Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best vs. The Rest


More than ever the NBA seems to be divided into two distinct categories, "the good vs. the bad", "the contenders vs. the pretenders", "the best vs. the rest", but in reality this trend has existed for over 50 years. Two teams in the league, the Boston Celitcs and Los Angeles Lakers (formerly of Minneapolis), have combined to win the finals 33 of the 64 times. Boston has appeared in the finals 21 times, winning 17 of those games. The Lakers have been in the championship game a record 31 times, and hold a 16-15 record in those games. The Chicago Bulls (or should I say Michael Jordan) are a distant third with a perfect 6-0 finals record. Jordan and the Bulls dominated the league during the 90s, with 2 "three-peats" in that span, only separate by MJ's retirement. Next in the list is another undefeated team, the Spurs, 4-0 in the 2000s. The dynasty has been lead by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. The Bullets (now Wizards), Hawks, Blazers, Kings, Sonics (now Thunder), and Bucks have all only earned one title, all of which were won prior to 1980. The Miami Heat won the finals in 2006, their first in franchise history. The Pistons, 76ers, and Warriors all have 3 championships while the Knicks, who have appeared in the finals 8 times (4th most all-time), have came out on top twice. After the Lakers and Celtics there aren't many times with multiple championships and only one other team has over 5 (the Bulls) and that took the talents of greatest player to walk the planet.

A quick tally of the 64 championships looks like this: Celtics (17), Lakers (16), Bulls (6), Spurs (4), Pistons (3), 76ers (3), Warriors (3), Knicks (2), Wizards (1), Hawks (1), Blazers (1), Sonics/Thunder (1), Bucks (1), Heat (1), and Kings (1).

Prior to this year, or even this decade, teams had multiple superstars. The top four teams: Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs all won their titles with at least two All-Star level players. Everyone talks about Boston's Big 3 of KG, Allen, and Pierce but the original Big 3 was Bird, Parish, and McHale. "Superteams" have existed and flourished since the dawn of the NBA, the only difference now is who controls it.

How did Carmelo get to New York? Who created the Heat's "New Big 3"? Players are beginning to have all the leverage and control by holding their teams hostage. During the hay-day of the NBA, teams were stacked due to the draft, trades, scouting, and a myraid of other reasons, but never because Magic Johnson decided to team up with Larry Bird. Did Michael Jordan team up with Isiah when he couldn't beat the Pistons? No, he worked on his game and eventually created a dynasty with the Bulls? What did LeBron do when he couldn't beat the Celtics? Create a mega-team with Wade in Miami.

The owners definitely seem have a strong desire to re-take control of the league, and they have every right to do so. The players job is to go out on the court and give it their all, for whatever team they are on, not play fantasy basketball with the media. People were satisfied with domination during the 70s and 80s because those teams were built "fairly" and other franchises were still competing with their own superstars. But today players like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are jealous of guys like Kobe and Tim Duncan who hold multiple rings. Their egos are telling them that the only way to win is by teaming up with another high level player, rather than be part of a re-building process for the future. Part of this attitude change is because guys feel that they need a ring (or multiple) to be considered "great". There is a whole different mystique when you see Michael Jordan in Springfield, with his 6 championships. Hall of Famers like George Gervin, Pete Maravich, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Dominique Wilkins, Artis Gilmore, Elgin Baylor, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, and Karl Malone are all outstanding players who are without a ring. None of these guys demanded to be traded or teamed up with one another, and their careers are still looked upon with awe. There is a separation between the "ring-less" players and legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, but it is because of how they earned those rings as much as it how many they have.

This separation is starting to divide the league into an even greater unbalanced sea-saw. It was one thing when there were 9 or 10 teams in contention (per conference) and the other 6 or 7 were left behind, because at least then around half of the league felt they had a chance in post-season play. Today the consensus is that the number is becoming slimmer and slimmer, going from 9 or 10 per conference to around 3 or 4. Even with a salary cap basketball is starting to feel like a league with a bunch of "Yankee" teams spending money and competing against each other, leaving the Devil Rays for a life irrelevance with no-name talent. Who really has a chance at winning the title this season? Let's break it down:


If we break down the league by talent level we need to start with the mediocre teams who will not a championship any time soon. Mediocre: Cavaliers, Kings, Wizards, Raptor Pistons, Bucks, Bobcats, Rockets, Nets, Timberwolves, and Clippers. These are teams that are currently out of the playoffs in their respective conferences and a majority of them currently lack the necessary talent to elevate themselves. After the recent trade deadline I would also add Denver and Utah to this list, both organizations traded their one and only All-Star (top 15 player) and have no viable replacement, as well as the 76ers and Pacers. This list consists of 15 mediocre teams, many of which are in small markets, who combined only had two players selected to the All-Star game (Derron and Griffin), Love was selected as an injury replacement. These teams do have young talent but for the near future their chance at winning a title is slim to none. When 15 out of your 30 teams are considered "mediocre" you know there is a problem.

The Rockets have their star in Kevin Martin but the rest of the roster is scarce when it comes to talent, John Wall and Tyreke Evans are play makers without guys to pass the ball off to, and Derron Williams doesn't seem likely to stay with the Nets when they move to Brooklyn. The only two teams with bright (distant) futures are the Clippers and the Timberwolves. Each team already has their franchise big man, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love respectively, who will attract fans and hopefully other superstars. But the rest of their rosters are only filled with potential not substance. In 3 or 4 seasons these two teams have the best chance of replacing teams like Boston and San Antonio in the elite group.


There are some elite teams who have more All-Stars than those 15 teams combined. We can rattle off a list of 5 or 6 teams who we think will be in the finals and I guarantee we get it right. Elite: (East)- Celtics, Heat, Bulls, Magic, Knicks, and Hawks? West- Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, and Thunder. The Knicks and definitely the Hawks are more of a "middle of the pack" team but because they are in the East they have a small chance to be in the finals or at least make some noise and upset some teams, especially the Knicks. In the East these 6 teams combined for 13 All-Star selections (the entire East roster plus Carmelo). This just shows the domination currently occurring in the NBA and the next two players in line, Raymond Felton and Josh Smith, are on the Knicks and Hawks respectively. The Eastern conference is much weaker than the West is due to the high number of bad teams in the East. The 76ers and Pacers are the 7 and 8 seed but would be in the bottom of the West standings. Combined their only real good player is Andre Iguodala who hasn't even lived up to his hype due to on-going injuries. Both these teams have a bunch of young players: Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collision, Thaddeus Young, Jodie Meeks, and Evan Turner, but at best those guys will develop into role players and hold these franchises to mediocrity.

The Hawks have always been a very good team but can't get passed their 5th seed label (first round victory at best), but they locked up Joe Johnson and have two studs down low in Horford and Smith. Although they probably won't win a title, their talent level is high.

The Knicks belong in this category because of their future, they have 2 top five scorers and are looking to add CP3 or Derron Williams in 2012. If that happens the Knicks will be the favorites, along with Miami in the East. This season no team wants to see them in playoffs because they have two studs who could drop 40 in a playoff game. But their lack of depth, especially down low, will prove to be their down-fall come playoff time.

The Bulls are not always mentioned with the likes of Miami and Boston but Chicago has an MVP candidate, Derrick Rose, as well as top high level big men (Boozer signed at the max in July and Joackim Noah). Loul Deng is a great wing player, although overpaid, and the team has a solid bench lead by Gibson and Korver. If they had a better 2 guard they would be my favorites to win it all.

Orlando really needs to hope they can win now because it is almost a fore gone conclusion that Dwight leaves for LA in 2012. They have two post seasons left to bring a title to South Florida. They really only have one superstar but a lot of good role players: Hedo, Jason Richardson, Jameer, and Arenas. Sadly, within 1.5 seasons Orlando will join the list of mediocre teams without an All-Star.

Boston and Miami both have their "Big 3s" but Boston just shipped off Perkins, as well as two of their other bigs, so they don't have that huge advantage down low anymore. This leaves the East favorite wide open. These franchises are headed in opposite directions. If Miami can add a point guard and/or true center they will be even scarier for years to come. Boston on the other hand is looking at a very old team, only Rondo will still be an elite player in a season or two. KG and Allen will be on their last legs very soon and their production will be in question. The Celtic's window of opportunity is only very small but after it has closed it will be hard to gauge Boston's status.

The Lakers are looking for their second "three-peat" and to tie the Celtics for most championship banners. As long as they have Kobe LA will be in contention. Gasol has taken over the role Shaq had during the Lakers' first title run and Odom has been the third part of the triangle offense.

San Antonio had their best 1st half record in franchise history, only 10 losses at the All-Star break, and seems to be unstoppable. Greg Popovich is coaching this team to perfection. There biggest boost from last year has been with depth due to the development of guys like Dejuan Blair and Gary Neal. This team is going to stick together despite being in a "small market". San Antonio, like LA, continues the Big 3 theme.

Mark Cuban is one of the greatest owners in sports, ask anyone who has played for him. Dallas was looking to make a move at the deadline but couldn't move Caron Butler because they were unwilling to part with Rodrigue Beaubois. A reunion between Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki was sky-rocketed Dallas up the standings. Both of these guys are hungry for a ring, they are arguably the best active players without a title in their career. Tyson Chandler has been a pleaseant surprise, overshadowing Brendan Haywood downlow, and their depth is probably the best in the league. Jason Terry, J.J Barea, and Shawne Marion are extremely versatile. In addition signing Peja Stojakovic makes the Mavs even deadlier from long range. Dirk, Peja, J.Kidd, Terry, and Marion have been knocking down treys at an alarming rate for over a decade. This team has the perfect mix to make another appearance in the conference finals.

The Thunder have taken the league by storm the last two seasons. Scott Brooks has developed Russell Westbrook into a perfect compliment for Kevin Durant. Jeff Green was thought to be the last piece of the trio but Oklahoma City traded him to Boston for Perkins and Nate Robinson. Kendrick Perkins is the perfect addition for this roster; young, athletic, and a big body. Jeff Green was a scoring wing and didn't offer much use for a team with Durant and Ibaka locked in at the forward positions. The team has tremendous depth at the guard position: Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, James Harden, and Nate Robinson. All guys who can rotate around the two guard position. Down low Perkins and Ibaka are the shot-blockers down low, teams will think twice about slashing to the hoop against OKC.

In Between

This group is the difference between the West and East. The East is strictly good vs. bad but the West has a small group of teams that aren't at the highest level but could be very soon. The Hornets, Blazers, Grizzlies, Warriors and Suns are the lower playoff teams who seem to be a piece away from elite. All of these rosters have guys who were All-Star snubs and also guys who have mysterious futures.

To being we have New Orleans, the Hornets have the best point guard around in Chris Paul and second star in David West. You would think their future is bright, one player away from a "big 3", but nothing could be farther from the truth. David West is a free agent this season and will almost certainly find a new home come July, everyone knows the rumors of Chris Paul and the Knicks in 2012, and Emeka Okafor is eating up a lot of their cap space from now until 2014. On top of this the teams was bought by the NBA, and is essentially owned by the league's 29 other teams. Mark Cuban was openly appalled when the Hornets traded for Carl Landry, and his $3 million dollar salary, for Marcus Thornton (making around $800k). This trend will continue if New Orleans take on any more significant financial obligations.

Another team with a gloom future is Phoenix. The Suns have taken a huge turn for the worse after being left with nothing after letting Amar'e Stoudemire sign with the Knicks. The days of Mike D'Antoni, Steve Nash, Amar'e, Shawne Marion, and Joe Johnson is long gone. That team had a "big 4" before the Celtics were even relevant again. But a lot of bad trades left with wishing for a time machine. Steve Nash is an old body and on his last legs (literally), Vince Carter will likely be trade to leave because of $18 million salary but either way he is a log jam in their flexibility, and Robin Lopez is no where near the talent they had hoped. Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress, and Mickael Pietrus are only making around $6 million until 2015 which also hinders the Sun's ability to bring in more talent. This team couldn't win a title with Amar'e and without him they are headed for mediocrity.

Memphis is in big trouble come the off season. They have one of the best combos down low with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and before Rudy Gay's injury Memphis had the most underrated trio in the league, and a fourth star in Mike Conley was also emerging. But Memphis has to be concerned with their chances in retaining these guys, Randolph and Gasol are unrestricted free agents. Randolph will want somewhere in the area of his current $17 million salary while Gasol will easily demand a raise from his $3 million contract, about a 400% raise. With the free agency pool weak especially down low, Nene may sign an extension with Denver, look for Zbo and Gasol to have numerous offers. The Grizzlies play in a small market and may even move back to Vancouver soon. Memphis has the talent to be a playoff team in the West and if they can somehow manage to keep their bigs then the Grizz will be a scary team, bordering elite (very unlikely scenario due to cap space)

The last two teams, Golden State and Portland, are very intriguing futures both short term and long term. Golden State runs a very fast paced offense with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry in the back court. They have a good young group down low with David Lee and Andris Biendris, plus Dorrell Wright at the 3 gives them another scorer who can do a little bit of everything. These guys aren't All-Stars, except for maybe Monta, but they have 4 extremely talented young players who are yet to hit their potential. This time won't win a title I guarantee that, but they can be like the Hawks; the perennial 5th seed who may win a first round matchup but is fun to watch in the regular season. On the other hand there is Portland who still can't shake the injury curse. They just traded for Gerald Wallace which adds to their depth. Portland has 5 or 6 guys they can throw at you who play multiple positions. Lamarcus Aldridge was the biggest All-Star snub and is the future of the NBA. If Brandon Roy can finally keep himself relatively healthy and return to old form then Portland has two players in their primes to build around. Additionally Rudy Fernandez, Wesley Matthews, Marcus Camby, and Andre Miller are all great role players. If Greg Oden can stay on the court and be the third piece for Portland then that would elevate the Blazers above Dallas fighting with Oklahoma City for the third spot in the West.


10 Elite Teams: Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Dallas, Orlando, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Atlanta and New York

15 Mediocre Teams: Cavaliers, Kings, Wizards, Raptor Pistons, Bucks, Bobcats, Rockets, Nets, Timberwolves, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, 76ers, and Pacers

5 In Between Teams: Grizzlies, Suns, Warriors, Blazers, and Hornets (only Portland looks truly poised for a jump to the elite)

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