Our surveys of the greatest centers, power forwards, and small forwards in NBA history unavoidably left at least one player off the list who deserved better. An overcrowding of excellence rendered a top-5 list insufficient to some degree.
Does the same dynamic remain in place for shooting guards? The answer — in this latest installment of our “best-of” series here at Crossover Chronicles — might surprise you.
JOE MANGANIELLO (@thatjoemags)
5 – ALLEN IVERSON
For 10 consecutive seasons, Allen Iverson averaged no less than 40.8 minutes per game. He led the NBA in this category seven times over this stretch, and never finished outside the top 3. Iverson spent more time on the floor than his peers in order to cover the stench of his objectively terrible offensive supporting cast throughout his tenure in Philadelphia.
With more time on the floor came those infamous FGA figures — he finished in the top two in field goal attempts and field goals missed each year between 1999 and 2005. Yet, that was the plan in Philadelphia: give the ball to Iverson. Know what? It wasn’t a terrible plan. He led the NBA in scoring four times, and averaged 33 points in 2005-’06. Iverson scored at the rim like a player eight inches taller, and all-time greats from Shaquille O’Neal to LeBron James go out of their way to praise the controversial superstar.
Because I know I’ll catch heat for this pick: Critiquing Iverson for failing to match YOUR expectations of him is a myopic practice. The guy was a 2-guard born into a point guard’s body. If he was 6-foot-6 like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, there would be far less fanfare about his “ball hogging.” Yes, Bryant dealt with some of these attacks, but never to the degree that Iverson did, and every word written against Iverson reeked of moral disapproval.
Iverson averaged 47.4 minutes per game (!!!) and scored 35.6 points against the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals. Only Dikembe Mutombo and Eric Snow averaged double figures beside him, and the 76ers were deceptively competitive through Game 3, before succumbing to a gentleman’s sweep.
4 – DWYANE WADE
Dwyane Wade’s 2005-’06 season is something the likes of which we seldom see in the NBA. He averaged 27.2 points on 49.5 percent shooting (9.3 for 18.8 FGA); he made 8.4 free throws a night at a 78 percent clip; he tossed in 6.7 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks to boot. Wade, only 24, was hideous behind the three-point line (17 percent), but his mastery of mid-2000s officiating kept the free throws coming night after night — he was “James Harden” before James Harden.
The Heat won their first title behind Wade and Shaquille O’Neal that season. Wade had his personal “Mona Lisa” three years later when he led the NBA in scoring (30.2 points), dished 7.5 assists, tallied 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks (WHAT?), and shot 49 percent from the floor. However, Wade sealed his place in history by winning NBA Finals MVP in 2006 and devastating the Dallas Mavericks. The Big Three era elevated Wade’s star power, and placed another two rings on his hand, but Wade has been a made man for close to a decade.
3 – JERRY WEST
2 – KOBE BRYANT
Two great Lakers represent two very different eras. Jerry West obviously had the misfortune of competing against Bill Russell’s Celtics all those years. Nobody finished as an also-ran for league MVP more than West, and he couldn’t find a clear path to the Larry O’ Brien Trophy until 1972 after Russell was gone. However, West’s legacy lies in those insurmountable hurdles. He’s The Logo — his image is permanently fixed to the game even if his name isn’t slapped on every page of the history books. West won the Finals MVP in 1969 despite his Lakers dropping yet another series to the C’s. Russell respected West as the ultimate competitor, and over the past 50 years of basketball, seldom have any successors made as large an impact.
Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant’s impact on the sport is much more grandiose. He was drafted into the post-Michael Jordan NBA — an unsettled frontier — and playing in tandem with prime Shaquille O’Neal under the tutelage of 13-time champion Phil Jackson suited Kobe well. When he was ready to own the league, he did: he scored 81 points in a single game, led the NBA in scoring twice, and elevated Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom to two-time champions.
Both were historically great scorers who feasted on solo defenders and made a killing at the foul line. Both were L.A. superstars. Both were overlooked time and time again during end-of-season awards — although at least Bryant won MVP a single time. Two very, very opposite careers.
1 – MICHAEL JORDAN
No need to beat this one to death. Michael Jordan could fly. How could anybody compete with that?
MATT ZEMEK (@mzemek )
5 – REGGIE MILLER
WHAT? REGGIE MILLER DIDN’T PLAY DEFENSE!
HE COULDN’T CREATE NEARLY AS MUCH OFF THE DRIBBLE AS OTHER, BETTER SHOOTING GUARDS DID!
HE ALSO SUCKS AS A COMMENTATOR? What is WRONG with you?!
Hey, hey, please, can we calm down for a second?
Two things: First, if you look at a number of players technically listed as shooting guards for their specific teams in specific seasons, you’ll find a number of players who possessed point-guard mentalities, but had to slide over to the 2-guard position in order to accommodate the larger cause. Allen Iverson and Pete Maravich generally fit this mold. Manu Ginobili is his own creature, a one-of-a-kind marvel, but he still strikes me as a player who has the soul of a passer and shoots when the opportunity presents itself. On a team with Tony Parker, Ginobili has had to play more at the 2-guard spot than he would have on other rosters, but many will call him a 2-guard more than a point guard for that very reason (and not be wrong).
With Reggie Miller, there’s no ambiguity: He was a 2-guard. He was a SHOOTER. I like that kind of clarity. Miller wasn’t ball-dominant as a handler, but as a receiver and mover — he commanded the defense’s attention without actually cradling the rock.
I bring up this point about ambiguity in terms of position not just to promote Miller, but to also show you how often such ambiguities have emerged in all these positional discussions this week (ambiguities that will continue to emerge when we get to point guards, rounding out our five-position series before we move on to other topics over the weekend). In these examinations of great NBA players, you’ll find some overlap between a 5 and a 4, but a lot more between a 3 and a 2 and, perhaps most of all, between a 2 and a 1.
Moving along, let’s mention the second reason why I have Miller here, in what probably comes across as a surprise to many readers:
I just didn’t like the other options — chiefly Clyde Drexler and Allen Iverson — as much.
Drexler was a wonderfully well-rounded player. Driving, shooting, open-court explosiveness — he brought all those components to the table. It is also true that in the person of Kevin Duckworth, the early-1990s Portland Trail Blazers (which vividly remind me of the early-1980s Sixers before Moses Malone) were limited at center. Yet, I did not get the sense that Drexler was the spiritual leader on the court, the kind of emotionally potent presence that better superstars — such as Larry Bird for the Celtics and Isiah Thomas of the Pistons — revealed themselves to be. (Terry Porter and the departed Jerome Kersey seemed to light a fire under those Blazers more than anyone else, and even then, those Portland teams fell short of where they could have… and should have… achieved.)
Iverson, while definitely a spiritual leader and perhaps the best stat-based choice among various candidates for this fifth slot on my list, got injured too many times in his career. He missed 10 or more games in nine seasons, 20 or more games in five. He also proved to be a distraction and a source of exhaustion for coaches (especially Larry Brown) and teammates. Perhaps the injuries shouldn’t matter as much when evaluating a player, but friction in the locker room should.
As much as you (and I) might hate him as a commentator, Miller was the soul of the Pacers, and he took pressure OFF teammates as opposed to giving them more things to worry about, as Iverson did. Those Indiana teams were also very slow. Miller had to do so much in terms of creating baskets out of nothing. When Jalen Rose and Sam Perkins lent a little more diversity to the offense under Larry Bird in the 2000 season, the Pacers reached the NBA Finals. (Michael Jordan retiring obviously did not hurt, but then again, Jordan wasn’t there during the Pacers’ 1994 and 1995 runs to the East Finals, either.)
Ultimately, though, putting Miller here is more a case of not liking Drexler and Iverson enough. I considered leaving this spot blank, but then that wouldn’t have been very fun now, would it?
4 – DWYANE WADE
The lack of great shooting guards makes Wade a surprisingly easy choice here at No. 4. I’m not comfortable slotting Miller at 5, because I’m not comfortable slotting anyone at 5. Wade, though, belongs on this list.
Is he a dirty player more often than a lot of generally admiring NBA writers would care to admit? Yes. However, Wade has certainly received his share of punishment over the years, much of it unnoticed. He’s had to go through the Wallaces-Hamilton-and-Billups Pistons, the Tom Thibodeau Bulls, the Doc Rivers Celtics, and the Indiana Pacers to reach NBA Finals. In between, when he didn’t have either Shaq or LeBron or Bosh to turn to, Wade had to do 350 percent of all the work on the Miami Heat, just to get the team into or close to the playoffs.
Wade is a dues-paying player who is crafty as a scorer but ferocious as a defender and competitor. He has missed thirds of seasons in recent years, trying to keep his body fresh for the playoffs, and while he was certainly erratic in 2013 and 2014, he was always there when the Heat absolutely needed his best. We all remember Chris Bosh getting the rebound which led to Ray Allen’s tying three in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals against the Spurs, but if Wade doesn’t get an offensive rebound a possession earlier — with Miami in even deeper trouble, down 94-89 — LeBron James doesn’t hit the three which made the score 94-92 and set the table for Bosh and Allen.
Wade has established and maintained the fundamental fusion of an all-time great: He married dynamic production with first-class leadership, a scorer’s mentality with total sacrifice at the defensive end of the floor. He belongs here.
3 – GEORGE GERVIN
The Ice Man couldn’t push the San Antonio Spurs past the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, but then again, only one Western Conference team — the Houston Rockets — ever did beat the Lakers in a best-of-seven series during that decade, and they did so only once. (The Rockets also beat the Lakers in the 1981 playoffs, which featured the best-of-three first-round series format, essentially a coin flip for teams seeded 3 through 6. That format lasted through 1983 before giving way to a best-of-five series in 1984.)
Gervin was a Western Conference version of Elgin Baylor, in that one team kept getting in the damn way of larger aspirations. The man was extraordinarily talented, and that talent did spill out in full flower. Moreover, Gervin deserves to be on this list because he definitely added something to basketball, something successive generations have continued to practice:
“One thing I can do… is finger roll.”
Ice, Ice, baby.
2 – KOBE BRYANT
There isn’t any doubt about this choice. You can obviously say that Shaq meant more to the Lakers from 2000 through 2004, and you can say that Kobe needed Pau Gasol to win more titles, especially in 2010, but even the next person on this list — you know, the guy who wore No. 23 in Chicago — needed SOME help. To be more specific, Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to grow up and become a rock of strength.
Ask LeBron James how easy it is to win NBA Finals with Boobie Gibson or Matthew Dellavedova. (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love? A different story.) Yes, Kobe Bryant needed help, but when he got enough of it, he did the rest.
He took on the workload, took on the pressure, took on the ball and the moment and the expectations, and thrived in that cauldron for a long time. He did not rise to Jordan’s standards, particularly in the postseason, but he certainly evoked powerful memories of Mike, with his dagger jumpers and unblockable fadeaway makes. He got to the foul line, applied constant pressure on defenses, and approached the sport with the ruthlessness and relentlessness reminiscent of Jordan himself.
Is anyone Michael Jordan? Not even Kobe… but he came close.
That’s… pretty legendary in its own right.
1 – MICHAEL JORDAN
A trillion different things could be said about one of the three or four men — the others being LeBron James, Bill Russell, and Kareem — with a legitimate claim to being the best basketball player who has ever lived.
Of those trillion things, you are not likely to read something you haven’t read before… so I’ll be brief.
The greatest Jordan game — “The Flu Game” in the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz — speaks for itself. What also speaks for itself? Jordan not only went 6-for-6 in NBA Finals without a great center; he never got taken to a Game 7. Never.
That Jordan won two close-out Game 6s on the road in the Finals is amazing enough. That he won those Game 6s in eerily similar ways — layup just outside the final 30 seconds; defensive stop; backbreaking bucket either directly scored or indirectly created by his attention-drawing presence in the final six seconds — merely adds to his legend.
Winning is its own statement; the way Michael Jordan won is part of why we remember him — and admire his basketball excellence — as much as we do.