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Turnover Rate

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A few citizens have asked the question - has there ever been an NBA team with as many roster changes from one season to the next as it appears will happen with the Clippers this season?  Well, the short answer is yes, and probably there have been a lot.

With the return of Paul Davis, the Clippers, barring further changes, which is of course a distinct possibility given what has transpired so far, will begin the 2008-2009 season with five returning players on a 15 man roster:  Chris Kaman, Cat Mobley, Tim Thomas, Al Thornton and Davis.  That's a massive changeover, to be certain.

However, armed with nothing more than my vast reserve of useless NBA knowledge (and basketball-reference.com, of course), I started looking at teams that were likely candidates for similar or greater roster turnover.  (Someone smarter than me, with access to the raw data, could no doubt query a database and come up with all instance of 5 or fewer returning in consecutive seasons - if you are that person, have fun.  I am not that person.  But I'm pretty sure at this point that there would be a lot of examples.)

I started with the most obvious possibility, the 98-99 Chicago Bulls.  After winning their sixth title in eight seasons the previous season, Bulls management famously blew up the roster, parting ways from Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Coach Phil Jackson and seemingly everybody else.  Even so, with all of that turnover from the top down, the Bulls still had seven returning players on the 98-99 roster: Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins, Rusty LaRue and Keith Booth.  So the Clippers win that battle.

Then I realized, it wouldn't be the high-profile teams with the most turnover.  It would be the dreadfully bad teams.  The teams with absolutely no reason to keep anybody on their roster.  So my next stop was the worst team of the last 20 years - probably the worst team of all time - the 97-98 Denver Nuggets.  I had the 'honor' of watching this team live once, and they were bad.  Really, really bad.  Monumentally bad.  Historically bad.  They didn't manage to break the all-time record for fewest wins of 9 held by the 72-73 Sixers, but not because they weren't really, really bad.  In 72-73 there were only 17 NBA teams, no other team won fewer than 22 games, and only 3 failed to win at least 30 games.  In 97-98, with 29 teams in the league, fully five teams other than the Nuggets won 20 games or fewer.  It was quite the suck-fest.  So although the Nuggets were clearly the worst of the worst, as the season ground towards the finish, the 5-58 Nuggets managed to win 6 of their final 19 games against almost equally dismal competition to avoid their rightful place in the record books.

At any rate, I wondered how much turnover there was on such an awful team.  Sure enough, from the 96-97 Nuggets team to the 97-98 team, there are only four names in common - LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Anthony Goldwire and George Zidek (there's a name for Citizen Zhiv).  Consider also that Goldwire and Zidek were each acquired in a February 97 trade - so Ellis and Stith were the only two holdovers on the team from opening day 1996 to opening day 1997.  Wow.  And for good measure, the 98-99 Nuggets team only had five players from the prior team - Stith, Danny Fortson, Eric Williams, Corey Alexander and Eric Washington.  In two seasons, Bryant Stith was the only player who remained.

So I'm guessing that massive turnover of the 4 to 5 returning players variety is not all that uncommon, particularly in really bad teams.  We just tend to forget about it because the teams themselves are forgettable.

Except that Nuggets team.  They were unforgettably bad.