All time greats

Quick Question, who are the best basketball players since 1980?

In semi-reverse chronological order they are:

Lebron James
Kobe Bryant
Tim Duncan
Shaquille O’Neal
Michael Jordan
Hakeem Olajuwon
Isiah Thomas
Magic Johnson
Larry Bird
Kareem Abdul-Jabar

You can argue that Isiah shouldn’t be on there; or that, Barkley, Pippen, and either Karl or Moses Malone should be, and maybe Dirk or KG, (also you can argue for Durant or Anthony David should be added, but to that I’d say wait). I wouldn’t agree with displacing any of those players (besides Isiah) though. If you want to get technical, you might argue that if you only take his play since 1980, Kareem doesn’t quite belong on the list, but a: you’re wrong, he does, b: who cares and c: its pretty much irrelevant since he was the best damn player on the planet throughout the 70’s.

Overall, its a damn good list; specifically, it’s the list of players (in my judgment) who were the best player on at least two championship teams. It does a remarkable job of filtering the great from the good. At least for a (somewhat) objective standard; it matches up really really well with subjective opinion, certainly more than any other stat I can come up with.

If we sort the list based on number of championship teams they were the best player on, we get:

Michael Jordan: 6 (’91, ’92, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’98)
Tim Duncan: 4 (’98, ’03, ’05, ’07)
Shaquille O’Neal: 3 (’00, ’01, ’02)
Magic Johnson: 3 (’82 ’87, ’88)
Larry Bird: 3 (’81, ’84, ’86)
Lebron James: 2 (’12, ’13)
Kobe Bryant: 2 (’09, ’10)
Hakeem Olajuwon: 2 (’94, ’95)
Isiah Thomas: 2 (’89, ’90)
Kareem Abdul-Jabar: 2 (’80, 85)

Again, almost a perfect list. Tim Duncan is too high (in terms of history to the game, he should be closer to Kobe and Hakeem than Jordan), and obviously Kareem is too low (but he rises to three if you count his title in 1971, which puts him next to Magic and Bird, which is pretty much right where he belongs). I guess you could argue that Lebron is too low, but he still has time. Overall though, this is a really good proxy of who was the best in the NBA since 1980; not perfect, but I doubt you could find a semi-objective stat which does better.

If we apply this throughout the history of professional basketball, we add:

Wilt Chamberlain
John Havlicek
Bill Russell
George Mikan

Ok, not as good of a list, as we’ve got legitimately great players we’re leaving off, most notably Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. You can argue that Havlicek doesn’t actually qualtify (ie, that Cowens and White were better in ’76, and Russell was better in ’69 and every preciding year they won the champinoship). I disagree, Havlicek was the best Celtic in ’74, and I’d argue in ’69, a case can be made for ’68 as well).

You can also argue that Wilt wasn’t the best player on the ’72 Lakers (that title belongs to Jerry West), therefore taking him off, but I think this just goes to show that the list doesn’t work as well back during the period when Bill Russell and the Celtics won every year.

Obviously George Mikan doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Magic and Jordan, he gets here on the virtue of being the best player in the NBA before the NBA was important. Think of him as you would Cap Anson or Dan Brouthers in baseball, which is to say not at all.

If you include ABA titles, then Dr. J joins the club. Finally, you can make the case that either Willis Reed or Walt Frazier belong here (but not both), although I have Reed as being the best on the ’70 Knicks with Frazier being better in ’73, but I think you can make the case for either player in either year. Besides, the fact that there is a case to be made means taht neither player was clearly the best player on two championship team.

Overall, this is a really interesting phenomena; if you make adjustments for Oscar and West (who probably would have won more titles had the Celtics not dominated the 60s), then you get a really damn good list of the best players of all time.

Putting everybody in order:

Russell 10
Jordan 6
Mikan 5
Duncan 4
Shaq 3
Kareem 3
Magic 3
Bird 3
Kobe 2
Lebron 2
Wilt 2
Hakeem 2
Havlicek 2
Isiah Thomas 2
Julius Earving 2 (ABA titles)

Reduce Russell a few spots, remove Mikan altogether (for justifiable reasons), drop Duncan a few spots, drop Shaq one and bump up Wilt, add Oscar, add West, and remove Isiah. That might not only be the list of the best basketball players ever, but in order! (Ok, so that seems like I’m cheating; but there are two things to consider; first I will make no apologies for removing Mikan: he played before the shot clock in a mostly white league. Second, half those adjustments are adjustments to the fact that 1960’s Celtics won so many titles, improving West, Oscar and Wilt while reducing Russell. So in the end there’s really only four changes you make in order to get an almost perfect list; adjust Duncan down, remove Isiah, drop Shaq one, and adjust for the 60’s Celtics. ¬†And its not like any of these are horrible errors, I don’t think Isiah is one of the 15 best players ever, but he’s in the top 25)

You may also say I’m cheating based on how I define the best player, after all there is some subjectivity here. But there’s little actual effect here; most seasons either: 1: had a clear dominant player on the championship team, 2: had unclear dominant players on the championship team, but which didn’t effect this analysis (ie, Detroit in ’04, Boston in ’08), or had a pair of players who contend for best player in the championship team but who are both on this list (Kareem/Magic, Shaq/Kobe).

This seems incredible to me, that there is a mostly subjective way to measure something in sports that seems to work almost perfectly. Also, the way it works seems to be flexible as well, let me explain. Lets return to Havlicek; he’s on the border of all-time great. No one would doubt he was a hall of famer and incredible player, its whether his comparables are more to someone like Magic or more like Rick Barry. So we’ve got a metric, which could go either way on Havlicek, and opinion is that… he is on the line between in and out of all time.

Or look at Julius Erving. How you view him historically is really a question of how you view the ABA. If you think it was comparable to the NBA, then you list him as an all-time great, if you don’t, then he’s merely a hall of famer. This lines up exactly with our metric, if you include the ABA titles, then he’s in the discussion with Bird and Magic, if not, then you don’t.

Compare this to football, where it seems that any subjective and simple rankings of QBs would either give you Bradshaw over Peyton (which doesn’t seem right to me), or something like Favre or Marino over Montana (which seems awful). Yeah, you could weight things (a passing title worth X, a superbowl worth Y) but then you’re no longer simple (in this case there may be no subjectivity once you create the model, but the number of ways you can tinker with the model are endless, so you can get any remotely reasonable ranking).

Now this would be a really great essay if I could somehow relate this some larger point about society or something, but alas I cannot. But more than anything else, I think it relates to the way that basketball is played, how unlike in baseball or even football, one player can dominate a game. And finally, it gives us a clear method of determining goals for future basketball greats. How can we tell if Durant will join the club? Simply, if he leads his teams to two championships.