Regardless of how good a team starts its season off and how long that hot run lasts, it’s very, very, rare for anyone to not go through a tough stretch at some point. An NBA season is long, even this year’s shortened, 72-game tilt, and it’s grind to survive the various challenges. That’s when collapses tend to occur – others struggle to break out of the slump and they soon get put out of their misery.
Now that we’re on the second half of this year’s campaign, there’s a chance that we’ll see a high-seeded or playoff-bound squad succumb to the pressure and fall off the standings, hence the list.
Before we get things rolling, note that teams who overachieved prior to falling off won’t be considered worse than the others despite an uglier collapse.
10. 2006-07 Minnesota Timberwolves
This was one of the many mediocre squads that Kevin Garnett had in Minnesota, but they somehow stayed competitive midway into the season. The Timberwolves stood at 20-16 in mid-January, seventh in the mighty Western Conference, before the wheels fell off. They went just 12-34 the rest of the way to finish 32-50 in yet another lottery-bound campaign.
Garnett, as you know, moved on to greener pastures (pun intended) in the off-season, when he joined the Boston Celtics to form a superstar trio with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
9. 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2004-05 season was the beginning of a mild rebuild for the Lakers. They just traded Shaquille O’Neal and were invested in structuring a new core behind a prime Kobe Bryant, alongside newly-hired head coach, Rudy Tomjanovich.
They Lakers looked decent enough and were seventh in the West at 24-19 in early February. Unfortunately, though, Tomjanovich had to step down due to health issues. He apparently took a lot with him as the Lakers proceeded to go 10-28 upon his resignation. LA slid down to 12th place in the conference and missed the playoffs.
8. 2004-05 Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James was in only in his second year with the Cavaliers, and he’s playing like the once-in-a-generation phenom that he is. They were 30-20 in mid-February and even ranked third in the East until mid-March. The appalling collapse then happened and it saw James and Cavs drop 12 of their next 32 games, which includes losing a tiebreaker to the New Jersey Nets for the eighth playoff spot in the conference.
7. 2010-11 Utah Jazz
The Jazz looked like the usual contender that they’ve been over the previous seasons, led by the solid core of Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilienko, and Paul Millsap, as well as newcomer Al Jefferson. They were 27-13 in mid-January and ranked third in the West.
Utah then went 4-10 over their next 14 games, which was followed up by head coach Jerry Sloan abruptly resigning to end his 23-year reign with the team, allegedly due to a feud with Williams, his All-Star point guard. In a shocker, Williams was shipped off in the trade deadline, just two weeks after Sloan stepped down. The Jazz continued the nosedive and finished 39-43, 11th in the conference and seven games out of a playoff spot.
6. 2013-14 Indiana Pacers
The 2013-14 Pacers had all of the momentum in the world. After the two previous seasons saw them deliver a good challenge to the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat, the ’14 squad was primed to officially become an elite force in the league, which they did… for a while.
With rising star Paul George and a top-ranked defense, the Pacers racked up win after win and held a league-best 46-13 in early March. Growing locker room turmoil, however, slowly evaporated everything.
The Pacers went on to go 10-13 in in their final 23 games and were almost upset in the first round. Though the team managed to return to the conference finals against the Heat, it was clear that the chemistry was off. Indy got bounced by Miami in six games.
5. 1988-89 Portland Trail Blazers
This Blazers team was coming off a 53-win season that ended in a first-round upset loss against the Utah Jazz. Instead of being hungry to bounce back, however, they basically did a repeat of what happened.
After a decent 25-20 start, they went on to finish 14-23 in their final 37 games. It was only good for eighth place in the West and a meeting with the then-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. As expected, they got swept.
Fortunately, though, Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and the rest of the Blazers became a top contender soon after. They went to the conference finals in each of the next three years and made the finals twice.
4. 2004-05 Orlando Magic
The 2004-05 Magic paraded a roster that looked very promising. Along with top overall pick Dwight Howard and the returning Grant Hill, who went on to have an amazing comeback season, it also included Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, two guys that they got back in the Tracy McGrady trade.
Playing like a fun, upstart squad, the Magic were 31-27 in early March and were tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. They then plummeted quick and lost 19 of their next 24 games to finish 36-46, two spots out of the playoff picture.
Much of the struggles were allegedly due to Francis being unmotivated after the front office traded Mobley away. Francis was then shipped to the New York Knicks midway into the next season.
3. 2002-03 Indiana Pacers
This was a Pacers team that run past their supposed rebuild. Just two years prior, they were reeling from the departures of head coach Larry Bird, and starters Rik Smits and Mark Jackson.
Led by Isiah Thomas, another all-time great player-turned-head coach, the Pacers suddenly built a rugged, in-your-face core with Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Brad Miller, Jamaal Tinsley, and Al Harrington, not to mention the longtime face of the franchise, Reggie Miller.
The Pacers jumped into an East-leading 33-12 start before rapidly crumbling until they got booted out. They went just 15-22 for the rest of the regular season and proceeded to lose to the Boston Celtics in the first round, 4-2.
2. 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers
Ah, yes. Portland’s infamous Jail-Blazers era. There was so much talent, flash, and promise in the roster – Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, just to name a few – yet they had nothing to show for in the postseason.
Like the aforementioned ’89 Blazers team, the ’01 squad was on the heels of a frustrating playoff exit (blew a 15-point 4Q lead in Game 7 of the WCF), but just when we thought they were gunning for that sweet revenge, they fell again. They were the number one team in the West in early March at 42-18 but went on to go just 8-14 over their next 22 outings.
The struggles continued in the playoffs as the much-awaited rematch with the Lakers turned into a snoozefest. They were swept and lost by an average of 14.7 points.
1. 2001-02 Milwaukee Bucks
What happened to the 2001-02 Bucks was hard to believe. It’s hard to fathom how a team that well-structured can suddenly fizzle. This team had renowned head coach George Karl, Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell in their primes, all-around veteran Anthony Mason, and the youthful energy of shooters Tim Thomas and Michael Redd. They were clearly one of the best offenses in the league, and it’s basically the same group that was one game away from the NBA finals just a year ago.
The Bucks were 26-13 in late January and ranked second in the East. They then fell in succession and went just 15-28 the rest of the way, which includes going an appalling 5-14 in their final 19 games to miss the playoffs by one victory.