Jun 25

NBA Champions Super Study: Early-Year Champions

Editor’s Note: Throughout this week, TABMathletics author Adam Dobrowolski will look at the makings of NBA champions. This includes explaining the theory of why teams need multiple “standout” players, as well as explaining the theory why those “standout” players need to have enough experience in that role to effectively compete for a championship. Furthermore, he will show each champion from three respective eras (early BAA and NBA days, the ABA v. NBA days, the post-merger days) to illustrate how most teams follow this theory. With this study, we can see each years which teams “fit” the billing of a normal NBA champion.

NBA Finals

Over the previous two days, we looked at some theory that considered what made a normal NBA champion. Our focus addressed the “two-star” approach many experts take on determining championship contenders. In Part 1, we tweaked that a bit by determining some qualifications for standout players. In Part 2, we addressed the limitations (and subsequent exceptions to those limitations) of the “standout” players and the lone exception for the non-standouts. This sets us up for a champion-by-champion breakdown.

We will be looking for a two-standout player requirement for each champion, only adjusted for context. As a result, we’ll instead look for a two-standout point requirement for championship teams. Using our definitions from Part 1 and Part 2, we can give a whole point or half-point to a standout player based on his championship-ready status. If a standout player doesn’t fit the championship-ready label, he will count for only a half point in this study. Elder statesmen will also receive a half point. The rest will receive a whole point.

Now, let’s define each type of player that will be considered for the next three parts of this study:

  • Standout player: Averages 0.1 Win Shares per Team Game and/or 0.16 Win Shares per 48 Minutes
  • Elite-level standout player: Averages 0.15 Win Shares per Team Game and/or 0.24 Win Shares per 48 Minutes
  • Elder statesmen: Non-standout player who is at least 34 years old and has at least six previous standout seasons
    (Updated 6/21/15: Must also have previous experience playing in the NBA Finals.)

Furthermore, let’s define which standout players are championship ready and which are NOT:

  • Championship ready: At least 27 years old with at least four standout seasons
  • NOT championship ready: Under 27 years old and/or with three or fewer standout seasons
  • Championship ready: Under 27 years old with qualifications as an elite-level standout player
  • Championship ready: Under 27 years old with a previous Finals appearance
  • Championship ready: Three or fewer standout seasons, but has qualifications as an elite-level standout player
  • Championship ready: Three or fewer standout seasons, but has a previous Finals appearance

Players who appeared in a previous Finals MUST have averaged at least 15 minutes per game in that series.

The table below shows each champion during the early years of the NBA and BAA, with the “standout” player for each team included. For each “standout” player, we include the qualifying criterion or criteria that earns the distinction. Players who have at least 0.1 Win Shares per Team Game will be denoted with “WS” in the table. Players who have at least 0.16 Win Shares per 48 Minutes will denoted with “48” in the table. Player who have both thresholds surpassed will be denoted with “both” in the table. Note that these standout players MUST average at least 15 minutes per game in both the regular season and postseason to qualify for the “standout” designation.

We will use Basketball Reference for the statistical totals in “WS” and “48.” Note that Basketball Reference did not calculate Win Shares per 48 Minutes for any season before the 1951-52 season, because minutes played were not record by the league before that time. Therefore, only Win Shares will be considered, without any regard for minutes played per game. Injuries are the only exception.

Table 1: NBA/BAA Champions and Their “Standout” Players

Champion W-L (Seed) Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 Player(s) 4+ Points
1966-67 76ers 68-13 (E1) W. Chamberlain (Both) C. Walker (Both) 1.5
1965-66 Celtics 54-26 (E2) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) L. Siegfried (48) 2.5
1964-65 Celtics 62-18 (E1) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) 2.0
1963-64 Celtics 59-21 (E1) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) 2.0
1962-63 Celtics 58-22 (E1) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) T. Heinsohn (48) B. Cousy (None) 3.5
1961-62 Celtics 60-20 (E1) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) T. Heinsohn (Both) F. Ramsay (48) 4.0
1960-61 Celtics 57-22 (E1) B. Russell (Both) S. Jones (Both) B. Sharman (48) 3.0
1959-60 Celtics 59-16 (E1) B. Russell (Both) B. Sharman (Both) B. Cousy (WS) T. Heinsohn (WS)
S. Jones (48)
1958-59 Celtics 52-20 (E1) B. Russell (Both) B. Cousy (Both) B. Sharman (WS) S. Jones (48) 3.5
1957-58 Hawks 41-31 (W1) B. Pettit (Both) C. Hagan (Both) 1.5
1956-57 Celtics 44-28 (E1) B. Sharman (Both) B. Cousy (Both) F. Ramsay (48) B. Russell (48) 3.0
1955-56 Warriors 45-27 (E1) N. Johnston (Both) P. Arizin (Both) 2.0
1954-55 Nationals 43-29 (E1) D. Schayes (Both) 1.0
1953-54 Lakers 46-26 (W1) G. Mikan (Both) C. Lovellette (48) 1.5
1952-53 Lakers 48-22 (W1) G. Mikan (Both) V. Mikkelsen (Both) S. Martin (WS) 3.0
1951-52 Lakers 40-26 (W2) G. Mikan (Both) V. Mikkelsen (Both) 2.0
1950-51 Royals 41-27 (W2) A. Risen (WS) A. Johnson (WS) B. Wanzer (WS) B. Davies (WS) 2.0
1949-50 Lakers 51-17 (C1) G. Mikan (WS) V. Mikkelsen (WS) 1.5
1948-49 Lakers 44-16 (W2) G. Mikan (WS) J. Pollard (WS) H. Schaefer (WS) 2.0
1947-48 Bullets 28-20 (W2) B. Jeannette (WS) C. Reiser (WS) 1.5
1946-47 Warriors 35-25 (E2) J. Fulks (WS) 1.0

Black (1.0 point): Player has “standout” status without any additional contextual factors
Red (0.5 points): Player is under 27 years old (as of February 1 of that NBA year) OR has fewer than four years of “standout” experience
Blue (1.0 point): Player has elite-level Win Shares and/or Win Shares per 48 Minutes without any other contextual factors
Purple (1.0 point): Player fits the qualities for both “red” and “blue” classification OR player with “red” classification already played in Finals
Amber (0.5 point): Player qualifies as an “elder statesman”

Perhaps you can see why the Celtics dominated the NBA for roughly a decade. In the fledgling NBA, many teams did not have the championship-ready experience of Boston. It was like a tidal wave of championships. Credit the likes of center Bill Russell, head coach Red Auerbach for being the centerpieces of a franchise that won 11 championships in 13 seasons. However, also understand that was in part a product of the league’s infancy. Even with the same level of efficiency carried over to the modern era, it probably doesn’t happen.

The Celtics earned nine of those champions in this era, and they all feature championship-ready teams. The same can’t be said for the other 12 champions in this era. Only five of those teams had a championship-ready label, including three from the Lakers franchise that won five of six championships from 1948-54. This shows that the two-point system we have in place better fits the modern era.

In the earliest days, one standout player could be enough, as long as he dominated in elite fashion. The 1966-67 76ers had the likes of Wilt Chamberlain that set the tone for the franchise. He would’ve won more championships in this era if not for Russell. The 1957-58 Hawks had the likes of a young, yet still dominant Bob Pettit. The 1954-55 Nationals had the likes of a different elite youngster in Dolph Schayes. The 1953-54 Lakers and the 1949-50 Lakers thrived with elite play from Mikan, who was arguably the best player during the league’s first decade. He was honestly the league’s first truly great player. The 1947-48 Bullets were led by the elite play of Buddy Jeannette, who has arguably the best backcourt player in basketball shortly before the BAA/NBA’s formation. Finally, 1946-47 Warriors were led by the elite play of Joe Fulks, who led the BAA in scoring in its inaugural season. Every champion with fewer than two points in this era had a player with an elite total of Win Shares. This provides great context to the teams that fell short of the trend.

Again, this is not something teams can get away with now. The league has far overgrown those days for various reasons. For one, the league didn’t integrate until the 1950-51 season, when four players (Nathaniel Clifton, Chuck Cooper, Hank DeZonie and Earl Lloyd) signed contracts and hit the NBA courts. However, players didn’t receive the opportunity to showcase their talents like those of the “Black Fives” era for several more years. Russell was the first of reach NBA stardom, and did so in a way that nobody else did so at his position. The defensive-minded Russell didn’t play quite like the aforementioned offensive-minded dominant big men (Mikan, Pettit, Schayes).

The modern day NBA champions simply cannot be compared to these champions, outside of the Celtics dynasty. That was the first true group of champions, as coach Auerbach drafted to find great defensive players and team-oriented offensive players. He and Russell primarily built the foundation of championship basketball, and the fact that none of those Celtics championship teams broke the trend should provide some evidence that this system works. By the end of the week, we’ll show much more evidence that it does.

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