One of the great perks I enjoyed while coaching college basketball was the ability to get tickets to the Final Four each year I was an NCAA coach. Other than the Olympics, the Final Four is the best sports event to attend in person. And the NCAA allots tickets to this amazing event to all NCAA coaches, even assistant coaches at Division 3 schools (like me). I think we paid fifty bucks for the tickets.
During my eight years of coaching and attending the Final Four each spring, we witnessed some iconic moments. We saw Keith Smart’s jumper to lift Indiana over Syracuse. Chris Webber’s time-out when his team didn’t have one. Both of those games were in New Orleans, making it even more fun. I witnessed Duke upsetting the supposedly invincible UNLV squad — an outcome I predicted on the way to the game. That game was in Indianapolis, home to an amazing music venue called The Slippery Noodle. There, a house band called the Flintstones introduced this California guy to the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan with the Flintstones’ version of “The House is a Rockin”.
I missed an important iconic Final Four moment — because I hadn’t started coaching yet — when North Carolina beat Georgetown in the final game in 1982. For many people, that game was their introduction to Michael Jordan. As a freshman on a stacked Tar Heel team, he calmly knocked down the jump shot from the wing that won the game. We have all seen replays of that shot dozens of times. In the summer of 1984, I saw Jordan play live for the first time — he was the best player on the USA team that won the gold that summer in the Los Angeles Olympics.
While writing this, I realized that the “freshman MJ championship game winner” and the L.A. Olympics game I saw in 1984 may have been the only times I rooted for a Michael Jordan team to win a game. While he was in college, I rooted for Duke over North Carolina. In the NBA, I rooted against the Bulls each time they played in the Finals. Perhaps because I rooted for the underdog, perhaps because the Bulls had replaced the Lakers as the NBA’s dominant team. (This was well before I joined Spurs Nation.)
Many of us (and it should be all NBA fans) are reliving Jordan’s career through “The Last Dance” retrospective now showing on ESPN. We know that our friends at FiveThirtyEight.com are watching the show — FiveThirtyEight.com did a fascinating piece last week entitled “Why Michael Jordan Was the Best”. Which he was. But buried inside that piece are several things that demonstrated that while MJ was the GOAT, a bunch of Spurs were pretty great too.
A bit of warning first. FiveThirtyEight.com writers are math and analytics oriented. As a result, they rely on sophisticated methods to measure the value for each player. Those methods use much more than points, rebounds and assists (though those remain important). For their post, they measured all players beginning with the 1976-1977 season. As a reminder, that beginning point for their analysis was several years before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league in 1980. That 1980 season was also the first year the NBA added the three point line.
As a result, the statistics that govern the FiveThirtyEight analytics cover the forty-plus years that represent the modern game played under modern rules. Those years also cover the complete careers of numerous NBA stars such as Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Paul Pierce, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen — along with hundreds of other outstanding players, and players that are still active.
First, let’s look at the RAPTOR ratings, a statistic intended to analyze each player’s overall value, offensive and defensive. If you want the full explanation of how the system ranks players, you can find it here. Once you go through the explanation, you will probably agree with me that the analysis goes into the “smarter than me” category.
In any event, once they apply the complicated analysis that goes into RAPTOR, the results are fascinating. Not surprisingly, Jordan is number one. Somewhat surprisingly, Chris Paul is number two — he’s indisputably a great player, but also a bit of a pain in the neck. After the top two, there’s John Stockton, a choice Gregg Popovich would agree with. When Pop was an assistant with the Spurs decades ago, I had dinner with him and Claremont College head coach David Wells. Pop told us he (and Larry Brown) thought Stockton was the best player in the game. Pop also told us that David Robinson was such a good athlete, he won every line drill and suicide the team ran to get into shape. Four, five and six in the rankings are Magic Johnson, Lebron James and Steph Curry.
And here come the Spurs! Kawhi Leonard is at 7, David Robinson at 8, my man Manu Ginobili at 11 and Tim Duncan at 15. GO SPURS GO. Remember this is for every NBA player since the 1976-77 season — essentially since the first Star Wars film debuted in 1977. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs have 4 of the top 15 over the past 43 years, though TD seems a bit low. Here is the list of the Top 25: