Flags fly forever. Jordan’s Bulls. Gretzky’s Oilers. Jeter’s Yankees. Brady’s Patriots. History remembers winners, those teams who were able to make the most of the championship windows they were blessed with and turn it into multiple titles. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs showed us something very interesting, a team that changed faces and philosophies many times in order to keep that window jarred open. This iteration of the Spurs was drastically different from the early to mid 2000’s outfit that grounded its way to a mini dynasty. The amazing story of how this team came to be conjures the idea of the fabled “Championship Window” and how legacies are made and lost from what happens when the windows of various contenders clash.
Lost in the shuffle of the celebration of champions are the teams whose places in history are lost. It takes many factors to build a champion: a combination of smart personnel decisions, inspired play, as well as a healthy amount of luck. As a stupidly nostalgic person, I like to take a look back at those that got lost in the strands of history, forgotten teams who were blessed with a championship window, but for various reasons, were never able to take advantage of it and cement their place in the history books.
There are a few themes prevalent in the stories of those who saw their windows close, and these themes exist throughout the tales of all the teams who have experienced it. Similar to a Business Cycle, this window opens and closes over time, some quicker than others. The various stages in the cycle may differ for each specific team, but there are relative tropes that pop up in each of these teams’ stories.
When the window opens: A number of things need to go right for a team to transition from an also-ran into a team with legitimate title aspirations. Whether it be smart drafting, a blockbuster trade, or a big free agent signing, all of these teams had a couple moments where the stars aligned and created an opportunity.
That one heartbreaking loss: During each of these runs, there is always a loss or two that are especially heartbreaking. When a bounce or two going the other way could have meant a title, rather than becoming a footnote in history for someone else’s championship run.
That one mistake: Another prevalent theme is that one front office mistake that can sink a potential dynasty. Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s hard not to look back at that one move and wonder what could have been.
What if ?: The worst part is looking back at a window in hindsight and wondering what could have been if one or two things broke differently.
In this first part, I will look at teams whose windows closed in the 2010’s. As the series progresses, I will do one for the 2000’s, the 1990’s and finally, one for teams whose windows are still open now but are in real danger of seeing it close without a title to show for it. So get cozy in that nostalgia machine, sit back and enjoy the feels!
Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA) 2005-2010
Key Players: SF Lebron James
- 2005: 50-32 (4th seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Detroit Pistons 4-2
- 2006: 50-32 (2nd seed) Lost NBA Finals vs San Antonio Spurs 4-0
- 2007: 45-37 (4th seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Boston Celtics 4-3
- 2008: 66-16 (1st seed) Lost Conference Finals vs Orlando Magic 4-2
- 2009: 61-21 (1st seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Boston Celtics 4-2
When the window opened: With the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James. That’s all that was needed for this window to open.
That heartbreaking loss: May 26th 2009, Eastern Conference Finals game 4 vs Orlando Magic. Most people will probably point to the 2010 game 6 loss vs the Celtics, LeBron’s last game as a Cav. Looking back, this loss was more significant, as it happened in the Conference finals against a weaker opponent. Coming off a 66-win regular season and an MVP performance from James, the stage was set for a deep championship run and the Cavs delivered in the first two rounds by sweeping the Pistons and Hawks in dominating fashion. They expected a rematch against the defending champion Celtics, but Boston inexplicably fell to an overachieving Orlando squad in the Conference Semis, which set the stage for this match up. After splitting two very close games to start the series off, the Cavs lost game 3 on the road, leading to the key game in the series. In game 4, LeBron James went off for 44 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists and willed the Cavs to overtime and beyond. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, as Dwight Howard and the Magic hung on in the end for the narrow 116-114 victory, and ended up closing out the series at home 4 days later.
That one mistake: There really isn’t one key mistake that sunk the Cavs. It was a combination of the front office’s failure to surround James with the talent needed to win a title and their soft stance in bending to their star player’s will and going out of their way to keep him happy. For most of the last few years of the LeBron era, there was an awkward air of desperation as Cleveland made moves and went out of their way to try to give LeBron a reason to stay aboard. In the end, this is what sunk the Cavs, as they still haven’t fully recovered from James’ defection to South Beach.
What if?: What if the favored Cavs had managed to hold court and squeeze out those close games against the Magic, and then gone on to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals? The what if here has ramifications that would have changed the entire landscape of the NBA as we know it in the last 6-7 years. LeBron would probably still be in Cleveland today, instead of Miami, meaning the Big Three era in Miami would not have happened. We would have a completely different view of his career and legacy, and also the world would never have been exposed to the concept of free agents choosing their destination and controlling free agency the way Wade, Bosh and James did in the summer of 2010, this on top of the obvious 5 seasons of championships being swung. This is what happens when you play the what if game with the most talented player on the planet.
Legacy: We”ll always wonder how far this team could have went had the Cavs managed to find LeBron James a suitable running mate. James carried a Cleveland team that would have been in the lottery without him to lofty heights, and had he had any legitimate help, there is no doubt he would have been able to win at least one title. Unfortunately, history can be cruel and the first thing we’ll remember when we think of LeBron James’ Cavs legacy is that video above.
San Diego Chargers (NFL) 2006-2010
Key Players: RB LaDanian Tomlinson, QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, OLB Shawne Merriman
- 2006: 14-2 (1st seed) Lost AFC Divisional Playoff vs New England Patriots 24-21
- 2007: 11-5 (3rd seed) Lost AFC Championship vs New England Patriots 21-12
- 2008: 8-8 (4th seed) Lost AFC Divisional Playoff vs Pittsburgh Steelers 35-24
- 2009: 13-3 (2nd seed) Lost AFC Divisional Playoff vs New York Jets 17-14
When the window opened: The Chargers became contenders almost entirely through the draft. They traded down in the 2001 draft and selected future Hall of Fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson with the 5th pick. By 2003, he’d already established himself as the most potent running back in the league, a versatile backfield weapon capable of attacking a defense on the ground, as a receiver through the air as well as the occasional throw out of the backfield. In 2003, the Chargers also uncovered a gem in tight end Antonio Gates, who they signed as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State. It took Gates only one season to establish himself as a Pro Bowl tight end. Then in 2004, first overall pick Eli Manning made it clear he did not want to play for San Diego, forcing the Chargers to swing a draft day deal, trading Manning for the 4th pick along with a 3rd in 2004 and a 1st and 5th in 2005. The window was solidified with that trade, as San Diego selected Philip Rivers, who would develop into a 5 time pro bowler and one of the best deep throw QBs in the league. They also landed pass rusher Shawne Merriman with the 2005 first, who brought their defense up to par with their star studded offense.
That heartbreaking loss: January 14th 2007, AFC Division Playoff vs New England Patriots. This one hurt alot. Tomlinson, coming off an MVP season was extremely effective in the first half, pacing the Chargers to an early 14-3 lead. Unfortunately, this game will be remembered for two plays that changed the course of the game. The first is coach Marty Schottenheimer’s indefensible decision to go for it on 4th and 11 in the first quarter. Often criticized for his ultra-conservative style of coaching in the playoffs, this decision was a high-risk play that should not have been taken. The second play was safety Marlon McCree fumbling the ball after what should have been a game sealing interception. This play stings more because it was 4th down and the Chargers would have gained possession simply by having McCree bat the ball down. The Patriots got the ball back, and promptly drove down the field to the the game at 21, eventually escaping Qualcomm with a 24-21 win.
That one mistake: Two words. Norv Turner. For reasons which I still can’t comprehend, in 2007, the Chargers decided to fire a capable coach in Marty Schottenheimier after a 14-2 season and hire Norv Turner to take the reins of the most talented team in the league. The same Norv Turner who failed miserably in his two previous stints as a head coach. Turner’s awful skills as a motivator led to his teams starting the year looking unprepared and disinterested, leading to a 2-3 start in four consecutive seasons. Instead of fighting for the top seed like the talent on those teams dictated, the Chargers were stuck spending time climbing out of holes they dug themselves. Couple that with Norv’s puzzling personnel decisions, bad late game clock management and predictable play calling and in hindsight, this move was instrumental in sinking the Chargers’ ship. Ask any Chargers fan about “LT down the middle for 2 yards on first down” and they will nod their head in solemn agreement.
What if?: What if Marlon McCree had knocked the ball down on that 4th down interception? The Chargers would have gone on to win the game against the Patriots, and probably defeated the Colts and Bears to win Super Bowl XLI. Marty Schotenheimier would have stayed on as coach and had the most talented roster in the league at his disposal for the next 4-5 years, possibly building a dynasty in Southern California. This would also mean Peyton Manning would not have his one and only Super Bowl ring, meaning we could see him taking the title of greatest QB to never win the big one away from Dan Marino.
Legacy: This is one instance where one rash decision in a time of turmoil destroyed something really good. Yes, losing in the Divisional playoff game after a 14-2 season is disappointing, but it still doesn’t make sense to fire the coach that got you there in the first place and replace him with one who has nothing but failures at the position on his resume. Following that season, a promising 2007 campaign was sunk by injuries to their 3 offensive stars at the worst possible time, leading to the Chargers running out a hobbled LT, Gates and Rivers in the AFC Championship game. In the end, LaDanian Tomlinson ends up retiring as one of the best players in history to have never won a Super Bowl ring. The late 00’s Chargers are a prime example that it takes more than having talent to win a championship.
Orlando Magic (NBA) 2007-2011
Key Players: C Dwight Howard, HC Stan Van Gundy, PF Rashard Lewis
- 2007: 52-30 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Detroit Pistons 4-1
- 2008: 59-23 (3rd seed) Lost NBA Finals vs Los Angeles Lakers 4-1
- 2009: 59-23 (2nd seed) Lost Conference Finals vs Boston Celtics 4-2
- 2010: 52-30 (4th seed) Lost First Round vs Atlanta Hawks 4-2
When the window opened: The Magic won the Dwight Howard lottery in the 2005 draft, and saw their franchise center develop into the second best player in the league behind LeBron in the window between 2007-2011. Orlando surrounded their star with a bunch of guys who can hit 3s, and the Magic were a threat to come out of the east until Dwight’s unceremonious exit from the Sunshine State.
That heartbreaking loss: May 18, 2010, Eastern Conference Finals Game 2 vs Boston Celtics. It was tough to find one devastating loss for this team, as their playoff exits were mostly pretty convincing but the way this one played out was kind of rough. The Magic were already down 1-0 in a series where they had home court advantage, and going to Boston down 0-2 was not something they wanted to do. The game was fairly tight from start to finish, but Dwight Howard’s 30 points and 8 rebounds were not enough. Vince Carter missed 2 crucial free throws down the stretch and the Celtics were able to hold on for the narrow 95-92 victory.
That one mistake: There really wasn’t anything significant here, as the Magic front office had a strategy in mind and they went through with it, building the team in their vision. Similar to the Cavs situation, the Magic never really maximized their roster construction around the talents of their superstar, and eventually it led to him forcing his way out of town.
What if?: What if Jameer Nelson had stayed healthy during the 2008-2009 season? Point guard Jameer Nelson was having an all-star worthy campaign before suffering a torn labrum during the 2008 season, which caused him to miss most of the playoffs and come back ineffective. With one of their key players healthy for their run that season, the Magic may have had a better chance against the Lakers in the finals.
Legacy: What’s interesting about this Orlando team is that looking back, they were ahead of the curve when it came to their offensive strategies. The way they used their star center to space the floor to get open looks for their stable of efficient 3-point shooters is something that has had influence on the ways teams run their offense in today’s NBA, as the 3-point line has becoming increasingly more important in the years since. Dwight Howard’s legacy was tarnished by the way he forced his trade to the Lakers, and his failures there didn’t help his image.
Philadelphia Flyers (NHL) 2007-2012
Key Players: C Jeff Carter, C Mike Richards, LW Simon Gagne, RW Claude Giroux, D Chris Pronger, C Danny Briere
- 2007: 42-29-11 (6th seed) Lost Conference Finals vs Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1
- 2008: 44-27-11 (5th seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2
- 2009: 41-35-6 (7th seed) Lost Stanley Cup Finals vs Blackhawks 4-2
- 2010: 47-23-12 (2nd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Boston Bruins 4-0
- 2011: 47-26-9 (5th seed) Lost Conference Semis vs New Jersey Devils 4-1
When the window opened: The Flyers acquired speedy center Danny Briere prior to the 2007 season to go along with their homegrown trio of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne to form a dangerous core.
That heartbreaking loss: June 9, 2010, Stanley Cup Finals Game 6 vs Chicago Blackhawks. Some of these are pretty obvious. This was the closest this Flyers team got to hoisting the Stanley Cup, and there’s no feeling more gut wrenching than losing a championship deciding game in sudden death overtime at home. Patrick Kane’s title clinching snipe past Michael Leighton was not pretty, but it is a dagger that Flyers fans still feel to this day.
That one mistake: Ask any Flyers fan what the big problem was with their team during this run and they will all tell you the same thing: Goaltending. Philly was never able to complement their star forwards with a goalie capable of carrying a championship load. They went through goalies like tissue paper year after year, watching a new name crack under pressure and rinsing and repeating. Starting with Martin Biron in 2007, the Flyers went through Ray Emery, Michael Leighton, Sergei Bobrovsky and finally Ilya Bryzgalov. The worst part? Bobrovsky ended up winning a Vezina trophy in Columbus shortly after leaving Philadelphia, further taunting the Philly goaltending misfortune.
What if?: What if the Flyers were able to land an A-list goalie? This one is interesting. Usually when people say a team is “one player away” from being great, it’s an exaggeration. One player usually can’t swing the fortunes of a team. But with these Flyers, it’s hard not to wonder what acquiring a top flight goalie could have done for their championship window. The team was stacked up front, carrying multiple stars, some of whom would go on to win championships elsewhere (Carter and Richards in LA). With a goalie who could steal playoff games, its not hard to envision the Flyers coming through and winning one, if not multiple cups, during their window.
Legacy: This team proved the old adage that goaltending wins championships in the NHL. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards ended up creating their own legacies in Los Angeles, a legacy that could have been in Philly had things been a little bit different. The late 00’s Philadelphia Flyers’ legacy will forever be the glowing example of a team that was truly “one player away”.
Washington Capitals (NHL) 2007-2013
Key Players: RW Alexander Ovechkin, D Mike Green, C Niklas Backstrom
- 2007: 43-31-8 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs Philadelphia Flyers 4-3
- 2008: 50-24-8 (2nd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3
- 2009: 54-15-13 (1st seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs Montreal Canadiens 4-3
- 2010: 48-23-11 (1st seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0
- 2011: 42-32-8 (7th seed) Lost Conference Semis vs New York Rangers 4-3
- 2012: 27-18-3 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs New York Rangers 4-3
When the window opened: When the Capitals took Ovechkin with the first pick in the 2004 draft. Ovechkin has developed into the league’s premier scoring threat since.
That heartbreaking loss: April 28, 2010, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7 vs Montreal Canadiens. You could take your pick of any of the Capitals stunning game 7 defeats but this one takes the cake. After a season in which the Captials won the President’s Trophy as the regular season team with the best record, they let the 8th seeded Montreal Canadians stick around and force a game 7 in Washington. Playing in front of their fans at the Verizon Center, Washington was not able to solve Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak until it was too late, allowing les Canadiens to pull off the upset.
That one mistake: Similar to the Flyers, the Capitals failed to put a strong goalie behind their elite offense after Olaf Kolzig retired. Washington didn’t pursue goaltending help aggressive enough during their run and had to rely on guys like Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth during key playoff moments during their run. Having better goaltending could have easily swung one of the Capitals many game 7 heartbreaks.
What if?: What if the Capitals caught a couple breaks during any of their game 7 defeats? When you’re 1-5 in deciding game 7’s over a certain stretch, there is definitely a variance factor involved. A team as good as the Capitals could have easily won a few of those game 7’s had they they got a couple bounces here and there. Even if the Caps went 3-3 in those game 7’s, things would have been drastically different, and there’s no telling how much damage a team with that kind of talent could have done on a deeper playoff run.
Legacy: The Capitals are going to be remembered for squandering Ovechkin’s prime, as well as their lack of “clutch” scoring during their window of contention. Historically, Washington’s failure to make a truly deep playoff run and win a Stanley Cup gives the edge to Crosby in the battle of this generation’s true tier 1 superstars.
Atlanta Falcons (NFL) 2008-2013
Key Players: QB Matt Ryan, TE Tony Gonzalez, RB Michael Turner
- 2008: 11-5 (5th seed) Lost NFC Wild Card Playoff vs Arizona Cardinals 30-24
- 2010: 13-3 (1st seed) Lost NFC Divisional Playoff vs Green Bay Packers 48-21
- 2011: 10-6 (5th seed) Lost NFC Wild Card Playoff vs New York Giants 24-2
- 2012: 13-3 (1st seed) Lost NFC Championship Game vs San Francisco 49ers 28-24
When the window opened: Following the Michael Vick fiasco, the Falcons drafted their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan in 2008, where he promptly won Rookie of the Year honors and led his team to a playoff birth. The Falcons also acquired future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez along with running back Michael Turner, who would become the key cogs offensively for the Falcons run.
That heartbreaking loss: January 20, 2013, NFC Championship Game vs San Francisco 49ers. Matt Ryan finally broke his playoff 0-for, eeking out an extremely tight victory over the Seattle Seahawks the week prior. His Falcons were then tasked with hosting another West coast behemoth in the 49ers for the NFC Championship game. Atlanta jumped out to a 24-14 lead at halftime with Ryan and receiver Julio Jones connecting for two touchdown passes. Unfortunately, the Niners defense made adjustments at halftime and shut out Atlanta’s attack, finishing with 14 unanswered points for a 28-24 victory and a Super Bowl berth.
That one mistake: There isn’t much to to go with here as the Falcons didn’t really make any drastic moves over their window. The one thing you could possibly criticize coach Mike Smith and company for is not making enough of an effort to shore up a defense that was decidedly average throughout their window of contention, The Falcons had holes on the defensive side of the ball throughout these few years but didn’t make a move to try to remedy that, which contributed to them running out Turner and Gonzalez’s careers without a title to show for it.
What if?: What if Michael Vick didn’t fund a dog fighting ring and get arrested? First of all, what Vick did was atrocious from a human standpoint, and being an animal lover, I am totally against it and he deserved to be punished for it. From a football perspective though, this is one of the most interesting what ifs, as this window would be completely different had this not happened. Vick would probably still be the starter in 2007 and beyond, and Atlanta would have still been trying to figure out whether Vick was capable of learning to read a blitz or not. It’s up in the air how much Vick could have developed given a few more years of his prime and we won’t ever know how good of a quarterback he could end up becoming, and how far this Atlanta team could have gone.
Legacy: The Falcons will always be remembered as a feel good story, being able to recover from their previous face of the franchise getting jail time for a dog fighting scandal. Matt Ryan showed great poise in taking the reins of this franchise and turning them into contenders as quick as he did. Unfortunately, Ryan will continue to be known as a good QB who could never win the big one until he does, similar to how Peyton Manning was viewed before he broke through in 2006. Ryan’s ultimate legacy will come down to whether he can win a ring before he retires, but if he does, it would have to be with a completely different Falcons core than the one he had for this window.
Vancouver Canucks (NHL) 2006-2013
Key Players: C Henrik Sedin, LW Daniel Sedin, G Roberto Luongo, C Ryan Kesler
- 2006: 49-26-7 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Anaheim Ducks 4-1
- 2008: 45-27-10 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Chicago Blackhawks 4-2
- 2009: 49-28-5 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Semis vs Chicago Blackhawks 4-2
- 2010: 54-19-9 (1st seed) Lost Stanley Cup Finals vs Boston Bruins 4-3
- 2011: 51-22-9 (1st seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs Los Angeles Kings 4-1
- 2012: 48-26-15 (3rd seed) Lost Conference Quarters vs San Jose Sharks 4-0
When the window opened: The 2006 blockbuster trade that brought Roberto Luongo to Vancouver opened up this window. Also, twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin developed into stars around this time. The Canucks had a potent set of forwards to go along with their superstar goalie, and thus they became contenders.
That heartbreaking loss: June 13th, 2011, Stanley Cup Finals game 6 vs Boston Bruins. It wasn’t game 7 that was the painful loss, as that game was a foregone conclusion after what went down in game 6. The Canucks dealt with a myriad of strange off field issues during their finals series with Boston, with a story running that their star goalie Roberto Luongo was jealous of the media attention that counterpart Tim Thomas was getting. This whole episode rattled his confidence and Luongo gave up 3 goals in just 8:35 to start game 6, leading to him being pulled for backup Corey Schneider. Vancouver would eventually fall 5-2 and go on to lose game 7 as well. This marked the beginning of the end of Luongo’s time in Van City.
That one mistake: The way the Canucks treated Luongo after that aforementioned Finals defeat. Instead of building up their longtime starter’s confidence, Vancouver decided to start a battle for the starting job between Luongo and backup Corey Schneider. Due to Luongo’s long term contract situation, the Canucks could not honor his request to be traded and created an air of awkwardness that slammed their window shut prematurely after Schneider was the one that was dealt to New Jersey. Luongo was finally dealt in 2014, and Vancouver is now picking up the pieces of their window as they are forced to go into rebuilding mode.
What if?: What if the media didn’t shatter Luongo’s confidence during the 2011 finals? The Canucks looked like they were on their way to the Stanley Cup before Luongo’s collapse in game 6. If Luongo had managed to stay cool, maybe game 6 plays out differently and the Canucks do finally break through. One difference here is that Luongo definitely would have stayed in Vancouver long term, and possibly brought more cups to Vancouver. Vancouver would have been the first Canadian team to win a cup since the 1993 Canadiens. Goes to show a little hit to a guy’s confidence can go a long way to derail a potential dynasty.
Legacy: The Canucks really were a couple media barbs away from hoisting the cup. It’s a shame Luongo allowed himself to be psyched out by such a small thing, as there was definitely something special brewing in Vancouver in the years leading up to that finals appearance. Things fell apart a lot quicker than people expected them to, and we’ll remember this iteration of the Canucks as a team that failed to lived up to the massive potential it flashed.
Texas Rangers (MLB) 2010-2013
Key Players: 3B Adrian Beltre, P Derek Holland, OF Josh Hamilton, 2B Ian Kinsler, INF Michael Young, C Mike Napoli, P Cliff Lee
- 2010: 90-72 (AL West Pennant) Lost World Series vs San Francisco Giants 4-1
- 2011: 96-66 (AL West Pennant) Lost World Series vs St. Louis Cardinals 4-3
- 2012: 93-69 (Wild Card) Lost Wild Card Play-in vs Baltimore Orioles
- 2013: 91-72 Lost Wild Card berth on last day of regular season
The window opened when: The Rangers acquired Cliff Lee in the summer of 2010 and the star pitcher helped them to the playoffs and all the way to the World Series. They then acquired Beltre before the 2011 season and he became a key cog in the Rangers teams of the next few years.
That one heartbreaking loss: October 27, 2011, World Series Game 6 vs St Louis Cardinals. One strike away. The Rangers were one strike away from taking the World Series after an incredible season, only to blow a 2-run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning against the Cardinals and watch them come back to steal game 6 in extras. David Freese’s game tying triple made for one of the most intense finishes in World Series history, and after that devastating loss, game 7 was a “dead man walking” game for the Rangers, as their confidence had been beyond shattered.
That one mistake: The Rangers window was a very short one, but it was one that was wide open. There isn’t really any mistake that stands out, but if we’re trying to find something, maybe the Rangers failure to re-sign Cliff Lee at whatever the cost. I refuse to believe that it was impossible to sign Lee back to a World Series team at a fairly reasonable cost.
What if? What if Texas had managed to hold onto Cliff Lee? Imagine that dominant 2011 Rangers squad with a bona-fide ace at the top of the rotation. Instead of Matt Harrison taking 2 starts in the World Series, including the deciding game 7, having Cliff Lee on the mound may have changed things just a bit. If the Rangers had managed to keep their rental ace, they would very likely be World Champions, and also still have the services of one of the best pitchers in the game to this day.
Legacy: We’ll always remember the excruciating way the Rangers blew game 6 in 2011, and also their epic collapses at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Rangers picked up a legitimate ace in 2012 in Japanese phenom Yu Darvish, and both those seasons, the Rangers were more than capable of making more deep playoff runs only to wilt at the end of the regular season and see their window slam shut.
Tampa Bay Rays (MLB) 2008-2014
Key Players: 3B Evan Longoria, 2B Ben Zobrist, P David Price, P James Shields, GM Andrew Friedman, M Joe Maddon
- 2008: 97-65 (AL East Pennant) Lost World Series vs Philadelphia Phillies 4-1
- 2010: 96-66 (AL East Pennant) Lost ALDS vs Texas Rangers 3-2
- 2011: 91-71 (Wild Card) Lost ALDS vs Texas Rangers 3-1
- 2013: 92-71 (Wild Card) Lost ALDS vs Boston Red Sox 3-1
The Window opened: This one hits close to home, as the Rays are a team that I have been able to relate to so well because their predicament as a small market team trying to make it in a division with financial giants in the Yankees and Red Sox mirrored a large portion of my own life. The Rays became contenders through a change in management, replacing the inept Devil Rays front office with Andrew Friedman and his staff, some of the most incredible minds in the sport. Through a series of strong drafts and good free agent pickups, the Rays wrote one of the greatest worst to first stories ever in 2008 and the future was bright from then on out.
That one heartbreaking loss: October 12, 2010, ALDS Game 5 vs Texas Rangers. This game is the one I found toughest to swallow for a number of reasons. First of all, the Rays were targeting Cliff Lee at the trade deadline, and their failure to acquire the ace put him in the hands of the Texas Rangers, who happened to be the opponent in this matchup. Instead of having one of the game’s best pitchers on their side, they had to go up against him twice in this series, watching hopelessly as Lee dominated the Rays lineup in both starts. Second, the Rays had all the momentum coming into this game 5, having pulled the series back from a 2-0 deficit. It looked like the stars were aligning for a Rays comeback in this series but Cliff Lee promptly shut the door on Tampa’s 2010 season.
That one mistake: Not acquiring Cliff Lee at the 2010 trade deadline. The Rays had the assets to make a push to land the crown jewel of the trading block, but they let him fall into the hands of another contender in Texas. This proved to be a theme later on as Rays Management remained reluctant to trade young talent with future potential for present relief. For the most part, this approach is smart and akin to keeping your head clear and making the best decisions under pressure, but losing the Cliff Lee sweepstakes in 2010 likely cost the Rays a championship in that season, and possibly more in the ones to follow.
What if?: What if the Rays had slightly better attendance, and $10m more in payroll each year? The harsh reality of the Rays situation was that they played in an old stadium, in a hard to access section of the St. Petersburg area, meaning they had to answer questions about poor attendance even through a string of seasons in which they were legitimate championship contenders. Knowing what we know about the capabilities of the Rays front office and what they can do with so little, what if they had just a bit more wiggle room to work with? If in each season, the Rays attendance was just good enough to account for $10m in additional payroll, I am convinced this front office would have found a way to upgrade the team at the fringes enough to produce at least one World Series champion. And don’t think this fact doesn’t absolutely kill me inside.
Legacy: The Rays will be remembered as the new generation’s Moneyball A’s, an extremely well run small market team that did amazing things given what they had, yet couldn’t cap off their run with a World Series title. They were the scrappy underdogs that nobody could root against, and they put up a great fight over the years against baseball’s behemoths in Boston and New York, despite having 1/10th their payroll. I still hold out hope that the Rays can become contenders again soon, but with David Price likely being traded soon, it may be a couple years before the next window opens.
And that concludes the first part of this series. Any one of these teams could have become champions had things gone differently, but unfortunately, they fell just short of the pinnacle. So let’s all take a moment to appreciate the teams from the 2010’s who were one step away from immortality, and remember their place in history. Because remembering fondly the ones who didn’t make it only makes us appreciate the ones who made it even more.
Kent Shen is a University of Waterloo alumnus and an aspiring investor with an insightful knowledge of sports and pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter at @_kblitz.