It's a harsh reality, one that kept the league's ultimate prize from some of the game's greats, names like Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson.
That's why LeBron James, on the day he sat one win shy of capping his first championship, stressed what an honor it was for him to be back on the Finals stage.
“This is my third crack at it,” James said Wednesday. “I'm blessed because a lot of people, first of all, never go to the Finals. Second of all, if they go, they never go back.”
Steve Nash is currently the poster child for that misfortune. Nash has played in a record 118 playoff games and has never reached the NBA Finals. That alone should illustrate how fortunate the Thunder was this season.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka got their first view of the mountaintop just 38 playoff games into their careers.
But even getting there with regularity guarantees nothing.
Malone played in a record 193 playoff games without playing in the Finals for the championship-winning team. Stockton, his old running mate, is second on that list with 182 playoff games played.
They were one of the best duos in NBA history and still couldn't get it done despite reaching the Finals twice.
Their careers very well could be cautionary tales for Durant and Westbrook, both of whom are still just 23 and under contract for the next four and five years, respectively. For the Thunder's two All-Stars, the clock is ticking, even if it might appear that they have a wide open window to capture multiple championships.
The good news is neither seems worried about windows.
They want to win and win now.
“Whether we would have won or lost, I was going to come back this summer, everybody was going to come back this summer, and work extremely hard,” Durant said. “We've got to keep working, and hopefully next year we come back stronger.”
Said Westbrook: “We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season. … We want to come back and be better, and that's one thing I love about this team.”
MORE FROM NEWSOK
A look at the losing teams in the NBA Finals since 1996 and how they've fared since.
YEAR-LOSER-NEXT YEAR-FINALS SINCE
1996-Sonics-Lost semifinals-0 (in Seattle)
1999-New York-Lost East Finals-0
2000-Indiana-Lost first round-0
2001-Philadelphia-Lost first round-0
2002-New Jersey-Lost Finals-0
2003-New Jersey-Lost semifinals-0
2005-Detroit-Lost East Finals-0
2006-Dallas-Lost First round-1
2009-Orlando-Lost East Finals-0
By Darnell Mayberry