The Sports Guy ranks the 20 most fortunate breaks an NBA champion ever received
By Bill Simmons on May 3, 2012
When Derrick Rose’s knee injury ruined the spring of every Chicago fan, I tweeted that 2012 was suddenly an “asterisk title.” The more I’m thinking about it, “footnote title” makes more sense. A basketball season always features collateral damage, whether it’s injuries, lucky breaks or someone stupidly assaulting a fire extinguisher. Asterisks should be saved for fishier achievements like Bonds’s 73 homers, Roger Clemens’s last few Cy Youngs and Pia Zadora winning a Golden Globe. A “footnote title” respects the champion while also acknowledging that, “Look, SOMETHING funky happened and you can’t discuss that postseason in detail without mentioning that one funky thing.”
Of course, the ones usually applying that footnote are disgruntled fans of the team that “should have won.” That’s just the way sports work. For instance, my father still refuses to recognize the actual winner of the 1973 NBA title. It’s been almost 40 years. He doesn’t care.
“We had the best team that year,” Dad says. “We won 68 games. Havlicek hurt his shoulder halfway through the Knicks series — he played left-handed in the fifth game and the sixth game. In the seventh game, Frazier killed us. The Knicks beat the Lakers in the Finals. The wrong team won. We won two of the next three titles, but ’73 was our best team.”
I actually watched a DVD of Game 7 while researching my NBA book. Even though it was the climactic game of the Eastern Finals, the game wasn’t televised nationally; a soundless tape from a center court camera is the league’s only copy. With Havlicek playing one-handed (he finished with just four points) and the Knicks smelling victory, Frazier started methodically backing down Boston’s guards and draining 20-footers. He didn’t just quiet the Boston Garden crowd; I think he actually silenced that one camera and fried its audio. The Knicks won by 16. It’s hard to believe anyone would have beaten Frazier that day.
Just don’t tell my father this. That’s what makes us fans. We make excuses when we lose; we overlook those same excuses when we win. The ’74 Celtics won a hard-fought Finals over Kareem’s Milwaukee Bucks partially because Lucius Allen (Milwaukee’s fastest guard) ripped up his knee stepping on a discarded warm-up jacket. A creaky ’76 Celtics team cranked out one last championship mainly because that season’s best team imploded the previous round (we’ll get to that). My father raised me to forget both of these things. But Havlicek’s bum shoulder? That year, we should have won.
“He’s not wrong,” says Bob Ryan, the unofficial commissioner of the NBA, as well as someone who covered the ’73 Celtics for the Boston Globe. “They were 4-0 against the Lakers that year. Cowens killed Wilt, he was too fast for him. Wilt was too old at that point. You can look it up, I think Cowens averaged 31 and 19 against him that year. But Havlicek got hurt and … [thinking] … yeah, I’d put a footnote next to that one.”
Over the next few minutes, Ryan and I started debating the biggest footnote titles in NBA history. That’s when I realized something … COLUMN! Where will 2012’s eventual winner of a Rose-less playoffs rank among the 20 biggest footnote titles in NBA history? We’re ranking them from “tiny footnote” to “large and undeniably pulsating footnote.”
1993 Chicago Bulls
What Happened: They won their third straight title thanks to the best player ever (at the peak of his powers, no less).
The Footnote: One of my anonymous Knick fan buddies explains, “CHARLES SMITH GOT FOULED THREE FUCKING TIMES! OK? Not one, not two … THREE FUCKING TIMES! Don’t put my name in the column. But THREE FUCKING TIMES”
The Verdict: You could talk me into the ’93 Knicks and ’93 Suns being the two best teams who didn’t win the title from the past 25 years. But the Knicks-Bulls series was only tied 2-2 when the Charles Smith Game happened. They would have had to beat Jordan one more time … again, when he was at his apex. Come on. This gets a one-point generic-font footnote only because Game 7 would have been in New York. Which, by the way, would have been awesome. That’s the real tragedy of the Chaz Smith Game — we missed an unbelievable Game 7. (That Jordan would have won. But still.)
1983 Philadelphia 76ers
What Happened: They won 65 games during the famous “Fo Fo Fo” season with Moses, Doc, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks and the insanely underrated Andrew Toney, then ripped through the playoffs (12-1) and swept the Lakers.
The Footnote: Superb Lakers rookie James Worthy missed the playoffs with a broken leg.
The Verdict: Philly would have ripped through the Lakers, anyway. Moses owned Kareem, and everything about ’83 screams “That was Philly’s year” (in my NBA book, I ranked them as the eighth-best team ever). And by the way, Worthy missed the 1983 playoffs, but Lenny Bias missed the playoffs from 1987 through 2004. So there’s that.
(Whoops, I just violated the self-imposed “no homerism” rules for this column. It won’t happen again. Promise.)
The Footnote: The Lakers won their first 11 playoff games, but Byron Scott missed the Finals with a pulled hammy, then Magic pulled a hammy in the third quarter of Game 2. That led to an aging Michael Cooper playing 94 of a possible 96 minutes the last two games, along with Jeff Lamp, Tony Campbell and David Rivers getting some run. David Rivers???? Sweeeeeeeeeeep.
The Verdict: The Lakers barely got past the ’88 Pistons; beating the ’89 Pistons was an even harder task with Kareem (playoffs: 11.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 43% FG) firmly entrenched in his shaved head/semi-decomposing phase. I hated the ’89 Pistons with every fiber of my body, but they’re probably our no. 1 most underrated great team. Because they followed Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, they ended up being the Larry Holmes of NBA champs: unliked, resented and ultimately dismissed. It’s too bad.
(Just kidding — it’s not too bad at all. Those Pistons teams intentionally stepped on McHale’s broken foot and intentionally tried to cripple Larry Bird. Screw you, Bad Boy Pistons! BURN IN HELL! Whoops, I’m violating the homer rules again. Sorry about that.)
What Happened: This was Magic’s breakout, “I’ll take it from here, Kareem” MVP season. They finished 80-20 (including playoffs); Magic believes it was his best Lakers team. I have them ranked second all-time. It’s hard to stick a footnote next to “second all-time.”
The Footnote: You could argue the Pistons would have given the Lakers a tougher Finals if Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley hadn’t banged heads in the second half of Game 7 in Boston. The Celtics couldn’t have been more banged up: McHale was playing on a broken foot; Parish, DJ and Ainge were all playing on sprained ankles (in particular, Parish was really hobbled); and Bill Walton was effectively scratched from the entire postseason with his aching feet. Only the Legend was healthy. Even then, the Celtics were right in that series and choked away a chance to tie it in Game 4 (the famous Magic Baby Hook game). And yes, McHale blocks that baby hook if he isn’t playing on a frickin’ broken foot.
The Verdict: Game 4 of the ’87 Finals remains my toughest basketball defeat ever, to the point that we’re approaching the 25th anniversary and I’m thinking about celebrating it by killing a drifter. But that was a phenomenal Laker team. They peaked in 1987; the Celtics peaked in 1986. Both were champs. I’m at peace with how it worked out. (Even if, over the rest of my life, I’ll probably hate-watch the last three minutes of Game 4 another 550 times. That last Bird shot should have gone in. Damn it all.) On to the top 20 …
20. 1976 Celtics
What Happened: The creaky Celtics eked out one last Cowens/Havlicek title over the precocious Suns.
The Footnote: The defending champs (Golden State, the favorite that spring) self-destructed at home in Game 7 of the Western Finals after Phoenix’s Ricky Sobers fought Rick Barry, then a sulking Barry played hot potato for much of the game (furious that his teammates didn’t stick up for him). Totally bizarre game to watch. By the time Barry got reengaged, it was too late. Since Bill Russell retired, the two worst teams to make the Finals were the ’07 Cavs and the ’76 Suns. Total gift for the Celtics. And even then, it took them six games to win the title (with help from The Greatest Game Ever Played).
The Verdict: Can you really blame Boston for Golden State’s flimsy chemistry? A bigger footnote, in my opinion: Nearly half the league’s elite players played in the ABA during that last pre-merger season, including Julius Erving and David Thompson (the two best perimeter players in either league) and Artis Gilmore (the second-best center after Kareem), as well as a slew of athletic up-and-comers (George Gervin, Moses Malone, Billy Knight, Bobby Jones, Maurice Lucas, etc.). Can you imagine a potbellied and about-to-retire Don Nelson (Boston’s sixth man that season) trying to cover Erving or Thompson? I’m giving this a two-point Times New Roman footnote.
19. 2008 Celtics
18. 2010 Lakers
What Happened: You could argue that these footnotes canceled each other out. (I don’t believe this, but you could argue it.) In the 2008 Finals, the Lakers didn’t have Andrew Bynum … who couldn’t stay on the court, only played in 204 of a possible 328 regular-season games from 2008 to 2011, and wasn’t even remotely the same Bynum he is right now (but whatever). During the 2010 Finals, the Celtics lost starting center Kendrick Perkins for most of Game 6 and all of Game 7, causing an out-of-shape, should-have-retired-two-years-earlier Rasheed Wallace to play 35 minutes in Game 7.
The Footnote: Laker fans believe Bynum could have swung the 2008 Finals, even though the 66-win Celtics dominated the regular season and clinched the title by beating the Lakers by 39 points. Celtics fans fervently believe we would have prevailed in Game 7 in 2010 with Perkins — you know, the game in which Boston gave up a whopping 23 offensive rebounds, Kobe missed 18 of 24 shots, and the Lakers shot 32.5 percent and somehow won. I can’t talk about this anymore.
The Verdict: Neither ’08 Bynum nor ’10 Perkins was one of his team’s best three players. Injuries are part of the game. Shit happens. Since the 2010 Celtics came much closer to winning than the 2008 Lakers did, the 2010 Lakers earn a slightly bigger but still inconsequential footnote font. What remains unclear: whether LeBron no-showing his last two playoff games becomes part of that 2010 footnote historically. Right now, it looks like no … if only because the same thing happened in the 2011 Finals. If a better explanation emerges someday for that 2010 no-show against Boston? Maybe.
17. 1974 Celtics
What Happened: After blowing a seemingly devastating Game 6 in double overtime (important note: Kareem’s 20-foot sky hook to save that series remains one of the league’s 10 greatest shots), the Celtics rallied to steal Game 7 in Milwaukee. The key? Boston coach Tommy Heinsohn decided to start double- and triple-teaming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … who had only won three of the past four MVPs and scored 202 points in the first six Finals games. Can you imagine living in a world in which Tommy Heinsohn made pivotal coaching decisions? And imagine living in a world in which it took Tommy six full games to double Kareem? I want to go back to 1974 in a time machine, bring the Internet with me and destroy Tommy in a column for this.
The Footnote: Milwaukee’s backcourt was missing Lucius Allen and key backup Jon McGlocklin; Oscar was hampered by a torn stomach muscle (although his playoff stats weren’t bad: 14 PPG, 9.0 APG); and the likes of Cornell Warner and Mickey Davis were suddenly logging big minutes. I’d almost feel bad for Kareem if, you know, he weren’t Kareem.
The Verdict: OK, you can clinch the title at home. Your best two players (Kareem and Bobby Dandridge) are totally healthy. You have the best player in the series AND in the world. Can you really blame Lucius Allen and Jon McGlocklin for not taking care of business there? Giving that a four-point Algerian footnote.
16. 2009 Lakers
What Happened: The 65-win Lakers beat Orlando in five for Kobe’s first Shaq-less title.
The Footnote: The defending-champion Celtics were 44-11 when Kevin Garnett injured his knee on an alley-oop in Utah, knocking him out for the season (and leading to Boston’s eventual Round 2 loss to Orlando). With everyone bracing for a Kobe-LeBron showdown, the Magic caught fire in Round 3 and somehow snuck into the Finals with a starting backcourt of Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee. Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee??? Did that really happen? Did I black out for those two weeks?
The Verdict: Garnett’s injury rarely gets brought up with the 2009 Lakers … well, unless you’re in Boston. That would have been a phenomenal Finals rematch. Damn it all a second time.
15. 1965 Celtics
What Happened: The Celtics finished 62-18, squeezed past Philly in the Eastern Finals (thanks to the famous “Havlicek steals the ball!” game) and easily beat the Lakers for their seventh straight title. Yes, seventh straight.
The Footnote: Five minutes into the Lakers’ first playoff game against Baltimore, Elgin Baylor blew out his knee (and was never the same, by the way).
The Verdict: Given how Jerry West blossomed that postseason (11 games, 40.6 PPG), given how well West and Elgin meshed that season (58.1 PPG combined), given that they came within a 10-foot Frank Selvy miss of beating Boston three years earlier, and given that the Logo and Elgin were two of the best 15 players ever in their primes, you could make a pretty good case that, “Yeah, the Celtics dodged a bullet that year.” Then again, Elgin and the Logo NEVER beat Russell in a playoff series. So there’s that.
14. 2003 Spurs
What Happened: The champion Spurs featured Tim Duncan at his apex (playoffs: 24 games, 24.7 PPG, 15.4 RPG, 5.3 APG, 53% FG, 28.4 PER) and that’s about it. David Robinson was just about washed up. Manu and Tony weren’t totally Manu and Tony yet. The league itself was pretty diluted. Oh, and …
The Footnote: Sacramento’s Chris Webber (23-10-5 and second-team All-NBA that year) tore knee cartilage in Round 2, knocking him out of the playoffs and mortally wounding San Antonio’s biggest threat. (The Kings ended up losing to the upstart Mavericks in seven.) In the Western Finals, the Spurs caught a second break when Dirk Nowitzki injured his knee in Game 3, knocking HIM out for the playoffs.
The Verdict: For whatever reason, those Webber/Nowitzki injuries became historical blips and rarely get mentioned. My theory: After such an excruciating Finals (do you realize that New Jersey averaged just 82 points in those six games???), nobody wants to remember anything from those playoffs except for Duncan’s 21/20/10/8 and the magnificent Steve Kerr Game. Regardless, all three teams in this category earned themselves a six-point Tahoma footnote and a complimentary knee brace.
13. 2007 Spurs
What Happened: The 58-win Spurs went 16-4 in the playoffs en route to their fourth title. They had two future Hall of Famers in their primes (Parker and Ginobili), one of the league’s best seven players ever in his last elite season (Duncan: 22-12, 52% FG in playoffs), one of the best coaches ever (Gregg Popovich) and a solid supporting cast (Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, etc.). Even before they swept Cleveland in the Finals, I wrote a column calling them “the best Spurs team ever,” “the second-best playoff team since Jordan retired” and “the most brutally efficient group in years.” For the record, the three best NBA champs of the past 15 years were the ’01 Lakers, ’97 Bulls and ’07 Spurs, in that order.
The Footnote: Big Shot Rob’s last great shot! In the waning moments of Game 4 (Phoenix tying its San Antonio series at 2-2), Horry decked Steve Nash and inadvertently drew one-game leaving-the-bench suspensions for Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in a perplexing disciplinary moment (here’s my outraged column about it). San Antonio eked out Game 5 against an undersized Suns team, then clinched the series at home.
The Verdict: Nobody loved watching the Seven Seconds or Less Suns more than me, and if Nash’s Suns were ever beating Duncan’s Spurs, it was happening that spring. Three things jump out at me, though. First, San Antonio won Game 1 in Phoenix. Great teams never blow Game 1 at home. It just shouldn’t happen. Second, the Spurs led Phoenix by 11-plus points in the fourth quarters of three of the last four games; in the other (Game 5, when Phoenix threatened to go Ewing theory on us without Diaw and Stoudemire), they trailed by as many as 16 before roaring back to win. And third, the Suns had everyone for Game 6 — with their season on the line, no less — and got blown out of the building (trailing by as much as 20 in the fourth quarter). Even though the Suns could have stolen that series, they weren’t better than San Antonio. So I’d almost give this a footnote for the footnote: If anything, the Diaw/Stoudemire suspensions became a little overrated over time.
(Would I ever in a million years say this in front of a large crowd at a Phoenix sports bar? No.)
12. 2002 Lakers
What Happened: The Shaqobe Lakers whupped New Jersey for their third straight title, but not before surviving a seven-game war against Sacramento that was probably the closest anyone came to losing an NBA playoff series without actually losing it. If not for Horry’s Game 4 dagger and a bunch of Game 7 breaks, the words “Maloofs” and “trophy” would have collided. And that’s before we even tackle …
The Footnote: Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers series … quite simply, one of the biggest officiating travesties in any sport. You know it was bad when, years later, some Kings fan turned every shaky call into a 7:34 minute video accompanied by a Coldplay song. Six years later, that travesty gained a second life when Tim Donaghy (a convicted felon and someone who disgraced the sport more than this game ever did, but still) claimed Game 6 was rigged … but trust me, it was just as sketchy when it happened. Check out Roland Beech’s breakdown for all the gory details, or you can even check out my 2002 reaction when I wrote, “from an officiating standpoint, the most one-sided game of the past decade … at least six dubious calls against the Kings in the fourth quarter alone … L.A. averaged 22 free throws a game during the first five games of the series, then attempted 27 freebies in the fourth quarter alone of Game 6 … rumors that David Stern wanted to pull a Vince McMahon and declare himself ‘The special guest referee’ for this game prove unfounded.”
The Verdict: I can’t separate the 2002 title from Game 6’s officiating. The Kings were hungrier that year; the Lakers were running on fumes because the Shaqobe relationship was running on fumes of their fumes’ fumes. With that said … the Kings could have taken care of business in Game 7 at home and didn’t. They only needed one more stop OR one more basket to win the game in regulation; in overtime, they were trailing by two in the final 70 seconds and botched three straight possessions to blow it. Those wide-open, season-killing bricks from Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie shaped Sacramento’s historical résumé as much as Game 6’s shoddy officiating did.
11. 2006 Heat
What Happened: Down 2-0 in the Finals and trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Miami’s Dwyane Wade took over.
A. Wade attempted 97 free throws in six Finals games. That’s a record for a six-game series. He also came within two freebies of tying Elgin’s record (99 FT attempts in the ’62 Finals, a seven-game series).
B. In Game 5, Wade attempted as many free throws (25) as Dallas’s entire team.
C. Miami had a 49-25 free throw advantage in Game 5 AND benefited from the most dubious of calls — Bennett Salvatore whistling Nowitzki’s barely visible nudge on Wade’s potential game-winning shot in OT, just a few seconds after he’d ignored Wade shoving Terry to the ground, and just a few minutes after he looked the other way when Wade bowled over Adrian Griffin to score the game-tying basket in regulation.
The Verdict: We probably let the ’06 Mavericks off the hook historically for caving so mightily (especially in Game 6); we definitely didn’t give Wade enough credit for refusing to allow Miami to lose AND for taking advantage of the whistles (he was just relentless in those last four games); and we definitely didn’t give this particular Miami team enough credit for being a bunch of willful SOB’s (from Riley on down). Don’t forget … Dallas could have taken care of business at home (à la the ’88 Lakers, ’94 Rockets or 2010 Lakers) and failed. I’m giving everyone in this category a 12-point Rockwell Bold footnote.
10. 2005 Spurs
What Happened: Somebody had to win the title.
The Footnote: Actually, there were three! The Artest Melee knocked out what should have been 2005’s best team (the Pacers). Dwyane Wade suffered a rib injury near the end of Miami’s Game 5 victory against Detroit that knocked out Contender no. 2 (the Heat were one win from the Finals). And Joe Johnson broke his face during the playoffs, eventually knocking out Contender no. 3 (the 62-win Suns, who had MVP Steve Nash, an emerging Amar’e Stoudemire and home court heading into the postseason).
The Verdict: It’s difficult to get excited about the ’05 Spurs when they barely squeezed by a seven-man Pistons team that had peaked a year earlier; I was much higher on the Spurs before the Finals. Looking back, they were basically a five-man team: Duncan, Manu (playoffs: 20.8 PPG, 51% FG), Parker (still a work in progress at that point), Big Shot Rob (saved them in Game 5 of the Finals) and Bowen (at his defensive peak). And they caught three massive breaks. Weird season, weird Finals, weird everything. Even my annual 2005 trade-value column survives as a weird reread. Jermaine O’Neal, Andrei Kirilenko and Emeka Okafor in the top 16??? Larry Hughes, Kirk Hinrich and Richard Jefferson in the top 40? Throw in Nash winning his first of back-to-back MVPs, Kobe and Garnett missing the playoffs, Eddy Curry averaging 16 points a game, Isiah Thomas ruining the Knicks, Shaq in Miami, Vince Carter tanking his way out of Toronto and the aforementioned melee and 2004-05 will be remembered as the weirdest NBA season since the Cocaine Era. With apologies to Dan Gilbert, I’m giving that entire season a 12-point Comic Sans MS footnote.
9. 2012 Champ X
What Happened: We don’t know yet.
The Footnote: Rose’s knee injury combined with a condensed 66-game schedule made this postseason more of a war of attrition than anything — that’s why I didn’t even bother making a real Finals pick in Friday’s playoff preview. What’s the point? It’s coming down to The Last Two Relatively Healthy Teams Standing.
The Verdict: If Miami rips through the East, eviscerates the Celtics/Bulls and leaves little doubt on its way to the first title of the “Not One, Not Two, Not Three, Not Four … ” era, then the combined impact of Rose’s injury and the brutal schedule will fade over time. But if it turns into one of those “Man, if the Bulls had Rose, they definitely would have beaten Miami” situations? Much bigger footnote. Stay tuned. We’ll stick 2012 at no. 9 to be safe.
8. 1995 Rockets
What Happened: They won a second straight title behind Hakeem Olajuwon, the best center alive at the time (and one of the 10 best players ever).
The Footnote: Michael Jordan retired in September ’93, returned to the NBA 18 months later, then made that painfully rusty too-much-muscle-from-baseball comeback that never happened. No, really — it never happened. The NBA destroyed the tapes Watergate-style a few years later. That summer, MJ got back into basketball shape and ripped off three more titles before calling it quits and concentrating on loftier goals … you know, like pulling off a Hitler mustache in an underwear commercial or owning the worst team in NBA history.
The Verdict: Hold on, unpopular opinion coming … I don’t love that ’95 Rockets-Bulls matchup for Chicago. Their leading rebounder that year? Scottie Pippen at 5.9. (Remember, the Bulls didn’t add Dennis Rodman until that summer.) Their centers that year? Luc Longley and Will Perdue. In The Playoff Series That Never Happened, everyone remembers Jordan looking rusty against the Magic; nobody remembers Shaq and Horace Grant combining for 47 points and 33 rebounds in Game 5, MJ being less rusty than you think (he averaged 31 a game in that series), or Shaq finishing with 146 points, 79 rebounds and a whopping 81 free throw attempts in six games. Were the ’95 Magic too big for the ’95 Bulls? Sure seems like it.
One more thing: The ’95 Rockets were better than the ’94 Rockets. They basically swapped Vernon Maxwell (a lunatic) for Clyde Drexler (a future Hall of Famer), giving them a top six of Hakeem, Drexler, Horry, Sam Cassell, Kenny Smith and Mario Elie (solid on paper, right?). And that spring, they beat Stockton & Malone (still in their primes), Barkley & KJ (still in their primes), Robinson & Rodman (still in their primes) and Shaq & Penny (at their peak as a combo). Jordan’s shadow looms over those two Houston titles, but if he never retired, that ’95 Rockets team would have been the single toughest out of that 1991-98 run.
(With that said … I’m reasonably confident that the greatest player ever would have figured out something. Hence, we’re giving this a 16-point Harlow Solid Italic footnote.)
7. 1973 Knicks
What Happened: We covered it.
The Footnote: Ditto.
The Verdict: A more blatant injury-related footnote than 2012 (Rose), 2009 (Garnett) or 1965 (Baylor) because Boston was clearly the favorite that year, and also, Havlicek was the league’s best forward by any calculation. (Check out his slew of All-NBA nods if you don’t believe me.) Even the Knicks fans don’t seem overly affectionate about their ’73 crown; the 1970 team gets brought up roughly 15,000 more times. I’m just sayin’. Here’s what Sports Illustrated wrote about that series — I’ll let you decide whether I ranked it too high or too low.
6. 1968 Celtics
What Happened: The Celtics won 54 games, then beat Detroit (in six), Philly (in seven) and Los Angeles (in six) for Russell’s 10th title and first as player-coach. The best case for Russell being greater than Jordan other than rings: Russell’s last two titles happened as he juggled coaching the team and playing for it. Imagine if Kobe led the Lakers to the 2012 title while also coaching them? I’m almost positive this would be a big deal.
The Footnote: The Sixers were 1968’s scariest team, finishing 62-18 and looking just as potent as they did the previous year (when they destroyed the Celtics en route to Wilt’s first title). In retrospect, we should have known they were doomed when Wilt spent the season obsessing over the assists title, which he eventually won. (If the Internet and ESPN were around in the 1960s, Wilt would have broken both.) And then? Fate intervened.
• During the Knicks-Sixers series in Round 2, Billy Cunningham broke his right wrist, costing them their second-best scorer and best set of young legs. The Sixers limped into that Boston series with Wilt (partially torn calf muscle), Luke Jackson (pulled hamstring) and Hal Greer (knee bursitis) all breaking down … giving them something in common with the aging Celtics, who only had Havlicek for young legs at that point.
• On April 4, the day before the series started, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. A crestfallen Russell gathered his Celtics together for a “Should we play Game 1 as scheduled?” vote. They decided to play. But Philly coach Alex Hannum never gathered his team for a vote, sending the Sixers into a spiritual funk (they lost Game 1 by nine). In his surprisingly entertaining 1973 book, Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, Chamberlain wrote, “Like Boston, we were grief-stricken. But we were confused, bewildered and uncertain. It showed that night.”
Now, it’s hard to blame that specific moment for Philly’s eventual defeat — after all, they won the next three games before getting blown out at home (37 for Sam Jones), losing Game 6 in Boston by eight (despite 40 from Hal Greer), then squandering Game 7 at home because a somewhat hobbled Wilt disappeared in the second half (taking just two shots). I’d say Cunningham’s absence had a bigger impact. As usual, Wilt passed the buck for his curious Game 7 performance by writing, “Hal only hit eight of 25 shots. Wali (Jones) hit eight of 22. Matty (Goukas) hit two of 10. Chet hit eight of 22. Those four guys took most of our shots and hit less than a third of them. But I got the blame.” And you wonder why Philly dumped Wilt after the season for 35 cents on the dollar.
The Verdict: You could argue the ’68 Sixers were one of the best teams that didn’t win an NBA title, and that, if you played that season 50 times, they would have won 40 of those times. Then again, Russell and Wilt battled in eight different playoff series … and Russell prevailed in seven of them. Russell finished his career 10-0 in Game 7s and 16-2 in elimination games; Wilt finished 4-5 and 10-11. When in doubt, you always wagered on Russell over Wilt. So I don’t know. I’ll leave the size of this footnote up to you.
5. 1988 Lakers
What Happened: The Lakers won their fifth title in nine years, outlasting a loaded Pistons team by squeaking out Games 6 and 7 at home.
The Footnote: With Detroit going for the kill in Game 6, a red-hot Isiah Thomas sprained his ankle midway through the third quarter, kept going and still finished with a playoff record 25 points in that quarter. The Pistons ended up losing by one despite Isiah’s 41 points, with the Lakers getting the winning points by running a play for 41-year-old Kareem in the final 20 seconds … who, of course, drew a bogus foul on Bill Laimbeer because you weren’t allowed to breathe on Kareem at any point in the 1980s. Kareem’s free throws gave the Lakers a one-point lead, then Detroit had to run their title-winning play for Joe Dumars because Isiah’s ankle had swelled up on him. (Yes, Dumars threw up a brick.) In Game 7, Isiah limped his way to 4-for-12 shooting as James Worthy officially morphed into Big Game James (36-10-16). Even then, Detroit had its chances late — getting screwed on the final play when Laker fans charged the court (and Magic blatantly fouled Isiah) right as the Pistons were trying to get off a game-tying 3. Combined, those two games were probably the most brutal back-to-back defeats in Finals history.
The Verdict: Isiah Thomas was one of the best five players of that entire decade. I have him ranked 24th all-time after Dirk vaulted past him last June. Nobody on the Lakers could handle him when he was humming; in general, quality point guards torched those Lakers teams. (Sleepy Floyd, anyone?) Wouldn’t a healthy Isiah have swung one of those two games? And by the way, I hate both of these teams equally — I’m the Switzerland of Abject Hatred here. I don’t care who should have won. (Dirty secret: I didn’t even watch this Finals when it happened … I was too pissed off that the Celtics didn’t make it.) But 24 years later, it’s hard to believe Detroit didn’t win this series. I’m giving this a 16-point Kunstler Script footnote.
THE MACK-DADDY FOOTNOTES
4. 1978 Bullets
What Happened: Did an aging Bullets team finish 44-38 and somehow win the title? Yes. Yes they did.
The Footnote: That season’s best player (Bill Walton) suffered a mysterious foot injury that eventually got diagnosed as a stress fracture, compromising him in the playoffs, leading to a messy breakup with the Blazers and effectively ruining the next six years of his career. You can’t gloss over the significance here — the Blazers were 50-10 when Walton went down and had just earned a gushing Sports Illustrated feature in which Rick Barry called them “maybe the most ideal team ever put together.” They were so brilliant that (a) Walton (19-13-5, 2.5 blocks, 52% FG) still won the MVP despite missing the last 22 games, and (b) they kept home-court advantage for the playoffs despite going 8-14 down the stretch. Meanwhile, two ugly fights ruined another of Kareem’s prime seasons (the Lakers were semi-loaded that year), and the league’s most talented team (Philly) imploded in a bad-chemistry quagmire. Throw in the budding cocaine epidemic and that season was off the charts on the Weird Scale.
The Verdict: Look, I hate besmirching the greatest moment in Les Boulez history. Those fans have suffered enough. And it’s not like they weren’t talented — the Bullets had two of the best 50 players ever (Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes) and the most underrated player of that era (read Ralph Wiley’s take on Bobby Dandridge). But you can’t think of that ’78 season without thinking of Walton going down. You just can’t. I’m giving this a 24-point Elephant footnote in Blazer red.
3. 1958 Hawks
What Happened: A 41-win St. Louis team beat the 49-win Celtics in six games, with the great Bob Pettit dropping a then-playoff record 50 points in the clincher. Forty-four years later, they play in Atlanta and their P.A. announcer has to scream “Let’s Go Hawks!” to get them to make any noise … but at least they have that 1958 banner, and at least they are one of two teams that ever got the better of William Felton Russell.
The Footnote: With the series tied at one, Russell got knocked out of the second half of Game 3 with a badly sprained ankle (Boston lost by three). He missed Game 4 (a Boston victory) and Game 5 (St. Louis won by two) and played on one leg in Game 6 (St. Louis won by two, with Russell scoring just eight points). I’m curious … do you think the greatest defensive player ever would have (a) swung those last three tight losses, and (b) helped hold Pettit under 50 points?
The Verdict: Just for fun (and because I’m a huge loser), I went through every Hawks-Celtics box scorefrom that 1957-58 season. The Celtics beat St. Louis five of nine times in the regular season, with Pettit averaging 22 points (2.6 less than his season average). In the ’58 Finals, he scored 30, 19, 32 (no Russell down the stretch), 12 (no Russell), 33 (no Russell) and 50 (hobbled Russell). During their Finals rematch two years later, Pettit averaged 25.7 points and scored 22 in the climactic Game 7 … meanwhile, Russell finished with 22 points and 35 rebounds in Boston’s 19-point win. They met one last time in the ’61 Finals, with Boston easily winning in five despite Pettit averaging a 28-16 (during a faster era, but still).
So it’s not like a healthy Russell ruined Pettit or anything. And again, Pettit was one of the 20 best players ever — it shouldn’t be shocking that he won at least one championship. His Game 6 ranks among the most memorable Finals performances, Russell or no Russell; Pettit scored 19 of St. Louis’s last 21 points and made the clinching shot in what might be the greatest moment in Balding Athlete History. Throw in Russell’s durability from 1957 to 1969 — during an era when everyone traveled coach, wore lousy sneakers, played brutal schedules, inhaled secondhand smoke, ate terrible food, carried their own luggage, shared hotel rooms with roommates, didn’t have things like “arthroscopic surgery” or “sleep doctors” and couldn’t make mysterious trips to Germany to fix ailing body parts — and it would have been the flukiest fluke of flukes if Russell made it through that 13-year run without suffering one Finals-compromising injury.
At the same time … if you bested The Guy Who Won 11 of 13 Titles when he was playing on one leg, I’m sorry, you’re getting a big, pulsating, multicolored 28-point Perpetua Tilting MT footnote. Send all complaints to the Footnote Committee. For the record, this was Bob Ryan’s no. 1 pick. And he knows more about basketball than you and I.
2. 1999 Spurs
What Happened: San Antonio won the lamest NBA title ever.
The Footnote: Good lord, where do we begin? The lockout-shortened, 50-game travesty of a season started abruptly in February, after a whirlwind of activity/transactions/signings playing off the reconfigured salary cap … only, unlike in 2012, few of the players remained in shape because they mistakenly thought the season was being canceled, so they spent those months off watching TV, overeating, getting baked, bedding groupies or doing all four of those things at once. (Remember Shawn Kemp gaining 40 pounds???) Three months of hateful, unwatchable, tortuous basketball ensues with a couple of exceptions: The Jazz, Pacers and Spurs stayed in shape during the lockout and even practiced together (it paid off: San Antonio grabbed a no. 1 seed and Utah and Indy had no. 2 seeds), and C-Webb, Vlade and White Chocolate joined forces in Sacramento for a splendidly entertaining Kings team. Other than that? Yeccccccch. The Spurs rode Robinson, Young Tim Duncan and an iffy supporting cast (Sean Elliott, Malik Rose, Jaren Jackson, Avery Johnson and a just-about-washed-up Mario Elie) to an astonishing 15-2 playoff record, which makes no sense even as I’m typing it.
But wait, there’s more! The no. 8-seed Knicks crept into the Finals with help from LJ’s four-point play (on the short list of “worst calls ever”) and Dave Cirilli’s Ewing Theory (which sprang into action after Patrick Ewing went down during the Indiana series). But allow me to reverse the Ewing Theory here for a second — even Cirilli wouldn’t have wanted to battle Duncan and Robinson without Patrick Ewing (the fourth-best center of that decade), especially when Marcus Camby, Chris Dudley and a young Kurt Thomas were New York’s only other big men. And that’s the SECOND-biggest footnote from this series.
The Verdict: You could talk me into this being an asterisk title, but I’m fine with a 36-point Helvetica footnote … as well as pretending the ’99 Finals never happened.
1. 1994 Rockets
What Happened: Houston squeaked out the title by stealing Game 7 in Phoenix in Round 2, throttling the Jazz in five, then barely eking out an ugly seven-game war against the Knicks that we’ll remember for OJ’s car chase and that’s about it.
The Footnote: David Stern suspended Jordan for gambling Jordan retired before the season, leaving behind a talented Bulls team that added Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr, had Scottie Pippen headed toward a career year and cranked out 55 wins anyway. Chicago’s best three guards were B.J. Armstrong, Kerr and Pete Myers that year. Throw MJ in there and … I mean … is that suddenly a 70-win team? 72 wins? 74 wins? How high would you go?
The Verdict: Hakeem the Dream deserved to win at least one championship. (Look at this clip, for god’s sake.) But winning it the season after the league’s greatest player ever briefly and inexplicably retired at the peak of his powers? Come on. That’s earning a 48-point WTF footnote. At least.
Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.
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