In commemoration of its 75th season, NBA panelists and voters are taking on the unenviable task of recognizing the 75 greatest talents to ever play in October. Using their “50 Greatest Players” list in 1996 as a backdrop, one key challenge comes in determining both how many of them will remain and who of the last two-and-a-half decades deserves a spot. How many Portland Trail Blazers will boast a case to crack the list?
Excluding at-the-time soon-to-be-Blazer Scottie Pippen, Portland had three representatives on the list, including Bill Walton, the only Blazer to win a regular season and a Finals Most Valuable Player award. Alongside Walton was 10-time All-Star Clyde Drexler, and Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, whose swan song came with Portland in 1974-75. It’s both unclear whether or not each of the three will be present on the updated “Top 75” list, or if the Blazers will expand upon that trio. What is clear, though, is that there are three topics worth considering ahead of October’s announcement:
Does Damian Lillard Have the Requisite Resume to Make the Top 75?
Once you finish sifting through some of this decade’s surefire recipients — think LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Tim Duncan, among others — there are numerous players with less than a decade of NBA experience that should contend. It’s reasonable to surmise that Giannis Antetokounmpo, a multi-time Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA champion, will earn a spot, despite just being five years removed from his first All-Star Game. Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, cracked that 1996 list, despite just four NBA seasons on his ledger. Replace Antetokounmpo with Kawhi Leonard, and reconsider that same sentence. Accolades aside, the impact Antetokounmpo and Leonard have had, albeit in shortened runs, make for a riveting discussion.
How about a player who was drafted in between them in 2012-13: Damian Lillard?
At first glance, it’s an ambitious take, considering Lillard’s lack of hardware. But, hearing Jack McCallum, one of NBA history’s most revered former sportswriters and panelists for the upcoming list, entertain Lillard’s case, renders it an enticing case study. In joining Sports Illustrated’s The Crossover with Chris Mannix and Howard Beck, here’s how he assessed it:
“When you don’t go to a statistical model and you’re just trying to stay in what stirs you inside, Reggie (Miller) was a stirring player to me. The stuff in the Garden, what you said about paving the way, the game now is so completely different, we don’t even have time to get into that. I don’t even think people can understand how different that it is. But Reggie Miller to Steph Curry, there’s a line there, and I know you’re running out of time, but one of the guys that comes into that is Damian Lillard, who probably has played enough seasons, sort of like a Giannis number of seasons, probably will never win an MVP, but is one of those revolutionary guys that fit into the revolutionary mode of the game. He was another one I had to wrestle with from this era. And if you left him off the team, and let’s say I did, that just shows you how tough this exercise really was.”
McCallum introduced that thought pondering over Vince Carter, whose legacy as the game’s “greatest” dunker ups his candidacy, even without said statistical models. Under that thinking, Lillard’s burgeoning legacy as the game’s most feared late-game assassin and co-pioneer of the 40-foot shot should generate a conversation.
Just like in a textbook Blazers pick-and-roll, the speed in which Lillard hits the ground running with in this regard is noteworthy. Per StatMuse, only 15 players in NBA history have scored more points over their first nine seasons. To his benefit, panelists have historically held players’ career starts in high esteem. Lillard draws comparisons to that of Patrick Ewing, a then-perennial All-Star who barely had a decade of NBA experience under his belt.
Like Lillard, Ewing routinely took underwhelming supporting casts to the crux of greatness before being annually eliminated by generationally-stacked teams. Both were overshadowed by puddle-deep talent at their positions, but quietly churned out top-ten MVP award voting finishes with clockwork regularity. Lillard can’t contend with Ewing’s allure in the NBA’s most valuable market, the 1994 NBA Finals appearance, two-way dominance, or his college-to-pro hype. But there’s a dialogue to be had.
Playing the semantics game: if Lillard has already become the greatest Blazer ever the way some suggest, can you comfortably omit a franchise’s best talent, particularly one with multiple NBA Finals appearances, a former MVP, and five decades and change worth of history? How the panelists balance Lillard among that tightrope will be interesting.
Will Walton Be Able to Overcome Longevity Concerns?
For a two-season stretch from 1976-77 to 1977-78, Bill Walton staked a claim as the NBA’s supreme talent, earning a regular season and Finals MVP over a calendar year. But, for all of the excellence that his peak provided, there’s something of a schism regarding his “Top 75” standing, given the upcoming update.
As is often the case with players pre-VCR era, there’s a question as to how their skills translate across different eras. That in itself is a fruitless hypothetical, and one that Walton likely clears with ease. His passing vision versatility was from the Jokic-Sabonis-Divac-Gasol vein, and, staying true to the vision analogy, there’s more than meets the eye in regards to his underrated scoring ability and rim protection in what was a big man’s league.
But, those feelings aren’t mutual across the entire NBA stratosphere. On Saturday, Gary Washburn of Boston Globe painted a scenario in which Walton would be among those omitted from 2021’s version:
“This is a tough one because he has become an even more iconic figure following his career. And if he wasn’t hindered by foot injuries in his prime, Walton may have been a top-five center of all time. But he played just 468 games, fewer than six full seasons, and was mostly a role player following his first four years in Portland. Walton is the Gale Sayers of the NBA. You capsulize his prime years and ponder what if, but in comparison to some of the players over the past 25 years, Walton may not make the cut.”
Unfortunate as it may be, Washburn does have a point there. What works to Walton’s benefit is his peak, his win-everywhere-he-went aura, from UCLA to the Blazers to his role as the Sixth Man on the Boston Celtics. He ranked as the No. 27 player all-time in the acclaimed “Book of Basketball” by Bill Simmons, who once creatively added Walton to his wine cellar lineup consisting of players he’d want on his side if aliens challenged him to a seven-game series with control of the universe on the line in 2009.
That doesn’t mean a ton in the real world, but it tells you about the admiration the national media still has for Walton all these years later. With respect to players such as Tracy McGrady or Grant Hill, contenders whose careers were also cut short, Walton has a case for an edge with the accolades he did attain during his playing years. It’s reasonable to suggest that enough of the panelists still view it that way, too.
Will Carmelo Anthony’s Offensive Exclusivity Grant Him Entry?
The game of basketball is endless in its complexities. One can win the rebounding battle, and still lose the game. One can force more turnovers than the opponent and still lose the battle. Hold a lead for 47 minutes and with one ill-timed stretch of lack of execution, you can go home without a victory. For all of its endless variables, basketball has only one constant:
The team with the most points at game’s end is undefeated. Infinity-and-0. If scoring is the ultimate determiner, the player with the tenth-most points scored in NBA history, Carmelo Anthony, almost certainly has an RSVP’d spot at the conversation table.
It’s interesting, considering that Anthony was omitted from ESPN’s “Top 74” greatest players ever in the spring of 2020 — a list that Lillard ranked No. 72 on — but among other outlets, he’s viewed as a likely beneficiary of this go-round. Here’s how Sports Illustrated senior writer Howard Beck, another balloter, assessed it on that aforementioned podcast:
“Dominique (Wilkins) is a guy who I assume ... I don’t know how every voter decided this back in 1996, but a lot of people probably left off Dominique for a lack of postseason success. And that is something that we’ll have to wrestle with with a number of guys. But, I just think that if you finish your career in the top 20, top 25 scorers of all-time, no matter what your other deficiencies might’ve been as a player, defensively, as a passer, whatever, like you were great.
Like, Carmelo, I’m going to say it right off. I have no problem putting Carmelo on, even though I’ve been one who’s been critical of some of the gaps in his game. Dude’s one of the greatest scorers we’ve ever seen. He’s never been to the Finals, no. One Conference Finals. His resume isn’t great when it comes to success. But, dude’s one of the greatest scorers we’ve ever seen. How do you leave him off, right? So I don’t have a problem with that.”
McCallum expounded on that pro-Anthony take, praising his longevity. So, chalk that up as at least two panelists that are high on the chances for the former Blazer.
Also to Anthony’s benefit is that that scoring translated into high-stakes situations, which makes it different from a player such as LaMarcus Aldridge — No. 48 all-time among NBA scorers, but without the glitz, glamour, and high-profile appeal that likely adds him to this conversation. For Anthony, consider his 2009 Western Conference Finals battle against Kobe Bryant, his 2012-13 scoring title, and even his reinvention as a crunch-time crutch for the Trail Blazers. Portland didn’t employ Anthony at the peak of those abilities, but they did play a pivotal role in the re-chronicling of his story in the end. And that counts for something.