The goal of any professional sports franchise is to win their league’s title. As fans we all want the championship parade, commemorative Sports Illustrated cover, and championship t-shirt. We want those bragging rights, to say that our team is the best. The debate over whose team is the best is a constant in every classroom, frat house, and bar. This debate is part of the reason why people gravitate to professional sports.
At the beginning of each professional sports season every fan believes their team has a shot at winning their league’s trophy. This is certainly true for both the NFL and NHL, and to a lesser extent MLB. In the NBA however any realistic and well informed fan knows that their are only a handful of teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the NBA title. Sure there is always that guy who thinks his Portland Trailblazers have a shot, but he’s also the same guy who will tell you that Drexler was a better player than Jordan, “it’s just that Jordan got all the calls from the refs.” They aren’t worth listening to and it’s best to just tune them out before you have an aneurism from arguing with them The same can be said for 90% of all New York fans. Since they are New York fans they feel it is their divine right to win the title every year, even when their Knicks are relying on PF Ama’re Stoudemire who is as hospitable a host as you will find in the paint.
Jackwagon fans aside, in order to determine what it takes to win the NBA title I decided to look back as far as the 92-93 season when the Bulls completed their first Three-peat by beating the Phoenix Suns. I picked that season cause it provides a large enough sample size and is close enough to the current structure of the NBA, which is two 15 team conferences with three division in each conference. Additionally the 92-93 season is also when Michael Jordan was at the peak of his powers. This is important because just about every NBA player since Jordan has tried to model his game after his royal Airness.
Now that I’ve gotten the cheap shots at New York fans out of the way on to why the NBA Playoffs are like the popular adult drink that has masked hangovers for years. First and foremost the NBA Playoffs and the Bloody Mary are two things that continually make me happy and almost never disappoint. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate both of these things into my life even more than I already do, which is already a borderline unhealthy amount. But the similarities go beyond just my personal opinion and here is why, at its core the Bloody Mary is a very basic drink that always has a lot of added flair/garnish to it. The NBA Playoffs are the same way, because when you look back at the last 20 plus years you find that unless a team is one of the top 3 seeds from either conference that team is nothing more than a spiced shrimp skewer, meaning a lower seeded team’s playoff run can certainly add to the enjoyment of the entire playoff experience, but in the end will almost never be a part of the determining who the best team is in the NBA.
Since the 1993 Finals when Jordan and Bulls completed their first three-peat by beating Charles Barkley’s Suns only one team has won the NBA Title and been ranked lower than a 3 seed. That team was the 94/95 Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The Rockets, who were NBA Champions the previous season, made a deadline deal for Clyde Drexler and limped into the playoffs with a 47-35 record earning the 6th seed in the West. After going the distance with both the Jazz (5 games) and the Suns (7 games) the Rockets met the Spurs and league MVP David Robinson in the Conference Finals. 99% of the time this when a lower seeded team’s run will come to an end, but for whatever reason be it the Rockets previous playoff experience or Hakeem wanting to make Robinson grab his ankles for taking the MVP award Houston dismantled the Spurs in 6 games on the way to their second trip in a row to the Finals. For the series Olajuwon averaged 35 points on 56% shooting 12.5 rebounds 5 assists 1 steal and 4 blocks per game. While stuffing the stat sheet Olajuwon also managed to take David Robinson’s soul and manhood. After that series Robinson was never the same player. His confidence was irrevocably shattered. I’m not sure Olajuwon has ever been given his just do. During Jordan’s two year absence Olajuwon took advantage and won two champions and one MVP award. Other than the 1995 Rockets no team seeded lower than 3 has won an NBA title in the last 21 seasons. You’d have to go all the way back to the Nixon administration when the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 1969 Finals to find a league champion that was seeded lower than a 3.
Over the past 21 seasons 10 of 21 NBA champions were teams that had the best record in their conference. The losing team in the NBA finals was a 1 seed in 9 of the past 21 NBA finals. Two thirds of the time at least one of the top seeded teams will be in the NBA finals, which is why they are the vodka and tomato juice (clamato juice if you make the drink properly) of the playoffs. When Garnett was screaming to Michelle Tafoya and the entire New England region that, “anything is possibleeeeeeeee” he was getting caught up in the moment because when it comes to the NBA Finals anything isn’t REALLY possible. His top seeded Celtics beat the Lakers, who were the top seed in the Western Conference, so his response should have been more like, “We did what we were supposed to doooooooooo!” Maybe he was referring more to his life than the probable/predictable 2008 Celtics run. It’s a question I’ll bring up with Mr. Garnett at our next Nicholas Sparks Book Club meeting.
For some perspective I went back and looked at the championship winners from the other professional sports leagues in the US during that same 21 year span and confirmed what I had suspected. In the NHL, whose playoff setup most closely resembles the NBA, a top seeded team won only 35% of the time. The team getting their names etched on the Stanley Cup were a 3 seed or above only 75% of the time as opposed to the NBA, which saw a team seeded three or higher win 95% of the time. In the NFL and MLB top ranked teams only won around 38% of the time and the league champion was wildcard team a just under a third of the time. This is the part of the article where I vomit on the floor to honor Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles 4 NFC conference championship appearances and one Super Bowl appearance. I’m over it though, really I am, I couldn’t be more excited for rest of the Michael Vick era.
Now back the NBA, when a team finishes with the second best record in their conference they too have a pretty good shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. 2 seeds have won 6 different times in the last 21 seasons and have been the runner-up on 8 different occasions making the 2 seeds the ice and pepper of the NBA playoffs. 11 times during the span a 2 seed has been involved in the Finals. For anyone out there that likes to gamble betting on a 2 seed winning the finals isn’t a bad bet at all.
The 3 seeds are really the final piece to the NBA champion puzzle. Think of them as the hot sauce and celery salt on the rim of the glass. A three seed has been crowned champion 4 different times over the last 21 years. The 2002 Lakers, when Kobe and Shaq were careening toward their messy divorce were a 3 seed. The 2004 Pistons, who epitomized team unity, beat the Lakers who were as dysfunctional as the Gallagher clan from Shameless thanks to the Kobe/Shaq divorce and Phil Jackson’s contract. If a Payton-Jeannie Buss love child and a Deavean George sex change took place they would have blown right by the fictional Gallagher family. Things were so bad on that team that there is an actual Wikipedia page dedicated to the history of the Shaq and Kobe feud. The two remaining 3 seed NBA champions were the 2007 Spurs who decimated a “Lebron is on his way to a legendary NBA career” Cavs team and the 2011 Mavericks who shocked a “Lebron is on his way to a deplorable NBA career” Heat team.
Other than the 1995 Rockets, which have already been discussed, 4th seeds and beyond haven’t had much success reaching the NBA Finals let alone winning the title. Only on three occasions did a team lower than a 3 seed play in the finals series of the season. That amounts to only 14% of the time over the last 21 seasons. You’re more likely to see a watchable M. Night Shyamalan directed movie than you are of seeing a team seeded lower than a 3 seed in the NBA Finals. And even those three instances can all be justified to a degree. The first being the 1999 Knicks, who reached the finals as an 8 seed in the strike shortened season. So while it was certainly odd for an 8th seed to make it all the way to the finals some of that you have to attribute to the fact that the lockout lopped 32 games off the regular season. Once the Knicks reached the finals though the league corrected itself and the Spurs swiftly dismissed the Knicks in five games. The second time a 4th seed reached the finals was the 2006 Mavericks, who actually finished with the second best record in the West but entered the playoffs as the 4th because the Suns and Nuggets won their respective divisions thus being awarded with the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the conference. Since then though the league changed the rules to seed the playoff teams based solely on record and not who won the division. The last 4th seed to earn a spot in the Finals was the 2010 Celtics, who coasted through the tail end of the season once they knew they were a comfortably in the playoffs in order to rest aging veterans like Garnett, Allen, Pierce, and Wallace for the playoff run. This is why the garnishments that accompany a Bloody Mary are comparable to NBA teams seeded below a 3 seed in the playoffs. The edible accouterments add to the overall experience, but aren’t essential to the drink the same way the lower seeded teams add to the fun of the playoffs (02/03 Celtics) but aren’t a factor when it comes to crowning a league champion.
Maybe the most memorable run by a lower seeded team would be the 06/07 Warriors who beat the top seeded Mavericks in six games. They were the equivalent of the beef jerky swizzle stick. Everyone remembers the “We Believe” campaign, Baron Davis slashing to the rim, Stephen Jackson raining threes at the Oracle Arena, and the 8,348,590 shots of Jessica Alba in the stands cheering. What we forget though is that in the next series the Warriors were dismantled by the Utah Jazz in five games, with the lone Warriors highlight being Baron Davis’ dunk that makes any all decade highlight reel. Everyone got caught up in the hype, and rightfully so, since it isn’t often Stephen Jackson keeps his shit together for 6 straight games, but because of the NBA playoff format a hot team can only go so far if they can’t match their opponents talent level. In the Dallas series Jackson and Davis combined to shoot just shy of 50% from the field and 47% behind the 3 point line. Against Utah though they only shot 40% from the field and 27% behind the 3 point line leading to their playoff exit.
There are other great examples of lower seeded teams making runs that capture the NBA fan population but meet their inevitable demise like the 2011 Grizzlies who would be comparable to a cheeseburger slider on a skewer or the 2012 76ers who had the feel of a pearl onion because they weren’t all that exciting and only beat the top seeded Bulls because they lost the league MVP in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injuries.
The joke has always been that the NBA playoffs are just a second season, which is hard to argue with since the league gives the teams enough days off between games two and three that the players could take a family vacation to French Polynesia if they wanted too. But because the playoffs are so long they really do become a battle of attrition, and that causes the better and typically more consistent teams to rise above the rest and win the league’s championship trophy. Look at the NCAA basketball tournament, which has numerous upsets every year, but for the most part shakes out to feature the higher ranked team in the Final Four. For a team to win the championship they need to win only 6 games (or 7 if you count the play-in games) and even then the best teams usually survive. That’s with rosters full of college kids too, who are as reliable as a Morgan Freeman performance (Good: Shawshank and Million Dollar Baby Bad: Deep Impact and The Bucket List WTF: Lucky Number Slevin and Wanted). So even with only seven wins needed and roster full of children the best teams are usually left standing at the end of March Madness. Now look at the NBA playoffs, which are populated by professionals, and require 16 wins over the course of the playoffs to claim the title. Those 7 wins needed to win the NCAA title only gets an NBA team to within a win of getting out of the second round. All the required winning leads to the most talented teams winning on a consistent basis.
With all of this information in mind we know that continually being only garnishment-level good is an empty place to be in the NBA. It’s alright for a team to make a pit stop at garnishment level, like the Thunder, but once a team is stalled out at that level for a couple of years they are no better off than the team that missed the playoffs by 12 games and are arguably in a worse position since they won’t be awarded with a high draft pick. Now the question becomes what do all of the top teams have in common over the last 21 seasons, which I’ll break down in Part II.