There are 82-game players, and then there are 16-game players. Love him or hate him, Draymond Green’s assertion about players that are meant for the playoffs is correct, and it is the same for teams who have run off to the best single-season NBA playoff records.
A team can cruise in the regular season, but if it doesn’t get through the playoffs, it won’t be remembered as one of the all-time greats. So no, you won’t find the Los Angeles Clippers on this list.
Conversely, there are teams that catch fire at the right time or turn on the proverbial switch that are remembered fondly despite regular-season shortcomings. While there is a strong correlation between success in the regular-season standings and playoff success, there are exceptions on both sides that prove it’s not always the same game come playoff time.
Below, we take a look at the teams that had the best playoff runs in terms of winning percentage. It’s said that a championship is never easy, but these teams made it look like it was.
1. 2016-17 Golden State Warriors: 16-1 Record, .941 Winning Percentage
It was Green who claimed he was a 16-game player, and no team in NBA history had a better playoff run than his 2016-17 squad. Of course, a lot of that had to do with arguably the biggest free-agent addition in NBA history, as All-Star forward Kevin Durant left Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder and made Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors borderline unstoppable.
Golden State made it out of the Western Conference undefeated, winning all but one of the games by double digits. The only single-digit victory came in Game 3 in the first round against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, and Durant sat out with a strained calf. The Warriors easily dispatched the Utah Jazz and Spurs in the West finals after Kawhi Leonard sprained his ankle landing on Zaza Pachulia foot in a controversial moment in Game 1.
They then stood one win away from becoming the first team to go undefeated in the playoffs before LeBron James and Kyrie Irving ruined those plans. James and Irving combined for 71 points, 15 assists and 17 rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers staved off elimination and deny the Warriors an unblemished postseason. But all that did was delay the inevitable, as the Warriors won Game 5 129-120 behind 39 points from Durant.
They finished the season with the best single-season playoff record of all time, and the second-best point differential in a single postseason behind the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks. (That caveat must be used because, funny enough, the best point differential in a single postseason belongs to a team that lost in the first round. The 1955-56 Minneapolis Lakers lost two games of a three-game series against the St. Louis Hawks, each by a single point. The Lakers won Game 2 by 58 points, giving them a point differential per game in the postseason of 18.7).
2. 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers: 15-1, .938
The phrase “flip the switch” was invented for the 2000-01 Lakers.
Coming off a 67-15 record and championship season the year prior, the Lakers had a 56-26 record with the eighth-best point differential in the league. But the team woke up for the playoffs, surging through the West undefeated.
The Lakers had faced elimination against both the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings the previous year but dispatched both of those teams without issue in 2001. Then, in a much-anticipated conference finals matchup with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers removed any drama by winning the first two in San Antonio and blowing out the Spurs in Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles.
The only thing that stopped the Lakers from a perfect postseason was a supernova Game 1 from All-NBA guard Allen Iverson in the Finals. Iverson had 48 points and the famous “step over” of Tyronn Lue to hand the Lakers their only postseason loss.
For the postseason, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant combined for 59.8 points, 22.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game. It was one of the most dominant runs by a duo ever, and it led the Lakers to a repeat NBA championship with relative ease.
3. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers: 12-1, .923
A team that is not often mentioned as one of the greatest teams of all time dominated the regular season and playoffs in the 1982-83 season.
The 76ers finished the regular season 65-17, with a top-five offense and defense and the best point differential in the league. Moses Malone won the MVP, averaging 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds. Julius Erving was his co-star with 21.4 points per game.
Philadelphia opened the playoffs with a sweep of the New York Knicks, but it wasn’t an easy sweep. Bernard King kept the Knicks in Games 3 and 4 before the 76ers were able to come out with two- and three-point victories, respectively.
The 76ers’ lone defeat came in the next round against the Bucks, who had swept Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. Milwaukee battled for a Game 4 win over Philadelphia after losing the first three contests. Marques Johnson led a balanced Bucks effort with 19 points. But Andrew Toney’s 30-point effort helped close out the Bucks in Game 5.
The formidable Lakers awaited the 76ers in the Finals, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson leading the way. The Lakers had beaten the 76ers in the Finals the previous year in six games and were looking for their third title in four years. But the 76ers took a close Game 1 113-107 and never looked back while sweeping the series.
T-4. 1990-91 Chicago Bulls: 15-2, .882
We finally reached a Michael Jordan team, although not the one regarded as his best. It was Chicago’s first title team that had its best playoff record.
The Bulls foreshadowed an incredible playoff win by blowing out the Knicks 126-85 in the opener before taking the next two games to sweep the series.
Their first blemish came in the second round against the 76ers when Philadelphia was able to eke out a 99-97 win in Game 3 before losing the next two games and the series.
Like the 1982-83 76ers, the Bulls had a stunning sweep of the defending champions, but Chicago’s sweep came in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls finally exercised their demons and beat the Detroit Pistons, culminating in a 115-94 blowout in Detroit in Game 4.
The Bulls had the Lakers waiting for them in the Finals after Los Angeles had knocked off the Houston Rockets, Warriors and Blazers while losing just three times. The more seasoned Lakers won Game 1 93-91 behind a game-winning 3-pointer by Sam Perkins.
Chicago had no problems after that though, beating the Lakers in the next four games for the franchise’s first title. Jordan, one of the greatest NBA players of all time, had an electric Finals performance, averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks in the series.
T-4. 1988-89 Detroit Pistons: 15-2, .882
Before the Bulls dismantled the Pistons, they were one of a host of NBA teams that couldn’t get by them in the East. Detroit won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, the first of which was a dominant run through the playoffs.
The Pistons swept the Celtics and Bucks to set up an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Bulls. The Bulls were up 2-1 in the series after a 46-point effort in Game 3 by Michael Jordan led them to a 99-97 victory, but the Pistons won the next three games to close out the series.
The Lakers awaited the Pistons in a Finals rematch from 1988, which the Lakers won in seven games. There wouldn’t be a contentious series in 1989, however, because the Pistons swept Los Angeles en route to the franchise’s first championship.
Perhaps the series would’ve been more competitive if Magic didn’t strain his hamstring in Game 2 (he played only five minutes in Game 3 and didn’t play in Game 4), but the Pistons took full advantage.
T-4. 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs: 15-2, .882
A decade after the Bad Boy Pistons took home Detroit’s first title, the Spurs claimed the first title in their franchise’s history with a dominant run of their own.
It didn’t start out as smoothly for San Antonio, which dropped its second playoff game to Kevin Garnett and the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves 80-71. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs won the next two games to close out the Wolves and swept through the Lakers and Blazers to emerge from the West.
The team faced another No. 8 seed in the Finals (though it’s important to note the season was reduced to 50 games due to the lockout in the offseason) after the Knicks had upset the top-seeded Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers. It was a low-scoring Finals, as neither team reached 100 points in any game. But the Spurs beat the Knicks in five games, with the only blemish being Game 3 when Allan Houston’s 34 points led New York to an 89-81 victory.
The Knicks had a chance to extend the series in Game 5, but Latrell Sprewell’s shot came up short at the buzzer, and the Spurs escaped with a 78-77 win and the championship.
Enjoy this? Follow us on Twitter.