Examining Texas and California’s Western Conference Dominance

Photo Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The 1979 Seattle Supersonics hold the crown as the last Western Conference team outside of Texas or California to win an NBA championship. While it’s important to note that those two states make up nearly half of the conference, this is still a staggering statistic.

The Denver Nuggets, who can claim their very first NBA championship with just a few more wins, are looking to buck that trend. To examine how this absurd trend occurred in the first place, let’s take a deep dive into just how and why so many of these Western Conference teams find themselves without championships in the last 43 years. 

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets, on the brink of ending the streak, have not had many opportunities to win their first ever NBA championship. Denver spent the better part of the 80’s being good, but not great. Fat Lever and Alex English led some interesting teams that were always a threat in the West, but never truly contenders, making one Western conference final in 1985.

The 90’s and early 2000’s were even worse, with just two playoff appearances in the 13 years between 1990 and 2003. Dikembe Mutombo was the face of the franchise for a short period, but was not even close to being the best player at his position in the conference. 

However, 2003 brought Carmelo Anthony. The next decade would result in ten consecutive playoff appearances led by Anthony (and the players they got for trading him in 2011). Unfortunately for those in the Mile High, those ten runs ended in the first round nine times. In 2009, the Nuggets battled all the way to the conference finals, but ran into Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and were promptly sent home. 

So, what happened to the Nuggets? The answer is relatively simple. The franchise did not have a bonafide superstar until 2003. Even when they got that superstar, it was during a period of time in the West where every team had a superstar (or two). Carmelo Anthony’s time in Denver came while he was sharing a conference with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitztki and at least a dozen other phenomenal players. 

However, these are not your father’s Denver Nuggets. The current Nuggets team has made the playoffs five straight times and can finally cap off an NBA title because they have a superstar of their own in two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. 

Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder 

It’s been so long since one of these teams won a championship that the last one to do it moved cities. Since winning that championship in 1979, the Supersonics and Thunder have been a perennial playoff team. They were nothing special in the 80’s, with some pretty lackluster teams going on runs in a Western Conference that was essentially the Los Angeles Lakers Invitational. The 90’s however, breathed new life into the franchise.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp gave the city of Seattle something to cheer for every single night. Payton’s hounding defense very frequently led to some thunderous Shawn Kemp transition dunks. When George Karl took the helm in 1993 everything changed. The Supersonics became an immediate force in the West and made the NBA Finals in 1996. Payton and Kemp went into battle with the 72-10 and Bulls and fought valiantly, but were ultimately sent home in six games. 

The Supersonics of the early 2000’s were routinely humbled in the loaded Western conference, but everything changed in 2007. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Greg Oden first overall, meaning Seattle could pick a rail-thin 19-year old scoring machine out of Texas named Kevin Durant.

After moving to Oklahoma City the Thunder continued making stellar picks, bringing in Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. And thus, the stage was set for a dynasty of epic proportions. 

The Thunder picked three consecutive MVPs and won…nothing. The 2010 and 2011 Thunder found themselves getting bounced by the eventual NBA champions in consecutive years. However, it all came together for the Thunder in 2012 as they would storm through the West and face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. After taking game one at home, Kevin Durant and company were ready to assert themselves as the next NBA powerhouse.

But it never happened. The Thunder would lose four straight games and watch LeBron James win his first NBA championship. The next seven seasons of Thunder basketball were nothing but bitter playoff losses and the departures of stars. By the summer of 2019, none of their three MVP draft picks were wearing blue.

Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies, formerly of Vancouver, have not been in the NBA very long and do not have much of a storied history. Outside of a few brief first round exits with Pau Gasol in the early 2000’s, the Grizzlies were no serious threat to make noise until the 2011 NBA playoffs. The eighth seed Grizzlies shocked the world and upset the mighty San Antonio Spurs. This run would reach its apex in 2013 with a Western Conference Finals berth.

That series would see the Grizzlies swept in four games. The overarching question of “why didn’t these teams win it all?” is quite simple in all actuality. They weren’t that good. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were a great frontcourt duo, but it was just never enough in the West. 

The modern day Grizzlies are the franchise’s best shot at an NBA championship. But are they? Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson have formed an elite, but unreliable, duo. With a lengthy Morant suspension looming, the Grizzlies are starting to lose traction in the West.

The conference is filled with stars who have already proven capable of winning a championship. Then there’s the Grizzlies, who are much better at acting like they’ve won something than actually doing it. 

New Orleans Hornets/New Orleans Pelicans 

The NBA franchise in New Orleans has only existed since 2002 and is one of the two remaining teams to never reach the conference finals. The Pelicans have not been very good for most of their tenure in the NBA, but have managed to draft two first-ballot Hall of Fame caliber players.

In 2005, Chris Paul re-energized the franchise and led some incredibly talented Hornets teams to the playoffs. Their best chance at a title was in 2007 when they took the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to a game seven. 

In 2012, the Hornets won the lottery, which afforded them the opportunity to select Anthony Davis. Davis enjoyed little success in the postseason as well, but had a small glimmer of hope when the Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins to form the best big man duo the league had seen in quite some time.

A ruptured Achilles tendon would rob them of any opportunity of seeing the postseason together. The Pelicans have never come close to a title and their two best attempts came directly in the middle of the Spurs and Warriors respective dynasties.

 Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns have come so close to a championship multiple times during this span. The Suns spent much of the 80’s and early 90’s being a playoff punching bag for the Lakers and Trailblazers en-route to the NBA Finals. However, it all changed in 1993.

Charles Barkley, potentially the best non-Chicago Bull in the NBA at the time, was traded to Phoenix. The Suns battled through the West and found themselves face-to-face with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Suns had an NBA championship in their grasp.

Every game the Suns lost was by less than nine points. The Suns’ four losses in this series came by a total of 18 points. Just seconds away from forcing a game seven on their home floor, the Suns watched John Paxson bury a jumper to end their season. Those Suns would never get back to the mountain top. 

There was another chapter of elite Suns basketball just about a decade later. Mike D’Antoni came to the desert and implemented a revolutionary approach to offense that took the NBA by storm. Leading the charge was one of the best rosters in basketball. Unfortunately for the Suns, they ran into the Spurs.

From 2003 to 2008, the Suns were sent home by San Antonio four separate times. Like many teams on our list, the Suns suffer from being in their championship window right in the middle of another team’s dynasty. The Devin Booker-led Suns would reach the NBA Finals in 2021 and have the potential to bring one to the Valley soon — but not just yet. 

Portland Trail Blazers 

The Portland Trail Blazers, the second most recent Western Conference team to win a championship outside of Texas and California, could have their very own article detailing why they find themselves on this list. Let’s take a moment to address the Oregon-sized elephant in the room. Yes, Portland passed on Michael Jeffrey Jordan himself in 1984. Because of that, they couldn’t even get out of the West until 1990. 

This era, however, was far from a time period of cellar-dwelling Blazers teams. From 1983 to 2003, the Trail Blazers never missed the playoffs. The apex of this run came in the three year period of 1990 to 1992. Portland won 179 and made the Western Conference Finals three times, winning the West twice. The Bad Boys sent Clyde Drexler home in five games and then in 1992 they were matched up with who else but Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

After a plethora of first round exits, the Trail Blazers made consecutive Western Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000. In a tale as old as time, first it was the Spurs and then it was Kobe and Shaq. The 2000 NBA Finals was right in their grasp in game seven against Los Angeles. Portland was nursing a double-digit lead heading into a fourth quarter where they were outscored 31-13. 

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, they did it again. The 2006 NBA draft gave Portland two future All-Stars in Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. In 2007, they won the lottery and were given the opportunity to select between Ohio State center Greg Oden and first ballot Hall of Famer Kevin Durant.

Guess who they took? Oden’s body betrayed him and he was never able to live up to his potential.  Five years later, Portland made a great selection in Damian Lillard, but he has been going into battle by himself against the Spurs and Warriors respective dynasties. 

Minnesota Timberwolves 

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been the laughing stock of the NBA for almost their entire existence. They have had their share of stars, with essentially two decades of All-Star forward play between Kevin Garnett and then Kevin Love. Unfortunately, those stars were going into battle alone. Kevin Garnett was able to take the 2004 Wolves all the way to Western Conference Finals.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before — Kobe and Shaq sent them home. That remains the lone time in their entire history that they have advanced farther than the first round. 

The Wolves are in a class all their own when it comes to this discussion. Most of these teams have multiple instances where they came up just short, or ran into an ongoing dynasty. The Timberwolves do not have that problem. Only once have they even put together a team that could remotely consider a championship as a realistic expectation.

The Timberwolves have time and time again failed to construct a playoff-caliber NBA roster. They have been the Western Conference punching bags alongside Sacramento for nearly two decades. 

Utah Jazz

The Jazz have known nothing but playoff failure during this time. Utah drafted John Stockton in 1984 and then made the playoffs every single year of his career. Stockton and Karl Malone played 18 Hall of Fame seasons together. Dissimilarly from everyone else, the Jazz were not feasted on by the Showtime Lakers in the 80’s.

They only faced them once during Magic Johnson’s Western Conference reign of terror. That’s the most disappointing part. They never even got the chance to face the Lakers outside of 1988, when they took them to seven games. Utah was losing to the likes of Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, and Golden State. 

It took the Jazz until 1992 to even reach the Western Conference Finals. They were bounced on the precipice of the Finals three times in five years before breaking through in 1997. Their Finals opponent?

You gotta be kidding me, it’s Michael Jordan. His Airness took down the Jazz in six games twice. This included a game winning dagger in game six of 1998 in front of a gut-punched Salt Lake City crowd.

Stockton and Malone would never get back to the conference finals together. The Jazz have had little playoff success since then. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer led some fun teams, still coached by the legendary Jerry Sloan, but they just served as runways for the Lakers and Spurs. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert tried their darndest to get Utah back to the conference Finals, to no avail. Now, Utah is once again in rebuild mode. 


The reasoning behind this Western Conference dominance is simple. Texas and California are always going to dominate because they have bigger markets and that is just how the NBA operates. However, to be this skewed is astounding. If it wasn’t the Showtime Lakers taking these teams down it was Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Did the turn of the century bring more hope? No.

The Spurs built a nearly 20 year dynasty and the Lakers won five championships from 2000 to 2010. Just as Kobe Bryant was starting decline and the Lakers were no longer a threat; a new dynasty formed in the Bay Area led by Steph Curry. Being a small market in West has meant nothing but pain since 1979.

Around the Block Network is a proud supporter of our LGBTQIA+ contributors, friends, family, and fans. This pride month, we would like to encourage you to make a donation to organizations helping fight for equality across the country, including the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and the Trevor Project.

Leave a Reply