So on May 12, 2020, ESPN published their ‘Top 74 Players of All-Time’ list on espn.com. Before I perused the list, I told myself I would not get upset or annoyed with their rankings. However, I succumbed to that temptation and became rankled at several things. My first annoyance was the criteria used, was it overall stats, number of MVP awards or number of championships? This was not something I was able to obtain so one is left to guess the criteria used based on the ranking. It’s simply an educated guess on how these top players were ranked. The second annoyance was how certain players were ranked. How could Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the second most dominate center in NBA history be ranked two spots lower than Bill Russell would not even score 15,000 points in his career? Wilt accomplished this in 4 plus seasons. Other rankings here question whether Shaquille O'Neil and Tim Duncan deserve to be in the Top 10 and whether Scottie Pippen should be ranked number 21. My thoughts and comments are listed below:
Shaquille O’Neil – 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 BPG
Shaq is maybe top 20 but certainly not top 10. He averaged 2.3 blocks per game at being over 7 feet; a little perspective, Bill Russell averaged between 6 and 8 blocks per game at 6’ 9”. His free throw percentage is quite low, at 53% for this career, although his career field goal percentage was among the all-time greats at 58%. How many voters realize he only won one MVP award? If you’re number 10 all-time, one would think you have to be the league’s MVP more than once.
The fact that he won four championships and earned the Finals MVP three times swayed voters to put him in the top 10. He averaged 2.5 assists per game which meant if you threw it down low to Shaq, he would rarely pass and opt for a close basket attempt. Shaq was incredibly strong and powerful but bullied his way to the basket. I'm unable to count how many times he pushed opponents away for an easy basket, my theory is because of his size (325 pounds) and being so close to the basket, referees were less inclined to call him for an offensive foul. If ranked by the personality or brute strength, I'd ranked him in the Top Ten. Otherwise, he's down the list a bit more of an all-time great.
Tim Duncan – 19.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.2 BPG
I will begin by saying I liked Tim Duncan as a player but especially as a person. He was a really good guy who played in the NBA for 19 years. However, I don’t think he’s Top Ten material. He had a great coach and great team that helped him win 5 championships. Coached by Greg Popovich, an all-time successful coach during his entire tenure in San Antonio. The dynamics of teams changed over the years but Popovich was able to find other players who could be plugged in to remain competitive. His 5 rings may help to elevate him into the top 10. He only averaged 19 points per game but averaging 11 rebounds during his career is remarkable. His field goal percentage was good for a big man, at 50% and he averaged 73 games a year for 19 years which is remarkable too. One more note, Tim played with Hall of Famer David Robinson where they won 2 championships together.
This may sound controversial but I think one reason he was ranked so high was that he was a model basketball player who didn’t trash talk and let his play on the court speak for itself. Tim wasn’t considered a great passer and my rank of Tim have nothing to do with the fact that many considered him boring. So he helped San Antonio with 1,001 regular-season victories, the most of any player with one team in NBA history. Having said all that, I’d put him around 15th or so.
Wilt Chamberlain – 30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG
Chamberlain is ranked lower (6th) than Russell (4th) primarily because Russell claimed 11 titles. If you look that the teams Russell played on, there were at least 7 Hall of Famers who played together for the most part in the sixties. Let's not forget that Red Auerbach was their coach and general manager who had an incredible ability to spot players who would fit into his offensive and defensive systems. Chamberlain averaged more points, rebounds, and assists than Russell and was much more dominant. He scored 31, 419 points which are second to Kareem among all-time NBA centers. Unfortunately, he'd be ranked lower than Russell because of the lack of championships but he was asked to do much more than Russell could have been able to do but lacked a strong team behind him. If championships are the be-all-end-all criterion, then shouldn't Russell be number 1?
One more thing, in '62, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds playing 48.5 minutes a game and did not win the MVP. That is arguably the best statistical performance in the history of the NBA. (Russell won that year, 18.9 PPG, 23.6 RPG, and 4.5 APG.) Indeed, the Celtics won 60 games that season and Chamberlain's Warriors won 49 games so the number of wins played into the voting (at the time, done by the fans). However, Russell had such great players he played alongside with so why did he win the MVP if your supporting cast is so great?
Bill Russell – 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG
He did earn five MVP awards and you could argue that some of those awards were given to him due to his championship success. Look at some of his teammates on the Celtics: K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and Tom Heinsohn. All these players made it to the Hall of Fame. At 6’ 9”, with a skinny frame, Russell would not have the same success in today’s game with bigger and stronger players.
If the criteria for being an all-time great was rebounding and shot-blocking, Russell would qualify for the top 5, if not the Top 10. Did the voters realize he shot 56% from the free-throw stripe and only hit 44% of his field goals? Hardly a top 5 performer? Also, for all his five MVP awards, he only scored 14,522 points in his career. I think he had an advantage over Wilt in the PR department, some sportswriters can hold grudges towards certain players who are not always accessible or pleasant to the media.
Dennis Rodman – 7.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, .6 BPG
Dennis is ranked 62nd. If we’re ranking goons or colorful personalities in the NBA, he’d be in the top 20 if not the top 10 but as a basketball player, he’s not even in the top 100. He was often featured in the ‘Last Dance’ documentary so recency bias comes into play. He was an incredible rebounder and was unselfish with the basketball as he was all about winning. However, he's considered a great defender but averaged .6 blocks per game which seems counter-intuitive with all the rebounds he secured.
To prove his lack of shooting, he averaged 23% from the three-point line -- pedestrian-only. Also, he averaged 58.4% from the free-throw line. I would think over the years he would have focused on improving his offensive prowess. He averaged 7.3 points per game and most of those points were obtained through an offensive rebound and an easy put back. Again, all he wanted to do was secure the ball while on defense. If he averaged 20 rebounds a game and still averaged 7.3 points per game, I may put him in the top 100
Scottie Pippen – 16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG
So “No Tippin’ Pippin” is ranked 21st all-time and I hate to be blunt, but that’s a joke. His defensive play was outstanding and he averaged 2 steals per game but other than that, I don’t see what the rave all about is. If the criterion was the best defensive player, I'd have no issue putting him this high as he may be in the top 10 defensively. He only averaged 16 points a game, you'd think at that rate, he'd average a lot of rebounds and/or assists but his average was 6.4 (6’ 8”) and 5.2 respectively. He wasn’t considered a good shooter but was considered more of a scorer, especially on the fast break. Recency bias helps move him up the ranking due to the 'Last Dance' documentary. Look, he's definitely Top 50, and I’d rank him 35 or 40th. BTW, he didn’t win anything without MJ (Michael Jordan). His field goal career average was 47%, and 70% from the line. With MJ, I’m surprised his field goal average wasn’t higher as he got many open looks and got easy baskets in transition. One more thing, he averaged 44% from the field during his career playoffs. Good, but not great.
Written by Kevin Schwarm