Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Bill Walton ranks No. 39

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 39, Bill Walton.

Bill Walton’s career highlights:

  • Two-time All-Star
  • One-time first-team All-NBA, one-time second-team
  • Two-time All-Defensive first team
  • 1978 MVP
  • 1977 Finals MVP
  • 1986 Sixth Man of the Year
  • One-time rebounding champion
  • One-time blocks champion

There’s a seven-year span in which Bill Walton was one of the very best basketball players on the planet. It’s not his fault that he was in college for half that time. How it ended is a bigger travesty.

“He started his career the way he finished his college career: as one of the greatest players ever,” Wright said. “Unfortunately for him, a foot injury derailed everything. But at the beginning of his career, he walked into the league and was instantly dominant.”

Walton was soon injured, as well.

He missed nearly 80 games over his first two seasons, undermining the 14.8 points, 13 rebounds, 4.5 assists and two blocks he averaged when on the court. Walton was almost never healthy, though. He appeared in only 10 campaigns over 14 years and played just 468 games total. It’s the equivalent of less than six full seasons.

The red-headed center remained healthy for essentially one prolonged stretch as a pro, and it lasted just 17 months. During it, few players have ever been better.

From 1976-78, Walton won the MVP and finished first runner-up, led the NBA in rebounding and blocks, and made two all-league teams, two All-Defensive teams and two All-Star teams.

In the 1977 playoffs, he led the Trailblazers to a sweep over the Lakers in the conference finals – it’s the only time Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was swept until turning 35 – and back from an 0-2 deficit to the 76ers in the NBA Finals. Walton posted two 20-point, 20-rebound games and averaged 18.5 points, 19 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.6 blocks to claim Finals MVP.

The 25-year-old was even better the following season, positioning Portland to break the NBA’s win-loss mark until he broke his foot. Walton missed the rest of the regular season (yet won MVP despite playing just 58 games) and then gave it a go for the first two games of the playoffs – where he reinjured his foot.

“At that point, it looked like Bill Walton was going to be one of the 10, 12 greatest players in basketball history,” Wright said. “Unfortunately for him, it never came close to that again.”

He didn’t play for the Blazers again, either. Walton played hardly at all, appearing in just 14 games over the next four seasons because of myriad ailments. Four abbreviated campaigns with the Clippers featured mere slithers of the playmaking and defense from his apex.

At 33, Walton came off the bench for the 1985-86 Celtics. Reduced to a full lumber by then, the John Wooden disciple produced little in the way of a box score but 19 minutes of guile and savvy to what is still regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. He’d win Sixth Man of the Year and a second title.

And he’d play in just 10 more games before retiring.

“Walton is incredibly tough because we know how hot the fire burned in the beginning,” Wright said. “We know it wasn’t an outlier because of what he did in college.… He’s not a controversial inclusion but incredibly difficult to rank.”

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