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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Dreams and Memories--Some Personal Reflections on the 2006 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

Dreams and memories--anything that is great begins with a dream and after it is over only memories remain; that is what I thought of as I watched the NBA TV telecast of the 2006 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement ceremony, which honored Geno Auriemma, Charles Barkley, Joe Dumars, Sandro Gamba, Dave Gavitt and Dominique Wilkins. Based on their comments, none of the enshrinees dreamed of making it to the Hall of Fame when their basketball careers began--but they all dreamed of creating a better future for themselves and basketball proved to be the vehicle for achieving that. They played and/or coached because they loved basketball and their great accomplishments flowed naturally out of their passion and dedication for the game.

I couldn't help but notice that each of the NBA players who were enshrined this year--Barkley, Dumars and Wilkins--mentioned how much Julius Erving inspired them and how he served as a tremendous role model not only on the court but off the court as well. Wilkins selected Erving to be his presenter, "stealing" him from Barkley, a former teammate of Erving's who otherwise would have chosen him. Barkley tapped Moses Malone and Jerry Colangelo, but made sure to mention Erving more than once in his speech. Joe Dumars logically picked his backcourt mate Isiah Thomas to present him, but cited Erving in his speech as an example of an athlete who expressed himself articulately and always conducted himself with grace and class, win or lose.

I don't know if the Hall of Fame keeps statistics for who has served most often as a presenter, but Erving could very well become the all-time leader at some point, if he isn't already. He mentioned before the ceremony that he has been honored to fill that role a few times previously and looks forward to the chance to do so again if asked. The next few years will witness the induction of NBA players who played in the 1980s and 1990s, guys who grew up watching Erving play.

Erving is a unique figure in basketball history in that he not only inspired his teammates but also players on opposing teams and players from multiple generations. Wilkins seemed almost overwhelmed with emotion when he mentioned that he admired Erving as a young player, felt thrilled to compete against him for several years and could scarcely believe that he was standing at the Hall of Fame podium with Erving presenting him. I certainly mean no disrespect to Michael Jordan, but I wonder if 10 or 15 years from now the players from the 1990s and 2000s will ask him to be their presenter the way that Wilkins, Clyde Drexler and Moses Malone (and Barkley) have asked Erving. I could be wrong, but Erving's bond to these players seems closer than ones that Jordan has forged.

Barkley was only joking about Wilkins "stealing" Erving but Wilkins (and Drexler as well) stole--or at least borrowed--the childhood dream of many people who grew up watching Dr. J's aerial acrobatics: they played in the NBA while Erving was still active, received mentoring/guidance from him, ultimately became his friend and were able to choose him as their Hall of Fame presenter.

Yet, if you would ask Erving about his impact on the game, I'm sure that he would defer credit to players who inspired and/or mentored him, such as Bill Russell and ABA teammates Adrian Smith and Fatty Taylor, plus his high school and collegiate coaches.

Watching some of Wilkins' highlights and hearing him talk about how he tried to emulate Erving, I reflected back on how much Erving has shaped my dreams and memories as well. His grace and skill inspired my life long love for playing basketball and served as the muse for some fine basketball writing by Pete Axthelm, Marty Bell, Tom Callahan, Frank DeFord, Tony Kornheiser, Dick Schaap, Diane K. Shah and many others. In turn, their colorful word pictures of his play fueled my desire to similarly capture the essence and spirit of basketball's greatest players. When Callahan wrote in Time Magazine of Erving's farewell "victory tour," he said that Erving was both "savoring" the last moments of his career and "being savored" by the fans around the country. He traced the arc of Erving's career from ABA obscurity to NBA fame to status as an all-time legend. I first saw the article in a dentist's office, of all places, but I made sure that I went to the library so that I could photocopy that story--I still have it to this day, along with an earlier Callahan piece for Time which described Julius Erving and Larry Bird as the two "sublime" forwards in the game and a host of works by the authors listed above. You can find these two great Callahan articles in Time's online archive:

Dr. J is Flying Away


The Best the Game Offers

I don't know if it is really true that some Indian tribes don't like to be photographed because they believe that the camera can capture their souls but I do know that a well crafted piece about a basketball player can make those who saw him play respond, "Yes, that is just how I remember him" and can create an indelible image in the minds of those who never saw him play.

My own version of the Drexler/Wilkins enshrinement moments came when I had the opportunity to interview Erving for an article about the 1971 and 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Games. Later, I met Erving in person at the 2005 All-Star Weekend in Denver and also had a chance to see him interact with the public. If Hall of Famers like Drexler and Wilkins are enthralled with Erving, you can bet that Erving has long since lost count of the people he has met who tell him how much he has entertained and inspired them, but he responds warmly to such praise, without evincing either a trace of boredom at having heard it all before or the arrogance that is displayed by individuals who have accomplished a lot less and are much less worthy of adulation.

A life's journey begins with a dream. Whether it leads to the heights of the Hall of Fame or concludes at a more modest level, when it is over, only the memories remain--but those memories can inspire future dreams, so the circle continues unbroken.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part I

The NBA has selected official all-time teams in conjunction with its 25th, 35th and 50th anniversaries. The first of these, the Silver Anniversary Team, consisted of the ten greatest retired players at that time (1971): Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, Bob Davies, Joe Fulks, Sam Jones, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes and Bill Sharman. Red Auerbach was voted the greatest coach. Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were still active players and thus not eligible for consideration.

Ten years later the NBA expanded the roster to 11 and modified the selection process to allow the inclusion of active players; the 35th Anniversary Team included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Jerry West. Abdul-Jabbar and Erving were still active players at that time. Red Auerbach was again voted the greatest coach and the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers were chosen as the greatest team.

In 1996 the NBA honored its 50th anniversary by creating a list of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. This list included everyone from the 25th and 35th Anniversary Teams except for Davies and Fulks. The youngest player on the list was Shaquille O’Neal and some questioned his worthiness for such an honor since he had only been in the league for four seasons and had yet to win an MVP or a championship. Bob McAdoo was the only former NBA MVP not included in the 1996 list.

In 1999 an Associated Press panel voted for the Basketball Player of the Century. The top ten finishers were Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Most observers would probably agree that the AP list includes the pantheon of professional basketball—one could make a case for any of those players being the greatest player of all-time and few, if any, legitimate candidates for that title are missing from that group.

In some ways, trying to rank the players within this pantheon is silly and futile—how does one properly compare players who played different positions in different eras under different rules? Walter Payton, who at the time was the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, once said that ranking the greatest running backs of all-time is pointless and impossible and that instead we should simply savor and enjoy the unique traits of each of the worthy candidates. He was right, of course, but it seems to be an essential part of human nature to attempt to create order, to rank things, to classify items—and to argue with those who order, rank or classify things differently!

The two main approaches to ranking players are (1) relying on statistics and (2) focusing on subjective observations/historical context. There are numerous variations within these two methods: the statistics can be examined on a per minute or a per game basis, they can be adjusted to emphasize certain categories and they can also be “standardized” to account for changes in pace over the years; observations of teammates, opponents and the media who covered these players can be used to bolster or minimize the importance of certain statistics.

The players in basketball’s pantheon display both durability and a high peak value, which I would define in the following fashion: durability means sustaining a long career (at least 10 years) at or near the top of the game and peak value refers to the top level that the player reached, even if he stayed there only briefly in the midst of a longer career during which he performed at a lower but still exceptional level. It is very difficult to meaningfully compare the peak value seasons of different players; this is a subjective exercise unless one uses either a linear weights system (add up all the “good” stats—points, rebounds, assists, etc.—and subtract all the “bad” stats—turnovers, missed shots, fouls; some systems assign more or less emphasis to various statistical categories) or a more complex statistical analysis that takes into account pace, how a player’s team did during the minutes that he didn’t play and so forth. Of course, the further back we look the fewer available statistics there are, so these methods lose a lot of precision when they are used to evaluate players who played before turnovers, steals, blocked shots or other categories were officially tracked. Systems using linear weights can provide a rough ordering, but do not tell us anything about context—did a player force double teams, take charges or do a host of other “intangible” things that are not measured in conventional statistics but increase his value?

Taking our lead from Payton’s sage advice, instead of ranking the members of pro basketball’s pantheon this series of articles will look at how each player exemplifies the traits of durability and high peak value, starting with Bill Russell and then proceeding chronologically through the list. Along the way we will also examine the pros and cons of “standardizing” statistics when making intergenerational comparisons of great basketball players. We will conclude by considering whether the pantheon should open a new wing to include current stars such as Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

Bill Russell’s durability can be easily summarized: 11 rings, 10 fingers. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, after previously winning an Olympic gold medal and two NCAA titles. Russell is the greatest individual winner in North American team sports history. He was without question always the most important player on his team, despite not being a big time scorer. Russell controlled the game with his rebounding and his shot blocking. He was also a good passer and ran the floor very well as a trailer on the fast break.

Bill Russell’s production was remarkably consistent throughout his NBA career. It is difficult to pick one or two seasons to represent his peak value because his prime seasons almost look like carbon copies statistically: he averaged more than 21 rpg for 10 straight years, never averaged less than 18.6 rpg and never ranked lower than fourth in the league in rebounding. Russell averaged 15.1 ppg and 22.5 rpg in the regular season and increased those numbers to 16.2 ppg and 24.9 rpg in the playoffs. He never averaged 20 ppg in a season nor did he ever score 40 points in a game but he averaged between 14.1 ppg and 18.9 ppg in his first nine seasons. Russell shot only .440 from the field and .561 from the free throw line but he had such an impact defensively and on the boards that he won five MVPs and he would have won a bunch of Finals MVPs if that award had been given out during the prime of his career. If blocked shots had been officially recorded during his career it is a safe bet that he and Wilt Chamberlain would rank 1-2 all-time and would be significantly ahead of everybody else in NBA history.

There is a generation of basketball fans that only knows Elgin Baylor as a Los Angeles Clippers executive who for many years seemed to have a seat reserved at the NBA Draft Lottery. That’s a shame, because Baylor put up some amazing numbers: career averages of 27.4 ppg and 13.5 rpg in the regular season and 27.0 ppg and 12.9 rpg in the playoffs. He averaged more than 34.0 ppg for three straight seasons (1961-63) and during that time he never averaged less than 14.3 rpg or 4.6 apg; no other forward in NBA history has done that, so Baylor’s peak value is quite extraordinary. After the second of those seasons, 1961-62, Baylor set a playoff record by scoring 61 points in a 126-121 victory in game five of the NBA Finals. The win gave Baylor’s L.A. Lakers a 3-2 lead over Russell’s Celtics but Boston won two straight—including an overtime triumph in game seven—to take the title. Baylor’s mark stood until Michael Jordan needed two overtimes to score 63 points in a 1986 playoff game; Baylor’s total is still a record for a regulation length playoff game and for an NBA Finals game.

During the prime of his career Baylor suffered a series of devastating knee injuries that robbed him of a lot of his explosiveness. He persevered well enough to earn 10 All-NBA First Team selections and join the select group of players who accumulated more than 20,000 points (23,149) and 10,000 rebounds (11,463).

Part II will look at the accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson and whether or not some of their statistics should be “standardized” when compared to the numbers of current players.

Links:

1) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

2) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:

http://www.nba.com/history/players/50greatest.html

posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Phil Chenier: A Straight Shooter

Phil Chenier was one of the best guards in the NBA in the mid-1970s before beginning a 20-plus year career as a color commentator for the Washington Wizards. He made the All-Star team three times in a four year period before suffering a back injury that essentially ended his career. Here is the link to my HoopsHype.com article about Chenier: Phil Chenier: A Straight Shooter

Here are some "DVD extras" about Chenier:

***Chenier’s most vivid memories of his first taste of NBA playoff action as a rookie in 1972 focus on the tremendous battles in the paint between Knicks’ power forward Dave DeBusschere and his counterpart on the Bullets, Gus Johnson. They had faced each other for the previous several years and, although Johnson was nearing the end of the line, he still asked no quarter and gave none either. “Gus would just manhandle DeBusschere and DeBusschere would come back on the very next play and just manhandle Gus,” Chenier says. “They would go at it but never complain. That is the one thing that I will always remember about them. And I remember DeBusschere talking about Gus after the funeral or after he passed and you could tell that they had mutual admiration and mutual respect.”

By 1972-73, Johnson had moved on to the ABA’s Indiana Pacers, helping them win a title before he retired, but that did not mean that there was peace and tranquility in the paint when the Knicks and Bullets played—not with Knicks’ center Willis Reed and the Bullets’ Wes Unseld fighting for position. “Willis was in and out of the lineup because of his injuries,” Chenier remembers. “When he was in there, because of his knee, Willis had to be even more physical. So he and Wes were banging and I said to myself, ‘Man, I don’t want to have anything to do with that! I’ll stay out here and shoot jump shots.’”

***Chenier mentions an often overlooked factor that hurt the Bullets in their stunning 4-0 loss to the underdog Golden State Warriors in the 1975 NBA Finals. “Jimmy Jones didn’t start but he was a player who could fill in anywhere and he was our first man off the bench. He was averaging about 20 minutes and he could play with me or he could play with Kevin Porter or he could play with both of us by being the ‘3.’ So he was a top notch player who gave us a lot of flexibility. He got hurt during the Boston series. So, that hurt us. But give a lot of credit to Golden State and the timing of their players kind of coming together.”

***Chenier lists Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Nate Archibald and Jo Jo White as some of the toughest players that he faced. Chenier comments, “Pete could embarrass you. He could go for 50 on you and make it look as easy as possible. Earl could do the same thing. Earl didn’t jump that high. You thought that you had him stopped, you thought that you had his shot blocked and he’d still fade back a little bit and loft that soft shot over you. That New York team had Earl and Frazier in the backcourt and then they had DeBusschere, Bradley and Lucas—that team was phenomenal. We played them three consecutive years in the playoffs and they beat us each time.”

***It is well known that entertainers want to be athletes and vice versa. This is not just a recent phenomenon. Chenier recalls playing in a celebrity three on three tournament in Las Vegas in which the teams consisted of an active NBA player, a retired NBA player and an entertainer. Chenier was paired with the retired Zelmo Beaty and legendary singer Marvin Gaye and they played against David Thompson, Jerry Lucas and Pat Boone, the famous singer who less famously was once a part owner of the ABA’s Oakland Oaks. Chenier didn’t say who won, but noted that Gaye was a big sports fan. Of course, Gaye later did a soulful rendition of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game less than a year before he was shot and killed by his father.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 AM

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Carmelo Anthony Selected to All-World Championship Team

Spain's Pau Gasol has been selected as FIBA World Championship MVP despite suffering a broken left foot that forced him to miss Spain's 70-47 gold medal game victory over Greece. He is joined on the All-World Championship Team by Team USA's Carmelo Anthony, Spain's Jorge Garbajosa, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Greece's Theo Papaloukas (known to Team USA as "#4"). The team was selected by a panel of 16 journalists consisting of one writer from each of the countries that made it to the eighth-finals round.

Anthony led Team USA in scoring (19.9 ppg), ranking sixth in the tournament and narrowly edging Dwyane Wade (19.3 ppg). The only American to average more points per game in World Championship play is Luther "Ticky" Burden (20.2 ppg in 1974). Anthony shot .504 from the field and .440 from three point range but inexplicably only connected at a .630 rate on his free throws.

Although Anthony made a substantial contribution offensively, I pointed out in my recap of Team USA's loss to Greece that his defense was less than stellar: "Also, this may sound like sacrilege considering all the points that he scored and the big shots that he made, but Carmelo Anthony gives up a lot at the other end of the court. Yes, he gets steals, but he also gets out of position often, leaving his man open, which leads to an eventual breakdown of the defense."

There is a lively discussion about Team USA going on at APBR Metrics. This is what Dan Rosenbaum wrote after watching Greece beat Team USA:

"The one player who I found myself most often rewinding and saying 'what the hell was he doing?' was Carmelo Anthony. Most of the time he was away from the play and managed to simultaneously not guard his man and not help either. I have not watched the other games this closely, but after watching this game I would have a very hard time making a case for Anthony being our MVP."

Anthony tied with Chris Paul for the team lead in steals (17 in nine games) but both players were also burned many times when their forays into the passing lanes came up empty, breaking down Team USA's defense. LeBron James edged Dwight Howard for the team lead in rebounds (4.8 rpg to 4.7 rpg) and finished second in assists (4.1 apg) to Paul (4.9 apg).

Team USA ranked first in scoring (103.6 ppg, exactly 15 ppg better than Spain), first in field goal percentage (.506), second in point differential (20.4 ppg compared to Spain's 22.0 ppg) but only 16th (out of 24 teams) in points allowed (83.1 ppg), 16th in defensive field goal percentage (.462) and 13th in three point field goal percentage allowed (.349)--take out the numbers from Team USA's blowout wins over Australia and Senegal and the resulting three point field goal percentage allowed goes up to .378, which would rank 21st. Many pundits will not allow these inconvenient numbers to get in the way of their version of events, which is that Team USA needs more shooters. No, what Team USA needs is better scouting of the opponents and more preparation time, which would enable the coaching staff to devise effective defensive game plans and give the players a chance to practice executing them.

The complete statistics for the FIBA World Championships can be found here. China's Yao Ming ranked first in scoring (25.3 ppg), Richard Lugo of Venezuela won the rebounding title 11.4 rpg) and Argentina's Juan Sanchez led the tournament in assists (5.8 apg).

posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 AM

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Spain Routs Greece 70-47 to Claim the FIBA World Championship

Spain claimed their first FIBA World Championship with a convincing 70-47 win over Greece. Playing without star center Pau Gasol, who was sidelined by a broken foot that he suffered in Spain's semifinals win over Argentina, the Spanish team took control late in the first quarter and was never seriously threatened the rest of the way. Jorge Garbajosa and Juan Navarro led Spain with 20 points each, while Mihalis Kakiouzis topped Greece with 17. Vasileios Spanoulis, who led Greece with 22 points against Team USA, finished with four points and missed all six of his three pointers.

Garbajosa shot 6-11 from three point range and Navarro shot 4-9 from long distance. The Spanish team shot 12-30 overall on three pointers, compared to Greece's 5-21 and the 21 points from those extra seven three pointers constitutes most of Spain's margin of victory. Felipe Reyes, who recently returned to action after being injured, started at center in place of Gasol and contributed 10 points, all scored in the first half, more than doubling his previous single game high in the tournament.

The teams seemed evenly matched in the first five minutes and Greece led 9-8 at the 4:47 mark of the first quarter. Spain then went on an 8-0 run en route to an 18-12 lead by the end of the quarter. A Navarro jump shot off of a well executed pick and roll play and a Garbajosa three pointer put Spain up 23-12 early in the second quarter and the rout was on. Greece did not look at all like the team that shredded Team USA's defense in the semifinals--and, as ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla explained, there is a good reason for that: "This is what happens when teams are familiar with each other," he noted after one of Spain's nine steals. "Navarro was in the exact spot Papaloukas was throwing the ball to."

Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting against Team USA, had two points, three fouls and four turnovers in seven minutes of play versus Spain. Unlike Team USA, Spain knows that Schortsanitis does not pass well out of double teams, so they trapped him every chance they got. They also know his moves and were able to lure him into poor decisions and offensive fouls. Team USA was originally scheduled to fly out of Japan on Monday but changed their plans and departed after the bronze medal game. I think that it would have been nice--and smart--if Team USA's players and coaching staff had stuck around until the end of the tournament, watched the gold medal game and familiarized themselves with the players and teams that they hope to beat in the Olympics in two years. Team USA does not lack skill or will; it lacks knowledge and understanding of FIBA basketball in general and the international players in particular, especially the ones who are not in the NBA.

Greece did not score until the 6:42 mark of the second quarter and by then they trailed 28-13. Spain led 43-23 at halftime, shooting 17-31 from the field while holding Greece to 8-26 field goal shooting. The teams played to an 11-11 standstill in the third quarter but Spain removed what little doubt remained about the outcome with a 15-9 run to begin the fourth quarter.

Team USA is capable of beating these teams but first must respect them enough to actually learn about how their players play. That process should start at the top of USA Basketball and then trickle down to the coaching staff and players. Team USA paid good lip service to the idea of respecting the opposing teams and won and lost with class but by the time the Tournament of the Americas rolls around next year there will be no excuse for not being thoroughly familiar with the other teams in the field.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 PM

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