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Unluckiest NBA Franchise of All-Time

February 8, 2013

sacramento kings                                                                   *photo courtesy of round ball daily

Lets take a look at the teams that could be considered the unluckiest franchises in NBA History.

Los Angeles Clippers: where to start? failed top draft picks? bad management? management uncertainty? John Y. Brown?  Elgin Baylor?  My criteria however is based on how many times a team has been a legit contender for the championship but couldn’t get it done.  Until the past two seasons, the only Clippers team that had any chance whatsoever to win a championship was those mid-1970’s Buffalo teams with Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Dr. Jack Ramsay as coach.  As referenced in the John Y. Brown link, Buffalo could have been possibly the best team in the NBA in the late-70’s.  But for those 3 teams in 1974, 1975, and 1976 that made the playoffs I don’t think they could have beaten the Celtics or the Bullets (and they didn’t).  They did take the Bullets to 7 games in 1975.  However, as much as I hear about Elvin Hayes’ reputation for not showing up for a big game, he had 46 points in a critical game 5 of a 2-2 series which the Bullets won 97-93.  So if that Hayes choke reputation is valid, that Braves team loses some championship validity points with me (plus they were never really known for defense).  After 1976, the Clippers franchise didn’t make the playoffs again until 1992 (they moved to San Diego in 1978 then to Los Angeles in 1984).  Between ’92 and last season they made the playoffs 4 times, were never higher than a 6-seed, won 1 playoff series (in 2006, when they had home-court advantage against the 3 seed Denver Nuggets because the NBA had just switched to 3 Division format the previous year and the division winners HAD to be the top 3 seeds… even if the Division winner had a 44-38 record which was the same record as the 8 seeded Sacramento Kings that year), and were never a legit title contender (granted they probably should have made the Western Conference Finals that same year in 2006, but would they have beaten Dallas? I’m resoundingly saying no).

Brooklyn Nets: OK, they won two ABA championships (including the last one in 1976) as the New York Nets and had the ABA’s marquee player in Dr. J, Julius Erving.  However, when the ABA merged with the NBA in the summer of ’76, the four teams that changed leagues (New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers) had to pay $3.2 million to join the NBA, were not allowed to participate in the college draft, and could not share in any NBA television money for 3 years.  However, the Nets got the stiffest penalty because they were deemed to be ‘in the territory‘ of the New York Knicks and had to pay the Knicks $4.8 million in territorial rights.  Because of this the Nets had to sell Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers, and were never really the same (even having to move to New Jersey).  They have not won more than 52 games in a season in the NBA, they won one playoff series between 1976 and 2002 (against Dr. J and the 76ers in 1984… ironic?), and have never been a legitimate championship contender (I know, I know, they made the Finals in 2002 and 2003 but do you really believe they had a chance against the Lakers and Spurs??).

Cleveland Cavaliers: Every Cleveland sports franchise seems to be in the category of unluckiest and the Cavs are right in line, but hey LeBron didn’t have to treat the Cavaliers like he did by making… umm… what to call this?… so many options… I’ll go with THE DECISION of leaving them (but he’s coming back in 2014! ..right? …and hey Ted Stepien probably treated the franchise worse).  But the Cavs through history have had 2 legit title contender teams… I’ll put the 2009 team in this category, I don’t know if they would’ve beaten the Lakers had they made it to the Finals, but they had a league-best 66-16 record and were a contender that year as well as possibly 2010 (I want to give less credit to this team just by the way they fizzled out against Boston, but hey what would you do if you were the star and you thought your teammate was sleeping with your mother?).  But the best Cavs team in their history was the late-80’s – early 90’s team with players like Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Craig Ehlo (and Ron Harper for a time… before he was traded for Danny Ferry…).  Their best chance looking back was probably 1989 when Mr. Jordan hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to eliminate Cleveland in the 5th and deciding game of the 1st round.  Now if they had beaten the Bulls, they would have had home-court advantage against the Knicks in the next round and probably would have beaten them.  I don’t think they would have beaten the Pistons that year or the next, but that playoff run may have developed them with some confidence that could have translated into a Bulls-like title run.  Instead, they lost confidence and that along with the Harper for Ferry trade set them back.

Phoenix Suns: Had a decent late-70’s – early-80’s team with Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, and Paul Westphal/Dennis Johnson (Westphal pre-1980, Johnson post-1980.. they were traded for each other) that ran into the Lakers (or Sonics in ’79) who were better teams.  The year that Phoenix team perhaps had a chance was probably 1981 when they had the best record in the west but they lost a 7-game semifinal series against the Kings (and really if you lose a 7th game at home to a team that was missing Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong, know …their staring backcourt, and had Ernie Grunfeld ring up 23 points against you, how good are you really?).  They had a good 90’s team with Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Majerle that blew playoff series’ to the eventual champion Houston Rockets in back-to-back years (won the first two games in Houston in ’94 but lost the next two games at home before losing in 7 and blowing a 3-1 lead in ’95 including two home games).  Then there was last decade’s 7 seconds or less team pretty much summed up by Bill Simmons.  That doesn’t cover the 2 teams that made the NBA Finals (1976, 1993) but lost to better teams (although they probably would have won in ’76 had they pulled out the triple-OT game.. which they were robbed of because Paul Silas called an illegal timeout).  The Suns never really had ‘the best team in the league’ label for a season (they had the best record in the league in ’93 and ’05 but did you really think they were going to win it all those years?).

Portland Trailblazers: I think there comes a time when you are somewhat responsible for your own bad luck, the Blazers could have drafted Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant (instead grabbing Sam Bowie and Greg Oden).  The way the 1977 Championship team broke up was sad and Bill Walton treated the Blazers like LeBron treated the Cavs (actually worse) but the rest of the team was grumbling too (just read The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam).  They might have won the 2000 NBA Championship had they not blown the 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Lakers (but there comes a time when you are responsible for your own bad luck – they missed 13 straight shots in that quarter).  Their early 90’s team had a 3-year window as a championship contender with Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams but they lost to better teams (and in a way ‘blew’ every series… lost 3 straight games at home in 1990 against the Pistons, had home-court advantage against the Lakers in 1991, had a 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter against Chicago in Game 6 in 1992… would they have won Game 7 at the Stadium had they held their lead? Probably not, but they still gagged away Game 6).

Teams that were formed in 1988 or since don’t count to me in this list, they haven’t been around long enough.  The Atlanta Hawks could be on this list but the last time they were a top seed in their Conference or made the Conference Finals was 1970, they’ve had good teams but not really title-contenders since.

We are missing one franchise though who I think is the unluckiest hands down!  Not only did this franchise have years that they SHOULD have won but one could argue eras were ruined as well!  How many teams can honestly say that over their franchise history in the NBA they’ve been moved four times, had one player who could have been one of the greatest players in NBA History struck down by not only a career-ending injury but a life-altering (and ultimately ending) injury (and if this player was healthy a dynasty could have been broken up), maybe lost the chance to compete in the NBA Finals because of a divisional non-switch, quite possibly had a playoff series stolen from them by the heads of the NBA in a year that they were the best team (yes, if you clicked the link, it is the same as where the top photo came from), and now may have their franchise be contracted (when this team moves to Seattle and takes the Sonics history back from Oklahoma City).  If you haven’t figured it out by now (at least by the top pic) then here they are… the SACRAMENTO KINGS (previously known as the Rochester Royals, Cincinnati Royals, Kansas City-Omaha Kings, and Kansas City Kings).

Now I know, they did win the NBA Championship in 1951 when they beat the luckiest team of all-time in one of their few unlucky moments.  But that has been their only NBA Finals appearance (and hell they almost blew that Finals to the Knicks, taking the first 3 games before losing the next 3 and winning Game 7 in the final minute).  The Rochester Royals from 1948-1954 had the second-best team in basketball with 266 regular season wins, closely behind the Lakers 273 (in all those years, they were the only team that wasn’t the Lakers to win a Championship) and had some great early players like Bob Davies, Arnie Risen, Bobby Wanzer, and Red Holzman (same guy who coached the Knicks to their only titles in the 70’s). In 1949 and 1952 they actually had better regular season records than the Lakers but lost to them in the playoffs (in 1951 the Lakers had a better regular season record).  However, the Royals only had one championship to show for their success in this era (still better than nothing though… it gets worse).

RochesterRoyals_375                                                        1951 NBA Champion Rochester Royals (Photo courtesy of           Bottom Row: Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Red Holzman, Paul Noel, Pep Saul (Bottom right corner: Head Coach Lester Harrison)                                                    Top Row: Bill Calhoun, Joe McNamee, Arnie Risen, Jack Coleman, Arnie Johnson                                                                                                 

In 1955, the Royals drafted two players by the name of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.  They moved to Cincinnati before the 1957-1958 Season, and made the playoffs that year with their two young stars leading the way.  But in the last game of the regular season, the Royals were playing in Minneapolis against the Lakers and Maurice Stokes was having a typical double-double game, but then something bad happened.  This quote from Sports Hollywood (actually a good piece in telling you how good Stokes really was) tells it all:

Stokes battled under the basket with Vern Mikkelsen for a rebound and crashed to the floor. He was knocked unconscious as his head smacked the hardwood. Stokes was revived with smelling salts, and eventually returned to the action, seemingly uninjured by the fall, and was the game’s high scorer with 24 points.

After the game, the team went straight from the arena to the train station, and traveled all night to Detroit, where they were favored to win a best-of-three game series against the Pistons, in Stokes’ first playoff appearance.

   But about a half hour before tip-off, Maurice became nauseated and vomited. Everyone figured it was a virus, and were only concerned as to whether or not Stokes would feel strong enough to play that night.

   Maurice was lethargic in warmups, but he played the game, in a weak (for Stokes, anyway) 12-point, 15-rebound performance.   After the loss, the team took a bus to the Willow Run Airport at Ypsilanti, to catch a flight back home. Then about ten minutes into the flight, Stokes became ill again. “I feel like I’m going to die,” he told Dick Ricketts.  

   About 45 minutes outside of Detroit, Stokes began to shake and writhe in what teammate Jack Twyman described as “a violently ill” seizure. “He was sweating, soaking wet all over, as if someone had dipped his head in a swimming pool,” Twyman said. Stokes collapsed, his breathing erratic and shallow. An airline stewardess fed him oxygen as Maurice requested to be baptized — apparently he had attended St. Francis more for the un-Pittsburgh-like atmosphere than for religious reasons, and had never actually been confirmed. But now Maurice wanted to become a Catholic, before he died. Teammate Richie Regan, a Catholic himself, informally baptized him.

   At this crucial moment, the plane was still an hour and a half from Cincinnati. But despite the worries of some of the terrified players, it was decided by the team owners and NBA President Maurice Podoloff, also onboard, that the plane wouldn’t turn around, but would fly ahead to Ohio.  When the plane finally landed, Maurice was rushed to the hospital. Doctors would later say that only the efforts of the Trans World Airlines stewardess,Jeanne Phillips, had kept Maurice alive. Stokes’ brain was swollen, and the change in cabin pressure on the flight had worsened it to the point of death. When the swelling increased, his motor system — his ability to walk, talk, control any movement whatsoever — shut off.

Holy Crap!  Maurice would be hospital-ridden until his death in 1970 and Jack Twyman would become his legal guardian in one of the great feel-good stories of all-time; taking care of Maurice, paying his medical bills, etc…

stokes                                                                                                 Maurice Stokes (photo courtesy of hoopedia)

But on with what that did to the Royals.  At the time in the NBA there was the territorial pick, and in 1960 the best college player named Oscar Robertson was finishing up at the University of Cincinnati.  Naturally, Robertson was the territorial pick of the Royals and he went on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all-time and led the Royals back to respectability (making the playoffs from 1962-1967 and finishing as high as second in the east in 1964 and 1965, and second in the west in 1962).  Robertson teamed with Twyman, Wayne Embry (an under-rated, and under-sized, center from that era), and Bob Boozer (another under-rated player) and in the 1963 Eastern Conference Finals, they took the 4-time defending NBA Champion Celtics to a Game 7, losing a high-scoring game in which Robertson’s 43 points was out-done by Sam Jones’ 47.  They would never come closer to the NBA Finals (even after acquiring Jerry Lucas) and a non-change in the division format would contribute to that (I need to credit The Book of Basketball for bringing up this point – and perhaps a lot of others).

In the 1962 Season, the Eastern teams were the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State Warriors) and Syracuse Nationals (now Philadelphia 76ers) and the Western teams were the Los Angeles Lakers, St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta Hawks), Detroit Pistons, Cincinnati Royals, and the Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards… I laugh at the fact that there was once a team in Chicago called the Packers.. they changed the name to the Zephyrs the next season while staying one more year in Chicago).  Now that makes sense, of those 9 teams the 4 eastern-most are in the eastern division.  Now for 1963, the Philadelphia Warriors got sold and moved to San Francisco and so to balance it out Cincinnati (the eastern-most city in the 1962 western division) got moved to the east.  Again it makes sense.  But then for 1964, the Chicago Zephyrs became the Baltimore Bullets.. yet despite moving to Baltimore, they stayed in the west while Cincinnati stayed in the east.  Which of those cities is farther east now? Yeah.. and to add to it, the Royals had the 3rd best record in the NBA in 1965 behind Boston and Los Angeles with a 48-32 clip (14 games behind Boston, 1 behind LA).  Now, in the playoffs the Lakers lose one their two superstars, Elgin Baylor, to a devastating knee injury that knocked him out until next season, but still managed to beat a 37 win Baltimore team (who beat a better St. Louis team in the first round – at the time there were only 6 playoff teams, 3 in each division) to make it to the Finals against Boston as the Lakers other superstar Jerry West averaged 46.3 points per game against the Bullets (his lowest output of the 6-game series was 42 points).

Meanwhile, Cincinnati lost to the Philadelphia 76ers (who were better then their even 40-40 record indicates because of their mid-season trade for Wilt Chamberlain).  The 76ers lost to Boston in 7 games in the Eastern Finals, which ended with HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL!!!!  Now just for a second imagine if Baltimore and Cincinnati had swapped spots.  Baltimore would be 3rd in the east and probably get demolished by the 76ers.  Cincinnati would be 2nd in the west and probably be in the Western Finals against the Lakers (the fact that the Hawks bowed out to the Bullets makes me think they wouldn’t have beaten Cincinnati).  You think the Royals would have beaten the Lakers without Baylor, even with West going bonkers?  Who knows, but with the way the Celtics made mincemeat of the Lakers in the Finals without Baylor, I’m thinking so.  And maybe the Royals could have snuck one past the Celtics, probably not but imagine if they had Maurice Stokes.

Oscar                                                                                         Oscar Robertson (photo courtesy of giantbomb)                                                                                                                                                                            

Through the 1960’s to the 2000’s, the Kings had some good teams and players but I would never really consider them a championship contender.  They moved to Kansas City in 1972 (and played some games in Omaha until 1975).  They had a decent team in the late-70’s – early-80’s that made 3 straight playoff appearances (including a division title) and made the Western Conference Finals in 1981 as a 5th seed.  But they lost to the 6th seeded Rockets and I don’t think they would have had a chance to beat the Celtics that year (the Rockets lost to Boston in 6 games).  The Kings made one more playoff appearance (as an 8 seed in 1984) before moving to Sacramento in 1985.  Between ’85 and ’98, they made two playoff appearances and won a total of 1 game.

But now we come to 1999 and the early 2000’s, the Kings are building a nice-young (ish) team led by Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Jason Williams.  They grab Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu from Europe and acquire Doug Christie in a trade and Bobby Jackson in free agency.  After 3 years of building but losing in the playoffs (including back-to-back years to the Lakers), the Kings make the final move in a championship puzzle.  They ship Jason Williams to Memphis for Mike Bibby in the summer of 2001 and in 2002 they’re ready to go.  They post the best record in the league at 61-21, three games ahead of the Lakers (despite losing the season series to LA 3-1).

They move through the playoffs defeating Utah 3-1 and Dallas 4-1 and take on LA in the Western Finals.  After taking 2 of the first 3 games (including a dominating Game 3 win in LA), the Kings have a 24-point lead in the 2nd quarter of Game 4.  Then the wheels fall off, Samaki Walker hits a long-three to apparently beat the clock (it didn’t – one of the plays that led to the NBA getting instant replay for the next season) that cut the Kings halftime lead to 14 (go to 6:09 to see a replay).  Then the Lakers came back aided by foul calls and non-calls to trail by two with the ball with 10 seconds left.  Kobe misses a tough shot, Shaq misses a layup (A LAYUP!! HE MISSED A LAYUP) before Divac taps the ball outside to Robert Horry standing behind the three point line.  Horry makes it at the buzzer and the Lakers win by one.  After Mike Bibby hits a game-winner in Game 5 (I see you Laker fans arguing against a conspiracy – Shaq fouled out of game 5 and just before Bibby’s game-winner the ball goes out of bounds and from the looks of it, it goes out off of Webber – replay is shown at 0:44 – plus was Kobe fouled on the replay before? perhaps…) Sacramento takes a 3-2 lead back to LA.

I’ll just bring up a series of articles (and a video) to tell you how Game 6 went…

Now my feeling is that the Kings were playing with unbelievable confidence in Game 6 (Vlade Divac, of all people, nailed a buzzer-beating three, with Chris Webber’s hand already raised before the shot was released, at the end of the first half to put the Kings up 56-51, and yes this one came before the buzzer) while the Lakers were tight (other then Shaq – who did make his first 10 free throws in this game, I wonder how much money Stern gave him to do that?  The other Lakers shot 40% from the field for the game and 4-for-15 on threes).  I believe Sacramento’s confidence to an extent was taken away by the officiating in the 4th quarter and that showed in Game 7 where the Kings were the ones playing tight (going 16-for-30 from the free throw line and 2-for-20 on threes and having nobody play with confidence in overtime other then Bibby.  I know Peja gets blasted for his air-ball but Doug Christie had a wide-open three in overtime with 12 seconds left and the Kings down two which hit nothing but backboard).  And that could have set the stage for big games that happened in the next two years that the Kings lost (missing free throws and losing overtime series-swinging games at home against Dallas and Minnesota in their 2003 and 2004 playoff losses, as well as playing tight and not shooting well in a close Game 7 loss versus the Timberwolves, other than the 3rd quarter).  But I believe all Kings championship hopes ended when Chris Webber tore his meniscus in the 2003 playoffs (he returned at the end of next year but wasn’t the same).  Unluckiest NBA franchise going against the luckiest.

And now to top it all off, whenever the NBA has brought contraction the Sacramento Kings’ name comes up.  But now since new ownership seems to have bought the Kings and is ready to move them to Seattle (the original Supersonics were reaped from Seattle by David Stern and Clay Bennett to Oklahoma City in 2008) and take the Supersonics history back, what is going to happen to the Kings history?  From the looks of it now, their long unlucky history will be contracted.

How many other franchises can say that?


From → NBA

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