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Failure to Launch

Posted by Neil Paine on November 18, 2008

We've all seen it in the NBA at one time or another -- a team posts a surprising season with a good young nucleus of players, and you think to yourself, "wow, this team is on the verge of something big." Soon other people start saying the same thing, too, and suddenly there's a buzz around the team. They're young, they're talented, they're going places...

Except they never quite get there.

Whether it's injuries, dumb trades, chemistry issues, or just unrealistic expectations, teams with great potential don't always deliver on their promise. Looking back at NBA history, I wanted a way to quantify this phenomenon, so I ran a regression using a team's SRS score and average age (compared to the league average) as independent variables, coming up with an equation that predicts how many games they "should have" won over the following 5 seasons. Those teams which underperformed this expectation by the most were my official poster children for the "failure to launch" phenomenon. (Note: all team records were pro-rated to 82 games.)

I had to add a few qualifiers in as well. First, I limited the pool of teams to the Win Shares era (1974-2008). And since we're looking for young teams, a team's average age had to be at least 1 year younger than the league's average age. Likewise, because we're looking for teams that were expected to be good, their 5-year expectation had to be a record better than .500. Finally, we want to focus only on one specific group of players at a time, so if a franchise had two teams from the same 5-year period qualify, I went with the one that underperformed the most. With all of that out of the way, here are #6-10 on the "failure to launch" countdown:

10. 2000-01 Orlando Magic (43-39)
Young nucleus: F Tracy McGrady, F Mike Miller, F Pat Garrity, C Michael Doleac, G Troy Hudson
ORtg: 103.2 (14th)
DRtg: 102.1 (10th)
SRS: 0.384 (17th)
Age - League Age: -1.72
Expected wins: 211
Actual wins: 179
+/-: -32

The potential: The Magic were surrounded by a ton of hype going into 2000-01 after making one of the biggest offseason splashes in free agency history, nabbing Grant Hill from Detroit and Tracy McGrady from Toronto on the open market. Hill, of course, lasted only 4 games before a broken ankle ended his season, but the Magic still managed to win 43 games and make the playoffs without him, and McGrady emerged as one of the game's top young stars. With a healthy Hill and a re-tooled frontcourt featuring veteran stars Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant, the Magic looked like one of the top teams in the East going into 2001-02.

The reality: Well, Hill was nowhere near injury-free in '02 either, missing all but 14 games and showing reduced effectiveness when he did play; in fact, it would be 2008 before Hill strung together 2 consecutive healthy seasons, and by that time he was a member of the Phoenix Suns. Likewise, the Magic's creaky interior vets badly showed their age -- Ewing would retire following the '02 season, and Grant was injured for most of '03 before retiring after 2003-04. McGrady continued to be a force, and posted one of the great all-time seasons in 2003, but in 2004 he was traded to the Rockets for Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. All told, the Magic followed up their 2001 playoff berth with 2 more in '02 and '03, but they lost in the 1st round both times. By 2005, the team was decimated and the franchise abandoned the McGrady/Hill blueprint permanently in favor of the current formula headlined by Dwight Howard. If Hill had been 100%, things might have turned out differently for the Magic, but in the end their big plans in the summer of 2000 never came to fruition, and a once-promising core dissolved without ever achieving much success.

9. 2001-02 Los Angeles Clippers (39-43)
Young nucleus: F Elton Brand, C Michael Olowokandi, F Darius Miles, G Quentin Richardson, F Corey Maggette, F Lamar Odom, G Earl Boykins
ORtg: 105.5 (11th)
DRtg: 106.0 (19th)
SRS: -0.087 (16th)
Age - League Age: -3.02
Expected wins: 211
Actual wins: 179
+/-: -32

The potential: Memorably featured on the cover of SLAM Magazine in 2002, the Clips' core of Brand (age 22), Miles (20), and Odom (22) seemed like one of the brightest young trios of prospects the NBA had ever seen. Having already been practically an average team in 2001-02, it was only a matter of time before they started challenging their much older arena-mates for supremacy in the West, right?

The reality: Instead of building on their 2002 breakout, the Clips fell apart again in 2002-03 and never made the playoffs with that ultra-young nucleus. Before the season they dealt Miles to Cleveland for PG Andre Miller, but Miller's WS fell from 10.2 in '02 to 4.6 in '03, and the rest of their youthful core dropped from 25.0 to 15.6 total WS. In the process, their offense, which had been the 11th-best in basketball the year before, fell to 22nd, and their D slipped from 19th to 25th. Then Miller left as a free agent the following offseason and Olowokandi soon descended into the depths of bust-hood, while Odom and Richardson couldn't stay healthy for any period of time. By the start of the 2004-05 season, the Clippers had largely broken up the '02 group, with only Brand and Maggette remaining on the roster. When they finally did make the playoffs in 2006, it was with a radically different roster than the one they probably envisioned leading them to the postseason back in 2002.

8. 2001-02 Boston Celtics (49-33)
Young nucleus: F Antoine Walker, F Paul Pierce, C Tony Battie, C Vitaly Potapenko, G Joe Johnson
ORtg: 103.4 (18th)
DRtg: 101.0 (5th)
SRS: 1.745 (9th)
Age - League Age: -1.22
Expected wins: 217
Actual wins: 182
+/-: -35

The potential: Under the guidance of coach Jim O'Brien in 2002, the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988, and it looked like the foibles of the Pitino era were finally in the rearview mirror. Like the dominant Boston teams of the 1980s, these Celtics were built on defense, and offensively they centered around talented swingman Paul Pierce and versatile forward Antoine Walker, both of whom were under 25. The offseason addition of Vin Baker was going to shore up some of some of their interior concerns, and with their 2 young stars, Boston was going to be an Eastern Conference contender for years to come.

The reality: The Plexiglas Principle came back to haunt Boston in '03 as Baker was an immense flop (his alcohol problems resurfaced), Pierce's production declined, and Walker's efficiency fell off a cliff. The Celtics would still manage to make the playoffs in each of the following 3 seasons, but this group would never again reach the highs of their 2002 run. In 2003-04, the increasingly trey-happy Walker had completely worn out his welcome and was traded to Dallas, while O'Brien resigned, displeased with GM Danny Ainge's personnel moves, and Boston's once-sturdy defense fell apart. By 2006-07, the Celtics had hit rock bottom under O'Brien's successor, Doc Rivers, notching just 24 wins. Now, they turned around and won 66 games and an NBA title the following year thanks to the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and James Posey, but it had little to do with their core from 6 years earlier -- Pierce was the lone holdover from that 2001-02 team.

7. 1980-81 New York Knicks (50-32)
Young nucleus: G Micheal Ray Richardson, C Bill Cartwright, G Ray Williams, F Sly Williams, G Mike Glenn, F Larry Demic, G Mike Woodson, G Reggie Carter
ORtg: 106.0 (12th)
DRtg: 104.4 (8th)
SRS: 2.002 (8th)
Age - League Age: -1.10
Expected wins: 219
Actual wins: 171
+/-: -48

The potential: By the end of the 1970s, the Knicks were crumbling as the their great early-70s team began to age and fall apart. Luckily, that futility gave the Knicks the rights to 5 top-12 picks from 1977-1980, which they used to put together what was believed to be the foundation of the next great NY team: Ray Williams, Micheal Ray Richardson, Bill Cartwright, Larry Demic, and Mike Woodson. After winning just 31 games in '79, the Knicks' young talent base improved to 39 wins in 1980 and coalesced into a 50-win team under coach Red Holzman in 1981, so it looked like New York was going to be very good again in the early eighties.

The reality: Instead of building on their breakout campaign, the Knicks regressed to their previous ways in 81-82, winning only 33 games (as Richardson famously put it, "The ship be sinkin'"). The main culprit was a defense which badly declined from its 1981 form -- NY ranked 8th in D that year, but just 18th in '82, and the offseason trades which brought in veterans Randy Smith, Maurice Lucas, and Mike Newlin (at the expense of Ray Williams, Mike Glenn, Mike Woodson, and a 1st-round pick) did little to prevent the Knicks' defensive slide. Suddenly the Knicks were an old team again, and by the fall of 1982 the only remaining members of New York's young 80-81 nucleus were Cartwright and Sly Williams. Holzman would soon retire, and after a few fleeting years of success under Hubie Brown, the Knicks cratered with 3 straight seasons of 24 or fewer wins in the mid-80s. It would be 1989 before the Knicks were competitive again.

6. 1981-82 Golden State Warriors (45-37)
Young nucleus: F Bernard King, C Joe Barry Carroll, F Larry Smith, F Purvis Short, C Rickey Brown, G Lorenzo Romar, F Sam Williams
ORtg: 108.8 (6th)
DRtg: 107.7 (14th)
SRS: 0.801 (11th)
Age - League Age: -1.06
Expected wins: 212
Actual wins: 161
+/-: -51

The potential: Setting aside the fact that Golden State gave up Celtics dynasty cornerstones Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in a 1980 trade that netted them Carroll and Brown, the Warriors looked like a legit up-and-comer in the early 1980s. Led by King, Carroll, Short, and World B. Free, the Warriors had a dynamite offense in those days, ranking 3rd in offensive efficiency in 1980-81 and 6th in '81-82. They were also adding college All-American Lester Conner to the fold, having selected him 14th in the '82 draft. Yep, heading into the 1982-83 season, this young Warriors team was clearly going places...

The reality: Unfortunately, that place was 2nd-to-last in the Pacific Division, as the Warriors slipped to 30-52 in 1983. During the preseason, Golden State dealt prolific scorer Bernard King to the Knicks for Micheal Ray Richardson in something of a challenge trade between two guys with histories of substance abuse and other character issues. After the deal, King would go on to 3 All-Star Game appearances with New York and Washington, and is 38th all-time in points scored; Richardson would play just 33 games for the Warriors before being shipped to New Jersey for Sleepy Floyd and Mickey Johnson, and he was infamously banned from the NBA in 1986 for violating the league's drug policy. Meanwhile, without King the Warriors' offense dropped from 6th in '82 to 14th in '83, Carroll proved to be a pretty big disappointment in subsequent seasons, and Golden State wouldn't really recover until the "Run-TMC" days of the early nineties.

We'll be back later in the week with teams #1-5...

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