An NBA season has very few big surprises.
The grueling 82-game schedule combined with seven-game playoff series has a way of teasing out what teams are really made of.
Exceptional NBA athletes, such as Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, can also overpower less talented opponents and dominate play. That’s why the history of the NBA Finals can be traced through the game’s greatest players.
Every once in a while, however, a team can catch lightning in a bottle and shatter all expectations.
Those seasons can often be the most special for a fanbase. The 2006-07 Golden State Warriors, adopting the slogan “We Believe" for the end of the regular season, mark the most notable recent example of an underdog team reviving its fanbase and franchise.
With the 2023-24 NBA season approaching, The Game Day compiled a ranking of the most overachieving NBA regular season teams since 1996-97 using data from Basketball Reference. Teams were ranked according to how much they outperformed their preseason over/unders.
The 1998-99 season was excluded because of a lockout. Ties were broken using the highest win totals among the teams.
Utah Jazz Crushed Preseason Over/Unders Since 1996-97
The biggest NBA markets may lure the most betting action, but small market franchises have exceeded their total preseason over/unders by the greatest margin since 1996-97.
Surprisingly, the Utah Jazz have exceeded preseason expectations by more than twice the amount of any other franchise despite not making the ensuing list.
Keep reading to see which underdog NBA teams had the most overachieving seasons.
#5. New York Knicks 2020-21
- Preseason over/under: 21.5 wins
- Eventual record: 41-31 (19.5 games over)
The 2020-21 Knicks had the bar set relatively low after the franchise missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons. New York had also spectacularly failed with its plan to land a superstar free agent in the 2019 offseason, leaving it with a mishmash of supporting players and rookies.
However, the Knicks’ hiring of Tom Thibodeau in 2020 as their new head coach proved to be immediately fruitful. Thibodeau drastically improved the team’s defense, bringing it up from 23rd to third in defensive rating. He also unlocked Julius Randle’s isolation scoring, which allowed the power forward to become the focal point of the team’s offense.
The Knicks lost in the first round of the playoffs, but the franchise was reinvigorated by its first playoff berth in eight years. Thibodeau won the 2020-21 NBA Coach of the Year Award, and Randle was named to the All-NBA Second Team and won the league’s Most Improved Player Award, earning a maximum contract extension from New York.
#4. Milwaukee Bucks 2009-10
- Preseason over/under: 26.5 wins
- Eventual record: 46-36 (19.5 games over)
The 2009-10 Milwaukee Bucks looked to be all but done in January. The Bucks lost star guard Michael Redd to a season-ending knee injury and entered a tailspin with five losses in six games. Many fans thought the franchise would trade its best players and focus on the future.
The team, however, pivoted and acquired John Salmons near the trade deadline. Despite being relegated to a bench player with his prior team, the Chicago Bulls, Salmons thrived with Milwaukee and led the team to 22 wins in its last 30 games. The Bucks remarkably finished sixth in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs, ending a three-year drought.
#3. Detroit Pistons 2001-02
- Preseason over/under: 30.5 wins
- Eventual record: 50-32 (19.5 games over)
The 2000-01 Detroit Pistons finished in the bottom five in offensive rating and missed the playoffs despite having Jerry Stackhouse, the second-leading scorer in the NBA. The Pistons subsequently fired head coach George Irvine and brought in a younger face, Rick Carlisle, to lead the team.
Carlisle modernized the Detroit offense and made it one of the highest-volume, 3-point shooting teams in the league. He also fully embraced Ben Wallace’s defensive ability, which became a crucial component of the Pistons’ 2003-04 NBA championship. Carlisle was named Coach of the Year, while Wallace won the first of his four Defensive Player of the Year Awards in five years.
#2. New Jersey Nets 1997-98
- Preseason over/under: 22.5 wins
- Eventual record: 43-39 (20.5 games over)
The 1997-98 New Jersey Nets were ready to turn the page. After disappointing in John Calipari’s first year as head coach, the team redesigned its logo and changed its uniforms to give fans a fresh look. The Nets also traded for the second pick in the 1997 draft, Keith Van Horn.
Despite suffering an ankle injury that delayed his debut by more than a month, Van Horn led the team in points and minutes per game. New Jersey finished the season with a top-five offense in the NBA and a playoff berth. Calipari was fired after the team’s extremely poor start the following season, but Van Horn became a franchise leader and a crucial part of the Nets’ 2001-02 NBA Finals run.
#1. Phoenix Suns 2013-14
- Preseason over/under: 20.5 wins
- Eventual record: 48-34 (27.5 games over)
Fans assumed the Phoenix Suns were in for a long rebuild after the team lost franchise legend Steve Nash in the 2012 offseason. Phoenix struggled in its first season in the post-Nash era, finishing with just 25 wins and parting ways with head coach Alvin Gentry in the middle of the season. Despite low expectations and a young roster for the 2013-14 season, the Suns miraculously clicked on both ends of the floor.
One of the biggest reasons for their success was Goran Dragić’s breakout season. Dragić averaged 20.3 points per game, and the Suns’ efficiency improved by seven points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Dragon’s stellar play earned him a spot on the All-NBA Third Team and the 2013-14 Most Improved Player Award.