Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Passing Game

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, March 2, 2006:
The paradox of professional basketball is that while the players have become better — as athletes, as one-on-one defenders, as scorers — many, including myself, believe the game has become worse. I’ve taken part in this debate for thirty years now, or nearly as long as it’s been since the Knicks last won a championship. And supporters of Magic and Bird and His Airness have accused me of sour grapes all along, allowing that while the Knicks of 1969-70 and 1972-73 were fun to watch, they represented the apex of the old game rather than the dawn of the new.

They are right. The championship Knicks were hardly prototypes of modern basketball, the game that was already in place and was to dominate the next two decades. That game was characterized by dominance in the pivot and was defined by Boston’s Bill Russell, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Lew Alcindor (better known afterwards as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). and the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain (in one stretch, in 21 of 22 years the league’s Most Valuable Player Award went to a center). If anything, the Knicks were the last hurrah of the old game of switching man-to-man defense and, on offense, constant motion of both men and ball. They played the deliberate, intricate style of men like Bob Cousy, Sihugo Green, Bob Davies, and Tom Gola, and in Red Holzman they were coached by a former NBA player who came into the league when it was barely a step up from the barnstorming circuits of the 1930s.

Defenders of today’s game point to its popularity worldwide. I’ll grant that the NBA was a fairly provincial affair in the 1950s (with teams in Fort Wayne, Syracuse, and Rochester). Not so long ago if the circus came to town in one of those odd years when New York’s hapless hoopsters qualified for the playoffs, they were banished uptown to play in relative seclusion at the Seventh Regiment Armory, at 66th Street and Park Avenue. And when the Knicks returned to the Garden the air was redolent of elephant.

Aficionados of the current game also note that today’s players can soar into realms unvisited by the earthbound lads of yore and could probably run rings around them if they were to square off in cyberspace. I will grant that the Minneapolis Lakers, champs in 1953-54, would be clobbered by the Los Angeles Lakers of 2005-06, a weak team propped up by Kobe Bryant’s 35-point scoring average. Great stars of the early NBA like George Mikan and Bob Cousy would struggle to compete in the present era (though Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor would not). I will further acknowledge that despite the inability of current players to hit a jumpshot off the dribble, shooting percentages are way up from, say, the 1950s. The aforementioned Minneapolis Lakers shot .400 as team, at that time a record; in the league’s first year, 1946, no team reached even .300.

So why wax nostalgic about a game played by mostly white guys who could neither jump nor shoot? Because they could play team defense and they could pass, both of them lost arts in New York. Why run a weave when a post-up or an isolation will produce a high-percentage shot with less ball handling? Why play a switching man-to-man defense when the pro version of the zone is less taxing? Larry Brown cries into the wilderness. Move the ball and the men. Play defense, on the perimeter and in the paint; don’t think there is a choice to be made. Rebound. And now and then, score more points than the opposition.

Knick fans remember the professorial Hubie Brown trying to teach the unteachable (Ray Williams and Sly Williams), Don Nelson trying to reach the unreachable (Patrick Ewing among others), and Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy promoting intimidation as the path to success because taking the high road (talent) was not an option. Will we ever see a return to “the beautiful game”—the one in which the art consists not in making repeated spectacular shots but, as in billiards, positioning to get easy ones? Basketball today is played as if it were a gymnastic event, with the scorers according a bonus for degree of difficulty (aside from the extra point for a field goal from beyond the arc).

I’d like to think that those old Knicks of Reed and DeBusschere, of Frazier and Monroe, of Bradley and Lucas, just might stand a chance against today’s Lakers, as they did twice, more than three decades ago. Vacate the pivot, let Jerry Lucas stand at the top of the key, baiting the Lakers’ center to come out and guard him — just as he once baited Wilt. Only now, let those rainbow set shots count for three points instead of two. Let Frazier and Monroe juke their way into 15-foot jumpshots. Let Bradley run his opposing forward from corner to corner along the baseline — let’s see if today’s opposite number could stick with him as the Bullets’ Jack Marin once did. DeBusschere could pull down 15 rebounds as Lamar Odom ventures out into no-man’s land trying to help Chris Mihm come out on Lucas or Reed.

Oh, it’s a sweet dream. But probably the only one of today’s teams the old Knicks could beat would be the current Knicks. Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These unhappy Knicks, losers of 20 of their previous 22 games at this writing, have indeed found their own way. Because their deficiencies in shooting, rebounding, blocked shots, and overall defense are dissected daily in the media, I will not pile on except to provide a measure not found in the charts. The jaw-dropping statistical profile below — in which today’s Knicks are compared to the championship teams of 1969-70 and 1972-73 in only the technique of passing the ball — tells the story of a very young team of playground heroes.

New York Knicks, Assists per Game

1969-70: 26.0
1972-73: 26.7

2005-06: 17.25

New York Knicks, Assists to Field Goals Ratio

1969-70: .561
1972-73: .603

2005-06: .505

After the recent acquisition of Steve Francis to pair up in the backcourt with Stephon Marbury, it was widely written that the team would need two balls (metaphorically they were right, in a way). Both liked to score, neither liked to penetrate and dish, and neither was comfortable moving without the ball to create space and defensive imbalance that might benefit teammates. In truth Francis and Marbury could meld their games as Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe once had. It was the other guys who couldn’t play without the ball.

Here are the assist-per-game figures for the principal Knick players of 1969-70: Walt Frazier, 8.2; Dick Barnett, 3.6; Dave DeBusschere, 2.5; Bill Bradley, 4.0; Willis Reed, 2.0; Mike Riordan, 2.5; Dave Stallworth, 1.7; Cazzie Russell, 1.7.

Here are the assist-per-game figures for the principal Knick players of 1972-73: Frazier, 5.9; DeBusschere, 3.4; Bradley, 4.5; Reed, 1.8; Barnett, 1.0; Earl Monroe; 3.8; Jerry Lucas, 4.5; Phil Jackson 1.2; Dean Meminger, 1.7; Henry Bibby, 1.2.

And here, read ’em and weep, are the figures for the current crew: Marbury, 6.5, Francis, 2.3 (as a Knick); Jamal Crawford, 3.8; Jalen Rose (as a Knick), 2.9; Eddy Curry, 0.3; Channing Frye, 0.9; Nate Robinson, 1.8; Quentin Richardson, 1.6.

The other two centers besides Curry share his rate of 0.3; of the other forwards, none has a ratio as high as 1.0. Young Curry is a genuine scoring talent, but in 47 games in which he has averaged 26.7 minutes, he has amassed a season total of 12 assists, an average evening’s performance for Steve Nash of Phoenix. Young Frye, who like Curry has what kind scouts call “upside,” has a total of 48 assists to go against his 574 shot attempts. Can’t anybody here play this game right?

As each new year brings Knick fans the same sad prospect of dashed hopes, the golden age of 1969-73 takes on added luster. Fans who saw those fabled players now reflect ruefully on the descent of the franchise — and the game of basketball itself — from a triumph of teamwork to a struggle for individual dominance. What we fans remember about them, with a feeling that goes beyond fondness to passion, is not an event, a play, a moment, but a feeling about the way the Knicks played the game, the way their individual skills were subordinated to the team’s goal, the way their collective brain overcame their opponents’ brawn; their jiu-jitsu approach to conflict.

Has the basketball of the golden age — the game of give and go, of pick and roll, of four or five men in constant motion — survived anywhere except in our memories? The Knicks will have their own views, so will the fans. Maybe you see it out west in a Phoenix team led by Steve Nash, or across the river from Manhattan in Jason Kidd’s Nets.

Take the 1969-73 Knicks off their teams and sprinkle them through the league in their own day and none was a player around whom you could build another champion. Do the same thirty-plus years later, through the wonders of time travel, and no Knick might be good enough to start for a contending team. Yet if we could transport those Knicks together as a unit into the modern NBA as a sort of fantasy expansion team, coach Red Holzman said, “No question in my mind, they’d win. We had five, six, seven, eight guys who could all think and pass the ball. It was like they were all guards.”

I think Red was wrong, but he had the right idea: get five guys who can — and will — pass the ball, and you can win in any league, anytime.

--John Thorn


Anonymous PBREWER said...

I agree with John on most points, although I think the Byrd Celtics and the Magic Johnson Lakers were teams with effective team oriented offenses. But I think there are some subtle differences. A few years back I watched one of the Nets-Spurs games in the finals which disgusted me and caused me to write a long winded criticism that states my opinion nicely. Here's what I wrote:
*** *** *** ***
I've watched 3 of the 4 NBA final games betwixt the Nets & the Spurs. I haven't watched basketball all winter long until now, but I've noticed these low 70 and 80 point scores throughout the playoffs. Two years ago I watched the Lakers beat Portland in the final game of their western conference playoff when Portland entered the 4th quarter with a double digit lead, then handed the game to L.A. by playing one on one the rest of the game. I believe a pattern has emerged.

When I was young, the catch phrase was "defense wins in the playoffs"- and although I suspect that it's the same animal as "pitching is 80% of the game", it seemed reasonable at the time. Watching what the NBA has deteriorated into, my observation is that offense wins in the playoffs - well..... actually, I should say offense loses in the playoffs.

I think Michael Jordan may have been the culprit here, although I will admit that that style of play is and was in no way new to the NBA. It's just that up until sometime in the 90's, there were always at least 2 or 3 teams in the league who could play 5 on 5 offensive basketball. Then Michael came along, and with a team full of grade D NBAers, he was somehow able, through being the most incredible offensive (and defensive I might add, but that's not my point) player of all time, to almost override that NBA edict and get his team near the finals all by his lonesome. Perhaps my respect for Michael has biased me into thinking that he did this out of necessity because his teammates were all pretty damn awful. Once the Bulls got a few more guys who could play, he was able to get a half dozen rings.

Meanwhile, the NBA, either through natural evolution, or perhaps through the process of everyone wanting to "be like Mike" found themselves without a single team that could play offense as a team! And naturally, someone has to win the championship, so now we have an NBA final that pits two teams who spend the great majority of the time playing one on one on offense. And the result is a 77-76 game with teams making no more than a third of their shots. Pundits would have us believe it's "great defense", but I say HELL NO!!! Bad offense is what I saw- are we watching the same game? Kenyon Martin would get the ball down low, stop, hold the ball for 5 seconds, then try to back in for three more, then take an obscenely difficult looking jump hook with a 7 footer and one or two "help out" defenders on him. I don't remember a single one dropping in last night's game. That was exactly what some head band wearing forward for the Trail Blazers did 2 years ago vs the Lakers. They gave him the ball at least 8 times in that 4th quarter, and he would start by standing with his back to the basket, while the rest of his team would "clear out" to the other side- perhaps to have a smoke or something. He would do this for 5 or 6 seconds, then spend another 5 or 6 seconds dribbling. Meanwhile the defense, deciding to be pro-active, would gather 'round him while he spent another 5 or 6 seconds backing in. Over half the time he was so swarmed upon that after 16 seconds of wasting our time, he'd throw the ball back out to a guard who would take a three pointer because there was only 3 or 4 seconds left on the clock. What a freakin' yawner!!!

Last night, it was San Antonio whose offense sucked the most- game Nets. It was boring as hell as I may have seen 4 or 5 good half-court plays run, and the rest of the time it was all a bunch of "okay- I shot last time- now it's your turn- I'll stand over here- 30 feet from the basket; feel free to throw it to me if you get in trouble."

If you think about it- the old Celtic teams of the 60's, as well as the Celtic & Laker teams of the 80's had great offensive teams. They got people open for good shots, and they got them the ball. My contention is that that is the number one reason why those teams were in the finals in the first place. Their defenses were probably no better or worse than 15 other teams in the league. But those 15 other teams were all relying on one or two guys who wouldn't have a clue what to do on offense unless they had the ball, and that made their offenses easier to defend against. The great Piston teams of the late 80's, early 90's and the Knick teams of the late 60's into the 70's were both considered great defensive teams. And yet, both of those teams played good, solid 5 on 5 offensive basketball. Does anyone remember that?

I realize that everyone thinks that Bill Russell's defense, rebounding and shot blocking was huge back in the 60's, and I'm not saying it wasn't- that's another issue altogether. What I am saying is that anyone who saw those great Celtic teams, winners of 9 world championships in 11 years, must remember how fabulous their offenses were and how all five men on the court would work their asses off to make sure that someone got a good, open shot, and preferably a layup. The Cowens/ Havlichek Celtics of the early 70's were the same, as were the Larry Byrd teams. They all understood that no matter how fabulous a shooter was, and no matter how spectacular he may be at getting a shot on his own, he would still get good shots far more often if they all worked with him to get that shot. I remember the Julius Erving 76er teams of the late 70's. Julius was so great that he was capable of getting good shots on his own, and so those offenses were constructed that way. And yet they couldn't win the title against Portland & LA because those teams still got a lot more good shots playing together than Julius could get on his own, much less any other Philadelphian could get. Offense beat those 76er teams. It took Moses Malone's awesome rebounding, and the proliferation of easy dunks and layups, as well as extra shots for the whole team that his offensive rebounding brought them to bring a championship to Philadelphia.

All through my life, most of the teams in the NBA have had the kind of one on one offenses that could never get near a title because there were always a small handful of teams that did play 5 on 5 basketball in the halfcourt. And those teams would always be in the finals playing each other while the teams that featured 5 one man shows sat at home. Now all the teams in the NBA have one on one "clear out" offenses.

Portland vs Philadelphia in 1976 or so- (I believe that's the year)- that was the first year of my NBA viewing life where a team that didn't play 5 on 5 offense managed to get into the finals. The Philadelphia 76ers had so much talent on that team, with Erving, McGinnis and company, that they somehow managed to make it all the way to the final series. I had watched Portland and Bill Walton that year and I was convinced they would kick the Sixer's uncollective ass. Instead, the Sixers won the first two games and I began to doubt myself. But from then on it was all Portland, and I watched that series thinking that the Sixers were playing with one hand tied behind their back. It was as if Julius Erving was so great and so incredible, that the Sixers were saying that they could still win despite the handicap of not playing basketball and instead letting Julius get open on his own, without anyone's help and either making a spectacular shot or a spectacular pass. Well, it didn't work- Portland won. And it didn't work in Magic Johnson's rookie year when they tried it again. Magic had taught LA the 5 on 5 game and the Sixers didn't really have much of a chance.

Now when I watch the NBA, this playground style- clear out- take it yourself, it's your turn, let me do something incredible looking and make an off balance shot way of playing has filtered up to the top! Now we have no one team in the NBA who knows how to play the game of basketball where you use your teammates on offense and they use you- and so we get 80-77 games in the playoffs with guys holding the ball while shaking and baking and finally taking a bad shot every minute or so, and announcers talking about how tough defenses are in the playoffs. That's bullshit- if even the worst team in the league could suddenly learn how to play 5 on 5 basketball on offense, they would probably improve by 20 wins or so. Maybe the worst team's talent still isn't good enough to get them to the top, but as long as offense has dwindled down to the chaos I've witnessed between the Nets & the Spurs, some team is gonna learn how to play together, and they are gonna dominate until another team wises up and does likewise.


10:35 AM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

PBrewer, thanks for sharing, but I don't respond substantively to unsigned opinions. If you don't wish your email address to be posted on this blog, for anti-spam concerns, email me directly at jthorn[at], where "@" replaces the bracked word.

3:34 PM  

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