Editor's note: This list was originally published during the 2009 Finals and has been updated through the 2011 Finals.
For both the regular season and playoffs, I looked at two factors: win-loss record and average scoring margin. Every regular-season win was worth two points, with the 1999 participants having their wins prorated to an 82-game season. Similarly, every playoff win was worth four points, but each playoff loss docked a team four points -- this helped differentiate between champions who went 15-2 (like the 1991 Bulls) and those who went 15-9 (like the 1988 Lakers).
For scoring margin, I took the team's season scoring margin and divided by 15; basically, a one-point-per-game increase was worth 5.47 points in this formula. For playoff scoring margin, I did the same thing but multiplied by four -- since most teams played about four times as many regular-season games as playoff games, this made the two virtually equal.
Finally, I added 15 points to the score of each team that won a championship. Why 15? First, because that amount meant that every champion rated ahead of the runner-up from the same season, and second, because the valuation seemed about right -- the same as 7.5 regular-season wins.
From there, only one other tweak was necessary: adjusting for those teams in the earlier years that didn't have as many early-round playoff games in which to rack up points. Teams that didn't play a first-round series got 12 extra points; teams that played a best-of-three got six points; teams that played a best-of-five got three points. That's an approximation, obviously, but it mirrored what other teams in their situation actually did.
There have been 35 NBA Finals matchups since the NBA-ABA merger, so we at ESPN.com decided to rank all 70 teams that have played on the NBA's biggest stage in the modern era.
Of course, that means we're sorting out the greatest of the great, and you can find those teams listed below.
But it also means that we have to find a place for an NBA Finals team that finished the season with a 40-42 record, believe it or not -- you can find it here.
And, yes, we've figured out the worst NBA champion of the past 35 years -- no, it's not the 2006 Miami Heat, though they were close.
As you might have guessed, I devised a little formula to help me get through this task.
My premise was to look at three factors in rating greatness: regular-season performance, postseason performance and, finally, whether the team won a championship.
See the box to the right for all the gory details.
As you'll see, the way the numbers shook out produced a ranking that conformed very much with conventional wisdom, with a few interesting exceptions.
In other words, the list below is how I'd rank them even without a formula, more or less, but it's nice to know the numbers have my back.
Now, on to the list:
Hands down, the greatest team of all time. How could you choose another when these guys won 72 regular-season games and 14 of their first 15 in the postseason? The Bulls were so good they were first in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and outscored their opponents by 12.2 points per game.
With names like Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Toni Kukoc, not to mention a coach like Phil Jackson, this team was pretty much unbeatable -- in fact, seven of its playoff wins were by 17 points or more. The only nit to pick was the Bulls' consecutive losses to the Sonics in the Finals, but they were up 3-0 by then and seemingly bored with how good they were.
Fittingly, the great Lakers and Celtics teams are in a virtual dead heat for second place. (You'll note that I just call the Lakers "Los Angeles" in this list -- no risk of confusing them with the Clippers here.) This L.A. team nudged ahead of Boston by virtue of winning 65 games in the regular season and then trashing the West -- 11 wins in 12 games -- to make the Finals. The Lakers beat the Celtics in six, and for the playoffs as a whole outscored their opponents by 205 points -- the best of any team on this list. Seven different players averaged double figures, led by Magic with 23.9 points per game.
The Celtics won 67 games in '86 behind the best frontcourt ever assembled -- Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton -- and followed it up by stampeding through the playoffs in 15 games. They rank behind L.A. mostly because their victory margin wasn't as strong in the playoffs. On the other hand, this isn't a bad list to be No. 3 on. And few teams will ever have five players averaging at least 15 a game in the playoffs, as Boston's legendary quintet did in this postseason.
The Bulls' first championship team won "only" 61 games, but had a very impressive victory margin (plus-9.1 per game, the sixth-best on the list) and absolutely romped in the playoffs. Chicago's 15-2 mark in the postseason was amazing, considering it knocked off a two-time champion in four games (Detroit) followed by a four-time champion in five (the Lakers). The Bulls' plus-11.6 playoff victory margin ranks second among the 60 teams. Only three players averaged double figures, but I guess that's not a problem when one of them scores 34.0 per game.
So much for championship hangovers. The '96 Bulls were the best ever, but their successors weren't exactly chopped liver. Chicago won 69 games -- which would have tied the record were it not for the 72 wins the previous season -- and the Bulls' plus-10.8 average victory margin was also second only to the '96 edition. Their longest losing streak was two games, for crying out loud. They weren't quite as strong in the playoffs, needing six tough games to outlast the Jazz in the Finals and dropping two other postseason games, but they were plenty good. Amazingly, Jordan and Pippen were the only Bulls to average more than eight points a game in the postseason -- but 11 guys saw regular action.
The Lakers were so good in '85 and '87 that it's hard to fathom how they lost in five games to Houston in the year between. This edition won 62 games, went on an 11-2 romp through the Western Conference playoffs, then slew the leprechauns by winning Game 6 in Boston Garden to claim the title.
For the postseason, L.A.'s average scoring margin narrowly missed topping the list -- amazing considering that the Lakers lost the "Boston Massacre" 148-114 in Game 1 of the Finals. But 10 of their 15 playoff wins came by 16 points or more -- including a win by 24 points or more in every round -- showing just how dominant these Lakers were.
These Bulls had a great regular-season run, winning 67 games and joining the '96 and '97 editions as the only teams on the list to have an average scoring margin of plus-10 or more in the regular season. The playoffs were a different story, however -- the Knicks nearly knocked them off in Round 2, and they lost by 26 at home to Cleveland in the conference finals before righting their ship and winning the title. Their seven postseason losses are the most of any team in the top 15. As with the '97 team, everyone got involved -- the Bulls used 11 players regularly and clinched the title in Game 6 against Portland when 12th man Bobby Hansen led a huge fourth-quarter rally.
A forgotten great team because of the lockout, the Spurs began the year 6-8 … and then went 46-7 the rest of the way, with nary a losing streak. An awesome defensive squad led by big men David Robinson and Tim Duncan, San Antonio's 84.7 points allowed per game is far and away the least of any of these 70 squads. That 15-2 postseason mark ain't too shabby either, including sweeps of the Blazers and Lakers. So stingy was the defense that only twice in 17 playoff games did San Antonio's opponent muster 90 points.
Kobe Bryant's first title team sans Shaq -- and Phil Jackson's record 10th as a coach -- was also the best of the Jackson era. That may surprise some who saw Shaq's teams steamroll to three straight titles, but those squads never had a dominating regular season and a dominating playoff run in the same season. This edition of L.A. was pretty strong in both respects, winning 65 times in the regular season and losing only seven times in the postseason; L.A.'s plus-166 playoff scoring margin is seventh all-time.
The Celtics set a record for a champion with 10 postseason losses, so it's a bit of a surprise that they cracked the top 10. But a strong postseason combined with an impressive average margin in the playoffs put them ahead of every Bird-McHale team but one. Certainly helping the Celtics' cause was the 132-93 rout of the Lakers in the clincher, but they also won playoff games by 14,16,19, 23, 25 and 34.