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What Makes a Dynasty? Try the Opposition

The word dynasty is used and abused too often in pro sports today. Where it once identified a team that had a dominant run, namely winning multiple titles in a few years, its frequent application has rendered it meaningless. Today, the mere addition of a star player to a talented team unleashes speculation about a prospective dynasty. The hype surrounding the “Dream Team” Eagles of late is a case in point.

But the fascination with sole team hegemony or oligarchy is not entirely misplaced, since dynasties are a real phenomenon in pro sports. One could associate teams with decades; the 2000s New England Patriots, 1990s Chicago Bulls, 1980s New York Islanders, and 1970s Oakland Athletics among others. And neither structural reform, such as league expansion or free agency, nor rule changes have extinguished dynasties.

But answering the questions of why and how dynasties emerge is not the focus here. Instead, the concern is with the criteria. One must know the qualifications for such lofty status before any discussion of the how or why can begin.

The first and most obvious condition is winning championships. The 1990s Buffalo Bills do not make the grade because of their Super Bowl failures. The timespan of a team’s ascendance, with an emphasis on compression, is important. Few can match the Baltimore Orioles’ run from 1969-1983, five AL pennants and two rings. But those achievements are overshadowed by the early 1970s A’s, who had a three-peat from 1972-1974, while the Orioles’ titles came 13 years apart in 1970 and 1983.

Repeating is integral to dynasty status because it undeniably manifests preeminence at a given time. For example, the New Jersey Devils have claimed three Stanley Cups but few accolades since 1994. Why? Their contemporaries from Detroit have eclipsed them with four Cups, including back-to-back titles in 1997-1998. And with no repeats since the ones the Red Wings achieved, it is fair to say Detroit has dominated the NHL’s past 20 years.

 One thing, however, is missing from that list. Champs need worthy opponents to become legendary. Only a credible competitor can provide a championship round worth remembering, and ensure another team’s dynasty label is earned. Would the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers evoke nostalgia without their titanic clashes against the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys? Do Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers have their large stature in NBA history absent matching up against Larry Bird’s Celtics? It is doubtful.

 Sports are about competition because it alone produces iconic series, games, moments, and teams. Indeed, the epic moments say as much. They neatly capture the quality of competition on display in a game or series.

Think about the 1990s Bulls, six titles in eight years is a staggering number. Factor in the quality of opposition faced and that statistic becomes mind-blowing. The Bulls drew five one-seeds in the Finals (the 1991 Los Angeles Lakers withstanding), four won 60-plus games (1993 Phoenix Suns, 1996 Seattle Super Sonics, and 1997-1998 Utah Jazz), and five of six employed at least one Hall of Famer (Gary Payton is not yet eligible).

 And then we have to factor in the quality of games, and performances within those games; Michael Jordan breaking scoring records in a playoff game in 1992, a triple-OT game in 1993, the “Flu Game” in 1997, and his final shot in Game 6 in 1998. In a word, wow. The 1990s Bulls exemplify the meaning of the word dynasty in a sports context, peerless excellence.

Another way to think about the subject of dynasties and their adversaries is remembrance. The late 1990s New York Yankees usually invoke disgust from critics because they spent gobs of money en route to winning four titles in five years. If one believes the protests of critics that the Yankees wrecked competitive balance in MLB, then one question is in order. What about the Atlanta Braves?

By most measures the Braves had a historic run: they played in half of the 1990s World Series (1991-1992, 1995-1996 and 1999), partook in eight straight National League Championship Series from 1991-1999, won their division a record 14 consecutive times from 1991-2005, and had three Hall of Fame starting pitchers from 1993-2002.

How often are the Braves maligned for ruining competitive balance? Not frequently. Many forget the Braves’ dominance because of their failures; one title and four losses, two of which came against the Yankees. And the irony here is how vilification just cements the 1990s Yankees as a dynasty; multiple titles, a three-repeat, two triumphs over the mighty Braves, and they are still discussed today.

 Now the objections to the importance of a worthy adversary will invariably center on an old maxim, “beat who is on the schedule.” It is true that luck plays a role. There is no predetermination in sports, let alone to the detail of who participates in the title round. But the integrity of a sport’s competition is not helped by the system of divisions and playoffs that devalues the regular season, and emphasizes “getting hot at the right time.” The eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings served as a forceful reminder of that point last year on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.

This devolution has a serious long-term consequence: hot teams are rarely remembered. For every 2011 St. Louis Cardinals there are far more 1999 New York Knicks, 2007 Colorado Rockies, and 2008 Arizona Cardinals. How many epic championship bouts have the morass of hot teams, in all pro sports, over the past 20 years yielded? Win or lose, those teams frequently fade into oblivion after the season, barring things such as last-minute heroics or failures. Parity can provide high ratings and sell seats at playoff games, but it cannot duplicate the memories or wow factor that high-caliber competition generates.

And thanks to the centrality of competition in sports, dynasties will continue to exist. Even today, teams still win multiple titles, although repeats are rare. Yet, the absence of defining adversaries hovers over those who win. They are deprived of the opportunity to stand beside legendary predecessors in the lore of their sport, and memories of fans.

Tim Reuter writes on structural components in sports that impinge on or facilitate competition. He may be reached at tjr2118@gmail.com.

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