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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Howard's Triumph Over James May be a Sign That the NBA is Going Back to the Future

Shaquille O'Neal often says that he is the LCL (last center left) but the Cleveland Cavaliers just found out that this is definitely not true: while most of the world focused on LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the puppet commercials, Dwight Howard hopped into a souped-up DeLorean and took the NBA back to the future, reminding us all that basketball has usually been dominated by teams featuring a great big man. The critics said that Howard was too nice/fun loving and too limited offensively to lead a team to an NBA title but he averaged 25.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg and 1.2 bpg while shooting .651 from the field as his Orlando Magic defeated James' Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The only player in NBA history who matched those scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers while winning a playoff series was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 Western Conference Finals (34.8 ppg, 19.5 rpg, .663 field goal shooting); Howard had 40 points and 14 rebounds in the game six clincher versus Cleveland, becoming just the second player to reach those totals in a victory that propelled his team into the NBA Finals--matching a feat accomplished by Charles Barkley, who dropped 44 and 24 in Phoenix' game seven win in the 1993 Western Conference Finals. Yes, the Magic tied the record for most three pointers made in a six game playoff series but that would not likely have happened without Howard making Cleveland's defense move back and forth like an accordion.

The real question of the day--and possibly the next decade--in the NBA is not the "Great Debate" (Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James, in case you have been hiding under a rock) or whether Dwyane Wade deserves to be a third party candidate in that debate but rather this: Is Dwight Howard beginning to embark on a reign of dominance that will be capped off by multiple championships? I realize that this may seem like a bizarre question coming from someone who--like just about everyone other than Barkley--picked Cleveland to beat Orlando but never let it be said that I cannot admit that I was wrong and then take a fresh look at the evidence. I picked against Howard and the Magic because as recently as last season the Pistons brushed them aside in the playoffs by single-covering Howard, smothering the three point shooters and generally pushing the Magic around; when Orlando needed seven games to get past the injury-depleted Celtics this year I could not imagine that the Magic would dismantle a Cleveland team that used defense and rebounding as the foundations for a 66 win season. Howard's performance against Cleveland, capped off by that exclamation point sixth game, is a real eye opener; the 40 points are his playoff career-high and if that is a sign of things to come from Howard then the rest of the league is in trouble.

With the exception of a brief period from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in order to win an NBA championship you usually had to have a dreadnought center who commanded a double-team in the post and/or dominated defensively and on the glass. George Mikan led the Lakers to five championships, Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain guided the two greatest single season teams prior to Michael Jordan's 1996 Bulls (the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers) to titles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earned six rings with the Bucks and Lakers, Bill Walton brought a championship to Portland before being hobbled by injuries and Moses Malone took the 76ers back to the Promised Land in 1983. Teams that won a championship without a dominant center were rare, most notably the 1979 Sonics and the 1975 Warriors, each of whom, ironically, beat a Bullets team that featured Top 50 big men Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who did win a championship together in 1978. Robert Parish, the center on three Boston championship teams in the 1980s (1981, 1984, 1986) was not dominant in quite the same fashion that his contemporaries Abdul-Jabbar and Malone were but he is a Hall of Famer and Top 50 player who could have put up bigger individual numbers if he had not been playing alongside fellow Hall of Famers/Top 50 players Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.

The requirement for a championship team to have a dominant center did not change until the late 1980s, when Abdul-Jabbar passed the age of 40 (he won his last Finals MVP award in 1985 at the age of 38!) and the league's young, future Hall of Fame caliber centers (Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson) did not have good enough supporting casts to win championships. The 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons had a solid former All-Star at center in Bill Laimbeer, a good rebounder who also could make the outside jump shot (think Zydrunas Ilgauskas with a sneer and a much meaner disposition), but their best players were Hall of Fame guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars; Thomas remains the only 6-1 player (and he really isn't even that tall) to be the main guy on an NBA championship team. Those Pistons were dethroned by the Chicago Bulls, who featured Top 50 players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen flanked by a center by committee. Jordan's first retirement robbed us of the opportunity to see him go against Olajuwon in the Finals. When Jordan came back he won three more titles alongside Pippen and a revamped center by committee and after Jordan retired in 1998 Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan won eight of the next 10 championships; the two exceptions during that decade were the 2004 Detroit team that had an ensemble All-Star cast flanking a perennial Defensive Player of the Year winner at center (Ben Wallace) and the 2008 Boston team that had three future Hall of Famers, including a dominant 7-0 defender/rebounder (Kevin Garnett) who nominally plays power forward.

During his six championship runs, Jordan generally did not have to face dominant, Hall of Fame centers; he had several showdowns with Ewing's Knicks and then he split a pair of series versus O'Neal in the mid-90s. Jordan never faced Olajuwon or David Robinson in a playoff series, though it could be argued that this was their "fault" and not his; after all, Jordan had no control over who his opponents would be in the championship round. Still, it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Jordan's Bulls had played Olajuwon's mid-90s Rockets or if they had been around a decade earlier and met up with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar and Malone when they were All-NBA/MVP level players.

My take on that issue has generally been that the Jordan-Pippen nucleus supplemented by an excellent power forward (first Horace Grant, then Dennis Rodman) and a reliable supporting cast of role players got by Ewing repeatedly and blew out O'Neal's Magic in 1996 so there is no reason to believe that those Bulls could not have similarly triumphed over Olajuwon's Rockets.

However, watching LeBron James lead Cleveland to the NBA's best record and then take his game to an incredible level in the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose because of Howard's impact, I thought back to Julius "Dr. J" Erving's career. Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-77-1982-83 and his teams advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals five times in those seven seasons, four times making it through to the NBA Finals--but they only won one championship and that happened after they acquired Moses Malone to match up with Abdul-Jabbar. Erving would likely have won three or four NBA titles were it not for the fact that the 76ers--specifically Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones--simply could not deal with the likes of Walton (1977) and Abdul-Jabbar (1980, 1982) in the NBA Finals; the 76ers also lost to the Hayes-Unseld tandem in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978 and to Bird-McHale-Parish in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. The only time that Erving in his prime lost an NBA playoff series to a team that did not have a Hall of Fame center was in 1979, when George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs outdueled Erving's 76ers in an entertaining and hard fought seven game Eastern Conference semfinal matchup; the 76ers were without the services of injured All-Star guard Doug Collins and although Erving played well in that postseason (25.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.9 apg), he was bothered by nagging groin and abdominal injuries and that was the only time in his first 13 professional seasons that he did not make the All-ABA or All-NBA Team.

What does Erving have to do with Jordan and James? The point is that the NBA Erving--who was not quite as spectacular as the ABA version (as explained in the Epilogue below)--still performed at a high level (literally and figuratively) but simply could not overcome the dominant centers of his era in championship play until he was paired with a dominant center (to be fair, Malone never won a title until he played with Erving, either). Jordan went from being a great player to being an icon in no small part because of his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals but is it possible that, to some extent, that success happened because he was blessed with the good timing to not have to face a dominant center surrounded by an adequate supporting cast? Might Jordan have had to settle for fewer titles if he had been annually bumping heads with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar?

LeBron James' numbers in this year's Eastern Conference Finals--38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, .487 field goal shooting--are fantastic and rank among the best single-series performances in NBA history but that still was not enough to lift the team with the NBA's best record past a team that has the NBA's most dominant center. Could Jordan really have done any more than what James did? While it is true that James did not have a Pippen alongside him when he battled Howard, it must also be noted that--unlike O'Neal when he faced the Jordan-Pippen Bulls with Penny Hardaway by his side or Olajuwon when he won the 1995 championship with Clyde Drexler--Howard is not paired with an All-NBA sidekick, either. Could the number of championships that James wins ultimately be impacted by having to annually battle Howard in the playoffs, much like Erving had to deal with first Walton and later Abdul-Jabbar and in contrast to the dearth of elite centers on contending teams during Jordan's prime?

In the 2009 Finals, Howard will face the other party in the "Great Debate," Kobe Bryant. Like James, Bryant does not have a teammate of Pippen's caliber but--unlike James or Jordan--he does have an All-Star big man in Pau Gasol. If the combination of Bryant and Gasol guided by nine-time NBA champion Phil Jackson is not enough to stop Howard and the Magic then we may be witnessing the dawning of an era that no one--from the "experts" to the advertisers--expected: the Dwight Howard era.


It really is a shame that the NBA does not officially count ABA statistics; though younger fans may find this hard to believe, Erving was the LeBron James/Kobe Bryant of his era (though it feels funny to phrase it that way, much like Bill Russell said that a reporter "had the question backward" when asking a retired Russell how he would have fared against the young Abdul-Jabbar); Pat Williams--who is currently a Senior Vice President with the Magic but who was the 76ers' General Manager when they acquired Erving in 1976--recently told me, "There has never been an acrobat like Julius. That would be my argument. Even Jordan, as fun as he was to watch, nobody in his prime did it like Julius...If he were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."

As great as James' statistics were versus Orlando, Erving put up even better numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals as a New York Net facing the Denver Nuggets, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). He also shot .590 from the field in that series. The Nuggets had a Hall of Fame center (Dan Issel), a Hall of Fame forward (David Thompson, who later shifted to guard in the NBA) and the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones); the Nuggets were good enough to beat a team comprised of All-Stars from the rest of the teams in the league during All-Star Weekend.

There was so much talk about the Cavs' "nail" play, the 1-4 set out of which James scored or assisted on 32 straight points in Cleveland's game five win versus Orlando, but Erving operated out of a similar formation versus Denver and was every bit as devastating, as the numbers listed above indicate.

While it is interesting to speculate about how many championships Erving could possibly have won if he not had to face Walton and Abdul-Jabbar--or if he and Moses Malone had joined forces earlier--another great hypothetical question is what might Erving have accomplished in the NBA if the Nets had been able to keep their 1976 championship team together instead of selling Erving's contract in order to survive? Nets' Coach Kevin Loughery used Erving in a do-everything role similar to the way that James plays and Jordan played, in contrast to how the Sixers asked Erving to blend in his talents with All-Star players George McGinnis and Doug Collins.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM



At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 8:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it would depend on how you define "dominant." Sure the bad boys Pistons didn't have a dominant scorer in the post, but the Laimbeer-Rodman duo was the best at what they did.

Jordan was nearly unstoppable in the low-post, and the Bull's bigs were good enough to slow down Shaq/Ewing. Ditto with the Wallace-duo in the 2004 Pistons.

So one could argue that my team doesn't need a dominant center, if my center can make your dominant center look average.

However, if Mo Williams earned his all-star sympathy vote during this series, we woudln't be having this conversation.

It would be interesting to compare championship teams that featured a truly bad center, to teams with equally bad guards or forwards. I suspect there will be very few if any championship-calibre teams that were horrible in the middle.


At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 8:17:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

As far as I'm concerned you can quit knocking yourself for counting out the Magic. I mean, who knew?

They seemed to change in this series, especially Howard.

I think that if Phil Jackson was coaching this cavs team it could have beaten the Magic - imagine a varied, flexible attack and an actual bench (instead of those terribly predictable isos) that is 8-9 players long - because they have been trained and trusted all year long for this situation (think shannon brown), with the defense already in place...Cavs win easily I think.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 1:05:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

This is a great post David. Like you, I did not think Dwight Howard was good enough to have such an impact. But he certainly has impressed. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Finals and in coming years.

Many "experts" are convinced that Michael Jordan would find a way to win it all no matter the circumstance. They ignore just how much help and luck any great player needs to win a title. I saw MJ play, and I truly feel that LeBron played as well in the conference finals as I've ever seen MJ play. Any argument one way or another is splitting hairs, as far as I'm concerned. Yet many are convinced that Cleveland's elimination proves that LeBron was not able to "take it to MJ's level". It's funny how over half of Jordan's career is selectively forgotten.

A lot of people cite MJ's ability to win without a dominant center as proof that he's head and shoulders above any other player in history. My response to that would be: what about those dominant centers? You can't hold it against them that they were 7 feet tall. It is noteworthy to win in a way that few teams before have won, but giving MJ extra points because he was a shooting guard is like giving Larry Bird extra points because he's white. It's totally irrelevant when judging a player's overall level.

I think it is worth pointing out that none of the top centers who played during MJ's career had a second best player on their team as good as Pippen. That's not to say I think MJ wasn't the best player of his era (he was), but it would have been interesting to see the Bulls go against an equally talented team led by a first-rate center.

My feeling is that the Bulls would not always lose against such a team, but they would not always win either. I know people like to pretend otherwise, but Shaq's Magic were 1-1 against the Bulls in the playoffs. Yeah, the Bulls weren't peaking in 1995, but any team that gets eliminated will have issues they can point to. Shaq was easily better than Patrick Ewing (the best center the Bulls consistently faced), and his supporting cast in Orlando was better than Ewing's supporting cast.

It's tough to say what would have happened in a Rockets-Bulls series. In 1994, Hakeem was the only all-star performer on his team. The 1995 team of Hakeem and Clyde would have a 50-50 shot against the Bulls, IMO.

If the Bulls faced a team like the early 80s Lakers which featured Kareem (who was better than any center who has played since) and a talented supporting cast, I truly believe the Lakers would have triumphed most of the time. The Bulls would have no way to contain Kareem inside, and they would not be able to focus entirely on him since Magic, Nixon, Wilkes, etc. were all very good players. The Bulls would have suffered a fate similar to Dr. J's 76ers (who, if anything, had better centers than the Bulls).

A great game (which I have on tape) that is symbolic of this entire discussion in Game 5 of the 1980 Finals. Kareem returns after spraining an ankle and he and Dr. J have a duel of sorts in the 4th quarter (Kareem scores 14 and finishes with 40, and Dr. J scores 16 and finishes with 36). The climax: the game is tied when Kareem catches a pass over Dawkins and Dr. J tries to block Kareem's shot. He ends up fowling Kareem, who throws down a dunk and converts a 3-point play. With less than a minute left (and long before 3-point shooting was the norm), the 76ers decide to go for a quick two. Dr. J goes to the basket but Kareem forces him into a difficult shot, which misses. Those were the decisive plays, and the Lakers edged out a victory to go up 3-2.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 1:13:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

This is exactly why I read your column every time you post. Excellent insight into both Howard's rise, something we all probably should have seen coming, as well as the dominance of Julius Erving.

Do you think the good Dr. was better than MJ? He seemed to have a more all around game.

And that "new" commercial of him, gives me chills every time I see it. I showed my wife, who is hard to impress in terms of basketball plays (she yawns at Kobe's more spectacular outings) stopped and went, "Whoa!" when she saw Dr. J swoop in and cradle the ball with one hand and glide under the basket out the other end.

THAT was amazing!

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 1:42:00 PM, Blogger JLK said...

Seeing this series put me in the "LeBron needs help" camp. And this is true despite having a huge payroll and winning 66 games this year.

I'm not a baseball guy, but I'm going to use a baseball analogy. It's like pitching. A team with a deep rotation of 6 capable pitchers is potent throughout the regular season, but a team with 2 or 3 aces, but weaker 4-6 pitchers, is a lot more dangerous in the postseason. As you've illustrated on this site, the Cavs have a deep, talented rotation, with 9 or 10 guys who can play substantial minutes. A team built like this can win consistently despite injuries and other issues.

But it's not a team built to win playoff series against elite teams with multiple star players. Their regular season performance backs this up. They feasted on weaker teams, built a gaudy point differential and record, but were inconsistent against elite teams. In other words, I don't think the Cavs are as good as their regular season record.

The question for the Cavs is how to rebuild their roster (again) this off-season. If Ben Wallace really does walk away from the last year of his contract they'll have some flexibility.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 2:44:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Smrek said...

I always greatly enjoy your strolls down NBA memory lane. We generally focus on the immediate past and generally forget the more distant pass. You’ve definitely given Julius his just due, but the guy I think is unfairly forgotten in “greatest ever” conversations is Kareem, maybe because he played so long past his peak as just a good center.

But his, peak, oh my. Kareem never below #7 in league field goal percentage AND field goals attempted, never scored less than 25 pts, never played less than 30 minutes a game until his last years; he played in NINETEEN All-star games (some of them were legacy picks, but still), won six MVPs, was awarded ten all NBA 1st team, five all NBA 1st team defense, he is the career leader in points and personal fouls, six NBA championships and, I believe 3 NCAA titles.

And, while he was a bit stiff in personality (not as angry as Russell), he never displayed poor sportsmanship or anything but dignity and professionalism as far as I could tell. His business manager robbed him blind and left him without a dime when he retired, so you’ve got some tragedy built in.

On the other hand, I’ve always thought that if Patrick Ewing played anywhere but NY, he’d fall into the area of good, not great, centers. Brad Miller, Kevin Duckworth, Luc Longley, Bill Laimbeer, etc. Definitely beneath Mike Smrek, though.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 2:48:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

Nice piece, as usual. Even nicer to read a post that's neither bashing the "experts" nor defending Kobe and his complete skill set. (Even though I agree with you on both accounts, it makes for tedious reading for those of us who have followed the blog for years.)

The conjecture - the "Dwight Howard era" - certainly seems plausible after what we've seen so far. I have two questions, though.

First of all, Howard possesses no offensive repertoire beyond alley-oops and (for him) easy dunks resulting from his freakish athleticism. How much improvement should be expected considering his age, how long he's been in the league etc.? I know you are, rightfully, very critical of Shaq's drive for excellence/work ethic (or lack thereof). So he is not a proper example in predicting progress in Howard's case. Can you think of a similar player who got better at this stage of his career? It is often said that bigs come into their own later than guards, but this seems to me to have to do with pure talent (I have Olajuwon in mind who started playing basketball pretty late, whose pinky, nonetheless, embodied more offensive skill than Howard).

Second, why is no one talking about Bosh's free agency in 2010? I know you deride speculation about these things, and hence prefer not to write about it, but I think it is the real big story (of that summer). He started this year burning hot only, once again, to fail with the Raptors. He is friends with both James and Wade, they talked about playing together during the Olympics. Unless I'm delusional, the Cavs and the Heat both have the salary cap to get him. His pairing either with Wade or James makes more sense, at least to me, than any "James needs to be in New York" line of reasoning. The James-Bosh duo would be the genuine era-maker, if you ask me. Am I missing something with the salary cap situation?

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that in some cases a team does not "need" a dominant center because that team can corral, to some degree, the other team's dominant center. The 2004 Pistons versus Shaq and the 90s Bulls versus Shaq and Ewing are indeed two good examples of this concept in action.

I don't think that Mo Williams received a "sympathy" All-Star selection. He had an All-Star caliber regular season--but if there were such a thing as a playoff All-Star team he clearly did not come even close to making the cut. The Cavs have to figure out what happened: did he "overachieve" (I hate that word but it fits here) in the regular season or did he underachieve in the playoffs. Was he hurt? When I went to the games in Cleveland I heard some rumblings that Mo was playing with a shoulder injury. I did not include that in my posts because these were just rumors but I mention it now because if the Cavs' braintrust knows that the reason he underperformed is that he was hurt then this is significant. If he was fully healthy and just overwhelmed by the playoffs then that is a problem, naturally.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Other than Barkley and a reporter named Ken (I don't know his last name) who I spoke with at the Q before the series, not too many people knew but I'm still kicking myself that the team that I picked to win did not even make it to the seventh game.

That said, I agree with you that Howard changed in this series. It is also true, as I and others have pointed out, that the Cavs were only a slim margin away from not only winning the series but possibly taking it 4-1 (if Mo Williams shoots even .400 and/or if Lewis simply missed his threes at the end of games one and four).

I think that Brown is a very good coach but this series was not necessarily a shining moment for him. I expected the Cavs to consistently single-cover Howard and live with the results while containing the three point shooters. I also expected them to foul Howard more often rather than letting him dunk, something that really became a factor in the overtime loss that swung the series in Orlando's favor. Of course, it is possible that Brown did indeed come up with the correct game plan but, for whatever reason, his players did not execute it. During some of the "miked up" segments you could hear Brown telling guys to foul Howard and after at least one of the games Brown said that his team did not execute the game plan.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When I wrote this post I actually had in mind some of the conversations that we have had about this issue, specifically pertaining to MJ. I used to be in the camp that believed that MJ's Bulls would have beaten just about anyone that they could have faced but watching this ECF has opened my mind to a different way of thinking. I assumed that LeBron would be the best player on the court and that his defensive-minded team would beat Orlando. As you said, LeBron played at a level in this series that is comparable to MJ at his best and it still was not enough to beat Howard. I don't know what more LeBron could have done. He still has an erratic midrange shot--I think that he went 2-16 on midrange jumpers over a two game stretch in this series--but he shot a good percentage overall and put up monster numbers across the board.

I well remember that game five in 1980. Game six--Magic's breakout performance when the injured Kareem could not play--is the game everyone talks about now but the Sixers would have been up 3-2 (or possibly have already won the series) if not for how dominant Kareem had been in the first five games. Doc and Kareem really put on a show in those five games but the Sixers just had no answer for Kareem and you are right to note that Kareem's impact was not only felt with his scoring/high percentage shooting but also with his ability to defend the paint.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:48:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Another very good piece, as usual and as others have mentioned.

It is interesting to contemplate the historical trends among championship teams, and how often the crucial component is an outstanding 7-footer. Watching the Spurs beat the Knicks in '99 due to the combined physicality of Duncan and Robinson over some outstanding perimeter performances from Allan Houston and Sprewell nearly turned me off basketball for a while; happily, I had been a fan of Kobe and watching Kobe and Shaq take the next three titles was satisfying (and I tried very hard to convince myself that Kobe was either the senior partner or at least co-equal partner in that duo).

In any event, as you noted, Jordan interrupted this trend because he had the fortune of playing alongside another true great, top 50 player in Pippen, and he managed to see off a generation of very good bigs whose surrounding cast was not as good. Even if Dwight Howard is now at the level of these historically great and championship winning big guys --- and I am not sure he is: this last series was very impressive, but for years it has seemed that he has almost no post moves aside from dunks, and I am not sure that a few good moves on a nearly-immobile Ilgauskas show otherwise --- will Howard still fall prey to Kobe and/or LeBron over the next few years because Howard's supporting cast is not up to par, just like Ewing did to Jordan? After all, both Lewis and Turkoglu are at or pushing 30...Howard is still very young, but if the coming decade is going to be the Howard era, then in the not-so-distant future any possible championships are very likely to come with a rather different-looking supporting cast.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I am probably one of the few people who actually does think that at least the ABA Doc was comparable to, if not better than, MJ. This gets back to the "peak value" concept that I mentioned in my Pantheon series. I don't think that MJ--or just about anyone else--ever played at the level that Doc reached in the 1976 ABA Finals. Clearly, Doc did not play at that level for his entire career but his 16 year body of work is very impressive; he was remarkably productive and consistent for a very long time. I also wonder what Doc's NBA numbers would have looked like if he or his coaching staff had had a different philosophy, because he clearly could have averaged 30 ppg well into the 1980s if he had so desired; Doc averaged in the low 20s in the late 1970s and then jumped back to nearly 27 ppg in 1980 when the Sixers decided to feature him more prominently.

That 1980 move is even more incredible if you see the freeze frame, overhead version of it; at one point, Doc is suspended in mid air and his arm is extended well over the out of bounds line, his oversized hand cupping the ball like a normal person would hold a softball. Doc once explained that when he first took off he planned to dunk the ball but then Kareem came over, so he brought the ball down to make a pass but no one cut to the hoop behind Kareem so Doc simply flew to the other side and shot a reverse layup. In other words, Doc made three moves (attempted dunk, attempted pass, reverse layup) in one! To top this off, I have spoken with many guys who played against Doc in the ABA and they insist that the 1980 move would not make the top ten list of what Doc did in the ABA! I've been fortunate enough to be around a lot of great NBA/ABA players and retired players and they are not in awe of too many guys but when they talk about Doc it is like when little kids talk about their favorite player. One of my favorite Doc stories is the one about his Coach Kevin Loughery calling a timeout just to tell Doc that he had just played the best five minutes of basketball that Loughery had ever seen.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right that NBA teams tend to shorten their rotations in the playoffs, so it can be more important to have six or seven players you really trust than nine or 10 players who are competent enough to help in the regular season. I understand that concept and have written about it before but in retrospect that may have been the real mistake that I made in my prediction regarding this series. I thought that the difference for the Cavs would be that they are a defensive-minded team--but both their defense and their depth ultimately failed them in this series.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike Smrek:

You are right that Kareem has somehow become vastly underrated. This is really strange, because around the time that he retired most people seemed to understand his greatness and more than a few people suggested that he was the greatest player of all-time (or, at the very least, on the short list). Dr. J has repeatedly said that Kareem was the best player he ever played against.

I think that you are selling Ewing a little short, though. I would easily take him over any of the guys you listed--even Smrek :)

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Brace yourself for the Finals, because I fully expect that we will be bombarded by a torrent of "expert" commentary and that Bryant's game will once again be subjected to all kinds of ridiculous criticisms.

There are not that many players who are similar to Howard, period, so it is difficult to try to chart a projected growth curve for his game/skill set. He is showing that he can make free throws in the clutch and he has developed a little running hook shot that he used to good effect versus Cleveland. Shaq's game did not really reach full flower at both ends of the court until Jackson became his coach (year eight of Shaq's career). Howard is already a more mobile and better defender than Shaq ever was, so if Howard develops some low post offensive moves he is going to be very, very scary. Even though Howard has an outgoing personality similar to Shaq's he seems to have a better work ethic and certainly stays in better shape.

Bosh is a very, very talented player, as he showed during the Olympics (and during the regular season, even though most people probably never saw him play). I can't speak for others but the reason that I have not been talking about a possible James-Bosh pairing is that this is just pure speculation. I have no idea what James, Bosh or their respective teams intend to do, so I prefer to write about what is actually happening (or what happened decades ago, as I discussed in this post) as opposed to randomly speculating about what might happen in the future. Talking about Howard's future is different, of course, because I am simply projecting what he might be able to do with the supporting cast he already has and not imagining what he could do in a different situation.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 5:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Lewis and Turkoglu are each 29, which is hardly ancient, particularly the way that athletes train today. Also, don't forget that the team's other All-Star, Jameer Nelson, has not even played during the stretch drive and he is only 26. Courtney Lee and Pietrus are 23 and 26 respectively. The Magic are young enough to contend for the next few years. We'll find out in the next two weeks if they are good enough to win one more playoff series without the benefit of homecourt advantage.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 6:01:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Fair point that Nelson is younger, but Turkoglu is actually 30: http://www.nba.com/playerfile/hidayet_turkoglu/index.html

Born March 19, 1979.

Lewis turns 30 in August.


Turkoglu's pre-game pizza regime also may not necessarily bode well for his long-term fitness.

Certainly athletes can continue playing at a high level into their early 30s (heck, Kobe is 30 and will be 31 in August). I'm just not sure that Lewis/Turkoglu in their 33-35 year old stages are really going to be enough to support Howard in being the core of a championship team. My comment was merely intended to highlight the level of uncertainty about a decade of dominance by Howard: in 3 or 4 years time, Howard and Nelson will likely need another key 3rd and 4th cog, as I doubt Hedo/Rashard will be playing at a championship-caliber level at that point. The same considerations seem to apply to you re: Billups' capability to partner Melo beyond the next year, possibly 2...

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 8:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mo Williams was a sympathy all-star. Ray Allen was originally chosen to replace the injured Jameer Nelson, then he got injured himself. Is he really that much better than Jason Terry? I would not be surprised if Delonte West becomes better than him next season, and indeed, for this series he was.

To be fair, I think its easier to underachieve for a playoff series than to overachieve over 82 games. He might have been injured, or it simply could be playoff jitters.

The games were extremely competitive and had James not gone cold in that fateful second quarter, or had somebody stepped up, we would be talking about a game seven.

That said, it is extremely hard to win a playoff series if the 2nd to 5th best players are on the other team, dominant center or not.


At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 9:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


you have a valid point the debate seemed comical at the begining of the series but now it is real. because of howard size advantge but lebron is the king he will win many rings dwight will get his but i think lebron will two he will be his biggest obstacle of trying. but cleveland team have to improve and get a second player around lebron.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 10:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My mistake on the ages was in just glancing at Basketball Reference.com, forgetting that they list all ages as of the start of the season. Anyway, I still think that this current Magic nucleus potentially has a window to contend for multiple championships--that does not necessarily mean that they will win even one but they are in the Finals this year and should be a top team in the East for the next 2-3 years even without making any additions.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Williams and Terry play in different conferences, so a comparison between them is not relevant regarding the All-Star team.

Williams averaged 17.8 ppg and shot .436 from three point range for a team that won the most regular season games in the league. He ranked third in the NBA in three pointers made. He was a worthy All-Star selection.

West outperformed Williams versus Orlando. West is an underrated player because he does not do any one thing exceptionally well--but he also has no real skill set weaknesses.


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