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Repeating as NBA champs is really hard

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A thorough look at the long history of NBA champs trying, and mostly failing, to repeat.

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Championship Celebration
STEPH BETTER (not drop that thing)
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t take for granted how significant a task it is to repeat as an NBA champion. In fact, even getting back to the Finals is a big deal. If the Warriors or Cavs make it back, they will be the first since the 2011-2014 Miami Heat, and before that you have to go all the way back to the 1982-85 Showtime Lakers to go to four straight finals. (Both the Heat and Lakers were 2-2 by the way.) No team has gone to five straight finals since the 1957-66 Celtics (9-1), back when the league was much smaller and unbalanced.

This article is an update of a 2015 survey of past NBA champions and how difficult it was for them to repeat: How Hard Is It To Repeat As NBA Champions?

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.

Since the original article, near and un-dear to our hearts, the 2015 Warriors failed to repeat, coming within a basket of pulling off the repeat. And then, nearer and dearer to our hearts, the 2016 Cavs did not repeat this year, dethrone by the vengeful Warriors.

This fact is still true:

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.

How champions (don’t) repeat

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 37 champions not coached by Phil.
  • Only 4 of them (11 %) made it back to the finals and won.
  • 10 of them (27 %) actually made it back to the Finals, but then lost.
  • So only 14 out of 37 (38 %) made it back to the Finals, but those teams had a grim 4-10 record once there.

Okay, I went through the last 42 champions to see what happened. I made a detailed spreadsheet. 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
  • 10 teams with injuries to their best player (including the 2016 Warriors)
  • 3 teams with major departures through free agency/retirement (Jordan twice, many 2010 Mavs)
  • 4 teams burned out after multiple consecutive Finals appearance
  • 6 teams that lost the deciding game of a playoff series, usually game 7, but also Game 5 and Game 3(!)
  • 7 teams who were beaten by a rival who added a Hall of Fame player (including the Cavs facing Kevin Durant on the 2017 Warriors, as well as Pau Gasol, Gary Payton / Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving)
  • 3 teams 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 discussed in the original piece, the 1983 Sixers and the original Disease of More Lakers of 1980.

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

  • The runner-up makes it back to the Finals only 14 times out of 46 (30 %).
  • Once back in the Finals, the previous year's runner-up has a 11-3 (.785) 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 9 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 8 out of 9 (.888) times to the bloodcrazed vengeance machines. This has happened an amazing three out of the last four finals with rematches in the 2017, 2016 Finals (Cavs-Warriors) and 2014 Finals (Spurs-Heat), with the revenge machine winning each time. 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).

What about the 2018 Warriors?

So, what does this mean for the Warriors? Let’s audit the Warriors vulnerability to the warning flags listed above:

  • Injuries √. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have had injuries, but GSW potentially could survive the loss of one. The loss of Draymond Green is harder to calculate.
  • Departures X. No big departures from the team.
  • Burnout √. The Warriors definitely are vulnerable to fatigue from three straight Finals runs, combined with league-leading regular season travel.
  • Reloaded Rivals √-. The Cavs have added Dwyane Wade (sure Hall of Famer), Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas. That’s a lot of potential firepower to add, though all in decline, with a question mark as to fit, and also the loss of Kyrie Irving.
  • Vengeance √. If the Cavs make it back for a four-peat Finals, the lopsided history of rematches favors the Cavs.
  • Bad Matchup √. I still consider the Spurs a bad matchup. Between a familiarity with disrupting the motion game, the size, the discipline and track record of pounding the Warriors, if the Spurs and Warriors meet again, it could be very perilous for the Warriors.

Final Thoughts

So, despite everyone writing off the season, a lot of factors are working against the Warriors. If they repeat, it will be against the tide of history, not just punching the clock.

You can refer back to the original piece for discussions of the Phil Jackson exception, but suffice to say that he has a comically successful repeat record compared to everyone else. Steve Kerr learned directly from Phil Jackson as a player and has clearly adopted some ideas to try to keep a defending champion fresh.

  • keep the environment upbeat and positive
  • keep players relaxed with music and creative practice
  • emphasize structured offense that spreads agency and decision-making across all players
  • pace the team by giving minutes to role players and a deep bench

Let’s see if the Warriors can break through and repeat!