(First Blazer's Edge post! Happy to be here - no flash photography, please.)
It's been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together? The Portland Trail Blazers and the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals, introduced by a terribly overused Twilight Zone reference.
The '91 Blazers weren't the first championship-worthy team to miss the Finals. Heck, just the year prior the Lakers equaled those Blazers' 63-19 record and didn't even make the conference finals, losing in 5 to a Suns team that had not beaten the Lakers in the Forum since 1984. But these Blazers are a special case in that their disappointing year stands as the relative peak of an uninterrupted contending window that ultimately passed without a championship. Success like Portland experienced in '91 almost always comes as a vehicle for, in the wake of, or as a prelude to, even greater heights. The fact that the Blazers buck this trend is like Burger King being out of ketchup by 2:00 in the afternoon: both fitting and tragic.
In the 77 seasons of NBA basketball, there have been just 54 teams who have won at least 75% of their games (62 or more wins through 82 games). 24 of those teams became that season's champions, and 7 more lost in the Finals, leaving 23 teams who missed the Finals after an elite regular season. Of those, 17 had either already won a title or titles in their time as a championship contender, or went on to win one before their time at the top ended. (For example, the Celtics won five rings in the decade surrounding 1973 when they missed the Finals after winning 68 games, while the Spurs were sitting on two titles in three seasons by the time their 67 wins in 2016 weren't enough to make the Finals.)
That leaves us with just 6 teams that, like the Blazers, 1) missed out on the Finals after a 62+ win regular season and 2) had not already gotten a ring out of that contending core and/or did not go on to win one:
-2008-09 Cavaliers 66-16
-2017-18 Rockets 65-17
-1993-94 SuperSonics 63-19
-1990-91 Trail Blazers 63-19
-2011-12 Bulls 50-16 (on pace for 62-20 in a normal season)
-2004-05 Suns 62-20
(There are two outliers that could technically also be on this list. I didn't count the 2022 Suns because their championship window is still very much open. I did seriously consider adding the 1995 Spurs - who looked very different from the champion Spurs of four years later - but the '95 team's 3 top scorers were all still starting by '99, and I decided that what happened in the intervening years was so random and stupidly lucky that it honestly felt like contamination to include them here.)
We're not done yet, however. Another thing that made the Blazers' run unique? The fact that they stayed pretty much perfectly healthy during their title window, which can't be said for two of their neighbors.The 2012 Bulls - who were better on paper than the 62-win 2011 ECF squad - had their surefire rematch with the Heatles torpedoed by Derrick Rose's ACL tear, while the 65-win 2018 Rockets made it as far as a 3-2 WCF lead over the Worldbeater Warriors before Chris Paul's hamstring injury (and the cruel judgment of the basketball gods) doomed their championship hopes.
If we cross those two teams off, the 1990-91 Blazers become one of just four teams in NBA history to have a fully healthy, championship-level roster, fall short of the Finals after a wildly successful season, and never manage to reach the mountaintop with that core. This team saw its championship hopes and dreams come right to their doorstep, ring the doorbell twice, and leave after nobody answered. This is an absolute travesty. Let's go back and fix it.
For this experiment, I'll be using WhatIfSports to simulate a hypothetical Blazers-Bulls matchup in the '91 NBA Finals. WhatIfSports is easily one of my favorite websites on the internet, and the perfect engine for solving sports hypotheticals. I credit it with saving me at least 50 hours of sleep in the last six months. We can customize rotations all we want and get instant play-by-play recaps of the games, so if Cliff Robinson blows any more go-ahead layups, we'll know. Building the rotations was pretty simple - I used an approximation of the Bulls' real-life rotation from the '91 Finals, opposite the Blazers' actual rotation from the WCF.
Will the computerized Blazers avenge their real-life counterparts' defeat and bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to Portland? Or will Michael Jordan and the Bulls' evil empire once more prove their dominion over the digital hardwood? Stay tuned for Part II to find out.