Posted by Neil Paine on March 2, 2009
Sad news arrived out of Chicago last week, when we learned that Bulls legend Norm Van Lier had passed away at the age of 61. In his memory, today I thought I'd talk a little about what made Van Lier a special player.
There's no question that Van Lier's calling card was his awesome defense. Although he was only 6'1", he was quite strong and possessed a lot of what we might call "mental toughness" (they called it plain old "moxie" back then). Even in an era where guards were allowed to handcheck and bump opponents on the perimeter, the fiesty Van Lier was considered a particularly physical player; he used that hard-nosed style to rack up steals on 2.5% of opponents' possessions (a rate of nearly 2 a game), and along with Jerry Sloan he spearheaded the Dick Motta-coached Bulls to what was the NBA's 2nd-best defense from 1973-74 to 76-77. In recognition of his great defensive skills, Van Lier was named to either 1st- or 2nd-team All-Defense in 8 consecutive years (1971-1978), and for his career he ranks 19th all-time in defensive rating with 97.7. Let all of that sink in for a second... it's a very impressive defensive resume, isn't it?
Needless to say, it takes a great work ethic and an unselfish attitude to become the kind of defensive wizard that Van Lier was, and that team-first mindset bled over into his offensive game as well. NVL wasn't a premier shooter or scorer by any means -- his career FG% was just .414 (part of a lifetime .476 TS%), he averaged only 12.1 career P/36, and his offensive rating, normalized to the 2008-09 scoring environment, was just 106.5 on 18.3% of team possessions while on the floor. But one thing you could say about Van Lier on offense is that he was a savvy floor leader who loved to set up teammates for scoring chances. Van Lier ranked in the NBA's top five in assist rate every season from 1971 to '76, and was also top-10 in '77 & '78; he actually led the league in total assists and assists per game in 1970-71. It was just another testament to the altruistic brand of basketball Norm Van Lier played during his prime years.
Much like his fellow top defensive PG of the 1970s, Walt Frazier, Van Lier would retire in 1979 and move into a second career as a broadcaster; NVL covered the Bulls on television for nearly 20 years in the 1990s and 2000s. While his position as the Bulls' best-ever defensive guard was eventually usurped by Michael Jordan (whose teams also represented Chicago's best run since Van Lier's heyday), he remained an icon in Chi-town because of his toughness, his blue-collar work ethic, and his ongoing connection with the community even long after his playing days were over. The raw boxscore numbers may not reflect Van Lier's full impact as a player, but in the wake of the bad news this past week, we should take a little time to remember his important contributions both as a player and as a human being.