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NBA's Second Season
by Larry Ness - 04/16/2010
The 2008-09 NBA regular season concluded last year with 28 of the league's 30 teams in action on its final day. 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 Houston. The Rockets played at Dallas on last year's final night of the regular season 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 fell all the way to the West's No. 5 seed.
Wednesday night it was "déjà vu all over again," with the Utah Jazz playing the role of the Houston Rockets, as once again 28 of the league's 30 teams were in action. The Jazz entered Wednesday with a chance to claim the West's No. 2 seed but even though the Mavs' win over the Spurs earlier in the night ended that possibility, the Jazz still had a chance to capture the Northwest Division and claim the West's No. 3 seed with a win over the visiting Suns. However, Boozer sat out with a bruised ribcage and the Jazz were never in the game, losing 100-86. The Suns, once considered long shots to even make the playoffs, now enter the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the West while the Jazz fell to the No. 5 seed and open the playoffs at Denver.
While all 16 playoff teams had secured playoff berths before the final day of last year's regular season, this year's final regular season night saw the Bulls and Raptors still 'alive' for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. The Raptors needed to beat the Knicks (they did, 131-113) and have the Bulls lose at Charlotte (they didn't, winning 98-89) to make the postseason. Chicago's win gave the Bulls a 41-41 record for the second straight season. The Bulls finished 20 games behind the No. 1-seeded Cavs (61-21), a far cry from the competitive West, which saw the 57-24 Lakers (West's No. 1 seed) finishing just seven games up on the Blazers (6th), Spurs (7th) and Thunder (8th), who all tied at 50-32.
The Cavs were the only team to win 60 games this year, after three teams topped 60 wins last year. The Lakers (65) and Celtics (62) joined Cleveland in last year's 60-win club with the Magic (59) just missing, which would have been just the second time in NBA history that a season featured 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. The Cavs and Lakers became the first duo to win 65 games or more in the same year last season and became the 15th and 16th teams to post 60-win seasons in NBA history.
The Cavs wound up losing to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals but the Lakers would beat Orlando in the NBA finals. Cleveland's failure to win the NBA title last year despite winning 65 or more games (in Cleveland's case, 66), meant the Cavs joined a fraternity of just three. The only previous teams to have won 65 games or more in a NBA season and not go on to win that year's title were the 1972-73 Celtics and the 2006-07 Mavericks. The Celtics went 68-14 in 1972-73 but lost a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals to the NY Knicks. The Dallas Mavericks went 67-15 in 2006-07, only to lose a first-round series to the Golden State Warriors.
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, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. Of the 30 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 (exactly 50.0 percent) have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Nine champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark (including the Lakers last year) and three others with its third-best record.
That leaves just three champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 30 seasons (10 percent). Two of those champs have come in the last six 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 are the third team and 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 Ewing.
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) during the regular season. No championship team, before or since, has beaten a more impressive group of challengers on its way to an NBA title.
Is anyone really expecting an "upset winner" this year? Probably not but let me note the following. The Cavs led the league in point-differential last year at 8.9 PPG but lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the Magic. The Lakers, who owned last year's second-best point-differential at plus-7.7 PPG, went on to best the Magic in the NBA Finals, four games-to one. The team which has owned the year's best point-differential during the regular season has won six of the last 10 NBA titles. It should be noted that neither of the No. 1 seeds (Cleveland in the East or the Lakers in the West) owned their conference's best point-differential this season.
The Cavs finished the season at plus-6.5 PPG, which ranked second to Orlando's plus-7.5 mark. LA's point-differential of plus-4.7 is not only 3.0 PPG lower than last year's mark but it's also just second-best in the West to the Suns' plus-4.9 margin. Could we have an Orlando/Phoenix matchup in this year's Finals? The whole world anticipated a LeBron vs Kobe showdown in last year's Finals and were disappointed. Is it possible that neither of the the league's top-two marquee players will still be playing come June?
The 'journey' begins with four games on Saturday and four more on Sunday. My Playoff Journal begins on Monday (4/19) and will be available by 2:00 ET on a daily basis Monday through Friday.
Good luck, Larry