NBA Teams That Never Won It All but Won't Be Forgotten

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterSeptember 10, 2019

NBA Teams That Never Won It All but Won't Be Forgotten

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    Some of the greatest teams in NBA history never won a title for a variety of reasons, including because of injuries. As you'll see, we're not even including the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors, who have case for inclusion.

    There's also this Michael Jordan guy who killed some franchise's title dreams.

    Especially for younger fans of the NBA, the following 10 teams deserve far more attention than they've historically received.

Injury Derailments

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    1972-73 Boston Celtics

    Record: 68-14

    The best record in the storied history of the Boston Celtics surprisingly didn't come from a roster with Bill Russell, Larry Bird or Paul Pierce.

    Instead, the 1972-73 Celtics were led by John Havlicek and Dave Cowen, racking up not only the most wins in Boston basketball history but also a total that ranks sixth all time.

    Cowens was named league MVP after averaging 20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while Havlicek led the team with 23.8 points, adding in 7.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game.

    The Celtics were a powerhouse in the '60s thanks to Russell, and heading into the 1972-73 season they had won 11 championships in the past 16 years. Behind a 68-win regular season, it appeared title No. 12 was near.

    After beating the Atlanta Hawks in the opening round, the Celtics had to face a tough New York Knicks team in the Eastern Conference Finals that featured Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere. New York was good but still finished 11 games behind Boston in the regular season.

    In Game 3 of the series, Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same. While he averaged 25.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists over the first three games, his averages plummeted to 10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists after the injury.

    The Knicks would go on to win the series in seven games, eventually defeating a Los Angeles Lakers team with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA Finals.


    2011-12 Chicago Bulls

    Record: 50-16

    While the 2010-11 Bulls won 62 games, their postseason ended in a gentleman's sweep by the Miami Heat in the East Finals. Derrick Rose had taken home MVP honors at the age of 22 years and six months, the youngest in league history to do so.

    While Miami stole the headlines, the Bulls were the deeper overall team, had the league's MVP and carried some extra motivation heading into 2011-12.

    Winning 50 of the team's 66 games in a lockout-shortened season was the equivalent of going 62-20 in a full year, a mark fueled by Rose's 21.8 points and 7.9 assists per game.

    Chicago had a great supporting cast around its young star as well.

    Luol Deng was one of the league's best two-way players, Carlos Boozer averaged 15.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and Joakim Noah had been named to an All-Defense team the season before. Rip Hamilton, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and a rookie named Jimmy Butler chipped in as well.

    Chicago posted the league's second-best defense and was fifth overall in offense. Everything was set up for long-term success.

    Unfortunately, Rose's body began failing him.

    Already limited to 39 regular-season games, Rose tore his ACL in the opening game of the 2012 playoffs during a drive to the hoop. The Bulls were leading the Philadelphia 76ers by 12 at the time with just a minute and 22 seconds left, and Rose had already played over 37 total minutes. He shouldn't have even been in the game at that point.

    Philly went on to win four of the next five games and the series, while Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season rehabbing his knee.

Dismantled by a Dynasty

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    1992-93 Phoenix Suns

    Record: 62-20

    The Suns went all-in in the summer of 1992, trading for All-Star power forward Charles Barkley. This wasn't the Barkley most fans of TNT basketball know today, but rather one who could score from multiple levels who was one of the league's best rebounders and a surprisingly good passer.

    It was he, and not Michael Jordan, who took home MVP honors in 1993 after averaging 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists while guiding Phoenix to a franchise-record 62 wins.

    While this Suns team made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to Jordan's Bulls, it would be the furthest they would ever go. What followed was eight straight years of failing to make it past the second round, including five first-round exits.

    This had less do to with the Suns' incompetence and more to do with the teams Phoenix had to face: a loss to Jordan's Bulls in 1993; falling to the eventual champion Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995 (both in seven games, no less); a first-round exit at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996.

    Barkley was never as productive after his MVP season, and even a supporting cast of Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Danny Ainge and Tom Chambers couldn't get back to the West Finals.

    It would turn out that 1993 was the closest Barkley would ever get to a ring, given the Suns were continually faced with difficult playoff matchups.


    2001-02 Sacramento Kings

    Record: 61-21

    Like with the Utah Jazz, the early 2000s Kings are more famous for losing to a dynasty than the actual team they put together.

    These Kings had few weaknesses. They were incredibly deep, with seven players averaging double figures in scoring, led by Chris Webber's 24.5 points per game. Webber (10.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.4 blocks) served as the focal point and did a little of everything, although he had plenty of help.

    Peja Stojakovic was a rising sniper in the league, drilling 41.6 percent of his three-pointers en route to 21.2 points per night. The Kings also featured playmaking from Mike Bibby, hard-nosed defense from Doug Christie, a versatile veteran center in Vlade Divac and a deep bench, headlined by Bobby Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu.

    The 61 wins marked the highest in franchise history to date, and landing just one game short of the NBA Finals was an extremely disappointing finish. As Jonathan Abrams, then with Grantland, wrote of the series and the potential to interrupt the Lakers' three-peat: "What separated the Kings and Lakers in their epic 2002 series? A miraculous shot, missed free throws, a few unseemly whistles and two wide-open misses. That's it."

    Sacramento has never been as good before, or since, and may never have as talented a starting five.

Couldn't Get Past Jordan

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    1988-89 Cleveland Cavaliers

    Record: 57-25

    Don't let the first-round exit fool you: This Cavs team was one shot away from potentially starting a dynasty.

    Cleveland had four players average over 17 points per game, three of whom were 25 years old or younger. The Cavs had drafted well for years and just traded for All-Star power forward Larry Nance the season before. 

    However, Michael Jordan got in the way.

    "To tell you the truth, if that shot had not fallen, I feel in my heart that the championships that the Bulls won could have been Cleveland's," Cavs shooting guard Craig Ehlo told Bleacher Report.

    That shot, of course, is the infamous one Jordan hit over Ehlo to send the Bulls to the second round, ending what was then the best season in Cavaliers history.

    "It changed the course of both franchises," Ehlo said. "That win propelled them. We had a really good team, and we were young, and they built it through the draft with [Brad] Daugherty, [Ron] Harper, [Mark] Price, Hot Rod [John Williams] and the trade for Larry [Nance]. All the pieces were there for us to win championships. Just running up against somebody like Michael, making a shot like that, it changed the course of history for both teams."

    What made this Cavs team so special was the combination of star players who didn't care about their stats, instead playing in a system that was built to highlight everyone's strengths and share the ball.

    "The way that Coach [Lenny] Wilkens got everyone involved, on any given night someone off the bench could lead us in scoring," Ehlo continued. "We were just so unselfish and so in tune to the way Coach Wilkens taught us to play. We ran sets, which almost no one does anymore. Every night someone new could get the hot hand and the rest of your teammates would look for you. It was really pretty basketball to watch."

    Long before LeBron James, the Cavs were a budding powerhouse in late '80s, one stopped by Chicago's No. 23.


    1996-97 Utah Jazz

    Record: 64-18

    The Jazz were the greatest challengers to Jordan's Bulls in the late '90s and probably deserved to win at least one title given their sustained excellence. At no point were the Jazz better than during the 1996-97 season.

    With unmistakable jerseys sporting a silver mountain range in front of a purple backdrop, Utah employed one of the most devastating pick-and-roll combos of all time with point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone.

    That year's version also featured Jeff Hornacek (14.5 points, 4.4 assists), Bryon Russell (10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds) and a young Greg Ostertag (7.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks).

    While most associate this Jazz period with losing to the Bulls in both the 1997 and 1998 Finals, Utah was a powerhouse that won a franchise-record 64 games, with Malone (27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists) taking home MVP honors over Jordan.

Early-Exit Syndrome

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    2006-07 Dallas Mavericks

    Record: 67-15

    Before 2007, no No. 1 seed in NBA history had ever lost to a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven series.

    Then, the "We Believe" Golden State Warriors happened.

    This was supposed to be the season superstar power forward Dirk Nowitzki brought Dallas its first NBA title, coming off a year where the Mavs won 60 games and reached the Finals.

    Nowitzki was putting together an MVP season by averaging 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists with a shooting line of 50.2/41.6/90.4. It looked like Dallas had shaken off the pain of blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals and was out for blood. Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse provided plenty of complementary scoring, while 23-year-old Devin Harris looked like one of the NBA's best young point guards.

    The Warriors didn't even clinch a playoff berth until the final day of the regular season, were 33-39 on March 26 and finished 42-40 overall. However, it was Golden State that played without fear and beat Dallas in six games, holding Nowitzki to just 19.7 points per game on a 38.3/21.1/84.0 shooting line.

    While an older, veteran Mavs team would win a title in 2011, this stands as the best regular season in Dallas history, and it's one that ended far too soon.


    2015-16 San Antonio Spurs

    Record: 67-15

    The most recent team on this list, these Spurs were nearly forgotten thanks to the 73-9 Golden State Warriors squad and an early playoff exit.

    In no season, not even during their five championship runs, have the Spurs ever posted a better record than their 67-15 mark in 2015-16. This stands as tied for the seventh-best record in NBA history, despite coming in second to the Warriors that regular season.

    This was a mixture of Spurs past, present and future. It was a team led by Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge but still with heavy contributions by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Surrounding them was perhaps the deepest team Gregg Popovich has ever worked with, featuring Danny Green, Patty Mills, David West, Boban Marjanovic, Boris Diaw, Kyle Anderson, Andre Miller and Jonathon Simmons.

    Not only was this the No. 1-ranked defensive team in the league, but the Spurs offense jumped all the way up to No. 4 overall.

    A second-round playoff loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder (still with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) was a disappointing finish, but it shouldn't take away from the magnitude of talent that graced this roster.

Needed More Time Together

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    1995-96 Orlando Magic

    Record: 60-22

    While Shaquille O'Neal is best remembered for his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, a younger, skinnier Shaq was previously dominating the league in Central Florida.

    O'Neal and Penny Hardaway looked like the NBA's next unstoppable duo in the mid-'90s, reaching the 1995 Finals while the pair was just 22 (Shaq) and 23 (Penny). They followed their Finals loss to the Houston Rockets with a 60-win 1995-96 season, second-best in the East behind the 72-10 Chicago Bulls.

    O'Neal was averaging 26.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Hardaway put up 21.7 points and 7.1 assists, while Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson and Horace Grant played key roles as well.

    After going a dominant 7-1 in the first two rounds, the Magic were swept by the Bulls, who would go on to begin their second title three-peat. Then Orlando really messed up.

    NBA teams had a much greater advantage when signing their own players at the time, given there was no max salary or luxury tax. All the Magic had to do was offer O'Neal a large enough contract no other team could match given the salary cap, and he would have likely stayed.

    Instead, the Magic gave O'Neal an initial offer of just $54 million over four years, all while insulting his rebounding and defense. With this lowball offer, the Lakers shed cap space by trading Vlade Divac for a rookie named Kobe Bryant, opening the door for O'Neal to join them in free agency.

    While this duo would go on to win three titles together, O'Neal and Hardaway likely could have won championships together as well had they been given more time.


    1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics

    Record: 64-18

    It's easy to forget the accomplishments of a team, especially if that team has since moved halfway across the country.

    Before becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008-09, the Sonics were a regular in the '90s postseason. The 64 wins they secured in 1995-96 stand as a franchise record, no matter where the team has called home, propelled by a nasty defense and a highlight-reel offense.

    Gary Payton (19.3 points, 7.5 assists, 2.9 steals) took home Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the league in steals, and he was perhaps the greatest trash-talking point guard of all time. Shawn Kemp (19.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) would have been a House of Highlights regular, with his dynamic leaping ability and desire to put every defender on a poster.

    Surrounding them was a terrific supporting cast led by Detlef Schrempf (17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists), Hersey Hawkins (15.6 points) and Sam Perkins (11.8 points). Future franchise head coach and current leader of the Indiana Pacers, Nate McMillan, played a key reserve role as well.

    Like many others, the Sonics' ultimate undoing came at the hands of Michael Jordan's Bulls, who took Seattle down in the Finals over six games.