There is no hope in the NBA. Cleveland and Golden State are too good.
Say those words in the present, and everyone shakes their head. This NBA Finals trilogy symbolizes the league’s troubling imbalance. But if you’ve lived awhile, if you know that basketball began long before LeBron James showed up at the 2003 NBA draft in an all-white suit, it’s historically significant — and a little hilarious — to think competitiveness is in peril because of the Cavaliers and Warriors.
Despite their recent success and some memorable patches of winning in the past, these two franchises rank 20th and 21st in the league in all-time winning percentage. The Warriors, who have been around for all 71 NBA seasons and had stops in Philadelphia and San Francisco, stand at .478. The Cavs are at .467 in 47 seasons.
In the five years before James arrived (the first time), Cleveland had a 130-248 record, a .343 winning percentage. During his four-year, mid-career Miami vacation, the Cavs were 97-215, a .311 percentage. This is their fourth Finals appearance of the James era, which is all the more impressive considering the 14 times they’ve failed to win 30 games in a season.
The Warriors once went 12 seasons without qualifying for the playoffs and 15 without advancing a round in the postseason. From 1976 to 2013, they reached 50 victories two times in 37 seasons. Twice? They hired Don Nelson just as often.
You want to talk about parity? Okay, the league is top-heavy again, perhaps more than it has ever been, and the scary thing is that Cleveland and Golden State are nowhere near the end of their runs. It seems unfair. It seems hopeless. The eight-month slog to the Finals seems pointless. But this conversation about the lack of parity is paradoxical, too: Two historical afterthoughts are now the domineering giants, which lets you know the NBA is still a sport of cyclical competitiveness, even if its cycle spins in slow motion.
Once again, here’s a reminder that this is a league of dynasties. It started with the Minneapolis Lakers of George Mikan and Coach John Kundla winning five of six titles from 1949 to 1954. A few years later, the Boston Celtics started their run of 11 titles in 13 years with Bill Russell and Coach Red Auerbach. The 1970s represented the NBA’s greatest decade of parity, with eight teams winning in 10 years, but interestingly, that era stands as one of the least respected in league history. Then came the revolutionary 1980s, with Magic and Bird reigniting the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons ending the era with back-to-back titles. Then it was Jordan. Next came Shaq and Kobe. Then came the San Antonio Spurs. Now LeBron has cracked the code to winning multiple championships, and the Warriors have a chance to develop into a true dynasty.
That’s 70 years of NBA history in one tidy paragraph, with the Celtics and Lakers winning 33 combined titles and making 52 combined Finals appearances.
It’s so typical to see two teams owning the NBA. It’s even crazier now because, for the first time, the same teams are meeting in the Finals for three straight years. This is the first time in 61 years that there has been a “three-match” in a major North American pro sports league. It hasn’t happened since Detroit and Montreal had a rubber-match Stanley Cup Finals in 1956.
Yet it’s significant that the Cavaliers and Warriors are the ones making history. It indicates that there has indeed been an intriguing shift of power, no matter how temporary, in the league.
In 2003, this shift began. History should look back at this ongoing era as something a little different in the NBA. It should go down as an era in which teams from smaller markets and/or non-traditional powers became more prominent. The Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers won the last of their three straight titles in 2002. During the past 14 years, the Spurs became a small-market beast, winning four of their five titles with Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich. The Miami Heat has won all three of its championships, one after acquiring Shaquille O’Neal via trade and the other two after landing James and Chris Bosh in free agency to partner with Dwyane Wade. Dallas and Cleveland have won their first titles. Golden State has returned to prominence. Detroit, which is one of the NBA’s more successful franchises, won its third title by beating a Lakers super team in 2004 and ending the Shaq and Kobe era.
Yes, the Celtics won in 2008, and the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. But this has mostly been an era of newcomers, small markets and long-forgotten franchises entering the championship picture. All the while, the league has recovered from its post-Jordan malaise, changing rules to give offenses freedom, watching styles of play improve and evolve and enjoying an infusion of great talent.
I mean, even the Clippers have been good. The Atlanta Hawks have been to the playoffs 10 years in a row. And the Washington Wizards just had their best season in 38 years.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are amid the worst four-year stretch in their history, but the league is doing well. The New York Knicks stink. The Philadelphia 76ers have learned to trust the process. Detroit is mediocre, and Phoenix is awful. Still, the game is healthy.
There are issues, such as the fact that seven of the NBA’s top 25 players play for either Cleveland or Golden State. As other teams try to compete, the formation of super teams will be a lasting trend, and one of the NBA’s solutions — the allowance of teams to offer super-max contracts to retain their elite players — might create more roster-building challenges than it solves. Nevertheless, Cavs-Warriors III can be viewed as both concerning and praiseworthy.
“I remember watching Roy Jones Jr. when they said he didn’t fight anybody,” said ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, who will call the Finals on ABC with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Doris Burke. “He said, ‘I just made him look like nobody.’ And that’s what happened with Cleveland and the Warriors. They’re superior.”
Said Van Gundy: “I think greatness is always good for a league.”
It’s not good for parity, but historically, this is parity. Goliath must be into fashion now. He has never worn this combination of colors.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.