The NBA Playoffs Narrative

It should come as no shock that I’ve been thinking a lot about the NBA playoffs. In order to try and get a handle on these playoffs, I’ve been studying my NBA history with the hope that some patterns would emerge. Looking at modern NBA history (which, IMO, starts when Magic and Bird entered the league,) something jumped out at me.

As Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk noted, “Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician, has said the problem with the NBA is the best team almost always wins.” While I would argue that this isn’t necessarily a “problem”, if you look at the list of NBA champions you will notice an interesting narrative that runs through NBA Playoff history. Simply put, after the “best” team dominates the league for a few seasons, the ascension of a new dominant team and dominant player coincides with the descent of the formerly dominant team and player. This may seem like an over-simplification (and common sense) but it is actually possible to make sense of the NBA’s modern age through this narrative and with this narrative in mind it provides some interesting storylines to watch in the current NBA Playoffs.

In the early 80′s Magic and Bird were the most dominant players and they played on the most dominant, and loaded, teams. Thus, the 80′s saw either the Lakers or the Celtics win the NBA title with the exception of the ’82-’83 season which saw Doctor J and Moses Malone join forces on an awesome 76ers team.

The ’86-’87 season can be viewed as the line of demarcation signaling the end of the Lakers’ and Celtics’ reign of terror. Although the Lakers held off Isiah Thomas and his Detroit Pistons for one more year, the writing was on the wall: the Pistons were the new dominant team, winning back-to-back NBA titles.

However, the Pistons reign would be short-lived, with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls marking the beginning of the 90′s by ascending to the throne as the NBA’s most dominant player and team, respectively. This would seemingly go against the Playoff Narrative, however, the Pistons were never heard from again after losing to the Bulls in the ’90-’91 Eastern Conference Finals. As we know, Jordan and the Bulls would go on to 3-peat with Jordan leaving a huge void when he retired for the first time after the ’92-’93 season.

Enter Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Hakeem and the Rockets filled the vacuum of most dominant player and team that Jordan’s foray into Minor League Baseball created. It is notable that Hakeem’s Rockets took down the Blazers (Clyde Drexler,) the Suns (Charles Barkley,) the Jazz (Stockton and Malone,) and the Knicks (Patrick Ewing) to win their first title. Even more notable was that the Rockets added a 2nd superstar (Drexler) to bolster their chances of repeating. Also notable is that Hakeem’s Rockets vanquished a young Shaquille O’Neal in he ’94-’95 NBA Finals. Apparently, it wasn’t Shaq’s time just yet.

The ’95-’96 season would see Jordan return to the NBA so that he and the Bulls could reclaim their throne as the most dominant team and player in the League. Following Jordan’s retirement and a lockout shortened season there was the weird ’98-’99 playoffs where the Spurs beat the 8th seeded Knicks for the title. Duncan would be the first rookie “star” to win a title since Magic however the parallels are important to note: both young stars landed on teams with still formidable All Star centers. Even more interesting is that Duncan would not win another title until 2002-03, his age 26 season, which would put him back on track to following the NBA Playoff Narrative.

Anyway, following the lockout shortened season, we entered a period where Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant player in the league. Shaq’s Lakers would win three straight titles with a young Kobe Bryant playing a large role in that success. The Lakers quest for a fourth straight title was thwarted by Tim Duncan and the Spurs, with Duncan capturing the second title that I alluded to above. This had the makings of a modern Magic vs. Bird rivalry, with Shaq’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs battling for supremacy for the foreseeable future. The 2003-04 playoffs seemed to confirm this until the Lakers suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Without taking too much away from the Pistons, we would eventually learn following the Lakers traded Shaq to the Heat that there was a lot of internal strife with that Lakers team.

In a way Duncan and Shaq did provide a modern refrain on the Magic vs. Bird rivalry, although we never got the ultimate payoff of those two facing off in the NBA Finals. However, following the Pistons title, the next three NBA titles were won by Duncan’s Spurs, Shaq’s Heat, and Duncan’s Spurs, respectively (although, Dwyane Wade had a lot to say about the Heat’s championship.)

Following the Spurs championship in 2006-07 we saw the beginning of a modern trend with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce in Boston to form a “Big 3″ and an “insta-dominant” team of veteran stars. This Big 3 would go on to defeat Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. But Kobe & Co. would be back, going on to win back-t0-back titles in the two most recent NBA Finals.

So where does this leave us? Don’t the six years between Lakers titles dispel this “narrative?” I don’t think so.

You could argue that the Heat could have won back-to-back titles with Shaq and Wade in ’04-’05 and ’05-’06 if Wade hadn’t hurt his ribs in the ’05 playoffs. Additionally, Kobe has appeared in three straight NBA finals, winning two, in his age 29, 30, and 31 seasons. I think an argument could be made that if Shaq and Kobe could have found a way to co-exist and if Shaq had deferred to Kobe the way he deferred to Wade in Miami, then the Lakers could have easily won two or three more titles with the Shaq and Kobe combo. Therefore, we had the rare instance where the torch of “most dominant player” in the NBA should have been passed between teammates. Thus, if Shaq and Kobe could have found a way to make it work, then Kobe spends his prime years chasing titles with a still more than capable Shaq (as his run with the Heat illustrated) rather than dragging a team that played Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Luke Walton big minutes to the playoffs. In short, the League’s dominant player(s) and team should have been Shaq/Kobe and the Lakers until roughly present time with the Lakers winning multiple titles with a couple of Spurs titles (the other dominant team/player from this era) and perhaps a Celtics title (the “insta-dominant” team) sprinkled in.

So what does this mean for the 2010-11 NBA Playoffs? As I noted above, it is difficult to predict ahead of time when a team”declines” or “takes a step back.” Remember, there were many who thought the Big 3 Celtics era was going to end before it even began until they made an unexpected run to the NBA Finals. Anyway, here are the storylines I am monitoring that would fall in line with the NBA Playoff Narrative:

  1. First, let’s apologize to the Pacers, Hawks, 76ers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Hornets. While these are all solid teams, the Blazers and Nuggets in particular, none of these teams have the star power required to win an NBA title. The only exception is the Hornets, but either they need to bring in a 2nd superstar to help Chris Paul or CP3 needs to join forces with another superstar (or superstars) before he can start chasing titles.
  2. Can the Lakers and Celtics remain the current dominant teams? The Lakers are more than Kobe Bryant. Odom, Gasol, and Bynum give the Lakers a trio of extremely talented players with size. The Celtics, for all people talk about their defense and their length, actually aren’t that big up front. I see the Lakers remaining a dominant team with the Celtics possibly pulling off a last hurrah akin to the ’87-’88 Lakers.
  3. The Spurs have been an interesting case. They can be considered a dominant team in this era, but I’m not sure their championship teams were quite as good as the Lakers or Celtics. The Spurs seem to be a tick below the level of being a true dominant team. Instead, over the course of their run they’ve stepped in to fill the gaps in between runs of dominance by the Lakers. It seems that the Spurs know that this year might be their last best chance of snagging another title in the Duncan era and I think most people would agree with them.
  4. The Bulls seem destined to become “Spurs 2.0.” They’re a great defensive team built around the other-worldly talents of one player, Derrick Rose. While the Bulls will be a very good team for the foreseeable future, I don’t see them every becoming dominant unless they can add a more reliable secondary scorer. I could see them making a Finals run if, like the Spurs, they fill the gap this year while the Heat and the Knicks take a year to gel.
  5. The Miami Heat are not as revolutionary as ESPN would have you think. LeBron James has basically followed in Garnett’s footsteps where a dominant player handpicks his supporting cast after being surrounded by crap for most of his career. That being said, Miami is the team to be worried about both now and for the foreseeable future. If the NBA Playoff Narrative is to be trusted, we should be entering an era where LeBron James, easily the best player in the League, and the Heat run roughshod over the League. The runs of the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs are all drawing to an end and I don’t see another star player playing for a team that is is significantly better than the Heat. Thus, with James being the League’s best player and surrounded by two big time players, it looks like the Heat are poised for a lengthy reign atop the NBA.
  6. Earlier in the season I thought the Mavs were a potential championship contender. However, it appears that they’re destined to become this generation’s Utah Jazz. A very, very good team that wasn’t quite good enough to win a title. Dirk is great, no doubt, but I don’t see Dirk and Kidd overcoming the Lakers, Spurs, or Thunder.
  7. Speaking of the Thunder, they are the League’s White Knight. While the Heat have been anointed the League villains, the Thunder are easily the heroes. Rather than steal superstars from other cities, the Thunder did it the old-fashioned way, drafting and developing their own stars (yes, I see the irony in the beginning of that sentence.) With the risk of sounding blasphemous, the Thunder have a lot of Jordan’s Bulls in them with Durant playing the role of MJ and Westbrook and his well-rounded game playing the role of Pippen. Granted, Durant is not and will not ever be as good as MJ, however, the Thunder have better role players than Jordan’s Bulls had. Jordan never had a big man like Kendrick Perkins. How good the Thunder become falls squarely on the shoulders of Durant and Westbrook. While it still might be a bit early for the Thunder’s rise to prominence, if Durant and Westbrook can find another level of greatness in them, then we could see the Thunder and the Heat battling for titles like the Lakers and Celtics of the 80′s.
  8. For the second time in recent memory, the Magic have had a dominant big man plopped into their lap. And for the second time in recent memory, the Magic are blowing it. This team is Dwight Howard and little else. Unfortunately, it appears that if Dwight wants to win a title he’s going to have to pull a Shaq/Garnett/LeBron and align himself with a second superstar.
  9. Finally, we have the Knicks. After all, this is a Knicks blog. The Knicks made a bold trade just before the deadline to add Carmelo Anthony to Amar’e Stoudemire, giving them two NBA All Stars. While the price was steeper than many expected, this was still the right move. As NBA history shows, stars win titles. This begs the question: How good is Carmelo Anthony? The answer to this question will determine whether the Knicks can be legitimate challengers to the Heat for the next 6-8 years. Let’s be honest for a moment, the Knicks aren’t making a run to the NBA Finals. Heck, they’ll be lucky to beat the Celtics in the first round. The team just doesn’t have the kind of supporting cast that a championship team requires. However, I will be watching to see what Melo and Amar’e do in the playoffs. Even if they don’t upset the Celtics, if they could just take the Celtics to 7 games, then I think that bodes well for the future. And if they do upset the Celtics? I think that bodes very well for the future of the New York Knicks. It would make me believe that the Knicks have two legitimate difference makers in Melo and Amar’e; two dominant stars capable of leading a team to a title if the front office surrounds them with the right kind of complementary players. Because that’s what you need to win an NBA title.
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