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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Wayback Machine, Part VIII: The 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The front cover photo of the 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball depicted the NBA's best early-1980's rivalry--not Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson (which peaked from 1984-87 when Johnson's L.A. Lakers won two out of three NBA Finals showdowns with Bird's Boston Celtics, capped by the Lakers' 1987 victory that prompted Bird to call Johnson "The best I've ever seen") but rather Julius Erving versus Larry Bird. Erving's Philadelphia 76ers beat Bird's Celtics 4-1 in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and took a 3-1 lead in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals before losing three straight games, capped by a 91-90 game seven defeat in the Boston Garden. The back cover photo showed Houston's Moses Malone authoritatively pulling down a one-handed rebound against the Celtics, who defeated Malone's Rockets 4-2 in the 1981 NBA Finals.

The 1982 CHPB contained 319 pages, a 16 page reduction from the 1981 CHPB. In addition to 23 team profiles, the CHPB included lists of the 1981 NBA statistical leaders, a complete schedule, a list of all-time NBA records, a list of all 223 players selected in the 1981 NBA Draft and a "TV/Radio roundup." Bob Ryan, the long-time Boston Globe writer who is probably better known to younger readers as an ESPN personality, contributed a feature story titled "The Championship Flight of Boston's Rare Bird." Ira Berkow, who shared the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, wrote "Isiah Thomas' Giant Step to the Pros" and Barry Bloom described "The Resurrection of Bernard King."

Steve Hershey and George White co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" preview, predicting that the Philadelphia 76ers would defeat the San Antonio Spurs in the 1982 NBA Finals. Most of the article dealt with the biggest NBA news of the offseason: the beginning of the era of "free agency without compensation." Previously, if a free agent signed with a different team then his new team had to compensate his old team and if the two teams could not agree on the proper compensation then the NBA Commissioner would make the decision for them. For instance, Houston signed Golden State's free agent forward Rick Barry prior to the 1978-79 season and Commissioner Larry O'Brien sent Rockets point guard John Lucas to the Warriors as compensation after the two teams could not come to terms. Hershey and White speculated that the new form of free agency could lead to the rich getting richer because wealthy owners who thought that they were one player away from winning a championship might spend wildly to get that player--but Hershey and White concluded that in the short run the balance of power would likely not tilt and thus they selected perennial contender Philadelphia to finally win the championship in Erving's sixth season with the team.

Erving and the 76ers lived up to part of the CHPB's prediction--making it to the Finals for the second time in three years (and the third time in Erving's NBA career)--but they ran into one of the most underrated teams in pro basketball history: the L.A. Lakers featured Magic Johnson nearly averaging a triple double for the season (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg), a 34 year old but still highly productive Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.7 bpg), All-Star guard Norm Nixon and future Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes. The Lakers were so talented and so deep that former MVP/future Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo and future Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper both came off of the bench. By the time the 76ers met the Lakers in the Finals, the Lakers had won 11 games in a row--including 4-0 playoff sweeps of the Suns and the Spurs--and had not lost a game in six weeks. The 76ers took a 61-50 halftime lead in game one and then watched helplessly as the Showtime Lakers blew their doors off in the third quarter with a 19-2 run. The 76ers won game two at home but the Lakers captured three of the next four--with each victory coming by double digit margins--to take their second title in three seasons.

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1982 CHPB:

1) Ryan painted a detailed portrait of the young Larry Bird, though Ryan's prose drifted a bit toward hagiography--most notably when he lauded Bird as "far better than average" on defense even though the Celtics routinely assigned Bird to check the least dangerous opposing frontcourt player regardless of position; Bird was a savvy team defender and an outstanding defensive rebounder but he was a below average one on one defender who rarely guarded top notch scorers. Ryan asserted that in just his second season Bird had already proved "If he's not the finest all-around player in the game, then surely he must be the standard of comparison."

Though Ryan made it sound like Bird was flawless, Bird shot just .419 from the field in the 1981 NBA Finals even though he rarely launched from long distance (Bird connected on one of his two three point field goal attempts during the six game series win over the Houston Rockets). Cedric Maxwell's clutch play--he led the Celtics in scoring with a 17.7 ppg average against Houston--earned him Finals MVP honors, while Bird's major contribution came on the boards (15.3 rpg), where he nearly battled perennial rebounding champion Moses Malone to a draw (Malone hauled in a series-high 16.3 rpg).

Many fans, especially those who are too young to remember Bird's entire career, think of him as a three point shooter and deft passer but Bird started out as a rugged rebounder who did a lot of work in the trenches. While he shot .406 from three point range as a rookie in 1979-80--the first year that the NBA used the three point shot--Bird shot .286 or worse from behind the arc in each of the next four seasons and he did not average more than six apg until 1983-84, the first of his three straight MVP seasons.

2) Berkow began his Isiah Thomas article--reprinted from the New York Times--with the now-familiar story of how Thomas' mother used sharp words and a shotgun to fend off local Chicago gangs who tried to recruit Isiah and his brothers. Berkow described how Thomas improved his grades during his high school years so that he could earn a basketball scholarship as a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos. Thomas went to Indiana University with the goal of becoming a lawyer and helping members of his community who could not afford proper legal representation but he left school early because playing pro basketball enabled him to provide financial security for his family. Berkow's story ended with Thomas leading the Indiana Hoosiers to the second of Coach Bob Knight's three NCAA titles.

After that victory, Thomas turned pro and was drafted by the moribund Detroit Pistons, a team that posted just 16 wins in 1979-80 and 21 wins in 1980-81. Who could have imagined that just seven years later this undersized point guard (listed at 6-1 but probably closer to 5-11 or 6-0 at the most) would help the Pistons replace Bird's Celtics as the best team in the East en route to winning back to back championships versus Johnson's Lakers? Casual fans do not understand or appreciate just how rare and difficult it is for a short player to dominate pro basketball at a championship level. Thomas' Detroit Coach Chuck Daly once said that if Thomas had been 6-6 he would have been the greatest player ever; there is a bit of hyperbole in that statement and a bit of bias in favor of the best player Daly ever coached but there is also a kernel of truth in the sentiment. Thomas achieved so much but his size placed certain irrevocable limitations on him; Thomas refused to admit that while he played but after he retired he stood next to Bird and Johnson at some function and mentioned that for the first time it had dawned on him just how much they both towered over him (Bird and Johnson are each 6-9) and how remarkable it was that he went toe to toe with them for so many years.

3) Many NBA fans know that Bernard King became the first player to make the All-Star team after blowing out his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) but that was actually King's second comeback. Prior to that, King overcame drug and alcohol addiction, as Bloom explained: "Adversity and courage. They have become a way of life for Bernard King...since January, 1980, King has been engaged in the fight of his life--a fight not only against alcoholism, but a fight to clear his name of a once-reckless reputation." After averaging 24.2 ppg as a rookie for the Nets in 1977-78 and then scoring 21.6 ppg for the Nets in 1978-79, King slumped to just 9.3 ppg in only 19 games for the Utah Jazz in 1979-80. King averaged 21.9 ppg for the Golden State Warriors in 1980-81, winning the NBA's first Comeback Player of the Year award. King did not make the All-Star team in 1981 but he won Player of the Week honors in the first week of January after shooting 59-72 (.819) from the field and then he earned January's Player of the Month Award after averaging 27.4 ppg in 13 games while shooting 141-194 (.727) from the field.

King averaged 23.2 ppg for the Warriors in 1981-82, finally earning his first All-Star selection and also making the All-NBA Second Team for the first time. He signed a free agent deal with the New York Knicks after that season and the Warriors exercised their right of first refusal before agreeing to trade King for Micheal Ray Richardson. King made the All-NBA First Team in 1984 and 1985--and was selected as the 1984 MVP by the league's players in a Sporting News poll, though King finished second to Bird in the official MVP balloting conducted by media members--but his devastating ACL injury in early 1985 robbed him of his explosiveness and cost him nearly two full seasons. King returned to action late in the 1986-87 season and he ranked third in the league in scoring in 1990-91, earning his fourth and final All-Star selection.

4) John Drew was a big-time scorer in the 1970s and early 1980s, averaging at least 20 ppg for four straight seasons and for five seasons in a six season stretch. However, Drew's CHPB profile noted that his game was a bit one dimensional: "Retained his spot on the All-Non-Passing team with a mere 79 assists...Went to the Larry Kenon school of defense and was saved his usual embarrassment in the playoffs when the Hawks failed to qualify."

5) Bird's CHPB profile began with these words: "Belongs in a higher league...Absolutely the best all-around player in the universe. Could carry the Celtics on a dynasty trip." Despite that lofty praise, a good case could be made that--contrary to the way things were reported by many media outlets at the time--Bird never equaled or surpassed Magic Johnson: Johnson beat Bird head to head in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, Johnson won Finals MVP honors as a rookie--guiding the Lakers to victory over a Philadelphia team that routed Bird's Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals--and Johnson ultimately topped Bird five to three in NBA championships, including the league's first back to back titles since Bill Russell retired. Ironically, by the time that Johnson finally received his due vis a vis Bird a new star eclipsed both of them: Michael Jordan won the much heralded MJ versus MJ showdown in the 1991 Finals, bested Johnson's repeat accomplishment by leading the Bulls to a three-peat and then came out of retirement to win a second three-peat.

If the 76ers had not blown a 3-1 lead in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals and/or if Maxwell had not come through in the 1981 NBA Finals then the media likely could not have continued to portray Bird as the game's best all-around player--that just would not have sounded right if Bird was the only player in the Abdul-Jabbar-Johnson-Erving early 1980's pantheon who had not won a championship ring (if Erving's 76ers had not collapsed in the Eastern Conference Finals they would have presumably beaten the Rockets in the 1981 Finals). The elephant in the room is that, for many fans and media members, Larry Bird was the Great White Hope in a league that was widely perceived to be "too Black." Bird was indisputably a great player but at times--particularly early in his career--the media got more than a little carried away in terms of lauding him at the expense of Johnson; for instance, Johnson was killed in the press for supposedly getting Coach Paul Westhead fired in 1981 and for playing poorly in the Lakers' 1984 Finals loss but Bird largely escaped scrutiny for his subpar play when the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Celtics in the 1983 Eastern Conference semifinals and for having any role in Coach Bill Fitch's resignation after that season. The two coaching situations were different and I am not saying that Johnson was blameless and/or that Bird deserved blame; the point is that during that era the media seemed to quickly jump to negative conclusions about Johnson while giving Bird the benefit of the doubt.

6) Earlier editions of the CHPB did not speak highly of Robert Parish but his 1982 profile noted that Parish "Made the difference" for the Celtics because he "Supplied the shot-blocking and intimidating defense the team lacked."

7) Rookie Kevin McHale averaged 10.0 ppg and blocked 151 shots. His profile contained this colorful description of his physique: "Chicken-breasted and his waist seems to start above his often beer-filled stomach but can run the court with anyone." Boston's Bird-Parish-Maxwell starting frontcourt had proved formidable, prompting this rhetorical question about McHale: "When will he ever start?" McHale won the Sixth Man Award in 1984 and 1985 before becoming a full-time starter in 1986 and an All-NBA First Team member in 1987.

8) George McGinnis shared ABA MVP honors with Julius Erving in 1975 but by 1982 McGinnis' career was just about over, as his CHPB profile noted: "What a waste...Has all the tools, but keeps leaving them on the work bench...Now in the twilight of an outstanding career, which just never seemed to completely satisfy anyone...Genuine nice guy."

9) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was often unappreciated during his career and he is arguably the most underrated great player of all-time; his name rarely if ever comes up in the ubiquitous greatest player of all-time conversations but he should be on the short list in any such discussion. His profile contained this lament from the man who would become the sport's all-time scoring leader: "There's a certain 'otherness' about me that makes it hard for me. I'm not a mainstream type of person." Julius Erving has often called Abdul-Jabbar the greatest player he played against and that is understandable considering that Abdul-Jabbar is the major reason that Erving's 76ers did not win the 1980 and 1982 NBA titles (Magic Johnson performed at an outstanding level in both series but Abdul-Jabbar presented an unsolvable matchup problem for the 76ers until they acquired Moses Malone).

10) As memories of Erving's ABA heroics faded and as young stars emerged, the dominant media theme about Erving's career focused not on how much he had accomplished but rather on the one goal he had not achieved: winning an NBA title to go along with his two ABA titles. Erving's profile declared, "Another magnificent effort wasted...The Good Doctor plays nothing but top stakes now...Anything short of a world championship is a disappointment...Averaged 24.7 in seven game playoff against Milwaukee and 19.9 against Boston, when he finally wore down chasing Larry Bird...Will be 32 before playoffs start again and must be wondering if he'll ever collect an NBA championship to go along with his MVP trophy...Decision to have him face guard Bird for last five games of Celtics' series cost him some offensive effectiveness, but he accepted the task without a question...Still king of the one-on-one."

It is interesting to note that Erving "wore down" during the 1981 playoffs guarding the younger and bigger Bird while the Celtics usually assigned Maxwell or McHale to check Erving so that Bird could defend Caldwell Jones or whichever Philadelphia player was the least likely to get the ball. Magic Johnson was never as praised for his defense as Bird--who somehow made the All-Defensive Second Team twice--but one of the key adjustments of the 1982 Finals saw the Lakers switch Johnson on to Erving to keep Erving off of the offensive boards after Erving hurt the Lakers in that area earlier in the series. Johnson, who was roughly the same size as Bird--two to three inches taller than Erving and at least 15 pounds heavier--could not stop Erving from scoring but he did limit Erving's offensive rebounding.

11) Four-time All-Star Doug Collins played in just 12 games for Philadelphia during the 1981 season and he missed the entire playoffs: "Still wants to try...Trouble is, there's no room at the inn...Would make somebody a fine coach...Has missed 240 games in his eight year career and has endured enough punishment...When he was healthy, he was one of the best." Collins retired prior to the 1981-82 season and got his first NBA head coaching job five years later, mentoring a young Michael Jordan. Collins is still coaching in the league now, so that CHPB blurb proved to be prophetic.

12) Dudley Bradley's profile started with something that sounded like a Zen koan: "If he could shoot, he'd make the All-Defensive Team...Stop and think about it. He's one of the best defensive guards but his lack of offense keeps him in a reserve role...Fifth in the league in steals." What is even more confusing about that quote is that Bradley actually made the All-Defensive Team in 1981 despite only averaging 22.8 mpg for the Indiana Pacers! Bradley never became a good shooter but he hit one of the most unlikely three pointers in NBA history--a game-winner for Washington versus Philadelphia in the first game of the first round of the 1986 playoffs, capping a miraculous 18-0 run in the final four minutes. Bradley shot just 17-68 (.250) from three point range that season and he shot just 5-22 (.227) from three point range during his entire postseason career but he banked in a turnaround jumper from several feet behind the three point arc as time expired to stun the 76ers in Philadelphia. The 76ers eventually won the series three games to two.

13) Before Freeman Williams played Duck Johnson in "White Men Can't Jump" he was a two-time NCAA scoring champion--averaging 38.8 ppg as a junior in 1976-77 and 35.9 ppg as a senior in 1977-78 at Portland State--and he still ranks second on the NCAA's career scoring list behind Pete Maravich. Williams could score at the NBA level, too: "Could find the basket if you buried it five miles under the most remote peak in the Alps...Clipper Coach Paul Silas calls him 'one of the easiest scorers I've ever seen.'...Despite his gunner reputation, he does make an effort on defense." Williams led the Clippers in scoring in 1980-81 (19.3 ppg) despite playing just 24.1 mpg as a reserve.

14) Paul Westphal spent three seasons as a reserve player in Boston before being traded to the Phoenix Suns and blossoming into one of the league's premier guards--a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection--but by 1982 his health and skills had declined dramatically, leading to this poignant question at the start of his CHPB profile: "What happened en route to the Hall of Fame?...Wanted to leave Phoenix, where he was as much a part of the landscape as a gila monster, got his wish and was traded to Seattle. After playing just 36 games, he suffered his second foot stress fracture of the season and became a permanent spectator. Was forced to spend the next 30 weeks on electromagnetic therapy." Westphal's career lasted just three more seasons, two in New York followed by a swan song in Phoenix. He is not a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

James Harden is trying to navigate a Westphal-like path from the bench to perennial All-Star status; Harden made the All-Star team this season but it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his productivity and his health for the duration of his max level contract.

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

Wayback Machine, Part VI looked at the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VII looked at the 1981 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:58 AM

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Kevin Ding's Take on Kobe Versus Shaq

The conventional, mainstream media perspective in 2004 was that the L.A. Lakers made a big mistake when they chose to build around Kobe Bryant instead of building around Shaquille O'Neal. I offered a more reasoned and nuanced take that proved to be quite prophetic: as I predicted, the Miami Heat benefited in the short run by acquiring O'Neal but the Lakers made the correct long term decision, ultimately reaching the NBA Finals three straight times and winning back to back titles.

Despite suffering from a bone spur in his left foot, Bryant just moved into fourth place on pro basketball's career scoring list, passing Wilt Chamberlain--the man who held the career scoring mark from 1965 until 1984. Although Bryant topping Chamberlain is noteworthy, Kevin Ding points out that the big news is that Bryant has been dealing with this bone spur for several years without publicly mentioning it. That revelation prompted Ding to offer a passionate but also very logical final verdict regarding Bryant and O'Neal. Ding's article should be read in its entirety but here are some quotes to whet your appetite for the kind of first rate NBA analysis that is all too rarely found in today's media cesspool that is dominated by screaming TV commentators and semiliterate writers who generate much heat but precious little light:

This bone spur in Kobe Bryant's left foot?

He has had it for years.

Years.

He has played through it for years without publicizing it and the challenges it has prompted him to overcome. Think about that the next time anyone says Bryant's toughness, focus or drive for greatness is overdramatized.

Whether Bryant now chooses to detail the specifics of the bone spur, it's incredibly appropriate that on his latest historic night--passing Wilt Chamberlain for No. 4 on the NBA all-time scoring list Saturday in Sacramento--he played all but 22.6 seconds of the game just two days after the bone spur prompted a wheelchair to be requested for him to leave Milwaukee's Bradley Center. (He didn't use it.)

Ding was just warming up, though. Bryant's determination to play through injuries markedly contrasts with O'Neal's infamous decision to delay toe surgery by explaining, "I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time." Ding understands that Bryant's work ethic--not the soap opera nonsense that fascinated many media members--was the real difference between Bryant and O'Neal and the most valid reason for the Lakers to choose Bryant over O'Neal:

When O'Neal was 34, as old as Bryant is now, he had already fallen off the cliff. O'Neal won his post-Kobe title at age 33 (despite shooting 37 percent on free throws over the 23-game playoffs; fortunately for Shaq, Dwyane Wade shot 80.8 percent). The next year, O'Neal played only 40 games while making $20 million from Miami, and the Heat got swept by Chicago in the first round--the first time that happened to a defending champion in 50 years. Despite vowing never to hang on as a fringe player, O'Neal then bounced around Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston over the course of his final five seasons.

O'Neal wound up No. 5 on the all-time scoring list, passed by Bryant last season.

Even with Bryant not yet done playing, this is as good a time as any for the final word on the Shaq-Kobe era.

O'Neal underachieved. Bryant overachieved.

And whatever immature or selfish things Bryant did along the way as he fought for more, O'Neal did even more of them trying to guard his turf. Anyone who takes O'Neal's side or respects him more for what he has done in this game is simply a fool.

Everyone on the list of the NBA's top scorers besides Michael Jordan and Bryant, both 6-foot-6, is at least 6-9: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Chamberlain, O'Neal, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon. It's a game geared for big men, and no one else on that list had the epic confluence of height, power and athleticism that O'Neal did.

Yet by not sweating the details, not taking care of his body, not truly embracing Bryant's rising star when they could've won much more together, O'Neal left a lot on the table...unclaimed, unearned.

Although Ding should have mentioned that Julius Erving is another "midsize" player who ranks highly on pro basketball's career scoring list, he is right on target on all other counts, including the blunt conclusion that Shaq "underachieved," but the sad truth is that there are plenty of so-called experts who are foolish enough to take O'Neal's side--and the even sadder truth is that the fools who propagate such nonsense are often given very high profile positions in the mainstream media.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:42 AM

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