It isn’t exactly a battle of the Titans.
No, it’s more like only the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals against a less-than-dominant (by our ratings) No. 1 seed out of the Western Conference.
Sure, the Denver Nuggets (53-29) have superstar Nikola Jokić and finished two games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies to earn the top seed in the West. However, they certainly weren’t a unanimous pick to come out of the ultra-competitive side of the bracket when the NBA playoffs began and only ranked 11th in the league in our adjusted team ratings during the regular season.
What are adjusted team ratings? 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 Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the best NBA championship team over that span and that the 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks team is one of the worst. 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.
The Nuggets moved up from that 11th spot with a 2.73 rating to second heading into the NBA Finals after sweeping the Minnesota Timberwolves, taking down Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns in six games and cruising past LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in four straight in the conference finals.
They currently lead the league in adjusted offensive rating (5.27), but only rank 16th in adjusted defensive rating (0.51 – worse than the league-average team). Overall, the Nuggets’ 4.75 points per 100 possession better than the average team doesn’t seem indicative of one of the best teams of all time.
Because it isn’t. In fact, Denver’s rating is the worst mark for a team considered to be an NBA Finals favorite (the one with the higher ATR) over the past 36 years. And it isn’t even close.
Of course, we haven’t even gotten to their opponent yet. Underdog isn’t a strong enough word to describe this Miami Heat team, which made history by matching the 1998-99 New York Knicks’ improbable run.
At the end of the 1998-99 season that did not start until Feb. 5 and was shortened to a 50-game slate after a lockout, the Knicks stunned the top-seeded Heat 78-77 in the fifth and deciding game. They then swept the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and topped the second-seeded Indiana Pacers in six games before going down to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in five.
The 2022-23 Miami Heat finished 44-38, ranked 20th in our adjusted team ratings during the regular season and barely survived the play-in round after trailing the Bulls 90-87 with 3:03 left in the fourth quarter. Inexplicably, the Heat have since taken down the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five, the fifth-seeded Knicks in six and the second-seeded Boston Celtics with a win on the road in Game 7 to earn the franchise’s seventh trip to the Finals.
As a result of their march, they’ve soared from 20th in the ATR at 0.02 (so barely above the league average) to eighth in the league at 2.27. With a strong effort in the postseason, the Heat now rank fifth among all NBA teams with a minus-1.79 adjusted defensive rating. However, they still rank 22nd in adjusted offensive rating (0.47).
But where does Miami rank among the worst teams to reach the NBA Finals?
The Heat are second behind only the 2017-18 Cavaliers. Yes, that club 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.
Despite being the first eighth seed to play for the NBA title, the 1998-99 Knicks weren’t the worst team to get there, according to our model. They entered the NBA Finals that season with a 4.01 ATR, which is just behind the 2022-23 Nuggets’ mark.
By now, you probably have an idea of where we’re going with this. Considering that this year’s Nuggets rank as the 10th-worst team to play in the Finals over the past 37 seasons, we’re headed for a matchup that doesn’t exactly scream all-time greats.
And it seems fair to wonder if this is one of the worst NBA Finals matchups of all time. Is it?
Here’s the list of the NBA Finals that featured the teams with the lowest combined ATR since 1987, starting at No. 5 and working our way down.
5. 2001: Los Angeles Lakers (7.45 ATR) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (3.67)
While the Lakers owned a solid ATR that ranked second in the league that year behind the San Antonio Spurs, the 76ers ranked eighth. The Lakers had two of the best NBA players of all time in Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Sixers did have Dikembe Mutombo to go up against Shaq, but this was a “how did Allen Iverson lead that team to the Finals” kind of a year. Los Angeles won it in five games.
4. 2010: Los Angeles Lakers (6.14) vs. Boston Celtics (4.78)
The Lakers finished 57-25 and earned the top seed in the West, but it was hardly a star-studded group aside from Kobe and Pau Gasol. Los Angeles, which was ninth in adjusted offensive rating (2.50) and had the third-best overall rating that year, outlasted a 50-win Celtics team that included Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to win the title. It went seven games, but with final scores of 89-67 in Game 6 and 83-79 in Game 7, it lived up to its ranking as one of the worst Finals of all time.
3. 1995: Orlando Magic (5.74) vs. Houston Rockets (4.87)
The defending champion Rockets were the sixth seed in the West heading into the playoffs, trailed the Jazz 2-1 before winning their best-of-five first-round series and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the conference semifinals before Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” stunned the Suns in Game 7. They were also the underdogs in the Finals by our ratings, but they swept the up-and-coming Magic to cap their unlikely repeat.
2. 2018: Golden State Warriors (7.56) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (0.88)
We’ve already mentioned the remarkable LeBron-led 2017-18 Cavs, who really bring down the combined ATR in this matchup. It stands at 8.44, which is far behind the 10.61 total for the 1995 Magic-Rockets series. Fortunately, it’s not really near No. 1 on this list either. For the third time in four years, the Cavaliers were no match for perennial All-Star Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
1. 2023: Denver Nuggets (4.75) vs. Miami Heat (2.27)
If the Heat pull off another stunning series victory, they’d easily have the lowest ATR for an NBA champion over the past 36 years. Currently, that distinction goes to the previously mentioned 1994-95 Rockets team at just 4.87.
But even if the Nuggets capture their first crown and their ATR remains relatively the same, they’d have the second-worst ATR for a Larry O’Brien trophy winner over this span. It all adds up to the worst Finals matchup of the past 37 seasons and one of the worst in NBA history.
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