10 Greatest NBA Teams of All Time
The sweetest and most triumphant moment for any NBA team is when a championship is won.
In the league’s 65-year history, 65 teams have had the honor of calling themselves the ultimate basketball winners of the world.
Whether it’s the ’65 Boston Celtics, ’87 Los Angeles Lakers or ’97 Chicago Bulls, there is no doubt that every championship-winning team embodied greatness.
However, how do the championship teams in the league’s history compare to one another? The thought is quite intriguing.
That’s why I compiled a list of the greatest teams in NBA history.
The list was difficult to create, and it’s more relative than absolute.
It was based largely on each team’s dominance in its particular year, rather than on the "which team would win" question.
Enjoy, and let your opinions be heard!
These teams were all great, but they barely missed the cut.
1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers
Led by Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia 76ers won a league-high 68 games in the regular season before defeating the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were an unstoppable duo in the 2001-02 season. The pair led the Los Angeles Lakers to 58 wins before sweeping the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
The Big Three’s first year was an absolute success. After winning a league-high 66 games, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett won their first NBA championship, beating Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the finals.
1972-73 New York Knicks
The 1972-73 New York Knicks were the embodiment of an absolute team. Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe and a series of role players were successful in the regular season, as they won 57 games. They then shocked the world by defeating the 68-win Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals before beating the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship.
10. 1964-65 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are the greatest franchise in NBA history, largely because of the team’s display of sheer dominance in the 1960s.
The Celtics especially epitomized greatness in the 1964-65 NBA season.
Led by head coach Red Auerbach, legendary center Bill Russell (who averaged an astounding 24.1 RPG), shooting guard Sam Jones (who averaged team-high 25.9 PPG) and a young John Havlicek (who averaged 18.3 PPG), the Celtics finished the regular season with a 62-18 record—their record was not only the best in the league, but also the best in the team’s history up to that point.
The Celtics' regular season success translated into the playoffs, as they defeated Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division finals and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Many undermine the Celtics’ success because of the league’s lack of talent at the time. This is both unfair and unfortunate.
It’s vital to understand that winning a championship is difficult, no matter the competition, and the fact that Boston Celtics were able to win on such a consistent basis validates their place on this list.
9. 1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Let me tell you now, this will not be the first time you’ll see a '90s Chicago Bulls team on this list.
Immediately after winning the franchise’s first title the year before, coach Phil Jackson’s Bulls cruised through the 1991-92 regular season, winning 67 games.
What’s even more significant, however, is how the Bulls played seamlessly as a unit.
Although Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen scored a majority of the points (51.1 PPG combined), both gave in to the triangle offense and worked to get other teammates involved.
In addition, each player on the roster knew his role and embraced it—Horace Grant was a rebounding machine, B.J. Armstrong, Craig Hodges and John Paxson were three-point specialists and Stacey King and Will Perdue provided a low-post presence, while Bill Cartwright provided veteran leadership.
The Chicago Bulls were truly dominant in the playoffs, sweeping the Miami Heat in the first round, battling the New York Knicks in the second round in one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals and then repeating as world champions after defeating Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers in the 1992 NBA Finals.
8. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
Julius Erving entered the 1982-83 NBA season as a 32-year-old veteran at the tail end of his career and without a NBA championship.
Erving was finally able to successfully climb the proverbial mountain, as he and the Philadelphia 76ers won the 1983 NBA championship.
Erving, however, didn’t do it alone—the team had a variety of productive players that contributed to success.
While Julius Erving, who averaged 21.4 PPG, and guard Andrew Toney, who averaged 19.7 PPG, provided offense, point guard Maurice Cheeks distributed the basketball.
Moses Malone was an offensive and defensive threat—not only did he grab 15 rebounds per game and block two shots per game, but he also scored 24 points per game.
The 76ers’ group of threats vanquished their opponents in the playoffs, sweeping the New York Knicks in the first round before beating the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The team then impressively swept Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers to take the title.
7. 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
Oscar Robertson was near the end of his career entering 1970, and he still hadn’t achieved ultimate glory: an NBA championship.
The 1970-71 season marked a new beginning for Robertson, as he became a part of a young Milwaukee Bucks team.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks’ superstar, established himself as a dominant force in the NBA in his rookie season.
The 1970-71 season was no different, as he continued to impose his will on all opponents, averaging 31.7 PPG and 16.0 RPG.
Robertson, the aging, walking triple-double, infused himself as a part of the team, as he masterfully distributed the ball to his teammates.
In addition, a young Bob Dandridge contributed 18.4 PPG and 8.0 RPG.
In the end, the Milwaukee Bucks proved to be too overwhelming for opposing teams, as they won 66 games.
The team had an equally impressive playoff run, as it defeated Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West’s Lakers in the Western Conference finals before sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals.
Finally, with the help of great players, Robertson was able to win a title.
6. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls were most definitely the team of the '90s, and the 1996-97 squad attests to that.
Led by coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman and co. continued dominating opponents with their transcendent display of teamwork.
Jordan and Pippen continued to score in high volumes, while distributing the ball. Kukoc provided a unique threat as a tall jump-shooter. In addition, Rodman rebounded the ball with ease.
The team finished the regular season with 69 wins and went on to defeat Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz in one of the most memorable NBA Finals in history.
5. 1988-89 Detroit Pistons
The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons are one of the most hated teams in NBA history because of their physical style of play.
However, there is no doubt that the Pistons were dominant—that surely cannot be taken away from them.
The Pistons were defensively adept—and that’s an understatement. They really epitomized defensive intensity.
Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Bill Laimbeer provided a strong defensive presence in the low post; they didn’t allow anyone to drive freely to the basket.
Meanwhile, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were great perimeter defenders. In fact, Dumars was widely known as one of the only players to give Jordan trouble on the offensive end.
The Pistons had multiple offensive threats too.
Thomas was a great penetrator and passer. Dumars was an excellent clutch and perimeter scorer. Laimbeer was an excellent three-point shooter, while Mark Aguirre also contributed a fair number of points.
The Pistons ended the '88-89 season with 63 wins and went on to defeat Larry Bird’s Celtics and Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs before sweeping Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the finals.
4. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
When you look at the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers roster, you can understand why they were a great team.
Despite being loaded with transcendent offensive threats such as Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston, the Lakers were able to successfully distribute the ball to each other.
As a result, the team dominated opponents and even won 33 games in a row from November to January, a record that still stands today.
The Lakers ended the season with a league-high 69 wins and later defeated the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals.
3. 1985-86 Boston Celtics
Now we enter the top three greatest teams in NBA history.
The order of the top three was extremely difficult to decide, but in the end, I decided to place the 1985-86 Boston Celtics at the third spot—the list would surely be incomplete without them.
Let’s delve deeper into the Celtics’ terrific '85-86 season.
The season prior, the Celtics fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Thus, Larry Bird and the team were as motivated as ever to take the world title away from their hated enemy.
The regular season was full of success for the Celtics. Bird, who averaged 25.8 PPG, and Kevin McHale, who averaged 21.3 PPG, continued to embarrass defenders with their vast array of offensive moves.
Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge brought intensity to the team’s backcourt, while Robert Parish acted as a defensive machine.
The Celtics went on to win 67 games in the regular season before dominating the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Then the Celtics beat Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals to bring the title back to Beantown.
2. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers’ 1985-86 season was a failure. After a successful 62-win regular season, they failed to make it to the NBA Finals, as they lost to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals.
Even worse, the Boston Celtics were the new champions of the world.
Thus, it’s easy to say that the Lakers desperately wanted to reclaim their throne.
The year prior, the Lakers had a great regular season in which they won 65 games. Magic Johnson led the team in scoring with 23.9 PPG and in assists with 12.2 APG. James Worthy began to embrace a larger role on the team, averaging 19.4 PPG. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continued to show flashes of inside dominance, while Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis fulfilled their tasks as terrific role players.
The Lakers easily made it into the NBA Finals, where they played no other than the champions of the previous year, the Boston Celtics.
After a historic six-game battle, the Lakers were triumphant—they were champions yet again.
1. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Here we have it. The greatest team in NBA history: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
The Chicago Bulls reached the epitome of their greatness, and really the epitome of greatness in general, in the 1995-96 NBA season.
In the 1994-95 season, the Chicago Bulls did not play to expectations, especially because Michael Jordan was off playing baseball. However, later in the season, Jordan made a surprise comeback.
However, his comeback didn’t significantly help the team’s fortunes, as they lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs.
Thus, entering the 1995-96 season, there was no doubt that Jordan and the Bulls were ready to bring a title back to the Windy City.
The Bulls continued to play as a team like in years past. Jordan carried the team in close games, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot.
In the end, the relentless Bulls finished the regular season with an NBA-record 72 wins.
The team cruised through the playoffs and beat Gary Payton’s Seattle SuperSonics to win another NBA title.
Certainly, the Bulls were back.