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.
220. Bob Dandridge
Bob Dandridge was an excellent defender and a good-but-not-great scorer for a decade, but he is not in the Hall of Fame. Likewise, his name and his game are largely forgotten, despite being a four-time All-Star and making an All-NBA team. Over his first ten seasons, Dandridge scored 19 points a game and shot above league average efficiency each year. It wasn’t pure volume, as is clear when you see that he capped this run with four straight seasons with an O_Score Per Possession higher than 1.00 (the green box). You can also see the difference between his time in MIlwaukee as a complimentary scorer (the yellow box) and his prime from 1976-1979: in the former stretch, he is around 1 standard deviation above league average production by total volume. In the latter stint, he is around 1.4-1.5 SDs above league average in production by total volume.
Dandridge was also a member of the All-Defense Team in 1978-79, and you can see why by looking at his career defensive z-scores. Dandridge would have been a good candidate for All-Defense selection in 1975, 1978, or 1979; in all three seasons he had a D_Score better than -1.15, and OPP_MISSES_Scores of 0.89, 2.08, and 1.48 – a tremendous level of impact of forcing opponent misses.
The question naturally arises, “why doesn’t anyone remember this guy?” How can a guy that was a crucial star on two championship teams be lost to the sands of time? Maybe part of it has to do with his being overshadowed by teammates. Dandridge was the third banana on the famous 1971 Bucks team (you know, when Kareem and the Big O joined forces and rained hellfire on the league to the tune of 33 straight victories?). Then, five years later on a different team, he was the number two guy for an unusual but unremarkable Washington Bullets team that won the title after going 44-38 in the regular season primarily on the strength of Elvin Hayes’ scoring, Wes Unseld’s defense, and Dandridge’s two-way game. This team was immediately followed by another unlikely champion (the 1979 SuperSonics), which may have helped them fade out of memory even faster.
219. Gus Johnson
Awards: All-Defensive 1st Team (1969-70)
Gus Johnson was a dynamic forward – a leaper and a dunker. He reversed the more commonly seen pattern by ending his career in the ABA rather than beginning in the ABA and ending in the NBA. The majority of his career was spent with Baltimore, where he average double-doubles in his first eight seasons (17 and 13 or better in six of those seasons).
He turned 25 for his rookie year in the NBA. Johnson was a high school teammate of Nate Thurmond, but did not receive many D-I offers due to being a black player in the late 50’s/early 60’s. As a result, he wound up playing semi-pro ball in the National AAU Basketball League (essentially the mill teams that did not join the NBA in the NBA-NBL merger, joined together with other AAU teams in 1961). During this time he was recruited to come to Idaho. He had to play a year at Boise Junior College to establish an academic record, where reports are that averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds a game. In his only season at Idaho (age 24), Johnson put up 19.0 points and 20.3 rebounds per game and led an independent team that had been .500 in the previous season to a 20-6 record.
The recently deceased Slick Leonard, his first pro coach, was effusive in his praise of Johnson’s defensive prowess, and with good reason. In 8/10 campaigns, he reduced opponent scoring (by as much as 326.5 points in 1964).
Offensively Johnson was a role player, with a career high of 18.2 Points Created per game in 1967, where he was 0.95 standard deviations above league average in total production and 2.51 SD above average in per-possession production. Once he couldn’t leap over opponents anymore (at age 33), his offense disappeared and he left the NBA to reunite with his first pro coach Slick Leonard on the ABA’s Indiana Pacers in a championship campaign.
The same question recurs here – why doesn’t anybody remember Gus Johnson? Like Dandridge, he was a defense-first forward who played a long time ago. He made two All-Defense Teams and four All-NBA Teams, which he absolutely deserved, but didn’t play on highly successful teams as a rule: the 1971 Bullets got swept in the Finals by the Bucks in the only NBA Finals appearance of Johnson’s career.
218. Dan Roundfield
Awards: All-Defensive 2nd Team (1985-86)
On the defensive end, Dan Roundfield had a huge effect on his opponent, forcing a surplus of 226.9 misses and 24.1 turnovers over the course of his career while recording 574.5 more blocks than expected. He made five All-Defense Teams, and while my method has only selected him in one of those seasons, his career profile fits that of a multiple-time honoree.
Indeed, when we compare his impact on opponent performance with normal league levels at the time and measure Roundfield’s performance with z-scores, there is an impressive and recognizable pattern. He forces more and more misses by his opponent as he ages while forcing boatloads of excess turnovers between 1979-1982. During these three seasons he was 2.14, 1.18, and 1.02 standard deviations better than league average at turning his man over.
On offense, he was a medium-grade scorer with above league-average efficiency between 1978 and 1981, then slightly below average efficiency in the following seasons when he increased his volume. In fact, Roundfield had almost the same offensive career arc as Bob Dandridge (#220 above). Both began as role players and developed into secondary stars, then diminished into zero-offense players on their way out of the league.
Like the preceding two players, and really like all five payers presented here, Dan Roundfield is a forgotten man in the history of the NBA. This group of players has shared the same fate, and for some of the same reasons. Like Bob Dandridge, Roundfield topped out as an elite #2 option on offense. Both played in a time before high turnover helped elite #2 options build appreciation among fans by playing part of their career as a #1 option on a bad team before signing with – or demanding a trade to – a contending team. Like Gus Johnson, Roundfield had more value on the offensive end than the defensive end. For players before the modern era, defensive greatness fades once a player passes out of the oral memory of the league. Points scored are forever, but points saved are all too often forgotten.
217. Dick McGuire
There have only been 226 player-seasons in NBA history with an AST_Score over 4.00 (meaning the player’s assist production was at least four standard deviations above league average for their context). Dick McGuire has six of those seasons. That pretty much sums up the entirety of McGuire’s value, and why he is in the Hall of Fame despite never scoring in double figures. He was 15th in the league in TOTAL_SCORE in 1954-55, but was not a hugely impactful defender in most seasons.
McGuire was, to be fair, a pretty accurate shooter for his context. Which seems bizarre to say – he was a career 64.4% free throw shooter, and never shot even 45% from the field. He was in the top 20 players in the league in TS% five times – with a TS% below 50% every time.
Here are the top 10 seasons sorted by AST/100 between 1952-53 and 1959-60. McGuire has three of them (and four of the next ten). If we’re going to portray Bob Cousy as a legend of the game’s history based primarily on his ballhandling wizardry and passing skill, it seems fair to at least give Dick McGuire some shine down here on the lower rungs of the ladder.
216. Clem Haskins
Clem Haskins had a prime similar to the players in the #180 – #200 range in these rankings, but turned 24 during his rookie year and declined sharply after his age 28 season. As a result, it’s a open question as to whether or not he should be in the top 250 at all. He never even made an All-Star team, so ranking him here flies in the face of contemporary evaluations of his caliber.
Interestingly, Haskins was overlooked despite putting up strong box score stats. In his first seven seasons – the only time he was a true “regular” – he had five seasons with more than 20 PTS per 100 possessions, two seasons with more than 5 REB/100, and five seasons with more than 5 AST/100.
Defensively, the majority of Haskins’ career value came between 1969 and 1972 – the lighter colored cells in the heatmap below. After 1972 he was more or less average, but that does not negate the fact that he was a major plus defensively in those four seasons.
Also, this card is registered with the Smithsonian Institute. Your guess is as good as mine … it is nice to see how nicknames have always been a beloved part of the game, although the cartoon guy looks nothing like Clem Haskins?
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: A Red Auerbach special, a Minister, a man in Redd, a third fiddle from the 50’s, a controversy from earlier on the Ladder.