Where Would LeBron's Cavs Rank Among Worst Modern NBA Finals Teams?
Any squad that advances through the postseason gauntlet and earns the right to play in the NBA Finals is a good team. Let's make that clear right off the bat.
That's truer than ever in the modern era (defined here as everything following the ABA-NBA merger prior to the 1976-77 season), which forces franchises to go through more rounds and tougher competition in order to represent their conferences. But from a purely objective standpoint, some of those outfits that wind up either champions or runner-ups still have to be worse than all the others.
This year's Cleveland Cavaliers, should they dispatch the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals (which shouldn't be considered a given, especially after watching them fall in Game 1, 108-83), are going to be among the worst. They failed to establish themselves as a dominant team throughout the regular season, shifted plenty of pieces around at the trade deadline and barely survived the opening round of the playoffs before taking care of business against the Toronto Raptors.
But how far do they fall among this pack of finalists?
To determine this objectively, we're turning to the team rating formula I've explained in detail for NBA Math. This normalizes both offensive and defensive ratings to the league standard that year, essentially allowing us to compare teams from different eras on the same scale, then averages those two scores together. A team rating of 100 indicates perfect averageness, while anything higher is better.
For each of the 82 NBA Finals teams since the merger, I found the team ratings for both their regular seasons and playoffs then averaged those together to find the scores you'll see listed alongside each featured squad. If you want some reference points, the top five marks belong to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (106.15), 2016-17 Golden State Warriors (105.82), 1990-91 Bulls (105.28), 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers (104.66) and 1985-86 Boston Celtics (104.63).
These scores will change as the conference finals unfold, but this season's Houston Rockets (104.28) would sit at No. 10, while the Warriors (103.49) would fall in at No. 21. The Celtics (101.29) would be just outside the bottom 10 at No. 71. You'll have to read on to determine the Cavaliers' placement.
10. 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers: 101.16
Regular-Season Record: 56-26
Regular-Season Team Rating: 102.36
Postseason Path: 3-1 victory over Indiana Pacers; 4-3 victory over Toronto Raptors; 4-3 victory over Milwaukee Bucks; 4-1 loss to Los Angeles Lakers
Postseason Team Rating: 99.96
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Tyrone Hill, Allen Iverson, Jumaine Jones, Aaron McKie, Dikembe Mutombo
Allen Iverson was brilliant during his MVP-winning season, averaging 31.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game for the Philadelphia 76ers while shooting 42.0 percent from the field, 32.0 percent from downtown and 81.4 percent from the stripe. But he was forced into serving as a one-man show frequently, largely because of the lower quality of his running mates.
The Sixers were a great defensive team both before and after they traded Toni Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed, Theo Ratliff and Pepe Sanchez to the Atlanta Hawks for Dikembe Mutombo and Roshown McLeod. Offense was the primary problem, which seems strange for a squad that boasted one of the era's greatest individual scoring threats.
Ratliff (12.4 points per game), Mutombo (11.7) and Aaron McKie were the only teammates who joined Iverson in double digits during the regular season. Just McKie (14.6) and Mutombo (13.9) did so throughout the playoff run, which culminated in four straight losses to the Los Angeles Lakers after an overtime victory in Game 1.
The high-scoring combo guard just didn't have enough help, which goes a long way toward explaining why he was allowed to shoot so frequently when his percentages weren't anything to write home about.
9. 2001-02 New Jersey Nets: 101.14
Regular-Season Record: 52-30
Regular-Season Team Rating: 102.27
Postseason Path: 3-2 victory over Indiana Pacers; 4-1 victory over Charlotte Hornets; 4-2 victory over Boston Celtics; 4-0 loss to Los Angeles Lakers
Postseason Team Rating: 100.00
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Todd MacCulloch, Kenyon Martin, Keith Van Horn
Again we have a dominant defensive squad that couldn't score enough to keep up with every foe.
The 2001-02 New Jersey Nets paced the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, but their offensive output was so mediocre that it trailed the figures produced by 16 other squads. Though that was enough to squeak by the Indiana Pacers and handle the Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics, it didn't pass muster against Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers.
Jason Kidd, as you might expect, was splendid. The point guard still hadn't gotten to the stage of his professional career at which he learned how to shoot with efficiency, but that didn't prevent him from averaging 19.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game throughout New Jersey's elongated playoff run.
Just like with the 2000-01 Sixers, the issue was the superstar's running mates. Kerry Kittles (2.1), Keith Van Horn (0.5) and Lucious Harris (0.5) were the only players to join Kidd (5.0) with positive playoff scores in offensive box plus-minus, which means the Nets were attempting to stave off a Tinseltown three-peat with just two players who were distinctly above-average presences on the scoring side.
8. 1977-78 Washington Bullets: 101.08
Regular-Season Record: 44-38
Regular-Season Team Rating: 100.40
Postseason Path: 2-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks; 4-2 victory over San Antonio Spurs; 4-2 victory over Philadelphia 76ers; 4-3 victory over Seattle SuperSonics
Postseason Team Rating: 101.75
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Bob Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Elvin Hayes, Tom Henderson, Wes Unseld
Nothing about the Washington Bullets' 44-38 record during the 1977-78 regular season indicated they'd work their way to the title. Plagued by injuries throughout the year and after overcoming a 4-6 start to their campaign, they finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference, lagging behind the 55-27 Philadelphia 76ers and 52-30 San Antonio Spurs—both of whom they toppled in the postseason.
To this day, these Bullets remain the only squad to win a championship without earning 45 victories prior to the playoffs' opening round—lockout seasons and campaigns with fewer than 82 games notwithstanding.
Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld did most of the heavy lifting for this Washington iteration, but we also can't overlook the contributions of Bob Dandridge. Though the 6'6" small forward wasn't an All-Star during his age-30 season, he continued to serve as a source of perimeter-based offense and even logged minutes at guard once Kevin Grevey sprained his wrist late in the playoff run.
Led by that trio, the Bullets are the only team in this countdown to win a championship (the 1994-95 Houston Rockets narrowly missed out on inclusion with a score of 101.22). But that's easily explained away, since they had the luxury of a Finals matchup with a Seattle SuperSonics squad that won't show up in these rankings for a while longer.
7. 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers: 100.97
Regular-Season Record: 50-32
Regular-Season Team Rating: 101.83
Postseason Path: 4-3 victory over Boston Celtics; 4-2 victory over Houston Rockets; 4-2 loss to Portland Trail Blazers
Postseason Team Rating: 100.10
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Henry Bibby, Doug Collins, Julius Erving, Caldwell Jones, George McGinnis
The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers should've been better.
Following the ABA-NBA merger, Julius Erving had just joined the organization and was ready to bring his high-flying talents to the sport's supreme league. He made the All-NBA second team. George McGinnis was in his second post-ABA season, still scoring at a lofty rate. He joined Erving on the All-NBA second team, though it was a drop in status from the prior go-round.
The Sixers weren't a two-man crew, either. With Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones, World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins, they had plenty of talent and name recognition, which they used to go 50-32 and claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Fifty wins and a 3.6 net rating, however, isn't anything particularly special for a conference's top finisher. And the playoffs were tougher, requiring a Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics and a series against the Houston Rockets in which no win came by more than a dozen points.
Erving and Collins, who averaged a combined 49.6 points per game during the playoffs, nearly carried Philadelphia to glory. But considering the close nature of their wins in the first three series, success against the Portland Trail Blazers would've been a surprise.
6. 1989-90 Portland Trail Blazers: 100.94
Regular-Season Record: 59-23
Regular-Season Team Rating: 102.88
Postseason Path: 3-0 victory over Dallas Mavericks; 4-3 victory over San Antonio Spurs; 4-2 victory over Phoenix Suns; 4-1 loss to Detroit Pistons
Postseason Team Rating: 99.00
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Clyde Drexler, Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Buck Williams
The Portland Trail Blazers played high-quality basketball throughout the 1989-90 season, even if they couldn't win as many games as the 63-19 Los Angeles Lakers. Only eight teams proved superior on the offensive end, but the Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs were the only outfits that produced better defensive ratings.
That's an impressive combination, which shouldn't come as a surprise when a quintet as formidable as Clyde Drexler, Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter and Buck Williams occupied the starting five for much of the year.
Then the playoffs came around, and the Portland offense fell apart.
That regular-season team rating of 102.88? Of the 82 teams that have qualified for the NBA Finals during the modern era, 46 posted superior marks. But Rip City's 99.00 team rating in the playoffs is dead last among that group.
Getting by the 47-35 Dallas Mavericks didn't prove problematic, but the Blazers struggled their way past the San Antonio Spurs. Two of their victories came beyond regulation—a double-overtime win in Game 5 and an overtime win in Game 7—and they were outscored by 16 points during the series. Then, despite advancing past the Phoenix Suns in six outings, Portland was again outscored in the Western Conference Finals, winning four games by a combined 12 points but posting a cumulative point differential of minus-34.
Is it any wonder the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons won the Finals in 4-1 fashion and that their lone loss came by a single point in an overtime Game 2?
5. 1998-99 New York Knicks: 100.93
Regular-Season Record: 27-23
Regular-Season Team Rating: 100.65
Postseason Path: 3-2 victory over Miami Heat; 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks; 4-2 victory over Indiana Pacers; 4-1 loss to San Antonio Spurs
Postseason Team Rating: 101.21
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Chris Dudley, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Charlie Ward
The 1998-99 New York Knicks almost took advantage of a lockout-shortened season.
With only 50 games on the calendar and the campaign not beginning until February, every squad was left scrambling for chemistry and cohesion. So even though the Knicks only mustered a 27-23 record that left them entering the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, they still had a puncher's chance.
That chance was validated when Patrick Ewing helped spark an upset of the Miami Heat then led them to a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks. After a Game 1 victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks were 8-2 in the postseason and laid claim to a remarkable 103.98 team rating that would've eliminated them from any of the featured spots in this countdown.
Then Ewing could no longer fight through an Achilles injury. After 25 ineffective minutes to his name in Game 2 against the Pacers, his season was over because of a partially torn Achilles, and the Knicks were trounced in the NBA Finals at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Oh, what could have been.
4. 1978-79 Washington Bullets: 100.82
Regular-Season Record: 54-28
Regular-Season Team Rating: 102.27
Postseason Path: 4-3 victory over Atlanta Hawks; 4-3 victory over San Antonio Spurs; 4-1 loss to Seattle SuperSonics
Postseason Team Rating: 99.37
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Bob Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Elvin Hayes, Tom Henderson, Wes Unseld
Maybe the 1978-79 Washington Bullets just got complacent.
With a core similar to the one that finished No. 8 in our countdown and won the 1978 title—they used the same starting five in Game 1 of both Finals), they stormed out of the gate and did not slow down. They secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference early in the calendar, to the point that they had a six-game advantage at the end of the campaign despite a disappointing 5-6 mark in their final 11 contests.
But the offense dried up in the playoffs.
An Atlanta Hawks crew led by John Drew, Dan Roundfield and Eddie Johnson was only outscored by four total points during a series that went the distance. Then the San Antonio Spurs took a 3-1 series lead before the Bullets won the final three outings by a combined 14 points. After those two outings, they were no match for a Seattle SuperSonics team seeking revenge.
As you'll soon see, the 1977-78 Sonics were one of the worst Finals teams of all time. One year later, they'd improved enough to barely avoid this countdown and beat the Bullets in a series that was admittedly tighter than the 4-1 outcome indicates.
3. 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers: 100.63
Regular-Season Record: 50-32
Regular-Season Team Rating: 100.51
Postseason Path: 4-3 victory over Indiana Pacers; 4-0 victory over Toronto Raptors; vs. Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals
Postseason Team Rating: 100.75
Starting 5 in Last Playoff Game: George Hill, LeBron James, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love, JR Smith
Though the Cleveland Cavaliers won 50 games during the regular season, their path to one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference was anything but smooth.
Seemingly the entire roster was overhauled at the trade deadline, as the front office realized it wasn't going anywhere with its preseason core and brought in George Hill, Jordan Clarkson Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood while getting rid of Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Jae Crowder. Even after that set of moves, the defense remained one of the league's worst units, featuring unmotivated players, injury-created holes and a distinct lack of discipline.
By the time the Cavs had played their final contest before the postseason, they ranked 14th overall in Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system (based on margin of victory and strength of schedule), nestled snugly between the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards. According to SRS, they were inferior to four teams in the East alone.
If we looked only at team rating in the regular season, Cleveland would fall in at No. 2 in this countdown. But slightly improved postseason play has allowed the Northeast Ohio representatives to climb one spot higher. And the italicized word in the previous sentence is important, because the 4-0 victory over the Toronto Raptors belies the level at which the Cavaliers played during the first two playoff rounds.
Against the Pacers, the Cavs sneaked by with a Game 7 victory but were outscored by a whopping 40 points—by far the worst plus-minus by an opening-series victor since the NBA adopted the best-of-seven format, per Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.
And though a sweep of the Raptors may give the impression of sheer, unabashed dominance—especially since the popular narrative is that LeBron James has basically destroyed the Toronto-based franchise and even caused the firing of Coach of the Year Dwane Casey—that's far from accurate. Two of the victories came by a combined three points, one in overtime and the other on James' miraculous buzzer-beater.
The Cavs still aren't playing like a squad that deserves to make the Finals, though James' heroics—and the improved play of his lackluster supporting cast against Toronto—could carry them there.
2. 1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics: 100.48
Regular-Season Record: 47-35
Regular-Season Team Rating: 100.80
Postseason Path: 2-1 victory over Los Angeles Lakers; 4-2 victory over Portland Trail Blazers; 4-2 victory over Denver Nuggets; 4-3 loss to Washington Bullets
Postseason Team Rating: 100.15
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Dennis Johnson, John Johnson, Jack Sikma, Marvin Webster, Gus Williams
You might recognize some of the names in that starting five.
Dennis Johnson was one of his era's better point guards and made a pair of All-Star appearances with the Seattle SuperSonics before continuing his career with the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics and reaching the Hall of Fame. Jack Sikma (only a rookie in 1977-78), John Johnson and Gus Williams combined to make 11 All-Star teams. And while Marvin Webster was a bit more anonymous, the Sonics still had Fred Brown and Paul Silas coming off the pine.
But the names weren't enough for Seattle to establish itself as a dominant outfit during the regular season or the playoffs.
The postseason was particularly rough despite a trio of series wins, as Williams (4.0), Webster (2.6), Dennis Johnson (0.5), Silas (0.4) and Sikma (0.1) were the lone men on the roster to post positive box plus-minuses. No one could establish himself as a dominant force with any semblance of consistency, which was true during the first 82 games as well.
Win shares aren't a perfect measure, but they'll do the job here. Webster (No. 17 with 8.7), Williams (No. 25 with 7.7) and Brown (No. 37 with 6.7) were the only members of the league's top 50 who called Seattle home that season, leaving it without an elite figure or a wealth of top-tier talent.
1. 1980-81 Houston Rockets: 99.96
Regular-Season Record: 40-42
Regular-Season Team Rating: 100.15
Postseason Path: 2-1 victory over Los Angeles Lakers; 4-3 victory over San Antonio Spurs; 4-1 victory over Kansas City Kings; 4-2 loss to Boston Celtics
Postseason Team Rating: 99.76
Starting 5 in 1st Finals Game: Mike Dunleavy, Tom Henderson, Moses Malone, Billy Paultz, Robert Reid
The 1980-81 Houston Rockets are the overwhelming choice here. Not only are they the sole modern-era team with a losing regular-season record to make the NBA Finals, but they also played even worse when the playoffs rolled around—playoffs they barely made, edging the Golden State Warriors by a single game for the final seed in the Western Conference.
Throughout those first 82 contests, Houston, which somehow gave Tom Henderson his third starting gig on a historically bad Finals team, wasn't as bad as its record indicates. By Pythagorean wins, which focus on points scored and allowed, it performed like a 42-40 squad.
The playoffs told a different story, despite triumphs that led to the biggest stage and a matchup against the talent-riddled Boston Celtics:
- First round against the Los Angeles Lakers: 2-1 victory with a plus-two point differential
- Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs: 4-3 victory with a plus-14 point differential
- Western Conference Finals against the Kansas City Kings: 4-1 victory with a plus-34 point differential
- NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics: 4-2 loss with a minus-59 point differential
Add those together, and the Rockets were outscored by nine points during the playoffs. And that's coming off a regular season in which they toppled their foes by just 0.4 points per game.
As of now, no other candidate for the No. 1 spot exists.