He is one of the all-time great enforcers, so imposing that half of the current crop of NBA players probably wouldn’t dare take on a 50-year-old Charles Oakley.
Oakley is brutally honest, having played during a time when a flagrant foul was one that drew blood and knocked out teeth. The NBA of the 1990s was a defensive league when scoring 90 points would warrant free tacos for the home fans. Oakley stood tall in the paint as a bruising power forward, laying out those pesky guards who chose to challenge his authority by driving to the basket.
Oakley was in Boston on Saturday, appearing at the sixth annual Jaden’s Ladder gala at the Ritz-Carlton. (Jaden’s Ladder is a nonprofit organization that assists survivors of domestic violence. Oakley appeared with Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and actor Mekhi Phifer.)
And the longtime Knick has some pointed opinions about the direction of the league, the lack of true centers, and the disappearance of enforcers. Oakley never won an NBA title, having been dealt from Chicago to the Knicks before the Bulls began their dominance. As a Knick, he was on the team that lost in the 1994 Finals to the Houston Rockets. Still, he enjoyed a storied career filled with vicious screens, brutal elbows, and flattened opponents.
“I just tried to go out there and play with attitude, doing what I was supposed to do and knowing my role on the team,” said Oakley, who played from 1985 until 2004. “Doing what my team expected me to do every night, not just once a week. It was all about work and I was just a tough guy who would knock somebody down.”
Oakley’s style is nearly comatose in the NBA. Instant replay has allowed officials to break down every potentially rough foul, causing players to refrain from such activity. In Oakley’s days, officials weren’t so generous with technicals and ejections. The league was brutally tough.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, they looked like they were more finesse and they are finesse now,” said Oakley. “It’s going back [to finesse], a lot of outside shooting, a lot of ballhandlers, that’s how I see it. There weren’t a lot of post players back then [in the ’60s] and not a lot of post players now.”
Why is the league so chummy? Why is the NBA lacking the real rivalries from the ’80s and ’90s? Why has the overall level of play dipped?
“I’m blaming the management, I’m not blaming the kids,” Oakley said. “I’m blaming management for drafting guys on potential. Back in our day and era, you had to have your potential and be ready to play right away. Everybody was talented. In three years, you’d be out of the league [if you didn’t perform]. Draft what you need, not what someone else said is good.
“We had guys come out of high school, Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, but all these guys could play. It wasn’t about you’ve got to wait three or four years. That’s why Philadelphia is so bad, Sacramento, they got players but they are all young.”
Oakley continued his criticism of the league and its individualism.
“The coaches in this league, in this day and era, are soft; the players are soft, how can you build something?” he said. “They put all these stat guys, these analytic guys, and put them on the bench and make them GM because of numbers. My thing with basketball, you’ve got to have efficiency within your structure, like San Antonio. You’ve got to have your players to buy in. That’s what wrong with the league, you’ve got guys worried about social media, my brand. You brand once you get drafted, when you win as a team, you get your brand. When your team wins, then all of those commercials will come. Everything is all about hype.”
Oakley has an interesting theory. He believes in order to globalize the league, ex-commissioner David Stern had to change the rules to make the NBA more inviting for European players. While the rule changes to increase scoring were effective, they made the league less physical.
“When we played in the ’80s, it wasn’t OK [for European players to play in the NBA],” Oakley said. “They weren’t coming over here. They were scared. The game was tough and they weren’t tough. Back then it was 1 percent and now it’s 40 percent and it’s going to keep going up. The dollar is international now. I don’t like 7-footers shooting threes, it’s a disrespect to the game for me. Dirk [Nowitzki] is good, point blank. [Larry] Bird got away with it. A few guys can get away with it because they can flat-out shoot.”
Ten of Oakley’s 19 years in the league were spent with the Knicks, when the team thrived in the mid-1990s under coach Pat Riley. Currently, the Knicks are an organization in upheaval, having just hired Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson as team president to correct the dysfunction. Oakley said all the losing has taken the passion out of the Knicks’ faithful. He said it’s difficult to watch the decline of his former team.
“I talked to some fans from New York,” he said. “It’s like going to a concert — going to the Garden — people just want to get drunk and have fun and take pictures. They don’t really care about the game. That’s not there anymore. You’ve got some of the best fans in the world in New York. There’s no way they should be losing. You’ve got the same team that won 54 games last year. You can’t just play the last 25 games of the season tough and forget about the other 57. It don’t work like that.”
Noah joins discussion for MVP consideration
Quietly, if that’s possible for Joakim Noah, the Bulls center has put together a remarkable season and deserves some Most Valuable Player votes. He is averaging a career-best 12.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, and a whopping 5.2 assists, double his average from two seasons ago.
Noah had played in no more than 66 games over the previous four years until this season, during which he has played in all 74 games. His versatility, strong defense, and an agitating style make him one of the league’s premier centers. Noah is not going to overwhelm opponents with offense but he flourishes in most facets of the game, prompting coach Tom Thibodeau to ponder his candidacy for league MVP honors.
“It depends on how you define it,” the former Celtics assistant said. “What he’s meant to our team over the course of the season. We faced a lot of adversity. He helped lift the team up. And he’s improved, I think significantly, offensively. The defense has always been great, the rebounding. And it’s more than just the passing, it’s his scoring now, making quicker decisions — I think that’s helped us a lot. But the most important thing is just helping us win.”
Thibodeau could be a candidate for Coach of the Year as he has navigated the Bulls through another injury-plagued season, one in which management decided to part with one of the team’s most beloved players in Luol Deng.
Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers after he rejected a long-term contract extension offer.
Eerily similar to the Brooklyn Nets, the Bulls were languishing on New Year’s Eve, losing at home to Toronto, dropping them to 12-18. Since then, the Bulls are 32-14 and one of the scarier teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers likely would choose to avoid Chicago in a second-round series because of its physicality and defensive prowess.
“Overall, since the start of the new year, I think our team has played well,” Thibodeau said. “We still have a long way to go. There are still a lot of things that we can do better. But we want to finish strong. There’s a lot of teams that are playing well right now, when you look at the Brooklyns, the Washingtons, the Torontos.
“Of course, Indiana and Miami separated themselves early. I think Charlotte has played well. Atlanta has had some injuries. New York has picked it up some. We have to be ready for everybody. I like the growth of our team. It was not only the Derrick [Rose] injury but losing Luol. That was an opportunity for others to grow.”
As the Bulls have done the past few seasons, they have depended on a sturdy crew of players to win ugly and play physical. Noah has been the unquestioned leader with Deng gone.
“Joakim has been terrific. Taj [Gibson] has been great. Picking up D.J. Augustin was a big plus for us,” Thibodeau said. “I think we’re a well-balanced team. We have seven guys who are in double figures most nights. So, every night it’s somebody different.”
Chicago could finish as high as third in the East, and potentially have a second-round showdown with the second-seeded club. Or the Bulls could finish fifth, which would mean a second-round matchup with the top seed.
“You want to be playing your best as you go in [the playoffs] and you want to be healthy as possible,” Thibodeau said. “So those are the things that we’re concentrating on right now.
“Obviously, our shooting hasn’t been as good as we would have liked. It’s something we have to continue to work on. Mike [Dunleavy] has shot the ball from three most of the year. When we get the shooting, it opens the floor for us and of course, Joakim, his playmaking has been huge for us.”
NO SHOT IN THE DARK
Raptors’ Johnson stretches his offense
The Toronto Raptors’ Amir Johnson is not known for his offensive prowess, let alone a perimeter game. But as years have passed, the 6-foot-9-inch forward, who entered the 2005 draft directly out of high school, has been working on his long-range shot.
In the first eight years of his NBA career, Johnson attempted 29 3-pointers and no more than 13 in a season. This season, Johnson has launched 63 3-pointers, making 18, and causing a quandary for coach Dwane Casey.
While it’s encouraging to see Johnson improve his offensive arsenal, Casey wants to stress to the 26-year-old that 3-pointers should be a rare option.
He does not want his interior big man to get attached to outside shooting, especially when he remains only a 28.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc.
“That’s an ongoing process, he’s not there,” Casey said. “The thing with Amir is he gives us everything in so many other ways. We don’t mind that late in the shot clock, but if he comes down and it’s ‘first pass, three,’ then we have issues. But he’s pretty smart with it. And normally, if people disrespect him and he’s got the time to read ‘Adam Silver’ on the label and look at it, and line it up, then that’s when he’s got to take it.”
In Boston, Celtics coach Brad Stevens encouraged Jared Sullinger to take 3-pointers if he is open and he has attempted 194 this season, second on the club. Casey is struggling with such freedom for Johnson, who came into the league as a freakish athlete with little offensive game. He has developed a jump hook and midrange jumper over the years. He also drained a 3-pointer in the Raptors’ 99-90 win at Boston last month.
“He’s made enough to earn that trust late in the clock,” Casey said. “It gives us another weapon. He understands what a good 3-point shot is and what a bad one is. He’ll take a questionable one every once in a while but he’s pretty smart with it.”
Celtics are still among more popular teams
According to the website fivethirtyeight.com, the Celtics are third in popularity in the NBA in terms of Google searches over the past 10 years. The site indicated the Lakers have by far the most Google searches among league teams over that span, followed by the Heat. The least-searched teams are the Bucks, Hawks, Wizards, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. Following the Celtics are the Bulls, Knicks, Rockets, and Spurs.
Meanwhile, a group of fans have started a website called NBArrassing.com, which is hoping to get 10,000 signatures to petition commissioner Adam Silver to change the draft lottery system that gives the most ping-pong balls to the teams with the worst records. Several ideas have been floated about changing the system, which has drawn great controversy with the recent 26-game losing streak of the Philadelphia 76ers and the benching of veterans in Milwaukee for the sake of playing younger players and in turn losing games.
“It’s a strange feeling when you’re watching your favorite team play and you’re unsure if you want to cheer for them to win or hope for them to lose for a better draft position. NBA fans shouldn’t be in that situation. Tanking needs to end,” Kevin Taddei, a 76ers fan and creator of @DidTheSixersWin, said in a statement from FanRising, a movement designed to represent fans.
Celtics center Joel Anthony has a $3.8 million player option this summer that he is expected to exercise, but he told the Globe he was unsure of his decision. “When the season’s over, I’ll talk with my agent and look to see what we’re going to do,” he said. Anthony has played little with the Celtics, primarily because he is new to the system and the club wanted to play Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk in the frontcourt. But Anthony could be a more useful asset next season when the Celtics move forward from rebuilding mode. He is the team’s lone legitimate center. “The team, obviously we haven’t had the success that we wanted on the court but off the court it’s been a great situation,” Anthony said. “You don’t always have that when teams are in this type of situation. That’s made it a lot easier being in a good locker room with a good group of guys.” . . . Last week in Houston, that old crusty duo of Doc Rivers and Glen Davis clashed again when a heated Davis was removed from the game. He yelled something at Rivers, who yelled something back and then instructed team security to escort Davis to the locker room, ending his evening. Davis played four minutes the next game and 10 each of the next two games. He is playing about 12 minutes per contest since joining the Clippers in January and averaging a career-low 3.4 points. Davis signed a two-year deal with a player option for next season at the league minimum. He is much better than the league minimum and will sign somewhere else as a free agent . . . The Charlotte Bobcats are rooting for the Detroit Pistons to make a late-season run. The Pistons have the eighth-worst record in the NBA. If the Pistons finish with the ninth pick or higher, their first-round pick goes to Charlotte. If the Pistons finish with a pick from first to eighth, they keep it . . . Twice last week the NBA released statements about mistakes in officiating, including one in the Dallas-Golden State game, in which the officials missed a critical goaltending call. The league needs to have higher standards for officiating because these “oops” releases do nothing but add frustration to the teams victimized.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.