Most Dominant Playoff Teams in NBA History


The Cleveland Cavaliers are on a tear this postseason, having won their first eight games without a single loss and posing a real threat of running straight to the NBA Finals with an undefeated record.

If they were able to pull off such a feat (and when they’re averaging over 19 three-pointers a game over their last four contests at just shy of 51 percent, it’s certainly possible), they’d head into the Finals at 12-0 with an interesting opportunity to place themselves among some of the most dominant playoff teams in NBA history.

Nobody has ever run the table in an NBA postseason, but a handful of teams have come pretty darn close. We all know that, should Cleveland make the Finals, there’s about a zero percent chance that they’d have a shot at sweeping any of the remaining Western Conference teams, including Portland. Still, they’re halfway there, which makes this sort of thing just interesting enough to consider.

Wherever the Cavs end up, here’s a look at the most dominant playoff teams in league history:

#5: 1990-1991 Chicago Bulls (15-2) – Of all the Bulls’ six championships, the first one proved the easiest. They tore through the postseason competition that year like blustering cyclones, opening the playoffs with a 41-point demolition of the New York Knicks. Their only loss outside of the Finals came at the hands of Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, but they swept Isiah Thomas’ defending champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and then lost just Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Magic Johnson’s L.A. Lakers before sweeping the next four, including the last two on the road. And that was how Michael Jordan got his first ring.

#4: 1970-1971 Milwaukee Bucks (12-2) – The 1970s were a different era of basketball, but putting Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson on the same team in any decade would probably still result in a whole lot of wins and probably a championship too. In the 1971 playoffs, Milwaukee absolutely steamrolled through the competition, winning all but one of those 12 victories by double digits. Following their first loss of the postseason, Milwaukee responded by decimating the San Francisco Warriors by 50 points. Then, in the Western Conference Finals, they failed to win any game against the L.A. Lakers by fewer than 18 points. In the Finals they didn’t lose a game, which proved a fitting end of the year for one of the most successful playoff teams ever.

#3: 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls (15-3) – Through three games of the 1996 NBA Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, the Chicago Bulls were 14-1, making it look like a sure thing that they’d be the first team to lose only one postseason game since the playoffs expanded to four rounds. That 72-win squad blew through the playoffs, losing their only game in the first three rounds to the New York Knicks in overtime. The Conference Finals were an embarrassment, as the Bulls toppled the Orlando Magic by 38 points in the first game, and between that sweep and their three consecutive wins to open the Finals, they won seven straight games against teams that had won 60+ wins in the regular season. Those two losses in the Finals brought their momentum to a screeching halt in Games 4 and 5, but they still closed things out for the first of Michael Jordan’s second trio of titles.

#2: 1982-1983 Philadelphia 76ers (12-1) – Any longtime fan of basketball will remember this as the postseason that Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone once projected would go “Fo, fo, fo” – his way of predicting the Sixers wouldn’t lose a single game in the playoffs that year. Coming off a 65-17 season it was audacious but not ridiculous, as Philly had made the Finals and lost just a year ago with Julius Erving, Mo Cheeks and Andrew Toney leading the charge, but then they obtained Malone in the offseason and things really got going from there. Only the Milwaukee Bucks would beat them in those playoffs, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but “Fo, fi, fo” is still pretty impressive and more than enough to place that championship Sixers team among the most successful playoff teams of all time.

#1: 2000-2001 L.A. Lakers (15-1) – No offense to any of these other great teams, but this particular Lakers squad ran though the postseason like no team had ever done before or has done since. Behind Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the 2001 Lakers blasted through the entire Western Conference without losing a single game. The Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs all fell victim to the Lake-Show in four games apiece, with only four of those 12 wins coming within 10 points. The Finals weren’t much different. The only L.A. loss was in Game 1, where it took an overtime and 46 points from Allen Iverson just to win a single contest. The end result was a second-straight ring for Kobe and Shaq, as well as a record .938 playoff winning percentage.

Honorable Mention: 1988-1989 Detroit Pistons (15-2), 1981-1982 L.A. Lakers (12-2), 1998-1999 San Antonio Spurs (15-2), 1986-1987 L.A. Lakers (15-3)

With San Antonio and Golden State still hanging around, Cleveland probably doesn’t have a chance of sniffing history like the aforementioned teams, but through eight games they’ve kept it a possibility. Crazier things certainly have happened.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.