An often-debated topic among NBA circles is “Who is the greatest franchise in NBA history?”. There are lots of very good teams to chose from. Could it be the team with the most NBA titles in 17, the Boston Celtics? Could it be the team with the most consistency in winning titles; the Los Angeles Lakers? Maybe it could be the most consistent team in terms of overall winning the San Antonio Spurs? The Warriors, Bulls, and 76ers also get honorable mentions. All these teams have one thing in common – multiple NBA titles.
One thing not often discussed is who is the greatest NBA franchise who has never won a title? The list is actually quite short, as only eleven NBA teams have yet to win an NBA title. Five of those teams to never win a title are recent having just joined the NBA in the past 35 years. Six of the eleven teams have yet to even make an NBA-finals.
Three of the four teams from the ABA have never won an NBA title, though the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets have both gotten close. A betting guide for the Indiana Pacers has put them as favorites to win the title more than any other of the non-title winning teams.
First, let’s get rid of the teams many people have forgotten have actually won an NBA title. The Knicks won two titles in the 1970s; the Kings won their only title in 1951; the Wizards won a title in 1978; the Thunder, as the Sonics, won a title in 1979, and the Blazers won a title in 1977. Second, ABA titles do not count; So, the Nets and Pacers cannot count their ABA titles.
One reason many people do not talk about the best teams to never win a title is many of those teams are abysmal. Only four of the teams have all-time winning records, and only two have made the playoffs more than 30 times. However, that may also be misleading as all of these teams are either ABA adds or expansion teams. Seven of these teams originally started out in other cities as well or have weird hiatuses in their history with unclear history.
The four teams not making the top 6 franchises to never win a title are, in no particular order: Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, and Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers may be a strange omission from a top 6 list given their recent history, but before 2012 the Clippers were an absolute joke of a franchise. During the Donald Sterling years, the team rarely cracked 30 wins and most seasons were over by November. They also have the second lowest win percentage of any of the teams listed except the Wolves.
#7 Memphis Grizzlies.
Given how they started the Grizzlies being on this list seems strange, but since arriving in Memphis from Vancouver the franchise has flourished. From 2004-2018 the team was in the playoffs most often than not and even made the western finals. Their western finals appearance is the same number of conference finals appearances that the 4 honorable mentions have combined. With stars like Pau and Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley the Grizzlies have been very good the last 15 or so seasons. They also seem to have been able to rebuild quickly as they are currently loaded with young stars who are pushing them towards the playoffs.
#6 Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have had a rough history. Starting in the ABA as the New Jersey Americans, they ended up moving to New York and becoming the New York Nets. They stayed the New York Nets until after joining the NBA when they moved back in New Jersey. The had a hard time finding a home in New Jersey and bounced around between several cities. They returned to the state of New York as the Brooklyn Nets in 2012.
The Nets ABA days were great, they won two titles and had greats such as Julius Erving on their roster. But since joining the NBA they have had some hard times. The Nets have been a franchise where players careers go to die.
The Nets have had some success. In the early 2000s behind Jason Kidd the team seen their greatest success since the ABA years when they made back-to-back NBA finals appearances. Even with the bright lights of New York City just across the river, the Nets have struggled to remain relevant. Things may change in the future with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the roster, but that is yet to be seen.
#5 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets oddly enough are one of only 4 teams without a title that have an all-time winning record. The Nuggets originally joined the ABA as the Kansas City Larks and quickly moved to Denver as the Denver Rockets. When the merger with the NBA was imminent, they took on the name Nuggets to honor Denverâ€™s first NBA team that disbanded after only a year in the league. The Nuggets have had an interesting history in the NBA. They have always had an identity of a fast-paced high scoring offense with little defense. In much of the 1980s and early 90s the Nuggets were comically referred to as the “Enver Nuggets, because there is no D in Denver”, due to their lack of defense. The Nuggets have let up an NBA record 160 or more points 5 times, including an NBA record 186 to the Detroit Pistons in a 186-184 loss in 1983.
The Nuggets have always liked high scoring wings, with many of their greats being players like Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson, and Carmelo Anthony fitting this mold. The Nuggets also famously pulled off one of the biggest stunners in NBA playoff history when in 1994, as the 8th seed, they beat the top seed Seattle Supersonics, in 5 games. The Nuggets have had moderate playoff success, though they frequently lose in the first round, they have made a few conference finals appearances but have yet to reach the finals.
#4 Orlando Magic
The Magic are the only modern expansion team to make this list. Joining the NBA in 1989 they seen quick success behind Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway reaching their first NBA finals in 1995. The mid 90s Magic teams were a force and are the only team to beat the Chicago Bulls in a playoff series in the 1990s with Michael Jordan on the roster.
After Shaq left the Magic, they stayed relevant by signing free agents like Tracy McGrady. They drafted Dwight Howard and he again led them to the NBA finals in 2010. The Magic, despite playing in a small market, have the benefit of the Florida culture and nightlife to attract free agents. They, and the Nets, are really the only free agent destinations, who have yet to win a title.
#3 Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are the greatest of all the ABA franchises, winning 3 titles, but they struggled to adjust to the NBA. Their first decade in the NBA was bad by any standard. From 1983-1986 the team won just 94 games over a 4-season span. That all changed in 1987 when they drafted Reggie Miller.
Miller made the Pacers a contender in the east in the 1990s. The east in the 1990s was very tough with teams like the Jordan led Bulls, the Shaq and Penny Magic, and the Ewing New York Knicks. Miller and the Pacers, however, were able to compete with them and beat some of those teams. The Pacers famously took the 1998 Bulls to 7-games in the eastern finals. The Pacers made their only NBA finals run in 2000 losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pacers looked poised to become an elite team in the mid-2000s behind Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest, but the Malice at the Palace ended all hopes of that happening. Still, the Pacers quickly rebuild and were a top team in the east a few years later.
The Pacers ability to rebuild after losing stars like Miller, Artest and Paul George, has been nothing short of amazing.
#2 Phoenix Suns
Recent struggles aside, the Suns have been one of the most consistent teams in the NBA. They had their initial struggles, which were compounded by losing a coin flip to the Bucks that allowed the Bucks to draft Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Lew Alcindor as he was known at the time. But the Suns quickly began building a contender despite the hardship and in 1976 made the NBA finals. Game 5 of the 1976 NBA finals may be the greatest game ever played, a three-overtime thriller vs the Boston Celtics.
The Suns where a constant playoff team in the 1980s behind Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, and Larry Nance. The late 80s was a hard time for the Suns as several of their players where banned for life by the NBA for drug use. Some managed to get their life on track and were allowed back into the NBA.
The Suns overcame the adversity and built another contender around Jeff Hornacek, Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers. The Suns made their second NBA finals in 1992 after they traded for Charles Barkley.
The Suns were a good team throughout most of the 1990s making the playoff every year. They returned to title contender status again in the mid-2000s behind Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Nash would turn out to be an amazing signing by the Suns and go on to win two MVPS with the franchise.
#1 Utah Jazz
The Jazz being the top of this list would come as a shocker to anyone in the early 1980s. The Jazz early history was depressingly bad. The Jazz failed to have a winning record or make the playoffs their first nine season in the NBA, which is an NBA record for futility. But once the Jazz finally made the playoffs in 1983, they have not looked back.
Since 1983 the Jazz have missed the playoffs only 8 times and have failed to have at least a 500 record only 4 times. The Jazz are also the only team in NBA history to never have a 60-loss season. The Jazz owe most their good fortunes to two draft steals in two of the greatest drafts in NBA history. In 1984 the Jazz reached a bit and took John Stockton. Stockton would go on to be the NBA’s all-time leader in steals and assists. The following year, Karl Malone fell right into the Jazz’s lap.
Stockton and Malone would power the Jazz for nearly 20 seasons from 1985-2003. The Jazz would make the playoffs ever season during that stretch. Stockton and Malone would lead the Jazz to back-to-back NBA finals in 1997 and 1998 but lose in six both times to Jordan’s Bulls.
The Jazz quickly rebuilt after Stockton and Malone retired and just a few years later, in 2007, where back in the western finals. The Jazz added Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer, in their biggest free agent signings in team history, and drafted Deron Williams. The trio along with Andrei Kirilenko made the Jazz one of the best teams in the late 2000s.
The Jazz latest rebuild behind Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert looks as if it is paying off now with both players being named to their first all-star teams and Gobert being a two-time defensive player of the year winner.
The list of teams to never win a title will continue to narrow down. Just ten years ago the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks were on the list. Teams like the Clippers and Nets now have competent ownership and management who will help transform those franchises. And perpetual runner ups like the Jazz and Pacers have good teams now that could put them over the top one day.