Synopsis: Twenty years ago, the NBA celebrated its 50th Anniversary by revealing the names of the 50 greatest players in league history. In anticipation of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary, many sites are starting to compile their own rankings of top players. Given the outstanding players from the last two decades, the league easily could expand the honor to 75 players without diluting quality. At the same time, it could fix the injustice of omitting players like Dominique Wilkins and Walt Bellamy. Thanks to analysis provided by my son, Top10Busts has joined the fray with a ranking of the NBA Top 25. As a teaser, the top five are Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and LeBron James.
NBA TOP 25 GREATEST PLAYERS (2016)
During the 2015 Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, I proposed a potential reconfiguration of the NBA Mount Rushmore. In particular, I argued that LeBron James was on the cusp of receiving the ultimate symbolic recognition of basketball immortality. Playing without All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in that series, LeBron almost completed the unthinkable. Instead, he fell two games short of his third ring in five years. Despite the loss, the Cavs’ star player still deserved the Finals MVP trophy.
During the 6 games of the NBA Finals, LeBron James led BOTH teams in scoring 5x, rebounds 3x, and assists 4x. Yet, no MVP. #LeBronwasrobbed
— Top10Busts (@Top10Busts) June 17, 2015
Arguably, LeBron created an even more impressive storyline by winning the 2016 Championship. In a rematch against the Warriors, the Cavaliers became the first team in NBA history to earn a title after trailing 3-1 in the Finals. In order to complete the highly improbable comeback, Cleveland won three straight (including two on the road) against a team that had set a record with 73 regular-season wins.
By falling short, Golden State removed itself from consideration as the greatest team ever. At the same time, LeBron proved that he still is the best player on the planet. Sorry Steph, but Finals MVP trumps regular-season MVP. Lest anyone think differently, King James now is officially one of the five greatest players in NBA history.
While updating a post detailing my list of all-time NBA greats, I got involved in a lengthy conversation about my methodology with my son. I talked to him about the numerous criteria that I had considered before settling on a ranking based purely on the number of MVP awards won by each player. As described in the footnote to the following table, I had to fine tune the analysis. However, I was amazed at the robustness of the list from only one variable (i.e. total MVPs).
COMBINED NBA/ABA MVPs (Regular Season and Finals)
(As of 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.
Realizing the simplicity of my methodology, I mocked myself in that earlier post. Specifically, I argued that I should patent my “proprietary” analysis. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Quantitative Economics from a prestigious university. Technically, it’s a Junior University with a tree for a mascot, but who’s keeping track of technicalities? Based on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule, I have done enough data analysis to make me an outlier three times over. Yet, my 14-year-old son called BS on my work.
Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree because my son took the time to devise a better model. After several hours of scouring basketball-reference.com, he created a methodology which put mine to shame. Pridefully, I embraced his suggestion because he presented an analytical argument that I couldn’t refute. For me, it was the equivalent of LeBron seeing his son do the following.
NBA TOP 25 – NEXT GENERATION?
Unafraid to show up his dad, my son expanded my list to create an NBA Top 25. Frankly, I knew my approach had reached a limit at 15 names because the next two players would have been Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Each of these players is an all-time great, but neither is worthy of the 16th or 17th spot on a list of the greatest players. As you’ll see, my son didn’t think so either.
Through the first fifteen names, my son’s ranking isn’t much different than mine. The only significant difference involved the replacement of Moses Malone (#10 on my list) with Jerry West (#14 on his list).
NBA TOP 25 GREATEST PLAYERS – CAREER PER GAME AVERAGES
NBA TOP 25 GREATEST PLAYERS – HONORS / RECOGNITION
|Rank||Player||All-Star Games||1st Team All-NBA||2nd Team All-NBA||3rd Team All-NBA||1st Team All-D||2nd Team All-D||Rings||MVPs||Finals MVPs|
Note: Green numbers reflect estimates as if the recognition / honor existed during that player’s career.
NBA TOP 25 GREATEST PLAYERS – EXTERNAL RANKINGS / TOP10BUSTS INDEX
|Rank||Player||Best Decade||Win Share Rank||AOL Top 25||SI Top 25||ESPN Top 25||T10B Index|
Note: Blank cells are included for players not ranked in the top 25 by AOL, SI or ESPN.
As a disclaimer, I need to disclose that I helped my son in two ways. First, we jointly evaluated players whose careers predated certain honors or distinctions. For instance, the NBA awarded its first Finals MVP and selected the first All-Defensive teams in 1969. By doing the extra work, he was able to recognize oft-overlooked players like Bob Pettit, George Mikan, and Bob Cousy. Second, he asked me to help him create an index whereby MJ would be close to 100. At the same time, he wanted to keep the door slightly ajar for a future G.O.A.T.
Jokingly, my son argued that the crack in the door is being left open for Boogie Cousins. I think he’s deflecting from his hope that LeBron ultimately edges out Jordan. From now until King James abdicates his throne (i.e. retires), the comparisons between the two all-time greats will continue to escalate. LeBron fueled the fire by recently confessing to SI’s Lee Jenkins, “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
NBA TOP 25 – CHASING A GHOST
Based on my son’s methodology, LeBron still has as shot at becoming the next Dr. Peter Venkman (i.e. the ultimate Ghostbuster). Assuming the King signs a one-year contract for 2016-17 and a final five-year extension (for the first $200 million NBA contract), he simply needs to:
- Make six All-Star teams. No brainer.
- Earn two 1st Team and two 2nd Team All-NBA selections. Seems reasonable.
- Win two rings while earning two Finals MVPs. GOOD LUCK!
As indicated already, the first two criteria shouldn’t be too hard to meet. On the other hand, the third condition is substantial. In fact, it seems overwhelming given that nine of the NBA Top 25 finished their illustrious careers with fewer than two rings. Despite the shrinking gap between LeBron and Michael, it still is significant. For as improbable as LeBron’s chances might be, however, they’re still higher than the odds of winning after being down 3-1 in the 2016 Finals. In other words, I’m telling you there’s a chance.
In closing, I need to thank my son for inspiring this post. Being able to talk to him about this site makes it all worthwhile.