How important is it to be in your prime?

by Andrew Kennedy

As the Miami Heat were busy eliminating the Boston Celtics, I got thinking about how it was clear that the Celtics did not have anything left in the tank and were too old and too injured to keep up with Miami.

As someone who was watching the series hoping that Boston would advance because I like watching them play more, before the series even started my biggest fear was essentially what ended up happening.

Things like Kevin Garnett wouldn’t be able to be effective enough on both sides of the court, Ray Allen would be relegated to a jump shooter and not hitting in every game and Paul Pierce would have to carry too large of an offensive load. Even while watching the regular season meetings between the two teams you could kind of see this fate looming. While Boston seemed to always get a ton of good looks, it also seemed like they had to play pretty perfectly to get those looks and it’d be harder in the playoffs.

A big reason why Miami won the series was youth and talent overpowering Boston. They have their best three guys in their prime. It sounds simple but it really allows for them to play more minutes and play them more effectively. When Doc Rivers was forced to bring back Garnett early in the fourth quarter for Game 4, Boston was doomed and Garnett ran out of gas as the game eventually went into overtime.

Miami didn’t have these problems. They could play each of their Big Three 40-plus minutes and not see a noticeable drop off in production. This Boston team may have been better and a few years ago would probably have beaten this Heat team but not this year.

This was one of my biggest issues with LeBron joining Wade in Miami this year. It wasn’t the same thing as the Celtics’ Big Three in 2007. All of those guys were past their primes and on the decline. And it’s not like they were planning it for three years and then one of them gave up in his last game with his team because he knew he’d be forming a super team the next season.

I’m not really mad that LeBron and Bosh went to Miami with Wade, I just feel it was a kind of a cop out and super convenient time to do so because they were all in their primes and would be basically be taking advantage of the rest of the league either being too young or too old and could win a title right away without becoming a great team yet.

And that’s what looks like is happening right now. The Heat are the only serious contender left in the playoffs where their best players are in their primes. Derrick Rose is too young for Chicago, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also a few years away, and Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the 2002 All-Stars in Dallas are definitely past their primes.

Whether or not the Heat are going to come out and play the best basketball, they will have a huge advantage no matter what because of this and what seems like a greater margin for error with what Wade and James can do. Basically they won’t have to reach their potential or even come close to it this year to win it all and that bothers me a lot for some reason.

I’m still not sure just how important it is to be in your prime if you want to win a title. The Celtics did it a few years ago and they were past theirs. The Lakers the last two seasons won while Kobe was closer to his prime five years ago. And going back as far as Wilt, he didn’t win until he was past his prime partly because he was so good in his prime and dominant that it made it near impossible for him to be on a true team until his talent started to dwindle. Now I’ve always thought Wilt was the best comparison for LeBron and thought his career path could mirror Wilt’s but now that LeBron has Wade already, it would be like if Wilt and Oscar Robertson teamed up in 1962 or something.

So I want to go year-by-year and figure out which championship teams had their best players in their primes when they won and what the teams that were their biggest competition had in those same years. I’m going to start with last year and keep going back until 2000 because before that Michael Jordan was so good that it didn’t matter who else was in their prime.

2009-10: Los Angeles Lakers

I already said earlier that Kobe was slightly past his prime over these last two seasons but he was still close to it and fairly young and the great ones usually have longer prime windows. But Kobe’s teammates Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom were all basically in their primes and playing the best basketball of their careers. The biggest competition these years were the Boston Celtics who were on the decline since 2008 and didn’t have a chance in 2009 with Garnett hurt. The Cavaliers looked like the next contender but LeBron didn’t have enough to get over the hump and probably needed one more year to do so, but decided to give up instead.

Sidenote: LeBron saying he couldn’t do it by himself in Cleveland when they were so close and only a few unlucky bounces away from maybe winning a title the last few years has to bother everyone right? I mean they were really close and he was only 25 years old. So he basically said this team is not going to get better and I’m not going to be better. I have reached my prime and thus am giving up. If LeBron stayed in Cleveland with the Lakers and Celtics being too old this year, don’t the 2011 Cavaliers have a really good chance of winning it all this year and aren’t they the favorites?

The Lakers beat Orlando in 2009 but that team wasn’t ready to win a title yet. They only got by Cleveland because they were such a bad matchup for them and Dwight Howard definitely wasn’t at his prime yet, maybe this year or next year he’ll hit it.

In the West, the Lakers beat Denver and then Phoenix in the conference finals to advance to the Finals. Neither of those teams were real threats.

2008: Boston Celtics

The Big Three for Boston were all past their primes with the possible exception of Paul Pierce. Also Rajon Rondo wasn’t at his prime yet so I think it’s safe to say that this was an example of a real team winning a title rather than a team with their best guys in their primes.

They beat the Lakers for the title. Kobe was right around his prime, maybe a bad thing, and Gasol maybe needed another year to be ready to win the title as he was pretty much a no-show for the Finals.

Boston beat Detroit in the conference finals who was definitely at the end of their run and Los Angeles beat San Antonio who was in the same situation.

2007: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs were at the tail end of their run. Tim Duncan was past his prime but Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were in theirs. You could still argue that Duncan was the best in the league this year and Bill Walton said that so it has to be true.

The Celtics and Lakers of next year did not exist yet. The Spurs faced Cleveland for the title who had just gotten over the hump of beating the Pistons but were not ready to make the next jump. LeBron was only in his fourth season and the Spurs simply outclassed them in the series.

San Antonio might not have gotten to the Finals if not for some fortunate breaks including Robert Horry hip-checking Steve Nash in Game 4 of the Western Semis and Nash’s bloody nose in Game 1. This was the year where it really seemed like Phoenix could win it all, Nash had just won two MVP’s before and maybe should have won a third this season.

The Spurs did not have to play the 67-win Mavericks who were bounced in the first round by the Warriors. San Antonio may have been past their days but were fortunate to get by Nash in his prime and not have to play Dirk who was also in his.

2006: Miami Heat

I really don’t know how the record of this NBA season isn’t destroyed in the record books. Miami wins the title as Dwyane Wade shoots 500 free throws in the Finals leaving Dallas stunned.

Dallas takes the huge step this season beating San Antonio in the West Finals. They looked like they would win it all and cement Dirk’s legacy as one of the greatest power forwards ever but were robbed in the Finals.

Miami was one of the worst overall teams to win a title this year. Shaq had a great regular season for them but disappeared by the end of the playoffs. Wade carried the team and played out of his mind in the Finals with the help of the officials. Wade was close to his prime but not their yet this season. It was only his third season and I guess you could argue he played to his absolute potential in the Finals but for the purposes of this article, I’ll say he wasn’t in his prime yet.

The Heat got past Detroit in the conference finals after losing to them the year before. Once again, Detroit was really starting to look done in this series as it seemed like they missed 100 wide open shots and were drained from back-to-back Finals appearances.

Phoenix may very well have also won the title this year if not for Amare Stoudemire being out for the year. They still made it to the Conference Finals and put up a big fight versus Dallas. I remember this year as “The Diaw Year.” Go look up his stats it’s awesome.

2003 and 2005: San Antonio Spurs

I’m grouping these two titles together because Tim Duncan was the best player in basketball and the reason they won each year. They had David Robinson for the end of his career in 2003 but not in 2005. Ginobili and Parker were each getting better by 2005 though and near their primes. They also had Stephen Jackson in 2003 who was very crucial in their run hitting a ton of big shots.

In 2003, San Antonio beat the Lakers in the conference semis. The Lakers were just coming off three straight titles and beginning to have Alpha Dog problems between Kobe and Shaq. Also to be noted was Garnett’s Timberwolves during these years. Very good teams but KG didn’t have it in him to take the team to another level while he was in his prime.

The Spurs beat Dallas in the West Finals. Dirk obviously wasn’t in his prime yet. The East was also so weak these years with the Nets making the Finals in 2003. The Pistons were very good but really just peaked for one season and weren’t good enough to repeat.

It seems that if you have one of the best point guards in the league and in his prime, it may not be enough for a title team. You would need to really surround him with a lot of talent and apparently that formula only seems to occur in Detroit with Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups.

2004: Detroit Pistons

One of the great “teams” to win a title in recent history. All of their starters were in their primes. And they also had Ben Wallace as an all-time defender and Chauncey Billups was one of the elite point guards in the league.

They got past the Lakers in the Finals who added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to Kobe and Shaq. Definite Alpha Dog issues on the team and if not for an injury to Malone, they could have won the series but Detroit seemed destined this season.

The Pacers and Timberwolves were the two teams that lost in the conference finals. Garnett didn’t have enough to get past the Lakers despite being the MVP of the league. The Pacers and Pistons were great rivals and provided a great series in which no team scored more than 50 points in a game, or so it seemed. A real down year for the league and the scoring was brutal all season. Cue rule changes and suddenly a 6-foot-3 white guy starts winning MVP’s.

2000-02: Los Angeles Lakers

The Kobe-Shaq dynasty. Shaq was without question in his prime and no one, not even Todd McCulloch was going to stop him. Shaq was as dominant as any player ever during this stretch. Garnett and Duncan weren’t quite in their primes yet and wouldn’t be able to compete.

The Sacramento Kings were the best competition these years. They seemed like the better overall team but their best guys weren’t on the same level as the Lakers’.

And I think this might be the best example of what could happen over the next few years now. Teams like the Kings may come around and seem awesome and seem like they should win and the same with the Suns a few years later, but unless you have dominant players that are big like Shaq and Duncan or perimeter scorer like Kobe, you’re not going to win a title. You can get lucky one year and the team can overcome superior like the Pistons in 2004 and Boston in 2008 but you’re not going to be a dynasty that way.

That’s what the Heat have. They might never be the best “team” but they have the tools to be a dynasty and it might even start this year even though they’re really not that good. Timing is a huge part of winning in the NBA, actually timing is really everything in life. This was the perfect timing for LeBron and Wade to team up and unless somehow Dallas or Chicago or Oklahoma City can start playing at a level they haven’t reached yet, it looks like Miami will take home the hardware this year.

I stole the following line from Bill Simmons but it’s too good I have to use it here: and now I’m going to wander out into oncoming traffic.