Winning an NBA title is hard. Really hard. But some franchises have taken futility to a whole new level. I speak, of course, about the longest streak of consecutive seasons without winning an NBA championship. Let’s take a look at the ten longest active streaks as of the start of the 2012-13 regular season.
#10 — Portland Trail Blazers (35 seasons)
The Blazers enjoyed their one and only NBA crown in the 1976-77 season, the year new head coach Jack Ramsay and Hall of Fame center Bill Walton led the team to its first winning campaign and first playoff appearance. The team followed that up by making it to the Western Conference semifinals, where they lost in six games to the Seattle SuperSonics.
From that magical season all the way through 2002-03, Portland missed the playoffs just once. They made it back to the NBA Finals twice during this stretch, losing to the Detroit Pistons (in 1989-90) and the Chicago Bulls (1991-92). The 21st century has not been kind to the Blazers, however. A five-year playoff absence ended in 2008-09, but they lost in the first round to Houston Rockets. They did not qualify for the playoffs this season.
#9 — Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, & New Jersey Nets (36 seasons)
All three of these teams joined the NBA in 1976 when it merged/absorbed the defunct American Basketball Association (ABA). Of the three, only Indiana and New Jersey have been to the NBA Finals. The Pacers, under head coach Larry Bird, won their division in 1999-2000 and took the Eastern Conference Finals from the Knicks in six games. In the Finals the Pacers were dropped by the Los Angeles Lakers, led by new head coach Phil Jackson.
The Nets got off to an inauspicious start in the league when they were essentially forced to sell their best player, Julius “Dr. J” Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers to pay a $4.8 million fee for competing in the same market as the New York Knicks. The team won just one playoff series from their debut season through 2000-01, when they acquired Jason Kidd and underwent a resurgence. With Kidd the Nets won three straight division titles and advanced to two consecutive NBA Finals. In 2001-02 they were swept by the Lakers, and the following season they lost in six to the San Antonio Spurs. The Nets set a new mark for futility when they started the 2009-10 season with a record 19 straight losses. They ended the 2011-12 campaign, their last in New Jersey, by missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
The Nuggets are the lone surviving ABA squad to never even make the NBA Finals. They’ve made it as far as the Western finals three times, losing to the Lakers twice (1984-85, 2008-09) and the SuperSonics once (1977-78).
#8 — Golden State Warriors (37 seasons)
The Warriors trace their history back to 1946, when they were a charter member of the Basketball Association of America, later to become the NBA. Playing in Philadelphia, the Warriors won the BAA title that season. The Philadelphia Warriors took it all again in 1955-56, then packed their bags for San Francisco in 1962. The Warriors — who moved to Oakland in changed the first part of their name to Golden State in 1971 — won their last NBA title during the 1974-75 season, sweeping the Washington Bullets in four games.
After a few more decent seasons, the Warriors fell off a cliff and haven’t really recovered. Since 1977-78 Golden State has made a grand total of six playoff appearances, and they’ve made it no farther than the second round. Their last trip was in 2006-07, when a Western Conference semifinal tilt against the Utah Jazz ended in only five games.
#7 — Utah Jazz (38 seasons)
Speaking of the Jazz… Of all the teams to never win an NBA crown, Utah may be the best of the bunch. After joining the league as the New Orleans Jazz (doesn’t that make much more sense?) in 1974, the franchise struggled for quite a few years until Frank Layden led the team to their first winning season in 1983-84. But it wasn’t until Jerry Sloan took over toward the end of the ’80s that things got good.
The Sloan Era (which ended in February 2011) was marked by seven division titles, 16 consecutive playoff appearances (ending in 2003-04), and two straight trips to the NBA Finals. Perhaps the only thing stopping Utah from going all the way was bad timing — both of their Finals appearances were against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at the tail end of their dynasty. Despite giving it their all, Utah was on the wrong side of history and lost the 1997 and 1998 Finals in six games.
The closest Utah has come to a title since was a Western Finals loss to the Spurs in 2006-07.
#6 — New York Knicks (39 seasons)
Nobody who follows the league needs to be reminded of the Knicks’ sad recent history. Suffice it to say that even if you forget all about that, despite a good run throughout the 1990s New York came away with nothing to show for it except frustration. Of all the New York teams in the four major pro sports, the Knicks now have the longest active title drought save for the NFL’s Jets.
The Knickerbockers were a perennial playoff team from 1987-88 through 2000-01, which included their epic NBA Finals showdown with the Houston Rockets in 1994. That was the one O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings had the gall to interrupt, for those who don’t remember. A 4-1 series loss at the hands of the Spurs in the 1999 Finals was much less memorable.
So for now, New York fans will have to be content to bask in the memories of the 1973 Finals, featuring the likes of Walt Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
#5 — Milwaukee Bucks (41 seasons)
The Bucks had an early taste of glory, and have been waiting for a second helping ever since. With Lew Alcindor (soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at center and Oscar Robertson at guard, Milwaukee exploded for 66 wins in only their third season in the league. They tore through the Warriors and Lakers en route to the 1971 finals, where the Baltimore Bullets were swept in four games. The next few seasons brought tons of regular season wins and one more trip to the finals — a seven-game affair with the Boston Celtics in 1974 — but no more trophies.
The Bucks remained consistently decent (and sometimes pretty damn good) until the early ’90s, when they went seven years without a playoff appearance. In fact, since the 1988-89 season Milwaukee has just two playoff series wins to their credit, both coming in 2000-01. They’re on their fourth head coach since 2003, when George Karl was fired after five seasons. The Bucks barely missed qualifying for the 2012 playoffs, getting eliminated in the season’s final week.
#4 — Cleveland Cavaliers & Los Angeles Clippers (42 seasons)
There is only one reason the Clippers aren’t higher on this list — they simply haven’t been around long enough. In their 41 years of NBA play, Los Angeles (which began in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves) has qualified for the playoffs eight times. That’s about once every six years for you English majors. And three of those came in consecutive seasons (1973-74 through 1975-76). In other words, you’ll get more enjoyment waiting for the Olympics than you will waiting for the Clips to make the postseason.
The franchise’s regular season win-loss percentage currently stands at a beefy .363. To put that into perspective — if L.A. went undefeated for the next 11+ seasons, they would finally climb back to .500. Futility, thy name is the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Cavs, on the other hand, have many seasons to their credit that weren’t a total embarrassment. Unfortunately their pre-LeBron James playoff history is mostly remembered for a first-round loss to the Bulls in Game 5 of the 1989 playoffs. You know it better as “The Shot.”
Oof. To make matters worse, Cleveland was ousted from the playoffs by Chicago three times over the next five years. And then depression set in, until the arrival of you-know-who. Cleveland made it to the NBA Finals for first and only time in 2006-07, a four-game sweep at the hands of the Spurs. LeBron took his act to Miami in 2010 and the Cavs, well, let’s just say they won’t be competing for a title any time soon.
#3 — Phoenix Suns (44 seasons)
I’m no NBA historian but I would’ve sworn the Suns managed to sneak in a title somewhere in the ’70s. Hell, everyone else seemed to. Actually Phoenix did reach the Finals in 1976, only to lose to the Boston Celtics in six. They got back in 1993 but met Da Bulls and lost again in six. Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. For a franchise without a title Phoenix has been consistently good, and sports a .559 regular-season win percentage. And they certainly haven’t lacked for talent — Charles Barkley, Alvan Adams, Kevin Johnson, and Steve Nash are but a few of the players to burn brightly out in the desert. They just seem to be one of those teams that can never quite put it all together when it counts.
#2 — Atlanta Hawks (54 seasons)
The Hawks bopped around the NBA after their inaugural 1949-50 season until finally settling in Atlanta in 1968. But it was during their 13 years in St. Louis that they achieved their greatest success. They made the playoffs in twelve of those seasons and claimed their lone title, beating the Celtics in six to end the 1957-58 campaign. However, that accomplishment was stacked against three Finals losses to Boston in the same period.
After the move to Atlanta the Hawks remained fairly competitive for many years — they made the playoffs more often than not through the 1990s but only advanced past the first round ten times in more than 30 seasons. Their best postseason came in 1988, when they took the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semis.
After several lousy years to start the new century, Atlanta has been in the midst of a resurgence of late. They’ve qualified for the postseason the last five seasons and have advanced past the first round twice.
#1 — Sacramento Kings (61 seasons)
The Kings have this much going for them at least — their current NBA-worst run without a title is dwarfed by baseball’s Chicago Cubs (104 years and counting). That’s about all the good that can be said for the Kings and the postseason. They claimed their one and only league title in 1951 when they beat the Knicks in seven. But even that victory was tainted as the team — then known as the Rochester Royals — was in the midst of serious financial troubles.
The Royals relocated to Cincinnati in 1957 and enjoyed a decent run from 1961-62 to 1966-67. Led by Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas during this run, Cincy posted six straight playoff appearances but were continually stymied by the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The franchise moved again — to Kansas City/Omaha — and changed their name to the Kings in 1972. Their greatest success in Kansas City came during a three-year stretch from 1978-79 to 1980-81, when they advanced to the postseason three times and made it to the Western Conference finals in 80-81 (a five-game defeat to the Rockets). Another relocation came in 1985, when the franchise moved to their current digs in Sacramento, California. The Kings’ best year in Sac-town occurred in 2001-02, when they won 61 games and advanced to the Western finals again (losing to the Lakers in seven).
The past six years have been pretty miserable ones in Sacramento, and relocation rumors are swirling once again. Get ready to welcome your Anaheim Royals!
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