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As we continue to work our way through the endless summer between the Finals and Opening Night, we'll pause each Friday to briefly consider and count down some NBA-related topic of note. We like starting lineups and round numbers, so we'll run through a handful of items each week. With a nod to our friends at Dr. Saturday, welcome to Ball Don't Five.
This week's installment: The Top Five Great Teams That Never Won a Title
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5. Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers
This is a cop-out, and not an entirely accurate description to boot. Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers won it all in 1972 after steamrolling the league in a regular season that saw the squad win a then-NBA record 69 games, which was nice. For 11 years prior, however, West’s Laker clubs routinely bowed out in the playoffs to either superior St. Louis, San Francisco or Milwaukee clubs, or in the Finals at the feet of the Boston Celtics. That’s 11-straight runs featuring West and Elgin Baylor and eventually Wilt Chamberlain at their peaks, with no ring to show for it until Bill Sharman put the team over the top in 1972.
4. 1996 Seattle SuperSonics
We had to limit our list to include just one team that fell at the hands of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, otherwise this list might be made up entirely of those that were denied a championship mostly because of No. 23. We selected the 64-win SuperSonics as the best of the bunch, though arguments can be made for the 64-win 1997 Utah Jazz, the 62-win 1992-93 Phoenix Suns, or the 60-win New York Knicks team from the same season.
All three have their merits, but this SuperSonics outfit was probably the best of the bunch. The team basically played the Bulls to a standstill following Game 3 of the Finals once coach George Karl decided to finally sic guard Gary Payton on Michael Jordan. Shawn Kemp and Payton were in their primes, while Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and Sam Perkins were major contributors. Seattle also had to go through the defending champion Houston Rockets and a killer Utah Jazz club just to get to the Finals that season.
3. 1982 Philadelpha Sixers
The previous year’s model may have won more games (62 to 58), but these Sixers came so, so close to finally bringing Philly a title – only to fall once again to the hated Los Angeles Lakers. The Julius Erving-led squad swooshed past the same Boston Celtics team that knocked them out of the 1981 playoffs while downing a tough Milwaukee Bucks outfit along the way only to see their run stop short in the face of the same Laker team that topped them in the 1980 Finals. Erving led Philadelphia in scoring with over 24 a game, but five other Sixers (Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Lionel Hollins, Darryl Dawkins, Andrew Toney) also averaged double-figure points.
2. 1991 Portland Trail Blazers
Coming off of a Finals defeat in 1990 and surely to be paired in the Finals with a Chicago Bulls team that they matched up well against, the Blazers were shockingly upset in the Western Conference finals, denying the 63-win team a chance at giving Portland its second NBA title. Led by Clyde Drexler, Portland featured an astoundingly-good rotation that showcased seven different double-figure scorers. A top-three defensive team and top-two offensive team, Portland would have certainly given the Bulls a run had they been able to make it past an aging yet crafty Lakers lineup.
1. 1973 Boston Celtics
An outstanding defensive club led by the inexhaustible John Havlicek, these Celtics won 68 games (tying for the second-best record in league history at the time) before a plucky New York Knicks team upset them in the Eastern Conference finals. Coached by Tommy Heinsohn, the team also featured Jo Jo White running the show and Dave Cowens in the pivot, but it could not keep it together (even with defensive hound Don Chaney at guard) against a Knick team that would go on to win that year’s championship.
The 2007 Dallas Mavericks won 67 games, more than any team on this list save for Boston, and failed to win a title. They would seem like an odd team to exclude, but the Mavs were a bit lucky even in their unluckiest year – they didn’t even boast the best point differential in the NBA that particular year, with the eventual champion Spurs ranking above them.
Another addition to the Jordan-thwarted crew would be the 1998 Indiana Pacers, who took advantage of health and great coaching to take Chicago to seven tough games in the Eastern Conference finals after winning 58 regular season games. The 2004 version of the team also won 61 games before losing in the third round to the Detroit Pistons. That same year the Kevin Garnett-led Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way toward a championship before injuries hit at the worst possible time in the postseason.
The 2001-02 Sacramento Kings are sadly remember more for the series of terrible calls that went against them in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals than they’re remembered as what they were – a fantastic, championship-level basketball team. The 1976 Golden State Warriors, 2014 Miami Heat, 2005 Detroit Pistons, 2012 San Antonio Spurs and the 2010 and 2011 Chicago Bulls also merited consideration. As did the 1984 Los Angeles Lakers, the 1972 New York Knicks, and 1961 St. Louis Hawks.