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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