Backpicks GOAT: #31-35

This is a continuation of the last post, counting down “the rest” of the Backpicks top 40 with abbreviated profiles.

35. Paul Pierce

Pierce was an excellent shooter out of the gate and a powerful penetrator when younger, tallying seven of the top-100 free throw rates among wings on record. (He averaged at least 9 free throw attempts per game in ’01, ’03 and ’06.) He loved the mid-post and featured a pull-up and deadly step-back. He also worked well off-ball as a shooter, and although he never really had a low-post game, was strong enough to collect easy hoops by sealing unsuspecting defenders near the rim. He was more of a scorer in those early years, but by the middle of the 2000s, Doc Rivers developed his ability to initiate the offense and Pierce worked out of more pick-and-roll action as a creator. His passing was mediocre early on, although he improved during the heart of his prime, growing to read defenses fairly well despite lacking eagle vision.

He was a strong man defender at times, using his size and length to bother shots. Pierce was also an excellent defensive rebounder, peaking in the 98th percentile among wings in relative defensive rebounding.1 He made smart rotations off the ball and could anticipate well, but was somewhat soft when challenging bigger players in the lane. He was also vulnerable to quicker cutters and dribblers, and his defense waned a bit in the middle of the decade before being re-energized during the Kevin Garnett years.

Pierce entered his prime in 2001 on an upstart Celtics team whose biggest name was Antoine Walker, a good passer whose love affair with inaccurate 3-pointers rendered him woefully inefficient. (He never authored a positive efficiency season in his career.) Still, Boston managed a 34-win pace that year. In 2002, the Celtics mortgaged the future with a midseason trade,2 playing at a 55-win clip in 42 games after the swap (4.7 SRS), the pinnacle of the pre Big Three Celtics. Jim O’Brien was a defensive-minded coach who deployed lineups lacking offensive firepower, and Boston’s relative offensive efficiency was only +0.5 (rORtg).

From 2003-06, the Celtics played between a 35 and 42-win pace, shedding Walker in ’04 and bringing in volatile pieces like Ricky Davis (third-worst WOWYR score on record) and Vin Baker (off-court demons). Doc Rivers assumed coaching duties in ’05 and turned Pierce into more of a creator — a development that led to, arguably, his best season in ’06. In ’07, the full-strength Celtics were just below .500 with Pierce (-1.2 SRS) before an injury shut down his season. Then, in ’08, he fit well alongside two other stars, dropping his scoring slightly as his efficiency improved, a testament to his strong finishing and spot-up shooting. His last “prime” year was probably 2011, but his YMCA game still worked for another year or two despite a loss of athleticism.

His impact metrics were excellent – his best scaled adjusted plus-minus seasons (APM) fell in the 98th percentile historically, and he’s a top-10 all-time performer in game-level plus-minus studies. APM also gives him a number of excellent defensive years, with his best four-year stretch finishing 27th among wings (since 1997). Overall, he’s a relatively low peak player whose game fit well with others and whose prime lasted for a while, racking up eight all-league years and 11 All-Star seasons per my valuations.

34. Jason Kidd

Kidd was a fantastic defender, pairing size (6-foot-4), quickness and acumen to guard multiple positions effectively. He often thought a move ahead, motoring himself into position to take a charge or cut off a driving angle, and his quick hands burglarized unsuspecting dribblers. (He finished second in career steals.) He topped this off with elite backcourt rebounding, peaking with four seasons as a Net in the 99th percentile of relative defensive rebounding rate among perimeter players.

On offense, he was limited — an inconsistent shooter who struggled to self-generate in the half court. He was dangerous in transition and crafty in set pieces, capitalizing on openings with quick drives or by backing smaller defenders into the post. But his vision was his best attribute, and in an abbreviated film study, he tallied nearly 5 good passes per 100 possessions, an excellent rate historically.3 On occasion, he jacked the overzealous 3-pointer in transition, but otherwise his floor game was well balanced.4 Due to his limited isolation skills, he wasn’t able to create at the rates that his box estimations suggest, which limited his offensive value. Yet his passing was so good that he retained (or enhanced) that value when surrounded by more skilled offensive teammates.

Kidd’s team offenses weren’t anything to write home about — the best one he quarterbacked in his prime was the ’99 Suns at a +3.6 rORtg (for the full season). They were an attack-oriented roster, with Tom Gugliotta, Cliff Robinson, Rex Chapman and Danny Manning leading a squad of defensive cheesecloths. A coaching change in 2000 (for Scott Skiles) and a lineup adjustment shifted the emphasis towards defense, and the 2000 Suns registered a 5.5 SRS (57-win pace) with Kidd and Gugliotta in the lineup for 47 games, but were only +1.9 on offense relative to the league. Perfectly respectable, but not the stamp of an offensive stud.

The 2001 Suns were below average on offense with another standout defense that was 4.2 points ahead of the league.5 In New Jersey, the ’02 Nets turnaround garnered Kidd MVP attention (he finished second), but again, it was a defensive shift that catalyzed the Nets. New Jersey’s offense generated a +1.1 rORtg at full-strength while the defense mirrored Kidd’s Phoenix teams (-3.4 rDRtg). The overall shift was severe — the Nets were a feeble -5.3 SRS team the year before — but some of that might have been addition by subtraction with the departure of shoot-first point guard Stephon Marbury. With Kidd and notable defenders like Jason Collins, New Jersey was dominant defensively for the next few years.6

Kidd was still a borderline elite defender in his later years, playing a high-IQ/spot-up shooting role as a sort of 3-and-D point guard. His plus-minus numbers were excellent; he has a top-100 four-year defensive value in scaled APM (38th among smalls) while posting respectable offensive marks (39th in four-year peak), and his overall five-year peak in that data set is 17th, just ahead of Ray Allen. His game-level plus-minus also paints him as a second-tier star, averaging around +4 points of value in multiple studies. With solid longevity during his prime (10 All-Star seasons by my eye) and a number of excellent role-player years, Kidd lands here.

33. Walt Frazier

Frazier was a defensive buzzsaw, whirling around the court disrupting offensives like a hornet at a cocktail party. He had amazing hands and great anticipation — he’d regularly pick pockets by swarming dribblers when they turned their backs. He jumped passing lanes with cat-quick reactions. His quick soccer-feet and 6-foot-3 frame rounded out his package, and of course, he sported the best dundrearies in NBA history.

On offense, his midrange game was full of leaners and spin moves. He teased opponents with up-fakes, and by 1970 even dropped some new-school crossovers on defenders. He used his body well in traffic to protect the ball and absorb contact, giving him a solid free throw rate in his first five years. His passing was, at times, quite good — Clyde could run the break and make advanced, aggressive dishes in open space. These passes were infrequent compared to today’s players — somewhat due to limited spacing — but he seems like a good passer on tape.

Frazier entered the league in ’68 alongside fellow rookie Bill Bradley and the Knicks improved in the second-half of the season after coach Red Holzmann took over. In ’69, they made a landmark trade for Dave DeBusschere, sparking the first great synergy in NBA history. The Knicks exploded with DeBusschere, finishing at a 64-win pace in their final 57 games (including playoffs) and replicating a nearly identical pace in 1970 en route to the title.7 DeBusschere wasn’t solely responsible for the 20-win leap New York took when he arrived, but instead was a key ingredient in a lineup alchemy; removing any piece could have upset their perfect chemistry.

Frazier’s defense fit perfectly with those teams, spearheading New York’s trapping D and causing all kinds of chaos. (All of those teams were powered by defenses anywhere from 3 to 7 points better than the league.) Even when fellow A-lister Willis Reed went down for the ’72 season and ’74 seasons, the Knicks still produced a defensive rating around 3 points better than average and an impressive 55-win pace in ’72. (Newcomers Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe certainly helped, but neither were noteworthy stoppers.) In the three surrounding seasons with Reed, New York was 6 or 7 points better than average defensively.8

As is the case with great teams, the Knicks had little roster turnover during those glory years, but the bottom fell out in ’75 after DeBusschere, Lucas and Reed all retired together. Led by Frazier, the ’75 Knicks played at a respectable 38-win pace. The original version of WOWYR views Clyde as second-tier star (+4.6), but other game-level plus-minus results are more unstable; in one study, he graded out like a non-impact player over a 10-year period. That leaves him with a top-40, not-quite MVP peak (like a smaller Scottie Pippen). But his longevity hurts, as Frazier fizzled out at the end of the ’70s with less than a decade of elite ball under his belt.

32. Stephen Curry

Curry developed steadily in his first few years, and after an ankle injury shelved most of his 2012 season, he came back in 2013 firing nearly eight 3s a game. His passing noticeably improved in 2014 and his entire scoring game hit another level in 2015. Then, in 2016, Curry reinvented the geometry of the sport, spamming 3-pointers from all over the court like he was a video game. He made five triples a contest (no one had ever made four before that season) and shot 45 percent from behind the stripe, better than any player to ever make at least three trifectas per game. His combination of strong court-vision and video-game shooting tugged defenses harder than any player in history.9

Curry’s off-ball movement isn’t as fast as Reggie Miller’s, but his right-angle cuts and creative reactions to overplays make him nearly indefensible. He is a threat to shoot from anywhere (almost literally), and his lightning-quick release allows him to launch over larger defenders or freeze them with hesitation, opening up drives if they overplay his 3-point shot. This makes him a dangerous on-ball weapon in addition to his off-ball mastery. Defensively, he is a strong rebounder, often in sound position, and he locates the ball well off the rim. His man defense is often passable, and his team defense is solid, mixing sound position with an understanding of coverages to support Golden State’s switching-frantic defense; he’s posted positive defensive marks in adjusted plus-minus (APM) for the last five seasons (’13-17).

As Curry was crescendoing, the Warriors turned in one of the 10 best full-strength seasons ever in 2015.10 The 2016 team was even better, posting one of the best healthy offenses ever. Golden State’s full-strength win pace inched forward from a 70-win mark (12.4 SRS) in 2016 to a record 73-win clip (14.4 SRS) in 2017 with the addition of Kevin Durant. However, when Durant missed 19 games in ’17, an otherwise healthy Warrior team marched on at a 67-win pace (10.4 SRS) behind Curry, a trend that continued in 2018.

Curry’s overall APM results are some of the greatest seasons on record. His unrivaled combination of on and off-ball creation, hyper-efficient scoring and impact metrics gives him a strong argument for a top-5 peak in NBA history. Despite a short peak, he has the fifth-highest five-year APM on record. He’s rapidly ascending this list as he engineers another legendary season in ’18, and, if he remains healthy for the 2018 postseason, will springboard into the low 20s.

31. John Havlicek

Havlicek was a precursor to the off-ball archetype, running marathons around screens and looking to score or distribute on the fly. Although Hondo was never an elite creator, he was a good passer. But he took a few years to ramp up to speed, and at the beginning of his career, his shot wasn’t as reliable and his overall efficiency suffered. (His free throw percentage was in the low 70s during those first few three seasons.) There’s limited film, but Hondo showed signs in 1966 before emerging in 1967, posting the first positive relative efficiency (rTS) of his career at +0.7 percent. He topped 35 minutes per game for the first time in 1968 and his shooting improved over the years, peaking at 87 percent from the line in ’75.

Defensively, he lacked great foot speed but more than made up for it with physicality and sound positioning (based on the available footage). His offense inched forward again in 1970 before peaking in the early ’70s, as his playmaking progressed and his on-ball responsibilities were magnified. Those Celtic teams were balanced squads that were powered by dominant rebounding, Dave Cowens’ high-post game and the scoring of Jo Jo White. They peaked in 1973, posting a 7.3 SRS (61-win pace) with a +2.4 rORtg, but the only other 5-SRS Boston team of the decade was the ’75 club, which sported a nearly identical offense with a more permeable defense.

In the ’70s, Hondo’s scoring and playmaking dropped slightly in the playoffs, but his efficiency improved. Concurrently, Boston’s relative playoff offense enjoyed a small bump, improving from about a point or 2 above average in the regular season to 3 to 4 points better (in 67 playoff games from 1972-76). Those offenses were well balanced — Havlicek, White and Cowens all took between 17 and 21 scoring attempts per game — but the positive playoff team results during Hondo’s expanded-role years is a small feather in his cap.

Although the heights of his team offenses were below superstar-level (given the quality of his teammates), his game-level adjusted plus-minus is fantastic, suggesting that his moderate box score metrics, passing  and physical defense translated into on-court value. While he certainly looks like an impact player on film and in the data, there’s little to suggest a top-tier peak, particularly on offense. I credit his defense from ’69-74 as being strong for a perimeter player, and his overall longevity is fantastic. Despite taking a few years to come into his own, he still tallied a dozen All-Star level seasons per my valuations, hanging on well into his mid-30s.