Okay, so Monday was technically Left Hander’s Day. But you didn’t know that did you? I didn’t, not until about 10 p.m. that night because quite frankly, I never realized we had a Left Hander’s Day. So this post is a little late, but that doesn’t matter. You care about reading up on the 10 best lefties to ever put on a NBA uniform, not when you read about them.
I’ve always been a big fan of Sam Perkins. How can you not be? He was cooler than ice, dropped buckets with a nasty, line-drive jumper (he didn’t exact “jump”) and he nearly killed my Bulls by banging a game-winning triple in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals.
When I broke two fingers in my right hand playing ball after my senior year of high school, Perkins got me through. I shot lefty, tried to be like him, and eventually went to college with a pretty decent left-handed shot. All it took was a few months of having my right hand back before I lost the touch with the opposite arm, but that’s beside the point.
Lefties are unique and different, and because they’re a rare bird, they leave a mark. Here are the 10 best lefties in NBA history.
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10. BOB LANIER
Lanier might be famous for having size 22 sneakers (When he finished his career after making eight All-Star Games, Lanier said he only retired because Milwaukee had finally found a player who could fill his shoes – Alton Lister. He meant it literally.), but he finished his career just shy of the 20,000-point, 10,000-rebound club (totals: 19,248 points, 9,698 rebounds).
Still, he left the game with a void: no championship. It wasn’t entirely his fault. He played for Detroit in the 1970s. At the time, they were just happy to make the playoffs. Later, he’d be granted a trade request to Milwaukee, and fall three times in the conference finals.
But besides the numbers and the memorable touch he had on hook shots and jumpers, Lanier might be remembered most for his pain tolerance. The dude began his rookie season almost immediately after having knee surgery, and then over the course of his 14-year career, he had seven more knees surgeries (No confirmation on whether his doctor later became Penny‘s).
9. GAIL GOODRICH
Goodrich had such a unique game, you could’ve called him a throwback player in ’75. He was only 6-1, and overcame the odds at every level, even dating back to his time in high school at Polytechnic High in Pasadena. Everyone told him then he’d never make it. He was too small (Elgin Baylor would later immediately nickname him “Stumpy.” Not the greatest of nicknames if you’re trying to make it in the NBA.).
What’s funny is once he reached the NBA out of UCLA, he played like a new school player, a 6-1 two guard driving relentlessly at the rim, running up high scoring averages (18.6 a night for his career) and chasing shots like a pissed off Allen Iverson. He was a part of some of the greatest Laker teams ever, but because he couldn’t completely co-exist with Jerry West, they eventually let him walk to Phoenix in an expansion draft. Still, before he left Hollywood, Stumpy was a key part of the Lakers’ record-setting year in 1971-72, finishing fifth in the NBA with 25.9 points a game. Then he went out and dominated the Knicks guards in the ’72 Finals.
8. ARTIS GILMORE
Think this ranking is a little low for someone who amassed 24,941 career points and 15,579 rebounds? Gilmore and his 8-inch afro finished with career averages of 19 and 12, and he played in 11 All-Star Games as well as making multiple all-league teams. But most of this happened before the ABA/NBA merger. Okay, so his early years were eaten up in the ABA, and he didn’t join the NBA’s Chicago Bulls until he was already 27. But for the rest of his career, his numbers dipped to around 17 and 10 a night. Throw in his rep for being softer than a Chinchilla, and the fact that after making five straight All-ABA Teams, he never made another one in the NBA, and you can see my skepticism.
Gilmore rarely spoke above a whisper, and would’ve gone a whole career without getting in a fight if he hadn’t once challenged Maurice Lucas and gotten his ass laid out.
Still, he was big enough (about 7-2, 300 pounds) and good enough to warrant a top selection in the ABA dispersal draft in 1976, ahead of Lucas, Moses Malone and other stars, and stayed effective deep into his career (he even made an All-Star team at 36 years old).
7. CHRIS MULLIN
Nowadays, Mullin is the man just based off his incredible accent, and back in the day, he was the man for being apart of Run TMC. Between the accent, Run TMC, The Dream Team, and his jersey retirement in Golden State when the entire crowd attempted to pull off the first “Stringer Bell” of an owner (Joe Lacob), Mullin somehow found his way into some iconic NBA moments over the past 20 years (He’s the Forrest Gump of basketball). In his prime, he was like a 2007 Michael Redd who played on an exciting team and didn’t have an ugly-looking shot.
People always try to discredit him, and aren’t able to fathom how a 6-6 spot-up shooter (who’s white) somehow became a must-have player on the Dream Team. Well, first of all, you can never have enough shooters. And secondly, Mullin actually made the All-NBA First Team that year. He was officially one of the five best players in the world. It’s hard to argue with that.
Forgive the cliche, but he became great by working at it. The legendary Bill Wennington once told a story about five or six guys playing ball at St. John’s. During a break, Mullin, Wennington and the rest of the guys noticed there was a huge snowstorm going on outside. Wennington didn’t come back for three days, but when he did he found out Mullin had simply stayed at the arena the whole time. I don’t know how much I believe of that, but I’ve heard crazier things…
6. BILLY CUNNINGHAM
Guess what happens when a 6-6 small forward who relied on athleticism so much they nicknamed him the “Kangaroo Kid” has a debilitating knee injury? Cunningham’s short but exciting NBA career was doomed the minute he tore up his knee. During a game with the Sixers in 1976, Cunningham pulled down a defensive rebound, and as he came dribbling down the court, his knee “just exploded.” No one touched him. No one knew what happened. But the high-jumping kid from Brooklyn was done, and he’d never play again. In a way, that made it easy. He didn’t – couldn’t – have any regrets.
But in his prime, the dude could hoop. He came from New York City and UNC, so he had the pedigree (even if Dean Smith initially didn’t want him), and he was the sixth man on a Philly championship team in ’67 that many still believe is the best team in history. Five All-Star Games, three All-NBA First Teams and 16,310 points later, he’s still one of the best left-handed players in league history.
5. NATE ARCHIBALD/LENNY WILKENS
Both of these guards were great players. Both of them came from the Big Apple, and were two of the very first real New York City point guard legends, later bequeathing their talents to Kenny Smith and Pearl Washington then Kenny Anderson then Stephon Marbury then Sebastian Telfair. Tiny once led the NBA in scoring and assists in one season; Wilkens made nine All-Star teams. Ironically, Wilkens played very much like he coached. He was a very good player for 15 years, but never stood out as one of the best in the league. He was just steady, and had a seven-year run where you could count on him for 18 and eight.
Tiny was a flash, like so many other small lead guards. In his first seven seasons, he averaged 25 points or more four times. But after catching on with Boston in 1978 (at 30 years old), he never again averaged even 15.
But before I go any further, I wanted to make a point with these two being guards. I’ve harped on this in the past solely because it kind of annoys me, so here me out. I’ll never understand people’s unfatuation with screaming about lefties: “FORCE HIM RIGHT!… HE ONLY GOES LEFT!… MAKE HIM GO RIGHT AND HE WON’T SCORE!” Okay, we get it. Lefties are more likely to go to their strong hand. It’s common sense. But so will every single one of the dozens upon dozens of right-handed players we run into everyday. No one yells incessantly to force them left. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that in my life.
Nowadays, and you see this a lot with Manu Ginobili, people somehow get exacerbated about left-handed players scoring at the rim off a drive to their strong hand, almost like they truly believe the dude goes left every time. I don’t know how many times I’ve argued with people about this, but it’s been more than I can count: lefties don’t just score going left, and because they’re lefties, it won’t make them easier to defend. They’re different, but it doesn’t mean they have a predetermined attraction making them go to their strong hand every time. They’re no different than right-handed players. I don’t need someone in my face yelling all game about how a lefty needs to be forced right.
4. DAVE COWENS
You want the baddest, most ruthless, unrelenting SOB who ever played? It’s this guy right here. There’s no cliche worthy enough to describe his competitive streak, which manifested itself in just about every way on the court. Cowens played bigger players ruthlessly, he went after every loose ball, and once decked a guy for flopping. I’m serious. I read a story from Bill Simmons about how Mike Newlin once flopped for a foul call on Cowens (no, flopping didn’t start with Vlade Divac). Cowens, who was more old school than the actual term old school, was so pissed off he nearly got thrown out for screaming at the refs. When nothing happened, he wheeled around like a bull spotting a flapping red cape, noticed Newlin coming up the court and went at him like something out of that old “Thunder And Destruction” tape from NFL Films. Newlin ended up sprawled out along the scorer’s table. If Cowens had done this in 2012, he’d be a hero – the guy who saved the NBA from flopping.
Even after he became a coach, the dude was still the same straight shooter. But still, it wasn’t like he was a glorified energy guy in the NBA. Cowens finished his career as a top 50 player of all time, and concluded his playing days with two rings, a Rookie of the Year award as well as an MVP, and career averages of 17.6 points and 13.6 rebounds.
But in typical Cowens fashion, he put his only MVP trophy on the block a few years ago… as if he didn’t need it or even cared about it (By the way, that whole season smells fishy. Cowens won the MVP but didn’t make the All-NBA First Team. How does that work?).
3. DAVID ROBINSON
The Admiral made 10 All-Star Games. He won two championships late in his career. He won an NBA MVP in 1995, and had a mid-90s run that was borderline ridiculous. The due was a freak of nature. He was like Dwight Howard if Howard had never eaten a carb in his life. I still remember one time when Robinson ran the floor (if we took all of the seven footers in NBA history and had them compete in a few track events, I’d put my money on the Admiral), caught a lob from Avery Johnson with his off hand and then dunked it. Immediately afterwards, he pumped his fist like a Shake Weight, and his arms looked like Schwarzenegger. If he wasn’t such a nice guy, he probably could’ve scared the Spurs into two or three titles. But that was his problem. No player’s mentality struck me as more of a polar opposite of Michael Jordan. Robinson repeatedly came up short in the playoffs, from getting whipped and embarrassed by Hakeem Olajuwon in ’95 to all of the times Shaq called him out, told him he was a baby on national TV, and then proceeded to go out and annihilate him.
For that, and because he never came close to a ring until Tim Duncan arrived, I can’t put him any higher.
2. WILLIS REED
You may only remember Reed for his iconic moment during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals when he walked – excuse me – limped out late onto the court after initially thought to be too hurt to play. His two early baskets against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers set the stage and the Knicks went on to win the title. That was spectacular, and it went down as one of the greatest moments in league history, one of those Rocky-like moments that’ll be replayed from here until the end of time. It was the anti-Vince Carter move. But for the context of this piece, what really mattered was what Reed did during the series’ first four games – scoring 37, 29, 38 and 23 points, respectively, while averaging 15 rebounds. The man was a monster.
During his peak – the years immediately before and following the ’70 Finals, he went completely berserk. Over a five-year span, he averaged at least 20 points and 13 rebounds in every season.
Reed also finished his career with seven All-Star Games, one MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and two NBA Finals MVPs, one of them being for those 1970 Finals. He lasted only 10 years, but how can you blame him? When doctors are letting guys play through torn quad muscles, you can’t sit here 42 years later and wonder, “Damn, how did he only make it through 10 years?” Reed put everything he had into those 10 seasons.
1. BILL RUSSELL
If the only thing you know about Bill Russell is that he has a nasty turnaround hook in 2K12, then you need some educating. Russell was perhaps the greatest winner in sports history. He won 11 titles, and cared more about winning than anyone before Vanessa Bryant. Seriously, everything about the man – from the way he blocked shots to keep them inbounds to the way he played rope-a-dope with Wilt, letting him score at will to tire himself out – screamed “I don’t really care about my legacy or the fact that almost everyone in attendance hates me because of my skin color (He dealt with a lot of this crap). I just want to grab every ring I can get.” The ironic thing is his legacy eventually became defined by that attitude.
Whereas Kobe‘s teammates must think about leading a mutiny at least 13 times a year, MJ‘s teammates always had to worry about getting punched in the face, and LeBron‘s teammates probably feel like tiny plastic army patrols on a giant Risk board, Russell deeply cared about his teammates. They had his back, and he had theirs. For a while, people (media) saw that as arrogance or resentment because of the way he acted towards people outside of that tiny circle. It wasn’t until his later years we found out Russell was actually a really good dude who just didn’t want anyone disrupting his team.
Whatever he did, it worked. He racked up 11 rings, 12 All-Star Games, five MVPs, a career rebounding average of 22.5, and a solid claim to the G.O.A.T. argument. When you win that much, you can throw a stake into that debate.
Who is your favorite lefty of all time?
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