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If the NBA listed its greatest strengths, unpredictability on the court probably won’t make the cut.
While surprises are inevitable in an 82-game marathon, they generally don’t take much into account in the win-loss columns. Final records generally land in the same zip code as preseason projections, and barring a major roster change, clubs often rank at their expected level.
But as with anything in life, there are exceptions.
Occasionally, a team appears and dramatically improves their perspective. The following teams are the most amazing members of the Association’s 60-win club. Each has been selected and ranked based on past performance and, when available, preseason expectations.
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The Heat are perpetually dreaming of Pat Riley, and that was especially true in 1996.
After reshaping the roster with prior swaps for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, Miami faced the offseason with great visions. Mourning earned the league’s first nine-figure contract. The Heat made a $ 98 million commitment to Juwan Howard, but the league called it off two weeks later due to lack of top space. Hardaway signed again, but not before Miami courted Gary Payton and Magic Johnson.
The Heat, who lost 50 games in 1994-1995, thought they might be decent.
“I think a season of 45 to 50 wins is in our sights,” Hardaway told reporters. “To be there in third, fourth and fifth place in the conference, in the playoff race, would be ideal.”
Oddsmakers felt the same way, and Miami received a 47.5 over / under, according to SportsOddsHistory.com. No one set the bar high enough.
The Heat won 14 of their first 18 games and never released the gas. They became even more dangerous with a three-for-one trade for Jamal Mashburn on the due date. In all, they won a record 61 games in the franchise, a number the superteam Heatles only surpassed once, with Hardaway earning his sole All-NBA First Team honor (and finishing fourth in the MVP vote) and reserving Isaac. Austin as the Best Improved Player.
Miami won its first division title and playoff series that year, eventually falling in five games against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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After three consecutive first-round outings, the Pacers were poised for a trade in 2003. They gave control of basketball operations to Larry Bird, who quickly replaced head coach Isiah Thomas with Rick Carlisle. But the offseason roster moves were minimal: an exchange for Scot Pollard, a free-agency pact with Kenny Anderson, unlikely to change the fate of what had been a 48-win team the previous season.
Then Indiana ran to a 14-2 start in 2003-04, and the Eastern Conference suddenly had a new monster. Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest (now known as Metta Sandiford-Artest) booked All-Star trips. Fred Jones won the Slam Dunk contest. Circle City buzzed like it hadn’t in years.
Oddersmakers had set the Indiana plus / minus at 47.5 wins. The Pacers celebrated their 48th victory in early March, and went on to record a franchise record of 61 wins. O’Neal earned his first (and only) All-NBA second team honor that season and even finished third in MVP voting (his first and only season with votes). Artest landed a spot in the NBA third team and captured the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to eventual champion Detroit Pistons in six games. Indiana’s success would be short-lived. These same two teams collided with the infamous Malice at the Palace in November 2004. Along with Reggie Miller’s retirement in 2005, the Indiana core collapsed shortly after joining for this unexpectedly fun run.
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The Bulls, like any other team with enough headroom to let their imaginations run wild, were expecting a transformative offseason in 2010. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James both took a look at Windy City, but when they booked it for South Beach, Chicago was He stopped splurging on Carlos Boozer and some solidly unspectacular role players.
“Yes [James would have come to Chicago]I think we would have had the best five initials in basketball, and we could have rivaled the Lakers, “Boozer said at the time, according to Sporting News.” … Without him, I think we can compete and be tough on any team that eliminates in the playoffs. “
The Bulls came from a 41-win season, and their over / under was only pushed to 46.5. Chicago demolished that number with 62 wins under rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, as projections miscalculated two different areas.
First of all, no one anticipated that Derrick Rose would become the youngest MVP in NBA history. Yet there he was, lifting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as he completed his 22-year season, during which he averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds.
Perhaps equally important, Thibodeau’s impact was greater than expected. Rewarded as Coach of the Year for his efforts, he pressed all the right buttons for the Bulls to claim first place in defensive efficiency and constantly outperform their opponents.
“They played as hard as any team we’ve ever played,” Wade told Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry.
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The Celtics waited a full year for Larry Bird, leading him to the sixth overall pick as a draft-eligible junior in 1978 knowing he planned, and did, opt for a final season in the state of Indiana. When he finally arrived in Boston, the Shamrocks immediately greeted him with a five-year, $ 3.25 million contract, then the highest awarded to a rookie in any sport.
Expectations could not have been higher for the rookie, even when he did his best to throw water on the preseason flames.
“Very few people can change a team on their own,” Bird said before the 1979-80 season. “And I am not one of them.”
Even to the most optimistic believers in Bird, it was unclear how much immediate impact it could have on the Celtics. They had gone just 61-103 in the previous two seasons, and traded their top scorer, Bob McAdoo, for future draft picks.
But Bird wasted little time establishing himself as an all-time great.
He orchestrated Boston’s jump from worst to first in the Atlantic Division as the team’s leader in points, rebounds and steals. He is one of five rookies who averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Those numbers earned him a spot in the NBA’s first team, and the Rookie of the Year honored Magic Johnson, who brought about a similar change for the Lakers but had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to help with the heavy lifting.
The Celtics finished Bird’s first year with 61 wins, 32 more than the previous season. They fell in five games against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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Before the Suns announced the future of basketball, they had to navigate an organizational crossroads. Before the 2003-04 season, Stephon Marbury was given a four-year extension that boosted his contract to six seasons and then it was the richest treatment ever given to an athlete in Arizona.
But Phoenix hobbled to an 8-13 start, costing Frank Johnson his performance as head coach. Mike D’Antoni took over, and the Suns took it upon themselves to redo the list to suit their system. That meant negotiating a highly successful trade with the New York Knicks that they sent to Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway primarily for recruits and financial aid. Phoenix, which had not won a playoff series since 2000, was prepared to play the long game.
“Are we probably going to take a step back? Yes, at first,” D’Antoni told reporters. “But with the cap room we have now and the draft picks we will have, along with the core of young players who will have plenty of playing time, we are excited.”
The Suns ended that season just 29-53, but put that newly discovered flexibility to use shortly thereafter. Free agency awarded both Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, who added to a roster that already included Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson. The Oddersmakers were intrigued, but only enough to put 44.5 above / below for 2004-05.
When Phoenix won 24 of its first 27 contests, it was clear that this team was special. Behind Nash (the eventual MVP) and D’Antoni (coach of the year), the Suns were so overwhelming on offense – 2.4 points per 100 possessions more than the second-place attack – that it hardly mattered that they were only 17th on defense. . They were the NBA’s best 62-20, somehow even hiding a six-game losing streak on the canine days of late January.
The good times went all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where Phoenix fell in five games to eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
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The NBA’s exclusive 60-win squad club primarily features a star-studded roster after the next. The 2014-15 Hawks are the exception to one of these things that is not like the others.
The starting five had two All-Stars, but Al Horford (two) and Paul Millsap (one) were in their early 20s and had three combined career selections. Jeff Teague was solid, but nothing more than that. Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll were well-traveled veterans who had recently become full-time starters.
All five, plus head coach Mike Budenholzer, were present in the 2013-14 season, in which the Hawks finished just 38-44. Of course, Horford only managed 29 contests before a ripped pectoral muscle interrupted his campaign. But even then, the Hawks hardly seemed like an impending power, with a 16-13 record at the time of injury.
Atlanta received a 42.5 over / under victory for 2014-15, which felt perfectly reasonable as the team had a 7-6 start. But then the Hawks essentially decided that they had ended up losing.
They immediately embarked on a nine-game winning streak, suffered a one-point loss on the road, and then had another five wins in a row. After a 30-point loss the day after Christmas, the Hawks rushed through a 19-game winning streak that spanned the entire month of January. The top five players shared the honors of the month, and all but Carroll were selected for the All-Star Game.
The Hawks were the last example that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Budenholzer invented a brilliant egalitarian approach based on ball movement and spacing, and the Hawks routinely brought out the best in themselves.
But the lack of top-notch legitimate star power left this club with the smallest margin of error. Among all of the clubs with 60 wins in NBA history, these Hawks rank last in the Simple Ranking System and second to last in average win margin. They peaked too early, only 17-11 years old after the All-Star break, and were thrilled when they closed their horns with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept them out of the conference finals.
All stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @ZachBuckleyNBA.