The Impact Player

Dec. 19. 2012

Every fan who has a favorite team has most likely experienced the following feeling. Your club has been way down or just plain mediocre for what seems like a century. Your team drafts a player who you  hope will transform the club into either a playoff team or a contender for the title. Or the team makes a trade or signs a “superstar”  or two as in the case of the Lakers this year with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.  Before he steps on the court, the prospective star player (or players) is subjected to a mountain of comments from fans and “experts” alike about what Player X will do for the club. Expectations are high. And as in the the relatively recent case of European players under contract to overseas clubs,  fans sometimes  have to wait a year or two before the player arrives.

Then the player arrives, people are breathless with anticipation, and the player finally starts getting minutes. Sometimes it’s worth the wait,  other times the player doesn’t pan out, and the dejected fans go through another period of depression waiting for the next savior to arrive and lift the club to the next level or levels.

What the fans are looking for is what is called an “impact player.” A player who arrives and immediately the club is transformed from a bottom-feeder or flounderer in mediocrity to a winner   competing for the championship. Of course, sometimes impact players arrive in the course of a season and take the club to the playoffs or championship. And a curious fact is that there are a number of players who were considered superstars their first year but might not have been true impact players if judged by how well their teams did.

There have been a lot of great players in the NBA, but not all of them immediately transformed their club into title or even playoff contenders. Probably the first major impact player in the NBA was Bill Russell. The Celtics with Bob Cousy were a pretty decent club before Russell arrived but just couldn’t get over the hump. They could score points, but they couldn’t stop other teams from scoring points. Russell changed that immediately.  He was such a defensive force and great rebounder that even though the Celtics didn’t lead the league in defense for about five years after his rookie year ’56-57, the point difference was immediate.

In the previous few years before Russell arrived, the Celtics barely outscored their opponents. Now  with Russell, they outscored them by about five points a game. His great shot-blocking talents were the greatest the game at seen up to that time. Russell was a player who didn’t need much of a transition from college superstar to pro superstar. His impact was instant, and he led the Celtics to the title his rookie year. Curiously enough, he wasn’t  even Rookie Of The Year an award that went to teammate Tom Heinsohn another HOFer. But everyone knew who the key man on  the Celtics was.

In the five years following Russell’s entrance into the league, a number of other impact players arrived transforming their clubs from bad or mediocre to playoff or championship contending teams. Elgin Baylor arrived in Minneapolis  for the ’58-59 season and took the Lakers to the title series despite the team having an under .500 record during the regular season.

Then in 1960-61 Jerry West came to the Lakers, and then they had two bona fide superstars. But  West didn’t have an impact rookie year like Baylor, and the Lakers still finished under .500 that season. Things changed remarkably though in the following years as Baylor and West took the Lakers to a remarkable seven finals. Which they all lost to the same club, Boston. In one of the cruelest of ironies, Baylor, who played in a total of eight finals, never winning the title, retired early during the ’71-72 season.  The Lakers without Baylor proceeded  to win their first title since the George Mikan years.

Oscar Robertson was another of one of the few players in the NBA  who, like Russell, Chamberlain and Baylor,  was an immediate superstar. Robertson’s stats from his rookie season varied little from the incredible stats he averaged for almost ten years. Robertson and West entered the league the same year, 1960, and both were ballyhooed by league publicists who were eager to add new superstars to get the eye of the sports public. But  even  West admitted that it took him five years or more to get close to  Robertson’s level. I place Robertson slightly ahead of West in my all-time rankings, but by their tenth year, it was very close.

Robertson’s problem was that he was playing in the same division as the Celtics, and while his team, The Cincinnati Royals, had a few playoff series where they took Boston to the final game, they could never overcome them. Mostly thanks to Bill Russell for whom Cincy had no adequate response. Robertson was still an impact player because he improved the Royals record dramatically from the previous season. He also made his teammates better. But like Chamberlain, Robertson never had the surrounding cast to seriously challenge the Celtics or the Sixers for supremacy in the eastern conference. Of course Oscar became a huge impact player again when he went to Milwaukee for the ’70-71 season with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar taking the Bucks to the title. Robertson was the key player the Bucks needed to win the championship.

Probably the biggest impact player of all time in terms of what he did on the court and the amount of publicity that followed him before he stepped on a basketball court was Wilt Chamberlain. Many experts and casual fans thought Wilt would be too big for the game. Nobody would be able to stop him, and his teams were expected to win the championship every year. While Wilt’s impact was immediate and immense, it took him eight years to win his first championship.

It was certainly true that no one player could stop Wilt, not even Russell. In Wilt’s rookie year ’59-60 his team, the Philadelphia Warriors, took the Celtics to six games in the eastern conference semis  the final game decided by two points on a last-second basket. In that series Wilt had games of 50 and 42 points against Russell who was considered to be the greatest defensive player in the league. And Wilt was severely injured for two games after being goaded into punching another Celtic player and was barely able to shoot for two games both of which the Warriors lost. .However, according to teammate and fellow HOFer Paul Arizin Philly would never have made it as far as they did without Wilt.  But usually Wilt’s teams were weaker than the Celtics overall, and the Celtics almost always won.  It wasn’t until Wilt played for the 76ers that he had surrounding talent equal to or greater than Russell’s Celtics clubs.

But Chamberlain set scoring and rebounding records that have never come close to being broken. He started out “bigger than life” and remained a superstar even in his last year where near the age of thirty-seven, he led the league in rebounding and took the Lakers to the finals. Wilt was traded to the new Philadelphia 76ers in the middle of the ’64-65 season, and the Sixers came within a whisker of defeating the Celtics for the eastern conference title losing the seventh game in the last seconds. Wilt was again expected to be an impact player when he went from Philly to the Lakers for the ’68-69 season. But again Wilt’s team was foiled by the Celtics who won the final seventh game by two points.  So three times Wilt came within an eyelash of taking his new club to the championship. That would have made Wilt the undisputed,  greatest  impact player of all time.

Other impact players during the sixties included Rick Barry of the Warriors.   He scored more the twenty-five ppg his rookie, ’65-66, and doubled his team’s win total from the previous season. The next year with Nate Thurmond he took his team to the finals where they lost to Chamberlain’s 76ers in six games. It’s another interesting thing to note that the ’64’65 season was Chamberlain’s last year  with the San Francisco Warriors before he was traded in mid-season to Philadelphia. What would Chamberlain, Barry, and Thurmond have done together?

The next great impact player was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who fits perfectly the description of the heralded phenom who takes a struggling bottom-feeder (my Milwaukee Bucks) to the next level. The year previous to the then Lew Alcindor’s arrival in Milwaukee, the Bucks in their first year in the league had only won twenty-seven games.

Alcindor’s rookie season ’69-70  the Bucks won fifty-six games and made it to the eastern division finals where they lost to the Knicks. But the following year with the addition of Oscar Robertson, the Bucks stormed their way to the title drubbing every team that stood in their way.

Alcindor, who changed  his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after his rookie season, was unstoppable on offense and a great defensive player. Robertson gladly subordinated his previous greater role with Cincy in order to let KAJ be the main man. The Bucks won their only title during the KAJ-Robertson years and came within one game of another in ’73-74 Robertson’s last season. They might have won a few more if Robertson had not been plagued by injuries his last three years in the league.

The next major impact player was supposed to have been Bill Walton. Walton’s tragic injury-scarred career has been written about often. But when he was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, like Lew Alcindor some years previous, Walton was expected to take the Blazers to new heights immediately.

However during his rookie year ’74-75 Walton played sparingly suffering what seemed to be  never-ending problems with his feet. The Blazers finished under .500 his first two years, and many people were starting to doubt Walton. His third year ’76-77, despite missing seventeen regular season games, Walton took the Blazers to the championship where they beat the Sixers in six games. Walton looked every inch the great player the experts had forecast him to be. But the next year as the Blazers were cruising to what seemed like another title, Walton injured himself again and never regained the form that made many experts consider him one of the five greatest centers to ever play the game. He did win another title with the ’85-86 Celtics, but he was not the player he once was despite winning sixth man of the year award.

Did Walton qualify as an impact player despite his teams finishing under .500 his first two years?  If the definition of an impact player is immediate improvement in the fortunes of the team, then the answer is no.  Of course, in Walton’s case it can be argued injuries robbed him of that possible accolade. True, but the fact remains it took three years before Walton’s teams reached the upper stratosphere. By the strict standards of immediate improvement, he was not an impact player.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson might be the only instance of two impact players arriving in the same year the ’79-80 season.. West and Robertson were rookies the same year, but it took West another year before he became a superstar. Bird and Johnson were immediate superstars, and Johnson took his team, the Lakers, to the finals where they won the title with Magic giving perhaps the greatest final game performance in league history.

The Lakers with Abdul-Jabbar were  a good club the year before winning 47 games. However with Johnson   the team won 60 games  the next year and the title. The Lakers remained great during Johnson’s career with the Lakers and he led them to five titles.

But Bird’s impact with the Celtics was greater than Johnson’s with the Lakers. The year previous to his arrival in Boston, the Celtics won 29 games. Bird’s rookie year Boston won 61 games. Bird’s next year the Celtics won the title and two more during Bird’s career. Like Johnson, Bird was great from the get-go. But  a very strong Sixers team kept the Celtics from meeting the Lakers in the finals.

As I previously mentioned, both Bird and Johnson were major impact players. It should be noted that both clubs had basically the same cast of players their rookie years as the previous year. But Bird and Johnson were two players who not only had great individual stats, they made the teammates around them better.

Then we get to the next great player who of all the league’s players is considered by many to be the greatest  of all time: Michael Jordan. Like Chamberlain, Jordan was an incredible scorer who could not be stopped (or barely impeded) by any one player in the league. But although Jordan might be considered an immediate superstar, like Chamberlain,  his team (the Chicago Bulls)  did not win a title until later in his career.

So was Jordan and impact player on the level of the Bird, Johnson,  Russell,  etal? Maybe not. Although the Bulls improved their win totals Jordan’s rookie year ’84-85, it took the arrival of Scottie Pippen in the ’87-88 season, Jordan’s fourth year,  before the Bulls finished above .500 winning 50 games. They didn’t win their first title until Jordan’s seventh year in the league. And by that time the great Celtics and Lakers teams of the eighties had been reduced by age and injury.

Does Jordan deserve his mention by many as maybe the greatest player in league history?  Certainly, no argument there. He was the main man on six title teams and probably would have won one or two more if hadn’t quit to try his hand at baseball for a few  years right after they had won three in a row. Then he comes out of retirement and leads the Bulls to three more.  It doesn’t matter that the competition in the  90s was weaker than during the 80s,   Jordan’s achievements were nothing short of incredible.

But here comes the controversial point….. he was not an impact player. At least not on the level of players like Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Johnson, and a few others. Because it took him four years to subjugate his scoring talents and the addition of another great player, Pippen, before the Bulls began their reign  of titles.

Remember the definition of  an impact player is the player who not just  improves his team slightly, he takes his team to the next level or levels. The Bulls did  not finish above .500 Jordan’s  first three years. Of course it can be noted that he was injured his second year and only played 18 games. And he had his incredible 63 point game against the Celtics in the playofffs. Nevertheless, Jordan did not make his teammates better his first three years. A stupendous talent, but not a player who made everyone a better player.

Who was another  impact player  during the eighties rivaling Bird and Johnson? Hakeem Olajuwon fits that description. The year before his rookie year , the Rockets won only 29 games. Olajuwon’s rookie year, ’84-85 the Rockets won 48 and barely lost in the first round of the playoffs. His sophomore year the Rockets got all the way to finals before losing in six games to Bird’s Celtics. And the during the nineties Olajuwon was the main man on two consecutive title winners. Olajuwon immediately turned the fortunes of the Rockets around despite already having an excellent player in Ralph Sampson.

Now we get to the nineties and the debuts of a number of greats like Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan. Although there were other great players during that time, those three are most noteworthy because they’ve led their team to mulitple championships.  But were they all impact players?

Can we call O’Neal impact player? His team, the Orlando Magic, only won 41 games and did not make the playoffs his  rookie year of ’92-93. But the previous year the Magic only won 21 games. So I guess a 100% improvement in games won makes O’Neal an impact player.  And he did take the Magic to the finals his third year.

Then  O’Neal moved on to the Lakers for the ’96-97 season which was Bryant’s rookie season. It took them four years together, and Jordan’s retirement, before the Lakers won the first title with those two as the main men. Together they won three titles. O’Neal moved on to the  Heat after a number of years with the Lakers where he won a fourth title in the ’05-06 season.

Like Jordan and several others, O’Neal and Bryant can justifiably be considered in the top ten of the greatest players in NBA history. Many people think O’Neal is the greatest. But were O’Neal and Bryant impact players with the Lakers? Not really. Their first year together they only won three more games than the previous season.  They were trounced in the western conference semis by the Utah Jazz.  So while they were undeniably great players, only one, O’Neal,  was a true impact player, and that was with Orlando. It took Bryant three years before he was considered an elite player. Of course he entered the league at the tender age of 18 right out of high school.

How about Tim Duncan? Was he a true impact player? Yes, with a qualification. Although t  the Spurs only won 20 games the year before his rookie year ’97-98, that was chiefly because David Robinson only played in 6 games due to injuries. Nevertheless, Duncan’s rookie year the Spurs won 56 games. The next year they won the title in a shortened season. That was the first of four titles Duncan has won with the Spurs. So even though the Spurs already had a superstar with Robinson, Duncan took the Spurs to the next level his second year winning the ultimate. At the age of 36 Duncan remains one of the best players in the league.

How about the first decade of the new century. Of the great players who debuted that decade, who were the impact players? Was Lebron James an impact player? I’d have to say yes. While the Cavaliers didn’t finish above .500 his rookie year ’03-04, they doubled their win total from the previous year. Without a doubt, James made a huge difference immediately in the fortunes of Cleveland.  He improved the win total of the Cavaliers every year for his first five years with the team. He eventually took a Cleveland team with no great talent other than himself to the finals in ’06-07 losing to the Spurs.

And James can be considered a double-impact player because there’s no way Miami would have gone to two finals winning the title last year even with super players like Wade and Chris Bosh on the club.

Now we get to another kind of impact player:  In this situation we have some players who weren’t impact players when they were rookies, but reversed the fortunes of the teams they were traded to. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash are examples of these kinds of players. Neither were outstanding players as rookies. Nash didn’t actually start having superior seasons until almost his fifth year in the league. Kidd had a better early career than Nash, but his teams his first several years didn’t do very well.

But when Kidd and Nash were traded to different clubs after they both had played five or more years, they turned those teams around. They became impact players. When Kidd went from Phoenix to New Jersey for the ’01-02 season, the Nets won 52 games as compared to 29 the year before and went to the finals. Kidd took the Nets to two finals in a row. Nash left Dallas for Phoenix for the ’04-05 season and more than doubled the win total for the Suns. In the case of a player like Nash, although he had excellent stats, it’s players like him who make other players better proving their that stats alone don’t make great ballplayers. Ditto for Kidd who actually had a lower PER than the player he replaced as point guard for the Nets, Stephon Marbury. Marbury didn’t know what it took to make his team win…. Kidd knew how.

I should reiterate that impact players improve a club that has basically most of the same players as the season before when they did poorly. How about certain HOFer Dirk Nowitzki? Was Dirk an impact player? No. Dirk has taken Dallas to two finals winning one in ’11, but he was not an impact player. It took Nowitzki a few seasons before he helped turn Dallas into a title-contending team.  His rookie year Nowitzki didn’t do much of anything.

What about Dwyane Wade? Impact player? Not exactly. Close. But not by the strictest standards. Because although the Heat improved dramatically Wade’s rookie year from the previous year, he was not the main man. He would shortly be the main man and one of the league’s greatest players, but he was not an impact player his rookie year.

So we can see impact players can be judged by two different standards. One can be a rookie who immediately improves the team (Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Johnson)  taking it to the next level, or it can be a player who has a relatively modest career before they go to a different  team and take the team to the next level (Nash, Kidd).

We can also notice sort of a reverse impact when a player leaves a team and they founder. The impact of Oscar Robertson was immediately felt by the Bucks the year after he retired when they went from coming within one game of winning the title in ’74 to not even winning fifty percent of their games the next year. That despite still having one of the game’s greatest players in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When Lebron James left Cleveland for Miami, the Cavaliers fortunes dipped precipitously.

So what conclusion can I draw from all this keeping in mind that many fans judge impact players from what they do their rookie years.  It’s that people should be a little patient with new players, especially rookies, and not expect great things their first seasons. Some would-be impact players take time to improve and get to the level where their talents mesh well with the club they’re playing for. I should also add that of course many great players not considered impact players as rookies (Jordan,  Wade, Bryant) would obviously have been that if going  to  another team after they achieved their high level of play.

As I mentioned previously  we now  have the situation of many clubs drafting European players, some  who cannot play for their NBA teams for years  due to contractual obligations. Many of these Euro players were eagerly awaited by the NBA clubs that drafted them. One such player is Ricky Rubio. When the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Rubio two years before his rookie year of last season,  few NBA fans had seen him play or even heard of him. And many people doubted his ability after he’d played mediocre ball for his Spanish League team his last two years with them.

But Rubio’s rookie year he turned the fortunes of the team around to the point where they were headed to a possible playoff spot after winning only 15 and 17 games the previous two years. Before Rubio got injured in April, it looked like the Wolves might make the playoffs. Without Rubio the rest of the season, the Wolves fortunes dropped like a rock. Rubio was a true impact player overcoming doubts about his ability and making his team and teammates better.

So this season there are a number of rookies and veterans who were considered impact players. Anthony Davis for New Orleans is maybe the most touted rookie since Lebron James and is  considered to be a strong possibility as an impact player. And although he was hurt for several weeks, he might yet take the Hornets to another level. Nash and Dwight Howard (the latter thought to be the most dominant center in the league) are now playing for the Lakers, and many people thought with Kobe Bryant they would steamroller the rest of the league. It hasn’t turned out that way. Neither Nash (who has been hurt virtually the entire season so far) nor Howard have made the Lakers invincible. In fact, the Lakers are playing sub-.500 at this juncture. And rookies should be given the benefit of playing out their rookie years before making judgments.


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