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Monday, February 22, 2021

Happy 71st Birthday, Julius Erving!

Julius Erving turns 71 today, which is both happy and sobering for those of us who were kids when Dr. J was soaring through the air during his prime: How is it possible that the Doctor is in his 70s--and how is it possible that we are older than he was when he retired from the NBA over 30 years ago? The passage of time is inexorable.

If you are younger than 40 then you probably do not remember Erving's career at all, and you have no firsthand memories of his prime. So, this is a great time and opportunity to examine some of the reasons why Erving is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. I have already written about Why Julius Erving Belongs in the Greatest Player of All-Time Conversation, but in honor of Erving's birthday here is a list of 32 facts--in honor of his New York Nets' jersey number and in no particular order--about Erving's remarkable career (all statistics include ABA and NBA numbers unless otherwise noted; this is the standard practice for NFL and AFL numbers, and it should be the standard practice for pro basketball numbers as well):

  1. Reaching the Final Four is considered a great accomplishment in college basketball, but it is not often discussed in reference to pro basketball. Erving's teams reached the Final Four (the Division Finals or Conference Finals round) 10 times during his 16 season career, including nine times in his first 12 seasons.
  2. Erving won four regular season MVPs, a total exceeded by only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), and Bill Russell (five) among pro basketball players. Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James each won four regular season MVPs as well.
  3. Erving finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 11 times in 16 seasons. He made the All-NBA or All-ABA First or Second Team 12 times in 16 seasons.
  4. Erving's overall 1975-76 performance is one of the greatest--and most overlooked--single seasons in pro basketball history. Erving became the first player to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocked shots (steals and blocked shots were first officially tracked by the ABA in 1972-73 and by the NBA in 1973-74). Since that time, only Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James have accomplished this. However, Erving not only led his team in those categories but he also ranked in the top 10 in the league in each category: first in scoring (29.3 ppg), fifth in rebounding (11.0 rpg), seventh in assists (5.0 apg), third in steals (2.5 spg), and seventh in blocked shots (1.9 bpg). In 1975-76, Erving also ranked 10th in the ABA in field goal percentage (.507), 10th in free throw percentage (.801), and sixth in three point field goal percentage (.330). No player has ever accomplished top 10 rankings in all of those categories in one season over the course of an entire career, let alone doing it in the same season! Even if steals and blocked shots had been tracked in previous eras and even if the three point shot existed in previous eras it is difficult to think of another player who could have ranked in the top 10 in all of those categories. Erving won the 1976 ABA Finals MVP after 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) as his New York Nets beat the favored Denver Nuggets, 4-2.
  5. During Erving's first season, an assist was awarded on less than half of the made field goals league-wide. That percentage increased to 53.9% by Erving's final ABA season, and during his final NBA season the percentage was 61.0%, which is around the current league average. Depending on how you view things, assists were likely either undercounted during Erving's career or are being overcounted now. Either way, if he played in the current era he would likely average more assists than he did during his career. Further, many teams now utilize one dominant ballhandler to drive and then kick to open three point shooters, a style that was not common during Erving's career. Erving's ballhandling and passing skills would be well-suited for that role, and his ability to finish in traffic would draw the defense to him, creating wide open shots for his teammates. Erving's single season career-high apg average was 5.5, but if he played today in the role described above then Erving would likely average at least 7 or 8 apg.
  6. Erving is the first player to post at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocked shots in the same season. He set the record with 12 such 100-100 seasons, a mark later matched by Hakeem Olajuwon.  
  7. Erving ranked in the top 10 in both steals and blocked shots in the same season six times; no other player has accomplished this more than four times.
  8. Erving's teams regularly ranked among the league leaders in defense. Even his 1976-77 76ers, often derided by commentators (despite winning the Eastern Conference) ranked third in defensive field goal percentage. Erving's 76ers ranked first in the league in defensive field goal percentage in 1979-80 and 1980-81. Erving was the team leader who set the tone in practice and at both ends of the court during games. Despite Erving's strong individual defensive numbers, and despite the stout defense consistently played by his teams, he only made the All-Defensive Team one time.
  9. Erving averaged 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg during the 1972 playoffs as a rookie. The only other player in pro basketball history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain (1960-62, 64). Erving averaged 37.8 ppg and 19.3 rpg in his first playoff series. 
  10. In Erving's second playoff series (also as a rookie), he had a stat line of 26 points, 20 rebounds, and 15 assists in a game one victory; no player has matched each of those three numbers in a regular season or playoff game since BasketballReference.com has kept such game logs (1985-86), and the closest game that I could find is Wilt Chamberlain's 22 point, 25 rebound, 21 assist performance in a 1968 regular season game versus Detroit, and Russell Westbrook's 20 point, 20 rebound, 21 assist performance in a 2019 regular season game versus the L.A. Lakers.
  11. Erving averaged 15.7 rpg as a rookie. The only forwards who have posted a higher single season rebounding average are Maurice Stokes, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas, Elgin Baylor, Spencer Haywood, Elvin Hayes, Red Robbins, Truck Robinson, and Dennis Rodman. Baylor, Robinson, and Rodman are the only players in that group who never played center. Rodman and Baylor are the greatest small forward rebounders of all-time, but a good case could be made that Erving is the third best small forward rebounder of all-time (Erving averaged double figures in rebounding in each of his first five seasons, and he averaged at least 8 rpg in two other seasons).
  12. Erving shares the record for most blocked shots in a four game NBA Finals (11 in 1983), and Erving shares the record for most steals in a six game NBA Finals (16 in 1977). He is the only player to hold or share a Finals record in both categories.
  13. Erving averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 14 seasons.
  14. Erving scored at least 2000 points in seven of his 16 seasons.
  15. Erving won the ABA Slam Dunk Contest in 1976 and he finished second in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, when he was 34. That is the longest time span between any competitor's first and final Slam Dunk Contests. Erving is also the oldest Slam Dunk Contest participant ever. 
  16. Erving scored at least 20 points in 10 of his 11 ABA Finals games, including his last seven. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 NBA Finals games, the second longest NBA Finals 20 point scoring streak at that time in league history behind Jerry West's 25 game streak. Erving now ranks fourth on that list behind Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Shaquille O'Neal but if those seven ABA games are included then Erving's 26 game streak trails only Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.
  17. Erving won three regular season scoring titles (1973-74, 1976), and he also led the league in playoff scoring average four times.
  18. Fans of "advanced basketball statistics" should note that Erving ranks 14th in career Win Shares, 14th in career Defensive Win Shares, and 22nd in career Offensive Win Shares. He also ranks 13th in career Box Plus/Minus (a stat that has been calculated for seasons from 1973-74 to the present), including six times as the season leader (1974-76, 1980-82); only Michael Jordan (nine) and LeBron James (seven) have been the single season leader in BPM more often than Erving.
  19. Erving twice won the Seagram's Seven Sports Award as the most productive and consistent NBA player.
  20. Erving won three championships and two Finals MVPs. His teams went 3-3 in the Finals.
  21. In 1980-81, Erving became the first non-center since Oscar Robertson (1964) to win the NBA regular season MVP. After Erving won the MVP, non-centers winning the award became commonplace but during his era this was unprecedented.
  22. Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the only active players selected to the NBA's 11 member 35th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1980. Erving was also selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
  23. Erving is universally considered the greatest player in ABA history. He is one of 30 players selected to the ABA's All-Time Team in 1997.
  24. Erving and Pistol Pete Maravich were teammates for three preseason games with the Atlanta Hawks in 1972. They were also teammates on the Eastern Conference All-Star Team in 1977 and 1979.
  25. Erving played in at least 77 games in 11 of his 16 seasons and he played every scheduled game in six of his 16 seasons, including four 84 game seasons in the ABA.
  26. Erving never missed a playoff game. He ranks 14th all-time in playoff games (189), and when he retired he ranked second behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
  27. Erving ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounds six times, including leading the league as a rookie with 476 in 1971-72.
  28. Erving won two All-Star Game MVPs (1977, 1983), and he was the career All-Star Game scoring leader (321 points) until LeBron James passed him in 2018.
  29. In the 1980s, Erving fared well head to head with the younger and bigger Larry Bird. Erving and Bird battled to a virtual standstill for eight seasons: 2-2 in four playoff series, 12-12 in playoff games, 23-21 in Bird’s favor in regular season games (Boston and Philadelphia split the four games they played during that era when Bird and/or Erving did not play). Bird was in his athletic prime and playing alongside two of the NBA's 50 Greatest players, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Erving did not play alongside one of the NBA's 50 Greatest players until his age 33 season (not counting less than half a season playing with rookie George Gervin, or the aforementioned preseason games with Maravich), when Moses Malone joined Erving's 76ers--and that team went 65-17 in the regular season before setting a playoff record by going 12-1 in the postseason, including a 4-0 sweep of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson L.A. Lakers.
  30. Erving was one of the first (and still one of the few) players to be a legitimate All-Star in his mid to late 30s. He made the All-NBA Second Team at 34 after averaging 22.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, and 4.0 apg, and he made the All-Star team in his age 35-37 years with scoring averages of 20.0 ppg, 18.1 ppg, and 16.8 ppg. As a 37 year old shooting guard he averaged 1.6 bpg, an average that would rank seventh in the NBA this season, just behind Anthony Davis' 1.8 bpg.
  31. When he retired in 1987, Erving ranked among the all-time regular season career leaders in scoring (third; 30,026 points), rebounds (17th; 10,525), assists (14th; 5176), steals (first; 2272), and blocked shots (fourth; 1941). 
  32. Erving retired as the career playoff leader in steals (287), while also ranking second in scoring (4580 points), second in blocked shots (293), fourth in assists (841), and sixth in rebounds (1611).

It is difficult to make meaningful comparisons of basketball players from different eras because of rules changes, strategy changes, and other differing circumstances, but Erving's athletic abilities, his versatile basketball skill set, and his team-first mentality would lift him to the top in any era.

Further Reading

Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months (2015)

Julius Erving's Legend Resonates Nearly 30 Years After He Retired (2016)

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA (2017) 

House Call With Dr. J Podcast Featuring Isiah Thomas (2018)

George Mumford and Julius Erving Discuss Mindfulness (2019) 

Happy 70th Birthday, Julius Erving! (2020)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM



At Friday, February 26, 2021 7:25:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

David, after reading (and re-reading :)) your various articles on Erving, and watching old highlights, plus reconsidering previous commentary about him, I believe now that the inestimable Doctor is the best 3-man to ever play.

For the longest time, Bird was the default choice, and now LeBron is reflexively acclaimed as the undisputed best "small" forward (not to mention best player) ever, but Doc's impact went beyond stats (basic or "advanced") or championships (at least 3 rings each). He improved the way that the game was played, aesthetically and substantially, and executed his role within the context of his team's needs (not stat-hunting / playing outside of his position, except when he got switched to 2-guard in his twilight).

Some of his single-game / season / playoff exploits are almost unbelievable, as you have enumerated. His career went through a natural arc, in terms of his statistical output and physical ability, while still being the best or second-best player on playoff contenders in both leagues. If I'm not mistaken, Erving's teams always made the playoffs.

Similar to my eventual appreciation for Jordan and Kobe, I was not initially a Doctor J fan. I first cheered for the Showtime Lakers, and Kareem (not Magic) was my first NBA "hero". For some reason, I thought that the high-flyers were cocky in their abilities, and I just appreciated the centers more. After watching and being moved by the original NBA Superstars video montage of Erving, and reading up on the game's history--Sports Illustrated's "100 Years of Hoops" coffee table book from 1991 was a great starting point--I have been a full-on Doc fan ever since.

Happy birthday indeed to the greatest small forward of all time.

At Friday, February 26, 2021 8:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you! I am glad that my articles have helped you to appreciate Julius Erving's career and his amazing accomplishments.


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