Many great teams have failed to win NBA championship rings. There are upsets and choke jobs every season but they’re never less exciting than in the playoffs. Nothing is more enjoyable than watching an underdog knock a favorite out of contention.
So today, let’s look at some of the most dramatic postseason chokes ever. These teams should have won easily but they failed to deliver. Some of them bounced back and won the following season. Others failed to capitalize on their moment in history. But either way, they were devastating to otherwise good teams, so check them out via The Ringer right here.
25. Miami Heat – 1999
The Knicks made it to the Finals in 1999. Furthermore, they were the first eight seeds in history to achieve this. The biggest shock they pulled off was this victory over the Heat in the first round. Everybody projected a Miami victory but New York knocked them out of contention.
This was a weird season because there were only 50 games after the lockout. Luckily for the Knicks, Latrell Sprewell had a point to prove after his suspension ended. He blitzed the Heat in an exciting five-game series. Miami didn’t see this coming (via N.Y. Daily News).
The Bulls are one of the NBA’s greatest franchises. Many fans around the world follow the sport because of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. However, the team suffered a severe decline in the following decade. Their 2012 defeat in the playoffs was endemic to their downturn.
They won the first game of their series against the 76ers. But Derrick Rose tore his ACL and they lost 4-2 over six games. However, this was a major shock because Philly carried eight-seed status into the tie. They overcame the odds to send the Bulls spiraling (via Clutchpoints).
The Lakers had an unbelievable roster in 1981. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was outstanding and they also had a young Magic Johnson on their books. But they fell out of contention against the Rockets in a shocking upset. L.A. won the Finals the previous season and their fans expected a walkover.
Meanwhile, the maligned Rockets had an average regular season. Moses Malone had an outstanding series with help from Calvin Johnson. They proved that anybody can pull off a victory on their day in the NBA. Perhaps the Lakers underestimated them but they paid the price (via N.Y. Times).
There was no reason to expect the Grizzlies to defeat the Spurs in this first-round series. But that’s exactly what happened because Memphis knocked them out of contention. It was a major shock because Memphis scraped their way into the postseason (via CBS News).
They won four out of six games as they stunned San Antonio. This came after they won 61 regular-season games but that didn’t matter. Memphis carried the series with great performances from Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol. They almost finished the series in five games but narrowly lost. It didn’t matter.
The Clippers have a terrible postseason record because they always choke. They’ve had some great players over the past decade but haven’t been able to capitalize. Unfortunately, that was the case again in this series against the Trailblazers. It didn’t help that Chris Paul broke his hand in Game 4 (via The Guardian).
This was a major turning point because he was their star guard. Then a leg injury took Blake Griffin out of contention. Suddenly, the Clippers lost another elite star and couldn’t replace them. Portland took advantage and knocked them out of the playoffs.
Many people believe that the Pacers wasted a massive opportunity in 2003 when they fell short against the Celtics. A highly-favored Indiana side met Boston in the first round but lost a six-game series. It was a shock because the Pacers had an exciting roster full of stars.
The following season they threw away another great chance when the Malice at the Palace kicked off. Many of their best players suffered suspensions and that was it for the team. There are a lot of what-ifs about this edition of the Pacers but we’ll never know (via The Game Haus).
This wasn’t how Tim Duncan envisaged the end of his career. San Antonio had an excellent regular season with the most dominant record in the entire NBA. They made it through the first round of the playoffs before meeting the Thunder. But that was the end of the road.
Oklahoma’s victory was all about their successful defense. The Spurs crushed them in the first game but then couldn’t break through in the remaining ties. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for outstanding performances (via The42).
The Sonics had a couple of traumatic defeats in the ’90s. This team probably should have had at least one title but they existed in the same era as the Bulls. If Chicago defeated them in 1995 it may not have hurt so much. But a loss against the Lakers was inexcusable.
Everything started smoothly when they won the opening game. But then the Lakers figured out Seattle’s All-Star offense and shut them down. In the end, L.A. won the series 3-1 as they knocked the Sonics out of contention. It was a bad look for the Sonics against a team in transition (via Essentially Sports).
Nobody gave the Hornets much hope when they made the playoffs in 2001. Charlotte carried an average record into the postseason where they faced the Heat in the first round. Miami had 50 regular-season wins and a lot of veterans on their roster.
Most people expected their experience to carry them past the Hornets. But that’s not what happened as Charlotte pushed them out of contention. This series ended after three games as Charlotte swept Miami. In the end, Miami suffered humiliation (via CBC).
The Golden State Warriors are one of the strongest teams in the NBA each year, but that wasn’t always the case. Their success over the past decade coincided with the rise of Steph Curry. They faced the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and were big underdogs.
Denver had a bunch of exciting talents like Andre Iguodala and Ty Lawson. Meanwhile, they scored more points than any other franchise in the regular season. But somehow Curry and co. won the series 4-2 and knocked them out of playoff contention (via ESPN).
This was one of the biggest recent choke jobs in NBA history. The Bucks had the reigning MVP on their roster in Giannis Antetokounmpo. ‘The Greek Freak’ had a direct influence on the outcome of the second round but not in a good way. Unfortunately, a sprained ankle cost him a crucial Game Five appearance.
Jimmy Butler had a great series and played a leading role as the Heat knocked the Bucks out of contention. It was a major shock but Miami had an outstanding game plan. They pulled it off in style as they stunned the league with their performances (via N.Y. Times).
The Cavs had an amazing opportunity in 1989 to break their championship slump. But they fell short in the first round against the Bulls. This series also confirmed that Michael Jordan was the real deal. The young man was impressive against Cleveland the previous year, but rose to a new level throughout this history-making series.
He scored 50 points in Game Four but was a high-scoring threat throughout the entire series. In the end, the Cavaliers couldn’t handle him and the red-hot Bulls. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it a choke job because of the context. But it was a major upset at the time (via Yahoo!)
The Rockets met Utah in the first round of their incredible 1995 run. This was when the Jazz had a superb roster featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton. They were also the favorites before this game but Houston pulled off an outstanding upset in five games (via China Daily).
Once again, The Dream was unstoppable in this series as he put in a remarkable defensive performance. He was also a consistent scoring threat with 35 points per game. This was typical of the Jazz because they never lived up to expectations and always fell short.
The Magic typically sit in the middle of the pack. When they make the playoffs nobody expects much from them. However, they had an exciting roster in 1995 and made it to the Finals. A young Shaquille O’Neal helped them blaze their way into contention.
Meanwhile, Houston remains one of the worst teams to win the Finals in NBA history. Their points differential and record were appalling in comparison to the other teams. Yet, they still swept Orlando in style as they won four straight games. It shouldn’t have happened but Hakeem Olajuwon waged a one-man war (via USA Today).
The Cavaliers met the Magic in the conference final in 2009. Many people thought that this series was a formality because of the potential storyline. The thought of LeBron James facing Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals was mouthwatering. But it never materialized.
That’s because the Magic squashed the Cavs’ dreams. Cleveland captured the first two games but they allowed it to slip. Finally, Orlando came to life and produced a sensational comeback. In the end, it was all in vain because they lost in the Finals. But they were brilliant in this series (via The Guardian).
Tim Duncan and the Spurs had an intense rivalry with the Lakers in the 2000s. It felt like they played each other every season because of the magnitude of their clashes. San Antonio had a stronger regular-season record than the Lakers in 2004.
Unsurprisingly, the oddsmakers considered them to be strong favorites. But the Lakers belied their underdog status when they upset the odds and knocked the Spurs out of contention. Derek Fisher scored the all-important Game Five winning points (via Bleacher Report).
LeBron James’s spell with the Miami Heat remains a perplexing period of his career. On the one hand, he won two championship rings. But James also suffered high-profile chokes and the team failed to take full advantage of its incredible attack. Their 2014 defeat to the Spurs proved this.
James wasn’t that bad in the Finals but he didn’t exactly set them on fire either. The Spurs crushed them in five games as they earned their revenge on the previous year. 2013 saw the Heat win in a seven-series thriller. If they lost a tight series it wouldn’t have been as bad as seeing them wilt like this (via Bleacher Report).
The New Jersey Nets pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time when they knocked the 76ers out of contention. Philadelphia came into this series as the defending NBA champions. But the Nets overwhelmed them in a shock for the ages.
New Jersey had never won a playoff series before this one. Then they cruised into a two-game lead and left the Sixers with too much work to do. Their away day form was outstanding as they beat the heavy favorites. It was a wasted opportunity for the Sixers (via Sports Illustrated).
The ’94/95 Rockets featured already on this list but they pulled off multiple shocks that year. After all, nobody expected them to make the playoffs, never mind win the title. But they did and they stunned the Spurs along the way as they knocked them out of contention.
David Robinson had an MVP regular season but Hakeem Olajuwon shut him down completely. The Dream turned the series into a nightmare for him. Statisticians gave them an 18 percent chance of victory but they upset the odds in style. The Spurs didn’t know what hit them (via Houston Chronicle).
Somehow the Cavaliers contrived to make the Finals in 2018 but they shouldn’t have been there. On paper, they weren’t a top team despite the presence of King James. However, they had an outstanding second round when they swept the Raptors in four games.
This was a major upset because Toronto had a fantastic regular season. They had 59 victories but couldn’t handle LeBron James. In the end, it didn’t matter because they didn’t have to wait long for their title. Meanwhile, James left for the Lakers at the end of the season.
The Lakers were one of the teams of the eighties as they made the Finals seven times. 1986 was one of the rare occasions when they missed out because they ran into the Rockets. They had incredible talent with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
But it wasn’t enough to stop Houston from knocking them out of contention. The Lakers won the first game of the series but lost the next four as the Rockets took over. In the end, they lost out and Hakeem Olajuwon’s men progressed. What a shock this was (via L.A. Times).
Seattle had some great teams in the ’90s but failed to reach their full potential. If they won a championship ring they may never have left the city. One of their biggest choke jobs came against the Nuggets. The Bulls lacked Michael Jordan and Seattle took over as the best team in the NBA.
However, their regular-season form didn’t carry over into the playoffs. Denver knocked them out of contention with a demolition job. They carried the series 3-2 after a dramatic comeback. Seattle won the first two games but choked and the Nuggets made them pay (via L.A. Times).
The Celtics defeated the Nets in 2022 and progressed in the NBA playoffs. But this was one of the all-time choke jobs. Not necessarily because Boston defeated Brooklyn. After all, they had a great roster and one of the league’s best players in Jayson Tatum (via N.Y. Post).
However, most oddsmakers considered them to be the preseason favorites. In the end, they slumped their way into the playoffs. Kevin Durant failed to deliver as the Nets proved that buying a super team doesn’t always work. They spent a lot of money but didn’t reap the rewards.
Dallas made the Finals in 2006 and had Dirk Nowitzki at the top of his game. He came off an MVP regular season and also sealed his status as the greatest European to step onto an NBA court. However, the Mavericks lost in a stunning upset against the Warriors.
They won 65 regular-season games but crucially lost against Golden State in all of their meetings. Then the Warriors finished them again in first round. This was an exciting six-round series but the Warriors won 4-2. The ‘We Believe’ Warriors were a special team (via NBC Sports).
LeBron James finally won a title with the Cavaliers in 2016 after they overcame the Warriors. This was a major upset because Golden State had a winning machine. It should have been a formality after they took a 3-1 lead. But the Cavaliers fought their way back into contention.
The Cavs showed immense heart and grit as they ground out a spectacular victory across seven games. There were iconic moments aplenty as the franchise ended its title deficit. Meanwhile, it provided James with redemption after he abandoned the team for Miami (via Sporting News).