Winning defines all athletes, especially the superstars. But, what about losing? Most have to fall down before they can climb up. Many stars have had to get their clocks cleaned before they win the big one. Currently, LeBron James is setting the world on fire with a generational Finals performance. Prior to winning a Championship in 2012 however, it was his playoff failures that defined him. LeBron isn’t the exception he is the rule. The pain of stumbling at the summit is motivation to push harder, as we’ve seen with many a legend over the years. Whether it’s fair or not, the world of sport will always be filled with winners and losers. Scoring titles, All-Star games, and even the MVP trophy all dim in the gleam of the Larry O’Brien’s shadow. Many stumbled on their last, best shot, others rallied and went on to win the big one. But when were these occasions? Who dug deeper and replaced gut wrenching defeat, with sweet, sweet victory?
The following are 10 examples of players who stumbled in the playoffs. We investigate on how the shortcomings of one series shaped the remainder of the players’ career.
Star: Derrick Rose
Year: 2012; Eastern Conference First Round
Series Stat Line: 23 PPG, 9 RPG, 9 APG, 5 TOV, 39.1 FG%, 50% 3PT%, 100 FT%
What happened? The Chicago Bulls won 62 games in 2011. They swept the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, then beat the Hawks relatively easily. But they fell to the newly formed Miami Heat big 3, despite sweeping them in the regular season and having home court. Still, the Heat had LeBron at his peak and Wade at his — the latter would not remain there much longer. Everyone thought this was set to be the eastern conference finals for the next decade: if there was an eastern challenger to Miami’s reign, it was Chicago.
Except, the teams never faced off in the eastern conference finals again. The Bulls again rolled in 2012, going 50-16 in the lockout shortened 2011-2012 season and earning home court advantage over Miami once again (their 62 win pace over 82 games matched 2011).
In game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, they were up 12 with 1:23 left . . . and then, the unthinkable happened. Derrick Rose forayed to the hoop, and tore his ACL when attempting a runner. Without Rose, the Bulls lost the first round to a Philadelphia 76ers team they were seen as a virtual guarantee to beat but for Rose’s injury. And while the Celtics earned a lot of capital in the KG-Pierce era, the Bulls would have been favored to knock them off, and set up a rematch with Miami.
The Heat may have prevailed over the Bulls from 2012-2014 even if Rose never got hurt. But the Bulls pushed them at Wade’s physical peak, around a 23 year old Rose, 26 year old Joakim Noah, and deep roster featuring Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver and about to be augmented with Jimmy Butler. With Rose at full tilt, Tom Thibodeau’s legendary defense was paired with an elite offense. If Rose never got hurt, given Wade’s decline and the lack of depth in Miami, would the Bulls have knocked off the Heat one of these years? Would they be the east’s best team today? We will never know. Indiana may have risen as a foil for Miami, but it is easy to forget that the Bulls were clearly superior to Indiana before Rose’s injury, and had he never gotten hurt, would have been a more formidable challenge to Miami.
Where did he go from there? Sadly, Rose’s knees have plagued him ever since the 2012 injury. He was forced to miss large portions of 2013 and 2014, including the playoffs. Chicago was feisty without him, but did not have enough juice offensively to contend. In 2015, Rose was somewhat healthy, but clearly not the same player he once was. Even so, Rose’s Bulls were the only team in the east to give LeBron’s Cavaliers any sort of fight in the playoffs. Their six game battle was close; the Bulls had a legitimate chance to win two of the four games the Cavaliers won, and may be in the finals if the officials saw David Blatt try to call a timeout in game 4. Still, LeBron broke their spirit in game 6, and now the Bulls navigate through a future with a new coaching staff, a declining Noah, and Rose’s health still in question.
Rose’s injury robbed us all of the chance to watch a great player in action, as well as the chance to see whether Thibodeau’s Bulls could topple LeBron. 2011 was supposed to be the start of something special in Chicago, not Chicago’s best chance.
Star: LeBron James
Year: 2011; NBA Finals.
Series Stat Line: 17.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.8 APG, 4 TOV, 48 FG%, 3 3PT%, 68 FT%.
What Happened? The 2011 Mavericks knew this was the last best chance for Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, they didn’t waste it. A veteran team full of hungry, never hoisted the trophy Mavericks took it to James and the Heat in six games. Rick Carlisle employed a ferocious zone defense and forced James to be a shooter. James the shooter has always been far less fearsome than James the slasher. The rest is history, not even the stellar play of one Dwyane Wade could save the 2011 Heat.
In all of these write-ups we have the benefit of hindsight, we know how it ended, we know the Heat blew a 2-1 lead. Why did I pick this series, why not 2010 where James allegedly ‘quit’ against Boston? This was the year James had the supporting cast, a team, not a collection of parts that he was dragging forward. The 2011 Heat on paper should’ve decimated the 2011 Mavericks. The Heat knew that and it cost them. The Heat seen as a sure fire dynasty stumbled at the finish line. For the first time since their inception, doubt had been cast on the young Heatles.
James turned in far from a stellar Finals performance, clearly bothered by the Mavericks defense. Perhaps he was fatigued from carrying the Heat at both ends in the previous round. If you think back, you’ll remember James was tasked with guarding MVP Rose, and running the offense simultaneously in round three. Regardless, James had his torch snubbed at the finish line but the fire inside was not quenched.
Where Did He Go From There? The 2012 Heat weren’t messing around. Due to the lockout they were given an extended period of time to stew on the failures of June. They went to work in the post-season, James had a legendary Eastern Conference Finals and he hasn’t looked back since. (That series vs. Boston really was something, after falling down 3-2 James led the Heat to back-to-back wins averaging 38-14-4 and shooting 60% over the final two games.) Fast forward, James is playing a career best finals in his fifth straight run to the top, has two rings, and doesn’t appear to be hanging it up any time soon.
Star: Steve Nash
Year: 2007; Second Round.
Series Stat Line: 21.3 PPG, 12.7 APG, 3.7 RPG, 4.3 TOV, 48.4 FG%, 52 3PT%, 86.2 FT%
What happened? The “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns were an incredible offensive force. And Steve Nash drove the car. The 2007 Suns went 61-21, and when the 67-15 Mavericks were upended, many thought it was their year. The Suns lost game 3 of a 1-1 series after some bizarre officiating from a crew featuring now disgraced Tim Donaghy (who served prison time after, among other things, betting on games and deliberately making bad calls during games). Then, with the Spurs closing out a road game 4 win, Robert Horry body checked Nash, and Amare Stoudemire and then Sun Boris Diaw came to Nash’s defense. Both were suspended for a pivotal game 5 clash in Phoenix. The Spurs took advantage of the unjustifiably shorthanded Suns, and took the series home from there.
Many considered Spurs-Suns in 2007 to be the “real finals,” and for good reason. The Spurs swept a fortunate Utah Jazz team and inferior Cleveland Cavaliers team to win the championship. If Nash got through the Spurs in 2007, would he have earned his lone ring?
Where did he go from there? Nash continued to pound on the door in Phoenix, but the Pau Gasol trade turned the Lakers into a superior team. Phoenix had some very good teams post 2007, but Nash missed out on his best chance to win a championship. Nash thrived in Phoenix until being traded to the Lakers, where injuries destroyed his career.
Star: Dirk Nowitzki
Year: 2007; Western Conference First Round.
Series Stat Line: 19.7 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.3 TOV, 38% FG, 21% 3PT, 84 FT%.
What Happened? I hardly talk about 2007. 07 is a lost year. The Mavericks won 67 games I know that, but after that I black out and don’t remember any of May-June. That Mavericks team was destined for greatness and they stumbled on defiance. That’s what the Golden State Warriors were in 2007, defiant.
Don Nelson was fighting a personal battle, Baron Davis was battling through injuries, and Stephen Jackson is always waging a war on and off the court. The Warriors beat the Mavericks in six games but prior to the disastrous playoff series the Mavs faltered on three separate occasions in the regular season. The only team the Mavs didn’t get at least one regular season win against was the Warriors, a cruel joke of fate that they were to meet in the first round.
The Warriors knew how to get under the MVP’s skin. Doubling down on Dirk Nowitzki with two smalls denied him the ability to put the ball on the floor. Nowitzki is used to shooting off-balance, but the Warriors completely denied him the ability to get into rhythm. Whether denying him the space for a step-back, or using active hands to deny the spin, the Warriors choked the life out of the Mavericks stallion.
Where Did He Go From There? The shortcomings of the 2007 Mavericks pointed out a long noted, longer yet ignored miscalculation from the Mavericks front office; Nowitzki isn’t a center. He isn’t a last line of defense, he never was, and at no point in his career did he become a rim protector. Nowitzki is Thor’s hammer not Captain America’s shield. The Mavericks acquired Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Tyson Chandler over the next few seasons. Effectively stocking the shelves with hungry, defensive minded veterans, and brought the armour Nowitzki had long needed to land the Finals blow. The 2011 Mavericks run was spectacular, it will go down as one of the best underdog performances of all time. Defense defeated the over-confident Heat in the 2011 Finals but prior Nowitzki posted insane numbers; 28.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 52-52-93 %’s through the first three rounds. . . Nowitzki will go down as one of the best of all time, more importantly he won’t go down as one of the many who, “never won the big one.”
Star: Kevin Garnett
Year: 2004; Western Conference Finals
Series Stat Line: 23.7 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 3.66 TOV, 46.3 FG%, 42.9% 3PT%, 78.1 FT%
What happened? Kevin Garnett never wanted to leave Minnesota; he embraced the city, and consistent with his “all in” personality, was desperate to bring it a title. He had one sincere chance, in 2004. The league’s MVP, Garnett’s Timberwolves finished with the best record in the west and reached the conference finals. Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell provided KG with the boost he needed to finally build a contender in Minnesota, as well as one of the league’s most fun teams to watch. The Wolves disposed of the Nuggets, and then beat an excellent Sacramento Kings team in 7 games, with Garnett posting a massive 32 and 21 line in game 7, and dominating the game’s fourth quarter.
The Wolves then met a talented, but infighting Lakers team. The Lakers likely did not have an answer for Cassell . . . but they did not need one. Cassell suffered an ill-timed hip injury which destroyed his series, forcing him to miss two games, barely play in two others, and play moderate but ineffective minutes in the two other games. The injury was too much to overcome, and the Lakers knocked the Wolves out. The Wolves, with KG up front to contend with Detroit’s bigs and an elite backcourt to give Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton everything they had, would have matched up well with the Detroit Pistons in the finals. But it wasn’t meant to be, and KG’s lone chance at a ring in Minnesota went up in flames due to Cassell’s brutal injury.
Where did he go from there? KG had one chance to win a ring in Minnesota, and this was it. The Wolves could not rediscover the magic of 2004, and have not made the playoffs since. 2004-2005 was plagued by Cassell and Sprewell lobbying for contract extensions. The Wolves then broke the team up, trading Cassell and a first round pick for Marco Jaric in a brutal deal. Grudgingly conceding he was not going to win in Minnesota, KG accepted a trade to Boston where he did found glory, before a pit stop in Brooklyn and now a return to Minnesota.
Star: Jason Kidd
Year: 2004; Second Round.
Series Stat Line: 10.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 9 APG, 3.3 TOV, 28% FG, 15% 3PT, 76% FT.
What Happened? Jason Kidd had the opportunity of a lifetime here. Similar to Malone the time was prime for a sneaky title run. The Nets had just come off two straight seasons of having their butt’s kicked in the Finals, but this year was going to be different. The Lakers super team was vulnerable due to injuries, the Spurs sputtered, they’d owned the East in years previous. Not to mention Richard Jefferson had bloomed into a star in his own right, Kidd and Kenyon Martin had the third cog in the wheel.
The Nets dismissed the Knicks in a four game sweep. Stephon Marbury could’ve left for China in a life raft immediately following game four and no one would’ve blamed him, it was ugly. Then come the Pistons, the now infamous 04 Pistons. After acquiring Tayshaun Prince via the draft and Rasheed Wallace at the deadline the Pistons were poised for a rematch. There was a definite energy, fuel, motivation in the Pistons play that series. Chauncey Billups and the boys hadn’t forgotten the sweep New Jersey laid on them the year previous during the Conference Finals.
The series was actually a good one, unlike most of the other examples in the article. The Nets went up 3-2, with the arm bar all but locked, it seemed the Pistons would be heading home early yet again. Then, the collapse. The nets let game six slip, then got shamelessly obliterated in game seven. Brace yourselves; Kidd has 0 points, in the 21 point blow-out that decided the fate of the Nets season.
Where Did He Go From There? Well, Vince Carter made a Nets cameo and there were a few promising seasons. Kidd ultimately forced himself out of the Nets organization, it was the first time but not the last time he’d scorn the Nets franchise. He landed back in a familiar setting with Dallas, bringing some needed vocal leadership to a Mavericks team pegged as soft. As I’ve made a cliché in this article, the rest is history. The Mavericks found the right mix, although Kidd never won a Finals MVP, and didn’t win as, “the guy” he was a key cog on a Championship team.
Star: Tim Duncan
Year: 2004; Second Round
Stat Line: 20.7 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 4.66 TOV, 47.3 FG%, 66.7 FT%
What happened? Finally, a less sorry tale. Tim Duncan has a fistful of rings, which means he’s fallen short plenty of times, but generally, the losses were either tolerable, or avenged. He was a rookie in 1998. The 2000-2002 Shaq-Kobe Lakers, and 2008-2010 Lakers, were just better. The Mavericks were incredible in 2006 when they knocked the Spurs off. 2011 was derailed by injuries. 2013 was obviously painful, but the Spurs avenged the loss in the sweetest way possible in 2014, and 2015’s pain was defrayed by 2014’s accomplishments.
2004? That was a painful year for the Spurs. The Spurs won the championship in 1999, and the Lakers then had their three peat. Spurs-Lakers (and Shaq-Duncan as they established their legends) was the league’s preeminent rivalry, and the Spurs showed they could beat them when they mauled them in the 2003 playoffs on their way to a championship. The loss fractured the Lakers, who Karl Malone and Gary Payton to make up for the new holes in their armor. But both were injury plagued all year, and the Spurs felt they could do it again. After 4 games, the series was tied 2-2, the home team winning every game, and the stage was set for a pivotal game 5 in San Antonio.
The Spurs inbounded with 5.4 seconds left, down 1. Tim Duncan hit an incredible circus shot over Shaquille O’Neal to put the Spurs up 1 with .4 seconds left in the game. The Spurs were poised to win. But the Lakers inbounded to Derek Fisher, who heaved a fade away jumper in front of a Manu Ginobili contest . . . the prayer was answered. The moment will forever be known as .4. The Lakers rode their new-found momentum into a home close-out game, and the Spurs’ season ended on a heave with four tenths of a second left in a basketball game.
Where did he go from there? The ending is not always sad. Despite beating the Spurs, the Lakers came apart at the seams in the finals, and the Shaq-Kobe partnership was doomed. The Lakers launched a rebuild by dealing Shaq. Tim Duncan came back strong and won two of the next three NBA championships, in 2005 and 2007, cementing his legacy as the greatest power forward to ever play basketball. Duncan then earned rings for an entire hand in 2014, obtaining sweet revenge over the Miami Heat after 2013’s heartbreak. Still, perhaps it may linger with Timmy that, because the Lakers broke up after 2004, he never got another shot at the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (although he has beaten both in the playoffs individually, and won more rings than either player since that time).
Star: Chris Webber
Year: 2002; Western Conference Finals
Series Stat Line: 24.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 6.3 APG, 3 TOV, 51.3 FG%, 45.7 FT%
What happened? One of the biggest NBA tragedies is that history will not remember the Chris Webber led Sacramento Kings. Webber, as the team’s superstar, was at the center of it all. Vlade Divac was an incredible passing big who could shoot out to 18 feet and had soft hands. Mike Bibby was an elite point guard, Doug Christie a great defender. They were deep, scored in bunches, and had ball movement reminiscent of today’s Spurs. The 2002 Kings stormed through rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs, and had home court against the 2 time defending champion LA Lakers. They lost game 1, but made up for it by going up 2-1 in the series. Up with just seconds left in game 4, Shaq missed a finger roll, and Divac tapped the rebound out in an attempt to prevent a put back . . . the ball went right to an open Robert Horry who hit a buzzer beating game winner from 3. Then, with the Kings up 3-2 in the series, game 6 happened. The Lakers shot 40 foul shots, 27 in the fourth. Accusations were hurled the game was rigged. Making matters worse, Donaghy officiated the game, which gives credence to those views. The Kings lost the game and fell in game 7, an incredible season gone without a ring to show for it.
Where did he go from there? Webber missed out on his best chance at glory. He made another go of it with the Kings but tore his ACL during the 2003 playoffs, and then lost to a possessed KG in the 2004 playoffs, during which he was not quite the same player. The Kings then shipped him to the Sixers to pair with Allen Iverson, which went miserably, but at least he got front row seats for Iverson’s PRACTICE rant. Webber had one final shot to win a title with the 2007 Pistons, but LeBron James broke through and knocked the Pistons off after losing to them the year before. Webber, sadly, is better known to the younger generation as a commentator commiserating with David Blatt about time outs than as an incredible player.
Star: Karl Malone
Year: 1999; Second Round.
Series Stat Line: 20.2 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 3.2 TOV, 43% FG, 70% FT.
What Happened? 1999 is far back so let’s refresh everyone’s memory and think about the situation. “The Witch is dead! The wicked Witch of the East is dead!” Michael Jordan, his Airness, Money Mike, he hung it up . . . After losing two straight Finals to those resilient Bulls it was finally the Jazz’s turn! Keep in mind, this is also the lockout season, so the long in the tooth Jazz got an extended holiday before going back to work. The Jazz tie the Spurs for the league’s best record, Malone wins MVP, and this is going swimmingly so far I’d say.
So here we go, the playoffs. The Jazz avoid a scare going down 2-1 to the up and coming Kings, but head into the Semi-Finals to play Portland. Old man Arvydas Sabonis and baby Rasheed Wallace no problem! Hell, this is a team that put a scare in the Bulls the year previous right? Wrong. The Jazz’s best chance in the Stockton-Malone era ends in a cold six game series. The Blazers got swept in the next round by a Spurs team and some Tim Duncan feller, the rest is history. Malone has a reputation for underperforming in the post-season, this series certainly didn’t help it. Malone posted a feeble eight point, seven board, six assist, 18% shooting effort in the deciding contest of the series. Notice I couldn’t use actual digits in that stat line . . . A sad end to Utah’s dynamic duo, make no mistake that was the end.
Where Did He Go From There? Malone went to the 2004 Lakers; in a desperation move to win a ring, which ended unexpectedly for the masses at the time, and expectedly now looking back at Malone’s career. Jokes, sort of anyway. Malone had a hell of a prime, he had some great moments, individually a rare combination of physical strength and finesse. But his story has no happy ending in the ring department. Unlike James and Nowitzki who stumbled a great opportunities at 26 and 28 respectively, Malone faltered on his last best shot at age 35. There’s no coming back from that, evidenced by the failings of the world’s first super team.
Star: Michael Jordan
Year: 1995; Second Round.
Series Stat Line: 31 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 4 TOV, 48% FG, 23% 3PT, 80% FT.
What Happened? I thought hard on this one, I didn’t want to do Michael Jordan dirty. Isiah Thomas and the Pistons already did him dirty three straight years. (88-89-90, in case you all forgot.) In fairness to his Airness, that was a young Jordan and a young Pippen. No, I think I have to go with 1995. Background; Jordan returns from his baseball, grieving, gambling excursion. He plays the last 17 games of the season, Bulls go 13-4 over the span, Jordan is rusty, but he’s still Jordan. Jordan starts the playoffs with a quiet 48 point eruption, they take care of Dell Curry and the Hornets in four games. Jordan averaged 32.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, with 50-47-83 shooting splits; safe to say Jordan was back.
The garage door opens and out comes the Shaquille O’Neal guy. In fairness O’Neal had company, Penny Hardaway was present and accounted for, and also an angry Horace Grant had a lot to say. Mainly, “I’m worth every penny, eat your hearts out Chicago.” Jordan did what Jordan did, he scored, he dug in his heels, but the Bulls weren’t mentally prepared for this Magic team. This Magic team was the right mix of youth, strength, athleticism, and veteran savvy. Headed back down 3-2 the Bulls didn’t muster a miracle, not this time. O’Neal dumped in 27 points, 13 boards, and led the Magic onward towards a Dream beating. Jordan and the Bulls went home early and had some time to question their own mortality.
If twitter was invented at the time maybe people were tweeting, “Could Larry Bird have beaten the Magic with this supporting cast?”
Where Did He Go From There? Well that was the last playoff series that Jordan and the Bulls ever lost, so safe to say they rallied. Self-respecting basketball fans don’t talk about Washington Jordan and the lack of magic that came from that run, so will ignore it. Jordan went on to celebrate his fourth, fifth, and sixth Championship, his second three-peat if you will. A delight denied to a Mr. Kobe Bryant thanks to Nowitzki and the boys. Off the court Jordan became an awful executive, so-so owner, and a billionaire. Safe to say the winning legacy of MJ is secure.
Questions? Comments? Hit the boys up:
J.E. – Josh Eberley, @JoshEberley
J.S. – Justin Salkin, @BrooklynsBeat