The Most Dominant Championship Teams in NBA/ABA HistoryA 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):
- The 1961-62 Boston Celtics were the fifth of Bill Russell's 11 championship teams. Six Celtics averaged double figures in scoring, five of whom were eventually inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Russell (23.6 rpg) finished second in rebounding and Bob Cousy (7.8 apg) was third in assists.
- The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers showcased the all-around brilliance of Wilt Chamberlain, who led the league in rebounding (24.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.683) and finished third in both scoring (24.1 ppg) and assists (7.8 apg). The 76ers beat the San Franscisco Warriors for the title despite Rick Barry's then record 40.8 ppg outburst in the Finals.
- Everyone has seen the footage of Willis Reed limping on to the floor for Game Seven of the 1970 Finals, but how many people remember that Walt Frazier posted 36 points, 19 assists and 7 rebounds in that game? Reed ranked among league leaders in scoring and rebounding, while Frazier placed second in assists, eighth in field goal percentage and 20th in scoring.
- Even on a list of dominant teams the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks stand out: 12.2 ppg differential, .085 fg% differential, a then-record 20 game winning streak, and a remarkable 14.5 ppg differential on the way to a then-best ever 12-2 playoff record. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring while placing second in field goal percentage and fourth in rebounding. Oscar Robertson ranked among league leaders in assists, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
- Remarkably, many of the records set by the 1971 Bucks were broken the next year by the Lakers, who posted a best ever 12.3 ppg differential and won an astonishing 33 straight games. Gail Goodrich and Jerry West provided most of the scoring punch (ranking fifth and seventh in the league respectively) and Wilt Chamberlain led the league in rebounding and field goal percentage.
- In 1986 Larry Bird captured his third straight MVP award, ranking among league leaders in scoring, rebounding, free throw percentage, three point percentage and steals. Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton rounded out one of the most impressive frontcourts in league history, while perennial All-Defensive Team selection and former playoff MVP Dennis Johnson provided steady play at guard.
- Magic Johnson led the league in assists and posted a career-high 23.9 ppg average in 1987 and his self titled "junior, junior skyhook" spelled doom for the Celtics in the Finals. James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott each averaged at least 17 ppg.
- Portland won two more games than Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1991, but fell to the Lakers in the playoffs. Jordan's first NBA championship team romped to a 15-2 playoff record, with both losses by only two points. Jordan led the league in scoring and ranked third in steals, while Scottie Pippen followed a fine all-around season (17.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.2 apg) with an even better postseason performance (21.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 5.8 apg). Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright provided rebounding and toughness.
- The Bulls posted better regular season numbers the next year, but faced a tougher challenge in the playoffs as the Knicks took Chicago to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Jordan again led the league in scoring, while Pippen and Grant both had stellar seasons.
- The 1996 Bulls won a league record 72 games while posting a gaudy 12.2 ppg differential and an impressive 6.6 rpg differential. Jordan, Pippen and league rebounding leader Dennis Rodman set the pace, with plenty of help from Sixth Man Award winner Toni Kukoc and three point marksman Steve Kerr.
- Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and company led the 1997 Bulls to a 69-13 regular season record, 10.8 ppg differential and 4.9 rpg differential. If sixth man Toni Kukoc and starting center Luc Longley had not each missed more than 20 games due to injuries, this team could have perhaps surpassed the numbers of the 1996 Bulls.
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.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM