In the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics, the words "dream team" entered the basketball lexicon in earnest, as USA Basketball put together its most powerful Olympic lineup to date — a team of 11 certified NBA superstars, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, and one collegiate star (Christian Laettner) who would have a decent, yet ultimately underwhelming NBA career. Now that was a true Dream Team, as you had the best the NBA and NCAA had to offer at the time. And they didn't disappoint either, as they put on a dominant performance to win Olympic gold at Barcelona.
On a more NBA-specific scale, there have been many so-called "dream teams," which may or may not be "superteams" — both terms are similar, yet can sometimes be completely different at the end of the day. Every NBA team's ultimate dream is to win a championship, but for some, dreams could be smaller, yet relatively lofty given their previous circumstances — as you'll see in one of the examples below, that team's dream was simply to make the playoffs after two straight horrid seasons.
But other than that, all of the teams here were, at the very least, expected to make a lot of noise in the postseason, with a lot of them expected to go all the way to the NBA Finals, and some expected to win it all. In all the cases, poor chemistry, injuries, poor play in the clutch (or the opponent hitting clutch daggers), and/or other factors got in the way of their dreams, and they ultimately ended up as nightmares. So with that said, let's take a look at 15 NBA "dream teams" whose seasons ended in nightmarish circumstances.
15 15. 1994-95 DALLAS MAVERICKS
When talking about "dream teams," we aren't exclusively talking about superteams, as mentioned above. The term could be relative, in the sense that it could be a "dream" for a team that won a combined 24 games in their last two seasons to make the playoffs in the next. That was the situation the 1994-95 Dallas Mavericks found themselves in, as they were adding rookie point guard protege Jason Kidd to a lineup that featured two young wingmen — Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson — with All-Star-level skills and the numbers to back it up. They were also bringing back once-promising forward/center Roy Tarpley after he missed almost four full seasons due to a drug ban.
The Mavericks finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs, and it all boiled down to the fact that the "Three Js" didn't like each other. Not to mention, the long-standing rumor that Jackson and Kidd were feuding over a woman — a very famous one at that in R&B singer Toni Braxton. And if you're wondering about Tarpley, he ended up relapsing, and was gone from the NBA in December 1995, this time for good.
14 14. 1957-58 CINCINNATI ROYALS
The Sacramento Kings have been in the NBA for almost seven decades, yet they have only won one championship in their long history. But they did have a fighting chance of making it two championships in the 1950s, back when they were still the Cincinnati Royals. For the 1957-58 season, they added All-Star center Clyde Lovellette from the Lakers and coaxed point guard George King out of retirement, having them join the stellar young forward duo of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman. And while shooting guard Sihugo Green (the guy the Royals infamously drafted ahead of Bill Russell) was still in the military, they did acquire Jim Paxson (John and Jim Jr.'s dad), who was picked third after Green and Russell in the 1956 draft.
Despite that substantial talent upgrade, the Royals could only improve two games from the year before, finishing tied for second in the West with a 33-39 record. But the real nightmare happened when do-it-all power forward Stokes, then only 24 and in the prime of a surefire Hall of Fame career, suffered a career-ending brain injury after being knocked unconscious in the final game of the regular season. The Royals lost 2-0 to the Detroit Pistons in the Western Conference semifinal, and Stokes, who remained paralyzed for the rest of his life, was just 36 when he died of a heart attack in April 1970.
13 13. 1988-89 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Just a few years earlier, they were incompetent owner Ted Stepien’s Cleveland Cadavers. But in 1988-89, the Cavaliers were a young and talented team that seemed poised to give the Detroit Pistons a run for their money in the Eastern Conference. Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Ron Harper were certified stars at center, point guard, and shooting guard, and none of them were older than 25. Super-subs Hot Rod Williams and Craig Ehlo were 26 and 27, while Larry Nance, the elder statesman of the starting lineup at 29, was an offensive and defensive force at the four. Plus, they had one of the NBA’s best coaches in Lenny Wilkens.
The Cavs finished 57-25 in the regular season to make second seed in the East. Then Michael Jordan and “The Shot” happened in Game 5 of Cleveland’s first-round playoff series against the Bulls. With the Cavs leading by one with a second remaining, Jordan stuck a dagger in the hearts of the Richfield Coliseum crowd, hitting a last-second jumper on Ehlo to win the game for Chicago. That's proof positive that dream seasons can become nightmares, even at the very last second of a winnable playoff series.
12 12. 1995-96 NEW YORK KNICKS
In the mid-'90s, Pat Riley led the New York Knicks to great success with a slow-paced, bruising game that took no prisoners, yet frequently struggled to score a hundred points. Still, the important thing was that clamp-down defense, and those mid-‘90s Knicks were massively talented too, with Patrick Ewing joined by John Starks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Derek Harper. And they were all back for the 1995-96 season, bent on getting back at Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers and pulling a fast one on the newly-unretired Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Thing is, Riley was no longer onboard, as he resigned after the Knicks’ playoff loss to the Pacers in 1995. In his place stepped another great coach in Don Nelson, but it was clear from the start that Nellie’s penchant for running was not in sync with the Knicks’ preference for plodding. Nelson's Knicks underachieved, going 34-25 before he was replaced by the more defensive-oriented Jeff Van Gundy. Still, it was too little, too late, as New York was handily defeated by the Bulls, 4-1, in the second round of the 1996 playoffs.
11 11. 1993-94 SEATTLE SUPERSONICS
The 1993-94 Sonics seemed to have almost all the ingredients in place for them to win Seattle’s first NBA championship since 1979. Shawn Kemp was still a lean, mean 20-10 machine at the four, Gary Payton was among the league’s finest point guards, Detlef Schrempf did a little bit of everything at the three, Kendall Gill was a solid two-way player at off-guard, and the bench was led by Sam “Big Smooth” Perkins and instant offense specialist Ricky Pierce. Oh, there was Michael Cage as an arguable weak link as a 6'9" starting center, but at least he was a good rebounder and defender. All told, the Sonics went 63-19 in the regular season, and were first seed in the Western Conference.
While the Sonics were weak in the middle, their eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets had the NBA's best defensive center in Dikembe Mutombo. And it was Deke's defense that helped Denver come back from 2-0 down to eliminate Seattle in the first round of the 1994 playoffs — in all, he had a record (for a five-game series) 31 blocks against the Sonics, including eight of 'em in the Game 5 overtime thriller.
10 10. 2006-07 DALLAS MAVERICKS
Although the Dallas Mavericks would eventually win their first NBA championship four years later, many were pretty sure it was bound to happen in 2007, as league MVP Dirk Nowitzki found himself surrounded by what seemed to be his best supporting cast to date. Actually, it was more of a case of a superstar and his supporting cast coming together, as Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Devin Harris, and Jerry Stackhouse all returned from the 2005-06 season. Oh, and there was also Devean George coming over from the Lakers to offer some threes and D, and the Erick Dampier/Desagana Diop platoon at center was, at the very least, a more than competent source of rebounds and interior defense.
Instead of representing the West against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals, the Mavs (67-15 regular season, mind you) were sent packing early by Baron Davis and the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. Yes, those Warriors who squeaked into the playoffs with a 42-40 record and allowed the most points in the league. Like the above-mentioned '94 Sonics, it would seem as if the Mavericks only had overconfidence to blame for this rare case of a top seed losing to the bottom seed in the first round of the playoffs.
9 9. 1980-81 LOS ANGLES LAKERS
The 1980-81 Lakers seemed destined to repeat as champions. Aside from sensational sophomore Magic Johnson, all their key contributors were back – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Jim Chones, and Michael Cooper. Former All-Star Spencer Haywood, who was a drug-addled disappointment the year prior, was gone. There were no substantial additions, but then again, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Thing is, Paul Westhead did try to “fix it” in his first full year as head coach. He stuck to predecessor Jack McKinney’s simple, yet effective run-and-gun system when a freak bicycle accident took McKinney out of the job in 1979-80, but with McKinney not coming back, Westhead did things his way in 1980-81, implementing a super-complicated offense that made many Lakers, especially Magic, more than a little salty. Johnson missing more than half of the season due to injuries and feuding with backcourt mate Nixon didn’t help either. And with the Lakers still getting good seeding in the playoffs with a 54-28 record, they were unceremoniously knocked out in the first round by the less-talented overall, but much more cohesive Houston Rockets.
8 8. 2001-02 SACRAMENTO KINGS
This list also includes an entry featuring the Kings in a previous incarnation, and as we explained there, they’ve only one championship in their 69-year existence. But Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, and Vlade Divac came close to bringing a championship to Sac-Town in 2001-02, as they finished with their best regular season record ever in terms of wins (an NBA-best 61-21), while exciting fans with their uptempo style of play and heated interstate rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers. It wasn't quite Magic's Lakers vs. Bird's Celtics, but both sides — the players and the fans alike — clearly didn't like each other.
With a slim 3-2 lead over the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Kings lost in Game 6 at the Staples Center, a game many sportswriters felt the referees awarded the Lakers with way too many free throws for their own good. And in an ironic note, it was the Kings' own shoddy free throw shooting that killed them in Game 7, as the Lakers won another close game and ended Sacramento's NBA Finals ambitions in the most controversial of ways. (And heartbreaking too, as you can't forget Robert Horry's game-winning three in Game 4, where the Kings blew a 24-point halftime lead and a chance to steal one from the Lakers at Staples.)
7 7. 1996-97 HOUSTON ROCKETS
After vanquishing the New York Knicks in 1994 NBA Finals that set new standards for the soon-to-be “Uglyball” era and the Orlando Magic a year later in a higher-scoring, yet ultimately lopsided series, the Houston Rockets were seemingly fading in 1995-96. But the aging, yet still-deadly duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler would become a Big Three in 1996-97 when the Rockets acquired the services of Charles Barkley. That immediately made the Rockets look like a cinch to win the NBA Finals in 1997, but that just wasn't meant to be.
The 1996-97 Rockets weren’t really that bad, finishing 57-25 and losing in the Western Conference Finals to Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz. And to be fair, Hakeem, Clyde, and Sir Charles got along fairly well. But while some Rockets, such as Kevin Willis, Mario Elie, and Eddie Johnson, made good complementary role players, the team was noticeably aging, and Matt Maloney, who was one of Houston’s few contributors below the age of 30, would have been a subpar starting point guard, even on a bad team.
6 6. 2003-04 LOS ANGELES LAKERS
So what if Karl Malone and Gary Payton were long in the tooth – they were, as of the season prior to their 2003 arrival in L.A., among the best at their position. With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal already in place and Phil Jackson still working his Zen magic for one more season, the Lakers looked like a cinch to win the NBA Finals. Yes, you should be noticing a trend here – a lot of these dream teams-turned-nightmares are Lakers teams, and they’ve long had a knack for putting too many cooks in charge of the championship broth.
With a myriad of distractions including Shaq’s contract issues and Kobe’s sexual assault case, the Lakers pulled through to win 56 games in the regular season, only to end up beaten convincingly in five games by the ultimate No-Star All-Stars themselves, Larry Brown’s “Play the Right Way” Detroit Pistons. Malone retired after this season, while Payton was traded, and with Jackson also out as head coach, the Lakers stumbled to a 34-48 record in 2004-05. Ouch.
5 5. 1968-69 LOS ANGELES LAKERS
It seemed like the perfect antidote to all those years of Boston Celtics dominance — Mr. Inside (Elgin Baylor) and Mr. Outside (Jerry West), to be joined by Mr. Giant (Wilt Chamberlain). And all it cost the Lakers was a promising young guard (Archie Clark) and two journeymen (Darrall Imhoff and Jerry Chambers). That trade took place in the 1968 offseason, and while it did help make the Lakers much better on paper (they only improved three games in the regular season, from 52-30 to 55-27), it wasn't enough for them to beat the Celtics and the retiring Bill Russell in the 1969 NBA Finals.
Apparently, Chamberlain and Baylor didn't like each other, and the Big Dipper openly feuded with head coach Butch Van Breda Kolff, who infamously benched Wilt with six minutes to go in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals in Los Angeles. There was speculation that the knee injury Chamberlain supposedly suffered at that point wasn't really that serious, and it was the final nail in the Lakers' coffin, as they lost to the Celtics, 108-106, with their prized big man nowhere on the court.
4 4. 2015-16 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
We made it clear in the introduction — even if you put together a dream of a regular season, it could ultimately become a nightmare in the postseason under the perfect storm of circumstances. And it could also happen during the Finals itself, as we saw last year with the Golden State Warriors. Fueled by eventual MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and what seemed like the perfect mix of role players, the Dubs set a new NBA record with 73 wins and only nine losses in the 2015-16 regular season, and everything was going swimmingly until Game 5 of the 2016 Finals.
Of course, that's where everything unraveled for the Warriors, as LeBron James proved to everyone that his days as the guy with no fourth quarter were long gone — King James now had all four quarters and then some. The rest was history, as the Warriors became the first team to blow a 3-1 Finals lead, and that alone was bad enough to make their 2015-16 campaign end in nightmarish fashion.
3 3. 2001-02 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
We’ve also got an entry here for this team’s predecessors, the 2000-01 Blazers, a super team that turned into a super bust when Portland executives decided they needed another point guard when they already had Damon Stoudamire and Greg Anthony. But the 2001-02 Blazers deserve mention in this list as the first of multiple “Jail Blazers” teams – rich in talent, yet even richer in troublemaking potential.
Gone from the 2000-01 lineup were Arvydas Sabonis and Steve Smith, as Sabonis was so upset with the lack of chemistry that he left, while Smith was traded for Derek Anderson. Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, and Stoudamire returned as starters, while Dale Davis became a full-time starting center. Shawn Kemp was still eating more pizzas than scoring points as Wallace’s backup at the four, while Ruben Patterson joined as Pippen’s backup at the three, while also having to register as a sex offender.
With a lineup full of man-children (including, but not limited to some of the players above), the 2001-02 "Jail Blazers" finished 49-33, and got blanked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Again.
2 2. 2000-01 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
How could you have gone wrong with such a team? The 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers had Arvydas Sabonis and Dale Davis at center, Rasheed Wallace and Shawn Kemp at power forward, Scottie Pippen and Stacey Augmon at small forward, Steve Smith and Bonzi Wells at shooting guard, and Damon Stoudamire and Greg Anthony at point guard. With such a wickedly talented lineup, the Blazers were 45-12 at the time they became even stronger on paper, with the signing of disgruntled point guard Rod Strickland from the Washington Wizards.
As that lineup was already volatile as it is pre-Strickland, Hot Rod’s signing turned the Blazers cold, as they won just eight of their last 25 games and got swept by the Lakers in the first round of the 2001 playoffs. It was a classic case of too many cooks, and team president/GM Bob Whitsitt, who had helped put the team together, was derided as a "rotisserie manager," or someone who puts together talented lineups with no accounting for chemistry problems.
1 1. 2012-13 LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Yep, it's those Lakers again, topping this list with their fifth appearance in it. Remember the last time they were good? If you do, that was also meant to be the last time they were supposed to be great. One year prior, they performed solidly with a nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. And with the acquisition of Dwight Howard via four-way trade (with Bynum going to the Philadelphia 76ers and soon, into NBA oblivion), and a sign-and-trade that brought in Steve Nash to call the plays at point guard, the 2012-13 Lakers looked like world-beaters.
Instead of beating the world, the Lakers oftentimes ended up beating themselves, as infighting became the name of the game. Bryant wasn’t getting along with Howard, arguably worse than how he and Shaquille O’Neal wouldn’t get along during those championship days. The onetime Superman of the Orlando Magic frequently seemed to be on autopilot, and he was becoming a big-time locker room distraction. And the Lakers didn’t respond well to Mike D’Antoni’s signature uptempo system, all leading up to a 17-24 record at midseason, a 45-37 record at the end of the year, and a clean sweep at the hands of the Spurs in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
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