Jun 26

NBA Champions Super Study: NBA v. ABA 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

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 during the nine years in which the NBA and ABA competed as separate leagues, 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/ABA Champions and Their “Standout” Players

Champion W-L (Seed) Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 Player 4 Points
1975-76 Celtics 54-28 (E1) D. Cowens (Both) J. Havlicek (None) 1.5
1975-76 Nets 55-29 (2) J. Erving (Both) 1.0
1974-75 Warriors 48-34 (W1) R. Barry (Both) 1.0
1974-75 Colonels 58-26 (E1) A. Gilmore (Both) L. Dampier (Both) D. Issel (WS) 3.0
1973-74 Celtics 56-26 (E1) J. Havlicek (WS) D. Cowens (WS) D. Nelson (48) 2.5
1973-74 Nets 55-29 (E1) J. Erving (Both) B. Paultz (Both) 2.0
1972-73 Knicks 57-25 (E3) W. Frazier (Both) J. Lucas (48) 2.0
1972-73 Pacers 51-33 (W2) G. McGinnis (Both) M. Daniels (WS) 2.0
1971-72 Lakers 69-13 (W1) W. Chamberlain (Both) J. West (Both) G. Goodrich (Both) H. Hairston (Both) 4.0
1971-72 Pacers 47-37 (W2) M. Daniels (Both) R. Brown (WS) 2.0
1970-71 Bucks 66-16 (W1) K. Adbul-
Jabbar (Both)
O. Robertson (Both) B. Dandridge (WS) J. McGlocklin (WS) 3.0
1970-71 Stars 57-27 (W2) Z. Beaty (Both) 1.0
1969-70 Knicks 60-22 (E1) W. Frazier (Both) W. Reed (Both) C. Russell (48) 2.5
1969-70 Pacers 59-25 (E1) R. Brown (Both) M. Daniels (WS) 2.0
1968-69 Celtics 48-34 (E4) B. Howell (Both) B. Russell (WS) D. Nelson (48) S. Jones (None) 3.5
1968-69 Oaks 60-18 (W1) G. Bradds (Both) J. Eakins (48) 1.0
1967-68 Celtics 54-28 (E2) B. Howell (Both) B. Russell (WS) D. Nelson (48) S. Jones (None) 3.5
1967-68 Pipers 54-24 (E1) C. Hawkins (Both) A. Heyman (WS) 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 point): Player qualifies as an “elder statesman”

With the splitting of rosters to two leagues, we expected to see some lighter rosters when it comes to stars. However, because the ABA in particular had a smaller league, under-27 players were most likely to get some early championship experience. That certainly played a bit of role here, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a high percentage of exceptions to our two-point theory. Six of the 18 teams in this span, including two NBA teams and four ABA teams, did not fit the two-point expectation. That’s too high of a rate.

In the NBA, the 1975-76 Celtics and 1974-75 Warriors failed to fit the trend. The veteran-laden Celtics were about 2.5 regular season minutes per game away from making Don Nelson the second elder statesman on the team. Nelson played more than 15 minutes per game in the postseason, so perhaps you can argue that the Celtics fit the system if we ignore the mitigating context of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Warriors got through a weak West, and then swept a Washington Bullets team that had a 12-game regular season advantage on Golden State. They were a true exception, as Rick Berry was the lone stud on the team.

In the ABA, youth clearly played a major role in the league. Among the nine champions, there were a total of 17 standout players, including those who repeated as champions. Those players averaged exactly 26 years of age (as of February 1 of the given year) when winning those championships. We can clearly understand why this would play a major role, as the league focused on getting young stars from college to compete with the NBA. Two of the four champions who fell short of the trend, the 1968-69 Oaks and the 1967-68 Pipers, did so because of young standout players making their first respective championship appearances. The Oaks were championship ready when they had a young Rick Barry for a part of the season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Meanwhile, the 1975-76 Nets and 1970-71 Stars won with just one standout player. Both players were all-time greats, though. We don’t need to say much about Dr. J, as his legacy should speak for itself. Erving totaled 12 standout seasons. However, Zelmo Beaty isn’t nearly as well-known. Like with Barry, Beaty had to sit out a year when switching to the ABA. Both dominated in their respective first season in the ABA, but as you know, Barry didn’t finish his season due to injury. Beaty lasted his season and began a dominating four-year stretch in Utah. He finished with the third-best Win Shares per 48 Minutes in ABA history.

Conclusion: Don’t Compare These Results to the Modern Era
At this time, the two leagues were worn thin by their respective opponents. The ABA took away youth from the NBA, while the NBA took a year away from stars looking to leave the league. Obviously none of that context applies now, we can just look at this as a thing of the past. Professional basketball is officially past these growing pains, and the star system is fully established by now.

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