Marques Johnson

Born: February 8, 1956
Position: Small Forward
Professional Career:
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1977-84
Los Angeles Clippers (NBA): 1984-86
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1989

The Lowdown: Quick and mobile, Marques Johnson was a handful for opposing forwards. Fewer small forwards crashed the offensive board as well as Marques. His mid-range jumper was just about automatic. And when trapped or pinned down, he had a way of whipping the ball out of trouble and to open teammates. His perennial 20-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist average spoke to his all-around skill. A terrible injury in 1986 cut his career short, but for nine seasons he plied his way as one of the league’s foremost forwards.


 

From the Bruins to the Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were a perennial contender during the late 1970s and 1980s. The Bucks possessed one of the league’s best and most versatile lineups that largely grew from the presence of three men: coach Don Nelson who found creative ways to mix and match talent, guard Sidney Moncrief, and the slinky forward Marques Johnson.

Johnson joined the Bucks in the 1977-78 season as a rookie out of UCLA and was an instant sensation. At 6’7″, Johnson had a great height for a small forward but was also incredibly quick on the go. He didn’t possess a tremendous range on his jump shot, but from about 18 feet in he was a marksman.

Perhaps most disheartening for opponents though was Marques’ ability to crash the offensive glass. After playing a possession of good defense and forcing a missed shot, Bucks opponents would be crushed by Johnson getting second-chance points. He was also a beast in the post, although not on post ups. Johnson was a master at spinning off his defender, catching lob passes and finishing with a dunk or layup.

Being a small forward, Marques didn’t neglect other skills. He was a superb passer, could rise up to challenge shots, and was a very good defender. In his rookie season, Marques led the Bucks to the playoffs and carried them to the semi-finals where they lost to the Denver Nuggets in seven games. Johnson was magnificent averaging 24 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 blocks on 55% shooting. As the Bucks assembled a better-balanced squad over the ensuing seasons, Marques wouldn’t be required to unleash that kind of titanic performance time and time again.

Requirements aside, Marques generally maintained his super 1978 playoff performance for the duration of the 1979 regular season: 25.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.2 BPG and a white hot 55% shooting from the field. For his spectacular efforts, Johnson was named to the All-NBA 1st Team that season, but the Bucks finished with just 38 wins. Two moves would soon help improve and stabilize the Bucks: drafting Sidney Moncrief and trading for Bob Lanier.

With other able players like Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, and Quinn Buckner, Marques’s Bucks were looking up.


 

Phase 2: Bucks Boogaloo

Spurred on by their acquisitions, the Milwaukee Bucks soared to 49 wins in the 1979-80 season. The trade for Lanier in February particularly was an instant success. Milwaukee went 20-6 after acquiring the big man. And in the playoffs, Moncrief finally emerged as a force to compliment Lanier and Marques. Their postseason adventure was ended, however, by the defending champion Seattle SuperSonics. Game 6 in particular was a heart-breaking experience. Up 3-2 in the series, Johnson delivered 22 points for the Bucks, who nonetheless lost the game 86-85 at home. Game 7 in Seattle was a close affair that the Sonics pulled out 98-94.

Unfortunately, the dye was cast for Marques, Moncrief, Lanier and the Bucks. They would rumble through the regular season and then lose, usually in close fashion, to another powerhouse in the playoffs. In 1981, the Bucks won 60 games in the regular season, but lost 99-98 to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Marques was a monster in the series averaging 25 points (including 36 in Game 7), 9.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 55.6% shooting. It was his finest playoff series as he crushed the 76ers for six… SIX!… offensive rebounds a game in the series.

Perhaps the big performance, and his third straight All-Star selection, convinced Marques he was being underpaid by the Bucks. So as the 1981-82 season geared up, Marques was a hold out demanding a new contract from Milwaukee. The stand off with management lasted through training camp, the preseason, and the first 18 games of the 1981-82 season. Johnson did ultimately receive the raise he wanted, but the lost time meant a relatively lackluster season.

It also led to suspicions that more than money was irking Marques in Milwaukee:

“Despite Johnson’s attempts to portray money as the primary issue of his holdout, there is growing suspicion that the city of Milwaukee is an equally strong – or stronger – factor… some of Johnson’s closest friends feel strongly that Johnson’s main gripe is having to play and live in Milwaukee for another two seasons.”

With the contract issue settled, Marques was rejuvenated for the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Over the course of those campaigns, he averaged 21 points, 7 rebound and 4.5 assists per game. And both seasons the Bucks reached the Eastern Conference Finals. However, each time they’d lose to the eventual NBA champ: the 76ers in 1983 and the Celtics in 1984.

In the summer of 1984, Marques welcomed a trade from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. The move fit better with Johnson’s off-court acting interests, but unfortunately for him he was traded to LA’s Clippers, not the Lakers. As many other players would learn in the future, playing for Donald Sterling’s Clippers was an unmitigated pain in the ass.

 


 

Clipper Land

A broken hand limited Johnson’s effectiveness in his first Clipper season. But he rebounded tremendously in 1986 snagging his fifth and final All-Star appearance. Behind Marques, the Clips finished with 32 wins. That would be their highest win total between the 1981 and 1992 seasons. The superb – by Clippers standards – season came despite an attempt by Sterling to void the trade that brought Marques to the Clippers a year earlier.

The real source of Sterling’s move appeared being a cheapskate, but the Clippers official reasoning harkened back to a minor drug problem Marques experienced years earlier:

“No, Marques and I haven’t sat down and talked,” [ Clippers team President Alan] Rothenberg said. “But I think he realizes it is a business decision, something the club felt it had to do. It’s nothing personal at all, really.”

[…]

A Times story last Feb. 9 reported that Johnson had undergone treatment at St. Mary’s Drug Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis in the summer of 1983. The story also quoted Rothenberg as saying that the club would have “thought twice” about making the trade had it known about Johnson’s previous drug problem.

Marques carried himself with dignity through the sordid ordeal and spoke positively of his drug rehab experience: “I didn’t think I had a problem before, but I went through that program, and they showed me I did. I came out a better person for it.”

The Clippers obviously lost their bid, but Marques’s career was just about finished unknown to everyone. Just 10 games into the next season (1986-87), Johnson collided with teammate Benoit Benjamin. The resulting spinal cord and neck injury effectively ended his career much too soon.

The despicable nature of Sterling’s ownership continued to harass Johnson, though, refusing to pay the rest of his salary. Marques recalled the galling nature of the situation:

“A quick story — in 1986, I had what was really a career-ending neck injury and in 1987, I lost a son in a drowning accident. An intermediary told me to call Donald because he wanted to reach out and talk to me about a contract dispute [after the season]. I called Donald up and he told me he was going to ruin me, that he was going to crush me financially, and that I needed to go ahead and settle on his terms if I wanted to have any money left. He talked to me to me like I was a piece of just bat guano.”

Worn down by the emotional and physical toll of events, Johnson settled with Sterling. He played 10 more games in a comeback attempt with the Golden State Warriors in the 1989-90 season, but it was uneventful.


 

Despite the brevity of his career, Johnson presaged many of the tall ball-handling small forwards we’ve become accustomed to over the years from Scottie Pippen to LeBron James. His utility made Don Nelson’s anarchic Bucks offense work sublimely. Meanwhile his tenacious offensive-rebounding and second-chance scoring was reincarnated a generation later by the slithering small forward Cedric Ceballos. Add on to that his smooth jump shot and quick anticipation for stealing the ball and you got yourself one hell of a ball player.

Marques Johnson is proof that few things are ever truly new. Usually we just refine and progress what’s come before us. Many of today’s small forwards owe that progressive, refined debt to Johnson, even if they don’t realize it. He was a fine and exquisite baller through and through.


Honors

NBA -
All-NBA 1st Team (1979)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1980-’81)
5x All-Star (1979-’81, 1983, 1986)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1978)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (691 games):
20.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.8 BPG, .518 FG%,  .739 FT%
20.1 PER, .162 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (54 games):
21.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 SPG, .489 FG%, .701 FT%
19.1 PER, .152 WS/48

Dan Issel

Born: October 25, 1948
Position: Center, Power Forward
Professional Career:
Kentucky Colonels (ABA): 1970-1975
Denver Nuggets (ABA/NBA): 1975-1985

Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, says of Issel, “He’s not a pro-type center, not defensive-minded, not an intimidator, and you can’t win a title with him. But when his career is over, he’ll be an immortal.”

Via “King of the Rocky Mountains” by Douglas Looney

The complaints of so-called dainty “big men” that prance around the perimeter are nothing new, basketball fans. Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo took their fair share of heat in the 1970s for not being “tough enough” and so did Dan Issel despite the evident utility of such big men then and now.

And by the way, Pat Williams, Dan Issel’s Kentucky Colonels did win the ABA title in 1975.

Ten years later on May 22, 1985, a great career came to end in Los Angeles. In the final game of that year’s Western Conference Finals, the Laker fans in attendance gave a rousing standing ovation as Dan Issel trotted off the court for the last time. Moments earlier Issel, a 6’9″ center, had nailed a three-pointer. It was one of just two field goals he made that night exhibiting the decline his body and skills had taken over 16 years of pro ball.

Of course, Dan Issel never played a single year, game, or minute for the Lakers. Still, the fans of Los Angeles and basketball worldwide had to give it up for a player such as Dan Issel.

As he retired, Issel possessed the following all-time ranks for pro basketball: 5th in games played, 6th in minutes played, 6th in field goals made, 4th in free throws made, and 15th in rebounds grabbed. Most importantly, only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Julius Erving had scored more points than Dan up to that point. This was a basketball institution leaving the court for the last time.

Issel, simply put, was a scoring machine. He still remains the University of Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer despite only playing 3 years there. In pro basketball Issel did put up some highly impressive single season scoring averages, but his career scoring totals were heavily indebted to a remarkable longevity, consistency, and durability.

Issel only missed 24 of a possible 1242 games in his career.

The course he took to these points was unorthodox for a center. Like Hayes and McAdoo, Issel was a marksman from long-distance. His jumper extended nearly out to the three-point line, which invariably drew opposing centers out of their comfort zone. Issel would either calmly sink the jumper or deceive the defender with a pump fake and make his way toward the rim. Another favored method for Issel was scoring on the break.

He was by no means someone you could describe as fast, but neither were opposing centers in his era, for the most part, and Issel had the bonus of a motor that never stopped running. And he hit the ground running in his professional basketball career.


 

When he first entered the hardwood domain of the ABA back in 1970, Issel wasn’t yet an institution but he certainly had the framework. He led the ABA in scoring with 30 points per game that season and with the aid of little Louie Dampier, he took the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA Finals where they lost in seven games to the Utah Stars.

The Colonels beefed up their title chances the next year adding Artis Gilmore. The Issel-Dampier-Gilmore Colonels were a cornerstone of the ABA. Gilmore brought the intimidating inside defense, hook shots, and rebounding. Dampier brought the hot outside shooting and steady ball-handling. Issel brought a boatload of careening hustle, more rebounding, mobile offense from a big man, and easy fastbreak points.

The Colonels were a huge success during these years. In 1973, they lost another seven-game Finals series, this time to the Indiana Pacers. Then in 1975, the Colonels got revenge on their rivals in a 4-1 series manhandling of Indiana.

Amazingly winning the championship would be Issel’s last act as a Colonel. In the summer of 1975 he was traded first to the infamous Baltimore Hustlers/Claws, which quickly folded, and then to the Denver Nuggets. Moving back to center, Issel teamed up with David Thompson and Bobby Jones to lead Denver to the ABA Finals in 1976 (beating Kentucky along the way) before losing to the New York Nets in six games. Denver had the better overall team, but Julius Erving turned into a supernova for the Nets that series.

Merging with the NBA that summer, Issel and the Nuggets took their act to the NBA and there was no drama to their play. Despite roster changes (Thompson and Jones making way for George McGinnis and then Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe in the early 80s) and coaching switches (Larry Brown for Donnie Walsh and then Doug Moe) the Nuggets always scored like Chicagoans voted: early and often.

This style reached its zenith between 1981 and 1985 when the Nuggets never failed to average less than 120 points a game for a season. FIVE different times Issel was part of a troika of teammates that averaged at least 20 PPG a piece. That’s something that rarely happens – let alone happens that many times on one team.

Even with all that high-flying amazement, the Nuggets never got back to a Finals with Issel. The closest they came was the Western Conference Finals in 1978 (losing to Seattle) and in 1985 (losing to the Lakers). That ’85 series would see Issel score his final NBA points. Going out in style, Dan swished that 3-point bomb as the Great Western Forum crowd cheered him on.

A 6’9″ perpetually-balding center with a devilish grin is certainly not what we expect when thinking of ABA personalities and NBA legends. But Dan Issel was certainly one of the best and, indeed, he is immortal: his number is retired by the Nuggets, he’s a Hall of Famer, and to this day retains the most successful pro career of any Kentucky Wildcat. Eat your heart out, Ron Mercer.


Honors

ABA -
Champion (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1971)
All-ABA 1st Team (1971)
4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1971, 1973-’74, 1976)
All-Star Game MVP (1972)
6x All-Star (1971-’76)

NBA -
All-Star (1977)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (1218 games):
22.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, .499 FG%, .793 FT%
21.4 PER, .181 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (133 games):
22.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, .487 FG%, .822 FT%
20.1 PER, .161 WS/48

Adrian Dantley

Born: February 28, 1956
Position: Small Forward
Professional Career:
Buffalo Braves (NBA): 1976-1977
Indiana Pacers (NBA): 1977
Los Angeles Lakers (NBA): 1977-1979
Utah Jazz (NBA): 1979-1986
Detroit Pistons (NBA): 1986-1989
Dallas Mavericks (NBA): 1989-1990
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1991


 

Adrian Dantley

One of the most unstoppable post players in the history of basketball stood a mere 6’5″ on a good day… in an extra thick pair of high knee socks.

That truth seemed like a doubtful assertion back in the 1970s when Adrian Dantley was routinely told time and again that he was too short to keep playing in the post. Or that he was too heavy and chunky to be any good in college, let alone the pros. And, yet, Dantley proved the naysayers wrong his entire career.

During his final two seasons at Notre Dame, AD dropped a shade under 30 points a night to go along with 10 rebounds and 56% shooting from the field. As his professional career unfolded, it turned out that Dantley’s rebounding would diminish but his scoring and, more remarkably, his FG% would not take a hit.

Despite winning Rookie of the Year in 1977, Dantley bounced from Buffalo to Indiana to the Lakers during his first three NBA seasons. His NBA per game averages to that point were 19.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, .515 FG% and .816 FT%. Not bad, but apparently not good enough for any team to retain.

Finally, though, Dantley found a home in 1979. The Lakers traded him to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Spencer Haywood. With the Jazz Dantley was given the freedom to fully unleashed his devastation upon the NBA.

From 1980 to 1986, Dantley averaged an absurd 29.6 points a night. Despite the increase in usage, his FG% actually rose considerably to an insanely high 56% for those seven seasons.

He rarely dunked and yet he maintained that percentage on a series of shots around the rim.  He’d have remarkable control of his body no matter how much pounding or twirling he’d do in the paint. And heaven help you, if you wound up fouling Dantley. He’d still probably make the shot thanks to his stocky strength and with his 80+ percent shooting from the foul line you were just giving him free points. Indeed, he led the NBA in free throws made four times in this span, in addition to winning the scoring title twice.

Dantley’s white hot streak peaked in 1984 when he led the league in scoring, win shares, PER, and WS/48.

As often happens, though, a player’s most prodigious statistical seasons don’t coincide with his most successful seasons from a team perspective. The Jazz only made the playoff three times during these seasons, but they managed to win two playoff series.

However, a trade to Detroit for the 1986-87 season gave Dantley a chance to be on a true contender. His scoring average dipped to 20 points a night, but with the Pistons having Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, and Vinnie Johnson, no one man needed to take a massive offensive load.

In 1987, the Pistons came within a mere three points of making the NBA Finals, but fell to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals by a score of 117 to 114. Dantley was an uncontrollable monster for the series averaging 23.6 points on 57.7% shooting,

The next season Detroit dispatched Boston and advanced to the NBA Finals. In Game 1 vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, Dantley was a man possessed scoring 34 points on 14-16 shooting from the field and 6-7 shooting from the charity stripe. The Pistons won that game and eventually took a 3-2 series lead. They likely would have won the Finals if not for Isiah Thomas severely sprained ankle in Game 6. The Lakers pulled out that game by a single point and eked by in Game 7 with a three-point victory.

Unfortunately for Dantley he’d be traded midway through the 1989 season to Dallas in exchange for Mark Aguirre. The Pistons new high-scoring 1980s forward would capture two titles, while Dantley’s career wound down on mediocre, losing teams. Sadly, that’s the way basketball bounces sometimes.

One man’s lucky break is another’s bad misfortune. Still, Dantley’s career was a marvel. What he did control, he controlled with an ability rarely seen. And he did it with fantastic style: gorgeous knee-high socks, awesome chops on his face, and a great corkscrew free throw shot.


 

 

Honors

NBA -
Rookie of the Year (1977)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1981, 1984)
6x All-Star (1980-’82, 1984-’86)
All-Rookie Team (1977)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (955 games):
24.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, .540% FG, .818% FT
21.5 PER, .189 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (73 games):
21.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, .525 FG%, .796 FT%
19.3 PER, .172 WS/48

Bob Love

Born: December 8, 1942
Position: Power Forward
Professional Career:
Trenton Colonials (EPBL): 1965-1966
Cincinnati Royals (NBA): 1966-1968
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1968
Chicago Bulls (NBA): 1968-1976
New York Nets (NBA): 1976-1977
Seattle SuperSonics (NBA): 1977

Bob Love’s road to NBA stardom was a long one. Drafted by the Cincinnati Royals in 1965, Love wound up spending his rookie professional season in the Eastern Professional Basketball League. Turns out the 4th Round pick of the Royals was not deemed good enough for the NBA, but with the Trenton Colonials in the Eastern League, Love soared and took home of Rookie of the Year honors in 1966.

With a second shot at the NBA, Love made the Royals roster, but languished as a reserve in 1967 and 1968.  The Royals left the unimpressive forward unprotected for the Milwaukee Bucks’ expansion draft. The Bucks snagged Love but traded him after just 14 games to the Chicago Bulls. He continued to ride the pine and averaged a career-low 5 points for the Bulls.

That’s two leagues and four teams for Love in his first four seasons.

Finally, in his fifth pro season at age 27, Love began to soar. Averaging 21 points a game in 1970, Love then notched 25 points per game in 1971, and peaked in 1972 with 26 points a night. Overall from 1970 to 1976, the forward would maintain a 22.6 PPG and 7.1 RPG average with the Chicago Bulls.

The smooth-scoring forward earned the nickname “Butterbean” for his effortless and gossamer shots. Love could turn baseline and nail tough fade-aways, go middle and knock down turn-arounds, curl off picks for catch-and-shoots… if there was a way to make a jump shot Bob Love knew how to do it and do it well.

Teaming with Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker, and Tom Boerwinkle, Love formed the core of a highly successful Bulls team in the early-and-mid 1970s. The squad perennially pushed deep into the playoffs, but never quite got over the hump. For his efforts, though, Love was recognized as one of basketball’s best forwards in the era with a combined 8 All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive team selections.

But with such a late rise to greatness, Love’s peak didn’t last extraordinarily long. By his 10th NBA season he was already 34-years old. He endured a quick, precipitous decline. In 1976, his field goal percentage plummeted to 39% and the next year (1977) he played briefly for the Bulls, New York Nets, and Seattle SuperSonics. For those trio of teams, Love averaged only 7 points in what would be his final season.

It was an abrupt, unceremonious end. Given how his basketball career began in a similar unceremonious fashion it was somewhat fitting for Love. But the splendor of what occurred in between shouldn’t be discounted. The Butterbean was one smooth shooter.

Honors

NBA -
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1971-’72)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1972, 1974-’75)
3x All-Star (1971-’73)

EPBL -
Rookie of the Year (1966)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (789 games):
17.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, .429 FG%, .805 FT%
14.9 PER, .096 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (47 games):
22.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, .431 FG%, .776 FT%
15.1 PER, .082 WS/48

Billy Paultz

Born: July 30, 1948
Position: Center, Power Forward
Professional Career:
New York Nets (ABA): 1970-1975
San Antonio Spurs (ABA/NBA): 1975-1980; 1983
Houston Rockets (NBA): 1980-1983
Atlanta Hawks (NBA): 1983-1984
Utah Jazz (NBA): 1984-1985

In a 1972 game against the Squires, [Paultz] hit his first eight shots, and finished with 13 field goals in 15 attempts. Rick Barry scored 43 points and John Roche 37 points that same evening. “I get 33 and I’m the third high scorer on the team,” complained Paultz. “Are you kidding me?”

Via Complete Handbook of ProBasketball by Jim O’Brien

Now there’s an insightful quote into both, Billy Paultz and the ABA. The league was about flash and pizzazz, glitz and glamor. On a night where Paultz goes a-wreckin’ for 33 points on 13-15 shooting, he’s still not the brightest light shining on the court. Nonetheless, Paultz revealed his affable, self-effacing and humble personality in discussing his misfortune. Barry and Roche may have overshadowed him that night, but for someone with no organized basketball experience until his senior year in high school (1966), Paultz was doing quite well for himself.

Drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, Paultz opted for the ABA and was soon traded by Virginia to his hometown New York Nets. What the Nets got was an uncoordinated heap of man that would be nicknamed “The Whopper” for his well apportioned waistline and the hamburger that kept it so.

Nets teammate Rick Barry quipped “I didn’t believe he could possibly make it…” and Jim O’Brien added his two cents: “An ardent surfer, but the way he moved at the outset of his rookie season it was hard to envision him keeping his balance on shore let alone sea.” The off-balance Whopper nonetheless averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during his rookie year.

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George McGinnis

Born: August 12, 1950
Position: Power/Point Forward
Professional Career:
Indiana Pacers (ABA): 1971-1975
Philadelphia 76ers (NBA): 1975-1978
Denver Nuggets (NBA): 1978-1980
Indiana Pacers (NBA): 1980-1982

(philly.com)
(philly.com)

The Lowdown: George McGinnis was one of the finest all-around players basketball has ever seen. As a power forward, he certainly lived up to the typical job description. He tussled aggressively on the boards and was one of the strongest men in basketball. McGinnis’s chiseled physique didn’t mean he was a lumbering giant, though. He was able to grab a board and dribble the length of the court to flush home a dunk or perform able duty as point forward. His combination of power and speed made him regular season and playoff MVP of the ABA by his fourth pro season. After jumping to the NBA, McGinnis’s success faded but not before enjoying a few more All-Star seasons and cementing his mark as one of pro basketball’s finest players of the 1970s.


 

The Man-Child

(Sports Illustrated)

In 1971, the Indiana Pacers were on the cusp of completely dominating the American Basketball Association. Over the previous three seasons they had lost in the Finals (1969), won the Finals (1970), and lost in the Western Division Finals (1971). Now the perennial contenders were looking to add a young dynamic piece who would put them into the realm of dynasty.

Hailing from Indianapolis, George McGinnis was attending Indiana University when the Pacers lured him to the ABA after his freshman season in college. It was a very unusual move at the time. Hardly any underclassman had gone pro in decades, but given McGinnis’s 30-point and 15-rebound averages that one college season, he certainly appeared ready for tougher competition.

McGinnis was an absolute mammoth of a power forward who, aside from Artis Gilmore, was probably the strongest man in the ABA. Unsurprisingly, he was an absolute beast on the boards trampling and demolishing opponents, particularly on the offensive glass. His career average of 3.7 is 10th all-time amongst players who have appeared in at least 240 games (equivalent to about three seasons).

This steady stream of offensive boards and subsequent putbacks partially fed his healthy point production. Also of aid was his dependable mid-range jumper and his cunning-but-not-quite-graceful drives to the hoop. During one stretch of his career, McGinnis wound up averaging over 20 points a game for seven straight seasons. It culminated in 1975 when he peaked at 29.8 points per game.

And as if this wasn’t enough of an offensive threat, he could pass the ball extremely well. For six straight seasons he held an assist per game average above 3.5, including three seasons above 4.5 in that stretch. Big George also had quick, strong hands which led to a career steals per game average of 1.9. That’s an incredibly high total for anyone let alone a power forward. In fact, that 1.9 average is fourth all-time amongst forwards and 26th overall for all players.

McGinnis, however, surly had pitfalls to his game. For starters, he turned the ball over with a galling frequency: 4 a game over the course of his career. Also his free throw shooting was always poor. It showed signs of incremental improvement until 1975 (topping off at 74%) and thereafter it plummeted to embarrassing levels by his retirement (45.3%).

With McGinnis on hand, the Pacers became an embarrassment of riches with the superb core of ABA MVP Mel Daniels, All-Stars Bob Netolicky, Roger Brown, and Freddie Lewis, and solid role players in Billy Keller, Darnell Hillman, and Rick Mount. The already impressive Pacers were imagining a vice-like grip upon the ABA. The well-balanced machine had seven players average between 10 and 20 points in the 1971-72 season and they squeezed by Denver and Utah in order to reach the Finals yet again.

Although mostly in a supporting role to the veterans, McGinnis was invaluable against the New York Nets in the Finals, particularly in Game 3:

New York coach Lou Carnesecca was quoted as saying that Indiana’s muscular 6-foot-8, 235 pound rookie George McGinnis looked like a heavy weight contender. Carnesecca amended his evaluation following the third game [of the ABA Finals] Friday night.

“Now, you can say he’s the champion,” said the diminutive Nets’ coach, who barely would reach McGinnis’ elbow.

Carnesecca made his reevaluation after the burly McGinnis wrecked the Nets, scoring 30 points and grabbing a game high 20 rebounds…

The next year, Big George emerged as the Pacers’ best player.

Averaging 27.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals he was an unstoppable force and claimed spots on the All-Star and All-ABA 2nd teams. Again reaching the Finals, the Pacers this time faced their mortal enemy, the Kentucky Colonels. The series went the distance, as it usually did between these two. McGinnis sealed Game 5 with a steal of an inbounds pass and an ensuing slam dunk with 23 seconds left. In Game 7, the Pacers captured the title in Louisville thanks to McGinnis’s 27 points. He was understandably named MVP of the playoffs.

The 1974 edition of the Pacers failed to secure a three-peat, however. They were ousted in seven games by their other mortal enemy, the Utah Stars, in the West Finals. Despite the team’s relative failure, McGinnis continued his ascension: 26 PPG, 15 RPG, 3.3 APG, and 2 SPG. Thank to that production, he received his first appearance on the All-ABA 1st Team.

For the 1974-75 season, McGinnis would take his game to yet another notch and raise hell for the whole ABA.


 

All Grown Up

McGinnis and Nater

For the 1974-75 season, McGinnis undoubtedly reached the summit and apex of his skills. The Pacers jettisoned much of the old guard and the team was solidly George’s to have and to mold. Helping him along were rookies Len Elmore and Billy Knight and heretofore unused Don Buse along with holdover Darnell Hillman.

A December 1974 game against the San Antonio Spurs exemplified the hurt McGinnis laid on the ABA all season long:

George McGinnis may eventually replace the speedway as the No. 1 tourist attraction in Indianapolis.

The husky 6-foot-8 forward of the Indiana Pacers is one of those players, who as the saying goes, “can do it all.” Wednesday night he gave a demonstration of his amazing versatility to the San Antonio Spurs – 45 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists while leading the Pacers to a 128 – 122 victory.

McGinnis was spectacular from start to finish that season. He averaged a ridiculous 30 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists and 2.5 steals. He even connected on 35.4% of his three-point attempts that year for good measure. McGinnis was named the ABA’s co-MVP along with Julius Erving of the New York Nets.

Amazingly, in the postseason, Mac again took his game to another level.

The unfortunate Spurs were again a victim of Big George. In Game 2 of their semi-final series, McGinnis dismantled them in the second half. He shot 11-18 from the field, connected on eight of his 10 free throw attempts, hauled in eight rebounds, sent out five dimes and just turned the ball over once. And this was after his Game 1 performance of 32 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. Finishing the Spurs off in six games, the Pacers next faced the Denver Nuggets, owners of the best record in the West during the regular season. The series was a classic affair and McGinnis (and side kick Billy Knight) carried the Pacers through.

In Game 1, McGinnis pummeled the Nuggets with 39 points, 22 rebounds, eight assists and five steals, but Denver survived 131 to 128. McGinnis had an off-night in Game 2, but the Pacers still won tying the series.

In Indianapolis for Game 3, the Pacers were dead in the water down 95-84 at the beginning of the 4th quarter, but then George took over and led a tremendous comeback. With 4:13 left in the game and the scored tied at 102, McGinnis hit two jumpers, made a key assist and nailed two free throws to seal the 118-112 victory over Denver. He finished the game with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists.

The two teams continued their scrap, ultimately coming down to a Game 7 in Denver. In this final game, McGinnis rose to the occasion: 40 points, 23 rebounds, eight assists and three steals. He thrashed Denver for 10 of Indiana’s final 14 points and nailed a three-pointer at the 3:54 mark that effectively sealed the 104-96 win for the Pacers.

The Pacers’ magical run came to a halt in the Finals against Kentucky. Despite McGinnis’ 35 points, the Pacers were smashed 120-94 in Game 1. The rest of the series would be closer, but the tone had clearly been set. Indiana’s one chance at a possible upset slipped through McGinnis’s hands in Game 2. Tied at 93, George was unable to handle a bounce pass from Roger Brown and Kentucky received control of the ball. With just 10 seconds remaining, Artis Gilmore delivered the game-winning shot for Kentucky. The Colonels ultimately won the series in 5 games.

McGinnis’s postseason had nonetheless been remarkable as he averaged 32 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and two steals over the course of 18 games. But this mammoth, gargantuan display was to be his last for Indiana.


 

NBA Superstar… but only for a Moment

After a convoluted and heated bidding war, McGinnis left the Pacers of the ABA and landed with the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA for the 1975-76 season. Teaming alongside Doug Collins, Steve Mix, World B. Free, fresh out high school Darryl Dawkins, and Fred Carter, the McGinnis Sixers went 46-36 (a 12-game improvement over the previous season). A heart-breaking, 1-point loss to Buffalo in a deciding Game 3 of the 1st Round ended their season.

However, the next year, the Sixers surged to the Finals thanks to the acquisition of Julius Erving. The Sixers possessed in Erving and McGinnis two of the now-liquidated ABA’s best players. But the co-existence of the two was never fluid. There was no animosity, just a mismatch of talent. Facing off against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers took the first two games of the series before Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and the Oregon gang stormed back winning the next four games and the title. The effortless team ball of the Blazers was lauded while the Sixers were derided as a playground team of stars who didn’t know how to play real basketball.

Although taken to a nonsensical level with that last accusation, there were problems with teaming Dr. J and Big George. Maybe all it would have took was a couple of seasons of play to mesh these two tremendous talents, but the chance never occurred. McGinnis was traded in 1978 to the Denver Nuggets for Bobby Jones. Now McGinnis found himself teamed with Dan Issel and David Thompson, two more stars of the former ABA.

His stint with Denver lasted just a year-and-a-half. Although he was initially productive – making a sixth and final All-Star Team in 1978 – McGinnis’s play began to slide. Perhaps the most talented and best player in pro basketball in 1975 was struggling with his confidence by 1979.

This was best exemplified in his free throw shooting. Reaching a peak percentage of .740 in 1976, McGinnis’s FT% initially started to taper off and then quickly dropped like a rock to a ridiculously bad .453 percentage in 1982. By then he was back in Indiana – traded there by Denver in 1980 – trying to resuscitate his career, but it was not to be. Former Sixers coach Gene Shue summed up the problem:

“I don’t think he’s lost any of his skills,” says Shue, who’s now coaching the Washington Bullets for the second time. “He’s still an excellent rebounder. The only thing George needs is to get with a team that says, ‘Here’s the ball, George. Go do it.’ “

McGinnis needed the team to have faith in him, to give him the ball. Despite his prodigious talents and proven success, he was never one to seize control of a team. When placed among a multitude of stars his own age, like he was in Philadelphia and Denver, McGinnis seemed to slink into the background. By 1982, at only 31 years of the age, the game had passed McGinnis by. Averaging only 5 points and 5 rebounds, he finally retired.

It was a sad ending for a talent who was transcendent for six full seasons. George McGinnis was someone who combined speed and power in ways rarely seen before or since. Former ABA All-Star Willie Wise declared the only way to stop George was to shoot yourself and then hope McGinnis would have mercy on you. From 1972 to 1977, there was no mercy from George. His teams gave him the ball and he delivered with ferocious ability.

McGinnis himself marveled at just how good he was on the court from the jump:

“When I came into the ABA,” McGinnis says, “I was like a god. I felt there was no one who was ever going to stop me, that I was going to be a dominant force every time I took the court. That’s how supreme I felt and that’s how supreme I played.”


 

 Honors

ABA –
2x Champion (1972-’73)
MVP (1975)
Playoff MVP (1973)
2x All-ABA 1st Team (1974-’75)
All ABA 2nd Team (1973)
3x All-Star (1973-’75)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1972)

NBA -
All-NBA 1st Team (1976)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1977)
3x All-Star (1976-’77, 1979)

Statistics

Career Regular Season Averages (842 games):
20.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.5 BPG, .458 FG%, .273 3PT%, .664 FT%
20.0 PER, .127 WS/48

Peak Career Regular Season Averages (1972-73 through 1978-79):
24.4 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG, .461 FG%, .311 3PT%, .695 FT%
21.9 PER, .152 WS/48

ABA Regular Season Averages (1971-72 through 1974-75):
25.2 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, .470% FG, .682% FT
22.1 PER, .154 WS/48

NBA Regular Season Averages
(1975-76 through 1981-82):
17.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG, .448 FG%, .651 FT%
18.6 PER, .107 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (104 games):
20.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.4 BPG, .435 FG%, .290 3PT%, .682 FT%
19.7 PER, .114 WS/48

Paul Silas

Born: July 12, 1941
Position: Power Forward
Professional Career:
St. Louis Hawks (NBA): 1964-’68
Atlanta Hawks (NBA): 1968-’69
Phoenix Suns (NBA): 1969-’72
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1972-’76
Denver Nuggets (NBA): 1976-’77
Seattle SuperSonics (NBA): 1977-’80


Paul Silas (spokeo)
(spokeo)

The Lowdown: Paul Silas was never much of a scorer, but his NBA career lasted 16 years thanks to his grinding defensive play and tireless effort on the boards. Silas was also heralded for the accountability he demanded from all teammates. He could begrudgingly forgive mistakes, but never a lack of effort. With this ensemble of talent, hustle, and personality, Silas carved out a place on two All-Star Teams and three NBA champions during his lengthy career.
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