Now, with the Lakers' victory over the Magic, another NBA decade has come to a close, and Langston and I have decided to rank the decades ten champions. It's been a strange decade; one that's seen the League hit all-time lows in TV ratings, get berated as "thuggish" by the media, and it's also been the decade where the League's popularity has exploded world wide, which has also increased the League's talent pool.
The play on the court this past ten years has been on par with any other decade, but for some reason it's the decade that lost a hold on the casual sports fan. The two marquee franchises of the decade were clearly San Antonio and Los Angeles, and they both became pigeon holed by the media and the fan. ESPN's 24-hour sports writers and a fanbase raised on highlight reels quit looking for stories that make teams matter and lacked the verve to create a contextual mythology to display those stories, so San Antonio became black and white TV, while the Lakers became a tale of modern ego and what's wrong with athletes today. San Antonio was too fundamental and old school, despite the fact that it was the first franchise to build itself as much on foreign stars, like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as it did on Americans. LA, meanwhile, became a soap opera, and an excuse for message boarders to say, "that's why I like college ball, It's about the name on the front, not the back of the jersey," ignoring the fact that for years NBA champions had not finished college, attended college, or simply used it as a stepping stone.
Anyway, I'll have an article later on this week about what this past decade meant to me as a fan, but, for now, here's a look at the teams that were the best in a decade that actually featured a lot of good ball on the hardwood and some historically great players. The following are what Langston and I came up with after a lot of discussion and debate, especially considering the fact that he happens to be a Lakers fan and I happen to be a Spurs fan:
#1: 2001 Los Angeles Lakers
The team didn't have an overly impressive regular season record--they finished 56-26, and they also weren't stacked throughout the lineup. Shaq and Kobe each averaged 28ppg, but Derek Fisher was the only other Laker that scored in double figures, at 11ppg. One reason this team may not have dominated during the regular season is that they were already the champs and were built to win best of seven's. To back up this opinion, I'm just going to cite the number of guys on this team that already had multiple rings going into the '01 season: Horace Grant (3), Robert Horry (3), and Ron Harper (4). What motivation did these guys have to do well in the regular season? Plus, they were good when it mattered.
In the first round, they swept a talented Blazers team that took them to 7 games the year before, in the Conference Finals. In the second round, they swept a good Sacramento Kings team, and then they swept the Spurs in the conference Finals. The only game they lost en route to the championship was Game 1 of the Finals against the 76ers, and how did they react to this overtime loss? They won the next four games for a 15-1 record, the best in NBA history.
#2: 2003 San Antonio Spurs
First, I feel like I have to preface this team by talking about the '99 champions and what happened the three years between those titles. The '99 team only allowed 84.7 ppg, which is absolutely ridiculous, and it went 15-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Blazers and Lakers and knocking off KG's Timberwolves. The '99 team was a great team, but only four players from it were still on the roster in 2003: Duncan, Robinson, Steve Kerr, and Malik Rose.
In 2000, Duncan missed the playoffs and the team lost in the first round. Then Popovich and Buford spent two years reshaping the roster and getting beat by the Lakers. During this time, Tim Duncan played some of his best basketball, winning two MVPs, while David Robinson looked more and more like a role player and less and less like a Hall of Famer. As a Spurs fan, one began to worry if the Spurs would ever get past the Lakers again because whenever they met it really felt like Duncan was going one against five. Everyone on the team seemed to be scared of LA, except for Timmy and the Admiral, but the Admiral was running out of gas.
Langston believes that David Robinson's last ride was the Spurs' best, writing, "The twin towers combined to take out some of the best competition in the league, which included the surprising Suns, featuring Marbury, Amare, Penny Hardaway, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, the Dirk/Nash Mavericks, and the Jason Kidd led Nets. I don't think a team in the past 10 years has had steeper competition," but for Spurs fans the '03 championship was more than that. It was Duncan willing a cast of not-quite-ready for prime time players into champions, in order to give the Admiral the proper send off for his final voyage at sea. It was also the final NBA voyage for Steve Smith and Steve Kerr, and the first time that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili went into the offseason as champions. This rare combination of youth and experience is what made the 2003 Spurs so great, not to mention that they actually won a championship with Captain Jack (Stephen Jackson) as their starting shooting guard.
Also, make note of Duncan's line from the Spurs Game 6 clincher against the Nets: 22 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks.
#3: 2008 Boston Celtics
I'm not sure one championship has ever reinvented the reputations of so many different players, coaches, and GM's. Kevin Garnett went from being a homeless man's Karl Malone to one of the most beloved players in Boston history. Paul Pierce went from being a poster boy for putting the individual above the team to making statements like "I'm the best in the world," and Ray Allen went from being a good player most people would forget about to being a Hall of Famer most people will forget about, but the legacy makeovers went beyond the court.
Doc Rivers, a coach who prior to '08 had never won a playoff series, became the second coming of the Zen Master, while Danny Ainge went from being a kid smashing Matchbox cars together to the architect behind the grand continental railroad. Seriously, what happened in Boston transformed the Three Stooges into the Manhattan Project within one year, which is the truly amazing part of this championship. It only took one year for this team to be assembled and come together to win 66 regular season games, two highly competitive 7-game series, a 6-game series against the Pistons, and a 6-game series against a dangerous Lakers team in the Finals. It takes most teams years to develop that kind of chemistry, which is a testament to how badly everyone on this team wanted to win, and if that's not enough for one to think they belong this high on the list, then take into account some of the numbers Langston came up with:
"Forget that without KG they became an average team in the playoffs this year, and remember how good they were last year. They had an SRS of 9.31, 110.2 points per 100 possessions, and allowed only 98.9 per every 100 possessions. Those are the most impressive numbers out of any of the teams to win in the last 10 years."
#4 2000 LA Lakers:
This team comes in at #4 because it's probably the most well-rounded of the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. They had a legitimate 3rd option in Glen Rice. They gave up 5 less ppg than their '01 counterparts, and they had a better SRS. They also went 64-18 in the regular season, which is ten games better than their '01 counterparts also; however, this team didn't roll through the playoffs quite like the '01 Lakers. This team, on its way to its first title, actually found itself on the ropes quite a few times.
It took them the full five games to get out of the first round against the Sacramento Kings. They easily dismissed Jason Kidd's Suns in the 2nd round, and then they got the scare of their lives against the Portland TrailBlazers, who were in the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. It took an amazing alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq for the Lakers to overcome a 15-point lead midway through the 4th quarter. This game against a very good Blazers team shows why the Kobe-Shaq Lakers were so good. The comeback features huge shots from Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, and Brian Shaw, showcasing that making shots as a role player is not just circumstance. This game also shows how good the triangle offense is when it features a dominant post presence. All in all, this game made Kobe and Shaq into great players, and turned the TrailBlazers into the JailBlazers. Portland never recovered, and the Lakers went onto win 3 titles. The Finals matchup of the Lakers and Pacers, which was actually a decent series, seemed ordinary next to what the Lakers had faced out West.
#5: 2005 San Antonio Spurs
Langston and I had a bit of a disagreement here. He went with the '07 Spurs, and I went with the '05 Spurs, which means '05 gets the nod since I'm the one spending over 3 to 4 hours typing this post. Langston marked the '05 team down because their road to the Finals was the Nuggets, Sonics, and Suns, which I'll admit wasn't the Spurs stiffest competition ever. Still, the '05 squad dominated on both sides of the ball because of their versatility. They could outrun the Suns, and they could out defend the Pistons.
The 2005 team gets the nod over the 2007 team because they were younger, and they were the first Spurs team to win a title without David Robinson's presence on the floor and in the locker room. They also featured the Spurs best starting five because this is the only championship team that Ginobili started games for, and some feel that he may have deserved the Finals MVP award .
They also played the only Finals this decade that featured two teams that had previously won championships. The teams split the first four games, which were all blowouts, played an all-time classic in Game 5, and then split games 6 and 7. This Finals is the only time the Spurs actually had to put in work past the Western Conference Finals to win a championship. This series proved the team's mettle.
#6: 2007 San Antonio Spurs
Here's Langston's argument for the '07 Spurs, "Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were at their best this season. I believe that says a lot, considering they are one of the best trios of all-time. The numbers for this team are an SRS of 8.35, an offensive rating of 109.2, and a defensive rating of 99.9." They were clearly one of the most well-rounded teams of the decade, winning 58 games in the regular seasons and sporting a 16-4 record in the playoffs. What I remember most about this team is that in the Finals it felt like Duncan didn't even need to try. It felt like he wanted Tony Parker to take home the Finals MVP trophy, so he just kept clearing space for him in the lane and setting him up on pick and rolls to the basket. In hindsight, it's like Duncan was thinking, "You know, I'm not as young as I used to be, so maybe I should give the little guy the confidence to carry this team into the future."
#7: 2009 LA Lakers
I'll let the Laker speak up for this team: "They were good when they needed to be, averaging a 10+ point differential in close out games. They were above average offensively with a rating of 112.7, and an average defensive team with a rating of 104.6. I would love to rank them higher, but i don't want to take my playoff high and overrate them. They took too many games off, giving their fans some gray hair in the process--I'm only 25. If they had showed up every night, they could have been a dominant team that you compare other teams to. Still, as a Laker fan, they were easily my favorite Laker team of all-time. Kobe is Kobe. Pau is one of the most enjoyable big men in the League to watch, especially after he stood up for himself against the Magic, at the end of Game 5 when Pietrus hacked him, and Lamar kept things interesting while boosting candy sales. "
Thanks, Langston, but now for the non-Lakers perspective. Bill Simmons is right. The media sold this thing all wrong. The storyline shouldn't have been about Kobe; it should have been about the supporting cast. I used to think Pau Gasol should quit basketball and run a wine vineyard. I don't think that anymore. Lamar Odom went Wonka on the Magic, showing that he is the candy maker we all thought him to be after years of being a recluse inside of the chocolate factory. Phil Jackson was rewarded for his patience with Kobe's egotistical vision quest, and Trevor Ariza became one of the most important role players of the decade. Still, I can't rank this team any higher because KG, Yao, McGrady, Ginobili, and Duncan were all hurt this postseason. The Lakers were clearly the best team in the postseason, but injuries cleared the way for them to go on one of those dominant 16-2 or 16-4 stretches, and they didn't; however, they could still make that kind of run next year.
#8: 2004 Detroit Pistons
Langston wanted them a notch lower because he feels that the Lakers infighting gave the Pistons their championship. He also kept pointing out that, while they were great defensively, they lacked offensive punch. Personally, I think they had the best starting lineup of the decade: Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups. I also think their return trip to the Finals in '05 validates their '04 championship. Plus, they're the Atlanta Braves of the NBA, and I'm a Braves fan. I have to be impressed by the fact that they went to the Eastern Conference Finals every year from 2003 t0 2008, and one more thing, they made title belts.
#9: 2002 LA Lakers
Langston and I both agreed that this Lakers team was clearly the worst of their 3-peat that started the decade. Each year of that 3-peat the team got a little older, a little more disgruntled, and lost a few more pieces. All of the veteran players, like Glen Rice, AC Green, Horace Grant, Ron Harper, and Brian Shaw, were gone, and their replacements were Samaki Walker, Stanislav Medvedenko, Mark Madsen, and a completely washed-up Mitch Richmond. In other words, Horry, Fisher, Rick Fox, Devean George, and Lindsay Hunter really had to earn their worth, and they did against in the Western Conference Finals against a strong Sacramento Kings team. Of course, that series is why I have this team ranked #9. A lot of NBA fans complain about the playoffs being fixed, and I think that Kings series is the one that keeps such outlandish conspiracies alive.
#10: 2006 Miami Heat
Langston wanted them higher, but then he looked at the numbers. They were not an efficient team, allowing 104.5 points per every 100 possessions and only scoring 108.7 per every 100 possessions. The main reason Langston did want this team higher is because D-Wade's theatrics in the Finals may have made Mark Cuban's head explode multiple times. He also wants to thank Miami for taking Shaq off his Lakers' hands and paving the way for them to build their road to the '09 championship.
My main reasons for putting them this low are simple. They really were a patchwork team. When I look at their roster, I just feel like they were held together with duct tape and glue. They are a paper airplane in a fleet of fighter jets. Wade was amazing during the playoff run, scoring 28 a game and dishing out 5.7 assists. Shaq only scored 18 a game in the playoff and played only 33 mpg. The only other Heat player in double figures was Antoine Walker. Jason Williams started at the point, which I'm not sure is ever a great idea, and the only consistent role players were Alonzo Mourning, James Posey, and Udonis Haslem.
This team was by far the thinnest of all the championship teams over the last ten years. Then there's the fact that they haven't been past the first round since, and that 2 years after the title they only won 15 games. The Bulls without Jordan went to the 2nd round of the playoffs. The Spurs rebuilt while continuing to contend, not once but twice, and the Lakers were back in the playoffs two years after losing Shaq. The Pistons even continued to make the Eastern Conference Finals after dumping one of their cornerstones in Ben Wallace.
The Miami Heat clearly had the weakest foundation of all these teams, which may make what Shaq and D-Wade accomplished even more remarkable. Personally, I just wish Ginobili had kept his hands off of Dirk Nowitzki because I guarantee you, Mark Cuban, that the Spurs would not have blown a 2-0 lead against the Heat.
Later in the week, we'll review some of the more trivial items of the last decade. Thanks for reading.