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The validity of “Championship DNA”

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An oft-used phrase by one of the greats does not always lead to an NBA title.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

At least once every postseason, LeBron James slips his “we have championship DNA” phrase into a postgame interview. Usually while explaining how he and his team overcame some seemingly insurmountable obstacle to grab a necessary win.

He’s used the phrase to explain other teams, like he did last month when the Toronto Raptors were seconds from going down 3-0 to the Boston Celtics. A last second shot by OG Anunoby from a stellar pass by Kyle Lowry kept them alive and took the series instead to 2-1.

But what is championship DNA and where does it come from? And what makes LeBron James so sure he has it?

There is no doubt LeBron James is a great player, one of the greatest over his time playing. But he has a record of 3-6 in Finals performances. That DNA would suggest he can get a team — any team — to the Finals. But pulling the trigger may not be his strong suit.

So is championship DNA accumulated when a team wins a single championship, or does it require years of repeated success? Does it belong to the franchise, the players, or the coach? And will it always give a team an upper hand?

Does championship DNA belong to the franchise itself?

The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have a combined thirty-three championships including dominance of the 1980s. Does being drafted by the Lakers and simply putting on the jersey better prepare a rookie for a successful postseason run than say, being chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers?

The most recent team with celebrated consistency are the Golden State Warriors who made five consecutive Finals appearances. They won in 2015 by defeating an injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers who consequently knocked them out the following year with a healthy version of the same line-up. Without Kevin Durant, their window would most likely have closed at the end of 2016. So did the Warriors have synthetic DNA, or does it belong to Kevin Durant?

Does the DNA belong to the players?

Without Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs may have never won a championship. Without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the aforementioned Lakers and Celtics may have had shorter runs during their dynasty eras. And no version of a LeBron James ball club would have hardware without him. So does championship DNA belong to the people who truly run the team? Is it a “mine” as opposed to an “ours”?

Does it belong to the head coach?

Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich all led teams to repeated rings. So does that mean that Don Nelson had no championship DNA despite being the winningest regular season coach in history? And could the Spurs have won with Larry Brown at the helm? Would Michael Jordan have continued to be knocked out of the playoffs year after year by the Detroit Pistons if Phil Jackson had never arrived?

So who really has an edge because of Championship DNA?

There are four teams currently making their push to the NBA Finals. Three have an argument on why DNA is on their side.

If a combination of franchise and players give you a bump, then the Lakers must be in the best position since (a) the Lakers have won sixteen titles, and (b) they have LeBron James (and J.R. Smith, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, and JaVale McGee if it does indeed belong to all).

If it’s titles, the Celtics have seventeen rings out of twenty-one appearances, that’s an 81% winning record, but only a single title this millennium.

By contrast, the Heat only have three NBA Championships, but they all took place over the last fourteen years and still have Erik Spoelstra, the head coach of those title runs. Then again, they had LeBron James. And he’s on the Lakers. The Heat do retain one player from those titles in Udonis Haslem as well as adding former MVP Finals Andre Iguodala. While they combine for six rings, they are have a combined age of seventy-six-years-old.

Is it possible championship DNA cultivated from a spark, nurtured, and developed in a vacuum. Each a microcosm of a particular season. Which would mean that although the Lakers, Celtics, and Heat all have titles, none have been won this year.

This season, a team has emerged who has defied the rules of postseason exits by coming back not once, but twice, from a 3-1 deficit.

The Denver Nuggets have a young core, marquee players, a supporting bench, a solid head coach, and nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. They take losses in stride and create a plan of attack that has knocked out the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers (Doc Rivers and Kawhi Leonard, how’s that for DNA?) with their backs against the wall.

The Nuggets took a terrible game 1 loss against the Lakers, but as fans have learned, don’t count these guys out too quickly. Their stamina in Game 2 was only bested by an Anthony Davis buzzer-beater. A millimeter difference between an even series.

We may be witnessing the formation of a new double helix in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Enjoy the playoffs, basketball fans.


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