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Top 5 Worst Defending Champions

Kobe Bryant’s 2011 L.A. Lakers are among the most depressing defending champs ever, but nowhere near the worst…

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Not enough was made this offseason about what an admirable job the San Antonio Spurs did in keeping together the championship roster that was mighty enough to break up the LeBron James Dynasty in Miami. With loads of great contracts and plenty of role players willing to take less to remain part of something so special, there’s no question that the reigning champs keeping themselves intact was the least talked about major story of the summer.

Of course, not all defending champs are so lucky. Sometimes a dynasty just runs its course, and after that final title most of the major players (and sometimes even the coaches) all go their separate ways. Today’s list looks at the most egregious of those title defenses:

#5 – 2011 L.A. Lakers – Coming off of championships in both 2009 and 2010, the 2010-2011 L.A. Lakers were unlike a lot of the other teams on this list is that they still employed most of the major players from those two title runs and should have, by all accounts, soared to another Finals appearance, especially after the stiffest competition (the San Antonio Spurs) were bounced in the first round. That’s not what happened, though, as the two-time defending champs blew a 16-point second-half lead in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals that year in what would prove to be the start of a really embarrassing postseason collapse for Kobe Bryant and the gang. L.A. was ultimately swept by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks, with the final failure of the series being a 36-point blowout loss.

#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 manhandled the league that year, which makes it so disappointing that, only a year later, they won 7 fewer regular season games and got booted out of the first round of the playoffs in just five games.

#3 – 2007 Miami HEAT – In the first game of the 2006-2007 season, the game in which the Miami HEAT got their championship rings from the previous summer, they were trounced 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 8 fewer wins than the previous season. In a cruel twist of irony, Miami ended up losing once again to the Chicago Bulls, this time in the first round of the 2007 postseason. The season after that, they posted the worst record in the league with only 15 wins.

#2 – 1978 Portland Trail Blazers – Here’s the thing about the 1977-1978 Blazers: after winning the championship in 1977, they actually came out and played a better regular season the following year, adding 9 wins to their previous season’s total. It looked as though Portland, behind their All-Star big man Bill Walton, was forming a small dynasty, but as fate would have it Walton hurt is foot in the waning portion of the 1978 regular season, and the Blazers finished the year horribly, bowing out in the second round. They wouldn’t get out of the first round the next three year after that, and Walton’s foot was never the same.

#1 – 1999 Chicago Bulls – The 1997-1998 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 all the team’s major free agents (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, even head coach Phil Jackson) likely to retire or move on to a new team, that euphoria didn’t last long. With the game’s greatest coach of all time and greatest player of all time (and probably greatest second banana of all time and one of the best rebounders of all time) no longer on the roster, the Bulls really stunk it up in the strike-shortened season. It would take three full years before Chicago would manage more than 17 wins in a season, easily making the time following the 1998 Bulls title the most depressing championship hangover in the history of the game.

Honorable Mention:

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 1995-1996, 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 benefitted from His Airness’s absence. Those two teams didn’t even get a chance to face each other, as the Rockets were swept out of the second round in 1996 by the Seattle SuperSonics.

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.

It happens to every championship team eventually, except for the San Antonio Spurs, apparently, an ageless group that never seems to fall off the map thanks to great coaching, great scouting and great financial planning.

Someday, though, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan will retire, and that’s when we’ll really see how the Spurs hold up to the rest of history’s defending champions. Whatever they do this year, it’s hard to believe it’ll be anywhere near bad enough to find its way onto this list, but the thing about being a defending champion is that you just never know.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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