Wednesday, September 09, 2009

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.
The point is that it was an entirely different era, when many more shots per game were taken (107.7 then vs. 80.9 now), and thus there was a *much* greater opportunity to accumulate stats which are fairly unthinkable in the NBA of 2009.

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
    Avg: 42-39
    [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
    Avg: 50-32
Of course, the average wins would be a few games higher if not for the 1996-97 season, in which Robinson played just 6 games due to injury, but then again, the Admiral likely wouldn't have any rings without that disastrous season, which allowed S.A. to win the Duncan lottery.

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.


At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. I'd also like to note that nobody, including a clone of Olajuwon himself (as bizarre as that sounds, think about it), was capable of stopping Olajuwon's Ultimate Dream Shake on that play... Bill Russell in his prime would have looked just as foolish as the Admiral did, because it was an unstoppable fake executed with perfect balance, grace, quickness, and body control. Even Kevin McHale, master of the up-n-under, never pulled off a move like that. It was probably the greatest ball fake in NBA history.

At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Vittorio De Zen said...

Love it. Great analysis. I was just discussing The Admiral with a buddy of mine last night - the dude was incredible on both ends of the floor. Being defeated by another Hall of Famer doesn't take anything away from how good he was.

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, this was an interesting post. About the Robinson-Olajuwon matchup in 1995: It bothered me at the time the way that Robinson was criticized for his defense, because he was such an amazing defensive player. But watch the whole series and you'll see that Olajuwon never guarded Robinson 1-on-1. He didn't have to: First of all, the Spurs didn't have another great scorer to punish double-teams. And second, they had Dennis Rodman, who had no real offensive game, aside from putbacks. The Spurs were playing 4-on-5 when they were on offense, so the Rockets always had an extra man to double-team Robinson. On the other end, however, Houston had a number of effective scorers and a second truly great scorer in Drexler, so Robinson often had to guard Olajuwon 1-on-1. No defensive player has ever been able to effectively check any of the Top 50 players 1-on-1. The fact that Houston didn't completely dominate San Antonio, despite San Antonio's clear matchup problem, shows just how great of a defender Robinson really was.

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post overall, and great comment from Anonymous re: the 1995 matchup. It's unfair to put too much emphasis on that one series given the disparate team matchups. Also, it's notable that Robinson outperformed Shaq in head-to-head matchups (especially early in Shaq's career--Shaq himself used to complain about this), but no one suggests that Robinson should be deemed better than Shaq for that one reason. Clearly, more needs to be considered than a single head-to-head matchup in comparing the qualitative worth of players.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Fair points. I'd also note that I believe Robinson held a 30-12 edge over Olajuwon in regular-season matchups.

Also, as much as Olajuwon dominated the head-to-head matchup statistically in the '95 series, one of the key factors in that series didn't relate to either of the two centers, as Rodman went completely cuckoo.

He was late to practice before Game 5, and was held out of the starting lineup. S.A. got crushed at home and Houston had control of the series going home up 3-2.

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At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always liked David Robinson - I started following him casually while he was still at the Naval Academy and I certainly agree that he belongs in the Hall of Fame, but MY greatest memory of him was watching him get completely pulled out of his game by the 1991(?) Warriors. Don Nelson made him look ridiculous by consistently running plays that forced the Admiral to play at the top of the key - where he was the least effective.

Watching the Warriors shoot over him and dominate beneath the basket with Robinson cleared out was just beautiful. Warriors won that series in five games and I think lost to Utah next. Another five game series where Nelson could out-coach and get a team to over-perform, only to fall back to reality when moving to the second round.

Nelson and Robinson are both similar, I think, in people's memories - a couple guys who were better remembered for what they didn't do, but both legends who belong in the Hall.

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article & good post...I'm only surprised no one has said anything about how good of a Man he is. He is an excellent role model and each time I meet him in person he was always humble and polite to each and every fan. Thank you Admiral!!!
And God Bless!!!

At 9:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watching the Olajuwon video and reading the post and the comments, the image that comes to my mind is the fight scene between Andre the Giant and the Man in Black in the movie The Princess Bride. David was used to defending the entire opposing team; few if any teams had a center that the opposition would dream of running a play for against Robinson. He was most used to keeping his man sealed out of position and helping on other players when they went to the rim. It was almost boring, the number of highlight real blocks that Robinson put up on Jordan et al as they would soar down the lane in SA only to realize, too late, they were in Mr Robinson's neighborhood. However, you use different moves when you are fighting a whole gang then when you only have to be concerned with one. And if that one is as big as you, as skilled as you, playing the best basketball of his career with an enormous chip on his shoulder? Well, losing in 6 happens.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This piece is nuts. Robertson IS the greatest player of all time. Period. His lack of titles has EVERYTHING to do with playing in the same conference with the Celtics who always had a minimum of six hall of famers on the roster. Yes, statistics were different in different eras. It was HARDER to get credited with an assist - yet Robertson still got tons of them. There were no three pointers, yet Robertson still scored tons of points.

So the answer is simple - No, the Admiral wasn't in the Big O's class, because NO ONE has ever been in the Big O's class. A better comparison would have been the three guys actually going in together. They played in the same era. Jordan always with another hall of famer and several other stars in the most loaded team of the decade, Stockton with one other hall of famer and nothing else, and Robinson with usually just a group of other role players. Jordan did it with scoring and shooting constantly, Robinson did it as a post with scoring, rebounding and shot blocking, and Stockton as a point with assists and steals. A much more interesting and close comparison between the three of them - the Big O is by himself though.

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Admiral was great. One of the top dozen or so players of all-time. A 7-footer with the athleticism of a Wilt or Dwight, all the defensive savvy of a Mutumbo or Hakeem, an incredible post game, a jump shot out to 20 feet, the speed of a guard, unprecendented passing skills for a 7-footer, the perfect attitude..... A surefire Hall Of Famer and one of the best big men of all-time, unquestionably.

At 11:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Robinson.

Below them are the likes of Garnett and Ewing, and soon to join them will Dwight Howard.

Truly a class act.

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