Summer of ’96

29 01 2010

I interviewed Dikembe Mutombo yesterday at the NBA Store for an upcoming amNY story, which led me to think about when he signed with the Hawks as a free agent. It was the summer of ’96, which should be known as a seminal few months in the NBA’s history. Maybe it is already, maybe it isn’t. With all the hype surrounding this summer’s ‘Bron/D-Wade/Bosh-laden free agent class, one might get the impression that the NBA will experience a power shift of unprecedented proportions. One look at the summer of ’96 would squash that theory. Let’s take a look at the players who joined new teams through free agency, trades and the draft during that summer:

Free Agency

  • Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Lakers and won a regular season MVP and three NBA titles with the purple and gold.
  • Mutombo signed with the Hawks and won the Defensive Player of the Year award the next two seasons while making the Hawks a stable playoff team.
  • Allan Houston signed with the Knicks, played in a couple All-Star games and positioned himself as the Knicks’ go-to guy for nearly a decade.
  • Ervin Johnson (not that one) signed with the Nuggets and led the NBA in total defensive rebounds that season.
  • Two moves that didn’t go down: 1) Michael Jordan was rumored to be flirting with the Knicks before “settling” on a one-year, $30M contract with the Bulls. You know the rest of the story; 2) Juwan Howard, who was a big-time player at the time, agreed to a $100M-plus deal with the Heat yet it was rescinded because it didn’t comply with salary cap rules. So, Howard re-signed with the then-Washington Bullets. With Howard back in the fold in the frontcourt, the Bullets felt justified in making what turned out to be a really, really bad move.
  • Future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning were free agents but re-signed with the Sonics and Heat, respectively. Payton obviously helped lead the Sonics to the Finals that season and Mourning would drag Jeff Van Gundy around the floor with his legs.


I almost couldn’t believe it when I checked it on, but the Bullets had Chris Webber, Juwan Howard (remember, he was a 20/10 guy in the mid-’90s) and rookie Rasheed Wallace on their ’95-’96 team! They had the best two-fifths of the Fab Five in C-Webb and Juwan PLUS a dominant collegiate player in ‘Sheed. And despite those three young post studs along with sharpshooter Calbert Cheaney and Robert Pack, who was basically Bobby Jackson before Bobby Jackson, the Bullets managed only 39 wins.

Of course, they could’ve nurtured the ‘Sheed/Webber/Howard triumvirate, which represented an ideal frontcourt mix of athleticism and power right at a time when the NBA was transitioning to a slower style of play conducive to teams with good interior scoring and defense. But the Bullets didn’t have a legitimate point guard, so they made this trade:

  • Bullets traded Rasheed Wallace to Portland for Rod Strickland. To Strick’s credit, he did average at least 15.7 points and 8.9 assists over the next three seasons. However, the Bullets spent two seasons on a low 40s-wins squad before crashing while ‘Sheed went on to become one of the best players for a Blazers squad which nearly reached the Finals in 2000.
  • Vlade Divac was traded from the Lakers to the Charlotte Hornets for a guy we’ll get to later. Divac was a tough scorer and rebounder for two Hornets teams that won 54 and 51 games before getting re-routed to Sacramento.


Here’s the top dog of player movement that summer. Let’s look at the gentlemen who helped lead the NBA into a new era:

  • Kobe Bryant, selected by the Hornets at #13 and traded to the Lakers for Divac, is a 12-time All-Star, won an MVP and four NBA titles and is one of the 10 greatest players to grace the NBA hardwood.
  • Allen Iverson, selected by the Sixers at #1, is an 11-time All-Star, won an MVP, led the Sixers to the Finals and averaged at least 26 points 10 times.
  • Steve Nash, selected by the Suns at #15, is a 7-time All-Star, won two MVPs and was the ringleader for one of the most exciting teams in NBA history in the mid-’00s Suns.
  • Ray Allen, selected by the T-Wolves at #5 then traded to the Bucks, is a 9-time All-Star and one of the best pure shooters of all-time.
  • Marcus Camby, selected by the Raptors at #2, is a one-time Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time blocks leader.

That’s not to mention Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jermaine O’Neal and Peja Stojakovic, all of whom were selected in the first round.

What basically came out of the player movement from ’96 is five MVP awards won for the teams which added that player (Shaq, Kobe, Iverson, Nash) not to mention nearly an All-Star game’s worth of player movement (Shaq, Kobe, Iverson, Nash, Mutombo, Houston, Allen, ‘Sheed, Marbury, Abdur-Rahim). That won’t happen this summer, even if LeBron turns to South Beach.




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