Looking Back: NBA Dynasties

The NBA has had dynasties every year in its history. The 60s were dominated by the Cetlics, the 70s by the Bullets and others, the 80s by the Lakers, the 90s by the Bulls, the 2000s by the Spurs, and the 2010s by the Warriors. Each time period in NBA history has had teams that dominated the league. The NBA is a superstar driven league, with a superstar often being the driving force of a dynasty in the NBA.

NBA Dynasties

The NBA has had several dynasties in its time as a professional basketball league. Since there is no formal definition of a dynasty, I decided to create my own criteria for a dynasty. The criteria was:

  • The dynasty lasted at least four years
  • The team had at least three deep runs (Deep run = conference finals or farther)
  • The team had at least one finals appearance
  • The dynasty starts with a Conference Semi Finals birth
  • The end of the dynasty is either when the team missed the playoffs or a judgement call

Using this criteria, there were 23 dynasties since 1970 in the NBA (not the ABA). The dynasties are shown below.

As you can see, most of these dynasties were led by a phenomenal player. For example, Dr. J led the 70s to 80s 76ers, Larry Bird led the 80s Celtics, Magic Johnson led the 80s Lakers, Michael Jordan led the 90s Bulls, and Tim Duncan led the 2000s Spurs. Every decade had a few dynasties that created enjoyable rivalries, such as the Lakers and Celtics in the 80s, the Knicks and Bulls in the 90s, and Cavs and Warriors in the late 2010s.

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar led the Lakers to 5 titles

For this study, I used the term dynasty very loosely. Most expect a dynasty to win at least one championships since dynasties are supposed to be dominant. However, I wanted to include more teams, so some of the teams that are considered dynasties did not even win a championship. Even some of the teams that did win a championship were not very dominant. The 1998-2006 Pacers, 1989-1997 Suns, 1988-97 Knicks, 2001-2012 Mavericks, and 2010-2016 Thunder were borderline dynasties, each winning zero or one championship. While they were not particularly dominant, they did contend each year and thus can be considered dynasties in a way.

How did the Dynasties Start

Every dynasty has to start somewhere. Each team that had sustained success for and extended period of time is led by one or more star players that lead the team. The question is how the team acquires such a player. In looking back at the 23 dynasties in the NBA since 1970, I found how their best player (ranked by win shares during their time as a dynasty) was acquired. As you can see, most of the players were drafted by their team, and the others were either traded for, signed as a free agent, or sold. The one interesting category listed here is the sold category. The only player in this category was Julius Erving for the 76ers from 1976-1987. The New Jersey Nets sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers when they entered the NBA after the NBA-ABA merger. Further information on this unique transaction can be found at the website below. After that, a list of each dynasty’s best player and how they were acquired can be found. The best player for each dynasty was NOT based on my own opinion, but rather the player with the most win shares during the listed time frame.

https://www.sportstalkphilly.com/2017/10/on-this-day-in-1976-the-sixers-acquired-julius-erving-from-the-nets.html#:~:text=On%20this%20date%2C%20October%2020,promise%20to%20raising%20Erving’s%20salary.

Drafted

  • Wes Unseld, 1969-1980 Wizards/Bullets
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, 1970-1974 Bucks
  • John Havlicek, 1972-1977 Celtics
  • Magic Johnson, 1977-1991 Lakers
  • Larry Bird, 1980-1993 Celtics
  • Patrick Ewing, 1988-1997 Knicks
  • Michael Jordan, 1988-1998 Bulls
  • Karl Malone, 1991-2003 Jazz
  • Hakeem Olajuwon, 1993-1999 Rockets
  • Reggie Miller, 1998-2006 Pacers
  • Tim Duncan, 1998-2019 Spurs
  • Dirk Nowitzki, 2001-2012 Mavericks
  • Paul Pierce, 2008-2013 Celtics
  • Kevin Durant, 2010-2016 Thunder
  • Stephen Curry, 2015-Present Warriors

Traded For

  • Bill Laimbeer, 1985-1992 Pistons
  • Kevin Johnson, 1989-1997 Suns
  • Pau Gasol, 2008-2012 Lakers

Signed in Free Agency

  • Shaquille O’Neal, 1997-2004 Lakers
  • Chauncey Billups, 2002-2009 Pistons
  • LeBron James, 2011-2014 Heat
  • LeBron James, 2015-2018 Cavaliers

Bought

  • Julius Erving, 1976-1987 76ers
Julius Erving (nicknamed Doctor J) was bought by the 76ers in a unique situation

Since most dynasties start with a star that was drafted by the team, drafting is of utmost importance in order to build a team that contends for several years. Additionally a good trade can put a team over the top, such as when the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol or the Pisons traded for Bill Laimbeer. Lastly, the final way to build a dynasty is by signing a superstar in free agency. This method is one that only major market teams can rely on since superstars aren’t going to sign somewhere like Utah, but they will in Los Angeles. As player movement increases within the NBA, I expect that more future dynasties will be started with a significant free agency signing.

How Long Do Dynasties Last

After the dynasty has started, the question is how long the dynasty lasts and how successful it is. Among the 23 past dynasties in the NBA, the lengths of the dynasties differed greatly. Most dynasties were between 4 and 7 years, but some lasted for over a decade. The shortest dynasties were the LeBron James led Heat and Cavaliers, while the longest was the 1998-2019 Spurs, lasting over 2 decades and winning five championships during that time.

The distribution of the lengths of the dynasties is very right skewed, meaning the most of the dynasties last for a relatively short period of time while a few last very long. The longest dynasties often proved to be the most successful, such as the Lakers from 1977-1991 and the Celtics from 1980-1993. Franchises that can support a sustained period of success are considered to be the best ones, such as the Celtics and Lakers listed above.

Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich led the Spurs dynasty during the 2000s

Most Successful Dynasties

On average, an NBA dynasty wins 1.8 championships and makes 4.9 deep runs. They take 2.8 years on average to win the championship after their first conference semi finals birth, on average, if they ever win a championship. However, there are some outliers. Outliers in this scenario are a good thing because it means that the team did exceptionally well, even for a dynasty. The most successful dynasties were the 1977-1991 Lakers, 1988-1998 Bulls, and 1998-2019 Spurs. I ranked these by using the number of finals won, finals appearances, and conference finals appearances and giving a weight to each of them. The two next best dynasties were the 1980s Celtics and the 2015-present Warriors. However, some dynasties have incredible efficiency, meaning that they win a lot in a little amount of time. By diving the number of deep runs a team had by its dynasty length, the deep run percentage can be found. The dynasties with the highest deep run percentage were 2011-2014 Heat, 2015-2018 Cavaliers, and the 2015-2020 Warriors, meaning that each of those teams dominated the most while they were a dynasty. One trend to notice is that now there are generally more dominant dynasties that last a shorter amount of time, whereas in the past the dynasties lasted longer and were slightly less dominant.

KD, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry lead the most recent dynasty in the Golden State Warriors

How Dynasties Ended

Of course, all dynasties must end sometime. Whether it was after four years or twenty, each dynasty in the history of the NBA has stopped. Most of these dynasties ended when their best player left or started to decline. All of the dynasties’ ends can be classified into four categories: the team declined, its stars retired, a major player left in free agency, and a major player was traded away. The majority of dynasties ended with either a significant player retiring or their team getting old and declining.

Most of the very long dynasties, such as the 1977-1991 Lakers, the 1980-1993 Celtics, and the 1991-2003 Jazz, ended with a star player retiring. Magic Johnson (because of HIV) and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar retired for the Lakers, Larry Bird retired for the Celtics, and John Stockton retired for the Jazz. A dynasty ending with the team declining due to old age or a star retiring means that the dynasty was prolonged as long as possible. It is the ideal way to end a dynasty. The more unfortunate ways that a dynasty would end were a trade or free agency. A superstar being traded or leaving in free agency means that we did not get to see the full potential of the dynasty. Some significant cases of a trade ending a dynasty include when Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was traded from the Bucks to the Lakers, when Shaquille O’Neal was traded from the Lakers to the Heat, and when Kawhi Leonard was traded from the Spurs to the Raptors. Each of these dynasties could have lasted longer if it weren’t for souring relationships between players and other players (like Shaq and Kobe) or players and the team (like Kawhi Leonard). Additionally, some superstars left in free agency, causing an abrupt end to a dynasty. The most popular cases of this were LeBron James returning to the Cavs in 2014 and Kevin Durant joining the Warriors in 2016. Recently, more dynasties have ended with a trade or a free agent that left than someone retiring or the team declining. The increase in player movement in today’s NBA means that more dynasties will last for a shorter time, and we will not see the full potential of those dynasties.

Souring relations between Shaq and Kobe led to the breakup of the Lakers in the early 2000s

Potential Future Dynasties

As old dynasties fall, new dynasties rise. This has been true throughout the history of the NBA. The 1990s Bulls dynasty started as the 1980s Lakers dynasty was ending, and the 2000s Spurs dynasty started as the 1990s Bulls dynasty was ending. And now, once the Warriors dynasty ends (it may have already if they don’t get better next year), a new dynasty will rise and take its place. There are several possibilities for this new team. It could be the Bucks, led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, that have success throughout the 2020s. It could be the Celtics, led by young stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that could become a dynasty with a championship ring. It could also be the Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading a shorter dynasty if they can win a lot within the next few years. Other possibilities include the 76ers, led by young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, or the Clippers, led by reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and his sidekick in Paul George. However, we know one thing for sure: another dynasty that will dominate the NBA is coming.

The Lakers and the Bucks are two potential future dynasties

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