GENE HERRICK/Associated Press
1956-57 St. Louis Hawks
History looks back at the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks with certain consternation. Already a competitive team led by Bob Pettit, the Hawks chose to send their No. 2 overall pick on draft day to the Boston Celtics, which became Hall of Famer Bill Russell, for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley.
Both players went on to help the Hawks while Russell won 11 championships in Boston.
The Celtics finished the season with a league-best 44 wins. The Hawks struggled and fired head coach Red Holzman, so Slater Martin took over for eight games as a player-coach before deferring to teammate Alex Hannum for the final 31.
The Hawks (34-38) finished in first place in the Western Division via a three-way tie with the Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons. Despite the season’s chaos and giving the Celtics arguably the greatest franchise player of all time, the Hawks swept the Lakers in the Western Division Finals before Russell ended their season in the first of his 12 NBA Finals and 11 championships.
St. Louis did get revenge the following year, handing Russell his only loss in the Finals.
1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers
The Minneapolis Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor outside the top 10 rounds in 1956, but he chose to stay in school (Seattle University). After a terrible 1957-58 season built around Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen that saw the Lakers win just 19 of 72 games, the franchise drafted Baylor again (the rules were different back then), this time with the No. 1 pick in 1958.
Baylor was a tremendous collegiate player, but his immediate impact on the Lakers was shocking.
With nearly the same roster plus Baylor, they improved to 33 wins. Baylor averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists, winning Rookie of the Year while leading the Lakers past Pettit and the 49-23 reigning champion Hawks in the Western Division Finals. They had been nearing bankruptcy but were suddenly rejuvenated, making their first NBA Finals since the George Mikan era.
Once there, they weren’t ready for the Celtics, losing in four straight.
1975-76 Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns joined the NBA in 1968 and made the playoffs just once through the 1974-75 season (losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round during the 1969-70 campaign), which is why their run in 1975-76 seemed to come out of nowhere.
They were just a 42-40 team, good for fourth in the Western Conference. When they traded Charlie Scott to the Celtics for Paul Westphal and a couple of second-round picks, they surely couldn’t have foreseen Westphal jumping from 9.8 points per game in Boston to 20.5 in Phoenix.
The Suns got past the Seattle SuperSonics in six games, then Rick Barry, Jamaal Wilkes and the Golden State Warriors in seven to draw the Celtics in the Finals. That set up the legendary triple-overtime Game 5, one of the best in NBA history, but Boston survived 128-126 and finished the improbable Suns off in six.
Phoenix didn’t make the playoffs the following season, eventually making it back to the Finals with Charles Barkley in 1992-93 before suffering a loss to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
In retrospect, perhaps the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers don’t belong on this list given LeBron James going to the NBA Finals was almost an annual lock for a full decade. Still, his debut in 2007 was remarkable because of the lack of talent around him. Hence the honorable mention.
None of that is to say Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden weren’t good basketball players. But James did the most with the least throughout the season. Getting swept by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs makes a lot of sense when comparing rosters.