LeBron-less Cavs next among great franchise falls?

Dan Gilbert is no Nostradamus.

After LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, the scorned Cleveland Cavaliers owner promised hometown fans that his team would win the NBA title before James gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the Miami Heat.

Only if you live in a parallel universe.

With James, the Cavs won an NBA-best 61 games last season after winning 66 in 2008-09. Though they failed to reach the NBA Finals each year, at least they came agonizingly close after terrific regular seasons.

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The 10 greatest fall of franchises

This year, without James, the Cavs are an NBA-worst 8-32 as of Tuesday. They’ve lost their last 13 games, and 23 of their last 24, with their only victory in the last six weeks coming in overtime against the Knicks. They scored just 57 points in a 55-point wipeout against the Lakers last week. And chances are, there will be a lot more losing than winning in Cleveland – not just this season, but maybe for years to come.

[Related: After Cavs’ 55-point loss, LeBron tweets ‘karma’]

So this got us thinking. How many of these riches-to-rags stories are there? Turns out, there’s plenty, especially since the dawn of free agency in the big four North American sports leagues. Sometimes with the departure of just a single athlete, the fortunes of an entire franchise are wrecked overnight with no recovery in sight.

The city of Houston has yet to see a playoff game since the Oilers’ upset loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1993 season. With Warren Moon at the helm, the Oilers were poised to finally break through for the franchise’s first Super Bowl. But after getting derailed by Joe Montana – in his final playoff victory – the Oilers would go on to win just two games the next season as Moon was dealt to Minnesota. The Oilers franchise did finally appear in the Super Bowl – but as the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Houston is still waiting on the expansion Texans to make the playoffs for the first time.

The Chicago Bulls, likewise, are still looking for their first NBA title since the Jordan-Pippen-Jackson triumvirate left town after the 1998 season. But some teams seem to handle the crash-and-burn and back-to-top with much more aplomb. Take the Los Angeles Lakers. They blew up the Shaq-Kobe duo (which also had aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton in tow) after an unsuccessful title run in 2004. They suffered for, oh, a couple of years, but now have returned to rule the NBA once again as they look to win a third straight title.

And then there are cases in which on-the-field performance was but a sideshow to the forces at work in the boardrooms. As all four leagues prepare themselves for potential showdowns with labor in the near future, the story of the 1994 Montreal Expos should be heeded. The Expos had the best record in the majors when that season abruptly ended by a player strike. When the games finally resumed next season, a fire sale ensued, and thus began the demise of that franchise. Ten years later, baseball was gone from Montreal for good.

These, are the cautionary tales from just the past 20 years, from which Cleveland fans may need to gird themselves for.

The “top” five:

1. 1998-99 Chicago Bulls
2. 1998 Florida Marlins
3. 1999 Denver Broncos
4. 2003 Oakland Raiders
5. 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs
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The 10 greatest fall of franchises

Updated Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011