In team sports (except for possibly baseball—where statistics rule) it is always more accurate when you are ranking a player all time to have actually seen him (or her) play.
“Closing” out a basketball game is obviously a very visual skill and there are few statistics to guide us. Hence, my list is really a list of the Greatest Closers of the last 40 years, or when I started watching basketball (1969—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rookie season and a couple months after Bill Russell retired—I was 10 years old).
That being said, players such as Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson did not make my list, although maybe they should have. I saw the last three play in the latter part of their careers.
However, nothing stands out in my mind about them being great closers. I can recall Jerry West making several big shots in the playoffs and he did not get the nickname “Mr. Clutch” by accident, hence, I felt compelled to include him on my list.
I only feel strongly about my top two (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant) and this is my first stab at this subject matter. Furthermore, I am open to suggestions (for once) on how to improve this list (although only the rankings three through 10).
If you are older than I am, you are really old...I mean, I would love to hear your input on the players above.
Even if I saw Russell play, I doubt he would have made my top 10. By all accounts, he was not a good offensive player and a poor free throw shooter (56.1 career free throw percentage, 60.3 in the playoffs). For rather obvious reasons, you cannot be a truly great closer without being a very good free throw shooter.
In fact, long before the hack attack on Shaquille O’Neal, the Celtics game plan was to foul Wilt—a lousy free shooter (51.1 career and an abysmal 46.5 in the playoffs)—down the stretch in close games. Apparently it worked, since Wilt could only take home one title (he got one more later) during the Celtics' dynasty period.
Therefore, by extension, that is why Wilt did not make my list. Besides, how could a player underachieve in the playoffs like Wilt did and be a great closer? Now, to be fair, both Russell and Wilt were great defenders AND rebounders, so they had to be at least good closers. After all, it is not just big shots and clutch free throws that make a great closer, but also a timely block, steal, and rebound.
Which brings us to the criteria for a truly great “closer” (again feel free to add to this list because this off the top of my head): 1. Clutch shooter. 2. Good free throw shooter. 3. Good 3-point shooter. 4. Ability to drive to the basket, score and/or draw fouls. 5. Ability to post-up. 6. Good rebounder. 7. Good Passer. 8. Good defender.
Not surprisingly, both Jordan and Kobe possess all eight of those qualities. What made Jordan clearly the greatest player of all time (sorry, I am not looking for any help here) was that he was the best offensive player AND the best defensive player. While Russell may have been the greatest defender ever, Jordan was the best defender of the last 40 years and probably the second best defender of all time.
This is what separates Jordan from Kobe. Not only was he a better defender than Kobe, but Jordan made more clutch defensive plays than Kobe or any other player in the last 40 years. And while Kobe is a better three-point shooter than Jordan, Jordan was the greatest clutch shooter ever, including from the behind the three-point line.
I could go on and on about Jordan and Kobe, but I do not want to bore the non-Jordan (all two of you) and the non-Kobe fans. Lets just say that when Nuggets head coach George Karl said in a press conference during the Western Conference Finals, “They may have the best closer,” I thought that was the sports understatement of the year.
Besides, as mentioned above, closing is a visual thing and you have all seen Kobe play, and hopefully for your sake, Jordan.
The Conference Finals (and the rest of the playoffs) were a sometimes painful reminder how important “closing” is to winning championships. Kobe closed better than LeBron James and the Lakers are in the finals and the Cavaliers are not. While LeBron played great, perhaps if he closed like Jordan or Kobe, he would be in the Finals.
After all, while he hit one game winner, the Cavs lost two out three close games and in one of them, LeBron had seven turnovers in the fourth quarter and missed his free throws.
The greatest tandem ever, Magic Johnson and Jabbar (who unlike Russell and Wilt, was a respectable free throw shooter—72.1 career, 74.0 in the playoffs), is also not surprisingly the greatest closing tandem ever. For that reason, I put Bird ahead of Magic, because Bird had less help (not to mention his 3-point and free throw shooting).
Rick Barry, for those of you that did not see him play, was not only a great outside and free throw shooter, but also turned into a very good passer.
LeBron and Dwayne Wade are young and have numerous years ahead of them, so I reserve the right to move them up five years from now. Anyways, here is my first guess at this:
1. Michael Jordan
2. Kobe Bryant
3. Larry Bird
4. Magic Johnson
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6. Jerry West
7. Rick Barry
8. Julius Erving
9. Lebron James
10. Dwyane Wade