On April 15, 2017 sixteen teams will embark on a quest for the most elusive prize in all of American professional sports:
The NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy.
To win the NBA title (with a very few exceptions) you must have one of the top 5 players in the league. With the omnipresence of league expansion and the salary cap, it’s nearly impossible to acquire an elite talent like a Kevin Durant outside of the draft. Going further, teams have to surround their superstars with some of the best supporting players in the league, the team must have a good to great coach at the helm, the team must be a top ten defense, and before you even get to the title you’ve got to have years of roster stability and shared experience (or “sweat equity”), because there truly are no shortcuts to greatness.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the squad has to have the luck of the Irish in terms of health to win four grueling playoff series that have a potential to go seven games!
In fairness to the other major sports in the United States — MLB, NHL and of course the NFL — a team isn’t going to get a sniff of a championship without talent, coaching and health. But with smallest rosters of the four major sports, the impact of one player supersedes that of any other player in a competing sport—this is what makes the NBA unique. On any given Sunday there are 53 active players ready to suit up for each NFL franchise. A Major League Baseball club carries 25 players on the active gameday roster. The NHL requires 23 live bodies.
Now compare that to “The Association”.
On a random regular season night in the NBA, a team will only play about 10 of a maximum 12 active players (15 are held on the roster, but only 12 dress on a given night). That number drops to nine or eight at the most for during the championship rounds of the playoffs. For the uninitiated, the reason for this is to give a team’s best players the most minutes possible to grab the victory. (Leave it all on the floor!) If the Golden State Warriors make it to the Finals, as they should, you can bet your bottom dollar that Steph Curry is going to play close to 40 of 48 minutes every game.
The fact of the matter is the nature of the game of basketball is the core reason why winning the NBA championship is so difficult. There isn’t another team sport that can be completely taken over in all aspects of the game by a single player like basketball. This also explains the lack of year-to-year turnover of title contending NBA teams relative to the other three major sports. In each of the past six finals we’ve seen LeBron James cement his status as both the best player in the world and one of the greatest athletes of all-time, absolutely owning the court from both offensively and defensively.
With a swing of the bat the two-time American League Most Valuable Player Mike Trout can change the outcome of a game…but he only gets four chances a game. The same can be said for literally every other hitter in the lineup.
As much as we all love to discuss how QB “X” played vs QB “Y”, they don’t actually play defense— if they did I’m sure Tyrod Taylor would be the best at the position. NFL football is some of the most violent activity you’ll see this side of an octagon, but the last player to truly impact the game in all phases was Sid Luckman!
In the NHL you could have the goal scoring prowess of a Wayne Gretzky clone who was raised by Jaromir Jagr and trained in the art of love by Gordie Howe, and you’d still be a “Ringless Randy” without a replacement level goalie and a good defense behind you.
In fact when you combine the prerequisite talent requirements for the NBA championship and the seven game series playoff format you can basically eliminate the drama inducing, “hottest team coming into the playoffs” factor that has propelled many a team to a Super Bowl over the years. The “HTCITP” is usually a wild card that has gotten its players back from injury, but it can also be a team that’s avoided serious injury most of the season. Being “hot” is huge for baseball pitching, which is a key factor in playoff success. In the NBA the “HTCITP” might be a fun story down the stretch, however there’s a reason why there have been only five instances of an eighth seed upsetting the one seed in the history of the NBA.
No disrespect to all of the champions out there past, present and future, but let’s take just a moment to appreciate the nearly impossible task of becoming an NBA champion as these 16 teams begin their quest for immortality.