It's one thing to be a great team. It's another to have a great playoff run.
The two aren't necessarily the same thing. Take the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, for instance. They were by no means a great team during the course of that regular season, finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference (56-26) while Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal began the squabbling that ultimately would undermine them a few years later.
But their playoff run, in which they won 15 of 16 games? That's an all-timer, my friends.
It swings the other way too, of course. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics were awesome, a worthy champion who won 66 regular-season games. But their playoff run? Not so awesome. They went 16-10 en route to the title, setting a record for losses by a champion. And they weren't exactly facing a murderer's row of opposition. Boston barely made it past a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had been outscored in the regular season and lost three times to a 37-win Atlanta Hawks squad. The Celtics didn't even win a road game until midway through the conference finals.
So with that subtext, today we're going to break down the greatest playoff runs of all time by ranking the 50 best. And remember, we're talking about the run here, not necessarily the outcome. Although championship teams will inevitably stack the top of the list, we have several non-champions mixed in as well; conversely, a few champs, such as the 2008 Celtics, didn't make the list.
In a few cases, you'll even see a team on the list and not a team that beat it. Tough noogies. Again, we're emphasizing the journey rather than the destination on this list. If you want the latter, go Google a list of NBA champions.
But before we get started, let's explain the methodology. I looked at every conference finalist since 1967, the first year that every team played at least three playoff rounds and thus the first that the concept of a "playoff run" really existed. Four teams per year times 45 years gives us 180 entries to cull down to 50. Again, no pre-1967 squads made the list.
To start, I rated teams on three factors: How many games their opponents won, their opponents' regular-season scoring margin, the margin of the playoff games. That produced a "margin" for the team in question compared to an average team. I then added some modest bonuses for games won and games lost.
I used a function to collapse blowouts, trying to reward consistent outplaying of opponents over a single humongous win, and changed all overtime margins to one point. I added a bonus for winning a championship and subtracted an equal amount for losing in the conference finals; without those two factors, we end up rewarding teams that lose early that might well have lost much worse later.
What we end up with is an approximation of how many points better they were than an average team during their playoff run. The bonuses for winning (three points to the average team's score) skew it a bit, but by backing that average out of each team's score at the end, we end up with our rating for each team's playoff run.
And after all that, I made a couple of subjective adjustments, too, moving teams up or down a few rungs for factors the spreadsheet couldn't see, such as competitive balance in the league or injury situations.
If you're curious, the worst "run" to the conference finals was by the 1974 New York Knicks, who went 5-7 and were outscored by 60 points over the 12 games by two opponents that hadn't exactly run roughshod over the league themselves, for a score of minus-7.89.
The worst by a team that won at least two rounds, not surprisingly, is the 1981 Kansas City Kings -- a team that most would subjectively choose for the worst conference finalist ever. The Kings were a mighty plus-5 in a three-game miniseries win over a 45-win Portland team, somehow beat top-seeded Phoenix in seven games despite a minus-19 margin over the series, and then were soundly beaten by a 40-win Houston team in the conference finals, for a rating of minus-4.60.
And the worst in recent times was the 2003 Detroit Pistons, who trailed the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the first round before rallying to survive, beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games courtesy of two overtime wins and one by a single point, and then were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals. The Pistons went 8-9 without facing a single 50-win team, for a rating of minus-3.25.
But enough about the bad ones. Here are the top 50 playoff runs from the past 45 years: