This week, 16 teams will begin what amounts to the most hopeless endeavor in professional sports: winning an NBA championship. Pardon the cynicism, Grizzlies fans, but Memphis doesn't stand a chance to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in mid-June. As much as they'd like to think otherwise, neither does red-hot New Jersey or the perennial wannabe Dallas Mavericks. There are exactly three clubs in this 16-team field with legitimate claim on the 2005-06 title: the defending champion San Antonio Spurs (even with a hobbled Tim Duncan), the Detroit Pistons (champions of 2004), and the Miami Heat (the uniform Shaquille O'Neal wears). The other 13 clubs are merely playing for television ratings and bonus revenue from postseason ticket and concession sales.
An extreme view? Glass-half-empty blather from a citizen of a town with five years of NBA history? Take a look at the NBA record book and you'll see that it's not only true, but a quantifiable statement on how much more difficult it is for an NBA franchise to raise a banner than for teams in the NFL or Major League Baseball. And it's why a dose of reality needs to be swallowed by the most passionate of Grizzly fans, or Cavalier fans, or Sun fans, right on down the line.
Since 1980, a period comprising 26 seasons, exactly seven teams have won an NBA title (and the Philadelphia 76ers did so only once). There were 23 teams in the league for the 1980-81 season, meaning 16 of them (70 percent) have played a quarter century without a championship. Over the same period, 13 NFL teams have won the Super Bowl (only 15 -- 54 percent -- have suffered a 25-year drought). In baseball, no fewer than 16 of the 26 teams playing in 1980 have been crowned champion . . . and two more expansion franchises! As astonishing as it may seem, most major-league baseball teams have won a championship over the last 26 years. But as for the NBA? It's the most unforgiving mountain to climb in American sports. Why?
The fact is, stars don't win NBA championships . . . superstars do. The 1992 Olympic Dream Team -- the only squad actually deserving this moniker -- was the greatest collection of talent in one uniform in the history of the sport. Eleven future Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner) made a mockery of the competition in Barcelona. Larry Bird couldn't start for this team, for crying out loud.
Consider that from 1980 through 2000, every NBA Finals series -- all 21 of them -- featured a once-or-future member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. And since 1999, the Finals have featured either Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan . . . every year. A certifiable superstar remains the be-all, end-all for NBA championship aspirations.
Stop this madness, you say? What about the Pistons, the "ultimate team" of 2004 and, again this year, one of three legitimate title contenders? No modern Dream Teamer in Detroit. An aberration, I tell you. And remember, this team had FOUR All-Stars this season, and not one of them was chosen by fans to start (meaning they made the team on their merits, as judged by NBA coaches). I'll grant a concession to what might be called the Superstar Trophy Rule: four All-Stars equals one superstar. Next winter, if Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Eddie Jones, and Shane Battier all make the Western Conference squad, Memphis will have bridged the gap.
What kind of odds would you have gotten this time last year if you'd picked the Chicago White Sox to win the World Series? Or how about taking the Pittsburgh Steelers to win three playoff games on the road, then win the Super Bowl? You see, there are still surprise champions in baseball and the NFL. When was the last surprise winner in the NBA? I'll concede those 2004 Pistons, but only with their star-studded qualifier (and let's not forget Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown on their bench). Fact is, not since Seattle won the 1979 NBA title with no bigger name than Dennis Johnson has basketball crowned a less than predictable champion.
So let the festivities begin! Sixteen teams, thirteen of them sprinting down a dead-end street.