Championship dominance by a handful of franchises has proven to time and again be a norm in league lore
POSTED: Jun 6, 2016 12:44 PM ET
Two more Finals wins will make the Warriors the sixth team since 1985 to repeat as NBA champions.
In This Week's Morning Tip:
"I think we're never going to have NFL-style parity in this league. It is the nature of this league that certain players are so good that those teams are likely almost automatically if that player remains healthy to become playoff teams and especially mixed with other great players."
-- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, pre-Finals news conference, last Thursday
Finally, we all agree.
The 2011 lockout was about money, of course, but among the issues the NBA felt strongest was the idea of "competitive balance" -- the notion that some franchises, because of the financial disparities between various markets, could not realistically compete for championships. And so the NBA pushed for, and ultimately got, relief for those teams on two tracks: a dramatic giveback -- around $3 billion in salaries -- from its players, along with an enhanced revenue sharing program between teams, that transferred significantly more money from the league's relative haves to its have nots.
Almost five years later, those changes have not done much to impact competitive balance in the NBA.
2016 Finals: Game 2 Mini-Movie
The Warriors dominated Game 2 of the NBA Finals with the help of Draymond Green's 28 points to take a 2-0 lead over the Cavaliers.
Because there has never been competitive balance in the NBA.
The Golden State Warriors, after dismantling the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of The Finals on Sunday night, are two wins away from repeating as NBA champions. After going 73-9 in the regular season, Golden State could certainly lay claim to the greatest overall season in league history. But getting the Larry O'Brien trophy a second straight time will not make them immortal. It will make them like a lot of teams in the last 30 years.
Since 1985, five teams -- the Los Angeles Lakers (1987-88; 2000-2002; 2009-10), the Detroit Pistons (1989-90), the Chicago Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98), the Houston Rockets (1994-95) and the Miami Heat (2012-13) have won back-to-back titles on eight different occasions. (In one of history's great anomalies, the Spurs have won five titles between 1999 and 2014, yet have never won any back-to-back.)
The NBA began play in 1946-47 as the Basketball Association of America. There have thus been 69 possible champions in the league's history (it became known as the NBA in 1949-50) since then. There have been 45 NBA franchises (including defunct BAA/NBA ones) during that span. Take a guess: of those 45 teams, who have played from 1947 through now, how many have won NBA championships?
Try 18. Out of 45.
And of the 18, how many have won more than one championship?
2013 Miami Heat
Watch as the Miami Heat battle through an intense NBA season to win back-to-back championships.
In fact, those 10 teams: the Celtics (17 championships), Lakers (16), Bulls (6), Spurs (5), Warriors (4), Pistons (3), Philadelphia 76ers (4), Heat (3), New York Knicks (2) and Rockets (2) -- have won 61 of the potential 69 championships that have been available since 1947. Those 10 teams have won 88.4 percent of the championships in the history of the NBA!
Or: almost half of the league's current teams -- 13 -- have never won a title.
In the last 40 seasons, only 10 teams have won even one championship, and three of those 10 -- Portland, Washington and Seattle/OKC -- won their championships more than three decades ago, in consecutive seasons -- 1977, '78 and '79. None have won a championship since. Only seven teams have won a title since 1980. Seven.
By contrast, since 1947, 23 different NFL teams have won championships. Of those 23 teams, 16 have won more than one title. Just in the Super Bowl era of the NFL -- 50 years -- there have been 19 different champions, led by the Pittsburgh Steelers, with six Lombardi trophies. Twelve NFL teams have won more than one Super Bowl.
Since 1947, in Major League Baseball, 21 different teams have won World Series titles, led by the New York Yankees with 17. And of the 21 teams that have won a title during that time, 15 have won more than one title.
1988 L.A. Lakers
Jerry Buss receives the NBA championship trophy from Commissioner David Stern after the Lakers beat the Pistons in seven games.
So, the norm in the NBA, during its entire existence, has been that a handful of teams have won the lion's share of rings. The takeaway is clear: once you win one, you tend to win more.
"You believe that you're the best team in the world," Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said Sunday, "and if you're the MVP of the league, or the MVP of The Finals, you think you're the best player in the world. And there's no greater feeling than knowing you're the best at what you do than anybody doing it on the planet. And you walk into every arena, and into every game, knowing that you're not going to beat yourself anymore. The other team is going to have to beat you. If I don't make a mistake, you can't win.
"That's what we're seeing from Golden State. They're saying, we're not going to beat ourselves. We're not going to make a lot of mistakes. So you're going to have to play up to our level. That's what Boston taught us. That's what L.A. taught us. You never beat yourself as a champion."
The secret sauce is a mix of talent and confidence and having something that no one else in the league has at a given time.
For Thomas and the Pistons, it was having two dynamic guards in himself and Joe Dumars, surrounded by a stifling, suffocating defense that featured multiple defensive big men -- athletes like Dennis Rodman and John Salley, along with thumpers like Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards.
1995 Houston Rockets
Watch how the Rockets earned the title of dynasty with their back-to-back championship in 1995.
The Bulls featured "The Dobermans" -- assistant coach Johnny Bach's name for the ridiculously athletic trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (and, later, Rodman, brought in for the second three-peat), each of whom could switch out on any wing player while still being able to recover and guard in the post.
Houston had Hakeem Olajuwon at the height of his powers as one of the most gifted centers in the game's history. The three-peat Lakers at the turn of the century featured the league's most devastating one-two in the last three decades -- Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, each thermonuclear in their ability to dominate games.
The Warriors, of course, have merely changed the geometry of basketball, with the Splash Brothers stretching opposing defenses to the breaking point. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson shoot the ball more successfully from further away than any duo in the history of the game. It makes Golden State impossible to guard.
"Yeah, it's an interesting dynamic when you're trying to repeat because it's obviously a very difficult thing to do," said Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who accomplished the feat as a reserve on the Bulls' three-peat teams from 1996-98.
"A lot of times breaks come into play, injuries, whatever," Kerr said. "But on the flip side, if you're able to stay healthy, there's a level of confidence and relief that comes with having a ring already. Especially these days. There's such a burden and a stigma on players and teams that have not won the big one.
"You can name any of the above superstars. You see their name attached, whether it's Charles Barkley or whoever, [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone, oh, they didn't win the big one. I mean, come on, they were some of the greatest players of all time and had phenomenal runs. But winning the big one these days, it lifts a burden."
That certain was the case with James, who went to Miami seeking a championship that would solidify his standing as one of the game's greats and also get the critics off of his back. After the Heat lost to Dallas in The 2011 Finals, James was otherworldly against the Thunder in 2012, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists while dominating from the low post.
The following season, the Heat's championship experience allowed them to come back from a 3-2 deficit against the Spurs, with Chris Bosh and Ray Allen combining for one of the most memorable shots with the season on the line in league history in Game 6. In Game 7, James went for 37 and 12 to get his second ring.
Did the burden being lifted allow the Heat to play easier the second time around, or did their confidence from winning the year before create their ability to handle pressure the year after?
If I didn't have this wrist injury, the Chicago Bulls would never have beaten us in '91. Just wouldn't have happened. And they know they wouldn't have beaten us. The only reason they beat us, in my mind and everybody else's mind, is I had this wrist injury. Had I been healthy, no (bleeping) way they would have beaten us.
– Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas
"Well, I think it's a little bit of both," James said Saturday. "But another year of experience definitely allows your team to play free, to know (what to) expect out of the guy beside you. You just know when you go through -- when you're able to finally accomplish winning a championship, you know how hard it is to win that. You know exactly what to expect out of the guy next to you from that point on because you've been through so much. There's no easy route to winning a championship. So that allows the game to be easier."
Sometimes, revenge is the motivation.
In 2008, the Lakers were overwhelmed in The Finals by the Celtics, losing by 39 in the clincher in Boston in Game 6 at TD Garden. "They murdered us," said Warriors assistant Luke Walton, a forward on that Lakers' team.
L.A. defeated the Orlando Magic in five games to win The 2010 Finals, then got to The Finals a third straight year, where the Lakers against got to play Boston for a ring -- for the 12th time in league history.
1993 Chicago Bulls
In game 6 of the 1993 Finals, John Paxson hit a three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left to lift the Bulls to a third consecutive title.
"We definitely played looser," Walton said. "We played with even more confidence. I think personally, for us, part of the fire that helped us get back again was we wanted another crack at Boston. We used that to help motivate us. Because it's hard. The regular season's a grind. It's really hard. It's easier to let down after you've already won that championship. Finding that hunger against teams that still have that hunger because they haven't won one, you have to bring it. That was part of the reason we were able to get back for a third straight time."
Thomas is convinced that if he hadn't broken his wrist in 1991, when the Pistons were going for a third straight title, that they would have held the Bulls off yet again.
The injury came from obsession.
The Pistons were seconds away from taking a 3-2 lead in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals over Boston when Larry Bird famously stole Thomas' inbounds pass and hit Dennis Johnson for the game-winning and series-turning basket. The next year, Detroit conquered Boston and led the Lakers 3-2 in The Finals. Thomas severely sprained his ankle in the third quarter, yet continued playing and scored 25 points in the third en route to 43 for the game.
1998 Chicago Bulls
In Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, Michael Jordan rose above the defense and nailed a clutch jumper to give the Bulls their sixth title.
The Pistons led by one with 14 seconds left when Laimbeer was called for a questionable foul in the final seconds of Game 6 on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar made both free throws, the Lakers hung on to win Game 6 and eked out a three-point win in Game 7 for the championship.
Both in '87 and '88, the Pistons thought they were the best team in the league. And Thomas never let up.
"What wore my wrist out was I practiced too much," he said. "From '87 to '88 to '89, I was practicing like a fiend -- just shooting, shooting, shooting. When I went to the doctor, he said he had never seen anything like it. I just wore the lining out of my wrist, the scaphoid. Just from practicing so much in the gym, late night hours, just shooting and shooting."
The Pistons won two straight titles, but the wear and tear of winning and defending the ring eventually caught up with him.
"If I didn't have this wrist injury, the Chicago Bulls would never have beaten us in '91," Thomas said. "Just wouldn't have happened. And they know they wouldn't have beaten us. The only reason they beat us, in my mind and everybody else's mind, is I had this wrist injury. Had I been healthy, no (bleeping) way they would have beaten us."
But until you break through, you're lost.
It's not a greed; it's like a jealousy ... I don't want nobody else to feel this good feeling. Because if I lose it, I don't want to share it with anybody.
– Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, on the thrill of winning a multiple titles
The difference between teams that have played deep into June and those that are just tasting the postseason for the first time is profound and obvious.
"When you're young, I don't think you know," Warriors forward and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala said.
Iguodala played on solid teams in Philadelphia in the first part of his career, making the playoffs five times. But they never came close to beating the Eastern Conference's elite.
"When you're playing against it, you can see it," he said. "And I think I played against a lot of teams that went to the Finals and won it. We played against Detroit many times; they put us out early. We played against Miami, played against Boston once. They just have a way of controlling a game, forcing their will upon a game. They never get out of character. We had Detroit down 2-1 (in the first round in 2008). And I think in Game 4, we were up 10 at halftime. And then Chauncey (Billups) just gave all of them a look, and they went on a 15-0 run in the third quarter. And that was the series. It was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. They didn't change their scheme. They didn't have to make no crazy adjustments. They didn't panic. They were like, all right, we kind of went away from who we are; let's hit these young guys in the mouth."
Now, Iguodala is on the other side of the mountain. And the Warriors are the ones with the certainty that comes from overcoming deficits on the road in the playoffs and Finals last year, and coming through the crucible of being down 3-1 to the Thunder in the 2016 West finals and figuring out some way to win three straight.
"We stay in character more often," Iguodala said. "We still can find a theme park to go have fun on and get on the roller coaster rides. We do have that. It won't be for two minutes, though. It'll be for two or three possessions, and then Steve'll break a clipboard and we'll get right back to it."
It makes what Golden State is doing this year all the more impressive.
"We couldn't wait to get back to the playoffs to prove it again," Thomas said. "They stepped out from day one and said, okay, we just won a championship; now we're getting ready to drop a 73 on your head. Normally you get hungry when the playoffs start. They've been insatiable for the whole season."
Draymond Green said at the start of the OKC series that the one thing he was terrified of was never again experiencing the feeling he did in the visitors' locker room at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland a year ago, when the Warriors won their first title in 40 years. That type of Gordon Gekko-like greed is something very familiar to Thomas.
"You don't want nobody else to feel as good as you feel," Thomas said. "It's not a greed; it's like a jealousy -- I don't want nobody to have this. It's mine. I don't want nobody else to feel this good feeling. Because if I lose it, I don't want to share it with anybody. It's an intoxicating feeling of winning at this level and dominating at this level."
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