Winning a championship takes talent, but also no shortage of luck. Unlucky draws against unfavorable matchups, injuries, buzzer beating game winners, tough calls, no calls; all of these have contributed to some of the most talented teams and some of the best players the NBA has ever seen come up short in their pursuit of a title. With that in mind, I decided to rank the best NBA teams that failed to win an championship. For the sake of this piece, I looked only at the last 25 years (starting with the 89-90 season), and only considered teams that did not win a title in another season with the same core group of players. So, for example, the 2005 Pistons team that lost in 7 games to the Spurs would not qualify, as that same group already won in 2004. I look forward to reading your angry comments about any and all egregious omissions .
Regular Season Record: 60-22
Playoffs: Lost in Conference Finals to Eventual Champion San Antonio Spurs (4-2)
One of the great forgotten teams of the early 2000’s, the 2003 Mavericks were something to watch. Future MVP’s Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were together in their respective primes, and joined by former all-stars Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. With Nash at the reins of coach Don Nelson’s system, the Mavs were an offensive force, and finished the regular season tied for the best record in basketball. Division rival San Antonio owned the tiebreaker for the number one seed, and the league’s division winner rule made the 57 win Sacramento Kings the two seed. As a three-seed, they had a tough road to a title. They got through a tough “Jail-blazers” team in the first round of the ’03 playoffs , and gutted out a game 7 win in the 2nd round against the Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic led Sacramento Kings. In the conference finals they ran into the buzzsaw that was the ’03 Spurs, which featured Tim Duncan at his absolute best, with the Big Fundamental posting a line of 28 pts, 16.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3 blocks a game. The Mavericks (along with the rest of the NBA) simply had no answer. Nash and Dirk would only play together for one more season before Nash headed to Phoenix, their hall of fame careers diverging onto two different paths. As great as they would both become, it’s hard not to wonder what could have achieved if they had stayed together in Dallas.
The Top 10
Regular Season Record: 59-23
Playoffs: Lost In Western Conference Finals to Eventual Champions the Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
The 2000 Blazers had a squad. With a 25 year old Rasheed Wallace and a cast of talented veterans like Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, and Arvydas Sabonis, this group finished the regular season as both a top 5 offense and defense and was poised to make a deep run in the postseason. Mike Dunleavy’s crew breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, dispatching A 50 win Kevin Garnett Led Timberwolves team and the 55 win Stockton and Malone Utah Jazz before running into the Kobe and Shaq led Los Angeles Lakers. After stealing home court in game 2, the Blazers went down 3-1 in the series, but battled all the way back to even things up at 3-3. In game 7, the Blazers had a 16 point 2nd half lead, (13 going into the 4th quarter) and let it slip away in one the all time great playoff collapses. The Blazers would certainly have been favored against a good Indiana Pacers team in the Finals, and the hypotheticals abound. What would it have meant for Scottie Pippen’s legacy if he had been able to win a ring without Michael Jordan? He’s already an all-time great, but he may be considered a top-10 all time player with a win. It certainly would have had a huge impact on the legacy of polarizing head coach Mike Dunleavy too. Instead, the loss would mark the beginning of a Lakers dynasty.
Regular Season Record: 57-25
Playoffs: Lost in NBA Finals to Houston Rockets (4-0)
Raise your hand if you beat a Michael Jordan led Bulls team in a playoff series after 1990. It only happened one time, when the Orlando Magic did it in 1995. Of course, that was Jordan’s first season back after a year and a half retirement, but MJ was still mostly terrific (he averaged 31ppg in the series), and they still had Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, and most of the rest of a cast that would begin a 3 year championship run a season later. The fact was that the Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway duo (22 and 23 years old, respectively) was a real force, and the Bulls had no answer, particularly for O’Neal. Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, and Brian Shaw were all key contributors for the Magic, who would go on to take out Reggie Miller and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference final, earning them the chance to take on the defending champion Houston Rockets. Orlando looked like they had game 1 in the bag, but Nick Anderson missed 4 consecutive free throws in the closing seconds, and after Kenny Smith hit a 3 pointer to force overtime, the Rockets never looked back. An all time great finals performance from Hakeem Olajuwon (32.8ppg, 11.5rpg, 5.5apg, 2blk/gm, 2stl/gm) proved too much for the young Magic, who were ultimately swept. Despite the loss , Orlando looked like they could potentially be the league’s next great dynasty. But after the ’96 season Shaq left for Los Angeles, and Hardaway’s career began to be derailed by injuries, leaving us all to wonder what might have been for one of the most talented young duo’s in NBA history.
Regular Season Record: 61-21
Playoffs: Lost In Western Conference Semi-finals To Eventual Champion San Antonio Spurs (4-2)
After consecutive trips to the conference finals, many felt that 2007 was the Phoenix Suns year. Led by Steve Nash, the reigning two- time MVP, the Suns were an offensive juggernaut, running Mike D’Antoni’s 7 seconds or less offense to the tune of 110 points per game. Nash was brilliant again, posting a 53%-45%-89.9% shooting line and almost 12 assists per game. Shawn Marion was an absolute nightmare on both ends of the floor, and 24 year old Amare Stoudemire was a force on the low block, and the perfect compliment to Nash in the half-court. Also thriving in the offense were Raja Bell (41% from 3 and over 6 attempts per game in 07), Boris Diaw, and the “Brazilian Blur” Leandro Barbosa. The Suns played small, with Amare and veteran Kurt Thomas sharing time at center, and the 6-7 Marion at power forward. This often left them vulnerable defensively, but the Suns were there to outscore you, a strategy that worked more often than not. However like so many other teams over the years, Phoenix would ultimately have to get past Tim Duncan and the Spurs, a team more than capable of scoring in bunches, and who just happened to be the league’s top defense. The series was an absolute battle, but unfortunately ended in controversy. At the end of game 4, with the Spurs holding a 2-1 series lead, Spurs forward Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorers table. Although neither player became involved in the ensuing skirmish, both Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench, resulting in each player being suspended for game 5. Although they held on to win game 4 and tie the series 2-2, the shorthanded Suns were unable to win a pivotal game 5 at home, and ended up losing the series in game 6. The Suns had their work cut out for them against San Antonio anyway, but it was unfortunate that we didn’t get a chance to see the series play out without the suspensions. The D’Antoni/Nash Suns would only last one more season, but although they never won a title, the impact they had on the league and how the game is played is still being felt.
Regular Season Record: 57-25
Playoffs: Lost in NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls (4-2)
I’m not sure any city has ever loved a pro sports team the way Portland loved (loves) these Blazers. And it’s not at all surprising. The Blazers of the early 90’s were a deep team of veteran players and personalities including Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, Terry Porter, Cliff Robinson, Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth and Danny Ainge, and they were really good. After losing to the Pistons in the 1990 NBA finals and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 Western Conference finals, the ’92 Blazers had the best record in the conference and powered their way through the Western Conference playoffs, where the World Champion Chicago Bulls were waiting for them. It was a pretty good matchup on paper, and the Jordan vs Drexler storyline was particularly fascinating (Portland passed on Michael Jordan with the #1 overall pick in the 1984 draft, in large part because they already had future hall of famer Clyde Drexler at the same position). The series was tied at 2-2 after four games, but the Bulls would go on to win the final two games of the series for the second of their 3 consecutive titles. From 1990 to 1992, the Blazers were one of the 3-4 best teams in basketball, losing only to the Bad Boy Pistons, Magic Johnson and the Lakers, and a Michael Jordan led Bulls team.
Regular Season Record: 57-25
Playoffs: Lost in NBA Finals to Houston Rockets (4-3)
For just about every good team in the 90’s, the road to a championship ran through Michael Jordan. Nobody knew this better than Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, who had came up short against Chicago in both the 1992 and 1993 playoffs. But when MJ retired unexpectedly in 1994, it looked like it might be The Knicks year. With Ewing, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley on the front line, the ’94 Knicks were big and mean, and head coach Pat Riley embraced it, encouraging a style of play that couldn’t have been more different from the Showtime Lakers he led in the 1980’s. Riley’s Knicks were defensive minded team and not at all afraid to mix it up, and they rode that to two tough 7 game series wins, eliminating the Jordan-less Bulls and soon to be “Knick Killer” Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers. They would meet Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in the Finals. For two of the best centers of their generation, it was a rematch of the 1984 NCAA Championship, won by Patrick Ewing. The two legends anchored the league’s best defenses, and the results showed in the box score, with neither team scoring more than 93 points in any game of the series. The Knicks held a 3-2 series lead, but in game 6, Olajuwon blocked a potential game winning 3 by John Starks, forcing the Knicks to play their third game 7 in as many series. Starks, who had been the Knicks second leading scorer all season, infamously shot 2 for 18 in the deciding game, a 90-85 Houston win. Olajuwon had bested his old rival, leading Houston to the first of two consecutive championships. It was New York’s best shot at a title since 1973. Ewing’s Knicks would make one more trip to the Finals in 1999, but he was forced to watch from the sidelines with an injury as the San Antonio Spurs won the first title of the Tim Duncan era.
Regular Season Record: 58-24
Playoffs: Lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the eventual champion Chicago Bulls (4-3)
Well before the 1998 season, Reggie Miller had established himself as one of the greats in the game. One of the all time best shooters/shot makers with a flare for the dramatic, Reggie and the Pacers had been knocking on the door of the Finals for years in the early 90’s, famously coming up just short against the Knicks in the 94 Eastern Conference Finals. After a first round loss to the Hawks in 1996 and failing to make the postseason in 1997, the Pacers hired rookie head coach Larry Bird to take over in 1998, and the team acquired former dream teamer Chris Mullin to play on the wing opposite Reggie Miller. At 34, Mullin was past his prime, but he managed to start all 82 games and proved that shooters can always shoot,converting 44% from beyond the arc and providing some much needed floor spacing. With the always solid Mark Jackson running point, young guys Jalen Rose and Travis Best off the bench along with veteran Derrick Mckey, and all kinds of size inside ( Rik Smits, Antonio Davis and Dale Davis), the 98 Pacers were there real deal. They took out their rivals the New York Knicks in the conference semifinals, earning a shot at Michael Jordan and the Bulls. During their 6 championship seasons, MJ’s Bulls were rarely pushed into a must win game, but the 98 Pacers did exactly that. In a fantastic game 6, with the Bulls holding a 3-2 lead, Reggie Miller hit one of the best shots in NBA post season history, draining a 3 to force a deciding game 7. The Pacers came up short, but this was arguably the biggest test of the Bulls Dynasty, and that is no small feat. Outside of game 5, every game in this series was decided by less than 6 points.
Regular Season Record: 47-19 (Shortened Season)
Playoffs: Lost in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat (4-1).
The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder featured 3 Superstar-level talents In Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, none of whom were yet 24 years old. Hyper athletic and supremely talented, the Thunder took the western conference by storm, sweeping Dirk Nowitzki and the defending champion Mavericks in the first round before taking Kobe Bryant and the Lakers out in 5 games in the semis. In the Conference Finals, the Spurs looked poised to put the young Thunder in their place, jumping to a 2-0 series lead, but OKC responded and reeled off 4 straight wins to take the series and earn a trip to the Finals, where they would meet the Miami Heat. The Eastern conference superteam led by Lebron James was hungry for a win after suffering a disappointing loss in the finals the year prior, and it showed, as they reeled off 4 straight wins after dropping game 1. The Thunder made a highly criticized deal to let James Harden go that off-season. Neither Harden nor the Thunder have been back since.
Regular Season Record: 64-18
Playoffs: Lost in NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls (4-2)
George Karl’s Sonics of the early to mid 90’s were famous for becoming the first 1-seed in NBA history to lose to an 8 seed in the playoffs, but there was much more to this team than that. Karl’s Sonics won 239 regular season games over a 4 year span leading up to their 96 playoff run, and that included a tough 7 game conference finals loss to MVP Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in 1993. It finally came together for Seattle in the 95-96 season. After winning 64 games in the regular season, Gary Payton (defensive player of the year ) and Shawn Kemp led Seattle on an impressive playoff run in which they were the first team in 3 years that did not “underestimate the heart of a champion”, dethroning the back to back Champion Houston Rockets in the conference semis. They went on to win a tough 7 game series against the Utah Jazz, a team that would represent the western conference in each of the next two NBA Finals. And their reward for all this? A trip to the Finals to play Michael Jordan and arguably greatest team ever, the 72 win Chicago Bulls. Seattle managed to take the series to 6 games after falling behind 3-0, but the Bulls were just too much. Winning an NBA title takes a great team, but it also takes a bit of luck and timing. The Kemp/Payton Sonics definitely had the former, but were decidedly lacking in the latter
Regular Season Record: 64-18
Playoffs: Lost In NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls (4-2)
Perhaps the most famous duo in NBA history, John Stockton and Karl Malone led the Utah Jazz together from 1987-2003, averaging over 50 wins per season in that span. In their time together, Malone earned 2 MVP awards and scored most of his 36,928 points (second highest all time), and Stockton of course became the all time assist and steals leader. Aided by the very good Jeff Hornacek and a cast of mostly underwhelming role players, the two former Dream Teamers peaked in 1997 and 1998, mastering head coach Jerry Sloan’s offense and making consecutive NBA finals appearances. The 1997 team gets the slight edge here as Stockton was still near his best and averaged 35 minutes per game, the last time he would do so in his career. In the 1997 finals, four of the six games against were decided by 4 points or less, and the Bulls needed some incredible heroics to win several of the games, including an MJ buzzer beater in game 1, the famous “flu game” in game 5 (in which Jordan hit a 3 pointer to break a tie with 25 seconds left), and a Steve Kerr game winner in game 6, which took place after a missed (and completely blatant) goal-tending call on the other end. It would be difficult to find any players who felt more deserving of a championship than Stockton and Malone, but like so many others in the Jordan era, it was not to be.
Regular Season Record: 61-21
Playoffs: Lost Game 7 of Western Conference Finals
The good people of Sacramento love their basketball team, and there was never more to love than during Rick Adelman’s tenure as head coach, which culminated in the 2001-2002 season. Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, and Mike Bibby led Sacramento’s high powered offense to a league best 61 wins, and they coasted to the Western Conference finals, where they would meet the Lakers in an all time classic series. Up 2 games to 1, the Kings had the back to backs champs on the ropes, jumping out to a 24 point first half lead in game 4 before watching their lead dwindle. They were still up by two points when Robert Horry did what Robert Horry does at the buzzer to give the Lakers a much needed win and tie the series up. Kings fans, Laker haters, and NBA conspiracy theorists all like to point to this series (game 6 in particular) as the prime example of crooked officiating. While the officiating was less than stellar at times, those same people usually fail to point out that at home in game 7, the Kings missed 14 of their 30 free throw attempts and that Stojakovich missed a wide open 3 pointer in the final 10 seconds of regulation with the Kings down by just a point. Take nothing away from Sacramento. They gave an all time great team featuring two Hall of Famers the biggest challenge of their 3 year championship run, and were a few plays away from a finals appearance and a likely Championship.