The 1994-1996 Orlando Magic were one of most popular teams in NBA history in the last 35 years. As they are immortalized in the most recent ESPN 30 for 30, which was an excellent time capsule of my favorite team from my childhood.
It’s hard to believe this team led by Shaq and Penny didn’t stick together and win several Larry O’Brien trophies. As Shaq said in the film, they were Shaq and Kobe, before Shaq and Kobe. At the time in the mid-90s, they were often affectionately called the new version of Magic and Kareem.
As I’m watching the film, I can’t help but think of other great teams that didn’t win a title. In addition to the Magic of the 90’s, here are my best teams of the last 35 NBA seasons to not win a title.
The 1992-1995 Charles Barkley led Phoenix Suns. In 1992-1993, his first season in the desert, “Sir Charles”, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle won a league high 62 games and Barkley took home league MVP over Michael Jordan. The Suns lost in a tough 6-game series to the Chicago Bulls—a theme that will be repeated a couple times on this list—in the NBA Finals that included an epic three-overtime game 3 victory. That would be the closest this group would come to a championship.
In 1993-94 and 1994-95, after winning 56 and 59 games respectively, the Suns would lose in the Western Conference Semifinals to eventual Champions the Houston Rockets and NBA MVP Hakeem Olajuwon, after leading both series 3-1.
The 1996-1999 Stockton to Malone Utah Jazz made back-to-back NBA Finals in 97 and 98 before losing to…. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 6-games. Those teams won 64 and 62 games, respectively. Like Barkley in 1993, Malone took home the NBA MVP over Jordan in 1997, a loss MJ took personal since he had just led the Bulls to a 69-13 regular season. With Jordan retired, the Jazz were the overwhelming favorites to win the championship in the 1999 Lockout Shortened season following their two Finals losses. Utah won 37 of 50 games that season, but went out in the Western Conference Semifinals 2-4 to a Portland Trailblazers team that lost to the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
The 1985-86 twin towers of Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon led Houston Rockets. No one can blame this team for losing in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics in 6-games (2-4). The original Celtics Big 3 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish are arguably one of the greatest teams of all-time. The hold the record for home wins in a season at 40-1, and won a league high 67 wins that year.
The Rockets won 51-games this season and knocked off the defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s in 5-games (4-1).
Following the 85-86 season, Houston would take several steps back. In 86-87, they won 42 games and lost in the Western Conference Semifinals 2-4 to the lowered seeded Seattle Supersonics, followed by four consecutive 1st round series losses. Ralph Sampson’s promising career was derailed by injuries, and “The Dream” had to change his name to Hakeem to get his two rings (’94 & ’95) and 1994 NBA MVP. I’m joking.
For you young fans, the father of rising Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Andrew Wiggins, Mitchell, was a key reserve on this team.
The 1993-1994 Shawn Kemp-Gary Payton led Seattle Supersonics won a league best 63 games, and were primed to take over the title left by Michael Jordan’s first retirement to play baseball. Instead, the Sonics became the first number one seed to lose to an eighth seed in the playoffs 2-3 back when the first round was a best of five series.
The Sonics would bounce back and finally make the NBA Finals in 1996, but ran into a rejuvenated Jordan and the 72-10 Bulls. After going down 3-0, Seattle rallied back to lose in 6-games. They followed their Finals appearance with back-to-back Western Conference Semifinals loses after winning 57 and 61 games respectively, even after trading Shawn Kemp away to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1997 offseason. They would miss the playoffs in the 1999 season, and the closest they’ve come to a title since, was the 2011-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder who lost to the Miami Heat 1-4.
The 1990’s Patrick Ewing led New York Knicks’ chances began and ended with the start, and emergence of two of the greatest dynasties the Association has ever seen. Like a few others on this list, that guy Michael Jordan and his Bulls—told you there was a theme—curtailed any chances of them winning a title by beating them in 4 grueling, physical series in the decade (’91 1st. round 0-3, ’92 Semifinals 3-4, ’93 Conference Finals 3-4, ’96 Semifinals 1-4).
When 23 in red and black retired in 1993, many assumed Ewing would lead them to New York’s first title since 1973. While they finally made it to the Finals, they would go on to lose to Olajuwon’s Rockets in seven games (3-4) for their first of two ‘chips.
Then MJ returned, and knocked them out again. In 1999 during the Lockout shortened season, with an injured Ewing sitting out, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson and Alan Houston led Knicks became the first ever 8th seed to make the Finals where they ran into Tim Duncan and David Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs and lost 1-4. New York hasn’t made it past the Conference Semifinals since ’12-13.
The Jason Kidd led New Jersey Nets of the early 2000s. Kidd came over from Phoenix in a 2001 offseason trade for Stephon Marbury and immediately transformed the lowly Nets from a 26 win lottery bound team into title contenders. New Jersey boosted their win total to 52 games and took home the Atlantic Division title. But like their tri-state area companion Knicks, they ran into two dynasties.
Their first Finals appearance was a 4 game sweep at the hands of the Shaq-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers on their way to their third consecutive championship. The following season, the Nets made it back to the Finals after winning 49 games in the regular season, but ran into Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the Spurs. San Antonio beat the Nets in 6-games (2-4) on their way to their 2nd Championship, they would go on to win 5 total. The Nets returned to the Conference Semifinals where they faced a Detroit Pistons team they knocked off twice on their way to Eastern Conference titles. The Piston went on to win the championship that season, the Nets haven’t made past the conference semifinals since.
The 2009 LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers. LBJ miraculously led the 2007 Cavs to the NBA Finals after beating a Detroit Pistons team that had appeared in seven consecutive Eastern Conference finals, winning a title, and 2 Eastern Conference Championships along the way.
The ’09 Cavaliers won a league high 66 games, LeBron won the first of his four NBA MVP’s in a landslide, and appeared headed towards a highly anticipated matchup between James and Kobe Bryant in the Finals. Cleveland swept the first two rounds of the playoffs, But the Orlando Magic led by Dwight Howard, fresh off their 7-game series victory over the Kevin Garnett-less defending Champion Boston Celtics, dominated Cleveland and won the series in 6-games (2-4). The following season the Cavs won 61 games and LeBron another MVP, but they lost in the conference semifinals to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics.
In the offseason following that loss, James made his “Decision” to go to South Beach and the Cavs suffered through four losing seasons where they won as little as 19 games and as many as 33, before James returned and took them back to the Finals in his first season back in “The Land”, finishing with a 6-game series loss to the Golden State Warriors.