there are several reasons why I think that players who played in that era are overrated:
  1. Teams took a crazy amount of shots. For example, in the 1960-61 season, the average team took 8642 shots over the course of the season, which is about 109.4 FGA/G (teams played 79 games back then). The team that took the most shots that season - the Celtics - averaged around 117.7 FGA/G. How does that compare to teams today? The league average in FGA was 6700 last season, which means that the average team took 81.7 FGA/G. The league leader in FGAs - the Warriors - took 7094 shots and had an average of 86.5 FGA/G. Why does it matter? All the extra shots made it easier for teams and players to score points and grab rebounds.
  2. Players used to play more minutes. Again, using the 1960-61 season, the player who led the league in minutes played was Wilt Chamberlain. That season Wilt played 3773 minutes over 79 games, which comes out to an average of 47.8 min/g - which was nothing out of the ordinary for Wilt; the following season he played a mind-boggling 48.5 min/g, and his career average was 45.8 min/g. That season there were also four other players who averaged over 40 min/g, and actually, all five of them averaged over 42.7 min/g. Last year Kevin Durant lead the league in minutes with 3239 over 82 games, but Monta Ellis was the per game leader at 41.4 min/g. The only other player who managed to play more than 40 min/g was Gerald Wallace. Why does it matter? All the extra minutes played by the league's best players gave them more time to rack up statistical totals. Given that most people still evaluate NBA players based on per-game and career totals - and not per 36min or per 48min stats - this inflates the value of the older players.
  3. There were fewer teams. In the 1960-61 season the league had eight teams; assuming that the teams are of equal quality (obviously wrong, but stay with me), that means that each team had a 50% chance of making the playoffs (4/8) and a 12.5% chance of winning the championship (1/8). Last season the NBA had 30 teams; assuming that the teams are of equal quality, that means that each team had a 53.3% chance of making the playoffs (16/30) and a 3.3% chance of winning the championship (1/30). And while it's now easier to make the playoffs, it's also harder to advance in the playoffs. In the 1960-61 season a team only had to win 7 games to advance to the Finals and only 11 games to claim the title. Last season a team had to win 12 games to make it to the Finals and 16 games to win it all. In the past, winning a championship was much more influenced by random chance due to the small sample size and was not as impressive as it is today. Why does it matter? Most people overrate the importance of team success when it comes to evaluating players. For years Kevin Garnett was a "choker" who "didn't know how to win" while he toiled away with little help in Minnesota. He got traded to the Celtics, won a championship, made it to an additional Finals, and now he's "a guy who just knows how to win". If Garnett had been playing in an eight team league while he was in Minnesota, he might've won at least one title through dumb luck.
  4. There were fewer players. In the 1960-61 season there were 93 players who played at least one minute and 88 players who played over 100 minutes; last year there were 442 players who played at least one minute and 407 players who played over 100 minutes. Why does it matter? Perception of ability is partly tied to the individual awards that a player wins during their career, and it was easier to win individual awards in a smaller league. For example, in the 1960-61 season, 10.8% of the league's players were awarded a spot on All-NBA teams (10/93), whereas last year 3.4% of the league's players were awarded a spot on All-NBA teams (15/442). The same story is true for every award and accolade.
All that being said, players who played in the late '50s and the '60s were more likely to have inflated stats and, other than the very best players, were more likely to have won a disproportionate number of individual awards. As such players from this era really have to jump out at me in order to be considered some of the 50 greatest players ever.

Before we take a look at my list, first let's go over the methodology. For players who played their whole careers after the 1976-77 season (also known as the turnover era), I simply made use of Arturo's handy list of the greatest players since 1978. For players who played at least part of their careers before the 1977-78 season, I used the following method for estimating Wins Produced. It's important to note that, due to the fact that the NBA didn't keep track of steals, blocks, or turnovers during most of the pre-turnover era, the WP numbers are inflated. I also didn't count ABA stats due to the weaker competition, and this list does not include playoff performances (if you are interested in the greatest playoff performances of the turnover era, Arturo's got a nice list of championships produced).

Anyways, here's my new list of the top 50 NBA players of all-time:

LeBron James makes the cut already - barring any serious injuries, I expect him to climb up to near the top once his career is finished. Grant Hill was in danger of not making the list, but he was really good earlier in his career (look it up - he was about as good as LeBron) and has managed to perform at a high level after sustaining serious injuries, so I had to include him. Nash and Dirk both have MVPs, a bunch of huge seasons...and they're pals, so I can't have one one the list without the other. Larry Nance had really good rate stats, even if he didn't play as many minutes as some of the other players on the bubble, so he makes it. Paul Pierce is going to keep adding to his totals, so he makes it. Despite the limited minutes played and the poor totals, Mikan makes the list for having really good rate stats, for putting up relatively monstrous WP numbers (players in the '40s to early '50s were terribly inefficient shooters), and for causing so many rule changes and influencing the early game to a great degree.

Were you searching for some names on that list, but didn't find them? Here are the players who missed the cut:

Here are the 18 players who were on the original top 50 list but have been demoted:
  • Tiny Archibald
  • Paul Arizin
  • Rick Barry
  • Dave Bing
  • Bob Cousy
  • Billy Cunningham
  • Dave DeBusschere
  • George Gervin
  • Hal Greer
  • John Havlicek
  • Pete Maravich
  • Kevin McHale
  • Earl Monroe
  • Willis Reed
  • Isiah Thomas
  • Bill Walton
  • Lenny Wilkens
  • James Worthy
The players in bold at the top - DeBusschere, Howell, Havlicek, Hairston, and Walker - have been kept off because of their inflated stats from playing in the '60s (and lack of turnover data). Of the modern players, Reggie Miller was the hardest omission, but he never had a huge season (his highest seasonal win total was 14.0 during the 90-91 season), has low rate production, and is mostly on the leaders' list due to his longevity. Oakley, Sikma, Laimbeer, Porter, and Camby weren't convincing enough to beat out the other bubble players - Hill, Nash, Dirk, and Pierce - although Camby was the closest to making it and (obviously) has best chance of any of these players of making it in the future. Barring injury, I fully expect Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to eventually make it on the list, and Dwaye Wade also has a pretty good chance (although his history of injuries and age are working against him at this point).

Well that was fun! But where are the Raptor connections? Of my 50 greatest list:
  • Hakeem Olajuwon foolishly played his last 61 games in a Raptor uniform
  • Shawn Marion played 27 games with the team until he left as a free agent (although technically he was traded)
  • Mark Jackson played 54 games for Toronto, until he was traded away for Chris Childs and the draft pick that became Kareem Rush/Chris Jefferies
Of the players who missed the cut: 
  • Charles Oakley played 208 games with the team
  • Marcus Camby played 126 unproductive games at the start of his career
  • Tracy McGrady played his first 192 games in Toronto
  • Rod Strickland played 15 games at the end of his career
  • Alvin Robertson played the last 77 games of his career and scored the first points in the team's history
  • and let's not forget the role that Isiah Thomas had as the team's first GM
Not bad for a franchise that hasn't been around for very long! Too bad most of the players arrived either too soon or too late to be of much use, but compared to, say...the Grizzlies or the Timberwolves, Toronto did pretty well here.

 - Devin


  1. On your comment about how 60's players played lots of minutes, Wilt Chamberlain is arguably the most athletic player in NBA history!

  2. Devin,
    Awesome post! You're making me feel bad. Ok the game splits tool will be a bit but the NerdNumbers site with this year's numbers is back up. Enjoy!

  3. Hey, don't worry - it's ready when it's ready. As I said, the Raptors haven't been particularly interesting anyways.

  4. Devin, great post. I think your ratings are little bit off on one count, though: the estimated numbers skew in favor of bigs and against guards. The era's "run and gun" mentality meant that teams and coaches valued quantity over quality when it comes to shots. guards ran around and jacked up shots, while centers were able to clean up loads of rebounds per minute. 6 of the top 10 players on your list are prehistoric big men, while the Celtics managed to win 11 titles in 13 years with such louts as Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, KC Jones, etc. running the perimeter. Maybe the guards from the era were a little bit better, and maybe Walt Bellamy wasn't way better than David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon?

  5. @Greg Hey - Walt "Bells" Bellamy was a legitimately great big man! 21,000 pts, 14,000 rebs.

    Devin - you delivered as promised. Great post & I thought the Raptors angle was very interesting. Wish I had thought of doing that for the Heat in my post. I have some questions, but maybe it's better if we discuss them on a podcast. What do you think?

  6. Greg:

    Oh, the estimated numbers are exactly that - estimated. I only used them as a rough guideline. The players in my top 50 are not necessarily ranked as they appear - those are just the players that made the cut, ordered by WP/EWP. So, for example, I don't necessarily believe that Bellamy was more productive than Magic, but he shows up ahead of him on this list. I could've ordered the list alphabetically instead....I probably should have mentioned that somewhere.

    As I said, I think players who played in the late '50s and the '60s have inflated stats, which is why Chamberlain's numbers more than double Magic's (I think Chamberlain was probably better than Magic, but certainly not by that much. But you bring up an interesting point about the guards: guards weren't very productive back then, so maybe some of the guards who missed the cut on my list should have made it instead? It's an interesting question. What if the average guard was so unproductive that a guard who posted an AdjP48 of 0.000 had a WP48 of 0.100-0.200? In that case, while the guards' WP totals would be higher, you could make the argument that most of the wins in the league were created by big men, and so the guards should stay off the list. I certainly think that big men were far more important back then than they are today.

    I think Bob Cousy and K.C. Jones are probably overrated. Havlicek, Bill Sharman, and Bailey Howell made it onto the missed the cut list, so they were close. Remember, it's a top 50 list: the players who don't make it aren't "louts", just not the very best of the best.

  7. Mosi:

    Sounds good - just let me know when you're free and we'll try to arrange something.

  8. Yes, "louts" was simply for rhetorical force. I certainly agree that big man were more important in that game. I should have specified my previous comment along these lines: Since Dr. Berri has shown that WP48 is most responsive to changes in shooting %, and since guards in the 50's and 60's regularly shot 40% from the field with no 3-pointers, it's probably going to be difficult to compare them with Clyde Drexler, Paul Pierce, etc. Anyway, I liked the post a lot, so sorry if it sounds like I'm only offering critique.

  9. No problem Greg: valid points to make. If everyone in the WoW network simply offered blind praise, we'd get nowhere.

  10. I understand that maybe the numbers warrant this, but I can not see how a rationale person can justify listing shawn marion as one of the 50 greatest players of all time. He's never even been the best player on his own team, much less one of the best in the league. I would like an explanation as to your thinking. If you were just making this list based on wp48 I could maybe understand, but obviously you are factoring other things in so I don't get your logic with him. He is a unique talent and a great defender, but there surely are a million players with careers similar to his. (Great in transition, athletic, very good defenders.) Leaving somebody like isiah off the list in favor of Marion seems like a bit of a stretch.

  11. This is a great list. I did not have any idea of top 10 nba players of all time. But this thread really provides updated information regarding NBA players. Thanks for this information.