Who is the best player in the history of professional basketball in Washington D.C.?
If you only started watching after the 1980s (and have only watched NBA basketball) you might be inclined to name a player like Bernard King, Chris Webber, Michael Jordan, Gilbert Arenas, or John Wall. All of these players have been an All-Star in Washington. But both the box score statistics and on-court results suggest that none of these players is the best answer.
To find the best answer, let’s first start with a brief review of D.C. basketball history. Professional basketball in Washington D.C. goes back more than four decades. It essentially began in 1973 when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington D.C. and — after one year as the Capital Bullets — became the Washington Bullets. The first six years in D.C. were impressive. In all six years, the Bullets finished with a winning record and appeared in the playoffs. In three years — 1975, 1978, and 1979 — the Bullets advanced to the NBA Finals and in 1978 the Bullets won an NBA title.
When the 1980s began, though, the fortunes of professional basketball in D.C. changed dramatically. From 1979-80 to 1995-96 the Bullets never won more than 43 games in a season and only won a single playoff series (a 2-0 sweep of the New Jersey Nets in 1982). In 1997 the team changed its name to the Wizards. But NBA basketball in D.C. didn’t get much better. Across the last 21 seasons, the Wizards have never won 50 games in a season and only made it out of first round of the playoffs four times. And the Wizards have never advanced past the second round.
If we look at the players D.C. has employed in its history it’s not hard to see the problem. The glory days in D.C. appeared to begin — and end — with Wes Unseld.
Unseld was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets with the second pick of the 1968 draft. In his rookie season, Unseld was named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the NBA. Unseld only averaged 13.7 points per game that first season. But in those days people apparently appreciated great rebounders and Unseld’s 18.2 rebounds per game was a big reason Baltimore improved 21 games in the standings.
When we move past scoring and consider all the box score statistics we can understand Unseld’s impact on team wins. Although people today tend to focus primarily on a player’s scoring totals the academic study of basketball tells a different story. Teams win in basketball because they take the ball away from their opponent without them scoring (i.e. grab defensive rebounds and force turnovers), keep the ball away from their opponent (i.e. avoid turnovers and grab offensive rebounds), and then convert possessions into points by efficiently hitting shots from the field and the free throw line. In sum, players primarily produce wins by shooting efficiently, rebounding, forcing steals, and avoiding turnovers. And when we consider these statistics (plus all the other box score stats) we see that Unseld was amazingly productive in D.C. From 1973-74 (Unseld’s first year in D.C.) and 1980-81 (Unseld’s final year in the NBA), Unseld’s rebounds (and all his other box score statistics) was worth an estimated 102 wins. Per 48 minutes, Unseld produced 0.239 wins for the Bullets in D.C. An average NBA player produced 0.100 wins per 48 minutes (WP48) so Unseld was more than twice as good as average.
Since Unseld retired the Bullets/Wizards have had 13 different players named to the All-Star game. Here is how many wins these players have produced (totals and per 48 minutes) for Washington (All-Star years noted):
- Jeff Ruland (1984, 1985, 1986): 45.8 Wins Produced, 0.205 WP48
- Jeff Malone (1986, 1987): 2.4 Wins Produced, 0.004 WP48
- Moses Malone (1987, 1988): 23.1 Wins Produced, 0.208 WP48
- Bernard King (1991): 4.9 Wins Produced, 0.023 WP48
- Michael Adams (1992): 19.0 Wins Produced, 0.102 WP48
- Juwan Howard (1996): 8.0 Wins Produced, 0.022 WP48
- Chris Webber (1997): 24.3 Wins Produced, 0.053 WP48
- Michael Jordan (2002, 2003): 4.2 Wins Produced, 0.040 WP48
- Antawn Jamison (2005, 2008): 27.5 Wins Produced, 0.081 WP48
- Gilbert Arenas (2005, 2006, 2007): 29.7 Wins Produced, 0.102 WP48
- Caron Butler (2008): 30.9 Wins Produced, 0.123 WP48
- John Wall (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018): 54.0 Wins Produced, 0.133 WP48
- Bradley Beal (2018): 29.3 Wins Produced, 0.102 WP48
Washington has seen some stars since Unseld left. But the most productive player on this list is John Wall and the stats say that Wall is not nearly as good as some people might think. And Wall is not alone. The player stats — and the lack of any team success — say that none of these players come close to the productivity of Unseld. In fact, many of these stars were below average NBA players. This is not uncommon since players often are thought of as stars simply because they take many shots and score points. Once again, though, wins are really about shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers.
In the end, when we look at this list of stars it appears the entire history of successful NBA basketball in Washington ended when Unseld quit grabbing rebounds for the Bullets. At least, it appears that way if we only consider men.
In 1998 the Washington Mystics began playing in the WNBA. Across the first 19 years of team history, the Mystics only won more games than they lost five times. In other words, the Mystics seemed very similar to the Wizards.
Yes, the Mystics had a few productive players. A list of Mystic stars would include Murriel Page, Chamique Holdsclaw, Alana Beard, Crystal Langhorne, and Emma Meesseman. All of these women were above average players. But none were quite as productive as Unseld. And none were able to lead the Mystics to the WNBA Finals.
Then in 2017, the Washington Mystics traded for Elena Delle Donne. In two seasons with the Mystics, Delle Donne has averaged 20.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Her effective field goal percentage has been 54.3 percent. So, Delle Donne is not just a scorer. She also rebounds well for her position and shoots efficiently. In sum, Delle Donne is an amazingly productive star.
When we consider all her statistics we see that she has produced 12.2 wins for the Mystics and 0.288 wins per 40 minutes. Yes, the WNBA only plays 40 minutes per game. But Delle Donne’s production per 40 minutes eclipses the productivity of every Bullet or Wizard player per 48 minutes. And that list includes the legendary Wes Unseld.
Yes, Delle Donne is the most productive basketball player in Washington D.C. history. And therefore, one can argue that Delle Donne is the best.
Delle Donne has also done something that no basketball player in Washington D.C. has done since Unseld. On Wednesday night, Delle Donne and the Mystics will be playing a championship game in D.C.
Well, not exactly D.C.
Before Washington’s playoffs started they were moved out of the Capital One Arena to the Charles E. Smith center on the George Washington campus. And for the WNBA Finals, the Mystics are moving again. This time, the Mystics are leaving D.C. for the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia (on the George Mason campus). This means the first finals game in D.C. in nearly forty years will not be played in Washington D.C.
So, if you are a fan of D.C. basketball you will need to leave D.C. to see the cities greatest professional player in the finals. You also may not have a second chance to make this trip.
Yes, relative to the players employed by the Bullets/Wizards, Delle Donne is amazing. But after being seriously hurt in the WNBA semi-finals, Delle Donne is clearly not at 100 percent. In addition, she is not the only amazing player in the WNBA Finals. The Seattle Storm have Breanna Stewart (league MVP, 0.259 WP40), Sue Bird (WNBA legend, 0.291 WP40), Jewel Loyd (WNBA All-Star, 0.184 WP40), and Natasha Howard (most improved player in the WNBA, 0.161 WP40). Delle Donne is certainly not alone. Ariel Atkins, Kristi Toliver, LaToya Sanders, and Natasha Cloud are all above average performers. But none are as productive as Bird and only Delle Donne is more productive than Stewart.
So, although the Mystics are better than any professional team in D.C. since the 1970s, they are not quite as good as the Storm. That doesn’t mean the Mystics can’t win. But if you were planning on seeing the greatest player in D.C. history, you probably should make the drive to Virginia on Wednesday night to see Elena Delle Donne. There is simply no guarantee the greatest player in D.C. will still have another game to play when the Mystics and their fans wake up on Thursday morning.
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