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.
215. Bobby Jones
Awards: All-Defensive 1st Team (1980-81)
Bobby Jones is easily the most underrated defender in history by the system used to calculate D_SCORE. While his D_SCORE is league average or better in 9/10 NBA seasons, his best score is -1.14. In reality, Jones was an 11-time All-Defensive selection (ABA and NBA) and was literally nicknamed “The Minister of Defense”. D_SCORE relies on the ability to infer who a player guarded most frequently by his positional designation (“SG” or “PF”, etc.). For most players in Bobby Jones’ era, that assumption holds. But look below at the Philadelphia 76ers with better D_SCOREs than Bobby Jones’ best during his seasons with the team:
Twelve of the twenty player-seasons are frontcourt players – implying that part of Bobby Jones’ defensive value is getting wrongly assigned to these players. Fortunately, Jones’ defensive contributions are relatively easy to track by other means. In five of his first seven NBA season, the Minister of Defense increased opponent misses by more than 1.00 standard deviation. He also had monster steal and block freuqencies relative to his context:
While defense is the headline for Jones, he also led the ABA in FG% in his first two professional seasons, and was a dependable and efficient mid-grade to low-grade scorer. In an era when there was a lot more congestion in the lane, Jones managed to help out some on offense in spite of not being a skilled jump shooter not being big enough to function as a low-post scorer in the 70’s and 80’s.
214. Bill Sharman
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (1952-52, 1958-59)
Bill Sharman tends to be overlooked, in no small part due to the fact that he was very close to decline when Bill Russell joined the Celtics. That combined with the fact that his backcourt-mate Bob Cousy was a more important part of the Celtics dynasty, and that Tommy Heinsohn debuted with Russell, tends to obscure the value of Sharman to the beginning of the dynasty. Sharman led the league in FT% in 1957 and 1959, and average over 20.1 ppg while shooting 42.5% from the field and 96.6% from the line in the 1959 playoffs.
Indeed, Sharman was arguably the best sharpshooter of the pre-Russell NBA. The raw numbers don’t look good without knowing the context, but very few players shot over 40% from the field in the 50’s. Sharman surpassed the mark in his final nine seasons (beginning in 1952-53) while leading the league in FT% in seven of those nine seasons.
Continuing the theme of instances where D_SCORE has a hard time measuring accurately, guards on Red Auerbach’s teams are among the worst in basketball history when judged by opponent performance relative to expectation. This was, however, by design: Auerbach knew that opposing team’s guards would score a lot on him, because he wanted to play fast and create opportunities in transition. He knew that he was giving up a lot on the other end because of that – that’s why he was looking for a rim protector when Bill Russell was dominating college basketball.
213. Kemba Walker
Awards: All-NBA 2nd Team (2018-19), All-NBA 3rd Team (2017-18)
I’ve found that it is only, or at least mainly, those with an eye for detail that appreciate Kemba Walker. It’s the little things with Kemba, more than with perhaps any of his peers save Kyle Lowry. But if you don’t look closely, it’s easy to miss what makes Kemba Walker valuable.
He has improved gradually over time, going from a real disappointment on his rookie contract who shot under 40% from the field and under 33% from 3-point land in three of his first four seasons, to a workhorse who took an undermanned Hornets team to the playoffs in his next four seasons (2016-2019) with an eFG% of .513 and shooting splits of .434/.377/.851, to a third option with Boston since 2019.
In his role as Charlotte’s number 1 option on his second contract, Kemba contributed at least 4.0 wins each season with well above average per-minute production (average O_WINS / 48 is .050).
Defensively Kemba Walker has been undervalued because he is not a great POA defender – which is a pretty big deal for a small guard, make no mistake about it. He does take a lot of charges and do a good job of harassing most perimeter ballhandlers in one-on-one defense, but it’s easy to overlook the plays he makes by forcing turnovers of various kinds if you’re focused on the archetype that he ought to fit. In fact, Matchup-Based Defense evaluates him as an above average defender in three of his final four seasons with the Hornets (the purple boxes) and both of his campaigns in Boston (the green box). What’s more, Kemba has been average on above average in preventing his man from scoring in every season for which tracking data is available (the column highlighted in blue; average is 1.00).
212. Slater Martin
Awards: All-Defense 1st Team (1959-60)
For those who haven’t heard of him, Slater Martin was an unsung hero of the first professional basketball dynasty ever – the Minneapolis Lakers. Those teams are famous for the frontcourt pairing of George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen, but Slater Martin was a key figure near the end of their run as Mikan’s body was breaking down.
Martin was an excellent defender and a capable passer/offense initiator. A modern fan might recognize a little of Patrick Beverley in him. He averaged more than 4 rebounds per 100 possessions in seven seasons and over 7 assists per 100 in three different seasons.
Martin’s defensive z-scores clearly illustrate his defensive brilliance and impact it made on the Lakers of the mid-50’s. For context, between 1952 and 1954 George Mikan’s FG% fell to 38.8% compared with 41.7% over the preceding three seasons. He also dropped off from around 40 mpg to 32.8 mpg in 1954. The Lakers kept wining, though, thanks in no small part to Slater Martin.
211. Michael Redd
Awards: All-NBA 3rd Team (2003-04, 2005-06)
Michael Redd was a talented scorer, though he only made one All-Star team and one All-NBA team. He had the double misfortune to play at the same time as several other 2-guards who were even better scorers than Redd, and to suffer a career-altering injury at age 29. The effect was to overshadow his prime, and then to abbreviate what should have been the glowing ride into the sunset at the end of his career.
The natural question is, did he deserve more recognition than he got? Between 2003-04 and 2007-08, Redd scored more than 30 points per 100 possessions with a TS% above 53% every year. His shooting splits were remarkably uniform, as he shot at least 44% from the field, 35% from the arc, and 82% from the line in each of those seasons.
Was he really one of the best guards in the league, he was simply underappreciated? In the seasons under review, all of the following shooting guards scored more frequently than Redd:
- 2005-06 Kobe Bryant
- 2005-06 Allen Iverson
- 2006-07 Kobe Bryant
- 2006-07 Dwyane Wade
- 2005-06 Dwyane Wade
- 2003-04 Tracy McGrady
- 2004-05 Allen Iverson
- 2007-08 Kobe Bryant
- 2006-07 Gilbert Arenas
- 2006-07 Tracy McGrady
- 2005-06 Gilbert Arenas
- 2005-06 Tracy McGrady
- 2004-05 Kobe Bryant
- 2007-08 Dwyane Wade
- 2004-05 Tracy McGrady
- 2007-08 Manu Ginobili
- 2003-04 Allen Iverson
- 2004-05 Ray Allen
- 2003-04 Kobe Bryant
- 2004-05 Dwyane Wade
This list is long, and not even exhaustive. As such, it’s difficult to maintain the claim that Redd deserved more recognition when his primary strength was high-volume scoring and his contemporaries scoring more frequently than Redd did during his best seasons. On the other hand, it doesn’t truly make Michael Redd less of a player simply to have been born around the same time as six Hall of Fame-caliber shooting guards.
My answer to the question, “Does Michael Redd deserve more recognition than he got?” is that he probably does, but less in the sense of awards or All-Star nods and more in the sense of being remembered as a star. Like all of us to some extent or another, however, Redd’s legacy is determined in part by the people around him. Who can escape such a fate?
Next time, on the GOAT Ladder: The rookie Rookie of the Year, the rookie of early draft entry, a flying Dutchman, a hobbling star, and a monster.