We’re near the top now, and these teams felt it. The other teams all knew they lost to a better player and a better team. These teams still lie awake at night wondering if they could have finished the job.
5. 2018 Toronto Raptors (ECS)
Technically, these Raptors might deserve to rank at the top of this tier. By Basketball Reference’s SRS, they’re second on the whole list, but my eye test just won’t let me rank them any higher than fifth.
The Raptors improved to #2 on offense and #5 in defense, leading the East with 59 wins. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan did their thing but got help from dominant depth led by rookie OG Anunoby and little-known sophomores Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. Toronto had 33 regular season wins by double digits and lost by 7+ only six times all year.
The Raptors got swept in the ECS anyway, culminating in an ugly 128–93 blowout that marked the end of Dwayne Casey’s tenure, but the series was closer it looked. Toronto lost games by one and two, but it was clear the Lowry-DDR core wasn’t enough. They dumped Casey for Nick Nurse that summer, traded DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and the rest was history.
4. 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder (Finals)
These Thunder looks absurdly good in hindsight with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka all just beginning to make their mark on the league. All four were 22 or 23 years old in what would surely be the first of many Finals appearances together. The Thunder were favored to beat the Heat and took Game 1 but never won another game in the Finals, that year or any year. It’s truly shocking looking back.
It’s important not to overestimate how good this team was just because we know three of them later went on to win MVP. Durant was already a runner-up MVP, but Westbrook was a distant second banana and Harden was a sixth man we didn’t know was awesome yet. The Thunder were super talented but not even top 10 on defense which, uhh… makes sense in hindsight.
The next season, Russ and KD took a step further, winning 60, but Westbrook got hurt the second game of the playoffs and Durant couldn’t do it on his own. Even without Harden, that 2013 squad was OKC’s best but the ‘12 crew hadn’t pulled everything together yet. LeBron beat them for his first title, one of two years on this list (2016 the other) with three representatives.
3. 2011 Chicago Bulls (ECF)
We’re not quite back to Jimmy Butler — the Bulls drafted him a month later — but these Bulls were ready for a return to glory. Led by 22-year-old MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls were Tom Thibodeau’s masterpiece with a filthy defense built around Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. The Bulls were deep, bringing Taj Gibson, Kurt Thomas, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer off the bench. They had the league’s #1 defense and tallied 62 wins, winning the division by 25 games.
The Bulls opened the ECF with a dominant Game 1 win at the United Center, 103–82 against an overwhelmed Heat team facing its first real adversity in its inaugural year. But Miami clapped back with a 10-point win in Game 2 and didn’t lose again that series as LeBron switched onto Rose defensively and changed everything.
It remains maybe LeBron’s best defensive series ever. He held Rose to under 33% shooting those final four games on an ugly 41% true shooting and a horrid 88 offensive rating. Chicago simply couldn’t find a way to score with their MVP getting shut down by the real MVP.
2. 2013 San Antonio Spurs (Finals)
This was a typically great Pop team, with the #3 defense and a top-7 offense. The Spurs won 58 and coasted through the West at 12–2, helped by avoiding an elite Thunder squad after Westbrook got hurt.
No one needs to tell you about these Spurs. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili led the way. Kawhi Leonard was just starting to blossom in his sophomore year. Danny Green was the glue, with Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson featuring prominently off the bench.
The Spurs came into the Finals as underdogs but stole Game 1 on the road, then led the series 2–1 and again 3–2.
And then, Game 6.
The Spurs led 75–63 with a minute left in the third quarter, 13 minutes from a championship. The Heat battled back to tie it halfway through the final period, then took the lead, but back-to-back jumpers by Parker gave the Spurs the lead with a minute left. Two LeBron turnovers and a pair of Ginobili free throws later (and two misses), the score was 94–89 with 28 seconds left.
That’s when they began to bring out the championship rope.
James missed a three, but Mike Miller got the rebound and sent it back to LeBron who hit this time and cut it to two. Kawhi went 1-for-2 at the line, and you know what happened from there. James missed another three, but Chris Bosh got the rebound of his life, passed it to Ray Allen in the corner, and BANG!!, we were headed to overtime.
The Heat won it there, survived a Duncan throwback in Game 7, and were champions again. And that was LeBron’s last championship until…