The Measure of a Champion

Posted on 02/19/2011 by


Arturo: Who is the Best Basketball player of all time?

I-Ching Response:

This is a time for dealing with reality as it is, not as you would have it be.
If you realize that in this situation you are the receptor, not the transmitter of the stimulus, you will find yourself reaching goals that seemed unattainable under your own steam.
If you persist in futile efforts to be the Shaper rather than the Shaped, you will completely miss this unique opportunity.

Reading courtesy of

I got an email yesterday.


If this hasn’t been done as a story it needs to be. I was reading a 50 most overrated players at BR (The 50 Most Overrated Stars in NBA History” by Ryan Rudnansky). While enjoyable I got to cringe as Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, LeBron and Sir Charles got called overrated because they never won that title……I’ll look at collecting the data and if you have a method of displaying it would be a nice Friday piece (if you have time)

And the following Skype exchange (heavily edited to protect the innocent and the misspellers):

[12:05:04 AM] Andres H Alvarez: Evening

[12:09:20 AM] Me: Loved the championship post idea

[12:09:28 AM] Me: Wanna tag team it?

[12:10:23 AM] Me: I figure we do championship shares

[12:10:49 AM] Me: so you need 16 playoff WP for a championship

[12:11:03 AM] Me: and (12 -15 for older seasons)

[12:14:10 AM] Me: I have the old playoff data

[12:14:54 AM] Andres H Alvarez: the “they need a title” is bad bad metric

[12:23:59 AM] Me: lemme get to work.

[12:24:05 AM] Me: I have inspiration

The key questions on which that piece turns (and in fact most of my writing ): What makes a basketball player great? How do we quantify greatness? Can we quantitatively measure a person’s value and contribution?

If you know me by now, you know that is a question that I cannot possibly let go (and neither can Dre remember we’re tag-teaming this)

Letting go (Image courtesy of

This led to my question to the I-Ching above. Following it’s advice I surrendered  myself to the universe and prepared myself to be the conduit. Just what is the universe trying to tell me?

In life, It’s always hard to come up with a simple criteria on how to evaluate people. The simplest way to do so is to set some clear and simple goals. Then you set up a mechanism to measure progress and completion against that goal and pretty soon you have a clear framework for measuring success and evaluating performance.

When I set goals for evaluation for my work teams, I follow the SMART Criteria.

And yes I am in the middle of doing this right now (I can have more than one spreadsheet open at a time thank you very much!)

We want goals that are Specific,Measurable,Attainable, Realistic and that must be achieved by a specific point in Time for each individual . The simpler and clearer they are, the better.

What prompted this course in management theory 101? Well, the simple fact is that what works in the business world should work in the basketball world. The first step to evaluating greatness on the court is figuring out what the ultimate goal is.

And as the I-Ching, It’s not about what I think or expect but  about what the basketball gods wants to say through me. The question posed is how do we evaluate and rate Basketball Players? The first thing we must ask ourselves is what is our SMART goal.

The answer is of course 30 to 16 to 1.

30 to 16. When looking at the NBA, we typically focus our energy on what happens in the regular season to turn thirty regular season teams  into 16 playoff teams. 16 to 1. The true goal of any NBA season is to turn thirty teams into one champion.

So the conceit of the Bleacher Report piece, a true great wins a championship is not wrong. If the goal is to win it all, greatness on the court has to be measured in terms of the contribution to winning a championship.

The goal is thus clear let’s set to building a metric.

The Championship Metric:

Does this look like the right answer?

Rank Player Minutes Played in Playoffs on a Championship Team since 1978
1 Michael Jordan 4801
2 Scottie Pippen 4723
3 Robert Horry 4301
4 Kobe Bryant 4247
5 Magic Johnson 3538
6 Tim Duncan 3359
7 Shaquille O’Neal 3211
8 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2998
9 Derek Fisher 2936
10 Dennis Rodman 2846
11 Horace Grant 2596
12 Larry Bird 2481
13 Michael Cooper 2458
14 Tony Parker 2423
15 Ron Harper 2257
16 Bruce Bowen 2253
17 Dennis Johnson 2204
18 James Worthy 2203
19 Byron Scott 2090
20 Manu Ginobili 2034
21 Robert Parish 1970
22 Hakeem Olajuwon 1918
23 Pau Gasol 1844
24 Kevin McHale 1713
25 A.C. Green 1660

That’s a table of the players who’ve played the most minutes on championship teams since 1978. I can appreciate Jordan at the top of this list but Horry over Magic, Bird, and Shaq? Fisher at nine? Simple presence on the court on a championship team is to simplistic a measure.

Luckily we have better measures to use (at this point I remind you that we are powered by NerdNumbers and if you have questions you’ll need to go to the Basics where there are links and I make with the explainy, remember if you don’t the narrator reserves the right to be have his way with you in the comments section).

Winning the Championship is about winning in the playoffs. A team needs 16 wins in the playoff to win it all now (and 12 or 15 at different times in the past).

Year Wins to Championship
1978 to 1983 12
1984 to 2002 15
2003 to Now 16

A player’s greatness should be a function of his contribution to winning a championship. His wins. His share of a championship. If I take the Wins Produced by each player in the playoffs and divide it by the wins required to win a title I come up with a nifty little metric : Championships Produced.

With championships produced, I can do the following table:

Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Duncan, Bird, Shaq, Rodman and Kobe are the champions. This top eight  looks more like it. It meets all our criteria, players on championship teams who produced the most championships. Simple. Straightforward.The end.

Maybe thirty years ago but not now. Didn’t a pitcher with a 13-12 just win a Cy Young? A great player gives you a chance to win but other factors (roster, injuries and luck) out of his control play a part in him winning that elusive ring. Players should be judged on what they do. So let’s expand this to include all the players in the playoffs.

37 Champions. Each of the players on this list from the top to the bottom gave us fantastic playoff moments. Everyone played in the Finals. Magic is on a planet of his own of course.

Let’s illustrate the point. If we look at the top 25 Playoff performances since 1978:

Duncan in 2003 takes the crown followed by the Legend in 1984 and Shaq destroying the league in 2000. That’s a kickass top three. Only four people feature more than once though: Wallace and Jordan twice, Bird features 4 times.

Magic features 8 times.  It seems if were talking greatness in basketball there’s just one answer.

Funny that it's the same answer the 10 Year Old me would have given you. Only with the order flipped

Still here?

I did promise you an awesome poster.

Feel free to stare and link :-).

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