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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Any "All-Time" Nets Team Must Include Julius Erving

Skimming through old basketball articles can be informative and entertaining, but sometimes it can be frustrating. The 2010-11 issue of Athlon Sports Pro Basketball included a five member All-Time Team for each NBA franchise. Each All-Time Team designated two guards, two forwards and one center. No criteria or commentary accompanied the selections, other than a brief Editor's Note highlighting that Shaquille O'Neal was not selected as the center for Orlando (Dwight Howard), the L.A. Lakers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) or the Miami Heat (Alonzo Mourning).

Athlon Sports previously published a solid if unspectacular reexamination of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, but many of their All-Time Teams are ridiculous. In 2015, Mitch Lawrence selected a "Franchise Four" for 12 NBA franchises that made much more sense than Athlon Sports' All-Time Teams.

Athlon Sports' most egregious error was not choosing Julius Erving for the Nets' All-Time Team. Athlon Sports selected guards Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, forwards Buck Williams and Derrick Coleman, and center Billy Paultz. The inclusion of Paultz, whose Nets' career took place entirely during the franchise's ABA era, makes it clear that Athlon Sports' All-Time Teams are not limited to a franchise's NBA history. Coleman played five seasons for the Nets while Erving played three seasons for the Nets, but Erving had much more impact than Coleman not only on the franchise but also on the entire sport--the NBA's interest in acquiring Erving's talents was a major impetus for the ABA-NBA merger. Erving led the Nets to the franchise's only two league titles (1974, 1976) while winning three regular season MVPs (1974-76, sharing 1975 honors with George McGinnis), two Finals MVPs (1974, 1976), and two scoring titles (1974, 1976). Bill Russell (1961-63), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68), and Larry Bird (1984-86) are the only pro basketball players other than Erving who won three consecutive regular season MVPs. In the 1976 ABA Finals--when Erving's Nets upset the league-leading Denver Nuggets--Erving had perhaps the best championship series ever, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg).

Erving's omission alone is egregious enough to invalidate the entire project, but Athlon Sports made other mistakes as well. Athlon Sports' Indiana Pacers All-Time Team included Jermaine O'Neal instead of Hall of Famer Roger Brown. Brown won the 1970 ABA Finals MVP and he played for three Indiana championship teams. Brown's impact and legacy far exceed O'Neal's.

Athlon Sports' Portland Trail Blazers All-Time Team listed Sidney Wicks and Rasheed Wallace at forward, leaving out Maurice Lucas. Wicks put up gaudier statistics, but Lucas was a better all-around player, and he was a key contributor for Portland's 1977 championship team. Wallace played well for Detroit's 2004 championship team, but there is no question that Lucas had more impact than Wallace during their respective Portland careers.

Athlon Sports paired Allan Houston with Walt Frazier in the backcourt for the Knicks' All-Time Team. Houston had an excellent career with the Knicks, but I would choose Earl Monroe over him; Monroe played alongside Frazier on the Knicks' 1973 championship team and was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.

Although Spencer Haywood only played one season for Denver, he won the MVP, the Rookie of the Year, the scoring title, and the rebounding title! During Carmelo Anthony's seven-plus seasons with the franchise he did not accomplish any of those feats (he later won a scoring title with the Knicks), so I would choose Haywood's brilliant year over Anthony's solid seven years. 

Although Athlon Sports listed positional designations, some of their All-Time Teams stretched credulity: Athlon Sports' All-Time Team for Detroit put Ben Wallace at forward to make room for Bob Lanier at center. Similarly, Athlon Sports' Houston team shifted Moses Malone to forward to keep Hakeem Olajuwon at center, and Athlon Sports' San Antonio team placed George Gervin at forward even though he was consistently listed as a guard on All-Star and All-NBA teams throughout his career. If the positional designations were not meant to be strictly followed, then Shaquille O'Neal should have been the Heat's center with Alonzo Mourning listed as one of the Heat's forwards. Instead, Athlon Sports inexplicably moved Rony Seikaly from center to forward and left O'Neal off of the team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 PM


Sunday, August 02, 2020

Rest in Peace, Mike Gale

One of the highlights of my writing career is having the opportunity to cover the NBA All-Star Weekend from 2005-2010—and many of my favorite All-Star Weekend memories are associated with the ABA Reunions held during several of those All-Star Weekends. I interviewed Mike Gale at the 2007 ABA Reunion in Las Vegas. Gale, a key rotation player for the 1974 ABA Champion New York Nets who twice made the ABA All-Defensive First Team (1973, 1974), passed away on Thursday at the age of 70.

Gale is at least the third ABA Reunion participant who I interviewed who has passed away. Warren Jabali passed away in 2012. Fatty Taylor, who organized the 2005 ABA Reunion, passed away in 2017. Also, Moses Malone passed away in 2015. I did not formally interview Malone, but I spoke with him at the 2005 ABA Reunion, and I took a photograph of him alongside Julius Erving that will always be a cherished moment and memory for me.

Here is my 2007 article about Mike Gale: Mike Gale's Journey from Elizabeth City State to the ABA Finals 

Gale, like almost every ABA player who I met at the ABA Reunions or on other occasions, was a friendly, perceptive, and enjoyable interview subject. I appreciate the way that he and the other ABA players welcomed me with open arms, and I hope that he rests in peace.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:14 AM


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Key Factors for Success During the NBA Season Restart

On June 14, I provided my initial thoughts about the NBA season restart. The 22 teams participating in the restart have been in Orlando since early July, and the regular season is schedule to resume on Thursday July 30. Here are four key factors for team success during the NBA season restart:

1: No positive COVID-19 tests

Any player who tests positive for COVID-19 will be tested a second time to make sure that the first test was not a false positive. If the second test is positive, that player will be placed in "isolation housing" until he has two negative tests more than 24 hours apart and until he is cleared by the league's designated physicians. Obviously, if a key rotation player--let alone a star player--tests positive and has to miss multiple games this could have a decisive impact on (1) playoff seeding during the eight remaining regular season games and/or (2) the outcome of a playoff series.

2: Conditioning

It has been four months since the NBA shut down after Rudy Gobert's positive COVID-19 test. Older NBA fans may recall that prior to the NBA's lockout-shortened 50 game 1999 season Shawn Kemp was known as a lean, athletic dunker--but when play resumed he resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy. It is unlikely that any current NBA player--let alone a star of the magnitude that Kemp had been--will let himself go to that extent but NBA players have bodies that are like finely tuned machines; several months of not playing basketball will inevitably have a negative effect on every player, but the players who were the most diligent about their conditioning will be the players who are least likely to get injured and the most likely to consistently perform at a high level.

3: Team chemistry

The Utah Jazz have an obvious potential issue regarding Rudy Gobert's behavior prior to when he tested positive for COVID-19; the relationship between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell was a bit contentious before, and even though the players are publicly indicating that there are no problems it remains to be seen if that is true.

Team chemistry can be delicate even during the best of times but a four month hiatus followed by a somewhat controversial restart--in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, civil unrest, and a divisive election year--is sure to lead to some challenging moments on and off the court. Not only do teams have to create or recapture on-court chemistry, but there are also a host of issues both inside and outside the league that could cause or exacerbate tension.

The teams that are able to maintain focus and pull together as opposed to drift apart will be the teams that will fare the best. This requires not only strong leadership from management and the coaching staff but also from veteran players who can provide stability in the locker room.

4: Matchups

The NBA has never played games under these conditions: no home court advantage, no cheering fans on-site, and all of the players required to live in isolation until their team is eliminated from contention. Many of the factors that naturally and organically generate emotions and provide advantages for the home team will not be present. This means that matchups--which are always important in the NBA--will be more important than ever. It will be very interesting to see if teams move up or down in the standings to seek out--or avoid--facing a particular team in the playoffs. The talent gap at the very top may be too much for the eighth seed to overcome even with the nullification of home court advantage, but this season more than just about any other presents a great opportunity for lower seeded teams to get hot and knock off higher seeded teams.

Matchups are significant not only at the team level but also in terms of individual matchups during games. Rosters may be in flux like never before as a result of positive COVID-19 tests and/or injuries due to lack of conditioning, so a coach's ability to identify and exploit matchup advantages will be even more important than usual.

It may be helpful to bookmark this schedule and odds page from SBD in order to see updated odds and matchup statistics for each game from the beginning of the restart all the way through the 2020 NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:46 PM


Thursday, July 09, 2020

"Inside the NBA" Should Have Discussed DeSean Jackson's Comments and the Farrakhan Issue

It was great to see the original "Inside the NBA" crew tonight. "Inside the NBA" is probably the greatest sports studio show ever, providing a deft combination of intelligence and humor while covering a broad range of topics beyond who won and who lost. "Inside the NBA" has a long track record of thoughtfully discussing a wide variety of issues.

The high standard long set by "Inside the NBA" is why I am disappointed that tonight's episode ignored recent pro-Louis Farrakhan statements made by several high profile people, including Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson.

Ice Cube has been a guest on "Inside the NBA" and he collaborated with Kenny Smith for a Kobe Bryant tribute aired by TNT. DeSean Jackson is an NFL player, but "Inside the NBA" discussed at length comments recently made by NFL player Drew Brees. Stephen Jackson is an NBA champion and a prominent sports media personality.

Ice Cube tweeted, "The Honorable Louis Farrakhan continues to warn America to this very second and he's labeled one of your 'evil names' and you turn your ears off. Why is the truth so offensive that you can't stand to hear it?"

DeSean Jackson tweeted with approval a quote that he (incorrectly) attributed to Adolf Hitler stating that Jews "will blackmail America" and Jackson also tweeted his support for Louis Farrakhan.

Stephen Jackson reacted to DeSean Jackson's tweet by repeating the classic antisemitic trope that Jews run all of the banks: "You know who the Rothschilds are? They own all the banks...I haven't said one thing that's untrue yet." Stephen Jackson also said, "I'm a fan of Minister Farrakhan because nobody loves Black people more than him. He hasn't told me to hate somebody one time. He's teaching me how to be a leader. Just because you don't like him, doesn't mean I'm gonna not like him."

It never should be acceptable to promote hatred, and one would hope that in today's climate any kind of hatred would be deemed unacceptable. Perhaps you are not familiar with Louis Farrakhan; perhaps you agree with Chuck D, the front man for Public Enemy--unquestionably one of the greatest rap groups ever--who once sang, "The follower of Farrakhan/Don't tell me that you understand/Until you hear the man."

Fair enough. Let's hear the man. Here is Louis Farrakhan in his own words:

"The Jews, a small handful, control the movement of this great nation, like a radar controls the movement of a great ship in the waters...The Jews got a stranglehold on the Congress." February 25, 1990 speech.

"I think Hillary Rodham Clinton is a part of, if you trace her lineage, she go right back to the Rothschilds. Her daughter is about to marry a Jewish young man. This is no accident." July 11, 2010 speech.

"How did we get a Black president? Because those Satanic Jews know that this is the time of your separation from them that God wants to give you a land of your own as the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. You didn't see when they got in the room and said 'we have to deceive them and through them deceive the entire world.' How could they be the chosen of God and leading the world into filth and indecency?" October 3, 2010 speech.

"The Satanic Jews that control everything and mostly everybody, if they are your enemy, then you must be somebody." March 2, 2014 speech.

"[Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, so-called Jew, but a member of the Synagogue of Satan...Satan is a human being without human characteristics. That's why the revelator called them beasts in human form. These are people sitting in the Pentagon, planning the destruction of Muslim nations...Wolfowitz had 10 years now, to plan how they're gonna clean out the Middle East and take over those Muslim nations. They needed another Pearl Harbor. They needed some event that was cataclysmic, that would make the American people rise up, ready for war...they plotted a false flag operation and when a government is so rotten that they will kill innocent people to accomplish a political objective, you are not dealing with a human. You're dealing with Satan himself, the Synagogue of Satan...you're dealing with Satan himself, the Synagogue of Satan...Now they got into the Bush administration and on 9/11 the Twin Towers went down...George Bush, and those devils, Satans around him. They plotted 9/11. Ain't no Muslim took control of no plane." February 28, 2016 speech. 

"I'm not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite." Oct. 16, 2018 tweet.

During a July 4, 2020 speech, Farrakhan not only repeated the same kind of antisemitic hatred quoted above, but he also asserted that COVID-19 positive tests are rising in Florida now because he personally instructed Allah to afflict Florida. Farrakhan said that he did this to punish Florida for the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and Farrakhan claimed that Cuban doctors have a cure for COVID-19 that the U.S. government is suppressing because the U.S. government is using COVID-19 to kill Black people. That speech is available on YouTube, in clear violation of YouTube's policies against disseminating hate speech. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) summarizes Farrakhan's views: "Louis Farrakhan heads the Nation of Islam, a group he has led since 1977 and that is based on a somewhat bizarre and fundamentally anti-white theology. Farrakhan is an antisemite who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the U.S. government and controlling the levers of world power."

The SPLC article about Farrakhan is worth reading in full. Here is an excerpt:
Farrakhan’s antisemitism has earned him some strange allies. Former Klan and White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger was so impressed with Farrakhan's anti-Semitic bombast that he donated $100 to NOI after attending a Farrakhan rally in Los Angeles in September 1985. Given that white supremacists share NOI’s belief in separation of the races, a month later, Metzger and 200 other white supremacists from the United States and Canada gathered on a farm about 50 miles west of Detroit, where they pledged their support for the Nation of Islam.

Antisemitism is only one of Farrakhan's many prejudices. Over the years, his comments have consistently been rabidly anti-gay. "God don't like men coming to men with lust in their hearts like you should go to a female," he told a Kansas City crowd in 1996. "If you think that the kingdom of God is going to be filled up with that kind of degenerate crap, you're out of your damn mind."
The SPLC describes the Nation of Islam as a hate group: "Since its founding in 1930, the Nation of Islam (NOI) has grown into one of the wealthiest and best-known organizations in black America. Its theology of innate black superiority over whites and the deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric of its leaders have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate." 

Therefore, Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, and others are publicly aligning themselves with a man whose statements and beliefs are unequivocally racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and anti-American (and sometimes just bizarre, such as his remarks about instructing Allah to afflict Florida with COVID-19).

Imagine if a prominent white entertainer, a white NFL player or a white retired NBA player stated that he supports David Duke or that David Duke speaks the truth or that David Duke is teaching him how to be a leader? Do you think that "Inside the NBA" would ignore that?

"Inside the NBA" is watched by millions of people, and the "Inside the NBA" crew is highly respected and influential. They missed a golden opportunity to educate their audience about these issues. Ray Allen would have been a perfect guest. Allen has discussed how moving it was for him to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Speaking of the Holocaust Museum, New England Patriots' receiver Julian Edelman provided a heartfelt response to DeSean Jackson: "How about we go to DC and I take you to the Holocaust Museum. And you take me to the Museum of African American history and culture...And we have those uncomfortable conversations." It would have sent a wonderful and positive message if "Inside the NBA" had spoken truth to power, and had asked Allen to give his thoughts about Edelman's statement.

I have often criticized Mike Wilbon for his basketball analysis, but I will give him credit for addressing directly and unequivocally the comments made by Stephen Jackson. On "Pardon the Interruption" Wilbon declared, "This is not tolerable...It undermines everything Stephen Jackson said so eloquently on behalf of Black Lives Matter. He has no credibility now. He has undermined his own previous good work with this garbage. And it's garbage. I know Stephen Jackson. I like him. If I was sitting with him now--I have worked with him--I would say, 'Stephen, stop! You're wrong. You're not speaking any truth. You're going to have to become more familiar with the truth via history. Let's read some. We'll read it together. This is insane. You are ruining weeks of actually trying to appeal to people on one level and then bringing your own bigotry and prejudice in at a time when no one can afford to say that, to have that, to entertain it.'"

Wilbon is right. It is a shame that Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal did not step up and deliver a similar message. For that matter, where are NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Louis Farrakhan has spent decades making it very clear who he is and what he believes. The time has past for the sports figures, celebrities, politicians, and public figures who have invoked his name to make it clear who they are and what they believe.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:56 PM


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Vince Carter's Legacy: Excellent Peak Value, Extraordinary Longevity

The Atlanta Hawks will not be participating in the planned restart of the 2019-2020 NBA season, and Vince Carter has officially confirmed that this means he has played his last NBA game. Carter had announced prior to this season that this would be his final campaign, but the abrupt suspension of the season in March had created at least some uncertainty about Carter's plans.

The 43 year old Carter played in the NBA for 22 seasons, breaking the ABA/NBA record of 21 previously held by Moses Malone (19 NBA seasons, two ABA seasons), Robert Parish, Kevin Willis, and Dirk Nowitzki. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the first of eight players whose ABA/NBA careers lasted at least 20 seasons; in 1985-86, Abdul-Jabbar broke the long-standing record of 16 seasons, held by Dolph Schayes, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, and Elvin Hayes (Julius Erving joined the 16 season club in 1986-87). Abdul-Jabbar's record (20 seasons played) stood from 1989 until 1995, when Moses Malone logged his 21st professional season; Robert Parish broke Abdul-Jabbar's NBA-only record in 1997 after completing his 21st campaign. The other players who played for at least 20 seasons are Kevin Garnett (21) and Kobe Bryant (20). Bryant was the first player to play at least 20 seasons with the same team, and Nowitzki is the only other member of this club who spent his entire career with one team.

Carter won the 1999 Rookie of the Year award and the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He made the All-Star team eight straight years (2000-07), and he earned All-NBA honors in 2000 (Third Team) and 2001 (Second Team). He never finished higher than 10th (2000) in regular season MVP voting. Carter ranked in the top 10 in regular season scoring average six times, including a career-high 27.6 ppg in 2000-01. He averaged at least 20 ppg in 10 straight seasons, including three seasons during which he scored at least 2000 points. Carter scored 25,728 regular season points, ranking 22nd on the ABA/NBA career scoring list. He joined Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James as the only players who amassed at least 25,000 points, at least 5000 rebounds, at least 4000 assists, and at least 500 three pointers made.

Carter averaged 16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 3.1 apg in 1541 regular season games. Carter ranks third all-time in regular season games played. He averaged 18.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, and 3.4 apg in 88 playoff games. He reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 with the Orlando Magic, averaging 13.7 ppg in a six game series loss to the Boston Celtics.

Will Carter be selected as a Hall of Famer? The answer is almost certainly, "Yes." Every eligible player who made the NBA All-Star team at least eight times has been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the lone exception of Larry Foust, an eight-time All-Star who retired in 1962 and who never averaged more than 17.0 ppg in a season.

Should Carter be selected as a Hall of Famer? The answer to that question depends on how you think about the Hall of Fame. If you think that the Hall of Fame should only welcome the absolute best of the best, then you would likely think that Carter is not worthy. Carter is not one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, and may in fact not be one of the top 100 greatest players of all-time. However, if you think that the Hall of Fame should welcome players who played at a high level for an extended period even if they never reached MVP level then Carter easily meets that standard. Carter was no worse than a top 20-25 player for an eight to 10 year period, which is excellent peak value. He then spent an even longer period as a solid rotation player; those final seasons lowered his career per game averages, but should Carter's Hall of Fame resume be downgraded because he had great longevity compared to his peers whose bodies failed them at a younger age, or who were not able to adjust to a lesser role in order to stay in the league? Carter proved that he was a coachable player who was willing to help younger players, and he proved that there was more to his game than just eye-popping leaping ability. Carter's role in elevating (pun intended) pro basketball in Toronto, and his iconic dunks (both in games and in the Slam Dunk Contest) are intangibles that bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Initial Thoughts About the NBA 2020 Season Restart

The most important thing about the NBA 2020 season restart--other than the health and safety of all of the participants--is that this will enable the league to crown a champion by using the traditional playoff format. There has never been an NBA season that ended without crowning a champion, and hopefully 2020 will not be the first.

It is unfortunate, if perhaps unavoidable, that no team will play all 82 regular season games, and that eight teams will not play any more games until the 2020-21 season starts. The Milwaukee Bucks were on pace to win more than 70 games before having a three game losing streak prior to the league shutting down, and the 53-12 Bucks could have still finished with exactly 70 wins if they had won their final 17 contests--not likely, but not impossible for a team that had an 18 game winning streak earlier in the season.

The L.A. Lakers have the second best record in the league, and they went 8-2 in their last 10 games prior to the shutdown. If Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo does not claim his second straight regular season MVP then the Lakers' LeBron James could very well win his fifth MVP, tying him with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) on the all-time list.

Finishing the regular season in some fashion, honoring an MVP--along with other award winners such as selecting the All-NBA Teams, and the Rookie of the Year--and crowning a champion are important links in the league's historical chain.

Of course, the primary motivating factor for restarting/finishing the season is financial: the league's owners, players, media partners, and other associated businesses face billions of dollars of combined losses if no more games are played until next season starts.

No fans will be present at these games, but having eight regular season games plus a full playoff slate will enable the NBA to fulfill at least some of its contractual obligations to its TV partners and to its various corporate sponsors.

The format agreed upon by a 29-1 vote of the NBA's Board of Governors on June 4--and subsequently ratified by the NBA Players Association, though there have been recent rumblings of dissatisfaction among at least some players--stipulates that each of the 22 participating teams will play eight "seeding games" to conclude the 2019-20 regular season. All games will be played at the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Florida, where all participants will essentially be sequestered until the teams that they are associated with are eliminated from contention. There will be frequent COVID-19 testing, and there will be rules in place regarding the protocols if a player tests positive. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has stated that a positive test will not result in the quarantine of an entire team, or the shutdown of the season.

The top seven teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs, with the traditional tiebreakers in place if necessary. If the team with the eighth best record in a conference is more than four games ahead of that conference's ninth place team after the "seeding games" have been played then the eighth place team will be that conference's eighth seed; however, if the eighth place team is not more than four games ahead of the ninth place team then the ninth place team can qualify for the playoffs by winning two head to head games versus the eighth place team.

Essentially, this means that Brooklyn, Orlando, and Washington are battling for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, while Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix are fighting for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

The season is scheduled to restart on July 31, and the NBA Finals are scheduled to end no later than October 12. The NBA Draft Lottery is set for August 25, the NBA Draft will be held on October 15, and the 2020-21 season will likely begin on December 1. Of course, there are a variety of factors/contingencies that could change these plans. 

Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York are the eight teams not participating in the restart. This means, among other things, that Atlanta's Vince Carter--whose 22 season career is the longest in NBA history--has most likely played in his last NBA game.

After Utah's Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player who tested positive for COVID-19, extensive testing was done of people who had been in close contact with him; among Utah's traveling party of dozens of people, only Gobert's teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive (which suggests that perhaps COVID-19 is not as contagious as it has been reported to be). Both Gobert and Mitchell fully recovered without experiencing serious symptoms. What I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Gobert testing positive is worth repeating now:
If COVID-19 is as contagious as it is depicted to be, and if Rudy Gobert had the kind of sustained, direct contact with so many people that one can reasonably assume that he had after he became contagious but before he was isolated, then why is there only one infection directly connected to him? Whole countries are being shut down, and millions of lives are being disrupted on the premise that this disease is highly contagious. More than one media outlet has reported that one person in New York singlehandedly infected over 100 people.

Shouldn't somebody with medical expertise be looking into why Gobert is not very contagious, and why this other person supposedly is so contagious? Do we not have all the facts? Did Gobert somehow infect more people than we know? That seems doubtful based on how many people connected to him have already been tested. Is the one person in New York possibly not responsible for infecting over 100 people? If Gobert only infected one person, but this other individual infected over 100 people, then what actionable knowledge can we gain from those two situations to limit the spread of this disease? Alternatively, if this other individual only infected one or two people, then other method(s) of disease transmission involving the rest of the folks incorrectly linked to that individual presumably would have implications for the effort to slow the spread of the disease.

Gobert felt well enough to play NBA basketball on the night that he tested positive. By all accounts, Donovan Mitchell is doing fine, too.

Are people who are younger than a certain age and reasonably healthy seriously at risk?

I understand the concepts of "flattening the curve," and the importance of minimizing how many people get sick so that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed--but shutting down the entire country will also have a serious impact on the economy, on mental health, and ultimately on physical health. An autopsy can prove if someone who died had COVID-19. An autopsy cannot prove that someone who died would have lived if not for the transformative disruptions of society that are increasing on a daily basis to mitigate the spread of a disease that we do not understand very well.

Is it possible that protectively isolating the elderly and the most vulnerable without shutting down the whole economy would lead to a better outcome, both in terms of disease mitigation, and the mitigation of other negative outcomes?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions--but I know that these are very important questions, and that they need to be answered intelligently not only to deal with this crisis, but to deal with whatever the next crisis will be.
When the NBA shut down in March, the league based this decision relied on various speculative models. With the information available at that time, shutting down may have been the only option. It is not clear when it will be feasible to have mass gatherings of thousands of people, and the NBA had to figure out how to safely hold games without having fans on site.

Now, we have evidence demonstrating that COVID-19 poses a much more significant threat to the elderly and/or immuno-compromised than to any other population segments; this means that, with proper care, our society does not have to be on indefinite and draconian lockdown status.

I strongly believe that our society should return to as close to normal as quickly as possible. I support the NBA's overall plan to resume the season, whether or not I agree with every single proposed detail. I hope and expect that the restart will go well, that few of the people involved in the restart will test positive for COVID-19, and that anyone who tests positive will recover quickly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 PM


Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Narratives Versus Reality

Narratives often overshadow reality regarding player evaluations. During Kobe Bryant's career, an evergreen narrative was when/if Bryant would evolve to become a team player. One such article declared "Kobe Bryant has grown into a consummate team player." The writer quoted Larry Brown, who called Bryant "a model" of what an NBA player should be, and in that same article one of Bryant's teammates said of Bryant, "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore. You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble." You might assume that the article is from the 2008-2010 time frame, when Bryant led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and back to back titles--but the article is from 2000, prior to Bryant winning three championships alongside Shaquille O'Neal.

Once the media labels a player, team, or situation a certain way, that label often sticks, and then becomes the template for future stories. The media labeled Bryant a bad teammate early in his career, and that narrative stuck. Then, media members could choose the "Bryant is now becoming a good teammate" story template or they could stick with the "Bryant has never been/will never be a good teammate" story template. Far too many Bryant stories blindly followed one of those templates, without digging deeper to find the truth.

As Fred Carter told me for one of the first stories that I wrote about Bryant, "For some people perception is reality. The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate."

Uninformed and/or biased media members have constructed a few narratives about Julius Erving, falsely asserting that his game was more about style than substance, that he did not have a reliable jump shot, and that he was not a good defensive player. Alternatively, some media members prefer a narrative suggesting that Erving was not a well-rounded player early in his career but that his game developed as he became older and lost some of his athleticism. These narratives do not withstand close scrutiny of Erving's career and of his skill set.

Regarding style versus substance, Erving led his teams to 10 "Final Four" appearances, six Finals appearances, and three championships during his 16 season professional career while winning two Finals MVPs and retiring as the second leading career playoff scorer in pro basketball history. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).

If you assert that Erving's reputation is built more on style than substance--as Justin Termine recently did on SiriusXM NBA Radio--then you are betraying vast, deep ignorance about pro basketball history.

As for self-improvement, it is true that Bryant, Erving, and most elite players worked on their games throughout their careers; Bryant became a better teammate as time passed, and Erving improved his jump shot. The problem is when the media constructs a false, retrospective narrative that a young Bryant had been a bad teammate, or that a young Erving was a bad shooter. Those narratives enable media members to construct a timeline and a picture that suits their biases, but those narratives are untrue.

You may think that saying that Bryant evolved into a good team player is a compliment to Bryant--but if the truth is that he was a good team player early in his career--and it is indisputable that he was a vital contributor to three championship teams as a young player--then a media narrative that suggests that Bryant did not become a good team player until late in his career is biased, negative, and misleading.

Similarly, stories that assert that Erving did not develop a midrange jumper or focus on team defense until he joined the NBA are biased, negative, and misleading. Erving was never a great outside shooter, but he was also never as bad of a shooter as some narratives suggest. He was so dominant as an inside player that he did not need to shoot many jump shots early in his career. However, he was always at least a solid free throw shooter--demonstrating that he had a reliable touch out to at least 15 feet--and he worked on his jump shot until it became a dependable weapon.

Was Erving a shooter like Stephen Curry? Of course not--but, Stephen Curry will never be able to beat a double team by driving to the hoop and then dunking over the center rotating to defend the rim.

Let's go back to March 1973--during Erving's second season in the ABA--and examine how Erving was viewed by his contemporaries, and how he was depicted by a well-known (and still active) basketball writer. In March 1973, Erving was not considered a limited player who lacked a jump shot and did not play much defense; he was already being discussed as perhaps the best forward of all-time.

Charley Rosen wrote the article "Dr. J Makes the Whole World Feel Good" for Sport, a now-defunct magazine that was then experiencing its glory days under the skilled editorial eye/hand of Dick Schaap. Ironically, in some of his subsequent writing, Rosen forgot a few of the insights about Erving that he learned while researching this article.

Rosen quoted Al Bianchi, Erving's first coach in the ABA: "With a little more experience, he'll be the best forward who ever played the game. Absolutely the best. The only one who compares to Julie is Elgin Baylor--they both have great body control. Julie can put the ball down just as well as Baylor, he can shoot as well, he can rebound better, run better, plays defense a hell of a lot better, and Julie shoots with both hands--he doesn't have to water his left hand three times a day to keep it alive."

Floyd Layne, a former collegiate basketball star who Rosen mentioned only as one of Erving's Rucker League coaches, told Rosen that Erving is already the best forward of all-time: "The thing that makes him so great is his tremendous imagination. He has more moves than Bobby Fischer. Julius is Earl Monroe with size and power."

In my interview with Bianchi, I referenced the notion that Erving developed his jump shot during his career, and Bianchi stated, "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate..."

The important distinction between reality and the media narrative is that Erving's jump shot was "more than adequate" from the start. Many media members want the public to believe either that Erving never learned how to shoot, or that he did not become even a decent shooter until late in his career; this is a useful false narrative for anyone who is asserting that, for instance, Rick Barry or Larry Bird were better than Erving.

Rosen described watching Erving dazzle the Kentucky Colonels with 45 points on 16-31 field goal shooting and 13-13 free throw shooting in a 122-115 victory for Erving's Virginia Squires on November 17, 1972. That performance was one of 13 40 point games Erving racked up during the 1972-73 season, when he led the ABA in scoring with a career-high 31.9 ppg average. Rosen observed that "almost all" of Erving's field goals were "from outside." Rick Barry had recently said that Erving had poor shooting range, but Erving told Rosen that he disagreed with that notion: "He doesn't know. I just never took long jumpers on him, that's all. His game is hoisting from the outside, but if I did that I wouldn't be going to the strongest part of my game, which is inside--and it wouldn't be to my advantage, or to my team's. I don't have to go out of my way to prove to anybody that I can shoot."

Shooting range is important because it enables a player to punish defenders for sagging off of him. LeBron James shot just .356 from the field as the Spurs swept his Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals; James did not have much shooting range at that stage of his career, enabling the Spurs to shut him down by packing the paint and dare him to shoot from the outside. However, at no point during Erving's career was his outside shooting a liability to the extent that it was for a significant portion of James' career.

Erving shot .506 from the field and .777 from the free throw line during his ABA/NBA career. His career three point percentage (.298) is not bad considering that many of his three point shot attempts were last second heaves to beat the shot clock or the game clock; he ranked sixth in the ABA in three point field goal percentage in both 1975 and 1976, the only seasons during his career when the shot was at least occasionally a part of his repertoire as opposed to being a desperation weapon (the three point shot did not exist during the first three seasons of Erving's NBA career, and did not become widely used until after Erving retired).

Erving shot at least .491 from the field in each of his first 14 seasons, and he never shot worse than .471 from the field. He dunked often and well, but he also had a reliable 15-18 foot jump shot. That being said, opposing teams preferred for Erving to shoot a jump shot as opposed to dunking, so defenders backed off from Erving a bit, and shaded him away from his dominant right hand--but Erving's field goal percentage did not plummet when facing such defensive tactics, unlike what happened to James on many occasions.

Erving shot .745 from the free throw line as a rookie. He matched that career-low during the 1979 season, but in his other 14 pro seasons he never again shot worse than .750, and in nine seasons he shot at least .776, including three campaigns during which he shot .800 or better.

Rosen concluded, "By the time he finishes his career, the people who care about basketball history may look back and say there were two doctors who shaped the sport. The first was Dr. James Naismith--and all he did was invent the game. Dr. J made it an art."

In the March 1975 issue of Sport, Jimmy Breslin referred to Erving as "The best basketball player alive at this time, and perhaps the best basketball player of his size ever to be alive at any time."

The Rosen and Breslin articles are not isolated examples taken out of context. It is not difficult to find many other articles from the early to mid-1970s raving about Erving. Occasionally, his outside shot and defense are mentioned as relative weaknesses in contrast to his dominant scoring and rebounding, but contemporary commentators were not suggesting that Erving could not shoot or that he was a defensive liability, nor were they saying that Erving's game consisted of more style than substance.

The false narratives about Erving's jump shot and defense developed later, and then were retroactively applied to Erving's career to suggest either (1) he started out with a subpar jump shot but he improved or (2) that, unlike Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he never developed a reliable jump shot. Regarding defense, there is no question that Erving was elite in terms of steals and blocked shots. Few players in basketball history can come close to his combined prowess in those categories, and those few players are considered top notch defensive players. Erving ranked in the top 10 in both steals and blocked shots during six different seasons. Hakeem Olajuwon is next on the list (four times), followed by Bobby Jones (two times) and Ben Wallace (two times). Only 10 players have accomplished this feat even once. Erving set the record with 12 seasons with at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocked shots, a mark later tied by Hakeem Olajuwon. Kevin Garnett is next on the list with eight such seasons. Erving was the first player to post at least 200 steals and at least 100 blocked shots during a season, and only three players have joined the 200-100 Club: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Scottie Pippen.

Are we supposed to believe that Erving is the only player racking up 100 steal/100 blocked shot seasons who was a poor defender? Erving was a dominant, high minutes player for several excellent, defensive-minded teams. Is it credible to suggest that the team leader--who was racking up steals and blocked shots--was not an integral part of that defensive success?

Erving is too nice to speak up for himself, but that does not excuse blatant rewriting of basketball history.

Termine, the loudmouth radio host who regularly lionizes Rick Barry while disparaging Erving, recently made a big deal about Erving not winning an NBA title without Moses Malone, and about Erving's head to head performance versus Bob Dandridge in the 1978 playoffs.

Erving won two ABA titles and led the 76ers to three NBA Finals without Malone. Malone and Erving were teammates for four seasons out of Malone's 21 year professional career. Malone advanced to the NBA Finals one time in 17 seasons without Erving. Was the younger Malone a more dominant player than Erving during the 76ers' championship season? Of course--but Erving had been the 1981 regular season MVP (Malone won the award in 1979 and 1982 with Houston and in 1983 with Philadelphia) and in 1983 Erving made the All-NBA First Team while finishing fifth in MVP voting. Termine acts as if Erving was Gary Payton latching onto the coattails of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to win an NBA title, when in fact Erving was an MVP-level player for a 65 win team that set a postseason record by going 12-1 (that mark was broken by the 2001 Lakers, who went 15-1 in an expanded playoff format).

Barry is one of the greatest players of all-time, but Erving was superior as an inside scorer, rebounder, and defensive player. Barry was a better free throw shooter, outside shooter, and passer than Erving--but Erving was superior in categories that have more of an impact on winning, and his superiority in his best areas was more pronounced than Barry's superiority in his best areas.

Head to head comparisons of individual players in a team sport have some value, but should be placed in context. It is beyond the scope of this article to dig into every contextual factor in the head to head battles of Erving-Barry or Erving-Dandridge. It is worth mentioning that Barry and Dandridge are each older than Erving (a factor that should also be considered when comparing Erving to Bird, who is several years younger than Erving).

Erving faced Barry in one 1972 ABA playoff series, when Erving was a rookie and Barry was already an established All-NBA/All-ABA performer. Erving averaged 30.7 ppg and 21.0 rpg in that series, while Barry averaged 29.0 ppg (Barry's rpg average for that series is not available, but he averaged 6.5 rpg overall in the 1972 playoffs, and thus it is fair to assume that Erving outrebounded Barry by a substantial margin in that series). Barry's New York Nets defeated Erving's Virginia Squires 94-88 in game seven despite Erving producing a game-high 35 points, plus 20 rebounds. The Squires led the series 2-0, but the teams had to wait nine days to play game three due to scheduling conflicts with the Nets' home court; during the delay, injured All-ABA First Team guard Bill Melchionni healed enough to return to action for the Nets, while Virginia players Doug Moe and George Irvine got hurt during practice.

The Erving-Barry regular season head to head tally is 19-9 in Erving's favor, with Erving averaging 26.6 ppg compared to Barry's 24.7 ppg. Erving leads Barry in championships (three to one), regular season MVPs (four to none), All-Star selections (16 to 12), Finals MVPs (two to one), and All-Defensive Team selections (one to none). Each made the All-NBA/All-ABA First Team nine times. If for some bizarre, illogical reason you prefer to not count their ABA accomplishments, then Erving and Barry are tied with one championship each, Erving leads in regular season MVPs (one to none), Erving leads in All-Star selections (11 to eight), Barry leads in Finals MVPs (one to none), and they are tied with five All-NBA First Team selections each. Barry did not make the All-NBA Team after age 32 or the All-Star team after age 34, while Erving made the All-NBA Second Team at 34, and the All-Star team at 37.

I have tremendous respect for Rick Barry, but it is difficult to understand how anyone could rank him ahead of Julius Erving. Termine has hosted shows with Barry, and often interviews him, but those personal connections should not matter to a purported historian of the game.

Termine harped on the Erving-Dandridge matchup in the 1978 playoffs, but anyone with sense understands that you do not evaluate Erving's 16 year Hall of Fame career based on one playoff series. Further, it is not like Dandridge dominated Erving. First, we will look at the numbers, and then we will consider some context (consult my four part series about Erving's playoff career for an in depth look at Erving's postseason resume). Dandridge averaged 22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 2.0 spg in the 1978 Eastern Conference semifinals while shooting .508 from the field and .750 from the free throw line (his regular season numbers during that campaign were 19.3/5.9/3.8/1.3/.471/.788); Erving averaged 21.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.3 spg in the 1978 Eastern Conference semifinals while shooting .473 from the field and .742 from the free throw line (his regular season numbers were 20.6/6.5/3.8/1.8/.502/.845).

Erving led the 76ers in scoring during the series, and was just three total rebounds short of leading the team in that department as well; Dandrige was second on his team in scoring and fourth on his team in rebounding as the Bullets outrebounded the 76ers by more than 4 rpg. Elvin Hayes led the Bullets in scoring (23.0 ppg) and rebounding (15.7 rpg) while shooting .452 from the field as he destroyed 76ers power forward George McGinnis (13.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, .387 FG%). The Bullets, with two top 50 players (Hayes and Wes Unseld) plus four-time All-Star Dandridge, won the 1978 title and returned to the Finals in 1979.

That playoff series was not the highlight of Erving's career, but Termine had the gall to compare it to James Harden's perennial playoff choking. Harden never belongs in any conversation with Erving, unless the conversation begins and ends with, "Julius Erving was a vastly superior player to James Harden."

By the way, according to Basketball Reference, Erving won 11 out of 15 regular season head to head encounters with Dandridge while outpacing Dandridge in scoring by nine ppg (24.7 ppg to 15.7 ppg). It is also worth looking at what happened after one playoff series during which an All-Star forward had a very solid performance against one of the greatest players of all-time. Much is made of how Michael Jordan motivated himself by slights real and imagined. It is a reasonable assumption that Erving did not much care for the narrative that Dandridge outplayed him during the 1978 playoffs. Here is how their next nine head to head encounters went, with Erving's team winning eight of the nine games: Erving 25, Dandridge 18; Erving 26, Dandridge 20; Erving 20, Dandridge 18; Erving 27, Dandridge 8; Erving 21, Dandridge 12; Erving 40, Dandridge 0 (Dandridge played just seven minutes in that game); Erving 36, Dandridge 18; Erving 24, Dandridge 14; Erving 28, Dandridge 2. Erving outscored Dandridge 27.4 ppg to 12.2 ppg in those games.

Erving did not talk trash and did not bring attention on himself in any way other than performing at an elite level, so his dominance over Dandridge is easy to ignore for media members who prefer to push a slanted narrative suggesting that one playoff series somehow proves that Erving should not be ranked ahead of Barry and Bird.

None of the above is meant to denigrate Dandridge, an excellent player who was a key member of two NBA championship teams. The point is that contrived narratives and cherry-picked examples are often used by media members (and not just when covering sports). Be smart enough to dig deeper, or to consult materials written by someone who dug deeper.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:04 PM


MVP/Finals MVP/Rookie of the Year Wes Unseld Passed Away at Age 74

Wes Unseld, selected in 1996 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, passed away this morning at the age of 74. Wilt Chamberlain (1960 NBA), Unseld (1969 NBA), and Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA) are the only players in ABA/NBA history who won the regular season MVP and the Rookie of the Year award in the same year. Unseld, who played for the franchise then known as the Bullets (now known as the Wizards) from 1968-81, led his team to the NBA Finals four times (1971, 1975, and 1978-79). He won the 1978 Finals MVP after the Washington Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games.

He was not a big-time scorer, finishing with a career scoring average of 10.8 ppg while averaging double figures in scoring only six times in 13 seasons, but despite standing just 6-7 he had a huge impact in the paint. Unseld led the NBA in rebounding in 1975 (14.8 rpg) and in field goal percentage in 1976 (.561). Unseld did not post gaudy assist totals, but he was an excellent passer overall, and perhaps the best outlet passer in NBA history, renowned for his ability to snare a defensive rebound and throw a precise full court pass. He set devastating screens to open up the floor for his teammates in the half court set.

Unseld's teammate and fellow All-Star Phil Chenier told me, "Wes was there for my whole career with the Bullets--a very stable player, very team oriented and he set a lot of picks to get me open. He was a player who instilled confidence in his teammates in a very quiet way. You always knew that he supported you. He never fussed at his players. He was always encouraging and that's what I liked most about Wes."

Unseld had nine seasons with at least 1000 rebounds, tied with Bob Pettit for third on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Bill Russell (12). Unseld grabbed 1491 rebounds as a rookie, tied with Artis Gilmore for third all-time in ABA/NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain (1941) and Spencer Haywood (1637). Unseld ranks among the top 15 ABA/NBA career leaders in rpg (14.0, seventh), and rebounds (13,769, 13th).

He was a durable performer who played in all 82 regular season games four times, and who played in at least 73 games in 11 of his 13 seasons. Unseld averaged 36.4 mpg during the regular season, and 41.1 mpg during his playoff career. 

Unseld was a Bullet/Wizard in five different decades including not only his playing career but also his tenure as head coach (1988-94) and as a team executive (1996-2003).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 PM


Monday, May 18, 2020

The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

"We could have won seven." Michael Jordan, with the last word on the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

A major reason that Michael Jordan came back to the NBA in 2001 is that, as he later put it, he still had an "itch to scratch." That itch, that burr in Jordan's saddle, developed because the Chicago Bulls' dynasty did not reach its natural conclusion--the Bulls were not dethroned, nor did the principal figures who created that dynasty collectively agree to leave the game; the dynasty screeched to a halt because Jerry Krause's oversized ego convinced him that it made more sense to run off the game's greatest player, the game's best coach and the game's best second option in order to build a team from the bottom up and install his fishing buddy Tim Floyd as the team's coach. It should be emphasized that while Krause is most often mentioned as the villain in this drama, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf--Krause's boss--could have stepped in and stopped Krause, so Krause should not receive all of the blame.

After winning six championships in an eight season stretch, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen earned the right to dictate their terms of departure--and they each would rather have either kept the run going until someone beat them, or win some more rings before riding off into the sunset. That is how the movie is supposed to end; the gunslinger hero either wins that last battle or he dies a noble death.

When Rick Telander asked Jordan why he would come back and risk ruining the "perfect ending" he forged by hitting the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals, Jordan snarled, "What perfect ending? Who said it was a perfect ending? If you listened properly for that whole year, I said if Phil Jackson would be there, I would keep playing."

ESPN's much-anticipated 10 part series titled "The Last Dance"--which is what Phil Jackson labeled the upcoming 1997-98 season after Krause made public his team demolition plans--provided context, background, and behind the scenes footage from not only the Bulls' sixth championship run, but also the events that led up to that season. In the final episode, Jordan reiterated the point that he had made to Telander: Jordan did not feel happy about leaving at his peak, and in fact he would have signed a one year deal to go for his seventh championship.

I have addressed the breakup of the Bulls in depth twice, and that history is worth reviewing before turning our attention to "The Last Dance."

My December 14, 2015 article titled Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work analyzed how difficult it is to build a championship team from scratch--which is one reason why a championship team should not be prematurely dismantled--and corrected some of the revisionist history that had been asserted about how Krause broke up the Bulls:
In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsdorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"
In Jerry Krause Built (and broke up) the Bulls' Dynasty, I eulogized the man who helped build the Bulls' dynasty before he inexplicably destroyed it:
"Few GMs have enjoyed the success that Jerry Krause did. 6 rings says it all. To me, his track record is absolutely Hoophall worthy."--Scottie Pippen, after learning of Jerry Krause's death

"He's been around a long time and won championships. They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."--Charles Oakley, speaking of Krause in 2002, when the post-dynasty Chicago Bulls went a league-worst 21-61

Two quotes by two players who knew firsthand what it felt like to be signed--and shipped off--by Jerry Krause serve as fitting epigraphs for Krause's life and career. Krause, who passed away at the age of 77 on Tuesday, deserves more credit than he often receives for building the Chicago Bulls' 1990s dynasty; he assembled all of the pieces around Michael Jordan for the first three-peat (including a marvelous coaching staff) and then when Jordan came back from his baseball hiatus Krause built an entirely new supporting cast (other than Pippen) for the second three-peat.

Sadly, Krause also deserves the blame (along with owner Jerry Reinsdorf) for breaking up the Bulls' dynasty. I have heard of coaches being told "Win (x amount of games) this year or you are fired" but, until Krause, I had never heard of an executive telling his coach that even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship he was gone--but that is exactly the message that Krause delivered to Phil Jackson prior to the Bulls' "Last Dance" championship in 1998.

Krause relished the challenge of proving that he could win without Jordan but that was foolish pride; the Bulls deserved the opportunity to, as the saying goes, come back "with their shields or on them" in 1999, as opposed to Jordan, Pippen and Jackson being exiled from the city that they had placed on the basketball map. Jackson would go on to win five more championships as a coach, Jordan came out of retirement to be an All-Star during the season that he turned 40 and Pippen recovered sufficiently from back surgery to be a key member of a Portland team that came within one bad fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals of perhaps derailing Jackson's budding Lakers' dynasty before the Lakers won three titles in a row.
ESPN's "The Last Dance" pulled back the curtain to provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the Bulls at the top of the mountain when they simultaneously basked in the success of winning two titles in a row (and five in seven years for Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen) while also chasing a sixth title amidst the turmoil of realizing that their run would end even if they won the championship. "The Last Dance" not only covered the 1997-98 season, but it also examined the background and history of the Chicago Bulls franchise, as well as the background and history of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson.

The first two episodes of the series traced Michael Jordan's development from a lanky 5-10 player cut from his high school varsity team to the North Carolina freshman who hit the game-winning shot in the NCAA Championship game to the NBA Rookie of the Year to a championship-winning iconic figure. One constant with Jordan was his work ethic; at every stage of his life, at every stage of his development as a player, he outworked his teammates, and he outworked his competitors.

Jordan's resentment toward Krause and the Bulls' front office began during Jordan's second season. Jordan had suffered a broken foot that caused him to miss most of the 1985-86 campaign. By the time he felt ready to return, the organization was content to sit him out the rest of the way, miss the playoffs, and collect a Draft Lottery pick. Jordan wanted to play. He had vowed to reach the playoffs every season, and he aimed to fulfill that vow. The organization applied a strict minutes restriction on Jordan down the stretch, the Bulls barely qualified for the playoffs, and then the organization lifted the minutes restriction. Jordan responded by hitting the soon-to-be NBA champion Boston Celtics with a 49 point outing and then a playoff record 63 point game. The Celtics won the series 3-0, but Jordan had staked his claim as the best player in the league. The musical selection of L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" to be the soundtrack for Jordan's 63 point masterpiece was quite fitting; when the song begins with the voiceover saying "Calling all cars" you can picture Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton expressing a similar sentiment while facing the daunting task of guarding the player who Bird referred to as "God disguised as Michael Jordan." The media may have been slow to concede the point that Jordan was the NBA's best player, but--as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made clear during "The Last Dance"--the players who shared the court with Jordan understood exactly how great he was.

Keep in mind that if Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had gotten their way, fans would have been robbed of Jordan's 63 point playoff game the same way that Reinsdorf and Krause robbed fans of seeing whether or not the Bulls could have won the 1999 championship.

It is very instructive to watch how Jordan scored in the 63 point game, or in any of the vintage highlights for that matter. Jordan attacked the hoop from all angles, his footwork was impeccable, he had a deadly jump shot out to about 20 feet, and he was a very good free throw shooter. Jordan did not need a "Eurostep"/travel move to get open, he did not hook his arm around the defender's arm to try to trick referees, and he rarely shot three pointers--yet he was as efficient as he was unguardable. Seeing Jordan score like that in a more physical era and at a time when the court was not spread out with three point shooters is a vivid reminder of how unstoppable Jordan would be in today's softer era with little defensive paint presence and the court spread out with three point shooters. A team shooting 20-60 from three point range may be more mathematically efficient than a team shooting 29-60 from two point range but the latter is more fun to watch, and is more likely to be part of an overall championship equation (which includes not only shooting efficiency but also floor balance, defense, team chemistry, and other elements that are not valued by many "stat gurus").

All of that being said, it is important to remember that Jordan posted a 1-9 record in playoff games without Scottie Pippen. "The Last Dance" details how Pippen emerged from humble beginnings in Hamburg, Arkansas to become one of the greatest players in NBA history. Viewers who are too young to remember the 1990s may be surprised to see and hear just how important Pippen was. That point was reinforced at the start of the 1997-98 season when Pippen was out of action as he recovered from foot surgery. In the previous season with a healthy Pippen, the Bulls started out 34-5, finished 69-13, and won their second title in a row; the Bulls sans Pippen for the first portion of the 1997-98 season started out 6-5, and they were 24-11 when he returned to action. The Bulls went 36-8 the rest of the way with Pippen in the starting lineup (they went 2-1 in games that he missed), and they won their sixth title before Krause accomplished his goal of dismantling the team of the 90s. Pippen was not as great as Jordan, but Jordan would not have become who he became without having Pippen by his side. Jordan is the first to admit that, even if Pippen's critics are reluctant to give Pippen his due.

"The Last Dance" provided a great reminder that these players are not just numbers on a stat sheet or a salary cap spreadsheet; they are immensely skilled, sensitive human beings who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to the pursuit of excellence. Any executive and/or "stat guru" who thinks that there is a formula that can enable one to move around players like chess pieces or poker chips and thus achieve championship success misunderstands not just sports but life. Maybe the Bulls saved some money in the short term by not renegotiating Scottie Pippen's contract when he was the second best player in the league but not even one of the top 100 paid players in the NBA. The Bulls organization won that battle. How many championships has that Bulls organization won since getting rid of Jordan, Pippen, and crew? How many free agents are eager to play for a franchise that disrespected the players who built such a wonderful championship legacy?

Episode three focused on Dennis Rodman, who won two titles with the Detroit Pistons--beating Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs along the way--before playing a vital role for the Bulls' 1996-98 championship teams. Rodman was an introverted student of the game who wanted everyone to think that he was an extroverted person who just ran around the court like a crazed fool. Jackson termed Rodman a "heyoka"--a Native American term for a "backward walking" person who is a kind of jester or contrarian--and the two bonded as fellow maverick non-comformists. It is beautiful to see the way that Jackson provided structure for Rodman while also giving Rodman a lot of freedom and leeway. Jackson understands that all people have value, and that not everyone can or should be expected to fit in with the so-called "normal" way of doing things.

Jordan said, "Dennis is one of the smartest guys I played with. He understood defensive strategy with all the rotations and he had no limits in terms of what he does." In Rebounding tips from Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor, I described Rodman as "a Phi Beta Kappa student of basketball who seemingly wants everyone to believe that he is the class clown." Rodman does not like to publicly talk about his rebounding techniques, and his autobiography I Should Be Dead By Now devotes little space to that subject, other than noting that Rodman applied judo concepts to rebounding: as I paraphrased Rodman's explanation in the aforementioned article, Rodman "would interlock his arms and legs with his opponents until he could determine where the ball was going to go and then he would use his quickness and agility to untangle himself and get to the ball." During a one on one interview many years ago, Steve Kerr confirmed to me that Rodman spent a lot of time studying game film/video, but that Rodman did not want the public to know about this.

"The Last Dance" provided a well-balanced portrayal of the Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons rivalry. Most reports about the Pistons' infamous 1991 "walkoff" after being swept by the Bulls neglect to point out that the Boston Celtics did the same thing after losing to the Pistons in 1988; you may be familiar with the oft-shown footage of Kevin McHale slapping hands with Isiah Thomas, but it was Thomas who approached McHale while the Celtics--including Larry Bird and Robert Parish--fled to the locker room before the game ended without congratulating the Pistons. "The Last Dance" noted that the Bulls had shaken hands with the Pistons after losing to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, but there is a weird double standard applied against the Pistons for their 1991 "walkoff" because the Celtics are never criticized for poor sportsmanship regarding their 1988 "walkoff" after the Pistons dethroned them. The double standard goes much deeper than just the two "walkoffs," though. As I mentioned in The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys, the Pistons built their roster and formed their attitude in order to overcome a very physical Boston team:
The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to match up with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.
This narrative does not fit the narrative that the NBA and many media members portray, but it is nevertheless the truth. As a fan, I prefer the way that the 76ers and the Bulls played to the way that the Celtics and the Pistons played, but I understand why Isiah Thomas and other Pistons still feel disrespected more than 30 years later. Thomas is a vastly underrated player who was the central figure as the Pistons rose from being a 21-61 doormat in 1980-81 (the season before he joined the team) to being back to back champions in 1989-90, and Thomas' teams beat the Celtics, the Bulls, and the Lakers in the playoffs during that era. You do not have to like the Pistons, but the Pistons deserve respect as a championship team built from the ground up that more than held their own against some of the greatest teams in NBA history.

After the Bulls dethroned the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, they beat Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers to win the NBA title. The Lakers won game one on a Sam Perkins three pointer, but then the Bulls took four straight victories. Pippen's smothering defense against Johnson was a major factor, foreshadowing the significant role that Pippen's defense would play throughout the Bulls' subsequent title runs.

Episode four focused on Jackson, who was the perfect coach for this group of talented individuals. He knew how to push Jordan without alienating Jordan, and he knew how to get the most out of everyone else, from a Top 50 player like Pippen to an eccentric Hall of Famer like Rodman to role players who he prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically to provide support to the team's superstars at key moments. Great players want to be coached, and they respect coaches who push them to new heights. The respect and loyalty that Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman feel toward Jackson stems from the way that Jackson treated them. As Red Auerbach once said after being asked about how to handle certain players, "You handle animals, but you deal with people."

Episodes five and six explored several topics, starting with some glimpses of the beginning of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant friendship, a friendship whose extent the general public did not know about or understand until Jordan gave a powerful eulogy for Bryant at the public memorial service for Bryant. Jordan and Bryant faced off in the 1998 All-Star Game, with Jordan winning the MVP, and giving Bryant an open invitation to reach out to him if he ever needed advice or help; as Jordan memorably recounted during his eulogy for Bryant, Bryant accepted Jordan's offer, and often sought out Jordan for advice not just on basketball but on other matters as well. Bryant was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he explained that he dislikes the comparisons that are often made about him and Jordan. Bryant said, "What you get from me is from him. I don't get five championships here without him, because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice."

"The Last Dance" examined Jordan's role on the 1992 Dream Team. It has often been reported that Jordan refused to join the team if Isiah Thomas was on the roster. Jordan denies issuing that ultimatum, but he also makes it clear that he and other players would not have felt comfortable with Thomas being included. It is unfortunate that Thomas was denied an opportunity that he had earned based on his performance; as Thomas has often said, "I fit the criteria": at the time the Dream Team was selected, Thomas had led the Detroit Pistons to two championships, trailing only Magic Johnson (five titles) and Larry Bird (three titles) among his active peers. Jordan had won one title, and he won his second title just prior to the 1992 Olympics.

During the Dream Team's intense practices, Jordan showed that even among alpha males he was the "alpha alpha male," leaving no doubt that he had supplanted Johnson and Bird as the sport's top player.

Jordan and Pippen resented that during the early 1990s Krause was pursuing young Croatian player Toni Kukoc. As Jordan put it, Krause was placing Kukoc "ahead of his own kids," meaning the Bulls players who had performed at such a high level, eventually winning three straight NBA titles. Pippen shut Kukoc down during Team USA's first game versus Croatia. Kukoc performed better in the gold medal game against Team USA, but Team USA still dominated, and Jordan and Pippen had more than made their point. Kukoc was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he said that prior to the 1992 Olympics he had no idea that Jordan and Pippen felt such resentment toward Krause about him. After Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993 and proved his worth, Pippen and Jordan (after he returned from his first NBA retirement) welcomed him as a valuable contributor.

Winning an NBA championship in 1991 forever silenced any talk that Jordan was a high scoring individual talent who could not lead a team to ultimate success. Jordan relished prevailing in the head to head Finals battle against Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. After the 1991 season, Jordan's carefully crafted public image took a hit because of the publication of Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book painted a picture of Jordan as someone who could at times be selfish, be a bully toward his teammates, and be an intimidating presence to both teammates and foes. In "The Last Dance," Jordan insisted that a disgruntled Horace Grant was Sam Smith's source for information from inside the locker room, but Grant denied this. As B.J. Armstrong said, there was likely more than one single source. Further, it has already been established that Phil Jackson was a primary source.

The Bulls won a second championship in 1992, as Jordan took his Finals matchup with Portland's Clyde Drexler very personally; Jordan aimed to obliterate the notion that Drexler might be ranked on par with Jordan. Back to back titles put Jordan in the conversation with Johnson and Bird, but Jordan wanted to lift himself above them, and the best way to do that would be to win a third consecutive title. Up to that time, only George Mikan's Lakers and Bill Russell's Celtics had won at least three NBA championships in a row.

During the 1990s, the Bulls often had to get past a very physical New York team in the East before advancing the Finals. The Knicks were similar to the "Bad Boys" Pistons in terms of the mental and physical challenges that they posed for the Bulls, but the Knicks did not capture the public's imagination the way that the Pistons did, probably because the Knicks did not win a title during that era.

The 1993 championship drive wore Jordan down mentally and physically. He was criticized for going to Atlantic City to gamble the night before the Bulls lost a playoff game to the Knicks. Information about some of the seedy characters who Jordan had been gambling with--and losing money to--over the years became public knowledge, most notably when Jordan had to testify in court to explain a $57,000 check he wrote to Slim Bouler to pay off a gambling debt. Bouler was later sentenced to nine years in prison on unrelated money laundering and conspiracy charges. Jordan claimed that he had a "competition" problem, not a gambling problem, and he admitted that, in retrospect, he should have been more careful about associating with certain people. Jordan was offended by what he felt to be the media's attempt to bring him down, and for a time he refused to speak to the media at all.

None of this had any visible impact on Jordan's level of play. The Bulls won four straight playoff games versus the Knicks after falling into an 0-2 hole in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bulls then defeated Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Jordan, indignant that Barkley had been voted the regular season MVP by the media, made a point of asserting his individual superiority over Barkley, much as Jordan had done in the 1992 Finals versus Drexler.

B.J. Armstrong declared, "Michael Jordan didn't even really play basketball anymore. He just figured out how to win the game. He knew how to steer momentum. He knew how to get guys going. Not only was he that good on the offensive end, he was that good on the defensive end. He was just playing a different game than the rest of us. He let us play, but he was there to win the game."

Episodes seven and eight covered some of the most emotionally gripping and wrenching territory, including the murder of Jordan's father James, and Jordan's strong feelings about why his harsh, confrontational leadership style was necessary.

Jordan was already considering retirement prior to his father's July 1993 murder. After the murder, Jordan decided that he not only had nothing left to prove, but also that he wanted to be sure that his father saw his last basketball game. Jordan's father had encouraged him to play baseball, and after Jordan retired from the NBA he pursued that childhood dream, signing a contract to play minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. Reinsdorf owned both the Bulls and the White Sox, and during the documentary he stated that he paid Jordan's NBA salary during Jordan's retirement because Jordan had been underpaid in previous seasons.

Jordan is understandably displeased with the media coverage of his father's murder, his first retirement, and his minor league baseball career. Without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that the murder of Jordan's father might somehow be connected with Jordan's gambling. Also, without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that Jordan had not retired but rather had been secretly suspended by the NBA as punishment for his gambling. Many media members also mocked Jordan's baseball career by suggesting that he was somehow embarrassing the sport. In fact, Jordan's Birmingham Barons teammates, manager, and coaches said that Jordan had an incredible work ethic, and that he possessed sufficient talent to reach the major leagues provided that he had enough practice.

Basketball fans can be thankful that Major League Baseball was foolish enough to have a work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series, and extended into the 1995 season; Jordan refused to cross the picket line, started working out for basketball again, and officially rejoined the Bulls on March 18, 1995 by sending out this press release: "I'm back."

Without Jordan, the Bulls had lost to the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals before losing Horace Grant to free agency, and Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. Pippen had an MVP-caliber season in 1993-94, but Pippen was also heavily criticized for sitting out the final 1.8 seconds of game three versus the Knicks after Phil Jackson designed the final play for Toni Kukoc. Kuckoc hit the game-winning shot, Pippen's teammates accepted Pippen's apology, and Pippen dominated in a game four win--25 points, eight rebounds, six assists--as the Bulls surprised the basketball world by remaining a contender without Jordan. The substance of Pippen's career adds up to much more than "1.8," but just as Jordan never won a title without Pippen it was evident that it would be challenging for Pippen to win a title without Jordan.

The Bulls had been gathering momentum prior to Jordan's return--winning eight of their previous 10 games--and they went 13-4 down the stretch after Jordan came back. Jordan had some great moments--including the famous "double nickel" game at Madison Square Garden--but all you need to know about the difference between playing pro basketball and playing pro baseball is that Jordan got out of shape playing pro baseball. Yes, there are different muscle groups involved in each sport, and he had to retrain his body, but it is also clear that basketball requires a greater and broader overall level of fitness than baseball does. As a result, Jordan could not sustain the highest level of energy over a 48 minute game, or over the duration of a playoff series. He was still an elite player, but he was not the best player in the league; a good case could be made that he was not even the best player on the team, and at that time Jordan was quick to acknowledge that he needed to catch up with Pippen.

The Bulls won their first round series versus Charlotte--with Jordan deriving some inspiration to lift his game after ex-teammate B.J. Armstrong hit the game-winning shot in game two--but Jordan came up short in several clutch moments as the Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan with Pippen had not been able to advance any further in 1995 than Pippen had advanced without Jordan in 1994.

Jordan rebuilt his body during the summer of 1995, playing pickup games on the set of the movie "Space Jam." Jordan not only fine-tuned his game but also made mental notes about the NBA players who participated in the games. TNT's Kenny Smith once said, half-jokingly, that the NBA players made a mistake helping Jordan get back in shape.

Even with Jordan back to his full powers, the Bulls still needed someone to fill Horace Grant's old role, and they needed the supporting cast--an entirely different group from the 1993 team--to provide enough help for Jordan and Pippen, who would be the only two players who played for all six Bulls championship teams.

"The Last Dance" showed many examples of Jordan's famous competitive fire, and the way that he manufactured motivation out of slights real and imagined; one gets the sense that many of the slights were imagined, and that Jordan--much like the comic book hero The Incredible Hulk--was driven by rage. There should be no doubt, though, that Jordan loved the game, and that he loved winning. He sought to perfect his craft, and he pushed his teammates to perfect their craft.

Jordan explained during one of "The Last Dance" interviews, "My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don't want to live that regimented mentality, then you don't need to be alongside of me because I'm going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don't get on the same level, then it's going to be hell for you." Jordan added, "Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn't endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less."

During "The Last Dance," Jordan showed the greatest amount of emotion when discussing two situations: (1) the murder of his father, and (2) explaining why he pushed his teammates so hard. Jordan's love of the game fueled his competitive anger, and Jordan did whatever he had to do to make sure that his teammates would do everything possible to win championships. Jordan declared during one of "The Last Dance" interviews that he never asked a teammate to do something that he did not do.

It is an interesting quirk of media coverage that the competitive fire that is considered such an admirable aspect of Jordan's legacy has been so often criticized as a detriment to Kobe Bryant's legacy. If anything, Jordan's verbal taunts and physically aggressive behavior toward his teammates seems worse than any known behavior that Bryant displayed toward his teammates. It should also be noted that Bryant carried the Lakers to two titles and three straight Finals appearances in the second act of his career with a lot less talent around him than Jordan had during any of his championship runs. Other great players have won multiple titles without being as overtly demanding of their teammates as Jordan and Bryant were, but no great player has won multiple titles without setting a standard of excellence for himself and then demanding--in one way or another--that his teammates match his work ethic, focus, and toughness even if they cannot match his skill level.

The final two episodes of "The Last Dance" began by focusing in general on the Chicago Bulls' rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, and specifically on Michael Jordan's rivalry with Reggie Miller. Miller noted that he did not fear Jordan the way that many NBA players did--Miller respected Jordan, but he did not fear him. Jordan and Miller came to blows in a 1993 regular season game, and Jordan conceded that--other than the Detroit Pistons--Miller's Pacers posed the biggest challenge that he faced. Jordan played in just two game sevens during the Bulls' six championship runs: a 110-81 win versus the New York Knicks in 1992, and an 88-83 win versus the Pacers in 1998. Jordan shot just 9-25 from the field in game seven against the Pacers, but he chased down five offensive rebounds as the Bulls grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Jordan--like Kobe Bryant after him--understood what so many of today's players--and so many "stat gurus"--do not: championship basketball is about not just numbers, but about heart, and about doing what needs to be done when it most needs to be done. If you are not shooting well, then play defense, and grab rebounds. Those who rely on analytics will never believe or understand it, but I would take Jordan's performance in that game seven over a gaudy, but empty stat line resulting from a player chasing numbers that make him look good as opposed to focusing on doing whatever needed to be done to win the game.

It is also worth noting that in a high stakes game during which rebounds mattered the most, Scottie Pippen had the most rebounds (12), and the most offensive rebounds (six). Jordan and Pippen each had more offensive rebounds than Indiana's entire team (four). If you understand how special Jordan and Pippen were in that game, then you also understand Kobe Bryant's value in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, when Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds--five more than any Boston Celtic--to lead his Lakers to an 83-79 win.

The last two episodes also revisited one the the core themes running throughout the series: Jordan's motivational fire was stoked by slights real and imagined. Objective reality took a back seat in Jordan's mind to framing situations in ways that enabled Jordan to develop anger, and then direct that anger at his opponents while he dominated them. Jordan said that one time during his first retirement Utah's Bryon Russell made a comment to Jordan that Jordan retired because he knew that Russell could shut him down. Maybe this was an offhand or lighthearted comment, maybe Russell never even said it; what Russell actually said is secondary in this context to what Jordan heard: he felt disrespected by Russell, and after that Russell was "on my list," as Jordan put it. Jordan made sure that Russell will forever be known as the futile defender flailing at Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, the shot that clinched Chicago's sixth title.

Jordan understandably felt slighted when the media gave the 1997 regular season MVP to Karl Malone. Jordan won the MVP while leading the 1996 Bulls to a then-record 72 wins, and yet the media did not select Jordan as the MVP when he led the Bulls to 69 wins--equaling the previous record--the next season. Selecting Malone as MVP over four-time--and eventual six-time--champion Jordan made no sense. Malone is a consummate playoff choker who never won a title and who shot .463 from the field in the playoffs compared to his .516 regular season field goal percentage. Yes, we are talking about a regular season award and not a playoff award, but how "valuable" is a player like Malone who cannot be relied upon when the games matter most?

As was usually the case, Jordan got the last word with Russell, Malone, and the media. Jordan's Bulls beat Malone's Jazz in the Finals in 1997 and 1998. In the clinching game six of the 1998 Finals, Pippen suffered a serious back injury that ultimately required offseason surgery. He had ruptured two disks in his back. During "The Last Dance," Bulls' trainer Chip Schaeffer explained, "He was in such pain. So disabled. He had continued loss of function. He was losing mobility and his pain was increasing. It was spiraling." That kind of severe back injury not only causes excruciating back pain, but it leads to radiculopathy--pain down one or both legs as a result of the disk material pressing on a nerve. At first, Pippen did not think that he could return to the game, but ultimately he came back and--despite modest box score statistics--he made an impact, posting a game-high +16 plus/minus number. Jordan's plus/minus number was +2, but of course he shared many of his minutes with Pippen; during the 22 minutes that Pippen did not play, the Bulls struggled mightily. Phil Jackson recalled of game six, "When Scottie left, we were just kind of holding on."

The Bulls may have been a good team without Pippen, but they were not a great team without him--as we saw during the first part of the 1998 season when Pippen was out of action while recovering from offseason foot surgery. Pippen later told me with pride about his game six contribution, "I was productive. I could have been more productive, could have done a lot more if I had been healthy." Schaeffer declared, "Anybody that would have a notion that Scottie Pippen was a soft player, that is patently absurd. He is as tough a player and as tested of a competitor as anybody I've ever worked with. What he did in game six was extraordinary. I know so many players who would have tapped out without hesitation. He was just going to throw it out there and finish no matter what."

Jordan deserves a lot of credit for scoring 45 points on 15-35 field goal shooting in that 87-86 series-clinching win, but no one should forget Pippen's contributions not only throughout the series and throughout the season, but especially in that last game.

During the locker room celebration, Jordan said, "Now, you all say whatever you want, they can't win until we quit."

Sadly, the Bulls organization had made the decision before the season to quit. They broke up this team for the ages. In Blood on the Horns--perhaps the definitive book-length examination of the Bulls' 1998 season--Roland Lazenby concluded with these words:
Did Krause actually think that he could go back and start all over again? Conjure up all this magic again?

The answer to that lay in a simple, hubris-filled comment the GM made after Jordan hit the shot in Salt Lake City to win the sixth championship. "Jerry and I have done it six times now," Krause told Phil Rosenthal of the Sun-Times.

It was one final sour note on his theme from October. Organizations do win championships.

He was wrong, of course. These were and are Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Always have been. Always will be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM