In part one of what is sure to be three unnecessarily long-winded posts about the NBA, I broke down what teams make it to the NBA Finals and win the championship over the last 21 seasons. This time around I’m going take a look at what all the championship winning teams had in common as it relates to the roster.
I like playing basketball more than golf, more than squash, or tennis, or any other sport that requires you to wear all white or ridiculous looking pants. I enjoy it because it’s a team sport. Groups are just better. Nobody likes drinking alone. Nobody actually likes eating out alone. And I’m sure as shit Jack didn’t like dying alone on the god damn island on Lost. Really any activity outside of masturbation or sleeping is more fun to do as part of a group in my opinion. I feel the same way about sports, which is why I gravitate to basketball, football, and baseball more than golf, NASCAR, or tennis. Half the fun in sports for me is watching the drama unfold amongst the players. The NBA would be much less fun if Shaq and Kobe didn’t have their feud or if I couldn’t see teammates react in ridiculous ways from the bench. The handshakes, the team chemistry, and now the Instagram group shots I think make the league that much more interesting. And as important as team dynamics are in the NBA, the truth is if you want to win titles it all comes down to just one player. Well maybe two. Allow me to explain.
When trying to find what the championship teams had in common the first place I looked was where the teams ranked offensively and defensively. Analysts and column writers love to talk about how defense wins championships, or without a consistent low-post scorer nobody can win. The truth is though that it’s really a bit of a load of crap. Those lines make for great filler on the pregame shows and in games when they are as enjoyable as a Josh Hartnett movie marathon, but really there is no offensive or defensive bar necessary to winning the title. The 2005 Spurs who beat the Pistons, were 18th in scoring offense and first in scoring defense. The 2001 Lakers ran through the playoffs like Mongolian warlords, losing just one playoff game to the Sixers in the Finals. They finished the regular season 3rd in scoring offense and 23 in scoring defense. And the 2011 Mavericks were 11th in scoring offense and 10th in scoring defense. There isn’t a benchmark that a team needs to meet to be the last team standing. But there are some pieces absolutely needed in order to win the title.
The teams that have the more talented players win. I know, send Kenny Smith to an early retirement and give me a booster chair next to Charles and Ernie. It isn’t any sort of breaking news that good players win, but to be just a little more specific every NBA champion of the last 21 seasons has had at least one All NBA member on their team, meaning that had one of the top 15 players that season. The losing team in the NBA finals only reached the final series three times without having an All NBA member on their team. The 1994 and 1999 Knicks (Ewing was stuck competing against Olajuwon, Robinson, and an emerging Shaq) and the 2010 Celtics. That’s it. 14 of the 21 NBA champions had two All NBA members on their team. And of the seven championship winning teams that had only one All NBA player 4 of them were Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich led Spurs teams. So when people jump all over Lebron for going to Miami (that includes you Mr. Jordan) he was actually being a student of the game and realizing it’s incredibly hard to win titles alone. It’s difficult for just one player to carry a team to the title by himself, but admittedly possible. As discussed in part one, in order to win the title a team needs to be the first to 16 wins. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James all have off games, and it’s during those off games that they need their partner, who typically takes a back seat, to step up. Bird had McHale, Lebron has Wade, and even Jordan needed Pippen to pull the Bulls out of the fire once in a while.
The 1993 Bulls were running on fumes trying to complete their first three-peat and in the Eastern Conference Finals faced a Knicks team that featured brawlers like Ewing, Oakley, Starks, and Mason. The Bulls were staring down an 0-2 hole heading into Game 3 and while Jordan was 16 of 17 at the free-throw line that night he was just 3 of 18 from the floor. He finished with 22 points while Pippen was 10 of 12 from the field and went 8 of 10 from the line finishing with 29 points. The third leading scorer for the Bulls that night was John Paxson with 14. The Bulls won the game by 20, but without Pippen there and Jordan suffering through one of his absurdly rare off-nights the Bulls might have lost the game, been down 0-3 and we might not have ever seen the Bulls finish off the three-peat.
The next piece to building a championship winning team is finding at least one player that is is a member of the All Defensive Team. Now this is a bit misleading cause on a number of occasions the same player that makes the All NBA team also makes the All Defensive Team, so it isn’t necessarily that a team needs both an all NBA member and a different player that is on the All Defensive Team, but if they don’t have two different players then one needs to be special on both sides of the ball. This means you Carmelo Anthony, Chris Webber, and Tracy McGrady who are all great players, but never managed to have their defensive output match their offensive output. 19 of the last 21 NBA Champions had at least one All Defensive Team member on roster. The two exceptions are the 2006 Heat that beat the Mavericks and was the only series of the last 21 years that didn’t feature a single All Defensive Team player. The second exception was the 1995 Rockets, who as I mentioned in Part 1 were the only team below a 3 seed to win the title in the last 20 plus years. 9 different times the finals winner boasted two All Defensive Team players and actually the 2005 Pistons who lost to the Spurs had three All Defensive Team players (Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince & Chauncey Billups). The Spurs had two of their own in Duncan and Bruce Bowen, and not so coincidentally it was one of the lowest rated NBA Finals of all time. The masses don’t enjoy watching sound defense. The All Defensive player can work out on the perimeter or patrol down low, it doesn’t matter, but it is necessary to have one or the other.
The last and unarguably most important piece to a championship team, is having not just an MVP candidate but an MVP winner. As I said at the beginning I love the team aspect, but in the NBA it comes down to having one particular individual. Over the span of time I’ve looked back on there have been 14 different MVP’s. 20 of the last 21 NBA Championship winners have had a league MVP on their roster. Only on two occasions did the championship winning team have a league MVP that hadn’t won the award prior to winning the title. Olajuwon (95 Rockets) and O’Neal (00 Lakers) were the two players that won their MVP awards the same year they won the title. The one team absent of an MVP was the 2004 Pistons. It’s maybe the one time that team chemistry swayed the Finals in the last 20 years. The only other time one could argue a team won without a true MVP caliber player would be the 2006 Heat, who won with O’Neal and a young D-Wade. O’Neal was 33 at the time and clearly not the team leader, but he was acceptably fat that season and he averaged 22 and 10 while making 60% of his field goals, which was only a one 100th of a percentage point lower than his career high. So while O’Neal might not have been the best player on the team he was still playing at a very high level. Of those 14 different MVP’s only five have not won a title. They are Barkley, Iverson, Malone, Nash, and Rose. Barkley and Malone were victims of the Jordan era. Iverson was a victim of booze, height, and lack of discipline. I’ll get to Nash and Rose still has a long career ahead of him to earn entrance into the Champions club. Something sadly Charles Barkley will never be a member of (Go to the 2 minute mark). Steve Nash has the distinction though of being the only MVP to not play in a Finals. I can’t imagine Steve Nash takes that very well behind closed doors. He’s clearly a competitive guy, and I’d bet anytime someone brings that up he questions if he should publicly tar and feather himself in front of the Staples Center. Now again Derrick Rose hasn’t played in one yet either but he is still only 24 years old. If Poohdini can find a teammate that can score consistently he’ll play in a Finals at some point. What have we learned from all of my dithering nonsense? Without an MVP an NBA team is the equivalent of the fat kid in high school who is BFF with the hot girl and also hopelessly in love with her. The problem is; It’s. Never. Going. To. Happen. For the fat kid all the chocolates, flowers, and K-Ci & Jojo mixtapes are not going get the girl. And for an NBA team all the overpaid roll players, mid-level exemptions, and late round picks are not going make the difference without an MVP. Before the 2004 Pistons the last team to win without an MVP were the 1990 and 1989 Isiah Thomas led Pistons. And before that you have to go back to the 1979 Sonics. So unless you root for Detroit you have almost no shot at winning a title without an MVP. This is the sad and depressing truth for the 25 or so NBA teams that don’t have an MVP caliber player, which is why if you’re a team like Memphis right now, as painful as it sounds, the best course of action for the franchise in the long run is to cut bait now and trade away players like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen for future assets. Of course Memphis won’t do this though since they played in the conference finals last year, but the reality is that they have about a 5% chance of winning the whole thing. No golden ticket, no entrance.
Now that it’s established an MVP is crucial in order to shake David Stern’s or soon to be Adam Silver’s hand in June, the third part of this long winded post will center around trying to identify players that have a legitimate shot at winning an MVP. I’m not saying from a scouting perspective since I’m as qualified to be an NBA scout as I am a to be a member of Seal Team Six, but there are certain benchmarks MVP type players hit on their way to winning the award.