Every year in the NBA, there is more than one great team with a realistic chance at winning the championship. In 2016, the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and even the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like they could be holding the trophy at the end of the season. But in reality, it was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that came out on top. It’s not the first time that a great team or two has been left empty-handed at the end of the season. Here are the 20 greatest NBA teams that didn’t win a championship.
20. 1996-97 Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets won the NBA championship in back-to-back seasons in 1994 and ’95, establishing themselves as one of the best of the era. After losing in the second round to the Seattle Sonics the next year, the Rockets went out and acquired Charles Barkley to pair with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Despite Barkley missing 29 games and Drexler 20 games due to injuries, the Rockets won 57 regular season games and went into the postseason healthy. They went all the way to the Western Conference Finals before eventually losing to the Utah Jazz in six games.
19. 1995-96 Orlando Magic
After being swept by the Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals, the Orlando Magic came into the 1995-96 season as one of the heavy favorites. Orlando didn’t disappoint in the regular season, going 60-22 and finishing first in the Atlantic Division despite Shaquille O’Neal missing 28 games. The Magic went 7-1 through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but ran into a rejuvenated 72-10 Chicago Bulls team in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls swept the Magic, and O’Neal famously left to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason.
18. 1992-93 New York Knicks
The New York Knicks put together a great team in 1993-94 that went to the NBA Finals and got all the way to Game 7 before losing to the Rockets. But that wasn’t even the greatest Knicks team of that era, as the 1992-93 Knicks went 60-22 and looked like they had a real chance to dethrone the Bulls in the East. Holding the homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks went up 2-0 at home against the Bulls that year. Chicago ended up winning the next four straight games, knocking New York out of the playoffs.
17. 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers would win three consecutive NBA championships from 2000-2002, so most would forget about the 1997-98 team. But this team was loaded with talent, to the point where Kobe Bryant was actually coming off the bench. This Lakers team had great seasons from Shaquille O’Neal and Eddie Jones, and sent those two plus Bryant and Nick Van Exel to the NBA All-Star game. The Lakers went 61-21 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, but Bryant was hurt and struggled in the series and the Utah Jazz swept Los Angeles in four games.
16. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings had everything. The core of the team had been together for a few years, with a few other moving parts coming in to perfect the roster. The result is that Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Mike Bibby put together a 61-21 season that saw them finish with the best record in the NBA. It was the culmination of several years of hard work and roster construction, and the 2001-02 Kings looked like they’d finally break through. They faced off in an epic seven-game Western Conference Finals against the reigning champion Lakers, but came up short in a six-point overtime loss in Game 7.
15. 1992-93 Phoenix Suns
After the 1993 Knicks failed to take down the Chicago Bulls, it was the Phoenix Suns’ turn. Led by 1993 NBA regular season MVP Charles Barkley, the Suns finished the season 62-20 with the best record in the league and charged past the Lakers, Spurs, and Sonics in the Western Conference playoffs. The Suns had the homecourt advantage against the Bulls, but it didn’t really matter. Chicago won all three games played in Phoenix, taking the series in six games.
14. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls
After famously missing out on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, the Chicago Bulls went about putting together their roster under new head coach Tom Thibodeau. 21-year-old point guard Derrick Rose took the next step in his career, averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists per game and becoming the youngest MVP award winner in the history of the league. Chicago finished an astounding 62-20 and had the top seed in the playoffs, but that didn’t stop James, Wade, and the Miami Heat from knocking them out in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls beat the heat in a blowout in Game 1, but then lost the next four straight games.
13. 1994-95 San Antonio Spurs
The 1994-95 San Antonio Spurs went 62-20 during the regular season despite power forward Dennis Rodman missing nearly half the season and coming off the bench for a decent portion of the time he did play. David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Avery Johnson had great seasons that year and Rodman ended up healthy and able to play by the time the playoffs rolled around, making the Spurs (who had the top seed in the playoffs) extra dangerous. San Antonio ended up losing to the sixth-seeded and reigning champion Houston Rockets, putting off their title plans a few more seasons.
12. 1997-98 Utah Jazz
1998 was supposed to be the year for the Utah Jazz. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were aging, Scottie Pippen was injured, and the team was thinner than ever before. The Jazz had a 62-20 regular season record, the NBA league MVP in Karl Malone, several days of rest after sweeping the Lakers, and the homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals. Everything lined up right for Utah, but somebody forgot to tell Jordan. He won the NBA Finals MVP after almost single-handedly carrying the Bulls to a victory in six games.
11. 1993-94 Seattle Sonics
The 1993-94 Seattle Sonics were exceedingly deep, with a young Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Kendall Gill to go along with veterans Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and Ricky Pierce. Behind the leadership of George Karl, the Sonics ran out to a 63-19 record during the regular season and looked to be the favorite to take the NBA championship in the absence of Michael Jordan — who was busy playing minor league baseball. The Sonics, unfortunately, ran into the 42-40 Denver Nuggets and Dikembe Mutombo in the first round in what is certainly one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history. The Nuggets took the series in five games.
10. 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers
Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers had an excellent run in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, making two trips to the NBA Finals in the course of three seasons. They never did win a championship, however, and the best team of the bunch was the 1991 team that never even got to the championship round. Drexler led a deep team that featured a young Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth, and Drazen Petrovic to a 63-19 record which was the best in the NBA. But the Blazers ran into Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, falling short in six games and watching as the Chicago Bulls later won their first NBA championship.
9. 1989-90 Los Angeles Lakers
The 1989-90 Los Angeles Lakers had Magic Johnson, James Worthy, rookie center Vlade Divac, talented scorer Orlando Woolridge, and legendary head coach Pat Riley. The team had made a trip to the NBA Finals the year before and won it the year before that, so when they finished with a 63-19 record and sat atop the league at the start of the playoffs, nobody flinched. But in a stunner, the Lakers lost the best-of-seven second round series to the fifth-seeded Phoenix Suns, 4-1, and were stopped short in their pursuit of another championship.
8. 2005-06 Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons shocked the world in winning the 2004 NBA championship over the Los Angeles Lakers, and with much of the same core they went into the 2005-06 season looking for another ring for the collection. Flip Saunders and his club went 64-18, best in the NBA, and easily advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals against the clearly lesser Miami Heat. But third-year guard Dwyane Wade was on a mission, and with Shaquille O’Neal on his side there was no stopping the Heat. The Pistons succumbed to the eventual champions in six games.
7. 1995-96 Seattle Sonics
Two seasons after their embarrassment against the Nuggets, the 1995-96 Seattle Sonics finally broke through in the Western Conference. Payton, Kemp, and the rest went on another great run through the regular season schedule, finishing with a 64-18 record that was second only to the Chicago Bulls and their record-breaking 72-10 season. The Sonics took down the Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz before facing off with the Bulls, who were just too much for them. The Sonics lost yet again, this time in six games in the NBA Finals.
6. 1996-97 Utah Jazz
The following year, it was the Utah Jazz’s turn to see their season end in disappointment against the Chicago Bulls. After losing in the Western Conference Finals in three of the previous five seasons, the Jazz finally broke through after going 64-18 in the regular season. Jerry Sloan’s hardnosed team took care of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and the talented Houston Rockets to advance to the NBA Finals. A game-winner by Michael Jordan in Game 1, followed later by the vaunted “flu game” in Game 5, and the Jazz ended up going home empty-handed in 1997.
5. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers
It looked like everything had finally aligned for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was 2009 and the Cavs had put together the best record in the NBA at 66-16. They’d swept the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and they were taking on the underdog Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference Finals. James hit a miraculous, game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to tie the series at 1-1 in Game 2, but the Magic were too much for them and ended up advancing to the NBA Finals in six games.
4. 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks
The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks was one of the best teams in the history of the sport. They had Dirk Nowitzki in his prime, averaging 24.6 points per game that year. They got great seasons from both Jason Terry and Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse was providing scoring off the bench. With the top seed in the Western Conference, things were looking good for an excellent showdown between the Mavs and either former teammate Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns or the rival San Antonio Spurs. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the 42-40 Golden State Warriors and Baron Davis came out of nowhere in the first round to upset Dallas in six games.
3. 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs
The 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs were overlooked all year despite looking clearly like the second-best team in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors, of course, were the best team in the regular season (and the best regular season team of all-time, in fact) which relegated the Spurs’ 67-15 record to the number two seed in the Western Conference. The NBA waited patiently for what was sure to be an epic showdown in the Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and Warriors. That never happened, as San Antonio couldn’t get past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs, losing in six games to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s Thunder.
2. 1972-73 Boston Celtics
Legendary coach Tommy Heinsohn led the 1972-73 Boston Celtics to a 68-14 record, the second-best regular season record in NBA history at that point in time. The team had several legendary NBA names on the roster, including John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, and Don Nelson. Boston knocked the Atlanta Hawks out easily in the first round, but ran into Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Havlicek ended up injuring his shoulder and being unable to play effectively, and the Knicks upset the Celtics in seven games on their way to their most recent NBA championship.
1. 2015-16 Golden State Warriors
After winning the NBA championship in 2015 and running out to an NBA-record 73-9 in the regular season in 2015-16, it was hard to imagine anyone else winning the championship. After the Thunder did the Warriors the favor of taking care of the Spurs, things looked even more likely for Golden State to repeat. The Thunder gave the Warriors a scare, taking a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals, but Golden State came back and won the series to advance and take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors took a 3-1 series lead of their own, only to see the Cavs storm back, win three in a row, and shock the world.
All stats and information courtesy of basketball-reference.com.