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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Despite the Disappointing Finish, Dallas' 2007 Season Still Ranks Among the Best of All-Time

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 3/31/07; it has been revised and updated

Last season, the Dallas Mavericks made an excellent run at becoming just the second NBA team to win 70 regular season games but ultimately fell a bit short, finishing with a 67-15 record. Dallas' exit from the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the 42-40 Golden State Warriors quickly put the kibosh on any talk of ranking the Mavericks among the greatest teams of all-time. However, the postseason disappointment should not be allowed to completely overshadow what Dallas accomplished during the grueling grind of a punishing 82 game season. Although winning a championship is certainly more significant than surpassing any regular season milestones, it could be argued that sustaining the level of play that is necessary to win more than 65 games is actually more difficult than winning the 16 playoff games it takes to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy. In any case, even though Dallas' season ended in disappointment, it is still interesting to compare the Mavericks' regular season numbers to those posted by the handful of previous squads that made legitimate runs at posting 70 wins.

In 2006-07, the Mavericks did something that had not been previously achieved in the history of North American team sports: win 52 games in a 57 game span. Don’t forget that Dallas started out 0-4 before going on this incredible run. Their 52-9 record put the Mavericks on pace for 69.9 wins. Only five NBA teams have won 68 or more games and four of those squads went on to win the championship. The Mavericks just missed joining the elite 68 win group; the Mavericks' point differential would have ranked last among those teams (see chart at the end of this post) but their offensive and defensive field goal percentages are in line with the numbers posted by those teams. The first three teams to win 68 games had three All-Stars each. The 2007 Mavericks only had two All-Stars.

The first NBA team to win 68 games, the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, was voted the greatest single season team of all-time when the NBA celebrated its 35th anniversary in 1981. The 76ers had three All-Stars (Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker) and three of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Chamberlain, Greer, Billy Cunningham). Chamberlain won the MVP by ranking first in rebounding (1957, 24.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.683), third in scoring (1956, 24.2 ppg) and third in assists (630, 7.8 apg). The 76ers breezed through the playoffs with an 11-4 record, including a 140-116 win in the deciding game five of the Eastern Division Finals versus the Boston Celtics, dethroning the team that had won a record eight consecutive championships. The Sixers defeated the San Francisco Warriors 4-2 in the Finals. The Warriors were led by Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond, who also were later selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

In 1971-72, another Wilt Chamberlain-led team set a new standard by going 69-13. The L.A. Lakers had two other All-Stars in guards Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, who each scored nearly 26 ppg while Chamberlain led the league in rebounding (19.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.649). Chamberlain always maintained that top to bottom the Lakers were not as talented as the 1967 Sixers but the Lakers accomplished something that no other NBA team has come close to matching: a 33 game winning streak. The Lakers swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round but had a brief scare with a game one loss at home in the Western Conference Finals to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who were powered by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. The Lakers rebounded to win four of the next five to advance to the Finals. The New York Knicks blew out the Lakers in game one in Los Angeles, 114-92, but the Lakers swept their way to the crown after that. Chamberlain won the Finals MVP despite being limited by a broken wrist.

The 1972-73 Boston Celtics are the least impressive team of this very august group. They are the only one that did not win the championship, the only one to not rank first in point differential (although their differential in an 82 game season was just two total points worse than that of top ranked Milwaukee) and the worst shooting team of the group both in actual field goal percentage (.448) and relative rank (14/17; the 1997 Bulls ranked 15/29). The main reason that Boston did not win the championship is the same thing that surely worries any coach who thinks his team has a bona fide chance to make a title run: an injury to a key player during a hotly contested series against a big rival. Hall of Famer John Havlicek injured his right (shooting) shoulder early in the Eastern Conference finals versus the New York Knicks. While he did not require a wheelchair a la Dwyane Wade, Havlicek essentially played one-armed the rest of the way. In game seven he produced just four points on 1-6 field goal shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. The Knicks won the game and went on to win the 1973 title, while the Celtics claimed two of the next three championships after Havlicek returned to health.

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were on a mission from day one, fueled by Michael Jordan’s intense will and inspired by a six game loss to the Orlando Magic in the previous year’s playoffs. Jordan and Scottie Pippen formed an impressive All-Star duo that could dominate teams offensively and defensively. The one thing that the 1995 team was missing was a power forward. The Bulls acquired Dennis Rodman to fill that spot and rolled through the season in commanding fashion, setting the all-time record by going 72-10 and winning by an average of 12.2 ppg, just .1 ppg behind the record set by the 1972 Lakers. The Bulls were not the best shooting team in the league nor did they have the best defensive field goal percentage but they may have been the most relentless NBA team ever; even good NBA teams typically go through one bad stretch during a long season but the worst thing that happened to the Bulls was a modest two game losing streak after a 41-3 start to the season. They simply found a way to win every night and arguably only had one truly bad game all season, a 104-72 loss to the New York Knicks. Other than that blip there was one 10 point loss, a nine point loss, three six point losses, a five point loss and three one point losses. There were also winning streaks of 18 and 13 games. The Bulls did not let up on the gas pedal in the playoffs, either, sweeping the Detroit Pistons, beating the Knicks in five and getting revenge on the Magic with a 121-83 game one victory en route to a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. Chicago took a 3-0 lead over Seattle in the Finals, lost two games in a row after Ron Harper got hurt, and then closed out the series in the sixth game. Seattle won 64 games during the regular season, making this the most high-powered Finals matchup--at least based on won/loss records--in NBA history.

The Bulls retained all of their key personnel and made another run at 70 wins in 1996-97, falling just short at 69-13. If Rodman and sixth man Toni Kukoc had not missed a ton of games the Bulls would almost certainly have broken the 70 barrier again. The Bulls did not meet too much playoff resistance before the Finals, going 11-2 in three Eastern Conference series before facing the Utah Jazz for the championship. Like the 1996 Seattle team, the Jazz won 64 games, which in most seasons would be good enough for the best record in the league. Chicago took a 2-0 lead but Utah bounced back with two home wins. The Bulls clinched the repeat with a two point road win in game five and a four point home win in game six.

Prior to the 2007 playoffs, it looked like Dallas would face its biggest challenge against either San Antonio or Phoenix. Of course, we never found out how Dallas would have fared in either of those matchups thanks to Don Nelson's scrappy Warriors. That stunning defeat will surely cause many people to discount Dallas this season but that would be very short-sighted. The Mavericks made it to the 2006 NBA Finals and have won 60 and 67 games during Avery Johnson's two full years as head coach, so the loss to Golden State is a serious aberration from the overall trend; that is not a knock on Golden State--saying that Dallas will likely make a strong title run in 2008 does not in any way diminish the possibility that the Warriors are "for real"; both things could very well be true. It is worth noting that each of the 68 win teams won at least 60 games the next season and three of them won that year's championship (Chamberlain's Sixers were beaten by the resurgent Celtics, who went on to take the 1968 title; Chamberlain's Lakers lost a Finals rematch with the Knicks). Also, there is a precedent for rebounding from stunning first round defeats and making it to the NBA Finals: Seattle lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1994 and 1995 despite posting 63 and 57 wins respectively in those seasons; in 1996, Seattle went 64-18 and lost to the 72-10 Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

Dallas' 2007 Regular Season Compared to
the Five Best Regular Seasons of All-Time


Year..Team..PPG Diff..FG%..Def. FG%..W-L
All-Stars

1995-96..Chicago..12.2 (1).. .478 (15).. .448 (8)..72-10 (.878)
Jordan, Pippen

1971-72..LAL..12.3 (1).. .490 (2).. .432 (2)..69-13 (.841)
Chamberlain, Goodrich, West

1996-97..Chicago..10.8 (1).. .473 (3).. .436 (5)..69-13 (.841)
Jordan, Pippen

1966-67..Philadelphia..9.4 (1).. .483 (1)..NA..68-13 (.840)
Chamberlain, Greer, Walker

1972-73..Boston..8.2 (2).. .448 (14).. .434 (3)..68-14 (.829)
Cowens, Havlicek, White

2006-07..Dallas..7.2 (3).. .467 (5).. .447 (7)..67-15 (.817)
Howard, Nowitzki

Notes:

Defensive field goal percentage was not tracked by the NBA until 1970-71

Numbers in parentheses indicate how that team ranked in a given
category in that season

posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM

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