Not all NBA champions are created equal.
Some steamroll to the title, sneering at anyone that stands in their way—like the '96 Bulls or the "fo', fo', fo'" Sixers.
Some hover near the top for a decade, emerging from the pack now and then to claim the crown—like the '80s Lakers or modern-day Spurs.
And some leave you wondering, "How the heck did they pull that off?"
To be sure, the pantheon of the Association's banner-winners is dominated by powerhouses. Pro basketball is almost certainly the most dynasty-driven of all major sports: Consider that 42 of the NBA's 63 titles belong to the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs.
More often than not, titles come in pairs or bunches, and teams that reach the top of the food chain tend to stay there for a while.
That trend of sustained dominance, however, makes the occasional head-scratchers and party-crashers all the more fascinating. We scoured the record books for the scoop on the flash-in-the-pan champs that dot NBA history.
Before we get into the verdicts on how those teams stack up, a few notes on the criteria:
1. Regular-season record, playoff record, and point differential all count.
2. A team's body of work counts. The 1995 Rockets, for instance, got a little slack for going back-to-back, even though their 1994-95 campaign wasn't spectacular by itself.
3. Star power counts. We considered All-Stars, All-NBA selections, and Hall of Famers as mitigating circumstances for otherwise unimpressive clubs.
4. We looked as far back as the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. If you want to go further, go for it. We didn't.
With that in mind, here is a look at the five worst teams ever to be crowned the NBA's best.
Vitals: 47-35 regular season, 15-7 playoffs, plus-3.1 point differential
With the second-worst record and fourth-smallest point differential of any post-merger champions, these Rockets didn’t quite put together a complete season.
They’re the lowest seed ever to win it all (No. 6), and like it or not, they made their mark in a league that was missing a certain someone.
A few factors kept this squad from climbing higher on the list. Consecutive titles are an accomplishment, regardless of the circumstances.
The roster also boasted a pair of Hall of Famers in Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Hakeem was an All-Star that year, and both he and Drexler made the All-NBA Third Team.
Moreover, Drexler was acquired at midseason, so we’re willing to accept the premise that the Rockets needed time to gel with him in the mix.
The 1976 Boston Celtics (54-28 regular season, 12-6 playoffs, plus-2.3 differential) narrowly missed the cut here. We give them credit for a 1974 banner, as well as Dave Cowens and a fading John Havlicek.
Vitals: 54-28 regular season, 16-7 playoffs, plus-5.4 point differential
At this point, it’s safe to categorize these Pistons among the one-and-done champions.
After the 1983 Sixers, Detroit is probably the best team of that bunch (we’re not counting last year’s Celtics as one-timers just yet), but it’s tough to earn love in this league without an encore.
The 2004 Pistons may be the least star-studded of any NBA champion. Their top scorer, Rip Hamilton, poured in just 17.6 points per game. Chauncey Billups was still considered something of a journeyman, and their lone All-Star representative was Ben Wallace, who also made the All-NBA Second Team.
After acquiring Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline, Detroit finished the season on a 20-4 rampage and disposed of the heavily favored Pacers to win the East before toppling the dysfunctional Lakers in the Finals.
If the Pistons had managed to upend the Spurs in Game Seven the following season, they’d go down in history as the second coming of the Bad Boys.
Instead, they came up short in the bid for a repeat and lost in the conference finals three straight times, earning a reputation as a team that was only good enough once.
Vitals: 52-30 regular season, 16-7 playoffs, plus-3.9 point differential
Miami actually had many of the bona fides of a memorable champion: a Hall-of-Fame coach in Pat Riley, a still-spry Shaq, a superstar in Dwyane Wade, and a talented cast of role players.
Both Wade and O’Neal were All-Stars, and both got All-NBA nods (First Team for Shaq, Second Team for Wade).
Two things relegate the Heat to this spot on the list. First, Miami benefited tremendously from one of the worst-officiated Finals we’ve ever seen. In the three games of the series that were decided by three or fewer points, the Heat shot a total of 46 more free throws than the Mavericks.
In Game Five, with the series tied 2-2, Dwyane Wade attempted 25 foul shots—as many as the entire Mavs team. In Game Six, he got 21 tries from the stripe, while Dallas, collectively, managed just 23.
There were plenty of other factors involved, but it’s tough to marvel at a championship that was influenced so heavily by an enormous disparity in officiating.
The second reason is that this team was about as flash-in-the-pan as they come. Miami enjoyed two seasons of serious contention: 2005, when it lost the conference finals, and 2006.
In 2007, the team went 44-38 and got swept out of the playoffs in the first round. The year after that, the team posted a 15-67 record and stopped trying to win games sometime around January.
Most champs fade slowly. The Heat flamed out.
Vitals: 52-30 regular season, 12-5 playoffs, plus-2.7 point differential
Taking a shot at the only banner Sonics fans have to celebrate from their departed franchise seems mean-spirited, but this team wasn’t quite one for the ages.
The point differential was that of a 48-win club. Jack Sikma and Dennis Johnson both made the 1979 All-Star team, but Johnson was the only player on the roster who earned an All-NBA selection at any point in his career.
To Seattle’s credit, allowing opponents to shoot 46.3 percent and score 103.9 points per game was the gold standard of defense in that era, as both of those marks led the NBA.
The Sonics’ 52 wins were good enough for the best record in the West, and only three teams in the league won 50 or more that season.
This was head coach Lenny Wilkens’ second consecutive trip to the Finals with Seattle. He never made it back again.
(Image courtesy The Sporting News)
Vitals: 44-38 regular season, 14-7 playoffs, plus-0.8 point differential
The Alvin Hayes-Wes Unseld Bullets were a fickle bunch.
In 1975, the team won 60 games and lost the Finals under K.C. Jones. In 1979, they won 54 and lost the Finals again.
In between, Washington failed to top 50 wins. Statistically, the 1978 season was the team’s worst effort of the stretch. Although 44 wins were somehow good enough for the No. 3 seed in the East at the time, the Bullets outscored their opponents by less than a point per game.
That was the lowest win total and worst differential of any post-merger champion.
Six players on this squad averaged double figures in scoring, but Hayes was the team’s lone All-Star and All-NBA representative. Unseld was well past his prime, and the team’s other standouts—Bob Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Chenier, Kevin Grevey—were all of the “good, not great” variety.
A title is a title, and even these Bullets didn’t stumble into one by accident. But if Bird and Magic saved the NBA in the '80s, the “classic” Washington-Seattle duels that closed out the '70s were one of the reasons it needed saving.
(Image courtesy NBA.com)