Wes Unseld vs. Elvin Hayes


Unseld vs. Hayes and the Bullets of the 70’s – A Retrospective

I just became a Wizards fan last year, and while my understanding of the current makeup of the team is probably in the upper echelon of fans, I really don’t know much about the history of the Wizards/Bullets franchise. I looked for a book about the Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld glory days, but it doesn’t exist. Neither, as far as I can find, does a chronicled history of said squads on the blogosphere. Truth About It has some good stuff, but not any direct comparisons of the players on the team and what made those championship teams click. I think this would be especially relevant now since several books I read this summer (e.g. Heroes of the Hardwood, Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver) made the claim that Wes Unseld’s impact on the team was far less than it has been made out to be.

I check out Unseld stats, and they do seem very middling, at least compared to modern day players who try to get into the Hall of Fame. He posted a PER of only 16, which is even less than John Wall at this point in his career. His total rebound percentage of 18, while impressive, still trails modern day contemporaries like Dwight Howard by 4 percent. And while he had a high assist percentage of 13.5, he had an astronomically high turnover percentage (19 percent), which makes me think that his famous outlet passes might have been doing the team more harm than good.

Then, I decided to see how Unseld’s stats compare to the player that is traditionally seen as the second best player in Wizards history, Elvin Hayes. The comparison is right here. Check it out here. I’ll wait.

What is clear to me is neither Unseld nor Hayes, statistically, would be considered the number one option on a championship team today. Both have less than the usual PER of 20 thresholds that modern day stars are held too. Hayes has a better PER at 17.7, scored about 10 more points per game then Unseld, and had a much higher usage rate. But Unseld had a higher true-shooting percentage by .046; a higher total rebound percentage by 2.4; and a lower assist to turnover ratio. Their defensive ratings are very similar, with Hayes coming in at just one point lower than Unseld.

But advances and per-36 minutes statistics don’t tell the whole story here. In Bill Simmons book, “The Book of Basketball”, Unseld is ranked much higher than Hayes in his historical rankings. Simmons decries Hayes as a choker who relied on turnaround jumpers (which he calls the most cowardly shot in basketball – but that sounds like hogwash to me), while Unseld did little things that statistics today simply don’t take into account. And he probably is right about Unseld doing the little things. From what I’ve been able to scrounge up on Unseld, he was a very good defender and screen setter. His outlet passes also led to many 2 on 1s, which also don’t show up in the box score if the ball handler decides to pass to the trailing player.

But while there might have been instances in the playoffs where Elvin Hayes “choking” cost the Bullets the game (I honestly don’t know), it is a statistical fact that Hayes elevated his play for the playoffs. He pulled off the elusive playoff double-double (increased usage rate and efficiency) while Unseld pulled the opposite (decreased usage rate and efficiency). Unseld’s decreased playoff stats were probably the result of matching up against bigger centers that could punish his lack of size, but basketball isn’t handicapped, and we are looking for the best player, not the best story. Regardless of the anecdotal evidence, it is clear that Hayes playoff performance should be considered a plus on his case for the best franchise player of all time, not a minus.

But there is even more! Hayes was a diva, and reportedly an incredibly negative locker room presence – read this good article from Truth About It for more. While the Bullets were very successful during their run during the 1970’s, locker room friction is just one of those things that is non-falsifiable in its effect on the team. Could the team have won more championships if Hayes was a team player? My gut says no, but everyone has a different (and equally non-falsifiable) opinion.

After researching both of these players for at least a couple of weeks, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First, Unseld was the best Bullet in franchise history. And this is different than being the best player in franchise history. Unseld spent his whole career with the Bullets and was a great team player. He was a great role model and even came back to coach the team. When people think Washington Bullets, they think Wes Unseld.

But who is the better player? It’s tough, but I say Hayes. While Unseld scored more efficiently, a championship team needs a player that can score in bunches. And while Unseld was a better rebounder, I honestly think there wasn’t much of a difference, and the difference that did exist was due to a large extent Unseld’s preferential position at the center spot, where Hayes played power forward. Hayes’ superior all around playoff stats are the tiebreaker to any of my doubts I had about saying Hayes is the best player in Bullets franchise history.

Many people will probably argue with this. And that’s a good thing! I obviously didn’t live back in the 70’s, and I only have the stats to make these assessments. If anyone has any feedback or argument that Wes Unseld is the best player in Bullets franchise history and not Hayes, I totally welcome it. Understanding the past is the first step to becoming the proud fan of the franchise. For a true fan, any revisiting of the past should be welcome.