National Championship from 1999. 8 future NBA players in this one: Most notably Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Corey Maggette and Richard Hamilton,
You may hear otherwise, but Knuckleheads is the best basketball podcast around right now (no disrespect to Let’s Get Technical or All The Smoke). Hosted by Chicago native Quentin Richardson and East St. Louis native, Darius Miles, the pod almost feels like an homage to Illinois– and more specifically, Chicago–basketball. The name of the pod stems from the duo’s signature on court celebration of putting two fists against the top of the dome after a highlight worthy play when they were teammates on the upstart Los Angeles Clippers in the early 2000’s.
The podcast doesn’t focus strictly on Chicago ballers, past and present. A lot of guests tend to be former players you may have forgotten about already, or former teammates of Q and D. No matter who the guest, there are a few underlying threads throughout each pod. Many guests refer to their experiences playing pickup runs in Chicago during the off season. Not many episodes are complete until there is a Michael Jordan story (whose effect on Chicago basketball is only rivaled by hometown hero, Isiah Thomas).
Chicago ball isn’t as publicly heralded as North Carolina, New York, or Los Angeles, but for the hardcore hoops fan, there are more than enough names to turn ones head and give the Windy City its due.
PG Isiah Thomas HOF 2 time NBA Champion, 1989 NBA Finals MVP, 1 Time NCAA Champion
F Eddie Johnson Sixth Man Award Winner, Averaged 16 pts a game
F Hersey Hawkins One Time All Star, Averaged 14.7 points a game
PG Mo Cheeks HOF 4 Time All Star, 1983 NBA Champion
PG Doc Rivers 1 Time All Star, 1 NBA Title as a Head Coach
PF Terry Cummings 2 Time All Star, 1982 Rookie of Year, Avg. 16.4 pts a game
F Mark Aguirre 3 Time All Star, 2 Time NBA Champion, Avg. 20 pts a game
PG Tim Hardaway 17 pts 8.2 assist, 5 times All Star
SG Kendall Gill Avg. 13.4 pts a game
PF Juwan Howard 2 X NBA champ, 13.4 pts a game, 6 rebounds 1 Time All Star
SF Michael Finley 2 Time All Star 2007 NBA Champ 15.7 pts, 4.4. assists
SG Nick Anderson 14.4 pts game, 5 rebounds, 13 years
SG Quentin Richardson 12 seasons 10 points a game, 4.7 rebounds
PG Sherron Collins NCAA Champion 2008 13 pts a game
PG Patrick Beverley 3 X all Defensive team 10 seasons
SG Dwyane Wade 22 pts. 13 All Star 4.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 3 time NBA champ, ’06 Finals MVP
PF Antoine Walker 3 Time All Star, 7.7rebounds , 17 pts a game, ’06 NBA champ
SF Corey Maggette 16 pts, 4.9 rebounds, 12 seasons
SG Tony Allen 6 Time All Defensive team, 2008 NBA champion
PF Anthony Davis 8 Time All Star, 23.9 points a game, 10.2 rebounds 2 Time Olympian
PG Derrick Rose 3 Time All Star 18.5 pts, 2011 MVP
PG Iman Shumpert 2016 NBA champ 10 seasons
PG Will Bynum Georgia Tech high flyer Averaged 9 pts in NCAA
PG Bobby Simmons DePaul Seven NBA Seasons
God ShammGod. Austin Crochere. Jamel Thomas. Derrick Brown
Since 1999, only ten different franchises have won NBA titles. Dynasties are sexy, but there is a large segment of NBA fans who love underdogs. While dynasties steer the NBA’s marketing success, there are occasions where collections of scrappy role players provide the perfect support for unheralded and underappreciated All-Stars to go on memorable post season runs, and lift up the Larry O’Brien trophy. This chapter celebrates my favorite collection of said teams from the past 20 years.
2004 Detroit Pistons
Head Coach: Larry Brown
Starters: Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince
Role Players: Darvin Ham, Mike James, Lindsey Hunter, Corliss Williamson, Elden Campbell, Antonio McDyess
One of the best defensive teams of all time. Going into the NBA Finals as underdogs, the Pistons snuffed out the Kobe and Shaq era Lakers last gasp, a vet team featuring the aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Many thought this was a wrap before the series even started. Outside of the late great Ralph Wiley, most media didn’t even think it’d be much of a series. Turns out they were right, but things didn’t go the way they thought it would. The Lakers were a Kobe Bryant desperation heave from getting swept in four games. After beating the back-to-back Eastern champion Nets (remember them?) in the second round, a Tayshaun Prince block on Reggie Miller turned their playoff run into something that felt destined.
Most of the scoring brunt was taken upon by Sheed, Hamilton and Billups, who got buckets when they needed. The ’04 Pistons squeezed the life out of opponents on the defensive end and won by being efficient on the offensive end. They had a long, and physical front line, and Hamilton, Hunter and Billups guarded the perimeter (although 3’s weren’t quite as formidable of a weapon as in today’s NBA). Billups ran the offense with precision, getting the ball to people in the spots they needed to score. Ben Wallace was on his way to being the best defensive player in the league, controlling the block and the boards. Rasheed Wallace was a mismatch for any power forward who dared to check him. Too quick for bigs and too big for smaller forwards; his outside shot forced big men to play him close. Sheed embarrassed a lot of guys at his peak. Their bench players provided big minutes in Ham, Hunter, and Corliss Williamson. Somehow they just got it done. If you looked at the lineups, you wondered how they would get enough points to win, but somehow they always did. Eventually their entire starting lineup would make All-Star teams for the east, and could’ve conceivably been a dynasty had they drafted anyone but Darko Milicic. But for the blue collar fanbase of the Pistons, this was the perfect team, winning through grit and defense. No flash, but all substance.
They put on a defensive clinic in the NBA Finals, employing the strategy to allow Ben Wallace to guard Shaquille O’Neal one on one and harass Kobe Bryant into taking ill advised shots against double and triple teams of defenders. The strategy worked as Kobe declined to pass to Shaquille and with an ailing Gary Payton and Karl Malone, the Lakers did not have a third scorer to counter this strategy.
2008 Boston Celtics
Head Coach: Doc Rivers
Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
Bench: Glen Davis, Scot Pollard, Sam Cassell, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Leon Powe, James Posey, PJ Brown
Some believe this is the first super team to be created in the Free Agency era, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce joining forces, but all three players careers had already plateaued. Neither player were strong enough to carry their teams to the Finals by themselves so sacrificing numbers wasn’t a big issue for anyone. Garnett embraced his role as the defensive captain hitting outside jumpers whenever he was open, but he mostly focused on leading the defense and hitting the boards. Paul Pierce put up his 15-20 shots, while Ray Allen (who may have had the biggest adjustment) only showed glimpses of his Jesus Shuttlesworth persona.
Their supporting cast was as strong as any championship team you’d ever see. James Posey, Leon Powe, P.J. Brown, Kendrick Perkins, and Tony Allen provided the muscle on the defensive end. Rajon Rondo was still a young pup, but proved he was capable of running an offense. Eddie House, Sam Cassell and Brian Scalabrine helped spread the floor with their outside shooting. The Celtics came up in a vacuum between the Pistons descent, and the ascent of Lebron’s dominance. This was a team perfectly constructed for a playoff run with a healthy balance of young legs (Powe, Rondo, House, Kendrick Perkins, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and Tony Allen), veteran leadership (PJ Brown, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, Scot Pollard) and championship experience (Sam Cassell, James Posey)
Doc Rivers had a very strong coaching staff with future Head Coach and defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau.
To get to the chip and hoist that trophy, the C’s had to get through the reigning Detroit Pistons who’d been to four straight Eastern Conference Finals, a talented, but still emerging, Lebron James who’d just been to the Finals the year before, and a Kobe Bryant led Lakers who were on their first of three Finals trips with a Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum front line. Although the Celtics would make it back to the Finals again in 2010, that team didn’t have the depth and balance that the 2008 roster displayed.
2011 Dallas Mavericks
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle (Terry Stotts, Dwane Casey, Darrell Armstrong were assistant coaches on that staff)
Starters: Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic
Role Players: Corey Brewer, Deshawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Brian Cardinal, Ian Mahinmi
The 2010-2011 season created a power vacuum. The initial blowback from the infamous “Decision” created an easy villain in the Lebron James /Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh triumvirate in Miami and some of the usual vitriol reserved for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers was redirected in the direction of south Beach. Unlike the ’08 Celtics who’d acquired an aging Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the twilights of their careers, the Heat assembled a core of rising superstars who still had strong seasons on the horizon (it was basically like the Heat had somehow gotten three top ten picks in the 2003 lottery draft). The Mavericks, however; were third in the western conference behind the Lakers and the Spurs.
In hindsight, perhaps the West was more wide open than it appeared at the time. Although the Lakers had been to three straight NBA finals, and were poised for a three peat, looking back, things seemed to have been fracturing at the time– due to some internal strife and disgruntled big men.
The Dallas Mavericks would not only upend any chance of a media dream matchup of a Kobe and Lebron NBA Finals, but then would vanquish the “mighty” Heat in 6 games to undermine Lebron’s predictions of “not one, not two, not three,” prediction of consecutive titles at the gaudy South Beach press conference upon he and Chris Bosh’s signing with the team.
The Mavericks opened their 2011 playoff campaign with a wildly entertaining series with the Portland Trailblazers( Shout out to the Brandon Roy game 4); beating them in 6 games. Then they ruined the network wet dream of a possible Kobe-Lebron NBA Finals by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in spectacular fashion, as the defending champs folded like lawn furniture after going down 3-0 in the series. Then they embarked on a gentleman’s sweep of the upcoming RUNOKC Thunder, coming back from 15 pts down in games 4 and 5, to snuff out the upstart Thunder’s building momentum. The NBA Finals had more than a few subplots, with Dirk trying to get the playoff monkey off his back, the first super DUPER team put together in the league, and Lebron himself having a playoff monkey of his own to shake.
The Mavericks, historically known for being a team full of finesse players, had the perfect mix of grit, basketball I.Q. and great coaching. Even with the loss of Caron Butler (Tuff Juice) in the regular season, the Mavs had a great defensive presence in Tyson Chandler (the defensive captain), Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Corey Brewer. Jason Kidd had seen better days on the defensive end of the court, but his I.Q. made up for whatever physical limitations he had at this point in his career.
Dirk consistently hit big buckets after big buckets whenever it counted the most, but he had help with perimeter scoring from J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Peja Stojakovic. Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi provided big minutes when called upon as well. This was the ultimate team of role players, where on paper, there wasn’t much flash, but their collective substance led them to a title. A lot of teams had bigger stars, but Dallas had a group of savvy veterans with high basketball I.Q’s who played well within their defined roles. Defensive captain, Tyson Chandler cleaned up any offensive penetration that resulted from perimeter leaks. Marion and Corey Brewer and Stevenson locked down the wings, and Marion and Chandler cleaned up on the boards (not to mention one of the league’s best rebounding guards in history with Jason Kidd). The defining moment of the series came with five minutes left in game 2 of the Finals with the Mavericks down by double digits with 5 minutes left and the Heat up a game already. The Mavs embarked on a huge comeback; punctuated by a Dirk off-hand layup to take the lead with 3.6 seconds left. With 6:20 left in the 4th, the Mavericks were down by 15 and ended the game on a 17-2 run. The Mavericks would go on to win the highly contested series in 6 games. When Lebron detractors argue why he can never be as good as Michael Jordan, they typically point to this NBA Finals as their closing argument.
2019 Toronto Raptors
Head Coach: Nick Nurse
Starters: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Role Players: Fred Van Fleet, Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, Marc Gasol
One of the more interesting playoff runs we’ve seen in a long time. The conventional narrative will forever be that Kawhi Leonard carried the team throughout the post-season (he will forever be remembered for his series ending shot that sent the 76ers packing and made a 7’2 Cameroon giant crying home), but no player has ever carried a team to a title by himself. A different player stepped up every night to contribute on the offensive end to help supplement Leonard’s scoring. One night it would be Gasol, the next night Siakam and Green, Fred Van Fleet (after the birth of his son) chipped in 3 point shots on a nightly basis off the bench, and Kyle Lowry was able to shed the ghosts of playoffs past and get buckets whenever the team needed him to score.
Down the road, I can see history glossing over the fact that this team was loaded with All NBA defenders. The Milwaukee Bucks that season were one of the highest scoring teams that season and Toronto was able to hold them below their scoring average. Against the hobbled the Golden State Warriors, Van Fleet and Lowry were able to hound Steph Curry into some uncharacteristically bad shooting nights. The front line won their nightly matchups against the Warriors in the Finals; trotting out bigs, Siakim, Ibaka, and Gasol (Ibaka and Gasol both former all NBA defenders) with Danny Green and Lowry both known for their defensive prowess on the perimeter.
Kawhi will get the credit for this team winning this title–as he should, he was their closer whenever they needed key basket–but he certainly had a lot of help from the collective.
What I found most compelling about 80’s Celtics vs Lakers were the incredible passes on both ends of the court by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. I became more enamored with making flashy passes than I was with scoring the basketball (or just as much). I find more joy in setting someone up for a bucket than to get one on my own. It wasn’t until I started playing religiously that I realized how much players enjoyed playing with teammates who liked to share the ball. I could always find someone to pick me up for a run because they knew I’d give up the ball and didn’t care if I scored a single point. The following is a list of all my favorite passing big men to play the game, past and present. We’ll start out with the honorable mention and move on to my favorites.
Brad Miller and Vlade Divac both benefitted from Rick Adelman’s offensive system in Sacramento. Vlade with his excellent post passing and Brad Miller 6’10 made him great passer out of the high post.
Julian Wright was one of the best passing big man I’ve ever seen in the college game. He could make the dazzling play, but turn around a make a simple play into a turnover. His highlights include Kansas-Florida in 2006 and any game where he faced Texas. It was a shame he couldn’t last in the NBA, because he was an entertaining player–incredible dunker and athletic, his passes had heat on them.
These two Knicks legends, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, were so known for their bruising defense that most fans overlooked that they were incredibly deft passers in a system that was not very sophisticated.
Arvydas Sabonis‘ NBA numbers don’t reflect how great of a passer he was. He came to the league late into his career and played before the age of social media and the explosion of the internet. You had to be there. Seeing him play changed how I imagined the game could be played. He had incredible touch on his entry passes and his large hands hid the ball as he whipped passes into the interior or behind his head.
Chris Webber (C-Webb) 4.2 Assists Career avg. Career high 5.5 Assists (2004-2005)
Known more for his high flying dunks and scintillating post play, C-Webb’s passed with the flair of a flashy point guard; dishing out assists with pizazz. His great big paws made it easy for Webber to perform wizardry with the ball. Webber threw countless beautiful behind the back, no look passes. He was equally as great at finding the open man from along the perimeter, as he was passing from the high post and in the post. His best assist numbers came during his years as a Sacramento King, playing in Rick Adelman’s motion offense. Running the high-low with Vlade Divac, and a dearth of perimeter shooters on the floor at all times, the early 2000’s Kings were often considered the height of beautiful and fun basketball.
Bill Walton (Big Red) 3.4 assists Career avg. Career high 5.0 (1977-1978)
Many think Walton is one of the best passing big men of all time. Highlights of his peak years are grainy, but he had some gorgeous passes from the high post and perfected the touch pass as a way of catching defenders off guard.
(Big Fundamental, Timmy Time Machine, Old Man Riverwalk) Career avg. 3.0 assists Career high 3.9 (2002-2003)
There is a reason why Tim Duncan was called the Big Fundamental. There was not one aspect of the game that he did not excel at. His outlet passes were a thing of beauty–they always were the perfect spin or speed for the occasion. Blessed with superb court vision, Duncan threw passes to where a player was going to be–like a quarterback leading a wide receiver. In his early years, he perfected passing out of the high post to other big men including Hall of Famer David Robinson. Near the end of his career, he was throwing alley oops to
future Clipper great Kawhi Leonard. There are even clips of Duncan running the fast break and embarrassing young players who doubted his handles (shout out to a young Lebron James).
Larry Bird (Larry Legend, Hick from French Lick) 6.3 career assists, Career high 7.6 (1986-1987)
Watching Larry Bird is where I learned to perfect the no look, over the head, post pass. Bird was also a master of the touch pass off a rebound carom. Larry’s game was pure spectacle and his passes were highlight worthy. You could get lost watching old footage just by typing the words, Larry Bird, passing clinic.
Joakim Noah (Jo) 2.8 assists Career avg. 5.4 career high (2013-2014)
It is hard to believe Noah played 13 seasons in the league. It felt like his career reached a grinding halt after playing for known hard ass Tom Thibodeau. At his zenith, he was the best passing big man in the league– in addition to being a defensive player of the year candidate, year in and out. In 2013 -2014 when he averaged his most assists for a season, it seemed like he was on Sportscenter every other night with a highlight worthy pass.
Nikola Jokic (the Joker) 6.0 Career assists, 8.3 Career high (2020-2021)
Two words: Basketball savant. Plays with the pizazz of a mixtape player on the playground. Not only can make a pass from anywhere on the court, but also great handles for any player–especially a big man. He reminds me of Arvydas Sabonis, but with handles. His doughy frames only adds to his likeability, as he reminds me of a guy you happen to pick up during a run and you realize he’s the most fun player you’ve ever played with; pointing to each other after every assist while you win game after game, after game.
Boris Diaw (French Magician, Bobo, The Big Croissant) 3.5 career assists, 6.2 career high (2005-2006)
Boris’ big frame, incredibly high basketball I.Q. and great court vision made him an excellent player. Diaw was one of the best skilled big men of his era and one of the best French players of all time. Playing at the 3 and the 4, Diaw had decent handles and made excellent entry passes. He could pass from the perimeter, the high post and the interior. His passing was the difference maker in the 2014 NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs providing another ball handler and shot creator that the opposing Miami Heat had to worry about. Legend has it that Magic Johnson was his favorite basketball player growing up, and that Diaw’s mother taught Boris that being a good passer would entice older players to let him join their pickup games.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found social distancing. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org
“I watch them play and I’m taken back in time
To the heat and smell of the sunbaked asphalt
of playgrounds and youthful competition that for all
of us marked the beginning of our careers, when there
was not a care in the world except the ball back-spinning
into the net and girls watching us from behind the net.“
I love basketball so much and miss playing it more than I miss watching it. Right now we’re in the most contentious period this country has faced since the Civil War and watching or even writing about basketball seems frivolous and gigantic waste of energy. With the spread of COVID and an anti-Black war going on, my brain power is best suited to be focused on more urgent matters. We’ll see what the future holds for us as a society, but unfortunately, the world we knew may no longer exist after this is all said and done. If anyone still cares in five or ten years, maybe this project will be completed. If not, well, we had a lot of fun didn’t we? Stay safe out there.