All-time NBA/ABA tournament of champions: Part I

By Cort Reynolds

With the NBA playoffs completed and talk of dynasties in the air following a thrilling Finals that saw the Heat narrowly repeat as champions over the four-time winner Spurs, it seems a good time to try and settle the age-old argument about which is the greatest championship team of all time.

So I decided to devise my own all-time tourney toward that end.

Divided by decade, only teams that won the title are eligible for this 38-team tournament set to determine the hoops history debate.

There are definitely some non-title teams who, due to injuries (see 1968 76ers, 1973 Celtics, 1978 Blazers and 1987 Celtics), bad luck (1969 Lakers, 1998 Jazz) or bad calls (2002 Kings, 2006 Mavericks) were good enough to have won it all and perhaps be in this tourney. But perhaps those high-quality, hard-luck clubs will be included in another tournament for "champions that should have been."

In the case of teams who won several titles over a span with the same basic core, I tried to pick the best single team to represent that era.

For instance, I picked the 1963 Celtics, who boasted eight Hall of Famers on a deep roster later called by then-rookie John Havlicek the "most talented Celtic team I ever played on" to represent their eight title squads in the 1960s.

Due in large part to their great season records, I also tabbed the 1996 Chicago Bulls and 2000 Los Angeles Lakers as the best of their respective three-peats.

As for the recent Miami Heat repeat champs, I felt the 2013 squad was better than the 2012 Heat due to greater depth and a better record. They rampaged through a full season to 66 victories, fashioning a 27-game win streak along the way, impressing more than the lockout-shortened 46-20 champs of 2011-12.

The league's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers, claimed five titles in six years behind George Mikan from 1949-54 and are solely represented by the 1954 edition.

Each series in every round will be best of seven. In order to trim the field down to eight teams for the quarterfinal round, the five winners of each "decade" bracket will qualify automatically.

In addition, the five runner-up teams from each bracket and one wild card semifinal bracket loser I judge to be the best of the rest will still have a chance to advance to the elite eight.

These six runner-ups will each face off in three separate one-series playoffs to determine the last three spots in the elite eight, with the winners advancing to assume seeds 6-8 in the quarterfinals.

The 12-team 1970s bracket is the most complicated due to no team repeating as NBA champion and eight franchises claiming the crown during that balanced decade. And the inclusion of four ABA champions rounds out that deep and diverse bracket. The top four seeds were given first round byes in the '70s division.

With the 1960s boasting only two different NBA champions due to the Celtic dynasty, that decade bracket was combined with several 1950s winners and two ABA champions to form a 10-team division.

With apologies to the first champs of the late 1940s (when the major pro leagues were the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League, which merged to form the NBA in 1949-50), the 1947 Warriors of Joe Fulks and the 1948 Baltimore Bullets of Buddy Jeannette were not extended bids.

The 1980s and '90s brackets consist of only four teams each because only four franchises won rings in those dynastic eras. Thus, teams who were consistently excellent in those decades yet never won a title like the 1980s Bucks, late '90s Jazz and early '90s Blazers had to be left out of the tournament.

With 33 combined flag-winners out of a possible 67 NBA championships under their belts, the rival Celtics (17 titles) and Lakers (16) lead the field with five entrants apiece.

The 76er franchise has three teams in the tourney, including the 1955 Nationals of Syracuse, who moved to Philly in the early 1960s. The Detroit Pistons also boast three entries, with its repeat champs of 1989 and 1990 both making the field due to being in different decade brackets.

The Warriors, Heat and Spurs each have two squads in the 38-team field, which also includes six ABA champion clubs. The 1973 Pacers were judged to be the best of the three Indiana ABA titleists and got the tourney nod, while the 1974 New York Nets were deemed better than the 1976 Net team that upset Denver in the Finals to earn another ABA bid.

The all-time tournament seedings and pairings, by decade/region, with regular season record and playoff record for the title year in parentheses and head coach, follow below.

The original seeding was done by record, with my discretion in case of a tie as to which team gets the higher seed, with playoff records and difficulty of competition taken into consideration, plus injuries and other variables.

The year in which the title was won is used to describe each team, i.e., the 2007-08 Celtics are referred to as the 2008 Celtics to shorten and simplify matters. ABA champs were generally seeded lower due to the relatively basic lesser overall level of play in the league.

All-time NBA/ABA Tournament of Champions

2000-present bracket
#1 seed 2000 Los Angeles Lakers (67-15, 15-8, Phil Jackson)
Key players: S. O'Neal, K. Bryant, G. Rice, D. Fisher
#8 seed 2006 Miami Heat (52-30, 16-7, Pat Riley)
Key players: D. Wade, S. O'Neal, U. Haslem, J. Williams

#2 seed 2013 Miami Heat (66-16, 16-7, Erik Spoelstra)
Key players: L. James, D. Wade, C. Bosh, M. Chalmers
#7 seed 2004 Detroit Pistons (54-28, 16-7, Larry Brown)
Key players: C. Billups, R. Hamilton, B. Wallace, R. Wallace

#3 seed 2008 Boston Celtics (66-16, 16-10, Doc Rivers)
Key players: P. Pierce, K. Garnett, R. Allen, R. Rondo
#6 seed 2010 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25, 16-7, Phil Jackson)
Key players: K. Bryant, P. Gasol, A. Bynum, R. Artest

#4 seed 2007 San Antonio Spurs (58-24, 16-4, Gregg Popovich)
Key players: T. Duncan, M. Ginobili, T. Parker, B. Bowen
#5 seed 2011 Dallas Mavericks (57-25, 16-5, Rick Carlisle)
Key players: D. Nowitzki, J. Kidd, T. Chandler, S. Marion

1990s bracket
#1 seed 1996 Chicago Bulls (72-10, 15-3, Phil Jackson)
Key players: M. Jordan, S. Pippen, D. Rodman, L. Longley
#4 seed 1995 Houston Rockets (47-35, 15-7, Rudy Tomjanovich)
Key players: H. Olajuwon, C. Drexler, O. Thorpe, R. Horry

#2 seed 1999 San Antonio Spurs (37-13, 15-2, Gregg Popovich)
Key players: D. Robinson, T. Duncan, S. Elliott, A. Johnson
#3 seed 1990 Detroit Pistons (59-23, 15-5, Chuck Daly)
Key players: I. Thomas, J. Dumars, B. Laimbeer, M. Aguirre

1980s bracket
#1 seed 1986 Boston Celtics (67-15, 15-3, K.C. Jones)
Key players: L. Bird, K. McHale, D. Johnson, R. Parish
#4 seed 1989 Detroit Pistons (63-19, 15-2, Chuck Daly)
Key players: I. Thomas, J. Dumars, B. Laimbeer, D. Rodman

#2 seed 1987 Los Angeles Lakers (65-17, 15-2, Pat Riley)
Key players: E. Johnson, K. A.-Jabbar, J. Worthy, M. Cooper
#3 seed 1983 Philaelphia 76ers (65-17, 12-1, Billy Cunningham)
Key players: M. Malone, J. Erving, A. Toney, B. Jones

1970s bracket: Top 4 seeds get 1st round byes
#5 seed 1979 Seattle SuperSonics (52-30, 12-5, Lenny Wilkens)
Key players: D. Johnson, J. Sikma, G. Williams, L. Shelton
#12 seed ABA 1973 Indiana Pacers (51-33, 12-6, Bob Leonard)
Key players: G. McGinnis, M. Daniels, R. Brown, F. Lewis

#6 seed 1977 Portland TrailBlazers vs. (49-33, 14-5, Jack Ramsay)
Key players: B. Walton, M. Lucas, L. Hollins, B. Gross
#11 seed ABA 1974 New York Nets (55-29, 12-2, Kevin Loughery)
Key players: J. Erving, L. Kenon, B. Paultz, J. Williamson

#7 seed 1975 Golden State Warriors (48-34, 12-5, Al Attles)
Key players: R. Barry, K. Wilkes, P. Smith, C. Ray
#10 seed ABA 1971 Utah Stars (57-27, 12-6, Bill Sharman)
Key players: Z. Beaty, W. Wise, R. Boone, R. Robbins

#8 seed 1978 Washington Bullets (44-38, 14-7, Dick Motta)
Key players: E. Hayes, W. Unseld, B. Dandridge, K. Grevey
#9 seed ABA 1975 Kentucky Colonels (58-26, 13-3, Hubie Brown)
Key players: A. Gilmore, D. Issel, L. Dampier, C. Powell

Round 2
#1 seed 1972 Los Angeles Lakers (69-13, 12-3, Bill Sharman)
Key players: J. West, G. Goodrich, W. Chamberlain, J. McMillian
1978 Washington/1975 Kentucky winner

#2 seed 1971 Milwaukee Bucks (66-16, 12-2, Larry Costello)
Key players: L. Alcindor (Jabbar), O. Robertson, B. Dandridge, J. McGlocklin
1975 Golden State/1971 Utah winner

#3 seed 1973 New York Knicks (57-25, 12-5, Red Holzman)
Key players: W. Frazier, D. DeBusschere, W. Reed, E. Monroe
1977 Portland/1974 New York Nets winner

#4 seed 1974 Boston Celtics (56-26, 12-6, Tom Heinsohn)
Key players: J. Havlicek, D. Cowens, J. White, P. Silas
1979 Seattle/1973 Indiana winner

1950s/'60s bracket: Top 6 seeds get 1st round byes
#7 seed ABA 1969 Oakland Oaks (60-18, 11-4, Alex Hannum)
Key players: R. Barry, W. Jabali, D. Moe, L. Brown
#10 seed 1951 Rochester Royals (41-27, 10-5, Les Harrison)
Key players: B. Davies, B. Wanzer, A. Risen, J. Coleman

#8 seed ABA 1968 Pittsburgh Pipers (54-24, 11-4, Vince Cazzetta)
Key players: C. Hawkins, A. Heyman, T. Washington, C. Williams
#9 seed 1955 Syracuse Nationals (43-29, 7-4, Al Cervi)
Key players: D. Schayes, P. Seymour, R. Rocha, J. Kerr

2nd round
#1 seed 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13, 11-4, Alex Hannum)
Key players: W. Chamberlain, H. Greer, B. Cunningham, C. Walker
1968 Pittsburgh/1955 Syracuse winner

#2 seed 1963 Boston Celtics (58-22, 8-5, Red Auerbach)
Key players: B. Russell, B. Cousy, S. Jones, J. Havlicek
1969 Oakland/1951 Rochester winner

#3 seed 1954 Minneapolis Lakers (46-26, 6-4, John Kundla)
Key players: G. Mikan, J. Pollard, S. Martin, V. Mikkelsen
#6 seed 1958 St. Louis Hawks (41-31, 8-3, Alex Hannum)
Key players: B. Pettit, E. Macauley, C. Hagan, S. Martin

#4 seed 1956 Philadelphia Warriors (45-27, 7-3, George Senesky)
Key players: P. Arizin, N. Johnston, T. Gola, J. George
#5 seed 1957 Boston Celtics (44-28, 7-3, Red Auerbach)
Key players: B. Russell, B. Cousy, T. Heinsohn, B. Sharman

All eight original NBA franchises still in operation - the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Warriors, 76ers/Nationals, Pistons, Hawks and Kings/Royals - are represented by at least one team in the field, combining for a total of 21 qualifiers.

Only the Suns, Jazz, Cavaliers, Clippers/Braves and Nuggets are franchises 40 years or older who are not in the tourney. Of those five, only the Braves/Clippers have never been in an NBA or ABA championship series, with Phoenix (1976/93) and Utah (1997/98) each coming up just short twice each. The Cavs lost in the 2007 NBA Finals while the Nuggets were upset in the 1976 ABA Finals.

Of the eight newer expansion teams granted admittance since 1980, only Dallas (2011) and Miami (2006/13) are represented. Orlando lost in the 2009 and 1995 Finals. None of the other eight expansion franchises has made the championship round, although the Grizzlies advanced to the western finals in 2013, as did Minnesota in 2004. Charlotte, Toronto and New Orleans have never gotten past round one.

Among the top players who are on two separate entries are: Wilt Chamberlain (1967 76ers/72 Lakers), Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn (1957/63 Celtics), John Havlicek (1963/74 Celtics), Julius Erving (1974 Nets/83 76ers), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971 Bucks/87 Lakers), Dennis Johnson (1979 Sonics/86 Celtics), Clyde Lovellette (1954 Lakers/63 Celtics), Rick Barry (1975 Warriors/69 Oaks), Bobby Dandridge (1971 Bucks/78 Bullets), Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher (2000/10 Lakers), Steve Kerr (1996 Bulls/99 Spurs), Tim Duncan (1999/2007 Spurs), several Pistons from 1989/90 (most notably Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer), Paul Silas (1974 Celtics/79 Sonics), Ron Harper (1996 Bulls/2000 Lakers), Shaquille O'Neal (2000 Lakers/06 Heat), Charles Johnson (1975 Warriors/78 Bullets) and Dwyane Wade/Udonis Haslem (2006/13 Heat).

Only Robert Horry and Dennis Rodman were integral players for three separate teams in the field (Horry for the 1995 Rockets as a starter, and as a reserve on the 2000 Lakers and 2007 Spurs; Rodman as a top sub on the 89/90 Pistons and starter on the 1996 Bulls).

John Salley was a key reserve on the 1989 and '90 Piston champs, but was barely used as a backup on the 1996 Bull and 2000 Laker championship teams.

Phil Jackson played (1973 Knicks) and coached (1996 Bulls/2000 Lakers/2010 Lakers) multiple entrants to pace several men involved in the tourney on both the floor and from the sidelines.

Tom Heinsohn starred on the 1957 and '63 Celtic title teams, and coached the 1974 Boston champs. Pat Riley was a reserve guard on the 1972 Lakers, who won a record 33 in a row en route to their first title in LA, then coached the 1987 Lakers and 2006 Heat clubs represented in the field.

K.C. Jones was a reserve guard on the 1963 Celtic champs and coached the 1986 Boston flag-winner. Rick Carlisle was a backup guard on that 1986 Celtic team and coached the 2011 Mavericks to the crown 25 seasons later.

Billy Cunningham was a star 6th man on the 1967 Philly champs and coached the 76ers to their other title 16 years later. Larry Costello was also a guard on the 1967 champion 76ers and coached the expansion Bucks to the title in just their third season in 1971.

Bill Sharman was a sharpshooting All-Star guard on the 1957 Celtics, and he also coached tournament entrants the 1972 Lakers and 1971 Utah Stars to titles. His Utah ABA team will play the Warriors in the first round, a franchise California native Sharman also guided to the 1967 NBA Finals before falling to the juggernaut 76ers in six tough games.

Red Holzman was a backup guard for the classic backcourt tandem of Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer on the 1951 Rochester Royals, and roughly two decades later Red guided the Knicks to their only crowns in 1970 and '73.

Larry Brown coached the Pistons to the 2004 title and played point guard for the 1969 ABA champion Oakland Oaks.

Alex Hannum coached those Oaks, and also guided the 1958 Hawks and 1967 76ers to NBA championships. Hannum is thus the only coach to bring three separate franchises to the tournament. Amazingly, his Hawk and 76er squads were the only teams to capture the NBA crown other than Boston from 1957-69.

Be on the lookout for round one results and series recaps in the next installment of the series coming soon.