How Many NBA Champions Were Lucky?

Next stop Vegas!

In 1984 the NBA removed the bye in the first round for top seeds. Since then, every title team has had to endure four round of pain to hoist a championship trophy — although, teams pre 2003 did enjoy the luxury of best of five first rounds.

I had an fun question: how often has a title team faced elimination? As the saying goes: any team can beat any other team on a given night (For example the powerhouse 72 win 1996 Chicago Bulls lost to both the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors) If a title team faced elimination then you can call them a bit lucky. Let’s break it down.

Season Team Playoffs Round Situation Elimination Games
2012 Miami Heat Conference Finals Fell 2-3 to Boston Celtics 2
2010 Los Angeles Lakers Finals Fell 2-3 to Boston Celtics 2
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 2nd Round 3-3 to Houston Rockets 1
2008 Boston Celtics 1st Round 3-3 to Atlanta Hawks 1
2008 Boston Celtics 2nd Round 3-3 to Cleveland Cavaliers 1
2005 San Antonio Spurs Finals 3-3 to Detroit Pistons 1
2004 Detroit Pistons 2nd Round 2-3 to New Jersey Nets 2
2002 Los Angeles Lakers Conference Finals 2-3 to Sacramento Kings 2
2000 Los Angeles Lakers 1st Round 2-2 to Sacramento Kings 1
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Conference Finals 3-3 to Portland Trail Blazers 1
1998 Chicago Bulls Conference Finals 3-3 to Indiana Pacers 1
1995 Houston rockets 1st Round 1-2 to Utah Jazz 2
1995 Houston rockets 2nd Round 1-3 to Phoenix Suns 3
1994 Houston rockets 2nd Round 3-3 to Phoenix Suns 1
1994 Houston rockets Finals 2-3 to New York Knicks 2
1992 Chicago Bulls 2nd Round 3-3 to New York Knicks 1
1990 Detroit Pistons Conference Finals 3-3 to Chicago Bulls 1
1988 Los Angeles Lakers 2nd Round 3-3 to Utah Jazz 1
1988 Los Angeles Lakers Conference Finals 3-3 to Dallas Mavericks 1
1988 Los Angeles Lakers Finals 2-3 to Detroit Pisons 2
1984 Boston Celtics 2nd Round 3-3 to New York Knicks 1
1984 Boston Celtics Finals 3-3 to Los Angeles Lakers 1

And for those of you keeping score, here’s title teams that managed to avoid any season-ending games on their quest for greatness.

Season Team
2011 Dallas Mavericks
2007 San Antonio Spurs
2006 Miami Heat
2003 Spurs
2001 Lakers
1999 Spurs
1997 Chicago Bulls
1996 Chicago Bulls
1993 Chicago Bulls
1991 Chicago Bulls
1989 Detroit Pistons
1987 Los Angeles Lakers
1986 Boston Celtics
1985 Los Angeles Lakers

The final tally? Of the 29 playoffs played since the removal of the first round bye – 15 title teams have faced elimination, while 14 have avoided it completely. What’s more, 10 of our title teams faced multiple games where they could have gone home! The NBA is a lopsided league. Teams that win the title very rarely come as surprises. However, given the length of the playoffs, it is important to remember a little luck can come into play. More than half of all of our title winners in the last three decades could have gone home. A third of them courted disaster multiple times. When we reward title teams, we should accept they were top caliber teams that outplayed strong opponents. We should also remember, that many of them also had a little luck.


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