When ranking a list of "best to play for" in any sport, it can be difficult to come to a conclusion because every season changes. A head coaching move, top draft pick, or free agency acquisition can drastically upend the current landscape of best-to-worst.
So, we opted to go for a more expanded view of things in the NBA; to create a list that is relatively universal to the history of the NBA. Of course, recency bias is a thing and must be accounted for, so we did take emerging newcomers into account.
Overall, if given the opportunity, most players would like to play for a franchise that wins. So, we measured championship totals, win percentages, and volatility to create a list that is workable to just about any era. A list of teams that are (almost) always a desirable destination.
10 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks may not have as rich a history as some of their Western Conference rivals, but over the past 20-30 years, they have established themselves as a more than adequate place to play. Their discography can be easily traced to two eras: Pre-Nowitzki and Post-Nowitzki. Since acquiring Dirk in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Mavericks have a win percentage greater than 60 percent, have been to the playoffs 15 out of 19 years, made it to the finals twice, and won the NBA Championship in 2011.
While the Nowitzki era has placed Dallas on the map consistently, they are not necessarily a place to go and expect to win a championship. But, they consistently make the playoffs, thus are at least in the conversation on a year in, year out basis.
9 Houston Rockets
With a historic win percentage of greater than 52 percent, an average playoff appearance of less than two years, and average duration between finals appearances of a little over a decade, the Rockets are a historically consistent version of the Mavericks. This places them just ahead of their in-state rivals.
The Rockets are also one of only nine teams with multiple NBA titles to their name, which assures them a spot on this list. They also rank 12th with 58 All-Stars in 50 seasons, averaging greater than one all-star selection per year. Their statistics should only trend up, as long as they have Chris Paul and James Harden on their roster. They were arguably an injury away from defeating the Warriors last year.
8 Detroit Pistons
Albeit a more inconsistent resume to their name, the Detroit Pistons have largely dealt their winning blows in waves. Their overall win percentage of just over 48 percent actually comes underneath the two previous teams on this list. However, they have three NBA titles to boast about; one of only seven franchises to win more than two.
The "bad boys" of the late '80s and early '90s won back-to-back championships and contended just about every year. If not for MJ, who knows how many more they could have won.
In the early 2000s, behind the likes of Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups, they won another title, and also contended every year. They also rank third in All-Stars per season and have sent three different players from the same team to the All-Star game 11 different times. If they remained more consistent between the gaps, they may have landed higher.
7 Miami Heat
The Heat are one of the youngest members of this list, having been around for less than 30 years. This makes their history a little bit tougher to gauge, as their first years in the league were (as expected) rough. But, the acquiescence of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning established their immediate relevance, and the Wade/Bosh/James era solidified a historic relevance.
Despite only making the playoffs once in their first seven seasons, the Heat now holds a win percentage of greater than 50 percent, averaging about 1.5 years per playoff appearance, and less than a decade per championship, of which they own three.
Granted, those numbers are a little skewed because of their era of supreme dominance, but they are relevant all the same. If they are able to re-establish as title contenders today and remain consistent, expect this franchise to continue to inhabit these lists. Not to mention, living and playing in the city itself does not sound too bad a gig.
6 Philadelphia 76ers
After a lull period, the City of Brotherly Love is back to the relevance that our parents remember, seemingly on track with this next generation of stars to be consistent playoff and Eastern Conference contenders.
Similar to their history, it is as rich as the previous two. The 76ers have claimed three NBA titles, joining that elite group of franchises. They are also one of only 12 franchises to also average a win percentage of greater than 50 percent and average less than 1.5 years per playoff appearance. On top of the statistics, when times are good, the Philly fans are some of the best in the entire world.
5 Golden State Warriors
Recency bias or not, it is hard to neglect the absolute dominance of the Golden State franchise in recent years. Though their historic volatility keeps them from notching any higher on this list, the Warriors are now tied for third on the all-time Championships list with six NBA titles (including two when they were the Philadelphia Warriors).
Regardless of the less than 50 percent win percentage and more than two years per playoff experience – the past 10 years have completely upended the previously unstable nature of the Warriors franchise. Splash Bros or not, the Warriors are now a legitimate name in the NBA.
4 Chicago Bulls
Although the Jordan era produced all of Chicago's six championships (tying them with the Warriors for third all-time), they have historically been a pretty consistent team, even without MJ.
The Bulls hold a career win percentage of greater than 52 percent, making the playoffs virtually every year, averaging less than seven years per championship, and more than one All-Star per year. Those numbers speak for themselves, and because of Jordan, that Bulls jersey holds so much weight.
3 San Antonio Spurs
Everything from here on out is a no-brainer, list toppers. The San Antonio Spurs have a record that just does not make any sense to stat junkies like us. They have a franchise win percentage of greater than 62 percent, landing them the highest win percentage of any NBA franchise, ever. They also have the highest playoff appearance rate in history, having only missed the playoffs four times.
One of their few knocks is that they only have five championship trophies to their resume, which I am sure very few in their fandom are complaining about. With them being fifth in history, they're just behind the Warriors and the Bulls. If you play for the Spurs, it is almost a lock-in that you will be on one of the best teams in the NBA, year in, and year out.
2 Boston Celtics
The separation between the top two teams is so difficult to determine. Flip a coin, and you would still be left with one of the most historic franchises ever, in any sport. The Celtics are first in all-time NBA titles, with 17 of them. As "not fair" as their title total is, the rest are just as mind-boggling. Boston averages less than four years between title appearances and just more than four years between championship rings.
The only few slights that keep them from topping this list are their playoff appearances, and their finals appearances. The Celtics average a playoff appearance every 1.3 or so years, which lands them at fourth all-time. They also rank second in Finals appearances, behind...
1 Los Angeles Lakers
A franchise win percentage of greater than 59 percent lands them at second all-time in that category. The Lakers average a Finals appearance almost every two years(!), and a title just over every four. They have gone to the Finals 31 times, more than any other franchise in history. They also own 16 NBA titles — just one behind the aforementioned Celtics.
In addition to the atmosphere of winning that has transcended generations, donning the purple and gold places one in an elite class of Lakers legends. To play for the same team as the likes of Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic, West, Kobe, Shaq, and now Lebron? Come on. It's not even fair.
Even still, the difference between the Lakers and Celtics are on the margins, but one thing is for certain, they are alone at the top of the best NBA teams to play for.