In this edition of “They Should’ve Been a Dynasty,” we explore recent NBA teams that should have won more than they ultimately did.
Remember the rules, I see a dynasty as the following: a team that has won at least three championships in a 10-year window. It can be a smaller window (i.e. a three-peat), but I think the simplest barometer is winning three championships within a certain window of time, showing that you were the best of your sport, and you showed it repeatedly.
Ranges of time are flexible depending on the eye of the reader, but this is how I view them.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2006-2010; 2014-2018)
Championships: one (2016)
NBA Finals appearances: five (2007, 2015-2018)
Eastern Conference Finals appearances: six (2007, 2009, 2015-2018)
The LeBron James Era.
I’ll start with the first season they made the NBA Finals, because after that, you would think that having the best player in the sport at the age of 22 who just CARRIED his team to the Finals would mean it was just the beginning.
As we know, it did not work out that way.
In 11 seasons with LeBron James in Cleveland, the Cavailers won ONE NBA Championship. ONE. There was an interruption, as James was gone for his ages 26 through 29 seasons, the peak of his career, but Cleveland deserves some blame for that. Not all, LeBron’s move was unprecedented, and you can argue he should have given his hometown team a chance, but staring down the possibility of what felt like only marginal improvements for the next few years, versus playing with Dwyane Wade AND Chris Bosh, two of the game’s best at the time, led him to making a logical decision (THE Decision actually). LeBron understood what he needed to do for his legacy, and he put himself in the best position to win during his prime. He could have done more at times in Miami, but you cannot say he did not have the best roster around him. If he had stayed a Cav, he would not have, plain and simple, and it would have been a HUGE what-if.
Now we know the story does not end there. LeBron DID come back, in 2014. At the time, the Cavs had just made the first pick in the NBA Draft for the third time in four seasons, drafting Kansas wing Andrew Wiggins. James joined a young and unproven roster with a mandate of bringing a championship back to Cleveland, and signed a 1+1 contract in order to put as much pressure on Cleveland as possible; if the Cavs wasted his time, and years of his career, he would leave. They had to show him they were serious about building him a roster worthy of winning, or else he would not give them the benefit of the doubt.
Cleveland responded by trading their last two first overall picks, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, for Kevin Love, who was 25 at the time, and coming off of a season where he averaged 26.1 PPG and 12.5 RPG. Now with a core of James, Love, and young PG Kyrie Irving, Cleveland had a talent base exponentially better than they did in James first 7 seasons as a Cav.
For the next 4 seasons, the Cavs made the NBA Finals each time, but each season they faced the Golden State Warriors, who seemed to become one of the greatest teams in NBA history overnight. Now I’m sure most do not agree with this, but I think the LeBron that was in Cleveland during these years would have led Miami to 3 to 4 rings. Now it’s not possible for Cleveland 2.0 LeBron to be what he was without the Miami years, but I think it’s understated just how focused and dominant he was during the playoffs these years, and it’s reflected in the numbers. I truly think he was facing the biggest challenge of his career in Golden State, and if it were the teams he’d faced in the Finals in 2011-2014, he may have had better luck, but that’s revisionist history, so I’ll stop here.
Nevertheless, James was able to bring Cleveland a title in 2016 on the backs of an improbable comeback, helped by Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and the rest of the Cavs team, overcoming a 3 games to 1 deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Now if the Warriors had just stayed the same and not signed Durant after this… again, I’ll stop.
What bothers me is how Cleveland handled the 2017 offseason. During the 2017 NBA Finals, although they lost in 5 games, the Cavs were right there in my eyes, competitive in the first 3 games until the end. Anyway, when faced with the task of improving the team, they dropped the ball. Some facts we might never know, but from what we can gather, the Cavs SHOULD HAVE been able to land Paul George and Eric Bledsoe. This would have meant trading Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but George was a better player at the time than Love, and we know Kyrie soon asked to be (and was) traded, so maybe getting ahead of that with a better return in the context of the situation (i.e. winning in the present) would have been best. It would have been a different looking core, but considering what Cleveland ended up with to start 2017-2018, it would have been a better situation.
As we know, that was really the end. The Cavs were able to get back to the Finals in 2018, another amazing feat, but they stood zero chance against the Warriors, none. In the offseason, James left to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, ending his career in Cleveland.
In 11 seasons, the Cavs made the Finals 5 times, and only won once. They MISSED the Finals in seasons they won 66 and 61 games respectively in 2009 and 2010, other failures that need to be noted. They had the second greatest player of all-time from age 18 to 25, and then 29 to 33. They have one title to show for it. There were highs, but not enough, plain and simple. James will have his number 23 retired, and a statue of himself out front of the arena, but it should have been so much more.
Boston Celtics (2007-2013)
Championships: one (2008)
NBA Finals appearances: two (2008, 2010)
Conference Finals appearances (2008, 2010, 2012)
The Big 3 Era, part 2.
After Larry Bird retired in 1992 due to injuries, the Celtics made the playoffs 6 times in the next 15 seasons, winning 3 playoff series during that time. As Paul Pierce finished his 9th season in the NBA in 2007, it looked like the team had failed in utilizing a great player, and risked having to trade him.
It did not happen.
In the 2007 offseason, the Celtics were able to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, two of the best players in the league, who, like Pierce, had never won an NBA Championship.
Entering the season, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen were 30, 31, and 32 respectively. Maybe it was never supposed to be a dynasty because of their age, but from 2007 to 2013, they did not get that message.
The new Big 3 won an illustrious championship their first season together, the first for the Celtics in 22 years, and the first for each of the Big 3. They won 66 games, and although they had a challenging playoff run, they beat their rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the Finals, and were kings of the league.
Everything after they reached the mountaintop leads us to the reality that they should have been a dynasty, as the trio never won another title.
Injuries, that’s something that will stick out from this group.
In 2008-2009, after starting 27-2, the team looked well on their way to another Finals run. However, at 44-11, during their 56th game of the season, KG suffered a knee injury. He only played 4 more games the rest of the season, playing no more than 18 minutes in those outings, and missed the 2009 NBA Playoffs. The Celtics went 62-20, but without their best defender, and the heart and soul of the team, they were bounced from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing to the Orlando Magic in 7 games.
They rebounded a year later, and although they only won 50 games, the veteran bunch, with the help of 4th-year PG Rajon Rondo, and the always reliable Kendrick Perkins, the team flipped the proverbial switch, making another run to the NBA Finals, beating the Dwyane Wade led Miami Heat, LeBron James led (and 61-win) Cleveland Cavaliers, and the team that bounced them from the playoffs a year ago, the Orlando Magic. In the Finals, they faced the Lakers yet again, and had a 3-2 lead. However, in Game 6, Perkins tore his MCL and PCL. The Celtics lost the game, and went into Game 7 having to start Rasheed Wallace, who had only started 13 games all season. They played a remarkably close game, but lost 83-79, losing the NBA Finals.
“We [the Boston Celtics] were lucky to win one [championship]… Win two, and then we’ll talk.”
-Michael Jordan to Ray Allen, according to Allen via ESPN
They never made it back.
They had one more shot in 2012, making another great run with their veteran core (this time without Kendrick Perkins, who was traded in 2011 to the Thunder). They faced the Big 3 in Miami, a core consisting of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. That trio beat the Celtics in 5 games a year prior, but in 2012, Boston took a 3-2 lead, going into Game 6 at home with a chance to go to the Finals for the third time in 5 seasons. LeBron James had other plans. The series went to 7, the Celtics put up a worthy fight, but lost.
After the season, Allen signed with the Heat, and the Celtics lost in the first round in 2013.
That offseason, Garnett and Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets, ending the team’s most successful era since Bird, McHale, and Parish were walking through those doors.
Now they only won one title, but it can be argued they are the reason LeBron James felt his hand was forced in going to Miami and forming the Big 3. The Celtics were his chief rival in the three seasons prior, and beating the Celtics in 2011 was considered one of the biggest accomplishments of his career at the time. They gave him one of his hardest fights of his career in 2012, but it was not enough. If Garnett and Perkins were healthy for 2009 and 2010, maybe we’re talking about a three-peat, but history took another course.
That quote above, what MJ told Ray Allen, it always sticks with me, capturing what could have been…
Oklahoma City Thunder (2010-2016)
NBA Finals appearances: one (2012)
Western Conference Finals appearances: four (2011, 2012, 2014, 2016)
One day we’re going to truly sit back and look at how much talent was in the building in Oklahoma City at one point, and question how they never won a ring.
We already do, but it just seems surreal, one of the things in sports that just makes no sense.
For three seasons, the Thunder had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden on the same team. After the 2011-2012 season, they were only 23, 23, and 22 respectively.
The trio won 50 games their first season together in 2009-2010, losing in the first round to the eventual NBA Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2010-2011, they won 55 games and made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the eventual NBA Champions, the Dallas Mavericks. In 2011-2012, they won 47 games in a lockout-shortened season (equivalent of 58 games in an 82-game season), and reached the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat.
Even after a disappointing showing in the Finals, having this core, as well as forward Serge Ibaka, gave the team a loaded talent base to compete in the West for years to come.
During the 2012 NBA offseason, the Thunder chose to give their best defensive player, Ibaka, a 4-year, $48 million extension. Facing future cap problems, as Ibaka, as well as Durnat and Westbrook were already locked up, the team still needed to lock up James Harden. Harden, who had only started 7 games for the Thunder, was considered a 6th man, albeit an extremely talented one. They offered Harden 4 years and $55 million. Harden wanted a max contract, which, at the time, meant 4 years and $60 million (I know, I can’t believe it either). The Thunder had Harden’s Bird Rights, but chose to not overspend, and go into the luxury tax for the future (noted by Brian Windhorst in the link about OKC’s offer). Just prior to the 2012-2013 season, Harden was traded to Houston. Since then, he has been a 7-time All Star, 5-time All Pro (4 times First Team), and has won an MVP.
In the next few seasons, injuries hit the Thunder, holding them back even more.
The team lost Russell Westbrook during the first round of the playoffs in 2013. They advanced to the semifinals, but lost to Memphis in 5 games.
In 2013-2014, Westrbook only played 46 games, but the team was still able to win 59 games, and Kevin Durant won his first MVP. The team reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since trading Harden. They lost the first two games of the series, but tied it going into Game 5. They proceeded to lose the next two games, another year without reaching the NBA Finals.
In 2014-2015, Durant only played 27 games due to a persisting foot injury he initially suffered prior to the season. Westbrook had a great statistical season in his absence, but the Thunder were only able to win 45 games, missing the postseason for the first time in 6 years.
In 2015-2016, the Thunder had a new coach in Billy Donovan, and won 55 games. With health on their side, they made it to the Western Conference Finals, after beating the Dallas Mavericks in 5 games, and the 67-win San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. They faced the 73-win Golden State Warriors, and were able to pull ahead to a 3-1 lead. They were on the verge of the greatest upset in NBA history, but faltered. The Warriors responded in Game 5, came from behind in Game 6 (thanks Klay Thompson), and in a close Game 7, pulled ahead to advance to the Finals for a second straight season.
In the offseason, the team acquired Victor Oladipo, and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis for Segre Ibaka, hoping to infuse some new talent around Durant, who was going to enter free agency. The team had plans to try to acquire Al Horford, a former star under Donovan at Florida, possibly trading Enes Kanter in order to clear up additional cap space, but it did not happen. Horford went to Boston, and on July 4, Kevin Durant announced he would sign with the Golden State Warriors, the end of an era for OKC.
Durant, Westbrook, and Harden have each won at least one MVP, the latter two in the years since Durant left OKC. However, you have to wonder what could have happened if Harden and the Thunder agreed to a contract. Even if the team did not re-sign Ibaka, or moved on from the contract of Kendrick Perkins, did they really not value Harden that much? It came down to $5 million over 4 years, which in today’s cap climate seems even more absurd. The team was still talented in the 4 seasons after Harden was traded, but they never reached the Finals again. Was being frugal worth tearing up the best talent base the NBA may have ever seen?
It’s a question Thunder fans will have to ask themselves for the rest of time.
Part Two of this series (NFL) will be released May 1
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