OK, I’ve ranked the 10 worst NBA franchises ever (as of 2013), so now it’s time to look at the best of the best. The formula is pretty simple. I’ve ranked all 30 NBA franchises according to a series of categories, each of which is assigned a point value. I then divided the total point value by the number of years each team has been in existence and ordered by that.
If you want to check out my other pro sports rankings — and I know you do — you can find them on this handy page.
The categories and point values are as follows:
- 30 points for a league championship, and 15 points for a Finals loss.
- 2 points for a playoff berth.
- 5 points for each playoff round win (does not include a win in the Finals).
- 4 points for a division title (starting in 1970-71).
- 1 point for a winning season, -1 point for a losing season.
- 3 points for a regular-season winning percentage better than .730 (60 wins with the current schedule), -3 points for a regular-season winning percentage worse than .270 (20 wins with the current schedule).
- Consecutive winning regular seasons are worth 2 points starting with the second, 3 points for the third, 4 points for the fourth, and so on. The counter is reset after any non-winning season. So if a team has three winning seasons in a row, they get a total of 5 points.
While I may tweak the formula in future years, I think this accomplishes my two most important objectives — to reward consistently good play in the regular season, and to not give older franchises too much of an advantage just by virtue of being around for so many years. I’ve always felt that using NBA titles alone to measure a franchise’s greatness (or badness) is taking too narrow a view.
One final note — as with the NBA, these rankings to not reflect records for teams while in the ABA or NBL.
That’s about it! Let’s get to the rankings, good through the end of the 2012-13 season.
#1. Los Angeles Lakers (31.45 avg.)
I’m certainly willing to listen to arguments that the Celtics are a better franchise than the Lakers, but the math of my rankings says otherwise. Let’s look at some of those numbers:
- 16 NBA championships (2nd most ever)
- 31 conference titles (most ever)
- 60 playoff berths in 65 seasons (2nd most ever)
- 92 playoff series wins (31 more than the Celtics)
- 23 division titles (most ever)
- 53 winning seasons (most ever)
- 3 losing seasons since 1976-1977
#2. Boston Celtics (25.40 avg.)
If you were surprised that L.A. took the top spot on this list, then you shouldn’t be surprised to find the Celtics here. Until the team hit an uncharacteristic rough patch through most of the 1990s, they were the paragon of a great NBA franchise.
But even with that dry spell, Boston’s 17 NBA championships and 21 conference titles are a mightily impressive feat. The only question now is whether the rejuvenated C’s can maintain their lofty average in the post-Garnett/Pierce era.
#3. San Antonio Spurs (20.76 avg.)
San Antonio’s impressive point average would probably look even better if I counted their accomplishments from the ABA. As it is, they’ve been the NBA’s most consistent (and arguably best) team over the last 15 years.
The Spurs were already very good with David Robinson at center, but they finally took things to the next level after drafting future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in 1997. Since then San Antonio has captured four NBA Finals victories, second only to the Lakers. They’ve also racked up five of their six 60-plus win regular seasons, and have not had consecutive losing seasons since the late ’80s. They may not be glamorous, but they’re indisputably great.
#4. Miami Heat (14.82 avg.)
By far the youngest franchise in the top 10, there’s no telling what the Heat and LeBron James could accomplish in years to come. Three straight NBA Finals appearances and two titles sure seem like the makings of a dynasty to me, but of course that’s why they play the games.
#5. Chicago Bulls (13.53 avg.)
It honestly seems like just yesterday that the Bulls were so dominant that it bordered on absurd. But in truth the last Chicago title came in 1998, and the closest the franchise has come to reclaiming glory was a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011.
I should point out that although the Bulls have six titles to their name, they also put some pretty bad teams on the court as well. They had six straight losing seasons after Michael Jordan left for good, including four consecutive years with a sub-.300 winning percentage. But they have turned in two dominant regular seasons in a row, so I expect they could hold onto the #5 spot for at least a few more years.
#6. Utah Jazz (11.95 avg.)
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Jazz are the greatest team to never win the NBA Finals, especially since they’re the highest-ranked team (by a healthy margin) with that distinction.
Under head coaches Frank Layden, Jerry Sloan, and now Tyrone Corbin, Utah has been insanely consistent since the early 1980s. Since 1983-84 they’ve had just two losing seasons, have qualified for the playoffs in every year but five, and won the Western Conference twice. The team hasn’t been what I’d consider excellent in about six years, but they haven’t been bad either.
#7. Philadelphia 76ers (11.17 avg.)
The former Syracuse Nationals haven’t won the NBA Finals since the days of Dr. J, and haven’t been consistently good since Allen “Practice?” Iverson was at his peak. So how are they the seventh highest-ranked franchise ever?
Well, the team has had two distinct periods of excellence. The Nationals of the early ’50s won the NBA Finals once and appeared in it two other times, while the Sixers of the mid-to-late ’70s acquired Julius Erving and made several deep playoff runs, culminating in four Finals appearances and a title in 1983.
The last great 76ers squad took the court in 2000-01, won 56 games, and made it to the Finals before getting pasted by the Lakers in five games.
#8. New York Knicks (9.22 avg.)
Little did Knick fans realize how good they had it in the ’90s, even as the team lost two NBA Finals and was continually stymied by the Bulls in the playoffs. In retrospect, that was the most successful period in franchise history since the early 1970s, when the team won their only two titles to date.
The Knicks appear to be waking up from a decade of incompetence, however, and last season won their first playoff series since 1999-2000.
#9. Portland Trail Blazers (8.88 avg.)
Aside from a mini-resurgence about five years ago, Portland hasn’t been a team of much consequence in the NBA since the new century began. What keeps them afloat in the top 10 is a roughly 25-year run of good to excellent play starting in 1976-77, the year they won their lone NBA championship.
During that run the Blazers suffered just three losing seasons and missed the playoffs once (1981-82). They also returned to the Finals twice, losing to the Pistons in 1990 and the Bulls in 1992.
#10. Oklahoma City Thunder (8.65 avg.)
I may hate their logo, but when you’re good you’re good. And more often than not the Thunder/Sonics are good. While the franchise is currently in the midst of their best run in more than a decade, their golden age was undoubtedly in the 1990s. That’s when the Seattle SuperSonics posted seven straight winning seasons and were mainstays in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Mediocre 5
#11. Detroit Pistons (8.65 avg.)
Note: The Thunder’s average of 8.652 gives them the edge over the Pistons at 8.646.
#12. Dallas Mavericks (8.44 avg.)
#13. Houston Rockets (8.14 avg.)
#14. Milwaukee Bucks (8.12 avg.)
#15. Phoenix Suns (7.98 avg.)