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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Has the NBA Ever Had Three Teams This Dominant at the Same Time?

Through the first quarter of the 2008-09 season, the NBA has been a three horse race: the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are way ahead of the rest of the pack by almost any statistical measure. How unusual is it for three teams to lap the field to this extent? There are a number of ways to evaluate dominance but one of the most reliable is point differential; since 1990, nine of the 19 NBA champions ranked first in the league in this category and 16 of them ranked in the top five.

A point differential greater than five ppg generally signifies that a team is a legitimate championship contender, few teams have point differentials better than eight ppg and any team that wins by an average of 10-plus ppg is playing at a historically significant level of greatness. As of December 19, the Cavaliers (13.1 ppg), Lakers (10.4 ppg) and Celtics (10.0 ppg) have point differentials that would rank among the best of all-time if they maintain those numbers over 82 games. There has never been a season in NBA history in which three teams had point differentials of at least 10 ppg. In fact, only twice in NBA history have three teams achieved point differentials of eight ppg or more in the same season: in 1971-72, the Lakers (12.2 ppg), Bucks (11.1 ppg) and Bulls (8.3 ppg) led the way and then the next season the Lakers (8.5 ppg), Celtics (8.2 ppg) and Bucks (8.2 ppg) dominated regular season play.

The 1971-72 Lakers are one of the greatest teams of all-time. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, they won 33 regular season games in a row (a streak that may never be matched) en route to posting a 69-13 record that has only been surpassed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (the 1996-97 Bulls also went 69-13). Chamberlain ranked first in field goal percentage (.649) and rebounds (19.2 rpg), West led the league in assists (9.7 apg) while finishing seventh in scoring (25.8 ppg) and the sharpshooting lefty Goodrich ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.9 ppg). The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks went 63-19 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who won his second consecutive MVP—led the NBA in scoring (34.8 ppg), shot .574 from the field (second to Chamberlain) and grabbed 16.6 rpg (third in the league). Forward Bob Dandridge (18.4 ppg) and Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson (17.4 ppg) were the second and third offensive options.

Dick Motta coached the Bulls to a 57-25 record in 1971-72, third best in the league and the most wins ever by a Bulls team until the Michael Jordan era, but Bob Love (25.8 ppg), Chet Walker (22.0 ppg), Jerry Sloan (16.2 ppg) and the rest of Motta’s hard nosed crew were no match for the Lakers or the Bucks—and at that time, the Bulls were in the Western Conference with those two teams. In the regular season, the Bulls went 2-4 versus the Bucks and 1-3 versus the Lakers, who swept Chicago 4-0 in the Western Conference semifinals. That set up an epochal Western Conference Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Bucks; most analysts would agree that four of the 10 greatest players in league history (Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Robertson and West) shared the court during this series. The Bucks beat the Lakers 4-1 in the 1971 Western Conference Finals and blew out the Lakers 93-72 in game one in L.A. in 1972 but the Lakers won four of the next five games to advance to the NBA Finals.

Only two of the eight Eastern Conference teams won half of their games in 1971-72, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics. The Knicks eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lakers dropped the first game versus New York but won four straight as West obtained his first and only championship after several frustrating losses in previous NBA Finals. Chamberlain suffered a fractured wrist but still dominated the glass during the series (23.2 rpg), earning the Finals MVP.

The Celtics were the dominant team in the NBA in 1972-73, finishing eight games ahead of the Lakers and Bucks with a 68-14 record. Bill Russell had retired in 1969 after leading the Celtics to their 11th title in his 13 seasons but the rebuilt Celtics were the class of the league, led by 1973 MVP Dave Cowens and fellow Hall of Famer John Havlicek. Meanwhile, the Lakers and Bucks dominated the West while the Bulls, though still a good team, fell off a bit both in terms of wins (51) and point differential—but Chicago proved to be very formidable in the playoffs, pushing the Lakers to the limit in the Western Conference semifinals before losing 95-92 at L.A. in game seven. The upstart Golden State Warriors—boosted by the return of Rick Barry after four seasons in the ABA—shocked the Bucks in the other semifinal series but the Lakers dispatched Golden State 4-1 to return to the NBA Finals to face the Knicks. The Knicks and Lakers had met in two of the previous three NBA Finals, with each team winning once. In the rubber match, the Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games, taking advantage of their remarkable offensive balance—their five starters each averaged between 15.6 ppg and 18.6 ppg versus the Lakers.

What happened to the Celtics? Havlicek injured his shoulder in the Eastern Conference Finals and even though Boston managed to force a seventh game at home the Celtics simply could not get over the hump with Havlicek essentially playing with one arm tied behind his back. If there is a cautionary tale about how a team that seemed destined all year to win the title can find its dreams shattered, this is it; perhaps that sounds like hyperbole but the Celtics went on to win two of the next three championships, forever leaving their fans to wonder what might have been in 1973 had Havlicek stayed healthy.

The 1972 Bucks and 1973 Celtics are two of the best teams that did not win championships and they were clearly better than several teams that won championships in other years when the NBA did not have any truly dominant teams. The 2008-09 NBA season is likely to produce at least two of the strongest teams to not win a championship (or three, if somehow the Celtics, Lakers and Cavs all fail to reach the summit).

The current Celtics most resemble the Lakers from the early 1970s: both teams acquired an older big man who focused on defense/rebounding (Chamberlain for the Lakers, Kevin Garnett for the Celtics) and both teams faced questions about whether their trio of future Hall of Famers would function well together during the season and under the crucible of playoff competition. In one sense, the current Lakers parallel the 1973 Celtics: Havlicek won multiple championship rings playing alongside Russell but had yet to capture a title without him, much like Kobe Bryant teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to claim three championships but has not won a ring since O’Neal’s departure; even that comparison falls short a bit when you consider that Havlicek was arguably still not the best player on the team—Cowens won the 1973 MVP and Havlicek never received that honor—while Bryant has no future Hall of Famers (and only one former All-Star) playing alongside him. There is not really a good analogy to be made between today’s Cavs and any of those teams from yesteryear. Like he has done in many other ways, LeBron James is charting a unique path to the top, leading a team that is very good defensively and on the glass but that does not have a Hall of Fame or All-Star sidekick for him, unlike the early 1970s teams that all featured duos or even trios of Hall of Famers and/or All-Stars. However, James’ Cavs are a deep team that includes three former All-Stars (Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak) and one player who may be a future All-Star (Mo Williams).

You may be wondering about the three teams that ruled the NBA a couple decades ago and how their dominance compares both to the trios from the 1970s and today’s top teams. In the 1980s, the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers won nine of 10 championships and accounted for 17 most of the 20 participants in the NBA Finals but they never approached the kind of ppg differential domination achieved by the elite teams in 1972 and 1973; no team in the 1980s had a point differential of 10 ppg or more in one year, let alone having three such teams in a single season. This is not necessarily a reflection of their relative greatness compared to either the great teams of the early 1970s or today’s best teams but rather an indicator of the overall competitiveness of the NBA in various eras; the three great teams in the 1980s faced tough opposition from (at various times) the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets, three franchises that made multiple Conference Finals appearances during that decade. TNT’s Charles Barkley often laments that the general state of the NBA has declined since that era, griping that there are a lot of bad teams now. This ppg differential data tends to support that idea; part of the reason that the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Bucks put up their gaudy numbers in 1972 and 1973 is that the NBA had added three expansion teams in 1970-71, thereby diluting the overall talent base. The 1973 season also saw the 76ers compile the worst record in league history, 9-73, a mark that the Oklahoma City Thunder may threaten this year—and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards also have dismal records. In effect, those three franchises are de facto expansion teams this year, even though they have existed for quite some time.

If the 1973 Celtics had capped off their great regular season with a championship then they would have been considered one of the greatest teams of all-time. Instead, they fall into the category of teams that won a lot of games but did not get the ultimate prize, squads like the 2007 Mavericks, 1994 Sonics and 1990 Lakers, each of whom led the league with at least 63 regular season victories but did not win championships. It will be very interesting to see what the ultimate storyline of the 2009 season becomes. It could be a dynastic coronation for the Celtics if they win 65-plus games and a second consecutive title. Maybe LeBron James is about to put together a Jordan-like string of championships. Perhaps the Lakers’ rebirth last season was the prelude to Phil Jackson breaking Red Auerbach’s record by winning a 10th championship, allowing Kobe Bryant to silence any remaining critics by capturing a title without Shaquille O’Neal. Or it could turn out that a key injury/unexpected upset writes a story that none of us could even imagine right now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM

5 comments

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5 Comments:

At Monday, December 22, 2008 8:28:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

It just shows you how bad the NBA is. There are a lot of unwatchable teams in the league...at least 20.

 
At Monday, December 22, 2008 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Don't look now, but Orlando is looking a lot more dominant than the Lakers at the moment...

 
At Monday, December 22, 2008 11:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Orlando does look very good right now and I actually said in my last Leaderboard post that this year's Big Three (the teams, not the Celtics' HoFers) may soon become a Big Four.

 
At Tuesday, December 23, 2008 4:27:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

I don't think there are too many unwatchable teams right now. In fact, I have a feeling that there were more teams stuck in moebius strip-like rebuilding a couple seasons ago. The Clippers may suck as ever, but the Hawks are back, the Sixers rebounded, the Grizzlies are trying etc. I don't mean they play pretty games or they are a joy to watch, but they are going somewhere instead of being stuck in the tanking - lotterying - busting - tanking mill.

 
At Tuesday, December 23, 2008 12:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

I tend to agree with you. I don't think that there are so many unwatchable teams; it's just that the bottom three or four teams this season have been really bad--like expansion teams--and this was also true in the other two seasons when the top three teams were really dominant based on point differential.

 

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