The top 10 champs in the NBA's early years

Originally Published: June 6, 2007
By Ken Shouler | Special to ESPN.com

To accompany the ranking of the past 60 NBA Finals opponents, we're also ranking the top 10 teams from the league's first 30 years, 1947-1976.

These teams are recalled by fewer and fewer people, but their achievements live on in record books and in the minds of those who saw them, and several of them are among the very greatest basketball teams ever.

First, the criteria. To qualify for this list, a team must have won the championship.

So if the 1974 Bucks were more dominant that the 1955 Syracuse Nats -- as I suspect they were -- it doesn't matter here, because the Nats won the world championship and Milwaukee lost to Boston.

We also want to look at a team's regular season and postseason records as well as the average scoring margin.

Finally, we are rating teams, not mere collections of individuals, and want to know which teams had the greatest balance and depth.

Here are the top 10:

Wilt Chamberlain
Associated PressWilt Chamberlain sacrificed his offensive game in 1971-72, but he led the Lakers by playing 42.3 minutes per game at age 35.

1. 1972 Lakers: 69-13, 12-2 playoffs
Wilt Chamberlain played on two championship teams, Philadelphia in 1967 and Los Angeles in 1972. Each is in the conversation when the greatest ever are discussed.

And the '72 Lakers were better.

On Nov. 5, 1971, the Lakers began a winning streak that didn't end until 65 days later, on Jan. 9, 1972 -- they won 33 straight games.

In the 15th straight, at Boston, Jerry West scored 45 points and Gail Goodrich threw in 33.

In the 25th straight, a 154-132 drubbing of the Sixers, Chamberlain, playing his penultimate season, posted 34 points, 32 rebounds and 12 blocks.

The streak ended in a 120-104 loss to the Bucks, who got revenge on Los Angeles for breaking Milwaukee's record of 20 straight, set the year before. Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posted 39 points, 20 rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers' average scoring margin was 17 points for the streak and 12.3 for the entire season -- the latter is still a record. Chamberlain and Happy Hairston each grabbed over 1,000 rebounds that year.

The Lakers' starting five averaged 98.4 points a game, thanks to the 1-2 punch of West and Goodrich. The two combined for 51.7 points a game, the most ever by a guard tandem. Playing with a high-scoring guard for the first time, West won the assist title with 9.7 per game.

The Lakers still had to finish the job. They sailed through the playoffs at a 12-2 clip, beating the New York Knicks in five in the Finals.

And how does the streak stand up?

Since January 1972 only six teams have gotten even halfway to 33.

In 1982, the Boston Celtics won 18 straight (but not the NBA title).

In the 1995-96 campaign, the Chicago Bulls won 18 straight on their way to a record 72-win regular season and their fourth NBA title.

Later in the same season, the San Antonio Spurs won 17 straight games.

During the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers were back with a 19-game winning streak and another championship.

And this season, the Phoenix Suns won 17 straight after another streak of 15 wins. Later, the Dallas Mavericks won 17 straight.

2. 1967 76ers: 68-13, 11-4 playoffs
Poor Chamberlain. He had never scored as little as he did in 1967, his eighth year in the league, when he averaged 24 points, 24 rebounds, and eight assists per game.

The team is notable in three ways.

No team had come near to the 68 wins posted by the Sixers. Also, it ended Boston's run of eight consecutive titles, from 1959 through 1966. Finally, Wilt didn't win the scoring title for the first time in eight years, after averaging 41 points over his first seven games.

"He still handled the ball," said Philadelphia's first-year GM Jack Ramsay. "But he passed it off."

San Francisco's Rick Barry averaged 35 points to take Wilt's scoring title, but the Sixers, with Luke Jackson and future Hall of Famers Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham, who came off the bench, were too much to handle and Philly beat the Warriors in six.

3. 1970 Knicks: 60-22, 12-6 in playoffs
If the 1950s and '60s Celtics had made an annual point of showing that team excellence and balance could defeat a collection of stars, then the 1970 Knicks made the point again, perhaps even more emphatically.

With no scorer in the league's top 10, New York's followed coach Red Holzman's Rx and made helping defense the leitmotif of their season. Its 105.9 points allowed was 5.9 better than runner-up Los Angeles.

Playing against a Los Angeles "team" with Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the three highest all-time playoff scorers to that point, New York prevailed in an epic seven-game struggle. Game 7 began with Willis Reed's inspirational return to action, after injuring his leg in Game 5. But it was finished by Walt Frazier's line for the ages -- 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds and four steals -- that carried the Knicks to a 113-99 victory.

4. 1971 Bucks: 66-16, 12-2 in playoffs
In 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks became the quickest expansion outfit to win a title. Playing just their third season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and company won 66 games and then wiped the deck with everyone in the postseason. It culminated with a sweep of the Baltimore Bullets. Jabbar (31 and 16) won his first of six MVPs in just his second season.

Oscar Robertson sniffed a chance for the title that eluded him over 10 years in Cincinnati. His per-game numbers were down from his best years, but he still finished third in assists. Milwaukee shot an incredible .509 from the field for the regular season, with Jabbar, Bob Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin, and Greg Smith all above 50 percent and Oscar just below (.496). Potent scoring and a differential of 12.2 helped the team to winnings streaks of 10, 16 and then a record 20 (breaking New York's mark of 18 set the year before).

5. 1960 Celtics: 59-16, 8-5 playoffs
Pity the NBA. Boston was just finding its stride. Winning its second straight title on the way to eight in a row, Boston posted the most dominant NBA season since Minneapolis stomped the competition a decade before.

As if sensing the threatening presence of rookie and MVP Norman Wilbur Chamberlain, Boston literally ran the league off the court, fast breaking to a 124.5 points-per-game attack. Talk about balance: with Tommy "Gun" Heinsohn (21.7), Bob Cousy (19.4 and a league best 9.5 assists), Bill Sharman (19.3) Bill Russell (19.3 and a second-best 24 rebounds), and Frank Ramsey (15.3), the Celtics' inaugural sixth man, Boston had it in spades. The bench included Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and two-sport star Gene Conley.

The final against St. Louis went seven games, but Boston won its four by margins of 18, 16, 25 and 19.

6. 1950 Lakers 51-17, 10-2 in post-season
Minneapolis exceeded everyone for two reasons. They had balanced scoring and rebounding from the league's first great frontline of George Mikan, Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen. Moreover, they had the best player in the league in Mikan.

There was no 24-second clock and the league average was 80 points a game, yet Mikan, using bulk and muscle, averaged a very modern 27.4 ppg, grabbing his second of three straight scoring titles.

In a year of expansion when the NBA vaulted from 12 to 17 teams, Minneapolis took no prisoners, racing through Chicago, Fort Wayne, Anderson and finally Syracuse to rack up a 10-2 mark in the postseason. It culminated with Mikan scoring 40 in a 110-95 victory in Game 6.

7. 1965 Boston 62-18, 8-4 in post season
With basketball's first great backcourt of Cousy and Sharman now retired, Sam Jones (25.9) and John Havlicek (18.3) took over the scoring duties for Boston. Red Auerbach's cast was new -- Satch Sanders, Willie Naulls and Larry Siegfried had joined mainstays Russell and Heinsohn -- but the result was old already. It was Boston's seventh consecutive title romp.

The Celtics were so far ahead that Cincinnati couldn't find them after New Year's Day. Boston won by 14 games, but barely got by Philadelphia (40-40) in seven in the Eastern Division finals. It took Havlicek to steal the ball on an inbound pass from Greer for Boston to eek out a 110-109 victory in Game 5. In the Finals against Los Angeles, Boston won in five, including winning margins of 32, 13 and 33 points.

8. 1973 New York, 57-25, 12-5
It was the last hurrah for one of the smartest teams ever assembled. New York had retained its core of Frazier, Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley from the 1970 squad and added two top 50 stars in Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe. Monroe sublimated his individual brilliance to fit New York's hit-the-open-man philosophy. Lucas played 71 games, backing up Reed and his creaky knees. He also hit 51 percent of what Marv Albert called "the bomb," a rainbow that he shot from his hip.

New York was 57-25 in 1973, but Boston won a franchise-best 68 games, and Milwaukee and Los Angeles won 60 each. New York beat two of them in the playoffs.

Boston had won the Atlantic division by 11 games, but New York beat the Celtics in the conference finals, topped off by a 94-78 pasting in Game 7, the first time Boston lost a Game 7 on its home wood.

In the Finals, Bradley led New York in scoring as it defeated the Lakers in five games.

9. 1962 Boston: 60-20, 8-6 in playoffs
After running away with the Eastern Division and beating Philadelphia by 11 games, Boston fought two battles for the ages in the playoffs. The Celtics first had to get by Philadelphia in a nip-and-tuck series. The series went seven games and Boston snuck by 109-107 in Game 7.

In the Finals, after trailing Los Angeles three games to two, the Celtics won in Los Angeles and then back in Boston when Frank Selvy's regulation shot rimmed out and Boston won in overtime 110-107.

10. 1974 Boston: 56-26, 12-6 playoffs
It was five years after Russell retired and general manager Auerbach had not yet answered the challenge that was dinning in his ears: "Let's see you win without him." That changed in 1974. Boston was getting scoring from center Dave Cowens, forward Havlicek and guard Jo Jo White. The punishing rebounding of Cowens and new acquisition Paul Silas helped Boston to its first of two titles in three years, the second coming in 1976.

What made the 1974 team better than the '76 edition was the competition. The 1974 Celtics topped the Bucks, a power in the league since Jabbar's rookie season in 1970. Jabbar was in the top five in shooting, scoring, rebounding and blocks. But, come playoff time, he needed help from the guard position. Oscar Robertson, in his last year, was breaking down, and Jo Jo White and Don Chaney helped stifle the Bucks' offense, which scored in the eighties four times. In Game 7 the Celtics prevailed 102-87.

Honorable Mentions:
Minneapolis, 1949, 44-16 8-2 playoffs
Boston, 1964 59-21, 8-2 playoffs
Boston, 1976 54-28, 12-6 postseason

Kenneth Shouler is the editor of and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Send him questions or comments here.

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.

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