There is only one team that can win the title each year, leaving the others defeated and rarely considered. Thus I decided to list the top teams over the last 25 years that came up short, and lost, in an otherwise terrific season. Some lost straight up, others were robbed, and one could have beat greatness.
If the core of that team eventually won a title you aren’t going to see them on this list. That’s why you aren’t going to see the 2013 Spurs, the 2011 Heat, 2008 Lakers, or the 2005 Pistons. Those teams at some point reached the pinnacle of the sport, and got their ring.
5. 1997-98 Pacers
The Pacers hired Larry Bird in the off-season and the Rookie head coach led the Indiana to 58-24 record, only the defending champion Bulls had a better record in the East. There probably wasn’t a deeper team in the league that year, the Pacers regularly played 10 guys big minutes. Reggie Miller did Reggie Miller things, they brought in sharp shooter Chris Mullin, and Rick Smits stayed healthy, making his only all-star team that season.
The Pacers cruised through the Cavs and Knicks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That set them up to face two-time defending champion Chicago in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was one of the best series of the 90’s, the home team won every single game, and the Pacers lost a heart breaking game 7 on the road to Jordan and the Bulls. The Bulls were the better team, but the Pacers were the only team to take Michael Jordan’s Bulls to a Game 7 in the playoffs during his second three-peat.
4. 2006-07 Suns
This is the first of two Suns teams to make my list, and the first of two teams that were robbed of their opportunity at a championship. Steve Nash was coming off his second straight MVP season, and this Suns team was able to do something that they weren’t known for, defend. The Suns won 61 games in the regular season and had winning streaks of 15 and 17 games, respectively.
After beating the Lakers in the first round, they squared off against the rival Spurs in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The Suns were down in the series 2-1 to the Spurs when at the end of game 4, after coming back and taking the lead, the Spurs Robert Horry hip checked Steve Nash into the scorers table. It was a total cheap shot that sent Nash flying, and Horry was ejected from the game. The Suns went on to close out the game and tie the series at 2 games a piece. The league suspended Horry for two games, which wasn’t a big deal to the Spurs because Horry hardly played for them. The league however also suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of the Suns for Game 5, penalties drawn for leaving the bench to come to the aid of Nash. Diaw and Stoudemire were two of the Suns best players, unlike the aged Horry. It was a dumb rule and it was enforced in a ridiculous way in this case. The outmanned Suns ended up losing Game 5, and ultimately the series, because of a Robert Horry cheap shot. This was the Sun’s team best set up to win a championship in the Nash era.
3. 1995-96 Supersonics
Seattle had the best record in the west going 64-18 and Gary Payton was voted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. When you think of this Supersonics squad you immediately think of Payton and Shawn Kemp, but they also had Detlef Schrempf and Hershey Hawkins who they got in a trade from Charlotte. Schrempf was one of the best SF in the league and Hawkins still had a lot left in the tank. This team was stacked with prime talent and ran through the regular season into the playoffs.
Seattle swept the two time defending champion Rockets on their way to the Finals, setting up to face Jordan and the Bulls. They promptly lost the first three games of the series, and it wasn’t until Game 4 that they finally played loose, won, and realized they could play with the Bulls. By that time it was too late in the series though. They ended up winning Game 5 as well, before losing the series in six.
2. 1992-93 Suns
The Suns had the best record in the NBA, going 62-20 that season. Charles Barkley – who the Suns got in a trade in the off-season – won the MVP (as the best player not named Jordan), and they brought in Danny Ainge to give them a veteran spark off the bench.
The reason I have this Suns team so high is because if any of the teams that faced Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals could go back and replay the series, this is the only one that I think would win the series. They were a bad match-up for Chicago, the Bulls had absolutely no answer for Kevin Johnson, he could get anywhere he wanted on the floor against them and do whatever he wanted once he got there.
However in the first two games of the Finals , KJ forgot to show up, so much so that I am still in shock of how poorly he played. The Bulls went out to a two game lead on the Suns, and they weren’t able to recover. They fought back to win 2 of 3 games, and then in Game 6 in Chicago, John Paxson broke their hearts by hitting the go ahead three-pointer with :03 seconds left in the game to win the series. Had the Suns held on to win that game, they would have played game 7 for the series at home. I honestly believe if they could go back and replay this series and make sure KJ was awake for the first two games the Suns would win this series.
1. 2002 Kings
The Kings made one of the greatest off-season trades in basketball history, by trading Jason “White Chocolate” Williams to the Memphis Grizzles for Mike Bibby. The Kings were always a talented group, but they always lacked a go to crunch guy, and Bibby had ice water running through his veins. The Kings went 61-21, which was good enough for the best record in the league.
They were complete and had flow as a team; highlighted by Webber, who was an elite big and the best passing big man in the league. Bibby was the perfect point guard and leader that they had always lacked. They had the defensive stopper in Doug Christie and the best shooter in the game in Peja Stojakovic. They also had fire power off the bench in Bobby Jackson and Hedu Turkaglu, and they even had the best towel waiver in the NBA on the end of their bench in Mateen Cleaves. I really didn’t think there was anything that could stop this team, they were just better than everyone else.
What I failed to realize is that there was a corrupt referee working their series that wasn’t going to let the Kings win the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals is probably the darkest moment of my lifetime for the NBA, referee Tim Donaghy who worked the game was thrown out of the sport for being on the take and effecting scores and outcomes of the games he worked. I can just use this stat to let you know everything you will need to know about Game 6, the Lakers were averaging 22 free throw attempts a game in the series and they shot 27 free throws in just the 4th quarter of game 6. I don’t recognize the Kings as losers of that game or series, I have friends who were die-hard NBA fans who don’t watch the NBA since that series because it ruined the sport for them, and I can’t blame them. It is one thing to lose a game you should have won, It is another to not be given the chance.