It's hard to make an NBA Finals. There are 30 teams in the NBA, and if your team doesn't have LeBron James, the world's greatest player, or Gregg Popovich, the world's greatest coach, your chances are slim.
Thus, it's no surprise that seven active franchises (23.3%) have never made it to that holy land. But many of them have gotten close - and some of them are very close right now in their team construction to making a Finals berth. Let's go through the seven in ascending order of how long they've been in the league.
New Orleans Pelicans
Years in the NBA: 12
Farthest Playoff Run: 2nd Round (2008)
2013-2014 Record: 34-48
2013-2014 nERD: 42.3
The Pellies have been to the playoffs in five of their 12 seasons, which most teams would die for. Although they lost the best point guard in the NBA a couple years ago to the Clippers in Chris Paul, they have Anthony Davis now. He projects to contend with LeBron James and Kevin Durant in a couple years as one of the two or three best players in the world. Knowing what we know about needing a superstar to contend for a title, the Pellies have just that.
They'll need to continue to develop players around him, get rid of bad contracts (see, Eric Gordon), and just have some better injury luck in order to get back to the playoffs. They aren't particularly close to an NBA Finals berth, but if they can keep Anthony Davis around, I predict they'll have one in the next decade.
Years in the NBA: 19
Farthest Playoff Run: 2nd Round (2001)
2013-2014 Record: 48-34
2013-2014 nERD: 58.9
The Raptors' turn around from probably tanking to winning their division this year was one of the best stories in the league. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan might be the best backcourt in the East outside of Washington, and Jonas Valanciunas has the talent to become one of the better young centers in the league if he continues to develop. Throw in the fact that they have perhaps the smartest GM in the league, Masai Ujiri, and things aren't looking so bad.
Ujiri is a shrewd business man and there is no doubt that he is working every angle to get better. Whether that means trading some of their pieces like DeRozan or signing free agents this summer, the Raptors will likely be right back in the hunt of the playoffs next year. They probably don't have the talent for an NBA Finals berth right now, but winning your division is a good place to start.
Years in the NBA: 19
Farthest Playoff Run: Conference Finals (2013)
2013-2014 Record: 50-32
2013-2014 nERD: 54.7
In recent years, the Grizzlies seem to be the team in the Western Conference that no one else wants to see in the playoffs. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol comprise one of the toughest frontcourts in the league, and Tony Allen and Mike Conley are both terrific perimeter defenders.
Despite being in the playoff mix annually in the past several years, the West has been so loaded that the best the Grizzlies could manage was a 4-0 sweep last year against the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Finals. They have solid pieces and are likely a perimeter shooter or two away from being able to contend for the West again. That's the blessing and curse - the West is so loaded that any team can knock off any other each year. That means you could lose in the first round one year and make the Conference Finals the next.
Years in the NBA: 19
Farthest Playoff Run: 2nd Round (1993, 1998, 2001, 2002)
2013-2014 Record: 43-39
2013-2014 nERD: 53.1
The Hornets have been perhaps the unluckiest franchise in the NBA in the past couple decades, as I wrote about last week. Despite all that, they managed to snag All-NBA center Al Jefferson during last summer's free agency and paired him with young, promising point guard Kemba Walker. Add in the late season development of first-round pick Cody Zeller, two first-round picks in this upcoming draft, and lots of cap room this summer - there's reason for hope again in Charlotte.
A lot of the success of the Hornets over the next five years will depend on where players land in free agency. LeBron isn't slowing down anytime soon and who knows if Kevin Love will take his talents over to the Eastern Conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal will only get better, and Paul George is already a stud at 24 years old. However, it's not as daunting as the West, and perhaps the success of Big Al and Kemba could attract another solid free agent this summer. If so, the Hornets could be very interesting in a couple of years.
Years in the NBA: 25
Farthest Playoff Run: Conference Finals (2004)
2013-2014 Record: 40-42
2013-2014 nERD: 55.5
Things aren't looking too promising in Minnesota right now. Rumors are that Kevin Love is 100% out the door at this point, whether it comes via trade or free agency a year from now is all that's left to figure out. For the franchise's sake, hopefully they will be able to work out a trade.
I wrote about the value of Kevin Love last week in relation to each first round draft pick order, and it was quite interesting. I don't know what the Timberwolves are demanding for him, but it should be high. Unfortunately, draft picks just don't match his value, unless it's the first overall pick and they take the right franchise-changing player. Perhaps the Cavaliers would be willing to part with it so they could pair Love with Kyrie Irving. That would be a great situation for the Timberwolves, as they're now starting another long rebuild for the future.
Years in the NBA: 38
Farthest Playoff Run: Conference Finals (1978, 1985, 2009)
2013-2014 Record: 36-46
2013-2014 nERD: 44.9
The Nuggets were the third seed in the tough West not too long ago. Unfortunately, being in the competitive conference means that you're always only an injury or two away from going from playoffs to the lottery.
They have a very weird roster as it currently stands - Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov, and JJ Hickson all share minutes in a very crowded frontcourt. However, there were moments of very good play from that group (some more than others) and they definitely have some talent on the perimeter. Ty Lawson had a frustrating up and down year, but that should be better next year when he is surrounded by better wing players and shooters like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, who will be back at full strength after dealing with injuries. On paper, this roster doesn't have the talent to compete with the Thunder and Spurs, but they could compete for a bottom playoff spot next year.
Los Angeles Clippers
Years in the NBA: 44
Farthest Playoff Run: 2nd Round (1974, 1975, 1976, 2006, 2012, 2014)
2013-2014 Record: 57-25
2013-2014 nERD: 73.9
When you look at the Clippers' roster and coaching resume, it is absolutely built for an NBA Finals trip next year. Blake Griffin has played himself into an MVP-caliber player and Chris Paul is still the world's greatest point guard. DeAndre Jordan developed this year into a solid rim protector, and they are a deadly lineup when shooters like JJ Redick and Matt Barnes surround those three guys.
They will likely address their most glaring need - frontcourt depth - in the offseason. The new ownership will likely want to make a splash, and if you can pay $2 billion for a team, you can likely deal with a little luxury tax if needed to take this squad to championship level. The West is all about matchups. Reseed these playoffs and perhaps the Clippers make the Finals. Next year will be the same.