Posted Feb 4 2010 11:31AM
Two guys, one spot. It seems almost existential, a question of two people occupying the same place at the same time. In the NBA, though, it's just fundamental; teams typically prefer not to take the court with two point guards, two power forwards or two identical anythings.
A week ago, I looked at a number of the NBA's current position redundancies, including Utah's Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, Chicago's Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich, Minnesota's Kevin Love and Al Jefferson and Portland's Andre Miller and Steve Blake. (Jose Calderon-Jarrett Jack in Toronto was the overlooked overlap cited most often by e-mailers.) This week, as promised, I'm offering several of the great crowded depth charts from NBA history and how those teams resolved them. Or not.
(Wanted to run them both last week, but posting two stories in one cyber-space is about as hard as playing two guys in one spot.)
One was known widely as Pearl, though the handle most ballers preferred when talking, usually in terms of awe, about the Philadelphia playground legend was Black Jesus. The other fellow was Clyde, as rakish off the court as on. (His sharp suits and wide-brimmed hats earned him that movie moniker from Warren Beatty's character in Bonnie and Clyde. Now that's an "original gangsta'' for you.)
But when Earl Monroe was traded to the Knicks in November 1971, joining or crowding Walt Frazier in what was dubbed the "Rolls-Royce backcourt,'' it was more than a clash of cool nicknames -- it was a showdown of styles. And team dominance. And if the town wasn't big enough for both of them ... well, they had a real problem, because this was New York.
"People said we'd need two basketballs,'' Frazier told me last week. "But they didn't know the mutual respect we had as opponents, where we asked no quarter and gave no quarter. From that type of rivalry, you respect the other guy. We never trash-talked.
"So when he came to the Knicks, actually, the credit goes to Earl. Because I didn't have to change my game -- he had to change. He told everybody it was my team. He had to become a team player. He was no longer the focus of the offense. He had to play defense. To his credit, he did. That was the character of Earl Monroe.''
The numbers are telling: In Monroe's 328 regular-season games with Baltimore prior to the trade, he averaged 23.7 points and 20.1 field-goal attempts. Three years into his Knicks tenure, hobbled a bit by injury, he was at 13.8 on 12.1 shots. Frazier, with an attack mode at both ends, continued to lead New York, averaging 21.6 points on 17.6 attempts. Yet the two Hall of Fame-bound guards meshed their games well enough to earn the Knicks' second NBA championship in 1973. Their record those first three seasons: 148-84.
"Individual accolades were no longer utmost in our minds,'' Frazier said. "At that point, Earl had been an All-Star, he had done everything but win a title. Me, I had a title [and individual acclaim]. So it was just teamwork and trying to get another title.''
Over their next three seasons together, Frazier's scoring averages were 21.5, 19.1 and 17.4 ppg, while Monroe's rose to 20.1, 20.7 and 19.9. The team's record drooped to 118-128, and then Frazier was gone to finish his career in Cleveland. Still, something that had the potential to turn ugly was turned, by two classy pros, into a thing of basketball beauty.
"It's all about ego, man,'' Frazier said. "You have to control your ego. It's as simple as that ... Yeah, I'm surprised and disappointed [when teams or players don't work things out]. The final stat they're going to throw at you is, did you win?"
Frazier laughed. "The thing with Earl was, when he was having a good game, I gave him the ball and vice versa. Actually, I liked when he was having a good game, because then he had to throw it to me more.''
Chamberlain was (and remains) the most dominant single force in NBA history. He was 26 years old in the spring of 1963, fresh off a season in which he averaged 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds for the San Francisco Warriors, when the Warriors drafted an all-America center from Bowling Green. Guess they took a "best player available'' rather than "need'' approach, because that was the start of Nate Thurmond's Hall of Fame career.
"Wilt was very nice to me in my rookie year,'' Thurmond told Chamberlain biographer Robert Cherry. "He took me down to the Monterey Jazz Festival in his purple Bentley, just the two of us. And he introduced me to [actress] Kim Novak. He wasn't into class structure. If he liked you, he liked you.''
It was the logjam on-court that called for a change. Chamberlain was his unstoppable self, averaging 36.9 and 22.3 in 1963-64 to the newcomer's 7.0 and 10.4. The next season, Wilt posted 38.9 and 23.5 to Thurmond's 16.5 and 18.1. That development by Thurmond -- along with Chamberlain's flirtations with early retirement, some insurance questions about his long-term health, a salary that was greater than the other Warriors' combined and a 17-63 finish in 1964-65 -- convinced the club to trade Wilt home to Philadelphia (where he became part of a logjam with Luke Jackson, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham on a frontline that claimed the 1967 NBA title).
The Knicks already had a center, too, when they traded for Walt Bellamy, sending three players and cash to Baltimore for a young guy whose meteoric NBA start gradually flamed out over the last 10 of his 14 seasons. Bellamy still made it to the Hall of Fame, but his early production (including 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg as a rookie) was what got him to Springfield. It got him to New York, too, for an awkward pairing with Reed.
"There was hostility there,'' Frazier said. "Primarily because Willis wanted to be a center and he had to play forward. [Bellamy] was a magnificent player who rarely played up to his capacity. I wouldn't say he played to 60 percent of his talent. Just lazy, lackadaisical. He would kill [Bill] Russell and Chamberlain, and the next night [Chicago's blue-collar Tom] Boerwinkle would get 30 on him. The guy had size, he could shoot and run. If he had Willis Reed's tenacity, it would have been over.''
It was over when the Knicks shipped Bellamy to Detroit in December 1968 along with Howard Komives for forward Dave DeBusschere. DeBusschere was the perfect complement to Reed, who returned to New York's middle. "Since that trade, I feel like a new person,'' Reed was quoted, and in 1969-70, their Hall of Fame "Captain'' led the Knicks to their first NBA title.
The Rockets already had the NBA's reigning Rookie of the Year when they got lucky in the 1984 coin flip, winning the right to draft what most people considered to be a second "franchise'' center. Adding Olajuwon, and shifting the 7-foot-4 Sampson into a power forward role, sent a buzz through the league. Rockets guard John Lucas predicted the pair would revolutionize the game. Houston's coach, Bill Fitch, was quoted: "I don't know a coach who would tell you that Olajuwon and Sampson can't play together ... Then again, we could cut them in half and make four guards.''
The "Twin Towers'' worked well enough; Houston went 48-34 in 1984-85 with Sampson (22.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and Olajuwon (20.6, 11.9) both going to the All-Star Game. A year later they went again and Houston, after a 51-31 regular season, upset the Lakers in the Western Conference to reach the NBA Finals.
But in 1986-87, Sampson's injuries began to mount and he reportedly chafed with Fitch, leading to his trade to Golden State in December 1987. By January 1992, his NBA career was over -- two and three years before Olajuwon led Houston to consecutive championships and iced his Hall of Fame stature. A few years after that, another team tried the "Twin Towers'' concept and got it extremely right, when San Antonio paired up David Robinson with Tim Duncan.
As someone wrote in Sports Illustrated, looking back at McGinnis' career, "For two years they played side-by-side -- though not always together.'' Donnie Walsh, who coached McGinnis in Denver after the powerful 6-foot-8 forward was traded in August 1978, said: "Julius was a high-wire act. George had the body and quickness and, when he wanted to be, he was the best defensive rebounder in the game. So it seemed reasonable to think that George would become the real star. But it just didn't work out that way.''
It was as if the Sixers had grabbed the roast beef platter, only to work their way down the buffet line to find filet mignon. Philadelphia signed McGinnis as a free agent out of the ABA in July 1975, then found itself in position to purchase Erving's rights from the Nets when what was left of that league was absorbed into the NBA. Philadelphia allegedly told McGinnis he could veto the acquisition, but he didn't. Instead, inevitably, he got downgraded from first-class to coach in the Sixers' pecking order.
"Doc [Erving] took some of George's thunder away,'' Nets coach Kevin Loughery said later. "No big star likes to be put in the shadow.''
It was complicated by other gunners and outsized egos on Philadelphia's roster, including Lloyd (World B.) Free, Doug Collins and Darryl Dawkins. Two basketballs? Those guys needed more like five. "We had a 'George' play, a 'Doug' play, a 'Julius' play, a 'Lloyd' play,'' McGinnis once said. "You came down the floor and waited for your play.'' The mix did get Philadelphia to the 1977 Finals. It went up 2-0, in fact, before Portland took the next four games. McGinnis and Erving got along personally, though the media played up a rivalry aspect, dating back to their ABA days.
As Erving asserted himself as the league's No. 1 marquee attraction, McGinnis -- said to be more of an introvert -- yielded. Traded to the Nuggets in a move that delivered championship-piece Bobby Jones to the Sixers' puzzle, McGinnis made it to his final All-Star Game in 1979 before retiring three years later.
If Frazier-Monroe was the Rolls-Royce of backcourts, Cousy-Sharman was the Corvette or Thunderbird version, based on their era. Boston already had a playmaker in place when it traded for Fort Wayne's Sharman, who essentially was the same size (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) and probably would have initiated the offense for most of the league's other teams. This was back before such labels as "point guard'' and "shooting guard'' had taken hold, so the two were able to function together as just plain guards.
Obviously, they did more than just complement each other. Sharman spent his final 10 NBA seasons in Boston, was an eight-time All-Star, finished in the Top 10 in scoring seven times and ranked in the Top 10 in assists three times. Cousy was an All-Star all 10 years they played together, led the league in assists for eight consecutive years (and finished second or third the other two) and also was Top 10 in scoring seven times. They were part of the Celtics' first four NBA titles, both made it to the Hall of Fame and both have their jerseys hanging from the Boston rafters.
Given Johnson's immediate NBA success and revolutionary talents as a 6-foot-9 point guard, it's a little surprising that he and Nixon teamed together for five seasons. Nixon was a more traditional playmaker from Duquesne, an all-rookie pick in 1978 and third in assists (nine per game) the next season. But Magic was, well, Magic.
Nixon and Johnson helped the Lakers to their 1980 and 1982 championships. Nixon averaged 16.9 points and 7.8 assists in the 1980 playoffs to his taller teammate's 18.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 9.4 apg. In the second title run, it was 20.4 ppg, 8.1 apg for Nixon, 17.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 9.3 apg for Johnson. Nixon reportedly felt crowded by Johnson's more dominant role and questioned the younger man's cozy relationship with Lakers management, and finally got his own team again with the October 1983 trade to the Clippers, though the Lakers were thrilled with the player who came back in that trade: Byron Scott.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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