The Conference Finals stage is set and the NBA playoff field is narrowed down to four.
The Celtics lead the pack with 21 conference appearances in franchise history, followed by Miami and Golden State who are tied with nine, with Dallas rounding out the quartet with five appearances.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Charlotte Hornets are the lone franchises still searching for their inaugural Conference Finals appearances.
Where do these measure against the top of the league? We’ve got the top-five franchises with the most Conference Finals.
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1. Los Angeles Lakers (23 appearances)
Recent history aside, the Lakers are still king of the dance. Their 23 Conference Final appearances – the most of any team from either conference -- came behind sustained dominance for over half a century.
The Lakers’ first major dry spell came in the 1990s when they missed the Conference Finals for six straight years. After a period of soul searching, they found their answer in drafting a high schooler by the name of Kobe Bryant in 1996. With Bryant at the helm, the Lakers made eight of the next 14 Western Conference Finals, winning five NBA Championships.
The end of Bryant’s career and eventual retirement brought about the slow decline of the franchise, as they struggled to keep up with up-and-coming Western Conference rivals like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the 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 over the Miami Heat.
2. Boston Celtics (21 appearances)
Celtics-Lakers is among the most elite rivalries in sports, joining the likes of Yankees-Red Sox and North Carolina-Duke. It goes beyond Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It’s about banners and trophies.
In addition to having 17 NBA champions of their own, Boston leads Los Angeles in league MVPs (10 vs. 8), games won (3,513 vs. 3,460) and total head-to-head matchups (206-164). One area they trail? Conference Finals.
The Celtics have made significant ground in the past decade, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals 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 surpass the Lakers in the 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 on the block. Throughout the 90s the Spurs quietly built a winning culture that took off with the addition of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs’ Big Three, and eventual Big Four with Kawhi Leonard, led San Antonio to 22-straight playoff appearances and five NBA titles. Within that two-decade stretch, the 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 tradition, the Bulls-Pistons is all about the personalities. Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys of Detroit took the NBA by storm in the late 1980s, winning back-to-back titles and seemed poised to stake their claim on the Eastern Conference.
But along came Michael Jordan, and the Pistons were suddenly a thing of the past, playoff contenders that struggled to get past the first round, while the Chicago Bulls built an empire on six championships.
It’s been over a decade since either team has made the Eastern Conference Finals.
T-5. Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns (10 appearances)
It might come as a surprise to see both these teams so high on the list, considering they combined for a grand total of one NBA Championship, but there’s no doubt they’ve had stretches of dominance in the Western Conference.
In 41 seasons in Seattle, the Sonics made the Conference Finals six times, winning the franchise’s lone NBA title in 1979. One bitter relocation and rebranding later, they settled in Oklahoma City, giving 30-year-old Sam Presti the keys to build a winning culture. Presti did just that and more, drafting 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 dry spell. Their original hey day came in the 1990s and early 2000s with Shawn Marion, Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash all giving Arizona plenty 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 is left to wait another year.