Friday, April 29, 2011

The 12 Most Memorable Non-Title Winning NBA Teams Since Jordan Started Winning Everything - Part One

12. The “Dream Team” Lakers

Peak years: 2003-04
Best result: NBA Finals ‘04
Key players: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Gary Payton.

This team barely qualifies for this list, as Shaq and Kobe won multiple titles with the Lakers, and this line-up was only together for one season. But with four future Hall-of-Famers it’s still a memorable team, made even more so by their Finals loss to the non-superstar-studded Detroit Pistons in 5 games. In that series, the cracks in this heavily favoured Lakers team were burst open, as Chauncey Billups obliterated Payton, Kobe couldn’t hit the side of a barn, and Malone spent half the series grizzling on the bench (I have fond memories of that series). At season’s end Shaq was traded to Miami and Malone and Payton were let go, leaving Kobe as the lone star of the team - needless to say, it would be a few years before the Lakers were a force again.

11. The Pre-Brawl Pacers

Peak years: 2001-05
Best result: Eastern Conference Finals ‘04
Key players: Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Reggie Miller, Brad Miller, Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley.

The Pacers were on the rise in the early/mid-‘00s, earning the best regular season record in 2003-04 before losing to the Pistons in the Eastern finals. Jermaine O’Neal finished 3rd in the MVP voting that year and Artest won Defensive Player of the Year, and they looked like they would be a contender for years to come. The team is more memorable though for their spectacular flame-out as a result of Artest and Jackson’s infamous brawl with the spectators at Auburn Hills. From that game, Artest received a 73-game suspension, Jackson received 30 games, and O’Neal received 25 games, effectively killing their ’04-05 campaign. Artest would be traded the next year and the Pacers never recovered. Funnily enough though, O’Neal has emerged the worst from the Pacers’ collapse for earning big contracts and putting up mediocre numbers, while Jackson earned a measured of respectability as captain (!) of the Warriors and Artest won a championship and recently the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award (!!) as a member of the Lakers.

10. The Barkley Era Suns

Peak years: 1992-96.
Best result: NBA Finals ’93.
Key players: Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Mark West, Danny Manning, A.C. Green.

Barkley’s arrival in Phoenix changed the team from moderately successful to championship contenders, and they were only stopped from winning it all in ’93 by Jordan’s three-peating Bulls. Actually, what I remember most from this era in Phoenix is the awesome ads they produced, including the “Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley” series and the Nike ad of Dan Majerle diving around the court. This team could be higher, but no-one really remembers anyone in the team outside the “Big Three” of Barkley, KJ and Majerle (oh, and Richard Dumas... let’s not forget him).

9. The Late-‘90s/Early-‘00s Blazers

Peak years: 1999-2001.
Best result: Western Conference Finals '99, ’00.
Key players: Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Bonzi Wells, Brian Grant, Detlef Schrempf.

No team has ever been more stacked than the 2000 Trail Blazers, and no team is better remembered for losing a big lead in a pivotal game, as they lost a 15 point fourth-quarter lead to hand the Lakers the Western Conference finals. They were so stacked that a young Jermaine O’Neal could hardly get on the court, which some say may have been their undoing given the difficulties involved in getting everyone ample minutes. But if they could have just held on to that lead against the Lakers, then maybe people would have ended up singing the praises of having a deep roster over having two superstars and nothing else. Two years later, another team with a deep roster would come even closer to knocking off the Lakers, forging some of the most painful-ever memories for us Lakers-haters ... we’ll get to that...

8. The Cuban Era Mavericks

Peak years: 2000-present (it’s all a blur, really ...)
Best results: NBA Finals ‘06
Key players: Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Jason Terry, Michael Finley, Jason Kidd, Josh Howard.

Since Mark Cuban took over ownership of the Mavericks in the early 2000s they have been successful for a remarkably long period of time, and through a considerable number of roster changes without ever winning it all. Apart from the aforementioned key players, other former All-Stars that the Mavs have employed include Shawn Marion, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Devin Harris. Many observers think they should have won in the ’06 Finals, when Dwyane Wade was famously awarded more free throws in one game than the entire Mavericks team. Then the next season they were even more famously ousted in the first round by the 8th-seeded Warriors, after they had won 67 games and Nowitzki was named the MVP. But still, all those 50 and 60-win seasons are hard to ignore. What keeps this team from placing higher is that they haven’t really had a stable core throughout this era: their most memorable line-up was when Nash and Finley were on the team, but their greatest successes came after those two left.

7. The Mid-‘90s Magic

Peak years: 1993-96.
Best result: NBA Finals ‘95
Key players: Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott.

In the mid-‘90s the Orlando Magic were cooler than “Seinfeld” or Pearl Jam, with Shaq and Penny coming to prominence in the era where mass-marketing was at its peak for young, high draft picks. If you were a teenager playing basketball in this era, the rules were simple: if you were a smaller guy you thought you were Penny, if you were a big guy you thought you were Shaq. When Grant joined in ’95 they shot up the standings and into the Finals, beating Jordan’s Bulls along the way (the only team to do it in this era), only to get swept by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The next year, Jordan’s Bulls destroyed everything in their path, and the year after that Shaq was in LA. Fans in the mid-‘90s would soon get used to seeing potential dynasties rise up and then get suddenly dismantled; no-one encapsulated that more than Shaq and Penny on the Magic.

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