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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Vince Carter's Legacy: Excellent Peak Value, Extraordinary Longevity

The Atlanta Hawks will not be participating in the planned restart of the 2019-2020 NBA season, and Vince Carter has officially confirmed that this means he has played his last NBA game. Carter had announced prior to this season that this would be his final campaign, but the abrupt suspension of the season in March had created at least some uncertainty about Carter's plans.

The 43 year old Carter played in the NBA for 22 seasons, breaking the ABA/NBA record of 21 previously held by Moses Malone (19 NBA seasons, two ABA seasons), Robert Parish, Kevin Willis, and Dirk Nowitzki. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the first of eight players whose ABA/NBA careers lasted at least 20 seasons; in 1985-86, Abdul-Jabbar broke the long-standing record of 16 seasons, held by Dolph Schayes, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, and Elvin Hayes (Julius Erving joined the 16 season club in 1986-87). Abdul-Jabbar's record (20 seasons played) stood from 1989 until 1995, when Moses Malone logged his 21st professional season; Robert Parish broke Abdul-Jabbar's NBA-only record in 1997 after completing his 21st campaign. The other players who played for at least 20 seasons are Kevin Garnett (21) and Kobe Bryant (20). Bryant was the first player to play at least 20 seasons with the same team, and Nowitzki is the only other member of this club who spent his entire career with one team.

Carter won the 1999 Rookie of the Year award and the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He made the All-Star team eight straight years (2000-07), and he earned All-NBA honors in 2000 (Third Team) and 2001 (Second Team). He never finished higher than 10th (2000) in regular season MVP voting. Carter ranked in the top 10 in regular season scoring average six times, including a career-high 27.6 ppg in 2000-01. He averaged at least 20 ppg in 10 straight seasons, including three seasons during which he scored at least 2000 points. Carter scored 25,728 regular season points, ranking 22nd on the ABA/NBA career scoring list. He joined Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James as the only players who amassed at least 25,000 points, at least 5000 rebounds, at least 4000 assists, and at least 500 three pointers made.

Carter averaged 16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 3.1 apg in 1541 regular season games. Carter ranks third all-time in regular season games played. He averaged 18.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, and 3.4 apg in 88 playoff games. He reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 with the Orlando Magic, averaging 13.7 ppg in a six game series loss to the Boston Celtics.

Will Carter be selected as a Hall of Famer? The answer is almost certainly, "Yes." Every eligible player who made the NBA All-Star team at least eight times has been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the lone exception of Larry Foust, an eight-time All-Star who retired in 1962 and who never averaged more than 17.0 ppg in a season.

Should Carter be selected as a Hall of Famer? The answer to that question depends on how you think about the Hall of Fame. If you think that the Hall of Fame should only welcome the absolute best of the best, then you would likely think that Carter is not worthy. Carter is not one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, and may in fact not be one of the top 100 greatest players of all-time. However, if you think that the Hall of Fame should welcome players who played at a high level for an extended period even if they never reached MVP level then Carter easily meets that standard. Carter was no worse than a top 20-25 player for an eight to 10 year period, which is excellent peak value. He then spent an even longer period as a solid rotation player; those final seasons lowered his career per game averages, but should Carter's Hall of Fame resume be downgraded because he had great longevity compared to his peers whose bodies failed them at a younger age, or who were not able to adjust to a lesser role in order to stay in the league? Carter proved that he was a coachable player who was willing to help younger players, and he proved that there was more to his game than just eye-popping leaping ability. Carter's role in elevating (pun intended) pro basketball in Toronto, and his iconic dunks (both in games and in the Slam Dunk Contest) are intangibles that bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Initial Thoughts About the NBA 2020 Season Restart

The most important thing about the NBA 2020 season restart--other than the health and safety of all of the participants--is that this will enable the league to crown a champion by using the traditional playoff format. There has never been an NBA season that ended without crowning a champion, and hopefully 2020 will not be the first.

It is unfortunate, if perhaps unavoidable, that no team will play all 82 regular season games, and that eight teams will not play any more games until the 2020-21 season starts. The Milwaukee Bucks were on pace to win more than 70 games before having a three game losing streak prior to the league shutting down, and the 53-12 Bucks could have still finished with exactly 70 wins if they had won their final 17 contests--not likely, but not impossible for a team that had an 18 game winning streak earlier in the season.

The L.A. Lakers have the second best record in the league, and they went 8-2 in their last 10 games prior to the shutdown. If Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo does not claim his second straight regular season MVP then the Lakers' LeBron James could very well win his fifth MVP, tying him with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) on the all-time list.

Finishing the regular season in some fashion, honoring an MVP--along with other award winners such as selecting the All-NBA Teams, and the Rookie of the Year--and crowning a champion are important links in the league's historical chain.

Of course, the primary motivating factor for restarting/finishing the season is financial: the league's owners, players, media partners, and other associated businesses face billions of dollars of combined losses if no more games are played until next season starts.

No fans will be present at these games, but having eight regular season games plus a full playoff slate will enable the NBA to fulfill at least some of its contractual obligations to its TV partners and to its various corporate sponsors.

The format agreed upon by a 29-1 vote of the NBA's Board of Governors on June 4--and subsequently ratified by the NBA Players Association, though there have been recent rumblings of dissatisfaction among at least some players--stipulates that each of the 22 participating teams will play eight "seeding games" to conclude the 2019-20 regular season. All games will be played at the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Florida, where all participants will essentially be sequestered until the teams that they are associated with are eliminated from contention. There will be frequent COVID-19 testing, and there will be rules in place regarding the protocols if a player tests positive. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has stated that a positive test will not result in the quarantine of an entire team, or the shutdown of the season.

The top seven teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs, with the traditional tiebreakers in place if necessary. If the team with the eighth best record in a conference is more than four games ahead of that conference's ninth place team after the "seeding games" have been played then the eighth place team will be that conference's eighth seed; however, if the eighth place team is not more than four games ahead of the ninth place team then the ninth place team can qualify for the playoffs by winning two head to head games versus the eighth place team.

Essentially, this means that Brooklyn, Orlando, and Washington are battling for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, while Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix are fighting for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

The season is scheduled to restart on July 31, and the NBA Finals are scheduled to end no later than October 12. The NBA Draft Lottery is set for August 25, the NBA Draft will be held on October 15, and the 2020-21 season will likely begin on December 1. Of course, there are a variety of factors/contingencies that could change these plans. 

Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York are the eight teams not participating in the restart. This means, among other things, that Atlanta's Vince Carter--whose 22 season career is the longest in NBA history--has most likely played in his last NBA game.

After Utah's Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player who tested positive for COVID-19, extensive testing was done of people who had been in close contact with him; among Utah's traveling party of dozens of people, only Gobert's teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive (which suggests that perhaps COVID-19 is not as contagious as it has been reported to be). Both Gobert and Mitchell fully recovered without experiencing serious symptoms. What I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Gobert testing positive is worth repeating now:
If COVID-19 is as contagious as it is depicted to be, and if Rudy Gobert had the kind of sustained, direct contact with so many people that one can reasonably assume that he had after he became contagious but before he was isolated, then why is there only one infection directly connected to him? Whole countries are being shut down, and millions of lives are being disrupted on the premise that this disease is highly contagious. More than one media outlet has reported that one person in New York singlehandedly infected over 100 people.

Shouldn't somebody with medical expertise be looking into why Gobert is not very contagious, and why this other person supposedly is so contagious? Do we not have all the facts? Did Gobert somehow infect more people than we know? That seems doubtful based on how many people connected to him have already been tested. Is the one person in New York possibly not responsible for infecting over 100 people? If Gobert only infected one person, but this other individual infected over 100 people, then what actionable knowledge can we gain from those two situations to limit the spread of this disease? Alternatively, if this other individual only infected one or two people, then other method(s) of disease transmission involving the rest of the folks incorrectly linked to that individual presumably would have implications for the effort to slow the spread of the disease.

Gobert felt well enough to play NBA basketball on the night that he tested positive. By all accounts, Donovan Mitchell is doing fine, too.

Are people who are younger than a certain age and reasonably healthy seriously at risk?

I understand the concepts of "flattening the curve," and the importance of minimizing how many people get sick so that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed--but shutting down the entire country will also have a serious impact on the economy, on mental health, and ultimately on physical health. An autopsy can prove if someone who died had COVID-19. An autopsy cannot prove that someone who died would have lived if not for the transformative disruptions of society that are increasing on a daily basis to mitigate the spread of a disease that we do not understand very well.

Is it possible that protectively isolating the elderly and the most vulnerable without shutting down the whole economy would lead to a better outcome, both in terms of disease mitigation, and the mitigation of other negative outcomes?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions--but I know that these are very important questions, and that they need to be answered intelligently not only to deal with this crisis, but to deal with whatever the next crisis will be.
When the NBA shut down in March, the league based this decision relied on various speculative models. With the information available at that time, shutting down may have been the only option. It is not clear when it will be feasible to have mass gatherings of thousands of people, and the NBA had to figure out how to safely hold games without having fans on site.

Now, we have evidence demonstrating that COVID-19 poses a much more significant threat to the elderly and/or immuno-compromised than to any other population segments; this means that, with proper care, our society does not have to be on indefinite and draconian lockdown status.

I strongly believe that our society should return to as close to normal as quickly as possible. I support the NBA's overall plan to resume the season, whether or not I agree with every single proposed detail. I hope and expect that the restart will go well, that few of the people involved in the restart will test positive for COVID-19, and that anyone who tests positive will recover quickly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 PM


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


MVP/Finals MVP/Rookie of the Year Wes Unseld Passed Away at Age 74

Wes Unseld, selected in 1996 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, passed away this morning at the age of 74. Wilt Chamberlain (1960 NBA), Unseld (1969 NBA), and Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA) are the only players in ABA/NBA history who won the regular season MVP and the Rookie of the Year award in the same year. Unseld, who played for the franchise then known as the Bullets (now known as the Wizards) from 1968-81, led his team to the NBA Finals four times (1971, 1975, and 1978-79). He won the 1978 Finals MVP after the Washington Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games.

He was not a big-time scorer, finishing with a career scoring average of 10.8 ppg while averaging double figures in scoring only six times in 13 seasons, but despite standing just 6-7 he had a huge impact in the paint. Unseld led the NBA in rebounding in 1975 (14.8 rpg) and in field goal percentage in 1976 (.561). Unseld did not post gaudy assist totals, but he was an excellent passer overall, and perhaps the best outlet passer in NBA history, renowned for his ability to snare a defensive rebound and throw a precise full court pass. He set devastating screens to open up the floor for his teammates in the half court set.

Unseld's teammate and fellow All-Star Phil Chenier told me, "Wes was there for my whole career with the Bullets--a very stable player, very team oriented and he set a lot of picks to get me open. He was a player who instilled confidence in his teammates in a very quiet way. You always knew that he supported you. He never fussed at his players. He was always encouraging and that's what I liked most about Wes."

Unseld had nine seasons with at least 1000 rebounds, tied with Bob Pettit for third on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Bill Russell (12). Unseld grabbed 1491 rebounds as a rookie, tied with Artis Gilmore for third all-time in ABA/NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain (1941) and Spencer Haywood (1637). Unseld ranks among the top 15 ABA/NBA career leaders in rpg (14.0, seventh), and rebounds (13,769, 13th).

He was a durable performer who played in all 82 regular season games four times, and who played in at least 73 games in 11 of his 13 seasons. Unseld averaged 36.4 mpg during the regular season, and 41.1 mpg during his playoff career. 

Unseld was a Bullet/Wizard in five different decades including not only his playing career but also his tenure as head coach (1988-94) and as a team executive (1996-2003).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 PM


Monday, May 18, 2020

The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

"We could have won seven." Michael Jordan, with the last word on the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

A major reason that Michael Jordan came back to the NBA in 2001 is that, as he later put it, he still had an "itch to scratch." That itch, that burr in Jordan's saddle, developed because the Chicago Bulls' dynasty did not reach its natural conclusion--the Bulls were not dethroned, nor did the principal figures who created that dynasty collectively agree to leave the game; the dynasty screeched to a halt because Jerry Krause's oversized ego convinced him that it made more sense to run off the game's greatest player, the game's best coach and the game's best second option in order to build a team from the bottom up and install his fishing buddy Tim Floyd as the team's coach. It should be emphasized that while Krause is most often mentioned as the villain in this drama, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf--Krause's boss--could have stepped in and stopped Krause, so Krause should not receive all of the blame.

After winning six championships in an eight season stretch, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen earned the right to dictate their terms of departure--and they each would rather have either kept the run going until someone beat them, or win some more rings before riding off into the sunset. That is how the movie is supposed to end; the gunslinger hero either wins that last battle or he dies a noble death.

When Rick Telander asked Jordan why he would come back and risk ruining the "perfect ending" he forged by hitting the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals, Jordan snarled, "What perfect ending? Who said it was a perfect ending? If you listened properly for that whole year, I said if Phil Jackson would be there, I would keep playing."

ESPN's much-anticipated 10 part series titled "The Last Dance"--which is what Phil Jackson labeled the upcoming 1997-98 season after Krause made public his team demolition plans--provided context, background, and behind the scenes footage from not only the Bulls' sixth championship run, but also the events that led up to that season. In the final episode, Jordan reiterated the point that he had made to Telander: Jordan did not feel happy about leaving at his peak, and in fact he would have signed a one year deal to go for his seventh championship.

I have addressed the breakup of the Bulls in depth twice, and that history is worth reviewing before turning our attention to "The Last Dance."

My December 14, 2015 article titled Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work analyzed how difficult it is to build a championship team from scratch--which is one reason why a championship team should not be prematurely dismantled--and corrected some of the revisionist history that had been asserted about how Krause broke up the Bulls:
In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsdorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"
In Jerry Krause Built (and broke up) the Bulls' Dynasty, I eulogized the man who helped build the Bulls' dynasty before he inexplicably destroyed it:
"Few GMs have enjoyed the success that Jerry Krause did. 6 rings says it all. To me, his track record is absolutely Hoophall worthy."--Scottie Pippen, after learning of Jerry Krause's death

"He's been around a long time and won championships. They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."--Charles Oakley, speaking of Krause in 2002, when the post-dynasty Chicago Bulls went a league-worst 21-61

Two quotes by two players who knew firsthand what it felt like to be signed--and shipped off--by Jerry Krause serve as fitting epigraphs for Krause's life and career. Krause, who passed away at the age of 77 on Tuesday, deserves more credit than he often receives for building the Chicago Bulls' 1990s dynasty; he assembled all of the pieces around Michael Jordan for the first three-peat (including a marvelous coaching staff) and then when Jordan came back from his baseball hiatus Krause built an entirely new supporting cast (other than Pippen) for the second three-peat.

Sadly, Krause also deserves the blame (along with owner Jerry Reinsdorf) for breaking up the Bulls' dynasty. I have heard of coaches being told "Win (x amount of games) this year or you are fired" but, until Krause, I had never heard of an executive telling his coach that even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship he was gone--but that is exactly the message that Krause delivered to Phil Jackson prior to the Bulls' "Last Dance" championship in 1998.

Krause relished the challenge of proving that he could win without Jordan but that was foolish pride; the Bulls deserved the opportunity to, as the saying goes, come back "with their shields or on them" in 1999, as opposed to Jordan, Pippen and Jackson being exiled from the city that they had placed on the basketball map. Jackson would go on to win five more championships as a coach, Jordan came out of retirement to be an All-Star during the season that he turned 40 and Pippen recovered sufficiently from back surgery to be a key member of a Portland team that came within one bad fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals of perhaps derailing Jackson's budding Lakers' dynasty before the Lakers won three titles in a row.
ESPN's "The Last Dance" pulled back the curtain to provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the Bulls at the top of the mountain when they simultaneously basked in the success of winning two titles in a row (and five in seven years for Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen) while also chasing a sixth title amidst the turmoil of realizing that their run would end even if they won the championship. "The Last Dance" not only covered the 1997-98 season, but it also examined the background and history of the Chicago Bulls franchise, as well as the background and history of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson.

The first two episodes of the series traced Michael Jordan's development from a lanky 5-10 player cut from his high school varsity team to the North Carolina freshman who hit the game-winning shot in the NCAA Championship game to the NBA Rookie of the Year to a championship-winning iconic figure. One constant with Jordan was his work ethic; at every stage of his life, at every stage of his development as a player, he outworked his teammates, and he outworked his competitors.

Jordan's resentment toward Krause and the Bulls' front office began during Jordan's second season. Jordan had suffered a broken foot that caused him to miss most of the 1985-86 campaign. By the time he felt ready to return, the organization was content to sit him out the rest of the way, miss the playoffs, and collect a Draft Lottery pick. Jordan wanted to play. He had vowed to reach the playoffs every season, and he aimed to fulfill that vow. The organization applied a strict minutes restriction on Jordan down the stretch, the Bulls barely qualified for the playoffs, and then the organization lifted the minutes restriction. Jordan responded by hitting the soon-to-be NBA champion Boston Celtics with a 49 point outing and then a playoff record 63 point game. The Celtics won the series 3-0, but Jordan had staked his claim as the best player in the league. The musical selection of L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" to be the soundtrack for Jordan's 63 point masterpiece was quite fitting; when the song begins with the voiceover saying "Calling all cars" you can picture Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton expressing a similar sentiment while facing the daunting task of guarding the player who Bird referred to as "God disguised as Michael Jordan." The media may have been slow to concede the point that Jordan was the NBA's best player, but--as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made clear during "The Last Dance"--the players who shared the court with Jordan understood exactly how great he was.

Keep in mind that if Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had gotten their way, fans would have been robbed of Jordan's 63 point playoff game the same way that Reinsdorf and Krause robbed fans of seeing whether or not the Bulls could have won the 1999 championship.

It is very instructive to watch how Jordan scored in the 63 point game, or in any of the vintage highlights for that matter. Jordan attacked the hoop from all angles, his footwork was impeccable, he had a deadly jump shot out to about 20 feet, and he was a very good free throw shooter. Jordan did not need a "Eurostep"/travel move to get open, he did not hook his arm around the defender's arm to try to trick referees, and he rarely shot three pointers--yet he was as efficient as he was unguardable. Seeing Jordan score like that in a more physical era and at a time when the court was not spread out with three point shooters is a vivid reminder of how unstoppable Jordan would be in today's softer era with little defensive paint presence and the court spread out with three point shooters. A team shooting 20-60 from three point range may be more mathematically efficient than a team shooting 29-60 from two point range but the latter is more fun to watch, and is more likely to be part of an overall championship equation (which includes not only shooting efficiency but also floor balance, defense, team chemistry, and other elements that are not valued by many "stat gurus").

All of that being said, it is important to remember that Jordan posted a 1-9 record in playoff games without Scottie Pippen. "The Last Dance" details how Pippen emerged from humble beginnings in Hamburg, Arkansas to become one of the greatest players in NBA history. Viewers who are too young to remember the 1990s may be surprised to see and hear just how important Pippen was. That point was reinforced at the start of the 1997-98 season when Pippen was out of action as he recovered from foot surgery. In the previous season with a healthy Pippen, the Bulls started out 34-5, finished 69-13, and won their second title in a row; the Bulls sans Pippen for the first portion of the 1997-98 season started out 6-5, and they were 24-11 when he returned to action. The Bulls went 36-8 the rest of the way with Pippen in the starting lineup (they went 2-1 in games that he missed), and they won their sixth title before Krause accomplished his goal of dismantling the team of the 90s. Pippen was not as great as Jordan, but Jordan would not have become who he became without having Pippen by his side. Jordan is the first to admit that, even if Pippen's critics are reluctant to give Pippen his due.

"The Last Dance" provided a great reminder that these players are not just numbers on a stat sheet or a salary cap spreadsheet; they are immensely skilled, sensitive human beings who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to the pursuit of excellence. Any executive and/or "stat guru" who thinks that there is a formula that can enable one to move around players like chess pieces or poker chips and thus achieve championship success misunderstands not just sports but life. Maybe the Bulls saved some money in the short term by not renegotiating Scottie Pippen's contract when he was the second best player in the league but not even one of the top 100 paid players in the NBA. The Bulls organization won that battle. How many championships has that Bulls organization won since getting rid of Jordan, Pippen, and crew? How many free agents are eager to play for a franchise that disrespected the players who built such a wonderful championship legacy?

Episode three focused on Dennis Rodman, who won two titles with the Detroit Pistons--beating Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs along the way--before playing a vital role for the Bulls' 1996-98 championship teams. Rodman was an introverted student of the game who wanted everyone to think that he was an extroverted person who just ran around the court like a crazed fool. Jackson termed Rodman a "heyoka"--a Native American term for a "backward walking" person who is a kind of jester or contrarian--and the two bonded as fellow maverick non-comformists. It is beautiful to see the way that Jackson provided structure for Rodman while also giving Rodman a lot of freedom and leeway. Jackson understands that all people have value, and that not everyone can or should be expected to fit in with the so-called "normal" way of doing things.

Jordan said, "Dennis is one of the smartest guys I played with. He understood defensive strategy with all the rotations and he had no limits in terms of what he does." In Rebounding tips from Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor, I described Rodman as "a Phi Beta Kappa student of basketball who seemingly wants everyone to believe that he is the class clown." Rodman does not like to publicly talk about his rebounding techniques, and his autobiography I Should Be Dead By Now devotes little space to that subject, other than noting that Rodman applied judo concepts to rebounding: as I paraphrased Rodman's explanation in the aforementioned article, Rodman "would interlock his arms and legs with his opponents until he could determine where the ball was going to go and then he would use his quickness and agility to untangle himself and get to the ball." During a one on one interview many years ago, Steve Kerr confirmed to me that Rodman spent a lot of time studying game film/video, but that Rodman did not want the public to know about this.

"The Last Dance" provided a well-balanced portrayal of the Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons rivalry. Most reports about the Pistons' infamous 1991 "walkoff" after being swept by the Bulls neglect to point out that the Boston Celtics did the same thing after losing to the Pistons in 1988; you may be familiar with the oft-shown footage of Kevin McHale slapping hands with Isiah Thomas, but it was Thomas who approached McHale while the Celtics--including Larry Bird and Robert Parish--fled to the locker room before the game ended without congratulating the Pistons. "The Last Dance" noted that the Bulls had shaken hands with the Pistons after losing to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, but there is a weird double standard applied against the Pistons for their 1991 "walkoff" because the Celtics are never criticized for poor sportsmanship regarding their 1988 "walkoff" after the Pistons dethroned them. The double standard goes much deeper than just the two "walkoffs," though. As I mentioned in The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys, the Pistons built their roster and formed their attitude in order to overcome a very physical Boston team:
The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to match up with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.
This narrative does not fit the narrative that the NBA and many media members portray, but it is nevertheless the truth. As a fan, I prefer the way that the 76ers and the Bulls played to the way that the Celtics and the Pistons played, but I understand why Isiah Thomas and other Pistons still feel disrespected more than 30 years later. Thomas is a vastly underrated player who was the central figure as the Pistons rose from being a 21-61 doormat in 1980-81 (the season before he joined the team) to being back to back champions in 1989-90, and Thomas' teams beat the Celtics, the Bulls, and the Lakers in the playoffs during that era. You do not have to like the Pistons, but the Pistons deserve respect as a championship team built from the ground up that more than held their own against some of the greatest teams in NBA history.

After the Bulls dethroned the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, they beat Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers to win the NBA title. The Lakers won game one on a Sam Perkins three pointer, but then the Bulls took four straight victories. Pippen's smothering defense against Johnson was a major factor, foreshadowing the significant role that Pippen's defense would play throughout the Bulls' subsequent title runs.

Episode four focused on Jackson, who was the perfect coach for this group of talented individuals. He knew how to push Jordan without alienating Jordan, and he knew how to get the most out of everyone else, from a Top 50 player like Pippen to an eccentric Hall of Famer like Rodman to role players who he prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically to provide support to the team's superstars at key moments. Great players want to be coached, and they respect coaches who push them to new heights. The respect and loyalty that Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman feel toward Jackson stems from the way that Jackson treated them. As Red Auerbach once said after being asked about how to handle certain players, "You handle animals, but you deal with people."

Episodes five and six explored several topics, starting with some glimpses of the beginning of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant friendship, a friendship whose extent the general public did not know about or understand until Jordan gave a powerful eulogy for Bryant at the public memorial service for Bryant. Jordan and Bryant faced off in the 1998 All-Star Game, with Jordan winning the MVP, and giving Bryant an open invitation to reach out to him if he ever needed advice or help; as Jordan memorably recounted during his eulogy for Bryant, Bryant accepted Jordan's offer, and often sought out Jordan for advice not just on basketball but on other matters as well. Bryant was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he explained that he dislikes the comparisons that are often made about him and Jordan. Bryant said, "What you get from me is from him. I don't get five championships here without him, because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice."

"The Last Dance" examined Jordan's role on the 1992 Dream Team. It has often been reported that Jordan refused to join the team if Isiah Thomas was on the roster. Jordan denies issuing that ultimatum, but he also makes it clear that he and other players would not have felt comfortable with Thomas being included. It is unfortunate that Thomas was denied an opportunity that he had earned based on his performance; as Thomas has often said, "I fit the criteria": at the time the Dream Team was selected, Thomas had led the Detroit Pistons to two championships, trailing only Magic Johnson (five titles) and Larry Bird (three titles) among his active peers. Jordan had won one title, and he won his second title just prior to the 1992 Olympics.

During the Dream Team's intense practices, Jordan showed that even among alpha males he was the "alpha alpha male," leaving no doubt that he had supplanted Johnson and Bird as the sport's top player.

Jordan and Pippen resented that during the early 1990s Krause was pursuing young Croatian player Toni Kukoc. As Jordan put it, Krause was placing Kukoc "ahead of his own kids," meaning the Bulls players who had performed at such a high level, eventually winning three straight NBA titles. Pippen shut Kukoc down during Team USA's first game versus Croatia. Kukoc performed better in the gold medal game against Team USA, but Team USA still dominated, and Jordan and Pippen had more than made their point. Kukoc was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he said that prior to the 1992 Olympics he had no idea that Jordan and Pippen felt such resentment toward Krause about him. After Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993 and proved his worth, Pippen and Jordan (after he returned from his first NBA retirement) welcomed him as a valuable contributor.

Winning an NBA championship in 1991 forever silenced any talk that Jordan was a high scoring individual talent who could not lead a team to ultimate success. Jordan relished prevailing in the head to head Finals battle against Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. After the 1991 season, Jordan's carefully crafted public image took a hit because of the publication of Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book painted a picture of Jordan as someone who could at times be selfish, be a bully toward his teammates, and be an intimidating presence to both teammates and foes. In "The Last Dance," Jordan insisted that a disgruntled Horace Grant was Sam Smith's source for information from inside the locker room, but Grant denied this. As B.J. Armstrong said, there was likely more than one single source. Further, it has already been established that Phil Jackson was a primary source.

The Bulls won a second championship in 1992, as Jordan took his Finals matchup with Portland's Clyde Drexler very personally; Jordan aimed to obliterate the notion that Drexler might be ranked on par with Jordan. Back to back titles put Jordan in the conversation with Johnson and Bird, but Jordan wanted to lift himself above them, and the best way to do that would be to win a third consecutive title. Up to that time, only George Mikan's Lakers and Bill Russell's Celtics had won at least three NBA championships in a row.

During the 1990s, the Bulls often had to get past a very physical New York team in the East before advancing the Finals. The Knicks were similar to the "Bad Boys" Pistons in terms of the mental and physical challenges that they posed for the Bulls, but the Knicks did not capture the public's imagination the way that the Pistons did, probably because the Knicks did not win a title during that era.

The 1993 championship drive wore Jordan down mentally and physically. He was criticized for going to Atlantic City to gamble the night before the Bulls lost a playoff game to the Knicks. Information about some of the seedy characters who Jordan had been gambling with--and losing money to--over the years became public knowledge, most notably when Jordan had to testify in court to explain a $57,000 check he wrote to Slim Bouler to pay off a gambling debt. Bouler was later sentenced to nine years in prison on unrelated money laundering and conspiracy charges. Jordan claimed that he had a "competition" problem, not a gambling problem, and he admitted that, in retrospect, he should have been more careful about associating with certain people. Jordan was offended by what he felt to be the media's attempt to bring him down, and for a time he refused to speak to the media at all.

None of this had any visible impact on Jordan's level of play. The Bulls won four straight playoff games versus the Knicks after falling into an 0-2 hole in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bulls then defeated Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Jordan, indignant that Barkley had been voted the regular season MVP by the media, made a point of asserting his individual superiority over Barkley, much as Jordan had done in the 1992 Finals versus Drexler.

B.J. Armstrong declared, "Michael Jordan didn't even really play basketball anymore. He just figured out how to win the game. He knew how to steer momentum. He knew how to get guys going. Not only was he that good on the offensive end, he was that good on the defensive end. He was just playing a different game than the rest of us. He let us play, but he was there to win the game."

Episodes seven and eight covered some of the most emotionally gripping and wrenching territory, including the murder of Jordan's father James, and Jordan's strong feelings about why his harsh, confrontational leadership style was necessary.

Jordan was already considering retirement prior to his father's July 1993 murder. After the murder, Jordan decided that he not only had nothing left to prove, but also that he wanted to be sure that his father saw his last basketball game. Jordan's father had encouraged him to play baseball, and after Jordan retired from the NBA he pursued that childhood dream, signing a contract to play minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. Reinsdorf owned both the Bulls and the White Sox, and during the documentary he stated that he paid Jordan's NBA salary during Jordan's retirement because Jordan had been underpaid in previous seasons.

Jordan is understandably displeased with the media coverage of his father's murder, his first retirement, and his minor league baseball career. Without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that the murder of Jordan's father might somehow be connected with Jordan's gambling. Also, without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that Jordan had not retired but rather had been secretly suspended by the NBA as punishment for his gambling. Many media members also mocked Jordan's baseball career by suggesting that he was somehow embarrassing the sport. In fact, Jordan's Birmingham Barons teammates, manager, and coaches said that Jordan had an incredible work ethic, and that he possessed sufficient talent to reach the major leagues provided that he had enough practice.

Basketball fans can be thankful that Major League Baseball was foolish enough to have a work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series, and extended into the 1995 season; Jordan refused to cross the picket line, started working out for basketball again, and officially rejoined the Bulls on March 18, 1995 by sending out this press release: "I'm back."

Without Jordan, the Bulls had lost to the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals before losing Horace Grant to free agency, and Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. Pippen had an MVP-caliber season in 1993-94, but Pippen was also heavily criticized for sitting out the final 1.8 seconds of game three versus the Knicks after Phil Jackson designed the final play for Toni Kukoc. Kuckoc hit the game-winning shot, Pippen's teammates accepted Pippen's apology, and Pippen dominated in a game four win--25 points, eight rebounds, six assists--as the Bulls surprised the basketball world by remaining a contender without Jordan. The substance of Pippen's career adds up to much more than "1.8," but just as Jordan never won a title without Pippen it was evident that it would be challenging for Pippen to win a title without Jordan.

The Bulls had been gathering momentum prior to Jordan's return--winning eight of their previous 10 games--and they went 13-4 down the stretch after Jordan came back. Jordan had some great moments--including the famous "double nickel" game at Madison Square Garden--but all you need to know about the difference between playing pro basketball and playing pro baseball is that Jordan got out of shape playing pro baseball. Yes, there are different muscle groups involved in each sport, and he had to retrain his body, but it is also clear that basketball requires a greater and broader overall level of fitness than baseball does. As a result, Jordan could not sustain the highest level of energy over a 48 minute game, or over the duration of a playoff series. He was still an elite player, but he was not the best player in the league; a good case could be made that he was not even the best player on the team, and at that time Jordan was quick to acknowledge that he needed to catch up with Pippen.

The Bulls won their first round series versus Charlotte--with Jordan deriving some inspiration to lift his game after ex-teammate B.J. Armstrong hit the game-winning shot in game two--but Jordan came up short in several clutch moments as the Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan with Pippen had not been able to advance any further in 1995 than Pippen had advanced without Jordan in 1994.

Jordan rebuilt his body during the summer of 1995, playing pickup games on the set of the movie "Space Jam." Jordan not only fine-tuned his game but also made mental notes about the NBA players who participated in the games. TNT's Kenny Smith once said, half-jokingly, that the NBA players made a mistake helping Jordan get back in shape.

Even with Jordan back to his full powers, the Bulls still needed someone to fill Horace Grant's old role, and they needed the supporting cast--an entirely different group from the 1993 team--to provide enough help for Jordan and Pippen, who would be the only two players who played for all six Bulls championship teams.

"The Last Dance" showed many examples of Jordan's famous competitive fire, and the way that he manufactured motivation out of slights real and imagined; one gets the sense that many of the slights were imagined, and that Jordan--much like the comic book hero The Incredible Hulk--was driven by rage. There should be no doubt, though, that Jordan loved the game, and that he loved winning. He sought to perfect his craft, and he pushed his teammates to perfect their craft.

Jordan explained during one of "The Last Dance" interviews, "My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don't want to live that regimented mentality, then you don't need to be alongside of me because I'm going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don't get on the same level, then it's going to be hell for you." Jordan added, "Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn't endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less."

During "The Last Dance," Jordan showed the greatest amount of emotion when discussing two situations: (1) the murder of his father, and (2) explaining why he pushed his teammates so hard. Jordan's love of the game fueled his competitive anger, and Jordan did whatever he had to do to make sure that his teammates would do everything possible to win championships. Jordan declared during one of "The Last Dance" interviews that he never asked a teammate to do something that he did not do.

It is an interesting quirk of media coverage that the competitive fire that is considered such an admirable aspect of Jordan's legacy has been so often criticized as a detriment to Kobe Bryant's legacy. If anything, Jordan's verbal taunts and physically aggressive behavior toward his teammates seems worse than any known behavior that Bryant displayed toward his teammates. It should also be noted that Bryant carried the Lakers to two titles and three straight Finals appearances in the second act of his career with a lot less talent around him than Jordan had during any of his championship runs. Other great players have won multiple titles without being as overtly demanding of their teammates as Jordan and Bryant were, but no great player has won multiple titles without setting a standard of excellence for himself and then demanding--in one way or another--that his teammates match his work ethic, focus, and toughness even if they cannot match his skill level.

The final two episodes of "The Last Dance" began by focusing in general on the Chicago Bulls' rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, and specifically on Michael Jordan's rivalry with Reggie Miller. Miller noted that he did not fear Jordan the way that many NBA players did--Miller respected Jordan, but he did not fear him. Jordan and Miller came to blows in a 1993 regular season game, and Jordan conceded that--other than the Detroit Pistons--Miller's Pacers posed the biggest challenge that he faced. Jordan played in just two game sevens during the Bulls' six championship runs: a 110-81 win versus the New York Knicks in 1992, and an 88-83 win versus the Pacers in 1998. Jordan shot just 9-25 from the field in game seven against the Pacers, but he chased down five offensive rebounds as the Bulls grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Jordan--like Kobe Bryant after him--understood what so many of today's players--and so many "stat gurus"--do not: championship basketball is about not just numbers, but about heart, and about doing what needs to be done when it most needs to be done. If you are not shooting well, then play defense, and grab rebounds. Those who rely on analytics will never believe or understand it, but I would take Jordan's performance in that game seven over a gaudy, but empty stat line resulting from a player chasing numbers that make him look good as opposed to focusing on doing whatever needed to be done to win the game.

It is also worth noting that in a high stakes game during which rebounds mattered the most, Scottie Pippen had the most rebounds (12), and the most offensive rebounds (six). Jordan and Pippen each had more offensive rebounds than Indiana's entire team (four). If you understand how special Jordan and Pippen were in that game, then you also understand Kobe Bryant's value in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, when Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds--five more than any Boston Celtic--to lead his Lakers to an 83-79 win.

The last two episodes also revisited one the the core themes running throughout the series: Jordan's motivational fire was stoked by slights real and imagined. Objective reality took a back seat in Jordan's mind to framing situations in ways that enabled Jordan to develop anger, and then direct that anger at his opponents while he dominated them. Jordan said that one time during his first retirement Utah's Bryon Russell made a comment to Jordan that Jordan retired because he knew that Russell could shut him down. Maybe this was an offhand or lighthearted comment, maybe Russell never even said it; what Russell actually said is secondary in this context to what Jordan heard: he felt disrespected by Russell, and after that Russell was "on my list," as Jordan put it. Jordan made sure that Russell will forever be known as the futile defender flailing at Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, the shot that clinched Chicago's sixth title.

Jordan understandably felt slighted when the media gave the 1997 regular season MVP to Karl Malone. Jordan won the MVP while leading the 1996 Bulls to a then-record 72 wins, and yet the media did not select Jordan as the MVP when he led the Bulls to 69 wins--equaling the previous record--the next season. Selecting Malone as MVP over four-time--and eventual six-time--champion Jordan made no sense. Malone is a consummate playoff choker who never won a title and who shot .463 from the field in the playoffs compared to his .516 regular season field goal percentage. Yes, we are talking about a regular season award and not a playoff award, but how "valuable" is a player like Malone who cannot be relied upon when the games matter most?

As was usually the case, Jordan got the last word with Russell, Malone, and the media. Jordan's Bulls beat Malone's Jazz in the Finals in 1997 and 1998. In the clinching game six of the 1998 Finals, Pippen suffered a serious back injury that ultimately required offseason surgery. He had ruptured two disks in his back. During "The Last Dance," Bulls' trainer Chip Schaeffer explained, "He was in such pain. So disabled. He had continued loss of function. He was losing mobility and his pain was increasing. It was spiraling." That kind of severe back injury not only causes excruciating back pain, but it leads to radiculopathy--pain down one or both legs as a result of the disk material pressing on a nerve. At first, Pippen did not think that he could return to the game, but ultimately he came back and--despite modest box score statistics--he made an impact, posting a game-high +16 plus/minus number. Jordan's plus/minus number was +2, but of course he shared many of his minutes with Pippen; during the 22 minutes that Pippen did not play, the Bulls struggled mightily. Phil Jackson recalled of game six, "When Scottie left, we were just kind of holding on."

The Bulls may have been a good team without Pippen, but they were not a great team without him--as we saw during the first part of the 1998 season when Pippen was out of action while recovering from offseason foot surgery. Pippen later told me with pride about his game six contribution, "I was productive. I could have been more productive, could have done a lot more if I had been healthy." Schaeffer declared, "Anybody that would have a notion that Scottie Pippen was a soft player, that is patently absurd. He is as tough a player and as tested of a competitor as anybody I've ever worked with. What he did in game six was extraordinary. I know so many players who would have tapped out without hesitation. He was just going to throw it out there and finish no matter what."

Jordan deserves a lot of credit for scoring 45 points on 15-35 field goal shooting in that 87-86 series-clinching win, but no one should forget Pippen's contributions not only throughout the series and throughout the season, but especially in that last game.

During the locker room celebration, Jordan said, "Now, you all say whatever you want, they can't win until we quit."

Sadly, the Bulls organization had made the decision before the season to quit. They broke up this team for the ages. In Blood on the Horns--perhaps the definitive book-length examination of the Bulls' 1998 season--Roland Lazenby concluded with these words:
Did Krause actually think that he could go back and start all over again? Conjure up all this magic again?

The answer to that lay in a simple, hubris-filled comment the GM made after Jordan hit the shot in Salt Lake City to win the sixth championship. "Jerry and I have done it six times now," Krause told Phil Rosenthal of the Sun-Times.

It was one final sour note on his theme from October. Organizations do win championships.

He was wrong, of course. These were and are Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Always have been. Always will be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM


Monday, May 11, 2020

Remember 25-8-6 About Scottie Pippen, Not 1.8

"The Last Dance" is a compelling and fascinating 10-part series. After it concludes, I will post a lengthy, detailed examination of the documentary, and of the Bulls' 1998 championship season.

This article will focus on Scottie Pippen. As some commentators have noted, Pippen has not said much--if anything--publicly since the debut of "The Last Dance." Pippen's former teammate Dennis Rodman believes that Pippen is not being portrayed fairly, and is not receiving enough credit for his indispensable role on six championship teams. Although Michael Jordan has complimented Pippen at times, the series has also focused more attention on certain negative aspects of Pippen's career than it has on his many accomplishments.

I have extensively documented Pippen's sustained greatness, so it is not necessary to recap his entire career, but it is worth placing the infamous "1.8" number in historical context.

In 1993-94, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.0 ppg), assists (5.6 apg), and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg). He finished third in regular season MVP voting behind Hall of Fame centers Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. The defending champion Chicago Bulls, who replaced the retired Michael Jordan with Pete Myers, and who added raw but promising rookie Toni Kukoc, went 55-27, just two wins less than their total from the previous season with Jordan as the leader. The Bulls went 4-6 in games that Pippen missed after an early season injury, or else they would have likely surpassed their 1992-93 record. Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong each earned their first and only All-Star selections in 1994. Pippen was not a screamer like Jordan, nor was Pippen a fourth-quarter scoring machine like Jordan, but Pippen was a tremendous all-around player who led by example and who always kept his teammates involved in the offense.

During the 1994 playoffs, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.8 ppg,), rebounding (8.3 rpg), assists (4.6 apg), and steals (2.4 spg) while ranking third in blocked shots (.7 bpg). "The Last Dance" recaps the final 1.8 seconds of game three of the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the New York Knicks when Pippen sat out the final play and Kukoc drained a game-winning jumper, but Pippen immediately apologized to his teammates and they accepted his apology. They knew that what Pippen had done was an aberration for him, and they liked and respected him as a leader and teammate.

I remember a media member asking Pippen where the Bulls would go after game three--as if the whole team would crumble--and Pippen, presaging a now-famous Bill Belichick retort, replied simply, "Game four." Pippen let his game do his talking in game four, leading the Bulls with 25 points, eight rebounds, and six assists as the Bulls won 95-83 to tie the series at 2-2. The way that Pippen redeemed himself and brought the Bulls back into the series speaks volumes about his character and leadership.

Simply put, 25-8-6 adds up to a lot more than 1.8.

The home team won every game in that tightly contested series--culminating with New York's game seven triumph--but a terrible Hue Hollins blown call in game five cost the Bulls a road win, and a chance to close out the series in game six at home.

"The Last Dance" gives the impression that the Bulls fell apart in 1994-95, but the reality is a bit more nuanced. The Bulls lost free agent Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic, and they lost veterans Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. While Cartwright and Paxson were not major statistical contributors in 1993-94, they provided depth and leadership. In 1994-95, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg), becoming just the third player to lead his team in all five of those statistical categories in the same season (Dave Cowens and Julius Erving were the first two players to accomplish this feat; Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James later joined this exclusive club). The Bulls overcame a slow start to the season to win eight of the 10 games they played before Jordan came back from retirement.

With Jordan, the Bulls lost in six games in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals, after reaching game seven in that round without him in 1994. Jordan dedicated himself to getting back in basketball shape during the summer of 1995, and he teamed up with Pippen to win three more titles. Jordan and Pippen are the only players who were members of all six Chicago Bulls championship teams.

An objective examination of the record shows that the Bulls would not have won a single title without Pippen. Michael Jordan won one playoff game--not one playoffs series, but one playoff game--without Pippen. Pippen was an MVP-level player for the 1994 Bulls team that lost in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and he was the leader of the 2000 Trail Blazers team that lost in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals, and against Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals played a major role in Chicago's victories in those series. Pippen was a rare player who could dominate a game without taking a shot.

During Jordan's first retirement, Pippen emerged as an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player, and he remained an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player for several years, until age and back surgery slowed him down in 1999. Pippen is without question one of the top 25 basketball players of all-time--not a Pantheon-level player, but securely in the next category of greatness.

Michael Jordan is an iconic historical figure whose impact transcended the NBA, and he is understandably the focus of "The Last Dance." His viewpoint dominates the narrative not only because he is the central figure, but also because the footage would have never been seen by the public without his approval. All of that being said and acknowledged, it must also be said and acknowledged that Pippen was not some minor character in this epic-length drama; Pippen was Jordan's co-star during those title runs, and the story would not exist--the Bulls would not have been a dynasty--without Pippen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:20 AM


Saturday, May 09, 2020

Mike Storen Helped to Build the Indiana Pacers and the ABA

Mike Storen, who assembled the Indiana Pacers' first championship team in the ABA before serving as the league's Commissioner, passed away on Thursday at the age of 84. Younger sports fans may know more about his daughter, accomplished broadcaster Hannah Storm, than they do about him, but Storen had an impact not just on the ABA but also on several other sports. During his long career as a sports executive, he was affiliated with the Houston Astros (MLB), the World Football League, and the CBA (serving as Commissioner in 1987-88).

The Pacers were known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA after becoming the league's only three-time champions while appearing in the ABA Finals five times during the ABA's nine year run. Storen acquired Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Roger Brown, he hired Hall of Fame Coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard, he helped choose the Pacers name, he designed the team's first logo, and he selected blue and gold as the team's colors. The Pacers won their first title in 1970 while Storen served as their General Manager, and the foundation pieces that he put in place were essential for the Pacers' title runs in 1972 and 1973. Storen briefly worked in the front office of the Kentucky Colonels before becoming the ABA's Commissioner in 1973. Storen then joined Isaac Hayes in the ownership group of the ABA's Memphis Sounds. The Sounds were sold after the 1974-75 season. Storen became the President and General Manager of the Atlanta Hawks in 1977.

Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, who was a three-time ABA All-Star (1968-70) and a three-time ABA Coach of the Year (1973, 1975-76), made a statement after Storen passed away: "For me and so many other guys that might not have had a chance to continue playing, his influence on the ABA just gave countless kids and coaches [an opportunity] to do something they love. And at the end of the day, when you consider the contributions some of those kids and coaches made in the NBA after the ABA was finished, its just remarkable. He just cared about the game and cared about the players in the league."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 PM


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Tanking to the Top" is Not What the 76ers Have Done

I have never written a book review without reading the book I am reviewing, but this article is more of a review of a book review than a review of the book. Fred Barnes' The Wall Street Journal review of Yaron Weitzman's Tanking to the Top is as misguided as the title of the book itself. Weitzman's book is about the Philadelphia 76ers, who did indeed tank, but most assuredly have not reached the top.

I have previously discussed Why Tanking Does Not Work, but you do not have to take my word for it. In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson analyzed the history of tanking:
Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.
Since Thompson wrote that article, two teams have won an NBA title subsequent to using a number one overall draft pick, but neither team triumphed by tanking. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 championship with two number one overall draft picks that they selected (LeBron James, 2003; Kyrie Irving, 2011), but tanking was not the basis for that team's success; James had left Cleveland, won two titles in Miami, and then returned to Cleveland as a free agent, while Irving has not had much team success before or after playing alongside James. The Cavaliers traded 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins for All-Star Kevin Love, who was a vital contributor for the 2016 championship team. Also, the 2019 Raptors won a title after having a number one overall draft pick in 2006, Andrea Bargnani; through a series of transactions, the Raptors ended up with a 2016 first round draft pick for Bargnani, and they traded the player that they drafted with that pick (Jakob Poltl) as part of a package to acquire 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but it would be foolish to suggest that tanking contributed in any meaningful way to Toronto's title.

In contrast, under the misguided leadership of Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 before firing Hinkie. Hinkie took over a 34-48 team, and he promptly turned it into perhaps the worst team in NBA history. In the full seasons since Hinkie departed, the 76ers went 28-54, 52-30, and 51-31; they are 39-26 in the suspended 2019-20 season. Prior to hiring Hinkie, the 76ers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2012. Nearly a decade later, they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, and their regular season winning percentage has declined two years in a row. There is as much reason to believe that the 76ers have gone as far as they can with Joel Embiid--the poster boy draft pick of Hinkie's so-called "Process"--as there is to believe that the injury-prone Embiid will lead the 76ers to a title.

If the 76ers ever win another championship, it will be despite Hinkie's "Process," not because of it.

Tanking stands in marked contrast to Michael Jordan's approach to the game. Jordan would never accept tanking, and he would never consider second round playoff losses to be "the top."

As "The Last Dance" has reminded those who may have forgotten, or who may be too young to remember, Jordan battled against the Chicago Bulls' attempt to tank when he was injured during his second season, and he bristled at their eagerness to blow up a six-time champion at the end of his career. "The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years," Jordan fumed in response to the Bulls' plan to run off him, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman to start from scratch.

The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s. They have won five playoff series since chasing away Jordan and crew. "They had a dynasty. Now they have a coffee shop," was Charles Oakley's take on the Chicago Bulls in 2002. I doubt that too many people in Chicago are buying the "Tanking to the Top" premise in 1998, in 2002, in 2020, or in any other year.

Jordan's singular focus was to win as many championships as possible. He divided people into two categories: those who could help him win championships, and those who could not help him win championships. Jordan had no interest in wasting time with anyone who fit into the second category. Jordan tested any player who joined the Chicago Bulls during his tenure. Players who passed the test stayed on the team; players who failed the test did not stay on the team.

Kobe Bryant had the same mentality, though he lacked Jordan's media-savvy ability to convince the public that this mentality is a virtue. Jordan punched a teammate in practice, and regularly berated his teammates, but Jordan remains a hero; Bryant reasonably stated a preference for Shaquille O'Neal to get in shape, and he pushed his teammates to levels that they never reached before or since, and Bryant was portrayed as a horrible teammate.

Jordan and Bryant would scoff at the notion that anything less than a championship is satisfactory. They did not play to win division titles or conference titles, or lose in the second round of the playoffs. Bryant explained the mentality that he and Jordan shared:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
Weitzman's book endorses Hinkie's tanking, and Barnes raves, "By the time he joined the Sixers, Mr. Hinkie knew some core truths about the modern game...The author's analysis is convincing and his reporting thorough. Tanking to the Top is the best basketball book in years."

If you want to know "core truths about the modern game," read Derek Thompson's analysis cited above, or read Phil Jackson's Eleven Rings. There are many basketball books from the past few years that I would select over a misguided attempt to justify losing on purpose: in addition to Jackson's book, some other fine choices include Wooden: A Coach's Life, and The Mamba Mentality.

In the same review article, Barnes also praises The Victory Machine, by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who is perhaps best known for annoying Kevin Durant at a press conference by asking the same question (in slightly different forms) repeatedly about why Durant had not been talking to the media recently, until Durant became frustrated. Durant labeled Strauss as "a dude...who come in here and give his whole opinion on stuff and make it seem like it's coming from me. He walk around here, don't talk to nobody, just walk in here, survey and write something like that." It takes no particular skill to ask the same unimaginative question over and over, but Strauss achieved his real goal: he obtained publicity for himself, and promptly announced that he was writing a book about the Warriors (the book that Barnes just reviewed). When you watch a sporting event and you know the names of the referees, that typically means that the referees are not doing their jobs: the sport is not supposed to be about them, but about the athletes. Similarly, if after a press conference you know the name of a reporter, it typically means that reporter was not doing his job: the press conference is not supposed to be about reporters, but about the athletes. No one tuned into that press conference to hear Strauss keep asking Durant why Durant had not talked to the media. I observed all kinds of press conference nonsense firsthand when I covered the NBA.

I don't know if those two books were assigned to Barnes, or if he picked them himself, but if those are the two best basketball books being released now--and if Barnes is the most qualified person to review those books--then that is just sad.

This is not the first instance of questionable sports analysis by The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, David Biderman contacted me regarding my research showing that Chris Paul's assist totals are inflated, but his subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal did not mention my findings. Biderman later informed me that he did not have enough room in his rather lengthy piece to do justice to my analysis. So, instead of telling the story accurately and completely, he included misleading and/or inaccurate sound bite quotes from other people regarding the use of statistics in basketball. It is enlightening to get an inside view of how the media works; the one and only goal for most media outlets is to generate content that is likely to produce advertising revenue: the truth is not even a casualty of the process, but rather it is irrelevant.

The Wall Street Journal has fared even worse when it turned its attention to chess, as I documented in Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage?, Wall Street Journal Publishes Another Sloppily Rendered Chess Article , and Wall Street Journal Attempts to Correct Faulty Chess Article. In 2009, former Women's World Chess Champion Alexandria Kosteniuk was so outraged by one of the The Wall Street Journal articles cited above that she wrote the following on her website:
What's upsetting is that the Wall Street journalist, Barbara Jepson, tricked me by telling me that the article she was writing was about "Women's Chess", which made me very happy, as I supposed she would be writing something to support women's chess (not destroy it), that's why I took great care to answer in a positive and honest way (as I always do).

She asked me several questions including if I thought special women's titles should be eliminated. In my answer to her, I wrote very clearly with my reasoning that "Women's titles and tournaments should exist". And then she changed the title of her piece to "Abolish Women's Chess Titles", and used my name in it (I guess to add some authority to it, as if to boast she consulted with the women's world champion about it), only quoting some insignificant point I made to another question about sponsoring, without stating I was against that idea of abolishing women's titles, so that most people thought I agreed with the idea of abolishing women's titles since I was featured in her article and said nothing about the lead question of abolishing titles.

This apparently caused on purpose misunderstanding led me to get several emails from people asking me why I supported abolishing women's titles. This lie started to be posted all over the web and can still be seen on several web sites. I had to immediately respond on my blog and set things right.

Now you, dear reader, please judge for yourself what kind of article that Wall Street Journal was? 
It was about the same kind of article that would assert (1) that Sam Hinkie understands deep truths about the NBA and (2) that a book praising tanking as a good strategy is the best basketball book of the past several years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:32 PM