The Lowest Seed to Win the NBA Finals

In 2023, with the 8-seed Miami Heat squeaking into the playoff bracket and then absolutely dominating their way through to the NBA finals against the Denver Nuggets, the idea of seeding has been coming up a lot. And it kinda begs the question; what was the lowest seed to win the NBA finals?

That is, what team was the least successful in the regular season but still managed to go on and win the NBA finals. It’s a fun question because it points to a true underdog story, a team that beat the odds to squeak out victory at the pinnacle of their sport.

In the NBA, seeding refers to the process of assigning a rank to teams as they head into the playoffs. This rank doesn’t just indicate your chances of winning, it determines your scheduling in the finals. It can dictate who, when and where you play your playoff games.

So let’s take a look at the story of the lowest seed to ever win the NBA Finals, the 1995 Houston Rockets.

The Regular Season

Coming off of a title run in 1994, the Rockets entered the 94-95 regular season on a 9 game win streak. The championship roster, featuring Hakeem Olajuwon, appeared to be holding strong.

In February, management got a little spooked and got to thinking a change was needed if they were going to contend for a consecutive title. They worked out a trade to send Power Forward and secondary scorer Otis Thorpe to the Trailblazers in return for Clyde Drexler and Tracy Murray.

Drexler and Olajuwon had a little history. The two had made a run at the 1983 NCAA championship together with the Houston Cougars. It was a significant move, bringing another Houston legend back into the fold. It also gave the Rockets an All-Star guard.

The new lineup faltered without Thorpe. Starting out the season on a 29-17 run, they lost half of their remaining 36 games to close out with a 47-35 record, settling for the 6-seed in the West.

Headed into the 1995 finals, the 1994 champions were down one big ole Otis Thorpe. Vernon Maxwell, who had been a key figure in that previous playoff run, was clearly disgruntled about sacrificing his starting position to Drexler.

Things were not looking good…


Their first opponent would be the 3-seed Utah Jazz. This was the trailing the peak of the Karl Malone John Stockton era, but they did put up a good fight.

Disgruntled Maxwell faked a pulled hammie after game 1. This would end up being his final game with the Rockets.

The Jazz rolled into a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 series, but Houston turned it around and won the next 2 games to make it to the next round.


Moving on to the Suns for the Western Conference Semifinals. This time, in a best-of-7 series, Houston would again find themselves on the brink of elimination. In fact, if this were also a best-of-5, they would have lost in 4.

Again, Houston pulled it together with a 3-game do-or-die streak to eliminate the 2-seed, Barkley-led Suns and move on to the Conference Finals.

San Antonio

Here the Rockets would meet the San Antonio Spurs for a Texas showdown. Coming up against the 1-seed Spurs, Houston locked in. This series was less of a nail-biter.

The 94-95 Spurs were at the cusp of the Popovich era. He had just taken over as GM. The playoff upset and a disappointing open to the 95-96 season would ultimately convince Pop to oust coach Bob Hill and takeover as head coach.

More relevant to the 95 finals though, we have a prime David Robinson and the recently acquired Dennis Rodman. This combo was thought to be a recipe for shutting down Olajuwon. It didn’t work.

The Rockets took the first two games on enemy territory in the Alamodome. The Spurs answered back, taking the next two games at The Summit. Houston would win the next two games to take the series in 6.


Making it through the 1-see Spurs would only set the Rockets up to meet the other 1-seed, the Orlando Magic.

The Magic, now in just their 6th year in existence, had recently lucked out with the Shaq draft. In this, his third season, Shaq led the league in scoring. This was his second playoff run.

The Magic took their first playoff series 3-1 in the final days of the Boston Garden. the event was pseudo-memorialized in the mediocre 1996 comedy flick and early Judd Apatow credit, Celtic Pride.

They then pushed through the 5-seeded Jordan Bulls in 6 games. Jordan was fresh off of his first retirement. The Bulls would go on to take the following 3 titles, but for now the Magic were safe.

And in the Eastern Conference finals, the Magic would meet Reggie Miller and the 3-seeded Pacers, eaking out a 4-3 series victory.

The 6-seed Houston Rockets iced them out.

Game 1 was down to the line and then some. Kenny ‘the Jet’ Smith hit a finals record at the time 7 3-pointers. One of those 3’s tied the game and sent it into overtime after 70% free throw shooter Nick Anderson had just bricked 4 free throws in a row. Hakeem tipped in a game-winning Drexler miss with 10 seconds on the clock. Anderson would never hit that 70% accuracy again, obviously haunted by the experience.

Hakeem went for 34 points in game 2 to hand the Rockets a comfortable victory. This was only the 2nd time in history that a team would give up their first two home games in a finals series.

Game 3 was again competitive with an exchange of 3’s and fouls towards the end of the game that would leave the Rockets on top and one game away.

The Rockets then setup the first half of game 4 with a minor deficit. But they would outscore in the second half 66-50 to make it up. Olajuwon outscored Shaq by 10 points and capped a healthy lead with a rare 3 in the face of a Shaq closeout.

Take a look…

Takeaways from Lowest Seed to Win the NBA Finals

It was a run for the ages, a 6-seed underdog scraping through with the win to become the lowest seed to win the NBA finals in league history. The 1995 season would arguably form the high-water mark for the Olajuwon era.

The following two seasons would see improved regular season records and significant playoff runs. But the Rockets haven’t made the finals since claiming that 95 title.