Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins was the only nine-time All-Star, the only six-time All-NBA selection and one of only two three-time top-five MVP candidates not to be named one of the league’s 50 Greatest Players. He is also the most prolific scorer absent from the list, still ranking 14th in history.
Somebody had to be the biggest snub from the 1996 list, and Wilkins was that guy. He should absolutely be on the NBA's list of 75 Greatest Players next week. But who will be the biggest snub this time around?
Wilkins was eighth on the all-time scoring list when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary, ahead of Michael Jordan. For a full decade, Wilkins averaged a 28-7-3 on better than 46% shooting from the field. There is no analytics case against him. A quarter-century after the NBA revealed its 50 Greatest Players, Wilkins still ranks top 50 in career Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player.
As Wilkins once said, "Some of the players that were voted top 50 could not even hold my jock," and his peers agreed. Bird and Magic Johnson joined a chorus publicly criticizing Wilkins' omission. Doc Rivers once added, "The difference between James Worthy and Dominique is that James had Magic Johnson and Dominique had me," and Worthy was not among the most controversial top-50 choices. Lenny Wilkens and Nate Thurmond never made an All-NBA team. Four others only made one. Wilkins was one of the four best forwards six times in an era when Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley were plying the same trade.
Danny Ainge counted Wilkins among his 30 greatest players, citing his performance against the four-time defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1988 playoffs. Wilkins scored 47 points opposite Bird's 34 during a 118-116 Game 7 loss in one of the greatest duels in history.
That defeat cost Wilkins his best shot at reaching the conference finals, a shortcoming that almost certainly played the biggest role in his omission from the list of 50 Greatest Players. The Hawks failed to qualify for the playoffs three times during his prime and won just three first-round series, twice losing the conference semifinals to the three-time champion Celtics and once losing to the two-time champion Detroit Pistons.
Everyone on the 50th anniversary team had at least played in a conference finals, and George Gervin was the only one selected who had never reached the NBA Finals. Gervin is probably the closest comparison to Wilkins, and nobody was haggling over his selection, despite three playoff series wins in 10 NBA seasons.
It is hard to imagine there will be such a dramatic oversight by the panel of media, current and former players, coaches, general managers and team executives tabbed to pick the NBA's 75 Greatest Players
The most obvious modern-day comparison to Wilkins is Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's 10th-leading scorer. He has won a single playoff series since his Denver Nuggets reached the 2009 Western Conference finals, and he missed the playoffs in his final four seasons on the New York Knicks. But Anthony — a 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA selection and one-time scoring champion — should be a lock for the NBA's top 75.
USA Today published ballots from 15 panelists on Friday, and Anthony appeared on 10 of them. A two-thirds majority should be plenty to get Anthony into the top 75. Wilkins made all but one of the 15 ballots.
So, who is about to be snubbed? Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter spring to mind as Wilkins comparisons, since neither were ever the best player on a serious championship contender. Neither climbed so high on the all-time scoring list as Wilkins, and yet they appeared on better than half of those 15 published ballots.
The highest scorer in danger of missing the cut has to be Carter, whose 25,728 career points position him 19th, just ahead of Alex English (also left off the 50th anniversary list). Carter missed the playoffs in three All-Star seasons. He played in a single conference finals at age 33. While he may join Wilkins as arguably the most electrifying dunkers in league history, Carter made just two All-NBA teams and finished no higher than 10th in MVP voting. Wilkins cracked the top 10 five times and finished runner-up to Bird in 1986.
Beyond McGrady and Carter, Paul George is the closest modern-day facsimile to Wilkins, and he would hardly qualify as a serious snub. LeBron James casts as large a shadow over George as Jordan did Wilkins, and George has now been the best player standing on three conference finalists. George's 14,275 career points are years away from climbing the elite ranks, but his six All-NBA selections meet another criterion for the list of 50 Greatest Players. Only one of the 15 ballots published by USA Today included George — 73rd.
Is there anyone else better than George who could be left off the list? Nobody in that Wilkins mold of elite wing overshadowed by even greater peers, or so it seems. After all, panelists ranked the two greatest small forwards in NBA history — James and Bird — as low as sixth and 13th, respectively. Anything is possible.
Longtime NBA writers Marc Stein and Tom Ziller published their top-75 rankings, as did HoopsHype. None is an official ballot. Stein turned down an invitation to the panel. All of them featured Anthony on their lists. Stein did not include McGrady. Ziller left off Carter. None of them made any mention of George.
In addition to McGrady and Carter, the back half of a majority of those published ballots included post-1996 stars Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Dwight Howard and Damian Lillard. Those six seem safely on the list of 60-65 locks for next week's announcement. The last 10 picks get trickier.
Retirees Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo and Pau Gasol appeared on roughly a third of the 15 published ballots. Kyrie Irving joined them with four nods. Klay Thompson, Tim Hardaway, Chris Bosh, Draymond Green and Grant Hill all made at least two ballots. Derrick Rose, Chris Webber, Yao Ming and even Robert Horry are among those who joined George with just one appearance on the 15 ballots.
It would be more shocking to see most of them make the top 75 than to be left out.
Even Gasol and Bosh would not qualify as a snub on the level of Wilkins. Gasol was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection. He ranks 39th all-time in points, 28th in rebounds and 21st in blocks. Bosh was an 11-time All-Star and one-time All-NBA selection. Health limited his career totals. Their roles on their respective back-to-back championship teams further elevate their résumés, but the absence of either on the 75th anniversary team would not be as shocking as leaving off one of the 10 best scorers ever in 1996.
The only crime on par with omitting Wilkins would be excluding Anthony, and that feels like a long shot.
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