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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

The Step Back: The heart of a champion

Ranking the NBA’s most impressive title teams of the past 20 years.

The Step Back

By Michael Wu

What defines an NBA champion? Domination? The hard road? Historical impact? With each season ending in a new coronation, how do we compare championships over time, and determine which teams are truly the best in NBA history?

To answer these questions, I’ll rank the top five “most impressive” NBA championship runs of the past 20 seasons. In this case, “most impressive” does not necessarily mean the most dominant team on paper — my definition combines the following three distinct factors to calculate impressiveness.

Difficulty of Playoff Path (P): Collectively, how good were the other teams this team faced en route to their title? What level of parity did the NBA have at the time?

Team Talent (T): How many All-Stars did this team include? How statistically efficient was this team when stacked up against other teams?

Historical Significance (H): How significant was this team’s championship run with regards to how it shaped the future NBA landscape? What records were broken and set, and what storylines arose from their title?

With the parameters set, it’s time to determine the five most impressive champions of the past 20 years.

Honorable Mentions: 2008 Boston Celtics, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2023 Denver Nuggets.

5. 2004 Detroit Pistons (P: 9, T: 7, H: 9)

The 2004 Pistons were fueled by doubters. En route to their first title since the nineties, the Pistons battled past the Jason Kidd-led Nets in the second round, and the Reggie Miller-led No. 1 Pacers in the conference finals. However, the Pistons achieved legendary status when they gentlemen swept the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Their 4–1 Finals victory proved to be one of the most unlikely, and as a result, one of the most impressive in NBA history.

4. 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (P: 8, T: 8, H: 10)

The ‘Bubble’ Lakers are one of the most disputed champions in history. Unlike some, I’m of the belief that the abnormal, neutral conditions of the Disney World bubble made a championship win harder, and not easier. Not only to mention the Lakers went through the James Harden-led Rockets, Nikola Jokić-led Nuggets and a Jimmy Butler-led Heat, a formidable pathway to capture LeBron’s fourth, and the team’s league-tying 17th championship.

3. 2013 Miami Heat (P: 8, T: 10, H: 9)

This one was an all-time battle. The Spurs and Heat duked it out for seven games in an uber-competitive Finals. However, it wasn’t until there were 5.2 seconds left in Game Six when this series became legendary. Down three, Ray Allen tied the game on arguably the clutchest shot in NBA history. The Heat would go on to win the game in overtime, and the series in seven games. LeBron James went from an “allergic-to-winning” star to an NBA legend in a matter of seconds.

2. 2017 Golden State Warriors (P: 7, T: 11, H: 9)

After a disappointing Finals loss by the greatest regular season team ever, the Warriors added Kevin Durant, arguably a future Hall of Famer, to an already lethal starting lineup. In the season that followed, they went 16–1 in the playoffs en route to a title. Enough said.

1. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (P: 10, T: 8, H: 10)

The 3–1 comeback against the greatest regular season team ever. The legendary game sealing block. The even more legendary post-game quote. The 2016 Cavs pulled off an incredible feat beating the 73–9 Warriors, led by a legendary figure in LeBron James. He brought it home — “Cleveland, this is for you!”