Friday December 19th, 2008

In honor of the extended holiday, here is an extended look at the simplest way I know to gauge NBA championship potential. Search the roster of any team for an MVP-level talent with the leadership and drive of Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon or (to cite the newest example) Kevin Garnett. Well more than half of the NBA teams are absent this kind of star, which means you can essentially write them off as championship contenders (unless they are the Detroit Pistons of a few years ago, as you'll see below). Here's a look at who makes the biggest difference in the biggest games -- and who may be next to join them.

Over the past 29 years, 28 of the championships have been hoarded by nine elite players. All but one have been league MVPs and all are (or will be) in the Hall of Fame. Here is the top of the list ...

5. Larry Bird (three championships). Before Bird arrived with Magic Johnson following their 1979 NCAA championship game, the NBA was a poorly attended league injured by suspicions of widespread recreational drug use and an absence of meaningful star power. The dominant players were centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone, who neither sought nor received public love; Julius Erving was the game's most popular star, yet he was unable to lead his Philadelphia 76ers to a championship. The NBA Finals were relegated to delayed late-night broadcasts, and there was talk of franchise consolidation that would shrink -- rather than grow -- the league.

Magic and Bird would instantly win eight championships during their first nine years in the league, reclaiming a standard of leadership that gave extraordinary importance to the rings they would win. They were good enough to do whatever pleased them on the court, which means they could have played selfishly and no one could have done anything to stop them. But Bird and Magic were loved because each chose to make the world (i.e. his team, as well as the NBA in general) a better place.

The NBA may have lost its way during the cheerless 1970s, but ever since Magic and Bird came along the best players have been focused on winning as a team (which thereby excluded the selfish talents from consideration among those most important few). This was the principle that drove the ensuing careers of Thomas and Michael Jordan: That their efforts would have amounted to very little unless they won a championship.

"I've always said there are stars and then there are superstars,'' said Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers. "On every one of them championship teams, there was at least one superstar.''

By that standard, there are very few superstars roaming NBA arenas today. The question is, Where do you draw the cut-off line?

T-3. Shaquille O'Neal (four championships). Shaq is the only player among the nine to win with two franchises. He is also the only major unrestricted free agent to lead his new team (the Lakers) to the championship. He was the dominant force in his sport during that run in L.A., and he remains its most influential personality. You can see both teammates and opponents gravitating Shaq's way during timeouts to laugh at his latest joke, boast or accusation.

Before taking this any further, I fully admit that the biggest flaw in this list of nine champions is its failure to include superstars like Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. Every champion has had starring assistance -- whether it was Paul Pierce and Ray Allen or Scottie Pippen or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy -- but an exception must be noted in the case of Shaq's two teammates.

b. Wade was the leading scorer and the driving force of the Heat's 2006 postseason run. It is more than coincidence that the Heat won two years after acquiring Shaq, as he is one of those special players around whom championship teams are created. But Wade deserves recognition in his own right.

a. Bryant wasn't the leader of those Lakers championship teams -- Shaq was -- but he has since emerged as a league MVP and leader of a team on the verge of winning the championship around him. The larger point of this assessment is to demonstrate that a few players dominate the NBA; Bryant has already proved he is one of those players.

T-3. Tim Duncan (four championships). Duncan may turn out to be the last four-year collegian to prevail over the NBA. He has served as the stoic, introverted opposite to Shaq while they have shared all but two of the last 10 championships.

There is a chicken-or-egg aspect to the successes of these nine winners. In Duncan's case, have the Spurs won four titles because of him? Or did they win because he was paired initially with David Robinson, and later with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker? In all cases, these players could not have won without the help of complementary stars and other teammates of character (as well as coaches who understood their strengths and weaknesses as players and people). But the larger lesson of the last 30 years -- and of previous eras as well -- is that pro basketball operates to a different dynamic than the other sports.

Relative to football or baseball, there are few players on a small court playing to a free-flowing pace. Peyton Manning is on his field only about half of the time, and Alex Rodriguez receives only four or five or six opportunities to bat. But in the NBA playoffs you can expect LeBron James to play 90 percent of the minutes and to be involved in everything at both ends of the floor. That's why you're unlikely to win an NBA championship unless you have one of these special players who not only produces statistically, but also commands his four teammates to perform at the highest level.

"Let's say it's freaky when it doesn't happen,'' said Orlando Magic senior VP Pat Williams, former GM of the 1982-83 champion 76ers and prolific author of 54 books (the latest, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball, is due out in February).

Williams recalls the run of five championships in six years by George Mikan through 1954, and the 11 titles in 13 years swept up by Bill Russell through 1969. Over the 62-year history of the league, a case can be made that 52 of the championships have been hoarded by 16 elite players (see chart, right).

In Duncan's case, his unifying style of play -- defensively as well as offensively -- has brought out the championship qualities in his teammates. He will go down as the greatest power forward in the history of the game.

2. Magic Johnson (five championships). "They changed the league in a lot of ways,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Magic and Bird, against whom he played in the NBA's golden 1980s. "I give Magic the most credit -- and this gets debated a lot in my circles -- because he brought joy back to the game. He made it OK to show enthusiasm and excitement as a player.

"I always go back to Magic's first game with the Lakers -- it was a tape-delayed game against the San Diego Clippers, and [Abdul-]Jabbar makes the shot to win it and Magic jumps in his arms, and you could see how uncomfortable Jabbar was. I thought that signaled a change in how we act and play, and that now it was OK to play with energy.''

Not only did Magic win big -- five titles in nine years before his initial retirement at 32 upon contracting HIV -- but also his open-court Showtime style established L.A. as the entertainment capital of basketball while attracting new followers to the league. In the two or three years preceding the arrival of Magic and Bird, fans detected very little heart in the NBA.

"We still get that moniker at times,'' Rivers said. "I'm always amazed to hear the college broadcasters say we don't play defense in the league, and then every player who gets here realizes he didn't play defense in college. But that started the good trend: Those two coming in at the same time was the perfect storm.''

It's also worth remembering the diverse paths that brought them to Boston and Los Angeles. The Celtics acquired Bird by exploiting a loophole (since excised) that enabled them to draft him a year before he turned pro; to land Magic, the Lakers exploited the New Orleans Jazz, who sent their first-round pick to L.A. as compensation for signing Gail Goodrich as a free agent in 1976. (The Lakers then won a coin flip for the No. 1 pick overall, leaving the Chicago Bulls to take David Greenwood at No. 2.)

1. Michael Jordan (six championships). Before Jordan came along, only once had a player -- Abdul-Jabbar with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks -- led his team to a championship while leading the league in scoring. In theory, a deep moat divided scorers from winners -- the biggest scorers were selfish and the biggest winners were selfless -- until Jordan came along. He led the league in scoring throughout all six of the Bulls' championship seasons.

Not only did Jordan build on the audiences created by Magic and Bird, but also he embodied some kind of evolutionary peak in the game, as if all of the rising trends of leadership and athleticism and showmanship and marketing were all cresting in him. (Like Tiger Woods is to golf, for example.) When Jordan was all done playing for the Bulls, there followed an extended vacuous sigh throughout basketball, as if no one was ever going to top what he had done. Of course now, a short decade later, we find ourselves looking at LeBron.

It just so happens that the five most successful stars listed above cover all five positions on the court, from point guard through center, thereby making for an amazing all-modern-era team. In which case the remaining four champions can be viewed as their backups, which in no way diminishes their accomplishments.

T-3. Kevin Garnett (one championship). Before Garnett came to Boston, he was criticized -- by former players-turned-broadcasters especially -- for his failure to carry the Minnesota Timberwolves offensively in the closing minutes of tight playoff games. But it was always unfair and off the mark to assume that Garnett should have done it the way of Jordan (who, by the way, was surrounded by more talented support in Chicago than Garnett ever received in Minnesota). There are all kinds of ways to lead a team. Jordan did so as a scorer, a finisher; Garnett has always been a creator, a team-first defender who would be at his best offensively in the company of top scorers. (Here's another aside: It is easier to find stars to score than it is to find someone like Garnett.)

"What you see in Kevin is the same greatness as you saw in a Russell,'' Rivers said. "He understood early on, even before he had the horses with him, that he couldn't do it by himself. And then when you gave him those horses, his greatness stood out. He was never going to be the greatest scorer in the NBA because he was so driven to play for the team. He made the unselfish plays, the right pass all the time, and because his teams [in Minnesota] weren't good enough, he got criticized for making the right plays. Now he makes the right plays to Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] -- who are wide open and making shots -- and now that makes Kevin great. But it's the same thing he's always done.''

T-3. Moses Malone (one championship). "We had gotten to the Finals with Doc [Erving] and company in '77, '80, '82, and fallen short,'' said Williams, who as GM of the 76ers signed Malone from the Houston Rockets in the era of restricted (or compensated) free agency in 1982. "We couldn't get over the hump, and you knew it was going to take a ton of money to get Moses, and we went after him hard and got him to sign. He was the centerpiece of the whole thing.

"The big concern was, Could he and Doc relate, could they fit together? And Moses at the opening press conference was asked about that. And as only Moses could say it, he said, 'This is Doc's team, it's not Moses' team. This is Doc's team.' And as it turned out, he played that role extraordinarily. It was an unbelievable year and he anchored the middle.''

Malone, who was 28, won the last of his three league MVPs that year while averaging 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds. The 76ers tore through the playoffs as if their title was predestined, losing but one of 13 games, yet that was the only championship they would earn together. As much as the Jordan era culminated the growth and popularity of the NBA, the quality of basketball was far superior in the 1980s among the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers as well as the emerging Pistons and Bulls. Never in his '90s championship run did Jordan ever face a team as talented as Malone's Sixers.

T-1. Hakeem Olajuwon (two championships). He was the lone established star of the Rockets' first title, which came against the Knicks (who beat the Bulls in the playoffs while Jordan was away playing baseball) in the 1994 Finals; most championship teams require two or more stars, and it says much about Olajuwon's dominance in the post that they were able to succeed at the highest level with a cast of shooters spacing the floor around him. The following year the Rockets appeared to be a middling contender when they traded for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in midseason, thus becoming the lowest conference seed (No. 6 in the West) to win a championship since the league went to its 16-team playoffs in 1983-84.

T-1. Isiah Thomas (two championships). Thomas was the long-suffering Job of the NBA playoffs. In 1983-84, his third NBA season, his young Pistons lost in the first round of the playoffs. The following year they lost in the second round to the Celtics, and two years later they lost in the third round as Bird famously grabbed an inbounds pass from Thomas to steal Game 5. The next year the Pistons lost Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals to the Lakers as Thomas played heroically on a badly sprained ankle.

After five tormented postseasons, Thomas' Pistons won back-to-back titles before Jordan took over. Thomas was by far the smallest of all the players on this list, the only one to not be awarded MVP and, undoubtedly, the most controversial. He was the only eligible champion among these nine to never play for one of the USA Basketball Dream Teams in the Olympics or World Championships. (Malone didn't play for USA Basketball, either, but he was out of the spotlight and on the verge of retirement when NBA players entered the Olympics in 1992.)

"The key is the players need to trust you, not necessarily like you,'' Thomas said of NBA team leadership. "There's a big difference there. People will follow people they don't like, but they won't follow people they don't trust. Every championship team -- whether it be Boston, the Lakers, Chicago, myself with the Pistons -- there were some people on the team that didn't like Magic, that didn't like Bird, didn't like Jordan, didn't like me. However, they trust you.''

The hardest part of this exercise is not deciding who is capable of winning at the highest level. Several young stars have the makings of championship leaders; the difficulty is in narrowing this list down to the three with the strongest opportunity.

Note, as mentioned earlier, that this particular list isn't going to include Bryant or Wade, who have already shown they can lead a team through the Finals and may well do it again, depending in no small part on the support of their teammates.

All championship leaders are going to need the right mix of players around them as well as a coach of perspective and X's-and-O's talent. Potential candidates include (in ascending order) Kevin Durant, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams. And then there are these three ...

3. Brandon Roy. If his body holds up, he has the skills, wisdom, emerging roster and disciplined coach to lead Portland to a championship. If they were to ever lose Roy and his ability to control the game from the top of the key while creating for himself and others, the Blazers would become just another young team struggling to pull their prized parts together.

2. Chris Paul. He is his generation's Isiah, down to the previous statement from Thomas about earning the trust of teammates. Paul exerts leadership over his team every day. Though he often is the smallest player on the floor at 6 feet, Paul has the talent and explosive drive to push a team all the way to the top -- depending on the quality of that surrounding talent. While the Hornets still look a player or two short of championship standing, I fully admit to being among the many who spent all of last year underestimating their chances as they won their division and almost upset the defending champion Spurs in the second round.

1. LeBron James. This is almost a sure thing. LeBron plays like Michael Jordan with two inches of additional height.

His Cavaliers are beginning to mirror the "supporting cast'' of the '90s Bulls, who grew from role players into champions because they were playing in Jordan's orbit. Is there a Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant on this roster? That's something we'll be able to say in hindsight, only after James has led Cleveland to a title.

"Your superstars make other players better,'' Bird said. "Take LeBron. He makes them play better than what they really are. Kobe does the same thing. And even in Boston, they have a lot of nice players, but it's Garnett with his enthusiasm and dedication that makes the other guys a lot better.''

This comes from a leading NBA head coach who asked to remain anonymous because he didn't want to antagonize the league's other stars: "Cleveland has the best player in the league right now. He's playing better than Kobe, he's playing better than anyone. And the best player in the NBA is usually in the hunt for the championship.''

James looks like the front-runner to win the MVP this year. Though he'll turn only 24 at the end of the month, he is now into his sixth season with the experience of being humbled in the 2007 NBA Finals and the harsh seven-game loss to the Celtics in the second round last season, when he appeared to be figuring things out with each game.

"It didn't come easy for him,'' said Thomas, relating his own playing experiences to LeBron's. "He had his ups, his downs, and he's had to learn how to do this. But I think right now, leadership-wise, player-wise, team-wise, I don't see anybody doing it at the level he's doing it.''

(Before anyone accuses Thomas of tampering on behalf of the Knicks, let me note the obvious: He is saying that James can win with the Cavaliers right now.)

"It definitely would come down [in the East] between them and Boston," Thomas continued, "and Boston has got three of those guys -- Pierce, Allen and Garnett. But I do know one guy can beat those guys, because it's been done before. And Cleveland, they have men on their team too. Ben Wallace, [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas -- when they roll it out on the floor, they have tough, grizzled men.''

2. The 2003-04 Pistons were exceptional. They remain the only team of this era to win without an MVP-level star on offense. "Though I would say Chauncey Billups is probably underrated in that area,'' Thomas said, "especially if you see what's happening to the Pistons now, and what's happening to Denver.''

Nonetheless, the star-heavy Lakers of Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone (who was injured during the Finals) and Gary Payton were upset by the younger Pistons, who applied across-the-board defensive pressure and a balanced offense to "play the right way'' at a level that satisfied both coach Larry Brown and Joe Dumars, the architect of the roster.

Ever since that shocking result, teams that lack the leadership of a dominant star tend to look to the Pistons as an example that they too can win the championship with a well-balanced team. But it almost never happens.

1. Luck wins out. How do you get one of these rare players? If you're Jerry West, you spend an exhausting year devising ways to clear space and recruit Shaq from Orlando. That's fine if you're in a market like L.A. and you happen to be as charismatic as Jerry West, who will go down as one of the top GMs in league history.

If you're Danny Ainge, basketball boss of the Celtics, you lose 58 games during the 2006-07 season, then suffer the worst result possible in the lottery by falling to No. 5 in the draft after hoping to land either Greg Oden or Durant with a top two pick.

"What would be the story you would be writing if Boston had won the lottery and drafted Oden?'' Thomas said. "There would be no Garnett, no Ray Allen, no championship. Don't tell me you planned that -- to not win the lottery.''

Ainge did well to construct his trades for Allen and Garnett, but the environment for those trades was established by a series of Ping-Pong balls in a lottery machine.

If you're the Rockets, you win a coin flip that gives you the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft and the rights to Olajuwon. If you're the Bulls, you watch the Blazers use the No. 2 pick in that draft on Sam Bowie, which leaves Jordan falling into your lap.

The Pistons took Thomas No. 2 after the Dallas Mavericks used the top pick in 1981 for Mark Aguirre instead. To get Duncan, the Spurs suffered one bad year while David Robinson was injured and then won the lottery for the second time in a decade. Already mentioned are the unusual circumstances that brought Bird to Boston and Magic to the Lakers.

GMs can plan for all possibilities, coaches can max out their rosters and writers can hold everybody accountable for everything, but to win at the highest levels of championship basketball, there is no substitute for having that one dominant player. And in most cases, the only way to get him is to get lucky.

1. Winning the championship as a coach. Rivers is among the four active coaches who have won championship rings (joining Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown). One of the hardest accomplishments in any sport is to coach an NBA team to the championship. The 62 championships have been divided among just 28 coaches; Jackson and Red Auerbach alone control almost 30 percent of those rings.

"Danny [Ainge] told me that the other day -- six coaches in the last 24 years -- and I didn't believe him,'' Rivers said. "I went and checked it on the computer.''

Entering last season, Rivers had a career coaching record of 273-312 and he had never coached a team past the first round of the playoffs.

"I never knew the odds,'' he said. "You don't even think in those terms of things. Then, after it was done, the first thing I thought was how hard it is to win it -- it's much, much harder than you ever anticipated. I really appreciate after doing it how hard it is, how many things have to go your way, the bounces -- it's just a hard thing to do.''

Having experienced a championship last season, is it easier to make the attempt again this year?

"You trust your players in situations because they've been through them, and you trust yourself in those situations,'' Rivers said. "But it's also harder -- our record (24-2) doesn't indicate it -- because of the intensity of the opponent every night; it's much harder in that way. And then the constant reminding of our role players to continue to play in their role, because the toughest part of success is in handling it, especially the younger you are. Like Phil [Jackson] and Pop [Popovich], they know what they can go to and rely upon because it's been successful in the past, and I would be no different in that way.

"But Naismith didn't invent the game to talk about us. The players make it work. If they're not willing to sacrifice and make it work, then you're done.''

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