Thursday, July 31, 2014

How Do We Track the Dominant Team Championship Belt? (Part 2)

On Wednesday, we retroactively passed out the Dominant Team Championship Belt from 1921-70. Click here for Part 1, which also outlines the criteria we're using to select each titleholder.

I'm excited for Part 2 because, despite the relative lack of dynasties compared to Part 1, the Belt was shared more evenly among the four major sports during this later period. Giddyup!

1971: Milwaukee Bucks
Lew Alcindor was already a legend by the time he reached the NBA in '69. Hell, he was already a legend by the time he enrolled at UCLA a few years before that. But even by his standards, the New York product had a phenomenal '70-71 season. He played every game while averaging a league-leading 31.7 points on 57.7% shooting. He also grabbed 16 rebounds per game for good measure.

Alcindor and another of the NBA's top 10 all-time players, Oscar Robertson, led Milwaukee to its first title in just its third year of existence. To celebrate, Alcindor changed his name the day after the Bucks clinched the championship. Can you imagine if LeBron did that today, taking a Muslim name the day after winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy? That might be a story, right?

The Bucks didn't win another title for three seasons, but they absolutely deserved the Belt in '71.

1972-73: Miami Dolphins
In '72, the Dolphins put together the ONLY perfect season in NFL history. 'Nuff said.

In '73, Miami wasn't quite as dominant, but they still won convincingly in the Super Bowl. It wasn't until '74 that another team was able to wrestle the Belt away...

1974: Oakland Athletics
Only the historic brilliance of the Dolphins prevented these A's from capturing the Belt sooner. In '74, they rolled to their third straight World Series with a convincing five-game triumph over the 102-win Dodgers.

In addition to Oakland's dominance on the field, they boasted an array of characters, including pitcher Rollie Fingers, slugger Reggie Jackson, and owner Charlie Finley. Moreover, the A's achieved what I believe to be the pinnacle of American cultural achievement -- a guest spot on The Simpsons.

Oh, and also ... 'STACHES!

Photo via
Unfortunately, Oakland wouldn't reach another World Series for over a decade, opening the door for one of the most famous football teams ever...

1975: Pittsburgh Steelers
In '75, the Steelers captured their second straight Super Bowl, and the Steel Curtain finally had a chance to drape itself over the Belt. (Sorry, I had to.) Pittsburgh featured nine Hall of Fame players (!!!), not to mention a coach (Chuck Noll) and owner (Art Rooney) that are both enshrined in Canton.

However, Noll's Steelers failed to return to the Super Bowl for a couple years, again leaving the Belt up for grabs...

1976: Cincinnati Reds
The Big Red Machine, considered by many to be the best baseball team ever, happily snatched the Belt out of the Steelers' grasp. The Reds won their second straight World Series in '76 behind a lineup that featured Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster, Jesus Christ, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey. (I only made one of those up.)

Cincinnati swept its way through the playoffs, dispatching the Phillies in three games before taking four straight against the Yankees. More recently, these Reds inspired the incredible sportswriter Joe Posnanski to pen his book The Machine.

The Reds' star power, rabid fans, enduring nickname, and four pennants from '70-76 made it inevitable that this team would eventually grab the Belt. Like the A's, though, they were unable to sustain their dominance.

1977: Portland Trail Blazers
Bill Walton's Blazers are often held up as the model of team basketball. Coach Jack Ramsay, who died in April, once said, "Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals." That sentiment is repeated to every player from the time he first puts on a uniform, but few teams embody it like the '77 Blazers.

In terms of cultural relevance, the Blazers inspired one of the greatest sports books ever written. David Halberstam embedded with the team to write Breaks of the Game a few seasons later. Additionally, Walton was help up as a model of counter-culture cool.

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Even though the Blazers finished second to Kareem's Lakers in the regular season, when the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals, Portland swept L.A. in four games. They then finished off Julius Erving's formidable 76ers to capture the NBA title and the Dominant Team Championship Belt.

1978: New York Yankees
The Canadiens won their third of four straight Stanley Cups in '78, making it difficult to deny them the Belt. However, the enduring lore of this Yankees season surpasses that of the Habs (at least in the U.S.) This team has been immortalized through the nickname "The Bronx Zoo." Besides, this was the third straight pennant and second straight World Series title for the Yanks.

By July of '78, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 14.5 games, but they stormed back to force a one-game playoff. We all know what happened then. (If you forgot, it rhymes with "Pucky Muckin' Tent.") That Yankees team would be a Twitter bonanza today. Think about the characters: Steinbrenner, Reggie, Billy, Thurman, Goose, Sparky, etc.

The combination of the team's strong play and stronger personalities ensured that it would hold the Belt for at least one season. As with most dysfunctional teams, though, the Yankees couldn't sustain their success. The Belt wouldn't come back to the Bronx for over two decades.

1979: Pittsburgh Steelers
After a brief dry spell, the Steelers recaptured Belt with much of the same personnel from the early '70s. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and the Steel Curtain defense led Pittsburgh to its second straight Super Bowl and its fourth of the decade. This was also the year that the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial originally aired:

It's a good thing I don't know many Sonics fans, because Seattle was unable to grab the Belt despite winning the NBA title in its second consecutive trip to the Finals '79. The Steelers just seem to have had more staying power.

1980-83: New York Islanders
The Isles won four straight Stanley Cups during this period, cementing one of the most dominant modern dynasties. Mike Bossy led the team in scoring throughout these years, notching 147 points in 80 games during the '81-82 season. In '83, the team defeated phenom Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers in a Finals sweep.

The Islanders didn't have as much cultural cache as some of the early-'80s NBA and NFL teams, but we'll respect their on-ice dominance. However, Edmonton would win the Cup the next season, ending the Isles' run and beginning a protracted tug-of-war in the NBA for possession of the Belt...

1984: Boston Celtics
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA together in 1979, and they immediately set their eyes on the Dominant Team Championship Belt. (Or, they would have, if it had existed and they had known about it.) Magic captured his first NBA title in '80 and Bird won in '81, and both of their teams could have made claims for the Belt. However, with the Islanders' ongoing dominance, it wasn't until '84 that the Belt returned to the NBA.

In the '84 Finals, Boston Garden became a sauna for Game 7 (reaching temperatures over 90 degrees) and Bird led the Celtics to their fifteenth championship. Bird scored 27.5 points on 52.9 percent shooting throughout the playoffs to cement his status as a Celtics legend. Now, if he could only hang onto the Belt...

1985: Los Angeles Lakers
But it wasn't to be. Magic rudely pulled the Belt away in '85. There might be a pattern here...

1986: Boston Celtics
Bird's '86 Celtics, the soulmate of the '77 Blazers, snatched the Belt back. Walton joined the team in the beginning of the season and meshed with like-minded teammates such as Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, and Robert Parish. Walton came off the bench for his last productive season on what many people consider the best passing team ever.

1987-88: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers won the West eight times during the '80s, collecting five titles to Boston's three. If we were awarding a Belt for the best sports franchise of the decade, the Lakers would take it.

In '86, the Lakers had added Mychal Thompson, giving the team four top draft picks (Magic, Kareem, and James Worthy were the others), a distinction that wasn't replicated until the Cavs signed LeBron James this summer. With that talented squad, Pat Riley's Lakers won back-to-back titles in '87-88.

However, L.A. lost in the Finals in '89, allowing a legendary football team to take over the Belt...

1989: San Francisco 49ers
Joe Montana's Niners were the biggest beneficiary of the Lakers' loss to the Bad Boy Pistons in the '89 Finals. San Fran won two straight Super Bowls in the '88-89 seasons, combining with Showtime to focus much of the nation's attention on the West Coast.

The 49ers had one of the best quarterbacks ever (Montana), probably the best wide receiver ever (Jerry Rice), and unquestionably the best QB-receiver combination ever. They outscored opponents 126-26 in three postseason games, the most dominant beatdown ever by a Super Bowl champ. For the mathematically challenged, that's a point differential of ONE HUNDRED POINTS against top-tier competition.

1990: Edmonton Oilers
This is one of the weakest years in terms of dominant teams. The Blazers won the NBA title despite finishing four games behind the Lakers during the regular season; the Giants needed Scott Norwood's infamous missed field goal to down the Bills in the Super Bowl; and the 91-win Reds bested the 103-win A's in the World Series.

Thankfully for hockey fans, the lack of dominance in the other three major sports allowed the Oilers to finally get their due. Edmonton won its fifth Stanley Cup in seven years. Despite having traded Wayne Gretzky after their 1988 Cup victory, the Oilers rallied behind Mark Messier to cap off their dynasty. It wouldn't be Messier's only Belt.

1991: Chicago Bulls
So we've now reached the Michael Jordan segment of this post. Just as MJ dominated the sports landscape throughout the '90s, the Bulls dominated possession of the Belt.

After falling short a few years in a row and taking their proverbial lumps, the Bulls finally won their first title. Scottie Pippen had his best season to date, and Horace Grant and John Paxson made key contributions. The Bulls finally dispatched the Bad Boy Pistons in the conference finals, followed by the Pistons leaving the court early. It would be Jordan's league from that point forward.

In the '90-91 season, the Super Bowl champion Redskins were an offensive and defensive juggernaut that outscored their opponents 102-41 in three postseason games. The Minnesota Twins, meanwhile, triumphed in one of the greatest World Series ever played. But neither of those teams -- or any other -- could hope to compete with Michael Jordan in his prime.

1992: The Dream Team
I guess this one is cheating, but this was the dominant team of professional athletes ever put together. The Dream Team defeated opponents by an average of more than 40 points per game and were instrumental in the globalization that basketball has enjoyed in the past 20 years. Coach Chuck Daly said the team was "like Elvis and the Beatles put together."

Laettner and Ewing look like they just had a heated argument. (Photo via
The Dream Team also works as the Belt-holder because the best player, Jordan, would have retained the Belt with the Bulls if Team U.S.A. hadn't grabbed it. And speaking of MJ's Bulls...

1993: Chicago Bulls
Jordan, who averaged over 30 points per game for the seventh straight season, led the Bulls to their third straight title. This one really hurt me as a fledgling hoops fan because Chicago fell behind 2-0 to the Knicks in the conference finals before winning four straight. This was one year after the Bulls beat the Knicks in Game 7 of the East semis. It was one of my first lessons as a sports fan: Michael Jordan didn't lose. Hey, at least we'll always have the Starks dunk:

With their three-peat, the Bulls edged out the Dallas Cowboys, who won their second straight Super Bowl in the '93 season.

1994: New York Rangers
The MLB strike and Jordan's baseball-related hiatus helped the Rangers to claim the Belt for one glorious year. The 49ers won the Super Bowl, but since they were probably considered the second-most dominant team in the NFL during this time, the Blueshirts get the nod. The '94 Belt was the second for team captain Mark Messier, and it's still the stuff of legend in New York.

1995: Dallas Cowboys
Remember when I said the Niners were the second-most dominant team in the NFL? The 'Boys were the most dominant. In the '95 season, the 'Boys won their third Super Bowl in four years. This Belt provides a measure of payback to Dallas for their inability to beat out Jordan's Bulls in the early '90s.

The Cowboys were loaded in '95, much as they had been in the early '90s. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin formed one of the most potent threesomes ever,* and second-year coach Barry Switzer won his first championship with the team.

*Please refrain from making that Jenna Jameson joke.

In '95, the Rockets won their second straight NBA championship. But Jordan's switch to baseball and struggles during his comeback still leave small asterisks on both of Houston's titles. Hey, at least the Belt went to another team from Texas. But not for long...

1996-98: Chicago Bulls
Upon Jordan's return, the Bulls soon took back what was rightfully theirs. It was nice of the Cowboys to keep the Belt warm for them.

MJ struggled a bit through the No. 45 season, but he came back at full-strength in '95-96 to lead the best team in NBA history. The Bulls' 72-10 record looks more and more untouchable every year, just an impossible pace in the grind of a full season.

Dennis Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen in '95 and his energy and rebounding were crucial to Chicago's dominance. The Bulls retained the Belt until the team broke up in '98.

1999-2000: New York Yankees
I've already written an ode to these Yankees that probably seems insufferable to fans of any other team. I won't write too much more about my favorite team ever for fear of being labeled a homer (if that hasn't happened already).

The simple fact is that with the increased recent parity in baseball, it might be a long time before the sport sees a team win four titles in five years. And the Yankees were so close to making that run even more impressive. But when Luis Gonzalez's duck-fart single dropped in at the end of the 2001 World Series, it allowed another dynasty to grab the Belt...

2001-02: Los Angeles Lakers
Despite benefiting from weak Eastern Conference competition in each Finals, the Lakers completed the NBA's last three-peat. The team seemed to cruise through some of each regular season before wreaking havoc in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the appeal of Shaq, Kobe, and Phil Jackson extended far off of the court. Considering endorsements, pop culture ventures (especially by Shaq), book deals, and everything else, this team was filled with household names, in the truest sense of the term.

Photo via
2003: New England Patriots
New England won back-to-back Super Bowls beginning in the '03-04 season. In '03, Tom Brady proved that he was a bona fide superstar, and Bill Belichick began to stake his claim as one of the best coaches ever. The Pats would retain the Belt in '04, when they shared it with a familiar neighbor..

2004: Boston Red Sox/New England Patriots
And '04 is the only year in which the Belt was shared. (Don't worry, we won't turn this into pro boxing.)

New England won its third title in four years and the Red Sox snapped an 86-year championship drought. The Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS; you might have heard about it at some point. And I may have just thrown up in my mouth at some point.

Anyways, since the Sox and Pats probably shared 99.3% of their fans, I'm sure they don't mind sharing the '04 Belt. Neither team would retain it the following year, but it would come back to Boston before long.

2005: San Antonio Spurs
In '05, the White Sox also broke a long championship drought, but their World Series run didn't have anywhere near the cultural relevance of Boston's.

For that reason, the Belt made its way from sports-rabid Boston to one-team San Antonio. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich brought their third title to the city by beating the Pistons in the Finals. The Spurs' habit of spreading their titles around, mostly in odd-numbered years, made it difficult for them to put a stranglehold on the Belt. But they are definitely in the conversation about the most dominant sports organizations of the last 20 years.

2006: Miami Heat
This was a tough call in another down year for champions. The Carolina Hurricanes couldn't win the Belt because they're the Carolina Hurricanes. The Colts beat the Bears in the Super Bowl in decidedly undominant fashion. The 83-win Cardinals won the World Series. I was even tempted to just give the Belt to the Florida State or USC football program, because they were basically both pro franchises at this point.

By default, the Heat take the Belt, if only because I was on the D-Wade Train ever since his Final Four run at Marquette. In '06, Wade carried Shaq's bloated body to a Finals victory by putting up 28.4 points per game in the playoffs.

Despite Wade's brilliance, though, Miami is an uninspiring Belt-winner. Either way, we're again in the midst of a bunch of one-year titleholders.

2007: New York Giants
The Giants were not a dominant team but were certainly a dominant storyline. Or, maybe more precisely, New England's undefeated regular season was a dominant storyline that the Giants blew to smithereens.

Despite an unremarkable 10-6 record, the G-Men won a series of nail-biters in the playoffs before becoming one of the most unlikely Super Bowl champs ever. Big Blue remained a national story for months after they claimed the Lombardi Trophy, allowing them to also capture the Dominant Team Championship Belt.

2008: Boston Celtics
The middling Celtics went for broke in the '07 off-season, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to complement Paul Pierce. The new Big Three rewarded management's go-for-broke mentality by winning the franchise's first title since '86. The Celtics also gave ESPN the opportunity to print my least-favorite magazine cover ever:

Photo via
At least the next year's Belt went to one of Boston's most hated rivals...

2009-10: Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe's back-to-back champs beat out the last great Yankees team, Sidney Crosby's first championship squad, and the feel-good Saints. Kobe and Shaq shared the Belt in the early 2000s then each held it again after they went their separate ways. Neither the '06 Heat nor the '09-10 Lakers were as dominant as the Shaq-Kobe-Phil dynasty, though.

2011: Dallas Mavericks
In yet another down year for dominant teams, the Mavs had the support of an overwhelming majority of basketball fans as they took down Miami's widely-loathed Big Three. Dirk Nowitzki won a title to cement his legacy as one of the best forwards ever, and he got his revenge after Miami players made fun of him. The Heatles would soon take the Belt, though...

2012-13: Miami Heat
Lots of ink has been spilled about the Heat of recent vintage, so I won't rehash it here. If you want to talk about cultural relevance, though, consider this: LeBron has more Twitter followers than all MLB players combined.

After Miami's loss in the Finals and LeBron's return to Cleveland earlier this month, the 2014 titleholder is still yet to be determined. But it will certainly be changing hands once again.

Honorable Mention: Sorry I'm not sorry.

Montreal Canadiens
Scotty Bowman's '70s Habs were outshone by some more culturally-relevant dynasties like the Big Red Machine. Oh, well. I don't think I have a huge audience in Canada, anyways. (At last check, we've had 18 pageviews from Canada this week. That's fewer than we've had from Turkey!)

Seattle SuperSonics
The Sonics of the late '70s were an excellent team, but the Steelers and Yankees were far more dominant in their respective sports at that time.

Detroit Red Wings
Like many other unlucky aspiring Belt-holders, Bowman's great Wings teams of the mid-'90s overlapped with Jordan's Bulls. Poor Scotty.

Toronto Blue Jays
Ditto on that "not being able to outshine Jordan" thing. Oh, and the "Canada" thing.

Detroit Pistons
Like their Motor City hockey counterparts, the Pistons failed to ever take hold of the Belt. The Bad Boys made a case for it in 1990, but that would have denied the dominant Oilers. At the risk of being accused of an anti-Detroit bias, I'll just point out the fact that so many people hated those Pistons teams.

Chicago Bears
The "Super Bowl Shuffle" Bears were pretty much a toss-up against the '85 Showtime Lakers. I went with the Lakers because they pretty much ruled L.A. throughout the '80s.

Now, remember that the final rule of this exercise was supposed to be Subjectivity = Fun. I hope that nobody gets so upset about my choices that they take me up on my earlier suggestion to bottle me in the face. Let the (hopefully) civil arguments begin!

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav

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