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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months

During his prime, Kobe Bryant had some amazing scoring streaks. He averaged at least 40 ppg in a calendar month four times, more than any player in pro basketball history other than Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged at least 40 ppg in 11 calendar months. During one of those 40 ppg months (February 2003), Bryant scored at least 40 points in nine straight games, tying Michael Jordan for the fourth longest such run in pro basketball history (Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks, plus a 10 game streak). Whenever Bryant went on a scoring tear, basketball historians went to the archives to see whose records he was approaching or breaking. The names that came up most often were Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Sometimes Elgin Baylor's name would appear as well but Julius Erving's name was rarely if ever part of that particular conversation.

Erving was just the third player in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 career points, so he put up some big numbers, particularly during the first five years of his career when he played in the ABA--but the NBA does not officially recognize ABA statistics and most mainstream media outlets ignore the ABA so little is reported about the first third of Erving's Hall of Fame career. For instance, when I researched Erving's playoff career I found out that he posted amazing--and, in some cases, unprecedented--statistics. As a rookie in 1971-72, Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (33.3 ppg) and playoff rebounding (20.4 rpg); the only other player in pro basketball history to average 30-20 in a playoff season is Chamberlain (1960-62, 64) and the only other players in pro basketball history to lead the ABA or NBA in playoff scoring and rebounding in the same year are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those legendary centers came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average when they accomplished their league leading scoring/rebounding double. Facing fellow future Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry in game one of the second round of the 1972 ABA playoffs, Erving produced 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists as his Virginia Squires defeated Barry's New York Nets 138-91. I have yet to uncover a comparable playoff performance, though Chamberlain had the only 20-20-20 regular season game in pro basketball history (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists for the Philadelphia 76ers in a 131-121 regular season victory over Detroit on February 2, 1968).

I previously compiled a complete list of Erving's 40 point games, so I know that even in the ABA he did not have any streak of 40 point games approaching what Chamberlain, Bryant and Jordan did; Erving's longest streak of 40 point games was two (which he accomplished six times, including once in the playoffs), although he had longer streaks during which he averaged at least 40 ppg overall. Erving never averaged 40 ppg in a calendar month, topping out at 35.1 ppg in March 1973; that is one of 12 calendar months in which Erving averaged at least 30 ppg, all of which took place during his ABA years.

Erving first posted back to back 40 point games in March 1972, near the end of his rookie season (41 points on March 26, 45 points on March 28), which was also the first month that he averaged at least 30 ppg (30.9 ppg). Erving's teammate Charlie Scott--who won the 1972 ABA scoring title with a 34.6 ppg average--jumped to the NBA's Phoenix Suns after the first six games in March; Erving averaged 27.3 ppg in those six games and 32.8 ppg in the remaining 11 games, including three games of at least 40 points.

Erving missed the first four games of the 1972-73 season due to a contract dispute. The Squires went 0-4 in those games but promptly won three in a row after Erving returned to the lineup in late October. Erving did not completely hit his stride in October 1972 (25.5 ppg in six games) but in November 1972 he averaged 32.9 ppg in 16 games (which turned out to be the third highest scoring calendar month of his entire career). Erving's November to remember point totals were 39, 33, 42, 38, 34, 34, 24, 23, 35, 45, 27, 36, 30, 46, 16, 25.

He was almost as prolific in his 16 games in December 1972 (31.3 ppg), topped by a trio of 41 point games (including his second back to back 40 point games, on December 7 and December 8). The December schedule included games on four consecutive nights (December 6-9), with Erving scoring 32, 41, 41 and 30 in those games. Erving also played on four consecutive nights less than a week later (December 14-17), scoring 24, 24, 37 and 35 in those games.

Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 14 January 1973 games--including 46 points on January 16 and 47 points on January 31--but the closest that Erving came to sustaining a Chamberlain-Jordan-Bryant kind of scoring run was in February and March of 1973. Erving averaged 34.8 ppg in nine games in February 1973, scoring 20, 35, 58 (his regular season career-high for a non-overtime game), 44, 35, 44, 20, 31 and 26 points. Erving averaged 45.3 ppg in the four games starting with his 58 point outburst in a 123-108 win versus the Nets. I do not have complete records for highest scoring average in a four game stretch but not including Chamberlain--who averaged a record 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 and 44.8 ppg in 1962-63--Erving's tally as a second year pro must rank pretty high on the list.

Erving averaged 35.1 ppg in 10 games in March 1973, scoring 38, 38, 29, 36, 29, 29, 42, 38, 44 and 28 points. The 29-42-38 run came on three consecutive nights (March 8-9-10) and that type of old-school back to back to back scheduling led to wear and tear which could somewhat explain the chronically sore knees that Erving experienced even early in his career. Erving averaged a career-high 31.9 ppg in the 1972-73 season en route to claiming the first of his three ABA regular season scoring titles.

Erving joined the Nets for the 1973-74 season. He averaged 30.7 ppg in nine October games but after a 4-1 start the Nets lost nine games in a row. Coach Kevin Loughery realized that he was overworking Erving, expecting Erving to lead the league in scoring while also serving as the key figure in the team's full-court press: "My original concept seemed perfectly suited to the Doctor. He plays so hard, so fast. But no one could play that way for 84 games. By the third week of the season, I had run him into the ground. I was in the process of destroying the best player on my team, maybe in the game."

For the remainder of Erving's three seasons with the Nets under Loughery, the team ran and pressed more selectively. Erving did not average 30 ppg in a month again until February 1975--but with Erving leading the way as an all-around threat at both ends of the court the Nets won championships in 1974 and 1976. In March 1974, Erving "only" averaged 27.1 ppg in 17 games but he logged back to back 40 point games for the fourth time in his career (41 on March 16, followed by 41 on March 17).

Erving's 30.7 ppg average in 15 games in February 1975 included three 40 point games: 40 on February 3, a career-high 63 in four overtimes on February 14 and 51 on February 22, Erving's 25th birthday. In a five game stretch from February 14-February 22, Erving averaged 40.4 ppg.

After averaging 27.4 ppg in 1973-74 (good enough to win his second consecutive scoring title) and 27.9 ppg in 1974-75, Erving averaged 29.3 ppg in 1975-76, capturing his third and final scoring title with the second highest scoring average of his career. He averaged 32.0 ppg in five October 1975 games (the minimum number of games used by the Elias Sports Bureau when comparing calendar month scoring statistics), including 39 and 42 in back to back games on October 29 and October 31. Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 11 November 1975 games. The Nets won three of four games in a stretch spanning October 29-November 4 as Erving averaged 38.0 ppg.

Erving averaged 30.9 ppg in 17 games in January 1976, including 49 points on January 10 and 51 points on January 18. In the five games spanning January 10-18, Erving averaged 37.0 ppg. Erving averaged 31.7 ppg in 17 games in February 1976, including the fifth and final time that he posted back to back 40 point games in the regular season (44 points on February 5, 40 points on February 8).

Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA playoffs--capped off by leading both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in the ABA Finals while carrying the Nets to the final ABA title before the ABA-NBA merger--is as sublime as any accomplishment in pro basketball history. Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (34.7 ppg) for the fourth time in five years and he topped the 40 point barrier in each of the first two games of the ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets, who had assigned Bobby Jones--arguably the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time--to guard Erving. Erving scored 45 points on 17-25 field goal shooting (.680) in game one, hitting the game-winning jumper over Jones at the buzzer, and then Erving poured in 48 points on 17-26 field goal shooting (.654) in a game two loss. Erving scored 41 points in a one point game six loss in the previous series versus San Antonio before scoring 28 points in the Nets' game seven win; thus, in a four game span against the ABA's toughest competition Erving averaged 40.5 ppg as the Nets eliminated the Spurs and gained home court advantage in the Finals with a 1-1 split against the Nuggets.

After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Erving was a very productive and consistent player during his 11 year NBA career but--like many great players, including Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan--his highest scoring seasons happened within the first five years of his pro career. Erving averaged between 27.3 ppg and 31.9 ppg each season during his ABA career, while in the NBA he averaged at least 20 ppg each season until he turned 35 but he never averaged more than 26.9 ppg, when he ranked fourth in the league in scoring during his fourth NBA season, 1979-80. In the final month of that campaign, he hit his peak as an NBA scorer, averaging 29.8 ppg in 13 games in March 1980. In a three game stretch from March 12-16 he averaged 38 ppg, scoring 40, 33 and 41 points.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work

When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Jerry Colangelo to fix the mess that Sam Hinkie created, I remembered that Colangelo was aghast and astonished by how Jerry Krause broke up the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Krause ran off Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen after the Bulls had just won three straight NBA titles from 1996-98. In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"

At the press conference, Reinsdorf said that Floyd was "Director of basketball operations, with duties normally handled by a head coach."

Lincicome scoffed, "When is a coach not a coach? When he is aside. But just for the sake of context, let's grant that it was all true. Floyd would give up a perfectly fine job where he was wanted and respected in order to schlep around as Krause's fanny pack for as long as Jackson and Jordan and the rest wanted to shun him? Would you even want a man like this coaching your team?"

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon put it simply in a January 21, 1999 piece titled "Gored to Death: Arrogant acts have gutted the Bulls' dynasty": 
Only scant months ago, there was raging debate about how the Bulls measured up to the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, to the 76ers of Wilt Chamberlain, to the Celtics of Larry Bird, to the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson. The skeleton that's left may end up being measured against the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, the patron saint of losers, authors of a 9-73 record...

So what, by their hubris, Reinsdorf and Krause have done is deny the rest of us the final act of the dynasty, one farewell championship for Jordan, or one incredibly emotional quest for it.

They have interfered with the natural order of things. To feed their own egos, they have purposefully committed needless folly.

They have killed a dynasty.

If there is justice, the Bulls will be bad for a very long time.
Justice arrived swiftly in Chicago. Floyd went 49-190 in four years as the Bulls' coach. Reinsdorf and Krause replaced arguably the best coach in pro basketball history--a coach who won six titles in Chicago and went on to win five more titles in L.A. with the Lakers--with arguably the worst coach in pro basketball history. Bulls' power forward Charles Oakley summed it up succinctly near the end of Floyd's reign of error (and was fined $50,000 by the team for his candor): "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop." Without Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman and most of the rest of the core members of the Bulls' second three-peat squads, the Bulls promptly posted the worst five-year record of any non-expansion team in NBA history (96-282, a winning percentage of .254). The Bulls missed the playoffs for six straight years, did not win a playoff series until 2007 (four years after Krause retired as the Bulls' GM) and have made it to exactly one Eastern Conference Finals (2011) since Krause dismantled the roster.
 
It is foolish to break up a championship team in order to build from the ground up or turn a mediocre team into a cellar dweller in order to use draft picks to become a contender. After the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 championship, owner Mark Cuban elected to not keep key rotation players Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea; the Mavericks have not won a playoff series since 2011. Instead of continuing to add pieces around Dirk Nowitzki, Cuban wasted the final years of Nowitzki's career. This is not Hinkie-style tanking (though Cuban has said that he believe the strategy is sound--which is an absurd belief), but it is breaking up a championship team without giving that team a realistic chance to defend its crown.

When you are blessed enough to have a championship-caliber team, you should do everything possible to augment the roster and keep the championship window open as long as possible. Two organizations are widely referred to as "model franchises" in the NBA and NFL respectively: the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots. Since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs have won five championships and have never missed the playoffs. Since the New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl four times and have only missed the playoffs three times (once with an 11-5 record, once with a 9-7 record and once with a 5-11 record in Belichick's first year on the job). Those teams have never tanked and have never prematurely dismantled a championship caliber roster; at times, those teams have phased out individual players who were past their primes but those teams always replaced those players in order to remain at an elite level. Those teams effectively used their draft picks even though their success relegated them to making their selections near the end of each round of the draft; instead of tanking to get higher draft picks, these teams did the necessary scouting/player evaluation to find good players. Also, free agents want to sign with the Spurs and Patriots because they know that those franchises have a winning culture. No talented free agent was ever going to sign with someone like Jerry Krause after he broke up the Bulls or with Sam Hinkie after he plunged the 76ers into the tank.

Rest assured that if Colangelo has anything to say about it the 76ers' tanking days are over (they will still lose for a while until Colangelo brings some real players into the fold but Colangelo will actually be looking for real NBA players, not rejects from the Washington Generals)--and that if Colangelo builds the 76ers up to contender status he will not break apart the team in order to stockpile draft picks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 PM

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