The NBA recognizes 74 championship teams in its history. A total of 71 have come since the NBA’s first season in 1949–50, the other three from the Basketball Association of America from 1946–49. Of those 74 titles, an astonishing 46% belong to just two teams. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have won 17 championships apiece.
Boston’s last championship came in 2008, while the Lakers are the defending champions after winning the bubble title in 2020. With their most recent championships, the Celtics and LA entered a small group of teams to win a title the year after missing the playoffs.
Boston rose to the top of the championship list with the longest run of consecutive titles in North American pro sports history. At the same time, the Lakers spent a long time playing catch-up after holding a very early lead.
The first NBA dynasty was not the LA Lakers; it was the Minneapolis Lakers
The franchise now known as the LA Lakers traces its origins to the old National Basketball League. The Detroit Gems joined the NBL in 1946 and lasted a single season. After a 4–40 record, the Gems were sold, moved to Minneapolis, and renamed the Lakers. Signing superstar George Mikan from the folding Chicago American Gears, the Lakers won the 1948 NBL title before jumping to the BAA the following season.
Minneapolis won the BAA title in 1949. Later that year, the NBL and BAA merged to form the NBA, and, just for the heck of it, the Lakers won their third championship in three years over three different leagues. It’s worth noting the 1948 NBL title is not included in their official total of 17. The club won three more championships, taking three in a row from 1952–54, before relocating to LA in 1960.
By the time the Lakers moved to California, there was a new dynasty.
The Celtics went on an unprecedented run of championships
The Celtics were a team that had decent regular seasons and playoff shortcomings under coach and general manager Red Auerbach, who took over the club in 1950. But that all changed in 1956 when Auerbach swung a deal for No. 3 overall pick Bill Russell. The rookie was a late arrival because of the Olympics in Australia, but once he showed up, the winning began in earnest.
The Celtics won the NBA title in 1957 and returned to the Finals in a losing effort in 1958. The following eight seasons? All Boston. The Russell-era Celtics took 11 championships in 13 seasons, the last two in 1968 and 1969 with Russell as head coach.
The modern era has been better for the Lakers, but the Celtics have had their moments.
The tally since 1970: Lakers 12, Celtics 6
The Lakers won their first LA title in 1972. The Celtics followed with championships in 1974 and 1976. The teams had met in the NBA Finals seven times between 1959–69, but the Lakers lost all of those. Boston and LA dominated the NBA scene in the 1980s, an era dominated by Celtics’ star Larry Bird and Lakers’ legend Magic Johnson.
The Lakers won the title in 1980. The Celtics responded with a championship in 1981. LA went on to win it all in 1982 and 1985 and went back-to-back in 1987 and 1988. Boston won in both 1984 and 1986 before hitting a lengthy lull.
LA put together five titles under coach Phil Jackson, three straight from 2000–02 and two in succession in 2009 and 2010.
In terms of reaching the NBA Finals, it’s the Lakers that hold a significant edge. Between Minneapolis and LA, the Lakers total 32 Finals appearances. Boston is second all-time with 21. Only one other franchise, the Golden State Warriors (with stints in Philadelphia and as the San Francisco Warriors), has hit double digits with 11.
Speaking of the Warriors, they are the only franchise to twice win titles a season after missing the playoffs. They did it in Philadelphia in 1956 and again as Golden State in 1975. The other franchise to turn the trick was the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers.
While some question whether the Minneapolis-era championships should count as part of LA’s total, the fact is that a team called the Lakers won the last game of the playoffs 17 times. That is the same number of times that a club named the Celtics got the trophy at the end.
Historical information courtesy of Basketball Reference.