Tag Archives: Billy Cunningham

Now we can talk “Best Team Ever” – Durant signing unites MVPs for the 2nd time in NBA history (no, the 1st time did not involve Lebron)

The only available precedent says that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry’s Warriors will win the 2017 title – going away.

When I saw the text that said Kevin Durant had made the big decision and was leaving his OKC Thunder to sign with Golden State — the team he couldn’t beat in the Western Conference Finals — my immediate response was two words: “Not Fair”.  As the week progressed and I read and heard the mountain of spin piling up about Durant’s move, it doesn’t strike me any differently. It’s simply not fair competition for two NBA Most Valuable Players — in the prime of their careers — to join forces on an NBA Finals team.

The last and only time this happened, the impact on the psyche of the league was devastating. Most teams rolled over in submission, with the notable exceptions of one team that became the Super Team’s nemesis and another that put up a good fight in the playoffs but still lost their series 4 games to one. It was the only loss the Super Team suffered in the playoffs.

The team in question is the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, who after losing in the 1982 NBA Finals were able to bring together free agent center Moses Malone, the Chairman of the Boards, at age 27 the baddest player in the league and the reigning MVP, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who had won the MVP one season prior (1981). Until this week’s uniting of Durant, the 2014 MVP, with Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP for two seasons, the Moses and Dr. J pairing was the only time in NBA history that a team had been able to suit up two concurrent MVPs to lay waste to the rest of the league.

The late Malone (who passed away last fall at age 60) in 1982 was the first reigning MVP to leave his team in free agency; Lebron James in 2010 was the second. Though NBA fandom and the media are wired to talk about Lebron (the Lebron context being where the league lived until Durant signed with the Warriors), the similarities between the Lebron signing and the Durant signing don’t go very far. When Lebron joined the Heat, Dwyane Wade was in his prime, had made 1st team All-Pro for the 2nd year in a row, and had been in the running for 2009 MVP (Lebron won that one, too) — but Wade’s Heat were nothing resembling title contenders until Lebron came along. And there’s the rub. The Warriors were within a Kyrie Irving 3-pointer of winning a 2nd title last month. One shot. And now they have Durant.

Indeed, let’s set aside the analytics and graphs and charts and apples to oranges comparisons and take a look at what happened the first time two concurrent MVPs suited up on the same team.

Moses leads the Sixers to the Promised Land

Moses Malone and Dr. J at the outset of the 1982-83 season.

The Sixers in the early 1980s had in many ways adopted the cool intellectualism and quiet intensity of their star, Dr. J. The ball moved freely on offense, the shot selection was smart, the Philly fast break was a work of art featuring the graceful glide of the Doctor in mid-air, and the Sixers took pride in their plus 50% shooting, which in 1982 was 2nd best in the league behind the run-and-gun Denver Nuggets. If Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins had seemed out of place as the Sixers starting center, it’s because he was. Dawkins was traded to New Jersey in the days before the Sixers signed Malone. Moses was the ultimate fit for the team’s biggest needs: Better inside scoring and rebounding, the boards having been the Sixers trouble spot for years. Moses, one of the most prolific rebounders in NBA history, quickly put an end to that problem. He also had the feet of a ballet dancer, as Bucks radio voice Eddie Doucette described them, and a dump truck-full of quick moves around the basket. Erving wisely and tacitly agreed to allow the natural flow of the offense through Malone, and the Sixers quickly found their new chemistry.

Philly won 9 of their first 10 games, then put together win streaks of 14 and 10 games, powering their way to a 50-7 record and a big lead over Larry Bird‘s Celtics in the Atlantic Division, and an even bigger lead over the Central Division champs, the Bucks. When the Sixers record reached 49-7, coach Billy Cunningham began resting his stars, beginning with All-Star, All-Defensive forward Bobby Jones and 33-year-old Dr. J, who sat out ten games during the season. While taking it easy down the stretch, the Sixers went 16-10 to finish 65-17.

At season’s end, with his team healthy and well-rested, Moses laid down his famous “Fo’ Fo’ Fo'” declaration — meaning the Sixers would sweep all three of their playoff series’ and become the only team in NBA history to romp undefeated through the playoffs. Malone wasn’t bragging when he said it, and his team came oh-so-close to accomplishing Fo’ Fo’ Fo. They went 12-1 in the playoffs, the lone loss coming in the East finals to a Milwaukee Bucks team flying high and pushing the pace after sweeping Bird’s Celtics in the semis (and making it look easy).

The Marques Johnson-led Bucks had put up a terrific fight, losing game 1 in overtime and dropping Game 2 in the final minute.  Every game in the series but Game 5 was close, every minute a bitter contest. The Finals against the “Showtime” Lakers were a different story: Moses dominated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the paint (the Lakers defensive plan relied on Magic dropping down to help on Malone), averaging 26 pts and 18 rebs a game in the series. The Sixers blew the Lakers out in Game 3, the first game played in LA,  and the sweep was on. Fo’ Fi’ Fo’.

Moses won the 1983 MVP, his 3rd in five years, and his 4th rebounding title in 5 years. Moses and Dr. J were named 1st Team All-Pro. Malone, Jones and point guard Maurice Cheeks, one of the great thieves of NBA history (No. 5 all-time steals) were voted 1st Team All-Defense.  Jones won the 6th Man of the Year award. Four Sixers — Moses, the Doctor, Cheeks and shooting guard Andrew Toney — made the 1983 All-Star team. There was no room for Jones, apparently, who had made the All-Star teams of 1981 and ’82.

Did I mention that the Sixers swept the “Showtime” Lakers in the NBA Finals? The Lakers featured four Hall of Famers (Kareem, Magic, Wilkes and McAdoo), all-star guard Norm Nixon and the great defender, Michael Cooper.

Malone shoots over Alton Lister in the 1983 Eastern Conference finals as the Bucks move in to triple-team him.

The 1983 Sixers were declared the best team in history by nearly everyone who saw them play with the exception of Celtics and Lakers fans whose DNA is engineered to deny the glory of others; and, ironically, their coach, who thought his 1967 Sixers team was better and even wrote a book about it (Season of the 76ers,  2002). The Moses – Dr. J – Bobby Jones – Cheeks – Toney five was, for one dominant season, the best five to play together since the days of the battles between Bill Russell‘s Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain‘s Sixers (1966-68).  That homage to the 1960s Glory Days said, the brilliance of the players and the rising fortunes of the league during “the renaissance” of the 1980s — yes, even before Jordan and Barkley — should not be underappreciated. The game had evolved for the better and entered its Golden Age.

The Warriors of today have a lot in common with that Sixer team. No, they don’t have Moses Malone in the prime of his career — but there’s more than enough to suggest that the extreme success of the 1983 Sixers gives NBA fans a pretty good indication of what’s in store for the league in 2016-17. The Warriors, not the champs in Cleveland, are now the team to beat.

The obvious and irresistible parallels

They seem very happy. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Durant and GM Bob Myers. 7/07/2016

Both the 1982 Sixers and the 2016 Warriors made the NBA Finals and lost. In both instances, the losing team was coming off of an intense 7-game struggle in the conference finals, while the winner of the championship series had strolled through their conference playoffs unmolested.

A tired, beat-up Sixers team faced a Lakers team that hadn’t lost a game in the West playoffs and waited an unprecedented 12 days for their opponent (still the record for longest Finals layoff). Like the 2016 Warriors, the 1982 Sixers had barely made it out of their conference playoffs. In the semi-finals they were pushed to six games by a short-handed but star-studded Bucks team. In the conference finals, the Sixers became the first team to win a Game 7 on the parquet floor of Boston Garden.

After beating the Celtics, the 1982 Finals were “anti-climactic”, Dr. J would write in his autobiography years later. In Game 1 the well-rested Lakers played just seven players and stole home court advantage from the Sixers, then ran away with the title in six games. The weary, beaten Sixers were satisfied to have had their revenge in Boston (they lost the 1981 East finals in a Game 7 in the Garden) but knew they had to make a change if Dr. J (and Bobby Jones) were ever going to win the NBA Championship that had eluded him since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Doc was running out of time, and there was an even chance the Bucks or Celtics might prevent the Sixers from reaching the Finals again. Enter Moses Malone.

It can’t be said that the 2016 NBA Finals were anti-climactic for the Warriors, but they were battered and bruised after coming back from a 3 to 1 deficit to beat Durant’s OKC Thunder in a 7-game West finals series. Riding on the energy from that series, the Warriors ran out to a 3-1 series lead against Lebron’s Cavs, which meant they had won six of seven games against the Thunder and Cavs.  A great achievement, but they were running on fumes, and it showed in games 5, 6 and 7, especially in the play of Steph Curry. Lebron James played a Finals for the ages, the Cavs swept the last three games and the title was theirs. Enter Kevin Durant.

The 4 All-Pro starting lineup

Kevin Durant isn’t Moses Malone — he’s not a player on quite that transformative Moses level.  But as some of the spin has spun this week — with an eye toward making a case that competition has not been compromised by Durant’s move — KD’s already historic achievements have been somewhat downplayed.

Durant is just the 4th small forward in the 61-year history of the MVP award to win the award. The other three are Dr. J, Larry Bird and Lebron James.

Durant in 2014 swiped the MVP crown Lebron James had worn for four out of five seasons. Steph Curry won the next two MVPs, so today’s Warriors players have held the crown three straight seasons.

Durant’s career impact and efficiency (BIER) numbers, while not as phenomenal as Bird or Lebron’s, are comparable to Dr. J’s NBA stats, and to the numbers put up by Marques Johnson, the sadly under-recognized forward who led the Bucks against the Sixers in the early 1980s. In this top shelf “box score impact” statistical context, the sixth small forward in league history worth mentioning is 1980s scoring machine Adrian Dantley. There are many others with legendary reputations and Hall of Fame recognition, but they didn’t have the statistical impact, or, (in Kawhi Leonard’s case) haven’t yet played long enough.

Kevin Durant after nine seasons in the NBA is simply one of the best small forwards ever to play the game. KD’s already accomplished Hall of Fame-worthy honors and stats. He’s got an MVP award; and he’s going to Golden State at age 27, in the prime of his career. The irresistible parallel here is that Moses Malone was 27 when he signed with the Sixers.

Durant joins Curry, the MVP, and two All-Pro teammates, big forward Draymond Green (2nd Team All-Pro) and shooting guard Klay Thompson (3rd Team). Since the ABA-NBA merger, no team has had three All-Pros in one season, so what Curry, Green and Thompson accomplished last season was unprecedented — and let’s not forget the 73 regular season wins.

Durant was 2nd Team All-Pro last season, behind Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard at forward. Green was the other forward honored on the 2nd Team. Let’s pause there.

3rd Team All-Pro honors didn’t exist until 1989, so for 40 seasons the NBA honored ten guys, which made sense when there were only 8 to 10 teams in the 1950s up through 1967. The NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, so for 31 years (1976-2016), no team has boasted 3 of the first 10 honored All-Pros. The 2016-17 Warriors will be the first.

No, it’s not fair

Lebron, Wade and Chris Bosh were All-Pros in the same year only once – in 2007, when Lebron was in Cleveland, Wade in Miami and Bosh in Toronto. Bosh was never an All-Pro during the Heat’s four-year run.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were never All-Pros in the same season, though they would have been in 1995 had Jordan played the full season. Rodman was still a San Antonio Spur at that point. The 1996 Bulls, the 72-win team, best team ever?  The dilution of the talent due to expansion and the lack of great competition in the mid-1990s makes it impossible to say. Jordan’s Bulls were undoubtedly the NBC Network’s greatest champion.

Both the Celtics and Sixers started four All-Star players during the Bill RussellWilt Chamberlain battles 1966-1968, but because both teams played in the Eastern Conference, neither team ever got four All-Star spots in a season. Combined, there were five players from “The Great Rivalry” voted to the 1967 All-Pro team.

Bird and Magic.

3rd Team All-Pro honors did not yet exist when the 1980s Super Teams battled for supremacy, so the All-Pro teams are a poor measuring stick for the greatness of the Sixers, Lakers and Celtics teams of the Golden Age. It gets messy. No team had three in one year. Only the Sixers and Lakers had two. From 1983-1986, Larry Bird was the only Celtic to be named All-Pro (he won three MVPs in that time, and the Celtics won two titles).  But the Celtics had four All-Stars who were All-Pro at one time or another, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bill Walton) coming off the bench in 1986. The “Showtime” Lakers had similar talent — four players who made All-Star teams from 1980 through 1985, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bob McAdoo) coming off the bench.

And now we’re back to the 1983 Sixers and their four All-Stars, plus 1982 All-Star Bobby Jones, the 1983 6th Man of the Year — the team that swept the Showtime Lakers in the Finals. That’s good enough to settle the Best Team Ever debate, especially in light of Moses’ domination of Kareem and Magic in the Finals, and of the entire NBA that season.

Those Super Teams were loaded with talent almost beyond comprehension in today’s NBA — until this week. The Warriors bringing three current All-Pros together is unprecedented. Now add to the mix 3rd Team All-Pro All-Star and Olympian Klay Thompson, and veteran Sixth Man Andre Iguodala — an All-Star in 2012, All-Defensive in 2014 and the 2015 NBA Finals MVP …

As currently constructed, the Warriors are as close as the Super Teams of the 1980s were to the Sixers five-star team. It’s just not fair to the rest of the league; and It’s very small solace for the opposition that, at age 32, Iguodala’s All-Star days seem to be behind him, or that the Warriors had to let go of all four of their big men to sign Durant. They’ve already replaced two of them, and this seems like a good time to point out that Durant is listed at 6’9″ but is taller than that, and rebounds on the defensive end like the average NBA center.

And here’s the kicker: As we look to the Super Teams of the 1980s for proper perspective and precedent for the 2017 Warriors, we find that there is no record of failure in that precedence — all three of the 1980s Super Teams won the championships they set out to win, with the 1983 Sixers being the team most dominant and decorated, but sometimes forgotten in the shadow of the Magic and Bird story.

No record of failure. It wasn’t fair in 1983 when the Sixers signed Moses to win a title with 33-year-old Dr. J. It’s not fair now. Kevin Durant is just 27 years old, and signed on with the Warriors for two years. Steph Curry is 27. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 25, and under contract for four and three years respectively. The 1983 Sixers slowed down due to age after winning the title. The 2017 Warriors won’t be slowing down any time soon.

Think about that.  It’s not fair, but enjoy this team while it lasts.

Nellie’s Hall of Fame induction speech and the Bucks era the NBA forgot

The winningest coach in NBA history (1,335) got the lion’s share of those wins as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Marques JohnsonSidney Moncrief era.  This weekend coach Don Nelson — Nellie — was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.

With Satch Sanders (a Celtics teammate from Nellie’s playing days), Bucks center Bob Lanier and Nellie’s Warriors star Chris Mullin standing behind him, Nellie reeled off the names of his Bucks core – the best team the NBA ever forgot:  Sidney, Marques, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Paul Pressey (Terry Cummings, Marques’ eventual replacement, also got a nod).  Here’s the video of the full speech:

Nellie won 540 games (.611 winning percentage) and seven straight division titles with the Bucks, one in the Western Conference, then six straight Central Division titles in the East after the 1980 realignment that set the rivalries in the post-ABA merger Golden Age.   Oh, it made sense geographically for the Bucks and Bulls to switch conferences with the Rockets and Spurs, aligning the three Texas teams in the Midwest Division after the 1980 expansion in Dallas — but moving Marques and Lanier’s Bucks (Moncrief was coming off the bench behind Winters at the time) into the East with the Dr. J’s 76ers and Larry Bird’s Celtics grossly weighted the balance of power in the league.

Had the Bucks stayed in the West, the 1981 Finals might well have been a Milwaukee-Philly matchup.   The 1983 Finals would certainly have been a Milwaukee-Philly showdown.   Instead, Nellie’s Bucks were denied the big stage by either Philly or Boston in the East playoffs while Magic Johnson’s Lakers waltzed to the Finals eight times in 10 years.   Those great Bucks teams have faded in league memory, getting less respect now than Reggie’s Pacers and the Malone-Stockton Jazz teams, even Ewing’s Knicks, Finals losers all.

As difficult as it may be for fans who don’t remember to imagine this, Reggie Miller — inducted into the Hall this week with Nellie — would not have started on the Bucks and been a valued sharpshooter off the bench circa 1981-87, playing behind Moncrief.  The same is true of Jamal Wilkes, also inducted into the Hall this weekend.   Wilkes would have backed Marques up, just as future Hall of Famer Alex English did in the 1977-78 season.   Marques and Sidney — 5-time All-Stars both — were that good.  Yet their Bucks teams seem to slip further into unremembered time with each passing year.

Who was that the camera cut to when Nellie mention Sidney and Marques?   There in the audience sat an expressionless 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, deep in thought.  Four out of five years (1981-85), the Sixers kept the Bucks from a shot at the Finals or the Celtics, or both.   Was Cunningham remembering Game 7 in 1981 in Philly, when Caldwell Jones saved the Sixers by grabbing a loose ball under the 76er basket?   Or was he thinking of the protest Nellie filed with the league after that game?

Or was Cunningham thinking about Dr. J and Marques, a small forward showdown for the ages, one that Doc ceded to Bobby Jones on the defensive end?   If a Bucks fan could offer a guess, it was probably about “Bobby.”   Which heroic Jones defensive play was the Sixers coach remembering?   His memory on those plays (and non-calls by the refs)  can’t possibly resemble how a Bucks fan remembers them.  But at Nellie’s induction, Cunningham was there, back in time somewhere, lost in the many close shaves the Sixers had against the Bucks.

Dr. J and Bird were in the audience, but (as you’ll see in the video) the cameras didn’t find them during the Bucks portion of Nellie’s speech.   And when Nellie noted that his assistant coach (and former teammate), K.C. Jones, won two titles with Bird as Celtics head coach, Nellie politely declined to mention that Jones got the Boston job amid the fallout from the Bucks’ 1983 playoff sweep of the Celtics — four straight in the playoffs, in Bird’s prime.

Later on in the speech, when Nellie mentions that he coached Miller on “Dream Team II” in 1994, the cameras do find Bird and his “Dream Team I” teammate Michael Jordan.   While Jordan is smirking, apparently enjoying a private joke, the look on Bird’s face is none too pleasant.    It is drawn into a scowl, and there’s a dark look in his eyes, as though he wanted to revoke Nellie’s Celtics player credentials.   I like to think that Bird was still mulling the Bucks and the ’83 sweep, about the sub-par shooting series he had against Marques; and how Nellie humiliated the Celtics — Danny Ainge in particular — during the series, labeling the over-matched Ainge “a whiner,” not good enough to be on the court with Moncrief, Winters, Pressey and Bridgeman.  Things were pretty ugly for the Celtics in that series from the opening whistle to the end, when Moncrief threw in a three-pointer in the closing seconds just to add to the Celtics humiliation.   The final score wasn’t close.

The Celtics fired coach Bill Fitch shortly after the sweep and replaced him with Nellie’s assistant, Jones.  They kept Quinn Buckner on, too, as a backup point guard, probably more so to make sure Nellie didn’t bring Quinn back to Milwaukee in 1984 than because Quinn was much use to the Celtics.   Whether that’s true or not matters less than the depth of the bitterness felt in Boston after the sweep.   The next season the Celtics got their revenge, beating the Bucks in the 1984 East finals on their way to a title and Quinn, bad knees and all — the player once singled out by Nellie as the one guy he would never trade — was in kelly green, not the forest green of the Bucks.

Or maybe Bird was remembering the Celtics being down 10 to the Bucks in Boston with four minutes to go in Game 7 of the 1987 East semifinals, with only the Pistons between either team and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.   Miraculously and with it all on the line, the Bucks self-destructed and the Celtics won their fifth trip to the Finals in the Bird era, another Larry and Magic finals.   And it is Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, not Sidney Moncrief, who is in the basketball Hall of Fame.

This may change someday for Sidney, now a Bucks assistant coach, maybe next year but probably not.   Moncrief won the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the only guard in the 1980s allowed into any conversation about Magic and Michael (sorry Isaiah), yet his name did not appear on the list of potential 2013 inductees posted by NBA-TV during the induction ceremony.   Bobby Jones was listed, however, and so was Sixers point guard Maurice Cheeks.    This is how the league remembers the era that included Nellie’s Bucks, even if Larry Bird doesn’t.

For now, the Bucks coach is in the Hall, and that will have to do.   It does, if only because of Cunningham’s far away stare and that horrible scowl on Bird’s face during Nellie’s induction speech.