It might sound like stating the obvious, but they only give out one championship trophy every year. There are 30 teams (at least currently) vying for it each season. Each of those 30 teams is manned by 12-15 professional basketball players, and helmed by a professional basketball coach.
This isn’t just 3 teams full of great players and 27 teams filled with random jerks off the street. Each franchise is a multi-million dollar business venture. Every player on the roster was, at some point, the alpha dog or star at a high level of basketball. Every coach is supposed to be incredibly talented, as the pool of candidates is much, much, much larger than the 30 available positions. If only one team wins every year, that means the other 29 are left with nothing. Some of those 29 teams are really, really good. Some of the teams featured or feature players on their way to the Hall of Fame. If a GM is good at their job, the roster of a team will have balance and chemistry and role players and potentially the firepower, offensively and defensively, to compete.
The fallout from this harsh reality is that very few teams are remembered by the public after their time has come and gone. We remember the champs, or the complete trainwrecks, or sometimes even the runners-up… but many, many good teams fall by the wayside of time. In many years the difference between a champion and a 2nd round playoff out is just a few bad calls, or one untimely injury, or a bit of dumb luck, or just simply getting hot at the right time.
With this article, we will explore teams that had a legit shot of ending the season at the top of the mountain… but didn’t quite make it for one reason or another. We will mostly focus on teams that didn’t even make it to the finals or the conference finals, because those teams tend to get more love historically. So, without further ado, we present 15 Forgotten Teams Who Could’ve Won a Championship.
15 2007-08 Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz were a perennial contender in the west during the late 90s… but ran up against a number of obstacles (not the least of which being Michael Jordan) on their way to a championship. When Malone and Stockton had left the team, they were left with a young Andrei Kirilenko, and not much else.
With some savvy drafting and signing (including the ethically questionable acquisition of Carlos Boozer… where he deceived his blind, philanthropist owner to sign a rich deal with Utah), the Jazz found themselves in the top half of the bracket in the spring of 2008. By this point AK47 had resumed his most comfortable role… as a do-it-all forward who could switch between the 3 and 4, but never demanded the spotlight. Kirilenko was a shrinking violet in the spotlight, and a role as unsung utility man was much better suited to his temperament. The team was led by a new generation of point guard and power forward in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. At this point in their careers, it was still up for debate whether Deron Williams or Chris Paul was the better point guard (Williams averaged over 21 points and 10 assists in the playoffs, with nearly two and a half threes per game on 50% shooting). Ahead-of-his-time Turkish stretch big Mehmet Okur anchored the team as center. A young Ronnie Brewer and an aging but still feisty Matt Harpring provided defense. Legendary sharpshooter Kyle Korver provided another three point threat. Paul Millsap was also on the team, but was not yet the Paul Millsap of today (he was 22 and only averaged 17.5 minutes per game).
They ran afoul of the Lakers (who lost to the Celtics in the Finals) in the Conference Semifinals, and lost the series in 6.
14 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies
It would appear as though the era of the dangerous Grit-n-Grind Memphis Grizzlies has come to an end. Many of the key players that made the Grizzlies so fearsome are now in the autumn years of their careers. During the 2015-2016 season, Memphis had so many injuries that they wound up breaking records for the number of players signed to their roster. While the addition of Chandler Parsons to the aged core looks like a good move, ultimately it’ll just wind up be propping up a dying bear.
The Grizzlies were at the height of their fearsome power in 2011. Marc Gasol was just beginning to turn into a beast in the middle. Zach Randolph was perhaps the burliest, most bruising power forward in the league. Mike Conley was coming into his own, and was backed up by Grizzlies legend Jason Williams. Shane Battier and Tony Allen provided headed play and great defense. This is all failing to mention the 32 points per game they received from wings Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo. While a first round thumping of the Spurs seemed to announce to the world that the Grizzlies had finally arrived, they wound up losing to the Thunder in an epic 7 game series that featured a single-overtime game and a triple-overtime game.
13 1982-83 Phoenix Suns
The early 80s belonged, really, to just 3 teams: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the Philadelphia 76ers. Part of what makes those 3 franchises during this decade so legendary, however, is how good the rest of the competition was. This season belonged to the Lakers, who swept the 76ers (featuring 2 Hall-of-Famers and 3 multiple-time All-Stars). To get there, they went through the Spurs (2 Hall-of-Famers). The Spurs beat the Nuggets the series before (2 Hall-of-Famers and 2 multiple-time All-Stars). And the Nuggets, to get to the Spurs, beat the Phoenix Suns.
The Sun were oozing with talent themselves. They were led in scoring by Walter Davis, a 6-time All-Star in Phoenix. Dennis Johnson, the Hall-of-Fame point guard, averaged 18, 8, and 6 with 2 steals for the playoffs… just before leaving Phoenix the following season to become part of the Boston juggernaut. Larry Nance was just a 2nd year player finding himself, but still averaged 12 and 8, with a steal and 2 blocks for the playoffs. Maurice Lucas, a 5-time All-Star, had just joined the team by trade from the Knicks (they traded away Truck Robinson who wasn’t so bad himself). They even featured a player named Alvan Adams, who had won Rookie of the Year and was an All-Star once. As you can see, this team was just about as loaded as any team in the 80s… and it makes what Bird and Magic and Dr. J did all that more amazing.
12 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks
Bucks fans still, to this day, swear it should have been this iteration of their team in the finals instead of the 76ers in 2001. The Bucks made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Philadelphia in 7… in a series forever marred by controversial officiating (and pinpointed as a series that’d been rigged by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy).
The Bucks won 52 games under the supervision of George “Always a Bridesmaid, Never the Bride” Karl… good for 1st in the Central Division. The team featured an extremely talented Big 3 in Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson (Ray-Ray and “Big Dog” Robinson were both All-Stars that year). Ervin “Not Magic” Johnson was an above-average center. Tim Thomas was a famous headcase and loafer who could never quite put it together… but at 23 he hadn’t yet earned that reputation and was simply a super sub who could do everything. Even the bottom of the rotation featured young, but talented future role players in Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston and Joel Przybilla.
11 1994-95 Charlotte Hornets
The Eastern Conference in the 1990s was a dead zone for any team not featuring Michael Jordan. The Bulls dominated the decade, and in the process, made a few rival teams immortal (the Knicks and the Heat) and buried the rest in obscurity. No matter how talented or awesome a team was… there was no getting past the Bulls. And unless you clobbered them physically like Oakley and Ewing, you had no real chance of sticking in peoples’ minds after your team had gone by the wayside.
The Hornets were a young and largely unproven team, but they were feisty and they were deep on solid players. Most importantly, however, they featured the duo of Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. The big man tandem (also known as the most underrated NBA Jam duo of all-time) was virtually unstoppable… and combined for 43 points, 19 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and 4 blocks a game in the playoffs in 1995. Mourning, on his own, averaged 3.3 blocks in the post-season. Muggsy Bogues, the smallest man in NBA history, played point. Dell Curry, father of Stephen Curry, was a sharpshooting 6th man for the team. And as back-up center, an aged Robert Parish manned the middle. Unfortunately for the 50 win Hornets, their first round opponent was the Bulls… and they lasted all of 4 games against the superior talent.
10 1978-79 Houston Rockets
For the author of this article, the late 70s and very early 80s always seemed like such a strange time in basketball. Several teams faded in and out of championship contention; and very few of them were the ‘legacy’ franchises that have largely held court in the league over the decades. The Blazers won a trophy, the Sonics won a trophy, and so, too did the Bullets. After the ABA folded into the NBA and before Bird and Magic became household names in the league, it seemed as though the league was wide open and ripe for the taking. In 1979, the future 80s contender/champ to have made it the furthest were the 76ers and Lakers, who both fell in the 2nd round. The Celtics didn’t even make it to the post-season. The thing about virtual parity in the league, though, is that every team was very talented.
The Rockets were one of those talented teams… and still they lost in the 1st round of the playoffs to the Atlanta Hawks, who were led by Dan Roundfield (a 3-time All-Star and 5-time All-Defense player lost to the ages). Houston was a team that featured great depth, and in their 1st round defeat, they had 7 players average at least 10 points per game. The Rockets starred Moses Malone at center, and this was the year of his first league MVP. The Rockets also had a Hall-of-Fame backcourt in Calvin Murphy and Rick Barry (who was in his final season, but was still a pretty good player). While he is best known as a championship coach, Rudy Tomjanovich (a 5-time All-Star himself) was the team’s 3rd-leading scorer during the season at 19 points per game.
9 1980-81 Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks, time and again, have seemed to feature very talented teams. In their 48 seasons in the league, however, they won the championship only once… and that was behind Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; two of the best ten players all-time at their respective positions.
Of all the good Bucks teams that could have made it had things only broken right (trust us, you could probably fill this whole article with forgotten Bucks seasons), the 1980-81 season might have been the best team. Don Nelson, famous for his unconventional line-ups, was in his 4th year at the helm, and guided Milwaukee to a 60 win season (two games behind Boston and Philly for best record in the league). It would be Philly and Boston who wound up playing to go to the Finals (and Boston who won the championship), so it’s not like the Bucks were robbed or anything. Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief, only 24 and 23 at the time, were the two leading scorers that season. They would go on to combine for 10 All-Star selections, 8 All-NBA selections, and 2 DPOY awards. Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier started at center. Defensive ace Quinn Buckner started at point guard, and 2-time All-Star Brian Winters came off the bench for the team. As with many cases on this list, it’s a pity that the team came together when it did; there was just no real stopping the Julius Erving 76ers or the Larry Bird Celtics.
8 1992-93 Cleveland Cavs
Yes, another team that ran across the Chicago Bulls buzzsaw. The Cleveland Cavaliers were always something of a, to borrow video game vernacular, mini-boss for the Bulls. Seldom were the Cavs in a position to face Chicago in the Conference Finals. Cleveland and Chicago shared the Central Division at the time where the division winners, regardless of record, secured the top 3 spots… so with Chicago consistently being the better team, Cleveland would be slotted 4th in the bracket at their highest. The 1993 playoffs were no different, and they had to play Michael Jordan in the second round (after doing away with New Jersey in 5).
Ignoring the 4-0 series sweep (Chicago often obliterated their opponents, and this was Michael Jordan at the height of his personal greatness), Cleveland was a really good team. The Cavs won 54 games that season under coaching great Lenny Wilkens. The team featured the criminally underrated duo of Mark Price and Brad Daugherty, both staples of the competitive Cleveland teams of the 80s and 90s. Both the big man, Daugherty, and the sniper point guard, Price, were All-Stars many times over and All-NBA to boot (Price four times and Daugherty once). Larry Nance played the 4, in his last All-Star season (averaging 16.5 and 8.7 rebounds with 2.6 blocks that season). The team also featured some quality role players in Hot Rod Williams, Craig Ehlo, and Gerald Wilkins. Future All-Star Terrell Brandon played understudy to Mark Price (he was only 22), and Danny Ferry and Steve Kerr provided some shooting deep into the team’s bench.
7 2002-03 Dallas Mavericks
In the early 2000s, the Dallas Mavericks seemed cursed. Perpetually, they fielded a strong team… and there would always be some bad luck or bonehead play to knock them out. As such, a very talented team has been forgotten, and only the Lakers, San Antonio, and the Kings tend to be remembered from those years in the West.
2002-03 was the year that Don Nelson went to Dallas for 60 wins in the season. The team was built around the trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley (a criminally underrated player who rates very favorably in BasketballReference to Dennis Johnson and Joe Johnson). The Mavs started former Jayhawk Raef LaFrentz at center, who perpetually seemed on the cusp of becoming an All-Star. Nick “The Quick” Van Exel averaged over 19 points a game for Dallas in the postseason, despite only starting 3 of their 20 games. The Mavs also had some rugged defenders coming off the bench in Eduardo Najera, Raja Bell (fresh from his impressive climb from undrafted rookie to rotation player in Philadelphia), and Adrian Griffin.
6 2005-06 Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were really good in 2006. Like “We Could Make Miami Sweat in the Finals Just Like Dallas” good. Arguably this was the best the Clippers have ever been… depending on how you feel about the CP3/Blake/DeAndre/Doc Clips. And to this day, no Clipper team has gone further than this team did in the playoffs (though the 2015 Clippers also made it to the 7th game of the Conference Semifinals).
Elton Brand, the 2-way monster power forward, was the face of the team and made 2nd Team All-NBA that season. Cuttino Mobley provided scoring and defense, and was the heart of the team. Chris Kaman and Corey Maggette did much of the heavy lifting with scoring and rebounding. Vlad Radmanovic was the marksman off the bench. And Sam Cassell was the swagger (and balls) of the team. Sportswriter Bill Simmons lamented the losses L.A. piled up against the Suns in the playoffs, pointing out that the losses were the fault of boneheaded calls and lineup choices by coach Mike Dunleavy, saying in a piece, “By the time you read this, we’ll know if Dunleavy’s boner blew the series, which whould be a shame because he had the better team.” In a year that was pretty wide open, the Clippers blew their best shot at making the finals to-date.
5 1994-95 San Antonio Spurs
Michael Jordan’s baseball hiatus opened the door for a number of teams that had been on the fringes of the league. It was no longer a foregone conclusion that every team in the West was competing to earn their status as “runner-up to Chicago”.
Enter the San Antonio Spurs. It had been established in the early 90s that David “The Admiral” Robinson was an elite player in the league, and destined for all-time stardom. The center buoyed the team, and averaged an astounding statline in the playoffs: 25.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.6 blocks. Backing him up in the starting lineup was Avery Johnson, a coach on the floor from the point guard position, shooters Vinny Del Negro and Sean Elliott, and the mercurial (to say the least) Dennis Rodman… who sucked up 14.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Veterans (and former stars) Doc Rivers, Chuck Person, and Terry Cummings beefed up the bench with their presence. It should be noted that this was also Moses Malone’s final team: he only played 17 games and averaged 3 points and 3 rebounds in 9 minutes per game.
4 1984-85 Milwaukee Bucks
Like we said, this article could be only Bucks teams… they were that good. Don Nelson was still running the show in this iteration. The team won 57 games during the season, en route to a 2nd round exit at the hands of a 76ers team just two seasons removed from the championship, and featuring a promising rookie named Charles Barkley.
Gone from the 1981 playoff team were Bob Lanier, Marques Johnson, Quinn Buckner, and Brian Winters. In their place were Terry Cummings in an All-Star year (and averaging 24, 9, and 3), Paul Pressey (3-time All-Defense and still managed 16 points a game), and a young Craig Hodges… one of the best shooters of all-time (he hadn’t fully developed his stroke yet, and only averaged 34.8% for the season… but the next season he’d lead the league with 45.1%). Further down the bench, future All-Star Ricky Pierce was giving the team 20 minutes a game.
3 1999-2000 Phoenix Suns
The year 2000 and, really, much of the decade belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers. Behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, there wasn’t much room for competition in the Pacific Division. It is likely this reason that the 2000 Phoenix Suns, who lost to the Lakers in the 2nd round, are not remembered more fondly.
The team’s roster read like a 90s kid’s basketball card collection: Shawn Marion was just a rookie, but still averaged a very Matrix-y 10 points and 6.5 rebounds to go with a steal and a block per game (in 25 minutes). Jason Kidd and Anfernee Hardaway, two incredible ball-handlers and iconic players in their own ways, shared the starting backcourt to the tune of 30 points, 12 rebounds, 15 assists, and 3 and a half steals between them. Backing them up was a past-his-prime Kevin Johnson. Clifford Robinson, a great defensive 4 with some offensive talent, pitched in 17.6 points and 6 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Rex Chapman and Tom Gugliotta were both on this Suns team as well, but Chapman retired in-season and Googs did not make the playoff roster due to a near-death experience as a result of accidental ingestion of the drug GBL. For the season, however, Gugliotta had been averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds a game.
2 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves
We cheated a little with the inclusion of this team, who did make the Conference Finals. We just really wanted to talk about this iteration of the Timberwolves. Flip Saunders (RIP) guided the Wolves to 58 wins this season, and they seemed destined to finally get over the hump. Every Timberwolves team to this point had been downed in the first round. After downing a Nuggets team of Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, and Nene in the first round, the T’Wolves brimmed with promise. After gutting out a 7 game series against the Kings, they felt like a team of destiny, even in the light of the Shaq/Kobe/Malone/Payton Lakers. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and they became just another victim of Shaq and Kobe.
This Timberwolves team featured peak Kevin Garnett who, it should be noted, likely winds up being a top 20 All-Time player for all-time. Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell had joined the team, and their collective swagger, part-scowl and part-smirk, was intoxicating. Wally “Wally World” Szczerbiak and Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg bombed from distance like few could. Mark Madsen was a bulldog in human clothing. And the team, while without an elite center, trotted out Ervin Johnson (formerly of the Bucks) backed up by some burly and bulky dudes in Michael Olowokandi, Gary Trent, and Oliver “Big O” Miller.
1 1. 2000-01 Toronto Raptors
To call the 2001 Toronto Raptors a gritty team would be to do the word “gritty” a major disservice. The Raptors were as rough and tumble a team as the league had seen in a long time; hearkening back to the Riley Knicks in spirit and gumption. Despite Antonio Davis being selected as an All-Star that year, the Raptors really were just a one star team. That star, Vince Carter, was only in his second year and already seemed destined for Springfield. Their season, where they finished with 47 wins under Lenny Wilkins, slipped away in game 7 of the Semifinals against the 76ers. The Sixers would go on to lose to the Lakers in the Finals… but they won game 7 against Toronto by just a single point. Making the heartbreak all the more palpable, Vince Carter had flown from the team in Philly down to North Carolina to attend his college graduation and returned the day of the game (incurring “terse no comments” from teammates Antonio Davis and Chris Childs when they were asked about Carter’s plan, according to the CBC).
As mentioned earlier, center Antonio Davis was the only other All-Star on the team in 2001. The roster also featured bruisers in Charles “Oak” Oakley, Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams, Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, Kevin Willis, and Keon Clark. Morris Peterson, Tracy Murray, and Dell Curry provided longrange shooting. Muggsy Bogues, Tyrone Corbin, and Mark Jackson also contributed as much as they could… and helped instill a veteran presence. Interestingly enough, the team featured six players with at least 13 years of experience in the league (both Bogues and Corbin ended their careers after those playoffs and Curry stayed on one more year).