Monday, February 12, 2007

Sacrilege!

Hello. This morning I found that there were two men of great skill who were born today. Those men are Big Bill Russell and Larry Nance. Most know the former, and many know the latter.

I like Larry Nance a lot, and I think Bill Russell is kind of a jerk (but a great player). Therefore, I started to do my research on Larry Nance, planning to write something similar to my column on the original MJ/the original point forward of a week ago.

Somewhere along the line, I was planning to make an argument that Larry Nance was unfairly snubbed from about five all-star teams in favor of James Worthy, who had similar but less impressive statistics. My argument was that the coach of the All-Star game in the 80's, when Nance played for Phoenix, was often the Lakers coach, who would be quick to pick Worthy. A quick look at Nance's statistics will reveal that he had quite a few statistically strong years on a bad Suns team (Walter Davis, the only quality teammate of Nance's, was excellent but also a cokehead), and that he was an excellent defender. (I was making this argument for discussion; I realized it was somewhat specious.)

Anyway, as I was farting around with basketball statistics, I was tempted, not so much unlike Adam, to make a different argument that looked on its face to be total and complete bullshit. I knew it was bullshit, but something about it looked good (kind of like Eve with that apple). My emotion was similar to that displayed by Adam in the picture above; I was like "no, no, that's okay, I'm not really feeling that apple, I know that eternal bliss is much better," but deep inside I was like, "man, Eve, you and that apple are looking mighty tasty today." You know which one I picked. Let me present to you:

Larry Nance: The best basketball player born on February 12?

or: If Larry Nance Had Played When They Let Hobos In the NBA, He'd Have Averaged 25 Rebounds Too, And Probably Not Been Quite So Unpleasant About It.

[Disclaimer: Try to keep in mind that the purpose of an editorial is to stimulate discussion rather than present fact.]

I'll get this out of the way first: Larry Nance was one of the greatest power forwards of all time. He might have been more athletic than Shawn Kemp, he shot for a ridiculously high percentage, he was an excellent shot-blocker who could run the floor, and he was a good teammate who never demanded the ball and who never had a lot of plays run for him. He was a hustler. When Wayne Embry was building the Cavaliers team of the early nineties that would be stopped only by Jordan first heroic moment, his first move was to acquire Nance.

When he was checking out the move he called up Larry's first coach, John McLeod, who coached the Suns for more than ten straight seasons. Embry asked McLeod about Larry Nance, alluding to the fact that Walter Davis and some other Suns players had just been caught with some illicit substances. "John did not hesitate. 'Wayne, if you can get Larry Nance, he will take your team to another level.' he said. 'He is top notch, someone you would want your son to grow up like.'"

For anyone who is unaware of Nance's athletic ability, a quick check of this video will make everything quite apparent. I, personally, have never seen someone get so high over the rim -- it looks like Larry could legitimately hurt himself out there. He is lanky and not the most graceful dunker but the height and leaping ability are amazing. (Incidentally, Larry Nance won the first NBA dunk-contest.) I deeply regret that I couldn't find more video of Lance. I know it's out there, but the poor guy is too forgotten-about for it to have reached the YouTube world. (I did find an interesting article about him, though. It is here.)

The point I'm trying to make about Leapin' Larry from this admittedly small piece of evidence is that he was an athlete that I believe is very similar to Mr. Bill Russell. Bill Russell is also a great leaper, and despite playing center in his time would probably have been a power forward in Larry Nance's day.

Their bodies were very similar: Larry Nance was 6'10", 205, and Bill Russell was 6'9", 215.

Larry Nance was a skilled scorer, averaging over or close to twenty for ten years in a row. He averaged more than eight rebounds for the same period, as well as 2-3 blocks and a steal or so per game. He averaged about 3 assists. Until his last year in the league, he never shot less than 51%, and generally shot 70% or above from the line, topping out at .822 in his next to last year. He improved his free throw shooting every single year from his initial 64% to 67%, 71%, and finally 77%, where it would stay. Despite his average of around twenty points per game, Nance only took more than fifteen shots a game twice in his career.

Bill Russell was not a great scorer, and no one claims that he was. Nevertheless, he consistently averaged between 15 and 19 points per game, which is not too shabby, especially considering he was pulling down more than 20 rebounds a game and averaging more than four assists to go with it. Russell's lack of scoring prowess is not merely a due to his lack of involvement in the offense, though, which is what is generally assumed.

Bill Russell never shot 50 percent. Not even once. His percentages look like this: 42%, 44%, 46%, 43%, 46%, 43%, 44%, 44%, 42%, 45%, 43%, 43%. That's really pretty bad for a center. He was also a terrible foul shooter, going 49%, 52%, 60%, 55%, 60%, 56%, 55%, 57%, 55%, 61%, 54%, and 51%.

The obvious thing that separates the two, therefore, is the rebounding and blocked shots. I agree the Bill Russell's rebounding numbers dramatically outweigh Nance's, but I think this has to do a lot with the time Russell played in. When Russell was 25, there were only eight teams in the NBA. (Six of whom made the playoffs!) There were not a lot of big guys. As a matter of fact, only two of the eight teams lacked two men who averaged 12 rebounds per game.

Rebounds were a very interesting statistic in this era. Wilt Chamberlain's Sixers had Wilt averaging 27 boards per game, Paul Arizin, at 6'4" averaging 8.6 rebounds per game, and Tom Gola at 6'6" averaging 10.4 rebounds per game. Bob Petit's Hawks had Petit averaging 17 rebounds per game, 6'4" Cliff Hagani averaging 10.7 rebounds per game, 6'9" Clyde Lovellette averaging 10.6 rebounds (in 28.7 minutes) per game, and Larry Foust, also 6'9", averaging 8.6 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game.

Was it just these teams with inflated numbers? No. The Syracuse Nationals featured Dolph Schayes at 12.8 rebounds, Red Kerr at 12.2 rebounds, and George Yardley (6'5") with 7.9 rebounds. The Detroit Pistons had 6'7" Bailey Howell averaging 10.5 rebounds per game, Walter Dukes, a seven-footer, averaging 13.4 rebounds, and 6'7" Barney Cable averaging an impressive 6.9 rebounds in only 16.6 minutes per game.

Minneapolis featured the great Elgin Baylor, who, at 6'5" averaged 16.4 rebounds per game, Rudy LaRusso, a 6'7" center who averaged 9.6 rebounds a game, and Ray Felix, who averaged 8.3 rebounds a game in only 22.5 minutes per game.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Guys, even short ones, were averaging a lot more rebounds than people do today. This year, New York and Denver are the league's best rebounding teams. New York has a guy averaging 7.0 rebounds who is seven feet tall, a shooting guard averaging 7.3, and a reserve averaging 10.9. Denver has one guy averaging 12.2 rebounds, one averaging 7.8, and one averaging 6.0 (I am not including Kenyon Martin). Every single player mentioned is at least 6'7".

Another thing that people don't realize about Bill Russell is that he played the whole game, every game. I don't want it to seem like this is an easy thing, but the bottom line is, it increased his statistical production. (He averaged between 42 and 45 minutes per game for his peak.) Larry Nance was only averaging around 35 minutes per game. I think this is why Bill Russell has surprisingly high assist numbers.

The most problematic statistic to analyze is blocks, which were not recorded in Russell's day. Of course, the block is what Russell is most famous for, but it is important to remember the context of the era he played in.

Blocks were not something centers tried to do before Russell. Goaltending wasn't even illegal until he started doing it at USF. Even in this era, though, where he was allowed to goaltend, records show that [in college] he "once [denied] 13 shots in a single game." This is doubtlessly impressive, and Russell deserves credit for changing the position.

The thing is, these days people act like he averaged 20 blocks a game because the statistic wasn't kept, and the majority of heresay is stuff like "he blocked every single shot in the entire first quarter". I think that's just not the case. Another example of this is the account of his first playoff battle with the Schayes-led Syracuse Nationals, in which "Russell dominated, scoring 16 points, [pulling] down 31 rebounds, and [recording] a reported 7 blocks."

Now, that's a hell of a game, but there are plenty of guys who were capable of that. It's possible that Russell did it every game but even then I would contend that the era he played in was partly responsible. (Larry Nance, for the record, once blocked 11 shots in a game.)

The hardest statistic I have to face is Russell's dominance. He won 11 championships in 13 seasons, he was the first black man to coach when he player-coached, and was by all accounts a great guy to play with. But let's take a look at that team:

PG: Bob Cousy: Hall-of-fame, revolutionized his position as much (if not more) as Russell;
SG: Bill Sharman: Hall-of-fame;
SF: Frank Ramsey: Hall-of-fame;
PF: Tom Heinsohn: Hall-of-fame;
C: Bill Russell: Hall-of-fame;
RESERVE: Sam Jones: Hall-of-fame;
RESERVE: K.C. Jones: Hall-of-fame;

Coach: Red Aurbach: Basketball's Vince Lombardi. Hall-of-fame.

That's eight hall-of-famers, all on one team, in an eight team league. I mean, can you imagine it? Eleven of thirteen doesn't sound so bad, does it?

My point here is that I think Larry Nance, with a time-machine, could have been just the player Bill Russell was, and perhaps more, considering his offensive talents. He may have been more athletic, he hustled just as much, and he was a great teammate. Why his career goes largely forgotten is confusing.

The problem with my little theory is that you could plug in a lot of power forwards with the time-machine theory, and a similar argument could be made (See Garnett, Kevin). Why? Because Bill Russell taught them all how to do it. Moreover, he had to deal with Irishmen in Boston shitting in his bed (literally) because he was black, and many other racially-motivated problems that Larry Nance and the rest could never dream of.

I don't like Bill Russell because I think it's small-minded of him to believe that a few racists in Boston made the whole city is racist [then again, no one ever shitted in my bed, so I suppose I have no right to make this statement]. I think that's the same line of thinking that makes a lot of white suburbanites think that all blacks are criminals because of what they see on the evening news.

So I think in the end, Bill Russell is, in fact, better than Larry Nance (who would have thought!). I may not like him, but I enjoyed doing the research and found out some interesting things (they both had teammates nicknamed "hot rod"). I don't think Bill Russell is all he's cracked up to be, and I think Larry Nance deserves a lot more respect, but I'm not quite ready to say the latter deserves more than the former. Bill Russell is February 12th's best player.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

5 comments:

MattG21 said...

There's the same argument with baseball, only baseball statistics go back over 100 years...making them even more ridiculous to compare to today's numbers...I could win 30 games and have an ERA of .024 too if I pitched in 1908.

JimmyValente said...

But could you do it with three fingers?

MattG21 said...

Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown?

Kodijack said...

I would say that Nance was a better athlete but that Bill Russell was a better basketball player. And it sounds like Nance was a better person.

Your whole shot blocking statistics argument reminds me of the QB sack argument in the NFL. They did not start keeping sack totals until 1978.

JimmyValente said...

I think in the NFL it's a little bit easier to make arguments around sacks because there hasn't been such a transformation in physiques in the modern era.

(I mean, there has been quite a transformation, but it seems to have been pretty uniform among lineman, whereas Wilt and Bill Russell, along with Dolph Schayes, were really the only game in town when it came to center; they played amongst a herd of smaller and less athletic men.)

I don't know if I can agree that Nance is the better person because if he had to put up with what Bill did, he might have been a jerk, too. There's just so many variables. Plus Bill Russell has a great smile.

Nance does keep busy driving drag racing cars in the NHRA, which I think is pretty cool. His daddy was a mechanic and he's keeping the tradition alive.