I developed The Bill Russell Scale in 2021 to create "an unbiased ranking of unassailable players" prior to the NBA's release of its 75th anniversary team. When Russell died in 2022, we reset the scale to remind us how close his career was to perfection. In his honor, we will now hold everyone to that standard annually.
What is The Bill Russell Scale?
Criteria for The Bill Russell Scale came from the idea that the NBA's 50th anniversary team included:
Every MVP but Bob McAdoo
Every nine-time All-Star but Dominique Wilkins
Every six-time All-NBA selection but Wilkins
Every three-time top-five MVP finisher but McAdoo and Wilkins
Every face of a championship team (post-BAA/NBL merger) but Bob Davies and Dennis Johnson
All but four Finals MVPs (Johnson, Jo Jo White, Cedric Maxwell, Joe Dumars)
All but four top-40 all-time scorers (Wilkins, Alex English, Adrian Dantley, Walt Bellamy)
Everyone with at least 100 win shares and 11 playoff win shares but Maurice Cheeks
All but five players with a qualified Player Efficiency Rating greater than 20 and a playoff PER greater than 19 (George Yardley, Bob Lanier, Marques Johnson, Kevin Johnson and Dan Issel)
Seventy-four players met two or more of those criteria to start the 2021-22 campaign, and the addition of McAdoo and Wilkins to the 75th anniversary team further solidified these barriers to entry among all-timers.
So, I concocted The Bill Russell Scale, using that criteria and this logic:
We can debate whether Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest player in NBA history, but there is no career you should want more than Russell's. He played 13 seasons, never finished lower than seventh in the MVP voting and won 11 championships. His only career playoff losses came against two of the 11 players ever to meet all of the above criteria.
Russell's accomplishments also do not fit neatly into a statistical box. He was not an all-time great scorer, and PER fails to properly capture the impact he clearly had. This is why setting him as the gold standard makes so much sense. His profile is one of a winner in whatever form it takes to chase perfection.
The Bill Russell Scale's 100-point scoring system
19.1: Russell's average PER and playoff PER. The max score.
16.4: Russell's regular-season win shares divided by 10. The max score.
14.5: Russell's career scoring total divided by 1,000. The max score.
12: Russell's number of All-Star appearances. The max score.
11: Russell's number of All-NBA appearances. The max score.
11: Russell's number of top-five MVP finishes. The max score.
11: Russell's combined championships and Finals MVP awards. The max score.
5: Russell's number of regular-season MVP awards. The max score.
100: The Bill Russell Scale
(The NBA did not name a Finals MVP until 1969, when Jerry West became the only player ever to win the award in a losing effort — to a retiring 34-year-old Russell. Since no one is likely to win 11 titles again, combining rings and Finals MVPs — the award later named for Russell — gives a player of Jordan's, Kareem's or LeBron's caliber a shot to hit that mark or approach it.)
Who scores highest on The Bill Russell Scale?
The 75 greatest players in NBA history, according to the 100-point scale (active players in bold):
1. Bill Russell (100)
2. Michael Jordan (99)
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (97)
4. LeBron James (96)
T5. Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant (92)
T8. Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal (89)
10. Larry Bird (87.2)
T11. Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone (84)
14. Hakeem Olajuwon (83.9)
15. Jerry West (82.9)
16. Kevin Durant (82.8)
17. Moses Malone (80)
18. John Havlicek (79.2)
19. Dirk Nowitzki (79)
T20. Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Chris Paul (78)
23. Charles Barkley (77)
24. Bob Cousy (76.3)
25. Stephen Curry (75.4)
26. Dolph Schayes (74.8)
27. James Harden (73.4)
28. George Mikan (72.2)
29. Elgin Baylor (72)
30. Dwyane Wade (71.7)
31. John Stockton (71)
32. Patrick Ewing (70.2)
33. Julius Erving (69.2)
34. Dwight Howard (68.8)
35. Scottie Pippen (67.5)
36. Russell Westbrook (67.4)
37. Elvin Hayes (67)
38. Steve Nash (66.6)
39. Gary Payton (66.3)
40. Giannis Antetokounmpo (66.2)
T41. Paul Arizin, Allen Iverson (65.5)
T43. George Gervin, Clyde Drexler (65.2)
T45. Rick Barry, Jason Kidd (64.9)
47. Dominique Wilkins (64.4)
48. Paul Pierce (64)
49. Robert Parish (63.1)
50. Isiah Thomas (62.6)
51. Sam Jones (61.8)
52. Carmelo Anthony (61.3)
53. Walt Frazier (61)
54. Ray Allen (60.5)
55. Pau Gasol (60)
56. Tracy McGrady (59.3)
57. Tony Parker (59.1)
58. Hal Greer (59)
59. Damian Lillard (58.9)
T60. Bill Sharman, Nikola Jokić (58.7)
62. Anthony Davis (58.6)
63. Chris Bosh (58.2)
T64. Willis Reed, Reggie Miller (57.9)
66. Kawhi Leonard (57.4)
67. LaMarcus Aldridge (57.2)
T68. Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale (56.9)
70. Chauncey Billups (56.6)
71. Paul George (56.3)
72. Grant Hill (56.2)
73. Bob McAdoo (55.5)
74. Jerry Lucas (55.4)
T75. Bob Lanier, Vince Carter (55.3)
A few observations from this year to last
I imported all of this information to a spreadsheet over the summer, which now does all the calculations for me and includes all 449 players who have made at least one All-Star team. This exposed some of my own miscalculations, chief among which was the fact that Wilt Chamberlain belonged eighth (not 18th), and that feels better! Also, apologies to Grant Hill, who belonged in the top 75 last year. Math is difficult.
Kevin Durant moved within 0.1 points of Jerry West and will almost certainly pass The Logo this season.
Stephen Curry eclipsed James Harden last season and will only continue to widen the gap between them from here, which is a nice reminder that this scale will bend in favor of superior legacies in time.
In that same vein, Nikola Jokić scored a league-best 8.2 points on The Bill Russell Scale last season, moving from outside the top 75 to a tie for 60th on this year's list. He should be in the top 50 by 2024.
Giannis Antetokounmpo made the leap from 50 to 40 with a score of 3.9 last season. Meanwhile, his new Milwaukee Bucks teammate, Damian Lillard, should be knocking on the top-50 door this season.
Chris Paul has reached the career stage where only a championship (or another top-five MVP finish) will improve his score. The Golden State Warriors will give him his latest shot to break a three-way tie for 20.
(Is ... The Bill Russell Scale becoming the primary motivation for player movement across the league?)
Happy trails, Adrian Dantley, who was bumped from the top 75 by Jokić's entrance.
There are some interesting delineations occurring along round numbers on the scale. Eighty-plus points gets you in the pantheon, starting with Moses Malone. Curry will almost certainly be the next player to enter that stratosphere. Stars closest to 70 (Patrick Ewing), 60 (Pau Gasol), 50 (Joe Dumars), 40 (Dale Ellis) and 30 (Kenyon Martin) also give you an idea of the kind of career necessary to climb each rung.
I have been debating the inclusion of Defensive Player of the Year awards in the regular-season MVP category, so a player like Draymond Green might have a better chance at cracking the top 75. Russell would have won the award countless times if it had existed in his day. I always appreciate feedback. I can also accommodate requests for calculations of where your favorite player ranks outside the top 75.
Who could crack The Bill Russell Scale's top 75 this season?
Abdul-Jabbar's 1970-71 season is a gold standard. His 2,596 points and 22.3 win shares earned All-Star, All-NBA and regular-season MVP recognition, and he capped the campaign with his first championship, capturing Finals MVP honors to boot. He stacked 10.8 points on The Bill Russell Scale in a single season.
Jimmy Butler (54.4), Kyrie Irving (53.5), DeMar DeRozan (51.4) and Joel Embiid (50.4) all need less to catch Vince Carter (55.3) for No. 75 on the scale. The careers of veterans Blake Griffin (53.7), Kevin Love (50.6), Kyle Lowry (49.7), Al Horford (47.9) and Klay Thompson (45.4) may be slowing too much to ever join them.
Perhaps most interesting are the young careers of Luka Dončić (42.1) and Jayson Tatum (41.6). Neither is likely to crack the top 75 this season, but it takes some players (i.e., Chris Mullin) a long Hall of Fame career to break 50 points on the scale, and both Dončić and Tatum can get there by ages 25 and 26, respectively.
(Only six players currently eligible for the Hall of Fame have scored 50 points on The Bill Russell Scale and fallen short so far of induction: Chauncey Billups, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Shawn Kemp, Walter Davis and Dumars. You can make legitimate cases for all of them, and this might be their best argument.)
How high can Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo climb this season?
A repeat performance of last season would vault Jokić into the top 40, ahead of two-time MVP Steve Nash. Two more seasons like his previous one, and Jokić will be knocking on the door of the pantheon at age 30.
Antetokounmpo has already eclipsed Russell's career scoring total, which limits his ability to ascend so rapidly, but seven points — All-Star, All-NBA, MVP, Finals MVP and double-digit win shares — is not out of the question. One of those seasons, and he is bordering on the top 25. Two, and he is also in the pantheon.
Where do active stars rank on The Bill Russell Scale?
For reference when we revisit this next season, here is where every active player who has made at least one All-Star appearance ranks on The Bill Russell Scale (keeping in mind that the model better represents a player's legacy with a fuller picture of his career, rather than measuring his current standing in the league).
1. LeBron James (96)
2. Kevin Durant (82.8)
3. Chris Paul (78)
4. Stephen Curry (75.4)
5. James Harden (73.4)
6. Russell Westbrook (67.4)
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo (66.2)
8. Damian Lillard (58.9)
9. Nikola Jokić (58.7)
10. Anthony Davis (58.6)
11. Kawhi Leonard (57.4)
12. Paul George (56.3)
13. Jimmy Butler (54.4)
14. Blake Griffin (53.7)
15. Kyrie Irving (53.5)
16. DeMar DeRozan (51.4)
17. Kevin Love (50.6)
18. Joel Embiid (50.4)
19. Kyle Lowry (49.7)
20. Al Horford (47.9)
21. Klay Thompson (45.4)
22. Rudy Gobert (44)
T23. Brook Lopez, Karl-Anthony Towns (42.8)
T25. Mike Conley, Luka Dončić (42.1)
T27. Bradley Beal, John Wall (41.7)
29. Jayson Tatum (41.6)
T30. DeAndre Jordan, Nikola Vučević (41.5)
32. Derrick Rose (41.1)
33. Jrue Holiday (40.6)
34. Devin Booker (40.4)
35. Andre Drummond (39.5)
36. Donovan Mitchell (38.1)
37. Draymond Green (37.7)
38. Khris Middleton (37.2)
39. Gordon Hayward (35.1)
T40. Domantas Sabonis, Trae Young (34.4)
42. Pascal Siakam (34)
43. Julius Randle (33.2)
44. Zach LaVine (32.1)
T45. Kristaps Porziņģis, Andrew Wiggins (31.5)
47. Bam Adebayo (31.3)
48. De'Aaron Fox (30.9)
49. Jaylen Brown (30.6)
50. Ben Simmons (30.4)
51. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (29.8)
T52. Brandon Ingram, Ja Morant (29.7)
54. Victor Oladipo (29)
55. Jarrett Allen (28.9)
56. Lauri Markkanen (26.3)
57. Fred VanVleet (26)
58. Anthony Edwards (25.9)
T59. Dejounte Murray, D'Angelo Russell (25.7)
61. Zion Williamson (25.4)
62. Tyrese Haliburton (25)
63. Jaren Jackson Jr. (23.9)
64. LaMelo Ball (23.8)
65. Darius Garland (21.5)
Best of luck to everyone still building his NBA legacy, and we will check your progress again next year.