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5 worst title defenses by NBA champions in the 21st century

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs
Kunal Sethi
ANALYST
Modified 22 Apr 2021
Top 5 / Top 10

As we approach closer to the NBA playoffs, fans have begun reminiscing about some of the earlier dramas from the postseason. The NBA playoffs have always been more exciting than any regular season, with teams fighting head-to-head in a seven-game series. The superstars of this league shine the brightest in the postseason. Team strategy and systems become a major talking point as well.

Last season's champions, the LA Lakers, find themselves on the 5th spot in the Western Conference. Questions over whether LeBron James and co. will defend their title this season have arisen.

5 NBA champions that couldn't defend their title in the playoffs the next season

The team with arguably the worst title defense in the past two decades is the San Antonio Spurs. They won 5 titles in the Tim Duncan era, but never three-peated or went back-to-back. It appeared that every time they won a title; they faced a collapse the next season. The Kobe Bryant-led LA Lakers and Tim Duncan-led Spurs battled for the better part of a decade and prevented each other's teams from fulfilling their goals.

The LA Lakers have a lot to prove this season and would want to avoid an early playoff exit. With that in mind, let's look at 5 championship teams that failed to reach the finals the following season.

#5 2015 San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio Spurs v LA Clippers - Game One
San Antonio Spurs v LA Clippers - Game One

The San Antonio Spurs won the 2014 NBA Finals in historic fashion, beating their stacked rivals, the Miami Heat. They won the series in five games, which earned them their 5th NBA title under Hall of Fame forward Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.

They ended the 2014-15 NBA regular season with a record of 55-27 but were still the 6th seed in a tough and rugged Western Conference. In the first round of the 2015 Western Conference playoffs, the Spurs took on the 3rd-seeded LA Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Griffin averaged 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series while Paul contributed 22.7 points, 7.9 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The LA Clippers bested the San Antonio Spurs in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Chris Paul capped the series off with a game-winning shot in the final match of the series.

Tim Duncan averaged 17.4 points and 11.1 rebounds on 58% shooting, but couldn't carry his team to victory. Tony Parker had a horrible series, averaging just over 10 points per game and scored just one point in Game 2. The series loss saw an eventual end to their dynasty as the Duncan-led Spurs never made the finals again.

#4 2003 LA Lakers

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal of the LA Lakers.

This one hurt LA fans more than usual as the Lakers were coming off a three-peat. The Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal-Lakers looked like the most dominant team in all of basketball. The roster from this season is featured in the "Greatest Teams of All-Time" list. Legendary coach Phil Jackson coached the superstar duo to a three-peat, taking out some extremely tough teams along the way. In 2001, the LA Lakers went 16-1 in the playoffs, tying the best record in an NBA postseason. Everyone predicted their dominance to continue for a long time.

However, their 2002-03 season started poorly by their lofty standards. The team went 50-32 for the regular season but were 5th in the Western Conference. Facing an uphill battle without home-court advantage, the LA Lakers fought the 4th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves led by Kevin Garnett, to win in six games. They then faced the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. The Tim Duncan and David Robinson-led Spurs had championship aspirations of their own.

Tim Duncan was the MVP of the 2003 season. This was the first year that Duncan and Robinson went to the finals with the duo of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The LA Lakers lost their first two games at San Antonio but bounced back by winning the next two at Staples Center, equalling the series at 2-2. However, they fell short in the final two games of the series despite incredible scoring performances from Bryant and O'Neal. They eventually lost 4-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals.

#3 2011 LA Lakers

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers.

These playoffs added another chink to Kobe's armor. The back-to-back champions, LA Lakers, failed to achieve their three-peat aspirations in 2011. Kobe Bryant led the LA Lakers to two consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010 to win his 4th and 5th title, earning Finals MVP on both occasions. However, Bryant and Pau Gasol came up short in the 2011 NBA Western Conference Semifinals as they couldn't repeat their brilliance from the previous two years.

Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, having lost several playoff series before, were hungry to dethrone the LA Lakers. They faced the back-to-back champions in the second round of the playoffs and swept them in four games. It was an unbelievable collapse at the time because Bryant and the Lakers couldn't salvage a single game in the series.

Regarded as one of the most clutch players ever, this series was very uncharacteristic of Kobe Bryant. He averaged nearly 30 points per game in the 2009 and 2010 NBA playoffs, but averaged only 23 points per game in this series. He also scored just 17 points each in games 3 and 4.

#2 2007 Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O
Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat.

After capturing their first NBA championship in franchise history, the Miami Heat, led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, had an unfortunate collapse the following season. Although the team faced injuries to Wade and O'Neal in the regular season, they captured the divisional title and finished 4th in the Eastern Conference. They entered the playoffs with a home-court advantage over the 5th-seeded Chicago Bulls.

However, the Bulls had the best team defensive rating in the league at the time and they swept the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs. The Miami Heat became only the second defending champion in NBA history to get swept in the first round.

Dwyane Wade had one of the most iconic and memorable playoff runs of all time the previous year. Averaging nearly 30 points per game, a 24-year-old Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to their first-ever NBA title, winning the Finals MVP in the process. He averaged nearly 35 points per game in the Finals, but couldn't recapture his mojo the following season, as he averaged just 23 points on 42% shooting in the first-round sweep.

#1 2012 Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks v OKC Thunder
Dallas Mavericks v OKC Thunder

In one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time, the Dallas Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, never made the NBA Finals after their first title in 2011. Their back-to-back title aspirations came to a premature end in the 2012 NBA playoffs as they had one of the biggest collapses in league history. They were swept by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the OKC Thunder in the first round of the 2012 NBA Western Conference playoffs.

Dirk Nowitzki had a decent series in terms of scoring, with the exception of Game 3, where he scored just 17 points on 6-15 shooting.

Nowitzki is familiar with disappointment in the NBA playoffs. The legendary German has made several exits from the postseason, including a loss to the 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs. The series is regarded as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history because Dirk was the reigning MVP at the time.

Also Read: NBA Coach of the Year 2021: Latest power rankings - April 17th

Published 22 Apr 2021
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