When you’re a member of the NBA’s Top 50 Players Ever, inside the top thirty players on the All-Time Scoring list, and the logo of the league, it’s almost baffling to say you’re underrated. But, in a basketball world suddenly concerned with how many championships a player has won in their career, Jerry West’s game gets forgotten.
A common argument from younger basketball fans is:
“So-and-so was playing against weaker competition during his era, and he only won xx championship(s). He couldn’t even make a roster spot on the Phoenix Suns now.”
And while that’s completely insulting, the foundation of that statement is not entirely incorrect. Of course, the game has gotten better in the 40+ years since Jerry suited up. But that doesn’t mean we should discount all of his achievements simply because he played so long ago. Sure, I’ll concede that walking away from the game with only one championship does hurt his legacy somewhat. I mean, he recorded fantastic regular season and playoff numbers, enjoyed individual and team success, but losing more times in the Finals than he won, what kind of player does that ultimately make him? (LeBron)
I can understand the argument because although players that dominated their eras, like Jerry West, were decades ahead of their competition, the game does eventually catch up to their talent. And sometimes it’s hard for those who didn’t watch at the time to get the full experience of what it was like to watch a player from his era. Maybe a little help is needed?
I’m here to provide that help. I’m going to explain to someone who was born in my time (Fuckin’ Millennials) what kind of a player Jerry West truly was. What qualifies me to do such a thing? I have what phony ass psychics refer to as an “old soul”. I have been known to enjoy music, tv, movies, as well as sports, from the 80’s, 70’s, and 60’s, art from way before my time. Which means, I have the ability to appreciate said art in the time it was created (Except for the Mona Lisa. Can we all just agree that da Vinci painted a very ugly woman? Oh, you don’t agree with me? Would you hang that shit anywhere in your fucking house? I didn’t think so. Now, the song by Slick Rick? That’s the masterpiece!)
From my experience, I think the easiest way to relate the sheer magnitude of something from the past is to compare it to something from today. Admittedly, I’m not sure you can completely encompass a player of Jerry West’s caliber into one current player. He’s the logo for a reason. So, I’m going to try my best to Frankenstein him together using three players from this generation.
One Part LeBron James: Yes, I said it. Jerry West has a lot in common with the athletic man-child and newly christened G.O.A.T. of this era, LeBron James, and here’s why. LeBron has been getting murdered for his 3-6 Finals record, but, fortunately for him, he doesn’t hold the distinction for most Finals losses for an NBA player. That belongs to Jerry West, whose NBA Finals record stands at an unimpressive 1-8. Now, if LeBron fans can defend a man losing six times in the Finals, allow me to defend a man who has lost eight in his career.
In 2012, LeBron was lucky enough to have reached the Finals to face a talented but young and still developing Thunder team (Durant: 5th year, Westbrook: 4th year, Harden/Ibaka: 3rd year). How did the Thunder manage to reach the NBA Finals if they were truly not yet ready? The league had just completed a lockout shortened season. The last time a lockout shortened season took place (1999), an 8th seeded New York Knicks team reached the Finals, making this the only season when this has ever happened. Weird things happen during these lockout shortened seasons. Unfortunately for West, he never had the same opportunity to drag a bunch of youngsters out behind the woodshed. West had only ever met one of two teams in the Finals: Bill Russell’s dominant Boston Celtics, and the Super Knicks teams of the 1970’s, wielding Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and plenty more.
Similarly, LeBron’s losses have all come from basically two teams: Three recent Finals losses to the Super Warriors, two to the previous crown holder of “This Generation’s Model Organization”, the San Antonio Spurs, and a surprising series loss to the Mavericks. This is his hardest to defend, since to me, this would be like if Jordan lost in 1993 to Charles Barkley’s Suns. Yes, they were a good team, and Charles was the regular season MVP, but we all expected Jordan (LeBron) to pull this one out. Again, because West never played a third or fourth team, like LeBron did, in any of his nine Finals appearances, we are forced to reserve judgement. We have no way of knowing for sure, the way we do with LeBron, if he would have crushed the opposition (Thunder, 2012), or disappointed his fans (Mavericks, 2011).
Since both players unfairly accumulated Finals losses to basically the same two juggernaut franchises, it’s only fair that we look at what they did against them. Jerry West suffered two Finals losses to the Knicks in 1970 and 1973, but was able to secure his lone championship against them, in 1972. LeBron has a pair of losses to the Spurs, in 2007 and 2014, but, like West, he was also able to sandwich one Finals victory against them in 2013. The Warriors have long tormented LeBron, from 2015-2018, but he was lucky enough to defeat them in 2016. In a Game 7 on the road, no less, and rewarding him sweet, sweet vengeance against two of the three teams who defeated him in the Finals (The Mavericks have yet to reach the Finals again).
West, although given his fair share of opportunities, wasn’t as fortunate. He lost all of his six Finals meetings with Boston, from 1962 to 1969, the last year of which bore his greatest chance: A hard fought Game 7 of his own, on his home floor (in contrast to LeBron’s opportunity), and what would just so happen to be Bill Russell’s (West’s long-time arch-rival) farewell game. West undoubtedly wanted nothing more than to finally beat Russell’s Celtics, and this was his final opportunity to do so; However, the Lakers would go on to lose the game 108-106, off a lucky shot by Don Nelson, resulting in then-Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke having to remove the celebratory balloons from the Forum rafters, one by one.
Further fueling my argument for his comparison with LeBron was that West has the unique distinction of being the only losing player to be awarded a NBA Finals MVP. This was awarded to him for his heroics during the aforementioned 1969 Finals against Boston, in which he averaged a gaudy 37.9 PPG (including one 53 point game, and three 40+ games), 4.7 RPG, 7.4 APG on 49.0% shooting. That Game 7 I talked about earlier? He dropped 42 points, 12 assists, and 13 rebounds, playing all 48 minutes of the contest. And who knows what further havoc he created on the defensive end? (More on that, later). The only other time this situation could (should) have occurred was in 2015, when LeBron averaged 35.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 8.8 APG on 39.8% shooting, only to lose to the Golden State Warriors. LeBron’s last game that series? Game 6 he recorded 32 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists, playing nearly 47 minutes. But yeah, let’s give it Iguodala…
So far, both players have each played in nine Finals series. LeBron James has recorded seven 40 point games in the Finals, good enough for second all-time. Who is first? Jerry West, with ten 40 point performances. Both players also have one 50 point game on their Finals resume, which only four other players can claim to have accomplished. So, I think it’s safe to say that, even though both players have lost more Finals series than they’ve won, it’s through no fault of their own. Win or lose, both performed brilliantly when their team needed them most.
Two Parts Michael Jordan: I’m not comparing West entirely to him, but the part of his game that reminds me of MJ is how he was equally as skilled defensively as he was offensively. On offense, Jerry was known as a shooter, but he wasn’t the type to sit and wait for someone to set him up for a shot. Like Michael, he was constantly using his dribble to probe the defense, setting up either himself or a teammate for an open look. As the video states below, there is no documented footage of Jerry West shooting off-ball, so we have to assume that he was primarily an off-the-bounce, isolation shooter:
Comparing any player to Michael Jordan is quite the claim (Please recognize this, LeBron fans), but West easily provides the criteria. One of Jerry’s nicknames was Mr. Clutch, and with good reason. Only Jerry West and Michael Jordan have ever averaged over 40 PPG for the entirety of a playoff run. Take into consideration that Michael did this in a mere three game sample size (or one playoff series), and that West accomplished his feat over the course of eleven games (up to and including a 33.8 PPG NBA Finals), and it becomes even more impressive (The top seeded team in each conference would receive a first round Bye during the 1964-65 post-season. So, West’s average is technically based on only two series, but eleven games is still eleven games).
West was also considered one of the great defenders of the early NBA. How good was he? There are (admittedly very vague) reports that Jerry West recorded an unofficial quadruple-double. It’s unofficial because, sadly, the NBA didn’t keep track of steals or blocks until Jerry’s 14th and final season. And yet, in this lone season in which the NBA finally came to their senses, he was still able to record an average of 2.6 steals and 0.7 blocks. As a guard on his last legs! Comparably, Michael Jordan averaged 1.7 SPG and 0.5 BPG in his final season with Chicago, as well as 2.3 SPG and 0.8 BPG for his career as a Bull (13 seasons). One can only imagine the defensive numbers West unofficially recorded in his prime, since he was still able to achieve such numbers at a heightened age.
One Part Steph Curry: Jerry West was widely regarded by many as the greatest shooter who ever lived. That claim hasn’t aged very well. Now, there are so many other shooters that come to mind before we even begin to think about West: Steph Curry, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Larry Bird, even hacks (by comparison) like Steve Kerr and Kyle Korver. And the reason why we do this is because Jerry West played long before the introduction of the three point line. I described how this effectively marginalized his accomplishments, in a post I wrote in regards to who the G.O.A.T. truly is:
Maybe one day the future NBA adds a 10-point shot, and suddenly the kids are all proclaiming What’s-His-Face as the greatest shooter of all time. You furiously try to explain how great of a shooter Steph Curry was, and how “If only there was a 10-point shot back when he played, he would have been the king of that shot. It would have been like shooting free-throws for him”. But, thanks to the 10-point shot, even mediocre shooters in the future NBA have passed him on all-time scorers list, so Steph’s name and abilities are all but forgotten. Who just shoots 3-point shots now anyways? Now you understand the pain of a Jerry West fan, who watched their “greatest shooter ever” play before the addition of the 3-point line.
Need further evidence of how quickly we forget the greatness of a player? Think about Curry’s most famous shot so far in his career, since he is by far the greatest shooter who’s ever lived. Do you have it all loaded up in your mind? Let me guess which shot you’re thinking of… You’re thinking of that game-winner he hit against the OKC Thunder a few seasons ago, aren’t you? Of course you are, we all lost our minds when we saw that shot go in. He was so far away and we all had this sinking feeling it was going to go in because he was that freaking good. Now, think about the first shot that pops into your head when you hear the name Jerry West. Ready? Let me guess again… You’re thinking of that buzzer-beater he hit in the 1970 NBA Finals to tie the game up against the New York Knicks, correct? Damn, I’m good at this game!
I’m going to take you back to that moment, and I’m going to do it without even beginning to describe the background and scenarios surrounding Jerry’s shot (Mainly, because even my old man was merely a sophomore in high school at this time). Instead, I’ll take us all back to Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals!
OK, now, imagine the Warriors are actually down one with George Hill at the line and 4.7 seconds to go, but instead of J.R. Smith doing J.R. Smith things, Hill makes both free throws to put the Cavaliers up three, and the Warriors are out of timeouts.
“With no timeouts, the Warriors will have to travel the length of the court and send the game to overtime” Reminds NBA Finals color commentator Mark Jackson.
“Durant in-bounds to Curry” Describes Mike Breen.
The Cavs opt to instead foul the ball handler, in a clever attempt to force the Dubs to defeat them from the free-throw line; However, Curry quickly reads the defense’s intentions, and before one of the Cavaliers guards can get close enough to foul him, he lets fly a Hail Mary from around the three point line on the opposite end of the court.
“Curry, to tie the game!…”
Curry’s form, even for such a desperation heave, looks perfect. The ball’s trajectory and backspin also look perfect. The NBA world watches and holds their collective breaths as the ball travels quickly through the air towards the hoop, gently grazes the left iron, and splashes through the net.
“BANG!” Exclaims Breen.
Oracle erupts. The Warriors players are all wearing huge, lucky-dog grins, unable to contain their professionalism. The dejected Cavaliers players walk back to their bench like robots to game plan for the overtime period. Mike Breen gets a new #1 “BANG!” moment. And Steph Curry continues to add to his resume as the greatest shooter who ever lived.
Because there’d simply be no argument against Curry after that shot went in, would there?
Trust me, just give it some time.
All stats were found, as always, on www.basketball-reference.com. This post was not written with the intent to shit on the current players of today (Although, this era is in some ways starting to replicate the fast-paced but forgettable 1970’s). It was simply the first of a not yet determined number of reminders I will be writing to pass the time between now and NBA preseason. Basketball (Post-Mikan) has always been a beautiful sport, and it truly bothers me to see others disrespect the older players (If you spend any time online viewing basketball posts, then you know exactly what I’m talking about). This is my attempt to allow us all to appreciate them. Follow me on Twitter, for more of my old man musings, as well as a few takes and predictions before the upcoming season.