This year’s early playoff exit from Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers was shocking to many, but it echoed a universal NBA truth – not even the most promising teams are guaranteed locks for championship victory, or even to appear in the Finals. Throughout the history of the league, some of the greatest teams have fallen well before their season’s biggest stage. At times, even the clear favorites have been upset in spectacular fashion.
Of course, it’s not always an upset. Sometimes a single year just has two all-time teams in the same conference, making a pre-Finals showdown and an early end to the season for one or the other inevitable. But of all those championship-caliber, Hall-of-Famer-laden teams, which were the greatest to miss the Finals? And why, in the end, did they fall short?
10. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (61-21)
Starting off, it’s perhaps the most controversial playoff series in the history of the NBA – Western Conference Finals, 2002, LA vs. Sacramento. Chris Webber led the Kings to a phenomenal 61-win season and through the first two rounds of the postseason for a rematch against Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of the repeat-championship Lakers. It was the showdown everyone was waiting to see.
In Game 6, with the Kings up 3-2 and ready to clinch the series, the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, making 21 to take the game, and later the series in a contentious Game 7. The officiating of Game 6 was called out at the time for being absurdly unbalanced in favor of LA, and a number of game-fixing conspiracy theories started to float around. These theories were later corroborated by former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, but his own conviction for game fixing and the ardent denial of Commissioner David Stern have left the facts a matter of conjecture.
One thing’s relatively certain: if the Kings had won Game 6, they likely would have gone home with the championship. As it happened, LA took home their third title in a row, and Chris Webber never got so close to the NBA Finals again.
9. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls (62-10)
The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls team, and their failure to make the Finals, is tragic largely because it shows what could have been. Derrick Rose, in his MVP year, led Chicago to the best record in the league at 62-10. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Bulls fought through the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks, only to be defeated by the James/Wade/Bosh Miami superteam in five games.
Obviously, Rose was exceptional that year, if not quite productive enough in the playoffs to secure a win over such a dominant force as the Heat. But moreover, 2011 gave a glimpse of what basketball fans could have gotten if Rose hadn’t torn his ACL the next year. The timeline where the youngest MVP winner ever stayed healthy and built a longstanding rivalry with LeBron James for dominance in the East? We could have had it. We almost did.
8. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (62-20)