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Meet the NBA's 51-60 greatest players
by Dennis Hans / February 16, 2006

Picking the ten best NBA players outside of the Top 50 anointed by the league back in 1996 is the most difficult thing I’ve ever been asked to do. But I feel confident I’ve done a much better job than the TNT crew, who thought up the idea as part of the NBA’s 60th anniversary this All-Star Weekend, will do. It’s a daunting task to compare players of different eras and positions, decide how much to penalize for a career shortened by injury or by having the misfortune to be stuck with a poorly run franchise, determine whether or how to factor in a player’s ABA years (I treat them like NBA years, though I bear in mind that certain stats are skewed because of pace or competition), and predict the future of guys in their early 20s.

After making my picks and explaining why (see below), I was so mad at myself that I sent me eight angry e-mails and cursed myself whenever I saw me in the mirror. That’s how tough it was. I was forced to leave off some outstanding players, but I was pleased to find slots for three retirees who would have made the original Top 50 if James Worthy, Robert Parish and brittle Bill Walton had had the decency to tell the 1996 selectors, “I’m not worthy!”

I’ve ranked the players 1 through 10, and I’ve given the retirees a bit more ink than active players, with whom readers are more familiar.

10) Adrian Dantley. AD has never gotten his due. No one suffers more for having played in what I call the “Pre-Nerd Era” the years before the advent of real and imagined efficiency experts, with their advanced, occasionally convoluted formulas for evaluating players. The 6-5 small forward scoring machine was the epitome of efficiency. For seven mid-career seasons with the Jazz, a typical night was 30 points on 11 for 19 from the floor and 8 for 10 at the stripe. It’s easy to shoot a high percentage when you rarely shoot. But Dantley was shooting 57 percent as the go-to guy! He had an explosive first step, a vast array of finishing moves, and a willingness to absorb punishment. Unfortunately, most of his best years came before the arrival of John Stockton and Karl Malone. His tough luck continued after landing in Detroit. A fluke Dantley-Vinnie Johnson collision vs. Boston may have cost the Pistons a trip to the 1987 Finals. Dantley would likely have won a ring in 1988 if Isiah Thomas hadn’t sprained his ankle in Game 6 of the Finals. He was traded during the next season, which was the first of two consecutive Piston title teams. The one drawback to Dantley was that, too often, he scored on clear-outs or after holding the ball for several seconds. If he had been more of an in-the-flow scorer rather than a solo artist, the Pistons wouldn’t have traded him for the less-talented-but-easier-to-play-with Mark Aguirre.

9) Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson. One of the heroes of my youth, Gus was arguably the second best power forward, behind Jerry Lucas, for an eight-year stretch ending in 1971, despite standing but 6-6. Four times he was second-team All-NBA, and he’d have garnered more honors if not for a serious knee at age 32, a few months after his greatest season (1970-71). The NBA began it’s “All-Defensive” teams in 1969, and Gus made first team in 1970 and 1971. A dominant rebounder, he even outboarded his teammate and rebounder extraordinaire Wes Unseld in the 1970-71 season that saw the Baltimore Bullets compete in the Finals for the first time. (Alas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to a 4-0 sweep.) He was the Jim Brown of the NBA, combining strength, power, speed, quickness and leaping ability. A solid scorer and the greatest 6-6 shotblocker ever, he had the misfortune to play before the league recorded swats. He had a number of epic battles with Top 50 player and Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks. He was also the first to shatter a backboard while dunking. Gus probably would have made the Top 50 if he hadn’t died so young, in 1987. He wasn’t around nine years later to remind people what a force he was. Let’s just say that if Gus had battled Charles Barkley when both were in their prime, it’s Barkley who would have been forced to cry, “You’re my daddy!”

8) Jason Kidd. If Kidd had played Oscar’s minutes in Oscar’s era, he likely would averaged a triple double for a season or two. Granted, he would also have averaged 15 points on 40 percent shooting rather than Oscar’s 30 on 50 percent shooting. But Kidd, for a three-year stretch prior to his knee injury and the playmaker-friendly rule changes was one of the top four players in the game. That’s quite an achievement for a pass-first point guard. He’s not quite the force now that he was then, and he’s noticeably slipped as a one-on-one defender. Also, he’s
average in half-court settings, and he’d be worse without the trey line (though perhaps if he had played in non-trey times he’d have developed more as an inside-the-arc shooter and driver). When we take into account that Kidd plays in the Trey Era, we find out that his adjusted field goal percentage is adequate (.449). Still, I have to hold my nose when placing in the Top 60 a modern player who shoots 40 percent for his career. And bear in mind that the fewer points you average (Kidd’s career average is 14.8), the easier it is to have a high percentage.

7) Tim Duncan. I consider Duncan somewhat overrated, because he’s a center who bills himself as a power forward and thus often gets compared to those who play the 4 spot. But just because he can’t hold a candle
to Hakeem Olajuwon doesn’t mean he’s not great. Patrick Ewing couldn’t either, and he’s great. I put Duncan at Ewing’s level, right down to the shakiness in clutch situations. That said, he’s a deserving choice for the Top 60.

6) Artis Gilmore. The A-Train began his career with five great seasons in the ABA, where he was the dominant big man as a rebounder, shotblocker and excellent back-to-the-basket scorer. After the ABA-NBA merger, he got stuck with the poorly run Chicago Bulls for six years in the prime of his career. His power game (with far less dislodging than Shaq gets away with) and sweet lefty hook led to career FG percentages of .558 in the ABA and an all-time record of .599 in the NBA. Yes, he was a little methodical and did not possess the best pair of hands in the world, but those are mere quibbles. Let’s quit overlooking one of the ten best big men in pro basketball history and give him his due.

5) Maurice Cheeks. One of the best two-way point guards in history. Heck, he was even “two-way” on defense: a steal-happy help defender a la Stockton and a lockdown on-the-ball defender like Lindsey Hunter, with the lateral quickness to keep in front of the game’s best penetrators. Tony Parker should thank his lucky stars he’ll never face Cheeks in the playoffs. Mo was a flawless ballhandler and excellent passer whose one possible shortcoming was that he attacked too infrequently; he could have used a bit of Isiah Thomas’s offensive assertiveness. But Cheeks was a fine finisher who kept defenses honest with a deadly mid-range jumper that helped produce a career FG percentage of .523. Cheeks also met my definition of playing the game “the right way”: I never once saw him flop. In a just world, he (and the other retirees on this list) would be in the Hall of Fame. They’re not, and that’s a whole other story.

4) Dennis Johnson. Speaking of guys who belong in the Hall, DJ has been described by Larry Bird as the best teammate he ever had. DJ excelled as a “four-way guard.” That is, he was All-Star caliber at both ends whether he was playing and defending the point or the two-guard spot. You can’t get more complete than that. Early in his career, he was the best player on the Sonics team that made back-to-back appearances in the Finals, the second of which, in 1979, produced an NBA title. He was indispensable to the Celtics team that made four consecutive trips to the Finals, from 1984 to 1987, including titles in 1984 and 1986. No one defended Magic Johnson better than DJ. Smart, gritty, versatile, highly skilled and at his best in what Magic called “winning time” that’s Dennis Johnson.

3) Kobe Bryant. Folks are getting carried away by Kobe’s numbers this season, played under today’s no-touching-on-the-perimeter rules. As great as he is, he’s simply not in Jordan’s class, and maybe not Jerry West’s, either. Like Kobe, West scored at will, but West was also the best defensive guard in the league for much of his career, and would undoubtedly be the all-time leader in steals per game if that stat had been kept from the start of his career. Jordan had a four-year stretch where he averaged about 33 while shooting 53 or 54 percent every season not to mention three steals and a block. Year in and year out, Kobe’s in the 45-46 percent range. Kobe is a superstar who plays up to his potential, but it’s a potential that is light years shy of Jordan’s. But enough hating. Kobe will wind up as one of the 25 greatest of all time.

1 and 2) LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Actually, it’s a first-place tie. Yes, James and Wade are mere third-year players, but barring injury they will eventually be regarded as being among the 20 greatest players of all time. It’s tricky comparing young guys to seasoned veterans and retirees doubly so when we consider that for the past two seasons Wade and James have competed under the rules regime that has dramatically increased the effectiveness and efficiency of perimeter players who can penetrate. That factor is why Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups aren’t on my list. Neither guy would have been up for discussion prior to 2004-05. They were in the “very good” category, not “great.” Wade and James, as rookies in the season before the rule changes, had already displayed their electrifying talents. Wade’s right there with Kobe as the one guy you want with the ball for the final shot to tie or win, but LeBron is a tad more dynamic in the open court. Both are slowly on their way to defensive greatness as well. Too close to call!

I’ll end with some Honorable Mentions:

The three I’d add if Walton, Worthy and Parish dropped out: Gary Payton, Allen Iverson and Bob McAdoo.

The five who missed by a whisker: Tracy McGrady, Shawn Marion, Kevin Garnett, Walt Bellamy and Alex English.

Those who missed by two whiskers: Dominique Wilkins, Mark Price, Bernard King, Walter Davis, Bobby Jones, David Thompson, JoJo White, Bobby Dandridge, Kevin Johnson, Larry Nance, Sidney Moncrief, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Marques Johnson, Dan Issel, Ben Wallace, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Calvin Murphy and Steve Nash.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to write another angry e-mail to me.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. Read more of his work at his weblog, http://dennishans.blogspot.com

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