It has a great sound to it doesn’t it? Being the champion means you’re the best. You won, and you’ve dominated your competition. Being the NBA champion means you’re the best basketball team in the world. You proved it throughout the regular season, you proved it in the playoffs, and you proved it in the Finals.
Who are the best of the champions, though? Who’s the best of the best?
Over the last ten seasons, we’ve seen ten different NBA teams become champions, and earn the luxury of holding the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy. All of these teams are unique in their own way – some won through their offense, some won through their defense, some won because of their superstars, and some won because of their holistic team effort. They all won differently, but they all shared one thing: they were their season’s NBA champions and are in the record books.
So the question remains, over the last ten title teams, who have been the best NBA champions? Which five teams of the past decade are indeed elite?
5) 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
This was a team looking to avenge themselves. After losing in the previous year’s Finals to a pretty darn good Celtics squad, the Lakers wanted the elusive championship that had been out of their grasp ever since Shaquille O’Neal left the City of Angels.
Led by the cutthroat, peak-Mamba Kobe Bryant, with the prolific Spaniard Pau Gasol by his side, and an excellent supporting cast of Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza, this Lakers team pushed the pedal to the metal. Putting up a Western-Conference best 65-win campaign, the Lakers blew away their opponents in the regular season, ranking third in Offensive Rating and sixth in Defensive Rating, while ranking in the top-5 in the league in FG%, rebounds, assists, steals, and points.
A starting five of Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Fisher, and Ariza was scary efficient, averaging 80 points a game on 50% shooting, while the Lakers second unit, led by Lamar Odom and including Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic.
Title Run: The Lakers dispatched the Jazz in five games, the Rockets in seven, and the Nuggets in six, to reach the NBA Finals against the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic. In the Finals, the Lakers showed undeniable ruthlessness and intensity, as Kobe Bryant put up a dominant performance, averaging 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists, and the team dismantled the Magic’s #1 rated defense by averaging over 100 points a game and owning an Offensive Rating of 110.8. They averaged 9 PPG more than Orlando in a 4-1 series thump to win the Lakers franchise their 15th championship.
4) 2007-08 Boston Celtics
As aforementioned, this Celtics team was pretty darn good. Fueled by the All-Star additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and captain of the team Paul Pierce, to form a Big Three, this team posted the best single turnaround season in NBA history, going from 24 wins the previous season to 66 wins. The Celtics were anchored by their exemplary defense, ranking 1st in Defensive Rating at 98.9, the best of all the NBA champions in the past decade, which included defensive stalwart Garnett as Defensive Player of the Year. During the regular season, the Celtics gave up 100 points 16 times, while they outscored their opponents by more than 20 points 22 times. Their starting five of Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins was defensively unrivaled, and they even led the team to a top-10 finish in Offensive Rating. A second unit comprised of James Posey, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Sam Cassell and Leon Powe contributed to the team’s defensive prowess, while also providing a spark when the Big Three needed a break.
Title Run: During the postseason, the Celtics played an NBA record 26 games, showing their resilience.
The first round was an absolute slugfest against the Atlanta Hawks, where Boston annihilated the Hawks in their wins, and lost closely in their losses. The Celtics came out supreme though, winning the series 4-3 after a Game 7 34-point demolition.
In the next round, the Celtics faced the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, a surging team with the most talented basketball player in the world. Only once in the series did a team reach 100 points, that was during the Cavs Game 3 win. But the Celtics held off Cleveland by limiting James to 35% shooting, and ended up winning the series 4-3.
The Eastern Conference Finals was a matchup against the dynastic Pistons, but the Celtics won the series 4-2 to play the Lakers in the Finals, where they beat the Lakers in nearly every statistical category, even posting an Offensive Rating of 113.1, and winning the title in six games. They wrecked the Lakers in Game 6 by a 39 point margin.
This Celtics team was the best defensively of the past decade, and led by a trifecta of All-Stars, showed unmatched strength and perseverance to give Boston their 17th championship.
3) 2014-15 Golden State Warriors
A team that revolutionized the game as we know it today, the Warriors were the surprise of the league. While quick tempo ball movement had already been on the NBA’s radar, the emphasis of the 3-pointer and small-ball lineup displayed by the ’14-’15 Warriors had never been seen before, and transformed the NBA prototype. Led by the Splash Brothers, 3-point virtuosos with crazy shooting range (MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), the Warriors put up and made more 3-pointers than ever seen in NBA history. These 3-point studs, with Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Igoudala, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Mo Speights, and David Lee, showed the depth of the team and punched a ticket for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, winning 67 games and owning the second best Offensive Rating and best Defensive Rating of the season.
Featuring a “death lineup” that included no players above 6’9”, the team spread the floor and surrounded the ball with capable perimeter shooters, proving to be a nightmare to opposing defenses.
Title Run: The Warriors eased their way through the playoffs, sweeping the young Pelicans in the first round, and following that up with a 4-2 series win over the experienced and tough Memphis Grizzlies. In the Western Conference Finals, they continued their postseason dominance by beating the Houston Rockets in five games, with Curry putting up 31.2 PPG on 51% shooting and 49% 3-point shooting.
In the Finals vs. the LeBron James-led but injury depleted Cavaliers, the Warriors showed their depth. While Curry and Thompson struggled at times, other players, like Finals MVP Igoudala and Leandro Barbosa, stepped up and played a part in securing a championship.
Through their revolutionary shooting and offensive style, along with a vastly underrated defense, Golden State delivered a title to the Bay for the first time in 40 years.
2) 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
You win championships by spreading the ball and offensive tempo, or, while shooting lights out from beyond the arc, or you can do what the Cavaliers did this past season – give the ball to their superstars and get out of the way.
While the Cavs aren’t statistically, (in the regular season and postseason), the most daunting team on this list, it was their intangibles and their rise through adversity that makes them stand out. LeBron James, with his sidekicks Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith, shined in a redemption season, putting up 57 wins while ranking third in Offensive Rating and tenth in Defensive Rating, while also, surprisingly, ranking second in the league in 3-pointers made, despite not having a renowned 3-point shooter. James put up another fantastic campaign, averaging 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists on the season while basically being the heart and soul of Cleveland. The Cavs had eleven players average 5 points or more per game, showing remarkable roster depth and versatility.
Title Run: Starting off the postseason with a 12-0 record, sweeping the Pistons and Hawks, and then beating the Raptors in six games to advance to the Finals for a rematch against the Warriors, is not an easy task whatsoever. What the Cavs did vs. the Warriors was legendary.
Down 3-1 in the series, they displayed unmatched resilience and clutch play. With a God-like stretch by LeBron James, where he put up 40+ points in Games 5 & 6 and closed the series with a triple-double, and other key members such as Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson exposing Warriors inattention on the boards and with the ball, the Cavs came back to win the series 4-3, beating the record setting 73-win Warriors twice in their own house and claiming the first title for Cleveland basketball.
The unstoppable freight train that was James this series, the obvious Finals MVP, put the Cavs over the top. James, after hearing all the familiar criticisms, went on a mission and achieved it by pushing his game to an incredible level. The Cavs superstars, James, Irving, and yes, even Love, were brilliant throughout the season and playoffs, and they’re the reason Cleveland could go toe to toe with the defending champion.
1) 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
Seeking revenge for the previous year’s Finals loss, this Spurs team was astonishingly good on both sides of the ball. On offense, their passing and ball movement was absolutely devastating for defenses – their movement created so many passing lanes and uncontested shots that elevated the Spurs offense to elite. They ranked 7th in Offensive Rating, 2nd in FG%, and 1st in 3-point % throughout the regular season, but even those fantastic stats undermine the fluidity and finesse of the Spurs’ offense. Defensively, they were great too, putting up the third best Defensive Rating with defensive anchors Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Danny Green. This was a team with no real superstars, no MVP candidates, yet they were dominant. With 9 players averaging at least 8 PPG, they were a team that was dependent on no superstar – the highest scoring player averaged 16.7 PPG. They won 18 games in the regular season by 20 points or more, and finished with the best NBA record at 62 wins.
Title Run: In the playoffs, they furthered their preeminence, first by dispatching the pesky Mavericks in a 4-3 series, and following that up with quality series wins over the Trail Blazers and Thunder. The Finals was where the Spurs showed the world their absolute supremacy. Putting up a mind-boggling and absurd Offensive Rating of 120.8 during the Finals rematch with the Heat.
They harassed the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh into submission. Their ball movement was impeccable, and Kawhi Leonard earned Finals MVP honors by being a constant torment to James. Their one loss was by two points, and their wins were by an average of 18 points. They utterly destroyed the defending champions Miami Heat, and they did so while hardly breaking a sweat.
The ’13-’14 Spurs team is definitively the best of the best. They are the past decade’s ultimate champion.
photo via llananba