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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Celebrating Julius Erving's 73rd Birthday by Remembering an Era When Pro Basketball Teams Used to Try Hard Even in the Preseason

It is disappointing and sad that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is struggling to figure out how to coerce NBA owners, coaches, and players to at least pretend to care about the regular season (he might as well give up trying to figure out how to coerce the league's biggest stars to care about the All-Star Game, because that ship appears to have sailed quite some time ago). Silver has suggested that eligibility for individual regular season awards may be linked to participating in a minimum number of regular season games. A more radical proposal at the team level is to switch the seven game playoff format from 2-2-1-1-1 to 2-2-3, meaning that the team with home court advantage would potentially have five out of seven games at home, including the last three games; I believe that this was first mentioned by former NBA coach/current TNT commentator Stan Van Gundy, but I am not sure if he originated the idea or if he borrowed it from someone else. The point is to reward the best regular season teams with such a massive playoff advantage that load management would become much less attractive.

A review of the historical archives demonstrates that pro basketball teams, coaches, and players used to not only take the regular season seriously but they often took the preseason seriously. Today is Julius Erving's 73rd birthday, so in honor of that occasion we will take a trip in the time machine back to 1973, when Erving was a 23 year old who had just won his first scoring title after averaging a career-high 31.9 ppg for the ABA's Virginia Squires. The Squires traded Erving to the New York Nets in the summer of 1973. Erving spent the summer of 1973 playing in a variety of leagues and charity games while also appearing at several basketball camps. Erving's summer exploits included scoring 34 points in the Rubicon All-Star Benefit game, playing in the L.A. Pro Summer League, scoring 31 points in the second annual benefit game for the Ralph Bunche Memorial Scholarship Fund, scoring 14 points in the 15th annual Maurice Stokes Memorial basketball game, scoring 33 points (including the game-winning dunk) in the Harambee Festival ABA-NBA game, and playing in the Hempstead High School benefit game. Erving and all of the other pro players who participated in the Hempstead game not only donated their time but they paid their own travel expenses to participate so that all funds raised would support the school's athletic teams. Erving capped off his busy summer by leading the Westsiders--coached by Pete Vecsey, who would later achieve fame as a sportswriter--to the Rucker League title.

Imagine arguably the biggest star in pro basketball spending his summer traveling the country playing the game and teaching at basketball camps for the love of the game! 

Surely Erving must have rested or load managed during the 1973 preseason, right?

Not exactly.

The Nets posted a 6-3 record in their nine preseason games. Erving played in all nine games, scoring 235 points (26.1 ppg). Only twice did he score less than 20 points, and in one of those performances he dropped 19 first quarter points before not playing in the rest of the game (Coach Kevin Loughery wanted to look at other players to decide who his final cuts would be).

In the first of two matchups versus the defending NBA champion New York Knicks, Erving scored a game-high 27 points in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd of 17,226 as his young, upstart Nets won, 97-87. After the game, Erving said, "We've won six out of seven games so far, including the Knicks and the Bullets. I think we've got as good a team as there is in basketball." Erving provided this explanation for his seemingly endless repertoire of acrobatic shots: "Ninety nine percent of what I do in a game, I've worked on in practice or on the playground...but, there's always that one percent when I even surprise myself." 

Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere, the premier defensive forward in pro basketball for most of his career--he made the All-Defensive First Team from 1969-74, each of the first six seasons that the NBA bestowed that honor--said of Erving, "It was a great opportunity to prepare for the regular season. He's got more ways to beat you than anyone in pro basketball. If you can stop 'J' you can stop anyone. Not that you can really stop him...it's more a case of forcing him to take a more difficult shot and hoping it misses."

DeBusschere did not play in the second half of the game after injuring his hip, but he was very impressed with Erving after playing against him for the first time: "He's everything I heard about him. Also, he's stronger than I thought he would be, but I would just as soon talk about their whole team. But you can't get around him can you? And let me say there's no comparing him with anyone in the NBA...he's just himself. He's fast and quick and can really pass the ball. Wow, he really gave one off to (Brian) Taylor and I still don't know how he got the ball through three guys." Erving finished with a game-high six assists while playing a team-high 39 minutes (and I trust DeBusschere's assessment of Erving's passing skills more than I trust assessments made by people who demonstrably lack knowledge of pro basketball history).

Walt Frazier played all 48 minutes for the Knicks! Nowadays, it is rare to see a player play 48 minutes in a regular season game.

Loughery declared, "We were very serious about it. After all, we're fighting for the same metropolitan audience." He concluded, "This game was not just an exhibition. We wanted to win it, just like a regular season game. We wanted to prove that we had a good club." Imagine that--a team, a coach, and a star player wanting to win a preseason game. Now, fans have to beg teams, coaches, and star players to care about winning regular season games! To cite just the most recent and most egregious example, after LeBron James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season scoring record while scoring 38 points versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, he let his friends in the media know that he has a foot injury that may limit him for the rest of the season. It is fascinating that James showed no signs of having an injured foot during his scoring barrage to set the record, but as soon as the record was within his grasp he checked out of the game and watched his Lakers lose to the Thunder in a game that could have major playoff seeding implications.  

Back to 1973. Two nights after the Nets beat the Knicks, the teams played the rematch at Nassau Coliseum in front of a standing room only crowd of 15,802 fans. This time, the Knicks prevailed, 105-87. Erving scored a game-high 28 points, while Bill Bradley paced the Knicks with 27 points.

In the ensuing 1973-74 regular season, the Nets posted a 55-29 record en route to winning the first of their two ABA titles, while the Knicks reached the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Erving did not do any load management during the 1973-74 regular season, either: he played in all 84 regular season games while averaging 40.5 mpg (third in the league), 27.4 ppg (first), 10.7 rpg (seventh), 5.2 apg (sixth), 2.3 spg (third), and 2.4 bpg (third). He ranked ninth in field goal percentage (.512). Erving then played in all 14 of the Nets' playoff games as the team stormed to a 12-2 postseason record. Erving was the easy choice for Playoff MVP after leading the league in playoff scoring (27.9 ppg) while ranking 12th in rebounding (9.6 rpg), fifth in assists (4.8 apg), ninth in steals (1.6 spg), and third in blocked shots (1.4 bpg). He also ranked fifth in playoff field goal percentage (.528).

The Nets' playoff winning percentage (.857) tied the pro basketball record set by the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks, and that mark was not broken until the Moses Malone-Julius Erving 76ers went 12-1 in the 1983 playoffs. Thanks in part to an expanded playoff format, the 2001 L.A. Lakers broke that record by going 15-1, and then after further expansion to the playoff format the 2017 Golden State Warriors are the current record holders (16-1).

By the way, in the 1974 ABA All-Star Game the teams combined to attempt 11 three pointers and 30 free throws as the East beat the West, 128-112. From a season in which the average ABA team scored 106.4 ppg, those numbers suggest a style of play different--and more serious--than anything we have seen in the NBA All-Star Game for at least the past 15 years.

The 2022-23 NBA regular season resumes action tomorrow night. How many teams will take those games as seriously as Erving and his Nets took the 1973 preseason? 

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM



At Friday, February 24, 2023 8:26:00 PM, Anonymous Edward said...

Hello, David!
Can you please explain why the NBA owners are forced to share 50% of their revenue with the players? This in unheard of in any other part of the world. It does not happen in UK's Premier League or any other professional sport league.

Player salaries are bigger and bigger each year, whether or not the players deserve to earn a million dollars as their minimum salary per season.

I still remember when one year, a player who was never an All Star in his career, named Conley, had one of the highest salaries that season. He was lucky to be in a team that had money available and chose him to receive a lot.

Can you really expect these young individuals to play with passion in All Star Games or preseason games when you receive guaranteed millions whether you play 48 minutes or not?

Now the players want 56% of the total pie and the streaming contracts will bring more millions to the NBA. Do you agree with this system where players are associates of the owners instead of employees?

Thanks for your response.

At Friday, February 24, 2023 9:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The NBA owners are not "forced" to do anything. The owners and the NBA Players Association sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that determines--among other things--how the league's revenue is split. It could be argued that the owners invest money and assume risk to buy teams and thus they should receive most of the revenue; it could also be argued that without the unique talents of the best players in the world the league would not be generating so much revenue, and thus the players should receive most of the revenue.

Over the years, the players have periodically conducted strikes to express their dissatisfaction with the CBA, and the owners have sometimes locked out the players to express their dissatisfaction with the CBA. Of course, everyone loses money during work stoppages, so both sides are incentivized to compromise so that play resumes. The owners have more leverage than the players because they have more money and because the players' careers are (relatively short) while an owner can own a team for decades.

If either side thought that it could extract more concessions from the other side than it would, but the current system resulted from compromises made by both sides. It will be interesting to see what happens during the next round of CBA negotiations. I've written about CBA bargaining before, and I have noted that it is a subject not well understood by "experts," let alone by the general public.

Here is the article that I wrote after the end of the 2011 lockout: http://20secondtimeout.blogspot.com/2011/11/tentative-agreement-reached-to-end-nba.html

At Friday, February 24, 2023 11:52:00 PM, Anonymous Edward said...

Thanks for your detailed response and the link, David.

What I wanted to know was your opinion related to the "partnership" between players and owners. As I told you in my previous post, this method of using BRI to determine salaries is not used at all outside North America.
To give you an example, imagine being the best soccer player in the world and asking the president of Real Madrid, a club that generates millions of dollars, to share revenues 50% with the players... The soccer owners are going to offer money according to the market value of the player, not because of a percentage in a CBA that does not exist.

Thanks again for taking the time to read these lines.

At Saturday, February 25, 2023 12:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure if I understand what you are asking. My opinion of the system that the owners and players jointly chose is not particularly relevant; this is how they agreed to do business. I explained the argument in favor of the owners receiving a higher percentage of the revenue, and the argument in favor of the players receiving a higher percentage of the revenue, but this is the system that the owners and players mutually agreed to create. If either side felt that it had leverage to get a better deal then I am sure that would happen.

From what I read, the top individual soccer player's salary is $200 million/year, far more than any NBA player makes. Is that a better system than a system in which there are both minimum and maximum salaries? Keep in mind that the NBA's system not only deals with splitting revenue between owners and players as two groups but also maintaining some competitive balance so that no team goes bankrupt. I don't know enough about how soccer's system functions to state if that system is better or worse than the NBA's system.

It is important to remember that the NBA's current system evolved over time in response to various conditions and situations. To cite just one example, player salaries exploded in the 1970s when the ABA competed with the NBA for the best players. That salary escalation eventually posed a threat to the NBA's survival. Commissioner David Stern worked with the Players Association in the early 1980s to develop the salary cap and to divide up how the BRI would be distributed. Considering how much both franchise worth and player salaries have increased since the 1980s, it would be difficult to argue that this system has failed either the players or the owners.

A different question pertains to what it says about our global society that athletes and entertainers are paid so much more than doctors, teachers, and others who perform essential services, but that is another topic for another day.

At Saturday, March 04, 2023 11:06:00 PM, Anonymous Joe Hastin said...

I saw the Sixer’s and the Buck’s in a preseason game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. 1980. Doc had a 16 point first quarter with several sweet slams. Not sure how many minutes he ended playing but it was a best seats I ever had for any NBA game…second row right behind the Philly bench!!!

One other time I saw Philly at Cleveland in ‘78. Doc had missed the previous 6 games recovering from a practice collision with Darryl Dawkins. We were worried he might not play but we got there early before the doors opened. Once we got in we ran down to the court and Doc was out there all by himself warming up and testing the leg!! Every game I ever went to Doc played, never we never even thought about him taking a night off. Because Doc knew people were driving great distances to see him play! Never disappointed it goes without saying!

At Saturday, March 04, 2023 11:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for sharing those great memories. Doc had a long career, and he missed very few games (and a large portion of those missed games happened in his final season when he was 37, which was a very advanced age for an NBA player in that era). That does not mean that Doc was injury-free, but rather that it was important to him to suit up even when he was not 100%. The statistics of players who load manage should not be compared to the statistics of players who made themselves available to help their teams win, even if that may have damaged their individual numbers.


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