NBA Royalty: Changing of the Guard

Synopsis: Every decade, the NBA seems to have a proverbial changing of the guard. Unlike the daily ceremony at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, the revolving door of NBA royalty doesn’t obey a specific schedule. That being said, NBA dynasties historically have fit a recurring time frame such that the team or player’s first title comes towards the beginning and final title comes towards the end of each decade. Supporting this claim, the range of titles for the game’s most dominant players from the last three full decades include: Magic Johnson [1980-1988]; Larry Bird [1981-1986]; Michael Jordan [1991-1998]; Shaquille O’Neal [2000-2006]; and Kobe Bryant [2000-2010]. Assuming LeBron James wins at least one more title this decade, the trend should continue. The one notable exception is Tim Duncan who won his first title in 1999 and most recent title in 2014. Then again, as someone who is often overlooked as one of the game’s most dominant players, “King Duncan” seems to the get the short end of the stick just like his fictional namesake from Macbeth.


As the following chronology will show, the NBA repeatedly has been dominated by superstar players who have won championships in bunches. By doing so, they have been involved in the creation of dynasties and have earned the right to be called NBA royalty. For purposes of this discussion, I have established three titles as the minimum threshold for a team to be called a dynasty or for a player to rise to level of NBA royalty. While certainly respectable, teams or players with only two championships (e.g. the Detroit Pistons and Isaish Thomas in the late 80s/early 90s, the Houston Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon in the mid 90s) don’t meet this minimum requirement.

With only two titles during his 14-year career, Wilt Chamberlain is often excluded from the discussion as the NBA’s G.O.A.T. (i.e. Greatest Of All-Time); however, he’s a lock as the league’s Most DoPE (i.e. Most Dominant Player Ever). To support this contention, I wrote a post detailing all of the rule changes (e.g. offensive goal-tending, widening the lane from 12′ to 16′, restricting lane access on a free throw) which were implemented in an attempt to curtail Chamberlain’s dominance. Perhaps the only other player who could lay claim to the title of Most DoPE was George Mikan, who was responsible for the rules establishing defensive goal-tending, widening the lane from 6′ to 12′, and the 24-second clock.

1950s: George Mikan and the Minnesota Lakers


Mikan’s rise to dominance began in college as a three-time 1st Team All-American for DePaul. After graduation, he joined the Chicago American Gears and led them to the 1947 National Basketball League (NBL) Championship during his rookie season. Despite winning the title, the Gears left to become part of the short-lived Professional Basketball League of America. When the PBLA folded after only two weeks of games, its players entered the NBL dispersal draft. Taken as the first pick in that draft by the Minneapolis Lakers, Mikan proved his worth by winning the league MVP and leading the Lakers to the 1948 NBL Championship for his second consecutive title. After the season, the Lakers switched leagues and joined the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Despite the change in leagues, Mikan continued to dominate. Specifically, he won the scoring title with a 28.3 points per game average and led the Lakers to the 1949 BAA Championship for his third consecutive title. After the season, the BAA merged with the NBL and the NBA was born. As an indication of the seemingly fickle allegiance of professional basketball franchises at the time, Mikan’s championship teams changed leagues after each of his first three seasons as a professional.

In the NBA’s inaugural season, Mikan led the league in scoring with a 27.4 ppg average. In the playoffs, he upped his production to 31.3 ppg as the Lakers won the 1950 NBA Championship for his fourth consecutive title. Mikan led the league in scoring again during the following regular season with a 28.4 ppg average but was unable to take the Lakers to another title after fracturing his leg during the playoffs. The Lakers’ absence from the Finals was only temporary, however, because they won three more titles from 1952-54 (i.e. the original “Three-peat”). During the NBA’s first five seasons, Mikan led the league in scoring twice and rebounding twice, but most impressively won four rings. With a resume that included titles in 7 of 8 seasons (including precursor leagues), Mikan became the NBA’s first legendary player and earned the name of “Mr Basketball” (although King George would have worked as well).

1960s: Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics


In the 1960s, the NBA was dominated by two of the game’s all-time greats: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. During the decade, Chamberlain achieved tremendous individual success and led the league in points seven times, rebounds eight times, and assists once. Russell also put up impressive individual numbers (e.g. he led the lead in rebounds twice during the 60s), but his noteworthy accomplishments related more to his team’s success. Each player won four MVP awards during the decade, but Russell won the most meaningful hardware by having a nine to one edge over Chamberlain in ring count. Including the last three years of the 1950s, Russell and the Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years. Given changes to the NBA since then (e.g. increase in the number of teams, implementation of a salary cap, opportunities through free agency, and elimination of regional draft picks), that record will never be broken.

While Russell was the most important player during the Celtics’ dynasty from 1957-69, the team also had a consistent supporting cast of superstars, such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, John Havlicek and Sam Jones. In contrast, Chamberlain didn’t have the same consistency while playing for three teams during the same time period (i.e. the Philadelphia / San Francisco Warriors from 1960-1964; Philadelphia 76ers from 1965-68; and Los Angeles Lakers from 1969-73). As shown by the following table, Russell and Chamberlain met up eight times in the playoffs during the 1960s with the Russell having a 7-1 record in those head-to-head series.


Final Game of Series
Year Series Winner Score Points (Wilt vs. Russell)

Free Throws (Wilt)


Eastern Finals BOS (4-2) 119-117 26 vs. 25 10-16 (62.5%)
1962 Eastern Finals BOS (4-3) 109-107 22 vs. 19

8-9 (88.9%)


NBA Finals BOS (4-1) 105-99 30 vs. 14 6-9 (66.7%)
1965 Eastern Finals BOS (4-3) 110-109 30 vs. 15

6-13 (46.2%)


Eastern Finals BOS (4-1) 120-112 46 vs. 18 8-25 (32.0%)
1967 Eastern Finals PHI (4-1) 140-116 29 vs. 4

9-17 (52.9%)


Eastern Finals BOS (4-3) 100-96 14 vs. 12 4-10 (40.0%)
1969 NBA Finals BOS (4-3) 108-106 18 vs. 6

4-13 (30.8%)

Perhaps most interesting about the meetings between these titans is that they played in four Game 7s with Russell winning all four by a combined total of nine points. Going deeper into the box scores, I noticed that three of those games could have had entirely different outcomes if Chamberlain had simply hit a few more free throws. Imagine the impact that those few points could have made in the way we remember NBA history. Then again,


Russell and the Celtics finished the decade by losing only one out of 29 playoff series: the 1967 Eastern Division Finals against Chamberlain and the Sixers. Playing alongside Hall of Famers Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham that season, Chamberlain helped lead the Sixers to 68 regular season victories (still the fourth most ever) en route to winning the 1967 NBA Championship (the only one not won by Boston in the 1960s). Given Russell’s dominance and success, he earned the royal name of “Lord of the Rings.”

1970s: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem showing off his “sky hook,” which was perhaps the hardest shot to defend in NBA history. If Wilt couldnt’ block it, no one could.

Whereas Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the most dominant player during the 1970s with five MVP awards, there was no dominant team as only the Knicks and Celtics won multiple championships with two each. Arguably, the 1970s reflected more of an egalitarian approach to winning with many all-time greats getting a chance to experience a championship at least once. For instance, titles were won by Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Willis Reed (2), Walt Frazier (2), Earl Monroe, Rick Barry, John Havlicek (2), Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, and Elvin Hayes.

Whether coincidental or not, the lack of team dominance during the 70s occurred while the NBA faced its biggest threat as a league. Due in part to a difference in draft eligibility requirements, the American Basketball Association (ABA) had an advantage attracting some of the best talent of the decade. Who knows what would have happened if ABA greats like Artis Gilmore, Julius Erving, David Thompson, Moses Malone, and George Gervin had gone directly to the NBA instead? Regardless, the eventual merger of the two leagues helped change the game for the better by consolidating player talent and adding flair such as the 3-point line and the slam dunk contest. Well, the NBA dunk contest used to be one of the highlights of the season.

After second thought, perhaps the league was weak because of the lack of team dominance instead of the other way around. For instance, let’s say the distribution of titles in the 1990s was more similar to the 1970s. In that case, the titles would have been shared more equally such that an allocation of rings might have included: Michael Jordan (2); Hakeem Olajuwon (2); Karl Malone (2); Charles Barkley (1); Patrick Ewing (1); David Robinson (1); and Isaiah Thomas (1). While that outcome might have cemented the legacies of a few more all-time greats, it probably wouldn’t have helped the league become as successful of a business considering how much the legend of MJ with his six titles elevated the sport’s popularity worldwide.

To its credit, the NBA does a brilliant job promoting its most elite superstars (i.e. the ones highlighted in this post) instead of its best teams as ambassadors for the game. Do you know the origin of this strategy? That’s right, the ABA did it first. As the following decades show, the NBA learned from the ABA and took it to the next level.

1980s: Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers) / Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)

 bird magic

Starting with their match-up in the 1979 NCAA Championship (which still is the most watched NCAA title game ever), Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had a rivalry that only grew at the next level. They both joined the NBA as rookies for the 1979-80 season and didn’t waste any time before reaching the pinnacle of success. Specifically, Magic led the Lakers to the 1980 title as a rookie while Bird led the Celtics to the 1981 title in his second year in the league. Combined, their teams won eight titles (the Lakers had five and the Celtics had three) and they won five regular-season MVP awards (Bird had three and Magic had two) during the 80s. As an aside, Magic won his third MVP for the 1989-90 season, so he just missed matching Bird’s total for the decade.

In large part due to Bird and Magic’s three head-to-head meetings in the Finals (with the Lakers winning twice), the NBA’s popularity grew exponentially. For instance, the NBA began the decade with playoff games being aired on tape-delay but ended it as a prime-time sport. Any current NBA player needs to thank Bird and Magic for helping drive the popularity of the sport such that they could make the money that they do. At the same time, they should thank David Stern for his business acumen, which helped make the game so popular throughout the world such that they could make the money that they do.

If Stern ever wrote a book about his how the NBA became a success, it might include the following:

  • The NBA is a business that relies on advertisers willing to identify with the league.
  • The NBA offers unscripted entertainment with incredible storylines.
  • The NBA is a “Fan-tastic” sport featuring elite athletes who can do amazing things.
  • To repeat, the NBA is a business that relies on advertisers willing to identify with the league.

To the extent Magic and Bird set the stage to meet these criteria, one person took the league to unimaginable heights.

1990s: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls

jordan air
His Airness

While Magic and Bird help put the NBA on the map with respect to relevance as a Big 4 sport (e.g. no longer taped-delayed playoff games), Michael Jordan took the mantle and elevated the sport to the next level. Of course, the 1992 Dream Team (with Jordan, Magic and Bird leading the charge) helped drive the NBA’s popularity by exposing the league’s talents internationally. Due in part to that team, the game became even better by attracting players such as Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic to the states.

Even though he only played six full seasons during the decade (due to two premature retirements), Jordan dominated the 1990s like Russell dominated the 1960s. Making the most of those six years, Jordan won four regular-season MVPs and six Finals MVPs in leading the Bulls to six NBA Championships. By the way, Jordan also won an MVP in 1988 so he won five in all. Arguably, Jordan could have won eight (or more) titles had he chosen not to take time off from the game (of course, assuming it was his choice), but I believe his sabbatical from 1994-95 helped rejuvenate his focus and inspire the Bulls’ second “three-peat” from 1996-98.

Of note, four other legendary players won titles in the 1990s. Specifically, Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons won in 1990, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets won in 1994 and 1995, and Tim Duncan (along with David Robinson) and the San Antonio Spurs won in 1999. The Pistons were the Bulls’ final hurdle so Detroit’s 1990 title is unimpeachable, but the others were influenced by the retirements of His Airness. Regardless, the Rockets and Spurs deserve their titles from the 90s without any second thought about an asterisk.

2000s: Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angles Lakers and Miami Heat) and Kobe Bryant (Lakers)


Just like the history of the 1990s might have been different if Jordan hadn’t taken time off, the history of the 2000s could have been entirely different if Shaq and Kobe had figured out how to coexist as superstars. As teammates from 2000-02, they won three titles and were odds-on favorites to win a fourth when they were joined by Karl Malone and Gary Payton for the 2002-03 season. If you’re old enough to remember that team, you probably thought that a “four-peat” was a virtually certainty.

Only injuries (and old age) could stop this team.

After the failed experiment, O’Neal and Bryant decided to break up a team that coulda, woulda, shoulda won six or more titles. As support for this contention, these two players accounted for six NBA Championships (and five Finals MVP awards) from 2000-2010. Perhaps most surprisingly, each player only won one regular-season MVP award during their careers. Whereas other sports honor their best player with the MVP, the NBA seems to reward the best player on the best team. Continuing that trend, Steph Curry just won the 2014-15 MVP (as the best player on the team with the best regular-season record) even though LeBron James is the best player on the planet. Even if the Warriors beat the Cavs in the 2015 Finals, James did more with much less.

Either Kobe or Shaq won five titles during the 2000s, which implies that five other teams won a title during the decade. With one title each, the Pistons and Celtics got on the scoreboard, but the Spurs (and Mr. Duncan) won three titles (in 2003, 2005 and 2007) so they qualify for dynasty status as well.

2010s: LeBron James (Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers)


With all due respect to players like Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry, there’s a high probably that LeBron James will be remembered as the most dominant player of the 2010s. Since the beginning of the decade, LeBron has won two rings and has been to five consecutive NBA Finals. As previously defined, a dynasty requires at least three NBA Championships so LeBron is not quite there; however, I’ll go out on a limb and grant him premature entry to the promised land.

Over the last four seasons, LeBron has won two regular-season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. While Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s contributions as part of the Heat’s Big Three cannot be underestimated, there should be no doubt that the team wouldn’t have won without King James. Granted, Bosh and Wade both lost time this season with the Heat because of injuries and health issues, but the team was not the same without its King.

The following table shows the individual impact that James had by either joining or leaving teams during his NBA career.

LeBron James Individual Impact on Teams


With Without


2003-04 Cavs

35-47 17-65 (prior year) +18 with
2009-10 Cavs 61-21 19-63 (next year)

-41 without

2013-14 Heat

54-28 37-45 (next year) -17 without
2014-15 Cavs 53-29 33-49 (prior year)

+20 with

Note: The Heat’s record improved by 11 games (i.e. from 47 to 58 wins) when James joined in 2010, but Bosh also joined the team that year so James’ individual impact cannot be isolated as much as in the other years.