Oscar Robertson is, unfortunately, the victim of some harsh revisionist history that has taken place recently.
Let’s start by looking at the Big O’s all-time ranking in various publications and lists over the years:
- 1st - Pro Basketball Statistics (Martin Taragano, 1993)
- 1st - The Encyclopedia of Basketball Team Histories (Peter C Bjarkman, 1994)
- 2nd - Associated Press Player of the Century (1999)
- 2nd - Biographical History of Basketball (Peter C. Bjarkman, 1998)
- 3rd - Slam (2003)
- 4th - Athlon 50 Greatest Special Magazine (1998)
- 4th - Basketball Digest's 100 (Brad Herzog, December 1999)
- 5th - Basketball's 100 Greatest Players (Wayne Patterson, 1988)
- 5th - Slam 500 (2011)
- 5th - Association for Professional Basketball Research (Need to Argue, 2013)
- 7th - SPORT Magazine's 50th Anniversary (Pete Vecsey, 1996)
- 7th - The Expert's Picks: Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (Kenneth A. Shouler, 1997)
- 7th - Slam (1997)
- 7th - 50 Sense (Lacy Banks, 2004)
- 7th - NBA List Jam (Pat Williams and Michael Connelly, 2012)
- 8th - Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball? (Elliot Kalb, 2003)
- 8th - Charley Rosen (2005)
- 9th - Beckett Presents Basketball Greats (2010)
- 10th - Book of Basketball (Bill Simmons, 2010 - paperback update)
And yet, in 2012, members of the Inside Hoops message board voted Oscar Robertson as the 13th greatest player of all-time behind Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and others.
Meanwhile, over on the RealGM message board, the forum's members ranked the Big O 14th all-time behind Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett and eleven other players.
What has caused Oscar to fall from the second best player of the millennium (as voted by the associated press) to a player many fans and some authors don't even consider for their top 10 just a decade later?
It’s tempting to blame it on sheer ignorance or perhaps a lack of highlight reel dunks. However, there are two other important factors, which I shall address in turn.
"Oscar is without a doubt the greatest basketball player I have ever played against. To me he is the closest player I have ever seen to being perfect." (Jerry West)
Today’s fans are now more savvy when it comes to statistics. They no longer rely on just points, rebounds and assists per game to calculate a player’s dominance. Instead, they have things like PER and Win Shares at their disposal. More importantly, people have begun to recognise that the pace of 1960s basketball meant more possessions and, thus, in theory, greater potential to score points, grab rebounds and dish out assists.
However, it’s not that simple.
For a start, we need to consider that Oscar Robertson led the league in assists by a large margin. During his Cincinnati Royals career conveniently spanning the 1960s, Oscar Robertson averaged 10.3.apg for the decade. His closest rival over the same time period was Guy Rogers with an average of 7.9apg followed by Bob Cousy (7.2apg), Walt Frazier (6.8apg) and Lenny Wilkens (6.2apg).
"Thirty years after his retirement, a strong case could be made for him to be called the best player in NBA history." (Elliot Kalb)
Assists were less easily attributed to a player in that era. The final pass needed to directly lead to a field goal whereas, today, there is more room for lenient stat-padding when it comes to assists.
Consider that, from 2000-01 to 2009-10, Steve Nash was second in the league with 9.6apg. Chris Paul was first with 10.0apg. CP3 would have needed to average 12.5apg to have had a proportional advantage over Nash to the same extent that Robertson’s assist numbers dwarfed Rogers’.
Then of course we have the rebounds. Critics will point out that, although Robertson’s rebounding averages appear to be impressive (8.5rpg while with the Royals), his averages often trailed his teammates’ such as Jerry Lucas, Wayne Embry and Bob Boozer.
That seems like a convincing argument until you compare the Big O to the other guards in the league. Again, using the 1960s as our time period, Oscar Robertson averaged 8.5rpg compared to Jerry Sloan (7.3rpg), Tom Gola (6.7rpg), Jerry West (6.3rpg) and Hal Greer (6.3rpg).
In other words, Oscar Robertson was not only the best passer in the league by a big margin, but he was also clearly the best rebounder at his position.
As if his passing and rebounding weren’t impressive enough, we then need to factor in that Robertson was consistently amongst the top 5 scorers in the league (ranking 3rd, 5th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 5th and 6th in points per game in each of his first ten seasons in the NBA). It’s hard not to be impressed by that level of consistency.
Finally, we should consider that Oscar Robertson was perhaps the greatest shooter of his era. Although some will argue that Jerry West was a better long-range bomber, it was the Big O who led the league in TS% (true shooting percentage) during the 1960s, paced the league in FT% twice and is generally regarded as perhaps the greatest mid-range shooter of all-time.
In conclusion, Oscar Robertson was the best passer of his generation, best rebounder at his position, a top 3 scorer in the league, and perhaps the finest shooter alive at the time. Who else in history can make the same claim?
"For those that still respect versatility, there seems to be little debate. Oscar Robertson indeed remains the greatest basketball player ever invented." (Peter Bjarkman)
Criticism #2: Oscar Robertson’s lack of post-season success
A lack of championship success is an argument that is used time and time again to criticise players. If casual fans were easily swayed by points, rebounds and assists per game in the 1990s (perhaps explaining why people were happy to rank Robertson amongst the all-time greats at the time), then modern day fans are equally obsessed with championship rings as a measure of a player’s greatness.
It ought to go without saying that basketball is a team game. Throughout history, even the most dominant of players needed talented teammates to help them win it all.
- George Mikan needed Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and Slater Martin
- Bill Russell needed Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and others
- In Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain needed Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham and, later, with the Lakers, needed Jerry West and Gail Goodrich
- Walt Frazier and Willis Reed needed each other and support from a loaded Knicks team
- Julius Erving needed Moses Malone
- Magic Johnson needed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy
- Larry Bird needed Kevin McHale and Robert Parish
- Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen
- Tim Duncan needed Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili
- Shaquille O’Neal needed Kobe Bryant and, later, Dwyane Wade.
Of course, there are exceptions. The mid-1990s Houston Rockets lacked star power but Hakeem Olajuwon carried them on his back to two championships in an expanded, diluted, sans-Michael Jordan league. Dirk Nowitzki also performed miracles for the Dallas Mavericks in their championship season. Such examples are rare, however.
"Oscar Robertson was the complete player...it wasn't surprising that many began to refer to Oscar as the best basketball player the human race had yet produced." (Leonard Koppett)
So should we be critical of Oscar Robertson for failing to win a championship with the Cincinnati Royals? Jack Twyman was a talented wing player while Jerry Lucas was perhaps Oscar's best teammate - a great shooter and rebounder but a poor defender. Lucas was also known for his obsession with checking his own statistics. Ultimately, the Bucks team simply couldn’t rival the juggernaut Celtics, whose dominance acted as a road block affecting the legacies of many superstars, not least Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
And so it took a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970 for Oscar to get his first and only taste of championship success. Some people argued that he needed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or Lew Alcindor as he was then known) to help him get over the edge, but you could make the same argument about the Bucks’ big man. He needed Oscar just as much as Oscar needed him. After all, post-Oscar but pre-Magic, how much post-season success did Kareem have?
Indeed, it was in their first year together, in the 1970-71 season, that the Bucks compiled a league-best 66-16 regular season record. In his book The NBA From Top To Bottom, Kyle Wright uses a statistical analysis to argue that the ‘71 Bucks were the most dominant team of all-time, relative to the other teams in the league. Had Oscar Robertson been fortuitous enough to play with another superstar throughout his career – a luxury afforded the majority of the NBA’s greatest players, as shown above – then perhaps Oscar’s post-season success would be remembered differently.
It appears that the majority of modern fans have overlooked the enormity of Oscar Robertson’s abilities. I hope this article will go some way towards dispelling some myths, correcting early-21st century revisionist history, and reminding – or educating – fans of the Big O’s greatness.
"Nobody could match the 'Big O' for pure artistic grace, for single-handed control of the playing floor he inhabited, or for all-around shooting, passing, and playmaking abilities. In brief, there was never a more complete package for a basketball player put together within a single human frame." (Peter Bjarkman)