The NBA does quite well when it comes to establishing competitive parity in the league. Free agency and trades mean that teams on the top and teams on the bottom often replace each other in cycles, creating a shifting landscape. As such, most teams find themselves with a window of making a serious postseason run for the championship. However, some teams, despite the relative parity of the league, have been unable to make the most of their chances, sometimes through mismanagement and sometimes through bad luck, and usually a combination of both.
What NBA teams have never been to the NBA Conference Finals? Only 2 of the active 30 NBA teams have never been to the NBA Conference Finals: the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans. The Charlotte Hornets have gone as far as the NBA Conference Semifinals 4 times, while the New Orleans Pelicans have been to the NBA Conference Semifinals twice in their history. The NBA Conference Finals have existed since the 1971 NBA Playoffs.
Why have the Charlotte Hornets never been to the NBA Conference Finals?
The Charlotte Hornets were founded as an expansion team in the NBA in 1988 and have been to the NBA Conference Semifinals 4 times in their history. The first NBA Conference Semifinals appearance for the Hornets was in the 1992-93 NBA season, led by their three stars Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Muggsy Bogues. They finished 5th in the Eastern Conference and matched up against the Boston Celtics. The Hornets won 3-1, winning their first ever playoff series in their first appearance. However, the next round saw them face the New York Knicks, the #1 seed. The Hornets managed to win a game but were outclassed by the stronger Knicks team, losing the series 4-1.
The Hornets made their way back to the Conference Semifinals not long after, in the 1997-1998 season. The Hornets traded Muggsy Bogues early into the season, and had also dealt Alonzo Mourning for another star in Glen Rice a few seasons earlier. The Hornets were in and out of the playoffs in this span, but finally moved past the first round by beating the Atlanta Hawks in 4 games. However, the Conference Semifinals saw them go up against the Chicago Bulls, who knocked them out of the playoffs, winning 4 games to 1 (the Bulls were the eventual champions that season, being Michael Jordan’s last championship).
Despite trading away Glen Rice, the Hornets made the Conference Semifinals twice in a row, in the 2000-01 and the 2001-02 playoffs. The former saw them sweep the Miami Heat in the first round, and in the Conference Semifinals, they stormed back from a 3-0 deficit before falling in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks. The following playoffs saw them beat the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the first round, then fall to the New Jersey Nets 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals.
The franchise moved away from the city, effectively making the Hornets inactive for two years at arguably the peak of their playoff performances. The franchise “revived” as the Charlotte Bobcats in the 2004-05 season, but have occupied the bottom of the league for the last 20 years, barely sniffing the playoffs in that period. They have only made it to the postseason 3 times since the 2001-02 season, and did not make it to the Conference Semifinals, let alone return to the Conference Finals. The Bobcats then reverted back to their original moniker of the Hornets, but a change in name has yet to bring back some of the playoff magic from the early years of the franchise.
Why have the New Orleans Pelicans never been to the NBA Conference Finals?
The New Orleans Pelicans are the NBA’s youngest team, only coming into existence in the 2002-03 season as the New Orleans Hornets (long story short, the Charlotte Hornets relocated to New Orleans, but did not carry over the franchise’s history). The New Orleans Pelicans, despite having a much shorter history compared to the Charlotte Hornets, have had nearly the same number of playoff appearances, with 8 compared to Charlotte’s 10. However, like Charlotte, the New Orleans Pelicans have never made the NBA Conference Finals, only getting to the Conference Semifinals twice.
The Pelicans (then the New Orleans Hornets) first Conference Semi Finals appearance came in their 6th season, led by superstar Chris Paul. They defeated the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 in the first round, then went toe-to-toe with the San Antonio Spurs in a 7-game series, where they ultimately exited the playoffs. Their next Conference Semifinals appearance came 10 years later, this time with a new name (the Pelicans) and a new superstar: Anthony Davis. They made quick work of the Portland Trail Blazers, winning their series 4-0, before losing to the Golden State Warriors in 5 games in the Conference Semifinals, who went on to win the championship.
Before, between, and after both of their NBA Conference Semifinals appearances, the Pelicans have made a few playoff appearances, which have usually been limited to the first round. Like the Charlotte Hornets, the Pelicans have had significant stints towards the bottom of the league in their short history.
What teams have never won the NBA Conference Finals?
While the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans have never reached the NBA Conference Finals, 6 additional teams have made at least one Conference Finals appearance but have never won: the Denver Nuggets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Sacramento Kings, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Of these teams, the Nuggets have the most Conference Finals appearances without a win (4).
What team has the most NBA Conference Finals appearances?
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whopping 23 NBA Conference Finals appearances. Even more impressive is that they have won 19 NBA Conference Finals series, nearly double the 2nd place team, the Boston Celtics, who have won 10 NBA Conference Finals series.
The Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans have an intertwined history, and until now, share one unfortunate record: they are the two teams in the NBA without an NBA Conference Finals appearance. However, with burgeoning stars such as LaMelo Ball for the Hornets and Zion Williamson for the Pelicans, it seems not so much a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” in terms of when these two teams will finally reach the NBA Conference Finals.