5 NBA Records We Need to Stop Revering
Shining the cold light of perspective on some of the NBA's most hallowed milestones is tricky business.
You have to balance appreciation for the remarkable athletic achievements of the past with the insipid #WellActually spirit of modernity. Thanks for that second part, Twitter. You've made us all monsters.
Seriously, though, when you say a celebrated record from the past isn't actually that impressive, you have to say it carefully, with qualifiers.
Yes, it was amazing in the moment, and anyone who scored 100 points in a game or won 11 titles in 13 years did it against the only competition that was available and in the only NBA environment that existed at the time.
If, in hindsight, that competition or that environment appear suspect in a way that makes those milestones less impressive, that's not the fault of the achiever. It's just a reflection of how pretty much everything—sports included—evolves and improves over time. And hopefully it also reflects the way we get smarter about appreciating the value of context.
So a lot of what comes next is going to seem like blasphemy, but at least it'll be nuanced blasphemy.
We'll see how well that goes over.
Wilt Chamberlain's 100-Point Game
Partly because of the iconic picture, partly because of the appealingly round number and partly because of the sheer, towering impossibility of it all, no individual record carries the weight of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.
The Big Dipper pulled it off on March 2, 1962, and nobody has come close to topping it since.
Important point: What Chamberlain did was incredible. He was an athletic specimen decades ahead of his time, feasting on inferior physical talent in a league that wasn't yet keen on playing defense. Understanding those things helps to both celebrate the 100-point game and provide vital context.
And that context is everything.
Try to picture a modern NBA game devolving into what CBS Sports' Royce Young described here:
From accounts of how it went down, the Warriors spent almost the entire fourth quarter fouling to get the ball back and force-feeding Chamberlain the ball. New York coach Eddie Donovan said, 'The game was a farce. They would foul us and we would foul them.' Chamberlain's shot attempts by quarter: 14, 12, 16, 21. You think in a blowout in today's game that a team would keep feeding their star like that?
That's a joke. The NBA of 50 years ago could flit back and forth between competition and exhibition in ways that would be totally impossible now. Chamberlain's 100 came as the result of a concerted effort in a laugher of a game.
And that's not even considering the pace issue.
B/R's Adam Fromal helped me out with some math that matters: Wilt's Warriors averaged 131.1 possessions per 48 minutes that season, which was 1.039 times higher than the league average. So scoring 100 points in that environment would be akin to scoring 74.4 on a team that averaged a comparable pace in 2014-15.
Nobody scored 75 points in a game last season, but there are a handful of players who could have if (a) they'd played 48 minutes, (b) the opposition had basically given up and (c) their entire team spoon-fed them on every possession of a blowout.
We could dig into this from a bunch of other angles, and Fromal did it expertly here. But the overarching point is this: Wilt's 100 happened in a version of the NBA that barely resembles the one we know today. Virtually everything about that scoring environment made it easier for him to pile up points.
That doesn't mean Wilt was a bum. He was a freak of nature and, obviously, nobody else in his era could have done what he did.
But let's not make the mistake of revering a record that looks a whole lot more impressive than it really is.
Boston Celtics' 11 Titles in 13 Years
It was tempting to run down a bunch of Chamberlain's other records here, starting with his scoring average of 50.4 points per game in 1961-62, but there's another sacred cow equally deserving of slaughter.
The Boston Celtics won 11 championships from 1957 to 1969, destroying their peers during that span. But because of the league's setup at the time, Boston's streak of dominance needs a reality check.
There were just eight teams in the NBA until the 1961-62 season. A ninth showed up that year, and a 10th followed in 1966. By the time Boston's dynasty ended in 1969, there were still only 14 teams. With just three playoff rounds, the road to the Finals was far easier. And because such a huge percentage of the league made the postseason, Boston routinely faced opponents with records comically below .500.
You could argue that fewer teams meant a greater consolidation of talent, but because of the financial rules (or lack thereof), it was profoundly easy for Boston to hoard more of it than anyone else.
To be fair, we're essentially penalizing Red Auerbach for being a smarter personnel man than his competitors, which feels wrong. But the fact of the matter is that the absence of a salary cap made it easy for a team to get better once it was already the best. Auerbach and the Celtics didn't face the attrition modern winners do. If they won a ring and a key piece wanted more money, there was no reason for him to go elsewhere to get it.
In that sense, dynasties that happened before the institution of the cap in 1984-85 all deserve some scrutiny.
Winning titles is always the goal, and the Celtics of that era achieved it more often than anyone else. But the short road to the Finals, soft playoff competition and lack of measures to ensure competitive balance detract from the dynasty.
If you're looking for a streak worth celebrating, focus on the modern San Antonio Spurs, who've been among the league's best for almost two decades despite the salary cap and a longer, tougher road through the playoffs.
Oscar Robertson's Triple-Double Season
Add Oscar Robertson's hallowed triple-double season to the list of specious statistics from the 1961-62 campaign (right alongside Wilt's 100 and one of those Celtics titles).
Weak competition, grossly inflated pace, little defense and minutes-played totals that could never exist today combine to riddle Robertson's averages of 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists with asterisks.
Hey, maybe if there are at least 10 asterisks, we'll start considering that year his quadruple-double season!
We went over the number-engorging factors above when we threw shade at Chamberlain's stats, and all of them apply to Robertson here. The difference is that we have a modern player whose achievements fully expose Robertson's as overblown.
Westbrook's era-adjusted stat line (warning: this might be NSFW):
Try 46.9 points, 14.6 assists and 12.2 rebounds.
That's not a typo. Statistically, he'd approach 50-15-12 if we adjust for the pace and playing time.
Westbrook put up 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists in 34.4 minutes per game last season. And he did it in a league whose average pace was 93.9 possessions per 48 minutes. The pace in Robertson's season was 126.2. As Haberstroh calculated, once you include that pace information alongside Robertson's ridiculous 44.3 minutes per game, you get a stat line from Westbrook that puts Robertson's to shame.
That's not to say Robertson, playing in today's NBA, with modern conditioning and the actual application of defense by opponents, couldn't have done what Russ did. But the comparison certainly highlights how misleading so many milestones from the past can be without context.
We pick apart Westbrook's 2014-15 season without realizing it was better than the one we celebrate from Robertson.
Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons Combine for 370 Points
Just drink in that grainy video. Let the synthesizer jams purify your soul.
No NBA game has ever featured more total points, 370, than the 186-184 triple-overtime win the Detroit Pistons notched against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 13, 1983.
That game and that point total continue to hold a mystique that they probably shouldn't.
First of all: three overtimes.
Second: The pace of NBA basketball in 1983-84 was bonkers. The beat-you-up Detroit Pistons averaged 117.1 points per game—not because they were efficient, but because they dealt in volume, playing at a pace of 103.8 possessions per 48 minutes that would have topped last year's league-leading Golden State Warriors by 5.5 possessions per game.
And the Denver Nuggets were something else altogether, averaging 123.7 points per game and 110.5 possessions per 48 minutes. Both were tops in the league by plenty.
So if you combine those two scoring averages, you're already at an expected 240.8 points. Detroit and Denver were at 290 by the end of the fourth quarter—above the expected outcome, but not ridiculously so. The 145-145 regulation score seems crazy now, but it was really just a predictable result of the Nuggets' style at the time.
The year before, in the 1982-83 season, either the Nuggets or their opponent scored at least 140 points 14 times.
Toss in three overtimes of totally exhausted defense, and it's not all that hard to understand how those 370 points wound up on the scoreboard.
According to John Maxwell of Pistons.com, Vinnie Johnson, who somehow scored just 12 points in the game, said it felt like "a summer league game, no defense at all...It was run and gun from the start."
Scoring 370 points is cool, but given the circumstances, it wasn't really that surprising.
LeBron James' 2015 NBA Finals Performance
There's technically a record here—LeBron James was the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists in the Finals—but that's really just an excuse to take a fresh look at LBJ's widely celebrated efforts in the Cleveland Cavaliers' six-game defeat against the Warriors last spring.
He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists on 39.8 percent shooting in 45.7 minutes per game.
James' unprecedented one-man onslaught was as physically marvelous as it was uncomfortable to watch. It was clear that no other player in the league could have so entirely dominated every possession on offense like he did. Cleveland's entire attack devolved into James bringing up the ball, bulling into the lane and hoping for the best.
It was remarkable. Incredible. Bizarre. All of that.
And as it was happening, it was easy to get swept up in the Sisyphean tragedy of it all. James destroyed himself playing that way, and he couldn't get over the hump. Oddly, he became a sympathetic figure. And maybe that's why, even now, after there's been enough time for perspective to creep in, there's still a sense that what James did was both objectively good and objectively necessary.
And even though both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were out, Cleveland still had viable NBA talent in J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov on the roster. So maybe it wasn't necessary either.
James took 196 shots in that series, more than any other three Cavaliers combined. He missed 118 of them. You've got to be great to even attempt a full-on takeover effort like that, which, fortunately, James is.
And you have to be historically great for everyone to overlook the fact that it was probably a mistake—both while it was happening and afterward. Fortunately for James, he's that too.
But that won't save him here. As time passes, we're going to realize that James' Finals performance wasn't heroic. It was foolhardy.
And maybe we'll even acknowledge that if it had been Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony or Westbrook who'd tried to win that way on the big stage, we'd have buried them for it.
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