July 8, 2021

Will This Year's NBA Finals Winner Be the Worst Champion in Last 30 Years?

The 2021 NBA Playoffs have been exciting but marred by injuries. There's no question the slew of stars who missed games served a humbling reminder of how quickly the landscape can change. The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks aren't complaining about the opportunity to win the Finals, though.

It's possible, if not likely, neither the Suns nor Bucks would have made it this far if not for injury luck. Even these franchises have dealt with setbacks but were able to overcome them to a certain degree. The Suns survived Chris Paul's shoulder injury, and Giannis Antetokounmpo's knee has limited him but not kept him out of this year's NBA Finals.

The NBA is, of course, one of the most storied leagues of all due to the extreme dominance of its best stars. The league hasn't been built on parity thanks to the unique dynamic a five-man lineup features. A dominant team can be built around just two great players and a strong supporting cast, and no other league can say that.

The numerous injuries across the NBA left us with a cool matchup but one lacking overall star power compared to what we've grown accustomed to. Neither the Suns nor Bucks are super teams. 

History will always smile upon a champion but this year's winner is in the running for the worst overall roster in the last 20 years. Will they be the worst, though? Let's put the last 20 champions into buckets.

The All-Timer Tier

The teams: Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-97), Los Angeles Lakers (2000-2002), Miami Heat (2012-13), San Antonio Spurs (2014), Cleveland Cavaliers (2016), Golden State Warriors (2017-18)

This is the tier featuring the all-time teams and players across the last two decades. There's no question the dynasties established with these franchises changed the face of the league. These winners would win the NBA title in the vast majority of other seasons across the history of the league.

The special play of these winners can't be questioned. The Bulls and Warriors are arguably the best teams ever from their respective eras. Cleveland could've won four straight titles if not for the Warriors. The Spurs, Heat, and Lakers played some of the best basketball we'll ever see thanks to their unique starpower.

This year's winner would have no shot at winning more than one game against this premier group.

The Great Teams Tier

The teams: Lakers (2009-10), Boston Celtics (2008), Spurs (2003, 2005), Houston Rockets (1994)

The teams in this tier are still amongst the very best we saw in the last three decades. Each had multiple stars who could carry their team on any given night. The Celtics, Spurs, and Rockets, in particular, will forever keep a soft spot for these champions due to the personalities and style of play each employed.

The league's history can't avoid mentioning these champions. The Lakers had great depth around Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Spurs' young Big 3 was fresh and exciting. The Rockets won right after Michael Jordan retired. 

This year's champions will certainly have a great storyline, but the Bucks in particular are tough to watch compared to this tier and they're lacking the consistency these champions had.

The Suns have a better argument, but still don't have the potential long-term impact on the league like the Celtics or Spurs. 

More About Timing Tier

The teams: Spurs (2007), Bulls (1998), Rockets (1995), Warriors (2015), Lakers (2020)

Who you played to win the title matters for this tier.

The Spurs in 2007 were good but benefitted from playing a weak Cavs team in the Finals. The 1998 Bulls were broken down and on the verge of an ugly breakup as the veterans on the team hobbled to one last title. The Rockets and Warriors weren't nearly as well-rounded and sharp as the other iterations of their core roster in surrounding years.

The 2020 Lakers featured two incredible players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis but also a slew of castoffs and role players who caught fire. The 2021 Lakers struggled to replicate the same magic, in part due to injury, but also because their 2020 run was fluke-ish. 

These champions were good but would've lost to teams in the tiers above theirs. The Suns would be a stronger contender to land here than the Bucks, but having young Deandre Ayton as their third-best player relegates them to the bottom group.

Winners, But Weaker

The teams: Dallas Mavericks (2011), Detroit Pistons (2004), Toronto Raptors (2019), Heat (2006)

Both of the Finals' contestants land here. The Bucks would rival the 2019 Raptors and 2006 Heat as the weakest title team due to Giannis Antetokounmpo's injury, and even a healthy Greek Freak may not save them from ranking so low. The Bucks have failed to dominate their foes and were lucky to survive the Nets in particular.

The Suns would be at the top of this tier along with the Pistons. Both featured star point guards and sharp-shooting two-guards while a good two-way big man anchored the middle of their defense.

The Suns are younger and similarly deep to that Pistons team. There's no way they'd be the worst champion of the last 20 years because of this.

The Bucks, of course, have starpower and depth on paper. The lack of practical success hurts them, though, and would pit them against the Mavericks as an underwhelming champion who had an elite storyline. Giannis coming back to win a title or Khris Middleton dragging this roster to a Larry O'Brien award would be shockingly impressive. 

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