The NBA Playoffs are some of the best in any sport. The league’s 16 best teams compete to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and practically always the league’s elite are represented. The NFL and MLB also have great playoff atmospheres, but due to the nature of the sports, guys like Mike Trout dominate all year and don’t get to fight for a championship. Or a team with a great record gets screwed into a Wild Card game and has a bad performance. That doesn’t happen in the NBA, as teams are smaller and playoffs are more inclusive, so with rare exceptions, the best players and teams are there.
These playoffs are great because while the best players and teams are there, there’s a lot of uncertainty once things actually get going. Yeah, there are some brutal first round match-ups, and sub-.500 teams do find their way into the first round sometimes, but there’s a lot of wildcards. Teams dominate all year, only to run into the wrong team at the wrong time and can’t even make it out of the first round, let alone their conference. Other teams come into the playoffs without even getting the “dark horse” brand, and wind up fighting for the big one. This list counts down the best teams that couldn’t fulfill their destiny and make the NBA Finals, and those less-talented teams that, against all odds, wound up fighting for the championship.
23 THE BEST TO NEVER MAKE IT
8. 2011-12 CHICAGO BULLS
Two huge questions surround the 2011-2012 Chicago Bulls. The first is, why was Derrick Rose on the floor with the game well in hand in the first game of the playoffs? And the second is what could have happened if Rose remained healthy for the course of the playoffs? Things were looking great for the Bulls when they headed into the tournament. D-Rose had his MVP year during this season, and in a lockout-shortened year the Bulls were the one-seed in the East with a 50-16 record, and a seemingly easy matchup against a forgettable 76ers team. Rose was electric, and his supporting cast was talented, with the likes of Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah having great years. It was still great into the closing moments of the first game, until Rose tore his ACL with a double-digit lead late in the fourth of Game 1. Chicago lost their heart and their season-long build of momentum. They ultimately lost their first series to an unremarkable 76ers squad built around Andre Iguodala.
22 2008-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers
In 2007, the Cavs were a young, thin, inexperienced team that LeBron carried to a Finals appearance. But in 2009, this team was ready to go. They had great veteran presence with Big Z and Ben Wallace in the post, an all-time great LeBron in his prime, serviceable swingmen in Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, and a point guard in Mo Williams who had an All-Star caliber year. They stormed to 66 wins in the regular season, and swept their first two playoff matchups before running into the Orlando Magic. In any other year, this wouldn’t seem to be much of an issue, but Dwight and his boys used their sorcery to take down the peaking Cavs and make the Finals in very surprising fashion (hint hint to a later entry).
21 2006-07 Phoenix Suns
The D’Antoni/Nash-led Suns of the mid-2000s, seemingly against all odds, didn’t make the championship, and 2006-2007 in particular was probably the best roster they assembled in that timeframe. Not only were they loaded with star power, their role players fit in perfectly with their electric offensive schemes. Steve Nash was coming off of back-to-back MVP seasons, Amare Stoudemire was dynamic near the basket, and Shawn Marion was excelling at just about everything. This Suns team had two separate streaks where they won 15 straight and 17 straight games too. They won an impressive 61 games and were second in the West behind an all-time great season from the Mavericks (hint hint), but ran into controversy in the playoffs. In Game 4 of a highly competitive Western Conference semi-final against the Spurs, San Antonio forward Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table, and in response Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left their bench area and were suspended for the following game. It was a must-win Game 5 in a series that was tied 2-2. Missing two important pieces of the cog cost the Suns the game, and a veteran Spurs team eliminated them in Game 6.
20 1988-89 Cleveland Cavaliers
From 1974 to 1990, only the Bullets, Celtics, 76ers and Pistons represented the East in the Finals. In 1989, it actually seemed like the Cavaliers were supposed to be the team destined to disrupt this hold at the top of the Eastern Conference. They boasted three All-Stars in Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty, and the rest of their core was in their mid-20s. Even though they had lost the season prior at the hands of the Chicago Bulls, this was really set to be their year to make a mark. The Pistons were the only team with a better record in the conference and the Cavs secured the three seed. The only problem here was that the Bulls were the sixth seed. Michael Jordan played out of his mind, with averages of 40 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, along with a series clinching shot. We never got to see what this team could do, because MJ started reaching his GOAT status.
19 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks
2007 was the absolute worst year to be a Mavericks fan. I am one, and am speaking to my own misery. Questionable officiating combined with undeniable choking saw the Mavericks blow a 2-0 finals lead to the Miami heat. But alas, that team had overachieved, we thought! The 2006-2007 roster was expertly constructed. Dirk had an outstanding MVP year, Josh Howard made the All-Star team as a dominate midrange threat, Jason Terry shot the three-ball, DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier anchored the inside and Jerry Stackhouse brought the scoring off the bench. They had a blistering regular season, one of the best ever at 67 wins. But the Mavs could not have caught a worse matchup than the eight-seeded Golden State Warriors. Coached by former-Maverick head Don Nelson, the team knew the Mavs inside and out, and swept them in the regular season, accounting for 20% of all their losses. Baron Davis had a great series, and the one-seeded Mavs were eliminated in six games. Dirk and Terry weren’t able to really get over these years until their 2011 victory.
18 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks
The 1972 Bucks were lead by two of the greatest players of all time. Oscar Robertson was at the tail-end of his powers but still a great asset, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming into his own as an elite player. They had blitzed their way to a championship the year before and were primed to repeat. Together with a strong supporting cast, they won 63 games and found their way to the Conference Finals, but it just so happened that they ran into an all-time great Los Angeles Lakers team there. Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain let their squad to 69 wins, a record at the time and still the third best ever. The Bucks took the eventual champs to six games, indicating that if it were any other year, this team likely could’ve been a great championship squad and they could’ve repeated.
17 1972-73 Boston Celtics
The ‘73 Celtics are without a doubt one of the best teams to not reach the the NBA Finals. John Havlicek and Dave Cowens led the team to one of the best records in league history, as the crew won 68 games. They were a good offensive team, with ‘Cek, Cowens and Jo Jo White all putting up about 20 points a game, but the team’s elite status came from their stifling defense. They marched into the Conference Finals, but were matched up with a tough New York Knicks team that had the talent to take down any team in the league in the early 1970s. Their defensive prowess lost its luster and Walt Frazier carved them up in a great seven-game series, and now their 68-14 record is just a piece of trivia.
16 2001-2002 Sacramento Kings
It’s the team and playoff series everyone looks to when they give the argument that the NBA is rigged. In particular, there’s that YouTube video, with “Fix You” by Coldplay playing, that highlights the worst calls that the referees made in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Conspiracy theorists say that the NBA saw big money in the Lakers three-peating, and it be hard to argue that the league wouldn’t rather have Los Angeles on its biggest stage than Sacramento. Former official Tim Donaghy said that Game 6 was fixed by the NBA, and looking at the numbers and calls, it’s hard to argue.
These Kings featured the cunning Vlade Divac down low, a dynamic Chris Webber in his prime, sixth-man extraordinaire Bobby Jackson, all-world defender Doug Christie, a burgeoning Hedo Turkoglu, 3-point ace Peja Stojakovic and a cool-handed Mike Bibby at the point. They coasted into the Western Conference Finals as a one seed and met two-time defending champs in the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Lakers’ team chemistry was unraveling and Sacramento was clearly the better team. The Kings were in position to win a close Game 6 and close out the series when things started getting fishy. Los Angeles got call after call, and the four members of the Kings’ frontcourt rotation were called for 20 fouls. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and still only won by 4 points. This team should have made the Finals, and we all missed out on seeing what they could do.
15 THE WORST TO MAKE IT
7. 2006-07 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
This year for the Cleveland Cavaliers was the definition of one player putting a team on his back. Back before his heel turn, LeBron willed Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and a bunch of scrubs to 52 wins. Boobie Gibson got big minutes on this team. The Conference Finals saw one of LeBron’s first legacy-defining moments, when he scored the final 25 points for this wretched Cavs team to turn the series in Game 5. He alone nailed the coffin of the Piston’s pseudo-dynasty with that win and closed them out the next game. LeBron navigated the vaunted Pistons defense with ease, but Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the Spurs were more than ready for the young Cavs and dismantled them in four games for a Finals Sweep.
13 2008-09 Orlando Magic
In the time capsule of 2009, the Orlando Magic having a run to the finals was going to be a footnote on the beginning of an all-time great career for Dwight Howard. They lost All-Star Jameer Nelson halfway through the year, which hindered their prospects for the playoffs. “Skip to my Lou” Rafer Alston filled in nicely, but when you look at the roster, Alston, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight seem like a good squad, but certainly not a championship team. The crew overachieved and found their way into the Finals where they were overmatched. It’s whatever, Dwight will be back many times in the future, since he’s on track to be an all-time great center, right? Unfortunately for Dwight and the Magic, this season was more of an enigma than of a crystal ball. Injuries and questionable conduct have cut down Dwight’s legacy to that of a great center, but not one of the best ever. The 2009 Orlando squad is one of the weirdest to ever make it to the NBA Finals, and Dwight isn’t ever making it back as “The Guy”
11 1970-71 Baltimore Bullets
Led by the likes of Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson, the 1971 Baltimore Bullets were an average team that went 42-40 during the regular season. Though far from stellar, this record usually gets a team into the playoffs. In the Bullet’s case though, 42 wins was able to secure them their division and a favorable matchup in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They knocked off the 76ers in seven games, and were then able to shock reigning champions the New York Knicks, led by Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. Their miraculous run came to an end when they ran into a that Abdul-Jabbar/Robertson team that was hitting their stride. The Bucks swept them, but the Bullets moved on to be one of the 70s’ most consistent teams, and finally won the Finals in 1978. They just weren’t ready at all in ‘71.
10 2002-03 New Jersey Nets
The 2003 Nets were lead by Jason Kidd, and swept a couple of teams on their way to the NBA Finals in 2003, but it was more of a testament to how poor the quality of the East was at the time than how dominate the Nets were. Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Jason Collins are simply not even close to a championship-caliber team, and this was when Kidd was at the height of his powers. They lost in six games to another Spurs team with their core intact. That seems to be a theme with this list. Whether teams overachieve or underachieve, when they face the Spurs, they lose. Kidd got his championship as a Maverick in 2011, and had a Hall of Fame career. But asking him to be the best guy on championship team was too much.
8 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers
1959 was part of a weird time in the NBA. The Lakers hadn’t moved west yet, and six of the eight teams in the league made the playoffs. Elgin Baylor was Milwaukee’s star and Rookie of the Year, but the team finished with just a 33-39 record. In a Western division dominated by the St. Louis Hawks, this got them the second seed in their side of the bracket. They defeated a bad Detroit Pistons team in the first round, and that good St. Louis Hawks team in the next round to beat the odds and make the Finals. Their opponent? The Boston Celtics, who would win their first of eight straight NBA championships. Their roster in 1959 included five Hall of Fame players, most notable Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, and the Lakers didn’t win a single game. Also, Bill Russell averaged 30 rebounds a game this series, and that’s insane. This Lakers team wouldn’t have sniffed the Finals in any other era.
4 2000-01 Philly 76ers
In 2001, no one was going to stop an all-time great Los Angeles Lakers team. Shaq, Kobe and friends stormed into the NBA Finals undefeated in the playoffs and ready to destroy whoever showed up. The team that met them was a 2001 Sixers squad that featured prime Allen Iverson and pretty much no one else. Theo Ratliff and Dikembe Mutombo played great defense, but the offense rested entirely on the shoulders of 5 foot 11 shoulders of AI. They were the one seed in the East, but needed seven games to knock off Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors and then seven more to knock off a deep Bucks squad led by Ray Allen. AI was able to will the 6ers to a Finals win, but it was the only defeat the Lakers had all playoffs and they won handily in five games.
2 1998-99 New York Knicks
The 1999 NBA season was a lockout-shortened year, so it’s not too surprising that some craziness went down in the playoffs. Only 50 games made up the regular season, and when it was all said and done, the New York Knicks were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, matching up with a prime Alonzo Mourning and the Miami Heat in a five-game series. Magic was in the air, as the eighth-seeded Knicks pulled off the upset in five, then went on to sweep the Atlanta Hawks and then took down Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in six! The team was brought back to reality when they matched up with the West’s best team, the San Antonio Spurs, who won their first championship in five games. And so, the beginning of Tim Duncan’s reign over the league came at the hands of Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. I want to live in a world where Spree is a Finals MVP.