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Thursday, January 17, 2019

One More Reminder of Wilt Chamberlain's Dominance

We live in an era of basketball statistics that seem to be plucked straight from a video game screen: teams regularly score 60 or 70 points in a half and 120, 130 or even 140 points in a game. The usage of the three point shot has exploded to cartoonish levels, as teams treat two point shots as if they are a plague to be avoided at all costs.

Last night, James Harden scored 58 points but his Houston Rockets blew an 11 point lead with just 2:29 remaining in regulation and then lost in overtime to the Brooklyn Nets, 145-142. It should not be surprising that Houston squandered such a large lead in such a short period of time; their collective style of play--and Harden's individual style of play--is high variance or, if you prefer, high risk/high reward. The Rockets shot 23-70 from three point range and 22-35 from two point range. Based on points per shot, their three point shooting percentage was not terrible: it was equivalent to shooting nearly 50% from two point range. The problem is that when you miss 47 shots you have a lot of empty possessions; the possessions with conversions are worth three points (high reward!) but the possessions without conversions are worth nothing (high risk!), which means that it is easy to quickly build a big lead but it is also easy to quickly lose a big lead.

This reminds me of the Run and Shoot offense that the Houston Oilers used to feature--and their 35-3 lead in a playoff game versus the Buffalo Bills that became a 41-38 loss. Houston's defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan derisively called the offense "Chuck and Duck" and during one game he became so frustrated that he punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Ryan felt that the offense took too many risks and also that by not better controlling time of possession it set the defense up to fail.

That pretty much describes the Rockets in a nutshell. They will score a ton of points this season, and Harden will break many "modern" scoring records (which is a euphemism for "non-Wilt Chamberlain" records, about which see below) but they will also blow many leads and they will lose to the first playoff team they encounter that defends Harden without fouling and does not give up open three pointers (because the Rockets will keep shooting them--from further and further out--as opposed to taking too many of the dreaded two point shots, other than dunks or layups, which good defensive teams will not give up during the playoffs).

Harden has now averaged at least 40 ppg for the past 20 games and he is closing in on the "modern" record of 22, held by Kobe Bryant. Houston General Manager Daryl Morey thinks that Harden may be the best offensive player of all-time, a ludicrous contention that can only be made if one ignores vast swaths of basketball history and if one ignores the tremendous differences between how the game is played now compared with how it used to be played. If prime Michael Jordan were playing today with no handchecking, he would be averaging over 40 ppg for the season even if he did not take a single three point shot; if you could not touch Jordan then you could not stop him for getting off his midrange turnaround jumper and he proved that he could shoot a good percentage from the field--under 1980s rules and playing conditions, no less--with that shot as a major weapon. Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg during the 1986-87 season while shooting .482 from the field and then the next season he averaged 35.0 ppg while shooting .535 from the field.

Let's get back to Harden and the "modern" record that he may soon set. In what I guess must be considered "pre-modern" times, Rick Barry averaged at least 40 ppg for 23 games and Elgin Baylor did it for 33 games, but Baylor does not hold the record. Sirius XM NBA radio host Frank Isola brought this up this morning and it is worth repeating. Wilt Chamberlain holds the record. The record is not 40 or 50 or 60 or even a full season's worth of 82 games. No, the record is 515.

That is not a typo.

Let that sink in for a moment. The media is going bonkers over Harden's streak but Chamberlain's record is nearly 26 times larger!

Isola quipped that if Chamberlain did that in today's game, we would rename the country The United States of Chamberlain.

Charles Barkley often says that if he played today he would make so much money he would be flying to games in a spaceship.

This is not just about statistics or salaries. Remember that the NBA passed rules to make things harder for Chamberlain; they widened the lane and they got rid of offensive goaltending. In contrast, the NBA has changed the rules and the interpretation of the rules to make it easier for Harden and other perimeter players to score: Harden can travel on his stepback move and he can even push off, then travel and then shoot, by which time he has "created" six feet worth of space.

These modern "records" that are not records make a mockery of the sport's history and make the game almost unwatchable at times. Who wants to watch James Harden travel, push off and miss 14 of his 19 three point shots? Sure, many of the games in this "modern era" are high scoring, but the action is chaotic and random, with too many empty possessions.

The beauty of the game is derived from watching teamwork in action, or from watching a virtuoso player master the fundamentals of footwork, fakes and positioning. The three point shot is a great weapon and it was underutilized for too long, but now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and the sport is not the better for it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 PM



At Sunday, January 20, 2019 7:58:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


Are you familiar with the Wilt Chamberlain Archive channel on YouTube? They have very good historical footage of Chamberlain and other 60s centers. They have also put out a relatively recent video challenging today's poor scholarship on the depth of talent in the NBA during the 1960s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wm1-jzpr_hU

At Sunday, January 20, 2019 11:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No, I was not familiar with this channel before. Thank you for sharing! That video is a must watch for anyone who thinks that size and athletic ability did not exist in the 1960s.

Bill Simmmons and Michael Rapoport sound like absolute clowns in the video when they talk about the 1960s without having any knowledge whatsoever about that era.

It is so tiresome to hear people talk about the supposedly short, slow players from that era. As the video noted, Chamberlain, Russell, Thurmond, Bellamy, Beaty and Reed had just as much--or more--size, speed, length and athletic ability as any of the centers playing today.

I often make the point that the video's narrator did: Chamberlain and Russell were record-setting track and field athletes in their prep days. Not only could they compete today, they would dominate today, particularly considering the lack of fundamental basketball skills of most of today's big men.

The clip of Bill Russell getting a defensive rebound, dribbling coast to coast and taking off from the DOTTED LINE for a finger roll should disabuse anyone of the notion that he would not be big enough or athletic enough to play today.

It is a shame that the modern hype machine has not only overhyped many of the modern players but has also undeservedly elevated Bill Simmons to the role of respected basketball historian when in fact he often distorts basketball history due to his Boston bias as well as his lack of knowledge.

At Monday, January 21, 2019 5:01:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

David, no problem!

One thing I enjoy about Giannis Antetokounmpo is that he doesn't even have a reliable shot but he's dominating in today's game simply because he has put in the basic work to learn an array of post moves, disabusing the notion any classic center from the 60s or the 70s wouldn't do well today. If modern NBA defenses can't stop Giannis now, how would they have stopped Willis Reed and his silky smooth jumpshot, let alone Wilt or Kareem with his skyhook?

I read Simmons' basketball book a while back and sometimes he makes surprising choices that go against the current "analytics" or talking heads grain, like ranking Scottie Pippen very highly, but he has a poor knowledge of the game pre-1980 and as mentioned, he's an obnoxious Boston homer. Sadly, he's something akin to an elder statesman compared to a lot of the hot take sports analysis we see now.

At Monday, January 21, 2019 8:14:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

David & Keith-

FWIW, I think whether or not somebody from the 1960s would thrive today is a bit of a case-by-case thing, not a one-size-fits all thing. My opinion on a few of the biggies:

Wilt- He'd be unstoppable on offense but teams would intentionally foul the crap out of him in crunch time and he would absolutely hate the modern media. His defensive impact would be lessened some through no fault of his own but just by dint of teams spending less time attacking the paint. He'd still be an every-season All-NBA guy, though, and likely win some MVPs.

Russell- This one is hard to prognosticate for a lot of reasons. He'd definitely still be great... but would he be *as* great? Much like Wilt above, Russell's defensive dominance would matter less in a world where everyone wants to be Steph Curry; he'd still be the league's best interior defender, but there would be possessions where teams didn't even want to attack the paint, so he'd be less able to change the game with his 60s frequency. I think concerns about his size are overblown; it would have mattered against Shaq and maybe Kareem or Hakeem or Moses but none of those guys are in the league right now and the best back-to-basket scorers today aren't meaningfully bigger, stronger, or better than guys like Walt Bellamy or Elvin Hayes, never mind Wilt. I think he's an every-season DPOY, but probably struggles to win at the rate he did in his prime in a league that less rewards his core skillset and is less likely to end up on as stacked a roster as he had in his day (although it would be the most GSW thing ever to somehow weasel their way into getting him). Like Wilt, teams would foul the crap out of him in crunch time.

Both Russell and Wilt would see their rebounding numbers precipitously decline, but they'd still lead the league, just with, say, 17-18 RPG instead of 25. There are just 50+ fewer rebounds available per game these days, and most teams are a bit more diligent about boxing out than they were in the 60s.

Jerry West- Might actually be even better today than he was then. The athletic advantage he enjoyed in the 60s would be diminished some, but the space, defensive rules, and three point line would give him options he didn't have back then. He'd instantly be the best two-way guard in the league. Imagine a Steph Curry that passes like Westbrook, defends on the perimeter like Beverley, and gets chase-down blocks like peak Wade. Wins some MVPs and titles assuming a respectable supporting cast.


At Monday, January 21, 2019 8:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Elgin Baylor- I think he'd be very slightly worse than he was in his day. While he'd still be an upper tier athlete today, the gap between him and everyone else would be a lot narrower than it was in his peak; I agree with David that the best athletes of the 60s are comparable (or at least would be comparable with the benefit of modern training etc.) to the best athletes today, but I don't think the same holds for the average NBA athlete they'd be going against from 1963 vs. today. Baylor would be facing guys who were still behind him athletically... but not as far behind. He'd be undersized for his natural position at 6'5 but didn't quite have the range to make sense as a modern shooting guard. He'd get to the rim pretty much at will with modern spacing/defensive rules, so his FG% would probably climb a little, but I think teams would play off him and dare him to beat them from deep. I think moving to guard--which he'd probably have to do--would hurt his rebounding, but he'd probably still be the league's best-rebounding guard.

I think best case he's a one-way Dwyane Wade who rebounds more; flirting with the First Team most years but probably ending up stuck on the 2nd team more often than not (behind Curry and whichever of RWB/Harden is popular that year) and never seriously threatening the MVP race. Worst case he's RWB with a weaker (but still above average) passing game, probably hanging out on the All-NBA 3rd Team most years. Like Wilt/Russell/everybody, his rebounding would decline but he'd still be very solid (I'd estimate probably close to 10-11 per game).

Oscar- Also think he'd decline a little. The size advantage he had would be largely gone (at least in terms of height; his bulk would still give him an edge). Oscar had 18-20 foot or so range but I'm not sure how much of a deep threat he'd be, and as we've seen with RWB, even if you're one o the best at everything else that matters in today's league. He was an above-average but unspectacular defender from the footage I've seen, and that'd probably hold. He'd benefit from the additional space to operate in the lane, but not as much as more kinetic players like West/Baylor. The extra space would be great for his passing game, though, especially if he could consistently draw doubles in the post (which I think he could).

Barry- I think he'd benefit the most of anyone we're talking about besides West. His assists would skyrocket in a league where everyone can shoot, no hand checking + his already unstoppable jumper would make him almost unguardable, and while he was never an elite three point threat in the few seasons he had the line I think he would be today; his shooting fundamentals were excellent, and he only played one healthy season in his career with a 3pt line ('73) which was above average if unspectacular for the time. The lighter physicality of today would make it harder for guys to overpower him on defense, which was the biggest wart on peak-Barry's defensive resume. Assuming he could add a reliable three (which I think is more likely than for anyone else save maybe West) his ability to shoot off of screens could turn him into some sort of cross between Klay Thompson and a smaller Lebron (in terms of passing/finisihing ability/etc.).

Fights for First Team All-NBA every year, but forward is stacked with Lebron/Giannis/KD/Kawhi/PG13 so he probably misses as much as he makes it. Likely gets at least one title/MVP assuming decent help (or maybe even without; see also: '75 Warriors).

He'd be either absolutely loved or totally despised by Twitter. Flip a coin.


At Monday, January 21, 2019 8:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Havlicek- Really hard to say. I think defensively he's a smaller Draymond Green, guarding three positions and wreaking havoc. Offensively it probably depends who else is on his team; I'm not sure he could thrive as the primary offensive creator in today's league, but he'd be a lethal secondary initiator/creator on any team with a competent PG. I think he ends up as basically the Super Duper Rich Man's Andre Iguodala, and even that's probably underselling him a bit.

Like Baylor, he'd likely have to move to guard. This would help him in terms of All-NBA competition but hurt him offensively unless he could deepen his shooting range a bit. He'd instantly be the league's best defensive guard, though.

Every season All-Defensive player, probably sneaks in a DPOY, wins several titles if he's the second or third best offensive player on the team or no titles at all if he's the first.

I think those are the best seven guys from the '60s so I'll cut it off here. Briefly I think Pistol Pete, Dick Barnett, and anybody else who was an elite shooter would be better today, while offensively limited bigs who specialized in defense/rebounding like Nate Thurmond or Wes Unseld would be a tad worse. Sweet shooting bigs like Willis Reed or Jerry Lucas would be better offensively but as with everyone else would see their rebounding/defensive impact decline with the modern emphasis on long-range shooting.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 11:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, Giannis is showing that the ability to attack the paint can still be very valuable. I agree with you that the great centers from the 1960s and 1970s would do quite well today.

Once in a while, Simmons makes sense (kind of like the stopped clock that is right twice a day) but in general he is off target and sometimes he is way off target.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 12:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree to some extent that there may be some case by case variation but I believe that the All-NBA players from the 1960s would be All-NBA players today. Of course, if all of the greats from the 1960s were somehow magically transported in their primes to modern times then someone would be left out--Pettit, Baylor, Giannis, Durant and LeBron cannot all make the First Team--but the larger point is that I would not expect Pettit and Baylor to be categorically inferior to today's top forwards. Although Pettit did not make my Pantheon, he did not miss by much and his size, skill, shooting touch and rebounding ability would serve him quite well today. Baylor would thrive in today's position-less, small ball NBA. In his prime he was at least as big and strong--if not bigger and stronger--than Harden and he did everything better than Harden other than three point shooting, which of course did not exist in Baylor's day. Baylor had a good enough shooting touch that he could have expanded his range--as many players in more recent times have done--if necessary but he was such a dynamic scorer that he might not have even needed the three point shot to score 30-plus ppg in today's game.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 12:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have written so much about these players--and will be writing more about them as I continue to post articles in my 50 Greatest Players series--that I am disinclined to offer much more than my general response above but I do want to add a little about Russell.

Bill Russell won championships as the best player in high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA from the early 1950s until 1969, his last year in the NBA. The rules, style of play and players all evolved a lot during those decades. I am not sure how or why the idea took hold that Russell would not be able to adapt and dominate in subsequent eras but I don't buy it. It is not like he would be a slow 5-6 dude trying to figure out what to do with guys who are a foot taller. He was 6-9 or 6-10, depending on who you believe and he weighed between 220-240. He was an elite level track and field athlete with a vertical leap of well over 40 inches. He has a genius-level basketball IQ, possibly the highest basketball IQ of anyone who has ever played the game. I refuse to believe that that mind, in that body, with that competitive spirit, would not be a dominant player in any era. Your point about him not having the same kind of supporting cast in a watered down 30 team league is well taken and I am not saying that he would necessarily have won 11 titles in 13 years in this era but if Russell played today with any kind of reasonable supporting cast he would have won multiple titles and multiple MVPs.

Shortly after Russell retired, a reporter asked him how he would fare against the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell answered, "Young man, you have the question backwards."

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I pretty much agree with what you say about Pettit. I tend not to bring him up because of the twenty or thirty best players of all time, he's the one I've seen the least of, so I am less confident of my valuation of him (although gun to my head I would actually take him over Baylor by a hair).

As for Baylor, I do not share your confidence that he could expand his range effectively, but I do agree that he'd probably score regardless. However, his jumper was not especially effective even in his era; despite the fact that he could get to the rim/finish more easily than anybody other than perhaps Wilt at the time, he was still never a particularly efficient scorer for his era (although he did have one very efficient season after Wilt and Goodrich arrived, despite his by then eroded athleticism). He did shoot jumpers and they looked ok leaving his hands but they went in a lot less often than they didn't. We of course don't have numbers by zone for that era but based on the tape I've seen I'd estimate that Baylor probably shot something close to 60%-65% around the rim, which means in order for his FG% to end up where it did he had to be shooting pretty dang poorly from everywhere else (or, more specifically, likely shooting ok from the 5-12 foot range and atrociously beyond it).

I think that Harden has two meaningful skillset advantages over Baylor: three point shooting (and particularly, to his credit, contested/semi-contested three point shooting) and flopping. Unfortunately, those are the primary two things that make him an effective regular season player in today's NBA. I do think he's a slightly better passer than Baylor as well but the margin there is thin as Baylor was a very good passer too.

Even if Baylor could not expand his range, I would still take him over Harden in the modern NBA because I trust his mindset a lot more and I know he's going to show up in the playoffs. I do not think he would make many All-NBA first teams (especially if he stayed a forward), however, even if he were the only player transplanted. He's not an elite shooter in a league where you kind of need to be (unless you've got a massive size advantage, ala Giannis) and while he would still be an elite athlete today he would not be as far ahead of the pack as he was in the days of racial quotas and primarily below the rim play.

As mentioned above, I think he'd have a much better shot at All-NBA First Team if he moved to guard, where he'd be competing with Harden and Westbrook as opposed to Lebron/Giannis/KD/Kawhi/PG13/AD. I also think he'd be more efficient as a guard, as he would not be having to shoot over guys with several inches of height/reach on him.

If we allow the premise that Baylor could magically become a 40%-ish (or even 36%-ish) three point shooter then I agree that he'd be pretty comparable to the game's top forwards, although there still may be nits to pick with his defense relative to somebody like Giannis or Kawhi (though he'd likely be outperforming them on offense at that point).

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I said that I think that concerns about Russell's height are overblown, so I agree with you on at least that point.

My point was only that in a league where half the time guys don't even try to venture into the paint, a defensively elite center automatically has less impact than they did in the 60s so it would be more difficult for Russell to dominate games on that end to the same extent/frequency he did in his era (although they are of course still extremely valuable).

As for title and MVPs, I think titles comes down to what kind of help he gets-- he couldn't carry a team's offense and as mentioned I believe that paint defense has lost a little bit of value today so he'd need at least one solid wing stopper to try and chase the Currys and KDs of the world into his area of influence-- but I think he'd easily be the top center in the league today and would certainly make any team he was on more likely to win a title than not. Given how dominant the Warriors are in this specific era I'd hesitate to predict multiple titles for anybody, however, at least without knowing their supporting cast.

MVP voters these days are morons and don't value the things Russell did best. He'd deserve some MVPs, but I don't think he'd win them.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 1:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Russell's impact would not be limited to paint defense. To cite just one example, I think that Russell would be a nightmare to deal with on switches. I would love to see Harden try to pull of the travel/step back nonsense if prime Russell were switched on to him. Russell would nimbly avoid contact, time his leap, block Harden's shot, catch it in mid-air and make an outlet pass to Harden's man, who would already be halfway down the court waiting for the pass so that he could score an uncontested layup.

Russell liked to stare at his blocked shot victims and he once explained what he was thinking: "Yeah, I just did that to you and I am going to do it to you again."

When I interviewed KC Jones--Russell's teammate at USF and with the Celtics--he told me that Russell would tell Jones to let his man drive by him but to shade him to a particular spot. Russell told Jones that after he did that, he should run to a certain area so that Russell could pass him the ball after he blocked the shot. Sometimes, Russell would actually just block the shot straight to Jones without even having to catch it and then pass it! Russell did this kind of stuff repeatedly for nearly two decades. He dealt with racism and with coaches who told him that jumping on defense is not fundamentally sound. I have no doubt that he could adjust to today's game.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 2:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

A little data to back up my point about defensive bigs...

Assuming that Russell and Wilt were annually Top 5 shot-blockers (this strikes me as a near-certainty) and that early 70s Kareem was also a Top 5 shotblocker (reasonable), every Finals between 1957 and 2014 featured a Top 5 shotblocker except for:

* 2011 (which featured future DPOY Tyson Chandler, who was an elite rim protector who just didn't block a ton of shots but was certainly an elite rim protector in his own right)

* 2008 (which had DPOY interior defender Kevin Garnett as well as Top 20 shotblockers Gasol and Perkins)

*'06 (which featured Shaq and then Dallas' two-headed shotblocking center duo of Dampier & Diop, who averaged a combined 3.1 BPG)

*'02 (Shaq, who's shot blocking jumped to 2.5 per game in the playoffs, a rate which would have been Top 3 in the regular season)

*'99 (featured both Duncan (7th) and Robinson (9th) as well as future DPOY Camby (16th) filling in for the injured Ewing (6th).

* All six Jordan titles (featuring Greg Ostertag twice and elite interior defenders (but not shot blockers) Dennis Rodman and Horace Grant three times each)

*'88-'90 (featuring Rodman & Laimbeer 3x each and Old!Kareem twice)

*'87 (featuring McHale (7th), Parish (13th), and Old!Kareem).

*'84-'85 (Kareem/McHale/Parish)

*'83 (Kareem/Moses)

*'79 (Hayes, 6th, plus Unseld)

*'78 (Webster (9th) & Hayes (10th))

*'76 (Cowens & Alvin Adams)

As you can see, in the 19 out of 58 Finals there wasn't a Top 5 shot blocker there was either someone very close and/or multiple All-Defensive interior talents that just didn't block shots but still protected the paint.

4 times ('77, '84, '01, '05, '09) the Finals featured 2 Top 5 shot blockers (plus probably every time Wilt played Russell, Thurmond, and maybe Reed).

Extrapolating further, prior to the three point line there were only three Finals that didn't feature a Top 5 shotblocker and only one that didn't feature a Top 10 shotblocker (Adams was 12th).

By contrast, in the last four years, the only Top 5 shotblocker to appear in the Finals was KD in '18 (and he plays mostly on the perimeter). Draymond is an excellent defensive player but he is not a rim-protector and in fact his greatest defensive attribute is his ability to switch onto anyone and blow up pick-and-roles on the perimeter. Russell or Wilt might also have that ability, but if they're out on the perimeter then they're not protecting the rim that possession anyway. Ultimately teams just aren't attacking the rim the same way they used to and therefore elite rim protection has lost some value relative to the history of the game.

It's not a knock on any of those players and has no bearing on their place in history, but just as three point specialists would see their value reduced in the 60s, elite rim protection is not as valuable in a post-GSW league as it once was.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 2:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I said multiple times that Russell would still be great. That is not under dispute.

My point was that it is no longer possible for a dominant shotblocker to completely take over the game they way it used to be. He would be the best defensive player in the league instantly-- effectively a cross between Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert-- but that just doesn't have quite as much value in a perimeter shooting league as it once did. In the '60s Russell could effectively guard an entire team because offense ran through the paint; today teams with sweet-shooting bigs could drag him out to the corner and play four-on-four or use pick-and-roles to get him switched onto a perimeter guy and then do the same. I agree with you that nobody could challenge him one-on-one but my point is that they'd no longer have to.

Defense is still extremely important but it is now more important, I think, to have multiple strong defenders than one transcendent one.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 2:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You may be right that dominant shotblocking is not as valuable/necessary as it used to be but--even if that is true--I do not agree that this would meaningfully affect the value of a player like Russell who could do so many other things defensively.

I could easily see him being matched up with a guy like Harden one on one, much like Ben Simmons and Corey Brewer did at times last night. Russell had the size, speed and guile necessary to play perimeter defense in the modern era. It would not have made sense to regularly assign him to perimeter players in his era when there were big centers for him to guard but in this era he could do that.

I envision Russell in this era either shutting down one guy completely or, if assigned to a player who plays in the paint, serving as a massive deterrent to post ups and drives.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 2:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I do not disagree that Russell could guard basically everyone in the league today. He might struggle with someone like Curry who could get enough space off a screen to launch a three, but then the list of defenders that can solve that problem may actually be zero.

My point is that in the '60s it was possible for a great defender to influence every single possession while he was on the court. While that may be possible against a one-horse team like the Rockets by sticking him on Harden, in general it is not possible in today's NBA; most teams have multiple strong ball handlers and lots and lots of shooting. If Russell played against the Warriors he would ruin the stats for whoever he was on, but the Warriors have ways to mitigate that damage; you can either put him on somebody like Durant, whom he shuts down, but then they park Durant in the corner and play you 4-on-4 with their other guys, or you put him on Draymond and they run a bunch of off-ball screens to create threes away from him.

Also, as an aside, he could not play crunch time today as teams would just foul him to death, so he'd need to win games in the first 44 minutes. Put him on an elite-ish offense with a strong late-game closer to bat clean up and I agree with you they're an annual title threat but put him on the Grizzlies or even the Pacers and I don't see them scaring the Warriors much.

I don't mean to overstate my position: he'd still be all-caps AWESOME. But the fundamental structure of the game has changed in a way that makes him (and every other elite defender in history) less valuable. For the vast majority of basketball history I believe it would be better to have one elite defensive big and one elite or even just near elite defensive perimeter guy than three elite defensive perimeter guys, but in the absence of dominant interior scorers and the abundance of perimeter shooters, that is, for the first time ever, not the case. Teams have become more able to mitigate/isolate/avoid the opposition's best defender, and therefore defensive quantity has become more important than quality, at least if the goal is a title (not least because that road necessarily goes through the Warriors).

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 7:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As often happens, we mostly agree but we are very committed to the small part about which we slightly disagree.

I understand your point but I am not sure if I agree. I am also not sure how to prove this one way or the other. I think that you are more focused on how the differences in today's game might affect Russell than on how Russell might affect today's game. Russell could be the high post screening and passing hub of the offense. His energy, athletic ability, smarts and toughness would make him a monster on the offensive boards.

The "hack a (whoever)" strategy is vastly overrated in my opinion. Let's assume for simplicity's sake that Russell would make 50% of his free throws and that his "hack a" percentage would not be better or worse than his regular percentage (I think that it would be higher in clutch moments but never mind that for this hypothetical). That amounts to one point per possession, which is not terrible. That is equivalent to shooting 50% on two pointers or 33% on three pointers. Meanwhile, the team doing the "hack a" is going to end up in the penalty and is going to have at least one player in foul trouble (granted, that could be a disposable player). Using the "hack a" strategy slows the pace down, reduces the number of possessions and increases the importance of being able to score in the half court. If I am coaching against Golden State and the Warriors want to slow the game down, give me one point per possession and then try to score in the half court against my Bill Russell-anchored defense I would be happy.

There could be individual situations when I might take Russell out--down three points with less than 20 seconds or maybe at the end of the first half if I want to go for the last shot as opposed to watching him shoot two free throws but other than a (very) few special situations I would leave him in there and let the other team "hack" themselves right out of their rhythm and game plan.

If there is even one example of a team making up a big deficit or significantly increasing a lead by using the "hack a" strategy I would be interested to know about it. It is of course possible that poor free throw shooting over the course of a game or season cost a team some wins but since Russell (11), Wilt (2) and Shaq (4) combined to win 17 titles I think that their strengths outweigh that weakness.

It is more of a problem if a perimeter player is a sketchy free throw shooter, because then I cannot go to him for the last shot of the game. If I were coaching in a close game, I'd rather have Russell and all that he does being paired with Sam Jones (or whoever) to take the last second shot (if needed) than LeBron, because LeBron might chuck a fadeaway because he does not want to be fouled and shoot free throws with the game on the line.

At Tuesday, January 22, 2019 9:29:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I do not disagree that Russell would be a monster on the offensive boards and I would actually expect his scoring efficiency to go up a little in today's era.

Regarding the championship resumes of Russ/Shaq/Wilt I said in my previous comment; "Put him on an elite-ish offense with a strong late-game closer to bat clean up and I agree with you they're an annual title threat." All of those titles came with deadly, All-NBA caliber perimeter stars who could close down the stretch alongside them. If you give Russell Kyrie Irving you're in good shape.

However, if you give him, say, Mike Conley or Victor Oladipo (the best perimeter players from the two example "respectable supporting cast" teams I mentioned) who are both very good basketball players but *not* crunch time killing machines in the Sam Jones/Jerry West/Kobe Bryant mold, I think you're going to have some trouble down the stretch.

I disagree that getting one point per possession against the Warriors in crunch-time is a good plan, even with Russell anchoring your defense; even he can't guard everyone at once. They are a candidate for the greatest offense of all time and feature not one, not two, but three absolutely elite clutch three-point snipers. Even if Russell single-handedly knocks 10% off their offense (dubious but possible) you're losing the numbers game there.

Additionally, I disagree that a point per possession is "not bad' in crunch time (this was true in Wilt's and even Shaq's era but offenses have gotten more efficient since). In the current season, only four teams are averaging less than that according to stats.nba's "clutch" evaluation. In last year's playoffs that would have been tied for 11th, or 2nd to last among teams that made the second round.

I agree with you that if I have Sam Jones, I'd rather have Russell than Lebron down the stretch. I do not agree that it's reasonable to expect to have Sam Jones (or equivalent) as there are generally only one or two of those guys in the league at a time (and Lebron arguably had one for all three of his titles), although this particular era is an exception: there are about four or five of them and three of them play for the Warriors.

Having said all that, it's a sidebar to my original point, which was just that a single defensive player cannot change the game on every play the way they used to. I agree that is difficult to prove to a mathematical certainty but I think the evidence is there both in terms of what sort of teams have been making/winning Finals recently and in the eye-test.

At the simplest possible level, until the mid to late 2000s or so "plan A" on most possessions was to get into the paint and attack the rim on every possession, and other shots were mostly the result or consequence of those attempts. To take away that Plan A, you needed to be able to effectively cover about 15 feet or so. Russell did that better than anyone ever, but thats not so much the way it is anymore, and therefore a guy like Russell can no longer force an offense to plans B and C just by stepping on the court.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 12:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Again, I think that we are mostly in agreement that Russell would do really well in this era. We are just quibbling about how well he would do and which circumstances would most favor him.

We are probably at or at least rapidly approaching the point where neither of us is going to budge but I just want to comment briefly on the "hack a (whoever)" strategy.

According to Basketball Reference.com, Golden State has the most efficient offense this season at 117.1 points per 100 possessions, while the least efficient offense is Chicago's at 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Put another way, Golden State scores 1.171 points per possession, while Chicago scores 1.021 points per possession. Over the course of an entire game, that is a significant difference, and we would expect Golden State to beat Chicago by at least 15 points (I am oversimplifying but bear with me).

However, no one is going to employ the "hack a (whoever)" tactic for more than a few possessions in a row. So, let's say that Golden State hacks Bill Russell for five straight possessions and, assuming that they were already in the bonus, he attempts 10 free throws, making five. So, Russell's team has scored five points on five possessions (we are going to ignore the possibility of offensive rebounds, or turnovers, or other fouls). Let's assume that Golden State scores at their usual clip on their five possessions during this span: 5 x 1.17= 6 points. Golden State has gained a whole point during that span.

This thought experiment does not take into account that Russell might shoot better than .500 during a short stretch, or that his team might rebound one of his misses, or that Golden State's offense may not operate at a 1.17 points per possession clip when the pace has slowed down.

I just don't see how this "hack a (whoever)" strategy is worth losing much sleep over for the team being hacked. Unless the player being hacked is so mentally weak that he is just going to fall apart and go 0-10 from the line or unless we assume against all evidence that the hacking team is going to score at a great clip in a half court game, this is much ado about nothing.

So, I think that you raise an interesting point about Russell possibly having less impact during an era when the offenses are so spread out and are not focused on attacking the paint but I disagree with the notion that "hack a (whoever)" is a viable strategy against Russell or against any big man other than one who is just going to fall apart and not make any free throws.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 1:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


I think there's a small but important distinction to be made with regards to O-RTG and crunch time for GSW; their overall O-RTG factors in all minutes, including garbage time, scrubs, etc.

In crunch time, against almost anyone, you're getting the Death Lineup. My assumption is that in crunchtime of a playoff game that lineup is scoring at a much higher rate than the default Warriors' scoring rate. I could be wrong about that, but I would be surprised if I were.

Overall, though, you make a good point about the impact of the Hack strategy, but I think that specifically against an offense as potent as GSW's-- featuring clutch 3 point shooter's like theirs-- you really, really want more than one point per possession. How many times have we seen that team drain a couple clutch threes in a row in a suddenly-no-longer-close game?

Still, I was probably overstating things by suggesting Russell "couldn't stay on the floor." I think having him shooting FTs is worse for his offense than the alternative, most likely, but you're right that it isn't death.

Ultimately I think we both agree-- and correct me if I'm wrong-- that Russell is a title contender on a team with a good supporting cast and a Jones-esque or at least Jones-lite closer in any era, but that they may have some crunchtime problems in the absence of that player.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 9:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You may be right that the Warriors' Death Lineup does/would produce more than 1.17 points per possession in crunch time but I also think that a case can be made that the hacking team's offense becomes less effective during the "hack a (whoever)" phase of the game. Perhaps there is data about this somewhere.

Anecdotally, I recall watching several games during which Shaq was hacked repeatedly and I do not remember the hacking team either (1) successfully coming back or (2) materially increasing their lead if they had a lead when they began using the strategy.

I am distinguishing "hack a (whoever)" from particular situations when it obviously makes sense to foul, such as a team that is up three points, with less than five seconds (or whatever) to go in the game. Then, the foul (as long as it is not on a three point shot) forces the hacked team to (1) make the first free throw, (2) miss the second free throw, (3) get an offensive rebound, (4) score in a scramble situation after getting the offensive rebound. That strategy is not dependent on the free throw percentage of the player being hacked.

I agree that Russell would need a good supporting cast to contend, but that is true of any great player. The specific kind of supporting cast and/or how good that supporting cast must be are different questions.

Russell had every skill set a great basketball player needs except for shooting touch outside of 10 feet or so. Red Auerbach always assured Russell that when they negotiated Russell's contract he would never bring up Russell's scoring average or shooting percentage, because Auerbach understood the tremendous value that Russell brought in all other aspects of the game.

It is worth noting, though, that despite Russell's FG% not looking great to modern eyes he did rank in the top five in FG% in four different seasons. That was a different era in terms of travel, rest, physical contact allowed, arena conditions, etc. His free throw percentage would probably not be great in any era but his FG% would likely be better under modern conditions, as--relative to the players of his day--his FG% was not as bad as it might look at first glance.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 2:06:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I agree that Russell would not shoot worse and could likely shoot better. I also agree that his FG% is not particularly bad for his era.

I do think that he is somewhat unique among players in both your Pantheon and in my top few tiers of players in that he was not really a guy you'd go to when you badly needed a basket. He had a decent little jump-hook and a few other nice post moves but he got most of his points in the flow of the offense or off of offensive rebounds, at least in the tape I've seen. As such, unlike every other tippy-top center, he really needed a go-to scorer to help carry the offensive side of things.

I agree that most great players need a strong supporting cast to win titles, though I think there have been corner-case exceptions where teams won with either relatively average ('75 Warriors, '09-'10 Lakers) or below average ('94 Rockets, '03 Spurs) casts.

I think that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between Russell and most of the other Pantheon-class centers in that Russell's supporting cast requires an elite closer to contend (at least theoretically; we never really saw him play without one, so perhaps I am mistaken). This was not the case for Kareem or Hakeem or Moses (although Kareem usually had one) as they could get points against any defense and were at least decent free throw shooters. Whether or not it was the case for Wilt or Shaq is probably open to debate, but at bare minimum they could prop up your offense for 46 minutes regardless of who else was on the team. None of those guys had the same defensive value as Russell, of course, (and only peak Hakeem or late 60s Wilt came particularly close) but that's not what we're looking at right now.

I think I'm getting caught on a single sentence here that's setting us apart: "I am not saying that he would necessarily have won 11 titles in 13 years in this era but if Russell played today with any kind of reasonable supporting cast he would have won multiple titles and multiple MVPs."

I think Russell would need slightly more than a "reasonable" supporting cast to contend, and I do not think "reasonable" =/= "has a Hall of Fame closer." I also think even with a closer he'd need a few other strong perimeter defenders (ideally ones that could do something on offense as well, or at least space the floor), but that, I think, is probably easier to find/more reasonable to expect.

To clarify, you could put Russell on any team in the league and at least make the playoffs*. But to get very far, and especially to meaningfully threaten the Warriors, I think he'd, at bare minimum, need a Kyrie Irving-type, as well as a handful of Danny Green/Patrick Beverly type defenders. A fair number of teams have (at least arguably) one or the other of those things, but very few have both.

*Except maybe Phoenix. Kill me now.

This probably-- scratch that, definitely--says more about how silly the Warriors are than it does about Russell, but it's how I feel.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 4:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I suppose that a "reasonable" supporting cast could be interpreted in different ways.

I believe that Russell had more impact offensively than you and others give him credit for having, and that he could have a similar impact offensively in today's game.

Russell's defense, rebounding, screen-setting and passing helped to kick Boston's offense into high gear. His impact was not just felt on defense. I see no reason to believe that he could not play the same way today.

At Wednesday, January 23, 2019 5:01:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I do not disagree that he was a plus offensive player. Sorry if it came off that way; he was an excellent screen-setter, passer, and cutter, and an average to above average scorer. Those would all still be true today.

But you still need a guy who can score in crunch time against a set playoff defense--literally every champion ever has one*-- which for all his many talents, Russell isn't, and those are relatively hard to come by.

*'04 Detroit is a weird case where they have three guys who are like 80% of the guy I'm talking about, but I think that's close enough to count.

I am not disagreeing that he would still be great today-- and I think I've been pretty consistently clear on that-- only that he would win multiple titles with a baseline "reasonable" supporting cast. I believe that in the current league, with a dynastic juggernaut like the Warriors running around, he would need at least an All-NBA level closer and a few All-Defensive or near All-Defensive level perimeter teammates to have much shot of winning multiple titles. He had those things in the 60s, and while I am not sure he needed them then (take away any one player he still gets a bunch of titles, if not 11) I think he would certainly need them now to take down a similarly stacked Golden State team, particularly given the different offensive philosophy of the league explored above.

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 3:46:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

A modern contending team for Russell could be built similarly to the 90s Rockets title teams, in my mind, with very marginal difference to how his role on the 60s Celtics teams worked. Russell would guard and operate inside the paint to prevent or block drives to the basket and his teammates on the perimeter would have plenty of leeway to stand pat and smother anyone trying to shoot from distance.

An All-NBA guard teammate would be of course nice but the Rockets had gutsy role players who managed to share the burden of taking big shots in the end game when necessary and I can easily see a modern Russell-led team operating in much the same way.

Perhaps his rebounding numbers aren't as gaudy as his 60s prime but I imagine he would still be able to initiate fast breaks to devastating effect on the defensive end and he'd be grabbing offensive rebounds for a dunk or outside pass to a teammate waiting in the wings. He'd be a regular triple double threat.

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


That is interesting. I think how well a Russell-subbing-for-Hakeem Rockets team would work depends largely on whether you mean the '94 or '95 team.

In both cases, you're going against the offensive philosophy behind those teams' roster construction; those teams offensively were built on forcing teams to either single-cover Hakeem (in which case he's probably going to score) or doubling him (in which case a good shooter is open).

I am not confident that Russell could score efficiently enough one-on-one in the half-court to force those doubles (or punish their absence) and as such I think the '94 model would have some issues if you swap in Russell, particularly in the modern game where playing him and Thorpe at the same time really hurts your offensive spacing.

The '95 team however is pretty much the budget version of what I'm proposing would be a contending Russell team; Drexler at that point was just a hair past his prime but certainly still one of the league's best guards (and made an All-NBA team that season) and a very capable closer. He, Horry, and Elie may not have been quite All-Defensive level defenders but they were pretty darn good and in conjunction with Hakeem (let alone with Russell) they could really stifle teams when they needed to.

I don't think either of those lineups can deal with the modern Warriors--who guards Curry?-- but the '95 iteration would have a much better chance, in my opinion. The '94 team is largely lacking in creation, with no particularly strong shot-creators or half-court scorers. Rookie!Cassell and Vernon Maxwell had their moments, and I love Kenny Smith, but none of them are the kind of guy you want to be your primary offensive creator on a title team.

If I were looking for a modern-is team to model for Russell, though, it'd be something more like Duncan's late 2000s Spurs, with a bunch of strong defenders (all of whom can shoot) and two deadly off-the-bounce creators in Parker/Ginobili. Swapping in Russell probably hurts the offense a little bit (having Duncan as a release valve when the defense blows up plans A and B shouldn't be underrated) but it's less of a drop-off than in the Rockets' case thanks to Parker/Ginobili ensuring you've always got at least one All-NBA creator on the court.

I agree that Russell would get a lot of Triple Doubles.

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 5:07:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

as good as Curry is I think you overestimate his playoff performances... curiously he didn't win finals MVP so far and 3 point shooters tend to struggle in playoffs as defences tighten up and 3p is high variability shot. Surely they can have a game or two when shot falls, but it's not sustainable weapon in playoffs.

At Thursday, January 24, 2019 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I would personally have given him the MVP two out of three of those years. His playoff 3pt FG% during the last four years is 41% on 11 attempts per game so while he may have occasional off nights in the playoffs they are the exception not the rule. I agree that many three point shooters (hi there, James Harden!) can't maintain their efficiency in the playoffs but I do not think that applies to Curry. Even in the Finals he has never shot lower than 38% from 3, which is still pretty dang good.

Moreover, the threat of Curry's shooting is often more important than the actual shooting itself; the rest of the Warriors face so much less defensive pressure/have so much extra space because of how much extra attention defenses have to pay to him, particularly when he starts flying off screens off the ball.


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