Before the postseason began, many around the league figured the defending champion would repeat. Miami’s dismantling of Milwaukee in an opening-round sweep only reinforced the opinion that basketball’s best team is far ahead of the pack. But while the perception that everyone else is competing for second isn’t encouraging for the competition, the Heat’s dominance is great for the NBA.
Professional sports leagues need glamour teams. They’re the ones that stir the most excitement by winning — a lot — with style. Once fans are hooked, advertisers and television executives usually follow. For all the complaining in Major League Baseball about the New York Yankees’ $230 million payroll, who really wanted to watch the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series?
There’s always grumbling when one team is most closely identified with a league’s success. No one enjoys being stuck at the back of the line. The view is awful. But the benefit of having a powerful team at the top of the league outweighs competition concerns. At least one NBA pioneer agrees.
Often in his Hall of Fame career, Elgin Baylor was on the wrong end of NBA Finals battles against the Boston Celtics. Six times in the 1960s, Baylor’s Los Angeles Lakers teams lost to Bill Russell’s great Celtics clubs.
The Celtics’ run of championships brought more attention to the NBA, which, at the time, was far less popular than baseball and the NFL. Those Lakers-Celtics matchups were important in growing the NBA. Baylor gets that.
“When you’re going through it, you don’t think about what type of [effect] what you’re doing can have, you just think about winning,” the 10-time first-team all-NBA selection said during a phone interview Wednesday.
“Almost every year, it was the Celtics. And you just wanted to beat the Celtics. But now that it has been so many years, you kind of look back, reflect back, and say, ‘Wow. That was important for the game.’ ”
In the 1980s, the Lakers took the lead role in the league’s evolution. Los Angeles won five titles while finally breaking through against its archrival, defeating Boston in two of three Finals meetings during the decade. The 1990s were all about the six-time champion Chicago Bulls.
For teams that are the face of the league, it’s never only about having the most talent. The Celtics of the ’60s set the standard for teamwork. The “Showtime” Lakers turned the fast break into an art form. There may never be another team that plays half-court defense as well as the Bulls. Everyone on the list has one key thing in common: a transcendent superstar.
Russell, who has more championship rings (11) than fingers, is the greatest winner in NBA history. His defensive skill and competitiveness provided the foundation for the Celtics’ rise in the national sports discussion of the day. Considering how much Russell did to lift the league up, his image should be the one depicted in the NBA logo.