Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cowens and Havlicek: Fire and Water

When people rank all time great Celtics, the first two positions on the list are easy to figure:  Bill Russell and Larry Bird.  These guys were unquestioned in their era as top players in the league, as unrivaled leaders on multi-championship teams, and  they remain unquestioned today as candidates for tops alltime at their positions.  They are gold standard players for both the Celtics and the league.

That's where consensus ends.   Many people seem to put Havlicek next on the list.  That's understandable.   Hondo was a key player in two championship eras.  He was one of the greatest all-around players in the history of the game.  He rules, or once ruled, most Celtics' all-time statistics lists.  Cousy is sometimes rated third on alltime Celtics greats lists.   He was the cornerstone player in  the rise of the Celtics, and he redefined his position, combining flash with passion to spellbind opponents, driving the famous Celtics' fast break, and  helping make the assist a glory statistic in basketball lore.  Paul Pierce often shows up in this third spot too. He was possibly the greatest scorer in Celtics history, and he helped restore Celtics Pride, when it seemed to be dead and buried.

My choice for third greatest alltime Celtic seems to be such an 'outsider' choice that no one else, to my knowledge, even considers it:  Dave Cowens.  In fact,  to me, Cowens is the obvious choice.  Yet for most Celtics fans and commenters, he barely ever makes it onto top five all-time Celtics player lists, and sometimes barely makes it onto top ten lists.  I suppose Bill Simmons is partly to blame for Cowens being underestimated, having pointed to Cowens as one of the few NBA greats who got MVP awards and plainly did not deserve them.  Being dissed by Simmons this way is a distinction on par with becoming famous for being dunked on.  After all a person who gets dunked on is presumably a tenacious defender who pursues a play without fear of being embarrassed.  Still looks bad, though, when you get dunked on.  Similarly, being singled out (nearly) as one of the few players who got an MVP award you didn't deserve (according to Bill Simmons anyway) means you must have had a great season, at worst, to even be in the MVP running, but it still looks bad.

The Seventies Celtics are, generally speaking,  a woefully underappreciated team.  A recent CelticsLife article discusses this at length...
In the fabled history of the Boston Celtics, buried between the long-term dominance of the Russell/Cousy/Jones 11-title era from 1957-69, and the opulent Bird/McHale/Parish epoch of the 1980's lie the frequently forgotten great Celtic teams of 1971-76.  Partly because those Boston squads won "only" two league crowns, they have been banished to the back pages of the Celtic championship tapestry that hung up 16 banners over an unprecedented 30-year span from 1957-86.  Thus by comparison their two titles - despite the fact that most other franchises would consider two crowns in three years, let alone over a decade, a major success and a golden era - come across as somehow underwhelming.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the same article perpetuates the notion that the seventies Celtics were John Havlicek's team...

Taking on the personality of their quiet, self-deprecating superstar John Havlicek, the ironman bridge from the Russell era nearly all the way to the Bird epoch, the 1971-76 Celtics won consistently big in an understated, workmanlike fashion that does not lend itself easily to hype and rehashed heroics. 

 In a way, the seventies Celtics compare best with the Big Three Celtics, because instead of having one dominant great player, you had two players whose importance to the team was nearly equal.   What Cowens and Havlicek were to the Celtics of the seventies, KG and Pierce were to the Big Three Celtics.  Cowens and KG, both big men, were two of the most fiery competitors in the history of the game.  Pierce and Havlicek, by contrast, were two of the coolest competitors in the history of the game.  These two great teams had at their heart an almost mystical marriage of fire and water.  Comparisons can be taken further too.  As players who became coaches, Heinsohn and Doc Rivers are good analogues.  JoJo White and Ray Allen compare well too, as sharpshooting guards who were steady and quiet, workmanlike but smooth.   Still, no one player was the unquestioned leader and best player on those teams the way Bill Russell and Larry Bird were for their respective teams.

Fire and water.  The magical combination of these elements drove the Seventies and Big Three Celtics teams.  This too had an effect on how Havlicek and Cowens came to be percieved, I think, in terms of relative importance.  Cowens often fouled out of iconic games, forcing Havlicek to step up in a big way, something no one did better than Hondo.  For the Seventies Celtics, cool Havlicek threw superstar numbers on the board, without at doubt.  25 - 7 - 7 compares well with Lebron today.  Fiery Cowens, on the other hand, gave you 20 - 16 - 5.  Those are equally superstar numbers.  Think Dwight Howard today, perhaps.  Unfortunately,  Cowens is seen these days, it seems, as having been almost a relic, a holdover from the  NBA's primitive days,  a bruiser.  This is so ludicrous, though, and sad.  For sure, Cowens was a very tough player, a kind of wild man, who played a very physical game, and by the end of his career, pushing people around probably was the biggest part of his game.  That's why he retired.  By the late seventies, repeated injuries to his feet had deprived Cowens of much of his agility and jumping ability.  But when he came into the league, Cowens was a terrific athlete, and his game was built as much around his agility, speed and jumping ability as  his strength.

Far from being a relic, Cowens was a forerunner, who helped redefine Big Man play.  He helped pioneer the kind of versatile play that we expect from bigs today.  Critics probably underrate Cowens because he didn't dominate the center position during an era when centers were expected to dominate, but they are missing the point.  Cowen's didn't look to dominate.  He was ahead of the curve.  His strength was versatility, and he showed this on both ends of the court.  He could bang bodies with the biggest centers in the game, and he could also chase the quickest guards around the court.   Remember watching KG chasing a guard off a pick?  Cowens did that.  He refused to believe that there was anybody on the court - from Tiny Archibald to Kareem Abdul Jabbar - that he couldn't check.  Of course, this approach meant that Cowens, like KG, had to be very intelligent and aware, a real student of the game.  He had to know when to stay home and when to stray.  His defense on the opposing center was the pillar of the team's defense, but the way he attacked opposing backcourts was its edge.

On offense too the key to Cowens' game was versatility.  He had an array of low post moves that  allowed him to torment opposing centers with his quickness.  Cowens' baseline spin remains one of the most effective low-post moves I've seen.  He'd use his power to force the opposing center to plant, and then he'd use his quickness advantage to spin to the baseline for an easy layup.  Next time down he might fake the spin and go the opposite way for a little mid-lane hook.  The Celtics' offense was built around fast break basketball, sparked by Cowen's fierce rebounding and excellent outlet passing, but they did have a halfcourt offense, and that was built around Big Red's post game.  Unlike most centers, though, Cowens didn't just hang around the basket.  He would often trail the fast break, looking to set up at the top of the circle and deliberately drawing the opposing Center out from the basket.   This, in turn, helped unleash Havlicek's slashing and passing game.  Another wrinkle was for Cowens to come out from the low post to an extended elbow position, where he could shoot, or drive, or look to  pass.  You could say he was a point center, at times.

On both ends of the floor, and in between too, Cowens was at the center of nearly everything the Celtics did.  It's no surprise that Cowens went into coaching and had some success with it for a while.  He had a keen understanding of the game of basketball, and a passion for what KG calls the "craft" of basketball.  Cowens was the heart and the soul of the seventies Celtics and he finished out his career by building a bridge to the Bird era.  Had the Ainge Express been around, that would not have been allowed, of course.


  1. This reminds me of the old days on Celtics Title Town, some classic Celtics posts. Thanks for the awesome article.

  2. Thanks Shawn. I thought it was a good insight into the strangely beautiful chemistry between two people at the heart of both the Cowens Celtics and the Big Three Celtics...

  3. I very much liked this article. Cowens, just as Russell had 20 years earlier, redefined the center position; and his was a portent of the highly sought after stretch big man of today.

  4. These were "my Celtics" the teams I watched when I first really understood what basketball was.

    1. What an inspiration they were. They always seemed to be underdogs, but they somehow managed to dominate the league for a four year span.

  5. Lee, it's hard to believe that Cowens seems to be almost dismissed as a bruiser today. He was athletic, and his game was smart, and as you say, he incorporated into his game some of what is considered so revolutionary today, in the rise of the 'stretch four'...