The Order of Things
Like no other professional sports league, the NBA has been dominated by major market teams. The Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls account for nearly two-thirds of all NBA championships. Three teams, 63% market share.
This was never as evident, at least during my lifetime, as it was during the 1990s, when the Chicago Bulls laid waste to the hopes and dreams of millions of fans of the little guys. Year after year, if Michael Jordan was playing, the Bulls were going home with the trophy. Why bother?
They were steamrollers, the keepers of the The System while the Lakers and Celtics cleaned up the mess from their arms race of the prior decade.
The Bulls were the Illuminati and the World Bank and Goldman Sachs and NAFTA distilled into a 12-man roster, and it made for a generally oppressive but ultimately stable and predictable Eastern Conference.
But in 1998, Jordan retired, Scottie Pippen was traded to the Rockets, Dennis Rodman was released, and a void formed at the top. When power structures become uncertain, the unexpected is certain, and with the hegemonic Bulls removed from the picture, the conference’s trod-upon franchises sensed opportunity.
In the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the New York Knicks finished eighth in the conference, yet went to the NBA Finals. Latrell Sprewell led the way before the Knicks received a brisk dismissal by the first iteration of the Spurs’ Twin-Towers-driven dynasty.
The following year, the Indiana Pacers made their first NBA Finals appearance with Austin Croshere playing a prominent role, one that would net him a $51 million contract renewal in the offseason, still a legendary example of the danger of judging a player based on a limited and recent sample.
In 2000-01, the Toronto Raptors made their deepest playoff trips ever, the Milwaukee Bucks reached the conference finals, and the Philadelphia 76ers ventured into the NBA Finals after beating both of them. Like the Pacers before, they were struck down by the mid-threepeat Lakers, and this time Todd MacCulloch was the beneficiary of well-timed strong play on national television, as the New Jersey Nets offered him $34 million to join their side that summer.
Things descended into full-blown madness when the Nets then traded for Jason Kidd, who promptly led New Jersey to two consecutive futile appearances in the Finals, where they were defeated easily by the ever-dominant Lakers and Spurs. I need not remind the reader that the Nets have absolutely no business winning a playoff series.
In the post-Bulls era, the Eastern Conference’s throne-seekers had won a grand total of six games in five years in the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, the traditional powers were, quite frankly, masterfully incompetent.
The Boston Celtics were tolerating an unbelievable 126% increase (285 to 645) in Antoine Walker’s three point attempts, despite the fact that he never broke the 37% accuracy mark. In 2001-02, Walker and fellow heaver Paul Pierce attempted 1165 three-pointers combined, a sum for two players which topped fourteen entire NBA teams that season.
The erstwhile peasant-crushing Chicago Bulls were evaluating draft picks by size alone, weighting their roster with ballast the likes of Marcus Fizer, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry, and after three years in exile, Michael Jordan returned to play for the Washington Wizards, something akin to Bill Clinton being elected president of Malawi.
The System had stretched to its breaking point.
Order was partially restored by the Pistons’ defeat of the Lakers in 2004, Detroit’s first championship since 1990 and the first won by an Eastern Conference team since the superpower Bulls surrendered their weapons. If the 1999-2003 era was an attempted revolution by the Eastern Conference underclass, the 2003-04 Pistons were the blackshirts, the basiji, the hand of history squashing the serfs for their own good, and the metaphor is only strengthened by Detroit’s history of physically intimidating, belligerent play, from Laimbeer and Thomas to Sheed and Ben Wallace.
And then, when the Pacers played the defending champion Pistons on November 19, 2004, we all know what happened. As in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a shot from a crowd ignited years of tension, as the Malice at the Palace spelled the end of the upheaval.
As in all power grabs from the bottom, the serfs had reached too far, and unaccustomed to the rigors and demands of ruling the unstable masses, they had blown the dream in violent fashion. No longer novel and no longer respected, reality’s chain snapped taut and ruthlessly pulled them down.
As the dust settled in the coming years, the East regained its prior form. The Celtics stopped the madness (and badness) by signing a real three-point shooter reorienting their offense. The Bulls found resurgence in a young, durable, Chicago-native point guard. The Miami Heat built a trade surplus to become a stable (if much-maligned) power. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic built powerful teams around sequential #1 overall draft picks.
The story of those who fought was not the same. Among them, only the Knicks currently pose a real threat, having acquired two weapons of fast destruction in Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
The 76ers dwell in questions and youthful idealism tempered by old-school coach Doug Collins. The Bucks and Raptors were content to disarm in exchange for amnesty.
The Pacers and Nets have not made a sound (aside from that whole Russian owner thing).