Upon Further Review: The Best Players in NBA History, #16
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: Elgin Baylor is a really tricky player to rank historically.
Like some other players on this list, he never won a ring. But he did play in eight NBA Finals. Does he gain credibility for getting to eight NBA Finals but then lose some for going 0-8 in those Finals? How much do we put into consideration that his career overlapped with Bill Russell’s Celtics, one of greatest dynasties in the history of sports? Or that at the end of his career, he could have rode a stacked Lakers team to a title but instead decided to retire because he knew he couldn’t help the team.
This much I can say with certainty: Elgin Baylor is one of the best players in NBA history.
From 1959-69, Baylor made the All-NBA first team every year but one (1966), meaning that for a decade, Baylor was one of the two best forwards in the game. He also won the Rookie of the Year award in 1959 and finished second in MVP voting in 1963. Had his career not been at the same time as Russell, Wilt, and Oscar, it’s possible Baylor could have racked up multiple MVPs. His three year peak (1961-63) is one of the best ever. During those three years, Baylor averaged 35.3 points, 17.3 rebounds (it was easier to get rebounds then) and 4.9 assists per game. That’s not too shabby.
Obviously his legacy is hurt a little bit because he never won a title, but in every other respect, Baylor dominated the era in which he played.
Greg Kaplan: Yes, Elgin Baylor played in an era where great players were able to inflate their statistics because the difference in their talent and the talent of their peers was so great. However, those numbers should amplify how much better Baylor was compared to about 95% of the league.
In three consecutive years, Baylor posted 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds, 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds, and then capped that stretch off with a 34.0 points and 14.3 rebounds. He played in an era where all you needed was one truly great player to carry a team to the playoffs and beyond. How great was Baylor? He carried the Lakers to eight finals in his career. As Vinny mentioned, he was denied in the finals continuously by Bill Russell and those amazing Celtics teams.
But, I don’t see that as a knock on Baylor’s career. Yes, a ring would have felt like a form of vindication for an all-time great that probably would’ve won multiple rings if his career started either five years earlier or five years later. Baylor was phenomenal in the era in which he played, and was a rare athlete at the time where had he played in the 80s or 90s, his talents would have translated even if his career averages came down a smidge due to competitive balance.
Baylor accomplished things on the court we simply will never see again in the modern NBA. For that, he needs to be acknowledged as one of the greatest to ever set foot on an NBA floor.