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.
225. Calvin Murphy
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1973-74)
Calvin Murphy was a small guard. Not a point guard, but a 5’9″ scoring guard. I love pictures like the one at left, where a standard uniform seems to be too big for him. He was one of the best FT shooters in the game (twice leading the league in FT%) and had a seven-year prime over which he averaged 20.5 ppg and shooting 49.5% from the field and 89.7% from the line. Ironically, the first season in that streak, 1973-74, was probably his best. He recorded a .522 eFG% and a .572 TS% in that year, his first season to eclipse 20 points a game:
Taking stock of Murphy’s value in context, we see that the early phase of his career – when he was functioning as more of a “true” point guard – was by far his most productive. He had a five-year stretch with an O_SCORE Per Possession over 2.00 and with an AST_Score over 2.00 in four of the five seasons.
In 1976-77, the Rockets acquired rookie John Lucas, who became the setup man. Murphy scored about as much as he had previously, but was now no longer the team’s primary perimeter playmaker. The ensuing seasons saw a parade of companion guards for Murphy, but the rest of his career was more in the mode of a scoring off-guard.
224. Lamar Odom
Awards: All-Defensive 1st Team (2005-06), All-Defensive 2nd Team (2008-09, 2009-10)
Most fans probably do not consider Lamar Odom an all-time great player. At most, he is a part of the backdrop of Kobe’s most famous achievements – or else a pop culture footnote stemming from his personal life during and after his time with the Lakers. In most fans’ minds, Odom is not a self-representative unit, he is simply a part of something else. This view is not supported by the data at all, leaving one to wonder if his value can have been so easy to miss, or whether there is a reason that the majority of observers have downplayed his contributions.
Lamar Odom began NBA life as a one-and-done forward from Rhode Island University who had the unenviable and frequently changing role of “savior of the Los Angeles Clippers”. This role passed onto a number of young players for the entire history of the franchise up until the 2010’s, and it crushed all of them. As with every player to take up the mantle, the Clippers eventually gave up on Odom and shipped him to the Miami Heat during the 2003-04 season.
The following summer, Odom joined the Los Angeles Lakers. As soon as he returned to LA, Odom transformed from a miscast #1 option into an elite #2 option. In his seven-year prime with the Lakers, he provided star-level defensive performance and highly efficient offense, though only twice surpassing 1.00 standard deviation above league average volume (in 2006 and 2011).
His impact increased most dramatically, however, on the defensive end of the floor. With a reduced offensive burden and an excellent perimeter defender (Kobe) and rim protector (Pau Gasol) in place, Lamar Odom was able to achieve his greatest form as a gap-filler. Rather than being forced into the role of perimeter stopper or primary interior defender, he was able to whoever the toughest matchup was on a given night. That might mean guards, forwards, or bigs, depending on the opposing team’s personnel. As you can see below, Odom had an elite defensive impact in 6/7 seasons with the Lakers.
223. Jo Jo White
Somebody’s wrong about JoJo White – either the received wisdom or the statistical record. It would seem like a guy wholayed from 1970 through 1981 would be modern enough to have an idea of how valuable he was, but there is substantial disagreement on this point. He is enshrined in the Hall of Fame and made 7 All-Star teams and 2 All-NBA teams. Yet, he has only four seasons above league average in Win Shares per 48, only four seasons above average in BPM, and is well below league average in Wins Produced (which can only be calculated for his decline phase).
My analysis, while more favorable than others, still credits JoJo with only 7 above-average seasons – and only a single season with a TOTAL_Score over 2.00. This indicates that my method would only have selected White to the All-Star Game for certain in 1974-75 … which doesn’t seem right, what with him winning Finals MVP the following year. If a player can do it at that level, his regular season performance should reflect that, shouldn’t it?
There is no concrete evidence that JoJo White was a plus defender. His impact fluctuates in a manner that is unusual for players with a long career, and drops off significantly as John Havlicek aged and transitioned into more of a forward than a guard (Boston acquired Charlie Scott as Jojo White’s backcourt mate in 1975-76). After that change, White’s defensive “value” plummeted:
Notice that in the three seasons immediately following the lineup shift, Jojo is more than a standard deviation worse than league average. In two of the three seasons (1976 and 1977), he is two standard deviations worse than league average at preventing his opponent from scoring.
He was, however, a capable offensive initiator for two championship teams as a combination setup man / second or third scorer, so it’s probably fair for him to be memorialized among the legends of the game. Perhaps for Jojo White, the statistical record is a word of caution: “Be careful not to over-estimate the importance of a point guard on teams led by John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.”
222. Paul Millsap
Awards: All-Defensive 1st Team (2016-17)
Millsap is one of the more underrated players of this generation, perhaps of any generation. Basketball is a game that lends itself toward only noticing stars – there’s only one ball, and a single player can affect the outcome of a game more than in perhaps any other sport. Not every player is a star, of course, but it is also just as true and more important to recognize that not every team has a legitimate “Tier 1 star”. A team can gain a lot of ground in the NBA by acquiring excellent supporting stars and role players. In fact, teams like the 2014 Spurs, the 2004 Pistons, the Bad Boys Pistons, the 1979 Sonics, the 1978 Bullets, the 1977 Blazers, and the 1973 Knicks all won championships with precisely this type of team.
Paul Millsap has always been a Swiss Army knife, transforming into different variants of the ideal support player for each team he’s played on. In fact, if you chart his transformations you can literally see the game changing as Millsap goes from backup post scoring PF, to athletic 4 with no range, to combo forward who is both offensive fulcrum and to defensive lynchpin, to aging stretch 4 who is not quite the defender he once was.
In fact, I’ve written about this very thing previously, so instead of duplicating the same thing here, I’d like to focus in on Millsap’s two-way value as measured by several differing methods. Over his career Paul Millsap has reduced his opponents’ Points Created by 107 points, and given up 111 fewer FGM than his opponents would have made against average defense. He has done this while forcing his opponents to commit 113 surplus turnovers and recording block and steal rates far in excess of league averages.
Analyzing Millsap’s defensive impact in terms of the players he guarded, we see that he carried a heavier defensive load than average on all of teams except one, despite being a frontcourt player (guards typically have slightly higher defensive loads according to Matchup-Based Defense). He managed to put up an above-average level of D Wins per 48 Minutes in every season until this year.
On offense, Millsap was an auxiliary player in several different roles. The modern statistical era only covers his time with the Hawks (as Option 1B). As the green annotations show, he performed at a level normal for an edge All-Star player with Atlanta, with O Wins per 48 values well above average and just under 30 Points Created per 48 Minutes. (more than 30.0 Points Created 48 is usually the boundary between “just an All-Star” and an All-NBA player) After leaving Atlanta, Millsap declined into a good starter (still above average on a per-minute basis) and eventually a role player, as shown in the orange annotations below:
221. Gene Shue
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1959-60, 1960-61)
Gene Shue was a rebounding combo guard who had a journeyman phase at both the beginning and end of his career – like a Darrell Armstrong or Mark Jackson or somebody – but then made five straight All-Star teams in between. His glow up began in earnest a year after he joined the Pistons, when the franchise moved to Detroit. In fact, five of his six seasons with the Pistons saw him put up TS% values above 46% (a quite good mark for guards in the 50’s/60’s). His efficiency was powered in large part by making more than 80% of his FT attempts while getting to the line six times per 100 possessions.
His z-scores tell a similar story. Following the Pistons’ relocation, Shue had three seasons with an O_Score Per Possession greater than 2.00 (usually indicative of an All-Star player) and two seasons above 3.00 (usually one of the best offensive players in the league).
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: A group of five players who did not play a single minute in the 90’s … or the 2000’s, or the 10’s, or any time after 1987. In fact, only one of these players played in the 80′ at all. That’s right, we’re hopping in the waaaaaaaay back machine next time. Seeya then!