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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 11/25/06; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

What is the statistical profile of an NBA championship team? Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA championship and is now an analyst for ESPN’s NBA coverage, has always emphasized the importance of point differential. Hank Egan, a Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach who was a member of Gregg Popovich’s staff when the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 championship, told me that the first statistic he looks at is defensive field goal percentage. An examination of the statistics of NBA championship teams since 1990 shows that these two categories are indeed strong indicators that a team will be successful. On average, those teams ranked third in the league in point differential and fifth in defensive field goal percentage. Eight of those 18 teams ranked first in the league in point differential, 15 of them ranked in the top five and 17 of them ranked in the top ten. The only outlier is the 1995 Houston squad, which dealt with injuries and a blockbuster midseason trade before hitting its stride and winning the NBA title.

It is often said that defense wins championships and the strong rankings of recent championship teams in the category of defensive field goal percentage certainly lends credence to that thought. Still, the object of the game is ultimately to put the ball in the basket, so a championship team must be able to generate at least some offense. In fact, championship teams tend to rank toward the top of the league in scoring. Two of the past 17 champions were the highest scoring team in the league, five more placed in the top five and more than half ranked in the top ten. The identity of the two lowest ranking offenses among recent champions would come as no surprise to anyone who has watched NBA basketball in the past two decades: the 1990 Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons and the 2004 Detroit "Play the Right Way" Pistons.

Another pattern that is readily evident with even a cursory glance at the accompanying chart is that scoring has plummeted in the NBA, from 107.0 ppg in 1990 to a low of 91.6 ppg in the lockout shortened 1999 season. As of 2006-07, recent rules changes that were intended to increase scoring still had not boosted that number back to triple digits. Yet, despite this obvious trend, the relative relationship between the champion’s scoring and that of the rest of the league has not changed much. Even NBA champions that rank highly in defensive field goal percentage generally are in the top half of the league in scoring; they not only outscore their opponents (point differential) but they usually play at a faster pace than the average team in the league. Slowing the pace down to reduce the number of possessions may prevent a less talented team from suffering a lot of blowout losses but it is not generally a recipe for winning a championship.

What about rebounding? That is not included in the accompanying chart because how a team ranks in total rebounds largely correlates with the pace at which that team plays (i.e., how many missed shots are available to be rebounded). The significant thing to note is that every one of these champions outrebounded their opponents by at least 1.6 rpg except for the two Houston teams and the 2002 Lakers. That Lakers squad outrebounded their opponents by a little more than 1 rpg, while both Houston teams were outrebounded by their opponents--the 1995 team by nearly 3 rpg, a number that can at least partially be explained by the trade of starting power forward Otis Thorpe for All-Star guard Clyde Drexler. Rockets’ management thought--correctly, as it turned out--that the advantage of having two superstars (Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler) on the court at the same time would outweigh any disadvantage that the team might incur on the glass. Unless your team has two of the game’s 50 greatest players--and an armada of clutch three point shooters like Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith--it is not likely to win a title without enjoying a rebounding advantage.

Perhaps the "strangest" of these champions is the 1993 Chicago Bulls, a team that ranked 11th in field goal percentage, 15th in defensive field goal percentage, 15th in scoring and is one of only six champions in the past 18 years to score fewer points per game than the league average. That Bulls team had a couple things in its favor, though: a good point differential (fourth best in the league)--and a guy named Michael Jordan, who had a certain ability to do special things at the end of close games; the Bulls had several such finishes during the 1993 title run--Charles Smith’s misadventures from point blank range (thanks to strong defense by Jordan and Scottie Pippen) and John Paxson’s dagger three pointer to clinch the title being perhaps the two most famous close encounters that Chicago won.

The first two Bulls’ teams from the second "three-peat" (1996 and 1997) were in many ways the most dominant champions of the past 18 years. Both posted double digit point differentials and both led the league in scoring while also ranking highly in defensive field goal percentage. Those teams put tremendous pressure on their opponents both offensively and defensively. The 1998 Bulls squad was slightly better defensively but shot a significantly lower percentage from the field and only scored 1.1 ppg more than the average team that season. The fact that Scottie Pippen, the team’s second leading scorer and leading playmaker, missed significant playing time due to injury no doubt had a lot to do with that squad’s reduced dominance.

(Note: this paragraph was written when the 2006-07 season was only a few weeks old; by using point differential and defensive field goal percentage as a barometer, both eventual NBA Finalists and a surprise Western Finalist--the Utah Jazz--stuck out from the pack at that early juncture; Orlando got off to a fantastic start but was not able to sustain it) Which teams look like a champion so far this season? The sample size of games is so small now that one blowout can have a big effect on the rankings. That said, the Utah Jazz have been the surprise team in the league so far, sporting the best record and a gaudy point differential. One possible cause for concern (other than injuries to key players, which have been a problem for Utah in recent seasons): the Jazz rank in the bottom half of the league in defensive field goal percentage. Which NBA teams best combine a stout point differential with a good defensive field goal percentage? There is a "usual suspect," an "unusual suspect" and a "new suspect": those teams, respectively, are the San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs have been a title contender ever since Tim Duncan arrived on the scene and that does not figure to change this year. The Cavaliers made their presence felt in the playoffs for the first time in many years in 2005-06 and seem poised to make another good run in 2007. Orlando suffered the loss of star players Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady over the past decade but has now assembled a solid team around Dwight Howard, who is blossoming into a force right before our eyes.

Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers

Champion...PPG Diff...FG%...Def. FG%...PPG...Avg. PPG*...Diff.*

Chi...9.0..(1)...510..(2)...475..(13)..110.0..(7)..106.3.. +.7

Summary of average rankings for these 18 NBA champions: On average, these championship teams ranked 3.1 in ppg differential, with eight of them ranking first, 15 of them ranking in the top five and 17 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 7.1 in field goal percentage, with one of them ranking first, eight of them ranking in the top five and 14 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 5.2 in defensive field goal percentage, with four of them ranking first, 12 of them ranking in the top five and 15 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 9.8 in points scored, with two teams ranking first, five teams ranking in the top five and 10 teams ranking in the top 10.

Note: Avg. PPG and Diff. refer to the average points per game for an NBA team that season and the difference between the champion's ppg and the league average.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:43 PM


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Pro Basketball's Greatest Ball Hawks

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 11/19/06; all statistics have been updated to include the 2006-07 season

The NBA officially began recording steals and blocked shots during the 1973-74 season, one year after the ABA started keeping track of these statistics. Since then, just 52 players have had at least 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in the same season, 27 of whom only accomplished the feat once. Five players had 100-100 seasons in 2005-06: Kevin Garnett (104 steals, 107 blocked shots), Andrei Kirilenko (102-220), Shawn Marion (160-137), Ben Wallace (146-181) and Gerald Wallace (138-115). Only three players accomplished this in 2006-07: Shawn Marion (156-122), Josh Smith (101-207) and Ben Wallace (111-156)

How valuable is it to have a 100-100 player on a team? Could such a player actually be harming his team by gambling too much, resulting in defensive breakdowns? The careers of Julius Erving and Bobby Jones provide possible answers to those questions. Erving played against Jones in the ABA and then teamed with him for eight years with the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. During that time, the 76ers made it to the Conference Finals four times, advanced to the NBA Finals three times and won one championship; Philadelphia never ranked lower than eighth in ppg allowed and usually placed in the top five. That was not a result of playing at a slow pace, either, because the 76ers twice led the league in point differential and were always among the league leaders in that category.

Kevin Garnett ranks third on the all-time list with eight 100-100 Club seasons. He missed having a ninth such year by four steals in 2001-02 and would have probably had another one in 1998-99 if the lockout had not limited the season to 50 games. Garnett has never exceeded the 200 level in either category and has ranked in the top ten in blocked shots only once in his 11 year career, which is surprising considering his length and jumping ability. He has never ranked in the top ten in the league in steals.

Ben Wallace has had seven straight 100-100 Club seasons and his shot blocking numbers are much better than Garnett’s. Wallace has produced three 100-200 Club seasons, tied for third all-time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and is a two time member of the Top Ten Club (consisting of players who ranked in the top ten in the league in both categories in the same season), including 2005-06.

Andrei Kirilenko has rung up four 100-100 Club seasons in his six year career, including two 100-200 campaigns, and he is a one time member of the Top Ten Club. Kirilenko has also had three "5x5" games—contests in which he put up at least a total of five in the categories of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots; "5x5" games have not been completely tracked but the only other players who are known to have accomplished this feat are Hakeem Olajuwon (six times), Vlade Divac, Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Camby.

Julius Erving can be considered the founder and president of the 100-100 Club. He tallied 181 steals and 127 blocked shots for the Virginia Squires (ABA) in 1972-73, his second professional season. Erving is also the first member of the even more exclusive Top Ten Club. Erving accumulated a record 12 100-100 Club appearances in his 16-season career. Erving missed the cut for a 13th season in 1977-78 by only three blocked shots. He almost certainly exceeded 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in his rookie year (when such records were not kept), meaning that he was a consistent threat in both categories until his 15th campaign, when he was 36 years old! Erving set the standard with six Top Ten Club seasons and he missed having a seventh in 1981-82 when he finished 11th in the NBA in steals, .012 spg behind 10th place. In 1975-76, Erving logged the first 200-100 Club season, ranking third in the ABA in steals (207) and seventh in the ABA in blocked shots (160). Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Olajuwon are the only other 200-100 players; Jordan is the only player who did it twice and those were the only two seasons in his career that he blocked at least 100 shots.

Olajuwon displayed amazing defensive versatility during his career. He matched Erving’s standard with 12 100-100 Club seasons and ranks second with four Top Ten Club finishes. Erving had the first 100-200 season but Olajuwon is the undisputed king of this category, racking up 11 seasons with at least 100 steals and 200 blocked shots; in three of those seasons he amassed more than 300 blocked shots and on two occasions he combined 150-plus steals with 300-plus blocked shots. David Robinson had one 150-300 Club season and three 100-300 Club seasons; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only other 100-300 Club player.

Erving and Jones are the only teammates to twice have 100-100 Club seasons at the same time (1979-80 and 1983-84). Jones, who is considered to be one of the greatest defensive forwards ever, earned eight straight NBA All-Defensive First Team selections, plus one Second Team selection and two ABA All-Defensive Team selections, while Erving only received one ABA All-Defensive Team selection. Does this disparity in recognition mean that Erving gambled too much to get steals and blocked shots, placing himself out of position when he failed to make those plays? Jones disagrees with that way of thinking: "He was an exceptional defensive player. My goal during my career was to get 100 steals and 100 blocked shots every year. I think that in my 12-year career I did it six times. He did it quite a few times (more than that). Those are unselfish stats. Those are stats that don’t hurt your teammates; they help your team. He had good anticipation and he was willing to gamble. He was willing to expend the energy and he was a tremendous athlete who could play both ends (of the court)."

Jones mentioned the g-word--gambling--in his answer. So, does going after steals and blocks--gambling, if you will--leave the team’s defense vulnerable in some way? Jones emphatically says no and explains the defensive philosophy that the 76ers used: "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do."

Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who coached the 76ers during the seasons in question, amplifies those sentiments: "Julius had the great ability to block shots. His anticipation defensively for steals and creating turnovers was just wonderful and he was definitely underrated in that regard. He took a great deal of pride in his defense. We had to rely on our quickness more than physically overpowering teams. If Julius went for the steal and missed, there was supposed to somebody there giving him support until he recovered and got back into the defensive set."

Those 76ers were outstanding for reasons that went beyond having 100-100 Club players on their roster but their sustained success and strong rankings as a defensive squad are powerful indicators of the value of having versatile, athletic defenders like Erving and Jones. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were a similarly disruptive defensive duo on six championship teams in the 1990s, but neither was quite the shot blocker that Erving and Jones were.

"100/100" Club
Player Seasons
Julius Erving... 12
Hakeem Olajuwon... 12
Kevin Garnett... 8
Sam Lacey... 7
David Robinson... 7
Ben Wallace...7
Bobby Jones... 6
George Gervin... 5
Vlade Divac... 5
Shawn Marion... 5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar... 4
Andrei Kirilenko... 4
Terry Tyler... 4

Note: List includes all players who
totaled 100+ steals and 100+ blocked
shots in at least four seasons

"200/100" Club
Player Seasons
Michael Jordan... 2
Julius Erving... 1
Hakeem Olajuwon... 1
Scottie Pippen... 1

Note: List includes all players who
totaled 200+ steals and 100+ blocked
shots in the same season

"100/200" Club
Player Seasons
Hakeem Olajuwon... 11
David Robinson... 7
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...3
Ben Wallace... 3
Terry Tyler... 2
Patrick Ewing... 2
Andrei Kirilenko... 2
Julius Erving... 1
Gar Heard... 1
Bob Lanier... 1
Elvin Hayes... 1
Robert Parish... 1
Josh Smith...1

Note: List includes all players who
totaled 100+ steals and 200+ blocked
shots in the same season

"Top Ten" Club
Player Seasons
Julius Erving... 6
Hakeem Olajuwon... 4
Bobby Jones... 2
Ben Wallace... 2
Elvin Hayes... 1
Marvin Barnes... 1
David Robinson... 1
Andrei Kirilenko... 1

Note: List includes all players who
ranked in the top ten in steals and
blocked shots in the same season

posted by David Friedman @ 11:33 PM


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Hitting/Fixing the Links

As some of you have already noticed, none of the links to my 23 NBCSports.com articles work. I have decided to remedy this situation by reprinting each of those articles as a 20 Second Timeout post and then replacing the broken links with permalinks to those posts; I have also updated several of the older articles with the most recent statistics, so even if you read these pieces when they first were published they are definitely worth checking out again--and before anyone says anything, yes I know that the charts are more difficult to read when posted here than they were at NBCSports.com. I did the best that I could with this template and I think that, combined with the material in the main articles, the charts are understandable. If someone has an idea about how to post the charts in a more readable fashion here I'd be glad to do so.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:20 PM


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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bill Russell on Red Auerbach

"Red's theory was 10 players, two baskets, 13,000 people, one basketball--and we will decide what is done with that one basketball."--Bill Russell on Red Auerbach

This summer, NBA TV aired a wonderful show titled "Red and Me: Bill Russell." It is a half hour tribute to Red Auerbach that is narrated by Bill Russell and contains a lot of footage from their great partnership. This program conveys a lot of insight about the dynamics of the coach-player relationship. This insight is all the more important and powerful because Red Auerbach and Bill Russell were the two driving forces behind the most successful dynasty in North American team sports history: the Boston Celtics, who won eight straight NBA championships and 11 titles during Russell's 13 seasons.

The show begins with Russell explaining his definition of friendship: "To be a true friend, you accept the other person as they are and they accept you as you are. The thoughts about each other are always, 'What can I do to make my friend's life better?'" Next, Russell recalls a moment from his first NBA game: he blocks a shot but the referee calls goaltending. Auerbach argued so vociferously that he was whistled for a technical foul and this support made a deep impact on Russell: "First time that I had a coach who went to bat for me. After the game, I said, 'Thanks for looking out for me.' Red says to me, 'Russ, loyalty is a two-way street. I can't expect my players to fight for me if I won't fight for them.'"

Another formative moment in their relationship happened toward the end of Russell's rookie season, when Auerbach asked him to come to the arena early because he wanted to talk to him. Russell remembers, "We're sitting in Boston Garden and he says, 'I want to tell you something. You're the best player playing basketball.' I said, 'I know that' (Russell delivers his trademark laugh). He says, 'I know you knew that but I may be the only other person who knows it. These guys don't know what you're doing. I want you to know that I know.' Here is a coach saying that he is so glad I'm here. That was such a comfort." Maybe it seems obvious now that Russell was the best player in the NBA at that time. Maybe it even seems obvious that his coach should realize that and say it to him--but how Auerbach delivered that message and when he delivered it (right before the playoffs) showed a keen understanding of psychology. Auerbach made Russell feel appreciated while at the same time providing a standard for him to meet. If it is as easy to coach great athletes as some people think then why are there so many documented cases of great athletes feuding with their coaches and even orchestrating their firings? Yet right from the start, Auerbach established that he would fight for Russell, that he saw greatness in Russell that others did not yet see and that he expected to continue to see greatness from Russell.

Just as Auerbach stood up for Russell, on occasion Russell stood up for Auerbach. Russell remembers one time when Auerbach was arguing and holding up the game. The opposing coach--Russell does not name him but merely says that he used to play center, so most knowledgeable fans can probably figure out who he means--told Auerbach to shut up and sit down. Russell jumped right into the fray: "I told him, 'Who are you talking to? Are you talking to Red, the little guy? If you are going to tell somebody to sit down and shut up, tell me that--and see what happens.' Everybody was shocked because they had never heard me say anything. So, after the game Red says, 'Hey, Russ, thanks for looking out for me.'" Russell again lets loose his trademark laugh as he recalls his answer: "'I wasn't looking out for you; I never liked that guy anyway.'"

Auerbach used to always say that you handle animals but you deal with people. Russell explains exactly how that philosophy applied to their relationship: "The way that he used to coach me is that we would have these conversations. Like one time we were leading the Eastern Conference by 12 games, I think. Red says to me, 'I'm so mad at you I could bite the head off a 10 penny nail.' 'What are you mad about?' He said, 'You are just taking it easy, finishing out the schedule. Well, even you aren't that good. You have the centers who are playing against you terrorized but if you start taking shortcuts then some of them are going to get the idea that they can play against you. Once they believe they can play against you, they can play against you. What you have to do if you want to win a championship is finish this season by creating as much terror and havoc as you can possibly come up with.'" While Russell describes this conversation, the footage consists of him running down Jerry West from behind to block what looked like a wide open layup and then a newspaper headline flashes across the screen: "Celtics Still Reign."

Russell says that after he won his first regular season MVP (1958) that Auerbach pulled him aside and said that during the next practice he was going to yell at him but that to disregard it; Auerbach just wanted to show the rest of the team that no one was above criticism. Russell again laughs uproariously as he finishes the story: "You know how they give people an unlimited budget? He went over it. Oh, I got so annoyed with him." The fact that Russell looks back on this episode fondly shows that he understood that it was nothing personal and for the greater good of the team (Kevin Loughery did something similar at times with Julius Erving when the New York Nets won two ABA titles in three seasons).

Often, Auerbach and Russell would engage in marathon sessions of playing gin rummy after a basketball game: "I always lost. He was probably a better gin player than he was a coach and that's saying something. We would play gin almost all night and talk about the (basketball) game. He said, 'My mission as a coach is to develop two things--a system and an atmosphere--and then get the hell out of the way.' While he was putting that system in, every step of the way he asked us what we thought of it. He would receive your ideas, assess them and figure out how to use them. That way the players were vested in the outcome. I never heard him say, 'My way or the highway' or anything like that."

Auerbach did not believe in setting a curfew for his players because then he would have had to follow them around and enforce it (Joe Lapchick also did not believe in having too many specific rules and restrictions for his players, a philosophy that his protege Bobby Knight adopted). One time, though, the Celtics had a chance to break the NBA's single season winning streak record and Auerbach imposed a curfew. The next game the Celtics got routed and Auerbach apologized to the team: "He said, 'Guys, I blew this one and it will never happen again.' He was big enough to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Auerbach built up such a feeling of family and loyalty that the players actually trained their replacements. Arnie Risen mentored a young Russell, Frank Ramsey helped John Havlicek and guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman guided K.C. Jones and Sam Jones. Russell explains that the Celtic attitude was, "The guy next to you on the bench is your teammate, not your rival" (this echoes what Kenny Smith--who played for Russell early in his career--told me that he said to a young Sam Cassell when they both played for the Houston Rockets).

Russell says that he and Auerbach rarely talked about the civil rights movement and Russell's activities in that movement but that Auerbach always supported him in whatever he did. One time, though, Auerbach did tell Russell about some prejudice that he experienced early in his coaching career: "The only time that we ever talked about it was one time he told me about when he first went to Boston. There was a local college kid at Holy Cross named Bob Cousy and Red did not draft Cousy. Red told me that one of the writers said to him, 'You have insulted everybody in New England by not taking Bob Cousy. We're going to run you out of town. And besides that, you're a Jew and we don't like Jews either.' I said, 'Wow. How did you handle that?' He said, 'Oh, I just outlived the bastards' and that was one of the few conversations that we had about race. He did not let it have a negative impact on him or his life and that was already my attitude." Perhaps the most striking clip in the whole show is when a reporter asks Russell, "Do you think that you will get some white kids to play basketball with Negro kids?" Russell replied calmly, "I think so. I don't know why not. My kids play with white kids and no one has gotten hurt yet."

When the time came for Auerbach to retire as coach, he appointed Russell to be his successor. Cue another striking clip, as a reporter asks Russell, "As the first Negro coach in major league sports, can you do the job impartially, without any racial prejudice in reverse?" Without hesitation or rancor, Russell answered, "Yes." The reporter retorted, "How?" and Russell continued, "The most important factor is respect. In basketball, I respect a man for his ability. Period."

Auerbach distanced himself from the day to day running of the team so that no one could say that he was looking over Russell's shoulder but at one point Russell said to him, "'I need you to come to practice. I need some help.'" Russell explains, "My feeling was if I have the greatest mind in basketball sitting in an office 100 yards from where I'm practicing and I don't ask him to help me out then I would be extremely unintelligent." Russell coached the Celtics to two titles in three years before retiring. Looking back, Russell declares, "I know that the best possible thing that could happen to me in my professional career was having Red as my coach."

Russell says that in recent years Auerbach would sit at the Fleet Center and watch the Celtics play while smoking a cigar. "He was the one person who smoked cigars in the Fleet Center; it was a non-smoking venue." Russell would sit one row behind him, sometimes pantomiming as if the smoke was bothering him. "We used to enjoy those moments."

"He knew and I knew that I cared a great deal about him and that he cared a great deal about me," Russell says. "We always kept that up to date. There was not a time that we did not have regular conversations...He knew that he was one of the few people who I liked and I knew that he was one of the people that he liked. The reason that I used to kid him all the time is that most people are intimidated by him." The next clip shows Russell interviewing Auerbach and Larry Bird. Auerbach says, "You (Russell) know how this feels because you've been there before. Me, I haven't scored a point." Russell answers, "You kind of brought the guys here who scored the points" and before Auerbach can reply, Bird says to Auerbach, "So you're overpaid" and all three enjoy a hearty laugh.

Near the end of Auerbach's life, Russell would call him to see how he was doing: "I would call him up and let him know that this was somebody who did not care about 'legend' and 'icon' and stuff; all I cared about was this was a friend of mine and all he cared about was this was a friend of his. When he started getting sick in the last couple of years, I'd call him and say, 'Red?' and he'd say, 'What? Who's this?' I'd say, 'William F. Russell.' 'Hey, how are you?' 'The question is how are you?' 'It doesn't get any better but I'm OK.' 'See you later.' That was the way that the conversation would go because I wanted to convey to him that I was thinking about him and I cared about him but I didn't want to drain energy."

Russell concludes, "I do feel a tremendous sense of loss, because if you are fortunate and you have a few friends--because they are so important--if they leave before you do there is an empty space. There is an empty space where a person was in my psyche. There's basically no obvious reason that we would be friends, because we came from such diverse places, but we met in a common place, on common grounds. We both are born, live and die but while we are here there are things that we accomplish. To me, the greatest thing that you can accomplish is friendship. For me, personally, our friendship will last through eternity."

posted by David Friedman @ 10:09 AM


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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pete Vecsey's Favorite NBA/ABA Moments

Apparently this was posted at NBA.com a while ago but somehow I missed it. Anyway, click on the link below to hear Pete Vecsey reminisce about some of his favorite moments as a beat writer:

Peter Vecsey: Favorite Teams He Ever Covered

Vecsey, who was the best man at Julius Erving's wedding, talks about covering the 1974 New York Knicks, the 1974 New York Nets (who Erving led to the ABA title) and the 1977 Philadelphia 76ers (who Erving led to the NBA Finals). Vecsey also discusses the 1978 NBA Finals, having the opportunity to observe the early days of the Showtime Era and traveling with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

I met Vecsey for the first time at a game in Indiana a couple years ago. We talked about some of his experiences covering the ABA and then he asked me an interesting question: "Who has been your toughest interview?" I thought about that for a moment but had not really had a serious problem with anyone so that's what I told him. Vecsey's quick reply: "You haven't been around long enough." Perhaps, but my approach to interviewing players and coaches is kind of like what Yoda told Luke Skywalker when Skywalker asked him what was in the "Dark Side Cave": "Only what you take with you." Just like Yoda told Skywalker that he did not need his weapons, when I interview someone I do not expect (or bring) hostility.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 PM


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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Joey Crawford's Reinstatement is a Risky Move

Referee Joey Crawford, who was suspended indefinitely by the NBA in April after he wrongfully ejected Tim Duncan from a game, has been reinstated by the NBA. Crawford was initially unrepentant after he tossed Duncan and reportedly said that given the same circumstances--Duncan sitting on the bench quite a distance from Crawford and laughing--that he would do the same thing. Crawford had also been warned previously by NBA Commissioner David Stern to take a less hot-headed approach regarding such game management situations. Now, though, Commissioner Stern is satisfied that Crawford has cleaned up his act, saying, "Based on my meeting with Joey Crawford, his commitment to an ongoing counseling program, and a favorable professional evaluation that was performed at my direction, I am satisfied that Joey understands the standards of game management and professionalism the NBA expects from him and that he will be able to conduct himself in accordance with those standards."

No one questions that Crawford is a very good referee from a purely technical standpoint. He has over 30 years of experience and he consistently grades out well. However, a big part of being a referee is game management, which in Crawford's case means being able to control his emotions. I'm all for giving people second chances but Crawford actually was already given a second chance when Stern initially called him into his office and told him to tone down his act. The Duncan fiasco happened after that second chance. Duncan's ejection could have potentially altered the Western Conference playoff seeding. It is interesting that so many people are up in arms about the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for one playoff game after they left the bench area during an altercation--which was simply an instance of the NBA enforcing a rule that it has enforced many other times in both regular season and playoff competition--and so many people have tried to look at videos to "prove" that disgraced referee Tim Donaghy cheated the Suns in that same series--and no such evidence has been found--but no one seems to think that it is a bad idea to bring back a referee whose ill temper could have potentially changed the entire Western Conference playoff picture; the Spurs led the Mavericks 74-68 before Duncan was ejected but ended up losing, 91-86. That game did not end up changing the playoff seedings but at the time it happened there was certainly a possibility that it could have. Admit it: when you first heard that a referee was being investigated for fixing games, didn't you immediately think of this incident?

Crawford's reinstatement may be unrelated to the Donaghy case but I wonder if the NBA feels that it is important to bring back a technically sound referee in the wake of Donaghy's resignation and the possibility that other referees may be disciplined as a result of things that Donaghy may reveal about them and/or investigation by government or NBA authorities into their conduct. If Crawford can keep his temper under control then his knowledge and experience will certainly make him an asset to the league--but all it will take is one more instance of him losing his cool and the NBA will again be facing questions not just about Crawford but about all of its referees and the very integrity of the game itself. At a time when NBA referees are undoubtedly going to be more scrutinized than ever--and possibly heckled more often than before--is it really a good idea for the NBA to let its credibility rise or fall based on the likelihood that Crawford will not lose his cool again? Furthermore, if Crawford can eject a player for laughing and still not lose his job despite repeated warnings about such conduct then under what circumstances will the league terminate a referee's employment? Won't this make it more difficult for the NBA to discipline referees who do not act appropriately? The NBA never did anything about the well known bias that referee Jake O'Donnell had against Clyde Drexler until O'Donnell ejected Drexler--for no good reason--from a playoff game. The NBA was able to "disappear" O'Donnell after that and, in an era when the media coverage was less intense than it is now, the story simply died. If Crawford snaps during the 2008 playoffs and ejects Duncan from a playoff game for laughing I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that he could kill the NBA; the league is still not out of the woods yet from the Donaghy case and one more controversy could be disastrous.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM


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Monday, September 17, 2007

Mike Gale's Journey from Elizabeth City State to the ABA Finals

An excellent defender and solid playmaker, Mike Gale enjoyed an 11 season ABA/NBA career playing alongside the likes of Artis Gilmore, Julius Erving and George Gervin. Gale's teams twice played in the ABA Finals and he was a member of the 1974 New York Nets team that went 12-2 in the playoffs and won a championship. Here is a link to my HoopsHype.com story about Gale (10/12/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

In 1968-69, soft-spoken 6-4 guard Mike Gale led Elizabeth City State to an 18-game winning streak and an NAIA Final Four appearance. Gale was drafted in the third round of the 1971 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls but he decided to sign with the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. Kentucky went just 44-40 in the previous season but Rookie of the Year Dan Issel led the Colonels on a great playoff run that culminated in a 4-3 loss to the Utah Stars in the ABA Finals. The addition of rookie Artis Gilmore turned an already good team into a powerhouse: Kentucky raced to a 68-16 regular season record in 1971-72, the best winning percentage in ABA history. Gilmore (23.8 ppg, 17.8 rpg) won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP and joined Issel on the All-ABA 1st Team.

Gale's impact did not reach that magnitude but it speaks volumes that as a first year player he finished fifth in minutes played on such a strong team, particularly since he was not a big-time scorer; his 6.4 ppg ranked eighth on the squad. Gale made his mark on defense and he was particularly adept at stealing the ball.

"I guess I was quick at that time," Gale says with a chuckle. "Looking back, it helped a lot having Artis back there behind me. Besides being a great friend he was an awesome force playing the game. These are things that you might not really see just looking at the game but his presence made it a lot easier on everybody else and changed what might have been. Artis and I became really good friends over the years--my kids, his kids, the whole nine yards. Artis was always labeled 'The Gentle Giant.' Artis is strong. He has a great heart and is a great person." Kentucky's great season came to an unexpectedly early conclusion when Rick Barry's 44-40 New York Nets defeated the Colonels 4-2 in the Eastern Division semifinals. When he has public speaking engagements, Gale sometimes refers to that loss as an example of "how you can be up and then in an instant you can be down," something that is painful at the time but is ultimately a lesson in persistence.

In 1972-73, Gale again finished fifth on the Colonels in minutes played despite being the team's eighth leading scorer (6.6 ppg). Steals were officially tracked by the ABA for the first time that year and Gale ranked seventh in the league (1.6 spg), which helped him to earn a spot on the ABA's inaugural All-Defensive Team. Kentucky posted the second best record in the Eastern Division (56-28) and lost to the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the ABA Finals.

Gale increased his averages to 33.1 mpg and 10.0 ppg in the first 48 games of the 1973-74 season but Kentucky traded him and forward Wendell Ladner to the New York Nets for guard John Roche. Gale averaged 28.3 mpg and 8.0 ppg down the stretch for the Nets as New York (55-29) edged Kentucky (53-31) for the Eastern Division title. While Kentucky had Gilmore, the league's dominant center, New York had wondrous forward Julius Erving, who won the first of his three ABA MVPs. Gale earned his second consecutive All-Defensive Team selection, ranking fifth in the ABA in steals (2.1 spg) and blocking 81 shots, a very high total for a point guard.

The Nets had an extremely young roster--no player was older than 29 when the season began and all of the key players were 25 or younger--but despite their inexperience they cruised through the playoffs, defeating the Virginia Squires 4-1, sweeping Kentucky 4-0 and then wiping out the Utah Stars 4-1 in the ABA Finals. Gale averaged 8.3 ppg during the playoffs, ranked third on the team in assists (4.1 apg) and played strong defense. Gale cites that championship as the most memorable moment of his career and he will never forget the free flowing way that the young Erving played in the ABA.

"Doc came out and he was an awesome player," Gale recalls. "Because of the way the ABA was at that time (not having a national TV contract) most of America did not get to see him in what we would call his prime. Some of the moves that he made you will never see again. If you talk to him about it he'll tell you that it was not something that he consciously knew he was doing but it was just what the situation called for. It was a sight to see. We sat back (as teammates) and would say, 'How'd he do that?'"

New York and Kentucky each finished with 58-26 records in 1974-75 but the Colonels claimed the Eastern Division title by beating the Nets 108-99 in a special one game playoff. As a result, the Nets faced the 35-49 Spirits of St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. New York went 11-0 versus St. Louis during the regular season and took the first game of the series, 111-105--but St. Louis swept the next four games, eliminating the defending champions in one of the biggest upsets in pro basketball history.

The sudden end to the Nets' season led owner Roy Boe to make some very rash and ill-considered personnel moves. Boe decided that he had to acquire Swen Nater, the San Antonio center who led the ABA in rebounding in 1974-75 (16.4 rpg). What Boe did not realize is that Spurs' owner Angelo Drossos wanted to get rid of Nater and would have been willing to trade him straight up for Billy Paultz. Instead, Drossos managed to rebuild his team in one fell swoop in exchange for Nater and several players who did not fit into Drossos' future plans. The Nets and Spurs completed three separate deals in the summer of 1975: Larry Kenon to the Spurs for Swen Nater; Billy Paultz to the Spurs for Rich Jones, Chuck Terry, Bob Warren and Kim Hughes; Mike Gale sold to San Antonio for cash considerations.

New York defeated San Antonio in the 1976 playoffs and went on to beat the Denver Nuggets to claim the 1976 ABA title as Erving had a sensational series in the Finals, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). However, over the long haul the transactions turned the Spurs into a strong team for years to come, while the Nets lost all of their depth and then bottomed out when they had to deal Erving to pay for the costs associated with the NBA-ABA merger.

Gale put up his typically solid numbers for San Antonio during the 1975-76 season. Starting point guard James Silas broke his ankle in game one of the Spurs' playoff series versus the Nets, so Gale ended up averaging over 40 mpg in the seven games, posting playoff career-high averages across the board (14.7 ppg, 7.1 apg, 5.7 rpg).

Silas missed most of the next two seasons. The Spurs were one of four ABA teams to join the NBA when the leagues merged prior to the 1976-77 season. Gale averaged a career-high 31.7 mpg that year and scored a career-high 10.3 ppg. He ranked eighth in the NBA in assists (5.8 apg) and fifth in the league in steals (2.3 spg). The Spurs finished 44-38 but lost to Boston 2-0 in a first round playoff series. Gale put up similar numbers in 1977-78: 9.1 ppg, 5.4 apg (.1 apg away from being ranked in the top ten in the league) and 2.3 spg (fourth in the league). The Spurs went 52-30, winning the Central Division with the third best record in the NBA. They lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Washington Bullets, who went on to win the championship. In 1977-78, San Antonio guard George "Iceman" Gervin won the closest race ever for the NBA scoring title, edging out David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets (27.21 ppg to 27.15 ppg).

"Denver played earlier that day and David Thompson had 73 points," Gale says. "Doug Moe (then the Spurs coach) was intent on us doing the best we could to get 'Ice' the scoring championship. We played a game in New Orleans. At the beginning of the game he told us that we know what 'Ice' needs to get and that nobody should shoot the ball but 'Ice.' He'll probably hate for me to mention this, but Larry Kenon was on the team at the time. Larry was a very competitive person and he had the skills to go along with that." Kenon once proclaimed that he was the best forward in pro basketball; Kenon made the All-Star team five times in his 10 season ABA/NBA career but never made an All-ABA or All-NBA Team.

"He had a lot of confidence in his abilities," Gale says of Kenon. "He was very, very athletic and very agile. It was just funny, because Doug Moe was saying to give 'Ice' the ball. 'K' gets a rebound and he takes off, goes up and shoots the ball. Doug is screaming, 'Timeout! Timeout!' He says, 'We're trying to get him the scoring championship. Give him the ball!' So, we go back and we're playing and someone passes the ball to 'K,' as we called him, and he shoots the ball. Doug is screaming, 'Timeout! Timeout!' It was really funny. 'Ice' needed 58 points and eventually during that game 'Ice' got 63 points and he won the scoring championship. He set the record for most points in a quarter with 33."

Silas returned to health in 1978-79 and averaged 16.0 ppg. Gale's minutes dropped to 25.9 mpg, but he still ranked fifth on the team in that category and he led the Spurs in assists (4.6 apg). San Antonio claimed a second consecutive Central Division title and tied for the fourth best record in the NBA (48-34). The Spurs beat Erving's Philadelphia 76ers 4-3 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning game seven 111-108. That set up a rematch with the Bullets, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals. San Antonio took a 3-1 lead.

"Few teams ever come back from being down 3-1," Gale says. "As it turns out, they tied it up and we went up to Washington to play the seventh game. To this day, they still call it 'the night the lights went out.' We were playing well and rolling and all of a sudden the lights go out. That break stops our momentum. It ends up being a tight game. We had the ball and ran a play and the referees called a moving pick on Billy Paultz as Silas came off of him. Doug Moe went back and watched the film; it was not a moving pick and he made a big deal out of it and got fined. The fans in San Antonio sent in donations to pay the fine and he ended up going to the bank and having them send the money to the league in pennies. Everybody thought that it (the call) was wrong, but that is just part of the game."

A foot injury limited Gale to 67 games in 1979-80 and his numbers went down across the board. Midway through the 1980-81 season, the Spurs traded him to Portland, where he played sparingly. Gale was the first guard off of the bench for Golden State in 1981-82, averaging 23.9 mpg in his final NBA season. One of the activities that he is passionate about as a retired player is raising money for the St. Peter-St. Joseph Children's Home in San Antonio.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:02 AM


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