May 3, 2015

New Blood

Since I arrived in the United States in 1979, just nine franchises have won an NBA title. It's the most exclusive club over those 35 plus years in the four major American sports. Over that span, there have been 16 different Super Bowl winners, 17 different Stanley Cup champions and 20 different World Series champions. In the NBA, just nine. And two of those franchises (Philadelphia and Dallas) won the title only once. The sport has been dominated by just seven franchises over the last three and a half decades. 

Last night, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs in game seven of their first round series. That means that the teams that have won the NBA title for the last 16 years are no longer in the NBA playoffs and for the first time in a while, we may actually have an NBA Champion who hasn't won it recently. As a measure of how much the landscape has changed this year, consider this: there are only two franchises that have made the second round of the playoffs both this year and last year and those are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Washington Wizards. How crazy is that?

Because it might be difficult for the average NBA fan to recall when each of the remaining NBA franchises won a title (I know it was for me), here's a look back at the last time the final eight won it all.

Atlanta Hawks (1958)
The last time the Hawks hoisted an NBA trophy, they were in St. Louis and there were eight franchises in the league. EIGHT!!! And six of the eight teams made the playoffs. That year the Warriors were in Philadelphia, the 76ers were still in Syracuse and known as the Nationals, the Lakers were still in Minneapolis on the westernmost edge of the NBA and the Kings were still in Cincinnati named the Royals. How different things are now.

That year the Hawks had a first round bye and knocked off the Boston Celtics, who had won the title the previous year and would win the subsequent eight, despite Boston having home court advantage. This year, the Hawks posted the second best record in the NBA and despite that accomplishment, most folks don't seem to be giving them much of a chance, preferring the Bulls or Cavaliers as the Eastern Conference champs. For my part, I hope the Hawks really are done, but I obviously don't want the Bulls or Cavs in the Finals either.

Golden State Warriors (1975)
Before this season, the Warriors last won a division title in 1976. That was their second division title since they moved to California, having won it the previous season when they won it all. It's the only NBA title in team history. The 1974-1975 NBA season had to have been one of the tightest ever. The Warriors were the best team in the Western Conference with a 48-34 record. This year, that record would have secured them the eighth and final spot in the West.

Despite the field being a little wide open this year, the Warriors have to be considered the favorite to win it all. They killed the entire rest of the NBA; were the second best best offensive team and the best defensive team; and the only team with any success against the Dubs this year (the Spurs) were eliminated by the Clippers last night. Crazily enough, if the Warriors don't win the title, the season might be a waste. They get the banged up Grizzlies in round two then have to face the winner of the Houston Rockets - Clippers matchup.

Washington Wizards (1978)
The last time the Wizards made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs two years in a row, it was the year after the one and only title in franchise history, which they won as the Bullets. Since then, it's been mostly futility. There were a series of first round losses in the 1980s, one playoff appearance in the 1990s and a brief run of mostly non-success with Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas during the last decade. 

Now it's John Wall's turn and for the first time I've been a Wizards fan, it looks like the team might actually make the Eastern Conference Finals. Either that or the sweep that the team just completed over the Toronto Raptors was just our team mopping up a group of guys that were done months ago north of the border. We'll see how we stack up against the Hawks, who sort of genuinely struggled against the Brooklyn Nets over the last two weeks and are maybe a little banged up with Al Horford and Paul Millsap nursing injuries and Thabo Sefolosha having been taken care of by New York City's finest. Series starts in a couple of hours.

Houston Rockets (1995)
When the Hawks, Warriors and Wizards (Bullets) last won NBA titles, I either didn't exist or didn't know what basketball was. But I remember all too well the Rockets' back to back titles in 1994 and 1995. Fresh out of college and a budding New York Knicks fan, the Rockets killed me in 1994 on my birthday by knocking off the Knicks in game seven in a game when John Starks, who I still love, couldn't hit a shot to save his life.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry and the newly arrrived Clyde Drexler with Sam Cassell off the bench managed to sneak in the second of their two consecutive titles in 1995. I say sneak because they won both while Michael Jordan was off playing minor league baseball. This was supposed to be the Knicks' window, but it ended up being the Rockets'. In 1995 they swept the Orlando Magic in their only finals appearance. Those unis…wow!

Chicago Bulls (1998)
I hate Michael Jordan but damn, he was good. The best even. I first hated him as a Knicks fan during the 1990s. Then in an odd twist of fate cheered loudly as he led the Wizards to two consecutive 37 win, non-playoff seasons in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. Then applauded Abe Pollin as he showed Jordan the door in Washington and I renewed my hatred with perhaps a little less enmity after that as I realized Jordan just put our franchise's development on hold for a couple of years while wasting a number one overall pick. 

The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s and honestly, I'd hate for them to win another one. Ever. This year with Derrick Rose back at pretty much full strength the Bulls think they can knock off the Cavaliers (I hope so; hate the Cavs more than the Bulls) and then whoever they face next (I hope not). The Cavs-Bulls series promises to be one of the best in recent years. I hope it is. And I still hate Michael Jordan.

Los Angeles Clippers / Cleveland Cavaliers / Memphis Grizzlies (NEVER!)
The Los Angeles Clippers (as the Buffalo Braves) and Cleveland Cavaliers entered the NBA together in 1970 and neither has ever won a title. The Cavaliers came won one conference championship in 2007 but then were unceremoniously swept by the San Antonio Spurs in a Finals that was pretty much over before it began. Other than the current incarnation of each of these franchises (I'm counting LeBron's first go-round in Cleveland as part of the current run), neither has had much success.

This year the Cavaliers seem to be most people's favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference; it will be interesting to see the effect of the team losing Kevin Love for the rest of the season in the finale against the Boston Celtics in round one. Other than the Derrick Rose ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs, I can't remember an injury to someone this important to their team in a playoff run. I'm of course hoping the Cavs can't recover. On the Clippers' side of things, why not? I mean other than the Warriors, it's an open heat in the West, which might mean it's not open at all of course.

Then there are the Grizzlies, one of two teams who have never won anything at all (the other is the current incarnation of the Charlotte Hornets). The Grizz have it tough this year. With point guard Mike Conley on the floor, you could almost talk yourself into thinking this team has a chance against the Warriors (who they will face in the second round) but with Conley out with a facial fracture at least the first two games, they are likely to be on the path to getting the Dubs a whole lot of rest before the Western Conference finals. I'm pulling for the Grizzlies out West, but I'm not sure it's going to do any good.

The second round starts today at 1 p.m. eastern time with my beloved Washington Wizards taking on the Hawks in Atlanta. This is absolutely the best time of year. Go Wizards! I mean, why not?

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