Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Dwindling '90s


On Monday, both Antonio McDyess and Peja Stojakovic called it quits, choosing to bring an end to their long NBA careers. McDyess entered the NBA in 1995 as the No. 2 overall pick, while Peja followed a year later, picked 14th overall.

With their retirements, the number of players whose careers began in the '90s dwindled even further. There is not a single player left in the NBA who was drafted prior to 1994. The last one was Shaquille O'Neal, the top pick in the 1992 draft, who retired following the 2010-11 season. The last player from the '93 draft was Lindsey Hunter, who hung 'em up following his release by the Chicago Bulls in 2010 (he immediately joined the team as a coach).

That means the most experienced current NBA players joined the league in 1994. There are three of them left: Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Juwan Howard, all of whom were top-five picks in 1994 and all of whom are on the final year of their contracts. It's entirely possible that the 2011-12 season will mark the end of the road for the last draft class that was not subject to rookie contracts.

The 1995 draft class has even fewer players left than '94, assuming Jerry Stackhouse doesn't stick with the Hawks and Lakers free agents Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff remain unsigned. No. 2 overall pick Kurt Thomas is currently with the Blazers and No. 5 pick Kevin Garnett is in Boston. Amazingly, Thomas is the one whose contract extends beyond this season, while Garnett could become a free agent in the summer of 2012 -- though no one expects him to retire just yet.

Stojakovic's retirement leaves six players from the 1996 NBA Draft currently signed to contracts and active in the NBA: Marcus Camby, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal, Steve Nash and Derek Fisher. While Kobe should be around awhile longer, I don't think it'd surprise anyone if this was the final season for players like Camby, O'Neal and Fisher, while Allen and Nash are also playing out the final year of their respective contracts. The "draft" class of 1996 also includes Ben Wallace, who was undrafted that year but has managed to hang around in the NBA, though, again, he's in the final year of his contract.

Like '96, the 1997 NBA Draft has just six players left in the league, and most of them are in the final year of their contracts. That group includes a pair of Finals MVPs (Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups) a journeyman center (Tony Battie) and wings of varying quality (Tracy McGrady, Anthony Parker, Stephen Jackson). Only Captain Jack is signed beyond this season, but he doesn't even seem interested in playing out his current contract, so our '90s numbers could dwindle even further.

By the time we get to the 1998 draft, we get a mild jump in the number of signed players, if not in the talent level. Going in draft order, the players left from 1998 are Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Al Harrington, Nazr Mohammed and Rashard Lewis. Dirk and Pierce are locked up through 2013-14 and Harrington is signed through 2014-15 for some reason, while the others will be looking for new jobs (either as players or TV analysts) next summer. There are also still two undrafted players from '98 hanging around: Anthony Carter and Brad Miller, both of whom are on expiring deals.

Add it all up, and the 1994 through 1998 drafts -- during which a combined 286 players were selected -- represent just 25 (28 if you include the undrafted players) of the 450 available roster spots in the NBA, and only six of them have contractual obligations beyond this season.

Those 28 players represent the last on-court connection to the lockout of 1998-99. They're the small group that had their careers interrupted not once, but twice (well, in the case of the '98 draft picks, it was a delay, not an interruption, but the point stands), losing a combined 48 games to work stoppages.

Through the entire 2011 lockout, I'd always assumed there were more players who'd experienced the previous one, but it makes sense that there were so few, because 13 seasons is an ETERNITY in the NBA. There are Hall-of-Famers who didn't play that many seasons, and plenty of good-but-not-quite-great players who don't come close to that. Hell, Eddie Jones, a multiple-time All-Star selected the same year as Kidd, Hill and Howard, has already been out of the league for three seasons. Raef LaFrenz, the player selected between Bibby and Jamison in '98, has been done for two years now.

As we go forward over the next few seasons, it'll be interesting to track who our last double-lockout player will be. The obvious money is on Kobe, but don't count Dirk out either (and of course, there's always Al Harrington's absurd contract to think about). Still, I wouldn't count on any of them being around when we get to 2017 and the next lockout... I mean "labor negotiation".

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