Ranking the Most Dominant Dynasties in NBA History
Where do the freshly crowned San Antonio Spurs place among the great dynasties in NBA history after winning their fifth title in 15 years?
What constitutes a dynasty in the NBA? There are different ways people might approach such a topic. Some would define it by consecutive championships, but I feel that’s too narrow a definition. By that thinking, the current rendition of the Miami Heat is a greater dynasty than the Spurs, and I can’t justify that argument.
I defined a dynasty as any team with either two or three consecutive championships and at least four NBA Finals appearances with the same essential roster. Furthermore, there could be no losing seasons in the span.
While I was rigid with the first criteria, I was more flexible with the latter. For example, Bill Russell’s teammates completely changed while he was there, but it was a slow transition, spanning a number of years. I still counted the team as one dynasty. The same goes with Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
On the other hand, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were mainly defined by three people: Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, the head coach.
They were together for seven complete years and won titles the last six of them. Jordan, the most critical cog, was “retired” for one full season and most of a second. Since the Jordan Bulls kind of need Jordan to be the Jordan Bulls, I didn’t count those two years.
In essence, if there was ever any roster question as to what to include, I erred on the side of favoring said dynasty.
In ranking the teams, I considered several objective factors: the number of championships, Finals appearances, the span of their reign as an elite team and average wins over that span. With average wins, for the sake of even comparison, I prorated every season to 82 games. (Using total winning percentage would make seasons with fewer games statistically less significant).
Also, maintaining a dynasty now is much more difficult than it once was. Therefore other criteria, such as league size and player mobility, were also considered.
The dynasties are listed here, in order of greatness, based on the outlined criteria. The names are those conventionally associated with the team. The range includes the span from their first appearance to the last, denoted by the years listed after the team name.
8. 'Big Three' Heat, 2011-2014
Elite Years: 4
Average Wins: 58.8
Average League Size: 30.0
When the Miami Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together, James famously promised “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven titles.” Four years later, they sit at two, and there are questions about whether they’ll all three be together next season.
Even Pat Riley has no confidence that James will be back next year, saying at a press conference, per Nate Scott of USA Today, “He has to get away and think about it. He has the right to do what he wants to do. The four years we’ve had with LeBron, we’re hoping it turns into another eight or 10.”
While the Heat only have two championships, they are one of just four teams to make four straight Finals. The Boston Celtics did it 10 straight times, from 1957-1966 and, again, from 1984-1987. The Los Angeles Lakers did it from 1982-1985.
The Heat also set the mark for the second-longest winning streak during their reign, notching 27 consecutive wins from Feb. 3, 2013, to March 27.
They barely meet my definition of a dynasty, and they may end up being a disappointment as one, but they are one.
7. Minneapolis Lakers, 1949-1954
Elite Years: 6
Average Wins: 55.5
Average League Size: 11.5
The fun thing about teams moving about is when the team names don’t make sense anymore, such as the Utah Jazz (you know that Salt Lake City music scene is just popping, right?) or the Los Angeles Lakers (land of a thousand reservoirs).
Back in the olden days, the Lakers got their start in Minnesota. And they started off with a bang, too, winning the championship five of their first six years in the league.
Led by George Mikan, who was the original “greatest of all time,” the Lakers were the indisputable best team in the NBA before it even became the NBA. It was the Basketball Association of America before absorbing teams from the National Basketball League in 1949 and becoming the league we know today.
During that span, Mikan led the league in points (totaling nearly 50 percent more than anyone else in the league) and rebounds, and he was 10th in assists.
He was also tough as nails. Per NBA.com, during the 1949 Finals, he scored 22 points in Game 5 with a broken hand and wearing a cast, leading the Lakers to their first championship.
According to American National Biography Online, Mikan:
He had broken bones in both elbows, both feet, his right wrist, his nose, a thumb, and three fingers. Covered in bruises, Mikan had also had teeth smashed out, taken 166 stitches and had to have his kneecap replaced yet missed only two games in his entire career.
So, yeah, he was kind of tough.
6. The Shaq and Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, 2000-2004
Elite Years: 5
Average Wins: 57.4
Average League Size: 29.0
How do you bring up the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers without lamenting what it would have been like if only both players had behaved like grownups and gotten along?
For five years, they dominated the league, securing a three-peat from 1999-2000 to 2001-02. During that span, they won 181 times, 12 more games than anyone in the league in the regular season. They were 45-13 (the same record Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had in their first and second three-peat) in the postseason and outscored their opponents by 330 points.
Then their two stars started squabbling like schoolchildren. While people often assign blame to one or the other, truthfully, this is one of those cases where there is plenty of blame to go around.
Comparatively speaking, the Lakers struggled in 2002-03, particularly in the 15 games O’Neal missed. They were just 5-10 in those contests. The Lakers were bounced in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs in six games.
That summer Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Eagle, Colorado. The case was ultimately dismissed when the woman in question refused to testify. While the trial and the rivalry hung over the Lakers the entire season, the Lakers still managed to make it back to the Finals.
However, they were dismantled there by the less talented but more cohesive Detroit Pistons in five games.
The following summer, O’Neal was traded, and the era came to an end right before Bryant hit his peak.
Had the two been able to cooperate and share the spotlight, they might have been the greatest dynasty in history. Instead, they have to settle for sixth.
5. 'Big Three' Boston Celtics, 1981-1987
Elite Years: 7
Average Wins: 61.7
Average League Size: 23.0
All three are now in the Hall of Fame. For seven years, they were the core of one of the most dominant teams in the history of the NBA.
The 1986 Celtics won 67 games and were considered by many to be the greatest single-season team ever.
They were 40-1 at home that year and 39-2 the next. That constitutes the two best home records in NBA history (tied with four teams for the second best).
Point being, these guys were really good. They had a determined, steady style of play, which contrasted with the Los Angeles Lakers fast-break highlights and runaway pace.
The clash of styles led to some less-than-sportsmanlike fouling and the greatest rivalry in the history of the league.
The two teams hated each other with a visceral passion. There’s a great piece on the rivalry by Dan Shaughnessy of Sports Illustrated here. Let’s just say there was little danger of Magic Johnson and Bird colluding to become teammates.
I put the Showtime Lakers over the Big Three Celtics because they had two more rings. But the two teams will be forever joined in history, because of the rivalry.
4. 'Showtime' Los Angeles Lakers, 1980-1989
Elite Years: 10
Average Wins: 59.1
Average League Size: 23.2
If you ask most people to name the five greatest players in history, three names will appear on most lists, Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. The latter two were teammates for a decade.
Think about that. Two of the five greatest players in history on the same team for a decade. That kind of puts James and Wade in perspective.
During that decade the pair combined for 30,189 points, 11,283 rebounds and 10,245 assists. Those are just mind-boggling numbers.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, both taken No. 1 in the draft, worked magic (pun intended) with the Lakers' third top pick, James Worthy, who proved himself worthy too. (OK, I promise, I’ll stop.)
They revolutionized the fast break. Between the outlet passing of Abdul-Jabbar and the ball movement of the rest of the team dashing to the other side of court, the Lakers would often move the ball from end to end and score points without the ball ever even touching the floor.
They very well may have been the most entertaining team in history. I was a teenager at the time, and few things could make me as giddy as watching the Lakers.
3. The Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs, 1999-2014
Elite Years: 16
Average Wins: 54.1
Average League Size: 29.6
Some people would argue that the San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t be on this list at all because they never won consecutive championships. To them, I offer a hearty guffaw. No team, not even those ahead of the Spurs on the list, had a reign as long as the Spurs; they just had higher peaks.
Since 1998, Tim Duncan’s rookie season, in regular season and playoff games combined, the Spurs have won 1,099 games. That’s 117 more than any other team.
More tellingly, they’ve outscored their opponents by 9,394 points. Next best is the Los Angeles Lakers at 5,008.
They’ve never won less than 50 games (or the strike-shortened equivalent).
They’ve won five NBA titles. No team in the era has won more, and only Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Russell’s Boston Celtics have ever won more as a group.
Perhaps, what's most impressive is the way the Spurs changed their roster and style seamlessly over the time frame. For the first part of their reign, they were a defense-first team, dominated by a frontcourt of David Robinson and Duncan.
Then, after the league cracked down on hand-checking in 2004, they slowly changed the way they played, emphasizing more passing, offense and perimeter shooters. The 2013-14 Spurs are a completely different style of team than the 1998-99 Spurs, yet both teams won the title.
In fact, they’re such a dynasty that were it not for a made Ray Allen three-point game-saver, they’d be second on this list. And, with Duncan not retiring yet, who knows? Maybe another ring can yet be added.
2. The Bill Russell-Era Boston Celtics
I imagine that there will be some people marginally bothered by the fact that I don’t have the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics in first, but I have good reasons why. I’ll explain those on the next slide. I want to save this slide to acknowledge just how special those Celtics were.
It is more than incredible that over a span of 13 years, from the 1956-57 season to the 1968-69 season, they won 11 NBA titles.
In fact looking through a Wikipedia entry, which has an impressively complete list of sports dynasties, I could not find a team in a major sport anywhere in the world with a record to match (although it’s possible that I missed something; it’s a long list).
You can certainly make the argument that the Celtics’ dynasty is not only the greatest in the NBA, or the history of American professional sports, but also even in the history of the entire world.
While Russell’s name is most commonly associated with the team, there were actually 13 Hall of Fame players who suited up for the Celtics over the era: Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Bailey Howell, Andy Phillip, Arnie Risen, Clyde Lovellette and Mal Graham.
In fact, on two separate occasions, 1957-58 and 1962-63, Boston had eight Hall of Famers on its roster. In the 13-year span, there were 244,703 total player minutes. Of those, 174,176, or 71.72 percent of them, were played by Hall of Famers.
So when Russell, per Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel, had words for LeBron James about basketball being a team game, he wasn’t just giving lip service:
Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game. It’s not for individual honors.
I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college. I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.
1. The Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, 1991-93, 1996-1998
Elite Years: 6
Average Wins: 64.7
Average League Size: 28.0
The Chicago Bulls dynasty, led by Jordan, is still more impressive to me than the Boston Celtics run. And I can hear you shouting through space and time over the Internet, “Didn’t you just say the Celtics had the greatest stretch in the history of the world?! Bill Russell had almost twice as many rings, how can you give it to the Bulls?!”
Just bear with me a moment, and I will explain.
Awarding it to Russell’s Celtics based on rings assumes all other things are equal. They aren’t.
There are three massive differences between the league that Jordan dominated and the one Russell did.
First, the size of the league when the Celtics were winning was significantly smaller. The average league size while Bill Russell played was 9.2 seasons. Under Jordan it was 28. Statistically speaking, Russell had slightly less than twice as many rings, but it was three times easier to win one.
Second, the league the Bulls dominated was vastly different in terms of quality. I remember watching an interview with Russell on NBA TV where he told a story about how he defied convention by jumping to challenge shots. At the time, he explained, it was considered bad defense.
Players were not as well-trained or well-compensated (which ties into not having to work offseason jobs and develop during the offseason).
The NBA wasn’t a league like it is today. It was emerging from a fledgling league to a major sport, but it was still 20 years off from even having the Finals broadcast live.
By contrast, Jordan’s Bulls played in six of the 10 highest-rated Finals in history, including the four highest-rated. While that doesn’t directly mean something about quality, it means a lot indirectly. All that means a lot more money, and that means a lot more is put into training, training facilities, player development, etc.
In summary, Jordan played in a major league, while the Celtics of the '60s were in something closer to a minor league by contemporary standards.
Third, the Celtics didn’t have to deal with free agency and player movement. That Boston had 71.2 percent of their minutes played by Hall of Famers is phenomenal, but there’s no way that an NBA franchise can carry eight Hall of Fame players in their prime right now.
Free agency is a challenge the Celtics never had to worry about. And while you can argue that the same applied to every team, it’s an argument that actually works against the Celtics. It means a static league, where the worst teams remain the worst and the best teams remain the best.
Fourth, the playoffs were much a shorter run for the Celtics. They had to go through two or three teams (depending on the year) to win the title. The Bulls had to go through four.
Yet in spite of all their challenges, the Bulls' dominance over the league was greater than Boston’s. The Celtics averaged 57.8 wins per season during their dynastic run. The Bulls averaged 64.7 (best of any dynasty). The Celtics were 96-51 (.653) in the postseason when they won their 11 titles. The Bulls were 90-26 (.776, also, the best of any dynasty, based on original research) winning theirs.
The Celtics may have won almost twice as many championships as the Bulls, but even if everything is equal, it was three times as hard to win in the Bulls era, and all things were not equal. In spite of that, the Bulls were even more dominant. That’s why I have them ranked No. 1.
Stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.