Kawhi Leonard finally made his free agency decision, and he’ll be teaming up with Paul George on the Microsoft Clippys…er, Los Angeles Clippers, looking to become the kings of Staples Center in a rivalry with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Leonard’s former Spurs and Raptors teammate Danny Green.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have a dinosaur mascot, an aging Kyle Lowry, and a slammed-shut championship window that followed the greatest one-season free agent rental in NBA history.
It stands to reason that the Raptors aren’t going to come anywhere close to the lofty heights they achieved in 2018-19. The Milwaukee Bucks have a year of playoff seasoning and a still-rounding-into-his-prime Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Indiana Pacers have a team far greater than the sum of its parts. The Boston Celtics have Kemba Walker and a young core that can only get better without the toxic Kyrie Irving in their clubhouse.
The East is top-heavy, but it’s loaded at the top, and I haven’t even mentioned Philadelphia yet, which subtracted Jimmy Butler and added Al Horford while bringing Tobias Harris back. Even if Ben Simmons doesn’t attempt a single three-pointer, that’s still a potent team that is a Finals contender.
In the absolute best-case scenario, Toronto is a 5 or 6 seed in the new East order. Worst-case, Fred VanVleet‘s ceiling is a bench scorer, Lowry goes Bluesmobile in his 14th season at age 33 like so many guards before him have, and Pascal Siakam‘s development isn’t enough to overcome a paper-thin roster post-free agent departures.
So the question now becomes, where’s the bar for the worst dropoffs after winning a title in NBA history? We’re not going to talk about long-term declines here, where once-great franchises bottom out over a long, slow, painful-to-the-fans downturn (that’s SBNation’s job; go watch their “Collapse” series on YouTube for that.)
The topic under discussion here is “we just won the championship and now we suck.” Instant, total, goodnight sweet prince suckage.
Funny thing is, only one team in NBA history has done that.
1998 Chicago Bulls – 41* Wins, Missed Playoffs, Stunk Epically
The Bulls won 62 games and a title in 1998, Michael Jordan‘s last year as a serious professional basketball player.
In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, they went 13-37, a 21-61 season-long 82-game pace. That’s a 41-win dropoff, and if that doesn’t suit you (note the asterisk), they went 17-65 in 2000, 45 games below the championship season’s win total—45 was as many wins as the 6th-seeded Raptors had that year.
The moral of the story is when your entire roster either retires or leaves in free agency at once, you’re gonna have a bad time. So no matter how bad the Raptors get even in the worst-case scenario, they’re not dropping off by 40-plus wins. They’d have to go 18-64 or worse to do that.
So let’s move on to something perhaps more realistic. Let’s take teams that won the title and had a noticeable dropoff the following year. We will exempt teams that made it back to the Finals, in part because “the extra playoff gear” is a real thing for good veteran squads and we can’t hold the regular season against them if they made a deep playoff run. Teams are ranked by declining wins.
1969 Celtics – 14 Wins, Missed Playoffs
You have to go all the way back to 1970 to find the last case before that Bulls team where a defending champ missed the playoffs.
The reason? Well, it should be rather obvious, shouldn’t it? Bill Russell finally retired after flat-out gutting out the ’69 season and winning that 11th title in 13 years. The Celtics only won 48 games in 1969, so their statistical blow is softened when they went 34-48 the following year. It would be one of only three losing seasons for the Celtics between 1951 and 1993. Which makes the C’s eight losing seasons in a row between 1994 and 2001 all the more glaring and really puts the Rick Pitino era in particular into perspective.
Pitino was so bad that he had more losing seasons in four years as head coach than the entire franchise had in 43 years.
1983 Sixers – 13 Wins, Lost in First Round
The Sixers finally won a title with “Dr. J” Julius Erving and Moses Malone in 1983 after twice falling short in the NBA Finals to Magic Johnson‘s Lakers and once falling short in the Eastern Conference Finals to Larry Bird‘s Celtics.
They went 65-17 that year in the regular season and 12-1 in the playoffs (top teams got first-round byes before 1984) and put up one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.
In ’84, they went 52-30, a 13-game dropoff, and crashed out in the first round against the New Jersey Nets.
It wasn’t a Bulls-sized collapse, but it’s a funny thing about NBA history. Usually, when a team wins a title, they’re still good the next year. Shocking, I know.
2011 Dallas Mavericks – 12 Wins*, Lost in First Round
The Mavs’ 2011 team was a culmination of everything that was done right during the Dirk Nowitzki era and brought the German his first and only title that even the referees and Dwyane Wade couldn’t screw him out of (seriously, the officiating in 2006 was classic NBA Dark Ages rigged-game stuff.)
They went 57-25 in that championship season before going 36-30 in the 2012 lockout year. That works out to 45 wins (rounded up from 44.72) over 82 games.
And they meekly surrendered—a bad habit for Nowitzki and the Mavs throughout his career—in the first round of the playoffs, losing to the eventual West finalist Oklahoma City Thunder and their what-might-have-been dynasty via sweep.
As for the Thunder, James Harden never would’ve been traded off the SuperSonics. Move that team back to Seattle where it belongs rather than leaving it mired in the 47th-largest media market, for the love of the basketball gods!
1976 Celtics – 10 Wins, Lost in Conference Semis
Before they got Larry Bird, the Celtics had a mini-collapse of sorts after winning the title over Phoenix in 1976. They went from 54 wins to 44 in the season following that title before winning 32 games in 1978 and 29 in 1979.
Of course, the next year, they got Larry Bird and won 61 games, and the year after that they won the title again because the Celtics were really well-run in the old days.
10 wins and a playoff series win may not sound like much, but it was a harbinger of a couple of years of bad times and a championship dropoff, so it goes here.
1973 Knicks – 8 Wins, Lost in Conference Finals
The Knicks’ legendary core of Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Dave DeBusschere, and Willis Reed (featuring Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas—man, what a squad) won 57 games and a title in 1973, their second title in four years.
They won 49 games the following year and lost to the resurgent Celtics, who were on their way to their first title without Bill Russell in franchise history, in the East Finals.
Part of that was Willis Reed’s inability to stay healthy—Reed played in just 19 games in 1973-74 and retired after the season. Part of it was Dave Cowens and friends in Boston just being better. But part of it was that even in the swinging ’70s, championship windows don’t last forever.
2019 Raptors – ???
That’s the bar Toronto has to clear to stay off this list. They need to win at least 51 games or make it back to the Finals. Without Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, with an older Kyle Lowry, with the East getting stronger around them.
And if they want to avoid the worst non-Bulls dropoff of all time? They’d better win at least 44 games to tie. We’ll give them the tiebreaker because 44 wins will probably get them into the playoffs.
43 wins or less? The Raptors will make the wrong kind of history, rivaled by only the biggest post-championship collapse in the history of professional sports.
Good luck, Nick Nurse. You’ll need it.