Revisiting Bob Cousy’s Crazy Comeback

NBA comebacks capture our imagination.  The hope that a retired star can return and somehow turn back time is quite appealing to the nostalgia in all of us.  We all remember Michael Jordan’s triumphant Second Coming in 1995 as the quintessential successful comeback.  We also remember MJ’s Third Coming or Magic Johnson’s return as more mixed.  I thought, today, we could look at a weirder comeback, Bob Cousy’s brief return to the NBA with the 1969-70 Cincinnati Royals.

Cousy was known as the Houdini of the Hardwood and was the first great point guard in NBA history.  Cooz starred with the Celtics from 1950-51 to 1962-63, when he retired at age-34.  Six years later, Cousy was a rookie NBA head coach for the Royals at age-41.  In late November 1969, Cousy was reactivated as a backup point guard.  How did this happen?   There isn’t a ton written about this forgettable return but I thought we could dig deeper and see what more we could figure out…

Old Players and the NBA as of 1969

Playing at age-41 in the NBA isn’t easy today but it was really unheard of in 1969.  From the start of the Shot Clock Era (1954-55) until 1969, only 10 players played in the NBA at age-35 or older (note that this age calculation is based on Basketball-Reference’s definition of age, which appears to be based on the age of the player for the majority of the season.  If the player turned 35 after the halfway point of the season, Basketball-Reference defines his age as 34 for the year).  Moreover, no one in that time had played past age-36.  Part of that had to do with the fact that modern medicine didn’t allow players to recover the way they would later. The other part of the equation was the fact that the salaries weren’t high enough to encourage players to keep playing either. 

From 1954 through 1963, only four players made it to age-35 in the NBA.  Here’s how they did:

Bob Davies retired after 1954-55 at age-35.  Davies had his usual season (12.1 ppg, 4.9 apg on career-best .415 FG%)  and abruptly retired to coach basketball and golf at Gettysburg College.  Clearly, Davies could’ve stayed in the NBA at least another year but chose to leave town for a better job.

Bobby Wanzer retired after 1956-57 at age-35.  He was running on fumes and barely played his final seasons.

Nat Clifton retired after 1957-58 at age-35.  Sweetwater was still pretty solid in 1958 and had made the All-Star game only one year previously.  But Clifton didn’t technically retire from basketball.  He went on to play with the Globetrotters and in the ABL and only retired when he hurt his knee in his early 40s.  No doubt he would’ve remained in the NBA past age-35 had the money been good enough to stay.

Andy Phillip retired after 1957-58 at age-35:  Phillip was one of Cousy’s rivals but had been his back up in Phillip’s final two seasons, scoring 3.9 ppg in 19 mpg.  He was clearly on his last legs as a player.

After Phillip there was a lull in older players until 1963-64 and then a few more popped up:

-Dolph Schayes in 1963-64: Schayes had been named coach of the 76ers that season at age-35.  Schayes had played the prior year with the Nationals as a role player (9.5 ppg in 21.8 mpg).  In 1963-64, Schayes played himself only 24 games for 14.6 mpg.  He shot only .308 FG% and seemed to play mostly in blowouts.  Schayes benched himself by the end of the season (he did not play in the playoffs).  He then retired to coach exclusively.

-Larry Costello from 1966-68 at ages 35 and 36:  Costello was the first 36-year old NBA player in the Shot Clock Era.  He had left the NBA in 1965-66 for the EBL but came back at age-35 to help the legendary 1966-67 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham.  The team was short at point guard so they tried Costello, who played well but blew out his Achilles midway into the season.  He came back to play briefly in 1967-68 (28 games) before retiring for good to coach.

-Johnny Green, the first great old player:  Jumpin’ JohnnyGreen didn’t make the NBA until age-26 in 1959-60 but he lasted forever.  He had a mid-career lull and looked like he was about to be out of the NBA when he scored only 4.7 ppg at age-35 with Philly in 1968-69.  Then, Cousy’s Royals signed Green the next season and he somehow played better than ever.  He led the NBA in FG% in 1969-70 and 1970-71 and made the 1970-71 All-Star game at age-37 (16.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, .587 FG%).  Green lasted until 1973, when he retired at age-39.  He was the first true great older NBA player.

-Sam Jones retired after 1968-69 at age-35.  Jones was eking out a final year with Bill Russell (who turned 35 that year but was 34 for most of the season).  Jones was an All-Star the year before (21.3 ppg) but declined to 16.3 ppg that final season, mostly because his mpg dropped from a 33 in 1967-68 to 26 in 1968-68.  Jones had big moments in the playoffs that final year but hung up the sneakers after the season.  Quotes at the time indicate that both he and Russell were physically running on fumes.  Roland Lazenby wrote in his NBA Finals book that Russell’s knees were so bad that he couldn’t practice his finals season and Jones was in a similar boat.

-Richie Guerin from 1968-70 at ages 36 and 37:  Guerin coached the Hawks from 1964-65 through 1971-72.  He retired as a player in 1966-67 but unretired to play 27 games in 1968-69 and only 8 games (and 64 minutes) in 1969-70.  The odd thing about Guerin is that, despite barely playing in 1969-70, he ended up playing major minutes in the Hawks last two playoff games against the West/Baylor/Wilt Lakers . 

How did this happen?  Guerin told the New York Times in 1990 that injuries to Don Ohl and Walt Hazzard forced Guerin’s hand.  But it was a bit more complicated.  Guerin who was known as a tough ex-marine, got particularly irate earlier in the series.  The Hawks lost the first game of the series in a close game.  After the game, Guerin told the press that “there will be a lot of blood spilled on that floor tomorrow night” and “certain players may not be around when the game is over.”  Commissioner Walter Kennedy fined Guerin $1,000 and called the remarks “inconceivable.”  Guerin remained defiant and said he would appeal the ruling and said “[m]y players aren’t going to get pushed around again, that’s for sure.”  There was no reported “bloodshed” in Game 2 and the Lakers won again, 105-94.

With the Hawks down 0-2 to the Lakers and Hazzard out, Guerin started himself in Game 3.  Atlanta was shorthanded and needed a player and Guerin, I’m sure, probably wanted to go out and hit someone anyway.  He played 21 minutes (1-4 from the field, for 2 points, 3 boards).  The Hawks lost a tough overtime game dropping them to 0-3 in the series.  

Guerin started himself again and had great raw numbers: 35 minutes, 31 points, 12-17 from the field, 7-7 from the line, and 5 boards.  The game was a dead heat for three quarters before the Lakers won the fourth quarter 45-25, clinching the series and ending Guerin’s playing career.  In the same 1990 interview, Guerin said “I didn’t die after that game, but I was so sore I felt like I wanted to.”

Years later, Guerin didn’t recall his anger at the Lakers and his only memory was that his retirement ended the two-handed set shot.  Guerin said he had “five or six [set shot baskets] that night.”  Guerin lamented “[t]hat was the swan song of the two-hander.   I’m sorry to see it go.  It added something, something very nice to the game.  The jumpshot is more glamorous, I suppose but the two-hander had an advantage in that late in the game the motion of the jump shot takes its toll on the body. There’s no real exertion to the two-hander.” 

Cousy’s Comeback

With this background, Cousy’s comeback is slightly less crazy than in seems in retrospect.  Schayes and Guerin unretired to play on occasion.  Still, the big difference with Cousy was age.  Schayes and Guerin were younger and had played within two years of their returns.  Clearly, coaches would play to fill vacated roles or to help the team play the style the coach wanted.  This seemed to be the case with Cousy.

He was a rookie coach for a blah Royals team and Cooz was not happy with the state of the team.  Bill Reynolds wrote in “Cousy” that Cooz “wanted the team to run and play more uptempo, the style he had known with the Celtics” but that star Oscar Robertson’s “style was to use his body to back defenders down, controlling the ball.”  Perhaps playing a little could help bridge that gap.  Upon closer look, though, the comeback was probably much more a public relations ploy.

The Royals were not popular in town, drawing less than 6,000 for the home opener and owner Max Jacobs only cared about attendance.  Reynolds wrote that “every night [Jacobs] would call Cousy and ask how many people had been at the game.  Not whether or not the Royals had won.”  Jacobs obviously saw Cousy playing as a potential draw for fans.  Reynolds wrote that before the home opener, “the Royals ran newspapers ads that showed a picture of Cousy in uniform, under the heading, ‘Would You Believe?’”  Cousy had scrimmaged with the team the summer before the season but never really intended to play much, if at all.

Cousy ended up playing only 34 minutes over seven games.  Cousy didn’t insert himself into a game until the 18th game of the season, where he played ten minutes in a 14-point win over the Bulls.  He played seven minutes the next game, another 14-point win (this time over the Suns).  Cousy sat himself the next game and then played, perhaps, the worst two-minute cameo of his career against the Knicks.

Reynolds explained the cameo thusly: “[w]ith about 90 second left, the Royals leading by three, Robertson fouled out.  Cousy believed he was the next-best option and could give his team some stability….So he put himself in, then quickly made two free throws.  But he had a pass intercepted, and then when one of his players threw the ball away again, the Royals had lost.”

Hard to imagine putting yourself in the game to settle down the team and then make the cardinal mistakes that help cost the game.  Nonetheless, Cousy didn’t give up yet.  He sat himself the next three games but played 12 minutes in a one-point loss to the Sonics.  Cooz shot 0-2 but had an impressive five assists.  Then the playing return really slowed down.  Cousy had three more one-minute cameos on December 14, 1969, January 3, 1970, and January 6, 1970 and that was the end of his playing career.

Cousy’s Comeback Stats

In all, Cousy averaged 0.7 ppg  and 1.4 appg in 5 mpg.  He only took three shots in those games (and was 3-3 from the line).  The sample size is way too small to attribute to much meaning.  Still, let’s dig in and give the highlights:

-He passed and fouled a lot, averaging 10.6 assists per-36 minutes and 11.6 fouls per-36 minutes.  The assists rate was the best of his career.  The high fouling either came because he only played late in losses where intentional fouling was needed or because he couldn’t guard quick players anymore (or a combination of those two factors).

-For what it’s worth, Cousy’s comeback advanced stats were: 8.6 PER and .101 WS48.

-The Royals went 5-2 in those games.  Five of the games were played at home, supporting the public relations angle (this includes the Knicks game, which was played in Cleveland but that was a quasi-home game because it was in Ohio).

Older NBA Players

In terms of the aging curve and NBA players, older players have really popped up over time.  Here are the number of seasons by NBA players age-35 or older by decade:

1950s: 8

1960s: 6

1970s: 34

1980s: 42

1990s: 189

2000s: 269

2010s: 231

35+ NBA players exploded by the 1990s but slightly declined last decade.  It will be interesting to see where the trends go in the 2020s (there have been 48 such season so far through this third season of the decade).

Cousy’s Blah Comeback Summed Up

Having coaches dabbling in playing was common until the late 1970s.  The practice has since been barred under the CBA (I recall Scott Skiles tried it briefly for the Suns before the NBA refused to permit him).  Cousy’s return was far-fetched, though, even at the time.  He was just too old to play semi-regularly in the 1969 world.  You can’t fault him for trying to help management bring in fans, though it’s not clear that his presence actually did this.  52 years later, we can appreciate the comeback for the weird data point that it was.

Golden State’s Hot Start Examined

 In 2013-14, the Warriors were a solid 12th in offense and 4th in defense.   Entering the 2014-15 season, the Warriors looked like a fun playoff team with second round upside behind developing youngsters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.  The odds makers had them set for 52.5 wins in 2014-15 but did not consider them a real title contender.  They then exploded to a 67-15 record and a string of NBA Finals appearances.  They had the best defense in the NBA but the real improvement was on offense where they jumped up to 2nd in the NBA and few saw it coming.

The historic Warrior run had looked like it was finally finished.  Curry was still pretty much the same excellent player but the cast around him had degraded to the point where the dynasty seemed over.  Now the Warriors are 18-2 with the very familiar rankings to what they put up in 2014-15 (2nd on offense and 1st on defense again after being 20th in offense and 5th on defense in 2020-21).  So, is it really 2014-15 again in Warrior Land?  The Warriors’ schedule so far has been a bit soft (28th weakest SOS coming into Sunday) but they are winning in such a dominant fashion it’s hard to give too many demerits for that fact. 

Let’s see what the Warriors are doing differently from last year so we can how sustainable this awesome start will be.  Here are some observations:

-Curry is as good as ever.  He shot slightly more frequently last year and with slightly better efficiency but he still has a ridiculous .649 TS%.  Though Steph’s usage is down, he is taking a career-high 13.8 three-pointers per 36 minutes and getting to the line a little less.  Clearly, having secondary shooting threats has given Curry a slight break in trying to carry the offense quite as much.

-The biggest offensive change this year might be Draymond Green.  He’s always been an incredible defender but his offensive effectiveness really dipped the last few years.  In 2015-16, Green was one of the best players in the NBA.  He could defend anyone and he hit .490% from the field and .388% from three.  Alas, this was an anomaly.  Over the next five years, Green shot an execrable .293% from three (275-939).  This year, Dray is shooting .563% from the field, by far the best of his career.  His three-pointers are still not great (.316%) but he’s made a conscious decision to stop shooting so many (only 1.1 attempts from three per game versus 2.7 for his career).  On top of that, Green’s shot chart shows that he’s limiting the shots he’s taking to close-in attempts.  In fact, 72% of his shots from within 10 feet of the rim and he’s making them at a high rate.  Green is likely to regress a little bit in his shooting but his new approach of avoiding the three has done wonders for the team’s offense and there is no reason to think that he can’t keep shooting efficiently all year. 

-Andrew Wiggins will never be a great offensive player but he is versatile and is having his best season (career-best .602 TS%).  His approach doesn’t appear much different other than that he is shooting a marginally more shots closer to the rim and he is hitting long two-pointers at a high percentage, which is likely flukey.  He is basically filling the same role Harrison Barnes did for the Warriors from 2014 to 2016.

-Kelly Oubre and Kent Bazemore really struggled last year.  Oubre shot .316% from three and Bazemore shot very well but didn’t do much else (he turned the ball over a lot and didn’t pass or create shots).  Their replacements have been solid.  First, Jordan Poole has shot pretty well in extra minutes as Klay Thompson Lite.  Advanced stats don’t love Poole but he really can create shots (26.0 usage) and is an able passer.  In other words, he’s a multi-dimensional threat.  In addition, Gary Payton II’s advanced stats are off-the-charts (22.2 PER, .764 TS%, .295 WS48, 5.8 BPM).  There is no way a 29-year old hustle guy can keep that up but he’s legitimately good bench guy and is giving GS great energy minutes for low cost (exactly the type of player that every other expensive super team prays to find). 

-It’s not fair to pick on James Wiseman but the team offensive success in his absence is quite conspicuous.  Kevon Looney still gets 20 minutes per game to bang with other big men but, instead of Wiseman, the Warriors can play more Draymond or try stretch big Nemanja Bjelica, who gives the team spacing that Wiseman can’t.  Bjelica has his weaknesses but the offense works better with him out on the perimeter.  Young Wiseman had a ridiculously low 4.9 assist% versus 15.6 for Bjelica this year.

-It will be fascinating to see what Steve Kerr and the Warriors do with the returning Thompson and Wiseman. Thompson hasn’t played in a game since June 2019 and may not be the same player.  Can he take minutes back from Poole?  I’m skeptical but hope that Klay can recapture some of his old form.  Wiseman is very young and needs to develop but GS is too good to really have him eat up too many minutes learning.  Wiseman will have to sit or he could possibly eat into Looney’s minutes, as they fill similar niches.

All this is a long way of saying the Warriors won’t win 70 games but are a serious contender.  They have made some shrewd adjustments and most of the improvements appear sustainable.  Green, in particular, deserves credit for remaking his offensive game to something that fits the team better.  Amazingly, the Warriors have now reopened a title window that seemed sealed shut, assuming Steph can hopefully stay healthy.

Revisiting the Pearl Monroe Trade

On November 10, 1971, the Knicks acquired legendary guard Earl Monroe from the Baltimore Bullets for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and an undisclosed amount of cash.  The trade is celebrated as helping the Knicks to two straight Finals (and one title) and countless books and documentaries.   As we approach the 50th anniversary of the deal, I thought we could dig a little deeper into the trade itself.   Most of what has been discussed related to how Monroe and Walt Frazier blended their games after the trade.  I thought we could focus on the trade itself and how and why it happened.  What were the Bullets thinking at the time?  Was the trade really as bad as it seems in retrospect?   Let’s do the usual deep dive…

Bullets Background and Monroe’s Value as of 1971 

The Bullets had been a pretty weak franchise since the inception as the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs in 1961.  In 1963, the franchise moved to Baltimore and won 31 to 38 games three years in a row.   They did make the payoffs two of those years due to the weak the Western Division (yes, you read that correctly.  Baltimore was in the west at the time).  The Bullets were moved to the Eastern Division for 1966-67 and cratered to 20-61, earning the second overall pick in the draft, namely Monroe.

Monroe scored 24.3 ppg as a rookie and won Rookie of the Year.  The team also improved to 36-46.  They drafted Wes Unseld that summer and the combo rocketed the team to 57-25 in 1968-69.  Pearl continued to be the same great player (25.8 ppg), though they were swept by the Knicks in the playoffs.

The Bullets remained quite competitive the next few seasons as well.  Here’s the year-by-year breakdown before the trade came down:

-1968-69: 57-25, lost in first round to Knicks 4-0

-1969-70: 50-32, lost in first round to Knicks 4-3

-1970-71: 42-40, lost in NBA Finals 4-0 (beat Knicks 4-3 in ECF)

So, the Bullets were a serious contender (despite their middling showing in the regular season in 1971-72) and the Knicks were obviously a huge rival.  Coming into the 1971-72 season, Monroe was turning 27.  He was Baltimore’s top scorer each of his seasons on the team.  That doesn’t seem like someone you would want to trade, particularly to a big rival.

Earl Forces the Deal

So, why trade Monroe at that time?  Money.  Monroe was in a bitter contract dispute with the Bullets.  He played the first three games of the season and refused to play any more games for the team, demanding a trade to Philly, Chicago, or the Lakers.   The Bullets suspended Monroe on October 22, 1971 and weighed their options.  It didn’t help Baltimore when the team went 2-7 in the period between the suspension and Monroe’s trade.

The New York Times reported at the time that Larry Fleisher, Monroe’s agent, was accusing the Bullets of “refusing to pay Monroe an overwhelming portion of his salary through deferred payment for the 1969-70 and 1970-71 seasons.”  The article does not explain exactly what that meant but it sounds like the Bullets were having cash flow issues and were possibly welching on payments for services already rendered.  Monroe bolstered that theory by telling that Times that: “[i]t was depressing in Baltimore, playing before only 5,000 fans. I do want to say, though, that my gripe in Baltimore was not with the fans, just with the general atmosphere.” 

It sounded like a poisonous and intractable situation.  Ironically, years later, Monroe was quoted in Garden Glory as saying: “I really didn’t want to leave Baltimore.  That was just something that came up, and being a young guy and egotistical, I always thought that when you negotiate with a team it’s just between you and them.  It’s not the media.  And things got out of hand in terms of things being said in the media.  Once I read some of the things that were being said, I said to myself that I wasn’t gonna be back there.  That’s what really prompted me to pursue the trade even more.  We had asked for a trade after that [1970-71] season, and it wasn’t until I was in the preseason the following year when I decided to leave.  It wasn’t that I just wanted to jump out of there, but at the same time, things just didn’t work out.  But I always loved Baltimore and still do.”

But Monroe’s true feelings aside, there was no way Monroe could stay because the money wasn’t there to pay him.  So, Baltimore had little cash, apparently owed Monroe back pay, and was losing a lot games without Pearl in the lineup.  The deferred payments were particularly troublesome because, if the Bullets were in breach of contract, Monroe could have sued for free agency and even maybe have jumped to the ABA (there were scores of litigation on this at the time).  The Bullets’ only option was to get as much possible in return for Pearl, even though they had lousy leverage.  Hence, the trade to the Bullets’ biggest rival for two reserves, Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth, and some cash.

Sliding Doors Moments: The Alternatives

Before we examine the trade more, let’s ponder whether the trade destinations that Monroe wanted were actually viable.  Let’s walk through them:

Chicago Bulls:  They ended up 57-25 that season and were stacked with Jerry Sloan at SG (16.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and great defense).  The Bulls already had Bob Love and Chet Walker scoring, so it’s hard to see a fit here.

-Los Angeles Lakers:  The Lakers had the money to pay Monroe (if mercurial owner Jack Kent Cooke felt like it) but they were pretty set at SG with Gail Goodrich (25.9 ppg, 4.5 apg).  Goodrich would go on to outplay Monroe in the NBA Finals, so it’s hard to see a fit here either.

-Philadelphia 76ers:  Monroe’s hometown team wasn’t very good (30-52) and had a hole as Hal Greer was 35, Kevin Loughery was an old 31, and Fred Carter was okay but the team was in a downward spiral and was not an ideal fit for Monroe, who was hitting his prime.

The Knicks just made much more sense.  They were a good team (52-30 the prior year) and their starting SG, Dick Barnett, was 35 and fading.  Lastly, New York had the cash to pay off both Monroe and the Bullets to get a deal done.  In Garden Glory, Monroe told the story of trying to get to the teams he wanted or the ABA but that Fleischer told him: “I’ve got a deal on the table.  It’s not a place where you had wanted to go…I’m very prejudiced.  I want to see you here [in New York where Fleischer was based].  I want to see you day in and day out.”  Monroe agreed and the deal was consummated.

The Bullets’ Trade Return

On paper, the Bullets look like they were ripped off.  All they got for Pearl, a huge scorer, was two bench players.  To put this in starker terms, here are their stats from the traded parties for the 1970-71 season:

-Earl Monroe (age 27): 35.1 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .442 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 4.4 apg, 17.1 PER, .119 WS48

-Mike Riordan (age 26): 16.1 mpg, 4.8 ppg, .418 FG%, 2.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 8.8 PER, .063 WS48

-Dave Stallworth (age 29): 19.3 mpg, 9.4 ppg, .431 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 14.8 PER, .116 WS 48

(Note that we don’t have blocks, steals, or turnover stats until 1973-74, so the data is incomplete).

On paper, the deal makes little sense.  Riordan looked like a deep bench player and Stallworth, a decent veteran reserve big man.  The New York Times contemporaneous reporting only mentions that Riordan was “a substitute guard” and that he was recovering from a broken wrist at the time.  The article was slightly more generous regarding Stallworth noting that “[t]he loss of Stallworth apparently weakens the Knicks’ reserve strength at forward, where….the starters, will be backed by Phil Jackson and Eddie Mast….”

I could not find anywhere how much the Knicks paid the Bullets to close the deal but it definitely seems that the money paid was the primary consideration.  This is a good moment to take a step back and contemplate how much more money is involved in the NBA today versus 1971.  Ben Simmons, who is currently in an intractable contract standoff similar to Pearl’s, loses $316,000 for each game he is docked.  Back then, Monroe was making $145,000 per season (just under a million dollars in 2021 money).  We will never know what New York paid but clearly it was enough to satisfy Monroe and the Bullets, though it’s not clear if New York paid off the back pay issue and/or gave the Bullets cash on top of that (I personally assume that New York paid both). 

In terms of what they did on the floor, Stallworth spent three years with the Bullets as a backup and put up 7.5 ppg and 4.2 rpg (basically the same as he was doing for New York).  Stallworth ended up back in New York for the 1974-75 season but was cooked and waived after seven games, leading to his retirement.

Riordan actually developed into a useful player in Baltimore.  He put up 10.0 ppg as a reserve in 1971-72 and was okay.  He jumped up to 18 ppg as a starter in 1972-73 and had two more solid seasons (15 ppg) before tailing off in 1975-76.  Not incredible but getting three above average seasons from a heretofore deep reserve had to be an unanticipated happy accident for the Bullets.  Riordan recognized this fact himself.  After getting cut in the preseason in 1977, Riordan told the Washington Post that his career was done and said that: “I never had any illusions about my talents. I never expected my career to continue for very long. I just got on the train and rode it for as long as I could. I never had the luxury of talent like a lot of players, so I could always see the end.”

Taking the long view, here’s how the Bullets did the rest of the decade without Pearl:

-1971-72:  The Bullets went only 38-44 (and 35-35 after the trade) but still made the playoffs, where they lost to the Knicks, again, 4-2 in the first round.  Pearl, who was struggling with injuries, was okay (16 ppg, 3.3 apg).  The healthy and scrappy Riordan actually almost matched (14 ppg) that production.

-1972-73:  The Bullets bounced back to 52-30 but lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, 4-1.  The Bullets replaced Monroe with young Phil Chenier (19.7 ppg, .452 FG%), who was pretty solid.  Monroe was key in the series, leading New York with 21.6 ppg and .541%.

-1973-74: Baltimore moved to DC that season and went a solid 47-35 but again lost to New York in a seven-game series.  Pearl had a very good series (20.1 ppg, .515 FG%) but Chenier wasn’t bad (22.4 ppg, .453%) and Riordan was decent (12.3 ppg, .414 FG%).

-1974-75:  As the Knicks began to fade, Washington exploded.  They went 60-22. Riordan was still a good player too (15.4 ppg).  They were swept in the NBA Finals in a big upset by the Warriors.  Incidentally, Riordan had a memorable moment in Game 4, when he took a swipe at Ricky Barry, causing Warriors coach Al Attles to lose his mind

-1975-76:  The Bullets fell to 48-34 and lost in a seven-game series to Cleveland in the first round.  Riordan was on his last legs as a player, though Chenier was pretty good in the SG role at that point.

-1976-77:   The Bullets went 48-34 and lost in the playoffs in the second round.  At this point, Chenier was clearly better than the older Monroe, so any impact of the Pearl deal had run its course.

-1977-78:  Washington went only 44-38 but won the NBA Finals. 

-1978-79:  The Bullets finished off the decade with a 54-28 record and lost in the NBA Finals to Seattle.  As we all know, they haven’t won more than 49 games or gotten to the Finals since then.

Monroe on the Knicks

We don’t have detailed play-by-play data but Monroe apparently went to great lengths to fit in with the Knicks.  He barely shot initially and when he did shoot, it went poorly.  He was 7-31 from the field his first four games as a Knick and his stats were quite modest overall for New York in 1971-72: 11.4 ppg and .436% in 20.6 mpg.  The Knicks didn’t really suffer for his less aggressive play.  They were only 6-8 when Pearl came to town and New York went 39-21 in games he played in.  It’s hard to say that Earl made a huge difference to the team that season but his presence definitely was an improvement on an aging Barnett.  The Knicks ended up going to the NBA Finals before losing to that legendary 69-13 Lakers team.  Monroe was injured and a big liability in that series (6.8 ppg and .279% in 20.6 mpg).

In 1972-73, Earl played more minutes (31.6 mpg) but actually took fewer shots per minute.  This worked really well. Pearl had only 15.5 ppg but on a career best .488 FG%.  The Knicks went 57-25 and won the title, routing the same Lakers team that routed them the year before (in case you are curious, New York beat the Bullets in the playoffs again too).  Monroe was great in the 1973 playoffs (16.1 ppg and .526%) and was a key cog.

The Knicks’ dynasty fell apart in 1974, as several key pieces retired or aged out of their peaks.  Pearl was still good and the Knicks started to lean on him to score more, which he did.  He put up 20+ ppg from 1974-75 to 1976-77.  Alas, they didn’t have the horses anymore and Monroe played out the twilight on very blah teams.  He was the last remaining member of the 1972-73 title team in town when he retired in 1980 at age-35.

Summing It Up

The Monroe trade was forced by the Bullets’ inability to pay him and the Knicks ability to be the bank and pay off Earl and Baltimore.  This financial strength got New York the 1972-73 title and several more good years out of Monroe.

From the Bullets’ perspective, they had little choice but to trade their star.  The irony is that the throw-in Riordan, ended up being a key and valuable player for a few years.  The Bullets were also able to weather losing Monroe long-term by developing Riordan and finding Chenier as a viable replacement.  It is clear, however, that the Bullets probably lost to New York in the 1973 and 1974 playoffs as a direct result of Monroe’s great play.  Still, the trade ended up not quite as bad as it could have been for the Bullets.  They stayed solvent and were able to regroup and overtake the Knicks by 1975.

On NBA Undefeated Starts

What’s a good start worth in an NBA season?  It’s obviously better to win than to lose but you can’t help but wonder how real some good starts are.  We have no undefeated teams after six games but the Wizards are 5-1 and have looked pretty good.  They are not a team that projected to be particularly good.   Incidentally, past history is not that bullish on strong Washington starts.  The last two Washington teams to start 5-1 are not much to write home about. Those squads, the 1989-90 and 2005-06 teams, ended up losing their next five games.  The 1989-90 Bullets were 31-51 and missed the playoffs.  The 2005-06 Wizards were 42-40 and lost in the first round.

Obviously, a nice run to open the season is subject to the usual small sample size caveats, a fact that we learned when we recently wrote about how we saw that a decent amount of eventual titles teams lost on opening night.   That got me wondering how teams that start really hot end up.  Specifically, I wanted to see how the teams that start the season undefeated deepest into the season were by the end.  We all know that the 2015-16 Warriors famously started 24-0 and set the record for wins in a season.  But what about the more under-the-radar hot starts?  For the purposes inquiry, we went through each franchise’s best start since 1983-84 and how those teams ended up.  Here’s the data:

-1997-98 Hawks, 11-0:  Ended up 50-32, lost in first round

-2007-08 Celtics, 8-0: Ended up 66-16, won title

-1997-98 Nets, 4-0: Ended up 43-39, lost in first round

-2002-03 Nets, 4-0: Ended up 49-33, lost in Finals

-2021-22 Hornets, 3-0: Yes, the Hornets have never had a team start better than 2-0 before this year, which is nuts.

-1996-97 Bulls, 12-0: Ended up 69-13, won title

-2016-17 Cavs, 6-0:  Ended up 51-31, lost in Finals

-2002-03 Mavs, 14-0:  Ended up 60-22, lost in conference finals

-1985-86 Nuggets, 6-0: Ended up 47-35, lost in second round

-1988-89 Pistons, 8-0:  Ended up 63-19, won title

-2005-06 Pistons, 8-0: Ended up 64-18, lost in conference finals

-2015-16 Warriors, 24-0:  Ended up 739, lost in Finals

-1993-94 Rockets, 15-0:  Ended up 58-24, won title

-2013-14 Pacers, 9-0:  Ended up 56-26, lost in conference finals

-1985-86 Clippers, 6-0: Ended up 32-50, missed playoffs

-1997-98 Lakers, 11-0: Ended up 61-21, lost in conference finals

-2014-15 Grizzlies, 6-0: Ended up 55-27, lost in second round

-2011-12 Heat, 5-0: Ended up 46-20, won title

-2018-19 Bucks, 7-0: Ended up 60-22, lost in conference finals

-2001-02 Wolves, 6-0: Ended up 50-32, lost in first round

-2010-11 New Orleans Hornets, 8-0: Ended up 46-36, lost in first round

-1993-94 Knicks, 7-0: Ended up 57-25, lost in Finals

-1993-94 Sonics, 10-0: Ended up 63-19, lost in first round

-2020-21 Magic, 4-0: Ended up 21-51, missed playoffs

-2000-01 76ers, 10-0: Ended up 56-26, lost in Finals

-1984-85 Suns, 5-0:  Ended up 36-46, lost in first round

-1990-91 Blazers, 11-0: Ended up 63-19, lost in conference finals

-1995-96 Kings, 5-0: Ended up 39-43, lost in first round

2012-13 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 58-24, lost in Finals

-2016-17 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 61-21, lost in conference finals

-2017-18 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 47-35, lost in first round

-2018-19 Raptors, 6-0: Ended up 58-24, won title

-1998-99 Jazz, 6-0: Ended up 37-13, lost in second round

-2017-18 Wizards, 3-0: Ended up 43-39, lost in first round

 Poring over the list, we learned a bunch of things:

-The main takeaway is that good teams tend to start well but we have at least 10 teams in the group that didn’t make it out of the first round (to be fair, that group includes the 1993-94 Sonics, who were shockingly upset). 

-There are a ton of teams that started 4-0 that ended up really bad.  Most of them didn’t make this list because the relevant franchises had better starting teams.  Still, the 2020-21 Magic are not atypical in starting well and then ending the year with a thud.

-I wanted to point out two odd teams that didn’t make the list because there were better franchise starts but are worth some note.  The 1998-99 Sonics started out 6-0 but ended up missing the playoffs, thanks to a woefully out-of-shape Vin Baker (and a few other foibles we won’t get into here).  The 1992-93 Blazers had an 8-0 start, which usually means that team will have a great year.  They finished 51-31 but were steamrolled in the first round by the Spurs.  The only team with a more disappointing finish after a hot start has to be the 1997-98 Hawks.  They were 11-0 but also lost in first round (50-32 record overall).

-Pity the 1985-86 Clippers, the only team on the list with better than 4-0 start to have missed the playoffs.

-The Wiz and the Charlotte franchise are the only franchises without a start better than 3-0.  Perhaps coincidentally, neither franchise has been very good at any point in the last 40 years.

A Quick Look at Peak SF Advanced Stats

A few days ago, we did a tweet thread on the career advanced stats for the SFs who made the top 75 and those that likely narrowly missed.  I had a couple of requests for how these players rated at peak. So,  I took the 3 best consecutive years for each of the players.  I also added Bird, Durant + Dr J for comparison/context (did not use ABA Erving).  Anyway, here they are:

 -Bird 1984-87: 26.2 PER, .242 WS48, 9.0 BPM, 25.7 VORP

-KD 2011-14: 28.2 PER, .275 WS48, 9.0 BPM, 24.3 VORP

-Dr J 1979-82: 25.4 PER, .225 WS48, 7.6 BPM, 20.4 VORP

-Kawhi 2014-17: 25.4 PER, .251 WS48, 8.3 BPM, 17.9 VORP

-Melo 2011-14: 23.7 PER, .173 WS48, 4.4 BPM, 11.9 VORP

-Dantley 1979-82: 24.3 PER, .189 WS48, 4.1 BPM, 14.3 VORP

-English 1981-84: 22.9 PER, .151 WS48, 3.9 BPM, 13.3 VORP

-Pierce 2000-03: 22.4 PER, .168 WS48, 5.1 BPM, 16.9 VORP

-Nique 1985-88: 23.5 PER, .176 WS48, 4.6 BPM, 15.1 VORP

-Worthy 1988-91: 19.0 PER, .158 WS48, 3.1 BPM, 11.4 VORP

-VC 1999-02: 23.1 PER, .179 WS48, 5.9 BPM, 17.0 VORP

-King 1982-85: 22.7 PER, .185 WS48, 4.3 BPM, 11.1 VORP

-TMac 2000-03: 26.7 PER, .213 WS8, 8.1 BPM, 22.8 VORP

The peak stats don’t include playoffs but show that T-Mac was a cut above the competition and even in line w/Kawhi + Erving.  VC+Pierce are the next group, followed by AD, Melo, Nique+King. English and Worthy clock in slightly lower (Worthy’s case is his role in Showtime).  This is just a one way to approach the comparisons and ignores context a bit but I think it’s a useful way to review the issue.

NBA Title Teams and Opening Night

On opening night, the two presumptive favorites, Brooklyn and the Lakers, started the season with resounding thuds.  The Nets were easily handled by that Bucks, before bouncing back with a nice win in Philly.  The Lakers, on the other hand, were beaten by Golden State and then were steamrolled by Phoenix to start out 0-2. 

These results got me wondering whether winning on opening night has any relationship to winning a title.  How worrisome is a losing start to eventual teas?  Of course it seems absurd to assume any single game should matter enough to mean anything but let’s dive in and see how the eventual title team did on opening night.  We limited the inquiry to teams since the NBA expanded to eight playoff teams per conference in 1983-84.  Here are the results:

1983-84 Celtics: Lost to Detroit 121-127

1984-85 Lakers: Lost to Spurs 112-113

1985-86 Celtics: Lost to Nets 109-113

1986-87 Lakers: Lost to Rockets 102-112

1987-88 Lakers: Beat Sonics 113-109

1988-89 Pistons: Beat Bulls 107-94

1989-90 Pistons: Beat Knicks 106-103

1990-91 Bulls: Lost to Sixers 116-124

1991-92 Bulls: Beat Sixers 110-90

1992-93 Bulls: Beat Cavs 101-96

1993-94 Rockets: Beat Nets 110-88

1994-95 Rockets: Beat Nets 90-86

1995-96 Bulls: Beat Hornets 105-91

1996-97 Bulls: Beat Celtics 107-98

1997-98 Bulls: Lost to Celtics 85-92

1998-99 Spurs: Beat Kings 101-83

1999-00 Lakers: Beat Jazz 91-84

2000-01 Lakers: Beat Blazers 96-86

2001-02 Lakers:  Beat Blazers 98-87

2002-03 Spurs: Beat Lakers 87-82

2003-04 Pistons: Lost to Pacers 87-89

2004-05 Spurs: Beat Kings 101-85

2005-06 Heat: Beat Grizzlies 97-78

2006-07 Spurs: Beat Mavs 97-91

2007-08 Celtics: Beat Wizards 103-83

2008-09 Lakers: Beat Blazers 96-76

2009-10 Lakers: Beat Clippers 99-92

2010-11 Mavs: Beat Bobcats 101-86

2011-12 Heat: Beat Mavs 105-94

2012-13 Heat: Beat Celtics 120-107

2013-14 Spurs: Beat Grizzlies 101-94

2014-15 Warriors: Beat Kings 95-77

2015-16 Cavs: Lost to Bulls 95-97

2016-17 Warriors: Lost to Spurs 100-129

2017-18 Warriors: Lost to Rockets 121-122

2018-19 Raptors: Beat Cavs 116-104

2019-20 Lakers: Lost to Clippers 102-112

2020-21 Bucks: Lost to Celtics 121-122

The eventual title teams went 26-12 over this time, which projects to 56-26 over a full season.  This are really nice results in the abstract but actually below the average of 61 wins for these squads (we projected wins over an 82-game season for teams that played in the few shortened seasons).  So, generally speaking, it is fair to say that the eventual team is slightly more likely to lose on opening night than it would be on most nights.  Obviously, individual matchups can affect outcome (the 2010-11 Mavs got a terrible Bobcat team while the 2019-20 Lakers had to contend with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George).  Still, the exercise does tell us generally that you shouldn’t get too worked up about early bad results.

We will end with a few interesting individual notes:

-The great 1990-91 Bulls started out 0-3, including a home loss to a decent Philly team, followed by a loss to a bad Bullets team, and another home loss to the aging Celtics.

-The peak Larry Bird Celtics of 1985-86 lost in overtime on the New Jersey not-so-famous parquet against the Nets.  The results show you players you remember as legends did have bad days sometimes.  Mike O’Koren scored 16 points and held Larry Bird to 5-15 shooting (but he still had a triple-double) and Buck Williams ran amok (23 points and 15 boards) against Kevin McHale.  Bill Walton, in his first game as a Celtic, had and ugly seven turnovers (!) in 19 minutes. 

-On Halloween 1997, Rick Pitino’s Celtics beat up the Last Dance Bulls.  It was an odd game.  Chicago jumped out to a 32-12 lead after one quarter only to be outscored 56-26 the next two quarters.  Michael Jordan shot 7-3 from the field but still scored 30 points, thanks to 16 free throws.  It sure seemed like Pitino knew what he was doing then.

-The worst opening showing by an eventual champ belongs to the 2016-17 Warriors.  In Kevin Durant’s first game, GS lost to the Spurs by 29 in Oakland.  That Spurs team was really good but losing at home to anyone by that much is unexpected for a title team.  Kawhi dominated with 35 points and the legendary Jonathon Simmons had 20 points off the bench.  It sure seemed like a statement win by the Spurs but it ultimately didn’t matter.  Man does Kawhi as a Spur seem like 100 years ago now.

-Another seeming statement win occurred when the 1986-87 Lakers were matched up with the Twin Tower Rockets, who knocked the Los Angeles out of the 1985-86 playoffs.  The Rockets won again, even without an injured Ralph Sampson.  Rodney McCray outplayed James Worthy handily.  Again, the symbolic win didn’t carry weight in the long term, as the Lakers won the next four games against Houston.

-This isn’t really statistically significant but I did find it weird that the Rockets would play out-of-conference against New Jersey to start both the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.