With the NBA Playoffs quickly approaching, the chase for the Larry O’Brien is about to jump into high gear. The teams in the East are set, but they are still jostling for positioning (unless you’re the Miami Heat). In the West, seven of the eight teams are set with it coming down to the wire between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 8 spot. The Heat have proven all year long that they are the team to beat when the second season comes around and will definitely have a very good chance of repeating as champs. However, as the past showed us, it’s not always the best team that wins.
Here are 10 of the best teams of the last 20 years to never win a NBA title.
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10. PHOENIX SUNS (1993)
Charles Barkley firmly believed during the 1992-93 NBA season that he was the best player on the planet. He has been quoted as saying so. With a roaster loaded with talent around Barkley — Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, Richard Dumas, Danny Ainge, Cedric Ceballos and Tom Chambers — the suns cruised through the regular season, racking up 62 wins and the NBA’s best record. Sir Charles dropped 25.6 points, 12.2 boards and 5.1 assists a night as he collected the MVP award. However, homecourt advantage and a MVP trophy were not enough to stop Michael Jordan from winning his third-straight NBA title.
9. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (2012)
Ten years from now, people will marvel at one team having Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all in the same lineup. Last season was one of true beauty for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant was having a MVP-caliber season, Harden easily won the Sixth Man of the Year award, Ibaka led the league in blocks and almost took home the Defensive Player of the Year trophy because of it, and Westbrook was averaging a career-high 23.6 points a game. Unfortunately for OKC, they ran into a buzz-saw in Miami in the Finals and lost in five games.
8. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (2009)
For a while, the 2008-09 Cavs looked like they might challenge Chicago’s single-season record of 72 wins before finishing up the regular season with 66 Ws. LeBron James and the rest of the team were known for their pregame Globetrotter-esque antics: posing for fake team pictures and choreographed dance routines. And every once in a while, they even busted them out in the postgame or even during games in the middle of the occasional blowout. This was supposed to be the year every NBA fan got what they wanted, a Finals matchup between the two best players in the league: Kobe and LeBron James. Nike even created a series of commercials around the anticipation. Yet, we never got to see it come to fruition. LeBron and company lost to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
7. NEW YORK KNICKS (1994)
The 1993-94 NBA season brought new hope to every team in the league — except the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan’s reign of terror and domination over the basketball world had came to an end with his retirement. One team that was excited to see His Airness gone was the New York Knicks. With Pat Riley at the helm, the Knicks tied for the East’s best record and sent three players to the All-Star Game (Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley). Ewing played like a man possessed all season, scoring 26 points and pulling down 11 rebounds a night. The Knicks defensive pressure, starting with the play of guards Derek Harper and Starks, put anything the Louisville Cardinals did this year to shame. In the NBA Finals, they faced off against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets and took the series to the full seven games. But poor and non-clutch play from Starks in Games 6 and 7 meant the Knicks came away from the series empty-handed.
6. PHOENIX SUNS (2005)
When you finish 29-53 you aren’t on anyone’s radar as a championship contender for the following season. Yet, that’s exactly what the Phoenix Suns did in 2005, thanks mostly to the addition of Steve Nash (and Quentin Richardson). With Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson already on the roster, Phoenix became the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 110 points per game. No other team in the NBA was able to keep up with their Seven Seconds Or Less style and they ran and gunned their way to 62 regular season victories. However, like every Mike D’Antoni team, defense was not the team’s focal point. An injury to Johnson in the second round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks would do damage to the Suns’ chemistry and offensive flow, and led to them exiting the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
5. SEATTLE SONICS (1996)
Over the weekend, Gary “The Glove” Payton was announced as part of this year’s Hall of Fame class. Deservingly so. Payton boasts one of the most impressive resumes of any guard in NBA history. Yet one thing that was missing from that resume — at least until he went ring-chasing as a backup guard in Miami — was a NBA championship. In 1996, Payton and the Seattle Supersonics had a great opportunity to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Northwest. Coached by George Karl and partnered with highflying forward Shawn Kemp and deadeye sharpshooter Detlef Schrempf, Payton’s Sonics would win 64 games during the regular season. After sneaking past the Utah Jazz to get to the NBA Finals, they faced off against the 72-win Bulls and that guy named MJ. Despite some extraordinary late series defense from GP, they were unable to overcome the G.O.A.T., losing in six games.
4. ORLANDO MAGIC (1995)
Shaq and Penny Hardaway were two players with the combination of size, skill, knowledge and talent that are rarely seen in the NBA. In 1995, this duo was leading a new age explosion in the league and bringing the Orlando Magic to national prominence. Shaq was averaging 29.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Not to be outdone, Penny was contributing 21 points and 7.1 assists of his own. Add in the veteran experience of Horace Grant and you have a team poised to make a run in the postseason. They did that, defeating the Bulls (with Jordan freshly back from retirement) and Reggie Miller‘s Indiana Pacers on their way to a NBA Finals appearance. Waiting for them were the Houston Rockets, featuring a fearsome duo of their own: Clyde Drexler and Hakeem and his unstoppable “Dream Shake.” In a match up of two of the best big men ever, it would be Hakeem and Houston that would emerge victorious. It would be our one and only glimpse of Shaq and Penny in the NBA Finals together.
3. SACRAMENTO KINGS (2002)
Outside of his time with the Fab Five, Chris Webber‘s tenure as the superstar and face of the Sacramento Kings franchise featured the best moments of his basketball career. In 2002, the Kings had one of the better starting fives in all of the NBA. With Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Webber and Vlade Divac they had no weak links. Like the ’93 Suns, the Kings also won 62 games during the regular season. But their run was cut short during one of the most remarkable and controversial playoff series: the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Besides the shady officiating of Game 6, and then the Kings dramatic meltdown at the free throw line in Game 7, it was the clutch play of another Laker, Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, who drained a buzzer-beating three in Game 4, that sealed the end of the Kings season.
2. UTAH JAZZ (1998)
The Utah Jazz roster in 1998 read like a who’s who of the NBA’s elite. They were coached by the mastermind that is Jerry Sloan; the team was run by the all-time assist and steals leader in NBA history, John Stockton; and at power forward they had the unstoppable force, the man second in career points scored, Karl Malone. You also can’t forget to mention Stockton’s backcourt running mate, Jeff Hornacek. Together they formed arguably the best backcourt in the NBA at the time. The 1998 Finals gave them a chance to avenge a loss in the previous season’s championship against Jordan and the Bulls, but it didn’t start off to well for the Jazz, who fell behind 3-1 in the series. They forced it to a Game 6 and if it was not for “The Shot” or “The Push Off” (depending on how big a MJ fan you are), Malone and Stockton might have been able to get that elusive championship ring.
1. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (2000)
This Portland team won 59 games, eviscerated the Jazz to get to the Western Conference Finals, and were up 15 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the eventual champion Lakers. They had one of the five best defenses in the league, perhaps the best crowd, and had talent pouring off their roster. They went two deep at every position, and were so loaded that Jermaine O’Neal, a young forward who would eventually make six All-Star Games, couldn’t get out of his warmup suit. The only thing they truly lacked? A go-to player capable of corralling the team’s explosive personalities during crunch time. Steve Smith wanted to be that guy, but was never quite good enough. Rasheed Wallace could’ve been that guy but before he found his calling as a team-first, defense-second Robin in Detroit, he was masquerading as the team’s lone All-Star. Arvydas Sabonis might’ve been that guy if he hadn’t driven his knees into the ground. It came down to Scottie Pippen, who relished the chance to beat old friends like Phil Jackson and Ron Harper in the conference finals. He should have, and if Portland had finished off that Game 7, they would’ve cruised past Indiana for a championship.
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