Becoming an NBA championship team has been exceedingly difficult in the past decade. The NBA is the League of the Dynasty and probably will continue to be in the future.
Consider that only 5 teams have won titles since 1997: Miami, San Antonio, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
With that in mind, here are my picks for the top teams that were unable to break through and win a championship in the face of elite-level competition. Many of these teams would have been good enough to win it all if they had the fortune of playing in a different year.
1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers-
A remarkably talented team and one of the deepest in recent memory, Portland came up short in Game 7 against the L.A. Lakers after giving up a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter.
The Blazers simply out-talented most teams and came at opponents in waves. Rasheed Wallace was the star of the group and was extremely active and dangerous at both ends of the court. Arvydas Sabonis was aging but extremely effective in the post. Scottie Pippen still had plenty left in the tank at this point and provided great defense. Damon Stoudamire ran the point with great quickness, and Steve Smith was the go-to guy with the deadly jump shot.
Other quality players like a young Jermaine O’Neal, Bonzi Wells, Detlef Schrempf, and Brian Grant (who was a force on the boards at this time) combined to give the Blazers an incredibly balanced and versatile squad that very well could have beat an excellent Lakers team.
2001-2002 Sacramento Kings-
One of the best offensive teams we’ve seen in a long while, this Kings bunch also lost a close Game 7 to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, this one coming at home and in dramatic fashion.
A trade of Jason Williams for Mike Bibby gave the Kings the consistent outside shooter the team needed to make a run and complete their roster, and Bibby came up huge in this series.
Sacramento’s teamwork and passing were breathtaking to watch and almost unstoppable at times. Vlade Divac and Chris Webber teamed up to form one of, if not the best-passing big man duo the game’s ever seen, and players like Bibby and Peja Stojakovic knew how to cut and move without the ball in order to get good shots.
People forget how explosive and dominant Webber was at this time as well. He put up MVP-caliber numbers for the Kings. In the end though, it was missed free throws and a couple of laughably bad open three-point misses by Stojakovic and Doug Christie that cost the Kings the title, as well as another Robert Horry miracle three-point shot that cost the Kings a win in Game 6 in Los Angeles.
1997-1998 Utah Jazz-
The Jazz went toe-to-toe with some true NBA heavyweights and almost came away with the big prize in 1997-1998. They swept the Shaquille-O’Neal-led L.A. Lakers but didn’t have quite enough firepower to beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals.
John Stockton and Karl Malone made everything go while Jeff Hornacek provided the outside shooting and the other players played their roles. Not the most overwhelming team talent-wise from top-to-bottom but they were battled-tested and nearly unbeatable at home, and they accomplished a lot during this season against insanely tough competition.
2004-2005 Detroit Pistons-
Another Robert Horry victim here. If Rasheed Wallace doesn’t leave Robert Horry in Game 5 at the Palace, the Pistons might have been back-to-back champions. Instead, they lost in a hotly-contested Game 7 in San Antonio after Tim Duncan got their entire front line in foul trouble on some tough calls.
They showed their mettle by winning Game 6 in the Spurs’ backyard with their backs against the wall. This was one of the best defensive teams the league’s seen in the past decade, as Ben Wallace was still in his prime and teamed with Rasheed Wallace to lock things down inside. The team was spent after a seven-game series with Miami and got blown out twice in San Antonio before finding their legs and blowing out the Spurs in Games Three and Four before the pivotal Game 5 loss.
2006-2007 Phoenix Suns-
The story behind this team’s collapse is fresh in all of our heads right now. Robert Horry checked Suns star point guard Steve Nash into the boards, Suns starters Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench area as a reaction to the hit, both got suspended for a pivotal Game 5, and a series that looked promising for the Suns went down in flames.
This loaded team had just come off an impressive come-from-behind win in San Antonio and looked poised to finally prove that a so called “small-ball” team could win the title, but without Stoudemire, they didn’t have enough power under the backboards to contend with 3-time Finals MVP Tim Duncan.
This team should have a good chance to get back to the Western Conference Finals at the least next year considering all the firepower they return with the likes of Shawn Marion, Nash and Stoudemire.