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NBA's Second Season
by Larry Ness - 04/15/2009
The 2008-09 NBA regular season concluded this past Wednesday night, with 28 of the league's 30 teams in action (only the Jazz and Lakers were idle). While all 16 playoff positions had been clinched, one division title was still up for grabs (Southwest) and a number of playoff seedings were yet to be finalized. There was no bigger loser than the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets played at Dallas on Wednesday night and a win meant that Houston would clinch the Southwest Division title (the franchise's first division title since 1993-94) plus with a Denver loss in Portland later that night, the Rockets would have claimed the West's No. 2 seed. However, the Rockets lost 95-84 and wound up as the West's No. 5 seed, meaning no home court advantage. That hardly spells good news to a franchise which last won a playoff series back in 1996-97, losing six consecutive first-round series since.
There's little sense recapping the rest of the fallout from Wednesday's results, as I'm sure the reader is aware of what happened. However, I will make a few comments regarding the final NBA standings. The Cavs finished with the best record (66-16), easily surpassing the best single-season win total in franchise history. The 1988-89 and 1991-92 teams each won 57 games, coached by Lenny Wilkens. The Lakers owned the West's best record (65-17) and it marks the first time in NBA history in which two teams have won 65 or more games in the same season.
The Celtics, who went 66-16 last year on their way to the team's 17th NBA title, finished at 62-20. The Magic finished at 59-23, failing to join the 60-win club, which would have made the 2008-09 season just the second in NBA history to feature four 60-win teams. Back in 1997-98, the Bulls and Jazz both won 62 games, while the Lakers and Sonics (now the Thunder) each won 61.
As I always like to remind everyone at this time every year, the NBA playoffs rarely offer any real surprises. Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season (30th anniversary), rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. Of the 29 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 (or 51.7 percent) have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Eight champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark and three others with its third-best record.
That leaves just three champions from outside the top-three regular season records. Two of those champs have come in the last five years. The 2003-04 Pistons finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season.
The 1994-95 Houston Rockets deserve a special mention. You may remember that following a third straight NBA title in 1992-93 with the Bulls and the tragic death of his father, MJ decided to pursue a career in MLB. With MJ in the minors and not on an NBA court, the 1993-94 Rockets (coached by Rudy T and led by Hakeem) won the title in a seven-game series over the Knicks, who were coached by Pat Riley and led by Patrick.
The following season, the Rockets finished with a record of 47-35, tied for the 10th-best mark during the regular season. However, they beat in order, the 60-22 Jazz, the 59-23 Suns and the 62-20 Spurs (owners of the league's best record that year in David Robinson's MVP year) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-255 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny (remember him?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ (who returned late in the that season from his MLB 'sabbatical').
The Rockets swept the Magic in four games, giving Rudy T and Hakeem back-to-back titles and giving Clyde Drexler (who was acquired from Portland during the season in a trade), the lone NBA title of his Hall-of-Fame career. Houston 'victims' that postseason had gone a combined record of 238-90 (.726). No championship team, before or since, has beaten a more impressive group of challengers on its way to an NBA title.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cavs (66 wins) and Lakers (65 wins) have become the first duo to win 65 games or more in the same year. Both cannot win the title, meaning at least one of them (possibly both) will join a select group which currently has only two members.The first team to win as many as 65 games in an NBA regular season was the 1967-68 Philadelphia 76ers, led by Wilt (no last name needed).
That team went 68-13 and won the NBA title that year, ending Boston's reign of eight consecutive championships and nine of the last 10. The Milwaukee Bucks of 1970-71 were the next team to reach the 65-win plateau (66-16), also winning the title that season, led by Lew Alcindor and the Big O (please tell me I don't have to explain who either of these guys are!).
The 1971-72 Lakers went 69-13 (a single-season record which stood until MJ's Bulls of 1995-96 went 72-10) and also won a title. Again, Wilt was the center of that team but let me note a bit of trivia here. In college hoops, Texas Western (now UTEP for you younger readers) made history for being the first team with an all-black starting-five to win a national championship. Let me mention that the Lakers of 1971-72 featured a starting guard combo of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. They are the last team to win an NBA title with two starting white guards (can I say that?).
Anyway, my point is, there have been 14 teams (prior to the Cavs and Lakers this year), which have won 65 games or more, in an NBA regular season. Just two, have failed to win a championship in that year. The 1972-73 Celtics went 68-14 but lost a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals to the NY Knicks. Then in the 2006-07 season, the Dallas Mavericks went 67-15, only to lose a first-round series to the Golden State Warriors (oh, the humanity!).