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February 5, 2010
What is the most fabled position in NBA history?

by Bradford Doolittle


Sometime around Christmas, I was watching some sporting event for which Al Michaels was doing the play-by-play. I can't remember what game it was, but he made a throwaway comment that caused me to prick up my ears and punch in a note on my Blackberry.

I suspect it was a football game and it probably involved the Dallas Cowboys, because the topic was regarding the most-storied positions in each sport. Michaels was alluding to the Cowboys' quarterbacking history, and mentioned the equivalents in other sports being center field for the Yankees in baseball, and center for the Celtics in the NBA. Now, this is one of those navel-gazing topics that barely rises to the level of an Around the Horn segment, but this is Friday and a little historical navel-gazing sounds good to me.

My first reaction to Michaels' comments was that center isn't even the most storied position in Celtics' history, much less that of the NBA. Sure, the Celtics have had an impressive string of centers, tracing back even before Bill Russell. Ed Macauley, Russell, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish--it's an impressive lineage. However, the Celtics have had an even more impressive history of great small forwards: Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce and, of course, Larry Bird.

So just for fun, let's put some numbers to this question, while recognizing that there is no real answer. Consider it a jumping off point for further discussion--something to debate with all your NBA historian friends. (A lively crowd.)

Using the Play Index at basketball-reference.com, I created a small Win Shares database of the NBA players in the Basketball Hall of Fame, plus the top 35 players in career Win Shares who are not in the Hall. (Why 35? That's where LeBron James ranks.) I chose this approach rather than simply calculating total Win Shares by position for each franchise, because if we're talking about "storied" players, I don't think the -0.1 Win Shares accumulated by Ken "The Animal" Bannister need count against Knicks centers.

The other disclaimer I have to make is that assigning one position for player is more or less a fool's errand. Great players in particular fill different positions at different times of the game at either end of the floor. For the most part, however, there is one position that seems like an obvious fit for each player. It's a judgment call, and your quibble is acknowledged. But try to relax. This just for fun.

Here is our leaderboard:

No. Team          Pos     WS  Key players
1. Celtics          C  444.6  Ed Macauley, Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish
2. Celtics         SF  440.6  Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird
3. Lakers           C  405.4  George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal
4. Lakers          SG  343.5  Jerry West, Kobe Bryant
5. Warriors         C  285.9  Neil Johnston, Nate Thurmond, Wild Chamberlain, Robert Parish
6. Warriors        SF  273.3  Paul Arizin, Rick Barry, Tom Gola, Chet Walker
7. Bulls           SG  255.6  Jerry Sloan, Michael Jordan
8. Lakers          PG  251.9  Slater Martin, Gail Goodrich, Magic Johnson
9. Nationals/76ers  C  242.7  Dolph Schayes, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone
10. Royals/Kings   PG  238.2  Bob Davies, Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald
11. Rockets         C  237.2  Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon
12. Celtics        PF  236.2  Bailey Howell, Kevin McHale, Tom Heinsohn
13. Knicks          C  232.5  Walt Bellamy, Willis Reed, Bob McAdoo, Patrick Ewing 
14. Jazz           PF  232.3  Karl Malone
15. Spurs           C  219.3  David Robinson, Artis Gilmore
16. Jazz           PG  217.3  Gail Goodrich, John Stockton
17. Suns           PF  212.3  Charles Barkley, Shawn Marion
18. Lakers         SF  210.3  James Worthy, Elgin Baylor, Jim Pollard
19. Celtics        SG  202.0  Bill Sharman, Sam Jones
20. Mavericks      PF  201.2  Sam Perkins, A.C. Green, Dirk Nowitzki

Lo and behold, it takes me an hour of data management to come up with the same answer Al Michaels came up with off the top of his head. Guess that's why he makes the big bucks.

There is plenty of room for argument. Take the top two, separated by only four win shares. Outside of Hall-of-Fame caliber players, the Celtics don't have a ton of noteworthy contributors at center. Bill Walton came off the bench during one championship season. Kendrick Perkins is solid on the current Celtics. However, at small forward, you tack on Don Nelson, Cedric Maxell and Tom Sanders, among others. Tough call.

To me, the real glamor position in NBA annals is center for the Lakers. Mikan/Chamberlain/Abdul-Jabbar/O'Neal? Are you kidding me? Also, Basketball Reference does not have enough data to calculate Win Shares for Mikan's first three seasons, when he was by far the most dominant player in professional basketball. That alone could tack on another 50 Win Shares for Lakers' pivot men, which would put them over the top. Plus you have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on today's Lakers. However, whereas the players comprising the HOF rosters at center and small forward for Boston were all career Celtics, the Lakers' great centers--except for Mikan--all had some of their best seasons for other franchises. I've divided up Win Shares by franchise, but you still might argue that diminishes the notion of "storied position."

Any thoughts? Drop me a line and I'll post an Unfiltered with some of your arguments. I'll leave you with a table of my calculations for each position of active NBA franchises.

TEA       C     PG     SG     SF     PF
ATL   195.2   56.2   25.6  180.2  125.3
BOS   444.6  163.9  202.0  440.6  236.2
CHA     0.0    0.0    0.0    0.0    0.0
CHI    72.1    0.0  255.6  166.0   62.1
CLE    12.3   20.8    0.0   97.5   55.9
DAL     0.0   68.7    1.1   13.8  201.2
DEN   134.2   39.5   56.8   82.6    0.0
DET   199.4  187.8  142.1   86.9  112.7
GSW   285.9    4.8    0.0  273.3    6.3
HOU   237.2    0.0  106.7   12.5  122.2
IND     0.0    0.0  174.4   46.9    7.2
LAC    52.5    0.0    0.0    9.8    0.0
LAL   405.4  251.9  343.5  210.3  162.0
MEM     0.0    0.1    7.4    0.0    0.0
MIA    21.2    5.4   44.5    0.0    7.7
MIL   147.6   39.3   54.1    5.3   33.4
MIN     0.0   27.9    0.0    0.0  138.4
NJN     0.0   60.6   16.1   73.4   62.8
NOH     3.1    0.0   14.1    0.0    0.0
NYK   232.5  143.1   41.6  103.5   83.3
OKC     2.0  152.9   44.6   53.7  121.0
ORL    49.6    0.0    0.0    0.3   42.2
PHI   242.7  175.0  112.7  178.2  111.1
PHO     9.5  113.6   43.9   35.9  212.3
POR    26.0   82.0  105.1   27.1  115.1
SAC    34.4  238.2   39.6   72.8   99.6
SAS   219.3   18.9  104.5    3.4  159.0
TOR     2.1    0.4    0.0    0.0    1.6
UTA     0.1  217.3   75.3   76.4  232.3
WAS   155.3    0.0   53.6    0.0  105.5

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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Every Play Counts (02/05)
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