Thursday nigh, March 20th, 1968, the NBA season concluded after 82 games. At the time, the season was much more clustered and ran from mid-October through the third week of March, and the playoffs began the following week. The Detroit Pistons, in their first season in the Eastern Conference, snuck into the playoffs with an end of season win to put them at 40-42. At the other end of the NBA Playoff picture was Wilt Chamberlain and the mighty Philadelphia 76ers, who went 62-20. Philly’s win on March 20th made them only the second team ever to win 62 games… It was the first time the NBA regular season was 82 games long, the length it remains today. And history needed all the way until the 82nd. (The previous season, the Boston Celtics went 62-19 in an 81 game season.)
On March 20th, the Pistons beat the Boston Celtics 125-116 behind Dave DeBusschere’s 32 points and Dave Bing’s 23 points and 10 assists. The game pitted the Pistons against the second seeded Celtics in the first round of the playoffs (until 1975, the number one seed played the number three seed, and the two seed played the four seed). The Celtics would go on to win the playoff series, 4-2.
On March 20th, the 76ers won handily over the Baltimore Bullets behind Wilt Chamberlains 26 points and 12 assists. The Sixers had seven players in double figures, and put a bow on an incredible regular season. It looked like it was finally the Sixers year. They matched up with Boston in the Eastern Conference final. The Celtics would go on to win the playoff series, 4-3 (Philly had been up 3-1…).
Boston won the title over the LA Lakers, 4-2, in Bill Russell’s first title as a player and coach. And that is usually the historic storyline to document the 1968 NBA season
But to conclude the NBA’s regular season, on March 20th, 1968, the NBA saw a sign of what would come decades later. Dave Bing became the first player listed as a guard to ever the league in scoring. Jerry West would follow suit two years later, and Nate Archibald three years after that, and Pete Maravich and George Gervin… the list goes on until modern basketball, in which James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Steph Curry are the three most recent league leaders in points. Before Bing proved little guys could score with the big guys, the rule in basketball was simple: the bigger you were, the more shots your team was going to ask you to take. Little guys brought the ball up the floor, ran around, and dumped the ball into the big guy once he had set up as close to the basket as he could.
Additionally, to conclude the NBA’s regular season on March 20th, 1968, the NBA saw a sign of something that would also come decades later. Wilt Chamberlain became the first player listed as a center to ever lead the league in assists. To date, only one other player that wasn’t a guard has done so (Michael Ray Richarson, NY Knicks, 1979-80). The thought of a seven foot distributor has felt like it was farfetched for most of basketball’s history. Today? The 6’8” LeBron James plays point guard. The 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo has an entire offense built on collapsing defenses to kick to shooters. Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol… Being able to see over the top of defenses has become as much of an asset in passing as it has always been in scoring. Passing, before Wilt, was a little man’s thing. Big guys needed to find space, close to the basket, set up, and be ready to catch the ball and score.
1968 hinted at a big change. Well, and a small one too.
Obviously, the “small ball” revolution was decades off. And the three point revolution couldn’t happen until the line itself was added more than ten years later. But an offense in Detroit was being built around the 6’3” Dave Bing scoring the ball a lot. And it worked. An offense in Philadelphia was being built around the 7’1” Wilt Chamberlain passing the ball a lot. And it worked.
Ok, well… both worked until they ran into the 1968 Celtics. To be fair, the Celtics won eleven championships between the 1956-57 season and the 1968-69 season. So neither revolutionary plan knocked them out… but not much did.
The NBA certainly keyed in on what Dave Bing did more quickly than Chamberlain, and that makes sense. Finding a person closer to average height that can maneuver around defenses and become your focal scorer seems way easier than finding someone in the tallest 0.000038% people in the world and having them become the distributor of your offense.
Further, by 1968, Wilt Chamberlain was a literal living legend. Earlier in the 1960’s, he had scored 100 points. He was an Olympic level track athlete, a Harlem Globetrotter level entertainer, and an unstoppable force that had led the league in scoring each year from 1960, his rookie year, until 1967. Reports from the 1967 off season claimed he was going to focus on scoring less and making the 76ers a more multifaceted threat. His statement felt much like when Babe Ruth pointed over the fence just before hitting a home run… Chamberlain cut his scoring down and managed to record the first ever 20-20-20 game against (Dave Bing and) the Detroit Pistons. A feat that would not be replicated until Russell Westbrook did it last April.
On March 20th, 1968, the NBA Season wrapped up and saw its future. Guards were able taking over scoring, big men were capable passing the basketball. It seemed like, oddly enough, positions could go by the wayside. Which raises the question… What was the purpose of those things, anyways?
In making a history lesson brief, it stems from rules of basketball that don’t even exist anymore. When Dr. James Naismith created the game, and they had literal peach baskets, each and every basket led to a jump ball. Much like a faceoff in hockey or lacrosse, once the ball was taken out of the basket (net), teams lined up for a jump ball. They’d put their quicker, more agile players in the back court, to guard the basket. Teams put two players in the front court that were bigger and stronger, and could muscle the ball up for a quick lay up. If the ball went to one of them, it was moving forward and closer to the basket. And the guy jumping? The tip-off happened in the center. Everyone’s position was literally just where they stood at a jump ball… which happened way more often. (Sidenote: it stands to reason that if you ran said jump ball fairly often, you wouldn’t need a reminder in your position… but they did.)
The idea of abandoning these positions didn’t happen when they started using more traditional baskets in 1906, and it didn’t happen when a guard led the league in points or when a center led the league in assists. But in the twenty-first century, positon-less basketball is becoming the norm. The Houston Rockets traded away their starting center, the position that was the most valuable for the vast majority of basketball’s history. Boston has remained atop the Eastern Conference without a traditional center in their crunch time lineups, Milwaukee has moved Brooke Lopez away from the basket on offense to allow Giannis driving lanes, the Lakers play LeBron and AD both in the post and outside. The Clippers have a long team, but frequently don’t have anyone over 6’8” on the floor. It looks like today’s basketball has finally kicked the positions to the side.
Even just in looking at the top teams of the decade… The Golden State Warriors dominated a half a decade of basketball with a “death lineup” of ball handlers that played positions interchangeably. Before that, you had a four year run of the Miami Heat pushing the boundaries on what forwards could do, and demonstrating what a Chris Bosh Center could do just by playing in a different space for a LeBron James forward. That team lost in their first NBA Finals to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk himself, defied traditional positions and spaced the floor in unprecedented ways for a seven footer. The Mavs got over the hump after beating the two time champion Lakers, who… had a guard in Kobe Bryant that led the team in scoring, and a 7’1” distributor in Pau Gasol. The idea of a traditional center, traditional guard, or a traditional forward have all evaporated.
52 years ago today you could, statistically, see the shift if your eyes were open. March 20th cemented Dave Bing as the league’s high scorer that season, and Wilt Chamberlain as the top assist man. Both seemed fluky at the time, but the pandora’s box they opened seems to be finally realized. Sure, neither strategy could beat Bill Russell. But does that mean they weren’t on to something? It’s important to note the first iteration of an invention may not be the best… it may take 42 years of tinkering.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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