Doctor MJ wrote:
1. Connie Hawkins
2. Bill Walton
3. Nikola Jokic
Other preferences in order:
Hawk love letter:
I think there's never been anyone like him, before or since. I'm dying to see more footage of him, because honestly I think he's got a bunch of moves that we don't have names for.
The roots of Hawkins becoming what he became are a story not of some kind of inevitable success through sheer talent, but of a guy with great talent getting bounced around and picking up stuff as he went.
Hawkins was a star in each of the following places:
1. The Schoolyard
2. Golden Age NYC High School Basketball
4. Harlem Globetrotters
All 6 of these things are a big deal, though I'll note that I'd consider (1) and (4) the best for understanding how Hawkins became what he became where (5) and (6) represent the proof in the pudding.
To speak on (1), the thing to understand is that play in the school yard all day is what the "good" Black boys did in this era. You were either playing basketball, or you were getting involved in gangs, pimping, and eventually drugs. So if you had basketball talent, this is where your family wanted you. Stay on the court, where it's safe.
And from the perspective of these Black kids, when they played (white) kids from other places, they just always got the sense that those white kids were far less experienced, because they were doing a lot of things other than playing basketball.
So, while Hawkins was dominating the incredibly high quality ball of NYC back then too, the Schoolyard was always where he developed his game. Just trying different things.
Others noted that while Hawkins lacked confidence in general, and was a poor reader and a poor student, he was an extremely quick learner when he saw someone else do something on the basketball court. When an opponent did something with the ball against Hawkins, Hawkins seemed to instantly have a new tool.
It's also important to note that in the Schoolyard, Hawkins didn't start out as The Man. He learned to play by fitting in around others who were older and better. We're talking about a kid who was playing against NBA pros (in the NBA off-season) before he was a High School star, so when he was playing those games, he wasn't just going in as the star. He learned to fit in. He learned how to be an aware passer before he learned to be a scorer.
About (3), so as many of you know, Hawkins was banned from college due to point shaving scandal (he later won a lawsuit clearing his name), so he ended up getting an opportunity in Abe Saperstein's ABL, which had various former NBA pros and a 3-point line. In the lone full season of that league, Hawkins would win MVP.
This is obviously impressive for a guy basically straight out of high school - and speaks both to his talent and how much experience he'd already had beyond just playing against other high schoolers - but I'd also argue that if not for the existence of the ABL, there's a good chance Hawkins would have died on the vine. He didn't have any other great skills other than basketball, so most likely he'd have ended up like many of his other peers still in Brooklyn which was being taken over by a see of heroin.
But his performance in the ABL, led to an invitation to join Saperstein's flagship product: The Harlem Globetrotters.
And as fortune would have it, Sweetwater Clifton - former New York Ren, Globetrotters, NBA all-star - played in the ABL that year with Hawkins, and re-joined the Globetrotters at the same time as Hawkins. And he told Hawkins basically, "You don't realize what kind of things you can do with those big hands!"
He mentored Hawkins on the ways you can use your ability to easily palm a hand. More flexibility when driving, more ways to protect the ball when you're guarded, myriad tricky passes, and the ability to rebound with just one hand so you can use your other arm (ahem, elbow) to fend of opponents.
I've noted before that big hands seem to be a Harlem Globetrotter thing. Beginning with the team's first clown - Goose Tatum - along through Clifton, Meadowlark Lemon, along with Wilt Chamberlain, Hawkins, and others - the Globetrotters seemed to look for guys with big hands in a way that the NBA has literally never done. I've also seen it noted that a particular Globetrotter was held back by his hand size despite being naturally very comedic.
There's a kind of trickery you can do with hands like this that lends itself well to comedy through basketball actions, and this raises the question of whether these Globetrotters were much better at certain basketball skills than NBA players.
There the answer is yes with an asterisk. Most of the tricks the Globetrotters did, while they required great skill, were not designed to hold up against actual defenders, and this was a source of frustration for Hawkins who felt that he was becoming soft due to not playing in a real competitive league, which I'd say was true.
At the same time, he'd still go back to NYC and play in the Schoolyard testing out techniques. Basically, he mined stuff out from the Globetrotters, and the stuff he found could work against actual defenders, he made a part of his repertoire. And this is how he became truly unique.
As we look at Hawkins ABA & NBA years, one of the things to understand is that both when he joined Pittsburgh in the ABA and Phoenix in the NBA, the teams did not immediately re-shape their offenses around Hawkins, and between these ramp up times, Hawkins increasing tendency toward injury, and a tendency for Hawkins to get down on himself, when we look at his yearly stats, it has to be noted that there was far more variance over the course of the season in team and Hawkins-specific performance than you'd expect not simply as a modern observer, but as a contemporary observer. Hawkins wasn't the absolute rock that you'd expect from a Jerry West, and this certainly doesn't help his Top 100 case.
But what this context also means is that when you look at Hawkins' yearly stats those first few years, as impressive as they look, know that they underrate what he was doing at his best.
I've noted before that in his first year in the ABA, Hawkins led the league in PPG despite being 3rd on his team in FGA. He did this by also leading the league in TS%, and do so while also leading the team in APG, RPG, and almost certainly BPG & SPM had they had that data (but interestingly he did not lead his team in TOs, and was 11th on his team in terms of TOs per minute). To lead a team to the title like this is amazing, but it does give rise to the question: Why were other guys shooting more than Hawkins?
The answer seems to be that these guys were just flat out bad chuckers who the coach couldn't get to pass the ball even though he'd sometimes bench them just to ensure the ball went to Hawkins, but apparently the team couldn't get anyone better mid-season (neither would last that much longer in the ABA).
Now, I tend to read stuff that focuses on Hawkins' perspective rather than the perspective Chico Vaughn, so bias is a concern. But my conclusion is that even in a young ABA that wasn't what it would later become, the Pittsburgh Pipers had no business winning a title given the lack of team play. But what was the case is that when Hawkins played the pivot, the offense hummed with Hawkins both scoring incredibly well and passing incredibly well.
Hawkins suffered the defining injury of his career midway through his second ABA season, and most don't think he was ever as good again, yet still he ended up blowing away the NBA once he got going.
What precipitated him getting going? Mid-way through the season, Phoenix Suns GM Jerry Colangelo fired coach Red Kerr, took over as coach, and had the team play with Hawkins in the high post as the guy the offense would run through. Prior to that point, Hawkins had been positioned in the corner while team captain Gail Goodrich dribbled, dribbled, dribble, and then shot. Goodrich, it should be noted seems to have had a good attitude and was willing to play in an offense with Hawkins as the focus, but when left to his own devices, he tended to just iso.
A few more anecdotes in Hawkins first year in the NBA:
1. After the Suns beat the Celtics in Boston, Bill Russell - who had retired the previous year - came over and gushed "You can do things with the ball I've never seen before!". (Hawkins responded "If you'd have been out there, you'd have blocked half my shots". Russell then said "I don't think so".)
2. Hawkins drew rave reviews as the best passer in the league. Was he better than Oscar? I'm not prepared to say that, but what I can say is that Hawkins was doing things Oscar could not. One described play involved Hawkins having the ball in the high post and making two quick passing fakes in opposite directions (which he could do because had had the ball palmed), and then casually dribbling through the now open lane to the basket.
3. Another anecdote: Apparently Hawkins could dribble through press defense unaided. When a team pressed the Suns, they'd pass the ball to Hawkins, and get out of the way, while he dribbled his way through opponents. If this seems unrealistic for a player generally, I'd note that this skill was a major thing before the shot clock, and the team most famous for this ability was the Globetrotters back in their still-competitive days in the '40s. Against the Mikan-led Lakers, the Globetrotters famously gave the ball to master-dribbler Marques Haynes, and he dribbled what remained of the 4th quarter away so that his team could take the last shot.
While the shot clock rendered this specific ability moot, the Globetrotters used it as part of their act, and so this was something the Globetrotter players actually practiced, and Hawkins honed the ability there.
So I'd say the most amazing thing isn't that someone could do this, but that Hawkins at 6'8" could do this.
4. I'd note that Wilt said that Hawkins was the only guy in the world who could play "all three positions" - by which he meant guard, forward, and center.
I should also note that Hawkins's quickness and agility was tied to his lithe fame, so when Hawkins played center, he took a severe beating that made it hard for him to sustain that kind of play over a season.
I'll also note that Hawkins was a guy who got very little training in formal defense. With his long arms and quickness he could get blocks and steals, but he struggled beyond that.
5. Some people hated his "clown antics". Some refs in particular. I think this makes sense because the Globetrotters - while they may be clowns - spend their games making their opponents look like fools. What happens when you do that to someone who isn't paid to take it? Animosity.
6. Among players, Elvin Hayes in particular apparently expressed hostility toward Hawkins, and this led to a showdown in the very last game of the '69-70 season which Hawkin's Suns needed to make the playoffs. The Suns were down 19 points at half time, and in the second half Hawkins & Hayes matched up. Hawkins led the team back to a victory with a 44/20/8 night on 30 FGA, and was said to have had 5 blocks & 5 steals in the 3rd quarter alone. Multiple of those blocks came on Hayes who went for 23/18/2 on 25 FGA.
7. In the playoffs, the Suns would fight hard before losing in 7 to the West/Wilt led Lakers, with some making the comment that it was essentially "the Lakers vs Connie Hawkins".
After that year, Hawkins would still have great runs, but injuries took more of a toll. The general feeling was that his body was much older than his age suggested having played 250 Globetrotter games per year while others his age were playing 25 college games per year, to say nothing about all that time on the Schoolyard.
In the end, with Hawkins, I think it's very hard to know how to rank him and so I completely understand those who won't have him in the Top 100. More than anything else, I hope others can just appreciate how singular he was, and how significant on a level beyond simple career impact.
But I do think he warrants a place above Bill Walton, who is my #3 pick here. Love, love, love Walton, but as much as Hawkins had longevity issues, I'd say Walton had them worse, and I'm not comfortable saying that Walton was clearly the better player best vs best. I think Walton was amazing like this, and he certainly has the defensive edge overall, but in some ways I feel like you could look at Walton on offense as a poor man's Hawkins.
Part of what I'm saying here is that I believe that the pivot-and-cut offense that Jack Ramsay instituted for Walton in Portland is not some completely new thing, but rather something that was huge and never really made it to the NBA. Once the basketball world saw Mikan & Kurland, pivot-and-cut passing didn't seem as useful as just pass to low post and score. And when that paradigm got challenged, it got challenged by perimeter-oriented offenses that in today's game are dominant.
I would submit that we've never really seen the potential for a pivot-and-cut offense in the modern NBA until Nikola Jokic, and I might make a comparison between Jokic & Hawkins. And on that front, note that I have Jokic below Walton. Through the end of last season, I didn't think Jokic had done enough to surpass Walton, but with this season, well, things are changing.
I will note, with regards to context, I consider Jokic to be more of "random genius" than Hawkins. I think Hawkins became what he did because he was shaped by unique context and had specific, rare physical gifts. Jokic seems like he was born like this.
Alright, beyond Hawk I've got Walton & Jokic on my ballot.
So first, what that means is that I'm clearly right now siding on peak/prime over longevity relative to some other folks. As I always say, I'm not going to tell you that your longevity weighting is wrong - I think that's up to personal philosophy.
I will say on Walton I've had him all over my ballots through the years and really don't know where to put him...but I do think that he deserves to be higher than Jokic through '19-20. I understand that you can argue that Jokic should win based on a longevity edge, but Jokic is obviously weak there as well, and Walton being a key part of a championship team 7 years after the first really cements that indelible impression I have of him.
If you just think Jokic through last year was better than Walton, I get that, but I'd not feel comfortable saying that because Walton was the best defender on the planet.
On Jokic over other guys, the first guy I want to mention is someone I've not even been listing out because he hasn't had traction: Draymond Green. When I look at current players not in, those two are the next ones on my list and to be honest I expected to have Green ahead of Jokic.
If I felt strongly about Green over Jokic, I'd be arguing for that now, but I'm not. I can see arguments both ways, but Green really doesn't have much of a longevity edge, and as special as Green was at his best, I do think Jokic was more special by a smidge even before this year.
Next guy: Billy Cunningham. I think Cunningham is a strong candidate, but I definitely see him as less indelible than Hawk or Walton.
Looks like Horace Grant is getting a lot of momentum, and he's another guy I love so I'm not looking to argue against really, but clearly his argument over these other guys is longevity, and I struggle to talk about Grant as a big longevity guy.
On Tiny Archibald - I'm really convinced at this point that he was an absolute killer at his best. He feels like he should be easily a Top 100 guy for me, and I rank him above some guys already on the list, but obviously there are still guys left out there that I like even better.
On James Worthy - I don't really feel like I have a precise compelling case for Worthy, but I don't think we should forget about him. I see him as a guy who proved himself to be versatile while still capable of being a good alpha when needed.