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Friday, March 27, 2009

Interview with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President and Co-Founder Pat Williams, Part II

Pat Williams has been involved with the NBA since 1968, working for several different franchises. As the General Manager for the 76ers, he acquired the talent that helped the Sixers reach the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982 before winning the title in 1983. In 1989, Williams helped to launch the Orlando Magic and he is currently a Senior Vice President with that organization. Williams has written more than 50 books and he is the co-editor of the recently released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. The Chicken Soup books generally contain 101 uplifting stories but--as he explains in my interview with him--Williams successfully lobbied the publisher to include 15 bonus stories in the basketball edition. You can find out more about the Chicken Soup series and order a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball here:

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Part I of this interview covered the Chicken Soup basketball book, Williams' collegiate/minor league baseball career, the grace of Julius "Dr. J" Erving and some stories about the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers championship team. Part II will discuss similarities and differences between Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, the Julius Erving-Larry Bird rivalry, Andrew Toney and Williams' take on the proper use of basketball statistics.

Friedman: "Even though Julius Erving could score just about as well as anyone who ever played, his desire to be the top scorer or to maintain a certain scoring average did not seem to be the same as Michael Jordan's. I don't think that one player wanted to win more than the other but it seemed like it was also very important to Jordan to maintain a certain scoring average and that he had the right coach in Phil Jackson, who acceded to that and structured the team for that to happen. From your experience with Julius, would you say that of all the star players who had the ability to average 28 or 30 ppg that scoring was probably less important to him than it was to most of those guys? He would score 28 or 30 if the team needed him to do that but it just wasn't that important to his ego."

Williams: "Sure. I think that your question relates to the two personalities. Julius is a little more mellow, he has a gentler personality. Michael was a savage. Michael would absolutely carve your heart out and then hold it in his hands watching it beat its last beat. He would just humiliate guys. I wrote a book a few years back called How to be Like Mike. I did about 1500 interviews, David, to try to get to the heart of Michael. I talked to everybody I could get to and that is what came through to me, that he was just a savage--great guy, great persona, great with people, great with media, he was absolutely charming, but once he walked between those lines it was a war and he was going to do whatever he had to do to absolutely beat you and humiliate you."

Friedman: "I asked that same question to Rod Thorn, who was an assistant coach with the Nets when Dr. J played there and then he ended up drafting Michael Jordan with the Bulls. Thorn told me that Dr. J's competitiveness is underrated or not appreciated, that when he was on the court he was extremely competitive but he just expressed this or conveyed this in a different manner than Jordan. Doc was obviously not the type of player who would yell at his teammates or be demonstrative but he was competitive in his own right.

This question fascinates me, because when Julius needed to take over, like in the last season in the ABA when his team was not as talented as the first Nets team to win a championship, the numbers he put up in the ABA Finals were astronomical--and he did something similar for the Sixers in the 1977 Finals to a lesser extent, even though you lost to the Blazers. It is interesting to me that he did not seem to have his ego tied up in scoring quite the way that Jordan did, not that either approach is bad, but it is interesting that the competitiveness of two of the greatest players in the NBA found expression in such different ways. That fascinates me."

Williams: "Julius, obviously, was a great competitor and had an intense desire to win but, like I said, he was a little kinder between the lines than Michael. Michael would absolutely chop your head off. He wanted to beat you, he wanted to annihilate you, he wanted to turn you into dust. That was Michael. Then, off the court, they tell the story--and I used it in the book--about how they bring handicapped kids to meet him, Make-A-Wish kids, kids that might not live another week. He'd meet them before the game, the p.r. people around him would be absolutely distraught, they'd be in tears, just wiped out emotionally from these kids and Michael would do his thing and the kids would be thrilled and then Michael would run out on the court and go get 40 and just destroy you. That always fascinated me about Michael."

Friedman: "Yes, the focus that he had was just amazing.

I sent you the article that I wrote about Julius Erving and Larry Bird and their rivalry. I think that their rivalry is overlooked now because it took place before the big TV contracts and because Magic and Bird were closer in age and they eventually met in multiple NBA Finals. You were the Sixers GM at that time, so I have to ask you what memory sticks out for you of their rivalry, of Erving and Bird and the Sixers-Celtics rivalry. That was really a tremendous rivalry and I think that it was seen that way at the time--and it should not be forgotten because it is an important part of basketball history."

Williams: "Bird arrived in 1979, so they competed against each other for eight years--Julius retired in 1987. That would have taken Larry Bird to age 31, through the meat of his career. The Philly-Boston rivalry then as always was the most intense in sports, I felt. I understand Duke-Carolina and Alabama-Auburn and the Cowboys and the Redskins and the Yankees and the Red Sox--I understand all of that but for my money Philly-Boston was the top. It started of course with the Wilt-Russell era and then it moved into the 70s; before Doc got there we were starting to get better. Then Bird came along and took it to new heights. We go from the Russell-Chamberlain era to the Bird-Erving era and there was nothing like it. You know, the old Spectrum and the old Boston Garden--two relics. The thing that fueled it, David, was we ended up playing each other in the playoffs seemingly every year."

Friedman: "In the Eastern Conference Finals (in 1980-82, 1985), no less."

Williams: "Yeah. We played them several times in the playoffs and that is always where rivalries are built in the NBA. I think that the two of them had great respect for each other but, let's put it this way, Chamberlain and Russell would go out for dinner the night before a game and Wilt would have Russell over for Thanksgiving dinner--I don't think that the Birds and Ervings were dining together the night before a game. I think that there was a respect there but there was also a distance. They competed and they admired each other but they were not the best of friends."

Friedman: "Did you see the show that was on NBA TV on Wednesday night about the last night at the Spectrum?"

Williams: "No, I missed that show and I was sorry that I could not go to that game. I was invited to go but I just couldn't make it. I had a speaking engagement that night and I regret that but they tell me it was quite a wonderful evening."

Friedman: "I did a post that recapped what happened on the show. The show covered the last game that was played at the Spectrum when the Sixers beat the Bulls but they also brought Julius back and they had him going through the Spectrum talking about his reverse layup against the Lakers and his memories of his first game there. I put almost everything that he said verbatim into the post, so anyone who missed the show can read what Doc had to say about his Spectrum memories. It was a real trip down memory lane.

I think that there is a similarity between the way that LeBron James attacks the basket--the one footed leap that he takes, the full extension of the one arm in the air, the elevation that he gets--and the way that Julius Erving attacked the rim, particularly in his prime. Do you agree with that comparison?"

Williams: "Yeah, except that LeBron probably is even more ferocious because he is so much bigger. What is he, 6-9? Julius was 6-6. LeBron is like 270; Julius was nowhere near that, so LeBron is probably even more physically imposing but, yeah, there are some similarities--minus the Afro (that Erving had in his prime). I think that the Afro had a lot to do with Julius' persona in those days. That just added to the mystique, the way that he wore his hair.

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. David, we never saw Julius in his prime, because from age 21 until he got to the NBA at age 26--those five years in the ABA when physically he was absolutely at his zenith--he was invisible. He was literally a creation of the dark. Nobody ever saw him, unless you were a diehard ABA fan--and there weren't many of them. You weren't going to see him on television, you weren't going to see him on SportsCenter--nobody saw him."

Friedman: "I've written about that and tried to bring that point out. In the 1976 ABA Finals, he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocked shots and steals. He was going against Bobby Jones, the best defensive forward in either league. The Nuggets had Hall of Famers David Thompson and Dan Issel plus Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown. The ABA All-Star Game that year consisted of the Nuggets versus the best players from the rest of the league--and the Nuggets won. Dr. J went in there with a Nets team that was depleted compared to the 1974 championship team and just completely dominated. Sports Illustrated's John Papanek called it 'the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere--ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA.'

I know that you have said that if Doc were playing in the current era he would be a bigger media sensation that anybody, including Jordan."

Williams: "Oh, yeah. 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."

Friedman: "Some people seem like they are destined for greatness but then something happens and they get sidetracked. Of course, I'm speaking about Andrew Toney, who seemed to have Hall of Fame talent and seemed to be on that path but it just didn't work out. What are your memories of Andrew Toney, particularly what he was able to do in his prime?"

Williams: "I wrote a book last year on the 25th anniversary of our championship, Tales from the Philadelphia 76ers."

Friedman: "I have that book. It's a great book."

Williams: "I had a great time putting it together. I got to everybody, trying to get their thoughts and memories and when I talked to the former players--opponents from that era--I was just blown away, David, by the awe and the wonder and the fear that they had to this day of Andrew Toney. You talk to these guys and they're still afraid of him. Danny Ainge said that his two most sleepless nights were before he had to guard Jordan and Magic but that a close third was Andrew. Close third was Andrew! Yet, today, David, nobody remembers him. He's all but forgotten except in Philly or Boston. Players and people from that era will never forget him. It is a tragedy, because he basically had a five year career. He had Hall of Fame talent, he had that kind of greatness about him. He definitely earned that 'Boston Strangler' nickname. I think about him a lot, just what he meant. We got him as a result of a first round pick that we got in a trade that I had made many years before. We had Indiana's pick and that was the one that produced Andrew."

Friedman: "Was that part of the World B. Free trade or am I confused?"

(Note: the Sixers actually traded Free in 1978 for the draft pick that became Charles Barkley in 1984)

Williams: "No, that was Melvin Bennett. We had drafted Mel Bennett out of the ABA and Slick Leonard in Indiana wanted him and gave up a future first round draft pick to get him. That 1980 pick turned out to be Andrew. I remember that the night before that draft, Charlie Theokas, the General Manager of the Nets, had two straight first round picks and he whispered in my ear, 'You're going to get Toney. We've just handed you a championship.' I wasn't quite sure what he meant but to make a long story short, they took Mike Gminski and Mike O'Koren back to back."

Friedman: "I take it that was not his decision."

Williams: "Well, I think that they felt that they needed a center and O'Koren was a local Jersey guy. Both of them were very highly touted, big time ACC players, Duke and Carolina--they were hot. He said, 'We've decided to take O'Koren and Gminski, so you are going to get your guy. We've just handed you a championship.' That was the 1980 draft. Sure enough, there was Andrew and we took him. He could play right away. He was a good player right away. That's one other thing I've learned, David, what you see in the first day of training camp--if your guy can play, generally you know he can play the first day."

Friedman: "Some scouts and some personnel guys have said that kind of thing to me. You can see--even if a guy needs coaching or needs to polish certain things--whether he has the basic requirements to play at the NBA level. If he doesn't have it, unfortunately, you are going to see that, also. You can improve every year and refine your game but at some level you either have it or you don't."

Williams: "Yes and you know right away. That first day at practice, we knew that Maurice Cheeks was going to be really good and we knew that Andrew Toney was very special. In 1971, we drafted Howard Porter and after the first practice (Coach) Dick Motta came up to me--after all we went through to get Porter--and said, 'Howard Porter can't play.'"

Friedman: "That's discouraging."

Williams: "He said, 'You saw it. He can't dribble twice--'"

Friedman: "This is when you were with the Bulls, right?"

Williams: "Yes. 'He can't pass it from here to the wall. He can't guard anybody. He can shoot from out there, he can jump and he can run.'"

Friedman: "That is why he was successful in college, right, those attributes?"

Williams: "Yes. Howard had a seven year career and I don't mean to speak poorly of the deceased but I'm just telling you that what you see is what you get. If they can play on the first day, then they are players. If they can't, generally they are not going to make it or at least not make it big."

Friedman: "Since you have been in front offices for so long and been involved with drafting and evaluating players, what is your take on the whole basketball statistical revolution and the use of 'advanced' stats and the whole question of whether you should rely more on stats or on what you see visually when evaluating players? Where do you sit on that continuum or what is your take on that issue?"

Williams: "I guess the Bill James school has moved into basketball, huh? There is certainly nothing wrong with advanced science but I am still a firm believer in judging horseflesh, you know? Dollar Sign on the Muscle, the old baseball scouting book. You've got to line guys up, you've got to evaluate, you need tons of experience from doing it for many years. You have to go into the gym and you have to study the product. Given a choice of the modern way or the old fashioned way, David, I'll go with the old fashioned way."

Friedman: "Without giving away any trade secrets, would it be fair to say that the way the Magic have been currently built and currently constructed is based more on that old school approach that you are describing as opposed to the new school? Would that be a fair statement or not?"

Williams: "Probably so. I would say that our guys are probably more old school, yes. We would be more traditionalist. That doesn't mean that one way is right or wrong. I certainly know that in baseball, David, you have to have both. There is nothing wrong with the modern approach but in the baseball world those old grizzled scouts still have to get in their cars and drive. They have to get to the games early and they have to watch batting practice and infield practice and study it in person."

Friedman: "Also, I think that you can appreciate this because you played baseball at a high level: baseball is more of a station to station, individual encounter game of pitcher versus batter with stoppages of play but basketball is continuous motion of multiple players and when you are trying to derive stats to explain what is happening with 10 moving parts that is a lot different than trying to quantify what is happening when a pitcher throws the ball, the batter hits it and then the fielder plays it. Those are discrete, separate actions that are stop/start and can be quantified; basketball is a totally different game."

Williams: "That's right."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:18 PM


Interview with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President and Co-Founder Pat Williams, Part I

Pat Williams has been involved with the NBA since 1968, working for several different franchises. As the General Manager for the 76ers, he acquired the talent that helped the Sixers reach the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982 before winning the title in 1983. In 1989, Williams helped to launch the Orlando Magic and he is currently a Senior Vice President with that organization. Williams has written more than 50 books and he is the co-editor of the recently released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. The Chicken Soup books generally contain 101 uplifting stories but--as he explains in my interview with him--Williams successfully lobbied the publisher to include 15 bonus stories in the basketball edition. You can find out more about the Chicken Soup series and order a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball here:

Chicken Soup for the Soul

I recently spoke with Williams about a wide range of subjects. Part I will examine the Chicken Soup basketball book, Williams' collegiate/minor league baseball career, the grace of Julius "Dr. J" Erving and some stories about the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers championship team; part II will discuss similarities and differences between Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, the Julius Erving-Larry Bird rivalry, Andrew Toney and Williams' take on the proper use of basketball statistics.

Friedman: "How did you become affiliated with the Chicken Soup for the Soul project and end up doing the book about basketball?"

Williams: "I got a call about two years ago from the publishers of Chicken Soup and the message was pretty much this: We've done close to 200 versions of the Chicken Soup brand over 17 years but for some reason we've never gotten to the basketball version, so would you be interested in taking it on? That was the extent of the discussion. I said immediately that I would, because I have been a Chicken Soup admirer from afar. It truly is the publishing brand phenomenon of all-time I'd guess; when you've sold well over 100 million books in a series that is pretty good. I accepted it and I had no idea how I was going to get into it or how the thing was going to unfold but I decided the best way to attack the process to come up with 101 stories would be to send a letter of invitation out to everybody in basketball at the college and pro level: every coach, every women's coach, every player, every former player, every NBA player, every executive, referees.

So off go the 15,000 letters and you are kind of hoping for a one or two percent response. That is pretty much exactly what happened. Chicken has about 15 readers who critique every book and they've developed an eye for what is a Chicken story and what isn't. We had to go through that screening process. Then I had a thought about a year ago from my 40-plus years in basketball; I guess I've always been a story reader and a story collector. I thought that there are a lot of germs of stories that I know about, like Chris Paul's grandfather being murdered at the service station in Winston-Salem and that incredible story about Chuck Daly and how he became a college coach at Duke. I began to think that I could run down some stories here--Moses Malone and the lunch box salute. Towards the end I came across the Jim Jones, Jr. story, which ended up being the first story in the book. So I began to track down some stories individually. Then, when we got to the 101 mark there were 15 stories that I just couldn't let go of. I pleaded with the editor to let us have a bonus section because I couldn't cut them. So, the Chicken Soup people let us have a bonus section for the first time in history; we prevailed and people get 15 more spoonfuls of soup."

Friedman: "Which story in the book inspired you the most? I know that is a difficult, open ended question but if someone would ask you about the book and you could only tell them about one story which one would you single out?"

Williams: "I told you about that mass mailing that we sent out to everybody in basketball. I had no idea if we'd hear from anybody but very quickly thereafter--in probably no more than a week--I got my very first response, in an email. I read the story and before I got to the end of it I was crying. It was sent in by the women's coach at UNC Asheville, Betsy Blose. The story just broke me down and I was in tears before I got to the end of it. I thought to myself if they are all like this then I am going to be a basket case. That story really encouraged me because someone cared enough to respond to the mailing and it was an awesome story that made me cry. That is what the Chicken Soup thing is all about. A little footnote to that, David, the next week I was scheduled to speak at a convention in Asheville, North Carolina. I got a hold of this woman--the basketball coach who sent me the story--and I told her where I was going to be. I said that I would like to meet her. She came over for breakfast that morning before the convention started, so within a week of getting this story that absolutely touched me deeply I met the author. The worst case here, David, would be if the 15 person board did not like the story that made me cry. Fortunately, they all loved it and Betsy Blose's story is in there."

Friedman: "Yeah, that would not have been good if you met her and had that interaction and then did not include her story in the book."

Williams: "Oh, my, I've broken down and sobbed and then I go meet her and tell her what a great story that is and then the 15 person board says it doesn't pass the test. Fortunately, it passed the test."

Friedman: "Is there any possibility that there will be a volume two and if there would be are there certain stories that were left out of this book that you would want to include or certain individuals who didn't respond who you would like to hear from and get their stories?"

Williams: "David, perfect question. As a result of doing this and learning on the run the bottom line is we are a hell of a lot shrewder and know a whole lot better how to do this. The Chicken people have asked me to do another book and I've agreed to do it--Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith. That is the next one they've asked me to do."

Friedman: "So that extends beyond basketball, obviously."

Williams: "That will be all sports, all levels--an athlete or coach or somebody in the sports world who shares their faith journey. Answering your question, I have a full file and I am well on my way to basketball version two, which at this point is not anything that they are interested in because they are focused on basketball version one. I've got a manila folder full of stories that would absolutely pass the test. I probably don't have 101 of them at this point but I'll bet you I've got 50.

In answer to your other question, I would be more aggressive this time chasing down stories on my own. I did some of that this past year. I chased down, for example, Sam Smith to give me a Michael Jordan story. I chased down Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News and he shared a Julius Erving story. At this point, I would chase down Terry Pluto--the Cleveland writer--to give me a LeBron James story. He covered LeBron growing up in Akron. I would chase down Bob Ryan because he is one of the world's great storytellers and I know he's got a story somewhere."

Friedman: "What did you learn from your baseball career at Wake Forest and the time that you spent in the minor leagues that helped you to become successful in your endeavors as an executive, author and speaker?"

Williams: "I think that as a result of playing in college and then playing two years of minor league baseball riding the buses, learning the life of a professional athlete, that gave me such a foundation to at least have some understanding and awareness of the emotions of a pro athlete: what they think, how they interact. I think that having that experience was a huge, huge break for me. That gave me much better insight into the mindset of an athlete.

The other thing that hit me was how hard it is, how difficult it is to be good in sports. We have a tendency to sit and watch and think it's easy or should be done 100% every time, but whether it is hitting a 95 mph pitch or maneuvering your body to get a shot off in the NBA with some super athlete in your face--it takes an enormous amount of skill and endurance and effort to do it. These guys we are watching are freaks of nature, I fully believe that, to move their bodies on the basketball court like that or take the pounding of a pro football season or wing your way up on a sheet of ice, maintain your balance and hammer a puck all over the place or try to keep up with a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James. That really has hit me over the years.

The other thing is, it's meant to be fun."

Friedman: "Sports should be fun."

Williams: "Yeah, it's meant to be fun."

Friedman: "Would it be accurate to say that in high school and college you were a star athlete? I'm not asking you to toot your own horn but I'm trying to make a point that in high school and college you were a star on your team or at least one of the better players but in the minor leagues you were more of a role player. If that is an accurate statement, then talk about what you learned about sports from seeing that from both perspectives--of being the best or one of the best players on a team and then being a role player--and how that affects you as a team executive in your interactions with players and coaches. You have had the opportunity to see both sides, whereas some people were only stars or only role players."

Williams: "In high school, I did have success and was one of those stars, I guess. In college I played every game for four years. I caught every game just about for four years and then I got to the pros and I was definitely a journeyman. I was a backup catcher for the two years that I played in the minor leagues. I guess what it taught me, David, was that if you are going to have any success in life we all have to play a role. Not everybody can score 30 points a night. Not everybody is going to be the cleanup hitter. Not everybody is going to get all the playing time. If you are going to have any success as a unit--be it a family unit, a business unit or a sports team--everybody has to know their role and they have to accept it. That doesn't mean that you don't work to try to improve your lot in life, but everybody has to understand where they fit in the overall scheme of things. If you don't, if you can't get that established, then you have absolute chaos, total chaos, in any endeavor in life. I guess that's what I learned going from a regular, play every day guy in college to a backup guy in the pros: you better accept your role--and be grateful for the opportunity; I think that also hit me. I was thrilled to be part of a team, thrilled to be part of a professional athlete's life. It's what I dreamed about since I was seven years old and it became a reality. Enjoy what you are doing, David, I think that is the message here. We can't all be Kobe Bryant or Junior Griffey or Ben Roethlisberger, so enjoy where you are and enjoy what you are doing."

Friedman: "Unselfishness and teamwork are essential parts of success, whether it is your own individual success or the success of the team. I'd like to ask you about a specific example of this from your time as the Sixers' General Manager. Right after you brought in Julius Erving--you've talked about this, Erving has talked about this and I've even spoken with him about it--you conveyed the message to him that the philosophy of the team was that it is better to have three guys averaging 20 ppg each--obviously, Erving, McGinnis and Collins--than to have one guy averaging 30 ppg while the other guys average much less than that. Erving immediately and without hesitation embraced that idea, even though he had been a 30 point scorer in the ABA. Talk about Erving's willingness to do that as a star player and how that contributes to the chemistry of the team and the success of the team."

Williams: "Julius was probably the most gracious, sharp and humble superstar who I've ever been around, David. I think that's one of the reasons everyone admired him so much. He was in the limelight, he had an enormous level of skill and he had great flamboyance and great flair. His public persona was Dr. J but the private Dr. J was Julius Erving. He cared about his teammates and he cared about the sport. He always had time for people, including the media. He would stay as long as it took to make the media members happy and it didn't matter whether it was the columnist for the New York Times or the editor of a high school paper. He treated them all the same. He gave them as much access; he didn't differentiate at all.

When he joined us, we had a three ring circus--you add Julius to McGinnis and Collins who were All-Stars, plus a young Darryl Dawkins and a young Lloyd Free and a young Joe Bryant. Oh boy, we were a traveling circus. As Chuck Daly has said many times, NBA players only want three things: 48 minutes, 48 shots and $48 million. If they get those three things they are fine but it obviously doesn't work that way. It's impossible.

A little footnote to that, David, is that in 1982 when we added Moses Malone prior to the championship season there was great concern about how Moses was going to fit in and whether we would end up with just chaos but when Moses was asked about that in the first press conference he responded, in his inimitable way, 'This Doc's team. This Doc's team. It's not Moses' team, this Doc's team. I'm just here to help Doc win a championship.' That was true. That was Moses' mission."

Friedman: "The flip side of that is that prior to that season, for most of his career Julius had operated a lot on the low left block in the half court offense. He basically ceded that area to Malone and he relied more on his outside shot and he attempted fewer shots per game. Just like he accepted going from 30 ppg to 21-22 ppg when he came from the ABA--and then his average increased again later--he accepted that when Moses came instead of averaging 24-25-26 ppg he would go back to averaging 21-22 ppg."

Williams: "Yeah, there is no question that the two of them had to make some adjustments. But, David, at that point in their lives and their careers they were so focused on winning a championship. Julius had been frustrated ever since he joined us, starting in the spring of 1977, then in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982--disappointment after disappointment. Moses had never been able to get over the hump, either. He had gotten to the Finals once with Houston against Boston but that didn't last long. He was at that point, also, where he was desperate to win. Those two guys at that point in their careers were very amenable to doing whatever it took to work with each other.

For that one year, David, we were pretty much flawless. That was as close to a perfect season as you are going to see, from the first day of training camp with enormous focus and great confidence. They knew almost from the get go that this was the year. Other than a little slip at the end of the year when (Coach) Billy (Cunningham) started resting guys, we could have won 70 games."

Friedman: "I remember the SI cover that said, 'The Sixers are Going for Seventy' and you were on that pace for most of the year."

Williams: "We were on target for that and that would have been something but at that point Billy started resting some guys and backed off a little bit preparing for the playoffs."

Friedman: "The Bulls team that won 72 games had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who had already won championships, whereas Doc and Moses had not won an NBA title. Coach Jackson kind of rode Jordan and Pippen all the way to the end and they reached that target. For the Sixers, if you guys had won 70 games but gotten fatigued and lost in the playoffs it would have been a disaster."

Williams: "That's true--or if somebody had gotten hurt. Moses was having a little tweak in his knee and that was a concern, so Billy backed off and started gearing up for the playoffs. Then, of course, Moses made his famous 'Fo, fo, fo' pronouncement and we came close. That was as close to perfection as you'll see in a pro sports season. We thought that it was going to go on and continue but as it turns out those guys--all of them--peaked at the right time for that one year. The next year there was just enough slippage. They weren't quite as hungry and they weren't quite as driven and they were one year older and they weren't quite as good athletically and we failed to ever get back to those heights."

Friedman: "I talked to Billy Cunningham and Bobby Jones separately about that. You had expended so much energy, you had an older team and a lot of different factors came into play during that next season."

In Part II, Pat Williams will compare Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, talk about the Julius Erving-Larry Bird rivalry, reminisce about Andrew Toney and give his take on the proper use of basketball statistics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:08 AM


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Real NBA: Last Night at the Spectrum

On Wednesday night, NBA TV aired "Real NBA: Last Night at the Spectrum," a retrospective look at the final 76ers game played at the arena that hosted the team from 1967-1996. The 76ers made it to the Finals four times (1977, 1980, 1982-83) during the Spectrum era, led on each occasion by the spectacular all-around play and high flying exploits of the incomparable Dr. J, Julius Erving. Erving, Moses Malone and Bobby Jones were among the Sixers vets who returned to the Spectrum one last time to say goodbye.

Erving led "Real NBA" on one last tour of his old stomping grounds, saying, "As I walk down the steps and I walk into the building now, it conjures up a lot of memories. My first NBA game in this building was a home game against the San Antonio Spurs and I remember very vividly coming down the tunnel. I thought that it was a marriage that was consummated that first night and it was very special because it led to 11 years of glory. The city adopted me and I adopted the things that were a part of Philadelphia, from the Liberty Bell to the statue on top of City Hall. This became my adopted home."

He continued, "I always felt that the Sixers were the patriotic team. Boston always had the parquet floor. You go to L.A. and everything was gold and white with a touch of blue. I mean, our thing was red, white and blue and this floor reeks of that. When you look at our logos, we are true red blooded American by design." It was really something to hear Erving say that, because when I watched him as a kid I had very similar thoughts--seeing him in the old Sixers uniforms that had those patriotic colors, I imagined him to be a larger than life American hero. He wore number six, which I thought was fitting because he was the quintessential Sixer to me (of course, I later learned that he wore number six to honor his childhood hero, Bill Russell). It is interesting that Doc also wore red, white and blue for three years as a New York Net.

Erving recalled, "On game day I was usually one of the first ones here...I had a corner locker. Nobody liked to be next to me because I was always the nicest guy to the media, so they knew that I was going to stay long (after the game)." He rattled off the names of some of the players who shared that locker room with him over the years: "Toney, Cheeks, Jones, Dawkins, Free, Joe Bryant, Mike Dunleavy, Doug Collins, George McGinnis. This was a great time in my life."

Next, Erving walked out to center court and spoke about a very special memory: "When we had big games, right here at center court we would have the two teams lined up. I was always the last one introduced. Grover Washington Jr. would stand here and he would play the National Anthem for us. Every time he finished the National Anthem, he would turn to me and he would always point his finger and I would point my finger back at him. That was the sign that we were ready. We were ready to do battle."

No visit to the Spectrum would be complete without reliving what Basketball Digest once called the "No way even for Dr. J reverse layup," Erving's sensational baseline move in game four of the 1980 NBA Finals:

"There is one significant moment that I think about, Sixers versus the Lakers," Erving said. "On this particular play, I ended up taking the baseline, drove it hard, one dribble, maybe two dribbles. I got some pretty good momentum, so I took off, elevated, found myself soaring along the baseline and I just waited as long as I could until I got to the other side and then I kind of turned back this way and put a little reverse spin on the ball." Of course, even the eloquent Erving does not have the words to do justice to this move (a move that ABA observers swear would not even crack the top ten of the moves that he did as a young player in that league). In order to appreciate this reverse layup, you have to look at it in freeze frame and pause at the moment when Doc is in full flight: it looks as though he is literally walking on air and he is holding the ball in his oversized right hand, which is extended well over the out of bounds line. I once heard Doc say that when he jumped he had first planned to dunk, but then he saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come over so he brought the ball down (that is when he was holding it over the end line) in order to pass it but no one cut to the hoop behind Kareem so Erving simply kept flying and shot a reverse. He did all of that moving (and thinking) while suspended in mid-air! Younger people may not understand or believe it, but if Doc were playing today SportsCenter would probably be named after him. There is a very good reason that Al Bianchi (Doc's first pro coach) says that he never had bench players pay better attention to the game during his coaching career than when he coached Erving: no one wanted to miss Doc's next house call.

The Sixers won the championship in 1982-83, setting a record by going 12-1 in the playoffs. Looking at the championshp banner in the rafters, Erving remembered, "That special season for us when we did it started in the offseason. Harold Katz made the deal for Moses Malone, who was the reigning MVP of the league. I was the previous season's MVP. So now you had the MVP from 1981 and the MVP from 1982 playing on the same team in the 1982-83 season. So that's a good start. There was a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose. It really was a no nonsense season. History was made during that year. It is something that I thank God for, because it didn't have to happen but it did. So, I'm humbled by it."

Erving spoke to the crowd before the last game: "More than two decades ago, I was able to stand here in retirement and issue a little challenge for this to become a better franchise. So, as I stand here before you again today and issue a challenge to today's players, who will one day be old like us; we issue a challenge to be great ambassadors and always play hard, give your best, as you are going to do tonight, as you take care of the Chicago Bulls, like we used to."

How could the Sixers lose after that? Wearing throwback uniforms, they shut down the Spectrum by beating the Bulls, 104-101.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 AM


New York State of Mind, Part II

Mike K. of Knickerblogger vehemently disagrees with my recent article about the New York Knicks. There are many interesting issues to examine here and I will get to the basketball related ones shortly but first I want to touch on a different subject, namely who "owns" a piece of creative work? That question does not refer to copyright ownership but rather the issue of how a work is interpreted. Does a work mean what the creator says it means or once it is published does it mean whatever various readers interpret it to mean? For instance, Bruce Springsteen intended "Born in the U.S.A" to be a protest song about the suffering of Vietnam veterans but it was widely interpreted to be a patriotic anthem (not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive but the primary message that Springsteen meant to communicate is not the one that many people received). Should an artist, writer or performer explain what his art means to him or simply accept that once his art is viewed by the public it could mean many different things to different people?

Some people respond politely but briefly to criticism, some people fly off of the handle and resort to making ad hominem comments and others ignore criticism completely. I've often been advised to do the latter and at times my reluctance to do so is interpreted to mean that I enjoy confrontation, which is far from the truth; I neither enjoy confrontations nor do I shirk them but I despise ignorance and misinformation, so my desire to correct those things inevitably leads me into the fray.

In other words, I think that the article I wrote about the Knicks is pretty straightforward and anyone who is intelligent and reads it with an unbiased, open mind can see that what I said is measured and logical. Here are rebuttals to Mike K.'s specific criticisms (his comments are presented in italics):

The author, David Friedman, talks about the Knicks hot start and recent cool down. He shows D’Antoni’s current win percentage to be similar to Isiah’s first year, which I thought was odd since it’s more relevant to use the previous season. However I let it slide because Friedman promised to use “several key statistics” to prove his point.

The reason that I compared D'Antoni's first season to Thomas' first season is that D'Antoni has only been in New York for one year, so by definition no second season comparison can be made. In Thomas' first season, the Knicks improved from a .280 winning percentage to a .402 winning percentage--and then the next year they dropped right back to .280. When D'Antoni has completed a second season in New York then we can compare his two years with Thomas' two years. My point is that despite all of the buzz about the Knicks they have yet to prove that they are better than they were initially under Thomas. Sometimes coaches have a honeymoon period and then the players tune them out. Injuries and roster moves also can obviously affect the won-loss record. As I wrote in my original article, "Quick quiz: Do the Knicks have a higher winning percentage this year in Mike D'Antoni's first season with the team than they did in 2006-07, Isiah Thomas' first season as New York's coach?" I think that there is a perception that the Knicks have made a complete about face under D'Antoni. All I am saying is that it is too early to know whether or not that is really the case; I also think that it is worth noting that the Knicks have been getting worse as the season progresses, particularly on defense.

Long time KnickerBlogger readers will know that Friedman’s choice of per game stats is a poor choice of rating a team’s ability. By using per possession stats, we can see that the Knicks are currently 15th & 23rd on offense and defense respectively. This is a clear improvement from last year's team which was 23rd on offense and 29th on defense. It’s true that the rebounding has slipped, although the Knicks are better on the defensive glass. Although it’s not true that the team is worse off in shooting percentage. Using eFG we can see that last year the team had a shooting differential of -4.3%, which has risen to -1.9% under D’Antoni.

Now we get to the crux of the problem: I cited actual real world numbers--New York's winning percentage, plus the team's scoring average, points allowed average, point differential, field goal percentage differential and rebounding differential. In contrast, Mike relies on "advanced" numbers to "prove" how much better the Knicks are. The problem is that in the real world of wins and losses, the current Knicks are no better than Thomas' Knicks were in his first year--and even though this year's team is winning more games than last year's team, the Knicks rank dead last in field goal percentage differential, have gotten markedly worse on the boards and have not improved their point differential ranking much, though the raw number has improved from -6.6 to -2.6; the reason that I emphasize the importance of ranking over the raw number is that if a team's differential ranks near the bottom of the league then no matter what the raw number is that team is not going to have a good record relative to the other teams.

The author moves from talking about the Knicks to an overall indictment of D’Antoni’s style of play. He accuses the coach of “neglecting the defensive end of the court” (something that was refuted by Kevin Pelton earlier this year) and launches into a defense wins championships attack on D’Antoni. His proof is that the “[Chicago Bulls] consistently rebounded and defended well… en route to the 1996 championship the Bulls won seven of the eight playoff games in which Jordan shot .440 or worse from the field.” It’s true that those Bulls teams played great defense, but let’s not forget that they were fueled by their offense. Of their 6 championship teams, Chicago was ranked #1 on offense 4 times and #1 on defense only once.

Pelton's article about the Knicks--which was written in January, before New York's recent swoon when the Knicks have regularly given up 100-plus ppg--does not "refute" anything and I will address that in a moment but first let's get rid of the notion that he is some expert on NBA defense. Pelton claimed early in this season that the Lakers were using some kind of revolutionary new defensive scheme; the reality is that the Lakers had a favorable schedule (10 home games in their 14-1 start) and that most of their so-called "new" scheme merely represented the coaching staff's attempts to take advantage of the length/quickness of their personnel in fairly standard ways: when I asked Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons what new things the Lakers were doing defensively, he told me, "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far." When I followed up by asking Cleamons to compare the current Lakers' defense with the 1996 Bulls championship team (for whom he was also an assistant coach), he replied, "That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did" (emphasis added). In other words, the truth about the Lakers' defense is precisely the opposite of what Pelton wrote: the so-called "new" scheme was not some kind of defensive revolution but rather the coaching staff's attempt to organize the defensive efforts of some players who do not have great defensive instincts. As the Lakers have faced stronger teams and more road games, it has become apparent that their defense is not as great as Pelton suggested.

A couple months after my first interview with Cleamons, I caught up with him again and asked him to give a "mid-term" report card on the Lakers' defense. He said, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

I did not initially call Pelton out by name regarding the Lakers but merely refuted what he wrote by publishing those interviews. However, the idea that Pelton's Knicks article "refutes" what I wrote simply cannot go unanswered. The assertion--by Mike K., Pelton or anyone else--that the Knicks are either good defensively this year or simply better defensively than last year is demonstrably false and you don't need so-called "advanced" numbers to prove this. I already mentioned the Knicks' poor point differential--the raw number is better this year, but the ranking is nearly as bad. The Knicks are last in field goal percentage differential (the difference between what they shoot and what their opponents' shoot); granted, some of that has to do with their own shooting percentage but they are also 28th in defensive field goal percentage. Last year, they were last in field goal percentage differential and 28th in defensive field goal percentage. Those numbers are terrible and when you combine that with the Knicks' rebounding woes the overall defensive picture is ugly. The Knicks have also dropped from 22nd to 28th in points allowed. I know that all of the "stat gurus" will scream that per game stats are not as important as pace. It is true that the Knicks are scoring at a faster pace but they are also giving up points at a faster pace, their point differential is still deep in the red and the shooting percentage that they concede is awful. Good defensive teams strive to hold teams to under .450 shooting and the Knicks are not even close to meeting that standard.

By the way, the so-called "advanced" numbers are viewed with derision by Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, who told me that the numbers he looks at most are "Opponent’s field goal percentage, first, and then opponent’s points, second, but the opponent’s field goal percentage is a big thing for me." Realizing that "stat gurus" mock the importance of total points, I asked Coach Brown about that again and he confirmed that he looks at total opponent's points even more than differential. He wants the Cavs to hold their opponents to fewer than 90 points on sub-.400 shooting and fewer than 20 free throw attempts--to defend without fouling. He stated plainly that he is not a numbers guy overall and he said that Gregg Popovich--who he served under as an assistant coach for the 2003 champion Spurs--"is not a stat guy either." When I mentioned to Coach Brown how much Houston GM Daryl Morey relies on stats, Brown replied with the line of the year about basketball statistical analysis: "Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?" Coach Brown later added, "It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio."

The bottom line about D'Antoni's Knicks defensively so far is that they give up too many points, allow opponents to shoot too good of a percentage and they get killed on the glass.

Regarding Mike K.'s comments about the 1996 Bulls, they obviously were great on offense and defense; that is why they won 72 games. The important point that far too many people neglect to understand is that the great teams play defense on a game in, game out basis and that forms their foundation, because even the best offensive players and offensive teams can have off nights. As I noted in my article, the 1996 Bulls were able to win in the playoffs even when Michael Jordan had bad shooting games. The Bulls' high offensive rankings would not have meant a thing in those playoff games without their great defense; if you shoot poorly and lose a game seven because you cannot rebound and defend, all of the "advanced" numbers in the world won't make you a champion.

The relevance of all this to the Knicks is that there is a ceiling to how good the Knicks (or any other team) can be if they do not meet certain standards defensively in terms of point differential, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding. My article Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers discusses how much championship level success correlates with outstanding performance in those categories.

You can excuse Friedman for using archaic stats, but what’s not excusable is how he cherry picks the facts to support his argument. He specifically picks Isiah’s first season to compare with D’Antoni, because the numbers are much closer (.402 to .406) than comparing D’Antoni’s improvement over last year (.280 to .406). You have to wonder if he spelled out ‘fourth’ because saying the team improved from 21st to 4th is easier to process visually. And take for example his paragraph on the Knicks where Friedman ignores one key piece of evidence: point differential. By using points per game, he shows that the Knicks have improved by 4 points over last year (from -6.6 to -2.6). However this significant change is swept under the rug with “[it's] only a few spots better than last season.” You get the feeling that Freidman made up his mind long before he checked the stats out. As a statistical sports blogger, I get a lot of readers new to the field that have a general distrust of numbers. Statistically dishonest articles like Freidman’s helps to reinforce this skepticism, and are a disservice to all sports writers.

First, I have to enjoy the irony of being lectured to about proper journalism by someone who repeatedly misspelled my name. As for the stats that I cited being "archaic," Popovich and Brown would disagree. When the NBA's top defensive coaches evaluate their teams they look at exactly the numbers that I cited about the Knicks--that is why I cited those numbers in the first place. I'm not trying to look cool to the "stat gurus"; I'm trying to explain how and why basketball games are actually won and lost. Proclaiming that the Knicks are actually good defensively or that the Lakers have a new defensive scheme may get you "street cred" (or geek cred) in certain quarters but those are demonstrably incorrect statements.

Saying that I "cherry picked" facts is also false. As I stated above, I compared D'Antoni's year one to Thomas' year one simply because D'Antoni has not yet had a year two in New York. All D'Antoni has done in his first year is a "turnaround" comparable to the one that Thomas did after Larry Brown's tenure. Maybe the Knicks will win 50 games next year and maybe they will regress to a .280 winning percentage, but we don't know now what will happen; the late season decline certainly cannot be encouraging to Knicks fans. I understand that the Knicks are trying to position themselves for the future in terms of the salary cap but if the team is lousy and does not employ the defensive minded philosophy that is proven to win championships then why would a max level player--who can get max level money from several different teams--come to New York? My article about the Knicks does not deal with hypothetical scenarios but simply details how the Knicks are performing this year.

Also, I certainly did not hide from the reader the fact that the Knicks have a better record this year than they did last year. I wrote, "Of course, Knicks' fans surely remember that in Thomas' second season as New York's coach, the team's winning percentage dropped to .280, which is exactly the winning percentage that Larry Brown had in his only season as New York's coach (in the year prior to Thomas taking over the coaching duties); the hope/expectation in New York is that the Knicks will steadily improve under D'Antoni and not regress the way that they did under Thomas but that is why the team's late season collapse should raise eyebrows: Several key statistics suggest that the Knicks are what their record says they are--a lower tier team, albeit one that now plays at a much faster pace." If I were "cherry picking" numbers then I obviously would have left out the direct reference to last year's record. The previously discussed recitation of defensive stats followed that paragraph.

The comment about spelling out "fourth" just betrays Mike K.'s ignorance of basic journalistic practices; numbers less than 10 are generally written out as words. To suggest that I chose that formulation for some nefarious reason is silly.

Obviously, my article was neither "dishonest" nor a "disservice." Those terms much more accurately apply to people who are so blinded by either their support of a particular team and/or their nearly religious faith in "advanced" numbers that they are unwilling to even entertain an alternative viewpoint. Compare how Mike K. concluded his screed with the measured tone that I used to conclude my article:

"The Knicks have not had a winning record since 2000-01. They have been bad for a long time and it may take a while before they are good again. No one should rush to judgment after D'Antoni's first season with the franchise but there are two interesting dynamics to watch with the Knicks, namely what roster changes new team president Donnie Walsh makes in the next year or two and whether or not D'Antoni is willing/able to coax a better defensive performance out of this team.

'Defense' may be a four letter word to D'Antoni but if the Knicks want to spell a certain 12 letter word --'championship'-- for the first time since 1973 then defense will have to become a part of their collective vocabulary, as should be obvious by watching the teams who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, Cleveland and defending NBA champion Boston."

Mike K. declares that I "cherry picked" numbers in a "dishonest" attempt to tell a biased story but the reality is that I simply cited the relevant numbers regarding the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Knicks, indicated that the D'Antoni Knicks have yet to surpass the level that the Thomas Knicks reached in 2007 and suggested that the Knicks need to make personnel and philosophical changes in order to become a good team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 AM


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pro Basketball's "Five-Tool" Players

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

Baseball scouts are always looking for "five-tool" players, rare athletes who can hit for average, hit for power, possess good speed, have strong throwing arms and are excellent fielders. It is also difficult to find basketball players who excel in the sport's five major statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Only five players in NBA/ABA history have led their teams in all of these departments in a single season: Julius Erving (1975-76 New York Nets), Dave Cowens (1977-78 Boston Celtics), Scottie Pippen (1994-95 Chicago Bulls), Tracy McGrady (2002-03 Orlando Magic) and Kevin Garnett (2002-03 Minnesota Timberwolves). LeBron James is currently leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in ppg, rpg, apg and spg and is only .1 bpg behind Ben Wallace for team-high honors in that category, so he has an excellent chance to accomplish this rare feat.

The uniqueness of this achievement is demonstrated by the fact that from 1950-51 (the first year that the NBA compiled rebounding statistics) until 1973-74 (when the NBA first kept statistics for steals and blocks), only five NBA players led their teams in scoring, rebounding and assists in the same season: Maurice Stokes (1955-56 Rochester Royals), Dolph Schayes (1956-57 Syracuse Nationals), Elgin Baylor (1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers; 1960-61 Los Angeles Lakers; 1967-68 Lakers—Jerry West actually posted higher ppg and apg averages in this season, but appeared in only 51 games due to injury), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66, 1966-67 and 1967-68 Philadelphia 76ers) and John Havlicek (1969-70 Celtics); from the ABA’s inception in 1967-68 until 1972-73 (the first year that the ABA recorded steals and blocks), only Connie Hawkins (1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers) joined this distinguished group. One name that is noticeably absent from this list is Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double for the 1961-62 Cincinnati Royals (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) but finished second on the team in rebounding to Wayne Embry (13.0 rpg).

It is clear that there have been very few "five-tool" players in pro basketball history, even if one makes the generous (and doubtful) assumption that each of the above players also led their teams in steals and blocks. One might think that any team that is so heavily dependent on one player cannot be successful but this is not necessarily the case. During the seasons mentioned above, Erving, Chamberlain (1966-67) and Hawkins each won championships and Baylor (1958-59 and 1967-68) appeared in two NBA Finals; only Stokes, Havlicek and Cowens failed to lead their teams to the playoffs.

Julius Erving's 1975-76 campaign is one of the most remarkable seasons in pro basketball history. Dr. J ranked first in the ABA in scoring, fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Not surprisingly, Erving won the regular season MVP award. Dr. J missed leading his team in the five major categories by very small margins in each of the three previous seasons (.6 apg and .2 spg in 1972-73, .8 rpg in 1973-74 and .6 spg in 1974-75). ABA Commissioner (and Hall of Fame forward) Dave DeBusschere commented, "Plenty of guys have been 'The Franchise.' For us, Dr. J is 'The League.'"

Incredibly, Erving actually increased his production in the postseason, culminating in these numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets: 37.7 ppg (including 45 points and the game winning shot on the road in Game One), 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. The Doctor led both teams in all of these categories during the series—and he was putting up these unbelievable numbers against high quality opposition. Guided by Coach Larry Brown, the Nuggets finished 65-19 that season, featuring two future Hall of Famers (Dan Issel and David Thompson) and one of the best defensive forwards of all time (Bobby Jones). After trying in vain to stop the Doctor, Bobby Jones offered this appraisal of Erving’s heroics: "He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught—that one man can’t do it alone."

As a result of the NBA-ABA merger, the cash-strapped Nets sold Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers before the 1976-77 season. The Nets immediately plummeted to the bottom of the standings, while the 76ers made it to the NBA Finals. The Sixers would return to the Finals three more times in the next six seasons, finally winning the title in 1982-83 after adding Moses Malone to the roster. A few years back, Pat Williams, long-time NBA executive and the General Manager of the 76ers when they acquired Dr. J, offered this assessment: "There’s never been anyone quite like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."

Dave Cowens achieved "five-tool" distinction during one of the dreariest periods in the storied history of the Boston Celtics. In 1977-78 Cowens was basically the last man standing from the teams that had won championships in 1973-74 and 1975-76—Charlie Scott was traded to the Lakers in the middle of the season, Jo Jo White only appeared in 46 games and John Havlicek was in his 16th (and final) season. Against the better judgment of Red Auerbach, Celtics' ownership acquired players who had posted gaudy statistics earlier in their careers but did not possess the mindset of champions. It was around this time that one of these players, Curtis Rowe, supposedly informed young teammate Cedric Maxwell, who did not take well to losing, "Look, kid. They don’t put W's and L's on your paycheck." In 1977-78, former NBA MVP Cowens placed third in the league in rebounding (14.0 rpg) but did not post particularly impressive numbers in the other categories. The Celtics finished the season with a 32-50 record.

Scottie Pippen’s "five-tool" effort came in 1994-95, the second season after Michael Jordan's first retirement. Pippen actually posted slightly better numbers in 1993-94, but Horace Grant led the Bulls in rebounds and blocked shots that season. Many commentators seem to have forgotten how well Pippen performed during the period that Jordan spent playing minor league baseball; it became chic in some quarters to suggest that Pippen was not that great of a player without Jordan. While Pippen's late career numbers did not match his production during his halcyon days with the Bulls, this comparison fails to take into account Pippen's advanced age and several injuries (back, foot, elbow) that curtailed his athleticism after the disbanding of the Chicago Bulls dynasty.

The Bulls were not considered to be contenders after Jordan's shocking retirement announcement shortly before the start of the 1993-94 season. Their 4-7 record out of the gate seemed to confirm this notion, but Pippen missed several of those games due to the lingering effects of off-season ankle surgery. When Pippen returned to the lineup the Bulls immediately became one of the top teams in the league, finishing the year 55-27, only two games worse than the season before. Pippen won the All-Star Game MVP, finished third in regular season MVP balloting, fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams. Foreshadowing his "five-tool" effort in 1994-95, during the playoffs Pippen led the Bulls in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and three pointers made while finishing third on the team in blocked shots.

In 1994-95, Horace Grant left the Bulls for the Orlando Magic, John Paxson retired and Bill Cartwright signed with Seattle. Starting center Luc Longley missed the first 22 games of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg, during which time the Bulls went 11-11. While the Bulls did not immediately drop off the map after Jordan's retirement, they did slide toward mediocrity when the loss of Jordan was compounded by the absence of other players. When Jordan returned to the team toward the end of the 1994-95 season the Bulls were 34-31, although they had won eight of the previous 10 games as Longley returned to the lineup and the team adjusted to new players. With Jordan, the team finished 13-4 down the stretch and lost to the Orlando Magic in six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (the same round of the playoffs that the Bulls had reached without Jordan the year before). Jordan fully returned to form by the following season and the addition of Dennis Rodman to replace Horace Grant paved the way for three more championships. After the 1994-95 season Pippen finished seventh in MVP voting, again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams and was selected the "Best All-Around Player" in the NBA in a poll of players, coaches, trainers and general managers conducted by USA TODAY.

Tracy McGrady achieved "five-tool" status by less than one steal, averaging 1.653 spg in 2002-03, just edging out Magic teammate Darrell Armstrong (1.646 spg). McGrady led the league in scoring (32.1 ppg) and ranked in the top 20 in assists (5.5 apg). It is quite an accomplishment for a guard to lead his team in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and blocked shots (.79 bpg) but his numbers in those categories also indicate that the Magic's big men were not particularly productive.

Kevin Garnett did not have much of an opportunity to be a "five-tool" player when point guards Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon and Chauncey Billups racked up assists in Minnesota but in 2002-03 Troy Hudson became the Timberwolves' starting point guard and Garnett averaged a career-high 6.0 apg (13th in the NBA) while also leading the team in scoring (23.0 ppg, ninth in the NBA), rebounding (13.4 rpg, second in the NBA), steals (1.4 spg) and blocked shots (1.6 bpg).

Pro Basketball's "Five-Tool" Players









Julius Erving^



29.3 (1)

11.0 (5)

5.0 (7)

2.5 (3)

1.9 (7)

Dave Cowens




14.0 (3)




Scottie Pippen






2.9 (1)


Tracy McGrady



32.1 (1)





Kevin Garnett



23.0 (9)

13.4 (2)




Other Notable “Multiple-Tool” Players







Maurice Stokes




16.3 (2)

4.9 (9)

Dolph Schayes



22.5 (3)

14.0 (3)

3.2 (10)

Elgin Baylor



24.9 (4)

15.0 (3)

4.1 (8)

Elgin Baylor



34.8 (2)

19.8 (4)

5.1 (9)

Wilt Chamberlain



33.5 (1)

24.6 (1)

5.2 (7)

Wilt Chamberlain



24.1 (3)

24.2 (1)

7.8 (3)

Wilt Chamberlain



24.3 (3)

23.8 (1)

8.6 (1)

Elgin Baylor



26.0 (2)



Connie Hawkins^



26.8 (1)

13.5 (2)

4.6 (4)

John Havlicek



24.2 (8)


6.8 (7)


^ABA statistics

“Five-Tool” players=Players who led their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots; “Multiple-Tool” players=players who led their teams in scoring, rebounding and assists before the NBA and ABA began recording steals and blocked shots (1973-74 for NBA players; 1972-73 for ABA players).

Numbers in parentheses reflect league ranking, if the player finished in the top ten.

Prior to 1969-70 NBA statistical leaders were ranked by totals, not averages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:34 AM