The 50 Greatest Players to Never Make an All-Star Team, Part II


On Wednesday, our esteemed colleague Brett David Roberts ran the first installment of the Hardwood Houdini’s late-summer series on the 50 greatest players who never made an All-Star team.  Today, we continue the onslaught with three players who have next to nothing in common. Except, of course, that none of them ever made an All-Star team.

We kick off Part II with a player who even some Celtics fans might forget has his number hanging from the TD Garden’s hallowed rafters.

Don Nelson

Forward, 1962-’76 (14 seasons).
Teams: Chicago Zephyrs, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics.
Reg. Season: 20.6 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 16.1 PER, 74.6 WS
Playoffs: 150 G, 21.4 MPG, 10.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 16.4 PER, 11.3 WS

Long before capturing our hearts and firing our imaginations as the NBA’s stogie-smokin’, scotch-swillin’, runnin’, gunnin’, mop-topped man of 1,000 innovations (and quite a few more coaching wins), Don Nelson was the rocksteady second-line anchor for a run of Boston Celtics squads that hung five championship banners during his 11-season stay.  Along with John Havlicek, Nellie was the throughline that saw the C’s transition from Russell and Jones to Cowens and White while keeping in the hunt for the title year after year.

Nelson came to the Celtics in 1965 after muddling through three seasons with the Chicago Zephyrs and Los Angeles Lakers.  He had averaged 60 games played at 15 minutes per during those early years, concluding the stretch with a 238-minute campaign in the ’64-’65 season.  The Lakers promptly placed Nelson on waivers, from where Red Auerbach snatched him up for, if the Quad-City Times is to be believed, a cool $100.  Today, the newly-released Blur 21 CD box set retails at Amoeba for $229.98.

Thus began the career of one of the game’s all-time great sixth men.  Nelson averaged 11.4 points and 5.2 rebounds for the Celtics, failing to crack season averages of 10 points and 4 rebounds only twice.  From 1966-‘69, he would help the C’s submarine his former west coast employers three times in the NBA Finals, contributing to league lore with an improbable, heart-in-the-throat, series-clinching jumper in Game 7 of the 1969 matchup.

Remarkably, Nellie delivered his best all-around season just as the final chapter of his career was about to be written.  In 1975, at age 34, he averaged 14.0 points and 5.9 rebounds during the regular season, while leading the league in field goal percentage (.539) and finishing fourth in win shares per 48 (.204).

The Celtics shared in a tie for best record in the East (60-22) with the Washington Bullets, who they would eventually face down in the Conference Finals.  On the way there, Nellie performed superbly, putting up a PER of 19.9 (15.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and a league-leading .209 WS/48, with career playoff bests in field goal percentage (.564) and free throw percentage (.902).  Unfortunately, the Celtics would fall short of the Championship round, losing out in six to the Capitol City Crew.

Boston had won the whole thing the year before and would do so again the year after, sending Nelson out with a bang in his final season as a player.  Two years later, the C’s would run his number 19 up into the rafters, bestowing a wonderful honor upon a player who, though he had never played in an All-Star Game or received an MVP vote, had been a critical component to the sustained success of one of history’s great basketball institutions.

Also, he had a real funny free throw stylez.

Clifford Ray

Center, 1971-’81 (10 seasons).
Teams: Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors.
Regular Season: 25.4 MPG, 7.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 14.4 PER, 56.7 WS
Playoffs: 60 G, 28.9 MPG, 8.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 15.9 PER, 5.1 WS

You know, for a long time there, the NBA Draft took for-ever to work through.  They used to just let teams pick guys on a rotation until they got tired of it.  In 1960, exactly 100 players were chosen over the course of a whopping 21 rounds.  The Boston Celtics were the first team to lose interest then, dropping out after taking a fellow named Roger Newman in the sixth.  The Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia Warriors cried uncle next, bailing out after making the 67th and 69th picks overall in the ninth round.

By the time that the top of the 14th rolled around, only the Cincinatti Royals and New York Knicks remained.  They slugged back and forth pointlessly for five more rotations, snapping up guys from Moravian College and Northwest Missouri State University who, like all but four of the players chosen with the 50-plus picks made in the preceding 13 rounds, would never play a minute of NBA ball.

The Knicks cracked after making the 97th pick of the draft in Round 18.  The Royals snagged three more players – most probably out of a combination of spite and a desire to round the draft out at an even 100 picks – before calling it a day.

Fast forward 11 years, and you’ll find that the madness was still in full effect.  Over the preceding decade, the NBA had upped its membership from eight teams to 17.  More teams meant more players scoring new ballcaps and photo ops with the commish.  A staggering 237 players were chosen over an unconscionable 19 rounds-worth of picking.  Not a single one of the players chosen from Round 10 onward played in a single NBA game.  Legend has it that the draft would have plowed headlong into the mid-20s if not for the psychotic break suffered by Houston GM Pete Newell, who had snapped and eye-gouged Detroit’s Butch van Breda Kolff with one of those tiny three-legged pizza tables before clambering onto the stage and screaming “long live the new flesh!” until his nose spewed forth a torrent of blood and viscera, bringing a rather gruesome end to an otherwise professionally-executed affair.

By this time, of course, Clifford Ray had long since been chosen by the Chicago Bulls with their first of three third-round picks, the 40th selection overall.  The Bulls had drafted 19 players that year, only three of whom would lace them up under the hot lights of Chicago Stadium in the approaching season.

Of the three, it was Ray who would make the most significant (and immediate) impact.  He played in all 82 games his rookie season, averaging 7.0 points and 10.6 rebounds over 22.8 minutes per, splitting the center’s minutes with Tom Boerwinkle while playing alongside All-Stars Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, and Norm Van Lier, and Hall-of-Famer Chet Walker.

Ray made the All-Rookie First Team that year, his first of three in Chicago.  Over the course of this initial stint, he averaged 8.3 points and 11.2 rebounds while anchoring a defense that finished in the top-three in points allowed per game each season.  He twice led the league in total rebound percentage, finished in the top-10 in blocked shots once, and even wound up at number 11 in the 1974 MVP voting.

Productive though he had been, Ray was flipped to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for legendary center and acclaimed restaurateur Nate Thurmond prior to the start of the ’75 season.  Now teamed with lunatic scoring genius Rick Barry and rookie sensation Jamaal Wilkes, Ray helped drive the Warriors to their third NBA title – stopping first to knock off his old mates in Chicago in the Western Conference Finals – with a sweep of the heavily-favored, 60-22 Washington Bullets.

The two-man game run by Barry and Ray was one of the more devastating weapons deployed by any team in the Association.  According to Hubie Brown (via Steve Aschburner), “[they] ran the best pick and roll in the league.  Up until that time, probably in the history of the league!  Mainly because you had Barry, one of the great scorers in the league coming off the screen, and then when Clifford would roll, he had great hands and he could finish in the paint.  Rick Barry never missed a free guy when a guy was cutting to the basket.”

Pick-and-roll point-maker was something of a happy sidebar to Ray’s true player profile: bruising defender and rebounding machine.  Though undersized for a center at 6’9”, his long arms, massive hands, and nimble footwork led him to consecutive top-10 finishes in offensive rebounds in ’75 and ’76.  Today, he has the sixth-best career defensive rating in NBA history, just behind Gar Heard, Tim Duncan, Dave Cowens, David Robinson, and Ben Wallace.

Through his first four seasons by the Bay, Ray ran like clockwork in the key, averaging 8.3 points off 55-percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks.  By the time of his age 30 season, however, his production had begun to wind down.  Over his final three years, his averages would drop from 23 to 21 to 13 minutes per game, 7 to 6 to 3 rebounds, and 7 to 6 to 2 points.  He retired after the 1981 season after playing in 66 of his team’s games, the first time he had participated in fewer than 75 since his sophmore season.

In the years since, he has enjoyed a succesful career as an assistant coach specializing in the molding of big men, with stops in Orlando, Boston, and, presently, Sacramento.  He’s continued his mastery of woodwinds, battled prostate cancer, and served as a sounding board for Marvin Gaye.

He also saved the life of a dolphin called Dr. Spock once.  No joke.

Johnny Moore

Guard, 1980-‘88, ‘89-‘90 (9 seasons).
Teams: San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets.
Reg. Season: 25.8 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 7.4 APG, 2.0 SPG, 16.7 PER, 30.1 WS
Playoffs: 41 G, 26.4 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 8.4 APG, 1.7 SPG, 19.4 PER, 3.4 WS

Man, Johnny Moore’s done everything.  After putting up a .352 OBP with the Cubs, Reds, and Phillies, he turned his attention to music, singing for the Drifters, playing trumpet for the Skatalites, and making spooky R & B lullabys as the leader of his own Three Blazers.  He even found time to forge a Hall-of-Fame footballing career as a midfielder freelancing for an assortment of NASL and MISL teams.

Of greater interest to us, though, are the eight seasons he spent running point for the San Antoino Spurs, setting up George “The Iceman” Gervin and Artis “Papa Chops” Gilmore with a 00 on his back and a twinkle in his eye.

Moore’s entry to the league was inauspicious to say the least.  Chosen by the Seattle SuperSonics with the 43rd pick of the ’79 Draft, he was quickly sold to the Spurs, who then waived him one day before season’s open.  After twisting in the void of free agency through fall and winter, he was re-signed by San Antonio, who slated him as the primary backup to nine-year vet James “The Snake” Silas for the upcoming 1980-’81 campaign.

An impressive rookie showing (19.2 MPG, 7.4 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.5 SPG) convinced the front office fat cats to jettison Silas and hand the keys to Moore, who would perform admirably as the pilot of the Spurs’ offense for the better part of the next half-decade.  From ’81 through ‘85, he put up per-game averages of 11.2 points, 9.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.4 steals, helping the Spurs to two Western Conference Finals appearances.

During this stretch, Moore finished in the league’s top three in steals per game twice and assists per game three times, leading all players with 9.6 dimes in 1982.  In 1983, he set what was then a single-game playoff record with 20 assists against the Denver Nuggets, a mark which he had previously reached in the regular season 15 months before and would reach again eight months later.

In ’84-‘85, he played in all 82 games, averaging 12.8 points and 10.0 assists.  On March 6, nearly five years to the day after the Spurs had signed him for the long haul, he recorded 10 steals against the Indiana Pacers, a single-game milestone that only 17 other players have reached.  Two months prior, he had missed a quadruple-double by one steal, tallying 26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, and 9 steals in a 139-94 victory over the Golden State Warriors.

Despite the steady improvement in Moore’s game, the Spurs’ winning ways had dissipated with a shocking suddeness.  After finishing at the top of their division five times between 1978 and 1983, injuries to Moore and Gilmore in ’84 and general organizational upheaval conspired to drag San Antonio into the dour netherworld of .500 ball and back-to-back fifth-place finishes.

As the 1986 season got under way, however, the team appeared to have gotten itself back on the playoff track.  Moore had teamed with second-year guard Alvin Robertson to form an exciting two-way backcourt that had averaged 29.6 points and 6.0 steals per game, driving the Spurs to a 17-12 record through the first two months.

Unfortunately, the good times weren’t meant to last.  The San Antonio Express hit a brick wall on December 26, when Moore was hospitalized with Desert Fever, a debilitating fungal infection that necessitated brain surgery and expedited the end of his career.   Moore had been in the midst of his finest season yet, having put up a PER of 18.3 off the back of 13.0 points and 9.0 assists per game.  His loss put the kibosh on the Spurs’ playoff hopes.  They went 18-35 the rest of the way, finishing dead last in the Midwest Division.

Moore worked hard to propel himself back onto the court, and managed to return to the Spurs for 55 games in ’86-’87, starting in 27 of them.  Though he would show flashes of his old self for stretches, he struggled to sustain even an approximation of his former quality of play.  After averaging 11.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 2.2 steals through his first 12 games, he fell off to 4.1, 3.2, and 1.5 over the next 14, losing the starter’s job along the way.  He finished the season with his lowest field goal percentage (.442) and per-game averages (8.6 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG) since his rookie year.

The following season, he was released for the second time in his career, having totalled a mere 8 points and 11 assists in the five games he had appeared in.  Two weeks later, he signed with the New Jersey Nets, who played him in a single game before placing him on waivers.

After missing the entire ’88-’89 season, Moore returned to San Antonio for one last hurrah in what would be the Spurs’ first winning run since 1983.  With rookie David Robinson manning the middle and newcomers Terry Cummings and Rod Strickland in the fold, the team executed one of the most remarkable single-season turnarounds in NBA history, finishing at the top of their division with a record of 56-26 one year after finishing second-to-last at 21-61.

It was the start of a new chapter for the Spurs and the end of one for Moore.  A shell of himself at age 31, he played sparingly, averaging 9.7 minutes in 53 games.  In August of 1990, he was released for the last time, ending his career with what was then the second-most assists, third-most steals, and sixth-most games played in his franchise’s history.

In 1996, the Spurs celebrated his all-too-short career by hauling his 00 into the rafters to hang alongside the numbers worn by George Gervin, James Silas, and, eventually, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, and David Robinson.