By its nature, the NBA is unlike any other league in major professional sports. Typically, there are four or five dominant teams during any given season, with the rest falling into a near-perpetual state of mediocrity. It's a star-oriented sport, and therefore it is relatively easy to predict who will be in the Finals, or at least be in contention. However, outside of the necessary star player, some rosters have been lacking in talent, to say the least.
There are some seasons that defy all expectations that analysts and fans have. A quick look at some of the rosters that have made the Finals in the past 30 years have been oddly mediocre outside of one elite player. In other instances, a roster comprised of older players who are past their prime have made a championship run, against all expectations as well. It's always a curious development, considering that in other sports, championship appearing/winning rosters are stacked to the brim with great players.
It certainly doesn't occur every season, but since the early 1990s, it has happened more often. While most of the time the questionably lacking roster in the Finals doesn't emerge victorious, there have been notable examples where they have. We've become so accustomed to all-time great rosters on teams like the Spurs, Lakers and Bulls winning NBA titles, that when a lesser team comes out of nowhere to complete the task, it's a shock. In the end, it only makes for a more exciting product on the court, and lessens the predictability of the league as a whole.
Ranked below are the top 15 worst teams to appear in the NBA Championship Finals.
29 2000 Indiana Pacers
This Pacers team was a top heavy roster that included the likes of Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose, but Miller was out of his prime at age 34. Other quality players on the team were Rik Smiths, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin, but all were in their mid 30's as well, providing only marginal assistance against a Lakers team poised for several title wins that featured young phenoms Kobe Bryant and Shaq on the squad. Had everyone on Indiana's roster been in their prime, they would have been a force to be reckoned with. Instead, it was an over-the-hill group that had no chance against the younger, more dynamic Lakers.
27 2010 Boston Celtics
Similar to the aforementioned Pacers, Boston had a veteran group that had talent no doubt, but were functionally out of their prime, excluding Rajon Rondo, who everyone at the time thought was going to be the league's next superstar PG. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace would have been unstoppable in their prime, but since they were all at least 32 years old during this campaign, they were only able to exploit a pitiful Eastern Conference long to enough to make a Finals appearance. Still stuck on an inept Cavaliers team, Lebron had not yet made the move to Miami, giving Boston little in the way of quality competition during the playoffs.
25 1996 Seattle Supersonics
Though they had the finesse presence of Gary Payton, and the dominating paint presence of Shawn Kemp, the Supersonics also featured a lot of one-off players that never really made a splash in the league. Does the name Detlef Schrempf ring a bell? Well, he averaged the second most points on the team that year next to Payton, which should give some indication of the overall talent level of this group. Needless to say, they weren't able to overtake Jordan's Bulls in the Finals, and never really made a run at a title again. The franchise would fair better after moving to Oklahoma City however, but never accomplished much in Seattle.
23 2004 Detroit Pistons
The Pistons during this year were a case of a team that were probably perceived as more talented in the moment, rather than from a historical perspective. Still, they deserve credit for being one of just three teams from 1999-2014 not named the "Heat", "Lakers" or "Spurs" to win an NBA Championship. Looking back on it however, a roster that featured Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace as the top scorers, doesn't seem nearly as great today, as it did in 2004. It certainly wasn't a mediocre team, but this is a clear example of a team catching fire at the right time.
21 1999 New York Knicks
The only certified all time star on this team was Patrick Ewing, who was 36 during the season, and effectively out of his prime. Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Latrell Sprewell weren't bad players at all, but none of them ever really spoke "Championship" level volumes during their career. The fact is, the best chance the Knicks had to win a title in the 1990's was several years earlier when they fell to the Rockets in a seven game series in the Finals. The team was better, and Jordan was on his baseball hiatus, leaving a wide open field for them. The 1999 team was an anomaly, who were beaten easily by a Spurs team who were just finding their footing as an elite team.
19 2006 Dallas Mavericks
Another case example of a team who seemed much better at the time, than they really were as an all time unit, this Mavericks team had a better season than they ever had a right to. Yes, Dirk Nowitzki was in his prime, and Jason Terry was as well, providing a nice perimeter compliment, but that's about the extent of what this roster had to offer. Josh Howard, Marquise Daniels and an aging Jerry Stackhouse were fine in a vacuum for one season, but can never be considered components of a great team. The Mavs would lose this one to Miami in six, and then get redemption five years later by upsetting the first version of LeBron's Heat team.
17 2003 New Jersey Nets
Jason Kidd was a very effective PG in his day, but he never had the dynamic ability to ever be the number one player on any roster, and that was ultimately the downfall of this era of the Nets. Between the group of secondary players on the roster--Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles--Jefferson has clearly been the one to produce the most successful career. Other players on the roster featured aging veterans Dikembe Mutombo and Aaron Williams. It just wasn't a team that was able to put fear into the elite teams of the NBA at the time, particularly the Kobe and Duncan-dominated Western Conference.
15 2011 Dallas Mavericks
Thew fact that the Mavericks beat LeBron's Heat team in the Finals this season, remains one of the most notable upsets in the history of the NBA. Curiously, the Mavs never really improved on their 2006 version of the squad, with Nowitzki and Terry aging, and adding marginal talents like Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. Factor in Peja Stojakovic and Jason Kidd both in the twilight of their careers, and this was not a team with youth on their side. If the Mavs of this season matched up with the Heat 10 times in a standard seven game series, they probably win just one. Fortunately that "one" came at the right time.
13 1995 Orlando Magic
Featuring Shaq in his career infancy, and the likes of "Penny" Hardaway in their starting lineup, on it's face, this Magic team was robbed of a title victory. Upon further analysis, their shortcomings made a lot more sense. Horace Grant provided the only sign of any kind of real veteran leadership at their disposal. Supplement players like Nick Anderson, Donald Royal and Dennis Scott were just so-so, and not really poised for a Championship run. Hardaway and Shaq were still too young to rise to the occasional in the Finals, and this Magic team was decimated by the Rockets in four games.
11 1993 Phoenix Suns
This incarnation of the Suns were probably Charles Barkley's best chance to win the NBA title he deserved during his storied career. He was undoubtedly the star of this bunch, averaging 25.6 PPG and 12.2 RPG during the regular season this year. His supporting however, was more than a bit questionable. The likes of Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson and Richard Dumas all had good seasons on paper, but if I asked you to name three players you'd want on a starting roster in an NBA Finals, they wouldn't exactly be the first choice. The Suns did have Danny Ainge, but at the age of 33, he was relegated mostly to a supporting role, as he was out of his prime.
9 2009 Los Angeles Lakers
This team was a prime example of the Lakers being turned into the "Kobe Bryant Show" for an entire season. Undoubtedly, Pau Gasol provided quality support for the Lakers star, but the rest of the supporting cast doesn't look as good as it did at the time. Derek Fisher was near the end of his career, Lamar Odom is now considered the definition of a player that was stuck in second gear for most of his career, and Andrew Bynum is probably one of the biggest disappointments in league history. If any one roster proved the value of Kobe to the Lakers franchise, this would be the one.
7 1994 Houston Rockets
I guess if the main reason why you won an NBA Title is "Michael Jordan left to play minor league baseball", you'll take it, but it does put a hell of an asterisk by that title victory. Of course, this Houston squad was lead by Hakeem Olajuwon, who averaged a robust 27.3 PPG during the regular season. Factor in however, the supporting cast of Kenny Smith, Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell and a young Robert Horry, and things get a little shaky. Without Olajuwon, would this be a team that even reaches the Conference Finals? I would tend to think not, and they wouldn't have even beaten Jordan's Bulls as is (though, to be fair, no team would have at his peak). This Rockets team merely got a break, and took advantage while they could.
5 2009 Orlando Magic
This Magic team was essentially constructed the same as the Rockets team above; one dominant big (Dwight Howard), and a bunch of B grade mid-range players. Sure, Jameer Nelson was pretty much in the prime of his career here, and was certainly a high-quality player, but his elite effectiveness had a short shelf life. Hedo Turkgolu, Rafer Alston and Rashard Lewis all seem kind of "meh" now, and Dwight Howard's dominance on the interior is clearly the reason they were able to go as far as they did. Granted, their opponent in the Finals this season is also on this list, but since the Lakers' star (Kobe) eclipsed the Magic's (Howard), L.A. emerged victorious.
3 2001 Philadelphia 76ers
Few other teams NBA history has been defined more by one player than the 76ers were with Allen Iverson at the turn of the century. For a four or five year stretch, he was arguably the best scorer in the league, and almost solely was responsible for this run to the Finals. Players like Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow and George Lynch proved to be good marginal compliments to Iverson, but make no mistake; the entire operation hinged entirely on Iverson. In the end, A.I. took home MVP honors, and the Sixers lost in five games to a much more well-rounded Lakers team that was beginning their dynasty. Not even a player of Iverson's caliber at the time could overcome the dominance of Shaq and Kobe.
1 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers
This was the only finals appearance during LeBron's first run with the Cavs, and it isn't hard to see why. The second best player on the team, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, was aging big and the second best scorer came in the form of Larry Hughes. In short, LeBron was the whole show here, and had a stellar season, establishing his dominance among the game's elite for years to come. After getting swept by a Spurs team that was at the height of their powers, LeBron probably began plotting the exit from his mediocre supporting cast right then and there. Had he received the quality of help he has at his disposal now in Cleveland, he may have never left. However, it was an obvious move that had to be made to secure an NBA Championship. To date, this Cavaliers team remains the worst ever roster to appear in an NBA Finals series.