SB Nation’s two-week journey to find the best NBA team to fall short of a championship is now over. Your winner: the 1996-97 Utah Jazz, the first of two Utah teams to fall short to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals. Congratulations, John Stockton and Karl Malone. You (kinda) have a ring now! We’re sure you feel so much better!
Here’s how the Jazz ended up winning this competition.
In mid-April, we began our quest to uncover the best NBA team to never win a title. We laid out some critical ground rules — one team per era, and teams that won a title in the same era were not permitted to enter. We came up with 64 teams in NBA history and split them into four different “divisions,” each classifying (to the best of our ability) the way in which they fell short.
If you missed that, take some time to check it out by clicking on these links. They’ll answer most questions you have about why your favorite historical team was or wasn’t involved in this exercise.
Then, we asked each of our NBA sites to nominate one team in their franchise’s history to represent them in a winner-take-all tournament. I (Mike) added back the two highest-ranked East teams not chosen to get us to 32 teams, then re-seeded them into a West and East bracket.
Throughout the week, we asked you to vote on each matchup through SB Nation FanPulse. The FanPulse choice won the matchup unless it contracted BOTH my (Mike’s) expert pick and a seven-game series simulation we ran on WhatifSports.com. (That happened three times, all in the second round).
That gave us a Titleless NBA “Finals” of the West “champion” Jazz and the East “champion” 1994-95 Orlando Magic, fronted by the Young Shaq/Penny duo. We then ran one final FanPulse survey to determine the ultimate champion, and the Jazz won in a landslide.
Here’s how the bracket shook out:
(W1) 1996-97 Utah Jazz def (E1) 1994-95 Orlando Magic
FANPULSE VOTE: Jazz (65 percent)
Unlike with the rest of the tournament, the power to award a final champion was left entirely to you. No expert pick. No simulation. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The Jazz were the clear winner in the FanPulse vote, and they a) would’ve been my pick as well, and b) actually won when I simulated for the heck of it.
This excellent SB Nation video is now wrong! Well, sorta. Still, you should watch it.
(1) 1996-97 Utah Jazz def (2) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings
FANPULSE VOTE: Jazz (54.6 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Kings in 6
SIMULATION: Jazz in 5
These two teams actually squared off in multiple real playoff matchups. Most notably, they staged a memorable five-game series in 1999, eventually won by Utah. The Jazz were closer to their best selves then than the Kings would be, so I figured a full-strength Kings team would knock even the best Utah team off. (On the flip side, Sacramento had trouble disposing of ancient Jazz teams in the 2002 and 2003 postseason).
The simulation, however, favored Utah. Karl Malone averaged 28 and 12 and the Jazz coasted after taking a 3-0 lead.
The FanPulse vote between these two favorites was tight. At one point, Utah’s margin was just 70 votes. In the end, the Jazz held on and denied the Kings team its moment of glory — this time fair and square.
(1) 1994-95 Orlando Magic def (2) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks
FANPULSE VOTE: Magic (70.8 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bucks in 6
SIMULATION: Magic in 5
Another expert pick foiled! Even though I handed the Magic the No. 1 seed, I think they’ve become a bit overrated in time. I thought the Bucks could defend Shaquille O’Neal more effectively than Shaq could defend in space. But the simulation disagreed, as Shaq put up monster numbers in a five-game victory.
In time, I think the 2018-19 Bucks will be remembered more fondly than even the Shaq/Penny Magic. But nostalgia won the day this round.
(1) 1996-97 Utah Jazz def (5) 2017-18 Houston Rockets
FANPULSE VOTE: Jazz (78.1 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Rockets in 7
SIMULATION: Jazz in 5
The public’s animosity for James Harden goes deeper than I expected. Houston beat the 90s Sonics last round in spite of the fan vote and then took the widest defeat of this round.
I liked this matchup for them because they have more options to handle Karl Malone than the Jazz do to stop James Harden. But the simulation vehemently disagreed, giving Utah the series in five games. The first two were tight, with Utah winning by five in Game 1 and then surviving Game 2 after a Byron Russell three-pointer sent the game into overtime. But the Jazz handled the Rockets in Game 3 in Houston and then blew them out by 31 in the Game 5 clincher.
(2) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings vs. (6) 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers
FANPULSE VOTE: Kings (53.7 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Kings in 7
SIMULATION: Blazers 5
This was the most even matchup in the tournament and almost ... almost ... went the other way. I had no clue how to separate the two great Rick Adelman-coached teams that seemed like mirror images of each other, so I went with the home court and picked Sacramento. The simulation went the other way: Portland stole Game 1 on a Clyde Drexler three with 19 seconds left and crushed the Kings the rest of the way.
That put the onus on the FanPulse survey, which the Kings won by 101 votes.
(1) 1994-95 Orlando Magic def (5) 1981-82 Philadelphia 76ers
FANPULSE VOTE: Magic (66.6 percent)
EXPERT PICK: 76ers in 6
SIMULATION: Magic in 7
I didn’t like this matchup for the Magic. They have nobody to guard Julius Erving, unless Horace Grant played the series of his life. Meanwhile, I figured Caldwell Jones and Maurice Cheeks could bug Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. That’s why I went with Philly. I figured the FanPulse vote would favor the more recent team, which it did. So it came down to the simulation.
The simulation spit out a hell of a series. Philly stole Game 1 in Orlando, outscoring the Magic by nine in the fourth quarter. The Magic won the next three to go up 3-1, overcoming a 16-point halftime deficit to swipe Game 4. Philly then won an ugly Game 5, then got 34 points from Andrew Toney to take Game 6 and tie the series. Game 7 was close, but Shaq (37 and 17) outplayed the Doctor (14 points on just 6-16 from the field) in Orlando’s nine-point victory. Erving surprisingly had a pedestrian series, never going above 30 points in any of the games.
(2) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks def (3) 2010-11 Chicago Bulls
FANPULSE VOTE: Bucks (57.4 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bucks in 5
SIMULATION: Bucks in 4
Chicago’s simulation magic — the Bulls were 8-0 in simulated games to this point — ended with a giant thud. Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the series, averaging nearly 28 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists a game while adding more than two steals and two blocks per contest. I also thought this was a brutal matchup for Chicago, and the FanPulse vote added insult to injury for Bulls fans.
(1) 1996-97 Utah Jazz def (8) 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
FANPULSE VOTE: Jazz (69.2 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Jazz in 7
SIMULATION: Jazz in 4
This felt like a titanic second-round matchup, and I agonized over my choice. In the end, I went with Utah because I figured the Jazz would roll out a smaller lineup to match up with the Suns and that Karl Malone would dominate inside.
I was stunned that the simulation result was so lopsided. Malone was fine, but the real key was that John Stockton (15 points per game, 11.75 assists per game) dramatically outplayed Steve Nash (12.25 PPG, 7.75 APG).
I was also surprised to see Utah win the fan vote so dramatically. Where was the Seven Seconds Or Less lobby??
(5) 2017-18 Houston Rockets def. (4) 1993-94 Seattle Supersonics
FANPULSE VOTE: Supersonics (65.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Rockets in 6
SIMULATION: Rockets in 6
Oh boy, it’s our first overturned result of the tournament! Let’s walk through how that happened.
I couldn’t decide if this was the best or worst possible matchup for the Rockets’ isolation style. On the one hand, how would James Harden and Chris Paul deal with the Sonics’ constant full-court pressure? Nobody defended them that way in 2018, so maybe they’d be thrown off. On the other hand, Houston was a low-turnover team and Seattle badly needed to force turnovers to play its style. After deliberating for a while, I decided in favor of the latter instinct and gave Houston the win.
The simulation played out in a similar fashion. The Sonics routed the Rockets in Game 1, holding them to 77 points, 33 percent shooting while pounding them on the glass. But Houston got itself together and won four of the next five, all by double digits. It was a feast or famine series.
That meant the collective support for the Sonics was overturned. Sorry, friends.
(6) 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers def. (3) 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
FANPULSE VOTE: Blazers (60 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Blazers in 6
SIMULATION: Thunder in 7
This is the most surprising result of the tournament so far.
I thought Portland was a bad matchup for the Thunder, since they had Jerome Kersey to body Kevin Durant, Terry Porter to take advantage of Russell Westbrook’s roaming, and a deep bench to account for James Harden. That’s why I picked Portland to win.
The simulation nearly agreed, but the Thunder rallied from 3-1 down to win the series. Durant carried them to victory, dropping a 39-point, six-rebound, five-assist, four-block, four-steal line in Game 6 and a 30-6-8-4 line in Game 7.
I figured recent Thunder love would carry OKC to victory in the fan vote, but boy was I wrong. I didn’t know the Blazers had so many admirers.
(2) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings def (10) 1963-64 San Francisco Warriors
FANPULSE VOTE: Kings (74.3 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Kings in 5
SIMULATION: Kings in 6
No surprise here, though I would like to note that Wilt Chamberlain averaged 38 points and 22.5 rebounds per game in the simulation.
(1) 1994-95 Orlando Magic def (8) 2009-10 Orlando Magic
FANPULSE VOTE: ‘95 Magic (91.3 percent)
EXPERT PICK: ‘95 Magic in 6
SIMULATION: ‘95 Magic in 4
A number of folks (here’s one example) compared the 2010 Magic to the 1995 Houston team that swept the Shaq/Penny Magic in the Finals. I saw the logic, but ended up going the other way because Dwight Howard, even in 2010, wasn’t as skilled as Hakeem Olajuwon. The lopsided simulation and fan vote results seem to justify that decision.
(5) 1981-82 Philadelphia 76ers def (4) 1992-93 New York Knicks
FANPULSE VOTE: Knicks (56.9 percent)
EXPERT PICK: 76ers in 6
SIMULATION: 76ers in 5
Another fan vote overturned!
This one, though, is more justified in my mind. I trusted Philly’s ability to hold Patrick Ewing down more than the Knicks’ ability to stop Julius Erving. The simulation agreed, with the 76ers winning the next four games after losing Game 1. The final four minutes of Game 2 are hilarious and on-brand. Philly won despite not hitting a field goal in the final four minutes.
The fan vote went New York’s way, but I attribute that to overrating teams from the 90s. The 76ers were better.
(3) 2010-11 Chicago Bulls def (6) 1997-98 Indiana Pacers
FANPULSE VOTE: Pacers (66.9 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bulls in 6
SIMULATION: Bulls in 4
A third fan vote overturned! And this one might be the most painful.
I thought this was an awful matchup for the Pacers. They have nobody to stop Derrick Rose, whereas the Bulls have elite defenders (Luol Deng and Joakim Noah) to chase Reggie Miller and out-run Rik Smits. Plus, Indiana’s frontcourt might wasn’t much of an advantage against the Bulls’ tenacious group. That’s why I picked Chicago. The simulation emphatically agreed. (In fact, the Bulls are now 8-0 in the simulation.
Sorry, Pacers fans. Tormented by the Bulls again.
(2) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks def (10) 1996-97 Miami Heat
FANPULSE VOTE: Bucks (68.8 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bucks in 7
SIMULATION: Bucks in 4
I thought Miami’s defense might make life tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the simulation and the fans disagreed.
WEST 1ST ROUND
(1) 1996-97 Utah Jazz def (16) 2014-15 Memphis Grizzlies
FANPULSE VOTE: Jazz (90.3 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Jazz in 5
SIMULATION: Jazz in 6
This one was fairly straightforward. The Jazz took a 3-0 lead in the simulation before blowing Game 5 at home in overtime, but finished things off in Game 6. Karl Malone averaged nearly 30 points and 11.5 rebounds in the series.
(8) 2004-05 Phoenix Suns def (9) 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers
FANPULSE VOTE: Suns (84.7 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Suns in 7
SIMULATION: Suns in 7
I was stunned that the fan vote was so lopsided, because this was the toughest matchup on the board for me. Nobody on the Suns had any chance of stopping Shaquille O’Neal inside, yet the Lakers are particularly ill-suited to guarding the Steve Nash/Amar’e Stoudemire pick-and-roll. I figured this would go seven high-scoring games with all stars putting up outrageous numbers, and ultimately went with the home court in my decison.
That’s essentially how it played out in the simulation too. The home team won all seven games, and Phoenix slipped by in Game 7 despite 37 points and 17 rebounds from Shaquille O’Neal
(5) 2017-18 Houston Rockets def (12) 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves
FANPULSE VOTE: Rockets (54.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Rockets in 6
SIMULATION: Rockets in 5
It’s a testament to the Minnesota voting body that the FanPulse margin was so close. I thought the series would be somewhat tight, but Houston had the edge. The simulation agreed, though the margin was closer than the number of games suggested. The Timberwolves stole Game 2 in Houston and only lost Game 4 on a Chris Paul buzzer beater. Kevin Garnett’s series averages: 28.2 points, 15 rebounds, 6.4 assists. Jesus.
(4) 1993-94 Seattle Supersonics def (13) 1994-95 San Antonio Spurs
FANPULSE VOTE: Sonics (86.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Sonics in 7
SIMULATION: Sonics in 5
I figured this series would be tight because the Spurs often played Seattle tough during this era, but the voters and the simulation disagreed.
(6) 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers def (11) 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers
FANPULSE VOTE: Trail Blazers (66.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Trail Blazers in 6
SIMULATION: Clippers in 7
It’s too bad the simulation didn’t come into play, because this was a wild series. After struggling in the first five games, Blake Griffin dominated Games 6 and 7. He dropped 40, nine, and three in a Game 6 home loss, then notched 37, 13, and three blocks in a 102-99 Game 7 win. Alas, I picked Portland, as did the voters.
(3) 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder def (14) 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets
FANPULSE VOTE: Thunder (70.2 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Thunder in 6
SIMULATION: Thunder in 7
This was the simulation series of the first round. It went the distance, with Chris Paul dominating and none of the Thunder Big 3 having consistent series. The Hornets led Game 7 by one point with six seconds left, but Kevin Durant nailed a runner with six seconds left to give OKC the lead. New Orleans’ last chance ended when David West got swatted by Serge Ibaka, and OKC held on.
(10) 1963-64 San Francisco Warriors def (7) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks
FANPULSE VOTE: Warriors (55 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Warriors in 6
SIMULATION: Mavs in 6
Fitting that the 2007 Mavericks choked against the Warriors in the first round.
(2) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings vs. (15) 1984-85 Denver Nuggets
FANPULSE VOTE: Kings (89 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Kings in 4
SIMULATION: Kings in 6
No surprises here.
EAST 1ST ROUND
(1) 1994-95 Orlando Magic def (16) 2001-02 Boston Celtics
FANPULSE VOTE: Magic (91.8 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Magic in 4
SIMULATION: Magic in 5
The classic 1 vs. 16 curb stomping.
(8) 2009-10 Orlando Magic def (9) 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers
FANPULSE VOTE: Magic (52 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Magic in 6
SIMULATION: Cavs in 7
This was my favorite matchup because it closely mirrored an actual playoff series, won by the Magic in six games. Because so many consider the 2010 Magic the better of the two great Stan Van Gundy teams, and because I consider the 2009 Cavs a better team than the 2010 edition, my pick of Orlando in six was simple. The simulation, though, spit out something remarkable: LeBron James leading Cleveland back from a 3-0 deficit to win in 7 while scoring 47 points on the road in the Game 7 clincher. Who’s the GOAT now?
That meant the result came down to the closest FanPulse vote of the first round. Cleveland made a late charge, but it wasn’t quite enough.
(5) 1981-82 Philadelphia 76ers def (12) 2002-03 New Jersey Nets
FANPULSE VOTE: 76ers (67.1 percent)
EXPERT PICK: 76ers in 7
SIMULATION: 76ers in 6
Another straightforward result, though the Nets do seem to have a few bodies they could throw at Julius Erving.
(4) 1992-93 New York Knicks def (13) 2017-18 Toronto Raptors
FANPULSE VOTE: Knicks (86.4 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Knicks in 7
SIMULATION: Raptors in 6
The simulation really likes this Raptors team. I actually simulated this matchup a few weeks before just for S’s and G’s, and the Raptors won it then, too. The FanPulse voters see it differently.
(6) 1997-98 Indiana Pacers def (11) 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks
FANPULSE VOTE: Pacers (82.4 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Pacers in 6
SIMULATION: Hawks in 7
More wonky simulation results! Indiana took a 3-1 lead after waxing the Hawks in Atlanta in Game 4, then blew the next three games as Reggie Miller went silent. It ended up not mattering, though.
(3) 2010-11 Chicago Bulls def (14) 1968-69 Washington Bullets
FANPULSE VOTE: Bulls (75.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bullets in 6
SIMULATION: Bulls in 4
Did I maybe make a bit of a homer pick in calling an upset? Probably, but I also didn’t think Chicago would have enough firepower to match Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery, Wes Unseld, and Jack Marin. FanPulse voters disagreed, and the simulation results dunked violently on me.
(10) 1996-97 Miami Heat def (7) 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks
FANPULSE VOTE: Heat (58.8 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bucks in 5
SIMULATION: Heat in 7
I’m gonna attribute this result to recency bias, because those 80s Bucks teams were vicious and never get their due. In my mind, they were a clear favorite and a possible sleeper in this tournament. But the FanPulse voters disagreed, and they clinched their wish when Miami rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the simulation series. Thank Tim Hardaway for that — he averaged 25 a game in the series, including 35 in the Game 7 clincher.
(2) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks. def (15) 1996-97 Detroit Pistons
FANPULSE VOTE: Bucks (70.5 percent)
EXPERT PICK: Bucks in 4
SIMULATION: Bucks in 6
The simulation had this as a 2-2 series after four games before normalcy returned. I’m not sure why it holds those Pistons in such high regard, but at least it got the right result in the end.
The teams chose for the final tournament
We asked each of our 30 SB Nation NBA team communities to select just one team from the original list of 64 to be their franchise’s representative in this final tournament of non-champions. (Note: Seattle was considered its own franchise, and Charlotte had no team to nominate.)
Here are the years they chose:
- ATLANTA HAWKS: 2014-15
- BOSTON CELTICS: 2001-02
- CHICAGO BULLS: 2010-11
- CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: 2008-09
- DALLAS MAVERICKS: 2006-07
- DENVER NUGGETS: 1984-85
- DETROIT PISTONS: 1996-97
- GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: 1963-64
- HOUSTON ROCKETS: 2017-18
- INDIANA PACERS: 1997-98
- LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: 2013-14
- LOS ANGELES LAKERS: 1997-98
- MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: 2014-15
- MIAMI HEAT: 1996-97
- MILWAUKEE BUCKS: 2018-19
- MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: 2003-04
- NEW JERSEY NETS: 2002-03
- NEW ORLEANS HORNETS: 2007-08
- NEW YORK KNICKS: 1992-93
- OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: 2011-12
- ORLANDO MAGIC: 1994-95
- PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: 1981-82
- PHOENIX SUNS: 2004-05
- PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: 1990-91
- SACRAMENTO KINGS: 2001-02
- SAN ANTONIO SPURS: 1994-95
- SEATTLE SUPERSONICS: 1993-94
- TORONTO RAPTORS: 2017-18
- UTAH JAZZ: 1996-97
- WASHINGTON WIZARDS/BULLETS: 1968-69
To get to an even 16 in the East, I chose the two highest-ranked remaining clubs from that conference. They were:
- 2009-10 Orlando Magic. (I had 2008-09 originally from the Dwight/Stan Van Gundy era, but our Magic site and J.J. Redick himself convinced me the 2009-10 team was better.)
- 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks. (Sidney Moncrief era)
Then, I re-seeded each remaining team in each conference.
Who did our team sites leave out?
There were 32 teams that I originally highlighted that did not qualify for the final tournament because our team sites picked another era in franchise history to represent them. You can read all about these 32 teams (and the 32 ultimately chosen) in these links:
In rough order of best to worst, they are:
- 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder
- 1992-93 Phoenix Suns
- 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers
- 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers
- 2003-04 Indiana Pacers
- 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs
- 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
- 2012-13 Indiana Pacers
- 1975-76 Denver Nuggets
- 1985-86 Houston Rockets
- 1963-64 Cincinnati Royals
- 1989-90 Phoenix Suns
- 2007-08 Houston Rockets
- 1987-88 Dallas Mavericks
- 1988-89 Cleveland Cavaliers
- 1976-77 Los Angeles Lakers
- 1946-47 Washington Capitols
- 1986-87 Atlanta Hawks
- 1996-97 Houston Rockets
- 2008-09 Denver Nuggets
- 1971-72 Chicago Bulls
- 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers
- 2012-13 Golden State Warriors
- 2012-13 Denver Nuggets
- 2008-09 Portland Trail Blazers
- 1982-83 San Antonio Spurs
- 1996-97 Atlanta Hawks
- 2017-18 Boston Celtics
- 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers
- 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks
- 1975-76 Phoenix Suns
- 1990-91 Golden State Warriors
You can read more about those teams in these links:
A final reminder: these teams were ineligible for TITLELESS
Since we got a lot of question about them:
Because they won a title in a different year during the era:
- The 73-win Warriors from 2016.
- Any team from LeBron James’ Heat career or second tenure in Cleveland.
- Any of Magic Johnson’s Lakers
- Any of Larry Bird’s Celtics
- Any of Michael Jordan’s Bulls
- Any of Isiah Thomas’ Pistons.
- Any Spurs team from 1997-2015.
- The 2000s Pistons.
- 1978 Blazers.
- 2005 Heat
Because only one team per era was eligible:
- 1996 Sonics
- 1998 Jazz
- 1994, 1997, and 1999 Knicks
- 2012 Bulls
- 1992 Cavaliers
- 2006 Mavericks
- 1996 Magic
- 1977, 1980, and 1981 76ers
- 2007 and 2010 Suns
- 1990 and 1992 Blazers
So anyway, congratulations to the 1996-97 Utah Jazz, the best team in NBA history to fall short of a title.
At least you have this.