A week ago, you may have read my piece on former NBA ballers who, unfortunately, had to play in the pre-advanced stats era. A lot of those guys’ contributions weren’t quantifiable while they played, which left them underappreciated in the eyes of most fans.
Now, it’s time to flip the coin: which former NBA stars would be more heavily scrutinized nowadays for their disappointing performances in analytics?
Before you continue reading, it’s important that I leave a disclaimer here: a player’s inclusion on this list doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a great player today. Rather, the inclusion just means he would’ve had to adjust his playing style to maintain the reputation he enjoyed during his career.
Allen Iverson – 1996-2010 (Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies)
Career per-game stats: 41.1 minutes, 26.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Key career advanced stats: -1.0 defensive box plus-minus, 105 offensive rating, 106 defensive rating
Allen “The Answer” Iverson, at just 6’0″ and 165 pounds, was one of the most skilled basketball players of all time. In his prime, it was a pleasure to watch him slice and dice hapless opponents off the dribble and then pull up for a jumper or zip to the rim for an acrobatic finish.
Unfortunately, a penchant for chucking an inordinate amount of shots (tons of which were from mid-range), a lackluster assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7) and below-average defense (-1.0 defensive box plus-minus) makes him an analytics geek’s favorite punching bag.
Iverson’s iso-ball tendencies didn’t facilitate ball movement very well, and a 31.3 percent career mark from three-point range would only hamper his reputation even more in the advanced stats era.
Elvin Hayes – 1968-1984 (San Diego/Houston Rockets, Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets)
Career per-game stats: 38.4 minutes, 21.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks
Key career advanced stats: -0.4 offensive box plus-minus, 17.7 player efficiency rating, 0.116 win shares per 48 minutes
Those per-game numbers though.
Elvin Hayes filled the box score like few others could in his era. He rode those numbers to All-Star berths in his first 12 seasons, despite being a terrible teammate and failing in the efficiency department.
In the 1970-1971 season, Hayes took 27.0 shots per game and averaged 28.7 points. College rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, by comparison, got 31.7 points on just 22.5 shots in the same year. Can you imagine the sort of ridicule a player would get for needing 27 shots to score fewer than 29 points per game today?
Hayes is still an all-time great, but I have a strong feeling many NBA teams wouldn’t see him as a true superstar if he played today.
Jason Williams – 1998-2011 (Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic)
Career per-game stats: 29.4 minutes, 10.5 points,2.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Key career advanced stats: 14.2 player efficiency rating, -0.7 box plus-minus, 0.080 win shares per 48 minutes
You probably remember Jason Williams from his dazzling days running the point for the Y2K-era Sacramento Kings:
Ironically, he was one of the worst starting point guards in the league during those years. In the three seasons spanning 1998 to 2001, 50 NBA players got at least 6,500 minutes of playing time. J-Will, who played 6,855 minutes in that time frame, ranked dead last in win shares (7.3) among that group.
For some reason, the Memphis Grizzlies thought it prudent to send promising young point guard Mike Bibby to the Kings in the summer of 2001 for Williams. Spare parts were involved, but it was basically a one-for-one switch.
While Williams did experience somewhat of a career renaissance with Memphis and helped end the franchise’s playoff drought in 2004 with the likes of Pau Gasol, James Posey and Shane Battier, Bibby went on to make the Kings perennial contenders. He ended up getting a championship ring with the 2005-06 Miami Heat as a role player.
J-Will was a flashy passer, yes, but his career assist-to-turnover ratio was just a decent 2.8-to-1. He also shot inefficiently (39.8 field goal and 32.7 three-point percentages) and didn’t play good defense. Today, he’d be fun to watch, but not many teams would want him starting.
Dave DeBusschere – 1962-1974 (Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks)
Career per-game stats: 35.7 minutes, 16.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
Key career advanced stats: 47.2 true-shooting percentage, 60.8 win shares, 0.093 win shares per 48 minutes
I don’t claim to be an expert on Dave DeBusschere’s career, but I do know that the late New York Knicks champion is revered in NBA circles for his toughness and defense. He was even selected as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time in 1997.
However, that selection never would’ve been made had DeBusschere played with advanced stats. He was a very solid player, but his reputation would’ve faltered had we known what we know now about efficiency. He ranks 244th in NBA history in win shares, behind recent names like Carlos Boozer, Stephon Marbury, Richard Jefferson, Luol Deng, Hedo Turkoglu, Nene and even 26-year-old James Harden.
The 6’6″, 220-pound forward’s value would’ve improved had he not taken so many shots. Dave’s average game throughout his career saw him take 15.1 shots to average just 16.1 points. Now, the league as a whole was slightly less efficient in DeBusschere’s day, but those were still pretty rough numbers even then.
Pete Maravich – 1970-1980 (Atlanta Hawks. New Orleans/Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics)
Career per-game stats: 37.0 minutes, 24.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks
Key career advanced stats: 96 offensive rating, 0.092 win shares per 48 minutes, -1.7 defensive box plus-minus
Pete Maravich was a revolutionary ball-handler and showman. I grew up watching The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (one of the most underrated basketball movies of all time), and it was amazing to see the work ethic and passion for the game Maravich had. He was the original Jason Williams, but much more skilled overall:
Even though I couldn’t ever watch the Maravich live, I’m almost glad he played in the era he did. In today’s game, very few would appreciate his pure skill set, using numbers to prove him as one of the most turnover-prone players ever.
Needless to say, Maravich definitely belongs in this article.
The NBA didn’t track turnovers until the Pistol’s eighth season, a campaign in which he coughed the ball up a whopping 5.0 times per game. I think it’s safe to say he probably put up turnover numbers around there for most of his career. He was also somewhat inefficient in his time, shooting 21.3 times to get 24.2 points per game throughout his career. He rarely played defense and his teams were almost always mediocre or bad.
Now, had Maravich played in a time where the three-point shot was commonplace, that would’ve helped him. But overall, the numbers just don’t like Pistol Pete, despite the entertainment value he gave the league.
Latrell Sprewell – 1992-2005 (Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves)
Career per-game stats: 38.6 minutes, 18.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.4 blocks
Key career advanced stats: 15.1 player efficiency rating, 0.077 win shares per 48 minutes, 0.4 box plus-minus
I never really got the hype around Latrell Sprewell. He was athletic and pretty skilled, but never put it all together. His efficiency was mediocre, he committed slightly more turnovers (2.7 per game for his career) than you’d like to get from a guy who’s more of a No. 2 option. His defense showed flashes, yet was very inconsistent.
Sprewell made four All-Star Games in his 13-season career. But would he make any if he played 20 years later?
Isiah Thomas – 1981-1994 (Detroit Pistons)
Career per-game stats: 36.3 minutes, 19.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Key career advanced stats: -0.2 defensive box plus-minus, 0.109 win shares per 48 minutes, 106 offensive rating, 107 defensive rating
Is Isiah Thomas an all-time great player? Yes. Is he also a little bit overrated at the same time? In my opinion, yes, and it’s because of advanced stats (feel free to ridicule me for forming this opinion despite being one year old when Thomas retired).
Thomas was a lightning-quick, tenacious scorer who also created well for his teammates throughout the ’80s, establishing himself as the decade’s best point guard not named Magic Johnson. The 6’1″, 180-pounder was one of the few point guards in his day who had the ability and confidence to create (and make) his own shots.
On the flip side, Thomas’s defense and efficiency (scoring or passing) were never great. 9.3 assists per game is an amazing career accomplishment, but 3.8 turnovers per contest is not. And he’s known as an amazing winner, but he never accomplished anything significant in the playoffs until he got a stacked supporting cast.
Zeke was supposedly the best player on two title teams (the 1989 and 1990 Bad Boy Pistons), but was he really?
In the 1988-1989 season, he accumulated 7.0 win shares. That number tied for third on the Detroit squad, behind Bill Laimbeer (9.0), Dennis Rodman (8.1) and equal to Joe Dumars (7.0), who appeared in 11 games fewer than Thomas did. He was second in the same stat during the playoffs, behind Dumars.
A year later, he was fourth (!) on the team in win shares, with Dumars surpassing him this time. Reserve forward John Salley (6.1) was dangerously close to Thomas (6.7) in that category. Thomas did lead the team during the playoffs in win shares, however.
No one’s questioning Zeke’s will to win. He elevated his game numerous times when his team needed him most, which helped his legacy tremendously.
But as advanced stats show, I do think the game-to-game impact he provided on both ends of the court is just a tad overblown.