Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Julius Erving vs. Dwyane Wade
I guess we have to have a conversation about the ABA. A number of Hall of Famers played in the alternate league in the 1970s, but as a whole it was a more watered-down product, even if the ABA’s existence also watered down the NBA in the process. Few players went on to the success Julius Erving enjoyed in the NBA, evidence his impact always transcended any delineation. Still, it is impossible to tell how much the ABA inflated Erving’s early numbers, so for these purposes we will draw a distinction between his five ABA seasons and the nine more NBA seasons he remained a 20 points-per-game scorer on a contender.
In five ABA seasons from 1971-76, Erving averaged 28.7 points (55.8 true shooting percentage), 12.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 4.4 combined blocks and steals in 40.7 minutes per game. He co-starred with Charlie Scott as an ABA rookie on the Virginia Squires, and then served as a solo leading man once Scott left for the NBA in 1972. Erving won three straight ABA MVPs from 1974-76 and finished second in 1973.
In the ABA, Erving averaged 31.1 points (57.5 TS%), 12.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 3.3 blocks/steals in 43 minutes over 48 playoff games. He never missed the ABA playoffs, leading the Squires to the 1972 Eastern Division finals and winning a pair of championships in three seasons with the New York Nets.
When the ABA disbanded, the Nets essentially sold Erving’s rights for the chance to enter New York Knicks territory as one of four teams merged into the NBA. From 1976-85, Erving averaged 22.8 points (56.2 TS%), 7.1 rebounds, four assists and 3.5 blocks/steals in 34.6 minutes a game for the Philadelphia 76ers. He finished top-10 in NBA MVP voting seven times, winning in 1981 and placing second in 1980.
Erving shared Philadelphia’s marquee with Moses Malone for four seasons from 1982-86. The Sixers never missed the playoffs in Erving’s prime, reaching seven Eastern Conference finals and four NBA Finals in the nine-year span. He averaged 22.5 points (54.8 TS%), 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.6 blocks/steals in 37.7 minutes over 124 NBA playoff games during his prime. Erving won his lone NBA championship in 1983, when Malone captured regular-season and Finals MVP honors for the Sixers.
Wade’s prime began in his breakout sophomore campaign, when he and Shaquille O’Neal led the Miami Heat to 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It lasted 11 seasons, culminating in a failed bid for the playoffs in Miami’s first season post-LeBron James, when injuries continued taking their toll on Wade’s relentless brand of basketball. His numbers then slid into his 2018-19 retirement tour.
From 2004-15, Wade averaged 24.8 points (56.8 true shooting percentage), six assists, five rebounds and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 36.4 minutes per game. He finished top-10 in MVP voting seven times, placing as high as third in 2009. Wade was his team’s best player in six of those 11 seasons, ceding status in O’Neal’s 2004-05 MVP runner-up campaign and to James in their four years together.
The Heat missed the playoffs twice during Wade’s prime. He appeared in six conference finals and five NBA Finals over those 11 seasons, winning three titles and capturing 2006 Finals MVP honors. Wade never advanced past the first round without O’Neal or James. He averaged 23.4 points (55.6 TS%), 5.4 rebounds, five assists and 2.8 blocks/steals in 38.8 minutes over 139 playoff games from 2005-14.
Team success is another wrinkle in this debate. Wade was the Finals MVP at age 24 on a championship team featuring O’Neal. Malone was the Finals MVP on a title team featuring a 32-year-old Erving. And Wade’s two titles with James may still be more impressive than either ABA title Erving won by age 25.
Imagine, though, if Erving joined the Milwaukee Bucks team that drafted him in 1972, when they still boasted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, rather than having to stay in the ABA for those three consecutive MVP campaigns. The championship conversation would be awfully different, I imagine.
As it is, Erving’s nine-year NBA prime was comparable to Wade’s. Both were top-10 MVP candidates more than a handful of times. Erving had as many First Team All-NBA appearances as Wade did combined First and Second Team bids, and when you throw in the ABA success, Erving gets the nod here fairly easily.
Erving statistically peaked in the ABA as a 25-year-old during his final season with the Nets. He averaged a league-high 29.3 points (56.9 TS%), along with 11 rebounds, five assists and 4.4 block/steals in 38.6 minutes per game. He led New York to a 55-29 record and the second seed in the four-team ABA playoffs.
In the 1976 ABA playoffs, Erving averaged 34.7 points (61.0 TS%), 12.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 3.9 blocks/steals in 42.4 minutes per game. In a six-game Finals series against David Thompson, Dan Issel and the Denver Nuggets, Erving averaged a 38-14-5 on 59.0 percent shooting from the field. He dropped 31 points on 19 shots, 19 rebounds, five assists, five steals and four blocks to close it out his final ABA game.
Pick either of Erving’s 1979-80 or 1980-81 campaigns as his NBA apex. He finished second to Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 MVP race and edged Larry Bird for the 1981 award. In its entirety, his 1979-80 season was probably a little more impressive. Erving averaged 26.9 points (56.8 TS%), 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and four blocks/steals in 36.1 minutes per game, carrying a deep but not yet fully stacked Sixers team that counted Darryl Dawkins as its second-leading scorer to 59 wins and a third seed in the Eastern Conference.
Erving averaged 24.4 points (55.3 TS%), 7.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 4.1 blocks/steals in 38.6 minutes a game in the 1980 playoffs, beating Bird’s pre-Kevin McHale/Robert Parish Boston Celtics in a five-game conference finals series. He averaged a 26-7-5 on 52/25/71 shooting splits with four combined blocks and steals in a six-game Finals loss to Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and the 60-win Los Angeles Lakers.
Wade’s 30.2 points per game led the league in 2008-09, when he finished third behind James and Kobe Bryant for his best MVP finish, but his Heat were 43-39 that year and lost in the first round. And while he may have peaked as a player in 2010-11, playing alongside James, Wade’s apex from a production and overall impact standpoint has to be 2005-06, his third NBA season, when he averaged 27.2 points (57.7 TS%), 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks/steals in 38.6 minutes per game for a 52-win Heat team.
Wade left the 2006 playoffs with bragging rights over the entire legendary 2003 draft, including James. He averaged 28.4 points (59.3 TS%), 5.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.3 steals/blocks in 41.7 minutes per game, beating the balanced Detroit Pistons in a six-game conference finals set. He averaged a 35-8-4 on 47/27/77 splits in a six-game Finals victory over Dirk Nowitzki’s 60-win Dallas Mavericks, earning Finals MVP honors.
In the close-out Game 6, Wade amassed 36 points on 18 shots, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. In the fourth quarter of the 95-92 victory, he scored or assisted on 18 of Miami’s 24 points.
This might be sacrilege to say, but in its entirety, I kind of have to lean toward Wade’s 2005-06 season as a higher pinnacle. The fact that Erving was a top-two MVP candidate for two straight seasons, while Wade was a Second Team All-NBA guard behind Bryant and Steve Nash in 2006, flies in the face of the argument. But Wade’s production that year was closer to Erving’s ABA peak than his NBA apex, and their advanced statistics in the NBA heavily favor Wade as well. Wade also got the job done in the Finals to reach his peak.
Both Erving and Wade made their share of game-winners. Erving’s buzzer-beater in the opener of the 1976 ABA Finals set the tone for his second title, and Wade beat the game clock to win his playoff career debut.
Both met the moment more often than not.
Erving was incredible in his two ABA Finals appearances, averaging 28.2 points per game in a five-game win over the Utah Stars in 1974 and the aforementioned 38-14-5 he registered against the Nuggets in 1976. (Other stats were not included in box scores.) In his four NBA Finals appearances between 1977 and 1983, Erving averaged 25.5 points (57.9 TS%), 7.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.8 blocks/steals in 22 total games.
Wade appeared in 29 Finals games over his five appearances, averaging 23.9 points (54.8 TS%), 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 blocks/steals.
Erving played in a pair of advance-or-go-home games in the ABA, dropping 35 points (14-27 FG, 7-8 FT) and 20 rebounds in a 94-88 Game 7 loss in the 1974 Eastern Division finals and collecting 34 points (11-16 FG, 12-16 FT), 18 rebounds and eight assists in a 121-114 Game 7 win in the 1976 Eastern Division finals.
Erving played in six more advance-or-go-home NBA playoff games in his prime, including consecutive Eastern Conference finals against Boston. He finished 3-3 in those games, also splitting with the Celtics. In those six games, Erving averaged a 23-7-4 on 53.4 percent true shooting. His 29 points (10-21 FG, 9-9 FT), five assists, four rebounds, three steals and three blocks in a Game 7 victory against the 63-win Celtics in the 1982 conference finals mark the most impressive clutch big-game performance of his NBA career.
Wade played in five advance-or-go-home playoff games in his prime, including consecutive Eastern Conference finals in 2012 and 2013. He finished 3-2 in those games (0-2 without James). In those five games, Wade averaged a 24-6-3 on 51.5 percent true shooting. He never really had a defining Game 7 in his career, often ceding the spotlight to James, but Wade did submit 23 points and 10 rebounds in the 2013 Finals Game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs. The 2006 Finals were by far Wade’s most clutch effort.
As a whole, though, Erving’s body of work in big games is more impressive, especially considering the level of competition he faced (the 1980s Celtics and Lakers) and weight he carried prior to Malone’s 1983 arrival.
• Erving: 1983 NBA champion; two-time ABA champion (two-time ABA Playoffs MVP); 1981 NBA MVP; three-time ABA MVP (1974-76); 11-time NBA All-Star (two-time All-Star Game MVP); five-time ABA All-Star; seven-time All-NBA selection (5x First Team); five-time All-ABA selection (4x First Team); 1976 ABA Second Team All-Defensive selection; three-time ABA scoring champion; 1976 ABA slam dunk champion
• Wade: Three-time champion (2006 Finals MVP); eight-time All-NBA selection (2x First Team, 3x Second Team, 3x Third Team); three-time Second Team All-Defensive selection; 13-time All-Star (2010 All-Star Game MVP); 2009 scoring champion; 2008 Olympic gold medalist; 2004 Olympic bronze medalist
Those three NBA championships and the 2006 Finals MVP award look awfully attractive on Wade’s résumé, but Erving’s trophy case has to be among the coolest basketball has ever seen. Split between the ABA and NBA, Erving has three championship rings, four MVP trophies, 16 All-Star appearances, 12 all-league selections (before there was a Third Team), three scoring titles and the legendary 1976 slam dunk crown.
Even if you strip away the ABA accomplishments, I still might take Erving’s 1981 MVP trophy and five First Team All-NBA selections over Wade’s NBA résumé. The Heat legend’s three titles, 2006 Finals MVP award, three All-Defensive selections and 2009 scoring title make it awfully close, but the ABA is a tiebreaker here.
For the culture
Most of what I wrote when Wade was commencing his 2018-19 retirement tour remains true today. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra once said of Wade’s impact in Miami, “Down here, he’s as impactful as the mayor.” His contributions to South Florida go well beyond the basketball court, and that was especially apparent in his supportive role in response to the Parkland shooting last year. His impact on the community was felt when he joined James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul on stage at the 2016 ESPY Awards to address race-related shootings across the country, and he is still lending his voice to a cause that continues today.
On the court, Wade is unquestionably one of the five greatest two guards in NBA history and might rank as high as third on the list behind Michael Jordan and Kobe, depending on where you have Jerry West and how high James Harden climbs. Aside from the faulty math, the “fall seven times, stand up eight” Nike ad that ran in the early portion of his career best captured Wade — a fearless and relentless competitor.
Yet, Wade will be best remembered outside Miami as the man who ceded his alpha status to LeBron on a superteam that altered the NBA landscape forever, fair or not. For better or worse, his recruitment of James and Chris Bosh changed the way teams are built, and his partnership with James will endure above all else.
But Erving carried a brighter torch for the NBA. He made his bones in Harlem’s famed Rucker Park league, collecting nicknames like Black Moses, Houdini and of course Dr. J — a moniker that ranks among the game’s greatest. His above-the-rim style of play as a long and athletic wing was revolutionary, and his impact on the game is still felt today. He was Jordan before Jordan, even claiming the free-throw line dunk.
Erving authored many of the game’s most iconic moves, including his up-and-under scooping finger roll in the 1980 Finals and the “rock the baby” dunk against former Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper.
Off the court, Erving has lived a complicated life, but for better or worse he is largely defined by the impact he made on the game.
THE DAGGER: Erving had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Stephen Curry vs. Jerry West
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Ray Allen vs. Klay Thompson
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Bernard King
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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