NBA Coast to Coast Ranks the Top 10 Single Season Teams of All-TimeTuesday'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.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM