NBA

NBA Playoffs: How do the defending NBA Champions perform in the postseason?

NBA championship trophy
(NBA Getty Images)

The 2021 NBA playoffs caps-off the 75th season years of the league.

The defending champions heading into the 2021 postseason - the Los Angeles Lakers - joined a shortlist of defending champions that were eliminated in the first round of the ensuing playoffs.

That said, here's a look at how every defending champ has performed in the following playoffs.

Missing the postseason - 2.7%

More often than not, a franchise wins a championship at a peak of its competitive years, leaving this list very short.

Only two defending champions (2.7%) in NBA history have failed to make the Playoffs.

The 1969-70 Boston Celtics - Coming off winning 11 championships in 13 years and playing their first season since 1956 without Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, the Celtics finished with a 34-48 record. They finished sixth out of seven teams in the Eastern Division, short of the top-4 finish needed to make the postseason.

The 1998-99 Chicago Bulls - After Jerry Krause decided to not re-sign head coach Phil Jackson after the 1997-98 season, Michael Jordan, not wanting to play for another coach, retired. Scottie Pippen, along with a host of other players that were an integral part of the Bulls' second 3-peat, were either traded or not resigned.

Chicago only won 13 games under new head coach Tim Floyd in the lockout-shortened 50-game season, finishing with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the third-worst overall.

MORE: A look at the post-MJ Bulls era

First Round exits - 9.5%

Only seven reigning champions have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs with the 2020-21 Los Angeles Lakers being the most recent.

The 1981 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1984 Philadelphia 76ers were victims of two of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history. While the former was stunned 2-1 by the Houston Rockets, who were led by the duo of Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy, the 76ers were shocked by an up-and-coming New Jersey Nets team, 3-2.

MORE: Most unlikely and surprising deep playoff runs in NBA history

When it comes to the 2000 San Antonio Spurs and the 2007 Miami Heat, injuries played a huge role. The Spurs, without their injured star Tim Duncan, lost 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns. The Heat, who had seen Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal miss plenty of games in the regular-season, got swept by the Chicago Bulls.

The 2015 San Antonio Spurs, as the fifth seed, were eliminated after Chris Paul sealed their grueling seven-game series with a game-winning shot in Game 7.

The 2012 Dallas Mavericks are a mysterious case. After winning the 2011 championship, the team returned with only one of their six free-agents - all of whom were key members of the team's rotation. They limped into the postseason as the 7th seed and got swept by the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder.

Losing in the Conf. Semis/Finals - 39.2%

With many eras throughout the years that featured deep conferences, it hasn't been uncommon for the reigning champions to falter before reaching the Finals.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the biggest lot of the title defenders - 29 of 74 - get eliminated in the Conference Semifinals or the Conference Finals.

The 1970s (1969-79) witnessed the highest number of unique champions, with eight. Eight of the ten champions from the decade were eliminated before they reached the Finals in the following year.

Only the Celtics and the New York Knicks won more than one title in that decade.

Faltering in the Finals, Back-to-backs & 3-Peats

At the end of the day, it's all about championships. That's how the dynasties set themselves apart from the rest of the winners.

Over the years, there have been multiple such dynasties. In the 1980s, the Celtics and Lakers were responsible for eight of the ten titles. In the 1990s, the Bulls and the Houston Rockets were responsible for eight as well. In the first decade of the new millennium, the Lakers and Spurs were responsible for seven.

Partially as a result of these dynasties, the remaining 36 defending champions in NBA history - exactly half - have made their way back to the NBA Finals.

Of those 36 teams that return to the Finals, 13 have finished as runners-up. That leaves 23 times in the league's history that the reigning NBA Champions have gone on to defend their crown, winning consecutive championships.

Having said that, only seven different franchises have clinched consecutive NBA championships - the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons, the Chicago Bulls, the Houston Rockets, the Miami Heat, and the Golden State Warriors.

And only three of these seven have won three titles in a row - the Lakers (1952-54; 2000-02), the Celtics (8 in a row, 1959-66) and the BullsBulls (1991-93; 1996-98).

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