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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

NBA Coast to Coast Ranks the Top 10 Single Season Teams of All-Time

Tuesday's NBA schedule was pretty light, so ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast program discussed the results of an ESPN poll that ranked the top 10 single season NBA teams of all-time. Here are the results of the voting, some selected comments by various ESPN analysts and my thoughts:

10) 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13 regular season record; 11-4 playoff record)

The 76ers posted the highest scoring average ever for an NBA champion and the third highest in league history (125.2 ppg). They ended the Celtics' record run of eight straight championships and in 1980 they were selected as the greatest team in NBA history. Wilt Chamberlain insisted that this was the most talented team he ever played on and, considering that he was flanked by two other Top 50 players (Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham) plus Chet Walker (who should be in the Hall of Fame) and Luke Jackson (a powerful inside player whose career was cut short by injury) it is hard to disagree.

9) 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (66-16; 12-2)

The Bucks won 14 more regular season games than the second best team in the league, which is an all-time NBA record. You have to feel sorry for the Bullets' Wes Unseld, the 6-7 center who had the unenviable task of trying to guard the 7-2, angular Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Finals; when they stood next to each other they looked like the number 10--with the "1" being capitalized and the "0" being lower case. Like the 1967 76ers team, this squad is probably downgraded in some people's minds because the core group never won another title--something that is not relevant when talking about which team had the best single season.

8) 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers (65-17; 12-1)

This squad set the NBA record for fewest losses in one postseason, a mark since tied by the 15-1 Lakers in 2001. The ESPN crew did not tell us much about the first two teams on the list other than the childhood memories of Tim Legler and Rick Carlisle--couldn't ESPN have at least gotten a quote from Dr. Jack Ramsay, an employee of the "Worldwide Leader" who was the GM of the 76ers in the late 1960s?--but J.A. Adande weighed in with some great points about the 1983 76ers. He correctly stated that the fan voters vastly underrated this team, which should have received serious consideration for the top spot. He reminded viewers that in addition to Top 50 players Moses Malone and Julius Erving the Sixers had a great point guard in Maurice Cheeks and a shooting guard who was almost unstoppable at that time in Andrew Toney (they also had Sixth Man Award winner Bobby Jones). For that one year it was as talented, focused and determined of a team as you will ever see. Carlisle added that Cheeks should be in the Hall of Fame and that Toney was on track for a Hall of Fame career before foot injuries felled him. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP-caliber players but Erving won the 1981 MVP and finished third and fifth in the voting the next two years, while Malone finished fourth in 1981 before winning the MVP in 1982 and 1983. They both made the All-NBA First Team in 1982-83.

It is true that the 1983 team did not repeat; in fact, they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1984 and that core group never again advanced further than the Eastern Conference Finals (1985, with some help from rookie Charles Barkley) but John Saunders erred when he said that the proof of how far the team dropped off is that the Sixers had a high enough draft pick to select Barkley in 1984. Of course, that draft pick was actually acquired from the Clippers; the Sixers won 52 games in 1984, 58 games in 1985, 54 games in 1986 and 45 games in 1987, Erving's final season: even though they never made it back to the Finals, the 76ers were still a very good team for several years after they won the title. One thing that I have never understood about ESPN and other huge budget networks that have full-time research staffs is how come their announcers make so many errors concerning basic facts of NBA history, including some things that, quite frankly, I know off the top of my head without even looking them up.

7) 1988-89 Detroit Pistons (63-19; 15-2)

They are only one of two teams to have the best record in the NBA and then sweep the team with the second best record in the Finals (the 1983 Sixers were the first). The Pistons were great and they proved their mettle by defeating teams led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (who got hurt during the Finals) en route to winning the title but I would not place them ahead of the three previous teams on the list.

6) 1964-65 Boston Celtics (62-18; 8-4)

The 1965 Celtics won more regular season games than any of the other 10 teams that Bill Russell led to NBA championships. The team had five future Hall of Famers, plus a future Hall of Fame coach (Red Auerbach). They led the league in points allowed and scoring differential. However, it could reasonably be said that the 1967 Celtics team that got blasted by the 76ers was at least as good as this squad, so it seems odd for the 1965 Celtics to finish ahead of the 1967 76ers. I suspect that voters were influenced by Boston's body of work during that era but that should have nothing to do with determining which team had the best single season.

5) 1991-92 Chicago Bulls (67-15; 15-7)

The Bulls won 10 more games than the second best team in the league and led the NBA in point differential and field goal percentage. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen combined to average more than 50 ppg--and were every bit as dangerous on the defensive end of the court. Legler said that this was the season in which Pippen emerged as an all-time great: 21.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, career-high 7.0 apg. He shot over .500 from the field and could easily have scored a lot more points if the team had needed him to do so. To put this in perspective for young fans, Pippen was putting up LeBron James-like offensive numbers while playing Bruce Bowen-like defense.

4) 1971-72 L.A. Lakers (69-13; 12-3)

The Lakers set the all-time wins record (since broken by the 1996 Bulls) and still hold the mark for the longest winning streak (33 games, shattering the old mark of 20 set by the 1971 Bucks; the closest a team has come to matching this in recent years is 19 games, accomplished by the 2000 Shaq-Kobe Lakers). Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were elder statesmen by this time--though obviously still quite effective, as Chamberlain won the Finals MVP and West led the league in assists--and Chamberlain later noted that this team got succeeded by using veteran wiles as opposed to tremendous athletic talent; he insisted that his 1967 76ers were a more talented squad.

Carlisle pointed out that this team had three Hall of Famers--Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich--but he went into Saunders' territory when he said that a fourth Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, retired "weeks before the season started." Actually, Baylor retired after playing nine games that season--and the Lakers immediately began their 33 game winning streak, as the insertion of Jim McMillian into the starting lineup enabled the team to play at a faster pace.

3) 1986-87 L.A. Lakers (65-17; 15-3)

One of five Lakers' championship teams in the Showtime Era, this is the last NBA champion that had at least four players average 17 ppg.

Saunders once again flaunted his ignorance of NBA history when, after mentioning Magic Johnson's famous game winning hook shot in game four of the 1987 Finals, he asked rhetorically if we remember Magic having to start at center. Actually, no, we don't remember that happening in 1987--because it actually happened in game six of the 1980 Finals. Also, this is a bit picky perhaps, but Magic called the shot his "junior, junior skyhook," not a "baby skyhook" as Saunders incorrectly labeled it.

2) 1985-86 Boston Celtics (67-15; 15-3)

The Celtics set an all-time mark with a 40-1 home record during the regular season. Carlisle was a bench player on this team and he said that they had a board that they used in the locker room to keep track of the results of the practice scrimmages between the first and second units. The Celtics had a Hall of Fame starting frontcourt with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, while 1978 MVP Bill Walton won the Sixth Man Award. The only quibble might be that Philadelphia was down while Detroit and Chicago had yet to rise in the East and in the West the defending champion Lakers were upset by Houston. Still, any way you cut it, this team was great. Bird, who won three straight MVPs from 1984-86, was probably at the height of his powers; he had a triple double in the decisive game six of the Finals versus Houston (29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists).

1) 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10; 15-3)

The Bulls set a single-season record for wins that is unlikely to be broken. The thing that struck me about this team is that they only suffered one blowout loss during the entire season--the 1983 76ers had a laser-like focus for most of the regular season and all of the playoffs and might have won 70 games if not for some minor injuries to Malone and Erving but this 1996 Bulls team played harder night in and night out than any team I have ever seen. Legler called the Bulls "the greatest defensive team in NBA history" and said that when Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper went into a full court press opposing point guards wanted no part of trying to advance the ball. I don't know what would happen if you put all of the great teams in a time machine and had them play a tournament but no team ever had a better season than this one and that has to mean something.

Purely based on single-season greatness (which means disregarding what the core group did in previous and subsequent seasons), I'd probably put the 1983 Sixers and the 1996 Bulls in a tie at the top--the former was the best postseason team ever and the latter was the best regular season team ever.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 23, 2008 2:39:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

I've got two minor quibbles, one is just a factual error. In the part about the #4 team you said that the closest anyone has come to the 33 game winning streak was the Lakers in 2001, but it was actually in 2000 when that Laker team won 67 regular season games. The 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 Lakers were mainly mired in laziness or boredom (with a lot of infighting sprinkled in) and had lackluster regular seasons, not even winning their divisions. The 1999-2000 Lakers, however, were the team that had a bunch of long winning streaks, with the 19 game one being the longest.

The other issue is saying the 83 Sixers were the greatest postseason team ever, due to their 12-1 record. While the fact that the Lakers in 2001 went 15-1 in and of itself isn't evidence that they were the best postseason team ever (although it is a strong argument), the fact that every team the Lakers faced in the playoffs that year won at least 50 games during the regular season should help. So should the way they annihilated the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, wrapping that series up with a 39-point victory and a 29-point victory to complete the sweep (after a 15-point win on the road in Game 1 and a 7-point win after falling behind by 14 in San Antonio in Game 2).

Further evidence for my argument is that the one loss the Lakers suffered was in Game 1 of the Finals after an extraordinarily long layoff due to the Sixers going to 7 games to make the Finals, and even that one loss came in overtime after the Lakers had rallied from a 13 point deficit no doubt due to the layoff. Furthermore, with the Lakers up 7 in OT it was a highly questionable charging call on Robert Horry on a layup (which would have made the lead 9) which allowed the Sixers a chance to win.

Those Lakers finished that regular season by winning their final 8 games, meaning they closed out the regular season and playoffs on a 23-1 streak. In my opinion, that was the greatest postseason team ever, and their lazy/bored approach to the regular season (and the fact that Shaq missed 8 games with injuries, Kobe missed 14 and Derek Fisher missed over 60) shouldn't unnecessarily taint their postseason dominance. Good topic though, I love debating stuff like this :)

 
At Wednesday, January 23, 2008 6:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

You are right about the 2000 Lakers and I fixed the post accordingly. ESPN ran a graphic about each team showing why it belonged on the top 10 list and I was foolish enough to grab that stat from their graphic. I should have known better--both about the correct year and about using any ESPN stat without corroborating it.

You bring up some excellent points about that 2001 Lakers team. A couple factors in favor of the 1983 76ers are that they swept the Finals--which is rare in the NBA--and in the Finals they defeated a team that was not only the defending champion but that would become the team of the decade by winning five championships and making eight Finals appearances (plus a ninth in 1991). Obviously, the Lakers did not have exactly the same roster throughout the decade but the 76ers' feat is still impressive considering the Lakers' overall dominance during that era.

 
At Wednesday, January 23, 2008 7:36:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

While the fact that the 83 Sixers sweeping the Lakers is a good one in favor of them being the best playoff team ever, keep in mind the 01 Lakers swept a Portland Blazer team which probably came minutes from winning the title the previous year, a Sacramento Kings team which probably came minutes from winning the title the next year, and a San Antonio Spurs team which won in 1999 and then has won 3 titles since 2001. True the 2001 Sixers' success is seemingly a fluke considering they never rose that high before or since, but consider that year they had the league's MVP, the league's DPOY, the league's 6th Man winner and the league's Coach of the Year; and after losing that Game 1 in OT, the Lakers did win the next 4 in a row (including the last 3 games in Philly). There's little to no doubt in my mind that if the Lakers didn't have to wait 10 days (I looked it up) in between Game 4 of the WCF and Game 1 of The Finals that they would have won that one game they lost, especially considering it was a home game.

That Western Conference Finals is really the most compelling argument for me though. That was the matchup of the winners of the previous two titles (San Antonio in 99 and LA in 2000), and was being billed as potentially the greatest matchup in years; yet even though the Spurs had home court advantage I have never seen such a lopsided Conference Finals in my life. The only game which was really even competitive was Game 2, and as I said that was just because LA got into a large 14 point hole in the 1st half. The 34.5 ppg average margin of victory in games 3 and 4 said a lot about the disparity between the two teams at the time. Many people want to dump on Kobe for "tanking" Game 7 of the 1st round against Phoenix 2 years ago, saying an MVP shouldn't play that bad in an elimination game, but I never hear anyone talk about how bad Duncan and the Spurs looked in that 2001 WCF.

 
At Thursday, January 24, 2008 5:32:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

This is what happens when people take win-loss numbers and team stats too far. Numbers do not always trump talent. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain, most basketball players from his era, and the writers who named the 1967 76ers the greatest team of all time in 1980 understood this. The 1972 Lakers were superior to the 1967 76ers in regular and post season winning percentage, point differential (and probably a host of other stats), and put together the longest winning streak in professional team sports history. Yet, the 76ers were also incredibly dominant in terms of wins and stats (if slightly less dominant than the Lakers), and the fact that they were just more talented breaks the tie. It's puzzling how the 1967 76ers are ranked behind 3 teams from their era when I really can't think of any player or coach from that era who has disputed their status as the greatest single-season team of that period. I guess the ranking is to be expected from people who made all of the factual errors you noted.

Anyway, this is why I've never understood why people act like the 1996 Bulls hold unquestioned greatest of all-time status. Why? Because they won a few more regular season games than the other contenders? Gimme a break. As far as I'm concerned, what those Bulls did was not THAT much greater in terms of numbers than what several other teams on the list (and some not on the list) did, and at least a few of those teams were significantly more talented than the Bulls.

Also, why are the Bulls the only team with two teams from the same era on the list? The Lakers and Celtics deserve that more than the Bulls do. I'm not sure if obsession with stats or obsession with Michael Jordan is responsible in this case.

I've never understood why people have the 1987 Lakers team as the best 80s Lakers team. I think the 1982 team was superior. More talent and depth, two first-rate guards running the break, and a dominant big man. To top that off, they had one of the most impressive playoff runs. They swept the West, and while it took them 6 games to put away the 76ers, it was as convincing a 6 game win as possible. The 76ers, a very talented team desperate for a title and playing as hard is it possibly could, NEVER held a lead at The Forum during the entire series. That's real dominance and it shows how frighteningly talented those Lakers were.

 
At Thursday, January 24, 2008 6:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

I agree that the 2001 Lakers do indeed have a formidable playoff resume and a valid claim of being the greatest postseason team ever. I still lean toward the 1983 Sixers but that may be the influence of childhood memories.

 
At Thursday, January 24, 2008 6:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree with you that there is no way that the 1967 76ers team should be rated below its contemporaries.

That 1982 Lakers team may be one of the most underrated teams of all-time. They went nearly six weeks without a loss, spanning the end of the regular season and then two series sweeps en route to the Finals. Part of that time was spent waiting between series as the 76ers battled the Celtics in the ECF but that is still incredible. I think that it is a tribute to Dr. J's greatness that the Sixers actually beat the Lakers twice.

 
At Saturday, January 26, 2008 4:58:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

David, I'm a bit puzzled that while you agree with me that the 1967 76ers should not be rated below their contemporaries, you rate the 1996 Bulls first (or tied for first). It seems to me that you rate the Bulls so highly due to their win-loss record and many unmatched statistical accomplishments. But using that reasoning, shouldn't you place the 1972 Lakers head of the 67 76ers? And if you place the 76ers ahead of the Lakers due to their superior talent (and the fact that the difference in win-loss and statistical achievement isn't THAT big), shouldn't a handful of teams rate at least as high as the 1996 Bulls?

 
At Saturday, January 26, 2008 11:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Obviously, these kind of rankings are subjective judgments for the most part (unless someone picks a team out of left field that clearly does not even belong in the discussion).

The 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers basically had the same record: 68-13 in the first case, 69-13 in the second. The 1967 76ers obliterated a team that had won eight straight titles. Wilt himself has said that the 1967 team was better than the 1972 team and people who saw both teams voted the 1967 team to be the best team of all-time (in 1980-81). The nucleus of the 1972 team was older, including Wilt obviously (Wilt also suffered a serious knee injury between the time that he won his two championships). So, for all of those reasons I rate the 1967 76ers higher than the 1972 Lakers.

The 1996 Bulls went 72-10. I think that the incremental value of a win is greater once you get past 64-65, which has been accomplished a number of times--even by teams that did not win titles. The 1996 Bulls had two Top 50 players. Rodman was not voted a Top 50 player but he certainly had the ability to defend Top 50 players and to rebound against anybody. Kukoc was a very valuable and versatile player. Harper was a tremendous defender with a high basketball IQ. Individually, the centers were nothing special but collectively they understood how to play within the Triangle and they were adequate defensively. It's basically impossible to say who would win between teams that played three decades apart because the rules were so different, officiating was different, etc. That said, I do think that those three extra wins set the Bulls apart, even if only a little bit. Also, although technically this is a discussion of single season teams, I can't completely ignore the fact that the Bulls went 69-13 the next season and won another title. I'm willing to bet that it will be a long time before we see another NBA team that relentlessly tries to win every single game the way that those Bulls did. This year's Patriots are the closest thing that I have seen in my lifetime to those Bulls, though of course the Patriots still have one very important step to take to complete their journey.

 
At Sunday, January 27, 2008 3:08:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

The 1972 Lakers also had a point differential of +12.3 (compared to +9.4 for the 1967 76ers). The Lakers had a better playoff record (12-3 to 11-4) and while they didn't beat Russell's Celtics, they beat a very good and underrated Bulls team, a powerhouse Bucks team that looked like it was about to start its own dynasty, as well as a Knicks team overflowing with HOFers. So statistically, the Lakers do have a better case than the 76ers.

The opinions of people who saw both teams (including Wilt and the 1980 voting), as well as the talent difference is what makes me put the 76ers above the Lakers.

I know that a lot of today's "analysts" rate the Bulls as the best, but many well-informed basketball experts who were following the league before the ESPN generation rate the Bulls below at least a few teams. For instance, take the NBA.com All-Time Finals Challenge:

http://www.nba.com/playoffs2004/challenge_about.html

The 15 voters (along with a fan vote) determined that the 1986 Celtics would beat the Bulls head-to-head, and picked the 1987 Lakers as the greatest team of all time. (Not surprisingly, the fan vote went to the Bulls in every round.)

The point is, the 1972 Lakers' statistical superiority over the 1967 76ers doesn't mean they were better (at least to me and many others), due to opinions of people who saw both teams play, as well as a notable difference in talent level. For similar reasons, I'd say a few teams were at least as good as the 1996 Bulls.

I see where you are coming from as far as each win being harder once you get to 65. If you want to look at it that way, I think a playoff win means a lot more than a regular season win. In that respect, the 1983 76ers are more impressive to me than the Bulls. The 1982 Lakers started off the regular season slow due to turmoil, but looking at how good they were once they got on their game, they stack up well with anyone (and their 12-2 playoff record is also exceptional). The 1971 Bucks also put up very impressive numbers: a dominant regular season of 66-16, a 12-2 playoff record, a sweep in the finals, and +12.3 point differential. So if you really want to look at each win, there are still a few teams which match up well with the Bulls.

Anyway, I don't think placing so much weight on the difference of a few wins tells us a whole lot. Were the 1991 Bulls a better playoff team than the 1996 Bulls? Only if you strip away context and ignore the 1991 injury-ravaged challengers the Bulls faced. Michael Jordan himself has called his 1992 team the best he played on, and they won 5 fewer regular season games, and lost 4 more playoff games. Many of the teams in discussion could have won a few more games if they didn't rest starters at times, or if they knew winning a few extra games would have been such a big deal. With regard to the latter point, Wilt Chamberlain always said that his 1967 team was winning so easily that they eased up and fooled around a bit, and ended up winning several fewer games than they could have (they also were said to have taken it easy in the anticlimactic Finals after defeating Boston). Maybe this shows a lack of commitment to excellence, and maybe a slightly greater commitment to try to win every game should be recognized and rewarded in all-time rankings. Most observers from the time, however, felt that this apparent occasional disinterest on the 76ers' part was not enough to put them behind the 1972 Lakers. I would agree with these observers. A relentless pursuit of winning is nice, but once you are looking at winning at the highest levels, in my opinion, talent and ability should be the tie-breaker and focal point.

 
At Sunday, January 27, 2008 12:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Like I said, once you narrow things down to the elite teams this becomes a subjective, if entertaining, exercise. My take is that the 1996 Bulls were the greatest regular season team of all-time and that the 1983 76ers were the greatest playoff team of all-time. I certainly think that good cases could be made for a few other teams for either of those "titles." However, just because fans may tend to overvalue recent events does not mean that the 1996 Bulls were not in fact the greatest team of all-time.

I'm a big fan of point differential, as you've probably noticed--and Hubie Brown has been citing that stat for decades. However, I think that point differential is more useful to establish dominance within a season than to compare dominance in different seasons. The reason I say that is that the 1972 Lakers did not play the same opponents as the 1996 Bulls or the 1967 76ers. We could argue whether the competition was stronger or weaker but it definitely was different, so we don't know how the other teams would have performed if they were transported to different years. The 1967 76ers, the 1972 Lakers and the 1996 Bulls all played in leagues that had recently added at least one expansion team; this helped boost their win totals and also diluted the overall talent a bit. Each of those teams had the best point differential in the league but if you go back and check you will find that the 1996 Bulls' point differential was much farther ahead of the second place team's differential than either the 76ers or Lakers were. In other words, the Bulls were more dominant, by this measure, compared to the other teams in 1996 than the other two teams were compared to the rest of the league during their great seasons.

 
At Saturday, February 02, 2008 1:57:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

There's no doubt this is a subjective matter, and I find your take to be very reasonable.

You contended that point differential should not be compared from season to season, since each season features different teams and different competition. This certainly makes sense, but why don't you apply this view to win totals? If different competition can affect point differential, it most certainly can affect win totals. I find it inconsistent that you dismissed the big difference in point differential between the 1967 76ers and 1972 Lakers, but you look at the Bulls' 72 wins as a very big reason that they are the greatest team of all time.

Also, if you want to compare great teams by how much better they were than the second best team during respective seasons (as you did with point differential), the Bulls' 8 game lead over the Sonics in 1996 pales in comparison to the Bucks' 14 game lead over the Knicks in 1971. Does this mean the Bucks were more dominant relative to their competition? Or maybe it means that the Bulls dealt with tougher competition? Personally, I think it (along with many other examples, some of which I previously mentioned) shows how flawed it is to base comparisons of great teams so heavily on stats and win totals. I prefer taking talent as a tie-breaker.

 
At Saturday, February 02, 2008 6:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I emphasize again that I consider this a subjective endeavor. That said, I understand what you are saying about win totals but don't completely agree. I go back to my earlier reference to the incremental value of each win past a certain point. Those wins are hard to get in any season simply due to travel, attrition, etc. Even with expansion happening at various intervals I don't know of any season in which the talent was so diluted that a 72 win season would not be exceptional. Point differential is affected not only by the competitive milieu each year but also by the attitude of the coaching staff regarding keeping star players in games that are decided. Point differential is a useful tool within a season but I think that it has to be used with caution in inter-season comparisons.

I can't say that I have the definitive answers to these questions because I don't even believe that there are definitive answers. Based on what I've seen and what I know, I lean toward the '96 Bulls and '83 Sixers as best regular season team and best playoff team respectively. If someone says that the '67 Lakers should be placed ahead of them I can't say for sure that this position is incorrect.

 

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