Every decade seems to begin with the dawning of a new NBA dynasty. Which of the remaining playoff teams are best positioned for extended success?
Life follows a certain logic. Spring becomes summer becomes fall. Ice freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Fail to pick up after your dog and you will end up stepping in something else’s crap. A lesser-known but no less immutable logic: at the start of every decade, the NBA crowns a new dynasty.
Starting in 1949, the Minneapolis Lakers won five of six championships. From 1957-1969 the Boston Celtics won 11 of 13. The 1970s saw the New York Knicks and L.A. Lakers meet in three of four Finals, with New York winning a pair. The Lakers and Celtics won it all in 1980 and 1981, respectively, setting the stage for a decade of dominance by the dynastic duo. 1991 saw Chicago embark on the first of two three-peats in an eight-year span. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers had a three-peat of their own from 2000-2002. In the summer of 2010, LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach to play with Dwyane Wade and the Miami dynasty began.
At first glance, the idea that there is a new power being born in these playoffs doesn’t make immediate sense. From what loins would another dynasty spring? The last three teams to win it all were all gone before the second round of the playoffs. Golden State’s missed the last two postseasons. Toronto is hardly the same team that they were when Kawhi Leonard was there. Even the nascent LeBron Lakers dynasty was bested by time, injury and Phoenix.
Zoom out for a historical perspective and we see the familiar powers are all missing — of the eight teams remaining, the most recent title among them is Philadelphia’s from 1983. There is a certain inevitability, then, to the idea of something great growing from seemingly nothing. One team’s overthrow is another’s coronation; the old world must die before the new one can be born. What traits do the remaining playoff teams share with prior dynasties? Who among them looks most likely to level up for a period of years?
One commonality among the prior dynasties: they are born of blood and pain. In virtually every case they either overcame a team that had their number for a while or they faced a team vying for their era of dominance. The 1950s Minneapolis champs beat the Knicks in the Finals three years in a row. The1960s Celtics run came at the expense of four different Laker finalists. The Knicks and Lakers of the early 1970s had both known heartbreak at the hands of the Celtics. Every Finals from 1980-1989 featured the Lakers and/or the Celtics, with the two teams winning eight of 10 trophies. Before the Bulls’ title three-peat came a less-celebrated triplet: three straight years knocked out by the Bad Boy Pistons. The Lakers of the late 1990s couldn’t get past San Antonio and Utah until 2000.
Which of this season’s remaining NBA contenders is poised for a decade of dominance?
Several of this year’s contenders have their own stories of woe. Philadelphia’s most famous recent playoff pain was Kawhi’s four-bouncer to eliminate the 76ers two years ago, but their bugaboo has been Boston, who defeated them the year before and after Leonard’s miracle shot. Milwaukee couldn’t get past Toronto on multiple occasions before an embarrassing performance losing to Miami in the bubble. The West’s top seed, Utah, followed consecutive second-round exits in 2017 and 2018 with first-round bow outs the past two seasons. Denver’s series seem bound by law to always run the full seven games as they’ve slowly cemented themselves as a Western power. All these teams have lost enough to know their hunger is real.
In other instances, there are stylistic similarities between today’s wannabes and yesterday’s heroes. The Chicago dynasty of the early ‘90s is remembered for Michael Jordan’s highlights on offense, but those Bulls teams were devastating on the defensive end. Chicago often pressed opponents, taking advantage of the length and athleticism of MJ, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. They were like Dobermans, all wingspan and appetite as they devoured opposing ball-handlers. Milwaukee is somewhat similar, led by the Platonic ideal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan. Between him, Khris Middleton (6-foot-11 span) and Jrue Holiday (6-foot-7), the Bucks hope, as Chicago once showed, that size doesn’t slump.
Both the Nets and the Clippers contain echoes of the Heatles years in Miami, which was in a sense a remake of the Ubuntu Celtics who proceeded them as the East’s big bully. Boston went from 24 wins to 66 and a title after trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair up with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. The Heat went from suffering a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of those Celtics in 2010’s first round to reaching the Finals a year later. The Nets, a 28-54 team as recently as 2018, just completed their best winning percentage since the team played in the ABA. After four years of not getting past the first round, the Clippers won their opening series last year and this year.
This year’s playoff debutante is similar to the NBA’s most recent dynasty. Atlanta, like Golden State years earlier, was built through good drafting and free-agent signings. They’re new to the scene; they’ve never been hurt, never been kissed, making them an innocent and a menace. Led by a scoring and passing maestro in the backcourt, the Hawks are on a roll and appear content to keep on rolling. And should Philadelphia recover from their Game 1 loss to defeat Atlanta? Or someone in the conference finals, or NBA Finals? Then the Hawks will have the pain most great runs are apparently fueled by.
All this year’s remaining playoff teams can make cases for why winning it all would be only the start of something bigger. The 76ers, the Nuggets, the Jazz and the Bucks are all led by brilliant young stars. The Nets and the Clippers each possess an embarrassment of wattage. The Suns and the Hawks can feel confident their success and high-octane style of play makes them more attractive destinations for future free agents.
Of course, the hardest part of winning it all is just that. The most common element among NBA dynasties is winning. All these teams have done that. All these teams still have a long way to go. Keep an eye on them as these playoffs unfold. You may catch a glimpse of the new world being born just as spring turns to summer.