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In A Star-Dominated Sport, There’s Still A Place For Unselfish Basketball

“Those Knicks teams — the ’69-’70 team, the ’72-73 team — when you talk to basketball purists about the greatest teams they’ve ever seen, that little era always comes up,” a radio voice intones early in Michael Rapaport’s “When The Garden Was Eden,” a “30 for 30” film debuting on ESPN Tuesday. “That’s the way you’re supposed to play basketball.”

Speaking as a card-carrying basketball purist (or at least a basketball history nut), he’s right — particularly on that last point. The Knicks of that era rank highly among the all-time great NBA teams, but not at the very top. Instead, where they really stand out is in how they won.

The 1969-70 New York Knicks, who won the first of the franchise’s only two championships, consistently rank among the most dominant regular-season teams in NBA history, especially relative to the spread of talent in the league at that time. After adjusting for strength of schedule, their per-game point differential was +8.4 (17th all-time); it also outpaced the second-place Milwaukee Bucks that year by 4.2 points per game, the sixth-biggest gap ever between the league leader and runner-up. That was a big part of why the Knicks’ schedule-adjusted scoring margin was 2.4 standard deviations better than the average team’s in 1969-70 — the second-best such mark ever.

The 1969-70 Knicks struggled on the road in the playoffs and were taken the distance twice in the span of three series. But the team’s playoff run — which saw New York outlast the Baltimore Bullets (led by future Knick Earl Monroe), overpower a rookie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Milwaukee Bucks, and survive the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-game NBA Finals classic — also ranks among the 50 or so best ever, after taking into account whom they had to beat.

And the 1972-73 Knicks did even better in the postseason after adjusting for their road to the championship. When I listed the most dominating playoff performances ever back in 2010, that team ranked 11th all-time. With the exception of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, it’s unlikely that it has been supplanted by more recent champions. En route to the title, New York beat the Baltimore Bullets (+2.9 schedule-adjusted PPG differential) in five games, the Boston Celtics (+7.4) in seven, and the Los Angeles Lakers (an NBA-best +8.2) in five — just about the toughest path any team has ever gone through to win an NBA championship.

But bottom-line results are only half the equation when aficionados rave about the Knicks of the early 1970s. Perhaps an even bigger factor is how the team achieved its success, with a reputation for playing one the most unselfish, pass-friendly styles in basketball history.

This isn’t gauzy, New York-media-baked myth-making. Among historical NBA champions, the 1972-73 Knicks rank 14th in assist percentage (the ratio of made baskets that were assisted) relative to league average. And, more importantly, they had the most balanced distribution of shot attempts among their starting five players of any championship team ever. During the 1973 playoffs, their leading scorer (the incomparable Walt Frazier) took 20.8 percent of the team’s shots when on the floor, while the fifth-ranked shooter among its starters (Bill Bradley) took 18.7 percent. By comparison, the 1992 Chicago Bulls’ leader — Michael Jordan — took 37 percent of that team’s shots when on the floor, while Bill Cartwright took 11 percent. (Coincidentally, that Bulls team was coached by early-’70s Knicks forward Phil Jackson.)

My research shows that most NBA champs are more like Michael and the Jordanaires than Frazier, Bradley, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed. Historically, teams with an uneven distribution of the offensive workload — particularly with regard to the difference between their top two scoring options and the rest of the starting five — tend to win championships at a much higher rate than teams that spread their shots around more equally.

That they bucked this trend is probably the lasting legacy of the Red Holzman-coached Knicks. In a sport dominated by singular scorers like Jordan (usually with good reason), New York showed that there’s also a place for unselfish, collectivist basketball in the circle of NBA champions. And as my colleagues Ben Morris and Rafe Bartholomew have noted, the San Antonio Spurs (winners of the 2014 NBA championship) have carried the torch for this phenomenon in recent years.

With the 2014-15 NBA season tipping off next week, the Knicks are unlikely to add a third championship banner to Madison Square Garden’s rafters. But Rapaport’s film will recall fond memories of a time when basketball-crazed New York City was the center of the sport’s universe.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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