4 Surprise NBA Champions and 4 Biggest Disappointments

As seen in the chart below, many times the team with the highest regular season win percentage ends up winning the NBA championship.  Throughout the course of NBA history, though, there have been numerous surprise champions as well as some big disappointments.


Biggest Surprises

  • 1946-1947 Golden State Warriors
    • This season, the Warriors had the 4th best record in the league, so by pure ranking it doesn’t look like a surprise.  However, the #1 team this year (Washington Capitols) had a .8167 win percentage (record of 49-11).  Golden State’s win percentage was .5833 (35-25).
  • 1977-1978 Washington Bullets
    • Led by Wes Unseld, the Bullets had a regular season win percentage of .5366 (44-38), good for 9th best and the fewest wins for a champion since the league went to an 82 game season.  Tops this year were the Portland Trailblazers at .7073 (58-24).  Other teams ahead of the Bullets were the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Thunder, 76ers, Suns, and Spurs.
  • 1994-1995 Houston Rockets
    • Coming off their 1993-1994 championship, the 1994-1995 Rockets amassed a .5732 (45-37) win percentage – which put them in 11th place.  This year, the Spurs had the best record, led by David Robinson, with a win percentage of .7561 (62-20).  Also ahead of the Rockets were the Jazz, Suns, Magic, Super Sonics, Knicks, Lakers, Pacers, Bulls, and Hornets.
  • 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers
    • It might seem like a stretch to call a team with a top 3 all-time player a surprise champion, but this season featured two all-time season records from the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.  The Cavs had the third best win percentage at .6951 (57-25).  The Warriors came in at an NBA record .8902 (73-9) while the Spurs were at .8171 (67-15).
  • Honorable Mention: 2005-2006 Miami Heat, 1972-1973 New York Knicks, 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks

Biggest Disappointments

This disappointments will often align with the surprise winner, but for this analysis we tried to look at cases where team records were not bunched together.  Instead there was one or two clear favorite for the season.

  • 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors
    • All-time NBA win record, but couldn’t close out game 7 against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
  • 1946-1947 Washington Capitols
    • In this inaugural NBA season, the difference between the 1st place win percentage (Capitols) and 2nd place (Chicago Stags) remains the largest in NBA history.  The Golden State Warriors won the championship.
  • 1972-1973 Boston Celtics
    • This team had a win percentage of .8293 (68-14).  The next closest were the Los Angeles Lakers at .7317 (60-22).  Neither team would go on to win the championship (New York Knicks).
  • 1974-1975 Boston Celtics
    • In the year between these two disappointing Celtics season, they won the championship, but an argument could be made that this 70’s era team actually underachieved.  This season they went for a .7317 win percentage (60-22).  The next closest were the Buffalo Braves (LA Clippers franchise) at .5976 (49-33).  The Golden State Warriors, though, were the eventual champions at .5854 (48-34).
  • Dishonorable Mention: 2006-2007 Dallas Mavericks, 1967-1968 Philadelphia 76ers, 1977-1978 Portland Trail Blazers

Best Record and Champion

Throughout NBA history, there have been a few spans of time where the best regular season record also won the NBA championship.  This signifies less uncertainty in the league, so it can be interesting to see when those time periods occurred.  The 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s can be measured as low uncertainty by this method.

  • 1952-1953 Lakers
  • 1953-1954 Lakers
  • 1954-1955 76ers
  • 1955-1956 Warriors
  • 1956-1957 Celtics
  • 1958-1959 Celtics
  • 1959-1960 Celtics
  • 1960-1961 Celtics
  • 1961-1962 Celtics
  • 1962-1963 Celtics
  • 1963-1964 Celtics
  • 1964-1965 Celtics
  • 1966-1967 76ers
  • 1969-1970 Knicks
  • 1970-1971 Bucks
  • 1971-1972 Lakers
  • 1980-1981 Celtics
  • 1982-1983 76ers
  • 1983-1984 Celtics
  • 1985-1986 Celtics
  • 1986-1987 Lakers
  • 1987-1988 Lakers
  • 1988-1989 Pistons
  • 1991-1992 Bulls
  • 1995-1996 Bulls
  • 1996-1997 Bulls
  • 1998-1999 Spurs
  • 1999-2000 Lakers
  • 2002-2003 Spurs
  • 2007-2008 Celtics
  • 2012-2013 Heat
  • 2013-2014 Spurs
  • 2014-2015 Warriors
  • 2016-2017 Warriors