by Micah Hart
You may have noticed it’s the offseason, which means we have plenty of time to sit around and think about many of the things that make it fun to be an NBA fan. Here at All Ball, we’ll be passing the time until the start of the season with a new series, the Fave Five. Each week we’ll count down a list of the five best, or worst … somethings. We’ll try to get creative with it. Plus we’re taking requests! If you have a suggestion for a Fave Five post, give us a shout and you may see it appear in this space over the next several weeks.
Who is going to win the Super Bowl this year? The World Series? Your guess is as good as mine. In the NFL and MLB, who wins from year to year is totally unpredictable. In football it’s about who is lucky and who is healthy; in baseball it’s who is lucky and who gets great pitching.
The NBA is different. There are very, very few Cinderella stories in professional basketball. For my money, the 2011 Mavericks and the 2004 Pistons are the only surprise champions I’ve seen in the NBA in my lifetime.
The best teams almost always prevail. Which is why when we think of the teams who have come up short since the start of the 2000s, the answers are pretty obvious.
Let’s take a look:
5. 2011 San Antonio Spurs
What happened: The Spurs got off to a ridiculous start to the season (they were 29-4 at one point), and for a while there was talk that they might flirt with 70 wins. They cooled a bit down the stretch, but still finished the regular season as the top seed in the Western Conference with a record of 61-21.
The draw in the West looked pretty good, as they faced the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Talk about a mismatch – the Spurs, four-time NBA champions, versus the Grizz, who to that point had not won a single playoff game in franchise history in three previous appearances. So naturally they advanced to face HEY WAIT A MINUTE!
Memphis shocked San Antonio in six games, and the Spurs went home as only the fourth No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 8 seed*.
* The Bulls became the fifth this past season, but methinks that might have turned out differently had Derrick Rose been healthy.
Why they disappointed: I’ll be honest. I don’t really think of this Spurs team as being all that much of a disappointment. Some of that is due to the fact that the Grizzlies turned out to be a pretty good team, and some (maybe a lot) is due to the fact that Manu Ginobili hurt his elbow the final game of the season and was severely limited in the series. Still, 1 seeds don’t lose to 8 seeds, so here they are.
4. 2004 L.A. Lakers
What happened: The Lakers were on top of the NBA world from 2000-02, winning three straight championships, and it didn’t even seem that hard. Shaquille O’Neal and company would generally skate through the regular season on cruise control, press the “on” switch for the playoffs and cut down the nets. Hey, you can do these things when you have Shaq and Kobe Bryant in their primes.
In 2003, the Spurs knocked them off their perch, and all of a sudden the Lakers needed answers, which for them came in the form of future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Both were veterans nearing the ends of said Hall of Fame careers, but all in all people considered the 2004 NBA title to be preordained.
‘Twas not so, though, as the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts Pistons broke the championship mold, dispatching the heavily-favored Lakers in five games, and with relative ease.
Why they disappointed: First, let’s be fair. The Lakers did make the Finals. On second thought, screw fairness. Kobe and Shaq in their primes should win the title every year, right? That was certainly the conventional wisdom at the time, and there was a bit of arrogance in the Lakers thinking they could just pluck a couple of veterans, toss them into the mix, and get right back to the business of winning championships. The loss to the Pistons was the final straw in the battle for supremacy in L.A. between Shaq and Kobe, and when the dust settled Shaq got traded to Miami, coach Phil Jackson called it quits (for the first time) and the Lakers’ dynasty was over.
3. 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers
What happened: In 2007, the Cavaliers made a surprising run to the NBA Finals, knocking off the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals thanks in part to LeBron James‘ epic Game 5, one of the greatest individual playoff efforts of all time. And though once there the Cavs got swept by the Spurs, there was definitely a sense that the LeBron Era-Cavs had arrived and might reel off several titles before all was said and done**.
** I hate to even bring it up Cleveland, I know the wound is still fresh.
The Big Three Celtics postponed those plans in 2008, but in 2009 Cleveland seemed to put it all together. It went 66-16 in the regular season, the best record in the NBA. They breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the Pistons and then the Hawks, and for a moment it seemed like they might not lose a game. And then … Orlando sent them home in the Eastern Conference finals, and nothing was ever the same***.
*** Seriously, I am sorry.
Why they disappointed: The 2008-09 Cavaliers were, shall we say, confident. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more self-assured team in the NBA (at least not until a certain news conference, but we’ll get to that in a minute). They destroyed teams in the regular season, and had a ball while doing so, becoming famous for their pre-game rituals and commercial spoofs. But ultimately, they were a house of cards. The Magic punched them in the mouth in Game 1, and the Cavaliers had no response. The series went six, but would have ended even sooner if not for LeBron’s Horry Scale moment****. For a team that preened and strutted as much as they did, to see them go out so meekly was a definite disappointment.
**** Five Horrys.
2. 2011 Miami Heat
Why they disappointed: You can make all sorts of excuses for why the Heat shouldn’t belong on this list. After all, the Super Friends did make it to the NBA Finals in their first season together, and could very, very easily have taken home the title instead of the Mavericks. But whether they intended to or not, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh made it seem like they could just pick up any two guys, roll the ball on the court and start planning the parade route. They found out the hard way they could not, and the schadenfreude was tremendous.
1. 2007 Dallas Mavericks
What happened: The Mavericks seemingly missed their title shot when they fell to the Heat in the 2006 Finals. And when they started the next season 0-4, people began to briefly wonder if their run as contenders was over.
Then. They. Went. OFF.
Dallas in ’06-07 had one of the most impressive regular seasons in league history. After that 0-4 dry spell, the team reeled off 12 straight wins, followed shortly thereafter by a 13-game win streak that started a stretch where the Mavs went 38-2. All in all, Dallas had five different streaks of eight wins or better, and finished the year as the West’s top seed with a 67-15 record.
Then, in truly one of the most memorable playoff series ever, the “We Believe” Warriors knocked them out of the first round, and like that, it was over.
Why they disappointed: Some in the office have argued that the Heat belong at the top of this list, but at least the Heat made the Finals. The Mavericks put together such an epic regular season, and unlike the 2011 Spurs or 2012 Bulls, they were completely healthy against Golden State. For them to go out in the first round is as bad a playoff performance as we’ve ever seen. Was it due to coach Avery Johnson deciding to try to match the Warriors’ small-ball attack? Was Golden State the perfect foil (the Warriors famously swept the regular season series)?
Many think Dallas would have won the title that season had they played any other franchise during the postseason. They didn’t beat the one in front of them however, and for that, they take their rightful place at No. 1.
On a personal note, this will be my last post at All Ball for the foreseeable future. Writing All Ball over the past couple seasons has been an absolute blast. The NBA is full of hilarious and entertaining players and fans, and it’s been so much fun to bring you even just a smidgen of what they’ve been up to on (and mostly off) the court. I appreciate all the fans who have written in to suggest topics, offer critiques and generally just allow me to be a part of the NBA conversation that flows so freely around the web.
I won’t be going too far, as I am staying within the confines of the NBA and moving over to work with the Atlanta Hawks. I’ll still be around on Twitter, so you can still find me there in the meantime.
Big thanks to everyone at NBA.com for giving me the opportunity to contribute, both here and with the Hang Time podcast, and I look forward to seeing you all again somewhere down the road.