Failure to Launch, Part II

Continuing our series on young, potential-laden squads that never quite cashed in on that promise, here are teams #1-5 in our countdown…

5. 1982-83 Kansas City Kings (45-37)
Young nucleus: F Eddie Johnson, G Larry Drew, G Mike Woodson, F Ed Nealy, C Steve Johnson, F Reggie King, F Reggie Johnson, C LaSalle Thompson, F Kevin Loder, G Brook Steppe
ORtg: 106.2 (7th)
DRtg: 104.9 (11th)
SRS: 1.039 (11th)
Age – League Age: -1.59
Expected wins: 214
Actual wins: 159
+/-: -55

The potential: Though they narrowly missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker to an inferior Denver Nuggets team, it looked like the Kings had completed a pretty short rebuilding cycle after they jumped from 30 wins in 1982 to 45 in ’83. They had the 7th-best offense in basketball that year thanks to the triumvirate of Eddie Johnson, Larry Drew, and Mike Woodson, and after essentially swapping Ray Williams (-1.5 OWS in ’82-83) for Billy Knight (5.6 OWS) over the offseason, KC seemed poised to expand on their ’83 success and step forward as a strong team in the West.

The reality: The dreaded Plexiglas Principle struck again when the Kings declined to 38 wins (albeit with a brief playoff appearance) in 1984 and 31 in 1985. Instead of making the expected improvement in ’84, KC’s offense slid from 7th to 15th, as the Johnson/Drew/Woodson/Knight quartet (23.9 combined OWS in ’82-83) only mustered a total of 10.8 OWS. In fact, from 1983 to 1984, the league’s offensive rating increased by almost 3 points/100 possessions, but the ORtgs of Kansas City’s key offensive players decreased by more than 3 points on average in ’84. Undaunted, the Kings tried to stay the course with roughly the same core for the next few years (they also added Reggie Theus at the ’84 trade deadline), but after finishing 37-45 and being swept by the Rockets in the first round of the 1986 playoffs, the team fell below 30 wins in 1986-87 and wouldn’t rise above that mark again until 1995. If nothing else, KC’s failure following their 1983 breakout proves that even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry — it’s not like they made one glaring mistake; rather, the players they were counting on simply didn’t produce the way the team was expecting, and the turmoil of relocation didn’t exactly do them any favors, either.

4. 1996-97 Washington Bullets (44-38)
Young nucleus: F Juwan Howard, F Chris Webber, F Calbert Cheaney, C Gheorghe Muresan, F Tracy Murray, G Chris Whitney
ORtg: 106.6 (13th)
DRtg: 104.9 (13th)
SRS: 1.773 (13th)
Age – League Age: -1.80
Expected wins: 219
Actual wins: 157
+/-: -62

The potential: Trading away Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland in the summer of 1996 wasn’t the greatest long-term decision, but in ’96-97 it paid real dividends for the Bullets, who surged to a 44-38 record under coach Bernie Bickerstaff and made the playoffs for the first time since 1988. Wallace became redundant when Webber arrived in D.C. anyway, and surrounding Strickland, one of the game’s top distributors, with burgeoning young finishers like C-Webb and Howard looked like a surefire blueprint for offensive success. Even though the ’97 Bullets got unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the eventual NBA champion Chicago Bulls, there was the feeling that Washington would definitely be a team to watch in the future.

The reality: Rebranding themselves the Wizards for the ’97-98 season, Washington disappointed right off the bat, starting the season in a 5-11 hole from which they would never recover; they would eventually finish 42-40, one game shy of the final playoff spot in the East. After a promising ’97, gargantuan C Gheorghe Muresan missed all of 1998 with a back injury, and he never played another game for Washington. At the same time, owner Abe Pollin grew increasingly tired of Webber’s legal problems and shipped the gifted 24-year-old to Sacramento in May 1998 for veteran Mitch Richmond, a franchise-crippling move in hindsight. We all know how this story ended: Richmond started to show his age from the moment he arrived in Washington, Howard’s $105 million contract became more and more onerous by the day, Strickland’s durability and effectiveness started to wane, and the team eventually collapsed to 19 wins in 2000-01. As a result, the semi-competitive teams led by the franchise’s two Jordans (first Michael, then Eddie) in the 2000s bore no resemblance whatsoever to the potential-laden squad Washington fielded in 1996-97.

3. 1993-94 Golden State Warriors (50-32)
Young nucleus: G Latrell Sprewell, F Billy Owens, F Chris Webber, C Victor Alexander, F Chris Gatling, G Keith “Mister” Jennings, F Byron Houston
ORtg: 108.3 (9th)
DRtg: 106.5 (13th)
SRS: 1.756 (15th)
Age – League Age: -2.20
Expected wins: 219
Actual wins: 145
+/-: -74

The potential: In 1993-94, 2nd-year Alabama product Latrell Sprewell teamed with Rookie of the Year Chris Webber to give the Don Nelson-led Warriors one of the top young 1-2 punches in the NBA. At the same time, perennial underachiever Billy Owens seemed to be getting his career back on track after a disappointing ’93, veterans Chris Mullin and Avery Johnson (filling in for the injured Tim Hardaway) brought leadership and savvy to the lineup, and youngsters Chris Gatling, Keith Jennings, and Victor Alexander showed promise in limited minutes off the bench. As a result, the Warriors won 50 games and returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus (though they were swept by the defending conference champion Suns). With such a strong young talent base and a coach who knew how to utilize it, Golden State certainly seemed destined for great things going forward.

The reality: Chemistry problems destroyed the ’95 Warriors from the word go, as the acrimony between Webber, Sprewell, and Nelson came to a head by midseason. In November, Webber was traded to Washington for Tom Gugliotta — who in turn was flipped at the trade deadline for Donyell Marshall — while Nelson resigned his post in February after the team sputtered to a 14-31 record to start the season. When the dust settled on the campaign, Golden State had posted an embarrassing 26-56 mark, and the following summer’s #1 draft pick, Joe Smith from Maryland, failed to be the high-impact player the Warriors were expecting. Hardaway and Owens would soon move on to Miami (where Tim Bug would twice finish in the top 6 in MVP voting), and the last vestige of the exciting ’94 Warriors died when Sprewell infamously choked coach P.J. Carlesimo in December 1997, earning him a year-long suspension from the league and a one-way ticket out of Oakland. All in all, it was a stunning and abrupt collapse for a team which showed such promise during that magical 1993-94 season.

2. 1997-98 Cleveland Cavaliers (47-35)
Young nucleus: G Wesley Person, F Cedric Henderson, G Brevin Knight, C Zydrunas Ilgauskas, G Derek Anderson, C Vitaly Potapenko, G Bob Sura
ORtg: 102.2 (24th)
DRtg: 99.1 (1st)
SRS: 3.062 (10th)
Age – League Age: -3.11
Expected wins: 229
Actual wins: 144
+/-: -85

The potential: Cleveland was quietly a pretty good team during the 1990s — in fact, only 8 teams had more wins from 1992-98 than the Cavs, who won 59% of their games over that span. By 1997, they had done a fine job of retooling on the fly, transitioning fairly seamlessly from a Mark Price/Brad Daugherty/Larry Nance core to a group led by Terrell Brandon, Chris Mills, and Tyrone Hill. Still, they felt like the roster needed more star power, so in the ’97 offseason GM Wayne Embry drafted PG Brevin Knight and dealt Brandon for Shawn Kemp. The result was 47 wins and a team that appeared to be just scratching the surface of its potential. With Knight directing the offense, Kemp and newcomer Zydrunas Ilgauskas patrolling the paint, and talented complementary guards Wesley Person, Derek Anderson, and Bob Sura on the wings, it looked like the Cavs were on the verge of even more success as the decade neared completion.

The reality: Though Kemp flourished in his 2nd season as a Cav, the 1999 season was a huge disappointment for Cleveland. En route to a 22-28 record, Ilgauskas succumbed to what would be the first in a series of serious foot injuries, and Cavaliers management learned that they had vastly overestimated the talent of their young base when Knight, Person, Anderson, Sura, Cedric Henderson, and Vitaly Potapenko all declined precipitously. Things would only get worse from there: by the summer of 2000, Kemp was in Portland, Anderson was a Clipper, Sura was a Warrior, Potapenko was in Boston, and both Ilgauskas and Knight were struggling to get healthy. Although 1999 1st-round PG Andre Miller would emerge as a star, Cleveland managed only 30 wins in 2001, 29 in 2002, and bottomed out at 17 wins in 2003. The prize for that abysmal record was LeBron James, of course, and Ilgauskas eventually made an unlikely return to become a key contributor for the LBJ-era Cavs, but Big Z was the lone member of the ’98 squad to weather Cleveland’s rough patch from 1999-2003. While you can’t exactly complain when King James is the end product of your futility, it was still surprising how quickly the shine wore off that 1997-98 Cavaliers team.

1. 1993-94 Denver Nuggets (42-40)
Young nucleus: G Bryant Stith, F LaPhonso Ellis, G Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, F Brian Williams, F Rodney Rogers, G Robert Pack, F Tom Hammonds
ORtg: 103.9 (20th)
DRtg: 102.3 (5th)
SRS: 1.538 (16th)
Age – League Age: -2.42
Expected wins: 219
Actual wins: 131
+/-: -88

The potential: Until the New York Knicks unseated the Miami Heat in 1999, the ’94 Nuggets were the only #8 seed to upset a #1 in the first round of the playoffs, having outlasted the heavily-favored Seattle SuperSonics in a hard-fought 5-game Western Conference Quarterfinals series. The image of Dikembe Mutombo clutching the ball in joy on the floor of KeyArena is the memory most people have of that team, but the Nuggets also received important contributions from Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Robert Pack (who saved Denver’s season by pouring in 10 4th-quarter points in Game 5 vs. Seattle), and Brian Williams, all of whom were 24 or younger at the time. Denver’s season ended on a sour note when they dropped Game 7 of the West Semifinals to a veteran Utah Jazz team, but in light of their young core and surprising playoff run, many people expected the Nuggets to use the ’94 season as a springboard to bigger and better things.

The reality: Though the ’95 Nuggets won 41 games and made the playoffs again, they were swept by the Spurs in Round 1 and endured the locker room turmoil of two in-season coaching changes. LaPhonso Ellis missed essentially the entire season with a fractured kneecap, the other key players from the ’94 squad regressed, and newcomers Dale Ellis and Jalen Rose underwhelmed during their first season in Denver. It was more of the same in 1996: injuries hampered both L. Ellis and Abdul-Rauf, Stith struggled to find his ’94 form, big-ticket rookie Antonio McDyess proved to be inefficient, and Denver fell to 35 wins. When Mutombo and Abdul-Rauf left town the following summer, the core of the ’94 team had officially been scattered to the four winds, and the once-promising Nuggets were suddenly looking awfully low on upside. A 21-win ’96-97 was followed by a disastrous 1997-98 season, during which Denver lost 23 consecutive games at one point — and flirted with the worst record in NBA history — before settling on a paltry 11 wins. When all was said and done, the Nuggets had underperformed their expected 5-year win total by a whopping 88 wins, officially making them the very biggest “failure to launch” in the NBA since 1973.

About Neil Paine

I work for I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on November 20, 2008, in History. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, left out of yet another list!

  2. How can last years Bulls not make this list? Picked to finish first in the Central and challenge for the Eastern Conference title, the team won 16 fewer games than the previous season; missed the playoffs; their coach — who was in the discussion for coach of the year honors the previous 2 years — was fired on Christmas Eve; and a roster full of promising young talent that everyone around the league coveted became a roster that included Larry Hughes. At least the disappointment did land them Derrick Rose and perhaps that alone is enough upside to keep them off the list.

  3. Having not looked at Part I of this blog series, and seeing how this team doesn’t quite fit the trend of having success followed by disappointment, I think the Mavericks squad with Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson deserves some honorable mention. Maybe even the Celtics of the late 90s and early 2000s, even though I guess they did have their moments and their veterans. The New Jersey Nets as well, I seem to recall having a load of young talent in the mid-late 90s and not amounting to much until some trades were made.

  4. Dan: Those Bulls can’t be here yet because 5 years haven’t gone by since they flopped. If we were going on 1+ years of data, I’m sure they’d fit, but then again so would a lot of teams. That’s why I picked 5 years as the cutoff — it’s basically just long enough to let history run its course for a team. When I re-do this list in 2012, though, you can bet we’ll see Chicago in there (barring some kind of super-success later this decade).

    John: For those Mavs, it’s that pesky “success” qualifier that keeps them off (by SRS, they were a rather atrocious team throughout the 90s). ’98 Celtics had the youth part down (at 3.81 years younger than the NBA average, they were one of the youngest teams ever), but with a -1.96 SRS, their expected 5-year win total was just 202, and they only underperformed it by 7 games. Conversely, that ’98 Nets team that lost to the Bulls in Round 1 was pretty good (1.89 SRS), but they were actually older than the league average, and therefore didn’t qualify for the list. It’s hard to find teams that fit both the age and success qualifications, which I think makes the teams on this list the cream of the disappointing crop.

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