B/R NBA Staff: 5 of the Most Surprising Finals Teams in NBA History

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2020

B/R NBA Staff: 5 of the Most Surprising Finals Teams in NBA History

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    DON EMMERT/Getty Images

    Prior to every season, the conglomerate of NBA clairvoyants gather their crystal balls and anoint would-be Finals picks. Ahead of 2019-20, the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers were overwhelming favorites to stand tall by the final frame.

    In many instances, they're proved right. LeBron James reached eight consecutive Finals between 2011-2018. The Golden State Warriors met him in four of them between 2015-18. 

    And yet, the glory of live sports lies in its unpredictability. Teams can outperform preseason expectations or capitalize on the misfortune of others. In some instances, one player can simply ascend to greatness, much to the surprise of the basketball world. 

    Here are five such teams that defied expectations and made the unlikeliest of runs to the NBA Finals, plus some historic honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    GENE HERRICK/Associated Press

    1956-57 St. Louis Hawks

    History looks back at the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks with certain consternation. Already a competitive team led by Bob Pettit, the Hawks chose to send their No. 2 overall pick on draft day to the Boston Celtics, which became Hall of Famer Bill Russell, for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley.

    Both players went on to help the Hawks while Russell won 11 championships in Boston.

    The Celtics finished the season with a league-best 44 wins. The Hawks struggled and fired head coach Red Holzman, so Slater Martin took over for eight games as a player-coach before deferring to teammate Alex Hannum for the final 31.

    The Hawks (34-38) finished in first place in the Western Division via a three-way tie with the Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons. Despite the season's chaos and giving the Celtics arguably the greatest franchise player of all time, the Hawks swept the Lakers in the Western Division Finals before Russell ended their season in the first of his 12 NBA Finals and 11 championships.

    St. Louis did get revenge the following year, handing Russell his only loss in the Finals.


    1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers

    The Minneapolis Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor outside the top 10 rounds in 1956, but he chose to stay in school (Seattle University). After a terrible 1957-58 season built around Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen that saw the Lakers win just 19 of 72 games, the franchise drafted Baylor again (the rules were different back then), this time with the No. 1 pick in 1958.

    Baylor was a tremendous collegiate player, but his immediate impact on the Lakers was shocking.

    With nearly the same roster plus Baylor, they improved to 33 wins. Baylor averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists, winning Rookie of the Year while leading the Lakers past Pettit and the 49-23 reigning champion Hawks in the Western Division Finals. They had been nearing bankruptcy but were suddenly rejuvenated, making their first NBA Finals since the George Mikan era.

    Once there, they weren't ready for the Celtics, losing in four straight.


    1975-76 Phoenix Suns

    The Phoenix Suns joined the NBA in 1968 and made the playoffs just once through the 1974-75 season (losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round during the 1969-70 campaign), which is why their run in 1975-76 seemed to come out of nowhere.

    They were just a 42-40 team, good for fourth in the Western Conference. When they traded Charlie Scott to the Celtics for Paul Westphal and a couple of second-round picks, they surely couldn't have foreseen Westphal jumping from 9.8 points per game in Boston to 20.5 in Phoenix.

    The Suns got past the Seattle SuperSonics in six games, then Rick Barry, Jamaal Wilkes and the Golden State Warriors in seven to draw the Celtics in the Finals. That set up the legendary triple-overtime Game 5, one of the best in NBA history, but Boston survived 128-126 and finished the improbable Suns off in six.

    Phoenix didn't make the playoffs the following season, eventually making it back to the Finals with Charles Barkley in 1992-93 before suffering a loss to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.


    2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers

    In retrospect, perhaps the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers don't belong on this list given LeBron James going to the NBA Finals was almost an annual lock for a full decade. Still, his debut in 2007 was remarkable because of the lack of talent around him. Hence the honorable mention.

    None of that is to say Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden weren't good basketball players. But James did the most with the least throughout the season. Getting swept by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs makes a lot of sense when comparing rosters.

    Eric Pincus

1980-81 Houston Rockets

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Picture all the ingredients of a typical NBA Finals participant. The 1980-81 Houston Rockets had almost none of them—including a winning record.

    Moses Malone met the superstar demand, but he took a solo trip to the All-Star Game. Houston's offense was nothing special (ninth out of 23 teams). The defense wasn't even average (16th). Basketball Reference's simple rating system slotted this 40-42 team just 12th overall.

    Houston had the West's worst seed (sixth) and drew the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. But Malone bullied his way to 38 points and 23 rebounds in the Rockets' series-opening win, and back then, that put them just one victory away from an upset. When Magic Johnson went ice cold in Game 3, Houston had its improbable path to the second round.

    Malone and Calvin Murphy then nudged the Rockets past George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game thriller. Up next were the equally unlikely Kansas City Kings, the only other losing team in the playoffs. The Kings had no match for Malone, and Houston booked its first-ever Finals trip in five games.

    The Boston Celtics proved too much in the championship round, but the Rockets only lost the opener by three points and then won two of the next three.

    Space City's launch was assisted by both the best-of-three format in the opener and the competition level in the conference finals, but it also showed what can happen when a team peaks around an all-time great at the optimal time.

    Zach Buckley

1998-99 New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Sticklers will point out that the 1998-99 campaign was a lockout-shortened season. That means nothing to me. The Knicks were an eight seed, with a roster that sucked on offense. That they made it all the way to the NBA Finals is a borderline miracle.

    Beating the top-seeded Miami Heat in the first round was no joke. Who cares that it was best-of-five. And the Knicks faced two noticeably better teams, the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers, in the subsequent rounds. Sweeping the Hawks in the semifinals was wild. Not needing a Game 7 to dispatch the Pacers, despite losing Patrick Ewing for the rest of the postseason by Game 3, was comparatively absurd.

    Spare me The Ewing Theory truthers here. He was 36 years old and playing on one-quarter of a knee by that point, but he remained important to their defensive identity. Losing him at a mission-critical time, when he was averaging comfortably over 30 minutes per game, hurt. Overcoming his absence is one of the franchise's all-time feats.

    The Spurs ended up trucking the Knicks in the Finals, beating them four times in five tries. (Game 5 was close!) Maybe that dims the mystique of this season a little bit. It shouldn't. The Knicks had no business being in the Finals, not after losing Ewing, and not even with Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston scoring out of their minds. Being there was equal parts random, ridiculous and riveting.

    Dan Favale

2005-06 Dallas Mavericks

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    MATT SLOCUM/Associated Press

    Despite winning 60 games, the Mavericks sat just fourth in the Western Conference thanks to division standings. As a result, they'd have to defeat the 63-win San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.

    With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the peak of their powers, the Mavericks endured a seven-game dog fight. Six of the seven contests were decided by eight points or fewer, with three of them by two points or fewer.

    With the Western Conference's most imposing threat out of the way, the Mavericks next faced reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash and the same Phoenix Suns team that had eliminated them in 2005.

    The run-and-gun Suns had talent, though the Mavericks certainly benefitted from the absence of Amar'e Stoudemire. Still, Nash was joined by Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and the league's highest-scoring offense (Stoudemire only played three games all season, so the ranking was legit).

    Phoenix stole Game 1 on the road and tied the series 2-2 before the Mavericks earned their first Finals appearance by winning the next two.

    While the 60 regular-season wins might oversell the Mavericks' postseason odds, there were few believing the team's franchise player was capable of taking the group the distance. The Mavericks had also failed to reach the Finals despite winning 52 games or more the previous five seasons.

    Dirk Nowitzki had put together several MVP-caliber seasons but couldn't escape the "soft" label. Instead of dominating the paint with brute force, this 7-foot scorer cooked opponents with a highly efficient jump shot (48.0/40.6/90.1). Beside Nowitzki were a bunch of high-end role players hardly worthy of secondary "star" status.

    The Mavs would ultimately fall in six games to a young Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, but they'd get their revenge a handful of years later.

    Preston Ellis

2010-11 Dallas Mavericks

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Since the 2003-04 Pistons, it's been rare to see a team make the Finals, let alone win the title, without multiple superstars.

    The 2010-11 Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki, still at the tail end of his prime, but no one else who could be put in that category. Their second-best player was Tyson Chandler, who was outstanding, especially on the defensive end, but at that point had yet to make an All-Star team.

    Their other first-ballot Hall of Famer, Jason Kidd, was 37 years old by then and well past the stage of his career at which he could be considered a star. Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic were 33, and Shawn Marion was 32. The rest of their rotation was filled out by the likes of JJ Barea, Brian Cardinal and DeShawn Stevenson.

    And yet, this group swept the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the playoffs and took down the ascendant Oklahoma City Thunder at the beginning of the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden era in the Western Conference Finals.

    Dallas then beat the Miami Heat in the Finals to end the first year of the "Heatles" run, and it was unquestionably the worst postseason performance of LeBron James' career.

    The Mavs' title stands as one of the most unlikely—and impressive—of the modern era.

    Sean Highkin

2018-19 Toronto Raptors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The 2019 Raptors were the perfect championship team that everyone ignored until they won. Their path to the Finals was challenging, having to go through the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, all of whom had a lead in the series at one point.

    After promoting Nick Nurse to head coach and flipping DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors had a much higher ceiling. But there was uncertainty about how good Leonard would be after missing nearly two years with injuries. Despite earning the second seed in the East by winning 58 games and having a top-three net rating in the league, they flew under the radar during the regular season because Leonard only played 60 games.

    The Raptors were forced to recalibrate after dropping Game 1 against Magic in the opening round. They went down 2-1 against the 76ers, took two straight and then dropped Game 6 before the most unlikely of game-winners moved them on to the Conference Finals.

    Still, no one thought they could win. They dropped the first two games in Milwaukee, and their season seemed all but over.  Then, they won four straight. It was an incredible run for a team that had fallen at the hands of LeBron James the previous three seasons.

    The Raptors had every bit of the necessary genetic makeup to get to the Finals and win (which they did versus a banged-up Golden State Warriors squad). Not everything went right for them on their way there, but everyone needs a little luck to come home with a title.

    Will Gottlieb