Saturday, March 6, 2010

Let's talk about Arvydas Sabonis

Once upon a time not long ago there was a giant of a man that many felt could dominate the NBA. The only problem was, he was not playing in the NBA. For many years, Arvydas Sabonis was considered the best basketball player not in the NBA, a player that many experts thought could dominate the pro game. Legendary coach Bobby Knight called him "as good of a prospect as I've ever seen". The problem was, Sabonis was under the control of the Soviet Union, and there was no way the Soviet government would let their best player go to America. In 1989, the Soviets allowed Sabonis to play wherever he chose, but by then Sabonis had suffered serious leg injuries, and was worried if his legs could hold up to the grind of an NBA schedule. So Sabonis played in Spain for the next seven years. Finally in 1995, at the age of 31, Sabonis decided it was time to try the NBA, and signed with the Portland Trailblazers. He would spend seven years in the NBA and, while he never dominated the game, he did become a key player for a team that made the playoffs in each year that Sabonis played. With his world-class passing skills, and shooting range that extended past the three-point line, Sabonis had the skills of a guard in a 7'3" 290 pound frame. But by the time he reached the NBA, his legs became so bad that he was considered one of, if not the slowest player in the game. The question is, how would Sabonis have done in the NBA during his prime? We'll never know the answer to that question, but let's see some highlights of the big man in action.

First of all, you haven't lived until you've watched a video of basketball highlights sets to "Always" by Bon Jovi. A gutsy choice by the maker of this video, at least it's better than some crappy rap song that usually accommodates homemade basketball highlight videos. Anyway, the video shows highlights of Sabonis in both international play and with the Trailblazers. To me, Sabonis looks like a matchup nightmare for most centers, the rare center able to hit 3s on a consistent basis. His court vision is uncanny amongst big men, similar to Bill Walton, Sabonis could make a pass to a man cutting to the basket possibly better than any center in history. You could probably count on one hand the number of centers with the passing ability equal or greater than Sabonis. In his early days, Sabonis was a defensive force, but one thing I noticed in this video is that in his later days, Sabonis could not jump very high, and the act of jumping seemed to be painful for the big man.  This was probably due to the tearing of his Achillies Tendon twice in the span of three months, as well as other severe leg and back injuries. Oh what could have been.

This video features an 18 year-old Sabonis playing for the U.S.S.R. in the final game of the 1983 World Jr. Championships against the USA. The commentary is in Spanish, and the quality isn't that good, but it will suffice. Our man Arvydas (wearing number 15 in red) moves very, very well for a 7'3" man. Due to his size and athleticism, he is able to contest many shots, and makes life difficult for his opponents. On offense, Sabonis displays a good, if not great, low-post game. He tends to use the backboard a lot on his shots in this video, which is something you don't see a whole lot of these days. The Americans often doubled Sabonis in the low post, but on one play, Sabonis splits the double team with ease, and brings down a thunderous one-handed dunk. He didn't quite have the passing down, and all of his shots were from 10 feet or less, so Sabonis didn't show off all of the skills he was known for. Nevertheless, for an 18-year old, Sabonis's game looked very polished in this clip.

Here we Sabonis in a fight from his earlier days in the Lithuanian Basketball League. Actually, it's not much of a fight, as Sabonis floors his foe with one punch and then everyone is separated. Why the video is three minutes long when two and a half minutes of the video is just guys standing around, I don't know. Anyway, Sabonis wins the fight, but gets ejected from the game.

Here's a video of Sabonis hitting a behind the back buzzer beating shot. Simple as that.

and here's Sabonis blowing by Shaq for a slam dunk.

Judging from what I've seen and the testimony of others, there is no doubt in my mind that Sabonis would have been an All-Star if he entered the NBA at 22 instead of at 31. At worst, Sabonis would have been a solid starter for a decade and at best, Sabonis would have been among the elite centers of his generation, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O'Neal. That's not bad company. Moreso, if Sabonis had joined the Blazers in 1986, there's a chance that they win at least 1 NBA Championship. After all, Sabonis was a better center than Kevin Duckworth, who was good but not great, and there were very few centers with the versatility to guard Sabonis effectively. Personally, if Sabonis is on the Trailblazers for the 1990 Finals, he very well could have made the difference against the Pistons. I don't see the Pistons centers, Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards, matching up well against Arvydas. But it's all just speculation now. What we do know is that Sabonis was one of the greatest passing centers in history, and one heck of a ball player.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any ideas for future posts, send them over to me via e-mail at I will write about pretty much anything, even commercials about sponges if I have to.

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