The NBA Finals are finally upon us, and regardless of which team wins, NBA fans are in for a fresh ending for the first time in more than a decade. Every year since 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs or the Miami Heat have vied for the NBA Championship — but not this year. In fact, two of those teams (the Lakers and the Heat) are in restructuring mode and didn’t even make the playoffs. To add to that, the Spurs didn’t even advance past the first round. Let’s take a look at why the Spurs and a few other NBA Championship contenders did not beat out the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors and make their way to the world’s biggest basketball stage.
San Antonio Spurs
No other team represents stability like the Spurs. The most successful NBA franchise of the past decade has relied on the same “Big Three” of future Hall of Famers for years: Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and most importantly, Tim Duncan, who was drafted in 1997. Since 1998, the team has won five championships, and if it were not for a last-second miracle by then-Miami Heat role player Ray Allen in 2013, it would be six. Led by three-time Coach of the Year winner Gregg Popovich, the Spurs play a brand of basketball built around teamwork and discipline. Critics have said for years, “The Spurs are done,” which is inevitable as Duncan and Ginobli approach 40. The Spurs did finally fall short in the first round but it wasn’t without a fight to remember.
Fatal Flaw: Lost an all-time great series. The Spurs ended up on the wrong side of one of the most dramatic series in history. Chris Paul willed the Clippers with 27 points on 9-13 shooting in Game 7 despite dealing with a hamstring injury. The Clippers exuded so much energy to defeat the defending champs, it affected them during their upcoming series.
Los Angeles Clippers
After doing the once-impossible and beating the Spurs in a Game 7, the Clippers’ path to the NBA Finals seemed simple. No clearer was the team’s view of its first banner as when the Clippers were up three games to one against the flailing Houston Rockets. However, it seems that with injuries to Chris Paul and combined with overall exhaustion — the Clippers fell apart and lost three straight to the Rockets. The Clippers were just minutes away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals before Josh Smith and Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets saved their own season. As NBA legend Magic Johnson said on Twitter, “The Clippers are still the Clippers.”
Fatal Flaw: Bench depth. The Clippers had one of the best starting fives in the league and the most dynamic bench player in Jamal Crawford. However, winning NBA titles requires a complete squad to account for injuries and trouble. The Clippers didn’t have this, as their bench ranked 27th in efficiency. The lack of depth showed as the Rockets completed their comeback series win.
After the Hawks steamrolled half of the NBA with their 17-0 record in January, the team became a bona fide contender for the NBA Championship. The team with four 2015 All-Stars in the starting lineup was moving the ball quickly, hitting three pointers, driving hard to the basket and defending opponents with a rarely seen ferocity. But when the NBA Playoffs hit, it was clear Atlanta was falling apart. The team struggled to series victory over the eighth-seed New Jersey Nets in the first round; they likely would have lost to the Wizards had it not been for John Wall’s nagging injuries; and they completely fell apart against the Cavaliers. Some will blame injuries, exhaustion or lack of a superstar. Their flaw incorporates all of those factors.
Fatal Flaw: Not built for the playoffs. It wasn’t without some great moments, but the Hawks playoff run showed they just didn’t have enough talent to be a championship team, culminating with a 30-point elimination loss to Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how the team maneuvers in free agency to help build on Coach Budenholzer’s early success.
The NBA Finals are currently airing on ABC.