NBA Finals Preview 2023-24: Can Anyone Stop Luka?

At the beginning of the playoffs, Boston versus Dallas did not seem to be a likely Finals matchup but here we are.  Well, the Boston side of the equation was pretty predictable but Dallas has been a pleasant surprise.  Nevertheless, Dallas has shown itself to be a legitimate NBA finalist with Luka Doncic’s incredible shot making and a supporting cast that suddenly fits so well together.  Let’s run through the major issues of this series and see what comes of it…

Did Boston get here with a super easy path?

Definitely.  Boston earned an easy path by dominating the regular season and it got even easier when their playoff opponents all had untimely injuries.  The Ringer had a nice look at this issue and concluded that this year’s Celtics had the easiest path to the Finals ever (when you factor in injury bad luck of opponents).  My personal view was that, even with the injuries, Boston had an easy run but nowhere near as easy as the mid-1980s Lakers.  But it doesn’t matter either way.  A lot of the teams that have had easy paths to the Finals won the Finals or came damn close.  The aggregate SRS of the 1986-87 Lakers’ Western Conference foes was a shockingly bad -3.6.  They still won in the Finals and have been considered, by some, the best team ever.  Regardless of whom they have played, the 2023-24 Celtics have dominating team stats that are consistent with past dynastic teams (10.74 SRS, 1st in offense and 3rd in defense) and there is no reason to think they are a paper tiger.  Boston could lose to Dallas but the “easy path” narrative is fairly meaningless.

How will Boston guard Luka?

The Celtics have no weak defensive players in their top five but the real decision is whether you use a quicker guard, that Luka can shoot over and muscle, or a bigger player that might be more vulnerable to penetration.  There is no real way to stop Doncic but he clearly enjoys shooting over the smaller players.  I expect Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to split the duties, two players that can, at least, neutralize Luka’s strength game in the post to some degree.

This year, Boston won both games against Dallas fairly easily but they did not stop Doncic, who put up 35 ppg and had a triple-double in both games.  Boston will just have to make Luka work hard for his points and avoid giving him too many easy three-pointers.

What is Dallas’ best route to winning?

Obviously, the Mavs’ theory of the series is that they have the best player in Doncic and they just need Kyrie Irving to be effective and use their two-headed center of Daniel Gafford and Derrick Lively to dominate the paint on both sides of the court.  Still, Dallas has to watch Boston’s three-point barrage.  Boston can go cold at times (particularly Tatum) but they shoot the most threes in the NBA and make them at a high rate (.388%).  While there is higher variance on three-point shooting, Dallas will have to adjust its defense to make sure Boston doesn’t get too many uncontested threes as well.  Expect Boston to try to target Luka and the centers for easy three attempts.

The other factor to watch is the health of Kristaps Porzingis.  He’s been resting since the first round with a calf strain but, if he’s healthy, his size on defense and his stretch shooting on offense are nice counters to Gafford/Lively more short range abilities.  Assuming health, Porzingis will still be vulnerable to the Doncic pick-and-rolls (as all big men are).  Boston will have to try to configure its defense to allow Porzingis float elsewhere and avoid being on an island with Luka.

A few words on Kyrie

Kyrie is, and has always been, an amazing player.  No matter the outcome of the Finals, Irving’s season has been great and there are (and will be more) redemption stories after his washout in Brooklyn.  He deserves plenty of credit for his play (and by all accounts he has been a beloved teammate) but let’s remember the context of the trade last season.  Irving demanded a max extension after missing tons of time for all sorts of reasons that made Brooklyn queasy to reinvest in him and he refused to play out the season without that deal.  Conversely, Dallas had badly screwed up the Rick Brunson negotiations and had to take a risk on a talent just to keep Luka happy.  Irving’s trade market was small and this trade was rational for both teams and not some sort of a coup for either.

Dallas v Boston: A History

There is not a ton of history between Boston and Dallas.  Here are a few nuggets to munch on though:

-Boston leads the overall matchup 46-40.  Boston won the first 11 games played between the teams, and were 24-4 against Dallas through the 1993-94 season.  Through the years, Dallas has fought back to tie the series at 35-35 after the 2015-16 season.  The Mavs had won seven straight at that point.  The teams have gone back-and-forth since, with Boston currently on a four-game winning streak.

-Dallas’ first win against Boston came against the legendary 1985-86 squad by one point in Dallas on March 10, 1986.  Boston actually led the game by 13 points with six minutes to play but Dallas rallied to win.  Larry Bird scored 50 points but was needled by Bill Walton for his play anyway.  According to Peter May’s “The Last Banner,” Walton told Bird: “’You may have scored 50, but you were the worst player on the court.’  Bird agreed.  He knew, as Walton knew, that he had been going for points at the expense of the team—a move that was a typical of Bird.,,,[Mavs coach Dick] Motta was so pleased [about breaking the streak that] he gave his team the next day off.”

-That 50-point game was Bird’s high game versus Dallas, though he did go for 30 or more nine times and went 18-2 for his career against Dallas.

-In terms of trades, Dallas was kind enough to give the hapless ML Carr his best trade as GM of the Celtics.  After the 1995-96 season, Dallas was desperate for a center so they traded their sixth pick in the draft and an unprotected 1997 pick for the Celtics ninth pick in 1996 and Eric Montross, who had looked pretty solid in two years out of UNC.  Carr hyped the trade saying that “[w]e believe there’s a quantum leap from six to nine.”

Boston nabbed future All-Star Antoine Walker, while Dallas took a journeyman Samaki Walker at nine (they both passed on Kobe and other big stars but what can you do?).  Dallas had a miserable 1996-97 season and traded Montross after only a few months.  Boston nabbed Dallas’ sixth pick in 1997, which ended up being the star-crossed Ron Mercer.  But let’s give Carr some props for getting a lottery pick for a backup center.

Prediction:  Dallas can win this series.  They have the best shot maker in the NBA but Boston is a tier above the prior teams that the Mavs have played.  Unlike OKC and Minnesota, Boston has had several deep playoff runs and the taste of the 2022 Finals slipping away from them.  I thought the Celtics were the best team coming into the playoffs and I’m sticking with them.  Either way, this should be really fun.  Boston wins 4-2.

Playoff Quick Thoughts

So far, the Conference Finals have had some rousing moments but, ultimately, we have two 3-0 series.  Let’s quickly run through a few issues that have come up that interest me:

The Doncic Shot Over Gobert:  LukaDoncic’s step back three to win Game 2 was an incredible shot.  The isolation play was set up by a pick play that forced big Rudy Gobert to have to guard Luka 40 feet from the hoop in open space.  A review of the tape shows that Gobert did a relatively good job of staying with a smaller quicker player.  The only question is whether Minnesota should’ve anticipated the pick/switch and subbed out Gobert preemptively to avoid the match up.  I’m agnostic on this point.  Gobert’s contest was pretty good and it’s not like the regular match up had stopped Doncic anyway.  The best potential counter might’ve been to double Doncic hard on the pick and force him to pass to the rolling player Derrick Lively.  Luka would likely have found Lively but the risk of hitting a three-pointer and falling behind in the game would be lower.

Pacer/Celtics: The Pacers have blown two games but the overall sense I get is that the Celtics are the much better team and, whenever they dial up intensity on defense, the Pacers cannot compete with them.  The Celtics have been coasting through most of the playoffs so far and are just waiting for the Finals.  I don’t expect them to have this issue in the Finals.

Conference Finals Sweeps:  Despite the lack of drama, this year’s Conference Finals do have the chance to make history.  Since the Conference Finals have gone to a seven-game format, there have never been sweeps in both conferences.  In fact, the only dual Conference Finals sweeps since the shot clock was 1956-57, when Boston swept the Nationals and the Hawks swept the Lakers.

Casting a little wider net, having both Conference Finals go only five games (or fewer) is also exceedingly rare.  In the past 68 years, the Conference Finals have gone 4-1 or 4-0 in both conferences nine times.  Most recently, this occurred in 2016-17 when the LeBron Cavs dispatched a raw Celtics team 4-1 and the Warriors swept the Spurs (thanks to that major injury to Kawhi Leonard in Game 1).  Here’s the full list of such series:

YearECFPoint Diff.WCFPoint Diff.Total Diff.
2016-17CLE over BOS 4-120GS over SA 4-01636
2014-15CLE over ATL 4-013.3GS over HOU 4-18.221.5
2010-11MIA over CHI 4-12.2DAL over OKC 4-146.2
1985-86BOS over MIL 4-015HOU over LAL 4-13.618.6
1984-85BOS over PHI 4-15LAL over DEN 4-112.217.2
1979-80PHI over BOS 4-13.6LAL over SEA 4-13.47
1973-74BOS over NY 4-19.6MIL over CHI 4-014.223.8
1969-70NY over MIL 4-19.6LAL over ATL 4-08.718.3
1957-58BOS over PHW 4-17STL over DET 4-110.817.8
1956-57BOS over SYR 3-012STL over MIN 3-06.318.3

As can be seen, for about 25 years between 1985 and 2010, fans were guaranteed at least one decent Conference Finals series.  The award for closest abbreviated Conference Finals goes to 2010-11, where the Bulls and Thunder were pretty competitive for teams that lost 4-1.  The 1979-80 Conference Finals were also relatively close (the Celtics would close the gap a year later).

This year’s Conference Finals leaders have outscored their opponents by an aggregate 12.3 (Boston +8 and Dallas +4.3), which falls in the range of most of the above series.  We shall see if they can make a little history with the double sweep.

LeBron, the Lakers and Playoff Sweeps Examined

The Lakers are on the verge of being swept by the Nuggets for the second year in a row.  Last year, there was talk that, despite the sweep, that the Lakers were competitive and in every game.  For what it’s worth, this year, the Lakers have blown several big leads and are arguably just as competitive.  That got me wondering whether the 2022-23 Lakers were truly the “closest” sweep ever.  There are a lot of ways to quantify the competitiveness of a swept team but I thought we could measure it by the most conventional way, point differential.

We took a look at all the seven-game series sweeps since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84 (h/t Basketball-Reference).  We found 75 sweeps during that span and the average point differential per game was about 12 points per game. Here are some notes on the data:

-The 2022-23 Lakers were on the pretty competitive side for a swept team.  They were outscored by six points per game, which ranks sixth out of 75 teams over the past 40 years.  This year’s Lakers are currently being outscored by 6.7 points per game, which is roughly the same spread.  But not the best of the sweepees.

-The closest sweepees were actually the 2016-17 Pacers, who lost to LeBron’s Cavs in the first round by a mere four points per game.  Close behind at 4.5 points per game were the infamous 2021-22 Durant/Irving Nets, who freaked out after this sweep.

-The biggest margin of victory belongs to the 2009-10 Magic, which whipped the Hawks by 25.3 points per game in the second round.  It could’ve been worse but Orlando won Game 4 by “only” 14.  The 2018-19 Pistons were blown out by 23.8 points per game against the Bucks.

-Forgotten crazy sweep: Shaq and Kobe faced the Tim Duncan/David Robinson Spurs in an anticipated Western Conference Finals in 2000-01.  The Spurs had the one seed but had lost their best perimeter player, Derek Anderson, on a cheap shot foul the previous round.  Still, the Spurs were blitzed so decisively that Anderson wouldn’t have helped.  They lost the first two games at home by about 10.5 points per game.  It got even worse in Los Angeles when the Lakers won 39 and 29 the next two games.

-The Jordan Bulls legendary sweep of the Bad Boys Pistons in 1990-91 was by 16.7 points per game, which was the most dominant Conference Finals sweep besides the 2001 Lakers/Spurs sweep mentioned above.

-Of the five Finals sweeps, the Spurs/Cavs in 2006-07 was the closest at six points per game.  The 1988-89 Pistons sweep of the hobbled Lakers was nearly as close.

-The franchise with the most sweeps: the Cavs with 10 (nipping the Spurs who had nine). The Hawks, Hornets/Bobcats, Grizzlies, Clippers, Blazers, and Kings haven’t yet won a seven-game sweep in the past 40 years.

-The most swept team over this span is the Lakers, with six sweeps, and they are working on a seventh this year.

Full data below:


NBA Playoffs 2024: Quick Thoughts

It feels like old times!  In olden days, the NBA was a little more predictable than it has been since Covid hit in 2020.  For the first time since 2018, coming into the playoffs, the likely NBA Finals match up seems relatively clear.  The Celtics have been so dominant that it would be a huge upset if they don’t cakewalk to the Finals.  Out West, Denver is the best playoff team and they have more competition but I agree with the consensus that they should be meeting Boston in June.

This doesn’t mean the 2024 playoffs will be boring.  Sometimes, the journey is its own reward.  Several teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in showing some playoff success.  Making the second round or the conference finals might be enough to keep a team paying the tax.  At least as important as the money are the emotions and effort some big stars have invested in not crapping out in the first round (or not getting swept in the second round).  Eruptions from disappointed owners or huge stars are inevitable.  So, these stakes are high, and they make these playoffs fascinating to watch.  Having said all this, let’s dive in and give our quick two cents as to what we think will happen…

Eastern Conference First Round

1.  Boston v. Miami:  I realize the Heat have tortured the Celtics in the playoffs for years.  The Heat are without Jimmy Butler and, even if he were healthy, Boston has hit another level.  The Celtics went 64-18 and had an insane 10.74 SRS, fifth best of All-Time.  The Heat have moxie, but they are running into a buzzsaw that is particularly pissed about last season’s upset.  Prediction: Boston wins 4-0.

2.  New York v. Philadelphia:  Pity the Knicks.  They do everything right in terms of team building and refuse to tank out of the two seed and the reward is having to play the best player in the conference in Joel Embiid.  New York is the slowest paced team in the NBA and relies heavily on Jalen Brunson’s creativity in the half court, coupled with the best offensive rebounding in the NBA.  The key question will be whether Embiid is healthy.  He looks slower than pre-knee surgery but here’s how the slower Embiid has done before and after surgery:

Pre-Surgery: 34 games, 34.0 mpg, 35.3 ppg, .533 FG%, .366 3FG%, 11.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.8 bpg, 3.7 topg, 2.9 pfpg

Post-Surgery: 5 games, 30.5 mpg, 30.4 ppg, .495 FG%, .481 3FG%, 9.2 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.2 bpg, 4.8 topg, 2.8 pfpg

Embiid is quite rusty but the rusty version is still an inner circle star (though he is clearly shooting threes to avoid contact on offense).  Even diminished, Embiid could be enough to win this series himself.  The problem is Embiid seems to get hurt every playoffs, even when he enters healthy.  My sense is that this pattern will continue.  This issue combined with the fact that Philly is playing a good and deep team, with home court advantage, means New York is the favorite.  These are probably the second and third best teams in the East but one will go home early.  Prediction: New York wins 4-3.

3.  Milwaukee v. Indiana:  This could be a bit ugly.  The Pacers’ high-octane offense and weak defense usually doesn’t translate well in playoffs and Tyrese Haliburton was gimpy in the second half.  Nevertheless, the Bucks’ awfulness in the second half cannot merely be expressed with stats.  They seem old and tired and have repeatedly blown huge leads and lost to terrible teams.  Giannis Antetokounmpo’s calf injury further mucks the Bucks’ outlook.  Under normal circumstances, Milwaukee should win this series, but they seemed to have surrendered already.  Prediction: Indiana wins 4-2.

4.  Cleveland v. Orlando:  This series is a throwback series to the 1990s.  We have two defense-first teams that score just enough to win.  Orlando’s defense is better (2nd to 6th) but their offense is worse (22nd to 18th).  The teams split their season series 2-2 as well but haven’t played each other since February.  The other factor is whether Donovan Mitchell, by far the best scorer in the series, is healthy.  Assuming moderate health for Mitchell, I think Cleveland has a few more efficient scorers and that will be the difference.  Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-3.

Western Conference First Round

1.  Oklahoma City v. New Orleans:  We have two young and athletic teams but OKC’s stars will be available, and Zion Williamson will not.  Even if Zion would be available, the Thunder is the better team.  OKC’s weaknesses are lack of size up front and relative playoff inexperience but they won’t be tested here.  Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-1.

2. Denver v. L.A. Lakers:  The Lakers are legitimately a good team, but this is a horrible match up.  Anthony Davis, an incredible player and the core of the defense, just isn’t big enough to stop Nikola Jokic (few are).  What LeBron does after losing the series will be more interesting than the series itself.  Prediction: Denver wins 4-1.

3.  Minnesota v. Phoenix:  The key stat seems to be that the Suns went 3-0 against Minnesota, including a big win to the end the season.  All three wins were by at least ten points.  That seems like a bad indicator.  Despite these facts, I remain a skeptic of the Suns’ depth, as well as whether Kevin Durant has enough gas in the tank for a long playoff run (he averaged over 37 mpg this season).  For the Timberwolves, this just appears to be a bad match up and, absent injuries or Anthony Edwards going crazy, they are going home early.  Prediction: Phoenix wins 4-2.

4. L.A. Clippers v. Dallas:  This is another intriguing match up between teams that are deep with stars but seem headed in opposite directions.  At one point, the Clipps were 34-15 but they finished up 17-16 and now Kawhi Leonard’s troublesome knee is acting up again.  Conversely, Dallas started out 26-23 and finished up 24-9 and Luka Doncic is nigh unstoppable.  If Kawhi is healthy, the Clipps could win but this seems like everything is pointing Dallas.  Prediction: Dallas wins 4-2.

Second Round

Boston over Cleveland, 4-1

New York over Indiana, 4-2

Oklahoma City over Dallas, 4-3

Denver over Phoenix, 4-2

Conference Finals

Boston over New York, 4-1

Denver over Oklahoma City, 4-2


Boston over Denver, 4-3

MVP Voting and the 65-Game Rule Examined

The NBA’s new 65-game minimum to be eligible for awards has met mixed reviews.  Adam Silver passed the rule to try to encourage meaningful participation in the regular season.  During the All-Star break, Silver posited that the rule had been a success: “I can tell you that the number of games that players have participated in is up this season, and interestingly enough, injuries are actually down.” 

I’m not sure what data Silver is specifically relying on, but it does seem that some older stars are playing more but there have been notable problems.  Specifically, Joel Embiid appeared to have injured himself trying to play through injury based on the pressure to stay eligible for the MVP race.  Also, in a quest to have All-NBA eligibility, Tyrese Haliburton played part-time through injuries, instead of just sitting until he fully recovered from a hamstring pull.  Haliburton didn’t play great during this span and his minutes clock led to some awkward game play (he had to sit in close fourth quarters sometimes).

Still, no rule is without a downside and, arguably, these two instances are worth it for the overall good.  I thought we could review the 65-game minimum and how it would’ve applied in the past MVP races, FAQ style…

Has a player ever won the MVP with fewer than 65 games played?

The only player to win an MVP with fewer than 65 games played in an 82-game season was Bill Walton in 1977-78.  Walton played only 58 games before breaking his foot, which effectively ended the star portion of his career.

For posterity, let’s address whether Walton deserved the MVP that season.  It has been widely assumed that Walton was the runaway winner because Portland was 48-10 when he played and 10-14 without him.  In fact, the vote was pretty close.  Walton beat George Gervin 96 to 80.5 in the voting and SI wrote near the end of the 1977-78 season that “if Bill Walton is not basketball’s MVP, Gervin certainly is.”  But SI did not explain the debate further. 

Let’s take a look at the stats to see how the top candidates, Walton, Gervin, David Thompson, and Kareem compared with each other:

-Walton: 58 games, 33.3 mpg, 18.9 ppg, ,554 ts%, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.5 bpg, 24.8 per, .209 ws48, 8.1 bpm, 4.9 vorp

-Kareem: 62 games, 36.5 mpg, 25.8 ppg, .589 ts%, 12.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 3.0 bpg, 29.2 per, .257 ws48, 9.3 bpm, 6.5 vorp

-Thompson: 80 games, 37.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .578 ts%, 4.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, 23.2 per, .202 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 5.2 vorp

-Gervin: 82 games, 34.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .594 ts%, 5.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.3 bpg, 24.7 per, .201 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 4.9 vorp

So, Thompson and Gervin were in a near dead heat but were a notch below the centers in terms of efficiency.  Kareem also missed the two months of the season when he broke his hand on Kent Benson’s face two minutes into the season.  The Lakers were 37-24 with Kareem (we aren’t counting the season opening two-minute cameo) and 8-13 without him.

Kareem accrued more VORP in his 61 games than either of the other candidates and his counting stats and BPM were off the charts.  Walton’s argument rests on the dominance of his team putting him over the top.  Not a crazy argument but it appears, to me, that Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the NBA and would’ve gotten my vote (though it would be rational to give Kareem demerits for his self-inflicted injury that cost his team dearly).  In either case, the rightful MVP was a guy who played fewer than 65 games.

How would the 65-game rule have affected voting in the before times?

From 1983-84 through 2018-19, 33 players that played fewer than 65 games received MVP votes (we are excluding the two lockout shortened seasons).  Of that group, most received a few stray votes and didn’t place particularly high in the rankings.  Here’s the list:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank
Baron Davis2006-076315

The players with the fewest games played were Jordan and Magic during their brief comebacks but they only received a few token votes.  Four other players finished as high as seventh:

-Chris Webber in 2001-02 played only 54 games but was clearly the Kings’ best player. 

-Bernard King was seventh as well and played a ton of minutes in 1984-85 before a catastrophic knee injury ended his season after 55 games. 

-Chris Paul 2013-14 (62 games) and Joel Embiid 2018-19 (64 games) played a bit more for their seventh-place finishes.

The highest finish of the group was Shaq in 1997-98, who was fourth, despite playing only 60 games.  O’Neal actually got a first-place vote that juiced up his totals but he finished behind MJ and Karl Malone, who were quite clearly better.

MVP Voting, post-Covid

Before the Covid season, the distribution of MVP votes for players with fewer than 65 games played was pretty stable:

1980s: 4

1990s: 17

2000s: 6

2010s: 9

When Covid hit, things changed.  Both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 aren’t really fair data points because full seasons weren’t played and Covid forced rest on players as well.  Nevertheless, the 2020-21 season featured Embiid coming in second in the MVP vote with only 51 games played (and down ballot, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard tied for 13th despite playing between 44 and 52 games). 

The past two full seasons, the trend seem to expand as eight players received votes despite playing under the 65-game limit:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank

From an MVP perspective, most of these players were receiving back-end votes, which is no different than what was happening back in the 1990s (the only player with a reasonable case to win the MVP with fewer games played was Giannis last season).  Based on the data, though, there is no serious reason to have a 65-game limit to be eligible for the MVP.  The voters have already sorted out this issue and have already considered games played.  Perhaps the rule makes a bit more sense in the All-NBA context but I see no benefit in the MVP voting system.

Sidney Moncrief’s Forgotten Comeback

In the past, we’ve done deep dives on the comeback attempts of some Hall of Famers like Magic, Jordan, and Cousy.  I recently was reminded of another comeback attempt by a Hall of Famer that I thought was worth an examination.  The only difference is that this guy is more marginal a Hall of Famer and his comeback is almost totally forgotten. I am referring to the comeback attempt by Sidney Moncrief with the Hawks in 1990-91.  Moncrief’s return isn’t particularly well-documented so let’s give it a little bit of attention because it was relatively fruitful and interesting.

A Little Background Moncrief

Most fans remember Moncrief as the tough two-way guard from Arkansas who was a key star on the 1980s Don Nelson Milwaukee Bucks.  He wasn’t merely a good player. Moncrief was a five-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.  Moncrief’s peak was from 1981-1986, when he put up some eye popping stats:

21.0 ppg, .592 TS%, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, 20.5 PER, .212 WS48, 4.8 BPM, 24.0 VORP.

Those are impressive numbers.  In a world without Jordan and Drexler, Moncrief’s 1981-82 BPM is the second best by a shooting guard of the 1980s and 1990s (MJ & Clyde have the top 17 slots).  While Andrew Toney and George Gervin have arguments, to me, Moncrief was best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the early 1980s. 

Moncrief’s End in Milwaukee

It took until 2019 for him to finally get in the Hall of Fame.  This delay relates partially to Moncrief’s comeback in a roundabout way.  After his excellent 1985-86 season, Moncrief hurt his knee and was never the same player again.  He played only 39 games in 1986-87 and had only 11.8 ppg.  He played a little more and a little better the next two seasons but was not re-signed after the 1988-89 season.

Moncrief was turning 32 and his last season was not horrible but way below his prior standards: 25.7 mpg, 12.1 ppg, .591 TS%, 2.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 16.4 PER, .151 WS48, 2.6 BPM

One would think those stats would be enough to earn Moncrief another deal somewhere but he really struggled in the playoffs:  

20.4 mpg, 6.1 ppg, .500 TS%, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 9.7 PER, .062 WS48, -2.9 BPM. 

In other words, Playoff Moncrief looked totally cooked.

Playoffs aside, shouldn’t a two guard who could put up 12 ppg at age-31 be able to get a job for age-32?  Well, not so much.  From 1973-74 to 1985-86, only 15 players defined as shooting guards played more than 1,500 minutes at age-32 and the norm was to write off these players, rather than keep them around.

According to an October 1989 UPI report, the Bucks wouldn’t offer Moncrief any deal because of the state of his knees.  Moncrief announced his retirement at the time as follows: “’I think my injuries played a role in my decision but more importantly I think the market pretty much dictates that your services are no longer a very hot commodity….I think the market told me and my body told me because the last couple of years I’ve had a number of injuries.”  Yup, no team wanted to give Moncrief a good contract because of his troublesome knee.

Return to Atlanta

Moncrief sat out the 1989-90 season but was contacted by the Hawks to be an assistant coach for the 1990-91 season.  He told The New York Times in October 1990 article that he would try a comeback instead because “”I wanted to know if I could still play.” 

In this January 1991 Chicago Tribune article, Moncrief gave more detail around his thought process for returning: “I felt I could still play when I retired, but I was just burned out on basketball.  I had knee problems, but nothing that threatened my career. I just had played a lot of minutes, and with the number of games and travel, I found everything was bothering me…. I felt I still could play so I didn`t think I`d be a good assistant. I`d be looking to project myself on the court.” 

Interestingly, both the Nets and the Hawks offered him a tryout but he chose Atlanta because the Nets were in a deep rebuild (they had just drafted Derrick Coleman).  Moncrief had a good camp and even hit a game winning three-pointer in an exhibition game and made the team as a fourth(ish) guard.

Moncrief played in 72 games averaged about 15 mpg.  His overall stat line reflected that he imparted some value:

15.2 mpg, 4.7 ppg, .620 TS%, 1.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 13.5 PER, .142 WS48, -3.1 BPM.  

He also showed adaptability.  Whereas previously, like most 1980s players, Moncrief barely took any three-pointers, in 1990-91, he made 33% on threes (21-64) and took them at the highest rate of his career.  Some of his other highlights for the season were as follows:

-On January 18, 1991, Moncrief scored a season high 16 points in a win against MJ and the Bulls.

-On February 22, 1991, Moncrief scored 14 points on 7-8 shooting and 5 assists in a win against the Magic Johnson Lakers.

-The 1992 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball wrote that he “held Reggie Miller to one shot in 12 minutes in [a] game where [the] Pacer guard was toasting the Hawks.” It’s not clear which game this was from the logs.

-Moncrief’s best moment came in Game 4 of Atlanta’s first round series against the Pistons.  He put up 23 points on 8-11 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals and helped force a deciding Game 5 (Detroit walloped Atlanta by 32 in Game 5).

Moncrief retired for good after the season but with a sense that he showed he still could play.  Moncrief assessed his play as follows: “I feel I`ve performed well.  People see points as a barometer of how well you`re playing, but I`ve always been one to look at helping a team win. Do you pick up the team, or does it lose ground when you`re in there? Are you playing hard, and are you focused?   I`ve been very pleased at what I`ve been able to do, and that it might be a different way each night is exciting.”  Sure it was a low stakes return but, in many ways, Moncrief’s return was as successful, on its own terms, as most other comebacks we have reviewed.