Archive → July, 2011
PistonPowered Book Club: ‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto
Back in 2007, I was working at the Flint Journal, located right downtown Flint, Michigan. The city was abuzz because a movie crew had taken over the downtown, thrown piles of dirt everywhere that were being spray painted white to simulate snow and real life stars like Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin were hanging out in a city that typically only gets national attention when our local insane people get murderous or start torching buildings in record numbers.
The filming of Semi Pro, which chronicled the life of a fake ABA team, the Flint Tropics, gave Flint a chance to show outsiders that we actually do have some cool things going on, a unique history, fine eateries, etc. It’s too bad the movie was horrible.
And I don’t say that to be a snob. I’m not too good to laugh at a low-brow Ferrell film. The problem was just that the real ABA was so damned interesting, full of crazy stories, that any attempt to do a parody of it in a over-the-top movie doesn’t do the league actual justice.
Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association is a basically an oral history of the short-lived but impactful ABA. It was also comically poorly organized, filled with some of the craziest people imaginable who made decisions so strange that its a wonder the league lasted as long as it did. Here is a small sampling that stood out to me:
• The Pittsburgh Pipers, led by Connie Hawkins, won the inaugural ABA championship. Attendance was a problem for many ABA franchises, but the Pipers, bolstered by Hawkins’ star power, drew a respectable 3,000 or so fans per game in that first season. Then they moved to Minnesota. Why? Because the Minnesota Muskies, who played their inaugural season in Minnesota, decided to move to Miami because of poor attendance that first year. The Pipers suffered a similar fate — Hawkins had injury problems, the team didn’t repeat its first year success and they didn’t draw well in Minnesota. The solution? They moved back to Pittsburgh. Only without Connie Hawkins. Predictably, the team didn’t draw well that season. Then, to be extra confusing? They changed their name to the Pittsburgh Condors for two seasons before folding.
Oh, and why was it so important to have a team in Minnesota anyway? Because that’s where commissioner George Mikan wanted the league office. Why Minnesota and not New York? Because Mikan lived in Minnesota, had his personal business there and didn’t want to move to New York. All of it made perfect sense.
• Former player Charlie Williams recounted a story about going to Memphis owner Charlie Finley’s office to discuss a new contract. Finley, like many owners in the league, seemed to both exaggerate his actual wealth and combined that with being cheap. Finley invited Williams to have lunch with him to discuss the contract. Williams arrived and instead of going to a restaurant, Finley had a hot plate in his office and heated up two cans of soup on it to give the impression that he couldn’t afford to pay Williams what he wanted. The method worked and Williams agreed to less money than he was asking for.
• After playing in the All-Star game, John Brisker (a Detroit native), who had a reputation as one of the meanest, scariest players in the league, wanted his $300 bonus for playing in the game. He wanted it immediately and didn’t want to wait for a check, as any normal person would. After the game, he confronted the terrified commissioner, Jack Dolph, and asked for his money. Rather than explain to him he’d have to wait for a check like everyone else, Dolph took $300 out of his wallet and handed it to Brisker.
Those stories pop up throughout the book, and obviously they stand out. But the other theme is just how revolutionary the league really was. The 3-point shot? Created in the ABA. The dunk contest? ABA. Drafting and signing college underclassmen? ABA. It truly put immense pressure on the NBA to raise player salaries, it ushered in a more athletic, above-the-rim style of basketball and it featured some incredible basketball talent that helped revolutionize the game.
But, as a Pistons fan, the key person I kept following throughout the book was Larry Brown. Brown’s relationship with point guards has been a constant talking point following him during his NBA coaching career. It was particularly prevalent when he was coaching the Pistons and Chauncey Billups, under Brown’s tutelage, was becoming one of the league’s top point guards. Brown’s fixation on the position actually comes from a pretty simple place: he was a great point guard in his own right. He still holds the ABA record for assists in a game with 23 and when he retired as a player, he was the league’s all-time leader in assists (he’s now seventh in ABA history).
Brown never got an opportunity to play in the NBA. NBA teams felt he was too small. He earned a spot in the ABA and became an All-Star player. But, another frequent LB-ism, is his love for “teaching the game.” He retired early as a player (many still thought he was a solid player) to get into coaching and became the head coach of the Carolina Cougars in 1972. Brown’s ABA tenure was interesting. We know him as a slow-the-ball-down, strictly halfcourt offense coach who preached intense defense, and he was certainly that guy in the ABA, at least defensively. But his good friend and assistant coach in Carolina was Doug Moe, who 1980s NBA fans will remember for his high scoring, no-defense Denver teams. Much of the discussion of Brown as a coach in the ABA centers on his relationship with Moe, who served to, at times, reel Brown in when he got too demanding. It was interesting, and it makes me wonder if maybe Brown needed a guy like that on his staff recently in Charlotte, where players tuned him out reportedly because of his constant negativity.
Anyway, a couple key elements of early Brown stood out to me. The first was his defensive innovation:
“No one used the run-and-jump defense in the pros,” Brown said. “When I told people that that was the defense I planned to play, they told me that I would get killed. But I was convinced that if you had a quick team, you could make up for your lack of size with this defense. And using that kind of pressure meant that you had to play a lot of guys, which was good for team morale, since more guys were involved.”
When the Pistons were in the midst of a coaching search, one of the pipe-dream candidates some nostalgic Pistons fans hoped the team would consider was Brown. I’m doubtful Brown was ever even seriously mentioned by the team as a candidate, but with the Pistons glut of limited guards, maybe the team could’ve channeled 1972 Brown, who handled a similar guard situation well with a Carolina team that ended up being really good (ABA executive Carl Scheer is talking in the quote below):
One day Larry came to me and said, “I’ve got four good guards, but I don’t think any of them can play 40 minutes.”
I waited for what he would say next. I didn’t know if he wanted to trade someone or what. Then Larry said, “I’m going to play all four of them equal time.”
I said, “You’ll never get away with it.”
Larry said, “Wait and see.”
He started the game with Mack (Calvin) and (Steve) Jones. That was his offensive unit. Mack was a great penetrator, streaky shooter and emotional leader. He pushed the ball up and down the court, he went to the basket, got fouled and made the foul shots …
Then Larry would take them out for (Teddy) McClain and (Gene) Littles, and those guys just pressed people off the floor. You couldn’t dribble the ball up against Gene or Teddy. They would just take it away from you. You put all that backcourt together and we were a bitch.
Now, first of all, the way he used Littles and McClain sounds an awful lot like how he used Lindsey Hunter and Mike James in 2004. Who knows if today’s LB would be patient enough to deal with the limitations of the players in the Pistons’ current backcourt (he might demand that they all be traded for Steve Francis or something) while using them in ways that maximize each of their individual talents, but his use of four good but flawed players on that Carolina team shows that with good, innovative coaching, roster deficiencies like what the Pistons are faced with can be masked some by a great system.
Loose Balls is kind of an all over the place book since it’s basically Pluto putting together an oral history of a league that is largely forgotten. But it’s extremely valuable as a tool to understand how the NBA became what it is today, how entertainment and showmanship became a part of basketball, and it’s also a good way to learn about fantastic players who never got much of a shot in the NBA (like Detroit Pershing great Mel Daniels, for example). And you also get to learn about the time Rick Barry told Sports Illustrated that basically everyone in the state of Virginia is a redneck so that the Squires would be forced to trade him.
Pluto’s research for the book was exhaustive. He talks to hundreds of people, including stars and basketball minds like Julius Erving, George Mikan, Brown, Dan Issel, Bill Sharman and many more. As many of the people state throughout the book, without the ABA’s influence, the NBA that we know and love today would be much different and probably more boring.
Next up: Fab Five by Mitch Albom
Mike Prada of SB Nation recently unveiled his rankings of the league’s best GMs. Joe Dumars came in at No. 20:
20. Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons (last year: 24)
STYLE: Mover and shaker, stymied only by the uncertain ownership situation.
THE GOOD: His work getting the Pistons to the conference finals for six straight years without a superstar and without breaking the bank is one of the greatest general manager accomplishments of the past 30 years.
THE BAD: The disastrous summer of 2009, during which he signed Ben Gordon to a five-year, $54 million deal and Charlie Villanueva to a five-year, $35 million deal. Runs through coaches like lottery tickets, having now employed seven in 10 years.
BOTTOM LINE: Dumars’ lack of action recently and the unrest it has caused is not his fault because of the ownership situation, but he will pay for that summer of 2009 for a very long time.
I don’t disagree with Prada’s analysis, that’s a pretty solid summation of Dumars’ career. I do, however, disagree with the ranking. These are the GMs I think should definitely be ranked ahead of Dumars right now: Sam Presti, Pat Riley, R.C. Buford, Donnie Nelson, Gar Forman, Donnie Walsh, Mitch Kupchak.
Dumars belongs in the conversation somewhere after them, although I’m not exactly sure where in that 8-15ish range I would put him. But in no way does Dumars belong lower than Otis Smith, Ernie Grunfeld or Ed Stefanski.
Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer (hat tip: jayg108):
FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, recently declined to provide the NBA clearance to sign forward Bismack Biyombo, the Observer has learned. Biyombo, drafted seventh overall in June, is still under contract to a Spanish team and the Spanish Federation is enforcing that contract.
In an email reply to an Observer inquiry, FIBA spokesman Andrew Robotham wrote:
“The NBA has indeed requested a Letter of Clearance (LoC) for the Player Bismack Biyombo. In accordance with the NBA/FIBA Agreement, FIBA has contacted the Spanish Federation in order to obtain the LoC.
“However, the Spanish Basketball Federation refused to issue the LoC in view of the fact that the Player is still under contract with a team in Spain. ‘’
That Spanish team, Fuenlabrada, reportedly has Biyombo under contract for the next two seasons and expects a buyout of about $1.4 million to release Biyombo to the Bobcats.
I’m pretty glad the Bobcats took Biyombo before the Pistons could’ve. Leading up to the draft, like everyone else, I really liked Biyombo. But the buyout issue came out of nowhere, and that changes a lot. I think Jonas Valanciunas warrants waiting a year. Waiting two years for Biyombo? Not so much.
Keith Langlois notes that Dennis Rodman picked one of the two Hall of Fame coaches he played for to present him at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony next week:
Dennis Rodman chooses Phil Jackson to present him for Hall of Fame. No question, it would have been Chuck Daly if he were still with us.
From start of interview process, Frank was clearly Joe Dumars’ choice to replace John Kuester. Ownership agreed. No close second in process.
Woj and Stein both get their share of scoops, but hopefully, Wojnarowski’s sources are correct in this case. The last thing the Pistons needed was ownership to force a coach on Dumars. If both Dumars and ownership were in such unanimous agreement that Frank was the right man for the job, that is a very good sign that Frank will get the kind of institutional support he needs to assert himself in the locker room.
The #Pistons have reached a formal agreement with Lawrence Frank as their new head coach
The deal is for 3 years and a team option on the 4th year for Lawrence Frank #Pistons
Goodwill also added this note:
Mike Woodson, Bill Laimbeer, Lawrence Frank and Patrick Ewing had two interviews each with the #Pistons and Frank apparently stood out
I remember seeing the report that Woodson was interviewed twice, but this tweet was the first mention I’ve seen that says Frank, Laimbeer and Ewing also received two interviews.
The Detroit Free Press is also reporting the contract has been agreed to.
UPDATE: Goodwill’s story is up now as well.
Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference rated how players perform against each above- and below-average defenses, and no player who played at least 520 minutes against each type of defense, had a bigger drop in production between facing bad defenses and good defenses than Charlie Villanueva (hat tip: tarsier). In other words, Villanueva feasted on bad defenses and struggled against good defenses.
I’ve already explained why Villanueva’s rebounding stats in Milwaukee overrated his actual ability on the glass, and this is just another example of Villanueva looking better than he actually is. His game is all smoke and mirrors. There’s a reason he’s never made the playoffs.
On the other hand, Tayshaun Prince had the 20th-best offensive production against above-average defenses relative to his production against below-average defenses. Attention, playoff teams with assets for a sign-and-trade. Attention, playoff teams with assets for a sign-and-trade.*
*I still don’t think the Pistons will sign-and-trade Prince, unless they get Chris Kaman from the Clippers.
University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is also coaching the Dominican Republic National Team in the FIBA World Championships, has organized an exhibition game between his Dominican team, which includes Piston Charlie Villanueva, and a team of Kentucky alums that includes Tayshaun Prince and former Piston Nazr Mohammed, among others. From Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld:
On August 15, Calipari’s two teams will collide at Rupp Arena, according to tweets from the head coach. Team Dominican Republic will face Team Kentucky, which will be made up of eight of the program’s former stars. Calipari will coach the national team while Sam Bowie and Joe B. Hall will lead the Kentucky alum.
Team Dominican Republic will include NBA players Al Horford, Charlie Villanueva and Francisco Garcia.
Team Kentucky will include John Wall, Rajon Rondo, Tayshaun Prince, DeMarcus Cousins, Jodie Meeks, Nazr Mohammed, Eric Bledsoe and Keith Bogans.
All former Kentucky players have been invited to the event, where they will be honored for their contributions to the program.
The game is expected to be televised, but details have yet to emerge.
Although he’s not listed as playing, Pistons rookie Brandon Knight could possibly be in attendance as well since all former Kentucky players are invited.
As pointed out by Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press, two Pistons assistant coaches have experience with Lawrence Frank. As head coach of the Vancouver Grizzlies, Brian Hill hired Frank as an assistant in 1997. Pat Sullivan assisted Frank with the Nets 2005-08. Via Ellis:
"I texted him when I heard and he said he got my message and that he’d be in touch," said Sullivan, who is hoping to be named to Frank’s staff.
"Lawrence’s biggest strength is probably his preparedness. The fact that he leaves no stone unturned. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for him. … He watches a lot of film. He’s a very good teacher. He’s a good communicator with the guys. I think those things are going to help him."
Sullivan have served as a Pistons assistant coach the last three years, a span in which Detroit went 96-150 and won no playoff game. Under Hill, who assisted John Kuester the last two seasons, the Pistons have fared even worse. Obviously, I’m not pinning all the Pistons’ problems on Hill and Sullivan. Maybe those two frequently disagreed with Kuester and, in Sullivan’s case, Michael Curry, too. Only those closer to the team can judge for certain.
On a personal level, I have a difficult time openly rooting for someone to get fired – especially guys like Sullivan, whose salaries doesn’t guarantee anywhere near the financial security a head coach receives. But, unless the Pistons can isolate Sullivan’s and Hill’s contributions and view them as positive, it might be time to make a clean break.
Once again, the Pistons were represented on the Basketball Jones’ ‘Best of the Last 30 Years’ lists. After having at least one Piston among the top 10 point guards, shooting guards and small forwards, Dennis Rodman was selected by Dennis Velasco as the seventh best power forward of the last three decades:
7. Dennis Rodman, Detroit Pistons (1986-1993), San Antonio Spurs (1993-1995), Chicago Bulls (1995-98), Los Angeles Lakers (1999), Dallas Mavericks (2000)
911 G; 7.3 PPG; 13.1 RPG; 1.8 APG; 0.1 3PTM; 52.1 FG%; 58.4 FT%; 0.7 SPG; 0.6 BPG
It’s probably safe to say that the NBA will never see anyone like Dennis Rodman again. He was a free spirit, enigmatic and more laid back about things than a dead person. However, on the court, he put in non-stop effort, played with fire, within the team concept and wanted to win. How else do you explain a skinny 6-foot-7 player averaging 13.1 boards per game in the NBA?
In his 14 seasons, Rodman averaged double-digit points only once (11.6 PPG in 1987-88). However, he grabbed double-digit boards 10 straight seasons, although the last two seasons saw the Worm play 35 games total. That said, Rodman did lead the league in rebounding per game average for seven straight seasons from 1991-92 to 1997-98, averaging an incredible 16.7 rebounds per. He made two All-Star games and was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice (1989-1990 and 1990-91), as well as being named to eight All-Defensive teams (seven first team selections). The Worm was twice named to the All-NBA third team. He ranks 22nd overall all-time in Total Rebounds (11,954) and fourth all-time in Offensive Rebounds (4,329). Rodman’s 13.1 career rebound average is tenth-best all-time and he is tops in Total Rebound Percentage (23.4). He finished with five championship rings (two with the Pistons and three with the Bulls). Rodman had a less than stellar 14.6 PER, but had a very good 114 ORtg.
When I put Rodman on the list — he was a slam dunk to be on it by the way — I thought of Ben Wallace. If I put Rodman on the list, should I include Big Ben? In the end, despite better steals and blocks numbers, Wallace comes nowhere close to the impact that Rodman had on the game. He was an event. People paid attention to him to see what he’d do next. The five titles don’t hurt either.
Chris Webber, who played about half a season with the Pistons, also cracked the top 10.
Now, as for Velasco’s comments on Ben Wallace, there’s a simple solution: put him on the list of centers. He wasn’t a power forward. When he was voted into the All-Star Game, it was as a center. I agree, it would be hard to find a spot for Wallace in that crowded power forward space. But I think you’d be hard-pressed once you get past the obvious ones (Olajuwon, Shaq, Ewing, Robinson, Kareem, Parish, Mourning, Howard) to find any other centers in the last 30 years who were more impactful than Wallace.