In basketball, all championship teams share a few key traits—and this season, only one squad has them all. Let’s begin by ruining the season for Utah Jazz fans: You’re not winning the NBA title this year. Sorry. You had a plucky off-season, but the ugly truth about the NBA is that the vast majority of teams have no chance—none—of winning the title from opening night.
In the NFL, you can write off only a third of the league, tops. And it’s not unusual for a baseball team to come screaming out of the pack in August and win the World Series. This never happens in the NBA. There are rules for winning a title in the modern NBA—five, to be inexact. This season, only six teams have any hope of taking the trophy, and only one follows all the rules. And it’s not Utah.
1. YOU MUST HAVE AN MVP
To win the championship, it’s not enough to have a young hotshot or a star who might pop and have a monster year. You’ve got to have someone with MVP hardware now—either the regular-season kind or the finals kind. Only one NBA champion this century has won a title without an MVP: the 2003–04 Detroit Pistons, who knocked off a wobbling Shaq–Kobe Lakers dynasty. Today’s NBA is loaded with stars, though, so no one is sneaking through to a title on toughness and teamwork. You need a superstar. Preferably two. By that measure, four teams in the Western Conference make the cut: the Los Angeles Lakers (LeBron), the Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard), the Golden State Warriors (Steph Curry), and the Houston Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook). One team in the Eastern Conference, does, too: the Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo). An exception needs to be made for the Philadelphia 76ers because it would surprise no one if center Joel Embiid wins his first of many MVPs this season. For everyone else, better luck next year.
2. YOU MUST BE CAPABLE OF PLAYING LOCKDOWN DEFENSE
The key word here is capable. Regular-season LeBron James is a terrible defender; postseason LeBron is still the same guy whose signature play was a chase-down block in Game 7 of the 2017 finals. His Lakers roster is filled with vets who know how to pace themselves until the postseason. Then there’s the Clippers, who’ll start four NBA All-Defensive first-teamers, plus the indestructible center Montrezl Harrell. Scoring on the Clips in the fourth quarter will be next to impossible. The same can’t be said of the Rockets, however, who swapped point guard Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook this summer. The move makes the team younger and more explosive, but it’ll be a fatal blow to their defense, which was already borderline. There’s no precedent for winning an NBA title with a defensive backcourt as weak, and often as flat-out indifferent, as Harden and Westbrook will be, which is why the Rockets won’t take home hardware this year.
3. YOU MUST MAKE—NOT JUST TAKE—A HIGH PERCENTAGE OF THREE-POINTERS
Even if the Rockets’ defense doesn’t keep them from a title this season, their three- point accuracy will. The same goes for the Bucks. Last season, the teams both led the NBA in three-point attempts but were just average in accuracy, and it proved to be their Achilles heel. The Bucks lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Raptors, largely because they shot 31 percent from three, while the Raptors shot 37 percent. The Rockets, for their part, set a regular- season record for three-point attempts—but were just 12th in accuracy, prefiguring their playoff defeat to the Warriors, a team that historically shoots threes well. This season, the Rockets and the Bucks will both be worse from three, with the Bucks having lost Malcolm Brogdon, their best three shooter, and the Rockets having replaced Chris Paul, an excellent deep shot, with Westbrook, a terrible one. As a result, both teams will yet again shoot themselves out of the playoffs. The Sixers won’t fare any better. In fact, they might be the worst-shooting team in the playoffs, especially since their best distance shooter, J.J. Redick, left via free agency. So only three teams are still following all the rules: the Clippers, who have shooters all over the floor; the Warriors, who have Steph; and the Lakers, who don’t shoot threes especially well but do have LeBron and Anthony Davis, two of the five best players in the league right now, which will cover for a lot of sins.
4. YOU MUST HAVE A TEAM BUILT TO WEATHER STORMS
Last season, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant to a pulled calf muscle in Game 5 of a tied playoff series against the Rockets, but they still won that game and the next because their margin for error—for injuries, for brain farts, for weird shit—was wider than a freeway. No team this season could weather such a blow, but every team will have to withstand something. Of the three teams left per the rules, the Warriors, in a twist, need everything to go right more than the others do, especially since Durant is now playing for the Nets. Golden State’s entire season hinges on Steph and his 31-year-old ankles, the ones that have already ground through five straight NBA Finals. Forget about an injury in the playoffs—if Steph misses a month of the regular season, the Warriors are screwed. They’ll either be on the road throughout the playoffs, an insurmountable hurdle, even if Klay Thompson returns from an ACL tear (Update: He’s expected to miss the entire season), or they’ll be out entirely. Something always goes wrong, and this season, the Warriors won’t be able to overcome it. Just two teams left: the Lakers and the Clippers.
5. YOU MUST HAVE A FRONT OFFICE CAPABLE OF IMPROVING THE ROSTER
The hardest thing about picking an NBA champ some eight months before the finals, aside from the unpredictability of injuries, is that we’re not watching finished products. In the preseason, we can nitpick flaws with every team—the Clippers need another big man; the Lakers and Sixers need a shooter—but front offices will try to patch a lot of these holes, or at least the good ones will. Of the six teams that have the necessary MVP talent even to get into this conversation, five of them have smart, capable front offices that can tweak a championship roster on the fly. One team does not: the Lakers. If anything, the Lakers can be counted on to muff this part. The Clippers, though, pulled off the coup of the century this summer, nabbing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a single, shocking night. They’re also loaded with shooters and defense, and have depth and past playoff success. Plus, owner Steve Ballmer will spend whatever it takes to win, and Doc Rivers is a great coach.
The rules have ruled: Your next NBA champion is the Los Angeles Clippers. ♦
Devin Gordon is a freelance writer. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and ESPN the Magazine, and his book about the history of the Mets will be out from HarperCollins in summer 2020.
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