NBA teams with most Conference Finals appearances originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The Conference Finals stage is set and the NBA playoff field is reduced to four.
We still have to wait a few more weeks to find out who advances between the Celtics-Heat and the Mavericks-Warriors, but just making the conference finals is an achievement.
The Celtics lead the pack with 21 conference appearances in franchise history, followed by Miami and Golden State who are tied at nine, with Dallas rounding out the quartet with five appearances.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets are the only franchises still looking for their first Conference Finals appearances.
Where do they measure up against the top of the league? We have the top five franchises with the most conference finals.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (23 appearances)
Recent history aside, the Lakers are still the king of the dance. Their 23 Conference Finals appearances — the most of any team in either conference — came behind sustained dominance for more than half a century.
The Lakers’ first major drought came in the 1990s when they missed the conference finals for six straight years. After a period of soul-searching, they found their answer by recruiting a high schooler named Kobe Bryant in 1996. With Bryant at the helm, the Lakers went to eight of the next 14 Western Conference Finals, winning five NBA championships.
The end of Bryant’s career and eventual retirement led to the franchise’s slow decline, as they struggled to keep up with promising Western Conference rivals like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors. From 2010 to 2019, the Lakers only appeared in the playoffs three times, never making it past the second round. The Lakers reminded the world of their place on the NBA stage in the 2020 playoff bubble when LeBron James and Anthony Davis led them to their 17th NBA championship against the Miami Heat.
2. Boston Celtics (21 appearances)
Celtics-Lakers are among the most elite sports rivalries, joining Yankees-Red Sox and North Carolina-Duke. It goes beyond Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. These are banners and trophies.
In addition to having its own 17 NBA champions, Boston leads Los Angeles in league MVP (10-8), games won (3,513-3,460) and total matchups (206-164). A domain they follow? Conference Finals.
The Celtics have gained ground over the past decade, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in four of the past six seasons. With Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka in tandem at the front office, and the core of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown still relatively young in their careers, there’s no reason to believe they won’t overtake the Lakers in a near future.
If they beat the Miami Heat in the upcoming series, they just might have a chance to tip the scales in their favor with an 18th NBA title.
3. San Antonio Spurs (14 appearances)
While the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are the bluest of the blue bloods, San Antonio is no longer the newcomer to the block. Throughout the 90s, Spurs quietly built a winning culture which took off with the addition of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs’ Big Three, and eventually the Big Four with Kawhi Leonard, led San Antonio to 22 straight playoff appearances and five NBA titles. During that two-decade span, Spurs became regulars in the Western Conference Finals with 10 appearances.
T-4. Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons (11 appearances)
Unlike the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which is etched in lore, the Bulls-Pistons are all about personality. Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Bad Boys took the NBA by storm in the late 1980s, winning back-to-back titles and looking set to claim their right to the Eastern Conference.
But Michael Jordan arrived, and the Pistons were suddenly a thing of the past, playoff contenders who struggled to make it past the first round, while the Chicago Bulls built an empire over six championships.
It’s been over a decade since either team reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
T-5. Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns (10 appearances)
It might be surprising to see these two teams so high on the list, given that they’ve combined for a grand total of an NBA championship, but there’s no doubt that they’ve had periods of dominance in the game. Western Conference.
In 41 seasons in Seattle, the Sonics made the conference finals six times, winning the franchise’s only NBA title in 1979. A bitter move and rebrand later, they settled in Oklahoma City, giving Sam Presti, 30, the keys to building a winning culture. Presti did just that and more, writing three straight NBA MVPs and helping the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals four times from 2011 to 2016.
The Suns, on the other hand, are only recently returning to relevance after a decade-long playoff drought. Their original glory days came in the 1990s and early 2000s with Shawn Marion, Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash all giving Arizona something to celebrate. Despite 10 Conference Finals appearances, the Suns’ trophy case has one big vacancy – the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
After their second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix has to wait another year.