Born: July 18, 1971 Position: Point/Shooting Guard, Small Forward Professional Career:
Orlando Magic (NBA): 1993-1999
Phoenix Suns (NBA): 1999-2004
New York Knicks (NBA): 2004-2005
Miami Heat (NBA): 2007
During the last half of the 1990s, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was on top of the basketball world. Playing on a fresh new franchise and arriving just after the retirements of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, Hardaway promised to escalate the NBA’s popularity with a style that melded many of the talents of the aforementioned legends. His raw athleticism trumped Bird’s, his scoring outbursts surpassed those of Magic, and his passing was more deceptive than MJ could ever consistently hope for.
The aesthetic beauty of Penny Hardaway’s basketball game is still hard to imagine decades later. A long, lanky and tall point guard gliding up and down the court. Probing defenses for thunderous dunks or slick dimes. Anfernee’s distinctive nickname, “Penny”, gave a much-deserved trademark to the on-court festivities.
Born: February 15, 1964 Position: Point Guard Professional Career:
Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA): 1986-1995
Washington Bullets (NBA): 1996
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1996-1997
Orlando Magic (NBA): 1997-1998
The Lowdown: In a career ravaged by injuries, Mark Price still managed to become one of the greatest shooters in basketball history. He was automatic from the free throw line and a lethal off-the-dribble jump shooter. With a beguiling ease, he could also penetrate into the paint for acrobatic finishes. With such scoring gifts, Price was able to distort the defense and create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. Although just 6’0″ tall, Mark Price without a doubt was a titan for the Cleveland Cavaliers for a decade.
Sam Cassell enjoyed a lengthy career as an NBA point guard, but only after an arduous college basketball journey. At age 20, he began playing junior college ball with San Jacinto College outside Houston. Then, at age 22, he transferred to Florida State. After two successful seasons there, Cassell was finally drafted into the NBA at age 24.
And nearly everywhere he went in the NBA, Cassell catalyzed improvement for his teams.
Selected by the Houston Rockets, the geriatric rookie immediately made a huge impact for the Rockets. No one doubts Hakeem Olajuwon was the primary fuel for the Rockets that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, but Cassell’s role as backup point guard and big game performer helped pull Houston out of some tough fixes. In the 1994 Finals, Cassell hit a huge three-pointer in the final moments to win Game 3. He finished that game with 15 points on 4-6 shooting. Not bad for a rookie who averaged 7 points in the regular season. In the 1995 Finals, Cassell exploded for 31 points on 12 shots leading Houston to a 2-0 series lead over the Magic.
These huge playoff performances paid dividends for Cassell. By his third season, 1995-96, he was averaging 14.5 points and 5 assists per game off of Houston’s bench. Following that season, however, Cassell was traded to the Phoenix Suns and thus began his wandering days.
Over the next three seasons, Sam played for the Suns, Nets, and Mavericks before finally settling in Milwaukee. Not that he wasn’t productive. Cassell averaged 18 points and 6.5 assists in this span, but no club seemed to truly appreciate what he offered. The Nets were particularly foolish. They made their lone postseason between 1994 and 2002 while improving from 26 to 43 wins in their one full season with Cassell.
With the Bucks, though, Cassell found a home and exploited his talents to the max. His biggest assets, oddly for a point guard, were his abilities to post-up and generate lots of free throws. Milwaukee lacked a power forward or center capable of scoring, so Cassell’s production of 19 points and 7 assists per game while making 87% of his free throws was sorely needed. In 2001, teaming with Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, Cassell’s Bucks narrowly missed out on the NBA Finals losing to the 76ers in a tough 7-game series.
Ever the wanderer, though, Cassell’s time in Milwaukee finished in 2003. Still, Cassell had a couple of curtain calls left.
The Timberwolves in 2004 enjoyed their best season in franchise history after Cassell’s acquisition. Indeed, it was a career year for Cassell who finally made the All-Star Team and was named to the All-NBA 2nd Team at the tender age of 34. With Kevin Garnett as league MVP and Cassell riding shotgun Minnesota made the Western Conference Finals. An unfortunate back injury to Sam kept the Wolves from mounting a full challenge to the Lakers, though, and they lost the series in six games.
In 2006, after an injury-plagued 2005 season, Cassell helped lift the Los Angeles Clippers from their wretched depths. Yes, the Clippers, a franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1976 as the Buffalo Braves. Cassell’s savvy, leadership, and still potent skills mixed beautifully with another superb power forward (Elton Brand) as the Clippers won 47 games. In the playoffs, Sam’s Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Semi-Finals where they lost to the Suns in seven games. From that point on, Cassell was severely limited by injuries, but managed to snag a final NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
With his ebullient energy, pull-up jumpers, fearless forays to the rim, and confidence Cassell improved every team he appeared with. The Rockets, Nets, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Clippers were all demonstrably better with the services of Cassell. Even if those teams’ appreciation for Cassell usually proved very short-lived, that kind of track record is no accident, but proof of his prowess. In a career that was anything but short-lived, you can see that prowess almost from the get-go.
Years Played: 1993 – 2008
3x Champion (1993-’94, 2008)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2004)
Regular Season Record: 348-440
Regular Season Win Percentage: 44.1%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 16-21
For the first time in generations, the Celtics were veering into rudderless territory. The untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis derailed any smooth succession plan from the Bird-McHale-Parish core of the 1980s. With barely any worthwhile talent on their roster, Boston couldn’t swindle or fleece another team of their draft picks. Boston therefore decided the quickest road back to contention would come through deliberately losing as many games as possible. The prize, should they win the 1997 Draft Lottery, would be Tim Duncan.
With such a lucrative payoff, the Celtics were full-steam ahead for losing in 1996-97. They didn’t just secure the worst record in the NBA that season, Boston absolutely shattered the franchise record for losses and lowest win percentage. Their 67 losses easily eclipsed the previous record of 50 losses in 1978. The .183 win percentage was an abysmal depth below the previous record of .293 waaaay back in 1950.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder was rookie forward Antoine Walker. The versatile shimmy machine would be one of the only two players to make a serious impact for Boston during this decade. The other, unfortunately, was not Tim Duncan. Despite the losing, Boston fell to the 3rd slot and watched the San Antonio Spurs dance off with Duncan.
Dejected, Boston selected Chauncey Billups with their pick. The point guard would go on to a superb career, but Boston gave up on him 51 games into the 1997-98 season. Billups was traded, in essence, for veteran Kenny Anderson. That was a curious trade then and now for a team that was clearly years away from any legitimate contention. But for some reason, coach and personnel head Rick Pitino couldn’t discern the true, sorry state of the franchise.
In any event, Boston did finish with 36 wins in the 1997-98 season as Walker became an All-Star. Despite not tanking that season, Boston nonetheless found their second impact player in the 1998 Draft. Paul Pierce fell into their lap at the 10th pic. Suddenly, Boston had some hope for the future.
But over the next two seasons, Boston continued to mire in mediocrity under Pitino. Finally, in an act of mercy, Pitino stepped down as coach a third of the way through the 2000-01 season. Jim O’Brien took over as coach and guided Boston to a 24-24 record during his truncated tenure that season.
By this time, Pierce and Walker formed a formidably potent one-two duo. Together they averaged 50 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists a game. However, the rest of the roster was atrocious. A lot of players who were decent at their very best.
Yet, somehow, the combined power of Pierce and Walker catapulted Boston to 49 wins in the 2001-02 season. It was their best regular season campaign in a decade. In the playoffs, the achieved success not seen since 1988 by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent was the New Jersey Nets.
The highwater mark of the season – and of this era – came in Game 3 of the series. Tied 1-1, the Celtics found themselves down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter. From that point forward, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics on his back as Boston scored 41 points in the final period to win the game 94-90. Now up 2-1 in the series, Boston promptly lost the next three games. Considering where they were just a season before, it was a helluva triumph.
The triumph proved paper-thin, however.
Another bone-headed trade earlier that season crippled the Celtics. Promising rookie Joe Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Boston foolishly became enamored with the idea these two players could give them a potent core for immediate contention.
When the dust settled, Delk and Rogers played a grand total of 116 games for Boston and Joe Johnson has famously played in seven all-star games.
The Celtics steadily declined to 44 wins in 2003 and then 36 wins in 2004. A brief bounce came in 2005 when they won 45 games, but in the 2006 season they fell right back down to 33 wins.
By that time, Paul Pierce was a lonely, lonely man. Walker had been traded just prior to the 2003-04 season to Dallas for a poo-poo platter of flotsam: Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch plus a 2004 1st rounder that became the best part of the deal, Delonte West. The team’s leading players, besides Pierce, in 2006 were Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Mark Blount. Not exactly a murder’s row of talent.
In this rubble were buried some young gems. The aforementioned West, defensive swingman Tony Allen, the scowling Kendrick Perkins, and the offensively gifted Al Jefferson. However, they were young gems and Pierce was 28 years old in the absolute heart of his prime. He averaged 27 points that season and nearly 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game.
How long would he put up with putting up Herculean numbers for a team headed into a clear rebuild? Boston was again at a crossroads similar to where they were a decade before.
At least this time they did have a player of Pierce’s caliber to perhaps trade away and stock up on draft picks. Or maybe they should stick with Pierce and cross their fingers that another star would fall to them in the draft? Better yet, maybe they should repeat the 1996-97 season and deliberately lose in order to improve the odds of winning the lottery.
Whatever the decision, Boston unmistakeably found itself in a malaise heretofore unthinkable to the likes of Auerbach and Russel, Bird and Havlicek.
C – Tony Battie (1999-’04) – 336 Games
6.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 51.7% FG, 68.7% FT
F – Paul Pierce (1999-’06) – 605 Games
23.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 44.0% FG, 35.7% 3PT, 79.0% FT
F – Antoine Walker (1996-’03, 2005) – 552 Games
20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 41.3% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 66.2% FT
F – Eric Williams (1996-’04) – 398 Games
9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 42.1% FG, 73.1% FT
G – Kenny Anderson (1997-’02) – 241 Games
11.3 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.5% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT
F – Walter McCarty (1997-’05) – 494 Games
5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 39.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 71.1% FT
G – Dana Barros (1996-’00) – 227 Games
9.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.3% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 86.1% FT
Regular Season Record: 465-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 56.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 7
Playoff Record: 37-40
Fresh off three titles in six seasons, the Boston Celtics looked to further cement their hold as the best franchise in the history of the NBA heading into the 1986 Draft. Even though their 1985-86 team had won an incredible 67 games, the Celtics were perched at the top of the draft with the #2 pick thanks to a bone-headed trade by the Seattle SuperSonics. With that pick, Boston selected the athletic and supremely-gifted Len Bias.
Sadly, Bias would be dead from a drug overdose within a couple of days and Boston’s long-term success was severely impaired.
As for immediate effects, Boston seemingly showed no signs of trouble. Their Big 3 of Parish, McHale, and Bird continued to hum along. In fact, McHale submitted his best season in 1986-87. Larry Bird had just won the three previous MVP awards. Parish was his usual, highly-reliable self. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge continued to ably man the backcourt.
The problem was the bench. It was razor-thin and old by this point. Scott Wedman lasted just six games. Bill Walton just 10. Other legends like Jerry Sichting, Fred Roberts, and Greg Kite were left as the backups. This is where the absence of Bias truly and immediately felt by Boston.
The Celtics still managed 59 wins in 1987, but in the playoffs they ran up against two remarkably formidable foes. One was a time-honored adversary: the Milwaukee Bucks. These Bucks had swept Boston in 1983 and now in ’87 they pushed Boston to seven games in the semi-finals. Surviving the Game 7 by the hair of their chin (119-113 thanks to a fourth quarter surge) the Celtics moved on to face the Detroit Pistons. Larry Bird’s steal and pass underneath to Dennis Johnson barely gave Boston a Game 5 victory (108-107) and provided a 3-2 series lead. Without that moment, Boston likely would have lost the series. As it stood, they still nearly lost the series. In Game 7, Bird played every minute and dropped 37/9/9 to thwart Detroit 117 to 114.
In the Finals, the Celtics faced the Lakers for the third time in four years. The Lakers, thanks to Magic Johnson’s baby hook in Game 4, secured the series in six games. This proved to be Boston’s last best hope for a title for the next two decades.
Injuries and age began to ravage the Celtics. McHale, who broken his foot in March 1987, delayed surgery until after the season. Playing on the foot gave Boston its shot at another title that season, but definitely altered the rest of McHale’s career. Bone spurs, a bad back, and torn Achilles combined to mar the rest of Bird’s career. In the 1988-89 season, Larry Legend played in just six games.
Naturally, the indestructible Robert Parish chugged along without problem.
To be sure, Boston was still a team to contend with every season, but they were no longer a title contender. Especially after the 1987-88 season. After Bird famously dueled Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the semi-finals, Boston moved on to the ECF to again face Detroit. The Celtics put up a valiant fight as five of the six contests were decided by less than six points, but their depleted bench was too big of a weakness. The Pistons played eight players more than 20 minutes a game, meanwhile Boston only played their starters more than that. Indeed, four of their starters averaged over 40 minutes a game. Hell, four of their starters were over age 30.
In 1989, with Bird sidelined most of the season, Boston discovered a taste of youth within their midst.
Reggie Lewis made the most of Bird’s absence. The second-year forward who couldn’t get off the bench his rookie season blossomed with 18.5 PPG in the 1988-89 season. Rookie Brian Shaw also saw an uptick (8.5 PPG, 6 APG) after Ainge was traded to the Sacramento Kings. The youngsters barely allowed Boston a winning record (42-40) and were cleanly swept by the Pistons in the first round, but Boston was in for a mini-Renaissance in the early 1990s that’s often forgot.
Bird’s return in 1990 pushed Boston back up to 52 wins. The fearsome four Boston trotted out made them a frisky playoff foe for anyone.
Bird – 24 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 7.5 APG
McHale – 21 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2 BPG
Lewis – 17 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3 APG
Parish – 16 PPG, 10 RPG
The problem remained the bench. And with Dennis Johnson gassed on his last legs, the back court was a sieve as well. In the opening round against the New York Knicks, Boston was absolutely stunned by the sequence of events that unfolded.
The Celtics took the first two games of the best-of-five series in convincing fashion: a 116-105 Game 1 victory and an absolute 157-128 beatdown in Game 2. Then the Knicks proceeded to win the next three games to knock Boston out of the playoffs. Patrick Ewing was particularly monstrous in ruining the Celtics with 32 points a game on 57% shooting. In Game 5, Ewing provided the dagger with a desperation turnaround three-pointer.
In 1991, the Celtics finally had a coherent team again with an actual bench. The team stormed out to a 29-4 start, finished the year with 56 wins, and garnered the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, and Ed Pinckney weren’t all-stars nor all-timers but they were decent and good pieces to relieve the strain on Boston’s core. The balance Boston found is exemplified by six players averaging between 14 and 20 PPG that season.
The good fortune didn’t last into the next season as the roster went into flux with trades and injury, but still Boston managed 51 wins.
And here’s the crazy thing: Boston was within easy reach of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals both seasons. They probably would have lost to the Chicago Bulls once there, but that’s better the results we know Boston received.
As it stands, the Celtics lost to the hated Pistons one last time in 1991. The six-game series ended with a nail-biting 117-113 Detroit victory in overtime in the final game. In 1992, the Celtics were even more heart-broken in a 4-3 series loss to the Cavaliers in the ECSF.
The 1992-93 season was the end of an era for Boston. Bird was now retired. McHale was clearly right behind him as he struggled throughout the year. Even Parish was beginning to crack at the tender age of 39. The continued excellence of Reggie Lewis kept Boston afloat with 48 wins. Shockingly, even he was lost during the playoffs due to a heart condition that ultimately killed him later that summer.
From that horrific moment, Boston truly washed into the tides of despair.
Parish made his official exit after the 1993-94 season as the Celtics won just 32 games. 35 and 33 wins followed in 1995 and 1996, respectively. There was certainly some talent in the rubble: Rick Fox, Dee Brown, and the delightful post player Dino Radja. However, they weren’t enough on their own to reconstruct a dynasty.
Boston had flirted with such miserable points before: the post-Hondo malaise in 1978 and ’79, the brief post-Russell collapse in 1970, the soul-searching 1956 season.
This time was distinctly different, however. Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Bill Russell weren’t walking through the door to relieve Boston of the pain. Their only hope in the new NBA landscape of draft lotteries was to crash, burn, and hope for ping pong balls to bounce in their favor for a #1 pick.
With a superb college center in Tim Duncan soon up for grabs. Boston gutted the roster and hoped for another touch of Celtic Luck.
C -Robert Parish (1986-’94) – 626 Games
15.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 0.7 SPG, 55.8% FG, 73.7% FT
F – Reggie Lewis (1987-’93) – 450 Games
17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 48.8% FG, 82.4% FT
F – Larry Bird (1986-’92) – 336 Games
24.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.5% FG, 38.9% 3PT, 91.6% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1986-’93) – 496 Games
19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 BPG, 56.1% FG, 83.4% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1986-’90) – 303 Games
10.8 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 43.8% FG, 83.9% FT
G – Dee Brown (1990-’96) – 414 Games
12.3 PPG. 4.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 45.2% FG, 33.5% 3PT, 83.3% FT
F/C – Dino Radja (1993-’96) – 199 Games
17.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 50.4% FG, 73.6% FT
F – Kevin Gamble (1988-’94) – 436 Games
11.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 51.8% FG, 81.6% FT
Regular Season Record: 469-351
Regular Season Win Percentage: 57.2%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 4
Playoff Record: 23-35
The most successful decade for the Atlanta Hawks thanks to the dynamics of Dominique Wilkins who was a perennial All-Star for most this period. The 1986-87 season saw the Hawks set a franchise record for wins with 57 and the next season witnessed their classic 7-game showdown with the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, the Hawks’ status as title contenders never quite solidified.
Moses Malone and Reggie Theus were brought in as aging stars to buoy the Hawks. Jon Koncak was given a bloated contract. Kevin Willis exploded for a 15 RPG season. Stacey Augmon’s “Plastic Man” dunks were a nice mix with the Human Highlight Film. But by the early 1990s, it was clear that Nique’s teams had run their course.
Until Lenny Wilkens took over as Hawks coach for the 1993-94 campaign. Sporting a stellar 36-16 record at the All-Star break, the Hawks made the most startling trade in their history. Wilkins was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning. The Hawks continued rolling to a 57-25 record (21-9 post-Nique) tying the club record from 1987. The Indiana Pacers, however, dispatched those Hawks in six games during the EC Semi-Finals and the next year – and final season of this decade – Atlanta regressed to 42 wins.
Still, Atlanta had acquired some valuable pieces for the new regime: Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith. The offseason acquisition of Dikembe Mutombo after the 1995-96 campaign gave the Hawks hope for renewed success in the coming decade.
C – Moses Malone (1988-’91) – 244 Games
16.5 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 48.2% FG, 79.5% FT
F – Dominique Wilkins (1986-’94) – 560 Games
27.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 46.5% FG, 82.8% FT
F – Kevin Willis (1986-’94) – 560 Games
15.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 50.7 % FG, 70.3% FT
G- Doc Rivers (1986-’91) – 365 Games
13.7 PPG, 7.4 APG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 44.9% FG, 81.6% FT
G – Mookie Blaylock (1992-’96) – 322 Games
15.0 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.6 SPG, 41.8% FG, 36.1% 3PT, 73.3% FT
G – Spud Webb (1986-’91, 1995’96) – 404 Games
7.6 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 46.2% FG, 84.6% FT
F – Stacey Augmon (1991-’96) – 390 Games
13.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 48.8% FG, 73.9% FT
G – Steve Smith (1994-’96) – 196 Games
17.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 43.0% FG, 83.5% FT
NEXT DECADE (1996-97 through 2005-06)
PREVIOUS DECADE (1976-77 through 1985-96)
Regular Season Record: 325-463
Regular Season Win Percentage: 41.2%
Playoff Appearances: 3
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 8-15
This was a miserable decade in Hawks’ history. They only had three winning seasons and they were all frontloaded in 1997, 1998 and 1999. During this three-year stretch, the Hawks won 64% of their games. Naturally, the selections for this decade’s players are also frontloaded in this period. Dikembe Mutombo was brightest spot for the Hawks nabbing back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1997 and 1998. After being swept by the New York Knicks in the 2nd Round of the 1999 playoffs, the aging Hawks were blown up and Lenny Wilkens left as coach in 2000.
From 2000 till 2006, Atlanta mustered a pathetic winning percentage of .328, bottoming out in 2005 with just 13 wins. From that point on, Mike Woodson would slowly rebuild the Hawks into a frisky playoff team during their next decade.