April 20th fell on a Saturday. On that day, the San Antonio Spurs were a day away from facing the Kobe-free Los Angeles Lakers in round one of the playoffs. Bryant may have been out, but the Lakers still had the kind of name power few teams could match: two-time MVP Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard. Some analysts thought the Lakers' star power would be enough to bounce the Spurs from round one, though of course the Spurs were favored by the good majority of NBA observers. Still, the Spurs hadn't set the world ablaze in the playoffs in recent seasons: prior to their WCF run of 2012, the Spurs had won only one playoff round - and zero second-round playoff games - since 2008. It was fair to wonder if 2012 was some sort of anomaly, a last-gasp of playoff throwback success from the team that owned the previous decade.
A rookie guard for the Houston Rockets, Patrick Beverly, entered his (logically enough) first playoffs as, to put it kindly, a role player for the Western Conference's #8 seed Houston Rockets. Beverly logged 713 minutes, the tenth-most on the Rockets roster, averaging less than a quarter and a half of playing time per night. Make that every other night - Beverly only played in 41 games. But on one play in one playoff game played 361 days ago, Beverly may have single-handedly prevented two playoff rematches - the 2012 WCF and 2012 NBA Finals. "That's why they play the games", indeed.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, and Denver Nuggets all established franchise records for wins in an NBA season in 2012-13. Memphis even made the deepest playoff run in their history. But before the 2013-14 season began, all three teams would have a new coach. Makes perfect sense.
Here's a case study in perception for you: which Indiana Pacers team began the playoffs in 2013, and which one began the playoffs in 2014?
SRS (Margin of victory + strength of schedule)
1. 3.63 (8th of 30)
2. 3.34 (9th of 30)
Margin of victory
1. 4.40 (7th of 30)
2. 4.02 (8th of 30)
1. 104.3 (20th of 30)
2. 104.0 (23rd of 30)
1. 99.3 (1st of 30)
2. 99.8 (1st of 30)
1. 0.659 (6th of 30)
2. 0.654 (7th of 30)
1. 0.683 (4th of 30, 1st in EC)
2. 0.605 (8th of 30, 3rd in EC)
The 2014 Pacers improved on last season's performance, albeit slightly, in every category except for Offensive Rating. But one year ago, the Pacers were a young and improving dark horse. On April 21, 2013, the Pacers began a deep playoff run, coming up one game short of the NBA Finals, by winning game one in their first round series against the Atlanta Hawks by seventeen. A year later, the Pacers backed their way into the Eastern Conference's #1 seed - and lost game one against a worse version of the same Atlanta Hawks. Despite their improved play over last season, these Pacers seem less likely to win the NBA championship than last year's version.
Only one NBA franchise has won more than three titles in a row: the Boston Celtics from 1959-66 won eight straight titles. The most recent attempt to join the select company of Bill Russell et al took place in 2003, when the San Antonio Spurs stopped a four-peat by beating the LA Lakers in round two. But there are two ends on a string of titles, and, if not for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the Miami Heat would be going for a fourth straight championship this year. I'm sure there aren't too many Mavericks fans in our neck of the woods, but let's all admit that Dirk and the boys did basketball fans everywhere a great big favor when they beat the post-Decision Miami Heat three years ago.
Denver won a team-record (in the NBA) 57 games one year ago; this year, the LA Clippers did the same thing, right down to the same number of wins. Both teams earned the #3 seed in the West. The Clippers better hope that history stops repeating itself, because after two games against the Nuggets, Golden State went to Oakland with home-court in hand. It only took the Dubs one game to do the same thing in 2014, and that happened despite a subpar game from Stephen Curry. Warrior's coach Mark Jackson is often criticized for...well, lots of things, but no one can deny that his teams are mentally prepared to battle for four quarters. The San Antonio Spurs are 22-6 against Western Conference playoff teams over the past two postseasons. Oklahoma City won four of those games, and Jackson's Warriors won the other two.
The Spurs can bounce back like nobody else. When the Spurs posted a franchise-worst 21-61 record in 1989-89, David Robinson came aboard and the Spurs posted a NBA record turnaround of +35 wins. This stood for seven seasons until, after suffering through a franchise-worst 20-62 record in 1996-97, Tim Duncan joined the club and the Spurs improved by +36 wins. After a meek five-game playoff exit in 1998, the Spurs ripped through the 1999 playoffs at 15-2 en route to their first title. The Spurs rebounded from 53 wins and a first-round KO in 2000 to 58 wins and a spot in the WCF. In 2002, they matched their 58 wins and avoided a sweep against the same Lakers that were closing in on a three-peat. In 2003, they won 60 games and stopped the Lakers while winning banner number two. Despite getting point-foured in 2004 and missing Tim Duncan for the last seventeen games of 2005, the Spurs came back from their crushing 2004 experience with more wins and banner number three. The Spurs hearts got ripped out again in 2006, and yet the very next year they hung the fourth banner. Humiliated in round one of the 2011 playoffs, the Spurs came back the next year and came up two games short of the NBA Finals. They followed that up last season by...you all know what happened. That was one year ago.