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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Will Stephon Marbury be a 21st Century Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre?

Stephon Marbury made his Boston debut on Friday night, scoring eight points on 4-6 field goal shooting while passing for two assists (and committing three turnovers) in 13 minutes as the Celtics beat Indiana, 104-99. Marbury has always been able to put up good individual numbers but throughout his career when he comes to a team that team gets worse and when he leaves a team that team gets better--so it should not be a surprise that in a five point win Marbury accumulated a -7 plus/minus number in his limited action. As I have noted many times, plus/minus numbers are noisy, so maybe it was not Marbury's fault that the Celtics lost ground while he was on the court but it will be interesting to monitor this over a larger sample size of games. Also, while a lot has been said about Marbury's talent, the 31 year old last played in the All-Star Game in 2003. Other All-Stars that season included Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, Steve Francis and Gary Payton; obviously, they are not All-Star players now and it is far from certain that Marbury is anywhere close to being the player that he was in 2003.

There are some examples of star players with questionable reputations accepting lesser roles to play on championship teams. Bob McAdoo and Mark Aguirre helped the Lakers and Pistons respectively win championships in the 1980s but it is a big stretch to compare Marbury to either of those players. As a Buffalo Brave, McAdoo won the 1975 MVP and placed second in MVP voting in 1974 and 1976; he led the league in scoring three straight years, led the league in field goal percentage once and annually ranked among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots. He also put up big time numbers in the playoffs, including 37.4 ppg and 13.4 rpg in the 1975 postseason. Aguirre was one of the best scoring forwards in the NBA in the mid-1980s, ranking in the top ten in scoring five times; he led the Dallas Mavericks to the 1988 Western Conference Finals.

In short, McAdoo and Aguirre were truly franchise players, while Marbury has only been a franchise player in his own overactive imagination. McAdoo and Aguirre made important contributions to championship teams because they were elite level players whose skill sets fit in perfectly with what their new teams needed. Marbury is a shoot first point guard with an exaggerated belief in his own abilities and an aversion to playing the tough defense that has been Boston's trademark since acquiring Kevin Garnett. Also, the knocks against McAdoo and Aguirre turned out to be largely unfounded, while Marbury has a long and well documented record of poor on court performance (at least in terms of fitting into a team concept) combined with hefty doses of negative off court drama.

The other part of this situation that cannot be ignored or understated is just how difficult it is for a starting player to not only adjust to coming off of the bench but to be effective in that role (as the Detroit Pistons have recently discovered after benching Rip Hamilton in favor of Rodney Stuckey). Even if a player has the right attitude, this is still not an easy transition to make.

When I asked McAdoo how he made the adjustment to coming off of the bench and having a reduced role, he immediately replied, "Who said I adjusted? I didn’t adjust. I mean, I never complained or anything, but I never adjusted. It was very hard for me mentally to do that for four years--really, for five years, because even when I went to Philly, they wanted to do the same thing and bring me off of the bench. It was something that I had to accept because it is a team game; it’s not like tennis or golf. I didn’t complain, I just dealt with it. That’s the only thing I can say--I dealt with it. I didn’t adjust to it." McAdoo played for two L.A. Lakers championship teams (1982, 1985).

Aguirre expressed similar thoughts to me about his role with the Detroit Pistons, who won championships in 1989 and 1990: “That was the hardest thing that I ever did. It was extremely difficult to produce 14 points in like 24 minutes. So I got through it and nobody will know how difficult that was."

The 2000-01 Portland Trailblazers provide an excellent cautionary tale about just how delicate team chemistry can be. After pushing the eventual champion Lakers to seven games in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Blazers looked like they were going to post the best record in the NBA in 2001. In the second half of the season, they signed Detlef Schrempf to add depth to their frontcourt. Schrempf was a versatile, talented player but adding one more body to the mix had a trickle down effect on the minutes/shot attempts for other players. The Blazers went 8-12 down the stretch and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The Boston Celtics are a proven championship team--in contrast to that Portland squad--so the analogy is not a perfect fit but there is no denying that it can be risky to add a new player into your rotation late in the season. The Celtics won close to 80% of their games this season prior to signing Marbury. If their winning percentage dips to 70% in the final weeks of the season then the Cleveland Cavaliers could end up with the top record in the Eastern Conference--and that type of winning percentage decline would not be the least bit surprising considering Marbury's track record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Is Carmelo Anthony Underrated?

The word "underrated" can mean different things to different people. Some players have been called "underrated" so much that they may actually be "overrated." One player who is often referred to as "underrated"--as attested to by the fact that a Google search links his name and that word to more than 17,000 different items--is Carmelo Anthony. Is that really true, though? Is Anthony in some fashion not rated as highly as he should be, based on his actual NBA accomplishments?

Here is my answer to that question:

A Google search for "Carmelo Anthony underrated" turns up more than 17,000 items. TV commentators, writers and many fans often say that the Denver Nuggets forward is "underrated." Is this really true? To answer that question, we first have to determine who has been "rating" Anthony, how highly they "rate" him and if objective measures indicate that he should be "rated" more highly than he is.

I had high hopes for Anthony when he left Syracuse after his freshman season. He had just led the Orangemen to a national championship and he seemed to have a good, all-around, unselfish game.

Anthony did not appear to be a guy who was just putting up numbers; he put up numbers in the context of his team being highly successful. It may be hard to believe now, but a fair number of people thought that Anthony could be as good or even better than LeBron James, who went first in the 2003 NBA Draft (Anthony went third, right after Detroit chose Darko Milicic). Looking back at the respective career arcs of James and Anthony provides some interesting context regarding the question of how exactly Anthony has been "rated" so far.

Anthony averaged 21.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 2.8 apg as a rookie while leading the 43-39 Nuggets to the playoffs but he finished a distant second to James in the Rookie of the Year voting; James averaged 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 5.9 apg for a 35-47 Cleveland Cavaliers team that missed the playoffs by four games. Neither player made the All-Star team as a rookie and even though James won the Rookie of the Year there were still a fair number of people who considered James and Anthony to be roughly equal or even gave Anthony the edge because his team made the playoffs.

However, in year two it quickly became evident that James would turn out to be clearly better than Anthony.

James raised his numbers across the board (27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg), led the NBA in minutes played (42.4 mpg), made the All-Star Team (selected as a starter by the fans), made the All-NBA Second Team (selected by the media) and finished sixth in MVP voting (also selected by the media). The Cavs tied for the eighth best record in the East but missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.

Anthony's numbers declined slightly in his second season (20.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.6 apg) and he did not make the All-Star team or the All-NBA team, nor did he receive any MVP votes. Anthony's Nuggets qualified for the playoffs but lost in the first round.

In 2005-06, Anthony increased his scoring to 26.5 ppg but his rebounding dipped to 4.9 rpg, a poor number for such a big and athletically gifted small forward. The Nuggets made the playoffs for the third straight year and even though the fans and coaches both left Anthony off of their All-Star ballots he did make the All-NBA Third Team. James started in the All-Star Game, won the All-Star MVP, made the All-NBA First Team and finished second in MVP voting. By this time, the idea of a rivalry between the two players only made sense from the standpoint that they are members of the same draft class; James had clearly established himself as an elite player by any definition, while Anthony was at best a fringe star.

Anthony averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg in 2006-07 but missed 15 games after being suspended by the NBA for his role in a brawl during a Knicks-Nuggets game at Madison Square Garden; he neither added to his "street cred" nor his overall reputation by throwing a punch at Mardy Collins just when hostilities had begun to simmer down and then back pedaling away from Collins so fast that it seemed like Anthony was wearing roller skates.

The fans and coaches once again both left Anthony off of their All-Star ballots but Commissioner David Stern selected Anthony as an injury replacement for Carlos Boozer. Anthony also made the All-NBA Third Team for the second year in a row. The Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year. James finished fifth in MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team and was again voted an All-Star starter; he led the Cavs to the franchise's first ever trip to the NBA Finals.

Last season, Anthony's scoring dipped a bit to 25.7 ppg but he shot a career-high .492 from the field and averaged a career-high 7.4 rpg. The fans voted Anthony to be an All-Star starter for the first time in his career but the media left him off of all three All-NBA teams. His Nuggets made their annual first round exit from the playoffs. James finished fourth in MVP voting, regained All-NBA First Team status and won his second All-Star MVP. His Cavs battled through holdouts and injuries and adjusted to a big midseason trade but still managed to push the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The record shows that Anthony had a head start over James from the standpoint of playing one very successful year of college basketball but despite this advantage James was at least as good an NBA player as Anthony virtually from day one and by their second season James had clearly surpassed Anthony.

Although Anthony has been to the playoffs more often than James, James' teams have enjoyed much more playoff success. James has also performed much better in the playoffs individually than Anthony. Although some battles against elite defensive squads pushed James' career playoff field goal percentage down to .433 from .470 in the regular season, James has averaged 27.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 7.3 apg in his postseason career and he has had some truly epochal performances.

For the most part, Anthony has been subpar in postseason play, shooting .389 from the field (compared to .460 in the regular season) and averaging 21.1 ppg, more than 3 ppg fewer than his regular season average. Although Anthony has posted good rebounding averages in the playoffs, a lot of his work in that department has been on the offensive glass chasing down his own misses.

Disregarding statistics and awards for a moment, let's consider Anthony's skill set strengths and weaknesses. His biggest strength without question is that he is a deadly scorer from 20 feet and closer to the hoop: his midrange jumper is excellent, he is a good free throw shooter, he can post up or face up defenders, he drives to the basket quickly and he finishes strongly. He was a mediocre three-point shooter for his first four seasons but has noticeably improved his long-range shot the past two years.

Anthony was at best an average rebounder early in his career but the past couple seasons he has improved in that regard. He has good passing skills but is definitely a shoot first player, as indicated by his career average of 3.1 apg.

Anthony's biggest weakness is at the defensive end of the court. Although he possesses sufficient size, strength and quickness to be a very good defensive player, his effort defensively is generally poor and his awareness of proper rotations/positioning is at times embarrassingly bad. FIBA play is completely different from NBA play but anyone who followed my coverage of Team USA last summer knows that I detailed just how poorly Anthony played defensively -- and the same thing was true of his previous performances in FIBA play, too.

Anthony often has what I would call the "Bruce Coslet" look on defense (in "honor" of the former Cincinnati Bengals coach); not only is he generally in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing but he looks completely befuddled/oblivious regarding fundamental defensive principles, much like Coslet looked totally confused on the sidelines as his Bengals set unofficial records for false starts and assorted other mental mistakes, reaching a nadir of incompetence that frustrated Corey Dillon to the point that he refused to go back into a game and participate in the fiasco (Dillon's allegedly bad attitude improved noticeably when he went to New England and played for a coach who actually knew how to design and implement a game plan).

I never really paid that much attention to Anthony's defense at Syracuse, but he must have either gotten by because of his superior athletic ability relative to the competition or else Jim Boeheim hid him very effectively in his famous two-three zone.

Every year, we are told that Anthony has committed himself to being a better defender but I have yet to see any evidence that this is true on a consistent basis; his steals and blocked shots numbers have actually declined slightly and, although he plays decent defense during some games, he is still out of position way too often. Anthony's Nuggets have generally been a team that runs downcourt to play offense and jogs back downcourt to play defense and he is the one who has set that tone, a marked contrast to the way that James has accepted the challenge defensively and spearheaded the tough defense that the Cavs play.

Clearly, there are very good reasons that Anthony's reputation has slipped vis a vis James -- but James is at worst the second best player in the NBA right now, so there is no shame in not quite measuring up to his standard.

That brings us back to the original question: Is Carmelo Anthony underrated?

The interesting thing about this is that even though Anthony is often referred to as underrated, no one who has the power to do anything about this seems to be particularly interested in rating him any higher: Anthony has been in the NBA for six seasons but the fans have only voted him as an All-Star starter once; even more tellingly, the coaches have never selected him as an All-Star reserve. The media has twice voted Anthony on to the All-NBA Third Team but by the most generous interpretation that places Anthony outside of any list of the top 10 players in the league.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:35 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part VI

The L.A. Lakers look like they are on a mission, while each of the other top contenders is dealing with at least one injury to a key player. Dwyane Wade has maintained his hold on the scoring lead but LeBron James and/or Kobe Bryant still remain within striking distance.

Best Five Records
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1) L.A. Lakers, 48-10
2) Cleveland Cavaliers, 44-12
3) Boston Celtics, 46-13
4) Orlando Magic, 42-15
5) San Antonio Spurs, 39-17

The L.A. Lakers have gained some separation from the pack in what once was a tight three way race for the best record in the league. The Cleveland Cavaliers just got Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West back from injuries but now face the prospect of having to finish out the season minus Ben Wallace, who broke his right leg in Thursday's 93-74 loss to Houston. So-called experts and fans alike tend to underestimate just how important Cleveland's three man rotation of bigs has been for the team's success; those bigs--along with LeBron James, of course--form the foundation for the team's ability to rebound and defend. Rookie J.J. Hickson can provide more scoring that Wallace did but the Cavs will miss Wallace's presence in the paint at the other end of the court. Without Wallace, the Cavs will likely lose a few games that they otherwise would have won, so his injury may very well cost them the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Boston Celtics are dealing with their own issues; Kevin Garnett tweaked his knee and has missed a few games and there is the lingering question of whether or not Boston will sign Stephon Marbury. If Marbury does join the team, it will be very interesting to see how his role is defined and how he and his teammates adjust to whatever that role turns out to be. If I'm Rajon Rondo or Eddie House and I have worked hard and sacrificed to win a championship then I am skeptical about a perennial loser/locker room cancer joining my team and getting playing time that I earned by proving myself in playoff competition. This may sound flippant, but if the Celtics really do sign Marbury, then he may be "worth" enough in the loss column to offset Ben Wallace's injury and thus enable the Cavs to get the top seed in the East after all! I am just baffled that any contending team would sign Marbury. I read one report that the Celtics are not really planning to play him but are just going to sign him to prevent him from being on another team's playoff roster. That sounds truly Machiavellian--and probably violates some NBA rule--but the next few days will be very interesting.

Signing Rafer Alston is a good stopgap measure for the Orlando Magic in light of Jameer Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury but Alston has only advanced past the first round once in his NBA career so I don't understand why some people seem to think that Orlando can challenge Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series (unless those teams get further depleted by injuries).

The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's Rasputin; every year, they are declared DOA and yet when playoff time rolls around they either win a championship or prove to be a very tough out. Coach Gregg Popovich is just trying to keep his key players healthy for the postseason and I expect that by May the Spurs will be the biggest threat to the Lakers in the West (though the Utah Jazz, winners of six straight and nine of their last 10, certainly bear watching).

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 28.3 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.6 ppg
4) Kevin Durant, OKC 26.3 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 25.0 ppg
6) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.9 ppg
7) Al Jefferson, MIN 23.1 ppg
8) Brandon Roy, POR 22.6 ppg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.4 ppg
10) Devin Harris, NJN 22.3 ppg
11) Chris Paul, NOR 21.7 ppg

15) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.1 ppg

18) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.7 ppg

22) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.1 ppg

26) O.J. Mayo, MEM 19.2 ppg

32) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg

49) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.3 ppg

Dwyane Wade has been on a tear recently, scoring a career-high 50 points two games ago and then dishing off a career-high 16 assists in his most recent game. On Thursday, though, he had a day off while his close pursuers LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were in action.

Bryant showcased the completeness of his skill set in 27 highly efficient minutes as the Lakers routed the Suns, 132-106. Bryant finished with 22 points (shooting 10-13 from the field), a game-high eight assists, four rebounds, three steals and just one turnover. In what Bryant described as a potential "trap game" (due to Steve Nash being sidelined by injury and Amare Stoudemire being out for the season), Bryant set the tone early, scoring 13 first quarter points on 6-6 field goal shooting and dishing off three assists as the Lakers took a 39-26 lead and never looked back. The most significant thing about Bryant's performance is not the raw numbers but rather the decision making process that he used; perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game is how well he reads situations and consistently makes the correct play. During last year's playoffs, Hubie Brown noted that when he watched game film of Bryant the 2008 MVP almost always made the correct read as the primary ballhandler. Bryant is also the "signal caller" for the Lakers defensively, a responsibility that normally is handled by a big man since a big can see the whole floor while a guard has action going on both in front of him and behind him.

Against the Suns, Bryant posted up when he enjoyed mismatch advantages, drained pullup jumpers in the flow of the offense, passed to open cutters for layups when he was trapped and was quick to identify when his teammates had mismatch advantages in the post. This game was a good example of why it is pointless to evaluate players purely by numbers: Bryant obviously could have scored 50 or 60 points but he barely played half of the game because the outcome was decided fairly early and the Lakers have a game in Denver on Friday night.

I don't believe in making snap judgments about players based on one game but I am curious to see if everyone who made such a big deal about Bryant having three assists and no rebounds in his 61 point game versus the Knicks (which Bryant's Lakers won, of course) will be similarly critical of LeBron James' Thursday night performance against Houston, when James had one rebound and no assists in a 93-74 Cleveland loss. James scored 21 points but shot just 7-21 from the field as the Rockets followed to perfection the formula that good defensive teams use against James: build a wall around the paint to cut off James' driving angles, sag off of him in all screen/roll situations and encourage him to shoot long jumpers. Although James is a powerful driver when he has open lanes, he has yet to learn how to use his size in postup situations and he is still an erratic jump shooter at best. In other words, if James cannot score in the paint in transition or drive to the hoop in the half court set then it is very difficult for him to be an efficient scorer; since defenders can sag off of him without paying the price, it is also difficult for him to be an effective playmaker in those situations. In playoff series versus Boston and San Antonio the past two years, James has had very low shooting percentages and very high turnover totals against sagging defenses. Versus Houston, James kept his turnovers at an acceptable level (three) but he was not able to create good shots for himself or his teammates.

If people are going to crown James as the MVP in November or December and take apart a record setting game by Bryant because he did not have enough assists to suit their tastes, then it is only fair that they apply those same standards when James plays poorly.

That said, let me make it perfectly clear that I am only critiquing the poor "analysis" methods used by other commentators but I am not falling into that trap in my own analysis: this game did not change my perspective about James at all; the lack of assists and rebounds was an anomaly--but his inability to consistently make shots outside of the paint remains his one glaring weakness. While James' numbers were anomalous, the reason that he played poorly was not--and the same formula that Houston used can be employed by other defensive-minded teams. Of course, most teams do not have the necessary personnel and/or the right mindset to contain James in this fashion and that is why it is correct to say that James' off the charts athleticism and his versatility have elevated him above every player in the NBA--except for Bryant, the one player in the league who has no skill set weaknesses.

In the February 9, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated, an anonymous NBA scout is quoted saying exactly what I said about Kevin Durant before he had even played one regular season NBA game, namely that it was foolish to shift him from forward to shooting guard. As the scout told SI, "For starters, he is finally at the right position. I don't know what P.J. Carlesimo was thinking playing him at shooting guard." In other words, if you want to understand what is happening in the NBA, you can either read what is posted here and be ahead of the curve or you can read SI to get the same analysis that was posted here more than a year ago--or you can go to some sites that shall remain nameless and get "analysis" that bears no relationship whatsoever to reality (and don't even get me started on the "stat gurus" who will blithely tell you that coaching does not matter and that a player's game remains the same regardless of the system he plays in or the teammates he has).

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.2 rpg
2) David Lee, NYK 11.9 rpg
3) Troy Murphy, IND 11.7 rpg
4) Andris Biedrins, GSW 11.6 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.0 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.7 rpg
8) Yao Ming, HOU 9.6 rpg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.5 rpg
10) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.4 rpg

14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 8.8 rpg
15) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 8.8 rpg

19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg

26) Lamar Odom, LAL 7.7 rpg
27) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.6 rpg

29) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 rpg

47) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.2 rpg

Marcus Camby would rank second but dropped off of the list because he no longer meets the minimum requirements for total rebounds or games played. David Lee has emerged as a top notch player and potentially an All-Star in future seasons if the Knicks continue to improve. In the wake of Andrew Bynum's injury, Pau Gasol moved into the top ten and Lamar Odom strung together some great rebounding performances to vault up to 26th.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Chris Paul, NOH 10.8 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.3 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.7 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.5 apg
5) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.4 apg
6) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.0 apg
7) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.0 apg
8) Baron Davis, GSW 7.9 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.1 apg
10) LeBron James, CLE 7.0 apg

As usual, the playmaking Leaderboard remained essentially unchanged, but it will be interesting to see if Deron Williams can catch Chris Paul now that Williams seems to have regained his stride.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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Johnny "Red" Kerr Loses His Battle with Cancer

"How fragile life is--we've got to enjoy every single second of it, man"--Doug Collins, just after TNT announced that Johnny "Red" Kerr passed away.

Chicago lost two of its most beloved basketball legend on the same day. Just hours after Norm Van Lier passed away, Johnny "Red" Kerr lost his battle with prostate cancer. Younger fans know Kerr as a color commentator on Chicago Bulls telecasts--and the recipient of Michael Jordan's pregame clap of talcum powder, the forerunner of LeBron James' pregame ritual--but it is important to remember that Kerr made the All-Star team three times in his 12 year NBA career, finished sixth in MVP voting in 1963 and as a rookie he was a member of the Syracuse Nationals' 1955 NBA championship team. He played in a then-record 844 straight games, a streak that could have lasted even longer if his coach had not simply kept him out of a game in which Kerr was healthy enough to play, a tough pill to swallow after Kerr had played hurt so many times.

Kerr won the 1967 Coach of the Year award after guiding the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in their first year of existence. He coached one more season in Chicago and a season and a half in Phoenix before moving over to the ABA and working in the front office of the Virginia Squires, where he helped find players like Julius Erving and George Gervin; when I interviewed sportswriter Woody Paige, who had covered the ABA at that time, he marveled that one short-lived, cash strapped franchise had discovered two future Hall of Famers, one right after the other. As Paige put it, "The Boston Celtics did not come up with Larry Bird and then another Larry Bird. You don't come up with Magic Johnson and then another Magic Johnson."

After seeing Erving play for just a few minutes in rookie camp, Kerr told Virginia Coach Al Bianchi to get Erving off of the court lest some overzealous rookie injure Erving--it was already evident that the unheralded junior from the University of Massachusetts was going to do big things. Here is how Kerr described that moment to Terry Pluto (as recounted on page 226 of Pluto's oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls):

Julius was on the floor for a few minutes in that tryout camp and then a shot banged against the back of the rim and went straight up. It was one of those rebounds where it seems that all five players were jumping for it. Out of the middle of the pack came Julius...up...up..up. He cupped the rebound with one hand and then slammed it through the rim, all in one motion. The gym went silent. All the players just stopped for a few seconds. This was a tryout camp and I had just watched one of the best plays I had ever seen in my life. That's when I told Al to get Julius off the court. We had to save this kid. It wasn't long after that when I told some of the writers who covered the Squires, "You guys are going to think I'm crazy but one day Julius Erving will be going into the Hall of Fame." I didn't know he'd become a living legend, but he had greatness about him you could just sense.

Kerr is a Finalist for Hall of Fame induction this year and he recently received the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest Hall honor other than being inducted.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

ABA Numbers Should Also Count

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

Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Rick Barry. George "the Iceman" Gervin. David Thompson. Artis Gilmore. That looks like a formidable starting five, but there is one way to contain them. Each of these players spent time in the ABA--and the NBA has put the ultimate defensive clamps on them by acting like those seasons do not exist.

The Official NBA Guide has hundreds of pages of history and statistics. Each of the five players from the above "Dream Team" is listed among the Guide's career scoring leaders. But take a look at what appears next to Julius Erving's name: 11 years (1977-87), 18,364 points in 836 games (22.0 ppg). Question: How do you stop a guy who averages 28.7 ppg? Answer: Act as though he never did. Erving's career began in 1972, not 1977. In his first five years he scored 11,662 points in 407 games (28.7 ppg), but the NBA pretends that those numbers do not matter. The same holds true for Barry, Gervin, and the rest.

To find Dr. J's first five seasons and the statistics of other ABA greats in the Guide, you have to search for a list that is awkwardly titled "Combined NBA/ABA, Career Scoring."

Unfortunately, the "combined" numbers are not considered "official" by the NBA and are almost always ignored in discussions of basketball history. Karl Malone's climb up the career scoring list a few years ago was well documented. When he passed Michael Jordan and topped the late Wilt Chamberlain, those accomplishments were justifiably celebrated in the media. What wasn't mentioned is that Erving and Moses Malone should appear just below Chamberlain on the career scoring list (Moses' first two pro seasons disappear down the same memory hole as Erving's first five years, so Karl "officially" passed Moses during the 1997-98 season).

It's even worse when you examine the media guides of the four former ABA teams, the New Jersey (then New York) Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs. These teams have every right to be proud of their ABA heritage and to even overstate the importance of their ABA years but instead they act as if franchise records set during the ABA years hardly exist.

This shortchanges players such as Erving and Gilmore by wiping out the first five seasons of their careers. Erving won two championships, three MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis), two Playoff MVPs and three scoring titles in the ABA, while Gilmore notched one championship, one Playoff MVP and four rebounding titles.

No player's resume would emerge unscathed from such drastic revisions. Take away Michael Jordan's first five years and you erase one MVP, his two highest scoring seasons, his only Defensive Player of the Year award, two scoring titles, one steals title and his playoff single game scoring record of 63 points. Larry Bird would lose two of his three championships, one MVP, one NBA Finals MVP and his best single season totals in rebounds and steals. Magic Johnson would forfeit two of his five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, two steals titles, one assists title and his single season bests in rebounding and steals.

Pacers Roger Brown and Mel Daniels are two Hall of Fame-caliber players whose great careers are largely ignored in no small part because their statistics are unrecognized. Brown was a four-time ABA All-Star who won three ABA championships with Indiana. More than one observer has said that Brown was Jordan's true precursor. In the 1970 ABA Finals, Brown averaged 32.7 ppg, scoring 53, 39 and 45 in the final three games. In the 1972 ABA Finals, Brown led the Pacers to a series-clinching victory in game six by outscoring future Hall of Famer Rick Barry 32-23. Daniels played center on those three championship teams, winning two regular season MVP awards. His 1608 career playoff rebounds place him 14th in pro basketball history.

It doesn't have to be this way. In the NFL Record and Fact Book (2008 edition), Len Dawson, George Blanda and others are listed as statistical leaders even though they spent parts of their careers in the AFL. The section on team histories includes the statistics of players such as Joe Namath, Don Maynard, and Paul Lowe among many others who set franchise records that date back to the AFL. NFL records show that Joe Namath is the first player to pass for 4,000 yards in a single season (4,007 in 1967); no one suggests that Dan Fouts' 4,082 yard performance in 1979 is more valid because it is the first such effort that occurred after the NFL and AFL merged.

The 76ers feted Larry Brown several years ago when he reached the 1000 victory milestone as a pro coach, which served as a de facto recognition of his combined ABA-NBA win totals. Was that a sign that things are changing for the better? Perhaps, but it also underscored the nature of the problem. During a TNT broadcast shortly after the ceremony honoring Coach Brown, commentator (and ABA old-schooler) Pete Vecsey quipped that if Brown's ABA wins were being recognized, Dr. J's ABA points should be acknowledged. Vecsey did not pursue the issue further, but as long as ABA statistics are not "official," media guides and other publications will continue to ignore them or mention them only as afterthoughts.

ABA numbers should be made "official" by the NBA. Then Larry Brown's wins, Dr. J's points and the rest of the ABA's glorious history would assume its proper place in the basketball record book.

The real pro basketball career statistical leaders appear in the accompanying charts. Playoff career leaders are also listed; inexplicably, even sources that publish "combined" NBA/ABA regular season statistics make no mention of ABA playoff statistics.

(2/27/09 Edit: I have replaced the original charts with versions that are up to date as of the start of the 2008-09 NBA season):

ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Scoring Leaders:




Points Games PPG
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387 1560 24.6
Karl Malone
36,928 1476 25.0
Michael Jordan
32,292 1072 30.1
Wilt Chamberlain
31,419 1045 30.1
Julius Erving
30,026 1243 24.2
Moses Malone
29,580 1455 20.3
Dan Issel


27,482 1218 22.6
Elvin Hayes
27,313 1303 21.0
Hakeem Olajuwon
26,946 1238 21.8
Oscar Robertson
26,710 1040 25.7


ABA-NBA Playoff Career Scoring Leaders



Points Games PPG






Michael Jordan
5987 179 33.4
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

5762 237 24.3
Shaquille O'Neal
5121 203 25.2
Karl Malone
4761 193 24.7
Julius Erving
4580 189 24.2
Jerry West
4457 153 29.1
Larry Bird
3897 164 23.8
John Havlicek
3776 172 22.0
Hakeem Olajuwon
3755 145 25.9
Magic Johnson
3701 190 19.5
Kobe Bryant
3686 152 24.3
Scottie Pippen
3642 208 17.5
Tim Duncan
3625 155 23.4
Elgin Baylor
3623 134 27.0
Wilt Chamberlain
3607 160 22.5


ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Rebounding Leaders




Reb. Games RPG







Wilt Chamberlain

23,924 1045 22.9
Bill Russell

21,620 983 22.5
Moses Malone

17,834 1455 12.3
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


17,440 1560 11.2
Artis Gilmore

16,330 1329 12.3
Elvin Hayes

16,279 1303 12.5
Karl Malone

14,968 1476 10.1
Robert Parish

14,715 1611 9.1
Nate Thurmond

14,464 964 15.0
Walt Bellamy

14,241 1043 13.7


ABA-NBA Playoff Career Rebounding Leaders



Reb. Games RPG






Bill Russell
4104 165 24.9
Wilt Chamberlain
3913 160 24.5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

2481 237 10.5
Shaquille O'Neal
2447 203 12.1
Karl Malone
2062 193 10.7
Tim Duncan
1975 155 12.7
Wes Unseld
1777 119 14.9
Robert Parish
1765 184 9.6
Elgin Baylor
1724 134 12.9
Larry Bird
1683 164 10.3
Dennis Rodman
1676 169 9.9
Hakeem Olajuwon
1621 145 11.2
Julius Erving
1611 189 8.5
Mel Daniels
1608 109 14.8
Scottie Pippen
1583 208 7.6


ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Assists Leaders



Assists Games APG






John Stockton
15,806 1504 10.5
Mark Jackson
10,334 1296 8.0
Magic Johnson
10,141 906 11.2
Oscar Robertson
9,887 1040 9.5
Jason Kidd
9,497 1026 9.3
Isiah Thomas
9,061 979 9.3
Gary Payton
8,966 1335 6.7
Rod Strickland
7,987 1094 7.3
Maurice Cheeks
7,392 1101 6.7
Lenny Wilkens
7,211 1077 6.7


ABA-NBA Playoff Career Assists Leaders



Assists Games APG






Magic Johnson
2346 190 12.3
John Stockton
1839 182 10.1
Larry Bird
1062 164 6.5
Scottie Pippen
1048 208 5.0
Michael Jordan
1022 179 5.7
Dennis Johnson
1006 180 5.6
Isiah Thomas
987 111 8.9
Jerry West
970 153 6.3
Jason Kidd
961 105 9.2
Bob Cousy
937 109 8.6
Kevin Johnson
935 105 8.9
Maurice Cheeks
922 133 6.9
Mark Jackson
904 131 6.9
Clyde Drexler
891 145 6.1
Steve Nash
891 102 8.7
Julius Erving
841 189 4.4

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM

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"Stormin" Norman Van Lier Dead at 61

There is sad and shocking news out of Chicago this afternoon: Norm Van Lier, the popular Bulls broadcaster who teamed up with Jerry Sloan to form an All-Star, defensive minded backcourt for the Bulls in the early 1970s, has passed away at the age of 61. No cause of death has been officially released.

Van Lier played 10 NBA seasons for three teams (Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee). He led the NBA in assists in 1970-71 as a Cincinnati Royal and he ranked in the top ten in assists nine times. He ranked in the top ten in steals three times (steals did not become an official statistic until his fifth season). Van Lier made the All-Star team three times (1974, 1976-77) and received his only All-NBA Second Team selection in 1973-74, largely on the strength of his defensive play (he averaged 14.3 ppg that season). He made the All-Defensive First Team three times (1974, 1976-77) and earned five All-Defensive Second Team selections (1971-73, 1975, 1978). He received MVP votes in four different seasons, finishing as high as ninth in the balloting (1974).

Van Lier has been a Bulls broadcaster for ComcastSportsnet Chicago for many years but after he did not show up for Wednesday night's postgame show a Chicago Fire Department squad made a wellness check at his residence early Thursday afternoon. He was pronounced dead at the scene, shortly before 1 p.m. local time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Classic Confrontations: Pacers vs. Colonels

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

The Indiana Pacers appeared in five ABA Finals, won three ABA titles and became known as the Boston Celtics of the upstart league. Pacers’ broadcaster Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who coached the team during those years, pinpoints the moment that Indiana’s great run began: “The beginning of the Pacers was in 1968-69, the seventh game (of the Eastern Division Semifinals) against Kentucky. We got down 3-1 to Kentucky and came back and won the series.”

That was the only comeback from a 3-1 deficit in ABA playoff history; it has happened just seven times in five decades of the NBA playoffs. Pacers’ center Mel Daniels has a simple, direct explanation of how the Pacers did it: “The adjustment was we got (ticked) off. They started talking trash that we were overrated, overhyped.”

Indiana cruised to a 4-1 victory over Kentucky in the 1970 Eastern Division Finals. Incomparable Pacers’ swingman Roger Brown increased his scoring from 23.1 ppg in the regular season to 28.5 ppg in the playoffs, capping the run by averaging 45.7 ppg in the last three games of the ABA Finals against the L.A. Stars.

San Antonio Spurs’ legend George “Iceman” Gervin will never forget his duels with Brown: “That guy did not get enough credit. He has to be one of the toughest one-on-one guys who ever played...Roger was a student of the game. He probably had one of the best first steps in basketball…Matter of fact, I learned that from him—that first step. When I went to the guard spot it really helped me to take my game to the next level.”

Darnell Hillman joined the Pacers as a rookie in 1971 and played countless games of one-on-one against Brown, recalling, “I only beat him twice…(but) I was getting better and better defensively where there would be no matchup or assignment out there that I couldn’t take.”

The 1969 and 1970 Kentucky teams were led by the long range marksmanship of 6-0 Louie Dampier (who ranked in the top five in the ABA in three point field goal percentage for eight straight years) and 6-3 Darel Carrier (who ranked in the top three in the ABA in three point field goal percentage in each of the ABA’s first four seasons). In 1970-71, rookie Dan Issel provided a major upgrade at center; he shifted to forward the next season with the arrival of Artis Gilmore, who won Rookie of the Year and MVP.

Neither Indiana nor Kentucky had the league’s best record in 1972-73, but both made it to the ABA Finals. Issel averaged 23.6 ppg and 11 rpg in the series, while Gilmore posted 22.1 ppg, 17.3 rpg, 5.3 apg and 4.0 bpg. Second year player George McGinnis added a new dimension to the Pacers’ attack: he played point power forward a generation before Kevin Garnett did. McGinnis notes, “I was probably one of the first—if not the first—big power forwards who could come out on the floor and handle the ball…In our offense I could bring the ball up.” McGinnis averaged 22.3 ppg and 13.7 rpg against Kentucky, scoring 27 points in an 88-81 game seven victory at Freedom Hall in Kentucky.

The Pacers signed veteran 6-6 power forward Gus Johnson late in the season and he played a key role in game seven, guarding the 7-2 Gilmore when Daniels got in foul trouble. Leonard explains, “This is how strong he was in his upper body. He pushed Artis—by the time Artis got the ball in what should have been the low post, Gus had walked him right out of there, walked him right out 15 feet on the floor.” Daniels adds, “Back then you could do that. See, big guys played defense from the free throw line extended. They would not let you get to the block.”

Kentucky avenged this loss by beating Indiana 4-1 in the 1975 ABA Finals. Gilmore dominated the paint, averaging 25 ppg, 21 rpg, and 1.2 bpg in the series, while first year Coach Hubie Brown worked his Xs and Os magic. McGinnis had 27.4 ppg, 14 rpg and 6.4 apg in defeat, numbers that actually trailed his overall playoff averages that season (32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and 8.2 apg).

The “Interstate 65” rivalry ended anticlimactically with Kentucky winning a 1976 first round mini-series 2-1. Colonels’ owner John Y. Brown accepted a buyout in lieu of joining the Pacers and three other ABA clubs in the NBA for the 1976-77 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Al Bianchi: Dr. J's First Pro Coach

While covering this year's Legends Brunch at All-Star Weekend, I had the opportunity to interview Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach. I'd never met or spoken with Bianchi before but in a sense I felt like I had known him almost my whole life; I initially heard about him when I was just a young kid and first read about the early years of Erving, who was, is and will always be my all-time favorite player. Over the years, I have read a lot about Bianchi and seen various clips of him talking about Erving and the ABA. When Bianchi coached Erving he was just a little older than I am now. Bianchi will turn 77 on March 26 but he looks, talks and moves like a younger man.

Bianchi averaged 8.1 ppg in 10 NBA seasons as a 6-3 guard, spending his entire career with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise. During his last season and a half he was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate. Bianchi retired in 1966 and just a year later--at the age of 35--he became the first coach in Seattle Supersonics' history. Bianchi coached in Seattle for two seasons before jumping to the ABA to coach the Washington Capitols for the 1969-70 season. The next year, the Capitols moved to Virginia and were renamed the Squires. Bianchi led the Squires to a 55-29 record in 1970-71, winning ABA Coach of the Year honors.

Erving joined the Squires the next season, forgoing his senior year at the University of Massachusetts. Erving and Charlie Scott--the 1971 ABA Rookie of the Year--formed a dynamic tandem until Scott left the team near the end of the 1971-72 season to sign with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. Scott still finished as the ABA's scoring champion in 1972, a title that Erving would win in three of the next four seasons. Erving ranked fifth in scoring (27.3 ppg) and third in rebounding (15.7 rpg) as a rookie; in his second year with the Squires, Erving won his first scoring crown after averaging a career-high 31.9 ppg and he also ranked fifth in rebounding (12.2 rpg). The Squires brought in a lot of talented players--Rick Barry was on the team prior to Erving's arrival and George Gervin was Erving's teammate for the latter part of the 1973 season--but they did not have the financial resources to keep them, so Erving played his final three ABA seasons with the New York Nets.


Although Erving delighted NBA fans for 11 years as a 76er, Bianchi had an up close view of what he has called Dr. J's "high wire act"; Bianchi coached a young Erving (ages 21-22) who glided up and down the court unfettered by knee tendinitis or by coaches who thought that Erving should rein in his game for the good of team harmony. In the 1972 ABA playoffs, rookie Erving averaged 33.3 ppg and 20.4 rpg, topping all players in both categories. On April 4, 1972, Erving scored 53 points--tying Roger Brown's ABA playoff single game record--in a 118-113 win over the Floridians; Erving's total is still an NBA/ABA record for most points by a player in his first road playoff game.

Friedman: "What do you remember most about Julius Erving's 53 point playoff game against the Floridians?"

Bianchi: "I think that the number one thing at that time is that there was a guy (on the Floridians roster) by the name of Warren Jabali who was a very aggressive player and a very rough player. He had a history of beating up on some people--he was a very physical player*. I was concerned on how Julius was going to react because I knew that he was going to guard Julius and that he was going to try to get rough with him. But, Julius, as always, just handled it and, like you said, scored 53 points and we won the game. It was just incredible."

Friedman: "I've seen and heard the quote from you that you guys in the ABA were privileged because you saw Julius' 'high wire act.'"

Bianchi: "That's true."

Friedman: "Elaborate about that and describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

Friedman: "That first year for you, Julius averaged almost 16 rebounds. He was a big time rebounder, particularly early in his career. Describe the kind of rebounder he was--not the numbers, but the way that he was able to rebound so well even though he had that lean, lithe body type, kind of the way that Rodman did when he was a great rebounder--but Rodman was not scoring 28-29 points a game."

Bianchi: "I think that one of the things that you have to understand about that is the nature of the ABA game was a little more wide open than the NBA game, so there were a lot of shots (being attempted). It was just a quickness (that he had) and the fact that he had such big hands that he could take it from here and get it here."

Friedman: "I wrote an article about the NBA-ABA All-Star Games. I've seen some black and white footage of Erving from the 1972 game. I'm used to seeing Erving as a Sixer but it seemed like in 1972 he had an extra gear. Talk about the first time that you saw Erving perform in the open court; it just seemed like he had an extra gear when he was 21 or 22 compared to even when he was 28, 29 or 30 with the Sixers."

Bianchi: "He had that at the beginning and showed it in the ABA. He wasn't really able to show it as much in the NBA. What made him was the fact that he had such huge hands and had such a long first step and could really run the court and could control the ball with one hand. When you can do that, you're an exceptional player."

Friedman: "That gives you more options."

Bianchi: "Oh, yes."

Friedman: "I'm interested in what you think of this comparson: although their body types are different, some of the dunks that LeBron does--with the full arm extension and the elevation above the rim and the distance from which he takes off--do you see a similarity in terms of dunking style between him and Julius? Their playing styles are different because of their body types but do you see a similarity in their dunking styles?"

Bianchi: "Julius, no question, was one of the best dunkers and one of the dunkers who would take off from a running start not close to the basket but dribble it and take off from the foul line. Michael Jordan did that kind of stuff. It all goes back to the hands, plus athletic ability, and when you have that you can do magnificent things."

Friedman: "I know that for a little bit less than half a season you had Doc and you had George Gervin, early in both of their careers. Have you ever given any thought to what might have happened if the financial situation (with the Squires franchise) had been different and you had been able to keep those guys? What might that team have been like if it had survived and joined the NBA in the merger with both of those guys on the roster? Did you ever daydream about that as a coach?"

Bianchi (laughing): "No. I tried to forget about that. I know Earl Foreman the owner had (financial) problems. He was very good to me. He explained what he had to do. There really wasn't anything I could do about it, so I just put it off and didn't really think about it. I just moved on and just thought about what a pleasure it was to have those two guys on my team."

Friedman: "Tell me about the first time you ever heard about Dr. J, because I know that he was a bit of an obscure figure at first. Also, tell me about the first time that you actually saw Dr. J performing on a court. What were your thoughts on those two occasions?"

Bianchi: "The first time I heard about him was from our owner, who was a very aggressive guy. Matter of fact, he wanted to sign some Russian players way back then. He mentioned the guy's name and he said, 'This guy Julius Erving. I'm hearing things about him.' Anyway, he played in Madison Square Garden against North Carolina (in the NIT) and fouled out in the first half and did not play well. The first time I actually saw him was in a rookie camp. He played about five minutes and Johnny Kerr (then the team's GM) came up behind me and said, 'You better get him out so he doesn't get hurt.' So that was the beginning. When we saw him, we said, 'This is a home run.'"

*After the interview, Bianchi hastened to add that Jabali was "his guy," that he has a very high opinion of him as a player and that his comments about Jabali's playing style should not be misconstrued in a negative way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Supergames I & II: The 1971 and 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Games

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

The Forgotten Dream Teams

The 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” is considered to be the best basketball team ever assembled; ten of its twelve members are on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

In 1971 and 1972, two ABA All-Star teams comprised mostly of unheralded players nearly beat NBA All-Star teams whose rosters contained some of basketball’s most legendary figures—nine of the ten NBA participants in the 1971 NBA-ABA All-Star Game are on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

The 1992 "Dream Team" is perhaps the most famous basketball squad ever.

Most accounts of basketball history do not mention the NBA-ABA Supergames and very little footage exists of them. This is the story of the two Supergames and the great players who participated in them.

Supergame I: May 28, 1971, Houston Astrodome

NBA and ABA players organized the first Supergame as a fund raiser for the Whitney Young Foundation, an organization that helped prepare underprivileged students for college. The Foundation received the net gate receipts, while the television proceeds were divided between the participating players and each league’s Players Association pension funds. The members of the respective Players Associations selected 11 man rosters from the previous season’s All-Star teams. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was supposed to play for the NBA, but he got married the day before the game and his roster spot was not filled. Boston Celtics’ legend Bill Russell coached the NBA and Larry Brown helmed the ABA.

Mel Daniels, who won two ABA MVPs and three ABA titles as an Indiana Pacer, recalls that the ABA players looked forward to the game: “We weren’t intimidated by the (NBA) guys. We figured that they did everything that we would do in the locker room in terms of putting on your shoes and your uniform and playing basketball. The climate was that the ABA guys were not as good as the NBA basketball players, so we had a few things on our minds that we had to prove to society, to the basketball world in general, that we were as good as the NBA, if not better.”

The game used NBA rules in the first half (24 second shot clock, no three point shot) and ABA rules in the second half (30 second shot clock, three point shot). Walt Frazier came off the bench to make seven of his eight field goal attempts in the first half and the NBA led 66-64 after Elvin Hayes’ first half buzzer beater. The game went back and forth until the NBA took a 108-98 lead in the fourth quarter. Barry and Charlie Scott rallied the ABA to within a point with 47 seconds left, but Oscar Robertson drained two free throws to put the NBA up 123-120 with 32 seconds left. Frazier closed out the scoring with two more free throws at the 11 second mark. Frazier finished with a game-high 26 points and won a car as the game MVP.

Even after such a strong showing the ABA players still had to fight an uphill battle to receive recognition. Daniels still recalls one slight: “One thing that I remember is that I blocked Elvin Hayes’ shot and the next day in the newspaper it came out that Hayes had blocked my shot.”

Both referees were from the NBA, which makes one statistic from the 1971 game stand out. In the fourth quarter the NBA All-Stars attempted 31 free throws, which would have been an NBA single game regular season record at that time. Despite shooting six for 23 from the field in the final stanza (the ABA went 10-20) the older league outscored the ABA 34-31. The NBA had a bigger, more inside oriented team, but through the first three quarters the NBA’s free throw attempted edge was only 39-32. Moreover, the fourth quarter parade to the free throw line was led not by the NBA’s big men but by guards Oscar Robertson (eight FTA) and Earl Monroe (six FTA) and swingman John Havlicek (all seven of his FTA).

Clearly, the NBA-ABA All-Star Game was much more fiercely contested and much more closely officiated than contemporary All-Star Games are. For example, in the 2004 NBA All-Star Game both teams combined for 32 free throw attempts in the entire game. Daniels says, “This was a serious business. Not only was that game a very serious endeavor, when we started playing exhibition games (against the NBA), those weren’t exhibition games per se. They were played with all the energy and verve of a regular season game.”

Supergame II: May 25, 1972, Nassau Coliseum

The NBA threatened to fine and/or suspend any NBA player who participated in Supergame II, but this did not stop the NBA Players Association from assembling another powerhouse team: seven Hall of Famers, six of whom are on the Top 50 List. Hall of Famer and Top 50 player Jerry West was unable to play because his kids were sick and his spot was filled by his Los Angeles Lakers’ teammate, fellow Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. Paul Silas replaced injured Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere. The 1972 ABA team featured three Hall of Famers—Barry, Erving and Dan Issel. Before the game Larry Fleischer, NBA Players’ Association counsel, said the two teams were “the finest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one floor.” Elgin Baylor coached the NBA and Wilt Chamberlain was the team captain; Al Bianchi and Daniels filled those roles for the ABA.

Erving was not fazed by the prospect of competing against the NBA: “For me, coming off my rookie season, I was kind of feeling my oats and feeling like I could play against anybody, anywhere, at any time. I had played in and around New York in the pro summer leagues, so I had a lot of confidence in my ability.”

The only existing tape of the 1972 game consists of 90 minutes of black and white footage from the TVS national broadcast. There are technical problems throughout the recording, mainly with the audio. Don Criqui handled the play by play, while Hot Rod Hundley and Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan provided color commentary. The ABA ball was used in the first half and the NBA ball was used in the second. The ABA’s three point shot was only in effect in the second half.

Supergame II showcased a defensive intensity that differed completely from the way All-Star Games are generally played: in the first quarter alone Donnie Freeman drew a charge on Archie Clark and the ABA nearly forced a shot clock violation before a foul call bailed out the NBA.

Erving entered the game late in the first quarter with the ABA leading 22-14 and he provided an immediate spark, scoring from the left block after a pass from Gilmore. Later he displayed his open court skills, dribbling between his legs without breaking stride, driving hard to the basket and making a double-clutching shot in traffic.

He seemed to be in two places at once when he stopped a 4-on-2 fast break by the NBA. Erving picked up Robertson at the free throw line, forcing Robertson to dish to Clark on the left baseline for what seemed to be a wide open jump shot. Instead, Erving took a big step to meet Clark, swatted the shot out of midair, recovered the ball in the corner, took a couple dribbles upcourt and whipped an outlet to Daniels, who passed to George Thompson for a layup plus the foul. Thompson’s free throw put the ABA up 47-30 with 7:35 left in the first half.

By the third quarter the NBA closed the score to 60-59 and Criqui noted, “Julius Erving led the ABA to a breakaway in the second quarter—they went up by 19—but he’s been on the bench throughout the later part of the second quarter and has not played here in the third quarter.” With about two minutes left in the third quarter and the NBA leading 81-78, Erving returned to the game. Erving closed the third quarter with a fantastic drive against Hawkins from the right wing, dribbling between his legs, than spinning and going between his legs again. Once Erving got clear of Hawkins he elevated over Bob Lanier and made a bank shot.

Sadly, the fourth quarter footage is missing and presumed to be destroyed. The game closed in dramatic fashion. Barry hit a three pointer with 13 seconds left to cut the NBA lead to one. The ABA fouled Clark, who made the first and missed the second attempt. A wild scramble for the rebound ensued. Barry emerged with the ball and launched a desperation three pointer. His game winning attempt fell short and the NBA won 106-104. Lanier scored 15 points and was selected game MVP.

The Mind Boggling Dr. J Dunk

Silas will never forget a particular fourth quarter play from the 1972 game: “The one defining moment was, I had the ball and Doc stole the ball from me and went down and slammed this thing harder than I had ever seen anybody slam the ball in my life.” Prior to the game Silas knew little about Erving: “Zelmo Beaty, who I had played with in St. Louis and Atlanta, had jumped leagues and when I saw him he was telling me about Doc—that he wasn’t a good shooter but he just went by everybody. He just took up the slack, penetrated around and dunked on everybody. And I’m wondering how that happened. How could it happen? He developed a consistent shot, but it took time for him to do that. He was special.”

Daniels had seen some great dunks before, including one by Hawkins over Daniels’ Minnesota Muskies’ teammate Sam Smith in the 1968 ABA playoffs, but nothing quite like Erving’s flight in the 1972 Supergame: “He leapt from behind the free throw line, hung in the air for two or three seconds it seemed and dunked it. It was an absolutely amazing dunk and you had to see it to really appreciate it. Telling you about it does not do it the justice it deserves.”

Erving recalls, “I stole the ball and got Oscar Robertson and Archie Clark caught back on defense and Archie went for the steal, which made me pick the ball up. I was around the top of the key, coming in transition…I took a step and a half and went airborne from somewhere around the foul line, just inside the foul line. I noticed Oscar Robertson was there and just looking at me like, ‘What does this kid think he is going to do?’ He figured that I was going to come out of the air before I made it to the basket, but I got all the way to the basket and I dunked the ball and the ball bounced up into his hands and there was a certain expression on his face at the time—as well as Archie’s—almost like it was a moment. And I just ran back downcourt, but later on a lot of people talked about that play.”

In many ways Erving’s dunk symbolizes the ABA and the Supergames in one spectacular athletic flourish—it was amazing and yet no footage of it exists. Fortunately, Erving’s free throw line dunk to win the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk contest was captured for posterity.

SUPERGAME I and II Boxscores:










NBA-ABA Supergame I Boxscore
Fri. May 28, 1971
Houston Astrodome
Houston, Texas










NBA














Player 2FGM 2FGA FTM FTA PTS PF








John Havlicek^* 3 7 4 7 10 4
Dave DeBusschere^* 6 14 5 5 17 5
Nate Thurmond^* 1 5 1 5 3 1
Oscar Robertson^* 4 9 9 14 17 1
Dave Bing^* 2 5 7 12 11 2
Walt Frazier* 11 16 4 5 26 2
Elvin Hayes* 8 20 1 5 17 4
Earl Monroe* 2 5 8 9 12 1
Lou Hudson 2 6 3 3 7 4
Billy Cunningham* 1 5 3 5 5 3








TOTALS: 40 92 45 70 125 27








ABA














Player 2FGM 2FGA FTM FTA PTS PF








Rick Barry^* 7 17 6 10 20 5
Willie Wise^ 6 13 4 5 16 3
Zelmo Beaty^ 3 5 4 6 10 3
Larry Jones 6 10 0 0 15 6
Charlie Scott^ 5 12 1 3 11 2
Mel Daniels 5 12 5 7 15 1
John Brisker 1 5 6 6 14 3
Roger Brown 3 5 3 5 9 2
Steve Jones 1 3 1 3 6 5
Donnie Freeman 2 6 0 0 4 3
Bill Melchionni 0 1 0 0 0 3








TOTALS: 39 89 30 45 120 36









1 2 3 4 Tot.

NBA 33 33 25 34 125

ABA 33 31 25 31 120









Three point field goals: NBA: 0-0; ABA: 4-11 (Barry 0-1;
L. Jones 1-1; Scott 0-4;
Brisker 2-3; Brown 0-1; S. Jones 1-1)


Fouled out: L. Jones





Attendance: 16,364























NBA-ABA Supergame II Boxscore
Thur. May 25, 1972
Nassau Coliseum
Uniondale, N.Y.

















NBA














Player FGM FGA FTM FTA PTS PF








John Havlicek^* 5 NA 7 9 17 NA
Connie Hawkins^* 2 NA 2 6 6 NA
Wilt Chamberlain^* 2 NA 2 4 6 NA
Oscar Robertson^* 5 NA 4 4 14 NA
Archie Clark^ 5 NA 5 7 15 NA
Bob Lanier* 7 NA 1 4 15 NA
Nate Archibald* 4 NA 4 6 12 NA
Bob Love 4 NA 2 2 10 NA
Gail Goodrich* 3 NA 2 3 8 NA
Paul Silas 1 NA 1 2 3 NA








TOTALS: 38 NA 30 47 106 27








ABA














Player FGM FGA FTM FTA PTS PF








Rick Barry^* 4 NA 2 2 11 NA
Dan Issel^* 4 NA 0 0 8 NA
Artis Gilmore^ 7 NA 0 5 14 NA
Jimmy Jones^ 3 NA 1 2 7 NA
Donnie Freeman^ 5 NA 6 7 16 NA
Julius Erving* 5 NA 3 4 13 NA
Ralph Simpson 5 NA 2 4 12 NA
Willie Wise 4 NA 4 5 12 NA
George Thompson 2 NA 3 3 7 NA
Roger Brown 1 NA 0 0 2 NA
Mel Daniels 1 NA 0 0 2 NA








TOTALS: 41 NA 21 32 104 32









1 2 3 4 Tot.

NBA 21 29 33 23 106

ABA 30 26 25 23 104









Three point field goals: Barry (1)



Fouled out: none






Attendance: 14,086













NOTES:






*: Hall of Fame member





^: Starter














For the 1971 game there is enough information to
list two point field goals made and attempted

(2FGM and 2FGA) separately from three point field
goals made and attempted; for the 1972 game

FGA and individual PF information are unavailable.










When this article appeared in Basketball Digest, two sidebar pieces accompanied it. Here are links to 20 Second Timeout posts that reprint those two articles, plus a followup item relating to the Pistol Pete Maravich book by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill:

The ABA's Unsung Heroes

Dr. J and Pistol Pete on the Same Team

"Pete Maravich: The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete" is Now Available in Paperback

Basketball Digest did not publish my author acknowledgements, so I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Arthur Hundhausen of RememberTheABA.com and John Grasso for providing box scores and background information about both games and Paul Silas, Mel Daniels, Bob “Slick” Leonard, Julius Erving and Rick Barry for contributing their personal recollections.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 PM

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