Altering History – The 12 Best NBA Teams That Didn't Win It All

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USA News Sports Division June 30, 2023
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Altering History – The 12 Best NBA Teams That Didn't Win It All

Altering History – The 12 Best NBA Teams That Didn't Win It All

I need to preface this by stating that this article is about the 12 best teams since 1990 that didn't win the NBA Championship - within their team's so-called championship window. The irony is how NBA history could have been altered IF they would have won. You'll see what I mean here shortly.

There seems to be a lot more focus in today’s NBA than there ever was before about the legacy of franchises and individual players alike. Questioning legacies in sports usually comes down to one thing – championships. Former NBA stars like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley are constantly included in the conversations of best players to never win a ring. Current NBA stars such as James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook are trying to avoid being added to that conversation.

I could have come up with a list of the best NBA players of all-time to never have won a championship. Most fans know who those guys are. Hell, many fans debate whether the ’17 Warriors could beat the ’96 Bulls. Or if the “Redeem Team” could beat the original “Dream Team.” I was more curious about the best NBA TEAMS to never win a championship. How should they be ranked? Which of these teams is the best to NEVER do it? Which of these teams would have had the greatest impact in how NBA history panned out?

I’m talking about the teams that had a championship window and NEVER won. I could have added teams like the ’98 Lakers, ’06 Mavericks, and 2017 Cavaliers. The rosters might have been slightly different in their championship years, but those franchises won a title during those title windows. The teams I’m looking at didn’t get it done. These are NBA teams that would have significantly altered the course of NBA history IF only they had won the championship that season.

My Criteria:

- Talent and depth of Roster

- Deep Playoff Run + Legitimate Missed Opportunities to Win

- The impact to NBA history if they would have won the NBA Championship

Honorable Mentions:

- The 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks (Allen Iverson would have never made it to an NBA Finals),

- The ’98 and/or ’99 Miami Heat (favored in epic battles with the New York Knicks)

- The 1993-94 Chicago Bulls (MJ’s first retirement & Hubert Davis was NOT fouled)

- The 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves (KG’s only trip to the WCF in Minnesota

- The Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns – either the 2005 or 2010 squad

Here is my list of THE 12 Best NBA Teams since 1990 to Not Win a Title. Fans of many teams on this list will tell you they got robbed and they probably did! Ranking the top 4 on this list was beyond difficult…

#12: 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers

Regular Season Record: 59-23

Playoff Run: Lost in the Western Conference Finals in 7 games to the Los Angeles Lakers

NBA History if they won: Shaq & Kobe don’t three-peat and are possibly broken up after 2000. Phil Jackson’s ring count is significantly less and may not be thought of as the GOAT coach. 

After losing in the ’99 Western Conference Finals to eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, the Trail Blazers add more veteran All-Star caliber talent to their already loaded roster: Steve Smith, Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf, and Damon Stoudamire. Portland already had Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis. This uber-talented roster made it to the 2000 Western Conference Finals and faced the Los Angeles Lakers. The Trail Blazers faced a 3-1 series deficit but managed to force a Game 7 in L.A. Portland even held a 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter! The Lakers staged a furious comeback (helped by some curious no-calls against then) capped by the iconic alley-oop pass from Kobe to Shaq in the game’s final minute. If Portland would have won that game it might have been the last we saw Shaq and Kobe as Lakers. The Lakers would not have three-peated and certainly would have had a few less championships. The what-if’s here are endless!

#11: 2004-05 Indiana Pacers

Regular Season Record: 44-38

Playoff Run: Lost in the Eastern Conference Semis in 6 games to the Detroit Pistons

NBA History if they won: The Indiana Pacers have an NBA title and are remembered differently in the league’s history minus “The Malice in the Palace”. The San Antonio Spurs have one less championship.

You may be wondering why THIS Indiana Pacers squad is on this list. Their 2003-04 team went 61-21 and made it to the East Finals the year before. The 2004-05 Pacers were even better to start the season. They just added talented, high-scoring win Stephen Jackson to their already-deep roster. Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) were evolving into some of the best players in the league. They WERE better than the defending champion Detroit Pistons. These Pacers started the 2004-05 campaign 7-2 before a Friday night game against the Pistons. Indiana had sent a message to the Pistons in their house. They held a 97-82 lead with under a minute remaining in that game. That’s when all hell broke loose – otherwise known as “The Malice in the Palace.” The rest is history. Jackson was suspended for 30 games, O’Neal for 25, and Artest was done for the season. It’s a shame that is how Reggie Miller’s final NBA season went down.

#10: 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers

Regular Season Record: 57-25

Playoff Run: Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 6 games to the Chicago Bulls

NBA History if they won: The Chicago Bulls don’t three-peat, let alone repeat. Michael Jordan’s resume doesn’t put him in the GOAT conversation. The city of Cleveland breaks a 30+ year championship drought. The Cavs finally get some respect.

The Cleveland Cavaliers had really good teams during the late 1980s/early 1990s. The real “what-if” story is what if the Cavaliers never traded star guard Ron Harper in 1989? They may have fared better in the early ‘90s had they not traded Harper. They might have even bested Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at some point. The Bulls eliminated Cavs from the playoffs in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1993. The Bulls even eliminated the Cavs in 1994 when Jordan retired the first time! Regardless, the Cavs’ had a talented core led by All-Stars in center Brad Daugherty and underrated point guard Mark Price. Add veterans Larry Nance, “Hot Rod” Williams, and Craig Ehlo. They had future All-Star Terrell Brandon, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and spark plug John Battle coming off the bench! The 1991-92 season was the Cavaliers’ best chance to win the NBA title. They didn’t have to face the Bulls…until the Eastern Conference Finals. That series went to six with but was more competitive than most expected. If the Cavs beat the Bulls in that series the legacies of the Chicago Bulls AND Michael Jordan would have been much different!

#9: 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder

Regular Season Record: 55-27

Playoff Run: Lost in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games to the Golden State Warriors

NBA History if they won: The Thunder pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. Kevin Durant might not have left the Thunder. The Warriors’ would have been a one-and-done championship team.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had a chance to end the Golden State Warriors dynasty before it took off. That Warriors team went an NBA record 73-9 led by two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry. That didn’t faze OKC stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder. They had a solid supporting cast in Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter (Freedom), and Randy Foye. The Thunder even took a 3-1 series lead! The Warriors won Game 5. Game 6 earned Warriors star Klay Thompson the moniker of “Game 6 Klay” when he scored 41 points. The Thunder then lost Game 7 but lost more than that when Durant left OKC to join the Warriors the next season. Think about the legacies affected if the Thunder would have won ONE of those final three games! KD AND Westbrook have rings. Durant may not have joined the Dubs. The Warriors don’t have a dynasty. WOW!

#8: 1997-98 Utah Jazz

Regular Season Record: 62-20

Playoff Run: Lost in the NBA Finals in 6 games to the Chicago Bulls

NBA History if they won: Karl Malone and John Stockton aren’t mentioned with the best NBA players to never win a ring. Same goes for Jerry Sloan as a head coach. The Jazz has its first NBA Title. The legacies of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls have one less ring on their resumes. MJ would have been tied with Magic, Kobe, and Tim Duncan with five rings.

The Utah Jazz were the NBA’s Western Conference Champions in 1997 and 1998, but I believe their ’98 squad was the better team. This roster on paper one through twelve may not scare people. However, the Utah Jazz EXECUTED. They pick-and-rolled you to death with Malone and Stockton. Utah’s roster had a balance of veteran and young, athletic players. They defended, took care of the basketball, and were well coached by the late-Jerry Sloan. The then-Delta Center was arguably THE toughest NBA arena for opponents at the time. The Jazz met the Bulls again in the NBA Finals in 1998, but fell to a 3-1 series deficit. The Jazz beat the Bulls in Chicago to force a Game 6. Scottie Pippen then aggravated a back injury in the game’s opening minutes. To say Pippen was limited for the rest of that game is an understatement. Utah led in the game’s final minute. Then, Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek failed to set a screen on Jordan, who stripped an unsuspecting Malone in the post. MJ hits the iconic game-winner and the rest is history. If the Jazz won the series would have went to a Game 7 in Utah and likely without Scottie Pippen. Scary, isn’t it?

#7: 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers

Regular Season Record: 63-19

Playoff Run: Lost in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games to the Los Angeles Lakers

NBA History if they won: The Portland Trail Blazers win their second-ever NBA Title and deny Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls their first championship. Clyde Drexler and that Portland squad is remembered differently. Perhaps the Bulls dynasty of the 90s never happens.

The Trail Blazers had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 NBA Finals. They lost to the Bulls in the ’92 Finals, but I believe their best team was the 1990-91 squad. They added depth to their roster by adding all-time pest Danny Ainge and veteran Walter Davis. Their core players were in their late-20s. Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Kevin Duckworth (seriously?) were All-Stars. “Rip City” started the season 20-1 and ended it with the league’s best record of 63-19. Portland then took on the Los Angeles Lakers in the West Finals. The Lakers stole Game 1 in Portland and took a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6. Blazers guard Terry Porter had a chance to win the game in the final seconds, but missed what would have been that game-winning shot. The Lakers had upset the Trail Blazers and squashed that squad’s best chance at an NBA title. Rip City taking on the Chicago Bulls in ’91 would have been epic!

#6: 1997-98 Indiana Pacers

Regular Season Record: 58-24

Playoff Run: Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 7 games to the Chicago Bulls

NBA History if they won: The Pacers would have ended the ‘90s Chicago Bulls Dynasty. MJ and the Bulls would “only” possess five rings (see #8 on why that’s important). Reggie Miller would be off the list of best NBA players to never win a ring. Larry Bird gets another ring. The Pacers are on the NBA’s map.

I’m a huge Bulls fan, but I admit that the Pacers taking on the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals would have been one helluva series. The 1997-98 season saw the Pacers acquire former All-Star and Dream Team Chris Mullin. It was also the first season with Larry Bird as coach of the Pacers. This Indiana squad was battle tested (am I right Knicks fans?) and like the Jazz, a great mix of veteran and young players. They. Were. Deep! Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Mullin, the Davis boys, Jalen Rose, Travis Best, and Derrick McKey. The Pacers had the East’s best record at the All-Star break. Indiana then went on a playoff run and were on the brink of ending the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty. The Pacers were leading most of Game 7 in Chicago, including halfway through the fourth quarter! The Bulls then came back and eventually won sending them to the 1998 NBA Finals. Even Michael Jordan admits that the Pacers series was the toughest for him during the Bulls’ championship runs.

#5: 1993-94 New York Knicks

Regular Season Record: 57-25

Playoff Run: Lost in the NBA Finals in 7 games to the Houston Rockets

NBA History if they won: Patrick Ewing would be off the list of best NBA players to never win a ring. He’s remembered differently and ranked ABOVE Hakeem Olajuwon in terms of the greatest NBA centers. Pat Riley gets another ring and maybe doesn’t leave New York in 1995. The 1994 Houston Rockets might have then made this list instead.

The 1990s Knicks were a problem. I could have added the 1996-97 Knicks to this list just off of sheer talent on that roster. New York’s squad in 1993-94 was their best team and their best opportunity to win a championship during the ‘90s. Knicks-nemesis Michael Jordan had just retired. The Bulls had eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs the previous three seasons in a row. New York even added star guard Derek Harper at mid-season to an already deep roster. Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley were All-Stars. The Knicks almost blew it though…twice. The Jordan-less Bulls took the Knicks to seven games in the East Semis and should have won if it weren’t for a phantom foul call on Scottie Pippen against Hubert Davis. Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers also took the Knicks to seven games in the East Finals. They had their chances at the upset but the Knicks again held on. New York took a 3-2 series lead in the ’94 NBA Finals going back to Houston. Knicks guard John Starks had a chance to win it in Game 6 but his last-second shot was tipped by Olajuwon. Starks then went ice-cold in Game 7, shooting 2-18 in a 90-84 loss. Imagine if he would have only would have shot 5-18 instead?

#4: 2001-02 Sacramento Kings

Regular Season Record: 61-21

Playoff Run: Lost in the Western Conference Finals in 7 games to the Los Angeles Lakers

NBA History if they won: Shaq, Kobe, and Phil Jackson have one less ring. The Lakers might have blown it up after that Game 7. Chris Webber doesn’t wait eight years to make the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rick Adelman is enshrined as a coach in Springfield earlier. Perhaps Sacramento would have gotten a new arena earlier too in addition to not being at risk of leaving the city in the 2010s.

Of all the teams on this list, the 2001-02 Sacramento Kings are my favorite. The Kings were perennial losers in Sacramento until they added All-Star forward Chris Webber. Then, then added one of the league’s skilled centers at the time in Vlade Divac. European sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic developed into an All-Star. This was a deep roster with Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Hedo Turkoglu, Bobby Jackson, and Scot Pollard. SEVEN Kings averaged double figures in scoring in 2001-02, in a time when NBA scoring was down. This team was fun to watch but kept running into the Lakers in the Playoffs. The Lakers eliminated the Kings in 2000 and 2001. Sacramento took home-court advantage in 2002 and had its chances to take down Shaq and Kobe. The Kings held a 2-1 series lead going into Game 4 when, instead of slapping it ANYWHERE ELSE, Divac passed tapped it right to Lakers forward Robert Horry – who then hit the game-winning three. The Kings led the series 3-2 going into Game 6. It was a tight game with some, let’s say curious, 4th quarter foul calls against the Kings. The Lakers shot 40 free throws to the Kings 25 to force a Game 7. The deciding game went back and forth. The Kings had a chance to win it in the games final minute, but Stojakovic AIRBALLED a wide-open three. The Kings lost in overtime and are still looking for their first championship in Sacramento.

I’m still pissed at Peja for that missed shot.

#3: 1992-93 Phoenix Suns

Regular Season Record: 62-20

Playoff Run: Lost in the NBA Finals in 6 games to the Chicago Bulls

NBA History if they won: Charles Barkley would be off the list of best NBA players to never win a ring. He wouldn’t have to take flak from Kenny Smith and Shaq about being ringless on “Inside the NBA.” The Phoenix Suns have an NBA Title. Jordan and the Bulls have one less ring.

1992 was an exciting time to be a Suns fan. The team moved into a brand-new arena in downtown Phoenix, then named America West Arena. Paul Westphal took over as head coach after being groomed by the great Cotton Fitzsimmons. Oh, and the Suns traded for Charles Barkley! Westphal’s Suns had the NBA’s highest scoring offense (seven players average double figures in points) and its best record that season. Barkley had the best season of his career and was named MVP. The Suns returned All-Star guards Kevin Johnson and “Thunder” Dan Majerle. Former All-Star forward Tom Chambers provided scoring punch off the bench. Young wings Cedric Ceballos and Richard Dumas emerged as talented players. Phoenix had perennial pest Danny Ainge too. The Suns were poised for a title run, but almost blew it in the first round. The eight-seeded Lakers went up 2-0 in the best-of-five series against the top-seeded Suns. Westphal was defiant after Game 2 and guaranteed the Suns would win the series. Then the Suns won three straight games. Phoenix made it to the 1993 NBA Finals after defeating the Seattle Supersonics in the WCF in seven games. Barkley had what he calls the best game of his career in that Game 7 – 44 points and 24 rebounds. The Suns almost forced a Game 7 in the Finals in Phoenix. The Chicago Bulls clinched their third title behind a John Paxson game-winning three and a game-saving block on Johnson’s last second shot by Horace Grant.

#2: 1995-96 Seattle Supersonics

Regular Season Record: 64-18

Playoff Run: Lost in the NBA Finals in 6 games to the Chicago Bulls

NBA History if they won: Michael Jordan’s comeback is deemed a failure to this point. He has at least one less ring and isn’t in the GOAT conversation today. Seattle stages the biggest NBA upset ever in beating the 72-win Bulls team. The SuperSonics get a new arena and never leave Seattle. Shawn Kemp might not have been traded. We are arguing whether Kemp deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

I gave the ’96 Sonics the nudge over the ’93 Suns because they could score AND defend. THE story in the NBA during the 1995-96 season was the Chicago Bulls winning a then-NBA record 72 games. Everyone expected the Bulls then win the championship, especially after sweeping the Orlando Magic in the ECF. These Sonics could hoop though. They were led by “Sonic Boom” All-Stars Shawn Kemp and “The Glove” Gary Payton. Payton became the first point guard to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award that season. They had one of the best shooting small forwards in the league in 3-time All-Star Detlef Schrempf. High-scoring guard Hersey Hawkins was acquired from the Charlotte Hornets and became the starting two-guard. “Big Smooth” Sam Perkins was a scoring threat off the bench, especially from downtown. Plus, Seattle had defensive spark plug Nate McMillian coming off the bench. The ’96 Sonics won a franchise record 64 games. They breezed through the first two rounds of the Western Conference Playoffs, before defeating the Utah Jazz in seven games to reach the NBA Finals. They battled the Chicago Bulls and forced a Game 6 in Chicago despite going down 0-3 in the series. The Bulls prevailed and regained their spot at the top of the NBA’s throne.

#1: 1994-95 Orlando Magic

Regular Season Record: 57-25

Playoff Run: Lost in the NBA Finals in 4 games to the Houston Rockets

NBA History if they won: Have you seen ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the Magic? Shaq nevers leaves Orlando. Penny Hardaway doesn’t get hurt and goes on to have a Hall-of-Fame career. The Orlando Magic are the league’s next dynasty. The Chicago Bulls don’t win three more NBA titles.

I’ll say it right now. The Orlando Magic probably SHOULD HAVE won the 1995 NBA Championship. They had the NBA’s most dominant force in MVP runner-up Shaquille O’Neal. Penny Hardaway emerged as one of the league’s best players. Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott were high-scoring wings and constant threats from three-point range. They signed forward Horace Grant away from the Chicago Bulls. He was coming off the lone All-Star appearance of his career. Those five could go up against any team’s five at any time. Also, who’s stopping Shaq??? The Magic faced Grant’s former team, the Chicago Bulls in the East Semis. Jordan had come out of retirement the first-time two months prior and was wearing #45. MJ switching to #23 for Game 2 of the series didn’t help the Bulls much. The Magic beat them in six, then beat the Indiana Pacers in seven games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time. The defending champion Houston Rockets awaited them in Orlando for Game 1. The Magic ran out to a 20-point lead in that game before Rockets guard Kenny Smith caught fire from downtown. Smith set a then-Finals record for three-pointers made in a game with seven. Despite Smith’s heroics, the Magic led 110-107 with 10.5 seconds to go. Nick Anderson was fouled to stop the clock and went to the free-throw line with a chance to ice the game for Orlando. He missed the first foul shot. Then he missed the second. Somehow Anderson ended up with the loose ball and was fouled again. Two MORE free throws for Anderson. He missed the third free throw and even started laughing. Somehow, someway Nick Anderson missed FOUR consecutive free throws. Smith then tied the game with another three-pointer to set it to overtime where the Rockets won on a tip-in by legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon. The Magic never recovered from Game 1 and were swept by the Rockets. 

I like Nick Anderson and hate to keep harping on this point. The Magic win Game 1 if he makes ONE of those four foul shots. The ’95 Rockets were battle tested as a six-seed who upset every team they faced in the Playoffs that year. With the talent the Magic had and a little confidence after winning the opening game of the Finals, they should have won it all in ‘95. That could have altered the history of both the NBA AND the Orlando Magic franchise.

How do you rank these teams? Am I missing anyone. Let the debate begin!

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

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