The Top Five Underachieving Teams in the NBA in Recent Seasons
When you look at how the 2018-2019 NBA season is shaping up, you can’t help but notice something big.
The Lakers don’t seem to be where we expected to see them.
It seems that simply adding LeBron James to a team of talented youngsters is not the complete recipe for domination in the Western Conference.
The Lakers’ troubles have prompted me to revisit some of the recent seasons and see who the main underachievers were.
Now, don’t expect to see the Knicks or Suns in there. Although these teams have been hitting rock bottom for years now, I’ll be looking at this from a different angle.
Unlike the two franchises I mentioned, there are some that are actually interested in developing their players and increasing their chances of success in the league. It’s definitely not an easy task in this competitive environment, and sure enough, some of them have come short.
It’s not that they haven’t been in and around the playoffs. It’s just that more was expected of their coaches and players — especially in the postseason where we should actually judge a team’s overall performance.
Basically, I’ll have my say on the good teams that should have been even better and why I think they should have hit greater heights by now. Strap yourself in, as I have the feeling you might not agree with all of these, but I’ll go ahead with it anyway.
The Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers of recent years are definitely an interesting case. Let’s have a look at how they’ve fared in the last two seasons, and then I’ll give my verdict on them below.
The 2016-2017 Season
Portland made the playoffs that year by securing the 8th seed with a 41-41 record in the regular season. They produced a slightly better record the previous year with arguably the same roster, so bigger things were expected of them. However, they only managed to clinch the last spot.
One notable difference from the previous season is that the team traded Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets and got Jusuf Nurkic. Although Plumlee was part of the team core, it was expected that Nurkic would be an adequate alternative. Sadly, he missed big parts of the 2016-2017 season and wasn’t able to contribute much.
In these circumstances, fans weren’t too disappointed about the team’s position. Even if it was through the last seed, they still made the playoffs. However, what followed wasn’t too comforting. The Blazers had to face the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
It was never going to be an easy series, but Portland didn’t even manage to put up a fight. They were swept 4-0 and made to contemplate what could be done next season in order for the team to be competitive in these encounters.
The 2017-2018 Season
The season started off pretty well for the team. The new core of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic was gelling well and getting results. Ultimately, the team finished with a 49-33 record, which gave them the third seed in the Western Conference. It was the franchise’s best regular season in 19 years.
Needless to say, everyone close to the team was ecstatic and hoped that this could signal a major change in the team’s playoff record. For the better part of 20 years, the Blazers have had just a couple of Finals appearances and were losing in the first round almost every time they got to the postseason.
They were now in a great position, as they would avoid the top teams at the start and could build up some playoff momentum. They had to play the Pelicans, who, despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to an injury, eventually finished the season on a high.
The Pels boasted Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo in their ranks, but Portland was the third-best team in the West and had one of the most efficient offenses. That is why we were all shocked when the series ended with a resounding 4-0 sweep for the Pelicans.
It’s one thing to allow Golden State to do that, but being swept by the Pelicans, who were missing their star center, is entirely different. It was one of those moments where the team needed to have a long, hard look at themselves and the direction they were going.
Even though the Blazers have been performing well enough in recent regular seasons, they are definitely one of the underachieving teams when you look at their playoff record. For several years now, they have always come up with an excuse. It’s either that they played Golden State, or Jusuf Nurkic was not healthy enough, or something along those lines.
The truth is that the team is simply not good enough to challenge for the top. Yes, their offense can be quite good, and it’s the reason why they are firmly in the playoff picture each year. However, their two main weapons, Lillard and McCollum, still can’t produce when it matters.
On top of that, their defense can be disastrous, and there is a sense that the Blazers can be too nice to their opponents. Although Nurkic is an imposing presence on the court, there aren’t too many players with authority on the team.
Their backcourt is very talented, but both their star players can be easily bullied by other teams. This all amounts to the fact that the Blazers need an edge — something to spark up their defense and show everyone they mean business.
If they don’t find it, we’ll probably continue to see them making the playoffs only to be derailed at the first step.
One might say, “Seriously, the Toronto Raptors?” Yes, they have had a respectable record in the regular season these past few years, but they fail miserably in the playoffs. I believe that they are one of the top underachieving teams in recent history.
The 2016-2017 Season
After missing out on the playoffs for five straight seasons, the Raptors got back in the frame in 2014. The 2016-2017 season saw them finish with a 51-31 record, which was enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
There was a sense that the team had finally found the right balance, as the previous year, they managed to get to the Eastern Finals. The core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas provided a stable return on both offense and defense.
Although both the Pacers and the Heat took them to game 7 in 2016, they managed to close out those series, and the fans were expecting similar commitment when the playoffs started in 2017. After losing the first game against the Bucks in the first round, Toronto won four of the next five.
But the big test came in the semis, where they had to face LeBron James’ Cavaliers. And it proved to be a big reality check for the Raptors, as they were destroyed 4-0. After losing the Eastern Finals 4-2 the previous year, this could hardly be viewed as a step forward.
The 2017-2018 Season
The Raptors decided to keep their core and give it another go in the 2017-2018 season. And it looked like the correct decision with the way the regular season was progressing. Ultimately, they finished as the top seed, boasting a record of 59 wins in 82 games.
It was the franchise’s best-ever regular season since its inception back in 1995. They’d made definite progress, and fans were looking forward to a playoff run that would take the team to the next level.
Finishing first in the standings gave them a relatively easy task to overcome the Washington Wizards in the first round. The Wizards had a good season and a couple of players who could hurt other teams, but they were no match for the Raptors and lost the series 4-2.
A familiar foe was awaiting Toronto in the semis. The Cavaliers didn’t have a good season, and Kyrie Irving had left for Boston, so there were plenty of indications that it could be different for the Raptors this time around.
However, despite the obvious differences, the result turned out exactly the same. The Raptors were again swept by LeBron. It’s true that the first game went into overtime, and overall, the series was much closer than the previous two. But even with those considerations, it’s hard to excuse Toronto as they lost 4-0 again.
Much like Portland, the Toronto Raptors opted to keep their roster together and tried their luck with it for several years. Although there were many positives during the regular seasons, I can’t say that their recent playoff record is anything other than a failure.
You can say that it was all down to facing the best Cleveland team in history, but that would be an excuse. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, but if you have a look at the Cavs’ roster in 2018, you can’t help but feel that the Raptors should have won this.
Losing against a team that has Kyrie, LeBron, and Kevin Love is not the end of the world, but if you’re the top seed and get swept by one player alone, you should definitely not make any excuses.
The Heat are an interesting case, and since they had one of the most talked-about super teams in recent history, I would like to expand the timeframe here and give my verdict on them based on how they performed during their glory years and how they handled affairs after that.
The Big Three
For those of you who have been living on another planet, there was a time that LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade played together for four years in Miami. It was a time when there wasn’t a clear-cut favorite in the league, so naturally, the franchise expected to claim that spot and start a dynasty.
They did have one championship in 2006 when Wade and Shaquille O’Neal were playing together, but this was supposed to be something else entirely. As we could all imagine, there was no way this team would fail to win a title.
And sure enough, success came in both 2012 and 2013. After a failed attempt to win it against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the Big Three secured back-to-back championships. It was a huge relief for both the players and the franchise. There was a lot of criticism aimed at them and LeBron James in particular, so the rings definitely helped vindicate the decision.
The 2014 playoffs presented an opportunity to make it three in a row. The Heat had no trouble getting to the finals once again, but there they met Gregg Popovic’s Spurs, who were a step too far for the Big Three. The series ended 4 – 1 to San Antonio, and it proved to be the beginning of the end for Miami and its super team.
James decided not to re-sign with the Heat and went back to Cleveland. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did stay for a little while longer, but they couldn’t replicate the glory days. Since the breakup, the team has been nowhere near the finals and has only made the semis once.
Wade was the next to move on by signing with his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls. Soon after, Bosh had to throw in the towel due to medical reasons. Since then, the Heat have produced two disappointing seasons.
A 41-41 record in 2017 was not enough to get them into the playoffs, as they finished ninth. The next year saw them climb to the sixth seed, but they were easily brushed aside by a far superior Philadelphia team in the first round of the playoffs.
I guess there are two ways to look at this. On one hand, the Heat did win two championships during the Big Three era, but on the other, they missed a lot of opportunities. Losing the finals twice in four years was a big hit for the project, but I’m not only talking about that.
The franchise should have used the opportunity to plan for the future as well. They had the chance to assemble a team featuring three of the most popular NBA players of that time. The key was to both win titles and make sure they made the franchise appealing to future stars.
It seems to me that the team was built only to win without a clear plan of instilling any values in their players and staff. The only thing that’s left from this period are the two titles now, and it does look like a missed opportunity overall. And I doubt that players like Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow will be able to bring another championship to Miami anytime soon.
For those reasons, my verdict is that the franchise underachieved as a whole during a very successful period which presented them with a lot of neglected opportunities to plan for the future.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder is one of those teams that can both thrill and frustrate their fans in a matter of days. Let’s look at how they’ve performed in recent years and what we can get out of that.
The 2016-2017 Season
It was the first season in which the Thunder had to deal with Kevin Durant’s decision to leave. Losing a player of that caliber was bound to take its toll, and it did. Despite still making the playoffs, the team only managed to finish sixth. It was an improvement from the previous year, but still one of their lowest positions in recent history.
With Durant out of the picture, all hopes rested on Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, and Steven Adams. Oladipo may not be one of the league’s best talents, but he is still at an All-Star level. So despite the big loss, Thunder fans were expecting their team to deliver a solid season.
Finishing sixth meant that OKC would have to face the Houston Rockets in the first round. I have to note that with the exception of 2015 when the team did not qualify for the playoffs, the Thunder had made the semis every time since 2010.
James Harden’s Rockets proved too hot for them, however, and their season was over at the first postseason hurdle. A 4-1 beating left a lot to be desired, and the team had to try something different.
The 2017-2018 Season
That came in the form of Paul George from the Indiana Pacers. Oladipo and Sabonis were traded the other way, and the Thunder once again had a high-caliber NBA star to put alongside Russell Westbrook.
Not that Oladipo was below par — quite the opposite. He did play well with the Thunder and went on to transform the Pacers. However, having a player like Paul George on the roster really gives you hope. The difference was felt immediately.
Another notable addition was Carmelo Anthony. The veteran was to provide a further shooting edge to the team, as sometimes the burden fell too much on Westbrook.
Although they didn’t post a much better record than the previous year, OKC was playing better basketball and ended up with the fourth seed. The team entered the playoffs in a good mood, and it seemed that last year’s disappointment was behind them.
They had to face the Utah Jazz, who, despite playing well, were much more inexperienced in such games. They did add Donovan Mitchell to their ranks, who was a valid rookie of the year candidate at the time, but no one was expecting any heroics from him.
The Thunder did win the first game, but then their problems started to emerge. Ineffective shooting and loads of turnovers resulted in the Jazz making the next three games of the series. OKC did pull one back, but it was too late. Utah closed out the series in game six and was a deserving semi-finalist in the West once again.
A season which started with a lot of promise ended with Carmelo Anthony’s worst shooting stats and people questioning whether Westbrook, George, and Adams could be contenders after all.
I have to say that despite KD’s departure and making some bad decisions, the Thunder have stayed relevant over the years. However, back-to-back defeats in the first round of the playoffs are hardly a positive when you have such players at your disposal.
One thing is certain. Coach Billy Donovan hasn’t got too much time to make this formula work. If he doesn’t, people might well point to the cook rather than the ingredients. In any case, my feeling is that the team is definitely underperforming in recent seasons, and it’s up to them to prove us wrong going forward.
Los Angeles Clippers
The LA outfit managed to build its own form of a super team, and this led to the most successful patch in their history. I will take the Miami Heat approach here and examine how the team did during this time and what came next.
The Lob City Era
The Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA for many years, but this changed in December of 2011. That’s when they got Chris Paul from the New Orleans Pelicans. The franchise always felt they had something after drafting DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin in previous years, but nothing materialized.
Although both Griffin and Jordan contributed good numbers, the team wasn’t making the playoffs. A four-time All-star point guard was bound to change that. It wasn’t exactly the Big Three, but it was definitely the best roster in franchise history.
The addition of CP3 instantly transformed the team, and they would enjoy a playoff spot for six consecutive years, something Clippers fans had never seen before. So, you could say that it was a positive transformation, but then again, the team has nothing to show for it.
They never got past the semi-finals in the Western Conference — not even once in their six playoff seasons. It doesn’t bode well for a super team to post such a dismal record, so after six seasons of trying, the Lob City era came to its logical end.
Chris Paul was the first one to jump ship. Blake Griffin was then traded to the Detroit Pistons, and in 2018, DeAndre Jordan signed a deal with the Dallas Mavericks.
After so many assets leaving, the Clippers did acquire some exciting players but were unable to reach the playoffs in the 2017-2018 season. Generally, losing three All-Star caliber players in two years will do that to you.
They finished with a 42-40 record, which was only enough for tenth place. To be fair, there were some positive patches during the season. Players like Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Danilo Gallinari were solid throughout.
However, you just couldn’t shake the feeling that the Clippers were back to their mediocre status. It still remains to be seen if anything positive will come out of the Lob City era in the long run. For now, the Clippers have a lot of work to do.
As with the Heat, there is a sense that the franchise missed an opportunity. They didn’t even win a title so that we can say it was all worth it. The bigger problem for me is that I’m not sure they were able to make their team a legitimate option for the top players.
Yes, many guys would want to play in LA, but when going to the Clippers, they would definitely want assurances. After all, they saw three All-Star players who couldn’t even get them to the finals in six attempts.
I don’t know whether the problem was with the coaches or player chemistry, but the team underperformed in all those years and now has a mountain to climb if they are to convince the top players to join them.
This wraps up my list of the top underachieving teams in recent history. There are surely a lot of factors involved when trying to be successful in the NBA, and despite having a good foundation, for me, these teams have got most of it wrong.
Some of them are progressing well this season, and others are rebuilding, so maybe I will be given a chance to revisit my thoughts after this year’s playoffs. And maybe I’ll have to add LeBron’s Lakers to the list?
Be sure to let me know if you disagree or if I have missed a good team who has underperformed recently. In the meantime, keep a close eye on our betting blog, where you will be able to find loads of content on the NBA and your other favorite sports.