Was the 2011 Finals the worst upset in NBA history?

I think modern fans (or Lebron haters) always call out the 2011 Finals for being the ‘biggest chokejob’ or ‘worst Finals collapse’ or ‘biggest upset ever’, but we have to look at the actual facts and compare it to other teams in NBA history.

Here are the facts:

  1. 2011 was the first year Lebron, Wade and Bosh played together and under a new (rookie Erik Spoelstra) coach and new system. They needed time to build chemistry. There was no guarantee they would even reach the Finals let alone win it. Not every “superteam” is instantly successful. See the 1997 Rockets, 2013 Lakers, 2020 Clippers or 2021 Nets for example. You can’t just put a bunch of big name guys together and expect it to work out. None of those teams even made it to the Finals.
  2. The 2011 Mavs were a great team that absolutely destroyed the Western Conference. Not only did they win 57 games (only one less than the Heat) they did it in a tougher conference, beat the Lamarcus/Roy Blazers in 6, SWEPT the 57 win defending champion Kobe Gasol Lakers, beat the Big 3 OKC in 5 games. People want to keep talking about how everyone on this team was “old” well this team had great chemistry and spent lots of time playing together. You had an aging but still effective defender and floor general in Jason Kidd, a very versatile wing in Shawn Marion, an offensive dynamo coming off the bench in Jason Terry, a great shooter Peja Stojakovich coming off the bench, future DPOY Tyson Chandler and of course prime Dirk, who was playing out of his mind that playoffs. This is a much better team than people think. In addition they played excellent zone defense on the Heat and especially on Lebron. Rick Carlisle coached this team well.
  3. Yes Lebron did not play aggressive enough, but people called this the “worst choke job in NBA history” and that’s not correct. Lebron averaged a very respectable 18/7/7 on 48% shooting. That’s not terrible by any standard. Yes Jason Terry averaged 0.2PPG more coming off the bench. So what? Terry outscored alot of players in that playoffs. I believe his FG% against the Lakers that playoffs was what an incredible 65%? and he dropped a record 9 3 pointers in the closeout Game 4? He’s the second leading scorer on that team and also played more minutes than the starter Deshaun Stevenson. And no JJ Barea did not outplay Lebron that’s a stupid myth based on no more than 5 or 6 possessions when Barea happened to match up with Bron. Barea averaged less than 10 PPG on 37% shooting nobody should be talking about him.

The Mavs were determined to keep LeBron from beating them and had schemed a variety of effective defenses to stymie him. Spoelstra was an inexperienced head coach and couldn’t counteract the several zones, in particular. But also, if a team takes something away they leave something else open, and Spoelstra and the team were relying on a prime DWade’s high scoring. LeBron’s usage rate was way below Wade’s that series, and also below Chris Bosh’s usage. That was what was available, and smart basketball, particularly since Wade was Mr. Heat himself, and also The Man, The Myth, The Legend. With Wade having a great Finals, it was basically working.

But what nobody seems to remember is that it was Wade’s two miscues in last possessions of two games that lost two games. If he had come through, the Heat might have won in 5 games, and LeBron’s issues would not have been the story line everyone remembers. (More a footnote that goes unmentioned after time passes, like other Finals’ failures of other all-time greats (Magic and Bird, for example.)

In the first loss, Wade tried to get Dirk to foul him on a 3 point attempt. Dirk didn’t, and with the awkward mechanics, the shot didn’t fall. In the second loss, Wade fumbled the ball almost out of bounds on the Heat’s last possession, had to make a circus type recovery to Mike Miller, who got an awkward pass with so little time he didn’t get a good look on that last shot.

Now about that Lebron ‘chokejob’, it’s because Lebron usually averages 27+ PPG and in that series he looked like he was afraid of the ball and only averaged 18 PPG. This especially stands out in comparison to his other Finals where he averaged video game numbers – except for 2007 (which is excused because his second best player in that Finals was Drew freaking Gooden). But I can list some other Finals by other all time great players who performed arguably worse:

-1983 Magic (shot 40%, Andrew Toney outscored him by 3PPG)

-1983 Kareem (completely outplayed by Moses in that series)

-1981 Bird (averaged 15 PPG, shot 42% but excused because they won that series)

-2000 Kobe (averaged 15 PPG, shot 37%, Jalen Rose outscored him by a whopping 8 PPG, but excused because he had a good Game 4, he was injured and they still won)

-2004 Kobe (averaged 22 PPG, got totally locked up by Tayshaun, shot 38%)

-2016 Curry (averaged only 23 PPG down from 30 PPG in reg season, shot only 40% which is horrible for the GOAT shooter, but excused because he was ‘injured’)

And I can also list a bunch of other upsets / chokes in NBA Finals history that I can think are arguably worse:

-1969 Lakers. Had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and lost to a much lower seeded Celtics team with Bill Russell and Sam Jones in their Final season. On paper this team should have beat the Celtics easily, but it came down to a Game 7 and they couldn’t get it done.

-1975 Bullets. Rick Barry’s Warriors came out of nowhere and swept this 60 win team which had Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes on it. Barry had no other all stars on his team.

-1977 76ers. Dr J and George McGinnis both won multiple championships in the ABA. What’s the excuse for them being up 2-0 and then losing 4 games in a row to Bill Walton?

-1984 Lakers. The one where Magic turned into ‘Tragic Johnson’ and made several crucial mistakes in this series.

-2004 Lakers. This to me is the one that is clearly a worse upset than the 2011 Heat. You have the 2004 Pistons, a team that won 54 games in the weaker conference (Lakers won 56 games in the West). The Pistons went to 7 games against the Kidd Nets and only had one all star on the team (Ben Wallace). The Lakers were heavily favored but lost in only 5 games. Laker fans will say that’s because the Pistons defense was too good and the Pistons were a good team, but that’s only in retrospect. At the time, the 2004 Pistons were viewed as much or more of an underdog than the 2011 Mavs were (In fact on paper the Mavs are clearly better since they won 57 games in a stronger conference). Both Shaq and Kobe were healthy. They lost nothing from their 2002 championship squad since Payton and Malone joined as free agents. Even if Malone was injured, Shaq/Kobe is supposed to be one of the most dominant duos of all time. Yes they had drama but that’s fully on them. This was clearly a massive upset/choke.

-2016 Warriors. This is a big one because umm, they were up 3-1. They only needed to win ONE more game and they couldn’t do it. Curry as I already mentioned had probably the worst Finals of his career. How do you go from 50% FG% and 30 PPG in the regular season to 40% FG% and 22 PPG in the Finals? Sure you had Draymond out for one game and Bogut out for two games, but cmon you can’t win a single game?

-2019 Warriors. Nobody mentions this as an upset but I think it is. Even with KD out, you still had prime Curry, Klay for every game except one, Draymond and Iggy. Up against Kawhi, Lowry and Siakim. On paper, the Warriors still had the better team. I’m pretty sure everyone ranks Curry higher than Kawhi right? and Klay higher than Lowry right? And Draymond higher than Siakim right? So.. what happened here? and yes this IS an upset. Nobody expected the Raptors to even get to the Finals because they were perennial playoff chokers. The Warriors even without KD were heavily favored to win the series. I feel like in retrospect people give the 2019 Warriors a lot of excuses for the loss just like they do for the 2004 Lakers and 2016 Warriors, but truth is they were heavily favored before the series began and thus it’s an upset just like the others.

Also want to mention, the 2011 Lakers would probably be mentioned as a bigger choke job had the 2011 Heat superteam not existed. I mean, they were the defending champions, Gasol was an All Star, Kobe was All-NBA 1st team and All-Def 1st team and performed horribly that series vs the Mavs. Jason Terry, Dirk, everyone was feasting on the Lakers that series, but it gets entirely glossed over because of Lebron’s 2011 Finals performance. At least the Heat won 2 games against them? Lakers couldn’t even win one.