August 24, 2009
OK, we know that the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know that there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
Also-rans get also-rung for many reasons. Players could fall short, coaches could come up lame, the refs could play a part, the matchups could play a role, and injuries could come up at the worst time. Or, our own overstating of one team's brilliance could lead them to believe the hype and disbelieve in the idea of boxing out.
Here are a list of the 10 best teams to fall short of a ring, with no franchise being listed twice (to give everyone a chance), since the 1999-2000 season.
10. Miami Heat, 2004-05
Shaquille O'Neal(notes) got most of the credit at the time, but the years have taught us that it was Dwyane Wade's(notes) ascendency that allowed the Heat to win 59 games in O'Neal's first year in a Miami. Coached by Stan Van Gundy, with Wade in his second year, the Heat were equally stout on defense (sixth in defensive efficiency) and offense (fifth), while receiving solid spacing and help D from guys like Damon Jones(notes), Eddie Jones(notes), Christian Laettner and Udonis Haslem(notes).
Alas, with Wade (and to a lesser extent, O'Neal) injured for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons topped the Heat in Miami. President Pat Riley then proceeded to dump that set of role players in favor of a crew including Antoine Walker(notes), Jason Williams(notes) and James Posey(notes). Somehow (read: Wade, that's how) it worked, and the Heat won their ring in 2006.
9. Detroit Pistons, 2005-06
With Flip Saunders turning what was a 17th-ranked offense into a fourth-ranked offense while sustaining the defense (dropped from third under Larry Brown to fifth with Saunders), the Pistons were bandied about as a possible 70-win team until a March and April swoon saw what was once a 47-9 outfit finish 17-9.
Whether these Pistons tuned Saunders out is up for discussion, but the desultory end to the regular season was topped off by two sleepwalking turns against the Bucks and Cavaliers in the first two rounds (even losing by 20 to an underwhelming Milwaukee team), before the Heat downed the Pistons in six games (with three of Miami's wins coming by double-digits, no small feat considering the snail-like pace) in the conference finals.
Also considered: Detroit Pistons, 2004-05; Detroit Pistons 2007-08.
8. Phoenix Suns, 2004-05
It's hard to overstate what this season's Phoenix Suns meant to several generations of NBA fans. Not only did they run with abandon and play a freewheeling offense led by free agent signee Steve Nash(notes), but they were also the lead dog in a new era of pro basketball that was defined by increased hand-checking regulation (making it easier for guards to do their thing), and a slight (but needed) uptick in the running game. This season's model dashed out to 62 wins while scoring 110 per contest, alongside an underrated defense (17th in defensive efficiency).
The playoffs seemed to bring more of the same until Joe Johnson(notes) went down with a broken face, essentially, in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. Jim Jackson was an adequate replacement, but the Suns weren't at full strength while down a cog, and it showed. Phoenix wasn't exactly outclassed against the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals — they won once and lost by only seven, three, 10 and six points — but the Spurs did well to keep Phoenix at forearm's length.
Also considered: Phoenix Suns, 2006-07
7. Minnesota Timberwolves, 2003-04
Kevin Garnett's(notes) lone MVP season saw him at his absolute peak, and for just about the only time in his NBA career, he was paired with a player worth Garnett's time. It wasn't a Big Three, Latrell Sprewell was pretty average in his second-to-last season, but Sam Cassell's(notes) 20-point, seven-assist season paired nicely with Garnett's ridiculous all-court combination of league-best defense and 24 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and 3.7 combined steals and blocks.
It may have won a championship, too, had Cassell not come up lame in the postseason with a bum hamstring. With their All-Star out, Darrick Martin(notes), Fred Hoiberg and even Kevin Garnett had to bring the ball past half court for the Wolves, who lost in the conference finals to the Lakers. The season also saw one of the great Game 7 performances of all time, as Garnett notched 32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks, four steals, two assists and two turnovers in the second round against Sacramento, ridiculous numbers for such a low scoring (83-80) game.
6. Los Angeles Lakers, 2003-04
This could have been an all-time team, one of the greats, had everything come together. Nothing came together, though. Nothing came close. Everything fell apart, badly, but not before the Lakers made it all the way to the NBA Finals, as favorites, before losing to the Detroit Pistons. Los Angeles signed Gary Payton(notes) and Karl Malone to cheap-o contracts before the season started, hoping to fill positions that had been skunked by Tim Duncan(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) the season before, but those esteemed transactions were more than mitigated by the news of Kobe Bryant's(notes) legal troubles in Colorado during the summer of 2003.
Bryant's troubles marred the season, as he grew increasingly insular, and, to his coaching staff and teammates, erratic and selfish on the court. Payton never learned the offense, Shaquille O'Neal was never in shape, and Karl Malone (the lone good soldier on this squad) had to deal with two devastating freak knee injuries in December (with the Lakers rolling along at 20 and 5) and in June (with Los Angeles about to make the Finals).
Also considered: Los Angeles Lakers, 2007-08
5. Dallas Mavericks, 2006-07
They were the favorite, the 67-win team, but these Mavericks are the go-to gold standard regarding just why point differential is more important than won/loss records when determining the greatness of a team, and why matchups will always rule in the NBA. This doesn't mean these Mavs were chopped liver, far from it. Led by Dirk Nowitzki's(notes) MVP turn, the Mavs were an angry team that was smarting from a 2006 Finals defeat to the Miami Heat.
They weren't exactly seething out of the gate, as Dallas lost its first four contests, but the Mavs teed off on the league from there (a 67-11 record to finish the season, yikes), and seemed to be the overwhelming favorite for everyone that hadn't noticed San Antonio's 8.4-point differential that season (nearly a whole point better than Dallas). Dallas' 1-6 record against Golden State over the previous two seasons was also ignored, as the Warriors went on to top Dallas in a six-game, opening-round loss.
Also considered: Dallas Mavericks, 2005-06; Dallas Mavericks, 2002-03; Dallas Mavericks, 2004-05.
4. Portland Trail Blazers, 1999-00
A notorious also-ran that managed to lose a trip to the Finals (and probably title) not with an injury or ref-addled series of bum calls but with a miserable meltdown in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 that handed the Los Angeles Lakers a comeback win and rendered a promising team absolutely frazzled for three seasons following. Worse, with a big win on Feb. 29 of that season (Portland was 45-11 entering the game, they finished the season 14-12), the Lakers sent the Blazers reeling twice in one season.
Things started out promising. A late offseason trade netted the Trail Blazers Scottie Pippen for all sorts of what were thought to be superfluous parts, after a summer that saw the team acquire Steve Smith and Detlef Schrempf in order to round out an already fearsome and deep roster. Coach Mike Dunleavy was never able to foster a group that was greater than the sum of its parts, and the team had no fallback option once the jumpers stopped falling in Game 7. And one of the "superfluous parts" listed above, Lakers guard Brian Shaw, ended up contributing a huge 3-pointer in Los Angeles' Game 7 comeback.
3. San Antonio Spurs, 2003-04
People forget just how great this Spurs team was, lost in the haze between its 2003 return to glory (a championship won with newish additions Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker), and the two ring bearers that followed in 2005 and 2007. Of course, the team also harkened back to an outfit that looked downright scared in losses to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs.
It was the Lakers that downed this team in the conference semifinals in 2004, as well, completely ripping the heart out of the Spurs after Derek Fisher(notes) nailed a nearly impossible jumper with .4 seconds left in a pivotal fifth game of the conference semifinals. The Spurs had a chance to even the series in Game 6, but they were more or less toast by then. The Lakers, as it was in 2001 and 2002, went on to the Finals.
Also considered: San Antonio Spurs, 2005-06; San Antonio Spurs, 2001-02; San Antonio Spurs, 2000-01.
2. Sacramento Kings, 2001-02
This team deserved a championship so much that Ralph Nader thought he'd lend a hand in helping them out. The Kings were absolutely jobbed by the referees in a Game 6 loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, a series of calls so bad that Nader thought he'd do a little work on Sacramento's behalf. Honesty compels me to mention the fact that the Lakers were also jobbed a bit in Game 5 of that series in Sacramento, and that the Kings did have a Game 7 at home in their favor to make things right.
They blew that one, though, even as it went to overtime. It tends to mar an otherwise sublime season that saw seven Kings average double-figure points per game (with two, Chris Webber(notes) and Peja Stojakovic(notes), averaging well over 20 per), alongside the sixth-best defense in the NBA. But, you know, maybe if Vlade hadn't flopped so damn much ...
Also considered: Sacramento Kings, 2002-03; Sacramento Kings, 2003-04.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2008-09
I sort of like this also-ran, because it speaks to how we've grown as a sport-regarding culture over the years. These Cleveland Cavaliers ran up 66 wins, an almost Bulls-like 8.9-point differential (way better than any team listed above), and had the greatest player in the game (LeBron James(notes)) at their disposal. And yet, when the team lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, people seemed ready to smartly admit that the Cavs, for all their horses, just didn't have the horses to run with the Magic.
Nobody was labeled a choker, nobody was fired, and though the team traded for one big (hopeful) problem-solver in the offseason in Shaquille O'Neal, nobody seemed to overreact and make deals for the sake of making deals. Knowing that the team will have the best player in the game, at only age 24, around for at least the next season helps too; but you have to love the lack of hand-wringing. Still, the meek ending doesn't hide the fact that this was an otherwise dominant team that won 74 of its first 90 games before falling to the Magic in six.
Questions? Comments? Furious and righteous anger and a world, not to mention top 10 list, gone wrong? Swing by later today at about 2 p.m. Eastern for a BDL mini-chat regarding this very list.