Ranking the 10 Best NBA Playoff Runs Ever
Dictating a hierarchy in NBA history can be an exercise in futility. Splitting hairs between eras while drizzling on apparent subjectivity can create a lovely house for debate but doesn't definitively provide answers.
Our question is simple, if unoriginal: Which teams had the best playoff runs ever?
Each of the squads below won the title—because it don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ring—and each inarguably rests among the greatest groups of all time.
But which both faced a murderer's row of opponents and crushed them in dominating fashion?
To find out, we'll need a variety of mechanisms:
- W/L: The team's playoff record. The simplest of tools.
- W/L%: Playoff win-loss percentage. The postseason wasn't always 16 wins.
- ASM: Average scoring margin during the run.
- OPP: Opponents faced throughout the playoffs and their regular-season records.
- OPP W/L%: Opponent's regular-season win-loss percentage.
- HOF: How many Hall of Famers (in their primes) did this group face? Those still playing, we've projected those likely to make it to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Win-loss percentage, average scoring margin, opponent win-loss percentage and Hall of Famers faced are equally ranked. The four totals are tallied together to rank each of the 10 teams in our discussion. Playoff teams from before the 1984 expansion can not be placed higher than 10th. We just can't compare three rounds of excellence with four.
Clear as mud? Good. Let's go!
1982 Los Angeles Lakers
W/L: 12-2 (.857)
OPP: PHX (46-36), SAS (48-34), PHI (58-24)
OPP W/L%: .618
HOF: Dennis Johnson, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Bobby Jones
The Lakers dynasty nearly faced a breaking point early in the 1981-82 season. Then-third-year player Magic Johnson publicly demanded out of Los Angeles because of tensions with head coach Paul Westhead in November 1981.
"I can't play here anymore," Johnson said. "I want to leave. I want to be traded."
Fast-forward to 1982, and the Lakers put together 57 wins and eight straight playoff victories en route to the NBA Finals. There, they suffered just two losses to a squad that had the 10th-best playoff run ever (listed below).
The Lakers failed to earn a spot in our top 10 because of their soft strength of schedule, average scoring margin and abridged playoff format.
1971 Milwaukee Bucks
W/L: 12-2 (.857)
OPP: SFW (41-41), LAL (48-34), BAL (42-40)
OPP W/L%: .533
HOF: Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld
The Bucks, armed with greats Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar Robertson, obliterated opponents by an average scoring margin that surpassed every other contender on our list. All but three of their wins came by 12 points or more.
Despite that, the Bucks also faced one of the softest schedules. That, plus only needing 12 wins, kept them from cracking the top 10.
10. 1983 Philadelphia 76ers
OPP: NYK (44-38), MIL (51-31), LAL (58-24)
OPP W/L%: .622
HOF: Bernard King, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes (tied-third)
Moses Malone and Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers lost only once to a Bucks team that had just finished a four-game sweep of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and the Boston Celtics.
The 76ers have an argument for climbing as high as fourth because of their strength of schedule, win-loss percentage and the array of Hall of Famers they had to fight past, but the fact remains that they only needed 12 wins to blaze through the NBA playoffs.
That simply isn't enough to qualify them ahead of the remaining nine.
9. 1999 San Antonio Spurs
W/L: 15-2 (.882 tied-third)
ASM: 7.2 (ninth)
OPP: MIN (25-25), LAL (31-19), POR (35-15), NYK (27-23)
OPP W/L%: .590 (sixth)
The 1998-99 NBA champions popularly associated with the dreaded asterisk—thanks to a lockout-shortened season—boasted first-ballot Hall of Famers at power forward and center in David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Duncan followed his stellar rookie season with a sensational playoff run that saw him play more than 43 minutes per game in 17 contests, scoring 23.2 points with 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while earning Finals MVP.
Despite dropping just two games in their playoff run, the Spurs lost one early to Kevin Garnett and his .500 Minnesota Timberwolves in a nine-point loss. Garnett was sensational in putting up 23 points, 12 rebounds and six assists while helping to hold Duncan and Robinson to 29 points.
The Spurs followed that letdown by winning 12 consecutive games, including sweeps of the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Lakers, and the Rasheed Wallace-Damon Stoudamire-Jermaine O'Neal Blazers. After San Antonio took a 2-0 lead against the eighth-seeded Knicks, Allan Houston exploded for 34 points to steal Game 3 and keep the Spurs from rising higher in our rankings.
8. 1986 Boston Celtics
W/L: 15-3 (.833, tied-eighth)
ASM: 10.3 (sixth)
OPP: CHI (30-51), ATL (50-32), MIL (57-25), HOU (51-31)
OPP W/L%: .576 (eighth)
HOF: Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Sidney Moncrief, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson (fifth)
The 1986 Boston Celtics are thought in some circles to be the greatest assemblage of talent and dominance in NBA history. A frontcourt of Larry Bird (reigning and three-time consecutive MVP), Kevin McHale, Bill Walton (Sixth Man of the Year) and Robert Parish took 67 regular-season wins—the fourth-highest total ever at the time. Their 82 collective victories were the most in history then too.
To the dismay of Celtics fans, this team's ranking is significantly impacted by the record of Michael Jordan's Bulls, who managed just 30 regular-season wins. A 12-point loss at the hands of Dominique Wilkins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals also affected Boston's placement, as did the team's two losses to the Houston Rockets in the Finals.
The Celtics didn't finish inside the top five in any categories of difficulty or scoring margin. Boston deserves a seat at the table but doesn't crack the top eight.
7. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers
W/L: 16-5, .762 (ninth)
ASM: 8.6 (seventh)
OPP: DET (44-38), ATL (48-34), TOR (56-26), GSW (73-9)
OPP W/L%: .674 (first)
HOF: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry (tied-sixth)
LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers squad faced the most exceptional regular-season team ever in the NBA Finals. The 73-9 Golden State Warriors took a previously insurmountable 3-1 NBA Finals lead that should have killed the Cavaliers' hopes of upending the reigning champions.
Fate and perhaps a bit of good luck (Draymond Green suspension) intervened, and the Cavaliers prevented the Warriors from pulling off what arguably could have become the greatest single season.
Defeating the Warriors and overcoming the odds gives the Cavaliers credence, but their win-loss percentage and average scoring margin hold significant weight. Of course, the Warriors had a lot to do with that.
However, the Cavaliers also lost two games to the Toronto Raptors by an average of 10.5 points, which affected their ranking. We're talking about the greatest playoff runs ever.
6. 1987 Los Angeles Lakers
W/L: 15-3 (.833 tied-sixth)
ASM: 11.3 (fourth)
OPP: DEN (37-45), GSW (42-40), SEA (39-43), BOS (59-23)
OPP W/L%: .540 (ninth)
HOF: Alex English, Chris Mullin, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (tied-third)
In 1987, Magic responded to the 4-1 Western Conference Semifinal shellacking the Houston Rockets administered one season before with one of the most impressive postseasons in history.
The '87 playoffs were peculiar, if unspectacular, through early rounds. The second-seeded 55-win Dallas Mavericks appeared to be on a collision course with the Lakers, only to be surprised in the first round by the 39-win Seattle SuperSonics in four games (best of five series). The Sonics followed with yet another surprise, defeating Olajuwon and the reigning Western Conference champions in six games.
Padding their scoring margin against three teams so close to .500 impacts these Lakers, and three losses to the Celtics and Warriors didn't help. Still, the Lakers deserve serious consideration for defeating a Celtics squad coming off the greatest season in franchise history.
5. 1996 Chicago Bulls
W/L: 15-3 (.833 tied-sixth)
ASM: 10.6 (fifth)
OPP: MIA (42-40), NYK (47-35), ORL (60-22), SEA (64-18)
OPP W/L%: .649 (third)
HOF: Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton (tied-sixth)
The 1995-96 Bulls boasted the greatest player of all time at the peak of his powers. While playing in a diluted 30-team league that had just added two franchises (Raptors and Grizzlies), Jordan capitalized with 72 regular-season wins, an NBA record that held for 20 years.
The Bulls followed that with an equally dominant playoff run before taking their proverbial foot off the gas at the last moment. After a 14-1 performance that saw just one loss to the New York Knicks in the semifinals, these Bulls went up 3-0 against the Sonics to nearly solidify the best postseason run ever. Their 15-1 record (.938) and average scoring margin (13) would have placed them second in our group in each category.
But they lost the next two games by 32 combined points, breathing new life into the Sonics and forcing the Bulls from second on our list to fifth. Still, they wrapped up the series on Father's Day with a 12-point victory.
4. 1989 Detroit Pistons
W/L: 15-2 (.882 tied-fourth)
ASM: 7.7 (eighth)
OPP: BOS (42-40), MIL (49-33), CHI (47-35), LAL (57-25)
OPP W/L%: .595 (sixth)
HOF: Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy (first)
The Bad Boy Pistons like to pretend they were the underdog upstarts who surprised, denied and separated the NBA darlings' (Bird, Magic and Jordan) respective championship reigns.
The truth is that these Pistons were one of the best teams ever, equipped with versatility, playmaking and a legendary defense that saw them win 63 regular-season games while dropping just two postseason contests to Jordan's Bulls in 1989 by a combined eight points.
The Pistons started their playoff run with a three-game sweep of the Celtics (without Bird). After Detroit dispatched the Bucks and Bulls in 10 games, it was up to the Lakers to stop Thomas' club. However, the Lakers couldn't meet the challenge without Byron Scott, who missed the series because of a hamstring injury, and Magic, who played just five minutes in the final two games of the series sweep.
Would the Pistons sit this high on our list without injuries to two top-five all-time players? Maybe not. But there's no asterisk here. The Pistons took what was in front of them and dominated.
3. 1991 Chicago Bulls
W/L: 15-2 (.882 tied-third)
ASM: 11.7 (third)
OPP: NYK (39-43), PHI (44-38), DET (50-32), LAL (58-24)
OPP W/L%: .582 (seventh)
HOF: Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, James Worthy (second)
Finishing two slots ahead of the '96 Bulls is their younger iteration and the first NBA champion in Chicago's rich history. Jordan's first Finals run came against quite the gauntlet of immortal NBA faces. After breezing past two first-ballot Hall of Famers in Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley in just eight games, Jordan faced his nemesis in the 50-win Detroit Pistons.
Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars had previously expelled these Bulls in three consecutive playoffs—making Chicago's conference finals sweep of the '91 Bad Boys that much sweeter.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Jordan fell to Magic and the Lakers 93-91. Recently, on ESPN's The Last Dance, Jordan lamented falling prey to the moment and failing to have his team ready. These words would then soothe Barkley after doing the same in the 1993 Finals against Jordan's Bulls.
But unlike those Suns, the '91 Bulls came back to win the series. Still, that two-point blemish plus a two-point loss to the 76ers pushes the Bulls to third in our group.
A slim margin separates these Bulls from boasting the best playoff run ever.
2. 2017 Golden State Warriors
W/L: 16-1 (.941 first)
ASM: 13.5 (first)
OPP: POR (41-41), UTA (51-31), SAS (61-21), CLE (51-31)
OPP W/L%: .622 (tied-fourth)
The Warriors were so upset about their 3-1 collapse in 2016 that they hired the league's second-best player, Kevin Durant, to reinforce their 73-win roster. And boy, were they scary.
The 2017 Warriors are first on our list in win/loss percentage and average scoring margin. That's utter dominance. They are also the only team in NBA history to have won their first 15 postseason games—before LeBron and the Cavs took Game 4 by 21 points.
Of course, the Warriors did benefit from a depleted Spurs squad that got just 24 minutes from Kawhi Leonard—which was the main reason he was not included in the Hall of Fame list—and was without Tony Parker and Duncan (retired). The Spurs arguably posed the most significant threat to the '17 Dubs as the only other team in that postseason bracket to win 60-plus games.
Destiny intervened, and the Warriors get to hold their heads high as the owners of the second-greatest playoff run ever.
1. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers
W/L: 15-1 (.938 second)
ASM: 12.8 (second)
OPP: POR (50-32), SAC (55-27), SAS (58-24), PHI (56-26)
OPP W/L%: .668 (first)
HOF: Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo (tied-third)
The definitiveness of the 2001 Lakers' postseason run is inarguable. This Kobe-Shaq L.A. squad was the only one of our group to face four 50-win teams, and it did so without losing a game in regulation. In fact, it took a 48-point overtime performance from Allen Iverson in 53 minutes for the Lakers to fall in just one contest.
Not only did these Lakers face and defeat the most challenging schedule, but they also did so in demonstrative fashion with an average scoring margin that is second on our list to just the Warriors.
That Kobe and Shaq won just three championships in eight years should speak to the divide between the two. They formed a dynasty; that much is true. Had they focused their energy in the same direction and won five, six, or seven titles, would we be talking about the best dynasty ever? Would we be talking about two top-five players all-time? How would their legacies have been impacted?
Differences aside, the two came together in 2001 to make the best playoff run of all time.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.