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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Justin Termine's All-1970s and All-1980s Teams

Justine Termine's website declares that he is "an entertainer, not a journalist," which is an admission that his player rankings are designed more to promote conversation/controversy than to actually evaluate greatness. Nevertheless, the All-Decade Teams that he announced on Sirius NBA radio last year* at least provide a foundation to discuss the subject of how one might best select an All-Decade team.

Termine chose Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his All-1970s Team. Termine's All-1980s Team includes Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It is important to establish two ground rules when selecting an All-Decade Team: (1) The minimum number of games played to qualify and (2) Determining what position a player played.

Generally, in order to qualify to be listed among career regular season statistical leaders in the NBA record book, a player must have competed in at least 400 games. Essentially, that constitutes a five year career. Since most great NBA careers begin in one decade and conclude in another, the 400 game standard is a bit too high for inclusion on an All-Decade Team, so I propose that the minimum number of games be 320. A player can significantly impact a decade by participating in at least four seasons.

Positional designations can be tricky. The modern NBA is almost position-less, comprising "bigs" who mainly play in the paint (a dying breed) and "smalls" (who often are 6-9 or taller) who play all over the court. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, positional designations were more meaningful and most teams had a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward and a center. The point guard handled the ball and ran the offense, the shooting guard was generally a scorer who had some ballhandling responsibilities, the small forward mainly played on the wing (though he could also contribute on the boards and perhaps occasionally post up on offense), the power forward rebounded and defended the hoop (and sometimes was a prime scoring option as well) and the center typically played with his back to the basket at both ends of the court. Obviously, these descriptions do not apply to all players from those eras, but an examination of the All-NBA Teams selected during those decades demonstrates that those squads almost always consisted of two guards, two forwards and one center. Sometimes, two small forwards were chosen instead of a small forward and a power forward but at the very least the broad designations of guard/forward/center were followed pretty consistently.

An All-Decade Team should comprise two guards, two forwards and one center who each played at least 320 regular season games during that decade. How should the players be selected/ranked? The answer to that question is inherently subjective to some extent; even people who claim to be using purely "objective" statistical tools are actually being subjective, because the statistical tools they choose reflect their subjective preferences/biases. I do not have a set formula but I place high importance (in no particular order) on (1) peak value, (2) versatility, (3) lack of a defined skill set weakness, (4) longevity/durability and (5) winning. Regarding the last factor, I do not "punish" a player for not winning if he never had a supporting cast that would have enabled him to win but I do "reward" players who win because, after all, that is why we keep score in the first place. Even when these factors are not explicitly mentioned below, they formed the basis for my selections.

Each member of Termine's All-1970s Team far exceeded the 320 games guideline suggested above but the designation of Havlicek as a guard is questionable at best. While it is true that Havlicek often played shooting guard (particularly early in his career) and he is renowned for his ability to swing between the frontcout and the backcourt, Havlicek made the All-NBA First or Second Team seven times during the 1970s and on each occasion he was listed as a forward. Havlicek ranked second in the decade in total assists (4185) but that does not justify listing him as a guard; Barry was right behind Havlicek in third place with 4093 assists and there is no question that Barry was a forward.

Termine's other selection at guard is right on target. Frazier averaged 20.2 ppg (26th in the 1970s), 6.1 apg (fifth in the 1970s) and 6.0 rpg (first in the 1970s among point guards) during the 1970s. He was the premier defensive guard of that era and a key member of two championship teams. A strong case could be made that Frazier was the best all-around guard of the 1970s.

Other top guards of the 1970s include Jerry West, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, Nate "Tiny" Archibald and Gail Goodrich. West played 320 games in the 1970s, so he just meets my games played requirement. He won one championship and participated in three NBA Finals during the 1970s. West ranks fourth in the decade in scoring average (26.1 ppg) and first in assists (8.7 apg) by nearly a full assist per game over Lenny Wilkens (7.9 apg). West made the All-Defensive First Team each year from 1970-73.

Maravich played 615 games in the 1970s, ranking sixth in scoring average (25.0 ppg), seventh in total points (15,359) and eighth in apg (5.7). Maravich made the All-NBA First Team in 1976 and 1977, when he won the scoring title (31.1 ppg) and finished third in the MVP voting. He was leading the league in scoring in 1978 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury--and he still made the All-NBA Second Team despite appearing in only 50 games. Two drawbacks for Maravich are that he was not a great defender and his teams had minimal playoff success (which is not necessarily his fault, but has to be weighed at least a little bit when comparing him to Frazier and West).

Gervin was a scoring machine in both the ABA and NBA, averaging 24.1 ppg overall (eighth in the 1970s) during the decade and winning two NBA scoring titles (1978, 1979). Gervin began his career as a forward but spent most of the 1970s playing shooting guard. Gervin finished second behind Bill Walton in the 1978 NBA MVP voting and he finished second behind Moses Malone in the 1979 NBA MVP voting.

Archibald remains the only player in NBA/ABA history to win a scoring title and an assists title in the same season, averaging 34.0 ppg and 11.4 apg in 1972-73. He averaged 23.0 ppg (12th in the 1970s) and 7.6 apg (third in the 1970s) during the decade. Archibald only made the playoffs once in the 1970s before winning a championship with Boston in 1981.

Goodrich ranked 10th in both total points (14,692) and total assists (3769) during the 1970s, while finishing 27th in ppg (20.2) and 13th in apg (5.2). He was the leading scorer in the regular season (career-high 25.9 ppg) and playoffs (23.8 ppg) for the 1972 Lakers team that posted a then-record 69 wins en route to capturing the NBA title.

My All-1970s Team includes West at guard alongside Frazier. West led the decade's guards in scoring and assists and he was right behind Frazier as a defender even though West was at the tail end of his career while Frazier was in his prime. West performed at a high level at both ends of the court for teams that perennially contended for championships, so I give him the edge over Maravich even though Maravich put up gaudy numbers in nearly twice as many games. Frazier and West were the two best guards in the early 1970s, Maravich was the best guard in the mid-1970s and Gervin was the best guard in the late 1970s.

Termine's most glaring omission is not including Julius Erving at forward. Erving was clearly the best forward of the 1970s and a strong case could be made that he was the best player, period (the only other serious contender for that honor is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Erving ranked third in the decade in scoring average (26.2), 19th in rebounding average (10.4, second only to Billy Cunningham's 11.4 among small forwards), tied for 22nd-24th in apg (4.5, fourth among small forwards behind John Havlicek, Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham), tied for third-seventh in steals per game (2.1, tied with Rick Barry for best among small forwards) and ninth in blocked shots per game (1.7; steals and blocked shots became official statistics in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Erving won three ABA scoring titles, three ABA regular season MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis), two ABA Playoff MVPs and two ABA titles. He also led the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals in the first season after the NBA-ABA merger.

The forward position was stacked during the 1970s (and the 1980s). A compelling case could be made for many players to join Erving on the All-1970s Team but when you look at versatility, durability and impact three forwards separate themselves from the pack: Rick Barry, John Havlicek and Elvin Hayes.

Barry played like Superman in 1974-75 when he led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship, the first and only title of Barry's career. He ranked third in the 1970s in total points (18,389) and assists (4093). He was seventh in scoring average (24.4 ppg) and tied for 10th-11th in apg (5.4, second only to Havlicek among forwards). Barry won five of his seven free throw percentage titles during the 1970s and he was the decade's leader in that department (.899). He was a solid rebounder (6.3 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 45th). Barry covered the passing lanes very well (like Erving, he averaged 2.1 spg during the 1970s) but he rarely blocked shots and overall he was an average defender at best.

I already mentioned Havlicek's status as a perennial All-NBA Team forward and his prowess as a passer. He also was a fixture on the All-Defensive Team (First Team member 1972-76, Second Team member in 1970 and 1971). Havlicek ranked sixth in total points (15,747) and 18th in scoring average (21.9 ppg) during the 1970s. Like Barry, he was a solid rebounder (6.4 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 44th). In the 1960s he was a great sixth man on the storied Boston championship teams led by Bill Russell but in the 1970s Havlicek took on a leading role as Boston won titles in 1974 and 1976. Havlicek earned the 1974 Finals MVP.

Hayes was a great college center at the University of Houston who had a tremendous rivalry with Abdul-Jabbar (who was known as Lew Alcindor when he played for UCLA). Hayes played center early in his NBA career but he spent most of the 1970s playing power forward for the Bullets alongside Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld. Hayes led the 1970s in total rebounds (11,565) and he ranked second in total points (18,922). Hayes averaged 23.2 ppg in the 1970s (11th) and his 14.2 rpg average ranked sixth. He was also an exceptional shot blocker (2.5 bpg, third in the 1970s). Hayes helped the Bullets reach the NBA Finals three times (1975, 1978, 1979) and he was a key contributor to their 1978 championship team. He did not have a great relationship with the media, which probably contributed to him getting stuck with a reputation as a malcontent who did not perform well in clutch situations, but Hayes was a dominant scorer-rebounder-shot blocker throughout the decade.

Hayes was the best power forward of the decade and Havlicek may well have been the best two-way forward but Barry had an extra gear as a dominant scorer, enabling him to win a championship with less help than either Havlicek or Hayes had. I cannot fault anyone for taking Havlicek or Hayes but Barry gets my nod as the other All-1970s Team forward alongside the spectacular Erving.

I agree with Termine's choice of Abdul-Jabbar at center but it is still worth looking at Abdul-Jabbar's resume, as he may be the most underrated great basketball player of all-time. He led the 1970s in total points (22,141, more than 3000 ahead of Hayes), ppg (28.6, 1.2 ppg ahead of Bob McAdoo) and bpg (3.5) while ranking second in total rebounds (11,460) and rpg (14.8). Abdul-Jabbar shot .551 from the field in the 1970s, third behind Bobby Jones and Artis Gilmore, two players who attempted significantly fewer shots per game than he did. Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals twice (1971, 1974), earning the Finals MVP after a 4-0 sweep of the Bullets in 1971. He won five of his record six regular season MVPs in the 1970s. The only other player who won multiple MVPs in the 1970s is Erving, who picked up three straight (1974-76) in the ABA.

Other top centers during the 1970s include Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Dave Cowens. Moses Malone came on strong at the end of the decade, winning the first of his three regular season MVPs in 1979, but he did not accumulate a significant enough body of work in the 1970s to measure up with Abdul-Jabbar; similarly, Bill Walton played the position about as well as anyone has for a season and a half spanning 1976-78--leading Portland to the 1977 NBA title, winning the 1977 Finals MVP and then earning the 1978 regular season MVP--but he did not sustain his greatness nearly long enough to supplant Abdul-Jabbar from the number one spot on the All-1970s Team.

McAdoo spent a lot of time at forward--particularly later in his career--but in the 1970s he made his mark at center, earning a pair of All-NBA selections at that position in 1974 and 1975. McAdoo also won the 1975 regular season MVP. During the 1970s he ranked second in ppg (27.4), he tied for sixth-seventh in bpg (2.0) and he tied for eighth-tenth in rpg (12.2). McAdoo also ranked 11th in field goal percentage (.509) even though he shot a lot of long range jumpers. When Bill Russell was asked how McAdoo ranked among big men as a shooter, Russell responded that McAdoo was one of the great shooters of all-time regardless of size or position.

Gilmore was one of the few centers who had enough size and strength to cause problems for Abdul-Jabbar. These two titans had some great battles in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the NBA-ABA merger. Gilmore ranked ninth in total points (14,708) and fourth in total rebounds (10,353) in the 1970s. He won the 1975 ABA Playoff MVP after leading the Kentucky Colonels to their first and only championship. Gilmore had the 16th highest scoring average in the 1970s (22.1 ppg), the best rebounding average (15.5 rpg) and the second best blocked shots per game average (3.0 bpg).

Daniels was the man in the middle for the Indiana Pacers as they won three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73). He is the ABA's all-time leading rebounder and he earned one of his two regular season MVPs during the 1970s (1971). Daniels was not a huge scorer (17.0 ppg, 58th in the 1970s) but he tied for third-fourth in rebounding (14.6 rpg) and 10th-11th in blocked shots (1.5 bpg).

Cowens ranked fifth in total rebounds (9636) in the 1970s and he tied Daniels for third-fourth with a 14.6 rpg average. He tied for 35th-36th in the 1970s with an 18.6 ppg average. The undersized Cowens did not block many shots for a center (1.0 bpg) but he was a feisty defensive player who earned three All-Defensive Team selections. Cowens won the 1973 NBA regular season MVP and he finished fourth, second and third respectively in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 MVP voting. Cowens played a major role for Boston's 1974 and 1976 championship teams.

McAdoo, Gilmore, Daniels and Cowens are each Hall of Famers who hit their primes in the 1970s but none of them accomplished enough to warrant being ranked ahead of Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1970s Team is Walt Frazier, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Termine did a better job with his All-1980s Team than he did with his All-1970s Team but at least three of the five picks are absolute no-brainers: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have to be the guards and Larry Bird has to be one of the forwards. Abdul-Jabbar is the best choice at center, though he had some competition from Moses Malone early in the decade and Hakeem Olajuwon as the decade closed. However, Termine's pro-Celtic (and perhaps anti-Julius Erving) bias shows a bit with his selection of Kevin McHale as the other forward. While McHale was a great player, he was not a better or more dominant performer in the 1980s than Erving.

Magic Johnson was the player of the decade. In the 1980s he won two of his three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989), he won three Finals MVPs (1980 as a rookie, 1982, 1987) and he led the Lakers to five championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988) in eight Finals appearances. Johnson's Lakers defeated Bird's Celtics in two of their three Finals matchups, Johnson won two more championships than Bird and Johnson led the Lakers to the first back to back titles since Russell's Celtics accomplished the feat in 1968-69.

Johnson ranked first in apg by a country mile (11.2, 1.4 apg more than Isiah Thomas) during the 1980s and he led the league in that category four times. Johnson was not a great one on one defender but he used his size to good effect on the defensive boards and he played the passing lanes very well, ranking eighth in spg (2.0) during the 1980s while leading the league in that department twice. Although not known as a huge scorer for most of his career, he still ranked 26th in scoring average (19.2 ppg). Johnson was an exceptional rebounder for a guard, averaging 7.4 rpg in the 1980s to rank 28th, right behind Abdul-Jabbar and McHale. He was not a great outside shooter but he improved in that area as his career progressed and he also became an excellent free throw shooter (.834, 17th best in the 1980s) who won the free throw shooting crown in 1989. His basketball IQ was off the charts and don't let the megawatt smile fool you: he was a killer on the court.

Jordan took the league by storm with his individual talents but in each of his first three seasons the Chicago Bulls were a sub-.500 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. He won one of his five regular season MVPs in the 1980s (1988) and he won the Defensive Player of the Year award the same year, the first player to accomplish that feat (Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1994, while David Robinson eventually won both awards but not in the same season). Jordan won three of his record 10 scoring titles in the 1980s and his 37.1 ppg average in 1986-87 is the record for players not named Wilt Chamberlain (Chamberlain exceeded that mark four times). Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg in the 1980s, 6.1 ppg more than second place finisher Adrian Dantley. Though Jordan was criticized for supposedly being selfish in his early years, he averaged 5.9 apg in the 1980s (12th best and just .2 apg behind Bird, who was lauded for his passing skills). Jordan ranked ninth in free throw shooting percentage (.848). Other than three point shooting, Jordan had no skill set weaknesses.

Bird won three straight regular season MVPs (1984-86), a feat only accomplished by Russell (1961-63), Chamberlain (1966-68) and Erving (1974-76 in the ABA). He led the Celtics to three championships (1981, 1984, 1986), winning two Finals MVPs (1984, 1986). As mentioned above, he was renowned for his passing skills--but he was also a top notch scorer, ranking sixth in the decade with a 25.0 ppg average topped only by scoring champions Jordan, Dantley, Dominique Wilkins, Gervin and Alex English. Bird was described as a pass-first player but he attempted 19.6 field goals per game during the 1980s, the fifth highest average behind only Jordan, Wilkins, English and Gervin. Bird ranked ninth in rpg (10.2) and tied for 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg). Bird was a notoriously poor one on one defender who was routinely assigned to guard the weakest offensive threat on the opposing team's frontcourt but he inexplicably received a pair of All-Defensive Second Team selections early in his career. Bird was the best free throw shooter in the 1980s (.880).

Bird's teammate McHale was a great low post scorer who twice led the NBA in field goal percentage and who could guard all three frontcourt positions during his prime but he only made the All-NBA Team once (1987, when he finished fourth in MVP voting--the only time he placed in the top 12). He never averaged 10 rpg during a season, as Bird and Robert Parish annually ranked 1-2 on the team in that category. I am not bashing McHale at all, just stating the facts: he was a great player but even when one limits the comparison to 1980s statistics and accomplishments he must be ranked behind Erving.

It is unfortunate that even many so-called basketball historians have forgotten that the sport's marquee matchup for the first four years of the 1980s was the Erving-Bird rivalry. Erving and Bird made the All-NBA First Team each season from 1980-83 (in 1984, the 34 year old Erving slipped to Second Team status while Bird remained on the First Team). Erving and Bird faced each other in three Eastern Conference Finals during that period, with Erving's 76ers winning in 1980 and 1982, while Bird's Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to triumph in 1981 (a past his prime Erving lost to Bird 4-1 in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals). Erving's "prize" for twice besting Bird was to face the L.A. Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA Finals, while Bird won an NBA title against a sub-.500 Houston team in 1981. Moses Malone joined forces with Erving in 1982-83 and that tandem proved unstoppable, rolling to a 65-17 regular season record before going 12-1 in the playoffs, capping things off in style by sweeping the Lakers 4-0. Only the 2001 L.A. Lakers posted a better playoff record (15-1 in an expanded format) than the 1983 76ers.

Erving was not quite the same player in the 1980s as he had been in the 1970s but in 1981 at the age of 31 he won the regular season MVP, becoming the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964. Erving was the forerunner of a host of non-centers who subsequently won the award. The only 1980s forward who topped Erving's four All-NBA First Team selections is Bird (nine); the next players on the list are Bernard King and Charles Barkley (two each). Erving spent some time at guard in his final two seasons--when he was still an All-Star but no longer an elite player--but he still ranked 15th in the 1980s in scoring (22.0 ppg), 38th in rebounding (6.4 rpg, better than the similarly sized and much younger Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and James Worthy), 28th in assists (3.8 apg, fifth best among small forwards), 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg) and 10th in blocked shots (1.6 bpg, the best mark among small forwards). From 1980-84 at the ages of 30-34, Erving finished second, first, third, fifth and sixth in the regular season MVP voting. It is also worth noting that he captured All-Star MVP honors in 1983 and he finished second in the Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, demonstrating that he could match (and exceed) the aerial acrobatics of players significantly younger than he was. The All-Star Game MVP and the Slam Dunk Contest do not factor into All-Decade Team consideration but the point is that well into his 30s Erving was perceived as and performed like an elite player who was still a torch bearer for the league even with the emergence of Bird and Magic.

The 1980s was perhaps the NBA's golden age of small forwards, as Dantley (26.5 ppg, third in the 1980s), Wilkins (26.0 ppg, fourth in the 1980s) and English (25.9 ppg, fifth in the 1980s) each outscored Bird and Erving. King (22.6 ppg, 12th in the 1980s) gave Bird a run for his money for 1984 regular season MVP honors and then clinched the 1985 scoring title with an eye-popping 32.9 ppg average before a devastating knee injury almost ended his career. Other high scoring 1980s small forwards include Mark Aguirre (24.1 ppg, eighth in the 1980s) and Kiki Vandeweghe (22.8 ppg, 11th in the 1980s). However, none of those forwards won championships except for Aguirre and none of those forwards could impact a game in as many ways or as profoundly as Erving and Bird.

Two other forwards worth mentioning are Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, who began their ascents toward stardom in the 1980s but did not emerge as MVPs until the 1990s. 

Like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar was not as dominant in the 1980s as he was in the 1970s--and, like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar did more in the 1980s alone than most players do in their entire careers. Abdul-Jabbar was already 33 years old by the conclusion of the 1980 regular season but the arrival of rookie Magic Johnson seemed to lift his spirits. Abdul-Jabbar won five championships with Johnson and it is not like he was riding Johnson's coattails; Abdul-Jabbar won the 1980 regular season MVP (and probably would have won the 1980 Finals MVP if a sprained ankle had not forced him out of game six, setting the stage for Johnson's legendary 42 point, 15 rebound, seven assist performance) and at 38 years old he captured the 1985 Finals MVP. He made the All-NBA First Team four times during the 1980s, more than any other center (Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon each earned three First Team selections during the decade). He ranked 18th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 26th in rebounding (7.6 rpg) and third in blocked shots per game (2.6). Abdul-Jabbar was the focal point of the Lakers' offense until 1986-87 and even though he was no longer a dominant rebounder he was still a formidable rim protector.

Abdul-Jabbar's only serious challengers for pivot supremacy in the 1980s were Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon. Malone won a pair of regular season MVPs (1982, 1983) and he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar in the 1983 Finals. In the 1980s, Malone ranked seventh in scoring (24.5 ppg), first in rebounding (13.2 rpg) and 12th in blocked shots per game (1.4). His individual numbers were better than Abdul-Jabbar's and for a two year stretch (1982-83) he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar but Malone did not sustain that level, enabling Abdul-Jabbar to regain All-NBA First Team status. As first Malone and then Abdul-Jabbar faded, Olajuwon stepped to the forefront. In the 1980s Olajuwon relied more on pure athleticism than the nimble footwork which he perfected in the 1990s but even in his raw, early days he was a force to be reckoned with, ranking 10th in scoring (23.0 ppg), second in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and first in blocked shots (3.1 bpg) during the 1980s. Olajuwon was without question the best center in the NBA during the final three years of the 1980s. He actually finished fourth in the 1986 MVP voting, one spot ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, who was selected over Olajuwon as the All-NBA First Team center. Olajuwon captured All-NBA First Team honors in 1987-89, ranking seventh, seventh and fifth in the regular season MVP voting during those seasons. In the 1980s, Malone was more physical and relentless than Abdul-Jabbar, while Olajuwon was more athletic, but no center had a longer run at the top--both individually and from a team standpoint--than Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1980s Team is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


* One could argue that this is old news since Termine selected his All-Decade teams last year but this is the first opportunity that I have had to respond in depth and since the subject matter is historical the timeliness of the response does not matter; it is more important to address this subject thoroughly than it is to immediately fire something off in response.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM



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