Sunday 22nd May 2022,
The Hoop Doctors

What Makes an NBA Champion?

spurs big threeAs the 2014-2015 NBA season gets underway, everyone already wants to know how it will end. Will the San Antonio Spurs repeat? Will Cleveland finally win one? When will big market franchises in the basement (Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers) return to contention?

Back on top, the Spurs have won 5 championships in 15 years under the direction of Head Coach Gregg Popovich and players like Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs won the 2014 title, their first title on an even numbered year (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), but they’ve never won back-to-back. With James changing teams and the Thunder weakened with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook down, does this season present the Spurs their best opportunity to join that elite club of teams to have won back-to-back NBA championships? The exclusive club to win back-to-back titles (or more) includes: the 1949-1950 Lakers, 1952-1953 Lakers, 1959-1966 Celtics, 1968-1969 Celtics, 1987-1988 Lakers, 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons, 1991-1993 Chicago Bulls, 1994-1995 Houston Rockets, 1996-1998 Bulls, 2000-2002 Lakers, 2009-2010 Lakers, and the 2012-2013 Miami Heat.

2014 NBA Finals, Game 5:

The Celtics franchise won 17 NBA titles, their last in 2008 over the Lakers. Now in full rebuilding mode, the green team is developing some nice young talent with point guard Marcus Smart (6.8 ppg), center Kelly Olynyk (13.3 ppg), and power forward Jared Sullinger (14.5 ppg and 8.3 rpg) thru 6 games this season. Boston, 3-4, sits in 9th place in the Eastern Conference. Their offense looks good enough to compete (#2 in the NBA with 106.3 ppg), but the Celtics are at the bottom of the league in most defensive categories (T-27th in opponent’s ppg and T-24th in opponents FG%).

The Lakers have won 16 championships (last in 2010), but right now they are the doormats to a devastatingly strong Western Conference. Kobe Bryant told his teammates to be ready to surprise people this season, but so far, the Lakers are what we thought they are: just not deep or talented enough to compete. How long until the Lakers compete for a title? Will letting Phil Jackson leave for the Knicks haunt the franchise for years to come?

Having won 2 championships, but none in 41 years (1973), the Knicks are back in championship construction mode around star forward Carmelo Anthony, who resigned with the team this summer for a 5-year, $122 million deal. Phil Jackson at the helm, his protégé Derek Fisher as head coach, the Knicks are patiently waiting until next summer, when they will have more financial flexibility.

The 0-7 Sixers are playing some of the worst basketball on both sides of the court, and they have been playing like this since they blew up the marginally successful Louis Williams-Jrue Holiday-Andre Igoudala. Will they ever get it back together? The 76ers have won 3 NBA championships, but none in 31 years (1983).

1983 Sixers Run to the Finals:

The Cavs have played for 45 seasons, but only made 18 playoffs, and only went to the Finals once (2007) under the helm of LeBron James and Head Coach Mike Brown. Tim Duncan’s Spurs demolished them.

So, which teams win and why?

Interesting Facts about the Last 15 NBA Champions
  • The top 3 scorers combined to score an average of 58.2 ppg (but none less than 44.6 ppg)
  • Only 1 of the last 15 championship teams also had the leading scorer in the NBA (Shaquille O’Neal, 2000 Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Only 1 of the last 15 championship teams also had the defensive player of the year (Kevin Garnett, 2008 Boston Celtics)
  • No championship team in the last 15 years has also had a player that won the 6th Man Award.
  • Championship teams start the season with an average of 7.46 wins and 2.53 losses in the first 10 games (74.6%)
  • Championship teams finish the season with an average of 6.8 wins and 3.2 losses in their last 10 games (68%)

I was always taught basketball was about 3 things: defense, rebounds, and free throws. The importance of the first two is hard to argue.

So, does having the best defense assure you an NBA championship?

In short, NO, but compared to rebounding and offense, defense is a better measurement of a team’s playoff success.

Just ask the Chicago Bulls, who have been top 3 in the league in defense since 2011, but only made one Eastern Conference Finals (2011). The best defensive teams in the NBA have won only 3 of the last 15 titles (20%).

Does being the best rebounding team win your team a championship?

The best rebounding teams, or the teams who hold their opponents to the fewest points per game, in the NBA have won 3 of the last 15 titles (20%), but rebounding alone won’t win a title.

So, scoring, then, right? Whoever scores the most, wins, right?

NEVER (not in the last 15 years anyway).

The #1 or #2 ranked offensive teams, meaning the teams that score the most points, have not won a title in the last 15 years.

A championship team is almost always ranked top 10 (maybe top 20) in rebounding. The 2013 Miami Heat were the only exception, being the worst team in the league in rebounding, but still managing to win it all.

A championship team is typically ranked top 10 in offense (or at least top 20). The 2004 Detroit Pistons (#24) were the only team in the last 15 seasons to win the title without being ranked in the top 20 that season in offense, and they were able to do that because they were such a dominant, lock-down defensive team with a team-first offensive strategy.

Aside from the 2001 Kobe-Shaq Lakers, every single NBA championship team in the last 15 seasons ranked in the top 13 in defense, even Kobe’s other Lakers championship teams.

Since 2000 the number 1 defensive team in the NBA only wins 20% of the time. One of the top 2 defensive teams in the NBA wins 33.3% of the time. If your team is top 5 in defense, they win 53.3% of the time.

But, if a team is ranked top 10 in defense, they win 80% of the time.

Over the last fifteen seasons, 5 teams have won the championship that were top 10 in both defense and offense. If you count teams that were close, like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who were ranked 11th in offense and 10th in defense, that number jumps to 11: the 2014 Spurs, 2013 Heat, 2012 Heat, 2011 Mavs, 2010 Lakers, 2009 Lakers, 2008 Celtics, 2006 Heat, 2003 Spurs, 2002 Lakers, and the 2000 Lakers.

11 out of the last 15 NBA champions were either both top 10 teams in defense and offense (or close). Of those 11, eight were also in the top 12 in rebounds.

So, championship teams are usually top 10 in offense, defense, and rebounding. More specifically, these teams have a tendency to excel not at making or taking shots, not by allowing or preventing shots, but percentages and efficiency.

Championship teams typically play exceptional defense, getting out on 3-point shooters, while also clogging up the paint, everything a team needs to do in order to decrease shooting percentage.

Offensively, championship teams shoot efficiently, maybe not in field goals, 3-pointers, and free throws, but at least 2 out of the 3.

And, the Spurs have become the gold standard example of the alignment of management, coaching, and players that commit themselves to sacrificing for the greater good of the team in the hopes of winning the championship.

So, what does this all mean? It means the Spurs are in good position to repeat, but the Houston Rockets, Portland Trailblazers, and Brooklyn Nets are ballin’. Cleveland (many hope) will put it together as the season rolls along, but they don’t look like championship material at this particular moment.

Help on the way the next 2 summers is kind of limited, so teams looking to rebuild will have to be creative, draft well, develop players, scout internationally, and develop cohesion between their own players.

The summer of 2015 will unleash unrestricted free agents like: Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Gary Neal, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis, Greg Monroe, Marc Gasol, Omer Asik, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Rudy Gay.

The summer of 2016 will highlight unrestricted free agents like: Al Horford, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Lance Stephenson, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons, Brandon Jennings, Mike Conley, Kevin Martin, Ryan Anderson, and Nene Hilario.

But, what’s there to work with? LeBron James probably isn’t leaving Cleveland again. Kevin Love hinted that he might make the move to the Lakers, so he’s keeping that dream alive. Could you get Aldridge out of Portland? Will D-Will ever reclaim his All-Star status?

Great young center Brook Lopez seems oft injured. Centers Gasol and Noah are championship pieces to build around, but can they be convinced to leave their current teams?

What about the teams trying to rebuild?….

The Knicks at least seem motivated to compete, so we’ll see what they can accomplish the next 2 summers.

Boston looks great right now, and they have enough scorers. It looks like they need some better defenders and more veterans, and they might have something.

The 76ers are a long way from anything good, although 3rd year guard Tony Wroten is like found money for them, putting up 21.9 ppg on 44.1% shooting from the field.

The Lakers aren’t going anywhere and haven’t looked good since Kobe went down the first time. With Kobe Bryant back in action and putting up 26.7 ppg and 1.86 spg, the Lakers are still another big man, another big time scorer, a primetime defender, and a better point guard away from being competitive.

The Knicks, 76ers, Celtics, and Lakers will be lucky to make the playoffs this season, although the Knicks and Celtics have a shot in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can close out on the bottom feeding teams.

As for the Spurs, they have never repeated (winning in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

So, the Spurs are in the mix, so say the experts, but repeating isn’t easy. The Spurs know all about it.

Only 11 teams have ever repeated as champions in almost 70 years. Surprisingly, these 5-time champion Spurs aren’t one of them.

But, NBA champions do repeat about 32% of the time in history.

Phil Jackson called the Spurs out at the beginning of this season, saying the Spurs are, “not a dynasty…they haven’t been able to win consecutive championships.”

This season presents the Spurs another opportunity to prove all the doubters wrong and become an official “dynasty” and repeat as champions.

I think we might see a repeat of 2007 all over again: the Spurs v Cavs in the NBA Finals, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Champions, dynasties, the numbers don’t lie.

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