With an epic Game 7 looming on the NBA Finals horizon, let’s take a look back at how the best teams in NBA history have been defined by their Game 7 performances.
To come up with a list of the Top-5 teams in NBA history, I used an approach similar to what Nate Silver did for FiveThirtyEight to rank sports dynasties:
- I used the simple rating system—a team’s point differential adjusted for its strength of schedule—to evaluate the success of each individual season in NBA history (data available from Basketball-Reference).
- Next, I defined a dynasty as any stretch of consecutive seasons during which a franchise maintained an adjusted point differential of +2.5 per game or better, a definition which is roughly equivalent to consecutive seasons as a Top-10 team in the League.
- Finally, I ranked the NBA dynasties by summing yearly adjusted point differentials over the various dynastic periods to produce a “dynasty score.” So, for example, a team that posted adjusted point differentials of +1, +3, +5, +3, and +1 for a five year stretch would be defined as a three-year dynasty and would receive a dynasty score of 3 + 5 + 3 = 11.
By this definition, the five best teams in NBA history are the 1998-2016 San Antonio Spurs (dynasty score of +125), the 1957-1969 Boston Celtics (+78), the 1977-1981 Los Angeles Lakers (+76), the 1990-1998 Chicago Bulls (+65), and the 1980-1988 Boston Celtics (+60).
In case you aren’t familiar with these teams, below I’ve provided a summary of some of the principals from each season. Each circle in the plot below represents the uniform number an All-Star player and the circles are organized in columns by season, with each season of the dynasty shown from left-to-right.
All-Star Players from the Five Best Teams in NBA History
As you can see, these five dynasties include many of the best players of all time: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan, to name a few.
B.J. Armstrong to name one more.
A visual playoff history
So were these all-time great teams and their all-time great stars defined by their Game 7 performances? Well, let’s take a look.
Below is a visual playoff history for the five best teams in NBA history. For each dynasty, the seasons are plotted chronologically from top-to-bottom and the games are shown from left-to-right (Game 7s on the right). The structure of the Playoffs has changed over the years, culminating with the current format of four best-of-seven series. In the plot, green dots are wins, red dots are losses, and white dots were potential games that proved to be unnecessary. Championship seasons, including one signature season per team, are highlighted.
Playoff Results for the Five Best Teams in NBA History; Green=Win, Red=Loss, White=Not necessary
OK, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s take it one team at a time.
Russell’s Celtics just absolutely dominated Game 7s. First of all, look at how many of those do-or-die games they had to play. In 27 best-of-seven series, Russell and the Celtics found themselves in 10 different Game 7 scenarios. They won every single time; 10-0 in Game 7s from 1957-1969. Five of these decisive victories came in the Finals. The other five came in the Division Finals (now called the Conference Finals) and each of those was followed up with a Celtic championship too.
To defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors will need to win two consecutive Game 7s. These Celtics only accomplished that particular feat once. It happened in 1962 when the Celtics bested Wilt Chamberlain and his 76ers in seven games and then outlasted Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and the Lakers for the championship in another seven game series.
The 1980s Celtics dynasty was also great in Game 7, finishing 6-1 in win-or-go-home situations from 1980-1988. Only one of the Bird-era Celtic’s Game 7 victories came in the Finals: in 1984 when they beat the Lakers. That season, the Celtics actually needed two Game 7s to win it all, as they also beat the Bernard King-led Knicks in a seven-game series during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Despite losing the the Celtics in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals, the Showtime Lakers were also pretty solid in Game 7s, posting a 4-1 mark from 1977-1991. Magic and the Lakers avenged their 1984 loss with a Game 7 win over the Detroit Pistons to seal the deal in the 1988 Finals. Similar to their rivals in 1984, the Lakers required multiple Game 7 victories in 1988 before they ultimately prevailed, knocking off the Jazz, the Mavs, and the Pistons in three consecutive seven-game series.
With regard to Game 7s, the most notable feature of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty is that they didn’t need to play many of them. In 1990, Jordan and his Bulls suffered a Game 7 loss to the Bad Boy Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, before breaking through their Detroit nemesis the following season. Subsequently, they lost only one other Game 7 — to Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in 1994 — and that was when they were without Jordan. Otherwise, the Bulls needed only two seven game series to rack up their six championships, neither one in the Finals. One came in another matchup against the Knicks in 1992 and one against the Pacers in 1998.
In keeping with the personality of their ageless leader, Tim Duncan, the Spurs’ performances in Game 7 have had a very even keel: 3 wins and 3 losses. One of these Game 7 losses came last year in the first round against the Clippers. The year before that, the Spurs were likewise pushed to seven games in the first round against the Mavs, but ended up winning the title anyways. In 2013, the Spurs played perhaps their most famous seven-game series, in the Finals against the Miami Heat. LeBron James was there, he knows what I’m talking about. Remember? Ray Allen hit a ridiculous step-back three-pointer at the end of regulation in Game 6 to send the game to overtime. The Heat won Game 6 in OT and then the resulting Game 7 in Miami. The Spurs also had a Game 7 success in the NBA Finals, though, beating the Pistons in 2005.
So, overall, the five best teams in NBA history were 25-7 (78%) in Game 7s during their peak seasons, including 8-2 (80%) in the Finals. In this elite group, both of the two teams that lost a Game 7 in the Finals came back to win another championship in a subsequent season.
So, will Sunday’s Game 7 be legacy-defining for LeBron James or Stephen Curry? No, not by itself. But, if the Warriors or the Cavs want to create their own dynasties, winning a Game 7 in the NBA Finals seems like a good place to start.