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: Oscar Roberston is most well known for his 1961-62 season, when as a 23-year-old, he averaged a triple double. In just his second season in the league, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game. To this day, Robertson is still the only player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. Because of this, The Big O is slightly overrated (relax, I said slightly).
There is no denying that Robertson knew how to fill up the stat sheet. While he only averaged a triple double in that 61-62 season, over the course of his first five years in the league came away with averages of 30.3 points, 10.6 assists and 10.4 rebounds per game. He also led the league in assists six times and scoring once. Robertson won the MVP award in 1964 and was named to 11 All-NBA teams (nine first team).
But like many of the great players that we have listed so far that played in the 1960s, Robertson only came away with one ring and it was when he was toward the end of the career and playing alongside the best player in the league (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). But unlike Baylor or West, Oscar was never even able to bring his team to the Finals (he played in two, and they were both when he was past his prime and not the team’s best player). Is it possible that we perceive Oscar as being one of the greatest simply because he was able to fill up the stat sheet like nobody else? Had he not been paired with Kareem would we remember him as the Dan Marino of basketball?
In addition, Robertson was notorious for being an awful teammate. It says a lot that in the year he averaged a triple double, he didn’t win the MVP. There’s a lot more to a player than his ability to put up big numbers.
Greg Kaplan: We talked previously about how Isaiah Thomas was likely the best ‘pure’ point guard to ever play in the NBA. We said all of that about Thomas and meant it, because there was simply nothing conventional about the way Oscar Robertson ran the point. Each year he was on the Cincinnati Royals, he was the best player the team had to offer. The Big O played nearly every minute of every game while he was in Cincy, averaging 40+ minutes a night in all 10 seasons he played there, only catching a break at the end of his career when he was with Milwaukee.
Vinny mentioned his ridiculous 1961-62 season in which he averaged a triple-double. What many forget is Robertson was incredibly close to doing the trick again in 1963-64, when he posted a line of 31.4 points, 11.0 assists and 9.9 rebounds. Six times in his career, Oscar Robertson averaged 30+ points a game. In fact, his assists totals were so high throughout his career because he continued to draw the attention of the defense away from his teammates, leaving them with open looks from numerous spots on the floor. Its what propelled his impressive seven seasons in which he led the league in assists.
Its true that Oscar Robertson never led his team to the promise land on his own, but we must remember the era in which he played. Athletic bigs who could manipulate weak opponents inside the paint were the name of the game. Its why we saw greats like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and eventually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not just win the bulk of the titles, but command almost every NBA Finals appearance. Its true that Oscar Robertson was a special player, especially on the offensive end of the floor. But, even a player with a skill set of The Big O can’t make up for such a difference in size underneath.
Had Oscar Robertson, a notoriously poor teammate, been partnered with a big throughout the prime of his career, one can only imagine the special things a duo like that could’ve accomplished. Of course, we’re not in the business of what-ifs. Oscar Robertson was a fantastic NBA player, and easily holds a record that may never be touched with his single-season triple double.
We’d be remiss if we ranked him anywhere else on this countdown.