Having to win 16 games on the path to the NBA championship isn’t an easy feat by any measure; the grueling journey requires over two months of focus, intensity, adjustments, intelligence, effort, teamwork and lots of luck.
The best teams usually have these traits in abundance, that’s why we love to see the underdogs succeed, the Cinderellas, those teams we don’t expect to win. The teams that struggled, set back by injury, and went through the gambit of tough losses.
It doesn’t happen often, but some unlikely NBA teams have come out on top, even if they were the lower seeds in the playoffs.
Most recently, the 7th seeded Los Angeles Lakers upset the #2 seed despite the higher-ranked Memphis Grizzlies odds being a much stronger team going into the playoffs. This came on the heels of the Miami Heat becoming just the 6th eight seed to ever eliminate a one seed. But can the #8 Heat or #7 Lakers win in the second round? Then advance from the conference finals to win four more games in the NBA Finals? That’s what a handful of lower seeds did, but it isn’t common.
The Lowest Seeds to Win an NBA championship.
Throughout the NBA’s postseason history, there’s been a total of 74 NBA champions. The vast majority of those champions came into the playoffs as favorites — meaning they were the top seed in either the Eastern or Western conference.
Of all the NBA championship trophies that have been paraded around their city, 53 of the 74 have been lifted by one of the teams with the best conference record. In other words the #1 seed has won the NBA title 71.3% of the time.
The #2 seed hasn’t been nearly as successful, winning just 12 championships in all of NBA history.
The remaining 9 NBA championships are split among #3 seeds (8), a #4 seed (1) and a #6 seed (1). In total, there’s only been 10 seasons in which a team that seeded lower than two have gone on to win an NBA championship. Here they are in chronological order by highest seed to lowest seed.
The 8 Three Seeds to Win an NBA Title
1973 New York Knicks (No. 3 seed) With a regular season record of 57-25, the Knicks finished third in the Eastern Conference. Led by Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Earl Monroe, the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to win their second championship in franchise history.
1977 Portland Trail Blazers (No. 3 seed) The Blazers won their first and only NBA championship in 1977, led by Bill Walton’s dominant play in the finals. Portland finished the regular season with a record of 49-33 and defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in six games to take home the championship to Portland.
1978 Washington Bullets (No. 3 seed) The Bullets won their first championship in franchise history in 1978, led by big men Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. Washington finished the regular season with a record of 44-38 and defeated the Seattle Supersonics in seven games to win the title.
2002 Los Angeles Lakers (No. 3 seed) With a record of 58-24, the Lakers finished a season full of turmoil and drama with a less-than-impressive third seed in the Western Conference. To many it didn’t look like the Lakers had what it took to three-peat. However with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant at the wheel, the Lakers would rumble through the playoff bracket and end up sweeping the New Jersey Nets to win their third consecutive championship.
2004 Detroit Pistons (No. 3 seed) The Pistons won their first championship since 1990 in 2004, convincingly defeating the heavily-favored Laker Super Team of Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton in five games. With a record of 54-28, the Pistons were led by Finals MVP Chauncey Billups and a strong team effort that included Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace.
2007 San Antonio Spurs (No. 3 seed) The Spurs won their fourth championship in franchise history in 2007, sweeping LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in a absolute basketball masterclass. Led by Finals MVP Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, the Spurs finished the regular season with a record of 58-24.
2011 Dallas Mavericks (No. 3 seed) The Mavericks won their first championship in franchise history in 2011, defeating the heavily-favored Miami Heat in six games. Led by Dirk Nowitzki and a strong supporting cast, the Mavericks finished the regular season with a record of 57-25.
2022 Golden State Warriors (No. 3 seed) Even though the 2021-22 Golden State Warriors had their championship core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors didn’t seem to have that championship edge the entire season. However when the playoffs started the team was rejuvenated with inspiring play from Andrew Wiggins, scoring outbursts from Jordan Poole, contributions from Kevon Looney, Moses Moody and Gary Payton II, and of course the heroics of Curry who would capture his first NBA Finals MVP trophy.
1969 Boston Celtics (No. 4 seed)
The only four seed to ever win an NBA title is the 1969 Boston Celtics. Going into the series, the Celtics finished the regular season with a respectable 48-34 record, but not to the standard of the franchise that completely dominated the 1960’s by winning eight of nine NBA titles in that decade. Dynasties end, and this season was looking as if it probably wasn’t going to result in another championship.
Celtic mainstays Bill Russell and Sam Jones were well into their 30’s at this point and the 1968-69 season would be both their final seasons. Still they managed fourth place in the Eastern Division and were underdogs to the top seeded Los Angeles Laker team featured their Big 3 of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
But there’s something about championship experience. The Celtics would go on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven competitive games to win the 1969 NBA Championship – this would be last of the franchise’s 11th NBA title in 13 years. Russell and Jones would go out on top; retiring after a Game 7 win that is still considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
1995 Houston Rockets (No. 6 seed)
The lowest seed to ever win an NBA championship was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets team who came into the post season as a six seed. After winning the championship the previous season, the Rockets struggled throughout the season and ended up acquiring all-star Clyde Drexler in February for Otis Thorpe. Drexler requested a trade from the Portland Trailblazer who were then out of contention. The 32 year old was excited to be reunited with his Houston Cougars teammate Hakeem Olajuwon.
The question was whether the Rockets team could quickly integrate Drexler into their plans. Olajuwon was still dominant on the interior, but could they come together to defend their championship? Even though the Rockets would win 11 of their final 13 games, their 47-35 record had them seeded sixth in the Western Conference going into the playoffs.
The #6 seeded Rockets would have to go the distance in their first two rounds; becoming the seventh #6 seed to upset a #3 seed. After beating the Utah Jazz 3-2 in the first round, they would go on to upset the #2 Phoenix Suns before surprisingly dispatching the top seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games in the Western Conference Finals.
The Rockets would go on to their second championship; not only beating a Shaquille O’Neal-led Orlando Magic, but sweeping the young team in four games to win the NBA’s most-unlikeliest NBA title. Olajuwon would lead all scorers in each of those four games on his way to his second consecutive Finals MVP.
The historic run is also remembered for the late Rudy Tomjanovich’s famous re-quoting of Kevin Johnson “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!”
Even if that quote from Rudy T is inspirational, that heart of a champion has much better chances if they’re they finished with the best record in their conference.