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Fran Blinebury

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It took Michael Jordan seven seasons before he won his first NBA championship.
Ken Levine/NBAE via Getty Images

With few exceptions, no shortcuts to winning a title


Posted Mar 12 2010 11:05AM

There are exceptions to every rule.

The lowly Boston Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007 and a year later were dancing and celebrating with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

But for the most part, the journey to an NBA championship is like climbing Mount Everest -- a long and arduous test of endurance as much as skill.

It's about team building and chemistry and learning to grow together. It's often about pushing that boulder up the hill time and time again until one day, maybe, it doesn't roll back down and squash you.

Michael Jordan didn't win a championship until his seventh NBA season. Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson didn't win until their 10th seasons. It took Dr J until his seventh season -- and his fourth trip to The Finals -- to finally break through. These days it's LeBron James learning that you don't often make the leap in a single bound.

Worst to first? That's stuff for football and baseball. In the NBA, even with smaller rosters and bigger roles for stars, winning a championship is usually a process that takes time.

You take your lumps as you try to take the steps up the ladder, which is what the Atlanta Hawks have experienced and the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely learn when the playoffs begin.

"At first glance, you say basketball is one of those games where it's a young man's sport," said former Hawk and Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. "You've got to get out and work hard. But at the same time, you've got to play enough to learn how to think the game.

"It's a tough game to maintain a certain level in the NBA year after year. But the trick is to keep core guys together and build chemistry around those core guys. That's what we're trying to get done with the group of guys we've got on the Hawks now. They've taken a few steps up and they're learning what it takes to go the rest of the way."

Bill Walton was in the middle of a young Portland Trail Blazers team that won the title in 1977, but thinks it takes a confluence of events.

"In basketball, you have to have the best player and the best coach and usually the best general manager that year to win a championship," he said. "Good coaches don't win. Great players win.

"Look at the way things are today. You have the two best players in Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron and their teams are the ones right in there with the best shot. You have Phil Jackson, the best coach in the game, and you can make an argument that Jerry Buss is the best owner in the game and puts the Lakers constantly in the position to win it all.

"But above all, I believe it takes the best player. Sure, there were those six years when Michael Jordan didn't win the championship. But in those six years there was Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Michael wasn't the best player in all those years. He was a very good one, but Magic and Larry were the best. Michael had to grow into that role."

The San Antonio Spurs went from 20-62 in the 1996-97 season to winning the lottery and drafting Tim Duncan. But though they went 56-26 in Duncan's rookie season, they didn't win it all until 1999.

"It's hard to do, just stepping right in and winning it all," Duncan said. "It's about building a core of players, building trust, building a group that can have faith in each other.

"When I first came to San Antonio, there were teams that already had their core in place and had been keeping their guys together. I'd think it would be very, very hard to make that jump all in one year."

Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace all grew together before the trade that brought in Rasheed Wallace and was the last piece in the Detroit Pistons' 2004 championship.

"Man, it's tough -- almost impossible -- to go from worst to first in the NBA, unless you're turning over a good bit of the team like Boston did," Billups said. "I guess with free agency, anything is possible. But the teams that are flirting around at the top and coming up short are usually keeping their units together and building steadily up. So you've got to go through those guys."

Magic Johnson famously led the Lakers to a championship as a rookie. But he had plenty of veteran help from the likes of Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper.

"Basketball is a game where all those guys and the coaching staff have got to really be in sync, on one page," Johnson said. "If one guy is off, it throws the whole thing off. If somebody doesn't believe, then everybody doesn't believe.

"When you're going for a championship there's got to be harmony across the board. You can tell that machine is well-oiled and running. You could tell that with the Celtics two years ago. They were all able to pull it together and get a rhythm real quick. There was no denying them. But that's rare."

Johnson, like Billups and Duncan, believes that winning a championship only comes with equal doses of continuity and postseason lessons.

"When the Lakers won last year, they were finally playing at the top of their game," he said. "Then when those teams get to the top, it's hard to bring them down, because now they've got the mojo. The other teams are trying to figure it out.

"Once you gain the knowledge of winning and you've experienced what it takes, you want to stay up there. With the Hawks this year and other young teams, say Oklahoma City, they haven't experienced being in the Conference Finals or even the playoffs.

"Let's see what happens. You may have more wins from the previous season. But have you grown from last year and the year before that? It's got to be in you.

"In the end, that's what makes winning a championship so special. You don't draft championships or buy them in the NBA. You build them."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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