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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Narratives Versus Reality

Narratives often overshadow reality regarding player evaluations. During Kobe Bryant's career, an evergreen narrative was when/if Bryant would evolve to become a team player. One such article declared "Kobe Bryant has grown into a consummate team player." The writer quoted Larry Brown, who called Bryant "a model" of what an NBA player should be, and in that same article one of Bryant's teammates said of Bryant, "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore. You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble." You might assume that the article is from the 2008-2010 time frame, when Bryant led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and back to back titles--but the article is from 2000, prior to Bryant winning three championships alongside Shaquille O'Neal.

Once the media labels a player, team, or situation a certain way, that label often sticks, and then becomes the template for future stories. The media labeled Bryant a bad teammate early in his career, and that narrative stuck. Then, media members could choose the "Bryant is now becoming a good teammate" story template or they could stick with the "Bryant has never been/will never be a good teammate" story template. Far too many Bryant stories blindly followed one of those templates, without digging deeper to find the truth.

As Fred Carter told me for one of the first stories that I wrote about Bryant, "For some people perception is reality. The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate."

Uninformed and/or biased media members have constructed a few narratives about Julius Erving, falsely asserting that his game was more about style than substance, that he did not have a reliable jump shot, and that he was not a good defensive player. Alternatively, some media members prefer a narrative suggesting that Erving was not a well-rounded player early in his career but that his game developed as he became older and lost some of his athleticism. These narratives do not withstand close scrutiny of Erving's career and of his skill set.

Regarding style versus substance, Erving led his teams to 10 "Final Four" appearances, six Finals appearances, and three championships during his 16 season professional career while winning two Finals MVPs and retiring as the second leading career playoff scorer in pro basketball history. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).

If you assert that Erving's reputation is built more on style than substance--as Justin Termine recently did on SiriusXM NBA Radio--then you are betraying vast, deep ignorance about pro basketball history.

As for self-improvement, it is true that Bryant, Erving, and most elite players worked on their games throughout their careers; Bryant became a better teammate as time passed, and Erving improved his jump shot. The problem is when the media constructs a false, retrospective narrative that a young Bryant had been a bad teammate, or that a young Erving was a bad shooter. Those narratives enable media members to construct a timeline and a picture that suits their biases, but those narratives are untrue.

You may think that saying that Bryant evolved into a good team player is a compliment to Bryant--but if the truth is that he was a good team player early in his career--and it is indisputable that he was a vital contributor to three championship teams as a young player--then a media narrative that suggests that Bryant did not become a good team player until late in his career is biased, negative, and misleading.

Similarly, stories that assert that Erving did not develop a midrange jumper or focus on team defense until he joined the NBA are biased, negative, and misleading. Erving was never a great outside shooter, but he was also never as bad of a shooter as some narratives suggest. He was so dominant as an inside player that he did not need to shoot many jump shots early in his career. However, he was always at least a solid free throw shooter--demonstrating that he had a reliable touch out to at least 15 feet--and he worked on his jump shot until it became a dependable weapon.

Was Erving a shooter like Stephen Curry? Of course not--but, Stephen Curry will never be able to beat a double team by driving to the hoop and then dunking over the center rotating to defend the rim.

Let's go back to March 1973--during Erving's second season in the ABA--and examine how Erving was viewed by his contemporaries, and how he was depicted by a well-known (and still active) basketball writer. In March 1973, Erving was not considered a limited player who lacked a jump shot and did not play much defense; he was already being discussed as perhaps the best forward of all-time.

Charley Rosen wrote the article "Dr. J Makes the Whole World Feel Good" for Sport, a now-defunct magazine that was then experiencing its glory days under the skilled editorial eye/hand of Dick Schaap. Ironically, in some of his subsequent writing, Rosen forgot a few of the insights about Erving that he learned while researching this article.

Rosen quoted Al Bianchi, Erving's first coach in the ABA: "With a little more experience, he'll be the best forward who ever played the game. Absolutely the best. The only one who compares to Julie is Elgin Baylor--they both have great body control. Julie can put the ball down just as well as Baylor, he can shoot as well, he can rebound better, run better, plays defense a hell of a lot better, and Julie shoots with both hands--he doesn't have to water his left hand three times a day to keep it alive."

Floyd Layne, a former collegiate basketball star who Rosen mentioned only as one of Erving's Rucker League coaches, told Rosen that Erving is already the best forward of all-time: "The thing that makes him so great is his tremendous imagination. He has more moves than Bobby Fischer. Julius is Earl Monroe with size and power."

In my interview with Bianchi, I referenced the notion that Erving developed his jump shot during his career, and Bianchi stated, "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate..."

The important distinction between reality and the media narrative is that Erving's jump shot was "more than adequate" from the start. Many media members want the public to believe either that Erving never learned how to shoot, or that he did not become even a decent shooter until late in his career; this is a useful false narrative for anyone who is asserting that, for instance, Rick Barry or Larry Bird were better than Erving.

Rosen described watching Erving dazzle the Kentucky Colonels with 45 points on 16-31 field goal shooting and 13-13 free throw shooting in a 122-115 victory for Erving's Virginia Squires on November 17, 1972. That performance was one of 13 40 point games Erving racked up during the 1972-73 season, when he led the ABA in scoring with a career-high 31.9 ppg average. Rosen observed that "almost all" of Erving's field goals were "from outside." Rick Barry had recently said that Erving had poor shooting range, but Erving told Rosen that he disagreed with that notion: "He doesn't know. I just never took long jumpers on him, that's all. His game is hoisting from the outside, but if I did that I wouldn't be going to the strongest part of my game, which is inside--and it wouldn't be to my advantage, or to my team's. I don't have to go out of my way to prove to anybody that I can shoot."

Shooting range is important because it enables a player to punish defenders for sagging off of him. LeBron James shot just .356 from the field as the Spurs swept his Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals; James did not have much shooting range at that stage of his career, enabling the Spurs to shut him down by packing the paint and dare him to shoot from the outside. However, at no point during Erving's career was his outside shooting a liability to the extent that it was for a significant portion of James' career.

Erving shot .506 from the field and .777 from the free throw line during his ABA/NBA career. His career three point percentage (.298) is not bad considering that many of his three point shot attempts were last second heaves to beat the shot clock or the game clock; he ranked sixth in the ABA in three point field goal percentage in both 1975 and 1976, the only seasons during his career when the shot was at least occasionally a part of his repertoire as opposed to being a desperation weapon (the three point shot did not exist during the first three seasons of Erving's NBA career, and did not become widely used until after Erving retired).

Erving shot at least .491 from the field in each of his first 14 seasons, and he never shot worse than .471 from the field. He dunked often and well, but he also had a reliable 15-18 foot jump shot. That being said, opposing teams preferred for Erving to shoot a jump shot as opposed to dunking, so defenders backed off from Erving a bit, and shaded him away from his dominant right hand--but Erving's field goal percentage did not plummet when facing such defensive tactics, unlike what happened to James on many occasions.

Erving shot .745 from the free throw line as a rookie. He matched that career-low during the 1979 season, but in his other 14 pro seasons he never again shot worse than .750, and in nine seasons he shot at least .776, including three campaigns during which he shot .800 or better.

Rosen concluded, "By the time he finishes his career, the people who care about basketball history may look back and say there were two doctors who shaped the sport. The first was Dr. James Naismith--and all he did was invent the game. Dr. J made it an art."

In the March 1975 issue of Sport, Jimmy Breslin referred to Erving as "The best basketball player alive at this time, and perhaps the best basketball player of his size ever to be alive at any time."

The Rosen and Breslin articles are not isolated examples taken out of context. It is not difficult to find many other articles from the early to mid-1970s raving about Erving. Occasionally, his outside shot and defense are mentioned as relative weaknesses in contrast to his dominant scoring and rebounding, but contemporary commentators were not suggesting that Erving could not shoot or that he was a defensive liability, nor were they saying that Erving's game consisted of more style than substance.

The false narratives about Erving's jump shot and defense developed later, and then were retroactively applied to Erving's career to suggest either (1) he started out with a subpar jump shot but he improved or (2) that, unlike Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he never developed a reliable jump shot. Regarding defense, there is no question that Erving was elite in terms of steals and blocked shots. Few players in basketball history can come close to his combined prowess in those categories, and those few players are considered top notch defensive players. Erving ranked in the top 10 in both steals and blocked shots during six different seasons. Hakeem Olajuwon is next on the list (four times), followed by Bobby Jones (two times) and Ben Wallace (two times). Only 10 players have accomplished this feat even once. Erving set the record with 12 seasons with at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocked shots, a mark later tied by Hakeem Olajuwon. Kevin Garnett is next on the list with eight such seasons. Erving was the first player to post at least 200 steals and at least 100 blocked shots during a season, and only three players have joined the 200-100 Club: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Scottie Pippen.

Are we supposed to believe that Erving is the only player racking up 100 steal/100 blocked shot seasons who was a poor defender? Erving was a dominant, high minutes player for several excellent, defensive-minded teams. Is it credible to suggest that the team leader--who was racking up steals and blocked shots--was not an integral part of that defensive success?

Erving is too nice to speak up for himself, but that does not excuse blatant rewriting of basketball history.

Termine, the loudmouth radio host who regularly lionizes Rick Barry while disparaging Erving, recently made a big deal about Erving not winning an NBA title without Moses Malone, and about Erving's head to head performance versus Bob Dandridge in the 1978 playoffs.

Erving won two ABA titles and led the 76ers to three NBA Finals without Malone. Malone and Erving were teammates for four seasons out of Malone's 21 year professional career. Malone advanced to the NBA Finals one time in 17 seasons without Erving. Was the younger Malone a more dominant player than Erving during the 76ers' championship season? Of course--but Erving had been the 1981 regular season MVP (Malone won the award in 1979 and 1982 with Houston and in 1983 with Philadelphia) and in 1983 Erving made the All-NBA First Team while finishing fifth in MVP voting. Termine acts as if Erving was Gary Payton latching onto the coattails of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to win an NBA title, when in fact Erving was an MVP-level player for a 65 win team that set a postseason record by going 12-1 (that mark was broken by the 2001 Lakers, who went 15-1 in an expanded playoff format).

Barry is one of the greatest players of all-time, but Erving was superior as an inside scorer, rebounder, and defensive player. Barry was a better free throw shooter, outside shooter, and passer than Erving--but Erving was superior in categories that have more of an impact on winning, and his superiority in his best areas was more pronounced than Barry's superiority in his best areas.

Head to head comparisons of individual players in a team sport have some value, but should be placed in context. It is beyond the scope of this article to dig into every contextual factor in the head to head battles of Erving-Barry or Erving-Dandridge. It is worth mentioning that Barry and Dandridge are each older than Erving (a factor that should also be considered when comparing Erving to Bird, who is several years younger than Erving).

Erving faced Barry in one 1972 ABA playoff series, when Erving was a rookie and Barry was already an established All-NBA/All-ABA performer. Erving averaged 30.7 ppg and 21.0 rpg in that series, while Barry averaged 29.0 ppg (Barry's rpg average for that series is not available, but he averaged 6.5 rpg overall in the 1972 playoffs, and thus it is fair to assume that Erving outrebounded Barry by a substantial margin in that series). Barry's New York Nets defeated Erving's Virginia Squires 94-88 in game seven despite Erving producing a game-high 35 points, plus 20 rebounds. The Squires led the series 2-0, but the teams had to wait nine days to play game three due to scheduling conflicts with the Nets' home court; during the delay, injured All-ABA First Team guard Bill Melchionni healed enough to return to action for the Nets, while Virginia players Doug Moe and George Irvine got hurt during practice.

The Erving-Barry regular season head to head tally is 19-9 in Erving's favor, with Erving averaging 26.6 ppg compared to Barry's 24.7 ppg. Erving leads Barry in championships (three to one), regular season MVPs (four to none), All-Star selections (16 to 12), Finals MVPs (two to one), and All-Defensive Team selections (one to none). Each made the All-NBA/All-ABA First Team nine times. If for some bizarre, illogical reason you prefer to not count their ABA accomplishments, then Erving and Barry are tied with one championship each, Erving leads in regular season MVPs (one to none), Erving leads in All-Star selections (11 to eight), Barry leads in Finals MVPs (one to none), and they are tied with five All-NBA First Team selections each. Barry did not make the All-NBA Team after age 32 or the All-Star team after age 34, while Erving made the All-NBA Second Team at 34, and the All-Star team at 37.

I have tremendous respect for Rick Barry, but it is difficult to understand how anyone could rank him ahead of Julius Erving. Termine has hosted shows with Barry, and often interviews him, but those personal connections should not matter to a purported historian of the game.

Termine harped on the Erving-Dandridge matchup in the 1978 playoffs, but anyone with sense understands that you do not evaluate Erving's 16 year Hall of Fame career based on one playoff series. Further, it is not like Dandridge dominated Erving. First, we will look at the numbers, and then we will consider some context (consult my four part series about Erving's playoff career for an in depth look at Erving's postseason resume). Dandridge averaged 22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 2.0 spg in the 1978 Eastern Conference semifinals while shooting .508 from the field and .750 from the free throw line (his regular season numbers during that campaign were 19.3/5.9/3.8/1.3/.471/.788); Erving averaged 21.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.3 spg in the 1978 Eastern Conference semifinals while shooting .473 from the field and .742 from the free throw line (his regular season numbers were 20.6/6.5/3.8/1.8/.502/.845).

Erving led the 76ers in scoring during the series, and was just three total rebounds short of leading the team in that department as well; Dandrige was second on his team in scoring and fourth on his team in rebounding as the Bullets outrebounded the 76ers by more than 4 rpg. Elvin Hayes led the Bullets in scoring (23.0 ppg) and rebounding (15.7 rpg) while shooting .452 from the field as he destroyed 76ers power forward George McGinnis (13.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, .387 FG%). The Bullets, with two top 50 players (Hayes and Wes Unseld) plus four-time All-Star Dandridge, won the 1978 title and returned to the Finals in 1979.

That playoff series was not the highlight of Erving's career, but Termine had the gall to compare it to James Harden's perennial playoff choking. Harden never belongs in any conversation with Erving, unless the conversation begins and ends with, "Julius Erving was a vastly superior player to James Harden."

By the way, according to Basketball Reference, Erving won 11 out of 15 regular season head to head encounters with Dandridge while outpacing Dandridge in scoring by nine ppg (24.7 ppg to 15.7 ppg). It is also worth looking at what happened after one playoff series during which an All-Star forward had a very solid performance against one of the greatest players of all-time. Much is made of how Michael Jordan motivated himself by slights real and imagined. It is a reasonable assumption that Erving did not much care for the narrative that Dandridge outplayed him during the 1978 playoffs. Here is how their next nine head to head encounters went, with Erving's team winning eight of the nine games: Erving 25, Dandridge 18; Erving 26, Dandridge 20; Erving 20, Dandridge 18; Erving 27, Dandridge 8; Erving 21, Dandridge 12; Erving 40, Dandridge 0 (Dandridge played just seven minutes in that game); Erving 36, Dandridge 18; Erving 24, Dandridge 14; Erving 28, Dandridge 2. Erving outscored Dandridge 27.4 ppg to 12.2 ppg in those games.

Erving did not talk trash and did not bring attention on himself in any way other than performing at an elite level, so his dominance over Dandridge is easy to ignore for media members who prefer to push a slanted narrative suggesting that one playoff series somehow proves that Erving should not be ranked ahead of Barry and Bird.

None of the above is meant to denigrate Dandridge, an excellent player who was a key member of two NBA championship teams. The point is that contrived narratives and cherry-picked examples are often used by media members (and not just when covering sports). Be smart enough to dig deeper, or to consult materials written by someone who dug deeper.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:04 PM

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