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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pro Basketball's Most Decorated Players

It is difficult enough to compare the statistics of two players from the same era and the task becomes that much more challenging when it involves players whose careers are separated by decades. Sure, it is possible to parse the raw numbers into per minute calculations and attempt to factor in variables such as pace, but how realistic is it to compare shooting percentages or rebounding averages when the rules, arena conditions and size/speed of the players have all changed so dramatically?

An interesting point to consider is how a player was viewed during his own era. If someone is a dominant figure for an extended period of time then this largely validates his claim to greatness. It is possible to roughly ascertain how dominant a player was (or at least was perceived to be) by looking at how many MVPs he won and how many times he made the All-League Team.

I examine this subject in detail in my most recent article for NBCSports.com:

Most Decorated List Full of Men from the Middle

posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 PM



At Monday, February 26, 2007 12:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog and articles for quite some time now, and I enjoy the insight and perspective your provide on basketball.

However, it seems like whenever you analyze old players or teams, you combine ABA and NBA records. Indeed the ABA was no minor league (as you described in this article), but it seems like you include the ABA in the discussion simply to boost one of your favorite players, Julius Erving.

When you look at Dr. J's NBA career, it's really not that special. At least not special enough to consider Erving in the same class as Jordan, Bird, Magic, etc. as you often do. There is a good reason for this. Once Dr. J went to the NBA, a league which (unlike the ABA) had many quality big men and a more slow, methodical style of play, he was exposed as just another good player.

In the NBA, Erving was just an average rebounder. Also, while he was still a great finisher on the break, his half-court game was extremely limited. If he was on the right side, he'd try to drive around his defender (always to the right, close to the baseline) and try to get a lay-up or dunk. If he was on the left, he'd attempt a bank shot. If he was anywhere else, he'd pile up bricks with his poor jumper. He couldn't penetrate the defense from anywhere with a variety of spin moves and fakes like a Dwyane Wade or Michael Jordan. He also had no post-up game.

Dr. J's biggest shortcoming though, was defense. I know he accumulated lots of blocks and steals, and I know he was supposedly a good "team defender". But that didn't compensate for his poor one-on-one defense. One of the reasons the Sixers kept failing to bring home a championship was the fact that the Doc kept getting lit up: in 1977 by Bob Gross, in 1978 by Bob Dandridge, and in 1980 and 1982 by Jamaal Wilkes (and sometimes Magic Johnson). All of these guys had career scoring nights in the playoffs while being guarded by Erving. Many close observers from his time, including Jack Ramsay, Daryl Dawkins and Peter Vecsey, have also pointed out Erving's poor defense.

In the NBA, most acclaim Erving recieved can be traced to his ABA reputation or his ability to jump out of the gym. If it wasn't for those two things, he would have gone down as another James Worthy (an average defender and rebounder, great finisher). That doesn't quite work though, since Worthy had a post-up game. I just don't think Erving deserves to be considered a top rate superstar when you look at all of the shortcomings I just described, along with the fact that he couldn't win a ring until he rode Moses Malone's coattails.

At Monday, February 26, 2007 4:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I include the ABA statistics in my articles for the same reason that the NFL includes AFL statistics in their record books: it is the right and logical thing to do. Eventually, the NBA will come around to this position and acknowledge ABA statistics as "official" statistics.

It makes no sense to simply ignore the first third of Julius Erving's career, when he was at his physical peak, and then draw conclusions about his historical ranking. You mention his rebounding, but most players have their best rebounding years early in their careers. Bird averaged at least 10 rpg in each of his first six seasons and did not do so again the rest of his career, so the fact that Doc did his best rebounding in the ABA is more a function of his age than the competition he was playing against. Rebounding was actually his primary skill as a young player and he averaged over 20 rpg in college. He once said that he knew that he would be able to rebound in the pros but did not know what kind of scorer he would be. Furthermore, he was still an above average rebounder for a small forward even during his NBA years, averaging 6.7 rpg in 11 NBA seasons (and that includes his last couple years when he spent time at guard). Worthy averaged just 5.1 rpg during his career. For several years Doc was the second leading rebounder on the Sixers despite being a slender small forward.

You are completely wrong about his offensive repertoire. Doc certainly had a post-up game; the left block was referred to as his "office" for most of his Sixers career. In keeping with his accomodating nature, he ceded that spot to Moses and operated more from the perimeter after Malone arrived. It sounds like those are the only games that you actually saw Doc play. Even then, Doc made the All-NBA First team in the '83 championship season and the All-NBA Second Team in '84. Down the stretch in '84 Doc played very well when Moses was out and Milwaukee Bucks' coach Don Nelson went so far as to say that Doc should be voted MVP. Then Moses came back and Doc went back to accepting a lesser role. The main difference between Doc and MJ is that it was not that important to Doc to average 30 ppg. It would have been very interesting to see how a young MJ would have reacted to playing alongside a Moses Malone or a Shaq, guys who would have clogged the driving lanes by their presence and who would command 20+ FGA a game. The much maligned Kobe Bryant found enough common ground with Shaq to win three titles. Would MJ have done that when he was a young player who had yet to win scoring titles/MVPs? Doc certainly would have had no problem sharing the spotlight, as he proved when he was teamed with McGinnis and Collins and later with Malone and Toney.

As an ABA player, Doc once ranked in the top ten in the league in three point field goal percentage. When he played for the Sixers, they did not utilize the three pointer for the most part, so he only attempted them when the team was way behind or as long throws at the end of a quarter. He shot 78% from the free throw line and usually led the Sixers in free throws attempted; Wade and others draw a lot more fouls now because the rules have been liberalized in favor of the offensive players in recent years--Doc had to contend with hand checking and more physical play than what is allowed now. Doc's career field goal percentage is better than any of the players you mentioned other than Worthy and his scoring average is better than any of the players you mentioned other than MJ (I don't include Wade because he has just started his career and has not had the "elder statesmen" years that drag down one's scoring average), so whatever you think of his offensive repertoire it was very effective. Doc has one of the ten best career NBA Finals scoring averages ever and scored at least 20 points in 21 out of 22 career NBA Finals games; he was a clutch player and the idea that it was his fault that the 76ers did not win a title prior to '83 is absurd.

Moses did not win a title without Doc, either. Teams generally need a 1-2 punch to win a championship. Doc took three 76ers teams to the Finals without the benefit of a Hall of Fame sidekick. Bird had McHale and Parish, Magic had Kareem, Worthy, McAdoo, etc. Doc's 76ers had the best regular season record in the NBA from '77-'84 and they did not have the most talented team during that stretch.

A big part of the reason that Doc did not score more in the NBA is that he accepted a lesser scoring role. This is well documented. Pat Williams and the Sixers brass told him that they thought the team would do better with 2 or 3 guys scoring 20 ppg as opposed to Doc scoring 30 and the others scoring 12-14. Most of this is documented in various articles that you can find on this site.

Doc's five All-NBA First Team selections and his selection to the 35th Anniversary All-Time team (he and Kareem were the only active players chosen) belie your characterization of him as "another good player." You would be hard pressed to find a teammate, opponent or coach from that era who would agree with your assessment.

Far from being a poor defensive player, Doc is in fact an underrated defensive player. His Sixers teams, particularly the ones in the early 80s, ranked among the best in the NBA in point differential and defensive field goal percentage. He played a big part in that.

Again, his accomplishments in the ABA must not be ignored, either. He was selected to the 1976 ABA All-Defensive Team, he annually ranked among the league leaders in steals and blocked shots and he carried two teams to championships. In the 1976 ABA Finals he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots--and this was against a Nuggets team that had two Hall of Famers (Issel, Thompson), the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones) and a Hall of Fame Coach (Larry Brown). That Nuggets team emerged as one of the premier teams in the NBA after the merger and Doc basically dismantled them singlehandedly.

It is just sad that more people do not really understand the type of career that Doc had. He absolutely deserves to be ranked among the very greatest who ever played the game.

At Monday, February 26, 2007 4:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Also, Darryl Dawkins is hardly an objective source regarding Doc's defense or rebounding. Dawkins was a very poor rebounder for a center. Furthermore, if you look at the boxscores, he was the one who was getting lit up in the Finals by Walton and Kareem. Naturally, he wants to deflect attention from that by saying that it was Doc's fault. Considering that Doc led two ABA teams to titles, carried three Sixers teams to the Finals without an All-Star center and made the key plays down the stretch of game four in the '83 sweep, I'll take him as a Finals performer over Dawkins.

At Tuesday, February 27, 2007 12:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that Dr. J had better ppg and fg percentage stats than Gross, Dandridge, and Wilkes (as you pointed out) is irrelevant to the discussion. Dr. J was a better player than those guys. What I was saying though was all of those players had above-average performances against Doc in the playoffs. Top-10 level players don't get lit-up and outplayed by guys who are role players (Gross) or occasional all-stars (Dandridge, Wilkes).

I'm not making this up. For example, in Game 3 against Washington in 1978, Dandridge outscored Erving 30-12. When asked about the game, Dandridge replied "Julius doesn't get back on defense". This kept happening throughout the series.

Could you imagine something like that happening to Michael Jordan?

In the 1977 finals, Gross averaged 17 ppg (well over his 11 ppg regular season average) and had 25 and 24 points in the final 2 games. For the series, he shot 67% from the field. I'm aware that Dr. J scored his share of points too during the series, but it reflects poorly on him that he allowed a role player like Gross to perform so well. That would never happen to MJ.

As for Dawkins' comments, I think they were made because Dawkins usually gets blamed for Magic Johnson's Game 6 performance in the 1980 Finals, where he started at center and everyone who didn't watch the game assumed he was matched up with Dawkins, when it was in fact Dr. J who was guarding Magic and getting lit-up by a 20-year-old rookie. Yes, Doc was a much better player than Dawkins, but it's not Dawkins who I'm trying to compare him to.

The Sixers did have a very strong defensive team, but Mo Cheeks, Lionel Hollins, and the Joneses all played bigger parts in that than Julius.

Yes, Dr. J was willing to share the ball when Moses came, but he wasn't exactly scoring a lot before then either. In the early 80s (when they had the players I mentioned in the previous paragraph) the Sixers were good on defense, but lacked offensive firepower. Yet you didn't see Erving go out and get 35-40 points like Jordan used to or Kobe Bryant does now. Julius would get his 20-22 points and the Sixers would lose because they didn't have the offensive firepower to match the Lakers or Celtics. This was not the same team filled with scorers which probably led the Sixers management to ask Doc to score less (as you pointed out). Offense was the Sixers' main problem in those days, and I think if Dr. J had put his team on his back offensively and gotten 35-40 a night while his team continued to play good D, it would have been enough to win a title before 1983. It seems quite clear to me that that would have made the difference, and the fact that Doc did not score more leades me to believe he couldn't get his points whenever he wanted, as you imply.

Look, I'm not saying Dr. J wasn't a good player. He was a solid all-star. But with all of the short-comings which I pointed out, he just doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a Michael Jordan. All of the good things you said about Doc's NBA career (All-NBA selections, finals appearances, etc.) can be said about dozens of players. Those qualities don't make someone arguably the greatest player ever.

Think about all of Jordan's big games and clutch moments. He had so many, you lose track of them. What does Dr. J have to counter that? Dunking on Bill Walton in a losing effort? His baseline move against the Lakers in another series he lost? You just can't compare him to Jordan.

At Tuesday, February 27, 2007 1:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Was Doc guarding Wilkes or Magic in game 6? You can't have it both ways. If Magic lit him up, then Wilkes was lighting someone else up (or vice versa). You seem intent on giving Doc "credit" for both players' performances.

Of course, what really happened is that Magic lit the whole team up. Doc would not normally be guarding Magic, a point guard, but was switched on to him at times during their NBA Finals matchups. Several different Sixers tried to guard Magic that night and none were able to stop him. You call Magic a 20 year old rookie as if that disparages him but he is in fact one of the greatest players of all-time. Doc had 53 points (and more than 20 rebounds) in a playoff game at about the same age.

When Jordan scored 63 points against Dennis Johnson or had big games against Joe Dumars or other All-Defensive Team members did that mean that those guys couldn't play defense or that Jordan was really good? It meant that Jordan was really good. So was Magic; that is why he won five titles and three Finals MVPs.

As for Dandridge and Gross, you are looking at their numbers (in Dandridge's case from one game) and drawing some big conclusions without looking at the entire situation. A lot of Dandridge's points came on the fast break, as you mentioned. Doc averaged 9.7 rpg, including 4.0 offensive rebounds per game, during the '78 playoffs. When a small forward crashes the glass, the guards are supposed to rotate back to slow down the break. This was not a case of Dandridge facing up Doc and blowing by him in a half court set. Overall, though, I would agree that the series against Dandridge was not one of Doc's better performances. Dandridge was hardly a nobody; he was a starting forward on the '71 Bucks' championship team and took most of the big shots for the Bullets during their title run. People who know basketball history will not go along with your insinuation that he was just some random player and just because most people don't know his name now doesn't mean that he was not a very good player.

What is the common theme among the Sixers' playoff losses in '77, '78, '80, '81 and '82? Every year they lost in the Finals or to the eventual champions. Doc's teams were not going out in the first round to subpar opponents (yes, I know about '84, but that was the first time that happened to one of Doc's Sixers teams).

Doc played heavy minutes for the Sixers teams that excelled defensively and was often in the top ten in the league in steals and blocked shots. Bobby Jones and Billy Cunningham disagree with your assessments of Doc's contributions on defense (check out my interviews with them that are posted here).

The reason that you can only come up with two Dr. J highlights is because Doc played the bulk of his career--including his best years--before SportsCenter and cable television became a central part of the sports universe. Doc was a very clutch player throughout his career and he was the major reason that the Sixers had the best record in the NBA for most of his time there. In seven of his first nine NBA seasons his team made it at least as far as the Conference Finals. He has one of the top career NBA Finals scoring averages ever and was a very consistent performer in the Finals, scoring 20+ points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.

You are completely wrong about the Sixers' offense in the early '80s. In 1980 they ranked 10th in the league in scoring and fourth in scoring differential; Doc averaged 26.9 ppg that year. In 1981 they ranked fourth in scoring, first in fewest points allowed and first in scoring differential; Doc averaged 24.6 ppg and won the MVP, the first non-center to win the award in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in 1963-64 (so much for Doc being just another guy). In 1982 they ranked fifth in scoring and second in scoring differential; Doc averaged 24.4 ppg. In 1983, the championship season, the Sixers ranked eighth in scoring and first in scoring differential; Doc averaged 21.4 ppg, while Malone averaged 24.5 ppg and Toney averaged 19.7 ppg. To say that the Sixers of that era had trouble scoring and that they needed Doc to score more points completely misrepresents the facts. What those Sixers needed was a strong post presence and when they acquired Malone they went from being a perennial contender to one of the greatest single season teams in history. If Doc and Bobby Jones had been a little younger and if Toney could have stayed healthy, that team could have had a more sustained run at the top--but Doc had already kept the Sixers among the league's top teams for close to a decade by that point and the Sixers were not able to keep up with the young powerhouses in Boston and L.A. as the 80s wore on.

Clearly, your information about Doc's NBA career is incomplete, at best--but the greater problem is that you simply choose to ignore his first five professional seasons. The ABA featured many great players and teams and the young Dr. J was very dominant in that league, winning three MVPs, three scoring titles and two Finals MVPs. Nets Coach Kevin Loughery built his team's offense and defense around Doc; Loughery employed a trapping defense that revolved around Doc's ability to be disruptive in the passing lanes and to block shots. Loughery was so enthused with Doc's defense that at first he employed the traps throughout the games but he soon realized that this would wear Doc down because he was also scoring 28-30 ppg and getting 10-11 rpg. Then Loughery decided to employ the trapping more selectively. Doc ranked in the top five in steals and blocks and the Nets won two titles in three years despite the fact that several ABA teams were deeper and more talented overall (Denver and Kentucky to name two). The reason that the Nets won was the brilliance of Dr. J. You can read more about this in Marty Bell's excellent book The Legend of Dr. J, which details what Doc accomplished in the ABA and some of the situations he encountered in his early years with the Sixers.

Doc showed that he could put up MJ-like scoring numbers in the ABA, while also rebounding like a power forward and being his team's best playmaker. In the NBA, he won an MVP, averaged 20-plus ppg every year until he was 36 years old and perenially led his team deep into the playoffs.

When Adolph Rupp saw Doc play in the ABA he said that Doc was the greatest player he had seen. After Doc's performance in the 1976 ABA Finals, veteran basketball writer Pete Axthelm of Newsweek came to a similar conclusion. Granted, Magic, Bird and Jordan all came along after that time but Doc's body of work--30,026 points, four MVPs, three titles, two Finals MVPs, 10,000+ rebounds, six Finals appearances, nine trips to the Conference Finals in 16 seasons, making the playoffs all 16 years of his career (a professional sports record since broken by Stockton and Malone, who lost in the first round much more frequently than Doc did)--easily earns him a place among the top ten players of all-time. This was acknowledged when the 35th Anniversary NBA All-Time Team was selected in 1980 and again at the turn of the century when an AP panel voted for its basketball player of the century and Erving placed among the top votegetters. I understand what I am fighting against, though, in trying to promote historical truth; people younger than 20 are absolutely certain that Wade or LeBron (or Nash) must be the greatest player ever, so many fans look at Dr. J like he played in the stone ages against Fred Flintstone or something.

As I indicated in my Pantheon article, I don't believe that anyone can definitively pick a single person as the greatest player of all-time; I think that there are about 10-12 players who are worthy of being in that discussion by virtue of their longevity or their performance at their absolute peak. Doc qualifies on both grounds--his peak during his ABA years, culminating in the '76 Finals, is fantastic, and his longevity is equally remarkable; he made the All-League Team in 12 of his 16 seasons, including 12 of his first 13. Few players have consistently ranked among the game's top ten players for more than a decade. That is why your suggestion that Doc was just one of a bunch of good players in the NBA is absurd. No guard or small forward won an NBA MVP for nearly 20 years until he did in '81.

At Tuesday, February 27, 2007 9:25:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Thats probably the longest response Ive seen from you, David.

Anonymous....how can you say anything bad about Dr.J? Plus you guys are forgetting his Rucker park playing days, which was definitely comparable to the NBA and ABA back then because many NBA and ABA players played there.

Off topic.....how does Seattle not retire Dennis Johnson's number but retires Haywood's number? I know they both wore number 24 but what are the Sonics doing? DJ was finals MVP and very key to that team and he just left us and his number isnt retired. Thats an absolute joke. I hope Seattle never wins a title or is never in the playoffs again. I wont comment on the HallofFame exclusion.

At Tuesday, February 27, 2007 2:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I just think that even though Doc is considered by most observers to be a Top 10 player of all-time (as indicated by the 35th Anniversary Team selection and the more recent AP voting) that in some ways he is underrated as a player because there is so much focus on the spectacular elements of his game. He has always said that he played for results, not effects, and that the effects flowed naturally out of his ability. Doc rarely missed dunks in games because he wouldn't try to dunk it if he had a bad angle or was too far from the hoop. He was a great rebounder and passer and an underrated defender. There was a lot more to his career than dunking over Bill Walton and Michael Cooper and the reverse layup versus the Lakers.

I've mentioned Doc's Rucker Park exploits before (in my ABA Reunion article from 2005, when several ABA players told me about their Rucker experiences) but when talking about the greatest pro players ever I focus on what they did in official competition.

Number retirements are a strange deal. The Jazz are just now getting around to retiring Dantley's number. Kansas did not retire Wilt's number for many years; there was some kind of feud there but I'm not sure what it was about. I suspect that the Haywood ceremony has been in the works for quite some time and they did not want to add DJ at the last minute. I'm sure that the Sonics will honor DJ at some point as well.

At Wednesday, February 28, 2007 12:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point which you fail to take into account in Doc's failure to win more championships is how much talent he played with. True, he had no hall-of-famers before Moses. But he played with several players with hall of fame talent (and some of these guys belong in the hall): McGinnis, Collins, Free, Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Toney. His teams always had good role players too. You point out that the Sixers didn't have a strong post presence before Moses came. Did Michael Jordan need a hall-of-fame center to win 6 titles? Jordan refused to lose, even when Luc Longley and Scott Williams were his centers. Doc played on some of the most talented teams in history, many of which were favored to win the title, and only came away with one.

You still haven't given an explanation of Doc getting "outplayed" (as Jack Ramsay put it) by Bob Gross in 1977.

You claim that no one knows about Dr. J's great performances or clutch moments because it was before the NBA became extremeley popular. Would you care to back up your assertion with some examples?

Doc belongs in the same category as Jordan, Bird etc. Here are some guys I'd rank ahead of him:

Kobe Bryant
Shaquille O'Neal
Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson
Larry Bird
David Robinson
Karl Malone
John Stockton
Walt Frazier
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Charles Barkley
Elgin Baylor
Dominique Wilkins
Wilt Chamberlain
Moses Malone
Clyde Drexler
Scottie Pippen
Wes Unseld
Isiah Thomas
Bill Russell
Hakeem Olajuwon
Patrick Ewing

At Wednesday, February 28, 2007 5:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Do you really believe that the group of players that you listed--who were not all on the team at the same time--are superior to the group of players that the Celtics and Lakers had in the 1980s? Kareem and Magic each could legitimately claim to be the greatest player of all-time. Bird-McHale-Parish is perhaps the greatest frontline of all-time and in '86 they had Bill Walton, a former MVP, as the Sixth Man of the Year. The one Sixers team that Doc played on that was clearly the best team in the league won the title going away. The '80 and '82 Sixers teams were not better than the Lakers; that '82 Lakers team is one of the most underrated of all-time--they went something like six weeks without losing a game (including the time that they sat out between playoff series). The main reason that the Sixers won two games in that series is the greatness of Dr. J, who averaged 25 ppg against the Lakers (Toney also played well; he also benefitted from the attention that the Lakers had to focus on Erving). The Lakers' defensive strategy in those series was to double team Erving and make someone else hit a perimeter shot; the Sixers often complained, in vain, that the Lakers were using an illegal zone (sometimes the officials did make that call).

I know, I know--what about '77, when the Sixers were favored? History clearly shows that they shouldn't have been favored. That Portland team started the next year 50-8 and would have gone down as one of the best teams ever if Walton had not gotten injured. Portland was a young, unknown team in '77 but they came of age in a hurry. Yes, Bobby Gross had the playoff series of his life--but why do you leave out that Doc averaged 30.3 ppg in that series and was the second best player on the court (to Walton)? If the Sixers had won he undoubtedly would have been the Finals MVP. Erving exceeded his regular season average by at least as much as Gross did; that matchup is not where the Sixers lost. Please direct your attention to Bill Walton versus the Sixers centers and George McGinnis versus himself (the man could scarcely make a free throw in the series, let alone make any other tangible contribution).

As for Doc's clutch performances, a bunch of them are mentioned in Marty Bell's The Legend of Dr. J. How about the entire '76 ABA Finals, when Doc led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks? Too general? OK, how about game one of that series, when he scored 45 points and hit the game winning turnaround jumper over Bobby Jones, the best defensive forward in pro basketball? Bell writes of Doc's performance in that series--and the '76 season in general: "In another year at another time, Erving's dream season might have garnered the kind of national attention received by Joe Namath when he lifted his teammates to the Super Bowl title or by O.J. Simpson when he rushed for 2000 yards or by George Brett when he flirted with a .400 batting average." The problem is that Erving had his best season and his greatest performances in a league that did not have a national television contract and in an era before SportsCenter, TNT and NBA TV.

Erving hit countless clutch shots and had numerous clutch performances in the ABA. What about the NBA? In 1986, Pete Axthelm wrote of Larry Bird that he makes more clutch shots than anyone in recent memory OTHER than Julius Erving. It was a routine thing for Erving to take over games and win them for the Sixers.

One thing that I have noticed in the process of interviewing Erving's teammates, coaches and opponents is that they are generally in awe of what he was able to do on a basketball court and the way that he conducted himself as a teammate. Len Elmore told me, "They talk about Michael, they talk about Larry—and that’s true—but always looming there in the early and mid ‘80s is Julius and what he brought to the table. I think that in many instances he does not get enough credit for helping to revitalize the NBA.”
Since you apparently have not read what Erving's teammates, coaches and opponents have told me about him, here is a quote from Rod Thorn (an assistant coach with the New York Nets during Erving's time there, Thorn also played in the NBA, was the Bulls GM when the team drafted Michael Jordan and is of course currently the President of the New Jersey Nets) that nicely sums up Erving's impact:

“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.”

Honestly, I don't know what more there is to say. You obviously are determined to believe something other than the truth about Erving and I don't think that there is anything else I can say to convince you to think otherwise.

As for your list of players that you would rank ahead of Erving, some of them are in the Pantheon that I referred to in one of my articles--the 10-12 players who legitimately could vie for the hypothetical title of greatest player ever. Others--not so much: Nique never even took one team to a Conference Finals. Karl Malone's performance dropped off more in the postseason than just about any other great player--check out his regular season field goal percentage versus his playoff field goal percentage. There is a reason that his teams lost so often in the first round of the playoffs. There is no arguing against his longevity or overall production, but his poor playoff record relegates him to a level below the Pantheon players. Ewing was an excellent player but he never reached the level that Doc did--Erving won four regular season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. I don't intend to make a case by case evaluation of your list; I already indicated who is in my Pantheon along with Doc.

As for Kobe and Pippen, I think that both of them are criminally underrated, so for me to say anything negative about them I would in effect be arguing against myself. So here is probably a good place to end this comment :)

At Wednesday, February 28, 2007 11:30:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

The greatest pro players played at the Rucker. Just because there was no official NBA stat book or title doesnt mean it was not official competition. Dr J's game is the Rucker. The things he did at the Rucker propelled him for what was going to occur at the ABA and NBA level.

And there is no way Barkley, Drexler (who is overrated), Stockton, Ewing, Nique, Pippen, Thomas, or Bryant are better than Dr J. What do you have against the Dr. J? Wake up anonymous.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 12:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree about the significance of the Rucker but there is not an easy way to quantify what Doc did there. He played well in the Rucker and I have written about that a little bit, based on what people who were there told me, but it is easier to document exactly what Doc did in ABA and NBA competition. Also, although the Rucker featured some great players, there is a difference between excelling in a park situation versus having the mental and physical conditioning/discipline necessary to perform at a high level throughout an 82 game season. It is easier to simply show up at a park, even one with a high level of competition, do your thing and go home than it is to face high level competition night after night for months on end while dealing with the rigors of travel, etc. Of course, Doc displayed the ability to do both.

At Friday, March 02, 2007 12:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Sixers did have comparable talent. The Celtics had a really lame backcourt before Dennis Johnson arrived. The Lakers were starting Mark Landsberger at PF. The Sixers also lost in 1978 to an aging Bullets team and in 1979 to a team which otherwise had one of the most underwhelming post-season records in history (Gervin's Spurs). You also failed to address the fact that Michael Jordan never needed an All-Star center.

Dr. J's Rucker Court reputation means nothing. It's easy to be a street legend.

You keep making a big point about Dr. J making it deep in the playoffs every year, but let's look at why they kept coming up empty:

1977: Dr. J fails as a team leader to keep discipline and chemistry high in the team, and overconfidence and selfishness low.

1978: Doc gets burned by Dandridge, and still fails to instill chemistry in the team.

1979: As Daryl Dawkins put it, Dr. J always "had" to be the man in big situations, and he tried to win Game 7 against San Antonio himself, refusing to pass the ball to anyone and coming up short

1981: Doc turns the ball over about 47 times in the 4th quarter as the Sixers complete one of the biggest chockes in NBA history

1982: Bob McAdoo blocks Dr. J's shot twice in crucial situations and the Lakers hold on

1984: Julius guarantees victory, and then has a bad game as Sixers lost in first round to a team which has never won a playoff series IN Philadelphia. That would NEVER, EVER happen to Jordan.

Check this out (note Doc trying to make that fancy no-look pass in the clutch and getting burned):


At Friday, March 02, 2007 2:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You call the '78 Bullets "aging," I say that they were a veteran team that happened to win the title that year. The Spurs had a better record than the Sixers (by one game) in '79; the teams were basically evenly matched and the series went seven games, with the home team winning game seven.

If you think that the Sixers had comparable talent to the Celtics and Lakers you are decidedly in the minority position. Go back to those rosters again and count up the Hall of Famers and All-Stars.

MJ did not need a dominant center in part because he rarely faced dominant centers. In the Finals he beat Divac, Duckworth, Oliver Miller, Sam Perkins and Greg Ostertag. I'd rather face those guys than Kareem and Bill Walton. Yes, the Bulls beat Ewing and the Knicks but (1) Ewing is not as good as Kareem or the '77 version of Walton and (2) the Knicks battled the Bulls about as closely as any other team in that era did, in part because of Ewing. Jordan versus Olajuwon is the great matchup that we never got to see because of MJ's first retirement. By the way, MJ did not win an NBA title until his seventh season. Doc did not win an NBA title until his seventh season. The difference is that by that time Doc was five years older and had already won two ABA titles. MJ won his first NBA title with a young team, while Doc won his first NBA title with an older team that hit its absolute peak and then declined as younger teams ascended.

I did not base my opinion on Dr. J on the Rucker League.

1977: Doc was the second best player in the series. The team with the best player (and probably players three through ??, such as Lucas, Hollins, etc.) won. If you think that the Sixers loss reflects poorly on Doc as a leader than you are completely unaware of what his teammates, coaches and opponents have said about him. Again, please read the interviews/articles that are posted here for further details.

1978: The Sixers lost to the eventual championship team.

1979: I am not interested in history as written by an underachieving center. Doc actually had an excellent series versus the Spurs. Intelligent observers of Doc's NBA career have suggested that, if anything, Doc was too deferential to his teammates. The idea that he felt that he had to be the man and was some kind of gunner is just completely absurd. Look at his field goal attempts and shooting percentage.

1981: Dawkins committed a key charging foul.

1982: Doc and Toney led the Sixers to an epic game seven road win in the Boston Garden. It would be more than a decade before another NBA team would win a game seven on the road. Doc scored 25 ppg in the Finals but the Lakers, one of the most underrated teams in NBA history, simply had too much talent, including three past or future league MVPs: Magic, Kareem, McAdoo.

1984: Admittedly, not a shining moment for Doc and the Sixers. Speaking of first round losses, how about MJ's 1-9 record in first round playoff games before Pip came on the scene? Doc's first round playoff loss in '84 was the exception in his long career and that Nets team was very underrated. If Micheal Ray Richardson had stayed clean they could have been Eastern Conf. contenders for several more seasons.

Wow, Doc had a turnover. That must prove he is a scrub. Just like Magic Johnson dribbling out the clock with the score tied in a playoff game that his team eventually lost. Or MJ missing several free throws down the stretch versus the Cavs (the game before he hit "The Shot"). Or Dennis Johnson going 0-14 in a Finals game. Yeah, if you turn the ball over or make a mistake you must be terrible, because great players are supposed to be perfect at all times.

You left out a few years in your timeline:

1972: Doc averages 33 ppg and 20 rpg in the playoffs as a rookie and sets an ABA playoff record with 53 points in one game.

1974: Doc leads one of the youngest starting lineups to ever win a championship.

1976: Doc leads both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots as the Nets beat a more talented Denver Nuggets team. Bobby Jones, the best defensive forward in either league, says of Erving that "he destroys the adage I've always been taught-- that one man cannot do it alone."

1983: Doc scores seven key points down the stretch as the Sixers clinch the championship.

I prefer this link:


Here is a quote from the above article:

A final word on Erving comes from Magic president Pat Williams, who as 76ers GM brought Erving to Philadelphia: "You'd have to use words like electrifying, revolutionary. There's never been anybody quite like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."

At Friday, March 02, 2007 5:21:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It's pretty sad that Dr. J doesn't get his due.

I'd say that early in his career, Julius Erving was an elite one-on-one defender. Later in his career, he was hampered by tendinitis in his knees which somewhat diminished his defensive skills. I think he was still a good defender though. Most of the examples anonymous gave of Dr. J getting "lit up" involved a player who got lots of his points by moving without the ball rather than on isolations, which comes down to team defense rather than one-on-one D.

In his first NBA season, Erving averaged 8.5 rpg. If he had played as many minutes per game as he did on the Nets, he would have gotten about 10 rpg, very close to his ABA production. You also have to account for the presence of other good rebounders on Philly like George McGinnis and Caldwell Jones.

In any case, 8.5 rpg (and 7.0+ for most of his time in the NBA) is pretty good for a small forward, especially one close to or over 30. (Larry Bird got more rebounds than Erving, but one could argue Bird was a PF. Also, Larry was always assigned to guard stiffs, which may have allowed him to focus more on boards.)

I don't think you can blame Dr. J for not winning an NBA title before 1983. The 76ers team he was on when he first arrived was filled with guys who had lots of talent, but also had big egos, a desire to have the ball and shoot, and reputations as headcases. Chemistry was a major problem for that team. McGinnis played like a bum during the playoffs in 1977 and 1978 (especially during the 78 series against Washington). World B. Free was unhealthy during the 77 Finals and didn't do much. If those two guys were able to contribute normally, Philly probably would have won.

After 1978, Philly broke up its team, getting rid of Free and McGinnis and bringing in Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks (Doug Collins' career also effectively ended shortly afterward). After spending a year coming together as a team, Philly was back in the Finals in 1980.

The 76ers came very close in 1981, losing in 7 games to the Celtics in an extremely tight series (5 games were decided by 1 or 2 points). If they had gotten past Boston, Philly definitely would have defeated the Rockets for the title. In such a close series, luck plays as big a role as anything, and Larry Bird admitted as much.

Anonymous' timeline looks very biased, to say the least. I could make a similar one for Michael Jordan. 1986: MJ goes gunning and his team gets swept. 1994: MJ doesn't have the heart to play this year. 1995: The Nick Anderson steal... and so on. The point is, you are really reaching with most of those.

Anyway, here's the thing about Dr. J which you'd never understand by analyzing stats or series outcomes or whatever, unless you've actually seen him play. Doc was a clutch player who carried his team when they needed him to.

Let me explain.

Bill Russell has said that every game has several pivotal moments when momentum can swing one way or the other, and the outcome is in the balance (these moments can be anytime during a game, not necessarily just the last 5 minutes). Julius Erving had an uncanny ability to take over games during such moments. That's why he was such a great player (even if he wasn't scoring 40 every night).

A good illustration of this is Game 7 of the 1982 ECF. The 76ers had led the series 3-1 and the Celtics had come back to tie it (just as in 1981). Game 7 was in the Boston Garden and no one, not even their own fans, gave the Sixers a prayer. After the half, the 76ers never trailed because every time the Celtics threatened, Doc or Andrew Toney would take matters into their own hands. For instance, in the final seconds of the 3rd quarter, with the Celtics rallying, Doc hit a jumper, blocked a Cedric Maxwell shot, recovered the ball, and hit another jumper to push Philly's lead back to double figures. Erving finished with 29, and the Boston fans sent the 76ers away with a "Beat LA" chant, showing just how impressed they were by the Philly performance (quite remarkable in such a heated rivalry).

In a time when people are more impressed by big numbers than team success, and like to make a single player bigger than the team in an oversimplified way (meaning it's "Jordan beat Magic", not "the Bulls beat the Lakers"), Dr. J doesn't get the credit he deserves for his NBA career. The obscurity of the ABA (and basketball as a whole in the 70s) has prevented him from getting full credit for his early days. If Doc's career was played under the same spotlight as Larry Bird's or Michael Jordan's, he'd stack up very well against them.

At Friday, March 02, 2007 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Very well put, Vednam.

In line with what you said regarding Dr. J as a clutch performer, Russell used to say during CBS telecasts that "it's not how many you score, it's when you score them."

One of the things that Doc told me regarding his regular season production was that when the Sixers had a big enough lead in the fourth quarters of games he felt that it was important to sit and let the bench players participate. After all, Erving told me, those guys work hard in practice and deserve an opportunity to play. Doc said that the way some guys stay in a game to chase triple doubles or other stats when the game is no longer in doubt is "crass."

At Friday, March 02, 2007 11:42:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Its not about being a streetball legend. Its about the 70s, and the afro, and black power and the struggle and how basketball brought blacks together in New York at this time. Dr. J was all of that to people back then, black and white. He was a god not a streetball legend.


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