After beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the 6th game of the Western Conference finals, the Phoenix Suns made it to the NBA finals for the first time since 1993 and only for the third time in their history.

Until recently, the team was considered one of the main losers of the league, mainly due to a greedy owner and poor management, and also had one of the longest active series without getting into the playoffs (10 years).

In the last season, particular progress in the game and team chemistry could be noticed, thanks to the new head coach Monty Williams. However, the Suns were still somewhere at the bottom of the standings when the season was suspended due to the pandemic, and even though they got into the bubble, their chance of getting through into the playoffs was scant.

However, the restart of the season in Orlando is probably the best thing that has happened to the team in 10 years. Having won all eight matches in the bubble, Phoenix almost became one of the eight teams and laid the foundation for future success.

And the signings of the experienced Jae Crowder and Chris Paul in the off-season, coupled with the progress of young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, gave us a Cinderella team only that by the looks of it this Cinderella won’t stumble and lose her shoe. 

According to experts and bookmakers, the Arizonans are now considered most likely to win the championship. They are also the only team with healthy leaders without injuries (except for Booker’s broken nose).

As you know, Phoenix is not the only team that reached the Finals the following year after not even making it to the playoffs. Today we will disckuss cases like this, what preceded them, and what helped the teams, which didn’t make it into the postseason, suddenly end up in the Finals.

In total, there are 14 such cases in the 75-year history of the league. Not that little.

Let’s take a look at history,  because in the past, there were fewer teams and the playoffs format itself was slightly different. In the first 20 years of the league’s existence, three teams managed to rehabilitate after an unsuccessful season and make it to the Finals the year after. And the San Francisco Warriors did it twice, with Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 and Rick Barry in 67. 

Starting from the mid-70s, four years in a row after an unsuccessful season, one of the clubs would get into the final series.

The Golden State Warriors didn’t exactly fail the ‘73-74 season, but the 44 wins they had weren’t enough. It was the last year when the four best teams represented each conference in the postseason. 

In 1975, the Phoenix became the second last in the conference, but the following year reached the Finals, beating the reigning champions – the Warriors – on the way.

Portland’s history also resembles a fairy tale.

And the Seattle Supersonics of 1978 remained the only team to reach the Finals after a failure for a long time. The next time it happened was 24 years later…

So, here we go:

New Jersey nets 2002

Since the days of the ABA, when the team won 2 titles with Julius Erving, the Nets franchise, in general, could not be called successful and profitable.

The team was sold a few times, and the rumours about moving did not subside. And reaching the 2nd round of the 1984 playoffs can be considered the major success in 25 years after joining the NBA.

By the end of the 90s, the situation remained the same. During the 98-99 season, the Nets acquired a new leader, Stephon Marbury, instead of Sam Cassell, who constantly suffered from injuries. Marbury straight away became the best player in the team by points and assists. Yet his individual success and participation in All-Star Games did not add any wins to the team in the following two seasons. His partners complained about him being a single player, and he was unhappy with the team for constant losses.

In summer 2001, Stephon was sent to the Phoenix, traded for Jason Kidd. This trade became a key one.

The then-president of the New Jersey team, Rod Thorn, commented on this trade, saying that Kidd is the best guard in the league. He is one of the best in the defence, and that is what they need. In general, Thorn thinks that the trade was good for them.

After Marbury left, the nets started playing as a team and defended at a high level. They did not have a top scorer, but nine people scored nine or more points during the season on average; the leader in scoring points was Kenyon Martin, with 14.9 points per game.

In the end, the team won first place in the West, and Kidd became the second in the MVP voting after Tim Duncan.

The Nets reached the Final but lost to the super duet Shaq and Kobe, who scored 65 points per game between the two of them.

Put all together, the backbone of the team was formed by the drafts.

One of the best defensive players in the team was Kerry Kittles in 1996 (8th pick). One of the best scorers was Keith Van Horn, the second peak a year later.

The first number of the 2000 draft was Kenyon Martin. The versatile forward was Richard Jefferson; the Nets gave away their 7th pick in 2001 for him.

And a successful trade, Jason Kidd, who acted as a connecting link between them. It is mainly due to this trade that Thorn was recognised as the manager of the year. 

Boston Celtics-2008 

Unlike New Jersey and Brooklyn, Boston is one of the most successful franchises in the league’s history, a 17-time NBA champion.

But even the great ones fail. Thus, in the period from 1993 to 2007, the Celtics, on average, won only 42% of matches and made it to the first round of the playoffs only twice.

After being eliminated in the first round by Indiana two years in a row, in 2004 and 2005, generally speaking, only Paul Pearce and unskilled youth remained in the team. First, Gary Payton left for Miami, where he won the title, then Antoine Walker was traded there. And later, the second scorer Ricky Davis and the veteran Mark Blount went to Minnesota, traded for an All-Star Wally Szczerbiak and first draft pick Michael Olowokandi.

The 06-07 season was indicative. Pierce was scoring 25 points, but as soon as he got a severe injury, the team began losing, ending up with a series of 22 defeats in 24 matches. Tony Allen, who was having a good season, suddenly tore his knee dunking after the whistle.

In the end, the team had 24 victories and became the worst team in the league. They also counted 18 matches in a row without victories—this an anti-record of the franchise.

Further progress of Al Jefferson, who had a double-double on average and a successful draft pick of Rajon Rondo, who became an essential part of the team for many years, are probably the only two things we can call an advantage of that season.

And most importantly, a potential top pick that would allow them to select Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in the draft did not work out. Even here, the Celtics did not seem to be lucky enough and went down to the fifth place in the lottery.

But then summer 2007 comes along, and Danny Ainge changes everything in the league, turning it all upside down.

On the day of the draft, he made a trade agreement with Seattle and swapped his fifth draft pick, exchanging Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West for Phoenix star Ray Allen and a second-round pick used to acquire Glen Davis.

And a month later, he gave away five players, including Al Jefferson and swapped a pick with Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Garnett, thus forming a super trio.

Many people questioned whether these two star players would be able to coexist with Paul Pearce, but Boston quickly dispelled these doubts with their game, starting off the bat and winning first place in the Western Conference. They had 42 more victories than in the previous season. This is an NBA record. 

Despite this, winning the title wasn’t easy. In the first round, the Celtics beat Atlanta in the seven matches, winning all four of the home matches. The same happened in the second round against Cleveland. 

In the final, they had to face Detroit, which made it there for the sixth time in a row. Boston led the series 4:2,  winning the sixth game thanks to the comeback in the fourth quarter. And finally, in the classic final confrontation with the Lakers, they received the 17th title in the club’s history, while the Pierce-Garnett-Allen trio won their first and only (apart from Ray) rings in their careers.

Cleveland Cavaliers-2015

After LeBron James’ infamous decision to leave his home club Cleveland in 2010, the team spent the next few years at the bottom of the Eastern conference results table while James played in the finals with Miami.

In the three seasons after the team’s leader left, they had only three victories more than in one season with him in the squad (2009-10 season). And only four years later did they manage to improve the result and get 10th place in the conference.

So what helped the Cavs to pick up the pieces and reach the finals again?

Firstly, after hitting rock bottom, Cleveland was lucky with the draft picks. They were the first to choose three times. And made the right decision with Kyrie Irving in 2011. The other two? Anthony Bennett was a complete failure, Andrew Wiggins did not play for the Cavs, he and Benett were traded for Kevin Love on the 2014 draft day. That’s secondly.

And, finally, the main thing is, of course, the return of LeBron James. After bringing two titles to the Heat, James returned with a clear intention to bring the championship title to Cleveland, despite the wave of hatred. And by the time James came back, Kyrie had grown up and performed serious tasks.

In just one offseason, Cleveland became a favourite again. In the regular season, the team achieved 20 more victories and took 2nd place in the conference.

In the conference final, the Cavs defeated Atlanta 4:0 and made it to the Final for the first time since 2007, where Golden State defeated them. Irving’s knee injury in the first game affected the result of the series.

And a year later, James kept his word and won the long-awaited championship to Cleveland, not without Kyrie’s help, who scored the most critical three-pointer in the 7th game of the finals.

And finally, we have a combo from the previous season – the 2020 finalists Miami and the Lakers 

For most of the decade, the Lakers were in transition from the Kobe Bryant era to a new and unknown epoch, and for the six consecutive years, did not reach the playoffs. 

The 18-19 season, which was the first for LeBron James as part of the Lakers team, also did not end with a great result. The famous forward missed many games due to his injury, and the young squad didn’t do well without him. The Lakers did not make it to the playoffs with their 37 victories.

Miami won 39 games in the East but also didn’t make it to the top eight.

Of course, after two championships and James’ transfer back to Cleveland, which I mentioned earlier, and after Chris Bosh’s career-ending due to a health condition, the Heat couldn’t remain at the top any longer. They were between making it to the second round of the playoffs and winning a tenth place in the conference.

Let’s discuss the 2019 offseason.

LeBron, who wasn’t so young, already lost a whole season in Los Angeles, which meant only one thing. The club’s management will rush and do everything they can to ensure the championship window doesn’t shut before the Lakers make it there.

Luckily for the Lakers, they had an option with Anthony Davis, who didn’t want to play for the Pelicans, and they, in turn, were in a rush to trade their leader.

Thus the two best players of the league (according to the annual rating of ESPN) joined forces in LA. And in addition, experienced Dwight Howard and Danny Green, who just became a champion while playing for Toronto, joined the Lakers.

This time the Lakers managed without serious injuries and confidently swept through the regular games, winning first place in the West.

Miami’s roster had also undergone significant changes. In a 4-way exchange, the Heat got their star, Jimmy Butler. The rookies, the 15th number of the draft, Tyler Herro and the undrafted Kendrick Nunn immediately proved their worth. Duncan Robinson turned into an elite sniper from no-name. And Bam Adebayo has made a massive leap in his skills.

As the season progressed, the Heat traded players again, despite having 34 victories and 16 losses. They acquired three defensive specialists – Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill.

The Floridians spent the rest of the season searching for team chemistry and interactions.

As it turned out, Erik Spoelstra made vital changes in the playoffs, transferring Goran Dragic and Jaw Crowder to the starting lineup to Butler, Adebayo and Robinson. These five became the killer of all Eastern opponents. Miami swept the Indiana team in the first round and then beat Milwaukee and Boston, who were favoured to win.

The Lakers, in turn, needed only five matches to beat Portland, Houston and Denver on the way to the Finals.

Thus, for the first time in the history of the NBA, the teams that did not even get into the playoffs a year before faced each other in the decisive series.