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Monday, May 04, 2009

More Than A Passing Fancy: The Best Playmaking Forwards Ever

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.

Great playmaking forwards have made a significant impact throughout professional basketball history. Scottie Pippen's skills as a "point-forward" freed Michael Jordan of ball handling responsibilities, enabling him to be a finisher on the fast break early in his career and giving him additional time to set up to receive the ball in the post during his later years with the Bulls. Celtics' legends John Havlicek and Larry Bird did not always bring the ball up the court like a point guard, but both used their court vision and passing skills to rack up impressive assists totals. Many NBA and ABA forwards have ranked among the annual assists leaders.

John Havlicek accomplished this feat seven times in his 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics. He posted his best ranking and highest average in 1970-71 (7.5 apg, fourth in the NBA); Havlicek averaged 7.5 apg again in 1971-72, this time placing fifth in the league. He was also a top scoring threat, averaging 20+ ppg from 1966-67 through 1973-74, with a high mark of 28.9 ppg (second in the league) in 1970-71. Havlicek's versatility enabled him to play guard at times, a trait he shares with several other top playmaking forwards. His 6114 assists are the most of any forward in professional basketball history.

Rick Barry, the only player to win scoring championships in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, was also a gifted playmaker. This facet of his game emerged gradually. He averaged 25.7 ppg but only 2.2 apg in 1965-66, his rookie year with the San Francisco Warriors. In his second year he won the NBA scoring title with 2775 points (35.6 ppg) and increased his assists to 3.6 apg. After four years in the ABA during which he averaged 4.1 apg, Barry returned to the NBA's Golden State Warriors and became a fixture among the league’s assists leaders. He averaged at least 6 apg from 1973-74 to 1976-1977, achieving his highest ranking in 1975-76 (6.1 apg, fifth in the NBA). He finished his career with the Houston Rockets, ranking sixth in the league in assists (6.3 apg) in 1978-79, his second to last season; he was the last forward to rank among the league’s assists leaders until LeBron James.

Elgin Baylor was a scoring machine who finished second in points three different times (NBA statistical leaders were ranked by totals, not averages, until 1969-70) and still has the fourth highest regular season scoring average of all time (27.4 ppg). He was an accomplished passer from the beginning of his career, ranking eighth in the NBA in assists as a rookie (287 assists, 4.1 apg) with the Minneapolis Lakers. Baylor achieved his highest assists ranking in 1962-63, totaling 386 assists (4.8 apg), fifth in the NBA.

Cliff Hagan spent his entire NBA career with the St. Louis Hawks, ranking among the league's assists leaders three straight years. In 1960-61 he placed fifth in the NBA with 381 assists (5.0 apg). What sets Hagan apart from the other forwards on this list is that he came out of retirement in 1967-68 and served three seasons as a player-coach with the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA. In Hagan's first ABA season he averaged 4.9 apg, second in the league. The 36 year old Hagan, who had retired from the Hawks after the 1965-66 season, became the first and only forward to rank as high as second in the NBA or ABA in assists.

Julius Erving is best remembered as a high flying scorer who won three ABA scoring championships and became just the third player in the history of the game to surpass the 30,000 point mark (Michael Jordan and Karl Malone have since joined Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain in this elite group). He was also an excellent passer, ranking among the ABA's assists leaders from 1973-74 to 1975-76. His best finish was sixth in 1973-74 (5.2 apg), although he actually posted a higher average the following season (5.5 apg, seventh in the league). Erving's career total of 5176 assists is surpassed among forwards only by Havlicek, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen and his career average of 4.2 apg is virtually identical to Baylor’s (4.3 apg) and not significantly less than Havlicek's (4.8) and Barry's (4.9).

In the early 1960s Dolph Schayes was the NBA's all-time scoring leader. He spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, winning a rebounding title in 1950-51 and playing on a championship team in 1954-55. Schayes ranked among the league's assists leaders three times, placing as high as sixth in 1949-50 (259 assists, 4.0 apg). While several of the other top playmaking forwards spent some time in the backcourt, Schayes played some minutes at center.

Roger Brown's career slipped under the radar of many basketball fans. Like Connie Hawkins, he was wrongly blackballed from the NBA for many years, but—unlike Hawkins—Brown never received the national recognition that comes from playing in the NBA. Brown spent his entire career in the ABA, winning three titles with the Indiana Pacers. A dangerous scorer, particularly in the clutch, Brown also ranked in the top ten in assists in his first three seasons. His high apg average came in 1969-70 (4.7 apg, ninth in the ABA) but he had his best rankings in 1967-68 (fifth in the ABA with 4.3 apg) and 1968-69 (fifth in the ABA with 4.6 apg).

Maurice Stokes won the Rookie of the Year award in 1955-56 with the Rochester Royals after ranking 11th in the NBA in scoring, second in rebounding and ninth in assists. Anyone who saw the 6-7, 240 pound power forward play—or has seen him in grainy black and white film clips—witnessed a player who was well ahead of his time. Stokes would grab a defensive rebound, dribble upcourt and lead the fast break, just like Magic Johnson would three decades later. Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy preferred a different comparison: "He was Karl Malone with more finesse." Stokes finished in the top ten in assists in his first three seasons, peaking at 403 assists (6.4 apg, third in the league) in 1957-58. Near the end of that season Stokes fell to the court and hit his head. Although he returned to the game, three days later he became extremely ill. Eventually he was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that affects motor functions. Stokes would never walk again and died of a stroke in 1970 at the age of 36.

Billy Cunningham joins Cliff Hagan as the only forwards to rank among the annual assists leaders in the NBA and in the ABA. Cunningham accomplished the feat in consecutive seasons, posting a 5.9 apg average (seventh in the NBA) with the 76ers in 1971-72 and increasing that to 6.3 apg (fifth in the ABA) with the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73. The next year he averaged 4.7 apg with the Cougars but appeared in only 32 games due to a severe kidney ailment. In 1974-75 Cunningham returned to the 76ers and narrowly missed the top ten with a 5.5 apg average. The next year he was averaging 5.4 apg after 20 games when a devastating knee injury ended his career.

Leo Barnhorst is undoubtedly the least famous player on this list, but he enjoyed a good, albeit brief, NBA career. He made the All-Star team twice in his five NBA seasons before embarking on a successful 45 year career with American United Life. Barnhorst posted 3.9 apg averages in 1951-52 and 1952-53 for the Indianapolis Olympians, ranking eighth in the NBA both seasons. Barnhorst, a 1948-49 All-America selection at Notre Dame, passed away on August 25, 2000 after a 13 year battle with lymphoma.

Several of the greatest passing forwards never ranked among the annual assists leaders. Larry Bird posted three 7+ apg seasons, with a career high 7.6 apg in 1986-87. He led the Celtics in assists four times and had the team’s highest average in 1991-92, but only played in 45 games. Paul Pressey also had three 7+ apg seasons, including 7.8 apg in 1985-86, the best assists average ever by a forward. Milwaukee Bucks’ Coach Don Nelson used Pressey in a "point-forward" role, much like the Bulls would later do with Scottie Pippen. Pressey led the Bucks in assists five straight seasons. Pippen averaged a career high 7.0 apg in 1991-92 and led the Bulls in assists seven straight years (from 1990-91 until 1996-97). He also had the Bulls' highest apg average in 1997-98, but appeared in only 44 games. The next season he moved to Houston and led the Rockets in assists. Grant Hill averaged a career high 7.3 apg in 1996-97 and led the Detroit Pistons in assists five straight seasons (1995-96 through 1999-00).

One other forward who deserves mention is John Johnson. Twice an All-Star, Johnson played a "point-forward" role for the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in the early '70s and was a key member of the Sonics' 1977-78 NBA Finalists and 1978-79 NBA Championship team. He led the Sonics in assists in 1978-79 (4.4 apg) and 1979-80 (5.2 apg), enabling guards Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson to focus on scoring and defense respectively.

NBA/ABA Forwards Among Annual Top-10 Assists Leaders

Player Top-10 Career Career Career

Seasons Assists Games APG

John Havlicek 7: 68-74 6114 1270 4.8
Rick Barry 5: 74-77; 79 4952 1020 4.9
Elgin Baylor 4: 59; 61; 63; 65 3650 846 4.3
Cliff Hagan 4: 60-62; 68* 2646 839 3.2
Julius Erving 3: 74*; 75*; 76* 5176 1243 4.2
Dolph Schayes 3: 50-51; 57 3072 996 3.1
Roger Brown 3: 68*; 69*; 70* 2315 605 3.8
Maurice Stokes 3: 56-58 1062 202 5.3
Billy Cunningham 2: 72; 73* 3305 770 4.3
Leo Barnhorst 2: 52-53 1116 344 3.2


(5/4/09 Note: LeBron James ranked sixth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2004-05, he ranked eighth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2007-08 and he ranked ninth in the NBA in assists with a 7.2 apg average in 2008-09; his career 6.7 apg average is the best ever posted by a forward in pro basketball history)

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:38 PM



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