The NBA’s Greatest Dynasties

During last year's NBA Finals, we started to see headlines suggesting that the Denver Nuggets, with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, could become a dynasty. That's clearly premature, and it was disrespectfully premature before Denver's series against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat was even over. But it raises the question: what does an NBA dynasty look like? If the Nuggets add another couple of titles in the next few years, where might they rank among the greatest teams in history?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dynasty as "a succession of leaders." Merriam-Webster uses an almost identical definition, "a succession of rulers," and adds specific sports context: "a sports franchise which has a prolonged run of successful seasons."

To me, sports dynasties are measuring sticks. If you wanted to win a World Series in the 1940s, you had to beat the Yankees. For the last 20 years in the NFL, someone had to beat the Patriots. And so on. And to be the measuring stick, to establish a legacy that might merit that word, dynasty, you have to sustain greatness: you need a series of great teams — a succession of rulers.

Here's a list of the most dynastic teams in NBA history, with seven clear dynasties at the top, followed by about a dozen teams that had some dynastic qualities but might not meet our definition of a dynasty.

A point of clarification: NBA seasons span more than one calendar year, and the dynasties listed below show the first possible year. So for instance, the Bill Russell Celtics are listed from 1956-69: this begins in the 1956-57 season, and concludes in the 1968-69 season.

1. Bill Russell's Celtics
1956 - 1969 Boston Celtics
11 championships, 12 Finals appearances
716-299 (.705)

The greatest dynasty in NBA history, Bill Russell's Celtics won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. In the two seasons they did not win it all, the Celtics lost in the NBA Finals (1958) or lost in the Division Finals to the eventual league champion (1967). For the first nine seasons of Russell's career, the Celtics had the best record in the NBA every year.

Competing against other great teams — Bob Pettit's St. Louis Hawks, Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers, and the great Laker teams with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor — the Celtics nonetheless dominated the league, capturing eight straight titles, and nearly winning 13 in a row. No other NBA team — indeed, no other major North American professional sports team — has ever had such a long-lasting, truly dominant reign.

Russell (1956-69) was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates, including John Havlicek (1962-69), Bob Cousy (1956-63), Bill Sharman (1956-61), Sam Jones (1957-69), Tom Heinsohn (1956-65), and others. But while Boston had multiple Hall of Famers, Russell was the engine. The Celtics never won anything before Russell joined the team, and after he retired, they missed the playoffs in back-to-back years. He was probably the greatest defensive player in history, and since that doesn't show up in box stats, he is sometimes underrated by stat-oriented rankers.

2. Magic Johnson's Lakers
1979 - 1991 Los Angeles Lakers
5 championships, 9 Finals appearances
712-272 (.724)

In Magic Johnson's 12 seasons, the Lakers won the Western Conference nine out of 12 times, winning five championships. The four NBA Finals they lost were to legendary opponents: the 76ers with Julius Erving and Moses Malone, Larry Bird's Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

The Lakers also won titles against the Sixers (1980 and 1982), Celtics (1985 and 1987), and Pistons (1988).

The Lakers' "Big Three" were Magic Johnson (1979-91), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-89), and James Worthy (1982-94). People sometimes forget that the Lakers were a great team before they got Worthy: they had won two of the last three NBA Finals and were defending champs when he joined the team. When Worthy joined the roster, they improved their win total by ... one. He was a valuable player, but never first-team All-NBA, and never top-10 in MVP voting. Magic Johnson, the all-time leader in assists per game (11.2), was the irreplaceable member of the team. Johnson is one of only three players — the others are Michael Jordan and LeBron James — to win NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP at least three times each.

3. Michael Jordan's Bulls
1990 - 1998 Chicago Bulls
6 championships, 6 Finals appearances
490-166 (.747)

When Michael Jordan joined the Bulls as a rookie in 1984, he was already an exceptional talent, but the Bulls couldn't win. They became playoff regulars, but it wasn't until the 1990-91 season that Chicago reached the NBA Finals. The Bulls won the first of three consecutive championships that year, and Jordan was named Finals MVP in all three. Then Jordan announced his retirement, and the Houston Rockets won the next two championships. Jordan returned to the Bulls, however, and Chicago won another three championships with #23 back on the floor. Once again, Jordan was named Finals MVP each time.

During the eight seasons included here, the Bulls compiled a regular-season record of 490-166 (.747) and played in six NBA Finals, winning all six. If you omit the seasons in which Jordan didn't suit up, that mark rises to an incredible 388-104 (.789), with six championships in six seasons.

The objection sometimes raised against this dynasty is a perceived lack of competition. Other than a Finals win over the Showtime Lakers, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was already retired, the Bulls never went up against another team that had proven itself. The question is whether Jordan played in a weak era, when quality competition was scarce, or whether the Bulls were simply so dominant that they made good opponents look weak.

I tend to think that this was an era without top-notch competition. The Western Conference sent six different teams to the Finals in these eight seasons (Lakers, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, SuperSonics, Jazz), with no potential dynasties to challenge Chicago. The Eastern Conference was no more imposing, with no team other than Chicago reaching the Conference Finals more than twice — the '97 Heat were the only Eastern Conference team besides the Bulls to win more than 60 games in the '90s.

I rank Magic's Lakers ahead of Michael's Bulls because [1] the Lakers' were a dominant team for 12 seasons, compared to 6 or 8 for Chicago, and [2] the Lakers were the best team in an era of dynasties, while the Bulls were the best team in an era with no other great teams.

Michael Jordan is perhaps the greatest player in history, a five-time NBA MVP and six-time Finals MVP. The Bulls had very good power forwards, Horace Grant (1987-94) and Dennis Rodman (1996-98), but the secondary piece in this dynasty was Scottie Pippen. He is one of three players (the others are LeBron James and Dr. J) ranked among the all-time top 25 in postseason points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Pippen is second (to James) in postseason steals, and one of only 13 players with over 1,000 assists in the postseason.

The six players to officially rank among the all-time top 25 in at least four major postseason counting stats are LeBron James, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Scottie Pippen. That's awfully select company for Pippen.

4. Tim Duncan's Spurs
1997 - 2017 San Antonio Spurs
5 championships, 6 Finals appearances
1133-459 (.712)

During Tim Duncan's 19 seasons, the Spurs won five championships and had a record over .600 every year. They won at least 50 games every year (other than a strike-shortened 1998-99 season, when they had the best record in the NBA and won the Finals 4-1).

The tricky thing with this dynasty is figuring out its start and end dates. The mid-'00s are obvious, since the Spurs won three titles in five seasons, all with the core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. But does their 1999 title, with David Robinson and Duncan — but without Parker and Ginobili — count? What about 2014? That team had Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, but is it still a dynasty if you go seven years between championships? The Spurs were great every season, so you can make the argument. But dynasties are kings, and San Antonio spent six years as princes.

On the other hand, isn't it crazy not to count the 2014 championship team as part of the Spurs dynasty? It's the same coach and the same three stars. The '07 champs were led by Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. The 2014 champs were also led by Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Both teams were coached by Gregg Popovich. They reached the Western Conference Finals in three of their six seasons between championships, and won at least 50 games every year.

The Spurs didn't stop being a great team between 2007-13, and their coach and key players were constant, so I'm inclined to regard this is as a contiguous dynasty, but I understand arguments the other way. If you cut this dynasty off after '07, I'd probably drop them to sixth. I'm actually more sympathetic to arguments to drop '99, since that team didn't have Parker and Ginobili, but with Duncan and Pop in place, and only three years in between the '99 and '03 titles, I'm inclined to count that one, too.

I also included a few seasons after their last title, because the 2015-16 Spurs had the best record in franchise history (67-15, .817), and the 2016-17 Spurs won 61 games and reached the Western Finals.

Over the 20 seasons listed here, San Antonio went 1,133-459 (.712), an incredible winning percentage to maintain over two decades. If you focus on the 2002-07 seasons in which they won three titles, that rises slightly to .724 (297-113). The Spurs didn't follow the popular model of assembling an overwhelming roster for a three-year run at greatness; instead, they just stayed among the top five or so teams in the NBA every year and figured they would win some championships along the way. Not that's it easy, but I wish more teams would emulate that approach.

5. Larry Bird's Celtics
1979 - 1988 Boston Celtics
3 championships, 5 Finals appearances
550-188 (.745)

During the nine seasons included here, Boston had the best record in their conference eight times, had the best record in the NBA six times, went to the NBA finals five times, and won three NBA championships. They were the standard, the team to beat, the games you circled on your calendar before the season began.

It was during this decade that the Celtics-Lakers rivalry — already intense from the Bill Russell era, when Boston won six Finals series against the Lakers — became truly legendary. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the best players in the game, and their teams were consistently at the top of the league, meeting in the Finals three times. Either the Celtics or the Lakers (or both) made the NBA Finals every year from 1980 to 1989.

One of my biggest influences as a basketball writer and analyst is Dave Heeren, author of The Basketball Abstract and inventor of the TENDEX rating system, the model for almost every subsequent attempt at statistical player evaluation in basketball, including Dean Oliver's Approximate Value (AV), John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER), my own Total Statistical Production, and more. Heeren has written convincingly that Boston coach K.C. Jones shortened Bird's career by overworking him, especially in the 1988 playoffs, when Bird averaged 45 minutes per game. Bird missed most of the next season, and never fully recovered.

Considering Boston's secondary stars ... on lists of the all-time greatest players, Kevin McHale is usually ranked ahead of his longtime teammate Robert Parish, but I would rate them about equal. Parish made more All-Star teams and had more All-NBA selections. Parish earned more MVP shares than McHale. He earned more Win Shares and he won more championships. He had a longer career than McHale, with more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. McHale's absolute peak was higher, I think everyone agrees, but his supremacy relative to Parish — when accounting for the Chief's extraordinary longevity — is hardly clear-cut.

6. Steph Curry's Warriors
2014 - 2023 Golden State Warriors
4 championships, 6 Finals appearances
473-238 (.665)

From 2015-19, the Warriors made five straight NBA Finals — the first team to do since the 1957-66 Celtics. They won three titles, adding a fourth in 2022, and had the best record in the NBA three times, including 73-9 (.890) in 2016.

They went a league-worst 15-50 in the 2019-20 season, which is a pretty serious stain on any "dynasty" claim beyond that point. The Bulls were still a playoff team when Michael Jordan was trying to play professional baseball. The Warriors could go 73-9 for the next four seasons in a row and still not match the overall winning percentage of the 1979-88 Celtics.

The 2014-19 Dubs went 322-88 (.785), but five years is a pretty brief run of greatness, and that trims off the '22 title.

Three-pointers were underrated until Steph Curry won back-to-back MVP Awards in 2015-16. Through most of NBA history, a possession has been worth approximately one point. It's jumped around a bit, but that figure is historically pretty stable. So if a player makes a two-point field goal, he has exceeded the expected value of that possession by one point: the possession was worth two instead of one. If a player makes a three-point field goal, he has exceeded the expected value of that possession by two points: the possession was worth three instead of one. People assumed that three-pointers were 50% more valuable than twos, because three is 50% more than two. It's a logical assumption, but it's wrong. Three-pointers are twice as valuable as two-pointers, since they increase the expected value of a possession by +2 rather than +1. That doesn't even account for spacing out the defense.

Somehow, after decades of the three-point rule, Stephen Curry was the first player to go out there and continually bomb threes. He shot tons of them, and did so with incredible efficiency. He was so good that the rest of the league finally took notice, and started shooting more treys. Curry changed the game. He was unanimously selected as the league's 2016 MVP, the only unanimous selection in history.

Curry has been the key player for this dynasty, but I don't yet regard him as a top-10 all-time player. The players who led comparable team success — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal — all do rank in my personal top ten, other than George Mikan, whom I downgraded for the weakness of the leagues he dominated. Some people will now rank Curry among those legends, which I understand. I have him a little lower — for now — because he hasn't been quite as dominant and he hasn't played quite as long. All of the others made at least 12 All-Star Games (Curry has made nine) and all except Russell have twice as many first-team All-NBA selections as Curry. All were more successful in MVP balloting.

Two of Curry's four titles were won with not only Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, but also Kevin Durant. That's probably the most stacked lineup since the '60s Celtics, and it wasn't clear during those years that Curry was the best player on his own team. He'll probably end up in the top 10 eventually, but in my estimation he's not there quite yet. Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball has convinced me that Draymond is underrated.

7. George Mikan's Lakers
1947 - 1954 Minneapolis Lakers
6 championships, 7 Finals appearances
316-148 (.681)

George Mikan was pro basketball's first true superstar. As a rookie in 1946-47, he led the Chicago American Gears to a title in the National Basketball League (NBL), then moved to the Lakers when the American Gears folded. During Mikan's first season with the Lakers, the team played in the NBL, going 43-17 and coasting to a league championship. The next season, playing in the Basketball Association of America (BAA), Mikan and the Lakers won another title. Beginning in the 1949-50 season, the BAA and NBL merged, and the Lakers were a part of the newly-born National Basketball Association (NBA).

In the NBA's first year, the Lakers tied for the best regular-season record, swept their first three playoff opponents, and won the league title. With Mikan injured, they lost in the Western Division Finals the next season — but then reeled off championship wins in three straight seasons, giving them four of the first five NBA titles, plus two league titles in the NBL and BAA before the NBA existed. Add in the American Gears, and Mikan led his teams to seven championships in eight years.

From 1947-54, the Lakers won six titles in seven seasons. They never finished under .600, and ranked first or second in their division every season. While that's certainly dynastic, I downgrade this dynasty somewhat because the league was small (eight teams) and the game was in its infancy. Dominating the NBA in the early '50s was not as impressive as dominating in any of the succeeding decades.

Mikan was first-team All-League in all eight seasons before his retirement. There are limited statistics from Mikan's career, which began before minutes were recorded and before the shot clock, but the stats that exist support his excellence in that era. His dominance inspired multiple rule changes; he is a titan in pro basketball history. Power forward Vern Mikkelsen and guard Slater Martin were the Lakers' other stars in this era. Mikkelsen averaged a double-double at least four times (rebounds were not recorded in his rookie season).

Second-Tier Dynasties

In NBA history, there are seven clear dynasties, teams so dominant over an extended period of time that almost all observers of the league would classify them as dynasties. However, there are other teams whose dynastic status is questionable, but have a compelling argument for some kind of recognition among the all-time greats.

8. Jerry West's Lakers
1961 - 1973 Los Angeles Lakers
1 championship, 9 Finals appearances
609-364 (.626)

In Jerry West's 13 healthy seasons, the Lakers reached the NBA Finals nine times, and West was named Finals MVP of a series his team lost. He is the NBA Finals' all-time scoring leader (1,679).

With only one championship, it's tough to call this a dynasty. But at the same time, nine Finals appearances is more than anyone but the Bill Russell Celtics (12); the Lakers were certainly a Western Conference dynasty. Besides being the team to beat in the West, the Lakers were competitive with the greatest dynasty in history. They took the Celtics to seven games in 1962, 1966, and 1969. They also went seven games against the Knicks in the 1970 NBA Finals. Subtract a couple of bad bounces or missed calls, and this Lakers team might rank among the top five dynasties in history.

West was first-team All-NBA ten times, and while he never won an MVP Award, he was second in MVP voting four times, tied (with LeBron James and Larry Bird) for most all-time. He received first-place MVP votes in 10 seasons. Teammate Elgin Baylor was also first-team All-NBA 10 times; West and Baylor are two of only 10 such players in history. Wilt Chamberlain joined the Lakers for the final five years of this dynasty, and was named Finals MVP after their victory over the Knicks in the 1972 Finals.

9. Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers
1999 - 2004 Los Angeles Lakers
3 championships, 4 Finals appearances
287-123 (.700)

At the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers won their first NBA title in over a decade. They won each of the next two as well, giving them three straight NBA championships, a feat equaled only by Mikan's Lakers and Jordan's Bulls (who each did it twice) and Russell's Celtics (who won eight in a row).

Most fans consider a three-peat to equal an automatic dynasty, nothing else needed. But true dynasties have staying power, and the Lakers' dominance was short-lived. After a pretty good 2002-03 season and a Finals loss to Detroit the next year, Shaq went to Miami, coach Phil Jackson left the team, and the Lakers fell apart. That leaves the Lakers with a five-year run, during which they went 287-123 (.700), made four NBA Finals, and won three championships. That's probably a dynasty, but it doesn't seem like it belongs in the same category as Mikan or Magic. I go back and forth on how it ranks compared to the Jerry West era.

The Lakers went 201-95 during the four seasons prior to the ones listed here. Including those years would make them 488-218 (.691) over nine years. That feels more like a dynasty, but I don't include those seasons for two reasons:

1. The Lakers never made the Finals during that time. I gave the Spurs and Warriors a pass on that because they had dry spells in between championships, but at the beginning of a potential dynasty, it doesn't feel the same. The Lakers were never the team to beat during those seasons.

2. Those were substantially different teams. They didn't get Shaq and Kobe until the 1996-97 season, and Phil Jackson didn't arrive until 1999-2000.

Shaquille O'Neal was the best player in the NBA at this time, and the Finals MVP in each of the Lakers' three championships. The secondary piece was a young Kobe Bryant, already talented, but selfish and immature. People today tend to gloss over Kobe's role in breaking up this potential dynasty. Wikipedia has a 10,000-word entry on the Shaq-Kobe feud, 36 pages with footnotes. Bryant annoyed coaches and teammates, and both Jackson and O'Neal left Los Angeles at least partly because of Kobe. Minus Shaq and Phil, the Lakers went 34-48 in the 2004-05 season, marking the end of this dynasty.

Third-Tier Dynasties

I believe the Bill Russell Celtics, Magic Johnson Lakers, Michael Jordan Bulls, Tim Duncan Spurs, Larry Bird Celtics, Steph Curry Warriors, and George Mikan Lakers are all clear dynasties. I also see the argument for Shaq's Lakers, who three-peated, and Jerry West's Lakers, who ruled the Western Conference for 12 seasons.

I don't think there are any other teams, to this point in history, that are truly dynasties. But there are about a dozen teams that come close enough to be worth mentioning, teams that were dynastic but never quite established themselves as dynasties, either because they flamed out too quickly or they just didn't reach the mountaintop often enough. Those are the NBA's third-tier dynasties.

10. LeBron's Heat
2010 - 2014 Miami Heat
2 championships, 4 Finals appearances
224-88 (.718)

This team's championship tally looks similar to that of Shaq's Lakers, and the Heat were unquestionably the team to beat during this era: for each of the four years LeBron James played in Miami, the Heat entered the season as favorites to win it all. The Heat rank behind the Lakers not only because they won one fewer championship, but because their reign was so short-lived.

After the 2009-10 season, LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for South Beach, where he could play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat made four straight Finals, but when they started to fade, LeBron returned to Cleveland to play with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Can a team that only stays together for four years, and only wins two titles, really be a dynasty? Russell, Magic, Jordan, Duncan, and Mikan all won more than twice as many championships as the Heat. Bird's Celtics had the best record in the NBA six times, and won three rings. Curry's Warriors have a higher peak and longer reign than the Heat.

While I'm turned off by the Heat's short reign and the contrived nature of the team's composition, only six teams have reached four consecutive NBA Finals: the Bill Russell Celtics (1957-66), the Showtime Lakers (1982-85), the Larry Bird Celtics (1984-87), the Heatles (2011-14), the Steph Curry Warriors (2015-19), and LeBron's second run with the Cavs (2015-18). The Heat are also one of only 10 teams to win back-to-back championships.

Miami had a regular-season record of 224-88 (.718) over these four seasons. That's a very good winning percentage, but the fewest overall wins of any team listed so far — 63 behind Shaq's Lakers.

11. Julius Erving's 76ers
1976 - 1985 Philadelphia 76ers
1 championship, 4 Finals appearances
506-232 (.686)

Like Jerry West's Lakers, they only secured one championship, but they were a serious contender for a decade. In the nine seasons listed here, Philadelphia made the playoffs every year, reached the Eastern Conference Finals seven times, made the NBA Finals four times, and won a championship, sweeping Magic Johnson's Lakers in 1983.

For almost a decade and a half — from the 1973-74 season through the 1986-87 season — the only teams to win the Eastern Conference were the Celtics (seven times), Sixers (four times), and Bullets (three times). ((For that matter, you could add the Knicks and go all the way back to the 1956-57 season. That's four Eastern Conference champs in 31 years.)) During the first half of the Larry Bird dynasty, Philadelphia made more NBA Finals (three) than Boston (one).

Dr. J was Philadelphia's star, and if we included all 11 of his seasons with Philadelphia, the Sixers would still have a collective .671 winning percentage, winning more than two-thirds of their games. He also won ABA championships with the New York Nets in 1974 and 1976, being named ABA Playoffs MVP both times. The secondary pieces through most of the 76ers' run were point guard Maurice Cheeks and power forward Bobby Jones, both excellent defensive players. But the player who put the 76ers over the top was Moses Malone, who joined the team in the 1982-83 season. Malone was named NBA MVP and Finals MVP that year. After a 65-17 regular season, he famously predicted that Philadelphia would sweep every round of the postseason, and he wasn't far off, as the team won 4-0, 4-1, and 4-0.

12. The Frazier/Reed Knicks
1968 - 1974 New York Knicks
2 championships, 3 Finals appearances
320-172 (.650)

Led by Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, the Knicks of the early '70s reached three NBA Finals, winning twice. They weren't a dominant regular-season team: they finished .700 only once, and their overall record was 320-172 (.650). That's the second-lowest winning percentage of any team listed so far, ahead of only the Jerry West Lakers (.626), who are listed for twice as long (12 seasons) and made nine NBA Finals.

In these six seasons, the Knicks made the Eastern Conference Finals every year, and the NBA Finals three times. They faced the Lakers in all three, winning in 1970 and 1973. The '73 team has become somewhat of a legend, featuring five Hall of Famers: Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, and Reed. Frazier was the team's only All-NBA selection that season, though the oft-injured Reed was excellent when he played. The others were good players, but limited. DeBusschere was a defensive specialist, and Lucas, the best power forward of the late '60s, was past his prime. Monroe, the least exceptional of the five, kept the Knicks above average across the board.

Lucas and Monroe joined the Knicks in the 1971-72 season, helping them reach back-to-back Finals, but both were on other teams when New York won its first championship, in 1970. Reed, the 1970 NBA MVP, was Finals MVP for both of the Knicks' title runs.

13. The Havlicek/Cowens Celtics
1971 - 1976 Boston Celtics
2 championships, 2 Finals appearances
294-116 (.717)

Following the retirement of Bill Russell, the Celtic dynasty came to an abrupt and forceful end. Boston went 78-86 over the next two seasons, missing the playoffs in both years. But the Celtics still had one superstar, swingman John Havlicek, and when they added center Dave Cowens, they returned to contention.

In these five seasons, the Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals every year. They had the NBA's best record (68-14) in 1973, and won championships in 1974 and '76. Havlicek was All-NBA each year, including first-team All-NBA from 1972-74. Cowens was NBA MVP in 1973. He was also seventh in MVP voting in '72, fourth in '74, runner-up in '75, and third in '76. Point guard Jo Jo White and power forward Paul Silas also appeared on MVP ballots in these years.

Boston had a winning record in the 1976-77 season, then collapsed, going 61-103 the next two seasons. Those low finishes allowed them to draft Larry Bird and build a new dynasty, but the Celtics' 1976 and 1981 championship teams had no players in common: it was a total rebuild. The Celtics had a great team for five years — but only for those five years.

I rate the '70s Knicks ahead of the '70s Celtics without conviction. The Knicks were good for a little longer, and they were a little more successful in the postseason, but the Celtics would have had to go 26-56 to match New York's regular-season record.

14. The Bad Boy Pistons
1986 - 1991 Detroit Pistons
2 championships, 3 Finals appearances
278-132 (.678)

Like Havlicek's Celtics, this team's greatness was restricted to five seasons. Even that might be pushing it: the Pistons were excellent in the 1989 and '90 seasons, going 122-42 and winning two NBA Finals by a combined eight games to one. Other than that, they never won two-thirds of their games. They had five 50-win seasons and made five straight Eastern Conference Finals, but they were only a plausible contender for five years, and only dominant in two of them.

The Pistons were a dirty team, disliked around the league — both by fans and by opposing players. Their most famous player was Isiah Thomas, who had been a superb point guard in the mid-1980s. By this time, the team's best players were forward Dennis Rodman and center Bill Laimbeer, but the Pistons had depth, and no weaknesses, and they were well coached by Chuck Daly.

The Pistons lost to the Lakers in the 1988 Finals, then won back-to-back Finals against the Lakers and Trail Blazers in 1989 and '90. They fizzled out shortly afterwards, as Thomas and Laimbeer lost effectiveness, Daly retired, and Rodman left for San Antonio. The rise of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls spelled the end for the Bad Boys.

15. The Bryant/Gasol Lakers
2008 - 2011 Los Angeles Lakers
2 championships, 3 Finals appearances
236-92 (.720)

I rank them a little lower than the other two-rings, three-Finals-appearances teams (the '70s Knicks and the Bad Boy Pistons) because they only had four years as an elite team. Over these four seasons, the Lakers compiled a record of 236-92 (.720); that becomes 277-117 (.703) if you add the 2011-12 season, and it plummets if you add anything else beyond that. The Lakers also weren't quite as dominant in the postseason as New York or Detroit. I think they're all about equal, but those were my tiebreakers.

Featuring Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers were one of the rare teams to sustain success without a third marquee player. They reached the NBA Finals in 2008, losing to the dominant Celtics team led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The Lakers rebounded to win back-to-back titles the following two seasons, against Dwight Howard's Magic in '09 and against the Celtics in 2010. They went 57-25 (.695) in 2011 but got swept by the Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals.

It seems like people often minimize Gasol's importance to this team, instead focusing on Kobe Bryant. While Bryant was certainly a great player, he desperately needed another superstar. The Shaquille O'Neal-era Lakers won three straight championships and reached the Finals in 2004, but by that time Phil Jackson and Shaq had had enough of Kobe, and both left town. The team fell apart, and during three full seasons without Shaq or Gasol, Bryant's Lakers went 121-125 and failed to win a playoff series.

By 2007, Bryant had matured, and he meshed well with Gasol, a low-key superstar whose play exceeded his reputation — according to Win Shares, Gasol was the Lakers' most valuable player from 2008-12, and Kobe was never the Lakers' most valuable player in a year they won the championship. Even if you believe that reflects the limitations of Win Shares, certainly Gasol deserved more credit than he got. I wouldn't want to put his name or Bryant's on this dynasty without the other.

16. Wes Unseld's Bullets
1968 - 1979 Baltimore / Capital / Washington Bullets
1 championship, 4 Finals appearances
540-362 (.599)

Besides the nine First and Second Tier Dynasties above, there are only three teams in NBA history to make four NBA Finals: LeBron's Heat, Dr. J's Sixers, and Wes Unseld's Bullets, who rebranded their location twice during the '70s before changing their name to Wizards in 1997. Unseld, an undersized (6' 7") center, was a rookie in the 1968-69 season. Baltimore improved by 21 games that season, to a league-best 57-25, and Unseld was named NBA MVP. It was the first of 12 consecutive playoff appearances for the Bullets, though I do not count the final (1980) season here because Washington snuck into the postseason with a losing record and got eliminated in the first round.

The Bullets lost their first two NBA Finals, to the Bucks in 1971 and the Warriors in 1975. They closed out the decade by winning a championship over the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978 before losing the rematch in 1979.

The Bullets were arguably the team of the '70s, a decade without dynasties. The Knicks (1970 and '73) and Celtics (1974 and '76) were the only teams to win multiple championships, so Washington's one title is still very much in the running for team of the decade, especially since the Bullets were the only team of the decade to reach the NBA Finals four times. The '70s Bullets had a regular-season record of 472-348 (.576) and made the playoffs every year. That's clearly better than the Knicks, who fell apart in the late '70s and finished 437-383 (.533), missing the playoffs four times. The Celtics had a better overall record, 504-316 (.615), but missed the playoffs three times and only made two Finals appearances, compared to four by the Bullets. I think the Celtics were slightly more dynastic because of their great peak, but in choosing a team of the decade, I prefer the Bullets' consistency.

Elvin Hayes, the premier power forward of his generation, joined the Bullets in the 1972-73 season, and the team was most successful when he and Unseld paired together. Overall, during the 11 seasons listed here, the Bullets went 540-362 (.599). That's not an overwhelming winning percentage, but it was maintained over more than a decade; the Bullets' longevity and four Finals appearances distinguish them as one of the NBA's 20 most dynastic teams.

A Note On Rankings

I think the teams ranked 12th-16th here could shuffle around into pretty much any order. Here, look at this chart:


How do you rank these five teams? In whatever order you want. You can make the case for the Bullets based on their longevity and their four Finals appearances. Or the Knicks, based on their six consecutive Conference Finals. Or the Pistons, who made five straight Conference Finals in a more competitive era, with a higher regular-season winning percentage. Or the Celtics and Lakers, who had much higher winning percentages but less postseason success. They're all pretty even, I think.

There are five more teams who deserve to be addressed here, and all were dynastic in some way, but I think the top 16 are pretty clear.

17. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks
1969 - 1974 Milwaukee Bucks
1 championship, 2 Finals appearances
304-106 (.741)

Maybe this seems like reaching. Lots of teams win one Finals and reach a second. But Kareem's Bucks were special. The Bucks were an expansion team in 1968-69, and did about as well as you expect an expansion team to do (.329). But the next season they drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they were immediately contenders, winning 56 games and reaching the Eastern Finals. They would win at least 60 games the next three years in a row, then 59 and a Finals appearance the following year. Overall, the 1969-74 Bucks went 304-106 (.741), far ahead of other 1-championship, 2-Finals teams.

The '71 Bucks are among the greatest teams in history. They went 66-16, 14 games ahead of the next-best team. They coasted through the postseason, 12-2, including a 4-0 sweep of Wes Unseld's Bullets in the Finals. Abdul-Jabbar was a resounding choice as NBA MVP, and Oscar Robertson, 32 years old but still one of the best guards in the game, placed fifth in MVP balloting. A young Bob Dandridge was the other standout, averaging 8 rebounds and nearly 20 points a game.

The Bucks returned to the Finals in '74, losing to the Dave Cowens-John Havlicek Celtics in seven games. Robertson retired after the series, and Kareem left for L.A. the season after, ending this potential dynasty after five seasons. History hasn't remembered them — because of their not-special-at-a-glance Finals record, their brief window of greatness, Kareem's identity as a Laker subsuming his years with the Bucks, and Milwaukee's relatively low national profile — but they were one of the NBA's greatest teams.

18. Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets
1992 - 1997 Houston Rockets
2 championships, 2 Finals appearances
265-145 (.646)

The Chicago Bulls won three straight NBA championships from 1991-93. Then Michael Jordan temporarily retired and switched to baseball, and the Rockets won back-to-back titles. When Jordan returned, the Bulls three-peated again, and the Rockets were merely a good team. As one of only 14 teams with multiple titles, the Rockets belong on this list, but with the best player in the world out of the league, some fans may apply an asterisk to their championships. They never played in another Finals series, and never proved themselves against the Bulls.

The Rockets went 265-145 (.646) in these five seasons, not overwhelming in the context of this list, and certainly not for such a brief time period. The Rockets only had one season in which they were over .700, and barely (.707 in 1993-94).

Houston's 1995 Finals win is among the most improbable in history. You may have heard about it last spring when Jimmy Butler's eighth-seeded Heat reached the NBA Finals, and people were wondering whether they might be the worst regular-season team ever to rise up and win in the playoffs. The '95 Rockets finished 47-35 (.573), third in the Midwest Division, sixth in the Western Conference, and tied for 10th in the NBA. The Rockets fell behind in both of their first two playoff series, facing a total of five elimination games. In the Western Conference Finals, facing a Spurs team that had been 15 games better than them in the regular season, including 5-1 head-to-head, the Rockets won in six. They then swept the Eastern champion Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. They remain the lowest-seeded team ever to win an NBA championship.

The '95 team benefited from a midseason trade that added Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler, but the star was center Hakeem Olajuwon, the MVP of both Finals victories. Olajuwon was also the 1994 NBA MVP, and 12 years All-NBA. Almost certainly the most athletic center in history, he is (officially) the all-time leader in blocked shots (3,830) and he is among the all-time top 10 in steals (2,162), an unheard-of combination. He is the all-time postseason leader in blocks per game (3.26).

Hakeem's Rockets won two championships, and Kareem's Bucks only one, but the Bucks lost their second Finals in seven games, against a minor dynasty (the Havlicek/Cowens Celtics). The Bucks were a far superior regular-season team, their peak was higher, and they faced tougher competition. It's a close call, but I rate Milwaukee ahead.

19. LeBron's Cavs II
2014 - 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers
1 championship, 4 Finals appearances
211-117 (.643)

Tied, with the Bryant/Gasol Lakers and LeBron's other mini-dynasty, for the shortest "reign" in this project, only four years. In 2003, LeBron James was drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. When his contract expired in 2010, at age 26, he turned down a higher offer from the Cavs in order to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Together, the "Heatles" had four very successful seasons.

But then Wade and Bosh started to fade, and James returned to Cleveland, just in time to join Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. James is perhaps the greatest player in history, but I find his constant team-switching — to wherever he thinks it will be easiest to win, wherever he'll face the least adversity — enormously off-putting. He was right about the Cavs of the mid-2010s, though, and he led them to four straight Finals appearances against Steph Curry's Warriors, winning one of the four.

The Cavaliers missed the playoffs for four years in a row both before and after this brief (2014-18) run of glory, and they were the best team in the Eastern Conference at a time when the NBA's best teams all played in the West. Their 211-117 (.643) winning percentage is among the lowest of any potential dynasty, despite their very short period of success. No team on this list won fewer games.

20. Bob Pettit's Hawks
1956 - 1961 St. Louis Hawks
1 championship, 4 Finals appearances
221-149 (.597)

A decade before they moved to Atlanta, the Hawks were among the NBA's greatest teams. They faced Bill Russell's Celtics in the NBA Finals in 1957, 1958, 1960, and 1961. Their championship in '58 was the only time Russell's team lost a Finals.

The best teams of the 1950s and '60s were less dominant than the greatest teams of later decades. The Hawks, in these five seasons, posted a regular-season record of just 221-149 (.597). They even had a losing record one year, though still the best in the Western Division. They were the clear team to beat in the West, with the best record for five straight years, and four Finals appearances.

Bob Pettit was the greatest power forward until Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, at least. He could also be stretched to play center, though that mostly fell to Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Clyde Lovellette. Pettit won the first official NBA MVP Award, in 1956. He won again in 1959, one of 15 players with multiple MVPs. He was first-team All-NBA ten times in 11 seasons, one of only 10 such players. Pettit averaged 26.4 ppg and 16.2 rpg for his career; he and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players to average 20 points and 15 rebounds.

The Hawks also featured point guard Slater Martin, who had previously starred for George Mikan's Lakers in the early '50s, and small forward Cliff Hagan, the team's best player other than Pettit.

21. The Billups/Wallace Pistons
2001 - 2008 Detroit Pistons
1 championship, 2 Finals appearances
384-190 (.669)

Teams that only win one championship aren't really dynasties, with the possible exception of a team like Jerry West's Lakers, who dominated their conference for over a decade. In composing this list, even the bottom where the teams are dynastic in some respects but not truly dynasties, I wanted to be really selective about teams that only won one title. I took West's Lakers and Dr. J's 76ers, both of which seem pretty obvious to me: those are clearly among the 20 greatest dynasties in NBA history. I think the '70s Bullets with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes are a pretty easy call, too. All of those teams sustained success for a decade or more, and made at least four NBA Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks of the early '70s won 61 games a year, and came a Game 7 away from a second title, plus they featured maybe the most dominant player in history and had arguably the greatest single season in history.

Is there room for the '00s Pistons on a list with teams like that? The Pistons won 50 games for seven years in a row, and reached the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row. In '04, they defeated the Shaquille O'Neal Lakers in the NBA Finals, and in '05, they lost in seven against Tim Duncan's Spurs. In '06, they won 64 games but lost in the playoffs to the eventual champion Miami Heat. Is that a dynasty? I think it's the weakest entry on the list, but I believe it merits recognition. Six straight Conference Finals is, to quote Merriam-Webster, "a prolonged run of successful seasons."

Somewhat like their Bad Boy predecessors, the Pistons succeeded with a great team dynamic rather than with MVP-caliber star power. Point guard Chauncey Billups, the MVP of the 2004 Finals, was a five-time All-Star, and he made second-team All-NBA once. Center Ben Wallace was a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and ranked among the top 10 in MVP voting three times. Those were Detroit's only All-NBA selections during this run; Rasheed Wallace was probably the next-biggest star. The dynasty, if it was one, fell apart in 2008, when Detroit fired head coach Flip Saunders and traded Billups to Denver (for Allen Iverson). The Nuggets improved by four wins and the Pistons declined by 20. Detroit went the next six years in a row without making the playoffs.

Honorable Mentions

They aren't on anyone's list of dynasties, but there are three other teams I feel I should mention.

In the early 1950s, the New York Knicks led by Harry Gallatin went to three straight NBA Finals. They lost all three, and no team without a title can really be a dynasty, but the only other teams with three consecutive Finals appearances have all been mentioned.

Another early '50s team, the Syracuse Nationals (they became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963), played in three of the first six NBA Finals, winning in 1955. I'm not sure the 1950 and '55 teams are similar enough to constitute a dynasty, though: Dolph Schayes and Paul Seymour were the only players in common (other than Bill Gabor, who played 47 minutes over 3 games in '55 and didn't play at all in the Finals). Schayes was the star of both teams, the most consistent great player of the decade, and Seymour was 2nd-team All-NBA in '54 and '55.

John Stockton and Karl Malone were teammates on the Utah Jazz for 18 years, and they never won a championship. In those 18 seasons, though, the Jazz had a winning record every year, made the playoffs every year, won a playoff series nine times, made it to the Western Conference Finals five times, and lost to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the NBA Finals twice. That's really an impressive record of success — not everyone can be Jordan or LeBron — even if you'd like a little more from a team with two of the greatest players in history. The Jazz went 925-519 (.641) during the Stockton-Malone era, a stunning record to maintain over 18 seasons.

Comments and Conversation

March 26, 2024


what an idiot ranking!
You call shark’s dynasty but ignore it’s a OK team and how dare you call Kobe and gosoll dynasty? And how dare u call lebron dynasty not heat big 3 team? And I don’t know both are 2 championships why Kobe dynasty such lower than heat? How stupid you are

May 7, 2024


This is an excellent analysis. Good job!!

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