Greatest NBA Playoff Series That Never Happened
Best matchups we never saw.
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One of my favorite things about sports is the debate. I constantly try to simulate games between great teams in my head. Perhaps, it is part of my Rain Man like OCD for basketball. With this in-depth list, my goal is to make you all wonder what could have been.
I am not going to debate what would happen between the 1972 Lakers and the 1996 Bulls. That is an article for another time. Instead, I want to discuss teams that played in the same era , but never met in the playoffs. Basically, the matchups we missed out on as fans.
With all the injuries in the 2012 NBA Playoffs that have virtually watered down the Eastern Conference, I got to thinking "please don't rob me of OKC versus the Spurs in the West." I have been dying to see that series and we were robbed of it last year with Memphis beating the Spurs.
It makes you think how many other great series have we missed out on for one reason or another of teams that played during the same time.
So let's get to it...
7) The Reggie Miller Indiana Pacers vs. The Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway Miami Heat
The Pacers were a staple of the Eastern Conference in the '90s, led by Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, the Davis boys, and Mark Jackson. They were constantly a thorn in the side of everyone in the East. They appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, and 2000. They were a great defensive team that rebounded and made big plays down the stretch of games. Reggie Miller was a different animal come playoff time.
When Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando aka Disney world for Tinsel Town, the state of Florida lost an Eastern Conference powerhouse. However, it gained one right back in 1997 with the Miami Heat. To this day, the '97 Heat hold the franchise record for the team's best single season record. They finished 61-21 with the likes of Tim Hardaway, Voshon Lenard, Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown, and Alonzo Mourning. Oh, did I mention they were coached by Pat Riley?
The Heat were another tough minded defensive team that fit right in with the Bulls, Knicks, and Pacers. The Heat much like the Pacers, would have their run-ins with the Bulls and plenty as well with the Knicks, but they never encountered the Pacers come playoff time. In fact, the Knicks robbed us of this series on three different occasions. In 1998, the third seeded Heat would be upset by the seventh-seeded Knicks in the first round--setting the stage for a Knicks-Pacers. In 1999, the Knicks on the infamous Allan Houston shot that bounced in, ended the Heat's season again when that team was the no. one seed.
Finally in 2000, the Heat lost a Game 7 at home by one point. If the Heat won, that would have given us Pacers versus Heat. There are lots of similarities in styles between these two teams that would have made for a grind of a series. For me I would debate that Miller's late game abilities and the Heat's failure to win in big spots would be the death of them, but either way, it would have been interesting to see at least once.
6) The '76 Golden State Warriors vs The '76 Boston Celtics
This one is really unique because there seemed to be just one really good chance of it happening. It kind of goes under the radar of basketball history. It began in 1975, when the Warriors would have an improbable run to win the championship in a sweep over the heavily-favored Elvin Hayes-led Washington Bullets. The Warriors came into the 1976 season riding high as defending champs and they had a better team equipped to repeat. Rick Barry, Phil Smith, and Clifford Ray were now joined by Rookie of the Year Jamaal Wilkes, Gus Williams and a much deeper team. The Warriors finished 59-23, which was a huge deal in '70s--the decade of the most NBA parity.
Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics were riding high, finishing 54-28. The Warriors and Celtics were the only two teams in the NBA in 1976 to finish with over 50 wins. Although it wasn't a Russell or Bird-led Celtic team, it still was strong and full of great players. Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, John "Hondo" Havilcek, and frontcourt bullies Paul Silas and Dave Cownes (who combined to average close to 30 rebounds a game that year together). The fans wanted to see Boston versus California, but this time, it was in the form of the Golden St. Warriors and not the Lakers. The Celtics would reach the NBA Finals and await the winner of the Suns vs. Warriors series.
The Warriors would battle and lose a Game 7 at home to a gritty Suns team. Rick Barry once said that it was one of his worst losses and one of his biggest regrets was not getting a chance to play Hondo in the Finals. It has to kill him more knowing the Warriors took two of three from the eventual champion Celtics in the regular season. Barry vs. Havilcek is a dream in its own right. At that time, it was the equivalent to a Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James Finals. The two best players at their positions on the two best teams. Oddly enough in 1969, Hondo led the Celtics to the NBA Title, while Barry led the Oakland Oaks to the ABA Title. The Dream Finals started almost seven years earlier. Nevertheless, the Suns and Celtics ended up playing an epic series that would include what some considered the best game ever--with a Gar Heard buzzer beater that would lead to a third overtime in Game 5.
Still, I ponder who would have won between the Warriors and Celtics.
5) The Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs vs The Chris Webber Sacramento Kings
From 1999 to 2004, the Western Conference elite was the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Kings. You have gotten to see the Lakers do battle with these teams over the years, but sadly, the Spurs and Kings never ran into each other for one reason or another. Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich on one end vs. Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Rick Adelman on the other. It's an epic contrast in styles that the fans missed out on big time in the postseason. it could have been the ultimate defense vs. offense showdown of the decade.
Perhaps, the best chance of seeing these two titans battle in their prime was the 2003 NBA Playoffs. To me, the 2003 Spurs were the best of all the Spurs title teams--comprised of Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobli, Malik Rose, David Robinson, Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Kevin Willis, Tony Parker, and of course, Tim Duncan. Loaded with depth, much like this year's Spurs team, they had the league's best record at 60-22.
The Kings finished a game behind at 59-23 and were coming off of the 2002 season, where many people thought they should have been NBA Champions. They ran into the Dallas Mavericks in the second round and won Game 1 on the road-- when tragedy strikes in Game 2 with Webber going down with a series-ending injury. Even without Webbe, the Kings were tough enough to take it to Game 7, before Dirk and the Mavs became just too much--leaving us wondering. With the Spurs getting rid of the albatross that was the three-time defending champion Lakers and Dirk getting injured in the Western Conference Finals himself vs. the Spurs, you seemed to be robbed as a fan even more that year.
I thought the Kings played well enough to win the 2002 championship in which we had a series in question with officials. They were certainly good enough to win it in 2003 before the Webber injury.
4) LeBron's Cavaliers vs Kobe's Lakers
Like it or not, this one has to be mentioned. From 2008 to 2010, this was the sexy Finals pick every season by most NBA fans including myself. The Cleveland Cavs dominated the 2009 and 2010 regular seasons, finishing 66-16 and 61-21 each year with best record. It wasn't that long ago, so I will spare us the LeBron James misery tour, which is continuing in Miami as I write this. The Lakers fulfilled their end of the bargain every year from 2008 to 2010 by reaching the NBA Finals, while the Cavs ran into a superior Celtic team in 2008 and 2010. However in 2009, U will never understand how they let the Magic beat them. That was the year we were really robbed as fans. The Cavs were 66-16 and Lakers were 65-17. It would have been the first time since Bulls vs. Jazz in 1997 where two teams with 64-plus wins played in the NBA Finals. That alone makes it worthy of mentioning.
It has to hurt the Cavs, their fans, and especially LeBron even more, knowing they were 4-2 versus the Lakers from 2008-2010. Also, the fact that LeBron has always dominated Kobe head-to-head makes it worse. Of all the could have been series the last decade, this was the one people wanted the most and now that chance is long gone. LeBron and the Cavs could have shut up every critic with a Finals win vs. the Lakers, but they couldn't even get out of the East. Indeed, a real shame.
3) The Ewing Knicks vs The Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic
From 1994-96, the Orlando Magic were a force to be reckoned with. Penny Hardaway is almost becoming a forgotten name, but those of us that saw him before his eventual career-ending injuries know he was the being called the next Magic Johnson. It's an honor no one has been bestowed upon since. The Magic led by Shaq and Penny in 1994 took the team to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but as most young teams do, they got bounced early in a three game sweep to Indiana. The Magic had a glaring need at the power forward position in the 1994 offseason and picked up Horace Grant from the Bulls' first threepeat core. Now armed with two superstars, shooters galore in Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson, and an All-Star power forward (Grant was an All-Star in '94), the Magic were equipped to be the next power in the Eastern Conference.
At that same time, there was an established power in the Pat Riley-led New York Knicks. To me, they were arguably one of the five best defensive teams in the history of the NBA. They were loaded with front court talent. Guys like Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Mason, Charles Smith. Front courts today are rarely constructed with that sort of toughness. These two teams battled all of the 1995 season for the Atlantic Division crown that the Magic captured. They seemed to be on a collision course for the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic would take three of the five regular season games.
Much like Spurs vs. Kings, this is another offense vs. defense matchup for the ages that would have been an epic series. The Magic did their part in beating the Celtics and Bulls to get to Conference Finals, whereas the Knicks forced a Game 7 after being down 3-1 to Pacers only to lose on their home floor, with Ewing missing a layup as time expired. We all remember early in that series in Game 1 when Reggie Miller scored his epic eight points in about thirteen seconds. That Game 1 came back to seriously haunt the Knicks. Still, I debate to myself all the time who would have won that series. Ewing and O'Neal doing battle, Starks and Penny, Grant renewing his rivalry with Oakley in a different uniform. The stage was set and we missed out.
The Knicks and the Magic would fall in 96 both to the Bulls and Shaq left for LA after that leaving us to ask, what if? I wonder if the reason both of these teams are in the NBA 2k12 video game is to settle this fantasy.
2) The John Stockton, Karl Malone Utah Jazz vs The Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson Phoenix Suns
This was a dream series for me. To see Barkley vs. Malone in their prime with their best teams face off in a seven game series...Man.... We saw Barkley vs. Malone with Jazz and Rockets in 1997, but Barkley wasn't the same. Age started to hit him earlier than it did for Malone.
The Suns and Jazz were powerhouses throughout the mid-90s. From 1993-95, when the Suns were at their peak, they never faced the Jazz in the playoffs. Oddly enough, the Jazz faced the Suns two of the three prior years to Barkley arriving--both times having an epic five game first round with each team winning a series. In 1993, the Suns were on a different level than the rest, so let's focus on 1994 and 1995. In 1994, the Jazz reached the Western Conference Finals after disposing of the Spurs and Nuggets. The Suns easily handled the Warriors in the first round and ran into the Rockets. The Suns feeling like it was their year--especially being so close last year--took Games 1 and 2 in Houston. Normally, losing the first two games at home would spell doom, but the Rockets were an odd team. They fought back to win the series in seven and ended up disposing of the Jazz and winning the championship against the Knicks, The chance to see these titans collide didn't end there though.
Much like Magic vs. Knicks, the best chance of getting this dream bout with these two teams at their peak was in 1995. Utah finished 60-22, led by Stockton, Malone, Hornacek, and head coach Jerry Sloan. The Suns finished 59-23 with a revamped team that picked up a deeper bench, adding Danny Manning to an already stacked squad led by Barkley, Johnson, and Thunder Dan Majerle. They were on course to face each other in the second round. They would split their four regular season duels. Both teams just needed to escape the first round.
The Suns they defeated the Blazers and awaited the Jazz. The Jazz had a tougher test in the Olajuwon and now Clyde Drexler-equipped Rockets team. That was one of the most underrated first round series ever. It was an epic five game series that went down to wire. Many people don't know that Utah led Game 5 most of the way and still lost. The Suns' luck would be worse against the Rockets as they blew a 3-1 series lead and lost Game 7 at home. You ended up with an epic series with the Rockets vs. Suns, but not Suns vs. Jazz.
1) Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls vs Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets
Well, we have reached number one and what a shocker seeing the Bulls fan puts a Bulls dream match on the board. This one is not just stuck in my mind. I assume it is stuck in every basketball fan's mind. From 1993 to 1997, I would have said this was highly likely to happen.
The Bulls going into 1994 were coming off their third straight championship. Their bench was starting to wear thin a little in 1993, so they bolstered it with the additions of Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr. B.J. Armstrong was coming into his own and would be an All-Star in 1994. In one crazy twist of fate, we may have lost out on what could have been the greatest Bulls team of them all, when the announcement of Michael Jordan's first retirement hit the wire.
The 1994 Bulls without Jordan would finish 55-27--only two games behind the 57-25 team in 1993 with Jordan. Pippen missed 10 games in 1994 (Bulls were 4-6). The Bulls potentially could have won 60 games without Jordan, which leaves you to wonder what having him around would have meant that year.
On the other side of the coin, the Rockets came into their own in 1993, but in 1994, they looked like contenders all year. Hakeem, Smith, Horry, Thorpe, a rookie Sam Cassell, and Vernon Maxwell (who loved to test Michael Jordan's patience) completed an impressive squad. Mad Max could have been an huge issue for MJ, especially during a grueling seven game series. In fact, from 1991-93, the Rockets were 5-1 vs. Chicago and Olajuwon was tearing up the NBA as its best player from 94-95. The Rockets would even dispose of some of the same teams the Bulls would. The Rockets beat the Knicks, Sonics, Blazers, Suns, Jazz, and Magic just like the Bulls did throughout the '90s.
If the Bulls losing to the Rockets in 1994 isn't scary to Bulls fans, then how about the '95 Rocket team that added Drexler? Honestly, i can't ever decide which Rocket team was better, but I lean heavily toward the 1995 one that had the toughest playoff road ever in the history of the NBA.
Of course, Jordan was the ultimate athlete and competitor and wouldn't shy away from the challenge, but would Drexler and Olajuwon be too much to handle? The only evidence we have is the six games the Bulls and Rockets faced from 1996-98. The Bulls were 5-1 against the Rockets, making this even more even. In 1997, it came real close to happening until Stockton hit a three to send Utah to the Finals instead of the Rockets. The Bulls and Rockets went through some major turnover from 93-97 even adding more to this debate. As to which versions of these two teams do you want to see the most?
When Jordan and the Bulls had the epic 72-10 team in 1996, they had two guys remaining from the 1993 squad and that was Jordan and Pippen. The Rockets stayed a championship level team, but also saw a change from Maxwell to Drexler, Thorpe to Horry, Horry to Barkley, etc. I guess the question is when you compare these two teams.... Which ones are you comparing? Either way, any of the versions of these teams would have made for a classic series that NBA fans will never get to see.
The two best teams of the 90s never faced each other. It could have garnered the same attention Lakers vs. Celtics did in the 80s and most recently, this last decade.
Thanks for reading and be on the lookout for upcoming podcasts with myself and TSC editor Fred Richani!