4 Key Differences Between Perennial Winners and Bottom-Feeders in the NBA
In today’s NBA, there are contenders and there are pretenders. There are perennial winners and bottom feeders, and some major differences between them.
Since the NBA was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946, 18 different teams have won its 66 championships. But the four most winningest franchises—the Boston Celtics (17), Los Angeles Lakers (16), Chicago Bulls (6) and San Antonio Spurs (4)—have won exactly half of the time.
Of the 30 franchises that comprise the NBA, 13 of them have never won a championship.
Here are some reasons why that may be the case.
4. Fiscal Responsibility
The era of the NBA’s super-duper luxury tax is upon us. Beginning with the 2013-14 NBA season, teams will be penalized much more heavily for payrolls exceeding the luxury tax threshold.
Prior to the new tax being levied, teams routinely exceeded the threshold and paid the tax. Ironically enough, though, the teams with the highest tax bills don’t usually win the championship. That was the major argument opponents of the league’s new tax system had.
Money doesn’t matter, astute management does. That’s how the San Antonio Spurs managed to win multiple titles and why the Oklahoma City Thunder are able to compete, despite being in smaller markets with lower payrolls.
And for proof, look no further than the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks. Despite paying the league in excess of $340 million in luxury tax payments since the system was implemented back in 2004, the teams have just one championship between them to show for it.
That single championship was won by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, and ironically enough, its $86 million payroll was third highest in the league that year and a far cry from the $105 million payroll it had back in 2008.
Even still, for big spending teams, the salary cap applies and having cap clogging contracts being doled out to those that don’t necessarily deserve it (or prove to not be worth it in the long run), cripples a franchise.
Even if a team is willing to pay the luxury tax, poor decisions in free agency have often prevented teams from otherwise attaining talent that could help win games.
3. Coaches That Maximize Their Team's Talent
Generally, there are two schools of thought as it relates to the belief in the importance of coaching. There are some that believe that a coach is only as good as his players and that has merit. Phil Jackson would probably have a difficult time coaching the 2012-13 Washington Wizards to a playoff berth.
However, good coaches, even if they have good players, must be able to maximize the talent that they are given to work with. Even more so, good coaches must be able to effectively game plan and counter their opponents.
Back in 2001, the Larry Brown-coached Philadelphia Sixers won the NBA’s Eastern Conference after Brown built an offensive scheme around Allen Iverson and encouraged Iverson to shoot 26 times per game. That team was the polar opposite of Larry Brown’s 2004 Detroit Pistons team. The ’04 Pistons won the NBA Championship by “playing the right way,” as Brown called it.
On that title team, all five starters shot the ball at least nine times per game.
Similarly, Pat Riley’s Los Angeles Lakers won four NBA titles by utilizing Magic Johnson’s proficiency running fast breaks, while Riley’s New York Knicks became an Eastern Conference powerhouse using grit and toughness and featuring Patrick Ewing in the post in a slow, half-court game.
Good coaches win games, but great coaches maximize their talent, plan and re-plan.
That’s often the difference between winning 50 games and losing 50 games.
The old mantra holds true: defense wins championships.
During a normal NBA season, a team plays 16 games against the other four opponents within its own division. Each divisional opponent is played four times.
Each team from the other conference is played twice, accounting for another 30 games.
The remaining 36 games are played against the other 10 teams that are in the same conference, but in different divisions. Usually, six of those 10 teams are played four times and the other four are played three times.
There are 82 games and 29 other teams. Most years, there are six to eight teams that are realistically good enough to win a championship, which means that there are usually no less than 20 teams that aren’t.
A substantial portion of those 82 games are played against those 20 teams and that’s why we routinely see poor defensive teams win 45 to 55 games in the regular season, only to lose in the playoffs.
Playoff basketball is slower and stops are harder to come by since the competition is better. It’s no coincidence that Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks weren’t able to win a championship until 2011, after it became one of the league’s top defensive teams.
Since 2006, the respective NBA champions have been the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers (twice), Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.
In terms of field-goal percentage allowed—one of the best single team stats for measuring defense—they ranked eighth, fourth, first, sixth, fifth, eighth and fifth.
So if you’re looking for proof that this old adage holds true, look no further.
Bottom feeders, check your defense.
1. Making the Right Decision on Draft Day
Trying to build a winning professional basketball program without making wise decisions in terms of drafting players is a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel.
And in order to become a champion, a team simply cannot afford to botch high draft picks. Throughout the course of history, we’ve seen some major mistakes.
Consider that the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Hasheem Thabeet, was selected over the likes of James Harden (third), Tyreke Evans (fourth), Ricky Rubio (fifth), Stephen Curry (seventh), Jrue Holiday (17) and Ty Lawson (18).
The Bulls and Magic became contenders while the Portland Trailblazers and the Atlanta Hawks didn’t. In 2005, the Hawks chose Marvin Williams (second) over Chris Paul (fourth) while two years later the Trailblazers selected Greg Oden with the first overall pick over Kevin Durant.
If there’s any remaining doubt that winning an NBA championship requires astute drafting, refer to the greatest statistic ever. Since the NBA began awarding a Finals MVP in 1969, the award has been given out 44 times.
Only eight times has the recipient been someone who played for a team other than the one they played for when they won the award.
In other words, if a guy is good enough to win you a championship, the only way you’re going to get him is if you draft him.
It is true that the current Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers have built their current rosters mostly through trades, but that doesn't make the point any less valid. Without Bryant, the Lakers are irrelevant and without Dwyane Wade, LeBron James doesn't take his talents to South Beach. Drafting a player to build around—and one that others want to play with—is imperative.
LeBron James (2012), Chauncey Billups (2004), Shaquille O’Neal (2000-02), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985), Moses Malone (1983) and Wilt Chamberlain (1972) are the exceptions to the rule.