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Basketball: Top of the Rim

After considering all the data, we rank the all-time greatest NBA teams
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

After the Chicago Bulls won their 70th game in the 1995-96 season, a reporter asked Michael Jordan if they were the greatest team ever. Jordan's reply was curt: "Did anyone else win 70 games?" "No" was the correct answer to Jordan's question then and now. Since the Bulls' accomplishment, no National Basketball Association team has even come close to matching their 72-10 record. By the time the curtain drew on its postseason, Chicago had won 87 and lost 13. Jordan had won his record eighth scoring title. Had any player ever carried his team the way Jordan had carried the Bulls? Whatever the answer, basketball historians and casual fans support other candidates as the greatest team -- the 1985-86 Boston Celtics; the 1971-72 and 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers; the 1966-67 and 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers. All were irrefutably great. But after systematic consideration of the data, which team stands alone?

Skeptics often claim that those 1995-96 Bulls, the 2001-02 Lakers, or any number of clubs might have run up sensational records against patsies. Teams from previous eras, they argue, had to face a more balanced league. The Celtics of the 1980s had to conquer powerhouses such as the 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons before even getting to the Lakers ( or Houston Rockets) in the Finals.

The numbers across eras are wildly different, too, making comparisons difficult. In 2001-02, the average team scored 95.5 points per game. That fits in neatly with the 1954-55 circuit, with 93.1 points per game, and the 1955-56 season, when the average was 99. The field goal percentage for 348 players in 2001-02 was .448, quite close to 1966-67, when the league shot .441. But the league average then was 117 points a game, 22 more than the current average. In 1985-86, the league shot a sizzling .487 and averaged 110 points per game. When it comes to scoring pace, many hoops lovers consider '80s basketball the happy medium.

Despite these numerical variances, there is a way to level the court. To remedy the problem of cross-era comparisons, we measure a team relative to its competition. To compare the '95-'96 Bulls to the '66-'67 Sixers, we simply measure the Bulls against their rivals and the Sixers against theirs and see which team had the greater degree of dominance.

How is dominance determined? In Jordan's sharp retort to the reporter, he unwittingly hit on one of four elements that define a great team: winning percentage. The Bulls won 88 percent of their regular-season games in 1995-96. But it's not enough to have a great winning percentage, only to fold like a dinner napkin at playoff time. A second requirement is capturing an NBA championship. We also need to measure a team's scoring versus the league average, called relative offense. The picture is complete when we factor in points allowed versus the league average, called relative defense.

Multiply the winning percentage by relative offense by relative defense and the highest product wins. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had an .878 winning percentage, the best in basketball history; their 105.2 points per game was 1.057 times higher than the league average of 99.5; and their defense allowed 92.9 per game, 1.071 times better than the league average. Multiply .878 by 1.057 by 1.071 and their rating is .994, far and away the highest in basketball history.

Many renowned teams in NBA history failed to win a title. Leading the pack of nonwinners is the Washington Capitols. In 1946-47, the league's inaugural season, the Capitols won 49 and lost 11 under Red Auerbach, who would later coach the Boston Celtics to nine NBA championships. But the old playoff structure did the Capitols in. With six teams in the playoffs, top-seeded Washington should have played the sixth-seeded Cleveland Rebels in the first round. Instead, the Capitols played the Chicago Stags, the top Western Division team and the No. 2 seed, and lost the series, four games to two. The 1972-73 Celtics had it all -- Most Valuable Player Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, a textbook fast break and a 68-14 record. But Havlicek separated his shoulder in the conference finals and the New York Knicks won a classic, the first time the Celtics lost a seventh game in Boston Garden. John Stockton and Karl Malone picked and rolled the Utah Jazz to a 64-18 record and the best offense in the league in 1996-97. But the Bulls suffocated them in the playoffs, snuffing out the pick and roll and holding them to 87 points per game.

While placing just one team in the top 10, the Celtics have nine in the top 25. Three Bill Russell-led squads -- 1959-60, 1961-62 and 1964-65 -- make the top 20. Fans of the 1969-70 Knicks might be surprised to find them ranked just 24th. They led the league in defense ( 105 points allowed per game) and played five starters who hit from the perimeter -- Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett. But they finished below average on offense because they were a deliberate team that passed enough to make Gene Hackman's character in Hoosiers happy. Led by George Mikan, the NBA's first great center, the Minneapolis Lakers won five titles and placed two teams in the top 20.

Near the bottom of 56 NBA title winners are the 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals, who rode Dolph Schayes' rangy perimeter game to a championship; the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors, underrated against the Washington Bullets but who swept them in the Finals because of Rick Barry's scoring; the 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks, who won when Bob Pettit scored 50 in Game 6 against the Celtics, who went on to win the next eight titles; and the 1977-78 Washington Bullets, who finished just six games over .500 but came back to beat the Seattle SuperSonics in the Finals.

Now a drum roll for the all-time greats.

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