Bernard King was ahead of his time
There's a certain irony to Bernard King's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
King made his impact on the NBA during the 1980s, but he enters basketball immortality during an era and climate that would have been better suited for his game.
The former New York Knicks and Washington Bullets forward built his career and game -- even prided himself -- off of being efficient. With today's NBA moving toward metric analysis and a heavy emphasis on player and shot efficiency, King would have fit right in.
As Bradford Doolittle noted, King shot 53.5 percent from the field in his first 10 seasons in the league despite using 26.7 percent of his team's possessions. Among small forwards who played during King's seasons, he ranked 10th in true shooting percentage (56.1) and fifth in effective field goal percentage (51.9), which puts him alongside other Hall of Famers such as Larry Bird, James Worthy, Adrian Dantley and Chris Mullin.
King deflected questions about what could have been, but it's hard not to think about how many years of his career may have been saved had today's medical technology been available to repair the horrific knee injury he suffered midway through the 1984-85 season. Entering the 2013-14 season alone, we'll see returns by superstars such as Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Russell Westbrook (torn meniscus), who both suffered knee injuries but should return fully healthy.
What those new metrics can do, though, is give us a glimpse at King's career had the injuries never occurred. King's star was still rising when he tore his ACL, and at age 28, he was just hitting his prime. Doolittle's ATH projection system (based on athletic indicators, trait-matching and aging curves) and Basketball-Reference.com, gives us a rough idea of how King's seasons could have gone had he not suffered the knee injury:
These new career totals place King second among all forwards in scoring with 27,885 career points, just behind Karl Malone (36,928) and ahead of Alex English (25,613).
"The key was his preparation," said former Knicks coach and ESPN analyst Hubie Brown. "Already in college he was the greatest practice player in the history of Tennessee basketball. He carried that work ethic over to the NBA. His game was 20 feet and down, and he got it to perfection."
Part of that preparation included practicing thousands of shots from what King called his "sweet spots." In the half court, he identified three points along the baseline out to the sideline, then extended an imaginary line from a halfway point up the lane to the sideline with three more, then three more extended from the foul line to the sideline. He did the same on the other side of the lane.
They'd be bringing the ball up and Hubie [Brown] would ask which play we should run, and I'd say, 'Give it to B.' He'd ask me again, and I'd say 'Give it to B.' That was the system we ran." -- Former Knicks assistant Rick Pitino
Within the lane he identified four spots from the rim to the top of the key. These 22 spots, all within 18 feet of the basket, created a matrix of areas from which he felt supremely confident he could score. If a team tried to deny him the ball on offense, he would move from one sweet spot to another.
"I was not the most creative player," King said. "I thought the game out. I was an analytical player. So I developed this and that's how I shot over 50 percent for my career. That's efficiency."
Brown, who coached King in his prime, said everything he tried on offense was an attempt to get King to those high-percentage shots.
"Bernard was a great team player," Brown said. "We had a number of sets and plays within those sets just to get him those high-percentage shots. We had all kinds of plays for him. But he was the catalyst to our offense."
Fellow 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Rick Pitino was an assistant to Brown from 1983-85 and recalled how dominant King was in the Knicks' offensive scheme.
"They'd be bringing the ball up and Hubie would ask which play we should run, and I'd say, 'Give it to B,'" Pitino joked. "He'd ask me again, and I'd say 'Give it to B.' That was the system we ran."
That domination and efficiency was illustrated in King's back-to-back 50-point games in 1984 against the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, in which King shot 40-of-58 (69 percent) from the field.
Former Knicks teammate Bill Cartwright, who had a 58.8 career true shooting percentage himself, said what made King unique was his ability to score inside, outside or in transition. His blend of speed and size made him a matchup nightmare.
"He was an unorthodox player," Cartwright said. "Not only did he shoot on the way up, but he was fast enough to beat bigger guys on the low block – he'd just dribble right around them. Against smaller guys he'd just back them down or shoot right over them. But it was in transition that he did the most damage."
Brown compared King's speed on the wing during fast breaks with Julius Erving, LeBron James, Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins among small forwards. Indeed, King's swooping approach and violent, explosive launch made him one of the most effective finishers of his era.
"It was all about body control," Brown said. "He had such great body control, so when he drove, he knew how he'd score or find contact and draw the foul. You watch LeBron James these days and you see the same thing. LeBron knows how to evade the offensive charge. So did Bernard."
That dominating transition game, as well as a highly effective spin move off the low block (one of his sweet spots) and great court awareness, helped King maintain efficient production while still using nearly three-tenths of his team's possessions. And he could still get his teammates involved.
"He had the ability to see what all five positions were doing. That's how he could handle double- and triple-teams, because he knew where everyone would be," Brown said. "He knew how to create space for the high-percentage shot or find the guy who was open."
When he did take his own shot, it was usually a good one.
"Let's say you take 10 shots. I would rather shoot 60 percent from short 2-point range instead of 30 percent from 3-point range," King said. "With a shooter, you can take him out of the game by denying him the ball. But you're not going to stop a scorer if he knows how to score points. However, he can draw the defense to leave my spot-up shooter open. I would rather build a team around those elements than just a shooter."