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TITLELESS: 16 NBA championship contenders who weren’t good enough

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The cold, hard reality of the NBA Playoffs is that only one team can be champion. These 16 teams weren’t quite good enough.

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The cold, hard reality of the NBA Playoffs is that only one team can be champion. That means that countless great and memorable teams have suffered the unfortunate fate of running into an opponent that’s just a bit better. Meet the 16 teams of the Not Good Enough Division.

The other divisions:


16. 1996-97 Atlanta Hawks

  • ERA: Dikembe’s Hawks
  • RECORD: 56-26
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.4
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to Chicago Bulls (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Dikembe Mutombo
  • COACH: Lenny Wilkins
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Christian Laettner, Tyrone Corbin, Alan Henderson, Eldridge Recasner, Henry James, Jon Barry
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

Once upon a time, the Atlanta Hawks were a free-agent destination. At least they were for Dikembe Mutombo, a young, shot-blocking center who wore out his welcome in Denver. Mutombo seemed headed to Phoenix in a three-team sign-and-trade that would’ve sent Charles Barkley to Houston, but the deal fell apart when Mutombo asked the Suns for more money. Detroit initially jumped to the front of the line, but Atlanta ended up winning the war with a seven-year, $70 million contract offer.

The money was the biggest factor in Mutombo’s decision, but Atlanta also won Mutombo over by promising a bigger offensive role and rewarding close friend Steve Smith with a fat new contract of his own. “I’m much happier, but poorer,” team president Stan Kasten ominously said after retaining Smith. “He was really hard on us, that’s all I’m going to say.”

Atlanta got better the next season, improving by 10 wins and even taking a game off the mighty Bulls in the second round. That was the high-water mark of this era, though. Chicago won that series in five, and the Hawks slowly faded after a fast start to the 1997-98 season.

15. 1984-85 Denver Nuggets

  • ERA: Doug Moe’s run-and-gun fun bunch
  • RECORD: 52-30
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +2.4
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Alex English
  • COACH: Doug Moe
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, T.R. Dunn, Wayne Cooper, Dan Issel, Bill Hanzlik, Elston Turner, Mike Evans
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1987-88

The Denver Nuggets of the 1980s were the prototype for the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns and other up-tempo marvels of the modern era. In many ways, coach Doug Moe was a precursor to Mike D’Antoni. He created a revolutionary whiplash pass-and-move style of play and then left the details for the players to figure out. While other coaches diagrammed intricate set plays and poured over what passed for game film those days, Moe often cancelled practice and never really studied his opponents.

The Nuggets lit up the scoreboard because nobody could get a read on them, but also gave up a ton of points and thus weren’t taken seriously. Not that it bothered Moe too much. This quote from a 1988 Sports Illustrated profile sounds a lot like something D’Antoni would shout to the rooftops years later:

”Most of my career, we’ve been first in offense and last in defense,” Moe says. “But what people don’t realize is that total scores have nothing to do with defense or offense, just the pace of the game. It’s the dumbest statistic ever, totally wacko, and yet everyone uses the total scores as an indication of the kind of defense you play. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but as long as people go by that stat, I know there’s someone out there dumber than I am.”

Adjusting raw stats to account for pace … what a concept!

The 1984-85 team was Moe’s best of the bunch, though it also was the one that looked most traditional. Before the season, Denver traded Kiki Vandeweghe, a 29-point-per-game scorer who couldn’t guard a chair, to Portland for a king’s ransom that included big man Calvin Natt, point guard Fat Lever, shot-blocking center Wayne Cooper, and multiple draft picks. All three thrived while rounding out the roster around star Alex English.

Denver reached the conference finals and had a real shot to beat the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. They blew LA off the court in Game 2 to tie the series, with English dropping 40 on a stunned Forum crowd.

After losing Game 3 at home, Denver came out hot in Game 4, with English scoring 26 first-half points. Disaster struck in the second half when English re-aggravated a thumb injury that kept him out the rest of the series. Denver rallied from eight down in the fourth quarter without English, but lost Game 4 when the Lakers got seven zillion offensive rebounds before a game-winning James Worthy putback with 20 seconds left.

“That has to rank with one of the most courageous performances I’ve ever seen,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, never a man to resort to hyperbole, in a TV interview.

Without English, Denver had no chance in Game 5. Too bad. That was a fun team.

14. 1982-83 San Antonio Spurs

  • ERA: The Iceman
  • RECORD: 53-29
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +3.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): George Gervin
  • COACH: Stan Albeck
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Artis Gilmore, Mike Mitchell, Gene Banks, Johnny Moore, Mike Dunleavy, Bill Willoughby
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1978-79

George Gervin, the skinny, slick wing who brought the finger roll into our lives, had two real chances to win a title.

The first was in 1979. Led by Gervin and high-scoring running mate Larry Kenon, the high-octane, loosey-goosey Spurs ran circles around the aging Washington Bullets to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Why were the Spurs in the East then? :shruggie:) They blew the next two games, but zipped ahead in Game 7 on the road, with Gervin lighting up the scoreboard for 34 points in three quarter. They led by 10 in the fourth and six with two minutes left, but fell apart down the stretch. Gervin didn’t score or even get a shot late, and was bullied inside by Greg Ballard on the other end. Meanwhile, Washington’s Bobby Dandridge took over down the stretch and eventually won the game with a baseline turnaround over three Spurs.

Gervin’s second real chance came in 1982-83, with a team that barely resembled the one that was forged in the wide-open ABA. The Spurs replaced coach Doug Moe with Stan Albeck, who believed San Antonio needed to slow the game down and build a smash-mouth team exclusively around Gervin. Kenon made way for Mike Mitchell, a former all-star in Cleveland who rediscovered his game with the Spurs. After the Lakers swept them in 1982, San Antonio made a bold move for Artis Gilmore, a big-name center to match up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. San Antonio won four of five against LA in the regular season, but a pissed-off Abdul-Jabbar raised his game to another level and destroyed Gilmore in LA’s six-game West Finals victory.

Which to choose? The 1979 team got closer, but the 1983 team had more top-end talent and was more equipped to succeed in the playoffs. They just happened to run into a buzzsaw in Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers.

13. 1971-72 Chicago Bulls

  • ERA: Dick Motta’s Bulls
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +9.3
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to Los Angeles Lakers (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Bob Love
  • COACH: Dick Motta
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Weiss, Tom Boerwinkle, Clifford Ray
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1970-71, 1972-73, 1973-74, 1974-75

The Bulls were to the 70s what the Bucks were to the 1980s: a well-rounded ensemble cast that always put itself in the mix, was one piece short of taking down the best teams of their era.

In Chicago’s case, that piece was a center. Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier were pit bull defensive guards, and the combination of Chet Walker and Bob Love were nearly unstoppable at the forward spots. But Chicago kept getting beat by the great big men of their era, losing three times to Wilt Chamberlain’s Lakers and once to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks. Tom Boerwinkle and Clifford Ray got more out of their talent than they should have, but they were dramatically overmatched against the best of their era.

Chicago came closer to the Finals in 1971, 1973, and 1975, when they lost in the seventh game of the conference finals. The 1972-73 team actually held a seven-point lead over the Lakers with less than three minutes left of Game 7 before fumbling it away. But the 1971-72 club had the best point differential of the bunch and destroyed everyone not named Los Angeles or Milwaukee. Unfortunately, they had to face the 69-win Lakers in the playoffs, which ended in a sweep.

12. 2008-09 Denver Nuggets

  • ERA: Melo’s Nuggets
  • RECORD: 54-28
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +3.4
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Carmelo Anthony
  • COACH: George Karl
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chauncey Billups, Nene, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Anthony Carter, Linas Kleiza, Chris Andersen, Dahntay Jones
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

The early-season acquisition of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson turned these undisciplined Nuggets into a tough unit that actually played up to expectations. Billups gave George Karl much-needed leadership and enabled Carmelo Anthony to focus on what he did best: score. If only they could complete an inbounds pass in the closing seconds of tight West Finals games against the Lakers. My God.

How hard could it be?

11. 1996-97 Houston Rockets

  • ERA: The old “Superteam”
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +4.5
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Utah Jazz (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler
  • COACH: Rudy Tomjanovich
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Mario Elie, Matt Maloney, Kevin Willis, Eddie Johnson, Sedale Threatt, Brent Price
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

This was the original Superteam, at least in the inorganic, player-empowered way we now associate with the term.

Following a rough year in Phoenix, Charles Barkley threatened to retire if the Suns didn’t trade him to a contender. Houston obliged, giving up a package centered around Sam Cassell and Robert Horry, two key members of their back-to-back title teams in 1994 and 1995. “I’m excited because I called the shots,” Barkley said when the trade was reported. “When push comes to shove, I think you have to stand up to the system.” These kinds of trades are common now, but they weren’t back then.

The move left the Rockets as an old, shallow team, with Barkley joining fellow graybeards Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Houston patched together enough of a supporting cast to reach the conference finals, but fell to a John Stockton buzzer beater in Game 6.

They then succumbed to injury the next couple seasons, with the bottom falling out after an ill-fated deal for Scottie Pippen during the lockout season.

If you ask Horry, the deal for Barkley was the moment the Rockets’ dynasty died. From a 2015 Huffington Post interview:

“It’s one of the things that me and Sam Cassell talk about all the time. If they would have made the changes and bring in Kevin Willis and Eddie Johnson to that team adding to me and Sam, that’s all we needed. Now they bring in Barkley, a guy who doesn’t like to practice and a guy that doesn’t work hard — it’s documented by Jordan. Now you would’ve added us to that mix with two vets; we would have had a great team. But, no, they think, ‘Oh, we’re going to bring in Charles,’ and, hell, you just realize Charles didn’t win anything in Phoenix — he didn’t win in Philly. And sometimes great players don’t make a great team better.”

Horry’s right that Barkley’s fit was awkward, but he’s dramatically overrating a pre-trade Rockets team that was already showing its age after the Sonics swept them out of the 1996 playoffs. Were the 72-win Bulls really gonna be scared of that Rockets team, plus two 34+-year-old aging vets? At least adding Barkley gave the Rockets a chance.

10. 1975-76 Denver Nuggets

  • ERA: David Thompson’s Nuggets
  • RECORD: 60-24
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in ABA Finals to New Jersey Nets (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): David Thompson
  • COACH: Larry Brown
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dan Issel, Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, Chuck Williams, Byron Beck, Gus Gerard, Claude Terry, Jim Bradley
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1974-75, 1976-77, 1977-78

The lone ABA representative on this list might have been disrespected in the rankings. As the ABA fell apart around them, the Nuggets turned into a powerhouse. In 1974-75, young coach Larry Brown led Denver to 65 wins before they were overwhelmed by George McGinnis’ one-man show in Indiana. That team then added David Thompson, a breathtaking rookie from NC State whose grace and high-flying aerial assaults mimicked a young Michael Jordan a decade later. (Jordan idolized Thompson, which is why he asked Thompson to present him at his Hall of Fame induction.)

But the Nuggets were again defeated by a one-man band, falling to Julius Erving and the Nets in the ABA’s last Finals series. Denver led by 22 points in the second half of Game 6 before falling apart to lose the crown.

Thompson and the Nuggets’ NBA careers were decidedly less memorable. Thompson dealt with injuries and a cocaine addiction that nearly wrecked his life. (He is thankfully sober today.) His relationship with Brown soured, with Brown chafing by Thompson’s $800,000-a-year new contract before calling it quits midway through the 1978-79 season. (Larry Brown folding early? Why I never.) The Nuggets have occasionally thrived in the NBA, but have never reached their ABA heights.

9. 1996-97 Miami Heat

  • ERA: Riley and Zo
  • RECORD: 61-21
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.5
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Chicago Bulls (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Alonzo Mourning
  • COACH: Pat Riley
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tim Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Dan Majerle, P.J. Brown, Voshon Leonard, Isaac Austin, Keith Askins, Kurt Thomas, John Crotty
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1997-98, 1998-99, 1999-00

Four of the five legitimate Heat teams of the ugly-but-effective Pat Riley-Alonzo Mourning era lost as favorites in the playoffs. Three of those losses were to the Knicks, while the fourth was a thorough evisceration by Baron DavisCharlotte Hornets. This was the fifth of those five, and they may have lost to the Knicks too if not for the league’s controversial rule about leaving the bench during a fight. You remember this, don’t you?

I remembered the fight, but I forgot the politicking by both teams thereafter. I forgot P.J. Brown saying he doesn’t believe “all that choir boy image stuff” with the Knicks. I forgot Charlie Ward claiming he was just “boxing out like I usually do on free throws” even though the Knicks were down 15 with less than two minutes remaining. I hadn’t seen Pat Riley’s firm insistence that the fight only got “out of hand” because the Knicks players left the bench. (Riley’s annunciation on “com-BAT-ants” was especially well executed.) I very much enjoyed Jeff Van Gundy’s withering sarcasm at the thought of the NBA allowing “6’11 guys picking on six-foot guys.” (Think of the children!)

But Tim Hardaway is the one who really stole the show. Look at his wink-winking to the camera while saying, “it’ll be very interesting to see what [NBA rules czar] Rod Thorn does.” It was not subtle.

It worked, though. Thorn tossed Brown for the rest of the series, but made five Knicks — Ward, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Larry Johnson — serve one-game suspensions. The first three missed Miami’s Game 6 victory at MSG, while the latter two sat out as Miami closed out the series in seven. The Heat ended up losing in five to the Bulls in the next round.

8. 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves

  • ERA: KG and Flip
  • RECORD: 58-24
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.4
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kevin Garnett
  • COACH: Flip Saunders
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Wally Szczerbiak, Ervin Johnson, Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg, Michael Olowokandi, Mark Madsen
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

The one and only credible Timberwolves team in the Kevin Garnett era rose and fell in a flash. Dogged by first-round exits carrying a limited supporting cast, Garnett went to owner Glen Taylor and asked for more help. He did his part by signing a new contract below the max, and Taylor’s embattled general manager Kevin McHale did his by acquiring Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Both veterans came with high salaries and as distressed assets, having worn out their welcomes in Milwaukee and New York.

After a slow start, the team gelled beautifully, racing to the top of the Western Conference. They survived a formidable Kings team in the second round, then split the first two games with the vaunted Lakers in the conference Finals. But their Game 2 victory was tarnished by a debilitating Cassell injury, which turned out to be a torn hip that rendered him useless the rest of the series. With Cassell and backup Troy Hudson both out, Minnesota had to use third-stringer Darrick Martin, with Garnett of all people supplying additional playmaking. “I knew for a fact that if I was healthy, we would have won a championship,” Cassell said in 2014.

Minnesota lost that series in six, and then all hell broke loose. Sprewell and Cassell asked for contract extensions, but didn’t get them. (This is where Sprewell’s famous “feed my family” quote was born.) Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak, both former starters displaced by Sprewell and Cassell the previous season, wanted their jobs back. As a horrendous follow-up season came to a close, Taylor called the trades for Cassell and Sprewell “a failed experiment” and “financial-wise, a poor decision on our part.” Ten months ago, they were the missing pieces in the best Timberwolves team of all time. Now, they were a failed experiment? The about-face was remarkable.

Sprewell left in free agency and never played again, while Cassell was included along with a first-round pick in a disastrous sign-and-trade with the Clippers for the right to give Marko Jaric a six-year, $37 million contract. Two years later, the Timberwolves traded Garnett to the Celtics. Now that’s how you destroy a contender.

7. 1997-98 Indiana Pacers

  • ERA: Reggie!
  • RECORD: 59-23
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +6.1
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Chicago Bulls (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Reggie Miller
  • COACH: Larry Bird
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Dale David, Antonio Davis, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose, Derrick McKey, Travis Best
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1993-94, 1994-95, 1998-99, 1999-00

This was the best Pacers team of the Reggie Miller era, though others may have advanced further in the playoffs (2000), suffered more disappointing defeats (1999), or produced more iconic moments (1994, 1995).

The 1997-98 club was rock solid, having replaced taskmaster coach Larry Brown with the more laid-back Larry Bird. They were deep, with young Jalen Rose emerging as a dynamic bench player to complement the veteran core of Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin, and the Davises. If only they could have snagged a defensive rebound or two in that Game 7 defeat to the Bulls.

6. 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks

  • ERA: Don Nelson’s Bucks
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +9
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Boston Celtics (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Sidney Moncrief
  • COACH: Don Nelson
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey, Ricky Pierce, Alton Lister, Craig Hodges, Randy Breuer
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1980-81, 1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-84, 1984-85, 1986-87

Any of the wonderful-yet-forgotten Bucks teams from the 1980s would be a strong entry in this tournament. You could make a great case for the 1980-81, which relied on an in-prime Marques Johnson, an emerging Sidney Moncrief, and an aging-but-still-effective Bob Lanier in the middle. They won 60 games despite enduring several injuries, but fell to the 76ers in the second round by the slimmest of margins. Game 7, played in front of a sparse Philadelphia crowd, featured 19 ties, 11 lead changes, and one furious Bucks’ rally from 16 points down that fell just short.

But the 1985-86 Bucks get the nod because they did the one thing no other Bucks team could during the decade: beat the 76ers. It took a missed jumper by Julius Erving in the closing seconds of Game 7, but it happened. One point on the right side in 1986 vs. one point on the wrong side in 1981 was the difference.

Just getting past Philly took everything out of Milwaukee. Moncrief, who always seemed to have nagging health issues, was nursing a painful foot injury that kept him out of Game 6 against the 76ers. Young co-star Terry Cummings, acquired in a masterful trade with the Clippers for Johnson before the 1984-85 season, was fighting through a dislocated finger. Ricky Pierce, the Bucks’ fabulous sixth man, played through a sprained ankle. They might have been drawing dead against the fantastic 1985-86 Celtics even at full strength, but we never really got to find out.

5. 1963-64 San Francisco Warriors

  • ERA: Young Wilt
  • RECORD: 48-32
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.1
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Boston Celtics (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Wilt Chamberlain
  • COACH: Alex Hannum
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Guy Rodgers, Al Attles, Wayne Hightower, Gary Phillips, Nate Thurmond
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1959-60, 1961-62

Fair or not, Young Wilt Chamberlain had a reputation for being a selfish coach-killer that only cared about his own stats. That got taken to its logical extreme in 1961-62, when Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game for a Philadelphia Warriors team that catered to his every move.

After those Warriors fell narrowly to Bill Russell’s Celtics in the East Finals, they moved across the country to San Francisco and saw Chamberlain mope his way through a 31-49 season that alienated his new fans. “He felt like someone who bought a Rolls-Royce only to discover that the horn didn’t work,” read one Sports Illustrated article.

In came Alex Hannum, a no-nonsense, 6’7 former championship coach who was there to stand up to Chamberlain. The two men got into a screaming match early in the season, but Chamberlain responded by playing more team ball and empowering the rest of the Warriors players. They lost in five games to Boston in the Finals, but the Hannum-Chamberlain partnership seemed poised for the long haul.

Instead, the Warriors fell apart the next season. Chamberlain was nowhere near himself after a preseason bout with pancreatitis, and eccentric new owner Frankie Mieuli traded him to the 76ers to avoid paying out a massive salary. Hannum left the next season and later reunited with Chamberlain to win the 1967 title as 76ers coach.

4. 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers

  • ERA: Elgin and Mr. Clutch
  • RECORD: 54-26
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +2.2
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Boston Celtics (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Elgin Baylor, Jerry West
  • COACH: Fred Schaus
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dick Barnett, Frank Selvy, Rudy LaRusso, Jim Krebs, Hod Rod Hundley, Ray Felix, Tom Hawkins
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1962-63, 1964-65, 1965-66, 1967-68

It’s a real shame Elgin Baylor never won a championship. His Lakers always ran into the same brick wall that was Bill Russell’s Celtics, and always seemed to fall short in the same way. He and Jerry West were always spectacular, but the Celtics always had more depth and cohesion.

Baylor came closest in 1962, and damn did he come close amid remarkable circumstances. He was called up to the Army Reserve during the season — because he was stationed in Washington, he could only travel back to play in weekend Lakers games. His service was finished by the time the playoffs rolled around, making LA a much more dangerous team than its record indicated.

Led by Baylor and West, the Lakers split the first three games and 47:55 with the Celtics. With five seconds left in Game 7, the Lakers inbounded the ball to Hot Rod Hundley. Legendary Celtics point guard Bob Cousy inexplicably gazed at the ball, leaving Frank Selvy wiiiide open from 12 feet away. But Selvy missed, and Boston eventually survived in overtime when Cousy dribbled out the clock.

Seriously, what was Cousy doing???

Dogged by injuries, Baylor was never quite the same player thereafter. He retired early in the 1971-72 season as a shell of his former self. Months later, those Lakers won the title.

3. 1992-93 Phoenix Suns

  • ERA: Barkley’s Suns
  • RECORD: 62-20
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +6.7
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Chicago Bulls (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Charles Barkley
  • COACH: Paul Westphal
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Richard Dumas, Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge, Mark West, Oliver Miller, Frank Johnson
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1993-94, 1994-95

These Suns are remembered for their star power, high-octane offense, and memorable duel with the Bulls in the 1993 Finals. They swung a huge trade for Charles Barkley and ran away with the West. Barkley won MVP, scowling and shouting his message from the rooftops whenever he could find a microphone. The Barkley-Michael Jordan Finals duel occurred at arguably the peak of NBA interest in this country.

As fun as they were, though, they’ve become a bit overrated over the years. Their point differential was about the same as the previous two Suns teams without Barkley, and their defense was porous for a title favorite. Barkley and holdover Kevin Johnson co-exited, but never developed great on-court chemistry thanks in part to Johnson’s injuries. They lost the first two games of their first-round series against a dogshit Lakers team before rallying to win in five. Their West Finals victory over Seattle could’ve gone either way. Key reserve Cedric Ceballos missed the tail end of their playoff run.

I’m just saying they might be over-ranked.

2. 2017-18 Houston Rockets

  • ERA: James Harden’s Moreyball
  • RECORD: 65-17
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +8.5
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Golden State Warriors (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): James Harden, Chris Paul (injured Games 6-7)
  • COACH: Mike D’Antoni
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Nene
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2014-15, 2016-17, 2018-19

Fortified by the offseason acquisition of Chris Paul, the Rockets dominated the regular season behind a switch-everything defense and a deadly isolation attack spearheaded by James Harden.

Everything they did was to match up against the Warriors, a team nobody else dared to challenge. They took a 3-2 lead in their conference finals series, but lost Paul due to injury late in Game 5. Somehow, they led both Games 6 and 7 by double-digits at halftime. But Golden State flipped the switch and the Rockets faded, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 missed threes at a time.

1. 1996-97 Utah Jazz

  • ERA: Stockton and The Mailman
  • RECORD: 64-18
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +8.8
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Chicago Bulls (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Karl Malone, John Stockton
  • COACH: Jerry Sloan
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Hornacek, Byron Russell, Greg Ostertag, Antoine Carr, Chris Morris, Shandon Anderson, Adam Keefe, Greg Foster
  • OTHERS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 8987-88, 1989-90, 1991-92, 1993-94, 1994-95, 1995-96, 1997-98, 1998-99

Twenty-three years later, the subhead on Jackie MacMullen’s “Inside the NBA” piece for the March 17, 1997, issue of Sports Illustrated sticks out like a sore thumb. “[Karl] Malone is playing like an MVP,” it read. “Not that anyone has noticed.”

Whether the piece changed the narrative or simply reflected something deeper beneath the surface, it had a major effect. Two months later, Malone edged out Michael Jordan in the voting to win the NBA’s preeminent regular-season prize.

The Bulls seethed, which proved to be bad news for Malone when he finally reached his first NBA Finals. As he stepped to the line in the closing seconds of a tied Game 1, Scottie Pippen whispered the now-iconic words: “The Mailman don’t deliver on Sundays.” Malone missed both, opening the door for Jordan to hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer.

That set the stage for a Finals in which Malone played below par and the Jazz lost in six games despite often being on the doorstep of victory. Their Game 5 loss has been memorialized as Jordan’s “Flu Game” moment, and they gave up a game-winning jumper to Steve Kerr in Game 6 before throwing the ball away at the buzzer.

Too bad, because these Jazz were a dominant force. They zipped through the West playoffs, schooling the young Lakers in five and outlasting the superteam Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley in the West Finals. In any other season, they would have been champions.