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TITLELESS: 16 NBA teams who were robbed of a championship

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So many potential great teams were cut short due to injury, mismanagement, or forces beyond their control. Enjoy this eclectic mix of NBA What Might Have Beens.

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Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, and Mike Bibby of the Sacramento Kings.
Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, and Mike Bibby were an iconic trio for the Kings.

The cover art for our final Titleless division is meant to be taken figuratively, not literally. Some of these 16 teams were unjustly “robbed” of their chance to win a championship. Others were thwarted by unforeseen circumstances: injuries mostly, but also their own incompetence and other bizarre factors. They were “robbed” in the sense that cosmic forces conspired to destroy their title dreams or cut short potential dynasties.

Enjoy this eclectic mix of NBA What Might Have Beens.

The other divisions:


16. 1996-97 Detroit Pistons

  • ERA: Young Grant Hill
  • RECORD: 54-28
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.3
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to Atlanta Hawks (3-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Grant Hill
  • COACH: Doug Collins
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Joe Dumars, Lindsey Hunter, Otis Thorpe, Terry Mills, Theo Ratliff, Aaron McKie, Grant Long, Michael Curry
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

With the Bulls struggling late in what proved to be his final season in Chicago, Doug Collins moved Michael Jordan to point guard and refashioned the Bulls’ offense. (Dan Devine of the Ringer has a wonderful summary of how that happened, why it didn’t continue, and how it was the precursor to the point forward movement of today.)

Years later, Collins found a new young star more willing to play along in Detroit, at least initially. He put the ball in Grant Hill’s hands and asked him to run the team as he saw fit. Hill, an often reluctant attacker in the past, thrived in his new role. Collins surrounded Hill with shooters and role-players, opened the floor for Hill to attack, and watched him emerge as a potential new face of the NBA. Detroit got off to a fast start and won 54 games before losing in a tight five-game series to a terrific Hawks team.

Alas, the run was short-lived because Collins’ grating got on Hill’s nerves the same way it got on Jordan’s. The Pistons fell apart the next season, and depending on who you believe, Hill either asked Collins to be fired or declined to endorse him. Two years later, Hill suffered the ankle injury that would forever change his NBA destiny.

15. 1990-91 Golden State Warriors

  • ERA: Run T-M-C
  • RECORD: 44-38
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +1.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin
  • COACH: Don Nelson
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Mitch Richmond, Sarunas Marciulionis, Mario Elie, Rod Higgins, Alton Lister, Tom Tolbert, Tyrone Hill, Jim Petersen
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1991-92

Meet Run TMC, one of the NBA’s all-time cult favorites. With Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin forming a high-scoring trio, the Warriors upset the second-seeded Spurs in four games, using a funky strategy that involved stationing their center as far away as possible so David Robinson couldn’t provide help on their scoring studs. (Remember, this was the illegal defense era.)

They fell to the mighty Lakers in five, but not before stunning them in Game 2 behind a torrid Mullin and nearly winning Game 4 at home.

Unfortunately, Run TMC was short-lived. The Warriors inexplicably traded Richmond to Sacramento for rookie forward Billy Owens, the No. 3 pick in the 1991 draft. Golden State actually won 55 games the next year, but were smashed by the underdog Sonics in the first round. The next few years were kinda bizarre, but let’s just say they did not go as planned.

14. 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks

  • ERA: “Big 3” Bucks
  • RECORD: 52-30
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +3.8
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Philadelphia 76ers (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Ray Allen
  • COACH: George Karl
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell, Lindsey Hunter, Ervin Johnson, Tim Thomas, Jason Caffey, Scott Williams, Darvin Ham
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

The “Big 3” Bucks of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson were an annual tease except for one memorable 2001 playoff run. The Bucks finished with the second seed in the dilapidated East and nearly knocked off Allen Iverson’s 76ers in the conference finals. That series featured some, ahem, curious refereeing decisions, including a potential missed goaltend on Allen’s game-winning tip attempt in Game 5 and a surprising league call to upgrade a common Scott Williams Game 6 foul to a flagrant, thereby forcing him to miss Game 7. Allen essentially said the series was fixed without officially saying it.

Soon, the Bucks went back to being perennial teases. Milwaukee swung a big sign-and-trade for Anthony Mason that summer, thinking an upgrade up front was the missing piece. Instead, Mason threw off their chemistry and they missed the playoffs entirely in 2002 after a late-season collapse.

13. 2017-18 Boston Celtics

  • ERA: Brad Stevens’ Celtics
  • RECORD: 55-27
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +3.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Cleveland Cavaliers (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kyrie Irving (injured in playoffs)
  • COACH: Brad Stevens
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward (injured all season), Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

Classifying these Celtics was challenging because of all the dominoes involved. Gordon Hayward shattering his leg on opening night undoubtedly set the Celtics back, but Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown may not emerge so quickly otherwise. Kyrie Irving’s late-season knee injury killed their championship upside … or did it, based on the evidence of 2019’s dysfunctional season and 2020’s good vibes with Kemba Walker in Irving’s place? What’s the point of comparing 2020’s Celtics with the 2018 version, since Al Horford’s not walking through that door? And how can we possibly quantify the degree to which Tatum’s 2020 superstar emergence relates to the flashes he showed in the 2018 playoffs?

I dunno, man. Let’s just put them here.

12. 2008-09 Portland Trail Blazers

  • ERA: Roy-Oden
  • RECORD: 54-28
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.3
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to Houston Rockets (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Brandon Roy
  • COACH: Nate McMillan
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

What might have been if Greg Oden only stayed healthy? Would the trio of Oden, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge really have dominated the league for years to come?

We’ll never know, but the 2008-09 Blazers are the closest we’ll ever get to an answer. After missing his entire rookie season, Oden stayed relatively healthy and showed dominating flashes in 21 minutes per game behind reliable Joel Przybilla. With Roy emerging as a superstar in his third season and Aldridge becoming a burgeoning sidekick in his second, Portland won 54 regular-season games and looked to be ahead of schedule.

Portland’s run ended that year with a disappointing first-round loss to the Yao Ming-led, Tracy McGrady-less Rockets, who stole Game 1 on the Blazers’ home court and beat them in six. Oden reinjured his knee in December of the following season and played just 23 pro games thereafter.

11. 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers

  • ERA: Post-Process
  • RECORD: 51-31
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in second round to Toronto Raptors (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler
  • COACH: Brett Brown
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick, Wilson Chandler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, Greg Monroe, James Ennis
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2017-18

The post-Process 76ers era is far from over, but maybe 2019 will end up being their best shot to advance deep in the playoffs. What happens if one of the 700 bounces on Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating, series-ending game-winner goes in a different direction?

Do they beat Milwaukee, a team with whom they matched up well? Does Jimmy Butler stay instead of leaving for Miami and throwing thinly veiled shots at Brett Brown’s coaching? Does that mean the 76ers don’t make the mistake of signing Al Horford in the ensuing offseason? We have nothing but time to play the what-if game.

10. 1988-89 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • ERA: The team Jordan always beat
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to Chicago Bulls (3-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Brad Daugherty, Mark Price
  • COACH: Lenny Wilkins
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ron Harper, Larry Nance, Craig Ehlo, Hot Rod Williams, Mike Sanders, Darnell Valentine
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1991-92, 1992-93

Before the Cavaliers became the franchise Michael Jordan tormented, they were a burgeoning young powerhouse propped up by the league itself. Ever heard of the Ted Stepien rule? It’s named after the despicable former Cavaliers owner who, among many other worse things, kept trading first-round picks for nobodies in the early 80s. The NBA eventually blocked him from trading first-rounders, but when that didn’t help, they forced Stepien out, even awarding Cleveland compensatory first-rounders to prop up the franchise’s value to potential buyers. They eventually found one in Gordon Gund, who restored normalcy to the franchise.

With the first rounders Stepien surely wanted to give up, Cleveland drafted key pieces like Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, and (via a draft-day trade) Mark Price. A fourth future stud, Kevin Johnson, was traded for veteran Larry Nance. That young core stunned the league in 1989, finishing with the NBA’s second-best record behind Detroit.

Because they were in the same division as the Pistons, though, they got the East No. 3 seed and a matchup with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. The rest is history.

Cleveland traded Harper just seven games into the next season for the rights to Danny Ferry, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1989 draft that refused to show for the Clippers. Ferry never lived up to the hype, and Cleveland was never quite the same.

9. 1987-88 Dallas Mavericks

  • ERA: Post-expansion Mavs
  • RECORD: 53-29
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +4.4
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Mark Aguirre
  • COACH: John MacLeod
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, Roy Tarpley, James Donaldson, Brad Davis, Detlef Schrempf
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1986-87

Even by this section’s standards, the rise and fall of the 1980s Dallas Mavericks was bizarre. The diverse cast of characters included outspoken owner Donald Carter, general manager Norm Sanju (who endorsed a Process-like rebuild before it was fashionable), talented but drug-troubled center Roy Tarpley, and the nice-but-not-superstar young core that included Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, and Sam Perkins. But the two most notable ones were superstar Mark Aguirre and longtime coach Dick Motta.

Take the criticism Carmelo Anthony received during his career, amp it up a few exponents, and you get Aguirre. An undersized forward with remarkable scoring skills and an equally remarkable ability to leave you wanting more, Aguirre eventually wore out his welcome the year after Dallas finished one game short of the Finals. “Today should be an all-day party because he’s gone,” said Perkins on the day Dallas traded Aguirre to Detroit. Ouch!

(Related tangent: Aguirre has not had his jersey retired by the team. He was supposed to speak at Derek Harper’s ceremony in 2018, but no-showed. Fast-forward to this year, when now-owner Mark Cuban honored the late Kobe Bryant by declaring that no Maverick would ever wear No. 8 or No. 24 again. Aguirre’s number? Twenty-four.)

Calling the Aguirre-Motta relationship “combustible” is kind. For some reason, Motta decided the best way to reach Aguirre was to ride him constantly. “I’ve said things to him that I wouldn’t say to my dog,” Motta said during the 1982-83 season. (Motta later said the quote was taken out of context, supplying this odd defense: “I did cuss my dog out last night. I’d like to go on record saying that. He wet the floor … I’ve never kicked my dog once, and I’ve never had a player die on the floor from overwork or abuse. And my dog still likes me.” OK!)

Somehow, the two co-existed until 1987, when the 55-win Mavs were upset in the first round by the Sonics. Driven by his volcanic relationship with Aguirre, Motta abruptly quit after that season.

Aguirre initially welcomed veteran replacement coach John MacLeod and turned in his best season in leading Dallas to the West Finals, but after a few postseason benchings and a strange summer, he asked to be traded early in the following season.

Dallas fell apart thereafter and slowly turned into a joke of a franchise before Cuban purchased the team in 1999.

8. 2007-08 Houston Rockets

  • ERA: Yao and T-Mac
  • RECORD: 55-27
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +4.7
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in first round to Utah Jazz (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Yao Ming (injured for playoffs), Tracy McGrady
  • COACH: Rick Adelman
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Shane Battier, Rafer Alston, Luis Scola, Bonzi Wells, Chuck Hayes, Luther Head, Carl Landry, Dikembe Mutombo
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2006-07, 2008-09

Talk about duos destined for star-crossed careers: Meet Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady! This remarkable guard-big star tandem missed a combined 179 games from 2004-2009, which is more than two full seasons! Their best shot to go deep in the playoffs together was in 2007, when they lost Game 7 on their home floor to the Jazz.

The 2007-08 team, fueled by a remarkable 22-game winning streak, was the best of the bunch. Twelve of those wins came before Yao suffered yet another stress fracture in his foot, which kept him out for the rest of the season. Houston won 10 more in a row with aging Dikembe Mutombo in Yao’s place, but were running on fumes. In the end, McGrady alone didn’t have enough to avenge the team’s 2007 playoff defeat to the Jazz.

7. 1985-86 Houston Rockets

  • ERA: Twin Towers
  • RECORD: 51-31
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +2.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Boston Celtics (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): (H)akeem Olajuwon
  • COACH: Bill Fitch
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray, John Lucas, Lewis Lloyd, Robert Reid, Jim Petersen, Allen Leavell, Mitchell Wiggins
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

But for a fleeting moment in the 1986 playoffs, the Twin Towers Rockets were more a theoretical dream than a coherent basketball team. Whoever picked “The Greatest Team That Never Was” for Grantland’s giant oral history of the 80s Rockets deserves a raise, because that was always their destiny.

Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon were never going to be a seamless on-court fit. The laid-back Sampson and drill sergeant coach Bill Fitch were never going to see eye to eye. Fitch’s hope that point guard John Lucas would stay sober was never going to pay off. Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins were always threats to be the ones that’d get the book thrown at them to crack down on its players’ drug use. Sampson was never going to be the same physically after his scary fall late in the 1987 season.

But it’s fun to dream, isn’t it?

6. 2003-04 Indiana Pacers

  • ERA: Pre-Malice at the Palace
  • RECORD: 61-21
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +5.8
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Detroit Pistons (4-2)
  • KEY STAR(S): Jermaine O’Neal
  • COACH: Rick Carlisle
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ron Artest, Reggie Miller, Al Harrington, Jamaal Tinsley, Jeff Foster, Anthony Johnson, Austin Croshere, Fred Jones
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: None

5. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls

  • ERA: Rose and Thibs
  • RECORD: 62-20
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.3
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in East Finals to Miami Heat (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Derrick Rose
  • COACH: Tom Thibodeau
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Keith Bogans, C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, Kurt Thomas
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2011-12

Had I known Derrick Rose’s career would be forever altered by one knee injury, I’d have spent much more time appreciating his 2011 MVP season instead of grumbling that the award should’ve gone to Dwight Howard or LeBron James. Rose might have been a tad overrated statistically, but he was an incredible thrill to watch and an inspiring foil to the hated Heatles. Looking back on it, I should have appreciated how Rose’s production and the Bulls’ combination of defense and depth complemented each other, rather than use those forces to argue against Rose’s MVP case. Live and learn.

These Bulls fell short because a pissed-off James put Rose in a straight-jacket in crunch time of Miami’s five-game East Finals victory. With nobody else there to help him score, Rose was powerless to stop the Heat.

4. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns

  • ERA: 7 Seconds Or Less
  • RECORD: 62-20
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.1
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in West Finals to San Antonio Spurs (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire
  • COACH: Brian Hill
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson (injured in WCF), Quentin Richardson, Jim Jackson, Leandro Barbosa
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2005-06, 2006-07, 2009-10

Picking the best Suns team of the Steve Nash era was difficult. The 2010 team was a delightful surprise, the 2006 team inspired one of the best basketball books of the millennium, and the 2007 team got hosed most obviously. But the original 2004-05 version is still — Hot take alert! — the most thrilling and revolutionary basketball experience the league has seen since … ever? Let’s go with ever.

It’s easy to forget how many skeptics the Suns had while zipping through the league that season. They ran, ran, and ran some more instead of positioning themselves into set plays the coach diagrams. (I loved this Mike D’Antoni quote from a 2005 SI story: “I don’t know how you script against something when the offensive team isn’t even sure what it’s doing.”) They took threes in transition when nobody else did. They played “small” by moving Shawn Marion to power forward and Amar’e Stoudemire to center. They built their entire team around the spread pick-and-roll. They were the first to do so many things we take for granted today. But despite winning more games than anyone in the league, they were never seen as favorites and were often derided for promoting a style that wouldn’t hold up in the playoffs.

Those skeptics got the last laugh, but with mitigating circumstances. Everything changed when Joe Johnson fell face first on the floor after Jerry Stackhouse fouled him on a fast break in Game 2 of the Suns’ second-round series with Dallas.

Johnson missed the rest of the series and the beginning of the conference finals against the Spurs with a fractured orbital, only returning as a shell of himself after San Antonio took a 2-0 lead in the series. By then, it was far too late.

Why was this a bigger what-if than the controversial suspensions that doomed the Suns’ 2008 season? Well, Suns players say so:

”We should’ve won it all that year,” Marion said. “If it wasn’t for that (Johnson’s injury), I think we would have.”

The controversial suspensions to Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during the 2007 conference semifinals are the most cited bad breaks of that Suns era, but the Suns think Johnson’s bad break was worse, especially to lose his defensive option on Tony Parker.

”There’s no way you can tell me we wouldn’t have been NBA champions if I hadn’t got hurt,” Johnson said.

And I believe them. Before Johnson became known as ISO-Joe in Atlanta, he was the glue that held the Suns’ fragile ecosystem together. He shot 48 percent from three that season on four-and-a-half attempts per game. His non-stop running kept Phoenix’s transition attack going. He defended the toughest guards that Nash couldn’t. If the Suns’ main attack broke down, he provided the supplementary playmaking. We all love Boris Diaw’s game, but he was never as important as Johnson was to the Suns.

About that. Annoyed by Johnson’s salary demands, the Suns dealt him to Atlanta that summer and got Diaw back in the sign-and-trade. It wasn’t quite the James Harden trade, but it had a similar effect. Phoenix stayed in the mix for the rest of the decade, but in hindsight, the summer departure of Johnson, combined with Stoudemire’s microfracture surgery, doomed their title hopes forever.

3. 1994-95 Orlando Magic

  • ERA: Penny and Shaq
  • RECORD: 57-25
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.1
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Houston Rockets (4-0)
  • KEY STAR(S): Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway
  • COACH: Brian Hill
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Donald Royal, Brian Shaw, Anthony Bowie
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 1995-96

You already know about Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, the 1995 win over the Bulls, the four missed Nick Anderson free throws, and the unceremonious end to the Shaq era the next summer. If not, watch the 30 for 30.

So let’s talk about the move that turned the young Magic into serious title contenders: the 1994 free-agent signing of Horace Grant. Cue Michael Buffer, because … let’s get ready to lawsuuuuiiiiitttttt!

In the summer of 1994, Grant, the critical third piece of the first Chicago Bulls three-peat, was a free agent. Tired of doing the dirty work without receiving enough credit, Grant wanted to leave and yearned to join up with Hardaway and O’Neal in Orlando. There was just one problem: Orlando didn’t have any salary-cap space to sign him. Kinda an issue.

But Grant and the Magic designed a clever, mutually beneficial way around this dilemma. First, Orlando traded point guard Scott Skiles and a first-round pick to Washington to open up Skiles’ $2.1 million salary slot. Then, they signed Grant to a six-year, $22 million deal that included a first-year salary of just over $2 million (fancy that!) and an opt-out provision after the first year. Left unspoken: Orlando would invite Grant to exercise that option and give him a much bigger contract thereafter. Convenient and successful. Everyone got what they wanted and nobody got hurt.

Unfortunately for the Magic, salary-cap circumvention was a growing concern for the NBA. The league tried to prevent the Blazers from doing a similar move with Chris Dudley the previous summer, but lost in court. Buoyed by the ruling, other contenders, most notably the Phoenix Suns, inked quality veterans for below-market contracts that were either for one year or contained opt-out clauses like Grant’s. (This is how Phoenix got perennial all-star Danny Manning to sign a one-year, $1 million deal.) Using evidence of a reported five-year, $20 million offer from the Bulls as proof that Grant signed below his market value in Orlando, the NBA voided Grant’s deal, along with two other giant new contracts for Toni Kukoc and A.C. Green signed one summer after agreeing to minuscule short-term deals from the Bulls and Suns the previous summer.

The Magic sued the league, and the case went before the same judge that ruled in the Blazers’ favor for Dudley. This time, the judge sided in favor of the NBA, making Grant a free agent again just weeks before training camp. (He did not do the same for Kukoc and Green because it would violate the precedent set in the Dudley case. Oddly, the Manning deal was allowed to slip through, as was a similar Magic one-year deal to bring veteran point guard Brian Shaw in to spell Hardaway.) The league said they’d allow Grant to sign with Orlando if the opt-out clause was after the second year instead. Two weeks later, the Magic and Grant agreed. That’s how close Orlando’s “missing piece” signing came to falling apart.

The epilogue to this story shouldn’t surprise you. Though O’Neal left Orlando after the 1996 season, the Magic still gave the 31-year-old Grant a new five-year, $50 million deal, even though he was coming off a devastating elbow injury. After all of that, they still successfully circumvented the salary cap. Glad the lawyers got paid, though. (Shaw, by the way, got a one-year, $9 million deal after the 1995 season, while Manning inked a six-year, $40 million deal with Phoenix despite tearing his ACL. These teams were not subtle!)

2. 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder

  • ERA: Pre-Harden trade
  • RECORD: 47-19 (58-win pace)
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +6.2
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Miami Heat (4-1)
  • KEY STAR(S): Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden
  • COACH: Scott Brooks
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook, Reggie Jackson
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2010-11

We’re still waiting for the tell-all book or documentary that explains once and for all why the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets. We have many theories and circumstantial explanations, but no absolute truth. All I know is that these words from Andrew Sharp, published on our website on Oct. 28, 2012, were prophetic.

“So if you want to say the Thunder chose long-term flexibility over a short term shot at a title, that’s fine. Just don’t overlook the second part of that sentence. If basketball is a business, there’s a good chance this was a bad business decision. Because what happens if KD and co. aren’t good enough to win it all in the next few years? Doesn’t OKC end up spending to compete with the best, and eventually paying the luxury tax because of somebody else? And it may not work. There are no guarantees at finding a core that clicks on the court the way last year’s did.”

Every word of that paragraph came true, including the prediction that OKC would end up going over the luxury tax for a worse player than Harden. What might have been, indeed.

1. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings

  • ERA: The beautiful game Kings
  • RECORD: 61-21
  • POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.6
  • PLAYOFF RESULT: “Lost” in West Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
  • KEY STAR(S): Chris Webber
  • COACH: Rick Adelman
  • OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Scott Pollard
  • OTHER SEASONS CONSIDERED FROM THIS ERA: 2000-01, 2002-03, 2003-04

Just watch this video.