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NBA Playoffs

   by Larry Ness - 04/15/2016

NBA’s “Second Season”

The Golden St Warriors won the NBA title last year and followed that by winning a single-season record 73 games in the 2015-16 season. The Western Conference playoff ‘picture’ looks almost identical to last year’s field, as only the Pelicans are missing this year, replaced by the OKC Thunder (no surprise, as Durant played only 27 games last season). Houston, the West’s No. 2 seed last year, just barely qualified this time around, securing the eighth and final playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. Houston’s reward is a series with the Warriors. The Spurs (vs the Grizzlies) and Thunder (vs the Mavs) are also prohibitive favorites in the first round, with the Clippers and Blazers being the only semi-competitive 1st-round series, although LA is about a 3 1/2-to-1 choice.

The Cavs claimed the East’s No. 1 seed, with the Raptors falling just one game shy of the top spot. The Hawks won an East-best 60 games last year but this year were one of FOUR teams which finished with 48 wins. Tie-breakers decided the No. 3 through No. 6 seeds, as Miami gets the No. 3 seed, Atlanta the 4th seed, Boston the 5-seed and Charlotte the 6th seed. Atlanta (1) and Boston (7) were in last year’s playoff field but Miami (last season was its first year without LBJ) and Charlotte are new to the ‘party.’ Chicago (3), Washington (5), Milwaukee (6) and Brooklyn (8) are all staying at home this year, while Indiana (7) and Detroit (8) have joined the Heat and Hornets as ‘party crashers’ in 2016. The East’s two-most competitive 1st-round series are the Hawks (-160) over the Celtics and the Heat (-150) over the Hornets.

The NBA consists of 30 teams and just 13 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), Spurs (five), Celtics (four), Pistons (three), Heat (three) and Rockets (two). Of the six teams to win single titles since the merger, all but the Mavs (2011) and Warriors (2015) have come 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 sixth 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. Fast-forward to recent seasons and the 76ers have won 19, 18 and 10 games, respectively.

The last three NBA champs have entered the postseason with the league’s best regular season record. The Heat were 66-16 in 2013 and won a second straight title by edging the Spurs in a seven-game series, with the Spurs bouncing back in 2014 to beat the Heat in the Finals (4-1), after a league-best 62-20 record. The Warriors won a league-high 67 games last year, on the way to beating the Cavs (4-2) in the Finals and capturing their second-ever title (won in 1974-75, led by Rick Barry). The three-year winning streak by the team with the league’s best record 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 but then the Lakers won in 2009 (2nd-best record), the Lakers again in 2010 (3rd), the Mavs in 2011 (T-4th) and the Heat in 2012 (4th).

As noted already, the Warriors come off a record-setting regular season and 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 36 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 18 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 36 seasons (or just 13.9 percent). However, while only five champions have come from a group outside of the top-three regular season records these last 36 years, it would be foolish to not realize that FOUR of those five have come in the last 12 years. 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 36 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, MJ decided to pursue a career in MLB. The tragic death of his father was said to have had something to do with MJ’s decision, although there are other theories out there. Anyway, 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 season) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-25 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny (anyone see the 30-for-30 special Thursday on ESPN?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ, who returned late in 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 2016 playoffs, should we expect any surprises? Or, are the record-setting Warriors a ‘lock’ to become back-to-back NBA champs? The 67-win Spurs owned this year’s second-best record and the 57-win Cavs had the third-best record. Anyone really think that this year’s champ will NOT come from one of the league’s “top-three?” My NBA journal will begin Monday, April 18th. I will post it daily throughout the playoffs, available Monday through Friday by 12 noon ET.

Good luck...Larry

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