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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

LeBron James is NOT the First Player to Rank Among the Top 10 Career Leaders in Scoring and Assists

Contrary to recent headlines and reports, LeBron James is NOT the first player to rank among the top 10 career leaders in scoring and assists. James, who is fifth on the career ABA/NBA scoring list, recently passed Andre Miller to rank 10th all-time in career ABA/NBA assists. This is, without question, a tremendous accomplishment. However, to rephrase a quote from James' past, he is not the first, or second, or third, or fourth, or even fifth player to achieve this distinction.

The inaccurate headlines and stories about this particular subject are symptomatic of a larger issue: basketball history is not well understood and well reported. It is worth recognizing the players who accomplished the dual scoring/playmaking feat prior to James; these players are often not given the credit that they deserve, in part because their accomplishments and milestones are not widely known. 

Rather than going back too far in NBA history, which would provide a small sample size of data, we can begin by looking at the rankings after the 1965-66 season (the NBA's 20th campaign). At that time, Bob Cousy not only ranked first in career assists (6945) but he also ranked fourth in all-time scoring (16,955 points). How many fans and commentators are aware that Cousy was not just the best playmaker of his era but that he was also a big-time scorer?

In 1966, Oscar Robertson ranked second in career assists (4923) and eighth in career scoring (13,998 points). Richie Guerin ranked sixth in career assists (3755) and 10th in career scoring (13,426 points). Dolph Schayes ranked eighth in career assists (3072) and third in career scoring (18,438 points).

Moving ahead by a decade, after the 1975-76 season, Oscar Robertson ranked first in career assists (9887) and second in career scoring (26,710 points). Jerry West ranked fourth in career assists (6238) and third in career scoring (25,192 points). John Havlicek ranked fifth in career assists (5386) and fourth in career scoring (23,678 points). Wilt Chamberlain ranked seventh in career assists (4643) and first in career scoring (31,419 points). Hal Greer ranked eighth in career assists (4540) and sixth in career scoring (21,586 points).

After the 1985-86 season, Oscar Robertson ranked first in career assists (9887) and sixth in career scoring (26,710 points). Jerry West ranked fifth in career assists (6238) and 10th in career scoring (25,192 points). John Havlicek ranked sixth in career assists (6114) and eighth in career scoring (26,395 points). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranked eighth in career assists (5248) and first in career scoring (35,108 points).

In addition, Julius Erving barely missed the cut, ranking third in career scoring (29,021 points) and 11th in career assists (4985, just 55 behind Walt Frazier); Erving retired after the 1986-87 season and he briefly enjoyed the distinction of ranking in the top 10 in both categories (third in career scoring, 10th in career assists), before being passed on the assists list by his former teammate, Maurice Cheeks.

LeBron James is not even close to being the first--or the only--player to rank among the top 10 career leaders in both scoring and assists. Listing the players who accomplished this feat before James does not in any way diminish his greatness; it just sets the record straight, while also providing overdue recognition to a select list of all-time great players who preceded James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 PM


Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Houston Rockets are Not Helpless Without James Harden

A popular narrative this season has been that James Harden's outlandish scoring has been necessary for the Houston Rockets to win--but is that true?

Last night, James Harden sat out because he was shocked that in Houston's previous game--a 111-106 loss to the L.A. Lakers--the officiating crew actually called offensive fouls against him. No, just kidding: he sat out because he had flu-like symptoms and a sore neck. Harden's wallet is $25,000 lighter after he complained about the officiating; he seems to be genuinely astonished to find out that it is a foul when an offensive player extends his arm and pushes the defensive player out of the way. Harden is apparently certain that those fouls were only called against him because referee Scott Foster is personally biased against him (for the record, Foster did not call all of the fouls that were called against Harden, and all of the fouls that were called against Harden were correct).

Without Harden, the Rockets nevertheless beat the Golden State Warriors, a team that has been favorably compared to the greatest teams of all-time. Chris Paul had 23 points, 17 assists and five rebounds. Eric Gordon, inserted into the starting lineup in Harden's place, scored a team-high 25 points. Clint Capela scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. Kenneth Faried scored 20 points and snared 10 rebounds. The reality is that, contrary to widespread belief, the Rockets have several very good players and they have players who can both create their own shots as well as create shots for others. The Rockets shot 16-43 from three point range, which is a typical game for them in terms of makes, attempts and percentage. The myth is that Harden's one on one wizardry creates Houston's record-breaking three point shooting attack but the truth is that without Harden in the lineup the Rockets are quite capable of generating those shot attempts and converting them at the same efficiency.

The defending champion Warriors, who have the best record in the Western Conference and the third best record in the league behind Milwaukee and Toronto, had their full complement of players, though Draymond Green sat out the last few minutes of the fourth quarter after spraining his ankle. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 29 points, Stephen Curry added 25 points and Klay Thompson contributed 20 points.

Yes, this was just one game and one game is a small sample size, but it is worthwhile to compare Harden and his supporting cast to the supporting casts of the only two guards in pro basketball history who averaged at least 35 ppg for a season.

Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg for the 40-42 Chicago Bulls in 1986-87. Jordan played in all 82 games that season, so we do not know how that team would have fared without him in the lineup--but we can make an educated guess. Only two other Bulls averaged at least 10 ppg: second year pro Charles Oakley (14.5 ppg) and John Paxson, who became a nice role player for Chicago's first three championship teams but he was not the third scoring option on those teams. Gene Banks, Dave Corzine and Earl Cureton were the three players who started the most games for the Bulls other than Jordan, Oakley and Paxson. Other Chicago starters that season included Granville Waiters, Steve Colter and Brad Sellers. It is difficult to picture that roster winning more than 20 games without Jordan; in the previous season, the Bulls went 9-9 with Jordan and 21-43 in the 64 games that he missed due to injury. That 1985-86 team had more talent than the 1986-87 team, with Orlando Woolridge averaging 20.7 ppg and Hall of Famer George Gervin scoring 16.2 ppg. After the 1986 season, Woolridge left as a free agent and Gervin retired. The Bulls were without question a Draft Lottery team sans Jordan but they were a playoff team with Jordan.

Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 ppg for the 45-37 L.A. Lakers in 2005-06, highlighted by a sensational January during which Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg, including an 81 point outburst versus Toronto. The Lakers went 9-4 with Bryant in January and 0-2 in the January games that he missed. Those were the only two games that Bryant missed that season but a glance at the Lakers' roster provides all one needs to know about the team's prospects without him. Five other Lakers started at least 46 games: Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook. Odom never made the All-Star team but he was a solid player who won the Sixth Man Award in 2011. Parker was out of the league by 2008 at age 26. He might be the worst starting point guard ever for a playoff team. The only times that Brown ever started playoff games were his two seasons playing alongside Bryant. Mihm played 41 more NBA games after the 2006 season. Cook's career lasted six more seasons, during which he started a total of 26 games and never averaged more than 5.0 ppg for a season. Bryant's supporting cast makes the 1987 Bulls look like a powerhouse. Yet, somehow, Bryant and this motley crew pushed the Phoenix Suns--a talented team featuring two-time MVP Steve Nash--to seven games in the first round, and the Lakers would have won in six games if they could have secured one defensive rebound late in regulation. Instead, the ball literally slipped through their fingers and then Brown failed to close out properly to Tim Thomas, who nailed a three pointer to send game six to overtime. Bryant scored all 13 of the Lakers' points in overtime, finishing with 50 points on outstanding 20-35 (.571) field goal shooting, but the Lakers gave up 21 points in the extra session. Other than Odom, not one player in Bryant's 2006 supporting cast would receive meaningful minutes--or, quite possibly, any playing time at all--on the 2019 Houston team.

In contrast to the (non) supporting casts Jordan and Bryant were saddled with, Harden is surrounded by talent. Not counting Carmelo Anthony (who is no longer with the team) or Faried (who has averaged 16.0 ppg in 14 games for Houston so far), the Rockets have four double figure scorers in addition to Harden. Paul, Gordan and Austin Rivers are each capable of creating shots for themselves as well as for their teammates. The big man rotation of Capela, Faried and Nene Hilario is first rate; Capela is an All-Star caliber center, while Faried and Hilario provide energy/toughness/rebounding. P.J. Tucker, the only Rocket who has started all 59 of the team's games this season, is an excellent "3 and D" wing who defends, rebounds and knocks down open three pointers.

The 1987 Bulls and 2006 Lakers needed the 35-plus ppg scoring that they received from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant respectively. When surrounded by better supporting casts, Jordan and Bryant won multiple titles. In contrast, the Rockets have a very good roster even without Harden; they do not need for him to dribble all of the time and take so many shots, but this is the way that Harden wants to play and the team has accepted it for several years now. Unlike Jordan and Bryant, Harden has yet to prove that he can be the best player on a team that advances to the NBA Finals, much less be the best player for multiple championship teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 PM