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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Wayback Machine, Part VI: The 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Dennis Johnson made his name--and earned his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame--primarily because of his suffocating defense but the front cover photo of the 1980 edition of the Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball shows Johnson shooting a jumper over the outstretched arm of Washington's Phil Chenier. Larry Bird called Dennis Johnson the best teammate he ever had but before Johnson played a key role alongside Bird on Boston's 1984 and 1986 championship teams he helped lead the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979. Johnson shot 0-14 from the field in Seattle's game seven loss to Washington in the 1978 NBA Finals but he bounced back to earn Finals MVP honors as Seattle defeated Washington in five games to win the 1979 NBA championship. The CHPB back cover photo features Houston's Moses Malone, who had just won the first of his three regular season MVPs.

The 1980 CHPB included 320 pages, the largest edition yet. In addition to the usual features--22 team profiles, lists of the 1979 NBA statistical leaders, a complete schedule, a list of all-time NBA records, a list of all 202 players selected in the 1979 NBA Draft and a "TV/Radio roundup"--the CHPB contained five feature stories: Dan Lohwasser's "Phil Ford: The Greening Of a Star," Myron S. Waldman's "How Bill Bradley Shoots In the U.S. Senate," Leonard Koppett's "Bring Back the Zone," Steve Ellis' "SuperSonic Silas: Grandpa of the NBA" and Joe Gergen's "The All-Time All-Star Game."

Steve Hershey and Darrell Simmons co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that Washington and Seattle would meet in the NBA Finals for the third straight year, with Seattle claiming back to back titles. Instead, rookie Earvin "Magic" Johnson teamed with veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lead the L.A. Lakers to the championship over Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers, who made it to the NBA Finals for the second time in Erving's four NBA seasons. The Lakers defeated the SuperSonics in the Western Conference Finals, while the Washington Bullets lost in the first round after going 39-43 in the regular season. The 76ers overwhelmed Rookie of the Year Larry Bird's Boston Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals; the teams would face each other in that round in three of the next five years as Julius Erving versus Larry Bird became the sport's best rivalry in the early 1980s (Bird and Magic did not meet in the NBA Finals until 1984 and their teams only played each other twice during the regular season).

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1980 CHPB:

1) Phil Ford made the All-NBA Second Team and won Rookie of the Year honors in 1978-79 but he was never selected as an All-Star nor did he make the All-NBA team again in his seven year career. After averaging at least 15.9 ppg and at least 7.4 apg in each of his first three seasons, his numbers dropped precipitously and he bounced around to New Jersey, Milwaukee and Houston. In 1980, though, Ford seemed like a star on the rise and much of Lohwasser's article dealt with what is now a little known chapter in a largely forgotten career: when the Kansas City Kings drafted Ford he initially refused to report to training camp, questioning the propriety of the draft system and threatening to play pro ball in Italy or even to become a graduate assistant at North Carolina, where he had excelled as a college player (winning the Wooden Award in 1978 and being selected to the All-America Team three times). When the second overall selection in the draft declares that he may not sign with the NBA team that picked him that is big news but--unlike Spencer Haywood, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and paved the way for players to jump straight from high school to the pros--Ford eventually backed down. He signed a five year contract with the Kings, reportedly for $200,000 per season. After Ford's fantastic rookie campaign, Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons--who won the Coach of the Year award--called Ford the best point guard in the NBA and possibly "the best of his era." In 1980-81, Ford was averaging career highs in scoring (17.5 ppg) and assists (8.8 apg) when he suffered an eye injury that required season-ending surgery. He returned to action in time to play in five of Kansas City's 15 playoff games but he never regained his previous form.

2) Bill Bradley, the 35 year old recently retired New York Knick, was the youngest U.S. Senator when Myron S. Waldman profiled him for a Newsday article that was reprinted in the CHPB. Waldman reported that of the 12 pictures hanging in Bradley's outer office only one depicted Bradley as a Knick. "You don't forget about it," Bradley said of his NBA career. "I did it for 10 years. I loved it. I had a wonderful experience. It was living life at its fullest--for those years. Just as this is living life at its fullest at this time."

3) Leonard Koppett was presented the highest honor for a media member by both the Baseball Hall of Fame (the J.G. Taylor Spink Award) and the Basketball Hall of Fame (the Curt Gowdy Media Award). His brief CHPB bio noted that he had covered the NBA "since its inception." Koppett explained that the NBA had never allowed zone defenses because of the prevalence of the stall in the collegiate game: a team that gained the lead late in a game would either stall on offense or sink into a zone on defense, so that the trailing team would be forced to foul on defense or shoot long jumpers on offense. The introduction of the 24 second shot clock eliminated the stall from the NBA but Koppett noted that the rule prohibiting the zone stayed in place because the owners felt that zone defenses would still slow the game down too much. According to the official rules history posted at NBA.com, Koppett is not quite correct about the NBA never allowing zone defenses; the NBA briefly allowed zone defenses before banning them on January 11, 1947, roughly midway through the league's first season. However, Koppett is on target regarding the larger issue of why the NBA did not permit zone defenses to be used.

Fast forward to the late 1970s; with attendance declining and interest in the NBA waning, the league's owners and executives debated how to make the sport more popular and exciting. The NBA instituted the three point shot (borrowed from the ABA, which in turn had borrowed the idea from the ABL) and tweaked the scheduling format to increase the frequency of intra-conference play (which was supposed to heighten interest in local/regional rivalries) but some critics suggested that allowing zone defenses would add a strategic element to the game. Koppett largely agreed with this contention, though he noted that some people argued that zone defenses would stifle the creative drives to the hoop of players like Julius Erving and David Thompson. Koppett acknowledged that this might happen but he still favored the change because he believed that a more team-oriented game would be more popular than a star-driven game. Three decades later, the NBA is much more financially secure but it still seeks to find the right balance between promoting individual stars and promoting team-oriented play.

Koppett noted that in 1978-79 fewer than 200 illegal defenses were called in more than 900 games, which meant that the zone was either rarely attempted and immediately punished or else it was commonplace and rarely policed. In either case, Koppett and others felt that the rule was vaguely written and thus difficult to enforce. The NBA achieved great popularity in the 1980s and 1990s without getting rid of the illegal defense rule, though the rule was clarified in 1981-82--and that was an important move because many coaches had become very adept at playing disguised zones. In 2001-02, the NBA replaced the illegal defense rule with a defensive three seconds rule, prohibiting a defender from remaining in the lane for more than three seconds unless he was guarding a player but otherwise permitting a team to use any defensive alignment.

The three point shot has evolved from a seldom-used gadget to an integral part of NBA offensive strategy; shooting long jump shots is a typical strategy to defeat a zone but it is not clear how much of the evolution of the usage of the three point shot has to do with changes in defensive rules/philosophies nor is it clear that this evolution has made the game better and/or more exciting. Since Koppett--who passed away in 2003--advocated allowing the zone more than two decades before the NBA made this change, it would be interesting to know what he would have thought of the current state of the NBA game.

4) Paul Silas may be best known to younger NBA fans as LeBron James' first NBA coach and as the coach of the 2012 Charlotte team that posted the worst record in league history but he is also a two-time All-Star and a five-time member of the All-Defensive Team. Silas averaged more than 20 ppg and more than 20 rpg in his collegiate career, joining Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore and Kermit Washington in the very elite Division I 20-20 club. One of the few--and biggest--mistakes that Red Auerbach made was not retaining the services of Silas, the rebounder/defender/enforcer for Boston's 1974 and 1976 championship teams who then helped Seattle reach two NBA Finals and win one championship. Steve Ellis quoted Silas' philosophy of competition: "What separates the winners from the losers is your mental attitude. Except for a very few, like Jabbar, we're all on the same keel. The only thing I care about is winning and what my players feel about me. You see, winning takes care of everything. To win, you have to die to win. That's barring nothing. Whatever it takes."

Silas starred for Boston but in Seattle he played a reduced yet still very important role--and he not only contributed on the court but also as a mentor for young All-Star center Jack Sikma. Ellis noted that three-time champion Silas was the ring leader among active NBA players and that he only trailed recently retired eight-time champion John Havlicek on the league's career games played list.

Silas' all-time NBA team included Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor.

Although Silas the player deservedly had a reputation as a great student of the game, he did not want or expect to become a coach, calling it "The toughest job I've ever come in contact with." Ironically, Silas would get his first NBA head coaching job in 1980, right after he finished his playing career in Seattle.

5) Joe Gergen penned an entertaining fantasy centered around the premise of George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain selecting all-time All-Star teams to face each other in a battle for the ages; Mikan would have his pick of the pre-1970 greats, while Chamberlain would choose post-1970 players. That arbitrary dividing line does not entirely make sense since most of Chamberlain's career happened prior to 1970 but Gergen should be granted some poetic license here; he made Mikan and Chamberlain his protagonists because they were the two dominant scorers of their respective eras but he wanted his All-Star Game to represent a battle between the old and the new. Red Auerbach coached George's Giants, with John Kundla and Joe Lapchick serving as his assistants; Red Holzman led Wilt's Stilts, assisted by Tommy Heinsohn and Kevin Loughery.

Gergen significantly expanded the normal All-Star rosters, allotting 20 players to each team:

George's Giants


Bob Cousy
Bob Davies
Sam Jones
Slater Martin
Dick McGuire
Bill Sharman
Bobby Wanzer


Neil Johnston
Ed Macauley
George Mikan
Bill Russell


Paul Arizin
Joe Fulks
Bob Pettit
Dolph Schayes
Maurice Stokes
Jack Twyman
George Yardley


Jim Pollard
Frank Ramsey

Wilt's Stilts


Walt Frazier
George Gervin
Hal Greer
Earl Monroe
Oscar Robertson
Jerry West
Lenny Wilkens


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Wilt Chamberlain
Willis Reed
Bill Walton


Rick Barry
Elgin Baylor
Dave DeBusschere
Julius Erving
Elvin Hayes
Moses Malone
David Thompson


Billy Cunningham
John Havlicek

At the time Gergen wrote his story, the four highest career scoring averages among the players chosen all belonged to members of Wilt's team: Chamberlain (30.1), Abdul-Jabbar (28.6), Baylor (27.4) and West (27.0). Then came the Giants' Pettit (26.4), followed by the Stilts' Erving (26.2), Barry (25.9), Thompson (25.8) and Robertson (25.7). One could quibble with some of the positional designations--Moses Malone as a forward?--as well as some of the generational designations--Baylor and several others had their best seasons before 1970--but, again, some poetic license should be granted. It is interesting to note that except for the 6-4 Sam Jones every guard on the Giants' squad was 6-1 or shorter, while every guard on the Stilts' team was 6-2 or taller except for the 6-1 Wilkens.

Naturally, all of the players were "restored to their prime" (in Gergen's words) for the February 14, 1981 showdown at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Gergen provided a detailed and very entertaining recap of the game, incorporating many real life quirks and throwing in some humorous twists on actual situations (i.e., Chamberlain fouled out of the All-Time All-Star Game after never fouling out of a game during his NBA career). The Stilts prevailed 142-136 in triple overtime. Abdul-Jabbar scored a game-high 16 points and he had eight rebounds. Schayes led the Giants with 15 points.

6) The L.A. Lakers were an efficient offensive team even before Magic Johnson joined the squad; in 1978-79, seven of the Lakers' top eight scorers shot at least .500 from the field, topped by Abdul-Jabbar's .577 mark (second in the league behind Cedric Maxwell's .584). Abdul-Jabbar was under fire from the media for only winning one championship in his 10 year career and the 1980 CHPB dismissed the Lakers as a team that had settled into being "always a contender but rarely a champion." Little did the author of those words suspect that the Lakers would not only win the 1980 championship but also capture titles in 1982, 1985 and 1987-88 to become the team of the decade and the first franchise to win back to back rings since Russell's Celtics in 1968-69. Johnson's rookie profile called him "the most exciting player to come into the league in years" but also questioned how well he would fit in with Norm Nixon, the Lakers' other guard.

7) Robert Parish averaged 17.2 ppg and ranked seventh in the league with 12.1 rpg in his third season with Golden State but his CHPB profile was hardly a ringing endorsement of his prospects: "Developed slowly and still thinks he's a perimeter shooter...Has erased all the question marks but don't look for him at the All-Star Game." Parish, who became a Hall of Famer and was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, made the first of his nine All-Star appearances in 1981 and he finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1982.

8) Jabari Parker is currently one of the most highly touted high school players in the country. His father Sonny averaged 9.9 ppg during his six NBA seasons, including a career-high 15.2 ppg in 1978-79. Sonny Parker's CHPB profile said that he "has the ability to take smaller guards inside or drive past most forwards."

9) Bob Dandridge, a 31 year old 10 year veteran, said that his only personal goal was to set the NBA record for seasons played. He was coming off of arguably the best season of his career and he had just earned his first (and only) All-NBA Second Team selection (beating out, among others, Julius Erving) but after playing 78 games that season his career lasted just 79 more games over the next three seasons.

10) Many members of the media had already decided that regardless of Erving's production he was not living up to the expectations he built as a three-time ABA MVP and two-time ABA champion. Despite increasing his scoring, rebounding and assist averages, Erving did not make the All-League Team for the first time in his professional career; his 1978-79 averages--23.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.6 apg--would represent a career year for many All-Stars so it is hard to understand why Erving received such criticism. His field goal percentage dipped to a career-low .491 but that was only marginally worse than his previous shooting percentages--the consistent Erving shot between .496 and .512 in his first seven seasons--and it is important to note that he switched to guard for extended periods of time after All-Star Doug Collins got hurt. Erving averaged 25.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 5.9 apg in the playoffs while shooting .517 from the field, so the popular notion that he was a declining player looks patently absurd when viewed objectively.

Erving's CHPB profile again inexplicably took potshots at his defense, a slur that I refuted in Wayback Machine, Part V: The 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball. At least Erving's profile concluded with this accurate assessment: "Took more heat than he deserved for Philly's failure...Still one of league's most exciting performers." The "failure" in question consisted of losing a tough seven game Eastern Conference semifinal series to the San Antonio Spurs while an injured Collins--the team's second best player--watched in street clothes. Erving, playing out of position at guard, scored 34 points on 11-16 field goal shooting in 46 minutes in Philadelphia's 111-108 game seven loss. He also had eight assists, five rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.

11) Kobe Bryant's father Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, a teammate of Erving's, received less than flattering reviews: "An erratic reserve who moves like Doctor J one night and Doctor Welby the next...A typical 76er--good offense, bad defense, big ego."

12) Moses Malone emerged as a dominant player in 1978-79, winning the first of his six rebounding titles (17.6 rpg) and averaging a then-career high 24.8 ppg (fifth in the league). Malone's CHPB profile summarized his playing style: "If anyone doesn't understand what a physical basketball player is, just show a brief film clip of Malone at work...He may go up for a rebound some night and come back down with someone's head." Malone spent the first two seasons of his career in the ABA after jumping straight from high school to the professional ranks and he played for three teams before establishing himself as an All-Star in Houston.

Wayback Machine, Part I looked at the 1975 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part II looked at the 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part III looked at the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part IV looked at the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part V looked at the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:35 AM



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