Editors Note: In my desire to mooch off any good idea, here is the second in my continuing series of historical playoff analysis. Think of it as the Meatballs 2 to this article’s Meatballs.
Now that we’re in the midst of what may be the most engaging NBA Conference Finals in years I wanted to take a chance to look back at some of the forgotten conference finalists that have come along in the last 25 years. Typically the road to the finals is paved with trials, tribulations, and 60 win teams – other times it’s paved with these teams and is more like a embossed invitation to the NBA Finals with a red carpet to lead you.
A few prerequisites:
- I’ll only be working with one season of each team, instead of three.
- Though a team may have had a poorer record, if you advanced, you’re off the list (e.g., ’95 Rockets, ’99 Knicks).
- Only teams from the ’83-84 season until this one are included.
- I’ve ordered the list by statistical record. There have probably been worse teams in the Conference Finals but the subjective analysis would have taken hours, so I passed on that.
Honorable Mention –
- 2006-2007 Utah Jazz (51-31) – With the oldest player on the team being 32 (Derek Fisher) – the Baby Jazz snuck into the Western Conference Finals after getting by the Tracy McGrady-led Rockets in Round 1 and the 8 seed Golden State Warriors in Round 2. They were quickly dispatched by the Spurs in 5 games.
- 1983-1984 Milwaukee Bucks (50-32) – Coached by Don Nelson, there is quite a list of names on this roster: 35 year-old Bob Lanier started, as did 35 year-old Tiny Archibald. The Bucks also featured future NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy and future University of Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, not to mention current Fox Sports announcer Marques Johnson and the immortal Alton Lister. Sidney Moncrief was the star of the show, scoring over 20 a game and the Bucks slid into the Eastern Conference Finals only after beating the under .500 Hawks and 45-win Nets. The 1984 champion Celtics made quick work of the Bucks, winning in 5 games.
- 1990-1991 Detroit Pistons (50-32) – I don’t want to be too tough on a team that had won back to back NBA Championships, but the ’90-91 Pistons were just not the same. This was the season the Pistons could no longer hold off Michael Jordan as the Bulls swept the Pistons right out of the Eastern Conference Finals – some of Detroit’s stars famously left the court before the game ended, without congratulating the Bulls.
- 1999-2000 New York Knicks (50-32) – This version of the Knicks was actually better than the Eastern Conference Champion version that preceded them, but this time the Pacers were too strong. In the grand tradition of junk-ball Knicks teams from this era, the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks may have been 2nd in the NBA in points allowed, but they scored just 92.1 points per game and ranked third to last in the league. (Fun side note: the Bulls were the worst in the league that year averaging a shocking 84.8 PPG. Not surprisingly they won just 17 games. On the other hand due to the MJ residuals they still led the NBA in attendance.)
- 2002-2003 Detroit Pistons (50-32) – The Pistons have had quite the history of sending average teams to the Conference Finals. This edition faced little resistance in getting to the Eastern Conference Finals but were swept by a very average 49-win Nets team. Things weren’t all bad for the Pistons though – as they fired coach Rick Carlisle in the off-season, hired Larry Brown, and traded for Rasheed Wallace. Those combined moves culminated in the Pistons being crowned NBA Champions in 2003-2004.
5. 2001-2002 Boston Celtics – (49-33)
- Head Coach – Jim O’Brien
- Key Players – Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, and Rodney Rogers (acquired via trade midway through the season).
- Interesting Fact – The Celts started a rookie Joe Johnson for part of the season before giving up on him. Boston traded Johnson to the Suns (along with Randy Brown and Milt Palacio) for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. That trade might actually be worse than the Suns giving up Johnson to the Hawks…nah, that can’t possibly be.
- Playoff Results – Round 1 – beat the 76ers (43-39) in 5 games. Round 2 – beat the Pistons (50-32) in 5 games. Eastern Conference Finals – lost to the Nets (52-30) in 6 games.
- Key Stat – The Celtics had option (a) in Paul Pierce, option (b) in Antoine Walker and then…nothing. Outside of those two, only Rodney Rogers averaged double figures for Boston. Joe Forte, the Celtics other 2001 first round draft pick scored 6 points – the entire season. Nice pick.
- Peak Point – Boston took a 2-1 series lead after rallying from as many as 26 down (21 in the fourth quarter alone) in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Although it would be the final win of the series for the Celtics, it was the biggest rally in NBA Playoff history.
- Why They Didn’t Belong – They just weren’t that good. Pierce was a star in the middle of his prime, but Walker – even at 25 – was not as good as he thought he was. Add to that the fact that this team had zero depth and started Tony Battie at center and no more explanation is needed. More or less the sole reason they ended up here was because of how average the entire Eastern Conference was for a multi-year period in the early 2000’s.
- What Was Next – Boston took several steps back over the next few years and bottomed out at 24 wins in ’06-07. Fortunately for the Celtics, Kevin McHale apparently owed Danny Ainge one from a bet in the 80’s and sent Kevin Garnett to Boston for a few magic beans and the original tapes to The Muppet Show. Boston also added Ray Allen in an draft day trade and the new big three (including Pierce) won the 2008 NBA Championship – with Pierce as the only 2002 holdover.
4. 1993-1994 Indiana Pacers (47-35)
- Head Coach – Larry Brown
- Key Players – Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Derrick McKey, Dale Davis
- Interesting Fact – These Pacers featured two future NBA head coaches (Byron Scott and Sam Mitchell), along with one future NBA referee (Haywoode Workman).
- Playoff Results –Round 1 – beat the Magic (50-32) in a sweep. Round 2 – upset the top seeded Hawks (57-25) in 6 games. Eastern Conference Finals – lost to the Knicks (57-25) in 7 games.
- Key Stat – Indiana actually led the NBA in three point shooting percentage – however they shot only 500 of them, good for 2nd fewest in the league. As a reference point, the Rockets led the NBA in attempts in ’93-94 with 1285 and the league average was 811. Furthermore, Reggie Miller shot 292 of those threes (shooting 42.1%) – with the 2nd most attempts coming from Byron Scott with just 74.
- Peak Point – Upsetting the heavily favored Hawks in 6 games was a pretty impressive feat, yet what was more impressive was the Pacers coming from 0-2 down in the Conference Finals to carry a 3-2 lead into Game 6. In Game 5, Reggie Miller poured in a stunning 25 points in the 4th quarter to give Indiana the advantage:
- Why They Didn’t Belong – That 3-2 lead quickly turned into consecutive Knicks’ wins and a series loss for the Pacers. ’93-94 was actually a breakthrough season of sorts for the Pacers; they were coming off of 4 consecutive seasons where they were knocked out in the 1st round of the playoffs and won between 40 and 42 games. Yet, Indiana was still lacking a strong point guard and wasn’t quite ready to make the leap to title contender.
- What Was Next – In the off-season, the Pacers traded Pooh Richardson to the Clippers for Mark Jackson – reuniting Larry Brown with the point guard that managed to get the Clippers to the playoffs. The Jackson-led Pacers went on to record back to back 50 win seasons but again peaked in the Conference Finals in 1995 (7 games to Orlando) and were bounced in the first round in ’96. During the ’96 off-season the Pacers dealt Jackson to Denver for Jalen Rose and slipped badly – they won only 39 games and although they traded back for Jackson (at a cost of Vincent Askew, Eddie Johnson and a pair of 2nd round picks) towards the end of the season it was too late for that year. With Jackson back in the fold, Rose developing, and the addition of Chris Mullin, the now-Larry Bird-coached Pacers played in two consecutive Conference Finals and peaked in the 2000 NBA Finals where they lost to the Lakers in 6.
3. 1988-1989 Chicago Bulls (47-35)
- Head Coach – Doug Collins
- Key Players – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright
- Interesting Fact – 1989 was the Bulls first trip to the Conference Finals since 1975 and first ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals – as they were a member of the Western Conference until the 1980-81 season.
- Playoff Results – Round 1 – upset the Cavs (57-25) in 5 games. Round 2 – beat the Knicks (52-30) in 6 games. Eastern Conference Finals– lost to the Pistons (63-19) in 6 games.
- Key Stat – The Bulls may have averaged 106 points per game, but they gave up 105. Michael Jordan or not – that isn’t a winning statistic.
- Peak Point – The 6th seeded Bulls went through the 2nd seeded Knicks to make the Conference Finals, but it is the first round series against Cleveland that will be forever immortalized. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you remember this clip:
Jordan hit that shot, the Bulls won the series, and Craig Ehlo was a legend.
- Why They Didn’t Belong – This was still the peak of the Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires era. MJ averaged 32.6 points per game for the Bulls but Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant weren’t really Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant yet, as both were 23 years old and still getting smacked around by Michael in practice on a daily basis. ’88-89 was also the final season that Doug Collins was the head coach of Chicago. To make matters simple – this Bulls team wasn’t particularly well coached and had a young supporting cast. What does that mean? It means that Michael Jordan dragged them to the Conference Finals. In the Conference Finals the Bulls actually ran out to a 2-1 series lead before Detroit took three straight on their way to the first of two consecutive NBA titles.
- What Was Next – The Bulls hired Phil Jackson the following season and won 55 games but again fell to Detroit in the Conference Finals. But fear not friends, poor ol’ Michael Jordan got his in 1990-91 as Chicago finally got by Detroit and won the first of six championships in the 90’s.
2. 1983-1984 Phoenix Suns (41-41)
- Head Coach – John MacLeod
- Key Players – Walter Davis, Larry Nance, Maurice Lucas, and James Edwards
- Interesting Fact – Before the season started, Phoenix traded All-Star guard Dennis Johnson to the Celtics for Rick Robey. Robey never averaged more than 5.6 PPG in three seasons with the Suns – while Johnson helped Boston to two NBA championships. Also Suns forward Larry Nance won the inaugural NBA dunk contest at the 1984 All-Star break.
- Playoff Results – Round 1 – beat the Blazers (48-34) in 5 games. Round 2 – beat the Jazz (45-37) in 6 games. Western Conference Finals – lost to the Lakers (54-28) in 6 games.
- Key Stat – The Western Conference as a whole wasn’t all that impressive in the ’83-84 season. The Lakers went into the playoffs as the top seed in the West with just 54 wins and no other Western squad even had 50. Denver sneaked into the playoffs as an 8 seed with just 38 regular season wins.
- Peak Point – By getting by Midwest Division Champion Utah, the Suns got to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 5 years. Although the Lakers jumped out to a 3-1 series lead in the West Finals, the Suns won Game 5 and fought valiantly in Game 6 in Phoenix before falling 99-97 (exactly 25 years ago today).
- Why They Didn’t Belong – They were a team that won as often as they lost – and allowed almost as many points as they scored. The 80’s belonged to Showtime in the West and they clearly outclassed Phoenix. While Walter Davis and Larry Nance were nice players, neither was a franchise building superstar. The remainder of the team had decent veterans like Maurice Lucas, James Edwards, and Alvan Adams, but each was only a solid piece at best. To make a long story short – there was a reason they won 41 games.
- What Was Next – A combination of injuries and drugs derailed the Suns from actually capitalizing on their West Finals appearance as they began a 4 season slide starting in ’84-85. Phoenix suffered through a stretch of 4 consecutive sub-40 win seasons which culminated in 3 Phoenix players being suspended for cocaine trafficking in 1987. The Suns dealt Larry Nance to Cleveland during the ’87-88 season and received Kevin Johnson in return. Johnson, along with the free agent signing of Tom Chambers led the Suns back to the playoffs in ’88-89.
1. 1986-1987 Seattle Supersonics (39-43)
- Head Coach – Bernie Bickerstaff
- Key Players – Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel, and Alton Lister.
- Interesting Fact – This was the only time in Bernie Bickerstaff’s 14 year coaching career that he made it out of the first round of the playoffs.
- Playoff Results – Round 1 – upset the Mavericks (55-27) in 4 games. Round 2 – beat the Rockets (42-40) in 6 games. Western Conference Finals – swept by the Lakers (65-17).
- Key Stat –The Sonics had three players – Ellis, McDaniel, and Chambers – that averaged over 23 points per game. The NBA of the 80’s was awesome.
- Peak Point – Beating a 55-win Dallas team in the 1st round was a pretty large upset – particularly considering they lost Game 1 and allowed 151 points in the process before winning 3 straight and the series. They also beat Houston’s Twin Towers in the 2nd round – no small feat when you are starting Alton Lister at center.
- Why They Didn’t Belong – It was a 39-win team. They were a nice team with more than their share of premier scorers but in no way did they have the depth and talent to compete with the eventual champion Lakers.
- What Was Next – The future looked bright for Seattle, with all three of the big scorers being under 27 years old. Unfortunately, the ’86-87 season represented a peak with regards to the Sonics playoff progress. In ’87-88 the Sonics won 44 games but were knocked out by Denver in the 1st round. The following summer, Chambers took off for Phoenix and this incarnation of the Sonics was finished. By the time Seattle made it back to the Conference Finals in 1993 (a 7 game series loss to the Suns) there were no remaining hold-overs from the 1987 run.
So that’s that. Like I said above, the list was ordered by regular season records for the teams and while it probably isn’t a perfect indicator, it seems generally fair. But if you’d like to email us and offer a serious defense of the 1987 Sonics, I’m more than willing to listen.