Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Top Power Forwards In The Game

I was watching the NBA Finals tonight, and one of the announcers laid out his Top-Five list for the best power forwards of all time, which I instantly committed to memory for its pure ignorance. The list looked like this:

1. Tim Duncan
2. Charles Barkley
3. Karl Malone
4. Kevin Garnett
5. Kevin McHale

I shouldn't be surprised at this, I suppose; ESPN did a similar poll of ten sportscasters a few years back and came up with virtually the same result. There's a human instinct to quickly forget the players of the past, to believe that what we're seeing now is the best that's ever been. But it's just not the case.

After overpraising LeBron's overdue 48-Special against the Pistons, Bill Simmons hearkened back to his youth, and wrote an illuminating article last week about how quickly our memories fade. He was dead-on. We want to believe that everything before us is history being made - and in some cases, it is. Duncan's quest for his fourth ring in nine years is just one more trophy on one of the most distinguished careers in NBA history. Tim Duncan is not one of the top-ten players of all time, but he is most likely the greatest power forward to play the game. Unlike most sportscasters these days, I think the matter's still up for debate.

Though if you asked me to cast my vote today for who that would be, I would unquestionably pick Duncan. I think it's still up for debate, but I do know who I think should win the debate. I just wish more people were legitimately asking the question, "where does Duncan rate among the greatest power forwards of all time?"

Here's my answer to that question: "Not one notch above Charles Barkley." Barkley is not the second-best power forward in history. Garnett is certainly not the fourth-best power forward in history. Let's look at the stats of these players, the first four of whom were playing NBA ball within the last ten years:

1. Tim Duncan - 21.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2-time MVP, 3-time Finals MVP, 9-time All-Star, 9-time All-NBA First Team, 9-time All-Defense First or Second Team.

Those numbers aren't stunning, but they've been consistent year in and year out. And a 3-time Finals MVP, with possibly one more on the way this year (though Tony Parker's probably going to nab this one). Remember, the following three players have zero rings between the three of them

2. Charles Barkley - 22.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1 MVP, 10-time All-NBA First or Second Team, 11-time All-Star

3. Karl Malone - 25.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA First Team

4. Kevin Garnett- 20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1 MVP, 10-time All-Star, 6-time First or Second All-NBA, 8-time First or Second All-Defense.

5. Kevin McHale - 17.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 7-time All-Star, 6-time First or Second All-Defense. McHale's stats are lower than the players ahead of him since he was one of a number of great players on one of the greatest teams in NBA history, with a number of other scorers: Bird, Parish, Ainge, Johnson, etc. As a result, he's got as many championships as Duncan.

Now, take a look at some of these challengers. Can you think of any reason for these players not to be on this list other than the fact that they played 20-30 years earlier than these five players?
  • Elgin Baylor - 27.4 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1 MVP Award (his rookie year), 10 years All-NBA First Team, 11-Time All-Star
  • Bob Petit - 26.4 ppg, 16.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2-time MVP, 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA First Team
  • Elvin Hayes - 21.0 pgpg, 12.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 12-time All-Star, 6-time All-NBA First or Second Team
We've lost the ability to rationally evaluate the players we see on SportsCenter every night - when someone's better than anyone we've ever seen, it's easy for that person to become the best player of all time. Anyone who's ready to hand over Jordan's legacy and call LeBron "potentially the greatest player ever to play the game" is an idiot. It's still arguable if Jordan was the best of all-time, since we've lost the ability to accurately compare him to players like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. It's impossible to weigh the things we've seen against the things we've only seen on paper. It can't be done.

Duncan's going to win another championship in a couple days. When he does, we'll see him hoist that giant awkward looking trophy over his head one more time, grinning through the shower of ticker tape. When he does, the announcers are going to say something like "the greatest power forward in NBA history takes home yet another championship." And I think they'll be right.

I just think that maybe it should still be up for debate.

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At June 11, 2007 2:00 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good list. I don't think you missed anyone who should go top five. Rodman, Unseld, and DeBuschere were good, but not quite in this league.

I think you've got the ratings going well, also. Replace Barkley with Baylor and I think the list might be okay. I'd like to get Petit into the top 5, but I don't know who I'd move.

At June 12, 2007 12:34 AM, Blogger Wyman said...

No, no, my point is that these players should move into the list. And Petit should definitely be in there. A few years ago, the debate was if Duncan was better than Petit. Now Petit doesn't make the list?

Here's the thing... when you look at the stats and the honors, it doesn't make sense to leave those guys off. You might say "well, look behind the numbers, see what kind of player is there," but it doesn't hold up.

Malone and Barkley were both the primary scorer on good teams. They both had excellent point guards feeding them the ball the whole way through (Stockton, KJ), teams and coaches that supported and complimented them, and were often built around them. But their stats aren't necessarily that impressive, their defense was never anything to write home about, and they never won anything.

The people who should move up on the list are the people who've been forgotten: Baylor and Petit, as well as KG, who has put up a stunning career slaving away in a small market for a middling team. Trade him to a championship contender, let him get a ring or two, and he'll never drop out of the top-three for the next 20 years.

I think an honest list would look like this:

1. Duncan
2. Baylor
3. Petit
4. KG
5. Malone
6. Barkley
7. McHale
8. Hayes

I'd swap Baylor and Petit, KG and Malone, and McHale and Hayes if someone successfully argued me into it, but as of right now that's where I stand.

At June 17, 2007 10:26 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Ben, that is the first time I have ever read a sports post where the source material is something I've already read. I thought Simmons did a great job speaking to the point that we want to believe this crop is better than the last, since we've already

I saw a book on the 1984 NBA draft and how it changed everything- is that true? Is it worthwhile reading?


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