At the onset of Mike Prada’s incredible and emotionally wrought plan to crown the best team in NBA history that never won a championship, several clubs that fell short of raising a banner were disqualified based on the exercise’s criteria. Specifically, teams coming off their own title run, only to have their defense cut short by inexplicable disappointment, bouts of bad luck, or some combination of both.
So while you peruse Prada’s list of 64 teams over the next two weeks, here’s a look at the five saddest title defenses of the last 20 years. For some teams, sadness emanates from fans who look back wondering what could have been, either thanks to a heartbreaking injury, the rapid and unexpected effect of age on a key player, or even an organization-wide arrogance that seizes everyone who just took a champagne bath.
Insecurities revolve around money and minutes. Pecking orders and hierarchical scoring options are called into question. Sometimes, for reasons that remain a mystery to this day, the team’s championship heart just stops beating, or a rival competitor simply “wants it more.” Who knows.
For the purpose of keeping this as concise as possible, no organization appears twice on this list, and anyone eliminated in the Finals or conference finals didn’t make the cut because losing that far along is less sad than never advancing there in the first place.
Regular season record: 57-25
Key losses: Jordan Farmar
Key additions: Matt Barnes, Steve Blake
Everyone remembers how this team went out. Near the end of a blowout, Andrew Bynum was ejected for trying to murder a defenseless, airborne J.J. Barea. Anytime violence occurs on a basketball court it’s shocking; this particular incident felt more like the foreseeable release of a sharp frustration that had been bubbling for weeks.
When they dropped their very first game of the playoffs against Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets, Kobe Bryant didn’t mince words: “He’s not naturally aggressive,” Bryant said about Pau Gasol, who made two baskets in the whole game. “Even if I’m tired, I’m naturally aggressive.”
Then, earlier in that series against Dallas, Bynum all but confirmed LA’s locker room drama. “It’s obvious we have trust issues,” he said. “Unless we come out and discuss it, then nothing is going to really change.”
Winning one championship is hard. Winning two in a row — as these Lakers did — is a Rubik’s Cube. Three-peats are a first-class ticket to immortality. But for this particular team, one full of championship experience and Hall of Fame talent, to fall short without any tangible explanation … it almost diminishes the impressiveness of that entire era.
I remember the end of Game 1 against Dallas, watching Bryant back rim a three at the buzzer that would’ve put the Lakers up 1-0 and thinking LA would shake off the cobwebs and win in five or maybe six. When the series ended, I kept going back to Bryant’s three that never was, how it couldn’t have missed by more than an inch, and what would’ve happened from that point on if it went in.
Several factors decide whether a talented team will surge or fizzle at various inflection points on any given playoff run. The psychological momentum held in that one fading three was immense. Had it gone in, the Mavs could have overcome its devastating toll and still won it all, but to do so before earning the collective confidence every champion must acquire would’ve been next to impossible. The Lakers were so close yet so far away.
Their collapse then led to the Dwight Howard-Steve Nash apocalypse, while simultaneously cheating us of a possible Lakers-Heat showdown in that year’s Finals. What a shame.
Regular season record: 53-29
Key losses: None
Key additions: Terry Porter
San Antonio’s first title defense ended before it began when 23-year-old Tim Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee during Game 78 of his third season. The Spurs limped into the playoffs as a 53-win, No. 4 seed, where they were swiftly handled by a Phoenix Suns team that didn’t have their own best player (Jason Kidd) for the first three games, thanks to a broken ankle.
Looking back, though, all that really matters are the circumstances that surrounded Duncan’s knee. It’s an overlooked what-if moment in NBA history, full of incredible foresight and head-shaking details that make the whole thing seem avoidable if the Spurs knew then what we know now.
On one hand, Duncan averaged 42.5 minutes in the 10 games before he was shut down, including 48 (!!) in his season finale against Sacramento — a six-point overtime win in which Duncan finished 6-for-22 from the field and was not subbed out at all in the first and third quarters. (To put this in context, Giannis Antetokounmpo has crossed the 40-minute mark twice in the last two seasons.)
On the other hand, Gregg Popovich was wise enough to put Duncan on ice. Who knows how his knee/career would’ve been affected had he played, or even if that year’s champion — the first of three straight for Kobe Bryant’s and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers — would’ve been too much for them to handle.
San Antonio swept LA from the playoffs the previous year. The Lakers were talented but unproven, nearly falling against Sacramento in the first round after a 67-win regular season. Eventually they needed a Trail Blazers collapse in Game 7 of the conference finals to finally break through; it’s fair to wonder how any of this would’ve gone down had the Spurs let Duncan loose.
”I don’t know if it was right or wrong,” Popovich said over a decade later. “But we did it.”
Looking back on it, the Spurs had 34-year-old David Robinson (who was still an all-star/monster) and Sean Elliot rounding into shape after a kidney transplant forced him to miss the first three quarters of the season. From there, Terry Porter, Mario Elie, and Avery Johnson (who made one three in 2,571 minutes) were on their last legs, long before Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili injected new life into the organization.
The Spurs famously never went back-to-back in the Duncan era. This was low-key their best chance to do so.
Regular season record: 62-20
Key additions: None
Kobe Bryant’s first ring without Shaquille O’Neal came on a 65-win, revenge-fueled Lakers squad that spent all season stewing over their miserable Finals experience the previous June. The wheelchair game. The 24-point comeback at Staples Center (in which Ray Allen made the biggest *layup* of his career). That listless 39-point beatdown in Game 6. In 2009 they weren’t the best Lakers team ever, but did have a healthy and mountainous 21-year-old Andrew Bynum back in the starting lineup. No team in the Western Conference stood much of a chance.
But on the other side of the bracket, the Celtics were their own machine, emboldened by a champion’s aplomb, benefit of continuity, and Rajon Rondo’s steady bloom into a stud. The Celtics started the season 27-2, including a 19-game win streak that was ended on Christmas Day by the 23-5 Lakers.
As every member of their fanbase is well aware, in Boston’s first game after the NBA All-Star Game break the 44-11 Celtics were decapitated when Kevin Garnett injured his knee trying to catch a lob against the Utah Jazz. He tested it out a few weeks later but the results were pitiful relative to Garnett’s usual standards: 9 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 16.5 minutes in four games. He wasn’t healthy enough for the playoffs.
Without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Boston eventually scraped past Derrick Rose’s hungry Bulls in a classic seven-game series that included five games decided by three or fewer points before they blew a 3-2 lead against the Magic. (When it became clear Garnett would miss the entire postseason, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said this about the first-place Cavs: “They earned home court, they earned the best record, they are clearly a championship-quality team, and in my opinion they have the best basketball player on the planet right now: Mo Williams.”)
A series against the Cavs would’ve been a dog fight even if Garnett’s knee was 100 percent, but, as was made clear the following year, the Celtics were just about impossible to beat four times in seven tries when everybody was healthy. (Did you know their starting five never lost a playoff series? It’s true.)
This was before the three-point revolution, when physicality, size, and defense dictated wins and losses. On that end, Garnett and Boston’s defensive coordinator Tom Thibodeau owned the league with a back line overload concept that everybody else tried to copy. LeBron James was already the best player in the world, but Cleveland had yet to give him enough help.
One year later, Boston and LA met again, but by then the Celtics were on fumes. Garnett wasn’t the same player, and, even for a team that routinely struggled to score points throughout their time as a championship contender, the 2010 Finals were a particularly bumpy rock fight.
The Celtics emerged from the Garnett era with one ring, which is impressive by itself. But his injury in 2009 stole an opportunity everyone in Boston wished they could have back.
Regular season record: 36-30
Poor Dirk Nowitzki. It’s either recency bias or the deflating way Dallas allowed its only champion to implode overnight, but this team inspired me to write this article more than any other. The only championship team in franchise history was kind of like a sturdy Jenga tower, if that makes any sense. So long as every piece was in the right place, they had a breadth of complementary skill-sets who all belonged — an embodiment of the idea that the sum can be greater than its individual parts.
Unfortunately, six guys were free agents that offseason, and the only one Dallas retained was Brian “The Janitor” Cardinal, whose three-point percentage dropped from 48.3 to 20.4. Not great!
One particular decision still pains Mavs fans to this day. At the time, with the lockout sewing a modest amount of confusion into every team’s long-term strategy, Mark Cuban sided with long-term flexibility over the 29-year-old defensive anchor Tyson Chandler. Instead of keeping a good thing (with a narrow window of contention) going, they fell in love with the idea of pairing another free agent star with Nowitzki. One in the hand is worth two in the bush, etc.
Hindsight is 20/20, but even at the time this felt icky. Since, the Mavericks have advanced past the first round precisely zero times; in 2012 the Mavs were swept in Round 1 by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden’s Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s fair to look at the talent in Oklahoma City and say Dallas capitalized on its one and only chance, but Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry deserved an opportunity to sustain their magic against LeBron James’ Heat one more time.
Chandler went on to win Defensive Player of the Year during his first season with the Knicks, and eventually came back to Dallas in 2015. By then the landscape had shifted. Golden State was starting a dynasty and Nowitzki was 36. “Obviously it would have been better if we could have kept him, right?” Cuban said at Chandler’s press conference in 2014. “But our hand was dealt with all the changes. All’s well that ends well. I think it turned out just the way we wanted, just the way I planned.”
A year later, Chandler was in Phoenix. The Mavs, having thought DeAndre Jordan was in the bag, were left in the cold once again.
1) 2007 Miami Heat
Regular season record: 44-38
Key losses: None
Key additions: None
For these Heat, “sad,” as it’s described in the introduction of this article, equals “pathetic.” This team was as mediocre as it was forgettable as it was disappointing. For just a moment, try and get past the fact they were the first defending champion in over 50 years to get swept from the first round, and instead focus on how they made zero essential changes to their championship roster during the offseason and then lost their season opener by 42 points!
Getting demolished in the playoffs was embarrassing but could at least be blamed on a regular season that was ravaged by injuries (Dwyane Wade missed 31 games and Shaquille O’Neal sat out 42). But to no-show your own ring ceremony? And only score 66 points!? Needless to say, this was officially the worst loss in league history by a defending champ on opening night.
Now, when you throw in the controversy that still surrounds Miami’s 2006 title — Oprah Winfrey might as well have stood on the baseline shouting “You get a whistle, and you get a whistle!” every time Wade drove into the paint — is there any title from the last 25 years that feels more random if that postseason were simulated 100 times? I’m not trying to disparage a championship run, but the league had no boogeyman in 2007, and the Eastern Conference was wide open once again.
In 2008, O’Neal was traded and Alonzo Mourning retired. They won 15 games and were awarded the second pick in the draft, which meant Michael Beasley instead of Derrick Rose. Eventually LeBron James saved Miami from the wilderness and forever altered how that organization is perceived. But back in 2007 they were, as Pat Riley said in early January — when he announced his own indefinite leave of absence to deal with personal health issues — ”We have a championship team that is sideways right now, so this is going to be a great challenge. Keep your notebooks open. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Narrator: It played out like a complete and total catastrophe. Some might point to the injuries and the age-related decline, but that’s kind of an excuse. This team is remembered as a defending champion that had no interest in wanting to do it all over again. That’s not what you want.