Mike Conley, Jr. shares his thoughts on inking a deal bringing him $34.5 million in one season.
Mike Conley, Sr. could hardly believe it.
Same with his son, professional point guard Mike Conley. Jr. The two were looking at a five-year contract offer from Memphis owner Robert Pera sent to Jr. early in the free agent signing period. Surely, the Conleys’ eyes got a little bigger with each figure, one larger than the next, as they scanned the contract. The number attached to the last year, though, was the kicker.
“We were looking at the fifth year and I was talking to my dad and saying ‘That number can’t be right,’ Conley recalled to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I never thought a day in my life that that number would be reasonable.”
And the reason? The main reason is that Conley, like a lot of other good-but-not-great players, find themselves very lucky to be free agents this summer. They are negotiating with teams with money to burn after their salary caps were raised in the wake of two events:
a) a recent TV contract agreement that will pour $26 billion dollars in the NBA coffers over the next nine years
b) a collective bargaining agreement more friendly toward players which puts half of all league revenue into their pockets
This means the floodgates have opened on a bonanza that is rewriting the record books. Below are the top one-year salaries in the history of NBA contracts*, according to sportrac.
Essentially, these are the most lucrative years in the most lucrative multi-year contracts.
Name, Season, Amount
Mike Conley, 2020-21, $34,502,130
Damian Lillard, 2020-21, $34,502,130
Michael Jordan, 1997-98, $33,140,000
DeMar DeRozan, 2020-21, $32,782,609
Kobe Bryant, 2013-14, $30,453,805
Al Horford, 2019-20, $30,123,014
Bradley Beal, 2020-21, $28,751,775
Anthony Davis, 2020-21, $28,751,775
Andre Drummond, 2020-21, $28,751,775
Carmelo Anthony, 2018-19, $27,928,140
Kevin Durant, 2017-18, $27,734,405
Nicolas Baturn, 2020-21, $27,130,435
Hassan Whiteside, 2019-20, $27,093,019
Chris Bosh, 2018-19, $26,837,720
*Agreed upon or signed
Conley, who grew up in Fayetteville, Ark., hasn’t yet specified what he’ll do with his windfall other than probably buy a new car for his mother. He’s found out the contract has certainly made him more of a celebrity in Memphis. “It doesn’t hit me as much until I go out in public,” he told the Commercial Appeal’s Ronald Tillery. “It’s like I became famous overnight. It’s like people all know the number.”
He credited Grizzly leadership for helping cement his decision to re-sign through “a great draft” and the signing of highly sought 6’10” forward Chandler Parsons. “He’s giving us something we haven’t had in a while as far as playmaking and shooting ability from that position,” Conley told Tillery.
While the money’s nice, Conley says he is far more driven to complete a mission he’s held with Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol for more than half a decade now. “I want to win a championship and that’s the expectation of every guy on this team. Nothing less. We understand that we’re within a window to win.”
Golden State has much on the line when it faces Cleveland on the road in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Still ahead in the series, a loss won’t cost Golden State its season. But it will extinguish any lingering hope the team’s fans have of laying claim to Greatest of All-Time status over the ‘96 Bulls. The Cavs are 2-point favorites on Thursday night, according to online NBA sportsbook odds, but they can likely keep M.J.’s Bulls safe by simply not losing by more than 25 points.
Read on to see how.
At its core, matching great NBA teams across eras against each other is a quixotic task. Important rules change, leading the way to an evolution of the game itself. For instance, the game which the Chicago Bulls dominated in the mid-90s was a more physical one where defenders could hand, forearm and body-check their opponents. In that time, a zone defense was an illegal one. You had to either guard your man straight up or double the man with the ball.
All this changed in the early to mid 2000s with new rules that forbade all the rough defensive tactics as well as eliminating the “illegal defense” rule itself, allowing only a defensive three-second violation to remain. Essentially, this meant that zone defense was now allowed everywhere except in the paint. These rules led to such profound shifts in the fabric of the NBA game that it’s best to divide the “modern era” of basketball into separate epochs: pre-zone and zone.
Stu Jackson, former executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, and other leaders wanted to create more free-flowing offenses. Looking back in 2009, he told NBA.com “With the rule and interpretation changes, it has become more difficult for defenders to defend penetration, cover the entire floor on defensive rotations and recover to shooters.”
“This has provided more time for shooters to ready themselves for quality shots. With more dribble penetration, ball handlers are getting more opportunities at the rim. Additionally, teams now realize the 3-point shot is a great competitive equalizer, so they are taking more.”
By far, the best team of the zone epoch has been this season’s Golden State Warriors, a team which has exemplified the three-point evolution to which Jackson referred better than any other. This year the Warriors shattered multiple offensive efficiency records, won 73 games in the regular season — most all-time — and are ahead 3-2 against Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals.
But are they better than the best pre-zone team — the ‘96 Bulls?
Curry’s 17-point detonation was one for all-time … and all-places.
After missing a potential winner at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Golden State-Portland series, Steph Curry became visibly frustrated. On the bench, he slammed his hands together, clearing irked he’d missed a 10-foot running bank shot down the right side.
A game-winning shot there would have added some gleam to Curry’s already historic season. Instead, because he missed it, Curry ended up burnishing his legacy while strengthening his case for the greatest offensive season in basketball history far more than he could have with a mere game winner.
In his first game back from nearly three weeks off with injury, Curry filleted the Trail blazers to the tune of 17 overtime points — a perfect prelude to the announcement today that he is the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. A late, clinching stepback three-pointer left Portland owner Paul Allen doing this:
NB: The previous scoring record for a postseason overtime was 13 by Clyde Drexler.
This feat is amazing enough on its own. Even more amazing, though, is that the record would stand at the NCAA basketball level, too, where so many more players have had a chance to do better in so many more games. Roughly four times* as many Division I games as NBA games are played per season, according to research provided by basketball-reference.com.
Since the 1995-96 season, there have been 109,667 college basketball games and an estimated 26,000-27,000 regular season and postseason NBA games.
According to official NCAA records, the Division I record for points in an overtime period is shared by two players:
Howard’s Ron Williams, who scored 17 points in the first OT of a win against Norfolk State in 2003
Temple’s David Hawkins, who scored 17 points in the second OT against Massachusetts in 2004.
Essentially, scoring 17 or more points in a single overtime is really, really, really hard. The NCAA has had five-minute overtime periods since 1908, and yet it’s only been done twice before.
That Steph Curry could achieve this against a defense roughly four times more imposing than anything Norfolk State or UMass could summon, in the thick of a pressure-packed road playoff game, after recovering from an ankle injury, doesn’t seem human.
It’s possible that Curry is simply stretching the bounds of what we as fans imagine should be possible on a basketball court. Where he goes, others will eventually follow, right?
That’s not a given. The one player in the NBA who probably comes closest to Steph Curry’s long-range shooting abilities and handle — Damian Lillard — looks to be as much en fuego Curry’s match as Clyde Drexler was en fuego Jordan’s equal. Maybe a much better version of Lillard will ascend through the pipeline in the coming years, but I doubt it. The more I watch Curry, the more he appears to be a transcendental type of talent that may not come around but once a century at best.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were these kinds of talents, too. It’s been nearly 60 years since they burst onto the national scene, and we have yet to see two other big men who can as thoroughly dominate their opposition. No little man has come close to destroying opponents in the myriad, potent ways Curry can. If anyone doubted this heading into last night’s game, their silence is deafening now.
The “biggest” regular season NBA games are often the result of flux. Sometimes, it’s the reappearance of a superstar returning to the court after a long time away (e.g. M.J. returning from retirements in 1995 and 2000), or the pro debut of a long-awaited phenom (think LeBron’s first game for Cleveland in 2003) or the return of a superstar to his former team’s home court (Miami Heat Shaq going back to Los Angeles, or Heat LeBron going back to Cleveland).
Very rarely, though, does a regular season NBA generate hype because of continuity and stability. Those aren’t exactly the kind of words which drive ticket sales and storylines. In 2016, though, Golden State and San Antonio are forcing precedence takes a backseat to excellence. Both franchises feature star players who have been on the team for at least four seasons and have created distinct cultures based principles of teamwork, unselfishness, high basketball IQ and highly versatile skill sets. Both teams spread minutes and shot attempts to “non-star” bench players like few if any teams in NBA history.
As they head into their first matchup on January 25, 2016, never before have two teams this good met at midseason.
Below is a list of midseason* games involving teams with at least 75% win rate previous to the game:
Combined Win %
Home Team Wins
Home Team Losses
Home Team Win %
Visitors’ Win %
Home Team Score
Home Team’s Final Wins #
Home Team’s Postseason Status
Visitors’ Final Wins #
Visitors’ Postseason Status
Golden State Warriors
San Antonio Spurs
Lost First Round
Won NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers
Lost NBA Finals
Lost East Finals
Los Angeles Lakers
Lost NBA Finals
Lost East Finals
Won NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers
Lost East Finals
Los Angeles Lakers
Lost West Finals
I expect the Warriors to win tonight. They are simply too good at home, Tim Duncan isn’t playing and Spurs Gregg Popovich famously undervalues regular season games. Even if the Spurs lose, though, it will be fascinating to see if they can maintain their current rate of success and continue to push Golden State toward a projected 74-win season. These teams will play another three times by early April.
Heading into those remaining three games, do you think they will maintain their current stratospheric all-time rankings — as seen below — on both sides of the ball?
The below metric, adjusted offensive rating, takes a team’s offensive production and measures it against the league average:
With Stephen Curry deciding to manifest as a full-fledged shooting god this season, I thought it would be worth exploring what his as yet-to-be-accomplished greatest game will look like.
In a recent piece for SLAM Online, I explain why Curry’s signature game won’t come in the form of an all-out Points-mageddon as it did with Wilt, MJ and Kobe. Instead, it will be a tour de force in efficiency since he’s reaching combinations of production (averages 11 three-point shot attempts a game so far in 2015-16) and accuracy (hitting about 44% of them) never before seen.
Given these numbers, which actually could rise in the coming months, I predict Curry will become the first NBA player to notch a perfect shooting game while going over 40 points. With an all-time hot streak, I want to believe* it’s likely he will one day go something like 11-11 or 12-12 on three point attempts in a single game.
An 11-for-11 game isn’t asking for much, Steph.
It’s only a single made shot basket better than what Ty Lawson accomplished in 2011. And it can’t be that too much harder than the 9-for-9 games Ben Gordon has apparently trademarked.
Below are the most accurate, high three-point attempt volume games in NBA history**. These are the guys Curry (whose career accuracy high for threes is 6-for-6) has to surpass:
As you can see, Sam Perkins is the only player to attempt more than seven three-point shots yet not miss a single shot from the field or free throw line.
Perkins’ college teammate has gone down as the greatest scoring guard in the game’s history. If Curry one day knocks that teammate from his throne, expect him first to knock Perkins from his.
*What are the actual chances Curry will actually hit all 11, or all 12, or all 13 of three-point attempts in a single game? I don’t know. But if you can some calculations and figure this out, let me know.
** Well, at least since 1985-86 according to basketball-reference.com. But I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a more prolifically precise game in the five years before that and after the three-point line was instituted.
It’s official. Afterward, he discussed becoming the first MVP to not start a single game preceding the Finals: “We all say God has a way for you, a purpose for you, and I accepted it.”
In fall of 2010, fans of the Turkish basketball club Besiktas welcomed through the doors of their home arena the most famous “AI” in American team sports – the one and only Allen Iverson. While Iverson’s tenure in Istanbul only lasted 10 games, his late-career stint abroad generated significant headlines across the world.
Just months before, though, another “AI” sat in the bleachers of Besiktas’ home arena. This AI, Andrew Iguadala, had been teammates with Iverson on the Philadephia 76ers and was forever battling the moniker of, well, “the other AI.” Although a first rate talent, Iguadala was in many fans’ minds a perpetual afterthought, an All-Star without any identifiable All-Star skill or trait beyond sheer hustle, defense and court smarts.
In August 2010, I was in Istanbul to report on the FIBA World Championships and thanks to the help of fellow writers like Brian Mahoney and Chris Sheridan, I found myself in Besiktas Arena during a Team USA practice to do interviews for the Associated Press and other outlets. After leaving a horde of TV cameramen buzzing around Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, I noticed Iguodala in the stands by himself, reading.
I introduced myself as a writer. He studied me for a second, and soon asked where I was from.
“Arkansas,” I replied. Iguodala’s eyes lit up. “I was going to go there,” he said, and he briefly explained he’d signed a national letter of intent with the Razorbacks before Nolan Richardson was fired and Iguodala decided to go to Arizona instead.
That connection seemed to loosen Iguodala up a bit and I then asked him about the book he was reading. He showed me the cover of “The Alchemist” and told me it was about a young man’s personal journey in search of his “Personal Legend,” and went in to what that meant. Admittedly, it’s pretty mystic but boils down to “something you have always wanted to accomplish.” Like tens of millions of others, it was clear the book’s author Paulo Coehlo had captivated Iguodala with the notion that each of us have a quest, a calling and, in the end, a kind of destiny to fulfill.
Fast forward five years and it appears Iguodala may be on the brink of fulfilling his own “Personal Legend.”
In these NBA Finals, the 6’7″ small forward has arguably been the most important player on the court for Golden State. The longtime “other AI” is at last becoming “the AI” despite in the regular season playing off the bench for the first time ad averaging career lows in points, rebounds and assists. Yet in Golden State’s first three games, when the Warriors needed it most, it was Iguodala among all the Warriors who played with the most passion, pace and confidence. Most importantly, he has played the strongest individual defense on LeBron James and that defense has been a big part in James’ breaking down at the end of the last two games.
Iguodala’s significance in the Warriors’ title run was never more explicit than last week when Golden State, which had been heavily favored entering the series according to sportsbook online betting, fell down 2-1. Searching for a jolt, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr inserted Iguodala as the starter in place of Harrison Barnes. The move has ignited two straight wins and a flood of meme-y Iguodala highlights:
With regular season MVP Steph Curry getting off to an historically bad Finals start, it was Iguodala more than any other Warriors player who stood as the team’s top MVP candidate following Game 4. An NBA Finals MVP for him would be historically notable and precedent-breaking in many ways. Here are a few:
1) Iguodala would beis the first Finals MVP on the same team as a healthy regular season MVP. Yes, Magic Johnson did win it as a rookie in 1980 during the same season his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got MVP honors. But Abdul-Jabbar suffered an injury late in that series against Philadelphia, clearing the path for Johnson – a point guard, mind you – to step in at center with a Game 6 magnum opus that to this day staggers the mind.
2. Iggy would beis the first Finals MVP since Wes Unseld in 1978 to average less than 10 points a game in the regular season. (Even Celtic Cedric Maxwell, who was nicknamed “Cornbread” by Arkansas assistant coach Melvin Watkins, averaged 15 points a game before stealing thunder from a young Larry Bird to win the 1981 Finals MVP)
3. He would beis the first Finals MVP who did not start a single game during the regular season.
4. He would bemay be the first Finals MVP who didn’t finish at No. 1 or No. 2 on his team in points, assists, blocks, rebounds and steals during a championships series (Currently, he ranks at No. 3 in all those categories for the Warriors – a testament to his versatility).
In the end, it’s likely the man at the top of a few of those rankings – Steph Curry – will continue to shoot lights out as he did in Game 5 and secure Finals MVP honors if Golden State wins the series. And it’s likely, after a brief turn in the limelight, Iguodala will go back to being an afterthought in the minds of many NBA fans.
But no matter what happens, the Springfield, Ill. native’s series-altering energy, hustle and savvy in these Finals shouldn’t be forgotten.
Years from now, expect his play these last few games to be central to the legend he is building.
Commemorate the Warriors’ historic run with this one-a-kind design:
Next month, Fort Smith native Jahlil Okafor could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. If he is, the 6’11” center will be the third Arkansan native to go No. 1 in a major American team sport since Joe Barry Carroll in 1980. Okafor spent his childhood in the Ft. Smith area before moving to a bigger metro area in Chicago. Carroll, meanwhile, spent some of his elementary school days in Pine Bluff before his mother shepherded her large family to Denver.
There, among the Rockies, Carroll grew to seven feet tall and became a prized recruit. He then became a legendary player at Purdue, leading the Boilermakers to the 1980 Final Four while racking up 26.3 points a game.
It turns out Carroll has become both a painter and writer who has been contemplating his Arkansan roots. Now living in Georgia, Carroll will return to his home state this fall for an exhibit in Little Rock:
“The Historic Arkansas Museum will host the contemporary art exhibit, “Growing Up . . . In Words and Images” by NBA All Star, Joe Barry Carroll. The exhibition will open in Historic Arkansas Museum’s Trinity Gallery for Arkansas Artists during 2nd Friday Art Night on September 11 from 5 to 8 pm. The opening reception will include a gallery talk with Carroll and a book signing in the Museum Store.
The exhibition will include paintings from Carroll’s memoir coffee table book of the same name. The colorful and evocative acrylic and mixed media paintings have been described as “folk” and “impressionistic.” The paintings explore what Carroll refers to as “shared humanity”—childhood, dreams, family ties, southern culture and self-discovery. In “Growing Up,” Carroll’s southern-comfort prose reveals the life of a boy who seemed “to not be enough of any one particular thing to be the right thing.”
Born the tenth of thirteen children, Carroll was raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Denver, Colorado, where his mother supported the family as a domestic worker, fry cook, and eventually a nurse’s aide. He dreamed of saving the day for his family and writes, “Every time I witnessed my mother’s defeat and difficulty as another dream died, I resolved to make it all better one day.”
Carroll led the Purdue University Boilermakers to the Final Four in 1980 and graduated with a degree in Economics. Carroll was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. He would go on to play for Milano (Italy), the Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets, Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns. Carroll is now a wealth advisor, philanthropist, painter and writer.
Historic Arkansas Museum is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 – 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission to the galleries and parking are free; admission to the historic grounds is $2.50 for adults, $1 for children under 18, $1.50 for senior citizens. The Historic Arkansas Museum Store is open 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 – 4 p.m. on Sunday.”
Carroll, it turns out, had the seventh-highest scoring performance in NCAA Tournament history in 1980. Interestingly, the number one player on that list – Glen Rice – apparently was born in Jacksonville, Ark. before moving to Michigan as a baby or toddler.
Mike Anderson: This is a day that, you know, you have dreams when you’re a young kid. Coming here, taking this job four years ago, one of the first tasks that I had was to go down to Hall High School, and see this young man work out. In that spring, in that summer, this committed to the University of Arkansas. His sophomore, you’re talking about finishing his sophomore year, so when you talk about a guy committed early, this guy committed early, so to sit here four years after that, and he has an opportunity to realize his dream. It’s kind of a more sweet than it is bitter day. Why, because this kid, he’s part of my family, and that’s Bobby Portis, as well as all my other players on our team. When you talk about a young man who’s had two unbelievable years, it’s amazing what has taken place. In his freshman year, he’s second team All SEC. His second year. You got to understand this. He’s second team All-American. That is a special, special year, and that’s why we are here today.
His teammates are here in attendance, as well as our staff, as Bobby has announced that he will be moving beyond that, and I’ll let him talk more into that. As a coach, he’s been a great ambassador for our university. He’s a great basketball player, we know that, but he’s been a great, great ambassador, a great, great role model for a lot of young players around, young people in the state of Arkansas and around the country. We could not have a better representative than Bobby Portis. To be here today as he makes his statement, I couldn’t be no more proud of Bobby Portis. Player of the year in our league. Things that haven’t taken place here in 20 years. That tells you how special he is. Not only special Bobby is, but his teammates as well. He’ll be the first to say that. I can’t talk any more, because I get a little emotion, but to Ms. Tina, I want to thank her for entrusting me with her son. I told her, “You send me a young boy, I send you back a man.” Well, he kind of expedited the process. I told him to go at his own pace, as a freshman, because coming in, you can imagine, McDonald’s All-American, all the pressures, and I said go at your own pace. His pace was a tremendous pace, and that’s why we’re here today. I just pass over here to Bobby Portis.
Bobby Portis: How everybody doing today? Ain’t nobody sad or nothing, is it? Everybody good? You know, today’s a good day
for me, to try to take that next step and go to the NBA. As a kid, all kids grow up wanting to go to the NBA. For me, myself, I finally had that first chance to go to the NBA this year, so I took the opportunity and tried to run with it. Thanks for Coach A for always having that trust in me, on and off the court. He made me a captain this year, as a sophomore, and I think that’s big for me and my teammates. Thanks for my teammates, always having their trust in me, on the court, passing the ball to me, even though I’m hollering, “Give me the ball! Give me the ball!” All that stuff. Thanks to Coach [Matt Zimmerman] staying late in the gym with me, and always rebounding for me and all that. Thanks to the managers, too, and Coach Watkins and Coach Cleveland. You’re all a part of my family, now, and this is something that I’m proud of, so thank you all and God Bless.
Reporter: You really talked a lot about your mom and what she means to you. How big a part was her, how hard she works and what she does, in your decision?
Bobby Portis: It was a big part, just because, my mom, she works 2:00 AM to 1:00 PM. That’s an 11 hour shift. For any person, that’s a tough burden on anyone, so I just want to take that next step, not just for her, but for myself. I’m not doing this for my mom, or anything, I’m doing this for Bobby Portis, just because I feel like I’m ready to take that next step, and go on about my basketball career.
Reporter: In the beginning you said it was going to be a committee decision. In the end, was it just you that made the call?
Bobby Portis: I believe so, just because, my mom wanted me to make the decision for me and not her. That’s something that she always preaches. Not trying to make me make a decision for her, just to change her life and my little brother’s life. She wants me to live my dream and try to be the best basketball player I could be.
Q: I understand it’s a basketball on one side, but how nice is it that you’re going to be able to help your family out?
Bobby Portis: I think it’ll be nice to help my family out, but I still have to work as hard as I can every day, and just try to be that same person that I was, and just stay humble and hungry. Just because, if I get my name called and put that hat on, that doesn’t mean that it’s just the end of the road and I get money. It’s more than just money. It’s a job, too, at the same time.
Q: What kind of feedback did you get from the NBA folks about where Bobby’s likely to be drafted?
Mike Anderson: First of all, this wasn’t an easy decision for Bobby. This guy, again, he committed as a sophomore to be a Razorback, and trust me, he’s been wrestling with this. I know you guys, whether it be social network, or we continued at the banquet last night, “Hey, Bobby, what you going to do?” It wasn’t an easy decision for him, so we gathered information for him, in terms, of where, what’s going to take place. Obviously, from the lottery to first round. He’s going to be … He’ll be a first rounder, there’s no question about it. Where? That remains to be seen. I have all the confidence in this guy, right here. He’s on the fast track, on the fast track to do some great things. No one can knock his work ethic. For a 6’11” guy, that can do the things that this guy does, is remarkable. He has that burning desire, to not only be a good player, so even as he goes to that next level, he don’t just want to be a good player in the NBA, he wants to be a great player in the NBA. I don’t question anything this guy puts his mind to. The feedback we got was very positive, and so we sat down, and just discussed it. At the end of the day, it was Bobby’s decision, and I think, one thing about it is that, I think, for him, I think he made the right decision.
He’s done some great things here for us, here at the University. Took us some places we hadn’t been in a while. I think he just starting something that’s really going to continue to take place, and when you talk about elite players, having the opportunity to come in, and have a chance to showcase the God gifted talents. He took my word, when I sat there with he and his mom, because there’s a lot of places he could have went. There’s a lot of programs he could have went. He chose the University of Arkansas. In the matter of a year, two years, now he’s had an opportunity to go and live his dream. It’s a big statement in a lot of ways. I’m sure the basketball people out there, the NBA teams, and hopefully, the recruits understand that, you know what – we get it done here at the University of Arkansas. Our kids, they develop. They do it the right way on and off the floor and when they leave here they will be ready, not only for the NBA, but they will be ready for the real world.
Q: What was the tipping point when you decided everything?
Bobby: Last Tuesday me and Coach Anderson sat down and talked about everything. He just laid out two or three scenarios and from there, I kind of ran with it. I sat down and told him then that I thought I was ready to make that next step. I made it last Tuesday.
Q: … How tough a decision was it? … Like Mike said, it was something you had to wrestle with.
Bobby: Man, last night I played this song, “I don’t want to leave, but I got to go right now.” That was cold, though. No, it was a tough decision for me just because growing up in the state of Arkansas and being a native of this state, I felt like I was a great ambassador for our basketball team and for our program, not only for the basketball team, but for the whole, entire Razorbacks. I believe I showed kids that you don’t have to go to Kentucky or Florida just to try to live your dreams. Coach Anderson and his staff gets it done here, too.
Without question, Corliss Williamson had the greatest sophomore season in Arkansas Razorback basketball history. No other Arkansas player may ever match his quad-fecta accomplishment of 1) SEC Player of the Year 2) Second Team All-American 3) National Champion and 4) Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. While knocking out the last two deeds, though, Big Nasty might could have left the door open for his protege, Bobby Portis, to surpass him in junior year greatness.
In the 1994 NCAA championship game against Duke, Williamson broke his left, nonshooting wrist, an injury that wasn’t detected until a month later. This meant Williamson couldn’t lift the weights he’d thrived on since high school. For the first time since fifth grade, he didn’t play full-time in the summer, as sportswriter Paul McMullen wrote in 1995:
Williamson sat at home last summer and got fat. There was a day in his honor in Russellville, Ark., and many Big Nasty Combo Platters at a family restaurant owned by cousins. All those bacon cheeseburgers, fries and sodas added 40 pounds to a 6-foot-7 frame that is at its best when he weighs 245. Even if I didn’t have a cast on my hand, I was going to rest last summer,” said Williamson, who withdrew from the U.S. Goodwill Games team, “but I wasn’t able to develop my game at the pace I wanted. That hindered me a little early in the season…
It showed. In an early season matchup with John Calipari’s Massachusetts, Minuteman forward Lou Roe ate up “Big Nasty” in a 104-80 romp by the Minutemen. Roe had 34 points and 15 rebounds, Williamson 15 and seven. “He had been embarrassed before a national television audience,” McMullen wrote.
In the end, as you see below, Williamson’s junior year numbers slightly decreased from the year before:
This kind of dip is would have been unlikely from Portis, who in terms of individual stats has had the greatest first two seasons season at Arkansas since Williamson, as the numbers below show:
Comparison: Corliss Williamson and Bobby Portis through 34 games in their sophomore seasons (CW’s year ended at 34): pic.twitter.com/JiT2t329kp
Portis has partially matched his long-time mentor by securing an SEC Player of the Year award and second-team All American honors as a sophomore. Williamson’s slow start in 1994-95, combined with the increased double and triple teams he saw, gives Portis a shot at surpassing Big Nasty in terms of junior year production.
Barring injury, the prediction here is Portis likely averages around 19 points and nine rebounds next season. With the addition of a star recruit Jimmy Whitt and Ted Kapita, along with the addition of transfer Dusty Hannahs and development of Anton Beard, he would not face would not have faced as much triple-teaming as a junior as Williamson did.
If Portis soon declares he is returning, If Portis had returned, he would have immediately become a front-runner for numerous 2015-16 national player of the year awards. There are six such major awards, and no Razorback has ever won one. He would also likely battle have likely battled the likes of LSU’s Ben Simmons and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer for a spot on the AP’s first-team All American team – which would be a notch up from Williamson’s junior year repeat of second team.
[OK, by now you get that I originally wrote this before Portis announced his decision to go pro. That should explain the language in the rest of the piece]
I recently examined how good Kentucky’s defense has been this season compared to the best teams in college basketball history. The piece is in SLAM here.
Naturally, the great UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s (winners of 88 straight! Seven straight national championships!) were part of the analysis. And fortunately two of the best Bruins of this era – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes – provided me with some first-hand insight.
I found out that Abdul-Jabbar considered the best UCLA defense he played with to be different from what UCLA’s media guide indicates. Jabbar’s senior team (1968-69) held all of its opponents to an average of 37.4 % field goal shooting and 63.8 points a game. Those numbers were at 38.4% and 67.2 ppg the previous season.
And yet it’s Kareem’s junior year, 1967-68, which he considers the best college defense he played on. He explains:
“That was our most versatile team. The depth and the good athletes made that our best team. The only loss we had was against the University of Houston because I had a sub par game having spent the previous week in the Jules Stein Eye Clinic with an injury. Everyone counted us out until we had the rematch in the NCAA Tournament and beat them by 32 points.
I had kept the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Elvin [Hayes] hanging inside my locker for the rest of the season as a reminder and motivator. Since this was the first loss my UCLA teams experienced I didn’t want it to be a repeat occurrence. It must of worked because I only lost two games during my entire college career.”
I’m not one to argue with an authority like KAJ. It’s very possible the ’68 defense was actually better than ’69 relative to how strong its opponents were. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same kind of strength of schedule metric for teams of this era as we do for more recent teams.
The work around, as I detail in SLAM, is to look at how teams performed purely against Associated Press Top 25 foes. Those specific stats often take work to come by, but they are worth it.
Here are other excerpts from my January interview with Abdul-Jabbar, who recently authored the latest installment of his “StreetBall Crew” series for young adults:
Q: I know many rules have changed since the 1960s, but how do you think that [1967-68] defense would have fared against some of the top teams in modern NCAA basketball?
A) I think we would have been just as dominant as we were in the Sixties. I think the fact that our players had to stay in school and could not jump to the NBA enabled them to learn the game in-depth and the one and done players don’t have that type of complete fundamental preparation.
Q) Do you feel like the best UCLA team you played on would have been athletic enough, overall, to beat a modern elite NCAA team?
A) Modern elite NCAA teams do not feature players who have stayed through their junior and senior years and lack the in-depth competence of a team that has upper classmen. I still think we would have to be considered as one of the best teams that ever played college ball.
Q) On the defensive end, what similarities do you see between the 2014-15 Kentucky team and your best defensive UCLA team? Are there any current Wildcats (or Wildcats on the 2010 or 1996 teams) that remind you of any Bruins on that team (in style of play, physicality or both)?
A) I haven’t seen the Wildcats play recently so I can’t compare them, but I do know that they are dominant team from the way they whipped UCLA and held them to 7 points in a half.
Q) In your opinion, what are the best two or three defensive teams in all of NCAA history?
A) Bill Russell’s 1956 USF team*, John Wooden’s first NCAA championship in 1964 and my UCLA 1968 team are the three best. None of the modern teams would have been able to compete with Bill Russell’s teams or the UCLA teams because they lack the cohesion you get from staying in a program for four years. Bill Russell’s team featured two of the best defensive players that ever played in the NBA, namely Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The 1964 UCLA team was undefeated – need I say more ?