Pro Hoops History HOF: Dale Ellis

Dale Ellis
Dale Ellis

It took a while for Dale Ellis to get cooking in the NBA.  Drafted ninth overall in 1983, Ellis would spend the first three years of his career buried on the bench of the Dallas Mavericks. In his limited time on court (16.4 minutes per game), Ellis provided the Mavs with instant offense averaging 8.2 points per game. Dallas had no real need for Ellis at the time, though. With Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre occupying the shooting guard and small forward spots, Ellis could never crack the starting lineup or gain significant playing time.

Fortunately for Dale Ellis, a trade in the summer of 1986 sent him from Dallas to Seattle and from the bench to NBA stardom. Ellis averaged 25 PPG that first year with the Super Sonics and had such luminous performances as 32 points on 13 shots in 28 minutes; and 40 points on 19 shots. More of the same flowed from Ellis through the 1989-90 season. During that four-year stretch in Seattle, Dale averaged 25.6 PPG. He peaked in 1988-89 with 27.5 PPG and his lone selections to both, the All-NBA 3rd Team and the All-Star squad.

Curiously, while Ellis was averaging career highs in minutes and points these seasons, he was also averaging career highs in field goal percentage. During this torrid peak in Seattle, he never shot below 49.7% from the field and in 1989 he shot a ridiculous 47.8% from downtown on over 4 attempts per game. No one in the history of the NBA (except JOE JOHNSON!) has taken as many three-pointers a game and shot as high a percentage as Ellis did that season.

Behind Ellis hot shooting, Xavier McDaniel’s hot-headed drives, and Tom Chambers’s dynamite dunks, the Super Sonics of the late 1980s proved highly entertaining and somewhat super successful. In their first season as a trio, Ellis, McDaniel, and Chambers caught fire (and some lucky breaks) in the playoffs and made the Western Conference Finals despite 39 regular wins.

And in the 1987 postseason Ellis received a huge measure of revenge in defeating his former team the Dallas Mavericks. In the four-game series, Ellis averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 56% FG, 50% 3PT% and 84% FT. Safe to say Dallas had no answer for the stone-faced Ellis.

Dale Ellis 2

The Sonics made the playoffs the two following seasons, but by 1991 that core was broken up and Ellis was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. For the rest of his career, including stops in San Antonio, Denver, Charlotte and return trips to Seattle and Milwaukee, Ellis would largely play the role of key reserve with 14.5 PPG for the rest of his career.

Ellis retired in 2000 with just a touch over 19,000 career points. At the time he was 34th on the all-time points leader board for NBA players. He scored those points in a variety of ways. He was quick and deceptive off the ball gathering easy mid-range jumpers and layups off cuts. He was also capable off the dribble and posting up leading to further easy buckets.

After all, no one scores 19,000 points on just three pointers.

But what made Ellis unique, special, and Hall of Fame worthy was indeed his way of shooting and nailing three-pointers. His expert use of the shot as integral part of his arsenal was truly revolutionary for the NBA.

Let’s just take his aggregates and accuracy step-by-step.

In 1986, Ellis ranked 19th all-time in 3-pointers made (117) despite barely getting off the Mavericks bench. Tellingly he was 3rd in 3PT% at that point with a 37.6% mark.

In 1991 the season he was traded from the Sonics, Ellis in spite of a huge rise in attempts still held firm at 6th in 3PT% (40.0%). And with that huge rise in attempts (and an increase in accuracy) he had vaulted into 2nd all-time in 3-pointers made (625).

By 1996, Ellis had become the first NBA player to make over 1000 threes and had sat atop the all-time 3-point standings for several seasons. In making his 1269 three-pointers to that point Ellis was still raising the bar on his accuracy with a 40.3% clip now.

By the time he retired in 2000, Ellis had been supplanted by Reggie Miller (1867 threes made) atop the leader board, but with his 1719 makes Dale was still in 2nd place and far ahead of the next closest player. And he retired with that 40.3% accuracy in tact.

As the three-point shot has achieved greater prominence, Ellis has fallen further down the board. He’s currently 10th in threes made, but it’s important to note two things:

1) None of the players above him shot the three-ball more accurately than his 40.3% and
2) You gotta go down to #66 on the list (Derek Harper) to find a player who started playing in the NBA mid-1980s like Ellis did.

He was a man of his time, who happened to also point the way to the NBA’s future. Indeed he helped blaze the way for the three-point shooter who could control a game. And if the Hall of Fame is made for anything, it’s certainly made for trail blazers.

Years Played: 1983 – 2000

Seattle SuperSonics
Seattle SuperSonics

Accolades

Most Improved Player (1987)
All-NBA 3rd Team (1989)
All-Star (1989)

Statistics

NBA Career: (1983-84 through 1999-2000)
Peak Career Production: (1986-87 through 1996-97)

Average and Advanced Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 993 136 610 34th
PPG 15.7 12.2 18.4 30th
RPG 3.2 2.6 3.6 200th
APG 6.0 4.4 7.0 9th
SPG 1.07 0.77 1.16 54th
BPG 0.16 0.14 0.17 225th
TS% 0.544 0.525 0.547 68th
2PT% 0.477 0.430 0.482 98th
3PT% 0.331 0.363 0.333 142nd
FT% 0.861 0.847 0.866 15th
PER 19.5 15.9 20.9 21st
WS/48 0.141 0.093 0.158 24th
Ortg 110 106 112
Drtg 108 109 108

Aggregate Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 993 136 610 34th
Minutes 29812 3539 20731 27th
Points 15635 1656 11229 18th
Rebounds 3221 349 2203 112th
Assists 5939 592 4275 6th
Steals 1058 105 710 33rd
Blocks 163 19 105 212th
2PTs 10529 448 3789 18th
3PTs 672 117 374 102nd
FTs 3567 409 2529 17th
WS 87.5 6.9 68.3 20th

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1996-97 through 2005-06

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 1

Regular Season Record: 348-440
Regular Season Win Percentage: 44.1%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 16-21

For the first time in generations, the Celtics were veering into rudderless territory. The untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis derailed any smooth succession plan from the Bird-McHale-Parish core of the 1980s. With barely any worthwhile talent on their roster, Boston couldn’t swindle or fleece another team of their draft picks. Boston therefore decided the quickest road back to contention would come through deliberately losing as many games as possible. The prize, should they win the 1997 Draft Lottery, would be Tim Duncan.

With such a lucrative payoff, the Celtics were full-steam ahead for losing in 1996-97. They didn’t just secure the worst record in the NBA that season, Boston absolutely shattered the franchise record for losses and lowest win percentage. Their 67 losses easily eclipsed the previous record of 50 losses in 1978. The .183 win percentage was an abysmal depth below the previous record of .293 waaaay back in 1950.

The team’s leading scorer and rebounder was rookie forward Antoine Walker. The versatile shimmy machine would be one of the only two players to make a serious impact for Boston during this decade. The other, unfortunately, was not Tim Duncan. Despite the losing, Boston fell to the 3rd slot and watched the San Antonio Spurs dance off with Duncan.

Dejected, Boston selected Chauncey Billups with their pick. The point guard would go on to a superb career, but Boston gave up on him 51 games into the 1997-98 season. Billups was traded, in essence, for veteran Kenny Anderson. That was a curious trade then and now for a team that was clearly years away from any legitimate contention. But for some reason, coach and personnel head Rick Pitino couldn’t discern the true, sorry state of the franchise.

In any event, Boston did finish with 36 wins in the 1997-98 season as Walker became an All-Star. Despite not tanking that season, Boston nonetheless found their second impact player in the 1998 Draft. Paul Pierce fell into their lap at the 10th pic. Suddenly, Boston had some hope for the future.

But over the next two seasons, Boston continued to mire in mediocrity under Pitino. Finally, in an act of mercy, Pitino stepped down as coach a third of the way through the 2000-01 season. Jim O’Brien took over as coach and guided Boston to a 24-24 record during his truncated tenure that season.

By this time, Pierce and Walker formed a  formidably potent one-two duo. Together they averaged 50 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists a game. However, the rest of the roster was atrocious. A lot of players who were decent at their very best.

Yet, somehow, the combined power of Pierce and Walker catapulted Boston to 49 wins in the 2001-02 season. It was their best regular season campaign in a decade. In the playoffs, the achieved success not seen since 1988 by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent was the New Jersey Nets.

The highwater mark of the season  – and of this era – came in Game 3 of the series. Tied 1-1, the Celtics found themselves down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter. From that point forward, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics on his back as Boston scored 41 points in the final period to win the game 94-90. Now up 2-1 in the series, Boston promptly lost the next three games. Considering where they were just a season before, it was a helluva triumph.

The triumph proved paper-thin, however.

Another bone-headed trade earlier that season crippled the Celtics. Promising rookie Joe Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Boston foolishly became enamored with the idea these two players could give them a potent core for immediate contention.

When the dust settled, Delk and Rogers played a grand total of 116 games for Boston and Joe Johnson has famously played in seven all-star games.

Whoops

Ricky Davis celtics

The Celtics steadily declined to 44 wins in 2003 and then 36 wins in 2004. A brief bounce came in 2005 when they won 45 games, but in the 2006 season they fell right back down to 33 wins.

By that time, Paul Pierce was a lonely, lonely man. Walker had been traded just prior to the 2003-04 season to Dallas for a poo-poo platter of flotsam: Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch plus a 2004 1st rounder that became the best part of the deal, Delonte West. The team’s leading players, besides Pierce, in 2006 were Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Mark Blount. Not exactly a murder’s row of talent.

In this rubble were buried some young gems. The aforementioned West, defensive swingman Tony Allen, the scowling Kendrick Perkins, and the offensively gifted Al Jefferson. However, they were young gems and Pierce was 28 years old in the absolute heart of his prime. He averaged 27 points that season and nearly 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game.

How long would he put up with putting up Herculean numbers for a team headed into a clear rebuild? Boston was again at a crossroads similar to where they were a decade before.

At least this time they did have a player of Pierce’s caliber to perhaps trade away and stock up on draft picks. Or maybe they should stick with Pierce and cross their fingers that another star would fall to them in the draft? Better yet, maybe they should repeat the 1996-97 season and deliberately lose in order to improve the odds of winning the lottery.

Whatever the decision, Boston unmistakeably found itself in a malaise heretofore unthinkable to the likes of Auerbach and Russel, Bird and Havlicek.

 

STARTING FIVE

C – Tony Battie (1999-’04) – 336 Games
6.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 51.7% FG, 68.7% FT

F – Paul Pierce (1999-’06) – 605 Games
23.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 44.0% FG, 35.7% 3PT, 79.0% FT

F – Antoine Walker (1996-’03, 2005) – 552 Games
20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 41.3% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 66.2% FT

F – Eric Williams (1996-’04) – 398 Games
9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 42.1% FG, 73.1% FT

G – Kenny Anderson (1997-’02) – 241 Games
11.3 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.5% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT

BENCH

F – Walter McCarty (1997-’05) – 494 Games
5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 39.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 71.1% FT

G – Dana Barros (1996-’00) – 227 Games
9.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.3% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 86.1% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1986-87 through 1995-96

Boston Celtics

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 1
Division Titles: 4

Regular Season Record: 465-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 56.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 7
Playoff Record: 37-40

Fresh off three titles in six seasons, the Boston Celtics looked to further cement their hold as the best franchise in the history of the NBA heading into the 1986 Draft. Even though their 1985-86 team had won an incredible 67 games, the Celtics were perched at the top of the draft with the #2 pick thanks to a bone-headed trade by the Seattle SuperSonics.  With that pick, Boston selected the athletic and supremely-gifted Len Bias.

Sadly, Bias would be dead from a drug overdose within a couple of days and Boston’s long-term success was severely impaired.

As for immediate effects, Boston seemingly showed no signs of trouble. Their Big 3 of Parish, McHale, and Bird continued to hum along. In fact, McHale submitted his best season in 1986-87. Larry Bird had just won the three previous MVP awards. Parish was his usual, highly-reliable self. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge continued to ably man the backcourt.

The problem was the bench. It was razor-thin and old by this point. Scott Wedman lasted just six games. Bill Walton just 10. Other legends like Jerry Sichting, Fred Roberts, and Greg Kite were left as the backups. This is where the absence of Bias truly and immediately felt by Boston.

The Celtics still managed 59 wins in 1987, but in the playoffs they ran up against two remarkably formidable foes. One was a time-honored adversary: the Milwaukee Bucks. These Bucks had swept Boston in 1983 and now in ’87 they pushed Boston to seven games in the semi-finals. Surviving the Game 7 by the hair of their chin (119-113 thanks to a fourth quarter surge) the Celtics moved on to face the Detroit Pistons. Larry Bird’s steal and pass underneath to Dennis Johnson barely gave Boston a Game 5 victory (108-107) and provided a 3-2 series lead. Without that moment, Boston likely would have lost the series. As it stood, they still nearly lost the series. In Game 7, Bird played every minute and dropped 37/9/9 to thwart Detroit 117 to 114.

In the Finals, the Celtics faced the Lakers for the third time in four years. The Lakers, thanks to Magic Johnson’s baby hook in Game 4, secured the series in six games. This proved to be Boston’s last best hope for a title for the next two decades.

Injuries and age began to ravage the Celtics. McHale, who broken his foot in March 1987, delayed surgery until after the season. Playing on the foot gave Boston its shot at another title that season, but definitely altered the rest of McHale’s career. Bone spurs, a bad back, and torn Achilles combined to mar the rest of Bird’s career. In the 1988-89 season, Larry Legend played in just six games.

Naturally, the indestructible Robert Parish chugged along without problem.

To be sure, Boston was still a team to contend with every season, but they were no longer a title contender. Especially after the 1987-88 season. After Bird famously dueled Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the semi-finals, Boston moved on to the ECF to again face Detroit. The Celtics put up a valiant fight as five of the six contests were decided by less than six points, but their depleted bench was too big of a weakness. The Pistons played eight players more than 20 minutes a game, meanwhile Boston only played their starters more than that. Indeed, four of their starters averaged over 40 minutes a game. Hell, four of their starters were over age 30.

In 1989, with Bird sidelined most of the season, Boston discovered a taste of youth within their midst.

Rejuvenation

Reggie Lewis

Reggie Lewis made the most of Bird’s absence. The second-year forward who couldn’t get off the bench his rookie season blossomed with 18.5 PPG in the 1988-89 season. Rookie Brian Shaw also saw an uptick  (8.5 PPG, 6 APG) after Ainge was traded to the Sacramento Kings. The youngsters barely allowed Boston a winning record (42-40) and were cleanly swept by the Pistons in the first round, but Boston was in for a mini-Renaissance in the early 1990s that’s often forgot.

Bird’s return in 1990 pushed Boston back up to 52 wins. The fearsome four Boston trotted out made them a frisky playoff foe for anyone.

Bird – 24 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 7.5 APG
McHale – 21 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2 BPG
Lewis – 17 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3 APG
Parish – 16 PPG, 10 RPG

The problem remained the bench. And with Dennis Johnson gassed on his last legs, the back court was a sieve as well. In the opening round against the New York Knicks, Boston was absolutely stunned by the sequence of events that unfolded.

The Celtics took the first two games of the best-of-five series in convincing fashion: a 116-105 Game 1 victory and an absolute 157-128 beatdown in Game 2. Then the Knicks proceeded to win the next three games to knock Boston out of the playoffs. Patrick Ewing was particularly monstrous in ruining the Celtics with 32 points a game on 57% shooting. In Game 5, Ewing provided the dagger with a desperation turnaround three-pointer.

In 1991, the Celtics finally had a coherent team again with an actual bench. The team stormed out to a 29-4 start, finished the year with 56 wins, and garnered the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, and Ed Pinckney weren’t all-stars nor all-timers but they were decent and good pieces to relieve the strain on Boston’s core. The balance Boston found is exemplified by six players averaging between 14 and 20 PPG that season.

The good fortune didn’t last into the next season as the roster went into flux with trades and injury, but still Boston managed 51 wins.

And here’s the crazy thing: Boston was within easy reach of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals both seasons. They probably would have lost to the Chicago Bulls once there, but that’s better the results we know Boston received.

As it stands, the Celtics lost to the hated Pistons one last time in 1991.  The six-game series ended with a nail-biting 117-113 Detroit victory in overtime in the final game. In 1992, the Celtics were even more heart-broken in a 4-3 series loss to the Cavaliers in the ECSF.

The 1992-93 season was the end of an era for Boston. Bird was now retired. McHale was clearly right behind him as he struggled throughout the year. Even Parish was beginning to crack at the tender age of 39. The continued excellence of Reggie Lewis kept Boston afloat with 48 wins. Shockingly, even he was lost during the playoffs due to a heart condition that ultimately killed him later that summer.

From that horrific moment, Boston truly washed into the tides of despair.

Parish made his official exit after the 1993-94 season as the Celtics won just 32 games. 35 and 33 wins followed in 1995 and 1996, respectively. There was certainly some talent in the rubble: Rick Fox, Dee Brown, and the delightful post player Dino Radja. However, they weren’t enough on their own to reconstruct a dynasty.

Boston had flirted with such miserable points before: the post-Hondo malaise in 1978 and ’79, the brief post-Russell collapse in 1970, the soul-searching 1956 season.

This time was distinctly different, however. Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Bill Russell weren’t walking through the door to relieve Boston of the pain. Their only hope in the new NBA landscape of draft lotteries was to crash, burn, and hope for ping pong balls to bounce in their favor for a #1 pick.

With a superb college center in Tim Duncan soon up for grabs. Boston gutted the roster and hoped for another touch of Celtic Luck.

STARTING FIVE

C -Robert Parish (1986-’94) – 626 Games
15.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 0.7 SPG, 55.8% FG, 73.7% FT

F – Reggie Lewis (1987-’93) – 450 Games
17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 48.8% FG, 82.4% FT

F – Larry Bird (1986-’92) – 336 Games
24.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.5% FG, 38.9% 3PT, 91.6% FT

F – Kevin McHale (1986-’93) – 496 Games
19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 BPG, 56.1% FG, 83.4% FT

G – Dennis Johnson (1986-’90) – 303 Games
10.8 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 43.8% FG, 83.9% FT

BENCH

G – Dee Brown (1990-’96) – 414 Games
12.3 PPG. 4.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 45.2% FG, 33.5% 3PT, 83.3% FT

F/C – Dino Radja (1993-’96) – 199 Games
17.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 50.4% FG, 73.6% FT

F – Kevin Gamble (1988-’94) – 436 Games
11.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 51.8% FG, 81.6% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1976-77 through 1985-86

Boston Celtics

Championships: 3
Conference Titles: 4
Division Titles: 6

Regular Season Record: 539-281
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 18
Playoff Record: 74-42

Capturing two titles in the previous three seasons, while also making every Conference Finals since 1972, the Boston Celtics entered the 1976-77 season on an incredibly high note. However, high notes don’t play on forever.

John Havlicek, at age 36, was somehow still averaging 18/5/5. Jo Jo White submitted one of his best seasons with 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game. Those two venerable Celtics proved to be the only rocks on a team clearly in decline. Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott each missed nearly half the season. The frontcourt of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe didn’t exactly replace the leadership and intelligence of the dearly departed Paul Silas. Add it all up and Boston finished with just 44 wins.

In the playoffs, White provided his final great run for Boston. His 31 PPG dropped the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st Round. In the semi-finals, Boston faced off against old nemesis Philadelphia now led by Julius Erving. Thanks to White’s 40 points in Game 6, Boston forced a Game 7, which they narrowly lost. In due time, the Celtics would engage in numerous battles with Erving’s 76ers. But, in due time.

That series marked the end of Boston’s 1970s squads as any sort of contender. The 1977-78 Celtics won only 32 games in missing the playoffs. The highlight of the season was John Havlicek’s raucous retirement ceremony. With such a crummy team on the court, why not get excited remembering the eight titles Hondo had helped Boston win?

With Havlicek retired, the complete razing of Boston was underway. White was traded midway through the 1978-79 season. Big names with underwhelming game were trotted out: Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight, Dave Bing, Ernie DiGregario, Bob McAdoo, etc. Boston limped to the finish of that season with 29 wins as Cowens became the last player-coach in NBA history.

From this turmoil, Boston – again – was assembling the bits for a new contender. Cedric Maxwell was drafted in 1977 and by his second season averaged 20 and 10 while leading the NBA in FG%. Nate “Tiny” Archibald was acquired cheaply as he recovered from Achilles and foot injuries. And most stealthily, the Celtics exploited a loophole in 1978 to draft Larry Bird.

The loophole? NBA draftees at the time became if they explicitly declared for the draft or automatically four years after their high school class graduated. At least that was Red Auerbach’s argument. Bird was still in college, but due to sitting out a season while transferring schools, he had still reached four years past his HS graduating class.

Boston had to wait until the 1979-80 season to get Bird, but he was worth the wait winning Rookie of the Year.

The lineup of Bird, Cowens, Maxwell, and Archibald stormed to the best record in the NBA with 61 wins. A quick sweep of Houston deceived the Celtics. In the Conference Finals, Dr. J’s 76ers smacked down the Celtics in 5 games. Boston was clearly to be reckoned with once again, but would need a little more seasoning and a little more talent.

The seasoning would naturally come. The talent arrived through one of the great swindles in NBA history. Why write about it when there’s an awesome video breakdown of the silliness…

So, even though Cowens finally retired, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish joining the Celtics fray made them a legitimate title contender for years to come. Indeed, in 1980-81, they again finished with the league’s best record (62-20). However, the Sixers also finished with 62 wins. The showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals produced one of the greatest series ever played.

Game 1 was decided by a single point in favor of Philly. Games 2 and 3 had double-digit victories by each side. Then came the deluge of Maalox moments. Philadelphia won Game 4 and took a 3-1 series lead. Boston won the three next games to amazingly win the series. If you recall, Boston had done the same thing back in 1968 to Philadelphia. For the 1981 edition of this comeback, the final three Boston victories were decided by 5 points total.

The Finals against the 40-win Houston Rockets – who had moved to the Western Conference – proved more difficult than first imagined thanks to the burly Moses Malone. Nonetheless, the Celtics dispatched Houston in six games and claimed their first title since 1976.

In the 1981-82 season, Boston again finished with the league’s best record (63-19) and again faced the 76ers in the Conference Finals. And again the series went seven games. Again in a 3-1 series hole, Boston nearly made up the difference one more time, but the Sixers stopped the rally in a 120-106 Game 7 win in Boston.

The next year, Boston somewhat stumbled to 56 wins and were swept in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. That 1983 season saw the demise of the first incarnation of Bird’s Celtics. Archibald, who had missed half of the 1982 ECF, was just too old and broken down to be effective anymore. Also, coach Bill Fitch with an insanely intense style had worn out his welcome.

With a new coach in KC Jones and some back court help arriving in the form of 2nd-year man Danny Ainge and a trade for Dennis Johnson, Boston looked to regain its championship form in 1984.

New Era, Old Foes

Oh did the Celtics ever regain their mojo.

They finished far and away the best team in the NBA in 1984 with 62 wins. The hated Sixers after winning the title in 1983 finished with just 52 wins and finally seemed no longer a threat to Boston.  Indeed, the Celtics made easy work of the Eastern playoffs. Only the heroics of Bernard King, who single-handedly forced Boston into a 7-game semi-final series, gave them any trouble. But King’s personal exploits couldn’t stymie the Celtics’ great team.

Moving on tot he Finals, Boston faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since 1969. After taking a Game 3 pounding, 137-104, Larry Bird disparaged his team with unflattering remarks. Regrouping and galvanized, they came out in Game 4 in what might be the greatest game ever played.

Famous for Kevin McHale’s clothesline foul of Kurt Rambis, the contest itself stands as a hallmark of pressure-filled playoff basketball. Lakers star Magic Johnson eventually wilted under the pressure as Boston annoyed and intimidated Los Angeles. The Celtics pulled the game out in overtime, 129-125. Eventually going seven games, the Celtics demonstrably handled the Lakers 111-102 in the final game to win another championship thanks to Maxwell’s 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.

Boston looked to repeat as NBA champs in the 1984-85 season. With a sterling 63 wins they looked even better than the year before. A brief tussle with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals did give Boston a taste of a foe who would be more troublesome in the years to come. The Celtics then had their swansong confrontation with the 76ers in the ECF. The Celtics proved far superior defeating Philly 4-1.

The Finals rematch of Celtics-Lakers and Magic-Bird opened with a dramatic 148-114 victory for the Boston. Scott Wedman came off of Boston’s bench and drilled all 11 of his field goals for 26 points. That great omen proved false for the Celtics. Magic and the Lakers proved more resilient than the previous year and wound up winning the series 4-games-to-2 despite lacking home court advantage.

For the 1985-86 season, Boston decided to shake things up. They traded longtime forward and 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Bill Walton. Walton had hardly played over the previous half-decade due to foot injuries, but his passing skills and post presence would push McHale into the starting lineup while making himself the NBA’s premier 6th Man.

The gambit worked and the ’86 Celtics cruised to the NBA title. During the regular season they finished with 67 wins and probably could have won more if they had the desire to. They won 12 of their 13 playoff games in the Eastern Conference. The only bump in the road proved to be the Houston Rockets in the Finals. Their combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson could contend with Boston’s enormous frontcourt, but the Celtics held a decisive edge at guard and it was there that the balance was fully swung. The Celtics celebrated a 4-2 series victory over the Rockets and their third title in six years.

As this latest Celtics decade came to a close, Boston could fondly look back on a spectacular rebuild from the Hondo-Cowens-White Era to the Bird-McHale-Parish Era. The latest Big 3 had not only delivered three titles, but also routinely garnered the NBA’s best regular season record. Amazingly, Boston was in a position to begin rebuilding before their current era of success was even close to being finished.

In 1984, the Celtics had traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for a future first round pick. Well, the pick was due in 1986 and as (Celtic) luck would have it, the Sonics wound up with the #2 overall pick. Boston took possession of that draft pick. On draft night, June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics looked to solidify their NBA hold for the rest of the 1980s and extend the dynasty into the 1990s with the selection of Len Bias.

STARTING FIVE

C -Robert Parish (1980-’86) – 480 Games
18.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 54.6% FG, 72.3% FT

F – Cedric Maxwell (1977-’85) – 607 Games
13.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 55.9% FG, 78.3% FT

F – Larry Bird (1979-’86) – 561 Games
23.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.6% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 86.9% FT

F – Kevin McHale (1980-’86) – 475 Games
16.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 55.3% FG, 75.2% FT

G – Tiny Archibald (1978-’83) – 363 Games
12.5 PPG, 7.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 46.9% FG, 79.0% FT

BENCH

G – Dennis Johnson (1983-’86) – 238 Games
14.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 45.2% FG, 84.1% FT

G – Danny Ainge (1981-’86) – 359Games
9.0 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 49.2% FG, 84.7% FT

C – Dave Cowens (1976-’80) – 261 Games
16.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.9% FG, 81.8% FT

Atlanta Hawks Franchise History: 1976-77 through 1985-86

Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks (sportslogos.net)

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 1

Regular Season Record: 408-412
Regular Season Win Percentage: 49.8%
Playoff Appearances: 7
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 13-22

For their first full decade in Atlanta, the Hawks were apparently the definition of middling. Over the course of these ten seasons they finished virtually at .500… well, .498 to be precise. Four of these seasons saw Atlanta finish with a wins total between 40 and 43 wins, while three were in the 46-50 range and another three between the 31-34 range.

Despite the middle-of-the-road records, the Hawks did sport some exciting talent. Forward John Drew was a force on the offensive glass and one of the NBA’s best scorers. Tree Rollins was a mammoth shot-blocker, while Dan Roundfield slid beside him as an agile defender. Speedy Eddie Johnson created havoc in the backcourt. And in 1982, the Hawks traded Drew to Utah for the draft rights to an even more exciting scoring machine: Dominique Wilkins.

Dominique helped catapult Atlanta to a 50-win season for the 1985-86 campaign. It was Atlanta’s best record since the 1977-78 season when they also finished with 50 wins. Those seasons were equal in regular season wins, but it was the 1978-1979 squad that was Atlanta’s shining beacon. With 46 wins in the regular season, the ’79 Hawks swept the Houston Rockets in the first round and then slogged a 7-game series with the Washington Bullets. Storming back from a 3-1 deficit, the Hawks barely succumbed in the final game, 100 to 94.

It would be another eight years before Atlanta rose to those heights again and it’d be on the back of their high-flying dunker, Dominique Wilkins. To cap off the decade, Wilkins in 1986 became the first Hawks player since Bob Pettit to lead the NBA in scoring.

STARTING FIVE

C – Tree Rollins (1977-’86) – 663 Games
7.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 52.9% FG, 68.7% FT

F – Dan Roundfield (1978-’84) – 435 Games
17.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 49.0% FG, 73.8% FT

F – John Drew (1976-’82) – 440 Games
21.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 47.3% FG, 74.8% FT

F – Dominique Wilkins (1982-’86) – 322 Games
24.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 47.0% FG, 78.2% FT

G – Eddie Johnson (1977-’86) – 619 Games
15.6 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 47.8% FG, 79.3% FT

BENCH

F/C – Steve Hawes (1976-’83) – 451 Games
10.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 48.1% FG, 79.9% FT

C – Tom McMillen (1977-’83) – 416 Games
8.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 48.8% FG, 80.7% FT

G – Doc Rivers (1983-’86) – 203 Games
11.5 PPG, 5.7 APG, 2.9 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 47.1% FG, 72.8% FT

Atlanta Hawks Franchise History: 1986-87 through 1995-96

Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks (sportslogos.net)

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 2

Regular Season Record: 469-351
Regular Season Win Percentage: 57.2%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 4
Playoff Record: 23-35

The most successful decade for the Atlanta Hawks thanks to the dynamics of Dominique Wilkins who was a perennial All-Star for most this period. The 1986-87 season saw the Hawks set a franchise record for wins with 57 and the next season witnessed their classic 7-game showdown with the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, the Hawks’ status as title contenders never quite solidified.

Moses Malone and Reggie Theus were brought in as aging stars to buoy the Hawks. Jon Koncak was given a bloated contract. Kevin Willis exploded for a 15 RPG season. Stacey Augmon’s “Plastic Man” dunks were a nice mix with the Human Highlight Film. But by the early 1990s, it was clear that Nique’s teams had run their course.

Until Lenny Wilkens took over as Hawks coach for the 1993-94 campaign. Sporting a stellar 36-16 record at the All-Star break, the Hawks made the most startling trade in their history. Wilkins was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning. The Hawks continued rolling to a 57-25 record (21-9 post-Nique) tying the club record from 1987. The Indiana Pacers, however, dispatched those Hawks in six games during the EC Semi-Finals and the next year – and final season of this decade – Atlanta regressed to 42 wins.

Still, Atlanta had acquired some valuable pieces for the new regime: Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith. The offseason acquisition of Dikembe Mutombo after the 1995-96 campaign gave the Hawks hope for renewed success in the coming decade.

STARTING FIVE

C – Moses Malone (1988-’91) – 244 Games
16.5 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 48.2% FG, 79.5% FT

F – Dominique Wilkins (1986-’94) – 560 Games
27.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 46.5% FG, 82.8% FT

F – Kevin Willis (1986-’94) – 560 Games
15.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 50.7 % FG, 70.3% FT

G- Doc Rivers (1986-’91) – 365 Games
13.7 PPG, 7.4 APG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 44.9% FG, 81.6% FT

G – Mookie Blaylock (1992-’96) – 322 Games
15.0 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.6 SPG, 41.8% FG, 36.1% 3PT, 73.3% FT

BENCH

G – Spud Webb (1986-’91, 1995’96) – 404 Games
7.6 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 46.2% FG, 84.6% FT

F – Stacey Augmon (1991-’96) – 390 Games
13.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 48.8% FG, 73.9% FT

G – Steve Smith (1994-’96) – 196 Games
17.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 43.0% FG, 83.5% FT

NEXT DECADE (1996-97 through 2005-06)
PREVIOUS DECADE (1976-77 through 1985-96)

The 6’2″-and-Under Champions Club

Napoleon

Life should be grand for Chris Paul. He delivered 22.5 points, 12 assists, and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 51% FG, 75% FT, and 45.5% 3PT in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His regular season saw some injury woes but he’s still likely to make another All-NBA 1st Team, which would be the 4th such selection of his career. Of course the Clippers losing their series against Oklahoma City is dispiriting, but basketball fans can bask in Paul’s great efforts.

Well, some can. Not all.

Roll that beautiful Chris Paul critique footage!

The criticism will start anew after the Clippers playmaker delivered more heartache during his team’s season-ending 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center.

Paul finished with 25 points and 11 assists but will be recalled mostly for the offensive foul with 3 minutes 35 seconds left that probably sealed the Clippers’ fate.

Paul was dejected after the loss and his continued failure to reach the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals:

“It’s not just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”

Well, given the circumstances of the NBA, having a 6’0″ tall player as your leading man rarely means winning a championship. Extending the height to 6’2″, only five NBA franchises have garnered a title with a player that tall reasonably, not unequivocally, considered their best player.

The Rochester Royals 1950-51

The first franchise was the Rochester Royals back in the 1950-51 season. Their best player was Bob Davies, a 6’1″ guard/forward who was one of the first players in the major pro leagues to dribble behind his back. The Royals, however, were a well-balanced machine with Bob Wanzer and especially Arnie Risen contesting best player honors. Indeed during the postseason, the 31-year old Davies had a miserable time averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists on 34% shooting over 14 games. However, Risen and Wanzer rose to the ocassion. Wanzer notched 12.5 PPG, 5 RPG, and 4 APG while shooting 47% FG and 91% FT. Risen was a beast in the post with 19.5 PPG and 14 RPG including a dominating NBA Finals against the Knicks which would have secured a Finals MVP for Risen had it existed then. There was also defensive ace Jack Coleman who threw in 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in the postseason.

Davies may have been the best player, but it was truly a full team effort.

The Boston Celtics 1956-57

The Celtics were the next NBA champ to exhibit a wondrous 6’1″ dribbler as their best player. Bob Cousy was the regular season MVP for the NBA and had appeared in the All-Star Game all seven seasons of  his pro career. The Celtics had also made the postseason every year of his career, but had never made the Finals. Finally, in 1957 Boston won the Finals as Cousy averaged 20 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in the playoffs.

Don’t be too quick to give Cooz all the credit, though. His longtime running mate Bill Sharman averaged 21 PPG. Rookie forward Tommy Heinsohn dropped 23 PPG and 12 RPG. Oh yeah, another rookie – Bill Russell – contributed 14 points and 24 rebounds nightly. Russell would wind up winning MVP the very next season in 1958 quickly supplanting Cousy as the Celtics’ best player.

But in 1957 was Cousy or Russell the better Celtic? It’s debatable. Nonetheless, the point is still standing: a short star needs a some equitable talent.

The Los Angeles Lakers 1971-72

No one can still figure out who was better for the Lakers in 1972: Wilt Chamberlain or Jerry West. The team won 33 straight games on their way to 69 wins in the regular season. They trounced opponents in the playoffs breezing to the title with 12 wins and 3 losses. West and Wilt played vastly different but complementary roles. Wilt cleaned the glass, defended the paint like crazy, and produced highlight dunks here and there. West pestered the perimeter, ran the offense as the point guard, and drained long-range bombs.

Their regular season stats reveal their productive schism.
Wilt – 15 PPG, 19 RPG, 4 APG
West – 26 PPG, 4 RPG, 10 APG

Jerry West, however, played the worst postseason of his career that year. Prior to 1972, he had averaged 31 PPG, 6 APG, and 6 RPG on 48% FG and 81% FT shooting. In 1972 he bottomed out at 23/9/5 – still great for a 33-year old guard – but shot a miserable 37.5% from the field. It was even worse in the Finals where Mr. Clutch put up 20/9/4 on 32.5% shooting. The Big Dipper meanwhile feasted on the Knicks to the tune of 19.5 points and 23 rebounds a game on 60% shooting.

In the end, it’s likely a wash as to who was more instrumental for those Lakers.

The Seattle SuperSonics 1978-79

The champion oft-forgot, the 1979 Sonics were one of the most egalitarian teams to take the title. The youthful trio of Jack Sikma (23 years old), Dennis Johnson (24) and Gus Williams (25) did the heaviest lifting while veterans like Paul Silas, Freddie Brown, and John Johnson capably helped out the young bucks.

The splits of three contenders for Sonics’ best player don’t concretely solve the question, but it gives a tentative answer…

Regular Season

  PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 19.2 3.2 4.0 0.4 2.0 49.5% 77.5%
Jack Sikma 15.6 12.4 3.2 0.8 1.0 46.0% 81.4%
Dennis Johnson 15.9 4.7 3.5 1.2 1.3 43.4% 76.0%

Playoffs

PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 26.7 4.1 3.7 0.6 2.0 47.6% 70.9%
Jack Sikma 14.8 11.7 2.5 1.4 0.9 45.5% 78.7%
Dennis Johnson 20.9 6.1 4.1 1.5 1.6 45.0% 77.1%

On balance, Gus Williams emerges as the premier, but not definitive, candidate for best player on the 1979 Sonics. The 6’2″ guard would lose out on Finals MVP to the 6’4″ Dennis Johnson. Guess that didn’t help settle matters.

The Detroit Pistons 1988-89 and 1989-90

The only time a multiple championship teams were led by a diminutive player. Still in his prime, but maybe a hair past his peak, Isiah Thomas was the linchpin of the Bad Boys Pistons. If ever a team won a title based on gang tactics, it was these Pistons squads. Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley delivered body blows to frustrate opponents. But the real threat to Thomas’s claim to best player on these teams came from his young, stoic backcourt mate: Joe Dumars.

Dumars proved so valuable he snared the 1989 Finals MVP in a sweep over the LA Lakers. Put winning Finals MVP doesn’t automatically catapult you to best player on the team. When it’s all said and done, Isiah was the orchestrator of the Pistons’s assault even if the disparity between himself and his teammates wasn’t the chasm we like to imagine exists between a team’s best player and the secondary pieces.

So what does any of this mean for Chris Paul? Or for any future pipsqueak star?

It means that they can be the best player on a team that wins an NBA title, but the team has to be extremely well-balanced. And even if that short star plays the role of best player, it’ll be hard for contemporaries and future generations to easily discern that.