The Lessons Learned From the Past Four NBA Champions

THE NBA’S LATEST champion was crowned after Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks outlasted Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks won their first title in exactly 50 years (and behind 50 points from Antetokounmpo), instantly becoming one of the greatest, most prophetic coincidences in sports history.

The Bucks’ victory, in many ways, was unpredictable: they probably should have lost in the 2nd around against Brooklyn, and they were one of the few teams to remain relatively healthy in the postseason. However, they also had a transcendent superstar talent, two All-Star level talents, and a strong supporting cast, which leads me to believe that they, in theory, still could have won the title even if every other team was healthy.

Before we discuss the lessons that the Bucks taught the rest of the NBA, we must first discuss two concepts that pertain to the modern NBA: the league is normative and reactive.

The NBA is normative, meaning it establishes and follows certain norms, because at various times in league history, certain trends have dominated the way teams constructed their rosters. Think about the modern NBA, where, in the pursuit of championships, many teams turned to “pace-and-space” or “five-out” lineups predicated on three-point shooting — this trend continues today.

The league is also reactive because, at the end of each season, teams react to the championship winner. In other words, contenders will almost always see the latest NBA champion as the “team to beat,” and they construct their offseason moves accordingly.

As we head into the offseason, there is one pressing question that must be asked: how will the Bucks’ victory affect the rest of the league? Throughout league history, each new NBA champion has taught valuable lessons about roster construction, offensive ideologies, and every other aspect of the sport.

Looking back at the past four NBA champions, there are many lessons to be learned — both in how these four teams won their titles, and how the rest of the NBA reacted to their victories.

The 2017–2018 Golden State Warriors

The 2017–2018 Warriors had a fairly turbulent season, as was the norm for most of the Kevin Durant era, as Steph Curry missed many games with multiple injuries.

Golden State also played mediocre defense all season, a sign of the fatigue that their quest for a second consecutive title (and fourth straight NBA Finals) had taken on their veteran-laden roster.

Also, as is the case with a roster that has four All-Stars, their roster (outside of Andre Iguodala) was a collection of unproven young players and old veterans who played on near-minimum contracts.

Still, with only one true competitor in the Houston Rockets, the Warriors fought through their mental and physical fatigue to dominate in the first two rounds of the postseason. In the Conference Finals they (probably) should have lost to the Rockets, who were the better team throughout the season, but due to heroic performances from Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, they prevailed against an ailing Rockets team in seven games.

In the NBA Finals, the Warriors faced a heavily flawed Cavaliers team, and after persisting through LeBron James’ 51-point Game 1 performance, they faced little resistance en route to their second straight title. After outlasting the Rockets, not many were surprised by the Warriors’ title, which cemented them as an NBA dynasty.

How the league reacted to the Golden State Warriors:

  • To beat the Warriors, teams realized they needed multiple stars and a roster that was suited to a perimeter-oriented style of play. The Rockets, for instance, spent the entire 2019 regular season playing a switch-everything scheme and a three-point based offense in preparation for their eventual rematch with Golden State.
  • Some teams, who were on the edge of being a contender but also on the verge of mediocrity, either fully committed to contending or rebuilding in the wake of the Warriors’ dynasty. Examples include the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors.

The legacy of the Toronto Raptors’ championship team begins in the front office with Masai Ujiri, the team president who traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.

In hindsight, the move was an overwhelmingly easy decision. But at the time, he traded an MVP candidate who was a fan favorite in DeRozan for a disgruntled, enigmatic star in Leonard (who gave no promises that he would resign in Toronto as an impending free agent).

But Ujiri’s moves didn’t stop after the Leonard trade. He also moved assets, including Jonas Valančiūnas, a steadily improving center, for Marc Gasol, the longtime Memphis Grizzlies center and former Defensive Player of the Year. In trading multiple players for Gasol, Ujiri broke up his team’s famed bench lineup which, the year prior, made headlines for their outstanding net rating. In the playoffs, this proved to be a wise move, as a downfall of the 2017-2018 Raptors was their reliance on 5-man bench units against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.

Come playoff time, the Raptors settled on an 8-man rotation, with only Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet receiving regular minutes off the bench; this was in stark contrast to the large rotations that Dwayne Casey would play.

The Raptors also continued a trend in NBA history, as they were one of the best teams from start to finish. While many contenders try to flip a proverbial “switch” come playoff time, the Raptors are proof in the value of playing consistently high-level basketball throughout the regular season.

They also, for better or worse, became the pioneers of “load management,” as their aggressive resting program for Kawhi Leonard set an example that other teams are sure to follow in the future.

Lastly, the final piece of the 2019 Raptors’ legacy has to be their coaching, as Nick Nurse’s creative schemes became legendary throughout Toronto’s playoff run, with 2–3 zone and a “box-and-one” scheme being two profound examples of Nurse’s unconventional strategies.

How the league reacted to the Toronto Raptors:

  • In the 2019 season, the Sixers reacted to the Leonard and Gasol trades by trading for not one, but two stars on expiring contracts in Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris.
  • Likewise, teams to this day go “all-in” with major moves at the trade deadline, such as when the L.A. Clippers traded most of their limited future assets on Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, and Rajon Rondo.
  • However, due to the fact that Leonard subsequently left the team in free agency, the Raptors’ influence on the league was limited.

The 2019–2020 L.A. Lakers

The L.A. Lakers, from start to finish, were the best team in the NBA in 2020.

They dominated defensively, had two all-world superstars, and had a strong locker room with great camaraderie. Though their team was initially criticized for their lack of overall talent behind James and Davis, most of their role players had moments of brilliance in the season.

They also drew the ire of some pundits when they signed Frank Vogel, fresh off of a disappointing stint with the Orlando Magic, to be their new head coach. Yet, Vogel coached the team masterfully: he didn’t start an aging Rajon Rondo, but confidently backed Rondo’s postseason ability (which heavily payed off in the playoffs), and he managed Anthony Davis’ preference to not play center in the regular season well.

L.A., in stark contrast to the trend of small-ball, perimeter-based lineups, dominated games by playing elite defense, attacking the basket, and having a physical advantage over most of their opponents.

They also proved that defense wins games in the regular season, as their inconsistent offense was buoyed by an elite defense that never wavered. Come this season, teams like the Philadelphia 76ers revealed that they used the Lakers’ championship as motivation to play elite defense during the regular season.

In the NBA Bubble, Vogel optimized his lineups to suit his matchups, such as moving Markieff Morris ( a highly valuable buyout signing) to center against the Rockets and exclusively playing Anthony Davis at center in Game 6 against the Heat.

How the league reacted to the L.A. Lakers:

  • The Utah Jazz, in reaction to the Lakers’ dominant play against them during the season, spent their midlevel exception (a highly valuable asset in free agency) on Derrick Favors — they reportedly planned on playing Favors-Gobert lineups to counter the Lakers’ size in the frontcourt. Other teams followed suit, such as the Boston Celtics, who spent their midlevel exception on centers like Tristan Thompson.
  • Furthermore, as a counter to the Lakers’ star power with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, many teams went “all-in” with major trades, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, and the Brooklyn Nets.

The 2020–2021 Milwaukee Bucks

While the Bucks’ title may have been unexpected, this team possessed many of the traits of a traditional title team. They have an all-time great superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great co-star in Khris Middleton, and one of the best perimeter defenders in recent NBA history in Jrue Holiday.

What was lost in the waves of injuries, COVID-19 related absences, and other extenuating circumstances of this season was this: behind the scenes, Milwaukee made all of the right moves to position themselves to win this title.

Milwauke etraded most of their assets for Jrue Holiday, a move which only looks better in hindsight, as Eric Bledsoe has declined tremendously recently. They also traded a first round pick for P.J. Tucker, whose defensive versatility was paramount to their defensive success in the 2021 Playoffs.

Milwaukee has had more dominant regular seasons: they were a 60 win team in 2018–2019, and even more dominant in 2019–2020 until the NBA Bubble. But, to Coach Mike Budenholzer’s credit, who has been maligned in the past for not making adjustments in the playoffs, Milwaukee willingly sacrificed regular season victories to experiment with different defensive schemes.

They tried lineups with Giannis at center, they tried switching on defense, which directly contradicted the ultra-conservative drop coverage that had become synonymous with their team, and they tried lineups with Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez. While these strategies weren’t optimal for winning regular season, they paid off massively in the postseason.

To beat the Nets, Milwaukee had to switch defense, to compensate for Antetokounmpo’s knee injury, Milwaukee had to play lineups with Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez, and to defeat the Suns, they had to play lineups with Antetokounmpo at center.

For all of the inconsistency that surrounded this team, from Antetokounmpo’s struggles at the line to Holiday and Middleton’s inability to be consistent as scorers on a game-to-game basis, they don’t receive enough credit for the adjustments they made on a series-by-series basis that ultimately won the NBA championship.

How might the NBA react to the Milwaukee Buck’ playoff run?:

  • Stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo will immediately become a priority. The Suns clearly weren’t equipped to guard the 6’11” forward (who averaged over 40 points per game against them in the regular season), but they also had above-average defenders in their frontcourt and still found no answers for the “Greek Freak.”
  • There is no longer a definitive strategy for defeating this team. Before the NBA Finals, I picked the Suns because I didn’t expect Milwaukee to adjust their pick and roll scheme drastically enough to halt the Suns’ perimeter attack. Through two games, this scenario played out. Yet, by the end of the series, Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attacked devolved into isolations, mostly because of the Bucks’ defensive adjustments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *