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WHICH WAY IS UP? OUR HANDY EIGHT-STEP GUIDE IDENTIFIES THE SUREST ROUTES TO EXPANSION SUCCESS FOR THE VANCOUVER GRIZZLIES AND THE TORONTO RAPTORS

Oct. 23, 1995
Oct. 23, 1995

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Oct. 23, 1995

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WHICH WAY IS UP? OUR HANDY EIGHT-STEP GUIDE IDENTIFIES THE SUREST ROUTES TO EXPANSION SUCCESS FOR THE VANCOUVER GRIZZLIES AND THE TORONTO RAPTORS

Call it the NBA's version of NAFTA. The league exports two
expansion teams, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver
Grizzlies, to Canada, and in return the teams from the good ol'
U.S. of A. import around 130 victories a season. Hey, we feel
for our new Canadian brethren. We have spoken to them.
Encouraged them. Heard their lonely cries for help.

This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1995 issue

In an effort to provide guidance, we have downloaded heaps of
data from the five most recent NBA expansion experiments: in
chronological order, the Dallas Mavericks, Charlotte Hornets,
Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves. We believe
we now know just what made the Magic, last year's NBA runner-up,
the most precocious team in expansion history. We have likewise
unearthed the mistakes of the Timmmmberrrwolves. In short, we'd
like to offer the good folks of Toronto and Vancouver our Eight
Steps to Expansion Happiness.

STEP 1 FORGET THE PRESENT

In October 1980 the Dallas Mavericks arrived at Denver's
Stapleton Airport, the first stop on their first road trip. They
collected their luggage and located their bus, but the driver
was nowhere to be found. Later, at the Mavs' hotel, the bus and
driver showed up to drive them to the game. "Where were you
before?" Maverick assistant coach Bob Weiss asked the driver.

"I was in the airport looking for you guys," the driver said,
"but I didn't see anybody who looked like a basketball player."

Who could blame him? Winford Boynes, Abdul Jeelani and Tom
LaGarde weren't exactly selling sneakers on TV. Air LaGarde? But
these guys were all part of Dallas's master plan. It was a
blueprint that many NBA executives still consider to be the
model for all expansion teams. In the 1980 dispersal draft
Dallas ignored such available big-ticket veterans as Rick Barry,
Pete Maravich and Earl Monroe and instead chose younger players
with potential who might have trade value. The Mavs' brass were
hardly nonplussed the next season when only two players remained
from the original squad. The fact that the team had won only 15
games, tying for fewest wins ever by a first-year team, was also
considered a necessary evil.

"I studied the previous expansion teams, and I found that most
of a team's original players were out of the league in a few
years," says Rick Sund, the architect of the Mavs and now the
vice president of the Detroit Pistons. "So we built through the
college draft. Who cares if we won 10 or 20 that first season?
We lost with a purpose."

Through trades during their opening season the Mavs stockpiled
10 first-round draft choices and two second-round picks over the
team's first six seasons. In three separate deals with the
Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas acquired four first-round draft
choices for Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead, Geoff Huston
and Mike Bratz, all of whom it had selected in the expansion
draft. Those Cavalier picks eventually produced Sam Perkins, Roy
Tarpley, Derek Harper and Detlef Schrempf. It is no fluke that
the Maverick team that reached the Western Conference finals in
'88 included those four players and a total of nine Dallas
first-round picks.

In today's era of the salary cap, it is even more critical to
avoid expensive long-term commitments to veterans and to
concentrate instead on developing young, cheap talent. (Of
course, under the recently signed collective bargaining
agreement, all that young, cheap talent will now have to be
re-signed after their third season, when players automatically
become unrestricted free agents.) Miami followed the Mav plan
during the Heat's inaugural season, '88-89, and lost its first
17 in a row on the way to a 15-win season. But the team was
investing in its future; of the five players who played the most
minutes during Miami's first season, four were 25 or younger and
three were rookies.

On the other hand, Minnesota's first coach, Bill Musselman, who
just happened to be the Cleveland coach when the Cavs made those
awful deals with Dallas, drove his first-year T-wolves to 22
wins in '89-90, but at what price? He played a veteran lineup
while his younger players rotted on the bench. Rookie
first-round pick Pooh Richardson started just 48 games,
splitting time at point guard with the venerable Sidney Lowe.
Richardson eventually became so disillusioned he was dealt from
the team in September '92. Four months later, Lowe was named the
T-wolves' coach.

STEP 2 DON'T GET TOO GOOD TOO FAST

On the final day of the '91-92 season--its fourth--the Heat
qualified for the playoffs, the first of the four most recent
expansion teams to do so. The reward? They got trounced in three
playoff games by the Chicago Bulls and missed the lottery. Was
it worth it? Nope.

During that same season everybody expected Orlando would be the
first of its generation to reach the postseason, but the Magic
was derailed by injuries. The next year, Orlando lost out on a
tiebreaker to the Indiana Pacers for the final spot in the
playoffs. But, says Magic general manager Pat Williams, "if all
that misery hadn't occurred, we never would have been in the
lottery."

You've got to be in it to win it.

STEP 3 HAVE A LOTTO LUCK

Ever since '85, when the NBA draft lottery was instituted, fates
of expansion teams have rested on a process no more scientific
than the rules of bingo. The lottery drawing has become the
single most defining moment for these teams, separating winners
from losers in the expansion game. Like magic, an Orlando
Ping-Pong ball yielded the league's top overall pick in '92.
Then in '93, despite having just one Ping-Pong ball among the 66
in the hopper, Orlando came up a winner again. That good fortune
allowed Williams the opportunity to pluck Shaquille O'Neal and
Chris Webber in consecutive drafts. (Webber was subsequently
traded to the Golden State Warriors for Anfernee Hardaway and
three first-round picks.)

Charlotte has also laid the foundation for a title chase through
good fortune in the lottery. The Hornets won the top overall
pick in '91 and drafted Larry Johnson. The following season,
Charlotte picked second overall and drafted Alonzo Mourning.
Conversely, Minnesota and Miami can't seem to hit the lotto
jackpot. Minnesota has never picked higher than third. The
Heat's highest draft choice was the fourth pick in '89. Because
of new rules, the Raptors and the Grizzlies won't even be
eligible to win the top overall pick until 1999. "The bottom
line is, when you have a chance to draft guys like Mourning,
Larry and Shaq, that takes on the look of good decision making,"
says Vancouver general manager Stu Jackson, tongue burrowed in
cheek.

STEP 4 IDENTIFY THE MOST DANGEROUS PREDATORS

Looking for a good time to rest that aching hamstring? The four
most recent expansion teams are just 8-62 (.114) against the
Phoenix Suns.

STEP 5 TOO MANY COOKS....

Near the end of Minnesota's debut season, team president Bob
Stein asked his director of player personnel, Billy McKinney, to
work out a trade that would bring the Houston Rockets' Hakeem
Olajuwon to the T-wolves. At first McKinney thought Stein was
kidding. When he realized the sincerity of the request, he
initially refused to follow through on the grounds that he would
be the laughingstock of the league. McKinney, one of the team's
few executives with NBA experience, had clashed before with
Stein and Musselman, both of whom itched to better the team
quickly at the expense of the future. McKinney eventually called
Houston to inquire about Olajuwon and found that the Rockets
were not overly impressed by Minnesota's talent pool. McKinney
resigned less than a year later.

If expansion history has taught us anything, it's that there
must be only one general in this man's army. Despite his
maverick ideas, Sund was trusted to carry out his blueprint in
Dallas without intervention from ownership. Williams was left
alone to build the Magic without anybody looking over his
shoulder. Perhaps Minnesota has learned its lesson. Former
Boston Celtic great Kevin McHale (a native Minnesotan) has taken
over as general manager and is the sole voice on personnel
decisions. Don't look for McHale to call Orlando about a trade
for Shaq.

STEP 6 IT'S NOT ALWAYS THE COACH'S FAULT

The Timberwolves have tried four coaches in just six seasons.
Contrast that with Dallas, which stuck with Dick Motta through
the lean early years; Motta eventually led the Mavs to the brink
of an NBA title. Charlotte is already on its third coach. Miami
just hired its third in Pat Riley, who may finally bring some
stability to that franchise. Meanwhile, Orlando has had just two
coaches and only one philosophy, because current coach Brian
Hill worked as an assistant under former coach Matt Guokas.

"The coach has to be a positive guy," says Williams. "When it
seems like nothing is going right, he's got to say, 'Fellas,
nice sweating out there tonight,' or 'You guys showered
beautifully.'"

Toronto general manager Isiah Thomas has reviewed this coaching
attrition and vows it will not occur with the Raptors. "I
believe it is crucial to make it through the early turbulence
with a coach intact," Thomas says (which must be music to the
ears of rookie Raptor coach Brendan Malone).

STEP 7 THE CHERRY ON TOP

When an expansion team is finally ready to win an NBA
title, trade for Horace Grant.

STEP 8 SEE THE BIG PICTURE

At the end of this season, Thomas will offer each of his Raptor
players tickets to the NBA Finals, along with plane fare, room
and board. He wants his guys to experience the atmosphere of an
NBA championship even if it probably won't be happening in
Toronto until the next millennium. "Like everybody else in this
league, our goal is to win the NBA championship, but right now
we know we can't afford to pick a fight with anybody," Thomas
says. "We're just out of the womb. We just cracked the egg, and
we're a baby dinosaur crawling around in a new world. If some
big guy wants to come and gobble us up, there's nothing we can
do about it."

"Expansion is a tough road, and in the early years you've got to
laugh or you're going to perish," says Williams, providing his
own setup line. "I remember we were so bad, our cheerleaders
stayed home and phoned in the cheers." (Rim shot.) "We were so
bad, a winning streak for us was back-to-back off days." (Good
night, Orlando.)

The newcomers seem to grasp their fate. Says Vancouver's
Jackson, "If you look at my challenge in its totality, it can be
a bit overwhelming. So I try not to do that too much."

We understand the anxiety of these Canadian debutantes. We will
share their growing pains. But we must also refer them to the
words of coach Bill Fitch after his '70-71 Cavaliers completed
their first season by winning a record-low 15 games, an
ignominious total that would later be tied by the newborn
Mavericks and Heat. Said Fitch: "War is hell...but expansion
is worse."

B/W PHOTO: ANDY HAYT Growing pains: from left, LaGarde, Seikaly, Musselman and Richardson all felt first-year futility. [Tom LaGarde] B/W PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above--Rony Seikaly] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Bill Musselman] B/W PHOTO:DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Pooh Richardson]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Magical lottery luck nabbed O'Neal (32) and Hardaway [Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS (2) Stoudamire (above) and Reeves exemplify the low and high strategies. [Damon Stoudamire; Bryant Reeves]

This season's additions of Toronto and Vancouver give the NBA
six expansion franchises in eight seasons, a rate of growth that
pleases no one more than already established franchises seeking
all-but-guaranteed victories. Although the Orlando Magic has
become a poster team for expansion, most of the NBA's new kids
on the block have had a rough time of it. Since the NBA-ABA
merger in 1976, none of the NBA's five expansion teams has won
more than 22 games in its first season, and that high-water mark
was set by the Timberwolves, who are the only one of the five
never to have made the playoffs.

Expansion Team
1980-81 Dallas Mavericks

First Coach (No. of Seasons)
Dick Motta (7)

First draft pick
Kiki Vandeweghe, F

First-year record
15-67

First All-Star, year
Mark Aguirre, '84

Record in first five years
168-242

Seasons until playoffs
4

[Expansion Team]
1988-89 Charlotte Hornets

[First Coach (No. of Seasons)]
Dick Harter (1+)

[First draft pick]
Rex Chapman, G

[First-year record]
20-62

[First All-Star, year]
Larry Johnson,'93

[Record in first five years]
140-270

[Seasons until playoffs]
5

[Expansion Team]
1988-89 Miami Heat

[First Coach (No. of Seasons)]
Ron Rothstein (3)

[First draft pick]
Rony Seikaly, C

[First-year record]
15-67

[First All-Star, year]
None

[Record in first five years]
131-279

[Seasons until playoffs]
4

[Expansion Team]
1989-90 Minnesota Timberwolves

[First Coach (No. of Seasons)]
Bill Musselman (2)

[First draft pick]
Pooh Richardson, G

[First-year record]
22-60

[First All-Star, year]
None

[Record in first five years]
105-305

[Seasons until playoffs]
--

[Expansion Team]
1989-90 Orlando Magic

[First Coach (No. of Seasons)]
Matt Guokas (4)

[First draft pick]
Nick Anderson, G-F

[First-year record]
18-64

[First All-Star, year]
Shaquille O'Neal, '93

[Record in first five years]
161-249

[Seasons until playoffs]
4


[SIDEBAR]

GRIZZLIES VS. RAPTORS: THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT

Having offered counsel to the Canadian arrivals, we now ask, How
are these two new teams doing so far? An early analysis:

It's a case of you-take-the-high-road-and-I'll-take-the-low-
road. June 28, the night of the NBA college draft, was a
revealing evening in the brief histories of the two expansion
clubs. Vancouver chose Oklahoma State's 7-foot center, Bryant
Reeves, with the sixth pick in the first round. With the very
next choice Toronto opted for the other end of the spectrum,
selecting 5'10" point guard Damon Stoudamire out of Arizona.
Vancouver and Toronto were already 14 inches apart. In NBA
draftspeak, that's a philosophical difference wider than the
three provinces that separate them.

Judging by the decisions made so far, the Grizzlies' approach is
the more conventional route to building a team. By inviting "Big
Country" to B.C., they have placed literally the biggest piece
in the puzzle. "Bryant reflects the premium we've placed on a
big center as the foundation of our franchise," says Vancouver
general manager Stu Jackson. "Three or five years down the road,
we feel we'll have one of the better centers in the league, and
hopefully we'll have reached a point where our whole team will
feed off our center."

Also part of the Vancouver blueprint is former Syracuse standout
Lawrence Moten, the Grizzlies' second-round pick, who will be
relied upon to score as the shooting guard. Greg Anthony, the
ex-Knick who was Vancouver's first pick in the expansion draft,
will most likely start at point guard. Vancouver has laid the
cornerstones--now it needs some more concrete.

If Jackson's architectural style is Frank Lloyd Wright, then
Raptor vice president Isiah Thomas's is I.M. Pei. Thomas
believes that a new team must take risks to be successful. So
Thomas drafted three point guards--B.J. Armstrong, Keith
Jennings and B.J. Tyler--and precious few big men in the
expansion draft. Then, in the college draft, Thomas selected ...
another point guard? After taking Stoudamire, he chose yet
another guard, Michigan's Jimmy King, in the second round. "The
way the rules in this league have changed, especially with the
three-point line moved in, it's a guard's game," Thomas says.
"If you're starting a team and you don't have a top point guard
to make it easier on the other guys, you're never going to win."

When the lockout ended, we began to see more of Thomas's plan
developing. The Raptors traded Armstrong to the Golden State
Warriors for 6'11" Carlos Rogers and 6'10" Victor Alexander,
both of whom could become starters, plus the rights to three '95
Warrior second-round picks. This is a deal reminiscent of the
early Dallas Mavericks, an organization that Thomas admires and
has avidly studied.

Thomas realizes there are potholes along the low road, but he
argues that there is successful precedent for his decision. He
tells the story of the '81 Pistons, a team on the cusp of a
rebuilding effort, who shocked many so-called experts by passing
on stellar big man Buck Williams with the second overall pick in
the draft. Instead they chose a 6'1" point guard who would
eventually lead Detroit to two straight NBA championships. A guy
by the name of Isiah Thomas.

--T.C.