Lucas-Robertson or Baylor-West? The Coaches Choose, 1964

[Which tandem would you take? The Lakers’ Elgin Baylor and Jerry West? Or, Cincinnati’s Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson? That’s not a question that gets bandied about today among basketball junkies and historians. Time hasn’t remembered Lucas quite as fondly as the other three. But in 1964, that question made for some heated barbershop talk. Lucas had been a huge star in high school and college. How could he possibly miss in the pros?

And Oscar Robertson? There was nobody like him. 

As for the dynamic duo of Baylor and West, nobody could stop them, not even the world-champion Celtics. On average, the two accounted for 60 points of offense every night that the Lakers stepped onto the basketball court. If not for injuries, there was no telling how high that number could climb.  

In this brief article from Inside Basketball’s 1964 edition, a nameless reporter asks several NBA coaches to make the choice: Baylor and West? Or, Lucas and Robertson? Here’s the answer.]

Jerry Lucas for two in college at Ohio State

Ever since the 1948-49 season, professional basketball has been largely a tale of two dynasties. First, it was the Minneapolis Lakers, winners of five championships in six years. Recently, of course, it’s been the Boston Celtics, with six titles in the last seven seasons. Yet despite all the monumental performances by these two teams, their domination, frankly, has not been the greatest thing that has ever happened to the National Basketball Association. 

Fans and people connected with the game have tended to grow weary of the monotony. Consequently, one of their favorite pastimes has been the search for an heir apparent. Using all the cool calculation of a sheik looking for a fair young maiden to replace the harem queen who has grown out of favor, they have scanned the land for a likely prospect. And, until the playoffs last spring, everyone seemed agreed on one team—the Los Angeles Lakers. 

The Lakers were young, they were aggressive, they were confident, they were talented. Perhaps most of all, they possessed an ingredient that had been present in the two previous dynasties—a dynamic one-two punch. For the old Minneapolis club, it had, at first, been George Mikan and Jim Pollard, then Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen. For the Celtics, it was Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. History has shown that it is rare, if not indeed impossible, for a team with merely one superstar to win consistently, witness Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors. It takes two to tango to the NBA title and the explosive combination of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West of the new Lakers seemed to stand alone in the race to dethrone the Celtics. 

But after the 1963 playoffs, some people weren’t so sure. While Los Angeles was being extended to seven games in the Western Division semifinals by St. Louis, Cincinnati was taking Boston to the Eastern series’ limit. The Royals’ postseason showing, led by the incomparable Oscar Robertson, represented a vast and sudden improvement over their third-place finish during the regular season. During the summer, Cincinnati quickly picked up new supporters. And when, finally, three-time All-America Jerry Lucas came to terms with the Royals, pro basketball had its most-intriguing situation in recent years. 

Perhaps for the first time in history, two contenders each boasted two men of superstar dimensions. As the teams went into training for the grueling season ahead, the big question everyone wanted answered was: Which of the two combinations seemed to be the better one and, therefore, the one with the best chance of heading a new dynasty? To satisfy our own curiosity, Inside Basketball went to some of the NBA coaches. 

We first asked each coach point-blank: “If the Lucas-Robertson and Baylor-West combinations were placed on the open market, which would you go after?”

“Since I don’t know just how good Lucas will be as a pro, I would have to go with Baylor-West,” said St. Louis’ Harry Gallatin. 

“Baylor and West have proven themselves as superstars,” said Boston’s Red Auerbach. “Lucas is still an unknown factor.”

Surprising answers? Hardly. The NBA coaches are a tough group to impress and all the hullabaloo about even such a “can’t-miss” prospect  as Luca falls on deaf ears until they can see the man in action against the roughest of all competition. As New York coach Eddie Donovan said: “It’s like a pitcher who signs a $100,000 bonus contract. He may have a string of no-hitters in the sandlots, but you never know what he’ll do in the majors until he gets there.”

Despite the unanimous reaction to the first question, our little poll was far from over. We then asked: “Forgetting for the moment that Lucas hasn’t played in the NBA, and assuming that he fulfills at least some of the pro potential he showed at Ohio State, which combination would you choose then?”

Unexpectedly, most of the coaches changed direction as suddenly as a team that just had the ball stolen at midcourt. “Potentially, I would have to go with Lucas and Robertson, because they are a little younger,” said Gallatin. (Going into the 1963-64 season, Baylor was 28, West 25, Robertson 24, Lucas 23.) Said Donovan: “I would go with Robertson and Lucas because of the ‘Big O’. There’s just no one like him.” And said Detroit coach Charley Wolf: “Of course, a lot would depend on what your own club needed most. I feel that West and Baylor are the finer individual players, but I would go with Robertson and Lucas because their style of play tends more toward playmaking. And they also have more height.” (Lucas is 6-foot-7, Robertson and Baylor 6-feet-5, West 6-feet-3.)

Only one of the neutral coaches we talked to, Red Auerbach, refused to pick one combination over the other. “The key to the whole thing depends on what you’ve already got,” said the Boston coach. And then he added, grinning, “As far as the Celtics are concerned, I’d take either one. I wouldn’t even flip a coin. Just give me one, and I’d be happy.”

But the two-part answer of the other coaches is very revealing. None of them would go out on a limb by judging an unknown quantity (Lucas), yet their regard for Robertson is so high, they would take the Cincinnati pair once they were sure the Lucas buildup was no phony. 

To the casual fan, this overwhelming support for Robertson probably seems hard to believe. As Cincinnati’s own coach, Jack McMahon, said: “West and Baylor are more exciting and crowd-pleasing. Oscar doesn’t seem to do anything real flashy.” And there’s no denying that Baylor and West form the greatest scoring punch in the game today, maybe of all time. Last year, they averaged more than 60 points between them, and 68 the season before, Yet NBA coaches are noted for their appreciation of the finer, less-flamboyant skills. A while back, for example, SPORT Magazine took a similar poll among men in the NBA to determine the best single player. Bill Russell was first, Robertson second. 

Talking further about Robertson’s hidden assets, Charley Wolf, who coached Cincinnati last season, said: “When we would play Los Angeles, everybody would rave about West and Baylor and say that Oscar had a bad night. The general public looks toward the man who gets the points, and sportswriters are a little statistical minded, too, since it’s easier to write about the man with the points. A fellow who scores a lot is a lot more spectacular than a man like Robertson who has to do it all. But you look at Oscar’s totals after a game, and he’ll be in double figures in everything—scoring, rebounding, assists.”

Robertson’s statistics last season support Wolf’s beliefs. Oscar was fourth in scoring with 28.3 ppg. And one of the reasons even the Cincinnati fans think Oscar doesn’t shoot enough is his remarkable accuracy. He was fourth with a .518 percentage and was topped only by three centers. He finished second to Guy Rodgers in assists and, perhaps most amazing of all, the Royals’ guard was 11th in rebounding. 

If Lucas comes through as expected, don’t look for Robertson to have such impressive figures in all departments again this season. One of Lucas’ major responsibilities will be to keep his teammate from having to do so much. “Jerry will definitely be used at forward,” said McMahon, “and the one big thing I want from him is to get the ball for us so that we can use Oscar on the fastbreak. Oscar is as great on the fast break as anyone who ever played. If Lucas is our big strong guy on the boards, it will take a lot of strain off Oscar. As for Lucas’ scoring, I’ll just let that take care of itself.”

Will Lucas be able to live up to expectations? Most of the coaches think so. “Lucas comes into the league with the same kind of ability Bob Pettit had when he joined the Hawks,” said Gallatin. “At Ohio State, Jerry showed he was a real team player and that he had great defensive ability. And he’ll be what I call as ‘sweet’ scorer—very consistent. Los Angeles and Cincinnati had some real close games last year, and I thought the Lakers were lucky to win some of them. Lucas could make the difference this year.”

And said Wolf: “I feel Lucas will never be a great scorer but will help setting up the play, screening, making the pass. Very few big men in the NBA are good passers, but Lucas showed he was in college. He should also be well prepared mentally and physically. His year layoff should improve his enthusiasm.”

If there is any one overriding reason behind the coaches picking the Cincinnati combination over Baylor and West, it is playmaking ability. Few players have it, and those that do become the hub of any team. Naturally, much of the time a player is what he is because of the team he’s on. “Baylor and West fit best into the type of team the Lakers have,” said Wolf, “because they have good shooters and fellows who will set the screens to make maximum use of Baylor and West’s drive-ins and jump shots. Baylor and West’s ability to go one on one is their greatest asset.”

Gallatin feels Baylor isn’t a particularly great rebounder or playmaker, but that he compensates for it by being “the best shooter in our game. He is a fantastic shooter from every angle. And for his size, he ranks with the top guards as a dribbler. I think Elgin could be a great playmaker if he didn’t concentrate on shooting. But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re a specialist, you should stick to it.”

Donovan is impressed by Baylor’s “great second effort and his great sense of direction.”

Of West, Gallatin said: “His biggest assets are size and speed for a guard. He has great overall ability to get around the basket and exceptional jumping ability and versatility. I’d say he’s between a good and great shooter.”

And said Wolf: “Next to Oscar, West is the best guard in the league.”

If the comparisons between Robertson-Lucas and Baylor-West prove anything, it is that the two pairs are entirely different in style and are needed in different capacities on their respective teams. Which is one of the hazards of such polls. Wilt Chamberlain probably put it best when, after being asked who the best individual player was, he said: “You can’t know who’s best unless you can see him playing with different teams under different circumstances and with different systems. Even then maybe you don’t know.”

About the only thing Inside Basketball thought it knew for certain when it made this survey was that no matter which way you rated them—Baylor-West and Robertson-Lucas, or Robertson-Lucas and Baylor-West—they were clearly the two best duos in pro basketball today. But then we even met disagreement on that score. 

While we were talking to Auerbach prior to the Maurice Stokes Benefit game at Kutsher’s Resort in the Catskills this past summer, the Celtics’ fine forward Tom Heinsohn came over. 

“Tom,” said Red, “they want to know who I’d rather have—Robertson-Lucas or Baylor-West?”

“Tell ‘em Heinsohn-Russell,” said Tom with a big grin. Some dynasties just don’t know how to die.

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