Ranking the Greatest Championship Teams in NBA Finals History
Of all the legendary teams to win the Larry O'Brien Trophy, which was the greatest in NBA Finals history?
Travel back into the distant (and not-so-distant) past of basketball history to recall the biggest names to ever play the game. Once there, you'll realize that this is one of the trickiest sorts of arguments sports has to offer.
Considering factors like a squad's single-season dominance, its historical significance and the confounding task of comparison across eras, it is virtually impossible to come to a perfect answer in this all-time debate. It's empirically crystal clear that every NBA champion was very good; greatness is more subjective.
That subjective greatness is the benchmark to enter this discussion. We will only look at truly dominant teams that came to define and transform the league around them.
10. 2011-12 Miami Heat (def. Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1)
It's difficult to place a team in its proper historical context just a year after its championship campaign, but the 2011-12 Miami Heat are poised to be the best of the Big Three era.
Given the way Pat Riley and the Heat manipulated their finances to afford LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami was always going to have issues surrounding its stars with talent if and when its core began to deteriorate.
Nagging injuries and the grind of a decade in the NBA has knocked Wade and especially Bosh down from true superstar status. We can therefore safely assume that the first Big Three championship will be the strongest one as well.
There is also the matter of LeBron James' breakout into transcendence during the 2012 postseason.
With Bosh hurting, James made the fateful switch to small-ball power forward, positioning him to put up some insane numbers as he carried his team: 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals.
As LeBron powers his way into the conversation as one of the greatest players the game has ever known, this is the team with which he made the leap.
9. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers (def. Los Angeles Lakers 4-0)
The "Fo', fo', fo'" Philadelphia 76ers are one of the prime examples of old-school swagger. They plainly stated they would crush all comers in four games, then went about their business to do so.
Taking their moniker from Moses Malone's mumbled guarantee, the 1982-83 Sixers fell just shy of a clean postseason sweep, taking "fi'" to knock out the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Philly boasted a pair of future Hall of Famers in Malone and Julius Erving, as well as two other All-Star guards in Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks. This foursome averaged nearly 80 points during the Sixers' championship run, trampling their way to a title that was never in doubt.
This championship was also a testament to truly outstanding center play. Coming off his third career MVP season, Malone upped his production from 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds on 50 percent shooting during the regular season to 26.0 and 15.8 on 54 percent in the postseason.
Malone, Erving and the Sixers absolutely owned the league in the spring of 1983, and they let everyone know it.
8. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (def. New York Knicks 4-1)
How great were the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers? Wilt Chamberlain was their fourth-leading scorer.
The Lakers simply did not need Chamberlain to carry the offensive load en route to his second and final NBA title. He had two other Hall of Fame teammates, Gail Goodrich and Jerry West, averaging 24 and 23 points, respectively, during the playoffs, while Jim McMillian tacked on another 19 per game.
All of that just serves to make Wilt's play that much more incredible. At 35 years old, he logged an absurd 46.9 minutes per game in the title run, scoring 14.7 points on 56 percent shooting and pulling down 21.0 rebounds.
Chamberlain and West may have been on the wrong side of 30, but their age and the mileage on their legs could not stop them. After a 69-13 regular season that featured an NBA-record 33-game winning streak, it was clear this Lakers team just had too much talent to be ousted.
7. 1988-89 Detroit Pistons (def. Los Angeles Lakers 4-0)
Chuck Daly's Bad Boy Detroit Pistons took the physical, brawling style of a hungry underdog and appropriated it for a truly punishing squad.
United by their defense-first mentality and a refusal to take anything from anyone, the 1988-89 Pistons were a team in every sense. Though Isiah Thomas was truly a star, Detroit went about its business with an egalitarian approach; five Pistons averaged double-digit points per game during the playoffs, and that doesn't even include future Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.
That's what we forget about the Bad Boys: They were so renowned for their defense, their plain-but-effective offense gets overlooked.
You need that two-way prowess to go 63-19 and sweep a late-Showtime-era Lakers group in the NBA Finals. The Pistons fought for their respect in every sense of the word—and even if not everyone respected the methods, it's impossible to deny the results.
6. 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (def. Baltimore Bullets 4-0)
The 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks bridged a generational gap of NBA legends to create a uniquely imposing lineup.
Leading the backcourt was Oscar Robertson. At the age of 32, his triple-double-average days were behind him, but he still scored 19.4 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field to go along with 8.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds. He was still one of the most well-rounded guards in the game, yet he was no longer the best player on his own team.
That's because a 23-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) was wreaking havoc at center. He won his first career MVP award that season with ridiculous production—31.7 points on 57 percent shooting and 16.0 rebounds.
Featuring two guys, who to this day are considered top-10 players of all time, the Bucks were unstoppable on both ends of the floor. Per Basketball-Reference, they finished first in points per game and third in points allowed en route to a 66-16 record, losing just two more games in the playoffs before taking the title.
It would take 30 years for anyone to assemble a tandem that even came close to matching Kareem and Oscar. When you have two guys who are just on another level, everything gets that much easier.
5. 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers (def. Philadelphia 76ers 4-1)
Let's fast-forward 30 years to that other tandem on the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers.
Though the prior year's Lakers could throw out Glen Rice as a fun third option, the emergence of Kobe Bryant as a true second superstar made this team the best around by far.
Also coming off his first career MVP award, Shaquille O'Neal kept up his peak performance with 28.7 points and 12.7 rebounds to defend his personal title. Even with Shaq doing so much for L.A., Kobe broke out with 28.5 points of his own, as well as 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists, to establish himself as a great player in his own right.
The 2000-01 Lakers didn't run away with the regular season—they finished 56-26 as the San Antonio Spurs won the West—but they absolutely ran wild in the playoffs.
Save for a single loss to the 76ers in the NBA Finals, Shaq and Kobe were absolutely perfect, including a sweep over Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the Western finals.
There's the argument that L.A. peaked at an opportune time, but that's kind of the point. In the arc of the Lakers' three-peat, they were never better than in the 2001 postseason. That legacy counts for a lot.
4. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls (def. Utah Jazz 4-2)
For all the great twosomes in NBA championship history, the only reason the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls aren't higher on this list is because they gave their superstars next to no help.
Of course Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen put the team on their backs; they combined for 50 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and three steals per game during the postseason.
Beyond those two Hall of Famers, however, there is an unbelievable drop-off. No other Chicago Bull averaged more than eight points or three assists; only Dennis Rodman, who recorded 8.4 rebounds per game, registered more than 4.5 boards per game.
No matter, though—Jordan, Pippen and Co. were still a juggernaut, going 69-13 in the regular season before taking down John Stockton and Karl Malone's Utah Jazz to defend their title.
Both Jordan and Pippen were in their 30s when they won their fifth championship, but the pillars of the Bulls dynasty still very capably held everything up. Only three special teams can top the heights Jordan, Pippen and Chicago reached in 1997.
3. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers (def. Boston Celtics 4-3)
The Showtime Lakers of 1986-87 didn't have the luxury of running roughshod through the postseason; Larry Bird's Boston Celtics made sure to give them a classic NBA Finals.
Yet where other teams benefit historically from their unmatched dominance, Pat Riley's group benefits from its competitive tribulation—proving its greatness on the floor instead of in retrospective hypotheticals.
What L.A. trotted out during the 1987 postseason was nothing short of extraordinary.
James Worthy, Magic Johnson and a 39-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all averaged at least 19 points on better than 53 percent shooting; Magic tacked on 12.2 assists and 7.7 rebounds to boot. Three other Lakers also averaged double-digit scoring, all of whom shot at least 48 percent from the field.
Three Hall of Famers, a strong supporting cast and a run-and-gun attack add up to one of the most effective offenses of all time, and a frighteningly efficient one to boot. That's what it takes to reach this rarefied strata of greatness.
2. 1985-86 Boston Celtics (def. Houston Rockets 4-2)
No team can match the frontcourt assembled on the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, not to mention the downright silly scoring distribution.
Bill Walton was actually able to stay healthy for this team, yet he could still only come off the bench. That's how it goes when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish are all ahead of you on the depth chart.
Despite ranking better defensively than offensively during the regular season, the Celtics starters absolutely went off during the playoffs.
Bird averaged 26 points per game—as well as 9.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.1 steals—and McHale poured in 25, while Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge all scored at least 15. Boston got 97.6 points per game from just those five players.
Though Walton was well past his prime, this team featured five Hall of Famers coming together to produce the high point for one of the NBA's best dynasties ever. For that, these Celtics can only be topped by one deeply significant team.
1. Chicago Bulls 1995-1996 (def. Seattle SuperSonics 4-2)
They won six titles in eight years, but the Chicago Bulls were never better than during the 1995-96 season.
The games were practically a formality after Jordan returned from his baseball hiatus for his first full season. Chicago went 72-10—the best record in NBA history—leading the league in both points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. That level of domination cannot be matched.
This fourth title team also operates without the flaw of the fifth: depth beyond Jordan and Pippen.
His Airness led the team with 30.7 points per game during the postseason and Pippen averaged 16.9, but this time Toni Kukoc joined them with 10.9 points. Ron Harper and Luc Longley each scored at least eight points per game as well, giving Chicago just enough support for Jordan to exact his will.
The best player in NBA history had his ideal sidekick in Pippen, some additional scoring and, for the first time, a defensive ace in Dennis Rodman. That formula led to an unmatched regular season and just three postseason losses.
It was the pinnacle of the league's greatest dynasty. For that, no team can top Jordan's Bulls.