Sure, we have the Olympics to keep us quasi-interested in basketball this summer but usually we like to get a bit historical in the summers. In particular, we like to play with the usual unanswerable (and sometimes irrelevant) questions that we all think about. This summer we’ll tackle the question of which team is the best in each franchise’s history. This question is complicated on several levels. First, you have to define “best.” Obviously, winning a title may seem like a pre-requisite if you are defining “best” by the team that accomplished the most in a single season. Playoff success is something to consider but, for better or for worse, we are defining best by guessing who would win in a head-to-head match up most often. This leads to the next question of whether the level of play has improved over time and how that fact should be incorporated into any assessment. Our standard answer on this point is that the level of play jumped up in the 1960s and has steadily risen since then. So, we are skewed more towards modern teams in this inquiry but certainly there are exceptions to this rule.
There has been a lot of great work already done in this field already. Notably, Kyle Wright wrote a great book called “The NBA From Top to Bottom,” which ranks every NBA team in history from one to 1,153. Kyle’s book is great and I recommend it to any big NBA fan look it up. The book, however, limits its rankings solely to regular season proficiency and does not attempt to adjust for era. So, I thought we’d run through each franchise, identifying Kyle’s best team, the team with the most wins, the most successful playoff team , and finally my subjective choice for best in franchise. As always, we are well aware that my opinions are entirely unscientific. Still, we’ll run through the issues in each case and see what we come up with. With all that said, here’s the Atlantic Division:
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2007-08 (66-16)
-Most Wins: 1971-72 (68-14)
-Best Playoff Run: 1985-86 (15-3), 1963-64 and 1960-61 (8-2)
Wouldn’t you know it that our very first team ends up being one of the hardest to identify as a best team. The Celts have 17 title winners, and several other great teams, including the 68-win 1972-73 team. Putting aside the differences in eras, the Celtics of the Bill Russell dynasty never threw up any really gaudy win numbers, maxing out at 62 wins and breaking the 60-win barrier only two other times. In the 1970s, the Celts did get up to 68 wins but lost in the Conference Finals to the Knicks (John Havlicek was injured in the series). The 1980s teams were probably the most successful during the regular season and they had the legendary 1985-86 team that went 67-15 (40-1 at home). The wild card in our inquiry of the Celts is the current champs (who Kyle ranks as the best regular season squad Celts squad).
In sorting out this group, we won’t discount the Russell Celts too much, as they were loaded with stars who would be good in any time. Still, I find it hard to believe that they were quite good enough to beat the 1985-86 Celts or the 2007-08 team either. The 1972-73 team also gets some demerits because of its failure to win a title but more because the point differential indicated that it was closer to a 61-21 team than the 68-win squad they were. This leaves us with 1985-86 versus 2007-08. At first blush, it would seem that the it is sacrilege to question the hallowed 1985-86 squad but the 2007-08 team was also great (much better than I ever thought it would be). Despite their reputation as a slow team, the 1985-86 Celtics played at a pace factor of 101.2 (16th out of 23 teams) and the 2007-08 team was a much slower 90.9 pace (19th out of 30 teams). Still, neither team was particularly fast in context and neither had backcourts that really scared teams, though very solid. So, we really have a bang out battle here between two really formidable front lines. Check these match ups (their stats per-36 minutes in parentheses):
PG: Dennis Johnson (16.0 p/36, 3.5 r/36, 6.0 a/36, 14.7 PER) v. Rajon Rondo (12.7 p/36, 5.0 r/36, 6.1 a/36, 15.6 PER)
SG: Danny Ainge (12.8 p/36, 3.5 r/36, 6.1 a/36, 13.6 PER) v. Ray Allen (17.5 p/36, 3.7 r/36, 4.2 a/36, 16.4 PER)
SF: Larry Bird (24.5 p/36, 9.3 r/36, 6.4 a/36, 25.6 PER) v. Paul Pierce (19.7 p/36, 5.1 r/36, 4.5 a/36, 19.6 PER)
PF: Kevin McHale (21.7 p/36, 8.3 r/36, 21.6 PER) v. Kevin Garnett (20.7 p/36, 10.1 r/36, 3.8 a/36, 25.2 PER)
C: Robert Parish (18.3 p/36, 10.8 r/36, 2.0 a/36, 18.8 PER) v. Kendrick Perkins (10.2 p/36, 8.9 r/36, 1.6 a/36, 13.3 PER)
Both teams have pretty decent benches too (Bill Walton, Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting v. Eddie House, James Posey). At the guard position, Allen, is clearly the best of the bunch but he is not so athletic at this point in his career that the 1985-86 team couldn’t stick with him. DJ v. Rondo is also pretty close, a veteran moxie versus young athlete match up. Up front, however, the 1985-86 team begins to pull away. Bird might have some problems guarding Pierce but Pierce absolutely can’t guard Bird. Nor can the 2007-08 edition put KG on Bird because then there is no one to really guard McHale. Then you throw in Parish and Walton and the older Celts are just too overwhelming. That’s why my choice is the 1985-86 Celtics as best in franchise history.
New York Knicks:
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1969-70 (60-22)
-Most Wins: 1969-70 and 1992-93 (60-22)
-Best Playoff Run: 1972-73 (12-5)
The Knicks have been around longer than the NBA, yet they only have two 60-win teams in franchise history. I was a little surprised by that. Shouldn’t a team that usually contended have racked up more big win season? Well, let’s check it out…Here’s a ranking by franchises in 60-win seasons (ABA seasons excluded):
Boston Celtics: 12
Los Angeles Lakers: 10
Chicago Bulls: 5
Milwaukee Bucks: 4
Philadelphia 76ers: 4
Dallas Mavericks: 3
Phoenix Suns: 3
San Antonio Spurs: 3
Seattle SuperSonics: 3
Utah Jazz: 3
New York Knicks: 2
Detroit Pistons: 2
Washington Wizards: 1
Sacramento Kings: 1
Indiana Pacers: 1
Miami Heat: 1
Orlando Magic: 1
Toronto Raptors: 0
Minnesota Timberwolves: 0
New Jersey Nets: 0
New Orleans Hornets: 0
Los Angeles Clippers: 0
Memphis Grizzlies: 0
Golden State Warriors: 0
Houston Rockets: 0
Denver Nuggets: 0
Cleveland Cavaliers: 0
Charlotte Bobcats: 0
Atlanta Hawks: 0
So the short answer is that two 60-wins season isn’t actually below average. Of the original NBA teams, the Hawks, Warriors, Kings, and Wizards all have fewer than 60 win seasons (and the Hawks and Warriors still have zero). Go figure…
Turning to the Knicks franchise, it’s clear that the rivalry here is between the hallowed “team ball” team of the early 1970s and the Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy bruisers of the 1990s who could never get over the hump. Having grown up in New York, I can say that the man on the street would favor the 1970s team with its tons of Hall of Famers (Walt Frazier, Pearl Monroe, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, and Jerry Lucas, two titles, and the free flowing offense. But the 1990s Knicks shouldn’t be forgotten. I love Frazier and Reed but Patrick Ewing is pretty clearly the best player in Knicks history. On the other hand, Ewing’s career is one of painful losses and an inability to beat Michael Jordan. My memory of the 1990s Knicks also is of a dominant defensive team with not quite enough scoring or point guard play to win. If the numbers are even close, I would favor the more recent team over the 1970s version. In fact the 1992-93 Knicks (who lost to the Bulls on Charles Smith’s inability to convert under the basket at the end of Game 5) rank competitively with the 1972-73 title team with Lucas and Monroe. The 1993-94 team is ranks even better than the 1972-73 team too. This is actually kind of funny because in my mind the 1992-93 team was the best Pat Riley team but the 1993-94 ranked better defensively.
Despite all this, the 1969-70 team ranks head and shoulders above all other teams in history. And it wasn’t just that they beat up on bad teams in the regular season. In the playoffs, those Knicks dispatched a very good Bullets team (Wes Unseld, Jack Marin, Gus Johnson, Pearl Monroe), the Lew Alcindor Bucks, and then the West/Baylor/Wilt Lakers. The funny thing is that neither Monroe (obviously) nor Lucas were on the Knicks at this point. Instead, the Knicks had Frazier and Reed at their peaks, as well as Bradley (who I always considered overrated but still a good shooter), DeBusschere, Dick Barnett, and a great scorer off the bench in Cazzie Russell. Even accounting for differences in eras, this was a really formidable squad. Could they have stopped Ewing? Probably not but they could’ve stopped everyone else. The 1969-70 team was a great defensive team too. The team led the NBA points allowed per game at 105.9. The Lakers came in second but they allowed 5.9 more points per game. So, they could’ve definitely stayed with the 1993-94 Knicks, who offered Derek Harper, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley. Nice players but none were great scorers under any condition. I like the 1990s Knicks a lot but the numbers gibe quite nicely with historical lore in New York and I’ll take the 1969-70 squad number one, with the 1993-94 team behind by a few pegs.
New Jersey Nets:
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2002-03 (49-33)
-Most Wins: 2001-02 (52-30)
-Best Playoff Run: 2002-03 (14-6)
Time marches on…All of a sudden, the early 2000s Nets feel like a history. Not ancient history but certainly not yesterday either. Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that the best Nets teams of the post-ABA years come from the Jason Kidd run and conventional wisdom is correct. The 2001-02 team is famous because it was Kidd’s first year in New Jersey, the site of the big turnaround from franchise history, and because they won the most games. But the 2002-03 team had a much better Pythagorean won-loss record of 56-26 versus 53-29 for the 2001-02 team. The other funny thing is that Kidd was actually better in 2002-03 than he was in the famous 2001-02 turnaround season. This improved team was also reflected by the playoff run, where the Nets scorches competition in the East (12-2 and swept the Pistons in the Conference Finals) and they also gave the Spurs a pretty good match in the Finals too.
As a digression, I distinctly remember a newspaper reporter asking Dave Wohl, an assistant coach with the Nets during their decent run in the mid-1980s with Micheal Ray Richardson, Otis Birdsong, Buck Williams, and Darryl Dawkins, how the JKidd Nets matched up with the older team. Wohl basically stated that the 1980s team would wipe the floor with them. Based upon what you see above, I obviously disagree. The 1980s team had one bright shining moment (the upset of the Sixers in 1983-84) but they just don’t match up. For fun, we’ll run through the match ups between the 1983-84 team and the 2002-03 anyway:
-PG: Micheal Richardson (16.1 p/36, 4.8 r/36, 6.0 a/36, 15.1 PER) versus Jason Kidd (18.0 p/36, 6.1 r/36, 8.6 a/36, 22.2 PER)
-SG: Otis Birdsong (22.7 p/36, 2.8 r/36, 4.4 a/36, 16.8 PER) versus Kerry Kittles (15.6 p/36, 4.6 r/36, 3.1 a/36, 18.3 PER)
-SF: Albert King (19.9 p/36, 6.6 r/36, 3.5 a/36, 15.6 PER) versus Richard Jefferson (15.5 p/36, 6.4 r/36, 2.5 a/36, 16.6 PER)
-PF: Buck Williams (15.3 p/36, 12.0 r/36, 1.6 a/36, 15.8 PER) versus Kenyon Martin (17.6 p/36, 8.8 r/36, 2.5 a/36, 16.9 PER)
-C: Darryl Dawkins (20.2 p/36, 8.1 r/36, 1.8 a/36, 17.6 PER) versus Jason Collins (8.7 p/36, 7.0 r/36, 1.6 a/36, 9.9 PER)
Richardson’s injuries and drug problems weighed down his numbers but even if you take all that away, Kidd was other worldly. This huge advantage isn’t really offset, except at center. Birdsong was a nice shooter and King was a solid scorer. Kittles and RJ, however, were better all-around players. Buck versus Kenyon is a contrast in styles. Buck was a pounder and a boarder, while Kenyon was a leaper and also a great defender. Finally, Dawkins and Mike Gminski beats Collins (who wasn’t a total zero at that point) and Dikembe Mutombo. Overall, the 2002-03 Nets were such an excellent defensive unit (they were the best in the NBA) and they had a marked advantage at the key point match up that I think the 2002-03 team is clearly better but it certainly was interesting to match it up and see.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 1966-67 (68-13)
-Most Wins: 1966-67 (68-13)
-Best Playoff Run: 1982-83 (12-1)
Yet another historical powerhouse to deal with. In Philly, the legends of Wilt compete with the legends of Dr. J and Company. The 1966-67 team was the first real magical season in NBA history. The team set the record for wins (68-13) and waltzed through the league without many discernible weaknesses. The 1982-83 team also dominated the NBA at 65-17 and absolutely blew away the playoffs (remember Moses Malone’s famed Fo’, Fo’, Fo’ prediction?).
In Wayne Lynch’s book “Season of the 76ers” who has a section ranking the 1966-67 team against the other great All-Time teams and concludes that the 1966-67 team is the best ever. Lynch only briefly mentions the 1982-83 team for its playoff dominance but doesn’t actually stack the teams up. Pat Williams (who was the GM of the 1982-83 squad) wrote his own book on the 1982-83 team, “Tales From the Philadelphia 76ers” that reviewed the 1982-83 team and also talked about his team in historical context without giving an opinion. I was able to ask Williams which team he thought was better and he said they were both in the discussion as best team ever but declined to pick a squad.
In terms of expected wins, oddly enough, both teams way outperformed their point differentials. The 1966-67 team was 68-13 but hit an expected wins of 61-21 and the 1982-83 team was 65-17 but only expected to go 60-22 on points allowed and scored. Obviously, expected wins isn’t a perfect stat but you usually don’t see such disparities between wins and expected wins. The fact is, the squads are very close and the 1967-68 and 1980-81 teams are also very close to these teams too. Still, we’ll limit our comparison here to 1966-67 and 1982-83 because winning titles, everything else being equal, should be a big factor in any comparison.
In this case, the match up is fascinating. Moses Malone at his peak (24.5 ppg, 15.3 rpg) versus Wilt Chamberlain’s passing version (24.1 ppg, 24.2 rpg, 7.8 apg). Wilt was probably the better player at his best and his numbers are gaudier but become less so when you factor in that the 1966-67 pace. There isn’t enough data to calculate possessions per game before 1973-74 but we do know that the 1966-67 team scored 125.2 ppg and allowed 115.8 ppg for a total of 241 points per game, while the 1982-83 team scored 112.1 ppg and allowed only 104.4 points per game (total points 216.5). It’s safe to say that if we jacked up possessions to 1966-67 levels, that Moses would look almost as impressive. Given the stat differentials in the eras, there is little point running through the stats of each squad or even running their stats against league average to figure out context. Still, a rough run through the other positions is really close. At point, Maurice Cheeks is a decent amount better than Wali Jones. At the two guard. Andrew Toney and Hal Greer is very close and I’m loath to make a definitive choice. At small forward, Julius Erving is the choice over Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham, but this isn’t a cake walk. Power forward is also close between the smaller but more skilled Bobby Jones against big Luke Jackson. This is a real coin toss but my sense is that the advantage at point guard and small forward gives the 1982-83 team the edge.
-Kyle’s Best Team: 2007-08 (41-41)
-Most Wins: 2000-01 and 2006-07 (47-35)
-Best Playoff Run: 2000-01 (6-8)
Not a huge amount of success in Toronto and the distribution of success has been weird. The knee jerk reaction would be to pick the 2000-01 squad, the team that won the only playoff series in franchise history and nearly beat the Sixers to go to the Conference Finals is the best team (Vince Carter missed the winning shot at the buzzer in Game 7). But this team wasn’t exactly a monolith. Sure VC was great but the rest of the team was very average (Alvin Williams, Mo Peterson, Charles Oakley, and Antonio Davis). The 2006-07 team also won 47 games and won the Atlantic but they were only 44-38 in expected win-loss and were schooled in the playoffs by a declining Nets team. The 2007-08 team was only 41-41 but had the Pythagorean won-loss record of a 49-win team. In addition, the argument could be made that they had more talent than the 2000-01 team. Certainly, Jose Calderon and T.J. Ford are better than Williams and Bosh is the most talented forward on either team but there is no match up for the old Vince Carter and the Raps of 2000-01 could throw a ton of solid big bodies at Bosh (Davis, Oakley, and Keon Clark). Raptors fans might not like it but, for now, Carter still rules.