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The Bill Russell Scale: A quest for the perfect list of the NBA's 75 Greatest Players

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(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

There is no perfect way to craft a list of the NBA's 75 Greatest Players, but here we try.

In an attempt to discover a formula that might generate an unbiased ranking of unassailable players, I have combed through data again and again during the offseason. Here we are on the dawn of the NBA's three-day announcement of its top 75 players in the history of the sport, and I am no closer to crafting the perfect list than any media, current or former player, coach, general manager or executive on the official panel.

I did come up with a pair of data-driven lists that come awfully close. Here is how I got there.

Looking at the NBA's relatively non-controversial list of 50 Greatest Players from 1996, it included:

  • Every MVP but Bob McAdoo

  • Every nine-time All-Star but Dominique Wilkins

  • Every six-time All-NBA selection but Wilkins

  • Every three-time top-five MVP finisher but McAdoo and Wilkins

  • Every face of a championship team (post-BAA/NBL merger) but Bob Davies and Dennis Johnson 

  • All but four Finals MVPs (Johnson, Jo Jo White, Cedric Maxwell, Joe Dumars)

  • All but four top-40 all-time scorers (Wilkins, Alex English, Adrian Dantley, Walt Bellamy)

  • Everyone with at least 100 win shares and 11 playoff win shares but Maurice Cheeks

  • Everyone who averaged 34 combined points, rebounds and assists in the playoffs for a championship team but Neil Johnston and Tommy Heinsohn

  • All but five players with a Player Efficiency Rating greater than 20 and a playoff PER greater than 19 (George Yardley, Bob Lanier, Marques Johnson, Kevin Johnson and Dan Issel)

Seventy-four players now meet at least two of those 10 criteria. Eleven meet all 10 criteria:

  • Bob Pettit

  • Wilt Chamberlain

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  • Larry Bird

  • Michael Jordan

  • Hakeem Olajuwon

  • Shaquille O'Neal

  • Tim Duncan

  • Kobe Bryant

  • Dirk Nowitzki

  • LeBron James

Five meet nine criteria:

  • Jerry West

  • Moses Malone

  • Magic Johnson

  • Kevin Garnett

  • Kevin Durant

Four meet eight criteria:

  • George Mikan

  • Dolph Schayes

  • Bill Russell

  • Dwyane Wade

Seven meet seven criteria:

  • John Havlicek

  • Oscar Robertson

  • Julius Erving

  • Karl Malone

  • Charles Barkley

  • Stephen Curry

  • James Harden

Nine meet six criteria:

  • Paul Arizin

  • Elgin Baylor

  • Rick Barry

  • Elvin Hayes

  • Patrick Ewing

  • David Robinson

  • Allen Iverson

  • Russell Westbrook

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo

Four meet five criteria:

  • Bob Cousy

  • Willis Reed

  • Chris Paul

  • Kawhi Leonard

Sixteen meet four criteria:

  • Hal Greer

  • Walt Frazier

  • Dave Cowens

  • George Gervin

  • Wes Unseld

  • Bill Walton

  • Isiah Thomas

  • Dominique Wilkins

  • Clyde Drexler

  • Scottie Pippen

  • John Stockton

  • Gary Payton

  • Steve Nash

  • Paul Pierce

  • Pau Gasol

  • Dwight Howard

Six meet three criteria:

  • Robert Parish

  • Kevin McHale

  • Ray Allen

  • Jason Kidd

  • Chauncey Billups

  • Carmelo Anthony

Twelve meet two criteria:

  • Neil Johnston

  • Bob McAdoo

  • Adrian Dantley

  • Dennis Johnson

  • James Worthy

  • Reggie Miller

  • Tony Parker

  • Manu Ginobili

  • Tracy McGrady

  • Damian Lillard

  • Nikola Jokic

  • Anthony Davis

Throw in Luka Doncic — arguably the closest thing we have to a 24-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, who made the list of 50 Greatest Players four years into his career — and you have a fairly objective list of 75 players. 

Do I love that Billups is so firmly entrenched on this list? No, but I may have criminally underrated him. He was the unquestioned leader of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who beat O'Neal and Bryant in the Finals, and the only skill player to make an All-NBA roster on a team that reached six straight conference finals. Only Russell's Boston Celtics and Magic's Los Angeles Lakers have made more consecutive conference finals.

(Detroit's Ben Wallace made four straight All-NBA rosters from 2003-06, but he did so at center during a transition period for the position. O'Neal and Yao Ming were the only traditional centers who qualified as stars. Jamaal Magloire and Brad Miller were All-Star centers in 2004. Voters had yet to consider Duncan and Garnett for anything other than a forward slot. For the record, Wallace did not meet a single criterion.)

Billups is a winner. His 141.38 combined regular-season and playoff Win Shares put him on par with Wade (142.34). Dennis Johnson is another example as the Finals MVP for the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics and a top-three option on two more title teams in Boston, including one of the four greatest teams ever. Maybe we should listen to Bird when he says Johnson was his best teammate, despite three others on this list.

The point of the game is to win, after all, which is how I came to another system of ranking players. I tinkered with several weighted scoring structures based on the above criteria and tried a number of players as statistical standard-bearers until I settled on what we will henceforth be known as The Russell Scale.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Bill Russell are unquestionably three of the 15 greatest players in the history of the NBA. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Bill Russell are unquestionably three of the 15 greatest players in the history of the NBA. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

We can debate all we want about whether Jordan, LeBron or Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest player in NBA history, but from a pure basketball perspective, there is no career you should want more than Russell's. He played 13 seasons, never finished lower than seventh in the MVP voting and won 11 championships. His only career playoff losses came against two of the 11 players in league history to meet all the above criteria.

Russell's accomplishments also do not fit neatly into a statistical box. He was not an all-time great scorer, and player efficiency rating fails to properly capture the impact he so clearly had. That is why setting him as the gold standard makes all the sense in the world, so hear me out on details of a 100-point Russell Scale:

19.1: Russell's average PER and playoff PER. The max score for any candidate.

16.4: Russell's regular-season win shares divided by 10. The max score for any candidate.

14.5: Russell's career scoring total divided by 1,000. The max score for any candidate.

12: Russell's number of All-Star appearances. The max score for any candidate.

11: Russell's number of All-NBA appearances. The max score for any candidate.

11: Russell's number of top-5 MVP finishes. The max score for any candidate.

11: Russell's combined championships and Finals MVP awards. The max score for any candidate.

5: Russell's number of regular-season MVP awards. The max score for any candidate.

___________________________

100: The Russell Scale

(The NBA did not name a Finals MVP until 1969, when the league made West the only player ever to win the award in a losing effort. To whom did he lose? A 34-year-old Russell in his last season. Considering no one is likely to ever win 11 championships again, combining titles and Finals MVPs — the award later named for Russell — gives a player of Jordan, Kareem or LeBron's caliber a shot to hit that mark or approach it.)

Here we go: The top 75 players in NBA history, as rated on The Russell Scale ...

  • 1. Bill Russell (100)

  • 2. Michael Jordan (99)

  • 3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (97)

  • 4. LeBron James (96)

  • T5. Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant (92)

  • 8. Shaquille O'Neal (89)

  • 9. Larry Bird (87.1)

  • T10. Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone (84)

  • 13. Hakeem Olajuwon (83.9)

  • 14. Jerry West (82.9)

  • 15. Moses Malone (80)

  • 16. Kevin Durant (79.3)

  • 17. John Havlicek (79.2)

  • T18. Wilt Chamberlain, Dirk Nowitzki (79)

  • T20: Kevin Garnett, David Robinson (78)

  • 22. Charles Barkley (77)

  • 23. Bob Cousy (76.7)

  • 24. Chris Paul (76)

  • 25. George Mikan (73.2)

  • 26. Elgin Baylor (72)

  • 27. Rick Barry (71.9)

  • 28. Dwyane Wade (71.7)

  • 29. John Stockton (71)

  • T30. James Harden, Dolph Schayes (70.8)

  • 32. Patrick Ewing (70.3)

  • 33. Julius Erving (69.2)

  • 34. Dwight Howard (68.4)

  • 35. Stephen Curry (67.8)

  • 36. Scottie Pippen (67.6)

  • 37. Russell Westbrook (67.1)

  • 38. Elvin Hayes (66.7)

  • 39. Steve Nash (66.6)

  • 40. Allen Iverson (65.5)

  • 41. Jason Kidd (65.3)

  • 42. Gary Payton (65)

  • 43. Paul Pierce (64.6)

  • 44. Dominique Wilkins (64.4)

  • 45. Paul Arizin (63.5)

  • 46. Robert Parish (63.3)

  • 47. Clyde Drexler (64.2)

  • 48. Sam Jones (62.5)

  • 49. George Gervin (62.4)

  • 50. Isiah Thomas (61.7)

  • 51. Carmelo Anthony (61.1)

  • 52. Walt Frazier (61)

  • 53. Pau Gasol (60)

  • 54. Ray Allen (59.6)

  • 55. Tracy McGrady (59.3)

  • 56. Tony Parker (58.8)

  • 57. Hal Greer (58.5)

  • T58. Willis Reed, Chris Bosh (58.2)

  • T60. Reggie Miller, Bill Sharman (57.3)

  • 62. Kevin McHale (56.9)

  • T63. Dave Cowens, LaMarcus Aldridge (56.8)

  • 65. Anthony Davis (56.3)

  • 66. Damian Lillard (55.8)

  • T67. Kawhi Leonard, Bob McAdoo (55.5)

  • T69. Chauncey Billups, Jerry Lucas (55.4)

  • T71. Vince Carter, Bob Lanier (55.3)

  • 73. Adrian Dantley (55)

  • T74. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George (54.9)

Again, not a terrible list. And not perfect, either. A few obervations:

  • Pretty great top nine: Russell, Jordan, Kareem, LeBron, Magic, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq and Bird.

  • This scale definitely favors longevity. Two more average seasons from Curry and Antetokounmpo would send them into the top 30 and top 50, respectively, and both are on a trajectory to finish even higher.

  • The fact Nash, Iverson, Kidd and Payton finished Nos. 39-42 in order signals we are onto something.

  • One one hand, Karl Malone finishing 10th is an indication we might be underrating playoff success, overrating regular-season statistics or both. It does not feel right that he finished ahead of Olajuwon.

  • On the other hand, Chamberlain dropping to 18th is an indication we are not underrating playoff success or overrating regular-season statistics. Maybe The Russell Scale tells no lies, after all.

  • Willis Reed and Chris Bosh tying for 58th is a decent sign that we are giving equal weight to players who were absolutely elite for shorter peaks and those who were solid for longer stretches. Reed made First or Second Team All-NBA from 1967-71, but knee injuries ended his career within three years. Bosh made 11 All-Stars appearances but only once made an All-NBA team, before health cut his career short.

  • Likewise, Reggie Miller and Bill Sharman tying for 60th shows The Russell Scale gives equal weight to guys who led sub-championship rosters and those who were merely contributors to a loaded dynasty. 

  • What's up with LaMarcus Aldridge? He has quietly stacked seven All-Star and five All-NBA appearances over 19,951 career points (48th all-time), 112.57 Win Shares (55th all-time), a 20.73 regular-season PER (62nd all-time) and a 19.65 playoff PER (60th all-time). I would be shocked to see him make the panel's official list of 75 Greatest Players in NBA history, but I cannot be mad at him for making this list.

I could be missing someone, but the others to finish with a score of 50 or higher on The Russell Scale:

  • Alex English (54.7)

  • Alonzo Mourning (54.4)

  • Amar'e Stoudemire (53.9)

  • James Worthy (53.3)

  • Chris Webber (53.1)

  • Blake Griffin (52.7)

  • Bailey Howell (52.4)

  • Dikembe Mutomobo (51.9)

  • Manu Ginobili, Shawn Marion (51.7)

  • Shawn Kemp (51.6)

  • Billy Cunningham (51.4)

  • Chet Walker (51.3)

  • Tiny Archibald (51.2)

  • Cliff Hagan (51.1)

  • Vern Mikkelsen (51)

  • Kyrie Irving, Dennis Johnson, Neil Johnston (50.3)

  • Joe Dumars, Dave Bing (50)

Another Pretty good list. Any score higher than 50 is great. Below that you get Walt Bellamy, Jack Sikma, Lenny Wilkens, Kevin Johnson, Kyle Lowry and mostly players who were very good, but not truly great.

Apologies to Wes Unseld (48.6) and Bill Walton (39.2), both regular-season and Finals MVPs. The Russell Scale did not look kindly on two of the more difficult great careers to make sense of in an objective manner.

No list is perfect. These two do not differentiate until we get to Bosh on The Russell Scale, and then eight of the final 18 spots do not overlap, suggesting any list worth its salt has about 65 locks. Congratulations to everyone who makes the official list, and sorry to all the panelists whose lists will be so heavily scrutinized.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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