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Monday, July 17, 2006

Rod Thorn Offers his Take on Dr. J, Air Jordan, Kobe and LeBron

Rod Thorn averaged 10.8 ppg during eight NBA seasons before spending the past 35 years as a coach, team executive and league executive in the ABA and NBA. He was an assistant coach to Kevin Loughery in 1973-74 when Julius Erving led the New York Nets to the ABA title, drafted Michael Jordan when he was the Chicago Bulls General Manager and won the 2001-02 Executive of the Year Award after putting together a Nets team that would make consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals. Between his stint in Chicago and his return to the Nets, Thorn served for 14 years as the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations. I recently interviewed Thorn and asked him what it was like to work with a young Julius Erving and how he would compare Erving to Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.


Friedman: “What stands out most in your mind from your time coaching Julius Erving as an assistant coach with the New York Nets?”

Thorn: “I think that he was the best teammate of all the players I’ve been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy—you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate.”

Friedman: “I want to follow up on two of the things that you mentioned. You talked about him guarding the top forward on the other team. I think that a lot of people don’t realize that. Elaborate a little bit on the subject of Julius as a defensive player. I think that is a really overlooked aspect of his game and his skill set.”

Thorn: “He had great lateral quickness and he was a tremendous jumper. He was a tough guy—that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did.”

Friedman: “You also talked about Julius being a great teammate. This is something that I talked about with Bobby Jones as well. A lot of the superstars and a lot of the top players can be very critical of their teammates or can be hard to deal with. Explain how Julius was different from other superstars in the way that he interacted with his teammates.”

Thorn: “Julius never criticized a teammate publicly. He might say something to them privately, but never publicly. He was always supportive. He tried to deflect some of the praise and attention that he got to other players because he was always alert to how other players felt. Guys lead in different ways. His way of doing it was to be the ultimate teammate: he supported you, if you were on his side he’d do anything for you and I think that’s part of his greatness.”

Friedman: “In your experience, isn’t it a little uncommon for the top player to lead in that way? His leadership style, for someone who was a champion and became one of the top ten players of all time, seems a little bit different.”

Thorn: “There are certain guys who were big time players or the best players on their team who were nice with their teammates and others weren’t. Others are more critical or more open. I think that it’s a difference in personalities more than anything. Julius was a very, very competitive person, but that didn’t carry over to teammates. Some guys, it carries over to everybody. They’re just such competitive guys that it carries over to everything. If you were a teammate, you’d much rather have it the way Julius did it.”

Friedman: “You had the unique opportunity to see Julius when he was young and in his prime and also to see Michael Jordan at that stage. Now we have Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the NBA—that makes three generations of players that you’ve seen as an assistant coach or a general manager. How would you compare Julius to Michael and then to Kobe and LeBron? What are some of the similarities and differences that you see in their games?”

Thorn: “Up to this point, I think that the best all-around player has been Michael Jordan. When you compare Michael to Julius, Julius was a better rebounder. As defenders, both of them were top flight. Michael was a better shooter. Athletically, they were both in the top one percent. But I just think that because of everything that he did in the NBA and the way that his career went, I think that Jordan, to me, is the best player. There has never been a 21 year old player as good as LeBron James. He is the best ever. I mean, his all-around game, his great quickness, his explosiveness off of the dribble, his understanding of the game, his sight of the floor—there has never been a 21 year old like him. He has a chance to be one of the all-time great players before his career is finished.”

Friedman: “Do you think that he has a chance to be better than Jordan?”

Thorn: “It’s too early to say that, but I think that as far as all-around ability and athletic ability plus size—see, he has size that even Julius, Michael and Kobe don’t have. He’s a bigger guy. You’re talking about a 6-8, 250 pound guy.”

Friedman: “He’s almost as big as Karl Malone.”

Thorn: “He’s a huge guy. He’s gotten better and better. I think that he’s got a chance to be an all-time great. Whether he’ll be better than Jordan, I mean it’s way too early to say. Kobe is the closest thing to Michael as far as the way he plays: he’s got the fadeaway jumper like Michael, can get his shot off at any time, fearless, an incredible competitor like Michael. Kobe, it seems to me, is doing much better (now) with how he identifies with his teammates and how he involves his teammates. I would say that is one of the big differences between Kobe and Michael. From a leadership aspect, I think that Michael—up to this point--has been better. But Kobe, when you take the athletic package that he has plus the competitiveness—great, great player.”

Friedman: “What do you think would have happened, hypothetically, if the Julius Erving from 1975-76 and his Nets played against one of Michael Jordan’s championship teams? I know that they didn’t play the exact same position, but what do you think that matchup would have looked like? The NBA never really saw the ABA Dr. J, so ESPN and all of these entities never really broadcast the real Dr. J.”

Thorn: “If you look at that, I think that what would have happened is that we would not have had anybody (in the backcourt) who could guard Michael. We would have had to put Julius on Michael. They would have put Scottie Pippen on Doc, so I don’t think that they would have matched up on both ends of the floor. Doc would have gotten his points and Michael would have gotten his points. That Chicago team, when they had Cartwright, Grant, Scottie Pippen and Michael, that is one of the great teams ever. When the Nets were at our best (1973-74), we had Billy Paultz, Doc, Larry Kenon—who was a heck of an offensive player—John Williamson and Brian Taylor. We had a heck of a team, too. It would have been interesting. Our guys would have competed.”

Friedman: “If the merger had worked out differently and the Nets had entered the NBA intact, how do you think that the team would have done? Could that team have won the 1977 championship?”

Thorn: “I don’t know that we would have won the championship. I think that we would have been very competitive. We would have been a playoff team, as Denver and San Antonio were. As far as winning a championship, I don’t know. By that time we didn’t have Billy Paultz anymore. We didn’t have Larry Kenon anymore. So, we had a different team. I don’t know that we would have been a championship contender, but we would have been a good team.”

Friedman: “Talk about how Julius’ role changed when he went to the Philadelphia 76ers.”

Thorn: “Julius sacrificed a lot of his individual brilliance to be a good teammate. They had other really top flight players who demanded the ball. With us, he did everything—everything--on the court. With Philly, he was never in a position to do that. He was a great player, an all-time great player but he never was—if you ask him—he was never allowed to do some of the things in the NBA that he did with us.”

Friedman: “I don’t think that he cared about his stats—“

Thorn: “Not at all.”

Friedman: “—as much as a lot of other great players do. It seems to me that Jordan, even though he won championships, was a lot more concerned about averaging 30 ppg than Doc ever was. Would you agree with that?”

Thorn: “I think Jordan was just about winning the game and whatever he needed to do to win the game—and that’s what Doc was about, too. They are very similar in that way. If Michael felt that he had to score a certain amount to win, that’s what he did. That guy was unbelievable.”

Friedman: “Oh, of course. I’m not taking anything away from Jordan, but it seemed like winning scoring titles was important to him. I’m not saying that it was more important to him than winning games, but I think that it was important to him. With Doc, it seemed like it just kind of happened that he won scoring titles. When he was with the Sixers, he wasn’t even remotely trying to do that and I think that he still could have, certainly in his first five or six years in the NBA.”

Thorn: “Julius was league MVP (1981) and the MVP in the All-Star Game a couple times (1977, 1983), so he played great; he was just on a different kind of team and wasn’t asked to do as much.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:56 AM

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