Duke to the Future: Why the 1998-99 Duke basketball team was so good
The short answer to this is talent, but it’s in the way they employed that talent, combined with their physical make-up, that made them so dominant. Will Avery and Trajan Langdon were the only ones under 6-foot-6 for that Duke basketball powerhouse that featured Elton Brand and Langdon, but also had Shane Battier, Chris Carrawell, Corey Maggette, and Nate James, to a lesser extent, roaming on the wings. Chris Burgess was the big man at 6-10.
They could all score, rebound, and defend in almost interchangeable fashion, though. Maggette was a scoring machine at times in his limited freshman minutes. We all know the type of defender Battier was even as a sophomore. Carrawell was the jack of all trades player he always was. And James could spell each of them without any kind of dropoff, especially defensively and on the boards.
Offensively, that Duke basketball team wasn’t overly reliant on the three-ball because they didn’t need to be; and they played in an era when 3-point analytics weren’t valued at today’s level.
Although they had capable shooters headlined by my fellow 49-stater, the Alaskan Assassin, the Blue Devils were only 90th in attempts in the country but actually seventh in percentage. Again, part of this was the time, but a lot had to do with how unstoppable Brand and the Blue Devils were inside.
That season, Duke basketball was still first in scoring in large part to being fourth in both 2-point field goal percentage and 2-point baskets made. Everyone who played could get buckets one way or the other, with James contributing five points per game as the low man of the eight players averaging over 10 minutes and who played in the title game.
Attacking the rim with their physicality to score or rebound potential misses resulted in them being third and fourth in free throws made and attempted while being 29th best in hitting the offensive boards. The game plan was pretty clear when no one could stand in your way going to the basket.
For all the benefits the 1998-99 Blue Devils may have had on offense, their length, strength, and athleticism made them a beast defensively.
They turned their opponents over almost 18 times per game, including nine steals, all while ranking inside the top 20 in defending the basket and the 3-point line. This would lead to their lethal transition game and Brand establishing a solid position on the low block or mid-post where he wasn’t being moved out of.
With their size, they were also able to seal defensive possessions with rebounds, again leading out to transition. With their versatility and ability to do a bit of everything, all eight players averaged over 2.6 boards, almost all averaged one assist, and at least half averaged a steal per game.
They were tough, they were explosive and interchangeable, and they were so, so close. Even without the title, they are widely considered the most dominant team Coach K has ever had, and it goes to show how dumb we are for loving college basketball when a few moments from one game can mean so much to alter history.
But, the blueprint was forged. The strategy was tested and true; it just had to wait patiently in the back pages of the playbook until players emerged who could match the physicality and versatility that made them so good. And then came…