The San Antonio Spurs felt that seven years were like forever, waiting for their fifth NBA title. Four years is eternity by Los Angeles Lakers standards. But there are franchises like the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers who have been going on without another NBA championship for much longer.
This isn’t a post about teams that haven’t won NBA titles: The Toronto Raptors, New Orleans Hornets, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers of the world. This is about those who have tasted success – some more recently than others, and have been stuck in limbo ever since. The lucky ones have only been waiting 10 years. For others, it’s been generations.
The Detroit Pistons last won the NBA title in 2004. It wasn’t their first visit to the NBA finals – it was actually their sixth, with two previous wins, during the Isaiah Thomas era (1989, 1990). The Pistons beat the Lakers 4-1 in what was quite a shock at the time. That team went on to reach the finals the next year (losing to the Spurs), and three consecutive conference finals, losing in six games every time. They haven’t been back to the postseason since 2009.
After the Pistons come former bitter rivals, the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls won all of their championships and reached all of their finals in the span of eight years. Six time NBA champions, six time finalists. Jordan, Pippen and Phil Jackson were the common thread that ties those two threepeats together. Since 1998, their second consecutive Finals win over the Jazz, the Bulls have been to the conference finals only once – 2011.
Still within the confines of two decades, the Houston Rockets come up next. It’s been 19 years since Hakeem Olajuwon got Clyde Drexler to help him win a second consecutive championship (Drexler wasn’t there for the first), sweeping the Orlando Magic with Shaq and Penny in the 1995 finals. They had two previous finals losses (1981, 1986) to the Celtics. Since that mid 90’s success, the Rockets haven’t done much, and have been past the first round of the playoffs just once since 1997.
Now we’re getting to where the real long waits have occurred. The Philadelphia 76ers won a championship as the Syracuse Nationals in 1955. As the 76ers, they won twice: In 1967 with Wilt Chamberlain and in a dominant sweep 16 years later with Moses Malone and Julius Erving leading the team. Since that title, they’ve been to the conference finals twice and made it back to the NBA finals just once, in 2001, losing to the Lakers.
Some might say its blasphemy to call the Oklahoma City Thunder as the continuation of the Seattle Supersonics, but officially it is true. The Sonics won the NBA championship in 1979, a year after losing in the finals to the Washington Bullets. The Supersonics made the NBA finals in 1996, losing to Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. As the Thunder, they’ve been to the finals once, losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012.
A lot of those who succeeded in the 1970s didn’t go on to succeed much later. The next longest wait happens to be that of the Washington Wizards, who were the Bullets when they won their championship in 1978, losing next season to the Sonics in a finals repeat. Since the 80’s rolled in, there hasn’t been much success in Washington when it comes to basketball, getting past the first round of the playoffs just twice during that time.
From the 36-year wait the Wizards had to 37 years of waiting the Portland Trail Blazers are going through. One of the more consistent teams through more than 25 years, the Blazers began that stretch with the NBA title in 1977, beating the 76ers. They’ve been to the NBA finals twice since – in 1990 and 1992, but lost both times. They haven’t been to the conference finals since 2001.
More 70’s glory? The Golden State Warriors, winning the 1956 title as the Philadelphia Warriors and in 1975, after a few years as the San Francisco Warriors, won the title as Golden State. In these 39 years, they still haven’t gotten past the conference semifinals.
Now we’re into hardcore territory, teams waiting for over 40 years. The first in line are the New York Knicks. They won the NBA title in 1969 and 1973, finally coming after losing three NBA Finals in the early 50’s. Since that triumphant time, the Knicks have been to the NBA finals only twice, losing to the Rockets in 1994 and the Spurs in 1999. They’ve won only one playoff series in the last 14 seasons.
A longer wait than the Knicks? The Milwaukee Bucks, NBA champions with Kareem and Oscar in 1971. They made the finals three years later, reached three conference finals in the 1980’s under Don Nelson and once more in 2001 under George Karl, but it’s been 13 years since they last won a playoff series.
The next in line are the Atlanta Hawks. The franchise won an NBA title in 1958 as the St. Louis Hawks, when Bob Pettit was starring for the team. It’s been mostly mediocrity and timid success at best since then. They are on a current streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances, but haven’t gotten past the conference semifinals.
The team waiting more than anyone for some success? The Sacramento Kings, winning in 1951 as the Rochester Royals. They’ve been the Kansas City Royals, the Cincinnati Royals, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the Kansas City Kings and finally Sacramento (1985) over the years. They went to the conference finals in 2002, but haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006.