Having time off from everything give us time to mess around with random things that pique our interest. Digging deeper into old NBA stories fits that bill. With the NBA season in hiatus, I thought we could re-examine some old seasons/issues and try to have some fun that way. Today, I randomly ran across an NBA preview for the 1995-96 season from Sports Illustrated. The thing that caught my eyes was an article by Hank Hersch entitled, “10 Fearless Predictions,” that took some guesses on what would happen during the season. I wanted to revisit the predictions and see how they came out. This exercise is not designed to critique Hersch’s predictive skills but more to examine the way the NBA was viewed the time and how things have changed after it was written (no one wants their full predictive record audited). Having said that, Hersch did pretty well!
So, let’s dive in and discuss them and see the related wormholes it takes through:
1. The first coach to be fired will be M.L. Carr…by M.L. Carr
Carr was hired to turn around the Celtics as GM after the 1993-94 season. It was a tough time for the Celts. They were coming off of a 32-50 season, their worst season since 1978-79. All the old guard was gone: Larry Bird had retired in 1992, Kevin McHale retired and Reggie Lewis died in 1993, and Robert Parish was going to be let go (he was turning 41 and a free agent).
Faced with a clear bottom, Carr kept coach Chris Ford and should’ve tried a total rebuild. Instead, in a really odd twist, his first big move to sign a 35-year old Dominique Wilkins to anchor the team. Nique was okay (16.3 PER, 3.9 WS) and, incredibly, the Celtics made the playoffs with a 35-47 record (and even won a game against the top seeded Magic). Despite doing about as well as can reasonably be expected with an old Wilkins and decent pros like Sherman Douglas, Rick Fox, and Dino Radja, Ford was fired and Carr made himself coach. The Boston Herald reported that “Ford had openly disagreed with Carr over team philosophy. Carr, for example, wanted to run more but Ford said he did not have the players for that style of play.” Incidentally, the 1994-95 Celtics were 11th in the NBA in pace and decent on offense (13th) but not great defensively (20th).
A July 4, 1995 feature on Carr in the Boston Globe broke down the split with Ford as follows: “He is the antithesis of Chris Ford, a stern and exacting coach who extracted all that he could from the team Carr gave him. You won’t hear much about back picks or boxing out or spacing, not because Carr doesn’t know the fundamentals – how could he not know them after 20-plus years in the game? – but because those are not the qualities he feels he needs to bring to the table. Not right now, anyway. ‘I’m a builder, a facilitator,’ Carr says. ‘Hopefully, I’ll create some camaraderie and excitement.’”
Carr made the 1995 off-season’s biggest free agent signing too, Dana Barros, who had starred at Boston College, and was coming off of an All-Star Season with the 76ers (yes, it was a pretty underwhelming free agent market). Yet, Barros star season in 1994-95 seemed to be an outlier to his previous entrenched role as a bench shooter. In this back drop, Hersch predicted the Celts needed stars to build around and that Carr couldn’t sign them after blowing money on Barros.
Result: The first coach fired was the T-Wolves’ Bill Blair and Carr was not fired even after the season. In the larger sense, Hersch was correct. Carr never got that star he yearned for. The 1995-96 Celts were first in pace but were slightly worse in result (33-49) and stuck in neutral with Barros reverting to third-guard status. Carr wasn’t fired but he stayed as coach and went full-tank mode for the 1996-97 season in an attempt to get Tim Duncan in the lottery. The Celts had two lottery picks (thanks to a great trade that Carr made in the 1996 draft when he dealt Eric Montross and the ninth pick in the 1996 draft (ended up being Samaki Walker) for the sixth pick (Antoine Walker) and the Mavs 1997 pick (which ended up being 3rd overall in 1997). In a lesson that Sam Hinkie should’ve heeded, the Celts tanked too well in 1996-97 (going an awful 15-67) and Carr was kicked out as coach for Rick Pitino (and Boston did not get Duncan with either pick).
2. Toronto will win 12 games; the other expansion franchise, Vancouver will not.
1995-96 was the entry year for the Raptors and Grizzlies. Hersch knew the teams would be bad but assumed they would be really bad. Still, there was little evidence the teams would historically bad. Compare this prediction to the actual results of the last few expansion teams before them:
-1989-90 Orlando Magic, 18-64
-1989-90 Minnesota Timberwolves, 22-60
-1988-89 Miami Heat, 15-67
-1988-89 Charlotte Hornets, 20-62
There was no indication that the Raps or Grizz were any worse than those teams. Each drafted decently (Toronto took Damon Stoudamire and Vancouver took Bryant Reeves) and each had those workmanlike vets to fill holes (Tracy Murray, Oliver Miller, Byron Scott, Blue Edwards).
Result: Hersch was correct that the Grizz were much worse than the Raptors. He was really off on win totals though. The Raptors, led by Stoudamire, were surprisingly competitive at times (21-61). Vancouver was the worst team in the NBA at 15-67 but were not worse than the equally execrable 1988-89 Heat.
3. The best grab of another team’s free agent will prove to be Utah’s signing of Chris Morris
Hersch theorized that the gifted Morris, “freed from the directionless Nets,” would excel with a strong Jazz team and, as a side note, that the Nets would improve by replacing the bitter Morris with “business like rookie Ed O’Bannon.” (We won’t exam this in detail but O’Bannon’s knees were shot, so that part of the prediction didn’t come true).
Morris was a very athletic small forward for the Nets. The Nets had always hoped that he would blossom into their Scottie Pippen but it never quite translated. Morris’ numbers were solid enough on paper (he had a 15.3 PER for New Jersey and 1.2 BPM) but if you watched him, you did get the sense that he was not fully engaged, culminating in a story where Morris refused to tie his shoelaces when instructed by Butch Beard during a practice in the 1994-95 season.
The shoelace story was legendary and was sold to show that Morris was ridiculous or stupid. In reality, it was more likely that he was protesting the Nets’ total meltdown as an organization and the refusal to offer him a new contract. It still wasn’t a great idea but Hersch clearly saw Morris’ side a little better than most did at the time.
Result: Mo began the 1995-96 season as the Jazz’s starting small forward and played roughly to his ability on the Nets (15.8 PER). Thing soured badly in 1996-97. Morris was terrible offensively (9.7 PER) and he ran afoul of coach Jerry Sloan. In “To The Brink,” Michael C. Lewis’ book on the 1997-98 Jazz run to the Finals, Lewis wrote about the 1996-97 rift: “Morris’ relationship with Sloan grew more contentious….because Morris never came around to Sloan’s idea about how basketball ought to be played. He didn’t play defense, first of all. Sloan began to use Morris more and more erratically, and Morris responded more and more rebelliously until he finally erupted during a February game against the New York Knicks. He screamed at Sloan for removing him from the game, and Sloan responded by hollering back and ordering Morris to leave the Jazz bench at the Delta Center. Morris at first refused, but finally relented after the threat of a security detail was raised.” Morris didn’t play much after that but was able to squeeze out one last season for the Suns in 1998-99 before retiring.
Morris’ DBPM on Utah does support that he wasn’t playing great defense (-0.3 versus 0.7 for the Nets). When viewed in the context of his career, however, Morris’ defensive decline progresses steadily by age. In his mid-20s, Morris rated strongly on defense but he was already 30 when the Jazz signed him and he may not have had the same athleticism he had as a younger player, regardless of other issues.
So, Morris was not the best signing of the off-season. There really wasn’t a “best” free agent that year but the best new addition that didn’t come from the draft was Arvydas Sabonis (who we will discuss at length below).
4. Detroit’s draft-day deals will translate into a playoff berth.
The Pistons were trying to recover from the remnants of the Bad Boys Era. Isiah Thomas & Company were all almost all gone. They still had Joe Dumars and a couple of good young stars in Grant Hill and Allan Houston. But the 1994-95 Pistons were 28-54 and had the worst defense in the NBA. They hired Doug Collins and traded for rookie Theo Ratliff and vet Otis Thorpe to bolster the defense. Hersch figured that the Collins/Ratliff/Thorpe crew could change that.
Result: Absolutely correct. The Pistons jumped to 7th in defense and made the playoffs at 46-36. Ratliff established himself as a nice defender. Thorpe’s DBPM was a decent 0.1 but that was better than his career DBPM (-0.3). The sleeper defender on the Pistons was rookie second-rounder Don Reid, who was off the charts at 2.6 DBPM and hustled like his career depended on it (it actually did). Reid would parlay that into a solid career as hustling big.
As a footnote, for some reason, Collins and Thorpe ended up despising each other. Jerry Bembry wrote about the feud in a March 14, 1997 article: “Thorpe has been upset this season because he is not involved more on offense. He had a disagreement with Collins on Feb. 2, and since has basically fallen into the tank….The rift has gotten so out of hand that Thorpe does not even acknowledge Collins, avoiding huddles and ignoring the coach during huddles. Collins has relayed messages to Thorpe on the court through teammates.”
So, what the hell happened on February 2, 1997? On April14, 1997, William F. Reed of Sports Illustrated wrote about the incident: “[i]n a first-quarter timeout during a 106-97 loss to the Suns, Collins reportedly questioned–Thorpe would say ridiculed–his power forward’s defensive commitment in front of the team, then later refused to discuss the incident with him, which only made Thorpe angrier….That evening he became the 43rd player in NBA history to play in at least 1,000 games. Friends and family, including Phyllis Freed, his agent and longtime mentor, had come in from out of town to help him celebrate.” Reed wrote that Thorpe was famously sensitive, though there is ample evidence that Collins was quite a bit more emotional than Thorpe. It took six weeks, but Collins finally hashed it out with Thorpe and they acknowledged each other.
The bad karma surrounding Thorpe in Detroit spread exponentially afterwards. After the season, Collins traded Thorpe to the expansion Grizzlies for a future first-rounder. Why the 14-68 Grizzlies needed a 35-year old power forward was not clear but the first-rounder ended up being the second pick in the 2003 draft. Detroit famously took Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. The other postscript: The Grizz traded Thorpe midway through the season to the Kings for the last 27 game of Bobby Hurley and journeyman Michael Smith.
5. Houston will break its own three-point records.
The 1994-95 Rockets set then records for three-point shooting as a team, at 7.9 makes and 21.4 attempts (isn’t that adorable now?). Hersch reasoned that adding: (a) full season of Clyde Drexler, (b) a green light for Robert Horry, and (c) adding CBA shooter Eldridge Recasner would boost that.
Result: Close(ish). Here’s the breakdown:
-1994-95 Rockets: 646-1757
-1995-96 Rockets: 637-1761
So, Houston did break their old record in attempts but shot slightly worse. Why didn’t they shatter it? Well, Horry’s threes did go up (he was 86-227 in 1994-95 and shot a career-most 142-388 in 1995-96). Clyde shot 4.8 threes per game in 1994-95 for Houston (in 35 games). In 1995-96, Clyde shot 4.5 per game but only played 52 games. Recasner and fellow CBAer Sam Mack also shot a bit as well (81-191 for Recasner and 54-135 for Mack).
Hersch failed to account for who would be missing from 1994-95 Rockets, namely Vernon Maxwell. Mad Max was the first true three-point chucker and he took 441 threes in 1994-95 in only 64 games (6.9 per game). Horry and the CBA guys replaced Maxwell but didn’t really shatter the old record (Max would take 460 threes in 1995-96 for the 76ers). In the end, adding those players and green lighting Horry could only tie Maxwell’s volume.
But Hersch’s prediction was right in one more respect…the 1994-95 Rockets’ three-point record was shattered in 1995-96 by a Texas team. The 1995-96 Mavericks were the first team to exceed 2,000 threes attempted in a season and made nearly 100 more threes than the Rockets. No one saw this one coming.
The Mavs shot 735 for 2,039 that season, both new records. The 735 made would not be broken until 2004-05 by the Suns (796) and the attempt record would not be broken until the 2002-03 Celtics (2,155). Unlike the Rockets, the Mavs’ three-point shooting did not revolve around throwing the ball into the post and kicking out to the guard if there was a double team.
Houston had Hakeem Olajuwon but the Mavs were pretty centerless. Dallas’ starting center was Lorenzo Williams, an undersized forward who could hustle but couldn’t do anything but make an open dunk. Williams shot .477 from the field and .376 from the line in 1994-95 (think a slightly taller and worse Bo Outlaw). In 1994-95, the Mavs were coming off of years of terrible play but they had a core of rookie Jason Kidd at the point, Jimmy Jackson at the two, and Jamal Mashburn at the three. The Mavs went from 13-69 in 193-94 to 36-46 that season with a high-paced offense and the young players put up some gaudy raw stats:
-Jason Kidd (age 21): 11.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 7.7 apg
-Jim Jackson (age 24): 25.7 ppg
-Jamal Mashburn (age 22): 24.1 ppg
While the core’s advanced stats were less exciting, this was a young electric team that played at a high pace (6th). They seemed poised to make the playoffs in 1995-96. The funny thing was that the Mavs didn’t actually shoot that many threes in 1994-95. They had 386 makes (20th) and 1,200 attempts (15th) for a .322% rate (24th). Before the 1995-96 season, coach Dick Motta was touting his three stars but noted that even if all three were great, it would be tough to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Three-point shooting was not mentioned.
Then things got tougher. Mashburn went down with a knee injury in November 1995 and would not return. Also, Jackson’s offensive effectiveness tumbled (his 1994-95 season ended early after severely spraining his ankle). JJ was healthy but no longer was getting to the line as much as he did (7.5 free throws per game in 1994-95 dropped to 5.1 in 1995-96. He would never top 4.0 for the rest of his career). Also forgotten was that Roy Tarpley, who had a great comeback in 1994-95, relapsed and did not make it back to the team.
The Mavs started out 5-1, with a nice win at the Spurs and less impressive wins against the Warriors, Bucks, and Grizz (twice). Then the bottom dropped out. They finished 26-56 and had an 11-game losing streak in March. Early on, the Mavs did shoot some threes but were no crazy chuckers. It started with George McCloud, the back up to Mashburn, who was freed to shoot more. He shot 8-12 against Seattle in a win on December 12, 1995 and 10-12 in a loss to Phoenix four days later. McCloud was definitely shooting a bunch but things got whacky in late February. He averaged 11 threes per game from that point on, maxing out in a game where he attempted 20 threes. Kidd and Jackson began shooting more threes as well (though not nearly at the McCloud rate).
The approach was met with skepticism. On March 10, 1996, Richard Evans of the Desert News wrote that: “It’s a sad thing to see venerable coach Dick Motta letting the Dallas Mavericks become the Loyola-Marymount of the NBA, bagging a conventional offense in favor of firing up scores of three-pointers.” Evans’ article is more interesting, however, for the contemporaneous documentation as to how Motta came up with the plan. Evans’ described the strategy as “MAVS FOR 3” and says it started on February 29, 1996. Evans further wrote that “[t]he reason Motta resorted to this is that forwards Popeye Jones and Terry Davis are hurt, and rookie big men Loren Meyer and Cherokee Parks haven’t panned out as hoped.” Motta told Evans that “[w]e decided that if we’re going to go small, we’re going to give up some offensive rebounds anyway, so we might as well give them up with the three-point shot with long rebounds. With a little quicker team in there you have a chance to get that long rebound. We would rather be a traditional team, but the injuries have forced us to improvise a little bit, and as we improvise and do more and more with it, it seems like the kids are enjoying it more.” (Ironically, Motta may not have noticed that the Mavs were first in the NBA in offensive rebounds).
Kidd liked the style too: “[a]ny basketball player will enjoy having that freedom [to shoot].” McCloud obviously liked it too: “[t]his is like streetball, or like playing in the park. It’s a lot of fun.” The team was bad before trying the strategy (18-36) and not any better after trying the three-point strategy (8-20). In addition, there was serious feuding between Kidd and Jackson that was undermining everything as well.
So, Motta took a shot with a crazy style. It’s hard to say that this team really replicated the Warriors of the Curry Era though. In 2017, Rob Mahoney did a retrospective on the 1995-96 Mavs and McCloud agreed that the style generally was like the Curry Warriors style of the last few years. Mahoney and his interviewees did note that the Mavs didn’t shoot as well as the Warriors from three (Dallas was .360%, 18th in the NBA). But the threes probably weren’t the issue that submarined Motta in Dallas. The Mavs were 28th in 2P% (.443) and 19th in offense and a woeful 25th in defense. It’s fair to say that it was the other stuff that undermined this team. Still, an interesting experiment.
6. No rookie imported from abroad will have a substantial impact.
In 1995-96, the Euro prospect pipeline was just starting. Croatia had given us one All-Star level player in Drazen Petrovic and two players who looked pretty good (Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja). Outside of those three, quality had varied. Sarunas Marciulionis was good for the Warriors but most others ranged from meh (Stojko Vrankovic, Alexander Volkov) to wash outs (Zarko Paspalj, Georgi Glouchkov).
Hersch identified three Euros coming to the U.S. in 1995-96 in Arvydas Sabonis, Vincenzo Esposito, and Sasha Danilovic and predicted that they would struggle. Sabonis, Hersch opined, would have problems with the NBA grind considering Sabonis’ prior leg issues. Esposito couldn’t create his own shot and Danilovic could play but was on a Heat team with too many perimeter players.
Result: The Blazers were well aware of the 31-yeard old Sabonis’ leg issues and they ”lode managed” him (before the term officially existed) superbly as a rookie in 1995-96. Arvydas played only 23.9 mpg but was ridiculously efficient (14.5 ppg, .545 FG%, .375 3FG%, 8.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 24.7 PER, 8.4 WS, 6.7 BPM, 3.8 VORP). Sabonis was the clear Rookie of the Year but lost out to Stoudamire’s gaudy raw totals. At the time, the writers got only one vote per ballot and Stoudamire received 76 first place votes to Sabonis’ 17. Stoudamire was an exciting young player but his advanced stats were not within the same solar system (16.7 PER, 4.3 WS, 0.1 BPM, 1.6 VORP).
Esposito could not create his own shot for the Raptors (36% from the field and 23% from three, 5.2 PER) and was waived after the season.
Danilovic clearly had NBA ability. His averages as rookie were pretty good (in 28.9 mpg, 13.4 ppg, .436 3FG%, 14.4 PER, 0.4 BPM). Alas, it was a rocky road. Danilovic earned the starting two-guard job for Pat Riley’s first year in Miami. He scored 16 points in an opening night win against the Cavs but got into a fight late in the game and was ejected and suspended for a game. Danilovic started most of the first two months of the season but went down with a hand injury and didn’t play again until the playoffs and had lost his starting job to Rex Chapman. When Chapman signed with the Suns in the off-season, Danilovic got the job back but was less effective. In the middle of 1996-97, Danilovic was traded to Dallas for Mashburn. Danilovic played 13 games for the Mavs and was reasonably effective (16 ppg) but was not happy in the NBA. He forewent he contract (2 years, $5.1 million) to go back to Buckler Bologna for a three-year, $6 million deal.
7. Knick fans holding $1,000 courtside seats will spend entire games on their cellular phones just to relieve the boredom.
The supposition was that without Pat Riley, the Patrick Ewing Knicks were aging and stale. The Knicks had hired Don Nelson to keep the fire going.
Result: The Knicks were NOT boring but they were a mess. Nelson’s team started out hot with a new offense that emphasized Anthony Mason as a point forward and took shots from the older Ewing (age-33). The Knicks were 18-6 and then entered malaise, going 16-20 over the next 36 games. Nelson seemed to want to sideline old Knicks standby like Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley (Mason, a grumpy guy, was also unhappy with Nelson, despite being Nelson’s featured star). Nelson couldn’t get them to defend and that was enough to get him canned in early March. The Knicks hired unknown 34-year old assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy and he got the Knicks to compete the rest of the way (13-10), won a round in the playoffs, and lost to the Jordan Bulls in a reasonably competitive series. Management realized that the deconstruction had to be more gradual. The Knicks slowly traded Mason (for Larry Johnson), Oakley (for Marcus Camby), and Starks (for Latrell Sprewell) over the coming years and were pretty good again.
Bonus Note: Hersch also pointed out that Spike Lee was paying $41,000 per year for Knicks tickets in 1995. It boggles the mind how much money Spike has paid the Knicks the past 25+ years and it makes it even crazier that James Dolan would act so crappy towards him.
8. Denver’s Bernie Bickerstaff will win the NBA Executive of the Year award–thanks to rookie power forward Antonio McDyess.
This was really Hersch’s awards prediction section. Let’s take a look:
-MVP: Prediction, Michael Jordan. Actual, Michael Jordan (he was nearly unanimous)
-Defensive Player: Prediction, Scottie Pippen. Actual, Gary Payton (Pippen was second)
-Sixth Man: Prediction, Toni Kukoc. Actual, Toni Kukoc
-Most Improved: Prediction, Jalen Rose. Actual, Gheorghe Muresan (Rose didn’t get a single vote)
-ROY: Prediction, Jerry Stackhouse. Actual, Stoudamire
-Coach of the Year: Prediction, Rick Adelman. Actual, Phil Jackson (the Bulls went 72-10)
-Executive of the Year: Prediction, Bickerstaff. Actual, Jerry Krause (the Bulls went 72-10 and he got Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue. The Nuggets missed the playoffs despite adding McDyess).
9. Washington will be the most improved team in the league; Cleveland will have the biggest decline.
The Bullets looked like they were slated to improve with young Juwan Howard and Chris Webber (Webber was traded the year before but played only 54 games). They added rookie Rasheed Wallace and Mark Price from the Cavs. Conversely, the Cavs’ old core was gone when they traded Price and Hot Rod Williams to Phoenix. Hersch called this a “fire sale.”
Result: The Bullets improved from 21-61 to 39-43, which was not enough to make the playoffs. Webber played even less (15 games) because of a shoulder injury.
The Cavs were the more interesting story. They had Terrell Brandon at the point and a series of decent swingmen (Chris Mills, Dan Majerle, Bobby Phills, Bob Sura). They started out 0-7 (they had a very tough early schedule, including the Bulls twice, Shaq led Magic, the Pacers, and Spurs) but rallied to go 47-35 with the slowest pace in the NBA. Brandon was great (25.2 PER, 12.7 WS, 7.5 BPM, 6.2 VORP) and the swingmen played hard before losing to the Knicks in the playoffs. It was not exciting to watch but coach Mike Fratello did an amazing job.
10. The Bulls will defeat the Suns in the NBA Finals
Hersch correctly surmised the Bulls would be the best team in the NBA. The Suns prediction was quite wrong. The Suns were coming off a three-year run of contention under Charles Barkley and he felt the depth of A.C. Green, Hot Rod Williams, Danny Manning, and Wes Person would carry them back for a rematch of the 1992-93 Finals.
Result: The Suns imploded. They started off 14-19 and longtime coach Paul Westphal was fired. Cotton Fitzsimmons rallied them to the playoffs at 41-41 but they were dispatched by the David Robinson Spurs, 3-1 in the first round.
Were there warning signs that the Suns’ time was up before the 1995-96 season? Yes. Here’s the seasonal breakdown of the Suns with Barkley/Westphal before that year:
1992-93: 62-20 (1st offense, 9th defense)(lost to Bulls in Finals)
1993-94: 56-26 (5th offense, 16th defense)(lost to Rockets in second round)
1994-95: 59-23 (3rd offense, 19th defense) (lost to Rockets in second round)
That defense was receding to unacceptable levels. Where was the problem? In terms of individual advanced numbers, the best regular defenders on the 1994-95 Suns were Elliot Perry (DBPM 1.2), Danny Schayes (1.4) and, surprisingly, Charles Barkley (0.7). Literally, ever other player on the roster had a negative DBPM, including reputedly strong defenders, Majerle (-0.5) and Green (-0.9). The thought that Hot Rod Williams could help this issue was not wrong but thinking that he, alone, could swing the pendulum all the way to a decent team defense was. Hot Rod (coming off of an impressive 1.7 DBPM) was 33 and not particularly healthy. Williams played in 62 games for the Suns and was solid defensively in that time (0.3) but not enough to arrest the overall team trend of decline (in fact, he was not better defensively than Schayes was in 1994-95). The defensive erosion was so bad that merely trading for a fading veteran was clearly not enough to fix the problem. The Suns defense slipped all the way down to 23rd in the NBA and the Suns were in rebuilding mode. If the Suns wanted to make one more run, they needed to get more strong defenders. The obvious upgrade would’ve been to also get Rodman, who the Bulls got for virtually nothing. You can’t totally fault the Suns for refusing to take a chance on Rodman who was so divisive with the Spurs but it would’ve been fascinating to see.