The NBA's Most Shocking 60-Win Seasons of All Time
If the NBA listed its greatest strengths, on-court unpredictability probably doesn't make the cut.
While surprises are inevitable across an 82-game marathon, they usually don't heavily factor into the wins and losses columns. Final records typically land in the same zip code as preseason projections, and barring a major roster change, clubs often occupy their expected tier.
But as with anything in life, there are exceptions.
Every now and then, a team comes around and dramatically improves its outlook. The following teams are the most surprising members of the Association's 60-win club. Each has been selected and ranked based on previous performance and, when available, preseason expectations.
6. 1996-97 Miami Heat
The Heat are perpetually dreaming big under Pat Riley, and that was especially true in 1996.
After reshaping the roster with previous trades for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, Miami hard-charged into the offseason with grandiose visions. Mourning scored the league's first nine-figure contract. The Heat made a $98 million commitment to Juwan Howard, but the league voided it two weeks later because of insufficient cap space. Hardaway re-signed, but not before Miami courted both Gary Payton and Magic Johnson.
The Heat, who lost 50 games in 1994–95, thought they could be decent.
"I think a 45- to 50-win season is in our sights," Hardaway told reporters. "Being up there in the third, fourth, fifth place in the conference, in the playoff race would be ideal."
Oddsmakers felt the same, and Miami received a 47.5 over/under, per SportsOddsHistory.com. No one set the bar nearly high enough.
The Heat won 14 of their first 18 games and never let up off the accelerator. They grew even more dangerous with a three-for-one trade for Jamal Mashburn at the deadline. In total, they won a then-franchise record 61 games—a number the superteam Heatles only topped once—with Hardaway earning his only All-NBA first-team honor (and finishing fourth in MVP voting) and reserve Isaac Austin being named Most Improved Player.
Miami won its first division title and playoff series that year, eventually falling in five games to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
5. 2003-04 Indiana Pacers
On the heels of three consecutive first-round exits, the Pacers were ready for a change in 2003. They gave control of basketball operations to Larry Bird, who quickly replaced head coach Isiah Thomas with Rick Carlisle. But the offseason roster moves were minimal: a trade for Scot Pollard, a free-agency pact with Kenny Anderson—nothing likely to change the fate of what had been a 48-win team the prior season.
Then, Indiana sprinted out to a 14-2 start in 2003-04, and the Eastern Conference suddenly had a new juggernaut. Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest (now known as Metta Sandiford-Artest) booked All-Star trips. Fred Jones won the Slam Dunk Contest. The Circle City buzzed like it hadn't in years.
Oddsmakers had set Indiana's over/under at 47.5 wins. The Pacers celebrated their 48th victory in early March, and they'd go on to tally a franchise-record 61 wins. O'Neal earned his first (and only) All-NBA second-team honor that season and even finished third in MVP voting (his first and only season with votes). Artest snagged an All-NBA third-team spot and captured the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the eventual champion Detroit Pistons in six games. Indiana's success would prove short-lived. These same two teams collided at the infamous Malice at the Palace in November 2004. Coupled with Reggie Miller's retirement in 2005, Indiana's nucleus crumbled shortly after it came together for this unexpectedly fun run.
4. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls, like every other team with enough cap space to let their imaginations run wild, hoped for a transformational offseason in 2010. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James both gave the Windy City a look, but when they booked it to South Beach, Chicago was left to splurge on Carlos Boozer and some solidly unspectacular role players.
"If [James would have come to Chicago], I think we would've had the best starting five in basketball, and we could have rivaled the Lakers," Boozer said at the time, per Sporting News. "... Without him, I think we can compete and be tough for any team to knock out in the playoffs."
The Bulls were coming off a 41-win season, and their over/under was only nudged to 46.5. Chicago demolished that figure with 62 wins under rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, as projections miscalculated two different areas.
First and foremost, no one anticipated Derrick Rose becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history. Yet there he was, hoisting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy upon completion of his age-22 season, during which he averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds.
Perhaps equally important, Thibodeau's impact proved greater than expected. Rewarded as the Coach of the Year for his efforts, he pushed all the right buttons for the Bulls to claim the top spot in defensive efficiency and consistently outwork their opponents.
"They played as hard as any team that we ever played," Wade told the Athletic's Darnell Mayberry.
3. 1979-80 Boston Celtics
The Celtics waited a full year for Larry Bird, taking him with the sixth overall pick as a draft-eligible junior in 1978 knowing he planned to—and did—opt for a final season at Indiana State. When he finally arrived in Boston, the Shamrocks immediately greeted him with a five-year, $3.25 million contract, then the highest ever given to a rookie in any sport.
Expectations could not have been higher for the rookie, even as he tried his best to dump water on the preseason flames.
"Very few people can turn a team around by themselves," Bird remarked ahead of the 1979-80 season. "And I'm not one of them."
Even for the most bullish believers in Bird, it was unclear how much immediate impact he could have on the Celtics. They had gone just 61-103 over the previous two seasons, and they traded their leading scorer, Bob McAdoo, for future draft picks.
But Bird wasted little time establishing himself as an all-time great.
He orchestrated Boston's jump from worst to first in the Atlantic Division as the team's leader in points, rebounds and steals. He's one of five rookies ever to average 21 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Those numbers earned him an All-NBA first-team spot and Rookie of the Year honors over Magic Johnson, who sparked a similar turnaround for the Lakers but had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to help with the heavy lifting.
The Celtics finished Bird's freshman year with 61 wins, 32 more than the previous season. They fell in five games to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
2. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
Before the Suns ushered in the future of basketball, they had to navigate around an organizational crossroads. Ahead of the 2003-04 season, they gave Stephon Marbury a four-year extension that pushed his contract to six seasons and was then the richest deal ever given to an athlete in Arizona.
But Phoenix limped out to an 8-13 start, which cost Frank Johnson his head coaching gig. Mike D'Antoni took over, and the Suns got busy remaking the roster to fit his system. That meant brokering a blockbuster swap with the New York Knicks that shipped out Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway primarily for draft picks and financial relief. Phoenix, which hadn't won a playoff series since 2000, was prepared to play the long game.
"Are we probably going to take a little step backwards? Yeah, in the beginning," D'Antoni told reporters. "But with the cap room that we now have and with the draft picks we are going to have, along with the core of young players that will get a lot of playing time, we're excited about it."
The Suns finished that season just 29-53, but they put that newfound flexibility to use shortly thereafter. Free agency delivered both Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, who bulked up a roster already featuring Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson. Oddsmakers were intrigued, but only enough to lay a 44.5 over/under for 2004-05.
When Phoenix won 24 of its first 27 contests, it was clear this squad was special. Behind Nash (the eventual MVP) and D'Antoni (the Coach of the Year), the Suns were so overpowering on offense—2.4 points per 100 possessions more than the second-ranked attack—that it hardly mattered they were only 17th on defense. They went an NBA-best 62-20, somehow even sneaking a six-game losing streak into the dog days of late January.
The good times rolled all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where Phoenix fell in five games to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
1. 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks
The NBA's exclusive club of 60-win squads primarily features one star-studded roster after the next. The 2014-15 Hawks are the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others exceptions.
The starting five had two All-Stars, but Al Horford (two) and Paul Millsap (one) were late-20-somethings with three combined career selections. Jeff Teague was solid, but nothing beyond that. Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll were well-traveled veterans who had only recently become full-time starters.
All five, plus head coach Mike Budenholzer, were present for the 2013-14 season, in which the Hawks went just 38-44. Granted, Horford only made it through 29 contests before a torn pectoral muscle cut his campaign short. But even then, the Hawks hardly appeared like a budding powerhouse, with a 16-13 record at the time of the injury.
Atlanta received a 42.5-win over/under for 2014-15, which felt perfectly reasonable as the team trudged out to a 7-6 start. But then the Hawks essentially decided they were done losing.
They promptly embarked on a nine-game winning streak, suffered a one-point road loss, then reeled off another five wins in a row. After a 30-point defeat the day after Christmas, the Hawks stampeded through a 19-game winning streak that spanned the entire month of January. The starting five shared Player of the Month honors, and all but Carroll were selected to the All-Star Game.
The Hawks were the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Budenholzer concocted a brilliant egalitarian approach built around ball movement and spacing, and the Hawks routinely brought the best out of one another.
But the lack of legitimate, top-shelf star power left this club with the tiniest margin of error. Among all 60-win clubs in NBA history, these Hawks rank dead last in Simple Rating System and second-to-last in average margin of victory. They peaked too soon—they were only 17-11 after the All-Star break—and were gassed by the time they locked horns with LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept them out of the conference finals.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.