Even for dedicated fans like yours truly, it is an annual chore to maintain excitement for all six weeks of the NBA playoffs. The reasons for this inevitable fatigue are obvious: the first round should not be best-of-7, the NBA should cram more games into each night so the tournament lasts only a month, and the eventual champion tends not to inspire much fresh-blooded buzz.
This is the list of NBA champions in the post-Jordan era.
2011: Dallas Mavericks
2010: Los Angeles Lakers
2009: Los Angeles Lakers
2008: Boston Celtics
2007: San Antonio Spurs
2006: Miami Heat
2005: San Antonio Spurs
2004: Detroit Pistons
2003: San Antonio Spurs
2002: Los Angeles Lakers
2001: Los Angeles Lakers
2000: Los Angeles Lakers
1999: San Antonio Spurs
A pretty drab list. Kobe Bryant has 5 rings, Shaq has 4, Tim Duncan has 4. If you hate the spoiled Lakers (as many do, few with the vigor that The Computer Newspaper does) or the flaccid Spurs, that means the NBA playoffs exit every year with a hopeless sigh. Contextualizing the accomplishments of guys like Duncan or Kobe is necessary for later debate for nerds and historians, but it hardly stimulates the casual viewer during the first week of June.
Had enough negativity yet? Yeah, me, too. I will wait until June 1st to be cynical about who is in the NBA Finals, but right now, I can still be completely tantalized by what may happen over the next 6 weeks. Let’s effin dooooo this!
Here is why you can be excited:
— this was a strike-shortened season where teams played 66 games over 120 days, spent very little time practicing, and most players either got injured or were physically compelled to take games off (Translation: this regular season told us very little about who is good)
— never before have so many key players taken off the final few weeks of the regular season to ‘rest up’ for the postseason and it could lead to rust. Look at this list, very East-heavy:
- Derrick Rose: missed 17 of the last 22 games
- Ray Allen: missed 15 of last 20 games
- Amare Stoudemire: missed 13 of last 17 games
- Dwyane Wade: missed 9 of last 15 games
- Jason Kidd: missed 7 of last 13 games
- Kobe Bryant: missed last 6 of 8 games
- Tim Duncan: missed 4 of last 6 games
- Kevin Garnett/Rajon Rondo: missed 4 of last 6 games
- Dwight Howard: shelved himself for the rest of the season (his back ‘hurts,’ likely from holding his team hostage with waffling trade demands and selling out his coach)
— NBA popularity tends to be as cyclical as our nation’s economy, and in those terms, it is very much in the green after a decade-long recession (in which Jordan’s retirement would be the housing bubble bursting); television ratings have been climbing, consumer confidence is high, and there is a tide of young, likable talent to motivate the average baseball/football fan to start paying attention again
— while the NBA’s best players are generally all under the age of 28, there are still a few members of the previous era clinging to what time they have left. Don’t forget, older teams always perform better than we expect (T. Robert Lindner’s piece). It is unclear when these on-the-rise teams like the Chicago Bulls or Oklahoma City Thunder will start racking up Finals appearances like the Spurs and Lakers have, it is just clear that at some point they will. Maybe it’s 2012, maybe it’s 2013. This friction between generations is fascinating.
— last year’s playoffs proved to be unpredictable and full of fresh, feel-good stories … neither #1 seed advanced to the Finals, the league’s best players, Kobe and Lebron, did not take home the trophy, and a dark horse team (the Dallas Mavericks) full of wily veterans and undeniable chemistry took down the league’s unanimous villain, the Miami Heat.
While The Computer Newspaper will not waste your precious minutes with predictions, we do want to talk about superstars and their legacies because other than the Detroit Pistons in 2004, these individual duels usually determine who wins it all. Using the Mavericks’ surprise championship last season as source material for looking ahead, there seems to be one take-away: fans and experts alike undervalued the importance of an elite superstar being hungry for a title. The Mavs had Dirk Nowitzki and that was enough to win. When the 2011 playoffs started, we all completely forgot that at age 32, he had the (a) experience, (b) elite skill, and (c) singular determination to take down every other superstar and consequently legitimize his career with one amazing run.
As per usual, these games will be all about HUNGER. We should even call them something catchy and relevant, like, the ‘Anti-Starving Olympics.’ Jokes aside, what future Hall-of-Famer is the hungriest for a title? I’ve put together a list of the top NBA players, or more specifically, the only NBA players capable of putting a team on his back for the duration of the entire postseason, and ranked them accordingly.
7. Dirk Nowitzki — 33 years old, 13 years experience, 15:1 odds to win the West
Odds for him: When you need a bucket in crunch time, there is nobody better. Not afraid of any stage. His career scoring average in the playoffs is 26 compared to 23 in the regular season.
Odds against him: After his career peaked last season, he has been on cruise control ever since, and everything we know about human psychology indicates a let-down in focus now that he has a ring. Shooting his worst percentage since his rookie year. Two critical pieces of last year’s team are gone–Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea–replaced by Vince Carter instead.
6. Carmelo Anthony — 27 years old, 8 years experience, 10:1 odds to win the East
Odds for him: Chip on his shoulder due to being frequently left out of the ‘NBA’s Best Player’ discussion. As far as pure scoring goes, he’s top 2 in the league. Hits more clutch shots than anyone the past five years. Has the best home crowd. Since firing their coach, the Knicks are 16-6, Carmelo is averaging 31 ppg in 11 games this month. Therefore, nobody goes into the playoffs hotter.
Odds against him: Doesn’t like to play defense, though neither does Dirk. Style of play doesn’t mesh well with fellow ‘star’ Amare Stoudemire. The Knicks are a 7 seed, so the home crowd advantage means way less, and they have to play Miami in the first round and because he’s streaky, they can just as easily be swept out quickly. This team has been hastily constructed and as a core unit, yet to suffer those resolve-building postseason losses to build upon. Also, he certainly has a competitive personality, but not nearly on the level as these guys listed below.
5. Chris Paul — 26 years old, 6 years experience, 8:1 odds to win the West
Odds for him: Has still not really tasted the highest level(s) of team success, but surrounded now by the most talented supporting cast he’s ever had. Proven leader, his career average is 22 ppg in the playoffs, just 19 in the regular season. Shown repeatedly this season to be capable of taking over games for the final 5 minutes after getting everyone else involved for the other 43.
Odds against him: Only significant player in the Clippers rotation with any playoff experience. Has already delivered on the much-hyped “culture change” for the organization; there is an enormous “we are just happy to be playing in May” potential. Team success relies too heavily on his personal creativity and it is unclear how his body will hold up for multiple playoff series given that dependency.
4. Derrick Rose — 23 years old, 4 years experience, 3:2 odds to win the East
Odds for him: A maniacal obsession with winning that rivals Kobe. A team that managed to have the best record in the league despite him only playing 40 games. Probably still angry that the Heat beat them in 5 games in last season’s conference finals. Enjoys the burden of being their go-to guy at the end of games. His playoff averages always higher than regular season
Odds against him: He only played 40 games, so he’s well-rested (?), but also an unknown entity. No rhythm with the rest of the team and likely still pretty banged up. Never bet on a superstar to out-duel all these other guys when they have sat much of the season. He’s only 23 and despite his pre-occupation with winning above all other distractions (fame, money, the media), has not tasted that much postseason disappointment.
3. Kevin Durant — 23 years old, 5 years experience, 5:4 odds to win the West
Odds for him: Had he played better in April, would have been the MVP. Shooting a career-high percentage. Played in all 66 games. Plays alongside Russell Westbrook so can have ‘bad’ games and the team still wins. Best pure scorer in the league.
Odds against him: This is just his third postseason and has not shown the ability to raise his game yet. Plays alongside Russell Westbrook so can defer too much and get complacent. Also could stand to have more of a mean streak: after the infamous World Peace elbow, he went to the refs instead of picking a fight.
2. Kobe Bryant — 33 years old, 16 years experience (yeah, almost half his life), 5:1 odds to win the West
Odds for him: The most clutch postseason player since Jordan. Averaged 30+ ppg in the playoffs 4 times. Played 208 playoff games (3rd all-time). Unaffected by injuries, he will just play and he will care about winning more than anyone on the court. Agreeing to rest the past two weeks helps given that he was leading the league in minutes played up to that point. Understands the window is closing and this current Lakers team is as talented as anyone. From a hunger perspective, he needs one more ring to tie Jordan’s 6. Whenever somebody talks about Lebron or Rose or Durant, he probably takes this very personally.
Odds against him: Played an obscene amount of minutes in his career. Playing multiple 6 and 7 game series will only hurt as the playoffs move along. No longer has Phil Jackson as head coach. Only trusts one guy on his team (Gasol) besides himself when the going gets tough. Relies strictly on jump shooting these days. Steve Blake, Josh McRoberts, and Troy Murphy are three mediocre Caucasians that get serious playing time for the Lakers.
1. Lebron James — 27 years old, 9 years experience, 2:3 odds to win the East
Odds for him: Best player in the league. Just won his 3rd MVP (Jordan has 5, Kobe has 1). No indications that he can get hurt or tired. Perfect blend of youth and experience = he is DUE to finally win his first title after 6 straight exits. In a better place mentally this season as the Heat under less scrutiny. Averages 28 ppg in postseason career (including 7 triple doubles).
Odds against him: Does not appear to care about team success as much as the others on this list. Still has a fragile psyche by-and-large. Would have more of a chip on his shoulder if he did NOT win the MVP this season. Limited repertoire of scoring moves in clutch situations. For the second year in a row, it is his title ‘to lose’ and that pressure never seems to help anyone.
At least 6 of the above players will have another disappointing postseason exit to add to their hunger resumé. Or maybe all 7 will fail, and the Spurs or Grizzlies or Celtics will win. Those that glorify the parity of other professional sports should embrace the unknown that is the next six weeks. Unlike the 2012 presidential election, we are going to learn a lot.
May the odds be forever in their favor.