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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dolph Schayes, Scorer/Rebounder/Passer Extraordinaire, Passes Away at 87

Dolph Schayes, one of the greatest power forwards in pro basketball history, passed away today at the age of 87. Schayes held the NBA basketball career scoring record from 1958-63, succeeding George Mikan before being surpassed by Bob Pettit. Schayes was the first NBA player to score 15,000 career points and when he retired he ranked first in career games played (996), second in points scored (18,438) and third in rebounds (11,256). The NBA does not officially count the 809 points in 63 games (12.8 ppg) that Schayes scored in 1948-49 while winning the Rookie of the Year Award as a member of the Syracuse Nationals in the National Basketball League before the NBL and Basketball Association of America merged to form the NBA in 1949-50. The NBL did not record rebounding statistics, so those numbers are not available for Schayes' rookie campaign. Schayes is one of a select few players in the first quarter century of modern pro basketball (circa 1950-1974) who led his team in scoring, rebounds and assists in the same season (22.5 ppg, 14.0 rpg and 3.2 apg in 1956-57, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category).

It is difficult to compare Schayes to modern players because his era was so different from subsequent eras in terms of rules, facilities and many other factors but Schayes was without question one of the best players of his time and--based on his accomplishments--one of the greatest players of all-time. Schayes was selected to both the 10 player NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time team (1971) and to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (1996). He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Schayes spent his entire 16 year career with the same franchise, the Syracuse Nationals, who became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1962-63. He led the Nationals to the 1955 NBA championship, the first title in franchise history. Schayes averaged 19.0 ppg and 12.8 rpg during that playoff run. Schayes served as player-coach in 1963-64 (his last season as a player) and he went on to win the Coach of the Year award in 1966.

I met Schayes at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland in 2004 and had the privilege of interviewing him. Schayes played against and coached Wilt Chamberlain, so it was interesting to get his take on a hypothetical Wilt Chamberlain-Shaquille O'Neal matchup. Schayes struck me as a nice, down to earth and intelligent man. I wish I had been able to spend even more time with him but I am so happy that at least I had the opportunity to hear about his career and the careers of many other great players in his own words.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:53 PM


Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus"

Tanking is wrong for many reasons--it violates the spirit of true competition, it rips off the fans, it destroys that franchise's opportunity to build a winning culture--but the most basic reason is the proven fact that it does not work. Sam Hinkie was an executive with the Houston Rockets for eight years. The Rockets won one playoff series during that time. Based on that remarkably unremarkable record, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Hinkie in 2013 to run their basketball operations. Hinkie took over a team that went 34-48 in 2012-13. Since that time, the 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 while Hinkie's supporters implored everyone to "trust the process." Hinkie is a "stat guru" whose "process" is tanking and he has dropped the 76ers so far into the tank it will be years before they see daylight again. During Hinkie's reign of error the 76ers have been widely recognized as one of the most analytically minded franchises in sports, so it is not an exaggeration to say that Hinkie's failure is a Waterloo moment for "stat gurus"--at least the self-promoting "stat gurus" who have been saying for years that if they only got the chance to run an NBA franchise they could do so much better than the people who have actually devoted their lives to playing, scouting and coaching.

Hinkie is Ted Stepien with a spreadsheet. Stepien was not intentionally tanking but he did such a horrible job as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s that the NBA had to step in and save the franchise--which is pretty much what just happened in Philadelphia, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reportedly strongly suggested to the 76ers' owners that they bring in some outside help (which means, make sure that Hinkie never makes another personnel decision as long as he lives). Hinkie turned the 76ers into a laughingstock and the team is so terrible that other franchises had trouble selling tickets when Hinkie brought his version of the Washington Generals thinly disguised as a professional sports team into their towns. The 76ers have now hired Jerry Colangelo to clean up Hinkie's mess. As one writer quipped, Colangelo is going to talk a lot less about PER and a lot more about WINS. Colangelo has his work cut out for him but if anyone can turn the 76ers around he can, because he has enjoyed a tremendous career as a sports executive. Colangelo also should be commended for keeping his promise to correct some longstanding Basketball Hall of Fame injustices.

Hinkie's abject Philadelphia failure should also draw some attention to what is happening in Houston, where he served as Daryl Morey's protege. Morey's long tenure in Houston (Morey took over the basketball operations in May 2007) has produced nothing special; in Morey's first eight seasons, the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and won just three playoff series, with two of those victories coming last year. The Rockets are 10-12 this season and may not even make the playoffs just one year after their improbable (read "fluke") run to the Western Conference Finals--speaking of which, just how much does it mean to make the Conference Finals once? It may seem like that is getting really close to winning a title but it is actually only the halfway point, because it takes eight playoff wins to reach the Conference Finals and eight more playoff wins to claim the championship. Since Morey took over in Houston, 10 of the 15 Western Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once (eight of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once during the same period).

Morey loudly claimed--and media outlets like ESPN and the New York Times loudly repeated his claims--that his use of so-called "advanced basketball statistics" created a clear advantage that would translate directly into wins. Or, to coin a phrase, "trust the process." Nearly a decade later, we have a large enough sample size of evidence to make a solid hypothesis: whatever "process" Morey and Hinkie are doing, it does not work, at least if you are trying to win a championship by doing it.

Statistics are a very important tool for executives, coaches, scouts, media member and fans. I have loved sports statistics since I was a kid and this website is chock full of statistics--but any piece of data is only as good as the person who is using it and the context in which that piece of data is applied. Of course the smartest front offices in the NBA are using the most advanced statistics possible--but they are not doing so to promote themselves as geniuses and they are not using numbers devoid of context.

The numbers tell Daryl Morey that James Harden is a "foundational player." Morey does not know or care that the eye test reveals that Harden does not give full effort on a consistent basis, he is an awful defender and he has no leadership skills. Harden has some All-Star level offensive skills but he relies way too much on begging for contact when he drives and on launching three pointers when he does not drive. Harden has little to no post up or midrange game. So, Harden can erupt for 35 or 40 points on any given night--but when his team really needs him in a big playoff game, he can also shoot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers.

It is no surprise that Harden's Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the team. It is somewhat unexpected that the Rockets made it to the Conference Finals last year but, as noted above, any executive who can keep his seat warm for nearly a decade will more than likely stumble into one Conference Finals appearance. Harden is not the right guy to be the best player on a legit contender. Three teams in each conference made the Conference Finals at least three times since 2007: Miami, Cleveland and Boston in the East and the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West. We know that Harden would not have been close to being the best player on any of those teams, in no small part because he came off of the bench for Oklahoma City.

This season, we are seeing the real Harden and the real Rockets (which we also saw during his first two full seasons with the team). Harden is scoring a lot of points while not shooting well, his team is far from being a legit contender and his bad attitude played no small part in getting his coach fired. It should be clear to the rest of the world now what should have been clear all along: it would have been a travesty if James Harden won the MVP last year. Harden is Stephon Marbury with an overgrown beard, a coach killer who is more interested in his endorsements and the celebrity life than he is in being a great basketball player. Harden declares that he is better than Stephen Curry and LeBron James. What a joke. Curry actually works on his game and comes back each season with something new. James is a 6-8 beast with an all-around skill set who has led his teams to six Finals and two championships; yeah, there are some gaping holes in James' championship resume and it took him too long to even partially figure out the championship mentality that guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were born with but putting Harden in the same sentence with James is like comparing a Yugo to a Rolls-Royce.

What this all comes down to is character and character is always revealed eventually. Character means doing the right things the right way all of the time. Character means having the courage of your convictions (which is not at all the same thing as sticking with the same course as you plunge into an iceberg). Championships are not won by accident. If you have an overabundance of talent, you may achieve some success without character but that success will inevitably be transitory. Before Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, Teddy Atlas--who trained the young Tyson--said that Tyson was scared of Holyfield, that Tyson lacked heart and that the moment things got tough he would commit a foul to get out of the fight because he did not want to be there and would not be able to accept losing like a real man. Atlas nailed it, because Atlas knew Tyson's character and Atlas was not fooled by the "baddest man on the planet" hyperbole surrounding Tyson.

You cannot win a championship if you have a loser's mentality. That is what Hinkie failed to understand when he sent the 76ers into the tank based on some numbers-based idea of accumulating top draft picks and that is what Morey failed to understand when he decided to make Harden the "foundation" in Houston. Harden's story is apparently appealing to a lot of media members and he fooled a lot of people into giving him recognition that he did not earn but none of that stuff matters when you have to get in between the lines in the playoffs and produce. The cliche is true: you win with character, not characters. I have spent my whole NBA writing career figuratively betting against characters like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden even when those guys were at the height of their popularity and I will place that eye test evaluation against a spreadsheet any day of the week. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:33 PM


Tommy Heinsohn Explains the "Secret Weapon" That Helped the Celtics Win so Many Championships

Tommy Heinsohn won eight championships as a player for the Boston Celtics before leading the franchise to two titles as head coach. He is one of just four people--John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens are the others--enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. During his September 2015 speech after being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, Heinsohn provided some insights about why the Boston Celtics were so successful for so long. It all started with Red Auerbach, who built the Celtics into a powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heinsohn declares, "Red’s style of play: the philosophy was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you and his strategy was to put you to the supreme mental and physical test. We had this uptempo game called the fast break. This put you, including the big guys, to the ultimate physical test of sprinting on every possession. He also implemented an aggressive defense and we had the ultimate stopper in Bill Russell." 

So much is made now of "analytics" and the value of pushing the pace and spreading the court but Auerbach figured all of this out decades ago without using a spreadsheet. Heinsohn states simply, "The secret weapon of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years" was "the pace of the game." This made the other team pay a physical price by forcing the other team to play faster than they were comfortable playing and making them "think fast while running backwards." Heinsohn compares this to racing against the world's best marathoner by using a relay team.

Heinsohn has worked as a broadcaster for decades now and he says that when he meets with coaches before games they will often say that they want to push the pace but Heinsohn believes that most coaches do not understand what that means. Heinsohn is appalled when he sees a big guy retrieve the ball after a made basket and walk out of bounds to pass the ball into play; he trained all of his players--even his big guys--to be able to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. The point was to get the ball in play and up the court as fast as possible before the defense can get set.

Heinsohn admits that when he became a coach he did not see a reason to deviate much from Auerbach's approach. The Boston teams that Heinsohn coached were small but they were tough, they rebounded ferociously and they ran the court relentlessly. His 1972-73 team went 68-14 in the regular season featuring a lineup of 6-9 center Dave Cowens, 6-7 power forward Paul Silas, 6-5 small forward John Havlicek, 6-5 shooting guard Don Chaney and 6-3 point guard Jo Jo White. The undersized Celtics led the league in rebounding and might have won the championship if Havlicek had not injured his shoulder during the playoffs. In 1973-74, that same group posted a 56-26 record (second best in the NBA), led the league in rebounding and beat the 59-23 Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the Celtics' first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. The 1974-75 Celtics tied with the Washington Bullets for the best record in the NBA (60-22), finished second in the league in rebounding and lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1975-76, the Celtics replaced Chaney with Charlie Scott, a 6-5 shooting guard who won the 1972 ABA scoring championship (34.6 ppg) before making the All-Star team three years in a row as a Phoenix Sun. The Celtics went 54-28--the second best record in the NBA behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors--and led the league in rebounding en route to claiming their second title in three years.

The Golden State Warriors who won last year's NBA title and who are running roughshod over the league so far this season are not doing much that is new and they certainly are not in any way vindicating either "analytics" (an example of the result of blindly following "analytics" can be found in Philadelphia) or Mike D'Antoni (whose teams did not focus enough on defense and rebounding). It does not take fancy calculations and an M.B.A. to figure out how to build a winning basketball team. Red Auerbach proved that more than 50 years ago, Tommy Heinsohn reaffirmed this in the 1970s and Heinsohn's Hall of Fame speech is a nice, brief tutorial for anyone who did not know or who needed a refresher course.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM


Monday, December 07, 2015

Reflections on "Clutch City" and Character

The NBA TV special "Clutch City" is an engaging oral history of the Houston Rockets teams that won back to back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. The quote "Sports do not build character; they reveal it" is often attributed to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden but most likely was first uttered--perhaps in a slightly different wording--by sports writer sports writer Heywood Hale Broun. It certainly applies to the Rockets, who overcame much individual and collective adversity to become two-time champions.

Rudy Tomjanovich was an NBA All-Star for the Rockets in the 1970s before being hired as the team's coach in 1992. Tomjanovich not only survived an infamous--and nearly fatal--in-game punch from Kermit Washington but after missing nearly a full season to recover Tomjanovich regained All-Star status. Later, he successfully battled alcoholism and cancer. Tomjanovich is sometimes described as a "players' coach"--which can be a backhanded compliment implying that he did not make many strategic decisions and just relied on his players' talents--but Tomjanovich was very detail-oriented in addition to having the right personality to build a culture of togetherness.

Tomjanovich's steady and heady leadership proved to be critically important during Houston's 1994 Western Conference semifinal matchup versus the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets blew an 18 point lead at home in game one and then set an ignominious playoff record by squandering a 20 point fourth quarter lead in game two. Headlines blared that Houston was "Choke City" but Tomjanovich saw two silver linings in what looked like pitch black clouds: not only could those negative headlines provide motivation to his players but a careful and strategic examination of the game film showed that Houston's big leads were not flukes. Tomjanovich gathered his team around and delivered a simple message: There are solid, repeatable actions that enabled us to build big leads and if we do those actions again we will win this series. The Rockets defeated Phoenix in seven games en route to capturing the first championship in franchise history.

Another Rocket who overcame adversity is Robert Horry. The Rockets traded Horry to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott during the 1993-94 season because they thought that Horry was too passive on offense but when Elliott failed his physical due to a previously undetected kidney ailment Horry ended up back in Houston as a changed man: he became more aggressive offensively, reasoning that the worst thing that could happen was that they would trade him and he had already been through that anyway. Horry's drives and three point shots helped create the necessary spacing for Hakeem Olajuwon to go to work in the paint. As Tomjanovich explained in "Clutch City," basketball is a game of inches and if one player is just a little out of place or does not cut at the right time then the whole offense can break down (try explaining that to a "stat guru" who only looks at numbers and does not know how to watch games to figure out things like proper spacing).

Tough times revealed the true character of Tomjanovich and Horry--and, in a much sadder way, tough times also revealed the true character of Vernon Maxwell. Maxwell has made a litany of poor decisions during his life but even before his impulsiveness sent his life completely off of the rails one could glimpse his true character based on how he handled some basketball adversity. Maxwell played an important role for Houston's 1994 championship team but when the Rockets struggled during the 1995 season they traded power forward Otis Thorpe for shooting guard Clyde Drexler, who would soon be chosen as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Drexler played the same position as Maxwell, whose playing time understandably declined. Maxwell was not pleased and the situation reached a crisis point after the Rockets lost game one of their first round playoff series versus the Utah Jazz. Tomjanovich kept Maxwell on the bench for most of the game but brought him in at the end to attempt a potentially game-winning three pointer. Maxwell missed the shot but his attitude in the aftermath focused on himself, not the team. Maxwell recalls, "After the game, I lost it. You don't put me in with five minutes and you gonna put me in the last minute of the game to try to make the game-winning shot? Who do that, man? I don't want the shot."

Here is Tomjanovich's measured take about Maxwell (who shot 1-7 from the field in that game): "He did not play well. I know that he wanted to play more. The fact of the matter was he was going to play less."

Maxwell could not take the pressure and could not submerge his ego for the benefit of the team. So, he did what cowards usually do when faced with a challenge: he quit. Maxwell told his teammates, "I'm done. I'm leaving tonight."

Point guard Kenny Smith, now a basketball commentator for TNT, implored Maxwell to stay: "I said, 'We need you. Don't leave.' Couldn't talk him off the ledge."

In "Clutch City," Maxwell explains his thought process: "I just told them, 'I quit.' I hated that I did it that way. I should have just sat down and (thought it through) but I never was a guy to do that, to sit back and think first and react later. I just go, 'I'm gone.' Dumb decision, man. Worst decision of my life." The validity of that last statement can be questioned considering Maxwell's subsequent criminal convictions and his deplorable track record as a neglectful father--but the cowardly way that Maxwell ran when things got tough during his sports career revealed the (lack of) character that he subsequently demonstrated in his personal life. As a father, I will always set an example for my precious daughter Rachel Sophia that you face challenges instead of running from them. What matters in life is teamwork and toughness, not doing what you want in the moment because of anger, fear or jealousy.

Vernon Maxwell's ego and selfishness did not destroy the team but rather destroyed his chance to be part of something special, because the Rockets went on to win the 1995 championship without him. Clearly, Maxwell was not an indispensable member of the first championship team because the second championship team went the distance without him, coming back from 2-1 down versus Utah and later rallying from a 3-1 deficit versus the Suns.

Two decades later, Tomjanovich looks back on those championships with fondness and pride: "We had mentally tough guys and they found ways to get it done. Being a champion doesn't just happen. You've got to go through a war. You've got to go through some adversity, some hard feelings, some tears but the team that doesn't let that stuff bother them has a special quality."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM