Synopsis: Like it or not, the nerds have infiltrated sports. Thanks to sabermetricians, statistics like OPS and WAR have become as recognizable as HR and RBI. While not as prevalent as WAR, WiSh (win shares) offers an all-encompassing statistic to evaluate professional basketball players. For instance, the Top 5 players in NBA history ranked by WiSh include: 1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; 2) Wilt Chamberlain; 3) Karl Malone; 4) Michael Jordan; and 5) John Stockton. While useful to generate an elite list of NBA legends, the stat just doesn’t work when determining all-time NBA ranking.
Alternatively, the Top 5 players ranked by total MVPs are: 1) Michael Jordan; 2) Bill Russell; 3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; 4) LeBron James; and 5) Wilt Chamberlain. Aaahhh, much better. In essence, total MVP awards seemingly provide a better proxy for all-time greatness than win shares. Regardless, WiSh still can be useful to establish a threshold above which a superstar can be defined. Similarly, it can determine a threshold below which a bust can be defined.
NBA RANKING (WIN SHARES VS. MVPs)
[Note: updates since the original post are in red]
Some of you might believe that it’s just semantics to differentiate between a bust and a bad draft pick. However, that distinction helped drive me to create this site in the first place. For me, a bad draft pick describes an underachieving player who gets exposed by the success of an overlooked superstar. In contrast, a bust describes a player whose underachievement is so great that it stands out on its own. As a clarification, a bust’s status can be heightened if drafted ahead of an all-time great. However, it shouldn’t be the sole criterion.
Said differently, a bad draft pick occurs when a much better player could have been chosen instead. Of course, the better player presumably would have been just as successful playing with different players on a different team. It’s hard to argue that Michael Jordan wouldn’t have succeeded elsewhere. However, the argument seems weaker for someone like Anfernee Hardaway. After all, Penny’s greatest years were limited to his time in Orlando when playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal. Selected immediately ahead of Hardaway in the 1993 Draft, Shawn Bradley was a bad pick. On the other hand, Sam Bowie, who was taken immediately ahead of MJ in the 1984 Draft, was one of the all-time worst picks.
Despite the argument made in the previous paragraph, I contend that neither player was a bust. If you’re curious, click here to learn how and why Bowie escaped the label. Then again, what about Bradley?
NBA RANKING – WAS SHAWN BRADLEY A BUST?
During his 12-year NBA career, Bradley averaged 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Of note, his blocks per game average ranks as 10th highest in NBA history. With respect to NBA ranking, he’s ahead of all-time great shot blockers with the last names of Ewing, O’Neal, and Duncan. Should a one-dimensional player be recognized as a great player? Of course not. At the same time, an all-time leader in a top five category can’t be considered a bust either.
For my evaluation of NBA draft busts, I relied heavily on Basketball-Reference.com for its aggregation of basketball statistics. The site has developed its own version of win shares (WiSh) in an attempt to summarize the contributions of a player in one statistic. Overall, WiSh seems be effective when categorizing players as bad, mediocre, good, or great. However, it seems less reliable when determining a specific NBA ranking.
For most of us, winning is at the top of any player’s resume. While WiSh incorporates that aspect of a player’s career, it falls short as a ranking device because of the penalty for being on a bad team. For instance, the following table summarizes the five draft picks from the 2011 NBA Draft with the greatest number of win shares. If the statistic were more robust, it would be able to identify the best five players from that draft in the correct order.
2011 NBA PICKS – RANKED BY WIN SHARES (AFTER THE 2013-14 SEASON)
|Player||Team||Team Wins||Points / Game||Rebounds / Game||Assists / Game||Win Shares||% of Team Wins|
|Kawhi Leonard||San Antonio Spurs||170||11.0||5.8||1.6||20.3||11.9%|
|Kenneth Faried||Denver Nuggets||131||12.1||8.6||1.0||19.5||14.9%|
|Chandler Parsons||Houston Rockets||133||14.1||5.2||3.2||18.7||14.1%|
|Isaiah Thomas||Sacramento Kings||78||15.4||2.5||4.8||18.2||23.3%|
|Kyrie Irving||Cleveland Cavaliers||78||20.8||3.7||5.8||17.4||22.3%|
Interestingly, team wins serve as the biggest determination of ranking instead of any individual statistic. As such, personal greatness gets muted by WiSh. In particular, there’s no way that Kyrie should be fifth. Since being drafted three years ago, Uncle Drew has been named to two NBA All-Star teams (earning one All-Star MVP Award), earned the MVP Award at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and received recognition as the 2014 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year. That’s a lot of hardware to be the 5th best player from that (or any) draft.
Also noteworthy, Klay Thompson doesn’t rank in the top 5. In particular, the junior Splash Brother ranked 7th with 14.1 win shares before the 2014-15 season started. Arguably, short-term discrepancies disappear over time. But do they?
Given the driving factor of WiSh (i.e. team wins), Kyrie’s total should soar now that he’s playing with LeBron. At the same time, his individual numbers likely will fall.
As if on cue, I can provide an update given that three full seasons have passed since I originally wrote this post.
2011 NBA DRAFT PICKS – RANKED BY WIN SHARES (updated after the 2016-17 season)
|Player||Team||Team Wins||Points / Game||Rebs/ Game||Assists / Game||Win Shares||% Team Wins|
|Kawhi Leonard||San Antonio Spurs||346||16.4||6.2||2.3||55.4||16.0%|
|Jimmy Butler||Chicago Bulls||275||15.6||4.8||3.1||49.3||17.9%|
|Isaiah Thomas||Sacramento Kings||218||19.1||2.6||5.2||45.4||20.8%|
|Kyrie Irving||Cleveland Cavaliers||235||21.6||3.4||5.5||40.4||17.2%|
|Klay Thompson||Golden State Warriors||327||19.1||3.3||2.3||36.6||11.2%|
|Kenneth Faried||Denver Nuggets||223||11.9||8.5||1.1||34.6||15.5%|
After six years, the ranking seems to be more reasonable. I believe most would agree that Kawhi should be atop any list of top players from the 2011 NBA Draft. After that, the ranking would include the next four players in the table in some order. Faried and Parson remain decent players, but certainly not worthy of Top 5 status.
Despite short-term discrepancies, let’s see if WiSh works better in the long-term. In particular, the following table provides an NBA ranking based on career win shares from the regular season.
TOP 20 NBA & ABA LEADERS – REGULAR SEASON WIN SHARES
(Updated after 2016-17 Season)
REGULAR SEASON WIN SHARES – EXPLANATION
Over the last three years, LeBron had the biggest change in WiSh and jumped from #14 to #7 in career NBA ranking. While not significant, it’s worth mentioning that Kobe Bryant’s WiSh actually decreased since my original post. Bryant certainly wasn’t the same player during the last two seasons (except for his 60-point swan song), but it’s hard to say that he created negative value. In retrospect, he might have.
Generally, this table provides an accurate summary of NBA legends who played at a high level over long periods of time. However, it doesn’t meet the eye test with respect to a specific ranking. In particular, Bill Russell ranks far too low and Larry Bird doesn’t even register in the top 20. LeBron still has several good years ahead of him so his low ranking will change over time. As previously noted, LeBron has moved up from #14 to #8 in this NBA ranking over the last two years. Still, he will only go higher and likely will finish his career in the top 3.
Given the importance of the playoffs when determining the all-time greatest players, perhaps it would be better to look at the all-time leaders in win shares for the NBA playoffs instead.
TOP 20 NBA & ABA LEADERS – PLAYOFF WIN SHARES / FINALS MVPs
[Win Shares updated after 2015-16 Season]
|Rank||Player||Win Shares||Finals MVPs|
PLAYOFF WIN SHARES / FINALS MVPs – EXPLANATION
The NBA introduced the Finals MVP Award in 1969. That year, Russell won his 11th championship as a player and 2nd as the head coach. Regardless, he didn’t win the inaugural award. Instead Jerry West won the Finals MVP in a losing effort for the Lakers. To date, West is still the only winner of the award in a losing effort. Who knows how many such awards Russell would have won given the Celtics’ other 10 championships? I guess he’ll just have to settle for having the trophy named after him instead. In retrospect, it’s not a bad consolation prize.
While Tim Duncan’s total increased slightly since my last update, LeBron James has leapfrogged both him and Jordan to reach #1. Additionally, Dirk Nowitzki moved up from #16 to #14 while Dwyane Wade (#17) bumped off Horace Grant. By bringing a major sport championship to Cleveland after a five-decade drought, King James certainly has G.O.A.T. status in his sights. Still, it’s hard to see him above His Royal Airness. Oh well, we better get used to the conversation – especially if LeBron has another championship in him.
Aaahhh! This list feels much better. Unfortunately, certain names like Dwyane Wade and Chauncey Billups appear simply because they had the advantage of playing in more playoff games. Of note, teams have to win 16 games to earn a title today. In comparison they had to win 15 games in the 90s, 12 in the 70s and 80s, eight in the 60s and seven in the 50s.
WHAT DOES REGGIE JACKSON HAVE TO DO WITH PLAYOFF WiSh? HINT: LOOK AT THE NICKNAME.
I distinctly remember when Reggie Jackson (one of my childhood heroes) tied Mickey Mantle for the most post-season home runs (18) in MLB history. Even though Mr. October benefited from additional playoff series, he tied The Mick with only 45 extra plate appearances. Unfortunately, the record became meaningless when Bernie Williams passed both of them and finished his playoff career with 22 HRs. Specifically, the record lost its luster given that Williams achieved his total after almost twice as many plate appearances as Mantle.
In case you were wondering, here’s the list of the Top 5 MLB playoff home run hitters.
MLB PLAYOFF HOME RUN LEADERS
|Ranking||Player||Home Runs||Plate Appearances|
*With all due credit to Derek Jeter and his post-season success, no one remembers him for his power. The Captain needed the equivalent of a full season of plate appearances in order to crack the Top 5 in playoff home runs. In contrast, every other player accomplished the feat in a fraction of the time. One of baseball’s greatest power hitters, Mantle had 10% fewer HRs than Jeter in 63% fewer times at the plate.
I digressed because playoff win shares will become equally useless as an NBA ranking due to more games for more players. As a result, I came up with an easily calculable statistic that should stand the test of time when determining the Best of the Best. In particular, I added up the number of MVP Awards (regular season and Finals) won by each player. Perhaps, I should apply for a patent because the stat (i.e. Combined MVPs) is proprietary. Actually, it gave me the desired result so I decided to use it.
COMBINED NBA/ABA MVPs (Regular Season and Finals)
[Updated after the 2015-16 season]
|Rank||Player||Regular- Season MVPs||Finals MVPs||Total MVPs|
|#2||Bill Russell||5||4* (maybe 5)||9* (maybe 10)|
|#5||Wilt Chamberlain||4||2* (maybe 3)||6* (maybe 7)|
|#11||Bob Pettit||2||1* (maybe 2)||3* (maybe 4)|
|#13||Julius Erving||3 (ABA)||0||3|
* The Finals MVP Award didn’t exist prior to 1969 so projected totals were added based on the performances of these players in the Finals. Chamberlain actually won 1 Finals MVP Award, but he likely would have earned one and possibly two more.
COMBINED MVPS – (UPDATES)/DISCREPANCIES
In June 2016, LeBron won his third Finals MVP after the Cavaliers won the NBA Championship. Cleveland wouldn’t have won the title without significant contributions from Kryie Irving, but LeBron truly deserved the hardware. Based on this update, King James ranks 4th all-time in combined MVPs. Now, it’s official – the NBA Mount Rushmore needs a facelift.
If anyone relied on the table to generate as an all-time NBA ranking, the only noticeable omission would be Oscar Robertson. While many have argued that the Big O. belongs on the NBA’s version of Mount Rushmore, the numbers just don’t support it. In particular, Robertson won but one NBA Championship and one regular-season MVP Award. Most sports writers exclude Chamberlain from the Mount Rushmore discussion because he only had two rings. Well, Robertson only had one.
Furthermore, Kobe Bryant ranks lower than expected. Then again, I blame the voters who selected Steve Nash twice and Dirk Nowitzki once in the mid-2000s. I know that the MVP doesn’t always go to the best player (nor should it), but still. With just one more MVP, Black Mamba would have passed Moses Malone and gotten into the Top 10. Regardless of any revisionist history scenario, he still wouldn’t crack the Top 7. For those of you who object to my ceiling because of Kobe’s five rings, don’t forget that Robert Horry has seven.