Born: November 14, 1955 Position: Center Professional Career:
Seattle SuperSonics (NBA): 1977-’86
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1986-’91
Four years ago someone asked the Sonics’ then-general manager, Zollie Volchok, if he would consider trading Sikma for Moses Malone. “I wouldn’t trade Jack Sikma for the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe in my bedroom,” was Volchok’s reply, and the feeling was that he spoke for a majority of the bedrooms in Seattle.
You can say this about lots of players, but Jack Sikma’s NBA career truly was an improbable success story. He played college ball at Illinois Wesleyan, a small university in the NAIA garnering very little attention nationwide. However, he did catch the eye of Seattle Supersonics executive Lenny Wilkens. Much to the disbelief, chagrin and jeers of Sonics fans, Sikma was selected 8th overall in the 1977 draft. By the time he was traded to Milwaukee nearly a decade later, Sikma had become a cherished idol of Sonics fans with his rock steady play.
Sikma’s game was a curious blend of power and finesse. Until his senior year in high school, he played guard. However, his height exploded to 6’10” shifting him to the post. Barely able to hop over a phonebook and still figuring out his own dimensions and abilities in his new body, Sikma routinely had his shot blocked by opponents. As he recalled it, “I had SPALDING written across my forehead a few times.”
Born: February 8, 1956 Position: Small Forward Professional Career:
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1977-84
Los Angeles Clippers (NBA): 1984-86
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1989
The Lowdown: Quick and mobile, Marques Johnson was a handful for opposing forwards. Fewer small forwards crashed the offensive board as well as Marques. His mid-range jumper was just about automatic. And when trapped or pinned down, he had a way of whipping the ball out of trouble and to open teammates. His perennial 20-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist average spoke to his all-around skill. A terrible injury in 1986 cut his career short, but for nine seasons he plied his way as one of the league’s foremost forwards.
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)
A quick look at Ricky Pierce’s career ledger reveals some underwhelming statistics.
Out of 969 career games, Pierce started just 269 of them. In only two seasons of his 16-year career did he start a majority of games for his teams. Only twice did he play over 30 minutes per game for an entire season. Seems like teams were afraid to use Ricky, right?
Ricky Pierce is one of those great players who backs up arguments for substance over volume and quality over quantity. The swingman was hardly ever a starter, but was always instrumental in the success of his teams. He didn’t play a heavy load of minutes, but produced an instantaneous deluge of points.
The most striking thing about Pierce’s attack was just how much of it came on exquisite jump shots. He could come in off the bench cold and be instantly hot. Vinnie Johnson may have got the nickname, but Pierce was even more of a microwave. Johnson averaged 17.5 points per 36 minutes in his career, Pierce averaged 22.0. Indeed, from 1984 to 1997, Pierce possessed the 14th highest points per 36 minutes average. All of the players ahead of him were full-time starters.
Ricky just came in and knocked down the jumpers flawlessly and he was able to break down defenses off the dribble. Shooting just a shade under 50% for his career from the field, Pierce was also unstoppable at the line. From the charity stripe he nailed 88% of his shots.
His best years came with the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics. In 1990 with the Bucks, he averaged 23 points per game in just 29 minutes. The next year, split between Milwaukee and Seattle, Pierce averaged 20.5 points in 28 minutes. This made him the first and only player ever to log 20+ points in less than 30 minutes a game in back-to-back seasons. In fact, just Clyde Lovellette has done that during any two seasons. In further fact, just five other players have done that in a single season. And none have done it since Pierce in 1991.
In 1987 and 1990 he was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. In 1991, he was an all-star. In 1989, he enjoyed his finest playoff moments against the Atlanta Hawks and the Detroit Pistons. The whole postseason was remarkable, however, one game against Atlanta steals the show. It was Game 3 of the 1st Round and Pierce ignited for 35 points in 32 minutes. He was nearly perfect going 13-for-17 from the field, including 2 of 2 from downtown, and 7-for-7 from the free throw line.
One of the best performances from one of the best scorers to ever play basketball. As usual, though, words can only do so much. Just watch the smooth shooting Pierce score a silky 38 points to truly appreciate his game…
Years Played: 1982 – 1998
2x Sixth Man of the Year (1987, 1990)
NBA Career: 1982-83 through 1997-98
Peak Career Production: 1986-87 through 1992-93
Sidney Moncrief is one of the great “what-if” players in basketball history. He only played six seasons totally healthy as a starter. He spent one season as a reserve and spent four more oft-injured. When he was on the court, his Milwaukee Bucks never won, let alone appeared in, an NBA Finals. His total career points top out at a shade below 12,000. As a supposed top-notch defender he never achieved more than 140 steals in a season and finished his career below 1000 total steals.
Despite all that, Sidney Moncrief also happens happens to be one of the great “what he did” players in basketball history because what he did was simply spectacular. His Bucks coach Don Nelson summed up Moncrief as a player who wouldn’t do one thing to achieve victory, he’d do everything.
During his heyday, Sid the Squid averaged 20+ points for five straight seasons. Although 6’3″ tall, he would slide from point guard to shooting guard to small forward in Nelson’s helter skelter small ball lineups. No matter what offensive role he took on, Moncrief would usually garner the opponent’s toughest offensive assignment all night, so long as it wasn’t a power forward or center. He could leave that to Bob Lanier.
It seemed that everything else indeed fell on Sid. He could dunk with authority or smoothly swish a jumper. He was a superb passer. He was a great rebounder for his position and size (twice averaging 6.7 RPG for a season). He nailed his free throws all day, every day with an 83% average for his career. And he got there regularly with five straight seasons of 7+ FT attempts per game.
From 1982 to 1986, Moncrief was twice named Defensive Player of the Year, was a perennial All-Star and All-NBA team member, and his Bucks may not have won, or even appeared in, an NBA Finals, but they were an amazing success nonetheless. From 1980 to 1986, the Bucks captured their division’s regular season crown every year. They always appeared in at least the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, and three times went to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ultimately, though, Moncrief’s career never reached its fullest potential. What could have been if his knees had never suffered from chronic injury, we’ll never know. But what he did leaves no doubt that he’s a certified true hall of famer.
Years Played: 1979 – 1991
2x Defensive Player of the Year (1983-’84)
All-NBA 1st Team (1983)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1983-’86)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1982, 1984-’86)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1982)
5x All-Star (1982-’86)
NBA Career (1979-80 through 1990-91)
Peak Career Production (1980-81 through 1985-86)
The best way to describe Oscar Robertson’s playing style is inexorable.
Inexorably he would wear down and beat up opposing guards with his sheer size. Standing 6’5″ tall and weighing a good 220 lbs, Oscar was easily the biggest point guard the NBA had yet seen. He was certainly the most physically imposing one too. Other guards simply couldn’t handle the Big O as he backed them down for easy post shots.
Inexorably he tore up the entire opponent, not just his own defender. His passing was pinpoint accurate. Seven times Robertson led the NBA in assists per game. He could rebound with the big boys, too, averaging 10.4 rebounds over his first five seasons. His assists per game over the first five seasons? 10.6. And he was of course delivering 30 points a night.
Yep, the Big O averaged a triple double over the course of his first five seasons.
Inexorably, though, team success was rough to come by for Robertson. He surely had great teammates with the Cincinnati Royals like Jack Twyman, Bob Boozer, Wayne Embry, and Jerry Lucas over the years, but the team never quite coalesced into a serial title contender. By 1968, Robertson led the NBA in PPG and APG in the same season, but the Royals finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs.
Two more losing seasons followed and Oscar seemed doomed to his career ending in a whimper. Luckily for him, though, a trade to Milwaukee in 1970 rejuvenated his career. Playing alongside the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the quicksilver Bob Dandridge, Oscar finally achieved titanic team success. In Oscar’s first season with the Bucks, Milwaukee finished with a 66-16 regular season record and smoked the postseason. They endured just two losses en route to the title. Another Finals appearance came in 1974, but the Boston Celtics thwarted the Bucks in seven games.
By that point Oscar had inexorably come to the end of the line. He was stomped, beat, and whooped up. There was nothing left in the Big O’s tank. But for so many years he had made opponents feel that kind of exhaustion and desperation. Off the court, Oscar amazingly had an even bigger impact by helping to create vibrant players union and instigating free agency. But that’s a story for another day. For now Oscar’s on-court game is more than enough to seal a place forever in this or any basketball Hall of Fame.
Years Played: 1960 – 1974
NBA – Champion (1971)
Rookie of the Year (1961)
9x All-NBA 1st Team (1961-’69)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1970-’71)
3x All-Star Game MVP (1961, 1964, 1969)
12x All-Star (1961-’72)
NBA – 1040 Games
25.7 PPG, 9.5 APG, 7.5 RPG, 48.5% FG, 83.8% FT
7x APG Leader (1961-’62, 1964-’66, 1968-’69)
2x FT% Leader (1964, 1968), PPG Leader (1968)
For someone who accomplished so much for so long, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can rightfully make the claim to being the best player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Personally, I’m not in the business of trying to suss out such arguments, but if someone picked Kareem how could you doubt them?
His career ran a remarkable 20 years, which only a handful of players have approached, especially prior to the 2010s. It took Kareem until his 39th year on this earth, his 18th in the NBA, to finally dip below 20 PPG. The only time he shot below 50% from the field was in his final season. At age 37 he spearheaded the Los Angeles Lakers to the title and captured a Finals MVP in the process.
In his younger days, he teamed with Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge to deliver the Milwaukee Bucks a title in 1971 and a rollicking 66-wins in that regular season. During his six seasons in Wisconsin, Kareem averaged an astounding 30 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3.5 blocks a game on his way to three MVP awards.
Even after a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, which left the Lakers gutted, Kareem kept up the assault. The Lakers “stumbled” to a 40-42 record during this first season (1976), but Jabbar was a one man wrecking crew with 28 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks per game that season on his way to yet another MVP. These 1970s years were Kareem at his absolute finest but given the lack of exposure the NBA had in general, and Kareem’s sometimes aloof personality, they aren’t as easily relived and beloved as other NBA stars and eras have been.
And his signature move was an unstoppable shot dropped in from the heavens. The skyhook was a foregone conclusion. It operated with ceaseless predictability and effectiveness. Its perfection became mundane.
Then came Showtime in the 1980s.
The highlight clips we most often receive of Kareem came in this era and Magic Johnson’s bubbly personality allowed the public some belated appreciation for Kareem’s greatness. Indeed, Magic receives rightful credit for igniting Showtime, but when that fast break attack wasn’t humming, Kareem was the go-to safety valve. He wasn’t quite the force he was in the 1970s, but Kareem’s second act in his mid-and-late 30s was better than most men ever dream of in their youthful 20s.
At age 38 in 1986, Abdul-Jabbar was still producing 23.4 PPG for the Lakers and just the previous year had earned the NBA Finals MVP award averaging 26 PPG, 9 RPG, and 5 APG in the series.
The sheer weight and volume of his numbers have such gravity that we’re dumbfounded at its absurdity: 6 MVPs, 19 All-Star Games, 15 All-NBA Teams, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history… And all of this still hasn’t revealed the defense of the basket, especially in the 1970s, he provided with his long, lanky frame swatting shots. Nor has it touched on his deft passing and offensive arsenal (dunks, drop steps, and turn around jumpers) beyond the skyhook.
Using his endless skills, Kareem battled Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, Jack Sikma, Hakeem Olajuwon, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Patrick Ewing, and got the best of all of them at one time or another.
So, if someone indeed comes around arguing for Kareem as the greatest of all-time, the argument is about as dependable and solid as Jabbar’s skyhook.