The NBA has been around for a long time so naturally there have been a lot of great teams. I wanted to take an opportunity to dive deeper into this debate, rather than just looking at the single best team of all time. It's also too difficult to compare teams from the pre-1970 era with contemporary teams, so we'll focus on modern NBA teams. With those notes in mind, I’ve been doing my research and I finally put together a ranking of the 15 best NBA teams of all time.
The 15 Best NBA Teams of All-Time
Focusing on the modern era from 1970 onward.
Before we get into this list, I want to go over my criteria for ranking these teams. First off, I decided to make 1970 the cutoff for teams to make that list. I know that leaves off some Celtics teams, but it's difficult to compare teams over 50 years apart. I understand that there are some that would definitely make the top 15 from the early eras of the NBA, but they wont be included here for simplicity's sake.
Another thing that I'm not including is repeats. For instance, if I include the 95-96 Bulls, then there really isn't a reason for me to include the 96-97 Bulls. That means only one showtime Lakers team, one 80s Celtics team and one KD-Curry Warriors team will be on here. I think this makes the list more interesting and dynamic.
To judge the strength of these teams, I'm looking at a mix of talent and what they accomplished that year. So you might see a less talented team rank above a more talented one if they beat tougher competition in the playoffs or won more games.
Last but not least, I’m adjusting for the era. Teams from the 70s would stand little chance up against modern teams, but that's not really a fair way to judge them. So when I'm talking about a team's “Talent,” it's relative to the era.
1. 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors
I don't think you can reasonably put any other team here as this is far and away the most talented team of all time. Having 4 all stars (KD, Steph, Dray and Klay) felt like it was something out of a 2k game. You could tell they were coasting in the regular season, and they still won 67 games. Once the playoffs rolled around they started going 100%. They matched the '01 Lakers for the greatest postseason record in league history at 16-1.
Some people will tell you that KD didn't really fit in with what the Warriors were trying to do, but I don’t think that mattered. When you have 2 players who both have a legit argument for best scorer in the NBA, there isn't going to be a team that can stop that. People also forget that this team was one of the best defensive squads in the league. You could argue that another team on this list had a better season or beat better competition in the playoffs, but I'm still taking these Warriors over everyone else.
2. 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls
Before the number 1 team on this list came along, this Bulls team was the unanimous best team of all time. No championship team has won more regular season games than these guys. The Bulls with MJ were always a threat, but this is the year where it all came together. The big 3 of Rodman, Pippen and MJ were at their peak. On top of that, Tony Kukoc had started to come into his own as well, giving them another serious scoring threat. With this stacked roster they were able to manage both the highest rated offense and defense in the league this season. No one could seriously challenge them in the playoffs; they only lost 3 total games. It’s pretty easy to say that this is the most successful team of all time, but because I’m taking into account other factors, they come in at #2 . Still I can't understate their dominance because you don't win 72 games by accident.
3. '72 Los Angeles Lakers
Part of me didn’t want to include a team from 50 years ago in my top 3, but you cant deny a 33 game winning streak. Only 6 teams have broken 20 in a row and none have gotten into the 30s. But even looking past their 69 win season and incredible win streak, this team deserves to be here. They were nothing short of loaded with Gail Goodrich, Jerry West, Wilt chamberlain and Jim McMillan (they also had a 37 year old Elgin Baylor on the tail end of his career). Their playoff competition was extraordinary throughout, particularly when they had to play the Bucks (the 71’ team made this list). Considering that they beat Kareem and Oscar in 6, they deserve a world of credit for what they got done in the regular season. My criteria was accomplishments, talent, and playoff performance, three categories that this team crushes. To me, that makes them worth of a spot this high on the list.
4. '87 Los Angeles Lakers
Showtime. You had to know that the showtime Lakers were going to show up on this list. There were plenty of great Laker teams in the 80s, but the '87 squad stood out as the best to me. Magic Johnson arguably had his best season in '87, winning both MVP and FMVP. With Byron Scott and James Worthy running the offense, they were able to have the number 1 rated offense that season. Now, at this point in his career, Kareem wasn’t really the dominant big that he once was, but even at 39 years old he still contributed 17 a game. I see the talent of this team as pretty crazy overall (3 all stars, the MVP, the assist leader, and 7 guys averaging double digit points a game), so even though this version of the Lakers didn't have a prime Kareem, I don't think it hurt them too much. What helped them majorly was beating the Celtics in 6 in the finals. That Celtics team was one of the best dynasties ever, so defeating them on the biggest stage impresses me a lot.
5. '71 Milwaukee Bucks
As a student at the University of Cincinnati, I might be a little biased towards Oscar Robinson, but that doesn't mean that this Bucks team doesn't deserve to be up here. Kareem was only in his 2nd year in '71, but he still managed to win MVP with ease. To understand how stacked this Bucks team was, you've got to understand that they had the number 1 rated defense, the scoring champion (Kareem) and 4 other players in double figures. I don't know how you handle that and neither did anyone else because they ended up winning 66 games and swept the Bullets in the finals. They gained extra points for only losing 2 playoff games in total and they beat a really strong Lakers team in the semi finals. Because I consider Kareem a top 3 player ever, Oscar a top 20 player ever, and their season one of the more successful on this list, it’s easy for me to put this team in the top 6.
6. '01 Los Angeles Lakers
It doesn't feel right having Shaq and Kobe land this low on the list, alas, this is where I have them landing. The problem with picking a Shaq-KoBe team is that I don't know whether to choose the 2000 team with MVP Shaq and 67 wins or the 2001 team that went 16-1 in the playoffs but only won 56 games in the regular season. I think you've got to respect the playoff run, so I picked them. Outside of Shaq and Kobe, this team had more solid role players than it gets credit for. Derrick Fisher, Rick Fox and Horrace Grant all could play. Add on top of that legendary coach Phil Jackson and this team is more than just the Shaq-Kobe duo. The lack of regular season wins and the lack of strong competition in the playoffs forces me to put them a little lower than I want them to be.
7. '86 Boston Celtics
Speaking of 80s dynasties, the Celtics make their 2nd appearance on this list at #7. This team, which featured 5 players who would go on to make the Hall of Fame, ranks the highest among any of the Larry Bird Celtics teams. Bird was obviously fantastic this year, averaging 26/10/7 and winning MVP. Overall, these guys were a really talented group that played well together and accomplished quite a bit. They have the best home record of any team ever at 40-1, with a total of 67 wins on the season. I felt that they avoided playing anyone super tough in the playoffs, so I’m gonna knock them a little for that, but I don't think that takes away from them too much. You know Larry Bird, you know the 80s Celtics, you know why they made this list.
8. '83 Philadelphia 76ers
When you think of the NBA in the 80s, you probably think of dynasties like the Celtics or Lakers, but this 76ers team was right up there with them. In fact, they would end up sweeping the showtime Lakers when they met in the finals. Now I'm not saying that these 76ers were a dynasty as they’d only end up winning one ring, but they did have Moses Malone and Dr. J—two players with a combined 7 MVPs. Alongside their stars, they had a great supporting cast with Hall of Famer Maurice Cheeks and all-star Andrew Toney. Looking at their roster, it's pretty surprising that they couldn't manage more championships. In 83, though, they really put it all together with a 60-win regular season and an insane 12-1 postseason run. I feel like 8 is a little higher than most people would put them on this list, but with 2 top 25 players of all time and a great playoff run, I think it's deserved.
9. '89 Detroit Pistons
This is the team that Michael Jordan spent years struggling to get past, so you know they were legit. It seems like this team has become a little underrated, but back then they were stacked. Isaiah Thomas led a roster that had 6 players scoring at least 13 points per game, not to mention a prime Dennis Rodman. Many younger fans today might not recognize names like Joe Dumars, Mark Aguirre or Adrian Dantley, but those guys weren't called the Bad Boys for nothing. Outside of the MJ-led Chicago Bulls, no one got a playoff win against these guys, including the Magic Johnson-led Lakers. If the Bulls hadn't gotten their act together in '91, the Pistons could have 3-peated and gone down as one of the dynasties of the early 90s. The drawback that keeps this team a little lower on the list is the lack of star power as there was only 1 top 50 player of all time on this team.
10. '13 Miami Heat
It seems like a disappointment that the big 3 Heat only won 2 titles. Regardless, the 2013 team they put together was probably the best that they got and definitely deserves a spot on this list. What made this squad so strong is that they featured arguably the best version of Lebron. This was the year that he came in 2nd for DPOY and was a single vote away from being a unanimous MVP. With him, Bosh and Wade leading the team, they were able to reach 66 wins and beat a very tough Spurs team in the finals. The couple of knocks on this team are that they didn’t have a ton of depth and that they barely escaped losing in game 6 vs. the Spurs. Wade was also out of his prime at this point, which doesn't help their case. That being said, having one of the best players of all time in his absolute prime is sometimes all that really matters
11. '08 Boston Celtics
Defense wins championships and no team proves that more than the 2008 Celtics. You know how some people have KG as a top 10 player of all time? Well I’m not saying it’s true, but what he was able to do for this Celtics team certainly helps the argument. Not only was he DPOY that season, but he also had a pretty good case for MVP and ended up coming in 3rd. Him—along with Doc Rivers and other strong defensive players—built the best defense in the league. They might not have been the most effective offensively, but with stars like Allen, Rondo and Pierce they could still get a bucket. They had a brutal playoff path where they played two series that went to 7 and two that went 6. They also had to get past Lebron and Kobe, so they definitely gain some points for that in my book. It’s disappointing that this Celtics core could only get 1 ring, but at least for this 2008 season they were something special
12. '91 Chicago Bulls
Winning 3 championships in a row isn't easy, so if you're able to pull it off, it says a lot about the strength of your team. The '91 Bulls were the 1st of the championships in the Bulls first 3-peat. Led by MJ and a Scottie Pippen who had finally come into his own, with Pippen further developing as a player, they were finally able to get past the Bad Boy Pistons and get MJ his first ring. Not only did they get their first title of the MJ era, but they did it with ease. They won 61 games in the regular season and then dropped just 2 postseason games on a dominant run. That level of playoff dominance is rare and deserving of this list without a doubt. Their roster wasn't super strong outside of Pippen and MJ, but they had plenty of guys who knew their role and a hall of fame head coach to make it work.
13. '14 San Antonio Spurs
This is the only team on this list that I think lacked a true superstar. Tim Duncan was at one point, but he was 37 in 2014 and past his prime. Kawhi Leonard, on the other hand, was 22 and not yet in his prime. However, what they lacked in star power ,they made up for in depth and coaching. This team's bench had guys like Danny Green and Patty Mills as their 9th and 10th players. You can't forget Greg Popvich, as there are very few coaches who I think could make a roster like this work. Not only was this team able to win 62 games, but they beat (and broke up) the big 3 Heat in just 5 games. They land a little bit lower on this list because I'm not sure how they would fare going up against the other star studded teams. If all the guys on this team were in their prime, it would certainly take the #1 spot.
14. '16 Cleveland Cavaliers
Here's the weird thing about this Cavs team: they won under 60 games and I just don't remember them being dominant like other teams on here were. They're considered a borderline super-team, but we spent the entire season thinking that the Warriors were the heavy favorites. Regardless, I can’t deny that they had some serious talent and deserve to be on this list. Lebron, Kyrie and Love were a strong big 3 and any team with a GOAT-level player has a good chance to make this list. Beating the 73-win Warriors after being down 3-1 might be the biggest accomplishment any team has ever had. Maybe they weren't the favorites that year, but that's understandable when you're going against a 73 win team. I still have to knock them for being dogs and winning the 2nd least games on this list, but they earned their spot here.
15. '09 Los Angeles Lakers
After spending a large portion of his prime on teams that didn't put enough around him, Kobe finally got a great supporting cast again. The year prior they had acquired Pau Gasol, but failed to beat the Celtics in the finals. Their 2009 campaign went a little bit different. They ended up winning 65 games, and this time when they made the finals, they crushed the Magic. What made this team so strong was that they had—in my opinion—the best version of Kobe. At this point in his career he was insanely good at hitting tough shots and that translated well to the playoffs. So with him stepping up his game and Pau being an extremely underrated high level big, the 2009 Lakers were a very strong team.