How to Build a Championship in the NBA, Looking back at the last 32 years of Larry O'Brien Trophies

NBA History Lesson:

There are only three ways an NBA team has ever been constructed that has resulted in a championship. Here are the number of championship produced, and the number of teams to have done it, along with a brief description of it, why it works, and a how to guide to illustrate that you can't dodge luck. All champions are accounted for from the start of the Bulls Dynasty in 1991. This is 32 years worth of history.

Side Note: The NBA-ABA Merger occurred 46 championships ago, and I would have to do a bit more research to accommodate this study, including researching and understanding old CBA agreements and salary caps. Four teams won in 4 years to end the 70's after the Merger (Blazers, Bullets, Sonics, Lakers). Then the Showtime Era Lakers (4) and Celtics (3) dominated the 80's with a cameo from Dr. J in Philly and Washington before the Pistons (2) closed out the decade. Considering Philly was able to sign Dr. J on the cheap due to the Nets costs to enter the NBA, I feel like not including the first 15 years of the merger is appropriate for this case study.

1 - Draft and Develop - Building a roster of young home grown talent to grow together and compete for a championship.

Recent use of this strategy: This can be primarily through the draft, a la Golden State, where you found Klay and Steph in the lottery, and stole Draymond in the second round. It could also be a less linear path more similar to Milwaukee who drafted Giannis in the lottery, but also traded their own young talent Brandon Jennings when he came of his rookie deal in a Sign and Trade with the Pistons. The Bucks got back former second rounder Khris Middleton back in year two of his contract, along with Brandon Knight, and some other dude. Middleton ended up the best player in the deal.

How To Guide: The key to this strategy is to stay under the cap with rookie contracts until you have the pieces to contend, then filling out the roster with solid veteran talent before you have to max out your homegrown stars.

History of Teams who have found success with this strategy: Warriors (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022), Bucks (2021), Spurs (2014, 2007, 2005, 2003, 1999), Bulls (1998, 1997, 1996, 1993, 1992, 1991), Rockets (1995, 1994).

Total Championships: 18 out of 32 (56%)

Note: These teams are the majority of the Dynasties, in part because the championship window happens with a younger core of players. But, typically only one team per decade finds themselves in the dynasty. Would the Rockets have won if Jordan never played baseball?

Fun thing to ponder: I'll discuss free agency below, but I wonder how many rings Tim Duncan would have if Shaq never joined Kobe in LA.

2 - Free Agency Player Empowerment - Preserving cap space and role player talent for a big splash free agency.

Recent use of this strategy: The Heat and Lakers are the poster children for this strategy. This can be executed similar to the Clean Sweep style free agency that brough Miami Lebron and Bosh to join Wade, or it can be a more combined like the Lakers ability to lure Shaq in free agency to pair with drafting Kobe Bryant. It can also include acquiring an MVP caliber player via trade similar to Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, or Shaq (Miami) where the player used his power to exit his franchise. The main factor of this is that it's player empowerment driven with the player influencing the team of his choice and signing up to be part of the organization for an extended run. Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Raptors, for instance, would not fit this criteria as he asked out of San Antonio, but did not necessarily want to be in Toronto.

How To Guide: The key to this strategy is to be a franchise big name free agents view as attractive. Being in a place like Miami, Los Angeles, or New York is likely a requirement or an immediate championship window. Having an organization that is respected throughout the league. Developing core role players while clearing cap space to recruit franchise shifting free agents, whether just a single MVP caliber player or multiple All-NBA talents.

History of Teams who have found success with this strategy: Lakers (2020, 2009, 2010, 2002, 2001, 2000), Cavs (2016), Heat (2013, 2012, 2006), Celtics (2008)

Total Championships: 11 out of 32 (35%)

3 - Trading for the Missing Piece - Maintaining a team that is a piece away from becoming a championship contender. This requires maintaining a 50+ win team for years, until the missing piece becomes available in their prime.

Recent use of this strategy: This could be trading for the MVP candidate themselves, like Toronto did with Kawhi Leondard or this could be having a perennial MVP candidate and finally being able to add the key role players around him via trade, like the Mavs did in their championship run adding Tyson Chandler.

How To Guide: The key to this strategy is to maintain a 50+ win roster built around a perennial MVP or a deep team with multiple all-stars and picks that can be used in a trade for a disgruntled MVP candidate (or in the Pistons case Rasheed Wallace at the deadline).

History of Teams who have found success with this strategy: Raptors (2019), Mavericks (2011), Pistons (2004).

Total Championships: 3 out of 32 (9%)