Here we are at the end of another summer historical series. The NBA season is thankfully just around the corner but first we’ll finish up business by examining the best teams in franchise history for the Pacific Division, which has some particularly meaty issues to examine in Los Angeles and Phoenix. As always, our standard of review for this series of articles can be found here.
Golden State Warriors
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1975-76 (59-23)
-Most Wins: 1975-76 (59-23)
-Best Playoff Run: 1974-75 (12-5)
The best player in Warriors history is clearly Wilt Chamberlain, who put up his historic 50 ppg season with the Philadelphia Warriors. In his five full seasons with the Warriors, Wilt’s teams were generally pretty good but they never won more than 49 games and made only one NBA Finals (in 1963-64). As great as Wilt was, the teams were usually not very deep. They had some good starters (Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Tom Meschery, and Tom Gola) but not the caliber of Bill Russell Celtics and I don’t think the Philly Warriors had enough to contend with the other strong non-Wilt teams that the Warriors later produced.
Really, the best years for the Warriors came in the 1970s when Rick Barry led the team to its most recent title (they notched one in 1955-56 before the NBA hit overdrive). It was a brief little three year run from 1974-75 to 1976-77 but this really was the Warriors’ peak. By 1974, Barry was not a young player anymore. He was already 30 and spent five years in his 20s litigating with the Warriors about his contract and playing in the ABA. He returned to the NBA in 1972-73 attempting to make the Warriors a good team. Upon his return Barry put up two good years but not quite what he had been before he left the NBA in the late 1960s.
All of sudden, out of the blue, Barry had his absolute peak season in 1974-75 (30.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.2 apg) and the team went 48-34 and beat two 40ish win teams to get the NBA Finals, where they surprised everyone by sweeping a 60-win Bullets team. The Warriors followed this up in 1975-76 by proving that they were no fluke and winning 59 games with Barry (21.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 6.1 apg), and Phil Smith (20.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.4 apg) and Jamaal Wilkes (17.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) scoring and defense provided up front by Clifford Ray and George Johnson (a young Gus Williams scored off the bench). The team was second in points per possession and first in defense (points allowed per possession). This time, they were upset in the Conference Finals by a 42-40 Suns team. In 1976-77, the Warriors fell to 46-36 with the same core but made it to the second round, losing a seven game series to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers. The Warriors missed the playoff the next season, after which they let Rick Barry go and they spent most of the next decade floundering in the lottery.
Of this group, the 1975-76 team is the best. They won the most games and had the best expected wins. How did they lose to an essentially .500 team like the Suns? According to Roland Lazenby in “The NBA Finals”: “The Suns took the seventh game in Oakland, 94-86, by holding Rick Barry scoreless for nearly 30 minutes. Barry, for his part, maintained that the Warriors could have been the first back-to-back champions since the ‘69 Celtics had they not traded away [point guard] Butch Beard after the ‘75 playoffs.” I highly doubt that. Beard was decent for the 1974-75 team (12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 16.1 PER) and became a bench player for Cleveland the next year and never really started again. The bottom line is the Suns got hot and Barry had a poorly timed bad game and, voila, 59 wins down the drain. Still, this is the only team with 59 wins in team history and has the best point differential by a healthy margin.
The second best team in Warriors history might surprise you. Of Don Nelson’s run-and-gun teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they had only one that entered the playoffs as a favorite. In fact, the 1991-92 Warriors were 55-27 and had the third seed in the playoffs and were only two games behind the Blazers for the top seed. The Warriors ran at a break neck pace (first in the league) and scoring 118.7 ppg, leading the NBA by 5.5 ppg! And it wasn’t just raw points. They had third most points scored per possessions. They allowed 114.8 ppg but were a more respectable (relatively speaking) 19th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. This wasn’t the a Nellie three-point bomber squad (they shot 763 three, sixth in the NBA which was well behind the Bucks’ 1,005 attempts) and they didn’t even pass that well (11th in the NBA assists despite their crazy pace). No, these Warriors won by taking it to the basket. They shot the second most free throws in the NBA (1,944) and had the second most steals and forced opponents into the most turnovers in the NBA.
Unlike Utah with Karl Malone, there was no one player on Golden State that drove their free throw attempts way up. Rather, pretty much everyone got to the line when he played. On a per minute basis, almost the entire team had a respectable pace (10 players averaged at or around four free throws per 36 minutes) and Sarunas Marciulonis, racked up 8.1 free throws per 36 minutes. So, this leaves you with an odd but interesting line up:
PG: Tim Hardaway (in 41.1 mpg, 23.4 ppg, .461 FG%, 3.8 rpg, 10.0 apg, 19.1 PER)
SG: Sarunas Marciulonis (in 29.4 mpg, 18.9 ppg, .538 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 18.8 PER)
SF: Chris Mullin (in 41.3 mpg, 25.6 ppg, .524 FG%, 5.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 19.9 PER)
PF: Billy Owens (in 31. 4 mpg, 14.3 ppg, .525 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 2.4 apg, 15.6 PER)
C: Tyrone Hill (in 23.0 mpg, 8.2 ppg, .522 FG%, 7.2 rpg, 0.6 apg, 12.8 PER)
G: Mario Elie (in 21.2 mpg, 7.8 ppg, .521 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 13.7 PER)
That’s a pretty fun team but they did earn a reputation as a team that beat you in the regular season and there was skepticism that they could keep that pace in the playoffs. The Warriors expected won-loss seemed fueled the skepticism whether they were quite as good as their record (only 50-32 expected record). It also didn’t help that the Warriors ran into a Sonics team that was just learning how to play with young Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Seattle was 20-20 until George Karl took over and they closed 27-15, gelling into the team that would be a title contender the next five years. They were particularly bad match for the Warriors in the first round because Golden State could not stop big athletes like Kemp and he could run the Warriors pace.
The Warriors lost a relatively close series 3-1 and Kemp was totally unstoppable (22.0 ppg, 16.3 rpg and 38-47 from the line). Mullin and Hardaway got hurt the next season and Nellie could never quite make another true contender in Golden State for various other reasons too (see Webber, Chris). The 1991-92 Warriors should be remembered as a pretty tough team. I don’t think they were good enough to take out Rick Barry’s 1975-76 squad, as the Smith-Barry-Wilkes trio could’ve matched up favorably to the high scoring 1991-92 backcourt but it’s a pretty close match up.
Los Angeles Clippers
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1974-75 (49-33)
-Most Wins: 1974-75 (49-33)
-Best Playoff Run: 2005-06 (7-5)
Yuck. This is absolutely the worst franchise in terms of success, excluding teams that existed before 1995. No 50-win teams here, only six teams that broke .500, and only two teams ever won a playoff series. There are two real contenders for best Clipper team. The first comes from the 1970s when the Clippers started out as the Buffalo Braves. They had a solid playoff team for a few years, winning between 42 and 49 games from 1973-74 to 1975-76. The team was built around jump shooting forward Bob McAdoo, who led the NBA in scoring each of the years and even won the MVP in 1974-75 (and finished second the other two years). Outside of McAdoo, the team was very thin: Randy Smith was a good lead guard but there wasn’t much else (Gar Heard and Jim McMillian filled in decently but that’s about it). The Braves peaked at 49-33 in 1974-75, though they lost their only playoff series to the Bullets in seven. Here’s what the starting five looked like:
PG: Ernie DiGregorio (in 23.0 mpg, 7.8 ppg, .440 FG%, 1.5 rpg, 4.9 apg, 12.3 PER)
SG: Randy Smith (in 36.6 mpg, 17.8 ppg, .484 FG%, 4.2 rpg, 6.5 apg, 17.1 PER)
SF: Jim McMillian (in 34.4 mpg, 14.3 ppg. .499 FG%, 6.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 14.7 PER)
PF: Gar Heard (in 32.1 mpg, 11.1 ppg, .388 FG%, 9.9 rpg, 2.8 apg, 13.6 PER)
C: Bob McAdoo (in 43.2 mpg, 34.5 ppg, .512 FG%, 14.1 rpg, 2.2 apg, 25.8 PER)
The Braves generally ran McAdoo out at center, which would be harder to do in the modern NBA (though that trend is also changing somewhat). Still, McAdoo was a force and a highly underrated player. Against Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld in the playoffs, McAdoo scored a ridiculous 37.4 ppg. The rest of the line up doesn’t scare you too much. It’s particularly interesting that Heard was famous for hitting a difficult jumper for Phoenix in the 1976 Finals, considering how poor he shot from the field and the line the rest of his career.
Some 30 years later, the 2005-06 Clippers also made a playoff impact with a team we remember pretty well. Like the Braves, the team was built around a big forward (Elton Brand) and a scoring guard (Sam Cassell). The Clipps were a bit deeper than the Braves, with a respectable center (Chris Kaman), Corey Maggette, and some decent filler (Vlad Radmanovic and Cuttino Mobley).
Both teams were interesting but neither really inspires much fear. In matching the two teams head-to-head, I go with the 2005-06 squad. Brand (24.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 26.5 PER) was as big a monster as McAdoo, and probably a more complete player (if not a better scorer). I also like Sam-I-Am better than Smith in the backcourt. Throw in the fact that the Clippers had a much bigger front court (Kaman against the 6′6 Gar Heard?) and more depth and I think the 2005-06 team is the team to beat.
Los Angeles Lakers
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1971-72 (69-13)
-Most Wins: 1971-72 (69-13)
-Best Playoff Run: 2000-01 (15-1)
Like the Celtics, we have scores of great teams to consider in Los Angeles. Rather than go through all these teams, let’s cut to the chase. We all know the great runs in Laker Land. We have the Baylor-West years, the Magic-Kareem runs, the Kobe-Shaq run, and, potentially, Kobe’s current run (though they haven’t put together a historic team yet). So, we’ve identified the general ranges of teams. It’s also not to hard to pick the best team in each run. For the Baylor-West years, it’s actually a team without Baylor, the 1971-72 Lakers that went 69-13 with Wilt Chamberlain. For the Magic Johnson teams, the high point came in 1986-87, when they won their most games (65-17) and knocked off the Celts. Finally, the Shaq/Kobe team cruised to 67-15 in 1999-00 and much more than a third wheel in this debate.
For some reason, it’s always been ingrained in my head that the 1986-87 Lakers were the best team of All-Time. Even as the Bulls were eviscerating the NBA in 1995-96 I maintained that belief. As I’ve studies the numbers more, I’ve retreated from my notions and think that the Bulls were the best ever. Still, the 1986-87 Lakers are excellent. But does objective analysis prove their dominance? Let’s take a look at the three teams and their player stats (on a per/36 basis):
1971-72 Lakers: 69-13 W-L (67-15 expected W-L) (1st in points scored, 7th in points allowed)
1986-87 Lakers: 65-17 W-L (62-20 Expected W-L) (1st in Offense, 7th in Defense)
1999-00 Lakers: 67-15 W-L (64-18 Expected W-L) (4th in Offense, 1st in Defense)
What we see are three of the great teams ever. How do we separate the teams? Let’s review each team:
-The 1971-72 Lakers have, by far, the most wins and best expected won-loss record. They played at a fast pace, though we can’t really know the exact pace or efficiency because turnovers were not kept as a stat for another few years. Even so, it’s pretty safe to say that they were a great offensive team. The West/Goodrich duo pumped in a ton of points and took 40% of the teams total shots (and had 41% of the team’s points). Defensively, they gave points but that was also a function of pace because they did hold opponents to .432% shooting, which was near the best number in the NBA (only Kareem’s Bucks had better field goal defense). Despite the fast pace, the Lakers barely gave up any free throws, which is even more impressive. They let up a league low 1,972 free throw attempts (much better than the Sonics, who were second with 2,248 attempts allowed). So we know they played fast because despite these great defensive indicators, they gave up an above average amount of points.
In terms of weaknesses, this team was not deep. Flynn Robinson was a great scorer and Jim Cleamons and Leroy Ellis were decent but that’s about all they had. In addition, the two best players, Wilt and West, while still great, were older (35 and 33 respectively) and not quite in their primes.
-The 1986-87 Lakers look like the practically perfect team. They had Magic at his absolute peak (23.9 ppg, 12.2 apg, 6.3 rpg) and above average players at every position and a decent bench too (Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson, Kurt Rambis) and were the best offensive team (by points per possession) in team history (with the proviso mentioned above that we can’t account for teams before 1973-74). If you had to find a weakness, you’d note that Kareem was little bit older and not a great rebounder anymore. Also, they were vulnerable to quick guards, as Sleepy Floyd had some big games against Magic in the playoffs. Other than that, it’s hard to be find any place to beat them unless you could slow down the pace and try to break them down in the half court, which was not an easy feat.
-The 1999-00 Lakers don’t receive nearly enough credit for their greatness. They started out by throwing Shaq at his peak at you, as well as Kobe, Rice, and scores of decent role players (Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry). When assessing this team it’s important to recognize that Shaq circa 1999-00 is as good as any player in the history of the NBA. The numbers don’t look quite as gaudy as Wilt’s stats from the early 1960s but in context, Shaq was about as dominant. We can’t calculate Wilt’s per possession numbers but sometimes comparing a player’s stats to league average helps put thing in perspective. For example, in 1961-62 , Wilt grabbed 25.7 rpg in a season where the average team grabbed 71.4 rpg. By contrast, in 1999-00, Shaq grabbed 13.6 rpg where the average team only grabbed 42.9 rpg. By comparing ratios to league averages, we can translate each player’s stats to other eras. So if we assume that Shaq and Wilt were magically exchanged to 1961-62 and 1999-00 respectively, how would their ratios translate to the different environments? Assuming, that the statistical trends do not reflect any change in the essential skill of the average NBA player (which is a faulty assumption in my opinion but necessary to complete this exercise), here’s what the magically exchanged players would look like stat-wise:
1961-62 Chamberlain in 1999-00: 41.4 ppg, .533 FG%, 15.4 rpg
1999-00 O’Neal in 1961-62: 36.2 ppg, .546 FG%, 22.6 rpg
And, as noted, this is without adjusting at all for the distinct possibility that basketball in 1999-00 was better than it was in 1961-62. Even still, Shaq looks like Wilt’s equal and perhaps even better, certainly a better rebounder and more efficient scorer (if not quite as porlific). The point here is not to denigrate Wilt but to recognize that Shaq circa 1999-00 was as much of a force of nature as any player who ever played in the NBA. When you throw in the fact that he had Kobe (not quite at his peak but still a superstar) and some solid role players who played tough defense, it’s hard to see this team losing to anybody. While the 1971-72 Lakers and the 1986-87 Lakers were both good defensive teams, the 1999-00 team was a monster. I think the 1971-72 is probably third of the teams, a great team but short in depth and not quite athletic enough to hang with Magic’s team and not big enough, even with the older Wilt, to stop Shaq in his prime. Between the Showtime Lakers and the Shaq/Kobe, we’re at virtual push. Ultimately, I think Shaq against Mychal Thompson and an older Kareem tips the scale to Shaq and, grudgingly, I have to conclude that the 1999-00 team is the best.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2006-07 (61-21)
-Most Wins: 1992-93, 2004-05 (62-20)
-Best Playoff Run: 1992-93 (13-11)
How do you go through all the great Suns teams? Sure, they’ve never won a title but the Suns have been consistently good most of the time since the mid-1970s (with only a few hiccups since). There are 16 Suns teams with 53 or more wins and they are not all from one or two distinct eras. While the most wins in a single season come from the Charles Barkley and Steve Nash Eras, the Suns have put 57 wins in 1980-81 (behind Truck Robinson, Dennis Johnson, Walter Davis, and Alvan Adams) and 56 in 1997-98 (Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, and Clifford Robinson). It’s just too varied a history to go through all the potentially great teams. We’ll have to cut to the chase and accept that the best teams are the ones that won the most, the 1992-93 Suns (Barkley/KJ) and 2004-05 (Nash/Amare/Marion).
Before getting to that match up, one interesting note is that the late 1980s Suns, behind KJ and Tom Chambers (as well as Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle), actually had expected won-loss records in line with the great teams mentioned above. The weird thing is that those Suns teams consistently under performed the expected records. Check the differences:
Year Actual W-L Expected W-L Diff.
1988-89 55-23 59-23 -4
1989-90 54-28 58-24 -4
1990-91 55-27 57-25 -2
1991-92 53-29 56-26 -3
It’s bizarre but the Suns scoring differential just didn’t reflect their record. It’s not clear if the Suns happened to get too many blow outs or whether the discrepancy in records was just bad luck. The general thinking from the stat community is that such discrepancies are a function of luck and that they even out over time. Whatever the reason, the trend reversed itself in 1992-93 (coincidentally, when the Suns traded for Barkley). In fact, in the heart of the Barkley Era (1992-93 through 1994-95) we see overachieving relative to point differential:
Year Actual W-L Expected W-L Diff.
1992-93 62-20 57-25 +5
1993-94 56-26 54-28 +2
1994-95 59-23 51-31 +8
How did this trend totally reverse itself? Did Charles Barkley have some magic dust that made the team play better in close games? Did these Suns happen to get blown out more (which might skew the point differential)? Or maybe this was just the bad luck of the late 1980s reversing itself? Hard to tell at this point but this is something that’ll merit more research at another time.
Now let’s turn to the Barkley Suns versus the Nash Suns. From the chart above, it is evidence that only the 1992-93 Barkley team can even really compete with two great Nash teams in 2004-05 and in 2006-07. These teams are practically even in all respects but we choose the 2004-05 team as the representative of the Nash years because they won more games (actually just one more game) and because Amare Stoudemire was much better and because Joe Johnson was playing the shooting guard versus role player Raja Bell in 2006-07.
Turning to the match up between the 1992-93 club and the 2004-05 club, we have similar teams–fast paces teams with the best offense in the league and just enough defense to be dangerous. The potential match ups are astounding and exciting for us basketball dorks: KJ v. Nash, Majerle v. Joe Johnson, Ced Ceballos/Richard Dumas v. Quentin Richardson, Barkley v. Shawn Marion, Oliver Miller v. Amare Stoudemire. As the match ups progress, we see where the 2004-05 team starts to edge ahead. Sure, the backcourt is close to a push (Nash was better than KJ but it’s close and Nash couldn’t stop him either). But how would Barkley be able to match Marion and Amare? The 1992-93 Suns throw Miller and Mark West out at center and neither has much of a chance against Amare. The 1992-93 has no answer to that front court. Maybe they could put in the more athletic Tom Chambers in at center but he couldn’t guard anyone either. Ultimately, I think it’s pretty clear that the 2004-05 team is the best in franchise.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2001-02 (61-21)
-Most Wins: 2001-02 (61-21)
-Best Playoff Run: 2001-02 (10-6)
Putting aside the pre-shot clock era, the best team in Kings/Royals history is, without a doubt, the 2001-02 Kings. But first let’s give a nod to some of the franchise’s accomplishments during the NBA (actually BAA) times. In 1949-50, the Royals were an impressive 51-17 and they won a title the next year with the same roster (Bob Davies and Arnie Risen were the leaders). This was obviously pre-shot clock and so we don’t really think the teams could hang with the bad Kings teams from the 1990s, let alone the Chris Webber Kings of the 2000s that came so close to a title. But Davies and his teammates certainly deserve some recognition for bringing some joy to Rochester back in the Harry Truman Years.
Turning to more modern times, the Kings/Royals have primarily been also-rans. In the 1960s, they were set up with Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas and they were usually in the playoffs but weren’t particularly dangerous, winning only two series in that decade. The only really significant team of this era was the 1963-64 team that went 55-27 and but was dispatched by the Celtics 4-1 in the Conference Finals. It’s questionable that the Kings of the 2000s had a better player than the Big O but they were just a better team overall. This is not to say the Royals lacked talent: Robertson had 31.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, and 11 apg, Lucas was pretty tough too (17.7 ppg, 17.4 rpg). The line up was rounded with Wayne Embry (17.3 ppg, 11.6 rpg), Jack Twyman (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.0 apg), and guys like Adrian Smith and Bob Boozer.
As we noted above with Shaq and Wilt, these gaudy 1960s numbers make the stars look even better than they were. It is probably impossible that Robertson could average a triple double in the modern NBA (slower pace and just not enough rebounds to go around). As we did with Shaq and Wilt, let’s transpose Oscar, Lucas, Embry, and Twyman to the 2001-02 NBA (we’ll leave out Boozer and/or Smith because there numbers are tepid even by 1963-64 standards):
-Robertson: 27.0 ppg, .496 FG%, 6.4 rpg, 11.3 apg
-Lucas: 15.2 ppg, .542 FG%, 11.4 rpg 2.9 apg
-Embry: 14.9 ppg, .471 FG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
-Twyman: 13.7 ppg. .462 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 2.3 apg
Robertson still looks likes an All-Star in line with Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and even Michael Jordan, as an other worldly star he seemed. The rest of the roster looks okay but not great. By contrast, transposing the 2001-02 Kings to 1963-64 makes the key members of the Kings look like Hall of Famers:
-Mike Bibby: 15.9 ppg, .441 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 4.8 apg
-Doug Christie: 13.9 ppg, .448 FG%, 7.1 rpg, 3.9 apg
-Peja Stojakovic: 24.6 ppg, .471 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
-Chris Webber: 28.5 ppg, .482 FG%, 15.7 rpg, 4.5 apg
-Vlade Divac: 12.9 ppg, .459 FG%, 13.1 rpg, 3.4 apg
The translations are crude here but it help gives a little context. Lucas, as great as he was, was not better than Webber and the old Royals have no match for Peja or Bibby. Again, the Royals were quite respectable, a solid team, but not in the league of the 2001-02 Kings, who were one overtime against the Lakers away from a title. This team could run and even defended pretty well (sixth in NBA) and won 61 games. The only teams in franchise that are even close to the 2001-02 team in expected won-loss are from the exact same era, having four such teams before the 1963-64 Royals pop up on the list. So, 2001-02 Kings have to be the choice.