Howard's Triumph Over James May be a Sign That the NBA is Going Back to the FutureShaquille O'Neal often says that he is the LCL (last center left) but the Cleveland Cavaliers just found out that this is definitely not true: while most of the world focused on LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the puppet commercials, Dwight Howard hopped into a souped-up DeLorean and took the NBA back to the future, reminding us all that basketball has usually been dominated by teams featuring a great big man. The critics said that Howard was too nice/fun loving and too limited offensively to lead a team to an NBA title but he averaged 25.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg and 1.2 bpg while shooting .651 from the field as his Orlando Magic defeated James' Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The only player in NBA history who matched those scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers while winning a playoff series was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 Western Conference Finals (34.8 ppg, 19.5 rpg, .663 field goal shooting); Howard had 40 points and 14 rebounds in the game six clincher versus Cleveland, becoming just the second player to reach those totals in a victory that propelled his team into the NBA Finals--matching a feat accomplished by Charles Barkley, who dropped 44 and 24 in Phoenix' game seven win in the 1993 Western Conference Finals. Yes, the Magic tied the record for most three pointers made in a six game playoff series but that would not likely have happened without Howard making Cleveland's defense move back and forth like an accordion.
The real question of the day--and possibly the next decade--in the NBA is not the "Great Debate" (Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James, in case you have been hiding under a rock) or whether Dwyane Wade deserves to be a third party candidate in that debate but rather this: Is Dwight Howard beginning to embark on a reign of dominance that will be capped off by multiple championships? I realize that this may seem like a bizarre question coming from someone who--like just about everyone other than Barkley--picked Cleveland to beat Orlando but never let it be said that I cannot admit that I was wrong and then take a fresh look at the evidence. I picked against Howard and the Magic because as recently as last season the Pistons brushed them aside in the playoffs by single-covering Howard, smothering the three point shooters and generally pushing the Magic around; when Orlando needed seven games to get past the injury-depleted Celtics this year I could not imagine that the Magic would dismantle a Cleveland team that used defense and rebounding as the foundations for a 66 win season. Howard's performance against Cleveland, capped off by that exclamation point sixth game, is a real eye opener; the 40 points are his playoff career-high and if that is a sign of things to come from Howard then the rest of the league is in trouble.
With the exception of a brief period from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in order to win an NBA championship you usually had to have a dreadnought center who commanded a double-team in the post and/or dominated defensively and on the glass. George Mikan led the Lakers to five championships, Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain guided the two greatest single season teams prior to Michael Jordan's 1996 Bulls (the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers) to titles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earned six rings with the Bucks and Lakers, Bill Walton brought a championship to Portland before being hobbled by injuries and Moses Malone took the 76ers back to the Promised Land in 1983. Teams that won a championship without a dominant center were rare, most notably the 1979 Sonics and the 1975 Warriors, each of whom, ironically, beat a Bullets team that featured Top 50 big men Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who did win a championship together in 1978. Robert Parish, the center on three Boston championship teams in the 1980s (1981, 1984, 1986) was not dominant in quite the same fashion that his contemporaries Abdul-Jabbar and Malone were but he is a Hall of Famer and Top 50 player who could have put up bigger individual numbers if he had not been playing alongside fellow Hall of Famers/Top 50 players Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.
The requirement for a championship team to have a dominant center did not change until the late 1980s, when Abdul-Jabbar passed the age of 40 (he won his last Finals MVP award in 1985 at the age of 38!) and the league's young, future Hall of Fame caliber centers (Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson) did not have good enough supporting casts to win championships. The 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons had a solid former All-Star at center in Bill Laimbeer, a good rebounder who also could make the outside jump shot (think Zydrunas Ilgauskas with a sneer and a much meaner disposition), but their best players were Hall of Fame guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars; Thomas remains the only 6-1 player (and he really isn't even that tall) to be the main guy on an NBA championship team. Those Pistons were dethroned by the Chicago Bulls, who featured Top 50 players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen flanked by a center by committee. Jordan's first retirement robbed us of the opportunity to see him go against Olajuwon in the Finals. When Jordan came back he won three more titles alongside Pippen and a revamped center by committee and after Jordan retired in 1998 Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan won eight of the next 10 championships; the two exceptions during that decade were the 2004 Detroit team that had an ensemble All-Star cast flanking a perennial Defensive Player of the Year winner at center (Ben Wallace) and the 2008 Boston team that had three future Hall of Famers, including a dominant 7-0 defender/rebounder (Kevin Garnett) who nominally plays power forward.
During his six championship runs, Jordan generally did not have to face dominant, Hall of Fame centers; he had several showdowns with Ewing's Knicks and then he split a pair of series versus O'Neal in the mid-90s. Jordan never faced Olajuwon or David Robinson in a playoff series, though it could be argued that this was their "fault" and not his; after all, Jordan had no control over who his opponents would be in the championship round. Still, it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Jordan's Bulls had played Olajuwon's mid-90s Rockets or if they had been around a decade earlier and met up with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar and Malone when they were All-NBA/MVP level players.
My take on that issue has generally been that the Jordan-Pippen nucleus supplemented by an excellent power forward (first Horace Grant, then Dennis Rodman) and a reliable supporting cast of role players got by Ewing repeatedly and blew out O'Neal's Magic in 1996 so there is no reason to believe that those Bulls could not have similarly triumphed over Olajuwon's Rockets.
However, watching LeBron James lead Cleveland to the NBA's best record and then take his game to an incredible level in the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose because of Howard's impact, I thought back to Julius "Dr. J" Erving's career. Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-77-1982-83 and his teams advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals five times in those seven seasons, four times making it through to the NBA Finals--but they only won one championship and that happened after they acquired Moses Malone to match up with Abdul-Jabbar. Erving would likely have won three or four NBA titles were it not for the fact that the 76ers--specifically Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones--simply could not deal with the likes of Walton (1977) and Abdul-Jabbar (1980, 1982) in the NBA Finals; the 76ers also lost to the Hayes-Unseld tandem in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978 and to Bird-McHale-Parish in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. The only time that Erving in his prime lost an NBA playoff series to a team that did not have a Hall of Fame center was in 1979, when George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs outdueled Erving's 76ers in an entertaining and hard fought seven game Eastern Conference semfinal matchup; the 76ers were without the services of injured All-Star guard Doug Collins and although Erving played well in that postseason (25.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.9 apg), he was bothered by nagging groin and abdominal injuries and that was the only time in his first 13 professional seasons that he did not make the All-ABA or All-NBA Team.
What does Erving have to do with Jordan and James? The point is that the NBA Erving--who was not quite as spectacular as the ABA version (as explained in the Epilogue below)--still performed at a high level (literally and figuratively) but simply could not overcome the dominant centers of his era in championship play until he was paired with a dominant center (to be fair, Malone never won a title until he played with Erving, either). Jordan went from being a great player to being an icon in no small part because of his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals but is it possible that, to some extent, that success happened because he was blessed with the good timing to not have to face a dominant center surrounded by an adequate supporting cast? Might Jordan have had to settle for fewer titles if he had been annually bumping heads with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar?
LeBron James' numbers in this year's Eastern Conference Finals--38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, .487 field goal shooting--are fantastic and rank among the best single-series performances in NBA history but that still was not enough to lift the team with the NBA's best record past a team that has the NBA's most dominant center. Could Jordan really have done any more than what James did? While it is true that James did not have a Pippen alongside him when he battled Howard, it must also be noted that--unlike O'Neal when he faced the Jordan-Pippen Bulls with Penny Hardaway by his side or Olajuwon when he won the 1995 championship with Clyde Drexler--Howard is not paired with an All-NBA sidekick, either. Could the number of championships that James wins ultimately be impacted by having to annually battle Howard in the playoffs, much like Erving had to deal with first Walton and later Abdul-Jabbar and in contrast to the dearth of elite centers on contending teams during Jordan's prime?
In the 2009 Finals, Howard will face the other party in the "Great Debate," Kobe Bryant. Like James, Bryant does not have a teammate of Pippen's caliber but--unlike James or Jordan--he does have an All-Star big man in Pau Gasol. If the combination of Bryant and Gasol guided by nine-time NBA champion Phil Jackson is not enough to stop Howard and the Magic then we may be witnessing the dawning of an era that no one--from the "experts" to the advertisers--expected: the Dwight Howard era.
It really is a shame that the NBA does not officially count ABA statistics; though younger fans may find this hard to believe, Erving was the LeBron James/Kobe Bryant of his era (though it feels funny to phrase it that way, much like Bill Russell said that a reporter "had the question backward" when asking a retired Russell how he would have fared against the young Abdul-Jabbar); Pat Williams--who is currently a Senior Vice President with the Magic but who was the 76ers' General Manager when they acquired Erving in 1976--recently told me, "There has never been an acrobat like Julius. That would be my argument. Even Jordan, as fun as he was to watch, nobody in his prime did it like Julius...If he were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."
As great as James' statistics were versus Orlando, Erving put up even better numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals as a New York Net facing the Denver Nuggets, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). He also shot .590 from the field in that series. The Nuggets had a Hall of Fame center (Dan Issel), a Hall of Fame forward (David Thompson, who later shifted to guard in the NBA) and the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones); the Nuggets were good enough to beat a team comprised of All-Stars from the rest of the teams in the league during All-Star Weekend.
There was so much talk about the Cavs' "nail" play, the 1-4 set out of which James scored or assisted on 32 straight points in Cleveland's game five win versus Orlando, but Erving operated out of a similar formation versus Denver and was every bit as devastating, as the numbers listed above indicate.
While it is interesting to speculate about how many championships Erving could possibly have won if he not had to face Walton and Abdul-Jabbar--or if he and Moses Malone had joined forces earlier--another great hypothetical question is what might Erving have accomplished in the NBA if the Nets had been able to keep their 1976 championship team together instead of selling Erving's contract in order to survive? Nets' Coach Kevin Loughery used Erving in a do-everything role similar to the way that James plays and Jordan played, in contrast to how the Sixers asked Erving to blend in his talents with All-Star players George McGinnis and Doug Collins.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM