Not every team gets to win the NBA Championship. The modern NBA season starts off with 30 teams vying for the same prize, and 29 of them are destined to go home empty-handed despite their best efforts. Although most teams and fans accept this as a fact of life and learn to love the game anyway, there are certain instances when a team falls short that are just too much to handle. These teams weren’t like every other team in the league; they were the ones who were supposed to win it all. The ones that everybody knew would get there eventually.
As the years went on, though, eventually soon became “hopefully.” Not long thereafter, that hope started to fade. Finally, against all odds, these great NBA teams and their fans had to watch as their window of championship opportunity slammed shut in front of their eyes. It’s not often that a truly great team goes several seasons with everyone expecting them to win it all only to watch as they failed to reach that point time and time again, but when it does happen, we can only watch in awe and ask ourselves “How?” These are the top 15 NBA teams that saw their championship window slam shut.
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15 2005-06 New Jersey Nets
There’s no doubt that the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets had to watch their championship window close shut, but there is some debate regarding just when that happened. A look at the Nets season records will indicate that their back to back NBA Finals losses in 2002 and 2003 was the closest they would come to the title, but the 2005-06 season feels like the year that they must have realized the dream was dead. This was after Vince Carter joined the team and helped Kidd and Richard Jefferson form a slightly unlikely trio of superstars.
Despite the fact that the Nets won their division yet again and placed 3rd in the Eastern Conference, they were still bounced out of the playoffs by the Heat in a six game semifinals series. This was the moment that the Nets seemed to confirm their fans’ worst fears by confirming they just didn’t have what it took to get to that next level.
14 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder
Sorry Thunder fans, but I’m afraid that the healing process can only begin when you admit that you have a problem. To be honest, it’s tough to report on the death of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship dreams. Here was a team that didn’t have a big market and didn’t go out and buy the best players, but rather managed to assemble a simply stunning roster through smart drafts and timely free agency pickups. They built their championship caliber team the old-fashioned way, and their fanbase responded by becoming one of the most supportive in the league. They made the playoffs six seasons in a row and were perennially named as a favorite to take it all.
If you’re looking for a good reason why they couldn’t get it done in the end, you’re not going to find any. Up until the point Kevin Durant left town, this is a team that could have gone all the way and just kept finding ways to come up short.
13 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
Though it can be tough at times to put aside his later years in the league, you really do need to stop for a moment to appreciate just how good Allen Iverson was a member of the 76ers within his first several years on the squad. There is no such thing as a one man NBA team, but it is undeniable that Allen Iverson helped the 76ers reach heights that they would have never otherwise found. Actually, for a moment there in the 2000-01 season, it looked like Iverson’s sheer determination was finally going to help the team win that championship.
Instead they met the Los Angeles Lakers and, like most teams that met the Lakers during that time, they had their hopes dashed. Perhaps the most heartbreaking realization that came after their NBA Finals defeat was that they did, in fact, play as well as they could have. They played as well as they could have, and it still wasn’t enough.
12 1973-74 Milwaukee Bucks
If you weren’t around to see them play during their time, you really should go back and watch tapes of the 1973-74 Milwaukee Bucks to appreciate just how good they were. On a good night, the Bucks would drop well over a hundred points and leave their opponents wondering what just happened. On a bad night…well, the Bucks would still usually win anyway. They went 59-23 that year and did it with style. Led by the unstoppable young force known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks must have felt like it would take a miracle for them not to win the championship that year. In the end, that’s kind of what happened. The Bucks ran up against a Boston Celtics team that may not have been as dynamic, but simply refused to be denied. Their force of will led to an unlikely victory in Game 7 of the ’74 NBA Finals.
Any hopes of sustained success though, were quickly dashed. When Kareem left Milwaukee the following year, he took the Bucks championship dreams with him.
11 1994-95 Phoenix Suns
If the 1992 Phoenix Suns seemed cocky, maybe that’s because they backed it up. Led by the newly acquired Charles Barkley, the Phoenix Suns went 62-20 during the 1992-93 season and had a lot of fun doing it. They had managed to capture not only the attention of the rest of the league, but the heart of their now adamant fan base. But then they lost to the Chicago Bulls in the finals. Okay, though, that’s not a big deal. Everyone lost to the Bulls back then. Surely, with Jordan retiring, the team would find their way back into the Finals and figure it out this time. Only that never happened. They were eliminated from the next two NBA playoffs by the Houston Rockets and, by the time the 1994-95 season was complete, Suns fans began to realize that the team’s fire was extinguished. Sadly for those same fans, this spot could have also gone to the Steve Nash-led Suns of the mid-2000s.
10 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2003-04 Lakers are an anomaly on this list. Whereas every other team you see is an example of a squad that was primed to win the championship and just never did, most of the people on this roster actually did win titles with the Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002. In fact, the Lakers were so incredibly talented during this time that when they signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone, most people treated their championship win that year as a forgone conclusion. But then, things started to go wrong very quickly.
This year very well should have been the Lakers’ fourth championship in a row were it not for devastating injuries to Bryant, O’Neal and Malone that left them limping throughout the season. Despite this, the Lakers still managed to make it to the NBA Finals where they lost to Detroit in five games. O’Neal, Malone and Payton’s departure the following year made it absolutely clear this experiment was a bust.
9 2011-12 Chicago Bulls
First off, let’s be absolutely clear that the story of Derrick Rose is not yet finished. Though he may have been plagued by injuries throughout his prime, there is still a possibility that Rose will one day be able win that elusive championship. However, barring an absolute miracle, it appears that his window to do so for the Chicago Bulls is over. Although it’s not fair to put the failure of the Chicago Bulls entirely on the shoulders of Rose, the fact remains that he was once positioned to be the man for a franchise that was desperate to return to glory. While the Bulls' inability to win the title during their 2010-11 campaign certainly hurt, it’s their 2011-12 first round loss to the 76ers capped off by Rose’s first major injury is what really makes this moment feel like the one where this team’s fate was sealed.
8 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers
Though their championship story may have changed dramatically these last few months, let’s not forget that Cleveland was once the city that continuously watched their championship window close so often that most fans just started to beg for various franchises to stop opening it in the first place. Perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter of the “Believeland” story is the tale of the 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers had seen their all-star team of workhorses succumb to injury over the last few seasons, but this season was supposed to be different. This was the year that Cleveland was finally healthy and ready to take on the world. It’s also the year that they ran up against Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and those Chicago Bulls in the conference finals. Despite finally being able to show everyone what they could do when the roster was healthy, they left their city to watch as the window slammed shut once more.
7 1997-98 Seattle Supersonics
Considering what the Lakers and Celtics were doing at the time, it's all too easy to forget that the Seattle SuperSonics were actually a force to be reckoned with throughout much of the ‘80s. They never won a title during that decade, or even made an NBA Finals appearance, but the entire organization made it clear that one day they would win it all. That day looked like it come during the 1995-96 season when Seattle won 64 games, but ended up losing to the Bulls in the NBA Finals to the 72-win Bulls team.
Remarkably, they would recover and win 61 games during the 1997-98 season. However, this time they didn’t even make it past the semifinals as they lost to the Lakers in five games. This was the moment when it finally seemed that Seattle’s remarkable history of relevance had finally come to an end.
6 2004-05 Indiana Pacers
If you were a Pacers fan between 1987 and 2005, you were raised to believe that as long as Reggie Miller was on the court you had a chance. This wasn’t just simple optimism, mind you, but rather a feeling fostered by Miller’s unbelievable ability to simply get it done hit the big shot when it counted. His unbelievable abilities helped the Pacers make 16 playoff appearances throughout his career and reach the NBA Finals once during the 1999-00 season. While you can never say that doubt completely set in so long as Reggie was on the court, there’s no denying that the team’s loss to the Pistons in the conference finals during the 2003-04 season showed that even though the Pacers may win 61 games off the considerable efforts of Miller and Ron Artest, they ultimately might not be able to get it done.
Reggie’s retirement at the end of the 2004-05 season finally forced Indiana to realize it wasn't going to happen.
5 2003-04 Sacramento Kings
For some time, it was easy to believe that the Kings franchise was cursed by their move to Sacramento in 1985. Not because they suffered any horrendous misfortunes or significant falls from grace, mind you, but simply because the Kings failed to make even the slightest of impacts in the league year after year. They were cursed to obscurity until the 2000-01 season when they somehow won 55 games. I say somehow because it best captures the reaction most fans had at the time as they watched this relatively obscure band of players tear the league up with their innovative offense. But the Kings didn’t win that year. They didn’t win the next year either despite winning 61 games.
Suddenly, this team that came out of nowhere was at risk of fading back into obscurity just as fast. The transition back to the same old Kings was completed at the end of the 2003-04 season when the core of their roster was dismantled.
4 1991-92 Portland Trailblazers
Have you ever argued against a fact? It sounds stupid, I know, but it still happens to a lot of people from time to time. Even though you are presented with an indisputable piece of information, you still feel compelled to disagree with it until you feel like you’re going insane. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was close to a fact that the Portland Trail Blazers would one day win the NBA Championship. How couldn’t they? They had everything that up until that point had determined which teams ended the season as champions and which did not. They had a star in Clyde Drexler, they had a dominant defense and they had genuine team chemistry.
Unfortunately for the Trail Blazers, they also had to beat some of the greatest teams of all time. When the 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, everyone started to come to terms with the new fact that Portland was just not going to get there.
3 1997-98 Utah Jazz
I used to joke with my friends in school that the Utah Jazz’s playbook consisted of one page that read “Stockton to Malone.” While that’s probably not true, it does put into perspective just how dominant a duo these two were. The pick and roll offense of the John Stockton and Karl Malone Jazz often seemed as if it would not be stopped. They would carve through the most elite teams in the NBA with such relative ease that those who doubted their ability to one day win a championship were often left attributing their suspicions to nothing more than a feeling. Well, a feeling and Michael Jordan.
Though you could argue that the Jazz had plenty of chances to win their rings before the 1996-97 season, their loss to the Bulls that year was the first real warning sign. When they lost to them again the next year off of that Michael Jordan shot, fans everywhere knew that “Stockton to Malone” was not going to be enough.
2 1995-96 Orlando Magic
There’s an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called “This Magic Moment” that I advise all basketball fans who are not diehard Orlando Magic fans to watch. This documentary tells the story of the Orlando Magic’s tumultuous first few seasons and their eventual acquisition of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time in Shaquille O’Neal. It also tells the story of how, against some considerable odds, the team managed to acquire Penny Hardaway a year after O’Neal in a draft fluke that may never be equaled. Yes, the Orlando Magic really did have it all, including a hefty amount of media coverage that was more than happy to present them as a team of destiny.
As it turned out, destiny had other ideas. After failing to win the NBA Championship during the 1994-95 season and failing to reach the NBA Finals in the 1995-’96 season, O’Neal called it quits and headed to L.A., sinking a team that fell as fast as it had risen.
1 1998-99 New York Knicks
Patrick Ewing wasn’t just another basketball prospect. Patrick Ewing was the basketball prospect. I doubt that you could go back to the era of Ewing college basketball and find one pro scout that went so far as to doubt that Ewing would one day become a Hall of Fame basketball player. One NBA scout infamously proclaimed that Ewing’s NBA arrival would mark the start of what we eventually call the Patrick Ewing era. The New York Knicks didn’t draft Patrick Ewing; they drafted an NBA Championship. Though Ewing certainly lived up to his billing on a personal performance level, year after year Knicks fans had to endure one heartbreaking loss after another.
The 1998-99 season was supposed to be different, though. With the help of Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, a shortened NBA season and no Michael Jordan in sight, this was going to be the year that Ewing and the Knicks sealed the deal. But, as Ewing’s legacy as perhaps the greatest player to never win a ring should let you know, that isn’t how this story ended.
The Knicks saw their window slammed shut by the start of modern day dynasty in the San Antonio Spurs.
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