Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Like many modern-era expansion organizations, the Charlotte Hornets’ relatively short lifespan puts them at a disadvantage. By virtue of joining the league in 1988-89, they lost out on a full decade of opportunity to win (or come close to) a title during the 1979-2019 stretch we’re scouring.
The Hornets could have used those extra chances. The highest they’ve ever finished in the Eastern Conference is fourth, and they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
No iteration of the team was more fun than the early-’90s group that included Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues, but that trio’s best moment was a first-round upset over the Boston Celtics in 1993. They never sniffed a championship.
The Denver Nuggets were very good in 1984-85 and 2008-09, winning at least 50 games and reaching the conference finals in both instances. But that 1985 squad ran into the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, an all-time juggernaut. Denver wasn’t going to win that series if it got 10 shots at it.
It’s a stretch to say the Nuggets had any chance to go all the way. The competition was too fierce.
Los Angeles Clippers
This one will sting, as the best option for the Los Angeles Clippers is probably the 2015 team that watched as a bunch of Rockets reserves erased a 19-point deficit and outscored the Clips’ starters 34-13 over the final nine minutes of a biblical comeback in Game 6 of the conference semifinals. The shell-shocked Clips bowed out in Game 7 of that series.
They’d never made it out of the second round in franchise history, and through 2018-19, they still hadn’t.
L.A. is a powerhouse now, and it was a fringe contender for much of the 2010s. But never forget this was the saddest-sack franchise in all of sports for a long while. It extends outside the time frame we’re considering, but the Clippers didn’t win a playoff series from 1977 to 2005. That drought illustrates the depths of failure that defined this club.
It’ll be a shock if the 2019-20 Clippers don’t take this spot the next time we put a list like this together, but teams from this season don’t count.
With a franchise-best 56 wins and a deep postseason run, the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies were clearly a quality operation. Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year, Mike Conley turned in arguably the second-best campaign of his career and Tony Allen was in prime shutdown form. But the San Antonio Spurs unceremoniously swept that Memphis team in the West finals, and the Heat were waiting to take down whichever squad advanced.
Maybe the Spurs were still sore about the eighth-seeded Grizzlies kicking them out of the first round in 2010-11. Whatever the reason, San Antonio revealed Memphis was never a serious title threat—even in its best season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Chris Paul piloted the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets to 56 wins but couldn’t get them out of the second round. This franchise is operating at a major disadvantage, having only come into existence in 2002-03. But the Hornets/Pelicans have never made it beyond the second round and certainly haven’t figured in the championship conversation.
Bright side: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram don’t have a very high playoff-expectation bar to clear.
The Toronto Raptors (established in 1995) got out of the first round just once between 1996 and 2015, and up until their championship breakthrough last season, LeBron James was always in the way. James’ Cavs faced Toronto in three straight playoff series from 2016 to 2018, running up a combined 12-2 mark. None of those Raps teams ever had a chance.
Toronto has its ring, but it wasn’t a realistic title threat in any other season.
Tough timing for the Washington Wizards, who won a title in 1977-78 and lost in the Finals in 1978-79. Neither season falls within our three-point-era timeline, and everything since those team has been…bleak.
The Wizards have escaped the first round just five times in 16 playoff trips since 1979-80, never advancing past the second.