Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Robertson’

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

The Big O(verlooked) No More …





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When the elders speak the rest of us need to listen.

Don’t always assume that what they are saying is lecturing rather than enlightening. Sometimes they are just trying to school us, as best they know how, on the things we might have missed or may not completely understand.

So when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man whose list of accomplishments in basketball from adolescence to the highest level rank at the very top (right alongside Bill Russell‘s as far as I’m concerned), insists that Oscar Robertson is being overlooked, it’s worth investigating.

Kareem went all-in for his former teammate — they won a title together in Milwaukee — ranking him right up there with Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the greatest players the pro game has seen (courtesy of ESPN’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd and Lakersnation.com):

“LeBron is awesome, MJ was awesome — but I think Oscar Robinson would have kicked them both in the behind,” said Abdul-Jabbar when asked about James and Jordan. “Absolutely. Oscar was awesome. He had brains. [...] He had all the skills.

“He could rebound and box out guys four and six inches taller than him. He was ruggedly built. He had fluid, quickness, and just understood the game. No flair, he just got the job done every night. Who’s going to average double figures in points, assists and rebounds?”

I placed a call to one my most trusted sources, a man who has watched and studied the game since the 1950s and has a keen eye for the evolution of the game throughout the ages. And he concurred with what Kareem said on the television and radio airwaves Thursday. The Big O has long been overlooked, overshadowed even by guys like Kareem, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain during that era. Never mind that he was ahead of his time in every way.

“All things considered, the Big O was a 6-foot-5 guard that changed the game,” my source said. “I don’t go along with that, ‘Who is the greatest?’ conversation and all of that sort of stuff, but he helped change the game. The Big O was the man, but like anything you have to take every guy in his time and place him in the proper context. You can’t deny what anyone has done but the Big O was the Jordan and LeBron of his time.”

An oversized point guard or undersized power forward, and perhaps just a cosmic blend of two of the greatest players we’ve ever seen …, a walking triple double (during the 1961-62 season and almost did it four other times during his Hall of Fame career)!

Celebrating Cousy As Player-Coach

Legendary Celtic Bob Cousy went on to be a player-coach after his Boston days.

Legendary Celtic Bob Cousy went on to be a player-coach after his Boston days.

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When you think of Bob Cousy, a man celebrating his 85th birthday on Friday, you think of black & white photos, grainy film clips and a “Leave It to Beaver” world. Cousy’s Hall of Fame career largely played out in shades of gray — he led the Boston Celtics to six NBA championships and appeared in 13 consecutive All-Star Games, all before retiring after the 1962-63 season.

The Kennedys were in the White House. Cousy’s signature shoe was a P.F. Flyer canvas high top.

But on the occasion of Cousy’s 85th birthday Friday, it was worth remembering that the legendary point guard made himself relevant again as a player — for a brief time – in living color, in the age of Aquarius, with “Laugh-In” on the tube and space junk on the moon.

On Nov. 21, 1969, at age 41, the rookie head coach of the Cincinnati Royals stepped on the floor against the visiting Chicago Bulls. Cousy scored three points, his first in more than six years, in a 133-119 victory, before a crowd of 3,450.

Two nights later, he would play again, making a scoreless cameo appearance against Phoenix in another 14-point Royals victory. This time, 2,866 fans were on hand at the Cincinnati Gardens. He would play five more times as the Royals’ player-coach that season, scoring only two more free throws, partly as backup to the great Oscar Robertson, partly as an intended gate attraction.

The Royals finished last in the league in home attendance in 1969-70 — for the third of five straight seasons — averaging 3,800 per game. Cousy’s bosses were paying him more than $100,000 a season, so the novelty of selling a few tickets to see the old “Houdini of the Hardwood” made marketing sense. Cincinnati GM Joe Axelson, after four months of negotiation that began in the summer, finally pried Cousy’s playing rights from Boston’s Red Auerbach by sending injured forward Bill Dinwiddie to the Celtics.

But the brainstorm didn’t work. Of Cousy’s five “home” appearances, only New York’s visit on Nov. 28 generated much buzz — and that game was played in pre-Cavaliers Cleveland, where 10,438 showed up to see the championship-bound Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the rest go to 23-1 that day.

Still, Cousy’s return to action — after six seasons coaching at Boston College, with a team other than the Celtics, as the latest in a considerable line [at the time] of NBA player-coaches — made headlines.

He scored only five points in his seven token appearances, none in the last four. He added 10 assists to his Boston total of 6,945, which stood as the NBA record until Robertson passed him in 1968-69. And he remains the only player-coach to step back onto the court after such an extended gap from his legit playing days.

The NBA had a rich history of player-coaches in its first three decades or so, with something like 40 men handling both jobs at one time or another.

Richie Guerin, one of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 inductees, logged 372 regular-season games and 43 more in the playoffs in that dual capacity for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks from 1964-1970. Bill Russell, Cousy’s great Boston teammate, took over for Auerbach in 1966 while still playing, and became the NBA’s first African-American coach. By the end of the 1968-69 season, he was the only player-coach to win multiple championships.

Lenny Wilkens, who won 1,332 games as a coach, got 159 of them as player-coach for Seattle [1969-72] and Portland [1974-75]. Dave Cowens was NBA’s the last player-coach, guiding Boston in 1978-79 late in his player career. And of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players chosen in 1996 to commemorate the league’s 50th anniversary, seven — Cousy, Russell, Wilkens, Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes – pulled double-duty for some period of time.

Since the arrival of the salary cap, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreements between the league and the players association have not allowed for player-coaches. But Jason Kidd’s hiring by the Brooklyn Nets this summer generated some chatter on the topic, not so much involving coaches returning to the court but veteran players who might be capable of steering their teams through an NBA season.

Kobe Bryant? LeBron James? Kevin Garnett? In a league driven by stars, some might argue that the best and biggest-name players already run their teams. But what has Chris Paul been, if not a “coach on the floor” for the Clippers [beyond any snide remarks about former boss Vinny Del Negro]?

Kidd, for as much as he played for the Knicks last season, might have been able to handle both jobs, especially on a team with more modest ambitions. Some would say the same thing about Chauncey Billups at this stage of his playing career, which takes him back to Detroit this season before, should he want it, a coaching role in the near future.

What Cousy did nearly 44 years ago, though, remains special — one of his many magical accomplishments in lifetime 85 years young now. Happy birthday, Cooz!

Big O: LeBron Would ‘Excel’ As NBPA Prez

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LeBron James is said to be “mulling” making a bid for the presidency of the NBA players association.

Oscar Robertson held that post longer than any NBA player in history.

To this day, Robertson remains the biggest name to have served his fellow players in that capacity. And as one of the game’s true Olympian figures, Robertson cannot imagine a better candidate than James, who is on his way to similar heights.

“Yeah, he’d have to think about it — I think he would have an excellent situation,” Robertson said in a phone interview Thursday evening. “I think if he was president of the players [union], he would excel like he does on the basketball court. I guess, maybe now with all the advice and the consultants and things, it would be a different situation.”

Robertson, the NBA’s legendary “Big O” during his Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, served as president of the National Basketball Players Association from 1965 to his retirement in 1974. Those were some of the league’s, and the union’s, most tumultuous years, when the two sides hammered out the makings of today’s so-called “player-owner partnership” mostly by colliding repeatedly into each other.

Big O key in early labor battles

Organized by Celtics great Bob Cousy in 1954 and further established by his Boston teammate Tom Heinsohn from 1958-65, the union in 1965 still was fighting for what now would be considered bare essentials: pay for preseason games, better medical care, the concept of an All-Star “break,” modest bumps in meal money and pensions, and a boost in the minimum player salary — out of FOUR figures. All of the strategies and jargon that were in play during the 2011 lockout, like cancelled games and filings with the National Labor Relations Board? Those were in play in the 1960s, too, when the NBPA’s power base was a lot more tenuous.

“Actually, I was naïve when I started,” Robertson said. “I didn’t know anything about it.  Sometimes it’s fate, what happens. So I just got involved. I didn’t know anything about the union whatsoever — I knew what it was because I was in it, but as far as how to run it, it was on-the-job training for me.”

The American Basketball Association (ABA) sprang up in 1967, exacerbating tensions between the NBA’s owners and the players. By 1970, with salaries bid ever higher and the two leagues in merger negotiations, the union filed an antitrust lawsuit to block such a move, given its impact on their employment and freedoms. The players sought to abolish the college draft and the option clause in standard contracts that bound them to their teams in perpetuity. Acrimony spiked, and a lawsuit in the matter soon became known for the union president’s name attached to it: the Oscar Robertson suit.

“I’m glad that I was a star,” Robertson recalled Thursday. “Because if I was a mediocre player, I wouldn’t have lasted very long. Because in those days, the league hated you as a player rep and they wanted to get rid of you.”

Robertson, now 74, wasn’t just a star. He was the LeBron James of his day (or vice versa). Many people know of him as the master of the triple-double — in 1961-62, he famously averaged at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for an entire season. What too many neglect, of course, is that Robertson averaged 30.8 points along with those 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.

Even fewer realize that the 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard averaged a triple-double over his first five seasons in the league: 30.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 10.6 apg in 384 appearances from 1960-61 through 1964-65.

Robertson’s game gave him a voice, not unlike James in Houston at All-Star weekend in February. On that Saturday, at the union’s membership meeting at the Hilton, James commanded the room by probing and leading the discussion of NBPA executive director Billy Hunter’s job performance and ethics, outgoing president Derek Fisher’s role, the members of the union’s executive committee and the very future of the association.

James and veteran Jerry Stackhouse, through their comments, questions and actions that afternoon, reportedly imposed order on a group spinning out of control. Stackhouse, who recently told FoxSports.com that the union hopes to name a replacement for Hunter (and acting director Ron Klempner) sometime after Christmas, isn’t expected to be active as a player this season.

But James’ star power as a possible NBPA president could boost the union’s credibility and impact.

Stars have tradition of taking NBPA spotlight

The star-driven NBA has had, for more than a decade, a union driven by role players. What Cousy, Heinsohn and Robertson began, others such as Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas and Patrick Ewing continued. But since 2001, Michael Curry (2001-05), Antonio Davis (2005-06) and Fisher (2006-present) have headed the NBPA.

Through the union’s first 47 years, 10 players served as president; seven wound up in the Hall of Fame and the 10 combined for 75 All-Star selections. In the past 13 years, Davis’ 2001 All-Star appearance stands alone. None of the last three presidents is headed to Springfield.

That didn’t preclude them from being effective — Fisher worked tirelessly and often thanklessly through the prickly lockout two years ago. But the clout that comes with star status — James has two NBA titles with the Heat, four MVPs, Olympic gold and more — can help immensely, Robertson said.

“I felt I commanded a lot of respect from a lot of different ball players, when you say something to the guys,” Robertson said. “And if you’re friendly with ‘em, other than playing basketball, it will help also.”

Finding NBA stars willing to take on the role, while sacrificing time and outside earning opportunities, has gotten more difficult. Robertson thinks it has something to do with the stakes these days.

“That’s always been [an apathy] problem with some guys,” he said. “But you look at it over the years, with all of the problems they’ve had, a lot of players because they’re making money, they just don’t get involved. They don’t need to — it might hurt you selling a pair of shoes or a headband or something.”

Robertson: NBPA prez a job of ‘sacrifice’

People can debate the merits of a union president who dominates All-NBA teams vs. one who relates (and earns similarly) to the league’s middle class. Either version will wind up logging long hours. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a sacrifice,” Robertson said. “Especially if you do a good job. If you do the job [the way] they’re going to have confidence in you, sometimes it gets a little lonely. Until something happens.

“I didn’t think about whether it was hard or not [to make time]. It was an opportunity. There was an awful lot going on when I was with the players association, a lot of changes that needed to be done. Some we did right, some we didn’t.”

Robertson is proud of the gains achieved by the NBPA during his tenure. The Robertson lawsuit triggered negotiations that led to free agency, as well as a settlement that paid more than $4 million to then-current players and another $1 million in union legal fees. Pensions improved and the minimum salary tripled on his watch.

Only a handful of his peers or players since have thanked him for his service, Robertson said (“But I didn’t do it for that anyway”). He also said he paid a professional price. Robertson was dropped after one season as color analyst on the NBA’s network telecasts because, legend has it, some owners bristled at such a prominent role for the player who sued them.

On the other side of the ledger, however, Robertson points to the strides they all made. “Look at the money guys are making now,” he said. “Look at the [charter-jet, luxury-hotel] travel. There’s an orthopedic doctor at the games. You get better meal money. You have a right to go to other teams if you don’t have a valid and existing contract with your team.

“There’s no doubt about it — we were there during some [pivotal] years for the NBA.”

So there are some of the pros and cons, in Robertson’s view, as James mulls a potential candidacy: The time commitment, the opportunities skipped, the politics involved, knowing when to delegate and so on. The Hall of Famer said he would be willing to advise James, if asked. Also, Robertson’s old friend Jim Quinn — the attorney who worked on the lawsuit four decades ago and helped broker the lockout settlement 20 months ago — is again working with the NBPA in its search for Hunter’s replacement.

The union’s greatest challenge now? “Getting rid of personality tiffs. That kills you,” Robertson said.

“Somebody gets upset … because somebody doesn’t like what you’re doing, and they start this current going against you. A lot of players, when they start to make millions of dollars and they get agents who also are afraid to have their little nest egg cut off, that’s what happens.”

James, through force of personality and basketball superiority, might be the right choice to stem that.

The Time Is Now To Beat The Heat


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Can’t you picture the Hornets, Spurs, Knicks, Bobcats and Sixers salivating already?

It’s time to jump on the Heat while they’re down, exhausted, spent after a 27-game winning streak that lasted nearly two full months.

Despite what the Miami players have been saying, that kind of long period of excellence takes a toll, mentally and physically.

Who says?

History.

After the 1969-70 Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley had what was then an NBA record 18-game win streak snapped by Detroit, they bounced back to take three straight, but then lost four out of five to add up to a 4-5 stretch over a period of 17 days.

  • Nov. 29 vs. Pistons, lost 110-98.
  • Dec. 2 vs. Sonics, won 129-109.
  • Dec. 5 at Baltimore, won 116-107.
  • Dec. 6,vs. Bucks, won 124-99.
  • Dec. 9 at Cincinnati, lost 103-101.
  • Dec. 10 at Milwaukee, lost 96-95.
  • Dec. 11 at Seattle, lost 112-105.
  • Dec. 13 vs. Sixers, lost 100-93.
  • Dec. 16 at Atlanta, lost 125-124.

The very next year when the Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson set a new record with 20 consecutive wins, their streak ended with a double-overtime loss at Chicago and they lost three straight and five of the last six games to close out the regular season.

  • Mar. 9 at Chicago, lost 110-103 (2 OT).
  • Mar. 13 at New York, lost 108-103.
  • Mar. 14 vs. Suns, lost 125-113.
  • Mar. 16 at Phoenix, won 119-111.
  • Mar. 18 at Seattle, lost 122-121.
  • Mar.19 at San Diego, lost 111-99.

The legendary 1971-72 Lakers of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich came along the very next season to hang the record so far out there at 33 in a row that it still eluded the Heat 41 years later. But even that Hall of Fame trio couldn’t avoid a letdown. After the streak was ended by Kareem and the Bucks, the Lakers lost three of their next five.

  • Jan. 9 at Milwaukee, lost 120-104.
  • Jan. 11 at Detroit, won 123-103.
  • Jan. 12 at Cincinnati, lost 108-107.
  • Jan. 14 at Philadelphia, won 135-121.
  • Jan. 21 vs. Knicks, lost 104-101.
  • Jan. 22 at Phoenix, lost 116-102.

It took another 36 years until the 2007-08 Rockets tried to make a run at the record. But their fate was no different. After their 22-game win streak was smashed by Boston, Tracy McGrady and the Rockets were hammered the next night by the Hornets as they went on to lose four of their next seven.

  • Mar. 18 vs. Celtics, lost 94-74.
  • Mar. 19 at New Orleans, lost 90-69.
  • Mar. 21 at Golden State, won 109-106.
  • Mar. 22 at Phoenix, lost 122-113.
  • Mar. 24 vs. Kings, won 108-100.
  • Mar. 26 vs. Timberwolves, won 97-86.
  • Mar. 30 at San Antonio, lost 109-88.
  • Apr. 1 at Sacramento, lost 99-98.

Of course, the good news for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the gang is that all of those teams except the Rockets gathered themselves in time for the playoffs and went on to win the NBA championship and the Heat will still be the heavy favorites to do that in June.

But for now, history says it’s time to watch for a case of the Post-Streak Blues.

And for every team coming up on the schedule to pounce.

Defense Grew Rockets’ 22-Game Streak

 

HOUSTON — As far as seismic shifts in the landscape go, there was no tremor, no low rumble of an earthquake’s warning and it never hit with the fiery blast of a volcanic eruption.

When the Rockets went 49 days — seven full weeks — without a single loss in 2008, it grew quietly for the longest time like an oak tree’s roots growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk until one day it was busting apart the concrete.

The 22-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, is the outlier in the record book, the one that nobody, even themselves, saw coming, and many, even in hindsight, can still not comprehend.

Before the defending champion Heat, led by the three-headed juggernaut of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, joined the club, only three teams in history had won 20 in a row. The 1971-72 Lakers with their record of 33 consecutive wins and a star-studded roster of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich went on to win the NBA title. The 1970-71 Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, ran off 20 straight on their way to win it all.

In fact, of the top eight win streaks ever in the NBA before the Heat, five of those teams won championships. Only the Rockets did not get out of the first round of the playoffs.

“Our names will be mentioned with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”

Shane Battier, now with Miami, has called the Rockets’ streak “organic,” part of a process that evolved over time.

It wasn’t often flashy or pretty, but it was effective, like seeing a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey.

The Rockets were led by Tracy McGrady’s bundle of offensive skills, but they survived the loss of Yao Ming and they won and won with a growing confidence and surging defense. During the 22-game streak, they held 19 of their opponents under 100 points and 13 under 90. They won 14 games by double figures, an average margin of 12.36, and had only three games decided by fewer than six points. They won 15 games at home and seven on the road.

The Rockets even won the last 10 without their All-Star center Yao, whose season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26.

“Every time a team gets a chance to come close, the streak comes up,” said forward Luis Scola, now with the Suns. “It was a great stretch. It was a good team. If we lose any of those games it wouldn’t change that fact. But maybe that team wouldn’t be as remembered.

“You know we were playing well. It was a fun team to play with. The momentum that we had going. We were playing very well. We were beating teams just because we were good…That month and a half was great. I remember it was a lot of fun.”

The Rockets were 15-17 on Jan. 2 and 24-20 when they beat Golden State 111-107 on a night when Yao was dominant with 39 points and 19 rebounds. They were fighting for their playoffs lives, sitting precariously as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Two nights later, they went on the road to win at Indiana 106-103 and ran off seven straight wins where they never gave up 90 points.

“What we’re developing is a great team like the Pistons,” said McGrady. “A great defensive team going out there and playing together and not relying on one or two people to score the rock.”

No. 8 was their narrowest escape, needing Steve Novak to come off the bench to hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — with two seconds left to rescue an 89-87 win over the Kings.

The streak continued through trades. On the afternoon of No. 10, they sent Bonzi Wells to New Orleans and Kirk Snyder to Minnesota, yet didn’t miss a beat in thumping Miami. They attracted real notice around the league when they whipped the No. 1-seeded Hornets in New Orleans.

When the Rockets took the floor on Feb. 26, the word was out that Yao was lost for the season and the fears inside Toyota Center were palpable. But with 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots, waving his finger and filling the middle, the streak rolled on.

“You could probably check this, but I’m thinking all the way to the 17th or 18th game of the winning streak we still were in the eighth spot or the ninth spot or something like that,” Scola said. “It was a really tough year for the West. The playoffs were in jeopardy.” (more…)

Q&A: NBA Icon Russell Chimes In On Fundamentals, Big Men And More


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HOUSTON – NBA All-Star weekend is the one time every year where the past, present and future of the game are all on full display.

Few stars of the past, present or future shine as bright as Bill Russell, aka “The Lord of the (Championship) Rings.” The Boston Celtics great and Hall of Famer recently celebrated his 79th birthday. The party continued over the weekend as he made his annual pilgrimage to the All-Star city and spent some time sharing his wisdom with the current stars who seek his counsel.

A five-time MVP, 11-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star in his 13 seasons with the Celtics, Russell was also a pioneer for African-American professional athletes, serving as a key voice and figure during the civil rights era. 

The embodiment of the phrase “Barrier Breaker,” Russell will be featured in “Mr. Russell’s House,” the second of a three-hour documentary block on NBA TV Monday that begins with “One on One with Ahmad Rashad: Michael Jordanat 8 p.m. Bill Simmons’ interview with Russell, “Mr. Russell’s House,” will follow at 9 p.m., and Ernie Johnson’s interview with Charles Barkley, “Sir Charles at 50,” wraps things up at 10 p.m.

Russell carved out some time in his busy weekend schedule to visit with NBA.com. Here are some excerpts: 

NBA.com: On a weekend when all of the start of the NBA are out, past, present and future, what’s the most common question you get from today’s players when they come up and talk to you and spend time with you?

Bill Russell:  Is anybody really that old [laughing]? I like to respect the guys that are playing now in the All-Star games. I watch sometimes three games in a single night on the NBA package. The thing I like, is I watch to see what their agenda is and how well they carry it out. That’s how you can enjoy the games. There are a lot of accomplished players playing now. I think more than ever. Just to get a chance to watch them is a joy.

NBA.com: What makes them so accomplished, the skill level? Have they come that far over the years in terms of size and skill?

BR: When you talk about skill level, you can’t say the way they played in the 1950s and 60s. Skill level is based on how the game is played today. There are different fundamentals. When I played there was never a 3-point shot. Going to the hoop and dunking is commonplace now. It was not commonplace then. According to the rules today, the skill level is off the charts. And if someone wants the skill level to be based on the way they played the game 50 years ago, they’re a silly person. If you take the time to understand the rules, the skill level is there.

NBA.com: When you look at the evolution of some of the positions now, do you agree with the suggestion of some people that the traditional big man is one that seems to have really changed with the stretch fours and 7-footers that don’t play on the low block?

LeBron James, Bill Russell by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James, Bill Russell by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

BR: That’s a fallacy. The way the game’s played, when you have a unique player, whatever his position is, that’s where the game is going. When I was a kid growing up there was a guy named Hank Luisetti played at Stanford and he’s the first player to shoot one-handed with great success. I remember reading something at that time where a coach said if he ever catches one of his players shooting with one hand, they’ll never play another minute. But things change. And if you get a great player at any position, the game is copycat. Nowadays, your star is always your shooting guard. But if you come with a center that can really play, the game will revolve around the center. Or if you have a [power forward] who can really play, the game revolves around him. So the game changes according to who is playing. I have this thought, you never get to a place where you ask a player to play against a ghost … past, present or future. You can only play against the people that show up when you play. And so how you dominate that era, that’s the only thing you can say. Now if you’re talking about scoring, you can’t get past Wilt Chamberlain, so what they do nowadays is they ignore what Wilt Chamberlain did. They don’t even bring it up. The fact that one season he averaged 50 points a game. His average. So you now you talk about guys scoring 30 points or 35 points. And that’s a long way from his average. You talk about assists, Oscar [Robertson] averaged a triple-double. And now they’re talking about a double-double. So what you are doing is choosing which stats you want to emphasize and make that most important. The people that decide that really don’t know what’s going on. You talk about rebounding. Wilt averaged 22.9 rebounds for 14 years. Averaging almost 23 if you round it off, for 14 seasons. Now the leading rebounder might have average 12 or 13. Wilt and myself had over 20,000 rebounds. That’s 20,000 one at a time. If you’re going to talk about numbers, it has nothing to do with anything. It’s about how you dominate your contemporaries in the game. People that say look at the numbers, that means they don’t know what they are looking at. A guy can play and almost never do his numbers indicate how good he is. You have to watch him and see what he does. Is he a positive part of the equation for your team?

NBA.com: You said you watch up to three games a night. Who is the most dominant player you see now in the game, in terms of the things you talked about, not the numbers but impact on the game?

BR: Well, of course, at this point you start with LeBron James coming off the championship year. He’s a great player. A really great player. I think the way Kevin Durant gets his point is a big help, because he’s not always the first option. That makes a lot of difference. Before he got hurt, I thought Derrick Rose was really an important player. But I like to watch all of these guys and see what they are doing and see how it impacts their team play.

NBA.com: When you take a hard look at the players off the court, in terms of what they deal with as professional athletes, how drastic do you think that difference is compared to what you and your contemporaries had to deal with during your playing days?

BR: I have a lot of respect for these guys that are playing now because I look at the world they inherited. For example, to hold them to what happened when I was a young guy and what’s happening now is totally unfair. The world has changed. It’s changed completely in a lot of different ways. So to say, “Well, if those guys did this to make a way for you,” hey, the second and third generation, you can’t hold them to standards that are obsolete. All you can hope is they build on what went on before them and not just relax with it. Because if you relax with it, it’ll go away. (more…)

Sizzling Stars: LeBron and KD Meet Again

OKLAHOMA CITY – The historic impact of the supremacy of LeBron James and Kevin Durant is impossible to ignore. Legends are being made before our eyes, and before All-Star weekend arrives, the NBA gives us the final regular-season meeting between two of the most uniquely gifted players compiling two of the most individually intriguing seasons ever.

No, it’s not a stretch to make such a pronouncement about two players dominating individually and who also have their teams positioned for ultimate goal: a potential NBA Finals rematch in June.

James, built like a bull at 6-foot-9 and 25o pounds and defying every traditional position on the floor, is averaging 27.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 6.9 apg. He’s shooting 56.5 percent overall and 42.0 percent from beyond the arc. The Heat (35-14) have won six in a row and lead the Eastern Conference by three games.

Durant is listed at 6-foot-9, but everybody knows his 235 pounds (probably a stretch) are spread out over a near-7-foot frame and boasts a ridiculously wide wing span. He’s averaging 29.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.4 apg. He’s shooting 51.9 percent overall, 43.2 percent on 3s and 90.4 percent from the free-throw line. The Thunder (39-13) own the league’s best point-differential at plus-9.1, although they trail San Antonio by one game in the loss column.

When it comes to LeBron and KD, no matter the era, the numbers don’t lie.

“They’re two unique bodies and two unique styles of play,” said former Atlanta Hawks great and 1986 scoring champ Dominique Wilkins. “Totally different, but with the same efficiency. The thing with these guys is you rarely see them take a lot of bad shots. That’s why they shoot the percentages they are. When guys have great shooting percentages, they limit their bad shot attempts. That’s what both those guys have done.”

James floats into Thursday’s game at Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, TNT) on a run for the ages as the only player in NBA history to reel off six consecutive 30-point games while shooting better than 60 percent in each. And forget about 60 percent, James is 66-for-92 in those games for a blistering, almost unbelievable, 71.7 percent.

It’s the kind of stretch that has practically assures him of joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to twice win consecutive MVP awards. And if he does win it this season, James and Bill Russell will be the only players named MVP four times in five seasons. Oscar Robertson – perhaps the player James most resembles — stopped Russell’s run at three in a row in 1963-64. Russell followed the next season by winning it again.

Derrick Rose‘s awesome 2010-11 MVP season stopped James at two straight and Rose could ultimately prevent him from being the first player to ever have won it five consecutive seasons.

Still, a fourth MVP would already give LeBron, at age 28, more than the three won by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone, while tying him with Wilt Chamberlain and moving him one away from matching Michael Jordan and Russell at five. A sixth would put LeBron with Abdul-Jabbar on the mountaintop.

In any other season, Durant would be the frontrunner for his first MVP. As it is, he’s locked in a battle with Carmelo Anthony for a fourth consecutive scoring title — both lead the league at 29.0 ppg. Only Wilt (1959-66) and Jordan (1986-93), each with seven consecutive scoring titles, have won more than three in a row.

Durant is one of just five players to claim three straight: Jordan (1995-98), George Gervin (1977-80), Bob McAdoo (1973-76), Neil Johnston (1952-55) and George Miken (1948-51).

If Durant — who is also on pace to notch the ultra-rare 50-40-90 season (50 percent field goals, 40 percent 3-pointers, 90 percent free throws) – claims the scoring title, he will tie Allen Iverson and Gervin — the player Durant is most often compared to because of his slender frame and cool demeanor — with four.

Even if Durant doesn’t pick up his fourth in a row, at only 24 years old, he’s still lined up to threaten Jordan’s unprecedented, and once thought to be untouchable, 10 scoring titles.

For history in the making, stay tuned.

History: Fear The Streaking Clippers

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HANG TIME, Texas — It might be time to change the name of Lob City to Titletown or Bannerburgh.

Either way the streaking Clippers are on the verge of moving into a rather exclusive neighborhood that merits quite serious attention. It’s a ritzy place that comes with lots of shiny gold hardware.

When Chris Paul and his pals won back-to-back games over the Jazz to run it up to 17 consecutive wins, they squeezed into a tie for the ninth-longest single-season streak in NBA history.

With one more win tonight at Denver — No. 18 — the Clippers would take another step toward forcing themselves into the conversation as honest-to-goodness contenders.

Of course, the 1971-72 Lakers top the list with their all-time record 33-game win streak that many consider to be unbreakable. But of the eight teams currently ahead of the Clippers, five of them went on that same season to win the NBA championship and two others advanced to the conference finals. Only the 2007-08 Rockets failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

1971-72 L.A. Lakers
Streak: 33

Coach: Bill Sharman
Stars: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich

Start: Nov. 5, 1971 (110-106 over Bullets)

End: Jan. 7, 1972 (120-104 to Bucks)

Record: 69-13

Playoff result: Won NBA championship

2007-08 Houston Rockets

Streak: 22 games
Coach: Rick Adelman
Stars: Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming

Start: Jan. 29, 2008 (111-107 over Warriors)

End: March 18, 2008 (94-74 to Boston Celtics)

Record: 55-27

Playoff result: Lost in first round

1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks

Streak: 20
Coach: Larry Costello
Stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson

Start: Feb. 6, 1971 (111-105 over Warriors)

End: March 8, 1971 (110-103 in OT to Bulls)

Record: 66-16

Playoff result: Won NBA championship

1999-2000 L.A. Lakers

Streak: 19
Coach: Phil Jackson
Stars: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal

Start: Feb. 4, 2000 (113-67 over Jazz)

End: March 13, 2000 (109-102 to Wizards)

Record: 67-15

Playoff result: Won NBA championship

2008-09 Boston Celtics
Streak: 19

Coach: Doc Rivers
Stars: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen

Start: Nov. 15, 2008 (102-97 over Bucks)

End: Dec. 25, 2008 (92-83 to Lakers)

Record: 62-20

Playoff result: Lost in conference semifinals

1969-70 N.Y. Knicks
Streak: 18

Coach: Red Holzman
Stars: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley

Start: Oct. 24, 1969 (116-92 over Pistons)

End: Nov. 29, 1969 (110-98 to Pistons)

Record: 60-22

Playoff result: Won NBA championship

1981-82 Boston Celtics

Streak: 18
Coach: Bill Fitch
Stars: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish

Start: Feb. 24, 1982 (132-90 over Jazz)

End: March 28, 1982 (116-98 to 76ers)

Record: 63-19

Playoff result: Lost in conference finals

1995-96 Chicago Bulls

Streak 18
Coach: Phil Jackson
Stars: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman

Start: Dec. 29, 1995 (120-93 over Pacers)

End: Feb. 4, 1996 (105-99 to Nuggets)

Record: 72-10

Playoff result: Won title

2012-13 L.A. Clippers
Streak: 17
Coach: Vinny Del Negro
Stars: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin
Start: Nov. 28, 2012 (101-95 over Timberwolves)
End: ???

* 20 consecutive wins by 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs was split between 10 regular season and 10 playoffs and thereby does not qualify officially.

Selling Collectibles Doesn’t Mean Down-And-Out For Thompson

Less memorabilia, more cash.

NBA legend David Thompson’s decision really was that simple. Fewer things to store or dust, more green, folding stuff to spend. And donate. And enjoy.

The cliché, of course, is that any former sports hero who looks to sell precious mementos from his playing days must be flat broke and down on his luck. Certainly, there have been examples of that among those who spent too freely, managed their athletic earnings poorly or got hit in the grill post-career by bad advice or worse luck.

But it isn’t the case for Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones, two other Hall of Fame legends, and it isn’t the case for Thompson either. All of them have made items available through SCP Auctions – as part of individual “collections” offered for bidding that ends Saturday – willfully, happily and driven by pragmatism rather than dire need.

“I’ve still got a lot of stuff from my N.C. State days,” said Thompson, the high-flier who played for the ABA and NBA Denver Nuggets and the Seattle SuperSonics in a pro career ended prematurely by injuries and drub abuse. “I’ve got a piece of the wood floor that was given to me when they retired my jersey. Also, I’m the only one to be MVP in the NBA and ABA All-Star games, so I’m keeping those trophies. As well as my Hall of Fame ring.

“I’ve still got enough around that I could do a couple more auctions if I wanted to.”

Thompson, 58, only dipped his toe in auction waters this time because some friends from his playing days had done so and were happy with the results.

“A lot of the other guys – like [George] Gervin and Bobby Jones and Julius [Erving], guys who played in my era – have been real successful and they thought the time would be right for me to put some of my stuff out.”

The stuff he has out there is fascinating: Forty-nine pieces in all, from an autographed scoresheet-plaque from his 73-point scoring outburst on April 9, 1978 (minimum bid: $100) to his 1974 NCAA championship ring (minimum: $5,000). As of Thursday evening, after 13 bids, the ring was up to $15,700.

Added together, it figures to be a nice payday for Thompson. But nothing to melodramatically save him and his loved ones from a steady diet of ramen noodles or anything.

“It’s been a long time since I got an NBA check,” he said. “But like most of the guys, I’m doing OK. I’m not making anywhere near what I did when I played. But I’m living within my means. We all can use money. We all have bills and whatever. Hopefully this will give me a little relief, and some can go to charity.”

Thompson works as a motivational speaker and makes appearances at sports camps. He receives an NBA pension, and he also does some youth ministry work “to help kids make the right choices, unlike some of the choices I made.”

He and his wife Cathy live in Charlotte, and they plan to make donations to the National Diabetes Association (Cathy lives with the disease) and to the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Thompson, by the way, remains a relevant player to today’s NBA stars. Though he too often gets skipped over when experts trace the game’s above-the-rim history from Elgin Baylor through Erving and Michael Jordan to the current generation, Thompson played into the 1980s. He’s younger than Erving and he actually met some of these millennials.

“I’ve had an opportunity to speak with a lot of guys on their high school teams,” Thompson said. “Jerry Stackhouse, Chris Paul, different guys, Carmelo [Anthony], I talked to all those guys. LeBron James‘ team, when they came through North Carolina, he said he used to wear my throwback jersey. So hopefully, he might want to get the real high school jersey.”

Could be. Thompson’s autographed No. 33 jersey from 1969-71 at Crest High School in Shelby, N.C., was fetching $3,993 as of Thursday evening.