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The NBA’s Biggest Playoff Underperformers and Overperformers of the Past Three Decades

Should the Big Three Heat have won more than two titles? We used our new metric to find out which teams exceeded postseason expectations … and which fell short.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, we published a piece detailing a new metric, expected titles, to help measure how teams and players over- or underperform expectations in the playoffs, given factors such as team quality, opponent quality, and playoff series structure. In that piece, we examined conclusions for individual players throughout their careers. Today, we switch to a team-centric view.

For a full methodological explanation, check out Monday’s piece. For this edition, let’s start with the following chart. Since the postseason bracket expanded to 16 teams in 1984, nine teams have had a 50 percent chance or better to advance past all four opponents to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. Eight of those nine won a title; the ninth blew a 3-1 Finals lead.

Teams With At Least 50 Percent Title Odds in the 16-Team Playoff Era

Team Actual Record Pythagorean Record Title Odds Won Title?
Team Actual Record Pythagorean Record Title Odds Won Title?
1996 Bulls 72-10 70-12 72% Yes
2015 Warriors 67-15 65-17 67% Yes
2017 Warriors 67-15 67-15 65% Yes
1987 Lakers 65-17 62-20 60% Yes
2008 Celtics 66-16 67-15 57% Yes
1992 Bulls 67-15 66-16 56% Yes
2016 Warriors 73-9 65-17 55% No
1999 Spurs 37-13 39-11 54% Yes
1991 Bulls 61-21 63-19 53% Yes

But the most interesting part of the chart is that the Warriors had only their third-best championship odds in 2015-16 despite setting a record for regular-season wins. They actually had a better chance at winning in both 2014-15 and 2016-17.

That prediction seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense upon a closer examination of the different factors that determine playoff success. First, the Warriors’ 73-9 record in 2015-16 overstates their team quality; their Pythagorean record, based on point differential, was 65-17—identical to their 2014-15 mark and worse than the 2016-17 figure, after the team had added Kevin Durant. And second, the 2015-16 Thunder and Cavaliers were both much better than any opponent the Warriors faced on their first title run, while the 2016-17 team faced, on paper, the worst Cavaliers team of the three.

Warriors’ Title Expectations, 2015-17

2015 2016 2017
2015 2016 2017
Pythagorean Record 65-17 65-17 67-15
Opponent #1 Pelicans (43-39) Rockets (42-40) Trail Blazers (40-42)
Series Odds 96% 97% 98%
Opponent #2 Grizzlies (50-32) Trail Blazers (43-39) Jazz (52-30)
Series Odds 90% 96% 91%
Opponent #3 Rockets (50-32) Thunder (59-23) Spurs (60-22)
Series Odds 90% 74% 77%
Opponent #4 Cavaliers (53-29) Cavaliers (57-25) Cavaliers (49-33)
Series Odds 86% 80% 94%
Total Title Odds 67% 55% 65%

Combine all those factors and it makes more sense why the 2014-15 and 2016-17 versions would have better championship odds. Team quality matters a great deal, and so does opponent quality—the 1996-97 Bulls boast the second-best Pythagorean record ever, behind only the 1995-96 Bulls, but they faced a brutal slate of playoff opponents, so their title odds fell to 48 percent. (Of course, with Michael Jordan on the team, they won anyway.)

Today, we will measure a number of notable teams from the past few decades, split into a few categories based on those factors: those that actually won titles, the top challengers who fell short of glory, and the memorable NBA teams that despite bouts of relevance, never came all that close to being a title favorite.

Note: We won’t cover every title-winning team here, only those that won multiple rings or at least came close to a second. A full list of champions and their winning chances is available here.

1990s

The Biggest Winners

The most prolific winner in the ’90s, of course, was the Bulls, who won six championships in eight seasons. That haul compared to an expected figure of 2.8 titles, as discussed in the Jordan section of the individual piece. (In 1993-94, the season Jordan skipped completely due to his first retirement, the Bulls’ title odds were just 2 percent.)

The other team to win multiple rings in the ’90s was the Rockets, which won despite incredibly unfavorable odds. The 1994-95 winner is well-known as the most unlikely champion in history—the only team seeded lower than fourth in a conference to win. That season, Houston had a Pythagorean record of 47-35 and beat the Jazz (61-21), Suns (51-31), Spurs (57-25), and Magic (59-23) all in a row. Utah, Orlando, and San Antonio ranked first, third, and fourth, respectively, in regular-season performance. Houston’s odds of navigating that entire stretch—the most difficult for any champion in the 16-team playoff era—unscathed, without home-court advantage in any round, was a mere 0.2 percent.

By comparison, the 1993-94 team that won Houston’s first title was a juggernaut. Those Rockets were better (53-29 Pythag record) and handled a slightly easier playoff gauntlet, but the title chances were still on the low end, at 6 percent. Overall, from 1993 to 1999, the Rockets’ expected title count was 0.1. Props to Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. for nabbing two titles when even one was a long shot.

The Challengers

Welcome to the graveyard of teams that tried to win titles by building around foundational Hall of Famers, and would’ve gotten away with it, too, if not for that meddling Michael Jordan and his Bulls.

This count starts with the SuperSonics, who amassed 1.1 expected titles from 1993 to 1998. For six consecutive seasons, the Sonics had the point differential of a 59-win team or better, and they had the NBA’s best Pythagorean record in both 1992-93 and 1993-94—but they continually fell short in the West despite that talent. The only time the Sonics reached the Finals in that stretch, they were unlucky enough to do so when the Bulls had the best statistical team ever; meanwhile, in both 1993-94 and 1994-95, when Jordan was waylaid by his baseball sojourn, the Sonics lost to vastly inferior teams in the first round. The mid-’90s Sonics underperformed in the playoffs by the widest margin of any team in the past few decades.

A close second is the Jazz of that era, whose period of real contention with John Stockton and Karl Malone began in the 1988 postseason (when they took the Lakers to seven games in the second round) and ended in 2001 (when the pair’s last 50-win team lost by one point in a winner-take-all game against Dallas in the first round). In that span, Utah tallied an expected title count of 1.0, meaning, yes, Stockton and Malone should have won a title at some point. It wasn’t just losing to the Bulls, either; Utah’s expected Finals count during this stretch was 2.5, versus two actual trips to the Finals, so they were on the low end of expected performance in the West, too. Houston’s upset wins in 1994 and 1995—the latter when Utah had the league’s best Pythagorean record—really messed up the plans of a whole lot of teams.

Also squandering opportunities to win in the ’90s, particularly in the Jordan interregnum years, were the Knicks (0.7 expected titles between 1989 and 2000), Suns (0.6 expected titles between 1989 and 1995), and Trail Blazers (0.5 expected titles between 1987 and 1993). Phoenix actually had the league’s best Pythagorean record in 1989-90, but they were only a no. 5 seed in the West, and a brutal bracket sapped their chances.

Here were the best chances in a single season for each of these challengers, and the results.

Best Title Chance for 1990s Challengers

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
SuperSonics 1993-94 41% Lost to Nuggets in first round
Jazz 1994-95 25% Lost to Rockets in first round
Knicks 1993-94 37% Lost to Rockets in Finals
Suns 1988-89 21% Lost to Lakers in conference finals
Trail Blazers 1990-91 22% Lost to Lakers in conference finals

The Memorable Teams That Didn’t Actually Have Great Playoff Chances

Few players were involved in as many memorable highlights from the 1990s as Reggie Miller: He scored eight points in nine seconds against the Knicks and hopped around like a toddler on a pogo stick after sinking a game-winner against the Bulls.

Unfortunately for Miller and the Pacers, Indiana never entered the postseason with much of a title shot. During the entire run from 1995 to 2000, which included a Finals trip and a loss in Game 7 of the conference finals, Indiana’s cumulative expected title was just 0.3. If Indiana had won, it would have done so as a real underdog.

The Cavaliers from 1989 to 1993, also with 0.3 expected titles, fit this characterization as well. In 1988-89, Cleveland had the best team in the league by Pythagorean record, but Jordan beat Craig Ehlo at the buzzer, and the Bulls eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs for the first of four times in close succession. Elsewhere, the Heat from 1997-2001 recorded 0.2 expected titles, and the Warriors from 1989-92, despite plenty of cultural relevance, checked in all the way back at 0.004 expected titles. As Jason Concepcion wrote for The Ringer, the Run TMC Warriors were the league’s “first true hipster team”—but they were never a real contender.

Best Title Chance for Memorable 1990s Teams

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Pacers 1997-98 11% Lost to Bulls in conference finals
Cavaliers 1988-89 21% Lost to Bulls in first round
Heat 1998-99 9% Lost to Knicks in first round
Warriors 1991-92 0.4% Lost to SuperSonics in first round

2000s

The Biggest Winners

The Lakers won five titles from 2000-10 with two different iterations of the team. As covered in the individual piece through the lens of Kobe Bryant’s playoff achievements, both sets of Lakers exceeded expectations. The 2000 to 2004 group that won three Finals and lost a fourth had just 0.5 expected titles, and the 2008 to 2012 group that won two Finals and lost a third had 0.6 expected titles.

The other biggest winner of the decade was San Antonio, with three rings, but we’ll cover the Spurs in more depth in the 2010s because their run lasted eons.

Out East, Boston’s Ubuntu group won one championship and lost a second, but that record coheres with expectation: From 2008 to 2012, Boston collected 0.7 expected titles, almost all of that probability concentrated in the season they actually won. Earlier in the decade, Detroit fit a similar profile: The Pistons excelled from 2002 to 2008, entering the playoffs as a top-three seed every season in that stretch and reaching five consecutive conference finals, and won one title versus 0.8 expected titles.

The Challengers

The Cavaliers squandered the best chances to win a title in this era. In LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, the Cavs collected 0.7 expected titles, with both 2008-09 (43 percent) and 2009-10 (21 percent) representing robust chances that didn’t even result in a Finals appearance. Cleveland’s figure here, like so many in this piece, reflects the difficulty of winning a single championship: Cleveland boasted the league’s best player and was even the East’s best team two seasons in a row, and still the Cavs’ title expectation in this span was less than 1.

Like in the ’90s, the Suns check in as a challenger that fell short in the 2000s, as well. With Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni, and the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, the Suns were never a favorite to win the championship, but they had enough reasonable chances that, at some point, they might have been expected to hit. Overall, the Suns from 2005 to 2010 had 0.6 expected titles—just as they did in their previous run of success, also sans title.

Other teams in this category include the Kings, with 0.5 expected titles from 2001 to 2004 and the league’s best Pythagorean record in 2001-02; the Magic, with 0.5 expected titles from 2008 to 2011 and the league’s best Pythagorean record in 2009-10; and the Mavericks, with 0.7 expected titles from 2001 to 2007 and the league’s best Pythagorean record in 2002-03. The Mavericks were a lot like the SuperSonics of the previous decade—Dallas made and lost one Finals, but not with its top teams; the single best Mavericks team of that era lost in an 8-over-1 upset in 2006-07. At least the Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki bounced back the next decade to triumph in the face of far worse odds.

Best Title Chance for 2000s Challengers

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Cavaliers 2008-09 43% Lost to Magic in conference finals
Suns 2006-07 20% Lost to Spurs (and league office) in second round
Kings 2001-02 28% Lost to Lakers (and refs) in conference finals
Magic 2009-10 38% Lost to Celtics in conference finals
Mavericks 2006-07 25% Lost to Warriors in first round

The Memorable Teams That Didn’t Actually Have Great Playoff Chances

New Jersey reaching back-to-back Finals in the early 2000s seems to say more about the state of the Eastern Conference post-Jordan than anything about the Nets themselves. From 1999 through 2003, the East went 0-5 in Finals series and 6-20 in Finals games. The Nets were no exception to this futility, winning just two games across their two Finals, by a combined three points. Overall, the Nets remained in contention from 2002 to 2006, almost the entirety of Jason Kidd’s tenure, but amassed just 0.3 expected titles across that span. They’re also partially responsible for this monstrosity:

In the vein of teams that lost by horrifying scores to the mid-aughts Pistons, the Pacers across the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons also collected 0.3 expected titles. Had the Malice at the Palace not ruined their chances the next season, that number likely would have climbed higher.

A trio of similar Western teams fit this category, albeit with far more distant title chances. From 2007 to 2010, the Deron Williams–led Jazz had 0.1 expected titles. From 2006 to 2010, the Carmelo Anthony–led Nuggets had 0.06 expected titles. From 2008 to 2011, the Chris Paul–led Hornets had 0.02 expected titles. All three groups had at least one fun playoff run, but none ever tasted the Finals.

A final team from this era with more cultural relevance than meaningful playoff opportunity never had one great season, but rather was consistently solid year after year. From 2005 to 2009, the Rockets were the West’s no. 5 seed four times, with a Pythagorean win total in the low- to mid-50s four times, but they tallied just 0.1 total expected titles in that span. Just because the mid-’90s Rockets could win a title outside the top four seeds doesn’t mean their descendants could: No other team has in NBA history, after all.

Best Title Chance for Memorable 2000s Teams

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Nets 2002-03 20% Lost in Finals to Spurs
Pacers 2003-04 31% Lost in conference finals to Pistons
Jazz 2009-10 10% Lost to Lakers in second round
Nuggets 2009-10 4% Lost to Jazz in first round
Hornets 2007-08 2% Lost to Spurs in second round
Rockets 2006-07 7% Lost in first round to Jazz

2010s

The Biggest Winners

Although LeBron’s Cavaliers underperformed the first time around, both of his teams from 2011 to 2018 overachieved given initial playoff expectations. The Heat won two titles, versus 1.0 expected, and the Cavaliers won one title, versus 0.1 expected, as repeated matchups against the superior Warriors limited their probabilities each year.

The biggest winner of the 2010s was Golden State, which collected more expected titles than any team since Jordan’s Bulls. In retrospect, it seems like something of a disappointment that the Warriors won “only” three championships in five years—they lost a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals and might have won in 2019, too, if Durant and/or Klay Thompson had remained healthy. Still, the Warriors check in at 2.2 expected titles, meaning they should be quite satisfied with the three rings they earned. In the past couple of seasons, as exhaustion set in, the team took some steps back performance-wise (falling from the mid-60s in Pythagorean wins to the mid-50s, a massive drop), and capable opponents like the Rockets and Raptors would have made it difficult for Golden State to romp to more titles, anyway.

Finally, we have the Spurs, who have contended not just for five years, but for roughly three full decades. San Antonio’s run is, itself, a collection of several runs that can be shaped in roughly the following fashion.

Spurs Title Expectations by Era

Seasons Era Definition Total Expected Titles Total Titles
Seasons Era Definition Total Expected Titles Total Titles
1990-96 The Robinson years, pre-Duncan and Popovich 0.4 0
1998-2008 The first set of titles 2.7 4
2009-11 The early playoff losses, pre-Kawhi 0.2 0
2012-17 The second set of Finals 1.3 1
Total 4.7 5

The Spurs were so dominant that they won five titles—and still barely outperformed expectations, because they were so often one of the very best teams in the league.

The Challengers

The Bulls’ period of contention in the 2010s was short but spirited. In both 2010-11 and 2011-12, Chicago, led by MVP Derrick Rose and defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau, was the league’s best team by Pythagorean record. Only a few other teams in league history have managed that back-to-back feat, and almost all won a title for their efforts.

League Leaders in Pythagorean Record in Consecutive Seasons

Team Seasons Finals Reached Titles Won
Team Seasons Finals Reached Titles Won
Celtics 1957-66 (all 10 seasons) 10 9
76ers 1967, 1968 1 1
Knicks 1969, 1970 1 1
Bucks 1973, 1974 1 0 (but they'd won in 1971)
Trail Blazers 1977, 1978 1 1
Bulls 1991, 1992 2 2
SuperSonics 1993, 1994 0 0
Bulls 1996, 1997, 1998 3 3
Spurs 2004-07 (all 4) 2 2
Bulls 2011, 2012 0 0

No team since the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Bulls has had the best Pythagorean record two seasons in a row—not LeBron’s Heat or Cavaliers, not even the Warriors. But Chicago lost in the conference finals in its first playoff try; the Bulls beat the Heat by 21 points in Game 1 before Miami shut down Rose (who shot 35 percent for the series) and won in five. And in 2011-12, Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the playoffs, and Chicago was left listless as the eighth-seeded 76ers pulled the upset. Across those two postseasons, not accounting for Rose’s injury, the Bulls had 0.8 expected titles. They haven’t had even a 1 percent chance at a championship in any postseason since.

LeBron vs. Chicago was supposed to be the East’s best rivalry for years before being cut short, just as LeBron vs. the Thunder was supposed to be the best Finals rivalry. From 2010 to 2016, the Thunder amassed 0.6 expected titles but didn’t win any, and made only one trip to the championship round. Oklahoma City kept smashing into roadblocks, of both its own design—hi, James Harden trade after a Finals appearance!—and the poor casting of lots. The best regular-season Thunder team by a considerable margin was the 2012-13 group, fresh off a Finals appearance and boasting the NBA’s best Pythagorean record—but Russell Westbrook hurt his knee in the first round. The Thunder reached two more postseasons with Durant and lost in the conference finals both times.

Finally, the Rockets had 0.5 expected titles from 2015 to 2019, most coming from the 2017-18 season that won James Harden an MVP. On the one hand, it seems somewhat silly to suggest the Rockets had a 45 percent chance to win the 2018 championship when they had the NBA’s best Pythagorean record, given that they had to go through the Warriors with Durant. On the other hand, the Rockets were up 3-2 in that series before Chris Paul missed the final two games due to injury, and they were even up by 15 points in Game 7, sans Paul, before 27 missed 3-pointers in a row doomed them to defeat.

Best Title Chance for 2010s Challengers

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Bulls 2010-11 and 2011-12 38% both seasons Lost to Heat in conference finals; lost to 76ers in first round
Thunder 2012-13 29% Lost to Grizzlies in second round
Rockets 2017-18 45% Lost to Warriors in conference finals

The Memorable Teams That Didn’t Actually Have Great Playoff Chances

The Lob City Clippers were a perfect mix of entertainment—it’s in the name, Lob City—and basketball talent, and the roster was a complementary blend of creativity (Paul), shooting (JJ Redick), scoring (Blake Griffin), and rim-running plus defense (DeAndre Jordan). Alas, those Clippers never reached a conference finals, and they never had fantastic title chances, either, tallying just 0.2 expected titles during their 2012 to 2017 run.

Unlike the Clippers, the Pacers of the same period reached multiple conference finals; like the Clippers, they also seemed to redefine basketball in their own particular way. While L.A. wowed crowds on offense, Indiana defined the concept of verticality on defense, with Roy Hibbert as the poster boy for the new NBA. The Pacers lost to Miami three postseasons in a row, at one point even pushing the best LeBron Heat team to a Game 7—but Indiana’s prospects were never all that strong, with just 0.1 total expected titles from 2012 to 2014. Like Hibbert, the Pacers could never get off the ground, and like Hibbert, they’d soon fade from relevance as the predicted defensive revolution went awry.

The last team on this list is one of the most beloved in recent NBA history, but like with the Run TMC Warriors, that emotional connection was more a product of style and swagger than on-court contention. The Grit and Grind Grizzlies were never a top-three seed in the West and had a Pythagorean win total higher than 50 only once, so they tallied just 0.02 expected titles from 2011 to 2015. At least they live on in the hearts of NBA fans, not just in Memphis but across the country, quixotic postseason efforts be darned.

Best Title Chance for Memorable 2010s Teams

Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Team Season With Best Chance Title Odds Result
Clippers 2013-14 9% Lost to Thunder in second round
Pacers 2013-14 9% Lost to Heat in conference finals
Grizzlies 2014-15 0.9% Lost to Warriors in second round