Greatest underdog stories in NBA history

Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman is one of the NBA's great personalities. Photo from CNN.

When it comes to underdog stories, the NBA is a league that has a lot to offer. Whether you look at players who have beaten all odds to become top NBA players, or teams that have won championships after being written off by fans, commentators and competition alike, some of the greatest underdog stories in sporting history are in the NBA.

While specific countries like Australia and elsewhere have their own top lists when it comes to sports underdogs, the NBA is a basketball league that is watched in North America and across the globe, and the comeback stories it provides are just one of the reasons why.

With this being said, here are some of the greatest underdog stories in NBA history.

The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat

Kicking this list off with the 2011 NBA season, the Dallas Mavericks defied all expectations to win the championship. They began the preseason with preseason odds of +2000 (21.00 in decimal odds) – essentially, they had been written off by bookmakers and fans before the season had even started.

After managing to make it to the finals, the Dallas Mavericks found themselves up against Miami Heat for the championship. Of five games in the finals, the first was a loss. Following this, the Mavericks managed to achieve a 15 point comeback in game 2 (the biggest finals game points comeback since the 2008 NBA finals). Game three once again went to Miami Heat, but the Mavericks ended up managing to win the last two games, and bagging the championship as a result.

Dennis Rodman

Moving onto a more personal NBA underdog story, Dennis Rodman’s journey into the NBA, and the hardships he experienced throughout his childhood make him one of the biggest underdogs in basketball.

Throughout his childhood, Rodman was unhappy, introverted and shy – growing up with his mother and two siblings in one of the most impoverished areas of Dallas, he has since claimed that his mother was more interested in his sisters, who throughout their childhood had more basketball talent than he did.

When it came to high school basketball, Rodman wasn’t considered a standout athlete – whether it was in terms of his height, layup skills or otherwise. Following high school, Rodman worked as a janitor, before deciding to give basketball another go thanks to a growth spurt. Throughout his college basketball career, he was a top player and eventually managed to get the attention of the Detroit Pistons.


The beginning of Rodman’s NBA career was successful, however personal issues plagued him in 1992 and 1993. After aborting a suicide attempt in 1993, he reinvented himself as a ‘bad boy’ and became notorious for a number of controversial antics.

From here, controversy and intrigue have surrounded him, however he continued to improve upon his NBA career, and today is regarded as one of the best players of all time with 5 NBA championships across numerous teams.

The Detroit Pistons beat the odds in 2004

Back onto another team that beat the odds for a championship, the Detroit Pistons were stuck with 2004 preseason odds of +1500. Since winning back to back championships in 1989 and 1990, the Pistons had faded into obscurity, and hadn’t made it to the finals since 1990.

In 2004, they managed to advance to the finals for the first time in 14 years, this time up against the LA Lakers (who had recently won three consecutive championships in 2000-2002). Among fans, there was a clear consensus that the Pistons were the underdogs – they were up against the Lakers, who had star players like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl Malone.

Throughout the finals games, the Pistons proved fans wrong. They won the first game, and after losing the second, swept the next three – this made them the fourth team to sweep the middle three games since 1985, when the 2-3-2 finals format was put in place.

Ultimately, this fifth game win gave the Detroit Pistons the championship, and marked what is considered by many to be one of the greatest underdog stories in NBA history.

Jeremy Lin

Wrapping up this list with another personal NBA underdog story, while there are plenty of lesser known NBA underdog stories that you might not have heard of, one that you might be familiar with is about Jeremy Lin. Today, Lin is a top player and was even the first Asian-American NBA champion in history, but all odds were against him early in his career.

Unlike many NBA players, Lin wasn’t offered a scholarship to play in college – instead, he took a spot playing for Harvard University. Whilst initially, some Harvard coaches claimed that Lin was an average basketball player, he continued to improve on his game. By his senior year, he was undoubtedly up there with the best college basketball players.

In 2010, Lin was disappointed when no NBA team chose to draft him. From here, he played summer league basketball, and impressed numerous NBA teams – following this, he received D-League offers from a number of teams including the LA Lakers and the Golden State Warriors.

Eventually, Lin was given an opportunity play for the Knicks in 2011 – this is when he truly took advantage of this opportunity, and since then he has gone on to become one of the top NBA players around.

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