It’s late in the NBA season, and the Super Teams have hit a rut. The Warriors have a legitimate excuse – Kevin Durant got hurt. They went into a bit of a funk and actually lost three straight this month! They’ve since bounced back with seven straight wins.
The Cavs? They were without Kevin Love for about a month, but he’s back. The defense is in shambles- they’re 23rd in defensive efficiency, the worst of any team currently in the playoffs – and they’ve now lost the #1 seed in the East. Panic!
None of this should be a colossal surprise. Historically, the Super Teams/Dynasties – starting with Jordan’s Bulls in the 90s – have had struggles in year three and year four. Who said getting to the Finals three years in a row was easy?
[Aside: For the sake of argument, I’m leaving out the Super Team Celtics from 2008-2010. They went 66-62-50 in the wins column. In the postseason, they won the title, lost in the conference semifinals and then lost in the Finals.]
You can look the Miami Super Heat from a few years ago, and their struggles in Year 4:
Year 1: 58-24, Lost in the NBA Finals
Year 2: 46-20, Won the title (season was strike-shortened)
Year 3: 66-16, Won the title
Year 4: 54-28, Lost in the NBA Finals
Think back to that 4th year. The Heat, worn down from three straight trips to the Finals, finished 2nd in the East to the Indiana Pacers. But it didn’t matter in the playoffs – Indiana won game one of the conference Finals before the Heat peeled off three straight and cruised to the Finals.
In the Finals, they were exhausted, and quickly dispatched by the Spurs.
We can examine Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 90s – but keep in mind he took 1.5 years off after winning three straight. Perhaps we can glean something from their rise and slight fall:
1991 – 61 wins, title
1992 – 67 wins, title
1993 – 57 wins, title
That 3rd year can be a problem.
1996 – 72 wins, title
1997 – 69 wins, title
1998 – 62 wins, title
In the 1998 playoffs, Jordan’s Bulls lost six games. In the 1996 and 1997 playoffs combined, they lost a total of seven.
So should we really be surprised the Warriors and Cavs have hit a snag?
2015 – 53 wins, lost in the Finals
2016 – 57 wins, won the title
2017 – ?
With nine games left in the season, the Cavs are on pace to win around 52-53 games, depending of course on how much the stars rest.
It’s a bit more complicated for the Warriors, because they weren’t a Super Team until Kevin Durant came along, and he obviously hasn’t been drained by back-to-back Finals trips:
2015: 67 wins, won title
2016: 73 wins, lost in Finals
With nine games left, Golden State is on pace for about 65 wins, which on the surface will look shocking – they added Durant and lost more games? – but the reality is, two straight trips to the finals means another 1/2 season’s worth of playoff games for Curry (39), Klay (45) and Draymond (44).
It’s more than just games and minutes, of course – the energy spent chasing history and clinging to the #1 seed and MVP awards and media demands over three years adds up.
For LeBron the cyborg, it’s almost unfathomable: 128 playoff games over the last six seasons.
I’ve definitely some concerns about the Cavs heading into the postseason. The Boston Celtics, the new #1 seed in the East have played a total of 10 playoff games in the last two seasons. John Wall’s Wizards missed the playoffs entirely last year.
The tired Cavs are going to be going up against some young, fresh upstarts in the playoffs.