Best Team In Franchise History: Southeast Division

We now turn to one of the “new fangled” divisions, the Southeast, which was created to accommodate the expansion Charlotte Bobcats and even out the divisions (in case you missed it, an explanation of our “best” inquiry can be found here).  Aside from Charlotte, the division contains two old franchises (Atlanta and Washington) and two newer guys (Miami and Orlando).  The division lacks the obvious compelling best in franchise debates that we see in many of the other divisions but there may be some hidden teams or facts we never considered, so let’s check it out: 

Atlanta Hawks: 

-Kyle’s Best Team:  1986-87 (57-25)

-Most Wins:  1986-87 and 1993-94 (56-26)

-Best Playoff Run:  1958-59 (8-3)

The Hawks have been around since 1949 and have bounced around from Tri-Cities, to Milwaukee, to St. Louis, to Atlanta.  During that whole time, they have some decent runs, in the late 1980s and then again in the mid-to-late 1990s.  From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, however, was the Hawks’ best run.  They made four NBA Finals in five years, even beating the Bill Russell Celtics in 1957-58 on the back of the underrated Bob Pettit (and they stayed competitive for a while afterwards too).  The thing is, during all the team history, no single team really blows you away.  The only title team, the 1957-58 squad, was led the West but was only 41-31 and only outscored opponents by 1.3 ppg.  Factor in that they only had to beat the 33-39 Pistons to get to the Finals and that Russell hurt himself in the Finals (broken wrist) and it’s hard to say this is the best team in franchise history, regardless of whether they seized the day and won a title.  In fact, the Hawks looked significantly better the next three seasons, though they didn’t win it all. 

After Pettit retired in the mid-1960s, the Hawks continued to be an effective team behind Lenny Wilkens, Zelmo Beatty, Bill Bridges, and Lou Hudson and made more waves than I realized: 

-In the 1965-66 and 1966-67 the Hawks made the Western Conference Finals despite having losing records both years.

-They won 56 games in 1967-68 (second best record in the NBA) but didn’t win a playoff series.

-The Hawks were actually primary rivals to the West-Baylor Lakers in the late 1960s.  In 1969-70, the Hawks had the best record in the West (48-34) but were swept in the Conference Finals. 

The Hawks continued to be a solid, if not super threatening team, off and on until the 2000s.  In that time the Dominique Wilkins Era produced four straight fifty wins seasons.  The best remembered season for Nique was 1987-88, when he nearly out dueled Larry Bird in the playoffs.  The best team of the bunch, however, was the 1986-87 team that went 57-25 and outscored opponents by a really impressive 7.2 ppg margin.  At the time, the Hawks and Pistons were both considered the potential heirs to the Celtics dynasty and in the playoffs the Hawks were blitzed by the Pistons, losing 4-1.  The Pistons never looked back and kept the dynastic throne from Boston while Atlanta gradually declined.

In the 1990s, the Hawks also had their highlights, leading the East in wins in 1993-94 (57-25 with Mookie Blaylock, Wilkins, who they traded for Danny Manning, and Kevin Willis) and having a tough team in 1996-97 (56-26) behind Mookie, Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo.  As is a common thread Hawks’ history, neither of the big winners did much in the playoffs but still they are in the discussion for Hawks’ best team.  When it gets down to it, the best team competition boils down to the four 56 and 57 win teams.  At first glance, Nique is the best player on any of the teams but none of the four jumps out at me as best.  So let’s look at their point differentials to see what we get: 

-1967-68: 56-26, ppg margin +2.7

-1986-87: 57-25, ppg margin +7.2

-1993-94: 57-25, ppg margin +5.2

-1996-97: 56-26, ppg margin +5.4 

The 1986-87 team’s overwhelming point differential, combined with the fact that it has the best player of all the team (Wilkins had 29.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 3.3 apg) makes me think they are the pretty clear choice as best team in franchise history. 

Charlotte Bobcats: 

-Kyle’s Best Team:  2005-06 (26-56)

-Most Wins:  2006-07 (33-49)

-Best Playoff Run:  N/A 

If ever there was a team for whom “best franchise” was not interesting it’d be the Bobcats.  Not much to choose here.  The 2006-07 team has the most wins and the best point differential, though we are really splitting hairs between bad teams here.  I think the interesting question is how often expansion teams progress upward in terms of wins and losses.  The Bobcats raised their wins each of their first three years before falling back slightly in 2007-08.  Let’s take a look at the win increments for the first five years of each expansion team since 1980: 

Dallas Mavericks

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1980-81   15-67          N/A

1981-82   28-54          +13

1982-83   38-44          +10

1983-84   43-39           +5

1984-85   44-38           +1 

Charlotte Hornets

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1988-89   20-62          N/A

1989-90   19-63            -1

1990-91   26-56           +7

1991-92   31-51           +5

1992-93   44-38          +13 

Miami Heat

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1988-89   15-67          N/A

1989-90   18-64          +3

1990-91   24-58          +6

1991-92   38-44         +14

1992-93   36-46          -2

Minnesota Timberwolves

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1989-90   22-60           N/A

1990-91   29-53            +7

1991-92   15-67           -14

1992-93   19-63            +4

1993-94   20-62            +1 

Orlando Magic

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1989-90   18-64          N/A

1990-91   31-51          +13

1991-92   21-61          -10

1992-93   41-41         +20

1993-94   50-32           +9 

Toronto Raptors

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1995-96   21-61          N/A

1996-97   30-52            +9

1997-98   16-66           -14

1998-99   38-44           +22 (projected from 50-game lockout season)

1999-00   45-37            +7 

Vancouver Grizzlies

Season    W-L        Gain/Loss

1995-96   15-67          N/A

1996-97   14-68            -1

1997-98   19-63           +5

1998-99   13-69            -6 (projected from 50-game lockout season)

1999-00   22-60           +9 

Only the Mavs were able to keep improving each of their first five years and the Hornets were also close to having steady improving each year (outside of a second year hiccup).  The Heat drafted pretty well and built themselves into a solid fringe playoff team.  The rest of teams floundered until they hit a home run in the draft (Orlando with Shaq and Toronto with Vince Carter) or just stayed bad (Vancouver).  Which team do the Bobcats seem most similar to?  The Bobcats don’t have a horrendous core but their drafting and decisions look a bit weak.  I see them as a combo of the Grizzlies and the Heat, neither of which is hugely inspiring for Bobcat fans going forward. 

Miami Heat: 

-Kyle’s Best Team:  2004-05 (59-23)

-Most Wins:  1996-97 (61-21)

-Best Playoff Run:  2005-06 (16-7) 

Once again, we have a triumvirate of teams with slightly different high points to evaluate.  The 2004-05 team had the best point differential, the 1996-97 team had the most wins, and the 2005-06 team had fewer wins but has the only title.  This match up brings out the best of Pat Riley’s 1990s teams of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway fame versus Riley’s Shaq and Dwyane Wade teams.  Right off the bat, I think it is fair to eliminate the 2005-06 team from contention.  They were 52-30 and but Shaq was not quite the player he was in 2004-05 (Wade was better but I don’t think that can offset Shaq’s decline).  So that leaves us with the 2004-05 team, which won 59 games but has better Pythagorean data than the 1996-97 team.  My inclination tells me that Wade was better than any of the 1990s Heat guards and that Shaq trumps Zo but we’ll run a positional match up to see if the stats can support a different conclusion (in per-36 minute stats): 

PG:  T. Hardaway (18.9 pt/36mp, 3.2 reb/36mp, 8.0 ast/36mp, 20.8 PER) v. Da. Jones (13.3 pt/36mp, 3.2 reb/36mp, 4.9 ast/36 mp, 15.5 PER)

SG:  V. Lenard (15.3 pt/36mp, 3.7 reb/36mp, 2.7 ast/36mp, 14.7 PER) v. D. Wade (22.4 pt/36mp, 4.8 reb/36mp, 6.3 ast/36mp, 23.1 PER)

SF:  J. Mashburn (13.0 pt/36mp, 5.4 reb/36mp, 3.4 ast/36mp, 13.1 PER) v. E. Jones (12.9 pt/36mp, 5.1 reb/36mp, 2.7 ast/36mp, 13.6 PER)

PF:  P.J. Brown (10.6 pt/36mp, 9.3 reb/36mp, 1.3 ast/36mp, 13.8 PER) v. U. Haslem (11.7 pt/36mp, 9.8 reb/36mp, 1.5 ast/36mp, 15.5 PER)

C: A. Mourning (20.3 pt/36mp, 10.2 reb/36mp, 1.6 ast/36mp, 21.6 PER) v. S. O’Neal (24.1 pt/36mp, 11.0 reb/36mp, 2.9 ast/36mp, 27.0 PER) 

The more you look at it, the teams are structured identically.  They each have a star guard to create shots (Hardaway and Wade), a designated perimeter shooter (Voshon Lenard and Damon Jones), versatile small forward (Jamal Mashburn and Eddie Jones), a workmanlike power forward (Brown and Udonis Haslem), and the star center (Zo and Shaq).  The difference is that 2004-05 team was better offensively at virtually every match up.  The slight differences in the role players are less significant than the huge advantage Shaq has over Zo and decent size advantage Wade has over Hardaway.  Admittedly, the 1996-97 team was great defensively but they just can’t score nearly enough to take the 2004-05 team. 

Orlando Magic: 

-Kyle’s Best Team:  1994-95 (57-25)

-Most Wins:  1995-96 (60-22)

-Best Playoff Run:  1994-95 (11-10) 

Without splitting hairs between 1994-95 and 1995-96, Shaq controls the best of the Magic franchise.  The 1994-95 team is better remembered for beating Michael Jordan before getting swept by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets but the 1995-96 team won more games (though was swept by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals).  What’s surprising here is that the 1995-96 team had Shaq for only 54 games because he was out for over a month after a Matt Geiger hack broke his wrist in the pre-season.  Oddly enough, Anfernee Hardaway played at a ridiculous level and the team was 17-5 (.773%) with Shaq before actually finishing the season 43-17 ( .716%) after the big man’s return. 

As an aside, at the time Shaq blamed Pat Riley for Geiger’s hack: “I blame Riley for my broken thumb, not Matt Geiger. That ain’t defense Miami is playing. That’s just chopping. I have no idea how his team gets away with it. I guess when you’ve been in the league 30 years you can do it. Respect, he gets it — he’s like John Gotti.”  Obviously, Shaq’s views changed in the 2000s (and perhaps have reverted since the trade to Phoenix).  

Getting back to a comparison between the 1994-95 and the 1995-96 teams, it’s hard to differentiate but we’ll go with the 1994-95 edition.  The only reason is that they have a better point differential (+7.1 ppg versus +5.5 ppg).  The fact that Shaq missed significant time in 1995-96 is to no effect since the team actually played better without him.  Again, this choice is really one of semantics but we had to choose one. 

Washington Wizards: 

-Kyle’s Best Team:  1974-75 (60-22)

-Most Wins:  1974-75 (60-22)

-Best Playoff Run:  1977-78 (14-7) 

If any franchise has any reason to be nostalgic about the 1970s, its the Wizards.  Since winning 54 games in 1978-79 and losing in the NBA Finals, the franchise has not won more than 45 games and has won exactly two playoff series. The 1970s Bullets, however, were also a bit weird.  Their best teams usually had painful losses.  The Bullets have only one 60-win team and it was upset in a shocking sweep by the Rick Barry Warriors in 1974-75.  The Bullets’ one title came from a decidedly mediocre 44-win team in 1977-78.  In the end, it’s quite clear that the best team in franchise history is the 1974-75 team.  They won the most games and were the most dominant (behind Elvin Hayes, Mike Riordan, Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter, and Wes Unseld) and it’s not particularly close. 

So how did this team get swept by the 48-win Warriors?  The Warriors were able to do it by holding down Hayes (who averaged 23.0 ppg) to 29 points total through the first three games of the series.  But the games were actually close.  Warriors coach Al Attles was quoted on the subject in Roland Lazenby’s “The NBA Finals”: “It wasn’t like we blew them out.  Each game was close.”  (The Warriors won the four games by a total of 16 points).

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