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Sunday, June 29, 2008

To Repeat or Not Repeat--That is the Question

There have been three distinct eras in NBA history in terms of teams winning repeat championships. From 1947-69, this was the rule rather than the exception, as Minneapolis won titles in 1949-50 and 1952-54 followed by Boston claiming championships in 1959-66 and 1968-69 (the Celtics also won a title in 1957 before losing in the Finals in 1958). Then, from 1970-1986 no NBA team won repeat titles, though several squads won two championships in three years (Boston, 1974 and 1976; L.A. Lakers, 1980 and 1982; Boston, 1984 and 1986). After the Lakers won the 1987 championship, Coach Pat Riley made a bold declaration that they would repeat in 1988. It took three brutal seven game series but the Lakers fulfilled Riley’s promise—and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuck a towel in Riley’s mouth so that Riley would not guarantee a third consecutive championship. Riley actually trademarked the phrase "three-peat," but the Lakers came up short in the 1989 Finals after starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott succumbed to leg injuries.

The Lakers' repeat titles seemed like an amazing accomplishment in that era but some of the shine has come off of that achievement because repeating has become almost de rigeur in the NBA. The Pistons did it in 1989-90, the Bulls notched a pair of three-peats (1991-93, 1996-98) sandwiched around Michael Jordan’s minor league baseball career, the Rockets won two championships in a row during Jordan’s absence and the Lakers won three in a row (2000-2002) shortly after the breakup of the Bulls. The only champions who have not repeated since 1987 are the 2006 Heat, the 2004 Pistons and four different Spurs’ squads, though San Antonio did win three titles in five years (2003, 2005, 2007).

The template for winning a repeat title generally includes having a Hall of Fame coach, earning the top ranking in point differential, having a player who finished in the top five in MVP voting and having at least two players who made the All-NBA First or Second Teams.

The NBA did not begin selecting an MVP until the 1955-56 season but it is safe to say that George Mikan would have easily finished in the top five in each of the years that his Lakers won championships. The Lakers ranked first in point differential four times during their reign and ranked second in 1954. They were coached by Hall of Famer John Kundla. Mikan made the All-NBA First Team all five years; he was joined by Jim Pollard in 1949 and 1950. Pollard made the All-NBA Second Team in 1952 and 1954, while Vern Mikkelson made the All-NBA Second Team in 1952 and 1953.

Bill Russell finished no worse than fourth in the MVP voting from 1959-66, wining the award four times during those years. In every one of those seasons at least one other Celtic finished in the top ten in MVP voting. At that time, the players voted for the MVP while the media selected the All-NBA teams. Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were easily that era’s most dominant players; Chamberlain won three MVPs during those eight years but he was voted to the All-NBA First Team five times, which relegated Russell to Second Team status. Still, the Celtics hardly lacked representation on the All-NBA teams: every year from 1959-66 they had at least two players chosen and in six of those seasons at least three Celtics made the cut. The Celtics ranked first in point differential all eight years--usually by wide margins—and they were coached by Hall of Famer Red Auerbach.

Russell replaced Auerbach as coach after the 1966 season. The Celtics were longer in the tooth and not quite as dominant, while Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers had emerged as a powerhouse. The 76ers smoked the Celtics 4-1 in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals en route to winning the championship but the Celtics bounced back to win titles in 1968 and 1969. The Celtics ranked third in point differential in 1968 and first in 1969. They did not have a top five MVP candidate or an All-NBA First Teamer in 1968, though Russell and John Havlicek made the All-NBA Second Team. In 1969, Russell finished fourth in MVP voting but did not make the All-NBA Team because two of the three players who finished ahead of him in MVP voting (winner Wes Unseld and runner-up Willis Reed) were centers. Havlicek again made the All-NBA Second Team that season.

The 1987 Lakers ranked first in point differential and their floor general Magic Johnson made the All-NBA First Team and won his first MVP. No other Lakers made the All-NBA teams or received MVP votes but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy made the All-Star team. Each of those three were later selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List, so the Lakers certainly did not lack for talent that year. The 1988 Lakers ranked third in point differential. Magic finished third in MVP voting and again made the All-NBA First Team. No other Lakers joined him on that squad, though Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar both made the All-Star team. Hall of Famer Pat Riley coached the Lakers to those two championships in addition to leading them to two titles earlier in the decade.

The Pistons ranked fourth in point differential in 1989 and 1990. No Piston made the All-NBA First or Second Team during those years, nor did any Pistons receive serious MVP consideration but that is a little bit deceptive: they had a pair of Hall of Fame guards (Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars) who each won a Finals MVP, Dennis Rodman was a fabulous rebounder and defender (1990 and 1991 Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time All-Defensive Team selection) who had a Hall of Fame caliber career and key contributors Mark Aguirre and Bill Laimbeer had been All-Stars multiple times earlier in their careers. The Pistons sacrificed individual statistics and honors to build a winning team. Hall of Famer Chuck Daly called the shots on the sidelines.

The Bulls ranked first in point differential four times during their two three-peats and they never placed lower than fourth in that category. Michael Jordan won four MVPs and he finished second and third in the balloting the other two years; Jordan made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team in all six of those seasons. Scottie Pippen finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times, earned three All-NBA selections and made four All-Star teams during those years; he also made the All-Defensive Team during each of the six championship seasons, including five First Team selections (he received eight First Team and one Second Team selection overall during his career). Hall of Famer Phil Jackson coached the Bulls throughout that era.

The Houston Rockets are the most unusual of the repeat champions statistically. They ranked sixth in point differential in 1994 and 11th in 1995. Rudy Tomjanovich was a players’ coach who certainly did a lot to inspire and motivate his team but it is doubtful that he will be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Hakeem Olajuwon won the 1994 MVP and placed fifth in the 1995 MVP voting but no other Rocket made the All-NBA First or Second Team during those years; midseason acquisition Clyde Drexler joined Olajuwon on the All-NBA Third Team in 1995 and he obviously played a crucial role for the Rockets during the playoffs.

Phil Jackson departed Chicago after the 1998 championship run and it is no coincidence that he promptly embarked on yet another three-peat, this time with the Lakers from 2000-02. The 1998 Lakers were the first team since the 1983 World Champion 76ers to have four All-Stars, they had a better point differential than the Bulls, won just one fewer regular season game and had an All-NBA First Teamer who finished fourth in the MVP voting (Shaquille O’Neal) yet they were swept out of the playoffs by the Utah Jazz. The highly talented Lakers were again swept out of the playoffs in 1999, this time by the San Antonio Spurs, but with Jackson calling the shots the Lakers became a dominant team in 2000, winning a league-best 67 games and ranking first in point differential. O’Neal won his first and only MVP, again made the All-NBA First Team and he made the All-Defensive Second Team, while Kobe Bryant earned an All-NBA Second Team selection and an All-Defensive First Team nod. The Lakers slipped to eighth in point differential in 2001 but that O’Neal-Bryant combination proved to be too tough during the playoffs. O’Neal finished third in MVP voting and once again made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team, while Bryant placed ninth in MVP voting and earned All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team honors. The Lakers improved to second in point differential in 2001 and O’Neal and Bryant made the All-NBA First Team and placed third and fifth respectively in MVP voting. Bryant also made the All-Defensive Second Team.

Will the Boston Celtics win a repeat championship, will they contend but fall short like the Pistons and Spurs did in recent seasons or will they implode like the Heat did? An implosion is the least likely scenario for the Celtics, because it took a perfect storm of injuries, age and apathy to wipe out the Heat. The Celtics ranked first in point differential in 2008 and Kevin Garnett ranked third in MVP voting, made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. No other Celtic made the All-NBA First or Second Team but Paul Pierce made the All-NBA Third Team and he had a great playoff run that he capped off by winning the Finals MVP. At this point, Doc Rivers seems more like a Rudy Tomjanovich than a future Hall of Famer; Rivers is a players’ coach who inspires and motivates. The Celtics certainly have a lot of the necessary pieces to repeat—great defense as indicated by their point differential, a Hall of Fame trio (Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen) and a coach who has the respect of everyone in the locker room. The most important keys for the Celtics will be to keep their main players healthy and to continue to play with the hunger and desire that they displayed throughout the 2007-08 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 PM

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