The “most winningest” team in basketball

Rob Boudreau
August 6, 2009

Last week the NFL showed us what parity can do to a league. This week, we’ll see the exact opposite. The National Basketball Association is the youngest of the four major sports by over 25 years, yet two of the most successful franchises in sports history can arguably lay claim to the title of “most winningest”.

It’s the clash of the titans; The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Combined, the two franchises hold 33 of the 72 officially recognized basketball championships. The Lakers won their 16th back in June while just a year earlier, the Celtics got their 17th. With these titles the Boston Celtics have a 26.98 Championship Winning Percentage (CWP), the greatest in all of professional sports, and the Los Angeles Lakers have 25.40 CWP.

There couldn’t be much more different about the two teams. From the West Coasters’ purple and gold to the far opposite end of the country’s Celtic green, the only similarity seems to be each team’s history of success and their date of birth. But how did they get to where they are today?

The Los Angeles Lakers began as the Detroit Gems in the National Basketball League. Lasting just one season in Detroit, the team was bought and moved to Minneapolis where they became the Lakers. In the second last season of the NBL, the Lakers got their first taste of success, beating the Rochester Royals three games to one, and a dynasty was born.

After moving into the BAA/NBA, the Lakers of Minneapolis rolled through the league, winning five more titles in ’49 and ’50, then ’52-’54. But when you’re on top, there’s only one place to go, and for the Lakers, the fall was fast and it was hard.

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In 1959 the Lakers became the first west coast team in the NBA when they were moved by owner Bob Short, but championships were just out of reach in California as the Celtics rose to fame.

It wasn’t until 1972 when the Lakers won their seventh championship. While success was rarely repeated, the Lakers managed to bring home five more titles with players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson, winning for the final time in the 20th century in 1988.

Only with the combined might of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the Lakers able to reclaim the Larry O’Brien Trophy, winning three in a row from 2000-2002, and the Lakers success we know today was solidified.

Meanwhile, across the country the history of the Boston Celtics is quite different. Arriving as one of the inaugural members of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, the Celtics road to glory was slow. It wouldn’t be until 1957 that the Celtics won their first Walter A. Brown Trophy. But from that point on, the Celtics put together the greatest streak of championships in professional sports. If there ever was a dynasty, the 1957-1969 Boston Celtics were it.

Led by Hall of Famers like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and K.C. Jones, the Celtics won eight championships in a row, and 11 of 13 during their dynasty years, beating the Lakers in seven of them.

In 1970, the Celtics had their first losing record in 20 years, and a period of rebuilding began. In 1976, the Celtics won one of the greatest playoff games in NBA history. With the series tied at two, the Celtics took the Phoenix Suns to triple overtime and edged out a 128-126 win, thanks in large part to MVP Jo Jo White. It was the 13th title, and the Celtics added three more in ’81, ’84 and ’86. But like the Lakers, the Celtics fell into a championship drought during the ’90s, not winning again until their NBA-record 17th win in 2008.

Since both teams have existed since 1946, it’s hard to determine which franchise is greater than the other. The Celtics have one more win and the longest streak of wins in sports history, but the Lakers have had more success spread out over a longer period of time, and the Lakers’ longest drought was only 17 years compared to the Celtics’ 21. It may still be many decades before one franchise can truly be called “most winningest”.

Of course, the NBA does have other teams competing for the championship.

Teams that have made an impact on the National Basketball Association’s championship history include the 1948 Baltimore Bullets, who are not the same franchise as the current Washington Bullets/Wizards. Baltimore is the only defunct franchise in BAA/NBA history with a championship.

The Chicago Bulls have the third-most NBA championships with six (13.95 CWP), and I think we all know why. Led by the greatest basketball player of all time Michael Jordan and a supporting cast of players like Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper and Scottie Pippen, the Bulls three-peated twice from ’91-’93 and ’96-’99.

The Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, managed to win back-to-back championships in ’94 and ’95 (4.76 CWP). For the second title run, the Rockets became the first team in NBA history to win a championship as a sixth seed, and also the first to beat four 50-win teams in one post-season.

The Indiana Pacers have three American Basketball Association titles (’70, ’72, ’73, 7.14 CWP) and the New York Nets (now New Jersey) have two (’75, ’76, 4.76 CWP). It might be a blessing for these two teams to have won in the ABA, because it’s not wild to assume that they might be winless if they competed in the NBA during the Celtics/Lakers domination in the 70s.

Special mention has to be given to the Miami Heat in 2006; a team that could do no wrong and ended up winning their first franchise championship (4.76 CWP). Led by off-season acquisition Shaquille O’Neal and NBA Finals MVP Dwayne Wade, the Heat finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and rolled through the playoffs on their way to the Larry O’Brien. Since then, however, the Heat haven’t made it past the first round.

There are 72 officially recognized basketball champions. Each of the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Spurs and Pistons have four or more, but those five teams combine for 48 of them. Clearly, the NBA is a league of powerhouses. Next week, we’ll examine the last of the major sports’ history of champions: baseball.

The table below is accurate as of June 12, 2011. The article itself is only accurate of its publication date. -TheGP

Team EST. Years Wins CWP
Boston Celtics 1946 65 17 26.15
Los Angeles Lakers 1946 65 16 24.62
Chicago Bulls 1966 45 6 13.33
San Antonio Spurs 1967 44 4 9.09
Detroit Pistons 1941 70 5 7.14
Indiana Pacers 1967 44 3 6.82
Golden State Warriors 1946 65 3 4.62
Houston Rockets 1967 44 2 4.55
New Jersey Nets 1967 44 2 4.55
Miami Heat 1988 23 1 4.35
Philadelphia 76ers 1939 72 3 4.17
Dallas Mavericks 1980 31 1 3.23
New York Knicks 1946 65 2 3.08
Sacramento Kings 1945 66 2 3.03
Portland Trail Blazers 1970 41 1 2.44
Milwaukee Bucks 1968 43 1 2.33
Oklahoma City Thunder 1967 44 1 2.27
Washington Wizards 1961 50 1 2.00
Atlanta Hawks 1946 65 1 1.54
Charlotte Bobcats 2004 7 0 0.00
Cleveland Cavaliers 1970 41 0 0.00
Denver Nuggets 1967 44 0 0.00
Los Angeles Clippers 1970 41 0 0.00
Memphis Grizzlies 1995 16 0 0.00
Minnesota Timberwolves 1989 22 0 0.00
New Orleans Hornets 1988 23 0 0.00
Orlando Magic 1989 22 0 0.00
Phoenix Suns 1968 43 0 0.00
Toronto Raptors 1995 16 0 0.00
Utah Jazz 1974 37 0 0.00


(July 23) – The “most winningest” team in hockey

(July 30) – The “most winningest” team in football

(August 13) – The “most winningest” team in baseball

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The Author:

Rob Boudreau