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Would the Hawks and Suns Be the Most Improbable NBA Finalists?

Atlanta and Phoenix have leapt from the bottom to the top at a rapid pace, putting both in virtually uncharted territory if they make it past the conference finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nobody would have believed it if you’d told them, a year ago, that Atlanta and Phoenix were on the brink of the Finals. That’s because both teams had been absolutely abysmal in recent seasons. In the past three seasons before this one, the Hawks and Suns ranked 27th and 28th, respectively, in winning percentage. The Bucks and Clippers, their conference finals competition, ranked third and 10th, with winning records every year.

In that span, the Hawks went 24-58, 29-53, and 20-47, which comes out to a cumulative 73-158 record, or 25.9 wins per 82 games. That’s terrible! And yet it’s somehow better than the Suns fared during that same period, with Phoenix winning 25.6 wins per 82 games.

Even in a league that sees rapid swings of fortune, those turnarounds are extreme. Out of the 268 conference finalists since the introduction of the shot clock in the 1954-55 season, the Suns and Hawks rank second to last and third to last, respectively, in recent success by this measure. Only the 1964-65 Baltimore Bullets had a lower winning percentage through their previous three seasons. (Those also happened to be the first three seasons in Bullets franchise history; in 1964-65, the recent expansion team went 37-43 but, in a smaller playoff field, upset the St. Louis Hawks in the first round to reach the conference finals.)

Those Bullets ultimately lost in the conference finals, so if either the Suns or Hawks advance, they’ll become the new finalist with the least recent success.

Conference Finalists With Least Recent Success

Team Three-Year Win Total Per 82 Games Made Finals?
Team Three-Year Win Total Per 82 Games Made Finals?
1965 Bullets 25.3 No
2021 Suns 25.6 ???
2021 Hawks 25.9 ???
1970 Bucks 27 No
2015 Cavaliers 27.8 Yes
2002 Nets 28 Yes
1956 Hawks 28.2 No
1956 Warriors 28.5 Yes
1961 Lakers 28.8 No
1986 Rockets 30.3 Yes

On the other end of the spectrum, the conference finalists with the most success through the previous three seasons are all teams in the middle of dynastic runs.

Conference Finalists With Most Recent Success

Team Three-Year Win Total Per 82 Games Made Finals?
Team Three-Year Win Total Per 82 Games Made Finals?
2018 Warriors 69 Yes
2019 Warriors 66 Yes
1987 Celtics 64 Yes
2017 Warriors 63.7 Yes
1989 Lakers 63 Yes
1988 Lakers 63 Yes
1988 Celtics 63 No
1974 Bucks 63 Yes
1998 Bulls 62.7 Yes
1963 Celtics 61.7 Yes

Most teams with the least recent success benefited from the addition of one transcendent star. LeBron James, for instance, returned to Cleveland for the 2014-15 Cavaliers, after his old team spent years in the wilderness following his initial departure. Jason Kidd went to the 2001-02 Nets in a trade.

Other stars arrived in the draft to help steer their moribund teams in the right direction. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West were rookies when they pushed the 1969-70 Bucks and 1960-61 Lakers, respectively, to the conference finals. Bob Pettit was in his second season for the 1955-56 Hawks; ditto Hakeem Olajuwon for the 1985-86 Rockets, who also had Ralph Sampson for his third campaign. (For some of these long-ago teams, the generous playoff structure of the time also helped a great deal: The ’61 Lakers and ’56 Hawks both finished their regular seasons with losing records.)

The parallels to these Suns and Hawks are clear. Chris Paul is the Suns’ version of James or Kidd, even if Phoenix was already on the rise before Paul joined, while Trae Young is in his third supremely productive season after going near the top of the draft

Changing the duration of time defined by “recent” success shifts the leaderboard a bit. For instance, if you reduce the scope to single-season turnarounds, the top two teams are the 1958-59 Lakers, who reached the Finals behind Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor, and the 2007-08 Celtics, who went from 24 wins to a title. On a longer-term look, the Hawks don’t look quite so awful, as they enjoyed a decent run under Mike Budenholzer in the mid-2010s. But the Suns’ drought extends far longer. If the Suns make the Finals, their recent success would rank, among all finalists in the shot-clock era:

  • Second lowest going back two seasons (behind only the 1967 Warriors)
  • Lowest going back three seasons
  • Lowest going back four seasons
  • Lowest going back five seasons
  • Lowest going back six seasons

Going a full seven seasons back, the Suns move out of the top (or bottom) spot thanks to the franchise’s surprise 48-34 record in 2013-14, when the backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe led them just shy of a playoff berth. So even that bit of success didn’t lead to any chance at playoff glory. (The Hawks, meanwhile, finished with 10 fewer wins but still grabbed the East’s no. 8 seed.)

So the 2020-21 Suns took one great step just to reach the playoffs—their first after a decade of absences—then another to win a round, then yet another to reach the conference finals. They’re already a historical anomaly. If they make the Finals, they’ll make history, too; if they manage to win the title—they stand as the favorites at the moment—they’ll be even more special.

Unless the Hawks get there instead. No one team has ever reached the Finals with so little recent success—and now, with just four teams remaining, two still have a chance to set that record. What a fitting encapsulation of this strange postseason.