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NBA's Second Season

   by Larry Ness - 04/18/2014

The Spurs entered the NBA for the 1976-77 season (along with fellow ABA teams the Nets, Nuggets and Pacers) and are not only the only former ABA team to have won a title (the Spurs have won four) but only the Lakers have been in more postseasons than the Spurs these last 38 years. The Lakers have missed the postseason for just the second time over the last 20 seasons in 2014 (also missed in 2004-05 season) but have participated in 35 of the 38 postseasons since the merger. The Spurs are playing in their 17th straight postseason, 24 of the last 25 (missed in 1996-97) and 34 of the 38 since the merger (one shy of LA’s mark).

Considering the Spurs lost in last year’s NBA Finals to the Heat (in a terrific seven-game series) and the fact that San Antonio just completed the regular season with the league’s best record, it’s fair to say the Spurs are the favorite. However, there should be some concern for San Antonio and its fans (and betting backers). San Antonio’s likely second-round opponent is the 4th-seeded Houston Rockets and the team’s likely opponent in the West Conference final is the OKC Thunder. So what’s the big deal? How about the fact that while San Antonio went an NBA-best 62-20, the Spurs were 0-4 vs both the Rockets and Thunder this year (as opposed to going 62-12, or .838 vs the rest of the league)!

The NBA consists of 30 teams and just 12 have won championships since the 1976-77 merger, with only seven winning multiple titles. The Lakers lead the way with 10, followed by the Bulls (six), Celtics (four), Spurs (four), Pistons (three), Heat (three) and Rockets (two). Of the five teams to win single titles since the merger, all but the Mavs win in 2011 came more than 20 years ago. The Blazers won the first NBA title post-merger in 1977, followed by the Bullets (now Wizards) winning in 1978 over the Sonics (now Thunder) and then the Sonics “returning the favor” the following season by beating the Bullets. The fifth team to win a single NBA title since the merger was the 76ers, who won with Moses and Doctor J in that famous Fo’, Fo’ Fo’ season of 1982-83.

The Heat are the two-time defending champs but with an 11-14 record over their last 25 games, finished tied for the NBA’s fifth-best record at 54-28 (along with the Rockets and Blazers). The Heat had the best regular season record of any team last year (66-16) and went on to win the title. That ended a four-year drought of NBA champs which didn’t own the best regular season record (the 2007-08 Celtics won the title after topping the NBA that season with a 66-16 record). However, as I point out every year at this time, it’s not as if the NBA playoffs typically serve up “unlikely” champs. 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 34 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 16 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 FIVE champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 34 seasons (or just 14.7 percent). However, while just five champions have come from a group outside of the top-three regular season records these last 34 years, it would be foolish to not realize that FOUR of those five have come in the last 10 years (a pattern?).

The 2012 Heat and 2011 Mavericks both finished with the fourth-best record that year. The other two recent teams to do so are the 2003-04 Pistons, who finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat, who owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season. The 2004 Pistons deserve an asterisk, because after acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons owned the NBA’s best record after the All Star break and by year’s end, were HARDLY considered the league’s sixth-best team. As for the 2006 Heat, they owe the Mavs as big favor, as Dallas coughed up a 2-0 Finals lead, losing FOUR straight games (Mavs made up for that ‘choke’ in 2011). That leaves the 1994-95 Houston Rockets as the fifth team to win an an NBA title these last 34 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 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.

On the eve of the 2014 playoffs, should we expect any surprises? The Pacers and Heat are the top-two seeds in the East and dominated that much weaker conference all season. However, neither looked likely championship contenders down the stretch. I previously noted Miami’s 11-14 record over its final 25 games and here I’ll add that while the Pacers have won back-to-back division championships for the first time since 1998-99 and 1999-2000 (as well as hanging on to claim the East’s No. 1 seed), they went 10-12 over their last 22 games. Even of more concern to sports bettors is the following set of facts.

Indiana opened February with four straight wins, the last of which was a 118-113 OT victory over the Blazers on Feb 7, a non-cover which began a money-burning ATS slide in which the Pacers went 7-26-1 ATS over their final 34 regular season games, including 3-15 ATS on the road. No one expects the 38-44 Hawks to be able to win a seven-game series against Indiana but maybe the winner of the Chicago/Washington series could pull an upset? If the Bulls beat the Wizards, note that Chicago has gone 42-20 since acquiring point guard D.J. Augustin (he played in all but ONE of those games, averaging 14.9 PPG and 5.0 APG with Chicago).

As for the Heat, getting past the Bobcats (making the franchise’s 2nd postseason appearance in its 10-year history) should not be a problem. However, maybe the Toronto/Brooklyn winner could be? The Raptors dumped Rudy Gay in early December and went 41-22 (.651) the rest of the way. As for Brooklyn, the Nets were just 10-21 when the calendar turned to 2014 but finished 34-17 (.667) over their final 51 games. Of even greater note is the fact that the Nets won all FOUR meetings with the Heat this regular season!

I noted at the top that the West’s No. 1 seed (SA), is a combined 0-8 SU this regular season against its expected opponents in each of the second two rounds of this year’s playoffs. That alone should be enough to make the West a “wide open” draw in 2014. OKC is the No. 2 seed and has this year’s likely MVP in Kevin Durant but will Westbrook stay healthy all postseason? If so, is a “two-man” team capable of winning the title? The Clippers are the No. 3 seed and many I know think they just could be the NBA’s best team. However, can one really put that much faith in a franchise making only its SEVENTH postseason appearance since the team came to California (from Buffalo) to begin the 1978-79 season? By the way, the Clippers have lost in the first round in FOUR of their previous six playoff appearances and in their second series in the other two. That sound like an NBA champion to you?

As for me, I make it a practice to never formulate strong opinions prior to the start of any series. I take each series as it comes and in fact, take each series game-by-game. My Playoff Journal begins Monday, April 21 and will be available right here every Monday-Friday by 2:00 ET, previewing and recapping the playoffs to-date.

Good luck...Larry

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