Backpicks GOAT: the value of longevity and defense

The first time I ranked players using this method, the effect of longevity surprised me.

I think we learn a lot by comparing players through a career value lens like this, but it’s not how most of us typically think of “greatness.” We aren’t wired to rigidly add up the value of just about anything, and there are cognitive forces at play that minimize longevity in these kinds of comparisons. We don’t feel warm and fuzzy about ranking a guy who played 25 good years over someone who played eight great ones.

Consider the case of 2011 James, LeBron v. 1994 Jordan, Michael. Many of us “penalize” LeBron for his lackluster Finals series, calling into question his “reliability.” There’s some social hardwiring involved here; in a way, we “asked” LeBron to perform, and he let us down. Even though Michael didn’t play in 1994 (thereby providing no value), we didn’t “ask” him to do anything. If we did, we assume that he would have delivered based on his other performances. Averaging provides cognitive security; those who regularly deliver make us feel more confident they will come through again.

On the other hand, two or three seasons can feel too brief for validation. For many of us, players need to book a certain number of years to solidify their greatness. But once that happens, longevity becomes a wash — the average supersedes the sum — even though players keep adding value. We focus on top speed when total distance traveled is the objective; career-based lists often prioritize by peak.

So, are we overvaluing peak seasons?

Is longevity underrated?

We can test this with a simple thought experiment. Imagine three separate championship-over replacement player (CORP) curves:

  1. A linear one — this provides the same advantage an All-Star has when compared to a sub-All-Star that an all-time season has when compared to an MVP season.
  2. A superlinear one — essentially the “actual” CORP values — this provides a larger and larger advantage for seasons as they move from weaker seasons (like sub-all-star) to stronger years (like MVP seasons).
  3. A “steep” exponential one — this provides huge chunks of value for great seasons when compared to all-star or even all-league level ones.

The linear model is totally unrealistic based on the data we have about player impact and the historical odds of winning a series, while the steepest curve is likely too extreme and slanted toward top-end seasons in order to make a point.1 Still, if we used these three curves and plugged in the same seasonal valuations I used for the Backpicks GOAT, they would spit out the following rankings (not adjusted for era):

Notice that a low-peak, high-longevity career cracks the top-20 in a linear model (Stockton), and degrades in value as higher-peak seasons are given more and more weight. But, even in the steepest model, both Stockton and Reggie Miller are top-35! This is largely a function of scarcity — only 31 players since 1955 have been named to at least eight All-NBA teams. The antithesis of these players — a short-career, high-peak star like Steph Curry — moves from 44th to 34th to 26th as rarer seasons are given more value. However, it takes an extreme treatment for a player like Curry, who already has seven healthy NBA seasons under his belt at the time of writing this, to pass the Miller type.

Now look at Jordan (and most of the top players). Despite holding the highest peak ever in my estimation, it takes the steepest curve for Jordan to (barely) pass Kareem, and that’s before era-specific longevity would tip the scales back to Jabbar. So, it seems that beyond a simple difference in rating criteria, we intuitively undervalue longevity in these kinds of rankings. What’s going on here?

“First options” and the longevity threshold

When stacking up the multi-season MVP giants, peak play is often given preference. For most of us, it doesn’t matter that Kareem provided more career value — that thought isn’t even in the equation sometimes — it’s just that Jordan had a better peak, and Jordan didn’t have a short career, and thus Jordan goes first. Once all the multi-year MVPs are off the board, it might even be OK to slot in Bill Walton, because, well, he was better than all the longevity monsters when he played. (Walton was 38th on Elliot Kalb’s list and 27th on Bill Simmons from only one great healthy season.) Ironically, the more someone plays, the less their longevity seems to matter.

Ranking a sort of peak-prime combo does answer the question “who was best, at his best, for at least longer than just a few seasons?” And maybe that’s what most of us mean when we ask ourselves who was “greater.” I don’t think any GM would ever draft like this, but it’s an approach that seems to align more closely with our concepts of “greatness.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with ranking this way. I’m not fully on board with it because of how challenging it can be to deliver value for an extended period of time. For instance, Larry Bird’s retirement nearly crippled the Celtics franchise in his 13th season, but Kareem was a key cog on four more Laker title teams after that point in his career. Kevin Garnett’s 13th season was his DPOY and near-MVP double in Boston. Stockton’s 13th and 14th seasons helped Utah to two close Finals losses. Replacing these players is really, really hard; All-Stars don’t grow on trees.

Which leads to the issue of “first options.” Most of us intuitively dismiss seasons in which a player can’t be the lead figure on a championship team — we can’t rely on them to carry the load. But the second, third and fourth-best players make it possible for a first-option to win titles in the first place! Without secondary All-Stars and role players, winning is nearly impossible, even for the highest-peak stars. So when totaling career value, these secondary seasons are important for both lower peak players like Miller and for pre/post-prime stars. As I put it when discussing CORP for Nylon Calculus:

“First options” aren’t quite as earth-shattering as we might think. While many people rightfully believe “there’s no way Klay Thompson could lead a team to a title in 2015,” they overlook the equally important counterbalance: It’s unlikely Steph Curry could have led that team to the title without Klay Thompson…You want Klay Thompson on your team, even if you wouldn’t want Klay Thompson to be the best player on your team.”

When we list out all of the non-lead players that made dynasties possible, it becomes clear how these secondary stars can tally up CORP value that surpasses alpha dogs: Sam Jones and Havlicek, Pippen and Rodman, Ginobili and Parker, Parish and McHaleWorthy (with Kareem) and even Bosh with the Heatles. In the first 60 years of the shot clock, those 10 secondary stars played on 32 title teams. They made most (or all) of those titles possible for the megastars.

Since we typically devalue these kinds of secondary seasons, we dole out more credit to “first options” and thus overestimate their worth. I certainly did before going through this exercise.

Defense, defense, defense

For me, the other huge revelation after quantifying hundreds of seasons against each other like this was the importance of defense. Seven of the first nine players on the list are two-way big men, and while only Shaq and Kareem approached transcendence on offense, the defensive value of these players explains why all-around bigs were the most coveted asset in the sport’s history before they all wanted to play like guards. Height is super important in basketball, largely because it’s harder for small guys to impact the game defensively. (Of the top-20, only Nash, West and Robertson were under 6-foot-6.) It aids longevity too; as athleticism fades, height remains.

Adjusted plus-minus (APM) data suggests that the best defenders might carry 5 points of impact per game and the best offensive players can top 6 points per game in a given season. Before diving into historical data, my impression was that offensive players were way more valuable than top defenders. Even with a clear offense-defense asymmetry (shown below), that’s a claim I cannot reasonable defend anymore. Defense matters. A lot.

Most GOAT-listers out there evaluate offense with a fine-toothed comb but then slot players into really rough buckets on defense because of a lack of historical information. Yet guards racking up all-defense selections are rarely in the same league as dominant bigs. A significant chunk of the great defensive seasons on record come from big men; among four-year scaled APM peaks, 31 of the top 40 results (78 percent) were from bigs, including the top 11 players. This jibes with historical roles around paint protection, rebounding, pick-and-roll containment, etc.

Furthermore, it’s more likely for elite bigs to maintain defensive value from team-to-team when compared to offensive stars because high-end defense essentially fits everywhere. Lesser defenders can lose some value depending on scheme and their teammates.2 This is a huge deal on a scale like this, and it’s a reason why so many defensive studs (e.g. Draymond Green or Dikembe Mutombo) post giant plus-minus numbers over and over. Jordan was an elite wing defender, but did his defense really move the needle while carrying such a huge offensive load? Two decades of plus-minus data (and four decades of game-level plus-minus) make it unlikely that he was close to someone like Olajuwon on D.

Most historical analysis has been offensive-centric — biased by the box score and ball-watching — and most rankings seem to underestimate both the high-end impact of defense and the wide range of defensive impact between most players. The difference on defense between an all-league guard and an all-time level interior defender can be the same difference on offense between an MVP-level attacker and a fringe All-Star.

For Jordan, adding an additional point to his defensive valuations would give him a CORP of 42 percent! (Versus his current estimated GOAT peak of 31 percent.) But a quick thought experiment shows how dangerous this is. This would place Jordan near Patrick Ewing as a defender, who posts huge impact-metrics that are defensively oriented, so in theory I’d then have to bump Ewing up too, but then that brings him up next to Hakeem, so I’d have to bump Hakeem up and then Bill Russell shoots further off the charts. Until I sat down and stacked seasons up next to each other, these issues didn’t reveal themselves.

So about the GOAT list…

Using traditional position designations, this top-40 contained eight point guards, small forwards and power forwards, seven two-guards and nine centers. So it’s top-heavy with bigs — perhaps because size ages well — but otherwise positionally balanced. I’m also comfortable with the distribution of players across eras, as recent generations were slightly over-represented. If anything, I’m concerned about valuing the first 10 years of the shot clock too much; the game rapidly developed in the ensuing decade as more money poured into the sport and the talent pool expanded.3 Here’s a breakdown of the list based on the year each player entered the league:

From that last decade of draft classes, James Harden has the best chance to crack this list first. Russell Westbrook has a shot too, although the potential of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo make them likelier candidates to shoot up the list for me. And there’s likely a longevity giant or two lurking in the wings, but it’s harder to foresee which all-league performer will crank out another decade of value.

Looking back, this exercise highlighted both underrated careers (like Miller’s) and how absurdly valuable marathoners like Abdul-Jabbar and Malone were. It also demonstrated how painfully close many of these careers were; it’s more fun (and satisfying) to draw a clear line in the sand, but the differences in impact rarely seem to warrant it. Emphasizing order — who is 12th versus 14th — now feels hollow to me, and I’ve come away largely GOAT-agnostic. Plus, different criteria will produce radically different lists.

I give Jordan the best peak, but it’s not by a lot. LeBron has the best consecutive eight-season stretch ever. Kareem has the most valuable career relative to his era. And even Russell has a backdoor claim as the most valuable player of all time. Any of those four are great GOAT choices. I think (hope) that the career ranges that players fell into on this list are a good starting point for any all-time discussion or best player list moving forward.

So, some 80,000 words, 500 videos and 250 graphics later, I hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have. Thanks so much for reading and being open to something a bit different.

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.