The Hardest Jump For NBA Teams: From Good To Great

10.18.11 7 years ago 2 Comments

If we are going by simple expectations and projections, then Oklahoma City will be NBA champs within two years, Memphis will win 55-60 games next year, Kevin Durant will one day average 36 points a game, LeBron James and Miami will win at least one ring and the Clippers are set to win 50-plus every year for the next decade because they have Blake Griffin.

Players come and go, some reaching their full potential by 23, others not until they’re 33. But more importantly, teams come and go.

Earlier this summer during a conversation I had with Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson, he said something that’s painfully obvious, but yet hardly ever taken into account when projecting a team’s future: it’s much easier to play without expectations, and nothing is more difficult for a team than to go from being a good one – a squad that makes the playoffs and maybe wins a round – to a great one – a squad that is perennially either winning championships or is a favorite to do so.

After the news from Dwight Howard yesterday – when he basically said something like I can’t do much else in Orlando so maybe it’s time I think about going somewhere else – this seems like a perfect time to drop into this. Nelson should know about expectations. After Orlando’s run to the 2009 NBA Finals, they were supposed to become the new beast in the East. They had a young and talented nucleus, a superstar not yet in his prime and some thought if Nelson had been healthy in the Finals, they would’ve already beaten the Lakers.

59 wins they had in 2009. Their best player was 24. The rest of their starters were 27, 23, 30 and 29. They had a spirited young coach, a fan base dying for a winner, perhaps their biggest competition was a team on the decline (Boston) and they had improved their overall record and playoff finish in four consecutive years as Howard grew better. What was the next step? We all figured it was a championship, or at least the foundation for multiple opportunities at a title.

Now, Hedo Turkoglu isn’t the same player (and never was), Rashard Lewis fell off and was soon gone, Vince Carter first and then Gilbert Arenas second showed you couldn’t trust them to help you win a title, Stan stayed psychotic and most importantly, Howard ditching Disney World is now looking like a real possibility.

[Related: Dwight Howard To Become A Free Agent, Wants Changes In Orlando]

When LeBron and the Cavs made the Finals in 2007, with James at a babyish 22 years old, everyone thought it was the beginning of a new era. He had his defining moment against Detroit, and Cleveland had finally broken through against the East’s reigning kings. At the very least, most rational fans figured James would have at least one ring by now.

You don’t have to go back far to find other occurrences. Who figured the Suns would eventually win a title with the Nash/STAT/Matrix core? They never did. How many times did we hear about the unbelievable potential of the Trail Blazers, with a top-five shooting guard in Brandon Roy, a potential Hall of Fame big man in Greg Oden and a solid third scorer to play off them in LaMarcus Aldridge. Now, only one is still standing.

The Kings of the early 2000s. The Magic of the mid-’90s. The Blazers from around 1988-1992. All teams that we can look back on now and say they were flawed in one form or another. But at the time, who could see it? They were all considered future (maybe even multiple) championships teams. They never won anything.

[Related: Locker Room Problems Arise In Oklahoma City]

Will the Bulls win a title within the next three years? Will they continue to win 60 or more games? They’ve been through this process before with the Ben Gordon/Luol Deng/Kirk Hinrich core. It never worked out, got worse before it got better. Will Oklahoma City become the next dynasty out West? They could… or someone could leave, be traded, ask for too much money. Will the Clippers and the Grizzlies continue to rise up the standings and take the places of older teams like the Lakers and Spurs? They could… or the Lakers and Spurs could be the shrewd businesses they are and find ways to stay very competitive while the Clippers and Grizzlies could just become the Clippers and Grizzlies again.

Things change so quickly in professional sports. Money, injuries, expectation, ego and age are only half the battle. Meeting expectations? It rarely happens. The world is so quick to anoint what’s next that sometimes we forget about what’s now.

What young team NBA team has ever disappointed you the most?

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