Monday, August 30, 2010

Seattle Supersonics- Oklahoma City Thunder: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Quick! Name a time when the Sonics/Thunder had NO top-flight talent. It’s pretty tough. Through the years, this has been one talent-laden franchise.

From Bob Rule and Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (better known as UCLA great Walt Hazzard), to Kevin Durant today, superb offensive talent and exciting play has been a hallmark of the Supersonics’ (now Thunder) franchise.

Despite missing the postseason in their first seven seasons, talent was not in short supply for the Sonics. In a rough 23-59 debut season, the 1967-68 Sonics boasted a solid man in the middle in Rule (18.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and a 24 ppg from Abdul-Rahman in his only season with the team.

The following season, Rule took his game to new heights as the Sonics welcomed star PG Lenny Wilkens, previously of the St. Louis Hawks. Wilkens’ outstanding play carried over to Seattle, as he averaged 22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 8.2 apg in the first of his four seasons with the Sonics.

After one more excellent season, Rule’s run in Seattle came to a disappointing end, as injuries limited him to just 20 games over the next two seasons. However, Spencer Haywood was there to pick up the slack, after an awesome 30 ppg, 19.5 rpg rookie season in Denver. He was a double-double machine for the Sonics over the next five seasons, the last of which included the Sonics’ first-ever postseason trip.

The Haywood era also saw the end of the Wikens era, though the Supersonics did add a trio of talented guards during that stretch- “Downtown” Fred Brown in 1971, Slick Watts in 1973 and future Hall of Famer and 1979 Finals MVP Dennis Johnson before the 1976-77 season. The following year, Seattle added a pair of young stars- Gus Williams and Jack Sikma- who would combine with Brown and Johnson to spearhead runs to back-to-back Finals appearances and the NBA 1979 championship.

Williams joined the Sonics after two years with the Warriors, while Sikma was the eighth pick in the 1978 draft. Williams was a consistent offensive threat over the next six seasons, and Sikma became one of the NBA’s best centers of the late-1970s and 1980s, regularly averaging a double-double, and possessing a soft outside touch.

By the mid-1980s, while Sikma continued to anchor the middle, Williams was on his way out and a fading David Thompson had played out his last two seasons in Seattle. Unless they retooled quickly, the Sonics would become an also-ran contender.

Not to worry, more talent was on the way!

After acquiring Tom Chambers in 1983, the Sonics drafted rugged power forward Xavier McDaniel in 1985 and the following year- their first post-Sikma- traded for underutilized Mavericks’ two-guard, Dale Ellis. The trio clicked beautifully in their first seasons together, 1986-87, each averaging 20+ ppg and leading the Sonics to the 1987 conference finals.

While Chambers was gone by the start of the 1988-89 season, Ellis and McDaniel remained, holding down the fort until the arrival of the cornerstones for the next decade- Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The Sonics completed their return to contender status by adding Detlef Schrempf via a trade in 1993.

This crew led the Sonics to four straight seasons of 57+ wins and the 1996 NBA Finals. However, by decade’s end, Kemp and Schrempf were gone and Payton, now the face of the franchise, was teamed with Vin Baker and rising star Rashard Lewis.

Roughly 30 games into the 2002-03 season, after nearly 1,000 games with the Sonics, Payton was traded, paving the way for a new wave of young stars to rule in Seattle. With Lewis now coming into his own, Payton was sent to Milwaukee in exchange for one of the NBA’s great shooters, Ray Allen.

After a rough 2006-07 season (31-51), luck smiled on the Sonics, as some friendly ping-pong balls and the “you can’t teach seven feet” adage landed the franchise one of this generation’s deadliest scorers, Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Seattle sent Ray Allen (and his $14+ million salary) to Boston in exchange for Jeff Green and some cheap filler. Also, after becoming a regular 20 ppg scorer, Lewis left as a free agent for Orlando, signing a monstrosity (albatross?) of a $120 million free agent deal.

The Sonics struggled in 2007-08, but Green and (especially) Durant showed themselves to be more-than-capable of excelling in the NBA. After a couple of tough years, things were looking up in Seattle.

Not so fast!

In one of the NBA’s embarrassing chapters, Starbucks mogul, then-Sonics owner and then-Seattle icon, Howard Schultz, sold the franchise to Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett. Despite declarations of commitment to Seattle and claims that the team would not be relocated, Bennett and David Stern (Bennett’s buddy) tag-teamed to plunge a dagger into the heart of one of the NBA’s best fan bases. The next season, the former Seattle Sonics took the floor as the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What’s happened since? Not much.

Durant’s averaged 25 and 30 ppg in the past two seasons, and become the youngest scoring champion in league history. Meanwhile the Thunder added stud PG Russell Westbrook in the 2009 draft and have since become one of the NBA’s most likable teams and a budding title contender.

Sorry Seattle!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Minnesota Timberwolves: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Other than the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies, it’s tough to think of a franchise that’s faced more hardship- both as a result of their own doing as well as bad luck- than the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In their 21-year history, the Timberwolves have made eight appearances in the postseason, all of them consecutively. However, sandwiching this period of relatively prosperity are two stretches of futility, defined by misfortune, missteps by management (Joe Smith was worth how many first rounders??) and unrealized potential.

What’s worse is that it seems like every cause source of optimism for this franchise comes with strings attached.

The team’s early years were not atypical of an expansion franchise’s early days- wins were difficult to come by (average 21.7/season; high of 29), the team hit on some draft day selections (Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider) and missed on others (Felton Spencer and Luc Longley). The problem?

Even when they got it “right,” the Wolves wound up with a pair of bad teammates and a budding criminal not-so-mastermind in Rider.

The early days of the Timberwolves peaked in 1994, with Isaiah Rider’s spectacular and then-unprecedented “East Bay Funk Dunk” at the slam dunk contest, which took place in Minneapolis’ Target Center.

After six difficult seasons to start the 1990s, the Timberwolves managed to reinvent themselves with a single, (at the time) daring draft pick. With the fifth pick in the 1995 draft, the Wolves rolled the dice on a gifted big man that was attempting to become the NBA’s first “preps to pros” star in two decades- Farragut Academy’s Kevin Garnett.

The team continued to struggle in Garnett’s rookie season (1995-96), managing just 26 wins, but his emergence in 1996-97 gave the franchise its first (and only, to date) legitimate superstar. In a dozen years in the Twin Cities, Garnett cemented his place as not only the greatest player in Timberwolves’ history, but as one of the greatest power forwards ever to grace an NBA court.

After that first, difficult year, KG teamed with a variety of talented supporting players to lead the Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff appearances- the only postseason trips in franchise history. Ahead of the 1996-97 season, a draft day trade landed PG phenom Stephon Marbury in Minnesota.

Optimism was sky-high, with Christian Laettner and talented problem child Isaiah Rider gone, and Garnett now teaming with new-acquired PF Tom Gugliotta and Marbury. The trio initially had the look of a budding powerhouse, leading the Wolves to the postseason in each of Marbury’s first two seasons and producing the Wolves’ first-ever-winning season in1997-98.

However, the euphoria and optimism would be short-lived. Rather than teaming up to transform the franchise, petty jealousy over a massive contract extension for Garnett led to the deterioration of Marbury’s relationship with the franchise. He was dealt to New Jersey early in his third season in deal that would bring Terrell Brandon to the team.

In three seasons with the Wolves, Brandon picked up where Marbury had left off, teaming with Garnett to lead the Wolves to three more .500+ seasons, the franchise’s first 50-win season and three more playoff appearances.

Irrespective of flux at the point, the Timberwolves were now a consistent winner and a perennial playoff team. The problem? First, by 2002, Terrell Brandon’s career had been brought to an abrupt end thanks to injuries.

And that’s not even the bad part- in the summer of 2000, the Wolves made an illegal, under-the-table agreement with free agent Joe Smith (Really? You’re gonna break the rules to sign Joe Smith?), which was voided by the NBA who, upon ruling that the deal violated league procedure, fined the team, suspended GM Kevin McHale for a year and stripped the team of three first round picks (2001, 2002 & 2004).

Following Brandon’s retirement the Timberwolves made another pair of playoff appearances- though they still had yet to win a series- before teaming Garnett with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. This was the best collection of perimeter talent he’d had in his career. The talented trio would produce the franchise’s best-ever season in 2003-04, winning 58 regular season games and advancing to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to the Lakers in six games. At the time, no one would have guessed that Wolves’ trip to the top-tier of the NBA would be so short-lived. However, this would prove to be a fleeting high water mark from which the Timberwolves have fallen precipitously.

In the years that have followed, the Timberwolves have produced just one winning season (44-38 in 2004-05), failed to make the playoffs, elected to trade the only superstar in franchise history rather than risk squandering the remaining years of his prime, and have failed to win more than 24 games in a season since.

As an NBA fan who’s rooted for the Wolves in the past and actually married a Minnesotan, I desperately want to paint an optimistic picture of this franchise’s future. However, recent moves by management- namely GM David Kahn’s PG Tourette syndrome in the 2009 draft, the alienation of Ricky Rubio and the decision to trade away the legit 20- 10 big man received in exchange for Garnett for no actual players- have not exactly impressed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Denver Nuggets: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Is there another NBA franchise that’s less associated with playing defense that’s had a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards winners? With the exception of T.R. Dunn, Dikembe Mutombo and Marcus Camby, (the latter two won DPOY in 1995 and 2007, respectively) it’s tough to think of a franchise that’s less associated with defensive stops.

While the Denver Nuggets are not known for a rich legacy of defense, points certainly haven’t been tough to come by in the Mile High City. For

For three of their four decades in the ABA and NBA, the Nuggets have been a consistently competitive and highly entertaining bunch.

The team transitioned from the ABA to the NBA during the Thompson-Issel era, led by one of the best inside-outside duos of the decade. The big man on those teams was the steady Dan Issel- one of the first true centers with a strong perimeter game. Meanwhile, on the wing, the Nuggets featured David “Skywalker” Thompson, one of the most excited players in basketball history.

After reaching the ABA Finals in the league’s final season, the Nuggets joined the NBA and became a playoff fixture, reaching the postseason each of their first three seasons (including a trip to the 1978 conference finals) and in 12 of their first 14 NBA campaigns (including another trip to the conference finals in 1985).

That run began with the aforementioned Thompson-Issel combo, and continued through the thanks to the understated brilliance of Alex English and the guidance of defensively challenged (but fan friendly!) head coach Doug Moe.

By the early 1990s, both English and Moe were gone, and the Nuggets were rebuilding.

And rebuilding.

And rebuilding.

First the franchise’s centerpiece was defensive standout Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo was exceptional on the boards as a shot-blocker. And while helped Denver become the first-ever #8 seed to win a playoff series with a stunning upset over the Seattle Supersonics in 1994, the five-year Mutombo era was generally unremarkable.

However, what followed made those five years seem downright idyllic. In the eight years that followed, led by the likes of Antonio McDyess, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Bryant Stith, the Nuggets managed to top 35 wins just once (40-42 in 2000-01) and won fewer than 20 games three times (one was the 50-game 1998-99 season, during which Denver was 14-36), including a cataclysmic 11-71 season in 1997-98.

The past seven years, or the Melo era, have seen the Nuggets fare much better- seven consecutive playoff appearances (over.500 each season), three consecutive 50-seasons (2007-08- 2009-10, and counting) and trip the 2009 conference finals, which saw the Nuggets challenge the eventual champion Lakers before falling in six games.

Defense may win championships, but the in the case of the Nuggets, offense keeps you competitive.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

San Antonio Spurs: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

While the Lakers and Celtics are undeniably the most celebrated franchises in professional basketball- and rightfully so- the incredibly consistent San Antonio Spurs are deserving of a spot atop the next tier.

In 43 seasons in the both ABA and the NBA, the Spurs have reached the playoff 38 times, and even the lean years were fruitful. Of the five times the Spurs have missed the postseason, two of them resulted in David Robinson and Tim Duncan!

To be fair, three of their playoff trips came in seasons sub-.500 seasons- as the ABA’s Texas Chapparrals in 1970-71 (30-54; yikes!) and under their current name in 1985-86 (35-47) and 1987-88 (31-51; Ugh!). While those are some sorry records and none of those team went on to win a postseason game, we can’t blame the Spurs. They played the games on the schedule and somehow reached the playoffs.

The Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, and proceeded to reach the postseason in nine of their first ten seasons, including the first seven consecutively. In those first seven seasons, the Spurs made three trips to the conference finals- the Eastern Conference Finals in 1979 (lost to Washington in seven games), and after realignment, the Western Conference Finals in 1982 and 1983, falling to the Lakers each time.

The Spurs of the late 1970s and early 1980s were led by George Gervin, who received some excellent supporting performances, first from Larry Kenon and James Silas, and later from Mike Mitchell and Artis Gilmore.

In 1986-87, the Spurs, now with their star power and attendance fading quickly, missed the playoffs for the second time in four years with a 28-54 record. However, as we’ve come to learn, even when the Spurs lose, there tends to be a silver lining.

Enter the ping-pong balls.

That spring, the Spurs won the top pick in the 1987 draft in the draft lottery, a pick used to select David Robinson, a superstar center from the U.S. Naval Academy. Although Robinson was drafted in 1987, he wouldn’t join the Spurs until the 1989–90 season, due to a two-year commitment to the Navy.

The Spurs dodged a bullet in the final months of Robinson’s Navy commitment, as there was speculation he might choose to spurn the Spurs and to become a free agent. However, the Spurs wound up hitting the jackpot for the second time in three years, as Robinson ultimately chose to take his talents to the Alamo.

The arrival of “Mr. Robinson” in 1989 catapulted the Spurs to the upper echelon of the NBA. After winning just 52 games in the two seasons prior to Robinson’s debut, the Spurs have won 52+ in 16 of 21 seasons since- logging win totals of 47, 49 and 50 in three of those sub-52-win seasons.

Another of these seasons- the Spurs’ only sub-.500 season in the past 21 years- came in 1996-97, with David Robinson playing in just six games as the Spurs stumbled to an atrocious 20-62 record.

Fear not Spurs fan! The trust ping-pong balls will come to your aid. And come to the Spurs’ aid they did! The franchise won the top pick in the 1997 draft, can’t-miss big man Tim Duncan.

The following season, with a healthy Robinson and uber-rookie Tim Duncan, the Spurs quickly returned to the NBA’s top tier, winning 56 games and reaching the second round of the playoffs.

Now, remember those five sub-52-win seasons? The last of these came in 1999, when the Spurs won just 37 games.

Wait! What?

Oh yeah! The lockout-shortened 1999 regular season consisted of just 50 games, of which the Spurs won 74% of their games (37-13), before going on to secure the first of their four NBA championships.

In short, the Spurs’ run over the past 21 years has been nothing short of exceptional. 20 winning seasons. 20 trips to the playoffs. One season with a winning percentage under .573. Seven conference finals appearances. Four NBA championships. Not bad, huh?

And while David Robinson is long gone, Tim Duncan is on the 16th fairway of his nearly flawless career, Manu Ginobili looks to be fading and Tony Parker’s days with the franchise may be numbered, Spurs’ fans have plenty to be thankful for.

Plus, there’s always the ping-pong balls.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Whether in Charlotte or New Orleans, the Hornets franchise is where dynasties go to never start.

For the better part of two decades, the Hornets have managed to acquire- either via the draft or through trades- a number of gifted players, in or before their primes, often in groups of two or three.

Over that same stretch, with their various collections of young stars, the Hornets have consistently been seen as an up-and-coming team “on the cusp of greatness.”

Each of their successes, particularly in the postseason, tend to be overrated, while their shortcomings are deemed “learning experiences,” as observers envision a time in the near future when this team is a legitimate contender.

The pattern began in 1992 when, a year after selecting Larry Johnson with the top pick in the draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Alonzo Mourning with the second overall pick. The team now had perhaps the most talented and powerful frontcourt in the league, to combine with sharpshooter Dell Curry, pint-sized PG Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and Kendall Gill on the wing.

The budding dynasty appeared to be well on its way, as the Hornets posted a then-franchise-record 44 wins, +13- from the previous season, and secured the franchise’s first-ever trip to the playoffs. Optimism was ratcheted up further in the postseason’s opening round, as the Hornets dramatically knocked off the Boston Celtics on a Game 4 buzzer-beater from Mourning. That they fell to the Knicks in five games in the conference semifinals was not a big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.

The team hit a speed bump the following season, finishing 41-41 and missing the playoffs by a single game, as injuries robbed Mourning and Larry Johnson of a combined 53 games.

The Hornets overcame the hiccup in 1994-95, as a healthier crew secured the first 50-win season in franchise history and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Charlotte fell 3-1 to the Chicago Bulls and a fresh-off-baseball-sabbatical Michael Jordan. Though no one new it at the time, Mourning and Johnson would never play together again, as friction between the two young stars led to Mourning being traded to Miami in the offseason, in exchange for Miami sharpshooter Glen Rice.

Suddenly, this incredibly optimistic chapter for the Hornets had come to an abrupt end.

Despite missing the playoffs after another 41-41 finish, the Hornets would ride the talents of several talented young players- Rice, Anthony Mason, Eddie Jones, Baron Davis, Ricky Davis, David Wesley, Derrick Coleman and Jamal Mashburn, among others- to seven playoff appearances in the next eight seasons. While it’s debatable whether they were ever truly title contenders, just three trips to the second round during this stretch probably qualifies as a disappointing end to another potentially great era.

A quick tangent before we return to “Potential Unrealized: The Hornets’ Story.” In the midst of the aforementioned run (before the 2002-03 season to be exact), the Hornets were relocated from Charlotte to New Orleans, amid waning attendance and local politics (in which owner George Shinn won himself no friends) derailing plans for a new arena. This arena was eventually built, as is currently home to the Bobcats. As a result of his role in the Hornets sudden departure from Charlotte, Shinn, who has not returned to Charlotte since the move, is still a pariah in the city.

Now, back to the “happier” portion of our story.

In the summer of 2003, heading into what was to become the final playoff season in the Baron Davis-Jamal Mashburn era, the Hornets used the 18th pick in the draft to steal David West, a standout power forward from Xavier. West would get limited burn in his first couple of seasons, the first of which included another first round playoff exit.

The following year the Hornets stumbled to an atrocious (but later fortuitous) 18-64 record, during which Baron Davis was traded to the Golden State Warriors. The trade, along with a few cooperative ping-pong balls and Billy Knight’s disdain for point guards paved the way for the arrival of Chris Paul, a legitimate superstar and the best lead guard to enter the NBA in years.

After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets turned in a pair of sub-.500 seasons in Oklahoma City, before returning to the Crescent City.

In 2007-08, the Hornets- now powered by Paul, West, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler- ripped off 56 wins and came out of left field to lock up the #2 seed in Western Conference playoffs. Paul led the way as the upstart Hornets dismantled the Dallas Mavericks and pushed the veteran Spurs to seven games in Round 2.

But it was ok. No big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.

Not so fast!

In 2008-09, the Hornets, now carrying the weight of expectations, turned in a respectable 49-win regular season (good for 7th in the West) and drew the Denver Nuggets. What followed will be remembered as one of the most savage beatings in playoff history. The Nuggets not only dismantled the Hornets in five games- four wins coming by an average of 31 points, including a 58-point demolition (121-63)- but effectively ended the ascendancy of Hornets’ latest talented young core.

For Hornets’ fans, if the pattern holds, the best and worst part of all this is that lots more optimism is likely not too far off.

But then…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Vancouver-Memphis Grizzlies: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

The Grizzlies’ lack of success is no secret, but there’s a surprising dearth of positivity to mention here.

The Vancouver Grizzlies entered the NBA a decade and a half ago, at the same time as the Toronto Raptors. In that time, the Raptors have parlayed moderate, but by no means spectacular, team success into an immensely loyal fan base and an enduring relationship with the city of Toronto.

Vancouver on the other hand, received the same treatment that Seattle was forced to endure seven years later with Clay Bennett and the Supersonics—the fact that no one really cared about them.

The team survived just six seasons before lackluster attendance made keeping the team in Vancouver financially unviable. Waning attendance across the league thanks to the 1998 lockout certainly played a role, but it’s safe to assume the Grizzlies’ inability to win more than 28% of their games in a season was also a key driver.

Although they kicked off the 1995-96 season by winning the first two games in franchise history, the Grizzlies won just 13 of their next 80 games- including a record-tying 23-game losing streak, and finished with a league-worst 15-67 record.

The following years were not much better, as the team won just 33 games over the next two seasons combined, and turned in an 8-42 record in the lockout shortened 1999 season. This set the stage for a “breakout” run of 22 and 23 wins in the next two seasons, after which the team was relocated to Memphis.

Combine this on-court ineptitude with a string of generally uninspiring draft picks, and fans had little to get excited about. As good as Shareef Abdur-Rahim was in his days with the Grizz, the likes of Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, Antonio Daniels and Stromile Swift weren’t exactly capturing the imaginations of Canadian hoops junkies.

Hell, Steve Francis cried at the draft after being selected by the Grizzlies, and flat-out refused to play for the team.

In 2000, with the team for sale, the initial stance by the NBA was that the Grizzlies would not be allowed to leave Vancouver. In fact, a sale to Bill Laurie, then-owner of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, was rejected after Laurie admitted to wanting to move the team to St. Louis. Manufacturing mogul Michael Heisley subsequently bought the Grizzlies, promised to keep the team in Vancouver, and moved the franchise to Memphis after just one season in charge.

The 2001-02 season, the Grizzlies’ first in Memphis, saw the arrival of Pau Gasol, acquired in a draft day trade in exchange for Shareef Adbur-Rahim, accompanied by three consecutive seasons of franchise records in victories. It was during this run, led by Gasol, Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller, that the Grizz posted their only three winning seasons and made the first playoff appearances in their history. However, despite boasting one of the game’s best big men and solid corps of supporting players on the perimeter, the Grizzlies have nothing to show for three straight playoff trips except for an 0-12 postseason record.

As the best stretch in franchise history ran its course, Gasol was shipped to the Lakers for a less-than-overwhelming package that included super-bust Kwame Brown and Pau’s younger brother, Marc.

The younger Gasol has shown the capacity to be a top-flight NBA big man, and combined with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, makes up the foundation of what should be a solid team in the coming years.

As we move through the Grizzlies’ all-time five, with one notable exception, you’ll quickly notice a theme emerging, the case for every player considered can be easily perforated. Rarely in Grizzlies’ franchise history has individual brilliance been accompanied by team success, and vice versa.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Houston Rockets: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

The San Diego/Houston Rockets (four in San Diego before moving to Houston for the 1971-72 season), now 43 years old, have been defined throughout the years by the talented big men that have suited up for the franchise. Sure, the Rockets have had the occasional backcourt standout but all of the franchise’s meaningful success has come with a gifted big man (or two) in the middle.

It started with Elvin Hayes, a dominant but polarizing (that may be the nicest thing said about him) big man from the University of Houston who joined Rockets in the franchise’s second season and put up massive numbers for four sub-.500 team, one of whom (the 37-45 1968-69 team) snuck into the playoffs and was dismissed in six games. This was a fitting result for the Elvin Hayes era.

Why? Because it’s hard to expect much success from a guy who, by all accounts, is one of the least likeable in NBA history and was referred to by Alex Hannum, his first NBA coach, as "the most despicable player I have ever coached."

Hannum said this about a stretch when Hayes was a perennial All-Star and good for no worse than 25- 15 a night!

The Rockets, now without a big presence in the middle, made the playoff just once in the four years after Hayes’ departure. Then, in the 1976-77 season, the Rockets added a raw 21 year-old center named Moses Malone to the mix.

If the Elvin Hayes era was defined by a mercurial star churning out big numbers for some subpar teams, the Moses Malone era was all about toughness and hard work, combined with great talent- all of which Malone used to twice carry the Rockets to the Western Conference finals, and in 1981 to the NBA Finals.

In their first 18 years, the Rockets won a grand total of one playoff series (first round against the Knicks in 1974-75) without Moses Malone on the roster.

Moses left the Rockets in 1982, sending the team into a tailspin, stumbling to just 43 wins over the next two seasons. Heading into the mid-1980s, the Rockets lucked (tanked?) their way into consecutive No. 1 overall picks and saw the arrival of a pair of potentially transcendent big men- Ralph Sampson in 1983 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984.

Over the next two seasons, as the pair of gifted big men racked up stats and created matchup hell in the Association, they gave birth to the short-lived Twin Towers era of the 1980s. After the duo led the Rockets to the 1986 Finals, injuries robbed Sampson of much of the next two seasons, and he was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 1988.

The Rockets, now Hakeem’s team, endured a string of early playoff exits, and even contemplated trading a disgruntled Olajuwon in the early 1990s.

As we all know, Houston hung on to Hakeem, who in turn elevated his game from near-superstar level to “top ten all-time,” and powered the Rockets to the pinnacle of the league with consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995.

After Hakeem’s departure around the turn of the century, the Rockets faced a handful of lean years before lucking (this time legitimately) into the top pick in the 2002 draft, 7’6” Chinese big man, Yao Ming.

While the Yao era has seen a return a to respectability, the big man’s inability- along with the inability of fellow star Tracy McGrady- to stay on the floor has transformed the past decade in Houston into a mirror image of the careers of its stars. Lots of potential, promises of greatness, flashes of brilliance, but disappointing in the end.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dallas Mavericks: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Not to panic any fans in Dallas, but if the franchise’s roller-coaster history is any guide, the coming decade could be a tough one for the Mavs.

The Dallas Mavericks have been inexistence for exactly 30 years. In that time, the Mavs have amassed a near-.500 record (.497 winning percentage), made 16 trips to the playoffs, three to the conference finals and came within four and a half quarters of winning the 2006 title.

After a somewhat predictable 15-win debut season in 1980-81, the Mavericks improved their win total in six of the next seven seasons. The only time they failed to improve was between consecutive 44-win seasons in 1984-85 and 1985-86.

In just their fourth season, the Mavs posted an over-.500 record, reached the playoffs and knocked off a talented Seattle Supersonics team (featuring Jack Sikma, Gus Williams and Tom Chambers) in the opening round, before falling to the eventual Western Conference champion Lakers.

That 1983-84 season kicked off an outstanding run for the Mavs, one which saw them reach the playoffs in five of the next seasons (in 1988-89 they missed out by one game), falling twice to the Showtime Lakers- in six games in the 1986 West Semifinals and pushing the eventual champs to the limit in the 1988 conference finals, before going down in seven games.

And those teams were built organically. The Mavericks drafted each of the top seven scorers on the 1987-88, and four of the top five in 1989-90, and the fifth guy, Adrian Dantley, was acquired the previous season, in exchange for Mark Aguirre. In the first or second round of their first seven drafts, the Mavericks selected Kiki Vandeweghe (refused to play for the team and was dealt), Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Dale Ellis and Sam Perkins (sure Charles Barkley went next, but still!), Detlef Schrempf, Roy Tarpley (man was he good!) and Mark Price (traded to Cleveland on draft day).

Not bad, huh? Especially considering they totally whiffed on the 1982 draft.

However, this is also a franchise that turned in a decade of awe-inspiring ineptitude in the 1990s- in which the team managed more than 28 wins once in nine years and managed a total of just 24 wins in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons combined.

And then came Mark Cuban. A brilliant investor and businessman who made (and actually kept!) billions during the internet bubble. As much as any owner ever, Cuban’s left an indelible mark on the NBA in his time with the Mavs, sparing no expense to build a sustainable winner, all the while acting the way any fan given the opportunity to buy his favorite team would act. Sure he gave up too early on Nash and grossly overpaid Erick Dampier, but the transformation undergone by the Mavericks under Mark Cuban has been nothing short of exceptional.

Seldom have the Mavericks been middle-of-the-road. In three decades, the franchise has gone from expansion team, to young, loaded contender, to comically inept, to young, loaded and extremely well-funded contender (thanks Cubes!), to aging, well-funded sorta contender.

This is a franchise that didn’t take long to become competitive and has been good a lot more often than it’s been bad. But the bad times have been BAD. Given the pattern of the 1980s (upswing), 1990s (gutter) and 2000s (outstanding), and with Dirk in the latter half of his Hall-of-Fame career, the coming decade in Big D could see things get worse before they get better. On the bright side, Mavs fans, no need to get down. Any fan base with a highly intelligent, hopelessly dedicated multi-billionaire owner will never be that bad of shape.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Washington Bullets- Wizards: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Who are these guys?

Seriously.

Talk about a franchise with an identity crisis. The NBA franchise now known as the Washington Wizards began play as the Chicago Packers in the 1961–62 season, before changing their name to the Chicago Zephyrs the following season, only to relocate to Baltimore the year after that and become the Baltimore Bullets.

After a decade as the Baltimore Bullets, the franchise elected to once again shake things up, moving to Landover Maryland as the Capital Bullets. For one season.

After the 1973-74 and one season under the new name, the Washington Bullets came to be. And after 24 seasons- long enough for everyone to forget the franchise’s last four names- the Bullets became the Wizards, as owner Abe Pollin wanted to distance the franchise form the name’s violent connotation, given high homicide and crime rates in Washington, D.C. at the time.

Despite the constant upheaval in nomenclature, this is a pretty accomplished franchise.

In 49 years of existence, eight Hall-of-Famers have suited up in at least 100 games for the franchise, four of whom (Walt Bellamy, Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes) built most or all of their Hall resume with the team.

And while the vast majority of team success was concentrated into a two-decade span (1968-69 through 1987-88), it was quite the successful run. During that stretch, the (at the time) Bullet made 18 trips to the playoffs in 20 years, appearing in the Finals four times and winning the 1978 championship.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Orlando Magic: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Like their Florida counterparts, the Orlando Magic have accomplished quite a bit in their 22-year NBA life: four distinct superstars, a pair of draft lottery wins, two Finals trips. This team’s done it all- except for winning it all.

But the thing is, for as great as Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard have been, what’s most responsible for making the Magic memorable is the NBA on NBC.

I remember Sunday mornings in the early 1990s. 10 am Pacific time. As Meet the Press wound down, John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” would play. I’d start getting pumped for the week’s showcase Eastern Conference game.

We were getting either the Bulls or the Magic. Michael or Shaq. But it was more than that. I wanted the Magic at home. That was the best. The great pinstriped home jerseys. The (back then) awesome home crowd. The black-and-blue key on the parquet floor at the O-rena. I was never a Magic fan, but that was a pretty awesome viewing experience.

The team’s had its highs and lows in the intervening years: reaching the 1995 Finals; getting swept out of the 1995 Finals; Shaq leaving town; Penny Hardaway’s injuries; T-Mac at his brilliant best; 200 games from Grant Hill over six seasons; Stevie Franchise; Steve Get The Hell Away From Out Frachise; Dwight Howard slipping to the #2 in the draft; reaching the 2009 Finals; getting bounced in five games.

A lot’s changed in the past decade in a half. Shaq’s having a tough time finding work, Grant Hill is healthier and better than Tracy McGrady, I’m in my 30s and the early game now starts at 1:00 pm for me, and it’s now on ABC, not NBC.

But you now what? The Orlando Magic, led by a fun-loving big man, are still a staple of that early Sunday game. The pinstripes and the awesome crowds are gone, but it’s close enough.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Miami Heat: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

For a franchise that began its existence about as badly as possible, the last two decades (22 years, to be exact) have played out rather well for the Miami Heat.

The Heat entered the NBA in the 1988–89 season with a roster packed with legendary names that are still uttered in NBA circles- Rony Seikaly, Kevin Edwards, Grant Long, Sylvester Gray, Rory Sparrow, Jon Sundvold and Pat Cummings. With such an arsenal of weapons, it’s little wonder that the Heat lost their first 17 games- at the time an NBA record- en route to a league-worst 15–67 record.

While there was at least a glimmer of hope when the Heat finally won that first game against the Clippers (had to be them, didn’t it?), there was probably not too many fans expecting the next two decades to bring a pair of franchise centers, a shoo-in first ballot Hall-of-Fame two-guard, three trips to the conference finals, an NBA championship and the union of two of leagues four best players (and three of the top-20), in their respective primes, looking to stockpile rings.

Say what you will about the Heat, Pat Riley, Miami as a sports town or the performances LeBron and Chris Bosh in July 2010, but after an inauspicious start to life the NBA, Riley managed to make the Heat relevant pretty quickly, and he’s outdone himself (with the help of some ping-pong balls in 2003) in keeping them there.