Here’s a solid post by Tom Van Riper that’s worth sharing (original article here):
There’s an interesting note to the upcoming 2014 NBA Finals you may not know. In fact, if you’re a holdout who doesn’t put much credence into advanced metrics, you might not even agree. But just for the sake of argument, here goes:
This year’s clash between San Antonio and Miami brings the rubber match between the best pair of players in NBA history to ever meet at least three times in the Finals: Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Yes, they’re better than better than Bird and Magic, or Bird and Kareem, or Kareem and Dr. J.
James and Duncan have split two previous head-to-head championship series, with Duncan and the Spurs beating LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 and James getting even last year with the Miami Heat, who rallied for a last minute win in game six and then took game seven for the title.
First, the basic career stats. Duncan: 19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 50.6% shooting. James: 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 49.7% shooting (LeBron’s shooting percentages have greatly improved since his early days leading the Cavaliers as a teenager; he’s surpassed 56% in each of the past two seasons).
Impressive enough. But how do you go about comparing stats among stars of different eras, say Bird vs. Duncan? One way is to check win shares, a new-fangled stat that estimates how many wins a player contributes to his team each season, based not only on traditional metrics like points, rebounds and assists but also by measuring those stats and others in the context of the game, awarding points for things like efficient scoring (i.e. shooting percentages), avoiding turnovers, and taking advantage of opportunities (fewer attempted shots mean fewer chances for rebounds and assists).
Checking the win share numbers on basketball-reference.com, James has accumulated 168.5 win shares over 11 seasons, an average of 15.3 per season. Duncan’s career total of 191.6 over 17 seasons comes to 11.3 per year. The total for both, 26.6 win shares, beats any duo that has ever squared off for the ring at least three times.
How do others compare? Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who met in 1984, 1985 and 1987 with the Celtics and Lakers, combined to average 22.9 win shares a year in the 1980s and early ‘90s, split almost evenly (Magic had a slight edge).
Slightly higher was the combined figure for Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (24.9 win shares a year), who played on the same Laker teams that Magic did. Kareem’s case might merit an asterisk, since his best years came in the 1970s with the Milwaukee Bucks and the pre-Magic Lakers; by the time he was clashing with Bird and the Celtics he had ceded alpha dog status to Johnson. Virtually identical to the matchups between the Lakers’ and Celtics’ stars were the battles just before that between Magic (or Kareem) and Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers, who squared off in 1980, 1982 and 1983. But those battles still lag the James-Duncan matchups of the 2000s.
To find the closest that any duo has come to Duncan and LeBron, you need to go all the way back to the NBA’s early days, when Bill Russell of the Celtics and Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks met in four of five Finals between 1957 and 1961. Russell, known for his rebounding and awesome defense, and Pettit, a prolific scorer who averaged over 26 points a game, combine to average 25 win shares per year during their respective careers (Russell edged out Pettit 12.6 to 12.4, and took three of the four championship series).
Why might you know about this? Because you haven’t been watching Duncan and James, at least not like you watched Bird and Magic back in the day. As the duo (deservedly )credited with rallying the NBA into the modern era, Johnson and Bird became the league’s golden boys and the big market objects of Commissioner David Stern’s formula to market through the stars. Neilsen data going back to 1976 –that’s 38 championship series – shows that the three Boston-L.A. Finals’ in the 1980s all rank in the top 16. The peak was 1987, a rubber match win for Magic, which rates as the fifth-highest rated Finals since 1976, and the highest of any that didn’t involve Michael Jordan.
LeBron and Duncan, playing in smaller markets, haven’t been as lucky. All seven NBA Finals matchups that’s featured one or both of them sits somewhere in the bottom 15 of the ratings scale of the past 38 years, with San Antonio accounting for the bottom two .
Duncan and James may never get their stories told in a (short-lived) Broadway play. But they’re worth watching as much as Magic and Bird were. In fact, more so.