With the beginning of every new NBA season, there are a few teams whom we consider to be favorites to win the championship. But as we all know, only one can be crowned NBA champions. And the teams that fall short go home forgotten and pretty much empty-handed.
Some people ask whether it’s worse to make it to the Finals and lose — to come so close to glory and not achieve your goal — or to get eliminated earlier on before the stakes get too high.
If you weren’t under a rock in the ’90s you know that Michael Jordan alone ruined the chances a lot of great players and teams to get a ring. With all due respect to the other superstars who competed against him, it got to the point where you really couldn’t picture anyone else winning besides Jordan and the Bulls. Still, making it to the Finals is no easy feat. Some of the greatest teams, led by some of the greatest players, have only made it once or twice and came up empty-handed with no recognition. Here are the 10 best teams that didn’t win a championship:
Portland Trail Blazers, 1992
After losing to the Lakers in the playoffs the previous season and making it to the Finals the season before that, the Blazers knew they were among the League’s elite. Led by Clyde Drexler and head coach Rick Adelman, the Blazers were among the favorites to come out of the West, finishing the regular season with 57 wins. They beat the Lakers, Suns, and Jazz on their path to the Finals, however Jordan, Phil Jackson and Chicago would be too much for the Blazers to handle in the Finals. This would be the first of many times Adelman would fall to Phil Jackson in the playoffs, starting what would become one of the best coaching rivalries in the NBA.
Phoenix Suns, 1993
Before the ’92-93 season, you could see that Phoenix was a team with loads of potential, but they weren’t quite ready to make noise in the playoffs. It wasn’t until the Suns traded for Charles Barkley that they would become legit championship contenders. Barkley was in his superstar prime, winning league MVP that year. Accompanied by a well-rounded supporting cast of Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers, the Suns would achieve a season-best record of 62-20.
Seven Suns averaged double-figure scoring, while Barkley (25.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 5.1 apg) became just the third player to ever win MVP in his first season with a team. Phoenix advanced to the Finals for the first time since 1976, unfortunately, all roads led through Jordan and the Bulls, who won the series in six games.
New York Knicks, 1994
With Jordan getting bored and leaving the Bulls for the Birmingham Barons, the ’94 Knicks felt their time had finally come. They shared the best record in the East under coach Pat Riley, and sent three players to the All-Star Game. Patrick Ewing averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds during the season, and the Knicks played a suffocating defense led by John Starks and Derek Harper on the perimeter and Charles Oakley and Ewing in the paint.
After taking down the Bulls in the conference semis, they outlasted nemesis Reggie Miller and the Pacers to make it to the Finals. There they faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets. Aside from the O.J. Simpson low-speed police chase, this series became known for Starks crumbling on the big stage: He missed a potential series-winning shot in Game Six, and in Game Seven shot an infamous 2-for-18 in a loss.
Orlando Magic, 1995
The ’95 Magic were the leaders of the new school. They had Shaquille O’Neal (29.4 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg) and Penny Hardaway (21 ppg, 7.1 apg) as young superstars, plus championship experience in vet Horace Grant. Knocking out the just-returning Jordan’s Bulls and Reggie’s Pacers on their way to the Finals, their final test would be against Hakeem, Clyde and the Rockets. Despite losing in a sweep, the Magic were expected to compete for the chip for years to come, but Shaq would leave in free agency in ’96, and Penny would become an injury-prone mystery of potential.
Seattle Supersonics, 1996
The Sonics were the ’96 version of the modern-day Denver Nuggets. Led by George Karl on the bench, they were the team that was always among the best in the West but could never quite make it to the Finals, twice falling in surprising first-round exits and one time losing in the conference finals. The Sonics won 64 games in ’96, boasting tremendous talent with the flashy dynamic duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, who made alley-oops a work of art and leaving people to wonder if they were connected telepathically.
The Sonics would squeeze by Utah in the Western Conference Finals in seven games, but then had to deal with the 72-win Bulls. After losing the first three games in the Finals, Seattle fought back to force a Game Six, but couldn’t overcome Jordan’s greatness.
Utah Jazz, 1997-98
After the Jazz lost to the Bulls in the 1997 Finals, they felt the next season would be the year they would finally overcome the dynasty. John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek were considered the NBA’s best backcourt yet again, and Karl Malone was an undeniable force in the paint. After winning 62 games in the regular season, Utah hey would squeeze by the Rockets, and breeze past the Spurs and Lakers en route to a Finals rematch with Chicago. Battling back from a 3-1 series deficit, Utah fell in Game Six when Jordan hit “The Shot” following “The Push-Off.”
Portland Trail Blazers, 2000
The 2000 Blazers were arguably the best Portland team of all-time, even more talented than the ’77 championship team. The starting lineup of Damon Stoudemire, Steve Smith, Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis (the best passing center the game has ever seen) produced a very balanced attack, while Greg Anthony, Bonzi Wells, Detlef Schrempf, Brian Grant an Jermaine O’Neal held down a deep bench. Under head coach Mike Dunleavy, Portland advanced to the Western Conference Finals, defeating the Timberwolves and the Jazz in their first two series.
Awaiting them were the 67-win Lakers, armed with an MVP Shaq and young star Kobe. As colossal as the Lakers seemed, the Blazers weren’t scared at all, forcing the series to a Game Seven showdown in L.A. The Blazers were famously up by 15 late in the game before the Lakers waged a furious comeback and went on to the first of their three-peat titles.
Phoenix Suns, 2005
Expectations were low for this team after going 29-53 the previous season. But after adding Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson to join returners Amar’e, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson, the Suns would become one of the highest scoring teams the NBA has ever seen. Their fast-paced offense was too much for anyone to keep up with, putting up 110 points a night on their way to 62 regular season wins. Defense wasn’t top priority, however, an Achilles heel that would come back to hurt the Suns throughout the Nash era.
Sacramento Kings, 2002
The Kings had made the playoffs for two years straight with Jason Williams as their point guard, but the team really took off once “White Chocolate” was traded and Mike Bibby took over at the one. The Kings could always pass and play together, but with Bibby the offense continued to run smoothly, the defense improved, and they had a guard who would take and make clutch shots.
In ’02, the Kings won 62 games in the regular season and wound up facing the powerhouse Lakers in the conference finals with Kobe and Shaq. In a series remembered for Robert Horry‘s buzzer-beater, a controversial Game Six refereeing job, and a some colossal Game Seven choking by the likes of Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie, the Kings were one of the most talented teams to fail to even reach the Finals.
Cleveland Cavaliers, 2008-09
The Cavs were the closest thing to the ’96 Bulls. They won 66 games in the regular season, finishing with the best record in the NBA. Their average margin of victory was 9 points per game, dominant by NBA standards. The team also had overflowing swagger, posing for fake team pictures before tip-off and putting together choreographed dance and comedy routines sometimes in the middle of blowing teams out.
Not to mention they had the best player in the League in 23-year-old LeBron James. Cleveland would be up by so many points so often that for a good month or so it seemed as if Lebron barely played in 4th fourth quarters. The Cavs would go on to sweep their first two series with ease, and entered the Eastern Conference Finals at 8-0 for the playoffs. The Cavs would end up losing to the Magic, though, as coach Mike Brown had no answer for Dwight Howard in the paint, and Orlando’s three-point shooters were on-fire all series.
This was supposed to be LeBron’s year, as his game finally reached official MVP status. However, as good as he was in the Orlando series, Cleveland’s supporting cast was simply outplayed. The hype for this team was greater than any other team that failed to win a ring, and their swagger said they expected to win as much as everyone else did. Unfortunately Cleveland would be left without a championship, and King James would later high-tail it out of town in disappointment.