Abe Beame’s still looking for a writer who can see him in the paint.
There are moments in history that are so strange and perverse as to feel ahistorical — as if we’re living in a simulation or some bizarro Quantum Leap style reality in which Scott Bakula possessed the body of an important historical figure and fucked everything up. It felt like an event like this occurred at the end of the last NBA season with the crowning of the Toronto Raptors as the 20th franchise to ever win an NBA Championship.
As a long time supporter and defender of the 90s Knicks, I throughout my life have had a tendency to favor the inherent superiority of the scrappy underdog squads of the NBA who come up just shy of the prize. From the moment Kawhi’s logic and physics defying baseline buzzer beater bounced in against the 76ers, the Raptors seemed destined to assume this mantle.
But something funny happened on the way to a feel good sports movie classic about a gang of unlikely, outgunned heroes who fight valiantly and come up short. Everything broke the Raptors way and they won the ultimate prize against one of the most formidable big bads in the history of the league.
Kawhi left soon after and no tears were shed on either side. It was a completely transactional, symbiotic relationship that satisfied both parties. Kawhi got complete and total agency to pick his next team and the makeup of the roster, and the Raptors faithful finally broke through and were rewarded with a title no one will ever be able to take away from them.
My feelings were complicated. On one hand I was happy for the Raptors, the triumph of one of these longshot teams is something I root for every postseason, since I can’t actually root for my team. But there’s a part of my brain that has always regarded the NBA as somewhat inevitable. There’s always an imposing dynasty with an unprecedented stockpile of talent, always a sliver of hope that a new young exciting team and its star player can challenge but it rarely seems to work out that way. And yet here was an instance where it did.
Breaking this perceived veneer of the impossible forced me to reconsider all those teams who fought so nobly throughout my adult life as a fan of the league, all those nights I was glued to a screen on my couch or in some bar ignoring everything around me as another West Coast Game 7 wound down to its tragic conclusion long after midnight, all those vanquished heroes who would fade into history as lesser for not getting that last bounce the fates awarded Kawhi, and consider what might’ve been. Shaq and Kobe aren’t forces of nature, they aren’t supernatural, they were just men, and their reign of dominance happened, but a call here, a suspension there, an offensive rebound secured, and the entire course of history could’ve played out differently.
So I started a project this offseason. Not dedicated to the champs and the legendary players we all agree on — enough words have been written about them. But instead this is for the Greek tragedies, the heroes that fought incredible odds, and just missed their best shot at immortality. This will be an empirical and emotional ranking of the best teams this century who never made it to the promised land. They won’t be ranked by metrics you can find on any advanced stat site. We’re not evaluating plus/minus or shot selection or pace. But in their moments of truth, how close did they come, and how painful was their loss?
Articulating and quantifying heartbreak can be a tricky thing. So what I tried to evaluate on a case by case basis was: how good was the team in its construction which would bare out in regular season record. How good were they in the playoffs? And then drilling down, when it came to the particulars of the series’ in which they were felled, how worthy was the opponent? How close did they come to victory? How close were the specific games they lost? I looked for anomalies like injuries or suspensions. I looked for buzzer beating shots in pivotal swing games. I looked at the discrepancies in fouls called and conspiracy theories surrounding outcomes that could be better for eventual league viewership ratings.
Franchises who had won chips this century were excluded from consideration. There were teams like the Pistons, Celtics, Mavericks, Cavs and yes, the Spurs that may have merited rankings but were disqualified because they had either already or would eventually receive their ultimate satisfaction, and may all their fans who complain and the teams they root for sink into the ocean (And the Derrick Rose Bulls. Seriously, fuck the Bulls).
Then there was a history of pain and agony to consider. Special merit was granted to franchises that have experienced a collective psychic pain, not necessarily ever experiencing the spectacular traumatic single series but lived through years of rooting for good teams that fall to juggernaut dynasties. The Bucks have been to the playoffs more than the Grizzlies have in the last 30 years, but until this year they never had a legitimate contender, so that matters. This is why this is a ranking written by a human being and not an algorithm. Any one who was watching knows the Grizz had way more realistic shots at the throne.
You will notice that there are no Finals teams on this list, and few teams from the East. There’s a few reasons for this. For one, most of the teams who have lost a Finals this century, particularly the close agonizing ones, won them eventually. (The Cavs, Mavericks, Heat, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Warriors, and Pistons) For the entire century, the East has been a collection of mediocrity, and for the last decade whatever team Lebron was on. There are few exceptions of a team not listed above making a finals and doing anything besides getting their asses unceremoniously kicked, which is why you won’t see the Nets or the Magic here. For the most part, I tried to focus on the teams that had a legitimate shot at becoming champions, and the great players who fought for them and lost.
Of course, there are people on some of these teams who eventually went on to other franchises and secured their championships. But they weren’t docked for that because this list isn’t for the players, not really. It’s for the fans. The loyal star-crossed die-hards in Portland and Minnesota and Houston and Sacramento for whom hope springs eternal. They’ve yet to experience the lifelong bliss they’ve waited for — to root for a champion — but that’s no matter. This season, and if not this season, this generation of young exciting players, this innovative coach, this front office that at last has its priorities straight, will eventually deliver us all to the promised land.
When our favorite players leave and win elsewhere we’re happy for those players, but their success, and that happiness, and even that player has become a stranger to us. For us, that player will always be hunched in exquisite agony by the scorers table as the confetti falls and the champagne corks pop around them, and no amount of accolades or fucking rings could ever make them more beautiful or heroic than they were in that perfect moment of defeat.
13. The 2019 Philadelphia 76ers
Team Record: 51-31
Playoff Record: 7-5
Best Player: Joel Embiid
Key Injuries: *Markelle Fultz (Traded)
Summary: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In the 2018-2019 season, a team in the East was slapped together somewhat haphazardly in what was an ultimate chips on the table win now act of borderline desperation. It was an incredibly talented, precocious team that went on to defy expectations and achieve a surprising level of success. I’m not referring to the Toronto Raptors and their unlikely miracle season, but the team they squeezed past as Kawhi’s series ending buzzer beater bounced off every part of the rim before falling.
Ok but seriously, what happened to the Sixers was actually pretty unbearable and heartbreaking. The Kawhi shot was merely an encapsulation of an entire season of bad luck, mismanagement and missed opportunity. Going into the 2017-2018 draft, the 76ers had the most enviable war chest in the league. They had a deep roster of valuable assets, not just their two stars Embiid and Ben Simmons, but dynamic role players like Dario Saric and Robert Covington.
The pick swap they orchestrated with the Celtics is easy to pick apart in hindsight. If I was a 76er fan, every time I saw De’Aaron Fox blow past another defender on the perimeter it would be a knife to my heart. But what has happened to Fultz — his slow-mo car crash disintegration and now potential resurrection in Orlando, abandoned for pennies on the dollar — is unprecedented in a million ways. #1 picks bust, but Fultz had been a can’t miss prospect who missed in the most bizarre and confusing manner we’ve ever seen. What’s harder to defend is the pair of trades Elton Brand made last year.
The Jimmy Butler move made most of the headlines, but it’s the Tobias Harris trade I keep coming back to as the real missed opportunity. From the outside, it appears that the 76ers and their inexperienced GM Elton Brand rolled over, sacrificing their treasure trove of hard earned draft assets, plus one of the few backcourt shooters they had on a team in dire need of shooting, for Harris, an admittedly solid and now permanent addition to their core. However, the Clippers were so deep, and the haul was so significant for a player they weren’t realistically going to re-sign, the possibilities were endless for what Brand should’ve demanded as a return. They gave up much of their bench depth for the Butler rental.
Now Reddick is gone, Fultz is gone, they’ve made a somewhat risky investment in their tormentor Al Horford, and they’re pretty much locked into this roster for the foreseeable future.
Still, let’s imagine for a moment, Kawhi’s shot had bounced out. The Sixers had more or less been imposing their will on that series, up 2-1 at one point, and the tenor was chippy and ugly, playing right into the best possible vision that Brand had when he put together this large and brutal team. Against the Sixers, the Raptors looked thin and less talented, forced to rely on their star at times without much else. And yet the Raptors went to the Eastern Conference Finals, and after dropping the first two games, beat the Bucks asses, exposing Eric Bledsoe and winning four straight. Then they won the chip. If the Sixers had survived that Game 7, we’re likely not here rehashing the particulars of the Tobias Harris trade and their failure to secure, say, Patrick Beverly, we’re lauding mastermind GM Elton Brand for bringing a title back to Philly for the first time in a generation.
It’s heartbreaking for sure, but their low ranking is due to the fact that their story is far from over, which is the case for one other notable team that we’ll visit shortly. This team reloaded and re-imagined their roster in the offseason. There are glaring weaknesses, first and foremost a troubling lack of depth and shooting, but coming out of the East deeper and if not more dangerous, at least dangerous and interesting in new and surprising ways, the Sixers could very right history’s wrong as soon as the end of this wide open NBA season.
12. 2013 Indiana Pacers
Team Record: 49-32
Playoff Record: 11-8
Best Player: Roy Hibbert
Summary: Ok, before we get into the team, I’m assuming your eyesight is fine. Since you’re reading this at the moment you’re probably high but you’re not confused or hallucinating: Roy Hibbert was the best player on the Pacers, at least during this playoff run. Paul George was their scorer, their captain, their heart, but Hibbert was their identity, and a game-breaking freak who ruined basketball for a brief moment.
I say ruined because the NBA suddenly decided that “verticality” was a thing: a player going straight up with hands raised at the rim wasn’t committing a foul regardless of the amount or violence of the contact. Their semifinal series with the Knicks in particular was outrageous for this. Hibbert was a 7’2, 270 pound behemoth who would often jump into players challenging at the bucket and swing his arms around like baseball bats. Carmelo Anthony in particular was abused throughout the series and couldn’t buy a call.
There’s a chance we’ll never again see a team with the conservative, old school composition that this Pacers team achieved at such a high level. They played a traditional 1-5 lineup, they ran a mostly inside the arc offense, Paul George was their lone player who attempted more than five 3 pointers per game. In the semifinals they played a three point-bombing Knicks squad who should’ve been able to play Hibbert off the floor, but their offense wasn’t quite evolved and honed enough. Melo still wanted to dribble at the elbow, take it to the rack, play inefficient hero ball, and Mike Woodson wasn’t the coach to construct the elegant ball movement heavy offense they would’ve needed to render Hibbert obsolete (which the league would do by 2017).
The team that rolled into Miami for the Eastern Conference Finals represented the Pacers best shot at a championship this decade. They had a superstar who had all the tools to go toe to toe with LeBron James but hadn’t quite displayed the necessary killer instinct to raise his game to the next level (Aside from a stretch of regular season in OKC last year, we’re still waiting), a balanced attack on offense and a lockdown D. They had Lance Stephenson in peak agent of destruction/LeBron tormentor mode. They were designed by Larry Bird to frustrate the Heat and take away their unstoppable transition chaos. They made for a great foil, a lunchpail midwest group of underdogs who “played the game the right way” vs. a showtime Miami squad that at the time represented the decline of Western Civilization for a certain subset of NBA fans who prefer college basketball and would eventually vote for Trump.
What made this series so brutal is you can just see the talent gap on the court and it defined nearly every minute. Indiana has to work so fucking hard for every bucket and Miami basically slips and falls into pull up three after pull up three or brilliantly executed Spoelstra half court action. It felt like one of the most weightless, predetermined 7 game Eastern Conference Finals I’ve ever seen, confirmed by a 23-point blowout in Game 7. This would be followed by another dominating performance from the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014, who despite coming in as a 2 seed would blow the Pacers away in 6, leading to the eventual disbandment of the squad and extinction of their style of play.
Something we’ll see a lot on this list is Game 1 is incredibly important. In nearly every series, the team that wins the first game takes the series. Game 1 in this series was no exception and it serves as a microcosm for the series as a whole. With the Heat up two and the clock ticking down, Paul George was fouled on a pull up three. He hits all three shots, putting the Pacers up one with 2.2 seconds left on the clock. Out of the half court, LeBron catches the inbound at the elbow, spins around George who looks literally planted on the court, and glides to the hoop unaccosted for a layup that was so easy it appears to be computer generated. It had the appearance of a stressful, dire situation, executed cleanly by a team that was never really tested or concerned.
11. 2009 Denver Nuggets
Team Record: 54-28
Playoff Record: 10-6
Best Player: Carmelo Anthony
Key Injury: Anthony Carter’s fourth quarter inbounding
Summary: Very tough for the Nuggets. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was Carmelo’s last moment as a potential champion and pantheon elite player before he manipulated a selfish trade to the Knicks that decimated the franchise and led to an era of indulgent basketball — forever reducing him to self parody. But this iteration of Melo was a threat, not just to the power structure in the West but of LeBron’s otherwise uncontested dominance as the best young player in the league. Melo vs. LeBron was a legitimate argument dudes would have in bars and on the train, the byproduct of a different and less perfect understanding of the game, and a different brand of basketball.
This Nuggets team was incredibly tough and dangerous. An equilibrium strung between streaky, hot shooting scorers and brutalist defense. Aside from their superstar they had an end of his prime Kenyon Martin, an all time league enforcer/bad guy, an end of his prime Chauncey Billups and young microwave energizer mad men in J.R. Smith and Birdman. They battered their way to a #2 seed in the West and were viewed as a real threat to Kobe and Pau’s clear path to the final.
It felt like one of those series that a young team has to experience on their way to their eventual championship. History is littered with them, only this was an older, rock solid veteran squad built around their young centerpiece. It was the veterans that ultimately let the team down. Kobe and Melo engaged in an old school gun slinging shoot out, trading 30 point-plus performances, playing tightly contested games that easily could’ve swung one way or the other, but the Nuggets simply made crucial mistakes down the stretch, or shit the bed from the free throw line to cement an eventual Lakers victory.
The next season, an aging, middling Denver squad would be upset in a 4-5 first round matchup versus the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer/Paul Milsap Jazz, and the next year Melo would orchestrate his trade home and the hard reset of the Nuggets franchise. But for a brief, beautiful moment, a squad constructed perfectly around its star who hadn’t yet hit his tipping point of no return had a door open to an entire separate vision of what his career, and the entire league could’ve looked like.
10. 2015 Memphis Grizzlies
Team Record: 55-27
Playoff Record: 6-5
Best Player: Tie: Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph
Summary: There are a number of worthy seasons and playoff series for this Grizzlies team that was consistently great and rivetingly unentertaining in a way that warmed every 90s Knicks fan’s heart. They made a Western Conference Finals once but got washed by the Spurs, they lost a 7 game series to an early iteration of the Lob City Clippers in 2012, they lost a 7 game semifinals series to the Thunder in 2011. But for me it was this squad in 2015, who had real seasoning and continuity, that represented the best and most perfect union of the holy trinity between Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley (……..and the God Tony Allen).
There was a moment in this series when the Grit and Grind Grizz were up 2-1 and it really felt like they were ready to make the leap. The West had opened up before them and all they had to do was take care of business against a pesky, ascendent Warriors team that was the number one seed but still unproven. Of course this was the year they’d break through and beat a Cavaliers MASH unit in the Finals.
Earlier I said that the 2013 Pacers were the last team to play in a sturdy, antiquated style and achieve wild success but you could argue that while different, it’s actually the Grizz that own that mantle. What this series became is a referendum on the state of the game. An ancient and ugly style composed entirely of elbows and Z-Bo’s sweaty headbands came up against beauty, precision, range and finesse. History was written by the eventual winner.
For the Grizz, this was a moment where they had their entire squad healthy, they’d all been together for years but hadn’t tipped into too old territory, it was a real opportunity to make a run to the finals.
Instead, this was the series many look back on as the moment the Warriors truly became the Warriors, a team that was more than just explosive and exciting, but tough and resilient. Unfortunately, they achieved this milestone at the expense of a truly great core that never got the rings they so richly deserved.
9. 2001 Milwaukee Bucks
Team Record: 52-30
Playoff Record: 10-8
Best Player: Ray Allen
Key Injury: Scott Williams (Shady suspension)
Summary: A lot of people ask sweet shooting big men from earlier eras if they wonder what might’ve been, but some days the guy I feel the most for is Ray Allen. He retired just on the cusp of the Warriors revolution, and had he ended up in Phoenix in the aughts rather than Boston it could’ve swung the history and sped up the perimeter trajectory of the league.
In 2001, he was on a team that sounds like it was spit out by a 90s basketball generator. George Karl was the coach, and the offense was anchored by an unlikely big three starring Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassel. Tim Thomas and my boy Skippy (Rafer Alston) were around as well. In the semifinals, they had survived an unlikely 7 game series with a Hornets team lead by Jamaal Mashburn, David Wesley, Elden Campbell and a young Baron Davis.
In the Eastern Conference Finals they played the 76ers to 7 games and the tagline should’ve been: one team had Allen Iverson and the other team didn’t. He averaged 30.5 points a game and nearly 7 assists. He went for 44 in Game 7. There was plenty of heartbreak along the way. In the pivotal Game 5, Philly won by a point. The Bucks had Charles Smith levels of chances at a game winning bunny in the paint and missed them all.
Then there’s some Stern era ratfucking to consider. Ray Allen famously called out the league for favoring a larger market and its more marketable star over the backwater Bucks. Philly had the advantage in fouls in every game, the only series on this entire list that can claim that, and there was an incredible 12 technicals and 5 flagrants called on the Bucks within that span. There were crazy rumors floating around: that Allen’s family had seen Stern rooting for the Sixers in the stands, that Karl had other coaches reach out to him to warn him of league favoritism, etc. It was crazy.
On review, it seems a lot of the controversy was a tad overblown. I watched a couple tinfoil hat, lizard people, 9-11 truthing YouTube videos that did a deep dive on the series and I’d say the results were inconclusive at best. The Bucks played a very physical style of defense, Philly was really good at drawing contact, AI was obviously a beast and some shit frankly just went wrong for the Bucks. About the most egregious thing I could find was a phantom illegal screen call on Jason Caffey down the stretch of that fateful Game 5. But potential malfeasance aside, it was a tightly contested and brutal way to go down. Although, this was essentially a competition to find out who would get washed by a peak Shaq Kobe battery in the Finals.
8. 2004 Minnesota Timberwolves
Team Record: 58-24
Playoff Record: 10-8
Best Player: Kevin Garnett
Key Injury: Sam Cassell
Summary: We all know and love Kevin Garnett as the crotchety badass veteran enforcer of that great Celtics team who went on that mini-run and finally got a ring. But it’s hard to overstate how truly great and devastating Garnett was in his athletic prime in Minnesota. He was a game breaking force of nature, a highly skilled dynamic big man that humanity hadn’t evolved enough yet to reckon with. He deserves to be the richest player in the history of the game.
But Garnett’s career in Minnesota was snakebitten. He immediately changed the complexion of the franchise, leading them to their first playoff appearances ever, but Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders could never get the right collection of talent around him, which led to a string of uneventful, perennial first round losses (seven in a row!). Until one year they did. Along with an aged but still very dangerous Latrell Sprewell and old man Sam Cassell, the Wolves won the West, Garnett won an MVP and he finally got out of the first round. He got all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where even with home court they fell yet again to their old foe, the Shaq Kobe Lakers.
This was the season the Lakers had added Malone and Payton for one last title run that would fall short in what was at the time, a shocking upset at the hands of the Pistons. That’s what most remember from that season, but this series could’ve and really should’ve ended the Timberwolves’ despair.
What happened was time caught up to Cassell. He injured his hip in Game 2 of the series, played sparingly for a few games afterwards but couldn’t even dress for games 5 and 6. Cassell had been the engine for the Wolves potent attack. He averaged 7 assists a game and a career high 19 points. With him out, Minnesota had to rely on Darrick Martin to handle point guard duties. Obviously, it was a considerable drop off: the Wolves couldn’t recover from against a deep, comfortable, confident Lakes squad.
The next year the Wolves missed the playoffs with Sprewell and Cassell looking their age. Flip Saunders was fired and Garnett was traded three years later. In the 15 years since this series, they’ve made the playoffs once — as an 8 seed in 2018 where they were unceremoniously washed by the Rockets. Garnett’s legacy in Minnesota deserved better.
7. 2019 Houston Rockets
Team Record: 53-29
Playoff Record: 6-5
Best Player: James Harden
Summary: VERY TOUGH. This was a pretty unbearable series to watch. In a million different ways everything broke in the Rockets’ favor. They rode an incredible season of Harden to a four seed in the West. With Paul sidelined for a significant chunk of the season, he was actually rounding into shape just at the right time. Facing the Warriors on the same side of the bracket actually should’ve been a blessing. Paul didn’t have to go through a whole extra series of miles, which is what had felled him the season before. Then, on the other side of the bracket, Portland pulled a miracle out of their ass and without their third most important player, pulled off an incredible upset against Denver and virtually assured whoever took this series would play in the Finals.
Through four games the series was wildly different than the year before. These were tightly contested matchups from two old foes who knew each other very well. Officiating was a constant point of contention, as Harden’s maestro contact game suddenly wasn’t getting whistles at the reliable rate. It was chalk going into game 5. Both teams had won their pair of home games by slim margins. With the series swinging back to Oakland there was reason to hope that perhaps this year would be different.
AND THEN. AND………… THEN. What should of been one of the most crucial, stunning injuries in modern playoff history occurred. It’s certainly the most significant injury you’ll find on this list. Durant goes down. It was a three point game with two minutes left in the third. The Rockets were on the verge of completing a 20 point comeback which they had done with Durant playing. The game was wide open, if anything the Rockets had the momentum. And they just couldn’t do anything with it.
In the offseason the Rockets had lost Ariza and Mbah a Moute. From the outside it didn’t seem like too significant a loss, and neither player made much of a contribution elsewhere, but the lack of defensive depth is ultimately what killed the Rockets in games 5 and 6. In the fourth quarter of game 5, rather than staggering the Warriors, the Durant loss energized them. They bombed away, took offensive rebounds away from a suddenly impotent Capela, feasted on a number of layups off broken plays, it seemed like suddenly Houston was the team on the ropes and it was difficult to watch.
Emboldened by the game 5 win, game 6 was borderline tragic. For the third consecutive year the Warriors ended the Rockets season. But it should be mentioned that both Harden and Paul played their hearts out in that game. Both played 38 minutes, Harden went for 35, Paul went for 27, and both flirted with triple doubles. But Klay and Steph in particular were just fucking killers. The Warriors hit shot after shot, cut Houston’s heart out, the chemistry between Harden and Paul soured and by the beginning of this season Paul would be in Oklahoma City.
To whatever extent you believed in the James Harden experience, I’d say at this point we’re all off the ride when it comes to the postseason. Hopefully, we’ll all be proven wrong because God knows Harden and Westbrook deserve to go into the books as champions, but it was a tragic series that did critical damage to Harden and Paul’s legacy. It would’ve been the worst Houston loss this century if it wasn’t for………..
6. 2018 Houston Rockets
Team Record: 65-17
Playoff Record: 11-6
Best Player: James Harden
Injury: Chris Paul
Summary: Much like the 90s Bulls, it would be easy to look at the poorly equipped LeBron teams that the Warriors faced in the finals every year and assume they had more or less clear paths to their rings. But much like the Bulls, it would be missing the point that the most serious threat their dynasty faced wasn’t in the finals, it was in the Western conference where two years in a row, they nearly fell to a Houston Rockets team engineered specifically to beat them by the most important and influential GM in all of basketball this century.
When the Warriors added Kevin Durant to a team that had won 73 games the year prior, Daryl Morey was put in an impossible position. It was a situation that most franchises in the league ran away from. They would manipulate their cap room, keep some bullets in the chamber, and wait out this period of inevitable dominance. As is his wont, Morrey zagged and went all in.
The team he built was fascinating. A long, switchy, tenacious defense with interchangable, positionless wings like Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, Clint Capella and PJ Tucker. On offense they would run a bizarre combo of Iso and motion featuring the most devastating and enigmatic player of his generation, who was coupled with one of the greatest on ball point guards of all time, suddenly off ball and staggered with the MVP Harden plus an army of capable shooters. A million things could’ve gone wrong, and until the last two games of the season, none of them did.
The Rockets earned home court, and proceeded to gut out a bizarre Western Conference Finals with the Warriors at their absolute zenith. The thing about the Warriors and Rockets bomb-from-away styles is it lead to really lopsided point differentials. In Game 1, the Rockets lost by 17, in Game 2 they won by 22, in Game 3, they lost by 41. With Morreyball, momentum is a statistical anomaly, a glitch in the matrix. This takes much of the destiny out of the hands of the refs, but also removes much of the emotional stakes from a series. It becomes a shell game of finding out which team has their beyond the arc mojo going on a given night.
The game highlights posted above in many ways represent the last night of the Rocket dynasty that never was. In it, you can see a team that is hungry, resilient, tough. Not adjectives typically associated with this franchise or its star. But in this series they were. They are in step with the Warriors, matching them shot for shot, and are every bit as aggravating on D and impossible to stop with the rock as Morey had envisioned.
However, in that game, the 34 year-old Paul spun and planted awkwardly attempting a free throw line fade away with the clock waning in the fourth quarter and pulled his hamstring. In classic Chris Paul fashion, he stayed in the game for the next play and pulled a man into the corner with him to keep the paint open. It would be Paul’s last game of the season. Without him in the next game the Rockets would lose by 29 to force a Game 7, and came up short in the final tilt. There are some who will say the Warriors never felt truly pressured, and just the sheer amount of minutes they needed out of Paul to get them to that position in Game 5 was cheating, that they pushed an older, injury prone player too far and that’s what happens. But for one brief shining moment, the juggernaut of the last ten years was on the ropes, in bad trouble against a team created in a lab to put them in that position of vulnerability.
5. 2000 Trailblazers
Team Record: 59-23
Playoff Record: 10-6
Best Player (Accomplishments counted, All Star, All NBA, league leader) Incredibly, this 59-win Portland team did not have one out of the 16 players who received an MVP vote. Shaq ran away with it fairly, but fucking Jalen Rose on the Pacers had one MVP vote. Darrell Armstrong had one. Was there no one in Oregon that year willing to cast a fucking symbolic vote? Perhaps part of the problem was the incredible balance of this team. Five players averaged double digits in scoring. Bonzi Wells was the ninth man and averaged 8.8. Maybe it was Rasheed Wallace, but it was also a great late Pippen year. Actually fuck it, as a tribute to this weird and wonderful team, I’m leaving this category blank.
Summary: Let’s start by considering this: in the 1999-2000 season the Portland Trailblazers finished second in the Pac Div with 59 wins. The Lakers went 67-15! It was the first year of their dynasty, when everything finally clicked. And as is par for the course with this list, it happened at the expense of another great, great team. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen the likes of a team like this Blazers squad before, and with the CBA we have in place now we probably never will again. (And I mean that. In 2000, the salary cap was $34 million. The Blazers had the #1 payroll in the league at an astonishing $73,898,705) You just won’t see a roster of such deep, polished, dangerous veterans all meshing at fucking double the salary cap. In particular, it was a great year for Pippen. He was finally making what he deserved, the 6th highest salary in the league at nearly 15 million on its second best team.
And the construction of this team was way ahead of its time. In Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace, the Blazers had what could’ve been a potent, floor spacing front court. Sabonis was one of the most fascinating, skilled big men of his time who would have revolutionized the game a generation ahead of time, and for all the horrors and tragedies wrought by Communism, East German Socialism and the Cold War, the greatest one was definitely that we never got to see him play basketball in America in his prime.
They had a murder’s row of shifty and skilled vets, top to bottom in addition to their stretchy front court: Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Brian Grant, Detlef Schrempf, GREG ANTHONY, my personal EA Live High School MVP Bonzi Wells and Stacey Augmon.
The series was largely defined by the devastation of Kobe and Shaq. Both put up eye popping, reason-straining statistics and have a host of impossible highlights to show from this series in particular. Every time the Lakers needed a shot Shaq was there, every time they needed a stop, young Kobe dug in. But it wasn’t just the iconic duo. There was a young Derek Fisher, an old A.C. Green, Ron Harper, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue, Rick Fox. The Lakers weren’t quite as deep as the Blazers, but the makings of a dynasty were certainly there.
On the other side, the Blazers definitely had an edge in sheer talent per capita, but they had two things going against them. The team was in its first true year together as a unit. This hurt chemistry and toughness as Kobe and Shaq had already had years to get used to, or at least learn and tolerate each other. They also played an early, movement heavy, unselfish, beautiful style of basketball. But this wasn’t an elegant motion offense because without the emphasis on 3s they didn’t have quite enough space. And both their lack of chemistry/familiarity, and the lack of THE GUY(S) down the stretch when it was winning time, ended up doing them in when they needed answers the most in game 7.
The Lakers jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series. The swing was game 3 in Portland. It was an incredibly tight contest: the Lakers won on a Ron Harper baseline jumper, followed by a borderline no call on Sabonis who took what would’ve been a game tying baby hook in the post with time expiring. But Portland came back, pushing the series to 7, where it went back to Los Angeles and a place many wouldn’t have ever expected the Lakers to be — down 15 going into the fourth quarter.
One of the mind boggling questions for Portland today must’ve been, why not resort to hack-a-Shaq? With a bench that deep and such a commanding lead, there was no reason for O’Neal to have been able to participate in the rally as he did. Then Brian Shaw started cooking, every random Lakers miss resulted in an incredible offensive rebound and put back, the Blazers took a series of ill-advised panic shots that resulted in 13 straight missed baskets, Sabonis’ eyes start bleeding at one point. You remember that clip of Shaq taking a one handed oop then running down the court almost stunned by how amazing he is at basketball? That was the clincher in this game with less than a minute on the clock……. It was like a supervillain origin story.
The next season itchy fingered GM Bob Whitsitt dealt Brian Grant and Jermaine O’Neal, bringing back Shawn Kemp and officially kicking off the “Jailblazers” era in Portland. They finished as the 7 seed and were swept in the first round by a now unstoppable Lakers squad. The next season was more of the same, and the following year they missed the playoffs. When I think about this Blazers team now, I’m reminded of the words of the great Avon Barksdale, who once asked his late cousin DeAngelo, “And how you ain’t gon never be slow? Never be late? You can’t plan for no shit like this, man. It’s life.”
4. 2015 Los Angeles Clippers
Team Record: 56-26
Playoff Record: 7-7
Best Player: Very close between Griffin and Chris Paul, but probably Blake Griffin
Summary: In the preamble I mentioned the sense of inevitability that comes with some of this series, the idea that some of these teams, and their players, are simply fated to lose. Case in point is this absolutely devastating Clippers team. This seemed to be the year the other team in Los Angeles had put it all together. Though they would win their first championship, the Warriors weren’t quite the Warriors yet. The year before they’d been ousted in a brutal 7 game series with the Clippers in the first round. Perhaps this loss to the Rockets was merely staving off the inevitable, but who knows what could’ve happened if the two had faced each other head to head in a Western Conference Finals?
Instead, the Clippers were the victims of the strangest series on this entire list with one important upcoming exception. The Game 6 rally is the the memorable moment but the whole fucking thing was just weird.
The Clippers were coming off what felt like a breakthrough triumph. They had beat a dangerous, title defending Spurs team in an epic first round 7 game series that is one of my favorites of the entire decade. This shot in particular will be seared into my brain forever and I remember exactly where I was when I saw it:
So it felt like something had shifted. They had felled a giant in a series many had probably just assumed the snakebitten Clippers would lose to a Spurs team that is always prepared and always overachieves. Griffin was healthy and maybe never looked better, and Paul was playing fuck you hero ball on its highest level.
Then consider this fucking Rockets team. I think more incredible than them winning this series is they somehow won 56 games. Literally every weird random player in the NBA showed up on their roster at some point over the course of that season: Chris Douglas Roberts, Francisco Garcia, Cory Brewer, The Jet, Troy Daniels, K.J McDaniels, Donatas Motiejūnas, and my favorite weird uncle, Pablo Prigioni. Oh, and also Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Through four games, the Clippers had a point differential of 68 FUCKING POINTS! Game 2 featured a 13 foul differential to the Rockets who were at home. The Rockets took 64 free throw attempts in comparison to the Clippers 32. If it wasn’t for that, it’s almost a certainty they would’ve been swept. But they were not. Then Game 6 happened.
In Game 6, the Rockets starters were a combined -39.1. Harden was 5-20. Chris Paul was dancing, electric with the ball. In the third quarter with less than five minutes to play he hit three straight shots and the Clippers were up 16. Then Blake Griffin hits a fucking horse shot to put the Clippers up 18 with four to play in the third, and the fates stepped in.
Dwight Howard hit two free throws. Jason Terry had a perimeter block. Cory Brewer took 15 steps on a successful drive to the rack and didn’t get called. DeAndre Jordan’s diving save into the crowd falls gently into the hands of Brewer waiting for a corner 3, as if drawn up or Brewer had the powers of supernatural premonition and he promptly drains the shot. Brewer gets away with a charge that is called an and 1 instead. Josh Smith starts bombing 3s. Josh Smith starts bombing 3s. Josh Smith starts bombing 3s. Blake Griffin completely and totally gives up on playing basketball on either side of the floor. Harden is literally not playing basketball because he’s been on the bench this entire time. Ariza has a Harlem Globetrotters leaping, between his legs out of bounds save on the Clippers basket that miraculously lands in Rocket’s hands and leads to a fastbreak. Dwight Howard transforms into Hakeem Olajuwon on defense. The score is suddenly tied with four minutes to play. Cory Brewer becomes Bernard King. JJ Reddick is visibly flop sweating and pissy. The refs officially deemed Blake Griffin an enemy combatant and waive the Geneva Protocols on his drives to the rack. Josh Smith starts bombing 3s. The Rockets somehow won the game by 12.
The next two years the Clippers would fall weakly in the first round to the Blazers and Jazz. But they never really recovered from that primal wound that this weird AF Rockets team left on them. Then Paul would force a trade to Houston of all places, the core would be scrapped, and with what can only be described as an insane, instantaneous response time the Clippers completely remade their roster, built a scrappy and deep team composed exclusively of good to great contracts, then mortgaged their entire future on a two year window with the most mercurial superstar in the history of the league. The post-modern NBA folks!
3. 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder
Team Record: 55-27 (.671)
Playoff Record: 11-7
Best Player: Kevin Durant
Summary: As stunning and strange as the Clippers collapse was, it was a second round series and the core Clippers squad stayed together for two more uneventful seasons. The 2016 Western Conference Finals didn’t just change the complexion of two franchises, you could argue that it will be remembered as a series that changed basketball forever.
What’s stunning in retrospect is how easily, almost casually, this unit nearly scrapped what appeared to be an invulnerable, unbeatable 73 win team. The Thunder had pulled this feat before, in this postseason even, falling behind to a scary Spurs team then just wiping the fucking floor with them using their superior athleticism. Something clicked in game 3 of that semifinal matchup in San Antonio and it just never stopped. Every talking head, pundit, fan, critic, anyone with a pair of eyes saw the balance of power had swung decisively and the Thunder felt inevitable.
Along with Clippers/Rockets, this is the only series where the team who lost the series won the first game, on the road no less. Then OKC went up with dominant blowout, making a team that broke basketball forever look pedestrian. It was the one time post Harden that as mature players everyone on the team was healthy and clicking and the results were devastating. They were a long, mean, brutal team that just suffocated the Warriors through four games. Durant and Westbrook were never better doing their Batman and Robin schtick. Steven Adams was the perfect garbage man. Ibaka was that early proto stretch 4 who was a problem on the boards and from the corner 3 spot. Dion Waiters was their irrational confidence man. Fucking perimeter D genius Andre Roberson shot 44% from 3 for the series. It was Presti’s impossible dream brought to life. And then it all went away.
After this series, of course, the Warriors lost to the Cavs, making history in so many different ways. Though he’d stick around for another year, LeBron in many ways “Completed” his career, giving him license to stop toiling in Cleveland and begin his career transition in Los Angeles. You could make a convincing argument that even though they also needed a historic fuck up from Draymond to get over the top in the series, the Cavs never even would’ve gotten close without the Thunder taking an exhausted team to their limit in the WCF. Then of course, if the Thunder had won that series, or if the Warriors had pulled off their championship, Durant wouldn’t have joined them and *further* changed the way we understand what is in the realm of possibilities when it comes to player movement, team building, and dominating excellence.
The only reason this team didn’t earn the number one spot on this list is because there isn’t much to really be angry about besides a good team losing somewhat miraculously to a team that may not have even been better, but dug deep and found a way to crawl out of a deep hole and move on. The good thing about Golden State’s style of play is it’s less susceptible to league ratfucking. There’s few fouls in general and very little discrepancy, also when the Dubs are clicking it tends to yield wildly lop sided outcomes. It’s one of the few series where the eventual loser had a commanding lead, up 3-1 at one point in the series, and didn’t require much else besides some incredible shooting performances to come back and win in fairly commanding fashion. Years and years from now we’ll still be talking about Klay Thompson’s incredible 41 in Game 6.
As you’re about to see, not every team is fortunate enough to simply be bested by a team who played a better series, fair and square.
2. 2007 Phoenix Suns
Team Record: 61-21
Best Player: Steve Nash
Playoff Record: 6-5
Key Injuries: Boris Diaw, Amare Stoudamire (Suspended Game 5)
Summary: Welp. Here we go. Believe it or not, the #2 team on this list is a second round, 6 game out. I mentioned Quantum Leap earlier, and this is the series I had in mind. I can only assume 12 years ago Scott Bakula leapt into David Stern to uphold a ridiculous semantic suspension because if he didn’t, Robert Sarver would’ve used his NBA success as a springboard to the presidency and we would’ve ended up with goats shitting in the White House. How else can you explain a clear champion caliber team playing the game in what was at the time its most beautiful form being railroaded by a Spurs team whose entire defensive strategy was Bruce Bowen leg thrusts?
Younger fans may not remember this but there was a time, before Pop showed his mettle as one of the greatest coaches of all time and remade the Spurs into a factory of crisp passing, sweet shooting efficiency, that San Antonio was the Death Star. They played boring, plodding, chippy, cheap, persnickety, post-oriented half court basketball. They hacked, they elbowed, they were ruthless and brutal, and they won a lot.
Their complete and total opposite, their funhouse mirror image, were the 7 Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns. The league had never really seen a collection of talent like this fully weaponized by a mad scientist/iconoclast like Mike D’Antoni. It’s hard to explain how disruptive this was now that it’s the basic operating system for NBA offenses, but at the time there was only one team doing it, and a majority of the media class was irate, scandalized, enraged, the collective embodiment of that scout that almost gets in a fist fight with Brad Pitt before getting fired in Moneyball. [ed. note: that scout was my pitching coach. seriously.]
The Suns stole a young Steve Nash from the pound-stupid Mavericks who decided to build around Dirk, and eventually lucked into a chip but probably could’ve had a dynasty if they had just matched the offer for the Canadian prodigy. Instead, the Suns enjoyed a period of unbelievable prosperity, one of the all time great melds between player and coach of philosophy and style. Nash was the hardwood Messi. A blindingly fast little man with surreal handle, supernatural playmaking abilities and could pull up and fire with a hair trigger release from anywhere (In fact, if he had a weakness it was that he didn’t pull up enough).
And with Amare Stoudamire, he found his perfect hammer. The Nash/STAT pick and roll was an elegant death trap, a choose your own adventure where every choice leaves you impaled on the spike-filled dungeon floor. Stay off Nash and he’ll snipe you from the perimeter. Switch and Nash, three to four steps faster than anyone in the league, let alone whoever you have on Stoudamire that night, will blow by him and finish with ease at the hoop, collapse on Nash and he’ll lay a perfect pass in Stoudamire’s hands who, when he had two working knees, could dunk from the three point line.
Now surround these human sticks of dynamite with skilled big men like Shawn Marion, Kurt Thomas and Boris Diaw, a sneaky dangerous Leandro Barbosa and a perfect 3 & D back court compliment in Raja Bell and you have one of the most lethal offensive devices ever constructed. They were the two seed in the West in the midst of a crazy year. The Suns won 61, the Spurs won 58, and the Mavericks won 67 games en route to one of the all time great upsets at the hands of the Baron Davis-era Warriors.
So what happened? It’s hard to imagine now that he’s a genteel bow tie-wearing pundit with kind eyes on ESPN, but in his prime Bruce Bowen was one of the great all time bastards in the history of the league. In many ways, despite sharing the court with Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, all in their prime, this was his signature series. On offense, he was born to just kind of linger on the margins, waiting for an offensive rebound or a play to break down and just when you think the Suns got a stop, there’s fucking Bruce wide open. The man never missed a timely back breaking three in his entire career. But he’s really here for defense. There are a number of videos from this series that chronicle the myriad ways Bowen would do everything he could to maim and injure the Suns when the ref’s backs were turned like a proper WWF heel, but check out this Zapruder film of him tripping Amare:
And here is a great, exemplary late aughts-era NBA blog post titled “Bruce Bowen Deserves to Die.”
Game 4 was the night of the infamous Horry hip check — which we will return to — but game 3 was perhaps an even bigger travesty. Tim Donaghy was part of the officiating crew. Here’s what Timmy literally said with actual words about how he felt the series was swung: “2007 Suns were the best team in the league. And that whole series was officiated poorly, and one of the reasons is that Tommy Nunez was the supervisor of officials in that series. And he had a dislike for the Suns owner Robert Sarver, and he enjoyed the lifestyle in San Antonio, and liked to get back in the next round of the playoffs and continue to go to San Antonio. So it was a situation that he was steering the series to San Antonio in tape sessions.”
(Even if you don’t watch this entire video fast forward to 5:00 so you can see the clip of Bowen kneeing Nash in his actual balls. I literally laughed out loud.)
So yeah, there was still a Game 6 played after the infamous Game 5 suspensions to Stoudamire and Diaw for simply leaving the bench, but those suspensions will always be the legacy of this series. The Suns lost Game 5 by three points. D’Antoni, who is adamant about short rotations, basically only played six guys the entire game (not including Jalen Rose who was a hilarious DNP). The Spurs, of course, went on to handily beat the Jazz in the WCF, and sweep a precocious LeBron Cavs team in the Finals. It should’ve been the Suns.
1. 2002 Sacramento Kings
Team Record: 61-21
Playoff Record: 10-6
Best Player Chris Webber
Summary: I think one of the saddest things about our national obsession with rings are the truly great, incredible players who get lost to history because they never won one. Chris Webber is not only one of my favorite players of all time but simply, one of the greatest I’ve ever watched play basketball. This is when I hate analytics and the resume building shit. He’s on a very short list of the most skilled big men of all time, and this season not only should’ve been his coronation, it WAS his coronation. But because the Kings lost an absolutely ridiculous series he isn’t held in the same estimation of many of his inferior peers.
In many ways Chris Webber is this list’s raison d’etre, an unfairly maligned basketball genius who is fading from the discourse without the validation of a ring. He was impossible. It was like a thought experiment in which Magic Johnson and Larry Bird fucked and had an evolutionary point forward. In 2002, though he only played in 54 games in the regular season, he averaged 24/5/10. Webber was on the best team of his career with Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovich, Hedo Turkoglou, Doug Christie, Vlade Divac, Bobby Jackson and Scott Pollard making up the rotational core. The Kings won 61 games and the 1 seed over a defending champ Lakers squad that won 58.
But you don’t get to #1 just by being a great team with a great star who lost a hard fought series to a team who was just a little better. It takes epic, Shakespearean tragedy to earn the top spot on this list, and the Kings definitely suffered that in the Summer of 2002. The foul discrepancy in this series was not great but also not egregious on paper. It’s when and where that swung this series. Fuck it. Let’s just jump into Game 6.
So if you’ve made it this far, I’d imagine you have some free time, so I’ll ask you for just a little more: actually watch this clip of the entire fourth quarter of Game 6. It’s riveting basketball and just absolutely incredible to watch the league steal a game in real time. What pops, first and foremost, is LINDSAY HUNTER IS PLAYING IN THE FOURTH QUARTER OF AN ELIMINATION GAME?!!!? Just kidding it’s Shaq. He’s as dominant as any player you’ll ever see in your life, a gravitational force, a fucking planet. He was perfect from the free throw line most of the game, he’s immovable on the block, he’s an animal defending the rim, and he’s one of the great officiating quagmires the league has ever seen.
You could argue Shaq has either never been fouled in his life, or he’s fouled on every play. Suddenly, in this game, the officials collectively determined it was the latter. Also, the most famous and egregious play from this game was the infamous foul called on Mike Bibby as he got elbowed in the face by Kobe. Did you know that happened with 12 seconds left, the Lakers up two and resulted in two free throws for Bryant? Yeah. That all happened.
The Lakers went on to scrap the Nets in an uneventful Finals and win their third championship. A tired and feuding team would lose to a superior Spurs squad the following year, then would have their dynasty disassembled by the Pistons once and for all in 2004. The Kings faired a much more ignominious fate. Webber’s knees continued to fail him, and the Kings hung around but never made it back to the Conference Final. In 2002, they didn’t just miss their best shot, they had it taken from them.
To put it in simple terms: Chris Webber was robbed.