Pro Hoops History HOF: Sam Cassell

Sam Cassell

Sam Cassell enjoyed a lengthy career as an NBA point guard, but only after an arduous college basketball journey. At age 20, he began playing junior college ball with San Jacinto College outside Houston. Then, at age 22, he transferred to Florida State. After two successful seasons there, Cassell was finally drafted into the NBA at age 24.

And nearly everywhere he went in the NBA, Cassell catalyzed improvement for his teams.

Selected by the Houston Rockets, the geriatric rookie immediately made a huge impact for the Rockets. No one doubts Hakeem Olajuwon was the primary fuel for the Rockets that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, but Cassell’s role as backup point guard and big game performer helped pull Houston out of some tough fixes. In the 1994 Finals, Cassell hit a huge three-pointer in the final moments to win Game 3. He finished that game with 15 points on 4-6 shooting. Not bad for a rookie who averaged 7 points in the regular season. In the 1995 Finals, Cassell exploded for 31 points on 12 shots leading Houston to a 2-0 series lead over the Magic.

These huge playoff performances paid dividends for Cassell. By his third season, 1995-96, he was averaging 14.5 points and 5 assists per game off of Houston’s bench. Following that season, however, Cassell was traded to the Phoenix Suns and thus began his wandering days.

Over the next three seasons, Sam played for the Suns, Nets, and Mavericks before finally settling in Milwaukee. Not that he wasn’t productive. Cassell averaged 18 points and 6.5 assists in this span, but no club seemed to truly appreciate what he offered. The Nets were particularly foolish. They made their lone postseason between 1994 and 2002 while improving from 26 to 43 wins in their one full season with Cassell.

With the Bucks, though, Cassell found a home and exploited his talents to the max. His biggest assets, oddly for a point guard, were his abilities to post-up and generate lots of free throws. Milwaukee lacked a power forward or center capable of scoring, so Cassell’s production of 19 points and 7 assists per game while making 87% of his free throws was sorely needed. In 2001, teaming with Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, Cassell’s Bucks narrowly missed out on the NBA Finals losing to the 76ers in a tough 7-game series.

Ever the wanderer, though, Cassell’s time in Milwaukee finished in 2003. Still, Cassell had a couple of curtain calls left.

The Timberwolves in 2004 enjoyed their best season in franchise history after Cassell’s acquisition. Indeed, it was a career year for Cassell who finally made the All-Star Team and was named to the All-NBA 2nd Team at the tender age of 34. With Kevin Garnett as league MVP and Cassell riding shotgun Minnesota made the Western Conference Finals. An unfortunate back injury to Sam kept the Wolves from mounting a full challenge to the Lakers, though, and they lost the series in six games.

In 2006, after an injury-plagued 2005 season, Cassell helped lift the Los Angeles Clippers from their wretched depths. Yes, the Clippers, a franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1976 as the Buffalo Braves. Cassell’s savvy, leadership, and still potent skills mixed beautifully with another superb power forward (Elton Brand) as the Clippers won 47 games. In the playoffs, Sam’s Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Semi-Finals where they lost to the Suns in seven games. From that point on, Cassell was severely limited by injuries, but managed to snag a final NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.

With his ebullient energy, pull-up jumpers, fearless forays to the rim, and confidence Cassell improved every team he appeared with. The Rockets, Nets, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Clippers were all demonstrably better with the services of Cassell. Even if those teams’ appreciation for Cassell usually proved very short-lived, that kind of track record is no accident, but proof of his prowess. In a career that was anything but short-lived, you can see that prowess almost from the get-go.

Years Played: 1993 – 2008

Accolades

3x Champion (1993-’94, 2008)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2004)
All-Star (2004

Statistics

NBA Career: (1993-94 through 2007-08)
Peak Career Production: (1997-98 through 2005-06)

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

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)

Atlanta Hawks Franchise History: 1996-97 through 2005-06

Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks (sportslogos.net)

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 0

Regular Season Record: 325-463
Regular Season Win Percentage: 41.2%
Playoff Appearances: 3
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 8-15

This was a miserable decade in Hawks’ history. They only had three winning seasons and they were all frontloaded in 1997, 1998 and 1999. During this three-year stretch, the Hawks won 64% of their games. Naturally, the selections for this decade’s players are also frontloaded in this period. Dikembe Mutombo was brightest spot for the Hawks nabbing back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1997 and 1998. After being swept by the New York Knicks in the 2nd Round of the 1999 playoffs, the aging Hawks were blown up and Lenny Wilkens left as coach in 2000.

From 2000 till 2006, Atlanta mustered a pathetic winning percentage of .328, bottoming out in 2005 with just 13 wins. From that point on, Mike Woodson would slowly rebuild the Hawks into a frisky playoff team during their next decade.

PREVIOUS DECADE
1986-87 through 1995-96

STARTING FIVE

C – Dikembe Mutombo – 343 Games
11.9 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 3.2 BPG, 52.9% FG, 69.2% FT

F – Christian Laettner – 156 Games
16.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 48.5% FG, 83.8% FT

F – Shareef Abdur-Rahim – 211 Games
20.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 47.3% FG, 83.5% FT

G- Steve Smith – 181 Games
19.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 43% FG, 85.1% FT

G – Mookie Blaylock – 196 Games
14.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.5 SPG, 40.6% FG, 73.9% FT

BENCH

Jason Terry - 403 Games
16.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 45.5% FG, 36.7% 3PT, 84.5% FT

Alan Henderson - 406 Games
10.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 46.4% FG, 64.8% FT

Tyrone Corbin – 196 Games
9.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 42.3% FG, 75.6% FT

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.

Forever In His Prime

The following article was contributed by Sean Sylver. Sean is a writer, hoops fan and avid gardener who considers himself a Sikma-like presence in the paint. He lives in Boston, MA. You can follow him on Twitter at @sylverfox25.

Reggie LewisOn a chilly spring night in April 1993, the wood-paneled Magnavox console TV, its clunky dial tuned to TNT, beamed Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs between the Celtics and Hornets into our living room. I remember the lush green of the Boston Garden parquet floor, the bold teal of the Charlotte road uniforms as they took the court for their first ever playoff appearance, the excitement as my dad and I wondered if the Celtics could withstand the younger and more physical Hornets, led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

Our hopes no longer rested with Parish and McHale. Two-thirds of the Big Three were still intact, but they could hardly keep pace with LJ and Zo. The ‘93 Celtics were Reggie Lewis’ team. The lanky sixth-year swingman got off to a hot start, frustrating Kendall Gill with smooth dribble drives and pull-up jumpers. He used his lightning quick hands and feet to stifle the opposition and his length to haul down rebounds.  But with 6:26 left in the first quarter, Lewis suddenly dropped from the TV screen. The Celtics were playing four-on-five.

Where was Reggie?

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Pro Hoops History HOF: Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Spin Cycle

Befitting a man of a thousand moves, Hakeem Olajuwon has no definitive image, but definitive motions. The nimble footwork he picked up as a soccer player paid enormous dividends on the basketball court. He had a fluidity that defied any attempt to capture it in any single position. Hakeem was always fleeting, like a Dream, across the court and in the post.

Olajuwon could swat any shot, steal any dribble, nail any jumper inside 20 feet, create any move inside 10 feet, escape any double team or trap, he was simply super human on the court.

Ok, well maybe he couldn’t do anything he wanted, but it sure seemed like it. Just let the following box scores course throw your basketball veins…

March 10, 1987: 38 points, 17 rebounds, 12 blocks, 7 steals, 6 assists
May 14, 1987, Game 6 of the WC semi-finals: 49 points, 25 rebounds, 6 blocks
WC 1st Round, 1988: 37.5 PPG, 16.8 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 57.1% FG, 88.4% FT
March 3, 1990: 29 points, 18 rebounds, 11 blocks, 9 assists, 5 steals
March 29, 1990: 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks, 10 assists
May 8, 1993, decisive Game 5 of WC 1st Round Series: 31 points, 21 rebounds, 7 blocks, 3 steals, 3 assists
May 21, 1994, Game 7 WC semi-finals: 37 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks
The entire 1995 NBA Playoffs: 33 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 53.1% FG

And that’s just the really impressive games. There are other ones like this February 1992 effort that only had Olajuwon going for 33 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals and 4 blocks.

For such a stunning player, however, Hakeem Olajuwon’s career wasn’t entirely steady. That motion that coursed through his on-court play seemed to also create numerous peaks and collapses.

Twin Towers

The early model of the Dream was a part of the Twin Towers experiment that proved enormously successful. Hakeem and Ralph Sampson bum rushed the defending champion Lakers and pushed the Rockets to the NBA Finals where they won two games from the 1986 Celtics. That’s Celtic team is one many consider the greatest of all-time and these upstart Rockets were their toughest opponent that postseason. But by the very next year those Rockets fell apart amidst cocaine and injuries.

Hakeem 2.0 was probably the Olajuwon at his absolute peak as a physical specimen. This Olajuwon was at his zenith in 1990 when he led the league in blocks and rebounds. He was also in the midst of a run of four straight seasons averaging over 2 blocks and 2 steals per game. He was the first player to do that for a single season, let alone four. Since then only David Robinson and Gerald Wallace have accomplished the task, but they each did so once. The Rockets in this stretch were a mediocre, hollowed out team kept barely at .500 by Olajuwon’s brilliance.

Hakeem 3.0 was the nadir of Olajuwon’s career. It had been years since the Rockets had won a playoff series with the Dream. The Finals of 1986 were a pure fantasy to remember in 1992. The Rockets missed the playoffs and there were rumblings a disgruntled Olajuwon would be traded. However, in this dark shone through two tiny lights: a) Olajuwon began to take seriously his Islamic faith thus creating solemn confidence that would wreak havoc on the NBA in the following years and b) Rudy Tomjanovich took over as Rockets coach.

Hakeem 4.0 was the apex of Olajuwon’s career. Rudy T created an offense of sharp-shooters to work off of Olajuwon’s dramatic post play. The Rockets lost in the Western Semi-Finals to Seattle in 7 games that season (1993), but it was merely a growing pain for the Rockets rebirth. Hakeem finished 2nd in MVP voting that year and the next season he would capture the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year Award, and the Finals MVP along with the NBA title. He remains the only player to secure all three of those individual awards in the same season. In 1995 Olajuwon again repeated as Finals MVP as he led a sixth-seeded Rockets team with no home-court advantage through four opponents who had 50+ wins. They remain the only the NBA champion to run such a gauntlet.

Finally, there was Hakeem 5.0. The living legend who came close to another Finals appearance in 1997 with Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler. After averaging a career-high 28 points per game at age 32, and still averaging 19 a game at age 36, Olajuwon succumbed to Father Time’s whims in 2001 at age 39. He was still better than the average center, but being better than average was not the standard set by Olajuwon.

He retired as the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks. He was the only man to sit in the top 10 all-time for points, blocks, and steals. He retired 11th all-time in rebounds. Currently, he’s still the only player in the top 10 for points, blocks, and steals all-time. Among all NBA players from 1984-85 through 2001-02, Olajuwon was 1st in blocks, 2nd in rebounds, 3rd in points, and 4th in steals.

He was a model of versatility, a paragon of unimpeachable post movement. When Hakeem had it going, which was quite often, you could only dream of stopping him.

Years Played: 1984 – 2002

Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets

Accolades

NBA -
2x Champion (1994-’95)
2x Finals MVP (1994-’95)
MVP (1995)
2x Defensive Player of the Year (1993-’94)
6x All-NBA 1st Team (1987-’89, 1993-’94, 1997)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1986, 1990, 1996)
3x All-NBA 3rd Team (1991, 1995, 1999)
6x All-Defensive 1st Team (1987-’90, 1993-’94)
4x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1985, 1991, 1996-’97)
12x All-Star (1985-’90, 1992-’97)
All-Rookie Team (1985)

Statistics

NBA - 1238 Games
21.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 3.1 BPG, 2.5 APG, 1.7 SPG, 51.2% FG, 71.2% FT
2x RPG Leader (1989-’90), 3x BPG Leader (1990-’91, 1993)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1984-85 through 2001-02 season)
1st Blocks, 3rd BPG
2nd Rebounds, 6th RPG
3rd Points, 11th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 20th FG%
6th FTs Made
4th Steals, 15th SPG
8th Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Joe Dumars

Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars

Joe Dumars was never one to awe with the freakishly spectacular.

He stood 6’3″, had a matter-of-fact mustache, and a workman-like attitude. About the flashiest thing he ever did on a basketball court was hit silly bank shots and toss scoop-handed alley oops to players capable of reverse dunks like Grant Hill.

Dumars instead “awed” with a relentless, stubborn defense that was solid like a rock. Routinely giving up inches and pounds to other shooting guards, Dumars nonetheless held the advantage when it came to determination. Perhaps you would get the best of Joe, but it wasn’t going to be because he gave a flimsy effort.

And on offense, Dumars could knock out opponents with his exquisite jump shot. By the end of his career he had become one of the more ruthless three-point shooters in the NBA. He occasionally scored more than 25 points in a game, but if you slept on him, or if the motion hit his ocean, he’d unleash a deluge.

That fact was exemplified in the 1989 NBA Finals when Joe Dumars erupted for 27 points on 57.6% FG and 86.8%FT shooting against the Los Angeles Lakers. The scorching performance earned him Finals MVP honors and propelled him to NBA stardom. He’d make six All-Star Teams and five All-Defensive squads over the ensuing decade.

Although a fierce competitor – and being a member of the notorious Bad Boy Pistons-  Dumars had the respect of opponents. In fact, the recipient of the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award currently receives the Joe Dumars Trophy. How’s that for leaving behind a bland legacy?

So, perhaps the flashiest thing about Joe Dumars was his celestial last name, but his earth-bound game was inspired and surely Hall of Fame.

Years Played: 1985 – 1999

Detroit Pistons
Detroit Pistons

Accolades

NBA -
2x Champion (1989-’90)
Finals MVP (1989)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1989-’90, 1992-’93)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1991)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1993)
2x All-NBA 3rd Team (1990-’91)
6x All-Star (1990-’93, 1995, 1997)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1986)

Statistics

NBA - 1018 Games
16.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 2.2 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 46.0% FG, 38.2% 3PT, 84.3% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1985-86 through 1998-99 season)
13th Points, 14th FGs Made
12th 3PTs Made, 16th 3PT%
19th FTs Made, 20th FT%
19th Assists, 33rd APG
11th Games Played, 7th Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Grant Hill

Grant Hill
Grant Hill

What Grant Hill’s career could have been is something of joyful imagination mixed with sorrowful reality. The prodigious talent was mixed with demoralizing foot injuries, the endless rehabs, the near-fatal staph infection he suffered… it’s all enough to dash the fantastic dreams we had of Grant Hill leading the Detroit Pistons or the Orlando Magic to potential title glory.

It surely was enough to dash what should have been the middle portion of Hill’s career.

From the 2000-01 season to the 2005-06 season, Hill played in just 135 of 492 potential games. And half of those 135 came in the 2004-05 season. He also missed all of the 2003-04 season. His sojourn in Orlando was just rife with pain. But taking a step back from the sorrow, we do realize that Hill’s career was its own brand of magnificent.

He was co-Rookie of the Year in 1995 for the Detroit Pistons. In just his second season, he was approaching triple-double territory with regularity averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. He kept up a similar pace through the 2000 season. This era was undoubtedly the apex of Grant Hill. Amongst all NBA players of this era, Hill ranked 9th in PPG, 15th in APG, and 24th in RPG fully displaying his versatility.

But his final games for Detroit were played on an injured ankle that should have been rested. Hill’s impending free agency, however, cast an unfair pall. If Hill wisely sat out the playoffs to heal his ankle, accusations would have arisen claiming he was unfairly putting himself above his team. Yet another selfish millionaire athlete. If he played, he’d be a “team player”, but he’d put his health in jeopardy. Which is exactly what happened. To keep alive the season for a middling Pistons squad, Hill practically sacrificed five years of his career.

After finally emerging fully healthy in 2006, Hill enjoyed a surprising rejuvenation. Over the next five years – one with Orlando, the rest with Phoenix – Hill would average a respectable 13 points and 5 rebounds. Clearly, not what he once was, but after what he had experienced, these twilight years were glorious for Hill.

Only three other players (Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Larry Bird) had replicated Hill’s 1996 season of 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. But his season at age 38 in 2011 was nearly as remarkable. His 13 PPG that season was the 11th highest ever for a player that age or older. And he did it shooting nearly 40% from three-point range, quite the change from his early days. Nearly 20 years before, Hill happened to have the world’s best spin-cycle on his drives going to the hoop… but he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from downtown.

Nonetheless, he did what he had to do as time went on to remain an effective basketball player. Truthfully, he did what he had to do just to simply remain any kind of basketball player. He easily could have given up at any number of points without any complaints. But his perseverance is astounding.

Don’t sleep on Grant Hill’s actual talents, though. Few small forwards ever handled the ball like Hill. Few have ever passed like Hill. Few have ever encapsulated so many grand qualities with such grace like Hill. He’s a Hall of Famer and an astounding one at that.

Years Played: 1994 – 2013

Accolades

NBA -
Rookie of the Year (1995)
All-NBA 1st Team (1997)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1996, 1998-2000)
7x All-Star (1995-’98, 2000-’01, 2005)

Statistics

NBA - 1026 Games
16.7 PPG,6.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 48.3% FG, 76.9% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1994-95 through 2012-13 season)
20th Points, 16th FTs Made
22nd FGs Made, 32nd FG%
20th Assists, 29th APG
18th Steals, 32nd SPG
36th Rebounds
22nd Games Played, 20th Minutes Played