Who is the greatest NBA player of all time? I will be answering that very question in a series of posts featuring wide-ranging descriptions of the top 250 players in NBA history. For an explanation of what the stats I’ll be using mean, read the five-part intro starting here and continuing in Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. For each player on the ladder, from #250 to #1, I’ll be including three key graphics (plenty of other views will appear throughout, but these three will be in every write-up:
- Grades – Percentile values for the player’s rank among all players in NBA history. They are explained further in Part 5 of the intro.
- ON_GOD – A per-game expression of a player’s impact on both offense and defense. ON_GOD is described in Part 4 of the intro.
- Z-Scores – A score that standardizes a player’s contribution to allow for comparison across eras. Part 3 of the intro explains D_SCORE, and Part 2 outlines O_SCORE.
Above these graphics, I will report two measurements for each player: his GPA (the average of his grades from the “Report Card”) and career awards. I have gone through and retroactively assigned awards for every NBA season since 1952-53 (the first season for which data is relatively complete). The awards listed here are a record of who I think should have won them, not a record of who actually won them.
If you’re curious about comparing these players with others, you can find both basic box score stats and my suite of advanced stats from the Stats page, or simply by using the “Stats” dropdown of the menu at the top of the page.
Okay, that’s enough preparation. Let’s get this train rolling!
250. Jack Sikma
Awards: 1st Team All-Defense (1981-82)
If we were ranking the top 250 players in NBA history by hair, Jack Sikma would easily be top 10. The ineffable masterpiece that was Dennis Rodman’s hair will forever stand atop that list, but very few others could beat Sikma’s career progression from bowl cut to perm; Ben Wallace, maybe Allen Iverson … perhaps Dr. J. The list is short.
Since we’re ranking players by on-court performance, however, Sikma is the final inclusion on the top 250. Sikma was a good interior defender during the period where he was at peak quickness. This roughly equates to the first phase of his career, with Seattle. Modern fans will have difficult idea conceiving of Jack Sikma – he was a basic white guy, who functioned as a stretch 5, in the 1980’s. That’s a lot to digest in one sentence, so feel free to reread it if you need to.
Sikma’s career falls naturally into two phases. He spent the first nine years of his career with the Seattle SuperSonics, where he was a relatively inefficient scorer (for a center), but a good rebounder and defender. This phase featured a seven-year streak of making the All-Star Game and averaging a double-double. In the second phase of his career, Sikma got traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Alton Lister and two first-round picks. His rebounding ability fell off over the ensuing years, but his shooting touch came into focus as the defining attribute of his late career. In fact, Sikma would go on to lead the league in free throw percentage in 1988 and make 199/566 three-pointers with Milwaukee (35.2%, which was well above league average efficiency at the time).
Here, take a look at this glow-up before we move on:
249. Purvis Short
Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1983-84), 1st Team All-Defense (1983-84)
Purvis Short is the type of player this list was made for: he was never voted to an All-Star, All-NBA, or All-Defensive Team. At his peak, though, he scored 24.5 points per game with a .482 eFG% and .535 TS% between 1983 and 1986. He was a combination guard/wing type of player, with a career REB% of 10.1, but who never averaged 4 assists per game or 6 assists per 100 possessions. He was a scorer first of all, to be sure, but he held the players he guarded below their expected scoring output in nine of his 12 seasons, and held opponents below their expected FGM rate in eight of 12 seasons (see the “Opp PTS Score” and “Opp FGM Score” columns below)
Though Short’s best year’s came in an extremely fast-paced environment, he was legitimately among the best offensive players in his context. In fact, he was more than 2 standard deviations above average per possession in both 1985 and 1986:
Purvis Short was a good player, but at the wrong time. He peaked just before the expansion of awards to include an All-NBA Third Team, and had his best seasons in the mid-1980’s Western Conference, which already boasted a host of All-Star level players. Thus, he ends up with a nice career, but one that was not good enough to included on standard all-time list formats (top 50, top 100, etc.) and is not memorialized in any of the standard formats we use to gauge players who played before our memory.
248. Danny Manning
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1991-92)
Danny Manning is often consigned to the busts of NBA history. While that classification may be just given the massive expectations placed upon him following his outstanding career at Kansas, it can blind us what he did achieve. He certainly did not live up to the perhaps unrealistic goals set for him as one of the many erstwhile saviors of a dysfunctional franchise chosen with the number 1 overall pick and expected to transform a losing team into a winner. In spite of that, however, he was a very good NBA player, and in my mind well deserving of his place on this list.
Though metrics that evaluate big men based solely on defensive rebounds and blocks have not looked favorably on Manning, he put up negative D_Scores (meaning his opponents performed worse against him than they did against other defenders) in 10/15 seasons, including two campaigns in which he was two standard deviations better than league average (1990 and 1992):
Manning was unfortunate to play in a time when rebounds were a highly-valued measuring tool for big men, as he was always a well below average rebounder for his position. So not only was he unfortunate in circumstance, he was unfortunate in the context in which he played. His misfortunes came to a head when the Clippers gave up on him in the 1993-94 season.
But then, the oddest thing happened: the would-be savior was reborn as a journeyman bench player. He then spent a solid five years as a good backup (even winning the 1998 Sixth Man of the Year award), followed by a four year “taking the only job offered to him until there are no jobs left” process. Danny Manning wasn’t a great player, but how many are? He was a merely good player expected to be great, and he eventually gave way under the burden.
247. Otis Birdsong
Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1980-81), 1st Team All-Defense (1979-80, 1980-81)
Otis Birdsong is another player who is hard to visualize. He averaged 18 points a game (26.9 pts/100) on .509 eFG% and .533 TS% for his career, but he was a 6’3″ non-shooter. He scored mostly in transition and from the elbows, but would also attack off the dribble along the sideline. You’ll notice if you watch him that his footwork is smooth. He can be cutting baseline across the basket, catch the pass, then reverse direction to drive back the way he came if his defender is above him.
He made four All-Star Games based upon his scoring prowess, but was underrated as a defender and a passer, registering between 5.6 and 6.3 assists per 100 possessions each season from 1982-1988. Though he did not get a lot of steals, he shut down his opponent. From 1979 through 1981, Birdsong was two standard deviations better than league average in D_Score and three standard deviations better than average in preventing opponents from scoring and reducing opponent FGM.
That’s just his prime. Get a load of the impact Birdsong made at the defensive end over his career:
Yes, that’s right. He was responsible for a 523 point reduction in opponent scoring over his career, holding opponents to 302 fewer field goals than expected and 324 fewer assists than expected. While I don’t normally take opponent assists to have very much to do with the impact of the defender (because the ability of the passer and the shooters he’s passing to are such powerful explanatory variables for a player’s assist total), but I have a good reason for bringing it up in this case. Birdsong reduced opponents points and assists because he kept the ball out of his man’s hands. Perhaps the best description of his impact can be found in the following graphic, where we see that caused his opponents to take 629 fewer shots than expected during his career.
246. Kenny Anderson
Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1993-94)
In this bottom part of the top 250 rankings, it’s fascinating the amount of more or less similar players at every position. Kenny Anderson is barely included here. Terry Porter is ranked a few spots higher, but there are point guards who are arguably just as good that are not on the list – Avery Johnson, Mark Jackson, Johnny Moore, Guy Rodgers … Hey, by the way, does Deron Williams belong in the top 250 players of all time, or not?
I had him in this area of the rankings, and I think most people would look at his career per-game numbers and say he belongs. Deron Williams was a far better shooter than Kenny Anderson – Anderson’s career TS% was .501. While both were good passers, Williams was better. So why on earth would Anderson be even remotely comparable to DWill?
There are two halves of the game, and while Deron Williams was clearly one of the top 250 players in one half of the game, he was beyond dreadful in the other half. In fact, Williams had a D_Score that was at least one standard deviation worse than league average in four of his first eight seasons. That means that players feasted with DWill guarding them, compared with how they normally performed.
The difference between the two on the defensive end is stark. Compare their career impact:
Kenny Anderson reduced opponent scoring by 552 points, while Deron Williams increased opponent scoring 222 points. Over careers lasting 858 games for Anderson and 845 games for DWill, this is a difference of almost a point a game. Williams improved opponent three-point shooting volume, while Anderson decreased it.
And here’s the thing – Kenny Anderson was not a great defender. He was simply above average. (by the way, if you think a point per game is exaggerating the defensive difference between the two, don’t like at other defensive. DRating has Anderson four points better per 100 possessions, 106 to 110, while DBPM posits a difference of 1.3 points per game, 0.3 to (-1.0))
But even though Kenny Anderson technically had the better career you’d still choose Deron Williams if you were building a team. At least, I’d choose DWill first, and have no qualms about it. Intuitively, it seems better to have a point guard who is a good shooter and passer. Though Williams’ shooting numbers are somewhat inflated by playing in a good-shooting era, Kenny Anderson was not even an above league-average shooter in several seasons of his career. It seems better to have a real orchestrator than to have a guy like Kenny Anderson. That choice makes sense, and we make it make sense to ourselves.
Which is one of the reasons we record statistics, or analyze what happens in games in any way; we can trick ourselves into seeing what makes sense to us, instead of what’s really there. Deron Williams has a quintessential point guard skill set, and his weaknesses are easy to forget if you only watch the ball. Kenny Anderson’s weak spots stand out the most when focus on shooting efficiency, and his strengths are easier to overlook.
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: a dancer, an early European player, a really early European player, and a course a ©90’s point guard. Make sure to enter your email in the “Subscribe” widget on at the top right of the page before you leave so that you can get a notification as soon as the next post drops. Happy debating!