Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The 10 Best NBA Players Ever

Who Were the Greatest NBA Players of All-Time?

In my last basketball post, I looked at "Total" Production per-Minute -- a rough measure that I use to evaluate the performance of the players on "my" team, the Houston Rockets. At the time, the Rockets were battling the Lakers for the right to go to the NBA (National Basketball Association) Western Conference Finals, so I threw Kobe Bryant into the mix to see how our best player, Yao Ming, compared to the Lakers' best player. Kobe won.

But, that got me thinking.... Using this measure, who were the best NBA players ever? Who were the best of the best, the greatest of the many great NBA players I have seen over the past more-than-half-century? The table below shows you how it came out (click to expand).

Best NBA Players Ever?

Best / greatest NBA player & players ever
Best NBA Players of All-Time?

First, let me remind you, who's "best" depends on your evaluation criteria. These are not the only possible criteria. What this methodology has going for it is: a) it's simple, b) the components are all important, and c) the components are all readily available -- even for most of the old-timers.

Primarily, I'm measuring offensive productivity -- not who is the most skilled player, or the best in the clutch, or the most exciting to watch, or .... The most obvious deficiency of the methodology is that it doesn't adequately measure a player's defensive contribution. That's the case partly because defense is difficult to measure, and partly because the few measures that we currently have did not exist in the old days. Therefore, if I included defensive stats I wouldn't have the data for the older players, and would have to exclude them. Bottom line: In effect, I'm assuming all the players were roughly equal on the defensive end.

I like to look at stats on a production per minute or production per 40 minutes basis for reasons that I explained in Houston Rockets Production per-Minute. However, since most people aren't used to thinking in those terms, I've included the per game stats as well so that you can get the full impact of how extraordinary these players were.

Note that I've ranked the players based only on their "best" season. For these purposes, I prefer that to career averages. However, their best three years or so might be a better gauge.

The Best NBA Player Ever, and Other Observations

These results make intuitive sense to me. These are 10 true NBA superstars. I might quibble about some of the rankings within the top 10, but overall I think it's a pretty good top 10. Some other notes:
  • Wilt's dominance is astounding. There's nobody close. And, if you added defensive stats, it would make his production even more dominant! Bottom line is, you can make a very reasonable case for Wilt being the best NBA player ever.
  • The biggest surprise to me was Bob Pettit. I remember him as being an excellent player (that I didn't like), but not as productive as he really was.
  • I thought the Big O (Oscar Robertson) would rank even higher. As far as I can tell, he was the only player to ever average a triple double for a whole season!
  • I think it's instructive that not one member of the Celtic dynasty teams is in the top 10. One reason I was such a huge Celtic fan in those days was because they were such a great TEAM.

Some Other NBA Superstars

Here are some NBA super stars that you may be surprised did not make this list.
  • George Mikan: He probably belongs in the top 10. He played so long ago that I can't even get rebounding stats for his early years. More importantly, his best years were before the NBA implemented the 24-second clock for the 1954-55 season. In 1950, his team lost a game 19-18! This methodology does not adequately measure his contribution in games like that. The first year that I have rebounding stats for is 1950-51 -- midway through his career. His best season that I have complete stats for was 1951-52; his per game stats that season were 23.8 PPG, 13.5 RPG and 3.0 APG -- with no shot clock.
  • Julius Erving: The problem here is how to handle Dr. J's ABA years. If you include the ABA years, he comes in 8th overall with a 1.17/minute (47/40 minute) contribution in 1975-76. That year, his per game stats were 29.3 PPG, 11 RPG and 5 APG.
  • Charles Barkley: There is a whole generation that thinks of Chuck as an announcer. However, the "Round Mound of Rebound" had some awfully good years. His best score was 1.14/minute (45.6/40 min) in 1992-93 -- just outside the top 10. That season he averaged 25.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG and 5.1 APG.
  • Jerry West: Excellent player, and the model for the NBA logo -- but didn't make the cut. Best year was 1965-66 with 1.09/minute (43.7/40 minute) contribution. That year his per game stats were 31.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 6.1 APG.
  • Kobe Bryant: Great player, but didn't make the list. His best year was 2005-06 with a contribution of 1.1/minute (44.2/40 minutes).

Full disclosure. It may surprise you to know that I have not done this analysis for every single player that ever played in the NBA. I started with players I remember as being extraorinary, and used The 50 Greatest Players in NBA History to add additional candidates. I haven't calculated the results for all, but have for many recent stars including, for example, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire. I've also run the numbers for older players such as Bill Russell, Karl Malone, George Gervin, Bill Walton, Bob Cousy, David Robinson, and, of course, all the old Rockets stars.

Related Material:

My data sources are NBA.Com and
Here's another guy's take, using different criteria.

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Last modified 3/12/2010

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