25 NBA Champions Who Failed to Repeat
Even before the 2016–17 NBA Playoffs began, it looked like we were headed for yet another matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. The teams matched up in 2014–15 when the Warriors took home the trophy. They faced off again last year when Golden State blew a 3-1 series lead and the Cavs took home Cleveland’s first NBA championship.
Will Cleveland be able to repeat? Outside of one extended stretch in NBA history, it’s been difficult for teams to win back-to-back NBA championships. Here, we look at the most recent 25 teams to win the title but not repeat the next year.
25. 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers
We begin the list with the 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s worth pointing out that a long string of teams that didn’t repeat as champions began in 1969–70 with the New York Knicks, and then again in 1970–71 with the Milwaukee Bucks.
However, the ’72 Lakers, led by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, set the NBA regular-season record for wins. They went 69-13 and stormed their way past the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, and New York Knicks in the playoffs, winning the championship. The following year, they finished an impressive 60-22 but lost their rematch against the Knicks in five games.
24. 1972–73 New York Knicks
Those 1972–73 New York Knicks took down the Los Angeles Lakers and their veritable All-Star team, winning their second championship in the last four seasons. Led by Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, and others, the Knicks went 57-25 during the regular season and beat the Washington Bullets and Boston Celtics along the way. Sadly, things dropped off in 1973–74, with New York going just 49-33 and losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics.
23. 1973–74 Boston Celtics
Speaking of those 1973–74 Boston Celtics, they became NBA champs that season. After taking down the reigning champion New York Knicks, they beat the Milwaukee Bucks — then in the West — in seven games in the NBA Finals.
Boston was coached to a 56-26 record by the legendary Tommy Heinsohn, and led on the floor by such memorable basketball names as John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, Don Nelson, and Paul Westphal. In 1974–75, Boston was an even more impressive 60-22, but got knocked out by the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals.
22. 1974–75 Golden State Warriors
The 1974–75 Golden State Warriors were not the favorite to win the NBA championship, but they pulled it off anyway. The Warriors finished the regular season with a 48-34 record behind 30.6 points per game from star Rick Barry.
They beat the Chicago Bulls in a hard-fought, seven-game Western Conference finals and then took care of the Washington Bullets in a four-game sweep in the NBA Finals. Golden State improved their record to 59-23 the following year, but lost the Western Conference finals to the Phoenix Suns.
21. 1975–76 Boston Celtics
Although they could not repeat after their 1974 NBA championship, the 1975–76 Boston Celtics found themselves back on top of the NBA. They finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, again under Tommy Heinsohn, and stormed their way past the Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers to take on former Celtic Paul Westphal and the surprising, 42-40 Phoenix Suns.
The Celtics won the series in six games, but were unable to repeat the magic the following year. John Havlicek was now 36 years old, and Boston went just 44-38, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals.
20. 1976–77 Portland Trail Blazers
The 1976–77 Portland Trail Blazers, coached by the legendary Jack Ramsay, went 49-33 during the regular season. Nobody picked them to win the title. But a healthy Bill Walton led the Blazers past the Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Lakers in the West. Then they took out Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers in six games in the NBA Finals. Portland had a much better regular season in 1977–78, going 58-24, but the Seattle SuperSonics upset them in the opening round.
19. 1977–78 Washington Bullets
Those same Seattle SuperSonics made a run all the way to the NBA Finals in 1977–78, but they ran into another major underdog: the Washington Bullets. After finishing just 44-38 under Dick Motto in the regular season, the Bullets pulled off upset after upset in the playoffs, knocking off the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, and then the Sonics in a classic, seven-game NBA Finals.
Elvin Hayes and the Bullets improved their record to 54-28 in 1978–79 and advanced back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with the Sonics. But the magic ran out and they did not repeat as champions.
18. 1978–79 Seattle SuperSonics
The Seattle SuperSonics won their first — and only — NBA championship in franchise history in 1978–79, beating the Washington Bullets in a rematch of the ’78 NBA Finals. Seattle was 52-30, coached by Lenny Wilkens and led on the court by center Jack Sikma and guard Gus Williams. The Sonics took out the Lakers, Suns, and then an easy five-game series with the Bullets to take home the title. They went 56-26 in 1979–80 and made a trip to the Western Conference finals. But they lost in five games to the Lakers.
17. 1979–80 Los Angeles Lakers
Those Lakers ended up winning the NBA championship on the back of a 60-22 regular season in 1979–80. They leaned on future Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and a rookie named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Los Angeles took out the Phoenix Suns, then the Seattle SuperSonics, and finally the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. They went 54-28 the following season, but the Houston Rockets and 25-year-old center Moses Malone upset them 42-40.
16. 1980–81 Boston Celtics
These Rockets made it all the way to the NBA Finals, despite their under .500 regular season record, before losing to the 1980–81 Boston Celtics. Now coached by Bill Fitch, the Celtics put together an impressive young core of players. Center Robert Parish was in his fifth NBA season, forward Larry Bird was in his second, and forward Kevin McHale was a rookie. Boston went 62-20 and beat the Rockets in six games. However, they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals the following year after going 63-19 in the regular season.
15. 1981–82 Los Angeles Lakers
Although they were unable to repeat in 1980–81, the Los Angeles Lakers landed back on top again in 1981–82. With essentially the same core, plus a 30-year-old Bob McAdoo, Los Angeles scored a regular season record of 57-25 and swept both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs on their way to the NBA Finals. They matched up with the Philadelphia 76ers and beat them in six games. They weren’t so fortunate in 1982–83, however, rematching with the Sixers in the NBA Finals but getting swept in four games.
14. 1982–83 Philadelphia 76ers
Those 76ers indeed won the 1982–83 NBA Finals, sweeping Pat Riley’s Los Angeles Lakers. Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Andrew Toney were huge against LA, with Malone averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds in the four-game sweep.
The Sixers finished that season with an NBA-best record of 65-17 and a playoff record of 12-1 — their only loss coming in the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1983–84, Philadelphia dropped off to 52-30 and the New Jersey Nets eliminated them in the first round.
13. 1983–84 Boston Celtics
In what became somewhat of a pattern, Bird’s Boston Celtics came away with yet another NBA championship in 1983–84. They finished 56-26 the season prior, and improved upon that record with a 62-20 season under new head coach K.C. Jones. Boston matched up against Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the NBA Finals, taking the series in seven games. The following season, they improved on their regular-season record by going 63-19, but the Lakers got the best of them in the six-game NBA Finals.
12. 1984–85 Los Angeles Lakers
Those Los Angeles Lakers went 62-20 in 1984–85, adding another future Hall of Famer to their roster in James Worthy. The third-year forward was huge for them in the regular season, shooting 57.2% from the field and averaging 17.2 points per game.
The Lakers won the championship in their second consecutive matchup against the Celtics in the finals, but there was again no streak. The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 1985–86, but following another 62-20 regular season in Los Angeles, the Lakers were eliminated in the Western Conference finals.
11. 1985–86 Boston Celtics
Bird, McHale, Parish, and the Celtics won their third NBA title of the decade and made their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance in 1985–86, continuing a 17-year streak of teams not repeating as champions. They met up with Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, beating them in five games.
Boston made it four consecutive years in the finals the following season, but they lost in six games to the Lakers. After such a long run delivering a new champion every year, every team to win an NBA title from 1986–87 through 1997–98 would win at least two in a row.
10. 1998–99 San Antonio Spurs
After seeing the Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, and Rockets all win and then defend championships in the late ’80s and ’90s, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs broke through in the lockout-shortened season of 1999.
Led by center David Robinson and second-year forward Tim Duncan, the Spurs went 37-13 during the regular season and rolled past the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers to take on the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals (they closed out the series in five games). San Antonio put together a 53-29 season in 1999–00, but a Jason Kidd-less Phoenix Suns somehow upset them in the first round.
9. 2002–03 San Antonio Spurs
After a three-peat by the Lakers, the Spurs were back on top in 2002–03. Robinson was now 37 years old and basically just a role player alongside Duncan, 20-year-old point guard Tony Parker, and rookie guard Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs went 60-22 during the regular season, then took down the Suns, Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference playoffs. In the NBA Finals, San Antonio beat the New Jersey Nets in six games to take home their second championship in franchise history. They went 57-25 the following year, but lost in the second round to the Lakers.
8. 2003–04 Detroit Pistons
After being swept in the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior, the 2003–04 Detroit Pistons went 54-28 under head coach Larry Brown. The legendary team featured talented names such as Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups.
They were massive underdogs, facing against the Los Angeles Lakers team featuring Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton, but the Pistons won the series in just five games. In 2004–05, Detroit went an identical 54-28 and advanced to the NBA Finals yet again, but lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games.
7. 2004–05 San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship yet again in 2004–05, with a similar core of stars as well as veterans like Robert Horry, Brent Barry, and Rasho Nesterovic.
The Spurs went 59-23 during the regular season, finishing with the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and taking down the Denver Nuggets, Seattle SuperSonics, and Phoenix Suns before beating the reigning champion Pistons in seven games in the NBA Finals. The 2005–06 Spurs were even better at 63-19, with the best record in the West. But the Dallas Mavericks upset them in the second round.
6. 2005–06 Miami Heat
Dwyane Wade’s first championship came in 2005–06, with Shaquille O’Neal by his side. In fact, that Miami Heat team had a lot of quality players: Gary Payton, Jason Williams, Udonis Haslem, Alonzo Mourning, and Antoine Walker. They went just 52-30 during the regular season, but beat the Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, Detroit Pistons, and Dallas Mavericks in the postseason. The following year, Miami were unable to defend their title, getting swept by the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
5. 2006–07 San Antonio Spurs
The 2006–07 San Antonio Spurs, led as usual by Popovich, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Horry, added veterans Jacque Vaughn and Michael Finley to their roster for yet another NBA Finals run.
They finished 58-24 in the regular season, taking down Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets, Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns, and Deron Williams’ Utah Jazz in the playoffs. In the NBA Finals, they swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The following season, the Spurs were excellent again at 56-26, but lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
4. 2007–08 Boston Celtics
The 2007–08 Boston Celtics had one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history, going from 24-58 the previous season to 66-16 and NBA champions. They acquired guard Ray Allen and forward Kevin Garnett, adding to their core that already featured Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Boston went 62-20 the following season, but Garnett couldn’t play in the postseason. They lost in the second round to the Orlando Magic.
3. 2010–11 Dallas Mavericks
Between the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs finishing 62-20 and the first year of the Miami Heat “Big Three” with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, everyone overlooked the 57-25 Dallas Mavericks in 2010–11.
Dirk Nowitzki had another outstanding year, and Dallas never had to face the Spurs in the postseason, riding their way to the NBA Finals and beating the Heat in six games. The following season, they were swept in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
2. 2013–14 San Antonio Spurs
The 2013–14 San Antonio Spurs went 62-20 behind the leadership of Popovich, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. They beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and then took out the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in five games in the NBA Finals. In 2014–15 the Spurs went 55-27 during the regular season, but that was only good enough to land the No. 6 seed in the tough West. They lost in seven games in the first round to the Los Angeles Clippers.
1. 2014–15 Golden State Warriors
The most recent example of a team that couldn’t repeat as champions may be one of the most famous. The 2014–15 Golden State Warriors, under rookie head coach Steve Kerr, surprised a lot of people by going 67-15 and winning the championship over the Cleveland Cavaliers. They went 73-9, a regular season record, in 2015–16 but were upended in the NBA Finals by the same Cavaliers, blowing a 3-1 series lead.