As a lifelong fan of the NBA, one thing I’ve always loved about it is its history can be chronicled by eras. The 80s was the era of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. As Johnson’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics dominated, both legends constantly had to go through each other to win the championship.
The 90s are simply known as the Jordan era. During this time, Michael Jordan and his Bulls dominated, winning six championships and making him quite possibly the greatest player in the sport’s history.
In the late 90s and the 2000s, it was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s era. The Lakers dynamic duo dominated the league and the championship scene the better part of a decade. Over the last few years, the NBA has seen a shift away from the individual superstar led franchises to a league where the stars are seemingly willing to sacrifice individual glory to play with one other to pursue the ultimate goal of a championship.
In this column, I will examine the four teams remaining in the playoffs still in the hunt for the Larry O’Brien trophy and the drastically different paths to success these organizations have taken.
The first franchise we will look at is the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs organization, as presently constituted, has had four cornerstones to its success – head coach Greg Popovich, foreign imports Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili and Tim Duncan.
Popovich took over as Spurs head coach at the end of the 1996 season. Ironically, this is the season in which Spurs superstar David Robinson suffered an injury that would cause him to miss most of the season and allow the Spurs to finish with a bad enough record to win the NBA draft lottery and obtain the number one overall pick in 1997 draft which turned out to be Tim Duncan. In ’97, in a strike shortened season, Duncan and Robinson, the two seven-foot towers, lead the Spurs to the NBA championship.
After Robinson retired, the Spurs were forced to retool with Duncan as the teams on the court leader. The Spurs ability to capitalize on the NBA’s global reach allowed them to be championship contenders ever since. San Antonio drafted Manu Ginóbili out of Argentina with the 57th overall selection – one of the last picks – of the 1999 draft, earning him the distinction of one of the greatest steals in NBA draft history. The Spurs then drafted point guard Tony Parker out of France in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft. Since drafting Parker and Ginóbili and teaming those two with Duncan, the Spurs have won three more championships, helping to earn Popovich the distinction as the longest reigning head coach in any of the four major American professional sports.
The second team whose formula to success will look at is the Boston Celtics. The Celtics, one of sports’ greatest franchises, had been going through a phase of irrelevance until 2007 when general manager Danny Ainge pulled two franchise-changing trades, acquiring Ray Allen from the Seattle Supersonics and Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to join Boston’s own superstar, Paul Pierce. All three superstars had had productive statistical careers on their own, but none of them had obtained any sort of playoff success let alone win a championship. That quickly changed as the Celtics led by “The Big Three” lead the Celtics back to championship glory winning the 2008 NBA finals over their hated rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. Since that time, while not winning another championship, the Celtics have been perennial contenders for the title including another finals matchup with the Lakers in 2010.
Now, to the youngest franchise remaining in the playoffs – the Oklahoma City Thunder. Formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics, the Thunder and future superstar Kevin Durant relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008. Following a more traditional route to success, the Thunder built through the draft, picking Durant in 2007, point guard Russell Westbrook in 2008 and sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden in 2009. Though they don’t have championship rings yet, the Thunder show all signs of being both an exciting and championship-caliber team for years to come.
The final team remaining, and undoubtedly the team with the most pressure to win championships not just a championship is the Miami Heat. This team is lead by Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and perhaps the most talked about athlete never to win a championship, LeBron James. James and Bosh caused quite a stir in the summer of 2010 when they both decided to join Wade as free agents as members of the Miami. Prior to this, James was playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was viewed as the second coming of Michael Jordan. James bolted, leaving not just the Cavs organization but the entire city of Cleveland outraged. His public image and the Heat’s image took a hit when at a welcoming ceremony Wade, Bosh and James all stated they were not getting together just to win one championship but rather to win six, seven or eight championships. So far, the trio haven’t delivered one.
All these organizations have taken different routes to developing a successful franchise – the Spurs through drafting foreign players and adjusting to a more European style basketball, the Celtics through trades, the Thunder by old fashioned drafting of American top-level college athletes and the Heat by using their money to acquire the best free agents available. Which one of these philosophies is the best path for long-term success is a matter for debate. That being said, there are some questions still to be answered. Can the aging Duncan do what his predecessor David Robinson did and accept a lesser role and be helped to a fifth championship before he rides off into the sunset? Does Boston’s Big Three have one more run left in their aging bodies? Do the youthful and exuberant Thunder have enough big-game experience to win the championship now? Or is this finally the year LeBron shakes off the moniker of a choker and leads the Heat to a championship?
Only time will tell, but I, for one, can’t wait to sit back and watch the answers to these questions unfold.