Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Looters In A Riot


“Raises his game when it counts.”

“Knows how to win.”

There is no shortage of platitudes employed in the assessment of NBA players. Some of these adages have been debunked through statistical analysis, while others are labeled intellectually lazy. It is probably true that these phenomena are myths and optical illusions and can often be filed under luck, randomness or some other term connoting factors beyond a payer’s control. With that said, however, it never fails to amaze me the way that success, be it the result of luck or innate skill, tends not to stray very far from certain players.

Conversely, throughout the decades, the NBA has seen no shortage of truly gifted individual players for whom success did not extend beyond the box score. On the NBA on TNT’s fantastic studio show, Kenny “the Jet” Smith has frequently spoken of such players, referring to them as “looters in a riot.” These are players whose gaudy numbers never translate into success for their teams, but “you don’t know because of the chaos.”

Plenty of time and many pixilated column inches are dedicate to analyzing the greats that either cemented their legend on the ultimate stage, or fell just short. What about the best “looters in a riot?”

Glad you asked! Here are 12:

World B. Free- A textbook case. After spending his first three seasons as a role player with Dr. J’s spectacular 76ers teams of the mid-70s, Free spend eight of his next 10 seasons as a top-two guy on an NBA team. Those teams were the San Diego Clippers, Golden State Warriors and late-Stepien era Cleveland Cavaliers. In each of these seasons he scored at least 22.5 points per game (28+ twice), with a Usage Rate in the immediate vicinity of 30%.

Only two Free-led teams posted a .500+ record, and just one, the 36-46 1985-86 Cavaliers, who finished 23 games out of first place in their division, made the playoffs. It’s worth noting that despite the awful regular season mark, those Cavs registered a playoff victory (with Free averaging 26.3 and 7.8 assists) and scored as many points in four games (449) as one of the great Celtics teams of all time.

Reggie Theus- World B. Free get a lot of flack for accumulating numbers on crappy teams, but rarely has a basketball riot seen a more egregious looter. The man best known for leading the Deering Tornadoes to unspecified heights in the world of fictional Indiana high school basketball and the Sacramento Kings to a .415 winning percentage in 106 games spent 13 seasons putting up numbers (18.5 points, 6.3 assists per game) in NBA games that his teams were not winning.

Nine times he averaged 18+ points per game (20+ four times) and three times he dished out 8+ assists per game. However, only twice in his career (1980-81 with the Bulls and 1988-89 with the Hawks) did a team with Reggie Theus on its roster win at least half of its games. Three times Theus was the best player on a playoff team. However, after the 1980-81 Bulls won a best-of-three “mini-series” over the Knicks 2-0, Theus lost the last 10 playoff games of his prime. Those Bulls were swept in four games, by the eventual champion Celtics. Theus then suffered a pair of 3-0 first round sweeps in the springs of 1984 and 1986, as a member of the Kings.

Mitch Richmond- World B. Free with a better hairline- or at least the good sense to shave his head. Never part of a title contender, the 1988-89 Rookie of the Year saw the conference semifinals twice in his first three years as a key component of what was promised to be a golden era for Golden State. Richmond averaged nearly 23 points per game alongside Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin in Don Nelson’s electrifying “Run TMC” offense.

However, the Warriors, in their eternal quest to strengthen the front line, sent Richmond to the Sacramento Kings on draft day 1991, in exchange for Billy Owens. Over the next seven seasons in Sacramento, he averaged 23.3 points per game (including a career high 25.9 in 1996-97) and earned six All-Star selections (he was named MVP in 1995). Unfortunately, little else came of Richmond’s prime. One of the best shooters of his era, he was unable to lead the Kings to a winning record (his three years in Washington were even worse) and his lone playoff appearance as a team’s best player (1995-96) consisted of four games against the top-seeded Sonics.

Stephon Marbury- I’m fascinated to see how history remembers Stephon Marbury. It’s easy to judge the entirety of Steph's career by its cartoonish end, but it’s worth noting that for the first 11 seasons of his career, dude was an elite NBA player.

From 1996-97 through 2006-07, he averaged 19.9 points and 7.9 assists (fourth behind Jason Kidd, John Stockton and Chris Paul) per game, with a 19.1 PER. His 16,954 points during that stretch are topped by only Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen and Tim Duncan. Only Kidd posted a greater assist total (7,301, v. Marbury’s 6,283) and his 36.6% Assist Rate trails only those of Stockton, Mark Jackson, Brevin Knight, Kidd, Rod Strickland, Steve Nash and Tim Hardaway. Like I said, top-flight.

Issues with Marbury’s body of work arise not only from the fact that he was a part of two winning teams in 11 years (three if you count the 2002-03 Suns that traded him mid-season), but the results produced by his successors, where he’d managed none.

After his acrimonious split with the T-Wolves despite helping lead the franchise to its first two playoff berths in its history, Terrell Brandon and Sam Cassell (in fairness, aided by KG’s growth into an all-timer) helped the team to another six playoff appearances, including the 2004 conference finals. In Marbury’s three seasons in New Jersey, not once did the Nets win 40% of their games in a season, and twice lost more than two-thirds of their games. With Jason Kidd (for whom Marbury was traded) at the point, they represented the East in the next two NBA Finals. The Suns, a playoff team every season that Kidd was on the roster, missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years in Marbury’s inaugural season. Following a first round exit in 2002-03, Phoenix traded him to New York midway through another lottery-bound season. Steve Nash led the Suns to the conference finals each of the next two seasons. And finally, after four disastrous seasons (win totals of 39, 33 and 23 before “rebounding” to 33-49 in 2006-07), the Knicks paid him roughly 75% of his $19 million salary to stay away from the team.

So, yeah. I guess history may not be all that kind to Starbury.

Rod Strickland- “Steph Lite.” Not quite as great at his peak, less of a pain at his worst. From his rookie year (1988-89) until 2001-02 (his last as a rotation guy), Strickland handed out more assists (7,489) than anyone except John Stockton and Mark Jackson, had an Assist Rate of 37.5% and scored more points than all but 22 players. Five times he averaged 17+ points per game and ten times he handed out 7+ assists per.

As a quality player on nine consecutive playoff teams to open his career, Strickland is not your textbook looter. Thing is, for all of the impressive numbers and playoff appearances, I can’t think of a single memorable moment from his career, or an occasion in which he coaxed more out of a team than was expected.

Only twice did he see the conference semifinals, as a backup with the 1988-89 Knicks and with 1989-90 Spurs (a turnover of his helped seal their fate in Game 7), who let him walk as a free agent in 1992, despite his being a 25 year-old double-double lead guard. That summer, he signed with Portland, with whom he continued to put up numbers and reach the opening round of the playoffs. For a far better look at Rod’s Blazer days than I can provide, check out this piece on Blazersedge.

After four years in Portland, he was sent to Washington, where he teamed with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard to produce a pair of winning seasons and a surprising opening-round challenge for the fifth of Michael Jordan’s title teams. Sadly, however, Webber was traded for Mitch Richmond in the summer of 1998. On the bright side, this allowed the Wizards to put together perhaps the greatest klepto-backcourt of all time, which netted them 47 victories… over the next two seasons.

“Tiny” Archibald-
Archibald’s best seasons are the five healthy ones (out of six) that he spent with the Royals-Kings between 1970 and 1977. During that stretch, he averaged 25.6 points and 8.1 assists, posted a 20+ PER four times and famously led the NBA in both scoring and assists in 1972-73 with a ridiculous 34- 11.2 stat line.

Problems arise, however, when we introduce team performance into the equation. His Kings made the playoffs once (in 1974-75), losing to the Bulls in six games as Tiny averaged 20 points (down from 26.5) on 36% from the field, with a PER of 13.3. And that magical box-score-stuffing 1972-73 campaign? Accompanied by a 36-46 record- the second best of Archibald’s first seven seasons.

Though the comparisons to Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson are stylistically apt, it’s impossible to compare Tiny’s achievements to those of his slight-of-frame counterparts. He certainly earned his ring as a member of the 1980-81 Celtics’ supporting cast, but was unable to inspire much in the way of team success in his prime.

Kinda sucks that Pistol Pete has to be included here, but there’s simply no way around it. One of the most spectacular playmakers and prolific scorers the game has ever seen, Maravich introduced a wide-open style of play to the NBA years before the merger with the ABA that is credited with having done so. Thing is, as viscerally glorious as his game was, it did not often translate into wins.

The Hawks appeared in the playoffs three times in Maravich’s four seasons, though it’s worth noting that two of those appearances came on the heels of a 36-46 regular season and, despite 25-5-5 from Pistol, the team managed a 5-12 record in the three series. He was traded to the expansion New Orleans Jazz in May 1974. While he continued to put up massive offensive numbers, including a career-best and league-high 31.1 points per game in 1976-77, the Jazz failed to post a .500+ record or reach the postseason in any of his five full seasons with the team.

Had Maravich not joined the perennially playoff-bound Celtics (with whom he averaged 6 points in nine postseason games) in January 1980 after being waived by the Jazz, he’d have been absent from the postseason for each of the last seven seasons of his career.

Dave Bing & Bob Lanier- The best players for two eras of DEE-troit BAS-ket-BALL (sorry, I just kinda miss that being a thing), Bing and Lanier shared the floor for five seasons in the early 1970s, with each flying solo for four seasons on either side. Bing joined the franchise in 1966-67. Individually, he took to the NBA game very quickly (20+ points per game in each of his first four seasons, 24+ twice, and 5.7 assists three times), but the Pistons managed just one playoff appearance (in a 12-team league where eight teams got in) and lost 50+ games three times.

The first overall pick in the 1970 draft, Bob Lanier also hit the NBA floor running in 1970-71, following up 15- 8 as a rookie with no worse than 22- 12 in any of the next four seasons. And while Bing remained a force on the perimeter (a career-high 27 per game in 1970-71 and at least 18.8 with 6.9 assists in the next four), the pair managed just two winning seasons and a pair of forgettable first-round postseasons exits before Bing was traded to the Bullets in September 1975. For those keeping score, in Bing’s nine seasons with the franchise, the Pistons finished below .500 seven times and made three postseason appearances, without winning a series.

After Bing’s departure, Lanier spent another 4+ seasons in the Motor City. A virtual lock for 22-10, he led the team to two more playoff appearances and the first series win of the era (!!)- in a best-of-three against the first post-Kareem Milwaukee Bucks squad. The Pistons’ decade and a half run with the two future Hall-of-Famers ended much the way it began, with the Pistons on the outside of the playoffs, looking in. They won 38 and 30 games Lanier’s last two full seasons. He was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in February 1980, midway through a catastrophic 16-66 season for the Pistons, under head coach (THIS IS WHY I’M ON TV, BABY!) Dick Vitale.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim- Destined to become one of the forgotten talents of his generation. A man I’ve previously referred to as “a hybrid of James Worthy and Chris Bosh,” Rahim was a graceful and versatile scorer and more-than-capable rebounder. In 11 NBA seasons, he racked up 15,028 points and 6,239 rebounds, with seven seasons of at least 18.7 points per game, and six of at least 19.9. And a total of six playoff games.

Seven times (five with Vancouver, two with Atlanta) Rahim was a top-two player. Not one of his Grizzlies teams ever won as much as 30% of its games, and all seven of those teams finished at least 12 games under .500. Rahim’s lone trip to the postseason came in 2005-06, during which he averaged 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds as his #7-seed Sacramento Kings fell to the Spurs in six games.

Tom Van Arsdale- You’d think the law of large numbers would have tossed this guy a bone. Van Arsdale played 929 games for six different franchises over 12 years and never suited up in the postseason. No player in NBA history has ever taken part in more regular season games without making a single postseason appearance.

Though not terribly efficient (just two seasons with a 15+ PER), Van Arsdale was three-time All-Star, five-time 19+ point-per-game scorer and a member of the 1965-66 All Rookie First Team. The pinnacle of his career from a team perspective came in 1968-69 as a member of the 41-41 Cincinnati Royals. Fittingly he was traded 49 games into his 1972-73 season… to the Philadelphia 76ers team that posted the NBA’s worst-ever record of 9-73.

Walt Bellamy- In the history of the NBA, seven players have amassed at least 20,000 points and 14,000 rebounds. Six of the seven were central figures in multiple Finals runs, and five own championship rings. And then we have the top pick in the 1961 draft. Bellamy authored one of the greatest rookie seasons in NBA history (worth noting that 1961-62 is the “steroid era” for NBA stats), with 31.6 points (second all-time for a rookie to Wilt's 37.6 in 1959-60) and 19 rebounds per game (third all-time for a rookie, behind Wilt and Bill Russell), shooting a league-best 51.9% from the field and putting up a 23- 17 in the All-Star Game. While he went on to average at least 22.8- 14.6 in each of his next four seasons and posted a double-double in 11 of his first 12 seasons, Bellamy’s career peaked in his rookie year.

The Bellamy-led 1961-62 Chicago Packers (who became the Zephyrs the following season and the Baltimore Bullets the season after that) managed a putrid 18 wins in his epic rookie season, followed by seasons of 25-55 and 31-49, before their 37-43 juggernaut reached the postseason in 1964-65. That playoff appearance, the only one of Bellamy’s Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets career did result in his first- of two- career series wins.

Traded to New York at the start of the 1965-66 season, Bellamy was absent from the 1966 postseason (after a 30-50 season), before leading the Knicks to consecutive postseasons, one with a 36-45 record- keep this in mind. The Knicks traded him to Detroit in December 1968 for Dave DeBusschere (and went on to appear in three Finals and win two rings in the next five years), where he spent two and a half forgettable seasons before he was dealt (again!) in 1974, to the Atlanta Hawks. He spent the twilight of his career with the Hawks, appearing in the postseason four times (twice after 36-46 regular seasons) and helped the Hawks to the second round in the spring of 1970.

So, 14 NBA seasons, seven playoff appearances, four of them with sub-.500 teams, two series wins and three trades before the age of 31. You might want to keep an eye on whatever’s not tied down.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Got some looters of your own? Please share!


todd. said...

"I can’t think of a single memorable moment from [Rod Strickland's] career."

I can. Unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

I am always grateful to see love shown for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He was a gem.

Anonymous said...

Emeka Okafor may eventually be on this list. Career averages of 13 points and 10 rebounds in regular season. In the playoffs he's 7.5 points and 5.5 boards. May not be enough of a regular season stat stuffer to make the list but he embodies the spirit of a looter.

Dave M said...

You know I've got to toss in our mutual fave - the incomparable J.R. Rider. He's a looter.

Anonymous said...

The common theme here? It appears to be that many (if not all) on this list did not play much defense for their teams.

Anonymous said...

Bonzi Wells?

Anonymous said...

The biggest trend in this list of looters is the high probability that they once played for the Kings. And that, my friends, is why we Kings fans weep often. That and the fact that we live in Sacramento.

Anonymous said...

TMac! Straight up looter if I've ever seen one.

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