The last two weeks for Thank God It’s Flashback Friday I’ve went back in time to 2002 to take a look at two classic Conference Finals games. Those two games just so happened to feature the two most prestigious franchises in professional basketball as the winners—the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. That wasn’t by accident, friends. It’s finally time for a classic Lakers/Celtics Finals encounter. And when I say classic, I mean classic.
1963 NBA Finals Game 6, Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers
Yeah, we’re taking a long trip in the time machine this week. I doubt the majority of my readership was even born when this game took place, but that’s OK. In fact, I’m actually pleased that the majority of you probably don’t know much about this era of the NBA. That will make the exercise that follows that much easier, and less likely to piss anybody off.
The 1960’s and 1970’s era of basketball is totally different than what we’re watching today. If you’ve watched any games from this era, done a ton of research on this era, or read Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, then you are aware of this. I’ve done all three, so even though this game took place 29 years before I was even born—and one year before my father was born— I do feel as though I’m qualified to be talking about this subject. It helps that my opinions on this era of basketball are similar to ESPN’s resident NBA historian, Bill Simmons. Simmons claims that “the NBA, for better and worse, became the league it is now,” in 1984. He goes on to say that “Stylistically, creatively, fundamentally and talent-wise, you could transport any good player or team from 1984 to 2010 and they would be fine.”
That’s why today, rather than conducting my normal “running diary” or “note pad” of the game, I’m going to be watching and scouting, and subsequently ranking every player who got any playing time in this game in order from “No effing way could we transport him into the NBA today and expect him to play” to “He could definitely fit in in today’s NBA.” So that was your disclaimer. If you’re an old timer or just some uneducated “basketball fan” who will vehemently argue that Wilt Chamberlain is the best player of all-time because he averaged 50 points per game in a season, you aren’t going to like what I’m telling you in this column.
A bonus disclaimer: nobody loves the NBA more than me, and nobody appreciates the contributions of every player who has stepped on an NBA floor more than I do. Ask anybody who knows me personally and I will always argue that basketball players are the best athletes in the world, and the creation of the game of basketball is the greatest thing to happen in the history of the world. With that said, some of these guys just wouldn’t be able to play in the NBA today—and to be honest, there are guys in the NBA today who shouldn’t be playing in the NBA today. As for these fellas from 1963, I’m going to make jokes at their expense, but it’s with no malice at all that I do so.
The Power Rankings
T16: Frank Selvy (Lakers) and Frank Ramsey (Celtics)
Frankly, neither of these Frank’s would survive in today’s NBA. Watching either of these 6’3”, 180 lb. off-guards trying to deal with the likes of James Harden, Monta Ellis, Klay Thompson, or really any semi-athletic wing player in the NBA or Division I college basketball would be the basketball version of those really fascinating, yet sad videos where sharks are messing with baby seals before they devour them. Both Ramsey and Selvy are from Kentucky, and Ramsey’s nickname was “The Kentucky Colonel.” I could’ve sworn that title was reserved for Colonel Sanders, but because of that, I’ll give the slightest of slight edges to Frank Ramsey in this exchange. Kudos to Frank Selvy’s parents though; his full name is Franklin Delano Selvy, and there is nothing wrong with paying homage to F.D.R.
T14: Jim Krebs (Lakers) and Gene Wiley (Lakers)
Two thirds of the Lakers three-headed monster at Center comes in at number 14 on this list, and yes, that is indeed a big part of the reason why the Celtics beat the Lakers every fricking time they played in the Finals up until Magic Johnson came along. Krebs was a 6’8 center with a growing bald spot that shied away from contact and preferred to stay away from the basket on offense. Wiley got the start in the game, but his resume isn’t that much better. Wiley was slow, unathletic, had bad hands and a limited post game, and just like Krebs he strayed away from the basket offensively. Why God gave these two height and decided to leave me at 6’1” will forever bug me. I could’ve done so much more with it.
12: Rudy LaRusso (Lakers)
I’ve got to say, Rudy LaRusso was one hell of a shooter… from about 15 feet away … when the defense let him shoot. However, he was probably the closest thing to a stretch four back in the 60s. Being only 6’7” LaRusso would be an undersized power forward today, and I don’t think I need to tell you that he lacked the athleticism to manage as a professional basketball player in today’s climate. Would he be able to do 50 percent of what Matt Bonner does on a nightly basis? Let me think about that one.
11: Bob Cousy (Celtics)
You’re probably surprised by this one, but I’m not wavering. Bob Cousy couldn’t have played in today’s NBA. Before anyone out there throws a shit-fit and types mean things to me in the comments, just consider that we’re talking about a 6’1”, 170 lb. point guard who probably didn’t possess 25 percent of the athleticism, quickness or strength that you need to play that position in the NBA today. This is how I will prove it to you: I’m challenging any and all readers to make the best case you can in the comments for how Cousy could possibly defend Russell Westbrook. If you can actually convince me of this, I will get a tattoo of Bob Cousy defending Russell Westbrook on my right ass cheek. My right hand to God.
Don’t get me wrong, Cousy was a pioneer and an innovator for his time, but nothing he was doing then isn’t being done now. He’s credited for bringing the behind the back dribble and no-look pass to the NBA, but based on what I’ve seen his no-look passes were pretty pedestrian to what guys in the league are doing now. A lot of his fancy passes consisted of Cousy passing the ball, and then immediately faking a pass in the opposite direction. Pretty goofy stuff.
Equally goofy were Cousy’s methods of scoring. Cooz hardly lit it up from the field (he was a scalding hot 37 percent from the field during his career) and from what I’ve been able to tell, his bread and butter as a scorer was a one handed set shot from about 15 feet out. He also worked in a slow motion runner off of one foot, and a deceptively effective sweeping hook shot, two moves that Steve Nash worked into his arsenal.
No disrespect to the Cooz. He had one hell of a career and these last few paragraphs aren’t taking anything away from him on that front, but just because he was arguably one of the five best players of the NBA’s first 20 years doesn’t mean he would hold up today.
10: Leroy Ellis (Lakers)
Ellis was a long, lanky rookie center at the time of this game who probably had the 1960’s version of Jay Bilas drooling a year earlier during the coverage of the Draft. There was a lot to like about Ellis’ upside potential and his wingspan likely made him an intriguing enough prospect for the Lakers to swipe him up with the number six pick. Unfortunately, John Havlicek went to Boston with the next pick and Ellis would spend just four years with the Lakers and have his most successful seasons years later with Baltimore, Portland and Philadelphia. Regardless, Ellis had the size to make you legitimately wonder whether he could actually get a few minutes a night as a fifth big man in the rotation.
9: Tom Heinsohn (Celtics)
I’m here to tell you that Tom Heinsohn wouldn’t be any more productive than Tyler Hansbrough if he played in the NBA today. You know what Tommy would probably say if he knew I wrote that?
8: Dick Barnett (Lakers)
I have to admit, I really enjoyed Dick Barnett’s game. I say this with relative surprise because up until I watched that game I never had any strong opinions on the game of Dick Barnett. Barnett was a lefty who rarely dribbled with his right hand and he was armed with an odd looking jumper—he got some good elevation on his shot and brought his feet up like he was trying to do a heel click on release. It wasn’t Shawn Marion level weird (this is the first of two Shawn Marion references, so stay tuned) and to tell you the truth there was actually something aesthetically pleasing about watching it.
Even though Barnett almost exclusively dribbled with his left hand, he found ways to get off his own shots and he even managed to get up a couple over Bill Russell in this game. He might not have the athletic chops to be as effective today, but he does have the quirkiness.
7: Tom Sanders (Celtics)
Tom “Satch” Sanders is a routinely forgotten about Celtic great , and in some ways it makes sense. His game wasn’t glamorous and during his career he never averaged more than 13 points per game. By all means, he was a role player who played his role very well, but there is a lot of value in that. As an undersized power forward—Sanders was 6’6”, 210 lbs. during his playing days—it’s unlikely he would be a big time difference maker if he were in the league today. But the things he did well he would still be able to do well. Sanders looked reasonably athletic for the time and he played really hard. He mixed it up quite a bit and the Lakers bigs had to make a real effort to keep up with him running the floor. Satch’s game gets a thumbs up from me.
6: K.C. Jones (Celtics)
Aside from Dick Barnett, K.C. Jones was the biggest winner of this game in terms of my opinion of them. To me, it looked like Jones was doing his best Andre Miller impression, or maybe Andre Miller has been doing his best K.C. Jones impression for the last decade and a half. The announcers praised Jones for his ball-handling skills and quick hands. I was more partial to his craftiness around the basket and mustache. Either way, I like Jones’ game.
5: Sam Jones (Celtics)
On the other hand, I was pretty underwhelmed by Sam Jones, who Bill Simmons had as #33 on his NBA Hall of Fame Pyramid; but after fifteen minutes of research, I found out that Jones’ five-point outing was the second lowest scoring NBA Finals game of his career. You could tell that he had the skills and size to be a traditional and impactful two-guard in today’s NBA, and as Simmons noted in his Book of Basketball, Jones had a knack for hitting big shots. With the Celtics up by two with this one, Jones canned a mid-range jumper to extend the Celtics lead.
4: John Havlicek (Celtics)
Havlicek was a rookie during the 1962-63 season, so it’s not like prime Hondo was on display in this game. Prime Hondo was a work horse who logged 45 minutes per game in back to back seasons and handled an insane work load for the post-Russell Celtics. Rookie Hondo had the makings of a really good player though. He played hard and already had a nice and polished offensive game for that era. With Sam Jones struggling in this game, Havlicek was Boston’s most consistent scoring option—for what it’s worth, Heinsohn led the Celtics with 22 points and Hondo, Cousy and Satch each added 18; the leading scorers for LA were Jerry West (32 points) and Elgin Baylor (28 points). Like Sam Jones, Hondo would fit in just fine in today’s NBA as a two-guard, no doubt in my mind.
3: Elgin Baylor (Lakers)
2: Jerry West (Lakers)
I went back and forth on West and Baylor for a while, but ultimately decided to give West the edge. People commonly talk about how Baylor was ahead of his time in terms of athleticism, but West could have also benefitted from playing twenty years later. With no three-point line to be seen for another two decades, West’s outside shot didn’t really serve as a huge weapon as it would today. West had three-point range, and if he were around today he’d be quick to adapt.
West wasn’t a one trick pony though. I knew about his range as a shooter, but didn’t totally appreciate how good he was going to the basket until I really paid close attention to it watching this game. West had more success getting shots up over Bill Russell than any other Lakers player did. He was the best ball-handler on the floor and seemed to possess all of the skills modern day point guards have.
Watching Elgin Baylor play made me think to myself, “So this is what it would be like if the 2005 version of Shawn Marion went back to 1963 in a time machine.” And that’s not a knock on Baylor, more of a compliment to Marion. Baylor was a cut above everyone else as an athlete save for Russell—Baylor and Russell were actually the only two players to throw down a dunk during this game. But outside of that, his offensive game was limited. He didn’t possess a knock down jumper, though it was a heck of a lot prettier than Marion’s, and a lot of his points came in transition or just attacking the basket in the half court. So yeah, I’d say Baylor would have a similar impact today as Shawn Marion did ten years ago, and again, that’s a compliment. Marion was a 20-10 guy for a couple years in his prime, and that’s a pretty generous projection for Baylor.
1: Bill Russell (Celtics)
Russell looked like the most athletic guy on the floor by a pretty safe margin, and his shot blocking instincts would make him a legitimate asset and difference maker in the NBA today, even if he is a little undersized. Russ would probably struggle with big bodied centers, but as a help defender roaming the paint he’d best just as impactful as any other big in the NBA today. In that Anthony Davis mold, Russell was contesting just about every shot in the paint, as well as a number of jumpers. No joke, I’m pretty sure he had 11 or 12 blocks against the Lakers in this game.
Russell’s offensive game looked limited—mainly jump hooks over defenders who weren’t giving Russ much trouble— but there are a ton of athletic shot blockers who make a living catching lobs and scoring off of offensive rebounds. Russell’s competitive spirit would endure more than any other skill he has, and as I’ve written many times before, giving a shit is absolutely a skill. Russell had that one mastered. Even in black and white footage, it showed.
If you want to check this game out, click here. Be sure to come back next week for another edition of Thank God It’s Flashback Friday.