Born: July 30, 1948 Position: Center, Power Forward Professional Career:
New York Nets (ABA): 1970-1975
San Antonio Spurs (ABA/NBA): 1975-1980; 1983
Houston Rockets (NBA): 1980-1983
Atlanta Hawks (NBA): 1983-1984
Utah Jazz (NBA): 1984-1985
In a 1972 game against the Squires, [Paultz] hit his first eight shots, and finished with 13 field goals in 15 attempts. Rick Barry scored 43 points and John Roche 37 points that same evening. “I get 33 and I’m the third high scorer on the team,” complained Paultz. “Are you kidding me?”
Now there’s an insightful quote into both, Billy Paultz and the ABA. The league was about flash and pizzazz, glitz and glamor. On a night where Paultz goes a-wreckin’ for 33 points on 13-15 shooting, he’s still not the brightest light shining on the court. Nonetheless, Paultz revealed his affable, self-effacing and humble personality in discussing his misfortune. Barry and Roche may have overshadowed him that night, but for someone with no organized basketball experience until his senior year in high school (1966), Paultz was doing quite well for himself.
Drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, Paultz opted for the ABA and was soon traded by Virginia to his hometown New York Nets. What the Nets got was an uncoordinated heap of man that would be nicknamed “The Whopper” for his well apportioned waistline and the hamburger that kept it so.
Nets teammate Rick Barry quipped “I didn’t believe he could possibly make it…” and Jim O’Brien added his two cents: “An ardent surfer, but the way he moved at the outset of his rookie season it was hard to envision him keeping his balance on shore let alone sea.” The off-balance Whopper nonetheless averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during his rookie year.
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
3x Champion (1993-’94, 2008)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2004)
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.
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
2x Champion (1994-’95)
2x Finals MVP (1994-’95)
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)
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
A usually gregarious and affable man, Dikembe Mutombo was as rude a host imaginable in the NBA. He was thoroughly unwelcoming to anyone who would attempt to come into his house. Penetrating guards, sky-walking forwards, and hulking centers were equally dismissed from his abode with disdain. After rejecting these unwelcomed overtures, Mutombo would surely wave a stern finger to make sure such foolishness wasn’t tried again.
Opponents never quite got the message though.
3,289 times Mutombo would officially reject wayward shots that dared enter his domain. Thousands more he intimidated. Four times he’d be recognized as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for his stingy block parties. An irascible few succeeded in storming Dikembe’s paint and, as they claimed, climbed Mount Mutombo. These successful few led the brash many to failure.
Mutombo left this trail of devastation across a path that went from Denver to Atlanta to Philly. From New Jersey to New York to Houston. It spanned 18 years and 1196 games.
The most endearing moment in Mutombo’s career came early on, though. It was during his third season, the 1993-94 season in Denver. His 8th-seed Nuggets upended the Seattle SuperSonics in a first-round upset. Mutombo averaged a gaudy 12.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 6.2 blocks a game. As the Nuggets toppled Seattle, Mount Mutombo crumbled to the floor in ecstasy.
He’d later help Atlanta to become a perennial playoff team. He pushed the Sixers into the realm of title contenders in 2001. He proved a surprisingly effective stopgap for the Rockets late in his career when starter Yao Ming went down to injury. Sadly, Mutombo’s own career ended due to an in-game injury in the 2009 playoffs.
The moment was hard to watch because a man of such intense dignity and impassioned skill was hobbled by a bad knee he could no longer control. Still, no one moment, whether ecstasy in victory or agony of injury, can encapsulate and define a person. It’s the sheer body of work, the routine, that defines a person. Mutombo’s body of work, the routine, proved that his being was pure hall of famer.
Seasons Played: 1992 – 2009
4x Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
3x All-Defensive 1st Team (1997-’98, 2001)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1995, 1999, 2002)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2001), 2x All-NBA 3rd Team (1998, 2002)
8x All-Star (1992, 1995-’98, 2000-’02)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1992)
NBA – 1196 Games
9.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 51.8% FG, 68.4% FT
3x BPG Leader (1994-’96), 2x RPG Leader (2000-’01)
2nd All-Time in Blocks, 7th All-Time in BPG
19th All-Time in Rebounds
Yao Ming’s story is one of titanic possibilities. He was to be the star player to crack open China’s immense market, which would boost the NBA’s profits. The Chinese government viewed as the home grown hero to place China on center stage for international basketball. For the Houston Rockets, Yao was to continue a long line of storied big men to lead Houston to playoff glory. His long train of injuries would curtail the highest hopes of all the parties.
Of course lost amidst all this is Yao Ming himself.
He may never have wholly satisfied all these hopes, but he nonetheless left an indelible mark on the NBA. He wasn’t just the first Chinese basketball player of note in the NBA, he was the NBA’s best center for a solid four-year stretch. Gripes were often made about what Yao didn’t do. His upper body wasn’t strong enough, he didn’t rebound with enough ferocity, he didn’t block enough shots, he never did enough. Somehow people let their own misguided expectations get to their heads.
What Yao Ming did was more than enough. From 2006 to 2009, Yao averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks while shooting 52.4% from the field and 85.8% from the line. He developed a dynamite spin move. His jump shot was feathery. His hook shot unstoppable. I don’t know what else you could reasonably ask for from a center offensively and on the boards. Defensively, his massive body occupied a tremendous amount of space and flustered scores of driving opponents.
Among centers, Yao led them all in PPG during this period. He was 5th in RPG and in BPG. He also led all centers with significant playing time in WS/48 with .204. Dwight Howard was second with .180.
So, Yao was by most definitions the best center of this era, but his injuries limited just how often he could exhibit this domination. The injuries precluded him from ever attaining a rightful 1st Team All-NBA selection. He managed a full season just once (2009) in this period, but even then he succumbed to leg woes in the playoffs.
The amount of time spent on the court is indeed the one thing Yao never had enough of. We were robbed of seeing one of basketball’s greatest and unique centers operate during his prime for an extended period of time. The appearances Yao Ming did make, however, leave no doubt that he is a Hall of Famer through and through.
Seasons Played: 2003 – 2011
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (2007, 2009)
3x All-NBA 3rd Team (2004, 2006, 2008)
8x All-Star (2003-’09, 2011)
NBA – 486 Games
19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.9 BPG, 52.4% FG, 83.3% FT
39th All-Time FG%
As the 1980s dawned in the NBA, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are credited with revitalizing the league. This assertion, while surely true in many regards, obscures who the most dominant player in the NBA was when those two rookies debuted.
Moses Malone was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 1979, 1982, and 1983. He led the 40-42 Houston Rockets (a roster with many fine players but no all-stars besides Malone) all the way to the NBA Finals in 1981. He nearly made good on his Fo-Fo-Fo promise in 1983 to sweep the postseason as the Sixers lost just one game en route to the title.
During this five year stretch (1979-’83), Malone led the league in win shares, minutes played and total rebounds grabbed. With defensive rebounds, Jack Sikma edged Malone by 60 rebounds for the period. With offensive rebounds, Malone nearly doubled up second-place Dan Roundfield for the lead with 2637 offensive boards to 1336. Only George Gervin scored more points than Moses.
Those last two facets, prodigious offensive rebounding and torrential scoring, went hand-in-hand. Malone is legendary for his ability to work the angles and predict the trajectory of missed shots. He’d sneak in from out of bounds to snare the put-back opportunities. His strength easily moved opponents from prime real estate in the paint. His physicality was immense as it seemed the more you bumped him the stronger he became.
Malone also had some of the most dexterous hands a center has ever possessed. When he got his hands on the ball, it was in his hands to stay until he decided to release it. On top of all this Malone could also knock down the face-up jumper from 15-feet out and could nail short turnarounds with ease.
1979 to 1983 was the Age of Moses, but Malone, along with Robert Parish, played the longest career in pro basketball history. His rookie season was in 1974-75 with the ABA’s Utah Stars where he was immediately an all-star and a raw bona fide talent. He proceeded to bounce around as teams struggled to truly comprehend his biblical abilities. The Stars disbanded, the Spirits of St. Louis folded with the ABA, the Portland Trail Blazers had a glut of big men, the Buffalo Braves were just plain incompetent. Finally the Rockets gave Moses a durable home where he came to dominate the NBA.
He maintained that domination, or something close to it, through 1989. Moses had signed with the 76ers prior to the 1982-83 season and delivered them their long-awaited title that year. Philadelphia, though, fell victim to the trap Moses’ earlier stops had. They gave up too soon on the MVP center at age 30 in 1986 and traded him to the Washington Bullets. He wound up being an all-star through the end of the decade with the Bullets and Atlanta Hawks.
When he finally retired in 1995, Moses had played for 9 different franchises. He was the last player from the ABA to hang up his sneakers. Above all else, he was a basketball survivor no matter how often he was unceremoniously put out into the hardwood Sinai.
Seasons Played: 1975 – 1995
All-Rookie 1st Team (1975)
Final MVP (1983)
3x MVP (1979, 1982-’83)
4x All-NBA 1st Team (1979, 1982-’83, 1985)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1980-’81, 1984, 1987)
All-Defensive 1st Team (1983)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1979)
12x All-Star (1978-’89)
ABA – 126 Games
17.2 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 55.2% FG, 62.9% FT
NBA – 1329 Games
20.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG, 49.1% FG, 76.9% FT
6x RPG Leader (1979, 1981-’85)
1st All-Time Offensive Rebounds, 6th All-Time Defensive Rebounds, 5th All-Time Total Rebounds
7th All-Time Points, 2nd All-Time FTs Made, 16th All-Time FGs Made
10th All-Time Games Played, 13th All-Time Minutes Played
23rd All-Time Blocks
15th All-Time RPG