More than any other sport, the NBA’s best teams end up winning the championship. The Chicago Bulls won six times with Michael Jordan in the ’90s. The Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive years with Shaq and Kobe. LeBron James’s teams have won the NBA championship four of the last six years. However, on occasion, an underdog rises to the occasion and wins the NBA Finals. Just like under-the-radar players can come out of nowhere, teams can, too. As proof, here are the six times an underdog won the NBA championship.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016
This may be one of the most classic, recent examples of an underdog winning the NBA championship. The Cleveland Cavaliers, led by James and Kyrie Irving, were the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. They had a 57-25 record; swept past the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks; and took out the Toronto Raptors in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. So what made them such an underdog? The Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors had the best regular-season record in NBA history in 2015–16, going 73-9 and rolling their way to the finals. They even took a 3-1 series lead over the Cavs, needing just one last victory to assure winning back-to-back championships. Not a problem, considering their talent level and the fact that they hadn’t lost three games in a row all season, right? Wrong. James averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 9.7 assists, pushing the Cavaliers to win all three games, take the series, and give the underdog Cavs their first NBA championship.
2. Dallas Mavericks, 2011
Speaking of LeBron, his Cavs may have been the underdog in 2016, but he’s no stranger to being the favorite. In 2010–11, the Miami Heat were in their first season with their superstar trio of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. They started the year slowly with a 9-8 record, but finished strong at 58-24. Miami went 12-3 in the Eastern Conference, taking care of the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls with relative ease.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, it looked like James would finally break through and win his first championship, as the Heat took a 2-1 series lead on Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. But Nowitzki pulled some tricks of his own, scoring 23.7 points and grabbing 9.3 rebounds to win their last three games of the series, knocking the Heat out in the finals and stunning the league. Shooting guard Jason Terry also played a huge role in the upset, scoring 21.7 points in the final three games on 58.1% shooting from the field.
3. Miami Heat, 2006
Prior to making it to the NBA Finals in 2010–11, the Heat last made a trip to the NBA’s biggest stage back in 2005–06, when Shaquille O’Neal played alongside Wade. The Heat made it into the playoffs with a 52-30 record — good but not outstanding. They were the second-best team in the East, sitting 12 games behind the Pistons in the conference. Miami struggled early in their first-round series against the Bulls, going into Game 5 with the series tied. They won in six games, but few thought they were the best team in the playoffs at that point.
But the Heat took down the New Jersey Nets and eventually the Pistons before facing Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals. Miami went down 0-2 against the Mavs, but stormed back to win four consecutive games and the NBA championship. Wade averaged 34.7 points in the six games, getting to the free-throw line an absurd 97 times. They weren’t the worst team to ever win an championship, but considering their status as the underdog in both the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA finals, they are one of the bigger upsets.
4. Detroit Pistons, 2004
Speaking of upsets, it’s hard to even talk about them and not bring up the 2004 Detroit Pistons. The Pistons came into the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, having finished in second place in the Central Division with a 54-28 record. They found their way through the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, and Indiana Pacers to face off with O’Neal, Bryant, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone in the 2004 NBA Finals.
But Malone, ever the picture of health and consistency in his career, was injured. He and Payton performed poorly in the series, and O’Neal and Bryant were the only Lakers to average more than 6.4 points per game in the series. The Pistons absolutely shut down the Lakers on defense, winning the series in five games and becoming one of the more shocking upsets in finals history.
5. Houston Rockets, 1995
Even though the Houston Rockets won the NBA Finals in 1993–94, they came into the postseason in 1994–95 as a major underdog. To that point, no team lower than a No. 4 seed in their conference had ever won a championship. With a 47-35 record, the Houston Rockets were the No. 6 seed in the West that year, despite having acquired future Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler midseason.
Their first-round series with the higher-seeded Utah Jazz went to a fifth and deciding game, which the Rockets won. They also pushed their second-round series with the Phoenix Suns to the limit, winning that one in Game 7 on the road. Then, they defeated the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs in six games. The Rockets were unstoppable, and their run culminated with a sweep of the Orlando Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals — giving them their second consecutive NBA championship.
6. Washington Bullets, 1978
Few people remember the 1977–78 Washington Bullets, but they’re officially the team with the worst record to ever win an NBA championship. The Eastern Conference was really bad that year, with a 32-50 team actually making the playoffs as an eighth seed. Back then, the class of the East were the Philadelphia 76ers — you read that right — and the San Antonio Spurs, with the Bullets coming in with the third-best record at just 44-38.
But the Bullets found a way, behind Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge, and Wes Unseld, to upset both the Spurs and 76ers in the Eastern Conference Playoffs before taking on the equally mediocre, 47-35 Seattle SuperSonics in the 1978 NBA Finals. Seattle took a 2-1 and then a 3-2 series lead, but the Bullets just kept returning and eventually won the final two games of the series — including Game 7 in Seattle, making the Bullets one of the biggest underdogs to ever win an NBA championship.
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