Fresh off an NBA Finals loss to Milwaukee last year, Devin Booker had to get on a flight to Tokyo for the Olympics, still crushed by how close the Phoenix Suns came to a title. He walked off the court believing his first Finals appearance wouldn’t be his last — and that it wouldn’t take long to get back.
Jimmy Butler thought the same thing the year before. The image of his exhaustion under the unique circumstances of a Finals run in the NBA bubble that ended in a loss to the Lakers is practically a cherished artifact in the meme museum.
“We’re going to come back,” he said. “We’ll be back.”
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden thought the same thing 10 years ago. They had their whole careers ahead of them, with no idea how their paths would eventually splinter.
None of these players were able to get their teams back to the Finals the next season.
The Celtics’ loss to the Warriors left them with the same sting and the same sense that another run was within their reach. Making the playoffs eight straight years and getting to the conference finals three times had already shown the Celtics just how steep the climb to the Finals can be.
“As much as we made growth, turned our season around, still got a lot to learn about the game of basketball,” Jaylen Brown said at the end of the series. “Stings to come up short, but there’s a lot to learn and the future is bright.”
The lesson in front of the Celtics is that if getting to the Finals is hard, getting back is a different monster.
Since the league laid down the three-point line in 1978-79, only 13 of the 43 losing teams have returned to the Finals the next season. Unless your team is built around Hall of Fame-caliber players — Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, or Jason Kidd — you can expect a long wait. On average, it’s taken 9.25 years for a team to get back to the Finals after losing and 12.53 years to win the title.
Championship windows are fragile. Circumstances change in a blink. Offseason moves shift the landscape of the league.
The Suns imagined a long runway for title opportunities when they traded for Chris Paul in 2020 and signed him to a four-year deal in 2021. They appeared poised to make another push in 2022, especially after ringing off an 18-game winning streak and finishing with the best record in the Western Conference. Having their playoff run unplugged by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round was sobering.
Few people in the league have felt playoff pain as acutely as Paul, who’s been pushing the rock up the playoff mountain for 17 years, getting to the playoffs 14 times — with just two conference finals trips and one Finals appearance to show for it.
“You play long enough and you don’t win, every time you lose, they’re going to say it was your best chance,” Paul said after the Game 7 loss in May. “But for me, us, it’s we’ll be right back next year, tell you that much.”
The Thunder’s future was bright in 2012 with three future MVPs as their core. But four months after their Finals loss to the Heat, they traded Harden. They got back to the playoffs the next season, but Westbrook tore his meniscus in Game 2 of their first-round series. In October 2014, Durant suffered a season-ending foot injury and the Thunder missed the playoffs. In 2016, they got back to the Western Conference finals, but by then the Golden State Warriors were already a freight train. When Durant decided to hop on that train in the offseason, the future Oklahoma City pictured was out of reach.
More often than not, Finals losers don’t just disappear the next year. In the three-point era, only the 2019-20 Warriors, the 2017-2018 Cavaliers, the 2013-2014 Heat, and the 2003-04 Lakers missed the playoffs the next season, with the common thread of their respective collapses the drama that comes with a star leaving.
For the Warriors to recover in just three years after losing to the Raptors in 2019, then losing Durant to the Brooklyn Nets and Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry to injury was improbable.
LeBron James gifted Cleveland four straight playoff appearances, but after losing back-to-back Finals to Golden State, he left for Los Angeles in 2018 and the Cavs were back to square one. James left Miami in the same lurch after four years in South Beach. The saga of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant left the Lakers reeling for half a decade.
On the whole, for teams that fall in the Finals, the window of opportunity gets smaller. Eight teams didn’t get out of the first round the year after. Eleven didn’t get past the second. Seven made conference finals runs.
But there are teams that bounce back quickly. Eight came back the next season and won it.
The 2014 Spurs were driven by Duncan’s desire for one more ring in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.
The image of Duncan burying his face in his jersey after missing a point-blank layup while down, 90-88, to Miami in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals is still crushing. Getting back wasn’t guaranteed, but avenging the loss the next season made that championship the sweetest of Duncan’s five.
“What happened last year definitely helped us,” Duncan said. “It helped our drive and to stay focused for an extended period of time. It very easily could’ve hit us in different ways and we could’ve reacted in different ways, but we reacted the right way.”
|Year||Winner||Winner next season||Loser||Loser next season|
|2021||Milwaukee||Lost, second round||Phoenix||Lost, second round|
|2020||LA Lakers||Lost, first round||Miami||Lost, first round|
|2019||Toronto||Lost, second round||Golden State||Missed playoffs|
|2018||Golden State||Lost, Finals||Cleveland||Missed playoffs|
|2017||Golden State||Won, Finals||Cleveland||Lost, Finals|
|2016||Cleveland||Lost, Finals||Golden State||Won, Finals|
|2015||Golden State||Lost, Finals||Cleveland||Won, Finals|
|2014||San Antonio||Lost, first round||Miami||Missed playoffs|
|2013||Miami||Lost, Finals||San Antonio||Won, Finals|
|2012||Miami||Won, Finals||Oklahoma City||Lost, second round|
|2011||Dallas||Lost, first round||Miami||Won, Finals|
|2010||LA Lakers||Lost, second round||Boston||Lost, second round|
|2009||LA Lakers||Won, Finals||Orlando||Lost, conference finals|
|2008||Boston||Lost, second round||LA Lakers||Won, Finals|
|2007||San Antonio||Lost, conference finals||Cleveland||Lost, second round|
|2006||Miami||Lost, first round||Dallas||Lost, first round|
|2005||San Antonio||Lost, second round||Detroit||Lost, conference finals|
|2004||Detroit||Lost, Finals||LA Lakers||Missed playoffs|
|2003||San Antonio||Lost, second round||New Jersey||Lost, second round|
|2002||LA Lakers||Lost, second round||New Jersey||Lost, Finals|
|2001||LA Lakers||Won, Finals||Philadelphia||Lost, first round|
|2000||LA Lakers||Won, Finals||Indiana||Lost, first round|
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.