Part of the mystique that is the postseason in professional sports is the fact that some run-away favorites are going to lose.
That's why we watch. If it were the Lakers-Celtics in the Finals every year, or Yankees-Dodgers in the World Series, people would grow bored. No one wants to see the preseason darlings play for a championship every year.
We as fans crave the upsets. We live for Villanova over Georgetown in 1985.
Or New York over New England in 2008.
Or Golden State over Dallas in 2007.
Unfortunately for the losing teams, their seasons are branded as failures and their hard-fought accomplishments are forgotten; instead, they're delegated to lists like this that celebrate their inadequacies.
Today, we're looking at the top 20 underachieving teams in professional sports history. For clarity's sake, the "underachievers" will be characterized as teams with excellent regular season records but minimal postseason success, teams with incredibly lofty expectations that became duds, or teams with an egregiously high payroll or an abundance of talent that still never won anything.
Why not include college teams? For one, upsets and underachievers happen too frequently. You could easily make a similar top-20 list just for teams that fell on their face in the NCAA Tournament.
And in football, the preseason rankings are meaningless; they're simply made to bolster ratings for September games. USC-Ohio State doesn't sound quite as good as No. 3 USC at No. 5 Ohio State, even if neither of the two are actually top-five teams.
It just makes it that much more problematic to sort out who really should be considered an underachiever, or who was just given too respect to begin with.
So, without further rambling, let's get it cracking...
Led by future Hall-of-Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (30.2 pts, 16.1 rebs., 5.0 asts. per game) and Oscar Robertson, the Bucks raced out to a 60-22 record and won the Midwest Division in the Western Conference by nine games.
With the veteran play of Robertson and the rising star of Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks figured to make a deep run in the playoffs, where they were expected to play the 68-win Celtics.
Instead, they ran into the Golden State Warriors (a.k.a. the Giant Killers), who knocked them out 4-2. Nate Thurmond dominated Kareem inside, while Rick Barry was the best guard on the floor.
The Bucks led 2-1 before losing Games Four and Five by a combined eight points, then were blown out in Game Six.
(Photo courtesy of Walter Looss Jr./S.I.)
The Blues won 51 games in the 2000 season and tallied an impressive 114 points for the season, good for the best record in the NHL.
Led by Chris Pronger and Pierre Turgeon, the Blues seemed poised to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
But as is so often the case in playoff hockey, the top-seeds aren't guaranteed to advance.
After trailing 3-1 in the series, the Blues fought back with two wins by an average of three goals per game to force a decisive Game Seven at home. But they were shut down by the Sharks and lost 3-1.
It was the 20th season in a row that St. Louis made the playoffs but didn't advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
For the second year in a row, the Cavs boasted the NBA's best record only to lose in stunning fashion in six games.
A year after dropping the Eastern Conference Finals to Orlando, the Cavs re-tooled their lineup by adding defensive specialists Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, versatile power forward Antawn Jamison, and future Hall-of-Famer and four-time NBA champion Shaquille O'Neal.
Oh, and they had the best player in the NBA in LeBron James.
But in one of the strangest turns in playoff and Cleveland sports history, the Cavs almost blatantly refused to show up for a pivotal Game Five at home, getting blown out by 32 points. Then, in Game Six, they quit in the final minutes, refusing to foul or pressure the ball in a do-or-die situation.
The fallout from this could be epic, unlike anything ever seen in professional sports.
The Colts started out the season 13-0 and wound up finishing the season 14-2, earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
They faced the No. 6 seed Steelers in the divisional round and were immediately punched in the mouth, going down 14-0 in the first quarter.
They came roaring back in the forth, with an Edgerrin James touchdown cutting the lead to 21-18 in the final minutes. After a Troy Polamalu interception was overturned by instant replay, Manning was sacked at the Colts 2-yard line, virtually guaranteeing victory for the Steelers.
But Jerome Bettis fumbled the ball at the goal line, and Indy's Nick Harper recovered and looked to be headed to the end zone to give the Colts the lead. Instead, he was tackled from behind by Ben Roethlisberger.
Mike Vanderjagt then missed a 46-yard field goal with 17 seconds left that would have tied the game. At the time, it seemed like Manning was cementing his career at the greatest QB to never win a Super Bowl.
The Caps ran away with their division this year, tallying 121 points and winning the division by nearly 40 points. They also finished 18 points ahead of second-place New Jersey.
Led by phenom Alex Ovechkin, the Caps were ready to finally win a Cup for Washington and put Ovechkin on the same level as Sidney Crosby.
But the Montreal Canadiens had other plans, and after leading the series 3-1, the Capitals dropped the next three, including the decisive Game Seven at home, to lose the series in one of the bigger upsets in NHL history.
Between 1976 and 1978, the 76ers won a combined 105 games and took the Atlantic Division twice.
They had a strong young nucleus, headlined by Julius Erving, "Chocolate Thunder" Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, future coaches Doug Collins and Mike Dunleavy, and Joe "Jellybean" Bryant.
One of the best offensive teams in the NBA, the Sixers couldn't put together a solid championship run, in part because Dr. J wasn't ready to take over playoff games down the stretch and will his team to victory.
Similar to the 2009 and 2010 Cavaliers, the Sixers are one of the best "what-if" cases in NBA history.
(Photo courtesy of Sport Magazine)
The Rams were one of the biggest Cinderella stories when they won the Super Bowl in 2000, and were by far the most dominant team in the league two years later.
Led by Kurt Warner, the Rams averaged over 31 points per game and blitzed the league en route to a 14-2 record.
They were a double-digit favorite heading into the Super Bowl against the Patriots, but trailed by 14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Warner once again rallied his team, and the Rams tied the game at 17 with 1:30 to go. But with no timeouts, the Patriots still advanced the ball to the St. Louis 30, and Adam Vinatieri famously nailed the 47-yard field goal to give the Super Bowl to New England.
Instead of potentially creating a dynasty for St. Louis, it was the Patriots who would be cementing the first of their three titles in four years.
In 1973, the Celtics won the second-most road games in NBA history, and tied for fourth-most games of all time, with a 68-14 record.
Led by Dave Cowens (who may or may not have been doubling as a cab driver on his way to 20.5 points and 16.2 boards per game), they were the odds-on favorite to win another NBA title and continue their dominance of the '60s.
But in the Eastern Conference Finals against New York, Dave DeBuscherre and Walt Frazier guided the Knicks to a shocking upset 4-3, winning the final game in the Garden.
The Celts are one of two teams to win 67-plus games in the regular season and not win the NBA Finals.
(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)
For the first time in six years, the Cleveland Indians returned to the World Series in 1954.
After winning the AL by eight games, the Tribe kept the Yankees from winning their sixth straight pennant. They seemed to be the favorites to win the World Series.
Instead, the hitting of Dusty Rhodes, and the famous over-the-shoulder catch from Willie Mays, resulted in the first time the Indians were swept in the World Series. They wouldn't return for another 41 years.
(Photo courtesy of SportsBlink.com)
In a six-year stretch during the mid-2000s, the Chargers won the AFC West five times, averaging over 11 wins a season in the process.
They featured an offensive arsenal headlined by Pro-Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers. They had LaDainian Tomlinson ('06 MVP) and Antonio Gates, two of the best at their respective positions.
But the playoff success has been nothing to hang their hats on. In 2004, 2006, and 2009, they lost home games to the Jets (twice) and Patriots, despite having the league's best record in '06 at 14-2.
Despite all of their success, the Chargers never reached a Super Bowl in the 2000s, and the window appears to be rapidly closing.
Notice a theme trending with the hockey teams?
The Wings, one of the premier NHL teams, once again dominated the regular season, winning 58 games and recording 124 points. The roster was full of veterans, including Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, and Chris Osgood.
On paper, it was one of the most statistically dominant teams to ever put a skate on the ice.
It was a different story in the playoffs, as the Edmonton Oilers (who barely snuck into the playoffs) controlled the series with great defense and stout goaltending.
The Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs for only the second time in the previous 12 years.
Can you believe the Yankees once went nine (that's right, nine whole years!) without winning a World Series? Those poor, miserable fans.
The dark days of those years came in the mid-2000s, when the Yankees made the World Series only twice (2001 and 2003).
During that time, they had the highest payroll in MLB (surprise, surprise) and shelled out some ridiculous contracts to guys like Kevin Brown, Johnny Damon, Chien Ming-Wang, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Al Reyes, to name a few.
The epitome of their dreadful stretch came in 2004, when they blew a 3-0 series lead to the arch-rival Red Sox, who went on to win their first World Series in 86 years.
But in 2009, order was restored in the universe when the Yanks beat the Phillies in six games to re-claim the throne.
From 1990-1993, the Bills won an average of 12.3 games per season, took the AFC East title three times, and made the Super Bowl four times, the first team to ever make four consecutive Super Bowls.
So why are they on this list? Because they didn't win one of them.
The heartbreak started in 1990, when a certain kicker who won't be named missed a field goal in the final seconds of a 20-19 defeat.
They then lost their next three appearances by a combined 65 points.
Since '93, the Bills have won their division just once and haven't made it as far as the AFC Championship game.
Everyone knows the Lakers as one of the most dominant and prestigious NBA franchises. But there was a time in the '60s when their futility reached the likes of cities like Cleveland, Seattle, and Buffalo.
From 1958 to 1971, the Lakers were a postseason staple (granted, it wasn't too difficult to make the playoffs in those days). In the '60s, they averaged nearly 50 wins a season, and featured Hall-of-Famers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain.
But during the aforementioned era, the Lakers made the Finals seven times...and lost every one.
Their opponent in six of those Finals? The Boston Celtics.
It only added to the rivalry between the two sides, which would be escalated in the '80s. It also pretty much put the Russell/Wilt debate to rest once and for all.
(Photo courtesy of L.A. Times)
Seattle fans, feel free to breeze through these next two slides. I won't blame you.
The '01 Mariners were the surprise of baseball, winning 116 games and capturing the AL East by 14 games over Oakland.
As Bill Simmons would say, they personified the Ewing Theory. After losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez, no one expected them to be division champions.
After dispatching the Indians in five games, they went on to face the Yankees.
Unfortunately for Seattle, New York had all the karma in the world on their side. They dropped the first two games at home and never recovered.
Seattle won the most games without winning a World Series since the regular season expansion to 162 games.
The year after Michael Jordan retired for the first time, the title was seemingly anyone's for the taking.
Who better than the Sonics, led by Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, and Kendall Gill? They won 63 games, a franchise high, and played the 42-40 Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs.
The Sonics won the first two games by an average of 17 points, and seemed well on their way to advancing.
However, Denver blew them out in Game Three, and eked out an overtime win in Game Four.
In Game Five, the series once again went into overtime, and the Nuggets outlasted and shocked Seattle in what is one of the greatest first-round upsets in NBA history.
It was the first time a No. 8 seed ever beat a No. 1 seed in the postseason, and knocked out the prohibitive favorites.
(Photo courtesy of Complex.com)
The Vikes set an NFL record in '98 by scoring 556 points, close to 35 a game. They never scored fewer than 24 in a regular season game and finished the season 15-1; 12 of their wins came by double-digits.
Led by veterans Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, and Robert Smith, and sparked by the jaw-dropping rookie Randy Moss, the Vikings looked like an unstoppable, well-oiled machine.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings hosted the 14-2 Falcons. They led for a majority of the game and had a chance to put the game out of reach in the final minutes, leading by seven and lining up for a 38-yard field goal.
But Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a kick all year, shanked the attempt and the Falcons went down the field to tie the game, and eventually won in overtime.
It was one of the most stunning losses in recent memory. Minnesota has yet to break through the conference championship barrier since 1976.
(Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun)
Fresh off their loss in the '06 NBA Finals, the Mavs were poised to make another run to the NBA Finals.
They won 67 games the following season, and Dirk Nowitzki received his first MVP trophy.
But in the first round against Golden State, the tone was set in the first game, when Avery Johnson changed his starting lineup to better match up against the No. 8 seed Warriors.
The tempo was set from the first game, as the Warriors blitzed the Mavs with a 97-85 victory. Dallas took Game Two, and when the series moved to Golden State, the frenzied crowd at Oracle Arena proved too much for the Mavericks to overcome.
Dallas went down 3-1, and though they fought back from a deficit in the final minutes in Game Five, their fate was sealed when the Warriors ran them off the court in Game Six with a 111-86 thumping.
Quite an awkward scene when Dirk received his MVP trophy in the second round...after Dallas had been eliminated.
It was one of the most stunning, most entertaining, most provocative, and most interesting first-round series in NBA history. Dallas became the only team to win 60-plus games in the regular season and lose in the first round.
The Miracle on Ice.
Maybe it's unfair for New England to be placed on this list. After all, they looked like the best team in NFL history for 18 games.
Their offense was unstoppable. The defense was stingy. The coaching was brilliant.
But when you win your first 18 games, you have to win the last one...otherwise, fair or unfair, the season will be looked back on as an epic failure.
It took a miracle catch to bring down the mighty Patriots. At the same time, it could have been the play that ended their dynasty.
18-1...it just doesn't have a nice ring to it.