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Monday, January 17, 2011

Quotes from Legends Roundtable Featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill Walton

On Friday January 14, NBA TV aired a "Legends Roundtable" featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill Walton. Erving was the star of the show, both in terms of how much time he spent talking and in terms of how much the other three said about him.

The show's introduction featured highlights of the four players, with one of the voiceovers (George McGinnis, Erving's ABA rival and NBA teammate) declaring of Erving, "Without question, without any doubt, the absolute greatest forward that has ever put on a pair of basketball shoes."

Erving explained that the person who had the most impact on his basketball career during his formative years was Don Ryan, a then-19 year old Salvation Army coach from Hempstead, New York who mentored the then-nine year old Erving; Erving felt so strongly about Ryan's effect on him that when Erving was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Hall asked Erving what kind of banner/display Erving wanted Erving asked for a Hempstead Salvation Army banner and made sure that Ryan was there for the ceremony.

While Russell, Walton and, to a lesser extent, Lanier became nationally known stars as collegians, the young Julius Erving was putting up 27 ppg-20 rpg averages for the University of Massachusetts in the obscure (and now defunct) Yankee Conference. Erving received an invitation to the Olympic Development camp in 1970 but did not make the cut as one of the 40 best players; Erving said that this shook his confidence and that he returned home to coach at the local recreation center during the summer. However, Erving had been selected as one of four alternates, so when a player went down because of injury Erving was invited back to Colorado Springs to join the Olympic Development tour. Erving recalled that the other players on the tour--including future All-Star/current Sacramento Coach Paul Westphal--openly spoke about becoming pro basketball players, something that Erving had never seriously considered at that time. Erving proved to be the best player on the tour and that is when he first realized that playing professionally was not a distant dream but rather a likely possibility. That story is a powerful reminder that even the most talented people need the right opportunities in order to build their confidence and reach their full potential. "I didn't even have the mentality of thinking that I was going to be a pro, period, or a Hall of Famer," Erving remembered, "until after that camp, because once we got out (there) and we started playing and I performed as well or better than all the other guys there I said, 'If they're going to make it, I've got a pretty good chance of making it.'"

Walton declared, "The minute that Dr. J started floating over that court with the hair and the beard--he would just come at you and it was exhilarating." Erving added, "(Hall of Fame Coach) Lou Carnesecca used to talk about with certain athletes it's just like taking a blank canvas and when that player performs they are actually painting a picture. George Gervin and Tiny Archibald--that's what comes to mind for me when you watch them play: there's the arena and there is what this guy is doing. There are a handful of guys who painted pictures for people and those pictures made indelible impressions that they will have for the rest of their lives."

Walton said, "Dr. J had the responsibility and the pressure of everybody wanting something spectacular every single night. How did you deal with that responsibility?"

Erving replied, "I wanted to undertake the challenge of daring to be great. It's like, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' and 'No risk, no reward,' so I would hold that in my heart that I was not going to be afraid to dare to be great and to do something that maybe nobody had ever seen before. It's an individual expression and it's rooted in taking that up as a challenge." Erving spoke those words over the highlight clip for the "No Way Even for Dr. J Reverse Layup."

Erving also said that he adopted the motto of his college coach Jack Leaman: "Attitude is altitude"; Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones are just two of the many people who have raved about how great Erving was as a teammate: Erving explained, "I always brought a certain attitude to practice and to games because I knew it would take things to the next level if I had a positive attitude as the leader of the team."

Erving is a role model for the class and dignity with which all athletes should conduct themselves. He said that he was guided by this thought: "I always wanted to win without boasting and lose without crying. If you chew on that one, it's going to keep you in a good place that helps you maintain your sanity while all the madness is going on around you."

Russell said, "I thought that what distinguishes a great player is his presence. When he goes on to the court, his presence dominates the atmosphere." As Erving looked at Russell and listened intently, Walton delivered a knowing smile and pointed at Erving as if to say, "Dr. J embodied that trait to the fullest." Russell concluded, "It's like, if you're in the game and Doc's playing, everybody is watching him warm up." That sentiment echoes what a scout recently said to me about how everyone on the court knows that Kobe Bryant is the best player and defers to his greatness. As the saying goes, "game recognizes game"--players know who is great, who is good and who is just taking up space, whether the "game" is basketball, chess or writing: strip away the hype, strip away the nonsense and true greatness always shines through.

Lanier lamented that he was the only player on the panel who never won a championship and he asked the other three players what made their championship teams special. Erving replied, "Let me just set the record straight, too, because sometimes I am a little offended when the championship discussion comes about because I did not have an opportunity to win NBA championships or be a part of the NBA championship experience my first five years--but I wasn't just sitting around picking my nose: I was playing five years in the formidable ABA and I was part of two championship experiences there." That is a crucial historical point that I have made several times, including a 2001 article that I wrote for Basketball Digest about ABA statistics, a 2007 article that I wrote for NBCSports.com about the ABA's legacy and my Pantheon series article about Erving. Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA Finals--culminating in a classic 31 point, 19 rebound, five assist, five steal, four blocked shot effort in the decisive game six--has been described as "the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere--ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA."

Erving then talked about his NBA Finals experiences: "In my first seven years in the NBA we were part of four championship experiences, three of which we did not win: one compliments of Bill (Walton) and two compliments of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. So I had multiple opportunities to be in the championship arena, went to the Finals six times in 16 years--something that I am very individually proud of and also something that I am proud of for the Nets and 76ers organizations and for my teammates...Each of those times, succeed or fail, what it takes to get there is at the foundation and the core of it all. And that is the sense of setting a goal, being able to focus on it and then going through that process of trying to accomplish that goal. Even in the times when you come up short...I certainly did not feel at the end of the season, being the second place team, that it was all over. I actually felt more determined about coming back the next year because I knew that we probably could get back there again, until 1983 with the Sixers when I felt that the window was closing up after that--I didn't feel like the next few years that I played that I was ever on a team that had enough to accomplish what had already been accomplished in those previous 12 seasons, which was six attempts for the title and winning three times."

Lanier concluded the show by echoing a sentiment that he expressed to me in an interview almost six years ago: the most meaningful part of his NBA experience is that it has enabled him to have a positive impact on other people's lives.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 PM

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

News Flash: Teams Generally Perform Well When Their Leading Scorers Score at Least 30 Points

Some NBA commentators enjoy cherry picking numbers to support their favorite storylines; for instance, Mike Wilbon long ago fell in love with the idea that the L.A. Lakers' success is directly linked to Kobe Bryant attempting less than a certain number of shots. Wilbon articulates this sentiment with such conviction that you half expect Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to jump out of his special "throne chair" on the sidelines to tackle Bryant if Bryant is approaching Wilbon's magical number (a number that Wilbon seems to adjust from time to time to make sure that the winning percentages superficially correlate with his "theory"). After all, if the Lakers are all but guaranteed to win as long as their best player shoots less frequently--reread that again in case the crux of Wilbon's contention escaped you the first time around--then wouldn't Coach Jackson do anything in his power to stop Bryant from shooting? Do not be deceived by the fact that Jackson won six championships in Chicago with Michael Jordan capturing the scoring title each time; Wilbon is an ESPN-certified NBA expert and he has decreed that the secret to winning in the NBA is to take the ball out of the hands of your best player and distribute shots to less talented players who are not as willing and/or able to create their own shots under pressure.

Sarcasm aside, Wilbon's "theory" sounds less than convincing to anyone who is intelligent and thinks about the subject for at least 10 seconds. Field goal attempts are an odd way to evaluate a scorer, because FGAs can consist of "hand grenades" (shots fired up to beat the shot clock buzzer after a teammate passes the ball to a player right before the shot clock "explodes"), half court heaves at the end of quarters, late game shots launched in a flurry as a trailing team desperately tries to come back and other anomalies; the chicken-egg question that Wilbon never discusses is whether Bryant's "extra" field goal attempts cause losses (as Wilbon apparently believes), whether they are the result of Bryant picking up a heavier load in games that the Lakers are losing because his teammates disappeared or whether other factors are involved.

Rather than arbitrarily designating a certain number of field goal attempts to be good or bad, let's take a look at the NBA's top scorers this season and examine how their teams do when they have big scoring nights. No NBA player is averaging 30 ppg this season but all of the top scorers have had several 30-plus point scoring games, so that seems to be a reasonable cutoff point to designate a "big" scoring game--40 point games would provide a very small sample size, while 20 or 25 point games would just be "average" performances for these guys.

Here is a list of the NBA's top 10 scorers this season, including their scoring averages, their teams' records and their teams' records when they score at least 30 points:

1) Kevin Durant, 28.5 ppg. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 27-13 overall (.675) and 13-2 (.867) when Durant scores at least 30 points.

2) Amare Stoudemire, 26.0 ppg. The New York Knicks are 22-17 overall (.564) and 9-4 (.692) when Stoudemire scores at least 30 points.

3) Monta Ellis, 25.7 ppg. The Golden State Warriors are 16-23 overall (.410) and 7-4 (.636) when Ellis scores at least 30 points.

4) LeBron James, 25.4 ppg. The Miami Heat are 30-11 overall (.732) and 9-2 (.818) when James scores at least 30 points.

5) Kobe Bryant, 25.3 ppg. The L.A. Lakers are 30-11 overall (.732) and 9-3 (.750) when Bryant scores at least 30 points.

6) Dwyane Wade, 25.1 ppg. The Miami Heat are 30-11 overall (.732) and 10-2 (.833) when Wade scores at least 30 points.

7) Derrick Rose, 24.5 ppg. The Chicago Bulls are 26-13 overall (.667) and 6-3 (.667) when Rose scores at least 30 points.

8) Eric Gordon, 23.7 ppg. The L.A. Clippers are 13-25 overall (.342) and 2-3 (.400) when Gordon scores at least 30 points.

9) Dirk Nowitzki, 23.6 ppg. The Dallas Mavericks are 26-12 overall (.684) and 4-2 (.667) when Nowitzki scores at least 30 points.

10) Carmelo Anthony, 23.5 ppg. The Denver Nuggets are 22-16 overall (.579) and 5-4 (.556) when Anthony scores at least 30 points.

One could enlarge this survey by looking at more players and/or a longer period of time and one could break down the data based on opposing teams' winning percentages among the 30 point games but there is little reason to believe that a team--whether it is contending for a title or languishing at the bottom of the standings--does worse when its best scorer exceeds his scoring average. That is probably why teams tend to focus their defensive game plans on stopping elite scorers, which is also why lesser players can sometimes accumulate the gaudy field goal percentages that fool so-called experts (and stat gurus) into believing that teams should allocate field goal attempts based strictly on field goal percentages; earlier this season, a prominent NBA scout told me that a "stat guru" had once said to him that teams should "start the players with the five highest field goal percentages because field goal percentage is such an important statistic." The "stat guru" was completely oblivious to the reality that this would result in ludicrous lineups consisting of role players who have limited capabilities to create their own shots.

I know that every TV and radio talking head has a stack of statistics and facts placed in front of him before each broadcast plus a producer constantly talking to him in his ear; what I simply cannot fathom is why so many people on TV and radio say things that just do not make sense and then try to support this nonsense with faulty and/or misleading data. Is it really that hard to think logically, are media members so devoted to storylines that they consider to be "higher truths" that they make intentionally misleading statements or do certain people simply lose all sense of pride/self respect regarding their work once they have "made it" (in terms of receiving huge salaries)? Consumers should be disappointed that many of the people who get paid the most to provide commentary/analysis are so unprofessional about their work; paraphrasing a line from "Fiddler on the Roof," would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the large scale content providers hired more people who both understand the subject matter at hand (whether that subject is NBA basketball or anything else) and possess top notch writing skills? I have file folders that are packed with old articles that I have cut out from various newspapers and magazines because those articles contain interesting facts, perspectives and opinions--you can find some of them here--but far too much of what is published today is unreadable, let alone being worthy of being reread and savored.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:41 AM

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