The three-peat has a special type of energy attached to it. When you hear that word, it means that a team won three championships in a row. The Minneapolis Lakers were the first team to do it from 1952 to 1954. George Mikan led all players in scoring all three years. The Lakers nearly completed the three-peat earlier. After winning titles in 1949 and 1950, the Lakers came up just short in 1951 when the Rochester Royals defeated the New York Knicks.
The Boston Celtics won eight championships in a row from 1959 to 1966. When the Celtics were at their highest points, the team won 11 championships with the likes of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and John Havlicek leading the way. Had the Celtics won the title in 1967, we could have called it a three, three-peat run.
Since the run of the Celtics, only three teams have completed the three-peat. Some teams have come close. The Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back championships in 1987 and 1988. The team returned to the NBA Finals in 1989 but was defeated by the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons won titles in 1989 and 1990 before being defeated by the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Houston Rockets won two titles consecutively in 1994 and 1995 but have not made the NBA Finals since. Since 2009, three teams have won two titles in a row but were not able to complete the three-peat. The Lakers won titles in 2009 and 2010. Had the team defeated the Celtics in 2008, we could have been talking about their third three-peat in team history. The Heat won two titles in 2012 and 2013 but then was beaten by the Spurs in 2014. As for the Warriors, the team won in 2017 and 2018 but was beaten by the Raptors in 2019.
Winning a three-peat is difficult, which is why only three teams have done it in the last 56 years. These are those three teams.
1991-93 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan was the leader of two of the three three-peats listed. His journey began well before his first championship in 1991. When Jordan was drafted by the Bulls in 1984, it took Jordan seven years before he ever played in the NBA Finals. That took years of perseverance, pain, and passion. It also took a ton of playoff losses to the Celtics and Detroit Pistons. Losing to the Pistons in the late 80s is what helped Jordan find the motivation to get his first ring.
During the 1990-91 season, Jordan averaged 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.7 steals per game to earn his second career MVP Award. Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Bill Cartwright enjoyed successful seasons to help surround Jordan with the right pieces. That included Pippen making the All-Defensive Second Team. In the playoffs, the Bulls swept the Knicks in three games and then defeated Charles Barkley and the 76ers in five games. Sweeping the Pistons was a sweet moment for Jordan, who had years of defeat to the team. In the Finals, Jordan led the Bulls to four straight wins after a Game 1 loss to land the team’s first-ever championship.
For the second straight season, Jordan won an MVP Award. Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 2.3 steals. Pippen made All-NBA Second Team and added 21.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. Both Jordan and Pippen were named to the All-Defensive Team, while Pippen finished ninth in the MVP race. The road to the Finals was tough. After sweeping the Heat in the first round, the Bulls played the Knicks for seven games before winning 110-81 at home in the final game. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls beat a tough Cavaliers team in six games. That set up a championship series with Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, where the Bulls won in six games.
Jordan missed out on the MVP Award, which was won by Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns. Regardless, Jordan won his seventh scoring title with 32.6 points, plus 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.8 steals. Both Jordan and Pippen made All-NBA Defensive Team and made the All-NBA Team. Horace Grant stood out exceptionally as well with a line of 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team. Jordan finished this in the MVP race and was second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Completing the three-peat saw the Bulls sweep the Hawks in the first round and then a sweep of the Cavaliers in the semifinals. The Knicks were determined to get over the hump but were defeated in six games in the Conference Finals. In the Finals, that set up a matchup with the MVP Barkley and his Suns. It took six games for the Bulls to win, and it then led to the sudden retirement of the three-time Finals MVP Jordan.
1996-98 Chicago Bulls
Jordan didn’t stay retired for long. He returned towards the end of the 1994-95 season but was not in pure basketball shape. With Jordan taking the offseason to prepare for the 1995-96 season, he was back in MVP form. The Bulls also made a move to acquire All-Star power forward Dennis Rodman, as well as former “Bad Boy” Pistons members James Edwards and John Salley. By the end of the season, the team had the best offensive and defensive ratings.
That was not all. The Bulls set the record for wins in a season with 72. Jordan was back as the MVP with a line of 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.2 steals. Toni Kukoc provided 13.1 points off of the bench and won Sixth Man of the Year. Steve Kerr shot over 50% from three-point range off of the bench as well. The playoffs saw the Bulls lose one game on their way to the Finals, mowing down the Heat, Knicks, and Magic. In the Finals, the Bulls beat the SuperSonics in six games. The Bulls set a record for the best combined regular and postseason record with an 87-13 mark.
Coming off one of the best seasons ever, the team signed 43-year-old Robert Parish. The trio of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman were unbeatable. At one point, the Bulls were 42-6 during the season. Jordan led the league in scoring with 29.6 points but the league elected to reward the MVP to Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. That motivated him in the playoffs, where the team beat the Bullets, Hawks, and Heat in the playoffs to set up a Finals with the Jazz. Jordan outplayed Malone in the Finals to win his fifth Finals MVP Award as the Bulls won the series in six games.
Widely regarded as the “last dance,” the Bulls were able to capture their second three-peat with a title in 1998. It took pushing through multiple moments of adversity. Pippen missed half of the season with a toe injury. Kerr missed time with a knee injury, while Rodman nearly left the team during the NBA Finals. Despite everything, the Bulls finished the regular season 62-20 and were led by Jordan, who won his fifth MVP Award in his career.
In the playoffs, the Bulls swept the Nets in three games. That was followed by a 4-1 series win over the Hornets. The Conference Finals were tight. Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers had lived in the shadow of Jordan’s Bulls for years. The series went seven games before the Bulls pulled out a Game 7 win. In the Finals, it set up the rematch with the Jazz. The series would go six games for a second time, with the Bulls winning again. It would be the sixth championship in eight years for the Bulls, with Jordan leading the perfect 6-0 charge with six Finals MVP Awards.
2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers
With Shaquille O’Neal minted as the next face of the league, the Lakers took advantage of the best post player in the league. A 19-game winning streak helped spark the team as the Lakers eventually won 67 games. O’Neal averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game. O’Neal won the MVP Award and made the All-Defensive Team as well. Kobe Bryant was the perfect complement to O’Neal and made the All-Defensive First Team. With O’Neal and Bryant leading the way, the Lakers had the best defensive rating and had two players finish in the top-5 of the DPOY voting.
All of that was nearly for nothing. The Kings pushed the Lakers to the final game of the first round, but the Lakers came up winning. After that, the Lakers beat the Suns in five games. In the Conference Finals, the Trail Blazers pushed the Lakers to seven games with a team featuring Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, and Steve Smith. That led to a Finals matchup with the Pacers. Finally making it after years of Michael Jordan’s torment, Reggie Miller had his chance but was defeated in his only Finals appearance in six games.
The combination of O’Neal and Bryant ran the table again in 2000-01. O’Neal led the team in scoring 28.7 points per game, but Bryant was right behind with 28.5 points. O’Neal finished third in the MVP voting and then embarked on a masterful playoff road. The Lakers swept the Trail Blazers and Kings in the first two rounds. In the Conference Finals, the Lakers swept the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Facing off against MVP Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers rattled off four wins in five games. Their 15-1 playoff record set an NBA record for the playoffs, which stood for 16 years until the Warriors went 16-1 in 2017.
By now, the league knew that the Lakers had no intentions of going away. The team signed All-Star free agent Mitch Richmond in the offseason and started the season 16-1. The Lakers had help from Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Robert Horry, having strong seasons. Both O’Neal and Bryant made the All-NBA First Team, while O’Neal was third and Bryant fifth in the MVP voting. The quest to complete the three-peat was difficult, but the Lakers were able to pull it off.
After sweeping the Trail Blazers and beating the Spurs in the second round, it created one of the most memorable Conference Finals in NBA History with the Kings. The Kings led the series 3-2, but Game 6 remains one of the most controversial games in NBA history due to many calls against the Kings. Game 7 nearly featured 24 million viewers only to see the Lakers win. In the Finals, the Lakers blasted the Nets in four games to complete the team’s second three-peat in team history. O’Neal won his third straight Finals MVP.
A Three-Peat Is No Easy Task
When you think about it, there are only three NBA franchises that have ever completed a three-peat. The Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls were able to pull this off. All three teams had special players that rank as some of the best in NBA history. The Lakers had George Mikan from the early days, who was ahead of his time. Regardless, O’Neal and Bryant were a part of the modern NBA and were able to do it. Think about how difficult that is. Not even the combination of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy was able to pull that off.
As for the Celtics, the team had a man amongst boys in Bill Russell. The 11-time champion was a monster rebounder and outplayed the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson. While the Celtics might have been stacked and ahead of their time, nothing takes away what they were able to accomplish. After all, Larry Bird was able to win three consecutive MVP Awards, but he never won three straight titles.
The Bulls were fortunate to have the greatest player of all time. Imagine a scenario where the Trail Blazers take Jordan with the No. 2 overall pick in 1984 instead of Sam Bowie. Are we talking about the Trail Blazers three-peating two times instead? Jordan and Pippen are two of the best players ever. Pippen proved he could be the best player on a team when Jordan was gone. The Bulls had two top-15 players on their team at the same time.
Outside of Russell and Mikan, that is what it is going to take for another team to complete a three-peat. O’Neal and Bryant are two of the top-10 players ever. Jordan and Pippen are both in the top 15. The Lakers' nearly three-peating between 2008 and 2010 was special because the top-two players were Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Miami Heat made the Finals each season between 2011 and 2014 and featured a team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. James made the Finals four more years in a row but lost three times, including back-to-back times to the Warriors in 2017 and 2018. That team featured Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
The team that could pull off a three-peat in the near future is the current Warriors. Curry, Thompson, and Green are the closest core of players to a dynasty we have seen since the 90s Bulls. Since 2015, the three have played in the NBA Finals six times. Two injury seasons are the reason the team didn’t make the playoffs. When healthy, we saw what they could do, which included winning the 2022 championship. Assuming everyone can stay healthy, the Warriors should be considered the favorite to win again in 2023. If the Warriors can do that, which would be the trio’s fifth title together, the conversation about legacy is going to be very interesting.