Who is the greatest NBA player of all time? I will be seeking the NBA GOAT in a series of posts featuring wide-ranging descriptions of the top 250 players in league 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!
245. DeMarcus Cousins
Awards: 1st Team All-NBA (2015-16), 2nd Team All-NBA (2013-14, 2016-17), 3rd Team All-NBA (2014-15)
What do you make of Boogie? He’s an ink-blot test of sorts. If you want to see an old-schooler post scorer, you’ll find lots of evidence. But if you want to see Boogie as a stretch 5, you can find evidence of that too – he’s been shooting threes for years (even when the results were less than desirable). If you want to see Cousins as a fading midrange aficionado, you’ll see that. People have seen him as a star saddled with an inept franchise, as a malcontent, as a man-child, as the victim of poor coaches and as a pariah who gets coaches fired, and any number of other things. So the most salient question is, what do you make of Boogie?
He had four straight seasons scoring more than 25 points per 100 possessions, and had a TS% no lower than .538 in each of those seasons (see below). He also collected between 13.8 and 15.4 rebounds per 100 in those seasons, but we all know that already – everybody knows DeMarcus Cousins scores a lot and gets a lot of rebounds. For the most part, no one disputes the good with Cousins, it’s all the bad things that divide our opinions of him.
Boogie has had a history of horrendous assist : turnover ratios, and has had seasons with poor shooting efficiency. He carries a poor defensive reputation. How much do all the minuses take away from the very evident pluses?
I will say that it is very difficult to find evidence that DeMarcus Cousins is a vastly below league average defender since probably 2013. During his prime, he shows as more or less league average when we investigate tracking data. By contrast, Matchup-Based Defense paints Cousins as noticeably below average, though not substantially worse than other low-mobility centers:
Evaluating box score data, we see that opposing centers have performed worse than expected against Boogie’s teams since 2013.
As for efficiency: Cousins gets a little worse rap than he deserves from the shooting efficiency acolytes. His TS% has been above league average (even above average for centers) since he started shooting threes. He’s gotten to the free throw line a ton throughout his career, which I tend to value a little more heavily than most. And while his turnovers are egregious by any measure, he has had more assists than turnovers with the Pelicans and Warriors.
Using my metrics Points Created and Points Lost introduced in The Basketball Bible, I measured player offensive efficiency versus league average offensive efficiency in the given season. Boogie’s efficiency is greater than the average efficiency in that season for every year after 2011-12 (Cousins’ age-21 season).
Taking everything together, it appears that the bad may have been a bit overstated relative to the good when it comes to Boogie. Perhaps there is no more accurate epitaph for his career.
244. Randy Smith
Awards: 1st Team All-NBA (1975-76, 1977-78), 2nd Team All-NBA (1976-77), 2nd Team All-Defense (1977-78)
Randy Smith was a scoring guard for the Buffalo Braves throughout his twenties, where he earned two All-Star nominations. Though standing only 6’3″, Smith was a tough rebounder and a capable passer (given that he was a “2-guard” in an era when teams relied more heavily on the “point guard” to initiate the offense).
In this Buffalo Braves news reel below, you can notice several significant facets of his game: At 2:29, Smith makes an entry pass to the post then relocates for a baseline jumper (almost reminiscent of a Steph Curry relocation). We see a good example of Smith’s pullup shooting ability at 3:52. In fact, you will notice this often in whatever footage you can find of Randy Smith – a forward-leaning pullup jumper that seems like it should get blocked every time since he’s pulling up off the bounce, but doesn’t seem to.
Also take careful note of Smith’s nice hit-ahead pass in transition at 3:18, and even some glimpses of him distributing the rock almost like a “point guard” at 4:28.
Or look at the over-the-top dime at 1:17 here. You can also see Randy Smith feeding Bob McAdoo, again functioning as what we might call a “secondary creator” in the modern NBA vernacular. (Bob McAdoo scored 50 points against Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes in this game, and received the MVP trophy at halftime) Randy makes an outstanding lob pass into the post at 5:01 that must be seen to be believed. Again, at 7:28 Smith pushes the ball up the floor in transition then dumps off to the trailing McAdoo.
In Randy Smith’s top seven passing seasons, we see that he was more than two standard deviations better than league average in AST Score during four of those seasons. He also had two seasons with an O_SCORE Per Possession above 3.00, meaning that he was three standard deviations better than average in terms of per-possession offensive production. Only 540 player-seasons in history meet this level, so it’s handy to think of an O_SCORE Per Possession above 3 as a benchmark for all-league offensive production.
243. Peja Stojakovic
Awards: All-NBA 1st Team (2003-04)
Peja’s GPA is higher than anybody else in this part of the rankings, which might make you wonder what he’s doing here. He ranks lower than expected because a) he has only one season in which he was clearly deserving of all-league honors and b) his defensive grades are too high as a result of playing more or less the same position as Doug Christie. This can happen in a few cases, and is usually pretty easy to spot (another example is Reggie Miller and Metta Artest during their time together on the Pacers).
Building on the previous comment, Peja only had one of the “all-league offense” seasons mentioned in the profile of Randy Smith, measured by a player having an O_SCORE Per Possession greater than 3.00. What he lacked in volume, though, he certainly supplied in efficiency. Prime Peja had five seasons as a starter with a TS% north of 58% and shot over 40% from 3-point land in four of those seasons.
Peja also had six seasons with more than 4.0 FTM per 100 possessions and grabbed as many as 9.4 rebounds/100, somewhat surprising for those who might remember him as purely a jump shooter. These feats were not features of his career as a whole, however. Peja was a player with a short and very high peak, but with seasons surrounding that peak which generally fell below below the threshold of a true star.
242. Nat Clifton
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1954-55), All-Defense First Team (1953-54, 1954-55, 1956-57)
Nat Clifton is extremely difficult to evaluate for a host of reasons. In adjusting for blind spots in my models while preparing this list, I decided to elevate players who were clearly better than most of the players in the NBA at the time, but were prevented from playing in the NBA by something other than their own choice. This means I did not give any credit for playing in the ABA, but did consider the effect of being forced to play NCAA basketball until age 22 (stars in the 60’s and 70’s), or serve in the military until the age of 24 (David Robinson), or being trapped behind the Iron Curtain until your 30’s (Arvydas Sabonis).
Nat Clifton is clearly deserving of consideration in this respect, though how much consideration is an open question. Clifton debuted in the NBA as a 27-year-old rookie in the 1950-51 season because that was the first season in which African-American players played in the NBA. His prime, or least a substantial portion of it, is not a part of the NBA record. Based on his performance during his subsequent 8-year NBA career and on the evidence of his prior play outside of the NBA, it is impossible to conclude that Clifton was not one of the best players in the world prior to 1950.
Let’s review those in chronological order. After college and serving for three years in World War II, Clifton played for the New York Rens – perhaps better known as the Harlem Renaissance – until 1948. As an all-black traveling team, the Rens were barred from competing in the BAA or NBL, the twin forerunners of the NBA. From 1948-1950, Clifton played with the Harlem Globetrotters, so one can more readily understand how a bruising power forward is remembered as a good ballhandler. Clifton also played for the Chicago American Giants (a famous Negro Leagues baseball team) during his time with the Rens and on three different teams in integrated minor leagues. He was a power-hitting first baseman and hit .307 with a .468 slugging percentage in basically class A ball in the minors.
So Clifton was a talented enough athlete to be a low-level minor league baseball player in the offseason, and a sufficiently talented basketball player to be selected to join the Harlem Globetrotters. There is, however, no surviving statistical record of his performance during the first half of his prime.
After coming to the NBA, Clifton was a beastly defender and was twice among the top 20 in the league in assists (1952-53 is pictured below). He averaged a double-double for two consecutive seasons.
His greatest strength was on the defensive end however, and an analysis of his defensive value will illustrate the difficulty in properly valuing Clifton’s career. I selected Nat Clifton for four All-Defensive teams in my retroactive selections, but there were of course no All-Defensive teams in real life at that time, making it difficult to quantify his contribution. He was named to one All-Star team at 34 years old. Moreover, he played in an era during which TOV, STL, and BLK were not recorded and no distinction was made between offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds. Look at all these nulls:
But if you’ll ignore the nulls for a moment, you’ll see that the information we do have about Clifton is astounding. In 5 of the 7 seasons for which we have adequate data, Clifton had a D_SCORE better than 1.00, meaning that he was farther away from average performance than a randomly selected player would have been in that season. In two of those seasons, he was twice as far as the normal “distance from average”. He reduced opponent scoring and FGM by at least 1 standard deviation in the majority of seasons, and forced more misses by his opponent than expected in every season but one. (Opp MISSES Score is often an indicator of shot-blockers in seasons before blocks were recorded)
241. Terry Porter
Awards: All-NBA First Team (1992-93)
it’s probably more likely that the sun will rise in the west than it is that I will swear off of ©90’s point guards, so it’s probably no surprise to see another one here. There will be many of them on the way up the Ladder, but Terry Porter is a particularly interesting one. Over a 17-year career, Terry Porter genuinely never had two seasons that were alike. He had a five-year prime (1989-1993) during which he scored 17.7 points a game shooting 50% from two, 39.5% from three, and 85.4% from the line. But he also had seasons like 1994-95, in which he shot 39.9% from two and 39.3% from the field.
He had four seasons with an AST Score greater than 3.00, because he was a high-quality passer for his era … but his total offensive production was below league average on a per-possession basis in two of those four seasons, and he committed more turnovers than expected in all four seasons.
Porter was an above-average defender and generally helped his teams on the defensive end. He even reduced opponent scoring by 115 points over his career … but that was entirely due to preventing his opponents from scoring inside and from midrange. He gave up more 3-pointers and 3-point attempts than expected, so you could imagine it would be difficult for him to be as good of a defender in today’s game.
We could go on and on, and truly I could talk about Terry Porter all day, but it’s probably about time to wrap up this installment.
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: an ABA star who made the jump, a stone-cold shooter, a man famous for his contract, a player famous for nothing at all, and the man of the hour.