The Passing Game
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 NBA.com 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
New York Knicks, Assists to Field Goals Ratio
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.