Chapter 1The Top-Ten NBA Players of All TimeWill Elgin Baylor make the final cut? Does Wilt tower over Michael?
Basketball, especially pro basketball, is the ultimate individualist's game. One guy can and does make a huge difference for a team. Look at who wins championships. It's usually the team with the best player. Magic. Bird. Jordan. Hakeem. Shaq. Tim Duncan. They're all legendary players, and when a team like the Pistons sneaks in there and wins a championship, it's the exception rather than the rule. So I'm taking that into account in my rankings. Over the long term in the NBA, a team's success and the individual's success are intertwined. Everyone in this Top Ten won at least one championship, and most of the guys on the list have multiple titles. With that in mind, don't be surprised to see a lot of Lakers and Celtics on this list. In fact, there are only two guys who didn't play for one of those storied franchises at some point in their careers. So you can rant all you want about Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. I'm not buying it. They're not going to crack this kind of a list without at least one championship ring.
The other thing is sort of an intangible factor. The history of professional basketball is full of giants, literally and figuratively, and I think every player on this list qualifies. Call it star power. Charisma. The ability to transcend the game. Some guys were more demonstrative, some were a little more laid-back. But every one of these guys had it.10. Diesel PoweredWant to understand Shaquille O'Neal's greatness?
Just turn on the television.
Shaquille O'Neal is a rarity in this book. You want to see most of the other athletes in this book, you'll have to go to the Hall of Fame on induction day, or maybe to some memorabilia show, where they're signing autographs and talking about the old days. The only thing they're playing these days is golf. Shaq? You can just flip on the Trinitron and catch a Miami Heat game. He's still playing, and though injured a lot, very close to the top of his game, and that's what separates him.
Now, I don't think Shaquille is as good, just from an athletic standpoint, as the three centers who are going to be ahead of him on this list--Kareem, Wilt, and Russell. Physically, obviously, he's bigger and stronger than any of them, except maybe Wilt. But I don't think he's as good an athlete. Shaq gets by with his strength. And his greatness, his dominance, is all about brute force more than basketball delicacy. He just overpowers the other guys. He's a bull in a china shop.
And he's been able to get away with that for one reason: He's really the only great center of his era. Sure, when he was young he played a little against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. But look who he's gone up against to win his championships. Rik Smits. Dikembe Mutombo. Jason Collins. Todd MacCulloch. This is not Wilt against Russell, Willis Reed, and Nate Thurmond.
By any stretch of the imagination, I don't think he's as good as Wilt, who is the easiest comparison as far as size is concerned. Wilt had power and grace. Shaq just has power. And if I were starting a team tomorrow I might think long and hard about taking Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon over Shaq, but I can't put Hakeem on this list, because he lacks some other elements that Shaq has.
Here's the biggest reason why Shaq cracks my Top Ten. For every game that he has played in his career since he came out of LSU, he has been the most dominant presence in that game. Every single one. For three different franchises. Every team he played on--the Magic, the Lakers, or the Heat--he immediately made them title contenders. If you can contain Shaq, you've got a shot at winning the game. If not, no chance. That's greatness. And while you can chalk a little bit of that up to the lack of competition, you can't really blame Shaq for it.
And while his free-throw shooting is awful, it's not like it was with Wilt, where you simply can't give him the ball at the end of the game. O'Neal has quietly improved his free-throw shooting enough that the Hack-a-Shaq doesn't really work anymore. It's funny in a way, his free-throw shooting actually adds to his legend. It's kind of fun to watch an all-time great, knowing that if you were hanging out after a barbecue you could probably hit more free throws on the hoop in the driveway than he could. But name me a huge game where Shaq's free-throw shooting--or lack thereof--cost his team the game. I can't think of one.
And Shaq is the center of attention off the court, too. He has personality. He's larger than life in more ways than one. He's funny--pretending to break down in tears when he hears that Steve Nash won the MVP instead of him. He'll make the classy gesture, like offering to pay for George Mikan's funeral. He knows that he's a little bit of a cartoon character and he has fun with that. Plus he's a real, live sheriff. When you think of NBA basketball at the turn of the millennium, you're going to think of one player, Shaquille O'Neal. That's why he makes the Mad Dog Hall of Fame.
BOUND FOR THE HALL?
Are there any other active players who could have a shot at cracking this list? To show you how tricky it is to judge a player in the middle of his career, a few years ago, you would have thought that Kobe Bryant would be the guy. He was young, he was charismatic, and he had a bunch of championships under his belt. On an age-for-age basis, he was way ahead of Michael Jordan. But then there were the legal problems he had in Colorado, and even though the charges were dropped, that had to tarnish his image. On the court, the Lakers lost a Final to the Pistons, which tarnished his legacy a little bit more. He took more shots than Dominique Wilkins ever would have. And Wilkins never had a teammate like Shaq. And worst of all, he basically ran Shaq out of town. (A) It's a dumb move--when you're playing with an all-time great player you have to learn to co-exist. (B) Shaq's had the last laugh. He took the Heat to the conference finals. As for the Lakers, they didn't make the playoffs for the first time in a million years, and Kobe looks like just another really good player on a pretty bad team even though he scored 81 points. Now maybe he bounces back with Phil Jackson . . . or maybe not.
That's why I'm not ready to go crazy about LeBron James just yet. He's an incredible athlete and he does some things on the basketball court you've never seen before. But he's 21 years old and in his first couple of seasons he never played a playoff game, much less won a championship. He's got a long, long way to go. Or to put a more positive spin on it: He's got the physical tools to be one of the game's all-time greats; let's see what he can do with them.
The other guy you've got to consider? Tim Duncan. He's not flashy, and he doesn't transcend the game the way most of these other guys do. And he's not really electric, the way a lot of other players are, the one player on the floor you can't take your eyes off of. But he won back-to-back MVP awards and he's got three championships and there's no reason to think he couldn't get a couple more.9. Mr. ClutchGame's on the line?
Jerry West's the guy you want to take the shot.
It's 98-97 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Down by a point. Three point six seconds on the clock. The next shot wins it--or loses it. Who do you want to take that shot? If I'm drawing up a play for the jumper to win the game, I'm going to try to get the ball to Jerry West.
In my opinion, he is the greatest clutch shooter of all time. And as far as my Hall of Fame is concerned, he is kind of representing all the pure shooters out there, the guy who did his damage from the perimeter, who could shoot that perfect, elegant 25-footer with the game on the line and a hand in his face. Reggie Miller. Rick Barry. Glen Rice. Maybe Ray Allen. But, of course, West is far better than any of those guys.
Why isn't Jerry West higher on this list? Simple. He's only got one ring. Even Wilt's got two rings. A couple of good bounces and the Lakers would have beaten the Celtics a time or two, like 1962 when Frank Selvy missed that wide-open jump shot at the end of regulation in Game 7 in Boston. Jerry West's Lakers would have won the title. But Selvy didn't and West only won one title.
Who's the other guy I considered for this spot? West's teammate Elgin Baylor. Baylor was a tremendous player, but he's been forgotten a little bit, and part of that is about how his front office career has gone. As a GM, West went on to build the Lakers and win all of those championships, mentoring Hall of Fame players like Magic and Worthy and Shaq and Kobe. Elgin? The only time you see him anymore is when the Clippers are in the draft lottery and he's picking some 17-year-old high school kid with his fingers crossed behind his back.
Baylor was in a lot of ways the prototype of the modern NBA player, the guy who could go flying down the lane, playing the game above the rim. Before there was Dr. J or Air Jordan, there was Elgin Baylor. Amazing player, fun to watch.
And Baylor has better statistics than West. They both averaged 27 points a game for their careers, but Elgin pulled down a ton of rebounds, 13 a night. He once scored 71 points in a game. He scored 61 points in a playoff game, all in regulation. But if you've got to put West down a notch for only winning one championship, then what do you say about Baylor not winning any?
The Lakers never could get over the hump and win a championship when Baylor was there. They just couldn't beat Russell and the Celtics. You can say the same things about West, but he did win that one title in 1972 with a team that won 69 games--including 33 straight--and might be the best team of all time. It doesn't help Baylor's case that the year that the Lakers did win the title, Elgin had gotten hurt and Jimmy McMillian was playing. Jimmy Mac wasn't anywhere near the player that Elgin was, but he was kind of a poor man's Bill Bradley, a guy who'd get you 13, 15 points a night, and help move the ball around. Maybe it's a chemistry thing, who knows?
As far as West is concerned, you've got to give him a lot of credit for his ability to mesh with another great player, first Elgin and then Wilt. We all think of him as a shooter--he was third in career scoring when he retired--but did you know that he was fifth on the all-time assists list?
The biggest thing that puts West here ahead of Baylor is the clutch aspect. His nickname was Mr. Clutch, and it wasn't because he hated automatic transmissions. West hit as many big shots down the stretch as anyone in the history of the league. Remember that 60-foot Hail Mary with no time left on the clock against the Knicks in the NBA Finals to send the game into overtime? And old Zeke from Cabin Creek was a tough son of a gun himself--he broke his nose nine times during his career. West was a tremendous, tremendous shooter, and that's the kind of thing that can decide big games. It's just the nature of the sport. Baylor flew through the air and made you go ooh and ah, but you can't fly through the air at the end of games to win in big spots. You're gonna get fouled, you're gonna get hacked, you're gonna fall down. The 360-jam, that's something that happens in the first half. You don't win a game with a highlight-reel dunk, but you can win a game with a 25-foot jump shot. Jerry West made a ton of them during his career and that's why he's on our list.8. Triple PlayerShoot, pass, and rebound, Oscar Robertson could do it all.
I love Oscar Robertson, but I'm going to spend more time telling you why he isn't higher on this list. There's no doubt in my mind that Robertson is the second-best shooting guard in basketball history. Jordan one. Oscar two.
Today we all go crazy about Jason Kidd or LeBron James scoring a triple-double in a game a few times a year. Oscar averaged
a triple-double for a whole season in 1962. And he did it scoring 30.8 points a game. Here's what Red Auerbach had to say about Oscar: "He is so great he scares me." At his best Oscar was unstoppable. He was so big and strong and he'd just back you in, put his big fanny in front of you, and then he'd turn around and make that jump shot--bump, swish, score the basket. Here's what Dick Barnett of the Knicks, who spent a lot of time guarding Oscar, had to say about him: "If you give him a 12-foot shot, he'll work on you until he's got a 10-foot shot. Give him 6, he wants 4. Give him 2 feet and you know what he wants? That's right, man, a layup." Oscar was a guy who drove defenders crazy.
One of the knocks on Oscar is the same as the knock on West: not a lot of championships. But while West was in the Finals every year, losing to the Celtics, Oscar was sitting home watching the games on TV. Oscar put up phenomenal numbers but he put up those numbers for some pretty bad teams. He played for the Cincinnati Royals, and he helped make them decent, but not really, really good. They were pretty much a 40-win team during the time he was there. They'd make the playoffs some of the time, and even win a series now and again, but they were never really serious contenders for the championship, even though there were some pretty decent players on the team--Jerry Lucas, Wayne Embry, Bob Love, Happy Hairston, Jack Twyman. The NBA was an eight-team league when Oscar broke in and you had teams that were completely stacked with talent. The Lakers had West, a Top-Ten-all-time player, and Elgin Baylor, who would be in my all-time Top 15. And then they added Wilt Chamberlain to that mix. Jerry Lucas may have been a college Hall of Famer, but he wasn't Wilt.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Mad Dog Hall of Fame by Christopher Russo and Allen St. John. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Russo. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.