Jerry West Is One of the Most Underrated Stars in NBA History
How do you remember Jerry West?
Maybe you think of the legendary guard as a great player from the NBA’s early years, most notable because the league’s logo is built around his silhouette. Perhaps you remember his 60-foot buzzer beater in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals, or the fact he was named the Finals MVP in a losing effort one year earlier—both moments contributed to the “Mr. Clutch” moniker. You may even recall his career as an executive before his tenure as a player, even though he was one of the best two-way performers who ever graced the hardwood.
But precious few would call West a legitimate contender for the G.O.A.T. title. In a Twitter poll run by NBA Math, just 15 percent of the respondents viewed the Hall of Famer as a top-10 player, while a meager 2 percent placed him in the top five:
In anticipation of an article coming later this week: Where does Jerry West’s career rank in NBA history?
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) April 5, 2017
Granted, this is by no means a representative sample. Twitter demographics tend to skew younger, toward those who didn’t have the opportunity to watch West go to work on anything other than YouTube and NBATV replays of old games.
But it’s still telling that so many place him well short of the top spots. Over a quarter of the respondents didn’t think West was even in the historical top 20.
Plenty of legends have dominated the Association since its inception. Presented in alphabetical order, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell all have legitimate claims to top-five honors, though obviously not all can gain entry into that ultra-exclusive club. (If you’re wondering why Kobe Bryant isn’t included in that list, I’d suggest you explore some of the many metrics scattered throughout the site for more information before continuing to read.)
West absolutely belongs in the aforementioned group. Had he played in an era that promoted more advanced metrics, he’d be receiving far more credit than what he’s already earned by averaging 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists throughout his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The world understands West is one of the greatest shooters in league history, even if he played before the advent of the three-point arc. It knows he was a dual threat on offense, equally adept as a score-first or pass-first threat. It recognizes him as a terrific defender, if only because he was a perennial representative on All-Defensive squads as soon as they were created in 1968-69.
Anecdotal evidence only boosts his standing, due to the litany of stories about his work ethic, perfectionism and never-say-die attitude. And here’s where I need to plug Roland Lazenby’s Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, which should be a must-read for any fan of the sport and its history.
“If there was some element of the game out of his control, he would study it and practice it relentlessly until he mastered it. Then he would employ it,” Lazenby writes. “It’s no coincidence that [Michael] Jordan and [Kobe] Bryant became known for pushing themselves through grueling routines to compete, just as West and Oscar Robertson did in their own fashion in their day.”
Those stories and descriptions can only do so much for his standing. We’re now operating in the analytics era, and that makes it rather difficult to place a player who only spent the last season of his career operating in a league that tracked blocks and steals.
Fortunately, that’s enough for us to extrapolate.
As a 35-year-old during the 1973-74 campaign—the first in which we can calculate total points added (TPA)—West still averaged 20.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and playing slightly above-average defense. He appeared in only 31 games for the Purple and Gold, but that was enough for him to rack up 110.25 TPA—the No. 28 mark that season.
For reference, James Johnson (111.3) and Bradley Beal (109.81) are the closest comparisons to that TPA total from the 2016-17 campaign, though both should exceed West’s final score as they complete the remaining games on their schedule.
Excluding his rookie season, this should be viewed as the floor throughout West’s career. His player efficiency rating was only lower during that inaugural campaign and the 1962-63 go-round, while his true shooting percentage never crept underneath its 1973-74 mark once he began his sophomore year.
And here’s the amazing thing: If we assume West played at the exact same level throughout the rest of his illustrious career, he’d still have enough minutes logged to finish with 4169.55 TPA—a total that would rank No. 13 among all players since 1973. He’d be just ahead of Shaquille O’Neal (4057.11), Jason Kidd (4004.93), Chris Paul (3926.2), Scottie Pippen (3694.3) and Kobe Bryant (3643.57).
Again, this is the worst-case scenario.
Instead of settling for that answer, let’s get more accurate by using win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) to map his career trajectory. This is by no means a perfect metric—to be fair, such a thing doesn’t really exist—but it still does a quality job summing up relative level of play throughout an NBA lifespan. Since we know West had a 5.0 box plus/minus (BPM, the baseline for TPA) and 0.159 WS/48, we can map his career BPM such that it follows his WS/48 progression:
Factoring in pace and playing time yields the best estimate of West’s career TPA progression. And as you might have guessed, it’s a rather impressive one.
The guard’s lifetime total stands at 5994.08, which would trail only Michael Jordan (6517.13) and LeBron James (6709.22 heading into 2016-17) throughout the modern era. There’s no telling how the careers of other early legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell would stack up because we don’t have any final seasons that overlap with the full-box-score portion of history, but that’s already an impressive enough finish.
After all, West’s year-by-year scores are comparable to those earned by the primary G.O.A.T. contenders:
Stop and think about the fact that West’s marks don’t look out of place in a competition against James and Jordan. Seriously, that comparison might seem unremarkable, but nothing could be further from the truth.
His peak doesn’t reach quite the same level—his estimated high is 658.16 in 1965-66, which would be the No. 12 season of the modern era, trailing only marks produced by the two aforementioned studs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and David Robinson—but longevity significantly boosts his standing.
And that’s before playoff numbers are included.
West’s Lakers only won a single title, earned by beating the New York Knicks in 1972, but he consistently carried them deep into the postseason. He led the Association in playoff games during four separate seasons, and his career averages when games truly mattered are even more impressive than his regular-season numbers.
Using the same conversion between WS/48 and BPM, we can approximate West’s career postseason TPA, which was never better than in 1968-69, when he earned an estimated 152.72—the No. 18 mark of the modern era. Even with a negative score in his final season, the Hall of Famer totaled 983.87 TPA during his playoff career, leaving him well within the top 10 since 1973:
- LeBron James, 1639.81 Playoff TPA
- Michael Jordan, 1407.5
- Magic Johnson, 1140.32
- Tim Duncan, 1021.46
- Jerry West, 983.87
- Larry Bird, 961.47
- Scottie Pippen, 864.18
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 817.82
- Shaquille O’Neal, 803.01
- Hakeem Olajuwon, 787.73
And, of course, combining regular season and playoff numbers leaves West in a similarly impressive spot.
With a cumulative score of 6977.95, he’s again trailing only James (8349.03 and counting) and Jordan (7924.63, if he doesn’t un-retire again). He doesn’t quite measure up against the two greatest talents to grace the hardwood, but he’s not far off. And he leads the rest of the pack.
However, that’s not what West’s legacy has become in recent years. He’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other G.O.A.T. contenders, even if that’s a status he should enjoy—if only because he’s on the fringe of that group.
In my Legends 100 series for Bleacher Report back in 2015, I had West trailing seven players throughout NBA history. I’ve now come to believe I slightly underrated him. Fox Sports’ Andrew Lynch had him down at No. 14 before the 2016-17 campaign began. The CBS Sports staff placed him one spot higher this February. Sports Illustrated‘s Jack McCallum slotted him at No. 9 last February. ESPN.com’s all-time NBA Rank left him just outside the top dozen.
Can we basketball aficionados who study both the past and present of this wonderful sport collectively agree to stop selling his career short?
Fleshing out one advanced metric to put his Lakers tenure in proper context won’t change the overall narrative.
But at least it’s a start.
Adam Fromal is the founder and Editor in Chief of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.