Backpicks GOAT: #19 Steve Nash

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most efficient offenses in NBA history
  • All-time combination of passing, creating and scoring efficiency
  • Performs extremely well in non-box value metrics

Scouting Report

At his apex, Steve Nash was arguably the most aggressive attacker in NBA history. With the ball, he forced defenses to respond to his passing and scoring threats simultaneously; sleep on his scoring and he burned you with a bucket, respect his scoring and he burned you with a pass. And he was the most prolific passer in NBA history.

When Nash entered the league in 1997, he was merely a small-college kid with some NCAA Tournament allure. He backed up two legendary Phoenix point guards Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson, and by his second year was deployed in dual and sometimes triple-point lineups. After the ’98 season, he was sent to Dallas to serve as the full time starter, but he struggled with his health for his first two years as a Maverick.1

Nash played with all the same stylistic elements in those first few years — quick-triggered deadly shooting and aggressive passing — only as a shell of his future self. Here’s a play from 2000 where he frees up Michael Finley with a crafty hand-off:

Nash’s movement back then was disjointed and jerkier, but in 2001, his body held up, his quickness and agility improved and he erupted, zinging the prettiest fastballs since Magic Johnson:

Of course, Nash’s offense started with his threat to score. He would launch 3-pointers when given a modicum of space or attack defenders in vulnerable positions:

His shooting turned him into a deadly isolation threat. In tracking Nash, he attempted to score “on-ball” on about 20 plays per 100, using isolation or pick-and-roll.2 For perspective, that was more than Tim Duncan in my tracking (18 per 100), despite Duncan scoring far more overall than Nash. Nash was so rarely the finisher of an opportunity — especially in Phoenix — that his raw numbers undersold how strong he was at self-generating offense. But he was an MVP-level player because he combined a Jedi-like manipulation of defenses with pinpoint, Greg Maddux tosses:

Nash remained relatively healthy until 2004, when his back flared up again.3 He underwent another physical upgrade upon arriving in Phoenix, improving his conditioning and gait mechanics. By then, he possessed his full arsenal of Wayne Gretzky spins, lefty backhands and step-backs:

His passing exploded in Phoenix. With the freedom to play on the ball even more than he did in Dallas — and he was the most involved Maverick in Dallas — Nash’s passing graduated to a new level.4 He was always the master of the pocket pass, bounced from his hip to an eager roll-man:

But his interior and transition passing took on a life of its own. He would look for the smallest windows of opportunity and throw strikes nearly every time:

Nash delivered more quality passes, per possession, than anyone I’ve ever studied on film. In Dallas, he was already competing with the greatest passers in history, slinging a “good” or “great” pass on over 5 plays per 100. But in Phoenix, surrounded by better athletes and shooters that spaced the floor, Nash uncorked good passes on almost 9 percent of possessions! While Magic played in a time where there were fewer great passing opportunities, Nash’s wild forays into the paint created many of those small windows. If Magic exploited, Nash explored; he’d tug on defenses like a puppet master, waiting to see if big men would overplay his scoring while hoping help defenders would rotate to the wrong man.

Like a great quarterback, Nash didn’t complete every pass. Sometimes they came in too hot, and other times, the window was just too small:

Nash threw more problematic incompletions (or interceptions) like this than any player I’ve tracked, a natural tradeoff when gunning for so many high-leverage plays. Although the tradeoff was worth it; it’s unlikely any player in history created as many open shot opportunities for their teammates.

Defense, however, was another story; his physical tools left him shorthanded on that end and he was often hidden on the opponent’s weakest perimeter player. He had decently quick feet for much of his prime — a relic of his soccer-playing days — and was crafty enough to recognize sets and hedge in front of a screen, a common practice of his:

But even when he stayed in front of a good penetrator, his size still presented mismatch problems. Once Nash switches onto a big below, Dallas needs to send extra help and the Nets capitalize:

Nash’s biggest detriment, without question, was his size. He was simply too small to affect opposing shots, even when he played “good defense:”

His double-teams were less effective because of this, rarely able to bother post players or disrupt an offense:

Much like on offense, his defensive strength was his awareness. He was quite good at rotating to the right spot and positioning himself for charges, on or off the ball:

In my tracking, he forced 1.2 turnovers per 100 that weren’t counted by traditional scorekeeping methods. This is a small sample, but it’s reflective of his ability to make up for some of his defensive shortcomings with guile and basketball IQ. While his lack of verticality or physical strength curtailed the value of his team rotations,5 he could still check the boxes on a number of help plays, preventing teams from finding easy looks or minimizing their power plays. In the first clip below, he reads the weak side action and saves a layup, and in the second, he correctly funnels toward a good corner shooter and kills the possession:

Nash aged well, slowing down a touch in 2008, the first year of his prime that the offensive accelerator was not glued to the floor. Phoenix blew up its core that year, trading for Shaquille O’Neal, and Nash battled back soreness that bothered him during the ’05 and ’06 seasons. In 2010, he had his last high-quality year before turning in another two effective, but slower-moving seasons in Phoenix.

Impact Evaluation

Nash’s incredible passing and relentless creation spearheaded a plethora of historically great offenses. His diminutive stature limited his absolute value, but under the right conditions, he was one of history’s most valuable players; in Dallas, his impact numbers were positive but ordinary, yet in Phoenix, they were Herculean. This value is echoed by Nash’s box score metrics and deeper lineup-level analysis.

Nash arrived in Dallas for the lockout season of 1999 along with rookie Dirk Nowitzki (who played 20 minutes per game at age 20). While his presence coincided with an improved offense that jumped 4.7 points in relative efficiency, Nash’s role was ancillary, and he shouldered a pedestrian offensive load of 27.3 (50th percentile). However, when his health smoothed out in 2001 and he assumed command of the team, Dallas catapulted to a 54-win full-strength pace behind a +4.1 relative offensive rating (rORtg). Nash posted a 39.2 load (92nd percentile) that year, but Nowitzki’s burden hardly changed. Dirk’s efficacy took huge strides, as he improved his scoring rate by 19 percent on upper-echelon efficiency, but the machine ran through Nash.6

In Year Two of the prime Nash-Nowitzki show, Dallas ascended to a dynastic level on offense. The Mavs finished with the sixth-best rORtg in league history (+7.7), followed by the 16th-best in ’03 (+7.1) and then in ’04 became the only offense in NBA history 9 points better than league average for a full season (+9.2). Those numbers do require some mental curving; Dallas often played offensive-centric big men like Raef LaFrentz, and then in 2004 cheated their lineup entirely toward offense, playing Nowitzki at center full time and backing him up with the undersized Eduardo Najera or even (gasp!) Antoine Walker. As a result, the overall team performance declined behind a gossamery defense, slipping to 4.5 points worse than league average, in the 6th percentile historically.

That Mavericks four-year run of offense was the best in NBA history, averaging +7 efficiency during the stretch. The second best stretch? Nash’s Suns, from 2005 to 2008. His decade of offensive wizardry on two offense-first teams meant he played on the best offenses in NBA history through his career and a mind-boggling six of the 15 best “healthy” offenses ever. These attacks weren’t regular season frauds, either. The best four-year stretch for a playoff offense is held by Nash’s Suns, who were +10.7 in 51 playoff games between 2005 and 2008 (and his Dallas teams were in the top-10 too). Most importantly, all of this happened with  lineups shifting around him:

His coach during that stretch, Mike D’Antoni, is known for his point-guard friendly system, and a number of his lead guards manufactured career years under him, although the effect is quite small.7 D’Antoni’s Suns also skewed their lineups, sacrificing defense for offense by playing four wings alongside a power forward at center (Amare Stoudemire). But some of Nash’s most impressive team results were produced with traditional lineups.

In 2006, the Suns brought in Kurt Thomas to provide some muscle at center. In 50 games with Thomas, Phoenix was 3.6 points better than average on offense…and 3.4 points better on defense (6.6 SRS or 59-win pace). Nash guided Phoenix to a top-15 percent offense with a rotation of spot-up shooters (Raja Bell, James Jones and Eddie House) alongside Shawn Marion — who couldn’t create his own offense — a scorer who could also hit spot-up 3s (Leandro Barbosa) and a versatile post player (Boris Diaw).8 This echoed what happened in Dallas in 2001, when the Nash-Nowitzki-Finley trio paired with a traditional defensive center, Shawn Bradley, and crushed opponents by a league-best 17 points per 1009

Nash’s box stats compare favorably to the other modern offensive giants. Mathematically, his elite efficiency makes him one of the most valuable scorers ever. Using Jacob Goldstein’s method, Nash’s five-year run of volume and efficiency was the third most productive in NBA history, behind only Steph Curry and Michael Jordan. Per the scouting report, he could also ramp up his scoring when teams overplayed his passing: He tallied 25-point games nearly a quarter of the time during his Phoenix postseasons. And of course, Nash was the creation king:

Nash’s impact footprint extends beyond these team trends and Phoenix’s enormous single-season turnaround in 2005. His presence in the lineup correlated heavily with his team’s success, ranking in the top-10 in both WOWY and regressed game-level data. At the lineup level, he’s second in the Databall era in scaled offensive adjusted plus-minus (APM), behind only LeBron James. And his best scaled (overall) APM seasons are in the 99th percentile historically.

However, Nash’s situational value clearly changed from Dallas to Phoenix, as multiple APM methodologies demonstrate marginal impact in Dallas and seismic correlations in Phoenix. Improved health and the freedom-of-movement rule change were both factors, but I view these competing measurements as a classic case of fit. Similar to LeBron and Wade, Nash’s style of play created some diminishing returns. Unlike LeBron or Wade, Nash’s unheralded background and diminutive stature masked his poor fit in Dallas. Nash was more of a situational floor-raiser who could wash out in certain lineups next to ball-dominant scorers; he wasn’t as versatile as someone like LeBron, so pairing him with other centerpieces didn’t automatically supercharge such teams.10

He was also a victim of the “anchoring” effect discussed in Thinking Basketball. While his conditioning and game improved in Phoenix, many had a hard time believing he was so good because the Dallas years took place first. As a Mav, he was the fourth-best scorer on a three-headed team in an era when pundits underrated efficiency and creation, and severely underrated fit. Don Nelson hoarded offensive firepower in addition to owning a centerpiece in Dirk, so replacing Nash with a moderate creator (Jason Terry) left the offense in healthy condition. If time ran in reverse, talking-heads would have been trying to explain why Dallas’s MVPs could merely match what they did alone when they “finally” teamed up in 2004.

He’s also been widely panned for his defense, but, as discussed in the scouting report, he provided value with good rotations and by forcing more turnovers than his steals per game suggest. Point guard defense is rarely game-changing, and Nash’s D was further muted because he could hide on weaker offensive players in many situations; his defensive APM was right around (or even slightly above) average in five seasons between 2001-11. Based on all of this, I consider Nash a shade below average on defense in Phoenix and slightly worse in his Dallas days.

While he was able to log valuable seasons well into his mid-30s, Nash took a few years to hit his stride at the start of his career. By my valuations, he still racked up 11 All-NBA campaigns and five solid MVP-level seasons. Between his historically good shooting and passing, and the data suggesting nearly unrivaled value in Phoenix, I wonder if I’m underselling Nash’s peak. If I penalize him slightly less for poor fit, I’m still not sure he could crack the prestigious top-18, but I’m also not comfortable shaving too much more off his apex (which bounds him in the low 20s). With one of the five or six greatest offensive peaks ever, Nash lands at No. 19.

Backpicks GOAT #21: Chris Paul

Key Stats and Trends

  • Combination of elite passing, efficient scoring and low turnovers led to elite offenses
  • Ball-dominance and conservatism slightly overstate numbers
  • Developed into a positive defender with decent longevity

Scouting Report

Paul erupted into his prime in 2008, a basketball ballerina who electrified the league with twirling spins and dazzling passes. His quickness confounded big men while his handle gave him unfettered access to nearly any spot on the court. He intuited the value of a rolling big man, playing deadly two-man games where he could bluetooth a bounce pass or a lob for a layup. If opponents overplayed his passes, Paul downshifted past them for an easy score, or bunny-hopped backwards for unreasonably clear jumpers for a 6-footer.

This is all on display in the game highlight below. On the first play (2:18), notice how he keeps looking for his big man, Tyson Chandler, to find a layup. Two plays later, nothing’s open so he seeks out empty space away from the hoop (a Paul special). At 3:00, he’s back to table-setting, hitting Chandler with a lob, a precursor to his Lob City teams in Los Angeles. And at 4:13, he outwits Tim Duncan in basketball roshambo, lob-faking Timmy into oblivion because Paul knows that Timmy knows that Paul will throw a lob:

This is young Paul in a nutshell. He rarely pushed the ball down the other team’s throat, but if he felt a transition chance, he would attack it. Otherwise, he was incredibly measured – the all-time Type A point guard.

His dribbling comes at a slight cost — his high time of possession can eliminate backup options when the on-ball action fizzles out — and his passing fell a notch below the all-time greats in limited film study.1 His assist numbers and highlight passes might create the appearance that he’s a flawless passer, but he takes fewer risks than the greats, and his vision is sometimes clouded by a desire to score. For instance, he misses a clear bouncer here for a layup while eagerly setting up a fade:

Paul’s OCD approach led to historically low adjusted-turnover rates, falling in the 96th percentile among all players, with only a few high-volume creators in history turning it over less frequently. He threw “bad” pass turnovers at half the rate of someone like Steve Nash, which, counterintuitively, might have held him back.2 This is the hardwood version of a quarterback who rarely throws downfield; ball-security doesn’t necessarily offset major bang-for-your-buck passes.3 Assists at the rim are a decent indicator of these kinds of high-leverage, quality dishes, and incidentally, Paul’s layups assists (as a percentage of his overall assists) were below-average every year he was a Hornet.

After knee surgery for a torn meniscus, Paul hobbled through the 2011 season at half speed. But while a shell of himself, his low-center of gravity and strength still allowed him to manipulate defenses, bouncing into certain areas before threading great passes:

Whether it was his knee healing or his conditioning from the extra girth, he was largely back to form by 2012 as a Clipper. Here’s a physically springy Paul nabbing a board and tossing an elite outlet. Notice how his feisty positioning earns him the rebound:

He’s posted three seasons in the top decile in relative defensive rebounding rate, despite standing just 6-feet tall.4 Paul started leveraging his strength on defense like this during his Clipper years, blowing up screening action or chasing loose balls like a fullback finding a fumble. His quickness and anticipation led to great defensive plays, such as the one below, where it almost appears that he baits an entry pass just so he can steal it:

He wasn’t quite as fast during the Clipper years, but those were likely his best defensively. Notice how physical he is with hands in the 50 second clip below from 2015, first maintaining contact with his own mark through screens, then by holding the big man (literally) in the lane. He’s so handsy that he high-fives Nic Batum on the following play, before subtly hooking him on a spin on the final possession of the sequence:

His defense during those years was hawkish at times, while his passing reads seemed more polished and his shot more accurate; Paul jumped over the Barry line in 2015 (hitting 90 percent of his free throws) and his 3-point shooting trended way up in his final few Clipper seasons.

As of the middle of the 2018 season, Paul is at the backend of his prime.

Impact Evaluation

Paul is a tricky nut to crack. His time in New Orleans felt remarkable, but excessive ball-dominance that outputs jaw-dropping stats can lead to diminishing returns, and some of his Hornet teams yielded non-elite offenses. Then his injured years cast doubt on his value, but as a Clipper, his team results were strong and his impact metrics were sky high, hinting at offensive value that borders on all-time greatness.

Paul’s arrival sparked a three-year turnaround for the Hornets. All-Star David West emerged in Paul’s rookie season (2006) and Tyson Chandler added defensive reinforcements in 2007. The Hornets steadily improved during these years (as shown below) before peaking in 2008 at a 60-win pace (7.0 SRS). Behind Paul, the ’08 offense glistened, scoring 5.6 points more per 100 possessions than the average team (rORtg).

New Orleans added 3-and-D sixth man James Posey the next year (whom some people thought would put them over the top), but the team regressed instead. After missing 12 games in February with a sprained ankle, Chandler was sent to Oklahoma City in what could have been a history-altering trade, but the trade was rescinded based on bizarre concerns over his big toe.5 Their defense fell off (even before Chandler’s injury) in full-strength games, and they played at a 51-win pace (3.4 SRS) with a +3.4 rORtg before being cremated in the postseason by Denver.6

In 29 full-strength games before his 2010 knee injury, the Hornets stumbled along at a 34-win clip (-2.2 SRS) with an offense just below league average. Then, New Orleans played 21 games without Paul (led by serviceable backup and rookie Darren Collison) and was slightly better overall in his absence.7 They even improved on offense, posting a +1.6 rORtg in all 37 games CP3 missed.8 With Paul back (but hobbled) the 2011 Hornets were a below-average attack (-1.0 rORtg); even with sexy box metrics, he wasn’t some miracle-working floor-raiser back then.

He then moved to LA and made an immediate impact; the Clippers rORtg leapt from -0.7 to +3.9 and they played at a (then) franchise-best 49-win pace (2.8 SRS), up from a 36-win pace (-1.7 SRS) in 2011.9 While LA excelled, the Hornets didn’t fall off much given that David West departed too. (New Orleans added Eric Gordon, a solid scorer, and Chris Kaman, a fringe All-Star post-scorer.)

In 2013, the Clips moved into high-society, crossing the 60-win threshold when healthy for the first of three consecutive seasons. LA’s offense peaked at +6.8 in 2015, the 21st-best relative efficiency ever and the height of a five-year run in which the Clippers averaged a +4.6 rORtg. (Only ten teams have produced better five-year stretches.) They weren’t regular-season pretenders either, posting a playoff relative efficiency of +5.7 from 2013-17. Instead, it was the defense that tailed off in the postseason, as LA dropped two razorthin series in consecutive conference semifinals.

Paul’s regular season box stats peaked in his early years, but his defense improved later in his career. According to adjusted-plus minus (APM), his defensive value went from slightly below-average in his breakout seasons to excellent as a Clipper; his five-year scaled defensive APM was the 14th-best among non bigs and 50th overall.10 His offensive plus-minus was even better, posting the eighth-best five-year peak on record, about a point behind Nash and LeBron James.

Per the scouting report, CP3’s refined floor game improved over the years, and his playoff statistical profile peaked years after his voluminous ’08 and ’09 regular seasons. His three-year peak from 2014-16 stacks up well against some of the all-time greats:

There’s a tendency to anchor Paul to Nash or other ball-dominant QBs, but these Big 4 shapes reflect the scouting report: Paul is far more conservative than Nash, and this style doesn’t automatically unlock elite offense.

Though overwhelmed by San Antonio and then the Golden State dynasty (to say nothing of Oklahoma City), Paul’s Clippers were viable title contenders at their apex. Those teams, like a few in New Orleans earlier, posted monster offenses behind Paul’s orchestration, although some of his lesser results suggest that he was a hair behind other ball-dominators on this list as a floor-raiser. Like Magic, he also suffers from needing the ball to be effective, limiting some of his ability to jell with other on-ball talent. Although, Paul’s accurate shooting and basketball acumen have helped him retain solid value next to another ball dominant star in Houston.

Paul’s defense is tricky to pin down; his APM values move from subpar to elite, but his true impact is probably closer to the middle. The more physical version of CP3 was bulldog-like, and that strength has value when pushing guys off spots, rebounding and fighting through screens.11 Despite being a clear positive defender, I think in most situations he wouldn’t move the needle too much on that end.

Despite some durability glitches, Paul has logged eight all-league seasons by my count, including five fringe MVP years, making him by far the best 6-footer in NBA history. His combination of scoring and passing demonstrated on film, along with healthy box and impact metrics indicate a strong peak, in the running for third-best among point guards and one of the 25 best overall peaks in NBA history. I could see valuing him a touch less, bringing him as low as 26th or 27th (at worst), but I’m more sympathetic to inching him up slightly. He needs another good season to reach the 19th spot, but for now he lands at No. 21.

Backpicks GOAT: #22 Dwyane Wade

Key stats and trends

  • Massive ball-dominant stats as scorer and creator
  • Excellent offenses next to Shaq, diminished impact next to LeBron
  • Weak longevity for era caused by injuries

Scouting Report

Wade exploded in his sophomore season, displaying a reliable midrange jumper and a lightning-fast first step that earned him the moniker Flash. His efficacy stemmed from his unique physical makeup: He boasted a 6-foot-11 wingspan in a powerful 6-foot-4 frame with a low center of gravity.1 This allowed him to dart his hips past defenders like a running back, then finish among the trees or absorb contact:

The threat of Wade’s drives opened up his midrange game. Below, in the prior play from the same game, Wade feels his defender overplaying his drive, so he fires a step-back. Notice that his instinct is still to set up a move to the hoop (the extra dribble through his legs), but his man doesn’t bite, so he takes the J:

In 2005, Wade’s insatiable appetite for penetration placed him in the top-10 free throw rates in league history among perimeter scorers.2 He wasn’t efficient because he shot well, he was efficient because his instinct constantly took him to the hoop.

He was a surprisingly good passer too. In tracking nearly 500 possessions from 2005-13, Wade authored a “good” pass on about 3 possessions per 100, and that rate was even higher before LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

He missed his fare share of passes too, sometimes overly eager to drive or find a more basic passing outlet. In the play below, he has a touchdown over the top (and then open shooters), but falls back on his instinct to dribble to the rim.

Some of his pick-and-roll reads were quite crafty, boosting his creation and making him a certifiable offensive vortex. Per my sampling, Wade created about 7 shots per 100 for his teammates from ’05-06, but exploded from ’09-10, peaking around 12 per 100 before dipping down closer to 5 per 100 with the arrival of James in 2011.3 His offensive load declined slightly with LeBron, but he maintained a similar rate of on-ball scoring attempts, as his vision narrowed slightly in favor of jumpers and drives.4

He was also a stout offensive rebounder, using his off-ball cuts to position himself for second chances. Wade was particularly adept at leveraging the momentum of his on-ball action to slide into a cut, and then a box out. In the play below, he misses a potential great find under the rim (Alonzo Mourning), shoots a nice diagonal pass that leads to an open look, and uses his momentum to seal inside position:

Next, he transitions from an off-ball cut into a put-back. These kinds of second-chance points comprised a sizable portion of his offense for a backcourt player:

In those early years, Wade even had some brilliant passes in him, mostly from lobs, lay-downs or reading pick-and-roll coverages, like this:5

At his apex, he played an enormous on-ball game, carrying the fifth largest offense load in history during the 2009 season, mixing voluminous self-generated scoring with frequent table-setting for teammates:

Wade’s passing and on-ball reads improved during the heart of those years before declining in 2012. However, when playing alongside LeBron, he often abandoned playmaking and instead looked to score, posting a career-high in offensive rebounding in ’11 and ’12 along with a jump in the percentage of his field goals that were assisted (from 28 percent in ’10 to 37 percent in ’11).

Wade’s calling card on defense was protecting the rim. He was, perhaps, the best rim protector for a guard in NBA history, holding five of the top 15 block rates ever among guards,6 serving as an extra backline defender who could help against big men at the hoop:

He was always an above-average rebounder, posting nine seasons above the 65th percentile in relative D-rebounding rate and peaking in the 90th percentile in 2011. He was less physically imposing in his early years, although he offset that slightly with his quickness. (Notice that most of those block highlights are after his rebirth in 2009.)

During the heart of his career, he was a strong man defender. In tracking him for this series, his rate of “good” on-ball defensive possessions — e.g. a great contest or stifling penetration — was an elite 3 per 100, upping his defensive stands from 2009-13 after becoming a more physical defender. He was occasionally vulnerable to penetration, but fared well against most, using his quickness and strength to inhibit opponents; in the nearly 3,000 possessions I’ve tracked from his career, he was blown by 0.8 times per 100, better than about two-thirds of wings from my two-year stat-tracking project.

Here’s a possession in which he demonstrates a number of defensive strengths, including quick feet and length that alters his man’s shot:

His game was so dependent on explosiveness that aging curtailed his efficacy quickly. Wade maintained most of his athleticism through the 2011 season before starting to decline, his body chipped at by nagging injuries. The final year of his prime was likely 2013, although his postseason that year was hampered by a nagging bone bruise in his knee that he battled down the stretch.

Impact Evaluation

Wade’s career unfolded in three distinct acts: He played alongside Shaquille O’Neal, then as a lone-star, then next to LeBron James as a member of the Heatles. These environments tested his portability — how well his game interfaced with varying teammates — and are a case study for interpreting statistics. Below I’ve plotted his scoring rate, efficiency, creation and offensive load from 2006-15, both with and without these two MVP winners:7

Notice how Wade’s numbers changed when Shaq shared the court with him. His load was slightly smaller  — he cut his scoring and creation — but his efficiency was higher, as he benefitted from O’Neal’s defensive attention. After his injury-riddled 2008 season, Wade’s ’09 numbers resembled his non-Shaq ones from 2006. Yet, because he logged so many minutes with Shaq back then, his 2009 full-season numbers leave the impression that he underwent a massive statistical upgrade.

When he was on the floor with LeBron, Wade’s stats took a larger dip; his creation declined and his offensive load was massively reduced.8 Very few can quarterback great offenses while monopolizing the ball like Magic Johnson, and Wade, like nearly ever player in history, couldn’t sustain such ball-dominance on an elite offense, so his volume shrunk when he ceded primacy to LeBron. More on this in a second.

Wade made an immediate impact right from the start. He’s one of 40 rookies to lead his team in offensive load during the 3-point era, and one of only 10 to do so with a positive scoring efficiency (rTS).9 Wade missed 17 games that year (2004), and without him an otherwise healthy team posted a -1.7 SRS (36-win pace), down from their 2.1 SRS with him (47-win clip). Even that underscores Wade’s rookie abilities; he stumbled in October and November while adjusting to the league, but his improvement afterwards was commensurate with Miami’s growth as a team. The Heat played at a 51-win pace (3.3 SRS) in 37 full-strength games after December 1, and most of the improvement was on offense, where they moved from +1.2 (rORtg) to +2.8.

Wade’s breakout 2005 season coincided with Shaq’s arrival in South Beach, and the Heat posted a 6.7 SRS when healthy (60-win pace). There’s a good argument that Shaq was the MVP of that team, but in retrospect, much of Miami’s improvement was due to Wade, who led the team in offensive load while improving his playoff scoring and dwarfing O’Neal in postseason on/off.10 The offense that year was an impressive 5.9 points better than average at full-strength.

In 2006, Miami played like a 59-win team when healthy (6.6 SRS) with a +5 rORtg, outscoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 in nearly 1,500 minutes with Wade on the court and Shaq on the bench. For comparison, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers were +5.2 with him and Lamar Odom on the court that year. 11

In 2007, Miami’s aging supporting cast nearly crumbled and Shaq missed half of the season. In 33 games Wade logged without O’Neal, Miami played at a 42-win pace (0.2 SRS). Wade’s play was similar to his ’06 season until he dislocated his shoulder in February, but the team results suffered due to fractured peripheral parts. Jason Williams missed 21 games, ’90s notables Eddie Jones, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning were ready for retirement, and replacement players like Jason Kapono registered major minutes. With Wade on the court and Shaq off, Miami outscored opponents by just 1.5 points per 100.

The Heat bottomed out in 2008, playing six different players who failed to log over 1,000 minutes in the NBA outside of Miami. Wade then rebounded for Act Two of his career as a solo artist in 2009. With two new draft picks (Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley) and some spare parts, Miami treaded water, playing just above average when healthy. Everything ran through Wade, and with a 3-point shooter or two and some decent athletes, Miami’s full-strength offense finished slightly above average.

Wade’s peak stats are from that lone-star period, but he was a similar offensive player (when healthy) from 2005 to 2013. His playmaking peaked during the ’09-11 period, and the result was one of the best stat lines in modern history. Here’s how his playoff numbers size up against other notable wings — in many ways, he was Jordan-Lite:

Most of those players served as the lone perimeter centerpiece for their teams, racking up voluminous stats in the process. Even Jordan was given complete primacy, despite playing alongside a budding Scottie Pippen and a well-rounded cast for Phil Jackson. But when James arrived in 2011, Wade acquiesced to the superior maestro, curtailing his numbers in the process.

Along with Chris Bosh, the Heatles were excellent, but they weren’t transcendent, failing to eclipse the 8-SRS threshold in any of their four seasons.12 With the Big 3 in the lineup, Miami posted full-strength offensive ratings of +6.5, +5.0, +9.5 and +5.5. Those were great outcomes, but the +9.5 came from shifting Bosh to center in a small-ball lineup, sacrificing defense for offense.

Wade’s role in the affair was less impressive. From 2011-13, he missed 20 games and the Heat improved without him (from a 61-win pace to a 63-win pace). In 2014, he missed 22 games and Miami fell from a 55-win pace (4.8 SRS) to a 50-win one without him (2.9 SRS). More granular play-by-play data tells the same story: Miami was +6.9 per 100 possessions from 2011-14 with LeBron on the court sans Wade, but just +1.0 over the same period with Wade on the floor without LeBron.

A player’s success in these different roles is often measured by his team’s overall efficacy, and Wade’s outcomes reveal strengths and limitations. He excelled next to O’Neal while able to play primarily on-ball, but couldn’t sustain the same value next to LeBron with a larger off-ball role; Wade’s five-year scaled APM average is one of the stronger ones on record (eighth, at +6.7), but those numbers are from 2006-10. His four-year figure next to LeBron would rank around 40th, likely caused by a lack of spot-up shooting and the aforementioned regression in his court vision during those years.

All told, his longevity hurts him against comparable players. His wonderful 2007 season was torpedoed by injury, he lost a potential prime year in 2008 and gave up more value after a strong All-NBA campaign in 2013 was short-circuited by knee issues. His offensive game doesn’t scale too well, although his excellent defense (worthy of all-league selections) propelled him to a top-20 peak of all time. Because he logged so few prime seasons, even a slight bump of his valuations would keep him outside the top-20, and any mild downgrade to his estimations would keep him in this pack of players, no lower than 27th. For this series, his apex helps him pass Pippen and Moses for the 22nd best career since the shot clock.

Backpicks GOAT: Philosophy and Science of Player Evaluation

GOAT lists in sports are fascinating. Criteria varies from person to person and are often fuzzy. No two rankings ever seem to be the same. And because some of us are married to our rankings, most new information is met with a backfire effect — a knee-jerk reaction to push back against novel data and contradictory evidence.

There’s almost no way around this, which is why I wanted the Backpicks GOAT to run with an extremely specific criteria — career value measured in CORP — and present video, historical data and theory for you to update your own rankings, even if CORP isn’t your thing. A CORP-based approach can also reveal some of the philosophical judgment calls we make, even without realizing them. For me, finally connecting player quality with CORP shifted my career-value rankings meaningfully, and in some cases, radically.

Take Tracy McGrady (strong peak) vs. Reggie Miller (strong longevity). I always thought Miller was underrated, but never thought he had a top-40 career. After actually calculating title odds, it was clear that I skewed too hard toward higher peaks. My intuition was that MVP years were worth about three times more than a fringe All-NBA season, and that really great peaks were worth five or six times more. But not only was that an overestimation, but CORP research demonstrated how valuable “second options” are too.1 To my surprise, Miller moved up nearly 15 spots while McGrady moved down (and off this list).

I’ll discuss longevity more in the series post-mortem, but for now I wanted to catalogue precisely how I evaluate players beyond the summary in the top-40 overview. At its heart, this series is really about player evaluations, connecting court to spreadsheet and documenting salient data about a player’s impact. But how do I do that? What’s my science (and art) that produces a player valuation?

Conceptually, the major skill sets in the graphic below (and some minor ones) lay the foundation for a player’s impact on offense (and on defense, for his ability to negate them). I also apply themes that have emerged from historical research over the years, like the tendency of big men to have larger defensive impact, or that on-ball scoring, while incredibly important, doesn’t outweigh other core skills like defense and passing. Quantifying someone’s actual, in-era impact, and translating it into career value happens in four steps for me.

Step 1: Film Study

Many people call this the eye test, but there are really two distinct elements to this:

First, what we consciously perceive when watching film. I have a good eye for some phenomena, but I miss others. If I watch a play with a sequence of passes that leads to a wide open shot, and I don’t immediately know who forced that action on offense and who made what decisions on defense, I missed something fundamental. Thankfully, we live in a digital world and can rewind to the beginning of the play with the click of a button. I do this on a lot of plays. (By the way, this is a good way to discover which color analysts have great eyes — they’ll tell you in realtime how a play materialized. Weaker analysts simply gawk at what happened on-ball.)

The other “eye test” component is just as important and is discussed extensively in Thinking Basketball: Your memory! Recalling dozens of actions in every game is impossible for most people. To combat my glitchy mental hard drive, I write it all down. I have a note-keeping system which I translate into a spreadsheet, allowing for both qual and quant analysis. For this series, I took over 500 pages of game notes and here’s what I learned: Comprehensively studying one player in the same game requires focus, watching two is mentally taxing and watching three or four at once is nearly impossible. And you won’t remember stuff from a few games ago.

So if you’re eye-testing games by ball-watching and then relying on memory, you’re going to miss out on areas that traditional metrics struggle to capture, namely passing and team defense. Not coincidentally, most people take umbrage with players I value differently on defense, and secondarily think I overrate good passers who were lesser scorers.

Practices: (1) Re-watch plays. (2) Takes notes to remember them. (3) Track passing, creation, on-ball habits, defensive errors, defensive rotations and man defense.

Step 2: Contextual tendencies

This is largely informed by combining the box score (and now, play-by-play or optical data) with film. For instance, once we know the context of James Worthy’s offense — mid-post isolation, beneficiary of layups from Magic Johnson — we can make inferences about his efficiency and passing, especially if we have data on him playing with and without Magic. When these metrics shift in different roles, it reveals strengths and weaknesses in a player’s game. (e.g. Wade’s creation with and without LeBron, or Curry’s percentage of assisted 3s with and without Durant.)

During the series, I reference the Big 3 or Big 4 box dimensions.2 These metrics give players a general “box profile” and lay the foundation for value-comparisons on offense only. Passing (separate from creation) cannot always be captured in these stats, nor can scalability. In similar contexts, small differences in these metrics are negligible. But it’s rare for an A-list player to have notably inferior metrics across the board and be a better offensive player.

Practices: (1) Look for tendencies in box data (eg unassisted shots, free throw rate, efficiency next to varying teammates) and then (2) compare normalized box profiles to players with similar roles in various environments. Look for changes against different opponents / playoff defenses. 

Step 3: Impact Measurements

So-called impact metrics — anything related to plus-minus — are concerned with changes in the scoreboard, and a player’s influence on those changes. In theory, these measurements are everything, the holy grail of player quality. But they are limited by sample size, confounding variables (like the dreaded multicollinearity problem) and most importantly, because they are conditional, measuring the value of a player only on his particular team.

I’m using the word measurement here consciously, because that’s how I’ve come to view these stats. Field goal percentage is a measurement of the shots a player takes (influenced by context and role) and adjusted plus-minus (APM) is a measurement of a player’s correlation with the scoreboard (also influenced by context and role). For high-minute players, APM is often reflective of a player’s situational value, so consistency (or changes) with different teammates can expose strengths and weaknesses, especially when mapped to trends from the first two steps above.

Practices: Compare teams results and plus-minus data across different environments, look for patterns/results with different teammates/coaches.

Step 4: Valuations

At this point, we know how a player’s counting stats vary in different roles, what his strengths/weaknesses/tendencies are and (roughly) how valuable he’s been in various settings. But coaching also needs to be accounted for. Coaching influences how successful a player is in his role and thus, influences his statistical profile. When it’s all laid out, I’ll mentally adjust a player’s portfolio based on coaching.

The easiest comparison is a player to himself, so I weigh his surrounding seasons against each other. While a player’s value on a team can vary greatly from year to year, his actual quality — the theoretical average of all his values from every team — is generally much smoother, governed by aging and health. In other words, I’ll view prime seasons as fairly similar unless there’s a clear reason to think otherwise. This is antithetical to looking at a playoff stat line, dolling out huge marks for a monster series or two, then considering the next season a total failure because the same player fired blanks in five playoff games.

The final step is to put it all together and quantify these seasons on a scale. The scale ranges from (roughly) replacement player to (roughly) best player ever. It’s not absolute, because both ends of the spectrum are technically fluid; a new greatest player can come along and extend the scale. Remember, a player whose net impact on the scoreboard is zero is actually pretty good, and a team of such players would usually be a .500 team! Here’s the scale based on real-world APM data, where the all-time best results likely came from favorable situations.3

I then quantify players on a per-game scale (much like plus-minus) on both sides of the ball. For instance, Player A is +3 points on offense and +2 on defense on an average team.4 It’s important to break up both sides of the ball, because fit is different from team-to-team; most clubs need defenders, others need a panacea for their fledgling attack. I classify offense into five levels of portability (scalability), where the most portable players carry more value on better and better teams.

Finally, that plus-minus number and portability score is fed into a calculator that estimates a player’s CORP in a given season based on his games played. Every season is summed together to create a career CORP estimation. (This is the number included in each player’s seasonal valuation at the end of his profile.) It’s not always perfect — even five scaling curves is a bit “chunky” — so I examine the results more closely to see if any small nuances compound over a career, adjust for era longevity and season strength, and cringe when two guys end up with nearly identical values.

And that’s it.

Backpicks GOAT: #13 Karl Malone

Key Stats and Trend

  • All-time level scoring and efficiency seasons
  • Efficacy declines in postseason due to finishing limitations
  • Underrated passing helped anchor excellent team offenses for nearly a decade

Scouting Report

Karl Malone was built like He-Man, bullish but agile. His combination of quickness and strength generated an abundance of easy scores and free throws in his early years, powering through defenders in the lane with regularity or flipping his body into them for whistles:

By the early ’90s, Utah’s half court offense orbited around Malone’s deep post catches. His speed also made him a wrecking ball in transition, often outrunning the opposition for easy scores. He took four-and-a-half seconds to go from zero-to-dunk:

With a head of steam, Malone was like a Mack truck barreling toward the hoop, but was also limber enough to finish. This happened a lot back then:

He was also a prolific mid-post shooter, showing range and touch early in his career:

He converted that shot off the dribble, after a jab step or with a quick turn over either shoulder, a remarkable development after shooting 48 percent from the line as a rookie. (He hit 70 percent by 1988 and continued to improve.)

In his first few years, Malone’s actions were nearly instantaneous, immediately launching most of his attempts right after the catch. Around 1990, he slowed down to survey more, a change that led to more measured shots and significant growth as an impact passer.1

He called on the midrange shot less frequently in his first few years, instead pounding people down low and outracing them in transition. In tracking Malone, about two thirds of his offense in his early years germinated from the low post and about 10 percent from the fast break. But from 1994-98, Malone inverted his play, generating about two thirds of his offense from the midrange (or high post) and only 3 percent from transition.2 This shift coincided with his improved passing game, allowing Utah to find easy baskets for cutters.

By the early ’90s, Malone could distribute well, especially against single-coverage in the post, where he had time to spot cutters like this:

He occasionally missed some passes too, especially outside the confines of the post. In the clip below, an extra pass would have netted teammate Thurl Bailey a layup:

These blindspots were more prevalent in the early years, when Malone was by no means a great passer. But in time, he blossomed into a top-shelf distributor, nearly doubling his rate of “good” or “elite” passes after 1994 in my sampling; Malone jumped from about 2 “good” passes per 100 to an outstanding 4 per 100, on par with the frequency of quality passes slung by Stockton. This coincided with increased creation rates — as his game moved away from the basket, Malone morphed from a reactive finisher to a patient creator, upping his creation to about 4 per 100 in the games I sampled, inline with his estimated Box Creation.

Here, Malone finds the elite pass in a tight window, a completion that few players can hit:

Malone still missed some tight passes, but many of his dishes over the last 10 years of his career bordered on spectacular. While his assist and creation rates don’t jump off the page, they were often high-leverage passes like the ones above.

However, Karl was saddled with a major offensive weakness: a low release point. Despite scoring on a smorgasbord of difficult outside shots, he struggled finishing around the rim against other bigs. To overcome his low release points and lack of verticality, he would create space with his left shoulder/hip in order to flip an attempt up with his right hand. The result looked something like this:

He made some of these shot-puts and was fouled on others, but this shortcoming limited his otherwise devastating interior presence. What Shaq would thunderously dunk, Malone would flip toward the hoop and hope to find a friendly roll.

This meant that, despite his reputation, Karl wasn’t an elite roll man in the pick-and-roll. If he had enough space and momentum, he could power his way to the line or in for a dunk, but on many occasions he was limited by T-Rexing shots in traffic. (He was a better pick-and-pop player.) Ironically, this also meant that his shift to an outside-based game didn’t erode his efficiency.3 And contrary to belief, Malone didn’t have many baskets created for him either. Mostly, he scored a lot out of good-ol’ isolation.

Defensively, he leveraged his athleticism when younger, although he wasn’t particularly bothersome as a man defender in his first few years. He was not much of a shot-blocker, so he used his size and speed to scoop up rebounds at an elite rate.4 His help positioning was often sound, such as here, where he leaks across the lane from the weak-side to bother the roller:

He was a relatively error-free defender, growing smarter about his rotations as the ’90s wore on. While he rarely made overt mistakes, he sometimes clung to his mark off the ball, leaving him a step or two from optimal help position:

While Malone was often a solid team defender, his breakdowns came from worrying about his man like this, leading to rotational blindspots. Here, he fails to diagnosis a problem and watches idly as Chicago scores in transition:

As he aged, his man defense grew stronger. He leveraged his excellent foot speed to take more charges — both on the ball and in help — during the back nine of his career:

Of course, he also used his powerful hands to strip opponents on his patented slap down, a practice he developed in his early years. Oh, and he loved to pull the chair:

Malone aged incredibly well, maintaining most of his offensive game until about 2001 before he finally started trailing off. His athleticism began to dip slightly in the mid-’90s, and then slowly again over the next few years, but he maintained fantastic conditioning for nearly his entire career, using his body and guile to remain effective into the 2000s.

Impact Evaluation

Malone is a complex player to evaluate. He played most of his career for the same coach with a similar team architecture. He posted some of the most extreme box score numbers in NBA history in the regular season, and then suffered a precipitous drop in efficacy in the postseason. His team’s results correlated with his own ebbs and flows, and available impact-metrics paint him as a star, but not quite a superstar.

As a rookie, he joined Frank Layden’s Jazz in 1986 and played 31 minutes a night, but Utah hovered around .500 in those first two years before Karl hit his prime. In 1988, the Jazz broke through to a 50-win pace (3.0 SRS) with an offense that improved 3 points relative to the league (rORtg), climbing from 4 points below average to just 1 below. This improvement coincided with Malone’s ascension to the NBA elite and John Stockton’s breakout season. However while Stockton flatlined, Malone would continue to improve.

Over the next 13 seasons, the Jazz produced only a single year below a 53-win pace. Despite showing flashes of his prime game, Malone took until Year Three to become the scoring dynamo that would largely define him as an offensive centerpiece. He hit his stride in his fourth year and delivered an historic season in his fifth (1990):

Malone is one of 14 players in history to post a scoring rate above 30 points per 75 possessions and one of five players to do it twice.5 Of such seasons, only Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry (2016) posted a higher relative true shooting percentage (rTS) than Malone’s +8.9 percent in 1990. Of the top 50 scoring rates in history, Malone owns three, bested only Jordan (10), Shaq (four) and LeBron (four). And of those top-50 seasons, Karl’s three are among the 13 most efficient, so his wrecking-ball approach in 1990 and his perimeter-oriented style in ’97 and ’98 produced historically good scoring.

But his team results in ’90 and ’97-98 were quite different. Malone’s early Utah teams were defensive juggernauts, anchored by the incomparable 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton. Eaton holds four of the top 20 block percentages ever and his presence in the paint propelled the Jazz to a five-year defensive peak that was 4.6 points better than league average (from 1985-89). For comparison, only one team from 1977 to 1995 had a better half-decade run on defense, the 1991-95 Knicks. As Eaton regressed, so did the Jazz defensive advantage, and by 1993 they were an average defense for the first time in nine years.

Malone and Stockton were often flanked by a defensive big like Eaton, a competent wing scorer and some journeymen. In 1990, Blue Edwards and Bob Hansen split the vagabond role as Jerry Sloan took over as coach. Behind Karl’s historically good scoring season, the ’90 Jazz improved 3.4 points on offense, finishing with a +2.2 rORtg. Despite Malone’s huge stats, Utah’s offense wouldn’t take off until their all-important supporting cast was solidified in the coming years.

In 1991, Jeff Malone arrived to play the secondary scorer role (previously held by Thurl Bailey). Jeff had his two most efficient seasons as a scorer in Utah, but his lack of 3-point shooting and passing limited the Jazz’s offensive growth. After flirting with elite offense in ’92, Utah finally added Jeff Hornacek to the mix as a second scorer and creator in ’94. Hornacek’s outside shooting and above-average passing allowed Utah to space the floor — in conjunction with Malone’s graduation toward the high post — and triggered a half-decade of offensive excellence.6

While Malone boasted some of the best scoring marks in history, those numbers fell off considerably in the postseason; no A-lister since the merger suffered a bigger playoff decline in efficiency than Karl. His easy rim attacks and transition sprints were layups against undisciplined defenses, but versus superior playoff competition, Malone was resigned to more low-release flip shots against well-positioned rim protectors.7 Utah’s offenses were (by design) predictable, and game-planning for them required discipline against cross screens and old-school cuts. Eliminating those would force more isolation offense from Malone, which seems to be what happened.

Here’s how Karl compares in the Big 3 offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency and creation in the regular season at his peak (1991-93) to other great big men:8

And here are the playoff numbers over the same period:

While Karl largely held his shape in the playoffs in those early-prime years, the drop-off was more severe in his jump shooting seasons. His postseason rTS was about +4 percent from 1992-94, but 2 to 3 percent below average from 1996-98.

Interpreting these numbers isn’t straightforward either — while his efficiency dipped further, Malone’s scoring rate actually increased in the late-’90s playoffs (in conjunction with the pace of the game grinding to a halt). Concurrently, the players around Malone did less (particularly Stockton), as Karl was the only starter who could readily generate his own offense. All told, his scoring profile looks more like Hakeem Olajuwon’s — a high volume, middling efficiency heavy lifter — with arguably better results than the Dream.9

We typically think of a marginally efficient, high-volume scorer as incapable of leading great offenses, but in Malone’s case the Jazz attacks bordered on elite. Unlike the great offenses that outperformed Utah in the team chart above, the Jazz lacked a strong secondary scorer to alleviate pressure. Additionally, Karl’s turnovers declined in the playoffs despite shouldering a slightly larger load. All of these areas offset some of his scoring troubles.

Stockton himself was incapable of ramping up his offensive attack and his scoring and efficiency both plummeted in the playoffs. Per the scouting report (and contrary to popular opinion), Malone’s play was only marginally synergistic with Stockton. There were small stretches that supported what’s visible on tape: Without Stockton, Malone played 18 games to start the ’98 season, averaging 27.3 points per 75 on +5.8 percent rTS. He also played four games in 1990 without Stockton, averaging 26.3 points per game at +9.9 rTS, and, in a 1992 playoff game against Portland, Stockton left the game early and Malone marched to 38 points on 58 percent efficiency.10

While we have almost no WOWY information on Malone, we have plus-minus data for the entire backside of his career. From 1994-98, his scaled numbers fall in the 96th-97th percentile historically (around +5), followed by two seasons in the 94th and 95th percentile. Given Malone’s efficiency decline in the playoffs, some might want to curve these numbers down a bit, but there’s an argument that Utah relied on him even more in the postseason, and that his statistical drop-off was was caused by an overloaded burden; he couldn’t sustain lone-star scoring heights with the best of them, but there’s only so much value in a role like that anyway.

In an exercise like this, where total mileage is the ultimate goal, Malone’s incredible gas tank is his greatest weapon. By my estimations, he churned out 15 All-Star quality seasons, 12 All-NBA seasons and nine “weak” MVP years. His passing and outside shooting make him a decent fit on better offenses, although he lacks the high-end defensive skills for his peak to stand among the greats.11

Given how relatively stable Malone’s environment was throughout his career, I can buy an argument for him being slightly higher at his peak — which would have compounding effects that move him ahead of two or three players — and part of me can see an argument for reducing his offensive valuation, dropping him as low as 16th. Gun to my head, he has a top-20 offensive peak and enough longevity to sneak by higher peak players and grab the No. 13 spot.

Backpicks GOAT: #15 David Robinson

Key Stats and Trends

  • Dominant, all-time level box score and non-box score metrics
  • Regular season box stats overstate offense, but still excellent secondary piece
  • Huge peak/prime but lacks longevity compared to other greats

Scouting Report

After serving in the Navy, David Robinson entered the league as a polished 24-year old. He was explosively quick for a 7-foot-1 center and parlayed his physical package into a basic offensive repertoire that would stay with him throughout his career. His agility and strength allowed him to blow by opponents:

And much of his offense revolved around facing up and using that quickness, like this:

Per Robinson’s preference, those drives were to his right. When opponents respected his quickness, he created space with a jab step for his bread and butter face-up jumper:

This served him well as a finisher and high-low threat — he could catch-and-shoot successfully from beyond 15 feet — but his lack of deadly post moves sometimes limited him. In the following play, Robinson’s essentially “stuck,” forced into an awkward contested release:

This lack of a resilient set of moves sometimes limited him against stingier defenses (more on that later). He also habitually brought the ball down where little guys could swat it away, contributing to slightly elevated turnover rates compared to other great big men. He fumbled like this frequently — every 2 plays per 100 in my sampling:1

He tossed in the occasional rolling hook too, but the rest of his offense came from cleanup duty, where he used his athleticism as an offensive rebounder.

As a passer, his instincts were quite good. He was always a willing distributor, quickly flicking it out of double-teams and finding teammates on the opposite side of the court. Here he shows a feel for his strong interior passing:

He could also find inconspicuous openings as he surveyed the court from the high post:

However, he rarely threw elite passes and was sometimes a touch slow in his reads, mixing in the occasional bad pass or softball that killed a power play. In sampling Robinson, I graded 2.5 “good” passes per 100 — a strong rate — but also 1.5 per 100 that were “problematic” (slow, missed the mark, deflected, etc.). That’s the profile of a good-but-not-great passer.

Defensively, Robinson was a monster. He exploded off of the floor, challenging shots on short order like this:

He possessed strong awareness and could cover huge swaths of hardwood. Below, he provides excellent help on the entry and still recovers back to his man:

He hand-grenaded a number of possessions like this and was agile enough to contain perimeter players, then still rotate back to the rim. Below are two more complete Robinson defensive possessions: In the first clip, isolation wizard James Worthy doesn’t dare challenge him, yet he still alters both attempts at the hoop and ensnares the board. In the second, he’s ready to help in the post, then shows pick-and-roll range before recovering to blow up the play:

Robinson was a relatively low error defender (just over 1 error per 100 in my sampling), but suffered his share of delayed rotations. His length and quickness often bailed him out, but nonetheless he had a number of mildly tardy reactions when he wasn’t totally locked in to what the offense was planning. This is nitpicking though, as he was often in ideal position; notice how his textbook shade to the ball-side sets him up to slide to the rim, where he quickly reacts to the entry pass:

Robinson’s post defense was generally strong, using length and quickness to shut down most opponents. He tended to overplay the middle, taking away left-shoulder moves against righties. Notice how he’s all over this hook shot (typical of Robinson), and in the second clip, Shaq settles for a tough shot after feeling Robinson body-up toward the middle:

But these tendencies could be exploited in select instances. He was quick to leave his feet, which worked well against most mortals, but brutes could push him off his mark because Robinson lacked a low center of gravity. He was vulnerable to counters, which created a perfect storm in ’95 against Hakeem, who was one of the most counter-heavy post players in history. Below, Robinson overplays the middle and is thrown off balance slightly by a huskier Elden Campbell, freeing up a clean turnaround:

These defensive holes were small and subtle, but collectively they prevented Robinson from looking like the best defender of the 3-point era. His block rates were elite, topping out at 7.4 percent — the 34th best rate since blocks were kept in 1974 — with multiple years around 6 percent. (He shares the record for seasons over 5 percent with Marcus Camby and Hakeem Olajuwon.) His defensive rebounding added to his value on that end, with three of his first four seasons in the 90th percentile.

Robinson’s game was so consistent throughout his career that it bordered on monotonous. He was always willing to pass on an open shot, but seemed to do this more when playing alongside Tim Duncan, strategically scaling back his own offense. His athleticism waned around the turn of the century, but even then, he was surprisingly nimble until 2002, when his back became an issue and his movement stiffened before retiring in 2003.

Impact Evaluation

Robinson left the statistical imprint of a goliath, dominating both box score and plus-minus metrics. He was arguably the best post-merger rookie ever, and like Larry Bird, the centerpiece of an enormous improvement. He anchored dominant defenses for years, and then his team fell apart without him in 1997. And he left strong value-signals after returning from injury in 1998.

Robinson joined the Spurs for the 1990 season as part of a complete roster overhaul, and San Antonio catapulted from irrelevance to the playoffs behind the Admiral, Maurice Cheeks (and later Rod Strickland), Terry Cummings and fellow rookie Sean Elliot.2 While comparing the ’89 and ’90 Spurs is comparing apples to oranges, the Spurs defensive ascension is noteworthy since Robinson was their only rim protector. San Antonio moved from league average in ’89 to nearly 4 points ahead of the league (-3.9 rDRtg) in 1990 where they would remain for Larry Brown’s tenure as coach.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss Brown. He’s on the shortlist of greatest defensive coaches, dating back to the ABA, where he coached the top defense in the league in Denver, who then finished atop the NBA after the merger in ’77. When Brown left in 1980, the Nuggets lost nearly 3 points of defensive efficiency (to 2.3 points below average) with a nearly identical core. He then joined the Nets in 1982, and with an overhauled roster, New Jersey rose from a below average defense to elite, posting -4.6 and -5.8 relative efficiencies in Brown’s two years, before dropping back 3 points after he departed.

This pattern continued when he returned from coaching in college: When Brown arrived in Indiana (1994), a more defensively inclined roster improved 4 points on D (to a -2.1 rDRtg). When he took over in Philadelphia in ’98, the Sixers also jumped 4 points on defense (with upgraded personnel), and then another 5 points in his second season (to a -4.6 rDRtg). In 2009, Charlotte improved by 4 points in rDRtg and in Detroit in 2004, the Pistons improved with Brown’s arrival and then, after trading for Rasheed Wallace, were arguably the greatest defense in league history, posting an unheard of -10.9 rDRtg in their 45 games with Sheed.

Brown’s arrival in San Antonio was no different, coinciding with a 5-point improvement in defensive efficiency (to about league average in 1989). In 1991, with the same core, the Spurs jumped to a 56-win pace when healthy (5.4 SRS), an improvement from the previous season’s 50-win clip (3.6 SRS). But Brown was sort-of-fired midway through the ’92 season, replaced by Bob Bass. With Bass at the helm and Robinson in the lineup, San Antonio posted an rDRtg of -2.9, down slightly from Brown’s two-hand-a-half years with Robinson.

The Admiral missed 17 games in 1992 with Bass coaching — a small sample — but he left a clue to his defensive impact. The Spurs were nearly 8 points worse in rDRtg without Robinson, forced into a small lineup without a suitable replacement.3 From 1993-95, San Antonio’s defensive ratings hovered between 1 and 3 points better than average on the back of Robinson.

In 1994, Robinson’s scoring expanded to historic levels, hitting 29.4 points per 75, by far his best rate, and the 40th-best mark in NBA history. It’s difficult to tell on film if he improved, or if he was simply more aggressive (and San Antonio ran more through him with Elliot and Strickland gone). Robinson’s scoring rates remained in the 98th historical percentile through 1998 with relative efficiency (rTS) 4 to 6 percent better than league average.

However, per the scouting report, his scoring game wasn’t robust and his postseason metrics are better indicators of his offensive prowess. He is one of a few notable players who seemed to struggle with stronger defenses, and his straightforward offensive approach likely contributed to his falloff in the postseason. Here are Robinson’s Big 3 offensive dimensions — scoring, creation and efficiency — scaled in the regular season among all-time big men:

His scoring volume during his peak seasons was second among the group, only a point per 75 possessions below Shaq. In the playoffs, however, Robinson’s efficiency collapsed, dragging down his scoring. Here’s what the same chart looks like using postseason numbers from those years:

The sample size isn’t great — 29 games for Robinson — but the trend stands out across his entire career. Robinson was still quite good, but his regular season numbers overstated his scoring skill. This Costanzian shrinkage occurred both early in his career and later alongside Tim Duncan (although Robinson maintained a more respectable efficiency with Duncan).

This phenomenon played out in 2000, when Robinson logged 12 games without Timmy. The Admiral cranked up his scoring rates to pre-Duncan levels, averaging 27 points per 75 on around +4 percent rTS. Robinson’s free throws spiked in those games, an indicator of increased aggression. But in four postseason games sans Duncan, he again looked like his mid-’90s self, losing some of that volume as his efficiency plummeted to -5.6 rTS in a four-game series against Phoenix.

After a year of co-captaining the ship in 1998, Robinson gracefully handed the offensive baton to Duncan in ’99 and settled into a secondary role. His minutes were selectively reduced — although he still played a massive role through 2000, as indicated by his playoff minutes residing in the upper 30s per game — and his twin-tower backline with Duncan unleashed one of the stingiest defenses in history. From 1998-2001, the Spurs posted the best stretch of playoff defense since the 1960s, with a postseason rDRtg of -6.9. Their regular season five-year run from ’98-02 was the second-best five-year period between 1970 and 2005:4

Robinson remained a defensive presence in his final few seasons, although in restricted minutes. In the 2002 playoffs, an injured Admiral averaged only 20 minutes per game, and in his final season in 2003, 23 minutes per night, down from 26 per game in the regular season. Still, he only suffered a slight decline in defensive rebounding and block percentages, and his scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) values from those years are among the top-100 defensive scores ever recorded; his 2001 season is 27th of all-time, his 2002 season is 97th and his 2003 season is 35th. The limited minutes take some of the shine off those numbers, but they are impressive for a specialized role.

There’s more though. Robinson was also a lockdown individual defender, rarely exploited in isolation (per the scouting report). From 1990-96, he played 101 games against All-Star centers5 and held them 1.1 points below their per 36 scoring average and a whopping 5 percentage points below their true shooting efficiency. While those numbers fall just short of the all-time shutdown artists, they are still superb.6

On a list like this, Robinson’s hamstrung by a lack of longevity. While he finished in the top-10 in MVP voting 11 years apart, he also missed the ’92 and ’97 playoffs and squandered more value with an injury in the 2002 postseason. To boot, he entered the league late after serving in the Naval academy.

However, his total body of work is exceptional. His defensive indicators were massive, and Robinson is one of the kings of plus-minus data. Five of his scaled APM seasons are in the 98th percentile or better, peaking in 1995 with one of the best years on record. His five-year average from that data set would rank eighth (at +6.8) if his injured 1997 were excluded (instead of the +5.8 on his player card at the top of this profile). Similarly, he has the strongest game-level plus-minus in NBA history, making a legitimate claim as the most “valuable” player ever.

It took me a while to come around on Robinson, but mapping his film to the spreadsheet says a lot. His good passing not only helped teammates, but helped him mesh with others well. His scoring style wasn’t suited for the load that he tried to carry in the mid-’90s, but his finishing, offensive rebounding and face-up shooting fit well with more ball-dominant teammates (like Duncan). And of course, his all-time defensive metrics rightfully portray him as one of the most valuable players on that end since the merger.

The result is a top-15 peak ever and eight strong MVP-level seasons. He tacked on two more All-NBA years on the backend of his career, enough to earn him considerable mileage on this list. Unless stifling defenders like him are (somehow) less valuable than plus-minus splits suggest, it’s hard for me to value Robinson’s peak much lower than this. On the other hand, while it’s clear on tape that he’s no offensive savant, his statistical profile is so impressive that I wonder if he could be valued even higher. Either way, it’s difficult to move him out of this group of players from 12-17, so by virtue of his peak, he grabs the No. 15 spot.

Backpicks GOAT: #20 Charles Barkley

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level scoring efficiency
  • Spearheaded a number of elite offenses, but defenses were consistently poor
  • Questionable impact metrics, likely due to defensive deficiencies

Scouting Report

Barkley was a jaw-dropping athlete, equipped with bulldozing legs and arms that stretched for days. Standing at no more than 6-foot-6, he was a freight train in transition, power dunking off a drop step like a cyborg:

Barkley struggled at times scoring among the trees, but he counterbalanced that by carving out space with his hips (and backside) for high-percentage looks near the hoop:

His wingspan, explosiveness and nose for the ball made him one of the great offensive rebounders in history. Among scorers who also shot 3-pointers, Barkley owns the top offensive rebounding seasons on record.1 Among all top-1,000 scoring seasons in general, he’s outclassed by only Moses Malone and, arguably Shaq, as a second-chance generator.

Barkley was an above-average passer, particularly when he could survey the floor and see double-teams and cutters clearly. Below, his pass was so unexpected that it froze his own teammate, although, like most of his setups, lacked the velocity of a great passer:

This solid court vision and deliberate isolation approach made him a strong creator for a “big” — Barkley mostly played power forward — and his Box Creation peaked at 6.9 per 100 in 1993 (98th percentile among big men).2 He was capable of finding skip passes or the occasional brilliant setup:

Like most offensive centerpieces, Barkley’s passing improved throughout his career. The following two-minute highlight, from arguably his greatest game, captures most of his offensive habits — pogo-stick offensive rebounding, spins, turnarounds and clock-eating post ups. Note the nice pass to Green at 2:45 (after the lazy defense at 2:37):

Barkley was also a bit turnover prone, some from poor passes, others caused by his average handle. In the play below, he loses it on a drive (and travels), but he also shows blindspots in his vision, missing a quality pass under the hoop:

Most of his half-court offense originated with him holding the ball in isolation like this, sometimes for glacial periods. There were tradeoffs with this heavy time-of-possession approach, which milked the shot clock and eliminated contingency options when his isolation fizzled. Fortunately, Barkley’s on-ball scoring was prodigiously efficiently, so his teams often cleared out a side for him to play on-one-on, forcing the defense to counter with a telegraphed double-team.

The following play illustrates a number of Barkley’s tendencies; he’s doubled in the post, but opts to shoot instead of a throwing a diagonal pass to an open Danny Ainge. When Ainge does fire, Barkley’s length and quickness reel in the board before he creates a layup for a teammate — the kind of pass he failed to make earlier in his career:

Barkley’s shot selection was spotty, firing double-teamed attempts like this instead of moving the ball to open shooters. By the 1990s, he was spellbound by 3-pointers, launching his share of ill-advised bombs despite a 27 percent career mark from beyond the arc.3 These were understandable when wide open, but he often shot them early in the clock:

On defense, Barkley was chock-full of shortcomings. When he was younger, he was athletic enough to protect the rim (or goal tend):

Even in the 1994 game highlight above, he was still capable of swatting attempts around the rim, although he was never a prolific shot blocker.4 Naturally, he was a strong defensive rebounder, and from time to time used his length to deflect balls or interfere with passing lanes (as seen in the 56-point game above). But he was also prone to total breakdowns on and off the ball:

On the ball, he was easily taken off the dribble by smaller forwards, and later in his career, lacked the size or skill needed to bother post scorers regularly. Here, he implements the rarely used “pirouette defense:”

Even when his positioning was sound, he was fairly ineffective for the latter portion of his career as extra weight grounded his aerial game. Barkley’s repertoire remained similar throughout his prime, although his athleticism dwindled in the ’90s, leading to more backdowns and outside shots on offense, and slower rotations and weaker contests on defense.

Impact Evaluation

Barkley is a fascinating study. He scored with eye-popping efficiency, but was selective enough with his offense that he never reached elite scoring heights. He was a good creator for a post player, but more pedestrian among the great perimeter engines. And he never played on a strong defense during his prime.

Barkley joined a loaded Philadelphia team in 1985, a year removed from an NBA title, with a core of Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and aging staples Julius Erving and Bobby Jones. In his second season, Charles played 37 minutes a night for a 50-win pace squad (3.1 SRS). As the old guard left, Barkley’s Sixers bottommed out below .500 in 1988.

Philadelphia was a middling defensive team during this period, and in ’88, posted a relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) 2.2 points below league average. This was a trend during Barkley’s career — he would play on nine below average defenses in 10 seasons — and his best defensive squad was 1.3 points better than average (’93 Suns). Some of this, undoubtedly, was roster makeup (Barkley never played alongside an elite rim protector), but some of it was the cost of playing Barkley at power forward, where valuable defensive minutes could have been dolled out to superior stoppers. Indeed, that’s what Philadelphia did from 1990-92, when it brought in Rick Mahorn to bang around at the big forward and slid Barkley to the small forward. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with improvements in the defense.5

With his amazing efficiency and historically good offensive rebounding, Barkley made his impact on offense. The best attempt to quantify the value of his volume-efficiency combination pegs his five-year peak in the 96th percentile since 1978, slightly ahead of Karl Malone and three spots behind Reggie Miller.6 His spectacular level of efficiency — made possible by a plethora of free throw attempts, offensive rebounds and all of those power moves around the hoop — stands out when Barkley is compared to other great big men:

In 1989, Barkley outputted perhaps his finest statistical campaign: 24 points per 75, chart-breaking efficiency (11.6 percent above league average), the lowest adjusted turnover rate up to that point in his career (11.1 percent) and a personal-best augmented plus-minus of +4.1. This coincided with an offensive explosion in Philadelphia, as Hersey Hawkins provided shooting and Mike Gminski authored (arguably) his best season, regularly drilling midrange shots for Philly.7

The ’90 76ers remained a stout 5 points better than the league on offense, but the defense jumped to around average with Mahorn’s addition to the front line. This earned Barkley sudden MVP attention, which is symptomatic of two voting patterns in the history of this award: First, and often discussed, is that team record is paramount. Second, since team defensive efficiencies have been historically overlooked, offensively-slanted players (e.g. Allen Iverson or Derrick Rose) reap the benefits when teams upgrade defensively.

When Philadelphia lost point man Johnny Dawkins in 1991 to injury, Barkley upped his scoring and load, but it wasn’t enough and the 76ers offense regressed back to a +1.8 rORtg.8 Barkley himself struggled at times with injury, missing 15 games that year. With Charles, Philly was 4 points better on offense and their SRS improved by 3.7 points, a good but not outstanding WOWY result.

After a statistical dip in 1992, Barkley was traded to Phoenix for All-Star scorer Jeff Hornacek and two rotation players. Philadelphia grew even worse, while Phoenix, already one of the best offensive teams in the league, was able to improve on its 1992 season with Barkley aboard. On offense, the Suns posted an elite +7 rORtg during 52 full-strength games. More impressively, in 32 games without all-league guard Kevin Johnson, but with Barkley, they engineered a +5.2 rORtg while playing at a 58-win pace.9 Barkley took more 3s than ever, and as a result, his offensive rebounding declined. However, the slight improvement in his passing largely made up for his drop in efficiency, as he set a career mark for estimated creation.

By 1994, the erosion of Barkley’s athleticism took a larger toll, and he continued to shoot more 3s, grab fewer offensive rebounds and struggled to finish around the hoop more, posting his worse scoring year since 1986. The Suns would maintain an elite offense through ’95, but they did so with excellent offensive personnel. In his four seasons in the desert, Barkley co-captained (along with Johnson) postseason offenses that were 7.3 points better than the competition. These numbers are outstanding, and enough for me to anoint Sir Charles with a top-15 offensive peak of all time.

Barkley had one more hurrah in Houston, playing next to Hakeem Olajuwon on the best defense of his career (2.7 points better than the league). At full-strength, that Rocket “super team” played at a 57-win pace. Barkley’s scoring volume was the lowest since his second year, a shade under 20 points per 75, but despite a smaller role, his efficiency never returned to the levels of his late-’80s/early-’90s athletic days.

While he played most of his career before full play-by-play data was available, we have access to his plus-minus data for all of his seasons except 1993 (thanks to Harvey Pollack). In that time, his augmented plus-minus (AuPM) describes him as a good player who lacked a great peak. Here’s how his career impact metrics rank (by percentile):

Per these metrics, Barkley never authored a top-20 season, which isn’t damning, but suggests something was lacking in his impact otherwise not captured in traditional offensive box metrics. In all likelihood, his underwhelming plus-minus results are a byproduct of his defensive liabilities; Barkley was undersized at the big forward and too slow at the small forward. Game-level plus-minus studies portray him similarly; a good player on the edge of greatness.

I have reservations about how Barkley fits alongside other stars. His passing was adequate and his rebounding provided off-ball value, but his propensity to hold the ball in isolation would temper his lift around other elite players.10 His defensive impact is questionable, based on film analysis and the few plus-minus scores on record. It’s possible that, when younger, his athleticism and defensive rebounding made him more than capable on that end, but his general tendencies and awareness — and a major coaching decision to move him to the perimeter — suggest he was never a positive on D.

The evidence does imply that he’s a borderline all-timer on offense; his ’93 Phoenix result without KJ is head-turning. He wasn’t always in the greatest condition, which took its toll by the mid-’90s, but Barkley’s overall package — ball-dominance and subpar defense as a big forward — make it harder to construct a transcendent team around him. Because of this, I don’t think he ever had a strong MVP-level peak, which prevents him from passing players above him. I’d need a bevy of new evidence to think more highly of his defense, and as such, I can’t see an argument for him moving past 19th. Yet his offense makes it hard for me to drop him more than a spot or two lower, so he falls at No. 20.

Backpicks GOAT #23 Scottie Pippen

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level perimeter defense led to impressive seasons without Jordan
  • Mediocre scorer but excellent passer and creator

Scouting Report

Scottie Pippen was an athletic specimen — an incredibly long 6-foot-8 wing with an absurd vertical leap. On offense, he entered the league with top-shelf finishing prowess, using bounce and size to attack the rim. Defensively, he bloomed into one of the greatest perimeter defenders in league history.

The following video catalogues all of Pippen’s positive attributes as a defender: His active hands and ability to protect the rim, jump passing lanes, guard the post, harass ball-handlers, induce charges and cover the court with alert rotations. It’s worth it to view all six minutes:

For this series, I tracked 700 Pippen possessions, mostly from 1990-98, and in that time he was a turnover-creating machine. In addition to his elite steal percentage — Pippen’s two best years rank 43rd and 44th all-time — he added another 1.3 forced turnovers per 100 from deflections and drawing offensive fouls. These are estimates from a sample, so they should not be taken as gospel, but they reflect what’s evident on the film; Pippen caused all kinds of chaos on defense.1 In addition, I scored an additional 3.5 percent of his possessions as “good” man defense — usually from an excellent contest or shutting off a drive  — which is elite among the wings I’ve sampled.

Still, Scottie wasn’t blessed with the quickest feet and was vulnerable to quick dribble penetration. Most top-shelf perimeter defenders do not make a lot of errors, but some will rack them up trying to contain elite penetrators.2 In my sample, Pippen had a relatively high error rate, around 2 per 100 (16th percentile), but he offset this by suffocating slower opponents. There is no single better example of this than Game 1 of the 1998 Eastern Finals against Indiana, when Pippen terrorized Mark Jackson for most of the game. It only takes a minute or so of viewing to get a feel for the disruption Scottie unleashed:

Offensively, Pippen was never a great primary scorer. His best attacks came when he found an angle and glided to the hoop in two sweeping steps. He had a passable mid-post game, with a hook and an old-fashioned bank shot. He was a mediocre shooter, but found success during the seasons the NBA shortened the 3-point line (1995-97), shooting 36 percent from downtown in those years.

While he was a phenomenal finisher and transition player, Pippen’s best offensive attribute was his passing. By my estimates, he dolled out “good” or “great” passes on about 3 plays per 100, which, for comparison, was slightly behind John Stockton’s rate. Scottie’s estimated creation rates seem inline with his hand-tracked ones, around 6-7 per 100 during his prime years. His shot selection was sound, launching only his pull-up 3-pointer too hastily.

The following video showcases Pippen’s passing ability — tight transition passes, advanced interior dishes and high-level shot-passes. While he possessed excellent vision, notice that there’s still a pass or two in there that arrive a half-second late (at 8:40 and 8:56):

Pippen had a meteoric rise, cracking the starting lineup during the ’88 playoffs as a rookie before blossoming into a key contributor in ’89. He showed signs of elite defense then, sprinkling in the occasional outside shot and aggressive rim assault. He was always a phenomenal rebounder, and his peak defensive rebounding rate (19.4 percent) ranks in the 99th percentile among non-bigs.3 By the end of 1990, Pippen was squarely in his prime, and over the ensuing years he polished his passing and scoring, peaking between 1994-96.

By 1997, Scottie started to slow down, losing some pop in his incredible athleticism. After toe surgery to start the ’98 season, he returned a step slower, and following back surgery that summer, was never the same physically again. He showed flashes at times, but by his Portland days, he struggled to contain dribblers as well and couldn’t finish at the rim with the same efficacy.

Impact Evaluation

Pippen’s rise to stardom coincided with Chicago’s emergence as a contender. His results without Michael Jordan hint that he’s a borderline superstar, capable of buoying the offense while anchoring an elite defense. And more detailed plus-minus metrics paint him as a high-impact performer.

In his first three seasons in Chicago, Jordan’s Bulls never eclipsed a 45-win pace (1.3 SRS). Reinforcements arrived in 1988, as Pippen and fellow rookie Horace Grant provided defense and athleticism off the bench. By the time Phil Jackson came aboard in 1990, Pippen and Grant rounded into form and the Bulls emerged as title contenders. The ’90 team finished the season with an offensive efficiency 4.2 points better than league average (rORtg), nearly 3 points better than the previous season. While credit should be given to the efficacy of Jackson’s triangle offense, the Bulls ascension also coincided with the improvement of their ’88 draft class.

Pippen, Grant and the Bulls carried their growth into the 1991 season and Chicago capped an 18-month ascension with its first of six titles. Pippen carried the second-largest load of the offensive dynasty (behind Jordan), with only BJ Armstrong a close third in 1991.4 While the defensive results weren’t earth-shattering — their average defensive rating from ’91-93 falls in the 85th percentile historically– they were impressive given Chicago’s lack of a traditional rim-protecting big man. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that Pippen “anchored” those defenses, but he was certainly the most notable and disruptive force (statistically and on film) alongside Jordan and Grant.

Per the scouting report, Pippen’s finer points — defense and passing — are not readily captured by the box score. His scoring rates were relatively low during the first three-peat and he regularly hovered around league average efficiency. Here’s how his Big 4 box stats stack up against contemporaries, first from 1991-93, and then in his best three-year stretch (from ’96-98):

In 1994, Pippen assumed the lead dog role and upped his scoring and creation with essentially no loss in efficiency. Given the makeup of Chicago’s roster and its implementation of the triangle, this was probably Pippen’s maximum offensive output, as he peaked in offensive load at 43 (96th percentile) while the Bulls posted a respectable +2.2 rORtg when healthy, better than any offense Michael Jordan led before Phil Jackson arrived.5

Pippen’s non-Jordan seasons were particularly impressive because of the overall heights of the team. In ’94, the Bulls played at a 55-win pace when healthy (4.7 SRS). There was undoubtably malaise during the 1993 season after deep postseason runs and the Barcelona Olympics, so a direct comparison between ’93 and ’94 is apples-to-oranges. Still, the ’94 Bulls added Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, replaced Jordan with a defensive-centric Pete Myers, and posted close-to-contending results. In 1995, with key cog Horace Grant lost to Orlando (and Ron Harper aboard), a healthy Bulls team still played at a 52-win pace (3.8 SRS) with an rORtg of +1.1 before Michael Jordan returned.

After deploying a hodgepodge of big men in ’94, the ’95 team leaned on Will Perdue to protect the paint with Grant gone (Longley came off the bench) while Kukoc served as a secondary playmaker and Armstrong provided high-end spot up shooting (43 percent from downtown). For that team to produce an above-average offense and cross the 50-win plateau is not only a testament to Jackson’s coaching and Pippen’s all-around impact, but the powerful interaction between great passing (Kukoc and Pippen) and spot-up shooting (Armstrong and Kerr). Pippen seamlessly scaled up next to Jordan (again) in 1996, and Chicago’s new Big 3 produced a record 13.7 SRS at full-strength (72-win pace).6

Pippen’s best years hit the beginning of the plus-minus era, and his numbers are impressive. After a marginal year in ’94 (86th percentile), he posted scaled Augmented Plus-Minus values in the 97th percentile in ’95 and ’96, followed by a season in the 98th percentile using adjusted plus-minus (APM) in 1997.7 His augmented ’95 season was second in the league to plus-minus goliath David Robinson, while his ’96 season trailed only Robinson, Jordan and the venerable Penny Hardaway.

In total, Pippen’s perimeter defense, rebounding and strong passing make him a highly scalable asset, capable of supercharging all kinds of teams. He played second fiddle on excellent offenses alongside Jordan, spent most of his prime leading good or great defenses, and his brush with the MVP in 1994 is inline with my estimation of his peak as a weak MVP candidate.8 However, Pippen’s prime was shortened by injuries, and his last high-level year was in 1997. (He was stellar at times in 1998 until his back flared up in the postseason.)

He’s entrenched in the group of players from 22-26, with a peak strong enough to edge out Stockton, but one that lags behind the players ahead of him. After his back surgery, he churned out two more All-Star level seasons, giving him 11 or 12 by my count. That’s just enough longevity to earn the nod over a similar-peak challenger, Moses Malone, for the No. 23 spot on the list.

Backpicks GOAT: #25 John Stockton

Key Stats and Trends

  • Inability to pressure defenses with scoring overstates assist numbers
  • Excellent plus-minus numbers when playing a smaller role
  • Fantastic consistency and longevity

Scouting Report

Stockton was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. Before age sapped his speed, he was a fast break blur, attacking the hoop and dishing out assists with Mr. Hyde’s aggression. But in the half court, he was Dr. Jekyll, methodically attacking in selective spots and often passing on quality shots.

This dichotomy stemmed from Stock’s diminutive stature; he was listed at 6-foot-1, but played even smaller. He was bothered by larger defenders and struggled among the trees, both with his vision and scoring. He was even hesitant to enter the lane at times because he had a hard time scoring or passing when in there:

Unlike all offensive forces in history, Stockton rarely took the attack to his man. He was more Rajon Rondo than Steve Nash, often pounding the ball while options materialized out of Utah’s off-ball screens. Here he waits for screens before lobbing an idle pass out with nine seconds left on the shot clock.

This was a common occurrence in Utah’s offense, and it was not merely a function of the system, but of Stockton himself. Where elite offensive players look to attack, Stockton passively surveyed for teammates to pop. In the next play, he hunts for a mismatch, but notice how passive he is looking for his own offense:

He was so passive that Dick Enberg once asked Cotton Fitzsimmons on a broadcast if Stockton should shoot more, to which Cotton immediately said “yes!” 1

In transition, Mr. Hyde emerged. Although he was crafty enough to finish going left, he primarily finished to his right, using speed and quickness to push hard in transition:

Not only would Stock attack the rim, but he would sometimes take an ill-advised pullup or try overly aggressive passes. Below, he jacks an undesirable shot:

Next, he pushes without a man advantage, trying to fit the ball into a tight window, although hitting Karl Malone would have been the more advanced pass:

As the years went on, Stockton saw fewer transition chances, as they were replaced by his crisp half-court passes. He threw post-entries well, although such passes are only moderate- leverage plays:

In tracking film, I was surprised by how many vanilla, “Rondo assists” Stockton collected from hitting cutters or merely dumping it to Malone. He could architect brilliant plays, but only occasionally:

Overall, he was a very good, but not great passer. He uncorked a number of quality assists per game, but he missed too many elite passes. Here’s an example of his scoring aggression on the break while missing another layup pass:

Here’s another high-quality pass that he failed to see, this time in the half court (Malone missed one too at the end of the possession):

Sometimes, when creating, he would forego a higher-value play for a more conservative pass:

In my tracking sample, Stockton hit 3.5 “good” or “great” passes per 100 possessions — a formidable clip for his era, behind only Magic and Bird among ’80s and ’90s players on this list. However, he also missed an elite pass once per 100, leaving points on the scoreboard that the best passers would have found.2

As a result of all this, his creation rates appear significantly lower than what his Box Creation predicts. He was an anomaly, a player functionally closer to Brevin Knight who had the ball so much and shot just enough 3-pointers to trip up the creation estimate. It’s almost as if Stockton should be a significantly larger offensive mass, but isn’t.3

On defense, Stockton’s rotations were excellent. He used his quickness to overcome a size disadvantage, ping-ponging from one advantageous spot to another, darting to help-the-helper when needed.

In the clip below, notice his positioning — he shrewdly shades over toward the ball, then uses quickness to take the charge:

That’s masterful stuff. His court coverage was quite good too, despite an absence of shot-blocking talent. Here, he does a great job quickly recovering and closing out on a double:

Stockton was also an expert at sniping the post. He tallied an abundance of steals this way, and his gambles were calculated, rarely (if ever) exposing himself like so many others who try this. He committed defensive errors at a moderately low rate, and had some of the most “efficient” help steals you’ll ever see:

However, his size prevented him from bothering bigger players. Larger guards like Terry Porter fared well against him, backing him into the post where he was vulnerable. As Stockton aged, his Maradona foot speed faded, but even in his late 30s he possessed the same conservative approach and feisty defensive tactics.

Impact Evaluation

Stockton is one of the few secondary players on this list, and as such, directly evaluating his impact is tricky. He played alongside Malone, who shouldered an enormous burden in Utah’s offense over the years. Before Malone evolved into a scoring monster, Stockton’s emergence in 1988 helped bump Utah from three years of decrepit offenses to…slightly below average on offense.

In many circles, Stockton has the reputation of an offensive maestro, but as discussed above, his orchestration was conservative, his attacks tame. Utah’s offense correlated more with Malone’s fluctuations than Stockton’s, as it wasn’t until 1990 that the Jazz offense hopped above the line of mediocrity and crescendoed into a decade-long run of excellence. By all accounts, Stockton’s ’90 season was similar to his ’89 one, but Malone’s ’90 campaign was a huge personal improvement and one of the best scoring years in NBA history.

Stockton’s inability to pressure opponents and create havoc in the lane significantly dampened his impact as an offensive dynamo. Great players don’t have to score, but their threat to score generates global impact. Stockton simply wasn’t capable of this: He scored over 30 points just 11 times in his 11-year prime (1.2 percent of games), and hoisted over 20 true shot attempts just 2.4 percent of the time. This pales in comparison to the great 3-point era point guards, who could call their own number if the defense didn’t respect their scoring enough.

As that chart hints at, the playoffs exposed these weaknesses in Stockton. In 87 postseason games against teams with a defensive rating under 105, Stockton averaged 13.5 points per 36 on 57 percent true shooting, down from 15.5 and 62 percent in the regular season against such competition. Perhaps most importantly, his Box Creation in those games was only around 5 per 100, more inline with the sampling from the scouting report and drastically below some of his regular season estimations. In other words, he wasn’t breaking down defenses the way his assist numbers would suggest.

Even when granting Stockton his creation estimate (which captures some of the inherent value of his better passes) his statistical profile lags behind contemporaries. Below, I’ve scaled the Big 4 box stats (scoring, efficiency, creation and turnovers) for three-year statistical peaks. Notably, he is the weakest scorer among this group of point guards:

But Stockton’s regular season efficiency is deceptive. He wasn’t an unstoppable force like Shaq, nor did he gain an advantage with marksmanship like Reggie Miller or Steph Curry. Instead, his efficiency was fueled by conservatism — he shot well because he only took premium shots. Look at what happens to Stockton’s profile in the playoffs — it (literally) shrinks. Despite the selectivity, his efficiency fell off along with his scoring:

While passing like Stockton’s can be additive, it’s not game-changing. And while his shooting scales well, he was reluctant to fire open shots. In the last three seasons (2015-17), no player with a comparable scoring rate to prime Stockton cracked the top-10 percent of offensive RAPM scores, and the highest-impact player of that group, Kyle Korver (+3.5), was an all-time level 3-point specialist who posted a ridiculous +16.5 percent shooting efficiency (rTS) while spacing the floor. 4

Fortunately, the majority of Stockton’s career is captured by some form of plus-minus. There, he grades out well, with scaled and minute-weighted values around All-Star or all-league levels from 1994-99 (between+2.6 and +5.5). His best numbers came in his final few years in reduced minutes, likely due to the selectivity of his role and, in the case of 2001 — where he posted a monster +7.8 — losing longtime backup Howard Eisley. Either way, Adjusted Plus-Minus casts Stockton as a really valuable player who lacked top-tier impact during his formative years. His plus-minus numbers also suggest he was a small, but relevant impact player on defense, in line with the awareness and coverage he displays on film.

Stockton sat for 18 games to start the 1998 season, and Utah missed his strong passing and intelligent D. Without him, the Jazz played at a 48-win pace (2.1 SRS) and with him a 60-win pace (6.7 SRS).5 That result indicates Stockton’s importance, but it’s not earth-moving, which is expected given Stockton’s low-minute usage during the final chapters of his career. Unlike many stars who ramped up minutes in the playoffs, ’98 Stockton logged only 30 a night in the postseason and 32 per game in his final six playoff runs.

Still, his consistency was exceptional. For a decade, he ticked like a metronome, clocking out nearly identical seasons every year, veering outside the lines once in 1990 when he (barely) incorporated a 3-point shot and then again in 1993 when he had his only “down” season statistically.6 But it’s incredibly difficult to see an argument for Stockton as an elite offensive player based on the data.

His plus-minus hints at some latent value — his execution of Sloan’s system? passing? screening? — and I credit him for that in my valuations by casting him as an all-league performer. Defensively, I think he was worthy of accolades and made an impact, but there’s only so much a small guard who isn’t a shut-down defender can do to move the needle. A small (but generous) bump in his peak valuation would move him up two spots, and I can’t see him dropping much lower based on his longevity. In total, he produced 10 All-NBA years in my book and another four All-Star seasons, but Stockton’s lack of a meaningful peak prevents him from a higher placement on this list.

Backpicks GOAT: #27 Patrick Ewing

Key Stats and Trends

  • Key figure on some of the greatest defenses ever
  • Elite scoring peak, but lacked passing and creation

Scouting Report

Young Patrick Ewing was an athletic, towering presence. At the outset of his career, he was so eager on defense that he would needlessly foul guards away from the hoop or swat at obviously  descending shots, a vestige of his college goaltending days. Injuries derailed his first two seasons, but in 1988 his scoring arsenal blossomed as his defense rounded into shape. Ewing used his size and mobility on both sides of the ball, developing an outside jumper and a post game while hunting for blocks on the other end. The first half of this video captures his physical presence in those early years:

Ewing was never a good passer, capable of hitting strong-side cutters but otherwise lacking vision; he sometimes forced double-teamed shots in lieu of hitting open teammates. And occasionally, he would just make the wrong pass when doubled:

However, his scoring game was explosive at its apex, and in 1990 Ewing averaged 27.2 points per 75 (98th percentile since 1978) on +6.2 percent relative efficiency (rTS).1 Ewing could face and drive, catch and shoot from the midrange and toss hooks and fades with his back to the basket. This game highlights his entire repertoire (note the athletic alley-oop at the 1:20 mark):

While he scooped some offensive boards in that game, he was never strong in that department (outside of 1988). From ’88-97, Ewing typically fell between the 34th and 42nd percentile in offensive rebounding rate among bigs.2

He really earned his stripes on defense, where he was an excellent rim protector; in ’88 his shot-blocking exploded to 4.7 blocks per 100 possessions (98th percentile since 1978). Only six players in history produced more seasons with a 5 percent block rate than Ewing’s nine. He inhaled rebounds on defense too, consistently posting rates in the top decile during the ’90s. He was even fairly mobile during his prime, able to bump guards high and recover. His positioning was often sound, although his reactions were sometimes delayed:

New York loved to trap pick-and-rolls hard, and Ewing worked relentlessly in the early ’90s to bother perimeter players and recover to protect the goal. He wasn’t a cheetah out there, but he wasn’t a sloth either:

In the early ’90s, any loss in mobility was offset by smarter schemes and improved rebounding (from better defensive position). But by the mid-’90s, his feet were heavier and he lacked the agility of his 20-something days. And towards the end of the decade, his movement grew stiff and glacial. Notice his lumbering defense in the first clip below (1994) and then his slow-motion recovery in the second clip (1998):

Even when his positioning was sound, he couldn’t always contest well, more and more opting to take a charge:

As Ewing’s knees creaked, his mobility and explosiveness faded. In the early ’90s, he could still knock down midrange jumpers with proficiency, but his scoring trailed off, his moves were more deliberate and his transition baskets less frequent. By the latter half of the decade his feet were encased in cement, severely hampering his ability to provide elite rim protection. The loss of agility took longer to impact his offense, as he posted one of his best scoring seasons in 1998 before precipitously declining in the following two years.

Impact Evaluation

At Ewing’s peak, his scoring-rich attack was heavily featured on two above average offenses, but the preponderance of his value-signals come from defense, where he was the cornerstone of an historically stingy team for a number of years. His game-level plus-minus supports the notion that he was a major factor, falling just short of history’s megastars per such metrics.3

Ewing joined a dilapidated Knicks team in 1986 that was moving on from the Bernard King era. His first two seasons didn’t move the needle much, as the Knicks puttered along at similar win rates until Rick Pitino assumed coaching duties in 1988. New York’s ascension over the ensuing two seasons coincided with Ewing’s growth as a player. In ’88, the Knicks relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) jumped 4.5 points under Pitino’s pressure-based system and in 1989, Ewing received his first Defensive Player of the Year votes as the Knicks played at a 52-win pace (3.6 SRS).4

Ewing’s ’89 and ’90 seasons — his two best offensive years statistically — were easily the two best offenses he played on. The ’89 Knicks posted a +3.3 rORtg, and the ’90 Knicks a +1.3 rORtg, two of only three above-average offenses that Ewing started on during his entire career. Some of the ’89 shift can be credited to Mark Jackson, who shouldered more of the load en route to the lone All-Star nod of his career.5 The ’90 Knicks ran more offense through Ewing, yet were barely above-average on that end. Here’s how Patrick’s offensive profile in the Big 3 box categories stacks up against other great big men:

Of that group, he turned the ball over less than anyone besides David Robinson. However, his offensive rebounding lagged behind all of them, particularly Moses Malone. Ewing’s profile is respectable, but it scales poorly; weak vision and isolationism don’t mix well with other stars, and his lack of offensive rebounding limited his off-ball value. Despite a few passable years as a floor-raising cog, Ewing’s not on this list because of his offense.

Instead, Patrick was the centerpiece of a record-setting defense: From 1970 to 2007, no other team laced together a better five-year stretch of efficiency than Ewing’s Knicks. Below is a plot of each team’s best five-year defensive stretches from 1966 to 2012:6

Only Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Kevin Garnett’s Celtics produced better five-year runs in the regular season, and only four post-merger teams have had a better postseason stretch than those Knicks.7

While Ewing was the most prominent figure on those defenses, attributing the lion’s share of credit to him is a reach. Coaching and scheme influence defensive synergy, and the best defenses exploit rules in their favor to create more than the sum of their parts. The Knicks’ defensive efficiencies rose 4.5 points (to 1.7 points ahead of the league) with Rick Pitino’s arrival, which is what happened to the Celtics when Pitino brought his full-court press to Boston in 1998.8

When Pat Riley arrived in 1992, he unleashed a bruising style that was so physical it was alleged to be dirty by some.9 The Knicks jumped 3.4 points on defense, as Riley replaced weaker defenders with rugged players like Xavier McDaniel, Anthony Mason and John Starks. Entering the lane against those Knicks was an invitation for violence, and in 1993 and ’94, New York authored two of the greatest single-season defenses in history. Those two campaigns rank as the third and fourth-best relative defensive efficiencies since 1970 and the best two-year defensive performance since the ’60s.

However, this ascension came as Ewing was in decline. He was a comparable defender to his pre-Riley years, his shot-blocking and rebounding still strong, but he wasn’t transcendent (per the scouting report), instead filling a key role in a defensive machine that pushed the boundaries of the rules. Riley eschewed offense for defensively-oriented players like Charles Smith, who at 6-foot-10, gave New York an enormous frontline alongside Charles Oakley and Ewing. When hand-checking was prohibited in 1995, the Knicks lost nearly 4 points in relative defensive efficiency with essentially the same roster.

Overall, Ewing had the look (and the team results) of an excellent stopper who fell short of the all-timers. Between Pitino and Riley, he anchored average defenses with a mixed bag of defenders: Bill Cartwright was shipped out for Oakley in ’89; Gerald Wilkins and Johnny Newman were athletic, but questionable defenders on the wing; and by ’91, Kiki Vandeweghe (not a reputable defender) and a long-toothed Maurice Cheeks were part of the rotation.

Ewing’s plus-minus footprint began in 1994, and AuPM gives him three seasons between the 81st and 89th percentile; good, but not great. He then posted four scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) years between the 92nd and 97th percentile, primarily from defensive value. This suggests that his mid ’90s were slightly better than what AuPM portrays (from ’94-96), and I see these numbers as an indicator that Ewing’s peak was likely quite strong. He lost much of the 1998 season to injury, but the Knicks played scintillating defense in 30 games with him that year, improving 5.9 efficiency points on D to 7.8 points ahead of the league.

For my money, he strung together 10 consecutive All-Star seasons, with four weak-MVP years and a top-30 peak of all time. I don’t love his portability, nor that he failed to play on a really good offense. To scale well, Ewing would need to curtail his isolation frequency, and I have doubts that he could. I could also see devaluing his mid-’90s defense slightly more, which could push him as low as 30th. Nonetheless, he packaged strong scoring with a top-20 defensive peak, just enough to land him here.