Think your team has it bad? Here’s a look at the most disappointing squads since 2000.
It’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals. With eight seconds left, your team leads by three with a chance to win the title. Time winding down, the opposing team heaves up an attempt from beyond the arc. They miss—but miraculously come up with the rebound. The clock now at 5.2, they kick it back out to the corner and try again. This time, it goes in, leading to an eventual OT loss for your team and a Game 7 failure two days later.
In other words: Your team choked.
Such was the case for San Antonio Spurs fans after Ray Allen hit arguably the greatest shot of all time in 2013, winning LeBron James and the Miami Heat their second championship in as many years. While celebration and parades swept the streets of Miami, Spurs fans journeyed home with their heads in their hands. Sometimes, these things just happen. The winners are immortalized, the losers are forgotten, and eventually, time heals all wounds. Unfortunately, I’m here today to reopen them.
Of course, choking can take a number of different forms, such as when a top-seeded team is upset by a lower seed in the playoffs, when a team has a chance to capture the lead but fails, or when you try to eat too many Doritos while lying down in bed. However, for the purposes of this list, choking will be solely defined as the squandering of a lead within the final 24 seconds of a game, leading to a regular or OT loss.
While few shots have had as great an impact as Allen’s, NBA fans are no strangers to watching a win slip away within the final shot clock countdown. During the 2016-17 season, 103 games, including four playoff matches, were lost in such fashion, equalling roughly three per franchise.
Here’s a countdown of the top eight squads to lose by such heartbreaking shots since 2000, ranked by what we’ll call “Choking Hazard.” This figure represents the number of such losses suffered by a team throughout a given year. During the 2016-17 season, John Wall and the Washington Wizards led the NBA with a Choking Hazard of 7, followed by Carmelo Anthony’s New York Knicks and the Charlotte Hornets at 6.
For most of these teams, such losses were the result of frequently close games throughout the season. With the exception of the following two squads, no other listed team surpassed the League |MOV| average that season. Each squad also played an average of eight overtime periods—over double the NBA’s yearly average of 3.2 per franchise since 2000. However, among total games that came down to the final defensive possession, the teams averaged a successful stop just 11 times out of 20—a rate of only 55%.
Despite boasting Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, the 2008-09 Orlando Magic had the unlucky distinction of choking five times in the Playoffs on their way to the NBA Finals that year. Their lack of closing ability was largely determined by poor free throw shooting (71.5%). Five players beat the Magic in the Playoffs with under 5 seconds remaining: Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Glen Davis, LeBron James, and Derek Fisher. Over half of their seven total losses were delivered over defending forward Hedo Türkoğlu, who earned the worst defensive rating (104) of Orlando’s starting lineup.
8. 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs (58-24)
Choking Hazard:8 (1 playoff)
In retrospect, it may come as no surprise that Tony Parker and the Spurs lost Game 6 in those last dramatic seconds—especially with League defensive rating leader Tim Duncan (95) resting on the bench. During the regular season, they dropped seven total games (five due to a three-pointer) within the final shot clock countdown. The Spurs also matched this record in 2015, losing to Chris Paul and the Clippers within the closing second of Game 7 in the First Round.
7. 2008-09 Chicago Bulls (41-41)
Choking Hazard:8 (2 playoff)
Led by Ben Gordon and Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, the No. 7 Chicago Bulls faced the No. 2 Celtics in the 2009 Playoffs, just one year following Boston’s Championship run. The Bulls took Game 1, but found themselves tied at 115 late in Game 2. With two seconds left, Ray Allen again hit the clutch shot with a Rajon Rondo-assisted three. The teams split the following two games before battling a close one again in Game 5. While Gordon earned Chicago a two point lead with 16.6 seconds left, that was more than enough time for the Celtics, with Rondo finding Paul Pierce for a game-tying shot with 10.5 on the clock. Forced into OT, the teams fought tooth and nail until Pierce finally hit again with only 3.4 seconds to spare. While Brad Miller would draw the foul from Rondo with a chance to tie, he missed both attempts to give Boston a 3-2 series lead. The Celtics won in 7. Incredibly, the Bulls’ 2008-09 season included ten OTs, two double OTs, and one triple OT appearance.
6. 2005-06 Washington Wizards (42-40)
Choking Hazard:8 (3 playoff)
It’s bad enough if your team chokes 8 times in one year. What’s worse is if three of those losses occur within a single playoff round. Such was the case for All-Star Gilbert Arenas and the 2005-06 Wizards. Facing off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the First Round, the series remained tied going into Game 3. Arenas gave the Wizards a one point lead with 23.4 seconds on the clock, only to see LeBron James torch them inside the paint with 5.7 left. Washington re-tied the series with a Game 4 win, but suffered Game 5 déjà vu, as James again secured the go-ahead layup with 0.9 seconds remaining. Finally, in Game 6, former Wizard Larry Hughes delivered the final dagger with an assist to Damon Jones, giving the Cavaliers a one point lead with 4.8 remaining after two critical Arenas free throw misses. Caron Butler missed the buzzer-beater, and Cleveland stole the series 4-2. Had the Wizards not choked, they could have won in five.
5. 2006-07 Seattle SuperSonics (31-51)
Remember the Sonics? 2006-07 was the team’s penultimate season of existence before rebranding as the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. Unfortunately, the franchise failed to leave Seattle on a high note. In Ray Allen’s final season with the team before bolting for his first Championship in Boston the following year, they struggled to remain strong defensively (especially inside, allowing 12 dunks per game), choking 9 times during the regular season to finish last in the Northwest Division.
4. 2012-13 Toronto Raptors (34-48)
The 2012-13 Toronto Raptors gain the edge over the ‘06-’07 Sonics here for the sheer fact that their leads were forfeited, on average, with only 2.8 seconds left in the game, versus Seattle’s average of 7.6. While rookie Jonas Valančiūas seemed to be a bright spot for the team that year, the ‘13 Raptors also led the NBA in fouls per game (22.4)—a weakness that certainly contributed to tight matches down the stretch.
3. 2008-09 Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
Choking Hazard:9 (1 playoff)
Having lost 275 lb. titan Elton Brand to a shoulder injury early in the season, the Philadelphia 76ers finished the year with just a .500 record—still good enough for 6th in the East. The 76ers entered Game 4 of the First Round with a 2-1 lead over the Magic. The game tied at 81, Orlando exited a full timeout with 14.8 seconds left, yet struggled to score against a lockdown Sixers defense led by Andre Iguodala. Finally, with 1.1 on the clock, Hedo Türkoğlu hit a 24-foot three to secure the Magic win to even the series. Philadelphia would never recover.
2. 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Choking Hazard:10 (1 playoff)
Led by All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, the 2014 Portland Trail Blazers made the Playoffs after missing the previous two seasons. Last in the League among steals per game (5.5), their lack of pass disruption resulted in a First Round Game 3 loss against the Houston Rockets after a Jeremy Lin-assisted three-pointer by Troy Daniels with 12 seconds left in OT, capped by two free throws from James Harden. Nevertheless, the Blazers won the series 4-2 before falling to the Spurs in the next round. Yet while the season was certainly a relative success, one wonders what might have happened had the team not choked 10 times that year. In over half of those final possessions, Portland’s three worst defenders took the floor: Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Mo Williams.
1. 2008-09 Indiana Pacers (36-46)
Choking Hazard: 11
It’s hard to imagine watching your team give up a lead within the final 24 seconds of a game 11 times in one season—unless you were a Indiana Pacers fan in ‘09, that is. To put this in perspective, that’s approximately one out of every seven games! Ouch. While Danny Granger won the Most Improved Player Award that year, it would take the Pacers until 2011-12 to improve to a winning record. Yet of all the losses endured in that time, these assuredly stung the most, garnering the 2008-09 Indiana Pacers the title of “Choking Hazard Champions.”
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com