If the NBA playoffs started today and only took the No. 1 seed, the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz would duke it out to break at least one title drought. Unfortunately, the playoffs don’t work that way, so it begs the question of how important is it to have the No. 1 seed in each conference?
Over the last 20 years, here some interesting facts when it comes to teams winning the top seed. Ten No. 1 seeds have won championships, including three in the East and seven in the West. Out of our 40 possible teams, 18 of those No. 1 seeds have lost in the Conference Finals; however, only four teams with top seeds have lost in the NBA Finals. That means that over the last 20 seasons, teams that finish with a No. 1 seed and make the NBA Finals are 10-4 overall.
Of course, there have been a few upsets along the way, but the No. 1 seed has genuinely meant that the team has a long playoff run ahead of them. Let’s take a look at what each No. 1 seed from each conference has had over the last 20 years.
2000-2001 - Philadelphia 76ers (56-26 record)
Lost NBA Finals (1-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The 76ers enjoyed a lot of success this season thanks to an MVP run from Allen Iverson. The superstar led the league in scoring with 31.1 points per game as no team in the East had an answer for him. The 7ers rolled their way to the Finals but were taken down by the tandem of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. This was the second straight championship by the Lakers at the time.
2001-2002 - New Jersey Nets (52-30 record)
Lost NBA Finals (0-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets didn’t have a true superstar but a plethora of role players. Jason Kidd, one of the greatest point guards of all time, nearly led the team in scoring with 14.7 points, but orchestrated a tough offensive unit and added 9.9 assists. With Kenyon Martin (14.9 PPG), Keith Van Horn (13.8 PPG), and Kerry Kittles (13.4 PPG), the Nets had a balanced attack. In the end, the Lakers completed their three-peat with an easy sweep in the Finals.
2002-2003 - Detroit Pistons (50-32 record)
Lost Conference Finals (0-4) vs. New Jersey Nets
It was the beginning of the Pistons dynasty with Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, and Ben Wallace. Hamilton nearly scored 20 points a game, while Wallace grabbed 15.4 rebounds each night. The Pistons finally took off in the East but came up short in their first stint in the Conference Finals. However, this group would eventually learn from their mistakes.
2003-2004 - Indiana Pacers (61-21 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Detroit Pistons
Reggie Miller was 38 years old, but a young tandem of Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal led the Pacers to 61 wins in the regular season. By this time, the trio of Hamilton, Billups, and Wallace added two big pieces in Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. The Pistons ultimately made the NBA Finals with their win over Indiana and won the NBA championship.
2004-2005 - Miami Heat (59-23 record)
Lost Conference Finals (3-4) vs. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons eventually made it back to the NBA Finals before falling to the Spurs in the championships, but it was the Heat that succeeded in the regular season. Shaq had a new team and posted a line of 22.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, while a 24-year old Dwyane Wade scored 24.1 points per night. In Wade’s first Conference Finals, it went to seven games before veteran experience took over in the end.
2005-2006 - Detroit Pistons (64-18 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Miami Heat
The Heat got revenge in the following year as the Pistons were taken down in the Conference Finals. The Heat went on to win the NBA Championship, but Detroit was a wrecking ball. The combination of Hamilton, Billups, both Wallaces, and Prince were one of the best starting lineups in the league.
2006-2007 - Detroit Pistons (53-29 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
In the final years of the Pistons dynasty, Detroit made their fifth straight Conference Finals appearance. It was the first year without Ben Wallace, who signed a lucrative contract with the Chicago Bulls, but the team was able to snag a 33-year old Chris Webber. This last dance did not conclude with a championship as a young LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
2007-2008 - Boston Celtics (66-16 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics turned a struggling franchise into a title contender in their first year of establishing a Big 3 with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. With a 21-year old Rajon Rondo, there were close to four All-Stars playing on the floor. The team went all the way, taking down Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to win their first championship since the days of Larry Bird.
2008-2009 - Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Orlando Magic
LeBron James won his first-ever MVP and the Cavaliers rolled to 66 wins and the No. 1 seed. With Mo Williams as the team’s second-best scorer, the Cavaliers struggled against Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Turkoglu in the Conference Finals. It was only the second time LeBron had made the Conference Finals, so the team chalked it up to inexperience.
2009-2010 - Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21 record)
Lost Second Round (2-4) vs. Boston Celtics
This was a pivotal time in the history of Cleveland sports. The Cavaliers rolled to a No. 1 seed during the regular season, but couldn’t make the NBA Finals. A second-round loss was enough for a primetime LeBron to leave Cleveland altogether and go title-chasing in Miami. Mike Brown was eventually fired, and the Cavaliers struggled for many years after.
2010-2011 - Chicago Bulls (62-20 record)
Lost Conference Finals (1-4) vs. Miami Heat
The 2011 season is a dear year for Bulls fans as Derrick Rose became the youngest player to ever win the MVP award. Despite missing out on Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, the Bulls finished with a better record with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. As the Heat played together, they eventually used their talent to stop Rose and Co. from making the NBA Finals.
2011-2012 - Chicago Bulls (50-16 record)
Lost First Round (2-4) vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The first round of the 2012 playoffs will go down as agony for Bulls fans. It was the year that Rose suffered his first career-altering injury. After this year, Rose was never the same and never returned to MVP form. Had Rose stayed healthy, many believe that the Bulls might have won a championship instead of the Heat.
2012-2013 - Miami Heat (66-16 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-3 record) vs. San Antonio Spurs
It took two years, but the Heat’s 2013 season saw some of the best basketball played between LeBron and D-Wade. The 2013 season was also one of LeBron’s best seasons statistically as he won the MVP. In the NBA Finals, LeBron won Finals MVP and the Heat took down the Spurs in seven hard-fought games, which featured one of the most clutch shots by Ray Allen we have ever seen.
2013-2014 - Indiana Pacers (56-26 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4 record) vs. Miami Heat
A young Paul George, a veteran David West, a tough Lance Stephenson, and a consistent Roy Hibbert led the Pacers to the best record in the East. The Pacers were playing the Heat for the second straight season in the Conference Finals and were playing toe-to-toe with the team. In the end, the Big 3 of Miami was too much.
2014-2015 - Atlanta Hawks (60-22 record)
Lost Conference Finals (0-4 record) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Speaking of too much, the Hawks were not ready for LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving playing together. The Hawks rode a combination of Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver as long as they could. It was evident in the sweep, that the Cavaliers were truly the best team in the East and not the Hawks.
2015-2016 - Cleveland Cavaliers (56-26 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-3) vs. Golden State Warriors
The Cavaliers fired their head coach David Blatt and replaced him with Tyron Lue midway through the year. Lue managed this team well, navigating the team to a No. 1 seed. The Cavaliers won their first-ever championship. The Finals featured a clutch shot from Kyrie Irving and one of the greatest blocks by LeBron that lives in Finals history.
2016-2017 - Boston Celtics (53-29 record)
Lost Conference Finals (1-4) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Isiah Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game and had one of the best postseasons in Celtics history. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford helped make this a tough defensive unit, but the gap between Thomas’ offense and the rest of the team was too large when it came to battling Cleveland. In the end, LeBron got the last laugh over Boston again and made his third straight Finals trip.
2017-2018 - Toronto Raptors (59-23 record)
Lost Second Round (0-4) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s not too many times we see a Coach of the Year gets fired. That’s what happened to Dwane Casey. The current Pistons coach led the Raptors to the best record in the East, but he couldn’t get past LeBron James. The constant failures against Cleveland led to Casey getting fired and DeMar DeRozan getting traded.
2018-2019 - Milwaukee Bucks (60-22 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Toronto Raptors
Speaking of the trade, Kawhi Leonard ended up being a pretty great one-year rental as he led Toronto to their first-ever NBA championship. The combination of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Marc Gasol ended up being a pretty formidable unit. With Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam playing like an All-Star, and Fred VanVleet shooting like a Kyle Korver, the Raptors outplayed MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and co.
2019-2020 - Milwaukee Bucks (56-17 record)
Lost Second Round (1-4) vs. Miami Heat
Despite winning the MVP for a second season, Giannis couldn’t lead his team to the NBA Finals. The Bucks were dominant all regular season, but the Heat posed a matchup problem for the team. Jimmy Butler played like an MVP, while Bam Adebayo kept Giannis in check.
2000-2001 - San Antonio Spurs (58-24 record)
Lost Conference Finals (0-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
A 24-year old Tim Duncan and a 35-year old David Robinson had the Spurs rolling this year, which included bested Shaq and Kobe Bryant during the regular season. By the time the Conference Finals rolled around, the Lakers held a prime advantage with Shaq and Kobe as the team was ultimately swept.
2001-2002 - Sacramento Kings (61-21 record)
Lost Conference Finals (3-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The 2002 Conference Finals are still debated today. Many believe that officiating cost the Kings a chance at making the NBA Finals. Instead, the Lakers completed a three-peat after pulling out a hard-fought series against the Kings. The combination of Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic was a deadly offensive pair, as both averaged over 20 points per game. In the end, the Lakers got the last laugh.
2002-2003 - San Antonio Spurs (60-22 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-2) vs. New Jersey Nets
The Spurs technically tied with the Dallas Mavericks for the most wins in the regular season but captured the tiebreaker. The Spurs were able to get revenge from two seasons ago by defeating the Lakers in the second round. The Nets were back in the NBA Finals for the second season, but Duncan outplayed Jason Kidd and Co. to win his second NBA Finals MVP.
2003-2004- Minnesota Timberwolves (58-24 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin Garnett won an MVP and established himself as one of the best power forwards of all time. The Timberwolves were a losing franchise, but Garnett consistently led the team to an early entry in the playoffs. In what was Shaq and Kobe’s final season together, Garnett couldn’t take down the Hall of Fame combo over a seven-game series.
2004-2005 - Phoenix Suns (62-20 record)
Lost Conference Finals (1-4) vs. San Antonio Spurs
Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion were a Big 3 of the mid-2000s. With Nash leading the way with an MVP season, the Suns had one of the highest-scoring offenses in the NBA. The Suns outscored nearly every team they played, but with a young Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as superstar Tim Duncan, the Spurs captured their third championship in six seasons.
2005-2006 - San Antonio Spurs (63-19 record)
Lost Second Round (3-4) vs. Dallas Mavericks
The Big 3 of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan looked like they were going to defend their NBA title. Instead, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry pulled off the seven-game upset and led the Mavericks to an NBA Finals. Nowitzki outscored Duncan 32.2 points to 27.1 points per game during the series.
2006-2007 - Dallas Mavericks (67-15 record)
Lost First Round (2-4) vs. Golden State Warriors
After losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, the Mavericks knew they had a great team. Nowitzki led the Mavericks to a No. 1 seed and collected the MVP Award. In the playoffs, it was one of the biggest upsets of all time. Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, and Stephen Jackson helped the 42-40 Warriors become the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series.
2007-2008 - Los Angeles Lakers (57-25 record)
Lost NBA Finals (2-4) vs. Boston Celtics
The Lakers rode Pau Gasol’s first season with the Lakers to the No. 1 seed. Of course, it helps when you have the MVP in Kobe Bryant on your team. The new tandem of Bryant and Gasol made the NBA Finals but were defeated by the Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen in a meeting of two No. 1 seeds.
2008-2009 - Los Angeles Lakers (65-17 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-1) vs. Orlando Magic
After their defeat to Boston, Bryant and Gasol were determined to make it back to the NBA Finals. The Lakers pushed past the Houston Rockets in a seven-game series and then took down Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson in the Conference Finals. Dwight Howard led the Magic to a surprise appearance in the Finals, but the Lakers easily took down Orlando to win Kobe’s first championship since the departure of Shaq.
2009-2010 - Los Angeles Lakers (57-25 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-3) vs. Boston Celtics
The Lakers recorded the No. 1 seed in the West for a third consecutive year and once again relied on Bryant and Gasol to lead the team all the way. By the end, Bryant won his fifth championship. In a rematch with the Celtics, Bryant led the Lakers back from a 13-point deficit, where he scored 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, while also grabbing 15 rebounds. It was the first time the Lakers won a Game 7 in the NBA Finals against the Celtics.
2010-2011 - San Antonio Spurs (61-21 record)
Lost First Round (2-4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Big 3 of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili led the Spurs to the best record, but this playoff series was all about Memphis. Mike Conley Jr., Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph upset the Spurs in six games. The Grizzlies won their first playoff game in franchise history in Game 1 and then won their first home playoff game in Game 3. It was the first time Memphis clinched a playoff series, and it was the fourth time ever an eight seed defeated a one seed.
2011-2012 - San Antonio Spurs (50-16 record)
Lost Conference Finals (2-4) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
After their defeat to Memphis a year ago, the Spurs made it back to the Conference Finals but ran into a young Big 3 buzzsaw. A young Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden led the Thunder to their first NBA Finals as a member of OKC. The three future Hall of Famers didn’t know it at the time, but they would become the future faces of the league after taking down the Spurs’ legends.
2012-2013 - Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22 record)
Lost Second Round (1-4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies
After the Thunder failed to agree to a contract extension, Harden was traded to the Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, which became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary, and a second-round pick, which became Alex Abrines. The Thunder relied on Durant and Westbrook to lead the team to the West’s best record, but the combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol was too big for OKC to stop.
2013-2014 - San Antonio Spurs (62-20 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-1) vs. Miami Heat
The 2014 playoffs were when we saw a superstar in the making. Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was named All-Defensive Second Team and helped Tim Duncan win a title in his final year in the league. In the Finals against Miami, Leonard averaged 17.8 points on 61% shooting. He was the third-youngest Finals MVP at 22 years and 351 days.
2014-2015 - Golden State Warriors (67-15 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-2) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
In LeBron’s first season in Cleveland, he was met by a dynasty in the making. The Warriors, led by first-year head coach Steve Kerr, used an MVP season from Steph Curry to win 67 games. Curry, along with Klay Thompson, formed the “Splash Bros,” while Draymond Green became the first real enforcer in the paint since Dennis Rodman. Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP and the Bay Area was ecstatic beating LeBron.
2015-2016 - Golden State Warriors (73-9 record)
Lost NBA Finals (3-4) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Steph Curry became the first-ever unanimous MVP and the Warriors won an NBA record of 73 games, beating Michael Jordan’s Bulls record of 72. Despite setting a new league record for wins, the season will always be marred by losing to the Cavaliers in the Finals. The series featured a long-remembered shot by Kyrie Irving and a block by James on Iguodala in the final minutes to seal the Game 7 win and Cleveland’s first-ever championship.
2016-2017 - Golden State Warriors (67-15 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Durant and the Thunder held a 3-1 lead on the Warriors in the Conference Finals. After losing three straight to lose the series, it led to a conversation in the parking lot between Curry and Durant about joining up. That’s exactly what happened as Durant joined the superteam, led the Warriors to a No. 1 seed, and won his first championship and Finals MVP.
2017-2018 - Houston Rockets (65-17 record)
Lost Conference Finals (3-4) vs. Golden State Warriors
James Harden won an MVP, Chris Paul became exactly what Harden needed, and the Rockets won 65 games. Houston finished with a better record than the Warriors, who had Curry, Thompson, Green, and Durant. It was the closest chance Harden has had up to this point at qualifying for the NBA Finals. In the end, the Warriors made the NBA Finals and extended both Harden and Paul’s drought in the Finals.
2018-2019 - Golden State Warriors (57-25 record)
Lost NBA Finals (2-4) vs. Toronto Raptors
The Finals in 2019 will go down as one of the most gut-wrenching appearances for the team. After missing nine games with a strained right calf, Durant returned to action in Game 5 but left in the second quarter with an Achilles tendon injury. Then in Game 6, Klay Thompson suffered a torn ACL. The Raptors won their first NBA championship and Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP.
2019-2020 - Los Angeles Lakers (52-19 record)
Won NBA Finals (4-2) vs. Miami Heat
In the first year with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the team was one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Veterans Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo proved to be valuable assets throughout the regular season and playoffs. LeBron won his fourth NBA Finals MVP and fourth championship in a year that saw his good friend Kobe Bryant tragically killed in a helicopter crash. With a No. 1 seed and championship, it was a truly happy ending given all of the outside variables.