One impetus for creating this list was to tell basketball theory through the history of its megastars: The limitations of scoring (Wilt); issues with fit (Wilt again); the offensive dominance of perimeter players who can score and pass (West and Oscar); the rise of the 3-point shot and off-ball value (Reggie Miller); the ball-dominators that led to today’s pace and space (Magic and Nash); and the general underestimation of help defense (we’ll get to that in the top eight).
I originally thought 20 or 25 players could convey all of these themes. But making a list of 20 requires researching far more than that, and some of the 20-something stories were too compelling to omit. So I extended the list, and 40 seemed like a good place to redraw the line. From a career value standpoint, the separation at that point is so small (if at all), that the difference between No. 10 (Magic) and No. 9 (Wilt) is roughly the distance between No. 31 and No. 51. So players 34 to 40 are quite comparable, and things only grow tighter after that.
The final spot at No. 40 came down to Ray Allen and Dave Cowens. Cowens had a decent peak (solid passing, good defense and massive rebounding), but his career was short-lived. Also close were: Gary Payton (solid offensively but overvalued on D); George Gervin (a one-dimensional scoring machine); Isiah Thomas (an excellent creator/passer and scrappy defender who struggled with efficiency/shot-selection and produced only six all-league level years); Elvin Hayes (a low-efficiency, non-passing scorer, but an excellent defender for a decade); Dikembe Mutombo (a decade of elite defense with barely subpar offense); and Alonzo Mourning (similar in makeup to Patrick Ewing but with only eight good years.)
Without further ado, players 36-40 in short form, followed by 31-35 in the next post:
Allen was cut from Miller’s off-ball cloth, curling around screens for open jumpers or spotting up behind the arc for 3-point daggers. He improved his shooting accuracy in his second season (1998), jumping into the high-80s in free throw percentage, and he hit the low-90s by 2003. His 3-point shooting jumped from 36 percent to 42 percent in 2000, and for the next decade Allen sniped at 40 percent from downtown on relatively high volume.1 Unlike Miller, Allen shot well off the dribble, pulling up from all over the court with his superior handle. However, he wasn’t nearly as proficient at drawing fouls, nor was he always as decisive with his actions.2 He wasn’t a great passer either, but he was capable of good finds and added value with his off-ball gravity, stretching defenses that worried about his shooting.
Defensively, Allen’s lack of size (6-foot-5) and quickness hamstrung him a bit. He wasn’t a great ball-defender in his Milwaukee and Seattle seasons, taken off the dribble regularly while too small to bother larger opponents. He couldn’t really provide help at the rim, but his defensive rebounding was decent, posting relative rates between the 64th and 77th percentile in seven of his first eight years.3 In Boston, he played smarter defense, coached into a scheme that allowed him to use reflexes and guile to contain perimeter scorers fairly well. He was sound off the ball — his error rates from my 2010-11 tracking were slightly above average — rarely making spectacular plays yet often in good help position when necessary.
The Bucks trended upward as Allen developed. In 1998, they played 29 games at full-strength and posted a 2.2 SRS (47-win pace) with offensive talent like Glenn Robinson and Terrell Brandon. In ’99, they crossed the .500 mark for a full season for the first time since 1991, despite only 19 combined games from Brandon and replacement Sam Cassell. The all-offense Bucks inched forward again in Allen’s signature 2001 season, posting a +5.8 relative offensive rating (rORtg) en route to a 50-win pace (3.1 SRS). However their success was short-lived, and while the offenses continued to perform well, a no-D approach rendered them non-contenders.
In his first full season in Seattle (2004), Allen missed 22 games where the team was otherwise healthy. His absence was barely felt, as the Sonics improved from a 40-win pace without him (-0.3 SRS) to a 45-win pace with him (1.4 SRS). In 2005, Allen led another offensively-slanted team to a near-repeat result of the ’01 Bucks, with an rORtg near +6 and a win-pace of 49 (2.6 SRS). In 2007, he missed significant time again, and in 29 full-strength games the Sonics played like a 42-win team (0.2 SRS), only slightly better than in 19 otherwise healthy games without him (34-win pace or -2.6 SRS). These bland WOWY results make sense given how much offense those rosters had, but they also hint at an inability to carry teams.
While Miller exploded in the playoffs, Allen merely maintained his numbers during his best years. In Boston, his production dipped heavily and his playoff efficiency hovered between +3 and +5 percent. He is 17th in four-year peaks for offensive adjusted-plus minus (APM), although his defense prevents him from shining in that metric. He had excellent longevity, playing well from 1999-2011, but his durability cost him a touch. (He lost the 2007 season to injury.) That’s still a dozen All-Star level seasons and seven or eight years worthy of all-league honors by my count.
Drexler started slowly in 1984, a shell of his future self. He provided quick scoring punch and some athleticism off the bench, but his game was relatively raw then. He was athletic enough to glide in for help blocks at the rim, although his positioning on defense wasn’t always ideal, his rotations sometimes a step slow. As he entered his prime years in the late ’80s, he excelled in transition and as a finisher. His passing was above par and his decision-making much improved. By 1986 (his third year), he took on a sizable load, mixing scoring with playmaking.
In his prime, Drexler boasted a solid midrange jumper and he could drive-and-kick (or make lay downs) in the half court. His passing inched forward over the years, although his shot selection was sometimes a bit hasty. His off-ball defense remained questionable in the late ’80s and early ’90s, although he was a strong rebounder; he cracked the 85th percentile in relative defensive rebounding rate (among non-bigs) for nine consecutive years starting in 1989. His offensive rebounding was even better, posting multiple top-50 rates of all time for a non-big. Drexler’s scoring spiked in 1988 while his efficiency remained respectable. Note his improved creation in 1992:4
As Drexler emerged (from 1986-89), the Blazer’s offense was consistently 2 to 4 points ahead of the league (peaking in 1988 at +3.9), but the defense hovered at or below average. After a roster infusion of young athletes and a coaching change (Rick Adelman), the new Blazers emerged defensively in 1990, posting defensive efficiencies 3 to 4 points ahead of the league until 1993.5 From 1990-93, the Blazers played between a 61 to 63 win pace (7.4 to 8.3 SRS), strong on both sides of the ball. Drexler and Porter co-captained the offense as the secondary players provided additional scoring and athletic defense.
The regression studies of Drexler’s overall game-level impact place him in the top-30 historically (+5.1). But his impact on some of those teams was questionable. In 1993, he missed 26 games and the Blazers played at the exact same 51-win pace without him. In ’94, Portland again played at the same pace (49-win clip) in 14 games without Drexler. His Augmented plus-minus (AuPM) in 1994 was 79th in the league (+1.9), although he turned in better finishes in 1996 (12th) and in APM in ’97 (22nd) at around +4 per game. The ’95 Blazers also had one of the strangest results in league history, playing at a ridiculous 67-win pace with Drexler (10.1 SRS) in 32 full-strength games, and then trading him to Houston as if things weren’t going well!
Overall, his mixed signals imply inconsistency or some fit issues, and I peg his peak somewhere in between the big-value metrics and the aforementioned low points. Some of his defensive shortcomings bring his value on that end close to neutral while his offense never crested too high either — notice he’s closer to the second notch on the scaled Big 3 numbers above, which is medium-level scoring and efficiency for an offensive centerpiece that lags behind other non-megastars like Ray Allen (see above) and Manu Ginobili. Like Allen, Drexler logged a dozen All-Star level seasons in my book, enough for this spot.
A scoring machine in the post, McHale was a jukebox of herky-jerky moves. In his first three seasons, he was more of a defensive specialist before really ramping up his offense in 1984. McHale hit another gear in 1987 on offense (see chart below), showcasing a midrange game, good offensive rebounding and his arsenal of up-fakes in the low post. His high release made his shot extremely difficult to disrupt, and he could toss quality high-low passes, although he rarely distributed relative to his scoring volume. His black hole profile wasn’t because he kept finishing Larry Bird passes either, because in 1989 without Bird, McHale’s assists didn’t budge.
Defensively, he was a Gumby-like creature, often guarding small forwards when Boston went big because of his ability to use length to contain and bother perimeter players.6 He was long enough to protect the rim — posting elite block rates when younger (4-5 percent) and then strong ones throughout his prime (closer to 3 percent) — and of course, at 6-foot-10 he could switch onto bigs. He was a decent defensive rebounder, although he never stood out there statistically, possibly because he shared the court with Bird and Parish (good boarders) and was busy guarding wings at times.
As you can see, McHale exploded in 1987, upping his scoring efficiency to all-time levels on strong volume. His WOWY runs were good too after hitting his peak; in 1988, he missed 14 games and the otherwise full-strength Celtics improved from a 51-win clip (3.4 SRS) to a 62-win mark (7.9 SRS) with him, and in 1991, a “healthy” team moved from a 47-win pace (1.9 SRS) in 13 games without him to a 63-win pace with him (8.1 SRS).7 This gives him the 27th-best WOWY score in my database (+3.9) and a comparable WOWYR value (+3.3), painting him as an impact player who is a level or so removed from the MVPs.
Bird likely helped his numbers a bit — McHale’s efficiency fell a decent amount without Larry in 1989. McHale’s feet were also degrading — he broke a bone in his foot in 1987 — yet he still finished 7 percent above league average in true shooting and played solid old-man defense after Bird’s back injury. Boston fell off without Bird in ’89, but they were still a 45-win team when healthy, a respectable result, all things considered, and an indicator of a solid peak.8 He still packed some punch as a more traditional big in 1990 and ’91 before falling off in 1992, but that was enough to tally 10 All-Star seasons by my count.
Baylor was the first great penetrator, slashing through defenses and inventing aerial acrobatics that didn’t exist yet. In the 1962 All-Star game footage, he finished on the venerable Bill Russell three times. (The All-Star game back then wasn’t completely defense-free.) He also featured a midrange pull-up, which was somewhat ahead of his time, but not deadly accurate based on his field goal percentages. Like most players then, Baylor even threw a few hook shots up, and with both hands to boot.
In the limited games from the ’60s, he seems like a perfectly fine defender, never standing out but never committing glaring mistakes. His whopping defensive rebounding likely added value — Baylor averaged between 10.4 and 13.3 rebounds per 75 in his first four years. In 1965, he dislocated his patella in the opening minutes of the playoffs, then missed time in 1966 with further knee problems. The knees didn’t completely ground his attack, but they slowed him down on the back nine of his career, likely chipping into his defensive efficacy a touch and diminishing his offensive explosion. He was still a strong passer and a fairly good creator for his time based on limited film and assist numbers.
In 1960, before West arrived, LA’s offense was 3 points worse than league average, challenging the idea that Baylor was a great floor-raiser. In 1962, he missed most of the second half of the year due to military service, playing six regular season games on weekend leaves before returning full-time for the playoffs.9 The Lakers played at a 55-win pace at full-strength with Baylor (4.7 SRS) but fell to a 37-win pace in 30 games without him (-1.7 SRS). In a smaller sample in 1965, he missed 13 games and LA improved from a 30-win pace without him (-3.9 SRS) to a 50-win pace (2.9 SRS) with him (at full-strength). So, despite shooting a bit too much at moderate percentages, Baylor’s ability to strain defenses moved the needle in his early years.
From 1961-65, his WOWY score was +3.5, right around Scottie Pippen’s prime number, and similar to his regressed WOWYR mark (+3.2) — good, but short of superstar lift. He fell off during his post-injury years, scoring less and at lower efficiencies while his teams barely missed him; in 1966, an otherwise healthy LA squad played identically in 12 games without him, and in 1970 the Lakers were about a point better without him in a small sample.10 The ’71 Lakers improved despite Baylor missing the entire season (55-win pace, or 5 SRS when healthy) and in ’72, Baylor retired (and Wilt scaled his scoring way back) and the Lakers marched to a 33-win game win streak and an historic 11.4 SRS.
While he deserves credit for meshing as West’s second fiddle on excellent offenses, his role as a secondary weapon who couldn’t score efficiently (despite West’s presence) led to redundancies. He also entered the league at 24, so between his injuries and late start, he left some career mileage on the table. His classic floor-raising profile — high-volume scoring, medium to low efficiency and decent creation — remained with or without West; in the available box scores from 1963, Elgin increased his scoring 3.5 percent without the Logo and his efficiency improved as well (mirroring what happened in ’68 when West missed time). That’s enough for a weak-MVP peak and a top-40 career.
A towering force at 7-foot-2, Gilmore was a shot-blocking machine at his peak with top-end strength. He was moderately mobile in his ABA years for such a giant, mucking up drives with his sky-scraping reach. He was a prolific rebounder too, landing in the 95th percentile in relative defensive rebounding in his first two NBA seasons after the merger. Offensively, he used a southpaw hook and cleaned up around the rim well. He was a mediocre but willing passer, and, if anything, was too unselfish at times, shying away from forcing his own offense. This kept his scoring low and his efficiency astronomically high (see chart below).
The ABA was still developing in 1972, and Artis claimed the MVP as a rookie, then finished fourth and second in the next two seasons, respectively. Although his stats were most impressive in his opening year, Gilmore steadily refined his game, cleaning up his block-chasing and improving his passing. There’s limited film, but his average mobility slowed as he added girth to his frame by the late ’70s. Although he moved well in the years following his knee injury (in 1980), he demonstrated similar stone-footedness with the Spurs too (’83-87).
Gilmore’s impact in Kentucky immediately registered on defense, where his stellar 6.1 percent block rate helped the Colonels climb from 2.5 points below average on D in ’71 to 4.4 points above average. They maintained elite defense until 1976, when they dropped back to the pack in the ABA’s final year. As the league matured in the mid-’70s, Gilmore’s numbers regressed offensively (see above) and defensively (his block rates dropped to a more mortal 4 percent), and his defensive rebounding peaked in 1974. In the NBA, his Bulls teams improved slightly on defense with his arrival (from average to 2 points ahead of the league), but then were about 2 points below average for the rest of his tenure there. When he went down in 1980 for 34 games, Chicago played nearly as well without him, dropping from a 35-win pace (-1.9 SRS) to a 30-win pace (-3.8 SRS).
Gilmore played for so long that his longevity propels him into the top-40; he made the All-Star team in his 15th season (which might have been a stretch). His WOWYR (NBA only) still pegs him as a moderate impact player, ranking 112th among all qualifiers (around +4 per game). This is somewhat encouraging, yet smacks of a lower-impact player. It’s possible that he peaked in the ABA, but as the league matured by 1976 his value appears less than spectacular. Still, his incredible longevity earns him a top-40 career.
Check back next Monday for the rest of the short-form summaries.