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NBA, LeBron James, Julius Erving, Bill Russell Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan

Picking apart Julius Erving’s appalling All-NBA team that left out LeBron James

There’s no denying that Dr. J committed malpractice (sorry, we had to) when putting together his All-Time NBA teams. Appearing the “Posted Up” podcast with Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, the former Sixers great made a number of questionable choices when selecting his top-10 players.

That Erving would prefer players from his era of NBA basketball isn’t a total surprise–even if that preference is incorrect, and trust me, we’ll get to that in a moment–it was his rationale behind leaving LeBron James off his All-NBA team that was most appalling.

“When you look at LeBron, and anybody that he sort of picks with him… He’s the guy who has led the charge in terms of super teams being put together,” Erving said of the Lakers star, per Audacy.com. “When he put together the team in Miami. He put together the team in Cleveland as well, and he put together the team in Los Angeles.”

Denying James’ on-court performance because of his willingness to exercise his leverage over organizations in the league is definitely a contorted way to view recent NBA history. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the only stumbling block Dr. J encountered when putting together his two squads.

Let us count the error of his ways.

The Good

Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, 

To be fair, Julius Erving’s list wasn’t all bad! While Jordan, Magic, and Bird need little in the way of introduction or defense over their inclusion in any all-time list, it is the two big men that tend to be most controversial.

Often overshadowed in the modern era by the dueling rivalry of Bird and Magic and overlooked during his playing career because of his reticence towards engaging with the media, the totality of Kareem’s work cannot be overstated. Over 20 seasons in the league, Abdul-Jabbar won an astounding six NBA MVP awards, made 19 All-Star appearances and 11 All-Defense teams, and put together a slash line of 24.6 PPG/ 11.2 TRB/ 3.6 AST/ 2.6 Blks while earning a 55.9% effective field goal percentage and averaging 24.6 PER. Oh, and he’s first all-time in points and collected over 17,000 rebounds. Basically, he was really good.

Even if you want to quibble that other players had higher peaks against tougher competition–which is already a difficult argument to make–the totality and length of Kareem’s excellence is bound to outweigh anyone you put against him.

As for Russell, the original Celtic is not only the greatest champion in sports history–winning 11 championships as a player-coach–but is also the best defender in league history and is in the conversation for being the most clutch player of all time. Over 13 years, the namesake of the Finals MVP accrued 133.64 defensive win-shares–easily the record, outpacing second-place finisher Tim Duncan–but had a playoff stat line of 16.2 PPG/ 24.9 RPG (!!)/ 4.3 APG and was a mind-boggling 10-0 in Game 7’s.

While the argument that Russell’s accomplishments should be discounted because the NBA was bereft of the type of physical specimens that today populate its ranks does hold some weight, the inverse of that is that Russell also lacked the advantages of science and nutrition that helped create those athletes, thereby missing a chance to raise his ceiling in the same way modern players can.

With the advance of analytics, we have begun to quantify just how valuable individual players are for their team when they are on the court versus off. Though we may have lacked the math at the time, intuitively, it’s not difficult to see how valuable Bill Russell was to the Celtics.

When he was on the court, they were simply unbeatable, and that carries over no matter what the era.

The Bad

Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain 

Before you write those angry tweets–or, if your my father, threaten to change the locks on the house for slandering the good names of two of his favorite Lakers–let me make clear that none of these players are by any means bad, but simply that their career accomplishments no longer place them in the top 10 NBA players of all-time given recent history. When modern fans and media members alike discuss the rise of LeBron, Kobe, Duncan, and others as ascendant in the ranks of NBA history, it is often at the expense of the four players above. And as impressive as each of their careers were, rightfully so.

While Elgin Baylor was undeniably an electric player–one of the first guards in league history to regularly operate above the rim while serving as a forerunner to the guard-heavy NBA action we know today–his 14-year career was too short to leave a lasting mark on the league’s record books. What’s more, his lack of hardware–never winning an MVP award–and postseason success means that he was never the best player in the association during his tenure, nor often, on his own team.

As for the best player on those Lakers teams, Jerry West’s similarly shorter career leaves him a hair short compared to the modern stars of the league. Though his 25,000 points over 932 career games are impressive, they don’t quite match Kobe Bryant’s 33,000 mark over 1,346 contests. Add into the mix Bryant’s five championship rings, and West’s inability to get past Russell’s Celtics, and No. 24 just inches ahead of the Logo on the Lakers and the league’s all-time list. It may not be fair, but neither is the NBA.

The most interesting case, however, is Wilt Chamberlain. With the Big Dipper suffering from the same arguments that stymied Bill Russell–that the league lacked opponents capable of matching up with them–the difference between Wilt and Russell was their ability to lift their squads into championship contention. Given Chamberlain’s repeated failure to best Russell in their matchups, there’s no denying Wilt falls short of matching the Celtic’s center place in league history. And with it, falls out of the top 10.

The Ugly 

Karl Malone

Besides his disqualification of LeBron, this is where Dr. J’s list really falls apart. While The Mailman put together a long and productive NBA career–finishing second on the league’s scoring list when he retired in 2004–Malone not only failed to boast he was the best player in the league during his career but was hardly the best big man in the association over that span. Not only did Dr. J forget about Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal, but Tim Duncan was left out in the cold as well.

Yet, the biggest irony is that Malone was a pioneer of the “superteam” long before LeBron took his talents to South Beach. Desperate to finish his career with a championship ring, the long-time Utah Jazz forward departed Salt Lake City for Los Angeles in an attempt to help the Lakers muscle their way to a championship. While the venture ultimately fell short, Malone was guilty of the same type of “ring-chasing” that veterans of the league have so come to despise. This also raises an important point that is often ignored in conversations around player empowerment and the formation of superteams.

Player movement is not the result of the machinations of LeBron James or any other individual but the byproduct of the league’s current financial structure. Had the same environment existed during the careers of past NBA greats–from Julius Erving to Bill Russell, to Charles Barkley–we would have seen players operate with the same type of impunity that they do today.

Arguing otherwise is simply to criticize current players for opportunities past ones didn’t have.