THE FIFTY GREATEST PLAYERS IN NBA HISTORY: How they rank statistically.
Keith R. Thompson,

June 1997

The History of Sports has always been about courage, heart, and achieving greatness. Soaring towards the top of one’s class and accomplishing a feat previously considered unattainable. Like Michael Johnson’s record shattering 200m run of 19.32 sec on August 1, last summer, bettering the old mark he also set by over 1.7% - the largest marginal improvement of a track record since ‘Flo Jo’ breezed past the women’s field in 1988. Then there was The Real Deal Evander Holyfield’s stunning 11th round November knockout of Iron Mike Tyson - against all odds - to signal a three-time championship comeback, paralleling only the great Muhammad Ali, and propelling himself into the upper echelons of the sport’s elites. Or Tiger Woods. Winning his third tournament in 9 attempts (an average which betters all but 20 players in the history of professional baseball), his victory in the Mercedez Championship putting him over the $1M career earnings mark with a near perfect shot on the play-off 7th hole.

Such was the case last summer when the NBA commissioned the nation’s most eminent and revered sports journalists and historians to determine the fifty greatest players of all time. That great commission was intended to identify not just the most skillful player, but also the player with the most heart, courage and determination to win. The player with the greatest leadership qualities, and also the ability to singlehandedly take on an opponent if all other elements of his team are non-performing. The analysis which follows attempts to rank these fifty players, and in the process to determine the greatest player ever.

There are many starting points to the analysis of the NBA’s greatest player, but most would agree that November 1984 is a real genesis of a start. On November of 1984  a brass 21 year old rookie named Michael Jordan (the third pick of the draft earlier in
June) walked on to the NBA stage and lit up the NBA by leading his team in every statistical category except dis-qualifications (2nd),  blocked shots (2nd), and field goal % (3rd). Since then he has won 8 scoring titles (an NBA record), 3 steal crowns (tied with two others for the record), and 10 MVP awards - for the regular season, playoff finals, and All Star game (another NBA record).

But is Michael Jordan--MJ to the World--the greatest ever to play the game, or is there another who can lay claim to that crown.

In 1959 a tall, strong 23 year old center, playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, entered the NBA and redefined its play by breaking the season record for total points, points per game (ppg), total rebounds, and rebounds per game (rpg). For that remarkable effort he was awarded--in his rookie season--the league MVP award (the first of only two times that feat was ever accomplished). This young rookie, who had made his pro debut a year earlier with the Harlem Grobetrotters (and who was selected in the Territorial Draft four years earlier out of High School) was Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

Wilt would go on to break his own scoring and rebounding records over the course of the next two years, becoming the first player to score 3,000 points in a single season (doing it thrice)--Michael Jordan being the only other player to ever accomplish that feat in 1986/87--and recording the only 4,000 point season in 1961/62 (averaging 50.4 ppg). He also recorded the first 30,000 career point performance in pro basketball, and is still second on the all time list after a quarter of a century.

Wilt’s versatility was also revealed on the rebounding edge being the only player to ever collect 2,000 rebounds in a single season, and doing it twice in 1960/61 and 1961/62. Wilt retired in 1973 with the highest career points per game average of 30.1 ppg (subsequently broken by MJ whose average at the end of the 1995/96 campaign was 32.0 ppg), and the highest career rebounds per game average of 22.9 rpg, a record that remains unbroken even to this day.

Wilt remains the most accomplished player in NBA history with 7 scoring titles, 11 rebounding crowns (an NBA record), and one assist title (the only center to ever
claim that honor). His 9 field goal shooting titles are also another NBA record, and had the NBA been recording blocked shots during his time, he would have been strongly favored--along with Bill Russell of course--to win some of those crowns. Adding to those record 28 category titles his 6 MVP awards certainly makes him one of the NBA’s all-time greats.


MVP awards and category titles won by Wilt Chamberlain (#) and Michael Jordan (*) during their respective careers.
@ earned Rookie of the year Award.



Yet in spite his many regular season accolades Wilt Chamberlain has always remained an enigma in the play-offs. Winning just two NBA titles in his six trips to the finals, Wilt has never had that play-off dominance as he did during his 14 years in the league.

In 13 play-off seasons, Wilt has averaged only 22.5 ppg. while leading all play-off scorers only once. MJ, in contrast, has an NBA play-off record 33.9 ppg, 7 play-off scoring titles (led 2 other times but team lost in first round), and four NBA championships.

Can we therefore concede that MJ is the best ever, or does Wilt deserve that crown. Consider these facts. Wilt Chamberlain holds the top three single game scoring records in history, including the NBA’s only 100-point performance against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962. He also holds the single game rebounding record of 55 ‘boards’, playing against Bill Russell on November 24, 1960. He has 6 of the 9 NBA 70-point performances, plus 15 of the top 20 all-time.

Michael Jordan, on the other hand, has always seen the play-offs as his own, dominating the post-season in his last four full seasons in the league. He holds the league record for most points in a single game (63 at Boston Gardens in a double overtime loss on April 20, 1986), and has 5 of the top 10 scoring performances (compared to one for Wilt). He is also the only player to win the Finals MVP award every time his team has won the championship (for teams with three or more titles).

For all their accolades however, are these the only two players who merit consideration for the esteemed title of basketball’s greatest player.

Consider Bill Russell--one of the NBA’s best defensive centers--who led his team to 11 championships in his 13 years in the league (the last two titles won as player-coach), while also capturing 4 rebounding titles, and 6 MVP awards, en route to establishing the play off record for most rebounds per game.

Or who can forget Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals, who averaged a triple-double for his first five entire seasons--1960/61 through 1964/65--(30.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and 10.6 apg), and won 6 assist crowns in his career. He never won a scoring or rebounding title simply because he played in the Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell era.

Then there was Magic Johnson. Pouring in 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists while subbing for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in the deciding game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Magic Johnson claimed the MVP Finals prize in his rookie year (the only time that was ever accomplished). Adding to that 4 Assist crowns, 2 Steal titles, and 8 MVP awards ranks the Magic one of the most versatile and decorated players to ever grace an NBA court.

To these we can also include the immortal playing style of Julius (Dr. J) Erving, only the third (of three) player(s) to reach 30,000 career points in pro basketball; Larry Bird who battled Magic Johnson for player of the decade honors during the 1980’s and stands as possibly Boston’s second most accomplished son (behind Bill Russell); Jerry West, one of the games finest shooting guards and certainly one of the best clutch scorers basketball has ever seen. His 29.1 ppg career play-off scoring average dwarfs all but Michael Jordan and certainly had he played in a different era to Wilt Chamberlain (and possibly MJ) he would have added considerably to his lone scoring title in 1970. Or George Mikan, basketball’s first great superstar who--in nine pro seasons-- led his teams to seven championships in the NBL, BAA, and NBA.

In order to ascertain the elites in pro basketball it is necessary to examine their accomplishments in statistical terms. However,  with so many different statistical categories measuring different aspects of a particular player’s skills, how can we translate a player’s individual accomplishments per category (scoring, rebounding, assists, etc.) into one composite figure embracing a player’s total game (similar to football’s quarterback rating system)? If we could for example, we certainly would go a far way towards unraveling the great mystery of who is the greatest basketball player ever.

In order to accomplish that feat let’s try to find a way to equalize all players, that is measure them from an equal playing field.

Let’s consider firstly playing time. Wilt Chamberlain is second on the NBA’s all-time scoring per game list with 30.1ppg. However Wilt averaged 45.8 minutes per game (mpg) during the course of his career. That results in a point scored every 1.5 minutes or 31.5 points per complete game (48 minute of NBA action). Elgin Baylor, a forward  who played for the Lakers in Minneapolis and Los Angeles from 1958/59 to 1971/72, on the other hand, while ranking third all-time with 27.4ppg (and logging 40 mpg), ranks ahead of Wilt in scoring per minute. He averages a point every 1.46 minutes or 32.8 points per complete game (ppcg) to be sixth on the all-time points per complete game list. [MJ leads all scorers with 32.0 ppg and 39.7 ppcg to be the most efficient scorer in the history of the NBA].


@- includes Rookie of the Year Award.
&-  covers all recognized statistical categories of the NBA.
# - includes six awards and titles with the now defunct ABA.


Since all players do not have equal playing time then assessing them on a “per game” basis does not do justice to players with limited playing time; players whose minutes are limited by injuries, by their veteran status, by being non-starters, or by being rookies. Assessing players on a per game basis in basketball is akin to assessing a hitter in baseball by “hits per game” rather than “hits per at-bat”. Hitters with more plate appearances per game (lead-off hitters, for example) would tend to have more “hits per game”, but that may not truly reflect their batting average. Similarly basketball players with more playing time per game have more opportunity to display their talents, hence post lofty NBA numbers. A first step therefore in assessing all NBA players--and their relative greatness--is to measure their performance per minute of NBA action, then compute their complete game performance (per 48 minutes of NBA action).

Similarly, we adjust a player’s shooting percentages by taking into account 2 point field goals, as distinct from 3 point field goals, and free throw shooting percentages. This is necessary in order to separate shots into their respective degrees of difficulty. This further gives us a composite shooting percentage and allows us to determine who is a better all-round shooter. Of course, care must be taken to interpret this figure for players who played before the 1979 era and those who played after 1979. 1979 we remember, was the year the three-point shooting line was introduced into the NBA--even though it had been a part of the American Basketball Association (ABA) since its inception in 1967.

Having then adjusted all players statistics from ‘per game’ to ‘per minute’, or more accurately, to ‘complete game’, we then develop an appropriate formula to assess these players. This formula is known as the Basketball Player Efficiency Rating (PER) system since it measures just how efficient a particular player is per minute of NBA action played.

The Player Efficiency Rating (PER) system measures points scored, rebounds, assists (and steals, blocked shots and turnovers for players after 1973) per complete game. In addition, it measures field goal shooting and free throw percentage. A higher rating indicates a greater individual accomplishment and versatility, as well as greater contribution to one’s team. The Career PER reflects a players regular season, play-off, and All Star PER, after duly adjusting to reflect the number of NBA Titles, Play-off appearances and level reached, and Awards and Category titles won, relative to a players years in the league.

This methodology has considerable limitations however when used to analyze players who played before 1951. Players such as Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, and Bill Sharman--all members of the fifty greatest club who started their
careers before 1951--would have to be analyzed using estimated minutes which may considerably alter their analysis. Similarly, guys who played before 1979--when the 3-point line was introduced--would have a different (slightly higher) shooting percentage than players after 1979, while those who played before 1973 would have no recorded steals, blocked shots, or turnovers per game. The net result is that the PER for players after 1979 is slightly lower than for players before that era.

With that understanding, we then proceed to analyze the best player in NBA history.

The analysis reveals that the most accomplished player in the regular season of the NBA has been Wilt Chamberlain, with Michael Jordan placing second, and Bob Pettit rounding out the top three. The trend is reversed in the Playoffs however with Michael Jordan dominating and Wilt Chamberlain commanding second.  David Robinson however, is the best performer in the NBA’s annual All Star game, with George Mikan second, and Wilt, consistent in his effort, placing third. These three categories are then combined into the Overall PER to determine just who is the most skillful individual to play in the NBA, and whose individual performance is most consistent. Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and Bob Pettit again round out that order.

So is it fair to say that Wilt is the greatest player to ever play in the NBA? Not so fast.

Wilt Chamberlain is probably the greatest individual talent to ever play in the N. B. A., demonstrating strong skills and versatility. One only recalls his triple double - 36 rebounds, 29 points, 13 assists - in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals  to end Boston’s 8-year championship reign in 1967; or his mammoth triple-double-double on Feb 2, 1968 against the Detroit Pistons, a feat of 25 rebounds, 22 points, and 21 assists in a 131-121 76ers win (the only time that feat was ever accomplished, and the highest single game assist performance by a center). But while individual talent is good, it is the ability to combine such performances with the abilities of other team mates that results in great team performances and many championships being won. In
14 league years Wilt only had two.

Bill Russell, on the other hand, is the greatest all-round team guy, possessing possibly the greatest will to win in all of professional sports. In 1969, for example, Bill--playing in his final NBA  Season--saw his team finish 9 games behind in 4th place in the
Eastern Division to claim the last play-off spot. Then with no home court advantage in any of the play-off series they defeated the 76ers in 5 games, New York in 6, and Los Angeles in 7 (after falling behind in the first 2 games) to show one of the most spirited fights in the history of the play-offs. Bill’s single greatest contribution in all of pro sports is his ability to make other players around him great. Bill however, could never be counted on with the game on the line to take the ball and deliver victory to his teammates by his sheer skills alone.

It appears then that the greatest player in league history must be a composite of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Combining the strong individual accomplishments that the Overall PER is intended to measure, and the number of NBA Titles, Awards, and Play-off levels that characterize the Career PER. Who then is the greatest of them all?  Enter Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan, with very strong individual skills and an indomitable will to win is probably the greatest player ever. He combines Wilt’s skill and tenacity with Bill’s fierce determination to win, a trait only the greats possess. One only needs to remember his rallying of his troops in the 1995/96 regular season campaign--after his 18 months sabbatical with baseball--when so many of his fellow starters missed games ranging from injuries to head butting. Yet through all that ordeal the team still managed to post the highest winning percentage in NBA history. Michael Jordan is also the only player in NBA history whose team has not performed worse in the play-offs in a succeeding season than it did the previous season when he plays a full season, a record ten straight years - and counting.

Of important note is the status of George Mikan. While he posts the highest Career PER in the Analysis, George’s minutes were estimated and so care must be taken to interpret these figures. Further, the competition in his day--when he won seven championships in nine years--was still in its embryonic stages, a factor which resulted in many rule changes during that time. While George Mikan was an undoubtedly great player, his status at number one is not without question.  

The analysis lends itself to many interesting observations also. Firstly, the most successful championship pairing in NBA history occurred in 1957 when Sam Jones joined  Bill Russell on Boston’s Celtic team. Together they won ten championships, the most by any pair. They however were not the best regular season tandem in history, that distinction goes to Jerry West and Elgin Baylor who played together from 1960 to 1971 in Los Angeles, and contested seven Finals together. And what about the greatest threesome? Well, that occurred on July 9th 1968 when Wilt Chamberlain joined Baylor and West on the Lakers team and together went to back to back championship series in 1969 and 70.

In the spirit of the NBA’s fiftieth anniversary, and by the strength of this methodology, I close by listing my all-time NBA Team:

Small/Scoring Forward   - George Mikan
Power Forward              - Bill Russell
Center                          - Wilt Chamberlain
Point Guard                   - Magic Johnson
Scoring/Shooting Guard - Michael Jordan

Russell and Mikan, though Centers, merit consideration on any starting NBA team. They are therefore considered for the position that they could substitute for with equivalent dexterity.

Honorary mentions also go to:  
Bob Pettit at Power Forward,
Elgin Baylor at Small/Scoring Forward,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at Center,
Oscar Robertson at Point Guard, and
Jerry West at Scoring/Shooting Guard.

Elgin Baylor is probably the greatest player in the history of the NBA never to win an NBA title, retiring on the very day the 1971/72 Lakers began their 33-game winning streak, and won their first NBA championship since moving to Los Angeles. He played in eight Finals, losing seven of those to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics of the sixties, and his last to the New York Knicks in 1970. But for George Mikan he would be my starting Small Forward on this all-time NBA team.

 

See a list of the top 100 players in the history of professional basketball through the end of the NBA's 2006/07 season.

1997 PER Sports, Inc.

Have a comment on this article. Send an email to us via info@persports.com
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