Odds don't favor untested Hornets
I'm next? Next for what?
No, no. We're going for an old "knock-knock'' joke here. Let's try again: Your next.
Ahhhhh, right. Fine, I'll bite: Your next WHO?
Your next NBA champion.
Was that supposed to be funny? It wasn't. And stop imitating Chris Paul's voice. Because whoever you are, you almost certainly are not him.
It probably isn't Chris Paul because his team, the Hornets, has only the slimmest of chances of reaching and winning the NBA Finals this spring. Because, well, that's how the NBA works.
In this league, more than any other, teams knock on the proverbial door a few times before they actually step through it. They learn how to crawl and walk in the postseason before they learn how to run. Upstart playoff clubs -- such as the Hornets, a lottery team the previous three years -- hardly ever just show up and make off with the hardware. To be exact, that hasn't happened since 1977, when the Trail Blazers reached the playoffs for the first time and, led by center Bill Walton, overcame an 0-2 start against the 76ers in the Finals to win that franchise's only championship.
In the 30 years since, no team has won the title after missing the playoffs the season before. Only the Nets in 2002 and the SuperSonics in 1978 even made it to the Finals without having learned a few hard playoff lessons for a year or two. Or more.
The 30 NBA champions in that time brought an average of 5.9 consecutive playoff appearances into their triumphant seasons. The runners-up had appeared in 5.7 consecutive playoffs. It is part of a time-honored tradition in this league, not necessarily an orderly line of succession or a formal passing of the torch but a pattern that has held through some dynamite teams and impatient superstars.
It took Michael Jordan and the Bulls six years of coping with and learning from eliminations before they broke through to reach the 1991 Finals, beating a Lakers team that had made 14 consecutive playoff appearances. When Isiah Thomas' Pistons won their first title, in 1989, Detroit already had tried and failed each spring from 1984 through 1988.
Houston was playing in only its second and third straight playoffs, respectively, when it claimed the Larry O'Brien trophy in 1994 and 1995. But those were the years in which Jordan was chasing curveballs, his Bulls sitting out as serious contenders. And when San Antonio won in 1999, it technically had to wait only two years after finishing in the lottery and snagging Tim Duncan. But David Robinson and Sean Elliott had been knocking on the door and needing Duncan's help since their rookie seasons in 1989-90.
This pattern of few teams appearing out of nowhere and enjoying much postseason success extends beyond just reaching the Finals. Since 1984, when the NBA went to four full rounds of playoffs, only three teams have managed to win eight games or more after failing to qualify in the two previous postseasons. In other words, it is hard for a team of newbies to even reach the conference finals.
The Jazz did it last year, ending a three-year drought from the playoffs, then going 9-8 against Houston, Golden State and San Antonio. The aforementioned 2002 Nets got all the way to the Finals, ending the postseason at 11-9 after lottery finishes from 1999 through 2001. Boston went 9-7 in 2002, facing the Nets for the Eastern Conference title, after six consecutive losing (and non-playoff) years. And that's it over the past 24 years, simply for surviving the second round.
"I know it's easy to say, 'They're not going to win because of experience,' " TNT analyst Reggie Miller, a veteran of 15 postseasons and 144 playoff games, said this week in a network conference call. "That does matter. Experience does matter come playoff time.''