Since Michael Jordan retired, the NBA has taken on an entirely new look. The game slowly changed to favor offensive players while minimizing the physicality of the game to make it more attractive for worldwide audiences. These days, even the slightest bit of physicality results in penalties in the form of normal fouls and even technical fouls. That leads one to wonder how Michael Jordan would fare in the modern era without much defensive resistance.
But since 1999, the NBA landscape has shifted favorably to one conference over the other. Jordan with the Chicago Bulls won 6 NBA titles in 8 years, making the Eastern Conference the dominant one while including the likes of the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics and Isiah Thomas-led Detroit Pistons. Since then, the league has not been the same, and here are the championship winners every year until 2021. It is time to discover which conference has been tougher since 1999.
1999 - San Antonio Spurs (West vs. East 1-0)
The San Antonio Spurs kicked off the post- Michael Jordan era with a championship. Tim Duncan and David Robinson were a twin-tower force that made easy work of the Jeff Van Gundy New York Knicks. The Knicks were a very unlikely foe for the Spurs in a lockout-shortened season. New York were only the 8th seed in the East and were expected to fade into obscurity.
But the team, led by Patrick Ewing, used their bruising style of play to make it all the way to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, their path was too difficult, and Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to a championship win in 5 games. With Tim Duncan capturing Finals MVP and starting an era of dominance, the West starts off the comparison with a 1-0 lead.
2000 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 2-0)
The next 3 years would be the era of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and the Los Angeles Lakers. No team could match up with the powerful Lakers, who were led by the most dominant big man in the NBA in Shaquille O’Neal. With Shaq and the start of superstardom from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers were an absolute force. Playing in their new arena, Staples Center, it was the beginning of a decade-long streak of dominance.
The Lakers hired former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson to lead the team, and he did just that. 21-year old Kobe Bryant made the All-Defensive Team, Shaq won MVP, and the Lakers entered the postseason with confidence. The Lakers made it to the Finals, defeating the Indiana Pacers in 6 games with O’Neal earning his first Finals MVP.
2001 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 3-0)
The following season, the Lakers were a force again. Phil Jackson returned as coach, Shaq was still the most dominant big, and Kobe Bryant became a bonafide superstar. The Lakers signed former Chicago Bulls champion Horace Grant, and the rest was history. The Lakers had Shaquille O’Neal finish on the All-NBA 1st Team while Kobe Bryant earned All-NBA 2nd Team honors.
This Lakers squad might be the most dominant ever. They went an unbelievable 15-1 in the postseason, only losing to the 76ers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals led by their MVP Allen Iverson. Shaquille O’Neal once again earned Finals MVP honors, and they were arguably the most dominant team in their era heading into the 2002 season.
2002 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 4-0)
Once again, the Lakers were back to business. They had their two superstars back, except Kobe would earn the recognition by winning All-Star Game MVP while finishing on the All-Defensive Team again. Kobe and Shaq both made All-NBA 1st Team and were focused on putting aside their differences to win their 3rd straight championship.
And they did that, sweeping the Trail Blazers, defeating the Spurs in 5 games, and then controversially ending the season of the Sacramento Kings in 7 games. With many claiming the referees allowed the Lakers to win, they made it to the NBA Finals nonetheless and swept the New Jersey Nets to earn a 3-peat. They are the last team to accomplish a 3-peat as things stand.
2003 - San Antonio Spurs (West vs. East 5-0)
The 2003 season was the start of the Big Three era led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Duncan would win his second straight MVP, while Parker would take a step up in his second year. Newly acquired Manu Ginobili was also a big boost for the team, who were still led by coach Gregg Popovich and David Robinson who would play his final season.
The Spurs would make it to the NBA Finals, defeating Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets in 6 games. In terms of pure talent and roster depth, this Spurs team might very well be the best of all time. Because of Duncan’s dominance as the best power forward in the game, San Antonio would become a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the decade and longer.
2004 - Detroit Pistons (West vs. East 5-1)
The 2004 Pistons were a special group of players and the epitome of team play over individual play. Unlike the Los Angeles Lakers, who would become runner-ups in this season, the Pistons did not have any superstar players with egos getting in the way of the team. Rather, the team acquired scoring power forward Rasheed Wallace to form a solid starting five headlined by Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace.
The Pistons would upset the favored Los Angeles Lakers, who acquired future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers did not have team chemistry while the Pistons were dominant defensively, winning the NBA title as Billups earned Finals MVP honors. The 2004 season was one of the most unpredictable seasons yet as O’Neal would be traded to the Miami Heat shortly after.
2005 - San Antonio Spurs (West vs. East 6-1)
The San Antonio Spurs would once again be the team stealing the headlines in the NBA. Led by Tim Duncan once again, the Spurs finished with the 2nd seed in the Western Conference with both Duncan and Manu Ginobili making the All-Star Team. In the postseason, the Spurs were a force once again.
They had playoff battles with the Nuggets and SuperSonics before ending the season of MVP Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. In the Finals, they faced the reigning NBA champions Detroit Pistons in a series that went to 7 games. In Game 7, Duncan and Ginobili combine for 48 points to seal an 81-74 victory with Duncan earning Finals MVP honors.
2006 - Miami Heat (West vs. East 6-2)
The 2006 season offered one of the unlikeliest NBA champions in history, as Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat would complete a historical comeback against MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat were a great team led by All-Star Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, but they should not have come back from a 0-2 deficit to the dominant Dallas Mavericks.
The Heat would win the Finals thanks to a historically great Finals series from Dwyane Wade, who would average 34.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.7 SPG, and 1.0 BPG. The Heat would win 4 games in a row before ending the series in 6 games, holding Dirk to only 39.0% shooting from the field in the series.
2007 - San Antonio Spurs (West vs. East 7-2)
The San Antonio Spurs would be champions again, taking care of business against 22-year old LeBron James and a very average Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Tony Parker was sensational in the series, leading all scorers with 24.5 PG and winning Finals MVP. Of course, the Spurs still had Tim Duncan (18.3 PPG and 11.5 RPG) and Manu Ginobili (17.8 PPG and 5.8 RPG) on the roster.
LeBron tried his best to lead his team, but they were no match for the Spurs who swept them in 4 games. This would mark LeBron’s first Finals loss although he does not receive much blame for the series, as he was only a 22-year old without any All-Star caliber teammates with him. Nonetheless, the Spurs would win their 4th NBA title since 1999.
2008 - Boston Celtics (West vs. East 7-3)
The Boston Celtics completed some of the biggest trades in NBA history when they brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce. Pierce was a loyal Celtic for so long, that the franchise rewarded him with the best squad he ever played with. Boston’s Big Three along with the budding Rajon Rondo made the Celtics the most talented team in the NBA, even ahead of the Lakers.
The Lakers stole Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, pairing him with Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. In many ways, Pau Gasol was supposed to be the replacement for Shaquille O’Neal. Gasol was impactful, but the Lakers were blown out by the dominant Celtics in the Finals including a 39-point thrashing in Game 6. The Lakers were expected to lose after falling 1-3 in the series, and it was Boston’s time to reign again with Paul Pierce winning Finals MVP.
2009 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 8-3)
The Los Angeles Lakers would be on top of the world again for the first time since 2002. With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the team, Kobe Bryant had the help he needed to make up for his loss one year prior. The Orlando Magic were stacked with shooters around defensive star Dwight Howard, but an untimely decision by head coach Stan Van Gundy to force Jameer Nelson back in the lineup threw off the team’s chemistry.
The Lakers took full advantage, winning the series in 5 games. Bryant was the standout performer in the series, averaging 32.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 7.4 APG en route to his 4th championship and 1st Finals MVP. Howard averaged a monster 15.4 PPG and 15.2 RPG during the series, but Bryant was a man possessed and would not be denied.
2010 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 9-3)
One year later, Kobe and the Lakers would win again. The Lakers had their star duo of Bryant and Gasol returning, and Phil Jackson was hungry for his 11th NBA championship. Fittingly, the Lakers found themselves in a rematch against their arch-rival Boston Celtics. Unlike the series in 2008, the Lakers put up a solid fight.
The series would last 7 games, where it took clutch plays by both Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly Ron Artest) and Pau Gasol to make up for a putrid 6-24 shooting night by Bryant. Bryant would still win Finals MVP, averaging 28.6 PPG and 8.0 RPG during the series and leading all scorers in Game 7 with 23 points.
2011 - Dallas Mavericks (West vs. East 10-3)
The Dallas Mavericks completed one of the most unlikely championship victories when they overcame a much more talented Miami Heat team formed by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh during free agency. The Mavericks had a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki and some capable veterans, but they should not have handled the Heat the way they did. But it happened, mainly because Dirk was on a mission and LeBron James would have the lowest moment of his career.
LeBron James would get outscored by Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Terry during the series and played one of the most shocking roles for his team. James was not aggressive, did not want the ball, and seemed to crumble under the pressure of having a great team. The King would correct his wrongs over the next 2 seasons, but Dirk and the Mavericks were clinical in their 6-game victory.
2012 - Miami Heat (West vs. East 10-4)
LeBron James’ first NBA title came with the Heat, in a showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. James corrected his wrongs from a season prior by playing like the best player in the world, averaging 28.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, and 7.4 APG. James had his help with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but it was all about The King.
The Miami Heat put aside the noise and focused on being the most talented team in the league, with the young Thunder not standing a chance. The Thunder stole Game 1 thanks to Kevin Durant’s 36 points, but it was not to be for them as James Harden would have a poor series for Oklahoma City while LeBron would win Finals MVP.
2013 - Miami Heat (West vs. East 10-5)
LeBron’s second NBA title came against the San Antonio Spurs, his long-time rival. The Spurs swept LeBron and the Cavaliers in 2007, but this time LeBron would have a crew behind him. The series would be tight, with both teams splitting the first 6 games of the series. It was all about the pivotal Game 7, where LeBron James would have one of the best games of his life.
James scored 37 points in a closeout Game 7, nailing jump shots when Gregg Popovich pleaded for his defenders to sag. The Spurs played that defense all game, forcing LeBron to take jumpers instead of finishing at the rim. But The King made them pay, winning his second NBA title in a row representing the Eastern Conference.
2014 - San Antonio Spurs (West vs. East 11-5)
The San Antonio Spurs tasted sweet revenge in 2014, blowing out the Heat in 5 games. Tim Duncan was still the best interior defender at his age, while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were still key cogs under the Gregg Popovich system. Most importantly, Kawhi Leonard arrived as a two-way superstar.
The Spurs were effective on both ends, with Kawhi Leonard taking responsibility in defending LeBron James all series long. James would hold his own with averages of 28.2 PPG and 7.8 RPG, but the Spurs were simply not going to lose with Duncan capturing his 5th championship and Kawhi Leonard winning his first NBA Finals MVP.
2015 - Golden State Warriors (West vs. East 12-5)
In 2015, the Golden State Warriors began a dynasty that would last 5 years. Their core of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were special all season long, and head coach Steve Kerr unlocked the "Lineup of Death" featuring Andre Iguodala at power forward and Draymond Green at center. This lineup was dominant and would create a new era of basketball to be played.
The Warriors were the favorites in the West although they had a massive roadblock in the form of the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James was back in Cleveland to join All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But The King would see his two stars go down with injuries, leaving him with only Matthew Dellavedova to rely on. LeBron tried but failed, leaving the Warriors with an NBA title and Andre Iguodala earning his first and only Finals MVP.
2016 - Cleveland Cavaliers (West vs. East 12-6)
The Cleveland Cavaliers completed the most incredible Finals comeback by overcoming a 3-1 deficit and winning the NBA championship against the record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors. LeBron James was almost inhuman during the series, while Kyrie Irving hit one of the most clutch shots in Finals history over Stephen Curry in Game 7.
Nobody expected Cleveland to have a shot in this series but LeBron James would not be denied his 3rd championship and his first with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron averaged 29.7 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and 8.9 APG while Irving chipped in 27.1 PPG. The Warriors would not be able to repeat in 2016 to represent the West although the next 2 years would be in their favor.
2017 - Golden State Warriors (West vs. East 13-6)
In his first season with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant found himself in the NBA Finals for the second time in his career. His first Finals appearance ended in disappointment thanks to a Miami Heat superteam, but this time he had a superteam of his own.
With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala all returning; LeBron James and company had no shot. Durant got his revenge against LeBron James in the Finals by winning the series in 5 games and continuing the era of dominance in Golden State for another 2 years.
2018 - Golden State Warriors (West vs. East 14-6)
Once again, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors were a force to be reckoned with. The Cleveland Cavaliers stood no chance, even with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love joining LeBron James. Durant averaged 28.8 PPG during the series and won his second straight Finals MVP.
Many criticized this Finals series because of how handily the Warriors dismantled the Cavaliers, but that was the reason Durant left Oklahoma City in free agency. He knew playing with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson would win him rings, and he did just that while continuing the Golden State Warriors dynasty.
2019 - Toronto Raptors (West vs. East 14-7)
Kawhi Leonard completed one of the greatest seasons in NBA history by a superstar when he carried the Raptors to the NBA championship in 2019. The Raptors, thanks to the shrewdness of Masai Ujiri, made big moves to bring on Leonard along with Danny Green and Marc Gasol. These three made up a new starting lineup while franchise point guard Kyle Lowry was still on the team.
Many felt Kawhi wasn't keen on being in Toronto, but he was the best player in the league on his way to winning his second NBA championship and second Finals MVP. The Raptors caught a break with injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the Finals but their path to the Finals was truly a memorable one.
2020 - Los Angeles Lakers (West vs. East 15-7)
The Los Angeles Lakers took advantage of a shortened season and the acquisition of superstar Anthony Davis en route to the franchises 17th NBA championship. The Lakers were a force behind Anthony Davis and Finals MVP LeBron James, taking care of business in 6 games against the Miami Heat.
The Lakers were by far the most talented and physical team in the league and no team stood a chance in the postseason. The Portland Trail Blazers barely made the playoffs, the Houston Rockets were tiny, and the Denver Nuggets were exhausted from multiple 7-game series. In the Finals, the Heat were forced to play without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic which might have made that team the worst in NBA Finals history. The Lakers still took care of business with LeBron earning his 4th championship and the last one for the West.
2021 - Milwaukee Bucks (West vs. East 15-8)
The Milwaukee Bucks are the most recent NBA champion, and the 8th team to represent the Eastern Conference in a championship series. The Bucks completed a 0-2 comeback against the Phoenix Suns, with Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Finals MVP thanks to a historical closeout Game 6.
The Bucks won Game 6 in large part due to a 50-point barrage from Giannis Antetokounmpo which included an accurate 17-19 shooting night from their otherwise inconsistent superstar. The youthful Suns struggled to handle Antetokounmpo throughout the series, and Milwaukee made them pay time and time again. Giannis also became the 3rd player in NBA history to earn an MVP, Defensive Player of the Year Award, and Finals MVP joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Which Conference Is Historically Tougher?
The Western Conference has had some of the best teams in NBA history since the retirement of Michael Jordan, meaning it is the tougher conference. The Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs were responsible for 11 out of the last 19 champions, while the Warriors and Mavericks hold the other 4 champions representing the Western Conference. The Spurs and Lakers dynasties were particularly amazing to witness, as some of the best players of all time represented those teams including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Tim Duncan.
The East mainly had success through LeBron James, who played for the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Boston Celtics superteam in 2008 was a special group of players, and so were the 2004 Pistons that led with their defensive play. Shaquille O’Neal was also a part of the 2006 Heat, while the most recent champions including the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks have had some strong squads. But in terms of overall victories and talent, the West has won the most championships and have had the best players since Michael Jordan won his last NBA title.
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