Rare to Repeat
The most memorable NBA champions are more than just one-hit wonders
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs have combined to win eight of the past 11 NBA championships, but it would be understandable if you had a hard time believing the Spurs have won as many titles as the Lakers over the past two decades.
It's not simply because the Lakers play near Hollywood and the Spurs play near the River Walk. It's because the Spurs were never able to repeat as champions. Since the late 1980s the true mark of a legendary team isn't just to win one title or a title every other season; it's to complete the back-to-back or the more elusive three-peat.
It's the challenge currently facing the Lakers, who are trying to avoid being the NBA's latest one-hit wonder.
A time when winning consecutive championships seemed to be commonplace instead of the rarity it has become today.
When the 1987-88 Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons to win back-to-back championships, they became the first NBA team to win consecutive titles in 18 years since the Boston Celtics won the championship 11 out of 13 years from 1957 to 1969.
After the Lakers broke through the back-to-back wall they ushered in a 15-year period in which every NBA champion except for the 1999 Spurs (you know, the 50-game season team Phil Jackson always puts an asterisk next to) won consecutive titles.
The Lakers won in 1987 and 1988, the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990, the Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1993, the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, the Bulls from 1996 to 1998 and the Lakers from 2000 to2002.
No NBA champion, however, has repeated since the Lakers completed their three-peat in 2002, and it has been five years since the champion has even returned to the NBA Finals the next season.
"It's harder; the game has changed a lot over the years," Fisher said. "Teams don't build over time anymore. Our team that won three straight started to be built in '96 and '97 and it was a three- to four-year process of getting to get to where you become a champion. Now teams are making moves over one summer and saying they want to win a championship right now. So there are a lot more teams throwing themselves into the mix of making trades and signing free agents and moving guys around to get to the top of the mountain."
No coach knows more about winning championship than Jackson, who has 10 rings as the coach of the Lakers and Bulls and two more as a player with the Knicks, and he realizes how hard it is to win consecutive titles every time he looks across the court when playing the Spurs and sees Duncan and Popovich. While Jackson has never won just one stand-alone title as a coach, having completed three separate three-peats before winning last season's championship, Popovich and Duncan have never repeated despite winning four titles.
"It's a tall task. People don't really understand how tall a task it is to win back-to-back," Jackson said. "It's very difficult. The challenge is the duration of the season, and the pressure of playing every single night wears and fatigues the players physically, mentally and emotionally. It's a tough task. People think the Spurs were one of the best teams of the decade and they were never able to win back-to-back championships and that does say something about the difficulty of it."
Popovich believes there were a variety of factors that conspired to keep the Spurs from going to consecutive NBA Finals despite winning four titles in nine years.
"There are a lot of good teams and you have to be fortunate, you have to be healthy and you have to get some great calls along the way," he said. "You're competing against a lot of good teams. It's not easy."
A look at each NBA champion since 2002 and how they fared the following year.
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"I always thought that was bulls---," he said. "You do or you don't. There are always reasons why you do or why you don't, but I've never taken the time to intellectually figure it out. I don't care."
Since Popovich is too busy trying to avoid the eighth seed in the playoffs and a first-round date with the Lakers to worry about the difficulty of repeating as champions, maybe we can help him out a bit. The easiest reason is the team is just plain different even if it looks the same. For example, not only did Trevor Ariza trade places with Ron Artest, but Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar think and act as if they should play more minutes, while other players like Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton are constantly injured.
"We're a different team, that's the most obvious answer," Fisher said. "Every team is different. Each year you come back, even when you come back with the same personnel there's improvements in guys' games, guys are stronger, guys want to play different roles. There are a lot of different things to manage year in and year out. We have relatively the same personnel but we're different than last year."
The other reason is the production of the team drops because of a variety of factors, including players leaving, new players needing to be incorporated, injuries depleting the depth and a natural apathy that goes along with having already won a title the season before.
Nearly every NBA champion since 2002 has seen a drop in its overall point production and the production of its bench the following season.
"It's definitely a process and it's not easy to do what we're trying to do," Fisher said. "It's the reason why as dominant San Antonio has been the past 10 or 11 years, they didn't ever win back-to-back. What we did earlier in the decade in 2000, 2001, 2002 was special because there weren't any more repeat champions. This is not something where you just wake up and decide you want to win another championship and it's just supposed to happen."
The Lakers for much of this season have played like a team that thinks it will be able to wake up one day and flip a switch and play like champions with the intention of repeating. After taking one step forward and snapping a two-game losing streak by beating the Utah Jazz 106-92 on Friday, the Lakers took two steps back by getting blown out by the Spurs 100-81 on Sunday.
Jackson, however, doesn't seem too concerned about his team despite its recent performances, recalling a similarly apathetic team that ended up winning a championship.
"There's been a lot of different championship runs and I've seen them all and I've seen a lot of different types," Jackson said. "This reminds me of the 2001 vintage we had here where we came out of the year at 56-26 and struggled and then got some momentum. That's to be expected. Every team has their own personality."
The problem with Jackson's comparison is the 2001 Lakers won their last eight games of the season before going 15-1 in the playoffs. This Lakers team has lost four of its past six games with only five games left in the season and won't likely be sweeping past anyone in these playoffs. Fisher, however, still thinks the Lakers have the players and coaches to right the ship and do something that hasn't been done since they completed the three-peat in 2002.
"We have a coaching staff that's the best in the business at doing it and we have players who have been in this situation before," Fisher said. "Regardless of what's going on today we feel like we're going to figure it out."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.