The NBA has crowned 20 champions since the start of the new millennium. All of these champions were great teams, but they excelled in varying ways and to differing degrees.
So which title-winning squad ranks as the best of the best? Let’s evaluate the last 20 champions based on the strength of their roster as well as their regular season and playoff performances to decide which squads rank in the top 10 championship teams since 2000. Keep in mind that many of these teams are very close in quality and the decisions were not easy.
1. Golden State Warriors 2016-17
- Regular season stats: 67-15, +11.6 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-1, +13.5 point differential.
- Key players: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, David West.
This was the only selection on the list that was obvious to me. Golden State plowed through the NBA in its first regular season and playoff run after adding Durant to the roster. That free-agency signing is still one of the most shocking moves in NBA history given that Golden State had won an NBA-record 73 games during the previous regular season without him.
Curry and Durant were undoubtedly two of the top five players in the NBA during this season, and when you add two All-Stars in Thompson and Green and an elite role player in Iguodala, this team just isn’t fair.
2. Miami Heat 2012-13
- Regular season stats: 66-16, +7.9 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-7, +6.4 point differential.
- Key players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen.
The “Heatles” won back-to-back titles in the summers of 2012 and 2013, but the second squad was clearly better. Miami increased its regular season winning percentage by a significant margin and was ever-so-slightly more dominant in the postseason. Plus, it is always harder for a team to repeat than it is to win its first one.
In 2012-13, LeBron was at his absolute peak. This was the season he won MVP and also placed second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Sharpshooting veteran Ray Allen was on this squad, but not the 2012 team. Bosh had also increased his offensive efficiency significantly since the previous year.
3. Los Angeles Lakers 2000-01
- Regular season stats: 56-26, +5.4 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 15-1, +12.8 point differential.
- Key players: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Horace Grant.
The 2000-01 Lakers had the worst regular season record and point differential of the 10 teams on this list but their playoff run was simply spectacular.
Led by O’Neal and Bryant, Los Angeles absolutely decimated its Western Conference foes. The Lakers won series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs without dropping a single game. Those three squads won 50, 55 and 58 games, respectively, in a very tough Western Conference that year.
After feuding throughout the regular season, the Lakers’ two superstars were downright unstoppable in the playoffs. O’Neal averaged 30.4 points per game, and Bryant was just behind him at 29.4. Keep in mind, they accomplished those numbers in a much lower-scoring era of the NBA compared to today.
Derek Fisher gave the team a huge postseason lift at the point guard spot after missing much of the regular season and Rick Fox, Horace Grant and Robert Horry also chipped in.
4. San Antonio Spurs 2013-14
- Regular season stats: 62-20, +7.8 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-7, +9.3 point differential.
- Key players: Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli.
For the rest of the teams on this list, I’m being consistent with who I’m including in the “key players” section. If a player was in the top five for his squad in either regular season or playoff win shares, he earns a spot.
That is just not feasible for the Spurs. Although lacking a true superstar due to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili being past their prime and Leonard being before his, San Antonio’s 2013-14 squad was arguably the deepest team in NBA history. The Spurs’ entire nine-man rotation played key roles for the team at various points in the regular season and postseason.
The Spurs had a bunch of trouble in their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, winning in seven games, but the rest of the playoffs was a beautiful display of fundamental, team basketball from the legendary squad.
5. Golden State Warriors 2014-15
- Regular season stats: 67-15, +10.1 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-5, +7.8 point differential.
- Key players: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut.
This was the first Warriors championship team of the Curry era, and Golden State was definitely somewhat of an underdog heading into the season. However, rookie head coach Steve Kerr did a fantastic job maximizing the potential of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green while getting the role players to do what they needed to do.
Golden State was consistently the best team in the NBA all season long. In the playoffs, the Warriors did get a bit lucky by facing injury-laden opponents. They showed their inexperience at times by getting rattled and playing below their regular season level. Even still, this is an all-time great squad.
6. Golden State Warriors 2017-18
- Regular season stats: 58-24, +6.0 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-5, +10.0 point differential.
- Key players: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David West.
The Warriors may have had a higher ceiling as a team in 2018 than 2017. Having an extra year to work together as a team with all four star players still in their primes could have resulted in a gaudy record.
However, the five key players listed above missed a combined 93 games due to injury or rest. Even when the team was mostly healthy during the regular season, it failed to play with the necessary urgency to dominate its opponents consistently.
The Warriors “flipped a switch” in the playoffs, despite minor injuries to Curry and Iguodala, and finally looked closer to the team that went 16-1 in the playoffs a year earlier.
7. Boston Celtics 2007-08
- Regular season stats: 66-16, +10.2 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-10, +5.4 point differential.
- Key players: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, James Posey, Kendrick Perkins.
The 2007 Boston Celtics offseason will go down in history as one of the greatest summers a team has ever had. A 24-win team in 2006-07, Boston reversed its fortunes in one season by making trades for Garnett and Allen, two Hall of Fame players at the tail end of their primes.
Garnett and Allen worked well with Pierce to form an amazing Big Three that ran roughshod over the league from the get-go. At one point, the Celtics had a 29-3 record with a plus-13 average point differential.
The Celtics lose a few spots in this ranking for having a surprisingly rough go of it in the postseason. They needed seven games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, teams that had won 38 and 44 games in the regular season, respectively.
8. Los Angeles Lakers 2008-09
- Regular season stats: 65-17, +7.6 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-7, +7.2 point differential.
- Key players: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza.
A big part of Kobe’s legacy is his ability to win two more championships in 2009 and 2010 as the team’s top player. He could still win big without Shaquille O’Neal there to dominate inside the paint. The 2008-09 Kobe was still in the heart of his prime and he was a bit better than he was the following year.
This squad was much more than Kobe. Gasol was an All-NBA big man, Odom did a little bit of everything and Fisher and Ariza provided defense, shooting and toughness. Andrew Bynum faced some injuries, but the young center was a big help when he was healthy.
9. San Antonio Spurs 2004-05
- Regular season stats: 59-23, +7.8 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-7, +4.3 point differential.
- Key players: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Nazr Mohammed.
San Antonio’s regular season performance wasn’t quite as sparkling as some teams above it, but keep in mind that the Spurs started with a 47-13 record (a 64-win pace) through 60 games with a plus-10 point differential. Soon after, Duncan injured his foot and the team took its foot off the gas a bit, reducing the minutes of its main players heading into the playoffs.
In the postseason, we saw this team’s star power step up, with Duncan and Ginobili close to their peaks and Parker getting close to his.
While the Spurs weren’t super dominant in the 2005 playoffs, it is worth noting that their competition was very stiff. The Denver Nuggets came into the playoffs with 25 wins in their last 29 games, the Seattle Supersonics won 52 games during the season, the Phoenix Suns won 62 games and were arguably the title favorite and the Detroit Pistons had improved their 2004 championship squad from the year before.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers 2015-16
- Regular season stats: 57-25, +6.0 point differential.
- Playoff stats: 16-5, +8.6 point differential.
- Key players: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith.
The 2016 NBA Finals still boggle my mind. The Cavs were down 3-1 to a Golden State Warriors team that had won an NBA-record 73 games during the regular season and had won its three Finals games by margins of 15, 33 and 11 points.
Cleveland’s legendary comeback to win the final three games of the series is the main reason the Cavs are here. LeBron and Kyrie stepped up big time for the team with superstar performances, making more clutch shots and key plays than anyone could have ever predicted.
The Cavs may not have been a particularly amazing team for the entire year, but what they did in the NBA Finals was certainly astonishing.