Evaluating the Big O, West, Baylor, Malone, and Barkely: What's Fair?

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Evaluating the Big O, West, Baylor, Malone, and Barkely:  What's Fair?
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

The general consensus when evaluating the greatest NBA basketball players of all-time seems to be that it is fair to consider championship rings as a factor or criterion. 

In addition, this apparently applies only to the top 25 or so players of all time since it is very difficult for one player to have a big influence on their team winning a championship. 

Hence, it would take a truly great player to realistically have a shot at doing this, so it is not as fair of an evaluation factor or criterion for lesser players.  This makes sense to me and I tend to follow this in my evaluations.

Of course, we all know even if someone (i.e. Michael Jordan) is the greatest player ever, they can’t win championships without some help. NBA history has shown it always takes two great players, one great player and two very good players, lots of very good players (i.e. ’79 Sonics who had no great players but three very good players), or something similar. 

Hence, basketball evaluators do not just count the championships of the greatest players to rank them. If that were the case, then obviously Bill Russell with 11 championships would be seen as the undisputed greatest player ever. He is not seen by almost everyone as the greatest player ever nor was he (at best he was second, but certainly in the top eight).

Two other rather obvious factors in evaluating great players in relation to championships are: 1) what was the quality of the player’s teammates throughout their entire careers and 2) what was the quality of the player’s opposition especially in the years when that player was on a very good team (after all, it does not matter how good the opposition was in the years when the player was on mediocre teams since they would have had no shot at a championship regardless of the quality of the opposition). 

I think both of these factors are very subjective and more complicated than they appear.

For example, in the first instance:  Were the great or very good players that played with our specific great player at their peak when they played them?  Was the specific great player at his peak when he had good talent around him?  Were all the players healthy at the same time?

In the second instance, because of the corollary that I attached (i.e. especially), you have to break down each year of the great player’s career and not just look at the era or decades that he played in.  And this is very subjective.

In my article, “The 25 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time,” I ranked Oscar Robertson seventh (Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain were my first six in that order), Jerry West ninth, Elgin Baylor 10th, Karl Malone 19th, and Charles Barkley 20th. 

The reason I choose these players for purposes of our discussion is because Robertson and West are the highest-ranking players with only one championship; and Baylor, Malone, and Barkley are the highest-ranking players with zero championships on my list. 

Now if you ranked them higher than I did, chances are you penalized them less than I did for their lack of championships. And if you ranked them lower than I did, chances are you penalized them more than I did for their lack of championships (if you ranked them the same as I did, then, of course, you are very smart and really know your basketball history, lol). 

My question is: Regardless of where we rank them all-time—did we weigh their lack of championships fairly?

As most of you know, the Big O, West, and Baylor spent most of their peak years not being able to win championships because of the Celtics’ Dynasty. I suspect that if either West or Baylor (or Wilt) was as good as Jordan there would not have been a Celtics Dynasty, or at least it would have been more like the Spurs Dynasty (four championships in nine years). 

But, how much should we punish them for not being able to get by the great Russell led Celtics teams of the ‘60s who always seemed to find a way to win during crunch time in the playoffs?

Robertson finally got his one title after Russell retired (1969) in 1971 playing for the Milwaukee Bucks with the help of league MVP Jabbar (his second season) and Bobby Dandridge; and West finally got his ring the following year (1972) with the help of Wilt and Gail Goodrich. 

Baylor, sadly, started out playing with West on that team, but retired nine games into the season because of bad knees and missed out on getting the championship that long eluded him for so long (I have also read Baylor retired out of protest of being taken out of the starting lineup, but since his knees were the main reason he was not performing up to par, I will give him the benefit of the doubt).

The Big O never made it to the finals (losing in the Eastern Conference Finals twice to the Celtics) in the ‘60s playing with the Cincinnati Royals where he had the help Jerry Lucas (63-69), but no other great players. 

He made it to finals twice with Jabbar and the Bucks (joining them at age 32) in the ‘70s losing once (1974) and winning once. West won once in the finals and lost eight times—six times to the Celtics in the ‘60s. 

Baylor lost all eight times in the finals—seven times to the Celtics. I have more sympathy for Robertson because West and Baylor had each other the entire ‘60s (1960-61 season West joined the Lakers) and they were both better player than Lucas.

One final thing about West before you dismiss him because of his 1-8 record in the finals: he is the only player on a losing team to be voted the Finals MVP in NBA history—when his Lakers lost to Russell’s Celtics in 1969, 4-3. In addition, he was given the nickname Mr. Clutch for making big shots in the playoffs. 

Barkley made it to the finals once in his career with the Phoenix Suns in 1993 (who won five more games than Chicago that year), when they lost to the two-time defending champions, Jordan’s Bulls, 4-2. 

The next two years the Suns were eliminated by the Hakeem Olajuwon led Houston Rockets and eventual champions in the Western Conference Semis—both times in seven game series. What hurts Barkley is that the Suns won 12 more games during the regular season than the Rockets when they lost to them in 1995.

When Barkley arrived in Philadelphia in 1985, Julius Erving (age 34) and Bobby Jones (33) were old, but Moses Malone (29, two seasons together) and Maurice Cheeks (28, four seasons) were still in their prime. Yet the Sixers never made it to the finals while he was there, let alone win a championship.

Karl Malone made it to the finals twice in Utah (1997 and 1998), losing twice to Jordan’s Bulls, both times 4-2. What hurts Malone is that in ’98 Malone’s Jazz and Jordan’s Bulls had identical records that year, but the Jazz had the home court advantage because they had beaten the Bulls both times they played that year. 

In addition, that year, Jordan, while still Jordan, was now 35-years-old.  Malone also made it to the finals a third time and lost at age 40 while playing with the Lakers in 2004.

Malone had the advantage of playing with the great John Stockton for 18 seasons; however, he played with no other great players while at Utah.  I’ll leave it up to you on how to assess that last fact.

Now that you have a summary of all five players, are we fairly evaluating these great players based upon their lack of championships?  I’ll let you decide—I just wanted to give you some things to think about.

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