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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Five Best Waiver Claims in NBA History

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Jeremy Lin story is the fact that he was waived by not one, but two separate NBA teams this offseason. Early in the offseason, Lin was waived by the Golden State Warriors to make room for the Warriors to sign DeAndre Jordan to an offer sheet. Lin was then claimed by the Houston Rockets. Just before the season began, the Rockets also waived him to make room for free agent center Samuel Dalembert. The Knicks claimed him on waivers after rookie guard Iman Shumpert was injured during the Knicks’ first game of the season. After barely playing for the Knicks for most of the season (plus a short stint in the NBA D-League), Lin has become one of the biggest stories in the NBA as he has helped lead the Knicks to five straight victories. While many fine players in NBA history have been waived during their careers, very few waiver claims have ever resulted in notable pick-ups for the team making the claim. Here is a look at the five best waiver claims in NBA History.

NOTE: Typically, players are waived for one of two reasons. They are either deemed “not ready yet” or they are highly paid veterans in the last years of their contracts for teams that are going nowhere. In the first case, the players who later turn out to be good players (people like John Starks and Anthony Mason, to name two players close to Knick fans’ hearts) usually don’t reveal themselves for awhile (often after proving themselves in independent leagues, like the CBA or overseas). In the second case, the players make too much money for teams to claim them on waivers (as they’d have to take on the player’s full contract). Instead, they clear waivers and then anybody can sign them. Players like Sam Cassell, PJ Brown, Peja Stojakovic and Tim Thomas (to name a few) played major roles for playoff teams after being waived. Therefore, the odds of a team claiming a player on waivers and then having that player turn out to be good are relatively slim, since most teams just don’t claim many players on waivers period. Here, though, are the five best waiver claims in NBA history.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Steve Novak and Jeremy Lin

Lin might actually already deserve a spot on this list, but I guess we should give him a full season before we start putting him on all-time lists. Novak might also become worthy of a spot on this list when everything is said and done (doubtful, though, as there are some very good players on this list).

NOTE: Rickey Green was claimed on waivers from the Detroit Pistons by the Utah Jazz in 1980, but then the Jazz let him go. After succeeding in the CBA, he was then re-signed by the Jazz and played for them for many years, making an All-Star appearance even! However, I don’t think that counts, since they let him go before re-signing him. If he did count, he would definitely be on the list.

5. Eddie Jordan

After a strong career at Rutgers University (where he led the team to the 1975 NCAA Final Four and he gained the nickname “Fast Eddie”), Eddie Jordan was drafted in the second round of the 1977 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Stuck behind Walt Frazier at point guard (and with Austin Carr firmly in place at the 2), Jordan averaged less than eight minutes a game in the 22 games he played for the Cavs before they waived him mid-way through the season. The New Jersey Nets claimed him and he instantly became the Nets starting point guard, averaging 10 points a game in the 1977-78 season. His numbers increased in the next two seasons, where he also became one of the top players in the game when it came to steals. He was second in the league in steals per game in 1978-79 and 1979-80. He was also second in the league in assists in 1979-80. The Nets traded him in the beginning of the 1980-81 to the Los Angeles Lakers, where Jordan won his only title as a player in 1982. Jordan went on to become a head coach for the Sacramento Kings. He then served as Byron Scott’s lead assistant for the New Jersey Nets. The Nets’ success led to Jordan getting the job as the Washington Wizards’ head coach. He led the team to four straight postseason appearances.

4. Bob Houbregs

The Canadian-born Bob Houbregs became a star player for the University of Washington Huskies from 1950-1953. The power forward/center was one of the earliest players to employ the hook shot with regularity. In his senior year in 1953, he led the Huskies to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. He averaged nearly 35 points a game during the playoffs. During his time at Washington, the school finished in the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Those results remain the furthest that Washington has ever gone in the NCAA Tournament. Houbregs was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the third overall pick in the 1953 NBA Draft. After a disappointing start for the Bucks, Houbregs was traded to the Baltimore Bullets near the end of his rookie season in exchange for former Knick All-Star Max Zaslofsky. The Bullets disbanded after a 3-11 start (becoming the last NBA team to disband) and Houbregs ended up on the Boston Celtics via the dispersal draft. Less than a month later, the Celtics waived him. Up until this point, Houbregs had not done much in the NBA. The Fort Wayne Pistons claimed him off waivers. While he did not do much else during the 1954-55 season, he returned in 1955-56 with a vengeance for the Pistons, averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds for the Pistons in both 1955-56 and 1956-57 as the Pistons made it to the NBA Finals both seasons. After a disappointing start to the 1957-58 season (the Pistons’ first in Detroit), Houbregs retired and went to work for Converse. He worked for Converse for years, except for a brief period in the early 1970s when he was the General Manager of the Seattle Supersonics. As a result of his college career, Houbregs was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987, the only player on this list to make the Hall of Fame (so far, at least).

3. Johnny Newman

Johnny Newman helped lead the University of Richmond to a surprise upset in the first round of the 1984 NCAA Tournament as his 12th seeded Richmond Spiders defeated the 5th seeded Auburn Tigers, led by future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. Newman was drafted in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Newman played sparingly for the Cavs during the 1986-87 season, averaging roughly 10 minutes a game as he was stuck behind one of the three star Cavs rookies that season, Ron Harper (the other two being Brad Dougherty and Mark Price. And yes, Ron Harper was technically the Cavs’ small forward that season – in other words, they basically played without a small forward). Newman was waived before the start of the 1987-88 season and the Knicks claimed him off of waivers. Newman slowly but surely gained playing time for the Knicks and by the playoffs, he averaged 19 points a game as the Knicks’ starting small forward as they lost to the Celtics in the first round. He was the starting small forward in 1988-89 as he finished third on the team in points per game behind Patrick Ewing and (just barely) Mark Jackson as the Knicks won the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 1970-71 season. However, new acquisition Kiki Vandeweghe slowly won the starting job over Newman in 1989-90 and after the season, Newman signed with the brand-new Charlotte Hornets as a free agent. Newman kept playing in the NBA until the 2001-02 season, if you can believe that. Dude was 38 years old!

2. Bruce Bowen

I’ve already told you folks about how Bruce Bowen was a half-game away from being a Knick (in this edition of Unsung Knicks History), but here is a refresher course on Bowen. After graduating from California State University, Fullerton, where he played for four years, Bowen went undrafted in the 1993 NBA Draft. He then spent most of the next four seasons bouncing back and forth between Europe and the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). In 1997, he finally got his big break, getting signed to a 10-day contract by the Miami Heat. Bowen only played 1 game for the Heat that season, playing 1 minute and having 1 block. The next season, 1997-98, however, he got picked up by the Boston Celtics, where, at 26 years of age, he had his first real season in the NBA. He played pretty well for the Celtics that first season, but he took a significant downturn in 1998-99 and the Celtics let him go after the season ended. For the 1999-2000 season, he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Bowen’s problem on both the Celtics and the Sixers was that he had very limited offensive skills. He was really designed for one thing, offensively – hitting the open three pointer on a kick out. The Celtics did not have much use for such a player and while the Sixers did have Allen Iverson driving and (occasionally, if his teammates were lucky) kicking out, Larry Brown was happy with the player he had at small forward, George Lynch – a strong defender who had a more varied offensive game than Bowen. And with the Sixers having such a putrid offense overall (they ranked 25th in the NBA in offensive rating in the 99-00 season), they could not find ways to keep Bowen on the floor. He averaged less than eight minutes per game for the Sixers in 99-00. They included him in a deal with the Bulls for Toni Kukoc. The Bulls promptly waived Bowen. The Knicks and the Heat both put in waiver claims, but by virtue of being technically in second place by a half game when his waiver claim came due on February 21, 2000 (the only time all season that the Heat were behind the Knicks), the Heat were awarded Bowen’s services. He was a factor in the 2000 Playoffs but was an even bigger part of the 2000-01 team, where he became a starter and his ability to hit the three on the kick outs fit right in with a team offense built around Alonzo Mourning in the middle. He also made the All-NBA Defensive Team (second team) for the first time in his career. He would then sign a big contract (for a guy like Bowen, at least) with the San Antonio Spurs for the 2001-02 season (another team where he would get open looks from kick outs in the middle, courtesy of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan), where he would go on to make the All-NBA Defensive Team a remarkable seven years in a row, the last five being first team selections. From the start of the 2002-03 season until the end of the 2006-07 season, he started every Spurs regular season and playoff game as the Spurs went on to win three titles in those five years.

The fact that the Heat only got one good year out of Bowen led me to just barely go with the following player as #1 (I seriously went back and forth a bunch of times on who should be #1)…

1. Derek Smith

A member of the 1980 NCAA Championship Louisville Cardinals, Derek Smith was drafted in the second round of the 1982 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. After an uninspiring first season with the Warriors, where he averaged less than 6 minutes a game in less than 30 games played, Smith was put on waivers right before the 1983-84 season. The San Diego Clippers picked him up off of waivers, and Smith soon earned more and more playing time until he was the team’s starting shooting guard by the end of the season. In 1984-85, he had his breakout season, averaging 23 points a game for the now Los Angeles Clippers (with a 59% True Shooting Percentage!). He continued the pace in 1985-86, averaging over 27 a game for the first eleven games of the season but sadly blew out his knee in that eleventh game. He missed the rest of the season. The Clippers dealt him to the Sacramento Kings and he was never the same player again, although he hung around for four more seasons (plus two games for the Celtics in 1990-91 that was the clear sign he had to retire). Smith became a respected assistant coach for the Washington Bullets. Tragically, while on a cruise for Bullets season ticket holders in 1996, Smith suffered a fatal heart attack. Smith’s son, Nolan, who wears a tattoo his father on his arm, is currently a member of the Portland Trailblazers (Nolan won a NCAA Tournament Championship with the Duke Blue Devils exactly 30 years after his father won his championship with Louisville).

That’s the list! Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

5 comments on “The Five Best Waiver Claims in NBA History

  1. Nick C.

    Interesting. Bob Houbregs was a surprise (as in the name was one that I thought I had heard of but I had no idea why). I remember Newman well and being surprised when I heard the Knicks picked him up since he did play regularly with Cleveland. What is surprising is that these guys are role players, starters but not stars. When Eddie Jordan and Johnny Newman make a top 5 list well to me it makes what Lin has done seem much more unprecedented. Though Starks, Mason, Green all missed your list because of the definition even if they belong in spirit.

  2. Brian Cronin

    When Eddie Jordan and Johnny Newman make a top 5 list well to me it makes what Lin has done seem much more unprecedented.

    My sentiments exactly. We’re dealing with some really unprecedented stuff with Lin.

    Though Starks, Mason, Green all missed your list because of the definition even if they belong in spirit.

    A top five waived players period list would be a lot more tough, but I guess I could do one like that eventually. Brad Davis would be also be guy who might pop up on a list like that (just off the top of my head). I wonder if Starks would even make the top five…

  3. gbaked

    Unsung Knick History reference! Can we get some more of those please? One of my favorite things on the internet!

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