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NBA Top 150 – 140 thru 137

140) Latrell Sprewell – 6′ 5″ SG/SF from 1992 – 2005…Yes, he who chokes his coach and calls $7m/yr not enough to live on and feed a family is still eligible for the Top 150 – this list is about basketball, not character. A late 1st round selection out of Alabama by Don Nelson and the Warriors in 1992, Spree immediately served notice that he was, at the least, a draft day bargain during a rookie campaign that saw him average 15.4 pts, 3.5 rebs, and 3.8 asst a game. The next year he served noticed that he was an outright steal, making 1st team all-NBA while playing in all 82 games, at 43 minutes per, and averaging 21.0 pts, 4.9 rebs, 4.7 asst, 2.2 stls, .9 blks, and 1.7 threes, while also making 2nd team all-defense. Of course, he would have been 2nd team all-NBA if Jordan wasn’t playing Double A baseball at the time. But nonetheless, with him as a 2nd year guy and C-Webb as a rookie, things were looking good for hoops in Northern California in the mid-90’s…until Webber very quickly grew tired of Nelson (a shame, he was perfect for Nellie’s style), and suddenly Spree was running up and down the floor with Tom Gugliotta, and not one of the all-time PFs in NBA history. Latrell did manage three more seasons of at least 20 pts/gm, peaking at 24.2 pts and 6.3 asst in 1996-97, the season prior to choking P.J. Carlesimo. He came back after that rest-of-season suspension in 1997-98 (68 games) to have 6 more very productive years in the league, including leading the Knicks to an 8 seed upset over 1 seed Miami in the 1999 playoffs and eventually to the NBA Finals, as well as teaming with KG and Sam Cassell to lead the T-Wolves to the 2004 Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the Lakers. Spree was a great athlete, intense competitor, and complete ball player, as evidenced by 4 all-star game appearances and career averages of 18.3 pts, 4.1 rebs, 4 asst, and 1.4 stls (#42 all-time). A fearless penetrator, three times he averaged at least 5 made free throws a game in his career. He had no problems stepping up his game in the playoffs either, averaging 19.7 and 4.3 rebs in 62 career postseason encounters. Unfortunately, he was also a mean, angry, ornery guy, who has had nothing but financial troubles since declining that $7m/yr salary in 2005 (which ended his career rather abruptly). He has since had a yacht repossessed, two homes foreclosed upon, and owes Wisconsin roughly $3.5m in back taxes.

139) Arvydas Sabonis – 7′ 3″ C from 1995 – 2003…Forget Dirk, Peja, Drazen, Pau, or any other Euro import to the league…here is likely the greatest player to ever play in the NBA from Europe. Unfortunately, he did not arrive at age 22 in 1986, the year Portland drafted him; he arrived 9 years later after numerous injuries and Father Time had robbed him of much of his prior explosiveness and athleticism. Imagine a cross between the ABA version of Artis Gilmore (much leaner and more athletic than the Spurs version) and Chris Webber – a super tall athletic shotblocker/rebounder who could run the floor and pass like C-Webb – and with Webber’s flair, too. Oh, and he could also shoot the three-pointer. Check this YouTube footage vs. the USA – Sabonis 1986. That was Sabonis in his prime. You could say he’s the number one reason we threw aside the amateur ideal for the 1992 Olympic hoops team and created the Dream Team (but then ridiculously polluted it with Christian Laettner to pretend we still cared about the whole ‘amateur’ notion…so lame). He led Russia to a major upset over the David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, Danny Manning, Dan Majerlie led Olympic team in 1988 (also had Hersey Hawkins, Stacy Augmon, Bimbo Coles, and Charles Smith), causing shock and dismay to USA hoops and galvanizing the whole ‘send our NBA best’ idea. And he wasn’t even 100% in those Olympics, as he was nursing a bad Achilles heel at the time. That Soviet team then won the gold over Yugoslavia, which had future NBA-ers Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, and Dino Radja (good Celtic early/mid 90’s). Sabonis had only one other future NBA guy on his team – Sarunas Marciulionis. When he did finally get here, Sabonis was still good enough to average 16 pts, 10 rebs, and 3 dimes in 1998 at age 33, and average 12 pts, 7.3 rebs, 2.1 asst and 1.1 blk for his career while shooting 50.0%. In 51 career playoff games his averages maintained – 12.1, 7.4, 1.9 dimes, though his shooting dropped to 45.2%. Clyde Drexler once lamented that those late 80’s Blazer teams (himself, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, Cliff Robinson) could have “had four, five or six titles. Guaranteed. He was that good. He could pass, shoot three pointers, had a great post game, and dominated the paint.” Bill Walton once called him a 7’3″ Larry Bird (as he’s prone to, a slight exaggeration from Bill, but you get the idea). While his NBA resume is mostly a case of ‘what if’, his European resume includes 8 Player of the Year Awards, and he also added two bronze medals (playing for Lithuania) in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics to go with his ’88 gold.

Little hoops story from Wed afternoon before #138…left work at 6pm and went to a park two blocks over to watch VERY STRONG pickup hoops (just southwest of 28th & Ocean Park in Santa Monica)…planned out my #138 write-up while watching JC caliber hoopsters (3 guys) playing full court 5 on 5 with over a dozen waiters…shot hoops with the waiters during action at the other end eventually…they were all well over 10 yrs younger than the Speedburner, but I had some nice spring in my step and made some sweet shots…then I heard some waiters at the other end talking Kobe/Lebron/Wade – who of us doesn’t love this epic debate about three top 30 all-time guys? I walked over with my research material, gave Lebron two uppercuts (Finals game 5 & 6 this year, 2007 finals), showed them my list, and stirred up more controversy…a dream ending to a long day of studying tennis highlight reels.

138) Elton Brand – 6‘ 8″ PF from 1999 – Today…Probably the #1 Clipper of all time, right? At least until Blake plays a few more seasons. The Clips acquired the 1999 1st overall pick (2000 Rookie of the Year) for Tyson Chandler shortly after the 2001 NBA Draft. A two year guy at Duke, they were upset by Rip Hamilton & UConn his last game there in the ’99 NCAA finals. He played on the best LA Clipper team ever, Alpha Dog on the 2006 squad supported by Maggette, Cassell, Mobley, and Kaman. They romped over Denver 4-1, then took the Run-n-Gun Suns to 7 games before Phx blew ’em out at home in the clincher. Clips barely missed winning a double OT Game 5 when Brand had 33 & 15 but Matrix (Shawn Marion) had 36 & 20 (Stoudamire out that year while Matrix was at his athletic peak, stats peak). Brand averaged a phenomenal 25.4, 10.3, 4.0 asst, 2.6 blks, and shot 55.1% in those 12 playoff games…stepped it up BIG TIME! His first 8 years in the league, he averaged 20.3 pts, 10.2 rebs, 2.7 asst, 2.1 blks and shot well over 50% from the floor in 606 games. Then he ruptured his Achilles, signed a big deal w/ Philly at $13m per (did they not hear about that Achilles news?), got hurt again, and basically missed his 2nd straight season due to injury. But he’s back now and still productive in a reduced capacity, averaging 15 & 8.3 this last season while playing 81 games, shooting 50% again, and backing it up with his 2nd career playoff appearance and 15.5/8.4 in his series with the Heat this Spring. He’s been undersized his whole career at 6’8′ but has long, thick, strong arms, broad thick shoulders, a hunger to play hard every night…and lots of skill! He was supremely talented at timing his block attempts while facing his guy pre Achilles, garnering over 2 blocks/gm every year from 2002-07 and currently residing at #26 all-time with 1.9 blk/gm career. During his 8 year span of producing all-star numbers every year, he was only selected to 2 games, paying the price for being on the lowly Clippers and Bulls during these years. He did make 2nd team all-NBA the year he took the Clips to round 2. A classy guy, a quiet guy, he’s kind of a throwback to the humble, mellow bigs of the 1970’s and 80’s – less flash, solid game, professional attitude. Much needed in today’s game. Hopefully he can keep up this 15 & 8 stuff a few more years…he’s not a greybeard yet at 32.

137) Lafayette ‘Fat’ Lever – 6‘ 3″ PG from 1982 – 1994…Lever’s nickname is Fat for the same reason my younger sister Shauna’s nickname is Da Da – a little brother who couldn’t pronounce the name properly. But in time, the nickname proved to be incredibly appropriate as Lever stuffed the stat box as fat as the best of them for a 4 year stretch playing Doug Moe Run-n-Gun basketball in Denver during the late ’80s. He first played 4 years at Arizona St. where he teamed up with Byron Scott and Alton Lister, but somehow they never made it beyond the 2nd round in the tourney their last two years together. The 11th overall pick by Portland in the 1982 Draft, he put up respectable but not spectacular numbers in 24 min/gm his first two seasons there before being traded to Denver. A late bloomer, Fat posted very solid numbers of 13.2 pts, 5.2 rebs, 7.5 dimes, and a large 2.4 stls/gm his first two years there. Then came a 4 year stretch that rivals some of the top statistical runs in the history of the league. From 1986-87 through the 1989-90 season, Fat averaged 18.9 pts, 8.9 rebs, 7.5 asst, and 2.5 stls. The only guys doing anything close to this back then were named Michael, Magic, and Larry. Michael never averaged more than 8 rebs/gm (and neither has 6’8″ Lebron), while Fat at 6’3″ did it 4 years in a row, while stealing every ball in sight, dishing 7+ dimes, and even posted 9.3 rebs/gm in both ’89 and ’90. He is 6th on the all-time triple-double list with 43, well behind Bird in 5th with 59, but far ahead of 7th place Havlicek who finished with 30. And he posted every one of them during his 6 years in the Mile High City including 11 in ’87-’88, with a masterpiece in Chicago against the Bulls – 31 pts, 16 reb, 12 asst, 6 stls. Here is a 10 minute highlight reel of Fat vs. MJ in that game (MJ has a classic, blindingly quick but unsuccessful drive to the hoop at the 7:45 mark…no one’s misses were more fun to watch than MJ’s). One steal was a classic ‘DB on a WR’ type on a pass intended for Michael. All the guys on this Top 150 list are stars, but not all of them shined like supernovas. Andre Miller, Michael Cooper – these guys were not supernovas. Lever was an exceptionally bright supernova for 4 magnificent years…in fantasy hoops parlance, roti gold. Bad knees ended his career early, but they traded him at just the right time and got a lot for him. He eventually morphed into the 3rd pick of the 1990 draft and the Bullets 1991 1st rounder. The ’90 pick was Chris Jackson, aka Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, while the ’91 first rounder turned out to be 5th overall and they nabbed Mutombo. So even though they only got 4 superstar seasons out of Fat, they shrewdly replaced his production with a nice, but not great guard and a legendary defensive center who both started for them the next 6 and 5 years respectively – hats off to management on that one!! Lever retired 5th on the all-time stls/gm list with 2.2, 19th on the all-time steals list (1,666), and 46th on the asst/gm list at 6.2. Oh…and there are 3 guys in NBA history with 15-15-15 playoff games, pts-rebs-asst…Wilt, Jason Kidd, and our boy Fat. In researching Fat, I found him to be something of an underground legendary favorite among fans, the unheralded ‘why not more pub on this guy?’ player. Kind of like a rock star who produces just one or two great albums before drifting away…Lever will always remain a Speedburner favorite.

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