Jun 27

NBA Champions Super Study: Post-Merger 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.

Editor’s Note: Part 3 will be updated each year to reflect each new NBA champion and its respective standout players.

NBA Finals

Earlier in the week, 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 this part 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 since the NBA-ABA merger, 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.”

Table 1: NBA Champions and Their “Standout” Players (post-merger)

Champion W-L (Seed) Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 Player(s) 4+ Points
2014-15 Warriors 67-15 (W1) S. Curry (Both) K. Thompson (Both) D. Green (Both) 2.0
2013-14 Spurs 62-20 (W1) K. Leonard (48) M. Ginobili (48) P. Mills (48) T. Duncan (48)
T. Splitter (48)
2012-13 Heat 66-16 (E1) L. James (Both) D. Wade (Both) C. Bosh (Both) R. Allen (None) 3.5
2011-12 Heat 46-20 (E2) L. James (Both) D. Wade (Both) C. Bosh (Both) 3.0
2010-11 Mavericks 57-25 (W3) D. Nowitzki (Both) T. Chandler (Both) J. Kidd (None) 2.0
2009-10 Lakers 57-25 (W1) P. Gasol (Both) K. Byrant (WS) A. Bynum (48) 3.0
2008-09 Lakers 65-17 (W1) P. Gasol (Both) K. Bryant (Both) A. Bynum (48) 2.5
2007-08 Celtics 66-16 (E1) K. Garnett (Both) P. Pierce (Both) R. Allen (Both) J. Posey (48) 4.0
2006-07 Spurs 58-24 (W3) T. Duncan (Both) M. Ginobili (Both) T. Parker (Both) 3.0
2005-06 Heat 52-30 (W2) D. Wade (Both) S. O’Neal (48) G. Payton (None) 2.5
2004-05 Spurs 59-23 (W2) T. Duncan (Both) M. Ginobili (Both) B. Barry (48) 2.5
2003-04 Pistons 54-28 (E3) C. Billups (Both) B. Wallace (Both) **R. Wallace (48)** 1.0
2002-03 Spurs 60-22 (W1) T. Duncan (Both) D. Robinson (48) 2.0
2001-02 Lakers 58-24 (W3) S. O’Neal (Both) K. Bryant (Both) 2.0
2000-01 Lakers 56-26 (W2) S. O’Neal (Both) K. Bryant (Both) 2.0
1999-2000 Lakers 67-15 (W1) S. O’Neal (Both) K. Bryant (Both) G. Rice (Both) R. Horry (48) 3.5
1998-99 Spurs 37-13 (W1) T. Duncan (Both) D. Robinson (Both) M. Elie (48) 3.0
1997-98 Bulls 62-20 (E1) M. Jordan (Both) S. Pippen (48) S. Kerr (48) 3.0
1996-97 Bulls 69-13 (E1) M. Jordan (Both) S. Pippen (Both) T. Kukoc (48) S. Kerr (48) 4.0
1995-96 Bulls 72-10 (E1) M. Jordan (Both) S. Pippen (Both) T. Kukoc (Both) S. Kerr (Both)
R. Harper (48)
1994-95 Rockets 47-35 (W6) C. Drexler (Both) H. Olajuwon (Both) 2.0
1993-94 Rockets 58-24 (W2) H. Olajuwon (Both) O. Thorpe (Both) 2.0
1992-93 Bulls 57-25 (E2) M. Jordan (Both) H. Grant (WS) S. Pippen (WS) 3.0
1991-92 Bulls 67-15 (E1) M. Jordan (Both) H. Grant (Both) S. Pippen (Both) 3.0
1990-91 Bulls 61-21 (E1) M. Jordan (Both) S. Pippen (WS) H. Grant (Both) 2.0
1989-90 Pistons 59-23 (E1) B. Laimbeer (Both) D. Rodman (Both) J. Dumars (Both) 3.0
1988-89 Pistons 63-19 (E1) B. Laimbeer (Both) D. Rodman (48) 2.0
1987-88 Lakers 62-20 (W1) M. Johnson (Both) B. Scott (Both) K. Abdul-
Jabbar (None)
1986-87 Lakers 65-17 (W1) M. Johnson (Both) J. Worthy (WS) A.C. Green (48) K. Abdul-
Jabbar (None)
1985-86 Celtics 67-15 (E1) L. Bird (Both) K. McHale (Both) R. Parish (Both) 3.0
1984-85 Lakers 62-20 (W1) M. Johnson (Both) K. Abdul-
Jabbar (Both)
1983-84 Celtics 62-20 (E1) L. Bird (Both) K. McHale (Both) R. Parish (Both) 3.0
1982-83 76ers 65-17 (E1) M. Malone (Both) J. Erving (Both) M. Cheeks (Both) B. Jones (48) 4.0
1981-82 Lakers 57-25 (W1) M. Johnson (Both) K. Abdul-
Jabbar (Both)
1980-81 Celtics 62-20 (W1) C. Maxwell (Both) R. Parish (Both) L. Bird (Both) 1.5
1979-80 Lakers 60-22 (W1) K. Abdul-
Jabbar (Both)
M. Johnson (Both) J. Wilkes (WS) 2.5
1978-79 SuperSonics 52-30 (W1) J. Sikma (WS) G. Williams (Both) 2.0
1977-78 Bullets 44-38 (E3) E. Hayes (WS) 1.0
1976-77 Trail Blazers 49-33 (W3) B. Walton (Both) M. Lucas (WS) D. Twardzik (48) 1.5

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 points): Player qualifies as an “elder statesman”

Very few champions in the post-merger bucked the trend of our theory. As you can see in the table above, four of the 38 champions scored below the two-point threshold needed to be a normal champion. Those numbers are skewed by the immediate years following the NBA-ABA merger. Once the league settled in its place in the 1980’s, we almost always seen the championship-ready team win. Only one abnormal champion remains over the last 33 years, and that team got a boost from a mid-season trade.

Exceptions #1-3: Immediate Impact of the NBA-ABA Merger
For the first five years following the merger, four champions failed to fit into the normal “two standout player” picture. Only one team (the 1979-80 Lakers) actually fit that trend. This creates an apparent correlation between the merger and the influx of abnormal champions. We can’t prove causation, but we may be able to garner some evidence that the merger caused unlikely teams to become champions.

Take the 1976-77 Trail Blazers as an example. After the merger, they received three players who eventually or already had “standout” seasons: Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone and Dave Twardzik. Lucas and Malone were taken second and fifth overall, respectively, in the 1976 ABA Dispersal Draft. Meanwhile, Twardzik was originally drafted by Portland back in 1972, so he was over after the merger. Malone was traded because he was an expensive option in an already crowded front court. Lucas and Twardzik combined with Bill Walton to create a young nucleus that immediately won a championship. Portland was directly helped by the merger.

Larry Bird's legend began with a Finals victory in 1981. (photo rights to Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images)

Larry Bird’s legend began with a Finals victory in 1981. (photo rights to Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images)

However, a team like the 1977-78 Bullets would suggest otherwise. This team owns the worst record of any modern NBA champion, but it also had a reputable group of stars. You just wouldn’t know it by looking at the aforementioned table. Washington held a better record in each of the previous five seasons. Besides Elvin Hayes, the team had former “standout” players in Wes Unseld and Bob Dandridge. Unseld became the second player to win league MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season, and he had seven “standout” seasons before the 1977-78 season. Dandridge had his first season in Washington, but he put together four “standout” seasons in Milwaukee. This was merely a regular season underachiever.

As for the 1980-81 Celtics, youth was served again. The Celtics had three young studs in the regular season, but a fourth emerged when Kevin McHale emerged with 0.177 Win Shares in 17 postseason games. Of course, it helps when Larry Bird started to play at an elite level in this postseason. Then again, playing the Houston Rockets (40-42 record) in the Finals helped too. Moses Malone was the only stud on that team, so it was a lay-up for Bird and the Celtics. It’s almost unfair Boston got to retool so quickly.

It may be coincidence or not, but we’d need to have a much more detailed look at the merger to see exactly how much impact it had on this study. Did the roster shifts immediately after the merger affect team chemistry around the league, allowing young teams to emerge quicker than normal? Did the merger have to do with this after all? All we know was that we saw a five-year exception to the trend.

Exception #4: Pistons Make a Major Trade to Buck the Trend
Fast forward 15 years past the Bad Boys’ first championship, and you see the 2003-04 Pistons reclaiming the franchise’s championship fortunes. a team most people consider the star-less wonder that won an NBA championship. We don’t see it that way. Instead, we see a team that worked its way into championship contention by picking up a “bad boy” in a big trade. We see this as one of the most interesting twists of fate in NBA championship history.

Rasheed Wallace played just one game with the Atlanta Hawks in 2004 as a bridge between Portland and Detroit. (photo rights to AP / Bill Kostroun)

Rasheed Wallace played just one game with the Atlanta Hawks in 2004 as a bridge between Portland and Detroit. (photo rights to AP / Bill Kostroun)

Rasheed Wallace entered his ninth season, having already achieved six “standout” seasons. He was a stud with the Portland Trail Blazers and helped the team to back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances. However, he also in some way became the face of the franchise’s spiral out of the control. Nicknamed the “Jail Blazers” for all of their off-the-court problems, Portland saw its leader have problems on it. Wallace was perhaps the best known for racking up technical fouls. With the team out of the playoff hunt in February 2004, the Trail Blazers traded Wallace to the Atlanta Hawks — a place in which Wallace only played one game. The Hawks dumped his salary by shipping him off the Detroit.

Overall, Wallace didn’t have a “standout” season, but he would’ve if his Detroit numbers were prorated for an 82-game season. “Sheed” tallied 0.171 Win Shares per 48 Minutes over a 26-game span with the Pistons. More importantly, if we consider that run enough to make him a “standout” player for the team, he makes the 2003-04 Pistons a legitimate championship contender. Wallace seemed to be that guy, as he netted 2.3 Win Shares in 23 postseason games. He made the difference against the twilight-ridden Lakers.

Conclusion: Few Upsets = Normal Champions
As we discussed in detail last week, the NBA rarely sees legitimate postseason upsets. This directly has to do with the dynamics of the league, from the scoring dynamics to the series length. As this study suggests, the infrequency of upset also has to do with the roster dynamics. Because only five players take the court for a team, the role of a standout player is much more valuable relative to other major sports leagues (except for the centralized role of a quarterback). If a team can have multiple players take over the game, it significantly improves that team’s chances of winning an NBA championship. If a team falls short of this standard, it would take a very tall task to make a run to a championship. We can use this two standout point system to predict winners in future NBA postseasons.

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