As strange as it might sound, I view that spectacular 45-point performance by LeBron James Thursday night as a regression to the mean. It was the NBA playoffs correcting course, getting back on the proven path. In order to win a championship you need to have a player who’s among the handful who can legitimately claim to be the best in the league. That’s what the Heat have in LeBron James, who just delivered them to the brink of their second consecutive NBA Finals. The Thunder are already there waiting for them because they have Kevin Durant. Analyze the rest of the rosters all you want, but that’s what it comes down to.
Some might despise that notion because it removes the intellectual element out of it, and where’s the fun if we can’t pontificate and project? There’s nothing sophisticated in saying one guy is really great at getting the ball to go through the basket. But that’s the essence of this sport. Elite players play at their best, then they get to hold a shiny gold trophy.
This is not meant to diminish the work of the coaches, general managers, athletic trainers and everyone else who works so hard to make their teams the best. But there’s only so much that can be accomplished with whiteboard diagrams, video clips and ankle wraps. Eventually, nothing else matters but what your best player can do with the ball in his hands.
You know what determined the bulk of two decades’ worth of NBA championships? Two coin flips, an exploitation of a since-revoked rule, and one of the worst decisions in NBA history. Coin tosses got Magic Johnson to the Lakers and Hakeem Olajuwon to the Rockets. Red Auerbach used the old junior eligible clause to snag Larry Bird with the No. 6 pick in the 1978 draft, a year before Bird played his last game at Indiana State. And the reason Michael Jordan won all those championships in Chicago can be summarized by the first four words in this video.
Four critical moments dictated which teams won 16 of the 20 championships in the 1980s and 1990s. And after the Dream Team era was over, the lottery luck of Tim Duncan to the Spurs and the shifting destinations of Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers and Heat portended eight of the next nine champions.
Stars win titles
The players who lead title teams are among the best of the best.
The formula has been proven repeatedly over three decades. If you want to win an NBA championship you need to have one of the top six players in the league.
Check out the list to the right.
The exceptions warrant a futher look. We always talk about the 2004 Detroit Pistons breaking the NBA rules because they had no automatic-entry Hall of Fame players on their roster. But when you look at this list the Bad Boy Pistons who won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 are even greater outliers than their 2004 cousins. Ben Wallace actually finished seventh in the 2004 MVP voting. Throw in the fact he was the defensive player of the year, on a defense-based team, and you could make a case that Wallace was a top-five player.
I’m stunned that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars finished tied for 17th in the 1989 MVP voting and tied for 13th in 1990. It shows how underappreciated Thomas was then … and how he remains so now. In the 1989 MVP results Thomas finished behind Tom Chambers (ninth), Mark Price (10th), Brad Daugherty (11th) and Mark Eaton (13th) and Larry Nance (13th). Isiah was 27, the age NBA stars usually begin to peak. You’re telling me you would take any of those guys over a prime year of Isiah Thomas?
The other number that sticks out is Magic Johnson finishing eighth in 1982. He finished behind Sidney Moncrief even though Magic’s scoring average was within a point of Moncrief’s, and Magic averaged more rebounds and almost twice as many assists. Oh, and the Lakers won two more games than the Bucks. Magic had to have been penalized for his role in the firing of coach Paul Westphal. Back then, before League Pass, voters in the East saw Magic play, at best, 10 times, and the box scores from his West Coast games weren’t in the morning newspapers.
And speaking of finishing eighth...if the Celtics regroup and beat Miami in Game 7, then go on to win a championship, this year’s MVP voters (myself included) will have to account for putting Rajon Rondo in the No. 8 slot. As it stands now he’s the most important player on a team that is five wins from a championship. Even if we realize the MVP is a snapshot based on the regular season, not a window into what will happen in the playoffs, Rondo should at least have Kevin Love’s sixth slot because his team had a better record than the Timberwolves (and seventh-place finisher Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic). Rondo had at least 10 assists in each of his last 24 games. He averaged 14 assists per game in March. We've come to grips with him being more important to the Celtics than any of the Big Three, but we need to start considering him among the best in the league.
We shouldn’t recalibrate our view of Rondo based on what happens from here. If we’ve learned anything from the past three decades, it’s the players who give a team a great shot at a championship, not a championship team that makes a great case for a player.