By Ben Fisher
There have been seven different NBA Champions over the past 26 seasons.
Depending on your perspective, it’s either a great thing for the NBA as a sign of a league historically rich with star-powered dynasties or a negative illustration of a league ripe with ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ teams. It’s a fascinating dichotomy between those who celebrate eras represented by certain teams or players and those who seek balance and depth beyond just the big markets.
These seven teams who have claimed the past 26 NBA titles read like a history lesson on NBA greatness: The Celtics of Larry Bird (1984 and ‘86) and, later, the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (2008); Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers (1985, ’87, ’88) followed by the Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal tandem (2000-02) followed by just Bryant and Co. (2009-10); Isiah Thomas’ “Bad Boy” Pistons (1989-90) and the chemistry-oriented recent Detroit squad (2004); Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty (1991-93, ‘96-98); the Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler-led Rockets (1994-95); Tim Duncan’s Spurs (1999, ’03, ’05, ’07); and the 2006 Miami Heat, featuring O’Neal and a blossoming Dwyane Wade.
To put this “seven different champs in 26 years” statistic into context, let’s compare it to the other leagues comprising the “Big Four”. The NHL has seen 14 different teams hoist the Stanley Cup over that stretch, the NFL has had 16 unique Super Bowl champions and Major League Baseball has featured 17 separate World Series winners despite the 1994 lockout and having yet to crown a 2010 champion. That’s right, the NBA has crowned half the unique champions of any other major professional sports league in North American in the last 26 years.
These teams boasted a wealth of the NBA’s brightest stars (Jordan, Bird, Johnson, Bryant and O’Neal, to name five) and some of the league’s elite coaching minds (Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Rudy Tomjanovich). They also (San Antonio aside) happened to reside in some of the biggest US media markets, meaning more revenue potential for the league.
It’s this second point that offers a problematic look at the NBA landscape in both a current and historical context. Television has, rightfully so, been a critical, money-making element within the NBA business model over these past 26 years and the network-satisfying formula has been clearly established: big stars playing in major markets such as Chicago or Los Angeles equals ratings.
In some cases, the NBA has fallen into good fortune in terms of who has wound up where. Jordan fell into Chicago’s hands after Houston selected Olajuwon and Portland opted to take Sam Bowie with the first two picks of the 1984 NBA draft, while the Lakers got their hands on high school standout Bryant by sending Vlade Divac to the then-Charlotte Hornets. However, the recent free agency defections of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami, Carlos Boozer to Chicago and Amar’e Stoudemire to New York, it’s clear that this big market prioritization isn’t based on luck alone.
Even when they have the money to offer star-calibre players, small market teams can’t compete with either the history or the lustre attached to big markets, nor can they offer much of an alternative to the metropolitan lifestyle in, say, Manhattan. When James stated that he’d be “taking [his] talents to South Beach,” he was referring more to the nightlife-friendly hot spot mecca in South Florida rather than the city in which he would be plying his basketball trade. In retrospect, how could Cleveland compete with that?
That isn’t to say that small market teams have no shot at NBA success. The Spurs managed to win three titles by striking oil in drafting Duncan and then building a team around the big man based on depth, defence and team chemistry. Having locked in franchise star Kevin Durant this past offseason, it appears as though the Oklahoma City Thunder are building a contender in a similar manner, ironically with former Spurs executive Sam Presti at the helm as GM.
Still, it’s no easy feat to build a winner. Without the ability to attract a marquee free agent, one must rely on some draft luck to find a superstar and sufficient basketball savvy to build around him. While Miami made itself an instant contender this off-season and the Knicks appear primed to do the same with frequent Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony rumours floating around, it’s tough being a fan in Cleveland or Toronto and knowing that for them, building a contender simply won’t happen overnight.
Even with an altered NBA landscape waiting to be discovered this upcoming season, don’t expect any new teams to join the list of recent champions.