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The NBA: It’s Dynastic!

Posted by Neil Paine on April 3, 2009

Over the past few decades, "parity" has been the major watchword in professional sports, as frustrated owners feeling statistically eliminated from postseason contention on Opening Day lobbied for changes like salary caps and wild-card playoff spots to even the playing field. And it seems to have worked: at one point the NFL was seeing surprise teams (St. Louis 1999, Baltimore 2000, New England 2001) win the Super Bowl every year, and MLB hasn't seen a repeat champion since the Yankees in 2000.

But the NBA seems to remain impervious to parity. Since 1980, the same core group of 8 franchises has controlled the NBA Championship every single year, even with almost 5/6 of those seasons coming in the salary cap era. Bill James once wrote that this was a bad thing ("In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often."), but even if you favor parity, you have to admit that dynasties are fun to follow -- you either root for them or against them, but you're following the larger-than-life drama either way.

So I have to admit that I like dynasties. I think more casual fans tune in to see the storyline of a juggernaut either dominating or being knocked off a pedestal than do to watch a different team take its turn winning each year. I don't have numbers to support this hypothesis, mind you, but anecdotally, the NBA's highest Finals ratings were at the height of the Bulls, Lakers, & Celtics dynasties in the 80s and 90s. Anyway, today I thought I'd look at the NBA's dynasties, and try to pinpoint when the juggernaut started... and more importantly, when it finally collapsed.

Minneapolis Lakers, 1948-1954
6 titles in 7 years

When it started: When they signed George Mikan in 1947 to play for the NBL incarnation of the team. The 6'10" rookie out of DePaul was an instant success, and the Lakers won the 1948 NBL championship. Moving to the BAA -- the league that is considered the NBA's direct predecessor -- in 1949, Mikan and the Lakers didn't miss a beat, winning another championship. The BAA merged with the NBL the next season to form the NBA, and Minneapolis would go on to win 4 NBA crowns over the next 5 seasons.

When it was over: By 1954, the 29-year-old Mikan had slowed considerably, scoring only 18.1 PPG (compared to the 28 he averaged at his peak). Even though he still managed to lead Minneapolis to a title that year, Mikan retired before the 1955 season (he would make an abortive comeback in 1956 that lasted just 37 games), and the Lakers slipped to 2nd in the West, losing the Division Finals to Fort Wayne in 4 games. It would be 18 years before the Lakers won another NBA title.

Boston Celtics, 1957-1969
11 titles in 13 years

When it started: The 1956 draft. Red Auerbach had seen decent success with the team ever since taking over in 1951, but his team lacked the defensive ability that would eventually become their trademark. That changed in the 1956 draft, when they selected Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, and made the most important deal in franchise history, securing Bill Russell's draft rights from St. Louis for Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan. The rest, as they say, is history.

When it was over: Auerbach retired in 1966 and Russell became the team's player-coach, leading Boston to 2 more championships in 1968 and 1969. But the following season, Russell retired from both ventures, and the team fell apart without him, slipping to a 34-48 record that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.

The Lakers-Celtics Rivalry, 1980-1988
8 combined titles in 9 years (L.A. 5, Boston 3)

When it started: When Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and Larry Bird (Indiana State) faced off in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game. Bird had already been drafted by the Celtics in 1978, and Magic was a no-brainer 1st overall pick by L.A. in the 1979 draft, so their rivalry was able to continue in the NBA almost immediately. Bird led the Celtics to a 32-game turnaround in his rookie season, coming a few games shy of reaching the Finals; meanwhile, Magic teamed up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win 60 regular-season games and defeat Philadelphia for the NBA title in his very first season (Magic famously started Game 6 of the Finals at center in Kareem's stead, posting a 42-point, 15-board, 7-assist game that won him series MVP honors). Bird's Celts would win a ring of their own in 1981, and the NBA's greatest rivalry was off to the races.

When it was over: The Celtics dynasty collapsed first; after winning the championship in 1986 with what some have argued was the greatest team in NBA history, Boston lost to the Lakers in the Finals the following year (care of a "junior sky hook"), lost the conference finals to Detroit the year after that, and slipped to just 42 wins in 1989 as foot injuries limited Bird to 6 games. Bird would come back and lead Boston to some moderate success over the next 3 seasons, but he retired in 1992 and the dynasty was officially dead.

The Lakers were able to stretch out their prosperity longer, besting Detroit for another ring in 1988 and making the Finals again in '89 and '91, but the run came to a screeching halt on November 7, 1991, with Magic Johnson's shocking announcement that he had contracted HIV and would have to retire from basketball. L.A. wouldn't return to the Finals again until 2000.

Chicago Bulls, 1991-1998
6 titles in 8 years

When it started: When the Bulls hired Phil Jackson as head coach in 1989. Jackson was able to do what his predecessors could not -- reign in Michael Jordan's individualistic tendencies and harness his brilliance within a team-based system. What followed was one of the greatest displays of dominance in NBA history, interrupted only by MJ's 2-year baseball hiatus.

When it was over: When Jordan abruptly retired in the wake of his father's murder in 1993, it looked like this dynasty was going to end before it even got a chance to show what it really could do. Luckily, Jordan came back in 1995, and the Bulls were even better than before en route to a second 3-peat. Unfortunately, team and front-office chemistry became increasingly poisonous during that 2nd run, culminating in a bitter feud between Jordan/Jackson/Pippen and GM Jerry Krause (prior to the 1997-98 season, Krause even told Jackson, "I don't care if it's 82-and-0 this year, you're f***ing gone [after the season]"). Surely enough, Krause broke up the team following the 1998 title, and the Bulls plunged to a 13-37 record in 1999.

Los Angeles Lakers, 2000-2002
3 titles in 3 years

When it started: When the Lakers hired Phil Jackson as head coach in 1999 (are we sensing a theme here?). Jackson was able to mold what had been a young, undisciplined team under Del Harris into a tough, championship-ready squad that survived a brutal 7-game WCF with Portland (they overcame a 15-point deficit with 10 minutes to play in Game 7) and won the first of 3 straight titles in 2000. Under Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant finally reached their full potential as players, and it culminated in a dominant 2001 playoff showing, in which L.A. only lost once (once!) all postseason long.

When it was over: Unfortunately, as the rings piled up, the Shaq/Kobe feud escalated. In 2003, amidst an increasingly toxic locker-room atmosphere, Shaq missed time with a toe injury and was not as dominant as he had been in years past, and the team's defensive intensity waned. The Spurs eliminated the Lakers on the way to an NBA crown of their own that season, and though L.A. returned to the Finals in 2004 with a lineup of 4 future Hall of Famers (Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton, Karl Malone), they were badly outclassed by Detroit in a 5-game series defeat. That offseason, Jackson retired (conspiracy theorists hold that Bryant forced him out), Shaq was shipped to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, & a 1st-rounder, and the Lakers missed the playoffs with a 34-48 record.

San Antonio Spurs, 1999-present
4 titles (and counting) in 10+ years

When it started: When David Robinson broke his foot early in the 1996-97 season. I know that sounds weird, and without The Admiral San Antonio collpased to the NBA's 3rd-worst record with 20 wins, but their futility in '97 allowed them to win the draft lottery and select Wake Forest phenom Tim Duncan with the first overall pick of the 1997 draft. With Robinson healthy again, he and Duncan formed the "Twin Towers" and powered the Spurs to titles in 1999 and 2003. After Robinson's retirement, Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich were able to keep the dynasty rolling because the team had shrewdly selected players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with late draft picks. San Antonio would go on to win again in 2005, 2007, and... well, who knows where it will end?

When it was over: ???

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6 Responses to “The NBA: It’s Dynastic!”

  1. Eddy Says:

    This was a fun read. Great write-up, Neil.

  2. Jason J Says:

    Parity is, from a certain perspective, the opposite of greatness. Do you want to be a part of a historic 72 win run and a 6 titles dynasty or a Detroit team with no recognized stars slaying a Lakers Goliath that sports 4 first ballot Hall of Famers? There's not a right answer to that question, but the former does make you feel like you are seeing something extraordinary and historic while the latter is a great underdog story but doesn't necessarily transcend the moment.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    And the flip side of that is, did you achieve 72 wins because you were so great, or because the competition was so bad? Obviously, in real life it's a little bit of both. But that's the difficulty in comparing players and teams from closed leagues across eras with players/teams from other closed leagues.

    To use a baseball example: when the American League had an ERA of 2.98 in 1968, was it because the pitchers were just that good, or were the hitters that bad? Since it's a zero-sum game (for every winner, there's a loser), parity could indicate a strong league from top-to-bottom... or just mediocrity all around. And a dominant team could legitimately be great in relation to every other team in the history of the sport... Or it could just be beating up a league that happened to be filled with lousy competition. Since every league is closed, we have no way of ever really knowing for sure which is the case.

  4. Dave Says:

    Neil,
    Is it dynasties or players? Mikan, Russell, ..70s.., Magic v. Bird, Michael, and then Shaq v. Duncan (except since they both came out of the West for most of rivalry it didn't happen in the finals like Magic and Bird), and If the Spurs don't win it all this season, then the Shaq / Duncan era (8 of 9 titles '99 - '07) will officially be over.
    The 70s saw a series of flash in the pan dominant players - of which Kareem was the best, but basically because of consistency - hence the need for the Magic touch.

  5. steve norris Says:

    what about the rockets?no dynasty i guess but they were good. i think jordan might have got 1 more ring but olajuwon proved that no big man could mess with him and the bulls didnt have rodman or grant those 2 years so....

  6. Owen Says:

    One thing is for sure, the Knicks are nowhere near that list. Amazing that the New York franchises have been left out in the cold for nearly 40 years. Some close calls, but that is it...