Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What is a Dynasty?

  Two weeks ago the San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the third time in the last five years when they beat the Kansas City Royals in seven games. This has led to a lot of talk about whether or not the Giants are a dynasty. Cliff Cocoran from Sports Illustrated wrote an article that makes a compelling case for calling them a dynasty and goes as far as to call their current run as being in the top ten runs of baseball success. New York sportscaster Mike Francesca thinks that a team can’t be called a dynasty unless they win back to back championships. I think ‘dynasty’ as applied to sports is something far too easily attached to a team by commentators to give themselves a ‘talking point’ and by sports fans so they can feel they are watching something special like the oxymoronic ‘Instant Classic’. I don’t believe the San Francisco Giants are a dynasty and in doing my research for this post I uncovered very few sports dynasties and one current team that is on the cusp of one.

  A dynasty is defined by many dictionaries including as ‘A family or group that maintains power for several generations’. In sports I would see the team is the family or group and the generations are the different groups of players that win the championships. A core group of players winning a series of championships cannot be a dynasty because the championships don’t span generations – it is a great group of players surrounded by a capable supporting cast. My definition of a dynasty is a team that wins a string of championships with no single player involved in ALL the championships but with enough overlapping players that there isn’t a complete turnover of personnel from one championship to the next one.

  By my definition there have been few dynasties in professional sports. The Yankees won 20 championships between the 40 year span from 1923 to 1962, never going more than three years without a championship. The Yankees turned their core players over multiple times during that span but there was plenty of overlap. The Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig era transitioned to the Gehrig/Joe DiMaggio era which in turn transitioned to the Dimaggio/Bill Dickey/Tommy Henrich years and when Dimaggio neared the end of his playing career Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were established stars with Mickey Mantle on the horizon. As a generation of stars faded out another generation had been groomed and ready to take their place. The Boston Red Sox have come close to a dynasty with their three championships during the period of 2004-2013 but there was one player (David Ortiz) who was on all three teams so I am happy to deny the filthy Red Sox a place on my dynasty list. The 1955-1965 Los Angeles Dodgers won four championships and are a team that I would consider a dynasty. The only player on all four World Series was the Hall of Fame left hander Sandy Koufax but Koufax was only on the 1955 team because the rules of the time dictated that players that received large signing bonuses had to stay on the major league team for two years ('the bonus baby rule'). Koufax played in 12 games for the 1955 Dodgers and did not appear in the World Series. In case you’re interested the San Francisco Giants have had eight players on their three championship teams so I can hardly see how they can be a dynasty.

  In the hockey world the Montreal Canadiens had a dynasty from 1953 to 1979, winning 14 Stanley Cups in that 27 year span. Much like the Yankees, the Canadiens had a rotation of superstars with each generation slowly giving way to the next group. Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard led the way in the 1950’s, Béliveau and Yvan Cournoyer in the 60’s, and Cournoyer and Guy Lafluer in the 1970s. There have been other great hockey teams like the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders of the 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990’s and 2000’s but they weren’t able to continue the championship tradition after their core players retired or left the team. There have been a number of NFL teams that won multiple Super Bowl Championships in a short time. The 1960’s Green Bay Packers won five championships in seven years, the 1970’s Steelers four Super Bowl championships in six years, the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys and 2000’s New England Patriots three in four years. These are all great teams and all had the same core group of players and maybe most importantly the same quarterback. The Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls from 1982-1991 with three different quarterbacks but they did have three players (Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Art Monk and perennial All-Pro Joe Jacoby) on their championship teams and three Super Bowls in 10 years hardly seems dynastic. To my mind the only NFL dynasty was the San Francisco 49er’s run of five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1995. The entire team turned over with Joe Montana quarterbacking the first four title teams and Steve Young the last one after serving as backup on the previous two. Jerry Rice(The greatest receiver of all time) was present for the last three Super Bowls but the 49ers managed to win Super Bowls without him and even without the great Montana. This to me is the very definition of a dynasty when no one player or core group of players can be pointed to as the key to a team’s run of championships.

  The NBA has had one dynasty – the 1956-1976 Boston Celtics which won 13 championships in the 20 year span. The team’s legendary run of 11 championships in 13 years were all anchored by center Bill Russell who coached the last two championship teams as well as starred. When Russell retired in 1970 the team missed the playoffs the next two seasons but obtained Dave Cowens in the draft and were back winning the division by 1972 and were the 1974 and 1976 champions. The players that bridged the 1969 and 1974 teams were Hall of Famer John Havlicek and regulars Don Chaney and Don Nelson. I don't count the Celtics three championships from 1981 to 1986 as part of the dynasty because there are no players that bridge the 1976 and 1981 teams. Without the two post-Russell championships, I wouldn’t consider the Celtic run a dynasty – they would be like the Chicago Bulls run of six titles in eight years during the 1990s which was anchored Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls were a great team but when Jordan and Pippen left the winning left also.

  I’ve talked to a few people about my idea of what a sports dynasty is and the consensus is that I’m old fashioned and that makes sense since I didn’t talk to anyone older than me. Someone told me that my idea of a dynasty is old-fashioned because by my definition there hasn’t been a dynasty in 20 years. That’s true but to my mind a dynasty should be a rare occurrence. If the Yankees had been able to properly rebuild to championship contender status during the end of the Jeter/Rivera era they could have created a new dynasty go along with the one they had over 50 years ago but that chance has been squandered and that team will be remembered like the current Giants – a great team that had a great run.

  Sports leagues have consistently changed the rules to prevent teams from stockpiling talent or even keep the talent they develop. Revenue sharing and salary caps either prevent teams from signing multiple superstars or make it cost-prohibitive to do so. Baseball teams can’t trade for other teams draft picks to stockpile young players and the NBA prohibits teams from trading their top draft pick in consecutive years. This doesn’t just hurt big market teams – last year’s NFL champion Seattle Seahawks built a deep roster of talented young but had to let many of them go in the off season because they couldn’t afford to give them all raises and stay under the salary cap. Even if the current American League champion Kansas City Royals had the money to pay their talented group of players once they become eligible for free agency they wouldn't be able to afford the accompanying luxury tax. A modern day dynasty can’t be built by outspending the competition or being able to identify and develop talented players. Only by being consistently better than the competition in the areas of drafting and player development and convincing players to take less money than they could get elsewhere can a dynasty be created in the current sports climate. The San Francisco Giants have shown they are an intelligent organization and they may well be able to replenish their core and keep winning championships and if so I’ll be the first to agree that they have become a dynasty but for now I’m keeping my eye on another potential dynasty in San Antonio where the NBA’s Spurs have won five championships in the 15 year span from 1999 to last year. Tim Duncan is the only player to have been on all the Spurs championship teams and is nearing the end of his career. The Spurs have proven they are well ahead of the curve. They were one of the first teams to successfully draft and develop European players. Last year none of their players averaged more than 30 minutes a game and were fresh for the playoffs and now other teams are following suit by managing minutes and giving key players games off to not only rest their players but to give their backup players a chance to develop and be ready to contribute if called upon. When Duncan is gone, the Spurs will still have top players like all-star point guard Tony Parker and last year’s finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and with the NBA salary cap poised to increase significantly due to the massive TV contract the league just signed the Spurs may be able to attract one or two top flight free agents and become the next sports dynasty.