If there's one truly great player that never seems to get his due, it's David Robinson. That lack of appreciation always seems to come down to two sticking points. First, he never won a championship without Tim Duncan. (So what? Magic never won one without Kareem, Larry never won without Parish and McHale, Michael never won without Scotty, Kobe never won without Shaq, etc.) Second, and even more damning, Hakeem Olajuwon dominated him during the 1995 Western Conference Finals...right after Robinson received the regular season MVP award.
I hate that so much of the general perception about Robinson and his place in history is defined by his performance in a single playoff series. Yes, Olajuwon thorougly outplayed him, but Hakeem was absolutely on fire throughout those playoffs. (He also had his way in the Finals against Shaq, who it should be noted was second in MVP voting that season.) Moreover, the Rockets were peaking as a team at the same time: They rolled over a 60-win team (the Jazz), a 59-win team (the Suns), a 60-win team (the Spurs) and a 57-win team (the Magic). That was their "Never underestimate the heart of a champion" season, and what happened that May was much bigger than Olajuwon versus Robinson. And as well as Hakeem played, it's not like The Admiral just rolled over and died; he averaged nearly 24 points, 12 rebounds and over 2 blocks per game in what was considererd his most infamous playoff failure. I don't know abouat you, but I wish I could fail that well.
And anyway, the Hakeem comparisons are unfair. Playoff performances, however good or bad, are only one small sample of a much larger career experiment. After all, that wasn't the first or last time an MVP has been gunned down in a one-on-one matchup during the playoffs. Larry Bird outplayed Dr. J (the MVP) in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Kevin Johnson upended Magic Johnson (the MVP) in the 1990 Western Conference Semifinals. Paul Pierce outperformed Kobe Bryant (the MVP) in this year's Finals. Those losses have to be put into perspective. As such, take a look at the Olajuwon versus Robinson head-to-head numbers during their 42 regular season meetings: The stats are nearly identical. Except the most important stat, that is: Robinson's team won 30 of those games compared to 12 for Hakeem's team. That's a pretty overwhelming margin.
I also don't think that Robinson should be defined solely by his performances against Hakeem. This guy's accomplishments can stand beside all but a few players in NBA history. The man could put the ball in the hole: He led the league in scoring in 1993-94 and is one of only five players to have ever scored more than 70 points in a single game (with 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 24, 1994). He is one of only four players to have recorded a quadruple-double (with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks against the Detroit Pistons on February 17, 1994). In 1991-92, he became just the third player to have ever ranked among the league's top 10 in five statistical categories, joining Cliff Hagan (1959-60) and Larry Bird (1985-86) -- Robinson was seventh in scoring (23.2 ppg), fourth in rebounding (12.2 rpg), first in blocks (4.49 per game), fifth in steals (2.32 per game) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.551). That achievement also made him the first player to ever rank among the top five in rebounding, blocks and steals in a single season. And finally, he's also the only player in NBA history to win the Rebounding, Blocked Shots, and Scoring Titles and Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP.
And that's the thing about Robinson: His basketball existence wasn't defined by any one thing. He did it all. No, he didn't have the killer instinct that's associated with many of the all-time greats. He wasn't the type of player who could (or was inclined to) take over offensively whenever and against whomever he wanted (he relied mostly on drives to the hoop and face-up jumpers). But in terms of playing the game to the best of his abilities and contributing in every possible phase of the game, Robinson has few peers. This fact is highlighted by his Player Efficiency Ranking (PER) numbers. He is currently third all-time (behind Michael Jordan and Shaq) with a career number of 26.18...despite his last few "off" seasons when he willingly deferred to Tim Duncan. He led the league in PER for three consecutive seasons, 1993-94 (30.7), 1994-95 (29.1) and 1995-96 (29.4). He also ranked second in 1991-92 (27.5), and third in 1990-91 (27.4), 1997-98 (27.8) and 1998-99 (24.9). He was still ranked as high as tenth in 2000-01 (23.7). To provide you with a little perspective, Kobe Bryant -- who is widely considered the most well-rounded player in the game today -- currently ranks 17th on the all-time list (23.57), and he has never finished higher than third in PER for a single season.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting PER is a definitive indicator of individual greatness. However, it does seem to genuinely reflect a player's overall contributions in several different areas. So I guess the point I'm trying to make about Robinson is that his greatness wasn't about winning one-on-one matchups, or scoring at will in clutch situations. He was about playing the game the way it's supposed to be played, on both ends of the court. And, based on how he did that, The Admiral truly should be considered one of the greatest of all time.
Source: My 21-gun salute to the Admiral, Basketbawful, September 2008