This year’s early playoff exit from Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers was shocking to many, but it echoed a universal NBA truth – not even the most promising teams are guaranteed locks for championship victory, or even to appear in the Finals. Throughout the history of the league, some of the greatest teams have fallen well before their season’s biggest stage. At times, even the clear favorites have been upset in spectacular fashion.
Of course, it’s not always an upset. Sometimes a single year just has two all-time teams in the same conference, making a pre-Finals showdown and an early end to the season for one or the other inevitable. But of all those championship-caliber, Hall-of-Famer-laden teams, which were the greatest to miss the Finals? And why, in the end, did they fall short?
10. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (61-21)
Starting off, it’s perhaps the most controversial playoff series in the history of the NBA – Western Conference Finals, 2002, LA vs. Sacramento. Chris Webber led the Kings to a phenomenal 61-win season and through the first two rounds of the postseason for a rematch against Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of the repeat-championship Lakers. It was the showdown everyone was waiting to see.
In Game 6, with the Kings up 3-2 and ready to clinch the series, the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, making 21 to take the game, and later the series in a contentious Game 7. The officiating of Game 6 was called out at the time for being absurdly unbalanced in favor of LA, and a number of game-fixing conspiracy theories started to float around. These theories were later corroborated by former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, but his own conviction for game fixing and the ardent denial of Commissioner David Stern have left the facts a matter of conjecture.
One thing’s relatively certain: if the Kings had won Game 6, they likely would have gone home with the championship. As it happened, LA took home their third title in a row, and Chris Webber never got so close to the NBA Finals again.
9. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls (62-10)
The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls team, and their failure to make the Finals, is tragic largely because it shows what could have been. Derrick Rose, in his MVP year, led Chicago to the best record in the league at 62-10. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Bulls fought through the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks, only to be defeated by the James/Wade/Bosh Miami superteam in five games.
Obviously, Rose was exceptional that year, if not quite productive enough in the playoffs to secure a win over such a dominant force as the Heat. But moreover, 2011 gave a glimpse of what basketball fans could have gotten if Rose hadn’t torn his ACL the next year. The timeline where the youngest MVP winner ever stayed healthy and built a longstanding rivalry with LeBron James for dominance in the East? We could have had it. We almost did.
8. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (62-20)
The entire Steve Nash era of the Suns could fit on this list, but 2005 was when Phoenix had their best record, and probably their best shot at a title. In his first of back-to-back MVP seasons, Nash led Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, and Amar'e Stoudemire to a league-best 62 wins. Mike D’Antoni’s rapid-fire offense was taking the NBA by storm, and a slew of athletic players led by one of the game’s greatest floor generals looked ready to dominate in the playoffs.
The Suns swept Memphis in the first round and defeated Nash’s former Dallas Mavericks in six games in the second round. Then they faced off against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, where they would lose in five games and go home empty-handed. Nash would never go beyond the Conference Finals with Phoenix, or any other team he played for.
With NBA offense moving to a much faster-paced, three-point-centric game in the wake of D’Antoni and Nash’s time in Phoenix, it’s easy to look at the 2004-05 team as being ahead of its time. Or maybe they just didn’t have what it took to stand up against Gregg Popovich. Whatever the reason, they’ll go down in history as just falling short of their full potential.
7. 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks (63-19)
Coming off their championship victory the previous year, the Bucks were ready to repeat in 1972. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his second-straight MVP and scoring title, and he was still backed up by an All-Star Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin, and a great supporting cast. And they had vanquished their biggest foe – the veteran Wilt Chamberlain/Jerry West Lakers – the previous season.
In 1971 though, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were both hurt. In 1972, LA won an insane 69 games to the Bucks’ 63. Still, Milwaukee looked as strong as ever, with the same core as the year before, and an impressive 10.7 SRS rating. The Western Conference rematch was highly anticipated and hard-fought, but an incredible late-career performance by Chamberlain propelled LA to victory, and later that postseason, to a championship title.
6. 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (64-18)
In 2004, Detroit shocked the world by demolishing the three-peat champion Shaq/Kobe Lakers in the NBA Finals. Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and the rest of the Pistons stomped Los Angeles out in five games, including a game 3 defensive performance that held the Lakers to an embarrassing 68 points.
The next year, the same core once again won the Eastern Conference Finals but lost in a repeat Finals appearance to the San Antonio Spurs. Coming back for the 2005-06 season, Detroit claimed their best record in franchise history with 64 wins. Going into the playoffs in 2006, they were a favorite to go all the way once more. They might have done it too, if not for two major stumbling blocks – an aging Shaquille O’Neal, and a young shooting guard named Dwayne Wade.
5. 2017-18 Houston Rockets (65-17)
As was true with the 2005 Suns, the 2018 Houston Rockets team is symbolic of the entire James Harden era (see a trend with Mike D’Antoni’s teams?). In 2018, they had an MVP-winning Harden. They had Chris Paul. They had the number one seed in the West, and the NBA’s best regular-season record at 65-17, which meant home-court advantage against the defending champion Steph/Durant Warriors. It looked like they had it all.
Then suddenly, they didn’t. In Game 5, Chris Paul injured his hamstring. He would not return for the rest of the series. Golden State then blew the Rockets out in spectacular fashion in Game 6. With the series on the line and one game left to play, Harden still had a chance. And Houston missed 27 three-pointers. In a row.
4. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
This was LeBron James’s year. He won his first MVP and led the Cavaliers to 66 wins, on a team where the second-best player was Mo Williams, and the third-best player was… Delonte West? Still, the potential was there. It was the kind of seasonal performance LeBron fans had clamored for since he was drafted – leading Cleveland in points (28.4), rebounds (7.6), assists (7.2), and steals (1.7), with an additional 1.1 blocks per game.
For everyone who wanted the Jordan story repeated – the star recruit bringing success to a horrible team – this was it. But sadly, one man was not enough to carry Cleveland to a championship, or even to the Finals. The Cavaliers lost to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic after sweeping the first two playoff rounds in four games each. Even with all the stats in the world, one man couldn’t do it all.
3. 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs (67-15)
A win in 2016 would have done it. It would have given Tim Duncan his sixth ring, in his final season, to finish his career in the company of Jordan and Kareem. Kawhi was named a starter in the All-Star game, LaMarcus Aldridge was a huge plus, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – while less imposing than they once were – still gave a powerful veteran presence. That year, the Spurs won a whopping 67 games.
But it just wasn’t meant to be. The Duncan Era would close with an impressive five championships, but a disappointingly early playoff exit in 2016, in the second round, to the Oklahoma City Thunder. A loss to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, of course, is still a respectable loss. But the fact that San Antonio had real potential to bring home one more title with Duncan and Kawhi makes it particularly bittersweet.
2. 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (67-15)
If Dirk was going to win a chip, it looked like this would be it – 67 wins, the MVP, and a great back-up roster including Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse. Dallas claimed the number one seed in the West and was looking unstoppable. The Mavericks seemed determined not to repeat their disappointing Finals performance from the year before.
And they didn’t. Because they didn’t make the Finals. Or the Conference Finals. Or the second round. They lost in the first round, in six games, to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, in one of the most stunning upsets in NBA history. Baron Davis, while excellent, was not the man anyone thought could bring down a 67-15 Nowitzki-led behemoth. But the Warriors didn’t care what anyone thought, because that’s exactly what happened.
1. 1972-73 Boston Celtics (68-14)
The 1972-73 Boston Celtics top this list for one main reason – no other team in the history of the NBA has won that many games, and not made the Finals. In fact, the only team to win that many games and not win the championship is the 2015-16 73-win Golden State Warriors.
Boston had everything going for them. They had the league MVP in Dave Cowens, who took the award from Kareem after two back-to-back victories. They had the coach of the year in Tom Heinsohn. They had three All-NBA players, including a First Team selection in John Havlicek. And they had what still stands as the best record in the history of basketball’s most-decorated franchise.
The two things they couldn’t get were a trip to the Finals and a shot at the title because the eventual-champion Knicks beat them in a tight seven-game series. The Knicks were great, make no mistake. New York rightfully earned its only championship under the triple All-Star crew of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere. But the Knicks didn’t win 68 games, and that makes the Celtics’ early exit, still, a shocking turn in NBA history.