Before the start of this NBA season, the whole world was ready to put a stamp on the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors as the sure-thing champions. There isn’t even a reason to watch the games, frankly. It’s all over. Fit Kevin Durant for his ring.
However, as we saw in San Antonio’s 29-point shellacking of Golden State on opening night, any team is beatable, even the ones that look as though they should be invincible.
In fact, there have been only 51 teams in the history of basketball that have posted winning percentages over .750 in the regular season, and only 23 of those teams have gone on to win the title. Great teams—even superteams—fail to win the title more often than they succeed in winning it, which is why we should go ahead and let the basketball play itself out before naming a preemptive champ.
The following teams, for example, show just how fallible apparent giants can be:
#10 – 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Stars: LeBron James, Mo Williams
What Happened: Cleveland was an absolute force in 2008-09, steamrolling their way to 66 wins behind an MVP campaign from James. They swept through the first two rounds of the postseason, but faced a much more formidable (and larger) opponent in the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, who wiped the Cavs’ offense off the face of the planet. James himself averaged 38.5 PPG in that series, but it wasn’t enough to deal with Dwight Howard’s smothering defense, and thus James’ best individual season ended fruitlessly.
#9 – 2002 Sacramento Kings
The Stars: Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac
What Happened: While the Kings currently boast the longest title drought (65 years) in league history, there was a period of time right around the turn of the century where it looked like that streak may have ended. The 2001-02 Kings were the best version of that team since moving to Sacramento, as they won 61 games and breezed through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs that spring. They were stymied, however, as they often were, by a great Lakers team. It actually was the third straight year that Sacramento had gotten booted by L.A., but this was their best shot at a championship and they came up just a little short after a hard-fought, seven-game Western Conference Finals.
#8 – 2005 Phoenix Suns
The Stars: Steve Nash, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire
What Happened: Before fast-paced offenses were as commonplace as they are today, Mike D’Antoni’s mid-aughts Suns teams were killing opponents with their breakneck speed. Nash won two league MVP awards helming that offense, and in 2005 it looked like it was all coming together with the top-seeded, 62-win Suns team ripping through the first two rounds of the postseason with only a couple of losses. In the Western Conference Finals, however, the Suns lost Joe Johnson to a facial fracture and the San Antonio Spurs absolutely shut down the rest of that well-oiled offense. Had they advanced, there’s a good chance they also could have handled the Detroit Pistons and won the team’s first-ever championship.
#7 – 2006 Detroit Pistons
The Stars: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace
What Happened: It was more or less this same Detroit Pistons team that toppled the 2003-04 L.A. Lakers, and they were legitimately good. The Pistons were so good, in fact, that they made the Finals again in 2005 and came incredibly close to winning a second-straight championship. The team returned with the same core in 2005-06, but this time with a new head coach in Flip Saunders. The change did nothing to deter those claiming Detroit were once again favorites to make and possible win the Finals yet again. They won 64 games and Billups actually finished fifth in MVP voting that year, but it wasn’t enough to get them through the playoffs. A loaded Miami team that featured both Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade booted them off their pedestal that season, making them one of the more disappointing preseason favorites in recent league history.
#6 – 2013 L.A. Lakers
The Stars: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Ron Artest
What Happened: This thing was a disaster from the word “go.” Mike Brown switched the team over to a Princeton offense that “helped” these vaulted Lakers go 0-8 in the preseason and 1-4 to start the regular season. As a result, Brown was fired and eventually replaced by Mike D’Antoni, for whom things did not get much better. Their 15-21 start was the worst for the team since 1993, and they eventually limped into the playoffs as a seven-seed, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round in four unimpressive games.
#5 – 2007 Dallas Mavericks
The Stars: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler
What Happened: Coming off a season in which the Mavericks lost the NBA Finals in an absolutely gut-wrenching fashion, the expectation was that Dallas would make its way back to the Finals and win this time – particularly with a roster loaded up with as many stars as this one featured. Their first-round matchup against the upstart Golden State Warriors, however, proved surprisingly challenging, even though the Mavs won all three games against the Warriors during the regular season. In the postseason, however, Dallas was dropped 4-2 by an eight-seed, ghosting any expectations fans and media may have had for them that season.
#4 – 1997 Houston Rockets
The Stars: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley
What Happened: In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon won his first championship, so former college teammate Clyde Drexler thought to himself, “I’d love to get a piece of that action.” He did precisely that the following year, when Olajuwon and Drexler shared credit for winning the 1995 NBA title. So Charles Barkley thought to himself, “I’d love to get a piece of that action,” but he saw very different results thanks to the full-bore return of His Airness, Michael Jordan. That Rockets team was stacked, though, and had Jordan stayed with the Birmingham Barons just one more year, Barkley may have earned that elusive ring he always desired.
#3 – 2016 Golden State Warriors
The Stars: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green.
What Happened: LeBron James happened. With Curry ailing in the Finals and the entire Golden State team running out of gas after a season that saw them win a record-breaking 73 games, Cleveland found an extra gear and wiped out the best regular-season team of all-time.
#2 – 2011 Miami HEAT
The Stars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
What Happened: Much like when Kevin Durant signed in Golden State, the general consensus around the league following James’ and Bosh’s odyssey to South Beach was that the deck was unfairly stacked in Miami’s favor. They crushed the regular season that year, winning 58 games, and they headed into the Finals with a ridiculous amount of momentum, winning exciting series against both Boston and Chicago. They even won Game 1 of the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and were leading by 15 points with just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter when Dallas charged back to steal a win and turn the tides of the series. That unbelievable superteam dropped their first Finals together in six games.
#1 – 2004 L.A. Lakers
The Stars: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone
What Happened: In terms of molding the idea of a modern “superteam,” this was the one that introduced fans to the feeling of unfairness that they’d feel again later in regard to Miami and Golden State. By adding future Hall-of-Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to an already-loaded squad, L.A. looked absolutely unstoppable heading into the season, but there were problems from the get-go. Payton didn’t have the easiest time running the Triangle for Phil Jackson, and Malone hurt his knee. Meanwhile, Bryant’s off-court legal issues served as an ongoing distraction for the team, creating an atmosphere around the team that was far from where it should have been. By the time the Finals rolled around, Malone was hobbling and the tension between Bryant and O’Neal was palpable. They shockingly lost to the more team-oriented Detroit Pistons in just five games, and the team fell apart from there. O’Neal was traded to Miami, Malone retired and both Payton and Rick Fox were traded to the Boston Celtics. That particular Lakers title window was rather ceremoniously slammed shut.
None of this is to say that this year’s Golden State Warriors can’t win the championship because nobody is going to Las Vegas right now with the intention of betting against that much talent. What this does show is that superteams with just as much (if not more) talent certainly have lost before. It’s not always about talent. Sometimes it’s about momentum and matchups, and while we feel like we understand how talented the Warriors are, we don’t know how the rest will play out. That, in fact, is exactly why we watch the games.
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