Here's the initial installment of a continuing series where I try to select the best all-time players at each position, best sixth men and best coaches.
Numbers are just a marginal guide. More important in my reckonings are a candidate's off-the-ball play, dominance of his peers and the overall success of his team(s).
Of course, comparing players from radically different eras is always a risky business. George Mikan, for example, would be severely drubbed in one-on-one battles versus the likes of Shaq, Wilt and Kareem. Despite that fact, Mikan can arguably be seen as the most influential player of his time, and his Minneapolis Lakers were the NBA's first dynasty. So the intent here is more mindful of the total NBA historical continuum than dependant on today's existential realities.
It's likewise important to note the variances in styles of play over the last 60 seasons — pre-shot-clock and post-shot-clock, the twin-towers concept and small-ball strategies, as well as the different demands made on players by their respective teams. Despite these inexact specifications, the players in each category will be competitively ranked.
1. — OSCAR ROBERTSON
The Big O was equally as versatile as Magic and nearly as strong. Indeed, Robertson's talents covered the entire scope and possibilities of the game. He could do everything at the highest level — rebound, pass, set picks, dribble, box out, run and shut anyone down on defense. In 1961-62, Robertson averaged a triple-double — 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. He wasn't boasting when he said, years later, "If I had known it was such a big deal, I would've averaged a triple-double for my entire career." He understood every nuance of the game and demanded the same perfection from his teammates. Robertson was also a fierce and ruthless competitor.
What did he lack?
Three-point range, only because the 3-ball hadn't been instituted. And according to Nate Thurmond, "Oscar couldn't fly, but he did everything else better than Michael Jordan."
Whatever the position, whatever the standards of the era, Oscar Robertson was the most perfect basketball player ever.
Jerry West's number was always called whenever a game was on the line. (Wen Roberts / Getty Images)
2. — MAGIC JOHNSON
Magic was a rarity. At 6-foot-9, 235 pounds, he was a legitimate triple-threat — inside, outside and on the run. His sheer size advantage allowed him to have an unobstructed view of the entire court and effectively prohibited opponents from contesting any pass he chose to throw. In addition to his remarkable size and strength, Magic had an incomparable handle (his high rate of turnovers was a function of the inordinate time the ball was in his hands), made excellent decisions with the ball, was an incredible finisher and was absolutely the best fast-break trigger man ever.
What else could he do?
Post-up and fill the net with hook shots. Eat up space in rapid fashion with his long strides. Blast his way through traffic. Rebound. Shoot free throws. Maximize the abilities of his teammates. Rise to virtually every clutch situation. And win.
What couldn't he do?
His drive-and-dish capabilities were severely restricted by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's being ensconced in the pivot. Not until his latter years did Magic develop an effective outside shot — an old-timey shot-put-one-hander. And throughout his career his defense was shamefully poor.
Johnson also had a magic touch with the media. The bright smile, the up-beat comments, the total availability. But when the red light was switched off, Magic often had another agenda.
Like the first time Magic met with the Lakers' new coach, Mike Dunleavy, at a players association meeting back in 1990. Dunleavy sought out Magic for a pre-season confab, and as they strolled along the beach, he handed Johnson the playbook he planned to implement for the upcoming season. Magic proceeded to toss the playbook into the ocean, point to his head and say, "The playbook is in here."
3. — JERRY WEST
West was one of the most deadly pull-up jump shooters of all time. He rarely went left, simply because he never had to (the official NBA logo with West dribbling left-handed must be a negative image). But he'd move to his right at full speed, execute one hard-and-last dribble that would propel him skyward and the ball was shot and gone in a jiffy. He was a good, if not exceptional passer, and his long arms and quick-hops made him a surprisingly effective finisher.
Those same long arms (fastened to high-shoulders) likewise made West an outstanding defender. Indeed, opposing players were warned not to attempt a pass whenever West was the lone defender in a 2-on-1 fast-breaking situation — simply because his reach and hand-speed would get a piece of all but the most precise passes.
While acknowledging his authentic greatness, several of his peers still insist that West was also cast by the media as a white hope who was therefore given much more credit than he truly deserved. And because he was never satisfied with his own or his teammates' play in any given game, West was never a popular figure in the locker room. But his coaches all loved him for playing all out all the time, and they made sure that "Mr. Clutch's" number was called whenever a game was on the line.
4. — JOHN STOCKTON
Stockton was a point-guard in the classic mold. Primarily a passer, Stockton shot the ball only when necessary. He was a master at changing speeds off his dribble, at jumping into his defender while releasing a shot and thusly drawing fouls, at moving without the ball, at hitting open shots (especially in the clutch) and a sneakily effective offensive rebounder. His decision-making in screen/roll situations was impeccable, and he also relished setting screens himself — usually with elbows flashing, a characteristic that moved opponents to call him a border-line dirty player. (Stockton was a nasty character, both on and off the court.) Although he'd gamble on steals, chase the ball too much and overreact to ball-penetration, Stockton's defense was surprisingly effective.
Stockton rarely got to orchestrate fast breaks in Jerry Sloan's grind-it-out offenses. But when the Jazz did get out and run, Stockton's exceptional judgment was likewise in evidence.
Too bad the prime of Stockton's career coincided with the Bulls' Jordanian dynasty. He did, however, propel the Jazz into back-to-back finals appearances. Some could say that Stockton made Karl Malone appear to be a much better player than he may have actually been.
5. — WALT FRAZIER
Clyde's cooler-than-thou demeanor masked his fiercely competitive nature. He could muscle and/or slick his way to the basket, and was a high-percentage jump shooter who rarely forced a shot. Frazier could also rebound like a big guy, hit the open man and, above all, he could defend. Indeed, overlooked in Willis Reed's courageous performance in Game 7 of the 1970 Knicks-Lakers championship go-round, were Frazier's 36 points, 19 assists and smothering defense on Jerry West. Steals were his specialty, as were big-time jumpers.
Walt Frazier was the ultimate "team player" for the Knicks. ( / Getty Images)
Under the tutelage of coach Red Holzman, Frazier learned the value of the team game and was willing to sacrifice numbers for rings. He also learned that freedom unchecked by structure led to chaos, and that only within a system could freedom become a bountiful creativity. And despite his casual game-face, Frazier played with a precision that was based on an intricate understanding of Xs and Os.
Frazier was never a jet and was most comfortable with the ball in his hands, but he was a winner.
6. — DENNIS JOHNSON
Forget about his scoring prowess (14.1 ppg over his 14-year career, with a high of 19.5 for Phoenix in 1981-82), forget about his three championship rings (one with Seattle in 1979, two with Boston in 1984 and 1986), Dennis Johnson was simply the best big-time defensive guard in league history. In fact, DJ was the only defender who could force Magic to turn his back on the Lakers' offense in order to protect, and maintain possession of, the ball.
Johnson also proved that nice guys can finish first.
7. — LENNY WILKENS
Mister Smooth glided through a ball game in total control of every situation. Did his team need a pop shot, a slick pass, or even an occasional rebound? Wilkens could deliver. How about a steal, or the rescue of a loose ball? Wilkens would get it done.
He wasn't strong or flashy, and his defense was merely adequate. But like John Wesley Harding, Wilkens was never known to make a foolish move, with the notable exception of agreeing to coach the Knicks!
8. — RALPH BEARD
Never heard of him? That's because Beard played only two seasons in the league — 1949-51 with the Indianapolis Olympians. In his rookie season, Beard was named to the All-NBA Second Team, and for an encore, he was voted to the First Team. Unfortunately, he was subsequently banned from the NBA when it was discovered that during his All-American career at the University of Kentucky, Beard (along with several other teammates) had taken money from gamblers to alter the score of ball games. Beard did indeed take the money, but only because doing so was a time-honored tradition at UK. Still, he was such a ferocious competitor that he never even tried to rig a score.
His game featured error-free passes, headlong drives to the rim and shut-down defense. According to Adolph Rupp, the only flaws in Beard's game were an erratic left hand, and inconsistency at the foul line. (During Beard's brief tenure in the NBA, his free throw accuracy was 77 percent.) Otherwise, the notoriously hard-to-please Rupp believed that Beard was "an almost perfect basketball player."
In the long history of the NBA, no one ever played with more intensity than Ralph Beard.
Other candidates — Slater Martin, Dick McGuire, Bob Cousy, Guy Rodgers, Bob Davies, Jason Kidd and Isiah Thomas.
Charley Rosen, former CBA coach, author of 12 books about hoops, the current one being A pivotal season — How the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers changed the NBA, is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
I have a feeling Foretaz will love this one.