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May 20, 2011
Change at the Top
New Conference Finalists

by Dan Feldman

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I recently wrote about the Oklahoma City Thunder's and Memphis Grizzlies' improvement around the same cores in the last two years, and I questioned whether their success would influence other teams to show patience in their plans.

Scratch that.

The more likely model other teams will take from this playoffs is win now, now, now.

For the first time since since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, no team in the conference finals won a series the previous year. The four teams still alive all made win-now moves to bolster their rosters.

Oklahoma City--although the patient model could apply, because the Thunder let their young core of two years ago develop--cashed in one of its young assets, Jeff Green, by trading him for Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder also picked up quiet contributors Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed.

The Chicago Bulls signed Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas and traded for C.J. Watson. They also hired Tom Thibodeau, who brought it all together.

The Dallas Mavericks traded for Tyson Chandler, who has anchored their defense. They also signed Peja Stojakovic, who's made more three-pointers than Jason Terry in this year's playoffs.

The Miami Heat may have brought in a couple new players, too. I can't recall.

Those moves collectively set up a rare feat. This just the third time none of the NBA's final four teams won a playoff series the year before.

In 1977, the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers made the conference finals. The year before, the Buffalo Braves beat Philadelphia in the first round. Houston, Portland and Los Angeles failed to make the playoffs. The league was shaken up the previous summer by a merger with the ABA, which allowed the 76ers to add Julius Erving and the Blazers to add Maurice Lucas.

Two of the 1949 division finalists (the NBA hadn't yet expanded to conferences), the Minneapolis Lakers and Rochester Royals, didn't play in the league (then called the Basketball Association of America) the year before. Of the other two division finalists, the Washington Capitols lost in a tiebreaker to make the playoffs, and the New York Knicks lost of the first round.

None of the final four teams in 1947 even made the playoffs the year before, of course, because the league didn't exist yet.

All four of this year's conference finalists made the playoffs last year, which separates them from other teams that didn't win a playoff series because they didn't play in one. So, here's a a look at how the NBA's final four teams each year collectively performed in the previous season.*

Series played are orange (with a bonus series played added to the NBA champion). Series won are blue.

*In 1954, the playoffs began with two three-team round robins. Because two teams advanced from each division's round robin, I counted that as half a series won for each team.

In 1950, the league had three divisions. After intradivisional playoffs, three teams reached the level I'm counting as the equivalent of the conference finals.

The Heat, Bulls, Mavericks and Thunder are showing teams can reach the NBA's upper echelon very quickly--with the right amount of spending. Will other teams attempt to copy that model, too?

Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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