A Tale of Two Phils: A pair of All-Star guards of the 1970s with similar backgrounds and career arcs
A Tale of Two Phils: A pair of All-Star guards of the 1970s with similar backgrounds and career arcs
By Cort Reynolds
Phil Chenier and Phil Smith are two unappreciated All-Star guards of the 1970s. Their parallel careers had numerous similarities, with each peaking as second team All-NBA guards and retiring at age 31 after injuries curtailed their careers.
Tragically, unlike Chenier however, Smith's life ended prematurely 18 years ago.
Each Phil was a classic 6-4 two guard who weighed between 180 and 185 pounds and played for NBA champions in the greatest decade of league parity, with no repeat champions. The duo hailed from near one another in northern California, starred at California colleges and even had matching mustaches and similar complexions.
Chenier was the more accurate perimeter sniper while the speedier Smith, a good shooter in his own right, was a better driver and more athletic. Each was overshadowed by the many flashy, great scoring guards of the decade, but carved out fine careers of their own.
A few years older, Chenier went to high school in Berkeley and was an All-Pac 8 selection for his hometown University of California squad. A hardship supplemental draft pick, he debuted with the then-Baltimore Bullets in 1971 and made the 1972 all-rookie team, averaging 12.3 points a game.
The next season he established himself as a high-quality starter for the Central Division champion Bullets, scoring 19.7 points to go with just over four rebounds and four assists a game.
Against Portland on December 6 of 1972, he poured in a career-high 53 points. On that special night in the pre-three point shot era he drilled 22 of 31 field goal tries and nine of 11 foul shots to account for that total.
Chenier featured a high-release textbook jump shot, as well as an accurate fadeaway jumper as he excelled at squaring his body and shoulders up for his shot. He was an ambidextrous finisher off the drive, a deadly mid-range shooter and a heady, fundamentally sound player. He was not flashy, but could perform subtle highlight-type maneuvers when the situation called for it.
He kept improving and by 1974 had developed into an All-Star for the renamed Capital Bullets. Chenier averaged a career-best 21.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and two steals per game in 1973-74 as the Bullets won their fourth of fifth straight Central Division crowns.
For the sixth year in a row, the Bullets played the rival New York Knicks in the Eastern playoffs that spring. And for the fifth time in that span, the New Yorkers eliminated the Bullets.
Chenier and Knick great Walt Frazier had some memorable backcourt battles. Chenier typically held his own against the skilled, crafty Hall of Famer. He scored 22.4 ppg in the 1974 series vs. NY, and grabbed 6.1 rebounds a game.
In 1975 the Bullets tied defending champion Boston for the best record in the league at 60-22. Chenier repeated as an All-Star, pouring in 21.8 ppg.
Rechristened again as the Washington Bullets, they outlasted Buffalo 4-3 in the East semifinals as Chenier poured in 39 points (13-18 FG, 13-15 FTs) in the seventh game.
Washington then knocked off the Celtics 4-2 in the conference finals. Chenier scored 24 points in the 98-92 clincher, and averaged 24.8 ppg in the series.
The Bullets were heavy favorites going into the Finals against Golden State. But, led by Rick Barry, the Warriors upset the Bullets in a remarkable four-game sweep. A rookie guard named Phil Smith came off the deep Warrior bench to be the third-leading scorer for the underdog champs.
In 24 minutes a game during the championship series, Smith scored 10.8 points a game, third-best on a team that saw eight players score between six and 12 ppg. Smith's driving left-handed dunk over Bullet All-Star big man Elvin Hayes, a fine shot-blocker, was a series highlight.
On the other side, Chenier enjoyed his best post-season in 1975, averaging 24.2 points and 4.5 rebounds a game over 17 games. In game four of the title series, Chenier registered game-high totals of 26 points and 11 assists, but his Bullets still lost a 96-95 heartbreaker at home to conclude the sweept.
In the Finals Chenier scored a team-best 23 points a game and sank 34 of 36 free throws (94.4 percent), but shot just 42 percent from the field.
The series was much closer than the 4-0 score indicates, as the four wins were by a combined total of just 16 points, including one-point victories in games two and four. The much deeper Warriors rallied from sizeable deficits in every contest with second half comebacks led by the all-around brilliance of Barry.
Golden State outscored the Bullets by 9.5 ppg in the second half of the series. The comeback pattern was established in game one when they rallied from a 54-40 halftime deficit with a 61-41 second half to win 101-95.
Multi-talented Barry averaged a series-high 29.5 points and 3.5 steals per game while sinking 30 of 32 free throws (94 percent) with his unique underhanded style. The 6-7 forward also led the Warriors with five assists per outing.
In frustration, Barry's outmatched opposite number Mike Riordan (normally a good, aggressive defender) tried to take unpopular superstar Barry out in game four with calculated hard fouls. The tactic started a huge first period brawl that saw Warrior coach Al Attles get ejected and restrained by burly Bullet center Wes Unseld.
But nothing could stop Barry and the Warriors in those playoffs.
The sticky defense of the heady 6-6 Wilkes held Hayes to just 41.6 field goal shooting and he was second on the team with 11.5 ppg - the largest gap between a winning team's first and second-leading scorer ever in the Finals.
Smith broke in more slowly than Chenier. A San Francisco native, he starred in college for the hometown USF Dons, who could not get by the UCLA juggernaut led by Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins eliminated the Dons in both the 1973 and 1974 West regional finals, just one win shy of the Final Four.
Not heavily recruited out of high school, Smith was asked to try out for USF after head coach Bob Gaillard saw him play in a pickup game on campus. He averaged 18.1 points and 5.1 rebounds a game for the Dons over three seasons from 1971-74.
Smith was picked 29th overall in the second round by the hometown Warriors. A wiry, quick slasher and strong defender with long arms, the unheralded San Franciscan quickly became one of the best all-around guards in the NBA.
Smith averaged 7.7 ppg as a rookie on the champion Warriors, who were led by Barry and Rookie of the Year Wilkes. Smith's rise to stardom was meteoric in his second season as he became an All-Star and was voted second team all-league.
Golden State posted a league-best 59-23 record behind their big three of Barry, Wilkes and Smith. The athletic guard scored 20 points a game, grabbed 4.6 caroms and doled out 4.4 assists a game, and was named to the all-defense second squad to cap a superb all-around campaign.
Favored to repeat as champs, the Warriors were upset at home in game seven of the West finals by Phoenix, led by star guard Paul Westphal and 1976 Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams.
The Warriors would not reach the Western Conference finals again until 2015.
The wraith-quick Smith netted 24 ppg over 13 playoff games in 1976, shooting 52 percent from the field. He drained a career playoff-best 37 points in the 118-116 overtime clincher at Detroit in game six, canning 17 of 27 field goal tries.
Washington and Chenier were also upset in the East playoffs 4-3 by Cleveland in an epic series that saw the final three games decided by a combined total of seven points.
The former Cal star scored 31 points on 14 of 21 shooting in game seven at Cleveland. But his desperation deep right corner shot at the buzzer fell short in the 87-85 defeat as the Cavalier fans stormed the court in the franchise's first playoff series ever.
Smith turned in another storng season in 1976-77 as he averaged 19 points, four rebounds and four assists a game. The two Phils made the first post NBA/ABA merger All-Star Game in Milwaukee on opposing teams for the only time.
Smith scored 13 points in that mid-season classic, while Chenier tallied six in the 125-124 West win. Chenier enjoyed his last good full season in 1976-77, averaging 20.2 ppg.
Neither would return to the All-Star Game the rest of their injury-plagued careers.
In the 1977 playoffs Chenier poured in 25 ppg over nine games, but Washington was eliminated 4-2 by Houston in round two.
Out west, Smith netted 19.7 points and 4.8 assists a game for the fading Warriors. For the third straight season he played all 82 games. But Golden State lost a tough 4-3 series to the Lakers in the Western semifinals.
Chenier injured his back in 1978 and was replaced by younger southpaw sharpshooter Kevin Grevey as Washington's starting two guard. With Chenier limited to just 36 games, he scored 14.1 ppg and missed the playoffs entirely after surgery to repair his back.
But Washington, despite just a 44-38 record, upset the Dr. J-led 76ers in the Eastern finals to reach the title round against upstart Seattle.
In the championship series, the more experienced Bullets rallied from deficits of 0-1, 1-2 and 2-3 to win the only title in franchise history in seven bruising, close games. They still own the dubious mark of having the worst regular season record of any NBA champion.
The 1977-78 Warriors finished 43-39 (just one game worse than the champion Bullets) but missed the post-season for just the second time that decade. Smith averaged 19.7 and 4.8 assists a game.
In 1978-79 Smith scored 19.9 ppg and missed 23 games as the 38-44 Warriors, burned by the free agent departures of Barry and Wilkes, missed the playoffs again.
Like Golden State three years before, defending champion Washington improved by double-digit wins and registered the best record in the NBA at 54-28 in 1978-79. Chenier played just 14 games and averaged a career-low 5.8 ppg.
After rallying from a 1-3 deficit to beat the Spurs in the Eastern finals, the wearied veteran Bullets returned to the 1979 NBA Finals once more against Seattle. It was their league-leading fourth NBA Championship series appearance of the decade.
But with Chenier barely playing, the SuperSonics avenged their defeat with a 4-1 victory in the Finals. The Bullets also lost to Milwaukee in the 1971 title series.
Early in the 1979-80 season, Chenier was traded to Indiana. He averaged 7.6 ppg in 43 games that season after scoring 10.1 for the Bullets in 20 contests.
Smith also endured a rough year as he ruptured his Achilles during the 1979-80 season. He averaged 15.5 ppg in 51 games for the Warriors. Smith was then traded in the summer of 1980 to the San Diego Clippers for World B. Free.
While Chenier was wrapping his career up in the same state in 1980-81, Smith enjoyed a solid comeback season in southern California. He averaged 16.8 points and 4.8 assists a game while shooting 49 percent from the floor for the Clips, who were hamstrung by Bill Walton's constant injuries.
Waived by the Pacers, Chenier came home and signed with Smith's former Golden State club as a free agent in 1981. In just nine games, he scored 3.2 ppg and retired after being waived by the Warriors.
Chenier retired from the NBA at age 31. He averaged 17.2 points, three assists and 3.6 rebounds a game over 10 seasons and 578 games. He shot 44.4 percent from the field and 80.6 percent at the charity stripe.
From 1972-77 he had been one of the NBA's best guards as he averaged 21 ppg for a consistent title contender and made three All-Star teams.
In 1981-82 Smith scored 13.2 ppg with the Clippers before being traded in mid-season to Seattle. He averaged 8.2 ppg for the Sonics, who were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round.
The next season ended up being his last. Smith tallied 5.7 ppg in 79 games backing up David Thompson as Seattle went 48-34. They were eliminated by Portland in the West first round, 2-0.
Like Chenier Smith's career ended at age 31. Over nine seasons, Smith averaged 15.1 points, 3.9 assists and three rebounds a game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 77.6 from the foul line.
Like the other Phil, Smith surpassed the 50-point mark single game mark. He poured in a career-best 51 points in each of his second and third seasons.
Smith's son Martin played for Chenier's alma mater University of California from 2002-06, while another son (Peter Smith) played briefly for USF. Sadly Phil Smith died after a long battle with cancer at just 50 in 2002.
Chenier went on to broadcast Washington NBA games for 30 years from 1987-2017. His jersey number 45 was retired by the Washington franchise in March of 2018.
In his eight full campaigns with the Bullets, Chenier contributed heavily to five division championship teams which averaged 50.2 wins a season. In his other three seasons, Washington finished second twice - by a single game both times with 48 victories - and captured the lone NBA title in franchise history.
During their mirror-like shortened 10-year careers, Chenier scored 9,971 career regular season points while Smith tallied 9,924 points. Chenier grabbed a mere 85 more career rebounds. Chenier's career-high in points of 53 was just two points better tham Smith's 51.
Both northern California natives ended their pro careers on the west coast, and each played with three teams. Each was underappeciated when they played but recognized by basketball cognescenti, but have been somewhat forgotten since.
On their championship team years, each was overshadowed. After seven years of consistently fine play, Chenier was injured when the Bullets finally won it all in 1978. Smith was a key but relatively unknown rookie reserve in 1975 when the Warriors upset Chenier's Bullets in the shocking Finals sweep.
In a decade chock full of better-known Hall of Fame guards such as Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Frazier, Earl Monroe, Nate Archibald, Westphal, Pete Maravich, Gail Goodrich, JoJo White, Dennis Johnson and Thompson, each still managed to be among the best guards of the 1970s.