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ESPN’s ranking of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team has been revealed. What did we get right and what did we get wrong about our countdown of the league’s 76 greatest legends?
Michael Jordan tops the list, followed by LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. The top 10 continues with Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Oscar Robertson and Kobe Bryant.
Which all-time greats were overrated and underrated? Which active player currently has the best case to be named No. 77?
Our expert panel is breaking down the rankings, including insight on their biggest factors when comparing players of different eras, the evolution of the all-time top three and what the future could hold for an NBA 100th Anniversary Team.
Note: Players’ accomplishments in the NBL, the ABA, college or international basketball were not considered during the voting process. The voting pool included 76 players, as there was a tie during the NBA’s voting for its 75th Anniversary Team.
1. Which player was most overrated in the rankings?
Kevin Arnovitz: Kevin McHale (No. 39). McHale’s footwork in the post was the stuff of the Bolshoi Ballet. But it’s tough, for instance, to see him 19 spots ahead of Elvin Hayes, even accounting for the multiple championships. McHale was durable, but Hayes was an ironman and a bit more prolific. McHale undoubtedly belongs on the list, but I’d probably slot him a dozen spots lower alongside a few of the prolific guards below him.
Jamal Collier: Reggie Miller (No. 51). Miller has a few famous moments and one elite skill, but he just doesn’t have the accolades of a lot of other players on this list. I would have him lower.
Tim MacMahon: Bob Pettit (No. 35). He was obviously one of the greats of his generation, but I have a hard time believing Pettit would have been a dominant force as the game advanced. Sorry, but you can’t convince me that a guy who shot 43.6% from the floor when color TV was considered state of the art is a top-35 player of all time.
Kevin Pelton: Pete Maravich (No. 54). Remembering that we’re only considering players’ NBA careers, Maravich didn’t belong ahead of three MVPs (Dave Cowens, Willis Reed and Russell Westbrook), all of whom enjoyed more success in the postseason as well. Maravich’s five All-Star appearances rank ahead of just four modern-era players on the list: Billy Cunningham (four in the NBA), Earl Monroe (four), Dennis Rodman (two) and Bill Walton (two).
André Snellings: Kevin Durant (No. 12). He is one of the most effortless scorers in NBA history, and his skill set as a 7-footer is absurd. Durant played his entire career in the data ball era, and the results of various impact studies bare out the trend. Take Real Plus Minus (RPM) as an example: Durant has finished top five in RPM in only three seasons in his career, with his best finish at third. Compare that with some of his peers who are lower on the list, such as Stephen Curry (16th, seven top-five finishes, best finish at first in the league) or Chris Paul (29th, 10 top-five finishes, best finish at first). Durant is elite, but at this level there are several other players (including several of his generational peers) who have had larger impacts on winning.
2. Which player was most underrated in the rankings?
MacMahon: James Harden (No. 50). It feels like he got demoted several spots due to being in the middle of — or creating, if we’re being totally honest — yet another melodrama. He certainly should be higher based on statistics. If we’re holding the lack of a title against him, that’s fine, but there are a bunch of players above him who don’t own a championship ring.
Pelton: Harden. In general, it feels like many contemporary players were downgraded based on their current level of play. Harden (19th in my championships added metric, 50th in these rankings) was the most notable example of a group that also included Anthony Davis (47th in championships added) and Russell Westbrook (46th). I think once these players retire, it will be easier to remember how great they were in their primes.
Arnovitz: The aforementioned Elvin Hayes (No. 58). The Big E played 80 or more games for 16 consecutive seasons, with career averages of 21 points, 12.5 rebounds and a couple of blocks per game, and he won a title with the Bullets in 1978. He could take an outlet pass from Wes Unseld and glide down the court, and his turnaround jumper was unguardable. Hayes was notoriously prickly, which might have diminished his standing in the club of legends. But his game was smooth.
Collier: Chris Paul (No. 29). Paul checks in among a cluster of players with accomplished careers who lack a championship to complete their résumé. The way Paul’s presence on the floor transforms a franchise cannot be overstated, and he belongs up there with Charles Barkley near the top of that group.
Snellings: Kevin Garnett (No. 21). His team situation throughout his career obscured the fact that he had arguably the largest impact on winning of any player in the past 25 years. Garnett was one of the most dominant defensive big men in NBA history, and he was also an excellent team offense creator/floor spacer from the big man position. Across the full body of impact studies of the data ball era, spanning back to 1997, Garnett’s only peer in overall positive effect on team scoring margins is LeBron James, the No. 2 player on the list.
3. Which active player has the best case to be named No. 77?
Arnovitz: Say there was a player who has an MVP to his name, has already compiled a cumulative value over replacement player rating better than Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo and ranks second among active players in win shares per 48 minutes? Nikola Jokic is that player. He’s only 27, which might be the best reason to omit him from the big list. Yet if he logs another couple of seasons at his current level of production, it will be hard to keep him off. And if Denver gets healthy and finds itself contending, he’s a lock.
Snellings: Jokic. He, along with Derrick Rose, are the only two active MVPs not currently on the list. But, while Rose has tragically dealt with injuries for much of his career, Jokic has been healthy and elite for several seasons already and is turning in another campaign worthy of a second consecutive MVP this season. He is a positional outlier, as an elite offense-creating big man through which the Nuggets run their entire game. According to Second Spectrum tracking, he has led the NBA in touches since the start of the 2017-18 season by a margin of almost 7,000 over second place, Russell Westbrook, and Jokic’s personal RPM and his team’s offensive ratings are consistently elite.
Collier: Dwight Howard should have been a lock to be on this list, so he’s got to be the first player included if the list was increased by one. Honorable mention to Draymond Green, who has been a key member of a dynasty, and whose ability to play small-ball center forced teams to rethink their lineups and usher in the era of positionless basketball.
MacMahon: Dwight Howard is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who ranks 57th on the all-time scoring list. There was a whole lot of messiness in the middle of his career, but Howard belongs on this list based on his eight seasons with the Orlando Magic alone.
Pelton: Howard. Speaking of players underrated because of recency bias, the journeyman back half of Howard’s career has overshadowed what an incredible player he was with the Magic. Howard’s five All-NBA First Team selections are more than half the players on the 75th anniversary team. I’m willing to bet he’ll make the top 100 in 25 years when those memories are no longer so fresh.
4. What is your biggest factor when comparing players of different generations?
Collier: Dominance relative to competition and being the No. 1 option on a championship team. Since it’s hard to compare players across eras, I take into account how players competed against their competition. Being the best player on a team that wins it all or lifting teams into contention year after year are huge deciding factors, even if a player doesn’t win a title.
Snellings: The biggest factor in comparing players of different generations is how much impact they had on their team winning. We have plenty of ways to measure and correlate a player’s presence with his team’s scoring margins, and while those tools are more accurate in the current era, there are ways to quantify impact back to the dawn of the shot clock. For Bill Russell, for example, we can show that the Celtics had a below-average defense the year before his arrival, the top defense in the NBA by a cartoonish margin during his career and a below-average defense the year after he retired. Or, with players like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Bill Walton, we can examine the team’s scoring margins in games they played vs. games they missed, and the results illustrate they were some of the biggest impact players in NBA history.
Pelton: Given how much the league’s style of play has changed over time, to me the single biggest factor is how dominant a player was relative to his peers in a given era. A secondary factor is how competitive the era was in terms of number of teams, rival leagues and the pool of available players.
Arnovitz: It’s important to be mindful of trends that defined the period. Penalizing players prior to the 3-point era for less efficient production or shooting percentages doesn’t seem right. For instance, does anyone doubt that if voracious scorers like Bob McAdoo or Dominique Wilkins were told during the 1980s to master the 3-point shot, they wouldn’t have?
MacMahon: When in doubt, go with the younger guy. It’s a different and much better game now than it was in previous generations. Players now are bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled.
5. Pick one player who is a lock for the NBA’s 100th Anniversary Team (top 100 all time) in 2046.
Pelton: Jokic. Dwight Howard has the strongest case of any active player now to make the list, but by the end of Jokic’s career, Jokic is likely to pass him. For that matter, if Jokic wins a second consecutive MVP (he’s second in ESPN’s latest straw poll), he might pass Howard by the end of this year.
MacMahon: Nikola Jokic, a serious threat to repeat as MVP at 27, is the best bet. He’s the first of his kind — not just the best passing big man ever but legitimately a point center, a 7-footer who often brings the ball up the floor, leads the league in rebounding and ranks among the top scorers. I’d also be pretty comfortable placing a wager on 22-year-old Doncic, who continues to put up numbers unprecedented for a player his age — or any age, in some cases.
Arnovitz: Luka Doncic. There’s little reason to believe that Doncic won’t be squarely in the top 50 by the time the league reaches its centenarian milestone. Not even lax, Dionysian summers can keep Luka from those heights.
Collier: Tracy McGrady. Injuries cut short his career, but for a seven-year peak, McGrady had a case as the best offensive player in the league. Had he kept his career going, McGrady would be a no-brainer for this list, but with seven All-NBA teams and two scoring titles, he has as strong a case as, say, Damian Lillard.
Snellings: I was tempted to pick Bronny James in hopes that we’ll see LeBron and his son become a basketball version of the Griffeys. But, instead I’ll go with Ja Morant, simply because he is one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA already at only 22 years old. He combines breathtaking physical ability, elite skills and a come-at-your-neck competitive spirit that seems destined to take his team to the mountaintop sooner rather than later. If he keeps it up, he should easily be well within that top 100.
Bonus! Fact or fiction: The current top three will be the same top three in 2046.
Arnovitz: Fiction. The game has produced a “top-three player” every 15 years or so. Given the evolution of the game and the contemporary athletes, there’s good reason to believe it will produce another in the next 25.
Collier: Fiction. Twenty-five years is a long time, and the players are only getting more talented and more versatile. I can’t wait to see who the next player is to do something I never thought was possible on a basketball court.
Pelton: Fiction. Although Michael Jordan and LeBron James are going to be difficult to displace, by 2046, the voting panel will largely comprise people too young to remember Abdul-Jabbar’s career. I suspect some star between now and then will make it a three-person — and perhaps more accurately three-generation — race for the top spot.
Snellings: Fiction. Bill Russell dominated the 1960s, Abdul-Jabbar the 1970s, Magic Johnson/Larry Bird the 1980s, Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon the 1980s/90s, Shaquille O’Neal/Tim Duncan/Kevin Garnett/Kobe Bryant the 2000s and James the 2010s. It’s inconceivable to me that we won’t have another player or two come through and carry the game for the 2020s, 2030s and early 2040s. And by 2046, I’d think there’d be at least one new player in the consensus top three.
MacMahon: Fact. It requires a minimum of four titles and 30,000 points to enter that conversation. There are a few active players who might be able to reach those heights — Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic are the best bets — but the odds are stacked against them.