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NBA's Second Season

   by Larry Ness - 04/27/2012

The 2011-12 NBA season saw its start delayed until Christmas Day, because of a lockout. The regular season was “compacted” from 82 to 66 games and concluded Thursday night. However, one of the biggest stories from the final day of action did not involve one of this year’s 16 playoff teams but rather it centered around MJ’s Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats closed out the season by losing 23 straight games, the third-longest in NBA history. Charlotte finished the year 7-59 and its winning percentage of .106 marks the lowest for a single season, ever! The previous record was set 39 years ago, when the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers finished 9-73 (.110) in a full regular season.

The NBA last had a strike-shortened season back in 1998-99, the first year following MJ second retirement (he would return in 2001 and retire for a third time after the 2002-03 season). The San Antonio Spurs won their first of four NBA titles back in that 1998-99 season and the way the Spurs played down the stretch this season, a fifth title just may be in the cards. Note that the “aging” Spurs went 24-3 their last 27 games, ending the season on a 10-game winning streak. The hot stretch was good enough for the Spurs to earn the West’s No. 1 seed at 50-16 (Oklahoma City is No. 2 at 47-19) but the Bulls (also 50-16), earned the NBA’s overall No. 1 seed (for the second straight year), via the tiebreaker. The Heat, as they did last year, earned the No. 2 seed in the East.

The above top-two seeds from each conference clearly established themselves as the league’s best teams this regular season and it would be a surprise if they weren’t the NBA’s version of a “Final 4,” with the Spurs and Thunder squaring off in the Western Conference finals, while the Bulls and Heat did so in the Eastern Conference finals. I always like to remind everyone at this time of the 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 32 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 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 and four others with its third-best record.

That leaves just FOUR champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 32 seasons (or just 12.5 percent). I will note that THREE of those champs have come in the last eight years, including the 2011 champion Mavericks, who finished tied for the fourth-best record last year (57-25). The 2003-04 Pistons finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) but that year deserves an asterisk, because after acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons owned the NBA’s best record after the All Star break (by year’s end, the Pistons were HARDLY just the league’s sixth-best team). The 2005-06 Heat owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season, but somehow won the NBA title, as the Mavs coughed up a 2-0 Finals lead, losing FOUR straight games (Mavs made up for that ‘choke,’ last year). The 1994-95 Houston Rockets are the fourth team to win an an NBA title these last 32 years, without finishing the regular season with at least, the league’s third-best regular season record. That squad deserves 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 57-25 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.

I’ve stated that the top-two seeds in each conference look formidable but could we see a “longshot” emerge? Note that the same eight Eastern Conference teams which made last year’s postseason are back again in 2012. However, the team which stands out is the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were the East’s No. 8 seed last year at 37-45 but then gave Chicago “all it wanted” in the first round. The Pacers fell four games-to-one but covered three of the five. This year’s team earned the East’s No. 3 seed, going 42-24 for the NBA’s fifth-best regular season record. All five starters average in double digits plus the team’s top-three reserves, guards Hill (9.6) and Barbosa (11.1) plus forward Hansbrough (9.3-4.4), give this team a real quality eight-man rotation. The Pacers draw the dysfunctional Magic in the first round (sans Dwight Howard) and with a series win, would almost assuredly face the Heat and their “Big Three,” who are still waiting for the FIRST of their promised “not FIVE, not SIX, not SEVEN....” NBA titles. Who knows?

Over in the West, we have a terrific first round matchup between the No. 4 seed Memphis Grizzlies and the fith-seeded Clippers. The Grizzlies beat the Spurs last year in the first round in six games (as a No. 8 seed) and then took the Thunder to seven games, before falling in the second round. Memphis lost Zach Randolph early on to an injury but he returned in mid-March and the Grizzlies finished on quite a roll. Memphis lost four of his first five games back but then went 16-4 over its final 20 games. The Grizzlies’ hot finish earned them home court advantage in a playoff series, for the first time in franchise history. The home court has to mean something, as Memphis won 19 of its final 22 home games (two losses came in OT), ending the regular season with 11 consecutive home wins. The Clippers earned a playoff berth this year for the first time since 2006. The team’s 2006 playoff appearance was the franchise’s first since 1997 and the Clippers only own one playoff series win (against Denver in 2006), since the franchise moved West from Buffalo, after the 1977-78 season. Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin finally lead this troubled franchise to some postseason success?

I say no, as my lone series pick is Memphis over LA, laying about two-to-one. If I’m right, we then get a San Antonio and Memphis rematch in the second round. This year’s playoff 'journey' begins with four games on Saturday and four more on Sunday. My Playoff Journal begins on Monday (4/30) and will be available by 2:00 ET on a daily basis, Monday through Friday.

Good luck, Larry

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