Posted by Neil Paine on December 30, 2009
Required reading material:
Michael Jordan ("Air")
What's scary is that The Greatest Of All Time™ is probably underrated by this metric because the MVP voters have a tendency to get bored and cast their ballots for variety at the top instead of going with the league's best player year after year. Jordan dominated the stats (and the rings, and the hearts and minds of the basketball-watching community) with a metronomic consistency from 1987-93, but "only" won the MVP 3 times. Still, being considered the game's #1 in seven different seasons (including ties with Magic Johnson in '87 and Karl Malone in '98) is far from a small feat -- in fact, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only other player to pull it off that many times; Wilt Chamberlain also did it 6 times, and no other player has done it more than 3 times. I just shudder to think what MJ's Inner-Circle induction speech would be like.
Karl Malone ("The Mailman")
Malone vs. Tim Duncan for "Best PF Ever" is one of those debates that you can go around in circles with forever and still not come out with a satisfactory conclusion. The rings crowd just hates Malone's guts because he never won a title, while Duncan has 4 (and counting). Statheads counter with the observation that while Duncan's numbers are all-time caliber, Malone combined productive excellence with longevity as well as anyone who ever played the game; the only other player who comes close is Abdul-Jabbar. But was the Mailman merely a "compiler" who couldn't get it done in the clutch? Well, Malone's Jazz teams do show up several times on this list. Unlike just about every other player in his stratosphere of reputation, he's linked inexorably with a teammate (John Stockton) who stands on equal historical footing, with their collective success almost always split 50-50. Jordan never splits credit 50-50 with Pippen; there's never any doubt as to whether Jordan could exist as a legend without Pippen (albeit with fewer rings), but there's always the lingering question with Stockton & Malone of whether they could have reached the heights they did without each other, as well as Jerry Sloan's system. And finally, Malone's Jazz lost two very winnable Finals against the great Jordan-era Bulls teams, as Dennis Rodman was able to disrupt The Mailman and cause him to uncharacteristically disappear for extended stretches of time (crucial mistakes -- missed FT and turnovers -- were a problem in both series as well). The counter argument, of course? They had two very winnable Finals against the great Jordan-era Bulls teams! Malone may have played below his norms vs. Chicago, but so did everybody else those years, and he still played well enough to keep Utah competitive against one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. And so the debate rages on with Malone, unquestionably one of the greatest players to ever take the hardwood, but also a polarizing figure because rightly or wrongly, the perception is that teams did not make the most of their postseason chances with The Mailman as their go-to scorer.
Hakeem Olajuwon ("The Dream")
David Robinson ("The Admiral")
Speaking of debates that can't end, a variant on the Duncan-Malone debate is the older Hakeem Olajuwon-vs.-David Robinson clash, one which was "settled" in the 1995 playoffs but still has been known to rage even on the pages of this blog, because the numbers say it's a mismatch in the opposite direction. Let's put the incident in question out there immediately:
Well, that's it, then... Olajuwon owned Robinson from May 22-June 1, 1995, and therefore was the better player. Except Robinson's numbers are better than Olajuwon's, even if you throw out Hakeem's lost year in Toronto -- the Admiral essentially averaged the same points per minute on the same FG%, but he got to the line at a far better rate, shot a higher FT%, and turned the ball over less, leading to a much better offensive efficiency. Since their defensive numbers were equal and they both anchored equally strong defensive teams (if anything, Robinson's were better), it should come as no surprise that Robinson had the higher PER (26.2 to 23.9) and 18 more WS in 8,500 fewer minutes. And it's not like Hakeem dominated every head-to-head matchup. But Olajuwon was clearly better in the playoffs (25.7 PER and 22.6 WS vs. 23.0 and 17.5 for Robinson), and he obviously destroyed DR in that '95 series. So what gives? Was Robinson a choker, or was it like rock-paper-scissors (Hakeem dominates Robinson, but Robinson dominates everybody else, some of whom outplay Hakeem as well)? Did the Spurs catch Hakeem at a time when nobody was going to be able to stop him, did Robinson have a bad week, or was it perhaps a bit of both? If Hakeem could dominate a player of Robinson's stature at will, why didn't he do it against everybody, all of the time? Or was Robinson only really capable of dominance against teams like the Clippers?
These questions deserve their own post, but I'm afraid we could devote 1 million posts to the topic and never really unravel the mysteries of the Olajuwon/Robinson dynamic. Suffice to say, they're both Inner Circle legends, and in May '95 Olajuwon played at a level few in the NBA's history have attained. But if you want a definitive answer on which great center was truly "better", I think you're always going to be disappointed, because the evidence is contradictory at best and usually leads us into a tricky philosophical debate about what we mean when we say "Player X was better than Player Y". Now let's watch some videos:
Inner Circle according to HoF Probability: Jordan, Malone, Olajuwon, Robinson