Biggest underdogs to win an NBA Championship

Plus Udonis Haslem news and Knicks-Jazz trade rumblings

Welcome back to another edition of Enjoy Basketball!

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As for today’s topic, we will be looking at NBA Champions. But not just any NBA Champions. We’re going to look at the biggest underdogs in the history of the league that managed to win a title.

In order to figure this out, we looked at various stats - relative offensive rating*, relative defensive rating**, relative net rating, regular-season win percentage, playoff opponents’ regular-season win percentage, starpower factor***, and adjusted margin of victory****.

Based on these factors, we figured out which teams were insane underdogs when they won a title (over the last 50 years).

Let’s look at the top three.

*Offensive rating relative to the league average that season

**Defensive rating relative to the league average that season

***Teams were awarded points for star players they had on their team that season. MVP earned 10 points, DPOY earned 8 points, All-NBA 1st-Team earned 8 points, All-NBA Second Team earned 6 points, All-NBA 3rd-Team earned 4 points, All-Defensive 1st Team earned 4 points, All-Defensive 2nd Team earned 2 points, All-Star earned 4 points, 35+ MPG during the playoffs earned 1 points (DPOY was only introduced in 1984, so some numbers are slightly different)

****Regular-season margin of victory adjusted based on strength of opponents


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Biggest Underdogs to Win a Championship

1995 Houston Rockets

Yes, they had Hakeem Olajuwon. Yes, they had Clyde Drexler. But based on all of the stats, there is no way that they should have won the title this season, Michael Jordan or no Michael Jordan.

First and foremost, they finished the regular season with a record of 47-35 (.573), nabbing the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Only one other team since 1972 has won a title with a worse regular-season win percentage.

And to make things even crazier, their relative offensive and defensive ratings were just barely above average. Both numbers rank in the bottom ten of the past 50 champions.

But perhaps the most insane stat of note is their playoff opponents’ regular-season win percentage. They had to go through the 60-22 Utah Jazz, the 59-23 Phoenix Suns, the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs, and the 57-25 Orlando Magic. That’s an average regular season win percentage of .726, or a 59.5 win pace.

All of the odds were stacked against Olajuwon and the Rockets heading into the playoffs, but they managed to win anyways.

1978 Washington Bullets

Remember when we mentioned that the 1995 Rockets held the second-lowest win percentage of any team to win a title in the last 50 years? Well, meet the 1978 Washington Bullets. They went 44-38 on the season, and thanks to some wildly unbalanced conferences, they made the playoffs as the third seed in the East.

The team’s starpower factor is what makes their run so impressive. Their rating of a 33 is the third-lowest in the past 50 years. To put that into perspective, the 2017 Golden State Warriors had a starpower rating of 139. The 1978 Bullets earned a 33.

Elvin Hayes was their leading scorer, followed by Bob Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak, and Kevin Grevey. That year they had just one All-Star (Hayes), and since All-Stars earned points within three years of their title win, Dandridge earned a point, too. But that’s not the wildest part about their championship run.

During the regular season, they won games by an average of 0.82 points - by far the lowest of any champion in the last 50 years. The next lowest was the 1976 Boston Celtics with a 2.24. For reference, the 2022 Cleveland Cavaliers had an adjusted MOV of 2.04.

The fact that they won a championship with such a poor record and with (comparatively) such little starpower is extremely impressive.

1979 Seattle SuperSonics

Two years in a row of underdogs winning the title? No way, right?

Yes, way. Absolutely.

Only three teams in the last 50 years have won a championship with a below-average offense, and this SuperSonics team had the worst of the bunch with a -1.1 relative offensive rating. That means their offense was 1.1 points worse than the league average that year.

Now, they obviously made up for that with a solid defense, but that’s not where the stats end. Their regular-season win percentage is the fourth-worst in the last 50 years and their playoff opponents’ win percentage was in the middle of the pack comparatively.

But wait, there’s more.

Not only did the SuperSonics barely scrape by wins in the regular season, but they had the worst starpower rating of any champion in the last 50 years. They earned a 16. Again, the 2017 Warriors got a 139. The Sonics didn’t even have a single 20-point scorer that season. Their two main stars? Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma.

These Sonics beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in five games. Five games. What a run.

Latest Basketball News

Udonis Haslem is BACK

After much anticipation, Udonis Haslem has decided to return to the Miami Heat for his 20th NBA season. He said that he wants to finish his 20th season as he and his father, who passed away last season, had discussed. That being said, he did note that this would be his final year in the league.

With his return, he joins Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant as the only players in NBA history to play 20 seasons with the same NBA franchise. And with how thin the Heat are at the power forward position for the upcoming season, some have speculated that Haslem could actually earn semi-regular minutes.

Knicks “turned off” by Jazz offer

According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the New York Knicks were turned off by the Utah Jazz’s asking price for Donovan Mitchell. It was reported by Marc Stein that Danny Ainge and the Jazz requested seven first-round picks, as well as players, for Mitchell.

This price likely caused the recent lack of rumors, as trade talks quieted down significantly. However, according to Shams Charania and Tony Jones of The Athletic, the two teams have recently picked up conversations again. Only time will tell how those talks will go, though.

Good Reads

NBA Notebook: Imagining what Malcolm Brogdon brings to Celtics - Bobby Manning (Boston Sports Journal)

Warriors’ James Wiseman finds himself through therapy, rap and resilience - CJ Holmes (San Francisco Chronicle)

Juan Toscano-Anderson may be Lakers' best-kept secret - Robert Marvi (LeBron Wire)

Steph Curry and the unconventional beauty of inverted ball screens - Joe Viray (Golden State of Mind)

How Christian Wood can avoid being Kristaps Porzingis - David Trink (Mavs Moneyball)

Signing Off

So, which of the three teams above is the biggest underdog to ever win a title? These numbers came from a grad school project, and the spreadsheet with every champion’s numbers from the last 50 years can be viewed here. Let us know if you find a bigger underdog!

Thanks for the continued support, and again, make sure to check out the Enjoy Essentials Collection here before it’s all gone!

That'll be it for us. Thanks for reading. See y'all next time.

Trivia Answer: The record for most consecutive regular-season games played without missing one belongs to AC Green, who played in 1,192 games in a row. In fact, he only missed three games throughout the course of his entire 16-year career.

Trivia Question: Remember how we mentioned that the Sonics were one of three teams in the last 50 years to win a title with a below-average offense? Well, only one team has won a championship with a below-average defense? Which team was it?