I read a very good article recently about rating players the other day and it got me to thinking about the whole psychology of picking a "best" player.
For me, the best kind of player is epitomized by guys like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. Oscar and Magic were the kinds of guys who set up their teammates and destroyed opposing defenses by forcing the defense to guard everyone on the floor.
When Magic Johnson’s Lakers met the Celtics of that era, the Celtics had arguably better personnel at every position except perhaps at point guard. The Lakers won two of their three matchups largely because of Magic’s skill at getting his entire team involved in the scoring.
When I was younger, the kind of player teams tended to build around was the big center like Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. These were guys who could dominate the game with high percentage inside scoring, great interior defense and control of the boards.
During these earlier eras there were guys like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Dr J, etc.; guys who were great scorers but not necessarily considered essential to the building of a championship team. At the beginning of the 90’s this perception changed when the Chicago Bulls began to win championships lead by the scoring of Michael Jordan.
Since what has become known as the "Jordan era" it has become popular to point to Jordan’s stats as proof that Michael Jordan could lay claim to being the best player ever.
Was he really, or is someone else the best player ever?
One of the biggest considerations people make in considering the worth of a player is the number of championship teams that player has been on.
There are some respects of this consideration that are legitimate, but just because a player was on a championship team does not mean that he was a great part of why that team won the championship.
Players like B. J. Armstrong, Luke Walton, Kenny Smith and Robert Horry all have been on championship teams, yet no one would consider them as great players. Robert Horry in particular has seven championship rings, one more than Michael Jordan, and only two less than Bill Russell.
The consideration of championships only makes sense if the reverse is true, that a team could not have won a championship if a particular player had not been there. Certainly in the case of the 2000 Lakers championship team, the absence of either Shaquille O’Neill or Kobe Bryant would have made a championship unlikely for that team. They probably would have not even made it to the playoffs.
One of the oddities of the Jordan era is that he briefly retired after the first run of three championships. The 1993-94 Chicago Bulls ended up with a comparable record to previous Bulls championship teams and only exited from the playoffs after a hotly contested second round playoff series without Jordan or a replacement for him.
In the rarefied air at the top of the statistics charts, one would expect to find the most important players in the game, right? Kareem leads all scorers followed by…Karl Malone. Then we get to MJ and Wilt, but Wilt only played 14 years while the three all time scorers ahead of him all played over 17 years (don’t forget Jordan’s two years off).
Hold on though, Wilt was the all time best rebounder and Kareem was third. Jordan comes in at slightly less than half of the rebounds Malone had, and just a few more than a fourth of the total that Wilt had.
Jordan’s one statistical lead over the other fourall time scoring leaders is in steals. Kareem has more assists and blocks. In Wilt's case, they didn’t keep track of assists and blocks back then.
If we go by stats alone then it's between Kareem, Wilt, and Karl Malone.
Older folks remember Oscar Robertson. During the ‘80s people remember guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and John Stockton. These are the guys who don’t get big stats but seem to be a key part of the majority of plays.
You can’t think of the ‘80s Lakers without thinking about Magic flipping a pass to the open man on a break.
Say the ‘80s Celtics and there is an image of Larry Bird making a clever pass into a teammate open in the lane.
Two of the most successful teams of all time revolved around two guys that were considered the best at making their teammates better. If you are looking at stats, neither Magic nor Bird looks all that great, but their impact on the game was arguably far greater than their stats.
There is a whole class of players who dominate games but rarely show up well in stats. Does that make them of less quality than the great scorers? Hardly.
While guys like MJ and Wilt were dominating scorers, players like Magic got all of their teammates involved and broke down team defenses.
Who was the best?
This is usually where the author pulls this or that argument out to support their favorite player. The reality, as I’ve demonstrated, is that there are valid arguments for several players. Basketball is a team sport and sometimes great team play is not a measurable quality.
I received a comment the other day on a different article saying that the commenter had stopped watching NBA games for two years after the player he thought was the best ever retired. When I read that I actually felt bad for the guy, he had grown so fond of one player that the game itself was secondary.
I think that’s the danger of this whole notion of the best ever. If you truly think you’ve seen the best ever then why watch any other games? Personally I’d prefer to think the best ever has yet to play and that until every game has been played we can’t possibly know who that best player will be.