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Wednesday
Nov162011

Giving Bill Russell's Offense Its Proper Due

We don't hear much about it, but Russell's offensive game was quite good.I wrote a brief piece right after Shaq’s retirement ranking the top 6 centers of all time, placing Bill Russell at the top of the list. The usual negative comments about his offensive game were brought up by some readers, and no one wanted to accept that he played on a Celtics squad that was well known offensively for a) sharing the ball and the scoring load, and b) often ran the fast break which was pretty much always started by a Russell rebound or block, giving his point and assist totals a dip that did not accurately reflect his importance to the offense.

That being said, I decided recently to look through Boston’s basic offensive stats from that era and see what sort of role Russell played. Was he a terrible scorer whose teammates didn’t pass the ball to? Was he actually a great passer, or is that a reputation developed by Russell defenders trying to explain away his career 15 ppg average? Below are the points per game, field goal percentages, and assists per game for the top 3 or 4 scorers on the team each year during Russell’s first 9 complete seasons, which goes up to age 32. I’ve included the regular season (left column) and post-season (right column) stats, and it should be noted that a couple players’ stats were left out of the last season since they only showed up as secondary scorers for that one year.

I numbered the players and will reveal their names at the end, but some of them will be easy to figure out for fans who are a little familiar with the NBA in the ‘60’s. For clarification’s sake, Player 1 is always the same guy for each year, Player 2 is always the same guy, and so on.

 

       Regular Season                                        Playoffs

57-58
1. 22 ppg, 42%, 2.7 apg                       21 ppg, 41%, 2.3 apg
2. 18 ppg, 35%, 7.1 apg                       18 ppg, 34%, 7.5 apg
3. 17 ppg, 44%, 2.9 apg                       15 ppg, 36%, 2.7 apg
4. 18 ppg, 38%, 1.8 apg                       18 ppg, 35%, 1.6 apg

58-59
1. 20 ppg, 41%, 2.5 apg                       20 ppg, 43%, 2.5 apg
2. 20 ppg, 38%, 8.6 apg                       20 ppg, 33%, 10.8 apg
3. 17 ppg, 46%, 3.2 apg                       16 ppg, 41%, 3.6 apg
4. 19 ppg, 39%, 2.5 apg                       20 ppg, 41%, 2.9 apg

59-60
1. 19 ppg, 46%, 2.0 apg                       17 ppg, 42%, 1.5 apg
2. 19 ppg, 38%, 9.5 apg                       15 ppg, 31%, 8.9 apg
3. 18 ppg, 47%, 3.7 apg                       19 ppg, 46%, 2.9 apg
4. 22 ppg, 42%, 2.3 apg                       22 ppg, 42%, 2.1 apg

60-61
1. 16 ppg, 42%, 2.4 apg                       17 ppg, 51%, 1.7 apg
2. 18 ppg, 37%, 7.7 apg                       17 ppg, 34%, 9.1 apg
3. 17 ppg, 43%, 3.4 apg                       19 ppg, 43%, 4.8 apg
4. 21 ppg, 40%, 1.9 apg                       20 ppg, 41%, 2.0 apg

61-62
2. 16 ppg, 39%, 7.8 apg                       16 ppg, 36%, 8.8 apg
3. 19 ppg, 46%, 4.5 apg                       22 ppg, 46%, 5.0 apg
4. 22 ppg, 43%, 2.1 apg                       21 ppg, 40%, 2.4 apg  
5. 18 ppg, 46%, 3.0 apg                       21 ppg, 44%, 3.1 apg

62-63
2. 13 ppg, 40%, 6.8 apg                       14 ppg, 35%, 8.9 apg
3. 17 ppg, 43%, 4.5 apg                       20 ppg, 45%, 5.1 apg
4. 19 ppg, 42%, 1.3 apg                       25 ppg, 46%, 1.2 apg
5. 20 ppg, 48%, 3.2 apg                       24 ppg, 48%, 2.5 apg
6. 14 ppg, 45%, 2.2 apg                       12 ppg, 45%, 1.5 apg

63-64
3. 15 ppg, 43%, 4.7 apg                       13 ppg, 36%, 3.3 apg
4. 17 ppg, 40%, 2.4 apg                       17 ppg, 39%, 2.6 apg
5. 19 ppg, 45%, 2.7 apg                       23 ppg, 51%, 2.3 apg
6. 20 ppg, 42%, 3.0 apg                       16 ppg, 38%, 3.2 apg

64-65
3. 14 ppg, 44%, 5.3 apg                       17 ppg, 53%, 6.3 apg
5. 26 ppg, 45%, 2.8 apg                       29 ppg, 46%, 2.5 apg
6. 18 ppg, 40%, 2.7 apg                       19 ppg, 35%, 2.4 apg

65-66
3. 13 ppg, 42%, 4.8 apg                       19 ppg, 48%, 5.0 apg
5. 24 ppg, 47%, 3.2 apg                       25 ppg, 45%, 3.1 apg
6. 19 ppg, 40%, 3.0 apg                       24 ppg, 41%, 4.1 apg

 

So what can we learn? For starters, shooting percentages during Russell’s day were atrocious. In fact, the average FG% for the league each season during his career always landed between .380 and .446, so that should help you put some of those numbers into perspective. You probably also noticed that the Celtics really did share the scoring load until Player 5 (Sam Jones) got going around the time Russell turned 30 in 1964. I’m sure you figured out that Player 2 is Bob Cousy, who often lead the league in assists (remember that they were much harder to earn from the stat keepers back then compared to today) and was a terrible shooter. Player 1 was a good scorer for Russell’s first three full seasons, but when you find out it’s a HOF guard (Bill Sharman), those low assist numbers seem a little odd.

Russell’s Offensive Importance

Bill Russell was Player 3. Take a quick look back at his place in the team’s stats up through the 1963-64 season, during which he turned 30. His ppg numbers are always within just a few points of the team leader (and were actually best on the C’s in the ’62 playoffs). His FG% often tops the players who scored more than he did. His apg are absolutely outstanding for a center, and they would have been even more impressive earlier in this career if it wasn’t for the presence of Cousy.

If you had no idea who these guys were or what positions they played, what type of offensive player would you have Player 3 pegged as? Maybe a SG who both passed a lot (Russell’s apg ranked in the top-7 of the league 4 times) and shot for a high percentage? Maybe a do-it-all SF with consistently above-average shot selection? And what if we then said he regularly had the least amount of shot and assist opportunities on his team because he was busy grabbing 20-25 rpg (probably 14-18 on defense) and swatting 6-12 bpg in order to initiate the fast break that his team lived off of? And what if that break only worked so well because he was considered a Wes Unseld-like break starter with his long, pinpoint outlet passes?

No rational person can look at his stats within the context of his team, which was often one of the top-scoring clubs in the league, and not think Russell was a pretty good offensive player. Factoring in his unique place on Boston’s defense-to-offense transition game (teammates often didn’t play great defense knowing Russell would neutralize the threat as it got closer to the hoop and so that they could already be sprinting down the court by the time Russell grabbed the board or block), it’s not a stretch to say he was the most important offensive player for many of these nine seasons.

Oh yeah:
1. Bill Sharman
2. Bob Cousy
3. Bill Russell
4. Tom Heinsohn
5. Sam Jones
6. John Havlicek

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    Giving Bill Russell's Offense Its Proper Due - Behind the Basket - The Antidote for Conventional Wisdom
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