In 1996, the NBA reached the milestone of 50 years, its golden anniversary. This was a remarkable accomplishment, given the league’s very difficult first couple of decades, struggling with awkward 6’4″ forwards making set shots without luxury skyboxes, merchandising, sexy cheerleaders, or any black players whatsoever. To commemorate the anniversary, 50 players were chosen as part of the 50th anniversary team. The original 1996 class consisted of: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tiny Archibald, Paul Arizin, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, David Bing, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Dave Cowens, Bob Cousy, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier, George Gervin, Hal Greer, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Magic Johnson, Sam Jones, Michael Jordan, Jerry Lucas, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Pete Maravich, Kevin McHale, George Mikan, Earl Monroe, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Robert Parish, Bob Pettit, Scottie Pippen, Willis Reed, David Robinson, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Jerry West, Lenny Wilkens, James Worthy.
That’s not a bad list at all, although experts will disagree on a few choices- and a handful could have easily made it into the project and nobody would have complained. Dennis Johnson seems like the biggest snub to me, but cases could have been made for Dominique Wilkins, Neil Johnston, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, Connie Hawkins, Joe Dumars, Walt Bellamy, Chris Mullin, and Bernard King.
Looking at this list now, a lot of players who are now part of that elusive canon of the greats were too young to have been part of the pantheon in 1996- either they were not playing professionally yet, or they hadn’t proven yet that their NBA career had a shelf life. (Some weren’t even shaving in 1996.) Some updating is, then, quite necessary, but unfortunately, there’s only room for 50 players. Who stays, and who gets booted? Remember, its been 18 years now since NBA’s 50 at 50, so by all rights we should be seeing around a turnover of about 12-15 players to make room for the next generation. With a list of players this good, any cut is a difficult one, but it seems like picks that were iffy and suspicious in 1996 should be the first to go, so that means Lenny Wilkens and David Bing as the two most obvious choices. (That’s a shame, because both are upstanding gentlemen of the highest order- Wilkens as a coach, and Bing as a statesman.) While I appreciate the need to commemorate key members of excellent teams (such as the 60s Sixers and Celtics, or the 80s Lakers and Celtics), there are perhaps too many players who are best described as “elite sidekicks”. So, I would remove, with pangs of regret in each case, Bill Sharman, James Worthy, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, and Robert Parish. All of these are all-star caliber players, yet owe too much to great teammates and superb supporting casts. If they spent their careers with, say, the Clippers or the Timberwolves or something, we wouldn’t be talking about them as Top 50 material. Some of the better “second bananas” remain- Pippen, obviously, has to stay, and it was just too difficult to cut Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, both of whom had a stylistic significance that outweighs their stats. Another mainstay is Sam Jones, the perfect complement to Bill Russell on all those championship teams. To round out the cuts:
- Wes Unseld– we’ll never see his likes again- a 6’6″ center with unselfish play and a penchant for great outlet passes. But at the end of the day, he was a player with one extraordinary rookie year, who eventually won a ring with possibly the weakest championship team in NBA history, the ’78 Bullets.
- Nate Archibald- we’ve got to cut somebody, and although leading the league in assists AND points in the same season is an unrivaled feat, Tiny just couldn’t contend for a title on his own.
- Bill Walton- I love Walton, a terrific team player and team leader on the exciting ’77 Blazers. Yet, his injuries were so persistent and disheartening that we love him for the player he might have been, rather than the player he was.
- Dave Cowens- Another really tough call, and another basketball critics’ favorite. Still, put him on a team without Havlicek and I just don’t see him measuring up.
- Pete Maravich- Maybe the most controversial choice on this list. Great passer. Great court vision. Tragic ending. But badly overhyped, and a terribly disappointing pro career that never equaled his heyday at LSU.
- Nate Thurmond- The cut I regret the most, as a Warriors fan and a fundamentals guy. But his poor offensive skill, and his inability to lead a team to playoff glory without better players around him means he probably isn’t Top 50 material by 2014.
- Jerry Lucas- Lucas might have had more brainpower than any NBA player to walk onto the court. His rebounding stats are truly inspiring, and were accomplished more because of his instinct for geometry rather than brute strength. Even so, Lucas is a player born of an era where players just took (and missed) far more shots, which makes him look less impressive in hindsight.
On the other hand, I feel that it is important that an All-Time list commemorate figures from the entire history of the league, so even though George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, and Paul Arizin might not make it very far on the court today, they ought to stay in. And the two most conspicuous snubs from the original 50 at 50 should get in– Dennis Johnson, a defensive stopper who won titles with two teams, and three-time scoring champion Neil Johnston.
Now that these agonizing cuts have been made, which players with careers that peaked after 1996 should be considered for the project? With 15 names taken out, and 2 earlier snubs thrown in, that leaves 13 spots available. Three names, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James are beyond-obvious standouts. We still need 10 more, though.
How about: Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, Allen Iverson, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant? Garnett is one of the best power forwards to play the game, despite being stuck on a crappy Minnesota team for most of his career. Wade has won a championship without Lebron, and two with him, making him much more than a modern day Pippen. Nash was a team-centered, fan-friendly great who made the point guard spot fun to watch again. Kidd and Payton were devious defensive guards who led their teams to the NBA finals. Iverson changed the game stylistically as much as Frazier and Monroe, making the pro basketball consonant with hip-hop and winning scoring titles all the while. Howard is the best center of the last 15 years not named Shaq. Paul is leading a point guard revolution in basketball, and Nowitzki remade the power forward into a position that can be as deadly at long distance as under the rim. Durant may seem a bit iffy because of his youth, but in 1996, the selection committee took a chance on Shaq, three and a half years into his career. At a similar point in his own career, Durant already has multiple scoring titles and an NBA finals appearance, so he, in my judgment, deserves a similar gamble in good faith.
Altogether, this makes the NBA’s 50 Best Players Ever, as of 2014: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Paul Arizin, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Clyde Drexler, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier, Kevin Garnett, George Gervin, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Dwight Howard, Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Dennis Johnson, Magic Johnson, Neil Johnston, Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Kevin McHale, George Mikan, Earl Monroe, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Sam Jones, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, Bob Pettit, Scottie Pippen, Willis Reed, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jerry West.
I think I like this list a great deal. Do you?