Only one team can stand on top the mountain. Across sports history, the very best teams are the ones that dominate, create intense feelings, and leave lasting memories. They’re the clubs you hear and immediately recognize. In the NBA, the dynasties have been the bellwethers of the league since its inception. The dynasties have paced the league, defined various eras, and helped give other teams something to chase and emulate. With illustrations from Yu-Minh Huang, author Marcus Thompson II takes us on a journey through NBA history with Dynasties: The 10 G.O.A.T. teams that changed the NBA forever.
If you need help defining a dynasty, Thompson’s got you covered:
With that as our working definition, Thompson identifies ten teams across the NBA’s existence and what led them to be a cut above the rest. The championships are a prerequisite, but these teams did more than that as they shaped the culture inside and outside of basketball.
One of the dynasties highlighted were the Bill Russell era Boston Celtics. Thompson notes the in-game advancements Red Auerbach and the C’s helped push, such as utilizing the fastbreak more than what was the norm at the time, speeding the game up more in transition, and inventing the Sixth Man role. However, the longest, most important impact of those teams was that Auerbach made a concerted effort to bring in Black players and put them in positions to succeed. We’ve said it a million times before and we’ll say it again, your environment is better and healthier when it’s diverse. When you fail to do so, you wind up missing out when you shouldn’t. Thompson expertly expanded on that and wrote:
But the legacy of the first Boston Celtics dynasty is as a pioneer in race relations. The athlete activism that is celebrated among today’s NBA players can be traced back to the Celtics, whose willingness to support and promote African-Americans is the foundation of an NBA that is considered the most progressive league. When it wasn’t popular to do so, the Celtics were sports’ leaders in antiracism.
The NBA’s Golden Era was a golden age for dynasties. Thompson notes that with the NBA becoming a global power, the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Detroit Pistons ran the 1980s as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc. helped get the league into primetime. So much has been written about those clubs and Thompson gives more context around them and their excellence. It’s usually forgotten, but in addition to being a bruising defense, the Pistons were a much better offense than they’re given credit for. And Thompson notes they were the first title team to be built around a small guard, something that was unheard of as bigs ruled the roost.
Those teams, particularly the Showtime Lakers, helped amplify the entertainment aspect of basketball. In the Laker section, Thompson took note of Dr. Jerry Buss and wrote:
Buss pioneered the NBA-as-event-branding, a phenomenon that remains in full force today. He turned the team’s NBA games into a permanent extension of its home city’s nightlife. He morphed a basketball game into a game-night experience with pregame festivities, halftime shows, and postgame activities. He made it as worthy of a date night as it was a night out for basketball junkies.
The NBA was entering a boom period, and with pop culture fully behind them, it was only a matter of time before they got the cosign of one of the GOATs and really took off
Speaking of GOATs, Michael Jordan ruled the NBA as its unquestioned superstar throughout the 1990s. In 2019, Harvey Araton wrote “Elevated,” a good book that chronicled the rise of the NBA through the pages of the New York Times. One thing he disliked about the NBA was that the individual’s importance began to overshadow the great team around them, and it’s something that really showed itself with Jordan (much to the dismay of Scottie Pippen).
Thompson details just how influential Jordan was in fashion, music, pop culture, and most importantly the game. Prior to him, championship teams weren’t built around shooting guards. With Jordan, he flipped team construction on its head and showed that two guards could run the show and bring titles home. Even though there was never a “next Jordan,” his play influenced future generations of stars, best exemplified by Kobe Bryant who co-authored a dynastic run with Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers in the 2000s. In this book, we get reminded of how exemplary Jordan was from the start of his career to the end of the dynasty in 1998.
Jordan’s dominance combined with the marketing appeal of NBC and the NBA machine opened the NBA up to parts of the world they would likely never gotten to. With the NBA’s growth, more people got exposed to the game, got great at it, and came to North America to play in the NBA. Thompson discussed how the dynasty San Antonio Spurs took full advantage of the game’s international flair as they unearthed talent, brought them over to the NBA, and established a system that allowed them to be the best versions of themselves.
You’re only as great as the competition you face, and Thompson does a great job of highlighting the teams that fought to make life hell on the 80s dynasties and the ones that fell short of dynastic status themselves. Special mention goes to the Julius Erving era Philadelphia 76ers, Walt Frazier New York Knicks, Big 3 Miami Heat, etc. Even as those teams fell short of Thompson’s dynastic standards, he pays homage to them and helps us understand why each team was incredibly special in its own right.
Is it worth a read?
Yes! At a smooth 248 pages, the book is a quick and super enjoyable read. Thompson keeps you engaged as he takes you across time and the joy and fun he has for the work radiates throughout each page. If you’re looking to give your favorite NBA fan a fun book to read and talk about, then this is the one for you.
Postscript: Dynasties never die
In October, Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated wrote an interesting story asking about the “end” of NBA dynasties. This quote from a team executive stood out:
“Before, you would look at a seven-to-10-year window. Now you want to maximize three to five years, as it may end or likely have dramatic change afterward.”
I thought of that when reading his book. Individual players having such an outsized influence allowed for LeBron James to be a one-man dynasty across three teams and a decade of dominance. Kevin Durant leaving the Golden State Warriors put an end to their dynasty (for now at least) and his arrival combined with everything else have Brooklyn Nets fans championship dreaming.
Dynasties tend to run for years at a time, but with the way the NBA has changed, we likely won’t see runs like the 80s Celtics or Lakers again. It’s harder to construct a dynastic team these days, but with an all time player and a little bit of luck, there might be dynasties just waiting to be unearthed.