The NBA Playoffs are upon us. It’s kind of a big deal. On one hand, we have what feels like the most stacked Western Conference playoffs ever. On the other hand, we have severe carpal tunnel syndrome. Come June, somebody will be crowned a champion, and the history of basketball will be unalterably affected. If there’s one thing in my life I spend way too much time thinking about it’s myself. If there’s another thing I spend way too much time thinking about it’s NBA Champions, their legacies, and what makes them champions. So who is going to be this year’s champion?
There’s lots of ways to skin a cat. I have no idea what that means, but there are lots of ways to predict a champion. I’m basing my pick this year on two historical facts:
1) Superstars and/or super defenses win titles
Since the early 80s (the modern NBA), one team has won a title without a superstar (’04 Pistons), and only three teams have won the title without an NBA MVP on their roster (89-90 Pistons, ’04 Pistons). Those three Pistons teams all had tremendous defenses, and it could be argued that Isiah Thomas is an MVP winner had he not played in the same era as Bird, Magic, and Jordan.
2) Adversity come before the title
Nobody just wins the NBA title without going through adversity. Adversity can come from many different places, but worthwhile adversity comes by going deep into the playoffs and then losing (usually for multiple years). Every team that has won the title in the modern era has competed (competed, not just appeared) in the playoffs.
Based on the first historical fact, we can assume that the following teams will not win the title: Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte, and half of Washington. There are a few other teams I could maybe put on this list, but since their stars are too young to disprove their superstardom and/or their defense has the potential to be great, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Based on the second historical fact, we can also assume the following teams lack the proper experience to win it all: Golden State, Portland, and half of Washington (two halves make a nope). I’m tempted to include the Clippers on this list since they haven’t even gotten past the second round in recent history, but Blake Griffin made a leap of sorts this year, and they’re a veteran group. I considered putting the Nets on this list since this team has not gone to war together yet, but I’m still counting the fact that much of their roster has gone to war recently — albeit on different teams. Same with the Rockets (but just barely).
So here’s the list of teams that history says have a chance …
Is Noah a superstar? (I don’t know) Is there defense all-time good? (probably not, but I’m not certain) They’ve been competing in the Eastern Playoffs for a few years now, but without Rose, it’s tough to believe they have enough star power to go all the way. Really, I just respect Noah and Thibodeau too much to completely discount them. Plus, Jimmer Fredette. I’m just kidding. Sort of. I need therapy. Chance of winning it all: 0.2%.
They have an all-time forward, and a great coach. Another good sign for the Mavs is this: Since 1980, only the Mavs have won just one title. Everyone else who has won in the Finals has won at least two titles. However, I’m pretty sure that’s just stupid logic I just used. With Tyson Chandler they had a defensive anchor. Not the case now. They have a solid offense still, but Dirk is that much older, and his supporting cast isn’t as sexy (in a basketball way) as it was in ’11. The team as presently constituted will compete, but they’re just too limited. Chance of winning it all: 1.2%.
It’s tough to say what this teams ceiling is. Marc Gasol was out for much of the year, and he’s the heart and soul of their defense, and one of the smartest bigs in the game. They certainly have a strong defense, and they’re certainly battle-tested. They have an identity. But …I mean, come on. Chance of winning it all: 1.7%.
Both Harden and Howard have been to the Finals on different teams, so in that sense they are battle tested. They certainly have star power. But I feel like they don’t have enough reps as a unit. Maybe if they were in the Eastern Conference …or Dwight Howard wasn’t Dwight Howard … or …Chance of winning it all: 2.5%.
Los Angeles Clippers
As previously mentioned, this team hasn’t even gone past the second round. There have been teams to win the title after similar pasts — notably the ’80 Lakers (Magic Johnson’s ascension) and the ’99 Spurs (Tim Duncan’s ascension). It’s possible, but not probable. Crazy theory of mine: I think this team has a real future as a the “Bad Boys” (80s Pistons) of our generation. They need to lose again this playoffs after Griffin and Barnes get into a couple fights. CP3 needs to become enemies with his old NBA friends, and they need to get really really pissed off. Then add a couple years of toughening up and BOOM: real actual contenders, and the heirs to Bad Boys throne. Just you wait. Chance of winning it all: 3.2%.
Positive sign: they have a lot of experience competing for the title, and winning the title. However, like the Rockets, it wasn’t as a unit. Another positive sign is that they are the Heat’s kryptonite. However, are they? The Heat have another gear that they probably didn’t go into once all during the regular season. Plus, this Nets team is old and injury-prone. I feel nervous rooting against a team with so much historical talent, but I’m dubious of their current talent. However, one thing to consider here is that the Nets are owned by a powerful Russian businessman with ties to the mob. I don’t know a ton about Russian businessmen with ties to the mob, but I’m guessing they know the people involved in the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Kings. Just saying. Chance of winning it all: 3.7%.
Oh boy, the Pacers. They took the Heat to Game 7 last year. They’re technically the top seed in the East. They have a star (George). They have defense. So what’s the problem? Consider historical fact number three: Chemistry is crucial in basketball. Perhaps more than any other sport. Since the all-star break this team has been riddled with self-inflicted adversity, infighting, and they’ve handled all of it about as well as LeBron handled “The Decision.” Do I think this team can win a title? Absolutely. But only after they totally get through the adversity they’re currently going through. And I don’t see that happening until sometime next season (at the earliest). Chance of winning it all: 5.4%.
San Antonio Spurs:
They fit the criteria for a title team and then some. They’ve been there, done that, with a legendary captain (Duncan) and legendary coach (Pops). They went through more adversity in the final minute of last year’s Game 6 than most teams do in a decade. And they play together like a well oiled machine. So why am I skeptical? Because I think Game 6 was their chance. In my opinion, this team smells way too much like the New England Patriots of the NFL. Think about it — The Patriots have been a dynasty of sorts with a legendary captain (Brady) and legendary coach (Belichick) since roughly the turn of the century (just like the Spurs). They’re always right there come playoff time, including a couple devastating close calls (like the Spurs). But when was the last time either team won a title? It’s been seven years since the Spurs won a title. There has never been a team in NBA history to go that long between titles (with roughly the same core). As much as I respect this team, and believe in them, the Patriots fan in me is doubtful. Chance of winning it all: 25.5%.
It is so hard to win three titles in a row. In the modern NBA, only the 90s Bulls (twice) and the 2000-2002 Lakers have done it. But remember how much it took out of each team to get there? Jordan left basketball both times he three-peated (and the Bulls ’98 win is literally the difference between MJ being the greatest of all time and just another hall of famer). The Lakers of 2002 were gift-wrapped a series win against the Kings (Game 6 is still NBA conspiracy theorists’ Exhibit A), and their Finals opponents in their second and third titles were abysmal. I’m not saying that this Heat team can’t win a third in a row, but it’ll take luck. Excluding LeBron, this team has been far from intimidating all year. But LeBron is on this team, and now is the time to see if he is as good as Jordan. What made Jordan so special wasn’t that he was such a physically gifted athlete, or that he had such awesome basketball skills. It was his refusal to lose; his refusal to give up the crown. Does LBJ have that refusal? Chance of winning it all: 27.7%.
Oklahoma City Thunder
They have everything necessary to elevate themselves to champion status. Like the Bulls of ’91, they’ve taken their lumps, and gone through adversity (playoff losses, Harden’s departure, Westbrook’s injury). They have a transcending basketball scorer coming into his prime (Durant). They have a tough-as-nails sidekick (Westbrook), and their supporting cast feels juuuust good enough to not blow it. But what separates this team for me is the hunger. You can see it in KD and Westbrook’s eyes. It’s a hunger that only they can have. Miami and the Spurs can’t have this type of hunger because they’ve won it all already. If you look at the percentage I’ve given each team, you can tell I’m far from certain that OKC will win it all. But if you compare all the previous teams to win the title for the first time, the Thunder just have that look, in my opinion. They’ve paid the toll, they’ve waited their turn, and now they’re ready to take it! Or not. I really have no idea what I’m talking about. Chance of winning it all: 28.9%.
My series by series predictions:
IND over ATL
MIA over CHA
BKN over TOR
CHI over WAS
SA over DAL
OKC over MEM
LAC over GS
HOU over POR
* * *
CHI over IND
MIA over BKN
SA over HOU
OKC over LAC
* * *
MIA over CHI
OKC over SA
* * *
OKC over MIA (4-2)
Bryson Kearl wrote this article. As a Jazz fan, he’s admittedly paid way too much attention to the lottery teams this year to be entirely qualified to make predictions on the non-crappy teams.