Ranking the Best NBA Finals of the Last 25 Years
A third consecutive meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals will surely go down as an instant classic. Each team has won once, making this the rubber match — assuming they don’t meet up for a fourth time next season. So we took a look back at some of the greatest, most enjoyable NBA Finals in recent memory. Here are the best series of the last 25 years, ranked from least to most memorable.
25. Lakers vs. Nets (2002)
Back in the 2001–02 season, the Los Angeles Lakers finished off their third consecutive NBA championship. Back then, the extremely weak Eastern Conference was basically nothing more than the sacrificial lamb to the team that made it to the finals from the West. This season, the East sacrificed Jason Kidd’s 52-30 New Jersey Nets.
In the series, Shaquille O’Neal led the way with 36.3 points per game, while Kobe Bryant averaged 26.8 points in the four-game sweep. The Lakers won by an average of 9.2 points per contest, but three of the four games were within six points.
24. Rockets vs. Magic (1995)
Going into the 1994–95 NBA Finals, the Orlando Magic were heavy favorites against Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. While Houston was the reigning NBA champion, the Magic finished 10 games better than the Rockets during the regular season and thus had the homecourt advantage. But this series didn’t end up being all that close.
The Rockets took a two-point win in Game 1, then won the next three straight games by an average of 8.6 points. Olajuwon had a tremendous performance, averaging 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game in the four-game sweep.
23. Spurs vs. Cavaliers (2007)
Despite a 50-32 finish that saw them grab the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a run all the way to the NBA Finals in 2006–07. But LeBron James wasn’t ready to win, it seems, taking a team that featured Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson as supporting players up against the San Antonio Spurs and their trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.
The Spurs swept the Cavs in four games, although two of the games were tight until the end. Parker led the Spurs with 24.5 points per game while the 22-year-old James dropped averages of 22 points, seven rebounds, and 6.8 assists.
22. Lakers vs. Magic (2009)
The 2008–09 season gave us yet another example of an Eastern Conference team that was completely undermatched against the West. The Los Angeles Lakers — with Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom — returned to the NBA Finals and faced off against the Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard. The second-best player on that Magic team? Rashard Lewis. Kobe averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists per game, taking the series in five games. Orlando’s one victory was a 108-104 affair in Game 3, but they had to shoot 62.5% as a team to pull off the four-point win.
21. Lakers vs. 76ers (2001)
Fans remember the 2000–01 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers as a more exciting matchup than it really was. This had to do with the Sixers pulling off a Game 1 stunner, beating the Lakers on the road in overtime. That was the famous Allen Iverson “step over” moment with Tyronn Lue. But from that point on, the series wasn’t competitive. LA won the next four straight games, taking their second consecutive NBA championship. Shaquille O’Neal finished the series with 33 points and 15.8 rebounds averages per game.
20. Spurs vs. Knicks (1999)
We’ll always remember the New York Knicks for being the first (and to date, only) eighth-seeded team to make it all the way to the NBA Finals (This occurred during the lockout-shortened 1999 season). Once there, however, they ran into the budding San Antonio Spurs dynasty.
Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott and company took care of the Knicks — who were missing Patrick Ewing — in just five games. Tim Duncan averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds while Latrell Sprewell dropped 35 in the deciding Game 5. Another weird note? The shot clocks stopped working in the final game, and the NBA had to put clocks on the floor along the baseline.
19. Heat vs. Thunder (2012)
After so many tries, James finally got his first NBA championship in the 2011–12 season. And truthfully, he wasn’t challenged nearly as much as you’d think by an Oklahoma City Thunder team featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The Thunder took Game 1 at home behind 36 from Durant, but the Heat won the next four straight games to claim the title. LeBron averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game and took home the MVP award.
18. Spurs vs. Nets (2003)
After losing the 2001–02 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, the New Jersey Nets made another run at it after a 49-33 season in 2002–03. The bad news for the Nets: The 60-22 San Antonio Spurs returned to the finals after a three-year absence — and this was their year. The Nets actually stole Game 2 behind 30 points from Jason Kidd in San Antonio, and after four games this series was tied at 2-2. But Tim Duncan was a monster in the final two games, scoring 29 in Game 5 and dropping a 21 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist triple-double in Game 6.
17. Spurs vs. Heat (2014)
The Miami Heat had won the championship two years in a row, including a beatdown of the San Antonio Spurs in 2012–13. In 2013–14, they entered a rematch between the two teams. Rumors about James’ pending free agency undercut the series, which is where a lot of the intrigue came from. The Heat had become an NBA villain, and the Spurs took them apart. The series went five games, but it wasn’t close. The average margin of victory for San Antonio was 14 points, and Kawhi Leonard came away with the MVP award by averaging 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, and outstanding defense throughout.
16. Pistons vs. Lakers (2004)
The Los Angeles Lakers were heavy favorites coming into the 2003–04 season after the Spurs had snapped their three-year run of championships. However, LA had brought in Gary Payton and an aging Karl Malone during the offseason.
The Lakers went to the NBA Finals, but they ran into a surprising Detroit Pistons team, led by Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, and Ben Wallace. The teams split the two games in Los Angeles, and the Pistons took all three in Detroit by an average of 13.6 points. This one ranks as one of the biggest upsets in recent history. However, it’s important to point out that Malone was hurt and only averaged five points in four games.
15. Bulls vs. Sonics (1996)
After a two-year hiatus, the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan returned to the NBA Finals in 1995–96. They went 72-10 in the regular season and set the record for the most wins in NBA history. Chicago stormed their way to the NBA Finals to meet the Seattle SuperSonics, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. And the Bulls were the clear favorite. Despite losing two straight games in Seattle to tie the series at 2-2, the Bulls were never going to lose this one. Jordan averaged 27.3 points per game in the six-game series.
14. Bulls vs. Trail Blazers (1992)
Coming off their first title in 1991, the 1991–92 Chicago Bulls had a strong grip on the rest of the league. They went 67-15 during the regular season and stormed their way to the finals, meeting up with Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, who lost to the Pistons two years prior. The most memorable moment of this series: Jordan hit five three-pointers in a 122-89 Game 1 Bulls victory. Chicago took the series in four games, with Jordan averaging 35.8 points and 6.5 assists per game.
13. Lakers vs. Pacers (2000)
The first year after Jordan’s second retirement, the San Antonio Spurs won the championship in. Then, it was the Los Angeles Lakers’ turn. Their first in the string of three straight titles came against the Indiana Pacers, featuring Reggie Miller and a soon-to-be-retired Rik Smits. The Lakers took a 3-1 lead before getting blown out in Game 5 at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, 120-87.
But back in LA for Game 6, Shaq and Kobe took care of business. O’Neal dropped 41 points in the game, while guard Ron Harper played a huge role in the series. He averaged 10.8 points and 4.8 assists, providing a stable voice in the huddle from a three-time champion.
12. Heat vs. Mavericks (2006)
In the 2005–06 season, Shaquille O’Neal and a young Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. They met up with Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, and the favored Mavs took a 2-0 series lead with victories on their home court by an average of 12 points per contest. But the Heat stormed back, winning the next four straight games and taking the series. Wade was on another level, averaging 16.1 free-throw attempts per game and 34.7 points per game.
11. Warriors vs. Cavaliers (2015)
In his first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James took his team to the NBA Finals to play the Golden State Warriors. The Cavs got off to a great start, taking a 2-1 series lead. But the Warriors came back with three straight to close things out in Game 6. Despite posting a solid stat line of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, James was held to just 39.8% shooting from the field and 31% from three-point range. Andre Iguodala received the series MVP honors, in large part because of his defense in the final three games.
10. Celtics vs. Lakers (2008)
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers rekindled an old rivalry in the 2007–08 season, meeting up in the NBA Finals for the 11th time in the history of the two franchises, and the first since 1984–85. The Celtics were in the first year of the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen era, while the Lakers just got back to the finals with Kobe Bryant for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal left for Miami. Boston was the favored team in the series and they never trailed, closing things out in Game 6 with a 131-92 blowout. That was an anticlimactic finish to an otherwise intriguing series.
9. Heat vs. Spurs (2013)
The San Antonio Spurs were in the driver’s seat during the 2013 NBA Finals against James and the Miami Heat, leading the series 3-2 in and needing to grab just one defensive rebound in Game 6 to seal the deal. James missed a potential game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds, but Chris Bosh grabbed the offensive board and got it to Ray Allen in the corner. Allen tied the game, the Heat won in overtime, and then in Game 7. This fun series swung on a single, key moment.
8. Bulls vs. Suns (1993)
In 1992–93, Michael Jordan faced off against the Phoenix Suns in Charles Barkley’s only appearance in the NBA Finals. The Suns had the home-court advantage, having gone 62-20 with Barkley as the MVP during the regular season.
The Bulls won the first two games on the road, but Barkley’s Suns rebounded to win two of three in Chicago. The Bulls took Game 6, but it was close until the very end. Jordan gave up the ball in the final seconds and guard John Paxson hit the game-winning three-pointer, sealing a 99-98 victory. Jordan had one of the best NBA Finals performances of all time, averaging 41 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists.
7. Bulls vs. Jazz (1997)
Once again, Jordan was magnificent as he won an NBA championship. In 1996–97, the Bulls were 69-13 (following up their 72-10 season) and marched their way to their first meeting with the Utah Jazz in the finals. This was a close series; the Bulls’ average margin of victory was less than one point. They took the finals in six games, this time with Steve Kerr getting the pass from Jordan to nail the game-winning jumper in Game 6. Jordan averaged 32.3 points, seven rebounds, and six assists in the series and hit a game-winner at the buzzer in Game 1.
6. Lakers vs. Celtics (2010)
After getting embarrassed in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers got their revenge two years later in one of the best finals series’ ever. It went the full seven games, with the Celtics leading 3-2 before the Lakers stormed back to take the final two games on their home court. In those two games, the Celtics averaged an ugly 73 points as a team. Kobe Bryant led the way for the series, averaging 28.6 points per game.
5. Spurs vs. Pistons (2005)
Another classic NBA Finals series that went the full seven games: the 2004–05 series between the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs. The Pistons were the reigning champions, but the Spurs had won two titles in the last six years. The two teams split the first four before the Spurs took the advantage with a Game 5 win in Detroit. The Pistons returned the favor, beating San Antonio on their home court in Game 6. That brought a winner-take-all Game 7, which the Spurs won 81-74. That game was tied after three quarters, but some key fourth quarter baskets by Tim Duncan pushed the Spurs over the top.
4. Rockets vs. Knicks (1994)
The 1993–94 season was the first one since Michael Jordan retired to go play minor-league baseball. The Houston Rockets first took advantage of Jordan’s absence, with Hakeem Olajuwon leading them to the NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. New York took the 3-2 advantage back to Houston for Game 6, but Olajuwon led the Rockets to two consecutive victories. Knicks guard John Starks took heat for his poor Game 7 performance, shooting 2-for-18 and 0-for-11 on three-pointers in the 90-84 loss.
3. Mavericks vs. Heat (2011)
The team had changed a lot, but the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki got their chance for revenge against the Miami Heat in 2010–11. Now featuring James with Wade and Bosh, the Heat took a 2-1 series lead and “The Big Three” seemed on their way to dancing with their first trophy as a collective. But Dirk and his group of role players came back, winning three in a row and taking the title in six games. Nowitzki got the finals MVP for his 26 point, 9.7 rebound performance, while Jason Terry dropped 27 points off the bench in Game 6.
2. Bulls vs. Jazz (1998)
The 1997–98 NBA Finals is an all-time classic. The Utah Jazz were actually favored against the two-time champion, banged-up Chicago Bulls. Malone averaged 25 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in the series, which was close other than the Game 3 blowout when the Jazz set an NBA Finals record with 54 points (the fewest ever). Jordan was iconic, dropping 45 points in the decided Game 6 — including the game-winner that will be remembered forever as his last shot in a Bulls uniform.
1. Cavaliers vs. Warriors (2016)
The 2015–16 NBA Finals is the best of the last 25 years for a lot of reasons. It featured the 73-9 Golden State Warriors — who broke the 1996 Bulls record for wins in the regular season — in a rematch with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors went out to a 3-1 series lead, looking to become back-to-back champions. But the Cavs won the last three games, with Game 7 coming down to a tense final few minutes that included a James chase-down blocked shot and a huge Kyrie Irving three-pointer. James averaged 28.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists in the series while Irving averaged 27.1 points.