The San Antonio Spurs bowed out (albeit in glorious fashion) of the playoffs this past weekend, joining a depressing pool of former champions who failed to put up a proper fight in defense of their title the following season. Of course, they took their series to seven games against a really tough L.A. Clippers team, and even then it went down to the final seconds. That’s a reasonably valiant end, even if it did come in the first round.
To put that into perspective, the following are a handful of the truly most depressing title defenses in NBA history. No matter how down the Spurs are right now, there have been several defending champions that have felt a whole lot worse:
#5 – 2011 L.A. Lakers – When the San Antonio Spurs were upset in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, it seemed more certain than ever that the L.A. Lakers would at least get back to the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row, but instead they were swept by the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals. The Mavericks played great in that series, but a sweep? With that sort of talent on the Lakers’ roster? It was the first time that Phil Jackson had ever experienced a sweep in the playoffs, and 0nly the third time since 1990 that the Lakers lost a playoff series with home court advantage.
#4 – 1984 Philadelphia 76ers – There are some who consider the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers the greatest NBA team of all time. They won 65 regular season games, but what really makes them memorable is the fact that they absolutely destroyed the 1983 playoff field. They only played three rounds back in the early ’80s, but Philly came one game short of sweeping all of them. Behind Julius Erving and Moses Malone, they killed the league that year, which makes it so disappointing that, only a year later, Philadelphia won seven fewer regular season games and got booted out of the first round of the playoffs in just five games. It was New Jersey who knocked them out, giving them their first playoff series win in franchise history.
#3 – 2007 Miami HEAT – In the first game of the 2006-07 season, the game in which the Miami HEAT got their championship rings from the previous summer, they got whooped at home by 42 points at the hands of the Chicago Bulls. Things got only marginally better from there – with major injuries to both Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade over the course of the year – and the HEAT ended up with eight fewer wins than the previous season. When it was all said and done, Miami ended up losing to—who else?— the Bulls in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The season after that, they posted the worst record in the league, finishing with only 15 wins. It was a dark time for the HEAT in those pre-LeBron years.
#2 – 1978 Portland Trail Blazers – Here’s the thing about the 1977-78 Blazers: after winning the championship in 1977, they actually came out and played a better regular season the following year, adding nine wins to their previous season’s total. It looked as though Portland, behind their All-Star big man Bill Walton, would own the league for a few more years. But as fate would have it, Walton hurt his foot in the waning portion of the 1978 regular season. The Blazers finished the year horribly and bowed out in the second round. They wouldn’t get out of the first round the next three years after that, and Walton’s foot was never the same.
#1 – 1999 Chicago Bulls – The 1997-98 season ended perfectly for Bulls fans, with Michael Jordan hitting a game-winning shot on the road for the team’s sixth championship in eight years. But immediately following that season, with a lockout looming and Phil Jackson and all the team’s major free agents (Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) likely to retire or move on to a new team, that euphoria didn’t last long. With the departures of Jackson, arguably the game’s greatest coach of all time, and Jordan, the greatest player of all time, the Bulls stunk it up in the strike-shortened season. It would take three full seasons before Chicago would manage more than 17 wins in a season, easily making the year(s) following the 1998 Bulls title the most depressing championship hangover in the history of the game.
1996 Houston Rockets – When Michael Jordan retired (the first time) in the mid-90s, it opened up the door for the Houston Rockets to win two consecutive championships in 1994 and 1995. When Jordan came back stronger than ever for his first full season in 1995-96, there was a hope that Chicago would end up against Houston (who had swept Orlando out of the Finals the previous year) to see if Hakeem Olajuwon had really taken the torch away from Jordan, or if he’d just benefited from His Airness’s absence. Those two teams didn’t get a chance to face each other, as the Rockets were swept out of the second round by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1996.
It’s a frustrating thing, really, to follow up one of the best years in a sports fan’s life with something so completely and utterly disappointing. These fan bases got a solid summer of gloating and celebrating, only to face severe disenchantment less than a year later. Those Bulls fans, for example, went from watching Phil Jackson coach Michael, Scottie and The Worm push for 70 wins and a title every year to dealing with an everyday starting lineup that featured Dickey Simpkins, Randy Brown and Mark Bryant.
Yes, it happens sometimes, but it’s never easy. At least Spurs fans can look at the above list and realize that it could’ve been a lot worse.
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