SI’s 1996-97 Fearless Predictions Revisited

In March 2020, while we were just starting this long pandemic, I resolved to do more deep dives on NBA history stuff.  The first result was an article revisiting Sports Illustrated’s Hank Hersch “10 Fearless Predictions” for the 1995-96 NBA season.  The goal wasn’t to critique the predictions.  Really, the goal was to capture that moment in time and what people were thinking at the time and what we see now with the benefit of hindsight.  These predictions were obviously meant more to entertain and/or catch the reader’s attention than to be entirely accurate.  Despite that goal, Hersch was pretty accurate in his predictions.

Here we are 14 months later, the pandemic seems closer to ending but my interest in random old NBA history is still going strong.  Now, I have just run across the 10 Fearless Predictions article written by Jackie MacMullan before the 1996-97 season for Sports Illustrated.  I thought this is a good time to go back and time and do a similar exercise with MacMullan’s predictions…

1. Eddie Jones will make the All-Star team

The rationale for this prediction was two-fold: (a) Jones was only 25 and was developing as a player and (b) the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal would free Jones up to score more.  The 1995-96 Lakers season was perceived as a disaster due to Magic Johnson’s erratic comeback, Cedric Ceballos’ jet skiing vacation, and a bad loss to the Rockets in the playoffs.  (I examined the Laker’s season at length and concluded that it was messy but definitely not a total disaster).

Putting aside the story lines, here’s what Jones did in cold, hard numbers for the 1995-96 season:

-31.2 mpg, 12.8 ppg, .583 TS%, 3.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 17.0 PER, 17.8 USG%, .150 WS48, 3.3 BPM, 2.9 VORP

Jones’ raw numbers showed he was good but barely shot.  In fact, he was the best defender on the 1995-96 Lakers and had the second best BPM behind Magic.  Jones’ 3.3 BPM was 20th in the NBA and the only Western Conference shooting guards who were better were Jeff Hornacek (4.4) and Mitch Richmond (3.5).  Jones was already a fringe All-Star and predicting he would get the slot in 1996-97 was a sound one.

Result:  Correct! Jones made the All-Star team in 1996-97 and 1997-98 for the Lakers.  His 1996-97 was less efficient but racked up more points:

-37.5 mpg, 17.2 ppg, .559 TS%, 4.1 rpg, 3.4 apg, 17.3 PER, 20.9 USG%, .154 WS48, 3.3 BPM, 4.0 VORP

So, Jones wasn’t really any better.  He just played many more minutes and took a few more shots.  The end result was the same 3.3 BPM, which was 22nd in the NBA, and fifth among Western Conference SGs.

The real story of Jones and the Lakers was management’s decision to deal him in 1998-99 for the better shooter, but much less athletic, Glen Rice.  It always seemed to me that Jones fit perfectly with Kobe Bryant because Jones didn’t need shots to be effective. 

Jeff Pearlman, who wrote Three-Ring Circus about those Laker teams told me the following: “[t]hey tried to trade Eddie Jones for years and years.   There were two reasons.  Number one, they thought he and Kobe played too similarly.  They were similar but I don’t think it was a problem.  They were both slashy-type players that explode to the hoop.  Somewhat similar body types, Eddie Jones was leaner than Kobe, though Kobe was thinner when he was younger.  Number two, there was this idea that Eddie Jones was not a money player.  Shaq talked about that a lot.”

Rice was okay for the 1999-00 title team but was dumped for nothing after the season.  Here’s how jarringly better Jones was than Rice from 1998-99 through 2003-04:

-Jones: 394 gms, 37.9 mpg, 17.9 ppg, .548 TS%, 4.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 18.3 PER, .160 WS48, 4.1 BPM, 22.8 VORP

-Rice: 176 gms, 28.8 mpg, 12.2 ppg, 541 TS%, 3.5 apg, 1.6 apg, 13.7 PER, .119 WS48, -0.1 BPM, 3.8 VORP

Did this trade cost the Lakers a title or two?  Impossible to say.  They were such a mess in 1998-99 (the year they first traded Jones for Rice) that they weren’t winning a title even if they kept Jones.  The Lakers ended up winning the next three titles. The interesting question is whether the Lakers win a title in 2002-03 or 2003-04 if they had kept Jones instead of resorting Devean George, Kareem Rush, or an ancient Rick Fox.  It’s hard to say.  The Lakers seemed gassed in 2002-03 from three straight Finals but maybe having Eddie Jones could’ve made things easier.  The Lakers’ 2003-04 was such a weird season (Kobe’s rape trial, his feuding with Shaq, and the Gary Payton/Karl Malone subplot) that seemed like it wasn’t meant to be.  Either way, the Lakers definitely should’ve kept Eddie.

2.  Rod Strickland will turn his career around by turning the Bullets around

Strickland had a well-earned rep as “talented but troubled” at the time.  In 1995-96, Strickland had 18.7 ppg and 9.6 apg and had been All-Star level for four straight years in Portland.  What’s forgotten is that Strickland liked P.J. Carlesimo about as much as Latrell Sprewell did later in Golden State. 

In February 1996, Strick left the Blazers abruptly after getting in a fight with Carlesimo.  According to the AP: “[Strickland] walked out of a shootaround before that night’s home win over Denver.  Though Strickland vowed never to return, team executives and his agent had expressed hope he would be back….Strickland’s poor relationship with Carlesimo deteriorated rapidly as Portland lost six home games in a row, tying its worst home losing streak, before the Denver win.”

Yup, Ceballos wasn’t the only player to bail on his team and get suspended in 1995-96.  The funny thing is that Strickland’s AWOL status didn’t sink Portland’s season.  Portland went 2-5 without Strickland and the squad was sitting at 26-34.  Upon Strick’s return, Portland went 17-4 and moved up to the sixth seed and even took a great Jazz team to a tough five-game series in the first round before losing (actually, Portland won two close home games and lost by 48 in the deciding game).

Portland decided they were better off giving Kenny Anderson a big free agent contract that summer and flipping Strick for the also erratic Rasheed Wallace.  The Bullets didn’t like Sheed’s temper and already had the forward slots set with Juwan Howard (whom they gave a huge contract) and Chris Webber.

As a post-script to the P.J./Strickland feud, Strickland was asked about Sprewell’s attack on P.J. in 1997.  Strickland told the press that: “[t]hey thought it was me. I guess it wasn’t me…. (Carlesimo is) annoying, that’s the bottom line. We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions, that’s for sure, so I can kind of understand Spree.”

Result:  Sort of correct.  Strickland played up to his usual standards in 1996-97 and he did lead the Bullets to the playoffs, where they were swept by the Michael Jordan Bulls.  It wasn’t totally smooth sailing with Strick in D.C.  Strickland beefed with a teammate and was given a hard time for eating hot dogs before games.  But Strick didn’t have any front page problems anymore and was considered a good point guard until he retired in 2005 at age-38.

3.  Chris Childs will be booed lustily at least once in Madison Square Garden before the New Year

A little context is necessary.  The Knicks had horded tons of cap room to be players in the 1996 summer free agent market and used it to sign Allan Houston and Childs.  Houston was the primary target but Childs was a secondary value play.  Childs was a 28-year old CBA refugee who became the Nets starter in 1995-96 when they traded pending free agent Kenny Anderson.  MacMullan noted that Childs had “modest numbers (12.8 ppg, 7.0 apg) but those numbers ignore that he wasn’t the starter until January 15, 1996.  From that point, he had 16 ppg, .371 3FG%, 8.6 apg, and 1.9 spg.  MacMullan assumed that Childs would regress and struggle in the pressure at MSG

Result:  Mostly correct.  As early as December 1996, the Knicks were booed by MSG fans and Childs was never again nearly as good as he was in 1995-96.  He lost his starting job to Charlie Ward and never put up a positive BPM again.  Still, Childs was a tough defender and had some great moments against the Heat in the 1998 and 2000 playoffs.  He also didn’t care about the booing.  He told The New York Times in December 1996 that booing “goes with the territory….If they boo, so what?  We have to continue to play.”  To his credit, Childs did as he said he would.

4.  Marcus Camby will be named NBA Rookie of the Year

The 1996 Draft was one of the all-time best with Allen Iverson (who did win ROY), Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and many others.  Why would Camby be favored for ROY?  MacMullan felt the Raptors’ up-tempo style with 1995-96 ROY Damon Stoudamire would give Camby the numbers to win.  (As a quick aside, Stoudamire didn’t deserve the 1995-96 ROY as Arvydas Sabonis was vastly better).  It wasn’t crazy to think Camby would have a good year but it’s hard to beat Iverson, Marbury, Toine, or Allen, who were going to get tons of shots on bad teams.

Result:  Big whiff.  Camby was okay (14.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg, 17.8 PER, -0.1 BPM, 0.9 VORP) but didn’t receive a single ROY vote.  Iverson won a close vote over Marbury and Abdur-Rahim (Walker and Kerry Kittles also got a few votes).  Who really deserved the ROY?  Let’s look at the contenders:

-Iverson: 23.5 ppg, .416 FG%, 4.1 rpg, 7.5 apg. 0.9 BPM, 2.2 VORP

-Marbury: 15.8 ppg, .408 FG%, 2.7 rpg, 7.8 apg, 0.0 BPM, 1.2 VORP

-Abdur-Rahim: 18.7 ppg, .453 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, -1.8 BPM, 0.2 VORP

-Walker: 17.5 ppg, .425 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, -2.1 BPM, -0.1 VORP

-Kittles: 16.4 ppg, .426 FG%, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 BPM, 2.9 VORP

-Camby: 14.8 ppg, .482 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 1.5 apg, -0.1 BPM, 0.9 VORP

-Dean Garrett: 8.0 ppg, .573 FG%, 7.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.0 BPM, 1.3 VORP

(Ray Allen and Matt Maloney were also both okay but we omitted them because they were clearly not contenders.  Dean Garrett was a 30-year old rookie for the Wolves.  He was pretty solid as a rook and I wrote about his career here).  Iverson had gaudy raw numbers on a bad team but the best player was probably Kittles.  AI’s volume shooting was incredible but also incredibly inefficient.  Kittles was able to be moderately efficient and play defense, giving him a slight but distinct edge.  While Iverson (and many others) would end up being better than Kittles, Kerry was the true ROY in 1996-97.  

5.  The Spurs will win at least 50 games, but that won’t be enough to save Bob Hill’s job

Today, Gregg Popovich is the long-time and current coach of the Spurs.  He’s coached there for 25 years and won five titles.  But he started out in 1988 as a Spurs assistant coach and then moved to the Warriors in 1992 and had the same role.  Somehow, Pop was hired back by the Spurs as GM and VP in 1994. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make such a jump from assistant coach to boss of the whole organization but it has worked out for the Spurs).

At the time, the Spurs were led by peak David Robinson and not a ton more (Dennis Rodman, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and Vinny Del Negro).  The Spurs had the best record in the NBA in Hill’s first season as coach in 1994-95 (62-20) but they lost to the Rockets when Hakeem Olajuwon outplayed Robinson in the Western Conference Finals.  The Spurs were really good but their record overstated their dominance as they were fifth in the NBA in SRS (5.90) and the supporting cast wasn’t great (there is also strong evidence that Robinson wasn’t quite as good in the slowed down playoff grind).

Before the 1995-96 season, the Spurs dumped Rodman for backup Will Perdue and ran it back without a real replacement for Rodman.  Despite this, the Spurs still went 59-23 and had a slightly better SRS (5.98).  The Spurs were still title contenders and second seed in the West but SRS still had them as worse than that Jazz (6.25) and the Sonics (7.40).  Utah beat the Spurs 4-2 in the second round and Pop was not happy with how Hill coached.  The Spurs did not compete well in the games they lost (the Jazz beat them by 20, 30, 15, and 27).  Pop clearly felt that the Spurs didn’t show up and blamed Hill.  This is a tough but not unfair assessment.

Popovich publicly stated that there was a 50-50 shot that he would fire Hill and apparently only didn’t fire Hill because Don Nelson wouldn’t take the job.  This was the point in time where MacMullan’s prediction came in and seemed eminently reasonable.

Result:  Halfway correct.  Hill was fired by early December 1996 but the Spurs were terrible.  Robinson missed the early part of the year with a back issue and the team went 3-15.  As soon as Robinson was ready to come back, Pop fired Hill and did not give him a chance to coach the full team.  Pop said that: “I fully realize that the timing might look bad.  The fact that David is coming back is a coincidence. The decision wasn’t made in a knee-jerk way. It was made with a lot of thought and a lot of counsel and a lot of heartache.”

The move reeked of unfairness.  Hill had no chance without Robinson and the firing seemed more like a delayed reaction to the 1995-96 failures.  Karma did get Pop.  Robinson broke his foot a few days later and missed the rest of the season.  The Spurs were terrible and Popovich had to coach the team the rest of that miserable season.  That karma didn’t last long.  The Spurs ended up getting Tim Duncan in the draft and the Spurs were excellent for about 20 straight years and Popovich is going to the Hall of Fame. 

Hill went on to coach at Fordham from 1999 to 2003 but the team wasn’t great (36-78).  He returned to the NBA and was an assistant coach and even got a regular job briefly with the Sonics in 2005-06 and 2006-07.  He has had a few more assistant jobs but seems retired now.

6.  The Clippers will play their final season in Los Angeles

At the time, the Clippers split their games between the ugly Sports Arena in Los Angeles and they preferred playing games in Anaheim.  MacMullan felt they would ditch L.A. for Anaheim soon.

Result:  Incorrect.  The Clipps would continue to play in the Sports Arena for three more seasons (in which they were last in attendance each year).  They moved to the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles in 1999-00 and have been there ever since.

7.  The Nuggets will win more games without Dikembe Mutombo than they did with him last season

In 1993-94, the Nuggets were up-and-comers.  They went 42-40 with Mutombo and some other talented players (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Robert Pack, Bryant Stith, Laphonso Ellis, and Bison Dele).  They upset the Sonics in a legendary playoff series and the future looked bright.  All these years later, everyone remembers the ecstasy in Denver of that great run but the Mutombo Era was pretty disappointing as a whole.  Denver went 41-41 in 1994-95 and were swept out of the playoffs.  They traded for heralded rookie Antonio McDyess in 1995 but it didn’t help.  The Nuggets were even worse (35-47) and they let Mutombo walk as a free agent after the season.

MacMullan thought that the loss of Mutombo would “alter chemistry” in a good way and the Nuggets would pick it up.

Result:  Hugely incorrect.  Mutombo wasn’t the problem.  Lack of talent was.  Without Mutombo the Nuggets slumped to 21-61 and spent the next six years in misery until they finally pulled Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 Draft.  Mutombo went to Atlanta and they were a solid playoff team for the rest of the decade.

8.  Rony Seikaly, Dee Brown and Calbert Cheaney will (finally) be traded

This prediction seems silly.  I’m not talking about accuracy of the prediction as much as the gravity of it.  Here are the three players we are talking about and their 1995-96 stats:

-Seikaly, age 31: 12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg

-Brown, age 28: 10.7 ppg, 2.2 apg

-Cheaney, age 25: 15.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg

I was (and am) a huge NBA fan and I’m sure the trades of a decent center, decent guard, and a role player wouldn’t have particularly interested me at the time.  

Result:  33% correct.  Seikaly was traded to Orlando right before the season started and was his usual decent self.  Brown barely played due to injuries (21 games) but stayed in Boston.  He was traded to the Raptors in mid-1997-98.  Cheaney remained with the Bullets/Wizards through 1998-99 when his contract ended.  He signed with the Celtics for the 1999-00 season.

9.  Larry Bird will begin to emerge as a major player in the Celtics’ front office

Bird had a special assistant role with Boston since retiring in 1992 but didn’t really do much.  MacMullan wrote that Bird was getting “itchy” to have a substantive position and would, perhaps, replace GM M.L. Carr. 

Result:  Incorrect.  Sort of.  Bird did want to get  more involved.  After the 1996-97 season, the Celtics dumped Carr and gave full control to Rick Pitino, which effectively forced Bird out because he did not want to be a figurehead with no decision making power.  Bird then immediately took the head coach job and helped turn the Pacers around.

Shortly after Bird took the Pacers job, MacMullan wrote a profile of him that laid out Bird’s issues with the Celtics: “For the past two years his frustration with the Boston franchise had been building. He made suggestions in team meetings that were ignored. Deals he thought were foolish went through. The Celtics, he felt, were going in the wrong direction. Team owner Gaston maintains Bird could have been involved with the Celtics in any capacity he wanted, but Bird says he never believed that. ‘[The owners] had already made up their mind what they wanted,’ he says, ‘and it wasn’t me.’”

An interesting side bit from that story is that the Celtics asked Bird who the best coach would be to replace Carr for the 1997-98 season.  He recommended Pitino, Larry Brown, or Roy Williams.  Bird said “I wanted Williams so bad.  He was the perfect guy.  I envisioned him leading the Celtics to their next championship.  But I knew he probably wouldn’t take the job for another four to five years.” 

Pitino ended up being a failure in Boston.  It would’ve been interesting to see whether Williams would’ve done well on the pro stage.

10.  The Sonics will beat the undermanned Bulls to win the NBA Championship

This is a bold prediction.  The Bulls were coming off of the best season in NBA history (72-10) and still had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.  They had just beaten a really good Sonics team 4-2 in the 1996 Finals.  MacMullan felt age and injuries would finally catch up with MJ (age 34) and Pippen (age 31).  The Sonics were the second best team in the prior year (64-18) and, if you weren’t picking the Bulls, they were a reasonable alternative.

Result:  Incorrect.  While it was logical to think age would catch up to Jordan, it never did (at least not with the Bulls).  The Bulls “slumped” to an astounding 69-13 and won the title again.  The Sonics had much more difficulty.  They were still really good (57-25, 6.91 SRS) but Utah was better (64-18, 7.97 SRS).  The bigger problem was Shawn Kemp, who became disgruntled when he couldn’t get the new contract he wanted and was very angry that the team had paid a ton to backup center Jim McIlvaine.  Kemp was traded for Vin Baker after the season.  The Sonics were still good for one more season after the trade but then collapsed when George Karl left town.