Ranking the NBA's 3-Peaters
Ah, the illustrious three-peat.
Thousands of teams have tried to win championships over the six-plus decades of NBA history, and only a select few have managed to do that. Even fewer still have emerged victoriously from three consecutive seasons, thereby claiming that elusive three-peat.
The Minneapolis Lakers were the first to do so, as George Mikan led his team to victory over and over during the early 1950s. At the end of the decade, a different team claimed the throne and refused to give it up for eight seasons in a row. Those were Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.
After that, there was a prolonged drought.
Plenty of squads won back-to-back titles, but it wasn't until Michael Jordan came around that anyone joined the ultra-exclusive club. And MJ, never one to do anything halfway, joined it twice.
But no one has won three in a row since then.
Now, LeBron James and the Miami Heat stand on the precipice of history, needing only a series victory against the San Antonio Spurs in order to achieve the impossible. That's a tall task, but it's possible they could join some of the most storied groups of champions in NBA history.
Assuming they win, where would their three-peat stack up? Better yet, how have all of them passed the test of time?
Note: All statistics, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate heading into the 2014 NBA Finals.
How Do We Judge These?
How well did this team perform during the regular seasons that led up to a championship?
Basketball-Reference.com keeps track of what it calls "simple rating system," or SRS, and it's a one-number-for-everything metric that ranks every team in the league based on two factors: strength of schedule and point differential.
This is far better than win-loss records, as not every win is created equally. Which is more impressive: a one-point victory at home against the worst team in the league or a 25-point rout of the best team in the league while playing on the road?
SRS can differentiate between those two victories; win-loss record cannot.
In order to determine which teams had the best regular-season performance, I looked at each team's SRS, as well as how it stacked up against those produced by other teams that season.
This was broken down into two sub-categories. One looked at performance leading up to the NBA Finals, and one looked at performance during the final series of the postseason.
Each matters, though the latter carries a far heavier subjective weight.
How easily did a team breeze through the competition? How many games were required to get to the Finals? How many sweeps did a team rack up, both during the early portion of the postseason and during the Finals?
All these questions and factored into these rankings.
At the heart of this category is a simple inquiry: How quickly does this three-peat spring to mind?
This is admittedly a purely subjective set of rankings, but it's based off memorable moments, superstars involved and lasting historical appeal.
There are plays and games that everyone remembers. There are dynasties that lead off conversations about basketball history. There are nail-biting moments when the clock is ticking down and the champions pull out a shocking victory.
Memorability is also the most important category. While regular-season performances and playoff victories are important, titles are ultimately what is remembered. This is what allows one to stand out above the other.
Once these scores were determined, each three-peating squad was ranked accordingly, and then the categories were weighted. The regular season accounts for 20 percent of the final score, the playoff performance for 30 percent and the memorability for 50 percent.
Therefore, a perfect score—finishing at No. 1 in all three—receives a score of 10. Anything higher is worse, and memorability ranking serves as the ultimate tiebreaker.
As a reference point, the No. 1 three-peating squad received a score of 16.
6. Minneapolis Lakers, 1952-54 (Total 3-Peat Score of 54)
It was rather difficult to stop the Minneapolis Lakers during the first handful of seasons in NBA history.
In both 1951-52 and 1952-53, this team posted the best SRS out there, and it wasn't all that close. The New York Knicks and Syracuse Nationals were the only squads within striking distance. However, unlike two of the three-peating entities, these Lakers weren't able to finish at No. 1 each and every qualified year.
During the 1953-54 season, Minneapolis won a league-best 46 games, but the margin of victory was only 3.1 points per contest. As a result, the SRS dropped to 2.70.
And the Nationals? Well, they won 42 games but posted a 4.9-point margin of victory while playing a similarly easy schedule. With an SRS or 4.26 that season, they were the best regular-season team, even if they'd end up falling to Minneapolis in Game 7 of the 1954 NBA Finals.
Category Rank: No. 3 (six points)
Back at this stage of NBA history, the league was still trying to figure out its playoff format. In 1954, each team had to participate in a round robin, in which it played each of the other two playoff teams from its conference twice.
And yes, there were three playoff squads per conference despite only having nine teams in the entire Association.
During the three-year run, Minneapolis went 15-4 before getting to the Finals, and it won the three titles with a 12-7 record. Only one went less than seven games, and it was a 4-1 victory over the Knicks in 1953.
The combination of a shortened slate of postseason games and a worse Finals winning percentage than any of the other five competitors is not a good one.
Category Rank: No. 6 (18 points)
Look up at that picture at the top of this slide and name as many players as you can from the 1954 title-winning squad.
The savvy NBA historians out there should be able to pinpoint George Mikan, wearing the No. 99 jersey in the center of the frame. But how many more can the younger generations get?
Slater Martin is wearing No. 22 on the far left. Jim Pollard has donned the No. 17, the only one he wore throughout his short but excellent career. Vern Mikkelsen and the No. 19 jersey are to the right of Mikan. Clyde Lovellette wasn't a star yet, but he's on the other side of Mikan in the No. 34 jersey.
If you got all five of those, you deserve some major props. After all, this group's exploits haven't really stood the test of time all that well. The NBA was just too different back then.
Category Rank: No. 6 (30 points)
5. Miami Heat, 2012-14? (Total 3-Peat Score of 49)
During which season have the Miami Heat been the best in the NBA?
2011-12? They only had the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, trailing Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.
2012-13? This was the best they fared in SRS, finishing No. 2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder despite winning 66 games and going on a second-half rampage that resulted in quite the win streak.
2013-14? Despite the historically awful nature of the East, Miami finished with the No. 2 seed behind the Indiana Pacers and occasionally sleepwalked its way to a 54-28 record.
This is the only (potential) three-peating squad without "best team in the NBA during the regular season" on its resume.
Category Rank: No. 6 (12 points)
This is a tough section to determine for Miami, seeing as its performance in the 2014 NBA Finals is still completely up in the air. All I can do is base it off what's already happened.
During the 2012 Finals, the Heat blitzed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of contention in only five games, but the next year, the San Antonio Spurs proved a much tougher test. The series went seven games, and Miami exited with an 8-4 record in the ultimate series over the past two years.
That's not awful, but it's not great either, especially compared to this crop of dynasties and mini-dynasties.
It also doesn't help that the pre-Finals record is only 36-11, which gives Pat Riley's group a winning percentage better than only that compiled by the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and '60s.
Category Rank: No. 4 (12 points)
It remains to be seen how this set of victories will withstand the test of time, but this year's victory better be quite special if the Heat hope to move up.
Granted, last year's Finals was one of the more entertaining sets of games in recent history, but there still haven't been all that many signature moments. LeBron James has enjoyed a couple standout performances in the penultimate series of Miami's runs, and Ray Allen's Game 6 three-pointer to force overtime will live on forever.
But still—and maybe this is anti-recency bias unintentionally popping up—the accomplishment as a whole seems to be flimsier than any of the others, save the Minneapolis squad's. The historical resonance is tempered by the way the team was built (even if it really shouldn't be), and the pathetic nature of the injury-riddled Eastern Conference doesn't help.
"Miami is the oldest team in the league at an average age of 30.6, and has had tough NBA Finals opponents awaiting them after rather unobtrusive paths to the Finals in the majority of the past three seasons," writes Zach Harper for CBS Sports.
It's those unobtrusive paths that are problematic, and Miami has also been seriously tested by flawed teams like the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics. Maybe that all gets forgotten about over the years, but it isn't now.
Don't get me wrong. This would be an incredible achievement.
But aren't all the others?
Category Rank: No. 5 (25 points)
4. Los Angeles Lakers, 2000-02 (Total 3-Peat Score of 33)
The 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers and 2001-02 squad were absolutely dominant, but they sandwiched a group that largely struggled during the regular season.
Injuries to both Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher proved problematic as the 2000-01 Lakers were forced to use more than a handful of starters throughout the season: Kobe, Fisher, Shaquille O'Neal, Horace Grant, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry, Isaiah Rider, Ron Harper, Mark Madsen, Devean George, Tyronn Lue and Greg Foster.
The Lake Show would obviously go on to win the title, but they couldn't even earn the No. 1 seed in their own conference. The San Antonio Spurs did that, and L.A.'s 3.38-point margin of victory did it no favors.
With a score of 3.74, the Lakers finished No. 6 in SRS, trailing the Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Jail Trail Blazers.
Category Rank: No. 5 (10 points)
Despite the regular-season struggles, the Lakers knew how to flip the switch during the postseason.
Over the three years in question, the Purple and Gold managed to go 33-10 before getting to the Finals, good for a win percentage of 76.74. Sure, that trails the two Chicago Bulls three-peat squads and the Minneapolis entry, but these Lakers would make up for it in the Finals.
They needed six games to take out Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in 2000, took five contests to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001 after going through the pre-Finals portion without a single loss then swept the New Jersey Nets the next year.
No other team qualifying for these rankings won more than 70.6 percent of its Finals games. LAL won 80 percent.
Category Rank: No. 1 (three points)
If there's one defining image of this team, it's Kobe lofting up a fourth-quarter alley-oop to Shaq, who slammed it home and ran exuberantly down the court in celebration.
It came during Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Blazers, and the two points basically sealed a trip to the first of three Finals appearances. But how many other moments do you remember from this series?
Shaq was dominant, but there's no defining game like the Flu Game. And, in most circles at least, this team gets mentioned behind the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.
If anything, the infamy of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Sacramento Kings shines a bit of negative light on this run, impressive as it may have been.
Category Rank: No. 4 (20 points)
3. Chicago Bulls, 1991-93 (Total 3-Peat Score of 29)
- Chicago Bulls, 10.07
- Portland Trail Blazers, 6.94
- Utah Jazz, 5.70
- Phoenix Suns, 5.69
- Cleveland Cavaliers, 5.34
These Chicago Bulls got off to a great start, earning top marks in both 1990-91, which was arguably Michael Jordan's greatest season, and 1991-92. In terms of SRS, the Bulls barely eked by the Portland Trail Blazers during the first of the two, and no one was even close the next year. Here's the top five from '91-92, per Basketball-Reference.com:
See? Not even close.
Unfortunately, the trend shifted in 1993-94.
The New York Knicks took over the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference by winning 60 games, and the Bulls fell all the way down to No. 4 in SRS. They won 57 games, sure, but they also played an easy schedule and didn't quite match the class of the league in terms of margin of victory.
This was still a tremendous stretch of dominance, but it's not quite on par with the two remaining three-peaters or the Minneapolis Lakers.
Category Rank: No. 4 (eight points)
These Bulls couldn't be beat once the playoffs rolled around.
They won 80.5 percent of their games before the Finals, dropping contests in only eight of their 41 outings, and they were quite good in the last series of the playoffs as well.
In 1991, it took the Bulls only five games to get by the Los Angeles Lakers, and Jordan put together one helluva Finals. He averaged 31.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 11.4 assists per contest while shooting 55.8 percent from the field.
Things didn't go quite as smoothly the next two seasons, but Chicago did end up dispatching of the Blazers and Suns in six games apiece.
Category Rank: No. 2 (six points)
"The Heat wouldn't have had a chance," Horace Grant said during an appearance on WSCR-AM in Chicago, as relayed by ESPNChicago.com. "We would have locked them up. We would have locked them up. Especially with the rules today, Michael would have had a field day."
I wouldn't go that far, but there's no questioning the dominance of this squad.
Though Dennis Rodman hadn't yet arrived in the Windy City, this team finally got past the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons and won a title that left Jordan in tears as he clutched the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
That's the enduring image from this set of championships.
As Sean Deveney wrote for SportingNews.com back in 2009, it remains the second-best moment of the GOAT's illustrious career. The raw emotion as he realized his dream was completely understandable, and it sparked the legend that he would go on to create.
This three-peat was the true start of Jordan's championship legacy. It may not be as memorable as a pair of others (the ones that have yet to show up), but that has to count for a lot.
Category Rank: No. 3 (15 points)
2. Boston Celtics, 1959-66 (Total 3-Peat Score of 29)
This is a bit of an abnormality, as Bill Russell's Boston Celtics managed to eight-peat.
Despite the need to look over eight seasons, there aren't any major ways to detract from this squad. It finished at No. 1 in terms of SRS during each of those campaigns, with absolutely no exceptions. Then again, the top squad in these rankings also managed to achieve the same feat, so more analysis is necessary.
Only twice did the C's manage to finish with at least 60 wins, topping out with a 62-18 record during the 1964-65 season. On top of that, the league was in a much different place during the 1950s and '60s.
There were only nine teams in the NBA, and the lack of player movement led to the creation of powerhouses that spanned decades, not just a handful of years. It was a different time, and while Boston can't do anything about that, it certainly doesn't help its case for the No. 1 spot.
Category Rank: No. 2 (four points)
These Celtics receive a boost for the sustained excellence, but it's shocking how much trouble they had dispatching weaker opponents during individual series.
With a 35-19 pre-Finals record, Boston boasts a winning percentage of 64.8 percent, one that trails every other team in these rankings by a wide margin. The Miami Heat had the second-worst pre-Finals winning percentage, and they checked in at 76.6 percent.
It's also worth noting just how few games the team had to play. Yes, that's 54 contests, but they came over the course of eight seasons. Miami played 47 in only three years.
Despite the lackluster winning percentage, Boston suited up in only 6.75 games per playoff appearance heading into the Finals. Only the Minneapolis Lakers played fewer (6.33), and the second Chicago Bulls three-peat (13.33) checks in next.
That's a huge discrepancy.
On average, Boston did away with its Finals opponent in 5.75 games—one sweep, three seven-games series and a bunch in between—and that's a very respectable mark. Only the Los Angeles Lakers and the first Chicago three-peat were able to win the final series in quicker fashion.
Category Rank: No. 5 (15 points)
When you think of dynasties in American sports, the early Celtics have to be one of the first franchises that come to mind.
Russell remains basketball's greatest champion—though not its best player; there's a big difference—and Boston is the standard bearer behind all ring-chasing pursuits. Eight titles in a row? That's almost inconceivable nowadays, though the construction of the league also helps make it an impossibility.
Between John Havlicek stealing the ball in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals, the battles against Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and the other stars of that time and the unsurpassed stretch of victorious basketball, this was an unforgettable period of dominance.
And it helps that so many names resonate with today's basketball fans, even if some have become underrated (cough Sam Jones cough) over the years. Between Russell, Hondo, Jones, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Tom Heinsohn, Red Auerbach and so many more, these teams basically became a walking Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the coolest part of this dynasty, though, is how much change it underwent without succumbing to defeat.
During the 1958-59 season (the first title-winning year of this run), the C's were led by Russell, Cousy, Sharman, Heinsohn, Ramsey, Sam Jones and Jim Loscutoff. During the 1965-66 season (the final year), only Russell and Jones were still there.
Category Rank: No. 2 (10 points)
1. Chicago Bulls, 1996-98 (Total 3-Peat Score of 16)
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10, establishing a record for regular-season dominance that has withstood the test of nearly the next two decades. Over the next two years, Michael Jordan led his team to 69 wins and then another 62.
Can you imagine what we'd think of this stretch if the Bulls hadn't dropped the last two games of the 1996-97 regular season and had won a combined 143 games in two go-rounds?
Jordan might not have reached that pinnacle of team excellence again, but there was no doubt his squad was tops in the NBA during each of those three seasons. When it comes to SRS, only the 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers came anywhere close to beating Chicago.
Category Rank: No. 1 (two points)
The Los Angeles Lakers finished No. 1 in this category by virtue of their 12-3 record during the Finals. And that leaves the No. 2 and No. 3 spots to the Chicago Bulls, though the order is tough to determine.
Ultimately, the Finals are more important than the series leading up to the last one of the season, and that's what pushes the first three-peat slightly over the top. After all, here's the breakdown:
|Pre-Finals Record||Finals Record|
Would you rather have the extra loss come earlier or in the series that matters most?
Category Rank: No. 3 (nine points)
When the word "three-peat" is uttered, this should be the group of championships that pops into your mind first.
The image of Michael Jordan pushing off hitting a shot over Bryon Russell to end his career with the Bulls with a closing-seconds victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals should be burned into your retinas.
And if that isn't, there are plenty of other options.
How about MJ's incredible performance during the Flu Game? His 38 points, seven rebounds and five assists led to both a collapse into the arms of Scottie Pippen, who helped him off the court after 44 minutes of action, and a victory in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
Again, against the Jazz.
Plus, you can always fall back on the 72-win regular season, especially since it led to a championship.
This Bulls squad still defines the "three-peat" term, and for that, it's the rightful No. 1.
Category Rank: No. 1 (five points)