This is our fifth segment on the best teams in franchise history by division. As always, our standard of review for this series of articles can be found here. The Northwest is one of the few divisions without an original NBA team in its midst. Still, they have some teams with robust and fun histories, a few of which are particularly interesting.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1976-77 (50-32)
-Most Wins: 1987-88 (54-28)
-Best Playoff Run: 1984-85 (8-7)
In going through this franchise series, a common question I’ve gotten is why I haven’t considered ABA teams in the calculation. The answer is because I honestly haven’t assessed the relative weight of ABA numbers versus NBA numbers. It’s hard enough to try to compare NBA teams from different eras, let alone with ABAers, whose ability certainly fluctuated from year-to-year. The fact is, however, some ABA teams seemed quite formidable. The Pacers and Nets of the ABA have strong arguments as best teams in their franchises’ histories (the Spurs don’t but they were no slouches in the ABA either). The Nuggets, however, seem to lap the field with their ABA teams. The most wins for an NBA Nugget team is the 1987-88 team that went 54-28. Two ABA Nugget teams look potentially better on paper. Larry Brown’s 1974-75 and 1975-76 teams were 65-19 and 60-24 respectively. Seems quite good, though the ABA Nuggets never won a title in the ABA. The fact is, however, that the Nuggets were dominant in the ABA, even if they couldn’t quite win a title. They are two of only five ABA teams to break the 60-win barrier. Here’s the full list:
–1968-69 Oakland Oaks (60-18): won title behind Rick Barry
-1971-72 Kentucky Colonels (68-16): despite Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, and Louie Dampier, they lost in conference finals
-1971-72 Utah Stars (60-24): Zelmo Beatty/Willie Wise team lost in conference finals
-1974-75 Denver Nuggets (65-19): lost in conference finals
-1975-76 Denver Nuggets (60-24): lost in finals to the Dr. J Nets
Denver put up 40% of all 60-win seasons in ABA history. But there is some evidence that the 60 wins in the ABA is not near 60 wins in the NBA. The Nuggets took a substantially similar team into the NBA for the 1976-77 season, only to fall to 50 wins, which is good but not dominant. Let’s take a look at how the Nuggets starters looked and were affected by the change in leagues. Here are the per-36 minute stats for the starters in the last ABA year and then the following year in the ABA…let’s see what drop off, if any, there was:
1975-76 Denver Nuggets (60-24 in Final ABA Season)
1976-77 Denver Nuggets (50-32 in Debut NBA Season)
In case you’re wondering, Chuck Williams was benched by Larry Brown that first NBA season and Ralph Simpson was traded to Detroit, where his numbers fell off a bit. The PER stat is a little unreliable in this context because turnovers were not yet counted in the NBA until 1977-78, so we don’t know if that would affect the overall numbers. We do know that defense was quite a bit tougher in the NBA. The 1975-76 ABA team was first in pace and scored 121.9 ppg and allowed 115.9 ppg. Per-100 possessions, they scored 108.7 ppg and allowed 103.4 ppg. The Nuggets were second in pace in the NBA in 1976-77 but the scoring was way down: 112.6 ppg and 107.4 opp-ppg (per-100 possessions they scored 100.7 pts and allowed 96.1 pts). Interestingly, Basketball-Reference.com rates the pace factor of each team at an identical 111.2 and their shooting was down from .505% in the ABA to .482% in the NBA. Finally, the kicker here is that the stars were the same but the team dropped 10 wins in the conversion to the NBA.
Thompson, Issel, and Jones were all close to as good in the NBA as the ABA (and arguably better in the case of Jones and Issel) but the role players were much worse. The conclusion from this admittedly limited data set has to be that the ABA of the 1975-76 was a good 5-8 wins worse than their NBA counterparts. Moreover, it’s not clear that this crude conclusion can be extrapolated to the previous ABA seasons (the ABA was presumably improving over time so a win in the ABA in the late 1960s or early 1970s wasn’t worth the same as a win in 1975-76), so it’s quite possible that the 65-win team in 1974-75 was not as good as the 1975-76 team (in fact, looking at the key players, this seems likely). So, the short answer is that there are a lot of moving parts with the ABA and we’ve removed them from the equation totally in our inquiry. Had we included ABA teams, however, it is highly unlikely any would’ve been best in franchise.
Having said all that, the Nuggets in the ABA were very good and the 1976-77 team was also tough (54-28 expected record is the best for an NBA Nuggets team). But there other contenders to consider:
–1987-88 Nuggets (54-28): A Fat Lever/Alex English squad had most wins in their NBA history and lost in the second round
–1984-85 Nuggets (52-30): Stars were Alex English and Calvin Natt and had the best postseason run, making the conference finals before Magic Johnson and the Lakers dispatched them 4-1. They lose some points because they beat two 41-41 teams to make the conference finals.
–2007-08 Nuggets (50-32): I know there is a bit of gloom and doom in Denver now because they were swept out of the playoffs but the 2007-08 Nuggets were a pretty good team. They just got stuck in the one of the best playoff brackets ever. I like the run and gun Nuggets of the 1980s but it is fair to wonder if Fat Lever, Michael Adams, Alex English, Calvin Natt, and Blair Rasmussen could hang with Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, and some effective role players like J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin. Granted, the tattoos make you think they aren’t a “team” or something but this team looks as good on paper as anyone in Nuggets history. Unfortunately, the team is likely to take a step back in the near future but they match up with the past.
Between the four contenders, it really is a pick ’em. I’m partial to the 2007-08 Nuggets. They were assembled in the wrong place at the wrong time but they are deeper and more talented than their competitors. Again, this differentials are miniscule but I think they are the best of the four.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2003-04 (58-24)
-Most Wins: 2003-04 (58-24)
-Best Playoff Run: 2003-04 (10-8)
In Minnesota, the best team is crystal clear. The Kevin Garnett Era was pretty good in Minnesota but it reads like a classic graph. Slow steady progress to a high peak and then slow steady decline. As the KG teams improved in the early 2000s, they were better than people thought but conventional wisdom clearly is in completely in harmony with statistical measures that 2003-04 is the best in team history. This was the team with the best record in the West and the only Minny team to even win a playoff series (they actually won two series). Since there is no real controversy, here’s a few bullet points on the old T-Wolves:
-The 2003-04 Wolves are better remembered for their decline in 2004-05 than their ascendancy. The team fell to 44-38 and missed the playoffs. While the talk was that the Wolves imploded because of contract disputes with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, the clearest reason was the defense. The team allowed 99.7 points per 100 possessions in 2003-04 and that rose to 106.6 in 2004-05. The argument could be made that the defensive fall was the manifestation of the unhappiness of Cassell and Sprewell. It’s hard to know if this is true but Cassell had such a good 2003-04 offensively that was really not repeatable no matter how happy he was. Indeed, Cassell was perfectly happy (and good) on the Clipps in 2005-06 and his season was no better than his 2004-05 year with the Wolves. Spree was also not young and his athletic decline was quite evident (he virtually stopped dunking in 2004-05).
-Not to make anyone feel old but of the top 12 players in terms of minutes on the 2003-04 roster, seven are out of the NBA as of the end of the 2007-08 season (counting Troy Hudson who was released in December 2007). This is not shocking turnover but time definitely keeps marching on.
-The fallout of 2004-05 was that Kevin McHale instantly morphed from a good GM to one who was perceived to be poor. In fact, before 2004-05, McHale had done a great job of finding good players off of the scrap heap. This bad reputation was well-earned the next few years.
-The best Timberwolf that didn’t have Kevin Garnett on it was the 1990-91 team that was 29-53, led by Tony Campbell (21.8 ppg), Tyrone Corbin (18.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Pooh Richardson (17.1 ppg, 9.0 apg). Despite this record, coach Bill Musselman was fired because the team really wasn’t that good and played an ungodly boring slowdown style (think Mike Fratello with the Cavs, but without much talent).
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1990-91 (63-19)
-Most Wins: 1990-91 (63-19)
-Best Playoff Run: 1976-77 (14-5)
The Blazers have three well-remembered runs in Portland and it is not immediately apparent which the best team is. Certainly, a segment of fans would consider the 1976-77 titlists behind Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas as the best (and perhaps even like the 1977-78 team even better, which was dominant until Walton broke his foot). But the 1990s Clyde Drexler teams and the late 1990s Rasheed Wallace teams were both very close to titles before running into unfortunate endings. Let’s break down each run and see what we have here…
Bill Walton Blazers
The greatest misconception is that the Walton Years were a magical Camelot-like time of happiness and unselfish players. In fact, Walton’s time in Portland was quite turbulent. Walton was a much ballyhooed star coming out of college (as big as any college prospect really) and he struggled with injuries and argued with his first coach, Lenny Wilkens, and missed the playoffs his first two years in the NBA. Then in Walton’s third year, 1976-77, thing clicked a bit. Walton stayed healthy, the team hired a new coach (Dr. Jack Ramsay), and the Blazers obtained Maurice Lucas from the ABA dispersal draft. The defense had been fine under Wilkens but the offense really jumped from 96.4 points per 100 possessions (17th in the NBA) in 1975-76 to 103.2 in 1976-77 (2nd in the NBA). The team shot better from the field (went from .469% to .481%) but also added about 200 more free throw attempts, thanks to Lucas’ bruising style, and they lowered turnovers (though assists were also down).
In any event, the Blazers had a nice run at 49-33 and beat the Sixers to win the title in 1976-77. The next season, the Blazers looked even better. They started out 50-10 and looked to be odds on favorite to repeat. But Walton broke his foot and the team finished 8-14 after that point before losing to the Sonics (and Lenny Wilkens!) in the semifinals. Walton would never play another game with the Blazers again and would never really be healthy again either (with the exception of the his 1985-86 campaign in Boston).
The team was brilliantly examined in David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game” a seminal look at NBA basketball primarily through the lens of the Blazers of 1979-80, that had remnants of the old Walton team. Halberstam summed up the view of the title Blazers quite well based upon an interview with team trainer Ron Culp: “Culp regarded the championship season as nothing less than–in his own words–a spiritual crusade, unselfish players playing with great generosity and moral conviction who were close off the court as well as on and who, in the Lucas-Walton-Hollins friendship, seemed to symbolize athletic and racial togetherness….Then in the spring of 1978 Culp’s world had collapsed. First there had been the Walton injury, which knocked Portland out of the playoffs and which was eventually to have serious ramifications for everyone involved, terminating friendship with lawsuit [Walton brought a quasi-malpractice suit against the Blazers’ medical staff over the foot injury and their pushing him to play through injury]. But more immediately painful for Culp had been what happened when the players met to vote shares of the playoff money….That day the players, with Maurice Lucas the dominating voice, voted not to give Ron Culp his expected playoff share, roughly $2,500, though finally they gave him–it was as big a slap in the face–a quarter share.” As for the lawsuit, after breaking his foot his he raised concerns about the professionalism of the Blazers and then in a summer 1978 meeting “Walton read out a statement attacking the Blazer medical practices and demanded that he be traded.” Trade talks ensued and everyone felt unhappy and betrayed on both sides.
Eventually Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers and the end was abrupt and bitter. Lucas and Hollins also forced trades after bitter contract disputes. Lucas bounced around to the Nets, Knicks, Suns, Lakers, and Sonics, before finishing up with the Blazers in 1987-88. He was still good but not quite the same star after leaving. Hollins, the player being groomed as the perimeter scorer, was traded to the Sixers, where he became a decent role player but was quickly supplanted by Andrew Toney. Hollins was out of the NBA by 1985 at age 31.
This is not to say that the Blazers were a total dysfunctional mess but it is an interesting life lesson to those who allude to the “less complicated” times when the only difference was that there was a smaller money pot to split. The fact is that NBA players act in their own self-interest often, and that is certainly their right. Neither Lucas nor Walton was the stereotypical NBA player, they were both very vocal, thoughtful, and connected to politics, but in their heart their concerns were pretty much the same as any other modern player.
The Drexler Blazers
The Clyde Drexler Blazers were, in many ways, the antithesis of the Walton teams. Drexler’s teams were manic on the court, they scrambled and shot a lot more but they were dynamite for three years (from 1989-1991). For those three seasons, the Blazers were around the NBA Finals and were closer to a title than people realize. The Blazers went 59-23, 63-19, and 57-25 those three years and went to two NBA Finals (losing to the Pistons in 1989-90 and to the Bulls in 1991-92). Their best team, however, was the 1990-91 team that went 63-19 and had the most wins in the NBA, ranked second in offense (points per minute) and third in defense and doing so at a fast pace and making a ton of threes (a league best .377% on above average attempts) and very few turnovers. (The only team stat category where they didn’t excel was blocked shots). In addition to Drexler, Terry Porter was an All-Star point guard and the front court was above average, if not quite All-Star (Cliff Robinson, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth).
The Blazers were the odds on favorites to win a title and all set up to meet the Bulls to battle for the mantle as the team of the 1990s but Portland lost to the Lakers in a tough Western Conference Finals 4-2, thanks in part to a thrown away pass by rookie Cliff Robinson on a four-on-one fast break. When they finally did meet the Bulls in 1991-92, the Bulls looked like the team of the 1990s and the Blazers a clear notch below. Still, this was a tough team. They won consistently in the regular season and rarely lost to a worse team in the playoffs.
The Jail Blazers of 1999-00
The Blazers of late 1990s were also a tough and deep squad. Their peak, was brief (1998-99 and 1999-00) but were dangerous at their best. This was a slow down team that was even deeper than the Drexler team, with Damon Stoudamire, Steve Smith, Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Bonzi Wells, Detlef Schrempf, Brian Grant, and even had guys like Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, and a young Jermaine O’Neal on the end of the pine. No player had really gaudy offensive numbers but the team had few weaknesses and guys like Rasheed and Sabonis were really efficient for big men.
The Blazers are best remembered for some off-the-court issues and their blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the 1999-00 Western Conference Finals (people do forget that the Lakers got some favorable calls in that court, including Shaq’s giant hip check on Smith that was not called). Also, the Blazers took a step down after 1999-00, to a 50-win team and have not won a playoff series since. This should not take away from a unique and talented team.
Now comes the hard part, comparing the three great teams. Because these are three deep teams from three different eras, we won’t do a tale of the tape at the starting positions but instead give you each team stats as they are bit more helpful in this context:
W-L: 49-33 (55-27 expected W-L)
Pts/100 poss: 103.2 (2nd in NBA)
O-Pts/100 poss: 98.0 (5th in NBA)
Pace Factor: 7th in NBA
Strength: Front Court of Walton and Lucas
Weakness: Back court was tepid
W-L: 63-19 (62-20 expected W-L)
Pts/100 poss: 112.8 (2nd in NBA)
O-Pts/100 poss: 104.3 (3rd in NBA)
Pace Factor: 4th in NBA
Strength: Drexler and Porter, Depth
Weakness: Soft defense at center
W-L: 59-23 (59-23 expected W-L)
Pts/100 poss: 107.9 (3rd in NBA)
O-Pts/100 poss: 100.8 (5th in NBA)
Pace Factor: 25th in NBA
Strength: Depth up the wazoo
Weakness: a bit small at the point
With three teams clearly in the running, it is very tough to make a choice. Indeed, while I think the 1990-91 Blazers could handle the 1999-00 team, they may have problems matching up Kevin Duckworth on Walton. Conversely, the 1999-00 squad has some bodies to throw at Lucas and Walton that you might think they could wear down the 1970s squad. With this merry-go-round feeling, I’m left to retreat to point differential, where the 1990-91 team is well ahead of the other two teams. While I’m troubled by how the 1990-91 team would stop Walton, I think the point differential and the fact that Porter and Drexler would’ve beat up Dave Twardzik, Johnny Davis, and Hollins pretty soundly, make the 1990-91 team the best choice.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1993-94 (63-19)
-Most Wins: 1995-96 (64-18)
-Best Playoff Run: 1978-79 (9-8)(won title); 1995-96 (13-8)
Alas, the Seattle Sonics don’t exist anymore (for now) but their history remains. The decision comes down to a comparison between the 1970s, when they went to two Finals and won a title (1978-79) and the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp peak of the mid-1990s. A few years ago, we already did a little breakdown of the two different eras. With due respect to the 1970s team, we decided that the 1990s team was superior. In fact, that 1990s team won more games, was deeper, and had the two best players (Payton and Kemp) and, arguably, the third best player too (Detlef Schrempf). Hell, the six best teams by point differential in franchise history are the 1992-93 Sonics through 1997-98 Sonics respectively. Some old-time Sonic fans felt we underrated the 1970s team before but I see no reason to change my conclusion. Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma just don’t have firepower to beat the GP-Kemp version.
The real question is which of the mid-1990s Sonics team is best. Kyle Wright went with the 1993-94 team that went 63-19 and had the best point differential in team history. The 1995-96 team, had more wins (64) and made it to the NBA Finals (where they lost to the Bulls 4-2) but weren’t quite as good in point differential (the 1994-95 team that was only a four seed and had 57 wins but also lost in the first round had a similar differential as the 1995-96 team). Between the 1993-94 team and the 1995-96 team, I think you have to take the latter. Not only did the team have more success in the playoffs and more wins but Payton, they key player, was entering his peak, whereas in 1993-94, he was still a bit raw (couldn’t shoot the three and wasn’t as good a defender).
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1996-97 (64-18)
-Most Wins: 1996-97 (64-18)
-Best Playoff Run: 1996-97 and 1997-98 (13-5)
The Stockton-Malone Years were good to Utah and has no shortage of very good teams, 11 teams with over 50 wins and three wins over 60 wins. But the best of the bunch is easily the 1996-97 team, which was most successful by all measures (wins, expected wins, and playoff success). Of the non-Stockton/Malone teams, the 2007-08 team is the best but at 54-28 are not quite in the same league. Apart from the success the last two years, the only other Jazz team without Stockton and Malone to even have a winning record was the 1983-84 team that went 45-37 with Rickey Green and Adrian Dantley.