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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Overlooked and Underrated: Four Fabulous Forwards

This article was originally published in the February 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

Some forwards have instant name recognition: Elgin, Doc, Bird. This article is not about that kind of player; it is about players whose accomplishments are not as widely known and appreciated as they should be.

Maurice Stokes made a smashing debut with the Rochester Royals: 32 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. Later that season he set a franchise record with 38 rebounds in one game. He won the 1955-56 Rookie of the Year award and also made the All-NBA Second Team, finishing in the top 15 in the league in scoring (11th), rebounding (second) and assists (ninth).

Stokes posted outstanding numbers in the next two seasons, ranking third in assists twice and earning a rebounding title in 1956-57. Bob Cousy describes the 6-7, 240 pound Stokes as "Karl Malone with more finesse." Stokes seemed to be a certain future Hall of Famer*, but his career came to a sudden, tragic end after only three years; he became paralyzed due to post-traumatic encephalopathy, the aftermath of hitting his head after falling to the court in his last regular season game (he played in one playoff game before the full effects of the injury set in). He never completely recovered, dying of a heart attack in 1970 at age 36.

Bob Pettit says that Stokes "easily would have been one of the Top 50 players" if he had been able to finish his career. Bobby Wanzer, a three-time All-NBA guard who served as Rochester's player-coach during Stokes' rookie season, goes even further, declaring, "If things had worked out differently, Maurice would have become one of the top 10 players of all time."

Roger Brown also had an abbreviated career, playing eight years for the ABA's Indiana Pacers. Brown was blackballed from the NBA due to alleged improper associations with gamblers. He eventually received a cash settlement from the NBA, but Brown remained in the ABA due to his strong feelings of loyalty to the Pacers; the 25 year old Brown had been working for GM in 1967 before becoming the first player signed by the team.

Brown was a remarkable shooter, making an ABA record 21 straight field goals over a three game stretch in the 1968-69 season. He averaged 32.7 ppg and 10 rpg to earn the 1970 ABA Finals MVP in the Pacers' six game win over the Utah Stars. Brown scored 53, 39 and 45 points in the last three games. Bill Sharman, Hall of Fame Boston Celtics' guard and then coach of the Stars, raved, "Roger Brown is the closest thing to Elgin Baylor, when Baylor was at his peak--the way he handles the ball and shoots, his great ability changing direction and speed. One-on-one, he’s as good as there is."

Brown outscored Hall of Famer Rick Barry, then of the New York Nets, 32-23 in the deciding sixth game of the 1972 Finals as the Pacers became the first ABA team to win multiple titles. Sadly, Brown's body began to break down by the next season. Brown spent part of the 1973 ABA Finals in traction because of a back injury. Two years later he retired. He died of liver cancer in 1997.

Mark Aguirre put the expansion Dallas Mavericks on the map. He notched the first triple double in franchise history (30 points-11 rebounds-16 assists) in a 149-139 win over Denver on January 14, 1983 and he had consecutive 40 point outings on December 10-11, 1983. Aguirre played in three All-Star games and responded to not being selected for the 1985 contest by dropping a career high (and team record) 49 points against Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers.

Aguirre was an explosive scorer: he had a 24 point quarter against the Nuggets on March 24, 1984 (finishing with 46 points) and on May 5, 1988 he scored 27 points--two short of the NBA playoff record--in a quarter against Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets. Aguirre led the Mavs to the Western Conference Finals that season and Dallas pushed the powerful Showtime Lakers to the limit before bowing in seven games.

On February 15, 1989, Dallas traded him to Detroit for Adrian Dantley. During a meeting of Detroit's team leaders and their newly acquired scoring machine, Pistons' center Bill Laimbeer bluntly stated that he had heard some bad things about Aguirre but said that he would give Aguirre a chance because Aguirre was Isiah Thomas' childhood friend. Aguirre's response: "I'm glad you’re giving me a chance, because that's all I need."

In his book Bad Boys, Thomas explained why Aguirre was a better fit for the Pistons than Dantley: he was younger, a more dangerous outside shooter/three point threat and a better passer. Aguirre was very effective at delivering the pass out of the double team. Before the trade he was averaging 4.3 apg, including 17 assists in one game; in comparison, elite point guard Gary Payton's career single game high for assists is 17. Aguirre's assists numbers went down with Detroit because Thomas and Joe Dumars did much of the playmaking, but Aguirre's passing skills added another dimension to the team.

The Pistons went 31-6 after the trade, including 29-4 with Aguirre as a starter. He was a key player on the Pistons' back to back champions in 1989 and 1990; contrary to the expectations of his critics, Aguirre sacrificed being a 25 ppg scorer to win championships much like high scorers Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe and Bob McAdoo confounded their naysayers.

At first glance Scottie Pippen may not seem to fit the mold of an underrated player: he was a member of the original Dream Team in 1992 and in 1996 he was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Yet, many critics question his worthiness for the latter honor and even his eventual induction in the Hall of Fame. Considering his impressive career, he receives a shocking amount of derision and disrespect.

It is interesting and revealing that teammates, opponents and coaches consistently praise Pippen. Phil Jackson, his coach with the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, declares, "Scottie was our team leader. He was the guy that directed our offense, and he was the guy that took on a lot of big challenges defensively…the year that Michael retired, Scottie I think was the most valuable player in the league." Former teammate and current Bulls coach Bill Cartwright flatly states that Pippen "was as much a part of winning the championships as MJ. I don't think it would have gotten done without him."

Last year, Sacramento Kings' star Chris Webber declared, "Pip is the most underrated player in the game." Around the same time, Blazers' assistant Jim Lynam called Pippen "an indescribably great player," adding, "I knew the guy was good, but I had no idea how good."

Memphis Grizzlies' coach Hubie Brown breaks it down scientifically: "He’s 6-8 and he can see over the defense, which is a major advantage for a point guard. He also doesn't rush anything. You don't see Portland running back downcourt and forcing threes. You don't see them trying to get the ball in the paint and wasting so much time that two options of a play are already gone. He has a presence and he’s playing with a lot of confidence."

The Oregonian selected the 37 year old Pippen as the midseason MVP of the resurgent 2002-03 Blazers: "Statistics don't tell the whole story with Pippen, whose ability to guard anyone from Atlanta power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim to San Antonio point guard Tony Parker to Boston small forward Paul Pierce has given the Blazers incredible versatility."

Pippen has earned seven All-NBA First, Second and Third Team selections, including three First Team nods. Every retired player with three or more First Team honors is in the Hall of Fame except Paul Westphal, who had an injury shortened career and only made the Second Team once. Every retired player with seven combined selections is in the Hall. Pippen ranks first in career playoff steals, second in three pointers made, fourth in assists and tenth in points (11th counting Julius Erving's ABA totals).

During Jordan's brief retirement Pippen made First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defense, won the All-Star MVP and placed third in MVP voting. The jarring disconnection between his high level of play over a 16 year career and the way that his achievements are too frequently belittled qualifies Pippen as an underrated player.

The history of professional basketball does not consist entirely of the exploits of the select few players that nearly everyone knows by one name. As the above examples clearly show, many other players deserve recognition and respect for their significant contributions to the game.

* 9/1/09 Note: The Basketball Hall of Fame finally inducted Stokes as a member of the 2004 class, less than a year after this article was originally published.

Here is a sidebar article that I wrote as a companion piece for the above story:

What is a Hall of Famer?

If a Major League baseball player hits 500 home runs or wins 300 games he can pretty much write his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. In basketball, matters are not so clear; there are no "magic numbers" that guarantee induction. Also, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame encompasses all levels of the game, not just the professional.

Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown played against each other during their high school days in New York. Both endured several years of unjust exile from pro ball before eventually landing in the ABA. Brown played all eight of his pro seasons in the ABA; Hawkins played two years in the league with the red, white and blue ball before he reached a settlement agreement with the NBA and joined the Phoenix Suns. He retired after playing seven seasons in the NBA. Hawkins is in the Hall of Fame and Brown is not, but how do they compare statistically?

Their regular season professional averages are very similar. Hawkins enjoys an advantage in rebounding but this is not surprising since he was a forward/center and played close to the hoop; Brown was a forward/guard who possessed a tremendous outside game. Brown's prowess from beyond the arc compensates at least somewhat for the difference in rebounding. It should also be remembered that he played alongside Mel Daniels, one of the greatest rebounders in either league, so the Pacers did not need Brown to exert himself as much in this area.

Hawkins' playoff statistics are much gaudier superficially but he played significantly fewer postseason games than Brown; moreover, most of his playoff appearances occurred during his prime, while Brown's playoff numbers are diminished by some appearances as an injured back-up at the end of his career. Brown was a key contributor to three championship teams and set an ABA playoff record with 53 points in game four of the 1970 Finals.

None of this is meant to demean Hawkins; he is clearly a deserving Hall of Famer. The question is, why does Brown not receive any consideration for this honor? Do Hall voters weigh it against Brown that he never "proved" his abilities in the NBA?

Career Regular Season Statistics


Brown 605 17.4 6.2 3.8 46.9 79.1 4
Hawkins-Pro 616 18.7 8.8 4.1 47.9 77.9 6
Hawkins-NBA 499 16.5 8.0 4.1 46.7 78.5 4
Hawkins-ABA 117 28.2 12.6 4.3 51.5 76.5 2

Roger Brown did not win a regular season MVP.
Connie Hawkins won the 1968 ABA regular season MVP.

Career Playoff Statistics

Gms PPG RPG APG FG % FT% Titles
Brown 110 18.7 6.4 3.7 48.1 79.2 3
Hawkins-Pro 33 25.0 12.0 4.5 46.8 73.4 1
Hawkins-NBA 12 19.3 11.4 4.8 39.5 81.5 0
Hawkins-ABA 21 28.2 12.3 4.3 50.5 70.7 1

Roger Brown won the the 1970 ABA Finals MVP.
Connie Hawkins won the 1968 ABA Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM



At Tuesday, January 03, 2012 6:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, Aguirre I saw and man, he played unselfishly and played well but always took stick like some prima donna who quit on the team. Two best playoff runs by Dallas back then ended when Aguirre got hurt, hip pointer after the Harper blunder and a broken finger in game 6 1988.


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