The NBA’s All-Time Best No. 8 Seeds

I have no problem saying Burger King makes the best fries. But McDonald’s won’t send me back home shuffling through my refrigerator at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night either. One version is crispier. The other feels like it needs another two minutes in the oven. Both do the job. Both taste really good. Try comparing NBA teams. It’s nearly impossible when those squads are coming from differing situations. From the players, ownership, the fans and even the style of play or storylines surrounding a team, no two situations will be entirely alike. You can’t compare style. Playoff teams? We’ve seen 65-win juggernauts, lousy 40-win teams getting in only because their timing was so good, and then everything in-between.

[Related: NBA Fantasy Team Analysis – The Memphis Grizzlies]

Looking back through some email exchanges I had with other writers over the course of last season’s playoffs, at one point I asked Alan Hahn, who is the Knicks beat writer for Newsday, to compare the No. 8-seeded Knicks of the 1999 season and last year’s surprising Memphis Grizzlies. I thought there were a few mirroring points: both teams weren’t really No. 8 seeds. For various reasons – the Knicks with the lockout-shortened season and the Grizzlies with injuries to perhaps their best player (Rudy Gay… who by the way has a huge feature in our newest issue, Dime #66) – they just ended up there. Both squads connected on a personal level with their cities, two gritty, underdog teams playing together and aggressive, led by players who were deemed league castoffs just months earlier – the Knicks and Latrell Sprewell and Memphis with Zach Randolph. Here are some of his responses (direct from the emails, so forgive any small typos):

-do you see any similarities between the two
A: Not really. The ’99 Knicks had a brutal season mainly because of the lockout, which led to a compacted 50-game schedule and included a short training camp. Jeff Van Gundy had little time to incorporate two key new players, Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, and Patrick Ewing was a terrible shape after spending a lot of time in those CBA meetings as president of the players’ union. That team had four all-stars on it (Ewing, Sprewell, Larry Johnson and Allan Houston) and tons of playoff experience. This was no typical 8th seed. The Grizzlies are much younger and a much truer upstart team at No. 8.

-Sprewell kind of had the same type of transformation that year that
Randolph is having right now. What do you remember about his play?

What do I remember about Sprewell or Randolph? Spree that season had to transition for a main guy and a starter to a reserve. Plus, that season he was hurt so it also held him back from really finding a niche with the team. It wasn’t until later in the playoffs that he did figure it out. He had a huge game against the Spurs in Game 4 to extend the series one more game. Z-Bo is nothing like Spree, tho. His bad history was years ago, back in Portland. He had already cleaned up his act for the most part. Spree had just come off a season where he choked his coach. Very different situations.

-NYC really gravitated towards that team. Why? Was it just because they were
the underdogs
I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they played two old rivals in the Heat and Pacers and paid both of them back for past playoff disappointments. It was easy to rally around them because fans had been used to seeing this team win in the postseason. Plus there were two magical moments: Houston’s shot in Game 5 and Larry Johnson’s three-pointer. But, again, this was no typical 8th seed. This was an experienced, playoff-tested, talented team. They did not overachieve. They underachieved in the regular season.

-how did Ewing’s injury affect the team? see anything similar w/ Rudy Gay?
I think the only connection you can make there is that without Ewing, it forced other players to step up, players who maybe weren’t getting as many looks because of Ewing’s presence, and the Knicks were able to run more. This is similar to Zach getting more looks and the ball moving more in the Grizzlies offense, rather than stopping at Gay, who tends to do a lot of one-on-one.

Last season, between the Grizzlies nearly making the Western Conference Finals, and the Pacers playing the Bulls as close as you can, it was a great year for No. 8 seeds. But what about all-time?

Here are a few of the best bottom seeds we’ve seen since the NBA switched to eight playoff teams per conference for the 1984 Playoffs.


2010 Oklahoma City Thunder (lost 4-2 to the Lakers in first round)
Two young potential superstars…hit their stride in the second half of the season and actually finished with 50 wins…blew out the Lakers so thoroughly in Game 4 that some thought this series would go the distance…showed the next season w/ basically the same team that they were for real

2008 Atlanta Hawks (lost 4-3 to Boston in first round)
Struggled during the season, winning just 37 games, but beat the eventually champs all three times they played in ATL in the first round…had a lineup that included two future All-Stars…took a depleted crowd and turned it into an insane homecourt advantage…got beat by 34 points in Game 7

2007 Golden State Warriors (lost 4-1 to Utah in semis)
Pulled off the biggest upset ever, beating 67-win Dallas in the first round…late season trades revitalized the squad, giving them a lineup that included Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Jason Richardson (how is that a No. 8 seed?)…ended Dallas’ season with a 25-point Game 6 win

2006 Sacramento Kings (lost 4-2 to San Antonio in first round)
Bonzi Wells (23.2 points, 12 rebounds a night) and Ron Artest (17.4 points, 5.0 rebounds) murdered whoever the Spurs put on them…should’ve gone up 3-1 but blew a lead and lost Game 2 in OT before winning the next two at home…had 44 wins on the season

2003 Phoenix Suns (lost 4-2 to San Antonio in first round)
Another close escape by the Spurs, who would win it all…Phoenix had a starting lineup that included Stephon Marbury, Amar’e Stoudemire, Penny Hardaway and Shawn Marion, with Joe Johnson off the bench…won Game 1 on a Marbury buzzer-beater, then lost Game 6 in the final seconds…might’ve been San Antonio’s best team of their run

2002 Indiana Pacers (lost 3-2 to New Jersey in first round)
Classic Game 5, double overtime courtesy of a Reggie Miller buzzer-beater…Indiana had a very talented team, boasting four present or future All-Stars (Miller, Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Brad Miller)…lost Game 3 by a single point

2000 Milwaukee Bucks (lost 3-2 to Indiana in first round)
Led by Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson & Ray Allen…eliminated by the team that would win the East, by one point in Game 5…they should’ve won that game, but Allen & Robinson combined to go 10-37 from the field…this Bucks team would be one sketchy loss away from the NBA Finals the next season…also started the legendary Darvin Ham

2000 Sacramento Kings (lost 3-2 to the Lakers in first round)
Possibly the most exciting No. 8 seed ever…J-Will, Vlade, C-Webb…led the NBA in scoring and won 44 games…blown out in Game 5 by 27, but still gave a 67-win future champ all they could handle at times

1994 Denver Nuggets (lost 4-3 to Utah in semis)
The No. 8 seed that started it all…beat a 63-win Seattle team in the first round that was destined for the Finals…won the series’ final two games in OT…a no-name squad: in Game 5, they were led by two bench players (Robert Pack & Bison Dele aka Brian Williams)

1993 L.A. Lakers (lost 3-2 to Phoenix in first round)
Won the series’ first two games in Phoenix…still had a number of 1980s holdovers that had won titles and been to the Finals…lost a Game 5 in Phoenix because Oliver Miller had 17 points, 14 rebounds & seven blocks

[Related: We Reminisce – The 1999 New York Knicks]

What did they all have in common? Other than being the lowest-seeded teams in the playoffs, not much. I did discover a few interesting things going back to find some competitive low seeds: Before the mid-1990s, they were hardly any. There were many more like the mid-’80s San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs made the playoffs three times in four years despite winning 41, 35 and 31 games. Disgusting. Just in the past five years, we’ve seen No. 8 seeds win 50 games or challenge championship contenders in the playoffs. Back in the day, a No. 1 seed meant three easy wins and rest. Now you better bring it.

Simply because they’re the only No. 8 seed to make the Finals, you can say the Knicks of 1999 were the best. But did they take advantage of an odd year when the East was so up in the air that there wasn’t much difference between the Knicks and their fallen first round giant, the Miami Heat?

Which team was the best? Which team was your favorite?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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