Thoughts on Wilt, Kobe and LeBronOn the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game, two of Chamberlain's former teams squared off in his hometown of Philadelphia--and only one of them managed to surpass the century mark, as the 76ers routed the Warriors 105-83. A couple weeks ago, two of the 10 best players in the NBA--two-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant and 2011 All-NBA Second Team guard Russell Westbrook--combined to score 91 points. Not only is Chamberlain's record safe for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any two NBA stars will combine to score 100 points in a game any time soon!
One of my favorite sports books is Wait Till Next Year, which was co-written by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. In a portion of the book titled "To the Death," Goldman described how most athletes' reputations decline with the passing of time but Goldman argued that Chamberlain would prove to be an exception to this. Goldman declared, "During Michael Jordan's amazing '86-'87, Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century. Take big-scoring games, for example. Michael Jordan hit 60 points, twice last year. In the eighties, only two other men have done it, each once: Bernard King and Larry Bird. Four times this decade. Seven other guys did it once: Fulks (the first), Mikan, Gervin, West, Barry, Maravich and David 'oh-what-a-fall-was-there-' Thompson. Elgin Baylor did it thrice. And Wilt? Well, it's been done 46 times so you subtract. Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." It is now almost 25 years since Goldman penned those words and Chamberlain still leads the rest of the NBA 32-28. Larry Miller (67), Zelmo Beaty (63), Julius Erving (63 in four overtimes) and Stew Johnson (62) are the only ABA players who scored at least 60 points in a game and even if you add their performances into the mix Chamberlain still has as many 60 point games as every other player in ABA-NBA history combined! Kobe Bryant (five), Michael Jordan (four in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) and Elgin Baylor (three in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) are the only players other than Chamberlain who have topped the 60 point barrier more than once.
You can adjust statistics for pace, you can debate the quality of defensive play in the 1960s compared to later eras, you can bring up whatever objections or qualifiers you want but anyone who truly understands basketball--anyone who has actually played the game at any level long enough to know how difficult it is to score even 30 or 40 points in a game--realizes that what Chamberlain accomplished that night in Hershey, Pennsylvania 50 years ago is remarkable. I loved the old clip that ESPN showed of Chamberlain saying that it was not that big of a deal because he only doubled his seasonal scoring average--remember, that was the year that Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg and amassed 45 games of at least 50 points, a one season total that far eclipses Michael Jordan's career total of 31 (Jordan also had eight more 50 point games in the playoffs).
It has been a real treat to watch Al Attles being interviewed about the 100 point game. During his playing days Attles was known as "Destroyer" because of his pugnaciousness but since he has been affiliated with the Golden State franchise for more than 50 years--including all 11 seasons of his playing career, followed by a stint as coach that brought the team its only championship (1974-75)--he could just as easily be called "Mr. Warrior." Attles is soft spoken, self deprecating (he scored 17 points on 8-8 field goal shooting and 1-1 free throw shooting during Chamberlain's 100 point game but simply says that with five players guarding Chamberlain it was not too hard to get a few open looks) and clearly feels a deep kinship with Chamberlain.
Wilt Chamberlain finished second in MVP voting in 1961-62 (Bill Russell received the honor for the second year in a row and the third time in his career en route to capturing five regular season MVPs) despite leading the league in scoring with a record 4029 points (50.4 ppg), despite leading the league in rebounding with 2052 (25.6 rpg, a full two rpg more than runner-up Russell) and, as author Gary Pomerantz colorfully puts it, despite "throwing down a 100 point thunderbolt" that made a mockery of the league's unofficial quota against black players. Kobe Bryant can certainly relate to posting huge individual numbers but not winning the MVP; in 2005-06 he finished fourth in the balloting despite leading the NBA in scoring with 35.4 ppg, the eighth best single season scoring average in ABA-NBA history (trailing five different Chamberlain seasons plus Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Rick Barry's 35.6 ppg in 1966-67). Like Chamberlain, Bryant punctuated his season of dominance with an awesome single game scoring barrage; Bryant's 81 point outburst versus Toronto is the second best individual single game scoring performance in NBA history. Many of the top individual scoring performances involved special circumstances:
- On the final day of the 1978 regular season, David Thompson and George Gervin scored 73 and 63 points respectively in separate games, with Gervin beating out Thompson 27.22 ppg to 27.15 ppg in the closest scoring title race ever. Neither game had any significance other than the battle for the scoring title, both players were force fed the ball and both players' teams lost despite their exploits.
- Similarly, David Robinson dropped a career-high 71 points on the L.A. Clippers in the final game of the 1994 regular season to beat out Shaquille O'Neal and claim the only scoring title of the Admiral's career. At least Robinson's Spurs won but this was another instance of a player being force fed (Robinson only had two other 50 point games in his entire career, unlike players such as Chamberlain, Bryant and Jordan who regularly exceeded the 50 point barrier)
- Larry Bird tallied the only 60 point game of his career in a 126-115 Boston win over Atlanta in 1985; with the game well in hand, the Celtics repeatedly fouled the Hawks to get the ball back so Bird could keep firing away and he needed a buzzer beating jumper in order to reach 60.
It has been an interesting week for Bryant, the NBA's lion in winter who is leading the league in scoring (28.8 ppg) and ranks fifth in minutes (38.0 mpg) despite having logged more than 41,000 minutes in the regular season alone during his 16 year career; guards who have logged that many minutes over that many years simply do not play at an All-NBA level (by the time Jordan surpassed the 41,000 regular season minute mark he was nearing the end of his career as a 39 year old Washington Wizard struggling to score 20 ppg for a sub-.500 team); the week began with Bryant kicking off the All-Star Game gunning for both MVP honors and Jordan's NBA career All-Star scoring record (and second place overall in ABA-NBA All-Star scoring history behind Julius Erving) but Bryant's quest was almost derailed by a vicious Dwyane Wade foul that broke Bryant's nose, inflicted a mild concussion and caused soft tissue damage in Bryant's neck. That combination of injuries only managed to slow Bryant long enough to go to the sidelines so that the trainer could stop Bryant's nose from bleeding; Bryant refused to stuff cotton up his nose and did not even think of leaving the game. Only after the game did doctors realize the full extent of Bryant's injuries; Bryant said that he felt "weird" after absorbing Wade's blow but that he had never played with a concussion and it was "interesting" to experience this. It is safe to say that Bryant is wired differently than most people. Bryant subsequently received medical clearance and did not miss the Lakers' next game, dropping 31 points (plus eight assists and seven rebounds) in a 104-85 win versus Minnesota on Wednesday night.
Bryant denied feeling any ill well toward Wade, even saying that Wade is a nicer guy than he is (Bryant may not have meant that as a compliment...). Coincidentally or not, Bryant also denied viewing Wade as any kind of rival: "He's too young. He's too young. When I came into the league, he was in elementary school." Bryant added that he has outlasted the individual rivals from his peer group (Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady) and that, while the San Antonio Spurs have been a great team rival to Bryant's Lakers, Tim Duncan was an individual rival for Shaquille O'Neal, not Bryant. Bryant said that the only rivals left for him now are historical rivals, mainly Magic Johnson (who, like Bryant, owns five championship rings) and Michael Jordan (who won his six championship rings in a pair of 1990s three-peats). Bryant has talked a lot recently about wanting just one more championship and it is pretty clear that to Bryant the significance of that accomplishment would be that he would pass Johnson and pull even with Jordan (no one is catching Bill Russell's 11 rings for 10 fingers).
Bryant owned the most complete skill set in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s--though O'Neal and Duncan were even more valuable players in the early part of the decade due to their paint dominance--and he should have won three MVPs (2006-08) but will probably have to settle for just the one that he received in 2008. LeBron James surpassed Bryant as a regular season performer in the 2009 season and should already be a three-time MVP but the backlash from James' ill-conceived "Decision" cost him the 2011 MVP; Derrick Rose is a great player but James should have won the MVP last season. James decisively outplayed Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals but then James authored arguably the worst NBA Finals performance ever by a player who averaged at least 25 ppg during the regular season (James' scoring average plummeted by 8.9 ppg--more than any such player's scoring average has ever dropped--and he hardly made up for this in any other aspect of the game).
James' performance so far this season is off the charts good--he is not only posting his typical 28-8-7 stat line but he has vastly improved his shooting percentages across the board (FG%, 3FG% and FT%) while slashing his three point field goal attempts and operating with deadly efficiency in the post. In a recent game versus Portland he played all five positions defensively and put up a stat line that the Elias Sports Bureau says has never been seen since the NBA began officially counting turnovers in 1977-78: 38 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, five steals and no turnovers. Magic Johnson famously played multiple positions in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals and Julius Erving pulled off some multi-positional wizardry for the New York Nets (Erving occasionally jumped center in addition to logging his regular minutes at forward and sometimes shifting to backcourt duty) but James may be the only player in pro basketball history who has the size, speed and skill set to legitimately play extended minutes at any position on the court (perhaps Maurice Stokes fit that bill as well but it is difficult to think of anyone else who could seamlessly shift from center to forward to guard). Barring something exceptional happening, if James does not win this year's MVP in a landslide all of the voters who bypass James should immediately resign--and the people who kept saying that the Heat are "Dwyane Wade's team" sure look pretty foolish now.
Of course, none of James' versatility and none of his gaudy stats will matter if he is once again an innocent bystander while a less heralded star leads a less talented team to victory over the Heat in the playoffs. For several years now during the regular season James has vividly showed the world exactly what it looks like when his mind and his talents are fully engaged on the basketball court, which is why it is so glaring when he quits the way that he did against Boston in the 2010 playoffs. We know that Bryant is a stone cold killer at playoff time. Some critics accused Chamberlain of being a stat chaser but Chamberlain silenced all but the most biased observers after he was the dominant force on two of the greatest single season teams in NBA history (the 1967 NBA champion 76ers and the 1972 NBA champion Lakers). There is a stat chasing element to how James plays but, unlike Chamberlain, he has yet to add the all important title "NBA champion" to his otherwise impeccable resume. James came up short in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, he took a backseat while Bryant saved the day in the fourth quarter of the Olympic gold medal game in 2008 and he blatantly quit in both the 2010 and 2011 NBA playoffs. I have never seen a player as talented as James so repeatedly and dramatically shrink from the big moment; most great players relish the opportunity to take over a close game down the stretch but, after a few good playoff efforts as an underdog early in his career, James has hardly embraced the playoff spotlight when he is facing an elite team. The idea that James is not shrinking but is merely a pass first player is nonsense; James has the third highest regular season scoring average in pro basketball history (27.7 ppg) and even the great players who truly were pass first players--like Magic Johnson and John Stockton--did not hesitate to take (and make) big shots in playoff competition. Johnson looked past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--the all-time leading scorer in NBA history--and shot the "junior, junior skyhook" over the outstretched arms of two Celtics to win the pivotal game four of the 1987 NBA Finals, so when James defers to Udonis Haslem (?!) at the end Friday's loss to Utah after padding his stats for the whole fourth quarter there is a lot more at play than James being a pass first player.
That is why it is significant and telling that James not only declined to challenge Bryant at the end of the All-Star Game but he literally threw the ball as far away as he could, a bizarre action by a great scorer who is also usually an uncannily accurate cross court passer; it looked like James could not get the ball out of his hands fast enough. Yes, this was just an exhibition game but that moment revealed something about James' character and it is something that we have seen repeatedly in important games, as outlined in the previous paragraph. When James passed up the chance to take a game-winning three pointer (or drive to the hoop for a tying bucket), Bryant trash-talked James not to mock James but to lament that James had squandered an opportunity for both of them: "It was more so the challenge that I wanted. I wanted him to try to score. I wanted that challenge [to guard him]. So, I was more upset than anything that I didn't get a chance to face that."
At the rate James is going he may very well break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record for regular season MVPs (six) and his numbers may cause the "stat gurus" to enter into their own form of Rapture but if he does not change his approach to pressure situations then he will "achieve" the dubious honor of being the greatest player who never won a championship and 10 years from now people will be struggling to figure out how a team as talented as the Heat never broke through. The Heat are more talented than many of the teams that have won championships in the past 15-20 years--Bryant won back to back titles alongside a player who had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining the Lakers and a third option who the Dallas Mavericks just sent to the D League, while James is playing alongside two top 15 players--but if James quits when the going gets tough then they will once again fall short of their ultimate goal; the better that James plays during the regular season the more pressure he puts on himself to match that level of play when everything is on the line--and there is little indication thus far in James' career that he responds well to that kind of pressure.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 AM