Formation | Culture | Mission

How to Win the NBA Finals (and Who Will)

After a six-week hiatus, Fidelity’s back in the game. March was such a lucrative month for us here at the Network, I had to take April off. But the people need an essay. How are they going to know what to make of the first half of the NBA playoffs and what to expect in the second?

Unleash the flutes, guru. The Roc is back in the building.

The Three Ingredients for an NBA Championship

Have you ever noticed that an NBA team’s regular season record is not the best predictor of championship odds? It’s a good predictor in college hoops and the NFL, and it’s a nearly-perfect one in the MLB. But in the NBA, good teams can win 50 games, and very good ones can win 55-60. But good teams and very good teams rarely win NBA titles.

In fact, more than any other meanwhile sport (sorry, MLS), only a few NBA teams have a legitimate chance at winning the championship each year. Look at the Western Conference in the last 16 years as Case Study #1.

1999: Spurs
2000: Lakers
2001: Lakers
2002: Lakers
2003: Spurs
2004: Lakers
2005: Spurs
2006: Mavericks
2007: Spurs
2008: Lakers
2009: Lakers
2010: Lakers
2011: Mavericks
2012: Thunder
2013: Spurs
2014: Spurs

Hmmm… notice any patterns? In the last 16 seasons, the Lakers have made the Finals seven times, the Spurs six times, the Mavs twice, and the Thunder once. That does not happen in any other sport. Just an anomaly in the West? Look at the East and you’ll find the same pattern: the Celtics made 12 appearances in 13 seasons (’57-69) and then four straight in ’84-87; the Pistons made three straight (’88-90), followed by six Bulls trips in eight years (’91-98), and Miami has gone the last four years (’11-14).

Why on earth are the same few teams going to the Finals year after year—especially in a league with a fixed salary cap (unlike baseball)?

Three reasons/ingredients, and they all reinforce the Three Rules of Fidelity Sports.

Ingredient #1: Coaching Excellence

The Lakers made an absurd seven Finals in 12 years because they had a top-three NBA coach of all-time, Phil Jackson, on the bench; the Spurs’ run has included six Finals spread over an amazing 16 years, because they had another top-three all-time coach: Gregg Popovich. If this isn’t evidence enough, look at the runs in the East: Red Auerbach (the other in the NBA coaching trinity) coached the Celtics during their dominance in the 60’s then was the GM when they made four trips in the 80’s; coaching legends Phil Jackson and Chuck Daly led the Bulls and Pistons during their 90’s runs. (If Erik Spoelstra was a better coach, Miami could have won the last four NBA titles.) In short, only a few teams can really win the NBA title each year, because only a few coaches are championship-quality each year.

That’s exactly why OKC fired Scott Brooks a few weeks ago: he was a very good coach who could lead the incredible Durant/Westbrook duo into the playoffs (circa Doug Collins in Chicago early in MJ’s career) but he was not a GREAT coach (like Phil Jackson, who immediately won six titles with the exact same roster). Is Billy Donovan a great coach? We’ll find out.

Ingredient #2: Superstar Talent

Now, there’s a second—and fairly obvious—trait among these repeat Finals teams over the decades: they have superstar talent. The Lakers had Magic Johnson when they made nine Finals appearances, the Celtics had Bird for their 80’s run, the Bulls had His Airness, the Lakers had Kobe, the Spurs had Duncan, the Heat had LeBron. Just as there’s an enormous discrepancy between the number of NBA titles held by very good coaches and GREAT coaches, there’s just as much of a gap for very good players (Barkley, Malone, Drexler, Thomas) and the GREAT ones.

Now, when you have the confluence of coaching excellence and superstar talent? Now you’re not just talking championship, you’re talking dynasty. But in order to win a title—let alone reach dynasty status—you need one more ingredient.

Ingredient #3: Willing Role Players

The best coaches surround their superstars with willing role players. Sure, part of this is the Batman-Robin combination (see: Bird-McHale, Magic-Worthy, Jordan-Pippen, Malone-Stockton, Shaq-Kobe, Duncan-Parker, Kobe-Gasol, James-Wade). But great teams have more than just a second All-Star; the whole team knows their roles and plays well together. The Bulls brought in Rodman to rebound and little else; the Lakers brought in Derek Fisher and Robert Horry to provide playoff experience; the Heat brought in Ray Allen to try to cancel out the fact that Mario Chalmers is the single worst NBA player of all time.

To make The Jump from being a very good team that wins 60 games and makes their conference finals to a great team that wins multiple titles, the “glue guys” matter: the aggressive defensive wing, the off-the-bench energy guy, the three-point specialist, the seven-footer willing to foul out in eight minutes, etc.

Interlude: Basketball Isn’t Football

I’ve made this point here before, but I want to reinforce it. The first rule states that The Team Comes FirstTM, but that doesn’t mean that, in every sport and at every time, they must be defensive-minded or that star players typically hurt championship dreams. Defense wins championships in football; in basketball, scoring wins them. Superstars are helpful in the NFL; they’re essential in the NBA.

Team Rankings

So now that we’ve established the three ingredients for an NBA champion—coaching excellence, superstar talent, and willing role players—how do these remaining eight teams rank? I’m glad you asked. First, let’s look at the remaining teams by each category.

Coaching Rankings

1. Clippers: Doc Rivers (700 wins; 57% win rate; 76 playoff wins
2. Bulls: Tom Thibodeau (255; 65%; 23)
3. Rockets: Kevin McHale (228; 56%; 9)
4. Grizzlies: Dave Joerger (105; 64%; 8)
5. Hawks: Mike Budenholzer (98; 60%; 8)
6. Warriors: Steve Kerr (67; 82%; 5)
7. Wizards: Ralph Wittman (237; 39%; 11)
8. Cavs: David Blatt (53; 65%; 5)

Notice that four remaining teams have first or second year coaches (Grizz, Hawks, Warriors, Cavs) and one team’s coach actually has a losing career record (Wiz). More than any other sport, the NBA has a way of destroying young coaches and inexperienced players. Almost all pro analysts will tell you a team has to have its heart broken at least once before it can win the Finals.

Superstar Rankings

1. Cavs: LeBron James (career avgs: 27 points, 7 rebounds; 11 seasons)
2. Clippers: Chris Paul (19 points, 10 assists; 9 seasons)
3. Bulls: Derrick Rose (20 points, 7 assists; 5 seasons)
4. Warriors: Steph Curry (21 points, 7 assists; 5 seasons)
5. Rockets: James Harden (20 points, 4 assists; 5 seasons)
6. Grizzlies: Zach Randolph (17 points, 10 rebounds; 13 sesaons)
7. Hawks: Al Horford (14 points, 9 rebounds; 7 seasons)
8. Wizards: Bradley Beal (15 points, 4 rebounds; 2 seasons)

The rankings aren’t just for these eight players, but for the teams’ combined, available superstar talent—so the Cavs’ ranking reflects Kyrie Irving but not the injured Kevin Love; the Clippers’ ranking includes Blake Griffin, the Bulls’ ranking includes Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler, and the Wizards’ ranking reflects John Wall’s injury. So if I consider a superstar to be a guaranteed 20-point-a-night, perennial All-Star, then the top four teams each have two—the Cavs have James and Irving; the Clippers have Paul and Griffin, the Bulls have Rose and Pau (Butler’s not quite there yet), the Warriors have Curry and Thompson—the Rockets have one in Harden (Howard is no longer a superstar), and the Grizzlies, Hawks, and Wizards have none (considering Wall’s injury).

Role Players Rankings

This is based on the teams’ 3rd through 8th best available players, simply summarized by ranking since I don’t have a way to quantify it.

Great Role Players: Bulls, Hawks, Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors
Above-Average Role Players: Rockets
Average Role Players: Wizards
Below-Average Role Players: Cavs

So how do we put this all together? That’s exactly why the Fidelity Power RankingsTM exist.

Fidelity Power RankingsTM

Here are the best remaining NBA teams, ranked by their ability to win this year’s NBA championship—regardless of matchups/seeds.

1. Clippers
2. Bulls
3. Grizzlies
4. Cavs
5. Warriors
6. Rockets
7. Hawks
8. Wizards

Side note: Fifty years from now, if this is indeed the end of the Spurs dynasty, history will show that they lost in the first round, but true fans of the game will remember this ’14-15 Spurs team as completely capable of winning the Finals, they simply fell into a ridiculous 6-seed and a Game Seven in LA against Doc Rivers’ well-coached, hyper-talented Clippers. IMHO, the top best teams in the NBA going into the playoffs were the Spurs and Clips, and LA’s home-court advantage was essentially the difference.

Side note 2: But I’m not convinced the Spurs are done. In my preview of last year’s playoffs, I predicted a Spurs-over-Heat Finals, with Duncan and Pop riding off into the sunset for retirement. But can they both leave like this, in the first round, when CP3’s running floater off a strained hammy grazed a half-inch above Timmy’s outstretched fingers to bank in at the buzzer? I still think Dunc has a great chance to essentially retire here at the top of his game—something so few pro athletes actually do (see: Jordan’s tenure with the Bobcats, Kobe’s last two seasons, and the career of Paul Pierce).

Previews and Predictions

So that leaves us to the actual games. What’s going to happen? It’s all pretty straightforward, you see—one part science (the three ingredients), one part gut (Fidelity Sports’ inimitable genius).

Atlanta over Washington in Seven

Washington leads the series two-one, but with John Wall out for the rest of the way, look for Atlanta to pull this one out at home in G7. Neither team would win a game against Chicago or Cleveland. The Hawks may go down as the worst 60-win team in NBA history—not because they’re that bad, but because they feasted on an Eastern conference that was absolutely atrocious.

Chicago over Cleveland in Six

The Bulls came out hungry in Game One, looking like they were playing to win a championship, and despite a rough G2, are clearly in the driver’s seat up two-one. After three games, we’ve got D-Rose in “prove yourself” mode (meaning he’s either going to score 30-a-game from here on out, or tear another knee ligament going full speed 100% of the time), Pau Gasol looks like he’s in his prime, Jimmy Butler seems to be working out the jitters of his first real playoff minutes, and Joakim Noah is comfortable to play the Rodman role (2 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks, and an otherworldly and slightly-annoying amount of energy). In other words, the Bulls are looking good. Very good (great?) coach, two superstars, one emerging star, a defensive MVP role player, a quiet-but-deadly three-point specialist (Dunleavy), and a handful of other quality bench options (Mirotic, Gibson, and Brooks).

Meanwhile, the Cavs played G1 like it was a international “friendly.” Even in front of his so-called “home” crowd, LeBron had another playoff flop—he lacked energy, seemed afraid to shoot, and wasn’t a factor on D. He played well in G2, then was basically average in G3. These three games are a perfect Case Study on James. Is he one of the greatest ever or is he wasting large amounts of his talents? Look at this first stat line—this is LeBron’s statline through three games against Chicago.

26.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 2.0 steals

Incredible! Those numbers would make a nice three-game peak for even Magic or Oscar Robertson, except LeBron puts them up on a regular basis. But look again, from a different perspective, at his numbers over the same last three games.

39.5% shooting, 1-for-12 3pt, 5.0 turnovers/game

That’s what so frustrating about LBJ for true NBA fans. He could be the greatest, but he doesn’t want it. He’s the Floyd Mayweather of the NBA. When Mayweather was asked if he was the greatest boxer of all time after (sort of) defeating Pacquiao last weekend, he said he was according to his standards. He went on to explain that his goal as a boxer wasn’t to win the most fights or the biggest ones, it was to “win the fight game”—in other words, to just use boxing to amass unmatched celebrity and money. It’s not about what happens in the ring for Floyd as long as he gets his $200 million. He wants to be bigger than just boxing, to be his own brand.

I get the feeling James is the same way. Sure, he wants championships, but he also cares about his image, and wants to be an all-around winner—considered smart, loyal, entrepreneurial, stylish, and marketable. And that’s the difference between him and Michael or Kobe. Kobe does not care one bit about his image, about endorsements, about impressing the audience on Fallon. He cares about winning on the court, and nothing else matters. I’m not necessarily saying Kobe’s way is better than LeBron’s way. I’m just saying: Kobe will retire (some day) with five championships and as the fourth or fifth greatest player of all time, and James will retire with two to four and as a top 8-10 player. He’ll likely be the most “marketable” top 10 player in NBA history, but he’ll also be the only one of those 10 who didn’t play up to his potential on a regular basis.

My predictions for this series: Chicago wins G4 in a close win, Cleveland wins big in G5, Chicago closes out the series at home with a five-point G6 win.

Grizzlies over Warriors in Six

The Warriors are very, very good, and Steve Kerr has the makings of the next great NBA coach. But they’re just not there yet. This year is about playing very well and having their hearts broken, whether here in Memphis in the conference finals. I’m seriously looking forward to the next five years of the Western Conference: the Kerr-coached Warriors against the Donovan-coached Thunder against the Rivers-coached Clippers, with Memphis, Houston, and Dallas all trying to stay relevant. And don’t forget about Anthony Davis’ Pelicans.

But for now, the Grizz are well-coached and also very, very good (not great though), and have been heart-broken more than once, so look for them to advance behind Mike “the Mask” Conley.

Clippers over Rockets in Five

First one to 120 points wins! Does anything care about playing defense? Nope! Not when you can score within 8 seconds of touching the ball 90 percent of the time. And I’m talking about both teams.

I expect the Clips to win the final two games and get CP3 some rest before a gritty Memphis matchup.

East Finals: Bulls over Hawks in Five

See everything above. This will be a pretty boring series.

West Finals: Clippers over Grizz in Seven

If I was going purely by which teams I like most, the Grizzlies would win the Finals over the Bulls. Could you imagine Gasol v. Gasol? They’d officially become the Williams sisters of international basketball. But I just can’t see Memphis getting there—not without a superstar and not without a more seasoned coach. It’s not that the Grizz don’t have a chance, it’s just that the Clips’ chance is about 3-to-1 better. Who exactly is athletic enough to stop Blake Griffin? Who cares about winning more than Chris Paul right now? No one, and no one. Clips in seven.

My 2015 NBA Finals Pick: LA Clippers

My regular readers may be surprised by this, but the Spurs’ early-round fall changed everything for me. I love the Bulls’ completeness, the Grizz’s tough-nose defense, the Warriors’ energy, and the Cavs’ willingness to let JR Smith take games over when LeBron wants to sit on the bench and chew his fingernails. But I just don’t think there’s a better combination of the three ingredients than the Clippers.

Give me the Clippers in five, with Chris Paul as Finals MVP, Blake stuffing every Top 10 highlight for the next four weeks, JJ Redick continuing to make people hate him (and Duke) with every made three, DeAndre Jordan guarding the basket (I call him ‘DeAndre the Giant’ and don’t know why this hasn’t caught on more widely), and Coach Doc Rivers presiding over his second NBA ring.

Clippers

Other than the Spurs finishing their dynasty with another ring, this is the best possible situation for the NBA: the Clips come full circle as a franchise just a year after the Donald Sterling fiasco (their championship would put NBA commissioner Adam Silver in the Hall of Fame in just his second season), Chris Paul could get off the “yeah but he never won a championship” list, and the Cavs, Bulls, Warriors, and Thunder would have reason to come back hungrier in 2015-16.

You heard it here first, folks. See you in a few months.

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