The Miami Heat finished the 2018-2019 season with a 39-43 record, their third-worst since drafting Dwyane Wade back in 2003. It was a season where their state rivals, the Orlando Magic beat them to the race of making the postseason in the Eastern Conference.
After that, and an offseason that did not generate much attention, the Heat were not favoured by many heading into the 2019-20 season.
With the arrival of Jimmy Butler, who had not been All-Star last season (2018-19), and the departure of important players such as Dwyane Wade (retired), Hassan Whiteside (traded to Portland Trail Blazers), and Josh Richardson (traded to Philadelphia 76ers), it seemed illogical that Miami, a year later, would be in the NBA Finals.
But here they are. After an impressive performance in the playoffs, they stand a chance to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Although they entered the postseason as the fifth seed, their rise to the Finals isn't a surprise.
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All through the year, they had shown themselves to be a dangerous team with two 2020 All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, youngsters who were among the biggest revelations of the season in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and "rebirths" like those of Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic. Before the season started, not many could have predicted this.
It's almost that time. #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/b6071AKIBX- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) September 29, 2020
That leads us to wonder: Are the 2019-20 Miami Heat the most surprising finalist in NBA history? It is a very subjective question, but there is a way to answer it with a good perspective - based on what the bookmakers indicated prior to each NBA season.
The sportsoddshistory files go as far back in time as 1985, so we can at least talk about the last 35 years. According to the records, the Heat are one of the two finalists who paid the most money to a bettor if they chose them as champions before the start of the season - about a $60 prize pool for every dollar wagered.
The other team this Heat squad equals? The 2002 New Jersey Nets.
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Those Nets had three consecutive years with a winning percentage below 40% and had finished with a 26-56 record in the 2000-2001 season. However, the trade of Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd combined with the take-off of youngsters like Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson and the recovery of Kerry Kittles, who had not played in the previous season, they finished first in the East with a 52-30 record and reached the Finals.
In the Finals, they could not provide much opposition to the Los Angeles Lakers, who were going for their third straight title led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Nets lost 4-0.
Other cases that are considered as unexpected by the bets, are those of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1990 (35 dollars, eighth in the West prior to the season), the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008 (30 dollars, eighth-most favoured in the West prior to the season) and the Golden State Warriors in 2015 (28 dollars, sixth in the West prior to the season).
But these three teams then were overwhelming in the regular season - the Blazers finished second in the West while the Lakers and Warriors finished first, all with at least 57 wins. In the case of the Lakers, for example, they were greatly enhanced in the middle of the season with the arrival of Pau Gasol and they became favorites.
From a standings point of view, the Heat's fifth-seed finish is surprising and rare.
The @MiamiHEAT are presented the Eastern Conference Finals Trophy! #HEATTwitter pic.twitter.com/k7RTaD8nA5- NBA (@NBA) September 28, 2020
There have been only two prior instances of teams reaching the Finals from lower in the past 35 years - the New York Knicks in 1999 as the eighth seed in the East and the Houston Rockets in 1995 as the sixth seed in the West.
In those cases, we are not talking about the previous 'underdogs'.
The 1999 Knicks were the third-most favoured team in their Conference prior to that season and were coming off seven straight postseasons where they had won at least one round. It was injuries to Latrell Sprewell and Patrick Ewing that relegated them to the bottom of the playoff seeds during the regular season. And the 1995 Rockets were the defending NBA champions with a superstar in Hakeem Olajuwon and a mid-season trade that brought in another Hall of Famer in Clyde Drexler.
Both circumstances are very different from that of the 2019-20 Miami Heat.
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