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"Shaquille O'Neal is the best of the almost four thousand NBA players who have ever suited up ..." So sayeth statistician supreme Elliott Kalb in Who's Better, Who's Best? in Basketball, a book guaranteed to generate beaucoup disagreement, as the author no doubt realized as he was writing it.

It's all but impossible to compare athletes from different eras, of course. When Wilt Chamberlain landed in Philadelphia in 1959, the NBA had eight teams; when Shaq arrived in Orlando in '92, there were 27 teams. Was the league stronger with concentrated talent? Or does the mind-numbing, 82-game schlep-athon that makes up the current NBA schedule mean that it's tougher today? My suspicion is that the travel makes the contemporary league tougher, but no one can say for sure. Still, there's no stopping us sports guys, Kalb included, from making cross-era comparisons. Ticketmaster

The author's reputation as a numbers cruncher notwithstanding (he is the stat geek for ABC and ESPN and, before that, compiled NBC's pro hoops stats for 15 years), his choices turn out to be, in their own way, as subjective as anyone else's. But Kalb promises to inform his choices with the weight of statistics, and, to a certain extent, he does. Before I tell you where I disagree with him, here are a few of the more interesting figures he brings to light.

* In all of sports, no one is more of a statistical anomaly than Chamberlain, whom Kalb ranks second behind O'Neal, and two places ahead of Bill Russell, which will undoubtedly make Celtics fans turn green. You could write a book on Chamberlain's statistical domination, particularly in the first six years of his career, during which he averaged a mind-bending 32.5 shots per game, but Kalb hits on three particularly interesting stats. He notes, first of all, that, for all his reputation as a horrid foul shooter, Wilt wasn't that much worse than Russell (.511 to Russell's .561) and, in fact, was better than Russell in four of his first five seasons. And since Wilt got to the foul line so much more often than Russell, he shot almost twice as many free throws and made almost twice as many.

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Also, Wilt scored 60 or more points in a single game 32 times; in second place is Michael Jordan with ... four. Most astonishingly, in 1962, the season Wilt finished with a positively sick points-per-game average of 50.4, he scored 50 or more points 45 times. That's more than any other player did in his entire career. Ticketmaster

* Kalb rightly highlights one of Jordan's most overlooked statistical accomplishments -- his improvement as a three-point shooter. In Jordan's first four seasons, his percentages from beyond the arc were 17, 17, 18 and 13, respectively. Once he started to improve, in the 1988-89 season, he became one of the league's best three-point shooters, not the least because of his ability to hit them in the clutch. Kalb ranks Jordan third, behind Shaq and Wilt. I rank Jordan first and I'll give my reasons below.

* Here's the stat you should take away about Russell's career, as Kalb notes. His record in Game 7s was 10-0.

* Kalb ranks Larry Bird as the greatest forward in history, putting him sixth overall behind Shaq, Wilt, Jordan, Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kalb called it "one of the easier choices in this book," which will make fans of Elgin Baylor (Kalb ranks him 13th) raise an eyebrow. To illustrate Bird's ability to perform in the clutch (which Kalb rightly considers crucial in his ranking), the writer compares Bird to Julius Erving (Kalb's No. 15) during the '81 Eastern Conference finals (won by Bird's Celtics over Dr. J's 76ers), one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. During the regular season, Erving, at 31 and in the prime of his career, outscored Bird by 3.4 points per game and was voted MVP. But in the playoffs Bird outscored Erving by 6.8 points per game, outrebounded him by 7.5 and out-assisted him by 3.7. That is a serious statistical butt kicking. Ticketmaster

* One of Kalb's most surprising choices is Bob Cousy at No. 10, slightly higher than another guard named Jerry West (Kalb's No. 12) and way higher than another named John Stockton (No. 27), the player to whom Cousy is most often compared. I grew up watching Cousy (who, among sports legends I've met, remains the nicest and most down-to-earth) but would not have ranked him ahead of Stockton, never mind West, whom I rank as the fourth-greatest guard behind Jordan, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson (the last two were ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, by Kalb). But Kalb raises an interesting statistical point. Assists are granted much more liberally these days than when Cousy was in his prime; from '57 through '63, for example, assists were awarded, at most, on 53 percent of all field goals. In every season from '86 to '01 (the Stockton era), assists were credited on either 60 percent or 61 percent of all field goals.

But on to Kalb's choice of Shaq as No. 1. The fact that I rank Jordan at the top should not be taken as a denigration of Shaq and may have more to do with my own hoops prejudices than anything else.

Kalb says he discounts Shaq's free-throw shooting deficiencies, just as he would discount the fact that Babe Ruth "lacked the speed and range to play center field." Actually, early in his career a svelte Ruth could've played center field but that's beside the point. Weak free-throw shooting has to be recognized as a factor in basketball, much more today than in the era of Chamberlain when, as a rule, teams did not deliberately foul to put a player on the line. There have been occasions in Shaq's career when his teams couldn't go to him down the stretch for fear that the opposition would send him to the line. Ticketmaster

Kalb goes to great lengths to talk about Shaq's dominance over his competition. That could be taken two ways, of course, one being the possibility that the competition, particularly in the pivot, has been watered down. There's not enough time to get into that now, but the larger point is that the Shaq Era did not -- nay, could not -- begin until the Jordan Era was over.

The greatest factor that Kalb overlooks, in my opinion, is the degree to which a great guard, like Jordan, can control the game. Yes, a great center can clog the lane, change shots and block shots. But Jordan, the greatest defensive player of his era, monkey-wrenched opponents' offenses as soon as they got over midcourt. And he, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant constituted the best trapping, swarming defense in the league, even before opposing players got past midcourt.

And while a team can ride its center offensively, as the Lakers did during their three-peat, a great guard, like Jordan (and Robertson, West and Cousy), has much more control over the offense. Not only can the guard decide when he wants to take over, he can also decide when he wants the center to take over. This was the great genius, by the way, of Magic Johnson. He was able to calculate when he needed to score and when to let Abdul-Jabbar (No. 5) be the main man. Jordan never had a great center to go to (he probably liked it that way) but used the talents of his hand-picked jump shooters, John Paxson and Steve Kerr, in the same way that Magic used Kareem.

Finally, Kalb holds it against Jordan that he retired and unretired twice before finally making it official. I think it only adds to the man's mastery that he was able to create two eras in which he dominated the game. Ticketmaster

But that's only one man's opinion. Get Kalb's book and form your own.

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