It was a year of very good teams, it was a year of very bad
teams. While the Bulls raced to 69 wins and the Jazz to 64, nine
NBA clubs failed to win more than 30 games in the 1996-97
season, a league mark for futility. A record-tying six teams won
fewer than 25 games apiece. None of the 13 clubs that missed the
postseason deserved to make it. Here's a look at what happened
to those unlucky 13 this past year (listed from worst record to
best)--and more important, where they go from here.
No NFL-like surprises for these second-year expansionists.
Vancouver lost half its games by 10 or more points. The
Grizzlies were the first NBA team in 32 years whose primary
point guard (Greg Anthony) and off guard (Anthony Peeler) each
shot less than 40% from the field.
This club needs shooters, a playmaker and three more Shareef
Abdur-Rahims. (The rookie forward led the team in scoring at
18.7 points per game.) The good news is that the Grizzlies will
be as much as $11 million under the salary cap, so they should
have a shot at a few free agents this summer. But first they
have to find a coach. Stu Jackson, who is giving up that role to
concentrate on his general manager duties, has a list of 60
Sixty? Are there half that many coaches in North America who
would want this job?
April 20 was Fan Appreciation Day at the FleetCenter, a chance
for the Celtics to say thanks to their fans. The feeling was not
reciprocated. The announcement that one of the giveaways would
be a practice jersey belonging to less-than-legendary backup
center Alton Lister was met with a flood of boos, which
continued as the Celtics were hammered by Toronto 125-94. That
ended the sixth-worst season (15-67) in NBA history for an
82-game schedule and by far the bleakest in Celtics history.
This years' Celtics lost nine more games than their Boston
predecessors did in three entire seasons from 1959-60 to 1961-62.
There is reason for optimism, however. M.L. Carr--who in 163
games on the bench never drew a technical foul--will be gone as
coach and perhaps as G.M., too. Speculation had centered on
Larry Bird's taking over basketball operations and handing the
coaching job to Larry Brown (if Bird doesn't replace Brown as
coach of the Indiana Pacers), though the Brown scenario cooled a
bit last weekend.
The Celts have a 36.3% chance of securing the No. 1 pick in the
draft, which they would use for Wake Forest center Tim Duncan,
and will very likely have two of the top six selections. If
Boston gets Duncan and another top rookie, and keeps swingman
Rick Fox from leaving through free agency, a competently coached
Celtics team would have a reasonable shot of going from 15
victories to the playoffs.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs used an astounding 24 starting lineups--11 more than
the Bulls. Just as amazing, Cadillac Anderson was a starter in
48 games. Injuries limited David Robinson to just six games and
Sean Elliot to 39, a big reason that the Spurs recorded the
largest single-season drop in victories (39) in NBA history.
Next year the Spurs hope to make the league's largest
single-season jump. They have a decent shot at the No. 1 pick,
but they don't need Duncan and would be happy to add someone
like Kentucky All-America Ron Mercer to a lineup of Robinson,
Elliott, Avery Johnson and whatever free-agent power forward
they can find in the off-season.
Such prospects are why G.M. Gregg Popovich, who cold-bloodedly
fired coach Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and replaced Hill with
himself, plans to keep both jobs next year. His top priority is
finding rebounding help for Robinson--and a rabbit's foot to
ward off injuries.
Denver's season essentially ended 3 1/2 months before it began,
when center Dikembe Mutombo signed with Atlanta as a free agent
on July 15. That loss and some bad trades (leading scorer
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for damaged goods Sarunas Marciulionis?)
drove the man responsible, former coach-G.M. Bernie Bickerstaff,
to give up the coaching job, then later bolt for the Bullets. By
season's end Denver was as awful as Vancouver and Boston. How
bad? The Nuggets' minutes leader this year, by far, was Dale
Ellis, age 36.
New G.M. Allan Bristow will begin a massive rebuilding project
by hiring the Nuggets' seventh coach in eight years. The
front-runner appears to be Atlanta assistant Bill Hanzlik, a
defensive specialist who might bolster the Nuggets' woeful
efforts on D. Denver will have a high draft pick and will be $5
million under the cap, but with standout forward LaPhonso Ellis
already gone for most of next season after tearing his Achilles
tendon late in the season, this team likely will be very bad for
some time to come.
Allen Iverson scored 40 points in five straight games in April;
Philly lost all five. Need we say more? Yes. The Sixers
shamelessly called two timeouts in the final minute of the
blowout fifth game, against Washington, so Iverson could break
the record for consecutive 40-point games by a rookie. That
didn't sit well. Said Sixers part owner Pat Croce, "I was
Iverson is a remarkable talent, but he needs the guidance of a
veteran coach. Croce, who fired his first-year tandem of coach
Johnny Davis and G.M. Brad Greenberg after the season, was
heavily wooing Kentucky coach Rick Pitino--going so far as to
send flowers and fruit baskets to Pitino's hotel at each stop on
the coach's current book tour.
Pitino's hiring would move this club in the right direction, as
would trading forwards Derrick Coleman and Clarence
Weatherspoon, though it remains to be seen whether either has
value. The best hope might be to deal shooting guard Jerry
Stackhouse, another tremendous talent, who definitely would
bring the Sixers quality in return. His game simply doesn't mesh
(does anybody's?) with Iverson's--both shot less than 42%, and
they were first and third, respectively, in the NBA in total
On April 6 against the Lakers, the Mavericks were outscored 27-2
in the third quarter, setting a league record for fewest points
in a period. Dallas went 0 for 15 from the floor and committed
nine turnovers. Scarily, one former Maverick said, only half
jokingly, that it might not have been the worst quarter in the
Mavs' 24-58 season.
As another horrible campaign came to a close in Big D, new G.M.
Don Nelson said, "I'm truly excited about the future of the
team." For the near term, that future will include coach Jim
Cleamons, who'll be retained against the wishes of Nelson. (He
wanted former Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean.) Nelson must hope
that Cleamons learned a lesson from his tumultuous first season:
Find a system that fits your players instead of forcing the
players to conform to your system.
The spotlight will be on 7'6" center Shawn Bradley, who arrived
in the massive February trade with New Jersey. Bradley had a
solid final month, but there remains a gigantic question as to
whether he can play in this league. Point guard Robert Pack also
figures prominently in the plans, but he's always hurt. Without
a high pick in the June draft (Dallas sent its lottery choice to
Boston for since-traded center Eric Montross), the future is far
NEW JERSEY NETS
Upon being fired as coach by the Nets after last season, Butch
Beard said, "They can bring in Pitino, [John] Calipari or
whomever, and it won't change a damn thing." Butch the prophet.
Beard won 30 games in '95-96; Calipari, his $15 million
replacement, won 26. The Nets were the same terrible-shooting
team (42%, lowest in the NBA) they've been for years. Calipari's
club lost more games (56) in one season than his UMass teams did
in seven (53). He alienated some players by openly showing
disgust with their play--folding his arms, stomping his feet,
rolling his eyes on the sidelines. He alienated many fans by
calling a local writer "a f------ Mexican idiot." (The NBA fined
Calipari $25,000 for the remark.)
The Nets' trade with Dallas may yield little in the long run.
Sam Cassell, a free agent, knows competitive Charlotte needs a
point guard. Shooting guard Jimmy Jackson, whose game lost its
explosiveness after his severe ankle injury two seasons ago,
probably will be traded to give Kerry Kittles more playing time.
Forward Chris Gatling, a New Jersey native, says he doesn't like
playing so close to home.
The Nets have lots of room under the cap--a good thing, because
they must sign some free agents to have a chance. But that will
leave the franchise with the same mix as last year: an
overhauled roster, a coach trying to learn on the job and little
hope of going far.
The 30-52 Raptors made significant progress in their second
season, improving by nine wins from '95-96. They made even more
headway just after the regular season ended, when savvy G.M.
Isiah Thomas pulled a power play and came away as majority
owner. Thomas had threatened to leave if his ownership group
wasn't allowed to purchase a controlling interest, and key
players such as Damon Stoudamire and Walt Williams were ready to
go with him. Given that ultimatum, current ownership had no
choice but to yield.
Thomas will spend the summer re-signing Williams, a free agent
who will command far more than the minimum salary for which he
played this year, and looking for a center (6'11" rookie Marcus
Camby proved he isn't one) to take some scoring pressure off
Stoudamire, the point guard. He shot a meager .401, and in one
game in December forced up 37 attempts.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
No one was surprised when Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell
arrived at San Jose Arena at tip-off for Golden State's game
against Seattle on Jan. 29. (He claimed he had been stuck in
traffic.) But even his jaded Warriors teammates raised their
eyebrows when, shortly after the start, Sprewell inserted
himself into the game without orders from coach Rick Adelman.
That says volumes about the control Adelman had over his
players, which made it no surprise when he was fired on Monday.
General manager Dave Twardzik's position also is in jeopardy.
Speculation as to Adelman's replacement has focused on
(surprise, surprise!) Pitino and Brown, as well as St. Jean,
Kansas' Roy Williams, and Rick Majerus of the University of Utah.
Whoever it is will be part of an overhaul that will include the
trade of veteran swingman Chris Mullin, who still can shoot (55%
from the field this year) and deserves to play on a contender.
After foolishly stockpiling point guards (Mark Price, Bimbo
Coles and B.J. Armstrong), the Warriors must find a center:
Felton Spencer and Todd Fuller averaged fewer than 10 points,
Coach Chris Ford's game plan for a March 20 meeting with
Portland called for Milwaukee to press full-court after its
first basket. When that first bucket came, the Bucks players
forgot to press. Ford shook his head, less in disgust than in
resignation that his bunch of underachievers simply didn't care
It's time to break up this deadened, dead-end team. "We've got
to do something," says point guard Sherman Douglas. Power
forward Vin Baker, Milwaukee's best player, has talked about
suiting up for the Celtics (he played his college ball at
Hartford), but a trade there is unlikely. The smart move would
be to deal small forward Glenn Robinson, who plays almost
exclusively away from the basket and without apparent passion.
Milwaukee needs a replacement for G.M. Mike Dunleavy. He
resigned last Saturday after a disappointing five-year run,
during which the Bucks went 140-270 and failed to reach the
When their best player, guard Mitch Richmond, expressed
unhappiness with his contract early in the season, management
said they would take care of him. Unfortunately, the Kings were
already over the cap and couldn't do much.
Richmond, a five-time All-Star and the fourth-leading scorer in
the league this season at 25.9 points per game, wouldn't mind a
trade to a contender, but dealing their only star would leave
the Kings without a recognizable player or a reliable scorer. It
also would exacerbate the shaky situation at point guard, where
the Tyus Edney era lasted about 40 games. Bobby Hurley isn't the
long-term answer at point, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a shooter,
not a playmaker.
Interim coach Eddie Jordan is expected to get a two-year
contract, but unless the Richmond situation works out for the
Kings, Eddie Jordan will need Michael Jordan if Sacramento is to
make the playoffs.
The Pacers' run at the postseason ended on April 16 in
Washington, on a night when Reggie Miller went 3 for 13 from the
floor, 7'4" center Rik Smits pulled down five rebounds, forward
Dale Davis heaved up a free throw attempt that slammed into the
backboard and missed the basket entirely, and point guard Mark
Jackson--the NBA's assist leader for '96-97--finished with no
assists. It ended as so many Pacers games did this year, with
coach Larry Brown, head buried in hands, wondering why another
group of players had quit on him.
A replacement for Brown will be part of the rebuilding process.
Bird met with team president Donnie Walsh over the weekend.
Dunleavy also is on the preliminary list of potential successors
to the peripatetic Brown.
A trade of Smits might be in the offing too; he'll want $10
million a year when he becomes a free agent after next season.
The Pacers will look for a scorer for the front line, another
point guard and, maybe, a free-throw-shooting coach for Davis
(.428 from the line).
Pick a game, any game. All were the same when the Cavaliers were
involved: slow, boring and dominated by defense. Only five times
this year did both the Cavs and their opponent top 100. Fans
hate the style, and with Cleveland missing the postseason for
the first time since 1991, they have reason to expect changes.
With seven free agents and two first-round draft choices, the
roster will be revamped. As for the coach, Mike Fratello's
Sominex strategy sparked much talk that he'd be gone, but over
the weekend sources close to the team said owner Gordon Gund was
considering granting Fratello an extension. Fratello dislikes
the slow-down game but believes it was the only way he could win
with the talent at hand. If he survives, look for him to
increase the tempo--much to everyone's relief.
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER A few Abdur-Rahim clones would put postseason play within the Grizzlies' grasp. [Shareef Abdur-Rahim in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Tim Duncan in game]
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE LIPOFSKY The fate of Robinson (left) could mirror that of Stackhouse: Both may be in new cities next season. [Glenn Robinson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above--Jerry Stackhouse in game]
THE DUNCAN DERBY
Despite their NBA-worst 14-68 record, the Grizzlies won't get
first shot at this year's draft prize, Wake Forest center Tim
Duncan (right). Vancouver and Toronto qualified for the draft
lottery, which will be held May 18, but the terms of their
expansion agreement dictate that neither can have the first pick
until 1999. That leaves the Celtics, with the league's
second-worst record, sitting pretty and dreaming of a dynasty
built around Duncan. In addition to its own lottery balls,
Boston has Dallas's, which increases the Celtics' odds even
further. Here's the chance, expressed as a percentage, of each
of the 10 eligible teams' receiving the top pick in the '97
draft (assuming there are no trades or other moves).
TEAM RECORD PCT.
Boston 15-67 36.3
San Antonio 20-62 21.6
Denver 21-61 16.5
Philadelphia 22-60 12.2
New Jersey 26-56 6.0
Golden State 30-52 3.3
Milwaukee 33-49 1.5
Sacramento 34-48 1.0
Indiana 39-43 .8
Cleveland 42-40 .7