The NBA Finals have proven to be one of the most captivating and legendary playoff series over the years in any given sport. We’ve seen a plethora of amazing moments and individual games that have gone down as the stuff of legend. Often times, we remember the great players and teams that have ultimately won an NBA Championship, and gloss over the ones that came up short. In doing so, we lose track of some starting lineups that had no business ever playing for a title, but somehow snuck into the Finals.
These underwhelming NBA Finals rosters generally had one or two very good players of course, but hardly a starting 5 that would warrant consideration as a top-two team in the league. Against all odds however, they were able to make their way through the playoffs, many times on the strength of those one or two good players who carried the team. There are certainly some notable examples of this in NBA history, so let’s take a look at which Finals teams were the biggest overachievers the league has ever seen.
Ranked below are the top 15 worst starting 5s to ever play in the NBA Finals.
15. 1992-93 Suns
Charles Barkley wanted to win a title after being utilized improperly with the Sixers, so he left for Phoenix in the early-90s. It was a move that saw him make his only Finals appearance, but he was clearly the best player on what was otherwise a so-so roster apart from himself, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Majerle.
Danny Ainge was a good player, but old and out of his prime. Cedric Ceballos hadn’t yet hit his prime, and the rest of the team wasn’t really anything noteworthy. Of course, Barkley played extremely well, and turned out to be worth the investment, but this starting lineup as a whole was easily outmatched by Jordan’s Bulls. Barkley was unlucky to face such a dynasty in his one Finals appearance, but he may not have fared any better in another era with that Suns team.
14. 2001-02 Nets
Though they had the advent of Jason Kidd in his prime, this Nets team wasn’t one of the more intimidating Finals rosters in league history. Kerry Kittles was talented, but he was coming off a knee injury from the previous year and had lost a step. Elsewhere, Todd MacCulloch was a generic big-man who wasn’t one of the league’s better centers. Keith Van Horn and Kenyon Martin never truly turned the corner into being consistently upper-tier players.
The Nets were decimated by the Lakers in four games and it wasn’t even close. This was a team that played in an Eastern Conference without an identity, and it showed. Ultimately, it was as close as they ever got to winning a title.
13. 2011-12 Thunder
The big-three of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant was a revelation on this team, but none of them, save for maybe Durant, were at the peak of their powers. At worst, it created an oversaturation of star talent on a roster that wasn’t good enough to support it. The trio could have been successful, but they had next to nothing backing them up.
The Thunder sported one of the worst supporting casts in league history that year. The only remotely good player was Serge Ibaka, and he hadn’t yet hit his prime. This was truly a top-heavy roster in every sense of the word. Oklahoma City would fall in five games to the Heat, in what would be their only Finals appearance with the trio.
12. 1999-2000 Pacers
The tandem of Jalen Rose and Reggie Miller struck fear in the hearts of opposing defenders during this era, but the team was remarkably thin just about everywhere else. The overrated Rik Smits was probably the only other formidable player on the starting five. It was an old roster of players who at that point, were quite frankly washed up.
To nobody’s surprise, the Lakers ended up winning the series, and captured their first title with both Kobe Bryant and Shaq. Indiana never really had a chance, with little offensive firepower outside of the Rose and Miller combination. In a way they actually overachieved, but weren’t able to knock off Los Angeles when it mattered most, for obvious reasons.
11. 1991-92 Trail Blazers
No question that running into Jordan’s Bulls during the Finals isn’t a good way to get over the hump to a championship, but that’s what Portland was facing in the 1992 Playoffs. Outside of Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler however, their lineup was sorely lacking, and wasn’t able to out-muscle Chicago over an entire series.
It was certainly a solid roster, but not one built for championship-level success. Drexler and Porter were back-court players, and the team needed more playmakers inside the paint to contain the Bulls. Definitely a team that seemed better at the time than they do in retrospect, the Trail Blazers never had a shot in the 1992 Playoffs. Then again, not many did when facing off against M.J.
10. 1995-96 SuperSonics
With Gary Payton as the only legitimate All Star-level talent on the roster, the SuperSonics defied the odds and actually made it to the Finals in the 1996 Playoffs. Sure, Hersey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf were decent enough for the time, but this was unquestionably Payton’s show, and he was the sole reason they were able to make a deep playoff run. Shawn Kemp provided help as well, but any other complimentary pieces were notably absent.
The Sonics actually put up a half-decent run against Jordan’s Bulls, but were beaten in six games. With another complimentary scorer, Payton could have done far more damage, and actually potentially stood a chance to upset the Bulls en route to a championship. As it stood, it wasn’t meant to be, and the Seattle would never get back to another Finals until they up and moved to Oklahoma City.
9. 1976-77 Trail Blazers
Save for Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, this Portland team featured players who didn’t exactly go on to greatness following the team’s title victory in the 1977 Playoffs. Thankfully for them, this was the one year everything came together, and they were able to win a title in an NBA that was still looking for an identity in the mid-’70s. Stacked up against many future rosters however, this one just doesn’t hold up in the slightest.
Even Walton and Lucas didn’t have the kind of longevity that someone like Magic or Bird had. As far as championship personnel went, this is at the bottom of the NBA barrel. Again, the league didn’t have the star-caliber players it would later on, and Portland was able to take advantage and win a title.
8. 2010-11 Mavericks
This Mavericks roster essentially served as a “who’s who” for decent, but not great NBA players. This is, of course, with the exception of Dirk Nowitzki, who was still one of the best players in the league at this time. Miraculously, Dallas was able to in the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Heat, during his first year in Miami.
That doesn’t change the fact that this roster was pretty poor in retrospect though, at least for a team that was in the Finals. Jason Terry, Caron Butler and an older Jason Kidd certainly weren’t bad, but they weren’t marquee names either that would be able to stand the test of time. You’d expect more star-power out of a roster that was able to defeat a LeBron-led team, but the Mavs didn’t have the kind of clout that other Finals-winning teams had.
7. 2002-03 Nets
Almost amazingly, somehow the Nets were able to go to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003, and the latter version of the team was just as underwhelming as the first. It was mainly the same roster, anchored by Jason Kidd, with Kerry Kittles and Kenyon Martin in a supporting role. Like the first time, they were able to beat up on an Eastern Conference that was in a state of flux at the time, and were thoroughly beaten by the Spurs for the Championship when it came down to it.
Ultimately, these early-2000s New Jersey teams just weren’t that good at the end of the day. Even as early as five years later, they wouldn’t have sniffed a Finals appearance, but were able to be opportunistic in a down era for the Eastern Conference. They deserve some credit for that, but their roster still was a weak link in the history of the NBA Playoffs.
6. 1994-95 Magic
Obviously the tandem of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal was one of the better ones of the mid-90s, but beyond that this Orlando team wasn’t really anything special. Horace Grant was the next best of the bunch, but his best years were in Chicago. Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Donald Royal rounded out a starting roster that was clearly led by the duo of Shaq and Hardaway. Take them out of the equation, and this team may not have even made the playoffs.
The Magic only spent one season in Finals contention during the ’90s. Of course, Shaq would end up with the Lakers and the spark the beginning of numerous title-wins on his behalf. Orlando would soon fall on hard time after his departure, and would only return to prominence sporadically throughout the proceeding seasons.
5. 1985-86 Rockets
An outlier in the 1980s NBA playoff picture in that they were a team to make the Finals not called the Celtics or Lakers, the Rockets were led by one dominant player in Hakeem Olajuwon, and it wasn’t even close. Establishing himself as one of the premier centers in the league, Olajuwon was dominant on both ends of the floor. He was able to carry the likes of Ralph Sampson and John Lucas to prominence on the starting roster.
It would end up being the last of two unlikely Finals appearances for Houston in the ’80s, but it stands as quite the accomplishment considering the dominance of the Lakers in the Western Conference. The roster wasn’t impressive though, and they benefitted from having one of the greatest players of all-time occupying the paint.
4. 1999-2000 Knicks
The ’99 Knicks were a largely veteran group of players that either never amounted to their full potential (Marcus Camby, Latrell Sprewell), or were decidedly over-the-hill at that point in their career (Patrick Ewing). Somehow, all of their careers met on a middle ground that allowed them to be successful for one season, before losing to the Spurs in the Finals.
Looking back though, there was a lot of wasted talent on this team – Sprewell and Allan Houston in particular, as they were never able to live up to the hype. At the time this was considered to be a roster that could be good for the next four or five years, but it just never ended up being the case. Ewing would end up retiring soon after, and the Knicks would struggle to find consistency after that.
3. 2009-10 Magic
Truly a one-off title contender if there ever was one, somehow this group led by Dwight Howard were able to fend off the rest of the Eastern Conference en route to a Finals appearance. Other than Jameer Nelson who was a “B” point guard, and Rashard Lewis who was a “B” shooter, Orlando didn’t sport anything that was intimidating. Of course, Howard was in his prime so it made up for it in part, but this just wasn’t a very good Finals team.
Not surprisingly, they were fairly well decimated by the Lakers in the Finals, which padded Kobe Bryant’s resume sufficiently. The Magic were never able to reproduce such a season, and they fell off the map quickly after the ’09-10 season. They’re still trying to recover, to no avail much of the time.
2. 2000-01 Sixers
Allen Iverson was truly a revelation when he rose to NBA prominence in the late-90s. Nobody had ever seen a player of that size be such a prolific scorer and all-around playmaker. He was pound-for-pound the best player in the league, and was even able to make this dumpster fire of a Sixers roster good enough to make the Finals.
Dikembe Mutombo was the second-best player on the team, and he didn’t even star the season on Philadelphia’s roster. Iverson was surrounded with dead weight such as Eric Snow and George Lynch, doing him no favors when the Sixers ultimately fell to the Lakers in a five-game series. “The Answer” was Philly’s best player of the generation, but even he couldn’t elevate the team in the Finals with such a poor supporting cast.
1. 2006-07 Cavaliers
Bar none, the worst roster to ever make a Finals, and one of a few examples where the team was entirely, and completely dependent upon a single player. LeBron James wasn’t the player he is today, and was still working his way into the core of the NBA elite, but there was no denying that he arrived when he was able to take this terrible team to a Finals appearance, strictly on his play alone.
When the second-best player on the roster is a “B” level center in the form of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, you know that this team had no business being in the Finals. Other starters included draft bust Larry Hughes, Sixers washout Eric Snow, and the disappointing Drew Gooden. Nobody had much in the way of a compliment game to LeBron’s. Despite his most valiant effort, it was no surprise to anybody that the Spurs swept the series with authority.
Even LeBron couldn’t save this sorry crew.
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