Chet Walker discusses Arenas and the best team ever in the NBA
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One of the great joys of the job I have is to have gotten to know the pioneers of the NBA and to still be able to hear their analyses and reactions to the game. One of those guys I regularly hear from is Chet Walker, the great former Bull and 76er from Bradley and, at least in my opinion, the most deserving player not in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Chet’s still a union guy, and he says he hates to see the possibility of Gilbert Arenas losing his contract in the suspension over his guns-in-the-locker room controversy. Still, at the same time, Walker said it pains him to see the abuses from some among players in the game today.
Walker was one of the group of defendants who sued the NBA over the plans to merge the NBA and ABA. The historic settlement of the so-called Oscar Robertson suit (Robertson was players’ association chief) created free agency in the NBA.
“You hate to see the way some players today are abusing everything we worked so hard for and gave up so much for,” says Walker, who faced an effective blackball that prematurely ended his career for his actions with the players’ association. “I wasn’t the only one. There was Oscar (never offered a coach or GM job even as he’s still a successful businessman), Joe Caldwell, Archie Clark. Guys really were kicked out of the league. For these guys like Arenas to abuse all the hard work we went through to enable them to become free agents and make all the money they do is ridiculous.”
But Walker also wonders at the same time why their association was so silent.
“This isn’t common with players,” believes Walker. “The union should have come out and said these are basically good guys working hard for the game and what you saw with Arenas is the exception, only a small percentage of guys. You let it look like this is a league wide thing against the players and I don’t believe that.”
And while Chet was at it, there’s this pet peeve he has living in Los Angeles. It’s a great franchise, but given Hollywood and all not the most sophisticated fan base or media. So if you live in L.A. like Chet does, as he’s still involved in the movie business you constantly read about the Lakers of the last few years being one of the great teams ever. It’s enough to make you… call someone outside L.A.
“Best team!” came Chet’s voice rumbling over the phone. “The best team ever was our (1966-67) 76ers. We played Boston (with Bill Russell and six Hall of Famers) nine times, the Royals with Oscar and Lucas, the Lakers with West and Baylor, some of the best teams in the history of the NBA. There weren’t all these expansion teams. That was the best team in the history of the league and everyone keeps ignoring it. They keep talking about how good the Lakers are. They’re playing marshmallows all season.”
It’s a frequent debate, and generally loses out in this ESPN generation when nothing much mattered before 1979 because there was no tape. So I did a bit of canvassing. Matt Guokas, now the Orlando broadcaster, played on that 76ers team and points out in the league’s 25th anniversary, which came after the Celtics had won eight straight titles, the poll of experts named that 76ers team the best team in NBA history.
That team, truly, was the first to popularize the so-called triangle offense in the pros since Wilt Chamberlain, though he still averaged 24.1 per game, committed to being a passing center, and finished third in the league in assists behind Guy Rodgers and Robertson.
Coach Alex Hannum played with Tex Winter at USC and they learned the triple post (or then center opposite) offense under Sam Barry.
“Wilt was about 30 and had broken every scoring record,” said Guokas. “He didn’t care about that anymore. He wanted to be the catalyst in a team game and still led us in scoring (and led the league with 24 rebounds per game). We called it ‘shape up’ then. Wilt would be in the left block and who had the ball was at the foul line extended and we’d fill the left corner and form the triangle. You had to go into Wilt or he’d have you taken out of the game. There were no set plays, pick and pops, slips. We kind of took it for granted we were expected to win every time. When we lost it was a big deal.”
They won 68 games, but were running so far ahead of even the 60-win Celtics that season Hannum decided to give them a break and stopped in Vegas on a western trip with a few day break. “It wasn’t a good idea,” laughed Guokas about the three game losing streak.
But the 76ers would go on to blow through Royals of Oscar and Lucas three straight after losing the first, the Celtics in five, winning the first three by an average of double figures and then the Warriors of Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond in six.
Wayne Embry, now a consultant with the Raptors, was on that Celtics team. Said Embry: “They toyed with us that season. We came back and beat them in seven in the playoffs the next season, but that one year they probably were the best ever.”
Breaking down the All-Star reserves
-- Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah All-Stars? You could make a case, but it’s not going to happen. And shouldn’t. The coaches, who vote for the reserves, generally don’t reward players from losing teams, especially not two players. The paper balloting ended Sunday and online voting ends Jan. 18. The starters will be announced Jan. 21 and the coaches voting for the reserves will be announced Jan. 28. Rose is on the bubble for making the All-Star team, the first Bulls player since Michael Jordan to be an All-Star since 1998, though I don’t see Noah making it even though he is one five players in the Eastern Conference averaging a double-double. Along with Noah, they are Dwight Howard, Gerald Wallace, Chris Bosh and David Lee. I’d say Noah loses out to players from winning teams without quite the stats, like Al Horford or Josh Smith. After all, the All-Star game is an offensive show, and no one really wants to see that Raggedy Ann doll postup move of Noah’s where he flops around like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. Though you can be sure all those coaches would want him on their team.
But I believe Rose has a good chance—or should given how much he does for the Bulls—especially now with Gilbert Arenas suspended and Allen Iverson saying he may opt out of his expected starting spot to save his health. Iverson getting out or not being voted on is probably the key for Rose. Rose is averaging 18.5 points and 5.9 assists, but had averaged 24.4 points and 6.8 points the past 10 games before Saturday’s when he backed off scoring with the Bulls with a healthy lead. Rose is 24th in the NBA in scoring, but seventh in the Eastern Conference behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Bosh, Arenas, Joe Johnson and Lee. Among point guards in the NBA, Rose is sixth in scoring first among East point guards. Rose is 13th in assists in the NBA and in the East behind Rajon Rondo, Arenas, Chris Duhon, Wade and tied with Brandon Jennings. If Iverson backs off, you figure the guard certainties should be Wade and Joe Johnson. Perhaps Ray Allen or Rondo. You’d say not both because they would give Boston four All-Stars with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce certain at forward. Still, it would be hard to overlook Rondo as terrific as he’s been this season. He isn’t the object of the defense like Rose, but his games matter a lot more with a team playing for something.
Bosh, Pierce, Garnett and LeBron are certain at forward, and you figure one of the Hawks, either Horford or Josh Smith, because they are winning. It’s hard to find a second Orlando player with Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis not doing much, which should be a fairly good explanation of what’s wrong with the Magic and endorsement of Stan Van Gundy’s Chicken Little warnings of the last few weeks when the Magic were winning that they were not playing well. It’s uncertain about a second Cav as Mo Williams hasn’t been great, trailing Rose in just about every stat category but three point shooting. But the coaches prefer rewarding players from winning teams even if they aren’t as good. Shaq? C’mon. Gerald Wallace deserves it as the league’s third leading rebounder, and you can make a case for David Lee as backup center with his big numbers and the Knicks improving. It’s not a strong field to pick from, and Rose is right there assuming his level of play remains high these next few weeks until the coaches vote.
The Chris Bosh Sweepstakes
-- Is that eight or nine teams now trading for Chris Bosh? Sixteen? The latest was speculation over the weekend about the Lakers, which followed speculation last week about Houston. We know the Bulls’ interest, and Miami’s has been no secret. Dallas has been mentioned prominently since Bosh is from there, and I’ve heard rumblings about the Celtics to try to begin to retool without going to the bottom like they did at the end of the Bird/McHale/Parish era. And since Danny Ainge, now GM, was part of that he may know best what happened when you let your stars play it out. The conventional wisdom seems to be the Raptors have to trade Bosh come February because they cannot risk losing him for nothing as a free agent. Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo has long maintained, at worst, he’d do a post season sign and trade if Bosh chose to leave, which is the only way Bosh could maintain his “Bird” rights and get a contract worth $30 million more than signing as a free agent. The risk with that remains that Bosh picks the team where he wants to go, say Miami, and they have only spare parts to offer, like Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers. That could be worse for Toronto. Also, knowing Colangelo unless he’s ordered to by ownership, it’s difficult to see him giving up the season when the Raptors have a chance to get to fifth and perhaps win a first round series. I’d be surprised to see Colangelo with his own contract coming due soon throw in the towel in the season like that. Especially as Bosh may be the most popular player in franchise history. You better get a lot. You don’t replace those numbers very easily. Just look, for example, the impact losing Ben Gordon had on the other Bulls offensive players. And Bosh is way better than Gordon. And you can’t trade him where he won’t sign, say Minnesota, which has been rumored uncertain about retaining Al Jefferson. The latest rumor is the Pacers turned him down for Danny Granger. If you watched Jefferson against the Bulls Saturday, you’d understand why. I have heard the Timberwolves have asked a number of teams if they were interested in Jefferson for an All-Star or high level big man. Coach Kurt Rambis is said to be pushing the deal because he doesn’t consider Jefferson or Kevin Love a center for his offense. Meanwhile, you’d say New Orleans, perhaps for Bosh, but they likely cannot afford to pay Bosh the maximum. Some suggest three-way deals that get West to Toronto with two more years on his contract so he can’t escape, which seems feasible assuming New Orleans is packing it in. That doesn’t seem to be the case yet as then they’d likely risk losing Chris Paul. But it won’t be easy for Toronto to keep Bosh for a lot of reasons. Even ones you don’t think of much. With the again increased airline security, it’s becoming even more difficult to get in and out of Canada and even charters like the teams use have to pass through customs. Players around the league are grousing more than ever about it. There’s been another interesting dynamic you hear about on occasion. Sometimes players have not been so cooperative as they’ve become accustomed to being left alone at airports. As a result, some customs officers haven’t made it so easy on teams. Recruiting to Toronto may become more difficult now than ever, some executives believe. It makes it for the Raptors as tough a decision as any team has faced.
As for Dwyane Wade, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun again quoted Wade saying how much he hates cold weather and how much he disliked it growing up and going to college at Marquette, which was his only choice then as a non-qualifying student. I can’t see him leaving Miami.
NBA News and Notes
-- Like in a horse race, you don’t want to be leading too soon. That seems to be the case with the Rookie of the Year race as Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans, with a game-winning jumper to beat the Nuggets Saturday night, has moved well ahead of Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings in most views. Evans is 13th in the NBA in scoring and first among point guards with Gilbert Arenas suspended. … Pacers coach Jim O’Brien after being hit for 40 from Kevin Durant: “He’s as good of an offensive player that there is in the league, doesn’t matter, Kobe, LeBron. He does it with seemingly little effort. It’s a pleasure to watch him play basketball.”… Gerald Wallace’s tip-in at the buzzer to beat Memphis Saturday was believed to be the first buzzer-beating game winner in franchise history. Yes, you don’t have many if you don’t win much. … With Steve Blake returning and Andre Miller again in another dispute with the “Blazers, this time calling out coach Nate McMillan in practice, a trade seems more likely. … Play of the week was again Doc Rivers, eschewing the expected three and getting a lob at the basket to Rajon Rondo for a tie as the Celtics beat the Heat in overtime. … The assistants with the reputations as defensive gurus have long been veterans like Boston’s Tom Thibodeau and Indiana’s Dick Harter. Add the Thunder’s Ron Adams to that list. This was Pacers’ guard Earl Watson, formerly with the Thunder, to the Oklahoman after Saturday’s loss to the Thunder: "Ron Adams brought a defensive mentality. That’s when you started to see change. Practices with Ron you do the same things over and over. But it works. It impacts the team. You’re seeing more deflections. You’re seeing a good (defensive) rotation. Everyone is on the same page defensively. Offensively they’ve never really had many problems.”
-- A lot of Bulls fans were upset with the clearly questionable offensive fouls against Derrick Rose that cost the Bulls the game in Milwaukee. But bad things happen to losing teams all over. They are not taken seriously. It’s not right, but it happens. Take last week’s biggest outrage. Leading by one, Golden State’s Corey Maggette picked up a loose ball with five seconds left and called a timeout. The refs ignored it and allowed the Nuggets to get a jump ball. Denver got it and got the timeout with 1.4 seconds left. J.R. Smith shot a half courter that missed, but Monta Ellis was called for a three-shot foul even though he never touched Smith. Smith made the first two and purposely missed the third to end the game. … DePaul blew it. It looks like they’re firing basketball coach Jerry Wainwright Monday. He seems to be a good man and a good role model, but the program has bottomed out. DePaul needs someone with a high profile who can recruit. Good luck, right? They had the chance. Isiah Thomas was looking for a college coaching job last season and feelers were put out by people on Thomas’ behalf toward DePaul. Thomas declined to personally pursue the job because they had a coach. But some close to Thomas said he would have jumped both feet into the DePaul job with, despite his controversial experience with the Knicks, his high profile and ability to recruit as an NBA Hall of Famer with strong NBA contacts. Thomas, a Chicago native who was initially looking to return to the Midwest to be closer to family, had contacts with several Division I programs and eventually landed at Florida International. Isiah Thomas at DePaul. How perfect would that have been?
-- Don’t sleep on the Wizards. There are plenty of jokes to make and much talk about breaking up the team and trading everyone. But they do have two All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and some big time scorers like Randy Foye with Brendan Haywood averaging just under a double-double. They have a chance every game because they can score, much like the Toronto Raptors. And I’ve long felt they play better without the selfish Gilbert Arenas. Without Arenas, they won in Philadelphia and beat Orlando and let a lead go Sunday late in the game to the Hornets. … Nice pickup by the Heat of Rafer Alston, who is coming off playing for the 22 straight win Rockets and 0-18 starting Nets. … Imagine if Vinny Del Negro tried that: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan the first 14 minutes of what became a loss in Toronto because it was the second of a back to back. Said Popovich to the San Antonio Express: “Not too much happens in the first quarters of NBA games.” The Spurs went down by eight in the first quarter and lost by five. … I’m not saying it meant anything or doesn’t happen all the time elsewhere, but it was interesting watching O.J. Mayo on a fast break in the last minute with two defenders going at him not handing off to an open Rudy Gay on the other wing and getting blocked by Gerald Wallace in a game the Bobcats eventually won. … The New York Daily News reported Magic Johnson being denied complementary courtside celebrity tickets for a Knicks game because of his continued criticisms of former GM Isiah Thomas. And my thought was how come all these rich guys always are asking for free tickets?
-- The Bulls and Vinny Del Negro must be wondering, “Why us?” The national media has been apoplectic with breathless reports for weeks of Del Negro’s imminent firing unless he is not fired until after the season. Then not a peep anywhere last week when 76ers GM Ed Stefanski declined to give coach Eddie Jordan a vote of confidence with the local media ripping Jordan, the team being booed at home and questions in the media about erratic substitutions and rotation, poor in game adjustments and lack of a system. Stefanski pretty much gave the same answers as Bulls GM Gar Forman about Del Negro a few weeks back. Said Stefanski to Philadelphia reporters about talk of Jordan being fired even in his first season (Terry Porter was last season): "We're all accountable in this whole situation. It's not just the head coach. It's the coaches, the players, and myself. No one is happy. I'm not happy at all. I’m frustrated. I'm not the only one. Obviously, the coaches and players are frustrated and not happy. And the fans aren't, and they shouldn't be. I'm an emotional and passionate person, especially when it comes to my job and the Sixers, and we're not getting the job done. And my emotions are that I'm not happy." Asked again about whether he’d consider a change, Stefanski said: "One thing is, I said, I'm very unhappy. Everyone - coaches, players, and myself - and I'm going to pinpoint myself - we're all accountable on this whole thing. We review daily. I don't think there's a certain time you say, 'Change.' Everyone in the organization is accountable, and I'm accountable to upstairs (ownership)."
-- That interim thing isn’t working very well with the Nets, who are showing little interest in the games and in trying to pump up Yi Jianlian for trade by playing him a lot to increase his stats, the Nets seem to be alienating center Brook Lopez. … Like the Rockets with Tracy McGrady, the Cavs believe they can get a high level player (Antawn Jamison has been rumored as a target for two years) for the expiring deal of Zydrunas Ilgauskas of about $11.5 million since they cannot get under the salary cap to pursue a free agent even with the contracts of Z and Shaq expiring. The Cavs will get Leon Powe back playing after serious knee surgery following the All-Star break. … Though Hedo Turkoglu isn’t having much of a season, the Magic seem to miss his ability to move the ball as a point forward type. Their recent malaise seems to stem mostly from shooters standing around watching Dwight Howard and not moving and cutting. Though in the long run the Magic should benefit from not paying the long term deal for Turkoglu, Vince Carter has been a disappointment with his erratic shot selection. I can see the Magic trying to move little used Brandon Bass for a guard. … The Lakers have been having backcourt, particularly point guard issues, and I wonder if they’ll make a bid for Kirk Hinrich. Back in those Kobe Bryant trade talks that were going nowhere, the Lakers always talked about having to get Hinrich. Hinrich is a good defender and fits Phil Jacksons two guard front sets. The Bulls at some point may feel the need to move Hinrich if they feel they cannot move another deal to have enough room under the salary cap for one max free agent. Or they might back off for concern about falling out of the playoff race this season given Hinrich has played well as a starter. The talk around the NBA is the Lakers are looking to deal contracts, like those of Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton. Taking on Hinrich’s $9 million deal would mean $18 million cost because they are in the luxury tax. So it seems likely. But if the Lakers believe they need a point guard to win this season, perhaps they’d move the expiring deals of Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar.
-- Well, at least we know LeBron James isn’t going to the Nets. Not because we don’t know where the Nets are going. Or because they remain on target to set the record for the worst season in NBA history. The Nets joined the Wizards banning card playing on team flights, which seems fairly close to the way 80 year olds in wheelchairs are shaken down when they have a deodorant trying to get on an airplane. It’s an insane overreaction to the Gilbert Arenas hubbub. You know what? There aren’t many Arenases. Playing cards or various games of chance has been as much a part of pro sports as booing and beer. It actually promotes better play because it gets players talking to one another. I asked one Bulls player about a ban and he said, “There are going to be an awful lot of quiet flights.” The Bulls, like most NBA teams, have no plans to ban card playing on team flights. These are adults, and though they sometimes don’t act like it, you cannot have a successful team atmosphere treating them like children and not trying to hold them responsible or accountable. But watching over them like hovering parents and treating them like children only leads to childish behavior. You want them to make the right decisions on the court and then you refuse to let them make the right decision otherwise? Two of the best coaches in the league understand. Said Phil Jackson: "What are these players going to do when they get to their hotels or get back to their home space? They're going to go to their houses or their rooms and gamble. I think maybe on the planes might be a better spot for them to do it because they're monitored and in the company of guys. It hasn't been a problem." Jackson said it’s a good release for the players and accepted in the history of the league. Added the Celtics Doc Rivers: “I am not going to that extreme. I think we always overreact to that stuff. Gambling didn’t cause that problem, Gilbert’s actions caused this problem. There has been gambling before I got in the league. There’s been arguments and obviously, because guys make more money now, the stakes are higher. But, having said that, our rule on the plane is they can do whatever they want as long as they keep it under control.” Wow, mature organizations. And the best two in the history of the league. Must be a coincidence.