As any loyal fan in any sport will be able to tell you, fandom is composed of just two states: joy and suffering. Nothing in between. Not always in equal measure, but never one without the other. Your favorite team/athlete either seizes victory, or suffers crushing defeat. Many a long-suffering fan has wished nothing more than to bask in the same success that seems to come so easily to their rivals. With that said, experiencing devastating losses is what makes a big win all the sweeter. However, the opposite is also true. If you grow accustomed to winning all the time, losing can come as a shock to the system. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Perhaps no other sporting event in recent memory illustrates this duality better than Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. On a Sunday night in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors’ historic season came crashing down in a flurry of blocked shots, careless turnovers, and a force of nature by the name of LeBron James. The fairytale ending to cap off the greatest regular season of all time now only exists in some alternate history, one where perhaps James arrives a tenth of a second too late to pummel Andre Iguodala’s layup attempt into the backboard, or Kyrie Irving puts just a little too much air under the stepback 3-pointer that clinched the title for his Cleveland Cavaliers. On the flipside, the Cavaliers became first-time winners and in the process broke one of the longest standing regional curses in the history of American sports.
In honour of the great, but ultimately unsuccessful season just put together by the Warriors, let’s take a look back at other fallen titans, NBA teams that were too great to fail, until they did, often in stunning fashion.
15. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls (62-20)
What made them great: A young MVP in Derrick Rose and one of the league’s most stifling defenses masterminded by coach Tom Thibodeau had to make Chicago feel pretty bullish about their title prospects. They had acquired one of the prize free agents of the 2010 summer in Carlos Boozer and that signing helped propel them to a 62-win season. Unfortunately, one of the rivals had acquired the biggest free agent prize.
Why they came up short: While the Bulls were stingy on defense, putting the ball in the basket themselves was another story. This deficiency reared its ugly head in the Eastern Conference Finals, when they were forced to face the Miami Heat, another top-5 defensive team. LeBron and his new South Beach buddies fittingly sealed Chicago’s fate with a stunning comeback from down 12 in the last 4 minutes of Game 5. This Bulls team came around just when the Heat had built a powerhouse.
14. 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (64-18)
What made them great: The Pistons teams of the early – mid-2000s were known for a stalwart defense anchored by all-time great Ben Wallace, and this team was no exception. After their 2004 NBA Championship, it was expected that the Pistons could perhaps have a run similar to the Pistons of the late 80s. What separated this season’s group was a surprisingly efficient offense that relied on ball movement, sound decision-making, and balanced scoring from Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince.
Why they came up short: Their previous two seasons had seen them win a title and then take the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the Finals. Unfortunately, that level of success gets harder to maintain with each deep playoff run, and the Pistons may have simply run out of steam against a Miami Heat squad featuring budding superstar Dwyane Wade and aging, yet still effective legend Shaquille O’Neal.
13. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (62-20)
What made them great: The “7 Seconds or Less” Suns were the 2000s answer to the “Showtime” Lakers, and it all started when they (re)acquired Steve Nash from Dallas in 2004 free agency. Offensive maestro Mike D’Antoni finally had the engine to make his Ferrari go from 29 to 62 wins in just a single season. The Suns seemed set to steamroll through the Western Conference and meet the Pistons in an offense vs defense showdown in the 2005 Finals.
Why they came up short: Phoenix rolled through the first round, but disaster struck in the next round versus Dallas, when key starter Joe Johnson broke his orbital bone. Phoenix won the series, but the injury sidelined Johnson until Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. By that point, the San Antonio Spurs had a commanding 2-0 lead, a deficit not even the Suns could rise from.
12. 1979-80 Boston Celtics (61-21)
What made them great: A squad with four future Hall of Famers, including Nate Archibald, Dave Cowens, and “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who came off the bench. Oh yeah, and some rookie from French Lick, Indiana by the name of Larry Bird. The 1979-80 Celtics were a virtual lock to at least make the NBA Finals that year and in many years this team would have finished it off for a championship.
Why they came up short: As a rookie, Larry Legend hadn’t quite earned the second part of his nickname yet, and the league had only just introduced the 3-point shot, meaning no one had quite yet figured out how to turn a shooter like Bird into the deadly long-range assassin he would soon become. The Celtics would suffer an upset at the hands of the 76ers led by Julius Erving.
Don’t feel too bad though, things seem to have turned out alright for Bird and the Celtics in the end.
11. 1989-90 Los Angeles Lakers (63-19)
What made them great: The ‘80s were dominated by Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics, combining for eight of the previous 10 championships. Johnson was in his prime having won back-to-back MVPs, and the Lakers looked poised for a return to form after injuries to Johnson and Byron Scott lost them the previous season’s title to the “Bad Boy” Pistons.
Why they came up short: Whether they knew it or not, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement the year before signaled the end of an era for the Lakers. Though in his 40s by the time he hung ’em up, the master of the skyhook had been the heart and soul of the franchise for 14 years. Without his leadership, L.A. flamed out to a Phoenix Suns team that was evidently better than their good-but-not-great 54-28 record would suggest. The Lakers would fade from there, as Pat Riley would leave the team following the 1989-90 season.
10. 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22)
What made them great: An unmatched combination of youth and talent (despite losing reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden in the offseason), led by MVP candidate Kevin Durant and his trusty sidekick Russell Westbrook. An unsuccessful trip to the Finals the year before made this group hungrier and better prepared than ever before. It was the Thunder’s time to make their run at the title and everybody was expecting a rematch of the 2012 Finals against the Heat. Sometimes though, you need the breaks to get to a Finals.
Why they came up short: Westbrook’s torn meniscus. It’s as simple as that. One of the league’s most durable players, who hadn’t missed a game throughout college and the pros, went down with a freak, season-ending injury in Round 1. The following series saw Durant get worn down under the pressure of shouldering the extra load, and the Thunder bowed out to Memphis in just 5 games.
9. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (61-21)
What made them great: The Kings’ high-octane offense made them a fan favourite, and replacing flashy but wild Jason Williams with solid, dependable point guard Mike Bibby turned them from a circus sideshow to serious contenders. Two all-time great passing big men in Chris Webber and Vlade Divac gave them playmakers all over the floor, making them a nightmare to guard.
Why they came up short: They faced the Lakers in arguably one of the most epic and controversial playoff series in the history of the sport. A 24 point comeback and game-winning 3 from Robert Horry. A Game 6 featuring calls so brutal many believe that it was rigged. And finally, in overtime of Game 7, missed free throws and air balls cost the Kings the series, and almost certainly a title. They would defeat the Lakers the following year, but this dream Kings team failed to make the NBA Finals. It’s a shame, as a final with this team would have been a joy to watch.
8. 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers – (62-20)
What made them great: With MVP and future hall-of-famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving leading the way, this was a deep, experienced squad that forced opposing teams to shoot a league-worst .454 effective field goal percentage against them.
Why they came up short: Like so many great Eastern Conference teams of the ‘80s, the 76ers fell victim to eventual champions Boston in a closely contested Conference Finals. The Celtics exacted their revenge from the year before, when the Sixers had defeated them en route to their finals appearance. As for this series, 5 of the 7 games were decided by 2 points or less, including the deciding Game 7, which Boston took 91-90. Philly would get its revenge two years later when the Celtics flamed out in the second round, clearing the way for Dr. J and new addition Moses Malone to win their first and only NBA titles.
7. 1996-97 Utah Jazz (64-18)
What made them great: “Stockton to Malone!” became one of the most repeated broadcasting mantras of the ‘90s, with Utah’s dynamic duo regularly slicing up the rest of the league with unguardable pick-and-roll actions. Karl Malone’s MVP season had his team looking poised for a title run, but there was just one thing in their way.
Why they came up short: Two words: Jordan’s. Bulls. The Jazz breezed to the finals with relative ease before running into one of the most unstoppable juggernauts the sport has ever seen. Some teams on this list underperformed or were dealt unlucky injuries; the Jazz were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and both Stockton and Malone would remain ringless for the rest of their otherwise brilliant careers. Had they come around in any other era, they almost certainly would have built a dynasty.
6. 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers (63-19)
What made them great: One of those rare teams that combined potent offense with strong defense. Led by perennial All-Star Clyde Drexler, their balanced attack featured a staggering 7 double digit scorers. They also led the league in assists and 3-point shooting, playing a style of basketball that was ahead of its time. After falling in the 1990 Finals to the Pistons, many felt that this was going to be Portland’s year.
Why they came up short: The “Showtime” Lakers may have been past their prime, but they were still dangerous while Magic Johnson was still healthy and took out the Blazers in 6. Ironically, Portland had made the Finals the year before, and made it there again the year after, but failed to capitalize in the intervening season with their deepest group. Could they have kept Jordan from his first ring? We’ll never know.
5. 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics (63-19)
What made them great: Built around the talents of freak athlete Shawn Kemp and tenacious ballhawk Gary Payton, the Sonics deployed an old-school style of aggressive, pressuring defense that forced their opponents into turnovers and led to fast break opportunities. There were so many great teams in the 90s that just seemed to be around in the wrong era, as the league was stacked with elite talent. That’s not why they came up short in this particular year though.
Why they came up short: Jordan’s retirement after winning a third straight title in 1993 had the rest of the league smelling opportunity. With basketball immortality on the line, Seattle promptly…lost in the first round to 8-seed Denver in one of the most stunning upsets of all time. Dikembe Mutombo falling to the ground clutching the ball in joyous disbelief is one of the most iconic images in NBA playoff history.
4. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
What made them great: The short answer is: LeBron James. Having reached the start of his prime, James was the most unstoppable, well-rounded force in basketball by a large margin. Combined with a top-3 defensive rating and new sidekick Mo Williams, the Cavaliers finally looked like they had surrounded James with the pieces he needed to bring a championship home.
Why they came up short: While James’ supporting cast was his finest yet, that’s not saying much (seriously, look at who he carried to the Finals two years prior…that’s not a D-League team, believe it or not). After sweeping through the first two rounds, they were upset by an Orlando team that was peaking at just the right time. LeBron put in a superhuman effort, but could only drag his team so far. LeBron was out of Cleveland a year later and perhaps it was due to fatigue of having to carry his team year after year.
3. 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs (67-15)
What made them great: It’s easy to forget how great this team was because of the shadow of the Warriors, but the numbers don’t lie. The Spurs have been synonymous with winning basketball throughout most of their existence, and this season’s squad had a chance to be remembered as the pinnacle, with their league-best defense and ruthlessly efficient offense.
Why they came up short: For whatever reason, the OKC Thunder decided to save their best for last, shocking the unsuspecting Spurs before nearly taking out the Warriors. The Spurs were arguably the better team in the series, but a couple of close games that came down to 50/50 calls went the Thunder’s way to help pull off the upset. The Thunder/Warriors series made for an awesome Western Conference Finals, but basketball fans can’t help but wonder how a series between two all-time great teams would have done.
2. 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (67-15)
What made them great: Having suffered a humiliating Finals defeat the year before, Dirk Nowitzki put together an MVP campaign with redemption on his mind. Leading his team to the top seed in a loaded Western Conference, a return to the Finals was looking like a strong possibility. It was not to be.
Why they came up short: In the first round, the Mavs were given an unfavorable matchup with the Golden State Warriors, a team they had lost to in all three regular season meetings. The Warriors’ chaotic style of play continued to give Dallas fits, and they crumbled under the pressure, getting eliminated in a shocking Game 6 blowout in which Nowitzki managed just 8 points. It remains the only time in NBA history that an 8-seed has won a 7 game series. Unfortunately, the Mavs find themselves as a foot note in that history.
1. 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9)
What made them great: We’ve all seen and heard by now all the innumerable records broken by this team. Best regular season record. Most 3-pointers made. Most consecutive wins to start a season. Oh yeah, and the greatest shooter of all time, Steph Curry, putting together a second straight MVP campaign.
Why they came up short: It took a litany of snowballing issues to finally slow down Golden State, and even then they were only a couple plays away from avoiding a place on this list. An injury to Curry and physical, 7 game Thunder series were the first to take their toll. Additional injuries and an untimely suspension for Draymond Green were the final nails in the coffin that allowed LeBron James to finally seize a title for Cleveland, ending one of the most captivating and historically significant Finals in any sport.
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