In what will become a daily entry over the course of the next month, Waiver Wire writers Greg Kaplan and Vinny Ginardi will release a list of the the 25 players who they believe to be the best in NBA history. Players were judged on their careers as a whole rather than short stretches of dominance (for example, Bill Walton didn’t make the list due to injuries cutting his career short).
Vinny Ginardi: It’s very possible that we aren’t given Jerry West enough credit here. But we are in the top 15, and trying to determine who is deserving of a higher spot has become incredibly difficult.
West finished with a career average of 27.0 points per game, which is good for the fifth all-time (behind Jordan, Wilt, LeBron, and Elgin). The Logo was named to 12 All-NBA teams (10 first team), five All-Defensive teams (despite the award being created in his 10th season) and earned a NBA Finals MVP award (1969). What’s most impressive about that Finals MVP award? The Lakers lost the series. In Game 7 against Boston, West threw up 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, but the Lakers fell 108-106. It’s the only time the award went to a player on the losing team. West went to his fair share of NBA Finals (nine), but only came away with one NBA title (1972).
You glance at a 1-8 Finals record and your immediate thought would be that Jerry West wasn’t a clutch player. That couldn’t be more incorrect. The Logo averaged 29.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists in his postseason career. In the 1965 playoffs, West averaged 40.6 points per game (best ever). Four separate times West led the playoffs in points per game and three times he led the playoffs in assists per game. There’s a reason his nickname is “Mr. Clutch”.
But the scariest part about West’s career is that it could have been better. A lot better. West had unlimited range, but he played in an era without a three point line. Imagine if he played with one? He might have averaged 30 points per game for his career.
Greg Kaplan: Jerry West is truly a unique player, and one of the most iconic images the league has ever seen. I mean, he is ‘The Logo’, after all.
West was a special talent at the point guard position, rivaling another all-time great Oscar Robertson punch for punch in their storied careers. Four times in his incredible career, Jerry West averaged 30+ points per game, including 31.2 in 1969-70, the year in which he won the scoring title. Towards the end of his career, realizing that he didn’t have the same punch on offense as he did previously and acknowledging that some of his teammates were becoming better and stronger, West reinvented his game. Always a talented passer, West posted back-to-back seasons in which he averaged 8 or more assists a night in three of his final four seasons. He even lead the league in assists-per-game in 1971-72, the season in which he won his only NBA title.
It is pretty incredible that Jerry West only has one title next to his name, considering he almost always elevated his personal game when everything was on the line. Five times in his career, he was the leading scorer in the playoffs. Three separate times after that, he led the league in assists. Twice, those numbers overlapped each other, in 1969 and again in 1973. West averaged an other-worldly 40.6 points in 1965 in his 11 playoff games, and averaged 30+ points in five other seasons. But, you can never do it alone, especially if your a point guard in a time period driven by dominate bigs.
One of the most important aspects to West’s game was his ability to get to the free throw line, a skill he perfected like few others before him. Twice, he led the league in free throws attempted and made, including an unbelievable 840-for-977 season in 1965-66, which averages out to 86%, for those counting at home. For his career, West shot 81.4% from the charity stripe, which made guarding his slashing-style all the harder, since it was almost a guaranteed two points if you drew contact or let him coast to the rim.
For his career, West’s numbers are still impressive to this day, averaging 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists while playing one of the two guard positions, depending on the pieces the Lakers were able to build around him. Few players are able to boast the career accomplishments Jerry West can, which is exactly why he cracks into our Top 15 all-time players.