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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.