People play basketball for all sorts of reasons. Because it’s fun. Because it’s a good way to exercise. Because their friends play it. Because of the sound the ball makes when it bounces off the court or the blacktop. Whatever the reason for starting, though, most basketball players play to win. To have more points on the board than the other team when time expires. To not be the 2012-2013 Charlotte Bobcats, holders of the lowest win percentage in National Basketball Association history (10 percent) and a 7-59 record.
Many of these teams are NBA champions. That correlation seems easy when you consider that the best teams are often most likely to emerge as the end-of-the-season victors, but it’s far from an absolute — some of the very best regular-season teams have come up short when it mattered most. One of these squads isn’t even a proper NBA team, but it’s still here because those athletes helped lay the groundwork for the league as we know it. None of LeBron James’s teams have made it yet, although last year’s squad came very, very close. But there are three-peaters and dynasties and record breakers.
Earlier, we wrote about recently successful NBA teams based on coaching changes, winning percentages, and the number of playoff home games. This following list is a much simpler representation of the ten most successful NBA teams of all time, ranked according to win percentage.
10. 1947 Washington Capitals (49-11), 81 percent win percentage
Who are the Washington Capitals? Good question. It’s a well-known fact that the NBA generally takes the history of its component parts to be its own – the league was formed through a merger between the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America in 1949 — and the BAA’s Washington Capitals went an unprecedented 49-11 back in 1947. Their heritage fits a little bit better if you consider that they were coached by the legendary Red Auerbach, who would go on to coach and manage the Boston Celtics.
The Capitals also featured the twice-over Hall of Fame talents of Bill Sharman, who would join Red Auerbach on the Celtics’ payroll after the Capitals folded in 1951. Sharman, a shooting guard, would combine with Bob Cousy in the backcourt on their way to four NBA titles before Sharms took his talents to Los Angeles and helped the Lakers win six rings, one as a coach in the ’70s and five from the front office in the 1980s. Inducted to the Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach (in ’76 and ’04, respectively), Sharman is also the guy credited with “inventing” the morning shoot-around before a game.
In the video above, Sharman is wearing number 21. Not that you’ll be able to pick him out, but it’s worth watching, if only to see how the game has evolved in the more than 50 years since the NBA’s debut. (And also to see the league’s first unstoppable basketball team.)
9. 2007 Dallas Mavericks (67-15), 81 percent win percentage
Fresh off their 2006 Finals loss at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks hoped to come back the next season a better team, improving on their 60-22 record in 2006 and make more noise in the playoffs. They would eventually do both, but not exactly as they intended.
Dirk Nowitzki came back with a renewed purpose, and with the inextinguishable Jason Terry and Wake Forest alum Josh Howard, the Mavericks pushed forward to a 67-15 record that was good enough to land them the first seed in a highly competitive Western Conference. Nowitzki would win the MVP for his 25/9/3 averages and a 50/40/90 club membership (at least 50 percent field goal percentage, 40 percent from beyond the arc, and at least 90 percent from the free throw line. There are only twenty NBA players who have ever done this).
Then they ran into Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors. Nelson, a former Mavericks coach and general manager, advocated a small-ball style of play that sacrificed defense for as much offense as possible. The We Believe Warriors, as they would come to be known, upset the Mavericks in the first round, felling Dallas, 4-2, behind a barrage of 3s and an uptempo style of play. After the series, Nowitzki would spend the offseason wandering in Australia, drinking whiskey, playing guitar, and looking for answers. The Mavericks would finally win an NBA championship in 2011, in a rematch with the Miami Heat.
8. 2000 Los Angeles Lakers (67-15), 81 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
The 1999-2000 Lakers season culminated in the first purple and gold championship since 1988, when Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the Showtime Lakers beat Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons. The 2000 Lakers were a far cry from the uptempo Lakers of the ’80s, though. This was the Shaqobe Show, featuring the league-warping dominance of Shaq in his prime and the precocious talents of a younger, afro’d Kobe Bryant (still wearing number 8) coming to fruition.
Spearheaded by Phil Jackson and the triangle offense, the Lakers, rounded out by Rick Fox, A.C. Green, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry, steamrolled everyone in their path. Together, Shaq and Kobe averaged 39 minutes a game and turned in a pair of average stat lines that combined for 52 points, 20 rebounds, and nearly 9 assists. Average per game. Eventually netting themselves the one seed, the Lakers burned through the Peja-Divac-Webber Sacramento Kings, the Jason Kidd-Penny Hardaway Suns, and the most successful Jail Blazer team to come out of Portland (with Rasheed Wallace, Scotty Pippen, and Damon Stoudamire) before running all over Sam Perkins, Mark Jackson, and Reggie Miller in the NBA Finals.
Shaq, who averaged a monstrous 38/16.5 in the series against the Pacers, would finish the postseason with a Finals MVP to complement the one he’d picked up in the regular season. The team would go on to complete the first three-peat since Jordan’s Bulls, winning two more titles in 2001 and 2002 before self-destructing due to infighting between its two star players.
7. 1992 Chicago Bulls (67-15), 81 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
By 1992, the wall was down. The season before, the Chicago Bulls had finally knocked off the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping the Bad Boys (featuring future Bull Dennis Rodman), 4-0, before stomping out the Lakers in a 4-1 rout that saw Jordan, Pippen, and company burn Magic Johnson and James Worthy on both ends of the court. At the outset of the 1992 season, the Bulls seemed primed for at least another Finals appearance.
Magic Johnson, who had just revealed to the world that he was HIV-positive, retired early in the season. Larry Bird, wracked by back pain, would follow suit as the season came to a close. With that, the league would officially belong to Jordan. Before then, though, the ’92 Bulls would set a franchise record with 67 wins, taking head coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense to the next level. Sweeping the Heat, 3-0, beating the Knicks in a tightly contested semifinal contest (although the Bulls would win Game 7 decisively — the final score was a one-sided 110-81), stomping the Daugherty-Elho Cavaliers in the ECF and making Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers miserable in the Finals.
Jordan and Pippen would team up for another championship in 1993, and later for three more between 1996 and 1998. Those six championships remain the only Finals victories in the team’s history. Those wins make the Bulls the third-winningest franchise of all time, behind the Celtics and the Lakers.
6. 1986 Boston Celtics (67-15), 81 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
One of the few crews on the short list for best team ever, the 1986 Boston Celtics are widely regarded as a shining example of “playing the right way.” Between the superstar front court of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, and the backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, with a rare strain of Bill Walton (read: healthy) growing off the bench, the ’86 C’s rank as the most talent-rich team on this list. Coached by KC Jones and a record-holding 50-1 at home, this team was a do-it-all threat: a top ten in the league for scoring and defense with above-average rebounders and passers at every position.
They held Air Jordan at bay without just beating him up, a la Detroit (no small feat, considering he went full beast mode in the first round with a pair of games that saw him go off for 49 and 63). They rolled through everyone. They had mustaches and wore them without irony. They were the topic of a goofy NBA documentary (see below). They had Bill Walton, the best walking anecdote of all time, and Larry Bird, the stone coldest of the stone cold, on the same team. Yin and yang. Mustaches and mayhem. The 1986 Celtics.
5. 1973 Boston Celtics (68-14), 83 percent win percentage
But the ’86 squad wasn’t even the winningest Celtics team of all time. That honor goes to the ’73 Boston Celtics, who went 68-14 and are the only team on this list to win that many games without winning a championship. Powered by the twin engines of center Dave Cowens, wing maestro John Havlicek, underrated guard Jo Jo White (pictured above), and guided by “always faster, always faster” coach (and Celtics lifer) Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics played to Tommy’s vision, finishing with the third-highest pace in the league (114.5, courtesy of basketball-reference) at the time and a full 14 points faster than the 2013-2014 Philadelphia 76ers, who top the league in pace right now.
While Cowens would go on to win the MVP award for the regular season, Havlicek would separate his shoulder against the Knicks in the Conference Finals, and the Celtics would end up losing, 4-3. The Celts would right the ship the next year and win it all in ’74, but that team didn’t win enough games to qualify for this list.
4. 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13), 84 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
“The best team I ever saw was the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers,” said Wilt Chamberlain (pictured). Take that with as many grains of salt as you want — Chamberlain, one of the greatest centers of all time and the only player in NBA history to ever score 100 points in a game, was a key component to that squad. In a league that had yet to have its talent watered down by expansion, Wilt’s 76ers squad started its season at 46-4, and Chamberlain was in the middle of it all, averaging 24 points, 24 rebounds, and 8 assists a game. The team’s average of 125 points per game is still an NBA record.
In the postseason, the 76ers handled Oscar Robertson (who had just come off a 30-6-10 season of his own) and the Cincinnati Royals in the first round before meeting up with Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. While Chamberlain would end up the eventual loser in his career match-ups with Russell, this time the 76ers were victorious, dispatching the Celts, 4-1, and then rolling Rick Barry and the San Francisco Warriors (later rechristened the Golden State Warriors) in the NBA Finals. The victory would be the first of a pair of NBA championships for Chamberlain, who would win again in 1972 as a member of the Lakers.
3. 1997 Chicago Bulls (69-13), 84 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
The ’96-’97 Bulls, coming off a season that we’ll get to momentarily, came to the NBA’s regular season victorious from a memorable finals victory against the Seattle Supersonics with their previous roster intact, although they had added a 44-year-old Robert Parish, who stuck around for about half the season. But Jordan was there. Pippen was there. Rodman, Kukoc, Kerr, and Longley were there. It was the sophomore album for the most dominant team the NBA had ever seen, and they responded accordingly.
Narrowly missing the opportunity to make history by settling for 69 wins (no NBA team has ever won 70 games in back-to-back seasons), the ’97 Bulls nevertheless revisited the same story from the year before — shooting holes in Chris Webber’s Washington Bullets, Christian Laettner(!)’s Atlanta Hawks, and Tim and Alonzo’s Miami Heat – on their way to running rampant over John Stockton, Karl Malone, and the rest of the Utah Jazz. This season counts as Jordan’s penultimate appearance on this list.
2. 1972 Los Angeles Lakers (69-13), 84 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
The return of Wilt the Stilt! The return of Bill Sharman! That’s right: Sharman, whom we remember from being the star player of the No. 10 team on our list, the BAA’s Washington Capitals, came back to coach the second-winningest team in NBA history, the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. With Chamberlain having landed in L.A. after his stint in Philadelphia, Sharman had the greatest center of all time paired with the prototypical star NBA wing in Elgin Baylor. At least, he had them together for all of nine games, before Baylor’s chronic knee problems finally forced him to retire. Luckily, Jerry West, the only player to win the NBA Finals MVP award while playing for a losing team, was able to step it up, averaging 25 points and a career-best 9.7 assists.
Playing at a speed best described as “even faster than Heinsohn,” the Los Angeles Lakers would notch a pace of almost 117 on their way to an NBA-record 33 straight wins and a championship victory over the New York Knicks (who featured future Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, and Walt Frazier). Chamberlain would lead the league in rebounds and field goal percentage and would join Elgin in retirement at the end of the season. Baylor would receive a championship ring from the organization despite his early departure from the roster.
1. 1996 Chicago Bulls (72-10), 87 percent win percentage; won NBA championship
According to Vince Lombardi, winning is a habit. According to Bill Russell, “Winning that’s joyless is like eating in a four-star restaurant when you’re not hungry.” The winningest NBA team of all time, the 1996 Chicago Bulls, went 72-10 and had a blast. Michael Jordan had come back at full strength. They had Scottie Pippen. They had Dennis Rodman. They had Steve Kerr. They had Michael Jordan punching Steve Kerr in the face – you want to watch that. And they had a mission. After spoiling Jordan’s return from retirement by being bounced in the 1995 playoffs by Shaq and Penny’s Orlando Magic, the 1996 Chicago Bulls came back with a vengeance.
They started the season 10-1. Then they were 41-3. Then they were 66-9. The ’96 Bulls didn’t lose games: It was that simple. That attitude, combined with a smothering defense, excellent coaching, and the best offensive player of all time, helped them roll through the postseason, too. They only lost three games in the playoffs, and their 72-10 record stands on a precipice of its own.