People love the madness of the NCAA Tournament. The win-or-go-home, survive-and-advance setup leads to the upsets and Cinderella stories that have made the event so popular.
But the format of the NBA playoffs has been built to ensure that the best teams advance. While upsets may occur in one game over the course of a series, it’s a different story when the underdog is asked to win four times to advance to the next round.
“This is not the NCAA Tournament,” LeBron James said after his Los Angeles Lakers fell behind the Denver Nuggets in the 2023 Western Conference finals. “It’s the first to four wins. …so until a team beats you four times, then you always have a chance to get out of it.”
So it’s perhaps not surprising that only one team seeded eighth has put together a stunning march all the way to the NBA Finals since the league went to the 16-team playoff format for the 1984 postseason.
And there were extenuating circumstances involved in that 1999 run to consider. The 1998-99 season did not start until Feb. 5 and was shortened to a 50-game slate after a lockout between the league and the National Basketball Players Association.
Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls had announced his second retirement in January and the first round was comprised of best-of-five series (the league would make all first-round series best-of-seven in 2003).
Still, the New York Knicks knocked off the top-seeded Miami Heat 78-77 on Allan Houston’s game-winning shot with 0.8 seconds left in the fifth and deciding game. They would also sweep the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and get past the second-seeded Indiana Pacers in six games before going down to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in five.
But which NBA teams have reached the Finals with the worst regular-season records? That Knicks team wasn’t in the top three. In fact, it only ranks eighth on this list.
Worst Records by NBA Finals Teams
1. 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers (33-39 record; .458 winning percentage)
This season marked the emergence of a young Elgin Baylor. The future superstar averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists in his rookie season. Baylor led the club to wins over the Detroit Pistons and the 49-23 St. Louis Hawks in the first two rounds of the postseason. Including the playoffs, the Lakers won 20 of 31 down the stretch before their unlikely run came to an end in a sweep versus the 52-20 Boston Celtics. Despite the loss, Baylor was on his way to becoming one of the best NBA players of all time.
2. 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks (34-38; .472)
Two years earlier, the Hawks were one of the worst teams to make the Finals in terms of regular-season record. Despite finishing on 34-38, they won the tiebreaker with the Lakers (34-38) and Fort Wayne Pistons (34-38) to claim the Western Division title and first-round bye. In the West finals, St. Louis swept Minneapolis in three games before pushing the mighty Celtics to a seventh game in the NBA Finals. The deciding contest went into double overtime before Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman and a young Bill Russell led Boston to a two-point win and the NBA title. Before the season, the Hawks had sent Russell, their second-overall pick, to the Celtics for Cliff Hagan and second-year star Ed Macauley. Ouch.
3. 1980-81 Houston Rockets (40-42; .488)
Despite having four-time All-Star, rebounding champion and 1978-79 MVP Moses Malone on the roster, not much was expected of the middling Rockets when the 1981 postseason began. But Malone, who was Shaquille O’Neal before there was Shaq, had 38 points in Game 1, 33 in Game 2 and 23 in an 89-86 victory over the Lakers in LA to complete the massive upset over the defending NBA champions. The sixth-seeded Rockets then knocked off the 52-win Spurs (led by George Gervin) in seven games and the Kansas City Kings in five before falling to Larry Bird’s Celtics in six games.
4. 1970-71 Baltimore Bullets (42-40; .512)
The story of these Bullets is all about what happened when they faced their nemesis in the Eastern Conference finals. Sure, the Bullets had upended the 47-win Philadelphia 76ers 128-120 in Game 7 of their first-round series, but it was the East finals matchup with the hated Knicks that was the stuff of legends as some publications call it one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history. The Knicks had swept the Bullets in the 1969 division semifinals and outlasted them again in the 1970 division semifinals in seven games before going on to win the NBA championship. Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere made New York one of the most imposing teams of its time. The Knicks looked to cruise after taking the first two games at home before Baltimore won three of the next four to set up Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, who would be traded to the Knicks just months later, had 26 points and the Bullets stunned the hosts 93-91. Not that it mattered, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks took four straight from Baltimore in the Finals.
5. 1975-76 Phoenix Suns (42-40; .512)
The Suns were still a young franchise in 1975-76 after entering the league as an expansion team ahead of the 1968-69 season. And they reached the postseason for only the second time in team history after selecting Alvan Adams with the fourth overall pick in the 1975 NBA Draft. Adams had perhaps the best year of his career in his first season, averaging career highs of 19.0 points, 5.6 assists and 1.5 blocks to go along with 9.1 rebounds. He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year and earned All-Star honors for the only time in his career. Adams, Paul Westphal and Dick Van Arsdale led Phoenix past the Seattle SuperSonics 4-2 in the conference semifinals before shocking the defending champion Golden State Warriors 4-3. The magical run ended in the NBA Finals with four consecutive losses to the Celtics.
The Best (or Worst) of the Rest:
- 1955-56 Fort Wayne Pistons (37-35; .514)
- 1977-78 Washington Bullets (44-38; 537)
- 1998-99 New York Knicks (27-23; .540)
- 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors (44-37; .543)
- 1950-51 New York Knicks (36-30; .545)
Worst NBA Finals Teams by Adjusted Team Rating (Since 1986-87)
We have a model that takes advanced data to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the average team during a specific season. From this model, we’re able to create an adjusted offensive rating, adjusted defensive rating and an overall adjusted team rating (ATR) for each club since the 1986-87 season.
These ratings are the same ones we used to determine that the 1995-96 Bulls are the best NBA championship team over that span.
These ratings are critical because they normalize a team’s performance from league environmental factors during a respective era that can either inflate or deflate its offensive and defensive statistics.
1. 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers (0.88)
The 2017-18 Cavaliers had LeBron and Kevin Love, but no other member of the rotation averaged 13.0 points. Those Cavs finished fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 50-32 record and LeBron totaled 80 points in two Game 7s on the way to one of his eight straight NBA Finals appearances.
- 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers (3.67)
- 2001-02 New Jersey Nets (3.68)
- 1998-99 New York Knicks (4.01)
Research support provided by Stats Perform’s Jake Coyne. Like this? Follow us on Twitter for more.