The 5 Most Underachieving Teams in NBA History

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 11, 2020

The 5 Most Underachieving Teams in NBA History

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Some of the greatest sports stories ever told center on overachievers.

    Of course, those stories only occur when there's an underachiever on the other end.

    Games aren't played on paper. Talent isn't always the trump card we often treat it as. That's why some of the best teams in NBA history don't count a title among their achievements.

    We're here to dissect the five most underachieving teams the Association has ever seen, ranked by their level of disappointment. It's a subjective discussion, but it has objective elements. To uncover these teams, we've utilized everything from the eye test and star power to traditional statistics and advanced analytics.

    We won't punish teams for suffering crushing injuries. We can't blame the 1972-73 Boston Celtics for John Havlicek tearing a muscle in his shoulder, the 1967-68 Philadelphia 76ers for Billy Cunningham breaking his wrist or the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors for losing both Kevin Durant (ruptured Achilles) and Klay Thompson (torn ACL).

    We also won't blame clubs for peaking at the wrong time. The late-'90s Utah Jazz had a Hall of Fame connection in Karl Malone and John Stockton, but they happened to peak during Michael Jordan's prime. The 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks posted the sixth-highest simple rating system score of all time, but they lost to a Los Angeles Lakers team that landed third on the same list.

    But enough about the teams you won't see listed here; let's break down the unfortunate five that made the cut.

5. 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics

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    Gary Stewart/Associated Press

    With Michael Jordan trading his hardwood home for a new career on the baseball diamond, the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics seemed poised to take over the MJ-less NBA.

    The prior year, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and head coach George Karl had sparked Seattle's ascension to 55 regular-season wins and a playoff trip that didn't end until Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Rather than rest on their laurels, the Sonics reloaded with separate trades for Detlef Schrempf and Kendall Gill.

    The Sonics transformed from up-and-comers to heavyweight juggernauts almost immediately. Their season opener was a 28-point win, and they kept the gas pedal floored from there. They won their first 10 games and then 20 of their first 22. By year's end, they were sitting on an NBA-best (and then-franchise record) 63 victories while deploying the league's No. 2 offense and No. 3 defense.

    Payton and Kemp were crowned as All-Stars. Schrempf shined as a lethal third option. Gill, Ricky Pierce and sharp-shooting big man Sam Perkins rounded out Seattle's six-player collection of 12-plus-point scorers.

    The Sonics steamrolled into the playoffs with back-to-back double-digit wins over the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets before a finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo turned Seattle's dream season into a nightmare.

    Three Sonics' losses and 22 Mutombo rejections later, Seattle was bounced out of the best-of-five series and into infamy as the NBA's first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 8 seed since the league went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984.

    "Sometimes you get into the playoffs, and the matchup is bad," Indiana Pacers coach and former Sonics guard Nate McMillan told The Athletic's Nick Kosmider. "(Seattle) became a good matchup for (Denver) in that Robert Pack played well. He could defend Gary Payton. Mutombo could defend Shawn Kemp. Those were our two key guys, and they basically had that covered."

4. 2010-11 Miami Heat

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Every season, there are handfuls of win-now teams and usually at least a few championship-or-bust clubs. The 2010-11 Miami Heat were something different.

    Once LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach, the Heat effectively held a championship celebration in July 2010—three months before the trio would take the floor together. While some revamped rosters might be afforded a maturation period, Miami declared that unnecessary when James set the core's bar at "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" titles.

    It was somewhere between audacious and outlandish, and it all felt very Miami. It also let the hoops world know that conventional expectations were out the window. James had collected the previous two MVP awards. Wade had a championship and a Finals MVP under his belt. Bosh was a five-time All-Star with five straight seasons of averaging more than 22 points. None had celebrated his 30th birthday yet.

    The Heat infamously opened the year with a choppy 9-8 start—remember the Bump Heard 'Round the World?—but the superteam spaceship launched immediately after with 21 wins in 22 games. They finished the year at 58-24 (a 62-win pace after those first 17) and were the Association's only team with top-five efficiency marks on offense (second) and defense (fifth).

    They blitzed through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs with three consecutive 4-1 series wins. They opened the Finals with an eight-point win over the Dallas Mavericks and answered a two-point loss in Game 2 with a two-point triumph in Game 3. The Larry O'Brien Trophy was only two victories away, but the Heat never got closer.

    The series started going sideways in Game 4, a contest in which James finished with a head-scratching eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. It only got worse in Games 5 and 6, which the Mavs won by a total of 19 points. During those final three contests, Miami was outscored by 16.6 points per 100 possessions over the 90 minutes James, Wade and Bosh shared the floor.

    "I thought it would be easy because I was teaming up with some real players," James said later on HBO's The Shop (h/t Ben Golliver of the Washington Post). "... You go down there, we lose that Finals, I felt like the world had caved in."

    The Heat recovered to capture a pair of titles during James' four seasons in South Florida, but given the buildup, his first year there ended on a dreadfully deflating note.

3. 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Throughout NBA history, only 13 teams have ever won 67-plus games during the regular season.

    Nine of them went on to win the world title. The 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs fell in the second round to an Oklahoma City Thunder team led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors lost to LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals. The 1972-73 Boston Celtics fell to a New York Knicks team that captured the crown with a roster nearly full of Hall of Famers.

    The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks couldn't make it out of the first round. They not only became the first top seed to fall to an eighth seed in a seven-game series, but they lost to a Golden State Warriors team that didn't have a single All-Star.

    The Mavs, by the way, sent two players to the All-Star Game: regular-season MVP Dirk Nowitzki (who endured a painfully uncomfortable award ceremony nearly two weeks later) and Josh Howard, a scoring forward who could light it up before knee injuries derailed his career. Dallas had the year's second-best offense and fifth-rated defense.

    But it didn't have an answer for Golden State's aggressive small-ball style, which continually kept Nowitzki off-balance. The 7-footer topped 23 points once in the six-game series while shooting an abysmal 38.3 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from distance.

    "I thought this was such an incredible year," Nowitzki said, per Marc Stein, then with ESPN. "We won 67 games and then to lose it in the first round, it just feels so empty right now."

2. 2015-16 Golden State Warriors

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    The 2015-16 Warriors were the greatest team in NBA history—until they weren't.

    They set the Association's high mark for wins with 73. Their average margin of victory of 10.76 was the eighth-highest ever recorded, and that was with the team sleepwalking through so many lopsided second halves. They dispatched their first two playoff opponents by 4-1 counts, and while they fell in a 3-1 hole to the Oklahoma Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, they roared back with three straight victories to advance.

    They opened the NBA Finals with a 15-point win over the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. In Game 2, Golden State sprinted to a 110-77 triumph. After dropping Game 3 (by 30 points), they recovered to capture Game 4 by a 108-97 score.

    The squad that produced the best record of all time had a 3-1 Finals lead. And home-court advantage. And the first (and still only) unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry. And a back-to-back runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in Draymond Green. And an all-time sniper in Klay Thompson, a Swiss Army knife sixth man in Andre Iguodala and a loaded supporting cast.

    It wasn't enough.

    The offense stagnated. The defense struggled to stop the bleeding. Green eliminated himself from Game 5 by being suspended for a flagrant-1 foul. Curry's shot ghosted him (36.7 percent the final three games). James stuffed Iguodala with a block for the ages. Kyrie Irving splashed a cold-blooded triple. Curry tried to answer but couldn't shake—wait for it—Kevin Love.

    And poof, it was all over. The Warriors went from being perhaps the leading image on the Mount Rushmore for teams to earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first club ever to blow a 3-1 Finals lead.

    "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to go through in my sports career," Thompson told reporters. "It's difficult to process. It feels like a failure. It stings more than anything I've gone through in my career."

    While some might categorize this as more of a collapse than an underachievement, the Dubs boasted one of the most talented rosters in history and couldn't secure a title. When history recalls the talent level and the absence of a ring, it will remember this as an all-time disappointment.

1. 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers

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    ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

    The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers were a fantasy roster come to life.

    Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were just one season removed from powering the Purple and Gold to three straight titles. When Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the fray, another victory parade felt inevitable. Even if the newcomers were on the back nine of their careers, each arrived with Hall of Fame credentials and a 20-plus scoring average from the prior campaign.

    "When it happened, my first reaction was, 'We're pretty much handing them the title right now,'" Detroit Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince told B/R's Ric Bucher.

    The Lakers raced out to a 20-5 start, but Malone hurt his knee in a collision with the Phoenix Suns' Scott Williams. Malone missed nearly three months, and L.A. barely tread water without him, going 22-17 in his absence. The team awoke again, though, closing the season on a 14-4 stretch for a 56-26 record and losing only five games while advancing through the Western Conference side of the playoff bracket.

    But L.A. couldn't summon its superpowers during a Finals matchup with the Detroit Pistons.

    While the Pistons might have been the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, they had a single All-Star (Ben Wallace), didn't win their division (the East only had two back then), ranked sixth in winning percentage and finished 19th on offense. A deadline deal for Rasheed Wallace perked them up, but no one viewed them as a threat to the Lakers.

    As it turned out, the Lakers were no threat to the Pistons. Detroit opened with a 12-point win at Staples Center and, after dropping Game 2, returned home to roll off a 20-point win in Game 3. Two victories later, the Pistons were celebrating and the Lakers, who were worn down physically and emotionally, were heading toward demolition.

    "The thing that Detroit had going for them, they hit their stride in the playoffs and they had great chemistry and they were playing their best basketball in the Finals," former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told Bucher. "They were ready to play another series after that series and we weren't. We were beat up emotionally. We had reached the end of our line."

    The following offseason, the Lakers traded away both O'Neal and Payton and parted ways with head coach Phil Jackson. Malone never played another game and retired in February 2005. The fantasy was over.

                    

    All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.