Classic Confrontations: Walt Frazier vs. Earl MonroeThis article was originally published in the August 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
What would happen if a great player who had never won a ring teamed up with a championship winning New York superstar who plays the same position? No, not Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter--Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. Just as the New York Yankees shifted Rodriguez to third base to accommodate the incumbent Jeter at shortstop, Monroe had to change his game to fit in with a New York Knicks team that had previously won an NBA title.
Before Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Earl "the Pearl" Monroe joined forces they had some tremendous duels as Frazier's Knicks and Monroe's Baltimore Bullets battled to reach the NBA Finals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Frazier and Monroe each possessed well-rounded games but their showdowns spotlighted Monroe's one-on-one skills versus Frazier's tenacious defense.
The Bullets selected Monroe with the second pick in the 1967 draft; the New York Knicks took Walt Frazier with the fifth pick that year. Monroe had a more immediate impact, capturing the Rookie of the Year award (24.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 4.3 apg) and helping the Bullets improve from 20 wins to 36. Frazier took a little longer to adjust to the NBA game (9.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg), although he did join Monroe on the 1968 All-Rookie Team.
In 1968-69 Monroe averaged 25.8 ppg while leading the Bullets to a league-best 57-25 record. Frazier nearly doubled his scoring (17.5 ppg) and assists (7.9 apg) and the Knicks finished right behind the Bullets with 54 wins. Boosted by the mid-season acquisition of forward Dave DeBusschere, New York proved to be the superior team in the playoffs, sweeping the Bullets 4-0 in the Eastern Division Semifinals. Monroe got his points (28.3 ppg), but the effect of Frazier's defense can be seen in his field goal percentage, which dropped from .440 in the regular season to .386.
The next year the Knicks had the league's best record, 60-22, while Baltimore finished 50-32. Monroe erupted for 39 points in game one of the Eastern Division Semifinals, but Frazier made several key steals from him down the stretch to preserve a 120-117 double overtime Knicks' victory. New York won the series in seven games despite Monroe’s 28.0 ppg. Frazier and the Knicks claimed their first championship by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the seventh game, when Willis Reed famously limped onto the court to provide a huge emotional lift for the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Frazier came up with a performance for the ages--36 points and 19 assists.
In 1970-71 the Bullets slumped to 42-40, but peaked when it counted most, ousting the Knicks by winning the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals in New York, 93-91. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Bullets in the NBA Finals and on November 10, 1971 Baltimore made the momentous decision to trade Monroe to the Knicks for Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth.
Monroe was hampered by a heel injury during his first season playing alongside Frazier. Reed's balky knee limited him to only 11 regular season games and forced him to miss the playoffs but the Knicks persevered, beating the Bullets 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Knicks lost 4-1 in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers won their first championship since the days of George Mikan.
Reed returned to the lineup in 1972-73, although his numbers were significantly lower than they were in his prime. The Frazier-Monroe backcourt found its stride as the Knicks went 57-25, trounced Baltimore in the Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1 and won the Finals rematch versus the Lakers 4-1.
DeBusschere was impressed with how smoothly Monroe adapted to his new role: "He came into a difficult, difficult position. He was a man with immense pride and intelligence who had to swallow his pride to adjust…One of them had to make the entire adjustment and Earl did it completely."
The aging Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics in the 1974 Eastern Conference Finals and fell from the top fairly quickly after that as injuries and retirements depleted the roster. Monroe actually outlasted Frazier in New York, retiring as a Knick after an injury riddled 1979-80 campaign. Frazier retired that same season, after spending the last three years of his career as a Cleveland Cavalier. The rivals turned teammates are now members of two very elite squads: the Hall of Fame and the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:41 AM