Having finished our Eastern Conference review of the best teams in franchise history, we now turn West. Our first Western division is the Southwest, which gives us the teams of Texas, all of which have fun histories, as well as the less ballyhooed recent expansion teams (and recently moved franchises) in Vancouver/Memphis and Charlotte/New Orleans. As always, our standard of review for this series of articles can be found here. Now let’s get to it…
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2002-03 (60-22)
-Most Wins: 2006-07 (67-15)
-Best Playoff Run: 2005-06 (14-9)
We start in Dallas, a team with two distinct runs. First we have the 1980s, when an expansion team methodically built around Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, and Roy Tarpley, became a contender before fizzling out because of age and Tarpley’s problems. After an extremely dry 1990s, the Mavs have won at least 50 games each year of the 2000s (as well as three 60-win teams) behind Dirk Nowitzki and a crew of talented players. The only 1980s teams that can plausibly be in the conversation of best team, the 1986-87 (55-27 but lost in the first round) and 1987-88 (53-29, made Conference Finals) teams, were both pretty good.
But neither can match up with the best of the 2000s in wins, playoff success, or point differential. No, the real question is which of the Dirk squads is best. To that end, there are three contenders, the 2002-03 team that has the best point differential, the 2006-07 team with the most wins, and the 2005-06 team that went the furthest in the playoffs. The early 2000s Mavs under Don Nelson (represented by the 2002-03 team) were fast paced offensive teams who played just enough defense to be tough. When Nellie was bounced in 2005, Avery Johnson transformed this into a slow paced defensive squad. Both versions were very effective and it’s tough to say definitively who was really best but lets take a look at each squads key players:
2002-03 Mavs 60-22 (62-20 expected record), 1st in Pts/Poss, 9th O-Pts/Poss, 7th in Pace
PG, Steve Nash: 17.7 ppg, .465 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 7.3 apg, 22.6 PER
SG, Michael Finley: 19.3 ppg. .425 FG%, 5.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 17.6 PER
SF, Adrian Griffin: 4.4 ppg, .433 FG%, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 apg, 11.5 PER
PF, Dirk Nowitzki: 25.1 ppg, .463 FG%, 9.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 25.5 PER
C, Raef LaFrentz: 9.3 ppg, .518 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg, 16.5 PER
G, Nick Van Exel: 12.5 ppg, .412 FG%, 2.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, 15.7 PER
C, Shawn Bradley: 7.5 ppg, ..536 FG%, 5.9 rpg, 0.7 apg, 18.3 PER
2005-06 Mavs 60-22 (58-24 expected record), 1st in Pts/Poss, 11th in O-Pts/Poss, 26th in Pace
PG, Jason Terry: 17.1 ppg, .470 FG%, 2.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 18.4 PER
SG, Jerry Stackhouse: 13.0 ppg, .401 FG%, 2.8 rpg, 2.9 apg, 14.5 PER
SF, Josh Howard: 15.6 ppg, .471 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 19.3 PER
PF, Dirk Nowitzki: 26.6 ppg, .480 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 28.1 PER
C, Erick Dampier: 5.7 ppg, .493 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 0.6 apg, 13.9 PER
G, Marquis Daniels: 10.2 ppg, .480 FG%, 3.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, 14.9 PER
2006-07 Mavs 67-15 (61-21 expected record), 2nd in Pts/Poss, 5th in O-Pts/Poss, 28th in Pace
PG, Devin Harris: 10.2 ppg, .492 FG%, 2.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 16.0 PER
SG, Jason Terry: 16.7 ppg, .484 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 5.2 apg, 18.9 PER
SF, Josh Howard: 18.9 ppg, .459 FG%, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 20.0 PER
PF, Dirk Nowitzki: 24.6 ppg, .502 FG%, 8.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 27.6 PER
C, Erick Dampier: 7.1 ppg, .626 FG%, 7.4 rpg, 0.6 apg, 14.9 PER
G, Jerry Stackhouse: 12.0 ppg, .428 FG%, 2.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 16.8 PER
Reflexively, I like the 2002-03 team because they have the best core around Dirk with Nash and Finley in their youth. On the other hand, Dirk wasn’t quite as good in the old days as he’s been the last few years. When you throw in the fact that the 2002-03 team also had the best expected win-loss record and were not actually bad defensively (despite what it seemed at the time), we’ll take the 2002-03 team as the best in franchise by a smidge.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2006-07 (52-30)
-Most Wins: 1993-94 (58-24)
-Best Playoff Run: 1994-95 (15-7)
The 2000s Rockets are currently remembered for their utter inability to make a dent in the playoffs, though they hope that the acquisition of Ron Artest will change things. The Hakeem Olajuwon Years, on the other hand, represent the golden years of the franchise for the playoff impact they made. Despite all that, the three best regular season squads in Rocket history, by point differential, all are from the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady group. For whatever reason, Hakeem’s team never looked great in the expected win records. Of course, you can’t live by point differential alone. The 1993-94 team won a title and has the most wins in franchise history. and the top three teams by wins are from that era.
The 1993-94 team was quite good, beating some really good teams on the way: the Barkley Suns, the Stockton-Malone Jazz, and the Ewing Knicks but scoring was a problem. The team ranked only 15th in points per possession that season. With a starting backcourt of Kenny Smith (shot well but had problems creating shots) and Vernon Maxwell (shot a lot but not well at .389%), scoring was a problem. But there is reason to believe that the 1993-94 team was better than its scoring numbers indicate. As scrappy Scott Brooks lost playing time to a rookie name Sam Cassell, the team looked tougher, particularly in the playoffs. So I am definitely willing to accept the fact that point differential sells the 1993-94 Rockets short.
Moreover, they are clearly the best team of the Hakeem Era. The Rockets also won a title in 1994-95 after the late season acquisition of Clyde Drexler but they were a tepid 47-35 in the regular season and were so short on depth that they were starting Chucky Brown and Pete Chilcutt at times. The 1996-97 team, which added Barkley, was also good but older and slow and had similar depth problems (Matt Maloney was the teams only point guard).
Could the 2000s Rockets stand up to Hakeem & Company? On paper, the recent Rockets aren’t that far off. Just last season, the team notched 55 wins (in a bizarre run that mostly came after Yao went down for the season) and have a nice core with McGrady and Yao the last few years. At this point, we’ll assume that the 2007-08 team is the best recent edition. The 2006-07 team had just as many expected wins as the 2007-08 team (55) but Yao actually missed more time in that year, though he was available for the playoffs. In either case, we’re talking about thin teams matching up T-Mac and Yao against Hakeem. I don’t think it’s too necessary to go over the numbers individually here. The new Rockets’ weakenesses duplicate those of the Hakeem team. Neither team had too much depth and the new team had even more trouble scoring than the 1993-94 team. Factor in that Hakeem has a big edge over Yao and we have to call the 1993-94 team best in franchise but a pretty significant margin.
For those who are curious, the 1985-86 Twin Tower team that featured Hakeem and Ralph Sampson did not score very well and had a relatively low expected win-loss record. Also, the best non-Hakeem/Yao team was the 1976-77 team that went 49-33 and lost to the 76ers in the Conference Finals (Houston was in the Eastern Conference back then). They had a bunch of recognizable names in Moses Malone (13.5 ppg, 13.4 rpg), who wasn’t quite a superstar yet, Rudy Tomjanovich (21.6 ppg), Calvin Murphy (17.9 ppg), John Lucas (11.1 ppg, 5.6 apg), and Mike Newlin (12.7 ppg).
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2005-06 (49-33)
-Most Wins: 2003-04 (50-32)
-Best Playoff Run: 2003-04, 2004-05, and 2005-06 (0-4)
The Grizz have the least memorable franchise history of any recent non-Bobcat expansion team. So far, the only peak we can point to was the three year-run with Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello where they made the playoffs only to be swept all three years. Here are the squads:
Year W-L Expected W-L
2003-04 50-32 48-34
2004-05 45-37 48-34
2005-06 49-33 52-33
All three teams were based around Pao Gasol and Mike Miller, who were both pretty consistent in this time. We’ll go with the 2005-06 team because of expected win-loss but this is really not one worth delving into too deeply. The best Vancouver Grizzlies team? This is even less inspiring than the Memphis editions. In fact, the best team in Vancouver was the 2000-01 team that went 23-59 behind Shareef Abdur-Rahim (20.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Michael Dickerson (16.3 ppg), and Mike Bibby (15.9 ppg, 8.4 apg).
New Orleans Hornets
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2007-08 (56-26)
-Most Wins: 2007-08 (56-26)
-Best Playoff Run: 2007-08 (7-5)
By the numbers it seems pretty clear that the 2007-08 team is the best in franchise history. Still, they are not the best by that much. In fact, that Hornets has several different good teams that contended over the years, albeit with very distinct cores. We identified four distinct mini-peaks in Hornet history: (1) the Alonzo Mourning-Larry Johnson years (1992-1995), the Glen Rice years (1996-1999), the Jamal Mashburn/Baron Davis years (2000-2003), and now the Chris Paul years (2007-present). Here’s the best of each little run:
1994-95 Hornets, 50-32, 50-32 expected record
PG, Muggsy Bogues: 11.1 ppg, .477 FG%, 3.3 rpg, 8.7 rpg, 16.9 PER
SG, Hersey Hawkins: 14.3 ppg, .482 FG%, 3.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 16.3 PER
SF, Scott Burrell: 11.5 ppg, .467 FG%, 5.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, 15.0 PER
PF, Larry Johnson: 18.8 ppg, .480 FG%, 7.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 17.1 PER
C, Alonzo Mourning: 21.3 ppg, .519 FG%, 9.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 20.1 PER
Glen Rice Years
1997-98 Hornets, 51-31, 47-35 expected record
PG, David Wesley: 13.0 ppg, .443 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 6.5 apg, 15.2 PER
SG, Bobby Phills: 10.4 ppg, .446 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, 12.5 PER
SF, Glen Rice: 22.3 ppg, .457 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 17.4 PER
PF, Anthony Mason: 12.8 ppg, .509 FG%, 10.2 rpg, 4.2 apg, 16.4 PER
C, Vlade Divac: 10.4 ppg, .498 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 2.7 rpg, 19.4 PER
2000-01 Hornets, 46-36, 48-34 expected record
PG, Baron Davis: 13.8 ppg, .427 FG%, 5.0 rpg, 7.3 apg, 16.6 PER
SG, David Wesley: 17.2 ppg, .422 FG%, 2.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, 15.3 PER
SF, Jamal Mashburn: 20.1 ppg, .413 FG%, 7.6 rpg, 5.4 apg, 17.5 PER
PF, P.J. Brown: 8.5 ppg, .444 FG%, 9.3 rpg, 1.6 apg, 13.3 PER
C, Elden Campbell: 13.1 ppg, .440 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 1.3 apg. 16.4 PER
Chris Paul Squad
2007-08, 56-26, 56-26 expected record
PG, Chris Paul: 21.1 ppg, .488 FG%, 4.0 rpg, 11.6 apg, 28.3 PER
SG, Morris Peterson: 8.0 ppg, .417 FG%, 2.7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 11.2 PER
SF, Peja Stojakovic: 16.4 ppg, .440 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 15.7 PER
PF, David West: 20.6 ppg, .482 FG%, 8.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 19.9 PER
C, Tyson Chandler: 11.8 ppg, .623 FG%, 11.7 rpg, 1.0 apg, 17.5 PER
Say what you want about George Shinn but someone in that organization (actually Bob Bass and then Jeff Bower) has kept this team competitive, despite the fact that they’ve been forced to trade many of their big ticket players for finance reasons. Getting back to comparing the four teams, I think it’s clear that the Mashburn and Rice squads are the weakest. Both teams are notable for having a pretty good small forward and a bunch of good, if not great, players.
Choosing between the LJ/Zo team and the Paul team, as noted above, I prefer the Paul team. While LJ was tough, I think West could play him pretty competitively. In addition, Mourning would have an advantage, but not a huge one, over Chandler. Accepting the fact that the 1994-95 team had a decent advantage in the front court, this is easily offset by the huge disparity in the backcourt. Paul is already the best player in Hornets history and the 1994-95 team had absolutely no one to match up with him. I like Muggsy Bogues as much as the next guy but Paul looks like he’s a Hall of Famer if he can continue this pace and already has the best individual season in Hornet history.
San Antonio Spurs
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2006-07 (58-24)
-Most Wins: 2005-06 (63-19)
-Best Playoff Run: 1998-99 (15-2)
Don’t all the Spur teams kind of bleed into one? Tim Duncan is always looks the same and the team is always around 60 wins. Whether they win the title in any given year seems to depend on whether they have an injury or the teams around them are playing really well. Since Duncan came to the Spurs in 1997-98, they’ve made the playoffs every season and won four titles. Excluding 1999-00, when Duncan missed the playoffs with a knee injury, the Spurs have been eliminated only by the teams that won the conference. Take a look:
-1997-98: Spurs eliminated by the Jazz, who eventually went to the NBA Finals and lost to the Bulls
-1998-99: Spurs win title
-1999-00: Duncan injured and the Spurs were eliminated in the first round by the Suns
-2000-01: Spurs eliminated by Lakers, who eventually won title
-2001-02: Spurs eliminated by Lakers, who eventually won title
-2002-03: Spurs win title
-2003-04: Spurs eliminated by Lakers, who eventually went to the NBA Finals and lost to the Pistons
-2004-05: Spurs win title
-2005-06: Spurs eliminated by Mavericks, who eventually went to the NBA Finals and lost to the Heat
-2006-07: Spurs win title
-2007-08: Spurs eliminated by Lakers, who eventually went to the NBA Finals and lost to the Celtics
So, the Spurs have been great with Duncan and around the title every single season. But this raises a few questions: (1) were there any other non-Duncan teams in the mix? (2) if not, how the hell do we differentiate between the Duncan teams?.
With respect to question 1, a couple of the David Robinson teams from the 1990s are in the ballpark: the 1995-96 Spurs were 59-23 and the 1994-95 team went 62-20, for the second most wins in franchise history. The 1994-95 team, is the only real competition to the pure Duncan teams. The 1994-95 team had the most wins in the Western Conference and David Robinson was in the middle of a statistical peak that actually was better than Tim Duncan’s. (If you want more on Robinson’s peak, I strongly suggest you check out Kevin Pelton’s excellent review of the great centers of the last two decades over at BasketballProspectus).
But the 1994-95 Spurs weren’t quite as good as their won-loss record (expected won-loss of 58-24). Indeed, the 1990s Spurs always seemed to have problems in the half court in the playoffs. Robinson was beaten pretty convincingly by Hakeem and the Rockets in 1994-95 and that was a common theme for those teams. Robinson was not a bad playoff player but he really did under perform his gaudy regular season numbers. By contrast, Duncan is better in the playoffs than he has been as regular season. I don’t necessarily attribute this to some magic ability as much as the fact that TD’s back to the basket game and jumper were always better than Robinson’s. Throw in the fact that seven Duncan-led teams outperformed the best of the Robinson-led teams and I think we have to limit our search to the Duncan years.
That leads us two question two, differentiating the Duncan teams. The answer is surprisingly easy. The 2006-07 Spurs have, by far, the best expected won-loss record in franchise history. Throw in the fact that they won title (with a little help of Robert Horry’s bludgeoning of Steve Nash) and the 2006-07 team is the clear top team in franchise history.