Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: Guess I’m Strange

An Ignominious Induction: Dwight Howard from the line

About every 15-to-20 years, the free throw gods look down on NBA giants and anoint one of their biggest, bulkiest personalities as a goat; an inept, pretzel-minded, musclebound brute of a free throw shooter. Of course, our NBA giants are more than just poor free throw shooters. They’re humans with dunktastic ferocity, superior sizes, unstoppable phyiscalities, and yet afflicted by some cruel combination of stage fright and giant-hand-small-ball syndrome. But (oh the big ol’ but!), they are at times truly incapable as free throw shooters as we saw from Dwight Howard on the night of October 24th, 2017 when the Charlotte Hornets center shot 0-9 from the free throw line, thus becoming the fourth player since the 1963-64 season* to attempt at least nine free throws and miss all of them.

50 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain delivered one of the more bizarre stat lines in league history, one that highlighted both his transcendent dominance with his neutralizing weaknesses, when he scored 26 points on 11-11 shooting with an inexplicable 0-9 from the line. For good measure, the Big Dipper added 24 rebounds and five assists. Chamberlain, a career 51% free-throw shooter who dropped down to 44% in 1967, had 36 career games where he missed all of his free-throw attempts. Of those 36, he had 15 games with three or more attempts so it wasn’t an aberration the same way it would be if say Rick Barry underhand shot his way to 0-9. But Wilt claimed to not be responsible on this February night. As Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “He (Chamberlain) complained early and often about the use of ‘stickum’ by the Hawks, but he wasn’t about to expound on his complaints afterwards.” This isn’t completely accurate as Chamberlain did expound:

“I said I wasn’t going to say anything about it because when I do everybody says ‘Wilt is a crybaby who is looking for an excuse for his lousy foul shooting.’ If you want to know how much stickum there was on the ball out there today, why don’t you ask some of the other guys?”

Teammate Chet Walker, who must’ve been in earshot, responded, “So much it was ridiculous. The ball was really loaded. They ought to outlaw that stuff.” For whatever it’s worth, Walker, a career 80% free-throw shooter, shot 4-5 that night.

“Stickum” Chamberlain

13 years later in 1980, a 6’7”, 225-pound brute of a rebounder named Truck Robinson led his 19-4 Phoenix Suns against the Bulls of Chicago. Robinson was a former rebounding champion with a career 66% free throw average. On this night he was described by Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune as someone “who does a lot of things well but can’t shoot free throws. Against the Bulls, he descended into the pits of ineptitude previously inhabited alone by “Stickum” Chamberlain. It was a close game against the Bulls and even a sub-standard night of free throw shooting, like 30 or 40%, from Truck could’ve alleviated the stress. As Norm Frauenheim of the Arizona Republic wrote, “Phoenix had a chance to stretch its now-precarious lead to six points nine seconds later. (Ricky) Sobers had fouled Robinson. It didn’t matter. Robinson’s long night of futility from the free-throw line continued. He missed his eighth and ninth attempts – the ninth never even touched the rim.”

At this point, my pop-culture, meme-saturated mind immediately hears Homer Simpson’s “D’Oh!” followed by the massive splat of a facepalm. Let’s give the last word on Truck’s forgettable night to Dozer from the Tribune who tells us what happened after Robinson’s final air ball, “Now Coach John MacLeod got smart and took out the Suns’ free-throw patsy.” A night so bad we’re resorting to name calling? Oh, the shame.

“Free-throw patsy,” Truck Robinson

December of 2000, “Stickum” Chamberlain’s cultural offspring, Shaquille “Chamberneezy” O’Neal, in the ultimate show of anything you can do, I can do better, one-upped Wilt and Truck with the worst of the worst, the stinkiest of the stink, a rotten egg of putridity the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen before or since: 0-11 from the line. In what would borderline as trolling in today’s vernacular, Tim Brown of The Los Angeles Times led off his recap painting an image of utter helplessness, “His right arm draped over his new free-throw coach, Shaquille O’Neal walked stiffly from Staples Center on Friday night. It didn’t work again. He missed all 11 free throws—an NBA record.” It seems some of us, no matter how hard we try or how badly we seek to rectify the errors in our ways, are incapable of salvation, doomed to recurring cycles of relative failure.

And finally, after wandering the halls of bricks, air balls, stickums, and free-throw shooting coaches, we arrive at the Chamberlain-O’Neal torch bearer: Dwight Howard. Seeing Wilt and Shaq on this list, there’s a sense of inevitability to Dwight joining them. For his career, he’s been a better free-throw shooter than his forbears, but there’s the same combination of absurd hulking size coupled with fragile, blot-out-the-sun ego. Dwight had to join this list, but somewhere along the line, we lost our collective desire to examine, through humor or (over)-analysis, the suck. In Rick Bonnell’s recap from the Charlotte Observer, there’s nothing more than reference to the 0-9 shooting. SB Nation’s At The Hive team blog referred to Dwight’s night as “dismal,” but nothing more.

I wanted quotes, acknowledgement, acceptance, something. Maybe this is more my problem than the media’s, but traveling back in time and consuming the colorful quotes, excuses, and descriptions puts the relative inattention to Howard’s crapfest in strange, apathetic context. It’s not just possible, but rather likely that somewhere on these internets or across the airwaves of local Charlotte radio these abysmal attempts at shooting free throws were rightly excoriated and that I’ve just overlooked them. If that is the case, I hope you found those criticisms and enjoyed them. If not, we can only hope that our struggling athletes re-learn the arts of excuse making and our scribes explore negative anomaly with the zeal of positive.

**Bonus: While Basketball-Reference’s database goes back to the 1963-64 season for game logs that include free throw attempts, my research referenced a game on November 4th, 1960 when Chamberlain shot 0-10 from the stripe. In true Chamberlain fashion, he countered the poor night of shooting with 44 points, 39 rebounds, and 22 blocks – this according to Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. Chamberlain was comfortable owning his struggles as he said, “That kills me. Missing all those foul shots like that, I know I’m not a good foul line.” Then there’s some references to “the underhand sweep” which is apparently a free throw form Chamberlain toyed around with along with some of the most colorful sports writing. Kiser refers to Detroit’s center Walter Dukes as someone “who sometimes resembles a wrestling octopus in action,” frequently writes his name as “Waltah,” quotes Dukes as claiming, “I could score as many points as Wilt if I took as many shots,” and gets Wilt on the record saying, “Do I play harder against Walter than the average guy? Well, maybe I do … That boy just gets me mad with that rough stuff of his. He throws elbows at you when there’s no need to throw them. He’s just naturally mean.”

Pacing Against History, the Quarter Turn

Last season I had a monthly post to look at how players were pacing against random historical statistical achievements and now that we’re now roughly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, I’m revisiting the concept. It’s no longer the “young” NBA season, but we’ve escaped the doldrums of “small sample-size theater” and can look at trends as markers of potential sustainability like Russell Westbrook preposterously averaging a triple double. The audacity! Let’s dive in and embrace the stats instead of telling the kids to get off our lawn while we spit shine our shrines to Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan because goddamn it, yesterday wasn’t better than today and today isn’t better than yesterday. New frontiers await, let’s go!

Special thanks to Basketball-Reference for ALL stats

Special thanks to Basketball-Reference for ALL stats

  1. You want efficiency, here’s your damn efficiency: Kevin Durant scoring 27ppg on 17 or less FGA/gm. Since 1946-47, Basketball-Reference (BBR) tells us the only player with comparable volume and efficiency was Charles Barkley in 1987-88 when he averaged 28.3-points on 16 FGA/gm. Everyone said it would be easier in for KD in Golden State and so far it’s been historically easy.
  2. For just the 3rd time in league history, at least 10 players are averaging 25 or more points/game. Last happened in 2005-06 after a rule change. Additionally, a whopping 28 players are averaging 20 points or higher.
  3. BBR tracks rebound percentage beginning in the 1970-71 season when young Tom Boerwinkle led the league with 22.6%. Between 1971 and 2016, only four players achieved a 24% or higher rebounding rate. In 2016-17, three players, including Dwight Howard at a career-high 24.2%, are 24% or better – Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside are the other two. Dennis Rodman appears on this list seven times and holds six of the top-7 rates.
  4. Seems like everyone has strong opinions these days on how many threes big men should or shouldn’t be shooting. I may or may not be one of these people, but it doesn’t change the fact that players listed at 6’11” or taller are taking and making more threes than ever before. Prior to 2016-17, big guys had hit 1.5 or more threes/game 18 different times and it been accomplished by just seven players including the king of big man threes, Dirk Nowitzki who did it five times. But the throne is being challenged in 16-17 as six bigs are making at least 1.5 3s/game including Channing Frye who, if he keeps up his current pace, will tie Dirk for most appearances on the list. Also worth noting is that Frye’s on pace to set big man records for most threes made and highest 3pt-percentage.
  5. With advanced stats like individual defensive-rating, defensive plus-minus, and opponent shooting percentage, we have more and deeper ways to measure defensive impact. This is good, but there’s still some traditional measures that help identify the havoc players are wreaking on that end of the floor and steals and blocks do a decent job. Since 1973-74 when steals and blocks started being tracked, just two players (David Robinson once and Hakeem Olajuwon four times) have accomplished full-season averages of 2-plus steals and 2-plus blocks. A quarter of the way into 16-17 and the dashing young Grecian prince Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a bid to join these Hall-of-Fame legends with his averages of 2.2 in both categories. Fellow basketball savant Anthony Davis isn’t far behind at 2.7-blocks and 1.8-steals. Do these youngsters dare to jointly pull off a feat not seen since 1992? Dare they may!
  6. In all our years, we’ve only seen the greatest of the great reach the all-around statistical lines so indicative of great versatility as a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist per-game average. These are players like Oscar Robertson (5x), Wilt Chamberlain (2x), John Havlicek (2x), Larry Bird (6x), Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James. But legends must make room for new jacks and those include Russell Westbrook (31-10-11) and the aforementioned Giannis (22-8-6). Russ is the headliner, but at 22, Giannis and Oscar (in 1960-61) are the youngest ever to stack these stats.
  7. From the world of the weird, since the advent of this great game only a single player has averaged at least 25-points while making 8-or-less field goals/game. That lightning rod of making a lot out of a little is James Harden who reached the over-25/under-8 marker thrice is being threatened with new company this season as argyle-sock-puppet-loving Jimmy Butler throws his hat into the ring of mondo-efficiency with 25.6-points on just 7.8-field goals/game.
  8. Joel Embiid doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders due to his lack of minutes which is a result of nightly restrictions and not playing back-to-backs, but for rookies, he’s embarking on some strange records:
    1. Usage rate: He’s currently at 37.6% which would easily eclipse Ben Gordon’s record of 30.4% back in 2004-05. NBA usage rates are tracked back to 1977-78.
    2. Turnovers: No player has ever averaged as many turnovers (3.8) while appearing in as few minutes (under 24). As his playing time and frequency level out, one would expect there to be a balancing out, but until it happens, he’ll remain in lonely, rare company.
    3. Three-point shooting: For rookies who have attempted at least 30 threes in the first 13 games of their debut season, Embiid ranks 4th overall in accuracy at 51% (18-35) behind well-known shooters Brent Barry, Jason Terry, and Dana Barros.
    4. Blocks & Threes: With all these unicorns like Embiid, Giannis, and Porzingis galloping around NBA cities, new frontiers are being explored with frequency. Since 1983-84, only one other player (not limited to rookies) has as many blocks (29) and threes (18) made through his team’s first 13 games and that’s Wilson Chandler in 2010-11.
  9. 28-points-10-rebounds-1.5 3s had never been reached before this season and now we’ve got two players breaking on through to the other side (interestingly enough, a montage of Westbrook drives, dives, and boards could easily be set to The Doors tune) of NBA statistics: Westbrook (31-10-1.8) and DeMarcus Cousins (29-10-1.7). There’s a lot of similarity in how these guys play so while positionally (not a word, but we’ll go with it) and physically they couldn’t be much more dissimilar, they’re both emotionally volatile players fueled by something deep in their guts and chest cavities. They’re wrecking balls with immense responsibilities riding on their shoulders and their carnage is leaving bulk stats and fragile records in their wakes from Sacramento to Oklahoma City.
  10. A usage rate over 30% will typically land a player in the top-10 in the league in overall usage. But 30% usage and under two turnovers/game? That’s rare. So rare that prior to this season, it’s been accomplished just three times: by Kobe Bryant last year (more a result of his bullish shot jacking), LaMarcus Aldridge in 14-15 (30.2, 1.7), and Dirk in 08-09 (30.3, 1.9). Joining this rare combination of usage and efficiency are Kawhi Leonard (30.6, 1.9) and Zach Randolph (30.9, 1.3). Though I haven’t seen as much Z-Bo as I would like, I’m assuming there’s a lot of catching and shooting with little dribbling and not much playmaking. Kawhi, by contrast, has more assists/game than anyone else on this list.
  11. Blocking shots and scoring the basketball at an elite level are the domains of Kareem, Hakeem, the Admiral and Pat Ewing, right? I mean those are the first names that come to mind when I think of that joint skillset, but prior to this season, only a single player had ever average 30-points and greater than 2.5-blocks for an entire season. Can you guess who it is? Think, think, guess, guess, don’t skip ahead. This year, Anthony Davis (31.5, 2.7) is flirting with joining Buffalo Brave great Bob McAdoo (30.6, 3.3) in this exclusive club of tall, lean basketball pros.
  12. After tonight, the Brow of unibrow fame is already up to six 35-point, 15-rebound games. Since 1983-84, the most a player has had in a single season was Charles Barkley with 12 in 87-88. We know the Brow’s susceptible to missing games to aches, pains, strains, sprains and the like, but this is a fun one to watch.
  13. 50-40-90 club but with 48-38-88 thresholds so we can see who’s sniffing around. 20 games into the season and we’ve got four candidates: Stephen Curry (49-42-92), Patty Mills (51-45-96), Terrence Ross (50-44-94), and J.J. Redick (49-46-90). Only once since we’ve been threes came into the game have we seen more than one player reach this dead-eye shooting summit: 2007-08 when Jose Calderon and Steve Nash landed there together.

We’re a quarter of the way in, but this has the making of a legendary season for statistical achievements, driven by those former three Thunders rolling roughshod through the league in their own tradition-defying ways. Usage rates at the individual level are rising in line with individual scoring and the range expansion of big men means more of the court is open to new batches of players which means the entire ecosystem of stats is undergoing historical change. This is fun, it’s unseen, let’s get our sunscreen (I’ll make sure your neck is covered) and venture off into worlds unknown with Boogie and Russ and the Brow. Godspeed!

First, the Obvious

It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.

Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestro Steve Nash.

Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)

russell-james

We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.

Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.

Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.

If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.

But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.

By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.

Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.

Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.

Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.

All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.

To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com - a great website

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com – a great website

Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:

oscar-pace

The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.

Russ and the 25-20 Club

Russell Westbrook spent last spring (Feb-April) averaging 31.4 points-per-game, 9.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and two steals while shooting 85% on 11.4 free throw attempts/game. Because of that and because of hundreds of games of visual and statistical evidence, I shouldn’t be surprised when Westbrook unleashes hell’s scorn on opponents like he did against the Clippers tonight when he pulverized Chris Paul of Meet the Hoopers ad campaigns (“Kevin, where you get all them dimes from?”) and his Clipper friends/teammates to the tune of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-best 20 assists.

Dancing with Noah is nothing if not interested in random historical comparisons for the sakes of context and connecting to a shared past – one that often creates feelings of nostalgia in me if we’re being honest. And while it might be a poor carpenter who blames his tools, it’s a resourceful blogger that utilizes the genius gift-giving of basketball-reference’s Player Game Finder tool.

The criteria:

25 points, 20 assists since 1983-84

The list is longer than I expected: 10 players accomplished the feat 22 times since 83-84 with Russ making #23. (Also, NBA TV tells us Oscar Robertson had the 25-20-10+ triple double three times.)

03-09-16 - Russ & 25-20 Club

It was last accomplished by Steve Nash in January of 2006 in a triple overtime losing effort against the Knicks. Nash played 55 minutes scoring 28 points on 3-13 shooting from three with 22 assists. Also of note: Shawn Marion played 60 minutes for the Suns (39 and 14) and Eddy Curry of Baby Bulls fame went for 20 and 15. But painfully (for Bulls fans at least) we digress.

Prior to Nash, it was Stephon Marbury on April 25th, 1999 with 26 and 20 in a winning effort over the Pacers. A New York Times reporter named Chris Broussard led off his recap with:

Perhaps it was a glimpse into the future: Stephon Marbury running the offense to near perfection, Keith Van Horn scoring on jump shots and powerful drives, the other Nets contributing in various ways and, maybe, just maybe, Don Casey on the sideline planning the strategy.

It wasn’t a glimpse into the future, but it was a hell of game from Marbury and he wasn’t hesitant to let everyone know: “A lot of people don’t have enough heart to throw the ball (referring to behind-the-back passes) because they think they’re going to get a turnover. I’m totally different. I know that it’s going to get there if I see him ahead of time and the guy steps to the ball.”

I won’t go through every occurrence, but call out a couple because every impressively unique performance is wrapped in a story. There are a couple more games that stood out for various reasons like John Stockton’s (he of four appearances on the 25-20 list) 26-point, 24-assist, 6-steal on 12-16 shooting effort against the Rockets in January of 1988. He also had just one turnover. In a most Stockton quote ever, Houston Chronicle writer Eddie Sefko reported that Stockton said, “The night means nothing without the win.” Of course not.

There’s a 10:30 condensed version of Stockton’s gem on Youtube which I’ve included below. And maybe it’s the splicing, but the game feels like it’s played at a breakneck pace. There’s something kinetic about it and it’s not just Stockton pushing breaks or Malone filling in those breaks and celebrating with weird fist pumps after dunks (fast forward to 2:00), but there’s constant movement and a radio-style announcer describing every moment of activity.

The condensed clip is worth watching as an artifact of three of our greatest players at or near the peak of their powers. Stockton as the engine, Malone as the body, and Olajuwon and as a lean do-everything center who went for 26-13 with seven steals and five blocks. Stockton is the show-stealer though as he single-handedly dictates how Utah would run in a way which Sefko described as “passing (that) would have made Boomer Esiason envious.” For a team associated in their later years with the Stockton/Malone pick and roll, their fast break was a purple wave rushing with Stockton at its head, flanked by Malone, Darrell Griffith and Thurl Bailey. Oh the breaks! As if Sefko wasn’t enough, one announcer (at 6:35) can be heard saying, “The Cowboys ought to forget about Troy Aikman, they oughta sign up John Stockton to quarterback that ball club.”

We can expand the criteria from merely the paltry, lazy man’s 25-20 to include the double digit boards as well which narrows our list down to Russ, Magic (twice), Isiah once, and the aforementioned Robertson with three.

And our final focus will be Magic Johnson’s 32-point, 20-assist, 11-rebound masterpiece in November of 1988 against Sir Charles Barkley’s 76ers. Magic’s performance was such that it inspired Los Angeles Times writer Gordon Edes to proclaim, “an agnostic might argue that the only religion the Lakers needed was Magic Johnson’s 32 points, 20 assists, and 11 rebounds.” Egads, Edes!

But such was Magic’s game that he evoked highest of praise and who can blame Edes for hyperbole when he writes that Magic scored 12 of his 32 in the last four-and-a-half minutes including a three that put the Lakers ahead for good. Magic’s game only seems appropriate against the backdrop painted by Edes who describes a scene that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell ceremony in Philadelphia accompanied by Grover Washington Jr. playing sax, Laker Tony Campbell getting ejected for apparently telling the ref “I love you, but that was a terrible call,” Orlando Woolridge getting kicked in the head and being unable to feel his fingers, and Charles Barkley shooting 5-14 from the line to muddy up an otherwise gorgeous 31-point, 23-rebound, 6-assist game with 13-19 shooting from the field. We throw around “what a time to be alive” with vulgar irony, but Christ, November 28th, 1988 was the time to be alive and Philadelphia was the place so sayeth Magic, Charles and Gordon Edes. Edes wraps the piece with a spookily prescient quote from Magic, “Two, three, four years, I’ll be gone. Then I’ll be delivering in a Park and Recreation League.” Magic was right about the timeline, just no one could’ve foreseen the circumstances.

And to take it back to where we started with Russell, he just so happened to be born just 16 days before Magic recorded his game against Philadelphia which was the last time we had an induction into the 25-20-10 club. There’s something oddly circular to the timing here, but let’s not dwell on coincidences. But damn, in some kind of cosmic nod to Stockton, all Russ was concerned with was the win as he said, “Just a win, man. More important just to see all my teammates happy and all see my teammates enjoy the game and enjoy this win.” It’s all too much coincidence or else there are some threads streaking through basketball space-time connecting Oscar to Magic to Stockton to Steph to Steve to Russ. Sometimes the continuity is too great.

James Harden and the 43-13 Club

Once upon a time in the pre-presidential Obama days of the NBA, young Mr. Michael Jordan showed up for a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers and their funny two-guard, Reggie Miller. Jordan’s Bulls lost by four points, but it was due in no part to Jordan who crapped all over the Pacers for a sizzling 47 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting 57% from the field and 13-14 from the line. Egads!

Of course Michael Jordan, he of “commerce over conscience” infamy, is the modern-day NBA (defined as 1985-86 which is the first season basketball-reference offers certain box score stats) pioneer of the 43-13 club; aka 43-points and 13-assists, a truly dominant offensive game mixed of equal parts attack and distribution, but all attack.

So how’d we arrive here? James Harden delivered us to this moment on a Friday night in Sacramento in November with his vintage Hardenesque performance: 43 points on 23 shots with 16 FTAs and 13 assists. Harden was a rock or ogre or something irrepressible. And it was kind of fitting that in a league where all two guards are measured by their ability or inability to emulate his Airness, that the two-guard with the most un-MJish game would be the latest in a short line of NBA greats to repeat his feat from 1989.

James Harden considering Mars

James Harden considering Mars

Here’s the criteria:

  • 43 points or more
  • 13 assists or more

The inductees:

  1. Michael Jordan, 26-years-old in 1989: 47pts, 11rebs, 13asts, 4stls
  2. Larry Bird, 33 in 1990: 43pts, 8rebs, 13asts
  3. Kenny Anderson, 23 in 1994: 45pts, 8rebs, 14asts, 4stls, 20-23 from FT
  4. Antoine Walker, 24 in 2001: 47pts, 5rebs, 13asts, 4stls, 9-14 from 3
  5. Tracy McGrady, 23 in 2003: 46pts, 10rebs, 13asts, 2blks
  6. Allen Iverson, 31 in 2007: 44pts on 16-22 shooting, 15asts
  7. Gilbert Arenas, 27 in 2009: 45pts, 13asts
  8. LeBron James, 25 in 2010: 43pts, 13rebs, 15asts, 4blks, 1-9 from 3
  9. James Harden, 26 in 2015: 43pts, 13asts, 7 TOs

It’s an illustriously exclusive crowd Harden’s just joined, but fitting given the versatility of his game. Long a playmaker and dynamic scorer, the Beard is one of just 12 players in league history to average 27ppg and 7apg over the course of a single season. Where our eyelashes barely bat at the inclusion of MJ, Bird or LeBron, Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker are more surprising. Anderson’s game was necessitated by an injury to Derrick Coleman while Walker’s was an outmatched team on the road where he caught fire.

Context for games like these matters. In Harden’s case, it was his sixth game of the year, the first three of which had all resulted in 20-point losses with last season’s MVP runner-up shooting a combined 12-54 (22%) from the field and 3-32 (9%) from three. His team has been ravaged by early injuries and the challenge of integrating speedy playmaker Ty Lawson into the attack. On this Friday night, there was no Dwight Howard, no Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, or Patrick Beverley. So against an undermanned (no DeMarcus Cousins) Kings team, Harden seized the reigns and torched the Kings. It was without peer as his best game of the new season with the Rockets largest margin of victory and his own highest usage and ORtg.

Which takes us to the final noteworthy relationship of the 43-13 club; the relationship between usage and Ortg. The 43-13 club means you’re accounting for no less than 60 of your team’s points. A player becomes the catalyzing engine driving the offensive attack from multiple planes much to the defense’s helplessness. I expected higher usage rates which isn’t to say the rates aren’t high, but below we see a consistent relationship: mid-30s usage, mid-130s Ortg – with a couple of truly unique outliers. Allen Iverson’s 44 and 15 on 16-22 shooting stands out as a model of harnessed efficiency which, given his career-long struggles with efficiency becomes the greatest outlier and a likely topic for a future edition.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

25-25 starring Young Drummond with supporting role from Young Dwight

On November 3rd, Andre Drummond, all of 22-years-old, notched the second 25-25 game of his career with 25 points on 12-17 shooting and 29 rebounds – a career high. In the process he joined Al Jefferson and Dwight Howard as the only three active players in the league with more than one 25-25 game. Guys like Shaq, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing only achieved the feat once in their storied careers, but at 22 Drummond’s already done it twice.

11-05-15 - Drummond in Detroit

As I looked over this list in all its randomness dating back to 1985-86 (which is worth noting because Wilt Chamberlain, that giant NBA version of Babe Ruth, had three seasons where he averaged 25-25 and went for 30 and 23 as a career average), a few things stuck out in their oddball numerical beauty:

  • Hakeem Olajuwon sits on the modern 25-25 throne with five such games
  • One of Olajuwon’s games was a 32-point, 25-rebound, 10-block performance which I’ve previously written about and is one of the more dominant/lopsided individual stat lines I’ve come across.
  • The highest game score on the list is a 48.6 from Olajuwon on a night back in 1987 when he stuck it to the Sonics of Seattle for 49 points, 25 boards and six blocks. What the shit kind of night is that?
  • Kenneth Faried joined the club last year in a game in which he played just 30 minutes – the least minutes of anyone in the club.
  • RIP Lorenzen Wright
  • And finally, the similarities between Dwight’s and Drummond’s appearances on this list.

By the time he was 21, Howard had his two 25-25s and I can only assume that most folks suspected these wouldn’t be the last two such games of his career. And given that he’s just turning 30 in a few weeks, it’s possible he tacks on a few more, but since his peak is well in the rearview, it’s unlikely.

25-25s aside, the young Dwight-young Drummond connection comes with intrigue not because of the similarities: they’re both powerfully built centers that use size, skill, and athleticism to dominate and they’ve both been coached by Stan Van Gundy; but the nearer they become statistically the better the future looks for Drummond.

At the end of Howard’s fourth season he was a two-time all-star with appearances on the NBA All-Defensive second team, All-NBA third team and All-NBA first team. He was highly decorated and more than prepared to take the torch as the league’s best big man. Drummond was named to the All-NBA Rookie second team back in the day and that’s it. Despite his size and athleticism and despite numbers that favorably compare to Dwight, he’s been unable to crack the code of the NBA’s off-season awards.

My friend and esteemed basketball writer and thinker Ian Levy just wrote a nice in-depth piece on the dissimilarities between these two that goes well beyond simplifications of them being large athletes that rebound and dunk. And where Dwight’s defense has long been Hall-of-Fame level (he’s the only player since the inception of the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1982-83 to win it three straight seasons), Andre’s merely a good defender. Though we’re looking at significantly different players, there are intersections and overlaps between their first three seasons. Below, in the most unscientific way possible, I’ve attempted to identify these intersections via my own made up statistic that includes traditional big man stats PPG, RPG, BPG combined with PER minus turnovers to arrive at an arbitrary stat for each of Andre and Dwight’s first three years in the league.

11-05-15 - Drummond vs. Dwight

The above unscientific approach is interesting because it takes a variety of stats and makes a fat stat patty out of them which, when viewed in their entirety is strikingly similar in terms of progression and production. Additionally, through three seasons, both players were 21 and were just getting to know Van Gundy: he didn’t start coaching Howard until his fourth season and Drummond in his third. None of the above is presented to imply that Drummond = Dwight. Drummond is a much better offensive rebounder and plays more to his own strengths offensively which results in less turnovers. Young Dwight was the superior defender, (somehow) had a broader array of offensive moves, and was able to stay on the court for longer stretches without getting in foul trouble.

And yet, even with those copious variations, the statistical similarities are hard to overlook. If we shift forward with a similar eye and the little four-game sample we have of this season, it doesn’t take ultra-optimism to imagine a 2015-16 season out of Drummond. Dwight made significant leaps in his fourth year with improvements in scoring (ppg and FTA/game), rebounding (total boards and rebounding rate), and offensive and defensive impact (career bests in offensive and defensive win shares and offensive and defensive rating). Four games into 2015-16 is too few to plant any flags in Drummond making a similar leap, but with the paint cleared of former running mate Greg Monroe and a hand-crafted SVG roster that creates greater space for Drummond, the magic eight ball indicates sunny days for the big man. Or, if November 3rd’s ridiculous 25-29 game provides some kind of symbolic indicator of the future, then step to the side, lest you be dunk slammed on by the giant Andre Drummond.

Melo greets Kristaps at the beginning of a great career

It’s a new season and that means a first edition of the Guess I’m Strange series wherein I track down some completely random oddball stat line like Ricky Rubio’s opening night 28-point, 14-assist, 1-turnover on 58% shooting and attempt to contextualize the feat form a historical perspective.

It seems fitting that on what is the real deal opening night of the 2015-16 season, our first admission to this longstanding (three years and counting – seems eternal in blog years) feature is from a rookie. But not just any run of the mill, taller-than-average NBA rookie, but a gangly 7’3” 20-year-old from the Baltic coastal country of Latvia, a country with a population a quarter the size of said rookie’s new home in New York City. Kristaps Porzingis, aka the Zinger, all swinging arms, legs, and elongated torso with an Ivan Drago-lite styled haircut arrived and made his debut in Milwaukee of all places; a brew-town in the upper Midwest that bears no resemblance to NYC which makes one wonder how in the hell young Kristaps is processing this all this Americana.

There are sayings about first impressions and maybe someone once tried to sell men’s cologne or deodorant based around the importance of first impressions and how you only get one chance to make one. Attempted truisms as such hold little weight at this blog, but since we’re talking about it, the first NBA action I saw this “precocious neophyte” (all praise due to Walt Frazier) partake in was having a loose ball rebound snatched away from his gangly paws by bearded and weathered semi-vet Greg Monroe. It was like some kind of flag bearing American brute stealing Latvian cupcakes from a skinny baby – a frightening thought for all of us, particularly the skinny baby thing.

First impressions be damned and flushed down toilets with water swirling both clockwise and counterclockwise. In the land of Lew Alcindor (keep in mind, in the Dancing with Noah mock draft, I compared Zinger’s string bean build to a young Alcindor), the lanky Latvian was determined and aggressive in seeking his own shots while donning the flowing New York Knick blue shorts and shirt which gave the appearance of rivers of copious fabric rolling on his lean frame.

The Zinger’s aggressiveness would soon be rewarded by the law; in this case NBA officials. In 24 minutes of play, he went to the line 12 times and made nine. When the final buzzer sounded, his line read 16 points, five rebounds, a plus/minus of plus-one and a Knicks road victory against a playoff team – and least importantly, a spot in DWN folklore for being statistically unique, statistically strange.

The criteria:

  • 12 or more free throw attempts
  • NBA debut

Once plugging the criteria into Basketball-reference.com’s wonderful game finder database, an astonishingly short list of matches were returned: four players (other than Zinger) since the 1963-64 season have taken 12 free throws in their NBA debuts:

  1. Billy McKinney: 10/15/78 – 12 FTAs, 23pts
  2. Isiah Thomas: 10/30/81 – 13 FTAs, 31pts
  3. David Robinson: 11/4/89 – 14 FTAs, 17rebs, 3blks, 23pts
  4. Lamar Odom: 11/2/99 – 15 FTAs, 44min, 12rebs, 2stls, 2blks, 30pts

Before we get into the illustrious company the Zinger keeps, how about that debut from Odom? At the time, he was only 19-years-old, making his NBA debut alongside a cast of quixotic characters with the Clippers that far exceeds the Zinger’s experience in weird New York. But to open a career with 30 and 12, 15 trips to the line in a whopping 44 minutes is the stuff greatness is built on. Beyond the Odom gem, how about David Robinson and Isiah Thomas? Please don’t hurt us, Zinger.

This is the ultimate in small sample size theater, but it’s theater nonetheless and the 7’3” debutant playing the four, facing up, getting his jumper at will in a way in Kevin Durant can relate to and of course, working his way to the charity stripe 12 times is beautiful, promising start. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary letter to Walt Whitman in which he wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” the Zinger similarly received great praise from the face of his own franchise as Melo said, “you couldn’t ask for more than that.”

Guess Spencer’s Strange

When some people think of Spencer Hawes being strange, they might be like, “Oh wait, that’s that politically conservative dude that plays center and shoots threes, right?” While that’s true, it’s only part of the reason he’s showing up in this segment of Guess I’m Strange.

At 7’1”, Hawes contains a unique set of skills for a man his size. He’s just 26-years-old and coming off a career year split between the demoralizing rebuild in Philadelphia and underachieving turnover of Cleveland. Recently signed to the Clippers, he brings a dynamism that maybe Byron Mullens was supposed to add but never could. He’s the anti-Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and that has nothing to do with skin pigmentation. Where Blake and DeAndre catch the lobs and smash them with pent up aggression, Hawes, all 85-inches of him, sees over the heads and hands of defenders and envisions himself throwing the lobs. Coach Doc Rivers is already on the record saying he’ll play the three big men together and Hawes, as a plus-40% three point shooter, has the ability to open up the court and give more room for Jordan and Griffin to operate inside while pulling big defenders further away from the hoop. That stretchability creates more chances for the Clippers to get creative with how they deploy Griffin who could create matchup nightmares at the three.

Hawes’s line last year: 13.2ppg, 8.3rpg, 3apg, 1.6 3s/game while shooting over 40% from beyond the arc was a statistical rarity for a seven-footer. The only other seven-footer in league history to put up a varied line like that is Dirk Nowitzki. No one’s confusing Hawes for Dirk, but there is an overlap in skills that not many other big men in the league’s history have shared.

When viewed through the lens of advanced stats, Hawes’s 2013-14 is much less impressive. His assist percentage and true shooting are still good for a center, but further advanced measures are average for a modern center.

But the Clips didn’t sign Hawes to be some kind of advanced-metrics savant. They signed him for all the things he can do well that Griffin and Jordan can’t. They signed him because he’s become a nearly-80% free throw shooter who can spell Jordan late in close games without sacrificing significant defensive drop off. They signed him because at seven-feet with a three-point shot, great passing, and a good rim protection, well, we guess he’s strange.

 

Guess Pau’s Strange: Induction into the 20/10 Club (and revisiting Charles Barkley)

We used to get 20s & 10s more frequently than we do these days. In the 2000s, we’ve seen at least two players average twenty points and ten rebounds in every season until now. We have scorers who are just OK rebounders and rebounders who aren’t so offensively evolved. But I’m not here to deceive you. This isn’t about that 20/10 club, it’s about the 20-rebound/10-assist club that Pau Gasol, (the greatest Spanish-born NBA player in league history) joined on Wednesday night in a critical victory for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Pau  Gasol 20-10                             

Gasol has re-focused himself since his return from injury and is averaging a dynamic 17.5ppg, 12.1rpg and 6.6apg on 51% shooting in eight April games. His performance against the shallow Rockets front court on Wednesday night was just a further reminder of why all of us thought this Lakers team would be so much better than they have been this season.

As is and has so often been the case, a unique performance this season has opened up my eyes to another great performance from days gone by. This time, it was Charles Barkley on April 4th, 1986. Barkley, a 6’4”-ish power forward, went for 27 points, 22 rebounds and 10 assists on 12-18 shooting. I’m not calling this out just because Charles Barkley is a member of the 20/10 club. Certainly Tim Duncan’s 21-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist, 8-block game—in the NBA Finals—is a more dynamic and historical event. What’s more impressive is that it seems like Barkley shows up on every other “Guess I’m Strange” post I do:

  •         John Henson’s filter: 17pts/20rebs/7blks. Barkley achieved the same feat on November 28th, 1986
  •         Spencer Hawse’s filter: 18pts/16rebs/8assts/7blks. Yep, Barkley’s same game on 11/28/86: 31pts, 21rebs, 9asts, 7blks
  •         Reggie Evans’s filter: 16 FTAs/24rebs. On December 9th, 1987, Chuck had 38pts, 24rebs and attempted 21 FTs.
  •         Pau Gasol’s aforementioned line: 20/10

This post seemed appropriate after Henry Abbott’s interview on TrueHoop TV with Tim Grover where Grover (Michael Jordan’s long-time personal trainer and the current trainer for Kobe and D. Wade) singled out Barkley as the greatest athlete he’s ever worked with. When you think about the size and speed of Barkley (his 76ers fast breaks were frightening) and what he was able to accomplish as a player who measured between 6’4” and 6’6”, it’s hard to fathom. In 1987, he led the league with 14.6rpg. That same season he averaged 23ppg, 4.9apg and 1.8 steals with a TS of 66%. The only other players in league history put up the 23/14/4 are Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Unbelievable, Barkley and unbelievable trails we find ourselves on when we stray just a little bit off the paths that are paved for us.  

Now let’s all kick back and soak in the animal style of the one and only, Charles Barkley:

Guess John Henson’s Strange

It’s the tail end of the NBA season and we all know what that means: Unpredictable lineups, superstars and future franchise players randomly sitting games because there’s nothing left to play for, tanking accusations and of course, the wide world of bizarre statlines. In a game tonight that had no meaning at all except for developmental reps, possible performance-based incentives and a chance for Orlando to improve their odds at winning the lottery, the Bucks of Milwaukee went down to Orlando to face the Magic. I didn’t watch any of this game until overtime when I realized some variation of the NBA Twilight Zone starring John Henson was unfolding at the Amway Center.

Henson is well known for his lanky frame and Phil Jackson-styled walk which includes a sort of hitch in or around the hip area. I’m no physiotherapist, but Henson’s gait looks like something that will give him trouble in the future. It certainly didn’t give him any trouble tonight as evidence by this tremendously unpredictable line:

Henson. 

It was a game overflowing with unpredictable oddities and copious amounts of rebounds to be had by all. Nikola Vucevic of “Guess I’m Strange” fame recorded his league-leading fourth 20/20 game with 30 points and 20 rebounds (that’s back-to-back 20/20s for Vucevic) and the recent Magic addition Tobias Harris (picked up in a trade with the Bucks in February) had a career night against his former team with 30 points and 19 rebounds including a game-tying three that sent the game in OT. It was an ultimate expression of NBA-condoned vengeance.  

But it was Henson who caused destruction with his spindly arms and hands blocking and disrupting shots on his way to that 25-rebound total. His 17-point, 25-rebound, 7-block combination is the only one achieved by a Bucks player since at least 1985-86 (that’s as far as Basketball-reference’s game finder goes back for blocks and boards). That piqued my always-inquisitive mind so I asked the basketball machine who was the last player to beast mode like Henson did tonight. The basketball machine told me:

John  Henson joins the greats - 04-10-13 

Updated to include 25-rebound filter

Updated to include 25-rebound filter

*Ed’s note on the larger table above: the rebound filter is set to 20. On the second table, the accurate 25-rebound filter is set–which actually puts Henson in a more exclusive group. Also, interesting to see Hakeem’s destruction of Orlando back in 1989 on the list. I explored the conditions of that game in a previous post here.* Lot of great games and names that list, including the most recent by Joakim Noah just over a month ago, but John Henson? This string bean of a basketball player? This long legged leaper in a league full of long legged leapers? 25 boards? We haven’t seen another player this young put up at least 17 and 25 since a 21-year-old Shaquille O’Neal went for 24 points, 28 rebounds and 15 blocks (while only attempting a single free throw—so strange) back in 1993.

Yes, it’s highly esteemed company that Henson joined tonight, but I don’t have a clue what type of player he is or will become. Even in the dying embers of overtime, Henson’s length and leap timing was an obvious skill, but something (something named Larry Sanders?) has caused Henson’s minutes to decrease over the past few months from 17mpg in January to roughly 10mpg in February and March to just four mpg in four April games. Then there nights like this and nights like November 21st, 2012 when he went for 17pts and 18 boards against the Heat. So who is John Henson and what is he to you?

Who are these men?

Who are these men?

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