The first law of NBA physics is that every team is in constant
motion, either on the rise or in decline. If a team is not
getting better, it is getting worse--there is no in-between.
Sometimes the direction is obvious. The Lakers, the Mavericks
and the Kings have ascended recently as if sprung from a
launching pad, while the Cavaliers are about to plummet at warp
speed. Other teams are moving more subtly--but they are moving.
Look closely this season and you'll see the Knicks falling ever
so slightly while the Pistons are taking another baby step up.
Once a team begins to head down, the pull of gravity grows more
powerful. Many organizations, of course, try to reverse that
downward trajectory before it gains momentum by making deals to
revitalize their team. The Bulls' trade for forward Dennis
Rodman and the Suns' acquisition of center-forward John (Hot
Rod) Williams during the off-season are the most recent cases in
point. Sometimes the upward motion is regained, but often it is
not. Most clubs have to hit bottom--which in NBA terms means
losing enough to become a lottery team--in order to bounce back
"Things go in cycles in this league, always have," says Celtic
president Red Auerbach. "The league is structured for the top
teams to go down after a while and for the bad teams to improve.
That's what the draft is all about. The organizations that stay
on top are really beating the odds."
The teams that maintain a level of excellence, such as the Suns,
do so by trading shrewdly (e.g., Williams), signing the
occasional free agent (Danny Manning) and plucking a sleeper
from the draft every now and then (Wesley Person). But what
Phoenix has done is growing more difficult. "With the salary cap
it's hard to put a trade together at all, much less outsmart
somebody," Auerbach says. "That's why one of the hardest things
for a team to do is maintain a level of excellence over a long
period. You have to be smart, you have to be creative, and you
have to be a little bit lucky."
October 22, 1995
He ought to know; his Celts have been none of the above in
recent years. When its dynasty was near its end in the
mid-1980s, Boston rejected trade offers for Kevin McHale that
could have yielded a package of players and draft picks to pump
new blood into the team. In the past two years the Celtics have
gambled heavily in the free-agent market, first with Dominique
Wilkins and now with Dana Barros, rather than committing to a
complete overhaul of their roster. And, of course, no team has
been cursed with worse fortune than the Celtics, who have been
rocked in the past decade by the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie
On the other hand, Boston's archrivals of the '80s, the Lakers,
have used Auerbach's three-part prescription--smarts, creativity
and luck--to avoid spiraling to the lowest depths. They have
cleverly traded for forward Cedric Ceballos while drafting
forward Elden Campbell, center Vlade Divac and guard Nick Van
Exel with choices ranging from Nos. 26 to 37. Still, most clubs
have found that to capitalize on the full impact of the bounce
effect they must go down--far down--before they can get the big
bounce back up. After the Pistons won championships in 1989 and
'90, their records got increasingly worse before they bottomed
out at 20-62 in '93-94. After that collapse, however, Detroit
was awarded the third pick in the draft, used it to snatch Grant
Hill, won eight more games last season and should win anywhere
from eight to 18 more this year.
The Mavs, similarly, have gotten wonderful bounce. Three
straight years in the lottery have brought them forward Jamal
Mashburn and guards Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd, and they have
rebounded from an 11-71 record three seasons ago to 36-46 last
year. Dallas should vie for a playoff spot this year.
When you get to the bottom, of course, you have to know what to
do there: The Clippers, who are lottery regulars, have gotten
all the bounce of a deflated ball. The bottom rung of the NBA is
filled with teams that had high lottery picks but had the bad
timing to get those picks in weak draft years or the bad
judgment to use the picks on the wrong players. The Kings'
woeful luck seemed to have changed when they got the first pick
of the '89 draft. But they chose Louisville center Pervis
Ellison, whose pro career has been riddled with injuries.
Ellison lasted only one season with the Kings, who can't be
criticized too much for the choice because '89 proved to be an
unusually weak draft year.
Last year the Kings didn't have as high a pick, but they had a
stronger pool of talent to choose from, and they used their
selection wisely, taking forward Brian Grant at No. 8. It was
Grant and another shrewd selection, second-round pick Michael
Smith, who have helped revitalize the Kings.
"A high pick in a thin draft doesn't always do you as much good
as a lower pick in a deep draft," says Bernie Bickerstaff, the
coach and general manager of the Nuggets. "There's no substitute
for being a good judge of talent, but you also have to have good
timing and good luck."
Some teams have to contend with the frustrating minibounce
syndrome. They rise or fall only slightly year after year, which
can be especially maddening for good clubs that aren't quite
good enough to win championships. Utah has won 50 or more games
in six of the last seven years but has never reached the Finals.
Because the Jazz has been so consistently strong, it has never
had a lottery pick, either. "I'd rather have our record over the
last six or seven years than be in the lottery every year," says
Utah forward Karl Malone. "But it's frustrating to see other
teams getting all this great young talent out of the draft every
year before we ever have a chance to pick. It's like sitting
down to the table at Thanksgiving and finding out somebody
already picked the turkey clean."
Says Philadelphia 76er coach John Lucas, "Sometimes it's easier
to turn a bad team into a decent one than it is to turn a good
team into the kind that can win a championship. That last mile
can be the hardest one to walk."
Utah has tried mightily the last few years to give Malone and
John Stockton the kind of supporting cast needed to finally win
a title. The Jazz traded for Jeff Malone in 1990, then dealt him
for Jeff Hornacek four years later, but neither Jeff got them
further than the Western Conference finals. Utah signed
free-agent forward Chris Morris during the past off-season, a
risky move because the talented Morris was also an attitude
problem with New Jersey. But time is getting short for Stockton,
33, and Malone, 32, and the Jazz decided to make its own bounce
rather than take the big fall and bounce off the lottery floor.
The Suns did the same thing when they traded three players to
Philadelphia for forward Charles Barkley three years ago, and
again in October when they traded two players and a No. 1 pick
to Cleveland for Williams. Barkley helped the Suns get close to
a title--they lost to the Bulls in the Finals in his first year
in Phoenix--but now, with his body deteriorating, some of
Phoenix's key players beginning to pass their prime and forward
Danny Manning recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament,
the Suns have sensed that they could be slowly beginning to set.
Hence the Williams deal. The Bulls were in similar straits,
which prompted them to trade for the rebellious Rodman, who
fills their need for a rebounder but whose behavior has been at
its most erratic during the last two postseasons.
Such gambling only underlines how tough it is to be stuck one
notch below championship level. It's also much easier to fall
from that spot than it is to rise, as teams like New York,
Portland and Cleveland are finding out. The Knicks made solid
runs at the title the last three years, getting as close as the
seventh game of the Finals two years ago against the Rockets.
But the championship eluded them, and now, with coach Pat Riley
gone to Miami, center Patrick Ewing's knees showing signs of
wear and tear and the rest of the team aging, the Knicks are
poised to make the downward plunge.
The Trail Blazers and the Cavaliers know that scenario all too
well. Portland had four straight seasons of at least 51 wins,
from 1989-90 to '92-93, and reached the Finals twice, losing to
Detroit in '90 and to Chicago in '92. But age, injuries and
personality conflicts began to erode the Blazers' nucleus,
slowly at first, then more quickly. Jerome Kersey and Terry
Porter passed their prime, Kevin Duckworth and his weight
problems were traded away, and Portland gave Clyde Drexler his
wish and sent him to a championship contender, the Rockets. The
Blazers' victory total has fallen each of the past four years,
from 63 in 1990-91 to 44 last season. If the trend continues--and
chances are it will--Portland will hit the lottery floor before
The once-proud Cavaliers seem to have reconciled themselves to
the need for the big plunge in order to bounce back into title
contention. Cleveland tried valiantly to maintain its place
among the elite teams last season without center Brad Daugherty,
whose back problems forced him to miss the entire year. Once it
became clear that Daugherty wouldn't be back early this season,
if at all, the Cavs decided that a rebuilding project was
necessary and dealt their top two established players, Williams
and guard Mark Price, for packages that included first-round
draft choices. Without Daugherty, Williams and Price, the Cavs'
own first-round pick is likely to be in the lottery. "We still
plan to do everything we can to contend," says president Wayne
Embry, "but we have to look at the long-term future of the club."
In hindsight, it seems Cleveland would have been wise to trade
Price sooner, when he was younger and his value was higher. But
like many organizations, the Cavaliers hesitated to break up
their nucleus, clinging too long to the belief that the group
could bring them a title. At least now the Cavs and other
struggling teams can take some encouragement from the rise of
teams that were in the same position not so long ago, such as
the Lakers and the Mavericks. And the top clubs can learn from
the decline of teams that were once among the elite, like the
Cavs and the Blazers. The bounce effect defies easy prediction,
so take a snapshot of the teams as they enter the season. By
year's end, for better or worse, several arrows will be
pointing in the opposite direction.