Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Defending A Title and The Significance of 0-2


Losing two consecutive games is nothing for a professional basketball team to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of them (literally), and no team should overreact to consecutive losses. Just last season, the Heat lost five consecutive games at one point and still reached the finals, while the Mavericks had a season-high six-game losing streak in January, but weren't disqualified from winning the title.

Still, when a defending champion opens the season 0-2, with both losses by double figures, it tends to draw a level of attention disproportionate to the amount of press a similar two-game losing streak in midseason would. By now, you've probably read the stat from the Elias Sports Bureau that the 2011-12 Dallas Mavericks are the first defending champion to start 0-2 with both losses coming at home, or the one that they're the first defending champ since the 1953-54 Minneapolis Lakers to open the season with a pair of double-digit losses (and if you hadn't, you just did).

Taking out the various qualifiers, the Mavericks are just the fifth team to win the NBA Championship, then open the following season with consecutive losses, period. So are there any lessons to be learned from the previous four?

2002-03 Los Angeles Lakers
Started: 0-2. Final Record: 50-32. Season Result: Lost in Conference Semifinals.

Coming off a third consecutive title, the Lakers suffered a setback early in the season when star center Shaquille O'Neal put off toe surgery until the start of training camp, forcing him to miss the first 12 games of the season. In his absence, the Lakers were forced to start Soumaila Samake (a real person, I swear) at center in the season opener, then Samaki Walker in the following game. Obviously things didn't work out so well.

The Lakers continued to slump even when Shaq returned, falling to a season-worst 11-19 after 30 games. However, they went 39-13 the rest of the way -- a .750 winning percentage, which translates to about 62 wins over an 82-game season -- and reached the second round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual champion Spurs.

The Lakers rebounded to reach the Finals the following season, but they went six title-less seasons between the three-peat that ended in '02 and the victory over the Magic in '09.



1979-80 Seattle SuperSonics
Started: 0-2. Final Record: 56-26. Season Result: Lost in Conference Finals.

The Sonics had just won the title and had the best attendence in the league, so of course they got to start their title defense with back-to-back road games. In the opener, they faced a Bill Walton-less Clippers team in San Diego, but got torched by a pre-name-change Lloyd Free, and ended up losing by five.

The tale of their second loss, two nights later in Phoenix, is more surreal. The Suns crowd used bright orange towels to distract Seattle's free-throw shooters, and, much to everyone's surprise, it worked. The Sonics shot a dismal 9-of-29 from the free-throw line against the Suns -- a huge anomoly for a team that shot 77% from the line for the season -- and ended up losing by 14.

The slow start had little impact on Seattle's season. They went on to win 56 games, at the time a franchise record, and reached the conference finals, where they were beaten by the Lakers in Magic Johnon's rookie season.

1969-70 Boston Celtics
Started: 0-4. Final Record: 34-48. Season Result: Missed playoffs for first time in 20 seasons.

Before the 1998-99 Bulls (who actually won one of their first two games after the lockout), the '69-70 Celtics were the standard bearers in the "how not to defend a title" category. In the offseason, they lost Sam Jones and Bill Russell to retirement, and Russell also stepped down as coach.

Boston never really found an adequete replacement for Russell in the middle that season. Hank Finkel, who was brought in from the Rockets via trade, filled up about half of Russell's minutes, while holdover reserve centers Jim Barnes and Rich Johnson picked up the rest. All three had below league average PERs, with Johnson barely giving the Celtics replacement-level production. Boston fell from 2nd in the league in defense to 8th, and missed the postseason for the first time since the pre-Auerbach era.

Again, replacing a quality center is not an easy task, even for a team that returns Hall-of-Fame quality talent.

1953-54 Minneapolis Lakers
Started: 0-2. Final Record: 46-26. Season Result: Won NBA Title.

The '53-54 Lakers are much more like the '79-80 Sonics than the other teams on this list. They returned pretty much their entire team from the previous season, but a weird quirk of the schedule had them opening with a long slate of road games (five in a row to be specific). In fact, calling them the "Minneapolis" Lakers probably wouldn't be accurate for this season, since they played almost as many games at neutral sites as they did on their home court. They wouldn't move to Los Angeles for another seven seasons, but they had one foot out the door even in their championship years (to be fair, some of the emphasis on neutral site games was due to the league wanting to showcase star player George Mikan in as many cities as possible in what would turn out to be his final season in the league).

After shaking off the slow start, the Lakers quickly got back to their winning ways, picking up wins in 15 of their next 17 games and finishing the regular season with the best record in the league. They took care of Rochester in the Division Finals, then beat Syracuse in a great seven-game NBA Finals, winning what would turn out to be the franchise's last title for 17 years.

So what's the takeaway from all this? Well, If I were a Dallas fan, I'd be a little concerned that the two teams on this list that struggled the most -- the '02-03 Lakers and the '69-70 Celtics -- were the ones that lost a quality center in the offseason. A lot of people thought Tyson Chandler leving would have a big impact on the Mavs this season, and while I don't want to put too much emphasis on a two-game sample, it appears they may have been right.

What's been particularly galling has been Dallas's defensive efficiency thus far in 2011-12. The Mavs ranked 8th in the league last season, with Chandler manning the middle. The season before, sans Chandler (with a mix of Erik Dampier, Brendan Haywood and others), they were 12th. So far this season, they're 23rd, a stat that comes from the land of Small Sample Size Theater, but isn't particularly comforting.

Also, as much as it pains me to admit this, the move from DeShawn Stevenson to Vince Carter has been a significant downgrade in the defensive department, since Carter is little more than a traffic cone on that end at this point of his career.

There are still 64 games left in the season for the Mavericks, and they're not going to go 0-66 (they're also not going to go 64-2, but that should be pretty obvious). But they are going to need to fix their defense if they want to make a run in 2012.

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