The Los Angeles Lakers may now be tied with archrival Boston Celtics with the most championships in the National Basketball Association, but make no mistake about it, the 17th ‘chip that LeBron James and company delivered in the Orlando bubble has made the Purple & Gold the most successful team in the history of the Association.
The bulk of Celtics championships came thanks to the great Bob Cousy and defensive demon Bill Russell (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969) with the two in 1970s (1974 and 1976) coming courtesy of Dave Cowens and John “Hondo” Havlicek. The original Big 3 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish then were responsible for the Shamrock’s three championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986 before the next Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen gave the Celtics their latest Larry O’Brien trophy in 2008.
The Lakers’ ‘chips, meanwhile, were more spread out—literally by geography and by years—with the franchise’s first five titles in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954 coming when the franchise was still in Minneapolis led by the NBA’s first dominant big man, George Mikan.
It will take 18 long years and a lot of heartache at the hands of Russell and the Celtics before the Lakers would come back to the Promised Land. Now known as the Los Angeles Lakers after their move West in 1960, the Purple & Gold won it all again in 1972 at the backs of their aging stars Wilt Chamberlain and “The Logo” Jerry West.
After Chamberlain and West retired in 1973 and 1974, respectively, the Lakers finally had its next superstar big man when they traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, but it would take another five years before LAL tasted a championship again with The Captain joining forces with rookie Magic Johnson in 1980 to beat the “Dr. J” Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. Magic jumped at center in Game 6 and finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists to win Finals MVP honors. LAL didn’t really expect to win in Game 6 and that’s why they opted to leave an injured Kareem in LA to recuperate for the do-or-die Game 7, but Magic had other plans.
Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, with James Worthy and Byron Scott later joining them to form the Showtime Lakers, accounted for four more LAL championships in 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant then gave the NBA’s latest three-peat after Jordan’s Bulls (in 1991-1993 and 1996-1998) when they reached the NBA mountaintop in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Kobe then reaffirmed owner Jerry Buss’ decision to pick him over The Big Diesel by delivering them the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2009 and 2010 with lots of help from Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and the player formerly known as Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace).
By virtue of the Lakers’ 17 championships coming in seven different decades—’40s, ’50, ’70s, ’80, 2000s, and 2010s, and 2020—as against the Celts’ 17 titles in five—’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and 2000s—the Lakers have the Celtics beat. The Celtics’ last hurrah also came in 2008—that was 12 years ago! Since then the Lakers have rang the bell thrice—2009, 2019, and 2020 to finally match Boston in the number of the championships.
In terms of finals appearances, the Lakers also have 32 as against the Celtics’ 21, so it’s very clear that the Lakers have been contenders in more years than the Celtics.
It’s also interesting that both the Lakers and Celtics laid big fat eggs in the 1990s, as Magic’s premature retirement due to AIDS, the tragic deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and Jordan and the Bulls’ ascension set the two franchises back before returning to championship contention in the 2000s.
Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were the kings of the hill in the 1990s as they won all six of their championships that decade (1991-93, 1996-1998). The first three-peat had Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and B.J. Armstrong as constants, while the second three-peat were anchored again by the NBA’s best Dynamic Duo plus Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, and Ron Harper. Mentoring both teams was legendary coach Phil Jackson, who also coached the Lakers’ championships in the Shaq and Kobe era and the Black Mamba’s No. 24 years in 2009 and 2010.
Tying the former terri-Bulls in the number of championships are the Golden State Warriors. We all know that they’ve won three in 2015, 2017, and 2018 with their “cheat code” lineup of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, but they also won in 1947 and 1956 as the Philadelphia Warriors before relocating to Oakland in 1965. The 1947 team was bannered by “Jumping Joe” Fulks, one of the NBA’s first superstars, while the 1956 team was led by Paul Arizin, who was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996. They also won in 1975 with a team bannered by underhand free throw maestro Rick Barry (the father of former NBA players Brent and Drew).
Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers actually shared the spotlight in the 2000s with the San Antonio Spurs, which is fifth in the list with five championships. The former American Basketball Association franchise won its first title in 1999 with Twin Towers David Robinson and Tim Duncan carrying the team on their broad shoulders. They’d win it all again in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014 with all-stars Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard back-stopping The Big Fundamental following The Admiral’s retirement.
Three teams are tied in the pecking order of franchises with the most championships, as the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, Fort Wayne/Detroit Pistons, and Miami Heat have each won three.
The 76ers took their first championship as the Syracuse Nationals in 1955 with 12-time NBA All-Star Dolph Schayes leading them. They won again in 1967 with Chamberlain, Hall Greer, and Billy “Kangaroo Kid” Cunningham ending the Celtics’ dynastic eight straight championships. The City of Brotherly Love then won its last title in 1983 with a roster made of up Dr. J, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks.
The Bad Boys broke LAL’s ambitions of a three-peat by sweeping the Magic-less Lakers in 1989. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Aguirre, and a young Dennis Rodman would repeat a year later in 1990. In 2004, Detroit would shock the world by dispatching a Lakers lineup made up of four future Hall of famers (Shaq, Kobe, Karl “The Mailman” Malone, and Gary “The Glove” Payton) in five games in the finals.
The youngest franchise in the list is the Miami Heat (it was awarded an expansion franchise in 1988). A relatively short 18 years later, the Heat won its first of three championships with Dwyane Wade playing like a man possessed in the last four games of the 2004 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks when he averaged an incredible 39.2 points per game. The Heat would form its own version of the Big 3 in 2011 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Wade on South Beach and while they didn’t win “not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7…” championships, they were able to host championship parades along Biscayne Boulevard in 2012 and 2013.
The list of teams with multiple championships end with the Houston Rockets, the Baltimore/Washington Bullets/Washington Wizards, and the New York Knicks (yes, long suffering Knickerbocker fans your team wasn’t always hot garbage). The Rockets were the prime benefactor of Jordan’s dalliance with baseball in 1994 when Hakeem Olajuwon and a roster full of solid role players beat Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in seven games in an NBA Finals that has forever been dubbed “ugly-ball.”
The following year in 1995, Rockets retooled by trading for Olajuwon’s Phi Slama Jama running mate Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and sixth-seeded Houston became the NBA’s lowest seed to win a championship. In the finals, The Dream ran circles around Shaq and Houston swept the Orlando Magic in four games.
The present day Washington Wizards first tasted championship glory in 1948 as the Baltimore Bullets. Thirty years later, the Washington Bullets won it all with Elvin “The Big E” Hayes and Bobby Dandridge leading the way.
Last but not the least, the Knicks won their first title in 1970 behind the all-star Mutt-and-Jeff combination of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. They beat the Lakers in seven games with Game 7 being the memorable Reed game where the hobbled center started and hit his first two shots to inspire New York to the win and the championship. Led by Frazier again in 1973, the Knicks brought home the bacon again at the expense of the Lakers.
Eight other franchises have one NBA championships—the Rochester/Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City/Sacramento Kings in 1951, the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks in 1958, the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder in 1979, the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, and the Toronto Raptors in 2019.