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Missing Rings: 2000s Edition (Part I)

Posted by Neil Paine on January 12, 2009

As a part of their America's Game documentaries, the NFL Network has a series called The Missing Rings, which highlights franchises who have never won a Super Bowl, and when they came closest to winning the big game. That's a topic which seems particularly suited to the NBA (only 8 different franchises have won a title in the last 28 years), and it's one I'd like to tackle here at some point during the season, if not simply because of pro basketball's uniquely oligarchical balance of power.

However, today I want to do another variation on the "missing rings" theme: which single-season teams were the best (i.e., most talented, etc.) to never win a championship? The next 2 posts are going to look at the 10 teams this decade that best fit that description. (And don't worry, Cleveland fans, we'll finish up the "Virtual 1980s Cavs" series soon as well...You haven't been forgotten in the new year!)

Unlike the usual Simple Rating System (which just adjusts regular-season margin of victory for schedule strength), the method I'm employing here is a fairly arduous version of the pythagorean formula, incorporating not only strength of schedule, but also playoff games, home-court advantage, and an adjustment for the spread of competition in the league (using the standard deviation and something called a Box-Cox power transformation). Don't try this at home, folks!

To make a long story short, the end result of the process for every team is a z-score, the number of standard deviations above/below average they were. The best overall team in this period was the 2000 Lakers, who were a full 2.030 standard deviations better than an average team (2nd were the 2005 Spurs, who checked in with a z-score of 2.004). Both of those teams won championships, however; here are the top 10 teams since 2000 that failed to pull off that feat, starting with...

10. 2007 Phoenix Suns

Remember these guys? With the league's best offense and an underrated D (13th in the NBA), the Suns were well on their way to breaking that tired old "run-n-gun teams can't win championships" mantra in '07, thanks to the dream D'Antoni lineup of Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, and Amare Stoudemire (with a little Leandro Barbosa, Kurt Thomas, and James Jones thrown in for good measure). They had blazed a path to the Western Conference Finals a year earlier without Stoudemire, and had taken care of the Lakers fairly easily in a 5-game quarterfinal series. But then came the Spurs. The two bitter rivals seesawed back and forth, splitting the first 4 games, but we all know about the infamous confrontation that occured in the waning moments of Game 4. Deprived of Stoudemire and Diaw in Game 5, the Suns collapsed down the stretch to lose 88-85, and finally succumbed in Game 6 after a big 3rd quarter by San Antonio. In the end, the Spurs were a superior team... but not by much, leaving many observers wondering what might have been if not for the Game 5 suspensions to 2 of Phoenix's best players.

9. 2004 San Antonio Spurs

Lest you think San Antonio got off scot-free, the Spurs had their own hard-luck ending in 2004. After winning the first 2 games of their semifinal series against the Lakers' "4 Hall of Famers" at home, they dropped the next 2 games in Los Angeles, leading to an epic Game 5 in which they desperately fought to keep their home-court advantage. Trailing 72-71 with 5.4 seconds left, Tim Duncan hit a jaw-dropping fallaway jumper from the top of the key with Shaq in his face, giving S.A. a 1-point lead with just 0.4 seconds on the clock. So game over, right? Um, no. Enter Derek Fisher. Fish's miraculous J gave L.A. a 3-2 series lead, and the Spurs would fall again two nights later in Tinseltown, ending their season. But if Fisher's shot doesn't fall, there's a pretty decent chance San Antonio makes it back-to-back titles in '03 and '04.

8. 2006 Detroit Pistons

Without Larry Brown in '06, the Pistons were expected to take a step backwards under new coach Flip Saunders, who lacked a single galvanizing catchphrase like, say, "play the right way" to inspire his troops. Except instead of regressing, the Pistons ran roughshod over the league during the regular season, starting 42-9 en route to a 64-18 record and the top seed in the East. With four All-Stars in their starting lineup, Detroit took out the Bucks rather easily in Round 1, but they faced a major challenge from LeBron James' up-and-coming Cleveland Cavaliers in the semis, eventually outlasting the Cavs in a hard-fought 7-game series. Facing the Heat in the conference finals, the Pistons looked tired from the ordeal of the Cleveland series, and the locker-room chemistry that carried them under Brown suddenly evaporated at the most critical stage of the season. Although Detroit valiantly forced a sixth game with a 91-78 win at the Palace in Game 5, the Heat eliminated them in Game 6, ending what had been a terrific season up until mid-May.

7. 2005 Phoenix Suns

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the '05 Suns (and not the '06 version which pushed Dallas to 6 games in a tightly-contested Western Conference Finals) were the best Phoenix team during the Mike D'Antoni era. Fresh off his first MVP award, Steve Nash led a talented 62-20 Suns team into the playoffs alongside Stoudemire, Marion, Barbosa, Joe Johnson, and Quentin Richardson, and Phoenix beat the Grizzlies and Mavs by a combined margin of 8 games to 2 in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Suns, the Spurs team they faced in the West Finals was a buzz saw -- as we mentioned earlier, they were the 2nd-best team in the league between 1999-2000 and 2007-08. Despite holding home-court advantage over San Antonio, the Spurs beat the Suns at their own run-and-gun game in the first 2 matchups, and ground out a win at home in Game 3 as well. Though the Suns extended the series with a road victory in Game 4, San Antonio closed out Phoenix in 5 two nights later. Unlike 2007, there were no defining moments in the defeat, no egregious suspensions or blown calls to point to... The Spurs were just better than everybody else, and they proved it by defeating the defending-champion Pistons in the Finals three weeks later.

6. 2000 Portland Trail Blazers

This list is chock full of tragic stories, but perhaps none is more Shakespearean in nature than the infamous collapse of the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers (well, except for the 2002 Kings, but we'll talk about them in the next installment). Portland was consistently a good team throughout the 1990s (they went to the Finals twice in the early 90s), but they lost in the first round 6 consecutive years from 1993-1998. In 1999, they finally broke through again, advancing to the WCF before being swept by a great Spurs team. In the summer of 1999, they fleeced the Hawks into taking Isaiah Rider off of their hands in exchange for understated team leader Steve Smith, and Portland suddenly had the makings of a championship-caliber squad. Staying in the Lakers' rearview mirror all season long, the rivals collided in one of the most hotly-contested Western Conference Final series ever. L.A. got the better of Portland early, winning 3 of the first 4 games, but the Blazers battled back to win Game 5 on the road and Game 6 at the Rose Garden. That set up a dramatic Game 7 showdown for all the marbles... And the Blazers jumped out to a surprisingly easy 71-58 lead after 3 quarters. That gap would eventually widen to 75-60 with 10 minutes to play, and it looked like Portland would start the 2000s the same way they kicked off the 90s, with a Finals berth. But then they started to miss shots. And more shots. And suddenly they had bricked 13 consecutive FGAs down the stretch, allowing L.A. to tie the game at 77 with 2:44 to go. With 1:34 remaining, Kobe Bryant made 2 free throws to put the Lakers up 81-79, and it was a lead they would never relinquish. Here's a YouTube video of the meltdown/comeback, which truly has to be seen to be believed. The Blazers were never the same after this game, quickly devolving into full "Jail Blazer" mode (before Kevin Pritchard rebuilt them into the solid team you see today), while the Lakers used it as a springboard to 3 consecutive titles. All because Portland couldn't hold on to a 15-point lead with 10 minutes left to play.

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15 Responses to “Missing Rings: 2000s Edition (Part I)”

  1. Hans Says:

    re: #7 "there were no defining moments in the defeat,"...

    I seem to remember Joe Johnson breaking his face being a pretty big loss for that team.

  2. Garry Says:

    The '05 Suns were doomed against the Spurs without Joe Johnson, who returned in game 4. I'm not sure they would have beat the Spurs with him, but there was no way they were going to without him. The '06 team ripped game 1 and home court advantage in the WCF from Dallas, and were for sure licking their chops at the prospect of running Shaq's Heat off the court in the Finals (as they had dominated them in the regular season), when Raja Bell tore his calf in the closing moments of Game 1. They lost the next 2, tied the series in Game 4 when Raja returned, but he was still injured and couldn't get it done.

    Looking ahead at the top end of the list, I'd guess Barkley's '93 Suns team would be in the mix there as well?

  3. Carl Says:

    #1 Should be the 96 & 97 Utah teams.

  4. Sean Says:

    That 2000 Portland team was an impressive squad that, as a Lakers fan, scared me all season. Coming into the regular season matchup on Feb. 29, both teams had identical records of 45-11. More surprisingly, they both were on 11-game winning streaks! The Lakers squeezed out a 90-87 road victory and went on to finish 67-15, while the Blazers "settled" for a 59-23 mark. One heck of a battle all season....

  5. zach Says:

    Sorry Carl, but this is 2000's edition.

    #1 in all of our hearts has to be 2004 Lakers, for whom Karl Malone and Gary Payton sold their souls for a championship that never came. And #2 could probably be the 2004 Timberwolves, which seemingly had a team of destiny with Garnett, Sprewell, Cassell, and the best record in the league but then lost to the Lakers in the conference finals 'cause Sam-I-Am got injured.

    And then, of course, there's the '07 Mavericks and their tragicomic collapse to the 8th seeded Warriors.

    I could write this article by myself off the top of my head, without the statistical analysis.

  6. Art Says:

    Easy for me to pick one as a Spurs fan- 95 Spurs.

    Ran into the Houston Rockets and Hakeem. Great, great series by Hakeem humbling David Robinson.

    I still remember it vividly to this day.

  7. Wally Says:

    I literally cried at my desk and had to hide my shame from my co-workers just now while reading about the 2000 Blazers. That will forever go down as the worst moment of my life, sports or otherwise. Although it is closely rivaled by the complete destruction of my Oregon Ducks' national championship hopes on the snapping of Dennis Dixon's knee while we were ranked #2 with 3 weeks to go.

  8. EP Says:

    What makes the 2000 WCF so epic was the way it seemed to determine the fate of the two teams for years afterwards. In all those other cases, they continued to compete for a title in the following years. The Suns continued to be in the running for several years after their 2005 debacle, before eventually declining due to natural causes. But for the Lakers and Blazers, the Lakers went on to win 3 titles, the Blazers semi-collapsed and got swept in the first round the next two years, and failed even to make the playoffs after that. They wouldn't recover until every player from 2000 was gone. I can't think of another single game that had such far-reaching consequences in this decade.

  9. Julia Says:

    I would say 2002 Kings.

    That game 6 against the Lakers made a killer difference for the entire franchise.

  10. Tim Says:

    I'm a Spurs fan, so I've seen both sides of this story. But for my money the best team not to win is the team that lost to the winningest team of all time: the '96 Sonics. I could be wrong, but I believe they still have the best record ever by a team that didn't win the title. They won 64 games, beat Utah in a seven-game WC Finals, and then took the 72-win Bulls to six games in the finals. Sonics fans like to argue that Nate McMillan's cost them the title. But if memory serves, Ron Harper was hurt too, so I never bought it. But it was a very tough series for a great Chicago team--they never did find an answer for Sean Kemp.

    Interesting that all of these entries are from the last ten years. Hello? '69 Lakers? '77 76ers? '84 Lakers? '85 Celtics? '88 Pistons? With every league expansion, there have been more and more very bad teams every year. So I think the statistical system may be skewed a bit by the recent dominant records of the better teams, which get to feast on hapless losers every year. (Personally, I'm still more impressed by the Lakers' 69 wins in '72 than by the Bulls' 72 wins in '96.)

  11. mr Says:

    THE TITLE OF THE POST IS MISSING RINGS 2000S EDITION

  12. Steven Resnick Says:

    The Suns didn't miss out on rings they didn't deserve any. The Suns never played defense and that's one of the things that needs to be done when winning a championship. Mike D'Antoni is one of the most overrated coaches in NBA history and it's pathetic that he refused to even have his team practice defense and that is what lead to his departure because he was going to get fired if he hadn't resigned.

  13. Art Says:

    In the 2000s edition, again, as a Spurs fan, I'd have to say 2006 Spurs. Spurs weather a hail of calls in favor of Dirk (Mavs fans like to complain about Wade shooting 25 FTs in a game but fail to mention that Dirk shot 24 FTs in a game against the Spurs), a terrible 3-1 deficit, and Duncan battling plantar faciitis.

    The Spurs took it to 7 games, fell behind by 20 come back, go to OT only to finally run out of gas. I had never been so disappointed and proud of my team at the same time. Duncan willed his team as far as they went, but could carry them any further. The Spurs went down with class, dignity and the heart of a champion.

    All I know is, if the 2002 Kings aren't #1, then this list is bogus. The 2000 Blazers should be ranked higher though.

  14. Evan Says:

    Zach: "#1 in all of our hearts has to be 2004 Lakers, for whom Karl Malone and Gary Payton sold their souls for a championship that never came."

    Zach, I'm a Lakers fan, but I have to admit that that team was a mess. The worst tendencies of "we'll turn it on in the playoffs," GP's ego, Shaq v. Kobe, etc. I felt guilty that they got past the Timberwolves that year, and I knew that they would lose to Detroit.

  15. Todd Says:

    I would say the 2007 Suns were the best team of the D'Antoni Era. They won 33 of 35 during one stretch, Nash was playing at the peak of his powers, they had two All-NBA first team players, and they went eight-deep. Can't say that about 2005 Suns.