Regaining the Gold

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By Bent

The Celtics are about to embark on a quest to regain the championship. Right now, they are that defeated boxer/wrestler/MMA fighter (depending how old you are) standing in the ring the next night declaring what it meant to them to be champion and how they know what it takes, so you'd better watch out because I'm coming for MY title and ain't no two o' y'all big enough or strong enough in this house to even think about stoppin' me, brutha. Or something like that.

Ahem. Anyway, I started thinking about how difficult it is to regain the title once you've lost it. The axiom: "It's even harder to defend your title than to win it for the first time," has long been one of those things we take for granted, a bit like "Defense wins championships". Of course, it's usually true, but then there are always going to be events that dispel such myths. (Aaron Brooks averaging 18 points a game against the Lakers in last year's playoffs, for example.)

What about winning back the title after having lost it though? Is that more like retaining it, or winning it for the first time? We'll have to delve into the history books to try and answer this question.

As we should all be aware, the Celtics won 11 out of 13 titles between 1956 and 1969, with Bill Russell being involved in all of them. In those days, it seemed there was one team so far superior to everybody else, that seeing them repeat as champions year after year came to be expected and for another team to ascend to title status was an incredible achievement. There's too much parity for those conditions to exist today.

The next era stretched all the way to 1987. In that span, no team managed to repeat, not once. This is obviously when the "Harder to Repeat" theory was born. Clearly there were several different contenders during that span and although many teams won multiple titles, none was dominant enough to win back-to-back.

Suddenly, from 1987 to 2002, if you won one, it became impossible NOT to repeat. Everybody did it. The Lakers, then the Pistons, then the Bulls (3 straight), then the Rockets, then the Bulls again (3 more) and the Lakers (3 straight). The only team not to repeat in that span were the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, but that was the quirky strike shortened season, so we can practically ignore that. The number of teams in the league had increased and the overall talent pool dropped as a result, widening the gap between the teams with the best players in the league and the rest.

Since 2002, we find ourselves once again into an era where nobody has been able to repeat as champion. This suggests that the talent has levelled off and more teams are just a move or two away from becoming a contender. Once again, the Spurs stand out, because they lost the title and then won it back the next year, exactly what the Celtics will be attempting to replicate next June. In 2005, the Spurs were the first team since the 1986 Celtics to achieve that feat - and then promptly did it again two years later. Perhaps they should have marketed that as an attempt THREE-gain the title.

If this were boxing, the Bulls would be a two-time world champion and the Spurs would be a four-time world champion. Even the Russell-era Celtics would only be a three-time champion if this were boxing. Guess what, though. This isn't boxing. Each year's title is of equal worth to the players involved. Maybe it won't taste as sweet as that first (or 17th) one, but if the best two teams don't end up battling it out, it will be because of something quirky, like injuries or ill-timed slumps, not because a team couldn't overcome the fact that it's so much harder to repeat, or win for the first time, or whatever the prevailing rule in this particular era is.

Can the Celtics win another one? It's interesting to note that by not winning the title last season, the Detroit Pistons became the first team since the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers to NOT win a second title within five years.

History may therefore be on their side, although this could just be a whole new era where that doesn't happen much...does anyone really think the Heat are going to win another one any time soon? Ultimately the same challenges will face the Celtics as two years ago. LeBron, Kobe, some up and coming teams and some grizzled veteran groups.

If they want to emulate the Spurs, they do have a similar team. Young point guard, veteran big man, scorers at the swing positions and plenty of experience. Perhaps they should follow the Spurs pattern from those years and come out of the gates slowly, but hit their stride in time for the playoffs. Home court advantage will be important, but where did 27-2 get them last year, ultimately?

Having said that, although the Spurs began at a more leisurely 33-18 in 2007, they did still tend to get off to pretty fast starts, so I'm not sure where that reputation comes from. Another one of those things we take for granted, I guess.

Hopefully the Celtics can cope with the strain to regain so their reign can begin again.

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