Backpicks GOAT: #12 Oscar Robertson

Key stats and trends

  • Arguably the strongest statistical footprint before the Databall era
  • Anchored elite offenses for entire career while playing on subpar defenses
  • Excellent combination of scoring, efficiency and playmaking

Scouting Report

Oscar was the first ball-dominant quarterback, his offensive game a fusion of Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki. He liked control, was deliberate and didn’t try many aggressive, high-risk plays. His bread-and-butter was the ability to score (seemingly) at will in the midrange with his pull-up, often executing it going to his right like this:

He had a size advantage over opposing guards, but he used his hips and shoulders to create space and find an open release point. This even worked against larger defenders like John Havlicek (shown above). Here he comes back to the left with pump fakes on the same move:

And he could do it going left. Notice the high release point as he (somehow) scores this over Russell.

The “Dirk” part of his game was the slow, deliberate artistry with which he could carve out his own shot in the mid and high-post area. This is some of the best old-man game you will ever see — he sticks his backside into his defender and probes for a look.

Much of Oscar’s effectiveness stemmed from this kind of isolation. What made him an all-time offensive talent was that he would also pass out of these situations as well, making the “right” play when he spotted mismatches. Below, he recognizes the switch on the pick-and-roll and feeds big-man Connie Dierking for an easy score.

Oscar made plays like this regularly and was quick to exploit these kinds of opportunities. He was also stellar in pick-and-roll action in general, particular for the time. Below, he slips a great pocket pass to Wayne Embry the second he feels Embry clear both defenders:

As the years wore on, spacing and pick-and-roll action advanced league-wide. By the early ’70s offenses showed more fluidity and, in ’71, teams like Milwaukee ran more modern action. 1 A better-spaced court weaponized a quarterback like Oscar, opening up his driving and passing lanes, allowing him to create easy shots for teammates:

These kinds of players were less common back then, but my bet is that Oscar set up his teammates more than any other player in the ’60s. Perhaps his riskiest (and some of his best) passes were in transition, where he always seemed to know who was going to be open before they were open.

He had great vision, but lacked some of the same aggression as the all-time great passers. This is subtle, but it’s the difference between a great offense a transcendent one.

Windows like these are small, and exploiting them requires hutzpah, but the few times they materialized on film Oscar didn’t go after them. Ironically, he would occasionally toss a lazy outlet pass for a turnover.

Defensively, he appears fairly neutral from the available games we have. When he’s engaged, he moves his feet fairly well and uses his size and good hands. Here he is disrupting great offensive players late in his career:

However, he did have sub-optimal tendencies, like floating out of position occasionally. In the first clip below (guarding the inbounder), he sort of overreacts to the cutter, and in the second, demonstrates some curious pick-and-roll defense.

Finally, he gambled for steals a number of times. It’s unclear whether this was strategy or him going rogue, but it certainly played into the identity of the ’60s Royals, who would score efficiently but also were easy to score on.

Oscar aged well, as we’d expect from someone with Paul-like control and Nowitzki’s YMCA tricks. His physical condition started to fade in 1972, when he broke down during the playoffs with a “deep muscle pull in his stomach.”  In ’73, he labored through problems with his toe, neck, shoulder and hamstring before retiring in 1974.

Impact Evaluation

Management and team construction can saddle even the greatest of players, and Oscar’s Royals were the original exemplar of that. When Robertson arrived in 1961, the Royals offense immediately spiked. The ’60 team had finished dead last defensively and middle of the pack offensively, resulting in a 24-win pace (-6 SRS). With Oscar aboard, the defense remained porous but the offense jumped to best in the league.

The Royals were an undersized team filled with solid offensive talent, and Oscar’s passing and command catapulted them forward. But during those years, Cincinnati’s lineups lacked size, rarely featuring big men over 6-foot-8, and the ’64 and ’65 clubs were the only teams of the decade not to have a player taller than that log a single minute! Below is a year-by-year plot of the number of minutes per game occupied by 6-foot-9 players or taller on teams around the league:

The ’60 Royals were young, with no one over the age of 26. They were led by scorer Jack Twyman (31.2 ppg, +2.3 percent relative true shooting, or rTS) and a platoon of supporting players who averaged under 28 minutes per game. But they were a solid offensive group, and alongside Oscar, Twyman’s efficiency shot up in 1961 (+6.4 percent rTS). Robertson made an immediate impact, elevating Cincinnati from +0.2 (efficiency relative to league average or rORtg) on offense to +3.5, a number they would eclipse in all but two years of the 1960s.

Oscar missed nine games that year as a rookie, and the Royals played disastrously without him, falling from a 36-win pace to a 9-win pace. The same team, along with Adrian Smith, came back a year older in ’62, and the offense inched-up to elite (+4.7 rOrtg) while the defense improved slightly. When healthy, the ’62 Royals played like a 45-win team. They repeated the pattern in 1963 — a 46-win pace, the league’s best offense (+3.5) and one of its worst defenses. By ’63, their tallest player was Hub Reed at 6-foot-9 (16 mpg), and their starting bigs were Bob Boozer (6-foot-8) and Wayne Embry (6-foot-8). Embry was long and built like a tank, but he wasn’t a rim protector nor a disruptive team defender.

1964 was Cincinnati’s year. They finished first in offense (+4.3) and balanced it with an average D. Twyman missed 12 games —  the Royals dropped to a 40-win pace without him — and with him played at a noteworthy 55-win clip. Oscar claimed the MVP, and if Bill Russell decided to play baseball that year, the Royals would have been strong title contenders. The addition of rookie Jerry Lucas (a stretch big) likely helped; despite defensive shortcomings, Lucas was an excellent rebounder and cleared possessions next to Embry. He added efficient scoring, averaging 17.7 points per game on an awesome +9.3 percent rTS.

In ’65, despite returning the same young core, the Royals fall back to their familiar 46-win pace (1.8 SRS). Lucas missed time that year, but Cincy was actually better without him.2 This was a pattern with Lucas, who posted commendable stats but seemed to barely move the needle; he has one of the worst WOWY scores on record (-1.3) and WOWYR finds him similarly ineffective (ranking 559th as a neutral-impacter player). Odds are, his defensive deficiencies limited his value, and while the Royals maintained the same offensive heights as the ’64 team, they regressed defensively in ’65.

Up until that point, Cincinnati had the best offense of the decade, consistently finishing at the top of heap every season. In ’66, like clockwork, they were again a 46-win team, although this time the offense dropped a few points and the defense picked up the slack. (They had the same top-6 in their rotation, save for Twyman, who was essentially replaced by Happy Hairston.) The following year was a rerun of ’66 but the team was slightly worse (42-win pace). As SI put it, they “developed some sloppy habits, especially on defense.” In other words, Oscar was in basketball purgatory.

Robertson missed 10 games in 1968 before Hairston was traded, and Cincinnati collapsed without him, cascading from a 46-win pace (+1.8) down to a 17-win one (-9.3) in his absence.3 In 1970, he sat for 12 games, and an otherwise healthy Royals dropped from a 42-win pace with him (+0.3 SRS) to an 18-win pace without him (-8.7 SRS). Oscar’s missed time came in small samples, but the results hinted at his extreme value.

Unlike the modern ball-dominant quarterbacks, Oscar wasn’t spearheading attacks by relentlessly creating opportunities for teammates — such plays weren’t common for much of the 1960s. Oscar led the league in assists in most years, but even then assist rates were far below what they would become after the merger in 1977.4 Oscar’s assists per 75 possessions were regularly between 5.9 and 7.5. For comparison, John Stockton has the highest rate ever at 13.6, while Magic and Steve Nash peaked around 12. But the best mark before the merger was Kevin Porter’s 8.5.

Thus, Oscar wasn’t making life way easier for his teammates the way creators like Nash and LeBron did. Instead, he was a great facilitator. His more conservative passes put players in the right position to score. He could find easy offense in transition and his great feel for mismatches helped team efficiency too. But an enormous chunk of his global impact came from his own isolation scoring, which was orders better than anyone that decade not named Jerry West:

Oscar took about 27 scoring attempts (TSA) per game for many years in Cincinnati, and the difference between average efficiency and Oscar’s +8.5 percent rTS (his ’60s average) was roughly four points per game for his team’s net efficiency. Coincidentally, that mirrors the Royals offensive advantage over the league for much of the decade. It’s never that simple — the game is far more interactive — but it provides perspective on how valuable that kind of efficiency can be while taking less than 25 percent of a team’s scoring attempts. And while West’s scoring was even better, he lagged behind Oscar as a playmaker; West peaked at 5.7 assists per 75 during those years, with a number of seasons in the 4s.5

In 1970, Bob Cousy replaced longtime coach Jack McMahon and the wheels started to fall off. Lucas was traded at the start of the season for Jim King and (bootstrap) Bill Turner. Cousy clashed with Robertson’s style, wanting to reduce his ball-dominance and up the tempo, and at one point Cousy even made an ill-fated comeback attempt that lasted 34 minutes over seven games. Their offensive rating dropped almost 6 points (to -1.0) but the defense improved by 4 from the previous year, to 1.4 points better than average. Shifts like this are often a reflection of strategic changes, where neither side of the ball changed that much, but instead lineups and transition tactics shifted. Cousy wanted to fast break, no doubt an attempt to rekindle the Celtic glory years, and that might have led to hurried possessions. The loss of Lucas may have also played a role in the offense’s decline and the defense’s improvement.

Mercilessly, in 1971, Oscar was traded to the Bucks for peanuts: Charlie Paulk (18 mpg in Cincy) and Flynn Robinson (34 mpg in Milwaukee and then 19 mpg in Cincy). Without Oscar, the Royals played like a 33-win team (-3.0 SRS) in ’71. In Milwaukee, the Bucks strung together one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history en route to a title. They would maintain elite status until his final season in 1974.

Like West, Oscar leaves an impressive statistical footprint. He doesn’t miss as many games, but when he did miss time Cincinnati fell ill. His WOWY sample sizes aren’t too large — 69 missed games during his prime — but regressed game-level data reinforces that he was a huge-impact player. Corroboratively, they suggest elite value and a strong MVP-level peak.

I’m not overly excited about the scalability of most ball-dominant players. They certainly can scale — Oscar, after all, played on a dominant team — but it’s hard for others to make life easier for them. For instance, when Oscar left Cincinnati, his efficiency and scoring declined, despite playing alongside Kareem and the loaded ’71 Bucks.6 Kareem created easy shots for the shooters around him, but not many easy ones for Oscar because he wasn’t a cutter or spot-up shooter.

Overall, Oscar has the portfolio of an all-time great offensive star, but his defensive impact is a question mark. His team defenses were porous — his presence never correlated with much on that end — yet numerous accounts praised his ability to bother opponents with his size in Milwaukee. Without video, it’s difficult to hone in on this area; I hedge my bets and view him as average during his prime.

His health was good, for the most part, although he lost value in the ’72 playoffs to injury. Otherwise, he was an MVP-level candidate for his first 11 years in the league and the original offensive quarterback. If I curb his peak slightly — a reasonable stance — he falls back two spots to No. 14. On the other hand, I can’t see the evidence to boost him into the first 11. And while the group of legends between Oscar and West are all within an MVP season of each other, Robertson edges them out for the 12th-most valuable career in NBA history.

 

Backpicks GOAT: #17 Jerry West

Key Stats and Trends

  • One of the largest statistical footprints before the Databall era
  • Historical combination of scoring volume and efficiency
  • Led some of the greatest offenses ever before the 3-point line

Scouting Report

Jerry West was the original perimeter vortex, pummeling defenses with futuristic scoring and adroit passing. His hair-trigger release and long arms — he was said to have a 6-foot-9 wingspan — allowed him to create his own shot from nearly anywhere. Here’s a quintessential West pull-up:

Along with his quick pull-up, West employed a more deliberate jumper, using his body to create space, then hitting defenders with head fakes before launching over them:

When evaluating any ’60s guard it’s important to remember that dribbling rules were enforced quite differently then, and players could barely turn their wrists without being whistled for a palming violation. Thus, guards like West dribbled closer to the floor and lacked the arrhythmic cadence of modern crossovers. Still, West could drive and finish well around the rim with a wide range of shots. He described his newly developed handle for the 1962 season:

“I can do a lot more with the ball, too. I was strictly a right-handed shot and I didn’t drive much, so the defense was playing me a whole step to the right and in tight. Now I can go to my left and shoot with my left hand, and I’m driving a lot.” (November 20, 1961 in Sports Illustrated.)

Incorporating these drives nearly doubled West’s free throw attempts in ’62, a key pillar of his efficient attack. Below, he goes to the bank on a spin move, flips a finger roll over the venerable Bill Russell and scoops in a hoop after buckling his defender with an inside-out dribble:

Based on the available film, these were typical West attacks. He was also a noteworthy passer with good court awareness. In the first clip below, he showcases his vision by dropping a perfect dime in transition. In the second, he displays a sound ability to hit open men on the break.

He had a good feel for pick-and-roll action in the half court, although from the available footage this wasn’t used as much in the earlier part of his career:

In the next clip, he creates offense for Wilt Chamberlain by drawing a help defender and slipping him the ball for an easy finish.1

West’s assists jumped at the end of his career during a league-wide trend, peaking at 8.1 per 75 possessions, slightly higher than Oscar Robertson’s best season.

All told, West produced 25 to 32 points per night on extraordinarily high efficiency for the times. His ability to draw fouls resulted in 11 consecutive seasons at 8 free throw attempts per game or better. As a career 81 percent free thrower, this carried him to the top of the league in efficiency twice (as a volume scorer!), and from ’64-71 he was 7.7 percent above league average in true shooting percentage (rTS).

West was also a noteworthy defender, using quick hands and long arms to generate blocks and steals. He was often disruptive, slapping at balls, which led to plays like this:

And his wingspan helped him block a number of shots for a guard — in this vein, he’s similar in stature and “true height” to a modern player like Dwyane Wade, who was also an exceptional shot blocker as a guard. Below, he sends back a shot defending a two-on-one fast break and then another in the half court.

While West was good right away, it wasn’t until his third year in 1963 that he really hit his stride. He maintained his skills during the heart of his prime until the early ’70s, when he tapered off before retiring at the end of the 1974 season.

Impact Evaluation

West left one of the largest impact footprints in NBA history and comes away looking like an all-time great. It was West, not Elgin Baylor, who guided Los Angeles to a decade of offensive excellence, and it’s West who has a viable claim as the best offensive player before the 3-point era.

In 1959, the Lakers added Baylor, but were still a below-average team, finishing a with a -1.4 SRS (or a 37-win pace over an 82-game season). Larry Foust (seven-time all-star) and Vern Mikkelsen (six-time all-star) were aging holdovers from the Mikan years, and Foust was traded in 1960 while Mikkelsen retired. That ’60 team, the last in Minneapolis, finished with a -4 SRS and the worst offense in the league. So while Baylor racked up worthy stats (29 points and 4 assists per game), he wasn’t able to do much with spare parts.2

In 1961, with basically the same rotation back and a year older, the Lakers moved to LA and added a rookie West. Baylor took another step forward, but West wasn’t the assassin he would soon become, scoring 17.6 points per game on below league-average efficiency and shooting just 67 percent from the free throw line as a rookie. The Lakers were a .500 team again, and the offense was merely the second-worst in the league; Baylor averaged 35 points and 5 assists per contest. It marked the last time the Lakers would field a below-average offense until West’s final year in 1974.

Per the scouting report, West improved in ’62, although, based on his free throw accuracy, his shooting didn’t reach peak levels until 1964. Baylor missed most of the second half of the ’62 season (military service), and in his absence, the Lakers still played at a respectable 37-win pace. With Baylor, the Lakers played like a 55-win team and finished the year with a positive offensive rating (1.4 points better than league average, or rORtg). But it was West’s growth in the middle of the decade that coincided with a Laker offensive boom.

In ’62, West called his own number a good amount, but Baylor still took about 40 percent more scoring attempts than him, despite Elgin’s lesser efficiently. This is not a total indictment of Baylor — he was a fairly good passer himself and his attack in those years was effective, as evidenced by the team’s improvement in ’62 with him — but given the lack of cohesive offensive structures at the time, it is a red flag that Elgin was eating up too many possessions for himself. More on this in a moment.

Below is a plot of scoring volume (x-axis) and efficiency (y-axis) for West and Baylor; West’s combination of volume and efficiency was unmatched for the period:

In 1963, West missed his first major chunk of time, portending an injury-riddled career. The Lakers played at a 55-win pace with West that year (4.9 SRS), but dropped to a 35-win pace in 26 games without him (-2.2 SRS). The Lakers were so hot at one point that Sports Illustrated called them one of the greatest teams ever before West’s injury:

“On February 3, 1963 one of the best basketball teams ever assembled stopped being that. It was on that day that Laker All-Star Jerry West pulled a muscle, and the team that had just won 42 of 50 was thenceforth to be no more than a win-one, lose-one powderpuff in powder blue. It is going to be a lot of seasons before anybody wins 42 of 50 in the NBA again.” (October, 1963)

In ’64, LA returned a nearly identical rotation, West’s efficiency jumped to peak levels, but they only played at a 47-win pace when healthy. The offense was good again, but the defense completely dropped off. Notably, this was the year in which Elgin Baylor’s knee problems began, yet his scoring attempts were still nearly identical to West’s. Baylor’s rebounding dropped off, perhaps a reflection of lesser athleticism.3 The following year (1965) was a near copy of the results, and Baylor suffered a major knee injury that postseason.

In ’66, the Lakers finished first in offensive efficiency (+3.4 rOrtg) as Baylor took on a secondary role post-injury. In 12 games without Elgin that year, LA played exactly as they did with him — a 47-win pace. West’s bump in assists while maintaining his scoring volume indicate an increased offensive load. After a difficult ’67 season for the team (West missed the playoffs) in which Baylor’s scoring attempts shot back up (despite subpar efficiency) the plateauing Lakers moved on from longtime coach Fred Schaus and brought in Butch Van Breda Kolff.

The geometry of the NBA was different in the ’60s. Fluid ball-movement and spacing were non-existent in most half-court sets. The area around the hoop was clogged like the pile up in front of a hockey net. As a result, wings who were good enough to drive couldn’t easily maneuver to the hoop, often met by a wall of players cluttered in their path. Defenses sagged back in the lane and willingly surrendered outside shots that were still only worth 2 points.

But in 1968, Butch Van Bredda Kolff implemented a Princeton-based system in LA, which naturally emphasized spacing and a clear lane. The limited footage reveals a stark contrast between other years, where the Lakers offense had space to operate, was more fluid, and as a result their dominant wings could drive to the basket more frequently. In short, it looked more modern.

This made West particularly deadly, as he had by far his best season from the field, shooting 51.4 percent from the floor. His true shooting was the highest in the first 22 years of the NBA for a guard, nearly 10 percent above league average.4 The improved spacing amplified both West’s ability to score and to create for his teammates, and with West the Lakers played at a 62-win pace. In 27 games without him, they regressed all the way down to .500 ball. Despite his missed games, they still finished with the highest offensive rating ever posted at the time (101.7). Here’s how West’s ’68 Lakers compare to the top teams before the 3-point line by relative shooting efficiency (rTS):5

With West in the lineup, the ’68 Lakers were the first offense in NBA history to hit +4 percent rTS and the second-best relative offense before the 3-point era. The 1967 76ers were the only other team of the ’60s to even eclipse +3 percent rTS (3 percent equates to about 6 extra points every 100 possessions.) LA’s raw shooting efficiency was only topped by nine teams in the following decade, despite a large uptick in scoring at the start of the ’70s. Van Breda Kolff’s schematic shift was nearly to the ’60s what Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less was to the aughts.

But the Laker chemistry was disrupted by the arrival of Wilt in 1969.6 There’s a play in the scouting report above from 1970, where West goes to drive but Wilt’s defender and Wilt occupy the left block, clogging his path. Any offense that spread the court, opened the lane and asked bigs to stay above the free throw line was not conducive to Wilt’s tendencies (or strengths), and despite the promise of being the original super team, the Lakers were worse in 1969. This is the first major example in NBA history where a lack of portability rendered a contending team less than the sum of its parts. And the coach was scapegoated for it.

However, West was still additive. In 20 games without him, LA was a .500 team, but with him, they played at a 57-win pace (still worse than the healthy ’68 squad). In 1970, after the Happy Hairston trade7, the Lakers played 32 games with West and without Wilt, and in those games, LA played at a 54-win pace (4.7 SRS). With Wilt in the lineup, the Lakers were again slightly worse. West and company even logged 16 of those 32 Wilt-less games without Baylor, maintaining a nearly identical pace without Elgin too.

In 1971, the last year of West’s stretch of elite efficiency, LA played like a 55-win team with him (5.0 SRS) and a 37-win team without him (-1.0 SRS) for 18 games. Without West in the playoffs, the Lakers scored at 0.98 points per scoring attempt (PPA, or true shooting times two), down from 1.04 in the regular season, hinting that West’s presence was felt almost entirely on offense. Complete shooting records are spotty during West’s era, but there are two large available sets from his WOWY career, in 1963 (19 of his 26 missed games) and 1968 (24 of his 27 missed games) that demonstrate his massive offensive value. Below I’ve plotted those two teams with scoring efficiency on the x-axis (TS) and the change in efficiency with West in the lineup on the y-axis (PPA):

In both cases, the Lakers were drastically improved with West. The ’63 team posted a 50.5 percent true shooting mark with West in those 19 games we can access, up from a slightly below-average 48.5 percent in all other games. The ’68 team improved by 3.4 percent in rTS (6.8 PPA), the equivalent of taking an average offense to the top of the league.8 LA’s bigs experienced the largest shift with West in ’63, but in ’68 he made life easier for just about everyone. Also, we expect West to have a smaller influence on Baylor precisely because Elgin self-created well and wasn’t a good outside shooter who could capitalize on West stressing the defense.

West exited his prime on two dominant teams — the ’72 champion and the ’73 runner-up. Both clubs played at a 69-win pace when healthy, although the ’73 team was closer to .500 in 12 games without West.9 Here’s a summary of West’s teams throughout his career, with and without him (WOWY):

Overall, West posts one of the highest WOWY scores on record, and regressed data supports that whether at the game level or with WOWYR. In most of those studies, he’s a hair behind Oscar Robertson, however I give West a slight boost in portability, as he achieved his results alongside multiple stars, whereas Oscar was always ball-dominant (despite jelling with Kareem in Milwaukee). West was also one of the few superstars ever to improve his scoring in the postseason.10

It’s hard to make an argument for his defense making too much of a dent, although I give him solid marks; West was a perennial all-league defender, reflecting some of the skills he shows on tape. Based on the totality of the evidence and his remarkable offensive apex, I think he flirted with an all-time (top-15) peak. His longevity and sustained prime are good for his era, although West’s injuries robbed him of two prime postseasons (and his final playoffs in 1974). Without those lost years, West would likely be 10th on this list. Instead, he barely edges out No. 18 for this spot.