NBA Season Preview 2018-19: What can we learn from a history of roster continuity?


Because every single day feels like an eternal slog in 2018, this NBA offseason has felt especially elongated. It can be difficult to remember some of the great spectacles and events of last season, from James Harden’s seemingly-preordained MVP campaign, to Russell Westbrook’s under-the-radar repeat triple-double, to the Donovan Mitchell/Ben Simmons rookie vs. “rookie” beef, to LeBron James performing typically Herculean feats on a nightly basis for what turned out to be his second swan song in Cleveland (it is not at all difficult, merely mildly frustrating, to recall who won the NBA championship for the second consecutive year, and third in the previous four).

Speaking of which: LeBron James is a Los Angeles Laker. This was long speculated-upon, of course, and now that it’s happened, all the dormant Laker fans have reason beyond Lonzo Ball’s promise and the dearly departed Julius Randle’s fervent, manic play to break out their car flags and rep every variety of Kobe jersey – although, why would you, given their new threads are the Showtime redux for which the general populace has been clamoring for years?

All of which is to say, a LOT has happened in the intervening months since the Golden State Warriors closed out the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweep in the NBA Finals. DeMarcus Cousins is a Warrior! Tony Parker is a Charlotte Hornet! R.J. Hunter is an Atlanta Hawk! Surely, you are moved to care about at least one of these things, and its implications, if you can still bear to feel anything at all.

A few seasons ago, I examined roster continuity in these very pixels from a broad scale (to define roster continuity simply: it is the percentage of minutes that a given team’s players from the previous season use). Some trends emerged; namely, champions are very good at keeping their rosters together from the previous season, to the tune of 81.7 percent average roster continuation for champions dating back to the 1952-53 season, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s tracking goes.

Rather than paint a nice, pastoral landscape complete with happy clouds and their flora friends again, I’ve decided to focus on a few examples of roster continuity over the years. Mostly, I’m trying to stick with extremes and, say, medium-rare examples that have both flipped generally-accepted roster construction views on their heads and also proven them Alonzo Mourning gif-correct. We begin with an iconic team, one for which the circumstances could not have aligned any better.

1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers

Tied for the lowest-ever continuity rate in franchise history (at 47 percent, and we’ll get to the other Blazers team that did this in a bit), this is the pinnacle of company turnover.  The beneficiaries of the ABA Dispersal Draft following the merger, Portland inherited a pair of All-Stars, Maurice Lucas and Moses Malone, from the Spirits of St. Louis (the owners of which, it should be said, legendarily and similarly made out like bandits in the years following the merger).

Embarrassed at their own riches, however, the Blazers sent Malone, the higher pick but also likely higher-priced talent, to the Buffalo Braves just before the beginning of the season. Malone would play two games with the Braves before going to Houston where he dominated the league prior to issuing and damn-near delivering on “fo’-fo’-fo’” with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983.

Mo Lucas was a hell of a consolation prize and, again, an All-Star in his first season in the NBA. Pairing him with Bill Walton and letting a superb supporting cast of Lionel Hollins, Bob Gross and Larry Steele bring up the rear, head coach Dr. Jack Ramsay guided his team to 49 wins. Both the offense and defense ranked in the top five in rating, and the Blazers were able to knock off Artis Gilmore’s Chicago Bulls, a David Thompson-led Denver Nuggets team (more on him in a minute), Kareem trying to go LeBron with a pre-Magic Lakers team and an excellent but outmatched Sixers team that was maybe the best Dr. J-led NBA team between his entry into the league and the aforementioned 1983 team (and one that featured Kobe’s dad, Joe “Bean” Bryant!).

It was the first time the team had ever made the playoffs in its history, let alone winning the championship, which is its own great feat. Never again did those Blazers reach those heights, though Walton did manage to win the MVP the following season despite only playing 58 games, and Portland has been trying to piece things together with that kind of care ever since. Two Finals appearances, in 1990 and 1992, yielded nothing, and Portland has shuffled through eras since, always with a distinct edge and never terribly easy to beat. But the 1976-77 Blazers are still the standard.

1981-82 Denver Nuggets

Technically speaking, the 1982 Nuggets had 99.7 percent of its minutes allocated toward its previous year’s roster. Rookie David Burns, a guard from Saint Louis University and ex-New Jersey Net, managed to eke out 53 minutes in six games while notching nearly as many personal fouls (13) as points scored (16). It is a quintessentially ABA record for a guy who only played for the NBA iterations of ABA teams.

Otherwise, minutes went largely to the same players they had gone to the year before, with one notable exception: Shelby, North Carolina native and fellow ABA veteran David Thompson had fewer than half as many minutes in 1982 as he’d had the year prior due to a knee injury, as well as substance abuse issues which plagued his career. When he came back, he averaged less than half of his scoring total from the year before, in almost half as many minutes.

Yet, the Nuggets, which had finished 37-45 in the 1980-’81 season, made the playoffs the following year, winning 46 games under head coach Doug Moe, who had replaced Donnie Walsh the previous season. Minutes had to go somewhere, after all, and with Thompson’s indifference bordering on frustrated malaise, the Nuggets of the 1980s began to take form.

It was, more or less, Alex English’s coming out party, as the Columbia, South Carolina native, ex-second-round pick and former University of South Carolina Gamecock finally hit his stride in his sixth season, and first full season with Denver, making the first of eight All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams. English would up the ante the following year by winning the scoring title for the only time in his career, and he would continue to be a mainstay in Denver through his age-36 season. The Nuggets would make the playoffs in eight of the nine seasons he was with the team.

1989-90 San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs team that started THE SPURS as you know them had, of course, the lowest continuity rate in franchise history. Owing largely to soon-to-be franchise stalwarts David Robinson and Sean Elliott, who contributed 3002 and 2032 minutes, respectively, as well as Rod Strickland and Terry Cummings, this edition of the Spurs won 56 games under Larry Brown (after only winning 21 the season previous) and was the first to reach the conference semifinals since 1982-83.

Very nearly literally fresh off the Naval boat after having served at a submarine base in Georgia for two years following his graduation from the Naval Academy, Robinson arrived in the NBA as a ready-made player, averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds and almost four blocks per game on his way to an All-Star nomination and Rookie of the Year honors. He revitalized a former ABA franchise that was stuck in the mud of the NBA’s middle class, periodically making the playoffs only to lose in the first round.

Though Brown would be gone within two seasons, Robinson’s introduction into the fold, as well as Elliott’s quick-bursting scoring ability, firmed up and lent identity to a team which eventually became the toast of the league. The only time in between this team and the present that the Spurs finished with a losing record was in 1996-’97. That year, they drafted Tim Duncan #1 overall.

The Class of 2004-05: Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic

It is perhaps fitting that two of the three teams which hold the record for lowest continuity rating (along with the 1979-80 Utah Jazz, the only team in franchise history with roster minutes transfer lower than 50 percent) to have come from the first season of one of the more historically abysmal divisions in the NBA over the past decade and a half, the Southeast.

It was the Hawks’ first season under Mike Woodson, who had inherited the team from Terry Stotts and was himself coming off an assistant gig under Larry Brown with the defending champion Detroit Pistons into his first head coaching job. Woodson would prove to be a pillar, eventually guiding the Hawks to three straight playoff appearances (and kick-starting a streak of ten straight playoff runs) in the midst of the eventual Joe Johnson-Al Horford years, but he managed 13 wins in his first season, fewer than half Stotts’ total the year prior.

That edition of the Magic fell under two coaches, Johnny Davis and Chris Jent, neither of whom would last the season. Among others, it was the first year in Orlando for Dwight Howard, Steve Francis, Hedo Turkoglu, Cuttino Mobley, Kelvin Cato, Jameer Nelson and recent Hall of Fame inductee Grant Hill. Or, to put it another way: DeShawn Stevenson and Pat Garrity were the only returning players of note.

The Hawks were the possibly-nuclear remains of charred owl droppings that year, and the Magic were more or less a Technicolor experiment in what it’s like when you read foreign airline safety guides, in a language you don’t speak: you understand the general idea of what’s happening there (inflating a life vest and sliding down a rather fun-looking raft to safety; basketball itself), but it does not translate incrementally, so it’s tough to understand. But both editions of these teams would set a tone for the remainder of the decade, by the end of which one would make a Finals, and the other would establish itself as a regular, if largely nondescript, presence in the postseason.

2007-08 Boston Celtics

Of course people want to talk about the 2010-11 Miami Heat as having established the standard for “super teams,” but a) the Charles Barkley-Hakeem Olajuwon-Clyde Drexler Houston Rockets of 1996-97 are on the phone, against Barkley’s will, and b) the LeBron was looking at these guys, at least in part, when he made The Decision.

In 2006-07, the Boston Celtics won 24 games, their lowest total since the lockout-shorted 1999 season and one of the most disappointing in recent memory. Following a string of playoff misses and first-round exits, face of the franchise Paul Pierce was ornery. Doc Rivers, who had come over from Orlando after not being able to sign Tim Duncan because he didn’t like family members on team planes, was on a national hot seat after winning fewer than 60 games in two seasons.

In 2007, general manager Danny Ainge set up what has become one of the biggest coups in NBA history. To combat Pierce, who had requested a trade, Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who combined with Pierce to lead the Celtics to the biggest single-season win improvement in NBA history – the Celtics won 66 games the following year, and they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals to win their seventeenth NBA title (with a 50 percent continuity rate, to boot).

The Celtics would go on to regular conference finals and NBA Finals appearances through 2012, with point guard Rajon Rondo becoming an All-Star and maturing into a veritable star alongside his Hall of Fame teammates. Ray Allen left for the Miami Heat in 2012, shattering relations among his generational Big Three, but that Celtics season continues to reverberate around the league.

2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers

Of course, it isn’t like Kobe Bryant to take things in stride. After falling to those very Celtics in the 2008 Finals, the Lakers mostly stood pat, returning players from the previous season that filled 95 percent of their minutes in what amounted to a title-winning season.

Newcomers Josh Powell, Shannon Brown, Adam Morrison and Sun Yue, the latter of whom traded time with the Lakers and their then (at the time) D-League affiliate the D-Fenders during his only season in the NBA, all emerged as champions, in a cumulative total of fewer than 1,000 minutes played. Otherwise, it was Bryant, along with Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and a few others, who shouldered the load for a team that, its seven-game conference semifinals series against a fierce Houston Rockets team notwithstanding, trucked its way through the playoffs on the road to dismantling the Orlando Magic in five games in the NBA Finals.

Phil Jackson had one more title run left in him, and a good one to boot, before regressing as the peyote-king of nothing in particular before instilling his trigonometric ways on the unwitting New York Knicks for an unnecessary time and then, I would guess, retreating to the foothills of Montana and not returning Jeanie Buss’ calls; Kobe had a ridiculous farewell tour, Pau is the current standard-bearer of old man savvy in San Antonio following Manu Ginobili’s retirement and Tony Parker’s trade to Charlotte, Lamar Odom seems to be okay and Trevor Ariza is about to “establish a veteran presence,” for lack of a better term, as a versatile big for a young Phoenix team.

2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge went from wanting “to be the best Blazer – ever” to signing a four-year max contract with the heretofore most consistent team in the league, the San Antonio Spurs. Right when it seemed like the Aldridge-Damian Lillard era would kick off in earnest, the first half of that partnership was gone, leaving behind him a ball of confusion and trail of low expectations in the Pacific Northwest.

For a team which had maintained a nice and easy 69 percent continuity rating from after Aldridge’s rookie year onward, suddenly hitting a 47 percent mark was jarring. They had the third-worst roster continuity in the league, in fact. Evidence suggests that observers were leaning more on patience and player development rather than immediate success, and with good reason. Damian Lillard had been incredible in flashes the previous year and already had a series-clinching 3-pointer against the first edition of the James Harden-Dwight Howard Rockets under his belt. But he was still young and relatively unproven. Who was he to lead a team of similarly-situated players, plus Chris Kaman?

As it turned out, Lillard was exactly the spark plug necessary to facilitate the confidence of players like Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and, most notably, CJ McCollum, whose breakout 20.8 points, 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game year set a precedent for Portland basketball which stands to this day, trade rumors and breakup narratives notwithstanding. Al-Farouq Aminu also found a home that year after time spent with the Clippers and various iterations of New Orleans teams.

That rebuilding-betweener team won 43 games and made the playoffs (as a No. 5seed! The West used to not be such a gauntlet) and beat the Clippers in six games before falling to the 73-win, unanimous MVP-having Golden State Warriors in five, but that Blazers team set the tone for the post-Aldridge era.

Damian Lillard, who embarked on a campaign of fire when he was not an All-Star that season, has established himself as one of the premier assassins in the NBA, and McCollum has risen to become one of the very best shooting guards in the NBA, with spite at his back and blog boys constantly on his case. These Portland Trail Blazers were uniquely excellent in their ability to respond to adversity and subvert expectations.

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Each of these teams refused to buy into the roster continuity standards that their forebears were peddling. Hucksters will tell you that a team loosening the grips on its “core” is not good; in many cases more than these, it shows a willingness to adapt and to let some good-but-not-great things just die. We should all be lucky enough to know when it is time to move on and time to get going. The sun is going to shine either way, even if not necessarily in Phoenix.