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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pat Williams' Quest to Understand the Winning Combination

Last year, I spoke with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams about a variety of subjects, including his book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. I published that interview in two parts:

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

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

You can find out more about Williams here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Williams about his current writing projects, Dwight Howard's post game, the resurgent Boston Celtics and comparisons of LeBron James with great players from previous eras.

Friedman: "When we spoke last year, you mentioned that you were working on a couple books, one of which was titled Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith, and the other one being a second Chicken Soup book for basketball, though you weren't sure if they wanted to do a second basketball volume. What is the status of those two projects?"

Williams: "Quick update, the basketball version came out in February 2009. They are not doing a second version. The manuscript for the other Chicken Soup book has been submitted to the editorial people and it is called Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith. It is due to be published this September. We just finished putting the major pieces of it together earlier this week."

Friedman: "You had told me that you were gathering some material together--some more basketball stories--so do you think that you might publish those stories in a different format since the Chicken Soup people will not use them?"

Williams: "I can use some of them in different formats along the way, if they're applicable. My latest book, David, is coming out this week. It's called The Winning Combination: 21 Keys to Coaching and Leadership Greatness. That book is coming out even as we speak and that is my latest writing project. My son Bobby has had a career in professional baseball. He spent five years as a coach in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. In January 2005, the Washington Nationals hired him to manage in their farm system. He was 27 years old at the time, the youngest manager in organized baseball. I remember Bobby calling me with the news. His voice was up about three octaves and he said, 'Dad, what do I do now?' I remember thinking, 'I want to help my son.' So, I then began to ask coaches and managers, 'What are the four keys to being a good coach or a good manager?' That process has now gone on for about five years and I have asked that question to about 1500 coaches--current, future, past, I've tracked down everybody I could get to. I noticed in this process that there were repeated themes that kept coming up, there were principles that were repeated more often than others. After all that (information) came in, I noticed that there were 21 themes that were really predominant. I thought to myself that this is far more than just a coaching book; this is far more than help for my son as a baseball manager. This is a leadership manual from the greatest coaching minds of all time. So, that is the meat of the book, David. There are 21 chapters built around these 21 themes and I've had a marvelous time putting it together and I think that it can impact leaders at every level from the White House on down. We're excited that the book is ready."

Friedman: "You mentioned that there are 21 different keys or themes. Did you find one or two keys or themes that really recurred among the majority of the coaches you spoke with?"

Williams: "Yes, there was one that came up more than any other and in fact that is why it is featured in chapter one in the book. It is simply this: be yourself. I heard that more than anything else: be who you are. If you've got a personality like Billy Martin as a baseball manager, then be Billy Martin. If you've got a personality like Walter Alston, the great Dodger championship leader, then be Walter Alston--but don't try to be somebody you are not. The second one that came up more than any other is the importance of strong character, specifically honesty: tell your players the truth, never lie to them--if they catch you in a lie then you are in deep trouble, you are doomed. The third one that we wrote about is the amount of work that it takes; you cannot succeed in the coaching business unless you have an incredibly strong work ethic. Those are three that came up very often."

Friedman: "I am always interested to read about leaders and to read about coaches. One of the things that I find very interesting is a quote from Red Auerbach. I don't know if you've heard this quote or if it is mentioned in your book. Someone asked Red Auerbach about how he 'handled' Bill Russell and some of the other players when Auerbach was the coach of the Boston Celtics. Auerbach kind of took umbrage at the question and he said, 'You handle animals but you deal with people.' Auerbach felt that it was wrong for coaches to treat players like animals. You have to treat them like people and they are each individuals: you treat everyone fairly but you don't treat everyone the same way. Did that specific story come up in your research?"

Williams: "That is a great story. It fits in with the tenth chapter, 'Care for your players as people.' If you want them to play well for you, play hard for you, perform well then they have to know that you are interested in them and that you take time with them. They have to feel you every day, even if it is just for a few seconds, that you are a human being and not just a machine out there to help them be successful as a coach. That dovetails with what you are talking about with Coach Auerbach and I do vividly remember him talking about that: 'You handle animals, you don't handle people.'"

Friedman: "Right."

Williams: "That definitely is a key principle."

Friedman: "If you remember our last conversation, I asked you a lot of questions about your time with the Philadelphia 76ers. I was a big 76ers fan growing up and I think that I am the biggest Dr. J fan of all-time, though I am sure that there are a lot of people who also think that they are his biggest fan. Did you talk to Billy Cunningham for this project and, if so, can you summarize one or two points that he made?"

Williams: "Yes, I talked to Billy, Billy was certainly included. I think the thing that is so interesting about Billy is that as a player for the 76ers he was not a good practice player. Practice to him was more of a nuisance than anything. After he became a coach, practice became very important to Billy Cunningham--very important. One of the principles that came from him is make sure you are organized and prepared and have every practice planned out. Don't wing it. The players will know and that will absolutely unravel things. So Billy, as a coach, took a whole new view about the importance of practice."

Friedman: "The coach who is the Red Auerbach of this generation in terms of winning NBA championships is Phil Jackson. Did you have an opportunity to speak with him and, if so, what contribution did he make to the book?"

Williams: "Yeah, I talked to Phil. Phil is interesting, always fascinating to me. I am a huge admirer of Phil Jackson and he told me the story of his college coach Bill Fitch--the long-time NBA coach--and how Bill Fitch had to discipline Phil Jackson when Jackson was a college player--captain of the team--and had broken some rules. That, to this day, has left a deep imprint on Phil Jackson, so talked about the importance of having discipline on a team. He also talked about the importance of knowing each player individually because they are all different people and that you can't treat them all the same: you've got to work with them individually and study them and know them as human beings. That is very important to Phil Jackson."

Friedman: "That is interesting, because what you are saying about Phil Jackson is very similar to what we were just talking about concerning Red Auerbach, that you have to deal with each player individually--you don't treat them like animals and you don't treat them all the same, either. You can treat two different people fairly and yet you treat them differently based on what their personalities are, what their needs are, their roles on the team and so forth. It is interesting that Jackson's approach, in some ways, mirrors Red Auerbach's approach because they have been the two most successful NBA coaches in terms of winning championships."

Williams: "It has become very evident to me as I am working on all of this--I wrote a book last year about Chuck Daly called Daly Wisdom and my next writing project later this fall is Bear Bryant on Leadership--and really studying the lives of all of these coaches that at the end of the day it comes down to people skills and (taking) interest in other people. They may have done it in different fashions and had different personalities but they absolutely cared about people and they were interested in their people and they were loyal to their people--maybe even to a fault. That was a huge part of their success as coaches."

Friedman: "I'd like to shift gears a little bit and ask you some questions about the current NBA season. You know that this question is coming, we all saw the (first two) games (of the Eastern Conference Finals) and I know that it is not very pleasant for you but overall what are your impressions of the first two games of the series between the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics? What stuck out to you watching those games?"

Williams: "I am impressed with Boston. They have kind of been below the radar screen all year. They have not had a dominant season. People have not really taken them seriously as title contenders but I am impressed with how focused they are, how tough-minded they are, how determined they are. They came into our building--and it's a cauldron, believe me, I mean it's a hot box down here--and they weathered it and came out of here with two wins, which is almost unheard of. So, that's my immediate reaction. Secondly, we have not played well at all. We struggled in both games but, even with that, down the stretch of both games we had a chance to pluck two victories with a play here or a play there. So, after shooting 41% and 39% in these two games we still had a chance to win both games. So, I think that should be encouraging; at some point, I've got to think that we're going to play well--really play well: hopefully, it will be Saturday night in Boston. That would sure help."

Friedman: "I'm sure you remember--although the home/road situation was different--that your 76ers built a 2-0 lead versus Portland in 1977 and then Portland came back to win the series. It is not common in NBA history but from that unpleasant personal experience you know that it is possible for a team to do that."

Williams: "I remember it vividly. We beat Portland in those first two games in 1977 and it looked like we had that series under control and then we proceeded to lose four in a row. I remember in 1984, the year after (the 76ers won) the championship, we played the Nets in the first round and lost the first two games in our building, the Spectrum. Then we went to New Jersey, in the Meadowlands, and beat New Jersey twice on their court, so now it's 2-2. Then we turn around and come home for game five in the Spectrum. Guess what happened?"

Friedman: "You lost. Unfortunately, as a Dr. J fan I remember that well."

Williams: "We lose...Some weird things can happen in the playoffs but the bottom line is that we have to play better, we have to defend better and above all we have to shoot the ball better. A lot of the shooting woes, however, are because of the Celtics' defense. They have done a very good job with us defensively and made it very difficult to score."

Friedman: "Speaking of Boston's rise, I don't think that anybody--maybe even in their own locker room--saw this coming based on the fact that they were essentially a .500 team for the last two thirds of the regular season. I am interested to hear your impressions of the Boston-Cleveland series. How surprised are you that Boston won? I also want to hear your opinion on a much discussed topic: how LeBron James performed in that series, particularly in the home losses for Cleveland in game two and game five. How surprised were you by that series and what did you think, as a long-time NBA talent evaluator, of LeBron James' performance?"

Williams: "Like so many basketball fans, as it was all unfolding I think everybody thought that Cleveland would win but now, from this perspective at the back end of it, Cleveland had no business winning and they shouldn't have won. The series ended exactly as it should have. Boston is a better team. Boston is deeper. Boston has more weapons. Boston has more versatility. Boston deserved to win and they would probably win if they played that series five more times. That is my reaction. Secondly, LeBron was forced to--let me put it this way: the Celtics' defense had a lot to do with why LeBron did not play great in every game. Watching their defensive schemes, they're good. They have made life miserable for every one of our players--every one of them. So, there is a reason why Cleveland struggled in that series and why LeBron struggled. Defensively, the Celtics gave them fits and that is why they won the series. That is my capsulation of it."

Friedman: "The Cleveland Cavaliers have had the best regular season record in the NBA the past two years. This year, they could have probably matched their win total (66) from 2009 if they had not shut things down for the last several games. They dominated the Lakers and they played well against you guys and against Boston. How could it be true that they are at such a talent deficit or depth deficit if they can go through a long regular season and be the best team? How could it be that all of a sudden in the playoffs they don't have enough talent? How is that possible?"

Williams: "David, if you could have been in our building last night (for game two of the Eastern Conference Finals) then you would not have asked that question. It was actually a cauldron here last night, so intense, so much noise, so much pressure you could hardly breathe--you could hardly breathe, let alone dribble or shoot a basketball. The difference between the regular season and playing this deep in the playoffs is the difference between grade school and college. That's my reaction. To play at this level at this time of year--not everybody can do it. Only the special players can survive at this level at this time of year and Boston has a bunch of grizzled old veterans who have enough left in their legs that they are rallying for one last shot (at winning a championship) and they're good. The regular season and this level of the playoffs--two different worlds. Cleveland, as it turns out, was structured beautifully for a long term pull--I mean, they really dominated the league--but they were not capable, their structure would not allow them, to function fully at this level. They were not good enough."

Friedman: "Following up specifically on what I asked you about LeBron, I was at Cleveland's home games in that series, so I had an up close and personal view and I agree with everything you said about how exceptional Boston's defense is but if you watched game five--if you really had a chance to see that game in particular--LeBron was very passive in that game; he spent most of the game not just behind the three point line but so far behind it that he wasn't even a threat if the ball had somehow been reversed back to him: he was too far behind the line to even shoot. He had a very, very passive approach--particularly offensively--and a lot of people have commented about that, particularly people who have frequently seen him play. Were you surprised by how passive he was? I don't know anyone who watched that game who was not struck by the obvious difference--LeBron played so much more passively than he played in other games throughout the year. He just did not look like himself and no one can figure out why he did that."

Williams: "David, I don't know if we'll ever know the answer to that. Obviously, with this elbow issue we don't know what the status of his health was or how he felt. Maybe that will just be a mystery but I think that in the long run it didn't matter because Boston was the better team. Maybe the Cavaliers sensed that. The players are not dumb; they know what's going on. Maybe they just sensed that Boston had too much for them. I don't know. We're struggling to figure out the psyche of our team as opposed to trying to figure out what's going through their heads right now."

Friedman: "I understand."

Williams: "I'm not privy to anything on the inside with Cleveland. You know, we expect LeBron to go get 40 every night with 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Anything other than that, he had a bad day. The same thing with Dwight Howard: he's got to get 30 points every night, 20 rebounds, five blocked shots or (people say) he didn't have a good game. When you are at that level of accomplishment that is a heavy burden, because nobody is happy unless you produce those gigantic numbers."

Friedman: "Speaking of Dwight Howard and in line with what you said about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs, how important do you think it is for him to develop the kind of low post offensive repertoire that would compel the top defensive teams to double team him? If you didn't double team Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1990s, he was going to score 35 or 40 points--and sometimes he would put up those kinds of numbers even if you did double team him. How important is it for Howard to develop that kind of repertoire or at least a more diverse repertoire than he has now?"

Williams: "He's working on it, David. He's 24 years old and he just finished his sixth year in the league so there is still a lot of growth left for him. He is primarily a defensive player, when you think about it: he was the Defensive Player of the Year, he made the All-Defensive First Team and Matt Guokas--who has been around the NBA (since the late 1960s)--would tell you, he's made the statement publicly, that he feels that Howard is a better defensive force than Bill Russell."

Friedman: "Yeah, I saw that quote."

Williams: "That's a pretty powerful statement from a guy who has been around the NBA (for decades) as a player, as a coach and as a broadcaster. Matty has seen it all. So the offense of Dwight has got some catching up to do but he's getting there and he's working on it. He works hard every day and he is adding a little more diversity to his game. Is he ever going to be an 80% free throw shooter? Probably not. Will he ever develop a deadly 15 foot jump shot from the baseline? Doesn't look like it--maybe he could but it doesn't look like it. But around the basket, he's getting a bit more clever and his footwork is improving. Each year he gets a little bit better and we probably will not see the best of Dwight Howard until his late twenties. I think that is when most big men mature. It is probably going to be another five years until we really know who he is."

Friedman: "I don't think that the issue is for him to develop a jump shot, though it would be nice for him to improve his free throw percentage, but what I meant specifically with my question is for him to have even an abridged version of the Kevin McHale low post repertoire--maybe no one else is ever going to have the full version of what McHale called 'the torture chamber'--something that he could really rely on in terms of, say, the jump hook is his move and then if that is stopped then he has a counter move with a spin (to the baseline) that he is confident in doing. During the game two broadcast Jeff Van Gundy said that Dwight is working on different moves but he doesn't have the confidence to use those moves at certain moments. Obviously, if you don't have confidence to use those moves versus the Celtics or at certain moments then that is a problem. It's fine to be able to do it in February or against the Clippers but in order for that to work against elite teams he would have to have confidence in those moves at that stage of the season. When I watch him, it seems like the top teams--the Lakers in the 2009 Finals and Boston now--feel like they can guard Howard by putting one big guy on him and then if he gets in foul trouble they'll just bring in another big guy but they don't feel like they have to double team him and that gums up the works for your three point shooters because they are not getting free now."

Williams: "There is no question that Boston is defending him the right way and they have the people to do it. (Kendrick) Perkins is a very good low post defender. He is big enough to muscle Dwight. Rasheed Wallace comes in and does his thing. 'Big Baby' (Glen Davis) is overmatched but yet he is strong enough physically. So they have some good pieces who can come in and duke it out with Dwight and I don't blame them. I'd single cover him, too, and put pressure on our three point shooters. Boston has the pieces right now to combat our offense, so we'll see what the coaches can come up with and hopefully we can overcome this."

Friedman: "The makeup of your team is interesting. Historically, teams that have won championships with dominant centers, most of them have been able to pair that dominant center with a rebounding power forward. If you look at the teams that your 76ers played (in the late 1970s and early 1980s), Portland's Bill Walton had Maurice Lucas, Washington had Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, Boston had (Robert) Parish and (Kevin) McHale, the Lakers had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and A.C. Green. More recently, fans would remember Tim Duncan and David Robinson. There are more teams in the NBA now and it seems like there are fewer back to the basket big men than there were in previous eras. Is that model somewhat obsolete--that you have to have that kind of power forward alongside the great center--or would you say that your team is built in a little bit of an unorthodox manner compared to the traditional manner?"

Williams: "Obviously, we would love to have the true prototype power forward, the kind of guy who gives you double figure rebounds and double figure points. There are not a whole lot of them out there. I'd be grateful to find one. That is kind of a dying breed as well. The Paul Silas-type, the Bill Bridges from another era, I remember them well--Dave DeBusschere. They are great guys to have but they are hard to find. So, yes, we are a little bit unorthodox; (Hedo) Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis would probably not be your ideal (power) forward rotation (on last year's Magic team) and we probably don't have it now but you take what you've got, run with it and adjust from there."

Friedman: "What you are saying is that it is basically a matter of trying to maximize the personnel that you have; it's not necessarily that someone at some point had the idea of breaking the mold and doing things differently but rather you looked at the personnel that you have and the personnel that are potentially available to acquire (via the draft, trades and free agency) and decided that this makes the most sense."

Williams: "This was not us sitting down and saying that we are going to be absolutely off the charts here. When Rashard Lewis became available as a free agent we got him and after you get talent you slot people in from there. There are certain pieces that are hard to get and power forward seems to be a very dying breed. I don't know where they are. Where are the Maurice Lucases of another day? I guess they are Carlos Boozer or Pau Gasol. They are very difficult to find, just as centers are. Where are all the great big men? I'm looking at this draft coming up; there are no big men in this draft."

Friedman: "You're right, absolutely."

Williams: "Where have they gone? What's happened to the gene pool?"

Friedman: "I think that there are still players of that size but their mentality is different. They all want to shoot jumpers, they all want to do crossover dribbles. They don't want to be the somewhat anonymous guy on the weak side getting 10 rebounds like A.C. Green."

Williams: "Good concept; I guess we'll never really know. Those guys are awfully valuable and hard to find."

Friedman: "I don't know if you saw or heard about this, but there is a prominent writer who, after the Boston-Cleveland series, compared LeBron James to Julius Erving--not entirely in a favorable or, in my opinion, even an accurate way. His message was that people have been trying to compare LeBron to Magic or to Jordan but maybe LeBron is Dr. J--maybe LeBron is too nice or too deferential to be the lead guy on a championship team. One flaw that I find in his argument is that to buy his premise you have to ignore the first part of Dr. J's career when he led two ABA teams to championships; Dr. J also led the 76ers to three NBA Finals before you added Moses (Malone) and the problem that Dr. J had (in the NBA) is not that he was being deferential but that he ran into teams that had Hall of Fame centers and he did not have a Hall of Fame center (before playing with Malone). However, disregarding for a moment the obvious flaws in what this writer is suggesting, I am interested if you even agree with his basic premise that you cannot win a championship with a quote unquote nice guy as a leader--a LeBron or a Dr. J--and that you have to have a guy who is a quote unquote killer the way that Jordan was and the way that Kobe is. Do you buy that premise, do you agree with that or not? What is your overall take on that whole idea?"

Williams: "Listen, you get those guys, you get Michael Jordan, you get Kobe, you get Larry Bird--they were killers: they wanted to embarrass you, they wanted to step on your throat, carve your heart out. Bill Russell, the same way. Those are wonderful attributes of the winners--they actually are--but I don't think you can implant that or transplant that into somebody else. It's a great quality, if you want to win ball games you take those kinds of talented people who want to carve you to pieces as well--whoa, you'd give anything to find them, that kind of mentality. So, Bill Simmons' piece, he's great at trying to figure out who slots where and who belongs in what category, so he linked LeBron and Julius with one word: 'amaze.' The word that captured them is 'amaze,' that every day they want to do something that would amaze people--which they did. I spent a decade with Julius in Philadelphia and there was no finer person, no better teammate, no better ambassador for the league--but to say that he didn't have a Michael Jordan personality or a Kobe personality: probably not. We are who we are as people and what you see with LeBron at this point, that's who he is."

Friedman: "Do you agree with Simmons' premise that a player with that personality cannot be the best player on a championship team? Do you agree with his premise or do you disagree?"

Williams: "Well, I'm not sure I'd say that. If you want to have a dynasty, you try to find the best players that you can. What are you going to say, 'We're not going to take LeBron because he doesn't have a Michael Jordan killer instinct'? No, you get a franchise player and then you try to surround him with the best supporting cast you can. That's why we went out and got Moses Malone in the summer of 1982. We always needed somebody to do the dirty work inside. They've done that in Cleveland. They've done everything they can to surround him with the best pieces they can. I don't fault Cleveland management at all but, David, it is hard to find good players. There is a limited pool of them. It is very hard to find them."

Friedman: "You brought up the point with Moses and I think that the piece of analysis that is missing from what Simmons wrote is that the time period when you were the General Manager of the 76ers was really a different era. At that time, unlike now, you could not win a championship if you did not have a Hall of Fame caliber center who was an all-around player. Recently, we have seen teams like the (2004) Pistons and different teams in recent years win championships or get to the Finals without necessarily having the best big man in the league or a Hall of Fame center; you can win the way that the Bulls did (in the 1990s) with Jordan or the way that the Lakers did (in 2009) with Kobe. The 'flaw' with Julius Erving had less to do with him and more to do with the fact that he was going against teams that had Hall of Fame centers--the Blazers, Bullets, Celtics and Lakers--and he didn't have one. I think that Simmons missed the larger picture--it's not a matter so much of Dr. J's personality being like LeBron's personality but rather that Dr. J played in a different era in terms of the pieces that you need to win a championship.

I'm sure that you have heard the rumors of what might be going on with LeBron and John Calipari and I am not going to ask you to address that specifically but I want to ask you a hypothetical, generalized question about when you were involved in player personnel decisions as a General Manager. If you had been in a situation where you had the opportunity to get an MVP caliber player and that player came to your team saying 'If I'm going to sign with you, you have to hire this coach and/or bring in that player,' what kind of reaction would you have to that kind of scenario?"

Williams: "Oh, I don't know. It's happened, I guess, obsessionally. Let me just say this, David, this whole free agency thing is so tender and the league has made it very clear that they don't want NBA people to comment on it and there is such risk involved. The only thing I can say to you is that the summer of 2010 is almost upon us. For this much-anticipated summer, teams have been rearranging contracts, they've been trading players, they've been clearing cap room, they've been getting ready for this tumultuous summer of 2010--and here it is on our doorstep! The most gigantic game of musical chairs in NBA history will start to be played--or, will it?"

Friedman: "Right, or will those players stay with their original teams?"

Williams: "We have no idea. Nobody has any idea, other than it's going to be a very, very intense summer and when the game of musical chairs ends the question is, 'Who will be sitting in which chair?' You guys will have plenty to cover this summer, that's for sure."

Friedman: "I just want to say that I wasn't trying to get you fined or get you in trouble; I phrased the question as a hypothetical one dating back to when you had been a General Manager and it also obviously does not apply to your current team in terms of cap space or in terms of coaching. I wasn't trying to back door a LeBron question but I just wanted your perspective on a larger issue because, since you were a General Manager and a player personnel executive for so many years, you are one of the few people who actually could have been in that kind of hypothetical discussion. For all we know, that story that was reported may not even be happening at the moment--"

Williams: "That is a rumor right now."

Friedman: "Right."

Williams: "I think that right now the teams that are coach-less, as I am following it, are having intense interviewing sessions with many kinds of coaches and they seem to be on top of everything. I think that they want to hire a new coach as soon as possible, across the board. That's my sense. They don't want to wait. Free agency doesn't start for another seven weeks and I don't think that they would want to be coach-less all the way through June."

Friedman: "I agree. That's a risk."

Williams: "I think that you are going to see a lot of coaches get hired pretty quickly."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM

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17 Comments:

At Friday, May 21, 2010 2:51:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Interesting interview, David.

It seems that Williams views having a "killer" personality as a definite plus, and it is a shortcoming if a great player lacks such a personality, but not such a big shortcoming that you can't build a great team around that player.

I think having a "killer" personality can definitely help in certain situations. But I think people are so captivated by strong personalities that they sometimes overlook their drawbacks (and the advantages of having a "nicer" personality).

A few examples: if Kobe Bryant were "nicer", could he and Shaq have stayed together longer and won more titles? (I'm not trying to get into a discussion about who was to blame in their feud. Regardless of that, it's possible that if one or both had a different personalities, they would have had more success for a longer time.) What if Scottie Pippen wasn't the type of guy who could be the "good cop" to Michael Jordan's "bad cop"? Would MJ's prickly personality have been more of a negative in such a scenario? If Dr. J was more of a "killer", how would he have reacted to Moses Malone's arrival? Would the 1983 76ers have developed the chemistry that made them one of the best teams ever?



Anyway, I am especially curious to know what you think of Williams' assertion that the Celtics were just better than the Cavs. Personally, I wouldn't go as far as him. I think the teams were closely matched (the Cavs certainly were not vastly superior as it appeared before the series). However, I think Williams made a great point with his distinction between the regular season and playoffs. Some of the players who have helped the Cavs achieve great regular season success in recent years have disappeared during the playoffs (Mo Williams especially stands out).

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 3:19:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

There is a lot of historical revision that has gone on when it comes to some past greats.

For all the talk we keep hearing about Larry Bird's "killer" personality, he'd be getting torn to pieces by today's critics who over-analyze every minute of every game searching for flaws in certain players.

Let's look at a few elimination games from Larry Bird's career. In the 1982, Game 7 vs. the Sixers, I don't think he scored in the 4th quarter. What happened to his "killer" personality then? Could you imagine if LeBron (or Kobe) failed to score in the 4th quarter of a still-winnable elimination game? There would be all kinds of crazy talk of lacking a "killer instinct" or quitting or being unable to take over a game. In the Game 6 of 1987 Finals, I think Larry Bird scored 16 points while Dennis Johnson had 34. Imagine the postgame psychoanalysis if that happened to LeBron today. "LeBron doesn't have it in him to be a leader. He left it to his crooked-shooting sidekick to take all the shots and win the game. He'll never lead his team to a title."

I don't understand why it has become an apparently clear choice for so many people when it comes to Larry Bird and Dr. J. In my book, they are pretty much even. If you acknowledge that Dr. J's career began well before 1980 (which many people fail to do in their analysis), Bird and Erving have very comparable resumes and stats. People keep talking about Bird's "killer" personality as if it separates him from Dr. J. Yet, it didn't give Bird any advantage in terms of actual results (team success, individual success, head-to-head matchups with the 76ers). And as I pointed out earlier, Bird has had his share of moments that, if were known as a "nice" guy, people would point to as evidence of personality flaws which kept him from achieving more. So what extra boost did Bird's "killer" instinct really give him over Erving?

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 4:25:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

Great interview.

Just like what journalism was actually supposed to be.

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 5:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

It could also be argued that if Kobe were "nicer" that the Lakers would not have won any titles during the 2000s; his hard-driving personality pushed the team to be so successful and provided a necessary counterpoint to the laid back approach that Shaq has had for much of his career: Shaq has admitted that he and his Orlando teammates partied too hard after reaching the 1995 Finals because to some degree they were just happy to be there as opposed to being very driven to win the championship; in a recent SI article, Shaq said that he partied so much as a member of the Heat that he cannot believe that they won a championship, an interesting admission in light of the fact that when the Heat acquired him he publicly said that his number one goal was to win a title for the city (which is also what he said after signing with Cleveland).

The MJ-Pippen "good cop/bad cop" dynamic worked perfectly. The unique thing about that situation is that for about a year and a half during his prime Pippen had the opportunity to be the number one guy when MJ retired to play baseball; during that period, Pippen experienced both the good side and the bad side of being the top dog and I think that this helped MJ and Pippen form an even closer bond when MJ returned.

Dr. J and Malone worked together perfectly during the 1983 season but Bobby Jones told me that the 1984 season--which ended with the Sixers losing in the first round to the Nets--was perhaps the biggest disappointment of his career. Jones felt that egos/contract situations splintered the team to some degree (he declined to name names), though I have heard others suggest that the team simply aged just enough to lose the necessary edge (it is also worth remembering that during that era no team repeated as champion until the Lakers broke through a few years later). Malone was a bit banged up in 1984 and not quite as dominant as he had been; in fact, during a stretch when Malone was out of the lineup Dr. J put together a string of great games, inspiring Don Nelson--then the Milwaukee coach--to declare that Dr. J should be voted the 1984 MVP. However, when Malone returned to the lineup, Dr. J willingly went back to a secondary or even tertiary (behind Toney) role offensively. If Dr. J had had a different personality perhaps he would not have been so willing to step back and maybe the Sixers would have survived the first round and put together a long playoff run (the 2008 Celtics were pushed to the limit in the first round before eventually winning a title).

My point is that it is easy to look at various situations and hypothesize how things "might have" turned out. In general, I agree with Williams that the ideal situation for building a dynasty is to have a supremely talented player who has a "killer" mentality, though as you suggest with your comments about Bird it is not so easy to quantify exactly what one means by saying that someone has such a mentality.

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 5:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree with your point about historical revisionism in general and about historical revisionism concerning Erving/Bird in particular. You are correct that if Bird's career had been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that is applied today then he might be viewed differently. In addition to the examples you cited there is also the fact that he shot poorly during most of the 1981 Finals, though he rebounded very well. Bird did not win the 1981 Finals MVP, an honor that went to his teammate Cedric Maxwell; also, though Bird did win the 1984 Finals MVP, Maxwell had a huge game seven in that series. If you go back and break things down--statistically and/or visually--the only time that Bird really excelled throughout an NBA Finals was in 1986.

The reason that many people think that Bird is a clear choice over Erving is those people disregard Erving's ABA career. Also, the Sixers' collapse in the 1981 ECF versus Boston--gift-wrapping a championship to the Celtics, who only had to beat a .500 Houston team in the Finals--seems to make a lot of people forget the fact that Erving's Sixers bested Bird's Celtics in the ECF in both 1980 and 1982. Finally, the ascension of Bird and Magic as the two best players in the mid-1980s right as the NBA truly became a nationally televised sport had the effect of somewhat obscuring Dr. J's greatness, because he entered the down side (relatively speaking, because he was still an All-Star) of his career right when Bird and Magic captured the nation's imagination by facing each other in the Finals three times in four years.

One way that Bird's "killer" personality helped him versus Erving in the public imagination is that it led to Bird producing larger NBA stats; as I mentioned to you in a different thread in 2008, Erving told me that he thought that it was "crass" to just play for individual statistics, particularly in a lopsided game. Erving never really cared that much about scoring X number of points or trying to get triple doubles. In contrast, Larry Bird scored his career-high of 60 points versus the Hawks when the Celtics kept fouling to get the ball back so Bird could shoot even though the Celtics were winning easily. Imagine if Kobe and the Lakers did something like that now! Kevin McHale had set the franchise single game record with 56 points just a few days before Bird scored 60 and McHale had eschewed the chance to stay in the game to go for 60, whereupon Bird promptly told McHale that his record would not stand for very long.

I think that Bird's famous trash talking duels with Chuck Person and others also contributed to his reputation as a "killer." Bird sought out individual challenges and often came out on top, much like MJ did.

Bird was obviously a great player and I do agree with those who say that he had a "killer" mentality but I also think that you are right that Erving has wrongly been given the short end of the stick in comparisons with Bird.

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 5:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Thank you very much.

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 2:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

My initial reply to your first comment was accidentally deleted and when I retyped it from memory I neglected to include my response to your question regarding Pat Williams' assessment of the Cavs.

As I indicated with my followup question to Williams, it is hard to understand how the Cavs could have enough talent to post the best record in the league for two years in a row and yet supposedly be vastly inferior to the Celtics; that said, Williams' reply to that question made a good point, namely that there is a big difference between the regular season and the playoffs and that some of the Cavs (most notably Mo Williams, though Pat Williams did not mention him by name) play much better in the regular season than they do in the playoffs. However, I still am a little skeptical that a team that enjoyed a 2-1 lead at one point in the series--after handing the Celtics a historic home loss--would quit at home in game five with the series tied 2-2 because the players suddenly realized that the Celtics were just a much better team; it is indisputable that LeBron quit and that his quitting adversely affected his teammates but I don't believe that LeBron quit because he had an epiphany that the Celtics are just a better team.

As Pat Williams concluded, we may never know exactly why LeBron played the way that he did.

 
At Friday, May 21, 2010 2:52:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Great interview. Williams has a sharp mind and impressive experience and you did a great job bringing those to bear on interesting topics.

As far as the killer instinct, I think some writers work backward from a win and attribute personal values-- If you win, you have what it takes, if you don't you have a deficiency. I don't think Kareem (my pick for greatest ever) or Magic (remember Magic's friendship with Isaiah?) were killers, but they were skilled, smart, and played in an organized system.

 
At Saturday, May 22, 2010 3:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

9WO:

Thank you; I am glad that you enjoyed the interview.

I think that different people mean different things when they say "killer instinct"; this is a tough characteristic to quantify. There seems to be a consensus that Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had/have "killer instinct" but when talking about other players there may be less of a consensus.

Regarding Magic/Isiah, it should be noted that although they started out kissing each other on the cheek prior to each NBA Finals game before the end of the series Magic delivered a hard foul to Isiah to show the Lakers that his friendship with Isiah would not get in the way of winning a title. A lot of hard feelings developed during the course of those Lakers-Pistons battles and, as we found out after the release of Jackie MacMullan's Bird/Magic book, Magic and Isiah's friendship was never the same. I am not sure that any of this proves or disproves something about Magic's "killer instinct" but Magic definitely was willing to risk--and ultimately lose--a long term friendship in order to win a championship (which is not to say that the events that took place during those games are the only reasons that their friendship fell apart but those confrontations definitely were the beginning of the end of their friendship).

 
At Monday, May 24, 2010 1:56:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

You make some good points, and I agree with much of what you are saying.

I don't think Dr. J having a different personality would have made a difference in 1984. He had clearly slipped as a player by that point. Moreover, the 76ers just weren't good enough to win the title that year, so it wouldn't have mattered anyway. I think the one series which stands out which could have been different if Doc had been more aggressive is the 1981 Eastern Finals. The Sixers lost three straight games which were winnable in the final minutes, and perhaps Dr. J should tried to take one of them over by himself. (I actually think Dr. J tried to take over in Game 7. I think he scored ten straight points late in the fourth quarter to put the 76ers up, but then he committed a few costly turnovers which cost them the game.)

Anyway, you say that it's easy to look at various situations and hypothesize. That's true, but it works both ways. We can't be sure that Dr. J (or whoever else) would have had more success if he had been wired differently, just as we can't be sure that MJ's (or Kobe's) personality did not have a detrimental impact.

As for Shaq's partying, I'm not trying to turn this into a discussion of the personal lives of players, but let me just say that Michael Jordan had a reputation for staying out late at night doing things that weren't helping his team win a championship. Even Bill Russell had some questionable late night habits which sometimes interfered with his ability to perform. I was surprised when I read about it in one of his books (I think it was Second Wind). Anyway, I don't think we should necessarily use off-the-court activities to gauge how badly a player wants to win.

 
At Monday, May 24, 2010 2:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

A big difference between Shaq and MJ is that MJ always kept himself in tremendous shape and he was always ready to play, regardless of what he may have done on his off days; my issue with Shaq has less to do with his personal life--I did not bring that up out of the blue, I just quoted what he mentioned in a recent interview--and much more to do with his career-long attitude regarding conditioning and his well documented insistence that since his infamous toe injury happened on "company time" he would get it fixed on "company time." That decision cost the Lakers a championship and ultimately led to Shaq's departure, because owner Jerry Buss quite reasonably concluded that if Shaq was not fully dedicated to the team then he did not deserve max money for max years.

 
At Monday, May 24, 2010 2:45:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think you are absolutely right about Bird benefiting by coming into his prime as the NBA's popularity was booming (as opposed to Dr. J, who played his best basketball in obscurity). You are also right that Bird's "killer" attitude probably helped his reputation through stats and image rather than team success.

Anyway, I know you've mentioned before that when Dr. J joined the 76ers, he was asked to reduce his scoring and try to blend in with the team (since the 76ers inability to win titles when Wilt Chamberlain put up huge numbers was still a fresh memory). When I look at that, and then look at the fact that even Larry Bird (who was more into taking individual challenges) had big games where he didn't score or shoot a great deal, it gets me thinking about differences in eras. Now, if a guy like LeBron or Kobe is in an important, close game, anything less than them trying to single-handedly win the game (by dominating the ball, running most of the plays, or taking a very large proportion of shots) is viewed as some combination of quitting, or choking, or lacking character, fire, heart, or leadership.

Star players nowadays are expected to do a lot more individually than they were in the 70s and 80s. Larry Bird is the 80s example of a big scorer with a big ego and a killer instinct. Yet, Kobe and LeBron are much more prolific scorers even though they play in an era with fewer possessions and shots. I'm not suggesting that Larry Bird (or Magic Johnson, or Julius Erving) was a lesser player. Rather, the game has changed. I think that after Chamberlain's supposed failures, the conventional wisdom was that having one player who dominated the offense was not a winning approach. There were a few exceptions (Kareem on the Bucks, Rick Barry in 1975), but most title teams seemed to be offensively balanced, with multiple players scoring in the high teens or low 20s. Then, Michael Jordan won championships while dominating the ball, and the new model became having one superstar who should take a huge proportion of shots and have the entire offensive revolve around them so as to maximize their abilities.

So what is the better approach? Is there one, or is it just a matter of taste? Has the changing popularity of the two approaches corresponded to changing effectiveness due to different styles of play? Perhaps in games with fewer possessions, it's easier to micro-manage things and rely on the abilities of one player, whereas in faster-paced games, teams with more weapons and balance will tend to win shootouts.

Finally, having said all that, let me relate it to the discussion at hand.

1. Is it fair to criticize star players (like LeBron) these days when they seemingly do not attempt to do everything themselves? Great players in the past took a more team-oriented approach and were successful in doing so.

2. Was that fact that Dr. J wasn't trying to win every game himself a reflection of his personality, or the conventional wisdom of the time?

 
At Monday, May 24, 2010 2:48:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree with your criticism of Shaq.

 
At Monday, May 24, 2010 7:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

You are right that the game has changed in a lot of ways since the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. One big change is that the defensive rules now favor perimeter players--defenders are not allowed to make contact with (let alone hand check) perimeter players. Therefore, if your team has a great all-around perimeter player like Kobe or LeBron or a very quick point guard like Rondo, Rose, Paul, etc., it makes a lot of sense to have that player monopolize the ball until he either scores, gets fouled or breaks down the defense to create an open shot for a teammate.

It sounds great in theory to have balance but most championship teams have one guy--either in the post or on the perimeter--who is so great that he simply has to be double-teamed; his greatness enables him to consistently create open shots for himself and/or his teammates. The Celtics are a very balanced team but they also have a guy (Rondo) who is very tough to cover, plus another guy (Pierce) who certainly has the ability to take over offensively down the stretch of ball games.

Regarding your two questions, I can't speak for others, but I have never criticized LeBron for not attempting to do everything himself. I actually stood up for him when even some Hall of Fame players were bashing him for passing to Donyell Marshall near the end of a playoff game. My biggest criticism of LeBron thus far is that he obviously quit in game five of the Boston series--this is not about numbers but about the way that he played (he also seemed to quit, to a lesser extent, in game two of that series).

I think that the way that Dr. J played as a Sixer is a reflection somewhat of his personality but more about what the team asked him to do. When Billy Cunningham became the coach, he said that the Sixers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians," because when Dr. J had been with the Nets he was without question the first option and he led the team to two championships in three years. Under Billy C's direction, Dr. J took a much bigger role in the offense and led the Sixers to two NBA Finals in three years before the acquisition of Malone. I have no doubt that Dr. J could have averaged 28-30 ppg in any or all of the seasons from 1977 through 1982 (and possibly one or two after that) if that had been his role on the team; Dr. J was asked to blend his skills and he has a personality that made him amenable to that, while a Jordan or Bryant likely would have greatly resisted--if not outright rejected--such an approach.

 
At Tuesday, May 25, 2010 1:26:00 AM, Blogger Allen said...

Great interview. In depth, and basketball-related, it's no wonder your interview subjects open up once they realize you want to talk basketball and not some tabloid/sensational nonsense.

 
At Thursday, June 03, 2010 4:52:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I did not mean to suggest that the choice was between having one big-time player who dominates the action (like a Michael Jordan) and a bunch of decent players who are all incapable of taking over a game.

The "balanced" teams which win championships all have at least a player or two who can take over games (as you pointed out with the Celtics). I think the question is, do you ask your big-time players who are capable of taking over games to try to dominate the action, or do you emphasize a more balanced approach?

This is not an easy question to answer, as we've seen team achieve great success using both philosophies (although, as I argued, in recent years teams have trended away from "balance").

I think balance is more than just something that sounds great in theory but never works. There are numerous examples which show otherwise. I guess one can wonder what would have happened if the stars of such teams dominated the action more. Maybe they would have won anyway. And maybe you could say the same for teams which rely heavily on one player.

Didn't Phil Jackson want Michael Jordan to score in the low-to-mid 20s when he initially took over head coaching duties? I think there's a good reason that a knowledgable guy like Jackson wanted that. It would be very interesting to know if Jackson would have the same opinion today. It's possible that his views could have changed after all of the success that Jordan (and now Kobe Bryant and others) have had. When Jackson became head coach, decades of basketball history suggested that the "right" way to win was balance.

Didn't Billy Cunningham take over in 1977? It still took two years before Dr. J started scoring at ABA levels again (the 1979-80 season), and even then, that was for only one year. In 1981 and 1982, he averaged about 24.6 and 24.4 ppg. That was more than when he first joined the Sixers, but well below his ABA stats.

 
At Thursday, June 03, 2010 5:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Cunningham took over early in the 1977-78 season. Obviously, he could not immediately implement his desired changes but by the next season McGinnis and Free were gone and Erving averaged a then-NBA career high 23.1 ppg even though he dealt with some nagging injuries. Erving averaged 26.9 ppg in 1979-80 and overall he had his four highest NBA scoring averages in Cunningham's first four full seasons on the job.

I'm not sure that Jackson wanted to reduce Jordan's scoring as much as you suggest. Jackson wanted Jordan to be more willing to give the ball up to the open man but I don't think that Jackson had a specific scoring average in mind for Jordan. Jackson has always liked the idea of getting the supporting cast involved early to preserve Jordan (and now Bryant) to take over late in the game and also so that the supporting cast players are in rhythm and thus able to take shots late in the game if Jordan/Bryant is double-teamed.

 

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