Several weeks ago, Karl Malone named his all-time NBA starting five. Upon close inspection, his selections were dubious. The Mailman, it turns out, is not the only great player with less-great knowledge of NBA history. This summer several all-timers have offered their takes on who’s greatest. Let us examine their picks.
Most recently, Gary Payton was asked to name his all-time top three. He went with Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell.
No Michael Jordan, GP? “I like old school dudes” was Payton’s completely incomplete reasoning. There is likely some heavy ’96 residue in effect here; it was Jordan’s Bulls who defeated Payton’s Sonics that year in their only trip to the Finals.
Payton always believed he could contain Mike one-on-one, and still maintains the Sonics would have won the series if he’d had the chance to guard him from Game 1 (cheers, George Karl). On the other hand, perhaps GP is just a flat out bad judge of talent. After all, he still considers Kobe Bryant to be the best player in the league.
LeBron James, the actual best player in the league, was also asked to name his top three players ever. His response: “Uhh, Michael Jordan, umm, Michael Jordan… Michael Jordan, Dr. J, uhh, Larry Bird.”
I transcribe LeBron’s broken response verbatim not to mock him, but to illustrate the fact that this is probably not a topic he’s ever put much thought into. MJ’s the GOAT, that’s an easy one – LeBron knows it like every under-30s basketball fan knows it. It’s drummed into us by the media on a daily basis (and it happens to be true in this humble observer’s informed opinion). But who comes next on the list? Well, how about that other guy who dunked from the foul line?
Not so much. LeBron gave no explanation, of course, but you’d be hard pressed to persuade me that the Doctor belongs on any top 12 list, much less a top 3. As brilliant and graceful an athlete as he was, Dr. J was never a top 3 scorer in the league, and never won an NBA title as the lead guy – surely a bare minimum requirement. His ring in 1983 came thanks to regular season and Finals MVP Moses Malone averaging 26 points and 16 rebounds on 54% shooting; Erving was the Sixers’ third leading scorer in the playoffs.
Incidentally, Dr. J leaves out Jordan, Bird and Magic from his starting five: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain.
Erving’s is a real old timers’ list. Every one of those players played in the ‘60s, when Julius was growing up and forming his basketball opinions in Roosevelt, New York. But Elgin Baylor? He never won a title, never was a top two MVP candidate, and never led the league in scoring. LeBron has a far stronger claim to all-time greatness than Elgin.
Jason Kidd meanwhile lists a very ‘90s-centric all-time five: John Stockton, Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal. This clearly reflects his own experiences as a player. I suspect he is merely paying his dues to his toughest competitors. Would he really take Stockton over Magic and Pippen over Bird if push came to shove? His basketball IQ is lower than we all imagined if so.
Who does Kidd’s center have in his five? Shaq’s picks: Magic, Jordan, Bird, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Shaq is more joker than historian, but the first three are flawless picks. Barkley and Olajuwon are not ridiculous choices, but neither would get near my all-time five. However, Chuck is his co-worker, and Hakeem schooled young Shaq to the tune of 33 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists per game in a 4-0 sweep of the ‘92 Finals; you can understand the big fella wanting to give both men a little extra credit than they perhaps deserve.
We inevitably turn to Shaq’s former teammate Kobe Bryant, much more of a true historian of the game, for the most informed and unbiased picks of the summer.
Kobe had no problem rattling off his all-time starting five, and went with one that spans all eras: “It’s not very difficult for me. I’d go Magic, Jordan, Bird, Russell and Jabbar.”
I especially like how Kobe slides Russell over to the 4 spot. Power forward is the weakest position in terms of historic greatness, and it always seems wrong to place Duncan or Malone ahead of not one but two of the Holy Trinity of NBA centers (Kareem/Russell/Wilt). With his Russell-at-the-4 play, Kobe negates that. He also reveals that Wilt is third of the three in his eyes. This is a man who cares about winning above all – or at least wishes to tell us as much at every possible moment – and therefore rewards winning when selecting his all-time starting five. (Russell has 11 rings, Kareem has 6, Wilt has two.)
Bryant expanded specifically on his selection of Bird: “I will say as the years go on people really forget how great Larry Bird was. He was ridiculous. And I grew up in LA, just like everyone else here, hating his guts. Dude, the guy was just money.”
LeBron fanatics desperate to insist James’ legacy is already somehow superior to Bird’s will no doubt ignore these wise words. Like Kobe, I fear Larry is looked at by the less clued-up youth as a mere un-athletic white guy who would not be able to hang in today’s NBA. Those folks should consider that besides his obvious and well-publicized accomplishments, Larry twice scored 50 on Dominique Wilkins (a player as athletic as any in league history), was a top 10 rebounder seven different times (in an era stacked with great big men), and possessed a post game so superior to LeBron’s as to be beyond comparison. He would hang, and he would win.
Is this why LeBron had Bird in his top three? I suspect his reasoning was less well thought out.
Does any of this really matter, interesting as it is to discuss? No. It is completely understandable that great NBA players spend very little time (if any at all) studying NBA history. As aficionados of the game we should be neither surprised nor disappointed. Many great players are poor judges of talent in general – see the general manager careers of Jordan and Isiah Thomas, and the general lack of consistent intelligent insight offered by Barkley on TNT or Magic on ABC.
Personal experiences, biases and jealousies are all also liable to be at play. Pippen downplays Jordan’s individual greatness at virtually every available opportunity because he feels outshone by his former teammate and under-appreciated historically as a result. Alonzo Mourning, likely bitter about Jordan’s cold-hearted dismantling of Zo’s Heat in the playoffs, agrees with Pip that LeBron would “kick MJ’s ass,” a silly sentiment.
As fans and media members continue to be obsessed with comparing players of different eras, the “who’s greatest?” questions will continue to be asked and we can expect more befuddling answers from players ill-prepared to provide proper analysis. Even putting aside biases and assuming great players are great judges of talent, being an NBA historian takes time and concerted effort.
Kobe has a greater knowledge of historical greats than most because he is a basketball junkie who preferred to stay in and watch game tapes than socialize with his peers growing up. LeBron grew up playing PlayStation with his buddies in his spare time; Kobe just watched Jordan and Magic footage over and over. It may have contributed to him being a somewhat socially retarded teammate throughout his formative years in the NBA, but he can name a flawless all-time starting five.