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Comparing the 50 Greatest

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 11/30/05

It is only natural for sports fans to use comparisons between players to understand the games they watch. When a new star comes onto the scene, he or she is inevitably compared to past stars. In the opposite fashion, fans are always looking for "The Next ... ."

Statistical analysis allows us to make these comparisons in a more objective, systematic fashion. I've used my similarity system - which evaluates "skill-based" statistics, height and weight and minutes, all standardized to league average - in this column to compare Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney, and used their comparable players at the same age to project their development.

My colleague Justin Kubatko used his own similarity system in a retrospective fashion in a recent column for's "Scorer's Table" series on, looking at the most similar current players to several legends and also some players who were less than legendary but notable nonetheless.'s main man, Roland Beech, has asked me to extend these comparisons to the NBA's 50 Greatest players, as named during the 50th Anniversary 1996-97 season.

Because the NBA did not track turnovers until the 1977-78 season, my similarity system can't be used for pre-78 players. Comparisons for players like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and George Mikan will have to remain subjective. Unfortunately, this also means for players like John Havlicek - who played his last season in 1977-78, turning 38 in April - we can't make a comparison with the prime of their career and get a true sense for how great they were.

Still, I think there were some pretty interesting results. Before we get to them, a quick note on methodology. While Justin looked at a typical season for the players he compared, I chose to go with their absolute best season, as measured by my Value Over Replacement Player rating. It's not a perfect measure of the player's best year, but in most cases changing the year would not make much difference in the most comparable player, so I'm willing to live with it. On with the show ...

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (79-80 prime season):: Yao Ming (91.01 similarity score out of 100)
If there weren't a lot of players like Abdul-Jabbar during his day, there are even fewer now. Yao Ming may have yet to have mastered Abdul-Jabbar's famous sky hook, but his game proves more similar to Abdul-Jabbar's style than the pure power of Shaquille O'Neal. The second-best comp was relatively out of left field: Andrei Kirilenko (90.47), with whom Abdul-Jabbar shared a diet and a proclivity for blocking shots but, perhaps, little else.

Tiny Archibald (79-80):: Gary Payton (96.36)
Only 31, Archibald had already moved on to the second chapter of his Hall of Fame career by the 1979-80 season, complementing a rookie Larry Bird for the Celtics. Payton, a Boston guard last year, was older but playing a similar supporting role on a young (but admittedly less successful) C's roster.

Charles Barkley (87-88):: Amaré Stoudemire (93.73)
It's only fitting that two great Phoenix Suns big men end up similar to each other. Barkley was in Phoenix at the time, a very different specimen physically from le freak Stoudemire but a comparable one statistically. After Stoudemire, there are few similar players to Barkley; second on the list, in limited minutes, is Indiana's Ron Artest (86.59).

Dave Bing (77-78):: Latrell Sprewell (98.28)
So far as I'm aware, Bing made no comments about needing to feed his family while looking for a contract extension. 34 and in Washington by 1977-78, Bing was done after the season despite posting a relatively decent year (13.7 points per game, 3.8 assists). Does the same fate await Sprewell?

Larry Bird (87-88):: Paul Pierce (92.44)
"Larry Bird's not walking through that door!" ... unless maybe he is. You never hear the former and current Celtics leaders compared to each other. A cynic would point to their race, but Bird was a level better than Pierce and, of course, played for a more successful team. There are a lot of players right around Pierce in terms of similarity, including a pretty good subjective comp, Dirk Nowitzki (91.61). Justin had Nowitzki second behind LeBron James.

Dave Cowens (77-78):: Lamar Odom (95.41)
Both lefties, both good passers for interior players, but subjectively Cowens and Odom aren't that similar. The current player tends to spend more time on the perimeter and is more versatile. As a subjective comp, I like #3 Brad Miller (93.90).

Clyde Drexler (87-88):: Paul Pierce (99.06)
The high similarity between Drexler and Pierce is even more impressive because usually the best matches are with aging players like Bing (naturally, it's easier to be similar to an average player than an extraordinary one). Pierce and Drexler are both versatile guard/forwards, though Justin ended up with another player of this ilk (Vince Carter) as number one ahead of Pierce.

Julius Erving (80-81):: Paul Pierce (95.52)
The Pierce show continues. While he can't claim anything resembling Dr. J's prodigious hops, that's tough to quantify. It usually shows up mostly in getting to the free-throw line, but Pierce is as good at doing so as almost anyone in the league. A truly bizarre number three on the list: Pau Gasol (?) at 94.63.

Patrick Ewing (89-90):: Tim Duncan (97.10)
Alas, a young Duncan denied an aging and sidelined Ewing one of his best shots at a championship ring in the 1999 Finals.

Walt Frazier (77-78):: Bobby Simmons (98.13)
Frazier was only 33, but near the end of the line by the time the NBA started tracking turnovers. He would play only 15 games over the next two years in Cleveland. Suffice it to say that a Frazier in his prime would not rate as similar to Simmons.

George Gervin (79-80):: Kobe Bryant (94.55)
Bryant makes his first appearance on this list alongside the Iceman. While nobody has perfected Gervin's finger role, Bryant comes close nonetheless.

John Havlicek (77-78):: Michael Finley (98.75)
While I mentioned him above as an example of a faded star, Havlicek was still quite good in his swan song season, playing all 82 games, averaging 34.1 minutes per game and scoring 16.1 points per game. Not too shabby.

Elvin Hayes (78-79):: Elton Brand (98.18)
The Big E was 33, but still posted a 20-10 season in 78-79 -- 21.8 points and 12.1 rebounds per game on 48.7% shooting. In a very different league, Brand posted similar traditional statts last year -- 20.0 points and 9.5 rebounds on 50.3% shooting.

Magic Johnson (89-90):: LeBron James (92.68)
LeBron's similarity has been hotly debated over the last two-plus years. Both MJs - Johnson and Michael Jordan - have come up, while John Hollinger has argued for The Big O, Oscar Robertson. Robertson can't be evaluated statistically, but my system casts a vote for Magic's all-around game. The second closest comparable? Manu Ginobili (90.76).

Michael Jordan (89-90):: Kobe Bryant (94.87)
Of all the "next Jordans" we've seen over the last decade-plus, nobody has truly come closer than Bryant. Since Jordan is probably the most interesting star of the past in terms of similarity, here's the complete list:

Paul Pierce    2005  94.73
Vince Carter   2005  94.31
LeBron James   2005  93.44
Manu Ginobili  2005  93.39
Ron Artest     2005  92.52
Tracy McGrady  2005  91.91

Karl Malone (89-90):: Amaré Stoudemire (95.31)
Moses Malone (78-79):: Amaré Stoudemire (90.78)

What are the odds? The Malones were different players, but Stoudemire is similar to both in slightly different ways. Dirk Nowitzki scores number two for the Mailman (92.23). Justin ended up with Elton Brand tops for Karl Malone, which makes more sense to me.

Pete Maravich (77-78):: Michael Redd (96.81)
I'm surprised by this comparison subjectively. Maravich was still pumping in 27.0 points per game, but also adding 6.7 assists. Redd, by comparison, handed out just 2.3 assists per game.

Kevin McHale (86-87):: Amaré Stoudemire (93.65)
Yet another example of Stoudemire ending up as most similar to fairly different players. McHale shot 60.4% from the field that year, so inevitably his comparables are going to have to shoot a high percentage. In second was similar Brad Miller (92.82).

Earl Monroe (77-78):: Sam Cassell (97.71)
It's a testament to Cassell, I suppose, that even in an injury-plagued season he rated as most similar to a gracefully aging Monroe.

Hakeem Olajuwon (92-93):: Tim Duncan (96.56)
Duncan ends up similar to another great center of the 90s (and don't think we're done yet). Olajuwon's heir at center for the Rockets, Yao, ends up third (89.92). Justin got O'Neal as his closest comparison.

Shaquille O'Neal (93-94):: Yao Ming (92.66)
Inevitably, as the only active player left from the 50 Greatest, O'Neal is most similar to himself (98.11). Amongst other players, Yao is more the least dissimilar than he is the most similar. Stoudemire is second at 90.71.

Robert Parish (88-89):: Drew Gooden (96.31)
This was one of the biggest surprises for me. Gooden is a power forward, and not an overly tall one at 6-10. Parish, 35 at the time, didn't block a ton of shots (1.5 per game) but played more minutes and had bigger per-game averages (18.6 points, 12.5 rebounds) than Gooden (14.4, 9.2). Showing promise below Gooden is Dwight Howard (95.55).

Scottie Pippen (96-97):: Jason Richardson (97.41)
I like Justin's comparison (Lamar Odom) much better here subjectively. While Richardson was similar to Pippen in terms of scoring and rebounding, he's not in Pippen's league as a passer or defensively (which is tough to quantify).

David Robinson (95-96):: Tim Duncan (96.60)
Duncan completes his similarity to the trio of great centers of the 1990s, though it's particularly apt in the case of his former teammate Robinson. Apparently when they were hanging out together in that Edge commercial during Duncan's rookie year, a lot was passed from mentor to protégé.

John Stockton (89-90):: Steve Nash (98.33)
If Nash somehow wasn't Stockton's best comparable, I probably would have given up on this system then and there.

Isiah Thomas (84-85):: Steve Nash (94.86)
I have in my head a vision of Thomas as a score-first point guard, probably overly influenced by his later years (when I was beginning to follow the NBA). But he posted a league-best 13.9 assists per game in 84-85, so this is no stretch. At the same time, comparable number three is fitting: Thomas' current point guard in New York, Stephon Marbury (91.60).

Wes Unseld (78-79):: Udonis Haslem (93.33)
I didn't exactly expect Haslem to show up on this list, but while he wasn't quite as focused on the glass as widebody Unseld, he shot a similarly high percentage from the field in a complementary role. In third is another promising young power forward, the Sonics' Nick Collison (91.71).

Bill Walton (77-78):: Tim Duncan (94.85)
Duncan probably is not as versatile as the world's tallest Deadhead, but nobody in the modern NBA comes any closer.

James Worthy (89-90):: Shareef Abdur-Rahim (98.09)
Plenty of similar forwards to Worthy -- Wally Szczerbiak (97.99), Grant Hill (97.02) and Rashard Lewis (96.99) -- but I don't think any of them quite capture Worthhy's game.

Here's the key information -- most comparable player, their similarity score and number of players with a score of 90 or better -- summarized into a charrt:

Abdul-Jabbar   Yao          91.01    2
Archibald      Payton       96.36   16
Barkley        Stoudemire   93.73    1
Barry          Carter       96.88   43
Bing           Sprewell     98.28  127
Bird           Pierce       92.44    7
Cowens         Odom         95.41   29
Drexler        Pierce       99.06   26
Erving         Pierce       95.92   27
Ewing          Duncan       97.10    7
Frazier        Simmons      98.13  125
Gervin         Bryant       94.55   11
Havlicek       Finley       98.75  126
Hayes          Brand        98.18   43
Johnson        James        92.68    3
Jordan         Bryant       94.87   11
K. Malone      Stoudemire   95.31    2
M. Malone      Stoudemire   90.78    3
Maravich       Redd         96.81   36
McHale         Stoudemire   93.65    9
Monroe         Cassell      97.71   86
Olajuwon       Duncan       96.56    2
O'Neal         Yao          92.66    2
Parish         Gooden       96.31   28
Pippen         JRichardson  97.41   44
Robinson       Duncan       96.60    2
Stockton       Nash         98.33    1
Thomas         Nash         94.86    4
Unseld         Haslem       93.31    7
Walton         Duncan       94.85    9
Worthy         Abdur-Rahim  98.09   69

Let's process that a little bit. The two most similar players we found - even including Shaq and himself - were Pierce and Drexler, a pair of multi-talented swingmen. The most unique player in terms of his top comparable was Moses Malone. However, it was Barkley and Stockton who stood alone with only one player with a score over 90 (and, in both cases, the similar player was a Phoenix Sun). The most common players, naturally, were, the aging vets - Bing, Havlicek and Frazier.

If I'm a Suns fan, I'm concerned that Stoudemire shows up as most similar to a pair of infamously ringless players in Barkley and Karl Malone, though the rings brought home by Mo Malone and McHale might comfort me.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at

Also see Kevin's previous columns for
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant

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