Being an NBA history nerd, I’ve always had a tertiary understanding of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s Sixers teams.
Their “Big Three” was the front court trifecta of Charles Barkley, Rick Mahorn and, the subject of today’s breakdown, Mike Gminski. They were also complemented by the linguistically pleasing Hawkins-Dawkins backcourt and peaked with two decently competitive second-round series against Jordan’s Bulls in 1990 and 1991.
Barkley was at the peak of his athletic powers and a devastating combo of strength, vertical explosion and ball skills (not to mention I will forever defend him as an underrated passing genius). Anyone who watched the 30 for 30 doc on the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons knew what Rick Mahorn was about. Gminski, however, had no outsized historical reputation like his contemporaries, leading younger me to assume that he was your typical double-double producing center of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
But diving in and taking time to watch the G-Man in action, I learned that he played in a style that was ahead of his time, and a center who relied on his skill rather than his athleticism.
The seven-footer’s shooting touch is the first thing that stands out in his historical profile. Despite playing with multiple +80% free throw line shooters in Hawkins, Dawkins and Ron Anderson, it was Gminski who coach Jim Lynam designated as the team’s shooter on technical fouls — a vote of confidence to say the least. And it was justified, given that Gminski is owner of one of the greatest big-man foul shooting seasons in league history.
(Yes, Dirk Nowitzki was also very good)
However, despite the incredible touch he displayed from the foul line, Gminski never expanded his range out to the three-point arc, attempting only 49 threes in his 14-year NBA career, and connecting on only six of them (Yes, this is one more three than Ben Simmons has hit so far in his career).
While we sadly don’t have any data available to track his mid-range accuracy, anecdotally he was a great shooter from 15 to 18 feet, often being used as a pick-and-pop threat or as a floor spacer with Barkley and Mahorn posting up on the inside. Additionally, Gminski made up for his general lack of being a rim running or lob threat by trailing plays in transition and stepping into those long middies with rhythm.
Possessing this pristine shooting stroke and playing alongside a dominant advantage creator in Barkley led to Gminski developing himself as an off-ball virtuoso, a center who found ways to impact winning without needing to be force fed post touches every possession.
Even though he misses the shot in this next clip, you can see Gminski’s spacing instincts on display as he correctly reads the action and shakes up to the wing after seeing his teammate attack the closeout and drive toward the baseline.
Smart cutting off-ball was also how Gminski was able to manufacture most of his dunks at the professional level, seeing how he wasn’t too gifted as a vertical athlete and played on a team that often clogged the paint with multiple bodies at a time. You can see in the clip below how Gminski is eyeing Hawkins the entire time and knows the perfect crease to drift into for the easy two.
Though the 6-foot-11 Connecticut native wasn’t fond of dribbling the basketball too much, he did have a viable scoring touch from the post, almost always going to a jump hook over his left shoulder when tossed the ball inside. He never carved out much breathing room with his footwork, and often he lacked both the lateral and vertical burst needed to separate from his primary defender, but his shooting touch was so deft that it didn’t matter most of the time, and he could calmly flick the ball through the nylon over outstretched hands.
But while Gminski’s emphasis on skill over strength might have translated better to 21st century basketball, the big man’s lumbering nature and heavy feet would not have undergone the era change as smoothly. Rim protection is the linchpin of any great defense, and in that department G-Man was a non-factor at the NBA level.
With illegal defense rules in place during the ‘80s and ‘90s, opponents were comfortable going at him on an island down in the post, confident that he would back off in fear of getting blown by, making him unable to contest any type of turnaround or face-up push shots from their centers.
His side-to-side speed also left much to be desired, as the Sixers of those days did all they could to avoid getting him switched onto a smaller player, and Gminski himself often did his best 2019 Brook Lopez impression by constantly standing in the paint for 2.9 second intervals whenever he was defending off the ball, but almost never rotating the rim when a teammate of his would get beat off the dribble.
I could detail his foot speed struggles further, but this following clip probably illustrates his plight the best, as anyone who gets dusted by Bill Cartwright one-on-one probably needs to ask themselves some difficult questions.
As a wise man once said — damn.
It was pretty peculiar watching Gminski play defense in the NBA as there was a red X painted across his back, seeing that back at the college level, he was talked up a great enforcer on that end.
Here he is in a 1980 bout between Duke and UNC sliding over for a monster rejection against none other than James Worthy, and following it up with a pinpoint outlet pass to his teammate for what is essentially a four-point swing.
(Worth noting — Gminski was a plus-passer for a big man both at the college and professional levels, in the Al Horford and Kevin Love mold of precise stationary quarterbacks rather than the more modern method of short roll distribution).
Announcers during these late ‘70s games of his raved about Gminski’s “quickness and leaping ability”, with one broadcaster going so far as to say that, “he might end up as the best center to ever play in the ACC.” It’s worth noting that some guy named Ralph Sampson showed up a year after this proclamation was made.
The lack of both a defensive three seconds rule and a desire to spread the floor and shoot jumpers at the college level set up the perfect defensive situation for Gminski at Duke, one where he simply had to stand near the rim and be taller than everybody else.
Could G-Man have achieved the same success in the modern NBA that he did back then? It’s hard to say.
He would have been pushed to expand his range to the three-point line, and given his all-time great free throw shooting and reliable touch on all sorts of mid-range jumpers, he easily could have been a plus three-point marksmen on good volume. However, the lack of quickness and fluidity in his movement skills would limit him on both ends, as there’s probably no pick-and-roll scheme he could play outside of an ineffective deep drop, and offensively a player who doesn’t dribble unless absolutely necessary is limited by definition.
But I also think that’s what so cool about Gminski. The list of NBA players who could not move well and could not dribble is few and far between, and this man was the freaking seventh overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, arguably the second-best player on a 53-win Sixers team in 1990 and started in over 500 of his 938 career games.
Mike Gminski was a great shooter, a great passer, a great off-ball mover — and most importantly — had some of the greatest hair the sport has ever seen.
Formally nominating Mike Gminski for some of the best hair in NBA history pic.twitter.com/dlL9naaQFW— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) August 20, 2022
Thank you for being a Sixer, G-Man.