Initially, the BAA teams were aligned into two divisions, the Eastern Division and the Western Division. The Divisional Finals were first played in 1949, the league's third season. The first two seasons used a playoffs format where Eastern and Western Division teams would face each other before the BAA Finals, hence there were no divisional finals. In the 1949–50 season, the league realigned itself to three divisions, with the addition of the Central Division. However, the arrangement was only used for one season and the league went back into two divisions format in 1951. The two divisions format remained until 1970, when the NBA realigned itself into two conferences with two divisions each, which led to the renaming to Conference Finals. The finals was a best-of-3 series from 1949 to 1950 to; a best-of-5 series from 1951–56, and a best-of-7 series since 1957. Currently, the Conference Finals are played in a best-of-7 series like the NBA Playoffs and Finals. The two series are played in late May each year after the first and second rounds of the Playoffs and before the Finals. At the conclusion of the Conference Finals winners are presented with a silver trophy, caps, and T-shirts, and advance to the NBA Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the most conference titles with 31, which consists of 30 Western Conference titles and one title in the now-defunct Central Division. They also made 40 appearances in the Conference Finals, more than any other teams. The Boston Celtics won 21 Eastern Conference titles, the second most conference titles won after Lakers. The Celtics also holds the record for consecutive titles; they won 10 consecutive Eastern Division titles from 1957–66. The Warriors and the Pistons hold the distinction of being the only teams to have won both East and West titles. Twenty-three of the 30 active franchises have won at least one conference title. The Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Memphis Grizzlies have played in three, one, and one Conference Finals respectively, but they failed to win the titles. Four other franchises, the Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors have never appeared in the Conference Finals. Of the 125 conference and divisional champions, 39 were won by the team who had or tied for the best regular season record for that season.
Before the 1949–50 season, the BAA merged with the NBL and became the NBA. The number of teams competed increased to 17 and the league realigned itself to three divisions, creating the Central Division. In that season, 4 teams with the best win–loss records from each division advanced to the divisional playoffs. Then, the winner of the Western and Central Division Finals met in the NBA Semifinals in order to determine who would face the Eastern Division champion Syracuse Nationals in the NBA Finals. The Minneapolis Lakers defeated the Western Division champion Anderson Packers in the best-of-3 series 2–0 to advance to the Finals. The Lakers eventually won the Finals against the Nationals. It disbanded before the 1950–51 season, after 6 teams folded and the league realigned itself back into two divisions. It returned in 1970 as one of the divisions in the newly formed Eastern Conference.