It’s an interesting and immutable fact that the NBA is the league where the least surprises happen in the playoffs. It’s not like baseball, hockey, and football, where sheer randomness or one guy getting hot at the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) possible time can end a stacked team’s title hopes. Barring bad injury luck, the more talented team wins the NBA championship virtually every time; the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors winning as many titles as they did was depressingly predictable. But it has actually been true since the league’s founding that great players make great teams: the Boston Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years with an unreal collection of talent that included a litany of Hall of Famers. But it’s hardly just them — nearly every time, the “right” team wins.
But sometimes, once in a long while, they don’t. A lot of the times this is due to injury, occasionally it’s due to cheap shots (hi again, San Antonio), and one time it was due to a referee essentially fixing an entire series (oh, we’ll get there), but sometimes…sometimes the impossible happens and the better team loses. Fans of the more talented group sit there in absolute bafflement that their guys could lose to a bunch of (relative) scrubs, but hey, it’s indisputable that flags fly forever. Or banners in this case, I guess, but whatever, you get the idea.
Here are the 17 best NBA teams to never win a title.
1993 Phoenix Suns
This is the most talented team to never win a championship by far, and they still weren’t the most talented team in the Finals. That’s what happens when you go up against a peak-of-his-powers Michael Jordan (along with Scottie Pippen and a host of great roleplayers). Still…my god, the level of oomph this team had behind it. Charles Barkley deservedly won MVP with his best season, Kevin Johnson missed half the season but got healthy in time for the playoffs, Dan Majerle was an All-Star and All-Defensive teamer, Richard Dumas had his one drug-free season, and Cedric Ceballos had a shockingly efficient year even before he (briefly) became a star. Danny Ainge and Tom Chambers came off the bench and both averaged double figures for these guys! You cannot talk about the best teams not to win a title and not start with the ’93 Suns.
1975 Washington Bullets
The ’70s Bullets were a weird dynasty that never was. They won their division every year from 1971-1975, and made the playoffs every single year of the decade. They made the NBA Finals in ’71 but got shelled by a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks. They won 54 games in 1979, but lost to the Seattle Supersonics in the Finals. But 1975 has to be the year that hurts the worst: they were clearly the best team in the league that season, with two future Hall of Famers in Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and an all-star in Phil Chenier, but got absolutely trashcanned in a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. They actually did win one title — ironically, with their ’78 team that was probably the worst of the bunch.
2002 Sacramento Kings
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It seems impossible now, but there was once a time when the Kings were probably the most talented team in the NBA. I can’t overstate what a well-oiled machine this team was: Chris Webber was at the peak of his powers, Peja Stojakovic was the most feared sharpshooter in the league, Mike Bibby was a drastically underrated point guard, and even Doug Christie was an extremely effective 3-and-D 2-guard. Also…Vlade Divac existed, I guess. Anyway, this team is probably the only one here that lost through no fault of their own: the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers was the single worst-officiated series in NBA history, and it was later revealed referee Tim Donaghy had taken money to alter games.
1994 Utah Jazz
1994 might have been the weirdest year in NBA history. In the sudden power vacuum created by Michael Jordan’s first retirement, teams scrambled for the chance at a title, particularly in the loaded Western Conference — yet the team who came out on top somehow had Otis Thorpe as their second-best player. In addition to the Sonics and Suns losing, the Jazz somehow lost to Hakeem’s Houston Rockets despite a loaded roster. John Stockton led the league in assists, Karl Malone was near the peak of his powers, and they were surrounded by former All-Stars like Jeff Malone, Jeff Hornacek, and Tom Chambers (again, poor guy), but they just couldn’t get it done. Sort of the theme of The Mailman’s career, really.
1969 Los Angeles Lakers
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I know the Celtics were the Celtics, but good lord, the ’69 Lakers had no business losing to Boston’s ’69 incarnation. This team had three of the 20 best players ever in Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West, all having great years, and they were heavily favored to finally beat Boston, who were (with the exception of John Havlicek) roughly 5,000 combined years old in Bill Russell and Sam Jones’ final season. This year comes down to one fateful (and indefensible) coaching decision: Butch van Breda Kolff refusing to put Wilt back in the game in Game 7.
The Big Dipper hurt his knee with five minutes left, but with two minutes remaining, he told van Breda Kolff he could come back in. Van Breda Kolff couldn’t stand Wilt personally, so he told him “we’re doing just fine without you.” Sure, Butch, leave in Mel Counts instead of the guy who threw up a 20-20 points/rebounds average that year just because he’s a bit of an ass. Real good call in hindsight. I’m sure Wilt wouldn’t have affected Don Nelson’s desperation 18-footer that ultimately won the title for Boston.
2000 Portland Trail Blazers
It’s hard to think of a more shocking collapse than what happened In Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. This was an unusual team in that they didn’t have a single dominant player — but man did they have talent top to bottom. The passing on this team was frankly silly, which is what happens when your starters include Arvydas Sabonis, Damon Stoudamire, and Scottie Pippen fully embracing his point forward role, not to mention Rasheed Wallace and Steve Smith. Then they got to Game 7 against L.A. They had a 15-point lead with ten minutes to play…then gave up a 15-0 run and wound up losing — after which the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers won their first title over the Indiana Pacers. It was brutal to watch, and hasn’t gotten less brutal with time.
2016 Golden State Warriors
Yes, I know the Warriors won three titles in four years and this was the exception rather than the rule. This still deserves a mention because this team was as talented as the teams that did win — and even set the record for best regular-season record in NBA history — yet somehow gave up a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy the Cavs finally won a title, but this is one of the rare instances in league history where the less talented team won an NBA championship. Any team that features a healthy Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson not winning an NBA title has to be considered a disappointment. Granted, the team’s response was to go out and sign Kevin Durant, then decimate the NBA for two years, so it did work out okay for them long-term.
2015 Los Angeles Clippers
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Poor Chris Paul gets blamed for this team dropping a 3-1 series lead, but that is wildly unfair. In the final three games of this matchup against the Rockets, Paul put up a 26.3/4.6/10.3 slash line on 51% shooting. Blake Griffin played well, too, but the Clippers’ supporting cast of J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes — who’d been so, so great all year — collectively gave themselves a swirlie, going an incomprehensibly bad 28-100 between them. You cannot win a playoff series when you give 100 shots to three guys over the course of three games and they shoot 28%. It just cannot be done, especially when the other team has James Harden and Dwight Howard.
1994 Seattle Supersonics
Man, the Sonics really just had no luck during the ’90s. Maybe some people prefer the ’96 team that made the finals, but I actually think this was probably their most stacked squad: Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, and great role players like Nate McMillan and Sam Perkins, not to mention Ricky Pierce, who might be the best bench scorer ever. Then the playoffs happened and the Sonics made NBA history in the worst possible way by losing three straight to the Denver Nuggets become the first No. 1 overall seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the playoffs. The resulting image is one of the most iconic in the league’s history: Dikembe Mutombo laying on his back on the court holding the ball over his head, screaming “I LOVE THIS GAME!”
2007 Phoenix Suns
The “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns are usually used as the ultimate “you can’t win a title with an all-offense team,” but in 2007 they just got hosed. Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs were a dirty team this year, and when the Suns faced them in the Western Conference Semifinals, things got ugly. Things were chippy from the get-go, with Bruce Bowen doing the stuff he spent his whole career doing and Amar’e Stoudemire calling him (and his team) out for it. The Suns were up late in a pivotal Game 4 when Robert Horry proved Stoudemire’s point by hip checking Steve Nash directly into the scorer’s table. It was an uncalled-for cheap shot by a guy who was at that point in his career a marginal player — and it worked. Multiple Suns, including Stoudemire, were suspended for Game 5 for leaving the bench, and without them, the Suns ultimately lost Games 5 and 6. Leave it to the Spurs to cheap shot their way to victory even when they’re up against a better (and more fun) team. No, I’m not bitter.
1994 New York Knicks
Again, 1994! I do not understand that season. There’s no question this team was better on paper than the Rockets that year: Patrick Ewing had a monster season (albeit not quite as good as Hakeem’s), Charles Oakley was basically a much better version of Otis Thorpe, and the Rockets didn’t have anyone who could compare to John Starks. Anthony Mason, Derek Harper, and Rolando Blackman came off the bench for this team, and they still couldn’t take Houston! This was even after beating Reggie Miller’s Pacers, the perennial Knicks bugaboo, in the Eastern Conference Finals. There will never be a weirder playoffs than 1994.
2021 Los Angeles Clippers
I’m on record for despising Kawhi Leonard, so this one was very, very funny for me. This was a stacked team on paper — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the wings with a host of useful role players (Serge Ibaka, Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Sweet Lou Williams) — but they just couldn’t stay healthy. It was a problem all season, but they looked good to go in the playoffs, fending off a tough Dallas Mavericks team and then depositing the Jazz directly in the dumpster…and then Leonard got hurt. Watching PatBev try to overcome the loss by turning into a psychotic muppet was deeply, deeply gratifying for me.
2021 Brooklyn Nets
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Whoever won last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Nets and the Bucks was coming out of the East; if the Bucks couldn’t guard Kevin Durant with Giannis Antetokounmpo, what were the Atlanta Hawks going to do to him? Again, on paper, the Nets were the better team: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden were a terrifying trio. But they weren’t nearly as deep as Milwaukee (significant minutes for Jeff Green? What year is this?!), and that bit them hard when injuries to Irving and Harden came into play. They still came within a hair’s breadth of beating the Bucks in Game 7 thanks to Durant being unguardable to a degree we hadn’t seen since Michael Jordan. Then this year the Nets dealt Harden for Ben Simmons and uh…well, let’s see how that goes for them.
2012 Chicago Bulls
2012 Chicago Bulls — Oh, what a difference an injury makes. The Bulls were the #1 seed in the East that year despite the existence of LeBron’s Miami Heat because of a balanced offense, a deep bench — and 23-year-old defending MVP Derrick Rose. Even though Rose missed half the season with nagging injuries, he looked good for the playoffs…then in Game 2 of the Bulls’ first-round series against the 76ers, his knee detonated harder than the Halifax Explosion. Rose missed the entire following season (in the meantime, the Bulls tried to replace his minutes by acquiring Nate Robinson in the offseason, which is so funny I don’t even have a joke for it) and his career was never the same, dooming the Bulls long-term title hopes.
1968 Philadelphia 76ers
This one was the Disease of Too Much year. The Sixers had won the title in ’67 with an absolutely stacked starting five that sported four Hall of Famers, including Wilt Chamberlain, maybe the best player in basketball. The next year, Hal Greer was even better, while Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham were nearly as good, and Wilt led the league in assists just to prove he could (something no other center has ever done). But there was just something psychologically missing, which is why they lost in seven to essentially the same Boston team (minus K.C. Jones) they’d beaten in five the year prior. One year later, Wilt was gone and it was Cunningham’s team.
1995 Orlando Magic
It’s a testament to Hakeem Olajuwon’s greatness that he managed to beat three of the teams on this list largely by himself, and that’s not even including his absolute dismantling of David Robinson in the ’95 Western Conference Semifinals. Of the three, though, this one is the most impressive. If you weren’t there to watch it and only saw him later after opposing bigs had been allowed to take a tire iron to his head for a solid decade, I can’t describe what watching a young Shaquille O’Neal was like. Combine all his late-career skills with the ability to run the floor like a gazelle and the man couldn’t be stopped if you were allowed to run him over with a ’71 Chevelle. And unlike Hakeem, he wasn’t a one-man team: Penny Hardaway hadn’t blown out his knee yet and was at that point the best point guard in the league, Horace Grant made an All-Defense team (second rather than first team, but whatever) as the perfect complement to Shaq at the 4, and Nick Anderson shot 41.5% from three that season.
2012 Oklahoma City Thunder
This might be the team with the most raw talent to not win a title. Heck, they only won one game in the Finals despite having Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (back when he was good), and James Harden — not to mention quality secondary players like Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Thabo Sefolosha. Unfortunately, they ran into the apex buzzsaw that was LeBron James’ Miami Heat squad, and nothing was stopping ‘Bron from his first title. Honestly, this is on Thunder coach Scotty Brooks more than anyone — Brooks did his standard thing and badly mismanaged both minutes and strategy, trusting center Kendrick Perkins way, way too much. The next year, they dealt Harden to the Houston Rockets in one of the worst trades of all time and their window as contenders had effectively closed, as they got bounced from the 2013 playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, of all teams.