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TITLELESS: 16 overachieving NBA teams who ultimately fell short of a championship

Some great non-champion NBA teams weren’t supposed to be great teams until they showed off in the playoffs. Here are 16 near-miss playoff runs defined by outperforming their talent, seed, or both.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant never won a title on the Thunder.

Some great non-champion NBA teams weren’t supposed to be great teams until they showed off in the playoffs. Here are 16 near-miss playoff runs defined by outperforming their talent, seed, or both. Meet the Overachiever Division.

We begin with the ultimate NBA Finals Cinderella and end with a more recent contender that broke up in the summer, though not by choice.

The other divisions:

16. 1975-76 Phoenix Suns

  • ERA: John MacLeod’s Suns
  • RECORD: 42-40
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in Finals to Boston Celtics (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Paul Westphal
  • COACH: John MacLeod
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Alvan Adams, Gar Heart, Dick Van Arsdale, Curtis Perry, Ricky Sobers, Keith Erickson, John Shumate
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1977-78, 1978-79, 1979-80, 1980-81, 1982-83

The most unlikely Finals participant in NBA history was this close to pulling off an improbable championship. After winning Game 7 on the home floor of the defending champion Warriors in the conference Finals, Phoenix split the first four games with a Celtics team that didn’t take them seriously.

That brings us to Game 5, often referred to as the greatest game in NBA history. Boston won in triple overtime and took the Finals in Game 6, but some truly wild shit happened in that game. Boston took a 20-point first-quarter lead, but the Suns chipped away. Led by Paul Westphal, who was traded by the Celtics for Charlie Scott in one of those now-for-future moves that benefitted both teams, the Suns came back from nine down in the final three minutes to force overtime.

With the score tied at 101 and three seconds left in the first overtime, Boston veteran Paul Silas grabbed a rebound and visibly signaled to call timeout despite Boston having none left. It should have resulted in a technical foul and a free throw. But referee Richie Powers ignored Silas’ request, allowing the game to go to double overtime.

Powers later admitted he “did not want Boston to lose like that,” according to Bob Ryan’s book Scribe: My Life in Sports. (Probably not coincidentally, then-Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn called Powers “my favorite referee” in a 2016 Boston Globe interview). Years later, even Silas admitted he called timeout and Powers “didn’t see me or didn’t want to see me.”

The Suns then scored four straight points at the end of double overtime to take a one-point lead with four seconds left. Boston inbounded to ageless legend John Havlicek, who was playing through a torn plantar fascia. He banked what appeared to be the game-winner off the glass and in. As Celtics fans stormed the court and the players rushed to the locker room, Powers, perhaps in an attempt to atone for his previous mistake, ruled there was still one second left in the game. (An angry Celtics fan apparently tackled and pinned Powers to the floor during the ensuing melee. Imagine if that happened today.)

But wait, there’s more! Westphal knew of a loophole in the league’s technical foul rules and exploited it for Phoenix’s benefit. He called timeout, knowing Phoenix had none left and would receive a technical foul. (Funny how Powers saw this one, but not Silas’ unintentional gaffe).

Boston hit the free throw to lead by two, but Phoenix retained the ball and actually got to inbound it at half court. The Suns threw it to Gar Heard, who turned and nailed a 20-foot jumper to force triple overtime.

Relive all of that here. It’s WILD.

The Suns finally fell short in the third overtime when little-used Boston reserve Glenn McDonald ran circles around their dead legs. They stayed in the mix for the next half decade, but never came that close again.

15. 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers

  • ERA: Dame Time
  • RECORD: 54-28
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to San Antonio Spurs (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge
  • COACH: Terry Stotts
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum

Like the early-2010s Pacers, these Blazers hit their peak in the middle of the following season. Portland’s well-balanced starting lineup was in the thick of the West title race by the middle of the 2014-15 year, but lost all momentum when Wesley Matthews, the team’s heartbeat, tore his Achilles.

The Blazers fell apart thereafter and chose to break up the team the following summer after LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the Spurs.

14. 2001-02 Boston Celtics

  • ERA: Pierce and ‘Toine
  • RECORD: 49-33
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to New Jersey Nets (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker
  • COACH: Jim O’Brien
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kenny Anderson, Tony Battie, Eric Williams, Tony Delk, Rodney Rodgers, Erick Strickland, Vitaly Potapenko, Walter McCarty

What a strange team. After taking over for Rick Pitino late in the previous season, coach Jim O’Brien fashioned a wacky style of play that encouraged players to shoot tons of threes even if they weren’t especially good at them. Antoine Walker took a whopping 645 attempts while making just 34 percent. Nowadays, that’s less weird. Back then, it was wild. But it all somehow worked because Paul Pierce was incredible and Walker’s versatility eased the burden on the rest of the team.

Nobody took these Celtics seriously, which nearly worked to their advantage after they staged a memorable 26-point comeback to take a 2-1 series lead over the Nets in the East Finals.

But the Nets won the next three games, including two in Boston, to earn the right to be the Lakers’ sacrificial lamb. Boston faltered the next few seasons and nearly traded Pierce, but got bailed out when Timberwolves general manager and Celtics legend Kevin McHale relented on trading Kevin Garnett to Boston.

(Celtics Blog did a wonderful tribute to the 2001-02 team that’s well worth your time).

13. 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies

  • ERA: Grit ‘N Grind
  • RECORD: 56-26
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to San Antonio Spurs (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Zach Randolph
  • COACH: Lionel Hollins
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis, Darrell Arthur

I won’t argue if you’d rather include Dave Joerger’s 2014-15 Grit ‘N Grind team that took a 2-1 lead on the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the second round. That team briefly appeared to solve its longtime shooting problem before the Warriors unveiled their Andrew Bogut-on-Tony-Allen defense. (Grizzly Bear Blues, SB Nation’s Grizzlies community, would also take the 2014-15 club)

But I chose the 2012-13 team that reached the conference finals despite (or because of?) trading Rudy Gay in midseason in a money-saving move that angered coach Lionel Hollins. Marc Gasol was at the peak of his defensive powers, Zach Randolph was still a force, and Quincy Pondexter looked like the 3-and-D wing that could have completed the Grizzlies’ core.

12. 2012-13 Golden State Warriors

  • ERA: Pre-Kerr Steph
  • RECORD: 47-35
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to San Antonio Spurs (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Stephen Curry
  • COACH: Mark Jackson
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: David Lee, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green

No Overachievers Division is complete without a Stephen Curry Cinderella team. The 2012-13 team was decent, but didn’t take off until Curry went en fuego in the playoffs. (David Lee’s injury, which forced Mark Jackson to go small, also helped.)

The cagey Spurs ended the Warriors’ run, but Curry lit them up twice on the road in the first two games before re-injuring his ankle in Game 3. That limited him the rest of the series and made the Warriors’ Game 1 collapse that ended with horrible, botched coverage on a game-winning Manu Ginobili three loom larger.

The decision to pick the 12-13 team instead of the 51-win outfit the next year was an easy one considering the dysfunction surrounding Jackson’s final season in charge.

11. 1989-90 Phoenix Suns

  • ERA: Pre-Barkley Suns
  • RECORD: 54-28
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Portland Trail Blazers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kevin Johnson
  • COACH: Cotton Fitzsimmons
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Mark West, Eddie Johnson, Kurt Rambis, Andrew Lang
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1988-89, 1990-91, 1991-92

The pre-Charles Barkley Suns were a wonderful story and might have been even better than their more well-known counterparts. After an embarrassing drug scandal rocked the team in 1987, new owner Jerry Colangelo held a fire sale. The most controversial move was trading Larry Nance, the team’s best player and a model citizen who wasn’t involved in the scandal, for a package that included little-used big man Mark West, a future first-round pick that turned into a Central Michigan guard named Dan Majerle, and a backup point guard named Kevin Johnson who was stuck behind young all-star Mark Price.

The turnaround was swift. Johnson turned out to be a superstar, teaming with the undrafted Jeff Hornacek to form the “KJ and Horny” backcourt. (Great name.) Along with marquee free agent signing Tom Chambers, the Suns stormed into the West’s elite. They ended the Lakers’ dynasty with a stunning 4-1 win in the West semifinals, with Johnson blowing by Byron Scott repeatedly and Hornacek making Magic Johnson pay for his defensive roaming. After winning the decisive fifth game in LA, Kevin Johnson declared his desire to make the Suns the “team of the 90s.”

But that didn’t happen. Phoenix blew it in a six-game conference finals loss to Portland, coughing up fourth-quarter leads in the first two games in Portland and blowing a six-point advantage in the final few minutes of a Game 6 defeat. Johnson missed the second half of that decisive loss with one of the many nagging injuries that defined the rest of his career.

By the time Barkley arrived in 1992, Johnson was a more muted version of himself and Chambers was nearing his last legs. Barkley and Johnson never fit seamlessly, and the Suns never quite got the most out of their on-paper talent. What might’ve happened if Barkley arrived in 1989 instead of 1992? We’ll never know.

10. 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets

  • ERA: Young CP3
  • RECORD: 56-26
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West semifinals to San Antonio Spurs (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Chris Paul
  • COACH: Byron Scott
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: David West, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, Bobby Jackson, Bonzi Well, Jannero Pargo, Rasual Butler

Another long-forgotten cult classic I loved during my college days. Chris Paul was robbed of the MVP because the collective media decided to give Kobe Bryant a lifetime achievement award. Yeah, I said it. Those Paul/Tyson Chandler lobs were things of beauty. I’m still mad at Jannero Pargo for shooting the Hornets out of that Game 7 against the Spurs. They would have put up a better fight against the Lakers in the next round.

That was the only real moment of glory for Paul in New Orleans.

9. 2002-03 New Jersey Nets

  • ERA: Kidd’s Nets
  • RECORD: 49-33
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in Finals to San Antonio Spurs (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Jason Kidd
  • COACH: Byron Scott
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, Dikembe Mutombo, Jason Collins, Lucious Harris, Rodney Rodgers, Aaron Williams

The 2001-02 Nets had the novelty factor and won more games, but the 2002-03 version was much stronger. The big offseason trade of Keith Van Horn for Dikembe Mutombo was a bit of a flop, but it did allow second-year forward Richard Jefferson to step into Van Horn’s spot and emerge as an all-star talent. New Jersey had the mighty Spurs on the ropes in the Finals, but they blew Game 5 at home and succumbed to Tim Duncan’s near-quadruple-double in Game 6.

It all fell apart from there.

8. 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks

  • ERA: Bud’s Hawks
  • RECORD: 60-22
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Cleveland Cavaliers (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): None
  • COACH: Mike Budenholzer
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Dennis Schroder, Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Pero Antic, Mike Scott

I loved this team. They had five quality players whose talents blended perfectly, all working together to create one of the prettiest offenses of the modern era. Their regular-season win over the eventual champion Warriors in Atlanta is still one of the highest-skill basketball games I’ve ever seen.

But deep down, we all knew they didn’t have enough to win a title or maintain their flash of success. They were wobbling before LeBron James and the Cavaliers unceremoniously finished them off in the conference finals.

Still would’ve been nice if Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll were fully healthy and the NYPD didn’t break Thabo Sefolosha’s leg.

7. 1963-64 Cincinnati Royals

  • ERA: Prime Oscar Robertson
  • RECORD: 55-25
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Boston Celtics (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Oscar Robertson
  • COACH: Jack McMahon
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jerry Lucas, Wayne Embry, Jack Twyman, Tom Hawkins, Bucky Bockhorn, Adrian Smith, Bob Boozer

This was Oscar Robertson’s best team during his heyday, though it wasn’t the team that got closest to the Finals or the one that featured Robertson’s famous triple-double season. It was the year Oscar won league MVP, earning the crown in a landslide over Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

But Oscar had nothing left by the time the East Finals with Boston began, and he was locked up by the combination of K.C. Jones on ball and Russell on the backside.

6. 2012-13 Indiana Pacers

  • ERA: Paul George and Frank Vogel
  • RECORD: 49-32
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Miami Heat (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Paul George
  • COACH: Frank Vogel
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Roy Hibbert, David West, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi, Tyler Hansbrough, Sam Young, D.J. Augustin

These Pacers were an NBA powerhouse for a calendar year that took place over two NBA seasons. During the second half of 2012-13, Paul George emerged from the injured Danny Granger’s shadow to push the Heatles to the brink. (I’ll defend the decision to bench Roy Hibbert at the end of Game 1 until the end of time). Then, the Pacers built one of the game’s stingiest defenses and went 33-7 during the first half of the 2013-14 season. Let’s not speak of what happened thereafter.

So pay no attention to the Pacers’ mediocre 2012-13 full season record. They’re ranked this high because of their play from January 2013 to January 2014.

5. 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers

  • ERA: Iverson
  • RECORD: 56-26
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-1. Stepover game)
  • KEY STAR(S): Allen Iverson
  • COACH: Larry Brown
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Aaron McKie, Matt Geiger, Kevin Ollie, Raja Bell

These 76ers are iconic because of one small man and one memorable stepover after a made shot. They were — or rather, Allen Iverson was — David going up against a Goliath in the apex Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers. Every NBC promo highlighted that theme.

But the story of the 2000-01 76ers is more complex, as SB Nation’s Rewinder series beautifully illustrates.

To wit:

  • Iverson was nearly traded to the Pistons before the season in a massive four-team deal. The trade, which was agreed upon by all parties, would’ve sent Eddie Jones, Glen Rice, an ancient Dale Ellis, and Jerome Williams to Philly. Yuck. Iverson was told the trade was happening. But it fell apart because backup center Matt Geiger refused to waive his 15 percent trade kicker, which he needed to do to make the salaries make up.
  • Dikembe Mutombo wasn’t the midseason acquisition that pushed the 76ers over the top, as you might expect given his name recognition. It’s more accurate to say he was an emergency replacement acquired by necessity. Philly was 36-13 at the NBA All-Star Game break thanks to Iverson and shot-blocking dynamo Theo Ratliff, who rode a career season to an all-star nod. But Ratliff broke his wrist in the final game before the break, jeopardizing Philly’s run. Rather than wait things out, the 76ers made him the centerpiece of a trade with the Hawks for the disgruntled Mutombo, with Toni Kukoc also heading to Atlanta. After that 36-13 start, Philly went just 20-13 down the stretch and had to endure two Game 7s before reaching the Finals.
  • Ask a Bucks fan about the officiating in that 2001 conference finals. Just do it.
  • The 76ers’ victory was still an amazing feat considering their injury situation. Starting small forward George Lynch broke his foot in the second round and didn’t play again. Point guard Eric Snow fractured his foot in the next round and played through it. Sixth Man of the Year Aaron McKie broke his foot in Game 1 of the Finals and played through it, too. Also, Mutombo was playing through a broken finger. I’m surprised those dudes could even walk.

4. 2008-09 Orlando Magic

  • ERA: Dwight and Stan
  • RECORD: 59-23
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Dwight Howard
  • COACH: Stan Van Gundy
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Rafer Alston, Courney Lee, Keith Bogans, Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, Marcin Gortat, Anthony Johnson

The story of the NBA’s three-point revolution isn’t complete without mentioning the Stan Van Gundy-Dwight Howard Magic. Desperate for answers after starting power forward Tony Battie got injured in the 2007 preseason, Van Gundy made the bold decision to slide marquee free agent acquisition Rashard Lewis up to power forward to make room for the enigmatic Hedo Turkoglu. With Lewis spacing the floor for Howard, Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson, Orlando spent the next three seasons shattering three-point records while maintaining one of the league’s best defenses.

The 2009-10 version, with Vince Carter instead of Turkoglu, was stronger in the regular season and favored in the East Finals after LeBron James’ Cavaliers lost to the Celtics. But I prefer the 2008-09 version because it advanced further in the playoffs, scored the most impressive series victory of the era over a better LeBron team, and had two giant “what if” moments — Nelson’s midseason injury and Courtney Lee’s blown layup that would’ve won Game 2 of the Finals against the Lakers — that could have made them champions.

3. 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers

  • ERA: Shaq, Pre-Phil
  • RECORD: 61-21
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Utah Jazz (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Shaquille O’Neal
  • COACH: Del Harris
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Rick Fox, Kobe Bryant, Robert Horry, Elden Campbell, Derek Fisher

I wasn’t sure where to put the pre-Phil Jackson Lakers in this tournament. Maybe it’s a stretch to call them “overachievers” considering they were one of the preseason favorites, won 61 games with a ton of talent, and got schooled by the veteran Jazz in four straight games in the conference Finals. By that logic, they belong in the flameout region. (Speaking of flameouts, hoo boy the Nick Van Exel-Del Harris relationship was ugly by this point.)

Here’s my case for them belonging as overachievers:

  • They went 61-21 despite Shaquille O’Neal missing 22 games early in the year. In fact, they were destroying everyone before that untimely injury and never got a chance to return to that level.
  • Van Exel’s ongoing feud with Harris, combined with a midseason injury, forced the Lakers to rely on a little-known second-year guard out of Arkansas Little-Rock named Derek Fisher to run the point.
  • Kobe Bryant wasn’t Kobe Bryant yet. He made the All-Star team due to his popularity, but was still a moderately efficient sixth man that played behind Eddie Jones.
  • The Lakers were not favored in their second-round series with a resurgent Sonics team that had swapped the disgruntled Shawn Kemp for the in-shape (at the time) Vin Baker. Yet after Seattle won the first game at home, the Lakers crushed them in the next four, winning each by double-digits. It was a stunning display at the time.
  • In hindsight, that 97-98 Jazz team was a couple plays away from winning the title. Was it really a huge shame to lose to them?
  • The worst of the pre-Jackson Lakers drama occurred the following season after the lockout. Van Exel got traded, Jones was moved for Glen Rice, Harris lost his job, and the bizarre Dennis Rodman experience threw everything off. That’s the season they really underachieved. I’m not sure the 97-98 edition qualifies.

Thus, they’re here.

2. 1981-82 Philadelphia 76ers

  • ERA: Dr. J, pre-Moses
  • RECORD: 58-24
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Julius Erving
  • COACH: Billy Cunningham
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Caldwell Jones, Lionel Hollins, Bobby Jones, Darryl Dawkins, Steve Mix, Mike Bantom
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1976-77, 1977-78, 1979-80, 1980-81

Julius Erving did win one title with the 76ers, but that was only after getting MVP Moses Malone as a running mate in the summer of 1982. Based on the rules of this game, all of Dr. J’s Philly clubs prior to then are eligible for this tournament.

The 1976-77 club had the most star power and the 1980-81 version had the best regular season, but we’re going with the 1981-82 edition because they were the ones to slay the Boston Garden dragon. Andrew Toney really was a forgotten legend.

That was the game the legendary “BEAT LA” chant was born. Alas, the 76ers did not heed the call of their strange bedfellows in Boston. They got blown out at home in Game 1 and fell to the Lakers in six games.

1. 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder

  • ERA: Post-James Harden trade
  • RECORD: 55-27
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to No. 1 Golden State Warriors (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook
  • COACH: Billy Donovan
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, Randy Foye, Kyle Singler

This was the worst regular-season team of the post-James Harden, pre-My Next Chapter Thunder, but the most terrifying at full power. After sleepwalking through the regular season under new coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder beat a 67-win Spurs team in the second round and made the 73-win Warriors look like a junior varsity team during the first four games of the next round. They then lost Game 5, got blitzed by an unconscious Klay Thompson in a thrilling Game 6, and lost in Game 7 after Stephen Curry rediscovered his form.

That series was the start of a budding Western Conference rivalry featuring two of the greatest of this era and tons of other … ah, nevermind.