Anadolu Efes Istanbul came one victory short of accomplishing a first in the history of continental basketball last season... a worst-to-first season. Instead, Efes went from worst to second, which isn't too bad!
What makes worst to first so special?
Historically, the concept of worst to first has been largely unattainable in European sports. In most domestic leagues, a last-place finish relegates the team to a lower league. However, it can be done in continental competition where teams can still qualify to compete again despite ranking last the season before. Nevertheless, what Efes did was a first, though the team it fell to in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game has a case to be made for doing the same thing.
CSKA almost did it once before
CSKA Moscow placed last in its regular season group with a 3-7 record in the 2010-11 regular season before losing the 2012 EuroLeague championship game to Olympiacos Piraeus on Georgios Printezis's floater in the final seconds. However, CSKA did not have the worst record in the competition that season – it only had the worst record in its regular season group. The teams that placed last in the other two eight-team groups each had won two or fewer games.
No one else in the EuroLeague has come close
In the EuroLeague Playoffs era – going back to 2005, no championship team failed to advance at least one stage the season before it won the title. In fact, each of the last five EuroLeague champions competed in the Final Four the season before they were crowned. The last team to win the title without at least reaching the playoffs the prior season was Panathinaikos Athens in 2009.
Has it been done elsewhere?
In the American sporting culture, many teams claim to have worst-to-first seasons, but that statement is generally referring to teams who finished last in their respective divisions. The National Football League's 32 teams are divvied into eight four-team groups, while Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association teams are split into six groups of five teams.
The 1991 Minnesota Twins won the MLB World Series after tying for the second-worst record in the American League in 1990. The team Minnesota defeated in the finals, the St. Louis Cardinals, had the second-worst record in the National League in 1990, too. The 1969 New York Mets also won the World Series one year after posting the second-worst record in the league. The St. Louis Rams won football's Super Bowl in 1999, one season after finishing last in their division and tied for the second-worst record in the conference, but only fourth-worst in the league. Likewise, the Boston Celtics had the second-worst record in the NBA's 2006-07 season, but rebuilt over the summer to win the title in 2008. But going from the absolute worst record in any league to lifting the trophy the next year? It would seem that's a feat that is still waiting to happen.
Efes's achievement is safe for now
Efes's special achievement is safe for now; this season's last-placed team, Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul will not compete in the EuroLeague next season. The unanswered question becomes: Will the EuroLeague ever witness as great a one-season turnaround as Coach Ergin Ataman and Efes delivered in 2018-19? Only time will tell.