Ranking each NBA champion of the past quarter century

By Vincent Frank
Apr 29, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the United Center prior to game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

A dynasty has been born. Following their four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors have won three out of the past four titles and are now back-to-back champions.

It was a downright dominating performance from Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Co. It also got us thinking where these three Warriors championship teams rank in the past quarter century around the NBA.

Certainly, different eras are hard to compare. Were the Detroit Pistons of the early 2000s any worst because that era called for more defense? What about the Rockets squads that earned titles with Michael Jordan playing baseball? It’s an age-old debate.

Meanwhile, where do the multiple championship teams both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers fielded during this span rank? And are any of these three Warriors championship squads better than MJ’s Bulls? We answer these questions and more below.

25. Houston Rockets (1994-95)

We certainly have to downgrade the Rockets’ back-to-back championships given that they came at a time when Michael Jordan was trying that whole baseball thing. This specific year saw Houston win just 47 regular season games, the worst total for a champion in the modern history of the Association. The team outscored its opponents by just two points per game and finished as the sixth seed out west. Led by future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Houston would see its first two playoff matchups go the distance before taking out the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals. And while Houston did sweep Orlando in the Finals, the difference was just seven points per game.

24. Detroit Pistons (2003-04)

Ugly basketball. That has to be what described this era of the NBA. It’s in this that the latest version of the Pistons’ Bad Boys squad took full advantage. Led by defensive wizard Ben Wallace as well as Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, Detroit turned in a 58-win regular season while yielding just 84.3 points per game. For their part, the Pistons averaged just a hair over 90, becoming the lowest-scoring NBA champ in the shot clock era. A 4-1 series win over Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers inched Detroit up a tad on this list. But it still wasn’t great basketball.

23. Miami Heat (2005-06)

Dwyane Wade becomes the toast of South Beach in leading the Heat to their first ever NBA championship. That’s what this season was defined by more than anything else. But the trade for Shaq really put this squad on the map. The two averaged a combined 47.1 points and 15.6 rebounds en route to helping Miami win 52 games. It also finished fourth in scoring and eighth in points allowed. After posting a 12-5 mark in the conference playoffs, Miami took out Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the NBA Finals. It wasn’t a dominating team during an era of the NBA where good basketball was few and far between.

22. Houston Rockets (1993-94)

The first of back-to-back championships without Jordan to get in the way, Houston won 58 regular season games. Though, the team ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring and was in the bottom half of the Association in offensive rating. It was also a year before Clyde Drexler joined the Dream in Houston, which made what Olajuwon did so much more impressive. In the end, Houston would need seven games to take out a pesky New York Knicks squad in a Finals that was defined more by a freeway chase and a white Bronco than the games themselves.

21. San Antonio Spurs (1998-99)

Just two years after tanking for Tim Duncan, the Spurs found themselves at the mountaintop of the NBA world for the first time. Unfortunately, it came in a shortened 50-game season during a labor dispute. Ultimately, San Antonio would finish with a 37-13 record with two monstrous figures in David Robinson and Tim Duncan leading the team in scoring. A 15-2 playoffs record and five-game series win over the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals is what separates this team from those below it in the rankings. Though, it’s hard to rank a champion in a shortened season much higher. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation.

20. Miami Heat (2011-12)

Courtesy of USA Today Sports

LeBron James’ second season in South Beach culminated in the organization’s second ever title. Teaming up with fellow future Hall of Famers Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, Miami won 46 games in yet another season that was shortened due to a labor dispute. That trio averaged a combined 57.2 points, 20.6 rebounds and 12.6 assists en route to dominating Eastern Conference competition. Equally as impressive, Miami took out the Oklahoma City Thunder’s trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the NBA Finals. It was the first of three Finals meetings between Durant and James, the only one in which LeBron has come out on top.

19. Dallas Mavericks (2010-11)

Dirk gets his first and only NBA title. Fresh off winning the league’s regular season MVP award, Nowitzki led Dallas to a surprising Finals win over LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It came in James’ first season in South Beach, one that seemingly had him destined for his first ever title. Instead, Dirk dominated to the tune of 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. The only reason Dallas is downgraded a tad here is due to a 57-win regular season that saw the team finish outside of the top 10 in both points allowed and defensive rating. Even then, it was something to behold.

18. San Antonio Spurs (2006-07)

Having been unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs in the Western Confernece Finals by Dallas following a 63-win 2005-06 campaign, San Antonio finished second in the division behind those very same Mavericks this season. Though, Tim Duncan and Co. had the fortune of missing out on Dallas in the playoffs, instead taking on three lesser squads in the lead up to the Finals with a 12-4 record.

Once in the championship round, Pop’s squad made quick work of a younger LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the tune of a series sweep. That Finals matchup saw San Antonio win by an average of just six points, a clear indication that the series was much closer. This, despite the fact that James had no real supporting cast to speak of. After all, Larry Hughes was the team’s second-leading scorer.

17. Los Angeles Lakers (1999-00)

Here, we start the run of three consecutive Kobe Bryant-led Lakers championship teams. Two different eras. But the same common denominator. The best player in the league at his time. During the turn of the century with the Y2K scare, Kobe was busy leading his Lakers to their first championship since the Showtime squad of the 1980s. Teaming up with Shaq, Kobe would see these Lakers finish the regular season with 67 wins — the highest mark in the NBA since Jordan’s Bulls.

After seeing two of their three Western Conference Playoff series go the distance, the Lakers took out Indiana in the Finals in six games. That series saw Shaq put up one of the best Finals performances ever. He averaged 38.0 points and and a whopping 16.7 rebounds per game. It was certainly needed against a competitive Pacers squad.

16. Los Angeles Lakers (2001-02)

Courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports

This is the season that saw the Lakers officially become Kobe’s squad. Sure Shaq was still around, but Bryant dominated to the tune of 25.2 points per game en route to leading the Lakers to a 58-win regular season. Certainly, that record wasn’t great. But it’s what Los Angeles did in the Finals that set this squad apart. In taking out the then New Jersey Nets in a four-game sweep, the Lakers average margin of victory was north of nine points per game. One could conclude the 1999-2000 Lakers were a better team, but it’s the playoffs that helped this squad make its mark. That’s for sure.

15. Los Angeles Lakers (2009-10)

The last of Kobe’s five titles with the Lakers, this squad won 57 regular season games. Given that it might have been the worst supporting cast for a championship team in the past decade, all the accolades have to go in Bryant’s direction. He made this team, especially following a jaw-dropping seven-game series win over a deeper and more talented Boston Celtics squad in that year’s Finals. While Kobe’s first title nearly a decade before included one of the best to ever play (Shaq), his final championship was the true testament of an all-time great. In this, Kobe’s 2009-10 Lakers certainly deserve recognition in the top 15.

14. San Antonio Spurs (2004-05)

Despite seeing themselves win five championships in a 15-year span, Gregg Popovich and Co. never once repeated. That just goes to show us how hard it is to be back-to-back champs in the NBA. The 2004-05 Spurs might not have been the best team during this run, but they were the most well-rounded. A total of 10 players averaged six-plus points per game with Tim Duncan putting up a workmanlike 20.3 per. It led to 59 regular season wins and an average point differential of nearly eight points. During an era that was much more lower scoring than we see today, San Antonio held Detroit to an average of 86.7 points in a five-game series win in the Finals.

13. Los Angeles Lakers (2008-09)

Having seen Los Angeles move on from the Shaq-Kobe pairing several years before, one had to wonder whether the Lakers’ championship window had closed. It hadn’t. With Kobe relying on a new supporting cast of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher, this 2008-09 squad was almost comparable those Lakers team that three-peated with Kobe and Shaq. Los Angeles won 67 regular season games, averaging nearly 107 points in the process. It would then post a 12-6 record in the Western Conference Playoffs before taking on soon-to-be Laker Dwight Howard and the Magic in the Finals. Los Angeles took that series in five with an average margin of victory of 12.8 points per game.

12. San Antonio Spurs (2013-14)

Courtesy of USA Today Images

The last of San Antonio’s titles during a 16-year dynasty, Gregg Popovich and Co. won 62 regular season games to earn the No. 1 seed out west. The team outscored its opponents by nearly eight points per game, finishing sixth in total offense and total defense in the process. It was really a coming out party for Kawhi Leonard, who became known as one the best defenders in the game. Overall, six members of the Spurs averaged double digits in a balanced effort. Come playoff time, San Antonio held off a feisty Mavericks squad in the first round before taking out Portland and Oklahoma City en route to a second consecutive Finals matchup against the Miami Heat. There, San Antonio defeated LeBron and Co. in five games.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers (2015-16)

This squad wasn’t anything special during the regular season, winning a total of 57 regular season games. Instead, it’s all about what LeBron James and Co. did in the Finals in bringing Cleveland its first championship in north of five decades. Taking on a record-breaking 73-win Warriors squad that had defeated Cleveland in the Finals the year prior, the Cavs used some good luck and a tremendous performance in pulling off one of the greatest upsets in Association history, Down 3-1 in the series, Cleveland won the final three games to unseat the defending champs. In the process, King James averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists to etch his name in stone as one of the game’s greatest.

10. Golden State Warriors (2017-18) 

Unlike the previous three seasons, this year’s version of the Warriors didn’t quite dominate at the same level during the regular year. Having watched the big four miss 80-plus games to injury, Golden State finished with a 58-24 record and as the No. 2 seed out west. But it’s what the Warriors did in the playoffs to go back-to-back that’s so amazing. After taking care of San Antonio and New Orleans in five games to open the playoffs, Golden State found itself down 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals against Houston. It ultimately took the final two games, including Game 7 in Houston, before sweeping Cleveland in the Finals for a third title in four years. Led by Finals MVP Kevin Durant, Golden State won its final six playoff games by an average of 16.3 points per.

9. Boston Celtics (2007-08)

It’s still rather shocking that this talented Celtics squad won just one title with at least three Hall of Famers on the roster. But the 2007-08 version of Doc Rivers’ squad was among the best in the recent history of the game. Boston put up an NBA-best 66-16 regular season mark, finishing 11th in points scored and in the top two in points allowed. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all earned All-Star appearances en route to combining for 54.8 points per game. Once the playoffs got going, this squad was tested big time. It took seven games to defeat Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds. Then, in the NBA Finals, Boston took out the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers in six games. That’s what places Boston in the top nine of this list. Beating Kobe and Co.

8. San Antonio Spurs (2002-03)

The second of San Antonio’s five titles under Gregg Popovich might very well have represented the best team during this run. The Spurs finished the 2002-03 regular season with a 60-22 mark, allowing an absurdly low 90.4 points per game. Each of the team’s four playoff series went six games with a win over the then New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals. That series saw Tim Duncan and Co. hold the Nets to less than 90 points in all six games, including two games under 80 points. It’s this defensive genius from the likes of Bruce Bowen and Tim Duncan that puts the Spurs within the top 10 of these rankings.

7. Chicago Bulls (1997-98)

The final year of Chicago’s championship run under Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan saw the team post a pedestrian (by their standards) 62-20 regular season mark. The team also averaged less than 97 points per game, ranking it just ninth in the Association. As we saw with this year’s Warriors, complacency took hold during the regular season. Despite that, Chicago was as dominant as ever in the playoffs. At least, up until a seven-game cage match against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In Chicago’s first two rounds, it boasted a 7-1 record with an average margin of victory of 10 points per game. Then in the conference finals, Jordan averaged 31.7 points per game before breaking the collective hearts of the Jazz with an average of 33.5 points in the Finals.

6. Miami Heat (2012-13)

The second-to-final year of LeBron James’ run in South Beach culminated in Miami taking out the San Antonio Spurs in an epic seven-game NBA Finals series. That’s not the largest takeaway here. Miami was simply dominant in its run to the Finals as well as the 82-game regular season. It ranked fifth in both points scored and points allowed en route to posting a 66-16 record. LeBron and Dwyane Wade averaged a combined 48.0 points, 13.0 rebounds and 12.4 assists per game. Miami is slotted down a notch here because it did take seven games to dispose of both the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Confernece Finals and the above-mentioned Spurs in the championship round.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (2000-01)

This year’s version of the Lakers’ dynasty is held back some in comparison to teams ahead of them simply because Kobe Bryant and Co. cruised through the regular season. In posting a 56-26 record, there wasn’t much intensity or drama during the regular year. Even then, the Lakers turned it up big time in the playoffs. Led by two players in Bryant and Shaq who averaged north of 28 points per game, Los Angeles boasted a 15-1 playoff record. In doing so, Los Angeles’ average margin of victory in the second season stood at 13.4 points per game. That’s on par with the Bulls and Warriors’ dynasties.

4. Golden State Warriors (2014-15)

The first year of Golden State’s dynasty started out with a bang. The Warriors won 21 of their first 23 games under Kerr. This included a 16-game winning streak. From that point on, it was obvious that the Warriors were different under Kerr than former head coach Mark  Jackson. Golden State would ultimately finish the regular season with a 67-15 record. Eventual MVP Stephen Curry broke his own single-season record in made three-pointers, while splash brother partner Klay Thompson put up a career season. En route to their first title since 1975, Golden State ran roughshod through postseason competition with a 16-5 mark. That’s good enough for a No. 4 placement on this list.

3. Chicago Bulls (1996-97)

Chicago might not have been as dominant the year after it won a then league record 72 games, but 69 victories is nothing to ignore. Led by Michael Jordan and a brilliant supporting cast, these Bulls ranked first in points scored and sixth in points allowed during the regular season. They outscored their opponents by an average of nearly 11 points per game with Jordan and Scottie Pippen averaging a combined 49.8 points per outing. Chicago would ultimately post a 15-4 postseason record en route to its second consecutive title.

2. Golden State Warriors (2016-17)

Mere weeks after losing to Cleveland in the Finals following a league-record 73-win campaign, Golden State went out there and signed Kevin Durant in free agency. As unpopular of a move that this might have been for fans, it set into motion the NBA’s next great dynasty. The Warriors would go on to finish the 2016-17 regular season with a 67-15 record. They outscored opponents by an average of 11.3 points per game and won 15 of their final 16 games.

If that weren’t enough, Durant and Co. ran roughshod through the Western Conference Playoffs. They won all 12 games, sweeping three series in the process. The average margin of victory being 16.3 points per game. Golden State would then take out Cleveland in the NBA Finals in five games, winning by an average of nearly 14 points per. Yeah, this was among the most dominating teams in professional sports history.

1. Chicago Bulls (1995-96)

Michael Jordan Bulls

There’s only been a couple squads that have come close to matching what these Jordan-led Bulls did over two decades ago. It really was something to behold. Not only did Chicago win what was then an NBA record 72 regular season games, it posted a 15-3 playoff record with an average margin of victory of 15 points per game. Only the 2016-17 Warriors were better.

Having led the NBA in points and ranking third in points allowed, the domination for these Bulls was apparent from the outset. It’s going to take a regular season like Golden State had in 2015-16 and a playoffs performance equal to the 2016-17 Warriors for anyone to come close to matching this squad.