If you take a gander at the past few decades of NBA champions, you’ll see a lot of familiar names. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers traded titles for most of the 1980s, while the Chicago Bulls hardly turned it off for the next decade. And from 1999 through 2010, nine out of 12 championships were won by either the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. Although the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks have all joined the ranks of first-time champs in the past decade, the NBA’s history has largely been defined by its dynasties, an exclusive group of superstar-driven franchises that monopolize the majority of titles and leave very little room for the NBA’s middle and lower class to enter the championship club.
Only 19 of the league’s 30 active franchises have ever won an NBA championship at all,1 and seven of those 19 last won before 1980.2 This century, just nine teams — less than a third of the league — have split the 21 available titles, with 16 of the 21 going to just four franchises: the Lakers (6), Spurs (4), Heat (3) and Warriors (3). That relative lack of parity has been pointed out as a problem for a while, and even NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke to the issue in 2019, saying, “We can still come up with a better system to create more competition.”
But something different is in the championship water this year. For reasons including injury and COVID-19 complications, the usual suspects are on the sidelines of contending for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In their place have stepped traditional second, third and fourth fiddles. The Brooklyn Nets (18 percent), L.A. Clippers (13 percent), Utah Jazz (12 percent) and Denver Nuggets (11 percent) are among the six teams with the best chances to win the NBA title this season in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast. None has ever won the whole thing. And the team tied for the second-highest odds, the Milwaukee Bucks (13 percent), hasn’t won a title since before the NBA-ABA merger — five decades ago, to the season. The 17-time champion Lakers are the only other team in the top six to have won before.
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If it’s unusual whenever a team emerges to contend for what would be the first title in franchise history, it’s even more extraordinary when multiple teams fit that description in a single season, like we’re seeing so far in 2020-21.
How extraordinary? At the All-Star break, the top five teams in the league according to our classic Elo ratings included four first-time title contenders — the Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Nuggets and Clippers. (The Lakers were the fifth team.) The last time the NBA saw so many first-time title hopefuls in Elo’s top five at midseason came in another strange, shortened season — the 1998-99 lockout year, when the Jazz, Spurs, Heat and Pacers joined the then-11-time champ Lakers3 atop the rankings. (The Spurs ultimately prevailed, earning the first of their five total titles.)
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Before that, the last time at least four of the top five midseason Elo teams had never won a title was back in 1951, when the league was made up of just 11 teams (and had only ever awarded four championships in its history — including titles from the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA).
The NBA has rarely had this many first-time hopefuls
NBA seasons in which at least four of the top five teams in Elo ratings at midseason were franchises seeking their first-ever league championships
|Season||Midseason Top 5 Prev. titles||Titleless teams|
|2020-21||Jazz 0, Suns 0, Nuggets 0, Lakers 17, Clippers 0||4|
|1998-99||Jazz 0, Lakers 11, Spurs 0, Heat 0, Pacers 0||4|
|1950-51||Lakers 2, Royals 0, Knicks 0, Nationals 0, Olympians 0||4|
|1949-50||Royals 0, Nationals 0, Lakers 1, Stags 0, Knicks 0||4|
|1948-49||Lakers 0, Royals 0, Capitols 0, Stags 0, Bullets 1||4|
|1947-48||Stags 0, Capitols 0, Bullets 0, Bombers 0, Knicks 0||5|
|1946-47||Capitols 0, Bombers 0, Warriors 0, Stags 0, Rebels 0||5|
But behind the success of this season’s potential first-time champions, there are some key differences in how they have gone about building their identities. Two teams — the Nets and the Clippers — have hewed closely to our analysis of what’s put first-time champions over the hump in their sport, signing at least one championship-caliber player to bolster their chances at contention. The four other franchises that rank highly in either the RAPTOR or Elo odds — Denver, Utah, Milwaukee and Phoenix — have used a more gradual approach, either through choice or by circumstance, and have built their rotations largely through the draft and player development.
The Nets got not just one but two MVP-caliber additions to their team this year in the form of Kevin Durant (who signed in 2019 but sat out all of the 2019-20 season rehabbing from an Achilles injury) and James Harden, who forced his way out of Houston in January to team up with his former Oklahoma City teammate and Kyrie Irving. The historically underachieving Clippers are enjoying the services of 2014 and 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who immediately went from quenching the thirst of title-parched Raptors fans to joining forces with Paul George, himself an MVP-level star.
Acquiring in-their-prime MVPs is hardly an attainable strategy for most NBA teams, but it also hasn’t been necessary so far for the other potential first-time champs. Though RAPTOR favorite Mike Conley is a relative newcomer to a Jazz team that’s forged its identity over many years under coach Quin Snyder, the Jazz have essentially run it back with last year’s team that lost in the first round of the playoffs, with wildly better regular-season results thus far. The Nuggets — who erased not one but two 3-1 series deficits in last year’s bubble4 — made few offseason moves and stood firm on keeping their young core together around Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. The Suns picked up veteran Point God (and ready-made team-booster) Chris Paul over the offseason, but their next three most valuable players by RAPTOR WAR — Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker and Cam Johnson — are all holdovers from last year’s impressive late-season push. And though the Bucks kept only seven of their 17 rostered players from 2019-20 and traded for jack-of-all-trades Jrue Holiday, their most critical offseason step was to maintain the status quo: re-signing two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to a supermax extension.
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We can further see the commitment of these last four clubs to roster continuity by looking at their top contributors, most of whom were either drafted by or chiefly developed from within the organization. Five of Denver’s six most valuable RAPTOR WAR contributors — and each of its top four — made their NBA debuts with the Nuggets. The same homegrown recipe applies to four of Utah’s top six, three of Phoenix’s top four and two of Milwaukee’s top three (which includes Antetokounmpo, who currently sits at No. 4 in the league in WAR). In total value added by such players, the Nuggets and Jazz rank first and second in the league this season, and the Suns and Bucks aren’t too far behind (at Nos. 8 and 9, respectively).
We shouldn’t overstate the case of the newcomers, of course. The defending champion Lakers are still lurking and boast 12 percent odds to repeat their performance in the NBA bubble, and that’s after entering the season as favorites in both betting markets and FiveThirtyEight’s model. Last year’s runners-up, the Miami Heat, have endured a hellish bout of injuries and COVID-19-related absences and are arguably better than their 21-18 record would suggest. If we expect some degree of mean reversion, then chances are that both these teams are once more well-positioned to make deep runs in this year’s playoffs, perhaps thwarting a historical Cinderella’s shot at the ball.
But we may also be seeing the start of a new era of sorts: a dynastic drought. Just as we came to see the same names in June over the past several decades, the 2020s might be defined by their relative lack of a single ruling elite. If more teams can join the winner’s circle, the NBA’s competition may truly thrive.
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