Friday, June 19, 2009

Those Magic Changes

As the ’00s (the “oughts”, right?) near their end, I anticipate a host of popular journalism reviewing the best of the decade in a variety of fields: business, music, film, politics. Sadly, these were not ten great years for innovation or domination. The Big Three car companies in the U.S. gave us nothing good, and now face bankruptcy. Microsoft still can’t make a satisfying version of Windows. Besides teeny boppers and Idol champs, have any great musical heroes or new genres of songsters emerged? Hip-hop lost its roots as a genre fueled by exhorting prophets, and now, apparently, seems merely a marketing tool for the hard liquor industry. Besides Barack Obama and Junichiro Koizumi, there were no political leaders who inspired us or threw fresh ideas into the pot. Arnold Schwarzenegger has run his state into fiscal hell. (Unfortunately for California, the federal bankruptcy code only covers towns, not states.) In the prior decade, we had Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Mike Harris, Newt Gingrich, Mohammed Khatami, Boris Yeltsin, and even the Texas-era George W. Bush, who introduced useful reforms on school accountability.

Basketball is no more or less susceptible to whitewater rapids trips down the chasm of greatness. The ’80s gave us Bird, Johnson, McHale, Thomas, Worthy, Wilkins, Drexler, Barkley, Jordan, Olajuwon, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Dumars, Pippen, Robinson. [I am fudging a bit on Bird and Magic, given that they debuted in the fall of ’79.] The Nineties, though… well, can you name five Hall of Fame-level players drafted in that decade? O’Neal, Garnett, Bryant, Duncan for sure. Maybe Payton, Kidd, Nash, Allen, Iverson, Billups, Pierce, or Nowitzki, but maybe not. Bonfires of raw ridiculousness like Webber, Mourning, McGrady, Hardaway, and Hill saw their careers curtailed by injury.

(Compare this to the babies of the Oughts, full of probable all-timers: Gasol, Yao, Ginobili, James, Wade, Anthony, Howard, Paul, Roy, Durant, Rose. Others like Parker, Arenas, Stoudemire, Bosh, D.Williams, and even Blake Griffin might get there if they raise their game in coming years.)

As a result of the dearth of quality talent among Nineties-vintage stars,this past decade was simply not an exciting time for pro basketball. Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan won eight championships in the nine seasons after Michael Jordan left the Bulls, and their Finals foes were never very intimidating.

Instinctually, it seems that the team of the decade was the San Antonio Spurs, the only team to win 50 games in each of all ten seasons. Three of those ended with a title. The Spurs actually presaged their dominance in the abbreviated 1998-99 season, as Duncan and Robinson obliterated their competition on their way to a championship.

The Shaq-&-Kobe-powered Lakers reached 50 wins in each of the first five years of the decade, and then Bryant plus Gasol and Odom did it again in 2007-08 and 2008-09. They also made the playoffs in ’06 and ’07, as Bryant led a team of laggards including Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the first round. The Lakers reached (and won) six conference finals, and won four of the six NBA Finals they played in. Had Shaquille O’Neal not left the team in 2004, the Lakers probably would have amassed five or six total championships.

Various Western teams threatened the dominance of L.A. and San Antonio. Phoenix reached 50 wins with Jason Kidd in ’00 and ’01, then had four hot years in the middle of the decade with Steve Nash, but never reached the NBA Finals, due to untimely injuries, bad luck, and general nincompoop-ism. Sacramento won 50 games in each season from 2000-01 to 2004-05, but quickly fell off a cliff after trading Chris Webber and discarding the rest of their core. Utah won 50 games with the fading Stockton-Malone system in ’00 and ’01, and more recently won 50 in each of the last three seasons with Boozer, Williams, and Kirilenko. However, the Lakers and Spurs easily repelled Utah in the postseason following each of those latter campaigns. Houston won 50 games with their Yao-McGrady teams in each of ’05, ’07, ’08, and ’09, but could not go far in the playoffs, usually because Yao or McGrady or both were injured.

Actually, the second team that maintained greatness throughout the decade (besides the Spurs) was not LAL, but DAL. This past April, Dallas reached 50 victories for, incredibly, the ninth consecutive season. In those nine seasons, they made the playoffs nine times, reached two conference finals, reached one NBA Finals, and rocked to the best record in the league in ’07. For critics who call Dirk Nowitzki soft, that is an amazing record of achievement.

In the East, there’s not much greatness to be found. Orlando was okay with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, then good-to-great with Dwight Howard. New Jersey somehow won two conference titles with only 52 and 49 wins, then hovered in the forty-something win range during four more years until Jason Kidd left. Boston was, frankly, quite sucky with Paul Pierce (averaging only 37.8 wins in the eight seasons before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen moved there), then had two great years.

Two teams really stand out as attaining some level of sustained excellence in this decade: first, and most obviously, Detroit attained 50 wins for seven consecutive years from 2001-02 to 2007-08. Detroit made the playoffs in every year of this decade but 2000-01 (a Grant Hill-led team squeaked into the playoffs in ’00 with a 42-40 record). The Pistons made two NBA Finals and won one, losing Game 7 in their effort to repeat. That’s really quite stunning for a team lacking a super-duper star. What’s more, they accomplished this under three different coaches!

Second, the Miami Heat had a desultory series of moments, reaching the playoffs with very different looks: first, the Mourning-Hardaway-Brown-Mashburn squad that achieved so much success in the late ‘90s; then a brand-new team of Bruce Bowen, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, and Anthony Mason plugged in around Hardaway; then the jolly rogues of Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Udonis Haslem, Grant and Jones; then the golden aspirants of Wade, Haslem, Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mourning; then the previous quintet minus Jones and with Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, and James Posey; and finally, in 2009, a stripped-down bunch with Wade, Haslem, and a buttload of rookies. Ultimately, Miami reached the playoffs in seven of ten seasons, and secured a championship at its highest point.

Anyway, raw data showing the win totals for every NBA team in every season of this decade (1999-2000 through 2008-2009) can be viewed at this Google Docs spreadsheet. Any errors are mine; I constructed the spreadsheet by hand from data on

What numerical conclusions can we draw? The teams with the greatest variance in performance were Sacramento, Cleveland, Miami, and Minnesota, which had some spectacular seasons (with Webber, James, Wade, and Garnett, respectively) and some horrendous seasons without them. Memphis’s variance is slightly below that, which surprises me, given that the Grizz had seven 20-win seasons and three playoff seasons. I would have expected them to have, numerically, the greatest win variance of any team.

The most consistent teams in terms of variance are the Spurs (consistently great), the Bobcats (consistently putrid), then Philadelphia (always mediocre), Dallas (consistently great), and Milwaukee (also always mediocre, making the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals the blandest big-time playoff series ever).

The most successful teams over the decade are the Spurs (57.6 wins on average), the Mavs (54.8 wins), the Lakers (53.0), the Pistons (49.7), and the Suns (49.1). No other team comes particularly close to the Suns’ mark. The worst teams are the Bobcats (natch) with 28.8 wins, Atlanta, Memphis, the Clippers, and Chicago. How embarrassing for the Bulls: after dominating the ‘90s, they were in the league’s bottom five the following decade. Even top-five draft picks in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008 (not to mention the 7th pick in 2003) could not vault them to one single fifty-win season.

It is easy to predict the best teams of the coming decade. Miami with Dwyane Wade, Orlando with Dwight Howard, Portland with Brandon Roy, and Chicago with Derrick Rose will be awesome. Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant will be on that list, but we must first wait to learn whether they will stay with their current small-market teams. The L.A. Lakers will likely do very well in the first part of the decade, but may suffer some privations when Kobe Bryant eventually quits. Boston has one or two strong seasons left, but will then crumble to dust when its aging stars leave or retire. Same for the Spurs; like Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker is no Isiah.

Check in June of 2019 for an evaluation of these predictions!

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