History is written by the winners. This doesn’t really apply to basketball — its history is actually written by losers (us in the media, that is) — but teams that fail to win a championship usually fall through the cracks. Die-hards may remember those teams fondly, and some onlookers may even realize how narrow the difference between success and failure can be in a seven-game series.
By and large, however, you don’t mean a thing if you aint got that ring.
The 2013 NBA Finals gave us a great example of how close the winners and losers can be though. After a few missed free throws by the Spurs late in Game 6, Chris Bosh was able to grab a season-saving offensive rebound and kick the ball to Ray Allen in the corner for a game-tying 3-pointer.
The Heat would go on to win the game and the series. It was their second straight championship, which cemented LeBron’s legacy and perhaps permanently ended the notion that he doesn’t have what it takes to win it all.
Since we have a rematch in the Finals this year, the Spurs’ team that lost is still getting its due. At least for now.
But if the Heat, which fell down 1-0 in the series last night, win again, how much love will this Spurs team get another decade from now? Will we remember their near-win in 2013, or will they just be a footnote in Miami’s history book?
We can’t know that now, but we do know that the 2013 Spurs are one of the best teams to not win.
Who else is in that conversation?
To start, here’s a list of all the Finals losers since 1980, along with some stats.
Let’s begin with some stray observations.
- Finals losers in the late 1980s/early 1990s were very balanced. Seven straight runner ups (from the 1987 Celtics to the 1993 Suns) finished in the top 10 on both offense and defense in the regular season. That changed in the new millennium, however. From 2001 to 2010, seven of the 10 losers finished outside the top 10 on offense, and four of those were ranked 17th or worse. Not surprisingly, all four of those were from the East, which has been a bad conference for like 15 years now.
- The last three losers have been much more balanced. The 2013 Spurs and 2011 Heat were both ranked in the top seven on both sides of the ball, while the 2012 Thunder had the second-best offense and 11th-best defense.
- The 1999 Knicks were a total fraud. They barely finished above .500 in a lockout-shortened, 50-game regular season (going 27-23), and had a laughable 1.1 net rating. They went just 12-8 in the playoffs, and needed an egregiously bad call on a Larry Johnson four-point play to get past the Pacers. They are definitely the worst team on this list. (Note: I was a Pacers fan at the time, and this game happened on the night of my senior prom, which I almost skipped to watch it. I put on a tux, though, and taped the game. I even managed to avoid hearing the score all night — only to awake on a friends floor the next morning with Sportscenter on the television and that exact highlight playing. So despite learning that the Pacers lost — and how — I still watched the game on VHS later that afternoon. No, I’m not bitter at all …)
- Those Knicks probably were better than the 1981 Rockets, which somehow made the Finals despite finishing 40-42 in the regular season. Remember this any time you mock the current Eastern Conference: The West was once won by a team under .500.
- With Jason Kidd as their lone superstar, the early-2000s Nets teams that lost back-to-back Finals are the other most-likely candidate to win a discussion about the “worst team to play in an NBA Finals.” And rightly so: They won just 49 and 52 games (and finished 18th and 17th in offensive rating) in the two regular seasons preceding their run to runner up. Still, they did go 12-2 in the playoffs on their way to the Finals in 2003. Yes, the East was weak that year, but they swept the Celtics and the Pistons in the second round and conference finals, respectively, after stumbling a bit against the Bucks in round one. Then again, against the Spurs in the Finals, only one of their starters shot over 38% (Richard Jefferson with a scorching 41.7%). It’s hard to believe it took San Antonio seven games to dispatch the then-New Jersey Nets.
- It’s easy to make a case for either of the Jazz teams that lost to the Bulls as the best team to never win. My memory tells me that the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp SuperSonics were the best team Michael Jordan beat in a Finals, but Utah definitely looks better on paper. They won 67 and 62 games in the two regular seasons before they made the Finals, while scoring 113.6 and 112.7 points per possession (second- and first-best in the league those years). They also went 22-6 (a 0.786 winning percentage) in their two postseason runs against teams that didn’t employ Michael Jordan. And in 1998, they really showed the heart of a champion by coming back from a 2-1 hole against the Rockets in the first round to win back-to-back elimination games and take the best-of-five series. Another interesting note: Before earning their first matchup with Jordan, the Jazz also lost a Game 7, by 4 points, to the SuperSonics in the Western Conference finals. This three-year run of excellence makes a pretty compelling case for one of Jerry Sloan’s teams to be considered the best Finals loser in modern NBA history.
- The Shaq/Penny Magic team that got swept by Hakeem’s Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals scored 115.1 points/100 possessions in the regular season. No runner-up since 1980 has scored that much, and only three since 1995 have managed to score even 110 points per 100. The lesson here: Young Shaq was a problem — unless you were Hakeem Olajuwon.
- The 1994 Knicks played Game 7s in three straight series, winning the first two then falling to the Rockets in the Finals. They advanced in the Eastern Conference finals despite watching Reggie Miller explode for 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 as Indiana took a 3-2 series lead by winning in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks would win Games 6 and 7, however. Then, after taking a 3-2 series lead on Houston in the NBA Finals by winning a Game 5 that was interrupted by the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase, they would lose Games 6 and 7. John Starks, the team’s mercurial shooting guard, shot 2-for-18 in Game 7 and had a potentially game-winning 3-pointer blocked by Hakeem Game 6 as time ran out. Weird team, and probably the owner of the “most dramatic” playoff run that has ended in defeat.
- Charles Barkley had arguably the best individual performance in a Finals of any loser on this list. At least since 1990. He dropped 42 points on 26 shots (while grabbing 13 boards) in a Game 2 loss and had a triple double (32 points, 12 boards, 10 assists) in a Game 4 loss for the 1993 Suns. Oddly enough, however, this wasn’t enough to make a difference (plus he played poorly in Game 1). It took a triple-overtime win in Game 3 for Phoenix to avoid a sweep, eventually extending the series to six games before the Bulls completed their first 3-peat.
- The 1989 Lakers swept the first three rounds then got swept in the Finals. How can a team be so dominant and then get so dominated? For one, the Bad Boy Pistons were really good and were out to avenge their Game 7 loss in the Finals to the Lakers the prior year. But it didn’t help that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was too old to make a major mark. It was his last season in the league and he shot just 20-for-46 (43.5%) in four Finals games. This was a huge drop for career 55.9% shooter, but also below the 47.5% he posted in the first three playoff rounds in 1989.
- The 1986 Celtics, widely considered the best team of all time, handled the Rockets in the Finals. It was a six-game series, but Boston’s four wins were by 12, 22, 3, and 17 points. Still, Hakeem stuffed the box score, averaging 24.7 points (on 47.9% shooting), 11.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, and 2.3 steals in six games. He only had 11 assists in the series, however, and the Rockets made just five 3-pointers in six games. In his next two Finals appearances, in 1994 and 1995, he would average 4.3 assists per game while his teammates made 6.7 triples per contest. It seems that the Twin Towers (playing Hakeem and Ralph Sampson together) was a good idea. But surrounding Dream with 3-point shooters was a great idea.
- Magic Johnson went 5-4 in the an incredible nine Finals appearances. His Lakers twice got swept (by the 76ers in 1983 and by the Pistons in 1989), and they got “gentlemen swept” (losing 4-1) by Jordan as he won his first ring. When you walk away with five titles and nine appearances in the Finals, you should be largely immune from criticism. But, maaaaan, does this make you wonder how Magic would be treated by the modern media machine after getting blasted in the Finals so many times.
Ultimately, I don’t know which team is the best to not win a ring. And of course, there are a few candidates (like Chris Webber’s Sacramento Kings and the 7 Seconds of Less Suns) that don’t even make this list since they failed to get to the Finals.
Really, as good as the late-1990s Jazz teams were, it would be hard to pick against one of teams that lost in the 1980s Celtics/Lakers rivalry, since those teams often came back to avenge their Finals loss the following season.
Then again, the 2013 Spurs were also really, really good. As is this season’s crew from San Antonio — not to mention the one from Miami.
Which brings us to the point: No matter who wins, the loser also deserves much recognition. No matter who loses, they will enter the conversation of the best team to not win a trophy.
That designation is usually used to denigrate players, but the top runner ups need some love, too.