I know it’s exciting that training camps are open and players are playing actual basketball but actual news is quite hard to come by. We’ll have full NBA previews coming in the next few weeks but we thought we’d tide you over with a little bit of basketball talk. We often associate a particular position with a particular player (i.e. Magic Johnson at the point in the 1980s or Michael Jordan at shooting guard forever). We were wondering whether our mental associations comport with the stats. Obviously, the stats don’t reflect all the value of a player (particularly not the defensive side of the equation) but PER is a very nice barometer of offensive accomplishment. I thought we could look at the PER leaders year-by-year since 1979-80 (the first year of the Magic/Bird Era) and see if the yearly PER leaders by position really comport with our conceptions:
|1979-80||Mag. Johnson||G. Gervin||J. Erving||Marq. Johnson||K. Abdul-Jabbar|
|1980-81||M. Richardson||G. Gervin||J. Erving||Marq. Johnson||K. Abdul-Jabbar|
|1981-82||Mag. Johnson||G. Gervin||J. Erving||D. Roundield||M. Malone|
|1982-83||G. Williams||S. Moncrief||L. Bird||T. Cummings||M. Malone|
|1983-84||Mag. Johnson||S. Moncrief||A. Dantley||K. McHale||M. Malone|
|1984-85||Mag. Johnson||M. Jordan||L. Bird||T. Cummings||K. Abdul-Jabbar|
|1985-86||Mag. Johnson||S. Moncrief||L. Bird||C. Barkley||H. Olajuwon|
|1986-87||Mag. Johnson||M. Jordan||L. Bird||C. Barkley||H. Olajuwon|
|1987-88||J. Stockton||M. Jordan||L. Bird||C. Barkley||H. Olajuwon|
|1988-89||Mag. Johnson||M. Jordan||C. Mullin||C. Barkley||H. Olajuwon|
|1989-90||Mag. Johnson||M. Jordan||D. Wilkins||C. Barkley||D. Robinson|
|1990-91||Mag. Johnson||M. Jordan||D. Wilkins||C. Barkley||D. Robinson|
|1991-92||M. Price||M. Jordan||D. Wilkins||K. Malone||D. Robinson|
|1992-93||M. Price||M. Jordan||D. Wilkins||K. Malone||H. Olajuwon|
|1993-94||M. Price||R. Miller||S. Pippen||S. Kemp||D. Robinson|
|1994-95||J. Stockton||C. Drexler||S. Pippen||C. Barkley||D. Robinson|
|1995-96||T. Brandon||M. Jordan||C. Ceballos||K. Malone||D. Robinson|
|1996-97||J. Stockton||M. Jordan||G. Hill||K. Malone||S. O’Neal|
|1997-98||J. Stockton||M. Jordan||S. Pippen||K. Malone||S. O’Neal|
|1998-99||J. Kidd||A. Iverson||G. Hill||K. Malone||S. O’Neal|
|1999-00||G. Payton||V. Carter||G. Hill||K. Malone||S. O’Neal|
|2000-01||J. Stockton||V. Carter||K. Garnett||K. Malone||S. O’Neal|
|2001-02||G. Payton||T. McGrady||K. Garnett||T. Duncan||S. O’Neal|
|2002-03||S. Nash||T. McGrady||K. Garnett||T. Duncan||S. O’Neal|
|2003-04||S. Cassell||T. McGrady||K. Garnett||T. Duncan||S. O’Neal|
|2004-05||S. Nash||D. Wade||K. Garnett||T. Duncan||S. O’Neal|
|2005-06||G. Arenas||K. Bryant||L. James||D. Nowitzki||Z. Ilgauskas|
|2006-07||G. Arenas||K. Bryant||L. James||D. Nowitzki||A. Stoudemire|
|2007-08||C. Paul||K. Bryant||L. James||K. Garnett||D. Howard|
|2008-09||C. Paul||D. Wade||L. James||T. Duncan||D. Howard|
In addition to the defense issue we noted above, there are other problems with this kind of list. First and foremost, positional definitions are quite slippery. Was KG a small forward or a power forward? Was Tim Duncan a power forward or center? The fact is we make approximations that can often yield results we don’t love. That being said, we still have some interesting results here:
-For the most part, the huge stars like MJ, Magic, and Bird did dominate their positions. Jordan was in control whenever he played but Magic and Bird didn’t quite dominate as long. Indeed, Magic and Bird, on occasion, were outplayed statistically by Gus Williams and Adrian Dantley respectively.
-Power forward in the early 1980s was the weakest single position at any time in the last 30 years. Before Barkley and Malone, Marques Johnson and Dan Roundfield led the league.
-Most unlikely PER leaders by position? Clearly Roundfield is in the discussion. A couple of nice but underappreciated points like Brandon and Cassell were surprising too. The most surprising has to be a tie between Cedric Ceballos of 1995-96 and Ilaguaskas of 2005-06. The Ilgauskas year was more about the lack of great centers than about Big Z playing out of his mind.
Ceballos, on the other hand, didn’t quite get credit for how well he played in 1995-96. The NBA had a bunch of great small forwards then (Pippen, Hill, Schrempf, Elliott) and Ceballos was in their class for a short time. This career year wasn’t out of the blue, as Ceballos had great rate stats as a role player in Phoenix and he was very good in his first year in L.A. in 1994-95. Still, Ceballos was able to score at a high volume with remarkable efficiency and he boarded and didn’t turn the ball over to boot. In fact, Ceballos peak with the Lakers (1994-95 and 1995-96) compares favorable to franchise legend James Worthy, who was a similar player. But Worthy is a Laker playoff legend and Ceballos is more remembered for going AWOL late in the 1995-96 season.
Ceballos was angered when Magic Johnson’s comeback ate into his shots and minutes. To express his anger, Ceballos left the team to go water skiing in Arizona and refused to take phone calls from coach Dell Harris. Ceballos, saw his minutes and playing time erode a little, culminating in two 2-point games in March, which led to the water skiing issues. Ceballos eventually did make it back to the Lakers and had a fairly solid playoff series against the Rockets (Houston took the series 3-1).
In retrospect, one might think that the incident is what ended Ceballos’ time in L.A.. It probably didn’t help but they brought him back for 1996-97. This time, Ceballos struggled playing with new acquisition Shaq. In eight games with the Lakers in 1996-97, Ceballos has 11 ppg on 41% shooting. The Lakers decided they needed more of a complementary player who did the little things and dealt Ceballos back to Phoenix for Robert Horry. Ceballos scored a lot in limited minutes for the Suns (15 ppg in 27 mpg) but he would never get another shot to score like he did with the Lakers. He played only four more seasons before bouncing to Europe.