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Should Players Be Penalized for Performing Well on Bad Teams?

The more I talk about the 2012 All Star game with friends, out-of-touch co-workers, and strangers on the bus who harangue me the moment the protective truss of my cell phone gives out, the more confused I become trying to decipher the matrix by which we determine All Stars and/or exceptional players.

Each individual has different criteria, yes, and I’m not irritated so much by how players are selected (it is, after all, a game for the fans, with players selected by those same fans, and whether or not I agree with their logic for selecting these players is inconsequential) but rather how some people rationalize their selections.

Yesterday, my friend and I were discussing MVP candidates over lunch. I suggested Kevin Love, on the basis that his stats thus far (25.0 PPG 13.6 RPG) are similar to Charles Barkley’s during his MVP season (25.6 PPG 12.2 RPG). Granted, Sir Charles shot significantly better (.520) than Love (.451) but I’d argue that Love’s ability to shoot threes (.378) offsets this somewhat.

My friend disagreed, which is fair. There are arguments to be made for others (particularly LeBron, again, for carrying the Heat while Wade loses a knife fight with Father Time) but my friend did not stop there, and instead said Love, at best, deserves a reserve spot on the Western Conference squad – barely.

My friend reasons that although Love is performing very well, he is doing so on a bad team, which thus indicates his work is of the empty variety, meaning if his production does not alter the outcome of the games or cause his teammates to play better, then he is not actually a good player but rather an opportunist.  Insane? Yes, but it gets trickier the deeper we go. Should players be penalized for performing well on bad teams?

In 2005-06, when Kobe took 2,173 shots (35.4 PPG 5.3 RPG 4.4 APG) playing alongside such luminaries as Smush Parker and Kwame Brown,  en route to a 45 win season and a first round exit, such stats were virtuous and the mark of a “winner” or indicative of his onyx, serpentine will to succeed. The same was said when Allen Iverson poured in 30+ PPG for five seasons, another shooting output one could argue was necessary considering the Sixers’ next best offensive player was Aaron McKie.

If it is acceptable for certain players to shoot their team into contention and be looked upon by the roundball literati as heroes forced to suffer with dreadful support, why do we not extend the same allowance to other, less offensively-reportorially “sexy” players. Moreover, why in the world do we hold how a certain player’s teammates perform against the player in question?

The NBA recently announced the reserve roster for the 2012 All Star Game, but using my friend as a barometer, I predicted somewhat confidently that Paul Millsap (16.5 PPG 9.7 RPG) would certainly watch from home, as would David Lee (18.7 PPG 10.0 RPG), while Dirk Nowitzki, who this season has pulled the equivalent of calling in sick after a night of drinking and getting repeatedly winded in second quarters, made it.

I realize my tone is beginning to sound like a feverish Mark Santorum letter to the Village Voice editors, but it’s time we kill the myth of The Winner and we need to do it quick.

It’s ridiculous believing a single person has the sway to transform those around him into better, more serious and less likely to board the team bus with a Courvoisier hangover, type players. Do we really expect the most skilled player on each NBA team to roust the Darrius Milesian rookie from bed at dawn, send the escort therein home in a cab and physically drive the young man to the gym while simultaneously reciting Al Pacino’s Every Given Sunday speech?

These NBA teams contain a dozen grown, fully developed men, with varying degrees of narcissism and discipline. En route to the NBA, they’ve been tossing balls through a hoop for decades under the tutelage of an assortment of coaches from Authoritarians like Coach K to chummy, “be my best friend” equipment managers such as Mike Brown. They’ve heard the coach’s oration during many a practice, after receiving a similar one from their parents on the way to practice and, each summer, again from motivational speakers/washed-up-HOFers-from-a-nearby-county during summer camp.

The 1,239th speech, given by, essentially, a co-worker will not suddenly send the tumblers in the youngster’s brain to spinning , finally cracking open his skull and spilling forth the realization that winning, now, is more important than anything.  The notion that everyone can be reached through the proper prodding and challenge is nothing more than a third act resolution to a rapper-turned-actor basketball straight-to-DVD abomination, or an inspirational vignette played during halftime of a big playoff game. “I was just a lowly man, looking for some cash, until Zach Randolph took me aside in practice one day and called me a pussy.”

I don’t buy it.

I hate to bring up the one man whose spectre darkens every discussion of basketball greatness, but 20 years ago, popular opinion on Michael Jordan veered toward him being nothing more than a one dimensional scorer who just didn’t have what it took to win The Big One. While his scoring,  underrated playmaking, and stifling defense were worthless, even his competitiveness – that, to me at nine-years-old appeared so incendiary that I expected it to scorch the corners of the NBA on NBC score overlay – meant nothing based on the fact his team was unable to beat the Detroit Pistons.

We know how that story ends and I ask you just how the zeitgeist embraced the idea that he somehow learned to win along the way, as if he enrolled in a Master’s course held in the United Center’s basement?

If Dennis Rodman or Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson or Toni Kukoc never came along, and Jordan performed as well as we remember him performing. but he won three fewer titles, would we consider him, historically, a worse player than we do now?

Of course we would. And that is something I’ll never understand.


44 Responses to “Should Players Be Penalized for Performing Well on Bad Teams?”

  1. Spot-on article.

    Good to see intelligent writers continue to expose the obvious flaws in ranking players by team wins.

    Posted by The Realist #2 | February 19, 2012, 9:21 am
  2. I really, REALLY like what you did here. The one argument I have against this is that those players who play for good teams, have to perform this way in playoff races, the playoffs, etc. It means more when they do it because their is more pressure. But I love the use of Jordan’s career as an example here and the comparison between Love and Barkley. The idea of winning being the only measuring stick is simply not fair to some guys, I agree that some players “know how to win” better than others by doing the small things and the dirty work, but sometimes the team around just isn’t good enough for these things to shine through. Great Article.

    Posted by pointguard40 | February 19, 2012, 9:23 am
  3. No, players should not be penalized for perming well no matter what the case is. These guys are professionals and they get paid to perform well. This is just as bad as saying a team should lose more games to get a better lottery pick. No way should a professional ever hold anything back. Especially with the money they are being paid today…

    Posted by CS360 | February 19, 2012, 12:49 pm
  4. I do think the mentality and energy of facing a bad team and a good team is much different. The level of play is much higher because more effort is brought forth and the crowds are usually more electric because of the increased pressure.

    BUT being on a bad team usually means you are the main focus of opposing teams and more attention is paid to you because you don’t have good players that can help you out so the pressure of consistently performing night in and night out is moreso with a great player on a bad team. I think that kinda offsets my first point so I do agree with the article. Although if two players with the exact same stat-line, type of game and intangibility were on a good team and a bad team, I’d take the guy on the good team because I do find the second point more challenging personally.

    Posted by stillshining | February 19, 2012, 3:13 pm
  5. Winning can’t be ignored, but of course it’s not a one man job. But specifically Kevin Love, despite a few atrocious outings the Wolves aren’t nearly as bad as they’ve been, at 15-16. And Love+Rubio, 23 and 21 respectively, means a lot of potential.

    Posted by JT | February 20, 2012, 7:52 am
  6. In a word…no.

    Posted by nightbladehunter | February 20, 2012, 9:31 am
  7. What’s worse is when average players are rewarded for playing on good/great teams. This happens in football and baseball more so than basketball. In basketball, examples include Robert Horry and Derek Fisher.

    Posted by mwtsaginaw | February 20, 2012, 2:19 pm
    • How exactly have fisher/horry been rewarded? Neither of them have ever made an AS team or any all-nba honors or have had even 1 5th place MVP vote throughout their careers. Neither one will make the HOF. I think they’re exactly what everyone thinks of them: great role players, that’s it.

      Both have been able to have some quality seasons, and both had durability, especially fisher. Both have been able to hit clutch shots throughout their careers. The title teams they each played on could’ve certainly had better players at their respective positions, but they each did well in their limited roles. As much credit as Kobe deserves for winning with an average to bad PG in fisher, fisher does deserve some credit for his play in big situations, especially in the playoffs. Horry got his 7 rings with 3 different teams. Do you really think that is completely a coincidence? He has to deserve some credit for that.

      Posted by boyer | February 21, 2012, 1:03 pm
    • Uhh those average players Horry and Fisher gave kobe and SHAQ their first two rings without them their perception would have been destroyed without Horry and fish

      Posted by jo | March 3, 2012, 1:10 am
  8. Brilliant article!

    It seems to me that this idea of being a “winner” is a warped idea of what it means to be a leader. I do believe there are players who can affect those around them by being great leaders, as is true in all other human enterprises. However, this idea of the winner seems to have taken on more of a fantastical quality to it, as if these guys can cause the ball to bounce differently or the rim to get larger in the waning seconds of the game, even though we know, statistically, that it’s nonsense. And it’s particularly asinine to ascribe this magical quality to guys just because they win a title, as if they’ve just been sprinkled with fairy dust.

    Posted by Lochpster | February 22, 2012, 11:44 am
    • Well said. Leaders are certainly important, but at the end of the day, the desire and the fulfillment of greatness ultimately lies with the player.

      You want the best leader out there to look up to? Look in the mirror.

      Posted by The Realist #2 | February 22, 2012, 12:01 pm
  9. Articles intended to prop up His Airness as somehow “the dark spectre of ever-greatness” always are suspicious & this one’s no different. Best test of a player’s greatness is how well he did w/out his teammates & how well his team performed w/out him. MJ, we all know, was a loser in more seasons than any other Top Twelve alltime pro. And the ’94 Bulls under Pippen’s solo leadership won 55 games w/out Mike versus 57 Ws w/ him the year before.

    Jordan didn’t “learn” to win; he just had a coach that gave the ball to Pippen for the heavy lifting in Assists & Rebounding at the precise time superior squads (Celtics, Lakers, Pistons) petered out.

    Posted by Keith Ellis | February 22, 2012, 12:18 pm
    • This myth that Pippen was somehow greater than what he actually was needs to stop.

      :Jordan was a loser in more seasons than any other top 12 alltime all pro”? What do you mean by that?

      Are you insane?

      The Bulls had exactly 3 losing seasons with Jordan and one of those he was injured for 64 games!!!

      The Bulls with Jordan NEVER missed the playoffs and the East was very tough.

      The Bulls prior to Jordan’s arrival were 27-55.

      Just learn to accept the truth. Regardless of whether you liked him, rooted for him or hated to even hear his name, Jordan was the best and most singular force in the history of the NBA.

      Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 22, 2012, 5:39 pm
      • Whoa there paulienuts. Jordan played 5 seasons without Pippen, and each season resulted in a losing record. He never won a playoff series without Pippen. In those 5 seasons, jordan’s teams were 182-228, good for a pathetic .444 winning pct. The bulls made the playoffs with 30, 38, and 40 wins. Even in today’s weak east, those would be pathetic records to make the playoffs. Jordan’s teams had 5 losing seasons. Before dismissing Keith’s claim, find me another top player of all time with that happening. Truth according to whom?

        Posted by boyer | February 22, 2012, 7:54 pm
        • Boyer, are you counting the Wizards years in that total?

          If you are, that can only be viewed as a ploy to distort the truth.

          The Wizards years were AFTER Jordan took 3 years off and was 38 years old.

          Jordan Played just 3 of his true seasons without Pippen, and again, Jordan was injured for 64 games in one of them.

          True, that without Pippen, the Bulls never won a playoff series, but it wasn’t like they played the chumps of the league; they played what has been strongly argued as THE GREATEST TEAM OF ALL TIME in the 1986 Celtics. The Bulls did lose, but it was to the Eastern Conference Champions each year and an the NBA champion.

          The next year, Pippen played only 1650 minutes and contributed 8 points and 4 rebounds per game. They beat a very good and soon to be great, Cavaliers team, then lost to the Eastern Conference Champs for the THIRD year in row, this time the Pistons.

          Clearly, you don’t understand that nobody takes time off from a pro sports career and returns as good, let alone better than before. Especially true after you turn 35 in the NBA.

          The evidence clearly shows that, though Pippen was a huge contributor to the Bulls, it was Jordan who made the difference. Pippen and all the rest of the Bulls benefited far more from Jordan than he did from them.

          Does anyone honestly believe that the Bulls win anything without Jordan, but with Pippen?

          Who, exactly, would you replace Jordan with and hope to win 6 titles with the Bulls?

          Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 23, 2012, 4:55 pm
          • For the record, here are the numbers for Pippen and Jordan in the 1987-88 playoffs against the Cavs and the Pistons. Both series went 5 games.

            Jordan: 85-152 226 points or 45.2 ppg
            also shot 61 FTA in the series!

            Pippen: 24-51 53 points or 10.6

            Jordan: 53-108 137 points or 27.4 ppg. Pistons only allowed MJ to have 38 FTA. Great defense!!

            Pippen: 22-48 for 47 points or 9.4 ppg.

            Yeah, pretty clear that MJ NEEDED Pippen to win in the playoffs!!!

            I wonder how great those Piston teams would have been if Jordan and Isiah or Dumars were switched?

            Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 23, 2012, 6:22 pm
          • Who actually is saying Pippen is better than jordan? Just stating some facts. It’s interesting to see what happens when the jordan’s greatness is questioned.

            All I’m saying for those who blindly worship jordan and think he’s by far the most best player and never did anything wrong, is that that is not true.

            The bulls might’ve have played great first round teams, but they were sub .500 each year, and most likely lose to any other playoff team during jordan’s first 3 years. Jordan missed most of his 2nd year, and the bulls still ended up in the playoffs.

            That’s highly debatable about who benefited from who the most. Jordan was surely better than pippen, but the fact remains that the bulls didn’t get much worse when jordan retired after 93. Also, for your history lesson, only the lakers and celtics in the 80s for the past 30+ years have made 4 consecutive finals, and both times, they only each won twice. What the bulls were trying to do in 94 is extremely difficult and unlikely with or without jordan. One reason why the c’s and lakers were able to make so many finals in the 60s was that the playoffs were only 3 rounds. All that extra basketball adds up. Not to take anything away from either player, but it’s just idiotic by anyone to have to denigrate Pippen so it makes jordan look better or whoever is compared to jordan look worse.

            And I highly doubt that it’s coincidence that 3 players on the 94 bulls, all in the middle of their careers each have their best season: armstrong, grant and pippen, and armstrong/grant each make their only AS appearance.

            If the bulls remained with the same roster and you take jordan or pippen off of the team, I would guess that the bulls win 0 titles. Pippen was more versatile than jordan. He was a better overall defender and was committed to running the triangle and did a phenomenal job at it. These traits of pippen allowed the bulls to maintain a high level of play.

            Posted by boyer | February 23, 2012, 9:40 pm
  10. The very greatest players(elite of the elite) always have had great teams and players around them. I don’t think this is a coincidence. If you’re the GM or owner of a team and you have a kobe or duncan or shaq, you’re going to try as hard as you can to put together as well of a championship team as you can.

    Perfect examples of this with historically awful teams are the cavs and clippers. The cavs became a great team 2 years in a row with lebron, leading the league in wins in each reg. season, and they led the league in player salaries at least one year. The clippers finally get a really good player in griffin after continually making bad decisions, and their wallets are wide open. They’re going after a title at all costs right now.

    Lebron now has it made, supposedly. Last year, all he had to do was give near max effort or outplay Jason Terry, and the heat coast for the title. Last year was probably the easiest chance ever to get that title. This year, the contenders are better, so it will be harder, but his team is absolutely stacked right now, and there’s no incumbent powerhouse team currently left in the nba. The c’s are way past their time, the lakers are a mess with virtually nothing after the top 3 players, and the spurs are a nice story, but that’s about it with them.

    So yea, there is something to be said for a ‘supposed’ elite player never winning a title. Sure, jordan had better teams/coaches/players around him than barkley did, but barkley had his chances. For jordan, it would’ve been interested to see what he would’ve done with just pretty good teams instead amazing teams. Never will know though. But, yes, interesting that the bulls went right on winning at about the same rate as 93 and without an infamous bad call, they could’ve won the title. Also, grant and armstrong made their only AS appearances in 94. Jordan certainly made his teammates better, but was he actually holding them back some?

    Posted by boyer | February 22, 2012, 12:45 pm
    • The Bulls didn’t continue to win at the same rate in 1994 as they had previously. Moreover, the 1993-94 season was a lucky one as the points differential should have had them closer to 43 wins rather than 55. The coaching of Jackson and some breaks probably made the difference.

      The Bulls also finished 2nd and 3rd in the non Jordan years, but were first the other six years. It is thus, difficult to understand how you can ay that they won at the same rate, when they clearly did not.

      1990-91 61-21 +9 pt diff per game
      1991-92 67-15 +10
      1992-93 57-25 +6
      1993-94 55-27 +3
      1994-95 47-35 +5
      1995-96 72-10 +12
      1996-97 69-13 +10
      1997-98 62-20 +7

      Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 22, 2012, 3:49 pm
  11. “Sure, jordan had better teams/coaches/players around him than barkley did, but barkley had his chances.”

    MJ isn’t better than Barkley because the Chicago Bulls team won six rings.

    As long as people continue to buy into the “Russel/MJ rings myth”, this sport will keep going backwards with its reasoning.

    Posted by The Realist #2 | February 22, 2012, 1:15 pm
    • There’s lots of reasons why jordan was better than barkley, and 6 titles to 0 is one of those reasons. You’re kidding yourself if you think winning a title is easy.

      Russell was a great player, but in my book, he’s not even close to Wilt. Wilt just abused him, and russell leads 11-2 in rings. So, take that for what’s it worth. If wilt and russell switched teams, a lot of those finals between the 2 wouldn’t even been close.

      The 6 rings is the primary reason why jordan is so loved. The media just went haywire after he won his first and it continues today. I’m not saying it’s right, because it isn’t, because the players after jordan are held to a different standard than jordan, and most fans can’t even fathom anyone being better than jordan, so their views on all players are highly skewed. But, while so many proclaim the 80s and early 90s as the gold standard of the nba, the sport as popular as ever today.

      Nobody would be stupid enough to blame Kobe from not winning a playoff series from 05-07 unless you’re Simmons or Lebron not winning a title before 09, but when the game’s truly elite players have a chance, they usually find a way to win at least one title. Jordan was just better than barkley, that’s the primary reason why the he won more and why the bulls beat the suns in 93; therefore, jordan got a ring that year.

      Posted by boyer | February 22, 2012, 2:15 pm
      • “There’s lots of reasons why jordan was better than barkley, and 6 titles to 0 is one of those reasons.”

        In therns of the narrative and story? Sure. In an objective comparison of the players? MJ outpaced Barkley in the regular season and playoffs, and Barkley was NO slouch. It’s NOT because MJ had Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, a bevy of other productive players, arguably the league’s best coach ever, a great assistant coach, and a GM and owner who put the team together on route to thise titles. Without them, MJ wins ZERO RINGS, no matter how great he is. He didn’t “find a way” to win. He was simply on a team that was better than everybody else, even as he himself played well.

        But, the MJ “he won it all by his lonesome” myth has been carried on to this day. And it’s why people irrationally bashed Kobe when he was “ringless” for years after ’02, and today do the same for LBJ.

        We as fans are better than that.

        Posted by The Realist #2 | February 22, 2012, 2:59 pm
  12. Didn’t find a way to win? You’re kidding, right? If you swap barkley for jordan in 93, my money would be on the suns. Jordan played better than barkley in that series. Usually the team with the best player in a series wins the series.

    Sure, sometimes, teams are quite lopsided, but it often comes down to the little things. Kobe’s cast performed worse than Nash’s cast in the 2010 WCF and worse than Pierce’s(substitute whoever you want) cast in the 2010 finals, but the primary reason why the lakers won was because kobe was by far the best player in each series. You do have to have good players around you to win titles, but once you do, the elite players usually stand out.

    The heat seem to be by far the most talented team in the league, and they’re a deep team as well, but they were the most talented team last year, too, and we all know how that finished.

    I’m tired of the jordan myth/storybook legend as much as anyone. The kobe bashing was/is ridiculous. He already had 3 rings by 02. I mean, how stupid it is to criticize him or not credit him for not winning a title. He was the closer in close games and saved Shaq’s butts more times than you can count.

    As far as Lebron, yes, some of his criticism is warranted, and he’s brought a lot upon himself since he likes to celebrate himself even though he still has 0 rings. His team had the #1 seed in 09 and 10 and didn’t even made the finals either year. Kobe and jordan never missed a finals with the #1 seed. And the heat was supposed to run roughshod on everyone last year. And he more or less gave up in the playoffs in each of the past 2 years. Sure, lebron will probably will be one of true greats, but to get on the elite of the elite list, these are major concerns, and he most likely has no business even being in the discussion.

    Posted by boyer | February 22, 2012, 3:34 pm
    • “Didn’t find a way to win? You’re kidding, right? If you swap barkley for jordan in 93, my money would be on the suns. Jordan played better than barkley in that series.”

      It isn’t an exact science here, but if the players swapped teams and played the same way I’d give a slight edge to the “Barkley Bulls”. MJ was the best player in the playoffs (and that wouldn’t change whether his team won or not), in ’93, but Chuck wasn’t too far behind, and the rest of the Phoenix Suns cast was a class below Chicago’s.

      “Usually the team with the best player in a series wins the series.”

      There are many times where that isn’t the case. My favorite example to use is Wade in the Heat-Celtics series in ’10. You’d be an idiot to say he wasn’t the best player in that series because his team went down in 5 games. Period.

      Posted by The Realist #2 | February 22, 2012, 4:29 pm
      • Yes, there are exceptions, but I said usually the team with the best player wins the series, I didn’t say always, take it easy. You can’t really deny that. Obviously, it doesn’t happen every time. But, when you have a team that is a contender, and you have the best player in the series, that team will usually win. This is why guys like magic, kobe, shaq, etc. win most of the time. They are the primary reasons why their teams were successful.

        Paulie, most stuff is too hard for you to understand. As the #1 seed, you have the best team in the reg. season in your conf. You’re expected to make the finals. This is one of the many big differences between kobe/jordan and lebron. Not only did lebron have the best reg. season in the league for 2 consecutive years, he also just bailed on his team 2 consecutive years. Kobe’s teams have only had the #1 seed 4x, so he made 3 other times for 7 total, I’d say that’s pretty amazing.

        57 wins for 93 bulls, 55 for 94 bulls. Is it that hard to see that they won at nearly the same rate? Make all the excuses you want for thinking that they got lucky for 55 wins, it doesn’t really matter, that’s what they got, and they didn’t miss much of a beat without jordan. Oh no, are we threatening the flawless jordan myth? He was a phenomenal player, but he had many faults and failures, just like every other player.

        Pippen’s arguably the best wing defender ever, and was a phenomenal offensive player. He’s a top 50 player of all time, and actually got better without jordan.

        Posted by boyer | February 22, 2012, 8:06 pm
        • 1. MJ and Scottie were coming off back to back championship runs and the olympics in ’93. Winning 57 games was more likely a product of tired legs, seeing as how it was the only championship season they finished under 60 wins.
          2. Some food for thought on the Pippen vs. Jordan defensive debate, MJ averaged more steals and blocks per game in the regular season, averaged more steals per game in the post season, and had more total steal. Pippen has him edged out in BPG in the post season and total blocks, regular season and playoffs. Remember that Jordan was the one who won DPOY though.

          Posted by pointguard40 | February 22, 2012, 8:49 pm
          • Good points, PointGuard40……yet aside from His Airness of what other alltime great pro can it be said after he left that his team didn’t fall far w/out him?

            The Celtics imploded w/out an aging Russ. Ditto the Nets w/out Doctor. The Celtics won 15 fewer games when Bird got hurt in ’89. Ditto the Lakers post-Magic/AIDS. The ’74 Lakers won 13 fewer w/out Wilt, then really tanked in ’75 once West’s loss psychologically hit home. The Bucks went from being Finalists w/ Big O to missing the playoffs w/out Oscar.

            Erving & Pippen of course continued their winning ways after departing NY & Chicago. Rather than fitting into a team concept in Washington Jordan fancied himself the first option despite the presence of Rip Hamilton who’d become first option for the champion Pistons.

            Posted by Keith Ellis | February 22, 2012, 9:37 pm
          • I wouldn’t really call Hamilton the first option for the Pistons.

            Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 25, 2012, 5:52 pm
  13. Yet, LeBron has NEVER missed the Finals when his team was the #2 seed.

    And Kobe has missed the Finlas as a #2 seed.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 22, 2012, 3:57 pm
  14. You are still an idiot, Boyer.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 22, 2012, 3:57 pm
  15. Lone pros ever to shoot .500 from the field over a season while hitting at least 500 FGs & FTs, snaring 500+ Rebounds, & passing for a minimum of 500 Assists:

    LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson (all twice)

    Big O did it just once, but was first to set the bar in 1963.

    Magic is the only player to put up this prodigious individual effort AND win a championship (in his first MVP year of 1987).

    What do these arbitrary statlines reveal about the other guys, including Michael? That their individual dominance couldn’t win titles. Everybody knows Jordan’s Bulls began winning when he accepted the hired-gun role & Pippen took over their team’s floor leadership on both ends (Playmaking, Defending, Rebounding).

    Hey, Paulie — I listed Michael as a “Top Twelve” pro (with five losing seasons under his belt) earlier because he’s generally considered one of the top four Guards of all time. A bkb team has four Guards, Forwards, & Centers. Twelve. Jordan never neared league-leading status in Assists as the three other all-time Guards (Oscar, West, Magic) did. Owing to scoring prowess he’s no doubt the top Swingman ever, but MJ couldn’t Rebound w/ the best Forwards (Pettit, Elgin, Erving, Bird) nor maintain the all-around complete game of the greatest Guards ever. He had to become a hired gun — an example set by no less a player than Jabbar (6 rings also) in the 2nd half of his own career.

    Posted by Keith Ellis | February 22, 2012, 8:17 pm
    • Keith, I don’t fully understand what you mean by a hired gun. Could you please flesh it out a bit for me?

      Posted by Lochpster | February 22, 2012, 11:02 pm
      • Lochpster — A “hired gun” is a player whose primary role is to Score, as opposed to playing a complete game. Rik Smits for the mid-late Nineties Pacers was a hired gun who wasn’t on the floor to Rebound, make plays, or play Defense, altho he wasn’t terrible at those tasks. Abdul-Jabbar’s game after 1980 largely ignored Rebounding.

        Michael Jordan attempted the do-everything Big O role in 1989, for Doug Collins, & while giving it an admirable try Mike obviously lacked Oscar’s playmaking skills. Then Phil Jackson took over & designated Scottie Pippen to run the offense & captain the defense, leaving Jordan to concentrate mainly on Scoring. As Mike racked up less-well-rounded individual statistical production #s the Bulls got better.

        Compare w/ Chamberlain: Sixer Wilt took on primary playmaking duties in addition to Scoring & won a title in recordbreaking fashion. Then Laker Wilt played the Russell role to perfection & his fast-stepping club broke even the Sixer record for Ws. Dipper’s role, even when he averaged 50 ppg, wasn’t to hog the ball on plays as Mike did. Chamberlain earned 20 ppg off putbacks in his high-scoring years.

        Could anyone imagine Jordan on a club w/ Alcindor or Shaq? As his time in Washington proved, MJ’d never subdue his Scoring for the good of the team.

        Posted by Keith Ellis | February 23, 2012, 6:03 am
        • Lacked the playmaking skills? Start at game 62 where MJ made the move to point after Paxson got hurt and tell me what you think of those numbers as a “playmaker”?

          Posted by pointguard40 | February 23, 2012, 6:18 pm
        • Interesting analysis-A few points I’d like to bring up.

          Pippen and Jordan just guarded whomever they were supposed to guard, based on matchups. In the playoffs, MJ actually drew the tougher assignment more frequently than Pip by just a hair, although this is a purely random result. So it’s not really true to say Pip did the heavy lifting on D, although this is a common misperception. Good article on that here.


          When comparing their rebounding numbers, there were 1.586 more RPG available during the Big O’s 1961 season, during which he averaged 12.5 RPG, than during MJ’s career-best 1988-89 season, so if you normalize rebounds for era, MJ actually averaged slightly more in his best season than Oscar did in his. And to say Robertson rebounded with the best big men in the game is not really true given that Wilt lead the league with 25.7 RPG that year.

          Pippen and MJ each averaged roughly 6 RPG during their final 3 years together-a much more impressive result for MJ given that he’s a guard. To say Pippen did the heavy lifting here is not really true either.

          As far as his assist numbers, MJ’s 8.0 APG in 88-89 was more than any other Phil Jackson coached player had. The triangle offense doesn’t really cater to one player dominating the ball and running the show, so no player will rack up huge assist numbers. So MJ at his peak proved to be an adept playmaker, even though his top skill, unlike the point guards you list, was scoring.

          There’s no doubt Pip averaged 1-2 more assists per game in the later years than MJ did, but this was more due to a decline in MJ’s passing game, which diminished significantly, than Pippen’s, which also declined, if only by a smaller amount.

          As far as the Bulls improving the last few years when MJ’s numbers declined, it seems to me that the difference was that the supporting cast improved immensely. Dennis Rodman (a top 20 all time player in my book) was giving the team a monster edge in rebounds and playing dominant defense at the 4, which with all due respect to Horace Grant, was something they never had before. Given that Pippen’s overall #s declined as well and he wasn’t really a designated defensive stopper, it’s hard to pinpoint him as the reason.

          Teamwise, the real difference between those late 90s Bulls teams and their earlier incarnations was a vast improvement in team defense and a smaller improvement in team rebounding, both of which I largely attribute to the addition of Rodman.

          I agree with your assessment of Wilt-he was the most dominant and most versatile force in league history rolled into one, the best offensive player and one of the handful of best defensive players in NBA history. He certainly had flaws, but he’s still the only player I can buy ahead of MJ on the all-time list, and I think the argument for him is a strong one.

          Thanks for the compelling posts.

          Posted by Lochpster | February 25, 2012, 3:08 pm
          • Loch,

            I would ask the rhetorical question:

            Is there anyone that did NOT believe the 1996 Bulls would blow the field away after acquiring Rodman?

            Posted by Paulie Walnuts | February 25, 2012, 5:50 pm
          • I have no idea man, but I don’t think it matters, but he was the difference, whether or not people expected it.

            Posted by Lochpster | February 25, 2012, 6:37 pm
  16. I’m delighted someone would challenge MJ’s unquestioned status as the top player of all time. However, I’m disappointed that we’ve been debating Pippen vs Jordan and are ignoring the best player MJ ever played with-Dennis Rodman’s. I legitimately believe Rodman’s a top 20 all-time player in his own right. In what is my favorite sports-related article ever, Benjamin Morris argues that Rodman’s actually the greatest player of all time and does a pretty damn good job. Rather than rehash an incredibly complex statistical argument, I’ll just link it.


    Posted by Lochpster | February 22, 2012, 10:41 pm
  17. Players shouldn’t be penalized for performing well on bad teams.

    It’s the GMs’ fault for not providing the correct pieces around their superstars to field a contender.

    Posted by B-to-the-H | February 23, 2012, 7:49 am
  18. “MJ wins ZERO RINGS, no matter how great he is. He didn’t “find a way” to win. He was simply on a team that was better than everybody else, even as he himself played well.”

    A lot of people forget Jordan’s supporting cast won 55 games (only 2 less then the previous year WITH Jordan) the year after he retired. They were ONE phantom call away from making the Finals WITHOUT him.

    I thought it was funny when Magic, MJ and other legends looked down on Lebron for leaving Cleveland siting that they wanted to beat each other, not join forces.

    Oh really? Jordan had Pippen, Magic joined a team with Jabbar and Cooper and added Worthy 4 years later and Bird joined a team that had Pistol Pete and Archibald and added Mchale and Parish a year later.

    How about you guys NEVER had a reason to leave? lol….I wonder how fast they would have jumped ship if they had boobie Gibson and moe williams as their 2nd option…lol

    Anyway, good read as always

    Posted by Mike | February 23, 2012, 8:03 am
  19. Interesting topic. I’m mixed on this one. Dan — your premise is a good one, I think the analysis however gets muddled as some commenters have mentioned by a few factors:

    * talent on better teams dilutes stats of the players on those teams

    * typically more pressure situations and less garbage time on good teams vs. very bad ones

    * competition plays up to better teams and down to worse teams

    So, here’s a question: if K-Love and Nowitzki were to switch teams this year, how would their teams records be impacted? I believe you could make a very valid argument that the Wolves would have a better record and the Mavs would have a worse record. So if we believe this is the case, what do we do then?

    All this being said, I believe you typically do the following: apply a slight discount factor in stats to players playing on bad teams. So if two players had identical stats, you would generally pick the player from the better team. In Love’s case however, his stats are so otherworldly this year, I think that even the fact he is on a bad team, makes him an obvious choice as an All-star.

    Posted by Brown Mamba | February 25, 2012, 4:15 pm
  20. So based on this article who would you have picked for mvp of last year?

    Posted by Wilfa | June 11, 2012, 12:50 am

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