There’s an old saying that every day, the world turns over on someone who was on top of it. Lately, that’s certainly been the case when it comes to the NBA Finals. It’s been the case of there today, gone tomorrow for a number of teams.
The Toronto Raptors, the 2018-19 NBA champions, were recently officially eliminated from playoff contention, less than two years removed from their Larry O’Brien Trophy triumph. The Golden State Warriors, who played in five straight NBA Finals from 2014-15 through 2018-19, missed the playoffs last season and are fighting for a play-in round spot this time around. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who participated in four successive NBA Finals from 2014-15 through 2017-18, haven’t played a postseason game since and will miss the playoffs again this season.
Even the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers are finding that repeating the beating is a demanding chore. The injury-riddled Lakers have slumped into play-in round territory, meaning there’s a chance they could be eliminated before getting to the main playoff round. Regardless, the Lakers are still currying favor with the oddsmakers. They remain the second betting choice to win the championship in the NBA playoff betting odds at +550.
Why are teams turning from princes into pumpkins in such rapid fashion? Well, in some cases, it’s the natural transition phase of sports. The Warriors ruled as a contender for five years in a row. Hockey is a different sport, but one with a similar playoff format as the NBA. Jack Adams, who served as general manager of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings from 1927-62, operated with the belief that a team had a shelf life of five seasons. At that point, it was his opinion that it was time to break up the band and begin the retooling process.
In the NBA, more so than any other sport, the presence of one player among a starting lineup can turn a solid club into a sensational squad. Remove that player from the mix and the result can prove devastating.
Let’s look at the devolution of each of these recent champions and analyze what’s placed them into their current dilemmas
The one-player factor fits nicely into this narrative. And that one player was the king. When LeBron James, a.k.a. King James, was first sitting on his throne in Cleveland, he guided the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals. Departing for Miami as a free agent, James took the Heat to four successive NBA Finals appearances while Cleveland fell off the radar.
Returning to the Cavs, James guided them to their four straight NBA Finals appearances and the first title in franchise history in 2015-16. However, since he left a second time, on this occasion for the Lakers, Cleveland has sunk down to list among the NBA bottom feeders.
Golden State Warriors
In the case of the Warriors, the shoe that fits most aptly is the Adams five-year theory. After their loss to the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, Kevin Durant departed for Brooklyn via free agency. Injuries claimed Klay Thompson and Boogie Cousins. Veteran sixth man Andre Iguodala also left as a free agent.
Thompson underwent knee surgery last season and suffered an Achilles injury not long after returning from rehabbing his knee.
A combination of factors played a role in devastating the once-mighty Raptors. Kawhi Leonard was the first hit. The 2019 NBA Finals MVP left that summer for the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent. Marc Gasol was another key cog from the starting five who also moved on, as did Danny Green.
This season, injuries have decimated the Toronto roster. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have all missed significant time. There was a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. With teams unable to cross the Canada-USA border due to the pandemic, the Raptors were forced to play their home games in Tampa, Fla.
Los Angeles Lakers
An ankle injury has forced King James to abdicate his throne for much of the 2020-21 campaign. It’s still not a certainty that LeBron will be ready for the playoffs and if he is, how close he’ll be to 100 percent fitness.
That’s just one of many ailments that have plagued the Lakers throughout this season. Anthony Davis has only recently returned from a long absence due to the calf issue. Gasol, Jared Dudley, Dennis Schroder, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have also missed time during the campaign.