Continuing with our divisional tour of best teams by franchise, we come to the Central Division, where we have some tough choices to consider. If you’re interested in the parameters of our discussion and our standard of review, you can check out the intro here. But going forward, we get to look a pretty fun bunch of franchises, all of whom had several different years of success to measure against each other…
–Kyle’s Best Team: 1995-96 (72-10)
-Most Wins: 1995-96 (72-10)
-Best Playoff Run: 1990-91 (15-2)
Not really breaking much new ground here but Michael Jordan was pretty good. The 1995-96 team looks even more astounding in retrospect than it did at the time. At the time, I wondered if the 1995-96 team was as dominant as the earlier title teams, primarily because Jordan wasn’t quite as good as he was at his uber peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the 1995-96 team was the best by virtually measure: it was the only Bulls team (or any team in recent memory) to lead the league in points scored and allowed, and the Pythagorean wins was consistent with a 70-win team.
This got me wondering how the Bulls’ team performance correlated to MJ’s individual stats. I’m not a huge fan of linear weights formulas to assess a player’s proficiency but when you’re measuring a single player over a few years, the formulas are quite helpful in showing improvement, decline, or even a change in roles. So here’s a look at the six Bulls title teams, their wins, and MJ’s PER rating for each of them:
-1990-91, 61-21 (MJ PER 31.6)
-1991-92, 67-15 (MJ PER 27.7)
-1992-93, 57-25 (MJ PER 29.7)
-1995-96, 72-10 (MJ PER 29.4)
-1996-97, 69-13 (MJ PER 27.8)
-1997-98, 62-20 (MJ PER 25.2)
Not much correlation between wins and Jordan’s stats. Bottom line is that Jordan was other worldly the entire time. Even in 1997-98, a clear decline year, MJ’s PER was fourth in the NBA behind only big men Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and David Robinson. So, Jordan’s fall from absolute peak in 1990 really didn’t affect the team that much because he was still great. As another quick aside, here’s the best players by position that happened around MJ in those six great years:
-PG: Pretty much nobody. Between John Paxson, Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong, and Ron Harper they filled roles but none are anything to write home about individually.
-SG: We’ll reserve this for MJ of 1990-91 (30.1 ppg, .519 FG%, 6.4 rpg, 6.1 apg).
-SF: Scottie Pippen, 1991-92 (21.0 ppg, .506 FG%, 7.7 rpg, 7.0 apg)
-PF: Horace Grant, 1991-92 (14.2 ppg, .578 FG%, 10.0 rpg, 2.7 apg)
-C: Luc Longley, 1997-98 (11.4 ppg, .455 FG%, 5.9 rpg, 2.8 apg)
Finally, it should be remembered that the best non-MJ Bulls team to date were the 1971-72 Bulls, who went 57-25 and had the point differential of a 61-21 team. They were an excellent team led by Bob Love and Chet Walker, as well as defensive players like Jerry Sloan, Bob Weiss, Clifford Ray, and Tom Boerwinkle. Of course, they didn’t win a playoff game, getting smoked by the historic 1971-72 Lakers 4-0 in the First Round.
–Kyle’s Best Team: 1988-89 (57-25)
-Most Wins: 1988-89 and 1991-92 (57-25)
-Best Playoff Run: 2006-07 (12-4)
LeBron, LeBron, LeBron…He is, by far, the best player in Cavs history and he’s taken the Cavs further than they ever have gone before. But his team is not the best in franchise history. In fact, the three best teams in Cavs’ history revolve around the Lenny Wilkens years and not LeBron. The 1988-89 and 1991-92 teams both won 57 games and they won 54 games in 1992-93 (but for Mark Price’s knee injury they may have had a 60-win season at some point too). All three times, they were taken out by the aforementioned Mr. Jordan in the playoffs. We matched up the 1991-92 team against the 2006-07 team a while back and concluded that LeBron wasn’t enough to beat the deep 1990s Cavs. Granted, the older Cavs couldn’t stop a force like Jordan and it would be logical to think that they’d have problems with LeBron. On the other hand, LeBron, for all his greatness, isn’t quite Jordan nor does he have near the supporting cast yet. As such, I think the Lenny Wilkens Cavs would beat the current model. We expect LeBron to have the best team in Cavs’ history eventually but it hasn’t happened yet.
The interesting question is choosing between the two 57-win teams, the1988-89 team with its excellent point differential and the 1991-92 team, which had much more playoff success but wasn’t as good on a Pythagorean level. It seems futile to speculate which of two teams, with essentially the same personnel, would win in a hypothetical series. So how to compare in such an instance? I usually like to err on the side of playoff success in assessing these close cases but, here, playoff success may be a bit a result of context. Both lost to the Bulls in the playoffs, the 1988-89 team just happened to lose in the first round. On the other hand, the 1988-89 Bulls were only 47-35 and not the 67-15 monsters of 1991-92 that beat the Cavs 4-2. Let’s check the match ups and see if we learn anything else:
–PG: Mark Price 88-89, (18.9 ppg, .526 FG%, 3.0 rpg, 8.4 apg, 20.6 PER) v. Mark Price 91-92 (17.3 ppg, .488 FG%, 2.4 rpg, 7.4 apg, 22.7 PER)
-SG: Ron Harper 88-89 (18.6 ppg, .511 FG%, 5.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, 19.8 PER) v. Craig Ehlo 91-92 (12.3 ppg, .453 FG%, 4.9 rpg, 3.8 apg, 13.8 PER)
-SF: Larry Nance 88-89 (17.2 ppg, .539 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 19.9 PER) v. Larry Nance 91-92 (17.0 ppg, .539 FG%, 8.3 rpg, 2.9 apg, 21.4 PER)
-PF: Hot Rod Williams 88-89 (11.6 ppg, .509 FG%. 5.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, 17.6 PER) v. Hot Rod Williams 91-92 (11.9 ppg, .503 FG%, 7.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 18.6 PER)
-C: Brad Daugherty 88-89 (18.9 ppg, .538 FG%, 9.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 18.5 PER) v. Brad Daugherty 91-92 (21.5 ppg, .570 FG%, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 23.0 PER)
Statistically speaking, all four of the starters were better in 1991-92. The lone difference is Ron Harper, who was quite good in 1988-89, versus Craig Ehlo, a good defender and role player, but not nearly as good. Harper was traded for Danny Ferry, who didn’t do much for the 1991-92 team. His lone memorable moment occurred when he tried to goad Michael Jordan into a fight in the playoffs (it didn’t work). We can assume that the loss of Harper’s offense made the rest of the 1991-92 squad put up better offensive numbers. But the differences are so stark that I think we have to conclude that the 1991-92 team is better, point differential be damned.
–Kyle’s Best Team: 2007-08 (59-23)
-Most Wins: 2005-06 (64-18)
-Best Playoff Run: 1988-89 (15-2)
As with the Cavs, the inquiry boils down to the teams of the 1980s and early 1990s versus the current model. Detroit’s success has been sharply concentrated on these two eras. Of the 14 50-win teams in franchise history, only two did not come from the Isiah Era or the 2000s team (the 1973-74 team led by Dave Bing and Bob Lanier lost in Game 7 against the Bulls in First Round and the 1996-97 team with Grant Hill and Doug Collins lost in the First Round to the Hawks). How do you boil down Isiah’s great teams against the more recent vintage teams with Chauncey Billups? Before you even get to that point, how do you even pick the best representative for each core? Both team had a huge winner (1988-89 team went 63-19 and the 2005-06 team went 64-18). The 2005-06, despite all its wins, is neither the best modern Piston by point differential or by playoff showing.
With so many plausible choices we should take a look at the total picture of all the Isiah teams when they were a title threat (1986-87 through 1990-91) and the modern teams (2001-02 through 2007-08) and how they scored on wins, point differential, and playoff record:
|Year||W-L||Pyth. W-L||Playoff Outcome|
|1986-87||52-30||50-32||Lost in Conf. Finals (10-5 record)|
|1987-88||54-28||54-28||Lost in NBA Finals (14-9 record)|
|1988-89||63-19||56-26||Won NBA Finals (15-2 record)|
|1989-90||59-23||57-25||Won NBA Finals (15-5 record)|
|1990-91||50-32||50-32||Lost in Conf. Finals (7-8 record)|
|Year||W-L||Pyth. W-L||Playoff Outcome|
|2001-02||50-32||48-34||Loss in 2nd Round (4-6 record)|
|2002-03||50-32||52-30||Lost in Conf. Finals (8-9 record)|
|2003-04||54-28||59-23||Won NBA Finals (16-7 record)|
|2004-05||54-28||53-29||Lost in NBA Finals (15-10 record)|
|2005-06||64-18||60-22||Lost in Conf. Finals (10-8 record)|
|2006-07||53-29||53-29||Lost in Conf. Finals (10-6 record)|
|2007-08||59-23||62-20||Lost in Conf. Finals (10-7 record)|
It’s pretty clear that the 1988-89 team is the best of the Isiah Era. The 1989-90 team isn’t far off but the 1988-89 dominated the playoffs even more (though they benefited from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both being injured). Turning to the more recent Pistons, there really is no clear best chance. The 2003-04 team won a title, the 2004-05 team was a quarter away from a title, and the 2005-06 and 2007-08 teams were quite good too (but didn’t even make the Finals). This year’s team was quite underrated also, only getting beat up by a great Celts team. I still don’t quite understand how the Pistons lost to the Heat in 2005-06 but Dwyane Wade was pretty insane. In addition, the teams have been remarkably consistent in individual performances. Of the group, only Chauncey Billups’ 2005-06 stands out as an MVP caliber offensive season. So without any real conviction, we’ll take 2005-06 as the best for the new Pistons because of the regular season dominance and the near best Pythagorean win record.
Putting the 1988-89 Pistons against the 2005-06 team is no easier. They are very similar teams: point guard star (Isiah and Chauncey), All-Star level two guard (Dumars and Rip Hamilton), and a deep frontcourt with tons of defensive muscle (Mark Aguirre, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer against Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace). The match up game doesn’t help much here either because the teams are really close at every position. In this case, it would really come down to the vagaries of individual match ups (Ben Wallace v. Laimbeer and Isiah and Chauncey seem to be the most interesting). With no sense of satisfaction, I’m going with the 1988-89 team, if only because they had more big wins in the playoffs and are thus more likely to do so in our hypothetical match up, whereas the 2000s teams have more disappointing playoff losses.
–Kyle’s Best Team: 1997-98 (58-24)
-Most Wins: 2003-04 (61-21)
-Best Playoff Run: 1999-00 (13-10)
I think the answer is pretty clear in this case. Though they have neither the most wins (2003-04) nor the best playoff run (1999-00), the 1997-98 Pacers are the toughest team in Pacer history. The 2003-04 team won 61 games in an abortive peak of the coulda-been Jermaine O’Neal/Ron Artest team. It was a tough team but was prone to lapses (Besides inciting a riot, Artest had moments of mental inconsistency) and really wasn’t very deep outside of the top two aplyers. The 1990s Pacers were an altogether better, deeper, and more disciplined team (Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, and Rik Smits).
Of the 1990s groups, the 1999-00 team went the farthest but the core of the team was already past its prime (Rik Smits would retire after the season and Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson were down quite a bit off their peaks). Also, the 1999-00 team didn’t have nearly as tough a road in the playoffs as the previous incarnations. In 1999-00, the team had to beat the Allen Iverson Sixers (49-33) and the last pieces of the Patrick Ewing Knicks (50-32). The 1997-98 team had a better point differential, the same players at younger age, and they took the Michael Jordan Bulls (62-20) to the limit before losing 4-3 in the Conference Finals. In fact, the 1997-98 Pacer team gave the MJ his biggest challenge of the title runs, as they led the Bulls in the second half of Game 7 (until MJ beat Smits on a jump ball, which led to a big three by Steve Kerr). So, to me, it’s pretty clear that 1997-98 was the best team in Pacers’ history.
–Kyle’s Best Team: 1970-71 (66-16)
-Most Wins: 1970-71 (66-16)
-Best Playoff Run: 1970-71 (12-2)
The Bucks have plenty of good teams in their history but this is one of the easier franchises to find a best team. Kyle actually found the 1970-71 Bucks to be the best team of All-Time. I don’t necessarily agree with that finding but they were damn good. By the raw numbers, they blow away all competition in Milwaukee. The only question is whether an early 1970s team can stack up with the factory of very good Don Nelson teams from the 1980s. That answer is an emphatic yes. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar near his peak plus player like Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge could match up with any of the Sidney Moncrief/Terry Cummings squads. Indeed, Abdul-Jabbar was still a star when he was playing as an older player in the 1980s when the Nelson Bucks thrived. In fact, the 1970-71 and 1971-72 team are the top two squads by a fair margin (the 1971-72 team lost to the All-Time Lakers squad in the Conference Finals 4-2).
An interesting digression about those early Bucks teams is the Oscar Robertson saga, who was a key veteran for the early Bucks. The people of Wisconsin are still talking about the Brett Favre retirement saga. Though it obviously wasn’t on the scale of the Favre battle, Oscar Robertson had a similar drama with the Bucks when he tried to decide whether to retire after the 1973-74 season. Oscar was still pretty good but he was turning 36 and was no longer a star. (In his final season, Oscar had 12. 7 ppg, .438 FG%, 4.0 rpg, and 6.4 apg, all of which were career lows). Wayne Embry, who was the GM of the Bucks back then, laid out his discussions with Robertson after the 1973-74, where they lost to Boston in a tough seven-game NBA Finals, in his excellent autobiography “The Inside Game”:
“Oscar had announced he was going to retire, and we were facing expansion, meaning we could lose two players who contributed to our success. There was no way we could replace Oscar, who, at the age of thirty-four, was still one of the top three players in the league….I was told I did not have to protect him if he wrote a letter to The League stating his intentions. But this was a touchy subject for me. What if he really did not want to retire? I did not want to seem presumptuous, even though it had been well-publicized that he was thinking about it. I called him in the first thing Monday morning to explain my dilemma. After commending him for his gallant effort the past week [in the NBA Finals], I asked him about his future. ‘Big fella, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,’ he told me. I prodded him for an answer with no success. This did not make for an easy decision. In the end, we protected him, I was not going to allow an expansion team to draft him. It would have been an insult to one of the greatest players in the history of the game, who happened to be a good friend of mine….
Finally Jake [Brown, Oscar’s agent] called and said Oscar wanted to play another year. My stomach was tied in knots. After conferring with Wes [Pavalon, the Bucks’ owner] and [Bill] Alverson [team president], I called Jake and told him we were not going to re-sign Oscar. We had signed [Gary] Brokaw and [George]Thompson, and they had to play. This was one of the toughest calls I ever made. In my heart, I knew Oscar was better than who we had, despite the age. I was telling my friend and former roommate that we no longer wanted him. Eventually he decided to retire.”
While Embry overstates Robertson’s value at that point in his career, it was clearly a tough decision. In case you’re curious, the Bucks missed the playoffs in 1974-75 and Brokaw (8.1 ppg, .455 FG%, 2.0 rpg, 3.0 apg in 22.5 mpg) and Thompson (10.7 ppg, .443 FG%, 2.5 rpg, 3.1 apg in 27.2 mpg) were both average at best. The collapse had more to do with Kareem issues (he wanted a trade and missed 17 games) but Oscar might’ve helped. But who knows the pay he would’ve demanded for declining play? Certainly, it would’ve been more for his reputation than his future performance. In the end, it does seem that Embry had a bit better sense of how to handle his stand off than the Pack did with Favre.