Thursday, December 17, 2009

Player of the Week: Sam Lacey

Sam Lacey, a center best known for his passing, played 13 seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Kansas City Kings in the 1970s. The Cincinnati Royals took Lacey with the number 5 pick after he led the New Mexico State Aggies to the Final Four. When he arrived, the Royals were in full rebuilding mode after Bob Cousy inexplicably traded Oscar Robertson to the Bucks for the immortal duo Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson.

Lacey, despite averaging double-digit rebounds, struggled during his first two years in Cincinnati. The team, built around Tiny Archibald, Tom Van Arsdale, and Johnny Green, was decent offensively, but porous defensively. Lacey contributed almost nothing on offense, shooting 42% from the field each year without piling up the assists for which he would later be known. The next year, 1973, the Royals moved to Kansas City and became the Kings. Tiny Archibald had a fantastic season, leading the league in points and assists, but the team was destroyed on the boards (despite Lacey's best efforts-he averaged 12 a game) and Lacey was the only thing close to a credible interior defender on the team.

The next year, Bob Cousy was let go after a poor start and Tiny Archibald was injured, but Lacey responded with his best season yet. He only scored 14 points a game (his career high), but chipped in over 13 rebounds, almost 4 assists, and (in the first year they were tracked) started a 7 year run of seasons in which he would total over 100 points and 100 blocks-Hakeem, Dr J, the Admiral, and Ben Wallace are the only other players to do the same. This raises the question, was Lacey a great defensive player like the other guys on that list? I would say that he wasn't great, but he was good. He was on some very good defensive teams (75, 79, 80), and numerous bad defensive teams. So he wasn't a player who guaranteed you a good defense, but he could be a part of a very good defense. He was an excellent defensive rebounder, got a lot of steals (for a center), and a good amount of blocks. However, he didn't have a great reputation (from what I can tell) and was never named to the All-Defensive Team. It could be argued that he was overlooked because he played for a mediocre Kansas City team, but it's also likely that he was overmatched in one on one situations against elite centers like Kareem and McAdoo. Overall, I would guess he was an above average defender, but not All-Defensive Team material.

The next year, 1975, was Lacey's best. He averaged over 14 rebounds a game, led the league in defensive rebounds as Kansas City finished 4th in the league in defensive efficiency, averaged over 5 assists, set a career high with 1.7 steals a game, blocked over two shots a game, and made his only All-Star Team. In addition, Kansas City, despite the lack of a legitimate scoring threat in the frontcourt, rode Tiny Archibald and a good defense to the only playoff appearance of the Archibald era. The Kings looked like they had a (relatively) bright future-Archibald and Lacey were only 26-but the team struggled in 1976, Archibald was traded to the Nets, and Lacey's play and playing time diminished in 1976, 1977, and 1978. For the 1978 season, the team even acquired Tom Burleson to compete with Lacey for playing time.

However, Lacey and the Kings bounced back in 1979. With a starting lineup of Lacey, Bill Robinzine, Scott Wedman, Otis Birdsong, and Phil Ford, the Kings were the best in the league at forcing turnovers, Lacey and Ford combined for 14 assists a game, and second year player Otis Birdsong led the offense with 22 points a game. The team won 48 games before losing to Phoenix in the playoffs. The Kings followed the same formula to 47 wins and another first round loss to the Suns in 1980. Lacey averaged a career high 5.7 assists a game, and was a key part of the Kings' ability to force the most turnovers in the NBA. Lacey dropped off a bit in 1981, was traded to the Nets in 1982, and finished his career on the Stepien Cavs in 1983.

Sam Lacey has been mostly forgotten, it seems. He wasn't a big scorer, didn't play for any great teams, played in a small market, and played much of his career in the same division as Kareem (earlier in his career), Bob Lanier, and Artis Gilmore (later in his career). In addition, he never had a notable coaching or broadcasting career, and hasn't done anything particularly shocking or controversial since he retired.

In his biography of Bob Cousy, Bill Reynolds tells the story that Lacey would hire a limo to pick him up from the airport after road trips, something that Cousy found unbelievable. The point of the story is that Cousy was having trouble reaching the "new generation" of basketball players who were "spoiled and pampered". Whether the blame falls on Cousy or players like Lacey is left up to the reader, but the lack of cohesion between players and management helps explain why Cousy and the Kings wasted some of Tiny Archibald's best years.

Today's Sam Lacey...Phil Jackson has compared Lacey to Joakim Noah, and who am I to disagree with the Zen Master? It seems like a good comparison. Both players are good rebounders, good passers, good but not overpowering defenders, and subpar scorers. One difference is that Lacey was more of a jump shooter, while Noah gets almost all of his points around the rim, with the result that, while Lacey was the better shooter, Noah is the more efficient scorer.

Unfortunately, YouTube is severly lacking in 1970s Kansas City Kings footage, but here are the highlights from a 1978 game against the Cavs. Watch at 0:16 for a nice feed from Lacey to Otis Birdsong.


  1. Sam is my big cousin. The fact that he played against the likes of Kareem and was able to compete says a lot. He's apart of a great group of centers to have a 100 assist and 100 steals for 6 straight seasons. The shame is that good players are always over looked. In our hometown of Indianola, his jersey isn't retired. How do you get the NBA to retire your jersey and your old high school hasn't.

  2. I was saddened to hear the news of Sam's passing… I met Sam in the summer of 1970 when I was a 13 year old kid at Bob Cousy's basketball camp in New Hampshire. He had just been drafted by the Cincinnati Royals and showed up at the camp to work out before the upcoming season. I spent two weeks being his "rebounder". I helped him work out every day while he worked on his jump shot. For a man of his size, if you didn't know him, you could easily be intimidated by him. I'll never forget what a kind, gentle man he was. I followed his career in the NBA and will always hold him in high esteem. I'm very sorry for your loss.