"Unlikely" Finals matchups
brink posted a while back in the Lakers Usenet group on the oddity that both of the teams in the 2008 Finals came out of nowhere, based on the previous season’s results. I finally had a chance to take a look at it, and it turns out that it was indeed the unlikeliest Finals matchup ever (going back to the 1949 merger, before which things get pretty chaotic).
Here are the “Top” 5 in terms of worst previous season aggregate record:
2008/07 Celtics (24-58) and Lakers (42-40), aggregate 66-98 (.402)
The Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and improved by a record 42 games. The Lakers got a huge breakthrough season from Andrew Bynum, signed Derek Fisher, traded for Pau Gasol after losing Bynum to a midseason knee injury and improved by 15 games.
1959/58 Celtics (49-23) and Lakers (19-53), aggregate 68-76 (.472)
The Celtics had been in the Finals the previous year and were in the early stages of an extended dynasty. The Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor and improved by 14 games.
2002/01 Lakers (56-26) and Nets (26-56), aggregate 82-82 (.500)
The Lakers had won a championship the previous year and were completing a dynasty. The Nets traded Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd, got Kerry Kittles back from injury, drafted Richard Jefferson and improved by 26 games.
1957/56 Celtics (39-33) and Hawks (33-39), aggregate 72-72 (.500)
The Celtics traded Ed Macauley for the draft rights to Bill Russell, drafted Tommy Heinsohn and got Frank Ramsey back from military service, but somehow improved by only 5 games despite adding three Hall of Fame players. The Hawks traded for Ed Macauley and Slater Martin but only improved by 1 game.
1977/76 Trail Blazers (37-45) and 76ers (46-36), aggregate 83-81 (.506)
The Blazers added Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik from the ABA, traded for Herm Gilliam, got an extra 600 minutes from a healthier Bill Walton and improved by 12 games. The Sixers traded for Julius Erving and Henry Bibby, added Caldwell Jones from the ABA and improved by 4 games.
The other end of the extreme is the 1998/97 Bulls (69-13) and Jazz (64-18), aggregate 133-31 (.811), who met in a Finals rematch.