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How Hard Is It To Repeat As NBA Champions?

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A thorough look at NBA history and the difficulty of repeating as champions, and implications for the Warriors.

Your 2015 NBA Champion Warriors
Your 2015 NBA Champion Warriors
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, here is a question that I quite frankly never thought would be relevant to the Golden State Warriors. How hard is it to repeat as NBA Champions? The simple answer is: repeating as NBA Champions is hard. Really hard.

In Theory

In theory, it *should* be hard.

  • Going to the Finals means you play about 20+ extra games under the highest pressure and media obligations.
  • You have your young stars leaving for more money, everyone begging for more playing time, bigger role. (See Pat Riley's Disease of More)
  • You have a late draft pick so there isn't immediate new help, or maybe you don't have any picks at all because you traded them to get the final piece in Win Now mode.
  • You lose hunger, you get complacent.
  • Your stars start acting in movies and working on their brand.
  • Your older players age and get hurt.
  • Young rising players play summer ball for their country's teams.
  • Your rivals rebuild their team and spend the summer game planning specifically to beat *you*.
  • Every team gives you their best shot with big crowds to see you get upset on the road.

In Reality

That's the theory. It's also the reality. Repeating is really hard.

  • For instance, the greatest active coach, Gregg Popovich has NEVER repeated. Not even close. In five tries, the Spurs got to the 1st round (2015), WCF (2008), 2nd round (2006), 2nd round (2003), and 1st round (1999). This means of course the exact same is true for the great Tim Duncan, plus Tony Parker and Manu Ginobelli.
  • The Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics never repeated. The Julius Erving and Moses Malone (RIP) 76ers never repeated. Magic Johnson, only repeated once. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, only one repeat. In the legendary 80's with Bird, Magic and Dr. J fighting it out, repeating was unheard of. In 1986, Coach Pat Riley guaranteed a repeat and pulled it off. The Kareem-Magic Lakers were the first team in 18 years to repeat. The team reportedly pulled him off the stage the next year to prevent him from guaranteeing a threepeat, but he still officially copyrighted "Threepeat" in anticipation.
  • Of the 50 Greatest NBA Players (1996 edition), 9 never won championships, 16 won only one, and only 11 total managed to repeat as champions.  Of the 10 Greatest NBA Coaches (same edition), only 5 of them repeated.
  • The two most recent repeats have been the 2013 Heat, who were 10 seconds from losing to the Spurs in the Finals, and the 2010 Lakers, who were down double digits to the Celtics in Game 7.  There hasn't been a convincing repeat since the 2001 Lakers.

How Often Do (Non-Phil Jackson) Teams Repeat?

Here is a good sound bite I've just made up. No NBA team has EVER repeated without one of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon or George Mikan. (@NoWaveCoffee reminded me I forgot Hakeem in the first draft... I will do ten dream shakes as penance.)

Let's get into the actual numbers now.

Let's look at champions since the 1971 Finals. For the moment, let's exclude Phil Jackson coached teams, because as you probably know, he is a huge anomaly.

  • Since 1971, there have been 35 champions not coached by Phil.
  • Only 4 of them (11 %) made it back to the finals and won.
  • 8 of them (23 %) actually made it back to the Finals, but then lost.
  • So 12 out of 35 (34 %) made it back to the Finals, but those teams had a grim 4-8 record once there.

Why Did Teams Fail To Repeat?

Okay, I went through the last 40 champions to see what happened.  I've embedded the sheet but you can also see it directly. This is subjective of course, as to WHY a team didn't win the championship, but I'm writing the article not you. Make your own spreadsheet.

I count:

  • 11 repeat champions
  • 9 teams with injuries to their best player
  • 3 teams with major departures through free agency/retirement (Jordan twice, many 2010 Mavs)
  • 4 teams burned out after multiple consecutive Finals appearance
  • 5 teams that lost the deciding game of a playoff series, usually game 7, but also Game 5 and Game 3(!)
  • 6 teams who were beaten by a rival who added a Hall of Fame player (Pau Gasol, Gary Payton / Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving)
  • 1 team lost to a team of vengeance in a Finals rematch (see Kill Bill, below)
  • Plus the 1986 Lakers who were upset convincingly 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals by the Rockets, who had the Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.  A very bad matchup.
I didn't find any teams that just collapsed without a good reason (as in the Disease of More), with two possible exceptions.

The 1983 Sixers are a very mysterious case, as the Fo Fi Fo Sixers brought the team back. Wages of Wins argues, in short, Moses Malone got complacent and went from top tier to second tier player. But they lost in Game 5 of a five game series, and variance is greater in a short series. 

The original Disease of More Lakers of 1980 did endure a Magic feud with Coach Westhead and all the other drama, but still narrowly lost a THREE game series (can you believe the NBA used to do this? but it was a very minor league before Bird-Magic electrified the nation) to the eventual Finalist Rockets, led by Moses Malone.


Side note: Kill Bill, or What Happens to the Finals Runner-up?

  • The runner-up makes it back to the Finals only 12 times out of 44 (27 %).
  • Once back in the Finals, the previous year's runner-up has a 9-3 record. The drive for redemption is strong.
  • Interestingly, something special happens when there is a rematch of the previous Finals. Take a guess at the record of the champs... I'll wait.
  • There have been 7 rematches in the Finals of the previous year's finalists. (Can you name them without a web search?) The answer is that the champions lost 6 out of 7 times to the bloodcrazed vengeance machines, most recently when the 2014 Spurs devoted their every waking thought to revenge on Lebron James's Heat. The only champ to repeat in a rematch was Jordan's 1998 Bulls who beat the Jazz on Jordan's famous retirement steal and jumper (and push off).
  • So, given the lopsided history of rematches, if we see Warriors-Cavs in the Finals again, history favors the Cavs.

The Phil Jackson Exception

So, why did we exclude Phil Jackson teams earlier? Because his record is comically successful compared to the rest of the league.

  • He had 11 championship teams. (Already absurd.)
  • 7 of them successfully repeated (and 3 of them were threepeats). He failed to repeat only 2 times (1994 Bulls post Jordan Retirement I and 2010 Lakers during the lockout and after three Finals trips). So technically, he was an incredible 7 for 9 (87%) on repeats, compared to the rest of the league's 11% repeat rate.
  • Now if you are a new basketball fan, you may well ask how can he have only 9 repeat tries if he has 11 rings? Well, he managed to get fired twice, first right after the Bulls' second threepeat and after the 1999-2001 Lakers threepeat. You know you've burned your bridges with management if three straight titles can't save your job.
  • Excepting the dynastic Celtics of the 1960s, only three teams have threepeated, and ALL of them were coached by Phil Jackson.

What Does This Mean For The Warriors?

Looking at the ways teams miss going back to the Finals, we have:

  • free agent losses (not applicable)
  • injuries (can happen to any team, but Andrew Bogut looks in better shape, as does Andre Iguodala)
  • burn out from multiple Finals (not applicable... yet)
  • key rivals adding a Hall of Famer. If you believe my quick analysis (not sure I do), key rivals needed to add a Hall of Fame caliber player to topple the champs. So even though multiple top Western Conference teams gained players, the only remotely plausible Hall of Fame additions have been the Spurs with LaMarcus Aldridge, Thunder (re-)gaining Kevin Durant, and the Cavs (re-)gaining Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

So, it's a tough road back, but the W's have two other things going for then: science and sorcery.

First, the science. Have a look at FiveThirtyEight's wonderful analysis of comparable teams to the 2015 Warriors.  There is a nice chart showing what happens to teams who make breakthroughs like the Warriors. Basically, it's very good and teams tend to sustain wins into the next two seasons (median wins of 62, 57, 55, 47 in successive seasons).

Here's the paragraph you will love:

Based on a nearest neighbor analysis, [using a team’s Elo rating, its change in Elo rating from the previous season, whether it won the NBA championship, its average age and its continuity percentage] the most similar team to this year’s Warriors is the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls. The Bulls’ three best players that year — Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant — were 27 years old, 25 and 25. By comparison, Curry was 26 this season, while Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were 24.

Yes, the first team of the first Bulls threepeat.

Second, the sorcery.  The Warriors coaching is a hybrid of three strains: D'Antoni Seven Seconds Or Less, Late Popovich Spurs Motion, and Phil Jackson Triangle.  D'Antoni never got to the Finals (in part due to some thuggish Spurs moves that we like to forget in the modern love fest for Pop); Popovich has NEVER repeated. And Phil Jackson owns most of the repeats.

Steve Kerr and Luke Walton played for (between them) three of the repeat Phil Jackson teams. In fact, they are the only current coaches from the Jackson tree in the NBA besides Derek Fisher (in NY and years from the Finals). So they know something about the Phil Jackson approach to grooming a dynasty. That has involved a lot of mind games (read Lazenby's books for examples) and mysticism (waving sage, anyone?) but a lot of compassionate coaching too. We saw that Kerr adopted some Jackson techniques to keep the long years fresh like cutting funny clips into game film sessions and arranging team distractions (bowling! compare the famous Bulls Staten Island Ferry trip). And unlike Phil Jackson, Kerr and Walton have a great relationship with management.

So to sum up, the odds are stacked against the Warriors repeating or even making it back to the Finals, but between their skill and continuity and their coaching tree's roots in the Phil Jackson dynasties, they are positioned well to try to beat the odds.