- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
As the NBA begins its 39th season this week, 22 of its 23 teams can take comfort in one certainty: When the 7�-month-long game of musical chairs ends on some muggy June evening in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or (why not?) Detroit, the team that will be left sitting on the throne will not be the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics, you see, won the league title last season, and champions don't repeat in the NBA. At least that's how it has been ever since 1969, when Boston last won back-to-back championships. Before that the Celts had won 10 times in 11 years, and 11 in 13, including a remarkable eight in a row. Their last successful defense came, not coincidentally, in Bill Russell's final season as a player. The next season, old age, manifested most notably by Russell's retirement at 35, ended the Celtics' run. Since then, only three of 15 defending champions have even reached the finals the next season (see box at right). And those 15 champs include such notable aggregations as the 1969-70 New York Knicks, '71-72 Los Angeles Lakers, '76-77 Portland Trail Blazers, '79-80 Lakers and the '82-83 Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly's failure to repeat—"I tried everything I could think of," says 76er coach Billy Cunningham—extended the long line of frustration that has exasperated coaches, flummoxed general managers, fascinated fans and in fact probably sustained interest in the NBA.
Some of the reasons—besides age—that today's champs don't repeat suggest why the old Celtics almost always did. The Celtics won titles when the NBA was small—just eight franchises existed in 1956-57, when Boston won its first crown, and 14 when Russell won his last—and because of Red Auerbach's deft management, Boston had cornered the top talent: Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, not to mention Russell, the 6'9" center who in 1980 was voted the best player of the NBA's first 35 years.
What's more, the Celtics had to win only seven games to win the title in 1957—compared with 15 in '84—and had a full six-month off-season to recycle themselves for the defense, not 14 weeks, as the 1983-84 team did. The old Celtics, too, could count on playoff money to substantially supplement their salaries. Nowadays, superstars actually take a pay cut once the regular season ends. "The term 'money player' is pass�," says Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly. "They're all moneyed players now."
And Auerbach never had to deal with free agency. "If Sam Jones was dissatisfied sitting on the bench, there was no one around to offer him an extra $5,000 to go elsewhere," says Houston coach Bill Fitch. The new salary cap, too, is serving to hamstring many clubs. When injuries depleted the 76ers' front court late last season, Philly had to make do with cut-rate CBA refugees Bruce Kuczenski and Charles Jones.
And, increasingly, today's champs are standing pat while their top challengers improve. The Sixers, badly outrebounded in losing to L.A. in the 1982 finals, dealt for Moses Malone and then blew out the Lakers in '83. The Celtics, who were swept by the Bucks in the '83 Eastern semis because of a soft backcourt, acquired Dennis Johnson, who led them all the way in '84. "Most general managers know they won't get criticized for standing pat as much as for taking a chance," says Ray Patterson, the Houston G.M. "The owner creates a climate, and that's why Red always won. He only had to account to himself."
Standing pat is particularly perilous in light of the league's recent upper-echelon parity. Though L.A., Philly and Boston may be a step above the pack, the rest of the NBA is so evenly matched that, when Milwaukee plays Utah or Dallas plays Detroit or Portland plays Washington, bookmakers routinely favor the home team. As a result, the list of clubs capable of knocking off defending champs in a short series—last season's Nets, who beat the Sixers in a best-of-five series, and the '80-81 Rockets, who eliminated the defending champion Lakers in a miniseries, are prime examples—includes just about any team in the playoffs.
Seattle was just such a cocky arriviste, suddenly moving past L.A. and Portland and playing for the title twice in the late 1970s. But as soon as the Sonics had won their crown in '79, playoff MVP Dennis Johnson, his skin still sticky from champagne, was griping about his contract, and he continued brooding all the next season. "When someone's talking contract at that moment, you know a team has the ability to self-destruct," says Dallas general manager Norm Sonju. Sure enough, the Sonics lost in five games to L.A. in the '80 playoffs. Bob Ferry, the Washington Bullets' general manager, says, "We use the term chemistry too much, but that's it. You have givers and takers, scorers and defenders, and when it clicks you win it all."
The Golden State Warriors really clicked in the '75 playoffs, with 10 players contributing to a drive to the championship. But, in the Western finals the next season, they clicked off. "We were all searching for an identity that championship year," says Warriors general manager Al Attles, who was then Golden State's coach. "But rookies like Phil Smith and Jamaal Wilkes, who were seeking a niche that season, felt they'd reached it the next. We had become a first team and a bunch of reserves." Wilkes and Gus Williams seized more of the spotlight, and Rick Barry pouted down the stretch in Game 7 as Phoenix eliminated the Warriors.