Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The NBA Finals

As much as I hate to admit, I listen to Sports Radio...or, more specifically, Mad Dog Sports Radio.  I used to love Mike and the Mad Dog, and so I followed Chris Russo to satellite radio.  The banter between he and Mike was great; on his own, he just frustrates the living heck out of me.

I understand the purpose of sports radio is to infuriate the listener, and encourage them to respond.  Sadly, it's working...but I never have a chance to call in, so I am responding to something I've heard Mad Dog repeat over and over on his radio show...then following it up with an observation I've made over the last few years.  Bear with me.

Chris Russo gives no credit to the basketball champions of this era.  He called the Golden State Warriors the greatest jump-shooting team in NBA history, but that they wouldn't hold a candle to the great champions of yesteryear.  Needless to say, he was gloating a bit when they lost to LeBron's Cavaliers.  He named a few champions that would crush them:  the 72-10 Bulls.  The 85-86 Celtics.  The Showtime Lakers.  The 82-83 76ers.  The 70-71 Bucks.  The 1960s Celtics.

To which I say:  Mad Dog, you're full of it.

Let's start with the 1960s NBA.

1.  Tommy Heinsohn was a fantastic player for the Celtics - he won the 1956-7 Rookie of the Year, was a 6-time All-Star, and was voted to the NBA 2nd Team four years.

He also smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day.

Think about that for a second - what level of quality basketball was being played in the 1960s where a 2 pack a day player can be one of the top 10 players in the league?  Would a player with a habit like that even make a roster in today's NBA?  Hell, if LeBron started a habit of Chesterfields today, I'm not sure he could dominate the 35 and over league I play in these days.

2.  How was Heinsohn able to run up and down the court with half a lung working?  Based on the statistics I found on basketball-reference.com, I reckon it's because it's because no one other than Bill Russell played defense in the 60s.  Here's a chart, comparing a few seasons up to the present:

FG %

A few things of note:

* The differences in shooting percentages between 1961-2 and 1984-5 work out to about 6.5 per game, leaving the 1960s teams still shooting 13 more times a game. 

* Jordan in 1988-89 averaged 32.5/8.0/8.0 (Pts/Reb/Ast).  If there were as many attempts that season as there were in the early 60s, he would've averaged 39.3/9.7/9.7.  Oscar Robertson averaged 31.4/12.5/11.4 in his triple double season.  

* I included the 1984-5 season because I remember it well - my team (the Denver Nuggets) traded away Kiki Vandeweghe before the season to the Portland Trailblazers for Calvin Natt, Fat Lever and Wayne Cooper, all of which started for the Nuggets.  They finished with the #2 seed in the playoffs, and I thought they might give the Lakers a run in the Western Conference finals...only Fat Lever went down with an injury in the semifinals against the Jazz...and that was it.  

* The difference in shooting attempts between last season and the early 60s (subtracting shooting percentage) is over 20 a game.  The only explanation that is reasonable is that there wasn't much defense being played.

* To a certain extent, this trend lasted until the mid to late 1980s.  I remember a ton of offensive-minded forwards in the Western Conference back then who wouldn't know a defensive rebound if it landed in front of them.  Vandeweghe, for instance, never averaged more than 5.6 rebounds a game, and never topped 3.3 after age 26.  

* I hated the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s, and I'm sure many fans (like myself) viewed that team as a "dirty" team...but looking back, I think one reason why there were detested is because they played defense at every position, on every possession, something most players in the league weren't used to.  

* It is no wonder why the NBA had to radically change the rules - shot attempts bottomed out in the early 2000s at around 78 per game.  

3.  Combine this usage of tobacco with the drug culture in the NBA/ABA in the 1970s and 80s, it is hard to accept that the quality and level of playing was equal to what we see today.  

4.  Mad Dog regularly refers to the 1970-71 Bucks, which might be his favorite team.  He constantly says that team could've destroyed the season win record had they cared about it, and would've destroyed the Warrior team of 2015-6.  

He's wrong, and not just because a couple of guys per team were enjoying a win with a Marlboro and a line of cocaine.  The NBA last year was able to draw from a much larger population than in 1970, yet only had 2 more teams (plus a larger roster).

* In 1970, the NBA expanded to 17 teams.

*  The ABA had 11 teams, which meant there were 28 professional basketball teams in 1970, versus 30 last year. 

*  Rosters were 12 players in 1970-71, 15 in 2015-6...so there were 450 NBA-level players last year, 336 in 1970-1.  

*  100 players were foreign-born last year.  In 1970, one 1 was:  Tom Meschery, who was born to Russian parents in China, but lived in the United States from age 8 on.  As a result, there were only 350 American basketball players in the NBA last year.

*  The United States had 205.1 million people in 1970, and 320.1 million people in 2015, which means the United States was 36% smaller.  

*  If all things were equal (training, medical, etc.), the United States would have produced 224 NBA caliber talented players in 1970...and yet, an extra 112 earned paychecks in the NBA/ABA.  That in itself suggests the level of talent was lower. 

*  Milwaukee was lucky - they were able to assemble 2 Hall of Famers (including 2 of the top 15 players in history), as well as a couple of other solid regulars.  In a diluted field, it is no wonder they went 66-16.

*  Milwaukee also started the season 26-7, so I really doubt the Bucks were tuned into breaking the record at that time (68-13).  

5.  All of this leads me to believe a couple of things.  If one were to pick a "greatest team", they would need to do the following:

  • Pick a team that played after 1985.
  • Decide how important the salary cap has played in assembling talent.
  • Decide which rules to play under.
I have no doubt the 1985-6 Celtics were a great team, as well as the 1995-6 Bulls...but if there were playing the Warriors using the rules of 2015-6, I'd have to believe the Warriors would win.  Conversely, the Warriors would never survive a 7 game series against either team if they were transported back in time.

But against the 1970-1 Bucks, or the 1962-3 Celtics?  

Warriors in 4.