Posted by Neil Paine on December 28, 2009
Required reading material:
Charles Barkley ("Sir Charles")
The other player I alluded to last week when I said I had to push someone from the 90s into the 80s. Nowadays, I feel like Chuck's outspoken, comedic persona (especially since he's been on Inside the NBA) has unfairly overshadowed his immense playing ability, which is a shame because CB in his prime was a beast. Undersized for a PF at somewhere between 6'4" and 6'6", Barkley put together a handful of MVP-caliber seasons in Philadelphia (including 1990, when he was the game's best player according to the metric outlined above), but the team could never get over the hump because he was surrounded by mediocre talent like Mike Gminski, Johnny Dawkins, Ron Anderson, Rick Mahorn, and Derek Smith. In 1993, Charles led a more gifted (but hardly Jordan-Bulls-caliber) Suns team to within two wins of a championship, winning the MVP for his efforts. Moving to Houston late in his career, he arrived after the Rockets' window had closed and finished up on an aging roster alongside past-their-prime versions of Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen. In other words, Barkley never won a ring not because of some personal failing, but instead because his timing was terrible -- had he been surrounded in 1990 with the talent he had in '93, Philly could have won a ring... Had the Suns peaked in '94, they could have easily won a ring... Had Barkley joined the Rockets two years earlier, he would have won a ring, or if he been fortunate enough to play with legends like Hakeem, Pippen, & Clyde Drexler in their respective primes instead of the twilight of their careers... You get the idea. Instead, Charles is remembered primarily for not being a role model and as comic relief on a cable basketball show. But make no mistake, he deserves inner-circle recognition for his accomplishments, because few in the game's history have played as well as Barkley did at his peak.
Larry Bird ("The Legend")
Is Larry Bird the most skilled player of all time? Not necessarily the best overall player (though you could certainly make the case), but the one with the best basketball skills? Obviously there's no way to definitively prove this one way or another, but think about what Bird didn't have compared to other contemporary superstars: he didn't have blazing speed, he wasn't a great leaper, his body broke down in the latter stages of his career (a career that was hardly Kareem-esque in length to begin with)... And yet he was the game's greatest player in the mid-1980s, never ranking outside the Top 4 from his rookie season of 1980 through 1988. How much skill does a player with Bird's basic physical tools need in order to accomplish that feat? You could never begin to quantify it, but it's still interesting to think about. Anyway, I don't know what else there is to say about Larry Legend that hasn't already been said, so here are some videos:
Earvin Johnson Jr. ("Magic")
The interesting thing about this system, which combines media and statistical accomplishments into a single ranking, is that Magic only appears as the game's best player once, when he tied Michael Jordan for the honor in 1987. Why? Well, even in his MVP seasons, the stats always seemed to dig somebody else more -- specifically, Jordan in '87 and both MJ and Barkley in 1989 and 1990. And earlier in his career, when he would have a nice stat season (say, 1982 ), L.A.'s MVP voting was split between him and Kareem, so he didn't get the necessary media love to rank highly. Even so, Magic's run from 1982-91 has to go down as one of the best 10-year stretches by an individual in NBA history. And just like with Larry, we're going to watch some videos now:
Moses Malone ("The Chairman")
With a career that took place in 3 different decades, Moses embodies the basketball lifer; his long basketball journey took him to Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and San Antonio, with a second tour of duty in Philly thrown in for good measure. Has any other great player suited up in as many uniforms as Malone did? Here are the players to play for 8 or more organizations (Moses played for 9):
There are a few all-stars on that list, but it's really no contest that Malone is the best player to travel that often. What does that say about him as a player? I'm not sure; some are obviously explained by the jump straight from high school to the pros (unheard of in the 70s), and his subsequent stint in the ABA during its last days. But prior to the salary cap era, since when did the league's #1 player swap teams during the offseason? (Hint: it was Wilt.) Even in the the salary cap era, when has that happened? And yet Moses was without a doubt one of the dominant forces of the 1980s, a rebounding machine who propelled Philly to its 1983 championship and put up 20-10 seasons like they were child's play. For these reasons, Mo's place in the Inner Circle is well-earned and unquestionable, a testament to his brilliant rebounding, his epic durability, and his intense work ethic.
Inner Circle according to HoF Probability: Bird, Johnson, Moses, Barkley