The Greatest Dynasties in NBA History

In celebration of their new sponsorship deal with the NBA, Mondelez International, makers of delicious junk food, decided to launch a line of Oreo cookies celebrating the NBA’s great dynasties.

Featured on the cookies will be the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls, the Golden State Warriors, and…the Miami Heat.

Excuse me, what? A Miami team that won just two titles in four years while being broadly regarded as responsible for the only two of LeBron James‘ six Finals losses that could be legitimately said to tarnish the legacy of a guy who otherwise has a claim to the throne of Greatest of All Time?

Yes. That Miami team. Mostly, one presumes, because any promotion involving the NBA that wants to make any money at all must, by its very nature, have LeBron in there somewhere, and nobody, not even the bakers of Oreo cookies, seriously believed that anyone would buy Cleveland Cavaliers cookies no matter how off-the-charts awesome that 2016 title was for the city and for LeBron’s legacy.

But this also invites other questions—and not just the obvious one that fans of the San Antonio Spurs no doubt raised when they saw their team snubbed in favor of the Heatles.

Namely, what exactly makes a great dynasty, and what kind of metrics must we measure those great dynasties by in order to determine which have a claim on the notion of “the greatest dynasties in NBA history”?

It’s like trying to pick the best Roman emperor. Sure, just about everyone believes that the reign of Augustus, in addition to being the longest reign of any emperor in the history of that most august (see what I did there) empire at 41 years, was every bit worthy of the man’s place in world history.

But who’s second? Trajan, who extended the empire to its greatest territorial extent in 117 AD? Diocletian, whose reforms ended the Crisis of the Third Century and saved the empire from potential extinction in 284? Constantine, if you’re Christian?

It depends on how you’re defining a “great Roman emperor.”

So it goes with the NBA. So let’s use the occasion of the commemorative cookie to rank the top 5 dynasties in NBA history, examine why they are what they are, and do absolutely nothing to stem the tide of arguing over it that will no doubt continue until the end of time as long as there are basketball fans and social media or bars or barbershops.

No. 1: Boston Celtics (1957-69)

Bill Russell is the NBA’s Emperor Augustus. Before 1957, the NBA was a minor sport played primarily by white players at a level of play that was debatably not all that much better than college basketball, the same way the proto-NFL of the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t that much of an evolution beyond college football.

Russell found the NBA a city of brick and left it a city of marble, winning 11 titles in 13 years with a more diverse (by the standards of the day) team than had ever been put on the floor in professional basketball before. K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, the brief playing career of future Hall of Fame coach John Thompson…while Boston didn’t have the only black players in the NBA in the 1960s, they did have four of the best black players of the era, all of whom are now in the Hall either as players or as contributors to the game.

The league he left behind, from the chaotic ’70s to the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird teams in the ’80s to Michael Jordan‘s reign in the ’90s to Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and eventually the biggest stars of the legendary draft class of 2003, was all built on the biggest sustained run of dominance the sport has ever seen before or will ever see again.

No. 2: Chicago Bulls (1991-98)

Ask yourself this one what-if question. What if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired in 1993?

Now ask yourself if one result of that non-retirement might very well have been the Bulls winning the two titles that instead went to Hakeem Olajuwon, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, and the rest of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.

After all, substitute Jordan’s 17.2 Win Shares and 10.2 VORP for Pete Myers‘ 3.0 WS and minus-0.1 VORP as Jordan’s replacement as the starting shooting guard a year later and a Bulls team that went 55-27 might very well instead have looked more like the 67-win Bulls team that won their second title in 1992.

That ’92 Bulls squad went 15-2 in the playoffs. A ’94 Bulls team could very well have launched itself to similar playoff success.

And the groundwork Jordan laid during his comeback in ’95 that led to the 72-10 season a year later? Most of the pieces were already there, and had Jordan been in basketball shape from the beginning, a fifth straight on the way to eight straight rings might very well have been in the cards.

Even without that what-if, Jordan still holds the record for most rings earned for a single franchise by a guy who wasn’t Bill Russell or never had Russell as a teammate.

Magic Johnson got five with the Lakers; so did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So, later in the franchise’s history, did Kobe Bryant.

Jordan and Scottie Pippen, with whom he shares that aforementioned record, got six.

That’s good enough for second place.

No. 3: LeBron James, One-Man Dynasty (2003-present)

LeBron’s legacy is tarnished and enhanced in equal measure by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

On the one hand, going 1-4 in the Finals for a franchise isn’t going to define anyone as a champion; Jerry West went 1-8 with the Lakers and didn’t get his ring until after Russell retired and the 1972 Lakers finally got him that chip.

On the other hand, the 1 is a pretty big deal, as it’s the only championship in any sport the city of Cleveland has celebrated since 1964. And for a cursed city, the Indians helped ensure that not even LeBron could lift it completely when the baseball team choked away a 3-1 lead against the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series, a bookend of sorts around a summer-long civic renaissance for the old Mistake by the Lake.

Plus, the 2007 and 2018 Cavaliers are widely regarded as two of the worst teams ever to make the NBA Finals, the ’07 squad in particular being regarded as especially putrid, but LeBron dragged them all the way through the Eastern Conference playoffs and smack dab into the face of first Tim Duncan in 2007 and then the Kevin Durant-enhanced Warriors in 2018.

Couple that with Kevin Love‘s injury in 2015 and you see that it’s a miracle the Cavs didn’t go 0-5 and testament to LeBron’s ability to go full “Magic Johnson in Game 6 in 1980” for not just Game 5 of the 2016 Finals but on some level Games 6 and 7 as well.

As mentioned, of LeBron’s six Finals losses, the only ones you can squarely pin at the feet of “he should have been able to do a lot more” were 2011 and 2014.

Throw in the 2020 Lakers title giving him four rings in 10 Finals appearances overall, throw in the fact that for eight consecutive years LeBron was playing basketball in mid-June, and throw in the fact that other than Kareem, nobody else who was never on the Celtics has ever played in 10 Finals (and LeBron might not be done; the Lakers are very much contenders in 2021 as well) and you have to regard his knight-errant’s journey to championship caliber year in and year out over an 18-year-and-counting career as rivaled only by the likes of Tom Brady in football and perhaps Horry in a strange way in the NBA.

No. 4: San Antonio Spurs (1999-2016)

The Spurs won five titles during the career of Tim Duncan, first as part of a Twin Towers frontcourt regime with David Robinson and eventually as a completely different kind of team with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard 15 years later, making stops in between to win titles in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

If things hadn’t gone just exactly the wrong way against Miami in 2013, the Spurs might have matched the Bulls and Duncan might have matched Jordan and Pippen with six rings with the same franchise that wasn’t the Celtics.

In the midst of all this, San Antonio put up the greatest defensive season relative to league average in NBA history in 2004, defended so effectively that even as the pace-and-space era crept in and ultimately rendered Gregg Popovich’s style of basketball obsolete and the old coach looking like a dinosaur today, the Spurs were still able to consistently dominate behind that defensive identity all the way to 2014.

For 18 seasons, the Spurs were great. For 21, they were relevant and always to be taken seriously.

And while they weren’t the Celtics of the ’60s or the football New England Patriots of the dawn and early morning of the 21st century, the Spurs still had one of the longest sustained runs of contendership and single-digit championship odds-to-1 the league has ever seen.

No. 5: Los Angeles Lakers (1980-1991)

Magic Johnson retired with five rings and four additional Finals appearances that ended in defeat.

And while 5-4 seems almost pedestrian, the four losses were to the Julius Erving and Moses Malone 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, the Larry Bird Celtics, the Isiah Thomas “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, and the Michael Jordan Bulls. Nine out of 12 years, one team represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. The legacy of countless 1980s legends was tarnished by having to run into Magic and company every year—just ask the Dallas Mavericks of the mid-80s or the Phoenix Suns, who were eliminated five times by Magic Johnson during his career.

The guy beat legends. When he lost, he lost to legends. The fast-paced Showtime style of play remains the gold standard by which all fastbreak-oriented offenses are judged to this day, 30 years after Jordan gave Magic his last true hurrah on the floor before the human immunodeficiency virus took its shot at ruining NBA history.

Some still argue that—Kobe be damned—Magic is the greatest Laker who ever donned the purple-and-gold. He revolutionized not only the idea of a ballhandler as a 6’9” point guard, a legacy we see in action whenever LeBron shows five-position versatility in any offense today, but the way the sport was played.

He was a transformative figure and his team won five titles and four additional conference finals.

And while he’s not the one-man machine that LeBron has been over the years—James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and the rest of the great teammates Magic had over the year saw to that—his team deserves mention among the all-time greats.

But seriously, Oreo. Just put LeBron’s face on one of those cookies of yours rather than trying to be cute about it and shoehorning the Miami Heat’s logo in there.