The best NBA playoff runs don’t just pertain to teams dominating their opposition; it’s also a matter of which teams and players they beat.
Of course, this does not take away the efforts and credibility of every championship team in the NBA record books. It’s just that other teams did it via a more narrow path.
Best NBA playoff runs
Every sports team that won it all faced a multitude of challenges along the way. Still, there are those who went through improbable hurdles and managed to dominate the opposition. Having said that, let’s look at the teams with the greatest postseason runs in NBA history.
10. 1971 Milwaukee Bucks (15-3)
When the Bucks were installed as an expansion team in 1968, nobody set lofty expectations for them. That was particularly true in their first year when they finished with a paltry 27-55 record. But then came the 1969 NBA Draft, which changed everything for the Bucks moving forward.
Holding the first pick in the draft, the Bucks selected UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, who would later be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Alcindor immediately made his presence felt during his rookie year, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds and leading the Bucks to the Eastern Division Finals.
With a championship in sight, the Bucks made a move to acquire all-around wing Oscar Robertson from the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson was a bit past his prime already, but his do-it-all know-how complemented Alcindor’s dominating play style.
The 1971 Bucks eventually won the title in their third year of existence, beating the San Francisco Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, and Baltimore Bullets.
9. 1995 Houston Rockets (15-7)
This version of the Rockets championship team doesn’t impress in terms of mere playoff record, but their title run was filled with difficult hurdles. It’s very interesting, especially considering the fact that they were just coming off a successful title run the year prior.
The Rockets didn’t have a particularly good year, as they entered the playoffs ranked 6th in the Western Conference. A major roster shakeup saw them acquire former Portland Trail Blazers star Clyde Drexler, a move that would pay dividends later on.
They would face the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, winning the series via a do-or-die Game 5. But the odds were stacked against them in the second round, as they lost the first two games to the Phoenix Suns, and eventually found themselves in a 1-3 hole. But in typical championship form, the Rockets came alive and won the next three games.
They went on to beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games, before finally sweeping the Orlando Magic en route to one of the best NBA playoff runs in history.
8. 1999 San Antonio Spurs (15-2)
The first of the many for the Spurs dynasty was absolutely a sweet one. It was a year marred by the lockout, which caused the regular season to be shortened to 50 games. That didn’t faze the Spurs, though. They went on an incredible 31-5 run in the latter part of the season to accumulate homecourt advantage throughout the postseason.
It was a dominant title run for the Spurs, as they lost two games — one against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round and another at the hands of the New York Knicks in the Finals. Despite the almost-immaculate record, the Spurs faced tons of the best players in that span, including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Patrick Ewing, Arvydas Sabonis, and Rasheed Wallace.
7. 1989 Detroit Pistons (15-2)
There’s no doubt that this was a team filled with talent on all fronts. This is a squad that featured Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars, Mark Aguirre, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer. A title run was certainly in the making.
The Pistons forged a dominant postseason run, losing only twice to the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and winning everything that came before and after. It’s an admirable feat, considering they also swept the Celtics and the Lakers in just one playoff run.
6. 1983 Philadelphia 76ers (12-1)
As one of the big markets in the league, the Sixers always have this expectation to contend for titles. They did win two in 1955 and 1967, but prior to the 1982-83 season, they were yet to win one with the great Julius Erving on board.
The stars finally aligned in 1983 as Erving joined forces with newly-acquired, two-time MVP Moses Malone. They stomped their class in the 1983 playoffs, going 12-1 and sweeping the Lakers on their way to the title.
5. 1996 Chicago Bulls (15-3)
Who would ever forget the 72-9 Bulls squad?
They didn’t just carve the competition during the regular season but also managed to win it all come playoff time. The Bulls defeated the Heat, Knicks, and Magic on their way to the Finals, where they shook off the Seattle Supersonics in six games.
4. 2017 Golden State Warriors (16-1)
Next up on the list is the most dominant playoff team in NBA history, at least by mere win-loss record. Having acquired another prime superstar in Kevin Durant, the stacked Warriors squad went on to obliterate everyone that they faced in the playoffs.
Holding homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, the Warriors wasted no time in the first three rounds. They went 12-0 in that span, scoring dominant sweeps of the Blazers, Jazz, and Spurs. They would then go up against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Finals, and they took care of business in just five games.
3. 1991 Chicago Bulls (15-2)
Known as MJ’s breakthrough year, the Bulls finally won their franchise’s first NBA championship in 1991. After several years of going through heartbreaks, most notably at the hands of the Pistons, the Bulls finally broke through the Eastern Conference.
Jordan and the Bulls made easy work of the Knicks and the Sixers in the first two rounds. Then they faced their rivals Pistons in the Conference Finals and took revenge via a dominant sweep. Chicago would then defeat the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in five games, clinching the city’s first NBA championship and first title under the Jordan era.
2. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (16-5)
The Cavaliers didn’t face much competition in the first two rounds of the 2016 playoffs, sweeping the rug out of the Pistons and the Hawks. They would get into a 2-2 tug-of-war with the Raptors in the Conference Finals, but they managed to pull through by winning the next two games.
But the real test came against the Warriors, who were coming off a league-record 73-9 slate in the regular season. Golden State won three of the first four games of arguably the most entertaining playoff series, and it seemed they were ready to win their second straight title. LeBron James and the Cavaliers had other plans though, as they won the next three games to give Cleveland their first NBA title.
The seventh game of this Cavaliers-Warriors Finals iteration ranks as one of the best games in NBA playoff history.
1. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (15-1)
Arguably the most dominant playoff team ever, the 2001 Lakers squad banked on their deadly duo to forge one of the best NBA playoff runs. Led by Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers swept their opponents in the West before losing Game 1 of their Finals matchup with Allen Iverson and the Sixers.
But the Purple-and-Gold squad would quickly regroup, and won the next four games to bag the 2001 NBA championship.