Champions Club: Pro Basketball's Dynasties by the NumbersThis article was originally published in the May 2003 issue of Basketball Digest.
Last year, five-time NBA champion Magic Johnson and two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith needled fellow TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley by transforming the network's studio into a faux "champions club" that only admits people who have won championship rings. Of course, this meant that Sir Charles, Lord of the Ringless, could not come in, while such notables as Fennis Dembo and Jack Haley were members with privileges.
However, there is another "Champions Club" that is so exclusive that even Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith would not find their names on the VIP list. This club consists of teams that have won at least three straight titles: George Mikan's Lakers, Bill Russell's Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls and Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers.
Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers' 6-10, 245 pound Hall of Fame center, was voted the greatest player of the first half of the twentieth century. He led the Lakers to five championships in a six-year period, including the NBA's first "three-peat" from 1951-52--1953-54. While Mikan was the dominant force on those teams, he also had some outstanding teammates--forwards Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelson and guard Slater Martin are also in the Hall of Fame, as is Coach John Kundla. Another Hall of Famer, Clyde Lovellette, was a rookie contributor for the 1953-54 titlists and eventually succeeded Mikan as the team's center.
The Lakers' status as the NBA's first dominant team is unquestioned. If Mikan had not suffered a hairline ankle fracture before the 1950-51 playoffs the Lakers would likely have won six straight championships. How they would have fared against the great teams of subsequent decades is much more difficult to assess; they literally played under a different set of rules. Before the 1951-52 season the NBA widened the lane from six feet to 12 feet to counteract Mikan's dominance. This change cost Mikan the scoring title (his average dropped from 28.4 ppg to 23.8 ppg) but it did not stop the Lakers as a team. They adjusted by improving their outside shooting and also by flashing cutters through the wide-open lane. In 1964-65 the NBA widened the lane again, this time to 16 feet (its current size) in response to the amazing scoring prowess of Wilt Chamberlain.
Before the 1954-55 season the NBA made its most dramatic rules change, the introduction of the 24-second shot clock. This eliminated stalling and made it tougher for the Lakers to simply wear down teams in the half-court. Mikan retired before that season and his unsuccessful comeback in 1955-56 (10.5 ppg in 37 games) suggests that he struggled once the league sped up the game. The Lakers adapted admirably to the initial widening of the lane, but the temptation is to take one look at the old black and white films and dismiss the notion that Mikan's teams could compete with the modern NBA champions. That may be a hasty judgment. While the Lakers did not display many flashy moves and preferred a half-court style to take advantage of Mikan in the post, the team possessed plenty of athleticism. "All of us could dunk except Slater Martin," noted Mikkelson. "But we weren't allowed to much, because Kundla wouldn't let us. It was frowned on as hotdogging."
Mikan's "three-peat" Lakers posted worse winning percentages in both the regular season and Finals than the other teams that won at least three consecutive championships. Pro-rated to an 82 game season, their .644 winning percentage equals about 53 wins per year, while the other dynasties won at a .736 clip or better (equivalent to more than 60 wins in an 82 game season). This does not prove who would win a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, but it suggests that the Lakers did not dominate their era as convincingly as the other dynasties did. Some of this may be explained away by the inherent competitiveness of the league, which had not been diluted by expansion and had less than a third as many franchises as today's NBA. On the other hand, the 1950s NBA did not draw upon the deep worldwide talent pool that feeds the modern NBA.
The NBA did not have to wait long after Mikan's retirement for the next dynasty to emerge. The Boston Celtics were a solid playoff team during most of the 1950s but they instantly became a powerhouse in 1956-57 with the arrival of Bill Russell, a 6-10, 220 pound rebounding and shot-blocking wunderkind. Russell provided strength in the paint and accelerated the Celtics' already potent fast-break offense; now the forwards could leak out early, confident that Russell would deny the opponent's forays into the paint, corral the rebound and fire the outlet pass to Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy.
Like Mikan, Russell was blessed to have a Hall of Fame Coach in Red Auerbach and several Hall of Fame teammates: Cousy, his backcourt mate Bill Sharman, 1957 Rookie of the Year Tom Heinsohn (Russell played only 48 games, joining the team after the 1956 Olympics) and pioneering sixth man Frank Ramsey. This group won Boston's first NBA title in 1957. Boston's chances for a repeat performance took a major hit when Russell suffered an ankle injury in the 1958 Finals. With Russell hobbled, Bob Pettit scored 50 points in game six as the St. Louis Hawks took the championship. "You can always look for excuses. We just got beat," declared Auerbach.
In any case, the Celtics proceeded to win the next eight championships. Along the way more Hall of Famers joined the squad, including Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and John Havlicek--but Russell was the one constant throughout the unparalleled string of titles. It took one of the greatest teams in NBA history--the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers led by Chamberlain--to snap the streak and the Celtics recovered from that setback to win the next two championships before Russell retired.
Russell's Celtics do not hold records for point differential or winning percentage. They were pushed to the seventh game of the NBA Finals three times during their "eight-peat" and also survived several seventh game showdowns in the Eastern Division Finals. The Celtics' dominance is defined by their relentless, single-minded accumulation of championship hardware. Bill Russell has a championship ring for each finger, plus a ring to spare--what more needs to be said?
After Russell left the scene the NBA did not have a repeat champion for almost 20 years. It seemed that free agency and the addition of more rounds to the playoffs made back-to-back titlists an outdated concept. Then, L.A. Lakers' Coach Pat Riley guaranteed a repeat during the Lakers' 1987 championship celebration and the team made good on his promise, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuffing a towel in Riley's mouth before he could predict a third straight triumph. In fact, the Lakers came close to the "three-peat," going 11-0 in the 1989 playoffs before being swept in the Finals by Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons. The Pistons repeated in 1990 but their "three-peat" dreams were derailed by Jordan's Bulls.
The 1991-1993 Bulls became the first NBA team to win three straight titles since Russell's Celtics. The Houston Rockets claimed back-to-back championships during Jordan's foray into minor-league baseball and then the Bulls accomplished a second "three-peat" in 1996-1998 after Jordan returned to hoops. The two Chicago "three-peats" shared three constants--Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson--but are distinct in many ways.
The first team was young and frisky, athletically trapping all over the court and showcasing Jordan and Pippen at their high-flying best. Pippen ran the offense as a "point-forward," while nominal point guards John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong provided long-range marksmanship. Power forward Horace Grant was athletic enough to trap guards in the backcourt and recover to pick up his man in the frontcourt.
The second team replaced power forward Horace Grant with rebounding savant Dennis Rodman. Sixth man Toni Kukoc provided scoring punch, while Ron Harper added size in the backcourt. Jordan and Pippen were not quite as athletic and the team frequently won as much on savvy and will as anything else.
When Jerry Krause broke up the Chicago Bulls to begin what columnist Jay Mariotti derisively calls the "Organizations Win Championships Tour," Jordan, Pippen and Jackson went their separate ways. Jackson took a one-season sabbatical before resurfacing in Los Angeles. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have chafed at times when Jackson upbraids them, but there is no arguing with the results: three titles in three years.
Numerologists may find some significance in the fact that each of Jackson's "three-peat" units posted 45-13 records in the playoffs. Basketball historians single out a different number: 15-1, the Lakers' record setting playoff won-loss record in the 2001 title run. There is a perception that the Lakers coast during the regular season and "turn it on" in the playoffs, but the Lakers' .736 regular season winning percentage matches Russell's Celtics and is just slightly worse than the 1991-93 Bulls.
This year the Lakers have fought an uphill battle just to earn a playoff berth, but that is primarily because of O'Neal's health, not coasting. Despite their ups and downs, they are the proverbial team that no one wants to face in the postseason. If the Lakers find the wherewithal to sustain one more title run, they will become the only team other than Russell's Celtics to win at least four consecutive NBA championships and Jackson will claim his tenth title as a coach, breaking his tie with Auerbach. Add that to Jackson's ring as a player on the 1973 Knicks and he would join Russell in the ultimate "Champions Club": no admittance without 11 rings.
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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 AM