There was a time when the “close, but no cigar” shoe was on another foot—that of the Los Angeles Lakers, now one of the league’s most storied franchises.
Having won five titles while playing in Minneapolis, the Lakers joined the growing sports landscape in L.A. prior to the 1960 season. Their excellence continued on the West Coast, but championships didn’t. The Boston Celtics had other plans.
The Celtics were in the midst of a championship streak that would stretch to eight consecutive seasons, and 10 of the next 11.
It was a much smaller league in those days. Even by the end of the 1960s, it was still only half the size it is today.
Nonetheless, six times in that decade, the Lakers played the Celtics in the finals. Six times, they came up short. After Bill Russell retired in 1969, the Lakers lost one more title series for good measure, to the New York Knicks in 1970.
The leader of that team was Jerry West. Despite a period of finals futility unmatched in NBA history, West is praised as “Mr. Clutch,” and his silhouette—not Russell’s, for instance—adorns the league’s logo.
In all, the Los Angeles-based Lakers have lost 14 times in the NBA Finals. Because they became winners over the last three decades, however, their past failures are forgotten.
A closer comparison to the current Cavs would be—perhaps inevitably—Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, with their multiple playoff shortfalls of the 1980s. That frustrating run stretched over six seasons and included three straight playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons, the last two of which were in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The moral of both stories, however, is the same. Sustained excellence, despite even repeated shortfalls, often brings with it the ultimate reward.
For Los Angeles, it came in 1972, when the Lakers finally won a championship series in a rematch with the Knicks.
Even better days were ahead. The team’s fortunes would forever change after the arrival of Magic Johnson in 1979. Five times over the next decade, the NBA would crown the Lakers champs.
For the Bulls, a string of six championships in eight years began in 1990 and cemented their place as one of the greatest teams in league history.
So we come to the current edition of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A year ago, expectations were high after the Cavs led the league with 66 regular-season wins. LeBron James was named Most Valuable Player. Mike Brown was Coach of the Year.
They swept the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs. Then they swept the Atlanta Hawks. They were beginning to look invincible; perhaps they even believed it.
But the Orlando Magic came out firing in the Eastern Conference Finals, hitting 45 percent of their three-point shots in game one. They went on to convert 41 percent for the series, and ended the Cavs’ season with a resounding thud.
So what now?
This year the Cavaliers, despite losing players like Mo Williams, Delonte West, Jamario Moon, and Shaquille O’Neal to injury for extended periods, have kept on winning. They own the best record in the league and have claimed 14 of their last 16 games.
They have depth. They have speed. They have size. They have LeBron James. They play defense with intensity.
They’re a stronger team than they were a year ago. Expectations are high, as they should be.
Even as the Cavaliers have solidified their place atop the league standings, however, other teams have emerged as formidable opponents in the East.
The Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks are playoff-bound and dangerous. The Orlando Magic haven’t backed down and are right on the Cavaliers’ heels.
Don’t look now, but the Boston Celtics have rebounded of late and remain a threat heading into the playoffs.
There are no guarantees once the second season begins. The Cavaliers may be the frontrunners, but it’s a long road to a championship.
Even so, they should take heart. Their playoff disappointments of 2007, 2008, and 2009 can be instructive—just as the Bulls’ failures of the 1980s and the Lakers’ before them prepared those franchises for their eventual legendary accomplishments.
It’s true that some teams, like the Utah Jazz of the 1990s or the NFL’s Buffalo Bills during that same decade, never quite ascend to the mountaintop. The Cavaliers have yet to do so, either.
History shows, however, that once you’ve done it, there’s a good chance you’ll do it again. Winning that first title, however, will require a more intense focus by the Cavs than they ultimately displayed last spring.
If they can maintain that focus—one game at a time, as the saying goes—they’ll give themselves their best chance at the prize they’ve been eyeing for so long.