A lot of people (concerned family members among them) have asked me what a sports writer does in a time when sports, for the most part, aren’t happening. Easy—we rank things! Nothing stirs the pot like a top-10 and ESPN fueled plenty of water-cooler discussion this week by dropping its bombshell list of the top 74 players in NBA history. Any definitive rankings, particularly when they’re supplied by a high-profile media outlet like ESPN, is sure to cause hurt feelings and the snub police were certainly out in full force for this one.
Two of ESPN’s own, Paul Pierce (who holds the No. 54 ranking) and Kendrick Perkins, debated the list Wednesday, with The Truth calling attention to Hakeem Olajuwon’s lower-than-expected rank (No. 12). “He doesn’t get enough credit,” Pierce commented while adding that the Rockets great should have been included in the top 10. “He is the only player in NBA history to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same year.”
Perk thought the top spot should have gone to his former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James, arguing that his “body of work” is stronger than Michael Jordan’s. Pierce, a long-time rival of James, predictably wasn’t on board. “He’s definitely had some great performances,” Pierce acknowledged. “But it’s hard for me to put him there.” The former Celtics All-Star added that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (No. 3 in ESPN’s all-time ranks), who he grew up watching in his native Los Angeles, would have been his choice for runner-up behind MJ.
There was plenty of chirping from the peanut gallery on the list’s perceived recency bias with many complaining of ESPN propping up current stars including Kawhi Leonard (No. 25) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (27) at the expense of players from past eras.
ESPN’s ranks were mostly met with approval by veteran columnist Bob Ryan, though he did have one bone to pick:
On the other hand, San Antonio newscaster Don Harris felt the list screamed of Boston bias. With no fewer than 17 former Celtics included in ESPN’s top 74, it’s a valid argument.
Clearly Harris thought ESPN did Tim Duncan dirty, but he didn’t say a peep about Manu Ginobili, whose inclusion on the list surprised many.
Carmelo Anthony has had a rough go of it lately. He spent the better part of a year unemployed before resurfacing with the Trail Blazers this season and now, ESPN has apparently turned its back on him. The former Knicks and Nuggets star was credited as the 59th-best player in league history when ESPN did a similar exercise four years ago. Now he’s not even ranked.
I’ve never been a particular fan of Melo’s “shoot first and ask questions later” on-court stylings, but ranking him behind Manu, Pau Gasol and Damian Lillard? To quote The Big Lebowski, this aggression will not stand, man.
For posterity purposes, the Sports Pope, Mike Francesa, submitted his own top five:
I’m sure we all have our gripes—you can’t please everyone with a list like this—but props to ESPN for riling us up with the perfect icebreaker topic.