The Top Power Forwards In The Game

I was watching the NBA Finals tonight, and one of the announcers laid out his Top-Five list for the best power forwards of all time, which I instantly committed to memory for its pure ignorance. The list looked like this:

1. Tim Duncan
2. Charles Barkley
3. Karl Malone
4. Kevin Garnett
5. Kevin McHale

I shouldn't be surprised at this, I suppose; ESPN did a similar poll of ten sportscasters a few years back and came up with virtually the same result. There's a human instinct to quickly forget the players of the past, to believe that what we're seeing now is the best that's ever been. But it's just not the case.

After overpraising LeBron's overdue 48-Special against the Pistons, Bill Simmons hearkened back to his youth, and wrote an illuminating article last week about how quickly our memories fade. He was dead-on. We want to believe that everything before us is history being made - and in some cases, it is. Duncan's quest for his fourth ring in nine years is just one more trophy on one of the most distinguished careers in NBA history. Tim Duncan is not one of the top-ten players of all time, but he is most likely the greatest power forward to play the game. Unlike most sportscasters these days, I think the matter's still up for debate.

Though if you asked me to cast my vote today for who that would be, I would unquestionably pick Duncan. I think it's still up for debate, but I do know who I think should win the debate. I just wish more people were legitimately asking the question, "where does Duncan rate among the greatest power forwards of all time?"

Here's my answer to that question: "Not one notch above Charles Barkley." Barkley is not the second-best power forward in history. Garnett is certainly not the fourth-best power forward in history. Let's look at the stats of these players, the first four of whom were playing NBA ball within the last ten years:

1. Tim Duncan - 21.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2-time MVP, 3-time Finals MVP, 9-time All-Star, 9-time All-NBA First Team, 9-time All-Defense First or Second Team.

Those numbers aren't stunning, but they've been consistent year in and year out. And a 3-time Finals MVP, with possibly one more on the way this year (though Tony Parker's probably going to nab this one). Remember, the following three players have zero rings between the three of them

2. Charles Barkley - 22.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1 MVP, 10-time All-NBA First or Second Team, 11-time All-Star

3. Karl Malone - 25.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA First Team

4. Kevin Garnett- 20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1 MVP, 10-time All-Star, 6-time First or Second All-NBA, 8-time First or Second All-Defense.

5. Kevin McHale - 17.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 7-time All-Star, 6-time First or Second All-Defense. McHale's stats are lower than the players ahead of him since he was one of a number of great players on one of the greatest teams in NBA history, with a number of other scorers: Bird, Parish, Ainge, Johnson, etc. As a result, he's got as many championships as Duncan.

Now, take a look at some of these challengers. Can you think of any reason for these players not to be on this list other than the fact that they played 20-30 years earlier than these five players?

  • Elgin Baylor - 27.4 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1 MVP Award (his rookie year), 10 years All-NBA First Team, 11-Time All-Star
  • Bob Petit - 26.4 ppg, 16.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2-time MVP, 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA First Team
  • Elvin Hayes - 21.0 pgpg, 12.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 12-time All-Star, 6-time All-NBA First or Second Team
We've lost the ability to rationally evaluate the players we see on SportsCenter every night - when someone's better than anyone we've ever seen, it's easy for that person to become the best player of all time. Anyone who's ready to hand over Jordan's legacy and call LeBron "potentially the greatest player ever to play the game" is an idiot. It's still arguable if Jordan was the best of all-time, since we've lost the ability to accurately compare him to players like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. It's impossible to weigh the things we've seen against the things we've only seen on paper. It can't be done.

Duncan's going to win another championship in a couple days. When he does, we'll see him hoist that giant awkward looking trophy over his head one more time, grinning through the shower of ticker tape. When he does, the announcers are going to say something like "the greatest power forward in NBA history takes home yet another championship." And I think they'll be right.

I just think that maybe it should still be up for debate.