Revisiting The Almost Trade of Worthy for Aguirre

The 1986 Draft is best remembered for the tragic death of Len Bias, the 76ers’ execrable trades, and quite a few other historical ripples but I wanted to focus on one big deal that almost happened that day but ended up being aborted at the lats minute.  The huge deal on the table was the trade of James Worthy from the Lakers to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre and the seventh pick in the 1986 Draft, who would’ve been the talented but troubled Roy Tarpley.  I thought we could do a deep dive to understand the context in which the trade arose and what might’ve been.

At the outset, it seems unthinkable that the Lakers would trade Worthy, the rising star who would become a legend and famously clinched the 1988 title with his Game 7 triple-double.  Nevertheless, a trade in 1986 seemed quite imminent and we can indulge in some hypotheticals.

What was the state of the Lakers in June 1986?

The Lakers’ mood was bleak following the 4-1 upset loss to the Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals.  The Lakers had been 62-20 and the clear class of the West.  They had  won the Conference the prior four seasons but the Rockets upended them behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a force of nature in that series (31.0 ppg, .520 FG%, 11.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.2 spg, 4.0 bpg).

Worthy’s performance in the series basically equaled his regular season stats (20.2 ppg, .524 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg).  Looking at his game lines, Worthy struggled the first two games of the series but finished very strong the final three games (44.7 mpg, 24.7 ppg, .615 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg). 

If there were scapegoats in the series for the Lakers, they were the frontcourt players who couldn’t slow down Hakeem and Ralph Sampson.  Also, Byron Scott shot poorly by his standards (.441% in the WCF versus .525% the prior two rounds).  Certainly, Worthy had done nothing to get himself branded as a problem.

So, Worthy was good but did a trade make sense anyway?

Aguirre was a great scorer and getting him plus a top pick for Worthy sounds reasonable in the abstract.  Let’s see the stats of the two players as of the end of the 1985-86 season to see how they compared:

Aguirre: Age 26, 33.8 mpg, 22.6 ppg, .547 TS%, 29.0 USG%, 6.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 19.2 PER, .090 WS48, 0.3 BPM

Worthy: Age 24, 32.7 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .613 TS%, 22.6 USG%, 5.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 20.4 PER, .185 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Worthy was younger and a much more efficient player.  In fairness to Aguirre, he was trying to create shots as a primary scorer while Worthy was essentially a third option who got a ton of points in transition.  Aguirre likely would’ve been much more efficient in the same context but it’s clear that Worthy fit that role better AND defended much better.

On top of the fact that Worthy had advantages in age, defense, and fit on offense, Aguirre had other issues.  He was not easy for coaches to deal with.  A great summary of Aguirre’s constant beefing with Coach Dick Motta can be found here but let’s tick through a few highlights:

-“[D]uring the 1984-85 season…Motta and Aguirre had a locker-room blow up in front of players and note-taking reporters. Motta called Aguirre a quitter. Aguirre told Motta he wanted a trade. Motta scoffed, ‘Nobody wants you.’  [Aguirre was forced to apologize].”

-In 1985-86, “miffed at Motta, Aguirre refused to play in the second half of what turned into a blowout loss. The Mavericks suspended Aguirre [again].” 

-Ironically, the Mavs ended the 1985-86 season with a loss to the same Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.  Sam McManis of the L.A. Times described the Aguirre-Motta relationship during that series as follows: “A pout almost always adorns Mark Aguirre’s face on the basketball court. It may be Aguirre’s most prominent feature, even more distinctive than a lower body that should have a wide-load sign attached…. The usual unfolding of these well-publicized tiffs: Aguirre does something on the court that irks Motta. Motta yells and then yanks Aguirre from the game. Aguirre sulks. Motta fumes. They exchange words in the locker room afterward. They meet later and, temporarily, patch up differences.”

McManis then stumbled across this gem of a quote from Aguirre that presaged the potential trade coming 6 weeks later: “[i]f I had been drafted in Los Angeles, it probably would have been looked on as a positive thing. I mean, Byron Scott is flamboyant. James Worthy is, Kareem is, in a way. They are allowed to show their emotions. That’s partly because (Pat) Riley is a player’s coach.”  And then, as if to perfectly capture the value proposition, McManis wrote that: “In Aguirre’s mind, there are only three small better small forwards in the NBA–Larry Bird, Alex English and Worthy.”  (Note that Aguirre was 15th in small forward VORP that year, and was 9th the prior season).

So, there you have it: contemporaneous reporting that Worthy was considered better than Aguirre and that Aguirre longed to play in the Lakers’ system.  As a side note, the notion that Aguirre would score more with the Lakers seems silly (as was the notion that Riley would be a friendlier coach).  Aguirre scored about 25 ppg as a Maverick and his shots and usage were sure to go down with the Lakers.  Still, it was not unreasonable that Aguirre might be happier playing in Los Angeles and winning more with Magic and Kareem, even with fewer shots. 

What was the rationale for the Lakers to make this trade?

In all, Aguirre was a talented but distressed asset and Worthy was a budding star.  The x-factor was Magic Johnson, who was tight with Aguirre and they clearly talked about playing with each other.  All the reporting at the time pegged Magic with being the driving force for the potential trade.  In November 1987, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated that Magic, Aguirre, and Isiah Thomas were “buddies”  and  that “Johnson reportedly—though he denied it—once tried to get his fellow Laker…Worthy traded to Dallas for Aguirre.”   The same story quoted Michael Jordan as saying that “James is getting too good for Magic’s taste.”  Yep, that’s quite saucy.

Jeff Pearlman wrote in “Showtime,” that Magic “thought Aguirre would be an upgrade” and went directly to owner Jerry Buss to get a deal done.  Buss deferred to Magic and negotiated a deal without consulting GM Jerry West.  Dallas thought a deal was done and The Dallas Morning News reported that “Tarpley’s agent was reluctant to allow Tarpley to come to Dallas for a press conference because he was certain that Tarpley was going to be traded to the Lakers.”  When West heard about the trade, he “went beserk” and killed the deal.  West’s perspective was that “Aguirre—while talented—was a me-first player who would destroy the Lakers’ chemistry {while] Worthy…could do twenty different things to help a team win.  If Aguirre wasn’t receiving the ball and scoring, he was useless.”

There was truth to the idea that Aguirre was only a scorer and that Magic’s relationship with Aguirre was influencing his opinion.  The trade, however, was not totally crazy.  After getting pummeled by Hakeem, the Lakers did need a body like Tarpley to help out and Tarpley would’ve been a great help if he was sober (it’s not clear if West had intelligence indicating that Tarpley had a problem at that time).  Putting Tarpley aside, West clearly did the right thing in killing the deal because the difference in value and fit between Worthy and Aguirre was not evened by the seventh pick.

What would’ve happened if the Aguirre/Worthy trade had gone through?

 Obviously, we can’t know for sure but we do know that it’s unlikely that the Lakers would’ve done better than they did by standing pat (as a reminder, the Lakers won the next two titles and lost in the Finals the third year).  It’s possible that the Lakers would’ve gone back-to-back with Aguirre and Tarpley but much less likely.  Aguirre was just not nearly as versatile a player as Worthy (though it should be noted that Aguirre played selflessly and filled a lesser role in Detroit when he was ultimately traded). 

It almost seems sad and fruitless to predict how Tarpley would’ve handled Los Angeles.  He lasted two good years in Dallas before his career was derailed and it’s not likely he would’ve been anymore together elsewhere.  Putting all these unknowns on the table, here are the principals’ aggregate stats for 1986-87 and 1987-88:

Aguirre: 33.6 mpg, 25.4 ppg, .550 TS%, 31.5 USG%, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 22.0 PER, .162 WS48, 3.4 BPM

Tarpley: 23.8 mpg, 10.6 ppg, .527 TS%, 20.4 USG%, 9.6 rpg, 0.9 apg. 17.9 PER, .141 WS48, -0.6 BPM

Worthy: 34.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .575 TS%, 22.5 USG%, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg, 18.3 PER, .151 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Aguirre’s black hole offense was really good the next two years and that efficiency, even scaled down a bit to fit with the Lakers, would’ve been an asset.  Tarpley was very raw but also a useful body.  At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to see the Aguirre/Tarpley Lakers winning a title.  In 1986-87, they would’ve faced the peak Celtics front line in the Finals and Aguirre couldn’t guard Bird or McHale and I strain to see a good match up for Aguirre in that series.  In 1988, Aguirre could’ve matched up with Detroit but would he have played better than Worthy?  The Lakers needed an epic game from Worthy to win that title.  This is not to say that the Lakers wouldn’t have won either title with Aguirre but it would have made it much less likely.

A Look at the Detroit Losing Streak

Thankfully, the Pistons finally ended their excruciating 28-game losing streak Saturday night.  Let’s step back and process this whole debacle, FAQ style…

Is this the most embarrassing run of basketball in recent memory?

I guess that’s not the real question.  The real question is just how bad are the Pistons?  Subjectively, I don’t think they are really that bad relative to historically bad teams we’ve seen in the past.  In fact, the Pistons’ -10 SRS is basically dead even with the Spurs and Hornets, and pretty close to the Wizards’ SRS.  A -10 SRS clocks in at 19th worst SRS ever.  That’s bad but not anywhere near the ghastly -14.68 SRS put up by the 1992-93 Mavs (or the 2011-12 Hornets at -13.96).

Yes, Detroit is bad but they are more like a 20-win team.  The Pistons’ most glaring team stat deficiencies are as follows:

-Last in turnover percentage and 27th in defensive turnover percentage

-The Pistons are 28th in 3-point percentage (.334%)

-The Pistons give up the most free throws in the NBA and most fouls doled out

-Detroit has had the third hardest strength of schedule so far

So, you have a bad defense that gives up a ton of free throws, without actually forcing any turnovers.  On offense, they are at the bottom in three percentage and turn the ball over a lot.  They are a slightly worse team on offense (28th) than they are on defense (26th).  This team shouldn’t be quite as bad as its record so far.

Who is to blame for the offensive mess?

There has been much talk that the Pistons lack a true point guard and that running Cade Cunningham in a high usage Luka/Harden role is not a good idea.  Cade has the fourth lowest BPM (-1.4) of any player in the modern era with a usage over 30% (minimum 30 games played).  The only worse are some doozies:

Shawn Kemp, 1999-00: -2.1

Kobe Bryant, 2015-16: -1.6

Kyle Kuzma, 2023-24: -1.5

Cade Cunningham, 2023-24: -1.4

Yes, we have late-stage Kemp & Kobe, as well as Kuzma this season.  Cunningham also plays a lot more than any of the other players on the list do (35 mpg versus about 30 mpg for the others).  In Cade’s defense, he is surrounded by many non-shooters.  Ausar Thompson, Jaden Ivey, and Killian Hayes have played big minutes and can’t hit from three (Ausar is an active player but crazy raw and has shot more airballs than makes from three so far).  Vet backup Monte Morris has missed the entire season while, the only Detroit first rate shooter, Bojan Bogdanovic missed 20 games. 

Having said all that, it does not seem Cade as Harden works.  Cade just doesn’t shoot well enough off the dribble at this point to fill that role.  On the bright side, his shooting numbers are way up from the prior two seasons and it is possible that he could blossom further if he tries this experiment longer.  But Harden and Luka were much better at age-22 than Cade:

Harden 2011-12: 21.1 PER, .660 TS%, .230 WS48, 4.3 BPM

Luka 2021-22: 25.1 PER, .571 TS%, .159 WS48, 8.2 BPM

Cade 2023-24: 15.6 PER, .545 TS%, .014 WS48, -1.4 BPM

Cunningham is just not in that ballpark (Harden was still a sixth man at the time but his advanced stats were quite impressive).  Cade could continue to improve but even a reasonably improved version is just not efficient enough to stick with this offense.  It’s hard to change offensive schemes in the middle of the season and Detroit also lacks the actual point guard to turn to but it’s time to consider turning the page on this soon and putting Cade in an offensive role more suited to his skills. 

How many wins will the Pistons end up with?

Just for a little comparison, here is how the other teams with 20 or more losses in a single season did after the losing streak:

-2010-11 Cavs: 11-18 after streak (final record 19-63)

-2013-14 76ers: 4-6 after streak (final record 19-63)

-1995-96 Grizzlies:  4-7 after streak (final record 15-67)

-1997-98 Nuggets: 9-33 after streak (final record 11-71)

-2011-12 Bobcats: Streak ended with final game of season (final record 7-59)

-1972-73 76ers: 5-15 after streak (final record 9-73)

-1993-94 Mavericks: 12-46 after streak (final record 13-69)

-2020-21 Rockets: 6-25 after streak (final record 17-55)

With the exception of the execrable 2012-13 Hornets, the 20 game streakers played much better after this streak (though in the case of some of these teams, they had multiple lengthy losing streaks that same season).  Some of this improvement could be legitimate learning and development but it seems that these bad teams were able to bank wins late in the season due to tanking or disinterest of other teams.  If they are facing an epically bad overall record, the Pistons will be motivated to win later in the season when most eliminated teams are checked out.

If Detroit plays at a 20-win pace hereafter, they would get 15 wins for the season, which is horribly bad but not unprecedented.  There are 13 prior instances of a 15-win season in an 82-game season (only ten teams have won fewer than 15 games in an 82-game season).  I’m guessing the Pistons break 20 wins this season but this has been an ugly year.

Revisiting the “Super” 1988-89 Hawks

Watching the Clippers cadre of older stars thrash about trying to squeeze out a title run in a crowded field brought me back to my quest to do deep dives of some older forgotten attempted super teams.  A team that popped into my mind that gave me 2023-24 Clippers vibes was the 1988-89 Atlanta Hawks.  While not exactly an overwhelming or famous team, these Hawks did get a lot of buzz when they acquired Reggie Theus and Moses Malone to pair with Dominique Wilkins for a potential title run in 1988.

Was this Hawks’ squad truly a “super team” as the term is understood today?  There is no one definition of what a super team is but generally it now seems to be a team made up of two or three All-Star level players agreeing to play together by free agency and/or trade demands.  The group isn’t all inner circle stars but it should include at least one top five to ten player (i.e. LeBron, Durant, Kawhi) and one player that is, at least, top 25 level.  This definition does not really fit as well in the olden times before easy player movement.  By 1988 standards, getting two All-Star level players in one summer to add to a good core is pretty close to the equivalent of super teaming in 2023 and was an interesting enough story for us to revisit….

How Good was Dominique Circa 1988?

Wilkins had his drawbacks: he was a bit of a streaky outside shooter and his defense wasn’t great but he was a dynamic leaper and scorer in the open court.  My memory was that 1988 Nique was a clear inner circle NBA star in the group just behind Bird, Magic & Jordan.  Let’s dig into the numbers to see where he objectively stood.  In 1987-88, 28-year old Wikins put up the following advanced stats: 23.5 PER, .160 WS48, 4.3 BPM, 4.7 VORP.  These stats all ranked about tenth in the league (WS48 can be buggy and he was 20th in that category behind luminaries like Danny Schayes).

Another interesting factoid was that Wilkins put up these stats on 35.2% usage, which led the NBA that year and was really high for that time.  Nique’s usage that season ranks 25th best since the three-point line was enacted in 1979-80 and second highest of the 1980s/1990s behind MJ’s epic 1986-87 season (38.3%).  In addition, Nique was coming off his best playoff series against the Celtics, where he scored 31.2 ppg and dropped 47 points in a close Game 7 loss.  He finished sixth in the 1987-88 MVP voting behind MJ, Bird, Magic, Barkley and Drexler (Wilkins also finished second in 1985-86 MVP vote and fifth in 1986-87 MVP vote).  It’s fair to say that Wilkins was, at worst, the third best forward in the NBA and easily nestled in the five to ten range overall in the summer of 1988.

State of the rest of the Hawks in June 1988

Wilkins’ Hawks were steadily improving with coach Mike Fratello.  Much like his mentor Hubie Brown, Fratello preached careful offense and a defense-first game plan.  Here’s how Atlanta did during the Fratello years up to 1988-89:

1983-84: 40-42, 18th in offense, 7th in defense, 23rd in pace (missed playoffs)

1984-85: 34-48, 16th in offense, 11th in defense, 18th in pace (missed playoffs)

1985-86: 50-32, 11th in offense, 6th in defense, 19th in pace (lost to Celtics 4-1 in the second round)

1986-87: 57-25, 4th in offense, 2nd in defense, 21st in pace (lost to Pistons 4-1 in the second round)

1987-88: 50-32, 5th in offense, 14th in defense, 21st in pace (lost to Celtics 4-3 in the second round)

The Hawks were clearly a fringe title contender at this point and, despite the drop in team defense in 1987-88, the team was pretty deep.  They had good role players like jump shooter Randy Wittman, a young Kevin Willis, shot blocker Tree Rollins and a credible bench (Jon Koncak, Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr, Spud Webb, and John Battle).  On top of that, point guard Doc Rivers was an All-Star in 1987-88 and had shockingly strong advanced stats for the two prior years:

1986-87: 19.9 PER, .191 WS48, 6.0 BPM, 5.3 VORP

1987-88: 20.4 PER, .159 WS48, 4.9 BPM, 4.4 VORP

By advanced stats, Doc was as important to the Hawks as Wilkins was.  That may be a bit of a stretch but Rivers was clearly a top point guard and a foundational piece and arguably a top 25 player in the NBA at the time.

Moses and Theus in 1988

So, we could argue that Wilkins and Rivers were a compelling enough core to add stars to meet the super team definition.  Were Moses Malone and Theus such added stars?  This is arguable but here are their stats for 1987-88:

Malone 1987-88: Age 32, 34.1 mpg, 20.3 ppg, .577 TS%, 11.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, .163 WS48, 1.6 BPM, 2.5 VORP

Theus 1987-88: Age 30, 36.3 mpg, 21.6 ppg, .529 TS%, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg, .066 WS48, -0.9 BPM, 0.7 VORP

The raw stats for both are pretty eye catching but they both had warts.  Moses was still effective on the boards but there was a fear that his offensive set up in the block clogged the lane for drivers.  As Gordon Jones wrote in “Tales From the 76ers,” by 1985-86, “Moses’ effectiveness was diminishing.  His shot totals were going up, his shooting percentage down.  His weaknesses as a passer and defender were being exposed.”  The 76ers went on a run after Moses was injured late in the year, going 6-1 and unleashing Charles Barkley and then doing very well in the playoffs too.  This provided an impetus for the famous trade to dump Moses to Washington.

Moses spent two years as an All-Star in Washington but his stats didn’t reflect team success.  The Bullets were a .500 team with a bottom five offense both seasons.  So, there was evidence that Moses’ gaudy raw stats were less valuable than they seemed, though it was hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a help over non-scorers Rollins and Koncak.

Turning to Theus, he had long been the central offensive engine to many blah teams in Chicago and later with Kansas City/Sacramento.  Theus, who was the pre-MJ star in Chicago, was famously benched in 1983-84 by coach Kevin Loughery who felt that Theus was a ball hog and a non-defender.

Loughery was being somewhat unfair.  Yes, Theus was an imperfect player and he correctly identified Reggie’s weak areas but the Bulls were bad and Theus wasn’t the main problem.  Ultimately, Theus spent the next five years as essentially the same high usage guy for blah Kings teams, where they were more comfortable with his game.  Still, like with Moses, there was reason to believe that Reggie’s raw counting stats weren’t as valuable as they seemed on paper (in fact, he was -0.9 BPM in 1987-88).

Theus did hold pretty decent perceived value as Sacramento got a decent starter in Randy Wittman and the 18th pick in the 1988 draft (Ricky Berry) for Theus.  At the time, Hawks President Stan Kasten said: “We are very excited to have Reggie with the Hawks organization.  He is an outstanding shooter and should fill a need for us this season.”

As for Moses, he was a bona fide free agent and turning 33 but the Hawks gave him a three-year $4.5 million deal.  This was a good chunk of change for 1988 and made Moses the 15th highest player in the NBA (tied with Nique).  At the press conference after his signing, Moses said “I may be in my 30s, but I still will get my 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. People just don’t realize I can still do it…. But I think the Lord is taking care of me. . . . My name is Moses, isn’t it?”

Kasten also saw this as a title team with many stars: “It will be a difficult job for the coaches because we’ve got a lot of talent and egos to mesh, but every great team has had that problem. We’re taking a gamble with talent. Without talent, you have no chance. We think we have that talent now.”

Fratello set the realistic expectations as follows: “Los Angeles and Detroit, the two teams that met in the NBA finals, have to be considered the favorites, but we like to look at it that we have two new starting pieces and hopefully we’ll be stronger.”  The upshot was that the Hawks had a moderate super team buzz internally. 

Hawks 1988-89 Pre-Season Buzz

The media was moderately bullish on these Hawks as well.  Here’s a sampling:

Vegas had them at +1200 to win the title, sixth in the NBA and behind Detroit, Boston, and Cleveland in the East.

-Sports Illustrated ranked Atlanta second in the East noting that: “the inner and outer strength that helped Malone become one of the most indomitable forces in league history has certainly lessened.  That is the main concern of the multi-talented Hawks, who enter the season with high expectations—most pegged to Malone.  Never mind whether there will be enough basketballs to satisfy [Wilkins, Moses, and Theus]….Fratello will likely convince them that they must share the goodies to [win].  The more relevant issue is whether the addition of Malone…makes the Hawks stronger that the Pistons.  The answer here is no.”

-The 1989 Pro Basketball Handbook picked them for third in the Central and pegged them as a contender: “If not for Larry Bird’s [heroics in Game 7], Fratello’s Hawks would have gone to the Eastern Conference finals.  Even in defeat, they answered a lot questions about their heart….Pencil in another 50-victory season and further advancement in the playoffs.”     

The Hawks seemed like they were a clear second round playoff team with an outside chance of even better if everything broke right.

Hawks 1988-89: Rubber Meets Road

Things sort of broke right and wrong.  Larry Bird had foot issues that quickly derailed Boston from contention, but New York, Cleveland, and Chicago had become legit good teams (ie teams that could win over 50 games) and Milwaukee was still good, not to mention the conference title winner Detroit looming over all these teams.  This logjam complicated plans to get deep into the playoffs.

All things considered, Atlanta did pretty well.  They alternated months at about .500 with torrid months:

November 1988: 8-6

December 1988: 11-3

January 1989: 7-7

February 1989: 9-4

March 1989: 7-8

April 1989: 10-2

The hot streaks coincided with home stands (33-8 at home, 19-22 on the road).  Here’s how Moses and Theus did for Atlanta versus their prior years:

Malone 1987-88: 34.1 mpg, 20.3 ppg, .577 TS%, 25.2 Usage, 11.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, .163 WS48, 1.6 BPM

Moses 1988-89: 35.5 mpg, 20.2 ppg, .581 TS%, 23.4 Usage, 11.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, .178 WS48, 1.8 BPM

Theus 1987-88: 36.3 mpg, 21.6 ppg, .529 TS%, 26.1 Usage, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg, .066 WS48, -0.9 BPM

Theus 1988-89: 30.7 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .534 TS%, 22.8 Usage, 3.0 rpg, 4.7 apg, .113 WS48, 0.6 BPM

Moses and Theus were more efficient on lower usage than the prior year as featured players and they palpably helped the free throw rates as they had the two best free throw rates on the team.  Dominique’s stats were down slightly overall but he still was great and led the team in usage (29.4) while Rivers was just as good as the prior year.  Here is how the 1988-89 team compared to the prior team overall:

1987-88 Hawks: 50-32, 4.02 SRS, 5th offense, 14th defense, 21st pace

1988-89 Hawks: 52-30, 5.26 SRS, 4th offense, 9th defense, 19th pace

The Hawks were better overall and really improved from ninth in free throws, to leading the NBA, though assists per game dropped from 14th to 21st.  In all, Atlanta should’ve been happy” they were a 52-win team and the four seed with homecourt in round one against the 49-win Bucks.  So far, Atlanta was basically meeting expectations (Atlanta was the four seed because Cleveland won 57 games and really broke out to get the three seed. Detroit, of course, was the top seed). 

Dealing with Playoff Disappointment: Blame Reggie?

The Hawks ended up losing a close five-game series in the first round.  This sounds okay in theory but it was worse than it sounds.  The Bucks were missing Paul Pressey the whole series and the Hawks fell behind 2-1 and had to eke out an overtime victory in Game 4 in Milwaukee.  Atlanta was keyed up to go home to clinch and the Bucks’ best player, Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle and would miss Game 5.

After Game 4. Bucks’ coach Del Harris sounded less-than-optimistic that Milwaukee had a shot: “[w]hoever we have or don’t have, there’s not much said about it.  If we have people out, we have people out. We’re not predicated on one guy. We build our whole team on team offense or team defense.”  Despite all this tone, the Bucks pulled out a 96-92 win in Game 5 behind 25 points from super sub Ricky Pierce.  Moses had a great game (25 points, 16 rebounds, +18.5 BPM) and Nique had 22 points but was just okay (+1.1 bpm).  In all, it was a bitter defeat given the pre-season expectations and the fact that the Hawks dropped two home playoff games against a team missing its two stars.

In the greater scheme of things, the loss didn’t really matter.  The Hawks would’ve likely been pummeled by the eventual champs Detroit in the second round anyway.  Atlanta went 1-5 against the Pistons in the regular season and Detroit swept the same Bucks team that the Hawks struggled with (the Pistons outscored Milwaukee by about 12 points per game).  But making the second round meant a lot to Atlanta management and weren’t thinking about the fact that a win over the Bucks would’ve resulted in the Hawks being the Pistons’ speed bump.

Blame was assigned to Theus.  He did have a miserable playoffs: 25.4 mpg, 7.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 4.8 apg, 6.0 PER, -.048 WS48, -6.8 PER.  Combine those bad stats with getting toasted by the Bucks guards Pierce and Jay Humphries and Theus was deemed the primary problem.  In fact, in early April 1989, there were already articles noting that “a bickering group of Hawks…blamed the majority of their problems on one player: Reggie Theus.”  The Hawks left him unprotected in the expansion draft and he was taken quickly by Orlando.  Thereafter, Theus and the Hawks professed to have no hard feelings.  That might’ve been untrue.

The funny postscript came a year or so later in the 1991 Rotisserie League Basketball book when the writers (most of whom worked for Sports Illustrated) asked Kasten to assess their respective fantasy teams in February 1990.  Kasten took it very seriously: “I actually made up depth charts for all [the fantasy] teams.  See, my problem is I can’t do anything half way.”   Kasten was “loathe to make specific comments about specific players on the record” but then Theus’ name came up.  Kasten called him one of a few “big number” players but noted that “I always did overvalue Reggie, didn’t I?”

The End: Running It Back Without Reggie in 1989-90

The Hawks kept essentially the same team the next season except Kevin Willis came back from injury and they tried Battle in Theus’ slot.  The result was a 41-41 team that missed the playoffs.  Theus wasn’t a huge loss (he scored a lot but was not efficient for Orlando) and the Hawks were fourth in offense without him.  The problem was defense, which cratered to 25th.  The main issue was an injury to Rivers.  The Hawks started 13-6 and were 17-11 when he went down on January 4, 1990.  He tried to come back briefly, on January 19, 1990, but was essentially out until March 16, 1990.  The Hawks went 12-22 in that stretch before rallying to a 13-8 finish. 

In addition to the Rivers injury, the Willis-Moses front court rated as pretty bad defensively (-1.8 DBPM for Willis and -2.4 DBPM for Moses).  Willis had missed all of 1988-89 with injury and it seemed that: (a) Moses meshed better defensively with Koncak and (b) the aging Moses was regressing defensively regardless of who he played with.  Fratello was canned and the Hawks remained a middling squad for the next few years before a resurgence in 1993-94 but that’s a story for another day.

Recapping It Up

Let’s answer the burning questions to sum it up:

Were the 1988-89 Hawks a super team?

Not quite but a Nique, Moses, Doc core was pretty close.  Moses ranked about fourth in center VORP when Atlanta got him and he fell to seventh on the Hawks.  A nice player but not quite the same as adding a Durant or even Paul George.  Again, 1988 Moses was right on the border but not quite.  Theus, for his part, showed he could be useful on a good team but was more role player than star.

Were the 1988-89 Hawks a failure?

Yes, they failed but the blame on Reggie was silly.  The Hawks loaded up to take a shot but they just weren’t good enough in a stacked East and Theus wasn’t the reason.  It was disappointing that the Hawks didn’t emerge as the Pistons’ main antagonist but you Kasten did all he could to try and see.  In that sense, those Hawks really do feel like the modern Clippers.  The Clipps have a couple of aging stars and just don’t quite have the horses to be a true contender.  The Hawks didn’t ever tear it down (probably because the payroll structure let them lock in Wilkins well through his prime) but Atlanta, like these Clipps, grew overripe and died on the vine.  Both were noble efforts but most title runs don’t really come close in retrospect.

Quick Thoughts

1. The NBA Cup:  I guess it’s time we weighed in on the concept of the in-season tournament to win the NBA Cup (and a large cash prize for winning teams).  I had all but forgotten about this tourney until this week when the “Heist” NBA ads started.  A refresher on the rules can be found here but the quick recap is as follows:

-All 30 teams are subdivided into groups of five teams

-The subgroups play each other in regular season games that count towards regular season standings but also towards qualifying to a single elimination tourney in Las Vegas

-The top eight teams make the Vegas stage.  This stage will be comprised of the team with the best record in each of the six groups plus one wild card from each conference that had the second-best record in its group (which will likely be determined by some weird tiebreaker rules that we won’t get into here).

Per Forbes via ESPN, the teams (players and coaches) that make the knockout round get cash prizes that will descend based on teams placement: the winners getting $500,000 per person, runners-up getting $200,000, semifinalists getting $100,000, and quarterfinalists getting $50,000.

The goal of the tourney is to generate fan interest early in the season and to combat the founded perception that the regular season is not intense enough.  Adam Silver explained that “[t]his is a concept that has been rumbling around the league office for about 15 years.  It’s not a new concept in sports. For those that follow particularly international soccer, it’s a long tradition of having in-season tournaments … so we thought, what a perfect opportunity for a global league like the NBA and it’s a perfect fit for our game.”

Presumably, the chance at extra cash will excite the players and coaches (though it’s not clear why fans would care if Nikola Jokic and his team get an extra $500,000).  My unscientific review has seen some excitement for the tourney and some ambivalence.  My feeling is that the tourney is, essentially, meaningless for the fans.  This is best illustrated by this hypothetical: if Denver or some other title contender wins this tourney and goes on to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, the season would be considered an abject failure and the early season NBA Cup win would hold no lasting fan good will.  In theory, a non-playoff team with lower expectations could point to winning the NBA Cup or even just making Vegas as a partial success for the season but that also rings a bit hollow.  Ultimately, the NBA is about playoff success first and foremost.

This is not to say that the NBA Cup is not worth watching.  It’s a fun little mini-drama and the players do seem to be playing pretty hard.  On the other hand, the teams usually play hard early in the season anyway because every team has a theoretical chance to contend at this point.  It’s the dog days of the season (usually starting in late January), when many teams are starting the hard tank or coasting for other reasons, when the intensity wanes.  Moreover, I could see the novelty of this tourney wearing off if it is repeated too many years in a row.  It’s fun that the NBA is trying something creative but this format will need tweaking at some point.

What tweaks though?  Tyrese Haliburton suggested that that stakes should have playoff consequences: “I think the greatest incentive for everybody to do it would be an automatic playoff bid.  If it was a playoff spot, I think everyone would take it very, very serious, right? I think the older teams would take it seriously.”  Interesting idea but it has two major drawbacks: (a) most of the really good teams already are basically guaranteed playoff spots and the key issue is seeding and (b) even if the reward was a top seed in the playoffs, the NBA Cup would essentially encourage the winner to stop playing hard until the playoffs, paradoxically, devaluing the regular season.  There may be a sweet spot here that balances the concerns by guaranteeing a top four seed (ie homecourt in the first round only) but that still isn’t a perfect solution. 

2.  Streaks to Start the Season:  The Grizzlies were supposed to be competitive this year, even without Ja Morant for 25 games to start the season.  Well, Memphis has started out 0-6 and not looked great.  Are they done for the season?  No, but this is clearly a bad indicator.  Just for fun, here are the worst winless starts to a season by teams that would ultimately make the playoffs (our search is limited to the time since the NBA went the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84):

-Phoenix 1996-97, 0-13: The year after Phoenix pulled the plug on the Charles Barkley Era, the Suns had an awful start to the season.  Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons quit after an 0-8 start and Danny Ainge started 0-5 before turning things around and finishing 40-29 after several major trades (they got Jason Kidd and played a small ball lineup with Kevin Johnson). They ultimately lost a tough five-game series to Seattle.

-Chicago 2004-05, 0-9:  The Bulls were bad for years after MJ retired so an 0-9 start wasn’t surprising but this one ended up being anomalous.  The Bulls were good and had a tough early schedule. Chicago lost at home in double OT on opening night and then played six of the next eight on the road, including a killer west coast trip.  The Bulls started out at 0-9 before the defense turned on and they closed the season 47-26. 

-Cleveland 1984-85, 0-9:  George Karl tried to de-emphasize the World B. Free-centric offense for more team play and the results were terrible.  They started 0-9 and bottomed out at 2-19.  Free’s stats during the bad start: 27 mpg, 15.8 ppg, 6-14.3 FG/FGAPG, .423 FG%, .385 3FG%, 2.4 RPG, 3.8 APG.

Karl unleashed Free and the Cavs finished up 34-27, squeaking into the playoffs as an eight seed.  World’s stats during that stretch were: 33.6 mpg, 25.3 ppg, 9.6/20.6 FG/FGAPG, .469 FG%, .365 3FG%, 3.2 RPG, 4.7 APG.

-Miami 2003-04, 0-7:  In Dwayne Wade’s rookie year, Miami started 0-7 against a hard early schedule with five road games and the two home games were against eventual title winner Detroit and a Minnesota team that had the best record in the west.  Miami went 29-12 at home and 13-28 on the road.  When the schedule evened up, Miami made the playoffs and even won a first-round playoff series.

-Cleveland 1995-96, 0-7:  The Cavs were very slow paced and unexciting under Mike Fratello and he agreed to try to run more to start the 1995-96 season.  The result was the 0-7 start and they only got their mojo back when they slowed things down again.  At least that’s the story Fratello liked to tell.  Digging deeper, the Cavs lost because they had a really bad early schedule.  Cleveland had to play the Reggie Miller Pacers, the peak MJ Bulls twice, the David Robinson Spurs, the peak Penny Magic, and two other playoff teams on the road (Miami and Detroit).  Cleveland was outscored 86-99 during this stretch.

Moreover, the Cavs tamped down the defense the rest of the way, going 47-28 and outscoring opponents 91.6-87.6.  It didn’t hurt that Terrell Brandon jumped to All-Star level after a slow start. He put up 13.6 ppg and 4.4 apg during the opening losing streak and 19.9 ppg, 6.7 apg afterwards. 

So, there is some precedent for bad starts to be overcome on occasion.  Unlike these teams, though, Memphis’ start didn’t involve many great teams.  The hope is that the return of Morant can serve as boost like unleashing Free did for the 1984-85 Cavs.  Either way, a six-game losing streak to start the season greatly reduces the Grizz’s ceiling.

For the sake of symmetry, here are the best win streaks to start the season by teams that missed the playoffs (also since 1983-84):

-Seattle 1998-99, 6-0: Started out 6-0 coming out of the lockout but slumped to 19-25 the rest of the way.  This was the year Vin Baker regressed due to personal issues but he was actually worse in the 6-0 start than he was during the rest of the season.  Seattle just had five of the first six games at home against mostly bad teams. 

-Golden State 1994-95, 5-0:  The Warriors were supposed to be good but Chris Webber was holding out and GS started 5-0 without him, even scoring a nice road win against the Spurs team that would have the best record in the west.  This convinced GS to dump Webber in a trade that didn’t really work out and the Warriors collapsed shortly afterwards.  Our deep dive on this situation can be found here.

-L.A. Clippers 1985-86, 5-0: The Clipps weren’t totally awful (they had healthy vets Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson) and they had four of the first five games at home against mostly tepid teams.  In Clippers fashion, they immediately went on an eight-game losing streak and finished the year at 32-50.

Finally, let’s give a special acknowledgement to the 1970-71 Pistons, who started out the year 9-0 only to miss the playoffs.  We didn’t officially “count” this team in our inquiry because only four teams made the playoffs from each conference back then.  Detroit finished 45-37 and were actually last in the Midwest Division.  The rub is that the Warriors made playoffs as the second team in the Pacific at only 41-41.  Detroit fans have little beef, however, because Phoenix finished 48-34 and also missed the playoffs.

NBA Preview 2023-24

Another season is upon us so it’s time to go on the record with some pre-season predictions.  There is no prohibitive favorite but there is a big three: Boston, Milwaukee, and Denver and Phoenix is a close fourth (with a few other teams near the Suns).  Let’s run through a few of the burning questions:

Was the Dame/Jrue trade worth it for Milwaukee?

Definitely.  Giannis Antetokounmpo clearly wanted the deal and immediately signed an extension thereafter.  On that basis alone the Bucks had to make the deal.  Putting aside keeping Giannis happy, though, do the numbers bear out the deal?

Both Lillard and Jrue Holiday are All-Star level 33-year old point guards but they add value quite differently.  Pure numbers comparisons are two-dimensional but definitely provide a nice ballpark for the players as of the end of the 2022-23 season:

-Holiday: 32.6 mpg, 2,183 minutes, 19.3 ppg, .586 TS%, 5.1 rpg, 7.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 19.2 PER, .148 WS48, 3.1 BPM (0.1 DBPM), 2.8 VORP

-Dame: 36.3 mpg, 2,107 minutes, 32.2 ppg, .645 TS%, 4.8 rpg, 7.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 26.7 PER, .205 WS48, 7.1 BPM (-1.2 DBPM), 4.9 VORP

Two great players and the stats reflect their differences better than I thought they would.  Dame is transcendent offensively and a negative on defense and Jrue is a more balanced player.  Lillard’s usage was a career high 33.8% and you have to think that will tamp down slightly on a better team.

Dame’s real utility will come, however, in the playoff slog where the Bucks’ offense has sputtered at times and Jrue had issues in that same slog.

Here are the Bucks’ offensive ratings by series since Jrue came to town compared with their regular season numbers:

2020-21, regular season offense, 117.2 (6th)

2020-21, first round versus Miami, 117.2

2020-21, second round versus Brooklyn, 105.0

2020-21, ECF versus Atlanta, 117.6

2020-21, Finals versus Phoenix, 111.7

2021-22, regular season offense, 115.1 (3rd)

2021-22, first round versus Chicago, 109.8

2021-22, second round versus Boston, 97.7

2022-23, regular season offense, 115.4 (12th)

2022-23, first round versus Miami, 118.8

First, the ironic point is that the loss to Miami was the impetus for this trade but the Bucks’ scored better in that series, they just couldn’t stop the Heat.  Still, the prior playoffs do show playoff offense drop off.  Overall, the Bucks have been a tick below regular season efficiency (which is somewhat normal) but had some noteworthy bad scoring spots: Brooklyn 2021 and Boston 2022.   There are mitigating factors for these bad outcomes (Khris Middleton was hampered against Boston last year) but Jrue shot 36% in each of those series (and against Phoenix in the 2021 Finals).

In fact, here are Jrue’s overall regular season stats as a Buck versus his playoffs stats:

-Reg. Season: 32.6 mpg, 18.5 ppg, .590 TS%, .395 3FG%, 4.7 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.6 topg, 19.7 PER, .154 WS48, 3.2 BPM

-Playoffs: 39.2 mpg, 17.9 ppg, .476 TS%, .304 3FG%, 5.8 rpg, 7.9 apg, 2.6 topg, 14.6 PER, .087, 1.7 BPM

Jrue is an effective in non-scoring stats in the playoffs but his three-point shooting has been miserable (on about the same rate of frequency as he takes them in the regular season). But wait there’s more….Jrue’s bad shooting also extends to two-pointers.  Here are his shooting splits by distance:

0-3 feet: .694% regular season, .610% playoffs

3-10 feet: .452% regular season, .388% playoffs

10-16 feet: .511% regular season, .408% playoffs

16-3 point: .459% regular season, .324% playoffs

3 pointers: .395% regular season, .304% playoffs

Holiday still passes well in the playoffs but there’s only so much he can help on offense if he is a quasi-non-shooter in the playoffs.  Just for some comparison, here are Dame’s career regular season and playoff numbers:

-Reg. Season: 36.3 mpg, 25.2 ppg, .588 TS%, .372 3FG%, 4.2 rpg, 6.7 apg, 2.8 topg, 22.5 PER, .177 WS48, 4.9 BPM

-Playoffs: 40.3 mpg, 25.7 ppg, .561 TS%, .369 3FG%, 4.5 rpg, 6.2 apg, 3.1 topg, 19.8 PER, .114 WS48, 4.3 BPM

0-3 feet: .583% regular season, .573% playoffs

3-10 feet: .346% regular season, .373% playoffs

10-16 feet: .428% regular season, .278% playoffs

16-3 point: .443% regular season, .324% playoffs

3 pointers: .372% regular season, .369% playoffs

Dame has almost no playoff drop off in the playoffs, which is amazing.  There is the disclaimer that Dame hasn’t played a playoff game since 2021 but that is countered by the fact that Dame hasn’t dropped off in the regular season either.  In short, it seems that Dame could be such an offensive boost over Jrue you have to think this will be an overall improvement to the team.  Milwaukee will need another perimeter defender to call on but, assuming health, the Bucks look much more dangerous in the playoffs.

What about Boston?

The Celtics take the consolation prize by nabbing Jrue to replace Malcolm Brogdon/Marcus Smart and betting that Kristaps Porzingis will stay healthy.  It will be tough to improve on last year’s regular season but this squad should be at the top of the conference.  The only question is whether they can create enough offensively deep in the playoffs.  The last two years, the offense stalled out in the playoffs when Jayson Tatum wasn’t hitting shots.  The Celtics are co-favorites to win the title but I’m guessing that they can’t overcome the Bucks in the playoffs.

Denver versus the field

The Nuggets are younger and better than the Suns, Lakers, Clippers, and Warriors.  Nikola Jokic is still the best player in the NBA and each of these other teams have age issues that make it hard for me to believe they will beat Denver.  As for LeBron James, his longevity has been amazing but there is not a single NBA player who was MVP-level effective at age-39.  He can still be an All-Star but we should see more regression and that’s enough to make the Lakers fringe contenders at best.

Eastern Conference Predictions

1. Boston Celtics

2.  Milwaukee Bucks

3.  Cleveland Cavaliers

4.  Philadelphia 76ers

5.  New York Knicks

6.  Miami Heat

7.  Atlanta Hawks

8.  Indiana Pacers

(Play-in Losers)

9.  Chicago Bulls

10.  Toronto Raptors

Western Conference Predictions

1. Denver Nuggets

2.  Phoenix Suns

3.  Los Angeles Lakers

4.  Memphis Grizzlies

5.  Minnesota Timberwolves

6. Golden State Warriors

7. Sacramento Kings

8.  Los Angeles Clippers

(Play-in Losers)

9.  Dallas Mavericks

10.  OKC Thunder


Eastern Conference Finals

Bucks beat Celtics 4-2

Western Conference Finals

Nuggets beat Suns 4-1


Bucks beat Nuggets 4-3


MVP: Nikola Jokic

ROY: Victor Wembanyama

COY:  Joe Mazzulla

Revisiting The Barkley Rockets: Was He Worth It?

As we are in the depths of the NBA off-season and waiting for a couple of big names to (maybe) be traded, I thought this would be a good time to review an old controversial big trade: The Rockets’ trade of Charles Barkley in the summer of 1996.  Houston traded two key young players (Sam Cassell and Robert Horry) for a 33-year old Barkley in a bid to squeeze another title out of the Hakeem Olajuwon/Clyde Drexler core.  The trade didn’t win Houston a title but was it a bad deal?  Opinions vary.

The first item that comes up online searching the trade is a 2010 Bleacher Report story that describes the trade thusly: “the Houston Rockets stupidly and stubbornly gambled on a major move in 1996 after winning back-to-back titles, trading away four vital players for an old and grumpy Charles Barkley. Those four players? Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant.”  The article further explained that: “Horry went on to win numerous rings while Cassell went on to lead many, many teams to some great seasons…Not only was Barkley not that good of a player by the time he joined the Rockets in 1996-97, but he also never truly fit in with the entire Houston locker room chemistry that was such a vital part of their back-to-back glory years.”  Bleacher Report correctly articulated the cost but, perhaps, understated Barkley’s contributions for Houston. 

In 2021, Rahat Haq of the Houston Chronicle revisited the deal where he described the trade as: “controversial, and to this day, remains one of the most hotly contested debates amongst Rockets fans….Many still feel that the Rockets messed with a formula that wasn’t broken.”  Haq also gave a little more context for the trade.  The Rockets were swept and badly outplayed by Seattle in the 1996 playoffs: “[t]he Sonics, featuring All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, were a matchup nightmare for the Rockets as composed during the title years. Payton tormented the Rockets’ point guards and the Sonics’ defensive scheme allowed them to swarm Olajuwon without leaving the Rockets’ 3-point shooters open.”  Haq ultimately concluded that the trade was worth the risk and attributed the inability to win a title to Houston failing to get enough role players to fill in the other slots.

Both sides of the argument have some merit but I thought we could review the trade de novo now to see where we come out on this question…

State of the Rockets in 1996

Any judgment of the risk/reward analysis must start with the state of the Rockets as of the end of the 1995-96 season.  On paper, the Rockets were okay but here were the hard numbers:

-48-34, 1.63 SRS, 12th on offense, 14th on defense.

-Hakeem had an excellent season (26.9 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 25.5 PER, .166 WS48, 4.9 BPM). This was basically in line with his near peak but he was turning 34.

-Drexler was quite good but a step down from his peak (19.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.8 apg, 20.0 PER, .161 WS48, 4.0 BPM) and he was turning 34 and missed 30 games with injuries.  Houston was 32-20 in games he played and 16-14 without Clyde. (For posterity: Olajuwon missed 10 games and Houston was 47-25 with Hakeem and 1-9 without him).

-Horry was turning 26 and his typical nice season (13.7 PER, .089 WS48, 2.3 BPM).  Cassell was turning 27 and had been solid (16.8 PER, .110 WS48, 0.3 BPM) but not at an age where a breakout seemed likely. (Bryant and Brown were serviceable vets but quite fungible).

-The sweep by the Sonics clearly spooked Houston management. Seattle outscored Houston by 11.7 ppg and Payton (24.5 ppg) and Kemp (21.8 ppg, 13.8 rpg) were unstoppable while Hakeem struggled (18.3 ppg on .523 TS%) and the Rocket PGs couldn’t get much done (Cassell was 9-37, .243% from the field). In fact, the Rockets went 0-4 against Seattle in the regular season too.  This seemed like a bad match up for Houston as constituted in 1995-96.

-In addition to Seattle, the Western Conference was very deep with Utah, San Antonio, and the Lakers (who were soon to sign Shaq) all at least as good as the Rockets.  The Rockets had gone 2-2 against Utah, 1-3 against the Spurs, and 0-2 against Shaq.  In short, Houston was likely to be a four or five seed, having to beat two great teams (one of whom would likely be their kryptonite in Seattle) without homecourt.  (Houston somehow won a title in 1995 playoffs as a six seed but that was a once in a generation run).   On top of that, if the Rockets could somehow make another miracle playoff run in the West, they would have to beat the Michael Jordan Bulls, who were coming off a 72-10 season.

Was Barkley the right choice?

So, Houston’s option was to stand pat and hope that Horry and Cassell breakout or try to get more sure-fire power to take a shot or two while Hakeem and Drexler were still near their primes.  Barkley seemed like the only big name available via trade at the time (the biggest vet names traded that off-season besides Barkley were Rod Strickland and Larry Johnson). 

In terms of non-Shaq free agents available, Reggie Miller would’ve been a fascinating fit with Hakeem and the Miller’s negotiations did get messy but he did return to Indy at over $11 million per year while Barkley’s older deal paid him only $4.7 million.  Also, Reggie wouldn’t address the Sonics/Shawn Kemp problem. 

There were other considerations for the Rockets to lean towards Barkley as well.  Mike Tulumello wrote in “Breaking the Rules,” a book that chronicled Barkley’s 1995-96 run in Phoenix, that: “[f]rom the Rockets’ perspective, the spin of the trade was that they’d gained a superstar necessary for one or two more serious runs at the title.  But it seemed at least equally true that the Rockets’ owner Les Alexander met the Suns’ demands for another reason.  Barkley’s persona guaranteed the Rockets the high visibility that would create a favorable climate for the Rockets’ top long-term goal: a new arena.”    

How good was Barkley circa 1996?

Barkley was an undersized power forward and was not known for having a great work ethic.  In theory, he seemed like a bad candidate to age well in his mid-30s. On paper, however, the stats were still pretty good. In 1995-96, Barkley played the most games (71) and minutes (2,632) since 1992-93 and his actual stats were right around what he put up the last four years: 24.8 PER, .191 WS48, 5.7 BPM.  I’m not sure what a physical showed but, purely as a player, Barkley should’ve been pretty good for 1996-97.

The fascinating second issue was how the ball dominant Barkley would adjust to playing with two other stars.  Barkley told Sports Illustrated before the season that opponents would have issues stopping them: “[y]ou’re not going to not double-team Hakeem and you’re not going to not double-team Clyde Drexler.  I’m pretty sure people are going to double-team me.  That’s six guys.” Here’s how Barkley’s stats from his final year in Phoenix compared to that first year with Houston:

1995-96: 37.1 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .521 eFG%, 11.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 24.8 PER, .191 WS48, 5.7 BPM

1996-97: 37.9 mpg, 19.2 ppg, .526 eFG%, 13.5 rpg, 4.7 apg, 23.0 PER, .224 WS48, 5.7 BPM

Barkley was really good in 1996-97 for Houston but had to adjust to a third banana role on offense.  His usage dropped from 27.5 to 23.2, his lowest since 1986-87 (Hakeem’s usage was 30.4, near his high-water mark, and Drexler’s 23.5 was virtually the same as the season before).  Barkley got touches by rebounding like a fiend.  He posted a near career high 20.7 TRB% and dished at also near career high 20.6 AST%.  He may have been loud in the locker room, but Barkley fit in really well on the court. 

The 1996-97 Rockets: Oooooooooooold (mostly)

The Rockets lost a lot of depth to get Barkley and SI described the bench as “thin as a supermodel and not nearly as pretty.”  Houston filled the roles with very veteran players.  The top seven players in minutes played per game were all 33 or older except rookie Matt Maloney, who won the starting point guard job out of the CBA.  Maloney was not athletic and didn’t penetrate much and, instead, was a solid spot up three-point guy.  He was basically John Paxson and not a true point guard (the offense ran through Drexler anyway and the Rockets were fifth in the NBA in assists and 26th in turnovers). 

Health was an issue.  Hakeem played 78 games but Barkley did wear down under heavy minutes and played only 53 games (the Rockets were 41-12 in those games).  Drexler played 62 games (Houston was 46-16 in those games).  Overall, they went 57-25 and were well balanced (7th on offense, 10th on defense, 8th in pace).  Even better, they matched up well against the good teams:

  1. versus the Bulls

3-1 versus Shaq’s Lakers

3-1 versus Seattle

2-2 versus Utah

(The Spurs bottomed out and did not compete due to David Robinson’s injuries).

In the playoffs, Houston beat nemesis Seattle in an epic seven-game series where Barkley was a key factor in matching Kemp.  Maloney played relatively well against Payton as well.  In the Western Conference Finals, however, Utah beat Houston 4-2 and John Stockton ran wild (20.5 ppg, .651 TS%, 10.3 apg) and hit the series winning shot over Barkley.  Barkley had a pretty good series and held Karl Malone to .494 TS%. So, no title but the Barkley gambit worked pretty well in Year 1. 

1997-98: Things Get Messy

Despite the nice 1996-97, the Rockets were clearly a declining asset.  The key players were a year older, and Vegas was skeptical.  Houston’s odds of winning a title in 1996-97 were +700 and had an over-under of 53.5 wins.  The title odds rose to +1200 for 1997-98 with an over-under of 50.5 wins.

Drexler and Barkley were relatively healthy (both playing about 70 games) but the anchor, Hakeem, was wearing out.  Olajuwon struggled with injuries and played only 47 games (Houston was 26-21 in those games, 15-20 without him).  Both Barkley and Hakeem were good but their stats were also creeping downwards to their lowest advanced numbers since their rookie seasons (for example: 3.0 BPM for Hakeem, 2.8 BPM for Barkley). 

Overall, the offense was still good (8th) but the collective age showed most on defense where they dropped from 10th to 25th.  The Rockets started 12-5 but wore down and ended up 41-41 and were an eight seed overall. Late in the season, the Rockets attempted to inject some energy into the core by trading for young point guard Damon Stoudamire from Toronto but the Raptors backed out of the deal when they realized there were better offers out there.  The deal probably wouldn’t have helped Houston much anyway because the problems were on defense (not Damon’s forte) and Stoudamire’s ball dominant style wouldn’t work great on a team with three ball dominant players already.  (In fact, Stoudamire was not a star scorer when he ended up in Portland).

Houston drew the Jazz in the playoffs and played them really tough.  Houston stole Game 1 in Houston and were up 2-1 in the series at one point.  They had the chance to close Utah out in Game 4.  The Rockets were up 11 after one quarter in Game 4 when Barkley tore his triceps when Greg Foster landed on him.  Houston was outscored 40-16 immediately after the injury and the series was effectively over.  It’s not as though the Rockets were likely to make a deep run (they would’ve had to beat Tim Duncan/David Robinson Spurs AND the Shaq/Kobe Lakers the next two rounds).  Still, Houston was feisty enough that but for an untimely fluke injury, they may have at least upset the Jazz. Either way, it was clear that real title contention with the old man core was getting less likely.

Did Barkley feud with Hakeem and Drexler at all?

As mentioned above, Barkley did have some rough moments with his fellow stars.  Larry Platt’s “Keepin’ It Real,” details troubles from early in the 1997-98 season: “After last week’s last-second loss at Portland (Barkley missed two layups with the game on the line), Olajuwon complained about not getting the ball down the stretch.  Barkley told Eddie Sefko, a beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, that Hakeem is ‘a big baby.’  Drexler chimed in, taking Olajuwon’s side, unable to resist the opportunity to needle Barkley publicly.”  The three stars then did a press conference after this spat affirming that there was no dissension on the team

Later in the year, as the team really struggled, the Barkley/Drexler beef simmered again.  Platt wrote that: “[t]he buzz is that Drexler and Barkley are feuding and can no longer play together….Drexler is, after all, an adherent to the crossover ethic that Barkley finds so phony.  One team source blames Drexler: ‘Clyde is jealous,’ the source says, pointing out that Barkley’s flamboyance naturally overshadows Drexler’s quiet, classy demeanor….But those close to the team, including Barkley himself, scoff at the idea of significant friction between the two stars.  In other worse, it’s nothing a winning streak wouldn’t straighten out.”  It was clear that Barkley and Drexler were never buddies but any talk of a big rift in the locker room was overblown.

1998-99: A New Big Three

Even though he was still pretty good, Drexler retired after the 1997-98 season to coach the University of Houston (he would go 19-39 in two years before resigning).  Houston replaced Drexler with a 33-year old Scottie Pippen to team with Barkley (now age-35) and Hakeem (age-36).  The Rockets had also found a few useful active young guards in rookies Michael Dickerson and Cuttino Mobley.  This new combo led Vegas to give them strong(ish) title odds of +500 and some optimism about recapturing the 1996-97 magic.

On the court, the core stayed healthy and the old guys were better than the prior year too (Hakeem ticked up to a 3.2 BPM and Barkley to 4.5 BPM).  The overall offense was strong (5th) and the defense was back to adequate (15th) resulting in a 31-19 record for a lockout shortened season. 

The Rockets were a solid mid-seed but really struggled against the best of the West (3-9 against the top four seeds in the West) and fattened on non-playoff teams (Houston was 20-4 against them).  The Rockets were a five seed and drew the Kobe/Shaq Lakers in the first round.  The Lakers took the series 3-1 but the games were relatively close.  Both Barkley (23.5 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 3.8 apg) and Pippen (18.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 5.5 apg) played well but Hakeem (13.3 ppg on .426%) was crushed by prime Shaq (29.5 ppg, .523%).

Pippen became disenchanted with Houston’s post up offense and demanded a trade after the season.  Barkley, who took a pay cut to help get Pippen, considered the demand disloyal and said so publicly.  Pippen, who has never been afraid to nuke people who annoy him, did just that to Sir Charles stating that: “[Barkley] can never expect an apology from me. If anything, he owes me an apology for coming to play with his sorry fat butt.”  Pippen was able to force a trade to Portland shortly after this.

1999-00: It’s over, Johnny

Houston still wanted to try to ride Barkley and Olajuwon for 1999-00, this time adding rookie star Steve Francis to the mix but the wheels finally fell off for the older stars.  Barkley blew out his patella tendon 20 games into the season and Hakeem played only 44 games and was also ineffective.  The injuries didn’t really matter to the Rockets’ overall performance anyway.  Houston was 7-13 when Barkley got hurt and finished 34-48 for the season.  Barkley retired and went on to an announcing career where he’s made a better salary than he did as a player.

Summing it up

The Barkley Era yielded one bona fide title run in 1996-97, a few decent moments the next two years but no more playoff wins.  Barkley played mostly very well and there is little evidence that he was a source of serious trouble in the locker room.  The Drexler fight was exaggerated and the Pippen fight appears to have been 90% Pippen trying to force a trade to a better team.

Had the Rockets just kept Cassell and Horry during that time span, they would’ve been solid but not any better in 1996-97.  After 1997, Houston might’ve have been better with Cassell and Horry but a title shot wasn’t realistic then anyway.   An argument can be made that Houston could’ve traded Cassell and Horry for a better return later (Cassell was traded for Jason Kidd a few months after the Barkley trade) but that would be gambling that a better star was going to be available midway through the season.  It was not readily apparent in the summer of 1996 that Kidd was going to be traded anyway (Kidd’s career is a whole other article!).

Barkley told SI in 1996 that “[i]f we don’t win the championship, I’ll be crushed.  But I don’t make guarantees.”  In that sense, the Barkley trade was a disappointment.  Ultimately, Barkley was very good on Houston (and surprisingly adaptable) but they couldn’t get to a Finals in the small window when their stars were young enough to dominate and they were just okay the rest of his tenure.  Still, it was worth the gamble for Houston relative to cost and the Barkley Years were never boring.