Over the past month, we’ve been reading with great interest a series the fantastic Neil Paine is doing over at Basketball Reference. Neil’s using a complex adjusted plus/minus measure to rank the top-10 all-time players at each position, and, as we’d hope and expect, the Celtics make frequent appearances on these lists. The math behind the stats is complicated, and I can’t claim to fully understand it (apologies to my calculus-teaching father), but I did learn a lot from reading Paine’s back-and-forth with readers in the comments.
Basically, the plus/minus Paine uses compares each player to his in-season peers. For players before 1974 (when the NBA didn’t count such statistics as blocks and turnovers), Paine did the best he could, making assumptions based on a player’s height and other variables and adjusting so that those numbers fit in with those individual seasons. The stats also can’t quite factor in a player’s true defensive ability; can anything?
Statistical plus/minus is in the far right column on each chart (labeled SPM). The higher the the number, the bigger difference a player made to his team’s scoring margin.
Celtics on list: Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce
The Rest: Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley, Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Scottie Pippen, Dominique Wilkins.
• Legend, Elgin and Dr. J form a clear first tier, though Paine cautions that all ABA numbers are a bit exaggerated because the gap between the best players and everyone else was larger in that league than it has ever been in the NBA.
• Baylor’s insane rebounding numbers (near 20 per 40 minutes in some seasons) are nice history lesson about the 1960s/70s NBA: higher pace, lower shooting percentages.
• Pippen’s best numbers, by far, came when MJ was out of the league in ’94/95.
Celtics on the list: Bill Russell
Others: Abdul-Jabaar, Chamberlain, Bellamy, Robinson, Olajuwon, Shaq, Gilmore, Issel, Lanier
• Kareem and Wilt put up astonishing numbers for their careers; the only guy on the list who approaches their peak years is Robinson, who, once again, beats out all modern centers in a recently-invented statistical measure. (He’s third all-time among players at all positions in PER). The Admiral is one of those players (like Russell, actually) who guarantees the “stats versus observations” debates are going to go on forever, even though smart people know that an either/or debate is silly, since both “types” of analysis are necessary for a complete understanding of the game. But few people who watched Robinson play believe he was better than Olajuwon or Shaq–even though he may have been. I suspect a lot of this is due to how badly the Dream outplayed him in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.
• Paine is happy that Russell makes the list, and so am I. But it doesn’t seem right to have Issel ahead of Ewing.
After the jump, check out the power forwards–where one Celtic, shockingly, doesn’t make the cut.
Celtics on the list: Kevin Garnett
Others: Duncan, Karl Malone, Barkley, Elvin Hayes, Jerry Lucas, Larry Nance, Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes
• No Kevin McHale. It just doesn’t seem right to leave out a guy who twice cracked the 60 percent mark in field goal shooting (and finished with a career mark of 55 percent), but a commenter points out that McHale was never the first option in Boston.
• Barkley’s best years are tops here. The guy was a monster in Philly (moreso than he ever was in Phoenix, it appears), and of all the players from my childhood, I wish I’d gotten to watch him more.
• KG’s peak seasons score higher than Duncan’s, and, in fact, Duncan’s numbers are unspectacular. Perhaps more evidence that Duncan may be the kind of player whose greatness can never be truly measured by statistics?
Shooting guards: If you read one of these, make it this one. Some great thoughts from Paine and the commenters, including on some thorny questions. (Was Jerry West a point guard or a shooting guard? Was Tracy McGrady a shooting guard or a small forward? What does it say that I typed Was in reference to T-Mac instead of Is?)
Celtics on the list: Ray Allen
Others: McGrady, West, Kobe, Vince Carter, Eddie Jones, Drexler, Jordan, Reggie Miller, Gervin
• Michael Jordan…wow. Just…wow.
• Unfortunately, many people will probably just dismiss the entire project once they see Eddie Jones’ name on this list (and Brent Barry’s name under “just missed the cut”). Paine concedes that recent players seem over-represented here, and he explains that, of all positions, there seem to be the fewest elite players among shooting guards for whatever reason. Still, we’ve got to be able to find 10 shooting guards that were better than Eddie Jones.
• Or . . . maybe we’re guilty of over-rating some of the supposedly “great” shooting guards in league history? Paine shows us that Joe Dumars, Pete Maravich and Earl Monroe fare poorly here–and in PER. Dumars’ low score can be explained in part by our current limits in measuring defense, but what about Monroe and Pistol Pete? Hard to fathom that Brent Barry is/was better than all of these guys.
• More fuel for Laker fan anger: Drexler’s peak years top Kobe’s. Uh oh.