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Tuesday
Nov012011

Was Jerry West Better Than Michael Jordan?

Was Jerry West better than Michael Jordan? It's a lot closer argument than you probably think.Jerry West’s frank discussion of his lifelong bout with depression has made some big headlines recently, a story which came out because of his newly released book West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. This seems like as good a time as any to examine his somewhat forgotten career a little bit, and more specifically look at how similar The Logo’s tenure as a player compared to that of MJ, universally considered the greatest guard to ever play the game.

 

Scoring

We all know what Jordan brings to the table here: 10 scoring titles, all-time best 30 ppg scoring average, career 50% FG% in a league that was always around 46-48%. How about West? Only 1 scoring title, but he averaged 27 ppg while sharing #1 scoring duties with either Elgin Baylor or Gail Goodrich for virtually his entire career, and 47% FG% in a league that was always around 42-45%. Considering MJ’s top scoring teammate topped out at only 22 ppg as a #1 scorer (Pippen in ’93-94) while West was sharing the floor with a career 27 ppg scorer all during his 20’s, Jordan had a built-in advantage for taking more shots and scoring more points. Not only that, West was considered by many to be the top-long range shooter of his time, which would have certainly equated to another 3 or more ppg from 3-pointers had he played today. Another advantage West would enjoy in the modern era is that big men can no longer clobber players who drive to the hoop without repercussion. West had his nose broken nine (9, yes 9) times and actually averaged nearly a full FTA per game more than Jordan during his career (West averaged more free throws and was consistently in the top-10 in FT%, something Jordan never did). Take out the hockey-style goon tactics that went on in the 60’s, and West would have had an easier time scoring in Jordan’s era (and he wouldn’t have been injured as often as he was). One could say MJ did his scoring in a much slower era, but what would have happened to his average had he shared the floor in his peak with the time’s top-scoring small forward, someone like Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, or Bernard King?

 

Offensive Versatility

Jordan began as an above-the-rim circus act and over time developed a reliable turnaround mid-range jumper, a decent post-up game, and a passable (yet only shortly decent) 3-point shot. West was never a high flier, but he was still a great threat driving to the basket, plus he had a textbook jumper from everywhere. He certainly would have been a significantly better outside threat than Jordan had the trifecta existed in his day, and he was also well known for his post-up skills (had nearly a 7-foot wingspan and great footwork). West’s big advantage in this category is that he could also play PG. Whereas Jordan once ranked 10th in APG and was usually second on his team in assists, West was in the top-10 seven times over an 11-year period, even leading the league with 9.7 at 33 years old. Jordan was certainly a skilled passer whose A/TO rates are very good for a SG, but West was considered a near-peerless passer and received praise like “I never saw him make a bad pass” from none other than Dr. Jack Ramsay, so it’s safe to say his ratio would have probably been better had turnovers been tracked during his career. Not only that, the simple fact remains that West was able to be a 7 to 10 apg PG while still averaging 25-plus points; Jordan could never run a team’s offense in that way.

 

Defense

Jordan is without question one of the 10 best defensive guards of all-time, although he certainly isn’t one of the elite like Walt Frazier, Gary Payton, Dennis Johnson, or Sidney Moncrief. The Bulls toughest assignments usually fell to Pippen, but Jordan deserves credit for averaging 2.3 steals per game for his career, and he even lead the league in that category 3 times. West, however, was probably even better overall and statistically. He made 1st Team All-Defensive NBA in his last 4 full seasons from ages 31 to 34. At 30 he made 2nd Team behind guards Frazier and Jerry Sloan, the first year the teams were named. The great defensive whiz Frazier was actually 1st Team for all of those seasons, but West received more votes in at least ’71-72. Again, West was doing this in his 30’s against two guards known for their defense who were 7 (Frazier) and 4 (Sloan) years younger. Not only that, steals weren’t tracked until ’73-74, West’s final season when he played only 31 games and averaged only 31 mpg as a 35 year old; he averaged 2.6 spg, which would have been good for second in the league had he appeared in more contests. Frazier was well known for his thefts but averaged more than 1.8 only twice from age 28 on (when they were first tracked) with a season high of 2.4. The last time Jordan averaged 2.6 or more spg was at age 29, when he recorded 2.8 in 39 minutes per game. There is no question that West was a superior ball hawk, and it seems quite possible that he was a better overall defender as well.

 

Clutch, Playoffs

Both were simply awesome, no doubt. Jordan averaged 33 ppg in the playoffs for his career, with similar shooting percentages and passing numbers to the regular season. West is nicknamed “Mr. Clutch,” averaged 29 ppg (again without a 3-point line and splitting scoring with Elgin Baylor who consistenty took more shots than West) and actually has more post-season exploits at the end of close games than MJ (for example, this). He even averaged 41 ppg over 11 playoff games in 1965, a record that Jordan never touched, and a ridiculous 46 ppg average in the first round of that year, another record that still stands. West was consistently better in the playoffs and finals than during the regular season, so this isn’t a category we just hand to His Airness as today's youngsters assume. Of course you can’t discuss the post-season without pointing out that Jordan won 6 titles to West’s 1, although West had to play during the reign of the greatest dynasty in pro sports history, the ‘60’s Celtics. He then had to deal with the early-70’s Knicks, meaning West was contending with two of the most iconic, HOF-filled clubs in NBA history. His Lakers went to 9 Finals, losing 8 of them to these two franchises (winning in 1972), and LA even went the full 7 games against Russell’s Celtics three times, so they were usually very close. Throw in the amazingly bad luck of Chamberlain and Baylor’s health during these string of playoffs (the Lakers’1 title with West was actually right after Baylor retired), often leaving West to do it alone with some terribly crappy sidekicks against the elite defensive clubs of all-time, and you start to realize that West was at quite a disadvantage. Jordan played for one of the two best post-season coaches of all-time, had healthy teammates in the playoffs, and played in one of the weakest eras of league talent as the Pistons, Celtics, and Lakers were all over-the-hill by 1992. Most of the ‘90’s saw the Bulls dominating clubs that were too old (Jazz, Lakers), too immature (Supersonics, Magic), or much further from greatness than we thought at the time (Pacers, Knicks, Suns, Blazers). Jordan never had to overcome the incredible bad luck of timing and injuries that West faced, so this category is incredibly close.

 

Teammates

Who had the benefit of playing next to better teammates? The first and most obvious comparison we have to make is between Scottie Pippen and Elgin Baylor. Baylor was great, but we’re talking about a guy who had only two full seasons of peak play during West’s career (’60-61 and ’62-63). Then it was the horrendous knee injury early in ’63-64, and then an even worse one in the 1965 playoffs. He still put up some great totals after his huge statistical dropoff post-1963, but his FG%’s were often terrible (40% in consecutive years, 43% for his career). If you had to rank him in the ‘60’s, Baylor is no higher than 5th best with Russell, Chamberlain, West, Oscar, and possibly Pettit (retired in ’65) and/or Sam Jones above him. Pippen could do anything the Bulls needed, is possibly the greatest defensive non-center of all-time, was one of the first 5 selections for the 1992 Dream Team, and arguably ranks as high as the 2nd best player of the ‘90’s, but probably 3rd behind MJ and Hakeem (Robinson, Barkley, and Malone all had too many holes and issues). That’s in a league of 29 teams, not 8 or 10, so Jordan certainly did alright for himself with his #2. West also got 32- to 36-year-old Chamberlain, but Wilt’s reputation as a system/coach killer and a loser certainly don’t make him seem better than defensive/rebounding maestro Dennis Rodman who had a knack for always making great teams greater, so Jordan’s part-time #3 is probably better than West’s, as well. Bulls Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, and Toni Kukoc are certainly a better group than Lakers Gail Goodrich, Rudy LaRusso, and whoever the hell else you think provided worth to LA during West’s career, so Jordan certainly had more to work with no matter how far down the lineups you look.

 

Other Stuff

Jordan was definitely a better rebounder, but a 6.2 to 5.8 rpg gap isn’t a whole lot. West certainly resonated with his teammates better (one of the most liked and respected superstar teammates the league has ever seen) since Jordan often belittled and scared his in a way reminiscent of Oscar Robertson. This coupled with West’s versatility leads you to believe he probably could have meshed with more types of teams and been successful in more situations than Jordan. What would Jordan have done on a club with another #1 scorer? Probably continually embarrass him in practice until his spirit was broken, causing him to play tight (Pippen was perfect for Jordan because he didn’t want to be or try to be another #1 scorer). We already know what West would do, and it involves making the team more cohesive.

 

Overall

West was arguably an equal scorer to Jordan, was a more versatile scorer who the 3-point line would have helped significantly, could provide more to a team’s offense than Jordan, was most likely a superior defender, and had far more working against him in the quest for rings (worse teammates, terrible luck with Laker injuries, much better opponents). If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think a fairly straightforward comparison of the two indicates that West was better than Jordan. At the very least, an argument can be made.

 

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    Was Jerry West Better Than Michael Jordan? - Behind the Basket - The Antidote for Conventional Wisdom

Reader Comments (18)

At the end of the day both were GREAT players among the top 10 greatest of all time. Like other sports it's just so hard to compare players that never played at the same time and in totally different environments and rules.

Thanks for the article though, expect some kick-back whenever Jordan's #1 status is questioned!

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGavriel

I can't believe that little guy was better than JOrdan but you make an interesting argument. Jordan was the greatest

November 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterscarface

I heard Pat Riley say that Jerry West was Michael Jordans' equal. Very informative article. Most believe Jordan is the best period. (Personally I think Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar are #1 & 2) I think Riley was right. I saw West play enough to be convinced. The night before West retired the Lakers played an exhibition game and West scored like 36 or 38 points. He said he retired because he couldn't play the way he wanted to anymore!

May 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Croly

false,even jerry west says jordan was the best offensive player and the best defensive player of his era.how can you say jordan is only a top 10 guard all time.

pippen started to have more defensive responsibilities after the second coming of M.J.but overrall jordan is the best perimeter defender ever.

scoring,i think you are biased and i won't get into details because jordan did so much...but basically jordan is the best scorer ever in the game.and first of all you said it yourself...10 scoring titles vs 1.don't under-evaluate it the way you do.

i can't believe how biased you are but i will just quote jerry west: " i saw all the greatest players in the game and i would be lying if i was saying that he is not the best ever...he was at any given time the best offensive player and he was at any given time the best defensive player..and i doubt we will see another player like him"

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterange

If you had an argument that was actually based on facts, I guess you'd have a point. At least you present the "number of scoring titles" argument, which I already addressed when I pointed out that West played next to the top-scoring SF of all-time, but I guess you missed that. You're seriously ignorant if you think MJ was the top perimeter defender ever.

July 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

Because he is white!!!!!!! I kid I kid, Jerry is a top 5 sg for sure but Jordan I dont know.

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRodingo

Here is a simple response to the offense comparison. Jordan was by far the top scoring option on his team, which meant that other teams keyed on him and he still did what he did. Jerry West had other guys who were just as effective offensively as he was, which took defensive pressure (as well as the emotional sort) off of him.

I'm not even going to argue the defense. Tracking a guy's stats from a partial season and attempting to extrapolate based on it is kind of worthless...

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen

@Ken
To say "West had other guys who were just as effective offensively as he was" is quite wrong. Check the shooting percentages. He's one of the very best all-time SG's from an efficiency standpoint, and would have been even better with a 3-point line (from an eFG% standpoint, not FG% in that case, obviously). Whereas Baylor was inefficient and really a volume scorer, West was very efficient, so you're quite wrong.

I hope you noticed that my defensive argument wasn't simply hinging on steals from a partial season, but based on your response I think you missed that. Read some history; you'll notice quickly how many anecdotes and expert opinions point to how elite West's defense was. Or simply ignore it and pretend you already know everything.

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

There were way more possessions of the basketball back in they day, thus more opportunities for shots, rebounds, steals, etc..
Without taking into account the number of possessions this it is worthless comparing some of those stats.
Jordan would have put up Ludicrous numbers in Jerry's day.

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKDDM

@KDDM
What West was able to accomplish in terms of unifying a team of inefficient or team-destroying stars (Baylor, Chamberlain) and little else, all the while filling whatever role was needed in the most pressure-packed situations goes way beyond brushing aside whatever stats you want to brush aside. He could do more to maximize the abilities of his teammates than Jordan could, which is a pretty easy conclusion to come to after you do a little historical research. West could also be an elite PG and mesh with many types of teammates; Jordan got blasted in The Jordan Rules for how he treated his team before the Bulls went on to dominate the weakest stretch of talent since the early-70's with no center while luckily never having to face the era's top 2 centers in the playoffs (Hakeem, Admiral). Chicago had an amazing run that needs to be respected, but they wouldn't have had any more success against Russell and the 60's Celtics than West did, and West had a worse supporting cast. Looking beyond the numbers, you still can't blindly say "Jordan's the best, no discussion."

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

Zac there is no need to go off topic. I simply mentioned that to compare the stats was irrelevant. Bringing up other points to refute my argument is irrelevant. I am not arguing about titles or the ability to win titles. Nor am I arguing who made teammates look better. Nor am I even arguing who is better. I am simply saying comparing the stats is far from comparing apples with apples. But by all means go back to your emotive driven rant and keep presuming all you like.

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKDDM

@KDDM
Is it that I use too many stats and facts or that I am too "emotive driven" because they seem to contradict each other? You attacked the stats and said nothing else about the entire article or its conclusions, so it seems like a fair guess on my part that you think my ideas are bunk because you think straight-up stats are the backbone of my argument. Sorry I didn't guess what it was you actually thought after reading nothing but a remark about the stats. If you could actually take a stand for or against my conclusion or any of its supports, I guess there could be an actual discussion.

August 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

Haha I see I see, nah im not really taking a stand, I dont really have a strong opinion, and wasnt looking for a discussion as such. It was just of interest to me to read the article as an NBA fan rather than a supporter of either player. I think if you could actually take Michael Jordan and stick him in a team from any era against anyone he would stand out as one of the greatest if not the greatest ever particularly as he would get double teamed and still do well I believe. But I wouldnt want to take away from Jerry West he was the man in his own right and gets overlooked a bit (there wasnt the media hype for players back in the day... ie.. Chamberlain got 100 in his day... so what!). . I liked the article and thought you had lots of various good points. I was only picking on the stats part as hard to compare apples with apples so to speak but I understand that is all we can do short of using a time machine if one is invented.
Keep up the blogging Zac.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKDDM

Thanks - and please don't be scared off by my comments. I tend to come off as harsh in them since a lot of people start attacking the wrong things without a clear sense of what are the trees and what's the forest. Keep up the comments on any article!

August 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

Very nice article. You make very good arguments for West without detracting to much from Jordan. If nothing else, we all should gain a deeper appreciation for West's game. That said, you maid some biased arguments to strengthen your case.

Scottie Pippen as the #2 player of the time is a major reach, and does not square with statistical comparisons or proper context. Olajuwon was clearly better than Pippen. Malone and Barkley were both better than Pippen. All three of those guys were franchise players who lead their teams to NBA finals as the the #1 guy; something Pippen could not do while still in his prime after Jordan's first retirement. I think Pippen is in the conversation with Ewing, Robinson (at his peak), Stockton, and maybe even Drexler (prior to 92). One can make the argument that Pippen was hardly in the top five in that era as evidence his number selections in the NBA 1st team.

Denis Rodman being better than Wilt in those years also seem far fetched. With respect to offensive versatility, if you give 6'2 West credit for being able to play PG, should give 6'6 MJ for being able to play SF and a little bit of PG. You also did not present adequate material to support your conclusion that West was a more versatile scorer and superior defender. That said, hats off to Mr. West and to you for bringing this to our attention. A lot of people just hate on Jordan, you did not.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVal

@Val
Thanks for the comment, even if your sense of hoops history is off a bit.

February 3, 2013 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

Thanks for writing this. I've been meaning to read Jerry's book and this article helped me better appreciate him and his legacy. I think a lot of people don't realize how complete of a player he was. He is The Logo for a reason and I really hope the NBA does not replace it with the Jordan Jumpman symbol.

July 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjjnm

I think you are mistaken to underestimate and even look down upon Gail Goodrich. Gail Goodrich was a very smart and exceptionally talented player. Many experts consider Goodrich the most underrated player in NBA history. Goodrich was the "perfect" compliment to an aging Jerry West and proof of this can be found in the 71-72 championship season records. No backcourt in the history of the league has ever been better, and Goodrich's play in the playoffs that year was the best on that team, even though Chamberlain won the MVP of the playoffs. No player on the Chicago Bulls other than Jordan and possibly Pippen could compare with Goodrich's skills. As for your other assumptions concerning West vs Jordan I pretty much agree with you having seen both play extensively in their primes, and I have always felt a bit disgusted when I hear comments about how Jordan is the greatest player of all time. What about Kareem? But no matter how you look at it, Jerry West, as great as he was, and he surly was, never won it all till he teamed up with Gail Goodrich and a healthy Wilt Chamberlain, together with a truly talented coach in Bill Sharman to guide that talent. The 1971-1972 NBA Champion Lakers are in my opinion is the greatest team to ever play the game, and Jerry West, is without a doubt in my mind, one of the two greatest shooting guards in NBA history, with Michael Jordan being the other. I believe from watching the league for over 45 years now that Jerry West is still in my opinion the "Greatest All Around Guard" in NBA history, along side the great Oscar Robertson.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharles E

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