Metrics 101: Ranking NBA's Greatest All-Star Performances
Everyone puts up highlights during the All-Star proceedings, which makes it even easier to rely on the numbers instead of our dunk-addled memories.
Though rim-rattling slams, no-look feeds and rejections that propel the ball 10 rows into the crowd all make highlight reels, we're more concerned with the raw production that's taken place during the 68-year history of the NBA's midseason exhibition. And to see how all 1,548 individual All-Star showings throughout the Association's archives stack up, we're getting objective—much like we did last year, but with one key variation.
During our 2018 version of these rankings, we limited the sport's legends to one appearance apiece. Those restrictions are now lifted to capture the true cream of the crop, even though two pre-merger legends will now account for half of the featured spots.
The methodology, though, remains the same.
Game score is by no means a perfect measure of on-court performance, but it does boil all types of contributions into a single number. We're using a slightly modified version here where every rebound (offensive and defensive) is weighted evenly to level the historical playing field. But that's not the only step toward finding All-Star Score, which serves as the lone barometer for these rankings and can be found next to each featured player's name.
Throughout league history, the complexion of these interconference contests has changed dramatically. Now more than ever, defense is entirely eschewed in favor of scoring. The last five years have now produced five of the six highest average game scores for the players involved.
In 1955, average game score bottomed out at 8.45 in a 100-91 victory for the Eastern Conference. During the West's 192-182 win in 2017, the average player had a record-setting 17.4 game score. It fell in 2018, but only to 13.94—the sixth-highest mark in the archives—in Team LeBron's 148-145 triumph.
To account for ballooning scores, we're ranking these performances using z-scores, which show how a player stood out against his competition that specific day. This takes care of changing levels of pace, various degrees of defensive intensity and the incorporation of three-point shooting.
All-Star Score is simply the z-score for each specific outing, and you can view all 1,548 marks throughout NBA history. Most of them just don't stack up against these 10 leading outings.
10. 1976 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 2.655
Modified Game Score: 32.4
Line: 22 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three blocks
Somewhat surprisingly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't have too many legendary All-Star performances. Perhaps his game just didn't mesh with the exhibition feel, even if the skyhooks he routinely swished through nylon were endlessly entertaining. But he made up for all the other lackluster showings—he averaged just 13.5 points during his other 17 appearances—with key contributions for a Western Conference squad that still lost to its foe by a 14-point margin in 1976.
That wasn't due to a lack of effort on Abdul-Jabbar's part.
No one on the West roster was more involved offensively, as he paced the team in field-goal attempts (16) while shooting 56.3 percent during live action. And for good measure, he went 4-of-4 at the stripe. But his work on the glass and as a rejection artist stood out even more.
Only Dave Cowens (16) and Elvin Hayes (10) joined him with double-digit rebounds, and his three blocked shots toppled the combined efforts of every single competitor joining him in the festivities. Randy Smith and Norm Van Lier swatted one apiece, but everyone else posted a goose egg in the block column.
Honorable Mentions: 2011 Kobe Bryant (2.64), 2000 Tim Duncan (2.64), 2010 Dwyane Wade (2.637), 2018 LeBron James (2.627), 1963 Bill Russell (2.624), 2017 Anthony Davis (2.535), 1998 Michael Jordan (2.526), 2015 Russell Westbrook (2.491), 1987 Moses Malone (2.462), 1989 Karl Malone (2.46)
9. 1959 Bob Pettit: 2.673
Modified Game Score: 32.6
Line: 25 points, 16 rebounds, five assists
Leading an All-Star Game in each of the three major categories isn't a particularly easy feat, but Bob Pettit pulled it off in 1959 while representing the St. Louis Hawks. Sparking a 16-point victory for the Western Conference while joined by Elgin Baylor, Gene Shue, Cliff Hagan and Slater Martin in the starting five, he couldn't be stopped in any facet of the game.
(Important note: This happened while he faced a loaded Eastern outfit that featured, among others, Bob Cousy, Paul Arizin, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman and Dolph Schayes—a quintet of names that should still resonate 60 years later.)
And when we say Pettit led the All-Star Game in those three categories (scoring, rebounds and assists), we don't just mean he led his half of the battle. We mean all 20 players who got onto the hardwood at Olympia Stadium in Detroit.
Pettit's 25 points outpaced Baylor (24), Jack Twyman (18), Arizin (16) and Kenny Sears (15) in a game that featured far fewer points than today's offensive exhibitions. His 16 rebounds left him just ahead of Schayes (13) and Baylor (11), while no one else finished in double figures. But the power forward's passing might have been most impressive of all, considering few offenses ran through bigs during the late '50s. Not even Cousy (four) could match his assist tally.
8. 1962 Wilt Chamberlain: 2.696
Modified Game Score: 52.6
Line: 42 points, 24 rebounds, one assist
With the pace elevated to breakneck speeds in a league that had become increasingly focused on skyrocketing scoring tallies, the two conferences combined for 280 points in regulation. That's why Wilt Chamberlain can't rank even more prominently, despite scoring a whopping 42 points all on his lonesome and submitting a modified game score of 52.6 that remains the highest tally in All-Star history.
Remember, we're looking at performance relative to the play of peers, and 1962 also featured the following modified game scores:
- Bob Pettit: 41.4 (No. 5 in All-Star history)
- Elgin Baylor: 30.1 (No. 48)
- Oscar Robertson: 28.1 (No. 65)
- Walt Bellamy: 27.7 (No. 68)
That means five individual performances register in at least the 96th percentile when looking at all showings throughout the All-Star archives. A gaudy score here just doesn't mean quite as much, even if Chamberlain's scoring and rebounding numbers are unimpeachable.
Maybe more assists would've done the trick, considering the towering center logged 2.4 per game during his regular-season efforts with the Philadelphia Warriors but could only record a single dime in this score-happy affair.
7. 1972 Dave Cowens: 2.726
Modified Game Score: 26.3
Line: 14 points, 20 rebounds, one assist
Though Dave Cowens got his hands on an All-Star MVP trophy for his work in 1973 (15 points, 13 rebounds and one assist), this was his best performance in the midseason showdown. Jerry West (1.366 All-Star Score) ended up earning some hardware for the Western Conference during its 112-110 victory, but this second-year center was the most effective player on the floor, even in defeat.
As the red-headed member of the Boston Celtics so often proved during the regular season, he didn't need to produce gaudy scoring figures to have an impact. In fact, Walt Frazier (15) and John Havlicek (15) tied for the Eastern Conference scoring lead, though no one in the West put up larger tallies while distributing the basketball throughout the entire roster.
But Cowens' work on the boards, which showcased his Energizer Bunny motor, left everyone else reeling. Dave DeBusschere (11), Billy Cunningham (10) and Wilt Chamberlain (10) were the only other players in double figures; Cowens single-handedly recorded nearly 16 percent of the game's rebounds. No one else topped 9 percent.
Cowens' modified game score didn't reach atmospheric levels. It also didn't need to during a grind-it-out contest that featured the third-lowest average mark in league history.
6. 1991 Charles Barkley: 2.74
- Charles Barkley: 22 (eight offensive)
- Karl Malone: 11 (four offensive)
- Patrick Ewing: 10 (two offensive)
- David Robinson: six (three offensive)
Modified Game Score: 29.6
Line: 17 points, 22 rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block
Remember how Dave Cowens grabbed nearly 16 percent of the available rebounds in 1972?
Nineteen years later, Charles Barkley, affectionately known as the Round Mound of Rebound, pulled in 20.6 percent of the boards for the Eastern Conference. Just take a quick look at the leading glass-eaters in the 1991 festivities:
That's not all Barkley did during the East's two-point victory, either.
He functioned as the team's third-leading scorer, trailing only Michael Jordan (26) and Patrick Ewing (18) while outdoing everyone on the Western Conference roster. He dished out four dimes, which was topped only by Jordan (five) and Kevin Johnson (seven). He also served as one of nine players to record at least a steal and a block during a game that was surprisingly geared toward defensive play.
When you join Jordan, Ewing, Joe Dumars and Bernard King in the starting lineup, winning MVP is an unlikely outcome. But that's exactly what Barkley did, and he deserved the honor with the clash's highest modified game score, outdoing Ewing (24.0), Malone (22.0), Robinson (15.0) and everyone else with room to spare.
5. 1960 Wilt Chamberlain: 2.777
Modified Game Score: 37.8
Line: 23 points, 25 rebounds, two assists
During Wilt Chamberlain's high-scoring exploits in 1962, four more players finished in at least the 96th percentile for modified game score throughout NBA history.
Back in 1960, Elgin Baylor submitted the second-highest score (29.1), which sits in the 97th percentile. Not much seems to have changed at this point. But then we drop down to the contest's No. 3 score, which comes courtesy of Jack Twyman (22.4). Right below him is Dolph Schayes at 17.7. Those check into the 89th and 80th percentiles, respectively—still solid finishes, but nowhere near the historic levels seen earlier.
This game, a 125-115 victory for the Eastern Conference that featured 40 fewer points than the iteration two years later, was a bit different. Even if Chamberlain couldn't quite match his line in a vacuum, the fact he exploded for 23 points and 25 rebounds is even more impressive.
That's still a combination of statistics only he and Bob Pettit have achieved on the All-Star stage. If we look at 20-20 performances, they're still the lone members of the exclusive fraternity. Hell, loosen the restrictions to require just 15 of each box-score category, and only Bill Russell, Charles Barkley, Dave Cowens, Elvin Hayes, George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Nate Thurmond, Tim Duncan and Walt Bellamy join the club.
While that may seem like a relatively lengthy list, remember we're talking about 68 years of All-Star history and a group comprised of just a dozen members.
4. 1994 Scottie Pippen: 2.977
Modified Game Score: 34.8
Line: 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, four steals, one block
During the 1994 All-Star Game, Scottie Pippen submitted one of the most well-rounded lines in the contest's lengthy history.
Shocking, I know.
Flashback to the 1993-94 season, with Michael Jordan busy batting .202 for the Birmingham Barons, and Pippen was busy exploding into the realm of unquestioned superstars by proving he could stuff the entire stat sheet for the Chicago Bulls. By the time the campaign ended, he was averaging 22.0 points (No. 8 among all qualified players), 8.7 rebounds (No. 22), 5.6 assists (No. 19), 2.9 steals (No. 2) and 0.8 blocks (No. 43) while shooting 49.1 percent from the field.
No wonder he was also able to do it all for the Eastern Conference midway through the year.
Throughout the history of the All-Star proceedings, 28 different players have scored at least 29 points. Fifty-six men have grabbed no fewer than 11 rebounds. A whopping 295 have recorded at least two assists (that part isn't particularly special), while 37 and 129 have separately logged four steals and one block, respectively.
Care to guess how many did so in the same 48-minute outing?
If you think Pippen is the only one, you're slightly off. Julius Erving also hit those numbers with his 1977 efforts, though his performance came during a year with a higher average performance from the included All-Stars.
What a shame. Pippen's showing might as well be meaningless now since it's not entirely unique.
3. 1958 Bob Pettit: 3.084
Modified Game Score: 42.8
Line: 28 points, 26 rebounds, one assist
The Western Conference just didn't have it in 1958.
Battling against a fearsome starting lineup that featured Dolph Schayes, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman and Willie Naulls and competing with a bench highlighted by Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston, they scored 118 points and still found themselves on the wrong end of a 12-point margin. But despite the star-studded nature of the Eastern representatives and the West's defeated status, Bob Pettit still wound up winning MVP.
That's...not easy to do.
To put Pettit's contributions into perspective, we need only look at the sum total of the statistics earned by his teammates. Take away his efforts, and the West would have just 90 points and 46 rebounds. Worse still, they'd shoot only 33-of-78 from the field (42.3 percent) and 24-of-32 (75.0 percent) at the stripe. That's a recipe for disaster against an outfit that somehow generated an extra 30 field-goal attempts in just 48 minutes.
Still, this wasn't even Pettit's best performance during a midseason classic.
2. 1956 Bob Pettit: 3.166
Modified Game Score: 37.8
Line: 20 points, 24 rebounds, seven assists
Shockingly, the second-highest score in our archives comes courtesy of a player who worked his way off the bench for the Western Conference to win his first MVP trophy. Bob Pettit, then a sophomore for the St. Louis Hawks and just two years removed from balling at LSU, simply couldn't be stopped as he produced 20 points, 24 rebounds and an uncharacteristic seven assists.
Let's focus on that final number, and not just because it tied Slater Martin for the high-water mark in the game.
Pettit averaged 3.2 dimes as a rookie with the Milwaukee Hawks, but he then dropped to just 2.6 during the follow-up campaign as the franchise shifted to the Gateway City. When the All-Star festivities began in Rochester War Memorial Coliseum in New York on Jan. 24, he surely couldn't have been expected to more than double his typical assist output.
But that's not all.
The former Tiger facilitated seven buckets during a game in which the West scored only 108 points on 39 made field-goal attempts. He alone accounted for 34 points—nearly a third of the team's total offensive output. That's not too shabby for a man who watched from the pine as Martin, Mel Hutchins, Bobby Wanzer, Larry Foust and George Yardley took to the hardwood for the opening tip.
1. 1988 Michael Jordan: 3.281
- 1962 Wilt Chamberlain: 15.0 percent
- 1967 Rick Barry: 14.9 percent
- 2006 Tracy McGrady: 14.88 percent
- 1988 Michael Jordan: 14.86 percent
- 1975 Walt Frazier: 14.29 percent
Modified Game Score: 43.6
Line: 40 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, four blocks
Michael Jordan boasts the best All-Star performance in history? Surely no one would ever have guessed that was possible.
In typical G.O.A.T. fashion, the Chicago Bulls legend didn't just dominate in one area during the Eastern Conference's 138-133 victory. He excelled on the glass, thrived as a playmaking defender and put together one of the finest scoring performances we've ever seen during an official exhibition contest—an oxymoronic but accurate descriptor. We'll gloss over the board-crashing success (only Moses Malone and the unrelated Karl Malone grabbed more rebounds with nine and 10, respectively), but we can't do the same in the other two areas.
Racking up four steals is hard in a game that typically doesn't feature too much defensive effort. Ditto for blocking four shots. But Jordan accomplished both feats, which only he and Dirk Nowitzki have ever done in a single All-Star appearance.
That might still pale in comparison to the scoring output.
Wilt Chamberlain, Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook (twice) have all exceeded Jordan's 40-point effort. But raw points aren't enough here, given the varying levels of point-preventing effort on display during any given year. Let's instead look at the percentage of the total points in a game scored by a single player:
Putting the full toolbox on display with a historic performance on both ends of the floor deserves some serious recognition. Fortunately, Jordan is getting it with the outing that objectively qualifies as the greatest in All-Star history.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.