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 menu at the top of the page.
235. Jack Twyman
Awards: All-NBA 1st Team (1958-59, 1959-60), All-NBA 2nd Team (1956-57, 1957-58)
Jack Twyman was a little more familiar archetype for the modern fan, but dropped down right in the middle of the 50’s and 60’s. He was a 6’6″ wing, stretched up to serve as a forward. Indeed, he pulled down at at least 8 rebounds per 100 possessions in seven of his first eight seasons.
He is also the lowest-ranked player to average 30 points per game in a season, having put up 31.2 ppg in 1959-60 despite shooting only 42.2% from the field by virtue of shooting a lot and making 8.0/10.2 FTs per game. In the 1960 draft, the Cincinnati Royals used a territorial pick to acquire the University of Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, who proceeded to supplant Twyman as Cincy’s 30-ppg scorer.
Twyman is possibly most well-known as the legal guardian of Hall of Fame teammate Maurice Stokes, who was paralyzed after striking his head on the floor in the final game of the 1957-58 regular season and later developing post-traumatic encephalopathy as a result. The pair also established “The Stokes Game” – a charity game that featured a constellation of NBA stars over the years.
234. Jeff Malone
Awards: All-Defensive 2nd Team (1986-87, 1990-91)
Jeff Malone is one of the most under-recognized players in NBA history – perhaps not underrated, but simply unknown in spite of being a star and a high-volume scorer on a number of playoff teams in the 80’s and 90’s. This is due in part to his misfortune in having the surname Malone, which is rather overrepresented among the NBA pantheon. Compounding this misfortune was the fat that he spent his first two seasons playing with Moses Malone on the Washington Bullets (= Wizards, for those who don’t know much about 20th century basketball), then spent 3 years with Karl Malone in Utah followed by the 1993-94 season in Philly with – you guessed it – Moses Malone playing the role of aged journeyman.
What if his name had been Jeff Williams, or Jeff Thompson, or anything else? Would fans remember him better if he didn’t have the name Malone? The answer is probably no; Malone was only recognized as an All-Star twice, despite scoring at elite volume and efficiency for 5 straight seasons (1986-1990) and having an efficiency bump once he moved to Utah as a secondary scorer, recording career highs in eFG% and TS% in his first season with the Jazz (1990-91).
Malone played in a fast-paced era, but at his best he scored more than 30 points per 100 possessions in back-to-back years, with above league average shooting efficiency. He did this as a guard who did not shoot 3-pointers. Yes kids, this is the monster you’ve heard about – the midrange jump shot scorer!
BUM BUM BUM!!!!!!
As an example, here is a highlight reel of a regular season game where Malone scored 23 points, on eight midrange jumpers:
One facet of his game that may surprise people who didn’t watch basketball in the 80’s and 90’s – and surprise them in a positive way – is that he cuts hard. Modern fans are conditioned to recognize this as an unusual mark of effort that is more common for role players than for stars. For midrange jump shooters, though, cutting hard off a screen was essential to getting open.
Malone in particular was also skilled at diving when the defender played above his initial cut. Here you can see him surprising the trailing defender with a short curl (1:11-1:23), resulting in a bunny. Or watch the baseline cut from short corner to short corner (1:51-1:59). At 2:10-2:06, we see a master of his craft – Malone fakes the cut along the baseline, then doubles back and curls above his teammate out to the high key area. His defender gets stuck in the wash on the block, and Malone gets an easy look.
Jeff Malone has been frozen in fans’ memory (to the extent that fans remember him at all) as a poor defender. My analysis of every box score in league history, by contrast, portrays Malone as a highly effective defender. Is this a case of “made up stats” giving wonky results that anyone who watched the games knows to be inaccurate? Or is it something else entirely?
Malone put up far above average D_SCOREs throughout his career – on different teams, while filling different offensive roles on the other end, on good defensive teams and bad. On the far left side below, you can see that he has terrific impact on opponent product with Washington, Utah, and Philadelphia. In 7 of his first 10 seasons – across two teams, with varying roster constructions – opponent shooting guards scored drastically less against Jeff Malone’s teams than they did otherwise. (denoted by fire emojis)
Looking at the right side of the infographic gives us some clues about where the idea that Malone was a poor defender may have come from: he produced very low steal and block totals, and obviously did not pull down a ton of defensive rebounds as a 6’4″ guard.
But do the numbers lie? Perhaps Jeff Malone had a teammate who was really a good defender, and that colors the numbers in Malone’s favor. That could be … but he didn’t have any of the same primary teammates across his three stops as a starter. If it’s an illusion, the illusion chases him from team to team. Michael Jordan said that Malone played him tough, and attributed his lack of prolific scoring performances against Washington to Malone. Indeed, of the 41 times that Jeff Malone faced the Bulls when Michael Jordan was playing (that is, not during the 1994 or 1995 seasons), Chicago SGs scored fewer points than expected 26 times. 19 of those cases saw a swing of at least five points for Malone’s team.
Now the fact is that Malone was a lazy defender. He didn’t get up for matchups when the guy he was guarding wasn’t a scorer. But he has a documented impact against higher-caliber scorers. His impact spans across differing teams and defensive schemes, and follows a normal career progression. At some point, we have to conclude that the “common knowledge” is wrong, and the statistical data is in fact telling us something that fans’ memories have forgotten or overlooked.
233. Tyson Chandler
Awards: Defensive Player of the Year (2011-12), All-NBA 1st Team (2011-12, 2013-14), All-Defensive 1st Team (2011-12, 2012-13), All-Defensive 2nd Team (2010-11)
Tyson Chandler is, I confess, a favorite player of mine. He came into the league with Eddy Curry – both acquired by Chicago in the 2001 Draft. (though Chandler was picked at number 2 by the Clippers and traded to Chicago for Elton Brand, while Curry was selected by the Bulls at number 4) Both jumped to the NBA from high school, and were considered versatile big men in 2001.
Their careers took broadly diverging paths, but they remain linked in my mind because their paths were somehow always diametrically opposed to one another. So at any point, there was probably no player in the league who was more nearly the opposite of Tyson Chandler than Eddy Curry, and no player who was more the opposite of Eddy Curry than Tyson Chandler.
Curry got paid first. He was a smooth scorer in the post, and had an eFG% above 53% in five of his first seven seasons. Chandler, meanwhile, proved to be raw on the offensive end and did not really establish himself as a starter until his age-23 season. (after which he was traded to the New Orleans Hornets for – get this – P.J. Brown and JR Smith!) Chandler shot 61.1% from the field and played stellar defense for the Hornets, but suffered an injury and wound up shipped to the Charlotte Bobcats for a “rehab year”. Incidentally, this made Tyson Chandler perhaps the only player ever to be traded from the Hornets to Charlotte.
Chandler then blossomed as perhaps the best interior defender in the league for 3-4 years, and a highly efficient lob threat. Eddy Curry, meanwhile, got out of shape and collected $30 million in checks for 3 years’ worth of healthy scratches on the New York Knicks’ bench. Blessed with health, Curry managed to sabotage his own potential; cursed with injuries, Chandler came back better in each iteration. Curry was a scorer from one spot on the floor, and literally nothing else – he averaged less than 10 rebounds per 100 possessions in 2/7 seasons in which he played more than 500 minutes – as a 7′, 300 point center. He also managed to amass four times more turnovers than assists over the course of his career. He was worse than a zero on defense because he took up space in the paint, but didn’t stop anyone on the opposing team from penetrating.
Tyson Chandler, on the other hand, could not score on his own at all, but had a huge impact on winning in other ways. He twice led the league in total OREBs (2007 and 2008) and had 11 seasons pulling down 17 or more rebounds per 100 possessions:
Chandler was an elite lob threat – ahead of his time in a sense. Early in his career there was a sense that he was a major disappointment offensively because he was not a post scoring threat. The first decade of the 21st century was sort of the last hurrah for traditional low post scorers; if Chandler was entering the league now, observers would compliment him as an up-and-coming roll man a la Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Derrick Favors, Thomas Bryant, JaVale McGee, or Jarrett Allen. (prime Dwight Howard is the ultimate evolution of this archetype).
As you can see, Chandler was able to be a dominant defender for a decade despite not being a big-time shot-blocker. The 2011 Finals are Chandler’s piece de resistance, with the Dallas Mavericks overcoming the Heatles due in no small part to the deterrence of Chandler’s interior presence.
232. Anthony Mason
Awards: All-NBA 3rd Team (1999-00, 2000-01), All-Defensive 2nd Team (1999-00, 2000-01)
Mase is also part of a “pair”, but this pairing is I think more apparent to everyone and not just to me. On July 14, 1996, Mason was traded by the Knicks to the original Charlotte Hornets for Larry Johnson. The fact that Mason was turning 30, while LJ was a 25-year-old All Star, should tell you something about Anthony Mason.
Ironically, after this trade Mase made an All-NBA team, an All-Star team, and an All-Defensive team. Larry Johnson never averaged 6 rebounds per game after the trade and only had one other season scoring even 15 ppg, and was out of the league at 31. Injuries both before and after this trades contributed to LJ’s steep and early decline. Mason, meanwhile, was a key player on both ends for the Hornets for four years, before having a career year at age 34 for the Miami Heat, then spending two years as a starter for the Bucks at 35 and 36.
Anthony Mason before and after the trade; Photos property of NBA, Getty Images
More than just being two ships passing in the night, though, LJ and Mase were very similar in physicality and skill set. Both had the height of SFs at that time, but the weight and build of PFs. Larry Johnson shot a lot of 3’s for his build, while Anthony Mason was a skilled ballhandler and playmaker – both unusual for players 6’6″ or 6’7″, 250 lbs in the 90’s.
Larry Johnson before and after the trade; Photos property of NBA, Getty Images
In terms of skill set, LJ was a high-volume scorer for the infant Charlotte Hornets (and still got his shots up for the Knicks), and a just okay defender. Mason was a low-volume, high efficiency role player on offense, but a star-quality defender. Johnson was the number 1 pick, Mason took three years to establish himself as an NBA player, then spent four years as a sixth man for the Knicks, before playing 40.2 minutes per game from 1996 through 2002. Read that again. Indeed, Mason’s stamina was among his defining features. It’s helpful to have a mean defender – and even better when he can go for 40 minutes every night.
I know some people scoff at per possession stats, but it really helps to understand players who played in the 1990’s when there were a bunch of 85-80 games. Anthony Mason had nine seasons with at least 10 rebounds and 4 assists per 100 possessions, capped by his 1997 campaign in which he average 14.1 boards and 7.1 assists per 100 while scoring 20.2 points/100 on 58.5% TS%.
Mason was a menace on the defensive end, but his effect can be difficult to track across seasons due to constant changes in role. He began as a sort of SF/PF/C backup for the Knicks, then eventually moved into the starting lineup as a small forward beside Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing. The big frontcourts in the 90’s were wild, man.
Anyway, after being traded for Larry Johnson, Mason spent 2 years as a pure power forward, before being shoehorned into a SF role when the Hornets lost Glen Rice and filled his spot with Derrick Coleman. After being traded to Miami and then ending his career in Milwaukee, Mase reverted to a F-C type of role – a little like his initial role with the Knicks.
As the black stars above show, Mason’s impact was sometimes masked (in the box score) by his positional designation. The record as it exists, however, provides ample evidence of his defensive prowess, both as a younger player and as an older player. The apparent blips in his record are just that – abnormalities that indicate rosters where the traditional position designations do not do a good job of describing Mason’s role.
231. Bruce Bowen
Awards: Defensive Player of the Year (2005-06), All-Defensive 1st Team (2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08)
Bruce Bowen has by far the lowest GPA in the top 250, and you might well question whether he even belongs here. He was 26 years old before he ever played two minutes in the NBA, and never had a TS% above 50% until he was past age 30. Could even an elite defender overcome that level of offensive ineptitude?
Well, a few points: 1) Bowen had a .522 TS% in his eight seasons with the Spurs, primarily by shooting 40.5% from three on 200 attempts a year. It’s not much, as he was still only scoring 7 points a game, but it’s something.
2) Bowen had a titanic defensive impact for three championship teams that won with defense. The 2003 Spurs (3rd DRating, 7th ORating), 2005 Spurs (1st DRating, 8th ORating), and 2007 Spurs (2nd DRating, 5th ORating) all won championship with top-3 defenses and just good-enough offenses. Without question, Bowen made his living on the end of the floor where the Spurs built their dynasty. Is that enough to make him one of the top 250 players of all time?
That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. I am less confident of Bowen’s ranking than any other in this list, but I just can’t see how the best defender on three championship teams that were defensive juggernauts, has to be a scorer in order to be recognized as a legend. My guess is that Bowen would be much more favorably evaluated than he is if he was an interior defensive menace, rather than a perimeter defensive menace. All-defense/no-offense big men tend to get a pass, because rebounds are easy to count and blocks are cool to watch. The announcer and the casual fan can recognize a dominant defensive big man, and bigs were more important than guards on the defensive end for at least the first 50 years of NBA history. Bowen, though, was arguably the best defender in the league for eight years – regardless of size.
Think about it this way, if a hypothetical player were as good on offense as Bruce Bowen was on defense, would anyone, anywhere, care about how little that player contributed on defense? We have no problem with one-way players; we just have a problem with one-way players who are all-defense/no-offense.
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: A plumber, a defensive forward, a couple of shooters, and an ABA star.