Was The Admiral In The Big O's Class?
On Friday night, David Robinson will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the greatest class in history, along with Michael Jordan, John Stockton and others.
It seems like the common perception about The Admiral at this point is that, yes, he was a great player and certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but ultimately, he falls short of the NBA's very highest echelon of all-time players because he was not able to carry a team to a championship as the best player on his team, as Robinson didn't win a title until Tim Duncan came along to be San Antonio's go-to guy for the 1999 and 2003 runs.
Despite his two championships, an MVP award, and a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year nod, the primary memory of David Robinson's career that many fans have is this: Hakeem Olajuwon's domination of him in the 1995 Playoffs, in a matchup of the 1994 MVP (Hakeem) vs. the 1995 MVP (Admiral):
More specifically, people remember this one play - the ultimate Dream Shake, perhaps the single iconic play of not only Olajuwon's career, but possibly Robinson's as well:
[Ed. note: After I posted, I realized that that move above is technically more of an up-and-under than a classic Dream Shake. Here's the real deal - I love how Hakeem says it was "a soccer move" but it sounds like he's saying it was "a sucker move":]
Oscar Robertson, meanwhile, was inducted in the Hall of Fame back in 1980, as part of possibly the second-best class ever, along with Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and others. The Big O's credentials as a Hall of Famer are unassailable, for sure.
Robertson is commonly considered to be among the very best players in NBA history - possibly even a contender for the greatest player ever to some - and the Big O is certainly considered to be a clear level above the likes of David Robinson. When SLAM unveiled its "New Top 50" rankings of the NBA's greatest players earlier this year, The Big O was at no. 5, while the Admiral was no. 25.
Yet, Robertson was never able to carry a team to a championship, either. Oscar won his only title after joining the Milwaukee Bucks for the 1970-71 season, on a team that was clearly led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 31.7 points and 16.0 rebounds as he swept the league MVP/Finals MVP awards.
What is the primary memory we have of The Big O's career at this point? Of course, it is the magical, seemingly miraculous triple-double season of 1961-62, when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
Now, here's where the context of modern statistical analysis comes into play. While Oscar's '61-62 numbers are mind-boggling to us, remember that the 1961-62 NBA season was the ultimate outlier statistically:
- For starters, Wilt dwarfed Oscar and everyone else in '61-62 with his 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg averages.
- Elgin Baylor's averages of 38.3 points, 18.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists were in Oscar's league overall, though Elgin only played 48 games because he was called to active duty in the Army Reserves and could only play in the NBA while on a weekend pass.
- Walt Bellamy (31.6 and 19.0) and Bob Pettit (31.1 and 18.7) posted some pretty good numbers of their own, and Bill Russell threw in 23.6 rebounds per game for good measure.
Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference did some great work in March in translating statistics based on the different paces of the game between 1962 and 2009. Oscar's 1961-62 averages would look like this if he played at the pace of 2008-09: 22.0 pts, 8.9 reb, 8.1 ast. Very good numbers, for sure, but not mind-blowing.
Meanwhile, if LeBron James had been able to play at the pace of the 1961-62 game, his 2008-09 numbers would have looked something like this: 39.8 pts, 10.6 reb, 10.1 ast.
What we're trying to get at is this: despite the fact that Oscar not only averaged a triple-double in 1961-62, but also did so cumulatively over his first six seasons combined if you total up his numbers, David Robinson was still a more statistically dominant player in the context of his time.
Robinson led the NBA in PER for three years running with exceptional marks of 30.7 ('93-94), 29.1 ('94-95) and 29.7 ('95-96). For his career, the Admiral's PER was 26.18, which ranks 4th all-time.
Oscar Robertson, meanwhile, never led the NBA in PER. He finished 2nd behind Wilt Chamberlain four years running ('63-64 to '66-67). His single-season best was 27.6 in '63-64, and he finished just 4th in his triple-double season of '61-62, with a 26.0 mark. Oscar's 23.18 career PER ranks 20th all-time.
(Note: Steals, blocks, and turnovers were not official NBA stats, nor were rebounds broken into off/def until the very end of Oscar's career, so there's a little bit of an apples/oranges quality to his PER compared to Robinson's - maybe more of a Granny Smith/Fuji gradation, actually.)
Now, I'm sure many of you are up in arms that I've brought PER into the discussion. "There's no way you can judge that one player is better than another just based on PER!" I can hear it, I swear, and I agree completely.
As I've written in this space before, I do not believe that PER is a be-all, end-all stat which provides a definitive ranking of players. But I *do* believe that PER is very effective for what it is: a one-number expression of all the stats which appear in the box score. And I think that PER is especially good for comparing statistical performance across different years - it offers a great way to cut through the peculiarities of different eras, and measure statistical production against the league average in a given context and time.
That's the thing: the argument in favor of Oscar Robertson as an all-time top 10 or top 5 player relies heavily on the perception of his box-score stats, headlined by that gleaming triple-double, yet David Robinson's box-score stats were just as good at the very least. If questions about mystical, intangible qualities about being a winner are going to be applied to Robinson, then they should be applied to Robertson as well.
I'm of the camp who thinks that the quality of one's teammates is extremely underrated when evaluating how much of a "winner" an individual is (see: "Garnett, Kevin"), but if you want to talk about being a winner, the Big O certainly did not outdo the Admiral. Take a look at team records for Oscar's Cincy years (before he left for Milwaukee) vs. David's San Antonio years before Duncan arrived.
- Cincinnati Royals:
60-61: 33-46, missed playoffs
61-62: 43-37, lost West semis
62-63: 42-38, lost East finals
63-64: 55-25, lost East finals
64-65: 48-32, lost East semis
65-66: 45-35, lost East semis
66-67: 39-42, lost East semis
67-68: 39-43, missed playoffs
68-69: 41-41, missed playoffs
69-70: 36-46, missed playoffs
[Note: Conference semis were all first-round series in these years.]
San Antonio Spurs
89-90: 56-26, lost West semis
90-91: 55-27, lost West 1st rd
91-92: 47-35, lost West 1st rd
92-93: 49-33, lost West semis
93-94: 55-27, lost West 1st rd
94-95: 62-20, lost West finals
95-96: 59-23, lost West semis
96-97: 20-62, missed playoffs
Let's also note that both players saw a decline in career playoff PER (Admiral 23.0, Big O 21.0) compared to regular-season PER.
Now, after all this, are we trying to say that David Robinson was a better player than Oscar Robertson? Nope. We realize that trying to compare a 7-foot center and a 6-5 guard from different eras is largely an exercise in folly, and we understand there are subjective factors in play.
We forgive Oscar a little because he had to go up against stacked Celtics teams year after year. Meanwhile, Hakeem's ownership of the non-Jordan years of '94 and '95, and his domination of the Admiral in 1995, definitely help make us inclined to rank Olajuwon over Robinson on the all-time list.
And it's probably far too late to say this, but we're not trying to kill Oscar here, really. Ultimately, we'd still rank him ahead of Robinson, but they'd probably both be closer to 15 than 5 vs. 25.
This post is not meant to be about Oscar, it's meant to be about David Robinson. While his dreadful two weeks vs. Hakeem in 1995 are certainly a part of the story, that period should be considered as just a part of his overall story rather than the entirety of it.
What we're mainly trying to say is that we think David Robinson is probably better than you remember him, and probably deserves to be ranked higher than you are ranking him.
The Painted Area congratulates David Robinson on his impending induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.