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.

The MemoraBull, VeneraBull and IncredaBull Luol Deng

photo by Keith Allison (Flickr)
photo by Keith Allison (Flickr)

Ending one longtime era and starting a new, certainly different one, the Bulls traded Luol Deng to the Cavaliers late Monday night for center Andrew Bynum and three draft picks.

The Bulls will waive Bynum before the second half of his $12.3 million contract becomes guaranteed on Tuesday. That move will drop them below the luxury-tax threshold in a season in which they no longer are championship contenders after the loss of Derrick Rose to a knee injury, saving them close to $15 million.

So, Luol Deng is gone from the Windy City. The hustling, defending, never-ending Deng always ready to play 40 minutes a night. And Coach Thibs always willing play him those 40 minutes and more.

Playing so many minutes and doing so for nearly a decade in Chicago has made Deng one of the most venerable Chicago Bulls. Other people will do a better job of describing Deng’s on-court impact, so instead of that, I’ll just toss out some perspective via Deng’s franchise ranks in Chicago.

On-court Time
In terms of minutes, only Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Jerry Sloan have played more minutes in a Bulls uniform than Deng. Unsurprisingly, all three of those players have their jerseys retired by the Bulls. And just behind Deng at #5 on the list is Bob Love, who happens to complete the list of players with jerseys retired by Chicago.

With regard to games played, just Jordan, Pippen, Sloan and John Paxson have suited for more nightly tilts than Luol. Combine the 22,882 minutes played over the course of 637 games and Deng averages 35.9 minutes for each game played as a Bull.

On-court Production
With all that on-court time, Deng obviously will have some significant on-court production. Here are some testaments to his offensive output:

  • Points: 10,286 good enough for 4th all-time
  • Field Goals Made: 3987, 5th all-time
  • Field Goals Attempted: 8675, 5th all-time
  • Free Throws Made: 1925, 8th all-time
  • Free Throws Attempted: 2490, 8th all-time
  • 3-Pointers Made: 387, 7th all-time
  • 3-Pointers Attempted: 1170, 5th all-time

With “hustle” stats Deng also does quite well. He’s got the 5th most steals of any Bull ever with 639 – that puts him behind legendary defenders Jordan, Pippen, and “Stormin’ Norman” Van Lier… and also Kirk Hinrich. Luol also is 8th in total rebounds for the Chicago franchise with 4078.

And all of that production doesn’t measure the kind of defensive acumen and pressure Deng was capable of playing.

Mr. Bull of the 2000s
So, Deng does pretty well all-time in Bulls franchise history but focusing on the period after Michael Jordan retired and the Bulls dynasty collapsed, Luol takes on even greater prominence. Since the 1998-99 season, these are Deng’s ranks in categories:

  • Games – 1st
  • Minutes – 1st
  • Points – 1st
  • Field Goals Made – 1st
  • Free Throws Made – 1st
  • Total Rebounds – 1st
  • Defensive Rebounds – 1st
  • Offensive Rebounds – 2nd
  • Steals – 2nd
  • Assists – 3rd
  • Blocks – 4th
  • 3-Pointers Made – 4th

That’s quite a resume from Deng as he sails on to Cleveland and clearly establishes him as the Mr. Bull of his era. We’ll see in the years to come whether Chicago and NBA fans remember Deng as such.

Complications and Liberations from Race

This article was originally published February 2012 at the height of “Linsanity” and the day after the whole “chink” debacle at ESPN

The grave of Matsunosuke Murakami at the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp  (jvoves via flickr)
The grave of Matsunosuke Murakami at the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp (jvoves via flickr)

When prodded about the possibility that some teams in the young N.B.A. did not want a Japanese-American player so soon after World War II, [Wataru Misaka] has maintained that his demotion had more to do with his modest size.

“I’d like to go back and ask them,” Misaka said the other night, permitting himself that bit of skepticism.

Via “The Old Guard Welcomes the New Guard”

That was the New York Times’ George Vecsey interviewing pioneering player Wataru “Wat” Misaka earlier this week on the Jeremy Lin story sweeping the country.

Misaka was the first non-white or “colored” (I hate that term) person to play in what is now the NBA back in the 1947-48 season. He was from Utah and of Japanese descent. The United States had always been wary and often overtly hostile to Asian immigrants when they began to arrive in the mid-1800s, but the trials of World War II, and the prejudices it allowed to flow freely, were perhaps the darkest times for Japanese-Americans.

Most on the Pacific coast of the United States were rounded up and detained in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Until the war ended in September 1945, this was where the majority of Japanese-Americans lived. Internment camps. No trial, no accusation, just assumption of guilt and complicity with a foreign country many of these people were descended from but had never visited.

(Italian- and German-Americans were also given this treatment but not on the same vast scale as Japanese-Americans).

Amidst this climate of fear and dazed craziness, Misaka’s family was fortunate to escape such harsh treatment. Since they were Japanese-American, they were considered perhaps sympathetic to Japan’s plan to dominate the Pacific, but since  they lived in Utah, they were in no position to supposedly aid the enemy like they would have been had they lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Honolulu.

Wat was able to attend Weber State in Utah during the war. In fact, his connections at the university allowed a friend of his to be transferred from an internment camp in California to the Weber State campus. The university president, at Wat’s request, vouched that the young, interned man would be occupied and not get into mischief. A noble thing for Weber State’s president  to undertake, but think about that for a moment.

A young Japanese man never convicted of, or tried for, anything achieves his freedom only by having a voucher from a white, university president. Sadly, this kind of paternalism was commonplace across the United States and was highly perfected in the southern portion where African-Americans could be arrested on charges of “vagrancy” for not being employed to the satisfaction of white authorities, a practice that dated back to the 1870s. The road to be climbed by minorities in the United States then was a steep one.

And that included basketball.

Wat transferred to the University of Utah becoming a basketball standout. After the war,  Utah won the NIT tournament that was played in the bright lights of New York’s Madison Square Garden. Misaka rode the wave of the tournament victory to a contract to play for the New York Knickerbockers after his graduation. Misaka’s tenure lasted a full 3 games before being cut. In those days, a contract was not guaranteed, largely because the franchise, and even the league, was not guaranteed.

The Basketball Association of America (BAA), was a fledgling operation having only begun in 1946-47. It was largely the brainchild of NHL hockey owners looking to fill the seats in their arenas during off-days (hence the BAA’s initial members being in New York, Boston, Toronto, and other northeastern locales). Hockey had a largely white male, blue-collar clientele and these owners kept that sensibility with their new basketball league, despite the vastly different demographics of basketball.

If Wat’s appearance with the Knicks was shocking, his quick exit wasn’t. At that time and continuing even into the late 1970s, an ethnic minority player of equal caliber (or even slightly superior caliber) would not be kept at the expense of a white player so that fans could “identify” with the team. Examining the stats, Misaka’s play wasn’t that much worse (or better) than your average backup guard in 1947.

To that point, Leo Gottlieb was given 27 games that year to shoot a terrible (even for then) 20% from the field before being jettisoned. Stan Stutz played the entire season with a 21.8% shooting line. Misaka in very limited action shot 23%. But again, being average wasn’t going to cut it for minority players at that time and Misaka departed New York for his home in Utah to work as an engineer after those precious few 3 games.

As the BAA  scraped by in the Northeast, it began to poach the more established National Basketball League (NBL), which was based in the Midwest, for teams and players eventually forcing a merger  in 1949 and thus the NBA was born.

While Japanese-Americans were being detained in California, a few ball clubs in the NBL began employing black players in 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson’s entrance to MLB and nearly a decade before Earl Lloyd debuted as the first black player in the BAA/NBA. The delay was no accident and sprung from the same forces that quickly spun Misaka out the league.

The BAA (and now NBA) owners were deathly afraid of using too many black players, figuring it would alienate fans and lead to the financial ruin of the league.* So, by increments, black players joined, usually as bench players, and guarded another black player when they entered the game.  Finally, Maurice Stokes busted down the doors in 1956 winning Rookie of the Year.

*(The Harlem Globetrotters, in a curious twist, were a hindrance for black players joining the NBA, since the NBA’s owners feared the financial power of Abe Sapperstein’s operation which was easily more popular and recognized than the fledgling league.)

Then came Bill Russell the following season. Then Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and so on. Still, in the early 1960s, there was the assumption among black players that teams had an unspoken quota that only 3 or 4 players per team could be black. When Al Attles, black, was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, Woody Saulsdberry, also black and the 1958 Rookie of the Year, was shipped out almost immediately. The quota was apparently all too real.

Nevertheless, the dye had been cast with Stokes and Russell and we now have an NBA that is overwhelmingly black, and increasingly diverse with ever more foreign players. The silly prejudices of the past have died down, but like hope, it springs eternal.

Jeremy Lin’s ascendancy has brought a fresh new batch of insensitive and careless, if not blatantly racist, comments and actions.

If you spend far too much time on Twitter, like I do, then you have seen terribly insensitive jokes like “MSG in MSG” or Jason Whitlock’s unfortunate tweet. Finally, Floyd Mayweather skipped the jokes and blatantly declared Linsanity was taking hold only because of Lin’s ethnicity. Never mind the mind-boggling points and assists he was putting up for a point guard making his first career starts.

For sure, Asian-Americans are rooting for Lin much like African-Americans rooted for Maurice Stokes or Jackie Robinson back in the 1950s. The cheers aren’t so much for that particular person as it is for what that person’s achievements will mean. Stokes winning the 1956 Rookie of the Year meant black players as a whole were more likely to be judged on their individual merits. Lin’s current play means that future Asian players won’t be readily dismissed or given a half-hearted, cursory look.

Liberation from narrow-minded ideas over what can be successful had begun as coaches and teams went out in search of the next Maurice Stokes. Now they’ll go out in search of the next Jeremy Lin.

But there was no “next Maurice Stokes.” There was a Bill Russell, an Elgin Baylor, and even lesser players like Al Attles ready to contribute at a high level.

And there will be no “next Jeremy Lin.” But his success will help ensure that some Asian-American player in the future won’t be dismissed as Wataru Misaka was in the past.