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Basketball on Paper WAR and the Best Peak Regular-Season Players Since 1978

Posted by Neil Paine on July 27, 2011

If you've been following the blog recently, I've developed a way to convert a player's Basketball on Paper stats to a Statistical Plus/Minus estimate. I'll spare you the gory details (which you can read about at the bottom of this page), and simply say that this version of SPM is less biased toward any one position and captures defense better than the original edition, making it the superior SPM in my opinion (although, as always, I'm certainly open to critiques).

Anyway, once you have an estimate of efficiency differential added over average (the definition of SPM), you can figure out a player's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) via these steps:

  1. Calculate the player's Impact Rating: Impact = SPM * (MP / (Tm MP / 5)).
  2. Determine, via linear regression, the relationship between team efficiency differential and winning percentage above average: Since 1978, the best predictor of (WPct - .500) is 0.03110666 * EffDiff.
  3. Apply that to the player's Impact to determine what winning % above average he contributed to the team: WPct+ = 0.03110666 * Impact.
  4. Determine Wins Above Average: To determine how many more wins the player added than an average player, compute: WAA = (Tm GP * (0.5 + WPct+)) - (Tm GP / 2)
  5. Determine the replacement level: Conveniently, the worst team (by efficiency differential) in NBA history was the 1993 Dallas Mavericks, who had a -15 EffDiff. Per position, that works out to -3 SPM (or -15 divided by 5). Therefore, -3 is the replacement level to which all players will be compared.
  6. Determine the theoretical replacement's Impact Rating, WPct+, and WAA if given the same minutes as the player in question.
  7. Subtract the player's actual WAA from the replacement's WAA, and you've got WAR.

After that admittedly convoluted process, you get this list of the top WAR seasons and careers since 1978:

Single-Seasons Careers
Rk Player Year Age G MP WAR Rk Player From To G MP WAR
1 Michael Jordan 1988 24 82 3311 30.3 1 Karl Malone 1986 2004 1476 54852 335.1
2 David Robinson 1994 28 80 3241 29.1 2 Michael Jordan 1985 2003 1072 41010 306.5
3 Michael Jordan 1989 25 81 3255 28.6 3 Hakeem Olajuwon 1985 2002 1238 44222 249.1
4 LeBron James 2009 24 81 3054 28.3 4 Shaquille O'Neal 1993 2011 1207 41918 246.4
5 Michael Jordan 1991 27 82 3034 27.7 5 Kevin Garnett 1996 2011 1195 43915 241.3
6 Michael Jordan 1996 32 82 3090 27.5 6 David Robinson 1990 2003 987 34271 236.5
7 Michael Jordan 1990 26 82 3197 26.9 7 Tim Duncan 1998 2011 1053 37733 235.4
8 Michael Jordan 1987 23 82 3281 26.6 8 Charles Barkley 1985 2000 1073 39330 235.0
9 LeBron James 2010 25 76 2966 26.5 9 John Stockton 1985 2003 1504 47764 228.0
10 Shaquille O'Neal 2000 27 79 3163 25.5 10 Kobe Bryant 1997 2011 1103 40145 220.4
11 Michael Jordan 1993 29 78 3067 25.4 11 Moses Malone 1978 1995 1247 42565 210.0
12 Kevin Garnett 2004 27 82 3231 25.3 12 Larry Bird 1980 1992 897 34443 205.7
13 Tim Duncan 2002 25 82 3329 25.1 13 Dirk Nowitzki 1999 2011 993 36236 205.5
14 Michael Jordan 1992 28 80 3102 24.9 14 Magic Johnson 1980 1996 906 33245 195.8
15 Chris Paul 2009 23 78 3002 24.8 15 Patrick Ewing 1986 2002 1183 40594 190.7
16 LeBron James 2006 21 79 3361 24.7 16 Gary Payton 1991 2007 1335 47117 179.1
17 Hakeem Olajuwon 1993 30 82 3242 24.6 17 Reggie Miller 1988 2005 1389 47619 179.0
18 David Robinson 1996 30 82 3019 24.6 18 Clyde Drexler 1984 1998 1086 37537 178.7
19 David Robinson 1995 29 81 3074 24.6 19 LeBron James 2004 2011 627 25171 175.4
20 Michael Jordan 1997 33 82 3106 24.4 20 Dominique Wilkins 1983 1999 1074 38113 169.7
Rk Player Year Age G MP WAR Rk Player From To G MP WAR
21 Shaquille O'Neal 1994 21 81 3224 23.8 21 Jason Kidd 1995 2011 1267 46689 169.1
22 Kevin Garnett 2005 28 82 3121 23.6 22 Paul Pierce 1999 2011 964 35710 167.0
23 Kobe Bryant 2006 27 80 3277 23.6 23 Scottie Pippen 1988 2004 1178 41069 166.9
24 David Robinson 1991 25 82 3095 23.3 24 Allen Iverson 1997 2010 914 37584 163.4
25 Karl Malone 1997 33 82 2998 23.3 25 Robert Parish 1978 1997 1534 44320 160.2
26 Dwyane Wade 2009 27 79 3048 23.2 26 Ray Allen 1997 2011 1102 40808 152.8
27 Karl Malone 1990 26 82 3122 23.1 27 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1978 1989 929 31097 148.3
28 LeBron James 2008 23 75 3027 23.1 28 Adrian Dantley 1978 1991 878 31335 146.1
29 Karl Malone 1998 34 81 3030 23.0 29 Jack Sikma 1978 1991 1107 36943 141.1
30 Chris Paul 2008 22 80 3006 22.9 30 Vince Carter 1999 2011 925 33632 137.7
31 Moses Malone 1982 26 81 3398 22.8 31 Shawn Marion 2000 2011 900 32658 137.0
32 Tim Duncan 2003 26 81 3181 22.8 32 Tracy McGrady 1998 2011 886 29821 133.7
33 Dirk Nowitzki 2006 27 81 3089 22.7 33 Larry Nance 1982 1994 920 30697 130.9
34 Charles Barkley 1990 26 79 3085 22.3 34 Dikembe Mutombo 1992 2009 1196 36791 130.0
35 Hakeem Olajuwon 1994 31 80 3277 22.3 35 Chris Webber 1994 2008 831 30847 129.4
36 Kevin Garnett 2003 26 82 3321 22.2 36 Grant Hill 1995 2011 948 32961 127.3
37 Karl Malone 1996 32 82 3113 22.2 37 Alex English 1978 1991 1133 37415 127.2
38 Karl Malone 1991 27 82 3302 22.2 38 Elton Brand 2000 2011 800 29527 126.1
39 Kevin Durant 2010 21 82 3239 22.1 39 Buck Williams 1982 1998 1307 42464 125.1
40 Tracy McGrady 2003 23 75 2954 22.1 40 Dwyane Wade 2004 2011 547 20541 123.1

(For a complete file, click here.)

The biggest thing you'll notice if you compare these lists to the post-1977 Win Shares single-season and career leaderboards is that WAR's win values are much higher for the top-ranked players. This is because a linear impact system like SPM gives a greater share of the credit to the team's best players, and a lesser share to the role players -- in other words, the wins add up the same for each team, but with WAR all teams are more top-heavy. (I'll leave it up to you to decide the philosophical merits of this.)

Finally, I wanted to rank players' peak performances by WAR, so I borrowed an idea that Doug Drinen used to rank wide receivers in football. To balance peaks vs. longevity, Doug ranked players according to their six best seasons -- this effectively rewards good seasons while neither punishing nor rewarding a player for sticking around too long. I threw in a little tweak: for every player who started their career after 1977, I calculated total WAR over his six best consecutive seasons:

Rank Player From To Ages 6yrWAR
1 Michael Jordan 1987 1992 23-28 165.0
2 LeBron James 2006 2011 21-26 145.0
3 David Robinson 1991 1996 25-30 141.6
4 Karl Malone 1993 1998 29-34 130.7
5 Kevin Garnett 2001 2006 24-29 126.8
6 Larry Bird 1983 1988 26-31 123.3
7 Charles Barkley 1988 1993 24-29 120.3
8 Tim Duncan 2000 2005 23-28 118.0
9 Dirk Nowitzki 2003 2008 24-29 116.3
10 Kobe Bryant 2003 2008 24-29 113.3
11 Hakeem Olajuwon 1989 1994 26-31 113.3
12 Magic Johnson 1986 1991 26-31 110.3
13 Shaquille O'Neal 2000 2005 27-32 108.2
14 Patrick Ewing 1990 1995 27-32 106.7
15 Dwight Howard 2006 2011 20-25 102.9
16 Dwyane Wade 2006 2011 24-29 101.4
17 Chris Paul 2006 2011 20-25 98.4
18 Scottie Pippen 1992 1997 26-31 98.1
19 Clyde Drexler 1987 1992 24-29 97.7
20 John Stockton 1988 1993 25-30 97.6
Rank Player From To Ages 6yrWAR
21 Dominique Wilkins 1986 1991 26-31 97.5
22 Tracy McGrady 2000 2005 20-25 95.8
23 Gary Payton 1997 2002 28-33 95.6
24 Shawn Marion 2002 2007 23-28 93.0
25 Paul Pierce 2001 2006 23-28 91.5
26 Elton Brand 2002 2007 22-27 88.5
27 Allen Iverson 2001 2006 25-30 88.4
28 Grant Hill 1995 2000 22-27 87.6
29 Pau Gasol 2006 2011 25-30 83.2
30 Sidney Moncrief 1981 1986 23-28 82.2
31 Chris Bosh 2006 2011 21-26 81.3
32 Shawn Kemp 1993 1998 23-28 79.0
33 Chauncey Billups 2004 2009 27-32 78.6
34 Kevin McHale 1985 1990 27-32 78.4
35 Chris Webber 1997 2002 23-28 77.2
36 Reggie Miller 1990 1995 24-29 76.9
37 Alonzo Mourning 1995 2000 24-29 76.6
38 Jack Sikma 1981 1986 25-30 76.0
39 Kevin Johnson 1989 1994 22-27 74.8
40 Ray Allen 2001 2006 25-30 74.0
Rank Player From To Ages 6yrWAR
41 Marques Johnson 1978 1983 21-26 73.7
42 Jason Kidd 1998 2003 24-29 73.6
43 Isiah Thomas 1983 1988 21-26 73.6
44 Vince Carter 2004 2009 27-32 72.1
45 Amare Stoudemire 2005 2010 22-27 71.6
46 Ben Wallace 2001 2006 26-31 71.3
47 Chris Mullin 1988 1993 24-29 71.2
48 Stephon Marbury 2000 2005 22-27 70.4
49 Yao Ming 2004 2009 23-28 70.1
50 Larry Nance 1983 1988 23-28 69.0
51 Steve Nash 2003 2008 28-33 69.0
52 Terry Porter 1988 1993 24-29 68.5
53 Steve Francis 2000 2005 22-27 68.5
54 Carmelo Anthony 2006 2011 21-26 68.4
55 Terry Cummings 1985 1990 23-28 68.2
56 Brad Daugherty 1988 1993 22-27 68.1
57 Dikembe Mutombo 1993 1998 26-31 68.1
58 Glen Rice 1993 1998 25-30 68.1
59 Gilbert Arenas 2002 2007 20-25 67.2
60 Mookie Blaylock 1993 1998 25-30 66.7
Rank Player From To Ages 6yrWAR
61 Fat Lever 1985 1990 24-29 65.9
62 Shareef Abdur-Rahim 1998 2003 21-26 65.1
63 Bill Laimbeer 1984 1989 26-31 65.1
64 Detlef Schrempf 1990 1995 27-32 64.9
65 Manu Ginobili 2005 2010 27-32 64.6
66 Eddie Jones 1997 2002 25-30 64.4
67 James Worthy 1986 1991 24-29 64.3
68 Rasheed Wallace 2000 2005 25-30 64.0
69 Mark Aguirre 1983 1988 23-28 63.9
70 Kiki Vandeweghe 1982 1987 23-28 63.9
71 Peja Stojakovic 2001 2006 23-28 63.8
72 Buck Williams 1982 1987 21-26 63.4
73 Horace Grant 1991 1996 25-30 63.2
74 Rod Strickland 1993 1998 26-31 62.3
75 Tony Parker 2004 2009 21-26 62.0
76 Andre Iguodala 2006 2011 22-27 61.9
77 Otis Thorpe 1987 1992 24-29 61.6
78 Mitch Richmond 1993 1998 27-32 61.5
79 Tom Chambers 1985 1990 25-30 61.5
80 Gerald Wallace 2006 2011 23-28 61.4
Rank Player From To Ages 6yrWAR
81 Rashard Lewis 2004 2009 24-29 61.0
82 Jeff Hornacek 1992 1997 28-33 60.2
83 Anfernee Hardaway 1994 1999 22-27 60.0
84 Antawn Jamison 2004 2009 27-32 60.0
85 Michael Finley 1998 2003 24-29 59.8
86 Terrell Brandon 1996 2001 25-30 59.8
87 Jermaine O'Neal 2002 2007 23-28 59.8
88 Deron Williams 2006 2011 21-26 59.6
89 Larry Johnson 1992 1997 22-27 59.2
90 Anthony Mason 1996 2001 29-34 59.1
91 David West 2006 2011 25-30 58.7
92 Michael Redd 2003 2008 23-28 58.6
93 Sam Cassell 2000 2005 30-35 58.4
94 Derek Harper 1986 1991 24-29 57.8
95 Alvin Robertson 1986 1991 23-28 57.7
96 Mark Price 1989 1994 24-29 57.6
97 Tim Hardaway 1993 1998 26-31 57.2
98 Bernard King 1980 1985 23-28 56.6
99 Clifford Robinson 1993 1998 26-31 56.0
100 Andrei Kirilenko 2002 2007 20-25 56.0

I've often written that LeBron James is the "Air" apparent to Jordan's throne (statistically, at least -- we'll set aside James' recent playoff disappointments), and it's true that his stats are the closest to MJ's of any current player. It's also true that he still theoretically has time to compile even greater numbers, given that he will be 27 next season and Jordan's best string of six consecutive seasons extended through age 28. However, this list only serves to underscore how unbelievable Michael Jordan's career was. Out of every player who started their career after 1977, LeBron James has put together the 6-year stretch (2006-2011) that most resembles a peak Jordan... and he still fell 20 WAR short.

As always seems to be the case, you can be as transcendent a basketball player as you want, but Michael Jordan is still going to be better than you.


83 Responses to “Basketball on Paper WAR and the Best Peak Regular-Season Players Since 1978”

  1. David Fauber Says:

    Awesome stuff

  2. AYC Says:

    Interesting rankings here. This is the first advanced stat I've seen that recognizes Isiah Thomas as a great player

  3. joekiddluischama Says:

    Like PER, which dramatically misinterprets the impact of team pace on the numbers of individual stars, this metric seems to unfairly penalize players who played on fast-paced clubs. Thus Chris Paul, playing for the slow-paced Hornets (a pace that allows him to milk and manipulate the possessions to the default benefit of his statistics) possesses multiple single-seasons among the top forty, whereas Magic Johnson, playing for the fast-paced “Showtime” Lakers (where the spontaneous and democratic rhythms created more possessions for the team yet caused Magic to control a lower percentage of them) fails to make the single-season list.

    I would also think that some adjustments would need to be made to account for differences in schedule (and thus quality of competition), position, and era. Using the 1993 Dallas Mavericks generically may not shed much light upon the average backup point guard in, say, 2007 or 1981.

  4. Neil Paine Says:

    #3 - The first criticism is somewhat valid, except for the fact that defense -- not offense -- is by far the biggest reason CP3's 2008 and 09 show up among the 40 best seasons ever while Magic is nowhere to be found. In Magic's 2 best WAR seasons, he was considered a -0.04 and -0.07 defender; in Paul's 2 best WAR seasons, he was considered a +1.18 and +0.74 defender.

    Offensively, it's actually pretty comparable (Paul's 2009 SPM is about 0.5 higher than Magic's 1987/1990, so there's a gap, but not as big as the defensive gap, and Paul's 2008 offensive SPM is basically equal to Magic's in 87 and 90).

    I hear you on the second criticism, but creating a unique replacement level for every position in every season would bring arbitrary positional designations into play, which I would prefer to avoid at just about any cost.

  5. AYC Says:

    I think elite players are probably less effected by changes in pace than roleplayers. Your team's best player is probably maxing out when it comes to on-court production, and I would expect diminishing returns for a player like that when the pace (or MPG for that matter) increases. But what are statheads gonna do? It's not like we can choose to ignore pace; if we didn't adjust for league environment the list of all-time greatest players would be dominated by players from the 60s and early 70s. I actually think the MPG adjustment matters more than the pace adjustment though

  6. mystic Says:

    Neil, is it possible to add the playoff numbers?

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    Yeah, I'm going to try to do that sometime this week, if I have time.

  8. wiLQ Says:

    "It's also true that he still theoretically has time to compile even greater numbers, given that he will be 27 next season and Jordan's best string of six consecutive seasons extended through age 28."
    But hasn't LeBron peaked already? Especially when we consider new role and new team I doubt he will ever come close to those Cavs' stats.

  9. Jason J Says:

    This is great, Neil.

    On the top 6 season list (was there a reason you went with top six consecutive or was it just easier?), the grouping of Shaq, Pat, and Dwight is interesting.

    Also interesting - every player from the '92 Dream Team is on top 6 seasons list except for Laettner, and they are all top 20 except for Chris Mullin, who is top 50.

    Because WAR is taking actual minutes played into effect, it is valuing Karl Malone's greatest assets as a power player - his conditioning and durability. He never missed games, and he played a lot. Like Wilt. It's good to parse things down per minute and per possession to compare apples to apples, but credit to these guys who never leave the court.

    I do think taking a non-consecutive top 6 seasons approach might get you different results. Hakeem in particular comes to mind. His 1988 season might not have added as much as his 1994 (MVP) season, but I would be surprised if it wasn't better than one of these seasons lumped between '89 & '94. '95 might make it too. Same with Shaq. At least one of his '90s seasons has to be better than one of those later 00's seasons.

    All in all this is really interesting work. I'd like to see a WAR/gm view, too.

  10. Matthew Cornwell Says:

    I don't understand Steve Nash. According to Box Score efficiency measures, such as Win Shares, and Player Wins, Nash comes out great. According to PM and APM, and RAPM, Nash is amazing.

    But SPM is so low on him. How can he come out so well in the two separate approaches, but come out so low when the approaches are meshed?

  11. Romain Says:

    Funny how players from the 80's are getting killed by this metric.

    Out of the top 40 seasons since 1978, there's not a single one from Bird, Magic, Irving or Jabbar. Moses shows up only once, at #31.

    I mean, these 5 players took home 11 MVP titles over a 12-year span from 1979 to 1990.

  12. Romain Says:

    I guess it's because the league was less diluted in the 80's.
    Top teams were all-star heavy and elite players had less opportunity to rack up huge numbers.

  13. Romain Says:

    Which leads me to my 2nd thought: out of the top 40 seasons, only 8 ended with the player winning a championship.

    5 times out of 8 that player is Michael Jordan (his only title season that's not on the list is 1998).

    The 3 remaining spots are for Shaq (2000), Duncan (2003), and Olajuwon (1994).

    So MJ (and that's not really a surprise of course...) is the only one who combines advanced stats dominance & mutliple titles.

  14. huevonkiller Says:


    A few brief criticisms.

    1. Why the interest over Consecutive seasons? That seems arbitrary. Why not just top peak seasons in general? I've read pro-football-reference (great site as well) and they don't just use consecutive seasons.

    Also a 12 win share player won’t make it on this list, but he can lead a team to a title. That’s another reason why 6 season prime doesn’t capture everything.

    2. You keep trying to frame Jordan’s peak as untouchable, but you keep forgetting in the playoffs *LeBron* is playing more minutes per game and minutes, not Jordan. LeBron overcomes Jordan in the playoffs with more WS/48 and WS. From ages 23-26 (59 games) LeBron is still superior and virtually equal in ws/48.

    3. I think you're a little biased with your rhetoric and approach towards certain eras. I'll give you credit for acknowledging some of your flaws, but you add in caveats that aren't true. For instance your 2009 defensive analysis was only 47% complete, and you didn’t point out team circumstances in this analysis (you reward Kobe’s 2006 usage rate, however James can‘t ballhog like that).

    4. One of the few intangibles I do believe in is talent pool. The league doesn’t look the same now compared to the 80’s and it more global obviously. How does one adjust for that?

    That’s difficult, but I do know that in 2030 I will not expect the best player of that era, to recreate the PER of the best player today. It seems likely the league will continue to get better. NBA roster sizes have remained constant but the world’s population and interest, haven’t.


    Kobe's 2006 usage rate would make him historic in another era. Pace is very important to adjust for, as is league environment.

    Chris Paul is rated incorrectly because of defense though, that is true. SPM has a hard time capturing defense.

  15. Chris Says:


    It's still a possibility, but you'd have to look at what he'd have to do to get there over the next couple of years.

    Just shave off Lebron's years at ages 21 & 22 and you have a cumulative WAR of 99.9. James would have to average a WAR of 32.5 over the next couple of seasons (27 & 28) to match what Jordan did. I would guess that only Kareem or Wilt have exceeded that level.

  16. Jason J Says:

    #8 - I wonder if that's a usage issue. The best players in the 80s were on deep teams, so the usage got spread out a lot... and generally, the play style was uptempo which tends to spread the wealth naturally. If you look at Showtime, the Lakers didn't really feature any one scorer, and they team rebounded. Same with the Pistons, Celtics, Bucks, and Cavs of that period.

    Also the #1, #3, and #8 seasons are all from the '80s. They belong to Jordan, but they took place in the '80s.

  17. Jason J Says:

    Whoops my comment above was meant for #11, not #8.

  18. Jason J Says:

    Hoev, if we're going to compare total playoff win share in a given age range for two players, do you should we make some correction for total games played?

    My concern is that total games played in the playoffs is not just a matter of health like it is in the regular season. One player might have more opportunity to play games than another and not necessarily because his team is advancing further.

    Any playoff totals comparison gets a little fuzzy unless we examine every series, because we don't know which player's team swept through early rounds and which got dragged into deep series. If the one team only has to play 3 games in round one (oh, and there's also the switch from 5 to 7 games in round one), and the other team has to play 5 games, that's a significant jump in total WS for one of those players. It doesn't mean he led his team any further in the playoffs, just that it took more games to get there. If the same thing happens in the next round - say one team advances in 5 games and the other takes 7 to move on, that's 4 addition games player two has played without progressing any further.

    Of course there is the issue of whether advancing further in the playoffs is within a players' control. You can also point out that if one team has to face a real juggernaut, its ability to advance and play more games is limited, and that might not be reflective of the production of the particular player in the comparison. For instance Chicago running into Boston in '86 when Jordan set the scoring record. Similarly, if a guy isn't getting any help from his teammates, his team could flame out despite an amazing series from him, and he wouldn't have the opportunity to compile additional WS in later rounds. Like in 2009, James had maybe the most productive playoff performance ever in two rounds, but his team stunk it up so bad against Orlando, that he couldn't move forward.

    For what it's worth, the per game the breakdown between Jordan and James at those ages is almost dead even:

    MJ = .228
    LBJ = .222

  19. Neil Paine Says:

    The seeming anti-1980s bias is definitely a usage thing. If you look at the top seasons by possession % since 1978 (min 1000 MP), aside from Jordan all of the top seasons came in the 2000s:

    Kobe Bryant, 2006 - 36.5%
    Dwyane Wade, 2009 - 36.5%
    Michael Jordan, 1987 - 35.9%
    Allen Iverson, 2002 - 35.8%
    Dwyane Wade, 2010 - 35.1%
    Allen Iverson, 2006 - 35.1%
    Dwyane Wade, 2007 - 35%
    Allen Iverson, 2005 - 34.9%
    Allen Iverson, 2004 - 34.7%
    Michael Jordan, 2002 - 34.6%
    Tracy McGrady, 2007 - 34.4%
    Jermaine O'Neal, 2005 - 34.4%
    LeBron James, 2009 - 34.2%
    Tracy McGrady, 2003 - 34.1%
    Jerry Stackhouse, 2001 - 34.1%
    LeBron James, 2010 - 34%
    Kobe Bryant, 2011 - 34%
    Allen Iverson, 2001 - 33.8%
    Tracy McGrady, 2006 - 33.7%
    LeBron James, 2008 - 33.6%

    I surmise there is a negative correlation between a team's pace and the possession % of its go-to guy. However, if the 80s guys aren't ranking highly enough, it's because they didn't raise their ORtgs enough to offset this natural loss of usage. Who knows, maybe the usage-efficiency tradeoff was different back then... but we'll never know, because there's no APM data from those days. You just have to assume the tradeoff was the same as it is now.

  20. Jason J Says:

    Neil - Do you think it's a pace issue (relating to usage v. ORtg)? If we look at the fast paced teams of the last decade do we see similar results where ORtg lags?

  21. Neil Paine Says:

    We're not judging guys like Magic and Bird based on what they would have done in a lower-pace environment. We're judging them based on what they actually did, and they actually used a smaller share of possessions than today's top usage guys. If possessions are getting spread out more, why shouldn't the WAR be more spread out among players on a team as well?

  22. Neil Paine Says:

    Sorry, #21 was in reply to my own #19...

  23. Neil Paine Says:

    #20 - It may be that a player like Nash or Magic cannot raise his ORtg any more, even at a lower usage than their peers. Those guys were operating at 120-125 ORtgs, which is just about the max anybody using 25+% of possessions can possibly have (Barkley had 127.9 on exactly 25% in 1990). If so, it could be argued that it's unfair to judge them on the same usage-efficiency curve as everyone else, but I used team pace as a variable in the bopSPM regression and it was nowhere near significant.

  24. AYC Says:

    Of course, Magic and Bird come off better when we look at the old SPM, which values assists more highly....

  25. Jason J Says:

    Re: #21 "If possessions are getting spread out more, why shouldn't the WAR be more spread out among players on a team as well?"

    Agreed, but if a great player's unselfishness is leading to greater contributions from teammates and helps to win 8 of the 10 titles in the 1980s... isn't that a good thing?

    An easy way for Magic and Bird to increase usage without sacrificing efficiency would probably have been in the post. Both had strong post games and almost always enjoyed size advantages. But if Magic spent all game in the post, LA would get next to nothing out of Kareem. Same with McHale and Parish in Boston.

    Also, given how important their playmaking was, a Magic or Bird team would probably suffer if those players looked to pass less, even if it might make their own numbers look better. It's interesting. I smell another debate about the value of assists coming on...

  26. Neil Paine Says:

    Just for fun, here are the 40 best WAR seasons if you go through the same process, but plug in old SPM instead of bopSPM:

    1. Michael Jordan, 1988 - 33.6
    2. Michael Jordan, 1989 - 31.8
    3. Michael Jordan, 1991 - 30.6
    4. Michael Jordan, 1990 - 30.3
    5. LeBron James, 2009 - 29.9
    6. Chris Paul, 2009 - 29.4
    7. David Robinson, 1994 - 28.5
    8. Michael Jordan, 1993 - 28.4
    9. Michael Jordan, 1996 - 28
    10. LeBron James, 2010 - 28
    11. Chris Paul, 2008 - 27.7
    12. Michael Jordan, 1987 - 27.6
    13. Michael Jordan, 1992 - 27
    14. John Stockton, 1989 - 26.2
    15. Kevin Garnett, 2004 - 26
    16. LeBron James, 2006 - 25.4
    17. John Stockton, 1991 - 25.2
    18. John Stockton, 1992 - 25.2
    19. Hakeem Olajuwon, 1993 - 25.1
    20. LeBron James, 2008 - 25.1
    21. Kobe Bryant, 2006 - 24.9
    22. Dwyane Wade, 2009 - 24.7
    23. John Stockton, 1988 - 24.4
    24. Michael Jordan, 1997 - 24.4
    25. Shaquille O'Neal, 2000 - 24.4
    26. Kevin Garnett, 2005 - 24.3
    27. Magic Johnson, 1989 - 24.1
    28. Magic Johnson, 1990 - 23.7
    29. Larry Bird, 1985 - 23.7
    30. John Stockton, 1990 - 23.7
    31. Tracy McGrady, 2003 - 23.6
    32. Larry Bird, 1987 - 23.5
    33. Larry Bird, 1988 - 23.5
    34. Larry Bird, 1986 - 23.4
    35. LeBron James, 2005 - 23.4
    36. David Robinson, 1991 - 23.4
    37. David Robinson, 1995 - 23.3
    38. LeBron James, 2011 - 23
    39. Kevin Garnett, 2003 - 23
    40. David Robinson, 1996 - 22.9

    So you do get the Magic seasons and the Larry seasons, but you also get Stockton being better than either of them, you get Charlie Ward being a 12-win player at one point, it's heavily biased toward PGs, it's a less accurate predictor of APM, etc.

  27. Ian Says:

    Ever the Dantley sycophant, I notice that AD should be on that 6-year list, as his 1981-1986 WAR totals 83.9.

  28. Neil Paine Says:

    That's right, I forgot that you're the world's foremost Adrian Dantley fan:

    A.D. isn't on the list, though, because he started his career in 1977, and I was only looking at players who had WAR data for their entire career.

  29. AYC Says:

    #26, I wonder how Stockton leap-frogs Bird and Magic, when they have much higher SPM according to this list:

    EJ: 8.82 career SPM, #7 all-time rank
    LB: 8.81 career SPM, #8 all-time rank
    JS: 5.63 career SPM, #32 all-time rank

    Stockton's single season best of 7.85 is lower than their career averages. Bird had +10 SPM four times; Magic did it 3 times.

  30. fjkdsi Says:

    Very good, I've been doing a very similar thing as far as the best peak players but with PER instead of WAR. I just used 24-29 since that's the prime for most players, however some guys haven't gotten to that age yet and of course guys like Karl Malone peaker much later.

  31. Neil Paine Says:

    Yeah, the 6-year idea was totally arbitrary, just something I took from Doug's old post. I think it should probably be a bigger window in the NBA than the NFL, simply because the careers are much longer -- in reality, 8-9 years might be ideal for basketball players. Also, the question is, should it be the 8 best overall seasons, or best 8 consecutive seasons?

  32. Neil Paine Says:

    #29 - That's a really, really old version of SPM. The weights are probably similar, but the source data was pretty shaky in those days, compiled somewhat questionably from many different places.

  33. Greyberger Says:

    Best overall seems right to me - don't we want to reward players who have logged so many quality seasons that 'best eight in a row' doesn't do their career justice?

    I'm a big fan of BoP SPM, but I have to register a little bit of dismay about what it says about the state of basketball statistics: that 'minutes played' and 'minutes played on a good defensive team' are still the closest we get to defensive contributions without bringing a plus-minus variant into the reckoning.

    That defensive box stats aren't descriptive enough to explain defensive ability is the limitation that Dean Oliver keeps sighing about in BoP and it's still pretty limiting. We have box score based estimates, we have APM and RAPM, and we have synergy, but we don't have any way to reconcile them all or a free and public record of the inside-the-possession information we'd need to make this project better.

  34. AYC Says:

    I would guess the "problem" with assists comes from the fact that point guards overwhelmingly dominate in that category. Stockton dished over 50% of his team's assists, while Dennis Rodman grabbed 23% of rebounds, and MJ had a 33.3% usage (and big time scorers can come from every position). But I think the statistical uniqueness of PGs shows the uniqueness of their skills. Assists are the only stat that measure the unique skills they bring to the table.

    PGs will always be at a statistical disadvantage overall, because a) assists are less common than points or rebounds, b) being an elite play-maker takes away from your ability to be a scorer, and c) PGs are usually the smallest players on the court, and don't rebound at high rates. Weighting assists as more valuable makes sense for all those reasons, and elite playmakers at other positions (Bird, Lebron, Wilt in the late '60s) also deserve recognition for making their teammates better

  35. AYC Says:

    Speaking of assists, wouldn't assist percentage be a more telling stat if it used FGA instead of made FG?

  36. JTaylor21 Says:

    I'm not trying to pile on the "kobe's overrated" train but here's another list that includes all the true all-time greats and he's no where to be found near the top or even in 5th or 6th place. I mean what gives? Why do people and the media continue to rank the guy up there next to the likes of MJ, KAJ and Magic when his numbers and accolades don't hold a candle to those guys? Is it his ability to copy some of MJ's moves out there on the court that has the population fooled? Or maybe is it the media's thirst and hunger for the next MJ to market drives the madness. I'm baffled that someone that has failed numerous times in the playoffs and came up short on talented teams in the biggest of games continues to get the benefit of the doubt year after year and continues to this day to be labeled among the 10 greatest players of all-time and even some people out there have him rated #2 behind MJ.
    Oh the humanity!!!!!!

  37. Matthew Cornwell Says:

    Excellent post. If we de-value assists too much, then we need to at least give a positional adjustment for specialization or something.

  38. Matthew Cornwell Says:

    Still looking for an analysis of Steve Nash and SPM. Again, he shines in Win Shares and APM and especialy RAPM, but falls way short in SPM. IS the the value of assists? Less value on offensive efficiency?

  39. AYC Says:

    I would guess it's the defensive component of SPM that hurts Nash, Matthew. Nash's defensive stats are awful.

  40. Ian Says:

    Let me also add that I have my own project where I rank players according to their 6 best seasons, so this exercise is particularly intriguing. I got the idea from a different source altogether -, where artists are ranked according to their 6 most acclaimed albums and 6 most acclaimed singles.

  41. Matthew Cornwell Says:

    Nash - But he never looks much worse than his teamates in APM or RAPM. He already gets about as low of marks as possible in Win Shares for defense too.

    I do not think he is so much worse than his bad defensive teamates at one-on-one defense to make his Win Shares that off for Nash. Especially not when his APM scores are so high every year.

  42. Mo Says:

    Kobe's 6yr WAR is 10th all-time. How does that make kobe overrated.

    Career also at #10

  43. huevonkiller Says:


    Jason J, call me "hk" it is much easier to say and remember. ;)

    Thanks for the observations. Yeah there's a way to adjust for total games played and if you do that it helps James. Because when James was getting past the first round in 2006-2007 that was before his prime, bringing down his career averages. From ages 21-23 James has the same WS/48 as Jordan (.177) and 6 more win shares. From ages 24-26 he has a slightly higher WS/48 (.268), and 1 more win share.

    In 2010 the Team with the highest SRS was the Orlando Magic, which the Celtics also beat after they got healthy. LeBron's team played pretty bad in 2010 not just 2009. For context Jordan had a similar post-season in an MVP year (1988); he struggled against Detroit but played very well against Cleveland in the first round. James sucked in 2011 for his standards but 2009 was the greatest post-season ever. :]

    As for the future, I don't expect a 1991 post-season from James but Jordan's 1992 season was weak for his standards. A .250 WS/48 over more playoff seasons would be a comparable career.

    #42 The media overrates everyone, but Kobe's underrated by a lot of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Fans. He's in their league according to a lot of stats around here.

    ALso his 6 year WAR isn't accurate, the Ante/Post Shaq-era affects his ability to be accumulate statistics. He's underrated by that.

  44. huevonkiller Says:

    *to accumulate statistics.


    If you use 8 consecutive seasons as a window, you would still erase 2008-2009 or 2000-2001 out of Kobe's career. The results would be superfluously inaccurate.

    That guy was much better than the 2004 version, and had his best post-seasons those years.

  45. khandor Says:

    re: "Also the #1, #3, and #8 seasons are all from the '80s. They belong to Jordan, but they took place in the '80s."

    When MJ was at his most prolific level of statistical production, as an individual player, the teams he played on were incapable of winning the League Championship. Hmmm ... However, as he then began to develop a more mature/sophisticated understanding of "How the game of basketball is actually supposed to be played, at its highest level of competition", he produced individual stats which were less prolific AND the teams he played on were then able to capture multiple League Championships. Hmmm ... Likewise, other all-time great players like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird are only found further down the stat charts which purport to measure accurately the "individual ability" of an individual basketball player who, by definition, functions exclusively within a "team" environment comprised of 3 main phases [i.e. Offense, Defense and Rebounding]. Hmmm ... It continually amazes that so many seemingly intelligent people spend copious amounts of time looking in the wrong direction when trying to identify correctly those who rightfully qualify as being amongst the legitimate group of GOATs. In no particular ... What determines an individual player's ability to play the game properly are relatively innocuous things like Assists, Rebounds, Assists/Turnovers, Steals, Deflections/Tips, Blocked Shots, Successful Helps & Rotations, Penetrations [i.e. allowed & made], Appropriate Cuts & Floor Spacing, Screen & Pick execution [i.e. setting & evading], Conditioning, Energy [i.e. positive, neutral, or negative], Team Spirit, and Competitive Greatness ... the group of which cannot yet be found in a single reliable metric, TTBOMK. Conversely, examining "Just how far above the production level of an 'average' player someone is would appear to be little more than a giant waste of resources ... at least, when it comes to increasing the current level of understanding for what's actually required to win the League Championship. In the end, isn't THAT really what the game is all about?

  46. Jason J Says:

    #45 - I wholeheartedly agree with the principle of what you're saying. Any time a team has one individual doing too many things with the ball, their chances of winning it all seem to be compromised. Moreover when someone like Jordan moves his energy into making good cuts and spending some of the time as a decoy (which Bird excelled at by the way), it certainly opened things up for Pippen as a playmaker. Excellent points.

    However, as devil's advocate, the counter to that point is team talent. It's a lot easier for Russell to be less ball-dominant with Cousy, Jones (both of them), Hondo, Heinson, and all the other HoF players on those teams filling in the blanks than for his contemporary Oscar Robertson who didn't have nearly the talent around him. Did Big O do too much? Maybe, but did he have to in order to keep his team competitive? Also maybe. It becomes a chicken / egg question.

    For a perspective specific to MJ, Phil Jackson's "Sacred Hoops" dives into Phil's take on Jordan's willingness to back off a little and trust the rest of his teammates to step up. It's a good read generally as well.

  47. Ryan Says:

    Regarding #32:

    That is the most recent list I have been using to do an all-time personal rankings system of my own.

    Do you have available for download a refined system with the most two recent seasons included.

    Thanks for all your hard work Neil,


  48. huevonkiller Says:


    I like your devil's advocate point. Jordan was the perfect example of why winning depends on teams, not individuals. Team results are essentially worthless but people can't bring themselves to admit it. No one enters their prime at ages 33-35 that alone should have been a warning sign.

    On bad teams the options are "do too much" or lose. Statistically this has been proven pretty much always. Playing off the ball is only an option when you have superstar teammates.

  49. khandor Says:

    Individual statistical production is not what determines who the best players actually are ... despite what the stat hounds will try to tell you. The fact is ... the best players in the game customarily reach their individual peak between the ages of 27-35, when their mental capacity for understanding how to play the game properly becomes fused with their physical capabilities. It really is a "team game", and the ones who know how to play it best, also know that "not losing" [i.e. winning] is brought about by a delicate balance between individual and team play [i.e. production]. League Championships won, Conference Championships won, Playoff Series wins, and Playoff Games won ... i.e. "team accomplishments" ... by an individual player's TEAM, are the only truly meaningful stats in the NBA game, when attempting to determine which players are the best amongst a closed set, relative to their respective roles [i.e. when comparing apples to apples, ala "stars to stars" and "support players to support players".] The fact is ... Playing off the ball is always a legitimate option for those who are TRULY the best; as is dominating, individually, when the situation dictates. This, essentially, is the beauty of the game ... which, unfortunately, can [and will] never be fully captured through the simple regurgitation of numbers.

  50. Greyberger Says:

    Reply to #49:

    "League Championships won, Conference Championships won, Playoff Series wins, and Playoff Games won ... i.e. "team accomplishments" ... by an individual player's TEAM, are the only truly meaningful stats in the NBA game, when attempting to determine which players are the best amongst a closed set, relative to their respective roles [i.e. when comparing apples to apples, ala "stars to stars" and "support players to support players"."

    You've got it completely backwards. You seem to acknowledge that players have varying degrees of impact on the outcome, but if team results are all we have to go on you have nothing to tell stars apart from support players except your opinion.

    Robert Horry has a lot of rings on a lot of teams. Is he the best support player ever? Or is he a star? If he's a star, isn't he better than other stars like him, because his teams were better?

  51. khandor Says:


    In basketball, it's important to compare apples to apples. Robert Horry was an under-sized PF who was a terrific support player, coming off the bench for the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. However, it's nothing more than nonsense when someone tries to insert the fact that Robert has a bucketful of titles to his credit, into a discussion of who the very best [i.e. "star"] basketball players are, e.g. Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain.

  52. Anon Says:

    "Any time a team has one individual doing too many things with the ball, their chances of winning it all seem to be compromised."

    This makes sense. It ALSO makes sense that this happens when you play with maginal talent around you - when MJ played alongside players that could take the load off of his shoulders, the titles came rolling in.

    We can sit here and pretend that MJ closed his eyes and sent out an invisible energy force a la Street Fighter that magically made his teammates better, but these things cannot be proven. We can also sit here and pretend that MJ "willed" his teammates to play better, but that didn't happen either - not to mention it takes away due credit from coaches and the individual who is the one ultimately responsible for his own play.

    The only thing you can prove (with the data that is available to the public's disposal) is basketball production on the court. Subjective analysis makes for great stories and folklore, but this is not the place for it.

  53. Anon Says:

    Also, Greyberger - don't waste your time with Khandor.

  54. khandor Says:

    re: "The only thing you can prove (with the data that is available to the public's disposal) is basketball production on the court. Subjective analysis makes for great stories and folklore, but this is not the place for it."

    It is always interesting to read a perspective like this one which seems to believe that [A] something can actually be "proved" by statistical data in the game of basketball that does not somehow have a correlation to "the facts" commonly known as [i] Team League Championships won, [ii] Team Conference Championships won, [iii] Team Playoff Series won, and [iv] Individual Minutes Played, and that [B] those who might rely on "facts" like these, instead, to form the basis of their perceptions about the game and the individual players who excel at it are somehow using "less" trustworthy data ... and, therefore, merely a form of subjective [pseudo?] hoops analysis ... than their so-called "advanced stats-happy" counterparts. Stories and folklore? Indeed. LOL, :-)

  55. Dan D. Says:

    Great stuff Neil. Curiously - I too had just finished my ratings from 79-80 until the present (I'm the guy that does college basketball player ratings BTW - if you remember - "Statman" at APBR). Here are my top 40 seasons of players ranked over "replacement player" - with the WAR rank to compare (I apologize in advance if it looks "ugly):

    Rk Player Year WAR
    1 Shaquille O'Neal 2000 10
    2 LeBron James 2009 4
    3 David Robinson* 1994 2
    4 Michael Jordan* 1988 1
    5 Kevin Garnett 2004 12
    6 Michael Jordan* 1989 3
    7 LeBron James 2010 9
    8 Tim Duncan 2002 13
    9 Michael Jordan* 1996 6
    10 LeBron James 2006 16
    11 Shaquille O'Neal 1994 21
    12 Michael Jordan* 1990 7
    13 Chris Paul 2009 15
    14 Michael Jordan* 1991 5
    15 David Robinson* 1996 18
    16 Tracy McGrady 2003 40
    17 Dwyane Wade 2009 26
    18 LeBron James 2008 28
    19 Tim Duncan 2003 32
    20 Kevin Garnett 2005 22
    21 Michael Jordan* 1987 8
    22 Michael Jordan* 1993 11
    23 Hakeem Olajuwon* 1993 17
    24 David Robinson* 1995 19
    25 David Robinson* 1991 24
    26 Kobe Bryant 2006 23
    27 Kevin Garnett 2003 36
    28 Chris Paul 2008 30
    29 Hakeem Olajuwon* 1994 35
    30 Karl Malone* 1997 25
    31 Michael Jordan* 1997 20
    32 LeBron James 2011 -
    33 LeBron James 2005 -
    34 Kobe Bryant 2003 -
    35 Michael Jordan* 1992 14
    36 Shaquille O'Neal 2001 -
    37 Karl Malone* 1998 29
    38 Charles Barkley* 1988 -
    39 Dirk Nowitzki 2006 33
    40 Moses Malone* 1982 31

    Amazingly - our top 40 have 35 of the same seasons. Where our top 40 doesn't agree - mine has '11 & '05 LBJ (#32 & 33), '03 Kobe (#34), '01 Shaq (#36), & '88 Sir Charles (#38). Yours loves Karl Malone - he's at #27, #37, & #38 for you (for '90, 96, 91 - my rankings have him #51, #53, #70 for those respective seasons). Yours also has '90 Sir Charles at #34 (mine #58), and '10 Durant at #39 (mine has him #55).

    Your ratings seem to value scoring a little more than mine (MJ dominating the very top of yours and Karl Malone being so present) - mine maybe the supporting stats slightly more? They both seem to value team performance quite a bit. Neither of us have Bird or Magic in our 40 - which would be shocking to many (kinda including myself). My highest Bird season is #49, highest Magic is #79(!). Honestly though - the difference between #49 & #79 isn't that big. I believe much of this is how very good their teammates were, how much of the production was shared - so they didn't dominate their teams' stats like later greater players do. The 90s is when it seemed teams focused on getting their best players a larger share of the "touches" (MUCH more isolation - defenses allowing less fast breaks) - leading to a higher % of points & assists relatively speaking for the elite players compared to their teammates - and thus somewhat higher individual ratings for these elite players.

    I also rank players by adjusted player wins - which credits every win of the season split among every player according to their rating share. I think APW fits how people "see" past great players - where winning tons of games & especially championships REALLY matters. Good/great players on big winning teams jump up there - Bird has #15 & #16 regular season, Magic #30 & #34. If I added playoffs (which I will soon - weighted adjusted playoff wins) - you'll see nothing but championship elite players all over the top individual seasons (MJs, Russells, Kobes, Shaqs, Birds, Magics, etc).

    I should have a site up soon with all my results (historical NBA and past college seasons) - I'll send you a link when it's up.

  56. Dan D. Says:


    LeBron probably has peaked (player metrics wise) - from my research the average NBA player peaks at 26. of course - barring injury he'll be elite for many seasons still and a threat of being a champion every season


    I agree - the 80's was pre expansion - a little less dilution of talent. We do have an upswing of talent imo now with a much larger quantity of quality foreign players. I truly think the biggest reason though is that coaches seemed to get their 5 most productive offensive players on the court MUCH more back then - and "share" the statistical wealth much more. Now it's like 2 or maybe 3 production guys - two defensive stoppers - and a bunch of isolations allowing your most "productive" guys more touches and thus more production stats relative to their teammates.


    Totally agree.


    I say BEST seasons period - not best consecutive. I see no reason why they need to be consecutive.

  57. Jason J Says:

    #52 - I agree that we shouldn't attribute team success to a magical aura radiating out of the pores of supposedly great players, but in some cases the way a star player takes a step back to empower a teammate is pretty clear.

    For instance in 1990, what Jordan did to help the team win more by taking a step back was very obvious. He gave up control of the ball to Pippen. In some ways it was an odd decision. Jordan is a better creator than Pippen. No doubt about it. He draws double teams easier, penetrates into the defense easier, and he's even got better vision and is a more gifted passer. Seems like it would make sense to keep MJ at point guard. However, Pippen is still really good at all of those things. What Pippen wasn't so good at and the team really needed from that wing position was additional shooting, post play, and movement without the ball. Jordan is one of the best high usage guards ever at all of those things.

    So rather than try to cram a Pippen skillset into a Worthy niche, in order to allow Jordan to keep playing that Oscar Robertson point guard role where he got 30+ points and 11+ assists a game and had most of his career triple doubles in a two month span, Phil flipped the roles. He let Pippen use his best skills at point guard while Jordan moved back to his role as a G/F slasher and adapted his game to quick hits instead of dribble set ups. All of which is complicated by the fact that the triangle offense was imposed which meant that the true ball-dominant PG role was basically scrapped, and you had to really watch to see that Scottie was the primary ball-handler and play caller.

    Similarly, Larry Bird often enjoyed a greater size advantage at his position than any player on his team in a day when there was no zone to impede low post scorers. But he played with a big front court that had limited range. In order for the offense to run with proper spacing LB had to stay out of the paint on most plays and only post up in limited situations. He could do that because, unlike Parish and McHale, he was a great face up shooter from distance as well as a great post scorer.

    Of course that sort of role change due to a star's versatility doesn't always work. In Phili Barkley tried to vacate the post and play SF to accommodate Armen Gilliam, but the team didn't really work as well that way. In Minnesota and Dallas, Garnett and Dirk both played extended minutes at the three for years so that Joe Smith, Antoine Walker, Raef LaFrentz and others of that ilk could get on the court and "produce" at the 4 with them. There's a difference between taking a step back in order to allow Pippen or McHale be fantastic and taking a step back in order to watch Joe Smith play average ball.

    What it boils down to is division of labor, which I don't know that most metrics in basketball have a means of accounting for quite yet. And maybe you're right, and they shouldn't. Maybe being on a team that's good enough for a player to do less should be held against them to some extent, since they are in effect able to coast more.

    From a fan's perspective thought, I would just give a reminder that when you're building your all-time team to do BBall battle with the alien invaders a la Bill Simmons, that you probably don't want five guys all trying to do everything on the floor at the same time. Stars who have the ability to dominate in multiple niches are valuable for that flexibility.

  58. huevonkiller Says:

    Jason J I respect your long anecdote but your Jordan comment is incorrect. Jordan's usage rate during the title years was 33%, and it was 33% before that. You have fallen victim to the narrative pseudo-analysts like Bill Simmons try to promote.

    The Bulls began to win because Pippen hit his peak years, it is as simple as that. when Jordan retired Pippen's peak was still there. Jordan continues to be the perfect case study of why teammates have to contribute on their own. Although I enjoyed reading your post though.


    That was great usage of street fighter. :]

  59. Jason J Says:

    HK - Check out Jordan's Asst% after 1989 (the only year he played PG). It drops precipitously and never recovers. There's no time in Mike's career he wasn't a gunner (usage is always over 30), but for that one year he also played a few months at the PG. He very clearly and deliberately (and I was watching then) changed his game to give up control of the ball. But what you say is not wrong. Pippen certainly developed into a better player in that same time span. But I would still contend that changing roles helped him out significantly.

  60. khandor Says:

    Here's a simple question for other basketball observers to answer.

    For those who worship at the "alter of individual production stats", when it comes to making an accurate assessment of which basketball players are, in fact, the best ones in the history of the game:

    Was the version of Michael Jordan who played the game of basketball during the early part of his NBA career with the Bulls [i.e. between the ages of 21-26, prior to the first of Chicago's title-winning teams] a superior basketball player, in comparison with the version of Michael Jordan who played the game of basketball during the 2nd half of his NBA career [i.e. between the ages of 27-33, when the Bulls won 6 NBA Championships in a span of 8 seasons]?

    If your answer is, "Yes," then it says everything that needs to be said about your personal level of understanding regarding how "the game of basketball" is actually supposed to be played.

    [Hint: i. The "Rules of Basketball" do not allow a game to begin without each team having 5 players, a designated coach, and there being a designated official[s]. ii. When a single player takes a ball and practices on his/her own, with or without a rim, or a court, or a coach, or an official, or an opponent team of players and coach, etc., this player is not actually "playing the game of basketball." iii. There's an old saying that goes like this: Many play with a basketball; but, relatively few become actual "basketball players."]

    Conversely, if your answer is, "No," then it also says everything that needs to be said about your personal level of understanding regarding how "the game of basketball" is actually supposed to be played.

    [Hint: i. According to the known "facts," the best basketball player in recorded history happens to be a certain former Boston Celtic after whom the NBA Finals' MVP Trophy has recently been named. ii. Btw, a "fact" is something which is actually indisputable, e.g. the sun rose in the sky today on the planet earth.]

    Street fighter? LOL, :-)

  61. Dan D. Says:

    "[Hint: i. According to the known "facts," the best basketball player in recorded history happens to be a certain former Boston Celtic after whom the NBA Finals' MVP Trophy has recently been named. ii. Btw, a "fact" is something which is actually indisputable, e.g. the sun rose in the sky today on the planet earth.]"

    Exactly - just as it's indisputable that a certain Yankee catcher is the best baseball player in recorded history, and a certain Brown QB is the greatest football player in recorded history.....

    Just think - if that certain Celtic had the luxury of playing with all those Hall of Famers a certain Bull got to play with - how many MORE championships he would have won.... oh, wait, nevermind.

  62. Dan D. Says:

    "[Btw, a "fact" is something which is actually indisputable, e.g. the sun rose in the sky today on the planet earth.]"

    BTW - I can't believe I didn't notice this - but the sun IN FACT did not "rise" today - the earth rotated on it's axis giving you direct access to the sun's rays for a period of time..

    I guess people can in fact disagree on what exactly is "fact".

  63. khandor Says:

    Dan D,

    re: "Exactly - just as it's indisputable that a certain Yankee catcher is the best baseball player in recorded history, and a certain Brown QB is the greatest football player in recorded history....."

    By this specific comment ... Are YOU really trying to suggest/claim that the games of baseball and football should, in "fact", be considered as being somehow "equivalent" to the game of basketball?

    Because ... if YOU are, then, there is no need for a further reply from me.

    i.e. Football is football. Baseball is baseball. Basketball is basketball.

    re: "Just think - if that certain Celtic had the luxury of playing with all those Hall of Famers a certain Bull got to play with - how many MORE championships he would have won.... oh, wait, nevermind.

    By making this specific comment ... Are YOU really trying to suggest that the different teammates who happened to play on the Celtics with the only man in NBA history to have won 11 NBA Championships in a span of 13 years, would, in fact, have been certified Hall Of Fame players, in their own right, if they would have played their respective NBA careers on another team with some other player at the Center position?

    Because ... if YOU are ... then there is no need for a further reply from me.

    i.e. Although subjective analysis and hypothetical situations [i.e. "ifs", "woulds", "coulds", shoulds, etc.] may make for "great stories and folklore", they are not certifiable facts.

  64. khandor Says:

    @ #62,

    Agreed. :-)

  65. huevonkiller Says:


    Jordan's assist rate was 34.5% in 1989 as a loser. And then 36.7% in his best post-season. Your storyline doesn't make sense, it doesn't fall off precipitously in his peak.

    Jason J you are really trying to write this storyline that simply isn't there. All Jordan does is play less minutes per game.

  66. huevonkiller Says:


    Lol nice.

    Khandor you still haven't understood Anon's comment. And Jordan was 34 and 35 in his last titles and a broken down version of what he used to be.

  67. khandor Says:

    @ 66,

    I understand Anon's comment quite well, thank you. :-) IMO, it just happens to demonstrate a lack of basketball acumen.

    Although Michael Jordan, at the age of 34 and 35, may not have been as good a basketball player as he was when he was 27, this is actually irrelevant, since the question asked is, "Was Michael Jordan a 'better basketball player' between the ages of 27-to-35 [i.e. when his individual stats were at their peak], or 21-to-26 [when the Bulls won 6 League Championships]?"

  68. khandor Says:

    The previous comment should read as follows:

    @ 66,

    I understand Anon's comment quite well, thank you. :-) IMO, it just happens to demonstrate a lack of basketball acumen.

    Although Michael Jordan, at the age of 34 and 35, may not have been as good a basketball player as he was when he was 27, this is actually irrelevant, since the question asked is, "Was Michael Jordan a 'better basketball player' between the ages of 21-to-26 [i.e. when his individual stats were at their peak], or 27-to-35 [when the Bulls won 6 League Championships]?"

    Sorry for the typo.

  69. Greyberger Says:

    Khandor, you're like a preacher in a brothel. If team performance is all you need to know, what possible allure could this site have for you? This place is pages and pages of meaningless data, to you - how can you stand to be here?

  70. khandor Says:


    A brothel? LOL, :-)

    That is not quite how I choose to interpret what takes place here, since a good portion of the content is solid information from a basketball acumen perspective.

    Are you familiar with the following story?


  71. Neil Paine Says:

    #69 - What can I say... We put the spring in Springfield. (Massachusetts, that is -- home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.)

  72. khandor Says:

    #71 - What should you [i.e. as a sound basketball statistical researcher/analyst] be able to say? ... concerning the "field" in Springfield ... Perhaps, something along the following lines, instead. :-)

  73. huevonkiller Says:


    That's a poorly worded question then. The question should be how a second rate version of Jordan won in 1992, 1997 and 1998 but lost in 1989, 1988, etc.

    Sorry but Anon said nothing that was false. Your purely subjective analysis has no value here, and the technicality of trying to ignore Jordan's age will not work either. You are using the Dragon Ball Z power-up argument (to paraphrase Anon).

  74. khandor Says:


    It is always interesting when those who claim to base their opinions on "facts" choose which ones to ignore when they feel like it. League Championships won, Conference Championships won, playoff series won, playoff games won, and Minutes Played are irrefutable FACTS, and authentic markers of individual excellence, in the game of basketball, relative to a player's peers. If you cannot cope with this reality, then, just say so. Futile attempts to "shoot the messenger" will accomplish nothing.

  75. huevonkiller Says:


    Yes those TEAM stats are right, the individuals ones clearly destroy your argument. Which is the whole point you don't understand what leads to winning.

  76. bchaikin Says:

    from 80-81 to 85-86, six consecutive seasons, the milwaukee bucks were - by far - the best defensive team in the league. those 6 years combined the difference in pts/poss allowed by milwaukee and the 2nd best defensive team, boston, was greater than the difference in pts/poss allowed by boston and the 6th best defensive team new jersey (bos, was, phi, pho, then njn)...

    the 6-4 and 190 lb sidney moncrief was DPOY twice (in 82-83 and 83-84, and despite great defensive seasons by big men like buck williams, rick mahorn, mark eaton, tree rollins, and others), all-D 1st team 4 times, and all-D 2nd team once during that 6 year stretch. he was the key reason milwaukee was the top defensive team for such a long time, and played almost twice as many minutes as any other bucks player during that time (except marques johnson who he played 40% more minutes than)...

    however not only was he the best defensive SG in the league these 6 seasons, he was also one of the very best all-around offensive SGs. he not only scored the 3rd most total points among all SGs (behind only gervin and free) from 80-81 to 85-86, but was the best overall shooting SG (58.0% ScFG%), made the most FTs (shooting 83%), and grabbed the 2nd most total rebounds among all SGs. he scored more than 1/6 of the bucks total points these 6 years, and they averaged a 55-27 W-L record during this time, bettered by only bos, phi, and lal...

    if your system does indeed capture defense, for peak value i can't imagine a better 6 year stretch by an SG not named jordan over the past 30+ years...

  77. David Says:


    Quite honestly I'm finding most of your argument more dismissive than substantive.

    So are we just to ignore the strength of Jordan's supporting casts when debating the reasons for him winning multiple championships? Jordan declined as he got older. Statistics support this, but even the untrained eye could see it. His offensive repertoire became limited to two or three moves and shot a lower percentage from the field.

    Now, I understand the case you're trying to make here, that his experience and overall understanding of the game from his championship years outweigh his statistical dominance from the his peak WAR years. Much of drop off in his numbers can be attributed to his redefined role - he understood that Pippen played better with the ball in his hands, etc. - thus the lower assist totals. However, you're not going to convince me in any way that, for instance, shooting 41% in the 96 Finals or 46% in his final Bulls season (an almost 8 percent drop from his peak) has no weight in this argument. He was a lesser offensive player at this point in his career.

    Do you really think the Bulls would have failed in the 90s with Jordan from his statistical peak?

  78. joekidd Says:

    @77 I don't know that the nineties Bulls would have failed with Jordan at his statistical peak, but obviously, individual statistics within a collective unit can create ironic implications. The nineties Bulls, for instance, became more balanced and diverse and thus more difficult to defend. Chuck Daly stated that once Jordan bought into the "triangle offense" of Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, the "Jordan Rules" no longer worked and Chicago famously swept Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals (after falling to the Pistons in the previous three postseasons). Jordan at his statistical peak would have meant either no triangle offense or no triangle of the same extent, in which case John Paxson may not have been receiving—and confidently hitting—those regular, open looks late in the fourth quarter of Game Five of the 1991 NBA Finals at the Great Western Forum versus the Lakers. Using that performance by Paxson as merely one example or an epitome, one can see why Jordan at his statistical peak could have slightly diminished the collective ability of the nineties Bulls, thus costing Chicago in any number of close playoff series versus formidable opponents, especially in the NBA Finals. When Jordan proved to be at his most statistically dominant, in the mold of Oscar Robertson, he basically constituted Chicago's entire offense and everyone else simply fed off him. But after Phil Jackson convinced Jordan to function through the triangle, he became a great player that nonetheless represented part of a system, as opposed to being the system himself. That broader system forced his teammates to assume greater responsibility, to become more dangerous, and to diversify Chicago's offense, with offensive diversity proving especially important in the playoffs when opponents can prepare a defensive game-plan meticulously. By sacrificing his individual statistics in a mild manner, Jordan allowed his collective unit to become multi-dimensional and more effective. Had he not embraced that step, conversely, the Bulls' championship success may not have evolved, at least not with such frightening consistency.

    Let me also note that even if Jordan's offensive repertoire dwindled to two or three moves (I'm not sure that that statement is accurate), the reason may possess less to do with the physical diminishment of age (Jordan in his mid-thirties remained one of the league's most athletic, explosive players) and more with the mental acuity that comes with age. I've found that as they grow older, creative players, writers, and artists often become more spare and efficient in their actions or style, eliminating needless flamboyance and instead maximizing what works the best. I see the same winnowing process, for example, in the evolution of Kevin Johnson's penetrating moves off the dribble. As creators mature, they prefer profundity over flash.

  79. joekidd Says:


    In terms of shooting 41.46% in the 1996 NBA Finals, Jordan may have constituted a lesser offensive player at that point in his career, but in '95-'96 at ages thirty-two/thirty-three, he averaged a league-best 30.4 points on a .495 field goal percentage, a .834 free throw percentage in 8.0 FTA per game, and a .582 True Shooting Percentage. Three years earlier in '92-'93 at ages twenty-nine/thirty, Jordan averaged a league-best 32.6 points on a .495 field goal percentage, a .837 free throw percentage in 7.3 FTA, and a .564 True Shooting Percentage. So by those measures, he really had not declined from his last year of the first three-peat. Therefore, while his mediocre or relatively low shooting percentage in the 1996 NBA Finals may in part reflect advancing age, I would caution against too firm an assessment. The low percentage may have just as much (if not more greatly) reflected random variation: a series against an elite defensive opponent where he didn't happen to shoot well, much like Jordan's 1993 Eastern Conference Finals where he shot .400 against the Knicks. This point is especially pertinent because Jordan's cold shooting in the 1996 NBA Finals is largely limited to just two contests (Games Four and Six), where he shot 6-19 and 5-19, respectively, for a combined rate of .289 (11-38). Conversely, in the other four games, he shot .471 (40-85), which isn't spectacular, but doesn't fully suggest a decline in ability, either. Possibly Jordan tired a little late in that series (he was completing a full NBA season for the first time in three years) and perhaps those Finals marked one of those small-sample situations where one or two poor games unduly affects the mean efficiency. Besides, Jordan did average a whopping 11.2 FTA per contest in that series, hitting his free throws at a .836 clip and attaining double-digits in FTA in five of the six games.

    So using Jordan's overall field goal percentage in that one series as evidence of the aging process, while not without some arguable merit, also seems a tad fallacious. If Jordan constituted a worse offensive player by that stage of his career, he may have only been a slightly worse offensive player, one whose ability could be negatively misinterpreted based upon a couple cold performances late in the 1996 Finals. After all, in two of Jordan's first three playoff series back in the 1980s, he shot .436 and .417 from the field, respectively.

  80. David Says:

    You make some fair points and I’ll try to respond to all of them.

    When I highlighted his 96 finals percentages I should have been more thorough. His overall shooting percentages in the second threepeat in both the regular season and playoffs were far lower than his statistical prime, I just chose the 96 Finals because they were the most glaring example. He also had the highest usage rating in the NBA in his last three Bulls seasons. Payton even said in an interview about that series something to the effect of "I could not guard him in his prime, but he has slowed down since he came back"

    I understand that there are strategic implications of Jordan not dominating the offense. But let’s say he isolated in the 90s as often as he did in his statistical peak rather than playing strictly through the triangle. Would that really affect his teammates performances? We can use role players like Paxson and Kerr for this instance. In Paxson’s big performances, the shots he hit weren’t necessarily in isolation or the result of him creating offense. Many of them were set shots or single-dribble jumpers, shots that he would have gotten even with late-80s MJ running the offense. Steve Kerr even at his absolute BEST couldn’t dribble his way out of a paper bag. He was the epitome of a role player throughout his Bulls career. The scoring opportunities he received likely would have come no matter how aggressively MJ played. Let’s even consider Rodman. He still would have grabbed rebounds but would have been as irrelevant as before offensively.

    The variables in this equation are players like Pippen, Grant, and later Kukoc, who worked with the ball often to create their own offense. Now, with Jordan dominating the offense like he did in the late 80s, his increased individual production would have at least in some part made up for the decreased collective production from his teammates. Not to mention he was a much better defender in his prime. I think something you’ve ignored is that players naturally progress. Specifically Pippen became a better player and not exclusively as the result of MJ’s decreased offensive role. In 89-90 (the year MJ hit his 69 vs the Cavs), MJ took his 3rd most attempts in a season while averaging 33.6 points per game. Pippen in only his 3rd season still managed a 16-6-5 stat line with 2.6 steals and an All-Star selection. Pippen had increased his scoring average each year of his career up to that point. MJ’s offensive domination and Pippen’s offensive evolution peacefully coexisted. I don’t see how we can assume Pippen’s success in becoming a diversely skilled offensive player is merely the result of MJ’s “buying into” the system. Not to mention the Bulls were just one game shy of reaching the Finals that year. A fully developed Pippen, in spite of MJ’s dominance in the playoffs that year, might have been the difference even without a purely triangle-based system.

    While I believe 33 to 35 year old MJ was still the most athletic player in the NBA, there were things he couldn’t do anymore. He couldn’t dunk on bigger centers like he used to, or blow by any and every one. He became very deliberate, taking more time to make decisions in the low block when a prime Jordan would have just made a quick spin and dunked it. He reverted to the turnaround jumper more often than he ever did in his prime. There are moves that I can’t articulate because there aren’t names for them, but I just know that 80s MJ did them and 90s MJ couldn’t. I would hardly characterize MJ’s statistical prime as “needless flamboyance”. Sure he had some nice dunks, but the man produced at a rate that will never be seen again.

  81. huevonkiller Says:

    #80 Interesting points David and you are mostly correct. I'm not sure I would say 33-35 year old Jordan was the most athletic player though, that could easily go to Shaq.

    Also adjusted for the fast pace and offensive friendly era of the 80s, we have seen production on Par with Jordan over single seasons. Let's not focus on Volume statistics please.

  82. Anon Says:

    #57 Didn't even see your post up there. Always insightful.

    You made some great points and I do agree with the premise of what you're saying - obviously, these stats are based on the assumption that you're implementing an offensive system that best utilizes the talents of your team. So a look at the system that the team is helpful for context.

    I think that other factors are also important though. Coaches and personnel work to evaluate their players' talents and THEN put the appropriate system in place, and in '88 Pippen was a sophomore. He was still a raw and unpolished (albeit talented) young player, and I think alot of what he did under the Phil Jackson regime was a result of him proving that he possessed the necessary skills to be a point forward in the triangle. In '88 he wasn't that kind of player. I don't think a lack playing the triangle that season was the difference between the Bulls being knocked out and winning a title.

    Also, even under the triangle MJ's production was brilliant, and by WS/48 he actually put up his most impressive numbers during the Jackson/Winters regime. His Off Poss% also stayed the same while he played in the triangle. It seems to be a common notion that MJ sacrificed a bunch role/production wise to win titles, but it doesn't seem to be the case here.

  83. David Says:

    #82 Well, as the previous poster mentioned, you have to take into account pace. So while MJ's usage in the mid-to-late 90s stayed right around 33%, the Bulls as a team were also using fewer possessions per 48 minutes. So while the percentage is the same, the faster pace of the 80s allowed for Jordan to use more possessions overall. MJ did alter his game a bit in terms of style of play, though I'd argue that this was not just out of maturity but also necessity due to age and decline.