8 Playoff Series That Were Farewells for NBA Dynasties
"Part of the journey is the end."
As Iron Man stoically professed onboard a disintegrating Benatar, every hero's path inevitably leads to an end. So it is for these dynasties, which forged legacies renowned in NBA history but succumbed to circumstances and time.
Dive in as we explore the greatest teams in NBA history and the series that marked their farewells.
ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and J.A. Adande, Director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern University, join The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance and the surprising revelations about Jordan's close relationship with Kobe Bryant, and how that relationship clearly influenced Kobe's basketball career. They also talk about Bryant's early years imitating Jordan, MJ's initial reaction to Kobe, the perception of fans, media and other players, and how all of that transformed into a close bond protected by both MJ and Kobe.
Honorable Mentions: Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs
Houston Rockets vs. Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz
Back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995
Of all the teams to experience the misfortune of playing during the same era as Michael Jordan's title-winning Chicago Bulls, the Houston Rockets were the only to earn immortality, albeit with an asterisk attached. While they deserve considerable praise for the string of Hall of Famers they went through to earn each title, history will always wonder if they would have done so had Jordan not retired prematurely.
Once Jordan returned in 1995-96, the Rockets lost to the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz in three consecutive postseason appearances. After an injury-filled 1997-98 season, Clyde Drexler retired, Kevin Willis was traded and Mario Elie signed with the San Antonio Spurs.
Had the Rockets managed to upend Jordan, history may have remembered them far differently.
Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs: 2014
Back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013
The Miami Heat's peak was brief before LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after losing two Finals in four straight appearances.
Defeating a team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden appears to be a massive achievement on paper until you consider the four had 15 years of combined experience. Surviving San Antonio in 2013 was a more notable accomplishment, but San Antonio's five-game shellacking to earn revenge the ensuing season seemed to suggest it was an aberration.
The Heatles disbanded after that series, allowing James to join forces with a younger core in Cleveland. While back-to-back titles should earn this group reverence, the failure against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 will always suggest it underperformed.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Clippers: 2015
Five championships from 1999 to 2014
The collection of titles indisputably enters this San Antonio unit into the discussion, but it's difficult to pick where the dynasty ends and begins thanks to a 16-year run without back-to-back championships. Except for head coach Gregg Popovich and power forward Tim Duncan, not one member of the 1999 championship squad was with the team in 2014.
Do one player and one coach make a dynasty? As Jerry Krause, the Chicago Bulls general manager for their six titles during the '90s, would say, organizations win championships. In this instance, he may have been right.
If we have to pick an endpoint, the seven-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers following the last of the five titles would be a natural choice. The two were arguably the strongest challengers to the 67-win Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.
However, a loss to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on the final day of the regular season looms large. Playing for their postseason life, the Pelicans managed to upset the Spurs, forcing them into the undesirable No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Spurs have continued making annual trips to the postseason, but they have yet to win a game in the conference finals.
Minneapolis Lakers vs. Syracuse Nationals: 1954
Five championships from 1949 to 1954
The Minneapolis Lakers' George Mikan is often referred to as the NBA's first superstar. He brought a string of titles to the Lakers at the midpoint of the 20th century, forming the first dynasty in league history.
"Everyone wanted to see him," Lakers teammate and Hall of Famer Slater Martin said of Mikan, per NBA.com. "When George came to town, it was an event."
"He literally carried the league," Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy told the Associated Press.
However, the rigors of NBA seasons took a toll on the 6'10", 245-pound center. A series of upward of 10 broken bones forced him into retirement at age 29, though he did return for one more season after a year away. His injuries included "fractures of both legs, his left arch, right foot, nose, right wrist, thumb and three fingers, plus 166 stitches," according to Frank Litsky of the New York Times.
The 1953-54 Syracuse Nationals would be Mikan's last opponent with this iteration of a dynasty, having swept through the Eastern side of the playoffs. Led by Paul Seymour, Wally Osterkorn and Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, who led the team with 17.1 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, the Nationals forced Mikan to seven games. Though the Lakers would prevail, the hardships of the series and his career meant the end of Mikan's career and this dynasty.
Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers: 1969
11 championships from 1957 to 1969
The Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics provided the standard to which all NBA dynasties are held. With 11 titles in 13 seasons, Russell led an unprecedented run of excellence that no team has come close to duplicating.
The Celtics were one of the most stacked teams of all time during this historic run, carrying as many as eight Hall of Famers on their roster, including names such as Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek.
Despite the decade of excellence that preceded this historical series, the Celtics were far from favored to win. After finishing fourth in their division, the odds to even advance to the Finals were against them. While the Celtics defeated the Lakers' Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in 1968, L.A. had added Wilt Chamberlain. He led the Philadelphia 76ers past the Celtics just two years prior with 21.6 points, 32.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists in a five-game "gentleman's sweep" in the Eastern Division Finals.
After going down 2-0 to the Lakers, the Celtics responded with four hard-fought victories in their next five games, winning each by an average of just 4.5 points. Jerry West won Finals MVP in the trophy's first year with 37.9 points and 7.4 assists per game and remains the only player to earn the award for the losing team. The 35-year-old Russell was physically and emotionally exhausted after serving as the team's captain and player-coach since 1966.
He retired following the season, bringing an end to the NBA's most prominent dynasty.
Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons: 1988
Three championships from 1981 to 1986
The emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the early 1980s was extremely fortuitous for the franchises they landed on. The NBA's two most respected teams had already combined to win 19 titles. While Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar would limit Bird's trophy case from spilling over, his Celtics stole three titles in six years, earning trips to the Finals in four consecutive seasons (1984-87).
Magic's run eclipsed Bird's, earning five titles from 1980 to 1988 with nine Finals appearances between 1980 and 1991.
However, both faced and ultimately fell to a common enemy: Isiah Thomas and the "Bad Boy" Pistons. After Boston beat Detroit in 1987 en route to a loss to the Lakers in the Finals, the Pistons would eliminate the Celtics in three of the next four postseasons.
The first elimination came in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, the last one in which the Celtics would appear until 2002. The Pistons took a decisive 93-78 lead with just over three minutes to play thanks to the efficient shooting of Vinnie Johnson. The Celtics charged back to within seven with over a minute to play, but time ran out on both the series and their dynasty.
While Bird posted a Hall of Fame-caliber stat line through the six-game series, the Pistons mitigated his scoring, holding him to 35.1 percent shooting. Bird had never before shot less than 42.2 percent in the playoffs.
The Celtics were all but finished following this series thanks to the advancing age of their roster. The loss of valuable depth pieces in Len Bias and Bill Walton compounded the chronic back and foot injuries to their stars, Bird and Kevin McHale.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons: 1989
Five championships from 1980 to 1988
As the Celtics began their decline, the Lakers stood poised to build upon their five titles in the decade. After the Pistons halted the Celtics' dynasty in the 1988 East Finals, they fell short against the "Showtime" Lakers in seven games.
One year later, they'd return for a rematch, albeit under different circumstances.
Magic Johnson, the 1988-89 MVP, and his Lakers seemed as strong as ever, bludgeoning their Western Conference opponents 11-0 en route to another apparent championship. On the other side, the Pistons won 63 games, led by Isiah Thomas in addition to Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars.
But disaster struck for the Lakers in the form of injuries to Byron Scott before Game 1 and Johnson in Game 2. Without their starting backcourt, the mighty Lakers fell in a sweep to the Pistons. Dumars led all scorers with over 27 points per game while shooting 57.6 percent from the field.
The Lakers returned to the Finals in 1991 without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Michael Cooper and lost to the Chicago Bulls in a gentleman's sweep. Had Scott and Johnson remained healthy and again upended the Pistons in 1989, who knows how history may have unfolded?
Detroit Pistons vs. Chicago Bulls: 1991
Back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990
The Pistons prided themselves on rebelling against a league that seemingly saw fit to pass the championship baton from one generation of superstar (Magic, Bird) to the next (Michael Jordan).
However, what Detroit pulled off was arguably more significant than what the other three managed through 14 combined titles. The Pistons strategically stonewalled two dynasties while delaying another. Three of the greatest five to ever play put their pantheons of trophies on hold for two seasons while the Pistons basked in their championship glory.
While that accomplishment earns a place in history in its own right, can you imagine where the Pistons might have sat without Magic, Bird or MJ?
Alas, Jordan's ascendance along with Scottie Pippen was unavoidable. After a migraine to Batman's "Robin" prevented the Bulls from advancing in 1990, they swept the Pistons in 1991 with no game closer than six points. The Pistons-Bulls rivalry is remembered as one of the most heated in NBA history thanks to the infamous "Jordan Rules" the Pistons adopted starting in 1988.
Following the 1991 sweep, veterans Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards departed in free agency. Detroit traded John Salley to the Miami Heat in 1992 and Dennis Rodman to the San Antonio Spurs in 1993. Finally, Bill Laimbeer and Thomas retired in 1993 and 1994, definitively ending the Pistons' run. They would not win another playoff series until 2002.
Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz: 1998
Six championships from 1991 to 1998
ESPN and Netflix's The Last Dance aptly summarizes the conflict that engulfed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as their historic title run came to an end in 1998.
The final year of the dynasty contained an unusual level of drama for a team that was coming off back-to-back title victories. Head coach Phil Jackson was a lame-duck coach as general manager Jerry Krause lined up Tim Floyd to replace him. Scottie Pippen opted for surgery during the regular season rather than the offseason because of contract concerns. The year prior, Krause reportedly attempted to trade the small forward on two separate occasions to the Boston Celtics and in a draft-day trade for Tracy McGrady. Dennis Rodman took a vacation midseason.
Many of these distractions might have sidetracked another title contender, but Jordan and his Bulls crawled their way back to the Finals to meet the previous season's opponent, the Utah Jazz.
Though the Bulls took a decisive 3-1 lead, the Jazz almost wrestled the series back following Karl Malone's 39 points in Game 5.
''I was hurting pretty bad," Pippen said of Game 6. ''At the start of the game I was able to get a dunk and I came down, and the pain built from that point. Every time I tried to run, I was getting spasms."
As he often did, Jordan donned his cape, scoring 45 points on 35 shots despite noticeable exhaustion. He famously stole the ball from Malone with 18.9 seconds left and hit the series-clinching shot over Bryon Russell.
That summer, the Bulls removed Jackson. Jordan retired as he promised he would without Jackson. The Bulls traded Pippen to the Houston Rockets, Rodman played just 35 more games combined between the Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks, and Steve Kerr won two more championships with the San Antonio Spurs.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons: 2004
Three championships from 2000 to 2002
The bond between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal was always a volatile one.
They formed perhaps the best duo ever. As eventual 11-time coaching champion and Zen master Phil Jackson harnessed and constantly repaired their relationship, Big Diesel and the Black Mamba put together possibly the best three years of dominance in NBA history. The team's 15-1 postseason in 2001 was the highest playoff percentage in history until Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors went 16-1 in 2017.
However, after the three-peat, O'Neal underwent foot surgery, which led to a slow start and ultimate dismissal at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2002-03. That summer, Robert Horry, an integral part of the Lakers' depth, defected to San Antonio.
The Lakers replenished the coffers with Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Horace Grant, instantly returning to title-favorite status.
But Bryant's being charged with sexual assault in Colorado in July 2003 and the distraction created by a public spat with O'Neal derailed the season.
As the two neared their breaking point, Jackson told the two, "No more public sparring, or you'll be fined."
What followed severed their relationship, as O'Neal and Jackie McMullan wrote in Shaq Uncut: My Story:
"Immediately after that Kobe runs right out to Jim Gray and does this interview where he lets me have it. He said I was fat and out of shape. He said I was milking my toe injury for more time off, and the injury wasn't even that serious. ... Hours earlier we had just promised our coach we'd stop. It was a truce broken. I let the guys know, 'I'm going to kill him.'"
Bryant said he felt his friends let him down. Years later, he told GQ: "I have friends. But being a 'great friend' is something I will never be."
With the team on the brink of internal collapse, the Lakers managed their way to 56 wins and a 12-5 postseason run through the Rockets, Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves en route to the Finals.
What took place was one of the greatest Finals upsets in NBA history. What was truly shocking wasn't the five games it took the Pistons to dispatch the Lakers—it was how they did so, winning four games by an average margin of 13.3 points.
For all the talk of O'Neal being out of shape, the big averaged 26.6 points and 10.8 rebounds on 63.1 percent shooting. No one else on the roster shot above 40 percent for the series other than Rick Fox, who took seven shots.
The Lakers let Jackson go that offseason and traded O'Neal to Miami. The Pistons would fall in the Finals the following season to San Antonio and then lost in three consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
Golden State Warriors vs. Toronto Raptors: 2019
Three championships from 2015 to 2018
The writing may have been on the wall, but this iteration of the Golden State Warriors ended with the 2019 Finals loss to Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors.
Visible frustration boiled over early in the season, as Draymond Green reportedly challenged Kevin Durant to tip his hand as to his offseason intentions during a hotly contested overtime matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The circumstances were undeniably complicated. The Warriors won 73 games in 2015-16 with Harrison Barnes at the power forward position. The Oklahoma City Thunder (led by Durant) took a decisive 3-1 lead over Golden State in the Western Conference Finals only to crumble over the next three games. With a Warriors loss at the hands of the Cavaliers one round later, coupled with the cap surge of 2016, Durant leapfrogged from one contender to another, leading the Warriors to two titles with two Finals MVPs.
Down 3-1 in the 2019 NBA Finals, Green and the Warriors looked to Durant to save them, but he had strained his calf three weeks prior in Game 5 of the semifinals. Just 12 minutes into his first game back, he tore his Achilles tendon, which essentially ended the Warriors' run of excellence. Klay Thompson then suffered a torn ACL in the deciding Game 6.
"I don't believe there's anybody to blame, but I understand this world," Warriors president Bob Myers said following Game 5. "If you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department."
Defeating the Raptors may have still pushed Durant out the door during free agency. Why would the Warriors need him if they could manage the final two rounds without him? But what if Steph Curry, Thompson and Green had pushed the series to Game 6 without Durant? Or Game 7? Would a few additional days' rest have made the difference, turned the series and mended severed relationships?
The injuries suffered to two of the Warriors' four superstars may have ended the dynasty. Still, there's an argument to be had that Green and Durant's altercation in November was the predecessor all along.
"When your teammate talks to you that way, you think about it a bit," Durant told First Take. "... Definitely, for sure. I'm not going to lie about it."
To this point in the 2019-20 season, the Warriors have suffered more losses than any other team.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis).