Backpicks GOAT: #3 LeBron James

Key Stats and Trends

  • Led historically good offenses on a variety of teams
  • Has the best box and non-box statistical portfolio of the Databall era
  • Elite passer and perimeter defender, but overly ball-dominant at times

Scouting Report

LeBron entered the league as the best teenager in NBA history, a cocktail of size, athleticism and basketball IQ. From Day One, he was capable of explosive scoring with an aptitude for the skip pass.

But his jumper was streaky and his shot selection spotty.1 As he entered his physical prime, he combined speed, length (7-foot wingspan) and power (255 pounds, plus or minus 10 depending on the year) to bullrush the basket, bouncing defenders backwards as they made contact:

Yet he was quick enough to take point guards with the slightest of angles or explode out of a canon with ferocious backcuts:

LeBron’s speed made him a one-man fast break, careening down court with the ball like a heat-seeking missile:

His super-efficient transition scoring comprised a sizable chunk of his offense over the years (15 to 23 percent, depending on the season), and he’s finished in the top five in transition points in each of his last 13 seasons.2

Along with speed and power, LeBron’s other great differentiator has been his passing. He’s the most prolific skip passer in NBA history, constantly exposing weak-side rotations and finding corner shooters a level away:

His game evolved over the years, and in ’09 and ’10 he increased his already large on-ball role, carrying two of the 10 biggest loads in history. His passing rates, always good, graduated to another level that year. Note the velocity on the third pass below:

As a result of his increased primacy and evolved court vision, LeBron’s creation rates jumped from about 11 per 100 to a whopping 14 per 100, just short of the highest rates ever estimated. In my sampling, his quality passes leapt into the upper stratosphere, reaching Nash-like frequencies with a “good” pass on 8 percent of his possessions. He went from hitting about 75 percent of his high-leverage passing chances to about 80 percent, a rate he maintained through 2017. (In my tracking, this was below Nash, who was at 88 percent in Dallas and Phoenix, and Kevin Garnett, who was at 86 percent.)

LeBron missed his fair share of quality passes too, tossing ones that were off the mark — too hard or into too much traffic, for example — every 2 plays per 100 possessions. This is an elevated rate, a natural tradeoff of a risk-taking style, but the ROI on LeBron’s average attempt was lower than Nash’s, looking for outside shooters more than teammates at the rim (such as the last clip below):3

LeBron’s move to Miami reduced his on-ball scoring attempts, as the Heat traded some of those possessions for Wade-centric attacks. In 2012, James slid his game inside more, the beginning of a multi-year trend toward more efficient shots and a more versatile offensive attack:

When he was younger, LeBron pulled the trigger on more of those low-percentage, double-teamed looks after breaking down defenses. In Miami, he was more willing to pass those shots to open teammates, a trend that continued into his second Cleveland stint. The improved decision-making helped boost his scoring efficiency. 4 Most importantly, his 3-point shot improved, keeping defenses honest when they packed the paint against him. From 2007-11, LeBron shot 33 percent from downtown. Since 2012, he’s leveled up to just over 36 percent.

On defense, James improved in phases as well. In his first few seasons, he was prone to more breakdowns and lacked dominant defensive sequences. However, he would become one of the most impressive perimeter defenders in NBA history, gradually improving until 2008 before jumping a level in 2009.

He is one of the only players ever to truly guard all five positions on the court. Here’s a sampling of him guarding three All-Star players at the point, wing and center positions, demonstrating quickness, strength and technique:

He regularly diagnosed plays and anticipated where to be, sometimes directing teammates like a linebacker calling out the action before the snap. (For instance, in the previous clip, he sends the smaller Kyrie Irving to the wing, immediately recognizing the mismatch Boston would exploit with Irving on a big man.) He often sacked pick-and-rolls like he stole the opponent’s playbook — in the next clip, notice how he slides with the action before running to Dirk’s sweet spot. Once there, his help didn’t just mitigate an advantage, it mucked up the entire possession:

So much of defensive impact is about off-ball movement, and based on my scoring, LeBron’s instances of “good” help spiked from 2009 to 2013. He disrupted offenses in a variety of ways, jumping passing lanes, pinching down on dribblers or crisply rotating to the rim:

James was able to defend like this without fouling, regularly finishing near the bottom of the league in shooting fouls committed. His size bothered so many wings, and he used his strength to fight through screens and smother opponents at times:

He became known for signature chase-down blocks, but he also protected the rim in the half-court, erasing shots like another backline big:

LeBron’s block percentage lagged just behind the top perimeter rejectors during his best years, but his blocks were more valuable (per the clips above), frequently swatting these high-percentage looks near the hoop. According to play-by-play data, 43 percent of his blocks were within five feet of the rim, a rate eclipsed by only a few wings in the last two decades.

His defense was not flawless — in his Cleveland years, he could gamble a bit too much, trading physicality for risky gambits. He also missed his share of rotations — his rates from sampling would land in the bottom quartile of the league.5 He was sometimes overly stationary off the ball, and in the following play, ends up in no man’s land while diagnosing some off-ball action:

He’s been an elite defensive rebounder since his teens, posting rates above the 96th percentile for perimeter players for the last 13 seasons. His defense peaked from 2009 to 2013, then his activity started to wane in 2014 as the mileage piled up on his odometer. His closeouts were always a touch reckless, but that year they became more of a problem:

While his foot speed noticeably faded by 2017, a more slender James regained bounce in 2016, leading to a brief defensive renaissance; in 21 playoff games that year, LeBron set a career-high in block percentage, with rates that would fall in the 88th percentile historically among all players. In the last two seasons, he’s been prone to major defensive breakdowns as his activity has dwindled.

Over the last few years, his passing has continued to grow, finding tighter windows and more Grade A connections. His 2014 season was likely his offensive apex, although his 2016 year might have eclipsed it. At the time of writing this, a 33-year old James is at the backend of his prime (2018).

Impact Evaluation

LeBron’s one of the more complex offensive players ever to evaluate, not merely because of the breadth and depth of his skill shown above, but because he’s played some of the most ball-dominant roles in history and has redefined the stat sheet as the center of his team’s universe. His on-ball approach is heavier on scoring than pass-first wizards like Steve Nash and Magic Johnson, but volume passing and volume scoring won’t maximize most top-end talent. Instead, James is the greatest floor-raiser in NBA history, able to do more with spare parts than anyone ever by simultaneously bolstering an offense while upgrading the defense.

Even before he hit his stride in 2009, LeBron kept defensively-inclined rosters afloat. The ’05 Cavs posted a +2.3 relative offensive rating (rORtg) in 70 games with James flanked by Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — both viable post scorers and mid-range shooters — along with defensive specialists Ira Newble and Eric Snow, and toothless journeyman Jeff McGinnis. This was not a team of 3-point specialists feeding off of James’s gravity, but they still played at a .500 pace with a passable offense orchestrated by 19-year old LeBron.

The ’06 Cavs were even more impressive, thanks to a breakout year from James. With Ilgauskus and Gooden now accompanied by Larry Hughes (a moderate creator and inefficient scorer), the offensively-challenged Snow and two shooters (Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones), Cleveland churned out a 5.1 SRS when healthy (56-win pace) with a +6.6 offensive efficiency in 30 healthy games. A similar rotation ticked along at a 51-win pace in ’07 (3.4 SRS) in a larger sample, but the offense regressed to near-average, meaning the ’06 result was likely an aberration. (LeBron’s offense regressed slightly in ’07 too, likely contributing to the backslide.) Still, the period demonstrated that pre-prime LeBron-ball could buoy offenses while stuffing the court with defenders and a few shooters.

After grinding through an injury-plagued 2008 campaign in which they trotted out 21 different starting lineups, the Cavs doubled-down on a LeBron-centric attack. In 2009 and 2010, he elevated defensive personnel to heights that none of his Heatles teams ever surpassed. Cleveland posted a 9.6 SRS when healthy in ’09 (66-win pace) — Miami’s best full-strength SRS with LeBron was 7.7 — and those Cavs teams finished with offenses around 5 points better than average, when healthy.6

They did well to surround LeBron with skilled shooters — Mo Williams (44 percent from 3 in ’09) and Delonte West (40 percent from 3) — while Ilgauskas opened the floor as a pick-and-pop big; the results were certainly greater than the sum of the parts. Not everything fit though, as was the case in 2010 when they regressed a touch by giving minutes to an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal. The Cavs traded spacing and defense for Shaq’s quick-burst post scoring, but he graded out as a net negative.

Like Nash, LeBron was supercharging dependent talent — finishers who disproportionately benefited from shots served to them on a silver platter. So with his talents in South Beach, Cleveland crumbled in 2011. While most teams fall off after losing a superstar, none imploded like the Lebron-less Cavs; in 21 games with a similar group of players, they played at an anemic 18-win pace (-8.9 SRS) before injuries ravaged their lineup. LeBron’s not worth 40 wins on a typical club, but no player in history has correlated more strongly with such massive, worst-to-first impact.7

With better talent in Miami (and later in his Cleveland redux), his teams reached greater offensive altitudes, although, in traditional lineups their efficiencies were only slightly improved (indicating diminishing returns). Paired next to another superstar wing in Miami, LeBron scaled back his ball-dominance, and although those Heat teams never produced an all-time level point differential, every full-strength Heatles lineup bested LeBron’s Cavs on offense (per relative offensive rating):8

The best four-year offenses in NBA history have finished about 7 points ahead of the league. At full-strength, Nash’s Suns were nearly 10 points better from 2005-08, although they were small-balling lineups at the expense of defense. LeBron’s teams downsized at times too, and his best full-strength four-year offense was +8.1 (2013-16), in the upper stratosphere historically.

He never again matched the video-game numbers from his first MVP seasons in Cleveland, not because he was worse, but because he tapered down his on-ball role. He actually ramped up his solo performance when Wade went to the bench, improving both his volume and efficiency (!) as the Heat outscored opponent’s by 6.9 points per 100 with LeBron on the court and Wade off it from 2011-14. In his last two years there, Miami was +8.3 per 100 with James on and Wade off.9 Again, this speaks to the floor-raising power of a great quarterback.

LeBron wasn’t all offense though. He graded out as one of the best defenders in the league using my tracking-based metric in 2011. From 2011-16, he was also a key stopper on a number of high-end defensive units. Using four-man lineup combinations (samples can be too small with five-man groups), he played on five quartets that finished at least 6 points better than league average in defense efficiency.10 His best four-man group finished 14th in that time frame — a 2011 lineup with defensive banger Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and Wade — holding opponents 9.5 points below league average while outscoring them by 14.5 points per 100. In 2013, Miami’s best four-man combination held teams 6.7 points below average with an undersized pairing of Bosh and Udonis Haslem up front.

According to this scaled set, his four-year defensive peak in adjusted plus-minus (APM) ranks 41st among perimeter players since 1997, although about two-thirds of the players ahead of him were defensive specialists.(LeBron’s best stretch was from 2008-11.)11 While this is a good result, it’s short of the very best defenders, likely a function of LeBron’s medium defensive usage (related to some of the inactivity mentioned in the scouting report).

James is, arguably, the king of overall plus-minus stats. 2018 is the 25th season of league-wide plus-minus data, which covers nearly 40 percent of the shot-clock era and touches 12 of the top-20 players on this list. None have achieved LeBron’s heights: He holds four of the top-five scaled APM seasons on record, and six of the top eight. Since 2007, 10 of his 11 years land in the 99th percentile.12 However, his seasons in Miami were a (relative) low point:

Just like rebounds or field goal percentage, adjusted plus-minus is a measurement, a fairly stable gauge of an involved player’s value on a given team. LeBron wasn’t worse during the years in South Beach — based on film study, he was better in most areas — but he wasn’t as indispensable to those Heat teams, and thus his impact measurements clocked in below his historic floor-raising efforts.

The above graph also jibes with the scouting report; as LeBron’s passing steadily improved and his shot selection grew more judicious, he synthesized with better talent, correlating with larger and larger scoreboard shifts after a nadir in 2012. This was a two-way street: As LeBron’s more efficient passing helped the talent around him — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love posted career-best marks in scaled APM in 2017 — his improved 3-point shooting allowed him to finish more plays setup by his teammates. (Notice in the previous charts how LeBron’s efficiency improved alongside Irving.)

Of course, James also ranks among the box score titans, tallying points like a pinball machine while playing quarterback. (A style approximated by James Harden today.) His statistical peak came in his original Cleveland days, hybridizing Magic-like table-setting with Jordan’s scoring.13 Only Steph Curry’s three-year regular season peak covers more real estate on the Big 4 box diamond featured in this series. In the postseason, LeBron’s Cleveland numbers trailed only Jordan, and his line in Miami matched Curry’s efficiency:

I keep invoking Nash, another ball-dominant engine like James, but LeBron is different in a handful of ways. Both have generated excellent results surrounded by shooters and pick-and-roll dance partners, but James maintains greater value next to other ball-dominant players (like Wade and Irving) thanks to his post game, offensive rebounding and thunderous cuts to the rim. This is a versatility advantage that makes LeBron a more valuable player in a wider variety of lineups and roles, which in turn makes him slightly more scalable (because better teams often come with other on-ball stars). On the other hand, he seems to relegate post players to the perimeter in order to open the lane, casting doubt on whether he could thrive next to a traditional low-post stud. Still, when compared to other all-time quarterbacks like Magic and Oscar Robertson, his defense gives him a considerable edge.

In total, Jordan is the only comparable perimeter peak in history, although James’s defense was slightly more impressive at its apex. Eight of LeBron’s last nine seasons are all-time level campaigns, pairing either good or great defense with transcendent offense. He’s logged enough mileage to challenge Jordan; this will be his 14th season on the All-NBA team, whereas MJ only made 11. Like the other great megastars who excel in non-scoring phases of the game, I do wonder if I’m undervaluing LeBron, given the unique shape of his offense.

In a few weeks, he will likely move to No. 2 on this list. If I had fewer reservations about his ball-dominance scaling (and his lack of spot-up shooting), he’d be a spot higher already, and I do think he has an outside argument as the highest-peak player in NBA history. And, barring injury or premature retirement, James will likely retire with the most valuable career ever. For now, he’s etched on the Mt. Rushmore of the sport at No. 3.

Backpicks GOAT: #4 Bill Russell

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most dominant defensive dynasty in NBA history
  • Shut down the best centers of the time based on available box scores
  • Mediocre scorer but vision and rebounding made his offense passable

Scouting Report

In many ways, Bill Russell was the first athletic “freak” in NBA history. He was an Olympic-level leaper, standing 6-foot-11 in shoes and playing in the 230s.1 Yet he was fast and agile, able to lead the break as a center:

His defining athletic attribute was explosive leaping, reaching shot-blocking altitudes in the blink of an eye. Here’s a 35-year old Russell, in one of the last sequences of his career, inhaling an overmatched Mel Counts drive.

His defensive IQ was probably his most valuable asset. In his biography, he recalls practicing different pick-and-roll coverages with dance partner KC Jones, rehearsing the all-important pas de deux long before the league popularized coverages like “ice.” He also grasped efficiency decades before Dean Oliver formalized it, (correctly) claiming that his team would benefit mightily if Wilt scored a lot but was forced to eat up extra possessions to do so. Russell was aware of how disruptive he could be without even blocking a shot, describing his psychological warfare like this once:

“The thing I got to do is make my man think I’m gonna block every shot he takes…Say I block a shot on you. The next time you’re gonna shoot, I know I can’t block it, but I act exactly the same way as before, I make exactly the same moves. I’m confident. I’m not thinking any more but I got you thinking…I don’t even have to try to block it.”

In the clip below, Russell’s mere presence forces Oscar Robertson — one of the greatest offensive players in history — into an off-balance flip shot:

In the limited film we have of Russell, he demonstrated an intuitive feel for when to help, and how to roam and recover (something he dubbed his “horizontal game”):

These were modern, efficiency-crushing actions, similar to what Kevin Garnett excelled at decades later. However, without a 3-point line to worry about, Russell was content to let marginal shooters fire away from midrange. If he had a defensive blemish, it was resting off these players too frequently, waiting for them to make one or two jumpers before extending his coverage:

Conservation of energy was a strategic play then — Russ logged nearly 45 minutes a night — so these occasional hiccups traded quality for quantity. On most possessions, he engaged, and his timing made him nightmarishly effective. Here he is inviting a player into the lane so he can blast off at the last second for a block:

And his quick leaping regularly led to plays like the ones below:

These challenges were hyper-efficient, rarely drawing free throws or surrendering points. (Russell posted some of the lowest per-possession fouling rates in NBA history.) In perhaps the prototypical Russ play, he stays near his own man as long as need be before springing to help at the last second, controlling the block and starting the Celtics’ break:

Here’s what former teammate Bill Sharman said about him in the 1967 documentary “Year to Remember:”

“Russell, who is a little quicker than [Wilt Chamberlain or Nate Thurmond], will go to the corners, block a shot or get back underneath and get the big rebound or again pick up the cutter.”

He could cover just about any opponent in front of him; here he is switching on to Oscar and then West, completely disrupting both:

Oh, and in case you were wondering what his man defense was like on the block, there’s the occasional logic-defying play like this:

In the publicly available games, the number of blocked shots is staggering. Based on about 100 unofficial box scores (journalists would sometimes track them), Russell tallied around 8 blocks per game during his career, and was closer to 9 per contest during his peak seasons. Adjusting for pace, this yields about 5.5-6.0 blocks per 100 possessions, which would fall between the 30th and 60th-best seasons on record.2

Whatever the number was, it’s clear that his combination of awareness and athleticism was like a cheat code for the era, introducing verticality into a previously grounded game.3 His rebounding was also top-notch, and the best estimates of his glasswork put him on the edge of the top-100 seasons historically, with rebounding rates around 20 percent. He wasn’t into powerful box outs, instead, counting on timing and a nose for the ball to snatch it off the rim:

On the other end, Russell’s half-court attack was fairly straightforward, consisting of a little face-up shot from midrange, right and left-handed hooks and the occasional drive. Here’s a sample:

These shots weren’t too accurate, as evidenced by his slightly above-average field goal percentage — between 43 and 47 percent for the heart of his career.4 He often served as a passing hub, looking for cutters or open men to hit from the post. These would lead to a number of “Rondo Assists” — more vanilla passes that find basic openings — instead of warping the defense with his threat to score. The play below is a typical Russell post-up that ends in a marginal shot:

Sometimes, he would turn that into a hook or shot attempt, but he was often surveying for slashers and rarely ate up possessions trying to force his own scoring. Overall, he looks like a good, but not great passer, and could occasionally play-make for teammates. In the clip below, he senses a double-team and slips it out to the open shooter:

He also completed nifty passes off his own shot action — the dishes below hint at vision and awareness that were good enough to throw high-level dimes. In the second clip, despite briefly dropping his head to secure his handle, Russell is still able to map the court and find the backdoor.

His assist rates were regularly at the top of the league among big men, and in his final five years he finished in the 60th percentile or better among all players in each season.

That generational athleticism also opened up transition opportunities and offensive rebounding chances. It made him a solid finisher as well; here he is with a modern-looking attack as the roll man in the pick-and-roll:

But pick-and-roll action like that wasn’t used as frequently in those days. Instead, Russell tallied a decent share of second-chance points, like this:

And he was extremely nimble running the floor. Here he is demonstrating that speed on the break:

In the latter stages of his career, he played more “point center” and looked for his own offense even less. He was a quick outlet passer, and, as shown above, could grab boards and even run the break himself. In his final few years, his assists increased to around 4 per 75 possessions while his scoring declined from a peak of 12 points per 75 at +3 percent efficiency — slightly below Draymond Green levels — to just under 10 per 75. This kind of low-usage approach won’t lift teams short on scoring, but it would complement perimeter-based offenses.

Russell was durable throughout his career, even gutting through a broken bone in his foot for the final two months of the 1966 season.5 He was slowed slightly by arthritic knees down the stretch of his career before retiring in 1969.

Impact Evaluation

There’s a lack of granular data on Russell, which makes it hard to ballpark his defensive impact. Was it worth 5 points a game (MVP-worthy) or something unheard of like 7 points (GOAT-season worthy)? It was clearly immense, and combined with his passable offense, left a considerable impact footprint.

He didn’t miss much time in his career, so WOWY numbers are hard to come by. Journalists and teammates always claimed that the Celtics fell apart without him; Boston was a 35-win team (-1.9 SRS) in 28 games he missed from 1958-69, and for the other 915 games of his career they played at a 59-win pace (6.4 SRS). This is a tiny piece of evidence – the years are spread out, teams change, and so on — but it echoes the same story as Russell’s other value signals.

For instance, when his teammates missed time, Boston rarely missed a beat. In 1958, Bob Cousy sat for seven games and the Celtics played far better without him. In ’59 and ’60, Sharman, Cousy and Tom Heinsohn missed a few games each, and the machine kept on ticking. In ’61, Sharman missed 18 games and the Celtics were (again) better without him. In ’62, Cousy missed five and, yes, the Celtics were better without him (portending his retirement years).6

But Russell missed four games in 1962 and Boston’s differential fell by 22 points. Four games is infinitesimally small, but all of these stories point in the same direction. It was only when Russell was hampered by injury (in the 1958 Finals) that the Celtics fell short of a title — the single time a Russell team failed to win in a 12-year span dating back to college.7

This trend would hold throughout most of Russell’s career. In ’66, Sam Jones missed eight games and Boston’s performance didn’t budge. Jones missed 11 more contests in ’69 and the team was about 2 points worse without him. All told, as the roster cycled around Russell, his impact seemed to remain. A more detailed calculation of his game-level value has Russell at the top of the impact-heap in his era, while similar studies have him behind only Jerry West and Oscar Robertson (who both had the fortune of playing on dominant teams during the most watered-down years in NBA history).

At the height of their dynasty, the Celtics were comically dominant. From 1962-65, their average margin-of-victory (MOV) was over 8 points per game. During the same time span, only two other teams even eclipsed 4 points per game – the ’64 Royals and the ’64 Warriors. And all of Boston’s separation was created by its historic defense, anchored by Russell:

Russell didn’t join the team until partway through his rookie season, and before hopping aboard, Boston looked like an improved club (playing at a 58-win pace for 19 full-strength games). Still, what transpired in the ensuing years cannot be attributed to teammates or a defense-first strategy.

Boston platooned different players around Russell while he anchored the greatest defensive dynasty in NBA history. At its height (1960-1966), Russell played 43 to 45 minutes per game while only Sam Jones topped 35 per game (once, in 1965). During the 1963 season, no other Celtic played over 31 minutes per contest. To put Boston’s defensive dominance into perspective, let’s zoom out and revisit the above graph, but this time using all defensive seasons since 1955:

As defensive stoppers ramped up their minutes in the ’60s and Russell evolved, Boston lapped the league. 1964 and ’65 were the two best defensive teams ever by this measure. (Amazingly, in Second Wind, Russell calls out the 1964 team as the best defensive team of his time without knowing any of the efficiency metrics.) He captained four of the top-five and five of the top-10 relative defensive seasons in history.

Despite a smattering of famous names, the offenses were never anything to write home about. In ’55 and ’56, Cousy, the sharp-shooting Sharman and the hyper-efficient Easy Ed Macauley powered attacks that were 2 to 3 points ahead of the league. With Russell in for Macauley in ’57, Boston’s offense dipped to around average, where it would hover until 1960.8 In ’61, Sharman trailed off in his final season, Cousy slowed further and defensive notables like KC Jones and Tom Sanders saw more time. During the heart of the ’60s, the Celtics finished about 3 points worse than the league in offensive efficiency based on our best estimations.

Yet Boston was viewed as a squad of offensive stars because they played at a high pace and scored a lot of points at a time when raw scoring was emphasized. Russell was certainly flanked by some offensive talent in the early years (Cousy and Sharman) and in the later years (Sam Jones and John Havlicek). Even his own offense was relevant; for instance, in 1962, he led the team in postseason scoring and efficiency and finished second in assists. But Boston wasn’t out of the ordinary for having a few good attackers, nor were they winning with their offense.9

Tom Sanders, KC Jones and John Havlicek made up an excellent supporting cast of defenders, although Boston lacked a second big man to play next to Russell. When he retired in 1969, along with Sam Jones — who was down to 26 minutes per game by then — the Celtics dropped a whopping 8 points in SRS (from a 59-win full-strength pace to a 36-win one) despite returning the rest of their eight-man rotation.10 So while Boston fielded a strong team around Big Bill, there’s nothing indicating that they could sniff the same heights without him.

In the postseason, the defensive domination rolled on. Below, I’ve compared Russell’s playoff defenses to those of other all-time big men. The gray bubbles in Russell’s column are the Celtics individual performance in each year. Note that Boston never had a subpar defensive postseason with Russell, and that its worst playoff runs were clustered at the end of his career as a he slowed down:

When pundits wax about old-timers dominating, these are the kinds of outlying result we should see from an ahead-of-his-time star. Boston’s best five-year defensive rating (1961-65) was 9.2 points better than league average. No other team in history has been 7 points better than the league over a five-year stretch. Even this understates the Celtics’ defensive dominance because the league average was pulled down by Boston’s presence.11

Finally, there’s Russell’s total lockdown of other All-Star centers. He was so complete as a defender that he was likely the best team and man defender of his era. Here’s what he did to All-Star pivots during his career:12

All of these players declined in efficiency, and only Thurmond improved his scoring (although on dreadful accuracy). Willis Reed and Zelmo Beaty were vaporized by Russell. The numbers are particularly compelling because, unlike today, Russell played most of the game and Boston did not double-team frequently.

Of course, his most notable conquest was Wilt. While one might think that Chamberlain’s line against Russell was exceptional — he averaged 33 point per game on +4 percent efficiency — adjusting for pace yields a scoring profile comparable to ’89 Roy Tarpley or ’10 David Lee. The sample above comes from Wilt’s volume scoring years only, but even in 1967, arguably Chamberlain’s most revered season, Russell slowed him down significantly. Against the league, Wilt averaged 24.6 points per 36 minutes on 64.9 percent true shooting (TS). But in nine games against Russell, his scoring dropped 4.3 points and his efficiency plummeted 10.8 percentage points.

In Wilt’s 1962 50-point season, he faced Russell 17 times and the rest of the league 75 times (he played Boston twice without Russell). Chamberlain averaged 50.9 points and 53.6 percent true shooting against the league, but 37.2 points on 50.1 percent true shooting against Russell (with 4.3 fewer free throw attempts per game). Russell shaved 14 points per game off Wilt’s average and his drop in efficiency — from 1.07 points per attempt to 1 point per attempt — is the full-game equivalent of a GOAT-level offense regressing to average.

So, we can safely crown Russell as defensive royalty. His offense pales in comparison to other greats, but he was not a poor offensive player – in many ways, he was above average for his day, although it’s unlikely his contributions moved the needle much. Between 1959 and 1965, he finished in the top half of centers in points per 36 twice (’60 and ’62), while falling between the 61st and 71st percentile in true shooting (efficiency) in both years. His scoring regularly improved in the playoffs before trailing off in his last four seasons.

The impact studies we have for that era suggest he’s, at worst, a player with MVP-level lift, and at best, view him as one of the most valuable players of all time. The noisiness of that data and Russell’s outlying status as a defender make it difficult to confidently pin down his value. But, the restrictive dribbling rules, poor spacing and sheer volume of possessions played make it likely that his pre-3 point impact was well ahead of today’s best defensive scores.13

His portability was superb – any team at the time would have exploded defensively by adding him, and his passing and finishing would provide bonus value for any competent offense. He has excellent era longevity, and I consider his peak among the better ones in NBA history. Shaving my valuation of his defense by 5 percent per season — a plausible but conservative estimation — would drop him a spot or two in these rankings while keeping his per possession impact in line with the modern defensive juggernauts.

On the other hand, there’s a viable argument that he was even better than I give him credit for. Like Jordan and LeBron today, his prime was an onslaught of MVP-level seasons and, relative to his era, he might have been the most valuable player ever. Yet for this exercise, his ambiguity leaves enough doubt that he lands at No. 4, narrowly edged out by the man in front of him.