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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA

"You had to see the man and hear the music." John Papanek, attempting to explain Julius Erving's greatness

I respect greatness from any era, so this article should not be interpreted as a shot at today's top players--but can you imagine a young Julius Erving playing under today's no hand-checking rules, let alone in an era that emphasizes the value of three point shots, layups and free throws above all other kinds of shots? Erving was a capable three point shooter (his career three point shooting percentage is artificially deflated by half court heaves, because during most of his era the three point shot was not used as a regular weapon). Everyone knows that Erving could attack the hoop for layups and to draw fouls. In today's game, Erving could be a prototype point forward, driving to the hoop and either finishing or kicking the ball to open shooters; he possessed the necessary ballhandling and passing skills to fill that role but the teams for which he played and the era during which he played placed him in a different role most of the time, though he provided glimpses of those aforementioned skills.

The sad reality is that even most so-called basketball experts have no clue about Erving's complete skill set; there is precious little footage of his three years with the New York Nets (during which he won three regular season MVPs, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles and two championships) and even less footage of his two seasons with the Virginia Squires, when he put up some incredible numbers--especially in the playoffs, including a 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg stat line as a rookie in the 1972 ABA playoffs. How extraordinary is that trifecta? Forgive me for quoting myself to answer my own question: "The only other player in ABA/NBA history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain (1960-62, 64); the only other players who led the NBA or ABA in playoff scoring average and playoff rebounding average during the same postseason are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those four players came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average."

Triple doubles are the talk of the NBA this season. Erving was more of a double-double threat than a triple double threat but as a rookie he had a playoff game with 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists. My research uncovered no other game in pro basketball history during which a player matched Erving's production in all three of those categories.

Erving never played for stats or for glory; in his 16 year career, the only milestone that he openly pursued was trying to reach the 30,000 point club during the final games of his last season. At the time (and for some time afterward), only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain had scored at least 30,000 points, so Erving was the only "mid-size" player to cross that threshold.

Check out this video snippet from the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game, played shortly after the conclusion of Erving's rookie campaign; he looks like a modern player teleported five decades into the past, almost like the old Scottie Pippen commercial depicting Pippen dunking against 1950s era players--except Erving was not taking on chumps or patsies here: the NBA roster was stacked with nine future Hall of Famers, including Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. In the video, Erving puts his entire skill set on display: devastating defense (watch him fly out of nowhere to block a shot, catch the ball and then fire a great outlet pass), rebounding in traffic, post up moves and some dazzling dribbling sequences (including a right to left between the legs crossover dribble that is under control, deceptively quick and did not require palming/carrying the ball):



Notice that Erving did not find it necessary to draw attention to himself with any antics after he made a great move; he let his game do his talking for him. Also notice that Erving was not showing off; he did a crossover move or a reverse pivot because those moves were necessary to beat the defense and because he knew that even though those moves might look flashy they were not high risk maneuvers for him because he had worked on his craft.

Sadly, no known footage exists of Erving's most spectacular move from that game; in the fourth quarter, he stole the ball from Paul Silas, dribbled downcourt, took off from the free throw line (you read that correctly) and dunked over Oscar Robertson AND Archie Clark (who, by the way, was regularly executing a devastating crossover dribble move in the NBA before Tim Hardaway or Allen Iverson were even born). I read about this dunk when I was a kid and I always dreamed about (1) seeing it and/or (2) learning the full story. Seeing it may never happen but I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Erving, Silas and several other players from that game. I told their stories in my oral history of the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games.

That was one of the first pieces that I wrote as a credentialed NBA writer (as opposed to a freelancer who did not cover games). I formulated my questions very carefully; when I asked about Erving's dunk I just said something to the effect of, "I understand that Erving made a great play in the fourth quarter. What do you remember about it?" The thing that struck me is that everyone who I interviewed essentially told the same basic story, even though the interviews were conducted separately. It sounds like an urban legend to say that Erving jumped from the free throw line and dunked under game conditions but that is what was reported at the time and that is how the participants still remember the play.

There is a lot of talk about LeBron James perhaps being the greatest athlete in pro basketball history. James is a tremendous athlete and a wonderful basketball player; I have covered and praised his exploits since he entered the league--but I wish that the commentators who are granted the most air time and bandwidth cared enough about their craft to do some research and understand that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were Olympic-caliber track and field athletes in addition to being dominant basketball players and that Erving could match any comparably sized modern player in terms of speed and jumping ability, while also possessing solid basketball fundamentals (Erving played three years of college ball and was praised by his coaches at all levels for his high basketball IQ).

I enjoy watching today's great players. I predicted and documented Russell Westbrook's ascension nearly three years ago, at a time when many "experts" questioned his ability and/or willingness to play the point guard position properly; Westbrook is having a historic 2016-17 season and is making a case to be considered a Pantheon-level player, but he probably will not win the MVP because the media voters will hold his team's record against him even though it is obvious how much he has elevated a weak supporting cast. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard are four other great players who are having wonderful seasons--but in our collective rush to praise those players and with the natural human tendency to think that whatever is happening right now must be the greatest thing ever, we should not forget that some athletes and competitors have skill sets that transcend any particular era. Julius Erving is one of those players.

The John Papanek quote that serves as the epigraph for this article may be my favorite quote about Erving. Before writing that line, Papanek recited a litany of Erving's numbers and concluded that the numbers don't fully tell the story. The numbers can always be manipulated based on the alleged overall competitiveness of a particular era or based on "pace" or based on a host of supposedly objective factors but Papanek understood the deeper truth: to appreciate Erving's greatness you "had to see the man and hear the music."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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79 Comments:

At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Excellent article, and I of course agree that Doc would instantly be the best player in the world today. In addition to the rule changes you mentioned, Doc would benefit from a few other modern touches:

* Assists are way easier to come by. He'd probably average 7 or 8 in today's ruleset.

* Fouls are way easier to come by. Doc would have likely seen his FTAs go up significantly.

* More in-game breaks, with TV timeouts and reviews. Coupled with the much less trying way travel works today, Doc could play more minutes.

* Positional versatility. Doc could play all five positions in a pinch (Center today would be a bit of a stretch, but people forget he'd occasionally play the 5 in the first half of his career, and IIRC even did some spot minutes there to try and counter Magic in that famous 80s Finals), and today's NBA is much more open to weirdo lineup experimentation. Depending on team makeup, you could slide Doc to whatever position was the most advantageous matchup for him (similar to how Kidd uses Giannis), at least 1-4.

* More forgiving dribbling/palming/traveling rules. Consider how much of a wizard Doc was with the ball without being able to do the things Lebron/Steph/Durant get away with nightly, then imagine what he and his giant hands would be capable of now.

Also, regarding the NBA/ABA All-Star games, it's been over a decade since I was even tangentially involved, but I know at least one of the two games used to float around the online tape-trading scene. Not sure which year, or if it was both, but I remember it being markedly more expensive than most other games. There were also a lot of Doc's Nets games (and I think the entire '76 playoffs), including some Squires stuff.

Sadly, the channels I used to use are long-since defunct (we're going back to IRC days here), but I would assume there's probably still a way to run down those tapes for anyone persistent enough to do the legwork. The ones I saw/had were mostly grainy VHS, but that's still something.

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 4:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scoring was much higher on average in Erving's era than today. There's things today which would make scoring easier than in the past, but there's also things that make scoring much more difficult. Players are much more skilled/athletic today on average than ever before. Defense is much better and much more complex today than ever before. Everyone seems to think their era was the best. Players would adjust to new/different rules almost immediately.

Assists are actually harder to come by today. I know David once looked briefly at assists, particular Paul, but that was still a very small sample size. But, did he ever break players/games from past seasons/eras? How do we know the same error in statmaking hasn't always been happening? Regardless, the game is different today, and even with supposedly a few more assists being recorded, overall assists are down from Erving's era.

Just a few seasons of average team assists:
1976 ABA - 24.2
1977 NBA - 23.9
1987 - 26.0
2000 - 22.3
2005 - 21.3
2017 - 22.5

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 5:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

I haven't done the legwork on this, so I could be mistaken, but it was my understanding that in Erving's era assists were only accorded if the scoring player scored pretty much immediately (1 dribble?) after receiving the pass. Nowadays, it's much more liberal, allowing multiple dribbles as well as one "move."

As for overall team assists being down, my guess would be that's more a function of the increased emphasis on one-on-one play. Again, I could be wrong here, but at just an eye-test level I feel like the 70s featured a lot less isolation play relative to today. Another factor would be the increased rate at which teams take three pointers; they're more valuable than 2s, but less likely to go in, so they could depress team assist numbers as more "potential assists" are going to lower percentage shots.

Pace is also a factor; in '76, the average pace in the ABA was 106.9 possessions. In '77 in the NBA, it was 106.5. Today, it's 96.4. An extra 12 possessions probably accounts for 2 or 3 assists.

My initial suggestion was that plays Erving made plays then that weren't assists at the time would be now, but I could certainly be mistaken. I don't think most players from that era would see a statistical bump if transported to today, as the modified rules would be mitigated by their relatively inferior size and athleticism. As David pointed out, Erving would still be an elite athlete today, however, and would be further liberated by the hand-check rule (look at how Steve Nash's assists jumped once the hand-check rule granted him easier access to the paint for an example).

I'd be curious to get David's insight on this.

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 6:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly what the rule says or how it was changed. I just know that assists are certainly down from Erving's era, that cannot be disputed. Maybe it was harder to get an assist in the 70s and/or statkeepers did a better job then than today(which I highly doubt), but there were more assists being recorded. The game was played different then, maybe more teamwork and less one-on-one play which could lead to more assists, though pace was overall faster back then, which would lead me to think there would be less teamwork given shorter possessions.

You could be right about Erving's plays now leading to assists today, but there would probably even more examples where he wouldn't get assists today when he would've when he played. Pace probably is a factor, and one reason why there's fewer assists today. The extra 2-3 assists with 10-12 more possessions would be roughly the same as Erving's era mostly. However, with fewer possessions, assists decrease, which you'd think he'd have fewer assists today, not more, that's what I was disputing. Also, you thought Erving's mpg would increase, but mpg during his time were much higher for many top players as compared today. I suppose it's possible, but I'd think his mpg would decrease quite a bit. Wilt averaged over 48mpg one season, which I'd bet shortened his career a few seasons since he played so many minutes so many seasons.

Erving's mpg decreased quite a bit once he joined the nba as did his overall stats. His ppg decreased dramatically, 7.7ppg in his first nba season to be exact. They picked up a little over time, but only once did he average more than 25ppg in the nba, and his entire era was an offensive era even with supposedly harder rules to score. And sure, some guys like Wilt/Erving would do great in any era, but what I was saying that seems clearly obvious is that the 'average' player is much bigger/more athletic/more skilled today.

I suppose some rule changes could've helped Nash a little, but the jumps in assists I see from him seem to be relegated to first: him becoming a good player and earning more minutes with DAL, and second: him joining D'antoni in PHO.

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 7:08:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

There's no question that Dr. J would be a transcendent player in any era, not only for his basketball acumen and breathtaking athleticism, but for his style, professionalism, and class. All of that being understood to be true, I am inclined to lean towards Anonymous' viewpoint on the subject.

As Anonymous mentions, advanced defenses are much more complex today. The best ones are based off video data analytics that both individually and on a team level tracks player movement, tendencies, and patterns, to devise strategies that can now incorporate the best, most useful (and timely) elements of zone.

And, he’s also right to point out the sheer number of freak athletes we see in today's game. Which makes sense as evolution, coupled with advanced science (diets, exercise, weight training, sleep schedules, rest schedules, etc. etc.) and an influx of players from all across the planet, have produced an NBA flush with extraordinary athletes. Wilt and Russell were giants among men back in their heyday. And while Wilt would still be considered a freak athlete today (perhaps even the best), he never had to face other freaks outside of Russell (who, you know, out freaked him with a lot of help).

Today, we've got Giannis, Towns, Porzingis, Durant, Embiid, Anthony Davis and Lebron (also known as unicorns, something SI’s Andrew Sharp and Bill Simmons wrote about (to his credit Simmons mentions Dr. J had “freak hands and moved like a ballerina” and was a true unicorn)).

I know Blake Griffin has short arms, but look at what he's been able to do when healthy. He's hitting threes, leading breaks, racking up assists, oh, and dunking on guys.

We've also got freaky freak centers: DeAndre Jordan, Cousins, Drummond, Dwight (in his heyday), and Rudy Gobert (who is 7-2 and can Eurostep for god's sake). All of those guys would at least give Wilt a run for his money in the size/athleticism department. Though, not so much in the brain department.

The NBA is littered with near Jordan-level athletes (in terms of athleticism/agility/jumping ability, etc. Not in terms of anything else). Aaron Gordon, Derozan, Lavine, Wiggins, Ross…

And that’s not even mentioning guys like George, Kawhi, Westbrook, Wall, etc. etc.

Skilled, freak athletes are more plentiful today than at any other time in NBA history.

I mean, Jabari Parker (pre-injury) bumped his head on the rim earlier this season. While he was having a fine season, nobody thinks of him as one of the NBA’s premiere athletes. I don’t even know who Derrick Jones Jr. is...and Gerald Green is a bit player, but can blow out a candle off a cupcake resting on the rim…

As a writer (and reader), I love the mythologizing of the NBA. The story about Dr. J dunking from the freethrow line in game is a fantastic one. And, I do love this article David and I think you’re right that the history of the game needs to be retold and respected--foremost of all by those who talk about it for a living. So thank you for this piece.

But, for me at least, I don’t want to put too much weight on one grainy video and the memories of proud men who love to wax poetic on their past experiences…Especially when we currently have 4K HD video, slowed down from 100 FPS (on highlights), showing us night in and night out, the sheer elegance, skill, and freak athleticism of all that the NBA has to offer today.

I guess the sublime loses its shine, when it’s whittled down to a 7-second, looping Vine.

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 11:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

All of the points you mentioned about how the modern game would favor Erving are correct. Regarding positional versatility, Erving did not often play center but because of his leaping ability and athleticism he could play center at times--then and even more so now, when so many teams go small. Erving played guard at times in high school, college and his early pro days but he was such an exceptional rebounder that his coaches understandably preferred to play him in the frontcourt. Erving spent a significant amount of time at guard during the 1978-79 season--particularly during the playoffs--when All-Star guard Doug Collins was injured. Of course, Erving almost exclusively shifted to the backcourt in his final two seasons, when he was a legitimate All-Star selection at guard as a 36 and 37 year old; he remained a solid 17-18 ppg scorer who rebounded well from the guard position and was one of the top shotblocking guards in the league. All-Star point guard Maurice Cheeks and emerging superstar Charles Barkley were the 76ers' primary playmakers, so Erving did not have dazzling assist totals, but he remained a good passer and he accumulated a lot of what would now be called "hockey assists" (the pass that leads to the assist pass).

As for footage of young Doc, my understanding is that the only existing footage of the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star game is reel to reel footage that was originally sent overseas to U.S. servicemen. During that era, the networks did not tend to save recording of sporting events. There is not a known existing copy of the reel containing the fourth quarter footage. I have seen a recording of all of the known existing footage of that game (i.e., more than is shown in the clip that I posted with this article). It is very evident from that footage and other ABA footage that young Doc had another gear than even the Doc who perennially made the All-NBA First Team--and that is not surprising, because the same thing is true of MJ in his first five years and Magic and Bird and most other players. People who write off Doc's first five years because they took place in the ABA do not understand the natural trajectory of a player's career, particularly in terms of athleticism.

Sadly, there is very little available footage of Doc as a Net and even less of Doc as a Squire. I don't think that there is any footage of Doc's record-setting 53 point playoff game or his 26-20-15 game or his career-high 63 point game. There is not even complete footage of the 1976 ABA Finals, when Doc authored arguably the greatest individual playoff series performance in pro basketball history.

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2017 11:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I am not convinced that today's players are more athletic than the players from the 1970s and 1980s and I definitely am not convinced that today's players are more "skilled," though of course we may be defining "skilled" differently. I would say that basketball "skills" include but are not limited to (in no particular order) ballhandling, rebounding, finishing in the paint, midrange shooting, long range shooting, individual defense, team defense, general basketball IQ (which includes many things, including when/how to set a screen, how to move without the ball, how to take a charge, how to block a shot without fouling, etc.).

It is only a little more than a decade ago that the NBA's best, most skilled athletes could not beat teams like Greece and Argentina in FIBA play. I understand that those were single games played under FIBA rules, not NBA playoff series, but we saw that the NBA players were neither as athletic nor as skilled as they thought they were. They might have been able to run a little faster and jump a little higher than their opponents but the differences in basketball IQ, coaching and chemistry more than made up for this. I am not sure that those USA teams could beat the 1980 NBA Finalist 76ers--a tough, well-coached and unselfish defensive-minded team--let alone a 1980 Dream Team of Erving, Bird, Magic, Kareem, etc.

LeBron is often called the greatest athlete in NBA history but we have seen him outplayed at times in the NBA Finals by the likes of Jason Terry, Andre Iguodala and (pre-MVP candidate) Kawhi Leonard. Why should anyone believe that James would run roughshod over prime Julius Erving? Also, keep in mind that Erving consistently elevated his play in his Finals appearances, while James' record in that regard is mixed to say the least.

Maybe if James had ever committed himself to using his size to play "bully ball" in the post then an argument could be made that no small forward could guard him but James has never done that. Erving's length, quickness and jumping ability would match up quite well with James--and Erving would give James the business at the other end of the court, particularly in the modern game when a defender cannot touch the offensive player. Erving did not typically have to worry about the guy who was guarding him; he was more concerned about the center or power forward who would come over to play help defense or just knock him to the ground (a style of play that was prevalent at that time but has largely disappeared now). The teams that beat Erving in the NBA playoffs almost always had at least one HoF caliber big man in the paint: Walton, Hayes/Unseld, Parish/McHale, Kareem. What big man in the modern era would stop Erving from repeatedly driving to the hoop at will?

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Regarding the recording of assists, you are correct that my research on this topic does not rise to the level of statistical significance. I brought my findings to the attention of the NBA and various media outlets but--surprise!--this was not a subject that anyone was particularly interested in researching in greater depth. My method was to watch an entire game live, take notes and then after I looked at the box score/play by play I would rewatch the game and track each pass made by Paul (or whoever I was tracking at the time). This was obviously time-consuming and labor-intensive. What I found was that Paul was consistently credited with about 20% more assists than he should have been granted if the strict rule book definition of assist were applied. So, instead of being a 10 apg guy he was really an 8 apg guy. Some of the plays were ridiculous: one time Paul passed the ball to a player who passed the ball to another player who then did a series of fakes before shooting--and Paul received an assist. The NBA supposedly reviews these things (some triple doubles have been rescinded, including at least two by LeBron James if I am not mistaken) but none of the scorekeeping errors that I wrote about were ever corrected. Paul received many assists by passing to David West, who would do the Kevin McHale low post drill before shooting--but Paul, who was watching West the same way that I was watching at home, received an assist. These assists fit the narrative that the media was driving at the time: Paul is a great teammate who is "making" West into an All-Star and thus Paul should be the MVP over Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others. Pointing out that West was actually a highly skilled player who could create his own shot did not fit the prevailing narrative. Even worse, it went against the arguments made by "stat gurus" that their formulas "proved" that Paul was the best player in the NBA. Of course, those "advanced basketball statistics" included assist numbers that were inflated by 20% or so, but never mind that.

The reality, as Rick Barry has said to me and others, is that free throw percentage is the only stat that can't be jerked around. Rebounds can be padded by "tips," field goal percentage is very situation dependent (unless you think that DeAndre Jordan is the most efficient scorer ever), assists are often a joke, steals/blocked shots are highly subjective, etc. "Advanced basketball statistics" have some value in terms of examining the effectiveness of one five man unit versus other five man units over a significant number of games but they have little value in terms of determining who the best individual players are--but most of the media outlets adopt "advanced basketball statistics" as "objective" evaluations even though these formulas are (1) riddled with the biases of their creators and (2) based on basic box score stats that are often subjective or just inaccurate.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You cited assist numbers from various seasons but what you neglected to mention is the percentage of field goals made on which an assist is awarded. That percentage has steadily climbed, even though the NBA is often (and rightfully) criticized for isolation play. Unless you believe that team play has significantly increased in the past few decades, it is evident that it is easier to get an assist now than it used to be. I have confirmed this by talking to a variety of players, coaches and veteran scorekeepers over the years. The rule that still is supposed to apply is that an assist should only be awarded if the pass "directly" led to the made basket. In theory, more than one dribble could be taken--for instance, if LeBron throws an outlet to Kyrie Irving, who takes three dribbles and scores a one on none basket then James deserves an assist, but if James throws an outlet to Irving who has to execute one crossover dribble to score a contested layup then an assist should not be awarded. The colloquial standard is that if the scorer did more than half of the work then the passer should not receive credit. The reality is that assists are awarded now just for passing the ball to a post player who eventually scores after making a series of moves or for passing the ball to a perimeter player who shot fakes, drives and scores over help defenders.

Erving never chased stats. He told me that in blowout games he used to ask to be taken out because the bench players deserved to play (if you review Erving's box scores you will find a lot of games where he almost scored 40 or almost reached some milestone and then you will look at minutes played and realize that he sat out extended periods because his team had the game well in hand). Erving was an excellent passer off of the dribble and in traffic. He was a very good outlet passer. His hands were so big that he could make a variety of one-handed passes. In the ABA, he routinely ranked in the top 10 in assists. In the NBA, he annually ranked among the assist leaders for small forwards. In today's game, he could easily average 6-7 apg and possibly even more if he played under certain coaches. I am basing this on his skill set, the way that the game is played now and the generous way that assists are recorded.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Yes, defenses are more sophisticated in some ways today, a subject that I explored in depth several years ago in an article titled The Art and Science of NBA Defense. However, defense is also less physical today and it is not permitted to clog the lane. During Erving's era--particularly in the late 1970s NBA--many teams played de facto zone defenses; teams packed the paint and they put the hammer to players who drove into the paint. The NBA did not adopt the three point shot until 1979-80 and it did not become a regular part of offensive strategy for most teams until several years after Erving retired. So, Erving faced defenses that sagged off of him a bit (he could not punish them with a three point shot that did not yet exist in the league) and met him at the rim with force/size. Look at LeBron's career; he has had some of his worst playoff experiences when facing teams that met him in the paint with Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins or Tyson Chandler. All due respect to those players, but in the playoffs Erving faced prime/healthy Walton (plus Maurice Lucas), Unseld/Hayes, Kareem, Parish/McHale (Bird rarely checked Erving, because he could not check Erving with any degree of success). Erving won some series against those players and he lost some series as well but I am far from convinced that James would have done any better individually or collectively than Erving did in that era. On the flip side, if Erving could go one on one against a Kawhi Leonard who could not touch him and then challenge a big man who was not permitted to touch him then Erving would not have needed a Moses Malone to get over the hump (of course, it should be noted that Malone needed Erving at least as much as Erving needed Malone: Erving made three NBA Finals without Malone, while Malone made one NBA Finals without Erving).

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I am not an evolutionary biologist and I assume that you aren't, either, but I feel safe saying that evolutionary changes take longer than a few decades to appear. I realize that perhaps you meant "evolution" in a colloquial sense, but the reality is that the athleticism of today's players compared to players from the 1970s and 1980s is somewhat overstated. What has changed is media coverage and player attitudes. What I mean is that in the 1970s, it was not possible to "go viral" by making a spectacular move; it also might have been somewhat hazardous to your health: if you were considered to be a showboat then you could expect a hard foul. Are you aware that 6-2 John Paxson could dunk easily with two hands, at least before his knees went bad a few years into his NBA career? Are you aware that 6-5 Danny Ainge could touch the top of the square and that he was a top prospect in both baseball and basketball? Are you aware that Isiah Thomas--listed at 6-1 and probably closer to 5-11--tip dunked offensive rebounds over bigger players in the NBA? Unless you closely followed the NBA back then or unless you did a lot of research you would have no way of knowing such things, so I can't hold that against you but the idea that human beings have suddenly evolved to be much quicker or jump much higher is laughable.

Players actually are not even that much taller than they used to be; the average NBA height has fluctuated in the 6-6 to 6-7 range for a while. Players are heavier but that is a function of environment (diet, weight training, etc.). For the sake of this discussion, it is reasonable to assume that LeBron James would weigh 240 (instead of 265-270) in 1979 (like George McGinnis) and that Erving would weigh 225-230 (instead of 205-210) in 2017.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 1:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Your thoughts about Wilt deserve a separate comment. Wilt was a Division I college track star--not a participant, but a star. In high school, he high jumped 6-6. In college, he broad jumped over 22 feet and ran a sub-11 seconds 100 yard dash. He also threw the shot put 56 feet. He won the Big 8 Conference high jumping title in each of his three collegiate seasons. Those are the documented accomplishments. After he retired from pro basketball, he played some professional volleyball, but accounts of how good he was at volleyball vary. Chamberlain reportedly could bench press 500 pounds but I don't think that has been officially verified. LeBron might be faster than Chamberlain but even that is far from certain since Chamberlain had legitimate sprinter's speed. LeBron is not stronger than Chamberlain and he definitely cannot jump higher. Cousins, Jordan, Gobert? Give me a break. Athletically, Chamberlain would eat those guys alive. Heck, the 50 year old Chamberlain--who was still receiving offers to play for NBA teams and not in a ceremonial/PR role--was probably at least as athletic as those guys. I understand being young and having recency bias but let's get real.

As for the midsize and smaller players, guys like David Thompson, Dennis Johnson, World B. Free and Ollie Taylor (to name just four) would not take a back seat athletically to anyone you mentioned. Yes, World B. Free. You may remember him, if at all, as a balding three point shooter for the Cavaliers, but his original nickname was the Prince of Midair. He was a serious high flyer as a young player. Vinnie Johnson was another player in the 6-2 height range (like Taylor and Free) who could dunk on anyone (by the time the Pistons won championships, he had transitioned to being more of a jump shooter). Keep in mind that there are 30 teams now, not 23 or 16 or 10. In the Chamberlain-Russell era, the league only had 80-100 players. Yes, European/African/South American talent was largely untapped but you also did not have 15 extra teams that each have guys at the end of the bench who would not have been athletic enough or have good enough skill sets to play in the 1960s NBA.

In 1961-62 (when Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double for the entire season), the NBA had nine teams and the roster size was 11 players per team (some teams of course used more than 11 players due to injuries, trades, etc.). The worst team was the 18-62 expansion Chicago Packers, featuring a rookie Hall of Fame center named Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg). There seems to be a perception that except when they faced each other Chamberlain and Russell were dunking on a bunch of little, unathletic white guys (interesting aside: 6-3 Jerry West could easily dunk two handed and was one of the best shotblocking guards of all-time). Bellamy was 6-11, 225--big, mobile and athletic. Sure, if he played today he might have weighed 255 instead of 225 but he was no pushover. If Bellamy were playing today, he would start over any center you listed, including Cousins. Other big men who played that season included Bob Pettit (a top 50 player), Red Kerr, Bailey Howell and Wayne Embry. Again, this was a nine team league.

In that era, you had to have a skill set to make a team and you had to have a lot of mental/physical toughness: there was no such thing as a flagrant foul and even if you threw a closed fist punch you were not automatically ejected. Gerald Green might not have even made a roster back then; there were a lot of college stars and playground stars in that era who could jump through the roof but did not have what it took to stick in the NBA.

If a player breathes on LeBron, he flops and whines. I can't necessarily blame him, because the rules and the culture reward this behavior but how would he respond if a player intentionally elbowed him in the face and knocked out several of his teeth, as Clyde Lovellette did to Wilt Chamberlain?

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 1:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

As for the free throw line dunk, you call it a "myth" but we do have footage of Dr. J doing this multiple times: 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest, 1983 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, 1984 NBA Slam Dunk Contest (at 34!). So, it is not a myth that he could take off from the free throw line and dunk; the twist is that several players/witnesses state that Doc did this under game conditions. I don't find that so hard to believe for Doc. I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview players from the 1950s (Cousy, Schayes) all the way to the 2000s and, contrary to what you suggest, the old-timers do not just reflexively state that players in their era were better. I asked these players well thought out questions and I received very thoughtful replies. There is no reason to doubt their accounts of what happened in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game. Everything that they told me that could be cross checked with statistics or other sources of information was accurate, so why assume that they exaggerated or incorrectly remembered the most spectacular play of the entire game?

The reality is that, if anything, players have a tendency to sometimes downplay what other players can do; if you played in the NBA or ABA then you were pretty damn good and you are not easily impressed--but I have noticed that players speak very highly of certain players: Doc, Jordan, MJ, Kobe, Pippen, Wilt. It is not a coincidence that I often focus on those players in my articles, because I have it on reliable authority that, in many ways, those players are underrated even though they have often been highly praised.

The brief, "grainy" video is just a snippet--short enough that even younger readers may be curious enough to watch the whole thing--that provides a glimpse of young Erving: we see him execute a legal (i.e., no palming) crossover dribble move and finish in the paint without either whining for a foul or celebrating like an idiot, we see him take long strides to nullify an Archie Clark jump shot and then retrieve the ball to start the fast break and we see him so befuddle Connie Hawkins (another world-class athlete) that Hawkins had no choice but to just grab him. We saw Erving drive to the hoop, draw the defense and throw an over the head pass to a wide open jump shooter (imagine Erving in 2017 being coached by Mike D'Antoni). Those were not unusual plays for Erving; those are accurate depictions of his skill set, a skill set that translates perfectly to the modern game.

By the way, Pistol Pete Maravich is another player from that era who would put up insane stats today; with the three point shot and no hand-checking, the 1977 Maravich would easily average 40 ppg plus at least 10 apg today (and he was a good rebounder as well, though perhaps not a 10 rpg guy even in today's game).

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:13:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David, I am obviously younger than you, and have not watched nearly as much basketball as you have. So, in many ways, people like me, without actually having seen things with my own eyes, depend on people like you, who did see, for insight. Again, that's why I come here.

I didn’t meant to belittle your reporting. Or the memories of the players you interviewed. And, I don’t discount the validity of Dr. J dunking from the freethrow line in a game. I said I love that story. But, there are plenty of other nuanced things to consider. For one, spotlight. If any player tried to dunk from the freethrow line today in a game, they’d be risking failure and a lifetime of Youtube replays. With little to no coverage, attempting feats like that would have been much more acceptable. It would have been playing to the crowd.

Another is pace of play, which is something you acknowledge but don’t factor in. With less possessions per game, it would be considered an inefficient shot, a dangerous play, and a risky gamble. There are plenty of guys that can dunk from the freethrow line. It’s not even all that difficult if you have the right body type. Serge Ibaka almost did it. Brent Barry did do it. They didn’t have nearly the style or grace as Doc, but even Doc in the one really good video we have of it, didn’t actually take off behind the line.

I am the farthest thing from an NBA player, but I did play. And, I did witness some pretty good teams, especially when I tried (and failed to play club ball). I remember guys doing things like ooping from half court and dunking on us. And, despite me being competitive as hell, I freely admit when a superior player kicked my ass. Especially if said player did it in dominating fashion.

But, the game moves so fast, even at an amateur level, that knowing exactly where Dr. J took off from, would be damn near impossible if you weren’t just standing around watching him. I don’t know the nature of your reporting, or where the people you questioned were positioned during the game, but a lot happens. Amazing really is a split second. I ended my original post with the comment about the sublime. I believe that is true.

You see it now. The Blake Griffin dunk on Mozgov looked unfreaking real in real time. But, when you slow it down and replay it, you see that he doesn’t even actually dunk the ball. He sort of tosses it in there. Is it amazing? Yes. Did it make me feel “OH MY GOD”. Yes. But did he really dunk on Mozgov? No. That’s what I mean by memory being an unreliable basis for fact. As an attorney, you have a healthy respect for the limitations of eye-witness testimony. Especially in heightened emotional situations.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:15:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

So, memory is a spotty thing. And when all we have is memory to rely on, I tend to be skeptical. Especially when we can look at factual evidence to support the idea of human physical evolution.

In 1965, the World Record for the 100 meters was 10.06. That was in Chamberlain's prime. 50 years later, the World Record stands nearly a half second faster. But that alone doesn’t prove anything. As, outliers exist across track and field and other sports. The best long jump ever, for example, was in 1991, not 2016. But, if we look at the overall progression of everyone in track and field, that line moves ever higher. In the 1960s, the average world class long jumper was around 8.3 meters. That spiked up in the 70s and has continued to climb to just under 9 meters now.

That's what I mean by "evolution" mixed with advanced science. It's human progress. Athletes are caring for their bodies and honing them in ways that just weren't done, using science that wasn’t available half a century ago. I did say that if Chamberlain played today, with the advances in tech and science, that he had every physical tool to be the most athletic/dominant player in the NBA today. But he had his own head problems and womanizing issues, and in an age where social media and the 24-hour fake news cycle dominate, not to mention all of the Hollywood and endorsement related possibilities available, who knows how Chamberlain would have survived in today's social atmosphere. It's easy to say this or that guy would do well in today's era. I am not going to argue against that from a basketball perspective. But, there's a lot of things outside of basketball that need to be taken into account.

There is very little footage of prime Dr. J. That's exactly the point.

If you think Walt Bellamy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pOeiWbUZTw was more agile than 7-2 Rudy Gobert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgtFt9KQdgU or more explosively athletic than DeAndre Jordan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DinTCtH5Taw or had a more diverse skillset than the 3-point shooting, passing bulldozing DeMarcus Cousins, than I'll have to take your word on it.

I don't think taking a punch represents skill as much as toughness. Were players back in the day tougher than today? Absolutely. Russell had to deal with violent and ever-present racism daily. But, if we took Russell as is and transported him to today's game, with today's athletes, you still think his game is as skillful as today's top players? No question he would still dominate defensively, and be an elite player, but skill wise? He couldn’t shoot. An inability to shoot translates pretty fluidly across the timeline of basketball history. Sure, he could have hired a shooting coach today…but he also could have just practiced a lot back in the day too. The fact is…he couldn’t shoot. From anywhere other than right around the basket and not from the freethrow line either.

And being unable to shoot makes playing basketball...especially in today's NBA...pretty damn hard.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:17:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I'm not exactly sure how you define skill in the context of this particular discussion. Yes, the rule changes have made it easier for wing players in many ways, but the speed of the game also makes it harder for them to succeed. If you think guys in the 70s, who routinely did drugs (before or during games), and guys in the 80s and early 90s who partied hard and smoked during half time (Vlade Divac), compare athletically, physically, or skillfully to guys who, literally from the age of 5 until they are drafted, play year-round club ball, practice, go to camps, weight train, watch video, get professional cooks to prepare them specialized meals, have sleep specialists monitoring their sleep cycles, etc...then, again, I don't know how to argue that.

Jerry West was a transcendent player for his time, and again, if he played today, he would have all the natural talent to adapt his game. But, based on what he actually did, he was a right-hand dominant dribbler. His skill level was not comparable to today's players, who can dribble with their off hands better than he could with his dominant hand. And, we’re talking end of bench guys that have this ability. You can quibble about palming the ball, but I can quibble back about pace and we can go back and forth about the differences in eras and get nowhere.

What I can say is that Isaiah Thomas was the last pick in the draft…and is a left-handed player. Yet, he is nearly as deadly driving to his right and/or crossing over with his right hand, just made the all-star team and is averaging nearly 30 points per game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wQ-O_8Rp-8

Let me reiterate. If Jerry West played now, with all of the luxuries modern athletes have at his disposal, I have no doubt he would have excelled to become one of the top players in today’s NBA. He had the drive, work ethic, and just insatiable competiveness that often equates to greatness. But the fact remains, what he actually was, his exact skillset, would not necessarily translate into one of the best players in the NBA today. There was no three point line in his day, so we have no idea how he would actually shoot it. We can project, and be pretty accurate in our projections. But we can’t actually know, because he never did it. And, being able to dunk the ball with ease with two hands is something Goran Dragic can do.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:22:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Guys have to be more skilled now, otherwise, they’ll get horribly exposed by today’s advanced defenses. Pete Maravich invented a lot of the unique (and useful) dribbling aspects to the NBA game. His moves were revolutionary back in the 70s. Now, those same moves can be seen in every quarter of every NBA game. In addition, guys have added tear drops and Eurosteps and sham gods and 3-point shots from 5 feet beyond the arc. Call it gimmicky, bastardization, or whatever, but everyone shoots threes now. Maybe Chamberlain could have learned to shoot 3s…but he didn’t. Cousins hits at damn near 36 percent on 5 attempts a game.

There is actual skill, and potential skill. Cousins actually has the skill to shoot threes, lead a fastbreak, pass the ball, shoot 80 percent from the line, and average double digit rebounds.

Chamberlain obviously had actual skills. Otherwordly actual skills. Rebounding, shooting, blocking shots, athleticism, and passing. But, what was his freethrow percentage again? While nothing would have been able to stop 1962 and 63 Wilt. Hack-a-Wilt would have been a very real, very useful strategy against Philly and LA Wilt.

I am only 34, but over my lifetime, I have seen the popularity of basketball skyrocket. I have an 11-year old nephew who has better handles than anyone I played with in high school, all due to him playing, practicing, and learning since he was 5. And, thanks to the Dream Team, the rest of the world is doing the same thing. You casually mention the expansion and now inclusion of European/African/South American players, but those countries have had 25+ years now, 3 generations of players, growing up playing ball. Hoops was an America-only affair back in the 60s, with very little TV presence, little national relevance compared to baseball and football, and zero international popularity. Hence the 9 teams.

It’s one of the most popular sports in the world now, with kids in countries all over the world falling in love with it as soon as they are able to understand on even a basic level what is going on. My daughter, when she was 14 months, was trying to dunk a mini rubber ball on this little kids hoop I got her.

Europe has a half dozen pro leagues that have already produced Hall of Fame worthy players. Croatia, Turkey, New Zealand, Ukraine, France, China, Philippines, Japan, etc. etc.

And, to your point, there are more guys now than back in the day, who can jump over cars and humans, that don’t have what it takes to play in the NBA. Green was one of those guys, but to his credit, he worked on himself and his game, and made it back to contribute to a fun, almost playoff-bound underdog Phoenix squad. But, go on Youtube and you can see guys with crazy athleticism who are as far away from making the NBA as I am.

You bring up Dennis Johnson and David Thompson and World B Free. I am of the firm belief that the NBA produces the highest caliber athletes of any sport. So, my posts by no means are meant to disrespect or discount the athleticism of past generations. We went from Dawkins, to Malone, to Kemp, to Amare to Griffin. All of them had/have devastating athleticism.

But, I bring up Towns and Porzingis and Anthony Davis…who are their athletic comps? Maybe Olajuwon? But, he didn't shoot threes.

And the NBA has never seen Giannis before. Well, other than Kevin Durant.

In any other era, each of those guys would be considered once-in-a-generation players. But, they aren’t. They’re all playing right now. Along with all the other guys I mentioned. The seven players you mentioned played across three different generations. I’m talking about guys that are all playing right at this moment in 2017.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Wow, this thread exploded while I wasn't looking. I'll have more thoughts later, but briefly:

"Pete Maravich invented a lot of the unique (and useful) dribbling aspects to the NBA game. His moves were revolutionary back in the 70s. Now, those same moves can be seen in every quarter of every NBA game."

This is patently untrue. Even just off a basic YouTube search, you can find clips of Pete doing things- both dribbling and passing- that nobody else does to this day. And, as David pointed out about Doc, much of Pete's best stuff has been lost to the sands of time.

I'll be back with some thoughts on Doc/Wilt/etc. as time allows, hopefully.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I know Erving is dear to you, so we're not going to get anywhere on the athletic/skilled issue. Erving is underrated at times, mostly because the ABA is often disregarded.

But, I don't buy what you're saying about FIBA. The USA messed up, but nobody can win every game. And these aren't real teams, just good players put together, which often is worse. There was talk of just sending DET to the Olympics in 2004, which in hindsight, seems like a great idea. USA lost for part of these reasons and for poor leadership among other things. They were still much more athletic/skilled. What it shows more than anything else is how athletic/skilled the rest of the world and today's athletes are. And all of the NBA's best weren't playing either. Anything can happen in one-game scenarios. Measuring teams against one another isn't what I'm talking about either. I'm sure there's several finalist teams from the past who would beat 2011 DAL for example among other teams. There's more NBA teams today, and until recently, not really super teams for awhile which we've seen rule a lot of nba history. What I'm talking about is the average player.

James was outplayed by certain players almost entirely because mentally. And he still played well in the 2014 Finals. James also averaged an insane 36/13/9 in the 2015 Finals, and his next best teammate was Tristan Thompson while playing against an AS team. He could've done more and I thought Iggy was better but maybe that has a lot to do with GS winning. He still was a fighting a huge uphill battle being undermanned. You might have some valid points about Erving, but if true, I'd expect much higher scoring averages from him, and not much of a decrease his production once he joined the nba, let alone the huge decreases we see.

Whether assists are easier to come by today or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that assists are clearly down from Erving's day, that is indisputable. Whether you think Erving would record more assists today is up for debate, but I'd expect to see fewer assists from him, which doesn't mean he wasn't necessarily a great passer. His production immediately went down drastically in 1977, and that's in an offensive era. I'd expect him to have a harder time today with everything I see. I think he could still be great today, though.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:32:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I sort of rambled on with my four posts. Apologies for the lack of cohesion. I want to make a solid point(s) clear from that mess I posted at 2 a.m.

My belief is that today’s NBA player (even the bench guys and the guys in the D-League, ACB, Euroleague), are faster, stronger, and more skilled than any NBA player from any other generation…on average. Yes, there were outliers like Wilt and Doc and Pete and the Logo who had the overall talent, ability, athleticism to succeed in any era. Yes, the league sizes are vastly different, the rules were different, etc. But, their otherworldliness is timeless.

I take issue with the sort of brushing away of the level of work and effort today’s players put in. As if, the men of yesteryear had it so much harder. In many ways, yes, they did, but in many ways, they didn’t. I think pointing out and acknowledging the differences is important. Which is why it seems as if I am arguing against this article, when in fact I am hoping to help make it fuller.

For example, not only has science and medicine vastly improved, but societal norms and extracurricular activities and scrutiny are far different now. You say, how would Lebron handle getting his teeth knocked out, I say how would Chamberlain have handled being nitpicked, criticized, and simply covered by Twitter, Facebook, the news media, fans at games, people from all over the world, etc.? Every single one of his alleged 20,000 would have had a news story/post of some kind attached to it. @WiltsNext3some would be a thing. Say what you will about Lebron (and I certainly have), but he has endured an Everest’s worth of constant scrutiny. And, despite a few appalling PR gaffes, has never been linked to any sort of scandal, drugs, affairs, violence, etc.

You shared with us the video of Dr. J and you and Nick have seen about as much footage of Dr. J that is available, and you extrapolate that with firsthand knowledge, memories, stories of those who played with/against him, news stories written about him, box score stats, and whatever other information you can scrape together. And yet, we know (and you’ve proven) that all of those sources are fallible—in many cases, to an alarming degree. Today, we literally have thousands and thousands of hours of footage of Lebron James. From the regular press box view camera, to courtside, to the ghost cam, to all the cell phone cams that catch his sideshow pre-game dunk warmups, to super high definition, slow motion video where you can not only see how often he travels, but also how . We even have video of Lebron playing when he was a tweenager. When he makes the NBA, we have video of Shareef O’Neal playing as a 5-year-old.

With today’s players, we see them do incredible things so often, it’s possible to get numb to what they are actually accomplishing every single night. That was my comment about Vines (the best Vine channel was the NBA Vine btw, RIP Vine). The sublime has been whittled down to a looping 7-second video to the point where the spectacle becomes ordinary.

As I've gotten older, it's gotten increasingly difficult to connect with those younger. I can't fully empathize with young people that have social media withdrawal in the same way I can't fully empathize with a person going through PTSD. It's more comfortable to dismiss what we don't know, and to elevate what we do. I think a lot of Hilary voters are beginning to (hopefully) understand this, in a way that I hope Trump supporters will somehow come to understand as well.

Regarding basketball, Dr. J would have excelled in this era, not because of rule changes or because the league is easier or not as skilled, but because he was a transcendent player who like other luminaries, shone bright due to his willpower and drive and natural ability.

Circumstance may have played a part...but a bit part.

I don’t want to belittle the current field to raise up the profiles of past legends. The right way imho, is the Kobe Bryant way. With respect, reverence, knowledge, and desire to emulate.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 12:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan, excellent points. I'm with you on almost all of this skilled/athleticism debate. I'm not as high on West, though. But, still good analysis on him. He would most likely be a decent amount better today, but it's relative to the competition. I highly doubt he would be able to dominate as much as he did in his era. He's also a tiny player, which doesn't translate well to being elite normally. But, we can't compare on speculation what a player 'might' be today or 'might' be in the past. We need to compare what they actually are/were. And you're right that West couldn't dribble with his left hand, which he admitted to. Why didn't he ever work on that? There's certain skills players today are worse at now but better at in more areas, and overall their skill levels are so much higher now.

Also, I hate the toughness arguments about past players. There's different rules now, for the betterment of the game I might add, which restricts a lot of physicality, it doesn't mean one bit that today's players are necessarily less tough. If James played in the 60s, he'd get used to how the game was officiated pretty quickly. You really think anyone is going to mess with him? If they did, they would face the consequences.

Dr. J was a physical freak, like Wilt, Kobe, Jordan, James. At least what I'm saying and Jordan seems to say as well is that there's way more great athletes today and the average athlete is ridiculously more athletic. The bar continues to move up, we see it in every sport. There's great athletes coming out of the woodwork who have no chance in making the nba. Wilt/James are probably top 2 athletes in basketball ever. Of course Wilt would dominate today if he remain focused which is a big if, but he's certainly not approaching 50ppg, and Maravich isn't approaching 40ppg. I'm not sure if you were joking with that, but it sounds like you're getting caught up in the lore of the past too much. Dr. J averaged just 21.6ppg his first season in the nba. The increased competition certainly seemed to have a lot to do with that. His production was never the same in the nba, and that's being an offensive, high-efficient era for the most part.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 3:39:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

oh, wait. So you are saying moving star players from 60s, 70s in time machine and putting them under current training, diet, tactics etc. regime, wouldn't make them as great as they were or better?
I don't buy it, with more condensed talent (fewer teams!) only best of the best were even playing back then. I think it is even safe to assume 90% of them would make todays teams without any problem.

... and you're comparing freaks of nature to the likes of DeAndre Jordan or worse.... that's ridiculous.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:40:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

"how often he travels, but also how..." often he puts on display such incredible athleticism, power, and grace. Added bonus vid of guys who almost took off from the freethrow line in game. http://www.hoopmixtape.com/top-10-almost-free-throw-line-dunks-game-time/

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I think that the list of people who could both dunk from the free throw line under game conditions and have the necessary skill set to play in the NBA is much smaller than you appear to believe.

That being said, I am more interested in your next point, namely that you believe that the reason we don't see such a play being attempted is that players fear humiliation via social media. That point is well taken, whether or not you are right that there are many people who could match Doc's feat. I alluded to this when I suggested that players today have a much different attitude than players from the 1970s and 1980s. Erving calls it "daring to be great": he was never afraid to try a dunk or to try to block a dunk if that was the right play at the time, even if he might fail. Doc specifically told me that he was disappointed that so many current players shy away from such moments instead of embracing the challenge. Today's players are very concerned about perception; they do flashy moves to get attention but they avoid any situation in which they might be embarrassed. Doc told me that he took off from the free throw line because Archie Clark went for the steal, which forced Doc to take off a little earlier than he wanted to take off. Doc accepted the challenge of the moment and made a play, even if in that moment he might not have been sure what the result would be (I assume if he realized he was not going to be able to complete the dunk then he would have gone with a finger roll).

When the discussion devolves to whether Doc took off completely behind the foul line in 1976 or if his foot straddled the line I think we are missing the larger point that few others would have dared to try that shot in that moment and fewer people than you think could actually pull it off. This is a little bit like the four minute mile. Until Roger Bannister, this was thought to be impossible but after he did it then others soon accomplished it as well. Doc was a trendsetter and barrier breaker; if he were playing today, he would be taking off from the top of the key or doing something else to break barriers that no one else had tried to break.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Wilt was a national phenom when he was in high school. The idea that his play would have been adversely affected by media coverage is not well founded. Wilt also faced overt racism of a kind that LeBron, fortunately, does not face.

Regarding the progression of track and field records, it is not clear if humans have "evolved" or if training conditions have improved or if this is an example of "better bodies through chemistry." My only point about track and field is that Wilt proved that he was an elite athlete in sports/events other than basketball. We assume that LeBron could play other sports at a high level but he has never competed beyond high school in anything but basketball.

You believe that basketball skill sets have evolved tremendously, so let's look at free throw percentage. One could argue that the older players should be given some slack considering the travel demands, the poor lighting in arenas, etc. but I won't even go there. The rim has been 10 feet high and 15 feet away from the free throw line throughout NBA history.

In 1955-56, the average NBA free throw percentage was .745. Chamberlain's poor free throw percentage and large number of attempts actually lowered the numbers a bit during his prime but in 1965-66 the average NBA free throw percentage was .727. In 1975-76, the NBA average was .751 and the ABA average was .771. In 1985-86, the NBA average was .756. In 1995-96, the average was .740. In 2005-06, the average was .745. In 2015-16, the average was .757.

Field goal percentage is affected by shot selection, style of play, defensive rule, etc. Free throw percentage is about as pure a measure of shooting skill as we can find--and it has barely changed in the past 40 years.

I don't really care whether or not high school players can dribble with either hand. How many players can catch the ball, make a strong two dribble move and either shoot a pull-up jumper or else finish at the hoop? That was Jerry West's skill set and it is far superior to that of any shooting guard in the NBA today. West did not need to palm the ball or take 20 dribbles to get open and the same thing is true of Maravich. I am serious when I say that prime Maravich could average 40 ppg in the NBA under today's rules and philosophies. He averaged over 31 ppg in his best season despite having no three point shot and despite having to deal with sagging defenses and a horrible supporting cast. In today's game, Maravich would make at least five three pointers a game. That extra point per shot bumps him up to 36 ppg. Maravich would draw a ton of fouls as well and he was a very good free throw shooter, so I give him an extra point per quarter on free throws. That puts his best season at 40 ppg instead of 31 ppg.

I love Westbrook's game and I think that he should be MVP this season but 2017 Westbrook is not a better scorer than 1977 Maravich--and Westbrook is averaging over 30 ppg this season.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I distinguished between skill set and toughness. Ability to take a punch--or just increased physical contact in general--falls in the toughness category. Most of today's stars would struggle with the increased physicality of the game in previous eras.

I did not attribute to Bellamy each of the characteristics that you listed relative to those particular players; I just said that he would start over any of them because he was a better player and I stand by that statement.

Shaq couldn't shoot and he won four championships. Russell was a great rebounder, defender and passer. In his two-plus decades of organized basketball (high school, college, Olympics, NBA) he was the best player on a championship team almost every year. Comparing him to limited guys like Jordan or Gobert is just absurd. As for shooting, Russell ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage four times. He was an effective finisher in his era. Shot selection, physicality and style of play were different, so it is difficult to compare his field goal percentage with the field goal percentages in other eras but if Russell played today he would dominate other centers--and his ability to fire an outlet pass and then run the floor would help him fit in perfectly with today's style of shooting threes and layups.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


I'm not sure anybody's a much better scorer than '77 Maravich when you boil it down to raw skill. You correctly pointed out how good he was in spite of a terrible team/sagging D. For those reasons and others it isn't reflected in his FG%, but he is perhaps the greatest shotmaker- or certainly one of them- to ever play. He could score in a million different ways, and the threat of his out-of-nowhere passing made him a uniquely tough cover for the entire opposing team. For those who haven't seen him, imagine if Steph Curry also passed like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird and had a library of ridiculous and-1 type playground layup/midrange moves of the sort you normally only see in video games and sizzle reels.

Doc is probably the greatest player ever, but Pete is probably the one who would benefit the most from playing in a later era. 40 points would be a cinch for him today, and 50 would not be out of the question. Nor would averaging 40/10. Pistol Pete was not a noteworthy defender, but in terms of pure offensive skillset it's nearly impossible to ask for more.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I love Isaiah Thomas' game but let's pump the brakes on saying his skill set is more complete than Jerry West's. West only had the edge in shooting, passing, rebounding and defense. If you believe that Thomas' off hand is better than West's I'll give you that one just so that Thomas can win one category. The comparison is absurd and that is no disrespect to Thomas.

My point about West's dunking is that there is a perception that no NBA players (other than maybe Wilt) in the 1960s had any athletic ability. I guarantee you that if you put prime West through a scouting combine in terms of vertical leap, sprinting speed, agility drills, etc. that he would top most if not all NBA guards of today (probably not Westbrook in terms of vertical leap).

Regarding the "Hack A" strategy, do we have empirical evidence that it even works? Shaq won four titles. Simple math tells me that a 50% free throw shooter will score one point per possession if he is regularly fouled. The fouling team has to then walk the ball up the court and face a set defense, so their efficiency will likely decline without the opportunity to score easy baskets. If Wilt were alive and in his prime I would take my chances with his 30-20 numbers and poor free throw percentage. I would easily take him over any of the "freakish" athletes that you listed. Are we really having a conversation about how Wilt and Russell compare to Cousins, Jordan and Gobert?

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You are right on the money about Maravich.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 9:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Scottie Pippen, Mark Price and several other players are also "dear to my heart" but I didn't put them in my Pantheon. Doc is special and that has nothing to do with me being a big fan of his.

My point with the FIBA analogy is that the supposed athleticism and skill set development of modern NBA players is overrated. We are supposed to believe that the guys from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s could not hang with them but they lost to teams that actually were inferior athletically to the old school NBA players.

I will repeat the main point about assists one more time: assists are awarded on a higher percentage of field goals now than previously. So, any player in a playmaking role will have his totals inflated. Doc was almost always the first or second playmaker on his teams, so in this drive and kick era he would have made a lot of passes that would be classified as assists.

As for 1977, when Doc joined the Sixers the General Manager (Pat Williams) explained that the team philosophy was to have three 20 ppg scorers, not one 30 ppg scorer. Erving bought into that and led the team to one Finals and two Eastern Conference Finals. Eventually, the Sixers adopted a different philosophy and Doc was a 24-plus ppg scorer for three straight seasons even as he entered his 30s as a 10-plus year veteran. Gervin, Malone and other ABA players scored better in the NBA than they did in the ABA; if Erving had been placed in the same role as he had been in the ABA, he could have scored in similar fashion. The funny thing is that even during his ABA years Erving often talked about wanting to reduce his scoring average to around 24-25 ppg so that all of his teammates could be more involved. By nature he was actually more of a pass-oriented player than LeBron, who calls himself a pass-first player but has spent his career attempting 18-20 shots a game.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, we won't agree on the differences in athleticism, that's fine. I think it's pretty obvious though. Training, diet, etc. has improved drastically since 30-40 years ago. The game looks like it's slow motion when I watch a lot of these old videos overall. And I'm not seeing much physical play in these highlight video either or in most I see.

You might be right about assists being rewarded on a higher percentage of field goals. I'm not sure where to find stats like that, but you're missing the point. I repeat as well, assists are down since Erving's era. That's the main thing to look at. There must just be fewer FGs made today then, which is part of the reason I think he'd have fewer today. I was disputing Nick's theory of Erving getting not only more assists today but many more assists. Even with supposedly more liberal statkeeping of assists today, there's still fewer assists being recorded. Also, I'd expect him to play fewer mpg, which would also lead to fewer assists. I suppose he could match or even slightly exceed his assists' averages, but I doubt it.

What you say about 1977 Erving might be true, but that doesn't completely explain his production decreasing quite a bit except FG pct which only slightly decreased, which I'd expect to increase with fewer shots. And it's not a slight decrease in shooting, it's quite substantial. I'm disappointed in him shooting/scoring so much less then. It makes no sense to let much inferior teammates have the same responsibilities as him. It doesn't look like Erving was more of pass-oriented player than James, just less of a shot-oriented player.

Pistol Pete was great, but come on, let's be serious. 40/10? He only averaged 28ppg once and never reached 7apg. I'd expect him to average less than he averaged overall if he played today. I guess we're in the complete opposite spectrum. James/Durant both have better all-around offensive games and shoot much higher percentages than Maravich, while being much bigger players with insane ball-handling themselves. They only average around 25-26ppg this season.

West had skills, no doubt. But, one of the most simplest and important skills, especially for a guard, is to dribble with your off hand. It's mind boggling he never developed that and is a huge red flag for him if he played today.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:52:00 PM, Blogger HP said...

Wy would Doc be the best player in the league right now? What was he better at than LeBron?

And mind you, I mean current LeBron, the 3 time champion LeBron, dude who lead both teams in pts/rbs/ast/blk/stl LeBron... Not the 2011 LeBron who's faults David so often uses to disparage him even though he's not close to the same player he was in the past.

From what I've read and seen of Doc, he isn't as good a shooter, defender, playmaker or passer than LeBron. Scoring could be debated, but I lean towards the guy who is 3rd in ppg career average and will end up probably 2nd or 3rd I all time scoring.

I know people love to say that we never saw "the real Doc" in the NBA, but in reality all stars and specially superstar players don't often have sharp declines... Rather gradual declines as their athleticism fades. So the sharp drop off from 1976 ABA Doc to 1977 NBA Doc was most likely less of him aging a lot in one year and more the different spacing/environment/competition/defenses of the NBA affecting him. It's why I take his ridiculous ABA stats for a forward with a grain of salt. Though LeBron put up similar stats in the 2015 Finals so we can knows.

All in all, could it be argued that he would be better than current LeBron? Sure. But to say it while taking it for granted is meh. Also the comment of him being the greatest player of all time.. Really? I'm not even going to mention Kareem or Jordan, but I'm not sure that Doc ever reached the individual level LeBron reached in 2013 when he was a 41% 3 point shooter, multiple position All Defense guy, all time great athletically and bball iq wise... And lead the Heat to a 27 game winning streak and it's 2nd straight championship. Like, what was Doc better at than 2013 LeBron?

I of course, haven't seen him as much as you guys, but I'd love to hear you guys compare them. Because I just don't see it. Doc's mystique and finesse/class seem to influence people to think he was as great as the top guys, when looking at it skill set and peak impact wise he probably wasn't a top 7 all time guy. I mean, was he for sure a better basketball player than a prime Hakeem Olajawon? Probably not.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:22:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

Dr. J, and every great NBA player cared about his image. It’s part of their brand. Popularity existed back in the 60s and 70s too. The NBA just didn’t have nearly the stage/audience it has now. Social media creates careers and destroys them (across all forms of business—entertainment, politics, sports, etc.). If social media existed during Dr. J’s era, a lot more unheard stories would come to light. All the page 6 stuff we know went on, but can’t confirm went on. Some personalities can survive it. I have little doubt Dr. J would. But, it’s not a given. And it’s certainly not a given for a guy like Wilt, who you rightly described in this post https://20secondtimeout.blogspot.com/2016/06/is-lebron-james-modern-wilt-chamberlain.html.

The only comparison I was making between Russell and Chamberlain to DeAndre Jordan, Gobert and Cousins is athleticism and skillset. (I did compare them directly to Walt Bellamy though, as you said Bellamy would be hands down the best center in the NBA today…)

I didn’t think I needed to write this, but apparently I do to make it crystal clear. In addition to his work ethic and athleticism, Russell brought discipline, basketball knowledge, mentality and intangibles that made him one of the greatest winners ever (also didn’t hurt he played on teams with 3-4 surrounding Hall of Famers). But, I don’t think athletically, a guy like DeAndre Jordan is all that far off…if not more so in terms of agility, jumping ability, speed, etc. Or a guy like Cousins doesn’t have more basketball skills. I mean, Cousins shoots nearly 80 percent from the line and hits 3s, while also leading breaks. Does that mean I think he’s better than Russell? Hell no. The mental aspect of the game is almost more important than physical tools. And both Jordan and especially
Cousins are pudding in that department.

I am not comparing Thomas to West, only pointing out that the 60th pick in the 2011 draft, a spot where most guys never make the NBA, is terrifically adept at using both hands, while one of the greatest players of all time, was right dominant. That point is made only to say that the supposed bottom feeder guys, who you said would be unable to compete in the 60s, have in many ways, vastly superior skills to the 60s top players.

I am also not comparing DeAndre Jordan and Gobert to Chamberlain in terms of greatness. But athletically? They probably aren’t as athletic as Wilt. He was the king freak after all. But, they are at least in the same stratosphere.

But, that’s all beside my point. My main point is that guys like Gobert and Jordan aren’t even all-stars (let alone the best players) and they are freak athletes that would be freak athletes in any era. And could at the bare minimum, be positively compared to the athletic prowess of Wilt and Russell. Again, not the talent, just the sheer athleticism.

I find it odd that you have yet to address my bringing up Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, etc. etc. These are all freaky freak athletes. And that’s my and Anonymous’ point. While you pull five of the freakiest athletes of all time in Russell, Wilt (the freakiest of them all), Dr. J, Pistol and the Logo and then throw in a handful of other names (again across a few different eras) to basically generalize the athleticism of players across three different generations…I’ve given you 20+ freak athletes that all play in 2017. And then pointed to other non-stars, non-starters, bench scrubs that are in the dunk contests doing dunks we’ve never seen before.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:24:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

I mean, if you (and Beep) are correct, and I’m not saying you aren’t—then I’m depressed as hell. As that means, the NBA has devolved. That the product now is worse than it was 50 years ago! That the players now have not only not learned how to be better at basketball, but that they are both weaker mentally and physically. That the influx of styles and personalities and athletes from around the world, have only watered down the NBA, rather than make it stronger and more vibrant and exciting.

I’m sorry. I believe in progress. And, yeah, I never got to see Wilt up close. Never got to be dazzled by Pistol Pete. Never got to both marvel at the will and agonize in defeat with West. Saddest of all, never got to witness the style and grace of Julius Erving. But, of the NBA I have seen (1989 to 2016), I have witnessed a vast improvement in the overall product. The sheer speed and artistry and agility and dexterity players exhibit on a nightly basis, is why…to me…no other sport holds a candle in the wind to the NBA.

I value and honor the greatness of those who helped build up the NBA. But, I equally value and honor the game as it is now.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:52:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick, maybe Pete Maravich would have benefited from today's NBA. Maybe not. He never played 80 games past his first season. In his transcendent 77' year, he missed 9 games and then never played more than 50.

If we cherry-picked one season from players and extrapolate that over an entire career, then we'd have to talk about Tracy McGrady's 03 season where he averaged more of everything than Maravich on far superior percentages (save FT) and an equally terrible team. And, as a 6-8 player with 7-2 wingspan and way more athleticism, was a superior defender as well. Or Wade's 09, where again, he averaged 1 point less, but on a far superior percentage (and didn't really benefit from 3s cuz he's not good at them) with better stats across the board. Or Nate Archibald's 73 season, where he, you know, led the league in scoring and assists (and minutes!) while besting Maravich's averages in points by 3 and assists by 6.5 while also playing 7 more games and 600 more minutes on better percentages and with an equally garbage team.

TMac, Wade, and Tiny all had better records those seasons too! TMac made the freaking playoffs and nearly toppled the Ben Wallace, Chauncy, Hamilton Pistons in the first round.

I'm not trying to belittle Maravich, as that seems to be what you and David think I'm doing to the legends of the game being talked about in this thread. What I'm trying to do is point out fact, and not theorize.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 5:01:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

While we are talking about physical attributes I always thought one of the most amazing things about Jordan was the way he would palm the ball. No one else seems to do this, maybe they don't have big enough hands.

Regarding Lebron, I would agree he is one of the most amazing athletes I have seen. My issue with him was always more mental. Guys like Bird and Kobe were still athletic, but nowhere near what he and other stars have had. While Kobe has a rep for being athletic, I actually think compared to his contemporaries (vince, tmac, Lebron, wade) he was severely outclassed. I think his success is closer to Bird, in that they both had to work their asses off for it.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 7:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

HP-

Well, first off, Hakeem is crazy underrated and I have him in my top 5 (along with Doc, Duncan, Kareem, and Jordan). I would take Doc over Hakeem, but I wouldn't think less of anyone who went the other way there (ditto with anyone in my top 5). Once you get to a certain point, the margins are razor thin.

As for what he did better than Lebron?

* Better rebounder. Despite playing fewer minutes at the 4 (which puts you in better position for boards), Doc's career averages and career bests both whoop Lebron, and that's with Doc's twilight years pulling the averages down. Lebron is still in his prime, so all his career averages are (very likely) higher than they'll ultimately end up.

* On a related note, Lebron's career PPG is likely to decline as well as he ages As David has pointed out, Doc spent the second half of his prime deferring to other scorers, which deflated his averages. That's on his coaches, though, not on him, and the position of his NBA career where he *was* asked to score more, he put up similar numbers to what Lebron is putting up now against a harder rule-set and packed paint.

* Doc was a better finisher than Lebron, Lebron is a better jump-shooter than Doc. Both could score in dozens of ways, and both were/are essentially A+ scorers. I'd trust Doc a little more because Lebron can sometimes get discouraged against next-level rim protection, while Doc often put up his best performances against Walton/Hayes/Parish/Kareem, but it's pretty hard to complain about either guy's scoring aptitude.

* Defensively, Lebron can guard more positions, but Doc was a better help defender. When guarding forwards, both were pretty great one-on-one. Doc's effort was probably a little more consistent on that end overall, but given (as discussed above) he wasn't asked to carry as much of a load on offense for several years, that's understandable.

* The big thing people don't realize about Doc's defense, though, was that he was a next-level shot blocker/rim protector even as a perimeter player. He average 1.7 blocks for his career- which would be good for 8th in the league this season (ahead of Ibaka, Gasol, and Cousins). His career high of 2.4 BPG would be good for 2nd behind Gobert's 2.5.

Doc was 6'7. That career average us also a little lower than it should be, as they did not record blocks in Doc's rookie year (which was arguably when his athleticism was at its peak, as evidenced by his monster rebounding totals). Everyone ahead of Doc on the All-Time BPG rankings is at least 2-3 inches taller than he is (and most of them are closer to 7 ft).

But not all blocks are created equal, and Doc blocks are the best blocks. Look at the video David posted; notice how Doc blocks the shot from below, rather than above, allowing him to knock it into the air, keep it in play, and buy himself time to recover the shot in stead of merely winging it into the crowd? That was not unusual for Doc.

Additionally, go watch some old Doc games. One of his favorite tricks is to give up a seemingly open 12-18 footer to the opposing team's big in the first quarter, then fly in from behind and swat it. Then watch those guys look over their shoulders for the rest of the game; a great shot-blocker doesn't just affect the possessions on which he blocks the shot, but almost every possession while he's on the floor due to the threat of his shot-blocking. Doc was one of those, and it's not a coincidence that every team he played for during his prime was a top 10 defense (including 3 #1s and 2 #2s). By contrast, Lebron's best defensive team was 3rd in the league.

1/many

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 7:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Doc is a historically underrated defender in part because he did not make any All-Defensive teams, but that's more a function of 1) All Defensive Teams being somewhat unreliable and 2) playing during the same time as several of the greatest defensive forwards of all time, including Bobby Jones, Dan Roundfield, and Kevin McHale.

Doc also got tons of steals, if that matters to you. I believe when he retired he was the career leader, though of course Stockton/Jordan/others have passed him since.

I have more to say, but my computer's dying, so I'll have to circle back around later. I'm sure David has some great stuff to add as well, and it's worth remembering his many previous points about just how good the ABA was before dismissing any of those stats.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I did not say that Doc did not care about his image; I said that he did not let this impact the way he played in the manner and to the extent that current/recent players do.

If you truly believe that DeAndre Jordan and the other guys you listed are in the same athletic class as Wilt I don't know what else to say.

Who cares when Thomas was drafted? He is an All-NBA player now, not a fringe player--and he is still markedly worse than West in every area that I mentioned.

By the way, West's left hand was not quite as useless as some people are intimating but the relevant issue is that no one could stop him from going right so he rarely needed to go left.

I see no need to address every name that you mentioned. Several of those players have not established themselves as current greats, let alone all-time greats. Also, it should be obvious that a 450 player league has greater raw numbers of everything--great athletes, D-League level benchwarmers--than a 90-100 player league or even a 200 player league.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

"Progress" is rarely strictly linear but that may be beyond the scope of this thread (or website) but, yes, even though there are some great teams and players today I do not believe that the overall quality of play is higher than it was in, say, the 1980s. I do not believe that the 73 win Warriors are better than the 72 win Bulls. LeBron is the best player today and Westbrook is the most productive but neither would be the best player in the late 1980s NBA. Tanking is rampant today and many of today's benchwarmers would not make a 1980s roster. I am not so impressed that Cousins can make threes. Can Cousins elevate a franchise? Can he keep his cool? Can he be productive for a winning program? We don't know yet.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

That's a bit of a false-equivalency. The thing is that Pistol Pete's game is uniquely better suited to the current era than the one in which he played; the same is not true (at least to the same extent) for T-Mac, Tiny, etc., as they are not the same kind of shooting wizard he was.

If we were only talking about numbers, you would perhaps have a point but we are talking about skillet; Pistol Pete was a pace-and-space player before pace-and-space existed, and with a more open paint and the threat of a three-point line he'd have been unstoppable. Watch the highlights of his 68 point game sometime; he made about six or seven would-be threes in that game with no incentive; it stands to reason he'd take more of them if they were worth more points (or, if defenses chased him off the line, have room to drive and make use of his otherworldly handles and playground layups).

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew, when did Wade become more athletic than Kobe? Kobe's not as athletic as Jordan, Wilt, or James, sure, but Wade? Come on now. Wade is much shorter, slower, and couldn't jump as high from what I've seen. T-Mac and Vince both could probably jump higher than Kobe and I think slightly taller, but they weren't faster, quicker, or stronger. Kobe's not in the toppest of tiers athletically, but he was a freak athlete and is at the top of the 2nd tier of freak athletes.

Jordan, one guy that comes to mind that struggled in the nba but was probably more athletic than James except for size that hasn't been brought up is Shannon Brown. He was 6-4, but super fast, super strong, and could jump out of the gym.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:26:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Back on Doc and the question of winning...

It is also worth noting, when comparing Doc to Lebron, that Doc performed his greatest (1976 Finals) against perhaps the best defensive forward to ever live in Bobby Jones. The narrative that Lebron was "stopped" or "outplayed" by Leonard and Iguodala is overblown, but it is fair to say that he was less than his ultimate self against them, and it is worth noting that his Finals performance last year came in a series in which Iguodala was playing hurt, Draymond Green missed a game, and Andrew Bogut missed two; those are the three most important players with regards to guarding Lebron, and it took their absence or infirmity for him to do what Doc did unfettered against the ultimate defender.

This is not an isolated incident, either. He put up 25/7/5 on 52% shooting against defensive ace Michael Cooper backed by apex Kareem in '80. He lost that series, but he was playing against at team featuring not only Kareem (a GOAT contender himself) but also Magic Johnson (a future 3x MVP), Michael Cooper (DPOY), Jamaal Wilkes (3x AS, 2x All-D), and Norm Nixon (2x AS). He had Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, who are both awesome, but neither is a Magic-level player, and Daryl Dawkins is certainly no Kareem.

In '81, he lost to a similarly dominant cast in 7 games, made up of Nate Archibald (perennial AS), Larry Bird (3x MVP), Kevin McHale (perhaps the 2nd greatest PF to ever play), Robert Parish (Perennial AS and All D), and Cedric Maxwell (who went on to win the Finals MVP).

He beat more-or-less that same Celtics team in '80 and '82, somehow.

In '82, he put up 25/8/7 against those same Lakers, who had since added former MVP Bob McAdoo (and retained the other five stars).

Upon getting an MVP caliber center of his own in Moses, he summarily swept that Lakers team, despite their deeper bench and bigger names.

Moral of the story, it took literal All-Star teams feature multiple top 30 all-time players to knock Doc out of the playoffs in the 80s. Criticizing him for not winning enough (and he *did* win 3 titles, after all) ignores an awful lot of context.

Ask for the 70s, in the NBA he lost in 7 games to a team featuring 5 All-Stars in '79 (Gervin's Spurs), to a team featuring 3 1st ballot HoFers in '78 (including former MVP Wes Unseld), and to a peak Bill Walton Blazers team in '77. Doc put up 30/7/5/3/1 in that series on 54% shooting, but nobody on Philly could guard Walton or Lucas inside, and Portland absolutely suffocated starters George Mcinnis and Henry Bibby into 39% and 31% shooting, respectively.

Lebron, on the other hand, lost to a Dallas team that straight up wasn't as talented (though they are historically underrated), and to an aging (but savvy) Spurs team caught awkwardly between the respective primes of Duncan and Leonard.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Regarding whether or not there are more great players now:

Yes, total, there are. But not per-team. The Lakers/Celtics teams mentioned in my previous post often had 5-6 All-Stars (or at least AS level value players in the case of DPOYs and so forth). The '86 Celtics and early 80s Lakers had the luxury of bringing recent MVPs off the bench, if you can believe it.

Let us compare the rosters of the '86 Celts and the '2017 Warriors, and see which team is scarier:

The starting PG for the Celtics was a perennial AS and All-D fixture in Dennis Johnson, but Steph Curry is a win for the Warriors there.

Klay Thompson is likewise superior to occasional All-Star Danny Ainge at the 2.

Kevin Durant is not as good as Larry Bird in my opinion, but for the purposes of this argument let's call them a wash.

Draymond Green is very good, but Kevin McHale is one of the best 30 or so players to ever lace up a pair. Green is a better shooter, and arguably a better passer (though McHale was a *transcendent* post passer, so maybe not). Both could guard every position on the floor. They are comparable rebounders, but McHale played with two other great rebounders and Green plays with none (i.e., there are more easy rebounds available for Green). McHale scored over twice as many points on 14% higher shooting and blocked more shots. He also drew more fouls. This is as much win for the Celtics as Curry-over-Johnson is for the Warriors.

Robert Parish is one of the 10-15 best centers to ever play the game. Zaza Pachulia is a meme. This is an overwhelming victory for the Celtics, and more than makes up for Klay-over-Ainge. Klay may be twice the player Ainge was, but Parish is 10x the player Zaza is.

Iguodala is a very good 6th man. Bill Walton is a former MVP. Both were/are at this point defensive specialists, but Walton was a more dangerous offensive player, and had a greater defensive impact.

The rest of the benches are debatable, but I would take the Celtics Bench.

Now, that's a pretty easy win for the Celtics in my opinion, but even if you call it a wash, the Warriors are far and away the class of the league; the Celtics were one of about 5 or 6 teams vying for supremacy in the mid 80s. There may be more great players today, but there were more of them per team then. The Celtics of that year technically has 7 current or former All-Stars, five of them in their prime, which is ludicrous.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: Athleticism

The training/diet/travel argument needs to go both ways. If Lebron played in 1965, his body would likely have broken down the same way Elgin Baylor's did (or faster, since he's carrying a lot more weight). If Doc played today, his knees would not have deteriorated as quickly as they did (he'd noticeably lost some explosiveness even by '77). If Jerry West played today, he'd have the benefit of all the top-shelf training and analysts, just as if Isaiah Thomas played in 1979 his career might well have been ended the first time Kurt Rambis or Artis Gilmore body slammed him on a layup attempt. Pistol Pete would probably have smoked and drank a lot less if he played for a team that, you know, forbid it.

You can look at players' physical gifts, but do not give them credit for the medicine of their era nor punish them for the lack thereof.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, you seem to be missing Jordan's and my points mostly. What we're talking about is the average player today and the many more freakish-type athletes we see today. There's only one Wilt, for sure. But, can anyone imagine someone like Bob Cousy even approaching perennial AS status? The average player is just quite a bit bigger/stronger/more athletic, just the way it is. Defenses are better even despite the supposedly easier rules to score, while pace is down overall from 30-40 years ago, which leads to fewer points. Though, scoring is picking up lately thankfully, makes it more fun to watch the game. Players are continuing to get better and coaches are figuring out how to score better.

Jordan, good points about Pete. I don't know where 40/10 is coming from? Kobe and Jordan were much better scorers and never did it, and they were in perfect situations(bad teams and able to shoot as much as they wanted to). Heck, Jordan never averaged 40ppg for a month. I think David has mentioned this before, and I seem to remember only Wilt, Kobe, and Baylor have ever averaged 40ppg for a month at least once. NOJ's pace in 1977 was 107.2. 2006 LAL's pace was just 90.9, not to mention much better defense to face in 2006, too. Pete led the league in mpg, and still only managed 31.1ppg.

Nick, Hakeem is not underrated. I see him usually in everyone's top 15, even in top 10 sometimes, which 10-15 seems about right. Most of his career consists of up and down success with a lot of underachievement. His individual/team achievements don't match up well with several other guys.

All-defensive teams are also not unreliable, at least in the sense that Erving's lone selection should've been 10+ selections given the way you talk about his defense. Mchale never made a 1st team all-defense until 1986, Erving's 2nd-to-last season, and well past his best defensive years, so I'm not sure how he's hindering Erving's selections. It seems like Erving's defense was better than just the 1 selection, and maybe he would've been 3rd or 4th team most years, but why couldn't the voters see this during his time? Did they have some bias against him, etc? I don't buy it. It seems like the other great defenders in Erving's era did get the recognition they deserved.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:00:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

On Bellamy-

I have seen a bit less of Bellamy than of most of the other greats we're discussing, but I think David is *slightly* overselling him. He would certainly be a top 5 center today, but I am hesitant to say he would be meaningfully more valuable than those centers with more diverse skillsets (Marc Gasol, or Boogie on his good nights).

That said, David is not overselling him by much. He was an absolute killing machine when healthy, who could drive, shoot, and finish, and had excellent timing on defense. Think Amare Stoudemire if he rebounded like Dennis Rodman. I have not seen enough of him to confidently describe his team or help defense, but he could definitely block shots at an elite level, and he was very fast for a big man. He was a good shooter as well, and probably *could* shoot 3s if he wanted to. The only guys I'm not sure he'd be better than are the ones who are better passers, as that adds a whole extra dimension to their post up game and their teams' offensive versatility, but I would not confidently take them over him, either.

I will say that I'm not sure he'd be as effective a post-defender today as he was then, as he played a very physical style of defense (a lot of leaning on his man and using his low center of gravity to move guys around) that would probably make him overly foul-prone today. It is possible he could adapt to a less hands-on defensive tact, but it is also possible he could not, or would not be *as* effective in the role.

Basically, he'd be a definite contender for best center in the league, but I might stop short of anointing him as the no-question best center in the league.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: Kobe

I'm often yelled at for being a "Kobe hater" but suggesting he was anything less than a top-caliber athlete is lunacy. His conditioning, strength (for his size), and explosiveness were all top tier, and I defy you to name three physically stronger shooting guards.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 1:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: Erving's D (again)

I am not interested in getting into another extended debate about what Anonymous thinks defense means, but I will comment that Erving's lack of All-D attention is part of the reason I'm not terribly convinced by player X's selections.

I was listing forwards from memory. Please replace "Kevin McHale" with "Maurice Lucas" or whomever you prefer in my previous comment.

Re: Pistol Pete (again)

Jordan and Kobe were not elite long-range jump-shooters, and Jordan played before the league really understood the value in shooting lots of 3s. That said, Jordan post-handcheck rule could probably have scored 40 pretty easily if he wanted to, and Kobe came fairly close in '06. He was about 4.5 points off. Jordan's career scoring average is about 5 points higher than Bryant's (despite playing his whole career pre-handcheck), so I would be far from shocked if he'd been able to get to 40 in similar circumstances. Ditto for Baylor, Doc, etc.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 2:47:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@David. Well, that's disheartening. Basically, what you’re saying is I was born too late. I won’t pursue this particular discussion any further as I have no frame of reference when it comes to players in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s. I do want to point out one slight discrepancy is your comment, “Also, it should be obvious that a 450 player league has greater raw numbers of everything--great athletes, D-League level benchwarmers--than a 90-100 player league or even a 200 player league.” I agree, but you also said that the talent level was far greater in a 90-100 player league because it was far more condensed. So, if that were the case, then the 90-100 player league should have had all the best athletes, and therefore, it should be easier to point out all of those athletes. Anyway, while depressed by your overall assessment of the game I love, I remain undeterred from enjoying it. Thank you for responding to my comments.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 3:03:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick, it's not a false equivalency any more than it is to say a guy could do something today he never even came close to actually doing (his absolute best season wasn't even close to 40/10) and that no other player in the history of the game has ever come close to doing. But, I guess if the idea that the NBA is significantly worse today than it was 40 years ago, Maravich dropping 40/10 is definitely possible. But, I’d say Tiny still would be the more likely to accomplish that feat considering he came closer and played in the same era.

Regarding the “going both ways” part of your argument. YES. Absolutely. Watch any video of games from the 1960s. You mean to tell me that those guys are running and jumping as fast and as high and as quickly as players today?

I’m sorry, but I’ve watched a few of these games—the best ones that they showed on the NBA channel (they used to play them back when I had cable at least). And, these were the classic games. Perhaps due to the poor quality of the telecasts, the level of athleticism is grossly distorted. But to me, those games are tough to watch. The players just don’t move fluidly or all that quickly or adeptly. At least, not when compared to today. It reminded me of the feeling I got watching a high school basketball game after watching an NBA game.

Which, I think goes back to my point. DeAndre Jordan may not look like he is athletically in Russell’s wheelhouse (won’t be touching the Wilt athletic comparison anymore as you and David both think I’m an idiot), but that’s because he’s playing against other high-flying, super freak fast players. I mean, as Anonymous pointed out, a fringe NBAer like Shannon Brown, is an all-world class athlete. He just didn’t have the head or the skills/discipline to take full advantage.

So, I don’t understand how we can say guys who flourished in an era that wasn’t 2017, could suddenly be transported to 2017 and flourish without any transitional problems. But that guys from 2017 couldn’t be transported back to the 1960s and flourish…like, Lebron back in the 1960s, even at 30 pounds lighter, wouldn’t have dominated the hell out of everyone, as a 6-10 linebacker, that was faster than every guard, and could jump higher than most centers (other than Wilt), handle the ball like the best guards, pass like the best guards, post up like an all-star caliber post player, shoot from distance like a fringe all-star player, and drive to the hoop better than everyone else in the league…?

1/2

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 3:06:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Lebron may be the most scrutinized athlete of all time (well, besides Kobe Bryant). I don’t think we all appreciate that enough. It’s not just having to endure it in game every other night, or reading about it in the newspaper the next morning or hearing it randomly on the one radio station. Instead, it’s immediate, incessant, loud scrutiny at all times. Pre-game. In-game. Post-game. On your phone. On television. Online. On the radio. On the 50 talk shows – only half of which are sports related. It’s hearing it from your wife’s friends who heard about it because of Basketball Wives or some meme that is going around on Instagram. It’s hearing it from your kids who saw it on Snapchat. It’s hearing it from your agent, your team, the other guys captain, your owner, your sponsors, the 10 different people from the 10 different PR firms representing your 10 different sponsors, your “best friend” who plays for another team and is being asked about it by the 50 reporters covering his team in a completely different city...the freaking President of the United States... It’s hearing it in 40 different languages, and being watched/talked about by people in over 200 countries.

And yet, I’m supposed to believe that Wilt wouldn’t wilt under those circumstances, even though he kinda/sorta wilted under his own era’s circumstances? That, having one of his sex orgies going viral, wouldn't...uh, you know, affect him. Maybe not to a Greg Oden degree...but still.

Or, to relate it back to Pistol…that a guy who couldn’t even play 80 games, even with today’s medical assistance, would be able to score 40 and dish out 10 assists, simply based off footage from the best game of his career?

I mean, if all we watched was Kobe’s 81 point game, or his 56 against Dallas, or Klay’s 61 point game, and then extrapolated that across an entire season…we could come up with some pretty wild expectations regarding their abilities and capabilities.

Shooting takes endurance. As David pointed out regarding Kobe’s 61 point farewell game. Taking 50 shots is exhausting. Hell, taking 25 shots for 75 games is exhausting. I’m just struggling mightily to see how you can be so certain Pistol could do it.

2/2

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 3:46:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick, I realize we may be arguing semantics, which is silly. I agree that Maravich would have been a tremendous player in any era (when healthy, and probably wouldn’t have drank and smoked…and well died so early) and would especially excel based on his skillset, under today’s rules. But, I’m not willing to put any solid numbers on what he’d average, let alone numbers that have never even been approached.

And, regarding Bryant. He wasn’t a traditional long range shooter in terms of consistency. But, before Curry broke the record, Bryant shared the most 3s in a game record at 12. Bryant, ever the cerebral player, who adapted and evolved his game throughout his career, would likely have seen the way the current NBA has evolved and done similar. I mean, he did see it and tried in his farewell season (jacked up 7 triples a game. He just didn’t have the lift in his battered body.

He shot as high as 38 percent, and was right in the 35% range for the bulk of his prime career years. His career average is significantly brought down by his first couple of years, and his last four.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 3:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

Re: Pete

It's not that the NBA is worse today; it's that the NBA is much more suited to Pistol Pete today, specifically, than his era was. Pistol Pete's best asset was his incredible shooting capabilities... which mattered a lot less in a league with no 3 point shot. Teams could play off him, and let him shoot 23 footers because they were low-value shots relative to interior shots (which he was also great at). Even if he was making, say 45% of them (or whatever), you'd much rather give that up than risk a layup or a foul, no? The math changes there once those shots are worth more points, though.

Today, they'd have to choose between conceding open 3s to perhaps the deadliest jump-shooter ever (small sample size alert here, but he did shoot 66% on 3s the one season he played with them in play, and was far past his athletic peak at that point), or playing up on one of the craftiest ball handlers ever and allowing him to drive past them.

As I suggest before, imagine if Steph Curry also passed like Magic Johnson. To elaborate on that, imagine he had the driving game of someone like Iverson or Thomas (a little slower, maybe, but a lot craftier).

I am not contending that the league as a whole is weaker today- I can see the arguments on both sides there- but I am contending that it is uniquely well-suited to the things Pistol Pete did best. I do not think you could take any other guard from that era to today and expect the same ROI; some of their numbers would improve (the great shooters/drivers), others might go down. But Pistol Pete would go from an All-Star in his era to a perennial MVP candidate in this one.

Though he still wouldn't be a great defender, so I'd bitch and moan when he eventually won an MVP, no matter how eye-popping his offensive numbers were.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 3:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, of course you don't think all-defense teams mean anything since they don't support your conclusions. You can't just completely dismiss them. You do the same thing with AS teams because they don't fit your narratives. There wasn't some type of bias against Erving either from anything I've heard either. And defenders were certainly not better in the 1970s than they are today. Erving was the face of the ABA, but still only made 1 such team in a very small, watered-down league which didn't have the majority of the better players at the time. I'd expect him to make all-defense teams regularly and with ease in the ABA as well as in the NBA, especially since he played fewer mpg(should've been fresher) and had less offensive responsibilities supposedly early on in the NBA from the way you talk about him defensively. You might have a point on some stuff if he managed 7-8 all-defense teams, but 1?

Kevin Mchale and Roundfield or whoever he is(never heard of him) hardly support your case.

Jordan was never good from 3's, except with the shortened line. Kobe was actually a good 3-pt. shooter though, once he added that skill to his game in 2003. His career percentage is so pedestrian to several factors; mainly his last 3 years in the league after his achilles injury, shooting so many 'hand grenades' as David has refers to them, and shooting lots of 3's at end of games when his team was behind by a decent amount and they need to make up a lot of points quickly. Yes, other star players do some of this to extent, but I've never seen anyone else have to do this type of stuff anywhere nearly as much as Kobe did. Maybe Pete averages 4+ 3's made/game, but he'd also have 4-5 less shots/game based on pace, which would negate the 4 3's.

As Pippen once said something to this extent, 'Jordan definitely tried to score 80,' referring to Kobe's 81-pt game. You and others seem to have the legends' syndrome at times. Think about all these past legends of the game(and the past legends do the same thing a lot of times), and think they could do anything and everything, how much tougher their era was and how much better it was, etc. Jordan had a perfect scenario to score as much as he wanted for years, and never averaged 40ppg in a month, let alone a season. Handcheck/no-handcheck, blah, it's not easier to score today, that's just a myth.

Quick notes about Erving/James. Erving had plenty of chances to win a title as the main guy in the NBA, and didn't. There were no other great teams from 77-79, and he definitely had some help, maybe not the most help. Though, I'd expect the supposedly greatest player ever according to you Nick, to find a way to win multiple NBA titles as the main guy at the very least. SA had only 2 current AS in 1979, same as PHI. And he had plenty of opportunities in the 80s, and ultimately needed to become the #2 guy to win, similar to Oscar. This isn't to harp on Erving, one of all-time best still. Winning back-to-back is also something special, which James has accomplished, something Erving never did even in the ABA. James is vastly overrated, but while there's caveats to making 6 straight finals(much weaker conf. and a great cast every year), it's impressive and it'd tire anyone out come finals team. Even if he played his very best in the 2014 finals, I have a hard time seeing MIA winning that series still.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 4:01:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: Transitional Problems

If you take Pistol Pete and put him in 2017 without giving him access to any of the improved training/travel/diet/strategy, then yes, he would probably have some difficulty adjusting. If, however, he came into the league today, and played on any NBA team which has all those things (so, you know, any of them), he would be if anything *more* dangerous. My point was more that for the purposes of cross-era comparisons, it's reasonable to assume old guys would benefit from modern techniques and young guys would suffer without them.

You mention that Lebron would be an athletic freak in the 1960s, and I agree. I also think his career would be over or near-over by now as they did not have the medical knowledge, scheduling, or dietary capabilities to support his body and style of play long term. Instead of private jets he would be traveling in cramped busses (terrible for your knees) and flying coach when he did fly (also not great), and instead of a few back-to-backs he would be playing tons of four-in-fives and if I recall properly, even some back-to-back-to-backs.

In his specific case, Lebron's ability to shoot from distance would also help him much less in the 1960s, where those shots are only worth two points (see previous points about Pete). His driving game would still be dominant, but it'd be less dominant against a packed paint full of guys who are allowed to clothesline him (especially considering how much of a ninny Lebron can be occasionally when he gets discouraged). He would absolutely still be an All-NBA level guy while his body held up, and his numbers would likely improve (as much due to pace as anything), but he would not be the same version of himself we see today. He'd be the best forward in 1967, but not by the margin you seem to think, and he probably wouldn't still be a star if he played through to 1978.

Unless, of course, he gets to bring his trainers, dietitians, private jets, etc. back with him. But if he does, then Pete et. al should at the very least get access to those things when hypothesize about them in the present. If they were slower (and some of them were) back then, it is reasonable to assume that the difference is mostly due to those external factors, and not to some sudden evolutionary leap that only affected basketball players (and only some of them).

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 4:14:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

@Jordan - Back on Pete

If the specific numbers are your issue, fair enough. It would depend on system (I wouldn't be shocked to see him break the scoring and/or assist records under Mike D'Antoni, for instance, but he probably wouldn't under Pop). My larger point is that he would be regarded as one of the greatest (at least offensive) guards of all-time instead of as a one-dimensional scorer who never won anything, and his stats, whatever they may be, would look much better.

Another case of small sample size, but when Pete played two games with Dr. J, he by all accounts averaged about 17 assists, because giving a passer like Pete a finisher like Doc was just unfair. While there's nobody who's quite Doc, there are, as you've correctly pointed out, a lot more above the rim finishers in the league right now. Couple that with the more spread-out offensive structure of today's games, and Pete getting to 10 assists seems to me to not only be likely, but borderline inevitable.

Precisely predicting what his scoring would look like is a less exact science, but it is at least a given that it would go up due to the presence of the 3, even if he didn't adapt his game at all (he took a lot of would-be threes regardless). I feel comfortable with 40, and would honestly not be shocked, if on the right/ideal team, he flirted with 50. Give him an RWB or Harden like number of touches, an uptempo system, and enough shooters to give him some room, and he would be easily the best scorer in the league (again, based on skill set and the assumption that whatever gap in athleticism may exist between eras would be mitigated by access to the modern era's technology and progression). Given what Curry accomplished last year playing with several other stars who needed touches, it is not a stretch to envision a deadly shooter/ball-handler on a less loaded team putting up cartoonish scoring totals. Pete shot 28 times a game in his peak season to Curry's 20 last year; it is hard to predict if Pete would be able to match Curry's efficiency (though my gut says probably) but even shooting 5% worse on 8 more shots, he'd be putting up something around 40. If, on the other hand, he shot something like 55/50/90 (not out of the question), 50 is in play.

Given their relative effort levels on defense, it is also fair to say that Pete may be less prone to fatigue than Curry, though that is as much a criticism as a credit.

It's tough to explain how crazy of a jump-shooter Pete was if you haven't watched him play a lot, because his FG% is depressed by taking a bunch of really long-range shots, facing packed paint when he didn't, and according to some teammates, often taking the hardest possible shot to see if he could make it. But in terms of shooting mechanics, ability to get himself open, and accuracy on "pure" jumpshots, the guy was like nothing we've ever seen before. He was also two inches taller than Curry, making him even harder to contest.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 4:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: Kobe's shooting

My point was that he's not in the league of Steph Curry/Pistol Pete. 35% is about league average; pretty good, but not game-changing, and not contorting the defense in the way a 43% shooter might, and teams were generally content to let him shoot over them rather than try to deal with him driving against a back-pedaling defender. Obviously, Kobe contorted the defense in a million other ways, but he's not the same kind of shooter we're talking about for these purposes.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 6:15:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

Skipping over the stuff we've already covered to death (you don't like defense, I don't like All-D teams, 2014 Finals, the ABA was actually stronger than the NBA at that point, etc.), Dan Roundfield was an ABA/NBA player who made, to use your preferred metrics for success, three All-Star teams, 5 All Defensive Teams, and 1 All NBA 2nd team. He played mostly for the Hawks with fellow All-D player Eddie Johnson, but they didn't have the offensive firepower or depth to meaningfully compete with the Lakers/Celtics/76ers of that era.

Great player, though, who in addition to his killer D could (in his prime) be counted on for about 17-and-10 on around 50% shooting. The fact that you have never heard of him does not surprise me (your frame of eye-test reference seems to more-or-less start in the late 80s or early-to-mid 90s, as near as I can guess), but neither does it diminish his accomplishments.

As for Erving's lack of titles in the 70s, a quick overview:

77- His team couldn't guard the other team, the other team could guard his teammates, and he was the best player in the series, but POR had the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, etc. best players as well as peak Walton (who, with some longevity, might have been a GOAT contender himself). This is pretty similar to Lebron vs the Spurs in '14 (though I would take Erving's 77 over Bron's 2014 as his numbers were better in four of five main categories, the principles are similar).

78- I believe this is the year Erving suffered an injury to his shooting hand in the series against Washington. Additionally, the 76ers were a chemistry mess, with Mcinnis, Dawkins, and Mix all grousing about their roles (and not turning in quality performances). As with the previous year's team, the only truly great defensive player on the team was Erving (though backup center Caldwell Jones became pretty stellar later in his career), and he could not be asked to guard Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Bobby Dandridge simultaneously. I would like to know the player who could.

79- Doc lost in 7 games to a very strong Spurs team and a peak George Gervin. Doc's starting center (Dawkins) injured his ankle in the deciding game, and Doc himself was, according to David's article on the subject, dealing with a few minor injuries himself.

Which of those losses is worse than Lebron's various playoff flameouts I am not sure.

As for the "legends" argument, I think that of the top 5 players ever, 2 played in the 70s/80s, 2 played in the 80s/90s, and one played in the 90s/2000s. That's a pretty even distribution. If you expand that to top 10, I currently add 3 60s players, another 70s/80s player, another 80s/90s player. I do not have a current player in my top 5 (though I did until Duncan retired last year), but current players have not yet finished their careers. I have Lebron right around 12 or 13 right now, and it is likely by the end of his career he will rise (possibly, though not probably, to the top 5). Durant and Curry also may eventually crack my top 10 pending how their careers go from here, but as yet their achievement do not trump, say, Wilt's or Barry's in my opinion.

I have often on this very site lauded Lebron's achievement of 6 consecutive Finals, but that achievement unto itself does not launch him above other GOAT-contending players like Doc/Jordan/Duncan, who each have different but similarly impressive plaudits to their names.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This is a very interesting comment thread. Rather than responding to individual comments, I will just offer some bullet point takes on some of the issues that have repeatedly arisen (in no particular order):

1) Dating back at least to my first Pantheon series article, I have avoided selecting one greatest player of all-time; I have preferred to speak of a Pantheon of players, each of whom could legitimately be considered for that title. Julius Erving is a Pantheon level player in my estimation and I feel no need to explain in detail why in this comment thread because I have literally written thousands of words on the subject, analyzing his ABA career, his playoff career year by year, etc. That said, if one wanted to make an argument for Doc being the greatest player of all-time that argument would be much like the argument that Nick made in his comments.

2) Google the late 1990s clip of Kobe dunking over Ben Wallace after taking off from the dotted line at the Thomas & Mack center and perhaps reconsider the notion that Kobe was a "2nd tier athlete." What Kobe lacks is the huge hands that Dr. J and MJ have, so Kobe cannot palm the ball as easily; Doc could catch a pass one-handed running full speed and dunk the ball without using his other hand at all, but such a play is physically impossible for Kobe.

3) I never base my conclusions off of one stat or one video clip or one interview. If I cite a stat or video clip or an interview then I am using it to support my analysis/conclusion, not as a standalone. Thus, I have stated that Erving had a modern game in terms of ballhandling, drive and kick skills and so forth and I submitted some video evidence to demonstrate this. I know based on other footage that I have seen and other evidence that I have collected that what Erving did in this video clip was not unusual for him.

4) Pistol Pete averaged over 31 ppg in 1977 with no three point shot and a bad supporting cast. He regularly shot from well beyond the three point line dating all the way back to college (someone with perhaps too much time on his hands once reviewed Pistol's college footage and play by play sheets to determine how much more than his record 44 ppg Pistol would have averaged if his long-range shots had counted as threes and the number was incredible--without even factoring in that if three pointers had existed then Pistol probably would have shot even more often from long range!). It is reasonable to assume that he made 4-5 shots per game from outside of three point range, so under today's rules he probably scored 36 ppg that season. I believe that today's no contact defensive rules would have, conservatively speaking, added one point per quarter to Maravich's scoring average. That is how I arrived at 40 ppg--not for his career and not 50 ppg, but 40 ppg in his best season. I can't prove that he could have done this but my reasoning is well-founded. By the way, Maravich was averaging over 28 ppg and easily leading the league in scoring for the second year in a row when he suffered a serious knee injury in 1978. He tried to come back for three games, which lowered his season's average by more than 1 ppg, but he was never the same player; with modern medical techniques, he could have bounced back a la Bernard King, Mark Price, Tim Hardaway, etc. If Maravich had not gotten hurt, Gervin and Thompson would have never had their famous last day of the season battle for the scoring title, because Maravich had a decent lead over both of them before the injury.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:10:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Maybe we are arguing around each other, but I do think Kobe was a top tier athlete. I just don't think he was as good as his contempories and certainly not too 10 all time good. That's important because except for Larry Legend everyone else near him on whatever all time ranking you have is much better athletically.

Kobe is athletic, but he is no vince carter, and yet he outperformed vince. Similarly Wade was athletically more explosive than Kobe in his day. Again I'm not saying Kobe wasn't athletic, but I always thought he was a step behind his peers, it was his work ethic that was extraordinary.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

5) The main impediment to Doc winning multiple NBA titles is that, in a center-dominated era, he repeatedly faced teams with HoF centers while his 76ers trotted out Darryl Dawkins in the pivot. Watching LeBron struggle in the playoffs to beat teams anchored in the paint by Duncan, KG and Tyson Chandler, I reject the idea that if LeBron had played for the 76ers from 1976-87 that he would have enjoyed more team success than Doc. Erving's 76ers had the best regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83, advanced to the ECF six times in those seven seasons, made it to four Finals and won one title. The '77 Walton Blazers were a potential dynasty in the making, racing to a 50-10 record the next season before Walton got hurt. Erving's 76ers beat Bird's Celtics two times in three years in the ECF prior to Malone joining the 76ers. Erving consistently had to deal with top level HoFers just to get out of the East and when he reached the Finals he faced prime Walton once and high level Kareem (plus a cast of HoFers/All-Stars) three times. I highly respect Duncan but he was not more dominant than prime Walton or high level Kareem--and LeBron went just 1-2 versus Duncan in NBA Finals. LeBron versus prime Walton/high level Kareem could very well have not won a single title. LeBron is griping about "only" having two All-Stars in a watered down league, so he would not have been pleased about facing Kareem with Caldwell Jones/Darryl Dawkins. Dare I say it, LeBron might have quit in such a series; we've seen that more than once.

6) Specifically regarding one Anonymous comment, Jordan was not talking just about "average" players. He compared Wilt and Bellamy to the players who he presumably considers to be today's top centers. I disagree with Jordan's take for the reasons I already listed.

Regarding "average" players, it should be obvious that it is harder to make the cut in a 100 player league than it is in a 450 player league. Yes, the population is larger now and the talent pool draws from more countries but the reality is that there are several awful NBA teams and many players in the league now who just would not have made a roster in earlier eras. I don't care if Gerald Green can take off from the top of the key, bake a cupcake in midair and then blow out a candle before dunking; he has proven to be a limited role player who bounces from team to team. What value would he add to a team in the 1980s or 1970s or 1960s, when rosters were smaller and there were fewer teams? I don't mean to single out Green; insert any of the "freakish" athletes who don't really have complete basketball skill sets and the same point remains true. In the 1980s, several NBA teams had guys who rode the bench and rarely got into the game but were worth the price of admission because of their dunking displays during pregame warmups. Maybe Green could have taken Charles Bradley's spot at the end of the bench for the early 80s Celtics; Bradley was a 6-5, 215 "freakish" athlete who broke two backboards prior to joining the NBA and could likely match Green dunk for dunk. In the 1980s, you actually had to have basketball skills to get in the game.

7) I never said that the talent in a 100 player league was "far greater"; I just suggested that it is reasonable to believe that it is more difficult to make the cut in a smaller league. I don't know that you were born too late, Jordan, but I have been watching basketball since the 1970s and I enjoy all eras/players but I believe that the best basketball I saw took place in the 1980s. There are certain teams from subsequent eras that could have at least competed in the 1980s (the Jordan-Pippen Bulls are an obvious example) but, overall, the level of play from a pure basketball standpoint has declined. Overall, players are less fundamentally sound and less complete, even though there are of course some all-time great players who are currently active.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

8) LeBron is 6-8, 270ish. If he had reached his prime under 1960s conditions he probably would have weighed 235-240 (which is what he weighed upon entering the league and before he reaped the full benefits of modern training, etc.) So, LeBron would have been about the same size as Maurice Stokes or Gus Johnson. He would have been a little bigger than Elgin Baylor. He would have faced Chamberlain and Russell about 10 times each during an 80 game season. If LeBron developed the mental and physical toughness necessary to deal with the elevated physicality that was accepted during that era then of course LeBron would have been one of the top five players in the NBA--but the idea that he would have just run over everyone and been unstoppable is not realistic, in my estimation.

9) I never cease to be amused by the idea that Bob Cousy could not play in the 1980s (I used to hear that one) or the 1990s or certainly not in the mighty 2000s. Yeah, there is just no place in today's game for a 6-1 or so white point guard who can't dunk but handles the ball well and is a masterful passer. Nope, John Stockton, Mark Price, Steve Nash, those guys just could not play today because they are not "freakish" athletes. If Rod Strickland, with his below the rim game, had played in the 1950s we would hear that there is no way that he could have played in the 1990s.

10) Not to be flippant--and I certainly do not want to have an extended discussion about this--but if Wilt had the necessary physical and emotional energy to do a fraction of what he claimed that he did in between games (I think that it is obvious he exaggerated his exploits to sell books) and still average 30ppg/23 rpg for his career then I doubt that a few tweets or Vines or Instagrams would have affected his play very much. Wilt rarely had great coaching in the NBA (and he won championships when he did), he faced a Boston dynasty that was almost unbeatable and he did seem at times to want to prove something to his critics by posting certain statistics but there is no evidence that he "wilted" based on outside criticism--and he received plenty of it during his career, particularly when he played in L.A.

 
At Friday, February 17, 2017 2:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Some quick hits:

David-

There were three things I'd love your thoughts/knowledge on that didn't make your list:

1) What sort of a team/help/fundamental/rotational defender was Bellamy? I have not watched a full game featuring him in several years and either never noticed or cannot sufficiently recall his prowess (or lack thereof) with regards to the less obvious facets of defense.

2) What are your thoughts on Dan Roundfield? I don't believe I've ever seen you cover him, but as one of the top ABA-NBA success stories, I assume you have a well-researched opinion.

3) Why do you think Doc did not get more mainstream defensive recognition in the NBA?

Jordan- When I wrote my replies to you some of your comments had not yet posted, so I apologize if I seemed to be covering ground you'd already considered. I think I explained my reasoning above fairly well, but I agree with David's analysis on 40 ppg, and suggested 50 as a best-case scenario. Neither were meant to be career averages, but a peak season (though obviously if he played multiple seasons in the hypothetical system that allowed a 50 ppg season, his career average would benefit tremendously). I think the three things I assumed that David did not were:

1) Pete would take more 3s.

2) Pete would see his efficiency increase, both based on having more space to operate and by likely being less physically compromised by smoking & booze (although if he were unable to kick either, he would not have much of a place in the modern NBA).

3) Related to #2, but Pete would get more high-percentage layups and pull-ups by virtue of not only the hand check rule but also defenders having to play up on him out to 23 or 24 feet and consequently risking blow byes.


Andrew-

You and i may irreconcilably disagree. Vince may have been a slightly better leaper than Kobe, but I do not think he had more speed, stamina, or overall strength. Wade, similarly, may have had a quicker first step, but I do not think he was faster than (prime) Kobe in the open court, as physically strong, or possessed of the same stamina.

 
At Friday, February 17, 2017 2:51:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@David...athleticism. That's what I was mainly comparing regarding the centers. DeAndre Jordan is an athletic freak. Rudy Gobert too. I by no means think they are the game's best centers or compare to Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. You and Nick have expanded my knowledge of Walt Bellamy. I believe the game is more athletic today than the 1960s. I tried to make a well thought out, fact-based case with examples. It apparently didn't resonate. I won't try and further argue my point as it has been misinterpreted since my first post. Anyway, this was a fascinating (and mostly informative) read from everyone involved. So, cheers!

 
At Friday, February 17, 2017 10:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew, Wade isn't even close athletically to Kobe. I'm sure there's things Wade could do better, but that doesn't mean he was more athletic or close to it. Kobe could jump a lot higher, was a lot faster, a lot quicker, and taller. Wade was probably stronger relative to his height, which being 3 inches shorter probably negates whatever advantage he might have had.

Looking at most of the common top players of all time: Jordan, Wilt, Shaq, James, and maybe Erving, Russell and Dream were the only ones more athletic than Kobe. That's it. You really think Magic, Duncan, Oscar, and West were more athletic than Kobe?

Vince could jump higher and maybe was an inch taller, but I don't think he was necessarily more athletic. Kobe was stronger and faster.

 
At Friday, February 17, 2017 10:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Bellamy was a capable defender but certainly not of the same caliber at that end of the court as Russell, Chamberlain or Thurmond. The funny thing is that since there were only 8 or 9 teams during Bellamy's best years, the fourth best defensive center was, technically, "average" by virtue of being in the middle of the pack among starting centers. Bellamy had a reputation for getting up to play against Chamberlain and Russell but perhaps not being quite so motivated or intense against other centers. There is some anecdotal and statistical evidence to support that notion. All of that being said, Bellamy was not at all bad defensively and he was a first-rate offensive player and rebounder. I stand by my contention that prime Bellamy would be the best center in the NBA in 2017 (unless we also bring back prime Chamberlain and prime Russell, of course).

2) During the early 1980s Roundfield was an elite defender/rebounder and a productive offensive player as well. You could make a good case that for a few years he was one of the top 10 players in the NBA.

3) I have never found a good explanation for why Doc did not receive more All-Defensive Team recognition--and I did ask players/coaches from that era. No one said that Doc was a poor defender or undeserving of such recognition but no one could explain Doc being left off of the All-Defensive Team. I would be interested to see the actual balloting from those years to find out if Doc just missed the cut at least a couple times.

Regarding Pistol Pete, I think that a 50 ppg season average is out of the question in any era by any player other than Wilt but I believe that peak Pistol could average 40-10 in 2016-17 for the reasons I mentioned above. I neither counted nor "discounted" your three points about Pistol Pete but upon looking at them I would say that they are reasonable assumptions/projections.

 
At Friday, February 17, 2017 10:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I did not misinterpret what you wrote and, in fact, I cited some examples where you misinterpreted my responses. I think that you just don't like or accept my contentions regarding the relative athletic abilities of the players who we are comparing. There is a tendency to equate athleticism only with jumping ability but athleticism encompasses balance, "hands," quickness, speed, anticipation and other qualities. I do not believe that the modern players you listed are more "athletic" than the old school players under consideration in this thread. I am not even convinced that the modern players you cited could jump higher than Chamberlain or Russell or Doc. Chamberlain and Russell each had vertical leaps well over 40 inches. Doc's vertical was certainly not less than 40 inches and probably more. Doc, Wilt and Russell also had exceptional long/broad jumping abilities that few if any modern players could match--and those are two different traits: 'Nique had a great vertical but you never saw him taking off from far away from the hoop, because he was a two-footed jumper who consequently did not cover much horizontal space (relatively speaking, of course).

 
At Sunday, February 19, 2017 12:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

USA Today's Feb 17-19 edition contains a lengthy story about how well Pistol Pete's game would translate to the modern NBA, for precisely the reasons I articulated in this comment thread.

 
At Monday, February 20, 2017 3:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

My "50 & 10" wasn't meant as a probability, but as a ceiling in an ideal system, I.E. Harden's role on Houston (or perhaps something similar with a more athletic finisher than Capela available).

40 and 10, though, sounds perfectly reasonable/likely for a peak-ish Pete season in the modern NBA.

David, thanks for the clarification on Bellamy. I just hadn't seen enough recently enough to really evaluate his team-D, which you kinda need to watch entire games for and not just clips.

Regarding Doc and the All-D team, and this is purely speculative, I wonder if part of it was that, in that era, with less media-focus on things, those teams seemed to be less super-duper star heavy? These days it's usually 8-9 offensive stars (who may or may not be top 10 defensive players) and a token Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, or Bruce Bowen, whereas back then you had a lot more love for the Bobby Jones/Dan Roundfield/Quinn Buckner types? I wonder if at the time it was perceived as more of a way for role-players or second-tier stars to shine/their chance to get some glory? Like, guys may have voted for say, Buckner, over Doc partly on the logic of "Doc doesn't need it" or "Buckner plays hard, Doc's gonna be on the All-NBA team anyways" or whatever? This isn't to pick on Buckner, who as awesome, it's merely a (mostly arbitrary) hypothesis.

That isn't to say guys like Roundfield and Jones weren't capable offensive players, but they were *more* valuable on D, which I don't think is the case for maybe 80% of modern All-D selections.

The exception to the above theory is the Center position, which back then tended to go to MVP candidates like Walton and Kareem and now seems to go to whoever has the most blocks/rebounds.

 
At Monday, February 20, 2017 11:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

50 ppg is out of reach for anyone other than Wilt, in my opinion.

Your theory about Doc and the All-Defensive Team is as good as any other. I made a similar suggestion as a question to Billy Cunningham years ago and he thought that this explanation was possible.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 10:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That theory could be somewhat true, but there's still lots of big names on the all-defensive teams from Erving's era, and Bird made some all-defensive 2nd teams, too. He was probably a bad pick, but a bunch of people must've been voting for him, and they weren't neglecting stars from these teams just because they were stars. Most of the current teams seem pretty accurate to me. Guys like Kobe and Leonard would almost always be on the teams.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 1:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Fair enough. I certainly don't think it's a given, I just think it's conceivable as a best-case scenario. I think Pete would be the most likely to do it, but under similarly optimal circumstances (ball-dominant in an up-tempo system surrounded by spot-up shooters and at least one finisher), I wouldn't completely rule out Jerry West or Rick Barry, either. Mayyyyyyyybe Steph Curry, though he'd be the last of the six (gimme a second) guys I think could conceivably do it and literally everything would have to break exactly right for him coaching/supporting cast/luck/health wise.

I could also imagine Doc or Jordan doing it in a situation where they were their team's only scorer and similarly surrounded by the pieces to give them room to operate (something like Beverly/Korver/Danny Green/Channing Frye as the rest of the starting lineup). If you look at what they were able to do under the old rules, it's hard to put a ceiling on what they could do with the new ones. Both guys were athletic anomalies who were nearly tireless in their primes, so if they're putting up 30-35 shots a night in an offense that's got them mostly playing one-on-one against a defender that can't touch them... I could just see it happening. Wouldn't bet on it. Might even bet against it. But wouldn't stake my life against it, and wouldn't be shocked if it happened.

Bird conceivably also rates a mention, but doesn't have the foot speed or stamina the other guys listed do to take advantage of the different hand-checking rules to the same extent.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 3:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I suppose, on a different team, if he completely abandoned defense and cut back his rebounding efforts, Lebron could maybe hypothetically do it, too. I doubt it, but another "wouldn't wanna bet my life against it" candidate.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 6:45:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

David:

Don't know if you had seen this yet but the official 76ers Youtube Channel has a video of Doc detailing the 1982 ECF that I thought you might appreciate:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6xBxVA-tiM

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 10:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Unless/until NBA regular season defense becomes as bad as ASG defense, I don't believe that anyone other than Wilt could average 50 ppg without breaking down physically. West, Doc, MJ and Kobe could average 50 ppg in a playoff series versus the "right" team under modern conditions, though. If Doc were coached by Loughery or D'Antoni or anyone like that his stats would be unreal in today's game.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2017 10:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith,

Yes, I saw this a while ago but thank you for posting it. The 1982 ECF meant almost as much to Doc as his three championships. I think that Doc's 10 "Final Four" (Division or Conference Finals) appearances are a vastly underrated portion of his legacy. His teams advanced at least that far in 9 of his first 12 seasons.

 
At Wednesday, February 22, 2017 4:37:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Fair enough. Not a hill I'm willing to die nor anything either of us can really present much evidence for or against/ever be proven right/wrong about.

I'd be curious to hear what specifically you think Doc's #s would look like on, say, Houston or whomever in the modern era with that kind of a green light/mandate.

 
At Wednesday, February 22, 2017 11:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Peak Doc with a green light in this era would average something along the lines of 35-40 ppg, 11-12 rpg, 7-8 apg, 2 spg, 2 bpg, .500-.530 FG%, .350 3FG %, .800 FT%.

 

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