Bullish 04.16.17: Rondo

Bullish 04.09.17:  The Rondo Effect

Last summer, the Bull’s signing of point guard Rajon Rondo stuck out as the dumbest personnel move in an offseason fraught with a dozen of them.  Rondo had worn out his welcome on three different teams, the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Sacramento Kings, in a mere two seasons.  He lacked the ability to shoot, couldn’t play defense after a knee injury wiped out his lateral mobility, and most of the time his teams were better with him off the floor instead of on.  Yet in the first few days of the offseason, the Bulls not only signed Rondo, but announced he was their primary free agent target.  

This pronouncement rightfully sent the Bulls faithful into a maelstrom of despair.  Rondo was the sort of player that was the opposite of what coach Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system demanded.  Hoiberg had been hired a year earlier precisely to bolster the club’s offense.  If the front office and the coach they hired weren’t on the same page, what reason was there for hope? Vegas put the over/under for Bulls wins in the2016-17 season at 38 and most pundits—myself included—took the under.   And most cited the conflict between the presumed offensive system and personnel (which by season’s start included Dwyane Wade, another misfit for a pace and space styled offense) as the main reason. 

Yet the Bulls start their postseason today after an up and down 41-41 season and Rondo has been a particular surprise. He was the Rondo of his reputation for the first half of the season. He was suspended for a game for throwing a towel at an assistant coach. His defense was atrocious and despite nearly seven assists a game, he wasn’t contributing much else. In December, just to cite a random month, he shot 35.8% from the field.

Then after getting five straight DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coaches Decision) in January, a change happened. Rondo became a different player. Initially reports began to surface that he was using his off days to visit the Bulls D League team and give them pointers after games. But a bigger change was on the court. No, he was still a putrid defender, but but…he learned how to shoot. After the all star break, he shot 47.3% from the field and amazingly 46/3% from behind the arc. It was no fluke, his free throw shooting improved from a career mark of 60.6% a mark so low that he was a target for intentional fouling when the Bulls were in close games, to a respectable 70.1%

The improvement was essential as the Bulls are built around players like Wade, Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and others who have no long distance shooting prowess. Without someone to space the floor, defenses were packing the paint and collapsing the Bulls offense. Rondo and his replacement in the starting lineup Jerian Grant were two factors in opening up the floor; power forward Nikola Mirotic, who scored 14.2 points per game and shot 41.3% from the field after the break was another. Suddenly the Bulls who were dead last in attempts, and percentage from distance in the first half of the season, were averaging 10 three pointers a game and shooting 38.2% from behind the arc. To put that number in perspective, over the course of the season only three teams, the San Antonio Spurs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors bettered that mark. In other words, a player who was thought to be taking the Bulls from being a contemporary NBA team helped them find their way.

So do the Bulls stand a chance in the playoffs? The Bulls are the eighth seed and face the number one seed Boston Celtics. Usually one versus eight series are walkovers, but this one has intrigue. With only 53 wins, the Celtics are not as potent as a usual one seed. For another, the Celtics have not been their usual stalwart selves on defense.

The Bulls do stand a better chance than most eighth seeds, and if they were coached by a leading light like Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, I’d bet on them, but Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was still searching for a rotation 78 games into the season. The Bulls have stumbled onto a style of play and have the players to make big news, but I think they lack the coaching acumen and going forward they probably lack the front office smarts to build on this team. So in the end, this team reminds me of the ’76-’77 squad which played great basketball down the stretch only to have to face the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. They came closer than any other team to eliminating the Blazers but lost. The Celtics are that good but I imagine the Bulls going down in an interesting fight.


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At WSJ on the new Linda May Han Oh Recording: Walk Against Wind

‘Walk Against Wind’ by Linda May Han Oh Review

The bassist and composer’s third recording in a predominantly quartet setting helps focus attention on the evolution of her writing and improvising.

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’ PHOTO: SHERVIN LAINEZ

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’ PHOTO: SHERVIN LAINEZ

The bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh makes music that is resolutely of the moment, yet she is defying one of the major trends in jazz today. Unlike her peers who often use their first few recordings to showcase a variety of different bands, Ms. Oh, who is 32 years old, is about to release her fourth recording, “Walk Against Wind” (Biophilia), and it’s her third in a predominantly quartet setting. The similarity in ensembles from one recording to the next focuses the attention on the evolution of her composing and improvising, and it’s a smart strategy. Her innovative range and stellar improvisations have made Ms. Oh one of the most dynamic rising stars in jazz today.

“Walk Against Wind” features 11 originals that are lithe, spry and often episodic. The recording opens with a subdued bass intro by Ms. Oh and a ruminative solo that gives way to a darker, scratchier guitar solo by Matthew Stevens. The piece slows to a crawl before saxophonist Ben Wendel gently nudges the music toward a brighter finish. On other pieces, driving fury yields to softer introspection. Ms. Oh’s bass playing moves effortlessly from timekeeping functions to expanding the range of each tune with provocative solos. Mr. Stevens’s ringing chords and Mr. Wendel’s darting horn provide superb contrast to Ms. Oh’s deep oaken tones. The band will tour in April, performing in Cambridge, Mass., on the 5th, at the Jazz Standard in New York on the 19th, and at venues in Baltimore and Old Lyme, Conn., as well.

Ms. Oh was born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent. Originally named May Han Oh, she grew up in Perth, Australia, and to aid in her assimilation her father gave her the name Linda; on her first three recordings she is

billed simply as Linda Oh. She studied bassoon, played electric bass in rock bands, and listened to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers recordings. She turned her attention to jazz and won fame in Australia, then moved to New York in 2004 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. She rose quickly through the ranks of the Gotham jazz scene and currently plays in bands led by guitarist Pat Metheny and by trumpeter Dave Douglas and in Sound Prints, a band co-led by Mr. Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Her debut as a leader, “Entry,” a self-released 2009 recording, displayed impressive potential, but her second release, “Initial Here” (Greenleaf, 2012), marked her as a major talent. On it she covered the Duke Ellington classic “Come Sunday” with dazzling panache and offered a unique merger of Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” with Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Cinq Doigts.” Her third recording, “Sun Pictures” (Greenleaf, 2013), showcased her innovations on a program of originals. Ms. Oh has other projects. Her large ensemble with a string quartet had its debut at Jazz Gallery this winter. “Walk Against Wind” is an accomplished recording, but all signs suggest Ms. Oh is just getting started.

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The Do Over 07: Young Friends

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

A coupla weeks ago, my friend Jonah posted an interesting article about middle age, which amused me because I don’t consider him middle aged.  But then again, middle age is a fluid concept.  I’ve known people in the late 20s who considered themselves middle age.  It wasn’t silly either.  They no longer thought of themselves as “young” but weren’t quite ready to think deeply about retirement; therefore that was middle age to them even though I thought they were still quite young.  Anyway, the article argued that the biggest threat to middle aged men isn’t smoking or obesity, it’s loneliness.  I thought about it for a long while especially since a. I do consider myself middle aged and so does most everyone else and I don’t smoke.  Obesity, maybe, but I’m working diligently on that.  Loneliness was something I ponder as my leisure time is ever more dominated by solitary activities like listening to podcasts.

In posting the article Jonah offered his solution, plan get-togethers with your old pals.  That certainly resonated for me since some friends just did an informal version of that recently (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend due to work and financial considerations).  But I have a better idea:  make friends with young people. I love getting together with people my age and people older than me too, but inevitably, nostalgia takes over.  I like nostalgia too.  I’m a Chicago Bulls fan and well, this year’s team has been frustrating to the point that I’ve watched about a half hour’s worth of You Tube clips of the dynasty era teams just to remind myself that those guys in black and red really can play championship caliber ball sometimes.  Yet, I don’t want to dwell on the past.  I know it’s not 1997 anymore or even 1987, even if the music at the store seems a tad too anxious to celebrate the ‘80s (our musical furniture is the Sirius XM Big 80s station).  I’m far more interested in figuring out what 2017 means and my biggest allies in that quest are young people. They know it’s not 1987 because they have no tangible memory of that year, which is actually helpful; they don’t miss it.  Furthermore since they don’t have kids or grandkids or engrossing jobs, they are freer to hang out and parse life in New York City today.

There are several other bonding points.  They are struggling to establish themselves and fight off the negative stereotype of “millennials.”  I’m struggling to re-establish myself and battling the stereotype of “old,” i.e., being frail, intransigent and tech/social media illiterate.  For them, the Obama presidency spanned their collegiate and coming of age years, so they have a profound WTF about the current administration.

Thanks to the easy access of streaming most of them who are excited about music have interests that pre-date their years on the planet.  One evening about seven years ago, I and a bunch of people in their 20s were closing the Bedford Cheese Shop after a very busy day and one of my coworkers put on a playlist of songs with food in the title.  Just after we locked the doors, “Yes, We have no Bananas” came on and everyone except me croaked along.  I wasn’t exhibiting tasteful restraint; I simply don’t know the lyrics. Yet, I was fascinated to hear the routes that my coworkers came to the song, which included The Archies, Luxury Liner, The Simpsons, The Muppet Show and several other diverse sources.  And I enjoyed hearing the other music that they arrived at.  The guy with the playlist went on a Herbie Nichols kick shortly after and the cheese shop soundtrack was often the music of the great overlooked jazzman, and yes, a few months later the inevitable happened.  One of my other coworkers told me he heard a pianist that reminded him of Nichols, some cat named Thelonious Monk.  Did I have some recommendations?

Anyway, my openness may be a genetic trait.  Both of my parents were enthusiastic about hanging out with their younger coworkers as well as my older sibling’s friends.  They wanted to hear new perspectives in much the same way that I’m eager to hear the routes that lead people several decades my junior to the same interests I have.

I put this theorizing to the acid test this week.  I took my friend Dylan, who is 24, to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s nightclub to hear Trio M, a superb collective featuring pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson.  I’ve known Dylan for all of his life.  His Dad and I go all the way back to freshman year of college 39 years ago.  Also, when his Dad is in town, he’s a frequent companion of mine in my concert going.  The adult version of Dylan and I bonded over beer, first at a bar that had Grimm Lambo Door on draft, then when he came by the shop to by a growler of it.  He asked about the music on my upcoming agenda and I mentioned Melford and sent him a You Tube clip of her with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He was astounded, so off we went.  Afterward, over an Equilibrium double IPA and brined chicken tacos, we talked about it and I was pleased.   He’s a music fan, not a jazz fan.  He was delighted by Melford’s play, enthused by Wilson and blown away by Dresser.  He also liked that equanimity of the ensemble.  I pointed out the roots of piano trios and mentioned a couple of other stellar ones.  He seemed to be taking notes. The music was at times inside and at times out.  What I particularly liked in his assessment was that he didn’t engage in Vietnam War era parsings of that dichotomy.  It made perfect sense to him that jazz in 2017 would incorporate the entire century of its history.

After we parted, I wandered over to NuBlu where David Weiss and Point of Departure recalled the vivid experimentalism of jazz in the late ‘60s without repeating it.  I attended alone but thought of several young pals who would have dug it.


The current listening. More on it in an upcoming post.

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From the Archives: At WSJ on NBA Defense





How NBA Defenses Got Turned Inside Out

protecting the rim—now defense in the pros is all about guarding the perimeter

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season.

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. Photo: USA Today Sports/Reuters

For generations, the key to playing great team defense in the NBA was simple: having a great center.

From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, fearsome big men were almost always at the heart of the best defenses. This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.

Today’s NBA, though, is turning this basic understanding on its head. Now good defense is no longer mainly about guarding the rim. It’s about guarding 23 feet or so away from it.

Stopping the three-point shot has become the paramount defensive objective in the NBA. Offenses are launching them in unprecedented volume, which is forcing defenses to focus on preventing them, and changing how defenses are built.

This season, entering Sunday, the top defensive teams in the league based on points allowed per possession were the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks. Each of these teams either lack a dominant rim protector or they start a center who has missed a significant part of the season because of injuries.

What they do have is the ability to harass three-point shooters. In the NBA, the teams that allow the lowest three-point shooting percentage have become a reflection of the league’s overall defensive ratings. The top four teams in three-point defense entering Sunday were Houston, the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State and Milwaukee. (Portland ranks sixth overall.)

Meanwhile, the three worst defenses this season—the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves—were among the worst at three-point defense.

In other words, stop the three, and you have an excellent chance of stopping your opponent. It is the latest reflection of how shots from long range have revolutionized the sport.

“It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation,” said Jeff Van Gundy, a former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who is now an analyst for ESPN and ABC. “It used to be that you wanted to get an open 15-foot jump shot. Now that’s what defenses will concede because everyone wants to shoot threes.”

“It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market,” said John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations. “Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”

It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation.

—Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy on the reliance on the three-point shot

The three-point shot was introduced in the 1979-80 season, but it took a long time to catch on as a weapon. During that first year, Atlanta made 13 three-pointers the whole season. The next season, they made 10.

Usage of the three slowly grew, then jumped in the 1994-95 season, when the three-point line—initially 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the rim, 22 feet in the corners—was moved to 22 feet uniformly. The league returned it to its original length in 1997 and has left it there. But after an initial decline, reliance on the shot has grown, in part because it has been found to be more efficient than the mid-range shot.

Now the average team is taking 26.8% of its shots from three-point range, up from last year’s 26%, which was an all-time high. As Van Gundy said, teams used to have only one or two capable shooters on the court at once; now teams can deploy four or even five.

“It’s made defense in the NBA much more team-oriented,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “You can’t game-plan to isolate against one guy; you have to defend the entire court.”

Stopping the three was one of Stotts’s points of emphasis when he took over the Blazers before the 2012-13 season. It has driven their rise from 21st in defensive rating during his first season to the league’s upper echelon this season. Stotts said the primary strategy was keeping the ball on one side of the floor, rotating back into the paint to stop drives and forcing long-distance two-point shots. “We want to be in position to contest as many threes as possible,” he said.

Milwaukee Bucks swingman Jared Dudley played last season for the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that led the NBA in opponents’ three-point percentage. He contrasted what the Bucks do versus what the Clippers did. “With the Clippers, we were determined to run shooters off the line”—that is, prevent threes from being taken—“but sometimes that allowed them to drive to the hoop,” he said.

He said the Bucks’ approach is more comprehensive. In addition to running shooters off the three point line, the Bucks try to force ballhandlers toward the baseline, where the passing angles are more severe. Or they force shooters to dribble the ball toward a help defender, frequently long-armed forward Giannis Antetokounmpo or center John Henson.

A lot of three-point attempts nowadays occur on fast breaks when defenses are scrambling to locate and guard opposing players, so the Bucks make transition defense—getting three or four players to the defensive end as quickly as possible—a point of emphasis.

“It takes a lot of communication,” Dudley said. “You’ll always hear us talking to each other about what’s going on on the floor.”

All of that said, experts see an eventual leveling off in the league’s infatuation with the three. For one, defenses are catching up: The leaguewide three-point percentage is down to .348 from .360 last season.

Van Gundy sees a more imminent change. “I think you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”

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At WSJ on the Eivind Opsvik disc

‘Overseas V’ Review: A Norwegian’s Vintage New York Sounds

Eivind Opsvik’s new release takes its cues from the punk funk era

Eivind Opsvik performing in 2015; his latest album, ‘Overseas V,’ is out Friday.

Eivind Opsvik performing in 2015; his latest album, ‘Overseas V,’ is out Friday. Photo: Bernd Thissen/DPA/Zuma Press

In 1998, the bassist and composer Eivind Opsvik emigrated from his native Oslo to New York and immediately immersed himself in its jazz scene, working with many top artists as a sideman and as a leader on several well-received recordings. In much of his work, he seemed to be at the center of postmillennial jazz. On his latest release “Overseas V” (Loyal, March 17 release), he dotes on a vintage phase of New York music, the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The boisterous yet concise music on Mr. Opsvik’s latest recording takes its cues from the punk funk era, when the daring virtuosity of the music heard in jazz lofts both in SoHo and at the Tin Palace, a club on the Bowery just a few doors north of CBGB, combined with the frenetic energy of the punk rock and local funk scenes that were headquartered at nearby venues. It was a short lived scene that gave rise to groups like James Blood Ulmer’s Music Revelation Ensemble, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, Material and several solo projects by Bill Laswell.

“Overseas V” offers much more than a revival of an obscure, eclectic phase of Gotham’s musical history. The richly textured, intricately woven music features a quintet with Mr. Opsvik, saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Jacob Sacks, guitarist Brandon Seabrook and drummer Kenny Wollesen, and it displays many contemporary traits. For instance, Mr. Malaby often plays short staccato riffs in tandem with Mr. Seabrook’s scratchy guitar licks and Mr. Wollesen’s punchy rhythms. Rather than position the saxophone in the usual role as the lead voice within the group, Mr. Malaby is often a component of the rhythms. The music feels almost like pop songs; none of the recording’s nine tracks is more than six minutes and only three are more than five. There is a vibrant, intense rhythmic edge to this music that gives it urgency. It doesn’t draw you to it; instead, it rushes out of the speakers.

The contrast between the current recording and his 2012 release with this group, “Overseas IV” (Loyal), provides an excellent measure of Mr. Opsvik’s range. “IV” featured the same personnel and offered more serene and introspective music. That recording was inspired by the Sofia Coppola movie “Marie Antoinette.” Mr Opsvik, who is 43, said the inspiration for the new recording came in part from the shorter periods of attention that result from fatherhood and one track even resulted from jamming on a toy piano while Iris, his toddler daughter, played shaker. Mr.Seabrook’s wife, Anais Blondet, created a video for one of the best tunes on the recording, “Brraps!,” with the bassist playing a disheveled mad professor. In the press release for the recording, he says, “I think modern jazz can get a bit too serious and intellectual at times—so whether it’s catchy tunes or a music video, I think it can lighten up.”

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Bullish 03.16.17: Fred Must Go

Bullish 03.16.17:  Fred Must Go

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root with occasional contributions to Slate and the Wall Street Journal.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

Over the weekend, even before the debacle in Boston and well before news of Dwyane Wade’s season ending elbow injury broke, I began to conclude that it was time for the Fred Hoiberg Ewas time for the Fred Hoiberg eWade’xperiment to end.  Lots of valid arguments can be made that he’s not the primary reason that the Bulls are a mess, and I’m under little illusion that his departure will make a substantial long term difference in the franchise, but it’s time for him to go and the reason is simple.  After a season and three quarters, it has become abundantly obvious that he isn’t going to lead an NBA team to the Finals.

And if your coach isn’t going to get your team to the promised land or at least moving in that direction, then he shouldn’t be your team’s coach.

But then the excellent scribes at BlogaBull.com beat me to do with this excellent missive.  That article included this fine piece on the Bulls malaise from Yahoo!

Yes, the front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson are the primary culprits for the mess that is on the hardwood floor at the United Center (and gee, the contrast between the Bulls their stadium-mates, the Chicago Blackhawks has probably never been greater), but Hoiberg isn’t helping and shows no sign of getting it.  His rotations are a mess.  His playing time allocations look like they were drawn from a hat at the beginning of each game.  The Bulls are tactically weak, and they fail to adjust to other team’s halftime adjustments.  Lastly there’s no direction or discipline on the team.

Hoiberg was hired two summers ago after a coaching search that included well, no one else.  It was old school Chicago ward politics at its best.  He was pals with Forman and Paxson and was handed a plum job.  The hiring screamed for the institution of a Rooney Rule in the NBA, though it’s hard to argue that GarPax would have hired oh say, Tyronn Lue or David Fizdale were they candidates.

This summer the Bulls need to engage in a real coaching search by interviewing lead assistants with several successful NBA franchises (please no more NCAA coaches; Brad Stevens notwithstanding, Hoiberg is the latest in a long line of college coaches who failed in the pros).  There needs to be transparency and rigor.  I’m unconvinced that GarPax will lead the Bulls to an NBA Finals either and maybe their ineptitude in a high profile search will move them closer to the door.

Meanwhile, I’m in favoring of firing Hoiberg now.  Yeah, I know that there are only 14 games left in the season and I’m aware that losses the Bulls would incur under Hoiberg might improve their draft position, but I think an interim coach, perhaps Jim Boylen who coached with San Antonio, might begin to implement some structure and put the Bulls many young players on the path to steady, consistent development.  It’s clear that Hoiberg won’t do that, and that’s another reason he needs to go.







SB Nation Link http://www.blogabull.com/2017/3/15/14922066/bulls-fire-fred-hoiberg-at-least-they-should

Yahoo! Link http://sports.yahoo.com/news/after-five-straight-losses-dwyane-wade-would-like-bulls-upper-management-to-answer-questions-190900795.html

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Bullish 03.02.17: What If

Bullish 03.02.17: The Ultimate NBA Counterfactual

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

The Chicago Bulls are at the center of two of the NBA’s biggest counterfactuals.  One is well known: what if in the 1984 draft, the Portland Trail Blazers took Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie with the second pick.  League history would be very different (for the record, those Bulls were well stocked with bigs so I think they would have taken Charles Barkley with their pick if Jordan was off the board), but the circumstances behind that moment warrant their own dispatch.  Let’s look at what happened five years earlier in April 1979.

In the 1979 draft, there was one incandescent talent, Magic Johnson.  Like 1984, this was a pre-lottery draft.  It was in fact, pre-draft mania too.  If the answer is Bob Lanier, Austin Carr, LaRue Martin, Bill Walton, David Thompson, John Lucas, Kent Benson, and Mychal Thompson, then the question Alex is “who were the NBA first overall picks in the ‘70s before Magic.  There are three Hall of Famers and only one Bargnani level bust (Martin), but it’s easy to see why the draft wasn’t looked at as a wellspring of transformational talent the way it is now.  No one was tanking to be able draft Austin Carr, and in fact, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to trade their first round pick without condition for veteran talent; whether outright or as compensation for free agent signings.  This is how the Lakers, 45-37 in 1978-’79 wound up vying for the first round pick; they had been awarded it (as well as a 1977 first rounder and a 1980 second rounder) when Gail Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz in 1976.  Goodrich was 33 at the time of the deal and signing 33 year old shooting guards is rarely a good roster construction strategy and this one blew up in the Jazz’s face.  By 1978-’79, the team slumped to 26-56, the worst record in the league, and they were preparing to move to their current home in Salt Lake City.

Owning the pick of the team with the worst record didn’t guarantee the Lakers the first pick, rather it qualified them for a coin flip with the team that suffered the worst record in the other conference.  At the time New Orleans was in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Bulls were in the West (NBA geography was a little weird at the time.  San Antonio and Houston played in the East; Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee were in the West.    The Bulls that season finished 31-51, at the bottom of their conference, and yes it was a compressed league at that that point, following an era in the early ‘70s, following expansion where the best teams routinely won 65 games, in 1979 the Association’s best record belonged to the 54-28 Washington Bullets.

Commissioner Larry O’Brien flipped the coin.  The Bulls GM Rod Thorn called heads.  It was tails.  The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and won five titles in nine seasons and went to the Finals in two other seasons.  The Bulls chose UCLA power forward David Greenwood and continued their mediocrity until 1984, when Portland passed on Jordan.

But what if the coin came up heads?

The lore on this Is that Johnson would have returned to Michigan State for his junior year, but I doubt that.  Magic was a kid from Lansing Michigan.  Chicago may not have had the glamour of Los Angeles but compared to his roots, there were plenty of bright lights.  Furthermore the Bulls weren’t your usual lottery top of the draft basket case.  Just as the Lakers had Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Bulls had a Hall of Fame bound center in Artis Gilmore.  Just as the Lakers had a dynamic point guard who could move to shooting guard in Norm Nixon, Bulls backcourt leader Reggie Theus was capable of a similar shift.  The Bulls had a solid spot up shooter in Scott May too.

It seems funny to say 33 years after Jordan’s arrival in the Windy City, but the Bulls desperately lacked for star power.  Other Chicago teams had proudly boasted Hall of Famers and the Bears of that era had NFL’s best player in Walter Payton, but the Bulls who hadn’t existed two decades to that point had all stars but lacked a public face who ranked among the Association’s most elite talents.  It was well within organizational memory that the Bulls had recently advanced to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive years but in 1975, their offense melted down in the fourth quarter against Golden State resulted in a miserable, 83-79 loss. Chicago’s front office would have cracked open the vaults for a player like Magic.  And Magic would have little incentive to return to college.  Phil Hubbard, Michigan State’s other top notch player, was a senior and draft bound.  And Magic liked the uptempo game but the NCAA was still five years from instituting a shot clock.  By contrast in 1978-79, the league average Pace Factor in the NBA was 105.8, substantially faster today’s game where the Golden State Warriors are the league’s most uptempo team at a pace barely into triple digits.  Yeah, if the coin flip came up heads, I think Magic would have been a Bull.

The NBA of the late ‘70s was substantially different from today’s league.  Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Charlotte, Toronto and Memphis were not yet NBA cities; Kansas City, San Diego and Seattle were.  NBA Finals games were typically shown on tape delay after the late, local news.    The three point shot did not exist thus “Downtown Freddie Brown,” a sharpshooter for the Seattle Supersonics had value as a floor spacer for Jack Sikma and Dennis Johnson, but not directly on the scoreboard.

While Magic and Theus would have been NBA’s best backcourt from opening night, it’s far from clear that Johnson’s tenure in Chicago would have been anywhere near as glittered as his run with the Lakers.  For one, Chicago was coached by Jerry Sloan, a former Bulls player, who advocated a slower half court game and often clashed with Theus over his desire to push the tempo.  Secondly, while the Bulls weren’t as Barkley might now say turble, they weren’t good.   Magic arrived to a 47 win Laker team and was the primary reason they won 60 in his rookie season.  A comparable impact on the Bulls results in 44 wins and spot in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference.  However, in Sloan’s second season, the Bulls acquired forward Larry Kenon from the San Antonio Spurs with improved front court play Chicago’s offense soared and their record improved to 45-37, but this was in the much tougher Eastern Conference (in a move of substantial geographic logic, the Pacers, the Bulls and Bucks were moved in the EC while the now Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs were moved into the Western Conference) where three teams, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia all won 60 games.  Magic probably would have put the Bulls in the Eastern elite with those teams.

What happens from there gets murky.  The Bulls failed to sustain their success the following season.  Sloan left.  The team failed to improve markedly under new coach Paul Westhead, who had been forced out by Magic in Los Angeles, so the Bulls tanked and wound up drafting Jordan, the transformational talent that the team had long desired.  The rest as they say…

Obviously, if Magic is a Bull, then Chicago is a perennial playoff team if not a championship contender and Jordan winds up somewhere else, maybe Dallas and the course of league history is substantially altered.  All that from a coin flip.

Magic Bull.png

I have no idea on the source of this photo.  Step up please if you know



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