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Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp of the Seattle Supersonics.
Were Gary Payton’s Sonics the best team to never win an NBA championship?

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TITLELESS: 16 NBA teams that flamed out too soon

Our quest to uncover the best NBA team to not win a title begins with the teams that suffered mind-boggling playoff disappointments.

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Our quest to uncover the best NBA team to not win a title begins with the teams that suffered mind-boggling playoff disappointments. These 16 clubs fell short of their ultimate goal due to an early-round upset, a brutal collapse, or both. Meet the Flameout Division.

As always, we will count down from worst to best. We begin with a long-forgotten upstart and end with one that has become a cultural icon.

The other divisions:

16. 2012-13 Denver Nuggets

  • ERA: The post-Carmelo trade.
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to No. 6 Golden State Warriors (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): None
  • COACH: George Karl
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari (injured in playoffs), Kenneth Faried, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, Kosta Koufos, Corey Brewer, JaVale McGee

These guys were the victims of Stephen Curry’s loud arrival on the league’s biggest stage. The Warriors’ eventual rise and the Nuggets’ immediate demolition conspired to turn this Denver squad into a footnote. Too bad, because they were innovative, a joy to watch, and a cool example of the power of depth. If only Danilo Gallinari didn’t tear his ACL late in the regular season ...

15. 1986-87 Atlanta Hawks

  • ERA: Dominique.
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to No. 3 Detroit Pistons (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Dominique Wilkins.
  • COACH: Mike Fratello.
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Willis, Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, Tree Rollins, Cliff Levingston, Spud Webb, Mike McGee, Jon Koncak, Gus Williams, John Battle.

Dominique Wilkins’ inability to even advance to a conference finals is framed as a casualty of the deep Eastern Conference. He was great, the argument goes, but his teams didn’t have enough to beat the Bostons and Detroits of the world.

That’s largely true, but 1986-87 was different. Wilkins’ Hawks earned the No. 2 seed in the conference, and he was lauded for improving his all-around game. With Boston wobbly due to injury and Detroit still a year or two away, this was Atlanta’s chance.

They didn’t lack for confidence. Before their second-round series with Detroit began, Hawks power forward Kevin Willis was asked if the series would go the distance. “No, I think it will go five,” he replied.

Technically, he was right. Atlanta lost Game 1 at home after Wilkins shot just 7-18 from the field, then fell behind 3-1 after Isiah Thomas drove from the top of the key for a layup in the closing seconds of Game 4.

Atlanta then blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Game 5 when they suddenly forgot how to score. That was their title shot, and they blew it.

14. 1946-47 Washington Capitols

  • ERA: Red Auerbach, pre-Boston
  • RECORD: 49-11
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in BAA semifinals to No. 2 Chicago Stags (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Bob Feerick
  • COACH: Red Auerbach
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Bones McKinney, Fred Scolari, Johnny Norlander, John Mahnken, Irv Torgoff

Meet professional basketball’s original chokers! Coached by Red Auerbach — yes, the future Celtics legend — the Washington Capitols were the standout team in the inaugural season of the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA. They were known for their excellent team play, high-octane offense, conditioning, and unique triangle zone defense that toed the line of legality. A skinny forward named Bones McKinney was the fulcrum, while a quick guard named Bob Feerick was the offensive star.

Feerick in particular was a stylistic marvel for his time. If you have 30 minutes to spare — and I know you do — this rare footage of a 1949 Capitols-Baltimore Bullets game is a delight.

Heat check!

And contrary to popular belief, Tracy McGrady wasn’t the first player to try to pass it to himself off the backboard.

Let’s talk about that zone more. Midway through the season, the BAA banned zone defensive styles that attempted to slow the game down. (Remember, this was pre-shot clock.) But the Capitols’ triangle approach was still legal because it actually sped the game up. Here’s how a 1947 New York Daily News article described Washington’s strategy:

“Standing zone defenses were banned earlier this month by the progressive BAA, in the interest of more action for the fans, but this stratagem is a triangle of weaving tall men the Caps use under either backboard that insures them of nearly every rebound. The other two are used for fast breaks or give and go plays.”

So, cherry-picking. What visionaries!

So how did these dudes not win the title? After losing just one game at home during the regular season, they inexplicably dropped the first two games of their conference finals series against the Chicago Stags by double-digits. Told you they were chokers.

13. 1968-69 Baltimore Bullets

  • ERA: Wes and Earl the Pearl, pre-Elvin Hayes.
  • RECORD: 57-25.
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East semifinals to No. 4 New York Knicks (4-0 with home court)
  • KEY STAR(S): Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld.
  • COACH: Gene Shue.
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Loughery, Gus Johnson, Jack Marin, Ray Scott, Leroy Ellis.

The Bullets of the late 60s and 70s were one of the league’s forgotten powerhouses. Ironically, it was their worst regular-season team — an aging 44-win unit that turned back the clock in the 1978 playoffs — that gave D.C. its lone title. I considered the 1973 trade for Elvin Hayes as the line of demarcation between eras, which made these Bullets of Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, and a rookie Wes Unseld the obvious choice.

Their four-game series loss to the hated Knicks had a slight asterisk because Johnson missed the series due to injury. Still, the Bullets had the NBA’s best record that season thanks largely to Unseld and Monroe. They should not have been swept.

They got their revenge on the Knicks two years later to reach the Finals, but that Bullets team was just 40-42 in the regular season. The 68-69 edition was much better.

12. 2017-18 Toronto Raptors

  • ERA: Kyle and DeMar
  • RECORD: 59-23
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry
  • COACH: Dwane Casey
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, CJ Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Norman Powell

I toyed with the idea of excluding all Raptors teams due to last year’s title, but considered the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade and the firing of Dwane Casey as significant enough changes to split the era up. That means we get to flash back to a time when the Raptors were known for choking in the playoffs and getting owned by LeBron James. Ahh, memories.

11. 1976-77 Los Angeles Lakers

  • ERA: Kareem before Magic
  • RECORD: 53-29
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West finals to No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • COACH: Bill Sharman
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Lucius Allen, Cazzie Russell, Don Chaney, Kermit Washington, Don Ford, Tom Abernathy, Earl Tatum, Mack Calvin

The only decent Lakers team of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era before Magic Johnson showed up was exposed as a one-man band in an embarrassing Western Conference Finals sweep. The contrast between Bill Walton’s speedy, team-oriented Blazers and Abdul-Jabbar’s slow, battered Lakers was stark. Abdul-Jabbar outscored Walton, but none of his teammates showed up.

It didn’t help that starting power forward Kermit Washington missed the series (this was before he became a pariah after punching Rudy Tomjanovich) and point guard Lucius Allen barely played due to a toe injury.

10. 1994-95 San Antonio Spurs

  • ERA: Admiral, pre-Timmy
  • RECORD: 60-22
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to No. 6 Houston Rockets (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): David Robinson
  • COACH: Bob Hill
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Sean Elliott, Dennis Rodman, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Chuck Person, J.R. Reid, Terry Cummings, Doc Rivers, Willie Anderson
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1989-90, 1990-91, 1993-94, 1995-96

This was the best of the David Robinson teams Before Tim Duncan, and also the one that suffered the most humiliating defeat. The 1995 title race was wide open, and San Antonio had home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and the league’s MVP. In the end, that MVP was outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon in a Western Conference Finals where the Spurs dropped all three of their home games.

This was one deep team. Dennis Rodman got weird by the end, but he was still a force during the regular season. Nine players averaged at least 15 minutes per game, and each position had a top backup. They could go big or small depending on the matchup and the needs they had during each game. But all of those advantages faded away as Olajuwon dominated.

9. 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs

  • ERA: Post-Big 3
  • RECORD: 67-15
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to No. 3 Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan (final season)
  • COACH: Gregg Popovich
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, David West, Kyle Anderson, Kevin Martin, Jonathon Simmons

You’re probably wondering why this team (and the 61-win version the year after that lost to Golden State when Zaza Pachulia slid under Kawhi Leonard’s ankle) is eligible for the tournament despite retaining four key core pieces and the legendary head coach from the 2013-14 title squad. Two reasons:

  • The 2015 signing of LaMarcus Aldridge qualifies as a core-altering event;
  • And this was the year the Spurs became Leonard’s team. His usage jumped nearly three points from 2014-15 and would leap up to beyond 30 the next season. Meanwhile, Duncan ended up retiring after the season.

This was a forgotten powerhouse due to the presence of the 73-win Warriors. Ultimately, they were a paper tiger that couldn’t raise their level to get past a Thunder team that coasted in the regular season.

8. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • ERA: Young LeBron
  • RECORD: 66-16
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to No. 3 Orlando Magic (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): LeBron James
  • COACH: Mike Brown
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson, Joe Smith

The regular-season fundamentals of these Cavaliers are as good as any in the tournament. Sixty-six wins, a differential approaching nine, and arguably LeBron James’ best individual season. Putting them as a No. 8 seed seems tough.

On the other hand, Mo Williams was their second-best offensive player.

7. 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers

  • ERA: Lob City
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Chris Paul, Blake Griffin
  • COACH: Doc Rivers
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison, Jared Dudley
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2012-13, 2014-15, 2015-16

Choosing between Lob City teams was tough. The 2014-15 team was nearly as good as the 2013-14 edition and fell in much more excruciating fashion. The 2015-16 team wasn’t as good, but their title window was briefly opened by Stephen Curry’s ankle injury before both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin got hurt. The 2012-13 version under Vinny Del Negro has a great case, too, though there was plenty of dysfunction lurking beneath the surface.

But I chose the 2013-14 edition for three reasons:

  • It had the best point differential of the bunch;
  • It was the most well-rounded thanks to J.J. Redick’s arrival, Matt Barnes’ underrated season, and DeAndre Jordan’s improvement;
  • And their playoff run was the weirdest of all, from Donald Sterling’s demise to Paul’s out-of-body experience in Game 5 against the Thunder.

6. 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers

  • ERA: Pre-Jailblazers
  • RECORD: 59-23
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen
  • COACH: Mike Dunleavy
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Brian Grant, Greg Anthony, Bonzi Wells, Jermaine O’Neal

If you want to break Portland fans’ hearts, send them this video.

5. 1992-93 New York Knicks

  • ERA: Patrick Ewing’s Knicks
  • RECORD: 60-22
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to No. 2 Chicago Bulls (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Patrick Ewing
  • COACH: Pat Riley
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: John Starks, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Greg Anthony, Rolando Blackman
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1991-92, 1993-94, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-00

It’s easy to wonder in hindsight how a team with John Starks as its second-leading scorer had any shot against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. At the time, though, the Knicks seemed to have Chicago’s number, pushing them to seven games in the 1992 playoffs before upgrading their roster the next season. They led 2-0 in the East Finals and had a chance to win Game 5 before Charles Smith was stripped, stopped, stopped, and STOPPED AGAIN right under the basket.

That denied Patrick Ewing his best shot at a ring — the ‘93 team was comfortably better than the ‘94 team that lost in the NBA Finals and a tad more formidable than the ‘97 club that added Allan Houston and Larry Johnson to their regular core — and our chance to watch a repeat of one of the wildest brawls in NBA history.

4. 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks

  • ERA: Dirk, Before Carlisle
  • RECORD: 67-15
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to No. 8 Golden State Warriors (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Dirk Nowitzki
  • COACH: Avery Johnson
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Erick Dampier, Jerry Stackhouse, Devean George, DeSagana Diop

It was tough picking between the 2006-07 edition of the pre-Rick Carlisle Mavs and the 2005-06 one that was 2-0 up on Miami in the NBA Finals before Dwyane Wade’s never-ending free-throw parade turned the tide. The 2002-03 edition that went 60-22, beat the Kings in Round 2, and battled San Antonio despite key injuries deserves more love too.

The 06-07 team ended up getting the nod because they were the clear favorites that year and because this was Dirk Nowitzki’s finest regular season. Maybe things would be different if they played anyone other than that weird We Believe Warriors team that matched up so well with them.

3. 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers

  • ERA: Clyde’s prime
  • RECORD: 63-19
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Clyde Drexler
  • COACH: Rick Adelman
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, Clifford Robinson, Danny Ainge

The other two Portland contenders of the Clyde Drexler era made the NBA Finals, but this was their best team of the bunch. They went 27-3 to start the season, handily beat the eventual champion Bulls twice, and also won 16 in a row to end the year before giving their starters limited minutes in the season finale.

But after slipping by Seattle and routing Phoenix, the Blazers blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Terry Porter missed a three that would’ve tied the game, and Buck Williams bricked two free throws with 30 seconds left. The Blazers elected to defend the Lakers straight-up on the ensuing possession instead of fouling, but surrendered an uncontested dunk to Sam Perkins at the shot-clock buzzer.

They never recovered from that collapse and fell in six after Magic Johnson flung the ball down the court to nobody in the closing seconds.

Imagine these Blazers in the 1991 Finals instead of a Lakers team that didn’t have a healthy James Worthy. Wouldn’t they be the favorites against the Bulls?

2. 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks

  • ERA: Giannis and Bud
  • RECORD: 60-22
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to No. 2 Toronto Raptors (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • COACH: Mike Budenholzer
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill, Nikola Mirotic

Is it harsh to put last year’s Bucks in this division considering Toronto’s eventual title? I don’t think so. Milwaukee had the league’s best point differential by a mile, a 2-0 series lead, and had Toronto on the ropes in overtime in Game 3. What happened thereafter is a collapse, even if history rewrites it as Kawhi Leonard’s triumph over a too-green Giannis Antetokounmpo.

(Interesting question: if the 2019-20 edition fails to win the title, would they be this tournament’s No. 1 overall seed?).

1. 1993-94 Seattle Supersonics

  • ERA: Kemp and Payton
  • RECORD: 63-19
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to No. 8 Denver Nuggets (3-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp
  • COACH: George Karl
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Detlef Schrempf, Kendall Gill, Sam Perkins, Nate McMillan, Michael Cage
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1992-93, 1994-95, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98

It was tough choosing between these Sonics and the 95-96 edition that made the Finals. The 95-96 team won more games and went deeper in the playoffs. Their two stars, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, were better versions of themselves. Maybe they’d have given the 72-10 Bulls more of a series if George Karl put Payton on Michael Jordan from the start.

But the 93-94 edition had a better point differential (+9 to +7.8) in a season without expansion teams, as well as a stronger supporting cast and a much scarier trapping defense. Kendall Gill was an emerging star, Nate McMillan wasn’t injured, Sam Perkins could do more, and Michael Cage was significantly better than Ervin Johnson in the middle. Plus, Bob Kloppenburg, the architect of Seattle’s famous SOS pressure defense, was not on the staff by 1996.

It’s easy to forget how monumental that Nuggets first-round upset was at the time. Jordan was retired, so the title was up for grabs. Seattle’s net rating was higher than any other team and nearly double of the eventual champion Rockets. They won 16 of their first 17 games and 30 of their first 35. They had blown out the Nuggets in each of the first two games of the playoff series. This was the peak version of one of the most enthralling non-champions in NBA history, not the 1995-96 version.


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