What Team Is the Greatest NBA Champion of the Last Decade?

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What Team Is the Greatest NBA Champion of the Last Decade?

What team is the greatest NBA champion of the last decade (2002-11)? It’s a good question on the face of it. It’s a fascinating question after you start to consider it. What’s most compelling about it is that the five greatest active players over 30 are all represented in those titles.

Consider, you have Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki all in the conversation.

So which of these players was on the greatest single-season team?

Before proceeding further, though, let’s clarify one thing: I am distinguishing between a “single-season team” and a “dynasty.” I want to point this out because people will say "this team won twice or three times and this team only won once." 

No team has ever won more than one championship in the same season. I think that's pretty indisputable. 

With any basketball conversation, there are two sides of a coin which need to be considered—the objective facts and the subjective analysis. There are those who would like to exclude one or the other, but to do that can be misleading. 

Facts, i.e. stats, don't tell the whole story, but they are the framework of it. Failing to consider that part of the story leaves you with an amorphous blob instead of an argument. On the other hand, the subjective analysis adds the "walls" of the argument. To leave that leaves an argument hollow. 

Therefore, the first part of this article will consider the essential facts, and the last part will consider the subjective analysis. 

Let’s begin by looking at some of the basic facts. Here are the teams that won, how many games they won in the regular season, and their average margin of victory (MOV).

I also included an “SRS” ranking from Basketball-Reference.com. Per their definition, Simple Rating System is "a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average.”

The advantage of using SRS is that it takes into account strength of schedule.

Here is how the teams fared in a regular-season comparison.

Year

Team

Wins

MOV

Rank

SRS

SRS Rank

2002

Los Angeles Lakers

58

7.12

T2

7.61

2

2003

San Antonio Spurs

60

5.41

T1

7.91

3

2004

Detroit Pistons

54

5.84

6

5.04

4

2005

San Antonio Spurs

59

7.80

T2

7.84

1

2006

Miami Heat

52

3.87

5

3.59

6

2007

San Antonio Spurs

58

8.43

3

8.35

1

2008

Boston Celtics

66

10.26

1

9.31

1

2009

Los Angeles Lakers

65

7.11

2

7.11

3

2010

Los Angeles Lakers

57

4.78

3

4.78

5

2011

Dallas Mavericks

57

4.23

T4

6.01

8

 

If we were comparing dynasties, it would be obviously trimmed down to the Lakers or the Spurs, as they both have three wins apiece (technically, the Lakers are two dynasties), but we aren’t doing that. We’re looking at unique teams.

Right off the bat, we can eliminate a few teams from the conversation. If we narrow it down to the teams that had a MOV of at least 7.0, we pair it down to five teams: the ’02 Lakers, ’05 Spurs, ’07 Spurs, ’08 Celtics and ’09 Lakers.

If we narrow it down to the teams that had at least 60 wins, we have the ’03 Spurs, ’08 Celtics and ’09 Lakers. If we look at the SRS rankings, the ’02 Lakers, ’03, ’05 and ’07 Spurs, ’08 Celtics and ’09 Lakers all do the most to distinguish themselves.

Elsa/Getty Images

When we look at the whole picture, there are three teams which seem to be distinguished from the rest—the ’07 Spurs, the ’08 Celtics and the ’09 Lakers.

This distinction is somewhat magnified by the fact they are in successive years, and, as a result, were largely playing against one another for dominance.

Anticipating the argument, “the regular season doesn’t matter,” let me point out that yes, I know. The best regular-season record doesn’t assure a championship. However the obvious counter to this argument is these are all NBA champions.

Gallo Images/Getty Images

So while it’s pretty obvious a team that wins the championship deserves more credit than a team that didn’t win the championship but won a regular-season title, it also stands to reason that a team that did both deserves even more credit.

Having said that, it also remains true that just because they won a title, it doesn’t mean that all three teams had the same road to their championships.

Here is how each of the three teams fared in the postseason. Also per Basketball-Reference.com, I’ve included offensive rating ["an estimate of points produced (players) or scored (teams) per 100 possessions"], defensive rating ("an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions") and net rating, as well as winning percentage. I have not included SRS because it’s not available and would be limited anyway as the limited schedule would make it meaningless.

Year

Team

Ortg

DRtg

NetRtg

Wins

Losses

Win %

2009

Los Angeles Lakers

111.4

103.5

7.9

16

7

69.57%

2008

Boston Celtics

109.4

103.3

6.1

16

10

61.54%

2007

San Antonio Spurs

107.6

103.4

4.2

16

4

80.00%

The Lakers had the best net rating, the Spurs had the best winning percentage, and the Celtics were second in both. In other words, the playoff comparison is pretty even.

The next thing to take into consideration is the actual players. In an age of “big threes,” all three teams had their own “big three.” The Lakers boasted Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Spurs featured Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Of that trio of trios, there is one trio that right now is assured of entrance into the Hall of Fame, and that’s the Boston trio. Bynum has to do significantly more before he has an argument; Parker and Ginobili, at best, are on the fence.

The last thing I wanted to compare is how the teams did in the biggest moments, the close-out games.

Team

Margin

Wins

Losses

Win %

Lakers

9.00

3

1

0.75

Celtics

12.30

5

2

0.71

Spurs

12.25

4

0

1.00

Here, the Spurs definitely have a commanding advantage with the second largest margin of victory and the undefeated record. On the other hand, while the Celtics had the worst record, they also had the toughest road to the finals and the best margin of victory.

They had a surprisingly tough series against the upstart Atlanta Hawks, which went to seven games. Then they faced the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. 

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In the conference finals, they faced the Detroit Pistons, who still had the core that won an NBA title intact. Finally they faced the Los Angeles Lakers with the MVP, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol in the finals.

The most impressive win the Celtics had that year was the game that closed out the finals when they clobbered the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6, winning by 39. 

Meanwhile, the Lakers and Spurs in their postseason runs had to neither face a team whose core had or would win a title, nor did they have to face a league MVP.

When you take everything into account—their regular-season dominance, Hall of Fame core and challenging road to their title, as well as their incredible Game 7 performances—the ’08 Celtics edge out the ’07 Spurs and ’09 Lakers as the best team of the last decade. The other teams were special; they just weren’t as special. 

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