This NBA Season Resembles Another in the Distant Past
Every NBA pundit tells us that this season’s Western Conference teams are like no other in NBA history. With a win over the Memphis Grizzlies last night, the Denver Nuggets became the eighth team in the West to reach the 50-win mark. Golden State, the ninth-place team in the West, wound up with 48 wins, just one shy of the record set by the 1971-72 Phoenix Suns for most wins without a playoff berth.
Oddly, that 1971-72 season mirrors this season in more ways than just the Warriors’ and Suns’ records. Today there are 30 NBA teams. Thirty-six years ago there were 17. Today a total of 16 teams compete in the playoffs for the Larry O’Brien trophy, in 71-72 just eight teams advanced to postseason play. Like this season, the 1971-72 Western Conference dominated regular season play, record-wise. Each Western team won at least 50 games and two won more than 60. The playoff teams representing the Western Conference were: Los Angeles – 69-13, Milwaukee – 63-19, Chicago – 57-25 and Golden State – 51-31. The Eastern Conference was represented by only two teams with winning records: Boston – 56-26 and New York – 48-34.
And like this season, the number one seeds from each conference in 1971-72 were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
That season the Lakers, while on their way to winning the NBA title, ran off a 33-game winning streak, the longest in NBA history. This year, Houston won 22 in a row, the second longest. Unfortunately for the Rockets they finished their season with 55 victories, good enough for a fifth-place finish but are by no means the favourites to win the title, nor are they favoured to come out of the morass of closely-bunched Western Conference teams and reach the Finals. Yet the Rockets finished just two games behind the first-place Lakers.
Also in 1971-72 the dominant big men in the game resided in the West. They were an aging Wilt Chamberlain and a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This season, the dominant centers are again west of the Mississippi; an aging Shaquille O’Neal and a much younger Yao Ming – though Yao is injured and out for the season.
The MVP that season was Abdul-Jabbar and the MVP this season is likely to come from either New Orleans – Chris Paul – or Los Angeles – Kobe Bryant. Paul has 30 games with 20 points and 10 assists, the most since Tim Hardaway did the same in the 1991-92 season with Golden State. Bryant was out the Lakers’ door and on his way out of town before the season began, but stayed in L.A. and has been the driving force behind a very young Lakers team to the Western crown. And though Kevin Garnett is sure to garner his share of consideration for the award, because he played on a team with perennial All-Stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, his accomplishments pale in comparison with those of Paul’s and Bryant’s, who played on teams with only one other All-Star between both of their teams – David West of the Hornets.
Despite the similarities between the two seasons they are different in one major way. In 1971-72 the Lakers were the dominant NBA team and proved it by cruising through their opponents on the way to a title. This season there is no truly dominant team. Los Angeles finished just seven games ahead of eighth-place Denver.
The likeliest teams to advance to the Finals from the Western Conference are the Lakers, defending champion San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. At the moment Dallas is seventh, the Suns are sixth, and the Spurs are third. And it’s not as if it is impossible for three of the other four teams, New Orleans, Utah and Houston to make their way into the Finals. Only Denver, a team that does not generally play consistent defense, would be a shock to come out of the West.
That being said, the Nuggest are – potentially – a very dangerous opponent. With Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony each able to score 30 to 40 points on any given night and with Marcus Camby in the lane to wipe away shot attempts and score from as far out as 15-18 feet, Denver is a tough out. Add the mercurial Kenyon Martin, rising star J.R. Smith and a capable bench to the Nuggets’ mix, and head coach George Karl is only the right motivational speech and a little team discipline away from a run to the NBA Finals.
In the Eastern Conference Detroit and Boston are the prohibitive favourites to reach the Finals, but defending conference champion Cleveland has something to prove as most NBA writers talk about the Cavaliers as if they are an afterthought. Any team with LeBron James cannot be overlooked.
This means that, unlike the 1971- 72 season when the Lakers were heads and shoulders above their competition, this season, potentially eleven teams have a realistic shot at the title in what should be, arguably, the most exciting and competitive NBA playoffs in league history.