You will not hear Wes Unseld’s name mentioned among NBA players under consideration for the greatest of all time, but you will find the Bullets legend’s credentials alongside all of them, and the undersized ground-bound center belongs on a short list for the G.O.A.T. at maximizing his ability.
Unseld joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year, transforming the last-pace Baltimore Bullets into a 57-win contender as the second overall pick out of Louisville in 1968. He added a Finals MVP award almost a decade later, winning the franchise’s lone title five years after a career-altering 1974 knee injury derailed a Hall of Fame career that saw averages of 14 points, 17 rebounds and four assists through his first five seasons.
The others with MVP and Finals MVP to their names: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Durant, Moses Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Bill Walton and Willis Reed. Decent crowd.
Unseld is surely the only player on that list who counted outlet passing and pick setting as his greatest skills. He led the league in rebounding in 1975 and field-goal percentage in 1976, but legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach once called Unseld “the greatest outlet passer of them all, the only one I’d rate better than [Bill] Russell,” and Bullets teammates regularly credited him with elevating their games. He was a winner, plain and simple, an MVP doing the little things.
“Wes was truly a gentle giant,” former Bullets teammate Phil Chenier said in the obituary on the franchise’s website. “His scowl could be intimidating but really he was a kind, thoughtful and protective comrade. Wes is the epitome of a great teammate, team leader and friend.”
Unseld’s 14.9 rebounds per game for his playoff career rank behind only Russell and Chamberlain. Unseld did not miss the playoffs until his 13th and final injury-plagued season, leading the Bullets to four Finals appearances in a nine-year period and bruising his way to the 1978 title alongside fellow Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. The franchise has not even reached a conference finals since.
Of course, Unseld had a role in that, too. He either worked in the front office or as head coach for the D.C. franchise from his retirement in 1981 to 2003, most notably serving as the team’s general manager for the last seven years of that run. That included an eight-month stretch under Jordan, who as president of basketball operations drafted Kwame Brown with the top overall pick in 2001.
With Bryant still on the board, Unseld traded the No. 12 pick in 1996 for a washed-up Mark Price, who played all of seven games in Washington. He forfeited his next first-round pick to sign Juwan Howard to the NBA’s first $100 million contract in 1997. He traded 25-year-old Chris Webber for 33-year-old Mitch Richmond in 1998. And he traded Ben Wallace for Isaac Austin in 1999. Those were the first four years of a seven-year GM tenure before he handed the reins to Ernie Grunfeld.
There have not been many glory years for the Wizards since. In many ways, Unseld embodied all that is Washington basketball, and only the all-time greats can say the same about a franchise.
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