So many variables factor into winning a championship in the NBA. Sometimes a team seemingly on the road to victory gets hit with injuries or various roadblocks. Other times a darkhorse contender emerges and takes the league by storm.
Whatever the case, there are many worthy champions throughout the years that didn’t get over the hump. Especially if a great team didn’t even make the Finals, they’re often forgotten despite the vast accomplishments they may have earned prior to their playoff demise.
To commemorate these fallen juggernauts, here are the top-10 teams in NBA history that didn’t win a ring. (NOTE: If a team contended but came up short for multiple seasons in a row, only the best version of that team is included.)
Honorable mentions: 1971-1972 Bucks, 1995-1996 Magic, 1995-1996 Sonics, 1967-1968 76ers, 1989-1990 Lakers, 1997-1998 Lakers, 1999-2000 Blazers, 1992-1993 Knicks, 1990-1991 Blazers, 1996-1997 Rockets, 2008-2009 Celtics, 2018-2019 Warriors, 2012-2013 Spurs, 2015-2016 Thunder
10. 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers
(56-26 regular-season record, lost NBA Finals in Game 5)
After the Lakers’ three-peat ended in 2003, the team retooled its roster to make one last run at a championship before Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s feud became too toxic to manage. Aging future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton also wanted to win their first ring as soon as possible, so the four superstars joined forces under Phil Jackson’s command.
Payton was the only one who stayed healthy that season as O’Neal, Bryant and Malone missed a combined 72 games, according to basketball-reference. The team was 33-9 with Malone in the lineup, so to win 56 games despite so little roster cohesion is an achievement in itself, and the team played to its potential in the playoffs. Los Angeles was most tested in Western Conference Semifinals, with Derek Fisher’s game-winner with just 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 helping his team take a 3-2 lead in the series after initially going down 2-0.
In the Finals against the defensive-minded Pistons is where the wheels came off. Malone’s knee injury in Game 3 essentially guided him into retirement, but Bryant and O’Neal’s personal issues were mostly to blame for losing to underdog Detroit. Bryant averaged nearly six more shots per game than O’Neal, shooting just 38.1% on truly terrible shot selection. O’Neal, conversely, averaged four more points per outing on 63.1% shooting, yet clearly wasn’t being fed the ball by Bryant.
This team is one of the most talented in league history. Due to clashing egos and massive media attention, though, they were upset by a grittier opponent. O’Neal would later be traded to Miami and the Lakers entered a rebuild.
9. 2004-2005 Phoenix Suns
(62-20, lost Western Conference Finals in Game 5)
When Steve Nash signed with the Suns in the summer of 2004, no one envisioned what would come. Phoenix won a staggering 33 more games than the previous season and turned the 30-year-old point guard into an MVP. He orchestrated the league’s best offense, famously dubbed the “Seven Seconds or Less” play-style, and paved the way for the brand of basketball you see throughout today’s NBA.
The No.1 offense met the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio earned the league’s best defensive rating (98.8) and simply out-executed the more inexperienced Suns. Amar’e Stoudemire averaged an absurd 37 points in the series, and Nash averaged a 20-point double-double, but the Spurs’ big-three were machine-like. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all tallied over 20 points per game, with the team shooting over 41% from behind the arc as well.
All-Star Shawn Marion, one of the game’s best and most athletic defenders at the time, was a big reason his team lost. He averaged almost 12 fewer points per game in the series than he did in the regular season and shot just 39.1%. Had he shown up, the Suns might have a championship banner.
Still, this team revolutionized the way teams played basketball in the years to follow and should always be mentioned in discussions about the evolution of the league.
8. 2001-2002 Sacramento Kings
(61-21, lost Western Conference Finals in Game 7)
The 2001-2002 Kings were one of the most unselfish, balanced and fun teams ever. Chris Webber, the team’s clear leader, missed 28 contests and Sacramento still won a league-leading 61 games. They played the fastest pace in the league (95.6) and truly played together.
They faced the back-to-back champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, a team solely reliant on its two superstars. The two foes were the antithesis of each other, and it looked like teamwork would prevail over star power when the Kings took a 3-2 lead. The series was extremely close and featured a classic Robert Horry buzzer-beater in Game 4.
Unfortunately for the Kings and for the NBA, Game 6 of the series lives in infamy. In June of 2008, disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy alleged that the game was manipulated and ultimately decided by the officials, according to Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com.
The Lakers shot 40 free throws to Sacramento’s 25, including 27 in the fourth quarter. The referee crew made phantom calls on the Kings while missing obvious ones against L.A., including Byrant elbowing Mike Bibby in the face during a pivotal late-game inbound. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern denies any foul play, though.
Sacramento would have faced an overmatched New Jersey Nets team and Finals, likely won and changed the legacy of Webber and the franchise. Instead, the Lakers immortalized their early-2000s teams by three-peating.
7. 1977-1978 Portland Trail Blazers
(58-24, lost Western Conference Semifinals in Game 6)
Portland entered the 1977-1978 season riding high off an improbable championship the season before. The team was deep and unselfish, Bill Walton was the Finals MVP and looked poised to become one of the greatest basketball players ever. Then, his feet failed him.
Walton, who was plagued with leg and foot pain for his entire amateur and professional career, led his team to a 50-10 record before sitting the final 22 games with a broken foot. Portland went 8-14 in that span, yet Walton still won his lone MVP trophy this season after playing just 58 games.
The story only gets more tragic, however, as Walton took pain killers to suit up for the team’s first two playoff games against Seattle, according to nba.com. He played just 15 minutes in Game 2, and X-rays afterward showed that the navicular bone below Walton’s left ankle was broken. He’d never play another game for Portland.
The great center later demanded a trade from the organization and sued the team’s management for giving him poor medical treatment, which was later settled out of court. What was a truly spectacular team imploded within months. Had Walton’s body not betrayed him, Portland might have been the team of the 1970s.
6. 2015-2016 San Antonio Spurs
(67-15, lost Western Conference Semifinals in Game 6)
This Spurs team was the last to feature the legendary big-three of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. All three were still solid but couldn’t play at a star-level consistently, and Duncan and Ginobili missed a combined 45 games from both injury and load-management. The team’s supporting cast, though, carried the load.
2015-2016 was the season Kawhi Leonard developed into a star. He and the newly acquired LaMarcus Aldridge reinvented San Antonio’s identity and led the team to 67 wins, just behind the record-setting 73-win Warriors. Those two stars, combined with extraordinary depth in Danny Green, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and David West, made the Spurs the best defensive team in the NBA while also remaining one of the most offensively efficient.
The Gregg Popovich system tore through most teams in the regular season with the exception of the Warriors and the Thunder. Oklahoma City and San Antonio split two playoffs series in the previous few seasons, so a second-round meeting in 2016 was the rubber match. The Spurs swept the Grizzlies in the first round and appeared as polished as ever.
But the Thunder were a bad matchup for the older and slower Spurs. Kevin Durant got his numbers, Russell Westbrook averaged a 25-point double-double and the frontcourt of Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter were one of the few in the league that matched San Antonio’s size. Oklahoma City might have been the champions had they not blown a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals that year, and San Antonio probably could have won it all as well. It was a deep Western Conference in 2016, and the Spurs drew a bad matchup.
5. 1996-1997 Utah Jazz
(64-20, lost NBA Finals in Game 6)
The 1997 and 1998 Jazz teams were basically the same, but the 1996-1997 team won two more games and Malone won his first MVP. John Stockton, Malone and Jeff Hornacek led a machine-like offense that shot 50.4% from the field on the season. Coach Jerry Sloan drilled Utah’s power-offense into the psyche of his players and yielded elite efficiency and win totals as a result.
The Jazz are likely back-to-back champions had Michael Jordan’s Bulls not existed. Like so many other Hall of Famers from the 1990s, Stockton and Malone’s championship dreams were thwarted by Jordan’s dominance. The Jazz had the best home-court advantage in the league, losing just three games in Utah in the regular season, and deserved to get at least one title.
This Finals was one of the closest ever with the Bulls scoring only four more total points than the Jazz and the overall average margin of victory being just six points. The games were slow and grueling. Jordan’s 32.3 scoring average was enough to carry his team and outduel Malone, so now Utah’s two Hall of Famers are regarded as perhaps the best duo to never win it all rather than the team that ended Chicago’s dynasty.
4. 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns
(62-20, lost NBA Finals in Game 6)
Like Nash, Charles Barkley’s won MVP in his first season in Phoenix and elevated the franchise to a championship-level. The team won a league-best 62 games and ranked first in offensive rating (113.3) despite missing its third and fourth leading scorers — Kevin Johnson and Richard Dumas — for a combined 67 games. The Suns were clutch, experienced and beat some other strong squads in the playoffs like Seattle and San Antonio.
Like the Jazz, Phoenix’s title aspirations were shattered by Jordan. Like Stockton and Malone, Barkley went ringless. Jordan averaged a record 41 points in the Finals in 1993. The Suns played as well as any other team that the Bulls faced in the 1990s, but No.23 was playing at a level not seen since Wilt Chamberlain.
The Suns were deep, athletic, could shoot, play fast, rebound, defend. There weren’t any real weaknesses with this bunch. They could have used a Jordan-stopper, but no such player existed. John Paxson’s game-winner in Game 6 put the nail in the coffin for Phoenix, and the franchise wouldn’t get close in any of Barkley’s next three seasons.
3. 2017-2018 Houston Rockets
(65-17, lost Western Conference Finals in Game 7)
Say what you will about Houston’s basketball philosophy and Harden’s playoff history, but the Rockets were absolutely dominant in 2017-2018. Even with the newly acquired Chris Paul missing 24 games and Harden missing 10, the team won a league-leading 65 games and held the top offensive rating (114.7). Harden finally won the MVP trophy he’d been clamoring over for years and the Rockets were the most prolific 3-point shooting team ever.
Houston carried that momentum into the playoffs and took a 3-2 series lead over the big-four Warriors before Paul blew out his hamstring. The Rockets infamously missed 27 consecutive triples in Game 7, but there’s little doubt they would have advanced to the Finals had their second-best player been on the court. The team defended better this season than it had previously and appeared to finally find the balance of long-range shooting and ball movement. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Against a Cavaliers team without Kyrie Irving from its previous Eastern Conference championship season, the Rockets would have easily beat them as Golden State did. Harden’s reputation would look entirely different today with a Finals MVP on his resume. Alas, he and Houston are still searching for a winning formula.
2. 1972-1973 Boston Celtics
(68-14, lost Eastern Conference Finals in Game 7)
After Bill Russell rode off into the sunset with his 11th and final title in 1969, the Celtics entered what might be the quickest rebuild in league history. The franchise won just 34 games in 1969-1970 and increased its win total in each of the next three seasons, peaking with a franchise-record 68 wins in 1972-1973.
John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White are maybe the best big-three you’ve never heard of. All three are Hall of Famers and averaged nearly 20 points each this season. They anchored the NBA’s best defense, stayed healthy throughout the regular season and had fantastic chemistry with one another.
Had this Celtics team won the title, they’d be regarded as one of the best teams of all time. Why you’ve probably never heard of them is because they lost to the eventual champion New York Knicks in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and almost nobody remembers a runner-up from the early-1970s NBA. The teams split the first two games, but in a Game 3 Celtics loss, Havlicek injured his shoulder. He missed the next game, came off the bench in the final three contests and never quite looked the same. Had its best player stayed healthy, Boston likely wins and isn’t forgotten.
Still, they gave New York all it could handle, but the Knicks punctured Boston’s seemingly impenetrable defense and had six players average double-digit points for the series. The Celtics got revenge the next year, however, beating the Knicks in five games and then winning the title over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks.
1. 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors
(73-9, lost NBA Finals in Game 7)
Surprisingly, you could argue that the winningest regular-season team in NBA history actually isn’t the best team to never win a championship. The 2015-2016 Warriors were one of the best and most selfless offenses of all time yet found themselves down 3-1 to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals before blowing a 3-1 lead of their own in the next round, which should prove that they were more vulnerable than some other teams on this list.
What people forget, however, is that back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry wasn’t fully healthy throughout those playoffs. Between an ankle injury in round one and a knee injury in round two, the point didn’t even play four full games before the conference finals. He had strong moments in that series against Oklahoma City but didn’t look himself in the Finals against Cleveland, averaging just 22.6 points per game.
Had Curry been completely himself, James probably doesn’t bring that legendary title to Cleveland. This iteration of Golden State epitomized the way team basketball is played and revolutionized the importance of the 3-pointer. If they won the Finals, it’d be hard to argue against them being the greatest team in league history. Instead, they’re viewed as basketball’s biggest chokers.