Backpicks GOAT: #36-40

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:

40. Ray Allen

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.

39. Clyde Drexler

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.

38. Kevin McHale

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.

37. Elgin Baylor

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.

36. Artis Gilmore

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. 

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.