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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Best of the Worst or Worst of the Best?

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 12/11/06

Watching most of the teams in the "Leastern" Conference, one cannot help but wonder two things: (1) Which teams were the worst ones to ever play in the NBA Finals? (2) Is this year’s Eastern Conference representative to the Finals going to push that record to new heights (or depths)?

NBA Commissioner David Stern can change the basketball, enforce dress codes and instruct the referees to issue more technical fouls in response to player misconduct--but even he cannot change the fact that the NBA Finals will match a team from the Western Conference versus a team from the Eastern Conference. So far this season, the Eastern Conference has been pathetic. The entire Atlantic Division is submerged below .500. As of this writing, only three of the conference’s 15 teams have winning records (two more are right at .500, so that number may have changed by the time you read this). Orlando owns the best record in the East but the Magic have not made the playoffs since 2003 and are unlikely to march unscathed through the playoffs even if they finish first in the East during the regular season. The other two winning Eastern Conference teams of the moment are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been struggling along at about a .500 pace since Larry Hughes got hurt, and the Detroit Pistons, who had a great regular season last year but were less than magnificent in the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls seem to be getting their act together and may soon push their record above .500 but it is certainly not inconceivable that a sub .500 Eastern Conference team could get hot in the postseason and make it to the NBA Finals—it has happened three times previously.

There is a fairly clear winner in the category of worst NBA Finalist ever: the 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers. How bad were they? Let us count the ways: (1) their .458 regular season winning percentage (which translates to roughly 38 wins in an 82 game season) is the worst ever for a Finalist; (2) they were outscored by 1.3 ppg during the regular season, also the worst ever performance by a Finalist; (3) they were the first team to be swept in the NBA Finals and the only team to be swept in the NBA Finals between 1947 and 1971. The Lakers may not have put up great statistics but they definitely had a great player: Elgin Baylor, who averaged 24.9 ppg and 15.0 rpg, good enough to not only claim Rookie of the Year honors but also to make the All-NBA First Team. Baylor’s Lakers eliminated the defending champion St. Louis Hawks 4-2 in the Western Division Finals in one of the biggest upsets in playoff history; the Hawks had won 16 more regular season games than the Lakers did and had three All-NBA First or Second Team players on their roster, including that season’s MVP, Bob Pettit. The Lakers lost in the Finals to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, who would go on to win the next seven NBA titles. Miami (or Cleveland if Hughes is out so long that the Cavaliers slip below .500) could fit the profile of a sub .500 team that could be capable of winning the conference title largely because of the efforts of one young star, with Dwyane Wade (or LeBron James in the case of Cleveland) playing the role of Elgin Baylor.

Pettit’s 1956-57 Hawks made it to the NBA Finals after emerging from a Western Division that looked a lot like today’s Atlantic Division—all four teams finished below .500 (the NBA consisted of just eight teams in two divisions at that time). The Hawks were one of three Western Division teams that finished with 34-38 records. St. Louis won two tiebreaking games to earn a bye and then swept the Lakers in the Western Division Finals. Despite their mediocre record, the Hawks proved to be a formidable test for the 44-28 Celtics in the Finals, extending the series to seven games and extending that seventh game to double overtime before rookie Russell won the first of his 11 championships. The 1956-57 Hawks were a rising team that won the NBA Championship the following season; can you say "Chicago Bulls"?

In 1980-81, the defending champion L.A. Lakers lost the services of 1980 Finals MVP Magic Johnson for more than half of the regular season. He returned in time for the playoffs, but the 40-42 Houston Rockets eliminated them in the first round. The Rockets then beat a strong 52-30 San Antonio team and met the 40-42 Kansas City Kings in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets won that series 4-1 and split the first four NBA Finals games with the Boston Celtics before Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell and company won the series in six games. The Rockets were powered by a young Hall of Fame center (Moses Malone, 27.8 ppg and a league-leading 14.8 rpg) and an aging Hall of Fame guard (Calvin Murphy, second on the team in scoring with 16.7 ppg). This year’s Heat have a chance to reprise two completely different roles in this scenario: they could be like the 1981 Lakers, a defending champion weakened by an injury to a key player (Shaquille O’Neal) and vulnerable to playoff elimination by a sub .500 team that peaked at the right time--or they could emulate the Rockets, pairing a young future Hall of Famer (Wade) with an aging future Hall of Famer (O’Neal), the only difference being that their young star is a guard and their aging star is a center.

Could a team have a winning percentage below .550 and actually win the championship? That has only happened once: the 1977-78 Washington Bullets went 44-38 (.538) in the regular season but defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals; the next year, the two teams met again and Seattle won. The 1978 Bullets had two Hall of Famers (Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld) but dealt with a lot of injuries during the regular season. Miami (Wade and O’Neal) or New Jersey (Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, if you consider him a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate) could follow in the Bullets’ footsteps, winning a title after a less than spectacular regular season.

Other than the 1998-99 New York Knicks, who emerged from the madness of the NBA’s compressed 50 game lockout season to make it to the NBA Finals, the 1981 Rockets are the most recent team to make it to the Finals with a sub .550 regular season winning percentage. If the Eastern Conference does not markedly improve in the next few months, that may change. In that case, the best that we can hope for is that during the NBA Finals the Eastern Conference champion emulates the 1957 Hawks--and not the 1959 Lakers.


Pro Basketball's Worst Finalists

Season..Team..Record/Win %..PPG Diff.

1958-59..Minneapolis Lakers..33-39/.458..-1.3 PPG
1956-57..St. Louis Hawks..34-38/.472..-.1 PPG
1980-81..Houston Rockets..40-42/.488..+.4 PPG
1969-70..Los Angeles Stars (ABA)..43-41/.511905..-.2 PPG
1970-71..Baltimore Bullets..42-40/.512195..+.6 PPG
1975-76..Phoenix Suns..42-40/.512195..+.6 PPG
1955-56..Ft. Wayne Pistons..37-35/.514..+.7 PPG
1970-71..Kentucky Colonels (ABA)..44-40/.524..+.1 PPG
1971-72..New York Nets (ABA)..44-40/.524..+.4 PPG
1974-75..Indiana Pacers (ABA)..45-39/.536..+1.1 PPG
1998-99..New York Knicks..27-23/.540..+1.0 PPG
1966-67..San Francisco Warriors..44-37/.543..+2.9 PPG
1950-51..New York Knicks..36-30/.545..+.4 PPG

13 NBA and ABA Finals losers had regular season winning percentages below .550

posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

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