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Mailbag: Highest Percentage of Games Started by Rookies

Posted by Neil Paine on August 16, 2011

Nathan emailed us this question today:

"I stumbled across the 97-98 Cavaliers page for some reason and noticed that during that season they started Wesley Person, Shawn Kemp, Cedric Henderson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight, with Derek Anderson starting 13 games. So that's 8th-year player Kemp, 3rd-year player Person, and 4 rookies in the top 6 in terms of starts! And they made the playoffs!

That has to be the highest percentage of games started by rookies right (discounting the first few seasons of the NBA)?"

Unfortunately our complete start data only goes back to 1983, so I can't speak to teams from early in the NBA's existence (except to say that, obviously, everyone would be a rookie in 1949-50). Since 1983, though, here are the teams that gave the most starts to 1st-year players:

Year Team GP Rookie GS % Rookie Primary Starters W L WPct SRS Plyf DvChmp
1987 Cavaliers 82 242 59.0% R. Harper, Hot Rod Williams, B. Daugherty 31 51 0.378 -3.18 0 0
1998 Cavaliers 82 241 58.8% Z. Ilgauskas, Brevin Knight, C. Henderson 47 35 0.573 3.06 1 0
1989 Heat 82 223 54.4% Grant Long, Kevin Edwards, Rony Seikaly 15 67 0.183 -11.13 0 0
2009 Grizzlies 82 220 53.7% O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur 24 58 0.293 -5.22 0 0
1991 Kings 82 195 47.6% Lionel Simmons, Travis Mays, D. Causwell 25 57 0.305 -6.28 0 0
2002 Grizzlies 82 162 39.5% Pau Gasol, Shane Battier 23 59 0.280 -6.74 0 0
2005 Bulls 82 161 39.3% Chris Duhon, Luol Deng 47 35 0.573 0.65 1 0
2003 Nuggets 82 161 39.3% Nene Hilario, J. Harrington, V. Yarbrough 17 65 0.207 -7.41 0 0
1998 Nuggets 82 161 39.3% Bobby Jackson, Tony Battie, E. Washington 11 71 0.134 -11.74 0 0
1990 Spurs 82 151 36.8% David Robinson, Sean Elliott 56 26 0.683 3.58 1 1
2000 Bulls 82 150 36.6% Elton Brand, Ron Artest 17 65 0.207 -9.23 0 0
1993 Mavericks 82 147 35.9% Sean Rooks, Walter Bond 11 71 0.134 -14.68 0 0
1999 Rockets 50 87 34.8% Michael Dickerson, Cuttino Mobley 31 19 0.620 1.39 1 0
1989 Clippers 82 142 34.6% Charles Smith, Gary Grant 21 61 0.256 -9.50 0 0
1990 Heat 82 141 34.4% Sherman Douglas, Glen Rice 18 64 0.220 -9.59 0 0
1992 Nuggets 82 138 33.7% Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Macon 24 58 0.293 -7.58 0 0
1994 Mavericks 82 136 33.2% Jamal Mashburn, Popeye Jones 13 69 0.159 -8.19 0 0
1999 Grizzlies 50 82 32.8% Mike Bibby, Felipe Lopez 8 42 0.160 -8.94 0 0
1986 Knicks 82 133 32.4% Gerald Wilkins, Patrick Ewing 23 59 0.280 -4.82 0 0
2008 Sonics 82 132 32.2% Kevin Durant, Jeff Green 20 62 0.244 -8.04 0 0
1994 Lakers 82 132 32.2% Nick Van Exel, George Lynch 33 49 0.402 -3.93 0 0
1989 Spurs 82 132 32.2% Willie Anderson, Vernon Maxwell 21 61 0.256 -7.45 0 0
1997 Grizzlies 82 127 31.0% Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Roy Rogers 14 68 0.171 -10.17 0 0
1983 Clippers 82 122 29.8% Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges 25 57 0.305 -4.61 0 0
2011 Clippers 82 121 29.5% Blake Griffin 32 50 0.390 -2.71 0 0
Year Team Games Rookie GS % Rookie Primary Starters W L WPct SRS Plyf DvChmp
2009 Blazers 82 119 29.0% Nicolas Batum 54 28 0.659 5.00 1 0
1993 Bucks 82 119 29.0% Anthony Avent, Todd Day 28 54 0.341 -3.26 0 0
1989 76ers 82 119 29.0% Hersey Hawkins, Shelton Jones 46 36 0.561 1.68 1 0
1999 Clippers 50 72 28.8% Tyrone Nesby, Michael Olowokandi 9 41 0.180 -8.94 0 0
1984 Rockets 82 118 28.8% Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray 29 53 0.354 -3.12 0 0
1998 Kings 82 116 28.3% Anthony Johnson, Michael Stewart 27 55 0.329 -5.83 0 0
1985 Pacers 82 114 27.8% Vern Fleming 22 60 0.268 -5.46 0 0
1984 Bulls 82 113 27.6% Ennis Whatley 27 55 0.329 -4.69 0 0
1985 Suns 82 112 27.3% Mike Holton 36 46 0.439 -2.34 1 0
1997 T-Wolves 82 111 27.1% Stephon Marbury, Dean Garrett 40 42 0.488 -1.82 1 0
2002 Bulls 82 109 26.6% Trenton Hassell 21 61 0.256 -8.52 0 0
2002 Warriors 82 109 26.6% Jason Richardson 21 61 0.256 -4.80 0 0
2009 Nets 82 108 26.3% Brook Lopez 34 48 0.415 -2.31 0 0
2005 Hawks 82 108 26.3% Josh Smith, Josh Childress 13 69 0.159 -9.62 0 0
2002 Jazz 82 108 26.3% Jarron Collins 44 38 0.537 1.20 1 0
2001 Nets 82 108 26.3% Kenyon Martin 26 56 0.317 -5.30 0 0
1998 Celtics 82 108 26.3% Ron Mercer, Chauncey Billups 36 46 0.439 -1.96 0 0
2010 Kings 82 107 26.1% Tyreke Evans 25 57 0.305 -4.06 0 0
1993 Bullets 82 107 26.1% Tom Gugliotta 22 60 0.268 -6.49 0 0
2003 Heat 82 106 25.9% Caron Butler 25 57 0.305 -5.13 0 0
2000 Rockets 82 106 25.9% Steve Francis, Kenny Thomas 34 48 0.415 -0.56 0 0
1992 Warriors 82 106 25.9% Billy Owens 55 27 0.671 3.77 1 0
2005 Magic 82 104 25.4% Dwight Howard 36 46 0.439 -2.52 0 0
1995 Bucks 82 102 24.9% Glenn Robinson 34 48 0.415 -4.30 0 0
2009 Heat 82 101 24.6% Mario Chalmers 43 39 0.524 0.49 1 0

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15 Responses to “Mailbag: Highest Percentage of Games Started by Rookies”

  1. Joey Says:

    Cool stuff. It seems unless you just picked David Robinson chances are high that the team's going to suck. Correlation between "% of rookie starts" and SRS is probably significant (negatively). Further supports the theory that rookies should get a below average projection when forecasting

  2. NBAGuru Says:

    Wow, only 8 teams on the list have winning records, and the majority of those are teams with one or two rookies playing small roles. Looks like Nathan's observation is pretty astute - the only team with a winning record having over even 40% of their starts by rookies was the 98 Cavs. Methinks this reflects how weak the league was in the mid-late 90's, as in any other time that team would've had a mediocre-to-terrible record.

    Also, by my reckoning, Robinson had the best rookie season of anybody since 83, which would seem to be supported by the data here.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    #1 - Yeah, correlation between %RookGS and SRS is -0.496. Giving a lot of PT to rookies is almost always a bad sign.

  4. Ryan. Says:

    Seems to me, the more we learn about Robinson, the more he blows our mind.

  5. Luck'd Out Says:

    I had a feeling that the 2004-2005 Bulls would have been high on here. They had a bunch of one and two year guys headlining their team, and they would have been even higher if Gordon started. I do wonder by who much, though.....

    You would also figure that the Grizzlies would be on here a lot, too.....

    Interesting list.

  6. Matt Says:

    If we assume a player peaks around 24 (correct me if WS has it different, or you want to be more specific), do lineups featuring guys in their 3-5th years win more?

  7. AYC Says:

    Yeah, DRob was a rookie at 24....

  8. JB Says:

    None of these teams built on these rookie starters and went to win a title within 5 years so far. Some still could. I didn't check all of them but I don't think there were many serious contenders.

  9. Jason J Says:

    I actually went to a Cavs game at Gund Arena that year. Surprisingly fun team watch. If Kemp could hold it together and Anderson had developed there, they might have built something decent.

  10. MCT Says:

    I'm under the impression that the NBA began keeping track of games started in the 1981-82 season. Before that, no official data exists. Some pre-1981 teams may have tabluted games started on their own, or it might be possible to construct games started data for some teams by going through newspaper box scores (assuming they identify the starters, which older box scores didn't always do).

    Based on a Play Index search, this site appears to have data for all players back to 1981-82; data for one team only (Celtics) for 1979-80 and 1980-81, and nothing before that.

  11. Neil Paine Says:

    #10 - I have NULL games started in 1982 for the following players:

    Carl Bailey
    Steve Hayes
    Vinnie Johnson
    Greg Kelser
    Rock Lee
    Jackie Robinson
    Mike Woodson

    1983 is the first season for which we have complete GS (i.e., no NULL values).

  12. MCT Says:

    I missed that those seven players had null values -- I stand corrected about 1981-82 being complete.

    Bailey, Lee and Robinson each made only brief appearances in the NBA that season, appearing in 1, 2 and 3 games, respectively.

    Johnson, Kelser and Woodson were all traded early in the season (Johnson and Kelser were traded for each other). They have GS values shown for the teams they played the bulk of the season with, but are null for the teams they started the season with.

    The only player who doesn't really fit into either of the above categories is Hayes. He played for two different teams, appearing in a total of 35 games, and is showing null GS for both teams.

    For each team these guys played for, I added up the GS totals for all of the players with known GS. In all cases, they add up to a full 410 (82 X 5 = 410). Based on that, it appears that none of these guys started any games for the teams they are showing null GS.

  13. Neil Paine Says:

    #12 - Good work, I'm going to file a suggestion w/ Justin that we replace the null values w/ 0.

  14. Panic Says:

    It should be noted that that '87 Cavs team at #1 had a rookie Mark Price, who played extensive minutes but did not start any games. If anything, that 59% UNDERestimates the rookies' contributions to the team. A year later, Price was the starting PG and a rookie Kevin Johnson was backing him up. Whoever was in charge of scouting for that Cavaliers team should have had his own religion.

  15. BSK Says:

    That 1989 Heat team was the expansion year for that franchise. While my initial assumption was that it made sense they had a lot of rookie starters that year, none of the other expansion teams from this era appear on the list (though the Grizzlies appear in their second year). Hm.