Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

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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.

The Lost Years of Magic Johnson

You can lose all sorts of things. There’s Nas’s “Lost Tapes,” the Lost Boys and the Lost Boyz. People lose themselves, lose their keys, lose games. Lost lives, lost loves. You can lose anything tangible or intangible. Then there’s the four-plus seasons Magic Johnson lost to a lack of understanding around the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Losing a few seasons wasn’t life or death, it exceeded basketball in the sense that it challenged misconceptions around HIV/AIDS and continues to do so today – over 22 years later. When I write about “lost years” here, I’m referring specifically to an on-court context as Magic’s contracting HIV had a broader, further reach than anything he could’ve done a on basketball court. To that point, the power of Magic’s very public relationship with HIV has been covered more in depth and with more consideration than I can hope to, but what I remain curious about is what would’ve happened from 1991 to 1996 when a post-prime Magic still would’ve been gliding up the court, knees braced, fingers wrapped in tape, freezing indecisive defenders will telegenic lookaways, gold jersey with big purple 3-2 shadowed in white, pumping out stats so rare that he has no statistical comparison. What would’ve been?

It was last week I stumbled across a piece on Deadspin titled “The Beautiful Infographics of Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting.” I emailed the story to a couple friends and we exchanged a few back and forths about Teddy Ballgame and the three seasons he lost in his prime to WWII service. Williams somehow won the Triple Crown both before and after his military sabbatical and, like Magic, doesn’t need any extra stats to pad his legendary résumé, but you still wonder about those three seasons and 450+ games he missed out on.

After referencing Magic in one of my email exchanges, I meandered over to Magic’s basketball-reference page and took a look at his outputs during his short return to the Lakers as a 36-year-old PF/PG: 14.6ppg, 5.7rpg and 6.9apg. The numbers on their own aren’t eye-poppingly revolutionary. 67 other times, NBA players have accomplished this line or better, but no player 36 or older has ever done it and no one else who’s posted these numbers did it while playing under 30-minutes/game like Magic did. It took most players at least 36-minutes/night to generate these well-balanced numbers.

I reached out to some of the stat guys at Hickory-High and chatted with Jacob Frankel about age-based regression statistics. Jacob explained to me that “players generally decline in everything except shooting and rebounding after 28,” but also cautioned that Magic might be a completely different animal. He offered to crunch the numbers for me using his own methodology and I was kind of excited when I heard back from Jacob a day later with the following: “I think Magic breaks the system … the system is based on similar players and Magic was so unique that it’s misfiring.”

I’m tempted to write something silly like “Magic breaks math,” but he’s just so much different from any other player that it’s difficult to systematically project his impact during those lost years. Where just a handful of players have been able to put up at least 14, 5 and 6.5 over the course of a season, Magic did it in every one of his 13 NBA seasons and the last one in 1995-96 was done after spending four full seasons away from the game and playing a career-low in minutes. His per-36 minutes that final season showed a slight decline against his career averages which is to be expected when comparing a 36-year-old with rust to a 31-year-old All-NBA first teamer who carried his team to the finals in 1991. Some other things to keep in mind: Magic split time between power forward and point guard on Del Harris’s 95-96 team. Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, he still exceeded his career average usage rate with 22.7%.

When I finally arrived at some oddball projections that wouldn’t pass muster in an elementary stats class, I found myself sort of empty. The numbers decline uniformly because my regressions are unimaginative, but the sum of what we missed out on amounts to a couple thousand rebounds, a few thousand more assists (he’d still be behind John Stockton), almost 5,000 points and a little over 10,000 more minutes. There would’ve been more memories and intrigues, battles with MJ and playoff triple doubles, but the extra codas these years would’ve added to his narrative are so significantly outweighed by his response to his own reality that I walk away from this piece with both a sense of failure at articulating any statistical intrigue and a greater sense of appreciation for the impact of the post-HIV Magic.   


[POSTSCRIPT: It was eye-opening that as I sat down to write this, what is intentionally a piece focused on stats, I quickly became aware of how miniscule these thoughts are in relation to the impact of Magic’s announcement 22 years ago. What happened since then has been nothing short of world changing. In terms of bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to a mass audience and challenging stereotypes, Magic’s story is profoundly positive. In addition, his bottomless vaults of money and resources, his access to the best doctors and drugs, have cast a different-shaded light on what should be a problematic question of access and affordability of life-saving drugs. What I will continue to take away from Magic Johnson and HIV is that basketball created a platform with a massive, but relatively (on a global scale) limited audience. HIV offered a direct connection to millions of people in the same way cancer allowed Lance Armstrong to connect with people who never gave a damn about the Tour de France.

No matter how big they are, Magic’s trophy cases are overflowing with the awards and accomplishments from a life on the court. He’s on imaginary Mount Rushmores, is considered the greatest point guard to ever play the game, has the stats and hardware to back it all up. And no matter how great he was on the court, his impact off it has been infinitely more valuable to our species. Everything above, as curiosity-piquing as it may sometimes seem, is little droplets of salt water in the sprawling ocean of Magic’s life.]

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