Backpicks GOAT: #12 Oscar Robertson

Key stats and trends

  • Arguably the strongest statistical footprint before the Databall era
  • Anchored elite offenses for entire career while playing on subpar defenses
  • Excellent combination of scoring, efficiency and playmaking

Scouting Report

Oscar was the first ball-dominant quarterback, his offensive game a fusion of Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki. He liked control, was deliberate and didn’t try many aggressive, high-risk plays. His bread-and-butter was the ability to score (seemingly) at will in the midrange with his pull-up, often executing it going to his right like this:

He had a size advantage over opposing guards, but he used his hips and shoulders to create space and find an open release point. This even worked against larger defenders like John Havlicek (shown above). Here he comes back to the left with pump fakes on the same move:

And he could do it going left. Notice the high release point as he (somehow) scores this over Russell.

The “Dirk” part of his game was the slow, deliberate artistry with which he could carve out his own shot in the mid and high-post area. This is some of the best old-man game you will ever see — he sticks his backside into his defender and probes for a look.

Much of Oscar’s effectiveness stemmed from this kind of isolation. What made him an all-time offensive talent was that he would also pass out of these situations as well, making the “right” play when he spotted mismatches. Below, he recognizes the switch on the pick-and-roll and feeds big-man Connie Dierking for an easy score.

Oscar made plays like this regularly and was quick to exploit these kinds of opportunities. He was also stellar in pick-and-roll action in general, particular for the time. Below, he slips a great pocket pass to Wayne Embry the second he feels Embry clear both defenders:

As the years wore on, spacing and pick-and-roll action advanced league-wide. By the early ’70s offenses showed more fluidity and, in ’71, teams like Milwaukee ran more modern action. 1 A better-spaced court weaponized a quarterback like Oscar, opening up his driving and passing lanes, allowing him to create easy shots for teammates:

These kinds of players were less common back then, but my bet is that Oscar set up his teammates more than any other player in the ’60s. Perhaps his riskiest (and some of his best) passes were in transition, where he always seemed to know who was going to be open before they were open.

He had great vision, but lacked some of the same aggression as the all-time great passers. This is subtle, but it’s the difference between a great offense a transcendent one.

Windows like these are small, and exploiting them requires hutzpah, but the few times they materialized on film Oscar didn’t go after them. Ironically, he would occasionally toss a lazy outlet pass for a turnover.

Defensively, he appears fairly neutral from the available games we have. When he’s engaged, he moves his feet fairly well and uses his size and good hands. Here he is disrupting great offensive players late in his career:

However, he did have sub-optimal tendencies, like floating out of position occasionally. In the first clip below (guarding the inbounder), he sort of overreacts to the cutter, and in the second, demonstrates some curious pick-and-roll defense.

Finally, he gambled for steals a number of times. It’s unclear whether this was strategy or him going rogue, but it certainly played into the identity of the ’60s Royals, who would score efficiently but also were easy to score on.

Oscar aged well, as we’d expect from someone with Paul-like control and Nowitzki’s YMCA tricks. His physical condition started to fade in 1972, when he broke down during the playoffs with a “deep muscle pull in his stomach.”  In ’73, he labored through problems with his toe, neck, shoulder and hamstring before retiring in 1974.

Impact Evaluation

Management and team construction can saddle even the greatest of players, and Oscar’s Royals were the original exemplar of that. When Robertson arrived in 1961, the Royals offense immediately spiked. The ’60 team had finished dead last defensively and middle of the pack offensively, resulting in a 24-win pace (-6 SRS). With Oscar aboard, the defense remained porous but the offense jumped to best in the league.

The Royals were an undersized team filled with solid offensive talent, and Oscar’s passing and command catapulted them forward. But during those years, Cincinnati’s lineups lacked size, rarely featuring big men over 6-foot-8, and the ’64 and ’65 clubs were the only teams of the decade not to have a player taller than that log a single minute! Below is a year-by-year plot of the number of minutes per game occupied by 6-foot-9 players or taller on teams around the league:

The ’60 Royals were young, with no one over the age of 26. They were led by scorer Jack Twyman (31.2 ppg, +2.3 percent relative true shooting, or rTS) and a platoon of supporting players who averaged under 28 minutes per game. But they were a solid offensive group, and alongside Oscar, Twyman’s efficiency shot up in 1961 (+6.4 percent rTS). Robertson made an immediate impact, elevating Cincinnati from +0.2 (efficiency relative to league average or rORtg) on offense to +3.5, a number they would eclipse in all but two years of the 1960s.

Oscar missed nine games that year as a rookie, and the Royals played disastrously without him, falling from a 36-win pace to a 9-win pace. The same team, along with Adrian Smith, came back a year older in ’62, and the offense inched-up to elite (+4.7 rOrtg) while the defense improved slightly. When healthy, the ’62 Royals played like a 45-win team. They repeated the pattern in 1963 — a 46-win pace, the league’s best offense (+3.5) and one of its worst defenses. By ’63, their tallest player was Hub Reed at 6-foot-9 (16 mpg), and their starting bigs were Bob Boozer (6-foot-8) and Wayne Embry (6-foot-8). Embry was long and built like a tank, but he wasn’t a rim protector nor a disruptive team defender.

1964 was Cincinnati’s year. They finished first in offense (+4.3) and balanced it with an average D. Twyman missed 12 games —  the Royals dropped to a 40-win pace without him — and with him played at a noteworthy 55-win clip. Oscar claimed the MVP, and if Bill Russell decided to play baseball that year, the Royals would have been strong title contenders. The addition of rookie Jerry Lucas (a stretch big) likely helped; despite defensive shortcomings, Lucas was an excellent rebounder and cleared possessions next to Embry. He added efficient scoring, averaging 17.7 points per game on an awesome +9.3 percent rTS.

In ’65, despite returning the same young core, the Royals fall back to their familiar 46-win pace (1.8 SRS). Lucas missed time that year, but Cincy was actually better without him.2 This was a pattern with Lucas, who posted commendable stats but seemed to barely move the needle; he has one of the worst WOWY scores on record (-1.3) and WOWYR finds him similarly ineffective (ranking 559th as a neutral-impacter player). Odds are, his defensive deficiencies limited his value, and while the Royals maintained the same offensive heights as the ’64 team, they regressed defensively in ’65.

Up until that point, Cincinnati had the best offense of the decade, consistently finishing at the top of heap every season. In ’66, like clockwork, they were again a 46-win team, although this time the offense dropped a few points and the defense picked up the slack. (They had the same top-6 in their rotation, save for Twyman, who was essentially replaced by Happy Hairston.) The following year was a rerun of ’66 but the team was slightly worse (42-win pace). As SI put it, they “developed some sloppy habits, especially on defense.” In other words, Oscar was in basketball purgatory.

Robertson missed 10 games in 1968 before Hairston was traded, and Cincinnati collapsed without him, cascading from a 46-win pace (+1.8) down to a 17-win one (-9.3) in his absence.3 In 1970, he sat for 12 games, and an otherwise healthy Royals dropped from a 42-win pace with him (+0.3 SRS) to an 18-win pace without him (-8.7 SRS). Oscar’s missed time came in small samples, but the results hinted at his extreme value.

Unlike the modern ball-dominant quarterbacks, Oscar wasn’t spearheading attacks by relentlessly creating opportunities for teammates — such plays weren’t common for much of the 1960s. Oscar led the league in assists in most years, but even then assist rates were far below what they would become after the merger in 1977.4 Oscar’s assists per 75 possessions were regularly between 5.9 and 7.5. For comparison, John Stockton has the highest rate ever at 13.6, while Magic and Steve Nash peaked around 12. But the best mark before the merger was Kevin Porter’s 8.5.

Thus, Oscar wasn’t making life way easier for his teammates the way creators like Nash and LeBron did. Instead, he was a great facilitator. His more conservative passes put players in the right position to score. He could find easy offense in transition and his great feel for mismatches helped team efficiency too. But an enormous chunk of his global impact came from his own isolation scoring, which was orders better than anyone that decade not named Jerry West:

Oscar took about 27 scoring attempts (TSA) per game for many years in Cincinnati, and the difference between average efficiency and Oscar’s +8.5 percent rTS (his ’60s average) was roughly four points per game for his team’s net efficiency. Coincidentally, that mirrors the Royals offensive advantage over the league for much of the decade. It’s never that simple — the game is far more interactive — but it provides perspective on how valuable that kind of efficiency can be while taking less than 25 percent of a team’s scoring attempts. And while West’s scoring was even better, he lagged behind Oscar as a playmaker; West peaked at 5.7 assists per 75 during those years, with a number of seasons in the 4s.5

In 1970, Bob Cousy replaced longtime coach Jack McMahon and the wheels started to fall off. Lucas was traded at the start of the season for Jim King and (bootstrap) Bill Turner. Cousy clashed with Robertson’s style, wanting to reduce his ball-dominance and up the tempo, and at one point Cousy even made an ill-fated comeback attempt that lasted 34 minutes over seven games. Their offensive rating dropped almost 6 points (to -1.0) but the defense improved by 4 from the previous year, to 1.4 points better than average. Shifts like this are often a reflection of strategic changes, where neither side of the ball changed that much, but instead lineups and transition tactics shifted. Cousy wanted to fast break, no doubt an attempt to rekindle the Celtic glory years, and that might have led to hurried possessions. The loss of Lucas may have also played a role in the offense’s decline and the defense’s improvement.

Mercilessly, in 1971, Oscar was traded to the Bucks for peanuts: Charlie Paulk (18 mpg in Cincy) and Flynn Robinson (34 mpg in Milwaukee and then 19 mpg in Cincy). Without Oscar, the Royals played like a 33-win team (-3.0 SRS) in ’71. In Milwaukee, the Bucks strung together one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history en route to a title. They would maintain elite status until his final season in 1974.

Like West, Oscar leaves an impressive statistical footprint. He doesn’t miss as many games, but when he did miss time Cincinnati fell ill. His WOWY sample sizes aren’t too large — 69 missed games during his prime — but regressed game-level data reinforces that he was a huge-impact player. Corroboratively, they suggest elite value and a strong MVP-level peak.

I’m not overly excited about the scalability of most ball-dominant players. They certainly can scale — Oscar, after all, played on a dominant team — but it’s hard for others to make life easier for them. For instance, when Oscar left Cincinnati, his efficiency and scoring declined, despite playing alongside Kareem and the loaded ’71 Bucks.6 Kareem created easy shots for the shooters around him, but not many easy ones for Oscar because he wasn’t a cutter or spot-up shooter.

Overall, Oscar has the portfolio of an all-time great offensive star, but his defensive impact is a question mark. His team defenses were porous — his presence never correlated with much on that end — yet numerous accounts praised his ability to bother opponents with his size in Milwaukee. Without video, it’s difficult to hone in on this area; I hedge my bets and view him as average during his prime.

His health was good, for the most part, although he lost value in the ’72 playoffs to injury. Otherwise, he was an MVP-level candidate for his first 11 years in the league and the original offensive quarterback. If I curb his peak slightly — a reasonable stance — he falls back two spots to No. 14. On the other hand, I can’t see the evidence to boost him into the first 11. And while the group of legends between Oscar and West are all within an MVP season of each other, Robertson edges them out for the 12th-most valuable career in NBA history.

 

  1. The ’72 Bucks-Lakers classic is chalk full of opportunities created and multiple help-the-helper plays.
  2. In 11 games when otherwise healthy, they played at a 51-win pace without Lucas (3.5 SRS).
  3. They traded Hairston for offensive gunner Tom Van Arsdale.
  4. This is not merely a function of liberal scorekeeping, as often has been cited. The spacing of the game permitted more creation as the years passed.
  5. Their per 36 profiles from their three-year playoff peaks looked like this: Oscar (’62-64) averaged 23.0 points on +9.1 percent rTS and 7.3 assists (26 games); West (’65-68) averaged 29.6 points on +7.3 percent rTS and 4.6 assists (40 games)
  6. Age didn’t seem to catch up with him until ’72, so it’s unlikely to have played a major role give the degree of changes.

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