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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Not Exactly the Wonder Five: Pro Basketball's Worst Finalists

This article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Basketball Digest, though the editor changed the title to "Lacking Lakers"; fortunately, he did not alter the text of the article. Writers do not generally get to choose the titles of their articles, so I suppose I should not complain, but in this case--just like my article about pro basketball's greatest ball hawks--I don't understand why the editor selected a title that is less descriptive than the one that I originally used.

I also wrote about this subject for
NBCSports.com in 2006.

The Wonder Five sounds like a Motown act or a group of superheroes but basketball fans remember that it was the nickname of the 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers, featuring All-Stars Julius Erving, George McGinnis and Doug Collins. This talent-laden team took a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals before Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers reeled off four straight wins to claim the championship.

While the Wonder Five failed to capture the ultimate prize, the 76ers enjoyed a very successful season. Their 50-32 record was the best in the Eastern Conference, their 4.0 ppg differential was more than respectable and they beat the defending champion Boston Celtics in the playoffs. The 76ers were clearly a worthy Finals participant, but for some NBA and ABA Finalists Wonder Five would not be a description but a question, as in, "I wonder how these five players made it here?" Thirteen Finals losers had a regular season winning percentage below .550; three of these teams made it to the championship round despite a sub-.500 record.

The 2001-02 New Jersey Nets are not on this list but some observers have called the Nets one of the worst teams to make it to the NBA Finals, citing the generally acknowledged weakness of the Eastern Conference and the fact that the Lakers easily swept the Nets. The unspoken part of this argument is that the Nets have been so putrid for so long that it is hard to believe that they are really good. Also, while Jason Kidd emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, no Net averaged more than 15 ppg in the regular season, adding to the "who are these guys?" stigma which stuck to the team.

However, the statistics clearly show that the Nets were the class of the Eastern Conference in 2001-02, owning the best record (52-30) and the best ppg differential (4.2 ppg). The 2002 Nets won two more games than the celebrated Wonder Five and posted a slightly better ppg differential. A skeptic could argue that the Eastern Conference was stronger in 1976-77 than in 2001-02 but it's not like the elite Western teams dominated New Jersey during the regular season. The Nets went 4-4 against the West's top four teams (1-1 versus the Sacramento Kings, 2-0 versus the San Antonio Spurs, 1-1 versus the Lakers and 0-2 versus the Dallas Mavericks). Based on a complete season's body of work the Nets do not look like such a horrible Finals team historically.

As for being swept in the Finals, this alone does not demonstrate that a team is one of the worst in Finals history. The extreme example that proves this point happened in 1988-89. The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers raced through the Western Conference playoffs with an 11-0 record only to be swept by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals after Laker starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott suffered injuries. While the 2001-02 Nets were not stricken with comparable injury setbacks, it is still difficult to compare various Finals losers based solely on their Finals' performances without taking into account the strength of the winning teams from each of those seasons. The 2001-02 Lakers would probably have swept a lot of the teams that made the Finals over the years.

The 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers are the best candidate for the dubious distinction of worst Finals team ever. Their 33-39 record is the worst of any Finalist and their –1.3 ppg differential is easily the poorest of any Finals participant. The Lakers finished 16 games behind the defending champion St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division. Minneapolis had Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor (who also made the All-NBA First Team) and not much else. Amazingly, the Lakers dispatched the Hawks 4-2 in the Western Division Finals before bowing to Bill Russell's Celtics 4-0 in the NBA Finals.

While too much should not be made of the mere fact of being swept, the Lakers were not only the first team to be swept in the NBA Finals but also the only one to suffer this fate between 1947 and 1971. The team plummeted to 25-50 in 1959-60 and even the arrival of future Hall of Famer Jerry West in 1960-61 only lifted the Lakers to 36-43.

In 1956-57 the St. Louis Hawks became the first team to make it to the Finals despite a sub-.500 record. That season each of the East's four teams had at least a .500 record and all four of the West's teams were below .500; the Ft. Wayne Pistons, the Lakers and the Hawks each went 34-38 but St. Louis emerged from the Western playoffs to face Boston in the Finals. Surprisingly, the Hawks extended the Celtics to seven games before rookie Bill Russell and company claimed the first of 11 championships in 13 years. The Hawks improved to 41-31 in 1957-58 and upset the Celtics in the Finals; Russell was hobbled with a sprained ankle.

The 1980-81 Houston Rockets are the third and last of the sub-.500 Finalists. Led by rebounding champion Moses Malone and aging but still potent guard Calvin Murphy, the Rockets shocked the defending champion Lakers 2-1 in a first round mini-series; Magic Johnson had missed more than half the season with a knee injury and shot only .388 from the field in the three playoff games. After beating a tough San Antonio Spurs team the Rockets caught a break when the upstart Kansas City Kings upset the Phoenix Suns, whose 57-25 record topped the Western Conference. Houston smashed the Kings 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Rockets squared off against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the Finals, an unimpressed Malone declared that he and four guys from his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia could beat Boston. Looking at Houston's 1981 roster, maybe he meant that he and four guys off the street could beat the remainder of the Rockets' squad. In any case, Malone's Rockets lost to the Celtics in six games.

The 1969-70 Los Angeles Stars had the worst record (43-41, .512) and worst ppg differential (-.2 ppg) of any ABA Finalist. Prior to the season the Stars signed veteran center Zelmo Beaty away from the Atlanta Hawks, but—like Rick Barry before him—he had to sit out his option year before jumping leagues. Meanwhile, the immortal Craig Raymond averaged a double-double at center and speedy guard Mack Calvin contributed 23.1 ppg and 5.9 apg during the team's improbable playoff run. Coach Bill Sharman's crew upset superstar rookie Spencer Haywood (36.7 ppg and 19.8 rpg in the playoffs) and the Western Division champion Denver Rockets before succumbing 4-2 to the powerful Indiana Pacers in the ABA Finals.

Like the 1956-57 Hawks, the Stars won a championship the year after their unlikely trip to the Finals. In 1970-71 the Stars moved to Los Angeles and went from Cinderella to powerhouse. With Beaty at center and new additions Ron Boone and Glen Combs in the backcourt the Stars won 57 games. In 1971-72 Coach Sharman enjoyed an even greater season, guiding the Lakers to a record 33 game winning streak en route to a then record 69 regular season victories and an NBA title. Sharman and Alex Hannum are the only coaches to win titles in both leagues; Hannum won his first NBA title with the aforementioned Hawks.

Is it possible for a team to win a championship but still be one of the worst Finals teams? In general this is a difficult proposition to accept—if a team scraps its way to a championship despite a mediocre record it deserves the benefit of the doubt that it would defeat most of the Finalists from other seasons that failed to win a title. In any case, only one NBA or ABA championship team had a winning percentage less than .550—the 1977-78 Washington Bullets posted a 44-38 record (.537) and a + .9 ppg differential. That team had two Hall of Famers (Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld) and made a return trip to the Finals the next year. The Bullets were certainly not one of the greatest championship teams but cannot be seriously considered to be worse than sub-.500 and barely .500 teams that lost in the Finals.

Another championship team with a relatively mediocre record is the 1994-95 Rockets. Houston went 47-35 (.573) but beat the teams with the three best records in the league to make it to the Finals and then swept the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic. That type of performance during the claiming of back-to-back championships certainly does not belong on the list of worst Finals teams. Rick Barry's 1974-75 Golden State Warriors are remembered as one of the more surprising NBA champions. Their sweep of a 60-22 Bullets' team was shocking but the Warriors did have the best record in the Western Conference (48-34). The Warriors, like the Bullets, are not among the great championship teams but also do not deserve to be lumped in with the worst Finalists.

Selecting the best of the best will always spark controversy: Wilt or Russell (or Shaq), Bird or Magic (or Jordan), Celtic Dynasty or the Running of the Bulls (or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers if they pull off the "four-peat"). However, it is doubtful that another team with a .458 record (roughly equal to 38 wins in an 82 game season) and –1.3 ppg differential will appear again in the NBA Finals. The 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers are quite safe in their perch as the worst Finalists ever.

Note: the following list of the NBA/ABA Finalists with the worst regular season winning percentages accompanied the original article and thus was compiled prior to the completion of the 2002-03 NBA season.

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM



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