The GOAT Ladder Part 3: #240-236

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):

  1. Grades – Percentile values for the player’s rank among all players in NBA history. They are explained further in Part 5 of the intro.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 menu at the top of the page.

240. Kiki Vandeweghe

GPA: 61.9

Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1983-84, 1985-86)

Just trying to picture Kiki Vandeweghe doing the “Kiki, do you love me ” challenge is the peak of humor in my day. Hopefully you get a chuckle as well.

Image via UPROXX Music

The highlights with Kiki Vandeweghe were on the offensive end. He played for fast-paced teams in a high-pace era, so his achievements are largely overlooked in historical perspective. This is mostly fair, but when adjusting for pace we do find seven seasons in which he average more than 20 Points Created per game. in each of those seasons, he committed vastly fewer turnovers than expected (denoted by negative values in his TOV Score column):

He was … a man out of time, so to speak. You can tell from the negative values in his AST Score and OREB Score that Kiki was a pure shooter – nearly all of his offensive value came from shooting. Yet, he attempted a total of 142 three-pointers during his first six seasons combined. (he made only 39 of them, 27.5% accuracy) During the same time frame, however, Kiki shot 54.5% from two-point land and 86.6% from the line.

CREDIT: Andy Hayt (Photo by Andy Hayt /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

This was of course during the early 80’s, the beginning of the three-point era. The three-point shot was frowned upon in general, and it was certainly uncommon for a 6’8″ forward to shoot them. In the late 80’s, as teams became slightly more accepting of shooting threes as a legitimate strategy, Vandeweghe shot 179/450 (39.8%) over his final seven seasons, while shooting an inferior 51.5% from two.

He was a midrange artist early in his career, because that was what “jump shots” meant at that time. As he aged and the game extended beyond the arc, he became a skilled three-point shooter even as his shooting accuracy inside the arc declined. It makes you wonder what he might have looked like if he entered the league today. A guy with Kiki’s touch would have been shooting 3’s since middle school if he was coming up today, and would have free reign to fire.

It’s easy to visualize Kiki walking into trailing threes on the break. His center of gravity was over his front foot, so stepping up as a trailer in a 2020 fast break would fit his natural shooting motion. Look at 0:24, 0:52, 2:30 here for examples:

Here’s Kiki a little older in the 1987 playoffs, but you can see at 0:27 that the purpose of his jab step is to get his weight distributed onto his front foot. Between 0:50 and 0:58, you see that the older Kiki has a quicker rise after the catch when he knows he’ll be open to shoot. Whereas the younger Vandeweghe would have put the ball on the deck when he had to shift his weight on the catch, he now shuffles his feet while the ball is in flight so he can get his shot off. You’ll notice also in this video that when older Kiki drives, he makes the catch with his feet spread in a sprinter stance so that he’s pushing off when his defender is starting their backpedal. Contrast this with the first video, where he will catch the ball normally and make a small rock before driving.

What’s more, Kiki played in a physical era as a forward who could not quite body up the best PFs of his time. But when was the last time you heard any front office express concern over the physicality (or lack thereof) of a 6’8″ , 220-ish forward? His greatest weakness is almost a non-issue in today’s game.

239. Maurice Lucas

GPA: 64.0

Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1976-77), 1st Team All-Defense (1976-77)

In 1975-76, the Portland Trailblazers won 37 games and missed the playoffs. They had a core comprised of players mostly in their prime who were average or below average, but had high hopes for their future based on young center Bill Walton, lately of UCLA.

The following year, the Blazers went 49-33 and went on a surprising playoff run that culminated in a title. Two of their role players from the previous year (Bob Gross and Lary Steele) improved their performance. The most common telling of this Cinderella story, however, is that it was the revelation of Bill Walton as a superstar. That description is accurate, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The whole story involves taking a closer look at the ’76 Blazers:

Despite having a fairly ordinary distribution of minutes, only two players were substantially above average in total offensive production (Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie), and several of Portland’s top-of-the-rotation guys were big minuses on defense. In fact, none of Portland’s players had an O_SCORE of 1.00 or more when measured on a per-possession basis – so even the players who were carrying the most offensive weight were not effective enough to be leaders of a good offense.

How did this team become a championship team? Well, Bill Walton did have a huge breakthrough season … but they also added a 24-year-old ABA All-Star power forward by the name of Maurice Lucas who scored 29.6 pts per 100 possessions with 16.7 rebounds per 100 (5.0 offensive!).

Along the way, my man squared up with Darryl Dawkins, which is how you know he was ready to throw hands. Darryl Dawkins was not the one to be playing games with, so if you pull up on him you had better be ready to dance.

Photo courtesy of The Oregonian

Walton and Lucas were just as central on the defensive end as on the offensive end. Here are the 1977 Blazers sorted by MP. Note that the rest of the rotation is even weaker defensively than the ’76 Blazers. In spite of this fact, Portland improved from 6th-best DRating in the league in 1976 to 5th-best in 1977 due to the impeccable interior defense of Walton and Lucas.

Lucas’ time as a central offensive option was short-lived, but he remained an elite defender for most of his career. He made two All-Defensive teams in real life and one in my re-picking. Of the players on this list, Lucas benefits the most from a small number of high-volume seasons, combined with credit for being all-league level on the defensive end. You could certainly argue that his offensive efficiency was only about league average at best, and that his few seasons of high volume are thus not really impressive enough for him to be considered an all-time great. Ranking players is a balancing act, but this is where I think he belongs, based on all the evidence.

238. Kyrie Irving

GPA: 73.2

Awards: 3rd Team All-NBA (2014-15, 2017-18, 2018-19), Rookie of the Year (2011-12)

Okay, so Kyrie is not top 100 all time; at least not yet. I’ve evaluated player’s career performance to date, without making any sort of prediction as to how currently active players will perform in the future. Kyrie Irving, despite having a cult following like no other and being among the most gifted ball handlers in NBA history, has thus far not distinguished himself sufficiently from the stars outside the top 200 to warrant his inclusion in even that inner circle.

How can that be? As nearly as I can tell, the difference between Kyrie the player and Kyrie the legend owes its strength to three factors of roughly equal weight: 1) the psychological impact of his three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, 2) the appeal of his game to a fan base that is reorienting toward highlights over game film, and 3) recency bias.

While Kyrie Irving’s shot was historic in many respects and will reserve his place in the annals of the game forever, the idea that he was the hero of the series is badly mistaken and perhaps responsible for him being so wildly overrated. LeBron had a titanic AST% of 44.1 in the Finals while outscoring Kyrie with a basically equivalent TS% (56.2% for LeBron, 56.4% for Kyrie). The Cavs wouldn’t have won without Kyrie – there’s no doubting that. The same can also be said, however, of a number of players in this part of the rankings. In fact, between #230 – #250 there are four other players who were indispensable players on championship teams, plus two others who were the best or second-best player on a team that went to the Finals. So while Kyrie’s contribution is historically significant, it is not unique.

Kyrie’s handles are legend, but what’s the actual value of his handles? Granted that he’s got the deepest bag, but what is that worth? In terms of points, or wins and losses, what does his ballhandling do for you? Clearly Kyrie’s handle allows him to manipulate the defense. Is he able to turn this advantage into opportunities for his teammates? Judge for yourself:

Of the guards on my top 250 who are close to Kyrie’s size and have careers that partially overlap his, the closest comps are Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker. When we sort all their seasons by AST Score, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Kyrie creates fewer opportunities for his opponents than either Klow or Kemba.

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Then again, maybe Kyrie’s handles are just a weapon for keeping the ball away from his defender; so his handles don’t lead to assists, but they do make his team better by allowing him to attack while keeping the ball away from opponents. That would make sense – except that he does not have a noticeably low turnover rate. Despite having played fewer career minutes than Kemba Walker, Kyrie has already managed to cough up more than twice as many “excess” turnovers as Kemba has. Lowry has substantially more excess turnovers than Kyrie, but has also played 11,000 more minutes than Kyrie.

Of course if you know me, you know that I’m gonna get around to defense in my evaluation of a player. No matter how great a scorer he is, I have to know if a player can guard anyone. Kyrie Irving leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end, and that’s the most tactful way I can put it. Irving’s defensive z-scores, derived from analyzing box scores, consistently show him as a poor defender:

As you can see, the only seasons where he doesn’t look far worse than average (dark red) are the ones where he has Marcus Smart on his team (2017-18 and 2018-19). Matchup-Based Defense, which tends to reward guards more than bigger players, portrays Kyrie as mediocre at best. He has consistently had a Defensive Load no heavier than his team’s average, and has been average or slightly above average in defending such players.

So if I’m choosing between Kemba, Kyrie, and Klow, I can either have the guy who can pass and is an all-league defender (Lowry), the passer who can take care of the ball (Walker) or the shooter with a bigger bag (Irving). Y’all can take the bag all day long, but I’m gonna take one of the other two, I’m gonna win and stay on, and you’re gonna be on the sidelines watching Kyrie show off his little bag. I’d rather win.

237. Luol Deng

GPA: 72.1

Awards: 3rd Team All-NBA (2012-13), 1st Team All-Defense (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13), 2nd Team All-Defense (2009-10)

Luol Deng is easily more famous for his bloated contract from the summer of ’16 than he is for his actual career at this point, which is a shame. He was rather a sight to behold – a capable scorer and a legitimate Class B star, but one who seemed to revel in the nitty gritty of defensive positioning and on-ball tenacity just as much as his offensive touches.

We really should start with his defensive prowess – that’s the appropriate way to memorialize him among the legends of the game. Deng was an all-league level defender during the early phase of his career, from his age-21 season in 2006-07 until his prime. He forced loads and loads of opponent misses during this time, putting up an Opp MISSES Score of 1.00 or greater in 4/5 seasons. His opponents also committed far more turnovers against Luol Deng than they did against other defenders. Word takes some time to get around the league, and players kept shooting on Deng and trying to play their game until it became clear that he could put clamps on anyone.

At his peak (2011 – 2013), Deng was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Teamed with Joakim Noah, the Bulls were a fearsome defense under the unredoubtable Tom Thibodeau and – truth be told – won an MVP award for Derrick Rose in 2011.

From 2010-2015, Deng shot 34.2% from three and 47.5% from two, scoring 23.0 points per 100 possessions with 8.7 rebounds/100 (a high mark for a small forward at that time). As his defensive value peaked, and then began to decline slightly, Deng topped out as a 15-18 ppg scorer on a slow-paced team in an era when the league was just beginning to accelerate in pace once more. That was who he was at his best – a second wheel on offense and an elite defender.

He deserves to be remembered as he was at his best, not just as a washed-up veteran who signed a bloated contract in a summer of bloated contracts.

236. Carl Braun

GPA: 65.0

Awards: 2nd Team All-NBA (1952-53, 1953-54, 1954-55, 1955-56), 1st Team All-Defense (1954-55)

Carl Braun’s career is like a play where the first act seems suspiciously short, and then you hang out at intermission for awhile, and then the second act is … nothing like the first act. So by the end of the night you’re confused as all get out and thinking, “Did I miss something? Or did they maybe put the intermission in the wrong place?”

The historical record attests that Braun played at Colgate from 1945-1947. This must mean that he entered college at 16/17 years old, as he was 18 years old in 1945 and it was against the rules for freshman to play varsity. This also meant that he joined the BAA (one of the predecessors of the NBA) in 1947-48 at 20 years old.

The Associated Press, 1954

Over his first three seasons with the Knicks (two in the BAA and the inaugrual season of the NBA in 1950), Braun looked like a promising young prospect, scoring 14-15 points per game each year and raising his FG% from .323 to .364 and his FT% from .650 to .762. Those numbers probably look absurd to you, but you have to understand that shooting percentages were very low in this era. Seven players in the league shot better than 40% from the field in 1950, and the 22-year-old Braun was 25th out of 82 qualifying players with a .434 TS%.

Then came intermission. “Already?”, you’re thinking to yourself. “How can a 22-year-old already be on the second act of their career?” Braun spent the next two years in the war, and did not return to the NBA until his age-25 season. In his return to action, he shot 40% from the field and was 8th in the league in TS% among qualifiers. Of the seven players who bested his .497 mark, five were All-Stars (as was Braun).

Over the following years, Braun was among the very best players in the league due to a remarkably well-balanced game. He shot over 80% from charity stripe for eight straight seasons and scored at a healthy rate, but he was also among the best passers in the game. Braun was 6’5″, 180 – a big guard at that time, but he was a very important distributor nonetheless. Starting in 1952-53, his ranks in assists per 100 possessions were: 13th (1953), 20th (1954), 11th (1955), 10th (1956), 6th (1957), 4th (1958), 5th (1959), 13th (1960). Braun was also a good defender during the early part of his career, and I have named him to my retroactive All-Defensive Team for 1954-55.

Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: A player born 40 years too early, two players born at precisely the right time, a lieutenant of a famous dynasty, and a player whose last name is guaranteed to cause you to do a double take.


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