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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Most Dominant Championship Teams in NBA/ABA History

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.

After Michael Jordan announced "I'm Back" and led the Chicago Bulls to three straight championships, many observers proclaimed the Bulls the greatest team ever. Other experts preferred Russell's Celtics, the 1967 76ers, the 1972 Lakers, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics or the Malone-Erving 76ers. While it is fun to imagine certain matchups, there is no objective way to determine how these teams would fare against each other. It is obvious that any comparison of teams that played in different decades is pure speculation but even sizing up teams from the same era is an inexact science. Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics tweaked their rosters as players emerged (James Worthy, Kevin McHale) and declined (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cedric Maxwell), making it difficult to even select the best Lakers and Celtics teams of the '80s, let alone the greatest team of all time.

While greatness is an elusive and subjective evaluation, dominance can be found in the record books in several different categories; these numbers show which championship teams obliterated all contenders and which ones narrowly snatched the brass ring from their rivals. In short, the most dominant team is the team that stood out the most from the pack in a given season. The most direct measure of dominance is points per game (ppg) differential. Since the 1954-55 season (first year of the shot clock era), 35 of 46 NBA champions and seven of nine ABA champions finished third in the league or better in this category. Two other measures of dominance are rebounds per game (rpg) differential and field goal percentage (fg%) differential; the NBA has only kept these records since the 1970-71 season, while the ABA did so for all nine of its seasons. Almost every champion of the past 30 years ranked at or near the top of the league in both areas.

Only 11 NBA or ABA champions achieved a ppg differential of nine or better (see accompanying chart; 3/13/09 Note: Since this article was written, one more NBA champion had a ppg differential better than nine: the 2008 Boston Celtics led the NBA with a 10.2 ppg differential while also ranking fourth in rebounding differential [3.1 rpg] and first in field goal percentage differential [.056], numbers that make them worthy of being included on any list of the most dominant championship teams in NBA/ABA history):

Since 1955 only four teams have failed to win a title after posting a 9-plus ppg differential. The 1972 Kentucky Colonels went 68-16 with an ABA record 9.0 ppg differential but were upset in the playoffs by Rick Barry’s New York Nets. That same year the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks (63-19 with a fabulous 11.1 ppg differential) fell in the playoffs to the even more dominant Lakers. The 1986 Bucks had a 9.0 ppg differential but were swept in the playoffs by the Celtics. In 1994 the Seattle Supersonics seemed to be the class of the league with a 63-19 record and 9.0 ppg differential but Dikembe Mutombo and the Denver Nuggets toppled them in one of the biggest playoff upsets in basketball history.

The pre-shot clock era 1947 Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America (one of the forerunners of the NBA) went 49-11 with a sterling 9.9 ppg differential. A bizarre playoff format pitted them against the league’s other division champion, the Chicago Stags, in the first round. The Capitols lost that series 4-2 despite the efforts of their 29 year old, first year coach--none other than Arnold "Red" Auerbach!

Where are the ABA championship teams? No ABA champion posted a 9 ppg or greater differential. The most dominant ABA champion was the 1969 Oakland Oaks (8.4 ppg differential). Rick Barry averaged 34 ppg and 9.4 rpg but only played in 35 games before suffering a season ending knee injury. Doug Moe, Warren Armstrong (later Jabali) and Gary Bradds picked up the scoring slack, while current 76ers coach Larry Brown provided leadership as an All-Star point guard. The Oaks finished 60-18 and beat a strong Pacers team 4-1 in the Finals. The Pacers later became known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA, winning three titles in a four year span, but each year Indiana posted relatively modest regular season ppg differentials. Julius Erving's Nets won titles in '74 and '76 with 5.4 and 3.0 ppg differentials, while his '75 squad had a league-best 7.6 ppg differential but fell in the first round of the playoffs to Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, Maurice Lucas and the Spirits of St. Louis.

Most Dominant Pro Basketball Championship Teams
Reg. Season Record Playoff Record Team PPG Reb. Diff. FG % Diff.
60-20 8-6 1962 Boston Celtics 9.2 (1) ----- -----
68-13 11-4 1967 Philadelphia 76ers 9.4 (1) ----- -----
60-22 12-7 1970 New York Knicks 9.1 (1) ----- -----
66-16 12-2 1971 Milwaukee Bucks 12.2 (1) 4.1 (3) .085 (1)
69-13 12-3 1972 L.A. Lakers 12.3 (1) 4.1 (3) .058 (2)
67-15 15-3 1986 Boston Celtics 9.4 (1) 4.9 (1) .047 (1)
65-17 15-3 1987 L.A. Lakers 9.3 (1) 2.3 (6) .049 (2)
61-21 15-2 1991 Chicago Bulls 9.0 (1) 3.2 (5) .035 (3)
67-15 15-7 1992 Chicago Bulls 10.4 (1) 4.4 (3) .048 (1)
72-10 15-3 1996 Chicago Bulls 12.2 (1) 6.6 (1) .030 (4)
69-13 15-4 1997 Chicago Bulls 10.8 (1) 4.9 (1T) .037 (3)

Note: Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank; in 1997, the Bulls and Trail Blazers tied for 1st in rebounding differential.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM



At Friday, March 13, 2009 1:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shouldn't a point differential as a percentage of the final score be a better indicator? A 10 point differential on a 90ppg team is more significant than a 10 point differential on a 120ppg team.


At Friday, March 13, 2009 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is an interesting question but I think that sometimes people get a little too carried away with "pace" and "percentages," like when someone says that Oscar Robertson's triple double season is "equivalent" to something else in today's era or that LeBron James' numbers this season are "equivalent" to averaging a triple double if the games were played at a 1960s pace. Ultimately, a player (or team) can only compete with whoever is on the court at the same time he is. Robertson had enough stamina and skills to average a triple double for an entire season. No one else has done this in six plus decades of NBA history, including some very talented players who played at the same "pace" that he did in that era.

Similarly, in six plus decades of NBA history, only a select few teams have won championships while posting a ppg differential of greater than nine. Also note that the point of this article was not to compare these teams to each other as much as to assess each team's dominance relative to the other teams in the NBA in that particular season. As I explained in the article, "In short, the most dominant team is the team that stood out the most from the pack in a given season."

At Friday, March 13, 2009 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think that sometimes people get a little too carried away with "pace" and "percentages,"

That's very clear....

"like when someone says that Oscar Robertson's triple double season is "equivalent" to something else in today's era or that LeBron James' numbers this season are "equivalent" to averaging a triple double if the games were played at a 1960s pace."

It's refreshing to see that you have moved on from Berri to tackling other stat geeks. Neil Paine in this case.

Do you honestly not think there is no need to account for the difference between playing in a 125 possession game and an 89 possession game?



At Friday, March 13, 2009 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This article is about comparing championship teams to the teams that they played against in a particular season, not across eras. So the comparison involves teams that all played in the same general milieu in terms of rules (shot clock, fouls, size of the lane, etc.) and "pace."

Regarding the larger issue of referring to "pace" and "possessions" when making comparisons between eras, I don't think that there is a "need" to "account" for this if by "need" you mean that this has to be done. As a mathematical exercise, it is interesting to do the simple multiplication and division that is necessary to figure out what LeBron's averages divided by X number of possessions are "equivalent" to in the number of possessions from Oscar's era but I think that this misses two larger points:

1) No one else besides Oscar has ever averaged a triple double for an entire season--and Oscar actually averaged an aggregate triple double for his first five seasons! If what Oscar did was simply a function of "pace," then other players from his era would have done this, too.

2) I've seen "analysis" purporting to prove that MJ's 37.1 ppg season is equal to or even superior than Wilt's 50 ppg season. That is nonsense. It takes more energy and skill to average 50 ppg for an entire season than it does to average 37.1 ppg. We have no way to know whether or not MJ could have kept up a 50 ppg pace or if he would have become fatigued or gotten injured. By the same token, it is not fair to Wilt to assume that he "only" would have averaged 37.1 ppg in the 1980s. What Wilt did was unprecedented for his time (i.e., a stat guru in that era would have told you that it is impossible for someone to average 50 ppg), so if he had been in his prime in the 1980s he likely would have done something unprecedented for that era. The example that I like to cite about this is Rodman's rebounding; Rodman's rebounding averages in the 1990s would never have been predicted prior to that if you would have told a stat guru the "pace" that the game would be played at during that decade--but the accomplishments of great players do not conform to the predictions on a stat guru's spreadsheet.

At Friday, March 13, 2009 7:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think like a chess player, not a poker player.

At the end of the day, if you want to argue that pace is all that important when looking at raw numbers, that fine. But it's just basic arithmetic. Honestly, it seems silly anyone could even argue something like pace.

Let me ask you this. A lot of coaches and players believe in the hot hand, i.e. that they are more likely to hit a shot after they have hit one previously. Statheads have marshalled evidence suggesting that this is a myth and that in fact this belief probably hurts teams.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


At Friday, March 13, 2009 8:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

chicago's 1st title was vs. LAL not portland

what about LAL 2002 team 15-1 in playoffs

At Saturday, March 14, 2009 12:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am a chess player, not a poker player, though there seems to be some correlation between the skill set of a good chess player and the skill set of a good poker player; I know of a lot of good chess players who have quit chess because they can make a lot more money playing poker. I prefer chess because it is a game of perfect information based entirely on skill, whereas poker involves luck, even though a skilled player obviously has an advantage over the long run over an unskilled player.

I'm not saying that "pace" is useless. I just don't think that "pace" has to be taken into account to write this kind of article about dominant championship teams. If you have a list of "pace adjusted" dominant championship teams it would be interesting to see what way, if any, it differs from the list that I put together. I just don't buy the idea that a team that wins 80-72 is as dominant as a team that wins 110-99 because the victory margin in each case is 10% of the winning team's total score. The team that won 80-72 won by three possessions, while the team that won 110-99 won by four possessions.

The hot hand stuff is interesting. I don't have a hard and fast belief about that one way or the other. From my own experience playing chess and basketball, I can certainly think of times that I believed that I was in a "zone" in terms of making good moves/hitting shots. Guys like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan certainly seem to be able to deliver very well in clutch situations but that may just reflect the fact that they are better than their opponents, period. I'm sure that it would be very difficult to prove that a hot hand exists, because the pure mathematics are going to always tell you that a 50% shooter has a 50% chance of making his next shot regardless of what has happened previously.

I tend to think that there is something to the hot hand idea but that it would be almost impossible to prove; I certainly would not game plan around it: if I were coaching, I would want the ball in my best player's hands to make a pass/shoot decision whether he seems to have a hot hand at that moment or not.

At Saturday, March 14, 2009 7:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think of the 2001 Lakers, who did not win as much in the regular season (I am not sure about their exact record), but dominated in the playoffs, with a record of 15-1? Do you think they rank among dominant championship teams, although their regular season record didn't exactly show it?

At Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


the bulls were the best with 80's celts and lakers too deep and too talented for 60's teams. the lakers with maguic was best team all time not celtics david

At Saturday, March 14, 2009 7:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I did not say that the Bulls won their first championship versus Portland; I merely noted that the Blazers had the best record in the NBA in 1991 but lost to the Lakers in the playoffs. The Bulls then beat the Lakers in the 1991 Finals. The reason that I mentioned Portland's record is that the 1991 Bulls are the only team on my list that did not have the best regular season record. Portland had an 8.7 ppg differential in 1991, so it could be argued that at least on paper the Blazers were better that year than in either of the years that they made the Finals, 1990 (6.3 ppg differential), and 1992 (7.3 pgg differential).

I think that you meant to refer to the 2001 Lakers (like the subsequent Anonymous did). The 2001 Lakers went 56-26, tying for the second best record in the NBA. They had a 3.4 ppg differential but in the playoffs they went 15-1, the best mark in NBA history (the 1983 76ers also had only one loss but only needed 12 wins to win the title under the playoff format at that time). The 2001 Lakers were arguably the most dominant playoff team in NBA/ABA history but they were not as dominant in the regular season as the teams listed in this article.

At Sunday, March 15, 2009 5:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm not saying that "pace" is useless. I just don't think that "pace" has to be taken into account to write this kind of article about dominant championship teams."

Fair enough. I don't think your list is all that bad. In fact, using various statistical models you can back it up pretty easily. But I do think the 95-96 Bulls were pretty clearly the best team of all time. They were the only team I can think of that was first in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they also had the highest efficiency differential in history. And on an absolute level, they would have cleaned the clocks of any of those teams from the 60s and 70s.

As for poker and chess. A poker player is always doing math. A chess player is never doing math. And he never has to deal with probability, chess being a game of perfect information as you say. As I have pointed out before, basketball is a game ridden with probabilities. Anyway...

And FWIW, the study indicates that a player's shooting percentage goes down the "hotter" he is, because players become more likely to force shots. It's a hell of a complicated paper though, so I won't speak for the results therein...


At Tuesday, March 17, 2009 6:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If we are talking strictly about one season--as opposed to a body of work like Russell's 11 titles or MJ's six rings--then the '96 Bulls are obviously on the short list but I think that the '67 76ers and '83 76ers have to be mentioned, too. I don't agree that the Bulls would necessarily "wipe out" any team from the 60s. That 76ers team had three Top 50 players (Chamberlain, Cunningham, Greer), plus Luke Jackson and Chet Walker.

The '86 Celtics and '87 Lakers were also quite dominant and each boasted an impressive cast of future HoFers/Top 50 players.

In terms of peaking at the right time, the '82 Lakers might be one of the most underrated champions ever. They were not particularly dominant for most of the regular season but down the stretch and then in the playoffs they were a machine.

A chess player does not do math in terms of figuring out probabilities but he has to accurately calculate the consequences of various sequences of moves, some of which can be quite intricate.

I would be interested in knowing if the shooting percentages of all "hot" players go down or if this is more true of "hot" players who are not All-Stars, elite players or whatever description you prefer. I suspect that when Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade seem to be "hot" they really are "hot," particularly in clutch situations. A lesser player, on the other hand, is not as skilled, so he may seem to be "hot" because he accidentally made a tough shot or two but his lack of skill (relatively speaking) will catch up with him if he keeps hoisting difficult shots.


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