The Best Player in the NBA

On Monday I wrote I a piece for ESPN Insider that used multiple years of MVP voting to determine who was generally viewed as the best player in the NBA on a season-by-season basis.

This post is an extension of that idea, although I’m going to make the following tweaks:

  • Win shares will be used rather than MVP award shares.
  • Three seasons of data will be used rather than four seasons of data.
  • Win shares in season n will receive a weight of 12, win shares in season n − 1 will receive a weight of 13, and win shares in season n − 2 will receive a weight of 16.

Without further ado, here are the players who — based on win shares, at least — had established themselves as the best players in the game:

1949-50 George Mikan (17.5)
1950-51 George Mikan (22.2)
1951-52 George Mikan (18.5)
1952-53 George Mikan (16.0)

Mikan was the NBA’s first superstar, nabbing six straight All-NBA First Team selections from 1949 to 1954 while leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships.

Mikan led the league in Win Shares from 1949 to 1951*, finished second in 1952 and 1953, and was fourth in 1954.

* Those figures still hold as three of the top 12 single season win share totals in NBA history.

Mikan retired following the 1953-54 season, but he was coaxed into returning to the Lakers halfway through the 1955-56 season. On a per minute basis he was almost the same player that he once was, but conditioning and foul problems limited him to just 20 minutes per game. Mikan called it quits for good after the Lakers were eliminated by the St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division semifinals.

1953-54 Neil Johnston (14.8)
1954-55 Neil Johnston (16.3)
1955-56 Neil Johnston (15.1)
1956-57 Neil Johnston (14.0)

Johnston’s career was cut short by a serious knee injury that he suffered in the 1958-59 season, but for the seven seasons prior to that he was one of the most prolific — not to mention, most efficient — scorers in the NBA.

From 1952-53 to 1956-57, Johnston finished in the top four in both points per game and true shooting percentage each season, leading the league in the former category three times and the latter category twice.

Johnston was also an All-NBA selection five times during that span, including four First Team nods.

1957-58 Dolph Schayes (13.0)

Bill Russell was named MVP, but it was just his second year in the NBA, so Schayes took the top spot after leading the NBA in win shares for the first — and only — time in his career.

1958-59 Bob Pettit (13.0)

Pettit over Russell seems reasonable to me. In the three seasons that went into this rating Pettit was named All-NBA First Team three times; won an MVP award in 1959 and was runner-up in 1957; won the All-Star Game MVP award two times; led the NBA in win shares in 1959; and led the St. Louis Hawks to a title in 1958.

By the way, Pettit was named to the All-NBA First Team every season from 1954-55 to 1963-64, a run that ties him with Bob Cousy for the second-longest streak of All-NBA First Team selections*.

*The leader is Karl Malone with 11.

1959-60 Bill Russell (13.1)

Russell reached the top in his fourth year in the league, but he wouldn’t stay there for long.

1960-61 Wilt Chamberlain (15.1)
1961-62 Wilt Chamberlain (20.7)
1962-63 Wilt Chamberlain (21.3)
1963-64 Wilt Chamberlain (23.3)
1964-65 Wilt Chamberlain (19.4)
1965-66 Wilt Chamberlain (19.9)
1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain (20.6)
1967-68 Wilt Chamberlain (21.1)
1968-69 Wilt Chamberlain (17.8)

The eternal debate: Russell or Chamberlain? I hope to have more on this question later.

1969-70 Willis Reed (13.9)

In 1968-69 Reed led the NBA in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes, then finished third in each of those categories the following season, but he also need a bit of help to get to the top. Consider:

  • Bill Russell retired following the 1968-69 season.
  • Chamberlain missed 70 games due to injury during the 1969-70 season.
  • Oscar Robertson was coming off what were, at the time, his three worst seasons as a pro. (Worst being a relative term, of course.)
  • Jerry West missed a total of 52 games in the 1967-68 and 1968-69 seasons.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor) was a rookie in 1969-70.

The 1969-70 season was a perfect storm for Reed: He was named to both the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams; he won the MVP award for the All-Star Game, regular season, and NBA Finals; and his team, the New York Knicks, won an NBA championship. The only other player to accomplish that feat was Michael Jordan (1995-96 and 1997-98).

1970-71 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (15.8)
1971-72 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (22.4)
1972-73 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.1)
1973-74 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20.7)
1974-75 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (16.2)
1975-76 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (15.9)
1976-77 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (16.7)
1977-78 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14.8)
1978-79 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14.2)
1979-80 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14.2)
1980-81 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14.5)

Abdul-Jabbar was an amazingly consistent player, finishing in the top three in win shares every season from 1970-71 to 1980-81, leading the league nine times.

Not only that, but Abdul-Jabbar was also ridiculously efficient: He led the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes nine times during that stretch, and in the two remaining seasons he finished second.

1981-82 Moses Malone (14.3)
1982-83 Moses Malone (15.0)

Malone was named MVP and led the league in win shares with the Houston Rockets in 1981-82, then repeated that feat with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982-83.

1983-84 Larry Bird (13.5)
1984-85 Larry Bird (14.7)
1985-86 Larry Bird (15.4)
1986-87 Larry Bird (15.5)

After finishing second in the MVP race for three consecutive seasons, Bird started a run of three straight MVP awards in 1983-84.

1987-88 Michael Jordan (16.5)
1988-89 Michael Jordan (19.8)
1989-90 Michael Jordan (19.6)
1990-91 Michael Jordan (19.8)
1991-92 Michael Jordan (18.8)
1992-93 Michael Jordan (17.9)

Jordan led the NBA in win shares nine times from 1986-87 to 1996-97, the only exceptions being the 1993-94 season, when he was roaming the outfield for the Birmingham Barons, and the 1994-95 season, when he returned to play the final 17 games of the regular season.

1993-94 David Robinson (16.7)
1994-95 David Robinson (17.6)
1995-96 David Robinson (18.3)

Just four players — Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Jordan, and Mikan — managed to compile more win shares over a three-season stretch than Robinson did from 1993-94 to 1996-96. “The Admiral” led the NBA in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes in the first two seasons, and finished second to Jordan in both categories the third season.

1996-97 Michael Jordan (16.4)
1997-98 Michael Jordan (17.4)

To be fair, Jordan was also the best player in the NBA in 1995-96, but the honor went to Robinson because of Jordan’s absence for almost two full seasons.

1998-99 Karl Malone (13.0)

Like Abdul-Jabbar, Malone was one of the most consistently great players in league history. Over a 13-season span from 1988-89 to 2000-01, Malone finished in the top five in win shares every season, leading the league in 1997-98 and 1998-99 and finishing second in 1996-97 and 1999-00.

1999-00 Shaquille O’Neal (14.0)
2000-01 Shaquille O’Neal (15.2)

O’Neal was named MVP in 1999-00 and should have won it again in 2000-01 (he finished third behind Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan).

Over the course of his 19-year career O’Neal sat out more than 300 games, and his 45 missed games over the next three seasons contributed to his dropping from the top spot.

2001-02 Tim Duncan (15.5)
2002-03 Tim Duncan (16.4)

The 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons were Duncan’s finest as a pro, as he won back-to-back MVP awards and led the league in win shares each season.

2003-04 Kevin Garnett (16.5)
2004-05 Kevin Garnett (16.8)

Garnett led the 2003-04 Timberwolves to their best season in franchise history, guiding the team to the Western Conference finals while winning the MVP award and leading the NBA in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes.

In 2004-05 Garnett was almost as good, once again leading the league in win shares and finishing second in win shares per 48 minutes, but because his team did not make the playoffs he dropped to 11th in the MVP voting. Ah, the vagaries of award voting.

2005-06 Dirk Nowitzki (16.0)
2006-07 Dirk Nowitzki (16.7)

Nowitzki led the NBA in win shares in the two seasons listed above, and the 2006-07 season marked the third straight time that he led the league in win shares per 48 minutes.

2007-08 LeBron James (14.9)
2008-09 LeBron James (17.5)
2009-10 LeBron James (18.5)
2010-11 LeBron James (17.3)
2011-12 LeBron James (15.5)
2012-13 LeBron James (17.1)

James’ run of six straight seasons at the top ties him with Jordan for the third-longest streak in history, behind Abdul-Jabbar (11 seasons) and Chamberlain (9 seasons).

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3 thoughts on “The Best Player in the NBA

  1. I ran something like this using AWS for the 4 seasons leading up to each US Olympic team starring NBA players. The 1992 team contained 9 of the top 10 players, and the one they didn’t have was Hakeem, who at the time was not a US citizen.

    You could definitely use this method to spot which teams were going to have trouble. I think Duncan was the only top ten player on the 2004 team. And the 2000 team only had a couple. 1996, 2008, and 2012 were all stacked but not to the level of the Dream Team.

    Here’s the post

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