1980s Bucks, Derrick Rose Bulls among best teams to miss NBA Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
It’s not easy making the NBA playoffs. It’s even harder to get to the NBA Finals.
And this NBA postseason further proved that point. No matter how good you are in the regular season, the playoffs are a different beast. There were a number of teams this season with early exits from the playoffs after being favorites to win the title, such as the Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets and the Utah Jazz.
But this is a trend that has happened year after year. There have been plenty of great NBA teams that dominate the regular season and seem like sure candidates to play in the championship. There have been even more teams to consistently compete in multiple seasons as a title contender, but never make it to the final stage.
Are the Philadelphia 76ers starting to become one of those teams? The Los Angeles Clippers? Teams that continue to be there towards the end, but never get to play for an NBA title for multiple postseasons? It may be tough to tell, but there have been a number of examples in NBA history of organizations that dominated for multiple years in an era, but could never reach the final round.
Here are some of those great teams that never made it to the NBA Finals.
San Antonio Spurs (1977-1983)
The San Antonio Spurs, one of four remaining teams still active from the ABA, proved early on that ABA teams could compete and win in the NBA. Most of the team's success came at the hands of George Gervin, who was a four-time scoring champ and nine-time All-Star.
He helped lead the Spurs to a No. 2 seed five times in a six-year span between the 1977-78 and 1982-83 seasons. However, come playoff time, the Spurs couldn’t put it together. The Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) shocked the Spurs in the conference semifinals in six games in 1978, and then the Bullets completed a 3-1 comeback the next year in the conference finals to stun the Spurs again. San Antontio failed to win a playoff series the next two years, and then lost back-to-back conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in ’82 and ’83. Gervin was traded after the 1984-85 season, and the Spurs became a below-average team.
Milwaukee Bucks (1979-1989)
The 1980s were a great, but frustrating time to be a Bucks fan. The early ’80s teams featured two-time Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson and Bob Lanier, while the later teams had Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey, Junior Bridgeman and two-time Sixth Man of the Year Ricky Pierce. Milwaukee made the playoffs every season in the ’80s, finishing as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference in the first seven seasons of the decade (minus 1979-1980 when the team was still in the West). They were one of the most consistently dominant teams of that era.
The problem was that also during that time, the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics were each just a step above the Bucks. The Bucks lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1980 when they were still in the Western Conference, but after that, Milwaukee was eliminated by either the 76ers or the Celtics in seven straight postseasons and never reached the NBA Finals. They reached three conference finals during that time, but never won more than one game in a series.
Milwaukee is heading to their first NBA Finals since losing in 1974 to the Celtics, with the Bucks beating the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals.
San Antonio Spurs (1989-1996)
Yes, we’re back to the Spurs again. After a few years of being at the bottom of the NBA, the Spurs received the No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft and selected a center who would go down as one of the greatest players at that position -- David Robinson. “The Admiral” joined the Spurs in 1989 and completely flipped the trajectory of the franchise in one of the best turnaround seasons in NBA history.
Despite bringing the Spurs to the top of the NBA table and having players such as Sean Elliot, Terry Cummings and Dennis Rodman all at some point on the team during this time, the Spurs failed to reach the NBA Finals between when Robinson came in the league and 1996. The team made the playoffs seven straight years, including having the best record in 1994-95 and being the No. 2 seed three times. However, the team only made the conference finals once, in 1994-95, but fell to the eventual-NBA champion Houston Rockets.
There’s a multitude of reasons the Spurs just couldn’t click in the first half of the 1990s. There was a coaching carousel going on in San Antonio that certainly didn’t help, with six different head coaches during this span. Rodman didn’t exactly get along with his teammates. However, by 1997, both Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan were in San Antonio, and things have gone pretty well since then.
Miami Heat (1996-2001)
The late 1990s were a turning point for the Miami Heat franchise. Pat Riley was brought in to run the organization, and two of his first moves were to bring in Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway as the centerpieces of the team. The Heat quickly turned to title contenders and were one of the best teams in the East for a few years, with Mourning winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Things were promising for the Heat with a fresh start with Riley at the helm. The team went five straight years finishing in the top three of the Eastern Conference, including having the best record in the conference in 1998-99. Miami was bounced by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls those first two postseasons, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Included in those postseason games was beating their rival New York Knicks in seven games in the conference semifinals of 1997. However, their next couple postseasons were disastrous.
In back-to-back postseasons in 1998 and 1999, the Heat were upset by the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, both in five games. First it was Mourning getting suspended in Game 4 of the 1998 playoffs and not being able to play Game 5, and then it was Allan Houston with the Game 5 buzzer beater in 1999. To make matters worse, the Heat faced the Knicks again the next postseason in the conference semifinals. After being up 3-2 in the series, Miami lost Game 6 and 7 to be eliminated by New York for a third straight season. The next season, the Heat were again upset in the postseason, this time in a sweep by the Charlotte Hornets in the first round, and Miami wouldn’t get back to the playoffs for another three seasons.
Sacramento Kings (1998-2006)
Yes, there was a time when the Sacramento Kings weren’t sitting at the basement of the West year after year. The early 2000s featured some of the best Kings teams. With Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojaković playing out in the Bay during that time, the Kings became playoff contenders and then eventual championship contenders. From 1999-2006, the Kings made eight straight postseasons.
In another world, a much fairer world where the games are officiated evenly, the Kings wouldn’t be on this list. The 2001-02 Kings team was the best in the league and should have played in the NBA Finals. Going against the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, up 3-2 in the series, the Kings watched as the Lakers received 27 free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 6 that helped them win and go to a decisive Game 7, in which the Lakers also came out victorious. The official’s clear favoritism towards the Lakers was questioned at the time, and the ex-NBA official Tim Donaghy confirmed it a couple of years ago. There was a good chance the Kings would have won the title, but instead, it was taken out of their hands and given to L.A.
It was the only time the Kings reached the conference finals in that time span. Despite finishing second and fourth in the conference the next two seasons respectively, the Kings were bounced in the semifinals, which were followed by two first round exits. Sacramento has yet to get back to the postseason since 2006.
Phoenix Suns (2004-2010)
The Phoenix Suns knew they were creating something special when they brought back Steve Nash in 2004 from the Dallas Mavericks. With Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw, the Suns won their division three straight years from 2005 to 2007. Their late 2000s teams weren’t as successful, with Nash and Stoudemire playing with Leonadro Barbosa, Grant Hill and one year of Shaquille O’Neal, but they still made the playoffs two out of three seasons after their three-year span on winning the division was snapped.
Despite their regular season success, Nash and Co. could never put it all together in the playoffs and come out of the West. They lost to the Spurs in the 2005 conference finals, the Mavericks in the 2006 conference finals and then the Spurs again in the 2007 conference semifinals. Subpar years in 2007-08 and 2008-09 saw the Suns lose in the first round and then not make the playoffs, but the Suns got back to the conference finals in 2010, only to lose to the Lakers. Stoudemire left that summer for the New York Knicks, and the Suns fell to the bottom of the Western Conference.
Denver Nuggets (2003-2013)
The beginning of the 2003-04 marked new changes in Denver. And we’re not just talking about the change to the light blue and gold colors. Denver had failed to reach the playoffs in the eight seasons prior, but that would change with the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, who was drafted third in the 2003 draft.
Those earlier teams during the stretch featured Nene, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, with Allen Iverson eventually joining the team for three seasons. The Nuggets got progressively better, but one thing remained mostly the same -- lack of postseason success. After Anthony arrived, the Nuggets made the postseason all seven seasons while he was in Denver. However, the Nuggets lost in the first round every single time, except for the 2009 playoffs where they lost in the conference finals to the Lakers. And they didn’t just lose -- in every series it took six games or fewer.
It didn’t get better after the blockbuster Carmelo trade with the Knicks. With guys like Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Nene, the team made the playoffs again for three straight seasons. But the same trend followed, as each postseason, the team was eliminated in the first round. After the 2012-13 season, the Nuggets wouldn't get back to the playoffs for six seasons. What looked like a promising era in Denver with Carmelo turned into season after season of postseason disappointment.
Chicago Bulls (2010-2015)
The Derrick Rose era with the Chicago Bulls was an extremely bittersweet one. Rose brought success that the team hadn’t sniffed at since the Jordan era. But his career would be forever altered with his knee injuries, and so would the Bulls in the early 2010s.
Rose, with the help of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, led the Bulls to back-to-back first place finishes in the Eastern Conference. But a loss to the Cavaliers in the 2011 conference finals ended Rose’s MVP season, and that was followed up with a Rose- and Noah-less Bulls team losing in the first round to the 76ers.
Injuries continued to haunt Rose for the next two seasons and despite the emergence of Jimmy Butler, the Bulls failed to get back to the conference finals. In 2015, with a healthy Rose, the Bulls earned the No. 3 seed in the East, and Rose played in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. However, the Bulls were once again eliminated by the Cavs. Rose was traded in June 2016, and the Bulls have yet to win a playoff series since 2015.
Los Angeles Clippers (2011-2017)
The Lob City Clippers were supposed to be the next great superteam. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan -- the team had it all. They even hired Doc Rivers to bring the team together. However, what they got was a bunch of talented players that just couldn’t gel together and, as a result, severely underperformed.
The Clippers made the playoffs for six straight seasons from 2012 to 2017, twice as a No. 3 seed and three times as a No. 4 seed. However, in those six postseasons, the Clippers only advanced past the first round three times and never made the conference finals at all. The most disappointing results came in the 2015 playoffs when Los Angeles blew a 3-1 lead to the Rockets in the conference semifinals. Not only that, but the Clippers lost the final three games each by more than 10 points. By 2018, both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were shipped out of L.A., effectively ending the Lob City era.
Houston Rockets (2012-20)
The James Harden era in Houston ended on a sour note at the beginning of this season, but it was one that saw the Rockets make the playoffs eight seasons in a row. Harden led the team to three division titles, in addition to the best record in the Western Conference in 2017-18. The Rockets finished as a top-four team in the conference six of eight seasons while Harden was in Houston.
But alas, the golden years (pun intended) of the Golden State Warriors occurred at the same time, and the Rockets could never beat Golden State. In five postseasons from 2015 to 2019, Houston was eliminated by the Warriors four times. The 2018 Western Conference Finals stung the most, as the Rockets were up 3-2 on the Warriors. After losing Game 6, the Rockets put up a historically bad performance beyond the arc in Game 7, missing 27 consecutive 3-pointers, which set an NBA record.
It was particularly frustrating that the Rockets surrounded Harden with talent, but could never completely figure it out. Harden played with Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, even Russell Westbrook last season. But the Rockets could never reach the NBA Finals and are now in full rebuild mode after shipping Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.