Basketball: Top of the Rim
After considering all the data, we rank the all-time greatest NBA teams
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.
#1 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan announced he was back with a 42-point opening-night performance against the Charlotte Hornets. The season before, Jordan, rusty from 18 months of retirement, failed in key playoff moments and the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic. Now he rededicated himself to the task of winning another title. In no time, the 1995-96 season was colored with a surreal hue.
After a win over the Lakers, the Bulls had punctured the ether with 41 wins and 3 defeats. The race was on to see if they could win 70 games.
Then 33, Jordan banked on experience as much as talent. He took fewer hits elevating to the rim and connected on jumpers, especially fadeaways, more frequently. Dennis Rodman was acquired to rebound. Scottie Pippen was a defensive madman and break finisher par excellence.
Wire recaps in morning papers revealed a pattern: Jordan often scored as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter to break open games. One night the Bulls were down 12 points to the Vancouver Grizzlies with six minutes left. Chicago won as Jordan scored the next 12 points. Then Chicago won its record 70th game at Milwaukee, eclipsing the mark set by the 1971-72 Lakers.
After sweeping the Miami Heat and beating the Knicks in five games, the Bulls looked to repay the Magic. Trailing by 18 points at halftime in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls' defense undressed the Magic and took command. A sweep led them to the Finals against the SuperSonics, in which they ran out to a 3-0 lead. The 'Sonics won two games by pressuring the Bulls and exposing their tendency to get out of sync on offense. The Bulls regrouped at home and won their fourth title.
#2 1996-97 Chicago Bulls
Sprinting to a 17-1 record, the 1996-97 Bulls started off better than the previous season's team. At the All-Star break they were 42-6, making Chicago's record an incredulous 114-16 over a season and a half. But injuries to Rodman and Toni Kukoc undercut the Bulls' stretch run. A loss in the season finale against the Knicks cost them a chance at 70 wins in consecutive seasons. Chicago slipped to sixth on defense but tied the Jazz for the best offense.
Jordan scored 55 in a first-round win over the Bullets and his playoff numbers improved over the year before. While Jordan dominates the game's statistical legacy -- being the all-time leader in points per game ( 31), playoff points per game ( 31.5) and scoring titles ( 10) -- many people think more of his moments than they do his numbers.
With the Finals tied, Jordan had a virus before Game 5. The Jazz built a 16-point lead in the second quarter. Jordan slowly brought the Bulls back. He scored 38, and his three-pointer with seconds remaining beat the Jazz in one of the most astounding performances ever.
With 26 seconds left in Game 6, the Bulls called a play for Jordan in the huddle. He leaned over to Steve Kerr and said, "You look out if he [John Stockton] comes for me." Sure enough, Stockton rotated off Kerr to help Byron Russell guard Jordan. Jordan found Kerr, who buried a 17-footer with five seconds left. The Bulls won, 90-86. Jordan recorded 39 points and 11 rebounds and averaged 32.3 points for the series.
#3 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
Jerry West had played 11 seasons without a title. In the '60s he and Elgin Baylor had lost six Finals ( 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969) to the Celtics, three of them lasting an agonizing seven games.
Boston's edge was evident. The Celtics ran the fast break as if they had invented it, which they had with Auerbach and Bob Cousy in the 1950s. With '60s mainstays John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bill Russell -- and smart role players like Don Nelson, Satch Sanders and Larry Siegfried -- the Celtics always meshed and always won. Russell routinely overmatched Lakers pivot men like Rudy LaRusso, Darrall Imhoff and Mel Counts. Even when the Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, the Celtics overcame a 2-0 deficit to win in seven on the Forum floor. West, also known as "Mr. Clutch," was so good in defeat that he won the Finals MVP in 1969. No matter, brutal losses were his norm.
But then came the 1971-72 season. The Lakers blew the lid off the league, winning 69 and losing 13. They won 33 straight, taking every game from November 5, 1971, through January 7, 1972. Retiring nine games into the season because of creaky knees, Baylor missed the party. But West made up the loss, leading the league in assists, while he and Gail Goodrich averaged 52 points a night between them. Heeding the advice of coach Bill Sharman, a Celtics Hall of Famer of all things, Chamberlain stayed under the basket and grabbed 19.2 rebounds a game. The starting quintet of West, Goodrich, Chamberlain, Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston combined to average 98 points per game.
In the Finals, the Lakers won four straight against the Knicks following an opening-game loss.
#4 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers
When people attacked Chamberlain because his teams rarely won, he took delight in pointing out that the two that did win were among the best ever. Wilt was right. The Big Dipper got his first title with the 1967 Sixers, who set a record with 68 wins. It was the first time in eight seasons that Chamberlain didn't win a scoring title.
Gone was the Lord Chamberlain who had mopped the floor with the Knicks and scored 100 points on March 2, 1962. This was a Wilt of many splendors. Did any center ever dream of posting 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds and 8 assists per game? How about shooting a record 68 percent? Shortly before the All-Star break, Philly was 39-3, followed closely by Boston at 32-7. Philly pounded opponents, averaging 125 points a game. A front line of Chamberlain, Chet Walker and Lucious Jackson -- with Billy Cunningham off the bench -- and guards Hal Greer ( known as the game's best mid-range shooter) and Wali Jones provided balanced scoring.
Philadelphia bombed Boston, 140-116, in the fifth game of the conference finals, with Chamberlain posting 29 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists.
In the Finals the San Francisco Warriors provided some competition, as NBA scoring leader Rick Barry logged 55 points in Game 3 and averaged 41 points for the series. But the Sixers prevailed in six games.
#5 1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Pre-Dennis Rodman, the 1992 Bulls won 67 games and then endured their toughest postseason. Using defensive tactics that eventually would result in several rule changes, the Knicks gave the Bulls a physical beating in the conference semis. Xavier McDaniel?talked trash to everyone and roughed up Pippen, throwing him off his game. Finally, Jordan scored 42 points as Chicago waltzed, 110-81, in Game 7 ( the Bulls' first Game 7 during their '90s title successes, the last coming against the Indiana Pacers in 1998).
The Portland Trail Blazers also hung tough and had Game 6 of the Finals apparently salted away, carrying a 79-64 lead into the fourth quarter. But Chicago's defensive pressure unraveled them and Chicago subs, especially Bobby Hansen, began a 14-3 run. When Jordan re-entered the game, Chicago finished the job, 97-93, for its second consecutive NBA title.
#6 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee knew the prize it had landed with its No. 1 draft pick in 1969.
Lew Alcindor, later better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had led Power Memorial High in New York City to 71 straight victories and 78 of 79 in the early 1960s before going on to star at UCLA. Wilt Chamberlain, then Alcindor's role model, came to Power to see him play. "He's the greatest high school player I ever saw," Chamberlain said. Alcindor was All-American for three years and finished his high school career with 2,067 points and 2,002 rebounds, both New York City records.
At UCLA, Alcindor's teams won 88 games, lost 2 and captured three consecutive NCAA titles. After playing under coach John Wooden, who stressed team play above all else, he went on to win six NBA titles with Milwaukee and Los Angeles.
In his rookie NBA season, Alcindor didn't need time to adjust. He finished second in the league in points scored ( 28.8) and third in rebounds ( 14.5). Milwaukee won 56 games and lost 26. In his second pro season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to 66 wins, won the scoring title and MVP award, and carried Milwaukee to the Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. Winning just 42 games that year, Baltimore was pesky nonetheless and reached the Finals by beating New York in a seventh game at Madison Square Garden. The Bullets brought Earl Monroe, the man with no vertical but a million fakes and feints to make up for it.
At 7-foot-2, Jabbar dropped his sky hook at will over 6-7 Wes Unseld. Averaging 27 points and 18 rebounds, he took Finals MVP honors as the Bucks breezed to four straight wins.
#7 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers
Unlike Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal didn't find his stride until his eighth pro season. In 2000, O'Neal took a giant step toward becoming a legend. By now he is undoubtedly one of the five or six greatest centers of all time, with the third highest scoring average ( behind only Jordan and Chamberlain). Known early on for playing on teams that got swept from the NBA playoffs in five different seasons, O'Neal dominated the 1999-2000 season, leading his team to 67 wins and snatching scoring and MVP honors as well. He meshed just long enough with Kobe Bryant, and the twosome helped the Lakers rally from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit against Portland in Game 7 of the conference finals. L.A. then took Indiana in six games for the championship.
#8 1985-86 Boston Celtics
Few would dispute that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish made up the most formidable front line ever. The threesome stayed together for 12 memorable years; the 1985-86 season was their finest as they led Boston to its 16th title in 30 years.
Besides the "Big Three" on the front line, Boston had heady guard Dennis Johnson -- whom Bird called "the smartest and best player I ever played with" -- and Danny Ainge. Backing up Parish, Bill Walton managed to play 80 games -- the most in a career filled with 30 stress fractures to his feet -- showing Bostonians a glimpse of his old self during Portland's 1977 title run.
Boston posted a 67-15 record, including an otherworldly home record of 40-1 ( then 10-0 in the postseason, when the Celtics won every home game by more than 10 points except a first-round contest in which Jordan scored 63 points). Bird carried Boston, winning his third consecutive MVP and leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Against Houston and then-Akeem Olajuwon, Boston closed out the Finals in six games.
#9 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
It was a sign of things to come when the Lakers traveled to Boston and broke the Celtics' 48-game home-winning streak. Former Detroit Piston John Salley recently asked Magic Johnson to compare his team with the current Lakers. "Do you think that squad could beat us," Johnson shrieked. "We had three stars," meaning Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and himself, one more than the present-day Lakers.
The '86-'87 Lakers could play it your way or theirs: Magic playing back to the basket, pounding the ball, directing traffic while looking over and around shorter guards; Jabbar's indefensible sky hook; Worthy posting up -- Los Angeles could work the halfcourt game with anyone. Led by Johnson's Showtime, no-look charge -- with Worthy, Byron Scott or Michael Cooper on the wing -- the Lakers shoved the fast break down your throat. They employed Cooper, the Sixth Man of the Year and a three-point specialist, to shut down scoring forwards like Larry Bird. Rebounding help came from A. C. Green and Kurt Rambis, making the Lakers arguably the most balanced team of all time. They simply had no weakness.
The season turned on Game 4 of the Finals in Boston. With 29 ticks left, Bird broke Worthy's grip on his jersey to drop a three-pointer for a two-point Boston lead. Jabbar missed one of two free throws with eight seconds remaining, but the ball deflected out off McHale. Guarded on the perimeter by McHale, Johnson stutter-stepped, broke for the lane and elevated from 12 feet, netting a mini sky hook over McHale and Parish. The Lakers won, 107-106, and took the series in six games.
#10 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
After leading the New York Nets to two American Basketball Association championships, Julius Erving made believers of the NBA doubters and carried the 76ers to three Finals in his first six NBA seasons after the ABA-NBA merger. Each time the promised land led to promises broken.
In the 1977 Finals, Portland rode Bill Walton and his off-the-charts versatility at center to its only championship. Los Angeles ( 1980 and 1982) had Abdul-Jabbar. Meanwhile, Philadelphia came to a shoot-out with pivot popguns, using shot blocker Caldwell Jones and chronic window shatterer Darryl Dawkins.
After losing three six-game Finals, Philly management had had enough and supported Erving by getting three-time MVP and six-time leading rebounder Moses Malone from Houston. An irrepressible, shoulders-first bull, Malone consumed offensive rebounds and scored points. "The more they push me, the stronger I get," Malone said. With James Toney, Moe Cheeks and Bobby Jones, Philadelphia ran and hid from the circuit, winning 65 games and 12 of 13 in the playoffs.
Malone dominated the Finals with 26 points and 18 rebounds a game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
As NBA basketball enters its 57th season, it remains to be seen whether teams to come can break into this select company.
Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years ( AllSport Books, 1996). Steven Shouler helped analyze the data for this story.
You must be logged in to post a comment.