While reading Rick Barry’s odd and awkward 1972 autobiography Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, I ran into the story of Wilt Chamberlain being traded by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965 for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash. It wasn’t just the lopsidedness of the trade that caught my attention, but the thou-doth-protest-too-much explanation from then Warriors-owner and trigger man of the deal, Franklin Mieuli (page 87):
“As great as Wilt Chamberlain was, he wasn’t a big draw. He carried a big contract with him. He forced us to play a great center, Nate Thurmond, at forward. Everyone figured we’d have to sell or trade Thurmond and bid on him. I figured maybe Chamberlain was the man to unload. If we’d have gotten off to a fast start the next season (1964-65) I might have stood pat, but we got off to a terrible start. We lost 17 straight. No one wanted to buy a ticket. The new operation in Philadelphia was willing to take Chamberlain back. I let them have him for Lee Shaffer, Connie Dierking, and Paul Neumann, plus some cash.”
There’s truth and variations, obfuscations, and alternative interpretations of what happened with the Wilt deal and much of it is contradictory to Mieuli’s retelling from 1972. Long-time sporting scribe for the New York Times, Leonard Koppett described the morass as, “Under the surface, moreover, lies such a labyrinth of interlocking interests, motivations and dependencies that even the conscientious basketball follower needs a refresher course to make subsequent conversation possible.” Here are the key characters involved in the deal:
Wilt Chamberlain – basketball player and author of Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire who lives next door
Franklin Mieuli – San Francisco Warriors owner, purchased team with a Diners Club group in 1962. Sold team in 1986.
Eddie Gottlieb, aka Gotty – NBA lifer, Philadelphia native, described as being the “shape of a half-keg of beer.” Knew Chamberlain from his teenage playing days in Philly, pressed league hard for territorial draft (teams would get rights to college players in their loosely-defined “territory”) in order to secure the services of Chamberlain and ultimately selected Wilt after his high school graduation. Purchased Philadelphia franchise in 1952 for $25k, sold it in 1962 for $875k.
Ike Richman – described by Wilt in his autobiography as, “more than a friend and attorney and prospective employer to me; he was like a second father.” Richman purchased the Syracuse Nationals franchise from Danny Biasone (creator of the shot clock) and moved the franchise to Philadelphia.
There are a few themes in the loop of Chamberlain’s journey to San Francisco and back to Philadelphia: Obviously Chamberlain himself, the league’s walking calendar Eddie Gottlieb, and money.
The amount of speculation around why Mieuli dealt the mercurial “Big Musty” is legion. One of my favorites is NBA coach Alex Hannum’s, who says in Barry’s book, “I remember once when we had won the pennant with Wilt, Wilt suggested we be given something unusual like diamond stickpins instead of the usual rings. Mieuli gave rings. Later, Wilt got sick. When he rejoined the team, Mieuli met him at the airport with a diamond stickpin. Wilt looked at it and asked, ‘What’s this piece of ______?’ That’s why Wilt got traded, no other reason. You can win with Wilt. I did. Wilt is unfairly regarded.” (The blank is unclear in Barry’s book, but imagination can certainly be used.)
While Hannum’s explanation is the most colorful, it seems unlikely. Mieuli had killed his center’s trade value by making it clear to everyone at all-star weekend that he was available and while he was insistent on moving Chamberlain, it seems unlikely he was so insistent over a diamond stickpin and Wilt doesn’t mention said stickpin in his book. In his autobiography, Chamberlain, a frequent embellisher, describes Mieuli’s behavior at the 1965 all-star weekend: “when we all went to St. Louis for the January 13 all-star game, Mieuli told him (Hannum), ‘I’m not leaving St. Louis till I get rid of that son-of-a-bitch.’ … Mieuli wound up running around from hotel room to hotel room in St. Louis, trying to swing a deal for me, and he finally made it—at 12:30 in the morning, during the post-all-star-game party, on the winding staircase of Stan Musial’s restaurant. I understand it was one of the least confidential, most slapstick negotiations in NBA history.” This accounting is contrasted by Dave Lewis of the Long Beach Independent who wrote, “Hannum played a vital role in the deal by convincing the Warrior brass they’d be better off in the long run without him.” If there’s any accuracy to Lewis’s statement, it’s two-fold: 1) it makes the diamond stickpin story more of a tool for Hannum to absolve himself of any role in the trade and 2) Hannum had previously coached Shaffer and, according to Chamberlain, believed he could convince the AWOL player to come to San Francisco even though he was already on his way out of pro basketball.
Other explanations seek the conspiracy route and this was a thread that, given the incestuous components of the Philadelphian participants, was somewhat believable but when set alongside Gottlieb’s long-term position in the league, is ultimately unsubstantiated. From The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Fred Byrod on January 19th, 1965 (this link, and others that will appear, require subscription or free trial for access):
“A neat, three-way solution was arrived at, so the story went: San Francisco shipped Chamberlain back to Philadelphia instead of paying Gottlieb. Philadelphia gave the cash it announced it had paid for Wilt to Biasone (former owner of the Syracuse Nationals who sold the franchise to Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff). For his part, Gotty was handed a piece of the 76ers. Depending on your viewpoint, this explanation either contradicts, or agrees with, another rumor widespread ever since Richman and Kosloff brought the Syracuse club to Philadelphia—that they were really just fronting for Gottlieb, then on the coast, rolling in his new wealth, in his new role as GM of the Warriors. After a decent period of waiting on the coast, Gottlieb was supposed to reappear on the Philadelphia front and take over the reins from Richman, his longtime lawyer, and Kosloff, his one-time school pupil in South Philadelphia.”
Byrod then goes on to quote Gottlieb,
“San Francisco paid me half the purchase price ($425k) in the first place. I was to get the rest in four payments over five years, and I’ve received every cent due me thus far. I’m still a stockholder, as well as eastern consultant, for the Warriors. That’s a matter of record. The league wouldn’t let me have interest in two clubs at the same time. I’ve had three or four offers from other clubs, in case I leave the Warriors, in the last year. Don’t you think they would find out about it if I had money in the 76ers? Would they want me then? Get it straight, I never had any money in the 76ers. I don’t have any money in them now. And the way things are, I never expect to have any money in them.”
With the emphatic mic drop, Gottlieb seemed to be telling the truth. With Gotty’s role with the Warriors reduced to the vague “eastern consultant,” and the triangle of relationships (business and personal) between Chamberlain, Gottlieb, and Richman, it’s not a stretch to believe Gotty was angling for a way back in Philadelphia NBA ownership, but if so, it never materialized on paper or in any official legal capacity. He would eventually become a consultant for the league and personally created the schedule by hand up until the late 1970s.
That doesn’t fully address Mieuli’s thought process. After all, business is and always has been built on relationships. So let’s focus on the money. In my readings, it was reported that the money Philadelphia sent to the San Francisco franchise ranged anywhere from $75,000 to $300,000 (per Lewis, Long Beach Independent) and lots of observers had opinions how much money and in whose pockets it landed:
Theory #1: See above for Fred Byrod’s recapping that suggests the money went to Danny Biasone (former Syracuse owner).
Theory #2: Abe Saperstein, Harlem Globetrotter founder and one-time associate of Gottlieb, as retold by the San Francisco Examiner’s Prescott Sullivan: “Abe saw the so-called $300k deal as a cashless transaction. ‘I don’t believe any money changed hands. I think what happened was the Warriors gave up Chamberlain so as to square the books with Eddie Gottlieb who, in my opinion, has never been too far away from Philadelphia.’” (Worth noting Gotty and Saperstein, per Sullivan, “have not been on friendly terms for years” and it was speculated that this loss of friendship was a result of Saperstein’s view that Gotty had blocked his entry into NBA ownership.)
Theory #3: Terry Pluto in Tall Tales: “All that mattered was the bucket of bucks; the other guys were just bodies. The amount was $150k, which doesn’t sound like much now, but you could pay an entire starting team for $150k in 1965. Also the Warriors deducted Chamberlain’s $200k salary from their roster.”
Theory #4: Wilt Chamberlain, in his autobiography: “It was announced that Philadelphia gave Mieuli $300,000 … for me, but the figure was actually much lower—and most of it went to me, not Mieuli. He was behind in my salary, and suspect that’s another reason I was traded—I kept bugging him for my money.”
The above theories vary in their believability and when you consider Wilt frequently wrote about being paid more than his official salary, (page 172 in his autobiography, “Although I’d been making more than $100,000 for several years by then [1965 when he was traded], this was the first time any clubowner publicly admitted he was paying me that much,” and his disclosure (page 185) that Richman (friend, lawyer and “second father” Richman) “had promised me a piece of the team … Ike promised me half of his half—25 percent,” it’s difficult to sort through the murky waters of self-serving explanations and land on a definitive clarity. It’s fair to speculate that the number was well-under $300k (per Pluto and Wilt). Those funds likely went directly to Mieuli who paid Chamberlain any back payments. This corroborates Wilt’s narrative, and a degree of Pluto’s while discounting Byrod’s retelling of the cynical rumor and Saperstein’s likely uninformed and potentially jaded view (although in the same piece with Saperstein, he claims, “Wilt broke into pro basketball play for me on the Globetrotters. I have been more-or-less his advisor ever since.”).
Money was a real motivator for Mieuli who had experienced a rocky first few years as an NBA owner: the franchise bled money its first season (62-63), made the finals in its second (63-64), and had the worst record in the league its third season while trading the league’s most recognizable player in Chamberlain (64-65). In the New York Times piece linked above, Leonard Koppett wrote that “San Francisco, apparently, was not ready for pro basketball … In 1962-63, the team was a total flop financially.” This is in line with Mieuli’s statement above. The other piece, again from Koppett, that speaks to an unsustainability in the pro basketball model of the 1960s, provides this historical context, “Gottlieb (as owner of the Philadelphia franchise), under present tax laws, could not afford to go on paying Wilt’s salary, since basketball’s gate receipts have a built-in low limit. He tried to sell Wilt to New York, but the Knicks weren’t interested. So he sold the whole franchise, for some $800,000, to San Francisco.”
The notion (from Mieuli) that Wilt wasn’t a draw is likely true, but also likely rooted in the struggle of pro basketball to land in San Francisco in the early 1960s as it wasn’t a topic that I’ve seen in subsequent Chamberlain narratives. Lewis from the Long Beach Independent somewhat contextualized this, “Wilt has always been a good drawing card in his hometown,” but clarifying that, “He (Chamberlain) attracts the biggest crowds on the road and in the NBA the home teams keep the entire gates.” Mieuli took it a step further in a piece written by Roland Lazenby: “the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He’s easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose.”
Despite the lack of clarity on the details of the deal and the sketchy intrigue of its Philadelphia participants, both of the principals (Mieuli and Chamberlain) agreed it was a sensible deal in spirit and concept that was ultimately a bad dead in its execution:
Wilt: “Trading me really wasn’t such a bad idea for San Francisco. Nate (Thurmond) was 23 then, five years younger than me, with his whole future ahead of him. If the Warriors could get some other good, young players for me, they figured they might have the nucleus of a helluva good team. But Mieuli was so anxious to dump me, he made a lousy deal.”
Mieuli: “I could have gotten a lot more money for Chamberlain, but I wanted the players I got … People forget that Shaffer could have been an all-pro for ten years. But he was a flake. … Shaffer never reported. That alone made it a bad deal. Still, I’d make it again.”
And ultimately, both men landed in better basketball situations. The Warriors picked up Rick Barry in the 1965 draft. Mieuli unceremoniously dumped Hannum after the 1966 season and hired Bill Sharman who pushed a fast team faster (127.4 pace) and helped elevate the young team to the NBA finals. Of the three players in the Chamberlain deal, only Paul Neumann was still with the team. He played 78 games as their point guard before retiring at the end of the season, at 29-years-old. In retrospect in 1967, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia News wrote of the trade, “Neumann is still playing a lot of guard for the Warriors, but Dierking is playing center for Cincinnati, Shaffer is operating a trucking line in North Carolina and the cash has been spent.”
Chamberlain would be bounced twice more by the Celtics including a game-seven heartbreaker in 1965 after the trade, but he would eventually be reunited with Hannum in 1966 for what turned out to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Buying into Hannum’s team-centric approach, Chamberlain helped lead Philly to a then NBA-record 68 wins. They knocked Boston out in five games and in the clincher, Wilt went for 29-points, 36-rebounds, and 13-assists. Beating Boston was a special achievement in itself and made the finals against Mieuli’s Warriors something of a footnote. Philly won the series in six games.
Did some funny business happen to ultimately grease the wheels of Chamberlain’s return to Philadelphia? Between the weak ass return Mieuli got and the tight relationship between the Chamberlain-Gottlieb-Richman triumvirate, the answer is an unconfident, “probably” and that probably watered down by an acknowledgment that, if the chicanery did occur, it was likely a low level infraction at worst. I come away from the whole investigation most interested (or entertained, perhaps) by two components: 1) Alex Hannum’s damn diamond stickpin story. I love it and want it to be true. 2) Lee Shaffer. A fifth overall pick in 1960 out of UNC who was taken ahead of Lenny Wilkens and Satch Sanders, he was a 17-ppg scorer in 196 career games, appeared in zero games in 64-65 when he was traded, and vanished into the North Carolina trucking business like a non-homicidal Keyser Soze shaking off that limp. Lee Shaffer wasn’t likely a ten-year all-pro or good enough to swing the fortunes of the deal for the Warriors, but he was an effective player who retired at 24. Lee, if you’re reading this, I’d love to talk about your decision. I’m guessing it’s a lot simpler than what my imagination makes it out to be.
Epilogue (on Lee Shaffer)
Lee Shaffer did not vanish into thin air. A mild amount of research led me to this Reddit thread on r/VintageNBA which references a no-longer-available piece by basketball historian and deep well of encyclopedic knowledge, Curtis M. Harris. According to the thread, the original Harris piece, and comments on that piece,
“Lee Shaffer wasn’t hired away from the NBA to be a trucker. Lee Shaffer was hired away by Tom Kenan, whom was his college roommate. The Kenans are an old and storied North Carolina family with huge interests in trucking, oil, land and many members of the family are full time philanthropists.
Lee Shaffer retired almost a decade ago as the Chairman of Kenan Advantage Group. His son lettered in football in UNC and is now VP of operations in the trucking branch of Kenan Advantage Group, one of the largest, if not the largest chemical transportation companies in the NA continent. Quitting the NBA to go into business with his college roommate was the right call.”
I won’t presume to creep into the cranium of Shaffer and assess the rightness or wrongness or indifferentness of his decision to leave professional basketball, but I will include some anecdotes from a story by Mike White of the Post Gazette (Pittsburgh) on its unknown homegrown, Shaffer:
Shaffer on Tom Heinsohn: “We just missed out on playing the Boston Celtics in the playoffs one year and they didn’t have anyone who could guard me, either. They would put Tom Heinsohn on me, but he couldn’t guard his grandmother and you can tell him that.”
Shaffer scored 41 points in a high school playoff game as a 15-year-old senior.
Shaffer broke his leg during the 63-64 season which contributed to his premature retirement.
Shaffer claims, “Bill Russell was the best player there ever was. There can’t be an argument. But Oscar Robertson was the best player I ever saw. There’s a difference.”
1963: Lee Shaffer poses for a picture during the 1963 NBA season. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1963 NBAE (Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)
Except for October, February’s the leanest, lightest month in the NBA season. There’s the All-Star break, a short month, and the trade deadline throwing wrenches into players and their pursuits of historical nobility, but what applies to today’s players applied to the players of yesteryear and so the locomotive pushes forth down the tracks headed to the inevitability of an 82-game stopping point. Niceties aside, let’s get into the cold inflexibility of the numbers:
Andre Drummond: 902 rebounds in 60 games: For a while it felt like maybe Drummond’s pace was slowing but that was back in the day, back in January when he averaged just 12.6rpg in 15 games. February was a new month and like the first buds sprouting on the branches of spring, Drummond’s arose with his consumption of 24.3% of all rebounds with a 15.2 average for the month. The last player to rebound like this was Kevin Love in 2010-11 and before that Dennis Rodman did it thrice and Kevin Willis once. Sadly, Drummond is the worst free throw shooter of the bunch.
Hassan Whiteside: 195 blocks in 50 games: He’s not starting anymore, but he’s blocking more shots. February was Whiteside’s best shot blocking month since November as he swatted 37 shots in nine games while turning in a DRtg of 89 and his best plus/minus of the season at +3.1. Honestly, he was a beast across the board with season highs in TS%, ppg, and rpg all while playing his least minutes/game. Whiteside’s blocking the most shots since Marcus Camby back in 2007-08, but it doesn’t mean the enigma of his emotional volatility is any clearer. Someone’s rightly going to pay that man his money, but is this the guy you want as the defensive anchor for your team? I’m unconvinced, but I’ll listen.
James Harden: 268 turnovers in 60 games: By some measures like points, rebounds, and assists, Harden’s having the most prolific season of his career. By other measures like turnovers, he’s having the worst. But one thing we can say for Harden is that he’s been steady Eddie when it comes to turning the ball over. He took a cool 4.42 TOV/game average into February, turned the ball over 47 times in 10 games and cranked that average up to 4.5 – the type of ball control messiness not seen since Allen Iverson in 2004-05. Before that it was Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas in 1986-87. The Rockets went 4-6 over that stretch and Dwight Howard was not traded.
Stephen Curry: 288 3s made in 58 games: I’m all Steph’d out. 288 threes in 58 games (he’s only played 56, but I’m handicapping his number by including his team’s total games) is 90 threes more than the next closest player – Ray Allen from 2005-06 when Seattle used to have a pro basketball team called the Sonics.
Kristaps Porzingis: 67 3s and 116 blocks in 61 games: He’s no Karl-Anthony Towns, but big fucking deal. Not everyone can be the heir to Tim Duncan. Instead Porzingis is just a 7’3” kid making over a three/game while blocking nearly two shots/night. For a 20-year-old kid unaccustomed to the grind of an 82-game season with travel and living in a new country, the Zinger’s been impressively consistent. Last month he had four peers within this stat set, but this time around it’s just three; the most recent Serge Ibaka last season.
Paul George: 161 3s made and 423 rebounds in 60 games: Maybe more impressive than George being the third player since 83-84 to average 7+ rebounds while making over 2.5 3s/game through 60 games is that he hasn’t missed a single game in his first full year returning from injury. All season long it’s been George and Antoine Walker holding down the fort for this club, but a steady month-over-month decline in 3PM/game has opened the door to the inclusion of Ryan Anderson (2011-12) of stretch four trade rumor fame.
Kawhi Leonard: 51% FG, 48.8% 3pt, 88.2% FT in 59 games: With the Spurs getting their asses kicked a couple times in the past month or so, some of the clamor around Leonard quieted a bit, but in the meanwhile (aka, February), he had a 65% TS on the strength of 50% from three and 54% from the field. Through 59 games (the number of games his team has played – Kawhi’s played just 54), the only other player that has shot as well (51-48-88) is Fred Hoiberg back in 2004-05 when he went for the remarkable 52-53-88 through 59 games.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 615 rebounds and 106 blocks in 60 games: The best rookie in nearly 20 years, Towns is proving Duncan-esque in his consistency and that’s appropriate since Tim Duncan’s the last rookie to rebound and blocks shots as well as Towns. But if we want to get super exclusive, we could just expand the criteria to include Towns’s 20 made threes and we’ll filter out Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem, etc. That feels unfair though since the game is entering a period of evolution so let’s add free throw accuracy to the mix instead. If we set the FT% at 80% (Towns shoots 82%), Karl-Anthony will be singing “one is the loneliest number” all by his damn self. Karl-Anthony Towns: Only rookie since 83-84 (and possibly ever) to average 10rpg, nearly 2bpg while shooting over 80% from the line. You sweet bastard, you.
Kobe Bryant: 288 FGs on 822 FGAs (35%) in 49 games: Every month this one stings just a bit as Kobe’s the only player (since 83-84) who has needed 822 shots to make just 288. He had his best TS month of the season at a paltry 48%, driven by a season-best 32% from three, but even his best this year is well below average. (Note: At this moment on March 1st, Kobe has made as many FGs as Steph has 3s.) Old Kobe is grossly inefficient, but he’s still a human so let’s just move on.
Ricky Rubio: 149 FGs on 411 FGAs (36%) in 54 games: Rubio’s game couldn’t be much more different from Kobe’s which makes the fact that the 2016 versions of each both shoot like shit a weird kind of coincidence, but it’s still true. If you want to find silver linings in Rubio’s shooting, you need to look at his free throws (shooting career-best 83%) because everything else is bad or sporadic. While we’re grasping for straws, it’s worth mentioning that in 11 February games, Rubio had his best FG%, FT%, and TS% of the season while averaging a season-high points for a month with a 124 ORtg – also a season high. Maybe some of that can be traced to the addition of Zach LaVine to the starting lineup or maybe it’s just part of Rollercoaster Rubio’s peaks and valleys. The last guy to shoot this bad through 54 games was Eddie House in 2003-04.
Tony Parker: 285 FGs on 553 FGs (51.5%) in 54 games: The only other guard to make 285 or more shots on 553 or less attempts is John Stockton; a player probably as steady as any in history though Tim Duncan and Karl Malone may have bones to pick with that idea. Whatever, Parker’s shooting his eyeballs out this season. He’s extra-selective in his shot selection as evidenced by his taking less than a three/game, but making 47% of them including 57% in February on 14 attempts. I still don’t see him being a significant contributor in a Spurs/Warriors series, but there’s a reason I’m here writing this and not giving snarky answers to sideline reporters in between quarters of NBA games.
Russell Westbrook: 1458 points and 619 assists in 60 games: Since 83-84, the only other player to go for at least 24-10 was little Michael Adams, but this is all about Russ (sorry, Michael). In addition to the rare 24-10, Russ is leading the league in steals and averaging nearly 8rpg. He’s second in the league in triple doubles (has 9 to Draymo’s 10) and has somehow found a way to be the Russ the pundits always wanted him to be while doing it his own way – and no, I’m not referencing his pre-game fashion eccentricities though that is an implicit part of the package. But two thoughts on Russ: I’ve always considered him a modern version of Barkley in his violently raw athleticism that allows him to impact every part of the game at a high level. And now I’m wondering if, like Barkley with MJ, Russ is doomed to the shadow of Steph. It’s too early for this kind of talk though, the future is a doorway to tomorrow in the shape of a question mark. After you, my friend. I insist.
James Harden: 614 FTA and 417 assists in 60 games: Speaking of the great unknown, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Harden pop up twice. Harden’s one of our most skilled players and because of that he’s in select company with LeBron James and Iverson as the only three players since 83-84 to average at least 7apg while shooting 10 FTA/game. These are true attackers of the basket, a rare breed of player that batters defenses with body shots instead of the one-punch KOs of Curry/Pacquiao. Also worth noting, 2015-16 Harden and 2004-05 Iverson both averaged over 4.5 TOV/gm along with their 7apg and 10 FTA/gm.
Draymo, Russ and Triple Doubles: This is a new addition to the list. Draymo and Russ have combined for 19 triple doubles this season and with a quarter of the season remaining, NBA players have already registered the most triple doubles (47) since 1996-97 when players combined for 50; led by Grant Hill’s 13. For context, the most in a season since 83-84 was 88-89 when players put up 78. Magic had 17, MJ 15, and Fat Lever 9.
A while back I started researching the enormous amount of NBA minutes LeBron James has played in his decorated career. I’ll be exploring this in future work, but focusing on something different today: The 4,000 Minute Club because Dancing with Noah is interested in nothing if not interested in creating exclusive clubs for groups of large men that strut into statistical significance.
The 4,000 minute club is made up of any player that has appeared in 4,000 minutes or more combined across regular season and post-season for a single year. It’s a testament to some elite level of indispensability to your team, Cal Ripken-ish durability, and team success.
The 4k club is unique in that it’s possibly nearing extinction as you’ll see through the numbers below. While NBA Finals participants have the opportunity to appear in more total games than their NBA forebears due to playoff series expansion, things like sports science or common sense have resulted in minute reduction. A good, but isolated example of this is last year’s MVP Stephen Curry appearing in an MVP record-low 32.7 minutes/game. Golden State’s a unique example in that they’re able to blow out opponents without big minutes required of their top dog, but last season’s league leader in minutes played was James Harden who appeared in less than 3,000 minutes for the regular season – the fewest minutes played in a non-lockout season since 1958-59 when the NBA only played 72 games. These are microcosms of the broader downtrend in minutes played.
To arrive at a modern, contextual list of players, I separated the NBA/ABA into a pre-modern and modern era:
Pre-Modern: beginning of time to 1979-80
Modern: 1980-81 to present
The 4k threshold has been surpassed 55 times in NBA/ABA history with 36 of those seasons occurring in the pre-modern period when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell stalked North America feasting on the blood and bones of knobby-kneed opponents. The top-10 of most combined regular and playoff minutes all occurred between 1961-62 and 1973-74 when pros wore low-top Chuck Taylor’s, shorts that would make John Stockton blush, and didn’t yet have the perks of chartered air travel or modern exercise science. The list below is made up of Wilt and Kareem, then four guys from the ABA which had an 84-game season.
Regardless of how it’s explained or rationalized, it’s difficult to wrap your head around Wilt the Stilt playing 48.5 minutes/game over the course of a 92-game season. He appeared in more than the available regulation minutes not for a game, a week, or a month, but an entire damn season. These super charged numbers are incomprehensible in the way Babe Ruth’s hitting and pitching stats are impossible, in the way Cy Young won over 500 games and threw nearly 750 complete games. They are so far beyond any current comprehension that they’re not comparable to the modern, post-Wilt game.
Instead, the modern breakout exists in a world closer to current standards of sanity and tolerability. Successful teams like the Spurs and Warriors have readjusted what is and isn’t acceptable with NBA player workloads while coaches like Tom Thibodeau are regularly admonished for throwing big minutes at players that who hobble on future arthritic joints.
The modern list is different and while it’s likely less of an achievement, it still speaks to something of the implicit meaning of the US Postal Service’s “rain, sleet or snow” motto that American’s love and cherish so much: We work hard.
18 players appear 19 times on the list of modern guys who have surpassed the 4k limit. They range in age from 22 to 34, in total games from 94 to 107, from MVPs to a lanky, lean Tayshaun Prince. 14 of the 19 occurrences made Finals appearances and every player on the list appeared in more than 40 minutes/game in the playoffs. Enough with demographics, take my hand and let’s explore this wonderful numerical forest.
The table above is sorted by total minutes and right at the top of this who’s who of NBA MVPs is “Thunder” Dan Majerle. Not exactly the two guard I would’ve expected to see at the top of the list, but when the Suns made the Finals in 1993, Majerle was an indispensable spoke. He appeared in all 106 games for Phoenix with 33.5% of his total 4,270 minutes played coming in the playoffs. His playoff MPG (44.6) represent the highest lift over regular season MPG with an increase of 5.6 minutes capped off by a 28-point performance on 6-8 from three in a 59-minute triple OT game in the Finals.
Only one player made this list without even advancing to the conference finals. Back in 2002-03, Allen Iverson appeared in all 94 of Philadelphia’s games, averaging a whopping 43 MPG. I don’t think anyone questions Iverson’s toughness, but for a player who weighed under 170lbs and averaged nine free throw attempts/game to play 43 minutes every night for 94 games is remarkable. Worth noting: The following season Iverson appeared in just 48 games.
Michael Jordan is the oldest player to reach 4k minutes and the only player in the modern era with two 4k seasons to his name. We’ll focus on his age-34 season when he appeared in 103 games averaging 39.3 MPG. While lacking the nightly minute madness of Iverson’s 2003 or Majerle’s beastly playoff run of 1993, MJ carried a massive load for 1998 Bulls. Scottie Pippen spent the season fighting injuries and the Bulls front office over contract issues and the result was a 34-year-old Jordan leading the league in usage while appearing in the most total minutes of his career. The combination of shouldering the load for this Bulls team and navigating the front office shenanigans of GM Jerry “Crumbs” Krause no doubt added to MJ’s decision to hang up the high tops following 1998.
We’ll wrap up the player-level analysis with the youngest guy on the list and the one who originally led me on this 4,000-minute quest: 22-year-old LeBron James in 2007. He was probably a year ahead of schedule carrying a team that just wasn’t that good all the way to the Finals. Playing 40 minutes/night in the regular season and nearly 45/night in the playoffs was the only way this team could compete and it wore down the young LeBron. After exceeding 55% true shooting in the regular season, he dipped below 52% for the playoffs.
The glut of minutes coupled with an average team and more creative defensive looks in the playoffs sucked the life out of Bron’s 2007. It’s telling that there’s only a single point guard (Gary Payton) on the list above. And with James so frequently playing that ball handling/offense-initiating role, it’s fair to wonder if that and a dose of Spursian common sense have resulted in just one 4k season for him.
The last time we saw a player cross the 4k barrier was 2008 with a 29-year-old Kobe Bryant. Given the aforementioned stats about Steph Curry and Harden last year coupled with theories that players are more susceptible to injury due to a multitude of factors (sleep deprivation, poorer diets, playing tons of basketball at younger ages, and poor weight training habits) and advances in sports medicine and biometric testing point to what should be a smarter, more cautious approach to managing player health and minutes, aka assets and investments. Though one could make the counter argument that advances in science may reveal new and better ways for athletes to protect their bodies and thus play even more minutes. The future is a damn abyss to which we’re all inevitably hurtling and nothing should be a surprise. But if teams follow the lead of two of our league’s most successful franchises, then we’ll no doubt see minutes trend downward and friends of the 4k club remaining a tidy, fraternal group of 17 (RIP, Moses Malone).