20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interview With Filip Bondy, Author of Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever

The 1984 NBA Draft produced four players who later were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. Filip Bondy, who currently writes for the New York Daily News, began covering the NBA in 1979 and he has penned the definitive account of the events surrounding that epochal draft: Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever includes the recollections of many of the movers and shakers from the NBA in that era, some of whom--like Rod Thorn--are still active in the league today. You can order the book here.

I spoke with Bondy on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after he left David Stern's press conference about the Tim Donaghy investigation. We discussed several of the interesting anecdotes that are included in the book and Bondy told me where he thinks the 1984 draft class ranks all-time. I got his take on the Donaghy situation and how it might affect the NBA. We also talked about how the attitudes and perceptions of the New York media in some ways shape the national conversation about the NBA.

Friedman: “What did you find out during your research for the book that surprised you the most?”

Bondy: “I think that the parts that surprised me were, first of all, the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’—I don’t think that I understood the permutations that were possible, that it wasn’t just Portland that blew this. A lot of teams, a half dozen teams, could have had Michael Jordan for various reasons or with various strategies, including the Houston Rockets, who get a free pass (after drafting Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick) but really kind of blew it. They should have traded Ralph Sampson straight up for that number three pick (which became Jordan), which was something that was briefly discussed within the (Houston) organization and the Bulls would have accepted it. They had heard sort of vague rumors about that and they would have taken Sampson for that pick. You can only imagine that team with Olajuwon and Jordan for a dozen years or so. That is just one example. You can’t forget that the Indiana Pacers traded away that pick for Tom Owens (in 1981). A lot of teams had opportunities that they failed to pounce on and it made a huge difference. I came to that revelation. Also, just the storytelling of the individuals who were involved—I learned a lot about Sam Bowie and the strength of his character. I learned a lot about Charles Barkley’s wacky attempt to avoid being drafted by the Sixers. I didn’t realize what a shotgun marriage that was for both sides.”

Friedman: “That was a very interesting situation and I assume that most people don’t know about it. Philadelphia was one of the top teams in the league at the time, so one would assume that with them being high up in the draft that that would be a desirable location, that a player would want to go to a winning team; usually if you are a top draft pick you go to a team that is not that good. Talk a little bit about some of the specifics of that situation and why Barkley was not inclined to want to go there, primarily—as you explain in the book—because of some of the financial considerations at that time.”

Bondy: “Charles was all about the money at the time and probably for a good time afterward. He found out just a few days before the draft that the Sixers were one of the few teams in the league that were capped at the time—although they did manage to unloose themselves from that. Going into the draft, he thought that because they were capped that if they took him he would just get the league minimum of $70,000 (per year) and that was just not at all what Charles had in mind. So he then went about his nefarious eating binge in an attempt to gain enough weight to discourage the Sixers from picking him. The Sixers, meanwhile, were very reluctant about taking him and if they had had a better choice they would have taken it. They were one of the teams that understood Michael Jordan’s worth and they desperately tried to trade up but they failed and then, as Pat Williams, their GM at the time, said, ‘We suddenly were faced with a choice between two guys who tied their shoelaces by memory,’ referring to Barkley and Mel Turpin.”

Friedman: “Obviously, they made the right choice in that regard (taking Barkley with the fifth overall pick). That leads right into another one of my questions. You talked a bit in the book about their attempt to trade Julius Erving for Terry Cummings. That was a story that fans found out about at that time. That became public knowledge. I was a kid at that time but I remember reading about that and hearing about that—but then you mentioned something that definitely was not public knowledge, which was that the Sixers attempted to trade Erving to Chicago for the pick that became Michael Jordan. Talk a little bit about that story. How did you find out about that? To the best of my knowledge, that was never reported at that time or even for years after that.”

Bondy: “I had never heard that story, either. I didn’t hear about it from Rod Thorn, the Bulls’ GM at the time. He never mentioned that. He mentioned all the other trades that the Sixers were desperately trying to put together for the third pick, like Andrew Toney and the fifth pick itself. I’m not even sure to this day whether Rod Thorn ever heard about that offer (of Erving), because I heard about it from Harold Katz, the owner of the 76ers, who apparently took it upon himself—and Harold took a lot of things upon himself back then—to offer this face to face to Jonathan Kovler, the president of the Bulls. Kovler apparently rejected it outright. I mean, it would not have made any sense for the Bulls. Erving had a couple years left but it would have been shortsighted—almost a publicity stunt--to bring Erving to Chicago at that point. But that is how I heard about it, from Harold Katz himself.”

Friedman: “Even though that would have been largely a p.r. move and not in the long term interest of the Bulls, that would have been a blockbuster deal at that time, because Erving was still considered a big star. That was just a couple years after the 76ers had won the championship and the previous season, 1983-84, Erving was on the All-NBA Second Team. He had been with Philadelphia for so long, if that trade had really happened that would still be talked about to this day.”

Bondy: “It’s kind of interesting, also, because Rod Thorn had been an assistant coach with the New York Nets (in the ABA) when Erving was at his peak, so if anybody would have been tempted to make that deal it might have been Rod Thorn. It really never got that far. Thorn is pretty adamant that the only deal that he would have taken for the number three pick was Ralph Sampson and he did turn down Mark Aguirre. We think back now and say how stupid it would have been to take Mark Aguirre for Michael Jordan but at the time Aguirre was the second leading scorer in the league behind Adrian Dantley and he was a Chicago kid, so it would have been a very popular p.r. move to bring Aguirre back to Chicago; that was actually a little more tempting (then) than it sounds (today).”

Friedman: “Sure, and during Aguirre’s college career he had been the national player of the year at DePaul and, as you said, he was a native Chicagoan. He was a big star in the NBA at the time. You have mentioned some of the fascinating connections and quirks of fate that affected this draft. Talk a little bit about the situation with Cleveland and the domino effect that resulted from that. You mention in the book that (Cleveland owner Ted) Stepien’s mismanagement led to Commissioner David Stern deciding that we can’t have this guy owning a team. Take the story from there and how that eventually affected Dallas’ chances of getting Michael Jordan.”

Bondy: “Stepien was the ultimate loose cannon. He said all sorts of crazy things that maybe some other owners thought but they never said them out loud. He actually said that we need white players to market our teams in the NBA. He was sort of the embodiment of political incorrectness. He also traded away the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first round draft picks for years and years to come. Basically, the franchise was doomed forever unless something was done. It was hard to get a buyer. The Gund brothers, who would later build the arena in downtown Cleveland, owned the Richfield Coliseum, where the Cavaliers played at the time. They became the primary potential purchasers of the team and Stern wanted to make the team more attractive to them to get rid of Stepien. So he began to hand out free draft picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers and he asked the Dallas Mavericks, among other teams, to go along with this plan. The Mavericks had feasted off of the Cavaliers’ draft picks for years but they finally agreed to it and the sale was made, the team was stabilized a bit and, as it turned out, the Mavericks missed out (on potentially drafting) Michael Jordan by one game” (the Mavs still owned the Cavaliers’ first overall pick in 1984 but the Gunds stabilized Cleveland enough that the Cavs won 28 games to Chicago’s 27 in 1983-84, so the Bulls got the third pick—Jordan—while the Mavericks, with the Cavs’ fourth pick, took Sam Perkins. Norm Sonju, the Mavs’ president at the time, told Bondy, “I can’t talk about the 1984 draft without me crying a little bit. Perkins was a fine player but he wasn’t Jordan of course”).

Friedman: “It’s just a fascinating story and something that most casual fans would not know about it. Another thing that you noted in the book is that at the time—and even shortly afterward—picking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan did not seem like a disaster. Bowie made the All-Rookie Team and then Jordan missed most of his second season with a broken foot. You were covering the NBA at that time as a beat writer. When you were covering the league and all of this stuff was going on, what were your thoughts about Portland picking Bowie over Jordan, before it became obvious what Jordan was going to become and that Bowie was never going to be healthy enough to really be a major contributor?”

Bondy: “I think that most of us understood that Jordan was an extraordinary talent and then when we saw him in his rookie year we knew that this guy was going to be really, really good. On the other hand, as you pointed out, Bowie was no slouch either during his rookie year and he seemed to fit very nicely in the Portland lineup and there was great upside potential with him. You could almost see him, in today’s terms, being a Tim Duncan kind of player, a nice, heady, passing presence in the paint. It was thought at the time that both teams had done very well for themselves, that Portland was going to be fine and that Chicago got themselves a superstar that they would have to build around and that it would take years and years, we figured, for him to reach a level that would impact the league (in terms of team success). It was clear pretty quickly that Jordan was something special; you just had to watch the moves to understand that this kid was extraordinary. As for deciding that Portland had made a terrible mistake, I don’t think we really did that until, as you suggested, the beginning of the third year. That was when it became obvious that Bowie was never going to amount to much because he had fallen prey to all of these injuries and it was also becoming very obvious that Jordan was lifting the Bulls much higher than most people had thought possible.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that third year is when Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg and you started to realize that maybe he is not just going to be the best player in the league but really start to contend for greatest player of all-time status, perhaps, or really just be at another level than anyone expected.”

Bondy: “He became transcendent. That is the word that I like to use to describe him by the third year. That is when we all said, ‘That was some dumb move by Portland.’ And we were all very happy that we had not been in Stu Inman’s position at the time” (Inman, a great personnel man for many years, will sadly always be remembered, at least in part, as the man who drafted Bowie instead of Jordan).

Friedman: “How would you rank the 1984 draft all-time? There are a lot of different draft classes that are talked about. In theory, this year’s class is going to be good but you obviously can’t really evaluate it yet. The 2003 one, with LeBron, Wade, Melo and Bosh, is considered great. I know that this wasn’t the primary focus of the book, per se, but where would you rank the 1984 draft?”

Bondy: “There are really only three drafts that you can talk about. It is too early to talk about the one that just took place and, frankly, a lot of the scouts who I’ve talked to are not as high on this draft—after the top two picks—as I think that some of the fans are. I may be proved wrong but I don’t think that the 2007 draft is going to rank with the other three that we should be talking about, which are the 1984, 1996 and 2003 drafts. Those are really the three drafts that you could make an argument are the greatest ever. I think that you can go back and forth all you want, but I would just argue that the 1984 draft had the greatest overall impact on the marketing of the league and part of that was just because of the cult of personality and Jordan’s transcendence and also the fact that it came at such an opportune time: a new era, with a new commissioner and a new salary cap, a new broadcasting contract and also the beginning of the slam dunk highlights that you started to see constantly on TV with the advent of more and more sports on TV.”

Friedman: “I was going to ask you about the enduring legacy of the 1984 draft but you basically just answered that in the process of answering my previous question. The other two drafts that you mentioned included Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in 1996 and then the 2003 draft is the one that I mentioned with LeBron, Wade and so forth.”

Bondy: “Those are the three that I think jump out at you. If you look at some of the names in 1996 it is pretty amazing.”

Friedman: “Yeah and the fact that neither Kobe nor Nash were taken in the first ten picks. That could be a book or something.”

Bondy: “Yeah. That was the Iverson draft.”

Friedman: “Right. How could I leave him out? That draft, like you said, was stocked. In a way, that is similar to 1984, because you have great players at the top but also you have Stockton and other guys further down in the draft who became top players. I want to ask you about something else that has come up since we set up this interview. As someone who has covered the NBA for so long, what is your take on the Tim Donaghy situation as it is unfolding? How surprised are you that something like this apparently has happened? During all of your time covering the league, have you ever had a sense at another time that something like this might have been happening?”

Bondy: “No. I just attended the David Stern press conference and the sense that I get is that he is walking a very, very thin tightrope here. He used words like ‘isolated’ and ‘rogue’ about five or six times each; that is what he has to bank on. I think the league can survive this without that much harm as long as Donaghy doesn’t start naming names and bringing other people into it. But the minute that even just one other official’s name comes into this, the dominoes start falling and this gets blown wide open. Then you can no longer say that this is isolated and you can no longer say that this guy is one criminal mind among innocent and decent officials. Stern has got to be silently praying, because his legacy is in the hands of this guy Donaghy. If Donaghy starts talking about other people and corruption then it’s all over. So that is where we are at right now. We’re trying to find out if this is an isolated incident or whether this has been going on and is more widespread than Stern wants to admit. As far as me being suspicious or surprised, I would say that I am not shocked but at the same time I never was suspicious that this was happening. I never looked at a referee and thought, ‘This guy is on the take.’ Not even close. There have been some extremely controversial calls, obviously, that I have covered. I remember Hue Hollins calling the foul that decided the Bulls-Knicks series (in 1994), on the follow through of a three pointer at the buzzer.”

Friedman: “Darell Garretson was a member of that crew and he later said publicly that that was a ‘terrible’ call. I actually cut out that article because it was so unusual for a fellow referee to break that, I don’t want to say ‘omerta’ and bring up the mob, but the code of silence that normally covers that kind of thing. I watched that game and thought, like everyone else, that it was a terrible call. That Garretson actually came out and publicly said that was just incredible.”

Bondy: “I don’t even want to suggest that it was fixed.”

Friedman: “No, no, I don’t think that it was fixed; I just think that it was a horrible call.”

Bondy: “That is an example of how one call can change a whole series. Now we have to look at the Suns-Spurs series, because Donaghy worked one of those games. Over the years, I just remember a bunch of bad calls but I never thought that someone was on the take. I remember Jess Kersey looking dead on as Robert Parish punched Bill Laimbeer during a Pistons-Celtics playoff game and not doing a thing about it. I mean, these days Parish would have been suspended for the whole series. A bunch of calls jump out in my memory but none of them ever triggered the thought that this guy is on the take. At the same time, people are human; I’m a big follower of soccer overseas, so I know what can happen. Basketball is maybe the third easiest sport to fix. I was thinking about this the other day. Soccer is number one because it just takes one penalty call in the box to change everything. Probably horse racing is very easy and then, maybe, basketball. Football is harder because of all the replays and challenges and there are so many officials on the field, although you could call a pass interference call or a holding call and change everything. So, yes, I am surprised but I am not stunned; it was almost inevitable. Let’s see how widespread it was.”

Friedman: “I realize that Donaghy could have been giving out inside information and other nefarious things but the thing that I don’t understand and something that I would like to see explained at some point is how one referee can fix a game in this day and age when, supposedly, the NBA is reviewing not only every call that is made but every non-call and downgrading officials on their reports if they don’t call something that should have been called. If the NBA is monitoring this so closely—and we don’t have any evidence that Donaghy was grading out as a poor official—then how in the world could one guy be doing that?”

Bondy: “He did grade out as one of the guys who called the most personal fouls, which doesn’t mean that much per se, but when you think about it there is so much ambiguous physical action that you could whistle or not whistle a lot of stuff. If you whistle two quick fouls on Shaquille O’Neal early on then you are going to really impact the game. Then he is sitting on the bench for an extended period of time. If you pick your spots and call ambiguous physical action as fouls against key players then I think that you could probably impact the results of a game. But how can you prove that? You can’t.”

Friedman: “Here is a question that ties this whole thing back to something that you wrote about in your book. One of the themes in Tip-Off is that many people in the NBA really believe that toward the end of the previous season (1983-84), some of the teams were dumping games—Houston comes to mind—to move up in the draft and get the number one pick. Obviously, that is why the draft lottery was instituted in the first place. The widespread suspicion, even among NBA insiders, that teams dumped games never really seemed to permanently damage the league. How is this situation with Donaghy different in the way that it might unfold and have a bigger impact?”

Bondy: “That’s a good point. I don’t think that anybody believes that players dumped games (in 1984).”

Friedman: “Right, OK, that would be a difference.”

Bondy: “They saw that the lineups being used were ridiculous. It’s interesting, because these days when teams do it they tend to play young players—when they give up on a season they play young players and their excuse is, ‘We’re playing for the future.’ Back then, the Rockets didn’t do that. They played really old players, like Elvin Hayes, age 38, for 53 minutes in an overtime game. They didn’t even have the usual excuse or rationale to do it. I don’t know, I think that that is just as bad, if not worse, then wondering whether a referee is on the up and up or not. I do think that that (teams dumping games to improve their draft position) is a scandal that the NBA needs to address. They were talking about doing something about it again, because they have weighted the lottery so much now (in favor of the very worst teams) that a lot of teams are being accused of doing the same thing now that teams did before they instituted the draft lottery. I think that before this referee thing happened that this was a top priority for the NBA and that they were going to sit down and talk about flattening the odds a bit again so that they would avoid some of those suspicions. Now they have something else on their front burner but I am not so sure it’s any worse than management deciding to not field their best players in a given game.”

Friedman: “Some of it could also be that the NBA and sports in general are covered so much more thoroughly now than they were back then that something happening that is awry in some way is going to get a lot more coverage than it would have in 1983-84-85. You also made an excellent point when you said that no one ever suggested that the players themselves were doing anything wrong or that the action on the court was not right. It’s just that teams were putting lineups on the court that did not have a good chance to win. The guys who were on the court were playing hard, so nothing wrong was happening on the court in terms of the game itself; it’s just that the coach was putting all of his old players on the court and running them ragged. In that sense, maybe that was not quite as severe as what is allegedly happening now, although you said you think that was more severe. Once the players were on the court, the action itself was real, it was just a case of a team putting a lineup out there that it suspected probably could not make it through a full 48 minutes.”

Bondy: “Right. Well, today the players are still playing hard, they are just (allegedly) being officiated by a crooked referee. I don’t know. No, it’s not a pretty notion but the NBA has not been thriving the past couple years anyway--especially here in New York, where we have such a twisted view of things. As far as we are concerned, the NBA is in its death throes to begin with, so that plays a role in the analysis. That is the backdrop to all of this stuff here in New York. Everyone is so down on the Knicks that that begins to extend to the NBA as whole.”

Friedman: “That is an interesting point, so I’ll close with this question. Do you think that the view that the New York media has about how successful—or not successful—the NBA is, based on the performance of the Knicks, drives the national conversation about the NBA in a sense because there are so many media outlets based in New York? A lot of the media elsewhere perhaps follows the lead of the New York media, so if the New York media feels cynical about the Knicks and then extends that feeling to the NBA that this might drive the national conversation in some way?”

Bondy: “Yes, I think that is true to some degree. I do. I think that Stern at some level understands this but there is not much he can do about it unless he freezes an envelope in the draft lottery for Patrick Ewing again.”

Friedman: “I hope that you didn’t ask that question at the press conference.”

Bondy (laughs): “No. It is true that we are about as down on this league right now as I can ever remember and that includes when I was covering the Knicks in the early 1980s when they were falling apart under Hubie Brown and all of that stuff.”

Friedman: “’The ship be sinking.’”

Bondy: “Yeah. I think that it (the attitude of the New York media) does impact (national) perception but it’s hard for me, being in New York all the time, to know how much impact our negativity has on the rest of the country. It sure seems, though, that we seem to be at least a little bit more important than the San Antonio market, I think. There was a time when this league was so perfectly set up: Boston and L.A. had one rivalry, with Philly sort of being the third team. Then there was the Knicks versus the Bulls—big, big markets. Suddenly it has devolved into the San Antonios and the Utahs. Before you know it, the NBA is the NHL.”

posted by David Friedman @ 6:12 AM

15 comments

links to this post

15 Comments:

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 7:09:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

A very interesting interview. A portrait of the turmoil and last minute attempts during a draft, and not any old draft but the 84 draft, looks enticing.

I think Barkley told the story of his eating binge to get past the Sixers in "Outrageous", didn't he?

Dumping games in a serious problem right now; back when Houston did it in 83 and almost got nos 1-2 in the draft was bad, but it was one or two teams doing it. Not half the league as it stands now. Problem is, I think the salary cap is part of the cause, because a combination of features in the cap makes it almost impossible to retool the roster. If you want to try a different approach, you have to tear it all down and start from scratch, probably after a couple years out of playoffs while your bad contracts expire and you pool a nice bunch of decent underpaid rookies.

On Jordan, there's this old story that the coach of the Spanish national team asked a friend, another coach who was going to tour the US searching the NBA refuse dump for good prospects to bring to Europe, to take a look at the US Olympic team as an unofficial scout. Before he left, this other coach told the national team coach that the silver medal was not the ceiling: "we have a great team, we beat the US in WC 1982, maybe we can pull the upset and steal the gold". Then he came back from his tour of the US, and reported: "Remember what I told about the gold medal? Forget it. There's this kid named Jordan..."

 
At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 10:53:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I thought about buying that book. Maybe I will now.

 
At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 4:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Even if Barkley told the story in "Outrageous" he probably later said that he misquoted himself...

I don't think that there were more teams doing questionable things related to the draft lottery in 2007 than there were in 1984; Bondy mentions several teams that seemed to be doing odd things in 1984, with Houston simply being perhaps the most prominent, obvious or most remembered. This is always a more thorny situation for the NBA than for the NFL or MLB, because one player cannot change a team that much in those leagues (except, maybe, a Hall of Fame QB and even a guy like that can't usually turn a team around immediately). One great basketball player can make a horrible team mediocre, a mediocre team pretty good and a pretty good team a championship contender; so there will always be a great incentive to try to land that kind of a player if your team is not going anywhere otherwise.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 2:05:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Nice interview.

It's pretty sad that the 76ers were shopping Dr. J around that much. I think Harold Katz showed little loyalty and mades lots of stupid moves along the way which wrecked the franchise (his feud with Andrew Toney, the Moses Malone trade, the 1986 #1 pick trade, the Maurice Cheeks trade, etc.).

I'm definitely not a fond of the way many people like to criticize draft moves several years afterwards as if they were obvious at the time. As you guys said, picking Bowie over Jordan at the time seemed like a matter of taste. The circumstances a player lands in also play a huge role in how successful a draft pick looks. I think Michael Jordan was a little better than Hakeem Olajuwon. But I also think it's foolish to assume that if the Rockets would have drafted Jordan instead of Olajuwon that they would have won 6 titles instead of "only" 2.

The 2003 draft has the potential to go down as the best ever. The 1960 draft was also really good when you conside the league had less than 10 teams at the time.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 4:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Although Katz did make the move that brought the last piece of the championship puzzle to Philly--signing Moses--it is true that he did not show a lot of loyalty to some of the team's core guys and that he made some bad moves. Dr. J once commented that very few players retire as Sixers. Think about the '83 team: Moses and Cheeks were shipped off, Toney was basically ostracized wrongly as a malingerer and they tried to trade Doc. Bobby Jones and Doc are the only key rotation guys from that squad who finished their careers with the team.

I'm not sure if your MJ/Olajuwon comments are in reference to the interview or are about other people's perceptions but what Bondy is talking about is that Houston could have traded Sampson and thus had both Hakeem and MJ. No one can say for sure how many titles that team would have won but that sure looks like a formidable duo. I haven't really heard too many people say that Houston should have taken MJ instead of Hakeem; after all, Hakeem is also an all-time great and he led Houston to two titles.

Oscar Robertson and Jerry West went 1-2 overall in the 1960 draft. For many years, they were considered the two best guards in NBA history--and they certainly are still in the discussion, along with MJ and Magic. Top 50 player Lenny Wilkens also went in the first round that year, as did Tom Sanders, who played a key role on many of Boston's championship teams as a defensive stopper.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

I think Pluto makes a point in Tall Tales of 1960 being the draft of the point guards. You got the pass first point guard (Wilkens), the scoring point guard (West) and the physical point guard (Robertson). Kind of the blueprint for all point guards to come.

Problem is, I've never seen West play a point guard game. Of course, I've only seen a couple games in the late part of his career, 70-72 or so. Dunno if he played more like a point guard before that.

 
At Friday, July 27, 2007 2:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Maybe this just has something to do with seeing a small sample size of West's games, because his apg average actually went up toward the end of his career and the only time that he led the NBA in assists came in 1972, the championship season. West was always a good passer but it wasn't until his 10th season that he averaged at least 7 apg in a season--and then he did so for the remaining four full seasons of his career (not including his injury shortened final season). Part of that had to do with West playing alongside Gail Goodrich in West's later seasons. Although Goodrich was much smaller than West, Goodrich definitely played more like a "shooting" guard, so the playmaking duties belonged to West for the most part.

West and Robertson were great all around guards, so the "point" or "shooting" description really does not apply. They scored, passed and rebounded. West was also an exceptional defender, while Robertson was not especially noted for his work at that end of the court.

 
At Friday, July 27, 2007 3:35:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

From what I understand, there wasn't a whole lot of distinction between a 1 and 2 (or a 3 and 4) in the NBA during West's career. Both a 1 and 2 were just "guards". From looking at whatever old film is available from that era, it's often hard to figure who's playing the 1 and who's playing the 2.

As for Oscar Robertson's defense, I haven't seen much real game footage of Robertson, and there isn't nearly as much written material on him as, say, Russell or Chamberlain. This makes it difficult for me to assess his defensive capabilities. It seems, though, that most stuff I've read about Robertson paints him as an excellent defender. The book The Perfect Team goes into a bit of detail on Robertson's defensive game, and Jerry West, among others, praises it. In Robertson's autobiography, he mentions Bullets coach Gene Shue citing Robertson's defense on the Baltimore guards as one of the biggest factors during the 1971 finals.

This is mostly speculation on my part, but maybe Robertson was in the same league as West defensively, but for some reason that part of his game has been overlooked. Perhaps the fact that Robertson did more as a floor general and rebounder than West during their early years (with their scoring being about the same) led people to give more attention to West's defense. (Similar to the way people overlooked Chamberlain's defense in comparison to Russell's, even though it was superb, because Chamberlain was doing so much scoring.)

 
At Friday, July 27, 2007 5:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are right that "in the old days" guards were guards and forwards were forwards. That was my point regarding West and Robertson.

I don't mean to suggest that Oscar was a poor defensive player. For one thing, defensive rebounding is an important part of defense and Oscar was an excellent rebounder. However, I don't think that Oscar was as good an overall defender as, say, Jerry West or Walt Frazier--at least on a consistent basis.

The All-Defensive Team was not selected until 1969, when West and Robertson were already well into their careers. West made the team every year that he was eligible (again, leaving out his injury-shortened final season), earning four 1st Team selections and one 2nd Team selection. Robertson never made the squad once. West and Robertson were both still making the All-Star and All-NBA teams at that time, which is one of the reasons that I said that Robertson was not "especially noted" for his defense. It is possible that the voters ignored him for whatever reason but the All-Defensive Teams are selected by the coaches and I think that they have a pretty good idea who the league's best defenders are.

 
At Friday, July 27, 2007 5:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree that Chamberlain's defense is sometimes overlooked but it is interesting to note that he earned two All-Defensive 1st Team selections in the four seasons that he played during which the team existed (a fifth season, 1969-70, was basically wiped out by a serious knee injury).

 
At Sunday, July 29, 2007 7:27:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I've got the feeling that Robertson "carried the weight of the ball" more than Jerry West, but that's just a feeling. Even though both of them played basically a one-man-orchestra kind of game in college, West played forward, even power forward, in his rookie season.

But thinking of the 1960 draft I've also recalled it was the year the AAU wax left behind: NBA salaries had been escalating for a bit but people hadn't realized it... until 1960. In Tall Tales, Lenny Wilkens claims he was planning to go the AAU route, getting a nice fat job at some big company and play for their team, when the money he was offered by the NBA totally blindsided him. In the fantastic "Golden Age of AAU basketball", somebody tells the story of how they tried to sign Jerry West only to find out he'd cost more than the whole budget they had for basketball.

Even though salaries were still relatively paltry, the NBA had overtaking the industrial jobs offered by the AAU, and it all became clear in 1960. The AAU disappeared as a relevant competition almost right away after they failed to grab any of the promising rookie of the standout draft of 1960.

 
At Monday, July 30, 2007 9:48:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

You make some good points, David. The reason I (as someone who has seen only a few games of Robertson's) am more reluctant to say Robertson wasn't really on West's level as a defender is because I've always read good things about Robertson's defensive skills. I don't think I've ever read or heard anyone refer to Robertson's defensive play as "average" or "mediocre", or anything less than good.

Again, I have no way to be sure, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt for a few reasons. I think the standard Russell/Chamberlain defensive comparison provides a sort of approximation to the standard West/Robertson comparison (the former has been discussed much more than the latter so there's much more information to judge it). In each comparison, people basically have good things to say whenever either of the players' defense is brought up. In general though, defense accounts for a much larger percentage of the average discussion on Russell/West than it does for Chamberlain/Robertson.

Why? For the Russell/Chamberlain comparison, I think it's safe to say that this has to do with the fact that Wilt putting up 40-50 points a night early in his career overshadowed his defense. Russell and Chamberlain were always compared, and Russell was labeled as the "defense" guy and Chamberlain as the "offense" guy. Those labels stuck, and as a result, Chamberlain went through most of his career without being noted much for his defense.
(I'm not necessarily saying Chamberlain was as good defensively as Russell. Russell might have been slightly better over the course of an entire career, but I think it's MUCH closer than the average person would think.)

Perhaps in the West/Robertson comparison, Robertson's greater ability/responsibility to rebound and orchestrate an offense early in his career caused his defense to be overlooked, while West wasn't doing as much rebounding and playmaking, which left people focusing more on his superb defensive. This is all speculation on my part, but considering I've basically read only good things about Robertson's defense, I think it's quite possible that it may be overlooked in the big picture, and this is just a theory of mine which could explain why.

Basically, I think once a player gains a certain reputation or label, it's very hard to break free of it over a career. You're right that Chamberlain made 2 All-Defensive 1st Teams. However, as Chamberlain himself noted, he only started getting credit for his defense during his last two years when the Lakers' phenomenal 1972 season thrust the spotlight on him, and Chamberlain's drastically reduced scoring role forced people to notice his defense. I think that All-Defensive team lists are invariably comprised of good defenders, but I think it's possible, due to labels and reputations and other stuff, for some players to slip through the cracks. For instance, it's always puzzled me that Larry Bird made 3 All-Defensive 2nd teams, while Julius Erving and James Worthy never made a single team. (Yes, Doc was recognized in the ABA, but he got that recognition from a different crowd, and with a different reputation.)

 
At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 2:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Larry Bird's three All-Defensive Team selections are probably the best evidence that could be cited against my assertion about the coaches knowing who the best defenders in the league are. Bird was clearly and without question a subpar individual defender and he almost always guarded the worst offensive threat on the opposing frontline, even if that player was a center (for instance, Tree Rollins). However, Bird had a great understanding of the game and was a very good "team" defender who could anticipate plays and get steals; I also think that he was often given the benefit of the doubt by referees for violating the illegal defense rules of the time--he often seemed to be floating around guarding no one in particular, since his assigned man was generally not a threat. I suppose that it is a philosophical question whether a "team" defender like Bird should make an All-Defensive Team over superior individual defenders. If Bird had not had the good fortune of playing alongside McHale and Parish then he would have been forced to guard some heavyweight scorers and his weaknesses would have been more clearly exposed. Coaches I have spoken to from that era praise Bird's defense even while admitting his limitations but I never have completely understood why Bird enjoyed a better defensive reputation than Magic; they both played defense in a similar way and Magic was even more adept at getting steals than Bird was.

I also agree that Erving was an underrated defender; he had at least as much ability to play the passing lanes as Bird and was better as a one on one defender. Obviously, Erving was a vastly superior shot blocker, probably the best for his size in the history of the ABA or NBA (Terry Tyler was a great 6-6 or 6-7 shotblocker but not for nearly as long as Doc). I never thought of Worthy as a particularly great (or particularly bad) defender; he struck me as average to slightly above average in that category.

I don't disagree with you at all regarding Chamberlain/Russell, including the part where you say that Russell may have been just slightly better. People who saw both men play swear that they each blocked 8-10 shots per game during their primes; sadly, there are no statistics--and little visual record--from that time.

I know that Robertson's defense is praised in many sources but I doubt that, if push came to shove, coaches from that era would rate his defense above that of all-time greats West and Frazier or that of defensive specialists like Sloan and Van Lier. The All-Defensive Team voting underlines that and I have never read/heard anything about the All-D voting of that era being biased against Robertson.

I'd be interested to see the actual voting totals from those years; maybe Robertson just missed the cut behind the guys who I mentioned who usually made the All-D teams at that time.

 
At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 3:02:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I certainly don't think most coaches would rate Robertson's defense above any of the guys you mentioned. I'm just not sure that they would rate it drastically lower either. I've never heard anything that suggested the All-D Team voting was biased against Robertson. I was merely suggesting that Robertson's defensive skills may have been overlooked in the big picture, and I gave the Russell/Chamberlain example to show that such a thing has happened to another player in another comparison, and then wondered if something similar happened with West/Robertson.

I totally agree with you about Bird's defense, and how he was always assigned to guard stiffs. Perhaps the biggest slap in the face to Bird's defensive skills is the fact that in the 1987 finals Kevin McHale, playing with a broken foot, was usually guarding James Worthy (who probably had the quickest first step in the league among players his size). I think it spoke volumes that the Celtics felt a crippled McHale would still be able to do a better job on Worthy than Bird, AND they would rather risk further pain/injury to McHale than try to have Bird guard Worthy.

I've always thought of Worthy as a solid defender, but not an All-D guy. The thing is though, you could put Worthy on a good offensive player (such as Bird), and not worry about him getting manhandled. I brought him up, along with Erving, to give examples of small forwards from Bird's era who I felt were better defenders than Bird but didn't make the All-D team.

I think Dr. J's defensive reputation in the NBA suffered from the fact that certain guys put (Bobby Gross, Bob Dandridge) put up big numbers against him in some playoff series, and the reputation "stuck". This point of view ignores the way they got their points. Gross was always running and got tons of screens. It's also possible that as he aged, Erving's knee problems hampered his defensive abilities. I have a few games of the 1976 ABA finals recorded, and whenever they put Erving on David Thompson, Thompson would not make much noise. Erving's solid D on Thompson during some key stretches late in Game 6 was crucial to the Nets victory.

From what I've read and seen, I've gathered that Wilt had a bit of work to do on his defense in his Warriors days (though he still blocked lots of shots), but during his time with the 76ers and Lakers, he was about as much of a problem to opposing offenses as Russell was.

 
At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 4:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I think that we basically agree on most of these matters.

McHale was an exceptional defensive (and offensive) player and you are right that Worthy would at times guard Bird and that Worthy did a respectable job.

I think that Gross and Dandridge benefited a lot from Philly's overall defensive softness at that time. For instance, Doc crashed the offensive boards, but if the other team got the rebound the Philly guards might not get back and then Doc's man would score on the fast break. I don't believe that there were a lot of situations in which Gross or Dandridge isolated on Doc and broke him down one on one.

Doc's knees were still good enough to enable him to rank among the league's best in steals and blocked shots well into his 30s. His main weakness as a defender in one on one situations is that he could be overpowered by stronger players; Doc was well conditioned but not particularly big and strong, so power players could give him some trouble. People may not realize that Bird was 2-3 inches taller than Doc and 10-15 pounds heavier. The classic early video game that featured them playing one on one was very realistic because it really incorporated each of their strengths and weaknesses (they both consulted with the makers of the game). Doc had the edge in quickness and leaping, while Bird was stronger and had more range as a shooter. In the literature for the product, Bird noted that one of his real life strategies versus the Doctor was to post him up and try to wear him down using his size advantage.

Doc was a tremendous defender during his ABA days. When Kevin Loughery took over the Nets, he installed a pressing, trapping defense built around Doc's amazing athleticism. The problem was that pressing and trapping all game long for the course of a whole professional season would have worn out Doc, who also was leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, etc. So Loughery backed off and only used the press in select situations. Rod Thorn, an assistant coach on those Nets' teams, told me that Doc guarded the best player on the other team every night. He always ranked among the leaders in steals and blocked shots.

There are several reasons that Russell is more remembered for his defense than Chamberlain. Russell came into the league first and changed the concept of how to play center from that of a big, slow guy who scores in the post to an athletic player who aggressively guards the basket. Russell had already won a couple titles before Wilt even entered the NBA and the way that Russell played was revolutionary. Wilt was likely a better shot blocker than anyone else other than Russell--and may have even blocked more shots than Russell--but Russell did it first and immediately achieved championship success. Russell also had just one coach for his entire career (not counting when he was a player coach, of course) and Red Auerbach was a tireless advocate to the press concerning Russell's greatness. Wilt had several coaches and did not get along with all of them, so he did not have a similar advocate. Finally, Wilt's offensive exploits were so overwhelming that they were impossible to ignore, while no stats were kept for defense at that time. It became natural to speak of Wilt's great offense going against Russell's great defense--even though Wilt often pointed out that he guarded Russell one on one while it usually took more than one player to guard Wilt.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home