The NBA has been around in one way or another since 1946-1947. That’s over 70 years of players, champions, and stats. However the league didn’t always have 30 teams, the game wasn’t always played the same way, at one point there were two leagues, and not all stats that we consider important today were tracked in the early days.
When it came time to figure out what numbers and awards I could look at, it became clear right away that there were a few categories I had to throw away.
First, was blocks. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain would have averaged anywhere from 4-8 blocks per game depending on who you ask but blocks did not become an official stat until 1973. That’s also the year that steals became an official stat. Now there are individuals who have put a lot of time and effort into figuring out how many blocks Wilt and Bill had but it wouldn’t be fair to go get their numbers and ignore all of the other players of their era or earlier so I threw the stats away completely and decided to lean on their defensive awards to tell that story. More on that later.
The next stat I had to consider was 3 point shooting. This was a much easier decision for me because to determine the GOAT, I shouldn’t have to start breaking down your game. Different players scored in different ways, the key for me is that you scored it. How shouldn’t matter. The 3 point line came in 1979, 3 years after the NBA-ABA merger. That year just so happened to be Magic and Bird’s rookie year, but that meant 32 years without it and that’s too much to work through. Tossed.
Finally, there is one award that you will notice I didn’t include and it’s one that people often refer to when talking about greatness and I hate it. All Star game appearances. The All Star game is a popularity contest and I didn’t want to reward guys for being popular. I felt All-NBA teams were a better way of assessing a player’s level of greatness in a given year. It’s awarded at the end of the year and is more exclusive.
The Adjustments and Allowances
Now the fun stuff. When you start digging into NBA history you notice some weird things. Here are my favorites: (and by favorite, I means ones I had to find a way around.)
- In the first few years of the league the playoffs was a round-robin tournament
- At one point there were as few as 8 teams and 6 made the playoffs.
- From 55-66 the NBA playoffs looked like one side of the NFL playoffs with the 1 seed in each conference getting a bye.
- From 67-83 they finally got to 8 teams in the playoffs but this meant there were 3 rounds. We didn’t get to the current format until 1984.
- The NBA didn’t award the Finals MVP award until 1969.
- The NBA didn’t award Defensive Player of the Year until 1983
- The NBA didn’t create All-Defense teams until 1969
- The ABA and NBA existed at the same time from 1967 to 1976.
All of these things were problematic for me when going to do these rankings. Especially the defensive ones. I had already lost blocks and steals and I didn’t want to completely ignore the great defenders. But then I got a thought.
Defensive win shares.
I looked at the first few years of the Defensive player of the year award and the guy with the most win shares won enough of them for me to feel good about using it to decide my winner. If there was anybody within .5 of them then they split the points that would be awarded.
I could also use Defensive win shares to decide the All-Defense teams for 1947-1968. I just had to hope there was no year the win share leader didn’t make either of the all-defense teams in 1969-1982.
As for Finals MVP, someone actually did the work for me of breaking it down. They created their own formula and based on that formula they were able to determine the probability that a player would have won it and after reading through the breakdown, I was able to accept it.
There are two charts, one where he only went with guys on the winning team but then he did another that took winning out of the equation because the year Jerry West won, he was on the losing team. He also determined that based on this Lebron could have won in 2014 despite losing and that the second ever Finals MVP should have gone to Joe Fulkes, so I gave it to Fulkes for that year.
Finally we have to talk about the ABA. It existed at the same time as the NBA from 1967 through 1976 and had stars like Dr. J and Connie Hawkins. Fortunately, the NBA keeps most of their records with the NBA ones so MVP’s were included with the regular NBA ones. However, their Finals MVP was actually a “playoffs MVP” award. To decide how to weight this I did some digging and found that the ABA won most of their interleague matches against the NBA (79-76) so the leagues were very close in talent. In fact, the NBA dominated the first few years of the rivalry and the ABA dominated on the back end. This was all I needed to weight their Finals MVP’s as equal to the NBA’s and this was big for Dr. J.
The second thing was that there would be two award winners for MVP, Finals MVP, All-NBA/ABA teams so rather than trying to decide who would have won had they all been in the same league, (again since the ABA may have actually had the better top-end talent) I gave all sides full credit.
The playoffs was a different beast and initially I had planned to award players with points based on the number of rounds they carried a team but that was far too complicated. I ended up making the following change…
After initially struggling with the idea, I came up with a way to reward the players who had to go an extra round in the playoffs after the 1984 season, and the fact that the NBA and ABA merged in 1977. For 1977-1983, I decided to award the best player (based on eyes/PER) on the losing finals team 12.5 points (1/4 of a Finals MVP share) for getting there through 3 full rounds with a league twice as large as before. I also awarded the leader in Game score for the Finals losing team from 1984-Present with 25 points (half a Finals MVP share) which was a big boost to several players who lost in the Finals.