The Book on NBA Players, 1970

[Leonard Lewin, a long-time sports reporter with the New York Post, covered the NBA from its inception. He had inside sources galore, and here Lewin puts them to good use to assemble a scouting report on all 14 NBA teams entering the 1969-70 season. Lewin will explain more about the scouting report in his own intro, just below. But first, this article appeared in the magazine Sports Quarterly’s 1969-70 Pro Basketball Special, Lew Alcindor on the cover.] 

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It happened right after Joe Mullaney assumed the responsibility of trying to lead Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and the other Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship. Mullaney, for 14 years a successful college coach at Providence, realized he was stepping into a difficult situation. Jack Kent Cooke had invested a lot of money by obtaining Chamberlain from Philadelphia because he wanted to bring Los Angeles its first pro basketball title. Butch van Breda Kolff, now with the Detroit Pistons, had tried and failed with Wilt and left a few problems when he departed. 

Nevertheless, when Mullaney agreed to take the job under a three-year deal, he had no apprehension about handling Chamberlain or smoothing out things. His main concern was getting to know the players in the league because it had been a long time since he and Bob Cousy were teammates as Boston Celtics. “I’ve found out that only the Knicks use films to any degree in this league,” Joe reported. “They are the only ones who film their games often and study them.”

Only the Knicks seemed to recognize what pro football learned long ago—that films are extremely valuable in determining playing habits as well as devising game plans. “I guess I’ll have to ask the Knicks if I can borrow some of their films,” Mullaney concluded. 

It was not idle chatter. Mullaney, the latest of the college coaching recruits in the NBA, knows the value of studying teams and players. Pro basketball is becoming more and more a game of coaching strategy, and Joe realized he was a man who had to learn in a hurry because he was stepping into relatively new situations in the NBA. 

He had time to learn about Chamberlain, West, Baylor, and the other Lakers during the preseason drills. But what about Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes, John Havlicek, and Nate Thurmond? How do you advise your players to play them? What game plans do you use against the young, aggressive Knicks or the old Boston Celtics or the high-scoring Baltimore Bullets or the well-balanced Philadelphia 76ers?

Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses. So does each team. Mullaney had to have an instant education in effect. He was spotting every other coach experience. It was a difficult job. 

Maybe we can make it easy for him. Maybe he will be interested in a scouting report compiled through conversations with NBA coaches and players. Maybe it will help Joe Mullaney, at least, to digest the following team-by-team analysis and the way the teams approach each other. In other words, the “Book” on the outstanding players.  

Baltimore: A fantastic offense, geared by Wes Unseld, last season’s MVP and Rookie of the Year. The Bullets have as much firepower as anyone in the league. They have a well-balanced attack inside and outside. The idea is to pressure the guards so they cannot work the ball where they want to. “Try to make Monroe keep the ball,” said one player. “Let him eat up as much of the 24-second clock as possible. Let “The Pearl” work his show. As long as he has the ball, Loughery, Unseld, Scott, and Johnson will be standing around and watching. Do that, and Monroe will take a desperation shot, and then you have to pray it doesn’t go in because the harder they are to make—he makes ‘em.”

Let Gus Johnson do what he’s going to do. “He throws up a lot of bad shots,” said an opponent. “Make him shoot from outside. Give him room. After he gets desperate, let him drive.” The Bullets like to run, and Unseld triggers the fastbreak with his quick release passes. “After he clears the rebound, he is looking for the guard at midcourt, so the guards have to be alert and pick up,” it was explained. 

Loughery, one of the quickest outside shooters in the league, has to be played tightly, but he also likes to drive. “The best thing is to keep him out of action because he likes to run,” it was suggested. “If you can make Monroe hold onto the ball and keep it away from Loughery, it will help.”

Philadelphia: May have the best-balanced attack in the league. Well-coached, an aggressive defense that gambles a lot by pressuring the ball, and spirited players who are smart and know how to exploit situations. Hal Greer is basically an outside shooter but can drive when necessary. Wally Jones is a streak shooter from outside. When he’s hot, you could be all over him—but he’ll still pump them in. 

“If that’s not enough,” said an opponent, “ they’ve got Archie Clark who can come in and shoot. Keep [forward] Jim Washington away from the boards. He doesn’t shoot well, but he’s a fighting rebounder. 

“You must press their guards and try to force them down the sides,” it was suggested. “Greer likes to shoot around the middle, and so does Jones. Cunningham likes to get the ball around the key. You have to make the guards worry about handling the ball, and not think about shooting. They hit the open man well.”

The best defense against the 76ers apparently is a conservative man-to-man. No gambling. “You can’t overplay them because they’ll drive,” it was said. “Make Cunningham drive the baseline, where you can get help and he can’t beat you going to the basket. He likes to go left, so make him go right. Luke Jackson likes to go right for hook shots around the key, so force him left and also outside beyond his range.”

Walt Frazier (l) on defense

New York:  Well-coached, smart team defense, and well-distributed scoring power. The New York attack centers around the ballhandling of Walt Frazier, the inside-and-outside shooting of Willis Reed, and the ability of every player to hit the open man. “You’ve got to keep Frazier from getting the ball and doing his thing,” is the consensus on this rising young star. “Play him nose-to-nose at all times. You’re in less trouble if Dick Barnett and the other guards handle the ball.”

There seems to be two different approaches to Frazier. Boston lets him penetrate and shuts off the other Knicks by playing them tight man-to-man. Other teams double-team Walt to keep him from penetrating. The reason is obvious. The Celtics have Bill Russell and would prefer Frazier to drive at him. Stopping Frazier is only part of the problem because Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Barnett, and Reed all can shoot.

“Try to keep Willis from getting the ball inside because he likes to move from there for a hook or move out for a twisting jumper,” an opponent said. “If you can, make him go right because Reed is a lefty. Play DeBusschere, Bradley, and Barnett tight because they are good open shooters. Try to make the Knicks drive. DeBusschere and Bradley like to shoot from outside. Dave will drive at times, but he prefers the long jumpers.”

Most teams try to isolate Bradley on a big forward. This causes Bill to “front” his taller opponent. “But be careful with your lead passes,” it was advised, “because the Knicks are well-coached, and DeBusschere or Reed will come off the weak side and pick them off. When Cazzie Russell is on the floor, work on him because he is not that quick defensively. He can be beaten easier than the other Knicks.”

Everyone agreed you must make sure of your passes against the Knicks. “Frazier is great at anticipating the ball and stealing it,” it was said. “The Knicks are probably the most alert team at stealing the ball. Frazier, Reed, DeBusschere, Barnett, Bradley, Phil Jackson, and even Mike Riordan are tough at it, so watch your passes.”

Boston: Everyone has the secret of beating Boston, but no one can make it stick. The Knicks did the best job last season, yet they also failed in the playoffs as the old Celtics went on to win the title again. The idea is to apply maximum pressure on offense and defense from beginning to end and hope to wear down the team. This might work this year because of Russell’s reported retirement. 

Tireless John Havlicek is a serious problem. “You must try and keep Havlicek down if you can,” said one player who has tried. “Try and keep the ball away from him by playing him nose-to-nose before he gets it. Bailey Howell has to be kept off the offensive board. He has to be boxed out, or he’ll pick up a lot of garbage.”

Emmette Bryant runs the attack. Red Auerbach landed the ex-Knick from Phoenix last season. “Bryant’s very quick,” said a player familiar with Em’s tricks. “Don’t play him too tight, or he will lose you. Lay off him, but be ready for his moves. He can penetrate and will hit the open man. It’s better to let him drive in deep than to give him the outside. He’s not a bad shooter.”

The entire Russell-directed strategy may change now, of course. But the basic premise remains: the best way to play the Celtics is to press them from the start and try and tire them out. 

Cincinnati: Cincinnati has been fundamentally Oscar Robertson through the years. The only big change expected from Bob Cousy, the new coach, will be on defense. The Cooz will institute a more aggressive team defense and, wherever possible, add a few refinements on attack. 

Keep Oscar from getting the ball remains the way to play the Royals. “Overplay Oscar and make the other guard handle the ball,” said a guard who plays the Big O. “He doesn’t bring the ball down much, but likes to get it in the attacking zone. When he picks the ball up early, stay with him and press. Most of the time, he walks down to the other end. Don’t let him get the ball in deep. Make him go out—away from the basket—to get it. That way, you’ll use up the clock a little bit and make him work back to the basket, where he likes to operate.”

The next word of advice is to stay up tight on Jerry Lucas. “He doesn’t like to drive much, but has a fine outside jump shot,” it was pointed out. “When he’s in close, he likes to go across the foul lane for a hook. Try and stop him from going right and make him go left. Play Odie Smith tight, but let him keep the ball as long as possible. Give Tom Van Arsdale the outside shot, rather than play too close because he can drive and will go around you. Make Connie Dierking run and work hard and force him to his left to avoid his sweeping hooks.”

Lucas represents the Cincinnati rebounding strength, and he likes to fall off his man in order to be in position off the boards. Thus, it will help to match him with a big forward who can shoot outside. This will either move Luke away from the boards or provide an opening, if he drops off. 

Detroit: The Pistons under van Breda Kolff figure to have a more organized offense and will run. They have a lot of scoring power in Dave Bing, Eddie Miles, Walt Bellamy, Butch Komives, and Happy Hairston. “Press the guards because the ballhandling is not that good,” it was advised. Jimmy Walker is their best ballhandler, but he needs the ball, and so do Bing and Komives.

“Let the guards keep the ball as much as you can,” is this suggested strategy. “While the guard has it, the other four guys are standing around and watching. Stay up tight on Bing, and try to force him left. He likes to drive right to a spot at the baseline halfway to the corner. He can jump so high, he goes over his man, and it’s a problem if you let him get in close where he wants to go. Watch out for Happy Hairston, who likes to sneak off when you take a shot.” 

Miles, a streak shooter with excellent range as far away as 30 feet, must be played tightly. He’ll do little driving. “Bellamy is tough when he’s motivated,” it was explained. “He can hit from outside, and he can drive. It’s best to let him handle the ball and play him tight when he gets it so he has to pass it off. You can drive on him, because he will seldom try and jam a shot. Send him to his left; not much of a hook shot. Protect against jumper. Likes to shoot outside, so try to force him outside his range.

Milwaukee: Lew Alcindor, the million-dollar baby, gives the Bucks a new look. He is an outstanding all-around ballplayer who can provide the leadership of a Russell or Chamberlain or Thurmond. No doubt Larry Costello will build his offense around the plus-seven-footer, who also will strengthen the defense. 

“The Bucks were mostly guards before Alcindor,” said an NBA player. “You would pressure Flynn Robinson and Jon McGlocklin because they are not good ballhandlers. If Milwaukee now goes to Alcindor, it will take away from Robinson, who loves to hold the ball and shoot. Lew will be out of position if Robby shoots from his deep position and will miss out on the rebounds. I’d say Alcindor might affect Robinson’s game.”

McGlocklin doesn’t need the ball. But, when he gets it, he likes to drive. He can also hit outside. “You have to box out Len Chappell and Don Smith,” it was pointed out. “That Smith is a good rebounder. He came along last year.”

The Bucks lack firepower, and the personnel for Costello to create a stronger team defense. Alcindor will have to carry a heavy load.

Los Angeles: Potentially the most devastating scoring machine in the sport, depending on whether Chamberlain thinks he should go to the hoop. Wilt, West, and Baylor give the Lakers three superstars, each capable of getting 30 or more points in any game. Mullaney knows this, and his job will be to harness all that power. What he doesn’t know is what the other teams think about his players and what it has taken to beat the Lakers. 

The strategy is directed at Wilt, West, and Baylor, though it is conceded rangy Mel Counts can hurt you at times with his outside shooting. “Pressure the guards,” said an NBA star, “and if you can, let Johnny Egan do the ballhandling and set up the plays. Keep West out of the game as much as possible. Remember what happened in the closing minutes of the seventh playoff game with Boston? The Lakers closed in, but West never got a shot in the final minute or so. The Celtics double-teamed him into the corner, he passed off to Egan at the top of the key, and the pass, instead of going back to West, went to the opposite corner and a shot.”

Playing Wilt is trying to keep him from powering in off the low post and tempting him to pass the ball off. “Make Wilt come out to the high post, and that will hurt him,” said a player who has had to keep Chamberlain off the boards and from rolling to the hoop. “Make the Lakers play a 2-1-2 offense, instead of letting Wilt think offensively.”

Baylor, as well as West, likes to go right, so the idea is to force him to the left. Elg’s pet spot is on the left side of the court, which enables him to drive across the lane for a right hook or jumper. “Make Elgin drive the baseline inside of Wilt, who also likes to set up on the left,” it was suggested. “That way, you can force Baylor into some traffic, if the man playing Wilt is alert enough to switch off.”

The Lakers can run if Wilt gets the ball clear fast enough. Otherwise, they hold up for Chamberlain to get downcourt, and then try to shake Baylor or West loose for a shot. Wilt will not come out so far to get his man, thus outside shooters like Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy, and Nate Thurmond can make trouble. Driving on Chamberlain is another matter and not recommended. Keep Counts out of the corner, especially the right side. The L.A. defense, particularly Baylor, is vulnerable because it doesn’t switch well. Mullaney is expected to improve the team defense immediately.

San Francisco: One of the fine offensive teams. Jeff Mullins and Rudy LaRusso give the Warriors great outside shooting. Clyde Lee is tough from the corners and rates as one of the top offensive rebounders in the league. Thurmond is right up there with Russell and Chamberlain as one of the leading centers. “He can do it all,” said an NBA observer. “He can shoot, he’s tough on defense, and he’s a fine rebounder.”

The Warriors are rated basically a guards’ team. In other words, everything works off the backcourtmen. “You must pressure their guards and disrupt their game,” a leading NBA guard said. “Mullins runs the show, so you must press him all the way. Jeff and Thurmond like to work the pick-and-roll a lot. Nate will pick Mullins’ man and then roll to the hoop. You must play Thurmond honest—not too tight, not too loose. He likes to go right and shoot a short hook or jump shot, so try and make him go left. Mullins doesn’t drive much, but he’s a fine outside shooter.”

The general idea is to concentrate on the other Warriors and keep them from helping Thurmond, Mullins, and LaRusso. “Don’t let (Joe) Ellis, (Jim) King, or (Bill) Turner get a lot,” a player said. “Ellis and Turner are streak shooters, but they can be wild and inconsistent. Let them take the shots. (Al) Attles is a quick, aggressive, and tough defensive player, but he will not hurt you scoring. He likes to drive all the time, so shut that off.”

The Big Z – Zelmo Beaty (31)

Atlanta: A rough, tough bunch of players off both boards. No great shooters, so the Hawks have to make it on an occasional fastbreak or by pounding in for second and third shots. “You must box them all out, or you are in trouble,” said a player still black and blue from the bruising attempt to keep Bill Bridges, Jim Davis, Zelmo Beaty, and Joe Caldwell away from offensive rebounds. “Davis and Bridges are great at following up, and you must keep them off the boards.”

The Hawks play a tight, aggressive man-to-man defense, dropping off, and giving the outside shot in order to be in position to rebound. “The strength of the team is rebounding,” it was pointed out. “You pressure the guards and send them left, because Hazzard and Caldwell don’t go left well. Stay up tight on Beaty. Make him go to the middle, because he seems to prefer shooting from an angle. When he isolates one-on-one, he likes to head for the baseline, so shut that off.”

Bridges must be kept away from the boards, because that’s where he does the most damage. “He’s not much of a shooter from a distance,” it was explained. “He likes to throw a sweeping hook going right across the lane, so make him go left. The Hawks like to run a pattern offense, so double-team the guards and force them to the sidelines. Hazzard likes to come down the middle from right to left.”

San Diego: The Rockets are young and have fine firepower in Elvin Hayes, Don Kojis, and John Block. Their Achilles heel is in the backcourt, where coach Jack McMahon thinks one fine ballhandler and scoring threat would give him a title contender. “Put pressure on the guards and run them down the sidelines,” was the strategy suggested for the Rockets. “Jim Barnett is tough. He likes to come down the middle. Try and keep the ball away from him. Let the other guys handle it.”

Play up on Block, who seldom drives. Play a little loose on Kojis, who prefers to drive. “Hayes is a great outside shooter,” it was explained. “He likes to move away from the basket and turn left for a jumper. He takes a lot of shots. Let him shoot all night from out there. No one man will beat you. He has no moves, so move up tight on him when he moves out. He doesn’t know how to pass, so you can even double-team him.”

The Big E goes to the board strongly, and you can’t drive on him. He is a lot like Bill Russell. He’ll jam a lot of shots, and get the Rockets running to some easy baskets. 

Chicago: A well-disciplined offense that likes to run the 24-second clock and thus keep the score down and the Bulls in the game. “Play them all honest and try to make them run the baseline,” it was suggested. “They play pattern ball and try to go to (Tom) Boerwinkle in the middle. Don’t let them. Pressure the guards and make (Jerry) Sloan go to his left. Boerwinkle likes to hook, across the middle, so keep him to his left or outside.”

Bob Rule, a.k.a., The Golden Rule

Seattle: “Mostly Lenny Wilkens,” was the word on the SuperSonics. “Try and make him run away from his left hand. Give him his outside shot, rather than let him drive for a three-pointer. Make him drive right, or give him a shot from 15 feet and out. Bob Rule is a tough shooter. Make him go to his right. He’s all left-handed. He likes to shoot jumpers out of the pivot. Play tight on him. Doesn’t pass much. Not very aggressive on defense, either.”

Stay up on (Bob) Boozer because he’s a good shot from 20 feet in. Tom Meschery, the veteran, was rated a tough outside shooter and a good man to box out, if you don’t want to get hurt by his rebounding. “Art Harris is another Joe Caldwell type,” a player said. “He’s a great defensive player. Very quick. Get him to handle the ball instead of Wilkens. Tommy Kron is a streak shooter. Run him left.” 

Phoenix: The Suns have added a touch of mystery because Connie Hawkins, the ABA superstar, will be in their uniform for the first time. He is a freewheeling, talented individual who will be tough to handle, and it will take a while before the NBA people get a line on him.  

“They’re all (Gail) Goodrich and (Dick) Van Arsdale,” said a player. “Goodrich is a good outside shooter and driver and is all left-handed, so make him go right. Give Van Arsdale the outside shot and never the drive. Keep him off the boards because he’s a tough rebounder.”

Jim Fox, the center, is a pretty good outside shooter but takes it too much. “Stay up on him because he won’t go around you,” it was pointed out. “He looks for his shot more than he should, so let him keep the ball. The outer four will stand around and watch, and he won’t beat you. Paul Silas (obtained in a trade that sent Gary Gregor to Atlanta) is a great offensive rebounder and the best tip-in shot in the league. (Dick) Snyder is a streak shooter. Don’t let him get started because he can build a lot of confidence, if he gets off right.”

There it is. A scouting report on the NBA entering the 1969-70 season. Maybe it will help Joe Mullaney, if no one else. 

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