NBA Fact or Fiction: Can the Thunder Win It All Without Playoff Scars?

By | March 17, 2024

Each week during the 2023-2024 NBA season, we’ll dive deeper into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an effort to determine whether the trends going forward will be more based on fact or fiction.

[Last week: Is Nuggets-Celtics the NBA Finals we deserve?]

This week’s topic: The Thunder don’t need any playoff scars

There once was a recipe for the NBA title, a recipe that the Chicago Bulls followed into a dynasty starting in the 1980s.

They drafted Michael Jordan in 1984, made their first playoff appearance with him a year later, lost a pair of series in the first round to the three-time champion Boston Celtics, reached the second round in 1988 where they won the first of three consecutive games lost. series for the two-time champion Detroit Pistons, including back-to-back conference finals, and broke through in 1991, defeating the five-time champion Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

It was a slow build-up. They called them playoff scars, and almost every champion developed them. It may be the era of player empowerment, but title winners still follow this recipe unless they acquire LeBron James.

The Minneapolis Lakers won the 1948 NBL and 1949 BAA Championships before winning four of five titles to launch the NBA in the 1950s. The league’s next six champions – the 1951 Rochester Royals, the 1955 Syracuse Nationals, the 1956 Philadelphia Warriors, the 1957 Boston Celtics, the 1958 St. Louis Hawks and the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers – each lost to a championship team before beating another to become one.

(We define “first champions” here as a core’s first title together. Bill Russell’s Celtics won for the first time in 1957. The Celtics of the 1970s, 1980s, and 2008 were different iterations, each with their own firsts.)

Likewise, the New York Knicks lost to the eventual champions three years in a row before winning in 1970, following Russell’s retirement from the Celtics. All but five of the NBA’s 33 new champions have lost to another champion within four years of winning their own: the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, the 1981 Celtics, the 2004 Pistons, the 2008 Celtics and the Lakers from 2020. Everyone had a very good explanation for this:

  • Blazers from 1977: Bill Walton played more than 50 games for the first time in his career, and the ABA-NBA merger gave his Blazers two starters, including All-NBA forward Maurice Lucas, in the 1976 offseason.

  • 1981 Celtics: They drafted Larry Bird in 1979, reached the 1980 Eastern Conference finals and then added both Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to their championship core in a single draft-eve trade.

  • Pistons from 2004: They followed the traditional path to a championship, but didn’t lose to a former champion on their way to the top — from the 2000 first round to the 2002 second round and the 2003 conference finals. (They also acquired four-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace at the February 2004 trade deadline.)

  • Celtics 2008: Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in the summer of 2007.

  • Lakers 2020: LeBron James and Anthony Davis joined in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

If you don’t have the scars of the playoffs, you either need a one-time merger or two new Hall of Famers to become champions overnight. As far as I know, that didn’t happen this season.

The 1950s Celtics lost three straight series to the one-time champion Syracuse Nationals, added Russell and then won a title in 1957, defeating the Nationals and eventual champion St. Louis Hawks. Since then, rookie champions have averaged 28 playoff games in the four years prior to victory.

Throw away the merger of the Blazers and bubble Lakers — the only two teams to go from four straight playoff absences to a championship — and the average number of playoff scars rises to 30. All Celtics, except the ’08 Celtics, won at least one playoff series in the four A year period before breaking through, although Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce had already made a combined 121 playoff appearances, each making a trip to the conference finals.

The only unnamed team to play in fewer than 18 playoff games in the four years prior to winning its first title was the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks. They were an expansion team in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called a year later on, losing to the eventual champion Knicks in the 1970 Eastern Conference finals and beating another eventual champion, the Lakers, en route to the title in 1971. All they needed was one of the three greatest players in the history of the NBA to speed up the process, and even then they needed experience. See James’ 2012 Miami Heat and 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, who had to suffer losses to the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks and 2015 champion Golden State Warriors to develop some serious scars.

While player empowerment has recently produced instant contenders, most novice champions still follow this recipe. In four seasons prior to the 2021 victory, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks played 38 playoff games, won three series and appeared in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. Similarly, last year’s Denver Nuggets played 48 playoff games and won four series from 2019-2022, losing to eventual champion Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference finals. Scars.

There’s a team at the top of the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who haven’t appeared in the playoffs since 2020, when they lost a first-round series to the Houston Rockets. Of that selection, only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Mike Muscala remain. Gordon Hayward’s sixteen playoff starts are the most of any player in OKC’s playoff rotation. SGA, Dort and Isaiah Joe are the only others with a hint of playoff experience.

The Thunder could win. SGA may be an all-rounder. But a title run for OKC would be unprecedented. The same can be said for the Minnesota Timberwolves. And there’s no shame in getting scars. Losing to the reigning champion Nuggets this season could be the stepping stone they need to win in the future.

Provision: Fiction. The Thunder need playoff scars.

Oklahoma City Thunder trio Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have played 11 playoff games together.  (AP Photo/Darren Abate)Oklahoma City Thunder trio Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have played 11 playoff games together.  (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

And, just for fun, your four-year playoff scar leaders heading into this year’s festivities…

(Playoff games in parentheses. Playoff series wins are in bold.)

Miami heat

  • 2020: EC1, ECS, ECFNBAF (21)

  • 2021: EC1 (4)

  • 2022: EC1, ECSECF (18)

  • 2023: EC1, ECS, ECFNBAF (23)

  • Total: 66 playoff games, eight playoff series wins

Boston Celtics

  • 2020: EC1, ECSECF (17)

  • 2021: EC1 (5)

  • 2022: EC1, ECS, ECFNBAF (24)

  • 2023: EC1, ECSECF (20)

  • Total: 66 playoff games, seven playoff series wins

Denver Nuggets

  • 2020: WC1, WCSWCF (19)

  • 2021: WC1WCS (10)

  • 2022: WK1 (5)

  • 2023: WC1, WCS, WCFNBAF (20)

  • Total: 54 playoff games, six playoff series wins

Milwaukee Bucks

  • 2020: EC1ECS (10)

  • 2021: EC1, ECS, ECF, NBAF (23)

  • 2022: EC1ECS (12)

  • 2023: EC1 (5)

  • Total: 50 playoff games, six playoff series wins

  • 2020: (0)

  • 2021: WC1, WCS, WCFNBAF (22)

  • 2022: WC1WCS (13)

  • 2023: WC1WCS (11)

  • Total: 46 playoff games, five playoff series wins

Los Angeles Lakers

  • 2020: WC1, WCS, WCF, NBAF (21)

  • 2021: WK1 (6)

  • 2022: (0)

  • 2023: WC1, WCSWCF (16)

  • Total: 43 playoff games, six playoff series wins

Philadelphia 76ers

Warriors of the Golden State

  • 2020: (0)

  • 2021: (0)

  • 2022: WC1, WCS, WCF, NBAF (22)

  • 2023: WC1WCS (13)

  • Total: 35 playoff games, five playoff series wins

Dallas Mavericks

Atlanta Hawks

New York Knicks

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • 2020: (0)

  • 2021: (0)

  • 2022: WK1 (6)

  • 2023: WK1 (5)

  • Total: 11 playoff games

Sacramento Kings

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • 2020: (0)

  • 2021: (0)

  • 2022: WK1 (6)

  • 2023: (0)

  • Total: six playoff games

Cleveland Cavaliers

Chicago Bulls

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