Today’s sports post: The top 50 NBA players of all time [With Comment by John]

Actually, the sports post of the day is Scott’s item “The Tao of Gregg Popovich.” But readers might also be interested in Jack McCallum’s list for Sports Illustrated of the best 50 NBA players of all time.

McCallum has been covering the NBA for 35 years and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame (for his writing). Twenty years ago, he was on the committee that named the NBA’s all-time top 50. Since then, plenty of great players have emerged, so it’s time for an updated list.

I’ve been working off and on to come up with my list. Though I haven’t finished, I think I’m in a good position to comment on McCallum’s. I also have the advantage of having seen every member player on his list play except for George Mikan (though in a few cases, the player was past his prime).

Here is McCallum’s top ten:

1. Michael Jordan
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3. Wilt Chamberlain
4. Magic Johnson
5. Lebron James
6. Oscar Robertson
7. Larry Bird
8. Bill Russell
9. Jerry West
10. Tim Duncan

I think McCallum has correctly identified the top four players, though there is room for discussion about the order. I also think he’s probably identified the correct top ten, with the caveat that maybe Kobe Bryant should have made it.

Many, I suspect, will feel that Russell is ranked too low. They may consider him superior to Chamberlain and/or Kareem.

They probably didn’t see Wilt and Russell in their prime. In the early 1960s, almost no one was saying that Russell was as good as Chamberlain. Nor would it have been plausible to so contend. Back then, Wilt was averaging around 40 points and 26 rebounds per game. Russell was averaging around 18 and 24.

Then, with Russell at the end of the line and Chamberlain still playing great, people focused on the fact that Russell had played on championship team after championship team, whereas Wilt had played for only one champion (he would play for another in the early 1970s). This prompted the revisionist view, pushed by Russell’s coach Red Auerbach, that Russell was actually the better player. Since, as Wilt once said, “nobody roots for Goliath, this view took hold.

But why leave it there? Why not say that John Havlicek (#22) and Sam Jones (just missed the cut), with all of their rings, are better than Oscar Robertson and Jerry West (one championship each)?

Counting rings is fun and easy, but it’s no basis for ranking less productive players ahead of massively more productive ones.

To me, Russell rates closer to great centers like Moses Malone (#14), Shaquille O’Neal (#15), and Hakeen Olajuwon (#16) than he does to Wilt and Kareem.

Looking further down McCallum’s list, there is plenty to quibble about. But as these kinds of lists go, his looks pretty good to me.

My main objection pertains to John Stockton. I think he clearly deserves to be higher than #30. He’s the all-time NBA assists leader and would have been if he’d retired years before he did.

I also believe that Steve Nash should be in the top 50. McCallum seems to underrate great passing point guards.

As an Washington Bullets fan, I was disappointed to see my favorite player, Wes Unseld, drop out of the top 50 (20 years ago he was included). But looking at the players at the bottom of McCallum’s list — e.g. Paul Arizin, Kevin McHale, Dolph Schayes, Chris Paul, and Bill Sharman, I can understand the exclusion of Big Wes, even if I don’t agree with it.

I was happy to see Elvin Hayes, the Big E, at #19. Hayes’ greatness is too often overlooked these days. But not by McCallum. He puts him just behind Karl Malone and just ahead of Charles Barkley.

If I ever finish my list, I’ll make it our sports post of the day.

JOHN adds: You know what’s funny about this post? Paul and I were best friends in college, and in 1970 or so he was already telling me that the idea that Bill Russell was a greater player than Wilt Chamberlain was revisionist history that no one would have believed in their primes. He was right, too!


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