(We are happy to welcome E-dog to his first post as a guest author at Chasing 23. E is a religious basketball fan who lives in New Jersey and is feverishly hoping that the Russian can pull off a coup so he’ll have a reason to attend basketball games again)
First, a few introductory notes:
- This is an assessment of the dominant single-season teams in NBA history. It sets forth certain basic statistical criteria, both for regular-season and playoff performance, which establish 9 teams as truly dominant over the course of a single season. (That’s why there are only 9 teams on this list, and also why it’s the 9 “dominant”, as opposed to “most dominant”, teams.) I am old enough to have watched, and to remember, 6 of these teams, so I will rank those. (The other 3 were before my time altogether, so I don’t think I have enough of a basis to rank them.)
- This is my assessment and ranking involving my criteria. Please take this for what it is, which is the opinion of (I think) a somewhat informed fan, nothing more. Many of you will consider my assessment and rankings to be less informed than that, and will have your own assessment and rankings based on your own criteria, which is perfectly fine; I welcome and encourage disagreement.
- This is an assessment and a partial ranking of dominant teams, not the best teams, in NBA history. For the record, I don’t think that the #1 team on my list is the best team in NBA history, but I do think that they dominated that season more than any other team dominated any other season in my lifetime. Measuring dominance largely involves comparing a team to other teams for that same season, whereas measuring the best teams involves comparing teams across different seasons and different eras, which is a much more difficult and complicated exercise.
- Lastly, while these 9 teams made the list on the basis of certain statistical criteria, the ranking of the 6 teams of my lifetime is based as much on intangible feel as on statistics, as in, how dominant did each team seem from watching and following them over that season? You can call it the “you had to be there” factor.
Next, a brief discussion of the criteria. Each team is listed with its regular-season record (“RS”), its regular-season point differential (“RSPD”), its playoff record (“P”), its playoff point differential (“PPD”), any individual awards that it won that year and the number of games by which it had the best record in the league (and, if different, in its conference). Thanks you to www.basketball-reference.com and The NBA Realist for their research on point differentials. Each team on the list met the following requirements:
a. For the regular-season: (i) it finished with the best regular-season record in the league; (ii) it won at least 75% of its regular-season games; and (iii) it finished at least 4 games ahead of every other team in the league. Certain teams that had dominant playoff runs, such as the ’60-’61 Celtics, the ’63-’64 Celtics, the ’81-’82 Lakers, the ’90-’91 Bulls and the ’00-’01 Lakers, fell short of these regular-season criteria and thus did not qualify.
b. For the playoffs: (i) it won the NBA championship (duh), (ii) it won at least 70% of its playoff games; and (iii) it did not have any elimination games. You can call (iii) the “No Game 7” rule, and it knocked out a lot of teams with dominant regular seasons, including the ’59-’60 Celtics, the ’64-’65 Celtics, the ’91-’92 Bulls, the ’99-’00 Lakers and the ’07-’08 Celtics. (As a side note, it does seem a bit off that the list does not include a single team from the Bill Russell era; they just missed putting it all together on the dominance scale a few times.) If a team had to play a Game 7 along the way, how dominant could they really have been?
And now, without further adieu, here’s the list, beginning with the 3 teams that came before my time and are thus not ranked:
1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers
Regular Season Record (RS): 68-13; Regular Season Point Differential (RSPD): 9.4;
Playoff Record (P): 11-4; Playoff Point Differential (PPD): 9.3
MVP: Wilt Chamberlain
All-NBA First Team: Wilt Chamberlain
All-NBA Second Team: Hal Greer
+8 over the Celtics for best league and conference record
This is the team that snapped the Celtics’ 8-year run as champions, and marked the only time that Wilt’s team beat Russell’s team in the playoffs (4-1 in the East Finals). This was the first time that Wilt didn’t win the scoring title, but his averages of 24 points, 24 rebounds and nearly 8 assists per game comprise what many consider to be his best season ever. A number of observers consider this to be the best team in NBA history.
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
RS: 66-16; RSPD: 12.2
P: 12-2; PPD: 14.5
Regular-season and Finals MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
All-NBA First Team: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
All-NBA Second Team: Oscar Robertson
All-Defensive Second Team: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
+14 over the Knicks for best league record, +15 over the Bulls for best conference record
Milwaukee’s only championship team was the first team in NBA history to win 20 consecutive games in a season, as the off-season acquisition of Oscar Robertson to pair with Kareem turned the Bucks into an unstoppable dynamo. Kareem won his first MVP award with nearly 32 points and 16 rebounds per game. The number of games by which they finished with the best record in the league is an NBA record. They don’t seem to get that much love from basketball historians, perhaps because this was supposed to be just the first of many titles, and as a result this team may very well be the most underrated team in NBA history.
1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
RS: 69-13; RSPD: 12.3
P: 12-3; PPD: 5.0
Finals MVP: Wilt Chamberlain
All-NBA First Team: Jerry West
All-NBA Second Team: Wilt Chamberlain
All-Defensive First Team: Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West
Coach of the Year: Bill Sharman
+6 over the Bucks for best league and conference record
After 7 Finals defeats (4 of them in Game 7) since moving to LA, this Lakers team finally delivered the long-awaited championship to the City of Angels. Bill Sharman literally gave his voice to mold this team into a cohesive, defense-oriented unit which set the current record of 33 consecutive wins and also set a standard for regular-season wins which stood for 24 years. Here’s a trivia answer for you: Gail Goodrich was the Lakers’ leading scorer at just under 26 points per game. Two nits to pick with this team are: (i) 3 of their wins in the conference finals that year (4-2 over the Bucks) were by 4 points or less, while each of their two losses were by more than 20 points; and (ii) they beat a Willis Reed-less Knicks squad in the Finals (although I don’t think this would have changed the outcome, since Reed was backed up by another Hall of Famer in Jerry Lucas, so how bad could the drop-off have been?). Regardless, say this much for Wilt: he didn’t win the big one nearly enough for me to view him at the same level as Russell, but when he did win the big one, he did so in dominant, historic fashion.
Now for the ranking of the 6 dominant teams of my lifetime, in reverse order:
6. 1988-89 Detroit Pistons
RS: 63-19; RSPD: 5.8
P: 15-2; PPD: 7.7
Finals MVP: Joe Dumars
All-Defensive First Team: Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars
+6 over the Lakers and Cavaliers for best league and conference record
Having just missed the title the year before, the Pistons turned it up down the stretch, finishing the season 27-4 after a late-February trade sent Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. Two reasons why this team is not ranked higher: (i) the Bulls, who were still far from the juggernaut that they would soon be, led the Pistons 2-1 in the conference finals before Detroit stepped on the gas to win in six; and (ii) it is highly doubtful that the Pistons would have won the title that year if not for the injuries that knocked both Byron Scott and Magic Johnson out of that year’s Finals (a 4-0 sweep). (Yes, you can call it karmic payback for Isiah’s injury in ’88, and you know what? I’ll take it. As a Lakers fan from childhood, the ’88 playoffs (with three Game 7’s) were the ultimate do-or-die fan experience for me, and I wouldn’t trade that title for anything.)
5. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls
RS: 69-13; RSPD: 10.8
P: 15-4; PPD: 5.5
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
All-NBA First Team: Michael Jordan
All-NBA Second Team: Scottie Pippen
All-Defensive First Team: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
+5 over the Jazz for best league record, +8 over the Heat for best conference record
Wait a minute, you may be asking, wasn’t this basically the same team as the legendary ’95-’96 squad? Well, not exactly. The personnel was slightly different (Brian Williams, before he became Bison Dele, was the main addition), and they weren’t quite as dominant. Utah fought them to a 2-2 draw in the Finals, and if not for perhaps Jordan’s single greatest performance ever (the Flu Game in Game 5), the Bulls would have returned home on the brink of elimination, not to mention that the Jazz arguably also lost Game 6 more than the Bulls won it. That’s why this team only ranks #5 on my list.
4. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
RS: 65-17; RSPD: 9.3
P: 15-3; PPD: 11.4
Regular-season and Finals MVP: Magic Johnson
All-NBA First Team: Magic Johnson
Defensive Player of the Year: Michael Cooper
All-Defensive First Team: Michael Cooper
+6 over the Celtics for best league record, +10 over the Mavericks for best conference record
This is the best (and most dominant) Lakers team of my lifetime, and it kills me to not rank them higher. The Lakers completed the years-long transition from Kareem to Magic as their primary offensive option, and Magic entered his prime (which lasted for four seasons, through the ’89-’90 campaign), averaging nearly 24 points and over 12 assists and 6 rebounds per game as he won his first MVP award. The Lakers pulled away from the pack with a 27-2 run shortly after trading for Mychal Thompson to fortify their frontcourt. Of course, in the Finals Magic provided the single-most indelible fan memory of my childhood with the “junior sky hook” to win Game 4. So why isn’t this team ranked higher? Because …
3. 1985-86 Boston Celtics
RS: 67-15; RSPD: 9.4
P: 15-3; PPD: 10.3
Regular-season and Finals MVP: Larry Bird
All-Defensive First Team: Kevin McHale
All-Defensive Second Team: Dennis Johnson
Sixth Man of the Year: Bill Walton
+5 over the Lakers for best league record, +10 over the Bucks for best conference record
(i) This Celtics team finished with a better record even though it played in a tougher conference (only one other team in the ’86-’87 West won 50 or more games, whereas three other teams in the ’85-’86 East did) and (ii) it featured four Hall of Famers (DJ plus the Big Three), all at their peak, with a fifth Hall of Famer (Walton) coming off the bench to win Sixth Man of the Year honors. Bird won his third straight MVP award with nearly 26 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists per game, becoming the only player other than Russell and Chamberlain to do so. Many observers who have forgotten more basketball than I’ll ever know say that this is the best team in NBA history, and frankly (at least for my lifetime) I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. So why isn’t this team ranked even higher? Because, as a Lakers fan who followed this Celtics team with an eye towards a Finals rematch (which the Olajuwon-Sampson Rockets thwarted), I thought to myself, “The Celtics look like the better team this year, and we’ll be the underdogs, but it’s not impossible.” By contrast, each of the top two teams on my list had me thinking, “There’s no effin’ way anyone’s beating these guys come playoff time.”
2. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
RS: 65-17; RSPD: 7.7
P: 12-1; PPD: 6.5
Regular-season and Finals MVP: Moses Malone
All-NBA First Team: Moses Malone and Julius Erving
All-Defensive First Team: Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones
Sixth Man of the Year: Bobby Jones
+7 over the Lakers for best league record, +9 over the Celtics for best conference record
I admit it, I have the “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’” Sixers ranked higher than most. Perhaps it’s because it was the first truly dominant NBA team that I saw. Like I said, you had to be there. Consider that they were good enough to make the Finals the previous season, before losing to the Lakers in six – and then they traded for Moses, the reigning league MVP, who repeated as MVP with 24.5 points and over 15 rebounds per game. But it wasn’t just Moses’ show, as they fielded four starters in that year’s All-Star game (which has been duplicated only twice since then). They were on a 70-win pace for most of the season before tailing off with an 8-8 finish, but they rebounded with the best playoff run ever until the ’00-’01 Lakers, as Moses just murdered the Lakers in the Finals. (Yes, I know that in the ’83 Finals the Lakers didn’t have James Worthy, who broke his leg with a week left in the regular season. But the Sixers beat the Lakers twice that year with Worthy, and they were so good that I don’t think having Worthy would have changed the outcome.) If not for that 8-8 finish, this team would garner a lot more consideration for the best team ever.
1. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
RS: 72-10; RSPD: 12.3
P: 15-3; PPD: 10.6
Regular-season and Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
All-NBA First Team: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
All-Defensive First Team: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman
Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson
+8 over the Sonics for best league record, +12 over the Magic for best conference record
You’re probably thinking that this is a cliché choice, an obvious pick. Let me address whatever skepticisms you may have with a few questions:
Once this Bulls team got rolling that year, didn’t every one of their losses feel like a “HOW THE HECK DID THAT HAPPEN?”-level event (particularly their March 10 loss in New York and their March 24 loss to expansion Toronto)?
When you consider the loss to Toronto by two points, and that their only two home losses of the year came in the final two weeks of the season by a single point each, doesn’t it seem like, if anything, their record should have been even better (ridiculous as that may sound)?
In the Finals, once they jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the Sonics, didn’t you sense that they let up and allowed the Sonics to take Games 4 and 5 and that they could have very easily swept that series if they so desired?
Heck, would anyone really be surprised if it turned out that someone at the NBA or at NBC Sports offered the Bulls certain “inducements” after Game 3 to ensure that there wouldn’t be a sweep, esp. after the Bulls took Game 3, a must-win for the Sonics playing in front of their raucous home crowd, by 22?
Yeah, I thought so. That’s why this team is #1 on my list.