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Most Surprising Championships, 1955-2009

Posted by Neil Paine on May 17, 2010

On the subject of "Least Likely NBA Championships," there are a lot of different ways to frame the discussion. You could look at the teams with the toughest paths (i.e. strength of schedule) en route to the title; you could look at the teams whose regular-season record would have predicted them to win the least often; you could even look at the teams with the closest margins of victory in the playoffs. I've actually done a few of those studies, but today I want to look at the group of players with the least collective talent to win a championship -- or at least the smallest amount of collective accomplishments heading into the title season -- which is another way to look at the "most surprising champs" question.

To that end, I looked at the minute-weighted projected Win Shares/48 minutes (using the Simple Projection System, but without an age adjustment) of a team's playoff roster, as well as their minute-weighted career WS/48. Here are the most surprising champs (going into their championship season) by the first measure:

Year Team xws48 Comment
1977 Portland Trail Blazers 0.088 Walton had not played like a star in '76, and he was expected to be their best player
1956 Philadelphia Warriors 0.102 Expected to be bad except for Arizin/Johnston (in reality Gola was only other decent player)
1957 Boston Celtics 0.105 Russell & Heinsohn's rookie seasons, impacts unknown going in.
1979 Seattle Supersonics 0.105 No players expected to be much better than avg. (best were Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams)
1978 Washington Bullets 0.107 Went 48-34 in '77, 44-38 in '78. Hayes/Unseld/Dandridge core usually not good enough to win title
1958 St. Louis Hawks 0.108 Bob Pettit and a mediocre supporting cast, especially w/ Macauley playing just 21 MPG in playoffs
1975 Golden State Warriors 0.116 Many average talents, but Barry and Clifford Ray only projected to be > avg
2003 San Antonio Spurs 0.120 Duncan only sure thing going in; Parker/Ginobili untested, D-Rob too old, S-Jack bad track record
1989 Detroit Pistons 0.121 WS didn't think a team led by Thomas and Dumars was likely to win a ring
1980 Los Angeles Lakers 0.121 Best player in NBA (Kareem), but starting a rookie PG on a team that went 47-35 in '79
1970 New York Knickerbockers 0.124 Frazier, Reed, Barnett very good, but rest of roster expected to be subpar
1990 Detroit Pistons 0.124 Defending champs, but Laimbeer/Rodman only >> avg players by WS (Dumars/Thomas ~ avg)
2006 Miami Heat 0.124 Shaq/Wade + solid role players still not expected to be potent enough to win title
1985 Los Angeles Lakers 0.125 Only Magic, Kareem expected to be >> avg; Worthy, Cooper ~ avg; everyone else < avg
2008 Boston Celtics 0.125 Major question marks aside from newly-formed Big 3; Rondo, Perkins viewed as weak links
1976 Boston Celtics 0.126 Cowens/White/Silas/Scott/Havlicek balanced, but not an historically great lineup
1994 Houston Rockets 0.126 Hakeem their lone expected championship-caliber player going into season
1991 Chicago Bulls 0.126 Jordan was brilliant, but Pippen & Grant had not come into their own yet in '90
2000 Los Angeles Lakers 0.128 Shaq only known quantity going into season; Rice seen as declining, Bryant too young
2004 Detroit Pistons 0.129 Collection of good but not great players a rare superstar-less win

Those are the teams that, given only the knowledge you could have had going into their championship season, would be the most surprising winners. But what about the most surprising champs if we have knowledge of how a player's entire career went? That's where the weighted average of career WS/48 comes in handy:

Year Team carws48 Comment
1977 Portland Trail Blazers 0.0993 Walton only consistently above-avg player in career
1976 Boston Celtics 0.1036 Cowens/Havlicek/Nelson only above-avg career players
1978 Washington Bullets 0.1053 Below-avg aside from Unseld/Dandridge/Hayes/Kupchak
1979 Seattle Supersonics 0.1090 Sikma only player with career WS/48 better than "moderately good"
1955 Syracuse Nationals 0.1102 Dolph Schayes and a bunch of guys who had average-to-mediocre careers
1975 Golden State Warriors 0.1140 Reputation as Rick Barry's one-man show pretty much true for careers, too
1994 Houston Rockets 0.1159 Cassell had a solid career, but Hakeem was the only true star on the team
1956 Philadelphia Warriors 0.1175 See 1st table; Arizin, Johnston, and little else
1989 Detroit Pistons 0.1186 Greater than the sum of its parts
1970 New York Knickerbockers 0.1190 Frazier & Reed the lone stars
1958 St. Louis Hawks 0.1203 In addition to Pettit & Macauley, Cliff Hagan also had a good NBA career
1990 Detroit Pistons 0.1203 See above
1974 Boston Celtics 0.1207 White, Silas, & Chaney not seen as good career players by WS/48
1973 New York Knickerbockers 0.1233 DeBusschere & Bradley had very mediocre career WS/48 marks
1983 Philadelphia 76ers 0.1257 Moses, Dr. J, Cheeks, & Bobby Jones the only players w/ above-avg career WS/48
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 0.1273 Bryant/Gasol/Bynum >> avg; Odom ~ avg. The rest of the roster is subpar
2004 Detroit Pistons 0.1286 Teams whose best players are as good as Billups & Ben Wallace don't tend to do this well
2002 Los Angeles Lakers 0.1292 Shocking lack of substance beyond Shaq & Kobe
1995 Houston Rockets 0.1296 Even after adding Drexler, still not a team of guys with great career WS/48
2006 Miami Heat 0.1315 Antoine Walker's pathetic career 0.058 WS/48 mark drags them down

Many teams overlap the two lists, but the most notable are the "one-hit wonder" teams from the mid-to-late 1970s that everyone thinks of when they imagine unlikely NBA champs: the '75 Warriors, '77 Blazers, '78 Bullets, and '79 Sonics. Of those teams, only the Warriors had won a title before in their history (and that was when they were in Philadelphia), and none have won it since. Compounding their reputation as unlikely titleists, the 1979 Sonics' win marked the last championship prior to today's ongoing era of anti-parity -- since 1980, only 8 different franchises have won a title, with 28 of the 30 going to just 6 teams: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, San Antonio, & the L.A. Lakers.

And barring a Magic and/or Suns Conference Finals win, that streak will continue into the decade of the 2010s, with no end in sight. That's why it's so hard to imagine an NBA in which a team has one magical season of greatness, never to be seen from before or since. In today's NBA, the best teams in one season are typically the best teams the next season -- and if you are lucky enough to acquire a true superstar in the draft (a la Tim Duncan), you're basically set for 15 years as a good team. That simply wasn't the case in the pre-Magic, pre-Bird era... Although the league's popularity was suffering in those days as well, while it was never stronger than during the Bulls' dominance of the 1990s. Needless to say, that fan support is probably the most compelling reason why the NBA's current oligarchical model will be here to stay for many more years.

43 Responses to “Most Surprising Championships, 1955-2009”

  1. AYC Says:

    I realize this is based on WS, but I have a hard time thinking of the 76 Celts as unlikely champs. Havlicek and Cowens are considered by most to be all-time greats, then you have 7 time all-star Jo Jo White, former ABA scoring champ Charlie Scott and an all-time great rebounder in Paul Silas. Plus they won 68 games in '73 and the title in '74.

    To me the '75 team is the most underwhelming supporting cast in history; Clifford Ray!? 6'6" rookie Jamaal Wilkes as your power forward?

  2. Keith Ellis Says:

    Obviously, a non-stat like "Win Shares" leaves much to be desired in understanding the history of pro bkb's conventional wisdom. Looking at a Real Stat such as PPG-differential makes the Merger-Year Blazers the team to beat. Somehow the lists above leave out one of the most unexpected champs of all time -- the '69 Boston Celtics -- who also led their circuit in PPG-diff.

    If the WS-wisdom sees the '70 Knicks as unlikely champs, it must've never read the basketball-prevue magazines of that season & even the year before that were calling the Knicks the Team of the Future, & Walt Frazier the New Big O. The '74 Nets remain the youngest world champions in history; their title was far less likely than the Knicks in '70, & the '76 Nets were even unlikelier.

    The '76 Celtics were caretaker champions, mopping up a Senior Circuit on its last legs. After the Merger most of the old-guard NBA stars, w/ Jabbar the imposing exception, faded quickly. ABA veterans, by contrast, continued to lead the stat-lists & cop All-League & All-D awards for years to come.

  3. Mike G Says:

    How about some links on those teams?

    This is a very clever study; but the title is a bit off the mark. People looking back into history might be surprised the 1990 Pistons won with those players, but at the time they were clear favorites.

    A midseason 25-1 streak had them looking pretty much unbeatable. They had Salley, Vinnie, and either Rodman or Aguirre off the bench. Such depth was unmatched at the time.

    Since this is the team that had just been to 2 Finals, winning 4-0, maybe Playoff WS/48 should be part of the formula. Nobody is surprised when Isiah or Dumars (or Hakeem, or Shaq) goes off in the playoffs.

    Wow, the '83 Sixers? I thought that was the team of 'overdue' players.

  4. 123kid Says:

    Better player: Billups of Isiah? Efficiency stats say Billups (WS/48, PER), but conventional wisdom would overwhelmingly pick Thomas. People will inevitably say "Thomas was the #1 on championship teams!," but looking back at how those teams won he was important but he really wasn't the reason those teams won their titles, and if it's true that he ran Adrian Dantley off, he might have been a major reason their fg% dropped post-88. The obvious rebuttal is that Billups was the #1 on a title winner who came one game from winning back-to-back titles, and the point guard on 7 straight conference championship series ("final four") participants.

  5. AYC Says:

    Hah! Isiah ran Dantley off, and they won 2 titles as a result. Aguirre was a much better passer than AD, so the DET offense improved after that trade, even if the FG% went down.

    Zeke was less efficient, but he was still the primary scorer and playmaker on 2 champs, in a tougher era than the one Billups has played in. He was a better player than Billups

  6. Keith Ellis Says:

    Nail on the head regarding "tougher era," AYC. You've embraced an argument that it takes some time and careful study to make, but the effort in doing so is worthwhile.

  7. 123kid Says:

    Isiah ran Dantley off, and but they won 2 titles as a result in spite of that.


    In 87-88, their offensive rating was 6th in the league, they were 3rd in field goal percentage, the team was up 3-2 in the Finals and lost the last two games (in LA) by 4 combined points.

    Their offensive rating dropped to 7th in 89 (a season where they had Dantley for half of their games), fg% down to 5th. In 90, their offensive rating dropped to 11th, their fg% down to 15th.

  8. AYC Says:

    You forgot to mention how they went 15-2 in the playoffs with Aguirre instead of Dantley...

    Have you looked at the all-time FG% leaders? It's dominated by big-men with limited offensive games. Hitting a high % because you only attempt shots within 5 feet of the basket doesn't make you a good offensive player.

    PS, Zeke shot better than Billups from the field too

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Did you just imply Dantley had a limited offensive game?


  10. Jason J Says:

    I've liked Billups since his days in Minnesota (he wasn't in Boston long enough for me to get to know him as a player), and I always hated Isiah and the Pistons, but I feel like Thomas was the better player, if not by much.

    Actually I think if you look at what Zeke did prior to Dantley showing up, you see that in a running / pick and roll system (like CPaul or Steve Nash play), he was an excellent player with over 20 PER over 110 ORtg with 24-25 Usage and over 40% Assist percentage for three years straight from 1984-86. Altogether great numbers for a point guard.

    The team dropped Kiki for Dantley, and Isiah adjusted his game so that Dantley (and later Aguirre) got to play his post isolation game. There is a very clear cause and effect to Isiah's dip in efficiency. A dramatic play-style change - which led to increased winning. Now Billups might have been more efficient in this type of inside - out game, but it didn't fit for Zeke.

    However, what I think people remember about Isiah, is that when the team did switch back to running or to their pick and pop offense or just set Isiah loose, he COULD take over games when called upon. That, I think, is why guys like Bill Simmons tend to rank Isiah right behind Magic and Oscar in their PG pantheons.

  11. MCT Says:

    It seems as if this measure "likes" teams with a couple of big stars and a solid supporting cast; it doesn't "like" teams carried by a couple of big stars with relatively little help, or teams that had more of an ensemble cast. This may be why the '89 and '90 Pistons are both on the list, even though it wasn't much of a surprise at the time for them to win the championship either year.

    Beyond the above point, one team I'm surprised to see on the first list is the '85 Lakers. They had two big stars in Kareem and Magic, and the rest of their roster doesn't seem particularly weak. Going into that season the Lakers had to have been regarded as a serious championship contender. Looking at their '84 roster, I guess that Worthy and Scott hadn't really emerged yet, while Wilkes and McAdoo were fading a bit. We don't have complete box score coverage that far back, but the team's lineup seems to have been in a state of flux. Among the second-tier players, Mike McGee got noticeably more playing time in '84 than any season before or after.

    I've commented before on the '76 Celtics both here and on the APBR board. From a statistical analysis standpoint, they seem to have been a significantly worse team than than their actual record would indicate. Depending on how you want to look at it, they were either wily-veteran overachievers, or a declining house of cards that somehow managed to keep everyone fooled for a year. They were a very old team (Havlicek, Nelson and Silas were among the oldest players in the league) and had a very thin roster once you got past their first five. Years of bad drafting was starting to catch up to them, and they had to sacrifice their best draft pick of the previous several years (Paul Westphal) to obtain a replacement for a player who had jumped to the ABA (Don Chaney). They no doubt benefitted from the fact that '76 was a year of extreme parity in the NBA, and, in the postseason, from the Suns taking out the 59-win Warriors, leaving Boston to face a 42-win team in the finals.

    The '58 Hawks caught my eye, too, as they had come within a game of winning the NBA Championship the previous year. But '57 was that crazy year where every team in the East had a better record than every team in the West. The '57 Hawks were actually below .500 -- but that record put them in three-way tie for first! The Hawks clearly separated themselves a bit from the others in '58, but heading into the season it may not have been apparent that this would happen. Even the '58 team had a record that only works out to about 47 wins in an 82-game season.

  12. AYC Says:

    Great post, Jason J. Neil, I was talking about the typical high% FG shooter, not AD specifically (AD wasn't a big man either). My point remains that a high FG% doesn't necs make you're a good scorer; in fact, it can often mean the opposite.

    AD was a terrible defender and passer, and the Pistons played better w/o him. I don't care how good his shooting % was; this isn't baseball

  13. Mike G Says:

    The '83 Sixers roster, minutes-weighted, were 25% over their career average WS/48.

  14. 123kid Says:

    AYC, that doesn't make any sense. It isn't just that Dantley was a good scorer with a high FG%; the Pistons as a team played offense better with him than they did with Aguirre. And Aguirre was a poor defensive player too; arguably worse than Dantley.

    From my recollection, Aguirre was Thomas' friend and Dantley wasn't, and that was the primary cause of the trade.

    Seconded though on the accolades to JasonJ's post.

  15. koberulz Says:

    "and none have won it sense." That should be 'since'. 'An historically' is also incorrect, it should be 'a historically' ('76 Celtics).

    Carry on.

  16. Neil Paine Says:

    Thanks, the "sense"/"since" error was an unprofessional blemish on my writing record. However, on the matter of "an historic" vs. "a historic", the general consensus is that it's a matter of personal preference. More people use the latter, but the former is also valid.

  17. Jason J Says:

    Not sure championship success is a the deciding factor in the Dantley v. Aguirre debate. The Pistons in '87 and '88 with Dantley ran into juggernauts and bad luck and easily could have won rings. The Bird inbound steal plus McHale getting every last ounce out of a broken foot killed them in '87. Isiah's ankle sprain at the end of game 6 against LA doomed them in '88. The sweep against LA the next year had more to do with injuries to Magic and Scott than anything else.

  18. AYC Says:

    I hadn't noticed the 85 Lakers were on the list. That makes this whole exercise suspect. That was the greatest offensive team in history; they had Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Bob Mcdoo, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper. They had already been to the finals 4 times in the previous 5 years...

  19. AYC Says:

    The Pistons didn't just win 2 titles after trading Dantley, they destroyed the competition 15-2 that first year, including sweeps of MJ's bulls and Magic's Lakers. You can pretend they weren't a better team, but the record doesn't lie.

    PS, I notice you ignored what I said about Aguirre being the better passer...

  20. 123kid Says:

    I don't think the Pistons ever swept MJ's Bulls. They won 4-1 in 88 (an underrated series with Laimbeer-Jordan and Mahorn-Oakley "fights" that would have drawn suspensions today and good Jordan action), but that was with Dantley. They won 4-2 in 89 and 4-3 in 90, in two dramatic, razor-close series.

    Magic was absent from half of the 1989 Finals, and Bird was absent from the entire first round series with the Celtics.

    I don't remember Aguirre being a better passer than Dantley. I guess you can see a slight difference from the advanced stats (Aguirre's assist% is better and his turnover % is a little lower), but nothing dramatic or significant enough to offset Dantley's advantages.

  21. AYC Says:

    My bad, they didn't sweep them. But they did beat them both years, and CHI improved with each year. If you don't think winning a championship 15-2 means they were a better team, I don't know what else there is to say

  22. Jason J Says:

    AYC you weren't talking to me in that post, so I didn't bother to react to all your points, but here's you are:

    In 1989 the Pistons took 6 games to beat Chicago, and then swept the Lakers without Magic or Scott. Huzzah. That does not prove much.

    The 1988 Pistons with Dantley took 6 games to beat a far better (than the 1989 Bulls) Celtics team and then took a Lakers team WITH Magic Johnson to 7 games and had a chance to win in the final minutes despite James Worthy playing the best playoff game of his life and Isiah Thomas limping around on a sprained ankle, mostly because of Dantley's offense.

    Not sure Aguirre's mediocre passing being better than Dantley's less than mediocre passing really made a big difference. Offensively they got worse after the trade. Where they got better was on defense. A lot better. Which may say a lot about the two players or maybe not since they had virtually identical defensive ratings and defensive win shares that season. I think if you want to credit Aguirre, give him credit for not dominating the ball.

  23. AYC Says:

    Not dominating the ball? What is the statistical evidence of that? Not saying I disagree, I just know nobody on this site believes anything that isn't reflected in the stats. For me, being a good passer means more than just getting assists; not hogging the ball is part of it; Allen Iverson had some impressive assist seasons while still being a ball hog.

    Now I said before that Aguirre was better on D, and the fact that their team D got better would seem to confirm that, even if his personal DWS numbers weren't better than AD's. I'm rather convinced that WS aren't flawless win it comes to determining how much a given individual contributes to team success

  24. Mike G Says:

    "The team dropped Kiki for Dantley,..."

    Tripucka maybe?

  25. AYC Says:

    Nobody responded to what I said about 85 Lakers; when you make the finals in 4 of the previous 5 years (winning it all twice) how can that be surprising when you do it again?

  26. Neil Paine Says:
    Player G MP xws/48
    Magic Johnson 19 687 0.1944
    James Worthy 19 626 0.1266
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 19 610 0.1758
    Byron Scott 19 585 0.0810
    Michael Cooper 19 501 0.1233
    Bob McAdoo 19 398 0.1080
    Kurt Rambis 19 375 0.1050
    Mike McGee 17 260 0.0857
    Larry Spriggs 16 230 0.0735
    Mitch Kupchak 16 197 0.0583
    Ronnie Lester 9 54 0.0629
    Chuck Nevitt 7 37 0.0931
    L.A. Average 0.1248
    NBA Average 0.1000

    Magic & Kareem were expected to be way better than average in '85; Worthy and Cooper were expected to be slightly better than average; McAdoo & Rambis were expected to be average; everyone else was expected to be below-average. A team with a minute-weighted expected WS/48 of 0.125 doesn't win the title very often... As a comparison, the 2010 Nuggets had a minute-weighted xWS/48 of 0.128.

  27. ScottR. Says:

    The 89 and 90 Pistons would have won those titles with either Dantley or Aguirre. Dantley was clearly a better player with the Pistons than Aguirre, but they just were not ready to take the final step in 88. Bringing in Aguirre was not the final piece that put that team over the hump.

  28. BGJ Says:

    Isn't there a statistical problem with the second graph in comparing players whose careers are over with those whose careers aren't? Presumably a players WS is low early in their career, high during their peak, and then low again as they become a role player. Most of the players on the 2004,2004, 2006, and 2008 teams aren't retired yet which would mean that they haven't gone through their end of career WS lowering. For instance, Rondo's WS is probably higher now (although it probably hasn't peaked) then it will be when he retires because he'll probably accept a role player spot on a team after his peak. Thus, if you recalculate this in 20 years when all of these players are done, won't the entire team's carWS/48 be lower? I guess I'm not quite sure how all of these stats work but the logic seams off... Am I wrong?

  29. Neil Paine Says:

    No, that's valid, although I think the effects of young players not peaking yet and peak players not entering their declines yet probably cancel each other out in most cases. There were actually more pre-peak players than peak players this season:

    Age Pct
    19 0.2%
    20 2.3%
    21 5.9%
    22 8.4%
    23 10.4%
    24 9.7%
    25 10.0%
    26 7.0%
    27 7.2%
    28 5.7%
    29 8.6%
    30 5.7%
    31 5.2%
    32 2.9%
    33 3.8%
    34 2.9%
    35 2.0%
    36 0.9%
    37 0.9%
    39 0.2%
  30. Neil Paine Says:

    Here's the same chart, but broken down by the % of league minutes played by players of each age:

    Age Pct _MP
    19 0.3%
    20 2.5%
    21 7.2%
    22 7.1%
    23 10.0%
    24 10.0%
    25 8.7%
    26 6.4%
    27 8.1%
    28 5.6%
    29 9.2%
    30 7.0%
    31 5.0%
    32 2.6%
    33 3.7%
    34 2.2%
    35 2.4%
    36 1.0%
    37 0.8%
    39 0.0%
  31. Keith Ellis Says:

    "Magic & Kareem were expected to be way better than average in '85; Worthy and Cooper were expected to be slightly better than average; McAdoo & Rambis were expected to be average; everyone else was expected to be below-average. A team with a minute-weighted expected WS/48 of 0.125 doesn't win the title very often... As a comparison, the 2010 Nuggets had a minute-weighted xWS/48 of 0.128."

    Who dreamed up the above expectations from 1985, & when? Those there at the time "expected" Robert Parish to belly up strong to Kareem as he'd done the season before. Conventional wisdom entering the '85 Finals held that Jabbar usually lost to capable big-man rivals (e.g. Wilt, Thurmond, Cowens, Walton, Moses) thus giving the edge to Parish who indeed had won in 1984 for a Celtics team perceived as Tougher than the sleek Lakers. Magic, too, was wearing tarnish for having blown key moments of the Finals before.

    How might a statistical "system" adjudge McAdoo & Rambo -- about as different as any two F/Cs could be -- both Average? Problem we're seeing here is w/ the faith in some nebulous system-of-expecting after-the-fact, not w/ the played-out playoff results from 25 years ago. As another poster alluded to previously, the 62-20 '85 Lakers were the greatest offensive juggernaut of their day, putting 55% of their attempts in the basket.

  32. AYC Says:

    Parish didn't come close to outplaying Kareem in 84...

  33. Ian Says:

    As the subject of the recent blog about him indicates, I idolize Adrian Dantley, so I definitely speak with bias. I was a huge Pistons fan before they traded AD, and cried my eyes out when he was sent packing to Dallas.

    I agree with the notion that Detroit would have won in 89 and 90 with Dantley instead of Aguirre, too. Aguirre was a decent player, mind you, but he had faded quite a bit by the time he arrived in Detroit.

  34. Neil Paine Says:

    Gee, Keith, maybe you should actually try reading the methodology... Expectations were based on a weighted avg. of previous 3 seasons' WS/48, with the most recent having a weight of 6, the year before that having a weight of 3, and the year before that having a weight of 1. You also add in 1,000 minutes of league-average production to regress to the mean. As an example, here's Magic Johnson's projection for 1985:

    Year Weight MP WS WS/48
    1982 1 2991 12.9 0.207
    1983 3 2907 12.5 0.207
    1984 6 2567 10.2 0.191
    Lg Avg 1 1000 0.100
    1985 Proj 0.194

    We calculate Johnson's expected WS/48 as (6*2567*0.191 + 3*2907*0.207 + 2991*0.207 + 1000*0.100) / (6*2567 + 3*2907 + 2991+1000) = 0.194

    Repeat this for every player, and you have a very basic preseason expectation for how each player would produce in 1985.

  35. Keith Ellis Says:

    AYC wrote: "Parish didn't come close to outplaying Kareem in 84..."

    KDE replied: The HoF Centers mentioned -- Wilt, Nate, Big Reds Cowens/Walton, Moses, Parish -- didn't have to rack up higher statistics than Jabbar to beat him in the playoffs. For a fresh lesson, see the '010 LBJ. The best example of an all-around stat-stuffer leading a titlist remains Julius Erving in the Bicentennial Year (MJ's Rebs/Assists fell significantly once Pippen took to running the Bulls on both ends).

    That said, the larger point is that Kareem finally rose to the occasion in 1985, indeed "beating the expectations" by winning a big one over Bob Parish. Up to that point, conventional wisdom aka expectations held that Kareem would find a way to succumb to the luck of the Irish. The Memorial Day Massacre reinforced this expectation, natch.

    Earlier this week Jabbar himself acknowledged his greatest athletic accomplishment as having been the 1985 Finals performance. Most of us present at the time would have to agree. Thanks to Kareem finally getting the monkey off his back in a big-time series against a Center his size (Unseld didn't count), the Lakers gained the confidence to win again in '87 thanks to Magic's Jr Sky Hook that forever put him ahead of Bird in their own individual rivalry.

  36. AYC Says:

    Keith, you're being silly; Kareem wasn't any better in 85 than he was in 84; LA won because they had a better team than the Celts (who missed Gerald Henderson). Based on your ridiculous "logic", Luc Longley outplayed Shaq in 96; after all his team won and that's all that matters right; that Luc Longley, he was just a winner! You do understand a player can be great and still have their TEAM lose right?

    Also, you forgot that Kareem beat Wilt's Lakers in '71.

  37. Keith Ellis Says:

    Heaven forbid we forget the 1971 Bucks. The season after Milwaukee won, conventional wisdom held that the Bucks would beat the '72 Lakers despite Wilt and Jerry's 69-13 record and 33 straight win skein (snapped by the Bucks). And if not for a ball bouncing off a referee on a fluke play, the Bucks probably would've won Game Two in LA (they took Game One by 23) and been in the position the Celtics are right now versus Orlando.

    Yes, Lew Alcindor in 1972 was still widely considered the imminent Greatest Player Ever, just needing to bide his time to surpass Bill Russell. The excuse that 'great players lose' was rejected as Wiltonistic selfish rationalizing, despite Chamberlain's carefully documented case studies of West, Big O, Pettit, and others not-having won many titles, either.

    All those considerations and expectations eventually came tumbling down, especially after Jabbar lost to Thurmond in 1973, followed by Cowens in 1974. You can say 40 years later that Kareem 'outplayed' Cowens, but that's not what folks at the time saw. We saw a variation of the Russ-vs-Wilt theme, reinforced by Reed-vs-Wilt and Daniels-vs-Gilmore. Goliaths seemed bound to lose. Walton beating Jabbar (despite more stat-stuffing from Kareem) furthered the perception. By the time LA won a title with rookie Magic Johnson starting at Center and rolling in hook shots of his own, Jabbar's mystique was kaput. That's why 1985 was so important for Kareem, and he to his credit admits it was his finest moment.

    Shaq didn't play in an NBA Finals in 1996, but he was indeed whuppped by Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995. Someday we statmen will have to learn that sometimes less is more. Inspired by Sharman, Chamberlain played the Russell role to perfection, resulting in the greatest team of all time. One has to wonder why Shaquille O'Neal never caught on to that and subdued his PPG to 14.8 while leading the NBA in Rebounds and making First Team All-D as Dipper did. By this stage of his career it's clear that LeBron James isn't capable of (or at least interested in) jumping Center and playing all five positions en route to a performance like that of 20-year-old Magic Johnson in Game Six of 1980. Some players are 'expected' to be great while others 'expect' to be handed championships just for showing up.

  38. AYC Says:

    Dude, you're irrational. Why again does Wilt get credit for beating Kareem's Bucks, but Kareem doesn't get credit for beating Wilt's Lakers the previous year? Do you really think players alternate between "great" and "not great" based on whether or not they win the championship in a given year? And Kareem was clearly the best player on the 80 Lakers; one great game from Magic doesn't change that.

    Also, you do know that the playoffs don't start with the finals, right? Shaq's Magic lost in the 3rd round to MJ's Bulls in 96.

    Finally, Shaq won 3 straight titles for LA, and you rip him for not scoring less like Wilt? You do know Shaq has twice as many championships as Wilt right? That Kareem has 3 times as many? Can I have some of what you're smoking?

  39. Melvin Says:


    Perception isn't always reallity my friend. If you thought at the time Kareem was outplayd by Reed, Wilt, Cowens, Walton and Parish you were just flat out wrong. All the evidence - detailed stats and accurate observation, ect - show otherwise. Kareem flat out dominated Reed in '70, Wilt in '72, Cowens in '74 and Walton in '77 and he clearly outplayed Parish in '84 and would've won the finals MVP had game 7 gone the other way as he was LA's best player that series -- Magic and Worthy choked that one away. In '70 NY had a much better all-around team and killed Milwaukee everywhere but center, especially the backcourt. In both '72 and '74 Oscar and McGlocklin were banged up and not near 100 percent and healthy LA and Boston backcourts killed them. LA probably wins with Oscar and Johnny Mac healthy in '72 and throw in a healthy Lucius Allen in '74 and there's no question the Bucks win that one. I give Wilt credit for forcing Jabbar into a subpar shooting effort, but Kareem still whipped him and won most battles in the clutch - he just didn't have the help Wilt had with West, Goodrich and Hairston. Of course Wilt was past his prime, so that's no knock on him at all. In '74 Kareem just killed Cowens over the first 6 games and it took Heinsohn inserting constant double and triple teams into his game plan in game 7, plus a terrible game from Oscar, to somewhat slow Kareem down. Even with how well Hondo played Kareem still should've been MVP of that series in a losing effort because he was flat out the most dominant player with the 2 biggest clutch plays of the series - his block on Cowens to force OT in game 2 and obviously the winning skyhook in game 6. In '77 Kareem was without Allen again - missed 2 games and played sparingly at nowhere near 100 percent the other 2 games with the toe injury, plus Kermit Washington was out for all 4 games. With those 2 healthy LA takes Portland to 6 or 7 games and may very well have won despite Portland being a clearly better all-around team contrary to revisionist history. Walton had a great opening quarter of the series when Kareem was tired after carrying LA past the Barry,Parish/Ray Golden State team in arguably the most dominanting 7-game playoff series performance in NBA history, and Bill also stepped up huge in the 4th quarter of game 3 after Portland used constant triple teams to wear Jabbar down. But other than those 2 quarters Kareem had his way with Walton and single-handidly kept LA in the last 3 games. Now Kareem did struggle big time against Thurmond despite winning the statitcial battle in '73 and that was the primary reason the Bucks were upset. But Kareem also beat Nate twice, along with Chamberlain once, Unseld once, Issel twice, Gilmore twice and Parish 3 times. Moses ranks right with Thurmond in terms of giving Jabbar the most headaches - literaly and figuratively - and he's the 1 center who got the better of him more often than not, but that came after his prime. When Houston upset LA in '81 Moses averaged 31 and 17.5 but Kareem put up 27 and 17 with more assists and blocks - it was piss poor play by Magic and clutch shooting from Dunleavy and crew that really did LA in (plus the fact it was 1 of those silly best-of-3 seires they thankfully did away with). No question Moses dominated Kareem in the '83 finals, but Jabbar was 36 then. Hakeem also got the better of Kareem in '86, but Jabbar was now freakin 39 with no back up and Hakeem needed Sampson's help. As for the '85 finals, Jabbar had already proven himself against great centers, win or lose as a team, and had acheived every individaul and team accolade on the planet. It was LA finally getting the Boston monkey off its back and Kareem being the primary driving force behind that as the series MVP at 38 that made that so special for him.

  40. Brad Durian Says:

    These results already affirm what I already knew. The 1977 Blazers team was a rare instance where the winner outplayed a team that clearly had more individual talent. Julius, Dawkins, McGinnis, Free and Collins were beaten by a team that was better coached and played better team defense. In my view the 1989 NBA Finals deserves an asterisk in the basketball encyclopedia. The Lakers were hard pressed going in without Byron Scott but losing MVP Magic in game 2?, made them utterly defenseless. As it was three of the four games were super close. That says a lot about how great the Showtime teams were.

  41. zzz Says:

    the biggest lies in the world are statistics and diplomacy, all teams which won championships - worth it. about dantley and aguirre - they were equile, but aguirre isiah friend and younger. nobody write about rodman who improved into most dominant player in NBA history, dont talk shit if didnt understand basketball

  42. zzz Says:

    ...most dominant deffensive player in NBA history, he can guard Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Karl Malone even Shaquille O'Neal better than others.

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