NBA Greatest Teams
Who is the greatest team of all time? A better question might be is this even something that can be answered. Instead of doing a traditional top 10 countdown, I’ve decided to compile a list of what I believe to the top 16 teams in the history of basketball, and then match them up in a playoff style bracket. Yes, the teams are ranked. But rankings and seeds have no bearing on whether or not I believe who will win that individual matchup and progress. The only rule I had with this was multiple teams from a single stretch were not eligible. So for example, the 96 and 97 Bulls’ teams were not eligible as single entries, but the 91 and 96 teams were (as they were both completely different squads. Same as the 2001 and 2010 Lakers). If a team did win multiple championships, however, that sustained success will be taken into account. So the 2012 Miami Heat will also have reference to the 2013 team as well. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Let’s have a look at the teams though, and why they made the top 16.
- 1996 Chicago Bulls
72-10 in the regular season and 15-3 in the playoffs. Went through Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway of the Miami Heat (who would go on to win 60 games the next season), Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the second round, Shaq and Penny (a 60 win team) Orlando Magic team, and then Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp Seattle team in the finals (64 wins). Jordan was MVP of the regular season. He and Pippen were all NBA first team selections. Jordan/ Pippen/ Rodman were all defensive 1st team selections. Jordan led the league in scoring. Rodman led the league in rebounding. Kukoc was 6th man of the year. Phil Jackson was coach of the year. The next season, they won 69 games and it felt like they underachieved. The season after, they capped a three-peat. No team has come close to the dominance over a 3 year period that this squad enjoyed.
- 2001 Los Angeles Lakers
After a 67 win season in 2000, and maybe the shakiest championship runs we’ve seen in the last 30 years, the Lakers absolutely steam rolled the league in the 2001 playoffs. Balance and defence was the key. The Lakers traded under-utilised small forward, Glen Rice, for veteran power forward, Horace Grant. They then promoted Rick Fox to the starting lineup, and boasted Shaq, Grant, Fox, Bryant, and Fisher. There wasn’t one weak defender on that team, and they could all (well, except for Shaq, but he was unstoppable in the paint anyway) shoot. They also had Horry and Shaw coming off the bench for critical minutes when they needed to. In the playoffs, they swept Portland (conference finalists the year before, and the team that pushed them to 7 games), Sacramento (conference finalists the year after, and would push the Lakers to 7 games), and San Antonio (world champions from 1999, and a genuine chip on their shoulder after not being able to defend their championship after Tim Duncan missed the playoffs during the Lakers emergence). It would take Allen Iverson’s greatest game to finally end the Laker run, but after that, they took 4 straight (including 3 in Philly) to claim their championship and the best run in NBA playoff history.
- 1965 Boston Celtics
This was the midst of the greatest dynasty in team sports history. The Celtics, led by Bill Russell of course, won 11 out of 13 NBA championships (and 8 in a row). Mark my words, no team will EVER even approach that record. The closest we have had has been three-peats, which means no team has even come half way of 8 straight (although I guess you could argue that if Jordan never retired from basketball in 93 and they had won in those two season, plus combined the three-peats, that’s 8. But that’s a massive what if)
- 1986 Boston Celtics
Best passing team in the history of basketball, and it’s not even close. Bird was at his absolute best, and maybe at the best anybody has been at. Complimented by McHale in the post, Parish and Walton inside, and Dennis Johnson/ Danny Ainge on the perimeter. This team had an incredible amount of weapons on the offensive end. Maybe a bit light on the perimeter defensively (Jordan in his second year, despite missing 60+ games with a broken foot, dropped 63 on them in the Garden in the playoffs), but they overcame that.
- 1985 Los Angeles Lakers
Might be a bit of a surprise that I selected the 85 squad over the 87 team that everyone remembers fondly. The reason is Kareem was still an absolute force (Finals MVP) in 85. In 87, he was a shell of himself. Everyone else remained the same. Magic, Worthy, Cooper, Scott, Green. Such a well-conditioned team that had no weaknesses and a variety of ways to beat you.
- 1991 Chicago Bulls
Despite 67 wins in 1992, it came down to the 91 or 93 team for this three-peat. In 92, the Bulls were unexpectedly taken to 7 games by the Knicks in the second round, 6 games by the well-disciplined but lacking in talent (relatively speaking) Cavaliers, and were very hit or miss in the finals against the Blazers. In 93, they swept both the Cavs and the Hawks, went down 2-0 to the Knicks, won 4 straight, and then ripped the hearts out of Phoenix by winning the first 2 games on the Suns’ home floor. But it was the 91 team that was the most impressive. 61 regular season wins, before going 15-2 (the Bulls best mark, and at the time, second best playoff run ever). They went through Ewing and the Knicks, Barkley and the 76ers, Isiah and the Pistons, and Magic and the Lakers. Jordan was unstoppable and complete, Pippen was rounding into one of the best two-way players in the game, Horace Grant was fantastic in his role of rebounding and defending, and Paxson provided great leadership. This was a great team.
- 72 Los Angeles Lakers
Led by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, the Lakers finally broke through and won their first championship in Los Angeles after decades of disappointment. They didn’t just win, though, they were dominant. They set the record for most consecutive wins (33, a mark which still stands to this day) and wins in a season (69, which the Bulls broke in 96 and tied in 97, but no other team has matched).
- 89 Detroit Pistons
This was the toughest team to rank. In my opinion, they were the most complete defensive team that I’ve ever seen. Laimbeer, Rodman, Salley, Mark Aguire, Joe Dumars, and Isiah Thomas were all exceptional defenders for their position. Their coach, Chuck Daley, moulded them into championship contenders, and Isiah took them to a level no one could have predicted. He’s the only guy in the history of the game that can say that he’s beaten Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan in playoff series. And he would’ve done it all in one season (88) had it not been for one of the softest calls in NBA history (LINK THIS KAREEM********). Take that away, and the crazy, one-in-a-million Larry Bird steal in the 87 playoffs, and the Pistons would have been staring down the barrel of a 4-peat.
- 2005 San Antonio Spurs
Picking which Spurs team to use was brutal. The 99 team went 15-2 in the playoffs, and was led by Duncan obviously, but David Robinson was brilliant along with Sean Elliot, Mario Ellie, and Avery Johnson. The 2003 team was when Duncan was at his best, but the supporting cast was shaky. 2007, Parker was great, but to be honest, they lucked their way into that championship with a cheap shot from Horry that was rewarded by the NBA with Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion getting suspended for committing the ultimate sin and getting off the bench to defend their teammate. 2014 was a close consideration, but Duncan wasn’t anywhere near his peak. I went with 2005 because they had incredible balance (Duncan was great, Manu played his role off the bench brilliantly, as did Horry, Parker was under control, and Popp was beginning to shine as a coach). They shut down the record-setting Suns offence, and put up huge points on the vaunted Pistons defence. That’s impressive.
- 95 Houston Rockets
No team has ever had a tougher run to the championship than the 95 Rockets. After winning in 94 in fairly unimpressive fashion, Houston struggled to get any momentum all season long. They traded their second best player, Otis Thorpe, for Clyde Drexler, which finally got them going. Their new rotation was Olajuwon, Horry, Ellie, Drexler, Kenny Smith/ Sam Cassell. The Rockets were able to work their way into the 6th seed, come from 2-1 down against 60 win Utah to win (including the deciding game on the road), overcome a 3-1 deficit against the 59 win Suns (once again, winning the decisive game on the road), then dominate the Spurs (another 60 win team) and league MVP David Robinson, before sweeping the Magic led by Shaq and Penny. The run this team went on was the closest thing we’ve gotten to a Cinderella story from college basketball in the NBA.
- 83 Philadelphia 76ers
Fo, Five, Fo. 12-1 in the playoffs after winning 65 games in the regular season is no joke. The compliment of two of the top 15 NBA players of all time (Dr. J and Moses Malone) is what elevates this team. They also had Andrew Toney (20 ppg) and Maurice Cheeks (who retired 2nd all-time in assists behind only Magic Johnson). A scary proposition for any team in NBA history to go up against.
- 2010 Lakers
Kobe was better in 09 against the Magic, but Pau Gasol’s emergence, along with the addition of Ron Artest is why this team was selected. Kobe was dominant, Fisher made huge plays, Pau completely tore up Kevin Garnett in the NBA finals, and Andrew Bynum protected the rim and was a presence to deal with.
- 67 Philadelphia 76ers
68 wins and an NBA championship by itself worthy of serious consideration for this list. But to end the Celtics run of 8 straight championships instantly elevates this team. Wilt was the focal point of the offense, but not in terms of scoring. He averaged 24 ppg, but was third in the league in assists with nearly 8 a game. The balanced attack involved his Philly teammates and they tore the league apart.
- 08 Celtics
67 wins, but very nearly fell in the first two rounds of the playoffs. During the regular season, the Celtics big 3 of Pierce/ Garnett/ Allen looked like they had played their entire careers together. How good were they? Well Tony Allen, the premier wing defender the last 5 years in the NBA, barely broke into the rotation. And Rajon Rondo was often replaced by Sam Cassell in 4th quarters. But in the playoffs, Allen disappeared the first two rounds, and Pierce had to carry the offensive load. Had they not been so horrific in that playoff run (16-10, by far the worst of any team to make the list), they would have been challenging for a top 10 spot.
- 2012 Miami Heat
Similarly to the 08 Celtics, the 2013 Heat missed the cut because of a shocking playoff run. In 2012, they weren’t that much better, but they did win a huge game 6 in Boston when trailing the series 3-2 and went on to the NBA finals, where they (and most notably, LeBron) redeemed themselves for a mind-blowingly bad performance the year before against the Mavericks. This time, it was Miami’s turn to dominate as they crushed the talented Thunder, winning 4 straight games after dropping the first to take the series 4-1.
- 2004 Detroit Pistons
One of the very best defensive teams in NBA history, but lacking in offensive firepower. Billups, Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace were all able to score, but Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince were severely limited. They won some insane defensive wars in the playoffs against New Jersey and Indiana, and then decked an undermanned and imploding Lakers team, but they are too one dimensional to be ranked any higher.