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Sunday, December 11, 2022

Paul Silas Excelled as a College Player, as an NBA Player, and as an NBA Coach

Paul Silas, who made significant contributions as a college basketball player, as an NBA player, and as an NBA coach, passed away today at the age of 79. Silas is a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, and he is one of a handful of players who averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg in a Division I career; that group includes Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Artis Gilmore

During his 16 season NBA playing career, Silas earned two All-Star selections (1972, 1975), and he made the All-Defensive Team five times, including two First Team selections (1975, 1976). Silas ranked in the top 10 in rebounding four times, and he led the NBA in offensive rebounds (365) in the 1975-76 season. He played all 82 games in six seasons, and he played at least 80 games in each of his final 10 seasons! I rarely use exclamation points, but those durability statistics deserve emphasis, because "load management" was a foreign concept to Silas, and to many other players from his era who took pride in playing in as many games as possible: those players tried to figure out how to stay on the court as opposed to looking for excuses to justify not playing.

Silas played an important role on three championship teams, including the first two Boston championships of the post-Bill Russell era (1974, 1976), and the only championship in Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder franchise history (1979). 

Near the end of his playing career, Silas called coaching "The toughest job I've ever come in contact with," and he stated that he did not want or expect to become a coach. Silas also explained his philosophy about competition: "What separates the winners from the losers is your mental attitude. Except for a very few, like Jabbar, we're all on the same keel. The only thing I care about is winning and what my players feel about me. You see, winning takes care of everything. To win, you have to die to win. That's barring nothing. Whatever it takes." 

Silas' aversion to coaching proved to be short-lived. He retired as a player after the 1979-80 season, and he coached the San Diego Clippers to a 36-46 record in the 1980-81 season. The Clippers have had good teams for the past decade, so younger fans may not remember or know that the Clippers did not make the playoffs from 1977-91; the franchise's problems could not be blamed on a particular coach. Unfortunately for Silas, his losing record during a three year stint with the Clippers may have made it difficult for him to get his next head coaching job. From 1986-99, Silas served as an assistant coach for several NBA teams (New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Hornets). 

Silas became the Hornets' coach during the lockout-shortened 1999 season. The Hornets missed the playoffs in 1999, but they made the playoffs in each of the next four seasons. Silas was fired after the 2002-03 campaign despite the team's 47-35 record. The Hornets did not match that win total until 2007-08, which was also the next time the team made the playoffs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers hired Silas prior to the 2003-04 season, and he was LeBron James' first NBA head coach. The Cavaliers went 35-47 during James' rookie season, and they had a 34-30 record in James' second season when new owner Dan Gilbert fired Silas. The Cavaliers went 8-10 down the stretch with Brendan Malone serving as the interim head coach.

Silas' coaching career did not end on a high note--he returned to Charlotte during the 2010-11 season, but was fired after Charlotte posted the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106) in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Charlotte's top three scorers were Gerald Henderson (15.1 ppg), Corey Maggette (15.0 ppg), and rookie Kemba Walker (12.1 ppg). With all due respect to those players, that is not a trio capable of leading an NBA team very far, and it is not surprising that with that talent level the team ranked 30th (last) in scoring and 27th in points allowed. 

Silas was well-respected as a coach, and he was a better coach than his record might suggest, because his record is more of a reflection of the talent level and overall organization stability that he dealt with as opposed to any deficiencies as a motivator or strategist. Silas was known for his intelligence and leadership as a player, and he did not lose those skills when he became a coach.

Silas is one of the first coaches who I interviewed during the period when I regularly covered NBA games as a credentialed reporter. He was Cleveland's coach at that time, and I was neither a Cleveland beat reporter nor a well-known national media member, but the first time I reached out to the Cavaliers to set up a one on one interview he welcomed me into his office, and he was very gracious with his time and with the information that he provided.

I incorporated Silas' insights into several of the feature articles and player profiles that I wrote in the early 2000s. For example, Silas played against future Hall of Famer Bob Dandridge in the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979. Here is Silas' analysis of Dandridge's game:

He was a great shooter, especially mid-range, and he could get his shot off on almost anybody. He really understood how to play. When they needed a hoop--even when he was playing with Milwaukee and Oscar and those guys--he shined. Of course, with Washington he was one of the focal points of that team. He just had the uncanny ability of making big shots at the right time. He talked the game and understood it and imparted that (to his teammates). He was very, very smart about the game and how he fit within the scheme and how he wanted everybody else to fit.

That interview is very memorable for me, because it helped me understand why so many articles include incorrect quotations and false information; when I first asked Silas to describe Dandridge, Silas said that Dandridge was "a talker." I am a generation younger than Silas, and I could have just ran with the notion that Dandridge was a trash talker, which would be a natural way to understand what Silas said--but I had done my research about Dandridge, and I was under the impression that Dandridge was very soft-spoken. Something did not add up, so I asked a follow up question to clarify what Silas meant by "talker." The above quote explaining that Dandridge "talked the game and understood it and imparted that (to his teammates)" only came about because (1) I asked the follow up question and (2) Silas was a patient interview subject who was happy to provide more details. Unfortunately, it is very easy to find examples of interviews that went downhill because of the interviewer's lack of knowledge/lack of skill combined with the interview subject's lack of patience. I have also seen examples of reporters deliberately asking a slanted question to a player, and then literally running to the opposing team's locker room to tell another player "Player X said this" without mentioning that Player X did not say that out of the blue but rather in response to a specific question.

Interviews should be about sharing information and spreading knowledge. That is how I have always approached interviews, and Silas was one of my favorite interview subjects.

Perhaps the most special exchange that I had with Silas was when we talked about the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game. Silas played for the NBA in that legendary contest, and he shared with me his recollections of the most famous play from that game: Julius Erving's free throw line dunk (yes, Erving dunked from the free throw line not only in dunk contests, but--at least once--in an actual game). I am forever grateful to Silas, Erving, and Mel Daniels for sharing with me their memories of that spectacular sequence:

Silas will never forget a particular fourth quarter play from the 1972 game: "The one defining moment was, I had the ball and Doc stole the ball from me and went down and slammed this thing harder than I had ever seen anybody slam the ball in my life." Prior to the game Silas knew little about Erving: "Zelmo Beaty, who I had played with in St. Louis and Atlanta, had jumped leagues and when I saw him he was telling me about Doc--that he wasn't a good shooter but he just went by everybody. He just took up the slack, penetrated around and dunked on everybody. And I'm wondering how that happened. How could it happen? He developed a consistent shot, but it took time for him to do that. He was special."

Daniels had seen some great dunks before, including one by Hawkins over Daniels' Minnesota Muskies' teammate Sam Smith in the 1968 ABA playoffs, but nothing quite like Erving's flight in the 1972 Supergame: "He leapt from behind the free throw line, hung in the air for two or three seconds it seemed and dunked it. It was an absolutely amazing dunk and you had to see it to really appreciate it. Telling you about it does not do it the justice it deserves."

Erving recalls, "I stole the ball and got Oscar Robertson and Archie Clark caught back on defense and Archie went for the steal, which made me pick the ball up. I was around the top of the key, coming in transition…I took a step and a half and went airborne from somewhere around the foul line, just inside the foul line. I noticed Oscar Robertson was there and just looking at me like, 'What does this kid think he is going to do?' He figured that I was going to come out of the air before I made it to the basket, but I got all the way to the basket and I dunked the ball and the ball bounced up into his hands and there was a certain expression on his face at the time--as well as Archie's--almost like it was a moment. And I just ran back downcourt, but later on a lot of people talked about that play."

In many ways Erving's dunk symbolizes the ABA and the Supergames in one spectacular athletic flourish--it was amazing and yet no footage of it exists. Fortunately, Erving's free throw line dunk to win the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk contest was captured for posterity.

Silas' name often came up when I interviewed other players and coaches, and it was very obvious that Silas was highly respected around the league. Jack Sikma told me how much Silas helped him when Sikma was a young player and Silas was a savvy veteran: 

"Paul had a great effect helping me to become successful, both on the court and off of it--his approach to the game, how tough you have to be, how relentless you have to be, how focused you have to be," Sikma remembers. "Not just Paul, but the other veterans on the team kind of saw what could maybe happen (with my game) and were always encouraging me--but also challenging me. We always practiced really hard. We were a bunch of young guys trying to get it together. During those practice sessions I got a lot of input from Paul Silas, both verbally and physically"--Sikma chuckles as he says this--"about how to play the game. John Johnson, Fred Brown, Dennis Awtrey--all the guys who had been in the league for awhile--were really helpful and encouraging and challenged us every day."

One of my earliest memories about Silas is a statement of his that I read about when I was a kid. Silas' 1972-73 Boston Celtics went 68-14--including 32-8 on the road (the team played 39 home games, 40 road games, and three games on a neutral court)--and Silas talked about how the best sound that a road team hears is silence as the home fans leave after watching their team lose. Silas relished going into opposing arenas and figuring out how to win, and that tenacity is one reason why his teammates loved him and his opponents respected him. True competitors want to face the best opposition under the most trying circumstances--and then prevail, because that is the best way to measure who you are.

Rest in peace, road warrior/respected teammate Paul Silas.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM



At Monday, December 12, 2022 2:32:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I vaguely remember reading somewhere, I hope I have this right, that Paul Silas tried to get LeBron James to operate out of the low post more but I don't think James was overly thrilled with the idea. I have always wondered how his career would have played out had James embraced a more traditional power forward/undersized center role. True centers wouldn't be agile enough to keep up with him and he could simply overpower most other forwards. His footwork and back to the basket game have never been overly refined but I would think that his numerous other supreme physical abilities would offset this.

At Monday, December 12, 2022 4:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I do not recall a specific quote about that, but I covered a lot of LeBron's early games, and I know that the coaching staff encouraged LeBron to develop a post game. LeBron's greatest playoff successes eventually came when he attacked the paint, and his greatest playoff failures are connected with him loitering 25 feet from the hoop. We see this even now with the Lakers: when James (and Davis) attack the paint, the Lakers can be quite good, but when James (and Davis) settle for jumpers the Lakers are not that good.

The blessing/curse (if we want to use such sharp delineations) for James has always been that he has so much talent that he can put up great numbers and attain at least a certain degree of success even if he plays in a suboptimal manner (i.e., taking too many jumpers). James is a supremely gifted player who has worked very hard on many parts of his game--but I agree with you that he and his teams would have benefited if he had attacked the paint more frequently.


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