No, that wasn’t his best season, but they won the title. Sue me.
The Knicks made Cazzie Russell the first overall pick in 1966 after three years at Michigan in which he averaged 27 points and 9 rebounds per game. The 6’5″ swingman, whose number 33 is retired at Michigan, brought the same Swagger he had as a Wolverine to Broadway, where he immediately became a fan favorite. Perhaps as important as any contribution he made, Russell sacrificed significant minutes during the Knicks’ 1969-70 championship season to equitably make way for Mike Riordan, who was in his second year in the league. That year, despite the cut in playing time, Russell actually had his best season by PER standards, morphing himself from a 30+ MPG guy into a key supporting role in the championship rotation. As we know from today’s NBA, it doesn’t always go down that way, especially when it’s being asked of a no. 1 overall pick. Much like the Sprewell experiment I wrote about a couple days ago, it could’ve gone much worse, and you could argue the team owed much of its success – in this case, winning a title – to Cazzie’s recognizing his role.
Russell had what we’d call an inside-outside game – not the greatest shooter, but he improved over his time in college and the pros, and not the greatest hops, “but fabulous timing. He got the most out of his jumping ability,” according to former Michigan teammate John Clawson in this article.
For more on Cazzie, check out this feature on YouTube. It’s a solid 13 minutes over two parts, and it begins with some of the schlockiest stock footage ever taken of Chicago. It makes you think, “I didn’t know there was genocide in Chicago during the 60’s!” before you realize it’s a documentary about a basketball player. But still, interesting enough once it gets going.