The past couple of seasons I’ve done the playoff preview by breaking down each team and how they played with or without a particular player, since a trade or for the final two months, etc. My point was to look for a sleeper team that might be somewhat underrated going in, the way Detroit was in 2004. That method usually didn’t find much, produced some mixed results and was too time-consuming for me to complete this year, so I wanted to change things up and simply try to defend my pre-season picks of Phoenix beating Boston in the Finals.The East
The Celtics will win. Not really a newsflash, but this is a team that put up some wildly good numbers in both wins and point differential. Their top competition is a Pistons team coached by a guy whose teams have never overachieved and have often underachieved in several playoff runs. There’s a good, but hardly great Orlando team and the defending champ Cavaliers going through a down year. The rest of the East field isn’t really worth mentioning. This will be fairly easy for Boston.
As compelling as the West has been this season, there isn’t a truly great team in the bunch. Any of the 8 playoff teams could emerge as champ and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Because of this, logic might say that the Celtics should be favored to win the championship. After all the Eastern playoffs should be like a walk in the park and they’ll be refreshed and ready when a bruised and battered champion finally emerges from the brutal Western playoffs. But history suggests the Western champ might have the advantage. Throughout history, the team from the stronger conference has a good record in the finals, winning around 70% of the time. When it’s a situation like the Celtics are in this season, the team with the best overall record being from the much weaker conference, that team has been tripped up along the way much more often than not. Here is a list of teams in a simlair situation to this year’s Celtics. They had the best record in the league while playing in the significantly weaker conference:
- ’50 Syracuse Nationals: The league actually played in 3 divisions this season. The power was in the central division where 4 teams were among the top 7 in the league. Syracuse led the east and the league at 51-13. The Nats were upended in the Finals when George Mikan and the Lakers 4-2.
- ’73 Celtics: The previous 2 seasons had seen the West take back dominance of the league for the first time since the Mikan era. In ’71 and ’72 two of the most dominant single season teams ever came out of the west in the ’71 Bucks and ’72 Lakers. Both teams won 60 games in ’73, but were well behind the Celtic’s total of 68. The ’73 East included the historically bad 76ers teams that won only 9 games all season, which probably bloated the Celtics victory total a tad. In the end, both the Lakers and the Celtics fell to the champion Knicks.
- ’76 Warriors: By 1976 the East had regained the advantage and finished 38 games ahead of the west in the season series. The West had the best team in the defending champion Warriors. The Warriors were upset in the western finals by the near-miracle Suns team of that year. The Warriors team that looked at the time like they might have at least a mini-dynasty going was suddenly done.
- ’79 Bullets: The Blazers’ one season dynasty had been cut short a year earlier by Walton’s injury and Bird and Magic would enter the league in the fall. In the two seasons in between, the Bullets and Sonics squared off in the finals. The Bullets brought the best overall record and the title of defending champs in ’79. The Sonics had played in the much stronger conference and easily won the title 4-1.
- ’87 & ’88 Lakers: Every season during the 80s, the East actually had a better record than the West. It was rarely a huge gap like the East had in the 60s and the West has this decade, but the East was always better. The difference in the 80s was an all-time great team was playing in the inferior conference. These two Lakers squads have been the only team that has been able to buck the trend of best record in the league from the inferior conference not winning a championship.
- ‘98 Jazz: The Jazz had the same 62-20 record as the East champ Bulls, but did gain home court advantage. Like every team in the 90s, they couldn’t run with this Bulls team when Michael Jordan was on the court. They lost the finals in 6 games and fell behind the great Spurs and Lakers teams of subsequent seasons, leaving Stockton and Malone to eventually retire without a championship.
- ’04 Pacers: Before the palace brawl started a sequence of bad breaks, this Pacers team looked like a good bet to rule the East for a few seasons. In 2004, they lost to eventual champ Detroit in a tough EC finals. The next season, they appeared to be on their way, after crushing the Pistons in Detroit in an early season game. Then the fan tossed the beer, the brawl ensued and what had been a very promising team was pretty much destroyed.
- ’06 Pistons: The Pistons had dumped coached Larry Brown over the summer and made things look easy without him during the regular season, winning 64 games. The playoffs were a different story, as they barely held off LeBron and the Cavs in the East semis, before falling meekly to the eventual champion Heat in the conference finals.
I didn’t include the ’52 Royals, ’91 Blazers, ’92 Bulls and ’93 Suns. All teams were in the same position as having the best record in the league from an inferior conference, but the difference was pretty insignificant, so I didn’t include them. I will note that the ’92 Bulls were the only team in that group to eventually win a championship. Can the Celtics buck this trend? Possibly. At 66 wins and a 10+ point differential, they’re certainly in all-time great team territory. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they ran through the playoffs in a “take no prisoners” style like the ’83 Sixers, ’91 Bulls or ’01 Lakers. But those teams all came from the stronger conference, unlike these Celtics. I’m also a little leery about Doc Rivers going into the finals. He’s been the perfect coach for this group so far. But the playoffs are a different game and if the Celtics don’t get into unstoppable mode, he may have to do some serious coaching and match wits with a Jackson, Popovich or D’Antoni. That’s something no Celtics’ fan wants to see.
I’ve decided to stick with my preseason pick of the Suns to win the West and their first championship. I feel the West is winnable by any one of the 8 teams and they’re so close in talent that nothing would surprise me. I didn’t like the Marion-Shaq trade. I felt the team was fine as they were, but it does give them the big bodies to beat San Antonio in round one and that might be their biggest hurdle, depending on how things turn. Another thing I like about Phoenix is this is likely the last chance for the Nash team to get their title. They’ll be a year older next year and might decide to cut costs just a little bit more. That should keep them a little more focused. If they do fall short, Phoenix fans would have to start wondering if this is one of those jinxed franchises, like the pre-2004 Red Sox or the Minnesota Vikings. The Phoenix Suns have always been a team that has been consistently strong and entertaining. They’ve had some great players and have provided their fans with some great drama. They’ve never been down for an extended period and have often been part of the league’s elite. Their management has always been willing to make the bold move to put their team in a position to win. It’s not like they’re the Clippers who have just been bad. It’s just that they’ve never been able to win the big one. They’ve lost 6 conference finals and 2 finals. No team has been that close so many times without having won. No team has gone as long as the 39 years the Suns have without a championship in the same city. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the near-misses in the Suns’ history. Some are big, others not so much, but all were near misses that kept this franchise from accomplishing truly great things.
- 1969 draft. Suns post by far the worst record in the league, 11 games worse than the closest competitor, but lose a coin flip to Milwaukee for the top pick. The Bucks get Kareem and the Suns are left with Neal Walk.
- 1971: Suns finish tied for the 4th best record in the 17-team league. They miss the playoffs due to the fact they played in the league’s toughest division.
- 1974: By winning 3 of their last 5, the Suns reach 30 wins, finish 3 games ahead of Portland and avoid the worst record in the West. The Blazers win the coin flip for Bill Walton, while karma hands the Suns John Shumate with the 4th pick.
- 1976 playoffs: A 42-40 Suns team stuns the West by getting to the Finals. Then they push a strong Celtics team to the limit, losing a great game 5 in triple OT that would have put them up 3–2. They eventually lose the series in game 6.
- 1987 draft: The Suns finish 2nd in the draft lottery, just missing out on David Robinson.
- 1993: Suns lose in Finals to the Bulls on a last second 3-pointer in game 6 by John Paxson. The Bulls had won the first two games in Phoenix, but the momentum in the series had clearly shifted to the Suns who would have played a game 7 at home.
- 1995 playoffs: Suns have the eventual champion Rockets down 3-1 with the home court advantage in the west semis. They lose the final 3 games.
- 2004 draft: The Suns deal their #7 pick to the Bulls for the Bulls top pick the next year. The Bulls draft Luol Deng. Also available at #7 were Andre Iguodala, Andris Biedins, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith. Any one of them may have pushed the team over the top in the 2006 or 2007 playoffs. The Bulls meanwhile surprised the league in 2005 by winning 47 games and the Suns were left with the #21 pick, which was sent to the Knicks as part of a larger deal.
- 2007 playoffs: Near the end of a game 4 victory in which they gained back home court advantage over the eventual champion Spurs, all-star Amare Stoudemire gets himself suspended for game 5, basically handing the Spurs the series and the championship.
- 2007 draft: Holding Atlanta’s top pick if it doesn’t land in the top 3, the Suns are in a position to add a top young player to their already strong core. Atlanta bucks the odds and lands a pick in the top 3, meaning the pick remains with the Hawks for another season. So instead of adding a Mike Conley to groom behind Steve Nash or a Joakim Noah as an energy guy off the bench, the Suns get the #15 pick in 2008, which is a much weaker draft class.
- 2007 offseason: The Suns miss out on Kevin Garnett, but with 2 late draft picks in a deep draft they seem primed to improve and make themselves favorites going into the 2008 season. Instead they go on a cost-cutting spree, trading one of the draft picks and their best inside defender for nothing other than cap relief.
- 2008 season: Running near or at the top of a rugged western conference for most of the season, the Suns complete a bizarre trade, sending all-star forward Shawn Marion to Miami for a fading Shaquille O’Neal. The Suns fall to the 6th seed.
The ending to the last one is unwritten at this point. If my prediction holds, the Suns will win their first title and erase all the near-misses and heartbreak of the past. If I’m wrong, the Suns can just add another chapter to their history. As far as the individual series, I see it breaking down like this: Cleveland, Orlando, Detroit Boston, New Orleans, Houston, Phoenix and LA winning round 1. Followed by Orlando, Boston, Phoenix and LA in the conference finals. Then Phoenix beats Boston in the finals.