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.