Tom McKean, a researcher for ESPN's Stats and Information group, has looked at elite NBA teams that never won titles, and writes:
In May 2006, the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns were the class of the West, battling in the conference championships (which Dallas won in six games).
Now, less than three years later both teams have seen their windows to win a title all but close. Dallas and Phoenix have had opportunities, but failed to capitalize when the timing seemed just right. While the Mavericks and Suns battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, they can take solace in the fact that they aren't the first teams to find out just how elusive an NBA championship can be.
All the teams that made this list had to have had a realistic chance of winning a title for at least five straight seasons (i.e. consistently making the playoffs and posting a record well above .500), and the window had to have come in the common draft era (since 1966). Some team's windows to win that championship are longer than others, but the general idea remains the same.
Milwaukee Bucks (1979-1987)
The 1979-80 season saw the addition of the 3-point line, but the biggest addition for the Bucks was the acquisition of veteran center Bob Lanier during the season. Following Lanier's arrival, the Bucks went 20-6, winning the Midwest Division for the first time since the 1975-76 season. Under head coach Don Nelson, the Bucks then proceeded to win 50 or more games each year for the next seven seasons, making the Eastern Conference Finals three times between 1983 and 1986. But in those three conference finals appearances, Milwaukee won just two games. Lanier retired following the 1984 season, and the Bucks would need someone to fill his shoes. Literally, as Lanier wore size 22's. Alton Lister, who was drafted by Milwaukee in the first round of the 1981 NBA Draft, fit the physical bill, but could not live up to Lanier's Hall of Fame career. The Bucks' run arguably ended when Don Nelson departed after the 1987 season.
Portland Trail Blazers (1988-2003)
The St. Louis Blues of the NBA, the Trail Blazers made the playoffs in 21 straight seasons from 1983 through 2003, before seeing their streak snapped during the 2003-04 season. Also like the Blues, the Trail Blazers were not true contenders during all of their playoff appearances. During the first seven postseasons of that streak, Portland didn't make it out of the second round. In the 1990 NBA Playoffs, however, the Trail Blazers reached the Finals, but faced a Detroit team during their prime. Two years later, Portland ran into Chicago in the Finals. The window continued into the new millennium, and in 2000, the Trail Blazers were less than a quarter away from returning to the NBA Finals. Up 15 points in the 4th quarter against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Trail Blazers managed to miss 13 straight shots, allowing the Lakers to make an improbable comeback to take the series. There cannot be many more NBA games out there that have single-handedly crippled a franchise quite like Game 7 did to Portland.
Seattle Supersonics (1991-1998)
When George Karl took over midway through the 1991-92 season, the Supersonics were a paltry 20-20. Karl quickly turned the squad around, and Seattle went 27-15 under his tenure for the rest of the season. Expectations were set, as the Supersonics posted a winning percentage of .671 or better in each of the next six seasons. Throughout their window, the Supersonics remained consistent thanks in part to good health from key players; Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp both played at least 75 games each season between 1990 and 1998. In 1996, Seattle reached the NBA Finals, but fell to the Bulls in 6 games. During that era, to be the best, a team most likely had to go through Chicago, and the problem was that Seattle was 4-12 against the Bulls between 1991-98 when Michael Jordan played, including playoff games.
New York Knicks (1991-2001)
The NBA seems even more exciting when big market teams like the Knicks are competitive. The '92-93 season set the table; the Knicks won 60 games for the first time since 1969-70, and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in team history transpired in the 1993 playoffs, when John Starks split two Bulls for the left-handed dunk, putting the Knicks up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although they went on to lose the series, it appeared the Knicks had arrived. The following year, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals for the first time since the Walt Frazier era and were one win from their first title since 1973, before dropping Games 6 and 7 to the Rockets. Towards the end of its window, New York upset Miami in the first round of the 1999 NBA Playoffs thanks to an Allan Houston floater off the glass. The Knicks carried their surprising run all the way to the Finals that season, losing to the Spurs in five games.
Utah Jazz (1991-2003)
Playing during the Chicago Bulls era of titles is not exactly an excuse. Just ask the Houston Rockets. Most teams on this list do not have nearly as long a window, as the key group of players were not with the team for as long as in Utah's case. From 1984 to 2003, the Jazz made the playoffs each season, but reached the Finals just twice. Some may argue that the true window to win a title began when Jerry Sloan took over as head coach during the 1988-89 season, and while Karl Malone and John Stockton had been paired up since the 1985-86 season, the Jazz did not make it to the Western Conference Finals until 1992. That's when they became title contenders. As we all know, Stockton's career consisted of dishing out over 15,800 assists, which is over 5,000 assists more than Mark Jackson, who is 2nd on the NBA's all-time assists list. Karl Malone, meanwhile, went on to finish 2nd on the NBA's all-time scoring list. To have that kind of talent for so long and not come away with a title is almost unimaginable, if not crushing to a franchise. The window came to an abrupt close in 2003, when Stockton retired and Malone went to the Lakers in a last-ditch effort to win a title. The ultimate kicker? Between 1991 and 2003, Utah's 632 wins were the most in the NBA.
Indiana Pacers (1997-2004)
During the Pacers title window, they managed to make the playoffs in all 7 seasons. They also managed to lose to 7 different teams in those 7 postseasons (76ers, Bulls, Celtics, Knicks, Lakers, Nets and Pistons). Reggie Miller was essentially the only player to remain on the team during the entire window, but his supporting cast was always consistently strong. In the beginning, it was names like Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin and Jalen Rose. Towards the end, it was Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington. In the last season of Indiana's window, the Pacers won a franchise-record 61 games, but fell to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. That, along with their NBA Finals appearance in 2000, was their best chance of winning a title.
Sacramento Kings (1998-2006)
The Kings window to take home the title began when Rick Adelman became head coach and ended when he was fired. The acquisition of Mike Bibby provided intrigue to a team that already had Chris Webber, Hedo Turkoglu, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac. In 2002, the Kings were playing the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. They forced overtime, but lost by 6 points when the dust settled. In that game, Bibby scored 29 points, with 16 of those coming in the 4th quarter and overtime, but it wasn't quite enough. Because of their ina
bility to capitalize on a key opportunity, the Kings now own the 3rd-longest title drought in the 4 major sports, with their last title coming in 1951, when the team was in Rochester.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1999-2004)
Travel back in time to the fall of 1996. The Timberwolves are entering their 8th season of existence, and the previous 7 have been anything but pretty. Since joining the league in 1989, no team had posted fewer wins over the past 7 seasons, of course not counting the 2 expansion teams from the 1995-96 season. Kevin Garnett was entering his sophomore year in the league after having been selected 5th overall by Minnesota in the 1995 NBA Draft. The Timberwolves had taken a considerable gamble in that draft, considering that only 4 players in NBA history had been drafted straight out of high school since 1974 before Garnett. But Garnett's success in the NBA sparked a draft evolution of sorts, considering that between 1996 and 2001 alone, 15 players were drafted straight from high school. A year after selecting Garnett, the Timberwolves had traded for Stephon Marbury during the 1996 NBA Draft, trading Ray Allen to the Bucks in the process. Perhaps if Marbury was comfortable in a supporting role to Garnett, the Timberwolves' window would have lasted longer and a championship would have resulted. Nevertheless, the Timberwolves enjoyed marked improvement in the 1996-97 season, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. No, their record wasn't impressive, which is why their true window to win a title didn't start until 1999. That season, Minnesota posted 50 wins, and would go on to record 50 or more wins in 3 of their next 4 seasons as well. But first round playoff exits were a problem; 7 consecutive first round exits to be exact. Finally, the Timberwolves broke out of their slump and made it to the Western Conference Finals. That year was their year to win it all; a 58-24 regular season record and series wins over the Nuggets and Kings in the playoffs. But the Lakers derailed Minnesota's hopes, and the Timberwolves haven't been back to the playoffs since.
Dallas Mavericks (2000-Present)
In 2000-01, Steve Nash was in his third season in Dallas, and finally coming into his own. Nash's development was a huge reason the Mavericks added 13 wins to their résumé and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1989-90 season. Dallas reached the conference finals in 2003, losing to San Antonio in 6 games. By 2005, Nash was gone, but Dirk Nowitzki had come into his own, and in 2006, Nowitzki led the Mavs in scoring in all four wins over the Suns in the Western Conference Finals. Dallas was two wins from its first NBA title, before losing four straight to the Heat. In 2007, Dallas was the 1 seed in the Western Conference, only to lose to the 8 seed Golden State Warriors in six games. In 2008, a trade for Jason Kidd didn't pan out, and the Mavs lost to the Hornets in five games in the conference quarterfinals. Three years ago, Dallas was two wins from its first NBA title. Now, the Mavs currently sit eighth in the Western Conference.
New Jersey Nets (2001-2006)
Two-straight NBA Finals appearances and 5-straight seasons with an over .500 record for the first time in franchise history, but nothing to show for it. That's the story for the New Jersey Nets, who made it to the Finals in 2002 after winning 26 games the previous season. Equally remarkable was that the Nets hadn't made the playoffs for 3 straight seasons prior to their Finals appearance. In those two Finals appearances, New Jersey lost to the Lakers and Spurs by a combined total of 8 games to 2. Perhaps they were a victim of circumstance, as the Western Conference was showing its dominance during that span, winning 5 straight NBA Championships. Whatever the cause, that was New Jersey's best shot at winning a title, and the Nets haven't made it back to even the Eastern Conference Finals since.
Phoenix Suns (2004-Present)
Mike D'Antoni was in his first full season as the Suns head coach and added free agent point guard Steve Nash to a nucleus that included Leandro Barbosa, Shawn Marion and Amar'e Stoudemire. Phoenix started 31-4 in 2004-05, and Nash averaged a double-double over an entire season for the first time in his career. The Suns went from 29-53 to the Western Conference Finals in one season. (They lost to the Spurs, 4-1.) In 2005-06, the Suns made it back to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the Mavericks in six games. That was as close as the Suns would get. The 2007 NBA Playoffs will be remembered for the one-game suspensions to Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Spurs. Without Stoudemire and Diaw, the Suns lost Game 5 and fell to San Antonio in six games. And in 2008, the Spurs took care of the Suns again, this time needing just five games to eliminate Phoenix in the conference quarterfinals.