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.
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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 43-46%. 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.
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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?
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.
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.
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 his top teammates) 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 for 5-plus post-season games 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.
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 certainly isn’t a gimme.
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 after 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 another Celtic or two 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, 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 there.
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.
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.