You can usually predict who’ll win the NBA championship with pinpoint accuracy. The destination is predictable, the journey is not. That’s the NBA. Not parity like football. But what-if the conference runner-ups managed to make it to the finals?
I simulated all NBA Finals from 1970 to 2019. Let’s see who wins:
1970: Atlanta Hawks (48-34) vs Milwaukee Bucks (56-26)
Best Player (by Wins Shares): Lou Hudson (11.1) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (13.8)
G1: MIL 123-107
G2: ATL 133-129 (OT)
G3: MIL 138-134 (OT)
G4: ATL 119-104
G5: MIL 132-121
G6: MIL 118-109 (F. Robinson 11/17, 32 pts)
Fun fact: This is before Kareem’s conversion to Islam. He is still going by his birth name, Lew Alcindor. A future convert to the religion is Atlanta’s point guard Walt Hazzard. By 1972 he’ll change his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman. The name change presented much controversy and likely resulted in the end of his career. Many often refusing to acknowledge him by his name. Even while coaching UCLA in 1984 they referred to him by his birth name.
Another fact, this is pre-Oscar Robertson trade. The point guard for the 56-win Bucks is journeyman Flynn Robinson. In real-life he’ll win a championship as a reserve on the ‘72 Lakers, his career preceding 1970 wasn’t very impressive. He scored many points for the lottery bound Bucks in 1969 and the subsequent arrival of Kareem earned Flynn his lone All-Star appearance. After this season he’d be traded to the Cincinnati Royals for Big O. Ironically, Flynn began his career as Robertson’s backup.
1971: New York Knicks (52-30) vs Los Angeles Lakers (48-34)
Best Players: Walt Frazier (15.6) and Jerry West (12.8)
G1: LAL 116-103
G2: LAL 113-106
G3: LAL 131-121
G4: LAL 131-114 (Wilt 14-25-5-8)
The Lakers give birth to the Elgin Theory by overcoming the odds and winning it all despite surefire Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor missing the season due to a knee injury that’ll eventually lead to his real-life retirement nine-games into the 1971-72 season. At least Elgin gets a ring delivered to him because he was on the active roster the time the Lakers won. In our timeline, he received the ‘72 ring as a form of charity.
26-year-old third round pick Keith Erickson steps into Baylor’s shoes and fills them admirably next to Happy Hairston, who moonlighted at the three despite being a four.
I hate New York (not as much as L.A), I feel bad taking a title away from them. But it is sweeter for Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and the then perpetual second place Lakers to achieve the pinnacle in this fashion.
Perhaps New York losing means the NBA doesn’t experience the boon like it did in OTL. The NBA needed a big market like New York to win. Maybe the boon still happens, but is attributed to L.A? The problem with that is, the Lakers got their asses kicked every year by the Celtics, so maybe the county just views them as second placers? I mean, the Dodgers didn’t stay in Brooklyn because they won the World Series two seasons before leaving town.
The Knicks will get another crack at the big one in 1974.
1972: Milwaukee Bucks (63-19) vs Boston Celtics (56-26)
Best Player: Kareem Abdul-Jabber (25.4) and John Havlicek (12.4)
G1: BOS 118-116
G2: MIL 108-92
G3: MIL 118-85
G4: BOS 120-114
G5: MIL 116-106
G6: BOS 116-108
G7: BOS 122-120 (Cowens 30-21-2-4)
The Celtics win their first title without Bill Russell a year sooner than in OTL, upsetting the favorite Bucks in seven hard fought games.
Returning to the postseason in 1971, the Celtics began the post-Russell era by drafting Jo Jo White in 1969, ninth overall. Red Auerbach hired Tom Heinsohn and it seemed the Celtics decided to make a conscious effort to try small-ball in a big man dominated NBA.
Their center, Dave Cowens was only 6-9, and their small-forward was the 6-5 Havlicek. The Celtics in the 70s resembled NBA teams today. Even in the sixties, the Celtics style resembled the modern pace and space.
This series honestly could go in Milwaukee’s favor. Boston held on to Satch Sanders until after this season and his age showed. The year after, they upgraded to Paul Silas and became the NBA’s best rebounding team. Boston faces a significant disadvantage on the boards. Perhaps this’ll be a redux of the real life 1974 finals, except the main culprit for Milwaukee laying an egg in game 7 is Robertson wore down. Having him two years younger suggests he could take more punishment.
If you have the Bucks win, that essentially etches Kareem into the top-2 all time conversation because in this universe LeBron and Jordan don’t make it to the finals as often. Kareem makes it three times in the 1970s, once in the 80s.
1973: Golden State Warriors (47-35) vs Boston Celtics (68-14)
Best Players: Rick Barry (10.2) and John Havlicek (12.1)
G1: BOS 99-85
G2: BOS 110-101
G3: GSW 114-102
G4: BOS 106-102
G5: BOS 115-98 (Havlicek 35-10-5)
Well, they’re a dynasty – again. Cowens puts the finishing touches on a landmark year, stealing the MVP from Kareem, and by substituting the aging Sanders for Silas, the Celtics win total skyrockets to 68; a franchise best that’s yet to be bested.
Havlicek’s never been better, putting on his typical iron man performance. The foursome of under-thirty stars Don Chaney, Silas, Cowens and White are at their respective physical apex’s.
These Warriors of this particular era, despite the limited information I have of them due to a lot of this time in the NBA archives being lost is more fascinating than the Steph/Klay/KD era. Maybe its Rick Barry being an underrated as hell top-30 all-timer, or the fact he shot his free throws underhanded; or him wearing a whig for the entirety of the 1975-76 season…
But Golden State always ran into behemoths when they reached the final round. In 1967 they received a good, ole fashion curbstomping at the hands of Wilt and the Sixers. In ‘73 the story is no different. They will have one more shot against the Cinderella Cleveland Cavaliers, however.
Back to Boston for a moment, if they manage to beat Chicago in 1975 we probably give this era of Boston basketball more love, the same kind we give the Bird-era Celtics. For some reason, despite being one of the two teams to win multiple champions in the parity heavy 1970s this part of Celtics history is often glossed over. They beat Kareem in ‘74 and won the greatest game ever versus the Phoenix Suns. The ‘73 team is probably more talented than the ‘86 team, only difference is they never won the title, so they’re tossed into the pile of “forgettable great teams.”
1974: New York Knicks (49-33) vs Chicago Bulls (54-28)
Best Players: Walt Frazier (10.9) and Chet Walker (10.6)
G1: CHI 110-100
G2: NYK 102-101
G3: NYK 107-87
G4: NYK 106-91
G5: CHI 116-97
G6: NYK 101-80 (W. Frazier 19-8-5)
Poor Chicago. One of the forgotten great teams of the 70s. Surrounded by failure, they remind me a lot of the Toronto Raptors pre-Kawhi. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. In ‘71 Chicago fell to the Baylor-less Lakers in 7-games in the semifinals in OTL, and again in 1973. Pre-Jordan Chicago was known for blowing leads and heartbreaking defeats. Game 7 versus L.A in ‘73 Chicago saw themselves out by a mere 3 points. A victim of Jerry and Wilt’s last stand. A one-point game one loss in L.A in ‘71 sent the Bulls reeling and never recovered.
The coup de grace came in 1975, the Bulls traded big man Clifford Ray to the Warriors for Nate Thurmond, who coincidentally always found himself on second-placers as well. The Bulls took a 3-2 Series lead on the Warriors heading back home, only to fall in decisive fashion. Despite going into halftime of game 7 up 11, Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes proved to much for the steady Bulls squad and they squeaked by en route to an NBA Championship. This would prove to be Chicago’s last chance at the brass ring as they’d sink into mediocrity until Jordan’s arrival in ‘84.
Up one game, the Bulls looked to take a commanding 2-0 series lead. They’re up three after Tom Boerwinkle splits his two free throw attempts, and only a minute and 29 seconds remain. Bill Bradley is fouled by by Jerry Sloan, and makes his two from the charity stripe. After Bob Love misses from the elbow, the Knicks run a down the floor. earl Monroe passes to Dave Debusschere, his open jumper from the baseline front rims, but Willis Reed gives the Knickerbockers a second chance, and Debusschere fires again this time converting to give the Knicks a one point lead with 35 ticks remaining.
But Chicago remains steadfast, collecting themselves in fifteen-seconds for Norm Van Lier to feed Love for the jumper from the free throw line to give the Bulls back the lead. However, Walt Frazier and the Knicks have the last laugh. From the same place Love hit his go-ahead score, the Knicks point guard snags victory from the jaws of defeat and New York wins the contest by the score of 102 to 101. The Bulls never would have another chance to take control of the series. Losing three of the subsequent four.
Chicago will have one more chance against the all mighty Boston Celtics, who hope to solidify themselves as a dynasty by winning their third title in four years.
1975: Boston Celtics (60-22) vs Chicago Bulls (47-35)
Best Players: John Havlicek (9.7) and Chet Walker (10.5)
G1: BOS 102-93
G2: CHI 89-88
G3: CHI 120-88
G4: CHI 98-94
G5: BOS 91-87
G6: BOS 88-85
G7: BOS 99-87 (Jo. White 25-6-4)
Oh, big surprise. The Celtics fan gives his team three of the first six championships. Well, Boston isn’t winning much beyond the 1980s. The Spurs of 2012 and 2017 will surely curbstomp them, unless Whatifsports.com says differently.
My defense for this is the Celtics were insanely good and arguably underachieved in the 1970s. Some of it was their own fault, most of it was falling victim to circumstances. In ‘73 Havlicek separated his shoulder during the Knicks series. In game four, the Celtics lead late even without Hondo, only for the referees to gift the ballgame to New York. Cowens, White and Chaney all fouled out in the double overtime classic, Don Nelson teetered on the line of ejection as well ending the game with five. The Knicks lost only two players to fouling out, Willis Reed and the all mighty Dean Meminger.
Havlicek’s heroics in the game 5 nail-bitter, followed by Boston battling the Knicks in MSG in game 6 should have been enough to punch Boston’s ticket to the finals. Alas, it wasn’t so.
In the first half of the 1970s in TL, it seems Boston has better luck. They win a thriller of a series to upset the favored Bucks in ‘72, go back-to-back against a carbon copy of themselves in Golden State, and complete the dynasty by overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Chicago.
Did I mention how much I love this timeline?
1976: Cleveland Cavaliers (49-33) vs Golden State Warriors (59-23)
Best Players: Rick Barry (9.6) and Jim Brewer (7.9)
G1: GSW 114-88
G2: CLE 109-108
G3: CLE 120-107
G4: GSW 93-88
G5: GSW 111-95
G6: GSW 103-95 (R. Barry 20-11-8)
In this timeline, Barry doesn’t purposely go AWOL in game 7 of the conference finals because his teammates let him get beat up during a brief scuffle. Nope. All Barry wants to do is cap off his amazing ‘76 campaign with a title. In the last season Barry is a first-team All-NBA/ABAer, the Warriors break through and grab that brass ring that’s alluded them for nearly a whole decade.
The Cinderella story Cavaliers lead by the most 1950s set of names you can imagine, Jim Chones, Campy Russell, Bingo (BINGO!) Smith and Dick Snider (You thought he was the center fielder for the Dodgers too, don’t lie), the Cavaliers upset Wes Unseld and the Bullets in 7 games, and do the same to the defending champion Celtics. The luck of the leprechaun runs out, the clock strikes twelve on their reign of dominance.
The Cavaliers take a 2-1 Series lead and it is looking like they’re a team of destiny. Of course, destiny is no match for crushing reality. The Warriors go supernova and eek out game 4, before putting pedal to the metal in games 5 and 6 to close them out. The horse drawn carriage reverts to a pumpkin and the lovely Cinderella goes back to living with her unruly step-sisters and abusive mother. Oh, the agony! Oh the shame!
1977: Houston Rockets (49-33) vs Los Angeles Lakers (53-29)
Best Players: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17.8) and Rudy Tomjanovich (10.4)
G1: LAL 117-107
G2: LAL 121-98
G3: LAL 119-96
G4: LAL 118-110 (Kareem 27-12-4-3)
Kareem earns his second title (or third, if you believe the ‘72 Bucks overtake the Celtics – again, that probably happens.), this time for the Lakers. I would have picked Houston to win this series as the Lakers roster is pretty much helter skelter. Old man Cazzie Russell, cast-off Lucias Allen, and this is the season before Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich.
Washington was a top pick entering the professional league, struggling to find his niche. The arrival of Kareem lead him to improve to nearly a 10/10 stat-line. However, during a game against Denver the tendinitis in his knee acted up, finally he tore his patella tendon. “I could feel it tearing inside.” Said Washington. “I looked down, and my kneecap was hanging on the side on the side of my leg.” Doctors later told Washington his playing days was most likely over.
If Washington doesn’t suffer the horrific injury, maybe L.A gets past the Trail Blazers?
What’s surprising is Moses Malone didn’t lead the team in wins shares, but Tomjanovich lead the squad. Rudy shot 51 percent from the floor, Calvin Murphy was the Isaiah Thomas of his time, and Malone administered punishment as well as points and rebounds.
But, the simulator says they‘d get swept.
1978: Denver Nuggets (48-34) vs Philadelphia 76ers (55-27)
Best Players: Julius Erving (9.1) and David Thompson (12.7)
G1: PHI 142-141
G2: PHI 115-102
G3: PHI 123-111
G4: PHI 130-128 (G. McGinnis 35-14-4)
Jesus! Nobody apparently plays defense on either of these teams.
Regardless of the outcome, the NBA needed David Thompson and Dr. J, their most marketable stars, to clash. David Stern was the NBA’s General Counselor under commissioner Larry O’Brien around this time, I don’t doubt the idea of rigging playoff matchups to get the sexist championship series stems from the fact the aforementioned Thompson and Dr. J, and George Gervin never broke through and the games reputation and appeal greatly suffered. This is the era of NBA playoff game airing on tape delay. Since there was no Twitter, there’s no way to have learned of the outcomes beforehand – unless someone you knew happened to have tickets to the game and call you afterwards.
I’m picturing Thompson’s “Skywalker” nickname inspiring the new fandom of Star Wars geeks to descend into Denver and ravenously cheer him on. In 1978, Star Wars was hot shit and more than made its cultural impact.
A title for Philadelphia here, and the butterflying of the loss in ‘77, means Erving is the best player on a championship team. A claim he can not make in OTL. George McGinnis and Daryl Dawkins of the famed ABA reach the top of the NBA mountain. And the fathers of Mike Bibby and Kobe Bryant will a championship to show to the younglings. Future coaches Doug Collins and Mike Dunleavy have one ring to place on their fingers to celebrate a life spent in the NBA.
1979: San Antonio Spurs (48-34) vs Phoenix Suns (50-32)
Best Players: Paul Westphal (10.4) and George Gervin (11.4)
G1: PHX 118-117
G2: SAS 137-125
G3: PHX 127-113
G4: SAS 135-112
G5: PHX 125-96
G6: PHX 117-89 (34-7-4)
We close the decade out with the former Celtic, point guard Paul Westphal scoring 34 to secure Phoenix their first world championship. Perhaps Red Auerbach’s greatest mistake is trading Westphal for the aging, shoot first guard Charlie Scott in 1975. Red decided to ride with Jo Jo White and soon the three time champion (in TL) found himself burned out and out of Boston. Suffice to say, in any reality, this’ll go down as a mistake. Luckily for Red, nobody really remembers it.
Phoenix played fast and scored a ton, despite this being the last year without a three-point line. Averaging 115.4 points a game at a 108.5 pace. That’s not much slower than the Warriors pace of 109.5 in 2018-19. Their center, Alvin Adams, resembled Cowens as he too was 6-9 and didn’t let that deter him from averaging nearly double digit boards, to go along with 17 points.
The 1979 Suns are lost to history. Playing in a time of severe boredom, they fell to the Seattle SuperSonics in seven, losing the deciding contest on their home floor (how embarrassing!). At least in this reality, they can call themselves champions. And even though I love Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams and the entire Sonics franchise, I’d prefer this team winning it all.
1980: Boston Celtics (61-21) vs Seattle SuperSonics (56-26)
Best Players: Gus Williams (11.6) and Cedric Maxwell (12.2)
G1: BOS 104-95
G2: BOS 101-84
G3: BOS 120-111
G4: SEA 104-103
G5: BOS 115-95 (C. Maxwell 16-10-6)
We made it to the three-point line era! Bird chips in 19 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists en route to Boston’s fifteenth championship. Bird’s first; Cowens fourth – and last of his illustrious career. “Pistol” Pete Maravich retires with a ring to cap off his tumultuous NBA journey.
“I want to contribute to a championship as it would culminate my whole basketball life.” Maravich said upon joining the Celtics. Poor bastard never reached the top of the mountain. At least here we can pretend he did.
There’s a wonderful writer on Celticsblog.com, Professor Parquet. He accounts Maravich’s time in Boston so eloquently, I cannot put it into words. By the end of it you wish Maravich had a better shake in life. Parquet chronicles an alternate reality NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, both lead by rookies who just battled each other in the highest profile collegiate game ever.
Culminating in a chilling game 7, the score tied at 107, Celtics coach Bill Fitch draws a play for the red hot Maravich to shoot – with the option to pass to Bird. At this time, Pistol has 30 points and leads the Celtics in scoring.
Maravich instantly commands a double team 22 feet away from the basket and passes to the open Bird, who quietly slipped to the near corner. “It was a pass a less mature Maravich might not have made, trying to win it himself” Parquet writes.
Instead, Maravich rises to shoot at the top of the key and uses his god given abilities to fool the defense and hit the open Bird. The Hick from French Lick drains the game-winner from 20-feet sending the Boston Garden crowd into a frenzy. The subsequent quotes are chilling.
Once safely inside the locker room, Maravich, overcome with emotion is interviewed. “I can’t to Boston to help win them a championship, and I feel blessed to have been able to finally win a title and help the Celtics hang another banner,” Parquet adds Maravich nearly signed with Philadelphia in the ‘79 off-season, seeing more of a role for himself in Boston.
Parquet continues. “Coming from Utah where I was benched and wasting away after my knee injury, I can barley believe my good fortune.”
A storybook ending for Pete, learning from his past failures and passing the baton over to the more than ready Bird, winning the title that alluded him with his old summer camp buddy Cowens as he too rides off into the sunset.
1981: Kansas City Kings (40-42) vs Philadelphia 76ers (62-20)
Best Players: Reggie King (8.3) and Julius Erving (13.8)
G1: PHI 118-97
G2: PHI 126-89
G3: PHI 119-76
G4: PHI 112-97 (J. Erving 22-5-4)
Earning his second championship, the 76ers overcame the defending champion Celtics and easily beat the below .500 Kings lead by Reggie King, Scott Wedman and Otis Birdsong. In OTL, the 40-42 Rockets at least hung tough against the Celtics. Kansas City never proved they belong after unceremoniously crashing the finals.
A second championship for Dr. J likely kicks him up from top-25 all-time to top-15. The knock on Erving is was he lacked the clutch gene his rivals and successors possessed. Like David Robinson, Erving was too nice and rarely wanted to assert himself with a cutthroat mentality.
In that sense, he’s a lot like Kevin Durant – only without the jump shot. Comparing Dr. J to KD – and just for fun, I threw in LeBron, at their respective 10 year marks gave me pause. (I’ll throw in Erving’s fake championships, because I can.)
LeBron: 49%, 8.6 FTA, 27.6 pts, 7.3 trb, 6.9 ast, 2 championships, 4 MVPs, 9 time All-Star, 9 time All-NBA
KD: 48.8%, 8 FTA, 27.2 pts, 7.2 trb, 3.8 ast, 1 championship, 7 time All-NBA, 8 time All-Star, 1 MVP
Dr. J: 50.5%, 6.9 FTA, 26.1 pts, 9.9 trb, 4.5 ast, 2 (fake) championships, 10 time All-Star, 9 time All-NBA/ABA, 4 MVPs (3 in the ABA)
What Erving has going against him in OTL is he never broke through as a number one on his own team, always falling short. It’s nice to see him rise to the occasion in this reality, even if it is at the expense of my Celtics.
1982: Boston Celtics (62-20) vs San Antonio Spurs (48-34)
Best Players: Larry Bird (12.5) and George Gervin (10.7)
G1: BOS 127-121 (OT)
G2 BOS 112-103
G3: BOS 106-105 (Bird GW)
G4: SAS 124-100
G5: SAS 112-103
G6: SAS 110-109
G7: BOS 104-102 (Bird 21-17-4, GW dunk)
In a thrilling series that sees the Spurs battle back from 3 games down, the Celtics win a nail bitter of a game 7 that’ll live in infamy. Mark Olberding lost Bird on a backdoor cut in the waning seconds of the final period and series MVP jammed it home for his second title since entering the league in 1979.
Gervin’s 35 points was enough to give San Antonio a two-point lead with 1:28 remaining, but back to back dishes to Robert Parish shifted the momentum and the Spurs found themselves squandering another opportunity at winning the big one.
This is Boston’s sixteenth championship. They will not appear in the NBA Finals until 1988.
1983: San Antonio Spurs (53-29) vs Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
Best Players: Sidney Moncrief (13.2) and Artis Gilmore (11)
G1: MIL 112-107
G2: SAS 127-112
G3: SAS 123-116
G4: SAS 116-106
G5: SAS 122-98 (Gervin 24 pts, 7 rebounds)
Gervin finally breaks through! With the off-season addition of All-Star Artis Gilmore, the Spurs overcome a 3-1 deficit against the Lakers and defeat the favored Bucks in five-games.
Since this is Gervin’s last appearance in this article, I like to highlight the fact he referred to himself as “Iceman,” and this is a while away from “Top Gun” hitting theaters. “Ice’s game is to put it in the hole.” (Phrasing!) “The Bullets know they can’t stop Ice. Ice knows he’s got them on the run.”
Gervin literally said this during the East Finals in ‘79 when the Spurs held a 3-1 lead over the Bullets. If you ever wondered why Gervin never won it all, him referring to himself in third person is likely it the cause. Yes, a lot of selfish, self absorbed people have been successful. Gervin, however, wasn’t one of those people.
By the time the Spurs gave him an adequate number two, the Lakers were far ahead of the west and nobody could have done anything to stop them. That’s not to say San Antonio gave Gervin a pile of crap to play with. James Silas and Larry Kenon are two guys LeBron would give his left nut to have during his first stint in Cleveland. But Gilmore gave the Spurs the needed boost in star power. Sadly, his arrival was a few years too late.
Don’t feel too badly for the Bucks, by the way. They’ll appear on this list a few more times.
1984: Phoenix Suns (41-41) vs Milwaukee Bucks (50-32)
Best Players: Sidney Moncrief (12.7) and Larry Nance (9.8)
G1: MIL 113-98
G2: MIL 115-101
G3: MIL 134-98
G4: MIL 111-97 (Moncrief 17-11-7)
The Phoenix Suns pay the price for trading All-Star point guard Dennis Johnson for chump change by… making it to the finals? Yes! Apparently.
From a fast pace offense resembling the modern age, to a prehistoric style lead by bruisers like James Edwards.
Moncrief recently was inducted into the Hall of Fame after many years getting inexplicably spurned. In ‘83 he earned 2nd Team All-NBA, first team defense, and Defensive Player of the Year. A banner year for the second best two-guard of the eighties. A possible ripple effect of the Bucks winning it all is Moncrief doesn’t have to wait nearly two whole decades to be inducted into Springfield.
1985: Denver Nuggets (52-30) vs Philadelphia 76ers (58-24)
Best Players: Moses Malone (11.9) and Calvin Natt (10.2)
G1: PHI 112-101
G2: PHI 129-102
G3: DEN 125-115
G4: PHI 131-110
G5: DEN 105-103
G6: PHI 114-104 (Malone 28 pts, 17 trb)
The Sixers reign of dominance comes to an end here, Erving winning one more for the heck of it, giving Moses Malone his lone championship, and youngster Charles Barkley gets his taste of glory.
As for Denver, once again they prove unable to defend only this time defense was something coach Doug Moe openly discarded, opting to simply outscore their opponent. It won them two games in the NBA Finals and got them past the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals. This is their last appearance on this list until 2009.
The Nuggets have a decent case to make for being a snake bit franchise. Their superstar Thompson falls victim to cocaine and his career is cut short. Their ascension in the eighties coincides with the Lakers reign of supreme dominance. Their best chance to break through is 1994 and 2009. The Jazz nearly became the first team in NBA history to blew a 3 games to none series lead, Mutumbo was looking unstoppable and the Nuggets fresh off their upset of the first seed SuperSonics made them look like the ultimate “wonk” team. Alas, the Jazz hung on.
In ‘09, the series is tied two all and the score in game five is knotted at 76 and Carmelo’s squad goes AWOL in the fourth quarter. Only he and Linas Kiezia score and the Nuggets fall in six games to the eventual champions.
In TL, they very nearly push the Sixers to seven. Alex English and Fat Lever clicking on all cylinders, and the Sixers unleash Moses and parts the sea with his fat ass to toss Denver aside.
The narrative isn’t “Dr. J needed Moses to win.” It shifts to “Moses needed Dr. J.” And that’s quite a divergence when it comes to tanking the two against the greats.
1986: Los Angeles Lakers (62-20) vs Milwaukee Bucks (57-25)
Best Players: Magic Johnson (12.1) and Sidney Moncrief (11.7)
G1: LAL 105-100
G2: LAL 130-110
G3: MIL 127-116
G4: LAL 142-136 (OT)
G5: MIL 113-92
G6: MIL 131-128 (OT)
G7: MIL 117-108 (T. Cummings 49 pts, 22/32)
I love this timeline.
Up three games to one, the Bucks send the series back to Los Angeles and unleash Terry Cummings for seventy-five points in the final two games en route to a Finals MVP. Down two in the last seconds of game six, the Larry O’Brien trophy is wheeled out in anticipation of the Lakers capturing their first title with star point guard Magic Johnson. Cummings has other ideas, nailing a turnaround back shot from the top of the key to send it into overtime, where the Bucks narrowly escape victorious.
In game seven, the Lake Show has no answers for Cummings, who’ll forever be known as the “Los Angeles Strangler.” This is the Lakers last chance to win a title until 1998, as the following seasons are abruptly halted by the underdog SuperSonics in 1987, and the Dallas Mavericks in 1988.
If you’re keeping score at home, the East has won all but one championship series this decade. The Celtics, Sixers and Bucks are tied at two, with the Pistons ready to emerge as a feisty competitor to the established pecking order in the conference.
(Lakers-Celtics doesn’t energize the nba )
1987: Detroit Pistons (52-30) vs Seattle SuperSonics (39-43)
Best Players: Bill Laimbeer (10.5) and Dale Ellis (9.3)
G1: DET 128-121
G2: DET 120-98
G3: DET 104-95
G4: DET 107-106 (A. Dantley 19 pts, 7 trb)
Adrian Dantley joins the “ring less no more” club and perhaps isn’t traded for Mark Aguirre in the ensuing ‘88 campaign because he’s a black hole on offense and a sieve on defense. In this universe, he’s a Finals MVP. Stop this world, I want to get off!
The Pistons built their foundation on defense, Dantley never fit into that culture. When he was moved to make room for Dennis Rodman, the offense didn’t suffer a bit and the defense went up a couple of notches. It was the last piece of the puzzle for the Pistons to unseat the Celtics as royalty in the East.
Curious Laimbeer and Ellis lead their respective teams in wins shares, when Isiah Thomas, Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniels are undoubtedly viewed as far superior.
1988: Boston Celtics (57-25) vs Dallas Mavericks (53-29)
Best Players: Larry Bird (15) vs Derek Harper (9.1)
G1: BOS 109-86
G2: DAL 121-115
G3: BOS 121-109
G4: BOS 113-104 (OT)
G5: DAL 118-109
G6: BOS 120-103 (Bird 28-10-8)
For the third time in the decade the Celtics are the world champions and have solidified themselves as the team of the 1980s, just as they have in the 1970s. From Russell to Cowens and from Cowens to Bird, the mystic of such an organization is unparalleled in the game of basketball. Seventeen banners hanger in the Boston Garden as a testimony to the greatness of the Celtics organization.
Ah. Beautiful. Another ring. I was negative nine-years old and it still tastes so sweet.
The Mavericks were the first non-Celtics team in history I’ve found myself attached too. Could be the green uniforms and the fact they took the Lakers to the brink in ‘88. Or, me just loving a good underdog.
Bird leaves us with the same amount of rings he has in real life, except his rivals are Dr. J, Sidney Moncrief and the Pistons, not Magic Johnson. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry remains doormat. A vestige of a by a bygone age bearing little relevance to today. The decade is defined by the battles in the eastern conference, the finals viewed as little more than an add-on. Only one western conference team managed a championship so far, and it was at Milwaukee’s expense costing them a chance at becoming the team of the eighties.
1989: Chicago Bulls (47-35) vs Phoenix Suns (55-27)
Best Players: Michael Jordan (19.8) and Kevin Johnson (12.2)
G1: PHX 123-106
G2: PHX 110-91
G3: CHI 118-104
G4: PHX 108-98
G5: CHI 113-110
G6: CHI 110-102
G7: PHX 108-98 (KJ 23-12-5)
The ultimate irony with Kevin Johnson is from 1988-89 to 1989-90, the pre-Charles Barkley era when the Suns didn’t have title aspirations, he rose to the occasion and took them further than anyone expected. 1989 playoffs, 49.5 percent field goal, 23 points and 12 assists. 1990, 47.9 percent from the field, 21 points and 10 rebounds en route to back-to-back conference finals appearances. In ‘91 and ‘92 he shoots 30 percent against Utah and lose in the first round. The next season, Tom Chambers got old and couldn’t perform as that third man anymore and they fall to Portland in five.
Then came the 1993 playoffs, perhaps the best team assembled of the decade and Johnson shit the bed on almost every occasion. Absolutely abandoning Barkley in the ‘93 Finals versus M.J. Phil Jackson simply double teamed him and KJ and he never passed out of it, not because he’s a ball hog, but because he couldn’t figure out how to do it.
It’s surreal to give Jordan a loss in the finals. He’s entering his apex, and 1989 was a banner season for him. First team All-NBA, first team defense, Scoring Champion, should have won the MVP over Magic. It’s insane to look back how much unearned praised for leading the Lakers to 63-wins in their first year without Kareem. In ‘89, Kareem was a withered corpse ready to be thrown into the casket. Combining Mychal Thompson and Vlade Divac statistical output, what they put on the table was superior than Kareem’s final season.
‘88-89 Kareem: 10.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 47.5 percent field goal.
That’s an insane dip from ‘87-88 when he was still a dependable 14 and 8 guy shooting over 50 percent.
Divac/Thompson: 18.6 points, 13 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 49.5 percent from the field.
Divac and Thompson also hung with Hakeem in a playoff series. The next series versus Phoenix, Pat Riley diminishes their roles and they get bounced in five.
The three headed monster of K.J, Chambers and Jeff Hornacek will return the next season in a rematch against Jordan’s Bulls.
1990: Chicago Bulls (55-27) vs Phoenix Suns (54-28)
Best Players: Michael Jordan (19) and Kevin Johnson (11.6)
G1: PHX 118-105
G2: PHX 103-100
G3: PHX 122-112
G4: PHX 105-96 (Chambers 8/18, 23-14)
Big winner in this alternate reality, Tom Chambers! Beats down the ‘87 Lakers, wins two championships by outplaying Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and bagging a Finals MVP in ‘90.
I remember when the Celtics signed Hayward the same summer they traded for Kyrie, and my immediate thought of their pairing was KJ and Chambers as for how they’d play together. Neither are really a number one option, it’s debatable who’ll get the ball in crunch time.
In ‘88-89 and ‘89-90 Chambers was the the best small forward in the conference. Averaging 26 points, missing only two games, back to back All-NBA 2nd teams, top-10 in MVP voting each of those seasons. The only reason he’ll never make it into the Hall of Fame is because he was an asshole to people. He’ll make it in once he’s dead.
Another thing to consider, this is the final time we’ll see Michael Jordan in the finals. Loses in 7 games in ‘89, is swept the following series.
1991: Portland Trail Blazers (63-19) vs Detroit Pistons (50-32)
Best Players: Terry Porter (13) and Joe Dumars (9.9)
G1: POR 101-86
G2: POR 119-86
G3: POR 106-97 (Ainge 19 points)
G4: POR 125-121 (OT) (Drexler 36-5-6)
The Blazers soundly beat a Detroit team that handily defeated them in five-games in OTL. The possible differences between these realities are, Danny Ainge as a scorer off the bench. Something the ‘90 team lacked. In game 3 Ainge rattles off 19 to help fend off a Pistons rally.
Another reason could be the core of the Pistons by ‘91 are on the back nine of their careers and the bully-ball style they relied on faltering against a seasoned, veteran heavy roster like Portland.
The book on the ‘90 finals can be described simply as, the Blazers lacked someone like Vinnie Johnson to act as their scorer in close games late, leading to 4th quarter implosions. And the fact the Blazers weren’t ready for bright lights, like how OKC in 2012 wasn’t. By contrast, the Pistons are at the tail-end of their peak. Perhaps if they met one year later in the championship the script would have been flipped.
Drexler joins the “ring less no more” club, dropping 36 in the decisive game 4 for his first title. The Blazers in this time period get forgotten because they’re sandwiched between the Lakers dominance in the west, and the time Michael Jordan began to dominate the league. But Portland was an excellent roster, featuring All-Stars like Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and even center Kevin Duckworth had his moments. Young Clifford Robinson, veteran Buck Williams as backup big forwards.
An underrated what-if for Portland is what-if they kept Dražen Petrović and not move him for the 36-year-old Walter Davis? Petrović blossomed into a three-point marksman, scoring 20-points a game for New Jersey. This is the same guy Rick Aldeman shelved in the Pistons series as his team imploded like clockwork. While the Bulls had old man Bob Hansen to shift the tides of game 6 in ‘92 with a crucial three-pointer, the Blazers sunk and added another chapter in their “close but no cigar” era.
1992: Utah Jazz (55-27) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
Best Players: Larry Nance (12.2) and Karl Malone (15.2)
G1: UTA 107-104
G2: CLE 122-108
G3: CLE 105-97
G4: UTA 106-105
G5: CLE 114-105
G6: CLE 110-99 (L. Nance 21-7-6-6)
I ran this through the simulator dozens of times. Only once or twice did it have the Jazz coming out on top. Which is surprising. This is Stockton and Malone, 30 and 29, respectively, grizzled veterans having battled the Lakers in ‘88, hire Jerry Sloan the next year and cobble together a roster capable of running through teams with just two surefire guys. Their third guy was Jeff Malone who scored 20 in ‘92, and Mark Eaton was a perfect hulking night to put next to Malone.
How did they lose? Well, in the critical game 5 matchup versus Portland Stockton suffered an eye injury and Utah fell in overtime before losing the next game to go with the series. If Stockton didn’t get hurt, Utah probably wins and we get the Bulls vs Jazz six years sooner than we did.
Cleveland in 1992 is the first team to have a complete roster that complemented their best player perfectly and not win, simply because they had the misfortune of sharing a conference with Jordan.
1993: Seattle SuperSonics (55-27) vs New York Knicks (60-22)
Best Players: Patrick Ewing (10.6) and Shawn Kemp (9.1)
G1: NYK 93-90
G2: NYK 104-97
G3: SEA 103-83
G4: SEA 102-92
G5: NYK 113-103
G6: NYK 102-92 (Ewing 26 pts, 13 reb)
New York wins their second title in franchise history, and Patrick Ewing is on top of the world that doesn’t feature Michel Jordan as the unstoppable force. If I’m a Knicks fan, I’m absolutely trading one of the titles won in the 1970s for the missed opportunities in 1993, 1994, 1999 or even 2000. A title with Ewing is more impactful than an extra chip in 1973. We don’t regard Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, or Earl Monroe any better because of the ‘73 championship. If a title ever was a net-zero for legacies, it be that Knicks team.
The ‘93 Sonics are an underrated squad, undeservingly forgotten. Likely due to their infamous early playoff exits in 1994 and 1995, despite their top seeded status. By the time they reached the finals, the 72-win Bulls waiting in the wings, the Sonics had the burden of three straight heartbreaking ends to their season placed on their shoulders. Though they put up a valiant effort and kept M.J in check, they had no answer for Dennis Rodman and fell in six.
In ‘93, Payton and Kemp were freer, more raw and their energy reminded me more of Russ and KD in 2010. Their wide-eyed innocence, pure unadulterated love for the game at an all time high before the pressure of expectations would weigh them down. Their athleticism overwhelmed Malone and Stockton, and the future world champion Rockets, and took the Barkley-led Suns to a 7th game.
Across the country, in the Big Apple, expectations are always on the Knicks. This is before they became deformed goblins living in the NBA basement. The Knicks remained relevant even after the championship core aged out in the late-1970s. Bernard King took the eventual champion Celtics to 7 in 1984. They tried to snag MVPs Kareem and Bob McAdoo in free agency. Won the Ewing lottery in ‘84. In ‘88 they returned to the playoffs after a three season hiatus, slowly climbing up the totem pole. When the Rick Pitino era fizzled out, the Knicks turned to The Godfather to reinvent the team into a squad of bullies that fit New York’s hard nosed attitude. 39-wins turned to 51. 51 turned to 60. All that was needed was to overcome the greatest player God ever created.
Up 2-0 it looked like that would happen. The Knicks beat the Bulls behind the hot hands of John Starks and Charles Smith. They lay an egg in game 3, and in game 4 they clicked on all cylinders on offense. Ewing, Starks, Smith and Anthony Mason scored 79 points, Oakley chopped in 11. Turns out, the weakest link was Doc Rivers. Thanks to M.J’s 54 point explosion, Chicago won by 10. Doc shot 1 of 6, didn’t get to the free throw line and the Knicks A-plus game wasn’t enough.
At the end of the day, the Knicks had all it took to be champions. The Knicks are Floyd Patterson. The NBA is chalk full of Floyd Patterson’s. They had the misfortune of fighting Muhammad Ali.
The narratives were ready for the Knicks should they reach the top of the mountain. Ewing was the reincarnation of Willis Reed. Starks rags to riches story, coming from bagging groceries to playing in the NBA Finals after cutting his teeth in semi-pro leagues. His passion was his best friend and worst enemy. Through all of the muck and filth that comes with everyone expecting big things from you, Starks was poised to reach the opposite side as a battle tested champion. He averaged 19 and 6 in the Houston series, notching 27 in game 6.
Two seconds left, down 2 Starks was asked to take the Knicks home. He’s made 5 threes, if he makes one more they’re champions. If Olajuwon hadn’t blocked the red hot Starks attempt, perhaps it goes in and the Knicks have that one title to keep them warm in these times of endless despair.
1994: Indiana Pacers (47-35) vs Utah Jazz (53-29)
Best Player: Karl Malone (13.4) and Reggie Miller (11.7)
G1: IND 102-99
G2: UTA 115-106
G3: UTA 112-105
G4: UTA 94-88
G5: UTA 94-92 (Stockton 19-8-5)
Stockton and Malone finally achieve the pinnacle. The ups and downs of the Jazz ‘94 campaign involved nearly losing a three games to none lead to Denver. Karl Malone battled future Hall of Famers David Robinson, Dikembe Mutumbo and Hakeem Olajuwon in the ‘94 postseason. While many expected the Jazz to meet the defending champion Knicks in June, they settled for the scrappy underdog Pacers in a battle of the small-markets.
What does a ring mean for Stockton? I’m not sure. Malone is etched in history as a top-5 all-time power forward and it almost doesn’t matter he never won. His lack of mental toughness is glaring and it’s debatable if having a ring makes him stronger or not. A simple “Just remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.” heckle from Scottie Pippen is enough to rattle his concentration.
Stockton is usually forgotten, or casted as only a passing point guard. But he is basically Chris Paul, only better. Seriously. They’re carbon copies of one another. Except Paul had more tricks around the basket and Stockton was more of a cutter.
It’s nice to see Stockton and Malone finally overcome the odds and win the chip. I don’t think they needed it though. Nobody sits around and talks shit about either for failing to win it all.
1995: Indiana Pacers (52-30) vs San Antonio Spurs (62-20)
Best Players: Reggie Miller (11.4) and David Robinson (17.5)
G1: SAS 103-94
G2: SAS 93-88
G3: SAS 109-99
G4: IND 108-99
G5: SAS 92-76 (D. Robinson 22 pts, 11 trb)
David Robinson goes down as the most athletically gifted man to play the game of basketball in the 20th century. Too nice to win by himself. Given below-average guards for the majority of his career. His most notable moment was Olajuwon embarrassing him on national tv during the ‘95 conference finals the night he was presented the MVP award.
Yet, he’s a top-30 all timer and doesn’t have a signature moment prior to Tim Duncan’s arrival in ‘97.
1996: Orlando Magic (60-22) vs Utah Jazz (55-27)
Best Players: Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (14.4) and Karl Malone (15.1)
G1: ORL 101-85
G2: ORL 104-80
G3: UTA 113-101
G4: UTA 105-93
G5: ORL 114-105
G6: ORL 112-106 (Shaq 28-13; Penny 28-8-5)
Shaq is absolutely leaving Orlando regardless if they win the title or not. He made it known he wanted to play in Los Angeles. So them winning it all changes nothing, but maybe makes the pain of losing a great player like Penny so young to injury less bitter because at least he gets a ring.
1997: Miami Heat (61-21) vs Houston Rockets (57-25)
Best Players: Charles Barkley (9.4) and Tim Hardaway (12.9)
G1: HOU 101-91
G2: MIA 100-92
G3: HOU 97-76
G4: HOU 101-85
G5: HOU 108-106 (Olajuwon 33 pts, 8 reb)
Champions Barkley and Drexler team up together in Houston to help Olajuwon win the big one… basically the inverse of what happened in real life where they came to him because he won before.
Is Miami the most overrated team of the mid-90s? Only relevant playoff series they won was against New York in ‘97 when the league suspended Ewing, Larry Johnson and Allan Houston for game 7 for leaving the bench during an in-game scuffle. Heat in the late-90s had tons of great players, a high profile coach and played a style that made them unique. Basically, a faster, more exciting Riley-era Knicks.
They didn’t win shit and I’m happy the simulator didn’t fall head over heels for them.
1998: Los Angeles Lakers (61-21) vs Indiana Pacers (58-24)
Best Players: Shaquille O’Neal (10.2) and Reggie Miller (12)
G1: LAL 117-103
G2: LAL 97-95
G3: LAL 103-89
G4: LAL 109-89 (N. Exel 17 pts, 12 ast)
Shaq wins his first in Los Angeles, two years after winning first title overall with the Orlando Magic. I’m surprised the simulator was so unkind to the Pacers. Indiana in 2000 gave the Lakers their greatest test in the finals, nearly winning games 4 and 6 that would have won them the series.
Will O’Neal be the first to win the championship as the best player on three different teams? We’ll see in 2005.
1999: Indiana Pacers (33-17) vs Portland Trail Blazers (35-15)
Best Players: Brian Grant (5.9) and Reggie Miller (6.4)
G1: IND 87-76
G2: POR 102-101
G3: IND 102-93
G4: POR 103-96
G5: POR 99-90
G6: POR 101-92 (A. Sabonis 13-7-5)
And there goes Reggie Miller’s best chance at a ring. In game 2, down two the Pacers had the chance to go up 2-0 heading home for a three game stretch. Chris Mullin’s pulls in a rebound after Walt Williams whiffs on a drive to the basket, outlets to Mark Jackson and hits Miller who nails a straight away three to give his team the one point lead with 11 ticks left. Isaiah Rider drives it to the paint on the next possession, and scores on a turnaround back shot to save the Blazers’ hides.
Sabonis earns Finals MVP honors and he’s an interesting story. Began playing professional ball in the Soviet Union, demolished the ‘88 USA team that had David Robinson on the other side (that U.S tam was poorly coached and the roster was mismanaged. Yes, I’m bitter). He had to wait until he was 31 to play in the NBA and had a couple good years until Father Time took care of him.
2000: Portland Trail Blazers (59-23) vs New York (50-32)
Best Player: Steve Smith (10.4) and Allan Houston (8.6)
G1: POR 112-93
G2: POR 88-76
G3: POR 111-77
G4: POR 94-84 (Sheed 16-11)
Only three teams have gone back-to-back in this alternate reality: the 1970s Celtics. 1989 and 1990 Suns. And now, the ‘98-99, ‘99-00 Blazers. Kind of amazing the Blazers go from road bump to champions. Portland acted as the speed bump for Detroit and Chicago during the Drexler-era, then as the team Shaq-Kobe finally got it together against in ‘00. Oh! And they also christened the Duncan Spurs in ‘99!
Pip gets his first ring, after leaving M.J. How much would have a Pippen championship without Jordan mean to his legacy? Probably a shit-ton. Poor Pip was reduced to a bit player in the bigger Shaq-Kobe epic comeback in game 7 of the west finals. There’s no doubt Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace were the best player on the Blazers. Pip played a huge role for them on defense and had some big moments in that Lakers series.
Another odd thing to notice, Rasheed has won two titles and we’ll see him a lot more in the finals as a Piston. 2006, 2007 and 2008. Could he have five at the end of this?
2001: Milwaukee Bucks (52-30) vs San Antonio Spurs (58-24)
Best Players: Ray Allen (13.7) and Tim Duncan (13.2)
G1: MIL 117-112 (OT)
G2: SAS 112-86
G3: MIL 102-93
G4: SAS 97-91
G5: SAS 113-88
G6: MIL 108-95
G7: SAS 89-88 (Duncan 18-12-3, GW lay-up)
Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson nearly pulp off the upset against the vaunted Spurs. Down 17 entering the 2nd half, Robinson scores 18 to help lead the furious comeback charge. His fade-away jumper that would have sealed the contest for Milwaukee is rejected by the savvy veteran Robinson. Taking the ball at halfcourt, George Karl has no idea who to double-team between Robinson and Duncan, and makes the correct decision in sending Robinson to help Jason Caffey defend Duncan. Except it doesn’t matter, a little old school fundamentals is all that is needed to create daylight and he lays it up and in for the narrowest win in Finals history.
David Stern isn’t at the trophy presentation. He’s busy writing death threats to the each of the teams rosters for giving him the lowest rated finals in history of Nielsen ratings.
2002 Sacramento Kings (61-21) vs Boston Celtics (49-33)
Best Players: Paul Pierce (12.9) and Peja Stojaković (9.9)
G1: SAC 119-102
G2: BOS 102-96
G3: BOS 113-105
G4: SAC 101-90
G5: SAC 111-107
G6: SAC 114-94 (Peja 21-5-5)
Argh! I wanted to give this to the Celtics so bad. Ah, well. At least C-Webb and Vlade win a title. Pierce and Walker resurrecting the Celtics from the ashes after an abysmal 1990s is enough to satisfy Celtics fans longing for the glory days. They’ll get a few cracks at it in the 2010s.
2003: Dallas Mavericks (60-22) vs Detroit Pistons (50-32)
Best Players: Dirk Nowitzki (16.1) and Ben Wallace (10.6)
G1: DAL 102-99
G2: DAL 103-84
G3: DAL 96-78
G4: DAL 106-105 (Dirk 26-11; Raef GW)
Dirk and Nash win the big one before anyone could even ask the question.
Initially, I believed this matchup to be a clashing of styles. The Mavericks run a Star Wars futuristic offense, and the Pistons offense is similar to a caveman beating you over the head with a giant stick.
But the Pistons are helmed by Rick Carlisle, a new-age coach in a prehistoric NBA. The team averaged 18.1 attempts beyond the arc, good for sixth in the league, and took the third fewest two-point attempts with 58.4. Backup big Mehmet Okur took nearly two 3s a night. Ben Wallace does what Draymond did for the Warriors.
When Carlisle was booted in favor of Larry Brown is when the Pistons adopted a more brute force style. Ironically, one of the core members of the Pistons contingent was Rasheed Wallace. Someone who’d probably be a ten-time All-Star in this era.
Rare mistake by “The Legend” to not tap Carlisle as his successor, opting for rival Isiah Thomas. The Pacers could have snuck into the third round in 2001 if they weren’t so poorly coached.
2004: Indiana Pacers (61-21) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (58-24)
Best Players: Jermaine O’Neal (9) and Kevin Garnett (18.3)
G1: IND 89-80
G2: IND 96-89
G3: MIN 91-82
G4: MIN 104-85
G5: MIN 101-92 (KG 35-19-6-3)
G6: MIN 102-93 (KG 27-16-4)
Garnett caps off an amazing ‘03-04 MVP season winning the title, scoring 63 points in the final two games. Since 1999, we’ve been in the era of the power forwards bulldozing their way to titles. Rasheed twice. Dirk once. And just now, Garnett.
Garnett bringing a title to Minnesota instantly gives him more credit than resurrecting basketball in Boston. Minnesota is viewed more than a state that’s debatable whether they deserve a team after this.
As for Indiana, this is Miller’s fifth and final time in the finals as he goes 0-for-5 in his journey.
2005: Phoenix Suns (62-20) vs Miami Heat (59-23)
Best Players: Amar’e Stoudemire (14.6) and Shaq and Wade (11)
G1: PHX 95-94
G2: PHX 114-98
G3: MIA 121-109
G4: MIA 115-114
G5: MIA 127-123 (Wade 45-10)
G6: PHX 119-106
G7: PHX 108-103 (Amar’e 23-11)
Back to back high schoolers win Finals MVP. The Suns withstand Shaq and Wade to win an epic 7-game series. Nash’s stock is rapidly rising in this alternate reality.
Probably the best NBA Finals we didn’t get. O’Neal should’ve won the MVP over Nash in ‘05. Was his last great season. Transformed the Heat overnight and threw Wade into the fire which ultimately made him the battle tested veteran superstar at a young age. Miami goes from a quirky 42-40 team to a 59-win title contending squad and very nearly beat Nash and Amar’e.
The Mavericks look like damned fools letting Nash walk in free agency. Nash and Amar’e will do what many believed what he and Dirk would have accomplished if they weren’t prematurely split.
2006: Phoenix Suns (54-28) vs Detroit Pistons (64-18)
Best Players: Chauncey Billups (15.5) and Shawn Marion (14.6)
G1: PHX 108-87
G2: DET 86-77
G3: PHX 97-92
G4: PHX 85-77
G5: PHX 104-98 (S. Marion 32 pts, 13 trb)
Nash and the Suns go back to back, without Amar’e! Shawn Marion is turned into a star overnight and Nash will likely find himself pigeonholed into the top-10 all-time conversation after this run.
This is Ben Wallace’s last season as a Piston. He’ll go down as the best player on two runner-ups and is important will be downplayed. Detroit replaces him with Nazr Mohammad and make it to the finals in 2007 and 2008.
2007: Detroit Pistons (53-29) vs Utah Jazz (51-31)
Best Players: Chauncey Billups (11.4) and Carlos Boozer (9.9)
G1: DET 103-61
G2: UTA 103-99
G3: UTA 89-88 (Boozer GW)
G4: DET 99-83
G5: DET 110-92
G6: DET 105-81 (RIP 25 pts, 9 reb)
Despite the best efforts of Boozer, D-Will, Okur, D-Fish, and AK-47 the Jazz fall to the Pistons. Detroit climbs the mountain and achieves the pinnacle. Bittersweet given it’s done without their heart and soul, Big Ben. The catalyst on two runner-ups, the Pistons replace him with Mohammad, Antonio McDyess and old man C-Webb.
2008: San Antonio Spurs (56-26) vs Detroit Pistons (59-23)
Best Players: Chauncey Billups (13.5) and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (11.1)
G1: SAS 86-76
G2: DET 101-76
G3: DET 91-76
G4: DET 89-70
G5: SAS 105-82
G6: DET 94-79 (Sheed 16 pts, 9 reb)
In this alternate universe, Rasheed Wallace has more titles than Shaq, Garnett, Duncan, and Dirk… and he’s the worst of all four!
In 2005 the Pistons should have beaten San Antonio if not for Sheed choosing to double Manu and leave Big Shot Rob open time swing game 5. The sports Gods blessed the Spurs, just as they’ll curse them eight-years later. Funny how that works.
Only four teams have gone back-to-back in this timeline. Celtics, Phoenix (twice) and now the Pistons.
Next finals is LeBron (with former Piston Ben Wallace) vs Carmelo (with Billups)!
2009: Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16) vs Denver Nuggets (54-28)
Best Players: LeBron James (20.3) and Chauncey Billups (9.9)
G1: CLE 100-97
G2: CLE 107-75
G3: DEN 107-104
G4: DEN 90-79
G5: CLE 107-89
G6: CLE 92-86 (LeBron 37-7-6)
LeBron wins in Cleveland! Does he stay? Of course not. Winning is secondary to stars. Always has been. If Shaq won in Orlando in ‘96 or L.A in ‘04 he still skips town. Same for K.D in 2016. Only possible way LeBron stays in Miami after 2014 is if they won it all and he was defending his three-peat. Only thing M.J never did was four-peat. That definitely matters to LeBron.
But in this reality, Jordan is just an awesome player who never broke through. Who are we comparing LeBron too? Is he the greatest of all-time despite having one ring? Kareem has two. Bill Russell has 11. Dr. J and Bird have 3. The whole debate is different. Bron is no doubt in the conversation and his career accomplishments could put him over the top, whether rings is used as a plural or singular with him.
2010: Phoenix Suns (54-28) vs Orlando Magic (59-23)
Best Players: Dwight Howard (13.2) and Amar’e Stoudemire (10.7)
G1: ORL 106-99
G2: PHX 110-107
G3: PHX 111-110 (Amar’e GW FTs)
G4: ORL 106-89
G5: PHX 111-102
G6: ORL 114-92
G7: PHX 111-107 (Amar’e 17 pts, 9 reb)
Steve Nash puts the finishing touches on his amazing run by winning his fourth championship in a miraculous seven-game set vs Dwight Howard and the Magic.
In real-life, the Suns were a Metta World Peace tip-in from going up 3-2 on the Lakers in the conference finals. It’s as close Nash will ever get to a ring. Ironically, it’s here when we simply reverse the outcomes he is perhaps the greatest point guard in league history. More titles than Dr. J, Bird, Magic, Kareem, Jo Jo, K.J, Stockton and Duncan. A weird world. One that gives Nash his proper due, however.
2011: Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs Chicago Bulls (62-20)
Best Players: Derrick Rose (13.1) and Kevin Durant (12)
G1: OKC 99-97
G2: OKC 93-84
G3: OKC 79-78 (Russ GW)
G4: OKC 100-91 (K.D 35 pts, 9 reb; Rose 42)
K.D, Russ and Harden win it all together… and in a year they’ll be split up and each win an MVP within five-years. K.D in 2014. Russ in ‘17. Harden in ‘18.
The Thunder had the misfortune of running into Dirk’s last stand with the Mavs. Two 40-point outings, 32.2 per game in a gentleman’s sweep. OKC didn’t have a prayer in figuring him out. Recently acquired center Kendrick Perkins was a negative during his time in OKC. Ibaka was too young and couldn’t keep up with the experienced Dirk.
We’re likely entering the K.D/Russ – OKC era here. They’ll bag three titles in the decade.
2012: Boston Celtics (39-27) vs San Antonio Spurs (50-16)
Best Players: Tony Parker (7.1) and Paul Pierce (7)
G1: SAS 93-90
G2: SAS 111-94
G3: BOS 100-91
G4: BOS 111-92
G5: SAS 113-95
G6: SAS 105-100 (T. Parker 21 pts, 7 ast)
The Spurs finally win without David Robinson and Duncan captures his third ring. Parker bags the Finals MVP. The Spurs in 2012, before they were tossed out for Durant in the WCF, were getting all-time buzz. I don’t doubt the Heat would’ve been underdogs if San Antonio met them in June. They perfected the game and closed the season on a win streak that ran into the playoffs, ending at 20 before they dropped 4 straight.
2013: Indiana Pacers (49-32) vs Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Best Players: Marc Gasol (11.5) and George Hill (9.7)
G1: MEM 110-86
G2: MEM 82-79
G3: IND 97-92
G4: MEM 85-92
G5: IND 89-80
G6: IND 84-83 (Lance tip-in GW)
G7: MEM 95-92 (M. Gasol 21-10-3)
In a series that only could be described as a love letter to ugly ball. Watching Roy Hibbert battle Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is oddly captivating. Indiana battles from 3-1 down to push the Grizzlies to 7 and fall oh, so short!
Memphis caps off one of the most unlikely runs in NBA history. Defeating former champions Oklahoma and San Antonio in back to back series and overcome the gritty Pacers who emulate their Grit ‘n Grind style to a T.
This is also one of the lowest rated NBA Finals in history.
2014: Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs Indiana Pacers (56-26)
Best Players: Kevin Durant (19.2) and Paul George (10.8)
G1: IND 87-82
G2: IND 113-98
G3: OKC 103-77
G4: OKC 99-86
G5: IND 99-89
G6: OKC 99-90
G7: OKC 103-94 (K.D 27 pts, 5 reb)
The Thunder win their second championship in four seasons. In a wild NBA Finals that featured the road team winning every game up until the decisive game seven. Paul George went toe-to-toe with Durant and lost in a valiant effort. But back to back heartbreaks for Indiana stings no matter how many times they’ve gotten to the dance, they can taste success. George is walking down the same path of pain as his predecessor Reggie.
Durant is probably leaving this article the best player ever by the way. And the Thunder have won the title after giving up James Harden, who’ll make the NBA Finals with Houston next season.
2015: Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs Houston Rockets (56-26)
Best Players: Al Horford (8.7) and James Harden (16.4)
G1: HOU 116-101
G2: ATL 103-98
G3: ATL 122-109
G4: HOU 83-73
G5: ATL 105-92
G6: HOU 97-84
G7: ATL 103-98 (Millsap 30 pts, 15 reb)
If a starless team like Atlanta won the title, we would have retroactively put either Al Horford or Paul Millsap into the superstar column like we did with Ben Wallace when the Pistons won. You can chalk it up to perception, but stars always win in this league. Sometimes we simply overlook players because they play in smaller markets or move around from team to team and fly under our radar.
Does Atlanta winning change the NBA? Probably not. Like I said, Horford and Millsap in 2015 were stars. Nobody respected them, which was the problem.
2016: Toronto Raptors (56-26) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)
Best Players: Kevin Durant (14.5) and Kyle Lowry (11.6)
G1: OKC 106-97
G2: OKC 95-86
G3: OKC 118-115 (OT)
G4: OKC 104-81 (Russ 19-11-5)
Three titles in six seasons for Durant, right as he’s ready to skip town to Golden State.
Durant and Russ are the Shaq and Kobe of this universe. Tons of internal turmoil, causes the premature end to the dynasty.
2017: San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs Boston Celtics (53-29)
Best Players: Kawhi Leonard (13.6) and Isaiah Thomas (12.5)
G1: SAS 107-95
G2: SAS 110-96
G3: BOS 110-102
G4: SAS 121-114
G5: SAS 114-105 (Kawhi 26-9-5)
Kawhi was my 2017 MVP. Isaiah finished 3rd in my rankings behind Harden.
2019: Boston Celtics (55-27) vs Houston Rockets (65-17)
Best Players: James Harden (15.4) and Al Horford (7.8)
G1: HOU 99-97
G2: BOS 88-86
G3: BOS 111-107
G4: HOU 108-98
G5: HOU 114-105
G6: BOS 113-92
G7: BOS 101-95 (Horford 20-9-5)
In an improbable turn of events, through all the injuries the Celtics overcome Giannis, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, LeBron, ultimately James Harden en route to their eighteenth banner.
Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin all lost to freak injury. Many didn’t have Jaylen Brown at three on their draft boards where the Celtics took him. People doubted Danny Ainge when he traded down to take Jayson Tatum third. Almost everyone panned the Terry Rozier pick. The Celtics title, like Atlanta’s in 2015, didn’t prove superstars aren’t needed to win a championship, but that well run front offices that develop players like Marcus Smart are crucial to winning a title just as much as having LeBron.
2019: Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) vs Portland Trail Blazers (53-29)
Best Players: Giannis Antetokoukpo (14.4) and Damian Lillard (12.1)
G1: MIL 109-80
G2: MIL 127-102
G3: POR 125-105
G4: MIL 112-105
G5: MIL 121-95 (Giannis 31-16-9)
Ironic. We start this journey with the Bucks winning it all with Kareem and end it with Giannis doing the same. This is also the last NBA Finals ever. Which is… startling.
Ring-less No More: Elgin Baylor, George Gervin, Pete Maravich, Sidney Moncrief, Artis Gilmore, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Penny Hardaway, Arvdas Sabonis, Chris Webber, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Russell Westbrook, Giannis
Biggest Winners: Phoenix Suns (5 titles), Boston Celtics (7 titles), Philadelphia 76ers (3 titles), Milwaukee Bucks (3 titles), Utah Jazz (1 title), Orlando Magic (1 Title), Atlanta Hawks (1 title), Oklahoma City Thunder (3 titles)
Biggest Losers: Los Angeles Lakers (Lose 9 titles), Chicago Bulls (Lose 6 titles), Golden State Warriors (Lose 3 titles), Miami Heat (Lose 3 titles).
Wash: New York Knicks, Seattle SuperSonics, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets
Player who gains the most: Steve Nash
Player who loses the most: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson