“We’re better than the Showtime Lakers”. That was the comment Golden State’s Klay Thompson made after his team routed Cleveland on Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. It was a fun jab at the team his father Mychal played on in 1987-88. And it was a jab with a serious intent behind it—because if the Warriors close out the Cavaliers and win a second straight title the time will come to start establishing their position among the best NBA dynasties.
Leaving aside Golden State for the moment—I’m still going to vainly hold on to my Cavs prediction, although with little hope—this is how I see the landscape of the best NBA dynasties in the modern era. By “modern era” I use 1977 as the starting point, when the ABA merged into the NBA and the league structure as we know it today took shape.
This means no disrespect to the Bill Russell Celtics, clearly the gold standard for all NBA dynasties. It’s just an attempt to narrow the focus a bit and, not coincidentally, keep the discussion centered on the dynasties I watched in person. Here’s the nine best…
The Showtime Lakers: They won five championships in a nine-year period and made the Finals three other times. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were there throughout, meaning these Lakers had two of arguably the five best players in the history of the sport. Mix in Jamaal Wilkes on the early end of the dynasty and James Worthy on the back end, along with Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, defensive ace Michael Cooper. And in an age where repeat NBA championships are the norm, it’s worth remembering that the Laker back-to-back of 1987-88 was the first time anyone had repeated in nineteen years.
Jordan’s Bulls Version I: I’m giving Jordan’s first-edition dynasty of 1991-93 the edge over his sequel from 1996-98 because the first edition had to work so much harder to get the top, fighting uphill against the Bird-era Celtics and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. In an easier conference—like today’s East for example, Jordan might have had a couple more Finals trips under his belt. And MJ was at the peak of his greatness, beating Magic in the 1991 NBA Finals, a deep and talented Portland team in 1992 and then Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in 1993.
Jordan’s Bulls Version II: They were savvier at this point, with some of MJ’s legendary spring in his step fading, but he was still the greatest winner sports has ever seen. Within this 1996-98 run is the dominant 72-win regular season of ’96 that was a record until a couple months ago. It also includes great Finals battles with Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz.
The Bird-Era Celtics: They won three championships from 1981-86 and the 1986 team has a case as the greatest NBA team ever assembled. Bird joined with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the frontcourt, along with Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson in the backcourt. As a starting five, they were better than either of the Jordan Dynasties. What holds them back is the lack of a repeat title and that Johnson was not with the first championship team, nor was McHale.
Duncan’s Spurs: This is the hardest team to rate. On the one hand, they don’t have a back-to-back title in an era where such has become the norm. On the other hand, stringing out five championships from 1999 to 2014 all with Tim Duncan as the centerpiece and Greg Popovich as the coach, is an unreal display of consistency. You could talk me into going higher, based on the length of their run, or lower, based on the fact that none of the teams was really an example of history-making greatness.
The Shaq-Kobe Lakers: If it’s possible for a dynasty to be an underachiever this one is it. The Lakers simply dominated the sport from 2000-02 and the fact the league wasn’t particularly good at this time should have set this edition of the Lakers to be the best ever. Instead, in-fighting between Shaq and Kobe held them back. A terribly disappointing loss to the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who lacked any marquee stars, permanently taints the Shaq-Kobe era.
The Bad Boy Pistons: It’s a close call between them and the LeBron-era Miami Heat, each of whom won back-to-back NBA championships. The Pistons merit the edge on the grounds that they first fought through Bird’s Celtics and then held off Jordan’s Bulls in the East. To say nothing of having to first lose a hotly contested 1988 NBA Finals to the Showtime Lakers before finally dethroning that same dynasty a year later. I could be persuaded in moving the Bad Boys as high as fifth on the list. But any team with Bill Laimbeer on it has to be penalized something.
The Heat Big Three: Four straight NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive titles (2012-13) merit an argument for going higher on the list, especially if you want to give bonus points to Dwayne Wade for his 2006 title run. But the weakness of the Eastern Conference diminishes simply getting to the Finals, and both losses were really bad—blowing one to Dallas in 2011 and being run off the floor by San Antonio in 2014. Miami also was pushed to the brink in 2013 before a Ray Allen three saved them in that series.
Hakeem’s Rockets: They’re a footnote in history, the team that won the 1994 and 1995 NBA titles while Jordan was busy playing minor league baseball. But these Rockets deserve an edge over the Kobe Bryant Sequel in Los Angeles from 2008-09. Hakeem Olajuwon was one of the top 10 players of the modern era—at least. Kenny Smith was as good at point guard as he is on TNT today. In each year they beat the best big man from the East, Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in 1994 and Shaq’s Orlando Magic in 1995. Meanwhile, Kobe’s Lakers caught a break by LeBron’s Cleveland teams—the best in the East—coming up short before the Finals.