The NBA 75th Anniversary Team and the Problem with Bill Walton
A look at the obvious issue with how players are measured in NBA history
The NBA 75th season is upon us, and with it came an “update” to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary squad. And the inclusion of Bill Walton to both lists bugs me. Let’s be clear. I am not here to impune or debate how good Bill Walton was. He was a star player production-wise in his MVP, Finals MVP, and 6th Man of the Year seasons. However, he only cracked 2,000 minutes one time in his career. Bill Walton was perpetually beaten up. As a result, it’s impossible to even consider his “Brocato Prime” (six best non-contiguous best seasons) as his resume for the top 75. Really, you have to look at his top seasons, which really amount to 1976-1977 and 1977-1978. And that’s where I really get upset. Namely, the historic NBA player that was considered great is not respected by the modern NBA. Bill Walton shows how NBA “experts” overvalue the past while undervaluing the parts of the past that made players like Bill Walton valuable.
Working as Intended
I’d like to briefly talk about the odd nature of ultra-exclusive lists in evaluating professional athletes. The NBA 75th Anniversary team had a problem. By adding a player like Bill Walton with a player like Ray Allen to the list, you basically make it impossible to include everyone who “deserves” it. Bill Walton had a shortened career but some awards. Ray Allen had limited individual accolades but an impressive career. If every player that passed both those bars made the list, you wouldn’t have room for just 75 players. Additionally, limiting the list to 75 players is a ridiculously low number. And for media, this is a feature, not a bug. If players that seem like they should be on the list are absent? Well, it generates people complaining on the internet. It generates views. It generates ESPN segments.
However, my complaint about respect for players like Bill Walton in NBA history is that Bill Walton wouldn’t be Bill Walton in the modern NBA! Let’s review
A Different World
Bill Walton’s Finals MVP in 1977 and MVP in 1978 are why he’s on the list. He made the NBA’s 50th-anniversary team because of this. At the time (1996), only 10 players were on that list:
Impressively, since then, seven more players have the list
Shaquille O’Neal, who made the NBA 50th Anniversary squad despite only four years??
While the criteria to make the list wasn’t explicit. Every player that hit this mark made the team. But that brings me to my issue about Bill Walton. In the modern NBA, Bill Walton is never MVP and likely not Finals MVP. Let’s explain in order.
The 1977 Finals Will Never Happen Again
The 1970s were the “most fair” the NBA has ever been. Eight different teams won the NBA title. In 1977, the most wins a team had was the Lakers with 53. The only team with under 30 wins was the Nets with 20. And there’s a good reason. The NBA had a rival league in the 1970s in the American Basketball Association or the ABA. When the ABA was first introduced, it had trouble attracting lots of talent. But by the 70s, many of the best players were there, including Dr. J, who would win an MVP in the NBA. The Nuggets, who made the 1976 ABA Finals, won 50 games their first season in the NBA. In 1977 the ABA merged with the NBA. It shrunk from 7 ABA teams to 4 NBA teams. The New York Nets, the defending ABA Champions, also had to pay the New York Knicks lots of money in territory fees, which resulted in them trading away their star, Dr. J, who immediately made the NBA Finals with his new team.
Basically, 1977 saw the NBA perhaps the fairest it’s ever been because a lot of new talent was introduced quickly and dispersed throughout the league. It only took a few years for super teams to start forming — yes, those have existed most of NBA history. But from 1977 to 1979, before the Lakers and Celtics ruled the 80s, the NBA had a brief window where a 49 win squad had a good shot of winning the NBA title, which Bill Walton capitalized on.
Bill Walton’s performance in the 1977 Finals was great, and he would always be the Finals MVP. But the odds of that team winning the finals in most seasons is low, but not 1977.
Bill Walton Would Never Win an MVP in the Modern NBA
In the 1970s, the NBA MVP was voted on by the players, not the media. The Blazers finished with the best record in the NBA with 58 wins, and Bill Walton was the top scorer on the squad. But two big hurdles hit Bill Walton relative to modern NBA MVPs. First, he only scored 18.9 points per game. Second, he missed 24 games due to injury. There is simply no way Bill Walton would ever win an MVP race in the modern NBA against, at the time, George Gervin, who led the NBA in points scored on a 52 win Spurs. And again, this award is the key to him being on the list. Several Finals MVPs had longer and decent NBA careers than Bill Walton that didn’t make the list: Tony Parker, Cedric Maxwell, Jo Jo White, Dennis Johnson, to name a few!
And here’s the thing, my personal MVP criteria is - did the player put up a top NBA season. Basically, 10+ Wins Produced and be top 10-20 in the NBA. And Bill Walton did that in 1978. But what irks me is I know the same people proclaiming Bill Walton an all-timer would never vote such a player to the modern MVP. An easy example of a player not on the NBA 75th Anniversary team? Rudy Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who puts up splits similar to a modern Bill Walton. The highest he has ever placed is 10th on the MVP voting list while never scoring a first-place vote.
We’re Moving Backwards
To clarify, again. Bill Walton was a great player, and the numbers agree. He was lucky to get several titles, an MVP, and Finals MVP in an otherwise injury-plagued career. But the lessons of the 70s about why such a player was valuable seem lost to time. Walton was a big that could rebound, defend, and pass. The Bulls had such a player in 2011 with Joakim Noah when they “earned” an MVP nod … for Derrick Rose. On the NBA’s 75th anniversary squad, every player with three-plus Defensive Player of the Year awards was left off the list! It feels so weird for the NBA mainstream to have such reverence, and in some cases, inflated value of the past while ignoring the types of players that made the past great in the present. I’m not mad at Bill Walton for making the list. I’m mad at the voters who could put him there and ignore the generations of similar players that also helped their teams win games after him on similar lists.