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.
230. Vern Mikkelsen
As promised, we begin this group of players with a “plumber” – an unathletic lug who played long ago on black-and-white television (when the games were even televised). As is common in describing players of his ilk, we note his lack of leaping ability and his slowness afoot relative to a modern pro athlete. Mikkelsen also shows as mostly pedestrian in my analysis, as the graphic above clearly indicates. If he’s a plumber and his advanced stats don’t look good, then why is here?
There are several lines of evidence one might use in evaluating NBA players, and it’s my belief that the statistical data is often the most informative type of evidence. In the case of players from the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, the statistical record is often incomplete. Thus, it might conceivably be the case that even a thorough examination of a player’s statistical record on a game-by-game basis could be less reliable than another form of evidence.
Vern Mikkelsen was named to six All-Star teams and four All-NBA teams in his ten-year career. Although I do not see him as being worthy of any All-NBA selections, it is possible that the voters at the time who saw Mikkelsen play on a regular basis were able to more accurately assess his value than we can, having only incomplete records and a miniscule amount of footage with which to work.
In fact, I would even argue that this is likely. Mikkelsen was the right-hand man of the Minneapolis Lakers’ dynasty spearheaded by George Mikan. He averaged more than 10 rebounds per game in four seasons, and shot better than 40% from the field in 5/10 seasons in an era when league-average shooting percentages ranged from 34.0% to 39.5%. Indeed, when combined with accurate free-throw shooting, Mikkelsen was among the top 10 players in the league in TS% three times between 1952 and 1959, and among the top 20 in four other campaigns.
As such, it seems appropriate to include Mikkelsen in a list of the legends of the game, and to commemorate him as a highly-efficient second scorer and rebounder for a dominant team. One interesting fact, before we move on: Mikkelsen set the NBA record for disqualifications (fouling out), despite the facts that 1) the league did not keep count of disqualifications until his second season, and 2) he retired at age 30!
229. Walter Davis
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1982-83), All-Defensive 2nd Team (1982-83), Rookie of the Year (1977-78)
Walter Davis is not to be confused with his nephew Hubert Davis, a swingman for the Knicks in the 90’s who was more of a marksman. Walter Davis, by contrast, was something quite different. He was first of all a midrange pullup shooter, but not in the sense that modern fans use the word “midrange” to mean only long 2’s. Davis would turn down an open 18-footer to dribble into a 10-12 footer. Since he was particularly effective from the porch/short corner area, keeping him out of the middle was not a particularly effective defensive strategy against him; he was perfectly happy to dribble to his defender’s outside shoulder toward the baseline and then pull up.
Here at 0:27-0:33, you see him receive a screen and drive hard at the defender’s outside shoulder. Soon after (0:45 – 0:53), he gets the ball above the break and dribbles into a 12-footer (similar play at 3:25). At 1:50-1:56, Davis ducks into the lane for an easy bucket (more on that below). At 3:58 – 4:02, Davis turns down a slightly contested look to dribble toward the baseline and pull up. These plays are entirely typical of Davis’ style, but are illustrative in that they come from a WCF game against the Showtime Lakers.
It would be irresponsible to describe Walter Davis’ scoring style, however, without mentioning his propensity for diving in to hunt garbage baskets. Whenever he caught his defender inside of him and watching the ball, Davis would cut in behind his man. He is also what we would consider a very risky offensive rebound hunter, as you will notice he always ducks into the paint when the shot goes up if nobody is boxing him out. Here you can see Davis diving in even as an older player in a game where he is primarily defended by Dennis Rodman – at a time when Rodman was the best defender in the league.
Davis’ style probably says something about our tolerance for risk and our changing definitions of risk. He hunted what his contemporaries termed “high percentage shots” – meaning highest FG% – and minimized the “risk” of launching 3-pointers. His aggression on the offensive boards was not considered risky at the time either. He was a non-point guard, so there was relatively low risk of his man leaking out for a fast break the other way; after all, when the offense crashes the boards, wings have to stay back to help secure the defensive rebound. In today’s game, though, Davis would be considered a risk-taker for taking the same actions.
Walter Davis was … not a good defender in the sense of an on-ball stopper, but he was active in passing lanes and had a good nose for the ball. He was not a guy you can build a defense around, but he did make his teams a little better defensively.
Offensively, his consistency was masked by changing conditions. Davis debuted in the 70’s when pace was quite high, and was at least as high in the early 80’s. He played long enough, however, for pace to decline in the late 80’s/early 90’s. When we analyze his scoring relative to his context, though, we see that Davis scored between 28 and 34 points/100 possession in 14 out of his 15 seasons. He scored over 30 pts/100 in seven seasons, and had back -to-back campaigns with > 30 PTS/100 and TS% better than 60%. There have only been 126 qualifying player-seasons in NBA history that have matched that combination of volume and efficiency.
228. Lou Hudson
Awards: All-Defensive 2nd Team (1968-69)
Lou Hudson had a uniformly good-but-not-great career. Hudson was a six-time All-Star, but only once made the All-NBA team. He scored more than 20 points per 100 possessions, but less than 30 pts/100, in nine of his 10 seasons – the only exception being his next-to-last season when he put up only 19.4 pts/100. He grabbed five or more rebounds per 100 possessions in 6/10 seasons, but never more than 6.6 and never fewer than 3. He averaged between 3.5 and 4.5 assists per 100 in 8/10 seasons. Lou had a TS% above 50% in 8/10 seasons (which was quite good for a guard in the 70’s, when the game was still dominated by big men and the NBA had not yet adopted the 3-point line) – but never 60%, and only twice surpassed 55%. Pretty much every year, he was good but not quite elite in every area.
And that’s a pretty accurate and concise representation of his teams as well. The Hawks of the late 60’s and early 70’s were more pretenders than contenders. They were a solid playoff team featuring Zelmo Beatty, Lenny Wilkens, Paul Silas, and Bill Bridges in addition to Hudson at the beginning of his tenure. Later Walt Bellamy replaced Beatty and a heavier scoring burden fell on Hudson as the rest of the starting lineup moved on or retired. Pistol Pete Maravich came on in 1971 and eased some of that offensive burden, but none of these clubs ever reached the Finals. Despite featuring a list of players ranked above Lou Hudson on my list, the Hawks never had a strong enough team at one time to seriously contend.
We do not have turnover data for the early portion of Hudson’s career – ironically, this seems to have been when he was most effective as a defender – but the late years of his career show a substantial impact on opponent turnovers:
227. George McGinnis
Awards: All-NBA 1st Team (1976-77), All-NBA 2nd Team (1975-76)
Because I have undertaken to describe and evaluate the greatest players in NBA history, I have had to make a conscious decision to include only the parts of a player’s career when he either a) played in the NBA or b) was prevented from playing in the NBA by forces beyond his control. The reasoning for this choice is simple: it reduces the amount of subjectivity in the rankings, and prevents them from being overwhelmed by unprovable claims with little to no evidence. I prefer for the rankings to stand on the solid ground of statistical evidence – and where that fails, documentary evidence.
This choice does, however, present a significant problem for addressing the handful of players of historic stature who spent a significant part of their career in the ABA. While greater player freedom was a defining characteristic of the ABA, it is accurate to state that the stars under consideration chose to play in the ABA outside of one or two seasons when they were too young to be eligible for the NBA Draft.
While the ABA was a brilliant and admirable shooting star across the history of professional basketball, it is quite clear that it was not quite at the competitive level of the NBA. In fact, you can verify this by comparing the performance of stars who entered their physical prime around the time of the merger – guys like McGinnis and Dr. J – in the ABA as compared with the NBA. These players put up bigger numbers in the ABA than they did when they first entered the NBA, despite being nearer to their peak.
This situation is to be expected from a pure talent perspective – the ABA was the junior league and was building itself up by siphoning talent off of the NBA’s pipeline. It is no wonder that the ABA was not quite able to catch up with the NBA in the few years they had. While not unexpected, however, this state of affairs presents a problem for our endeavour specifically.
How do you value a player’s performance in the ABA? Do you just guess?
Adjusting ABA statistics to NBA norms is a worthy project in its own right, but it goes beyond the scope of our present enterprise. For that reason, I have evaluated players like George McGinnis purely on their contribution in the NBA.
Probably no player suffers more from this decision than George McGinnis. The ABA’s final campaign was his age-23 season, during which he scored 29.8 points per game to go with 14.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. The ABA was a high-paced game, but those are impressive numbers in any context. He led the Pacers to the ABA Finals by averaging 37.9 points, 18.6 rebounds, and 9.6 assists per 100 possessions in the playoffs. He had also begun to extend his shooting range out to the ABA’s 3-point line, hitting 62/175 (34.5%) in the regular season and 23/73 (31.5%) in the postseason.
After this glorious campaign, the merger brought McGinnis to an NBA with no 3-point line, on a team which did not need as much of his dynamic playmaking. While he was still a force for the Sixers, and one of the best scoring and rebounding forwards in the league, parts of his game got left in the ABA simply because of the fact that he began his career there, and the NBA wasn’t ready for him.
Indeed, we see below that after his first year with Philly, McGinnis AST Score was above league average (which is tremendous for a PF in that era), but never again reaches 1.00 standard deviation above average. His versatility is perhaps most clearly expressed in the juxtaposition of his passing skill with his OREB Score, which was above 2.00 in each of his first three NBA campaigns.
226. Norm Van Lier
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1974-75), All-Defensive 1st Team (1974-75, 1975-76), All-Defensive 2nd Team (1976-77)
Norm Van Lier is a fascinating player – a good setup man who was an elite defensive guard, not quite a primary option on offense but filled a supporting role reasonably well. Van Lier was widely recognized as an elite defender, earning 8 All-Defensive Team honors. How was he able to have such a profound and longstanding effect on that end? Diving into the data, we find that it was not by forcing his opponents to miss more shots than they usually did.
Above all else, “Stormin’ Norman” prevented his opponents from getting a quality shot (or even drawing a shooting foul). Van Lier’s opponents took 363 fewer shots from the field against him than they should have, given their normal FGA rates. Despite Van Lier committing an above-average amount of fouls, his opponents also earned 146 fewer free throw attempts against him than we would have expected them to.
When you think about it, this is an equally valid way of estimating a player’s defensive impact. Forcing a lot of misses by your opponent is great, and can reveal tremendous insights into defensive ability. But preventing your opponent from getting a clean look is also important. The aggregate effect is that the opposing team has to take a lower quality shot because they are not able to get looks against a certain defender. Thus, in effect, there are possessions where the offense has to take a 0.9-point-expectected-value shot rather than a 1.0-point EV shot because of the defender’s influence. The defender has thereby reduced the offense’s expected value (EV) by a tenth of a point for that possession. If a team were able to do that for every possession of a 100-possession game, that would be tantamount to a 10 point swing.
Offensively, Van Lier was what you would expect from a relatively poor-shooting small guard. He was a talented passer, and relied frequently on his spin move to maneuver in traffic. He had to depend on a floater to finish in an often-crowded paint – a little bit like Tony Parker.
He would have been ideal with a really strong frontcourt, allowing him to play a purely supplementary role. Unfortunately, Chicago was never able to pair Bob Love with another star big man until they acquired the aging Nate Thurmond. After Thurmond’s retirement they managed to snag ABA superstar Artis Gilmore, by which time Bob Love was 34 years old – and Van Lier was 29. In only two more years, Van Lier was out of the league. As a result, Van Lier spent his entire prime in a setting that demanded more of him offensively than he could reliably provide.
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: A real live combo guard, a guy we call a combo guard because he’s too short to be a 2-guard, a player we call a forward because he’s too big to be a guard, and a player we call a 4 because he’s too old to be a wing.