How Good Would Bias Have Been?
As you might imagine, Len Bias‘ name comes up quite a bit in Bill Simmons’ new Book of Basketball. As a lifelong Celtics fan, I understand the emotions that surround the very mention of Bias’ name — for instance, my father was convinced Bias was going to be almost as good as Bird, and take the torch from Larry Legend as he extended the C’s dynasty into the 1990s. (Instead, Reggie Lewis died, and we got Rick Pitino & Antoine Walker. Go figure.) So I can see why Bias is such a burning “what if?” for the NBA, and Celtics fans in particular, because he represents untapped potential and a posthumous legend that’s only grown by leaps and bounds since his tragic demise. But I want to know — coldly, rationally — how good Bias could have legitimately been if we put down the green-tinted glasses: What were his college numbers like? What were people saying about him before the draft? In other words, I want to remove the James Dean aspect from the Bias story and focus solely on the facts at hand.
Let’s start with the perception of Bias in college… According to the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, Bias was Bob Gibbons’ 8th-ranked national prospect out of high school, eventually becoming a consensus All-America — and highlight machine — in 1986, his senior year. “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time,” Celtics scout Ed Badger said after watching Bias in six games. “I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.” (Ed.’s note: I guess two years is a “long time”?) Here’s another statement about the pre-draft scouting of Bias:
“…In scouting reports, it is customary to make player comparisons. Our basic report characterized Bias as a ‘Michael Jordan type who was bigger, with a better jump shot, but who didn’t go to the basket as well.’ “
This is what Sports Illustrated was saying about Bias before the 1986 season:
“Lefty [Driesell] has always had excellent forwards, and he thinks senior Len Bias, the ’84-85 ACC Player of the Year, is his best ever.”
“The only question about the power-forward position is what Bias, the 6’8″, 195-pound gamebreaker who grew up in Landover, just down the street from Cole Field House, will do for an encore. Last season he led the conference in scoring (19.0 points per game), and was an iron man, averaging 36.5 minutes. For a time, though, there was doubt that there would even be an encore. Rumors had Bias jumping to the pros, but he claims he never seriously considered leaving Maryland.”
“‘I didn’t think I was that good,’ Bias says. ‘I wasn’t ready. My game wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay in school, get it perfected and get my degree.’ Says Driesell, ‘Last year Leonard probably would have been one of the top 10 picks in the draft. This year he could be number one. He didn’t care whether he was one or one hundred. He wanted to stay in school.'”
And I found this passage from the ’86 ACC tournament interesting:
“…6’10” [UNC] forward Joe Wolf crashed to the court early in the first half and had to be carried away with a sprained ankle. Though the Tar Heels led Maryland at the half 34-28, the numbers of the Terps’ Bias were more meaningful: two baskets, five turnovers; pennies from heaven for Carolina. Soon, without Wolf, the Tar Heels could not guard Bias—he had 13 points and 10 rebounds after intermission—nor play their high-low double-post offense with Daugherty alone. Maryland scored 18 of the first 21 points in the second half for a 46-37 lead and later outran the losers 20-4, as Terp guards Keith Gatlin and Jeff Baxter lit up the Carolina backcourt for 39 points. A helpless Daugherty did not score a field goal for a stretch of 16½ minutes in the 85-75 Maryland victory…”
“Possessing the body of a Greek god and a surly demeanor, the 6’8″ Bias has had a spectacular big-game year—41 points against Duke, 35 against Carolina, 30 against Georgia Tech. A sometime artist and a self-described born-again Christian—’Yeah,’ says Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times, ‘from the church of the Holy Vicious Elbow’—Bias was MVP of the ACC tournament as a sophomore when Maryland won it in Greensboro in 1984. This season Driesell has called Bias ‘the player of the universe’ …”
“Maryland had taken command [vs. Georgia Tech in the following game] at 47-41 on a Bias baseline jumper early in the second half, when the defensive effects of the Yellow Jackets’ [John] Salley quickly were felt. Bias started missing shots, throwing away passes, looking frustrated…”
“Maryland went 9:23, and Bias himself more than 11 minutes, without a field goal as Georgia Tech rallied to take a 62-60 lead. But then Bias did jump over Salley, not to mention the moon, to tie the game with 12 seconds left.”
Maryland ended up losing, though, when Duane Ferrell picked off Keith Gatlin’s inbound pass with 5 seconds left in the game, dunking for the win as time expired. At any rate, you’ve got Daugherty and Bias establishing themselves as the clear-cut top two players in the 1986 Draft, and Daugherty was flat-out shut down by Maryland in that ACC Tournament game. (Not that Bias himself was above being stopped with physical play, however, as the Salley example showed.) We’ve seen a lot of Jordan comparisons to Bias, many of which were somewhat favorable for the Maryland product. With the draft approaching, were teams considering Bias the first “next Jordan”?
Well, come draft day Daugherty was taken 1st overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Bias was taken 2nd by the Celtics. Why Daugherty over Bias? Some people like to say they needed a center and that it was just a case of Sam Bowie Part II, but I’m not so sure… If Cleveland merely drafted out of need, why take Daugherty when you already had a former #6 overall pick at center in 26-year-old Mel Turpin, who had just posted a 16.4 PER and 6.0 Win Shares? And if they didn’t need a stud forward, why was their starting PF the following season Hot Rod Williams, a rookie that they took 45th overall?
It actually looks to me like the Cavaliers thought they had a better future with the duo of Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty than with Bias. Now, there are two caveats: 1) teams overrated size back then, so if you considered Daugherty equal to Bias, you went with the big man; and 2) these are the Cavs we’re talking about, the same team that had drafted Tim McCormick over John Stockton in 1984 & Charles Oakley over Karl Malone in 1985. But still, with Jordan tearing up the league already (the “God disguised as MJ” game had occurred just a few months before the ’86 draft), wouldn’t it stand to reason that teams might want to right the wrong of ’84 and get a do-over if they truly thought Bias was going to be as good as — or better than — Jordan?
Let’s look at the numbers from college:
Ed Weiland of HoopsAnalyst does great work with the NBA Draft, and he came up with some benchmarks for players based on their NCAA stats. These are not hard-and-fast rules, mind you, since so many factors can influence college stats, but they serve pretty well as general guidelines. Weiland broke forwards into the traditional SFs & PFs, and also what he called “Combo Forwards”, who kind of split the difference between 3s and 4s. Since Bias could be described as a SF or a PF, we’ll compare him to the benchmarks for each position. Weiland determined that the most important factors for SFs were adjusted (or “Effective”) FG%, Points/40 min, Rebounds/40 min, Assist-to-Turnover ratio, and (Assists + Steals + Blocks)/40 min. Here’s how Bias stacks up each season, along with some contemporaries:
|NCAA Freshman SF prospect||eFG%||P40||R40||A/TO||ASB40|
|Never made it||0.541||16.7||8.9||0.9||5.0|
|NCAA Sophomore SF prospect||eFG%||P40||RASB-T per40||ASB40|
|Never made it||0.561||19.0||10.5||4.7|
|NCAA Junior SF prospect||Adj FG Pct.||P40||R40||A/TO||ASB40|
|Never made it||0.573||19.9||8.8||0.8||4.7|
|NCAA Senior SF prospect||Adj FG Pct.||P40||R40||A/TO||ASB40|
|Never made it||0.563||19.8||8.7||0.9||4.9|
And what if we considered Bias a Power Forward? For PFs, the key categories Weiland found were 2-point FG%, Pts/40, Reb/40, (Stl + Blk)/40, A/TO ratio, and PPS (Pts per shot; Pts/FGA):
|NCAA Freshman PFs||2 pt. pct.||Points40||Reb40||SB40||A/TO||PPS|
|Never made it||0.532||15.3||9.8||2.9||0.6||1.37|
|NCAA Sophomore PFs||2 pt. pct.||Points40||Reb40||SB40||A/TO||PPS|
|Never made it||0.548||17.1||9.9||2.7||0.6||1.41|
|NCAA Junior PFs||2 pt.pct.||Points40||Reb40||SB40||A/TO||PPS|
|Never made it||0.543||18.1||10.4||2.6||0.7||1.42|
|NCAA Senior PFs||2 pt. pct.||Points40||Reb40||SB40||A/TO||PPS|
|Never made it||0.528||18.5||10.5||2.6||0.7||1.38|
Despite all the accolades, it’s not clear that there was much evidence (besides Bias’ raw athleticism) to suggest Bias was going to be as good as Jordan — or even that he was going to be a future All-Star. Playing in the same conference, his key indicators were inferior to Jordan at every stage of his career; and Jordan was able to leap to the NBA after his junior year, while Bias stayed at Maryland for a fourth year. I would imagine his ceiling was going to be a poor man’s James Worthy instead:
Or, to make a few, more current, comparisons:
Would ’87 Boston have been a sweetheart of a situation for a rookie? Oh, yeah. And it would have helped Bias get as much out of his potential as any young player could hope for, so everyone was right to be terrified of the fact that the defending champs (and possibly the greatest team ever) added the #2 pick in the draft. However, in college Bias didn’t rebound or contribute in non-scoring areas as much as his fellow prospects (historical, modern, you name it) did, and his NCAA efficiency numbers were sub-par. I’m not saying he would be a bust or even that it would have been impossible for him to be a star, but I am saying that we might have allowed Bias’ tragic and untimely passing to distort the way we viewed his potential. Just like anyone who died before their time, there’s the tendency to idealize the person and put them up on a pedestal, projecting onto them everything we wished and hoped they could someday be. In Bias’ case, what my dad and so many other Celtics fans wanted was for him to become Larry Bird’s heir at the helm of the Boston dynasty. Unfortunately, given his important performance indicators in college, that probably wasn’t the most realistic expectation in basketball history.