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Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
NBA basketball is a zero-sum operation, which means there’s only ever one true winner at the end of each season.
That’s not quite the same as saying just one team deserved to win.
Every year, happenstance, injury, bad matchups, rotten timing and a litany of other factors influence the results. Sometimes, the team left standing gets universal recognition as the worthiest champ. But not always.
Most organizations have one title that got away.
We’ll confine this study to the three-point era, which began in 1979-80, and we’ll have to exclude a handful of franchises that never got close enough to a title to say they “should have” won anything. Also, there won’t always be an extenuating circumstance that prevented a team from winning it all; sometimes, a deep playoff run and/or a slip against a dominant opponent will be enough to build a case.
Even if it’s sometimes a stretch to say a certain franchise deserved a championship, we can at least acknowledge how good that team was and agree that it had a real shot to go all the way.
Last thing: Michael Jordan and the Los Angeles Lakers will emerge in this exercise as the most consistent and ruthless dashers of championship dreams. They got in the way of everybody.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Like many modern-era expansion organizations, the Charlotte Hornets’ relatively short lifespan puts them at a disadvantage. By virtue of joining the league in 1988-89, they lost out on a full decade of opportunity to win (or come close to) a title during the 1979-2019 stretch we’re scouring.
The Hornets could have used those extra chances. The highest they’ve ever finished in the Eastern Conference is fourth, and they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
No iteration of the team was more fun than the early-’90s group that included Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues, but that trio’s best moment was a first-round upset over the Boston Celtics in 1993. They never sniffed a championship.
The Denver Nuggets were very good in 1984-85 and 2008-09, winning at least 50 games and reaching the conference finals in both instances. But that 1985 squad ran into the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, an all-time juggernaut. Denver wasn’t going to win that series if it got 10 shots at it.
It’s a stretch to say the Nuggets had any chance to go all the way. The competition was too fierce.
Los Angeles Clippers
This one will sting, as the best option for the Los Angeles Clippers is probably the 2015 team that watched as a bunch of Rockets reserves erased a 19-point deficit and outscored the Clips’ starters 34-13 over the final nine minutes of a biblical comeback in Game 6 of the conference semifinals. The shell-shocked Clips bowed out in Game 7 of that series.
They’d never made it out of the second round in franchise history, and through 2018-19, they still hadn’t.
L.A. is a powerhouse now, and it was a fringe contender for much of the 2010s. But never forget this was the saddest-sack franchise in all of sports for a long while. It extends outside the time frame we’re considering, but the Clippers didn’t win a playoff series from 1977 to 2005. That drought illustrates the depths of failure that defined this club.
It’ll be a shock if the 2019-20 Clippers don’t take this spot the next time we put a list like this together, but teams from this season don’t count.
With a franchise-best 56 wins and a deep postseason run, the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies were clearly a quality operation. Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year, Mike Conley turned in arguably the second-best campaign of his career and Tony Allen was in prime shutdown form. But the San Antonio Spurs unceremoniously swept that Memphis team in the West finals, and the Heat were waiting to take down whichever squad advanced.
Maybe the Spurs were still sore about the eighth-seeded Grizzlies kicking them out of the first round in 2010-11. Whatever the reason, San Antonio revealed Memphis was never a serious title threat—even in its best season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Chris Paul piloted the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets to 56 wins but couldn’t get them out of the second round. This franchise is operating at a major disadvantage, having only come into existence in 2002-03. But the Hornets/Pelicans have never made it beyond the second round and certainly haven’t figured in the championship conversation.
Bright side: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram don’t have a very high playoff-expectation bar to clear.
The Toronto Raptors (established in 1995) got out of the first round just once between 1996 and 2015, and up until their championship breakthrough last season, LeBron James was always in the way. James’ Cavs faced Toronto in three straight playoff series from 2016 to 2018, running up a combined 12-2 mark. None of those Raps teams ever had a chance.
Toronto has its ring, but it wasn’t a realistic title threat in any other season.
Tough timing for the Washington Wizards, who won a title in 1977-78 and lost in the Finals in 1978-79. Neither season falls within our three-point-era timeline, and everything since those team has been…bleak.
The Wizards have escaped the first round just five times in 16 playoff trips since 1979-80, never advancing past the second.
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John Minchillo/Associated Press
The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks were the first indication that Mike Budenholzer was one hell of a regular-season head coach (his playoff chops remain less certain). That squad moved the ball beautifully, hunted threes and played a brand of team ball precise and unselfish enough to make every old-school purist get a little misty-eyed.
Atlanta won 60 games, finished atop the East for the first time since 1993-94 and sent four players—Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford—to the All-Star Game. DeMarre Carroll was the only starter left out.
The Hawks reached the conference finals for the first time since the franchise came to Atlanta in 1968 but ran into LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Result: four-game sweep.
The 67-win Golden State Warriors would have been waiting for Atlanta had it advanced past Cleveland, which makes this a very borderline “shoulda” case. Those Dubs were on a mission, and the Cavs’ throttling suggested the Hawks’ regular season as a bit of a mirage.
Still, a 60-win year and a deep playoff run that only ended because an all-time great extended his run of Finals appearances to five straight is enough to make the case that the Hawks had at least a decent shot at winning it all.
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Lennox McLendon/Associated Press
As you’d expect from a franchise with as storied a history as the Boston Celtics, we’ve got some good options here.
The 2009-10 Celts took the Lakers to Game 7 in the Finals, a greater achievement than we’ll see from several other teams as we move forward. But the 1984-85 club was just better, so it gets the nod, despite falling in six games to the champion Lakers in the Finals.
Larry Bird was in his absolute prime, winning the second of three straight MVPs, and the Celtics won titles on either side of this 1985 disappointment. We’re talking about a 63-win team that proved in the famous Memorial Day Massacre, a 148-114 thrashing of the Lakers in Game 1 of the Finals, that they absolutely had the juice to beat L.A. and win that series.
The Lakers recovered from that beatdown to win four of the next five games and hoist the trophy, but the 1985 Celtics should be remembered as one of the best teams to fall short of a ring.
In the interest of completeness, the 1986-87 Celtics were denied another title by a monstrously good 65-win Lakers team. That Boston squad featured a marginally higher simple-rating system figure (which measures margin of victory while considering strength of schedule) than the 1985 iteration. Some of Boston’s greats were inching past their primes by then, though, so the 1985 team feels like the more deserving entry.
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MORRY GASH/Associated Press
We have to go back to the New Jersey days to find the Nets’ worthiest non-title-winner.
Despite having just one 50-win season in the span we’re studying, the Nets actually have two viable candidates. Jason Kidd led the way in back-to-back Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, with the latter earning the nod here by virtue of it not being a sweep.
The 2001-02 squad went down in four games to a just-beginning-to-decline Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers, while the 2002-03 team took two games off the San Antonio Spurs before bowing out.
New Jersey wasn’t a world-beater in 2003, but the league lacked a truly dominant team that year. If the Nets could have shot better than 37.0 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from deep against the Spurs in the Finals, who knows what might have happened?
Then again, a 26-year-old Tim Duncan averaged 24.2 points 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks in that series. Jason Collins, Kenyon Martin and Dikembe Mutombo had no answers for San Antonio’s two-way superstar.
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JOHN SWART/Associated Press
The 1989-90 Bulls made it all the way to the seventh game of the conference finals, led by Michael Jordan and a 24-year-old Scottie Pippen in Phil Jackson’s first season with the team. MJ averaged 33.6 points per game during the year on 52.6 percent shooting and then bumped that up to 36.7 points in the playoffs while still hitting a stellar 51.4 percent from the floor.
Those Bulls won 55 games as Jordan finished third in MVP voting while leading the league in scoring and steals. He also earned All-NBA and All-Defensive first-team honors for the third straight time, part of a six-year run in which he’d collect both honors every season.
Jordan and this roster, relatively unchanged, would break through to win the first of three consecutive championships the following season.
So while the 2010-11 squad actually had a better full-season resume (62 wins, the top defensive rating and MVP Derrick Rose), it’s just too difficult to say that team, which fell to the Miami Heat in five conference-finals games, was more deserving of a ring than one led by a 26-year-old Jordan—who couldn’t quite get past a Pistons team on the way to repeating as champs.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
There’s a case to be made for the 2008-09 Cavs here, based on a 66-win season, a league-best plus-9.6 net rating and LeBron James leading the postseason with 35.3 points per game.
That team was appallingly thin, though.
It’s a testament to James’ excellence that he hauled this ragtag crew to such a dominant season. Mo Williams was Cleveland’s second-best player, averaging 17.8 points per game and making a minimal defensive impact. After him, James’ next-best sidekick was either Delonte West or Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
It can’t come as a shock that the Orlando Magic quickly dispatched the ’09 Cavs in five games in the East Finals. Had they advanced, the Cavaliers would have caught the 65-win Lakers in the Finals. Considering how easily the Magic took care of business, the odds of Cleveland taking that series wouldn’t have been great.
In contrast, the 2014-15 Cavaliers were deeper and advanced further, even if their overall season numbers fell short of those produced by the 2008-09 team. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love helped James reach the Finals in his first year back with the franchise (though Love’s postseason was done in the first round; thanks a lot, Kelly Olynyk).
Tristan Thompson beasted on the offensive glass, Iman Shumpert and JR Smith hit shots, Timofey Mozgov patrolled the lane and Matthew Dellavedova irritated every opposing ball-handler unlucky enough to come near him. These Cavs had real depth behind LeBron—just not quite enough to overcome the first year of the dynastic Warriors in the Finals.
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Donna McWilliam/Associated Press
We officially have our first “this team absolutely should have won the title” entry. So, to the 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks…congratulations?
Up on the Miami Heat by 13 points with 6:34 remaining in Game 3 of the Finals, Dallas was half-a-quarter away from taking a historically insurmountable 3-0 series lead. This thing was over.
Until it wasn’t.
Dwyane Wade went off, and Dallas seized up, converting just two field goals and committing five turnovers from that point on. Miami secured a series-altering 98-96 win, though Dirk Nowitzki still had the chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds remaining. The career 87.9 percent free-throw shooter made just one of his two attempts.
Miami would go on to take the next three games in a row, stunning Dallas.
Everyone harps on the free-throw disparity, dimly recalling Wade spending the entire series at the foul line. Wade shot as many freebies (25) as the entire Dallas roster in Game 5. He then attempted 21 more in Game 6, giving credence to the theory that Dallas was a little unlucky in the whistle department.
Some, with varying levels of credibility, have asserted something more nefarious took place.
Still, up by double figures with half-a-quarter separating them from a commanding series edge, the Mavs shoulder most of the blame for their collapse. Maybe Miami got some favorable calls, but Dallas was still in control of its fate. It just never recovered from that gut punch of a Game 3 loss.
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Reed Saxon/Associated Press
In the wake of Dallas’ memorable failure, we’ve got one of the most significant near-triumphs in league history.
The 1987-88 Detroit Pistons got 43 points and eight assists from Isiah Thomas in Game 6 of the Finals against the Lakers, which is impressive on its own. But the legend of Thomas’ performance goes far deeper than that.
He scored 11 of his 25 third-quarter points after returning from a sprained right ankle. Clearly hobbled and in pain, Thomas gutted out an iconic stretch, only to ultimately see his team lose Game 6 by a final of 103-102. With the adrenaline gone, Thomas had nothing left in Game 7 as the Lakers logged a 108-105 win to secure the title.
The Pistons would go on to win championships in 1989 and 1990, which is all the evidence we need to argue they had what it took to get the job done in 1988.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
This historically brilliant yet not-quite-good-enough Warriors team is the only one on this list to inspire a meme.
Golden State won a league-record 73 games behind unanimous MVP Stephen Curry in 2015-16, only to be undone by a confluence of factors against the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.
First, there was Curry’s sprained MCL, suffered in Game 4 of the first round against the Houston Rockets. A right ankle injury had already cost him Games 2 and 3 of that series, and the knee held him out of action until Game 4 of the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry hustled back from the sprain in just 15 days and looked like himself in flashes throughout the rest of the playoffs, but any time he appeared a step slow or, say, couldn’t beat Kevin Love in isolation, the injury was a common (and not totally meritless) excuse.
Second, Draymond Green lost it.
He and LeBron James got tangled up late in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and Green was ultimately suspended for Game 5 after earning his fourth flagrant-foul point of the postseason. Whatever you think of the play involving James, Green had very much earned his previous flagrant points. The suspension was ill-timed but justified.
Golden State lost Game 5…and then Game 6…and then Game 7.
Credit the Cavs for climbing out of a hole and besting what otherwise would have been remembered as the greatest team of all time.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Twenty-seven straight missed threes. That’s all you need to know to understand how close the 2017-18 Houston Rockets were to taking out the Warriors in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Golden State won that game and went on to beat the Cavs for its second championship in three years, but the Rockets would have secured the victory with a mere 4-of-27 effort on those last, fateful 27 triple attempts. The final score was only 101-92.
Houston won 65 games in 2017-18, led by MVP James Harden. Its switching defense, relatively novel at the time, gave the Warriors fits and turned the series into a defensive struggle—quite the achievement against a Dubs team boasting supreme offensive firepower in Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
The Rockets also reached the Finals in 1981 and 1986, coming up short against the Celtics both times. But the 1981 team only went 40-42 during the year, and the ’86 Celtics are on the short list of the best teams in league history. That year’s Rockets didn’t really have a chance.
The 2018 WCF was Houston’s best shot, and it would have emerged from that series as, at worst, a coin-flip proposition against the Cavs. Those 27 straight clankers were the only things standing between the Rockets and a ring.
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MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press
The Indiana Pacers reached the 2000 Finals. That team isn’t the pick here, though, because their opponents were the Lakers and apex Shaquille O’Neal. Once they fell down 3-1 in that series, it was curtains.
The better call is the 1997-98 Pacers, a team perhaps best remembered for Reggie Miller’s egregious shove of Michael Jordan, which freed him up for the game-winning three in Game 4 of the East Finals and his giddy celebration thereafter.
Miller and the Pacers took Jordan and the Bulls to the seventh game of an incredibly contentious series. All but one contest was decided by six points or fewer, and Indy was up by 13 points at one juncture of Game 7.
Miller, overtaxed by the dual responsibilities of leading Indiana in shot attempts, minutes and time spent being hounded by (and also hounding) Jordan, failed to score in the fourth quarter as the Pacers managed just 18 points in the frame.
The Utah Jazz were waiting in the Finals that year, but considering how much fight Indy showed against the Last Dance Bulls, it absolutely could have gotten past John Stockton and Karl Malone.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Though their repeated appearance as the team preventing other franchises from winning a title might make it seem like the Los Angeles Lakers only ever won in the Finals, that’s not quite the case.
They came up just short of the ultimate prize often enough, losing six times in the Finals between 1979-80 and 2018-19. Don’t let the pity party get out of hand; L.A. won 10 championships in that span.
Of the Lakers’ Finals defeats, only one involved a Game 7, and it came against the 62-win 1983-84 Celtics. That squad included MVP Larry Bird and was also the first season defensive ace Dennis Johnson spent in Boston.
The Lakers won 54 games that season, most in the West, and still had a not-quite-washed 36-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The begoggled big man averaged 21.5 points on 57.8 percent shooting but had already slipped behind Magic Johnson in the team’s superstar pecking order. Johnson, then 24, led the league with 13.1 assists per game and was dishing out roughly 49 no-look passes per contest.
Magic wasn’t perfect, though, as he committed crucial errors, curiously dribbling out the clock at the end of regulation in Game 2 with a tied score in the former and coughing up a brutal turnover before missing key free throws in Game 4. Both games went to overtime, and the Lakers lost each of them.
This was a physical series with unabashedly dirty play and multiple bench-clearing incidents. The Lakers were good enough to beat Boston, which they proved the following year and again in 1987. A couple of crippling errors were all that kept Los Angeles from adding another ring to its already overflowing collection.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Coming off two straight titles and hungry for a third, the 2013-14 Miami Heat may have been dealing with fatigue when they faced San Antonio in the 2013-14 Finals. But let’s not make too many excuses.
Miami simply ran into the Beautiful Game Spurs, so there was no shame in being made to look ugly in a quick five-game Finals. And if you think this is at least partly an excuse to link to the best basketball clip in existence for the millionth time, you’re correct.
There’s just no competing with a team playing like that.
LeBron James led the 2013-14 Heat with 27.1 points and 6.3 assists per game, playing in the midst of the most efficient stretch of his career. His 64.9 true shooting percentage was the highest he’d ever posted (still is), and both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shot over 50 percent from the field for a Heat offense that cruised to 110 points per 100 possessions, third-best in the league.
Miami was loaded, experienced and had gone 12-3 over the three rounds leading to its tilt with the Spurs.
Against almost any other team, the Heat would have prevailed and earned a third title.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the best teams of the 1980s, winning at least 49 games in each season of the decade and peaking at 60 victories in 1980-81. The Sixers booted them from the conference semifinals that year.
Two decades later, the 2000-01 Bucks came within a win of the Finals. That group, led by Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell, is one of the better teams nobody seems to remember. But with the Lakers waiting in the Finals, they weren’t going to get anything done. L.A. stomped out the 76ers, who edged past Milwaukee in seven ECF games.
Though saying so risks prisoner-of-the-moment status, the 2018-19 Bucks were the most deserving non-champ in franchise history. They won 60 games, had an MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and were beaten by the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, who seemed to shift into peak form midway through the East Finals.
Toronto was down 0-2 and needed a double-OT escape job to survive Game 3, after which it solved the Bucks, producing three more victories in succession and no shortage of questions about Milwaukee’s ability to make playoff adjustments. Those remain unanswered today.
Had Milwaukee eked out that Game 3 win, history says the Raptors would have been finished. With the Warriors waiting in the Finals, the Bucks probably wouldn’t have been betting favorites. But those Dubs were beleaguered, injury-hit and fractured internally due to Kevin Durant having both feet out the door.
The Bucks could have pulled off the win and, probably, preempted any talk of Giannis ever leaving.
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JIM MONE/Associated Press
Admit it: You’re shocked the Minnesota Timberwolves are here and not confined to the “never should have” section.
That’s understandable. The Wolves have won precisely two series in their entire existence, but both of them came in this 2004 run to the conference finals.
Kevin Garnett was the best player in the league and therefore the deserving MVP in 2003-04, posting averages of 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in 39.4 minutes per game. We haven’t harped on it much to this point, but one key box to check for “shoulda” teams is having a megastar talent.
KG has that covered for these Wolves.
Minnesota hit the playoffs as the West’s top seed, but Sam Cassell wasn’t healthy for the conference-finals loss to the Lakers. That Garnett was able to drag the series out for six games with Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak bricking away from everywhere is only further testament to his greatness.
Maybe it’s a disservice to the Pistons, who dispatched the Lakers in the Finals in just five games, but it would have been hard to bet against the absolute top version of Garnett at the time—if Minnesota’s supporting cast had provided enough help to get him to that last big stage.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
The New York Knicks were so consistently good in the ’90s that you could practically choose a season from that decade at random and credibly argue they had a real title shot.
Though they didn’t have to face Michael Jordan, who was playing baseball at the time, the 1993-94 version of the team still stands above the rest. Those Knicks won 57 games, had three All-Stars—Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks—and made it all the way to Game 7 of the Finals against the Houston Rockets.
Up 3-2 in Game 6, the Knicks had a shot to end the series. But Hakeem Olajuwon, who’d go on to win the first of two straight Finals MVPs, got a piece of Starks’ potential game-winner from the left wing, forced an airball and extended the series. Starks was a miserable 2-of-18 in Game 7, and Houston took the 90-84 home win.
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ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press
With apologies to understandably aggrieved fans who haven’t gotten over their Seattle SuperSonics being stolen away to Oklahoma City in the dead of night (overdramatic, but try telling that to Washingtonians), the most title-worthy team in the sample we’re studying is the 1995-96 Sonics.
Yes, the Oklahoma City Thunder have had some doozies, headlined by the 2011-12 squad that made the Finals and lost to the Heat in five games. The 2012-13 Thunder won 60 contests and own the highest Simple Rating System in franchise history.
But none were quite as complete as the George Karl-led squad that featured DPOY Gary Payton, high-flying Shawn Kemp and a deep supporting cast.
That group went 64-18 and lasted six games against Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. Add them to the list of runners-up that couldn’t get over the hump against a superstar-driven dynasty.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
The 2008-09 season was the first of three straight in which Dwight Howard won Defensive Player of the Year, and his blot-out-the-sun presence in the middle keyed a dominant Orlando Magic defense that allowed the fewest points per possession in the league.
Howard and the Magic were almost equally great in 2009-10 (an identical 59 wins and the No. 4 defense), but the 2008-09 club made it all the way to the Finals, where it exited in six against the Lakers.
Stan Van Gundy had Orlando playing four-out offense long before it was cool, bombing threes and trusting Howard to shut things down on the other end. The Magic were strategically ahead of their time and had a generationally potent defensive anchor. They lacked the type of isolation scorer most champs possess, though, and the Lakers held the Magic’s system-based attack to a paltry 100.5 offensive rating in the Finals.
Depth was also a bit of an issue, as evidenced by Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu all logging at least 41 minutes per game against L.A.
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Clem Murray/Associated Press
The Philadelphia 76ers made the Finals four times from 1976-77 to 1982-83, winning just once via sweep over the Lakers in 1982-83. That wildly successful era provides us some options.
Though the 1980-81 squad only made it to Game 7 of the conference finals, and though the teams from the preceding and subsequent years advanced a round deeper, we’re going with that ’81 team.
Those Sixers won 62 games, the most in any non-title-winning Philly season, got an MVP year from Julius Erving and beat opponents by an average of 7.85 points per game. That’s the highest average margin of victory produced in any 76ers season in our sample.
Boston, which won the championship, was a tough opponent. But the Sixers had the conference finals practically wrapped with a 3-1 series lead before the Celtics roared back to win in seven games. Philly would have been a massive favorite against the West-representing Houston Rockets, who were just the second team in league history to reach the Finals with a losing regular-season record.
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Mark Elias/Associated Press
The obvious pick here is the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns. Led by MVP Charles Barkley, that team won a then-franchise-record 62 games and took two of three from the Bulls on the road in the Finals, pushing the series to six games.
But if we’ve learned anything from this exercise, it’s that nobody ever beat a Jordan-led Bulls team in the Finals. So it’s a little disingenuous to say the ’93 Suns should have won that year.
Plus, controversy sells. And our pick comes with plenty.
The 2006-07 team only reached the conference semis, but in addition to 61 wins and Steve Nash (coming off MVPs in the prior two seasons), it has more than its share of grievances. This is the year Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table toward the end of Game 4, prompting Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire to leave the bench. Suspensions followed, and Phoenix lost Games 5 and 6 to head home disappointed.
The Suns were phenomenal that year. Stoudemire was healthy, their offense was the best in the league by a mile, and the top-seeded Mavs, a title favorite, had already been bounced in the first round by the “We Believe” Warriors. Phoenix’s path to a championship was smooth and unobstructed.
If not for the suspensions and some allegedly compromised officiating, Nash and the Suns would have adorned the Seven Seconds or Less era with a ring.
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JOHN GRESS/Associated Press
The best regular-season team in Portland Trail Blazers history won 63 games in 1990-91, posted the No. 21 SRS in Basketball Reference’s database and sent three players—Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Kevin Duckworth(!)—to the All-Star Game.
In 1990 and 1992, Portland made the Finals, losing to the Pistons and Bulls, respectively.
None of those three teams had a better chance to go all the way than the 1999-2000 club that surrendered a 15-point fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the West Finals. Everyone remembers the defining bucket of that game, a Kobe-to-Shaq lob that may as well have come with a “sorry for your loss, Blazers” sympathy card.
The 2000 Blazers won 59 games and had no shortage of talent or big-game experience. Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire, Arvydas Sabonis and even an aging Detlef Schrempf headlined a loaded roster that, let’s just say it, would have beaten the Pacers in the Finals.
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STEVE YEATER/Associated Press
We all remember the fateful tap from Vlade Divac at the end of Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, which sent the ball straight into Robert Horry’s hands beyond the three-point arc as time ticked away. Horry drilled a straight-on three, stealing what should have been a Sacramento Kings win at the buzzer.
The 2001-02 Kings have that and so much more to regret from that franchise-defining series.
Unperturbed by that devastating loss in Game 4, Mike Bibby buried a game-winner in Game 5, giving Sacramento a 3-2 lead. But the Lakers, benefitting from exceptionally friendly whistles all series, shot an obscene 27 free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Bibby, bloodied by a Bryant elbow (uncalled, of course), missed what would have been a game-tying three on the Kings’ last possession. Even after all the nonsense, Sacramento still had a shot to win that game.
Game 7 saw a frustrated, weary Kings team go just 16-of-30 from the foul line. The series never should have gone seven in the first place, but there’s no denying Sacramento beat itself in that final contest.
This is arguably the most controversial series in league history, and the Kings have every right to be aggrieved. Bad luck and allegations of something much worse prevented them from getting to the Finals against an eminently beatable Nets team—which the Lakers swept without breaking a sweat.
The 2002 Kings played beautiful ball, zipping around the elbows as Divac and Chris Webber facilitated. They should have a ring.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
The Spurs held a seemingly decisive 94-89 lead with 28.2 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, but the Heat, playing in their third consecutive championship round, weren’t quite finished.
LeBron James hit a three after an offensive rebound to cut the lead to two points with 20 ticks remaining, and Kawhi Leonard missed one of his two free throws after being intentionally fouled on the ensuing inbound. That made it 95-92, and the subsequent series of events, culminating with Ray Allen’s three from the right corner, are seared into every basketball fan’s brain.
Allen’s triple off a Chris Bosh offensive rebound tied it up, and the Heat survived in overtime, staving off elimination and sucking the life from the shell-shocked Spurs.
Miami won by seven in Game 7, led by LeBron James’ 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
There have been plenty of close calls throughout this exercise, but there aren’t many teams with a better “should’ve won” claim than the 2013 Spurs, who probably still can’t process how they lost Game 6.
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GEORGE FREY/Associated Press
Karl Malone and John Stockton drove the Utah Jazz to five conference finals in the 1990s. The 1996-97 team was the best of them, winning 64 games and tying with the Bulls for the No. 1 offensive rating in the league.
Karl Malone’s MVP win only further bolstered the Jazz’s credentials—even if everyone knew Jordan was still the league’s best player.
Utah stretched the ’97 Finals to six games but couldn’t overcome an iconic Bulls team, despite the best efforts of Malone and whoever may (or may not) have given Jordan food poisoning prior to Game 5.
Just to reach the Finals, the Jazz had to get past Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers and the 57-win Olajuwon-Drexler-Barkley Rockets. Stockton’s buzzer-beating three against Houston in Game 6 of the conference finals added some drama to the playoff run, sending Utah into the Finals on a high note.
Should the Jazz have won a championship? Probably not. But this team (as well as the 1997-98 model) was among the best Jordan’s Bulls ever faced.