If the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are the leading teams in their respective conferences, make the 2014 NBA Finals, one of the talking points will center around whether a finals featuring two small market franchises is good for the NBA. For example, three of the six least viewed NBA Finals, featured the San Antonio Spurs, including the two worst rated finals.
As this list will reveal, a high TV rating can occur even with a small market team as the Utah Jazz played in two of the three highest rated finals. The ten highest rated NBA Finals do not necessarily reflect large TV markets even though the Lakers and Bulls feature heavily. These finals all have three things in common; either Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan was playing in them. The ten highest rated finals were all between 1986 and 1998. The finals are ranked by virtue of their Nielsen ratings which is the the primary source of audience measurement information in the television industry. The last three NBA Finals featured the Miami Heat and their star player LeBron James. Despite his presence, the last three finals had a Nielsen rating of 10.2, 10.1 and 10.4 respectively, which pale in comparison to the NBA Finals on this list.
10. 1986 Finals – Celtics vs Rockets, Nielsen Rating 14.1
The 10th most viewed NBA Finals was the 1986 Finals that featured a match up between the Houston Rockets and the eventual champions Boston Celtics. The series had a Nielsen rating of 14.1. The Rockets were surprise winners of the Western Conference as they upset the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. The Celtics were in the finals for the 3rd straight season after posting a 67-15 regular season record and won the final series in six games. The 1985/1986 Celtics are considered to be one of the best teams in NBA history. The team featured five Hall of Fame players and the team’s best player, Larry Bird, won his third consecutive MVP during the regular season. Larry Bird was also named the MVP of the NBA Finals and the 1986 championship was his 3rd and final championship.
9. 1992 Finals – Bulls vs Trail Blazers, Nielsen Rating: 14.2
The 1992 NBA Finals featured the two teams that posted the best records in the league during the regular season. The 57-25 Portland Trail Blazers faced the 67-15 Chicago Bulls in a six game series that the Bulls eventually won. The Nielsen rating of the series was a 14.2. The Blazers were in their 2nd NBA Finals in three seasons and the Bulls were in their 2nd of three consecutive finals appearances. The series was memorable for the individual match up between the Blazers’ Clyde Drexler and the Bulls’ Michael Jordan. Before the series, Sports Illustrated named Drexler as Jordan’s closest rival. Jordan dominated the individual match up and was named the MVP of the Finals. The 1992 Finals was the Bulls’ 2nd of six championships, while the Blazers have not appeared in another NBA Finals since then.
8. 1989 Finals – Pistons vs Lakers, Nielsen Rating: 15.1
The 1989 NBA Finals had a Nielsen rating of 15.1. The Detroit Pistons won their 1st NBA title after winning the 1989 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons lost to the Lakers in seven games in the 1988 Finals. The series in 1989 was a different matter and the Pistons beat the Lakers in four consecutive games. The Lakers bid to win their 3rd consecutive championship was thwarted and their starting guards, Byron Scott and league MVP Magic Johnson both sustained hamstring injuries. After the series, Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired at the age of 42. The Pistons were the best team in the NBA during the regular season and posted a record of 63-19. Joe Dumars was named the MVP of the series.
7. 1988 Finals – Lakers vs Pistons, Nielsen Rating: 15.4
The 1988 NBA Finals was the 1st of three NBA Finals that featured the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons. The 1988 Finals was also the only time the Lakers won the series. The 1988 Finals was a seven game series and had 15.4 Nielsen rating. With the series victory, the Lakers became the first team to repeat as champions in twenty years. The 1988 Finals was the last championship series the Lakers won with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James Worthy was named the MVP of the series and produced the only triple-double of his career, as he had 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in the final game of the series.
6. 1991 Finals – Bulls vs Lakers, Nielsen Rating: 15.8
The 1991 NBA Finals had a Nielsen rating of 15.8. The series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls lasted five games before the Bulls emerged victorious and won their 1st NBA title. The Bulls had the best record in the Eastern Conference at 61-21 and the Lakers had the 2nd best record in the Western Conference at 58-24. The Lakers upset the defending Western Conference champion Portland Trail Blazers who had posted the league’s best record at 63-19. The 1991 Finals was Michael Jordan‘s first finals appearance and the last finals appearance for Magic Johnson. This was the Lakers 9th finals appearance since 1980 and their last appearance until the 2000 finals. After beating the Lakers in the 1991 Finals, the Bulls went on to win five more championships in seven years. Jordan averaged 31.2 PPG on 56% shooting, 11.4 APG, 6.6 RPG, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks and was named the Finals MVP.
5. 1987 Finals – Lakers vs Celtics, Nielsen Rating: 15.9
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have met in the NBA Finals on twelve different occasions. The 1987 series was the 10th meeting and the last of three meetings in the finals between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The two teams posted the best records in the league during the season; the Lakers were 65-17 and the Celtics were 59-23. This finals appearance was the 4th consecutive appearance by the Celtics who are currently the last team to achieve the feat. The Celtics did not appear in the NBA Finals again until the 2007/2008 season when they defeated the Lakers in six games. The 1987 NBA Finals lasted six games and had a Nielsen rating of 15.9. Magic Johnson was named the MVP of the series.
4. 1996 Finals – Bulls vs SuperSonics, Nielsen Rating: 16.7
The 1995/1996 Chicago Bulls are the only team to win seventy regular season games, which happened when they posted a record of 72-10. The Bulls dominated the league that season and had the Executive of the Year, Coach of the Year, MVP, Sixth man of Year, scoring leader, rebounding leader and three players named to the All-Defensive 1st team. Their season culminated with a finals victory over the Seattle SuperSonics who had a record of 64-18, and whose point guard, Gary Payton, was the Defensive Player of the Year. The 1996 NBA Finals had a Nielsen rating of 16.7 and lasted six games. Michael Jordan was named MVP of the finals four the 4th time in his career.
3. 1997 Finals – Bulls vs Jazz, Nielsen Rating: 16.8
The 1997 NBA Finals was the 1st of two consecutive finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz and had a Nielsen rating of 16.8. The Jazz made their first NBA Finals appearance after posting a 64-18 regular season record. The Bulls followed up their historic 72-10 1995/1996 regular season by posting a record of 69-13 in 1996/1997. The series is most often remembered for Michael Jordan‘s game five performance where he played 44 minutes and had 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block despite having the flu. The Bulls went on to win the series in six games and Jordan was named the MVP of the Finals for the 5th time in his career.
2. 1993 Finals – Bulls vs Suns, Nielsen Rating: 17.9
The 1993 NBA Finals lasted six games and had a Nielsen rating of 17.9. The series was between the Chicago Bulls, who had a 57-25 regular season record and the Phoenix Suns, who posted the league’s best record at 62-20 and whose Charles Barkley was the MVP of the season. The series was memorable as the home team won only one game, when the Bulls won game 4 in Chicago. Upon beating the Suns in game 6. the Bulls became the 1st team since the Boston Celtics in the 1960s to win the NBA title in three consecutive seasons. Michael Jordan was named the MVP of the Finals for the 3rd consecutive year. After the series Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time. His first retirement lasted until 1995.
1. 1998 Finals – Bulls vs Jazz, Nielsen Rating: 18.7
The NBA Finals which had the highest Nielsen rating was the 1998 Finals between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls. The six game series had a rating of 18.7 and had the same finalists from the previous year. Both teams posted identical 62-20 records during the regular season, but the Jazz had home court advantage as they beat the Bulls twice during the season. Game 6 was Michael Jordan‘s final game in a Bulls uniform and he marked the occasion with a late game jumper over Byron Russell to take the lead in the game. After the season, Jordan retired for the NBA for the second time. Michael Jordan was named MVP of the Finals for the 6th and final time in his career.