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How to win a championship

In honor of the NBA finals, and in light of some discussion about what the Pacers need to do to be in contention, I thought I'd examine what it takes to win a championship by examining the teams that have achieved that goal recently. Starting with the most recent champions, the Lakers, I'll go back through the years for every champion/dynasty, until I get bored. I'll look at the strategies and moves that made the franchise a champion, and evaluate how likely it is that the Pacers could follow in their footsteps.

I'm compiling this from my memory and Google, so this is by no means a deep basketball analysis.

2020: Los Angeles Lakers

How they won: in broad strokes, two extremely good basketball players from the Midwest decided they wanted to play in Los Angeles. LeBron James chose the city in free agency, then Anthony Davis demanded a trade and said he wanted to be a Laker. Another factor was that the Lakers were bad enough for long enough that they acquired high lottery picks like Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram that they were able to trade to New Orleans to be competitive in the trade market for the guy who demanded a trade to their team.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this method: 0/10 Indiana is not Los Angeles.

2019: Toronto Raptors

How they won: The Raptors assembled a team that for years was pretty good, but not championship caliber. They paid to extend the players they wanted to keep (Lowry, Derozan), and traded away the ones they didn't for other good players (Terrance Ross for Ibaka). They also hit on their draft picks. Then, when the moment was right, they put together a trade for a one-year rental of a championship caliber player, and got several lucky literal bounces and breaks in the playoffs.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this method: 4/10 I'm not sure when the next playoff-tested, decorated two-way superstar is going to demand a trade, but hopefully it happens after the Pacers establish themselves as a consistent 2nd round playoff team. They have trade assets. Then, just have to get as lucky as the Raptors did in those playoffs.

2015-2018: Golden State Warriors

How they won: Draft an MVP with the #7 pick, an all-star with in the late lottery and a perennial DPOY candidate in the second round. Fire Mark Jackson. Trade for key veterans like Andre Igoudala and Andrew Bogut. Take advantage of a one-time salary cap spike to sign a Kevin Durant-level player. The Warriors were really smart and really lucky, and it created a dynasty that could only be stopped by BS suspensions (2016), injuries, and not being able to injure Kawhi Leonard.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this method: 2/10 Warriors management was really lucky and really smart. If any of 6 teams in 2009 take Steph Curry instead of, say, Johnny Flynn or Hasheem Thabeet, Golden State wins zero championships. The Heatles-era Pacers were probably 80% as smart as the Warriors, using the late lottery and second round to acquire talents like PG, Hibbert and Lance, but that extra 20% is the difference between a dynasty and a near miss.

2016: Cleveland Cavaliers

How they won: Be the birthplace of an all-time great talent who feels guilty about destroying the franchise on national TV a few years earlier. Have extremely improbable lottery luck that allows you to draft championship pieces or trade for them.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this method: 0.1/10 The odds that the next LeBron James is currently in diapers in Indianapolis, and that the Pacers will win the lottery three out of four years is still greater than Indiana becoming a draw for players on the level of Los Angeles.

2014-1999: San Antonio Spurs

How they won: Stealth tank during the year that the best power forward ever is going to be drafted. Hit on second rounders and late first round draft picks at an astounding rate. Trade one of those late first rounders for Kawhi Leonard (and Davis Bertans), thus extending the span of your dynasty. Have Greg Popovich be your coach.

One thing the Spurs did is that they scouted and brought in international players at a higher rate than most other teams. It almost seems like a moneyball thing, where the Spurs identified an area where other teams weren't being as efficient or focused, so they took advantage.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this method: 0.2/10 San Antonio is the gold standard for small-market franchises, but really it all centers around Duncan, who happened to be the best power forward ever. Only five teams can lay claim to having the best ever player at a single position. If the Pacers find themselves in a position to draft a player as good as Tim Duncan, who also has very little ego and puts the team first, and if they are then able to hit on draft picks in the 25+ range, and if they are able steal a future Finals MVP from a team by trading their backup point guard, then they might win 5+ championships in 15 years. It's still probably more likely than winning the lottery 3/4 of the time like Cleveland did.

2012-2013: Miami Heat

How they won: Gut the entire roster, relying on a secret pact between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join forces. Add a few ring-chasers, a genuinely good coach in Spoelstra, a missed free throw by Kawhi and some timely offensive rebounds, and that gets you two titles.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this model: 0/10 Nobody is going to announce on national TV that they're taking their talents to Monument Circle.

2011: Dallas Mavericks

How they won: Trade for #9 overall pick Dirk Nowitzki. Stock your team with other talented veterans who know their role, such as Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, coached by Rick Carlisle. One thing about the Mavs is that Dirk struggled mightily his first year in the league, but the franchise stuck with him and he got things turned around by his second season (Mark Cuban buying the team from Ross Perot might have helped with this too).

Chances the Pacers can replicate this model: 5/10 They already have the right coach! Nowitzki is an all-timer, but you never know who you might acquire in the draft, and who might blossom if you stick with them.

2009-2010: Los Angeles Lakers

How they won: Have Kobe Bryant on your team. Draft Andrew Bynum at #10 overall. Trade for a disgruntled star in Pau Gasol (using some of the pieces acquired when your previous star, Shaquille O'Neal, made you trade him away). Acquire role players like Robert Horry and Derrick Fisher.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this model: 0/10 This is all about the Lakers being in LA. Kobe demanded refused to play for the team that drafted him and demanded a trade to LA, so the Lakers acquired him for Vlade Divac. Shaq chose to leave Orlando and come to LA in free agency. When he wanted a trade years later, the assets they acquired for him helped them get Gasol. Indiana simply does not have the ability to attract top-10 all time talent like this.

2008: Boston Celtics

How they won: Draft Paul Pierce 10th overall and keep him on the team for years. Lose out on the Oden-Durant lottery and end up with the 5th overall pick, forcing you to go another direction and trade that pick for a second star in Ray Allen. Once you have two stars, you're an attractive destination for a disgruntled superstar like Kevin Garnett, and somehow Minnesota is willing to accept the table scraps you offer in a trade.

Let's all think for a moment about how the NBA would be different if Boston had won the draft lottery in 2007, and drafted Greg Oden instead of trading the pick for Ray Allen.

Chances the Pacers can replicate this model: 6/10 It starts with having one good star. I don't think the Pacers have a player on Pierces level right now, but it could happen. Then they use the assets they have to acquire a second star. Once you get that second star, you become an attractive destination for anyone, including really really good players. Again, the Pacers don't currently have anyone as good as Pierce or Allen, but they conceivably could. Of course, the Celtics also tanked in order to get the assets to acquire their second star, something the Pacers seem incapable of doing.

That's enough writing for now. As I look at the team-building strategies that have actually won championships, the only instances of success from sustained tank jobs or completely tearing down the teams were in LA and Miami, places that are already attractive player destinations. Besides that, the most successful strategies seem to involve strategic single-season tanking by a normally decent team, and/or acquiring a disgruntled superstar who asks for a trade.

Given those two successful methods, this season would have been a great time for the Pacers to lose all their games and add a great draft pick to their veteran core. While they didn't do that, I do like that they're a team full of attractive assets and maybe can lie in wait for the next Kawhi/Garnett-level player to demand a trade.