The history of the National Basketball Association is filled to the brim with era-defining dynasties and unstoppable superteams.
The 1950s were dominated by George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers. Bill Russell’s Celtics had control over the league for almost the entirety of the 1960s. The vast majority of the 1980s was a two-team race between the Celtics and the Lakers. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defined the 1990s. Most of the 2000s revolved around the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. And the 2010s can be summarized as LeBron James versus his various adversaries. With the sole exception of the 1970s, which had far more parity than any other era, NBA history is littered with nigh unstoppable juggernaut teams.
Of course, no team is truly unstoppable. Every once in a while, an unlikely contender emerges from the fold and does the impossible. It’s an occurrence we see across all sports – perhaps the best example being the 2007 New York Giants, who entered the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card team and proceeded to somehow win four straight games, culminating with a Super Bowl win over the 18-0 New England Patriots.
The perceived probability of a championship run can be quantified using historic betting odds. In an NBA context, this means retrieving the pre-series odds for each team. For example, consider the Lakers’ 2020 Finals run. They entered a first round matchup with the Blazers as favorites with -550 odds. They entered their conference semifinals and conference finals matchups against the Rockets and Nuggets respectively with the same -550 odds. Finally, the Lakers’ were given -350 odds ahead of their NBA Finals matchup against the Miami Heat. Note that -550 odds correspond with an 84.62% implied probability while -350 odds correspond with a 77.78% implied probability. Then we multiply the implied winning probability for the Lakers in each round to get an overall run probability of 47.12%.
Naturally, this methodology isn’t perfect for obvious reasons. The Nets were favorites against the Bucks going into the Eastern Conference Semifinals this season. Would they have been favorites if the oddsmakers knew that James Harden and Kyrie Irving would be injured? Probably not. So keep in mind that any mid-series changes would obviously not be reflected in pre-series odds, which are used in this exercise. Also, bookmakers are incredibly good at their jobs, odds are still not perfect. Just because a team has implied odds of 65% to win a game does not mean they actually have a 65% chance of winning.
I was able to calculate the championship run probability for each NBA championship run since 1989. Here are the top three most improbable Finals winning runs.
3. 2011 Dallas Mavericks (4.86%)
The 2011 Dallas Mavericks entered the playoffs as the third seed in the West with a 57-25 record. As one of only four teams with both a top-10 offense and defense, the Mavs were recognized as a well-balanced team. While they lacked a true second superstar alongside Dirk Nowitzki, the rotation included effective role players like Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry.
Despite the positives on paper, Dallas entered the 2011 playoffs as with +2000 odds to win the Finals, just the 7th best line in the league. The Lakers, Bulls, Heat, Spurs, Celtics, and Thunder were all given better odds than the Mavericks. While Dirk was a great player, he was past his peak and most other contenders had more than one star. It also didn’t help that Dirk (and the Mavericks as a whole) had earned a reputation of falling short in the playoffs. No one really trusted them to make a deep run, especially in the stacked Western Conference.
The Mavericks had a first round date with the Portland Trail Blazers. Dallas entered the series with -200 odds of winning, equivalent to an implied probability of 67%. They were solid favorites, but it wasn’t exactly expected to be a cakewalk. It ended up being a good series, as four of the six games were decided by less than ten points. Nowitzki led the charge for the Mavericks with 33 points in Game 6 to close out the Blazers 4-2 in the series.
And then the Mavericks moved on to face the championship favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers. This is exactly where the run was supposed to come to an end. The expectation was that the Nowitzki-led Mavs would be sent home prior to the Western Conference Finals for the fifth straight year since the devastating 2006 Finals loss. This was a Lakers team that was seeking a fourth straight Finals appearance and a third straight Finals win. They could play. The oddsmakers set the odds at +280 for the Mavericks to beat the Lakers, which corresponds with an implied win probability of just 26%. Not great.
An eventful Game 1 saw the Lakers up 94-91 with a minute to go thanks to a pullup midrange jumper from Kobe Bryant to put him at 36 points on the night. After Dirk responded with a runner inside the free throw line to cut the lead to one with 40 seconds left in the contest, the Lakers committed two costly turnovers leading to two fouls that spoon-fed the Mavericks four free throws and a chance to take the lead. After nailing three of the four foul shots, the Mavericks went up 96-94 and won the game when Kobe Bryant missed an open three at the buzzer.
The Mavericks took Game 2 in relatively comfortable fashion to shockingly go up 2-0 in the series despite not having home court advantage. The Lakers entered the fourth quarter of a must-win Game 3 up by six points before proceeding to be outscored by 12 points the rest of the way, falling to a 0-3 deficit in the series. All hope was gone from that point, and the Mavericks’ bench trio of Peja Stojakovic, JJ Barea, and Jason Terry proceeded to score 75 combined points in Game 4 on just 35 shots from the field. The defending champions were eliminated from the playoffs in a 36 point Game 4 blowout.
The Mavericks’ performance against the Lakers was enough to make them favorites in the Western Conference Finals. Dallas entered this series against the Thunder with -240 odds of winning (71% implied probability) even though the Thunder were previously given superior odds of winning the Finals going into the playoffs. The Thunder had barely scraped by the eight seed Memphis Grizzlies, taking seven games to put the underdogs away. Meanwhile, the Mavericks were coming off of a sweep of the title favorites. Pretty easy pick for Vegas.
Nonetheless, the young Thunder squad fought hard, losing four games by an average 6.5 point margin. While the Mavericks only dropped one game all series, they needed every ounce of Dirk Nowitzki’s incredible 32 points per game on incredible efficiency: 70% true shooting.
The Mavericks now had an unlikely matchup with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat new core of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh was absolutely frightening for the rest of the league, but the Mavericks’ impressive run had not gone unnoticed either. All in all, the bookmakers gave the Mavs +155 odds of winning the title, corresponding to an implied win probability of 39%. A relatively close matchup but with the advantage going Miami’s way.
Things looked good for the Heat after winning Game 1 by a 92-84 margin. It was the first time all postseason that the Mavericks lost the first game of a series. And when Dwyane Wade hit a three-pointer to put the Heat up 88-73 with 7:14 left in Game 2, it looked as if the Mavericks’ magic may had ran out. Of course, that was before the Mavericks closed out the game with a 22-5 run to steal the game on the back of a lightning quick comeback. Dirk scored the last nine points for the Mavericks, including a clutch game-winning layup while guarded by Chris Bosh. In the span of just seven minutes, the Mavericks flipped their fortunes from almost certainly going down 2-0 to stealing home court advantage.
The Heat responded with a tight 88-86 win on the road in Game 3 to take back home court and go up 2-1 in the series. Wade led the way for the Heat with 29 points and 11 rebounds on 64% TS% while Dirk carried the Mavericks with a 34/11 stat line of his own on 68% TS%. The supporting casts for both players underperformed for the most part in this ugly low-scoring game, but Bosh was the one who hit the jumper to put the Heat ahead for good.
The Mavericks won the next three games by an average margin of seven points. In a Game 4 loss, LeBron scored just eight points on 11 shots while co-stars Bosh and Wade combined for 56. The Heat lost by three points. It’s by far the biggest stain on the legacy of one of the greatest talents in the history of the game – with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead, LeBron contributed just eight points. Eight. That’s unheard of. The series was now tied 2-2 and both Heat losses seemed unfathomable – one caused by a late 22-5 run and the other caused by the best player in the world having the worst performance of his life.
The Heat never again got quite as close to winning a game, as the Mavericks took the next two games by nine and ten point margins respectively. The title was theirs – Dirk Nowitzki successfully transformed his perception as a player through one magical postseason run to the top of the mountain.
2. 2004 Detroit Pistons (4.14%)
The 2004 Pistons are known as the rare championship team that lacked a true offensive superstar. The team’s greatest asset was their defense, anchored by 4x Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. The Pistons 95.4 adjusted defensive rating was the second-best in the league. Their offense wasn’t quite as strong. Their offensive rating was just the 18th best in a league with 29 teams. Rip Hamilton led the team in scoring with 17.6 PPG, which ranked a mere 28th in the league.
Chauncey Billups was more impactful, putting up a more efficient 17 points per game along with 6 assists, but he still didn’t stack up offensively with guys like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant. Could he lead the Pistons to wins over teams led by these superstar players?
The Pistons had an easy first round matchup with the 41-41 Milwaukee Bucks. Given implied odds of 95%, the Pistons promptly took care of business with a 4-1 series win.
Things got trickier in the second round. The Pistons faced the New Jersey Nets, who had just swept the Pistons in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were once again favored, but the odds weren’t quite as lopsided – their implied odds of 64% left room for a Nets victory. The series went to a seventh game where the Pistons enjoyed a dominant 21-point blowout. Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd averaged 10 points per game for the Nets with an abysmal 37% TS% while playing with a serious knee injury. However, I don’t think this really takes away from the Pistons’ win because while the series went to seven games, almost every game was a lopsided massacre.
The Pistons now had a date with the 61-21 Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were underdogs for the first time, but not by a large margin – they had implied odds of 41%. Rip Hamilton carried the load for the offense, averaging 24 points per game which included a dominant 33 point performance in a Game 5 blowout to go up 3-2 in the series.
Game 6 was a spectacle of awful basketball, with blown offensive plays on both sides leading to a 69-65 final score favoring the Pistons. The Pistons won with a cumulative team true shooting percentage of 39% in Game 6. That’s not a typo. It was a rather fitting way for the 2004 Pistons to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
The Pistons’ run up to this point was great, but what truly makes it legendary is the Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons’ implied odds of winning going into the Finals sat at just 17%. No team in NBA history is known to have won the NBA Finals with odds lower than the Pistons’ +500 against the 56-win Lakers. The Lakers were coming off of a four year stretch in which they won three titles – the Pistons of all teams weren’t supposed to beat them. But as league commissioner David Stern said during the ensuing trophy presentation, the 2004 Detroit Pistons showed that “fairy tale endings do actually occur.”
But how? How did a team without a superstar win a title in dominant fashion against a team led by legends like prime Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant?
The Lakers scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions in the 2003-04 regular season. In the Finals, they managed to score just 96.1 points per 100 possessions. While Shaq was able to maintain his production (averaging 26.6 PPG on 61.5% TS%), the Pistons were able to stifle the rest of the team. Bryant managed to score just 22.6 points per game on abysmal efficiency (45.6% TS%).
On the other side of things, Chauncey Billups was absolutely dominant. He dominated his matchup whenever guarded by 35-year-old Gary Payton, putting up 21 PPG in the series on blistering efficiency (69.6% TS%). Kobe couldn’t guard both Rip Hamilton and Billups, which guaranteed one of them would be able to exploit Payton’s weak defense.
Speaking of old legends, you can’t talk about the 2004 Finals without discussing Karl Malone. Along with Payton, the 40-year-old Malone turned down a larger paycheck in the offseason to seek a championship with the Lakers. And things were looking good at first – the Lakers were on a 65-win pace before Malone suffered a knee injury in late December, forcing him to miss 39 games in the middle of the season.
Before the injury, Malone averaged 14.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on 57.4% TS%. He wasn’t the Karl Malone of the past, but he was a key part of the team. In the 18 regular season games he played after the injury, Malone averaged 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on 53.2% TS%. The Lakers still cruised to a 56-26 record, but they certainly felt the impact of Malone’s injury in the playoffs.
Karl Malone played through the first four games of the series with a sprained right knee but was held to a scoring average of just 5 PPG in the Finals on sub 40% TS%, resulting in the decision to sit him in the fifth and final game of the series. The Lakers were a top-heavy team that just didn’t have the depth to deal with the loss of a key piece like Malone.
At the end of the day, the Pistons were the better team. Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace all bought into their roles and executed on both sides of the floor, pulling off an all-time great upset to top off the second-most improbable Finals run in league history.
1. 1995 Houston Rockets (1.29%)
You probably wouldn’t have expected to see a defending champion in this list. Led by Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year winner Hakeem Olajuwon, the 1994 Rockets won 58 games in the regular season and proceeded to win the NBA Finals over the New York Knicks.
Like many successful teams with only one superstar, the 1994 Rockets were built around their defense. The unit anchored by Olajuwon in the paint boasted the second-best defensive rating in the league.
In the 1995 regular season, the Rockets fell back to earth. They won just 47 games and their elite defense fell to 12th in the league by defensive rating. A midseason trade for Clyde Drexler didn’t seem to pan out, as the Rockets finished the season 17-19 with Drexler in the lineup. It seemed as if the 1994 Rockets caught lightning in a bottle. After all, they won two series in seven games – it wasn’t exactly a dominant playoff run. In fact, some argued that they didn’t deserve the win in the first place.1
The Rockets faced off against the 60-22 Jazz in the first round. The Rockets had implied odds of 32% to beat the Jazz, but they narrowly scraped away with a 3-2 series win2 after a tightly contested Game 5 where Olajuwon and Drexler combined for 64 points on 31 shot attempts.
The Rockets went on to face the 59-23 Suns in the second round. The oddsmakers once again set an implied win probability of 32% for the Rockets to emerge victorious in this series. With the Suns up 3-1 after Game 4, it looked like the Rockets’ magical two-year run was coming to an end. But of course you know that’s not the case, or else we wouldn’t be talking about them. The Rockets won the next three games, including a 115-114 Game 7 victory. Kevin Johnson’s 46 points in Game 7 were not enough as a corner three-pointer from Mario Elie of all players ended up being the winning shot for Houston.
The six-seed Rockets just knocked off a 60-win team and a 59-win team to reach the Western Conference Finals in improbable fashion. Unfortunately, things weren’t going to get easier for Hakeem’s squad. The Rockets entered a WCF matchup with the 62-20 Spurs with implied odds of just 29%, even after the oddsmakers saw the Rockets’ 1994 Finals win and their two previous upset wins. The Spurs were not to be taken lightly.
But neither was Hakeem Olajuwon. In a matchup against league MVP David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon was absolutely transcendent. The Dream averaged 35/13/5 on the series along with a whopping four blocks per contest. With the series tied 2-2, Hakeem dropped 42 points on 63% shooting from the field along with five rejections. Robinson was held to an inefficient 22 points and seven turnovers.
After Olajuwon’s tour de force in Game 5, Spurs coach Bob Hill said, “It seemed like Olajuwon made every shot. I think his performance sort of broke our spirit.”
It certainly seemed to break David Robinson’s spirit. Facing elimination in Game 6, Robinson delivered another stinker with 19 points on 35% shooting from the field along with another six turnovers. Olajuwon once again stole the show with 39 points on 25 shots while grabbing 17 boards and putting away the Spurs for good.
The Rockets’ unbelievable run set them up for a Finals matchup against the young Orlando Magic. The oddsmakers were not quite as pessimistic regarding the Rockets’ chances this time around – while they were once again underdogs, their implied win probability of 43% was significantly higher than previous matchups. The 57-win Magic were expected to win, but it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
Of course, the Rockets did end up winning the series in a four-game sweep. Maybe from that perspective it was a walk in the park. But a few things had to go right for that to happen. Nick Anderson was at the free throw line for the Magic with ten seconds to go in Game 1 and Orlando up by three points. Anderson just had to hit one of his two free throws and the game would likely be over. Anderson missed both but luckily got the offensive rebound and went to the line again for a second pair of free throws. Anderson somehow bricked these two free throws as well, and the Rockets’ Kenny Smith proceeded to send the game into overtime with a clutch three-pointer. It’s hard to overstate how demoralizing that loss must’ve been for the Magic.
Game 3 was another close one. The Rockets held a 101-100 lead with 17 seconds to go when Olajuwon was double-teamed in the post. He passed it to Robert “Big Shot Rob” Horry on the wing, who lived up to his nickname by hitting the clutch three to extend the lead. The Magic fell 3-0 in the series and a 35/15/6 statline from Olajuwon in Game 4 was enough to close out the sweep.
To this day, the 1995 Rockets are the lowest seeded team to win the NBA Finals, and they are the only known team to win the Finals while being underdogs in every series they played.
I chose to specifically highlight the top three runs in this article, but there’s plenty of other interesting features from the data, courtesy of SportsOddsHistory. Here’s the full data, including the two possible winners of the 2021 NBA Finals which is currently tied 2-2 between the Suns and Bucks.
- The Knicks and Rockets were tied at 1-1 entering Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Knicks guard John Starks attempted a three-pointer in the final moments of the game with the Knicks down by three. Olajuwon fouled Starks, which sent him to the line for two free throws. Yes, two. A three-point foul resulted in two free throws for the offensive player. Starks knocked down both free throws but it was too late, and the Rockets won the game and eventually won the series in a Game 7. The league promptly changed the rule after the series.
- The first round of the playoffs only consisted of best-of-five series until 2003.