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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Thoughts on Wilt, Kobe and LeBron

On 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) and Julius Erving (63 in four overtimes) 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 leads every player in ABA-NBA history in 60 point games 32-31! 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.

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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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
Thompson, Gervin, Robinson and Bird still had to make the shots but their career-high performances hardly came within the normal context of the game. The most remarkable thing about Bryant's 81 point game is that his Lakers actually needed those points to come back from an 18 point second half deficit. Bryant shot 28-46 from the field but was not satisfied; he recently told ESPN that he missed some easy shots and should have actually scored 90 points! Not surprisingly, when ESPN polled several NBA stars to ask how likely it is that anyone would break Chamberlain's record Bryant was the only player who said that he thinks it will be broken; heck, Bryant is probably thinking that if he were five years younger with two fully healthy wheels he'd love to take another crack at topping the century mark. Gary Pomerantz says that to score 100 points you have to not just want to do so but need to do so and Bryant certainly has that Chamberlain-size ego.

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).

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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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 AM

30 comments

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30 Comments:

At Saturday, March 03, 2012 4:34:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

The Larry Bird game is notable because a month earlier he'd sat out the 4th quarter of a game against the Jazz where he was one steal away from the second official quadruple-double.

 
At Saturday, March 03, 2012 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

LeBron's regular season has been remarkable but you can tell he lacks that true love of competition. Kobe's quotes reveal how much he truly enjoys competition and challenging himself. It's a shame that Kobe was not born 3 or 4 years later. I'm very curious to see how the Kobe circa 2005-2007 would have fared against this version of LeBron.

Tracy McGrady had the talent to potentially be that rival to Kobe but not the good health or competitiveness to sustain it. (People probably forget how good McGrady was in the early 2000's before his injuries).

 
At Saturday, March 03, 2012 5:51:00 PM, Anonymous Marc said...

David:

That was a great read! I too agree that no matter what criteria used to quantify Wilt's career, there is absolutely no formula capable of proving that Wilt was not only an extraordinary athlete, but also a phenomenal basketball player.

The story of LeBron James is very interesting. I hate discussing him in historical terms because it only frustrates me to think of this talented freak of nature not winning multiple championships to cement himself as one of the greatest players we have ever seen. I found it interesting that you concluded that he may go down as the single greatest player to never win a championship (Baylor holds that title). It is also very well possible that he may retire with 6+ *MVPs! Even if he were never to make it to the promise land, would you still rank him in the top 10?

Speaking of the top 10, given that Michael Jordan & Kobe Bryant are arguably the two most **COMPLETE (I find complete and all-around to be different) basketball players of all-time on the perimeter and on both sides of the ball with the resumes and intangibles to back them up, is it safe to conclude that along with Wilt (who dominated every aspect of basketball excluding free throw shooting) are the three greatest basketball players of all-time in no order?

I know that you choose not to rank the players in your pantheon due to the different positions, era, and circumstances, but those 3 players stand out the most as far as dominating any era or circumstance in my honest opinion.

*MVPs are very subjective and I don't necessarily directly factor them into evaluating how great the player was because there have been plenty of years where there was more than one deserving player. I'm curious to if you've ever gone back through the history books and "reassigned" MVPs sort of like you gave Shaq & Duncan the trophies in 2000-2005, Kobe in 2006-2008, and LeBron in 2009-2011? Would you argue that Jordan deserved every MVP in 1987-1993 & 1996-1998? Does Bird deserve more or less? Oscar? Magic? Kareem? Russell? Wilt?

**When I think of complete players with absolutely no weakness, I think of MJ & Kobe. When I think of the greatest all-around players I think of Oscar, Magic, & Bird (LeBron may join them one day). Oscar, Magic, & Bird weren't exactly great defenders and their scoring can't exactly compare to MJ's & Kobe's (though their playmaking & rebounding skills are superior).

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 12:07:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Chris, when you mention T-mac and injuries, you need to mention Kobe and injuries, too. Kobe's had several knee surgeries and a myriad of other injuries. However, he's worked a lot harder to get back in shape and limit his games missed than T-mac ever did. I think this what people forget when they mention Grant Hill and T-mac having their careers curtailed by injuries, and what might have been. Kobe's had just as many injuries, if not more, and he's still going strong in his 16th year in the league.

MVP voting has been awful for years now. But, even if it's accurate, what does it really mean? We could say lebron should've have 3 mvps: 09-11, but who cares when he bails out on his teams? Kobe outperformed him in the 09-10 playoffs, and you got to say that dirk probably had the best playoff performance in 11.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 4:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

That is true but it was important to Bird to retake the franchise single game scoring record that McHale had just set (breaking Bird's mark). Bird had warned McHale that if he did not put the record out of sight then he would break it but McHale did not care much about records and was satisfied with 56 points (Bird's previous record was 53, set two years earlier). True to his word, Bird broke McHale's record just nine days after McHale set it.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 4:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

Kobe has captured two championships and two Finals MVPs since LeBron entered the league so he has the edge against LeBron where it counts the most even though LeBron has seized the mantle as the league's best and most productive regular season player.

You are right that many people don't appreciate just how good T-Mac was during his prime.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 4:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marc:

When I did my Pantheon series I only ranked retired players, although I appended an article that discussed some active players who could join the Pantheon (Kobe, LeBron, Shaq and Duncan).

You could make a case that any of the players in my Pantheon is the greatest player of all time, depending on what weight you place on peak value versus durability.

I have not comprehensively "reassigned" MVPs but I have made it clear that I believe that Shaq should have won the 2001 and 2005 MVPs, that Kobe should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and that LeBron should have won the 2011 MVP.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 4:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Kobe's toughness is unquestionable and he has played through a variety of injuries but Grant Hill suffered an ankle injury that required multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. He worked very hard to reestablish himself as an All-Star and to then continue his career as a solid player in Phoenix.

McGrady had to undergo the dreaded microfracture procedure and we have seen that each athlete's body responds differently to it; Jason Kidd and Amare Stoudemire made it all the way back, while Penny Hardaway and Allan Houston had to retire. T-Mac is somewhere in the middle--still able to play but no longer a superstar. I am not convinced that he lacked competitiveness; he certainly never passed up late game shots the way that LeBron routinely does.

LeBron's ability to dominate in the regular season is significant and it is worthy of MVP recognition but it also makes it all the more puzzling that he does not put those skills on full display when it matters most.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 9:52:00 AM, Anonymous albacoreclub said...

I was immediately interested to see a topic heading that included Wilt and LeBron. Interested because there are many parallels between the players.

Wilt was an impossible matchup-there had never been a player so long,athletic and talented. So too LeBron's combination of physical gifts and talent are unprecedented.

Bill Russell's Celtics were lauded for consistently beating Chamberlain's teams in the playoffs, and justly so. But Russell didn't outplay Wilt individually. No one could. And there is no one in the NBA today equipped to stop LeBron(except,occasionally and puzzlingly, LeBron himself). Too big, too strong, too fast, too skilled.

Some of us are old enough to remember watching Wilt. All of us are "witnesses" to LeBron's current dominance. But even if you had never actually seen either play, you would only need to look at their numbers to grasp their greatness. No need for a stat guru to massage their stat lines with some arcane formula; conventional box scores speak loud and clear.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2012 10:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always a great refreshing read David,thank you for this awesome blog..

Nimble.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 1:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't checked in for a while. I have to say, with all sincerity, I loved the first section of this post on Wilt. Really liked it. Definitely my favorite sentence was the one with the thunderbolt quote. Never understood the Hershey game in that light.

The rest of it? Well you know how I feel about measuring a player by points per game.

Lebron is so much better than Kobe has ever been right now it's a joke. He is legitimately having one of the greatest seasons ever. Kobe may finish with more titles though, he can thank Shaq for that.

And to the poster who made the argument Kobe is one of the three best of all time.

Seriously? That might be the most ridiculous comment ever left on this blog.

Please David, set him straight and tell him Kobe isn't even the greatest Laker ever (non-Wilt category).

Give him a little background on that guy who played back in the 80's, Magic Johnson. Played for the Lakers, won five titles, was comfortably the best player on the team for four of them....

Owen

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 6:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Albacoreclub:

While there are parallels between Wilt and LeBron in terms of athleticism/physical dominance, a big difference thus far is that Wilt was the best player on two of the most dominant championship teams in NBA history while LeBron has performed very poorly on the sport's biggest stage. Wilt won his championships in the latter stages of his career so LeBron certainly has time to complete his resume but if LeBron fails to win a title after not only playing for a deep Cleveland team that twice had the league's best record but also playing for a very talented Miami team then it will be difficult to rank LeBron among the best of the best all-time regardless of his statistical accomplishments or MVP trophies. LeBron is not only supremely talented but he has had the good fortune to play for legit championship contenders in two different cities and it is only reasonable to expect him to deliver at least one title before he retires.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 6:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nimble:

Thank you.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 7:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Nowhere in this article did I measure players by points per game; I examined the history of 60-point games and discussed some of the circumstances surrounding various 60 point performances. There are other aspects of Wilt's greatness beside his 60 point outbursts but this week the focus understandably is on his 100 point game and his other scoring exploits.

I also discussed LeBron's all-around excellence this season and expressed the opinion that he has been the best regular season performer in the NBA since 2009.

LeBron is certainly having an excellent season but he is not "so much better than Kobe has ever been right now it's a joke." For one thing, if that were true then he and Dwyane Wade--who you also have repeatedly said is better than Kobe--should have been able to lead Miami to a win over a Lakers team that is fighting to even secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Oh, wait, I forgot: according to your skewed WoW world view the fact that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined for 27 points on 10-21 field goal shooting surely had more to do with the Lakers' win than Bryant's 33 points on 14-23 field goal shooting against the "stat gurus'" favorite Kobe stopper, Shane Battier.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black: someone who has publicly endorsed nonsense such as (1) Andrew Bynum is the most valuable Laker (and you endorsed this lunacy back when Bynum was struggling to score in double figures during the playoffs), (2) Dennis Rodman was more valuable than Michael Jordan and (3) Dwyane Wade, Kevin Martin, Manu Ginobili and Woody Harrelson in "White Men Can't Jump" are more valuable than Kobe Bryant (OK, I made up the part about Harrelson but I wouldn't be surprised if you believe that, too) is hardly in a position to lecture anyone else about so-called "ridiculous" comments. You are a member of a cult that worships so-called "advanced basketball statistics" at the expense of watching games and logically analyzing what happens during those games--and you adhere to a particular segment of that cult (Dave Berri's Wages of Wins) that is rejected not only by people outside of the "stat guru" community but even by the few "stat gurus" who actually are legitimately attempting to objectively quantify what happens on the basketball court.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 7:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Your last statement is interesting. I read and hear various attempts to assign "credit" for championships, statements that suggest that the Bulls' titles only belong to Jordan and that the Lakers' first three titles of the 2000s only belong to Shaq. I have never understood the framework behind such thinking. We can all agree that those championships do not belong (in a historical sense) to Jud Buechler or Mark Madsen but when we start talking about Hall of Fame players (or sure fire future Hall of Famers) who made the All-NBA team during those championship seasons the waters get a bit murky. Larry Bird played with three other Hall of Famers (plus Bill Walton, who was the Sixth Man Award winner for Bird's third championship team) and the Finals MVP for Bird's first championship team was Cedric Maxwell, not Bird or any of those HoFers. Should Bird get credit for two championships, with Maxwell and others sharing credit for the third? How does all of that break down?

You say that Magic was "comfortably the best player on the team" for four of the five Lakers' championships in the 1980s. Magic did not make the All-NBA First Team or finish higher than eighth in MVP voting until his fourth season (1982-83), by which time the Lakers had already won two titles. Let's take a quick look back at those five championship runs:

1) In 1980, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the regular season MVP and he dominated the first five games of the Finals before spraining his ankle late in game five. Magic obviously had a celebrated performance for the ages in the game six clincher but it has been reported that the reason that Magic won the series MVP is that CBS did not want to give the award to a player who was thousands of miles away when the game was played. KAJ averaged 33.4 ppg and 13.6 rpg while shooting .549 from the field in the Finals and he blocked 23 shots, which stood as the record for a six game Finals until 2003 (KAJ actually only played in five games, so if the series had ended in that amount of games he would still hold the Finals records for most blocks in a five game championship series, six more than Shaq swatted in 2001).

2) KAJ was still the dominant force on the Lakers during the regular season but Magic once again claimed the Finals MVP. The Finals stats are strange: Magic led the team in rebounding, Nixon led the team in assists, KAJ was second in scoring behind Jamaal Wilkes and no Laker averaged 20 ppg but the team averaged more than 112 ppg.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 7:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Blogger's restrictions forced me to break my response up into multiple parts.

3) The 38 year old KAJ had clearly slowed down by 1985, yet he still finished fourth in regular season MVP voting (Magic was second) and in the Finals he led the Lakers in scoring and rebounding to become the oldest Finals MVP in history.

4) It is well documented that prior to the 1987 season Pat Riley made it clear to Magic that for the first time he, not KAJ, must be the focal point of the offense. Magic responded by leading the team with a career-high 23.9 ppg average and he won the Finals MVP after leading the Lakers in scoring, rebounding and assists during the Finals.

5) Magic dropped back to third on the team in scoring in 1988 as Byron Scott and James Worthy assumed bigger roles offensively. Worthy led the team in scoring during the Finals and received Finals MVP honors after posting 40-16-10 in game seven.

Magic is clearly one of the 10 best players in pro basketball history (and you could make a good case to put him in the top five). He obviously played a huge role in the Lakers' five championships during the 1980s--but he "only" won three Finals MVPs and he was not the team's primary offensive weapon until after the Lakers had already won three titles with a KAJ-centric offense. How many championships would Magic have won without KAJ? How can we objectively assign "credit" for the five championships that the Lakers won with a roster consisting of multiple Top 50 players (Magic, Kareem, Worthy) plus assorted other All-Star level players (Nixon, Wilkes, McAdoo) supplemented by quality role players (Scott, Mychal Thompson, Cooper, etc.)?

I did not rank the players in my Pantheon (a group that includes both KAJ and Magic) and I have generally stayed away from comparing Pantheon players to active players (though I have said that I would rank Jordan above Bryant) so I will not touch the Magic-Bryant question but I am amused by the way that a "stat guru" like you who purports to rely purely on objective numbers can so confidently state exactly who should receive "credit" for each of the Showtime Lakers' titles.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 10:38:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

While Lebron has had his failures I believe it's unfair to single him out for passing out of a double-team in the final seconds to set up his teammate for a wide-open jump shot. Greatness is measured by consistently making correct decisions in game situations and he certainly did in that instance.

One thing that surprises me about Lebron and Wade is that the two seem to be less than the sum of the parts. That has been a consistent problem with Wade over his career; he has been a consistent stat-stuffer who causes his teammates' production to decrease. While he's an excellent player I think the comparisons to Lebron/Kobe are over the top and has to stop.

With that said, Miami looks like the favorite to win it again this season. If Lebron can bring some of the aggressiveness he showed vs. the Celtics and Bulls in last year's playoffs, I like Lebron's chances of finally breaking through.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 10:43:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

As for the Lakers, their chances will depend on improved play from Bynum, Gasol, and Artest; Blake's willingness to at least shoot wide-open uncontested threes, and improved play from their bench. As it looks unlikely that they'll acquire Dwight Howard, staying pat would be preferable to trading Gasol to Minnesota for a cheeseburger and fries.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 6:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

I can't speak for others but I am not "singling out" LeBron solely for the pass to Haslem; the larger issue is LeBron's consistent pattern of quitting in big games and his clear reluctance to take the big shot when the outcome is in doubt. LeBron is much more willing to take shots in the first three quarters when the pressure is off. Larry Bird once said that anyone will take a last second shot when the game is tied but that most people are much more reluctant to take that shot when their team is trailing; LeBron falls into that category of "most people" and that is inexplicable considering the rarity of his talent.

I am not surprised that James and Wade add up to less than the apparent sum of their parts; their skill set strengths and weaknesses overlap, which is something that I pointed out as soon as this so-called Dream Team was assembled and all of the "stat gurus" predicted that the Heat would go 90-10 and win multiple championships.

With each season that James fails to supply the requisite aggressiveness in the clutch against elite teams it becomes less likely that he will do so. He fooled me in Cleveland; the Cavs had the best team in the NBA two years in a row and each time I was sure that James would lead them to the championship. I picked against Miami all of last season until James dominated Rose in the ECF but I think that the only way the Heat win it all this season is if Chicago, OKC and possibly other teams suffer serious injuries that deplete their rotations; if those teams are reasonably healthy then the first one of them that encounters the Heat will prevail.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2012 6:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

The win against Miami was nice for the Lakers but does not change the reality about the Lakers' championship prospects as currently constructed; the Heat were without Bosh and in the middle of a tough road trip. The Lakers are a below average team that is elevated by Bryant's greatness; if they do not acquire Dwight Howard they will struggle just to get the fourth seed and make it out of the first round.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 1:09:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

One more thing about Kobe and his quest for a 6th ring:

I think too much is being made of his quest to "catch Jordan". After all, he would not even make top 10 on the all-time list with his 6th championship.

Even if we limit the list to those who belong in the "Pantheon", Russell has 11 champiomships, Mikan has 7, and Kareem also has 6, so I don't know what kind of record Kobe would be setting even if the Lakers actually won a Championship this season.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 4:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Magic - Kareem was the top guy on the team for their first title and them Magic surpassed him by the second title. That doesn't seem like a very controversial statement. Magic was in shouting distance of averaging a triple double that season and was in the middle of revitalizing the NBA with his play and redefining the position.

I think it's also completely uncontroversial to say the Shaq was the best player on those three Lakers title teams, along with the best player in the NBA, something I could easily argue Kobe has never been. Highest scoring sure....

Kobe has been a great player. i actually haven't argued that ever in the past. Even I would say he is a top five shooting guard. Usually I have argued his greatness is more about longevity and durability and about his good fortune of landing next to the best center of the last 30 years in his rookie year. And that on a per minute basis his production doesn't compare to "Pantheon" players. I stand by that. I also have argued that his greatness is a lot more about the versatility in all aspects of the game, including defense, rather than his scoring. He has been a lot closer to league average efficiency throughout his career than any reasonable standard for an all time great.

It was a commenter not you who said Kobe was a top three NBA player all time. So, I am not giving you crap on that. But the idea that Kobe stands in the same company as Wilt and Jordan as one of the all time greats is beyond farcical.

A better place to start with is whether he is one of the three greatest players of his own era and then go from there...

Owen

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 4:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, on a non-contentious note, I have been told that Wilt never fouled out of a game and was very proud of that fact. To me, that seems very strange and actually strikes me as a black mark on his resume....

And on a contentious note, re Bynum. He has had three knee surgeries right? Or four?

And how old is he? 24?

It's heresy I know to the true believers, but Gasol and Bynum are playing better than Kobe this year.Kobe is currently rocking a below league average scoring efficiency. There is a hint of desperation in his play. He knows he isn't one of the top players in the league anymore. But he knows as long as he keeps his scoring totals high, people will still think he is.

Bynum, meanwhile is emerging as one of the best defensive players in the NBA by a lot of metrics. Unsurprising looking at him and watching him play....

Owen

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 5:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

Mikan won five championships, not seven.

No one said that Bryant can set a record by winning a sixth championship. Some reporter asked Bryant who his rival has been and Bryant said that he does not have one among his contemporaries but he is trying to match what Jordan and Magic accomplished in terms of winning championships. I suppose that one could say that Jordan, KAJ and Pip have the "modern" or "non-Celtics" record with six rings apiece (assuming that we put Horry in a different category since he accumulated seven rings without ever being an All-NBA or All-Star performer).

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 7:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The only times that I hear people trying to assign credit for championships are when Kobe Bryant or Scottie Pippen are being discussed--i.e., critics like to snipe that Pippen's six titles really "belong" to Michael Jordan or that Bryant's first three titles really "belong" to Shaquille O'Neal. No one does this with John Havlicek's eight titles or with the championships won by Walt Frazier/Willis Reed, etc.

So the real issue here is that even though you present yourself as an objective "stat guru" who is primarily concerned with using "advanced basketball statistics" to figure out how to best construct a team today you are really in fact a biased fan who is so obsessed with proving that Bryant deserves to be credited with less than five rings that you are twisting yourself into knots to prove that the five Showtime championships "belong" to Magic Johnson and no one else. I understand that you don't realize how foolish this sounds but hopefully most of the people who are reading this exchange are gaining some insight into how "stat gurus" think.

Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas and Kobe Bryant are the only HoF caliber players (the first three are already in, Kobe will obviously be inducted) in NBA history who have led teams to multiple championships without playing alongside a HoF center, so even if we play your game and discount Kobe's first three rings you still cannot explain Kobe's most recent two rings without ludicrously inflating the value of Gasol, Bynum and Odom--which, of course, is exactly what you do. Odom sure looks great this year, doesn't he? Bynum's Luc Longley playoff numbers during the championship runs look great, too. If we break down Gasol's scoring in the Finals how many times did he create his own shot and how many times did he score off of actions initiated by Kobe drawing multiple defenders?

In the Lakers' game seven win over the Blazers in the 2000 WCF, Kobe led the Lakers in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots. In your "objective" analysis can Kobe at least get credit for 1/8th of a championship ring that year? How valuable is it to be the best player on the court in an elimination game for the opportunity to play in the Finals?

The idea that Kobe is playing with "desperation" this season is absurd. Which stat do you use to assess "desperation"? Is that another objective conclusion that you obtained by crunching numbers or is it perhaps yet another example of your bias showing? If you look at the numbers you could marvel at the fact that Kobe is the only guard in NBA history who has scored this well after logging so many career minutes. Coach Mike Brown is keeping Bryant on the court more than all but a handful of NBA players this season. Either you know more about basketball than he does or Brown thinks that Kobe's presence is very important.

You cannot run a championship level offense through either Bynum or Gasol; Bynum's offensive game is not refined enough and Gasol is too soft.

I have no idea what your point is about the number of knee surgeries Bynum has had but the fact that a young 7 footer has been under the knife so frequently is hardly a reason to believe that a team should build around him.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 8:54:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I think Owen thinks that the more knee surgeries that Bynum has, the healthier and more dominant he's supposed to be. Ironically, if he actually thought this, which he might, this would make the most sense out of anything else he said.

Hmm, I never thought about that before that fans only try to assign titles when talking about pippen and bryant, but that's what I often hear as well. I think most of them who try to denigrate pippen do it for the sole reason to denigrate bryant, though, but pippen gets dragged down in the process, unfortunately.

Interesting non-bias, logical reasoning about Kobe, there Owen. But, even by your math, if Kobe was a top 3 player during his era, which is a 16 year career, and given the fact that the nba is now in its 66th season, which means Kobe's career spans almost exactly 1/4 of nba history's length, Kobe would be a top 12 player in nba history.

If you think Wilt not fouling out is bad, then maybe Shaq should've been that arrogant too, because without Kobe saving the day in the 2000 finals after Shaq fouled out, that could've cost the lakers the title.

Also, you cannot be serious if you think Gasol/Bynum is better than Kobe? You must read WoW on a regular basis. I guess they have some good insight over there, such as thinking Sefolosha was a better SG than Kobe was last year. Yea, that seems right on.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 8:56:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

David,

George Mikan won two NBL championships before the BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA.

Hence, he won 7 titles in his career.

If ABA statistics should count in a player's official NBA tally, surely NBL should as well.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 10:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Although our discussion has focused on the past 30 years or so, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Julius Erving also led a team to multiple championships without playing alongside a HoF center (1974 and 1976 Nets); the only other ABA team to win multiple titles (1970, 72-73 Pacers) had newly elected HoF center Mel Daniels. The Spurs' Tim Duncan is nominally a PF; he played alongside HoF center David Robinson on two championship teams and then won two more titles as the team's best big man after Robinson retired.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 10:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

I don't think that people denigrate Pippen to denigrate Bryant; I think people denigrate Pippen to further elevate Jordan, to suggest that Jordan won six rings with no help--a preposterous idea. I loved watching those Chicago teams, I rooted for them more than I have rooted for any teams except for Erving's 76ers and I don't think that it diminishes Jordan's greatness one bit to acknowledge the fact that Pippen was also a great player. In most skill set areas there was little or no difference between Jordan and Pippen but the one big difference was that Jordan was a more complete scoring threat--a better midrange shooter, a slightly better postup player and a much better free throw shooter. Pippen could hold his own with Jordan as a rebounder, defender, passer and ballhandler.

There is no way to convince Owen that he is wrong. All he goes by are the WoW numbers, so if WoW says something then Owen will swear by it until the end of time no matter how much contrary evidence exists.

If LeBron continues to fade down the stretch in the playoffs against elite teams and the Heat never win a title it will be fascinating to see how Berri and co. reconcile the Heat's lack of rings with their longstanding declarations that both James and Wade are better than Bryant. How does having two players better than Bryant translate into no rings? Realistically, WoW looks bad unless James and Wade win multiple championships while teamed up with Bosh.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2012 10:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

NBL stats usually are not counted with the "modern" NBA stats but you make a good point that just like ABA numbers should be counted the NBL numbers should be counted as well.

Either way, the larger point is that Bryant is not saying that by winning six rings he would be setting a record. Bryant is merely saying that he measures himself against Magic and Jordan and thus would like to finish one ring ahead of Magic and on par with Jordan in the rings department.

 

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