Now that the Golden State Warriors have captured their second NBA Championship in the last three years, it’s worth asking the question: Have we just witnessed the greatest single season in NBA history? The ’16-17 version failed to haul in 73 wins like the ’15-16 team did. Yet, when you start digging, the numbers tell a very powerful story.
I have to preface this, first, by explaining that I’m a product of the 80s. I grew up on Detroit Pistons Bad Boys basketball. I hated Michael Jordan (even refused to recognize the number 23 when counting in grade school, if I may hyperbolize). I often watch games today and get annoyed that offensive players are allowed so much freedom and go to the rim without so much as a finger being laid on them. I miss Robert Parrish, Bill Laimbeer, and Charles Oakley. That said, I can appreciate greatness — past greatness and current. And it cannot be denied, the Warriors we just watched represented some sort of greatness.
All I ask as you continue, check your heart and your gut at the door. Everyone already has their own feelings, beliefs, biases when it comes to greatness and debating who’s the best — at anything (me included). Here, though, we’re going to talk numbers. If we’re going to have a real discussion about which NBA team is the greatest of all-time, we can’t ignore our core beliefs and what we’ve seen on the court with our own eyes — I understand that. But numbers are powerful too — and we’d be remiss to not entertain them.
So let’s nail down some criteria:
1. Can we agree that the regular season record does mean something? No team with less than 60 wins can really be in this conversation. Remember, we’re not talking just “great”. We’re talking greatEST.
2. Dominance in the regular season. Strolling through a weak schedule on the way to 65 wins is fine for that particular team and they need not apologize — you play what’s on your schedule. But let’s be frank — tougher schedule means greater respect. We view those teams as a little stronger when you start the discussion of “greatest team ever”.
3. Playoff run. Regular season is one thing — and should count for something. But how a team plays against playoff teams means quite a bit also.
So, now, on to the numbers.
There have been 13 teams win 67 or more regular season games, including the last three Warriors’ teams. Nine of those teams won NBA championships (the ’16-17 Warriors, the ’14-15 Warriors, the ’99-00 L.A. Lakers, the ’95-96 Chicago Bulls, the ’96-97 Bulls, the ’91-92 Bulls, the 85-86 Boston Celtics, the ’71-72 Lakers, and the ’66-67 Philadelphia 76ers.
Seems like a fair jumping off point to start the discussion — 67-plus wins and a title.
Point Differential per Game (PDpG)
Wins and losses don’t always tell the full story. If the league happens to be “watered down” for a stretch, history ought to reflect that when discussing the best teams of that particular era.
Point differential per game (PDpG) is a good indicator how dominant a team was. A measure that takes this a step further is Basketball Reference’s simple rating system (SRS), which takes into account average point differential along with strength of schedule.
There have been only 11 teams in NBA history with a PDpG over 10, and 10 teams with a double-digit SRS — and by the way each of the last 3 Golden State teams are on that list. Add these two components to the formula and the list of 9 teams from above shrinks to 6 — the 2 Golden State teams, the 3 Chicago teams, and the Lakers of ’71-72.
To get the full picture of just how dominant a team is often comes from how they perform when the lights are the brightest, the competition is at it’s toughest, and when the pressure is at it’s highest.
So to be the best of the very best, you have to not just win in the playoffs and walk away with a trophy, but you have to dominate the opponents. Historically-speaking, here’s the teams we’re looking at and where this Warriors team stacks up:
Warriors had the 2nd-largest average scoring margin for any team that played at least 5 games that postseason pic.twitter.com/fFzRD9PF5k
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 13, 2017
Add to it, the Warriors won 16 of their 17 playoff games — which comes out to being the best winning percentage in playoff history. They didn’t end up notching the first ever sweep of the postseason, but their margin of victory is only bested by the ’71 Bucks, who in all fairness played in an era that included only 20 total NBA teams — 3 of which won north of 50 games that year.
What Do the Numbers Say?
The numbers, the stats, the metrics all point to ’95-96 Bulls and the ’16-17 Warriors as the two stand-alone teams that are left when all the criteria gets flushed out. Both teams (1) posted 67 or more wins — which puts them immediately in the top 13 teams of all time as far as regular seasons go; (2) both won NBA titles — now they’re each in the top 9; (3) both dominated the playoffs like no other teams in history — sporting a PDpG of plus-10.
And now let the full-on debate begin: Michael Jordan’s Bulls of ’95-96 versus Kevin Durant and the Warriors of this past season. While the Bulls had the better regular season, the Warriors arguably just ran the playoff table more impressively than any team ever has in NBA history.
This is where we start to get a little nit-picky. The Bulls needed 6 games in the Finals to beat a 64-win Seattle team while the Warriors rolled through the heir to MJ’s throne — LeBron James — in only 5 games.
In the end, this debate has now become a bit more enticing to have. No longer is there an easy answer to this question.
Former Miami Dolphins running back Mercury Morris is known for being very dismissive of undefeated teams — as his 1972 Dolphins are the last to win the Super Bowl without a blemish on their record. He’s often said when asked about a team who’s 10-0, “Call me when they’re on my block”. In this case, the Warriors might be on the Bulls’ porch. Heck, they might own the house.
Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed, @brian22goodwin.