ed. note — Sidney Brown is known as the go-to guy for hockey info on Regal Radio, but what you may not know is that he has quite the encyclopedic brain for all sports. In “Sid Ranks Em’ All” you’ll get to read his unique take on the best and worst of sports with specific lists spanning all playing fields.
When it comes to sports, debates are unavoidable. When it comes to championship teams, debating can be the only way we fans and experts can compare teams from different eras.
To the victors go the spoils — among the endless conversations and arguments, the respective legacies of championship teams are rarely forgotten, they get the benefit of constant reminders across time. Lost in all this are the teams that didn’t get to the mountain top.
Teams that haven’t won titles don’t get talked about as much because when their chance came they didn’t finish their job. But, pay attention and in some years you can see a few select teams who’s credentials make them look championship-worthy even if the final results weren’t in their favor.
Whether it was fate, injuries, bad luck and/or self inflicted wounds sometimes a potential championship team gets lost to time as a “never-was” and its not always fair that they have to be resigned to that fate.
In this latest “Ranks ‘Em All,” I’m listing five NBA teams that cannot be argued as great, they were, but they get overlooked simply because they never brought a championship home.
5. 1993-94 New York Knicks — The hiring of coach Pat Riley before the 1991-92 season got this franchise to thinking seriously about championships for the first time since the early 1970s. In Riles’ image, the roster was formed into a tough-minded, defensive-oriented club.
In Riley’s first two years the team season ended both times to the eventual-champion Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. Michael Jordan’s retirement announcement in the 1993 off-season created a unique opportunity for the Knicks along with other contenders tried to win the NBA championship, which was becoming quite comfortable in Chicago. The Knicks staked their claim as a contender this season by finishing with a 57-25 record, which included an Atlantic Division title and a 2nd place finish in the Eastern Conference.
New York’s stars stepped up and had phenomenal seasons, among them team MVP Patrick Ewing (24.5 points per game), John Starks (19.0 ppg, .335 3-point percent and .420 FG%) along with Charles Oakley, who averaged a season-long double-double and Derek Harper’s hard-nosed play at point guard..
The Knicks had their challenges in the playoffs. After defeating tri-state rivals New Jersey 3-1 in opening round, they had to use seven games in both of the next series to defeat established rivals Chicago, now led by Scottie Pippen alone, and emerging rivals Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ewing had finally made to the big time and to a championship round as a pro. Awaiting him was another generational talent at the center position — Hakeem Olajuwon — and the Houston Rockets.
The series started in Houston and the Knicks took Game 2 91-83 and two of the next three games at Madison Square Garden, including the “OJ Chase” game in Game 5 to build a 3-2 series lead as it headed back to Texas. One game away, the Knicks had a chance to exercise the demons of not winning an NBA championship since 1973.
Game 6 saw the Knicks control most of the contest, but the Rockets made crucial plays down the stretch including an Olajuwon block on John Starks during the final seconds to preserve the win and the series. Game 7 proved that the Knicks were much like Cinderella at midnight and their pumpkin was Starks having the worst shooting game of his career while the Rockets took advantage by a score of 90-84.
The Knicks would never reach the NBA Finals again under Riley, who was let go after the 1995 season. New York reached the Finals just once since then (1999) and are still waiting for that first title since 1973.
4. 1997-98 Utah Jazz — After losing in the championship round the year before to the Chicago Bulls, many people expected Utah to complete their mission and finally win the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy in ’98.
Finishing that regular season with a 62-20 record, good for first place in the Midwest Division, first in the Western Conference and one game better than the Bulls’ Eastern-best record, the Jazz were looking like a good bet.
Karl Malone (27.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg) led the way for the Jazz with help from his partner in crime, John Stockton (12.0 ppg, 8.5 apg, 1.45 Steals Per Game), Bryon Russell and Jeff Hornacek (14.2 ppg, .441 3pt%, .885 FT%).
A elder Houston Rockets squad took the Jazz to a full five games in the opening round, after that Utah made quick work of the San Antonio Spurs in five games (4-1) and by sweeping the still-learning-to-win Lakers in the conference finals.
Utah’s hot streak continued into Game 1 of the Finals, which they won at home, but the defending champions responded by winning the next three games, including two in Chicago featuring a record defensive performance in Game 3, winning 96-54 and setting several marks including biggest margin of victory in NBA Finals history.
Utah was down but far from out, they responded with a big-time performance from Malone to steal Game 5 in Chicago 83-81 and send the series back to Salt Lake City. Game 6 unfolded as an instant classic and with less than a minute to go, John Stockton nailed a 3-pointer to give the home team an 86-83 lead.
But as we knew in Chicago, Mike wasn’t one for Game 7s. Fate finally struck the Jazz as Jordan scored the final four points of the contest, including the game-winning shot over Russell to give the Bulls their sixth championship and second three-peat. The Jazz haven’t returned to the Finals since 1998.
3. 1992-93 Phoenix Suns — Even prior to June 17, 1992 the Suns were considered to be one of the best young teams in the NBA, but the franchise got a major face lift on that day when they acquired superstar Charles Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
With Sir Charles in Charge, the Suns ran thru the Western Conference, finishing first with a 62-20 record and Barkley rose even greater than the mythical Phoenix, winning the regular season MVP with 25.6 points per game, 12.2 rebounds and shooting a .520 FG%). Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle were sharpshooters and steady ball-handlers and Kevin Johnson and Cedric Ceballos were dangerous whenever they touched the ball.
One of the most decorated franchises that year, the Suns had a target on them throughout the playoffs, each team played them tough — the Lakers took them to five games, the San Antonio Spurs to six and the emerging Seattle Supersonics played Phoenix to seven games in the Western Conference Finals.
Through all that the Suns made it to the Finals for only the second time in franchise history (1976) and their final hurdle would be against Jordan and the defending champion Bulls. After losing the first two games at home, the Suns won two of the next three games at the old Chicago Stadium, including an instant classic Game 3 victory in three overtimes (129-121) and a series-saving Game 5 (108-98).
A chance to upset the 3-peat minded Bulls was mapped out for Phoenix, who had two home games ahead of them. Game 6 went down to the wire and John Paxson cemented his place in Bulls lore at the Suns expense, delivering the game-winning 3 pointer to give Chicago its third straight title.
Phoenix won 56 and 59 games respectively in the following two seasons but didn’t make it any farther than the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. After a 41-41 campaign in the ’95-96 season Barkley was traded to Houston and the franchise was in rebuilding mode.
2. 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers — In losing to the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in 1999, the Blazers remade their roster big time to enter the new millenium. Veterans Scottie Pippen (12.5 ppg, .451 FG%, 5.0 apg) and Steve Smith (14.9 ppg, .850 FT% & .398 3PT%) were thought to be enough to put the Blazers over the top.
Already there were young but somewhat self-destructive talents in Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Brian Grant and sixth-man Bonzi Wells. The unit kept itself together and helped Portland to a 59-23 regular season record, good for second-place in the Pacific Division and third-place finish in an improving Western Conference.
The Blazers dismissed the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz each in five games to set up the big showdown with their biggest rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. After battling each other in the Pacific standings throughout the regular season, the Blazers and Lakers match-up in the Western Conference Finals proved to be the best contest in that year’s postseason.
After losing Game 1, Portland responded in a big way with a 106-77 victory in Game 2 to tie the series. The Blazers proceeded to lose the next two games on their home court and trailed the series 3-1. Most experts assumed that the series was over at this point but Portland responded with confidence by winning Game 5 in Los Angeles 96-88 and Game 6 in Portland to bring the series back to Southern California for a much-anticipated Game 7.
The deciding game appeared to be a mismatch early as Portland dominated the favorite Lakers on the scoreboard. Entering the fourth quarter with a 15 point lead, the Blazers were just 24 minutes away from going back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1992.
Lady luck flaked on the Blazers at the worst time and at the end of those 15 minutes she was chilling on the Lakers’ bench in Purple and Gold. L.A. fought back, displayed heart and character in one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history with a 89-84 victory to win the Western Conference title and eventually the NBA title, awakening the league to another Showtime dynasty on the horizon.
On the other side, the 2000 Trail Blazers have gone down in history for committing a complete choke job, it also remains as a clear example of Pippen’s inability to win the big one without Michael Jordan. Since 2000, the Blazers have won only one playoff series.
1. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings — As a fan like any other, I simply enjoyed watching this team play basketball. With its constant motion on offense and points piled up on the scoreboard, the ’01-02 Kings were easy to love.
In years past, Sacramento was known as basketball hell. That all began to change when Chris Webber was traded to the Kings in 1999 and when the team drafted point guard Jason Williams that same year. The Kings made the playoffs the next three years but only retained one playoff series win under their belt (2001, 1st Round, Phoenix).
Before the ’01-02 season, the Kings traded Williams to Memphis for Mike Bibby in hopes that he’d add to the offensive efficiency in ways that the slick, but not always fundamental White Chocolate couldn’t.
The Kings had their finest regular season with Bibby at the point, finishing with a 61-21 record that was good for first in the Pacific Division and in the Western Conference. Webber was an MVP candidate (24.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, .794 FT%), Bibby and Doug Christie (All-NBA 2nd Team Defense) earned props and Peja Stojakovic became a star (21.1 ppg, .876 FT%, .416 3pt%) while Bobby Jackson was one of the league’s best sixth-men.
Sacramento offed Utah (3-1) and Dallas (4-1) early in the playoffs and earned a shot in the conference finals against the defending champion Lakers, by then everyone’s nemesis but particular rivals to the Kings who felt themselves to be equals to L.A. even though the Shaq-Kobe express eliminated them in each of the previous two postseasons.
After losing Game 1 on their home court, the Kings won the next two games, including Game 3 in Los Angeles.
Game 4 saw the Kings exert control again but the Lakers had one more run in the barrel. In the final seconds, with the Kings moments away from grabbing a 3-1 series lead, Lakers forward Robert Horry solidified himself as “Big Shot Bob,” by nailing down the game-winning 3-pointer for a 100-99 victory that tied the series at 2-2.
The two teams split the next two games, each winning on their home floor to set up a Game 7 showdown in Sacramento’s Arco Arena. The final contest rightly played out as a back and forth affair. Bibby, who hit the game-winning basket in Game 5, came up big once again to send Game 7 to overtime with a game-tying bucket.
The moment was there for Sacramento to grab and dethrone, but the championship experience of the Lakers carried the day for a 112-106 win for the Western Conference title and eventually an NBA title and a three-peat. Sacramento hasn’t reached the conference finals again since and after Chris Webber’s knee injury in the playoffs the following season at Dallas, the Kings franchise began a steady decent to the bottom of the West which it is still trying to fight out of.
This was a hard list to create and I know for a fact that I’ve left out some more quality teams that have never won a title, maybe some that came in eras before I was following the NBA.
As we all know in sports, though, everything has to be in place if you want to win it all — from the talent on the roster, to the right coaching and staying injury-free as best as possible. That brings you to the final essential element — luck. With that on your side at the right time there’s not much stopping the right team from achieving the ultimate goal.
Maybe these teams weren’t the right ones, but I think they were closer than they appeared, they just didn’t get that right push of luck when it was most needed.
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