Although I sweat and bleed (and blog and tweet) the NBA, I’ve always been a football fan. And as every football fan knows, ‘league standings don’t lie’. In each of the top leagues around the world, 20 teams battle it out playing each other twice home-and-away through the season until the team standing at the top when the season ends wins the championship. There’s a beauty in that simplicity. If you were the best through the season in that year, you won that year. That’s it.
Of course, our beloved NBA doesn’t work that way. The regular season league itself is only a precursor; a set-up to merely designate each qualifying team’s seeding and match-up for the real season: the knock-out playoffs. The regular season – which lasts six of the possible eight months of the NBA calendar – is then reduced to being nothing but an appetizer for the main course ahead.
That main course – the playoffs – is the Champions League Knockout Stage of the NBA. They’re exciting as hell, they test the real character of what some teams and players are made of, and a knockout format provides the fantastic scenario of do-or-die situations.
Now, in no way shape or form am I against the playoff format. I love it – both in the NBA and in the Champions League (also the reason why the Champions League is my favourite club football competition). But sometimes I wonder: what would NBA History look like if champions were crowned for the work they did over the dominating six month period of league play instead of just the final two months of playoffs? I mean, isn’t that fair? Year after year, we hear of teams who play fantastic basketball in the regular season (like the Bulls in the past two seasons), only to be exposed and defeated over a grueling best-of-seven playoff series. On the flip side, we see teams who are underdogs in the regular season but are able to put together a magical run (see: Dallas Mavericks 2011) to the title in the post-season.
This is what I did: I checked the team with the best regular season record from each year of the NBA since its inception in 1947 to compare with the team that actually won the championship that year. You’ll be surprised to hear that 36 times out of the total 66 NBA seasons (that’s 54.5 percent) the league and playoff champions have been different. That’s over half the time! That means that, over half the time in NBA history, the ‘best’ team of the league that year didn’t win the knockout stage.
Of course, there is a major discrepancy when it comes to judging league champions in NBA with football or other similar league sports. In the NBA, during the regular season, each team doesn’t play the same number of games with every other team. Western Conference teams play more against each other than the East and vice versa, Atlantic Division teams play more against each other than with other divisions, etc. That’s just a clause we will except in our analysis today.
First, here is the list of NBA Champions as we know them, with the number of titles they have won over their history. I am counting all the franchise’s titles through the different cities that have hosted them and their different nicknames:
Number of NBA Championships
- Boston Celtics: 17
- Los Angeles Lakers (previously Minneapolis Lakers): 16
- Chicago Bulls: 6
- San Antonio Spurs: 4
- Philadelphia 76ers (previously Syracuse Nationals): 3
- Detroit Pistons (previously Fort Wayne Pistons): 3
- Golden State Warriors (previously Philadelphia Warriors): 3
- New York Knicks: 2
- Houston Rockets: 2
- Miami Heat: 2
- Washington Wizards (previously Baltimore/Washington Bullets) Atlanta Hawks (previously St. Louis Hawks), Oklahoma City Thunder (previously Seattle Supersonics), Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings (previously Rochester Royals), Baltimore Bullets*: 1 each.
*(There have been two different ‘Baltimore Bullets’. The first one won a title in 1948 and folded in 1954. The second one – which exists as the Washington Wizards today – was formed in 1963).
Eternal rivals Celtics and Lakers form the top two winners, and have together won exactly half of every NBA title available. The Celtics did most of their damage in the Bill Russell era over the late 50s and 60s, when they won 11 championships in 13 years, including eight in a row. Bird and McHale brought back some more success in the 80s and they won their last championship five years ago with Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and co. The Lakers won five championships in the 50s in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles and having several different eras of success, including the early 70s, 80s, early 2000s, and late 2000s. Third in the list of champions are the Bulls, who won six all with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Spurs have won all four of their titles since 1999 with Tim Duncan. The 76ers, Pistons, and Warriors have won three each: the city of Philadelphia has hosted championship teams in both the Warriors and the 76ers.
Now, take a look at what the tally of NBA titles would’ve been if champions were crowned at the end of the regular season itself. I have listed only the modern names of current franchises here (sorry Seattle, Minneapolis etc.). In the case of teams with a tied record, a tie-breaker was held that season to determine the best record – like a tie-breaker game, previous head-to-head record, or by virtue of having a better conference record. All except 1955 when both Syracuse Nationals and the Fort Wayne Pistons were adjudged to have the same record.
Number of ‘Regular Season Championships’
- Boston Celtics: 18
- Los Angeles Lakers: 9
- Philadelphia 76ers: 6
- Chicago Bulls: 5
- San Antonio Spurs: 4
- Sacramento Kings: 3
- Detroit Pistons: 3
- Golden State Warriors: 2
- Washington Wizards: 2
- Milwaukee Bucks: 2
- Portland Trailblazers: 2
- Phoenix Suns: 2
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 2
- Washington Capitals, St. Louis Bombers, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks: 1 each.
So as you can see, the Celtics still rule; even more dominantly this time around. The Lakers, despite their illustrious history, have only been regular season champions nine times. That shows that they have truly been a team to flip a switch in the playoffs and go from being good to great (except from 1959-70 years, when they got to the Finals eight times and lost all eight times). The 76ers were a true force before the NBA/ABA expansion and would’ve been champions six times by 1983. Justice has been done to the Spurs and Pistons, who have been regular season and playoff champions roughly the same number of times.
Jordan’s Bulls – who won six championships – only were the best regular season team three times in the 90s.
The Miami Heat would’ve had no titles at this point. But LeBron would’ve already had two in Cleveland in 2009 and 2010. Now isn’t that crazy? There would’ve been no ‘Decision’, no backlash, and the regular season’s best team would’ve been crowned.
Along with the Cavaliers, the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Bombers, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Indiana Pacers would’ve all been champions in this reality. The Kings would be sitting pretty on three right now, including a crowning moment for the fantastic Chris Webber era in the early 2000s. Both Charles Barkley and Steve Nash would’ve won championships for Phoenix. The Stockton and Malone era would’ve gotten its deserved due.
And while we are living in a time where the Miami Heat are defending champions, things would’ve been different if the title was handed at the end of the regular season. The most dominant team in the league would’ve been the Chicago Bulls, who finished with the league’s best record over the last two years (tied with Spurs in 2012, but they won their head-to-head matchup). Instead, the championships those years were won by the Mavericks and the aforementioned Heat.
Unfortunately for Bulls fans, NBA history only remembers the championship winners, and, unfair as it may sound to fans of ‘league sports’, having the best record means little once the post-season begins.
So what have we learnt today? That the Celtics are the bosses of NBA history whichever way we look at it. That the Lakers have been pretty good at switching gears in the post-season. And that, in recent years, the Cavaliers and the Bulls wasted away two fantastic ‘championship’ seasons with playoff disappointments.
Coming into the current season, while the Heat may once again be looking like favourites to repeat for a title, the team at the top of the table is actually the Spurs. Will San Antonio add a fifth title to their fifth first-place regular season?