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.