We would like to welcome Lochpster who is making his writing debut on Chasing 23. Lochpster has long been a valued member of the Chasing 23 community and has demonstrated an unique knowledge, insight, and historical perspective around the game. As such, we have invited him to contribute in the spirit of the moderately intelligent fan.
This is one of the most exciting, competitive NBA playoffs ever. The sheer number of great players competing at or near their peaks is astonishing. There have been upsets galore. There have been villains, heroes, and goats. There has been more discussion about the legacies of great players than at any time I can remember. Disappointingly, these discussions frequently devolve into a mere ring counting exercise. I am here to argue that ring counting is a terrible way to assess a player’s legacy.
To quote Phil Jackson, who’s won more NBA titles than anyone else alive, “Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable. It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it.”
First and foremost, winning is a team statistic. No individual player, no matter how great, can win without his team. Beyond this, the quality of his opponents, his coach, his health, the referees, and a significant degree of luck play a role in who wins and who loses a game. The only thing a player can control is how he plays the game. Yet players who are fortunate enough to play for championship teams are frequently elevated to iconic status, whereas better players who struggle to win titles are underappreciated and marginalized.
Wilt Chamberlain is an example of a player who is underappreciated because of his perceived underachieving in terms of NBA championships. His statistics are mind-boggling. His NBA.com biography states that he holds 72 NBA records, including most points per game (season and career), most minutes per game (season and career), FG% (season), consecutive field goals made, every rebounding record imaginable, and the single season assist record for a center. Some would argue that his statistics reflect his era, or that he wouldn’t dominate the same way today. However, what these people are ignoring is that Wilt is probably the most impressive physical specimen the game has ever seen. Nobody could score 50.4 points or 27.2 rebounds per game today, but Wilt would probably still be the best center alive.
Considered the strongest player in the league during his peak, a 59 year old Wilt was witnessed bench pressing 465 pounds. In comparison, Shaquille O’Neal once claimed to bench press 455 pounds, and Dwight Howard maxes out at about 365. He ran the 100 yard dash in 10.9 seconds in college. He was a three-time Big Eight High Jump champion and is the only NBA player known to have dunked from the free throw line without a running start. He also dunked on an experimental 12-foot hoop while at KU. Wilt is one of the only players to have blocked a Kareem skyhook despite being 10 years older than Kareem. His peers have stated he often avoided going all out just to keep from hurting someone. His dominance led to multiple rule changes. Nobody has ever come close to Wilt’s level of individual dominance before or since, and when you consider what his body was capable of (insert your 20,000 women joke here), it’s not hard to imagine that he was just that much better than everyone else. Yet due to circumstances largely beyond his control, his entire career was spent in the shadow of Bill Russell.
A common argument when comparing Wilt to Russell is that Russell was the smarter player and did more to help his team win while Wilt compiled empty stats. This is nothing but spin. Basketball IQ and drive to win are only of value if they translate into on-court production. Russell and Wilt had many hard-fought battles over the course of their careers, and their head to head record is closer than many would believe. Russell won 88 games versus 74 for Wilt in head to head action. Wilt consistently dominated Russell, averaging 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds compared to 14.5 and 23.7 for Russell while scoring much more efficiently than Russell.
Many have argued that Wilt was selfish, but as the best offensive option on his team for much of his career, he was supposed to shoot. Russell had a reputation as a better defender, but that’s mere opinion and speculation at this point. Harvey Pollack claims Wilt blocked an average of at least 10 shots per game and he has a documented 23 blocks against Phoenix. During the 1961-1962 season, a year rated the #1 sports season of all time by ESPN in 2008, in which he averaged 50.4 PPG, 25.7 RPG and shot .506 from the field. The MVP that year? Bill Russell, who averaged 18.9 PPG, 23.6 RPG, and shot .457 from the floor. What better example could there be that Russell’s perceived dominance of Wilt was not in sync with reality?
Wilt went to the Finals a total of 6 times in 14 seasons and won twice despite consistently running into teams full of Hall of Famers. Wilt lost four Game 7s to Russell by a total of 9 points. Yet when you compare the rosters, it’s clear that outside of the pivot, the Celtics were consistently a superior team. Wilt’s original Warriors team was 32-40 and missed the playoffs the year before they drafted him, whereas Russell was drafted onto a playoff team that already had MVP Bob Cousy, Red Auerbach, and had drafted another Hall of Famer in Tom Heinsohn that year as well.
Things continued to break Russell’s way throughout their careers. In game 7 of the 1962 Eastern Conference Finals, Wilt hit a game-tying shot with 16 seconds left before Sam Jones drained his own game-winner. In game 7 of the 1965 Finals, Wilt hit two free throws and dunked on Russell to bring the game to within one point with 5 seconds left, and Russell hit a guide wire with his inbounds pass, turning the ball over. Then John Havlicek ‘s famous steal salvaged the win for Boston. In game 7 of the 1968 Eastern Conference Finals, which the Sixers lost by 4 points, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Matt Guokas hit a combined 25 of 74 shots with Wilt playing the role of rebounder and distributor. In game 7 of the 1969 finals, which the Lakers lost by 2, Wilt suffered a knee injury and was controversially benched for the final 6 minutes. The Lakers also lost in 7 games to the Knicks in 1970, a year in which Wilt was criticized for not dominating enough against a hobbled Willis Reed. What is easily forgotten is that he had just returned from a career-threatening injury and he lost to that Knicks team boasting 4 future Hall of Famers. If you want to argue that Russell was better than Wilt, you have to ignore every shred of statistical evidence and rely on a few flawed team statistics, wins and titles. You must then ignore how close Wilt came on a regular basis with consistently inferior teammates. It is really hard to credibly argue Russell’s superiority by throwing out all assessment of individual performance other than team results, yet that is what is frequently done.
Michael Jordan’s career, likewise, demonstrates that no player can win without strong teammates and a lot of luck. Very early in his career it became clear that Jordan was among the best in the league not only in talent, but also in toughness and determination. During the 1986 season, Jordan missed 64 games and was advised by his team doctors not to return that year. However, he came back at the end of the season, and the Bulls squeaked into the playoffs as the 8 seed with a 30-52 record. In Game 2 of their first round series against Boston, Jordan went 22-41 from the floor and 19-21 from the line to score an NBA playoff record 63 points. Larry Bird famously stated “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Yet the Boston Celtics wound up sweeping the Bulls, despite MJ’s 44-6-6 line, based on the strength of their 5 Hall of Famers. Jordan, of course, went on to win numerous titles, but it took him 5 more years, Scottie Pippen, one of the top power forwards in the game, and a seemingly endless stable of sharpshooters to make it over the top and stay there.
Even during his team’s championship runs, Jordan needed a lot of luck and a lot of help from his teammates. In the 1991 NBA finals, Scottie Pippen did the heavy lifting on defense by guarding Magic Johnson, and the Bulls were aided greatly by injuries to Byron Scott and James Worthy. In the decisive game 6 of the 1992 NBA finals, Portland started the 4th quarter with a 15 point lead, and it was Pippen and 4 reserves who outscored the Blazers by 12 points in the early fourth with MJ on the bench to get the Bulls back into the game. The 1993 NBA finals were won on John Paxson’s game-winning jump shot in game 6. In the 1997 Finals, the Bulls won game 1 after Malone bricked 2 potentially game winning free throws that allowed MJ to steal the game with a buzzer-beater, and they won game 6 on Steve Kerr’s last-second shot. That was also the year of the legendary “flu game,” in which MJ gutted out 38 points when many players would have played horribly if at all. The 1998 finals are remembered in large part because of MJ’s beautiful shot after getting away with an egregious push on Byron Russell. And lest we forget, the Bulls barely got there, surviving the Pacers in a Game 7 for the ages in the Eastern Conference Finals in which MJ shot 9-25 from the floor and 10-15 from the line but was buoyed by a +16 team rebounding advantage and 14 missed free throws by the Pacers. Also, it should be noted that the 1993-1994 Bulls, without MJ, won 55 games and went to the Eastern Conference Finals, so it’s not as if his teammates were chopped liver without him. I point out all these close calls to show how dependent on factors outside his control, even the player widely considered the greatest of all time was.
The modern winning vs. production debate has been Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. Much like a modern-day Wilt, Lebron dominates any statistical analysis against his peers. He has led the league in player efficiency rating (PER) for the past 4 years and win shares for the past 3. He bests Kobe in every conventional metric over his career-points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, minutes per game, steals per game, blocks per game, and FG%. While Kobe has the edge in 3 point % and FT%, Lebron still bests Kobe convincingly in effective FG% and true shooting %, which are more accurate measure of offensive efficiency. As outlined extensively on this website, Lebron is a better clutch player. The gap between the two widens in the playoffs, when Lebron’s PER goes up while Kobe’s drops even further. The only real metric by which you can argue that Kobe is better is by team success.
Yet when you look at the course of their careers, it is readily apparent why Kobe has won so many more titles. Kobe won his first 3 titles with Shaq, who was among the most efficient scorers in NBA history, and was the best player in the league when he was with the Lakers, as attested by his 5 consecutive seasons leading the league in PER. Kobe’s last 2 titles were won with an imposing frontcourt led by Pau Gasol. Gasol is a much more efficient scorer than Kobe, as his EFG% and true shooting % both dwarf Kobe’s. Pau also led the team in PER in 2010 and in win shares both title years. One could easily make a statistical argument that Gasol, in terms of on-court production, was the best Laker during their most recent title runs. When Kobe was without either, the Lakers were a .500 team with an admittedly wretched supporting cast.
Conversely, Lebron James has been leading a gang of marginal players to 60 win seasons for years. He never had a #2 approaching the quality of a Shaq or Gasol, yet he not only outproduced Kobe consistently over the course of his career, he’s done so at a significantly higher level of efficiency than Kobe. Lebron has had some ignominious failures, most notably his elimination by Boston last season. A few weeks later, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers won the NBA championship against the same Celtics team. The common interpretation of these events is that Lebron quit, while Kobe willed his team to victory. A comparison of their numbers in those respective series shows how far removed from reality that assessment is. Lebron, as usual, bests Kobe in just about every category. Notably, Kobe outscores Lebron by .8 PPG, but it takes him an average of 4.3 more field goal attempts per game to do so.
Lebron James, Celtics vs Cavaliers, 2010
Kobe Bryant, Celtics vs Lakers, 2010
There is no way to look at those stat lines objectively and draw the conclusion that Kobe was the better player than Lebron in those series, yet Kobe’s the one with the title and the accolades. Why? He’s played for better teams. “Willpower” or “killer instinct” don’t win games, points do, and that’s what Lebron helps his team accumulate better than Kobe. It’s no surprise that with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on his team, it is Lebron that is playing for the title this year.
Dirk Nowtizki story has been similar to Lebron’s up until this year. He has led the Mavericks to the playoffs each of the past 11 years. His statistics show him to be one of the best regular season and post-season performers of all time. He is one of four NBA players to average 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettitt. His player efficiency rating is 15th all time and jumps to 7th in the playoffs. His unique skill set has allowed him to be the only player over 7’0” to register over 1000 3 pointers during his career.
Dirk has done all this with a weak supporting cast in comparison to other top teams. His best teammates have been Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Josh Howard, and Jason Kidd, who combined for 5 All-Star appearances while on Dallas. The one time Dirk made it to the Finals he was derailed by one of the most dominant (and controversial if you believe Tim Donaghy’s allegations) finals performances ever. This year, he is again leading a team with a mediocre supporting cast to the Finals while being among the league leaders in numerous categories. It’s hard to imagine a player doing more with less than Dirk has done this year.
The next week will have a lot to do with how we think of Lebron, Dirk, Wade, Bosh, and Kidd once their careers are over, and obviously those players have a huge role in deciding who wins the series. The series will also be decided by things like Jason Terry and Mario Chalmers’ shooting, the defense of Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler, Udonis Haslem’s comeback, how Dallas copes with Brendan Haywood’s injury, and how the refs call each game. I hope that after this series is over we can judge the players on how they played rather than just labeling one team champions and the other team chokers.