Only one NBA team has ever cleared 70 victories in a single season. That squad, the Michael Jordan-led 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, remains the league's standard for greatness—the measuring stick for freshly formed superteams and championship units.
For nearly 20 years, their 72-win mark appeared untouchable. Right now, not so much.
Initially, the reigning champion Golden State Warriors alone were meant to challenge the best-ever Bulls, but the San Antonio Spurs are on track for at least 70 victories. And when they meet for the first time this season on Jan. 25 at Oracle Arena, they'll be vying for both pole position in the Western Conference and in the NBA history books.
These Spurs and Warriors are lording over the rest of the league and may, quite possibly, be the two best teams the NBA has ever seen.
Golden State's Continued Reign
The Warriors are poised to win 74 or 75 games and easily eclipse those Bulls—assuming they remain motivated.
“We kind of have that chip back on our shoulder,” Draymond Green said following Golden State's Jan. 20 drubbing of the Chicago Bulls, via the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. “I think it kind of fell off a little bit, but we’ve been playing like that the past two games, and it’s exciting.”
A Jan. 16 letdown against the Detroit Pistons remains the Warriors' only full-strength loss of the season. One of Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry or Green was out for each of the other three.
Despite coping with a varying degree of absences, Golden State, as of now, owns the third-best net rating (plus-12.2) in recorded history, according to the statistical database of Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal (compiled using data from Basketball-Reference.com), just behind the 1995-96 Bulls.
But there is a lot of schedule left to play, and the Warriors are finally healthy and displaying unprecedented dominance with organized chaos—ascribed bedlam through small lineups, rapid-fire ball movement, Green's adaptable instincts and Curry's incomprehensible accuracy.
More than 340 teams dating back to 1973-74 have averaged more than 99 possessions per 48 minutes. These Warriors are the only team to also score more than 109.5 points and allow fewer than 102.5 points per 100 possessions.
Adjusted offensive rating (ORtng+)—which takes a team's offensive production and measures it against the league average, allowing for historical comparisons—shows that they're clicking to a ridiculous degree on that side of the floor:
The Warriors have the second-best offense ever and are within striking distance of the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks. This is with their offensive rating plummeting between the first and second quarters, as well as the third and fourth quarters.
There is no recipe for defeating this brand of basketball. The Warriors are full-court machines and half-court artists, a group built to play and perfect any style, regardless of its speed or brutality.
San Antonio's Quiet Quest
Even with the Spurs pacing themselves toward 70 or 71 victories, reaching and exceeding the 72-win benchmark feels unrealistic.
San Antonio, like Golden State, has only one starter who ranks in the top 150 of fourth-quarter playing time, and head coach Gregg Popovich is a sucker for doling out last-minute rest days to—well, to whomever he pleases, whenever he feels like it.
San Antonio Spurs @spurs
INJURY REPORT - Tim Duncan (soreness, right knee) is out for tomorrow's Spurs-Warriors game.1/24/2016, 7:31:13 PM
Popovich's complete disregard for regular-season stakes, along with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, scared many into believing there would be some sort of learning curve—a period through which the team would struggle before assuming its rightful place among the Association's best.
But here they are, eschewing that learning curve, having reinvented themselves around Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard with a bench that, according to FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine, would make the playoffs on its own.
Sixteen of the Spurs' victories have come by at least 20 points, the most such wins through the first 44 games of a season in NBA history. It's they, not the Warriors, who own the highest net rating on record.
Balance is once again the hallmark of their rule, and the NBA has never witnessed anything like it.
Of every team to post a defensive rating under 96, not one registered an offensive rating better than 104. The Spurs, who are limiting opponents to just over 95 points per 100 possessions, have an offensive rating of 111.
This says more about San Antonio's defense, which, according to adjusted defensive rating (DRtng+), the sibling of ORtng+, is quite ridiculous. Note that, in this instance, a higher DRtng+ indicates above-average performance:
The Spurs are deploying the third-best defense in the NBA's existence, and the absolute best since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics squads.
Leonard is a suffocating incubus for opposing wings. Duncan remains one of the most reliable rim protectors ever. Aldridge is using his length and reimagined footwork to stifle slashers out of the pick-and-roll.
Ball denial. Coaxing ball-handlers into mid-range jumpers. Everything about the Spurs' stinginess is rooted in consistent simplicity, and the extent to which they own that identity is extraordinary.
A Matchup of Historic Proportions
That the Spurs' and Warriors' marches toward history have intersected is, as Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus alluded to, unheard of:
Anchorage Man @SethPartnow
MAYBE the Lakers and Bucks in 71/72. https://t.co/iq1u8jbOhh1/19/2016, 5:45:42 PM
Except that neither the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks nor Los Angeles Lakers statistically stacks up to Golden State and San Antonio.
Few teams do.
Using TeamRtng+, which averages ORtng+ and DRtng+, we find that both the Spurs and Warriors have laid down airtight best-ever cases:
This metric alone dubs the Spurs and Warriors as two of the three greatest teams of all time, with San Antonio leading the entire field.
Tack on the unrivaled, ostensibly impossible balance they both sustain, along with the inevitability behind Golden State's pursuit of 72-plus victories, and it's difficult to reject the hype.
Cherish the absurdity of it all, because history may not remember two legendary clubs that overlapped. A 70-win faction has never failed to win an NBA title, and 2015-16 very well could play host to one that does.
Which is why when the Spurs and Warriors meet Monday, it won't be about who wins or loses, or about who's better.
It will be about appreciating two teams, equal in unparalleled greatness, continuing their treks toward, and then beyond, those 1995-96 Bulls.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited, and accurate leading into games on Jan. 25. Historical information dating back further than 1973-74 from Adam Fromal's statistical database.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.
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