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.
During this year’s NBA playoff run much talk circulated regarding whether the eventual NBA Champion Golden State Warriors were the best team ever. Given GSW’s recent accomplishments, teams from any and all eras of NBA play have been positioned against them, creating some of the most passionate debates basketball enthusiasts have had in recent years.
Not one to excuse myself from a good NBA argument, I wrote a column a couple of years ago breaking down my top five teams who didn’t win an NBA title, a good deal of the list was informed by my upbringing watching Michael Jordan and the Dynasty Bulls kill dreams in New York (No. 5), Utah (No. 4) and Phoenix (No. 3) along with two teams stymied by the 3-peat Lakers of the early 2000s (No. 2 Portland, No. 1 Sacramento).
After watching a June episode of Open Court on NBA TV, which you can see above, I was inspired to compile another list of title-worthy teams who just couldn’t get over the hump. Given the program’s panel of former NBA players including Kenny Smith, Dennis Scott, Derek Fisher, Chris Webber, Steve Smith, Kevin McHale and Greg Anthony the debate was expansive and touched on quite a few teams who never won it all from the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s.
As usual, I went back and did some research and I must admit it wasn’t as easy as my previous column, but the show helped guide me well when its all said and done. I hope that fans of the teams on this list will appreciate the greatness of the players and the journey of trying to climb the ladder in becoming champions instead of remaining bitter about what could have been.
Without further or due, here’s my second top five list of greatest teams who didn’t win an NBA championship.
5) 1986-87 Milwaukee Bucks
Not too many teams, especially in the 1980’s Eastern Conference, were equipped to compete with the Boston Celtics, let alone defeat them.
The Milwaukee Bucks took their shot in 1987, compiling a 50-32 record with a 3rd place finish in the Central Division. It would be the first time since the 1979-80 season that the Bucks did not win their division, but this squad — led by head coach Don Nelson and featuring young key veterans in Terry Cummings (20.8 PPG, .551 FG%, 8.5 REB), Jack Sikma (12.7 PPG, 10.0 REB, 1.1 BLK) and Sidney Moncrief (11.8 PPG, 3.3 REB, 3.1 AST), who played in only 39 games due to injury, along Paul Pressey (13.9 PPG, 1.8 STL, 7.2 AST), Rickey Pierce (19.5 PPG, .880 FT%) and point guard John Lucas (17.5 PPG,, 6.7 AST) — did as well in the postseason as any Bucks team of this era.
After defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round (3-2) and ending the career of Julius Erving, the Bucks would get another shot at the defending champion Boston Celtics. After falling behind 3-1, Milwaukee rallied to win the next two games, including back to back 30 point games from Sidney Moncrief (33, Game 5; 34, Game 6) to force a Game 7 in the Boston Garden.
As is typical with Nelson coached teams, offense was the identity and not much defense was offered by these Bucks. Their deciding match-up produced a typical (for the time) 119-113 final in favor of the defending champion Celtics behind Larry Bird’s 31 point performance while Paul Pressey led the Bucks with 28. Nelson would be let go following the loss and the franchise wouldn’t reach the Eastern Conference Finals again until 2001 and still haven’t reached the NBA Finals in a drought started in 1971.
Team Stats (Regular Season)
Steals – 10.3 (1st in NBA)
3 Point Attempts – 7.0 (572 total) (2nd in NBA)
3PT % – .323 (6th in NBA)
4) 1987-88 Atlanta Hawks
During the 1980s, there was no team who had an athletic and skilled front line until this version of the Hawks showed up. Led by “The Human Highlight Film” Dominique Wilkins (30.7 PPG), the Hawks finished the regular season with a 50-32 record and a 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The frontline was headed by Wayne “Tree” Rollins (6.0 REB, 1.7 BLK), Cliff Levingston (6.1 REB, 1.0 BLK) and Kevin Willis (11.6 PPG, 7.3 REB) who gave their opponents second thoughts often in driving to the basket. Glen “Doc” Rivers (9.3 AST) became a first time All-Star this season and led the backcourt along with key bench players sixth man John Battle (10.6 PPG) and 1986 slam dunk champion Anthony “Spud” Webb (4.1 AST, 6.0 PPG).
After defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round (3-2), the Hawks would take their turn in trying to defeat the beast in the East Boston Celtics. Behind Wilkins’ 25 point performance in a Game 5 upset victory at Boston Garden, the Hawks took a 3-2 series lead with two possible chances to eliminate the defending Conference champs. Game 6 in Atlanta proved to be a nightmare as the Celtics staved off elimination with a 102-100 victory thanks to 26 points from Kevin McHale and 23 from Larry Bird.
Game 7 at Boston would turn out to be one for the ages as Wilkins and Bird staged a superstar showdown in the Garden for the right to meet the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. Wilkins scored 47 points to keep the Hawks within striking distance, but Bird scored 20 of his 34 points in the 4th quarter and the Celtics had the answers down the stretch, eliminating Atlanta 118-116. Dominque Wilkins would never get that close again and the Hawks still haven’t reached an Eastern Conference Final in their franchise history.
Team Stats (Regular Season)
Total Rebounds Per Game – 44.0 (9th in NBA)
Blocks – 6.5 (2nd in NBA)
3) 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
After trading point guard Stephon Marbury to the New York Knicks, the Suns needed a new floor general to lead them to the next level and they found it in signing free agent Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2004.
Coach Mike D’Antoni had the horses to try and form Phoenix as championship contenders. The Suns finished the 2005 season in first place the Pacific Division and the Western Conference with Nash dazzling his way to the first of consecutive MVP awards (15.5 PPG, .431 3PT %, 11.5 AST). Amar’e Stoudamire (26.0 PPG, 8.9 REB, 1.6 BLK), Shawn Marion (19.4 PPG, 11.3 REB), Quentin Richardson (14.9 PPG, .358 3PT%) and Joe Johnson (17.7 PPG, .478 3PT%) were among the other major contributors.
The Suns lit up the scoreboard unlike any other team during that time and made their opponents adjust to their style, wearing them down as the game progressed. Nash, Marion and Stoudamire would all make the All-Star team and during All-Star Weekend in Denver, Richardson would win the 3 point shootout while Nash took home the Skills Challenge trophy. Stoudamire ended the season on the NBA’s All-2nd team and Marion on its All-3rd team.
With a 62-20 record, Bryan Colangelo won Executive of the Year and Mike D’Antoni Coach of the Year. After dismissing the Grizzles (4-0) and Mavericks (4-2), the Suns were set to meet their biggest challengers in the San Antonio spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The home court advantage wasn’t enough for the Suns as the Spurs displayed their experience and overall talent in defeating Phoenix in five games and going on to win their third of five championships in franchise history.
The Suns would lose again to Spurs in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 and still haven’t reached the Finals since 1993. History shows that Phoenix’s fast paced style worked during the regular season, but failed to produce any championships. If you watch today’s NBA and ever wonder if the Suns’ style could work on the championship level you’d have to be encouraged given the success of the Warriors. One major difference between the current champs and the would-bes from Phoenix is that the Warriors are much more committed to playing team defense to balance their offense, making them almost impossible to beat on both ends of the court instead of just one.
Team Stats (Regular Season)
Assists – 23.5 (3rd in NBA)
3 Point Shooting – .393% (1st in NBA)
Rebounds – 44.1 (1st in NBA)
2) 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics
After losing in the first round of the playoffs the previous two seasons, major changes were on the horizon for Seattle. On June 27, 1995, the Sonics traded Kendall Gill to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Hersey Hawkins and David Wingate. The time was now for coach George Karl and the Sonics to take the next step in becoming serious championship contenders.
Seattle finished the regular season with a then franchise best 64-18 record including a 38-3 home record at new Key Arena and a 30-6 record following the All-Star break. Shawn Kemp (19.6 PPG, 11.4 REB, .561 FG%) and Gary Payton (19.3 PPG, 2.9 STL, 7.5 AST) were both selected to the All Star team and All-NBA 2nd team. Key veterans Detlef Schrempf (17.1 PPG, .486 FG%), Hersey Hawkins (15.6 PPG, .384 FG%), Sam Perkins (11.8 PPG, 4.5 REB) and Nate McMillan (1.7 STL, 3.6 AST) helped form stability down the roster.
Gary Payton received the Defensive Player of the Year award and was selected to the All NBA 1st Defensive team. After marching through the playoffs first two rounds (Kings – 3-1 and Rockets – 4-0), the Sonics faced their toughest challenge to date in the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals eliminating Karl Malone, John Stockton and crew in an epic seven game series. The Sonics’ luck would run out in the final series, losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games.
Even though Jordan completed his comeback with his fourth championship, many fans and experts came to the conclusion that Shawn Kemp was the best player during this Finals and his numbers stood out above the rest (23.3 PPG, 10.0 REB, 2.0 BLK, .551 FG%).
The Sonics would never reach the Finals again, trading Kemp during the summer of 1997 and firing George Karl following the 1998 season. Gary Payton would win his only championship in 2006 as a member of the Miami Heat and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Team Stats (Regular Season)
Free Throws – .760% (7th in NBA)
Steals – 10.8 per game (882) (1st in NBA)
Field Goals – .480% (4th in the NBA)
1) 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
After moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008, a new identity was formed for this franchise desperately in search of one and young stars were born in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
After losing to the eventual World Champion Dallas Mavericks in 2011 in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder took the experience and it carried over into the 2011-12 shortened 66 game season where they finished with a record of 47-19, placing 2nd in the Western Conference and 1st in the Northwest Division.
At age 23, Kevin Durant had his finest season to date (28.0 PPG, .860 FT%, 8.0 REB) and Russell Westbrook proved himself to be maybe the league’s most valuable sidekick (23.6 PPG, 5.5 AST, 1.7 STL). Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden proved to be the third wheel that kept the ball moving (16.8 PPG, .390 3PT%) while defensive specialist Serge Ibaka controlled the paint (3.7 BLK, 7.5 REB). Durant and Westbrook would join their coach Scott Brooks at All-Star Weekend in Orlando as representatives of the Thunder with Durant winning All-Star Game MVP honors.
By wining the scoring title (28.0 PPG), Durant became the seventh player in NBA history to win three scoring title in a row and clinched All-NBA 1st Team honors.
Westbrook would receive All-NBA 2nd Team honors and Ibaka got a spot on the All-NBA defensive 1st team. After coasting through the playoffs’ first two rounds (Mavs – 4-0, Lakers – 4-1), the Thunder would face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and come back from an 0-2 deficit to win the series in six games, reaching the NBA Finals to face the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the championship round with home court advantage.
With Durant’s 36 point outburst in the Game 1 victory at home many figured that the Thunder had arrived as possible champions. Westbrook put together his lone dominant Finals performance to date with 43 points in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough for the Thunder to gain control of a series it lost control of by that point.
In Game 5 the Miami Heat won their second ever title and the first for LeBron James, beginning his benevolent run of off and on victorious Finals berths. Many thought that the Thunder would be back for many years to come with its emerging Big 3, a possible match for Miami’s established 3, but it would be the beginning of the end.
On October 27, 2012, the Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets because of a contract dispute. The Thunder would reach the Conference Finals two more times with Durant and Westbrook as a Big 2, losing to the eventual champion Spurs in 2014 and the defending champion Golden State Warriors in 2016 after blowing a 3-1 lead.
After the 2015 season Scott Brooks was fired and Kevin Durant left via free agency to join the Warriors after the 3-1 collapse. A turn of the tables saw him win his first title in 2017 over none other than Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Many would say that this OKC group was this era’s Orlando Magic from the mid-1990s — a tantalizing collection of young talent that never came together to win it all despite coming very close.
If Durant, Harden and Westbrook would have stayed together, would they have won a championship? Many would say yes, but the biggest hurdles to that happening weren’t all on the court, they were the salary cap, injuries and egos as much as blown leads and disappointing losses.
Team Stats (Regular Season)
Rebounds Per Game – 43.7 (6th in NBA)
Blocks Per Game – 8.2 (1st in NBA)
Points Per Game – 103.1 (3rd in NBA)
Field Goals – .471% (3rd in NBA)
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