Retro-Scouting Arvydas Sabonis, vs. David Robinson, 1986
Arvydas Sabonis poses with crowd favorite Muggsy Bogues following the 1986 FIBA World Championship final
We were delighted to see one of The Painted Area's all-time favorite players, Arvydas Sabonis, inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune had an excellent piece on Sabonis on Friday, the title of which captures a fairly definitive statement of Sabas' career: "What ifs will stick forever in rating Arvydas Sabonis".
What if Sabonis had come over to the NBA at age 23 in 1988, as many thought he might, and what if his legs hadn't been ravaged by injuries? How good would he have been?
In the Eggers piece, the coach of the reigning NBA champions, Rick Carlisle, who was an assistant in Portland when Sabonis first arrived, says the following: “I have no doubt Arvydas would be in the conversation as a top 15 or 20 player all-time without the injuries."
Is that really so? Well, I had a mild Eureka moment on Friday, when I remembered that, for reasons of basketball insanity, I own a VHS tape of the 1986 FIBA World Championship gold-medal game, which matched up Sabonis and the Soviet Union against David Robinson and the United States.
Since I have a dual DVD-VCR player, I decided to pop in the tape this weekend for a bit of a retro Sabonis scouting report. It's a good matchup against a guy I consider a top 20 player in Robinson, and a fair one given that both players are nearly the same age. Sabonis was about 21 1/2 years old when the game was played in July, 1986, while Robinson was just about to turn 21.
In many ways, sadly, this was Sabonis' prime, as a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in 1987 was the beginning of his loss of mobility. All in all, I feel like it's a good chance to look back at a young, healthy Sabonis and try to discern what could have been.
Let's go to the videotape, for the USA-USSR game broadcast from Madrid on "Superstation WTBS" with a broadcast crew of Rick Barry, Bill Russell and Bobby Knight in the first half, with Mike Fratello joining in during the second half for an unprecedented four-man booth. In 1986, the FIBA World Championship, held in Spain, was an odd hybrid with Ted Turner's inaugural Goodwill Games, held in Moscow. Technically, this was the Goodwill Games basketball competition as well as the FIBA World Championship.
Lute Olson's U.S. roster was comprised of college players, with a starting lineup of Muggsy Bogues, Kenny Smith, Derrick McKey, Charles Smith and Robinson. American players off the bench included Armon Gilliam (RIP), Sean Elliott, Brian Shaw and Tommy Amaker. Steve Kerr was cited as a key reserve recently lost to a knee injury, and there was a DJ Rony Seikaly sighting postgame, though he did not play.
The USSR countered with two Hawks draftees, Alexander Volkov and Valeri Tikhonenko, at forward, and Valdis Valters and Valdemarus Khomichus at guard, around Sabonis - gloriously decked out in mullet and 'stache like most of his teammates - at center.
Back in the pre-Dream Team days, the Americans brought college players to international tournaments, while other countries brought their best players, period. As such, the Soviets were a more veteran team, and widely considered to be heavy favorites to win the 1986 World Championship heading into the tournament, while the American collegians were considered underdogs.
The Soviets were fortunate to even reach the final, as they knocked down three 3's in the final 47 seconds to rally from a nine-point deficit and force OT vs. Yugoslavia. Sabonis banked in a deep 3 to start the miracle comeback, which can be seen here. A couple critical mistakes were made by no. 6 in white, a then-18-year-old Vlade Divac.
In the final, the U.S. opened up a 78-60 lead with 7:36 left, before another frantic late rally of Soviet threes made it a game at the end. Team USA hung on for an 87-85 win to take the gold.
I feel like there's a mythological perception that's developed that Sabonis dominated Robinson when the two faced off internationally, not only in the 1986 World Championships, but also in the 1988 Olympics, when the USSR beat the USA in the semifinals.
Watching the 1986 game offers a reminder that this was not the case. Both Sabas and the Admiral played well, essentially neutralizing each other. Robinson had 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, while Sabonis countered with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks of his own.
Also note that these were the stats when the two centers met in the famous 1988 game in Seoul:
- Robinson 23 points, 12 rebounds
Sabonis 13 points, 13 rebounds
Back to 1986.... Re-watching this game was a real treat above all else, with a matchup of two of the greatest physical specimens the game of basketball has ever seen. Both players just had a ton of skill and agility for 7-footers - Sabas had the edge in size and strength, the Admiral had the advantage in speed and quickness.
Here are some Sabonis highlights from the game, amazingly at an even lower video quality than what I watched on my 25-year-old VHS tape:
In the game, Sabonis and Robinson traded outstanding plays vs. one another. Sabas made an iconic play during the late comeback, crashing in over Robinson's back for an emphatic follow dunk (seen at the end of the clip above). Meanwhile, the Admiral made a stunning denial of a Sabonis dunk right at the rim, standing strong like an evolutionary Bill Russell with the lefty block.
It's interesting to watch Sabonis athletically - he was obviously much more agile, and his combination of agility and length made him a much more active, attacking shot-blocking threat than in his NBA years. Young Arvydas was really able to recover on defense and cover a ton of ground, such as on a play where he hustled for an impressive block from behind on a two-handed Robinson dunk attempt (which was erroneously called a foul by the FIBA refs). Or on a play where he helped out to swat away a Kenny Smith drive.
The mobility was also on display on a play where Arvydas reached around for a steal on a low-post entry pass, took a couple dribbles upcourt, and just missed converting an incredible long-distance wraparound bounce pass to a teammate streaking downcourt.
While Sabonis wreaked havoc with mobility and length, I wouldn't call him terribly explosive off the ground. At 7-3, that didn't matter against most players, but Robinson was able to make the block at the rim described above because Sabas wasn't quite explosive enough. In general, Sabonis was a little too big and strong when Robinson tried to face up against him, but the Admiral was too quick at times, and also more aggressive on the boards, where the big Lithuanian didn't really venture outside his area too often.
More than anything, Sabonis had a spectacular set of hands. He could have been more active on the boards, but his big mitts gobbled up every rebound in his area. A specialty of Sabas' was the one-handed rebound immediately turned into a long outlet pass, such as one which created one of the late Soviet threes.
In a good 1986 story on Sabonis in The Atlantic, by Sam Toperoff, legendary basketball mind Pete Newell, then a Warriors scout, described one of these types of plays:
- I saw Sabonis make an unforgettable play last year in a tournament in Hiroshima, Japan. A rebound bounced high off the rim and over toward the corner. Sabonis went up for it way out there, took the ball in one hand and -- still up in the air, off balance -- swept the ball backhand, like a discus thrower in reverse, and hit a teammate in stride downcourt eighty-six feet away for an easy layup. I'd never seen a play like it.
To the surprise of no one who saw Sabonis in the NBA, he displayed great creativity with his passing from the block, including an inside-out passing game before it was fashionable. On one play, Sabas flashed up to high post, made the catch and dropped a blind bounce pass back to a cutter going the other way to the hoop - a beauty.
However, he also made too many TOs by getting too cute with ill-advised passes, such as one attempt at a hook lob entry pass from the three-point line that caromed off the backboard. Sabonis didn't shoot from the outside in this game, as he did against Yugoslavia, when he hit multiple threes - the international three was clearly in his arsenal.
One thing I found a little surprising was a suggestion that Sabonis didn't play hard consistently. Early in the broadcast, Rick Barry noted that he thought Sabonis was too lackadaisical (though he was impressed by his ability). Later on, there was a suggestion from Fratello that Sabonis only played hard when challenged. Sabas definitely looked poor in transition defense at times, though there may have been some fatigue causing that, not to mention an American team that was much more athletic than the European teams of the era.
A little bit of Google research unearthed that laziness was a common perception of Sabonis circa 1986. A story after the 1986 World Championships in the LA Times said that "when his team is 10 or 15 points ahead, Sabonis won't run the court, hanging back on offense and defense and not bothering to get rebounding position."
The story also included this quote from Greek star Panagiotis Yannakis (who was also the coach of the Greek team that beat the U.S. at the 2006 World Championships): "Sabonis' big weakness is that he's lazy. And that's because he doesn't have enough competition. You can see he looks bored out there."
Fratello, just off an NBA Coach of the Year season with Atlanta, chimed in with this: "How would he do in the NBA against a (Robert) Parish, Moses Malone or Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar)? It's hard to say. He may have gotten himself into some bad habits because he isn't challenged very much. He's getting a little lazy on defense and maybe not working as hard as he should."
In the Atlantic story, Pete Newell also said this: "Because the opposition Sabonis meets inside Russia is not challenging to him, he sometimes gets lazy. In the big international tournaments like the one coming up in Spain, he'll be fine, but he doesn't play with the intensity he should, night after night, like Larry Bird. I'd like to see him in the NBA, just to see how great he'd be if he were pushed to the limit all the time."
So, how good could Arvydas Sabonis have been, if he'd come over to the NBA early, and stayed healthy?
The Atlantic story talks about how Sabonis dominated Ralph Sampson when the Soviet national team played an exhibition vs the University of Virginia, and quotes Newell as saying he would have drafted Sabonis over Patrick Ewing in 1985. I have no problems with that - I'd definitely rate young Sabonis ahead of young Ewing.
A 2003 story by Carl Shreck in the Moscow Times notes a 2001 claim by then-Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy that not even Shaq in his prime could have handled Sabonis in his prime.
Schreck also quotes Hall of Famer Alexander Gomelsky, Sabonis' legendary Soviet coach and mentor as saying, "He was the greatest European player of the last 100 years. He came to the NBA too late, obviously. But when you talk about players like Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, Sabonis was certainly on that level."
When you start going to the level of Kareem, Russell, Wilt, and Shaq, well, that's a bit too far for me. I think that Sabonis would have needed a little more explosiveness to be dominant on the level of, in my opinion, the four greatest centers in NBA history.
After watching the 1986 FIBA World Championship final, I really come back to David Robinson as a pretty good comparable for Sabonis' ability level. It was a competitive, even matchup between two giants. I believe that the Admiral was a top 15-20 player. He was a statistical beast who sometimes came up short in the playoffs, though he was also often burdened with a subpar supporting cast in the pre-Duncan era.
Relatively speaking, Sabonis was an NBA statistical beast in his own right, too. I was fairly amazed by Sabonis' per-minute NBA production when I looked into it last fall. Even though his NBA career spanned the ages of 31 to 38, after all his injuries, Sabonis still averaged a career 21.2 PER, with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in just 24 minutes per game. It's not crazy to think he could have been a high-20s PER player if healthy, and that's elite-level production.
The X-factor for Sabonis likely would have been playoff performance. Considering how close those early-'90s Blazers teams were to a championship, it doesn't seem implausible to suggest that, if they could have added an all-time top 20 player to their team, Portland could have been a threepeat champion from 1990-92, which really starts to re-write an NBA era.
Put Arvydas Sabonis at the center of a multi-champion NBA team, and he likely moves right into the second tier of centers, among Hakeem, Duncan (yes, he's a center) and Moses, somewhere in the top 10-12 players ever.
So, after going back to 1986 for a Sabonis refresher, I say yes, I agree with Rick Carlisle - potential top 15-20 player, with a chance to go even higher in perception with team/playoff success.
But, sadly, as with Walton and Yao and possibly Oden, we'll of course never know just how good Arvydas Sabonis could have been. What if, what if, what if.
Other random notes from the game:
- The Madrid crowd loved them some Muggsy Bogues, going absolutely crazy whenever the 5-3 player darted around the court. Muggsy made several nice passes in the game, also.
- I still really don't understand how Kenny Smith wasn't a better pro. In the summer of '86, he was just about to head into an NCAA Player of the Year campaign at North Carolina, and he looked great in the final. He truly was The Jet back then, explosive off the dribble, as he scored a game-high 23 points from all over the court, knocking down shots, converting drives, and finishing a runner over Sabonis to seal the game in the final minute. I was convinced The Jet would be an NBA star, and I was wrong.
- It's really notable how far behind the U.S. was in understanding the power of the three-point shot back in the mid-'80s. The Soviets powered their comebacks in the semis and the final via the three, and looked to play inside-out at times, whereas the longball seemed like a complete afterthought in the American attack. I don't have access to the final numbers, but early in the second half, the USSR had 16 three attempts and the USA had three.