Each summer as NBA activity slows to a crawl (referee controversies and Kevin Garnett trades notwithstanding) we like to get a little more reflective and some historical perspective-type series. This summer I thought we’d go over the All-Time All-Rookie squad for each franchise. Hopefully, we’ll see how many useful rookies each franchise produced and, also, find out about a few players who didn’t quite develop after good starts. For ground rules, our teams will be limited to NBA only, which knocks out any ABA teams or pre-1954-55 players. In finding our teams, we are not looking to pick the best players career-wise but whoever was best only as a rookie. We’ll start today with the Atlantic Division….
-Boston Celtics: The Celtics have had a long illustrious history but great rookie season aren’t typically a staple. It’s not that the Celtics haven’t had some really good rookies, but they’ve had a ton of really good players who started out as bit players and developed. This was the hallmark of the Boston dynasties. In the 1960s, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, and John Havlicek were far from key player early on. Later on, JoJo White, Paul Westphal, Cedric Maxwell, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, and Reggie Lewis all followed the same processes. The Celts rookie point guard slot, in particular, suffers from this. In fact, the Celtics have a bunch of players of mediocre rookies point guards: JoJo White (1969-70), Brian Shaw (1988-89), and Dee Brown (19990-91) were all in the same boat as decent bit players. Of the groups, White gets the nod, as he has slightly better stats and he actually developed into an All-Star (though both Shaw and Brown were good players).
The rest of the Celtic is pretty easy to pick. The Celts have had three Rookies of the Year, Tom Heinsohn, Dave Cowens, and Larry Bird. Bird and Cowens were excellent and end up knocking off Heinsohn from the forward slots. At the center slot, we go with Bill Russell, who was a rookie at the same season as Heinsohn, though Heinsohn actually got the award for whatever reason. Indeed, Russell was clearly the better player even then:
Heinsohn, 1956-57: 29.9 mpg, 16.2 ppg, .397 FG%, 9.8 rpg, 1.6 apg
Russell, 1956-57: 35.3 mpg, 14.7 ppg, .427 FG%, 19.6 rpg, 1.8 apg
Russell played only 48 games to Heinsohn’s 72 games, mainly because Russell chose to play for the Olympic team and he missed the month or so of the season. In “Tall Tales,” Jim Loscutoff noted that “[m]ost people assume that Russell was the Rookie of the Year in 1957. But Heinsohn won the award, primarily because he played the full season….Bill has a lost of resentment about that. Tommy deserved it, but I think Bill felt slighted that he didn’t get it.”
In any event, Russell was very good and he pushes Cowens to power forward and Bird goes in at small forward. At shooting guard, Paul Pierce and Havlicek are the only competition. Pierce is slightly ahead as a rookie:
Boston’s Forgotten Rookie: Antoine Walker was okay as a rookie (he played a lot and shot a lot) but the best rookie not on the team is Dino Radja. Radja, who came to Boston in 1993-94 as a 26-year old from Euro vet, had a great season (28.8 mpg, 15.1 ppg, .521 FG% 7.2 rpg, 1.4 apg) is arguably better than Cowens when you factor in the pace of the game. Cowens still gets the nod because he was such a better defensive player. Still, Dino was a pretty good pro before his body broke down from the NBA grind (he was out of the NBA by 1997).
-New York Knicks: The Knicks’ rookie crop over the years has not always been impressive. They have logjam at point guard and center and not much in between. The Knicks have three Rookies of the Year in their history: Willis Reed (1964-65), Patrick Ewing (1985-86), and Mark Jackson (1987-88). While Rod Strickland, Micheal Ray Richardson, and Walt Frazier might have beaten out Jackson at the point, the fact is that Jax was the only point guard to play full-time for the Knicks and play well. At the two guard, not much to write home about but we’ll go with combo guard Ray Williams.
At small forward, the Knicks have virtually nothing. Bill Bradley is revered by the Knicks fans but the problem is that he really wasn’t very good as a rookie (neither was Dick Van Arsdale). Other options include Kenny Walker (yeesh) and Gerald Wilkins (really a shooting guard). We’ll go with Van Arsdale of this crew.
At power forward and center, we are forced to choose between Reed, Ewing, and Bill Cartwright. Now Medical Bill was pretty much as good as the other two players as a rookie, even if he couldn’t quite keep up the pace. Ewing is the best player overall but he missed over 20 games as a rookie and that is enough to make him the odd man out.
|SF||D. Van Arsdale||1965-66||29.0||12.3||0.436||4.8||2.3||n/a||11.7|
New York’s Forgotten Rookie: Not much in the way of good rookies that flamed out in New York. The book is still open on Channing Frye, though it’s hard to remember that he was pretty good in 2004-05. Further back in the past, Darrell Walker was a pretty good bit player who peaked in Washington as a rebounding point guard who couldn’t score (he put up 9.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, and 8.0 apg for the Bullets in 1989-90). But the best rookie who fell through the cracks was Lonnie Shelton, who put up 11.6 ppg and 7.7 rpg in 25.7 mpg for the Knicks in 1976-77. The Knicks lost Shelton to Seattle (with a top pick that turned into Vinnie Johnson) as compensation for signing Marvin Webster. Shelton played well for the Sonics’ mini-dynasty of the 1970s before leaving the NBA at age 30.
-New Jersey Nets: Unlike the historic franchises above, the relatively younger Nets have plenty of draft (lottery) picks to field an All-Time rookie team and a couple of Rookies of the Year (Buck Williams and Derrick Coleman). Fair or not, we’re excluding ABA teams so, the inquiry for the Nets starts in 1976 and this At the point slot, the Nets have had no bang up point guards just a bunch of guys who were, at best, mediocre as rookies. Check this roster of hopefuls:
-Kenny Anderson, 1991-92: 17.0 mpg, 7.0 ppg, 390 FG%, 2.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 topg, 12.8 PER
-Mookie Blaylock, 1989-90: 25.3 mpg, 10.1 ppg, .371 FG%, 2.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.2 topg, 11.5 PER
-Pearl Washington, 1986-87: 22.2 mpg, 8.6 ppg, .478 FG%, 1.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.4 topg, 11.5 PER
-Darwin Cook, 1980-81: 24.4 mpg, 11.2 ppg, .468 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.2 topg, 15.0 PER
At the end of the day, it seems that Cook is the clear leader of the group. Cook is a forgotten player but he was a really solid backup for the oft unavailable Micheal Ray Richardson and played in Jersey for six solid seasons. Cook maxed out at 13.2 ppg and 5.5 apg in 32 mpg in 1982-83 but was nice cog for the Nets.
The rest of the team is surprisingly easy to put together. Williams is a must at power forward and we’ll move DC to center as he was a monster boarder and a better player than big Mike Gminski. Kerry Kittles has no competition for the two guard slot (the only other high pick at the two guard was the remarkably inefficient Dennis Hopson). There are tons of good candidates at small forward: Cliff Robinson (the one who played at USC), Keith Van Horn, Kenyon Martin, Albert King, and even Chris Morris. The clear winner is Bernard King, who tore up the NBA immediately as a rookie. The only surprise is that people tend to forget he played for the Nets. After two really good years, the Nets traded him for center Rich Kelley, in a deal that was truly miserable for the Nets. King did have some personal problems but there was no nowhere near equal value. In any case, here are the Nets:
New Jersey’s Forgotten Rookie: It really is probably Darwin Cook but we already discussed him. The interesting rookie fact is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s sent away tons of productive rookies picks quickly:
-1977 pick Bernard King last two productive years before being dealt for Kelley
-1979 pick Calvin Natt (7th overall) was traded midway through his first season, even though he was putting up 20 ppg and 10 rpg, for vet Maurice Lucas. It was a silly trade as the Nets were rebuilding at the time but they still couldn’t resist the well-known 27-year old Lucas.
-1979 pick Cliff Robinson (11th overall) showed plenty of promise in two years with the Net. As a 20-year old in 1980-81, Robinson had 19.5 ppg and 7.6 rpg. The Nets still traded him away that summer for vet guard Otis Birdsong.
-1982 pick Sleepy Floyd was traded away half way through his rookie year for Micheal Ray Richardson, who was 27 at the time. This move made a little more sense because the Nets were competing at the time. You still kind of wonder how the Nets would’ve looked with the really young core of Floyd, King, Natt, Robinson, and Buck Williams not to mention some of the bench players they accrued (Gminski, O’Koren, Cook). Clearly some trades would’ve had to be made but their was better return to be had for some of the players.
-Philadelphia 76ers: In their long history, all the Sixers have is one Rookie of the Year, the famous Allen Iverson in 1996-97. AI is also the best rookie in Sixer/Nat history. Whether two point him at the point or shooting guard really depends on your sensibilities. Maurice Cheeks was pretty good as a rookie at the point and Hersey Hawkins and Jerry Stackhouse were about equally as good at the two slot, albeit with entirely different playing styles. The only thing keeping me from picking Stackhouse was the fact that he did play with Iverson (Stack was a rookie in 1995-96 and he paired with AI the next season) and it wasn’t pretty. Stackhouse had been an exciting as a rook but with Iverson, he was not considered an asset. Larry Platt detailed the situation between the players after the 1996-97:
“The reconsideration of Stackhouse reached its peak in midseason of his sophomore year, when the dismal chemistry between him and backcourt mate Allen Iverson showed no signs of improving. He and Iverson, a breathtakingly athletic but out-of-control rookie point guard, don’t play together so much as compete for the spotlight. ‘I’m the shooting guard, I think I should be leading this team in shots,’ bemoaned Stackhouse after Iverson’s own shooter’s mentality became obvious….At one point, good-natured trash-talking between the two at practice morphed into ill will when Stackhouse made a crack about Iverson’s failure to give up the ball; punchers were thrown.”
Platt went on to say that the blow up wasn’t personal and that Stack and Iverson got along but only didn’t click because they were two young players trying to establish themselves. In either case, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Stack should be taken out of the mix on our hypothetical team so we can avoid another fistfight (even if it is hypothetical). In the end, we’ll go with Cheeks as Iverson was more useful as a two-guard (no, I didn’t forget that Iverson might not be so happy with Cheeks after being part of the management that traded him).
At the small forward slots, the big competition is between Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker, the two players who shared the slot on the great 1966-67 Sixers team. Cunningham was slightly better as a rookie and scored a little more. Charles Barkley is the obvious choice at power forward, though his ultimate replacement Clarence Weatherspoon was pretty good. The center spot virtually empty. Sharone Wright gets the sport over Shawn Bradley, who was injured and lost most of his rookie year.
Philadelphia’s Forgotten Rookie: Sharone Wright disappeared quickly. Wright was a big man from Clemson, taken sixth overall. He wasn’t great as a rookie but certainly showed enough to make people think he had a future a la Drew Gooden or Channing Frye. He played well his second year only to be abruptly traded for an aging Ed Pinckney, journeyman Tony Massenburg, and draft picks near the trade line. Wright played poorly for Toronto in 1996-97 and then seriously injured his arm in a car accident the next fall. Wright played only seven more games and ultimately retired. He has since played in Europe (most recently in Amsterdam.
–Toronto Raptors: The Raptors are still a young franchise. There aren’t too many rooks but they definitely pretty good, including two Rookies of the Year, Damon Stoudamire from the inaugural season and Vince Carter in 1998-99. Here’s how the team stacks up:
Toronto’s Forgotten Rookie: I think everybody might remember Tracy McGrady. But it’s been seven years since he played a game with the Raptors. Lore remembers T-Mac as a total bench warmer who was harassed by his disapproving coach Darrell Walker and never left his apartment. Some of this might be true but McGrady actually showed quite a bit of promise as a rookie, putting up 7 ppg and 4.2 rpg in 18 mpg and a 17.4 PER and his numbers steadily went up from there. The bottom line was that McGrady’s rookie year, however it is currently remembered, showed a lot of promise.