The 2017 champions for the NHL and NBA have been crowned. Looking back, the finalists in each sport did not all finish the regular season with the best record. What that proves is that you don’t have to be the best team during the season, of course. But how often does this happen?
Let’s begin the discussion with the recently completed Stanley Cup Finals. During the regular season, the Washington Capitals had the league’s most points with 118. This was an incredible 24 points better than the Nashville Predators, who finished two wins shy of winning the league title. In fact, the Preds were the 16th-best team in the league, and yet, they skated past seven other Western Conference teams to reach the finals.
You will often hear that all teams begin the playoffs 0-0. That is a fact and a reminder that once a team reaches the postseason, the regular season means nothing. The Golden State Warriors won another NBA championship, but they did finish with the league’s best record. And then, they coasted to another championship. However, their finals counterpart—the Cleveland Cavaliers—finished second to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference.
Last year however, those same Warriors (sans Kevin Durant) won the most games in league history during the regular season. But, they would go on to lose to the Cavs in the finals—blowing a 3-1 lead in the process. The year before that, this year’s championship combatants met for the first of three straight finals meetings. It began with Golden State beating the Cavs, but again, Cleveland did not have the best record in the Eastern Conference. Such a distinction belonged to the Atlanta Hawks, who bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals as Cleveland swept them away.
The fact that finishing with the best regular season record does not guarantee a championship can be applied in any of the four major professional sports in America. In baseball, before the wild card and division breakouts came to be, it was just the National and American League. The teams that finished with the best records in each would meet in the World Series.
Then came expansion, divisions and eventually wild cards. Now instead of two teams vying for a World Series spot, we have five in each league. This has enabled teams that may not seemingly belong there to “sneak” into the playoffs. But even division winners can have a sub-par season and still come out on top.
In 1987, the Minnesota Twins won the then West Division when there was only two divisions in each league. But, Minnesota won just 85 games against 77 losses. In the East, the Detroit Tigers won 98 games but could only manage one victory in the best-of-seven AL Championship series against the Twins. Minnesota would then go on to take out the Cardinals in seven after St. Louis had won 95 regular season games.
Something similar happened in baseball in 2006 when the St. Louis Cardinals won the championship after winning just 83 games—whereas the New York Mets won 97, the Twins won 96, A’s 93, and Yankees 97. Of course, the perfect example of having an amazing season but flopping in the postseason would be the 2001 Seattle Mariners. That year, the Mariners won an incredible 116 games—losing just 46 times.
Heavy favorites to win the World Series? Most thought Seattle was a shoo-in. Not so. Instead, after dumping the Cleveland Indians in the divisional round, Seattle was upended by the 95-win New York Yankees. In the World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks (92 wins) defeated the St. Louis Cardinals (93) and the Atlanta Braves (88) in the League Championship Series.
That National Football League has a history of teams winning titles despite barely making the playoffs. Thanks to the wildcard which began in 1970, 10 teams have earned a wild card spot only to go on and reach the Super Bowl. Six of those 10 came home with a Lombardi Trophy.
The 1975 Dallas Cowboys managed only the wild card, but reached the final game only to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X. This, after winning 10 of 14 games during the regular season and finishing second in the NFC East Division. Only the 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers won as few as 10 games yet reached the league’s final game.
As many know, those Giants upended the undefeated New England Patriots. The Packers also won, but by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers instead. Those same Steelers won Super Bowl XL as a wild card side, having to win all three playoff games on the road leading up to that championship game. The Giants also won three road games in 2007 en route to a championship.
With consecutive Stanley Cups , the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to finish with their conference’s best record in 2015-16 as well. The team they defeated, the San Jose Sharks, were sixth-best in the west. When the Pens last won (before these past two), the year was 2009. Then, Pittsburgh finished with the fourth-best conference record behind Boston, Washington, and New Jersey.
In winning the Stanley Cup that season, Pittsburgh was eight-best in the league and toppled the team with the third-best record—the Detroit Red Wings—in the championship round. If you go back through NHL history, the Chicago Blackhawks of 1937-38 won only 14 of 48 games. And yet, they won the Stanley Cup anyway.
Across the board, you can find several instances of teams not fairing well in the regular season but making up for it when it mattered most. The 2011 New York Giants, for example, won just nine of 16 games yet won the Super Bowl. Other hockey and baseball teams were mentioned above. But, what about the 1995 Houston Rockets in the NBA?
That year, Houston was sixth in the Western Conference. They finished the regular season with a mark of 47-35. Consider the Golden State Warriors setting the standard with 73 wins two years ago. The Rockets, however, got hot at the right time—pushing aside four teams out west and in the finals who all won at least 50 games (Utah, Phoenix and San Antonio, then Orlando for the championship).
This phenomena of best teams during regular season not winning a title isn’t just limited to team sports, however. While other professional sports may not have a regular season, similar situations can still happen. In pro boxing, there have been instances of what appears to be a one-sided fight—only to end up with an opposite result. A perfect example in boxing might be either the Leon Spinks upset of Muhammad Ali that no one saw coming. Or, the Buster Douglass upset of Mike Tyson for his heavyweight belt.
In golf, there was the incredible upset of Y.E. Yang out-shooting Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship.
Even auto racing is not immune. During the 2011 Daytona 500, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of that event. This, coming just one day after his birthday. That race was just his second cup start ever. Since, he has experienced just two more victories.
Finally, we include the UFC—relatively new compared to the others. Ronda Rousey, the former women’s bantamweight champion, was thought to be invincible. So built up, she was referred to as the “greatest women’s athlete” in the world among other superlatives. That was until she climbed into the Octagon and met Holly Holm. Holm gave her a terrible beating, sending her on the way to exiting the sport. Rousey would lose again to Amanda Nunes before heading off into the sunset. She hasn’t been heard from since.
So with basketball over, hockey concluded, and football yet to come, Major League Baseball will be this summer’s feature attraction. As of right now, the wild card race includes the last qualifiers in Minnesota—who, as of this writing—hold just a 34-31 record in the AL. And in the NL, a stacked NL West has pushed both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers (43-26) into the wild card picture.
In the words of the late Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Although used many times by so many, Berra also gets credit for the colloquialism, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” With that said, looking ahead to other sports: “don’t count your eggs before they are hatch.”
In your opinion, who is the worst team ever to win a championship? And for more from Harv Aronson, check out his website!