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Monday, September 24, 2007

5-9 and Under

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 1/24/07; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

Randy Newman once sang, “Short people got no reason to live.” That was a tongue in cheek line but short people are certainly few and far between on NBA rosters. Of course, “short” is a relative term regarding NBA players, whose average height is 6-7; the average American male is approximately 5-9, which is a veritable midget in terms of pro basketball. Only five players 5-9 or shorter have played in at least eight NBA seasons.

Calvin Murphy is without question the headliner of that quintet. He averaged 17.9 ppg in his Hall of Fame career, playing all 13 of his NBA seasons with the Rockets, first in San Diego and then in Houston. He averaged 20-plus ppg five times, including a career-high 25.6 ppg (fifth in the NBA) in 1977-78. Murphy shot .482 from the field, an excellent percentage for any guard, let alone one who stood 5-9. He ranked fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage in 1973-74 (.522). Murphy twice finished in the top five in apg and he twice led the NBA in free throw percentage. He shot .892 from the free throw line during his career (fifth all-time) and his .958 free throw accuracy in 1980-81 is still the single season record in that category. Murphy scored 18.5 ppg during his playoff career, including a 42 point performance in a 105-100 game seven win over San Antonio in the 1981 Western Conference Semifinals.

Muggsy Bogues ranked in the top ten in total assists for six straight seasons (1990-95), finishing third twice, and placed in the top ten in apg five times, including placing second in 1994 (10.1) to the legendary John Stockton. Bogues’ 6726 career assists place him 15th all-time and his 7.6 apg average is the 13th best all-time. Bogues averaged 7.7 ppg during his career and scored in double figures three times. He shot .827 from the free throw line. Shorter players are often considered to be defensive liabilities but Bogues showed why that is not necessarily the case. He was quick, strong and feisty, averaging 1.5 spg during his career. It is not a normal part of most teams’ plans to post up their point guards, so when teams tried to post up Bogues it tended to backfire by distracting those teams from their offensive strengths. Bogues showed how disruptive a small and tenacious guard can be in terms of pressuring ball handlers and getting into passing lanes. Also, it should be remembered that half of the game is spent at each end of the court and it is no treat for a taller player to try to keep up with an explosively quick smaller player.

Spud Webb will forever be remembered for winning the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest but he could play, too. He averaged just a shade under 10 ppg during his 13 season NBA career. He scored in double figures for five straight years, topping off at 16.0 ppg in 1991-92. He blocked 111 shots during his career, including four seasons with more than 10 blocks and two with more than 20; Bogues blocked 39 shots, with a season-high of seven, while Murphy was credited with 51 blocked shots and never had more than nine in one season (blocked shots were not officially recorded during his first three seasons). Webb averaged 5.3 apg and, like Murphy and Bogues, was an excellent free throw shooter (.848).

Charlie Criss provided a spark for the Atlanta Hawks as a rookie in 1977-78 and his strong performance helped Hubie Brown win the first of his two Coach of the Year awards. Criss ranked third on the team in scoring (11.4 ppg), second on the team in assists (294) and third on the team in steals (108). While that turned out to be his best season, he proved that he was no flash in the pan by lasting eight years and producing career averages of 8.5 ppg and 3.2 apg. He shot .831 from the free throw line.

Earl Boykins is the only active member of the quintet. He is not as good a playmaker or defender as the others, but he is an outstanding free throw shooter (.881) and provides instant offense coming off of the bench. He is the shortest player to ever score at least 30 points in an NBA game--and he has done it six times: he pumped in 32 points in a 117-109 victory over defending champion Detroit on November 11, 2004, shooting 11-15 from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line. Boykins matched that total on November 19, 2004 versus Chicago. He scored 30 points on 9-16 shooting from the field and 9-10 free throw shooting in Milwaukee’s 99-91 win over Charlotte on January 15, 2007. That was his second game with the Bucks after being traded from Denver. Boykins had a career-high 36 points on January 24, 2007 in Milwaukee's 114-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings. On April 4 and April 6, he had back to back 30 point games for the first time in his career, scoring 32 points in a 98-89 Milwaukee win over Boston and following that with 36 points in a 115-102 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

On January 18, 2005 versus Seattle, Boykins did something that was even more remarkable: he set an NBA record by scoring 15 points in overtime as Denver beat Seattle 116-110. Boykins averaged a career-high 14.6 ppg in 2006-07. He is known primarily as a scorer but he averaged 4.4 apg coming off of the bench, so he also creates shots for his teammates.

Nate Robinson’s career has gotten off to a promising start and he may one day expand the quintet’s roster. He averaged 9.3 ppg as a rookie and increased that to 10.1 ppg in 2006-07. His free throw shooting as a rookie (.752) was not as good as that of his predecessors but he improved that number to .777 in 2006-07. On November 26, 2005, Robinson hit a game winning three pointer in overtime versus the Philadelphia 76ers, becoming just the 10th Knick since 1980 to make a game winning shot at the buzzer.

What does it take to succeed in the NBA at 5-9 or less? The NBA’s mighty mites share these traits: 1) Blazing speed; 2) Shooting ability and/or the ability to dribble penetrate and create shots for others. Shorter players tend to not have great field goal percentages (Murphy is the notable exception here) because it is obviously tougher for them to get open looks but they demonstrate their shooting touch by their accuracy at the foul line and ability to keep the defense honest by knocking down open shots if their defender sags off of them; 3) Toughness. Murphy was actually once featured in a Sports Illustrated article about the NBA’s most feared enforcers and he won fights against several significantly larger players; of course, as the suspensions of Robinson, Mardy Collins, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith show, fighting ability is not a trait that the NBA wants showcased in today’s game. It should also be noted that the 5-9 and under players often possess deceptive strength. Boykins can bench press over 300 pounds and Robinson has the physique of an NFL defensive back.

Amazingly, the small group (pardon the pun) of 5-9 and under players has produced two Slam Dunk Contest champions--Spud Webb and Nate Robinson, who won the event in 2006 by jumping over Webb. As Han Solo said about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Short help is better than no help at all."


A Little Help Please

Player...Height...Seasons...Games...PPG

Calvin Murphy...5-9...1971-1983...1002...17.9
Muggsy Bogues...5-3...1988-2001...889...7.7
Spud Webb...5-7...1986-1998...814...9.9
Earl Boykins...5-5...1998-...484...9.8
Charlie Criss...5-8...1978-85...418...8.5

Five players 5-9 or shorter have played in at least eight NBA seasons

posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM

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3 Comments:

At Monday, September 24, 2007 8:59:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Also, Muggsy Bogues became instantly popular in Europe after he shut down Drazen Petrovic in the semi finals of 1986 World Championship. His pesky defense and its effect on the best European perimeter scorer of the age (and perhaps of all time) was the main factor in an underdog Team USA upsetting powerhouse Yugoslavia.

 
At Monday, September 24, 2007 1:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did you get this data? It's always nice to credit your source(s).

 
At Monday, September 24, 2007 9:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I'm not sure which "data" you mean. If you are referring to the players' heights, I mainly used the NBA Register. Citing one's sources outside of academia is generally reserved for direct quotes or highly obscure information.

 

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