2020 NBA Playoffs: A Championship Unlike Any Other

by Larry Ness

Hearing Jim Nantz say the catchphrase, "A tradition unlike any other" around the Masters each year over the last three decades has become a tradition unto itself. The saying has even been trademarked by Augusta National and now adorns tournament merchandise. However, COVID-19 has had a way of 'influencing' many traditions in the sports world in 2020. Case in point is The Masters itself, which was postponed from April 9-12 to Nov 12-15 AND will be played without patrons or guests on the grounds. Quoting Vince Lombardi, "What the hell is going on out there?"

That brings me to the 2020 NBA postseason, which in many respects, will challenge its players and teams like never before. The NBA was the first professional sports league to shut down and most consider the league, led by Adam Silver, to have had the best response to the current pandemic. Twenty-two of the league's 30 teams were sent to an Orlando 'bubble,' with all 22 playing eight games to decide the final seeding order of the 16 teams which would begin the 2020 postseason. The 'experiment' has basically gone off without a hitch and fans (along with us bettors) have been treated to some entertaining games. Portland's Damian Lillard was the bubble's brightest star, averaging 36.9 PPG in the nine games the Blazers needed to clinch the West's final playoff spot, although Portland's reward is a first round matchup with the top-seeded Lakers. The most surprising team in Orlando was the Suns, who were just 26-39 when play was halted in March but then went 8-0 in "the bubble," as well as going a perfect 8-0 ATS, as well. Raise your hand if you saw that coming! However, the Suns' brilliance was all for naught, as they missed out on a spot in the West's play-in game to Memphis (both teams finished 34-39) because they lost the season series 3-1 to the Grizzlies.

With the 2020 postseason tipping off on Monday (Aug 17), let me note that the NBA consists of 30 teams but just 15 have won championships since the 1976-77 merger. Only EIGHT teams have won multiple titles, with the Lakers leading the way with 10. The Lakers are followed by the Bulls (six), Spurs (five), Celtics (four), Warriors, (three), Heat (three), Pistons (three) and Rockets (two). Will the fact that all teams are playing neutral-site games make for a more wide-open postseason? I wouldn't count on it. The NBA has NOT presented us with many "surprise" champions for quite some time now.

As I point out every year at this time (granted, a little later in the year here in 2020), 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 tells us. Of the 40 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 19 have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Ten champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark and six others with its third-best record.

That leaves just FIVE champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 40 seasons (or just 12.5 percent). That 'Group of 5' includes the 2010-11 Mavericks and the 2011-12 Heat, who both finished with the fourth-best record that year. The 2005-06 Heat finished  with the league's fifth-best record that season and the 2003-04 Pistons finished with the league's sixth-best mark. However, that Detroit team deserves an asterisk, because after acquiring Rasheed Wallace during the regular season, 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. That leaves the 1994-95 Houston Rockets as the fifth team to win an NBA title these last 40 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, who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ, who had 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 2020 playoffs, should we expect any surprises. The Milwaukee Bucks own the league's best record (56-17), followed by the defending champion Toronto Raptors (53-19). Completing the "Big Three" is the LA Lakers (52-19), the West's No. 1 seed. I'm not even a little 'sold' on the Lakers and like the chances of Bucks and Raptors, much more. It would be hard to call the LA Clippers a "dark horse" but at 49-27, they are outside of this year's "Big Three," who as noted above, have won 35 of the last 40 NBA titles (87.5%). Kawhi and George make up a dynamic combo (offense and defense) plus Wiliams and Harrell make up the NBA's best one-two 'punch' off the bench. Kawhi's already a HOF lock but what would it mean for him to add a third title to his resume, joining his championship season with the Spurs (in 2014) and his one last year with the Raptors. Kwahi was The Finals' MVP in both 2014 and 2019 and if the Clippers win it all in 2020, would anyone like to bet against him NOT being the Finals' MVP, again? 

I bet the playoffs game by game and series by series but a small wager on the Clippers to "win it all," is warranted.

Good luck...Larry

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