On the 11th day of his new job, Dallas general manager Don Nelson swapped an entire starting lineup for four Nets. With that deal Nelson purged the last two remaining Mavericks—guard Jimmy Jackson and swingman George McCloud—from the team's 12-man opening day roster of 1995-96. The housecleaning in Big D illustrates a dramatic change in the NBA: the high turnover rate of players from team to team.
As of the Feb. 20 trade deadline, only eight of the league's 29 teams had kept more than half of their '95-96 opening day rosters intact, while 13 teams had held on to just four players or fewer. The league's overall turnover rate over the last 16 months is 58.6%. By comparison, at the trade deadline of 1984-85, only 43.9% of the players had been moved since the start of '83-84—the last season before the salary cap and free agency were instituted.
Pat Riley, coach of the Atlantic Division-leading Heat, has retained only two Miami players from the '95-96 opener. His plan—to clear room under the cap in order to sign free agents—has become a blueprint for other teams struggling to become competitive. But even Riley is shocked by the speed of the merry-go-round. "This is ridiculous," he says. "I think you're going to see two or three teams a year purge their rosters for cap space."
Another factor in the turnover rate is the rookie salary cap, which allows a first-year player to become a free agent after his third season. "How can you have much continuity when you draft a player today and in three years he can leave you?" says Sacramento assistant vice president Wayne Cooper. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."
For Chicago, the don't route has proved a winner. The defending champion Bulls have 11 players left from last season's opening day roster—only 43-year-old center Robert Parish is new—and are on pace for 70-plus wins again.