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Friday, July 09, 2010

LeBron James Abandons Cleveland, Creates Power Trio in Miami

The 2010 NBA free agency circus--headlined by LeBron James' narcissistic power plays and publicity stunts--climaxed on Thursday night when James commandeered ESPN's airwaves for one hour to stab a sharp, rusty stake right through the hearts of Cleveland sports fans by proudly declaring that he will sign with the Miami Heat. For seven years, the Cleveland Cavaliers' organization bent over backwards to cater to James' every whim, the Cleveland media showered him with unending praise and the team's fans cheered his every move while also literally begging him to return their unwavering affection by re-signing with the team. James responded by leaving without even saying goodbye, fleeing Northeast Ohio at night for the comforts of a Connecticut TV studio and not even having the common courtesy to bother to make a phone call to Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert.

It is already quite obvious that the coverage of this over the top drama will be very parochial in nature: for instance, in Cleveland this will be framed as a story about betrayal while in Miami this will be depicted as a story about LeBron James joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The larger story that is seemingly getting lost in the hype is that Pat Riley outsmarted everybody else so completely that he looks like Bobby Fischer playing chess against a bunch of little children. While so many league executives, media members and fans speculated about what LeBron James really wants, Riley not only figured it out but delivered it on a silver platter: Riley realized that anywhere James goes he will get paid big bucks and he will be able to be a "global icon" (even if that nebulous term has never been precisely defined) but the one opportunity that James could not readily obtain was the chance to play with other All-Stars who are also in their primes.

Riley handled this entire process masterfully; after Wade refused to sign a long term contract extension in 2006 but later griped that he did not have enough help Riley essentially said "If you are not going to commit to this franchise long term then just shut up and play and I'll build the team how I see fit." Riley made it clear that until Wade committed to the Heat that the Heat would keep their options open, including going after max level free agents if Wade decided to bolt; so, Wade kept his mouth shut, led the Heat to the playoffs and then decided to help Riley recruit top players to come to Miami.

I don't think that anyone anticipated that Riley would be able to clear up so much salary cap space that he could not only re-sign Wade but also bring in two other max level players. It seems unlikely that a team can win a championship with three stars and nine minimum salary players but even if the Heat do not win a title this year Riley has assembled an impressive troika to build around for upcoming seasons--and if Riley and his super trio can entice a few aging but still capable veterans to come to Miami on the cheap in order to try to get rings then the Heat will be a viable championship contender very quickly. It must be added that if James, Wade and Bosh truly teamed up with winning--and not making max money--as their top goal then they could greatly accelerate the process of creating a powerful team by agreeing to sign for $10 million or $12 million per year instead of $16 million per year; the millions of dollars that the Heat save would enable them to sign some players for more than the league minimum--and I suspect that James, Wade and Bosh could figure out some way to get by on "just" $10 million per year.

Most observers considered James, Wade and Bosh to be the three most desirable free agents--and Riley swooped up all of them!

Meanwhile, many of the remaining top players quietly re-signed with their original teams, leaving relative table scraps for teams like the Knicks and Nets, franchises that tanked--I mean, strategically positioned themselves--in order to theoretically woo one or more of the top tier free agents to the New York metropolitan area.

I never for one moment believed that James would go to New York. The Knicks are the clowns of the free agency circus: for several years they have been ripping off their fans by selling an inferior product packaged with the promise that LeBron James' dream is to play in the "Mecca" of pro basketball. Two seasons ago, I pointed out that the Knicks had not improved during the early part of the Mike D'Antoni era and that there was little reason to expect that they would get better any time soon; my "reward" for speaking the truth was to get trashed by Knick fans and an associate economics professor from the middle of nowhere who moonlights as a "stat guru"--but everything that I have been saying about the Knicks has been proven to be correct: they were even worse in 2010 than they were in 2009 and all the Knicks have to show for their "efforts" is Amare Stoudemire, who they will now overpay to replace David Lee, a more versatile and productive player who is also healthier and younger. New York fans--and especially the season ticket holders--have a right to be puzzled, if not outraged, at the rudderless mess their franchise has become.

Chicago Bulls' supporters seem baffled that James apparently does not consider their squad to be a dynasty in the making but I have to concur with James on that count; the Bulls have a rookie head coach, they do not have a defined style of play and I think that their roster looks better on paper than it will perform on the court. Why would James leave the Cavs to make, at best, a lateral move?

The entire city of Cleveland feels betrayed by James and this collective civic pain is only exceeded--at least in the context of sports--by Art Modell's shameful abandonment of the loyal, long suffering Cleveland Browns' fans.

James' handling of the free agency process was clumsy and tone deaf, betraying an alarming amount of hubris plus a total disregard for the feelings of anyone who is not a member of his "team"--and it is critically important to note that whenever James uses that word he means his buddies/cronies/hangers-on, not the actual team that employs him to play basketball (and not quit in playoff games).

Gilbert promptly responded to James' announcement with a scathing letter blasting James for "a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment." Gilbert termed James' action a "cowardly betrayal." In an interview with the Associated Press, Gilbert added, "He quit (versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs). Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar." Gilbert also alleged that James quit in game six versus Orlando in the 2009 playoffs. Gilbert's comments are blunt and harsh but they are also true: you don't have to be a basketball expert to realize how disinterested James seemed versus Boston--particularly in game two and game five--and James' performance versus Orlando in game six of the 2009 playoffs was, at the very least, curiously passive. While Gilbert's accusations have much merit, I wonder if he ever confronted James regarding James' subpar playoff efforts and I also wonder why Gilbert fired Coach Mike Brown if Gilbert had such a clear understanding of just how much blame James must shoulder for the Cavs' disappointing 2009 and 2010 playoff runs. In retrospect, Gilbert should have dealt with James the way that Riley dealt with Wade, insisting that if James did not fully commit to the Cavs then the Cavs would not make short term moves to appease James at the possible expense of long term salary cap flexibility--but it is not really fair to blame Gilbert for rolling the dice and trying to win immediately, especially when one of the main reasons that the Cavs did not win is that James quit during the 2010 playoffs.

Gilbert's letter concluded by boldly stating that the Cavs would win a championship before James does; that may sound like wishful thinking but keep in mind that even though the Cavs' teams that Gilbert assembled lacked the star power that the Heat currently have they still managed to make it to the NBA Finals in 2007 and to post 60-plus wins in both 2009 and 2010. If the Heat experience injuries and/or chemistry problems it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that James will never again have as much team success as he enjoyed with the Cavs from 2007-2010; NBA Finals appearances and 60-win seasons are very hard to come by and it would not surprise me if a decade from now we look back at the 2010 season as James' great missed opportunity to win a championship.

It is quite predictable that True Hoop's Henry Abbott finds Gilbert's heartfelt letter more offensive than James' conduct; Abbott is a shill for ESPN--which sold out whatever remained of their journalistic integrity by caving in to every whim of James and his "team" regarding the one hour TV special about "The Decision"--and Abbott is much less interested in truth than he is in superficial appearances: Gilbert spoke the truth about how James quit during the playoffs and about James' deplorable recent conduct but James donated ESPN's ad money from the one hour LeBron infomercial to children, so in Abbott's eyes James must be the better guy. I think that it is great that James facilitated a process to help underprivileged children but that charitable act--done with other people's money, by the way--in no way mitigates or excuses how James handled the free agency process, jerking whole cities around as if they are mere playthings that exist for his amusement.

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, James had every right to explore his options; the mere act of leaving Cleveland is not a betrayal--and the decision to go to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh is logical, though James could also have contended for championships by staying in Cleveland--but the way that James maximized Cleveland's humiliation was cruel and unnecessary. It is actually quite remarkable how James has managed to essentially alienate virtually every NBA city other than Miami. If James had cut out all of the hoopla and just issued a simple press release a week ago thanking Cleveland for seven great years but saying that the prospect of playing with Wade and Bosh is too good to pass up I doubt that James would be experiencing a fraction of the backlash that he is getting now and will continue to receive for the foreseeable future.

Not long ago, James was almost universally popular and his easygoing demeanor was compared favorably with Kobe Bryant's dour facial expressions and hard driving manner. James' conduct does not change my opinion of him as a player--he is the most athletic and productive regular season performer in the NBA, while Bryant is more skilled and has a more finely tuned sense of how to be effective against elite teams--but it is amusing to watch and listen as the talking heads in Cleveland who used to laud James as being far superior to Bryant now openly mock James and say that he will never match Bryant's accomplishments; just as it was wrong to rank James ahead of Bryant purely out of home town bias it is also wrong to now downgrade James' skills just because he lacks a certain class and grace in terms of how he has handled himself: depending on Bryant's health/durability, James will still be either the best or second best player in the NBA next season, though there is good reason to suspect that Bryant will once again be the more effective playoff performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:48 AM


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What Have We Learned During "LeBron-a-Palooza"?

Our long national nightmare is almost over; LeBron James and his infamous "team" have successfully commandeered the airwaves at ESPN to use a one hour time slot starting at 9 p.m. to announce which franchise will have the privilege of paying James tens of millions of dollars in the hope that in his spare time when he is not becoming a "global icon" that he may finally win an NBA championship.

My newest CavsNews.com article examines how James has orchestrated this three ring circus and explains what his Thursday announcement will reveal about his true priorities (7/10/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Until the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal series between Boston and Cleveland, I had always been very impressed not only with LeBron James' obvious athletic gifts but also with his work ethic and the way that he seemed to be mature beyond his years. James seemed to "get it": James avoided off court trouble, did not disrespect his coaches and teammates and he worked very hard to improve his main skill set weaknesses (defense, perimeter shooting, free throw shooting). James evolved from an All-Star to one of the league's five best players to someone who was almost Kobe Bryant's equal to someone who surpassed Bryant in terms of regular season productivity/consistency.

My perception of James shifted after game two of the Boston series: the Cavs lost 104-86 at home and James looked lifeless for most of the contest, though he made his boxscore numbers somewhat respectable with a late scoring burst during garbage time. Anyone can have a bad game, but things really got weird during the postgame press conferences when Coach Mike Brown came out ranting, raving and (literally) cussing about how poor the team's effort was only to have James follow him to the podium and act as if nothing was wrong. In my game recap I wrote:

Are Brown and James playing "good cop, bad cop" with the other Cavs? Or is Brown’s message about the team’s lack of intensity simply not resonating with James and the other players? We will not know the answer to that question until we see what happens in game three. It is incumbent on James to not only put up big numbers in that contest but to also play with a sense of commitment and intensity that commands/inspires his teammates to likewise display energy, focus and passion. Kobe Bryant is often criticized for harshly calling out his teammates but his leadership style has a proven track record of success: three championships won alongside O’Neal (when Bryant’s burning desire and work ethic provided a necessary contrast to O’Neal’s more laid-back approach) plus a Finals appearance in 2008 and a championship in 2009. If the combination of James’ calm demeanor and Brown’s demonstrable anger drives the Cavs to victory in game three then that is all good–but if the Cavs do not respond appropriately then there will be reason to question if James’ casual response to the game two loss struck the right tone.

James and the Cavs bounced back in game three but that only proved to be a temporary reprieve that was soon followed by a horrifically passive effort by James in game five; James simply quit during that pivotal contest and there is no other way to put it: this has nothing to do with numbers (though his numbers were terrible, too) and everything to do with the total disinterest that he displayed, simply giving up the ball and standing so far away from the hoop that he did not even represent a viable threat. Though James put up better numbers and seemed to try a little harder in game six, that contest ended disgracefully as the Cleveland players literally quit en masse with the outcome still potentially up for grabs: when no Cav bothered to commit a foul to force the Celtics to make free throws to ice the game, ESPN's Mark Jackson declared with disgust, "This smells to me of quitting. You’ve given up." I cannot ever recall seeing a team just throw in the towel near the end of an elimination game if the remotest possibility of victory still existed--but James set the tone in game five and everyone else followed his lead after that.

Despite all of the talk about James' mystery elbow ailment, MRI tests revealed nothing more than a bruise and there is no indication that James required any special treatment after the Cavs' season prematurely ended; throughout the Boston series, James was tossing half court shots before games with his "bad" elbow, so it is hard to believe that he was experiencing a serious problem.

What do the preceding paragraphs have to do with James' much anticipated upcoming announcement? Prior to the Boston series, I believed that James was very focused on winning multiple championships and I did not see any advantage that he could gain by leaving his hometown team that could pay him more than any other team and that had an owner who is willing to spend a lot of money, a general manager who continually upgraded the roster's talent/depth and a defensive-minded coach who had guided the team to the 2007 NBA Finals plus the best regular season record in 2009 and 2010. Even though James clearly has always loved attention and craved the idea of being courted by various franchises, I had always thought that for all of the above reasons he would re-sign with the Cavs and I repeatedly said that I thought that James would be foolish to become Captain of the Gotham Titanic, the destination that so many broadcasters/journalists assumed/hoped that James would select.

After the Boston series, the Cavs made Coach Mike Brown and–to a lesser extent–General Manager Danny Ferry the fall guys for the team's failure to win a championship. James has no right to be disappointed with the quality of the team's roster: it is known that he gave at least tacit approval to the various transactions that Ferry made and it is also obvious that Ferry had a figurative gun to his head precisely because James did not sign a long term deal in order to create this free agency frenzy this summer; Ferry had to try to put together a championship caliber team on the fly instead of having the freedom to develop young players who could assume larger roles over time. Ferry did a remarkably good job of continuing to upgrade the roster despite the deadline looming over his head.

Many people had assumed that none of the major free agent dominoes would fall into place until James announced his decision but James will actually be among the last of the top tier players to act because Amare Stoudemire has already agreed to sign with the New York Knicks and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be teaming up as members of the Miami Heat. Wade and Bosh have both publicly said that they are willing to sacrifice because their primary goal is to win multiple championships; Bosh may be giving up $30 million or so to go to Miami if Toronto does not agree to a sign and trade deal and both players may end up reducing their scoring averages. Meanwhile, Stoudemire is clearly trying to recruit James to come to New York and Stoudemire is boasting that next summer he will be able to entice other star players--most notably Tony Parker--to join the Knicks.

James has been conspicuously tightlipped about what his ultimate goals are and/or what he would be willing to sacrifice to obtain those goals but it is fascinating to consider what his decision will say about him. The first and most obvious point regarding all of these players is that it is difficult to take seriously any statement suggesting that winning is the top priority: if that were the case, then each of these guys would have been lining up to sign with the Lakers for the mid-level exception. The Lakers have been to the Finals three straight times and won back to back championships, so the addition of any top tier guy would significantly boost the team's overall talent and depth, but the reality is that all of these guys want to make max money or as close to it as possible.

New Jersey Nets' owner Mikhail Prokhorov offered an insightful take after meeting with James; Prokhorov speculated that James will not join Wade and Bosh in Miami because even though the Heat could win two or three titles in that scenario it would "damage LeBron James' brand" to win championships as part of such a powerful trio. Basically, Prokhorov is saying that James would rather win fewer or nochampionships than to possibly be surrounded by so much talent that his greatness will not be endlessly praised, as if Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are somehow diminished because they each played with multiple Hall of Famers.

By the way, I am not convinced that Wade and Bosh--or even James, Wade and Bosh--will automatically make Miami the best team in the East, let alone the NBA. Championship teams generally need not only two legitimate stars but they also must have a supporting cast of solid role players; the Lakers have little bench strength other than inconsistent quasi-starter Lamar Odom but their starting lineup includes two All-Stars (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol) plus a former All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year (Ron Artest), a solid center (Andrew Bynum) and a wily, clutch veteran point guard (Derek Fisher). Miami's plan, at least for next season, appears to be to surround two or three stars with a bunch of minimum wage (by NBA standards) players--and that formula may be good enough to win 55 games and a couple playoff series but it will not work against championship level teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Magic (or even the Cavaliers if James stays put).

Here are James' most likely options and what each choice would reveal about James' mindset:

5) New York Knicks: Even with the Stoudemire signing it still does not make much sense for James to go to New York if his number one goal is winning. The Knicks have absolutely no depth, plus Stoudemire is not legitimately a max level talent and there is a very real risk that the injuries to Stoudemire's knees and/or eyes will curtail his effectiveness in the near future (that is why the Phoenix Suns did not want to give him max money even though he played so well down the stretch last season). Also, Coach Mike D'Antoni's preferred style of high octane offense combined with tepid defense is not a championship winning methodology. If James goes to New York then he is choosing glitz, glamour and what he perceives to be potential marketing opportunities over winning.

4) New Jersey Nets: The Nets had the league's worst record last season, so even though they hired an excellent coach (Avery Johnson) and even though their talent base is not quite as bad as their putrid record suggests they still are clearly not a championship caliber team even if James comes aboard. Prokhorov has vowed to make the Nets into a championship team within five years and many people are wowed by his huge personal fortune but it is important to remember that he amassed his money in Russia by buying assets at depreciated prices in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union--essentially, he profited from insider deals because he formed alliances with powerful members of the government. It is far from certain that the "talents" Prokhorov used to become a billionaire are applicable toward building an NBA championship team. If James signs with the Nets then he is saying that his top priority is to leverage Prokhorov and Jay Z's visibility to become a "global icon."

3) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls already have a nice nucleus in place with Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer (who has said that he will sign with Chicago), Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. New Coach Tom Thibodeau is a highly regarded defensive-minded assistant coach who helped the Celtics to win the 2008 title and reach the 2010 NBA Finals but he has never held a head coaching job at the NBA level. Adding James would clearly make the Bulls one of the top four teams in the East but it is doubtful that the Bulls could beat the Celtics or Magic in a seven game playoff series if those teams are at full strength. Chicago is a more likely destination for James than New York or New Jersey if James' top priority is winning but Chicago will not have the raw talent of the Bosh/Wade duo or the deep roster that has propelled the Cavs to 60-plus wins for two straight seasons.

2) Miami Heat: The Heat offer more star power than any of the other options: Wade and Bosh are in place on the court, while Pat Riley is in the front office (and could very well decide to take over the coaching reigns, just as he did when Wade and Shaquille O'Neal led the Heat to the 2006 championship). If they team up, James, Wade and Bosh will surely say all of the right things about sacrificing and working together but when things get tough who will want the ball in the clutch and who will get it? It is obviously tempting for James to go to Miami to play alongside Wade and Bosh but I think that he should reject that option not because of Prokhorov's reasoning about "LeBron James' brand" but because it is not clear how the Heat will fill out their roster; if James returns to Cleveland the Cavs will once again be top level championship contenders even if owner Dan Gilbert does not further upgrade the roster--and there is every reason to believe that the Cavs will find a way to add some more veteran talent to help James. If James goes to Miami this will indicate that he believes that three stars can essentially win a championship by themselves.

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: It has become fashionable in some quarters to act as if James has had no help in Cleveland but the Cavs had enough talent to post the league's best record the past two seasons while ranking among the league leaders in point differential, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding--clear indications that the team was well coached and had sufficient depth to execute the coach's game plan. If James is really concerned about his legacy as a great player--as opposed to his ability to market himself or become a "global icon"--then he should stay in Cleveland. Even winning "just" one championship in Cleveland will say a lot about James' talent and character.

Byron Scott is not necessarily an upgrade over the fired Brown but Scott is clearly a very good coach who knows how to lead teams to the NBA Finals: the ironic thing about Scott is that other than his credentials as an NBA player his resume is eerily similar to Brown's: the beat writers in their respective cities asserted that their offenses were largely run by their assistants (John Kuester in Cleveland, Eddie Jordan in New Jersey), they led teams to the NBA Finals but did not win and their tenures ended when it seemed like their teams had quit (Scott's Hornets were blown out by the Nuggets in the 2009 playoffs by even worse margins than Brown's Cavs lost to the Celtics last season). Nevertheless, I think that both Brown and Scott have been wrongly criticized and that Scott is a good enough coach to win a championship provided that he has a championship caliber roster. If James remains a Cav then Shaquille O'Neal--one of the few centers who has the size to guard Dwight Howard one on one--will likely also come back and the team will have several veteran, playoff tested All-Stars (James, O'Neal, Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and possibly even Zydrunas Ilgauskas). Assuming that Scott maintains the defensive focus that Brown established the Cavs would once again be a 60-plus win team that likely would earn homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. In that scenario, the Cavs should resist the temptation to make wholesale changes the way that they did in the past few seasons and instead simply try to develop more chemistry with their current roster; O'Neal and Jamison hardly had the chance to play together before the Cavs faced the Celtics in the playoffs.

LeBron James has proven many things:

1) He can post numbers that make "stat gurus" drool all over their spreadsheets.
2) He has a unique combination of athletic talent, basketball skill set and high level conditioning that enables him to be a dominant performer throughout the course of the grueling 82 game season.
3) When he feels like it, he can perform at a very high level during postseason play.
4) He has an insatiable desire for attention and praise.
5) He can cause wealthy, famous, accomplished people to figuratively–if not literally–grovel at his feet.

However, LeBron James has not proven one thing that is more important and more substantive than all of these things put together: he has not proven that winning a championship is his all-consuming goal. This is not about whether or not James is capable of being the best player on a championship team: he clearly possesses all of the necessary athletic gifts and basketball skills to do so. The unanswered question is whether or not James is consumed by winning the way that Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were and the way that Kobe Bryant is.

LeBron James and the Cavs developed elaborate pre-game dance routines but we have seen that all of the togetherness that this supposedly represented proved to be meaningless in terms of winning a championship: championships are won by teams with serious-minded, focused leaders. James has had his fun by dominating the airwaves with all of this free agency hoopla but that was just the "pre-game dance routine" for the rest of his career: after he makes his announcement on Thursday he must get down to the hard business of leading a team to a championship. If he fails to do so then his reputation in the minds of serious, knowledgeable basketball observers will never match the ranking that he receives from the "stat gurus."

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:50 PM


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Running a One Man Fast Break: Pro Basketball's Greatest Rebounding Guards

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

Last season Jason Kidd provided an eloquent demonstration of the value of a guard who is an excellent rebounder. He frequently grabbed defensive rebounds and pushed the ball full bore up court, creating open shots for his teammates. His ability to be a one man fast break placed tremendous pressure on opposing defenses and played a large part in transforming the New Jersey Nets from a hapless team into the Eastern Conference Champions.

Kidd is one of 11 guards in pro basketball history who averaged at least 6 rpg in five or more seasons (minimum of 60 games played or 350 rebounds each year). Bob Cousy was the first guard to do this, averaging a career-high 6.9 rpg as a Boston Celtics' rookie in 1950-51, and following that with 6-plus rpg averages in four of the next five years. During this period the fast breaking Celtics were consistently the leading scoring team in the league, but their lack of defensive presence in the paint always proved to be fatal in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, the end of Cousy's run of 6-plus rpg seasons coincided with the arrival of Bill Russell, who became the second leading rebounder in the history of pro basketball. Cousy never averaged more than 5.5 rpg in a season after Russell joined the Celtics, but Boston won championships in six of the seven years that the two were teammates en route to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 years. Cousy finished his career with 4786 rebounds (5.2 rpg), an impressive total for a 6-1, 175 pound point guard.

Tom Gola played forward in college and is still the NCAA Division I career leader in total rebounds (2201). In the NBA the versatile Gola switched primarily to the backcourt and averaged at least 6 rpg in eight seasons (1956; 1958-64). In 1958-59 he averaged a career-high 11.1 rpg and narrowly missed becoming the first guard to rank in the top ten in the NBA in rebounding. The 6-6 Gola played in five All-Star games and was a member of the 1956 NBA Champion Philadelphia Warriors. His career average of 8.0 rpg is the best ever by a guard.

Richie Guerin averaged 6 or more rpg for five straight years (1958-62), starting in his second season. In 1960-61 he posted a career high 7.9 rpg. Next season the 6-4 Guerin averaged career bests in points (29.5 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg) in addition to posting his final 6-plus rpg season (6.4 rpg). His rebounding dropped dramatically after that year and he finished his career with a 5.0 rpg average.

In 1961-62 Oscar Robertson became the only player to average a triple double for a season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg). He ranked first in the NBA in assists, third in scoring and eighth in rebounding, the only guard to ever crack the top ten in that category; his 12.5 rpg average that season is easily the best ever by a guard. Robertson narrowly missed averaging a triple double in several other seasons and actually averaged a triple double for the first five years of his career (30.3 ppg, 10.6 apg and 10.4 rpg). He averaged 6-plus rpg in each of his ten seasons (1961-70) with the Cincinnati Royals before finishing his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, teaming with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the only championship of Robertson's career in 1970-71. Robertson's 7804 rebounds are the most ever by a guard and his 7.5 rpg career average trails only Gola, who had a significantly shorter career. At 6-5, 220 pounds, Robertson combined the size and strength of a forward with the quickness and ball handling of a guard.

Jerry West entered the NBA with Robertson in 1960-61 and averaged at least 6 rpg in each of his first six seasons. Like Robertson, he posted his best rpg average in 1961-62 (7.9 rpg) and he also matched Robertson's 30.8 ppg average that season (West played four fewer games than Robertson and ranked fifth in scoring, which at that time was determined by total points, not average). The 6-2, 185 pound West was significantly smaller than Gola, Guerin and Robertson, the other top rebounding guards of his era, but he finished his career with 5376 rebounds (5.8 rpg).

Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan did not receive much playing time as a Baltimore Bullets' rookie in 1965-66. The Chicago Bulls acquired him in the expansion draft prior to 1966-67 and Sloan averaged at least 6 rpg for the next nine years, along the way earning a reputation as one of the best defensive guards ever. His 7.4 rpg career average ranks behind only Gola and Robertson among guards. Sloan (6-5, 200 pounds) averaged a career best 9.1 rpg in 1966-67 and he averaged over 8 rpg two other times.

Like Sloan, Walt Frazier played sparingly as a rookie before having a breakout second season. Frazier averaged 4.2 rpg in 1967-68 as a New York Knicks' rookie before averaging at least 6 rpg during his next eight seasons with the team. He peaked at 7.3 rpg in the 1973 championship season. Frazier slumped to 3.9 rpg in 1976-77, his last season with the Knicks, and played three subpar seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers before retiring. The 6-4, 205 pound Frazier totaled 4830 rebounds (5.9 rpg) in his career.

Magic Johnson made a run at averaging a triple double for a season in 1981-82, his third year in the league. Magic scored 18.6 ppg, ranked second in the league with 9.5 apg and grabbed a career high 9.6 rpg. In the first 12 years of his career he averaged at least 6 rpg 10 times; in 1980-81 he averaged 8.6 rpg but only played in 37 games and in 1985-86 he averaged 5.9 rpg. Magic averaged 5.7 rpg in his brief 32 game comeback in 1995-96 and finished his career with 6559 rebounds, the third highest total for a guard, and a 7.2 rpg average, trailing only Gola, Robertson and Sloan.

Clyde Drexler is the all-time leader for 6-plus rpg seasons among guards, accomplishing this feat 11 times in his 15 year career. The only seasons that he missed the mark were his rookie year (2.9 rpg in 1983-84), his third year (5.6 rpg) and his last year (4.9 rpg); he failed to qualify in 1992-93, when he averaged 6.3 rpg but only played in 49 games due to injuries. Drexler's best average was 7.9 rpg (1988-89) and he only had one other season above 7 rpg but he consistently stayed above 6 rpg for the bulk of his career. Drexler totaled 6687 rebounds (6.1 rpg).

Michael Jordan entered the NBA one year after Drexler and posted similar career rebounding numbers--6175 rebounds (6.2 rpg), including his 2001-02 totals as a swingman for the Washington Wizards. Jordan has averaged 6-plus rpg seven times. His career best average is 8.0 rpg in 1988-89, a year in which he also averaged a career high 8.0 assists and won his third scoring title with a 32.5 ppg average. Injuries limited him to 18 games in his second season and two retirements further restricted his opportunities to add to his total of 6-plus rpg campaigns. In his last two seasons with the Bulls he averaged 5.9 rpg and 5.8 rpg respectively. In his first season with the Wizards, Jordan averaged 5.7 rpg.

Kidd has averaged 6-plus rpg in six of his first eight seasons, including a career high 7.3 rpg in 2001-02. His career average stands at 6.4 rpg entering the 2002-03 season, so it does not seem likely that he will overtake Gola, Robertson, Sloan or Magic in that category. His ability to amass triple doubles makes him the closest player in today's game to Robertson and Magic, although both of those players scored more and shot much better than Kidd does.

Several other outstanding rebounders deserve mention. The best rebounding guard in ABA history was undoubtedly Warren Jabali (formerly Armstrong). Jabali, powerfully built and an exceptional leaper, posted three seasons of 6-plus rpg, including a career-high 10.4 rpg in 1969-70 for the Washington Capitols, a season in which he also averaged 22.8 ppg and 4.3 apg. Coach Al Bianchi used him extensively at forward that season, but a 6-2, 200 pound guard averaging over 10 rpg as a forward simply has to be included on any list of great rebounding guards. Jabali averaged 6.7 rpg in his seven year career.

Lafayette "Fat" Lever of the Denver Nuggets averaged 6-plus rpg for four straight seasons (1987-90) despite being only 6-3, 180 pounds. Amazingly, he exceeded 8.0 rpg in each of those years, including a career-high 9.3 rpg in 1989-90 (plus 18.3 ppg and 6.5 apg ). The next season he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, blew out his knee after only four games and was never the same. He finished his career with a 6.0 rpg average.

Other guards who had at least three 6-plus rpg seasons include Michael Ray Richardson, T.R. Dunn, Darrell Walker and Alvin Robertson. George Gervin had two 6-plus rpg seasons as a small forward and one after shifting to shooting guard. Among active guards, other than Kidd and Jordan only Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady have achieved 6-plus rpg more than once. Both posted career highs in 2001-02: 7.0 rpg for Francis and 7.9 rpg for McGrady. Kobe Bryant averaged a career-high 6.3 rpg in 1999-00 but his averages have dropped the past two seasons (5.9 rpg and 5.5 rpg respectively).

Pro Basketball's Greatest Rebounding Guards

Player 6 rpg Best season Career Career Career

seasons rpg average reb. gms rpg

Clyde Drexler 11 7.9 rpg/1989 6687 1086 6.1
Magic Johnson 10 9.6 rpg/1982 6559 906 7.2
Oscar Robertson 10 12.5 rpg/1962 7804 1040 7.5
Jerry Sloan 9 9.1 rpg/1967 5615 755 7.4
Tom Gola 8 11.1 rpg/1959 5617 698 8.0
Walt Frazier 8 7.3 rpg/1973 4830 825 5.9
Michael Jordan 7 8.0 rpg/1989 6175 990 6.2
Jerry West 6 7.9 rpg/1962 5376 932 5.8
Jason Kidd 6 7.3 rpg/2002 3653 573 6.4
Bob Cousy 5 6.9 rpg/1951 4786 924 5.2
Richie Guerin 5 7.9 rpg/1961 4278 848 5.0

Notes: This chart lists all NBA/ABA guards who averaged at least 6 rpg in at least five seasons (minimum 60 games or 350 rebounds in each season).

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:21 PM