Every year, the NBA goes through a fairly lengthy regular season that determines which teams will participate in the playoffs and where they will be seeded. At the conclusion of a grueling postseason, the league crowns a champion. The first team to win 16 playoff games takes over the top spot and gets tons of praise thrown their way for accomplishing a feat that is reserved for only one team every season.
In perfect world, we should be able to spot the characteristics of a would be challenger to the throne and determine if they have what it takes to win the elusive NBA title. But that’s just it, we do not live in a perfect world, and thus it can get confusing at times to understand what makes a team championship ready.
For instance, several people thought that the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns had all the necessary components to at least represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals: great chemistry, team first attitude, trust, confidence and a great leader in Steve Nash.
Where the 2005 Suns failed, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were successful albeit for far different reasons. During the 2000-2001 campaign, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal feuded over the course of the season, wrestling for control of the team. Kobe felt he had improved and deserved to share more of the scoring burden on the team while an out of shape O’Neal felt that the team had been successful with a specific recipe the previous season and therefore should continue to follow suit with it. And yet, despite the back and forth, the Lakers finished the season as NBA champions.
That Lakers team might have seemed dysfunctional, but one could argue that they were possibly one of the most “normal” title teams ever. Indeed, for all of the war between the two stars, their battles occurred on the basketball court and thus they were able to eventually reach basketball harmony as both stars found a way to coexist perfectly during the postseason.
One team that seemed to lack that cohesion was the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls. It seems ridiculous to make such a statement but it is in fact truly on point. That Bulls team had several issues on the basketball court as well as off it.
Michael Jordan was the league’s biggest star and thus attracted an immense amount of attention. Unlike the greats before him (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird), Jordan was truly superior in every way to each and every one of his teammates.
Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while Bird had a whole frontline that garnered attention. Michael on the other hand was in a class on his own and consequently some of his teammates resented that. Mind you, it was not so much the attention, but rather the perks that came along with it.
For instance, Michael routinely had friends travel on the team bus and check in to hotels at the Bulls’ expense when such courtesies were prohibited for other members of the team. Here’s another example of the leeway MJ was afforded by the Bulls as described by Sam Smith in his book The Jordan Rules:
“Take the time Jordan picked up the flu in December. He called in to say he was sick and wouldn’t be at practice. Jackson sent trainer Chip Shaefer to Jordan’s house to bring him medication.
“A week later, John Paxson called in to say he was sick with the flu. He had been vomiting all night. Jackson told him to come to practice and they’d make an assessment. There was a rule that if you were sick, the trainer had to see you. Paxson was sent right home. The trainer was not asked to go to his house.”
Understandably so, Bulls players felt as though two sets of rules were applied to the team: one for Michael and another for the rest of the team.
Given the fact that Jordan got the lion’s share of the credit, he had a contract that was more or less in conjunction with his productivity and standing in the league. His teammates on the other hand often felt undervalued, underappreciated and more importantly, underpaid.
Michael Jordan would often issue directives to players that were in stark contrast to Phil Jackson’s and thus led to them getting chastised while Jordan often escaped the blame game. Smith obtained a quote from John Paxson that captured the morale of the team:
“Here we are winning and nobody’s happy […]. Everyone wants to play somewhere else; nobody’s happy or having any fun. Guys want more minutes or more shots or more money. They want guys traded and management guys fired. And what if we weren’t winning? It’s just not supposed to be like this. Is it?”
Lo and behold, despite the turmoil that plagued the Bulls that season, they went on to defeat a Lakers team spearheaded by Magic Johnson in the Finals to capture the NBA title.
Conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that teams like the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls are not supposed to win titles; instead they should be making it to possibly the second round of the playoffs and then losing to a more cohesive team that understands their strengths and plays for one common goal. Such as…
The 2007-08 Boston Celtics are a more prototypical championship team. The team had stars that carried their weight and displayed excellent leadership during practices and games. The role players understood their roles and sought to maximize their abilities within the framework of Doc Rivers’ directions.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen might have been the faces of the team, but they incorporated their teammates into everything and made them feel and understand their importance to the squad.
Peter May explains in his book Top of the World how Doc Rivers asked his rookies to present the meaning and importance of ubuntu (roughly translated, it means “I am because we are”) to their more experienced teammates. The exercise resulted in the team bonding together and becoming a brotherhood.
Kevin Garnett illustrated just how tight knit the group was about to become when one day after practice he had all the rookies assemble at Glen Davis’ hotel room and had an Italian tailor bring in racks of suits and shoes for the first year players.
Because of such gestures, the Celtics played hard for one another. It wasn’t about contracts, playing time, attention or being in the spotlight; it was all about doing what was right for the team, and doing the right thing meant winning.
The Celtics illustrated this in a late November game in Charlotte. Down by two points with 4.7 seconds left and the Bobcats inbounding the ball in their backcourt, Pierce stole the ball and found a wide open Ray Allen at the 3-point line who hit a buzzer beating shot that propelled Boston to a win.
Peter May obtained this quote from Pierce after the game:
“When we first got together, we talked about all these things. But at the end of the day, what’s the goal? The goal is to win. Who cares who gets the last shot? Who cares who gets the most points? Who cares who gets the credit? Because if we win, we’re winners.”
The 2007-08 Celtics were a team that progressively figured out how to handle business on the court, but also that displayed some camaraderie off of it. Unlike the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, they had very few issues that threatened to cripple the foundation of a championship team.
Often we get caught up in preconceived notions about teams simply because we want to believe in them while completely ignoring others. Around the All-Star break in February, most basketball fans assumed that the 2011 NBA Finals would involve the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
Not many would have predicted that the Miami Heat would face off against the Dallas Mavericks in early June and yet there they were when the Finals started. As much as we like to draw on history to figure out which teams will be victorious in the future, the truth is that different teams rise to the challenge for different reasons.
Teams with great chemistry such as the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers can flame out in the playoffs while a team like the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls can win a championship by playing a serious all business brand of basketball and even at times give you the impression that the players barely like each other.
And really that’s the beauty of sports; championship teams are not created equal. But we seem to think they are…