How History Can Help Predict A Champion
What can we learn from the past?
Editor’s Note: I wrote this piece in partnership with Jason Coldiron
The 2022 NBA Playoffs are upon us, and they will be glorious.
Despite the presence of one team (Phoenix) who looks historically dominant, this year feels more wide-open than ever. Nobo dy in the league is frightened of Phoenix in the way they were scared of, say, the mid-2010s Warriors (even if they should be).
Instead, we have almost a dozen NBA teams that can convince themselves they have a puncher’s chance of winning a championship. We’re about to disabuse many of those teams of that notion.
To help figure out who are the most likely winners, we’ve analyzed the lessons of the past to draw up a championship template. Looking at the previous champions for all the seasons since 1980 (when Magic and Bird entered the league and began what can be loosely defined as the modern era of NBA basketball), a few patterns emerge that help us predict an NBA champion.
1. Having That Dude
Surprise: having a top-ten player in the world is essential to winning a championship. A champion needs a hero who can go up against other titans in the league and emerge victorious four times in a seven-game series. Thank goodness you guys have us here to deliver such cutting insight!
Every champion since 1980 had at least one guy like that (and sometimes multiple) with just one exception: The 2004 Detroit Pistons, who had four guys who could credibly claim to be top-25 players and were led by a point guard in Chauncey Billups who was nicknamed “Mr. Big Shot.”
Just having the best player is not a guarantee of a title, particularly in the age of the superteam. Fun fact: The regular-season MVP has won the championship 15 times since 1980, so less than half of the time, and just thrice since 2010. But having a guy capable of being the best player over a series is a prerequisite to being champion.
A classic example: The 2005-2006 Miami Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks in six games for the championship. Dirk Nowitzki was the big name in that series, having finished a close third in MVP voting and playing for a Dallas team that had previously dispatched the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. But Dwyane Wade turned in one of the greatest Finals performances in history, averaging a cool 35/8/4 and three steals on 47% shooting to snatch the series from Dallas. Despite being a borderline top-10 guy coming into the playoffs, he turned into the best player in the world when it mattered most.
The NBA is loaded with high-ceiling players right now. If you look to this season, there are easily ten or more guys who could be the top dog for two weeks of Finals games. However, this is bad news for Toronto, Cleveland, Dallas (if Doncic is injured), and New Orleans.
Injuries have always been part of the game, but they might’ve been more crucial than ever last season, when seemingly every series swung on a random body part disintegrating at an inopportune time.
A team isn’t likely to win if its stars are injured, but conversely, their fortunes can be bolstered if they play a shorthanded foe. Last year, Milwaukee and Phoenix successfully weathered injuries to superstar players partially by playing opponents who faced their own health woes.
This year feels different than most. A huge number of star players have missed much or all of the season and may or may not return in time for the playoffs. The Clippers just got back Paul George and Norm Powell and are still missing Kawhi Leonard. The Pelicans are increasingly unlikely to see Zion take the floor, but it hasn’t been ruled out entirely. Steph Curry hasn’t played in weeks. Denver may or may not get back Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr, although it’s looking bleak. Most crucially, Luka Doncic just suffered a calf strain of unknown severity.
In the East, the Nets have declared Ben Simmons out through at least the play-in. The Bulls don’t have Lonzo Ball, their starting point guard. The Celtics lost DPOY candidate Robert Williams to a meniscus injury that will likely cause him to miss some or all of the first round. The Cavaliers are missing multiple players. The Hawks don’t have their second-best player in John Collins.
Whew! The only teams that don’t have massive injuries to expected rotation players are the Heat, the 76ers, the Bucks, and the Raptors in the East, and the Suns, Grizzlies (Ja just returned!), and Timberwolves in the West. And all of those teams have guys banged up but playing through it.
That was a long way of saying almost everyone is injured, making the playoff picture even murkier than usual. But history says that the team that sustains the best injury luck (or faces the teams with the worst) has a good chance of claiming the championship.
Coaching is always tricky to evaluate. It’s easy to tell when a star player is a star even before they’ve won a playoff series (see: Doncic, Luka), but great coaches are rarely acknowledged as such until after their career has been validated with a championship.
Just last year, Mike Budenholzer was a dead man walking before the Bucks went on their run to a title. He’s since been rewarded with a three-year extension.
In 2011, after LeBron joined Miami, he asked Pat Riley to fire Erik Spoelstra and coach the team himself, like Riley had done in the 2005-2006 season to Stan Van Gundy when Shaq asked for the same. Riley refused, and Spoelstra has since been acknowledged as one of the NBA’s Top 15 Coaches of All Time (along with Riley himself).
Coaching can make or break a series. Sometimes it’s Coach Pop, an all-time legend, overthinking things and removing Tim Duncan from a crucial late-game situation:
Other times, it’s Nick Nurse running grade-school zone defenses against the world’s best shooters:
How much does excellent coaching matter? Depends on who you ask, but it’s undeniable that a handful of coaches has won the lion’s share of championships. Since 1980, there have been 42 NBA champions crowned. An astonishing 21, exactly half, have been won by Phil Jackson (11), Pat Riley (5), and Gregg Popovich (5). How much of the credit goes to the coaches, as opposed to the litany of all-time greats those three coached?
It's impossible to know for sure. But there has been much greater diversity in coaching success in the last decade or so than in the thirty years previously. The 2011-2021 championships saw eight different coaches win championships. There were only 11 coaches who won a championship in the 31 years before that.
The level of coaching in the NBA has never been higher, but playoff experience still counts for something. Six of the nine active head coaches who have won championships are in the playoffs again, but one of those is Doc Rivers, who we won’t count. So congrats to the Bucks, Raptors, Warriors, Heat, and Clippers.
Historically, continuity between critical players has been a factor in almost every champion. There are exceptions, such as the 2009 Celtics (who won after adding stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in moves that kicked off the broader superteam era of the last decade-plus). Still, up until the last few seasons, champions typically needed at least a season of chemistry building to win a title.
The last three years, however, have seen a change.
In 2018-2019, the Raptors shocked the world by trading DeMar DeRozan for an injured Kawhi Leonard. As we saw in a video above, that worked out okay. Then, the bubble Lakers added Anthony Davis in the preseason and won the championship. And just last year, the Bucks traded for human-pitbull hybrid Jrue Holiday in the preseason and PJ Tucker mid-season, two critical pieces of their championship run.
I’m willing to bet that continuity remains an essential factor in the championship race, but the player empowerment era of stars demanding trades to insta-contenders makes this a little more tenuous than it used to be.
Right now, the Suns (especially the Suns!), Warriors, Celtics, Bucks, Hawks, Grizzlies, and Jazz have an edge with continuity.
This is the least controllable aspect, so we won’t delve too much into it here. Injuries are a part of luck, and we’ve covered that above. Crunch time is a part of that as well; some players, like Chris Paul, always seem to do well here, but in general, clutch heroics tend to be driven by luck more than skill in small samples. Even Chris Paul has moments where his brain breaks:
Shooting is perhaps the most apparent way luck manifests itself in-game. If you’re an NBA follower, you probably remember this (Philly fans, don’t look!):
The entire NBA hinged upon this shot. Kawhi Leonard’s high-arching, bouncing moonball absolutely required a lot of skill, but luck played a factor in its rattling home as time expired in a Game 7. Without this shot, maybe the 76ers win in OT and face the Warriors in the Finals. Without this shot, maybe Durant and Klay Thompson don’t get injured in the Finals. Without this shot, maybe Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are NBA champions and still together on a 76ers team locked in a heated battle with the Durant-led Warriors year-in and year-out.
Luck can also manifest itself in different ways, such as when other teams eliminate stronger foes. In 1989, Michael Jordan hit “The Shot” to help his six-seed Bulls dispatch the three-seed Cavaliers in the first round. The Bulls went on to face the Pistons, who were undoubtedly much happier to play a Bulls team they had swept 6-0 in the regular season than a tough Cavaliers team they had split the season series with 3-3. The Pistons won in six games and eventually became NBA champions, but their path could’ve been even more difficult if they had needed to play Cleveland first.
Luck can even be something as simple as not having a train block the team bus, forcing players to walk more than a mile to the arena right before a game.
The good thing is that “luck” doesn’t automatically eliminate or favor any team, so there are no predictions here. Luck can’t be predicted or controlled, but it might be the most important variable in determining who can win a championship.
So Who’s Left?
Excluding luck, there were four categories that we examined. Conveniently for the narrative purposes of this column, only one team meets all four criteria: the Milwaukee Bucks.
This isn’t an official prediction, since luck is arguably the most important factor and can’t be accounted for ahead of time. But given historical precedents, our work suggests that the Milwaukee Bucks are the team best positioned to capture the 2021-2022 NBA championship.
The Warriors were borderline here, as their team technically should all be healthy to start the playoffs. We dinged them because Klay’s return has been uneven, Draymond still seems to be dealing with back problems, and we haven’t seen Curry in weeks.
The Suns, similarly, were only eliminated thanks to not having a coach with a ring, but Monty Williams was our pick for coach of the year, so they have a strong case, too.
Everyone else failed at least one category. That doesn’t mean they can’t win, of course, but it does mean they will be Bucking historical precedent.