The Top 10 Worst-to-First Championship Stories

Scott JanovitzFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2015

The Top 10 Worst-to-First Championship Stories

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    Kirby Puckett was the face of one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in sports history.
    Kirby Puckett was the face of one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in sports history.Doug Mills/Associated Press

    In the world of sports—where it's said anything can happen—historic one-year turnarounds have given fans everywhere a reason to believe.

    Though it's incredibly rare, over the years, some select sports teams have found a way to complete immediate worst-to-first transformations, traveling from chump to champ before our very eyes.

    In 1991, for example, just one season removed from being buried at the bottom of the American League West, the Minnesota Twins managed to win 95 games and a World Series title.

    And on the gridiron in 1999, the St. Louis Rams accomplished a similar feat, following a last-place finish in '98 with a world championship of their own the very next year. 

    Finally, in a similar fashion, the Boston Celtics achieved redemptive glory in 2008, winning their 17th NBA title one year after experiencing the second-worst season in franchise history. 

    With these unlikely transformations in mind, we've sought to create a honorary and more comprehensive list, specifically spotlighting the top 10 worst-to-first championship stories.

    To compile our list, we used an extremely basic set of criteria. Naturally, teams under consideration simply had to be the worst in their league, conference or division one year and then champions of the world just one season later.    

    That said, in an effort to celebrate the teams who rapidly and inexplicably maneuvered from forgettable to first, it's time now to explore the very best one-year turnarounds in sports history.  

On the Cusp

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    LeBron James has helped Cleveland experience a remarkable one-year turnaround.
    LeBron James has helped Cleveland experience a remarkable one-year turnaround.David Goldman/Associated Press

    We begin our discussion of worst-to-first title teams with a team to watch: the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. Though they haven't quite finished the transformation to champions just yet, they are on the brink nonetheless. 

    In 2013-14, the LeBron James-less Cavs may not have been at the very bottom of the cellar (unlike every other team to make our list), but they finished the year among the worst teams in basketball, out of the playoffs and a solid 16 games below .500.

    Yet just one season later—thanks to the addition of James, Kevin Love and others—Cleveland finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the Eastern Conference with an impressive 53-29 record.

    And if we fast-forward to the present, we find the Cavs awaiting a matchup with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, where they will get the chance to officially complete their remarkable one-year turnaround.

    So while they may not have the title necessary to fully make our list just yet, James and company are only four wins away from joining truly rarefied air.

2003 Detroit Shock

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    Head coach Bill Laimbeer played a monumental role in turning around the Detroit Shock.
    Head coach Bill Laimbeer played a monumental role in turning around the Detroit Shock.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The 2002 Detroit Shock were absolutely dreadful. In head coach Bill Laimbeer's first season, the team started an as-bad-as-it-gets 0-13 on the year before finishing at the bottom of the East with a franchise-worst 9-23 record. 

    Just one year later, however, with a remarkably similar nucleus—four of the 2003 team's top seven scorers were on the 2012 roster, including leading scorers Swin Cash and Deanna Nolan—Laimbeer transformed his group of girls into league elite.

    To be exact, the '03 Shock paced the Eastern Conference with a gaudy 25-9 record—a full seven games better than second-best Charlotte—and then capped their unthinkable turnaround off with a WNBA world championship, defeating Los Angeles in three hard-fought games.  

     

2009 New Orleans Saints

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    Drew Brees was a key component in New Orleans' 2009 turnaround, winning NFC Player of the Year honors.
    Drew Brees was a key component in New Orleans' 2009 turnaround, winning NFC Player of the Year honors.Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The 2008 New Orleans Saints weren't at the bottom of the NFL—that distinction, of course, belongs to the historic 0-16 Detroit Lions

    The Saints, however, were nonetheless in a spot in which they never hope or expect to be: at the bottom of the NFC South. 

    Of course, one year can make a world of difference. 

    With head coach Sean Payton returning for his fourth season with the team and quarterback Drew Brees entering Year No. 4 as well, New Orleans exploded in 2009, jumping out to a franchise-best 13-0 record.

    And oddly enough, they did so with a marginally improved defense and, from a personnel standpoint, a nearly identical offense; in the backfield, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas were around in both '08 and '09, and so, too, were leading receivers like Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson.

    More importantly, despite losing its last three games of the season—finishing the year at 13-3—New Orleans used a first-round bye and a season worth of momentum to navigate its way to the Super Bowl.

    There, the Saints would complete their extraordinary metamorphosis from worst to first, upending the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, to win their very first Super Bowl in franchise history.

2013 Boston Red Sox

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    The Red Sox were a different team after manager John Farrell replaced Bobby Valentine.
    The Red Sox were a different team after manager John Farrell replaced Bobby Valentine.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    After vanquishing 86 years of demons that the infamous Curse of the Bambino spawned—winning World Series titles in both 2004 and 2007—the Boston Red Sox surprisingly sunk back down into the abyss in 2012.

    In a season that marked Fenway Park's historic 100-year anniversary, the team it houses put together a historically dreadful campaign.

    In addition to missing the playoffs, Boston (69-93) endured its first losing season in 15 years and dropped 90 games for the first time since 1966!

    From the first pitch, though, everything changed in 2013. Management moved on from the one-year Bobby Valentine experiment, replacing the veteran manager with John Farrell, and the arrival of established run producers like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Johnny Gomes buoyed the team. 

    As a result, the Sox won 97 games—28 more than the year prior—as well as the AL East for the first time since '07 and an eighth World Series title.

    And by capturing a ring just one year removed from the dread of '12, Boston became just the second team in baseball history to win a world championship just a single season after finishing last in its division.

    Of course, continue reading to learn a bit more about that other team.

2010 Auburn Tigers

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    Quarterback Cam Newton was the biggest difference-maker in Auburn's 2010 turnaround.
    Quarterback Cam Newton was the biggest difference-maker in Auburn's 2010 turnaround.Dave Martin/Associated Press/Associated Press

    There wasn't a whole lot to admire about 2009 Auburn Tigers football. In Gene Chizik's first year at the helm, they finished 3-5 in conference play, losing to the likes of Arkansas and Kentucky, and at the bottom of the West Division. 

    The defense was downright porous, ranked 82nd nationally in yards allowed and 79th in points surrendered per game, and the team was completely unranked by season's end. 

    In 2010, though, Chizik and company got their defense under control, ranked 53rd in points allowed per contest, and received a godsend in the form of transcendent quarterback Cam Newton

    With the record-breaking junior college transfer under center, Auburn managed to field—and ride—a nationally elite powerhouse offense, which ranked third in America in total yards and fourth in points scored per game. 

    And for their prolific efforts just a season after being mired in mediocrity, the Tigers finished their road to redemption with a perfect 14-0 record and a BCS national championship while Newton was justifiably awarded with the 2010 Heisman Trophy.

2001 New England Patriots

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    Under the leadership of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a remarkable, title-winning turnaround in 2001.
    Under the leadership of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a remarkable, title-winning turnaround in 2001.Winslow Townson/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots have finished atop the AFC East in each of the last 14 seasonsTo find the last time New England won fewer games than a divisional foe, you have to go all the way back to 2000, which not so coincidentally also marks Bill Belichick's first year in charge. 

    That season, in addition to losing 11 games, the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots also finished dead last in the East and missed the postseason for a second consecutive season. 

    Belichick, however, would not be held down for long. Just one year later, the future Hall of Famer completely flipped the script, leading New England to an 11-5 regular-season mark. 

    Among his many important personnel decisions, Belichick's biggest move by far was a controversial one to say the least, sitting a nine-year starter in Bledsoe—who was initially injured in Week 2—in favor of a second-year backup named Tom Brady. 

    Of course, with a dominant defense that the likes of Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy led plus efficient and clutch play from an unshakable Brady, the Patriots marched their way through three postseason battles and all the way to a Super Bowl crown.

    In the end, after a cellar-dwelling year in 2000 and then winning two of three playoff outings with last-second field goals, New England's run in '01 was among the most improbable of all title turnarounds.

1969 New York Mets

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    Tom Seaver's Cy Young performance in 1969 helped the Mets make a miracle run.
    Tom Seaver's Cy Young performance in 1969 helped the Mets make a miracle run.Anonymous/Associated Press

    More than anything else, 1969 New York Mets are referred to as the Miracle Mets.

    And with good reason. 

    Just one year before winning 100 games and defeating the Baltimore Orioles in the '69 World Series, the Mets were nothing more than a baseball afterthought. 

    In 1968, despite employing both Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, New York lost a whopping 89 games, finishing ninth in a 10-team National League.

    But in '69, everything came together.

    Seaver won 25 games in addition to his first of three Cy Young Awards, and after a slow 18-23 start to the year, the team finished the season on an absolute tear, winning 82 of their last 121 games.

    Fittingly, they capped of the brilliant run on the biggest of stages, outlasting the Orioles in five hard-fought games to capture the first World Series title in franchise history.

2007-08 Boston Celtics

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    The acquisition of Kevin Garnett helped Boston go from worst in 2006-07 to first in 2007-08.
    The acquisition of Kevin Garnett helped Boston go from worst in 2006-07 to first in 2007-08.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Throughout the 2006-07 NBA season, outside of a horrid 22-win group from Memphis, no team in basketball was as bad as the Boston Celtics.

    Even in a watered-down East, the men in green only managed to win 24 contests, a solid four games behind second-to-last Milwaukee.  

    Statistically, the mostly youthful team—an injury to aging All-Star Paul Pierce prematurely forced young and inexperienced talents like Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo and Delonte West into leadership roles—was putrid, ranking 22nd in the NBA in offense and 20th in defense for the league's sixth-worst point differential on the year.

    And historically, things were even worse, as the uninspired group recorded what was officially the second-worst season in the history of the storied franchise.

    In hindsight, though, the Celtics hit rock bottom in '06-'07 only to rise to the very top of the NBA just one season later.

    In particular, two franchise-changing, culture-defining, blockbuster moves in the offseason set the team up for championship glory in 2007-08.  

    First, on June 28, 2007, Boston sent West, Wally Szczerbiak and the No. 5 pick of the 2007 draft—Jeff Green—to Seattle in exchange for Glen Davis—the 35th overall pick—and, most important of all, a perennial All-Star in Ray Allen. 

    Then roughly one month later, general manager Danny Ainge struck gold again, this time dealing Jefferson and a collection of throw-ins to Minnesota for 2004 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett

    From there, Boston was ready to win, and win big at that. 

    With an ultra-talented and equally versatile Big Three of Garnett, Allen and Pierce, plus a developing star in Rondo, the Celtics transformed instantly into an NBA juggernaut.

    Boston would finish the regular season with a league-best 66 wins—the 42-game improvement marked the most significant single-season turnaround in NBA history—and the third-best record in franchise history.

    Of course, they proved to be just as dominant in the postseason, too, advancing to their first NBA Finals in 21 years before ultimately dismantling the Lakers in six games.

    The title represented Boston's 17th all-time, but with the struggles of '06-'07 in mind, it was its most impressive and dramatic one, too.

1999 St. Louis Rams

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    Along with Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner helped transform the St. Louis Rams in 1999.
    Along with Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner helped transform the St. Louis Rams in 1999.TOM GANNAM/Associated Press

    More than perhaps any other professional sports league, the NFL embraces and even fosters parity, creating a climate in which all teams have equal opportunity to win no matter their market or past.

    In 1999, for example, St. Louis took advantage of the league's friendly structure in a major way.  

    In '98, the small-market Rams were pitiful, finishing the year with a miserable 4-12 record and at the bottom of the NFC West. Not so surprisingly, they struggled mightily on both sides of the ball, ranking 24th in offense and 24th in defense.  

    Yet just one year later, none of the aforementioned struggles mattered at all. 

    In fact, what mattered more than anything was the emergence of a second-year quarterback named Kurt Warner and the acquisition of a dynamic Pro Bowl running back in Marshall Faulk.  

    The duo—along with a talented group of receivers that included the likes of Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and a young Torry Holt—instantly transformed the St. Louis offense from all-around suspect to No. 1 in the NFL and one of the best of all time while it aided the defense, which jumped all the way to fourth in the league in points allowed per game.

    Armed with "The Greatest Show on Turf," the Rams finished the regular season undefeated at home and with an impressive 13-3 record, not to mention their first division title in nearly 15 years.

    More importantly, they finished their magical one-year turnaround in world championship fashion, winning their first Super Bowl since 1951 with a dramatic 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans.

1991 Minnesota Twins

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    Kirby Puckett was the best player on Minnesota's historic 1991 title team.
    Kirby Puckett was the best player on Minnesota's historic 1991 title team.Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    When discussing the best and most notable worst-to-first turnarounds in sports, the 1991 Atlanta Braves most often come to mind. The National League power, however, failed to complete the transformation with a title in hand.

    More importantly, the team that outlasted Atlanta in the '91 World Series experienced a turnaround of equally significant proportions.   

    In 1990, the Minnesota Twins sank all the way to the bottom of the AL West, finishing the year 29 games back and with a less-than-mediocre 74-88 record.

    Thanks, though, to a few major personnel moves—the team signed Mike Pagliarulo, Chili Davis and Jack Morris in the offseason and increasingly reaped the benefits of a 1989 trade that brought it Rick Aguilera, David West and Kevin Tapani—Minnesota was a completely different animal in 1991.    

    Undeterred by their struggles from the year prior, the Twins improved by an outlandish 21 games in '91, posting a baseball-best 95-67 record. Offensively, Davis and Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett formed a prolific duo while on the mound, Tapani, Morris, Aguilera and Scott Erickson became a well-oiled machine.

    And in the only fashion fitting of such a historically memorable season, it all ended with one team of destiny—the Twins—colliding with the other—the Braves—on the biggest of stages and with all the marbles on the line. 

    Even better yet, after seven grueling games, Minnesota emerged victorious from one of the most captivating playoff matchups in postseason history. And with the World Series win, the Twins became the first baseball team ever to capture a championship just one season after finishing in dead last.