Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A 'New' NBA Champion

In the past 26 NBA Seasons, a grand total of 7 franchises have won NBA titles. Among those 7, the 2 Rockets titles should be denoted in the record books with an asterisk (or footnote number 23, or a baseball, or something.) The 76ers won a single title in that time (1983), which means that 5 teams have won 23 of the last 26 titles. In a league of 30 teams, it seems like MOST of them are just filler.

The Dallas Mavericks entered the league in 1980. The Miami Heat in 1988. One of these two teams will be the first NEW NBA Champ since the Spurs in 1999, and only the 8th in the HISTORY of their franchises.

Back in the 70's, when the Blazers, Sonics, Warriors, Bullets and Bucks all won titles, it seemed like there was a new champ every year. In fact, there were 8 separate champs, no back-to-backs, and only 2 repeat titles (Knicks in 1970 and 1973, Celtics in 1974 and 1976) during the entire decade. Since then, a single franchise has won at least HALF of the titles for each subsequent decade (Lakers with 5 in the 80's, Bulls with 6 in the 90's and the Lakers with 3 of the 6 so far in the 00's).

What's the point of all this? Nothing really.

I do think it's good for basketball to have more teams enjoying the ultimate success, and more fans believing that they have a chance. But it remains really, really hard to win a ring in the NBA. During this 26 year run, only the 2004 Pistons managed to win a title without a top 5 talent on their roster, which pretty much means that if you don't have one of those (which most teams do not) you aren't going to win. And of course that trend will continue this year.

It's also interesting to see how Miami and Dallas got to this point, both teams in their first-ever NBA Finals. Money certainly plays a part in it.

Miami's payroll has dipped a little, down to 11th in the league, but it was their profligate spending in the past that allowed them to have this success. How is that? Well, when the Lakers decided to break up Shaq and Kobe, they were limited by league rules to trade Shaq to teams that could trade back enough in salaries. At $25M, that meant trading half your roster, or trading at least two very highly paid players. Brian Grant, wildly overpaid BEFORE his knees gave out, made it possible for the Heat to acquire Shaq, simply because he was wildly overpaid.

Dallas' payroll is second highest in the NBA, and only James Dolan and the Knicks could win that particular contest of irresponsibility. At $96M, the Mavs' payroll is almost double the league salary cap, but interestingly this particular team was built largely from the ground up. Their two best players (Nowitzki and Howard) and a third starter (Devin Harris) all arrived via the draft, NOT via free agency. It's nice to have the money to re-sign Nowitzki without blinking, but other contributors on this Mavs team include two decidedly small-time free agents (Diop and Griffin) in addition to the aforementioned draftees, and 3 veterans making good money, but not crazy money (Dampier, Terry and Stackhouse, all making about $7.5M per). In fact, of all the crazy contracts Cuban has signed and/or acquired in the six years he's owned the Mavs, only one 'overpaid' player remains on the Western Conference Champs (Keith Van Horn, making $15M in the final year of his contract.) You may be wondering how the Mavs' payroll can possibly be $96M without more pork than I've mentioned - well, they are paying close to $30M to players who are either retired or waived (Finley, Bradley, Abdul-Wahad, Eschmeyer and Christie). In the last 3 seasons, it's been addition by subtraction in Big D - the Big Three (Nowitzki, Nash and Finley) has steadily dwindled to the Big One, while Dallas has gone deeper and deeper into the playoffs.

Are there lessons to be learned? Well, if you're trying to win an NBA title, money helps, but it doesn't guarantee anything. Both of these teams did better AFTER they got rid of some big-money mistakes (Brian Grant for Shaq in South Beach, Michael Finley for nothing in Big D). Also, it is a HUGE bonus if you can acquire a transcendant player in the draft, WITHOUT having the number 1 overall pick. Nowitzki came to Dallas with the 9th pick (and Howard with the 29th!), while D.Wade went to Miami with the 5th overall.

Of course, only one of these teams will be the NBA Champion this year, the other joining the likes of the Pacers, Nets, Jazz and Suns as teams that had enough to get through their (weaker) conference, but not enough to win it all. For this reason, I will pick Dallas in the Finals. They are the best team in the best conference, and therefore they will win. It also helps that they are WAY too fast for the Heat.