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
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 ...
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
"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?
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
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
Relative to football or baseball, there are few players on a small court playing to a free-flowing pace.
"Let's say it's freaky when it doesn't happen,'' said Orlando Magic senior VP
Williams recalls the run of five championships in six years by
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.
"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
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
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.
"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.''
"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.
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)
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
"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.
Nonetheless, the star-heavy Lakers of Shaq, Kobe,
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.
"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
The Pistons took Thomas No. 2 after the Dallas Mavericks used the top pick in 1981 for
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.
"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.