In honor of 'The Last Dance,' here are the greatest sports dynasties of all time
Well, we’ve finally reached the stretch run. It’s hard not to feel some sadness now that the adventure we’ve been on the past few weeks is coming to an end. The time machine we’ve taken to a different age in the NBA while watching The Last Dance has undoubtedly impacted casual viewers and diehard fans alike, creating new memories for some and providing an endless amount of nostalgia for others.
(Also, the memes. The memes are everything.)
The Last Dance has given us an inside look behind the scenes at one of the greatest dynasties ever assembled, featuring a core that would go on to accomplish what few have even come close to.
And all this got me thinking: Where do Michael Jordans’ Chicago Bulls rank in the pantheon of great sports teams?
Where do they sit on the dynasty totem pole?
So, just as The Last Dance has taken us on an epic stroll down memory lane, I took a dive into the annals of sports history to line up the most dominant dynasties across MLB, NBA, NHL, and the NFL.
What earned them the title of “dynasty?” Who were their greatest heroes and greatest rivals?
Why and how did they fall end?
Agree? Disagree? Cool — hit us up in the comments below and on Twitter:
(Editor’s note: To keep things fair, we narrowed it down to three dynasties per sport. Speaking of which, winning championships is an obvious need, but it’s not the end-all, be-all to make you a dynasty. Longevity, wins, state-of-the-sport, cultural impact — all needed to be taken into account when choosing the greatest dynasties of all time. Of course you’re going to disagree with some picks — that’s why these types of lists exist, so you could debate them!)
Now, bring on the teams!
San Francisco Giants (2010-2014) / New York Yankees (1996-2003): While it was incredibly fun to root for them any time it was an even-number year, it’s tough to make the cut of a dynasty list when you can’t hold a title for more than a season — not to mention, the Giants would go through complete 180s in terms of wins following their championship seasons. All that said, they were utterly dominant during the playoffs where they actually sealed the deal.
The Evil Empire returned to greatness in the late ‘90s and delivered a three-peat, but they lose out a spot on this list (you’ll see why).
Chicago Blackhawks (2009-2016) / Detroit Red Wings (1997-2008): The Hawks won three Stanley Cups during this run, including two division titles. Led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago compiled over 100 points five times between 2009-2016. Unfortunately, after a playoff sweep in the first round of the 2016-2017 playoffs, the team traded some key members and the Hawks haven’t been the same since.
It’s tough to write about a Red Wings dynasty ... because they are not good now. All that said, they had a streak of success from the late ‘90s all the way to the late 2000s during which they won four Stanley Cups. They lose out to the dynasties on the list, however.
San Antonio Spurs (1999-2014) / Los Angeles Lakers (2000-2010: The longevity of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs teams earns them mention on this list. That said, while they were a truly dominant winning franchise during that long span, they just missed the cut here.
The Lakers are one of the more storied franchises in NBA history, and in the 2000s Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson, and later on, Pau Gasol, went on a legendary run in an epic Western Conference. In the end though (as you’ll see soon below) these Lakers were very extremely slightly edged out by another dynasty, one bearing their name.
Green Bay Packers (1960-1967) / Dallas Cowboys (1992-1995): The hardest teams to leave off the list. The Packers teams of the 60s won five total championships in a seven-year span. The Cowboys won three in four years. But if we’re being technical, those Green Bay teams only won two Super Bowls. And while the Cowboys were indeed powerhouses, they’re edged out by the three NFL dynasties that did make the list.
No. 12: Oakland Athletics (1971-1975)
What made them great: You can’t talk about ‘70s baseball without mentioning the Oakland Athletics. Led by Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and a cast of characters straight out of a movie, these A’s achieved a popularity that went well beyond the diamond. Known (to name just a few key traits) for their epic mustaches and rebellious, often bombastic attitudes, the Swingin’ A’s took MLB by storm with their pristine defense, their lights-out pitching, and an incredible power-speed combo on offense.
They could just as easily pummel an opponent as pummel each other in the clubhouse, but the Swingin’ A’s became fan-favorites just the same.
Five consecutive American League championships. Three-peat World Series champions (the only team to do so aside from the Yankees). One of the greatest jerseys in MLB history.
Their greatest nemesis: The Baltimore Orioles — another AL powerhouse — whom the A’s faced three times in the ALCS during this dynasty’s reign.
How did they end: Their seemingly endless supply of All-Stars ultimately came and went, as salary drama with infamous owner Charlie Finley led to the departure of many players, closing the chapter on the Swingin’ A’s era.
No. 11: Cincinnati Reds (1970-79)
What made them great: Speaking of ‘70s baseball, one could make the argument that the Cincinnati Reds were the best team in MLB during that span, even though they didn’t win the most championships. Featuring the “Great 8” core of players led by Pete Rose, the Reds utterly dominated the National League, compiling a whopping 953 wins during the decade.
They AVERAGED 98 wins per year from 1970-1976.
While they (only) won two World Series championships (back-to-back, I might add) after making the big game four times, The Big Red Machine won their division six times (finishing below second only once in the decade). They won over 100 games three times during the dynasty’s reign over the NL West.
Their offense was so good that it didn’t matter their starting pitching wasn’t up to par. They also had an elite bullpen, and as such this Reds dynasty could be considered pioneers of what we see so often today: Managers pulling their starting pitchers early in favor of lights-out relief.
Their greatest nemesis: The only thing that stopped the Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers from staying bitter rivals was the divisional realignment that sent Cincy to the NL Central.
How did they end: As it happens often in MLB, the team couldn’t keep everyone, as players left to join other squads. It was an era of contract disputes as well, further helping to dismantle the Machine.
No. 10: New York Islanders (1979-1984)
What made them great: What’s awesome about the New York Islanders is that they were smack in the middle of a trifecta of dynasties that unseated one after the other. The Islanders took the throne left by the Montreal Canadiens (more on them later), and then the Isles were subsequently dropped from the top by Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (more on them later, too).
Nonetheless, four consecutive Stanley Cups in the middle of one of the strongest eras in NHL history earns you a spot on this list.
Billy Smith provided the foundational goaltending that led this team to so much success in the early ‘80s, but the true start of the dynasty could be attributed to a simple trade, one that brought two-way center, Butch Goring, to Long Island. Goring, Smith, and an elite top line consisting of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Clark Gillies (all Hall of Famers) were the core members of a new dynasty.
The Isles of the ‘80s remain the last team to win more than two consecutive Cups and the only team in NHL history to win 19 playoff series — in a row. That streak only came to an end in a chase for a fifth-straight Stanley Cup.
Their greatest nemesis: The New York Rangers, a perennial archrival.
How did they end: Most Islanders fans will blame the fall of this dynasty on ownership and the team’s brain trust, which could have done more to keep the talent intact. Management issues have continued, and the Isles have yet to taste the level of success they had in the 80s.
No. 9: Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-1979)
What made them great: The beginnings of this dynasty could be traced back to when Steelers’ brain trust and legendary head coach Chuck Noll took Terry Bradshaw with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft. Thus began a sequence of years in which Noll would end up drafting a whopping 10 future Hall of Famers. These investments began to pay off in 1972 when the team won their first division title in franchise history.
Led by Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, wide receiver Lynn Swann, and a ferocious defense aptly known as the Steel Curtain, these Steelers teams would rattle off eight straight playoff appearances, six consecutive AFC Central titles, and four Super Bowl championships (two back-to-backs).
They became the first team in history to win three Super Bowls, then broke their own record with the fourth. No franchise defined the ‘70s in the NFL more than Pittsburgh.
Their greatest nemesis: There were a lot of options to choose from here, but had to go with the Oakland Raiders, a perennial playoff foe of these Steelers (the Broncos and Browns came close, too).
How did they end: Nothing good lasts forever, and that was especially true with the Steelers. Core members and stars retired and/or declined, making the ‘80s a stark contrast to the ‘70s.
No. 8: Los Angeles Lakers (1979-1991)
What made them great: Uh, where do I start? How about 6-foot-9 point guard, Magic Johnson? To put things into perspective, the Lakers won the championship in Magic’s rookie year. And that’s without mentioning the otherworldly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a young, uber-talented James Worthy (he arrived in 1982). That core trio took the powerful West by storm with a fast-paced offense that earned their teams the moniker, “Showtime.”
These teams could be defined by some epic performances. To name a few: When Magic took over at center for an injured Abdul-Jabbar and put up 42-15-7 en route to the title. The 12-2 playoff record in 1981-82. Worthy’s triple-double that helped secure Showtime’s repeat-championship. To quote a certain Captain, I can do this all day.
The Showtime Lakers won nine consecutive Pacific titles, made NINE NBA Finals appearances in 12 years, and won five championships, including two straight (and living up to a bold prediction by then-head coach, Pat Riley).
Their greatest nemesis: Larry Bird and his Hall-of-Fame factory of a Celtics team. The Showtime Lakers became the first visiting team ever to win a championship in the Boston Garden, but before that, LA held an 0-8 Finals record vs. the Celtics.
How did they end: Like many dynasties, time played a huge part, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement after a whopping 20 seasons didn’t exactly help the Lakers outlook. Pat Riley stepping down and Magic’s shocking retirement signaled the end-times of Showtime. The Lakers wouldn’t come close to matching this level of success until Shaquille O’Neal and a kid named Kobe Bryant came to town.
No. 7: San Francisco 49ers (1981-1997)
What made them great: Imagine being the fan of a football team that just can’t seem to hit on a quarterback, no matter how well they draft or what free agents they add.
Now think of the 49ers, who transitioned from Joe Montana to Steve Young. The jealousy is boundless.
The aforementioned Steelers may have dominated the 1970s in the NFL, but the ‘80s belonged to the 49ers. Aside from having one of the sweetest jerseys in all of sports, the 49ers boast two of football history’s greatest figures in Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice, both of whom reached acclaim in the ‘80s and would go on to be known as all-time greats at their respective positions.
An innovative offense (head coach Bill Walsh put the West Coast offense on the map), Montana’s heroics, Jerry Rice’s dominance, and an underrated defense were the keys to a 49ers dynasty that would last over a decade. Sure, it had some ups and downs — particularly, an unsuccessful run (by their standards) from 1990-93 — but you can’t talk about football from 1980-1999 without talking about the accomplishments of the 49ers organization.
Five Super Bowl trophies (back-to-back in 1988 and 1989). 10 division titles.
The most total wins in the NFL in both the ‘80s and ‘90s — they went 217-94.
Their greatest nemesis: The Dallas Cowboys, whom the 49ers just could not beat in the ‘70s and who returned to make them stumble again in the ‘90s.
How did they end: A quarterback controversy. Injuries to their biggest stars. A divisional realignment. Steve Young’s retirement. You can lean into many reasons why the 49ers dynasty ended at five Super Bowls, but at the end of the day, they’re just one of four teams to reach that feat in NFL history.
No. 6: Edmonton Oilers (1981-1992)
What made them great: In 1979, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was quoted to have said, "Within five years, Edmonton will have the Stanley Cup."
His prediction came true.
To not include the Wayne Gretzky Oilers on a dynasty team list is pretty much blasphemy. “The Great One” was on some GREAT Edmonton teams in the ‘80s. In an era flooded with NHL dynasties, these Oilers were arguably the best. Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr (to name a few) combined to create a core that would unseat the New York Islanders from the top of the NHL mountain.
Known for their incredible offense (and startling off-the-ice issues) the Oilers would go on to win the Stanley Cup FIVE times in EIGHT seasons, including back-to-back in 1984 and 1985 and then again in 1987 and 1988. Their 446 total goals in 1983-84 is an NHL record that stands to this day.
Incredibly, the Oilers managed to win their final cup in 1990 without their best player, as Gretzky got traded to the Kings after their 1988 victory.
Their greatest nemesis: The Calgary Flames — a bitter rivalry that lasts to this day.
How did they end: Gretzky’s departure and subsequent signing with the Kings was just the beginning of the end for the dynasty Oilers. A plethora of contract disputes led to the core of the team ending up on other squads, and the Oilers haven’t won a Cup since.
No. 5: New England Patriots (2001-2019?)
What made them great: It’s hard to have a true dynasty list without including a team that held the rest of the NFL in a vice grip for the better part of 18 years. Yes, EIGHTEEN YEARS.
And it began with the hiring of the Dark Lord, head coach Bill Belichick ...
... or did it start with the drafting of quarterback, Tom Brady?
It’s the chicken-or-the-egg argument that will seemingly continue to hound us for the rest of time: Who deserves more credit for the Patriots dynasty?
Regardless, the New England Patriots were the boogeyman of every fan and team outside of New England for as long as many of us can remember. They won three Super Bowls in four seasons and orchestrated one of the most incredible comebacks in SB history en route to their fifth (sorry, Falcons fans). They’re just one of two teams to win six Super Bowls, and they did it with the same head coach and quarterback for all six.
11 straight AFC East titles (17 total). Nine AFC championships. A ridiculous 18-0 season.
Their last losing season was in 2000 — 20 years ago. I mean ... c’mon.
And who knows? None of this prolonged, outrageous level of success might have happened if Drew Bledsoe didn’t suffer that injury ...
Their greatest nemesis: Uh ... Eli Manning-orchestrated Hail Marys? Did they even have a real nemesis? Sure, you can make arguments for the Peyton Manning-Colts, the Baltimore Ravens (even the Jets ... I guess), but you have to wonder if they ever had an actual year-in, year-out rival. For all intents and purposes, it was New England vs. the NFL.
How did they end: The Brady-Belichick connection came to an end when the quarterback signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency ...
... or is this all part of Belichick’s plan ...
... is the dynasty even truly over?
DUN DUN DUN DUUUUUN
No. 4: Montreal Canadiens (1970-1979)
What made them great: Fun fact: The Montreal Canadiens’ true dynastic period actually goes back to 1952.
And I know what you’re thinking: “But wait, it’s three different groups of teams and three different eras, they can’t all be the same dynasty!”
Listen, I hear you, but if you go a mere 4-5 seasons between “dynastic periods,” that doesn’t count as the end. That’s a lunch break.
To put things in perspective, the Canadiens won 16 Stanley Cups from 1952-1979; one in 1952-53, then five consecutive, then another four in five years, and then another six in nine seasons (four consecutive). That’s 16 championships in 27 years.
That comes out to a championship every 1.7 years. That’s just nonsense.
With all that said, let’s focus on the period between 1970-1979, when the Canadiens won those six Stanley Cups in nine seasons. Led by the most winningest coach in NHL history, Scotty Bowman, the Canadiens were nigh unstoppable during the ‘70s. Among their laundry list of accolades, this Canadiens dynasty holds the All-Time record for most points by a team in a season (132) and the fewest losses in a season (8), both by the 1976-77 Habs, which was arguably the best squad in franchise history.
Over 100 points in five straight seasons; over 120 in three. 50+ wins five times.
The ‘70s Canadiens featured some of the most decorated NHL players of all time. To name just a few: C Henri Richard (Yes, The Rocket’s little brother — 11-time Cup winner, 73-74 Bill Masterson Memorial Trophy winner), RW Yvan Cournoyer (eight-time Cup winner, 72-73 Conn Smythe Trophy winner), RW Guy Lafleur (five-time cup winner, two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, three-time Art Ross Trophy winner, three-time Ted Lindsay Award winner, 76-77 Smythe Trophy), G Ken Dryden (six-time Cup winner, five-time Vezina Trophy winner, 71-72 Calder Memorial Trophy winner, 70-71 Smythe Trophy), and D Serge Savard (seven-time Cup winner, 78-79 Masterson Trophy winner).
In fact, those ‘70s Canadiens are considered the best dynasty in NHL history, and I have to agree for the purposes of this list.
Their greatest nemesis: Ha, that’s funny.
... Okay, seriously, most Canadian teams hate each others’ guts, and this is also true for Montreal. Their hated rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were a common playoff foe during this dynasty era.
How did they end: The dynastic period of the Montreal Canadiens history came to an end in the ‘90s, after they won their 24th and most recent Stanley Cup. Nothing lasts forever, after all, but the Canadiens came close.
No. 3: Chicago Bulls (1990-1998)
What made them great: You’ve all been watching The Last Dance. You’re all aware of the mythology surrounding Michael Jordan. How he literally changed the game. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t retired that first time? Seven straight championships? Eight? Nine?
No need to get too much into details. Just some quick-hitters will suffice:
Won six NBA championships in eight seasons by way of TWO three-peats. All six featured the core of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and head coach Phil Jackson.
Six division titles in eight years. Best record in the East five times during the same span.
Won less than 55 games once. Won over 60 games five times.
Set a then-NBA record of 72 wins in one season (the Warriors broke this record with 73 in 2015-16).
Probably the most impactful team in all of ‘90s sports from a cultural perspective.
Their greatest nemesis: I’ll let you guys choose:
How did they end: Apparently hellbent on moving on with a rebuild without Phil Jackson, Krause traded away both Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and hired a new coach. Jordan subsequently announced his second retirement. Just like that, the Bulls teams which had such a long-lasting worldwide impact during the ‘90s were no more.
No. 2: New York Yankees (1949-62)
What made them great: My heart wanted to choose the 1996-2003 dynasty of the Bronx Bombers, the one that included the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, and Mariano Rivera.
They were part of the Yankees squads I grew up rooting for with my father as a kid, and they’ll always be my favorite teams.
That said, for the purposes of this list, the Evil Empire loses out to its forebears from the 1950s — and what a dynasty it was.
The early ‘50s marked the end of the Joe DiMaggio era and the start of the Mickey Mantle one. Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Roger Maris put together some of the greatest teams in baseball history.
NINE World Series championships in 14 seasons — five of which were consecutive (and a late back-to-back from 61-62). 12 division titles. They won less than 90 games just once during that span. There’s not much more to say here.
This dynasty is one of the main reasons why the Yankees are arguably the most successful franchise in all of sports.
Their greatest nemesis: The Boston Red Sox, because of course. With that said, the Yankees did have some serious playoff rivals in the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and New York/San Francisco Giants during this dynasty period.
How did they end: Time, not a rival team or front office shenanigans, sank this dynasty, as aging stars couldn’t keep the success going before their eventual retirements. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Yankees were able to get to the big show once again.
No. 1: Boston Celtics (1956-1969)
What made them great: Did this dynasty actually exist?
This run of absolute dominance during a 13-year span seems almost a fantasy. Their unrivaled success borders on hilarity. You just don’t see such a thing in sports. I tried to convince myself of another No. 1 pick, a dynasty that maybe made more sense in the brain of your average human — because what these Celtics teams did is hard to fathom.
It just seemed too easy.
But in the end, numbers, facts (and the wise words of another Yahoo Sports editor) made me snap back into reality (even though the Celtics dynasty seems like something out of a young fan’s daydreams).
They won ELEVEN NBA championships across those THIRTEEN years.
Let me reiterate: That’s 11-for-13. That’s a trophy nearly 85 percent of the time.
They won eight straight from 1958 to 1966.
And it all started with a draft-day trade for Bill Russell. The big man led the way during the budding years of this dynasty, literally helping (he averaged over 4 assists during his career while being 6-foot-10, 220 pounds) his Celtics win those 11 rings — he even did so as a player-coach in the late 1960s.
Russell’s teams were defined by breakneck offense, a shutdown interior defense (provided in great part by Russell and his uncanny shot-blocking ability), and a completeness to them that other NBA squads of the era could only dream of achieving.
But, like the aforementioned Canadiens in the NHL, the true dynastic period of the Celtics was actually defined by multiple teams across a 30-year span. Once the likes of Bobby Cousy and Russell and John Havlicek retired, new faces emerged amidst a changing NBA.
Names like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish revived a sleeping dynasty en route to three more championships.
All told, the Boston Celtics — from 1956 to 1986 — never went more than FOUR SEASONS without winning an NBA championship.
The chances of us seeing another dynasty like this are few and far between.
Their greatest nemesis: The Los Angeles Lakers, although the rivalry was fairly one-sided during the Lakers’ early years. That said, you can make the argument that these Celtics’ greatest rival was Wilt Chamberlain, no matter which Philadelphia team he was playing for (he even joined the Lakers later, too).
How did they end: After Bird retired and stars continued to age, the Celtics went through a long playoff-victory drought marred by failed/half-finished rebuilds. Even though it felt like it would last forever, the dynastic Boston Celtics didn’t return to the NBA Finals until the 2007-08 season.
Since then, however, they’ve been to the playoffs in every season but one.
When you’re a franchise acclimated to winning, you always find your way back.