Ranking Top 25 Single-Season Team Performances in NBA History
Figuring out how modern-day offenses and defenses stack up against the units of the 1950s and '60s isn't exactly an easy task, but it's quite necessary when attempting to determine the best teams of all time.
Yes, if you've been following along with this series, we're finally to the big kahuna: the top 25 squads throughout all of NBA history.
Just looking at points scored and allowed doesn't do the trick because that doesn't give pace an opportunity to come into play. For that reason, defensive and offensive ratings—pace-neutral metrics that show how many points a team allows and scores per 100 possessions—are much better gauges of prowess on those ends of the court.
But when attempting to rank teams historically, as we're doing here, that's still not good enough. After all, not every team with identical defensive ratings is on the same level. Nor is every team with an identical offensive rating equally competent at scoring the rock.
If two teams gave up 95 points per 100 possessions, which is worse—Team A, which did so during a year when defenses rose to the top of the heap, or Team B, which did so when everyone was scoring points like the video-game sliders were all the way up?
Team A should be the easy answer because context is crucially important. That, in a nutshell, is why DRtng+, or adjusted defensive rating, is the best inter-era metric for comparing defensive performances.
The same holds true for ORtng+, or adjusted offensive efficiency.
Calculating these metrics isn't particularly troublesome: Just divide the league-average defensive rating from the year in question by the team's defensive rating and then multiply the result by 100 to achieve DRtng+. Similarly, ORtng+ is derived by dividing the team's offensive rating by the league average and then multiplying by 100.
A score of 100 means the defense or offense was perfectly average that year. That does tend to happen fairly often, given that we're working with the 1,315 teams throughout league history for which we have data.
The final step in determining the strength of a team is averaging the two metrics. The result, called TeamRtng+, weighs offense and defense evenly to ascertain the overall effectiveness of any team in NBA history.
When determining the best squads throughout the NBA's many seasons, the style of play doesn't factor into the equation. Neither does points scored/allowed per game nor memorability, subjectivity and win-loss records.
TeamRtng+ is all that comes into play. Analyses like this have been run before, notably by Hardwood Paroxysm's Andrew Lynch and Ian Levy, but this is taking it to a whole new level by calculating things before and after the 1976 ABA/NBA merger.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com. This introduction is an adapted form of what was used when ranking the top 20 offenses in NBA history as well as the top 20 defenses, bottom 20 defenses, bottom 20 offenses, best teams for each franchise and worst teams for each franchise throughout the same period.
25. 1964-65 Boston Celtics: 104.14 TeamRtng+
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-1 over Los Angeles Lakers)
Who better to kick things off with than a Bill Russell team?
The 1964-65 Boston Celtics weren't a particularly potent scoring squad, posting a below-average offensive rating. They scored 112.8 points per game—the third-highest mark in the nine-team NBA—and they did so despite playing with the league's quickest pace. It was just all about defense.
Fortunately, with Russell patrolling the paint and barking out signals, Tom Heinsohn joining him in the frontcourt, John Havlicek showing off his versatility and a host of other players (Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders and more) thriving on the less glamorous end, that was good enough to earn yet another championship for the Beantown residents.
These C's posted a 111.16 DRtng+ in 1964-65, which remains the No. 2 mark of all time to this day. Only the same bunch during the previous season has topped that number, but it did so with an even more impotent offense.
It's hard to emerge as a top-25 team in NBA history without being above average on both sides of the ball, but Boston was just that good on the defensive end.
Honorable Mentions: 2012-13 Miami Heat (104.08 TeamRtng+), 1972-73 Los Angeles Lakers (104.07), 1963-64 Boston Celtics (104.07) 2002-03 Dallas Mavericks (104.06), 1972-73 Milwaukee Bucks (104.06)
24. 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks: 104.15
Playoff Results: Lost Eastern Conference Finals (4-0 to Boston Celtics)
During the 1986 postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks ran into an even bigger juggernaut than themselves. They had the misfortune of playing the same year as the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, who will be appearing later on in this countdown toward the No. 1 team in NBA history.
Most every squad here boasts an unquestioned superstar (or two), but the Bucks were a collection of historically great players who don't tend to resonate as historically as the Larry Birds, Kobe Bryants and Tim Duncans of the sport.
Sidney Moncrief—who I firmly believe is one of the 10 best shooting guards the NBA has ever seen, thanks to his combination of defensive excellence and offensive prowess in his prime—paced Milwaukee with 11.7 win shares, but he was only one of six players who earned at least five. Paul Pressey (9.8), Ricky Pierce (8.3), Terry Cummings (7.4), Alton Lister (5.5) and Craig Hodges (5.3) all joined him in that impressive club.
Of the eight factors (four on offense and four on defense), the Bucks actually emerged with a top-six finish in all but two of them. They ranked No. 11 in defensive rebounding percentage and No. 19 in free throws allowed per field-goal attempt.
This wasn't a team that dominated in any one facet of the game, but it excelled in all of them.
23. 1961-62 Boston Celtics: 104.19
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-3 over Los Angeles Lakers)
The 1961-62 Boston Celtics didn't have quite as much defensive talent as they'd possess a few years later, but they were still pretty darn good on that end of the floor. After all, this is still the No. 3 DRtng+ in all of NBA history, even if it pales in comparison to the later iterations of these Boston units.
However, the Celtics were better on offense in 1961-62, coming closer to posting a league-average offensive rating.
Bill Russell's 18.9 points per game helped, but not as much as Tom Heinsohn's 22.1 points during the average contest, especially because both players were more efficient than in seasons prior. Nonetheless, neither made the same type of offensive impact that Bob Cousy did, as the magical point guard posted 15.7 points and 7.8 dimes per outing. Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey both scored at least 15 points per game as well.
The combined forces made it a bit easier for the Celtics to top their opposition's constantly mediocre point totals. They'd win 60 games during the regular season, then advance past the Philadelphia Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers to earn a ring.
22. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers: 104.22
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Boston Celtics)
The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers were an offensive machine.
Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott all managed to average at least 17 points per game, and astoundingly, Scott was the least efficient of the bunch, posting a still-impressive true shooting percentage of 56.1 percent. There were so many scoring options on the eventual 1987 NBA champions, especially when you factor in the steady play of Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green, as well as the perimeter excellence of Michael Cooper.
Defense was a problem, but not a big one, as the Lakers still posted an above-average defensive rating despite focusing so heavily on their offensive prowess.
This was Johnson's finest season as a professional, leading the NBA in offensive win shares and win shares per 48 minutes while producing a sparkling player efficiency rating of 27.0, higher than anything else he ever posted. While sparking a LAL squad that took three-point attempts at a pretty high rate for the mid-'80s, Johnson averaged an efficient 23.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 12.2 assists per game, deservedly winning league MVP in the process.
It wasn't all about Johnson, though, and that's what made this famous squad all the more effective.
21. 1969-70 New York Knicks: 104.23
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-3 over Los Angeles Lakers)
While the Showtime Lakers focused on offense, the 1969-70 New York Knicks were all about suffocating defense.
The league had debuted the All-Defensive teams one season prior, and it didn't take long for the Knicks to stake their claim as the squad that would earn more spots than anyone else. In 1970, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier all made the five-man first-team All-Defensive group during a year in which no other team earned more than two selections. The Atlanta Hawks had two, but neither Bill Bridges nor Joe Caldwell earned a first-team spot.
With that three-headed monster leading the charge, New York rather easily put together the league's best defensive rating, allowing 92.4 points per 100 possessions. The San Diego Rockets finished at No. 2 with a 96.8 defensive rating, but the gap between New York and San Diego was bigger than the one between San Diego and the Cincinnati Royals (No. 10).
There's leading the league in a category, and then there's blowing out everyone else. The Knicks did the latter during the 1969-70 season, and they rode that unit all the way to a hard-fought NBA Finals victory, one that featured a certain infamous entrance through the Madison Square Garden tunnel during the final game.
20. 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs: 104.3
Playoff Results: Lost Western Conference Finals (4-0 to Los Angeles Lakers)
The 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs may have run into the juggernaut that was the Los Angeles Lakers team in the midst of three-peating under the supervision of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, but that doesn't take away from just how dominant they were throughout the season.
This was a well-balanced team that could win in plenty of different manners, but it all centered around the twin towers in the San Antonio paint. Tim Duncan was a dominant force, and 35-year-old David Robinson had a diminished role but was still remarkably effective. The two led the team in win shares, with Duncan earning 13.2 and Robinson claiming another 12.1.
But we can't forget about the stellar seasons enjoyed by Derek Anderson (9.9 win shares), Antonio Daniels (6.6) or Terry Porter (5.4), either. None of the three enjoyed the same type of name recognition as the frontcourt stars, but all were crucial to the cause.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Spurs still struggled on the offensive glass (No. 21 in offensive rebounding percentage). That and forcing turnovers were their two biggest weaknesses, and both were easily overcome by the abundance of strengths.
19. 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs: 104.34
Playoff Results: Lost Western Conference Semifinals (4-2 to Los Angeles Lakers)
A few years later, the San Antonio Spurs had become a completely different team—at least stylistically. Still, there were striking similarities, like a failure to advance past the pesky Los Angeles Lakers come playoff time.
While the 2000-01 squad thrived on its balance, the 2003-04 one did not, as it was below average on the offensive end but historically excellent at preventing the opposition from putting up gaudy point totals. That 109.35 DRtng+ is not only the No. 6 mark of all time, but it's also the best number posted by a defense since the 1960s.
David Robinson was gone at this point, and there was no doubt this was Tim Duncan's team. He anchored the squad on both ends of the court, most notably earning 7.2 defensive win shares and pacing the Spurs in that category. Amazingly, though, Duncan was one of six San Antonio players to earn at least four win shares, joined by Rasho Nesterovic (5.6), Manu Ginobili (5.1), Bruce Bowen (4.6), Hedo Turkoglu (4.5) and Tony Parker (4.0).
It gets better.
According to Basketball-Reference.com's Play Finder, there were only 28 players throughout the entire Association who earned at least four defensive win shares in 2003-04, meaning the average team had fewer than one qualifier on the roster. While no other franchise had more than four players listed, the Spurs, once more, had six, including three members of the top 10.
18. 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs: 104.35
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-3 over Detroit Pistons)
One year later, the San Antonio Spurs were a bit more balanced again, and it resulted in a championship, the franchise's second in a three-season span.
With the exception of their ability to draw contact and get to the foul stripe (No. 21 in free throws per field-goal attempt), the 2004-05 Spurs were above average in the four offensive factors. But they flat-out excelled when it came to the defensive ones:
- No. 1 in effective field-goal percentage allowed
- No. 6 in opponent's turnover percentage
- No. 3 in defensive rebounding percentage
- No. 11 in free throws allowed per field-goal attempt
Is it any wonder their defensive rating (which came in an offensive renaissance, mind you) of 98.8 points per 100 possessions was tops in the NBA?
Tim Duncan was Tim Duncan. A 27-year-old Manu Ginobili established himself as an unquestioned star. Tony Parker was becoming one of the league's best point guards. And we can't forget about guys like Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry and Robert Horry.
"Unseating the Detroit Pistons in 2005 marked their most trying challenge," Dan Favale once wrote for Bleacher Report. "The Pistons were the reigning champs and pushed the Spurs to seven games."
A spoiler alert is coming, but while the Pistons were indeed their greatest challengers, the Spurs still put together two squads better than this one, hard as that may be to believe.
17. 1985-86 Boston Celtics: 104.39
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Houston Rockets)
"It was beautiful to watch. Just beautiful," John P. Lopez wrote for CBS Houston, ranking the 1985-86 Boston Celtics as the third-most unselfish team in NBA history. He continued:
The adage about the ball moving faster than any player was epitomized by these Celtics, who were led by Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, but got huge contributions on any given night from Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and an array of role players.
But that was only one element that led to such excellence from these Celtics.
Sure, the ball moved brilliantly. Between Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird and everyone else, Boston finished with more assists than all but one team throughout the NBA, but it also ranked only No. 4 in field goals made. That's a tough combination to beat, and it's made even more impressive by the No. 7 finish in turnover percentage.
However, it's not as though the Celtics were just an offensive machine. In fact, this 67-win bunch was actually marginally better on the defensive end, as it contested virtually every shot and then made it nigh impossible for the opposition to earn any second-chance points.
16. 1990-91 Chicago Bulls: 104.39
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-1 over Los Angeles Lakers)
Was the 1990-91 season the best of Michael Jordan's legendary career?
You can make an argument for any number of his remarkable campaigns, but while he didn't win Defensive Player of the Year or average over 37 points per game in 1990-91, he was remarkably productive as an individual and flat-out carried his Chicago Bulls to the first of six titles.
Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, both playing out their age-25 seasons, joined him in the Windy City, but this was arguably the least talented of his title-winning squads. B.J. Armstrong hadn't yet emerged as a great point guard, and the bench was filled with lackluster players. Plus, Bill Cartwright and John Paxson were both in their 30s this year.
Nonetheless, Jordan carried his team to a title, only dropping a single game to the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 4-1 dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The defense hadn't come around quite yet, but the offense was nearly unstoppable, rather easily leading the NBA in offensive rating.
15. 1996-97 Utah Jazz: 104.53
Playoff Results: Lost NBA Finals (4-2 to Chicago Bulls)
This team would be remembered so differently if Michael Jordan had just stayed retired.
Rather than John Stockton and Karl Malone remaining some of basketball history's greatest ringless players, they likely would've swept through the playoffs in convincing fashion instead of running into an absolute buzzsaw. Lest we forget, the 1996-97 Utah Jazz, 64-win team that they were, had already swept the Los Angeles Clippers, taken down the Los Angeles Lakers in 4-1 fashion and won a six-game Western Conference Finals against Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley and the rest of the Houston Rockets.
As good as Stockton and Malone were, this wasn't just a two-man squad.
Jeff Hornacek earned 10.2 win shares during the 1996-97 campaign, averaging 14.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 36.9 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag were key contributors as well, producing a combined 13.3 win shares that year.
Winning 64 games isn't an easy feat, and this is just one of the many teams that prove you don't have to win a title in order to be historically great. Judging a group of players on—at most—a seven-game sample rather than an 82-game one is nonsensical, even if those postseason games do admittedly matter more.
14. 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers: 104.54
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Indiana Pacers)
Shaquille O'Neal's 1999-2000 campaign would have made Barney Stinson proud, because it was nothing short of legen—wait for it, because there's probably a memorable alley-oop coming—dary.
Leading the league in scoring, the 27-year-old center averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per game while shooting an NBA-best 57.4 percent from the field. Somehow, he also bested everyone else in PER (30.6), offensive win shares (11.7), defensive win shares (7.0) and win shares per 48 minutes (0.283).
That level of sheer dominance on both ends of the court is nearly unsurpassed throughout all of NBA history, and there's an argument to be made that this is the single most excellent season by a 5 throughout the many decades the Association has been in existence.
Oh, and his teammates were good too.
A 21-year-old Kobe Bryant had arrived as a star, putting up 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, and the Lake Show was still getting big contributions from Glen Rice. With a deep bench and superstars at the top of the pecking order, the Purple and Gold were able to start a mini-dynasty that wouldn't come to a halt until the dynamic duo formed by Bryant and O'Neal had split.
13. 2011-12 Chicago Bulls: 104.54
Playoff Results: Lost Eastern Conference opening round (4-2 to Philadelphia 76ers)
The 2011-12 Chicago Bulls ended up creating one of the greatest what-if scenarios in NBA history.
During the regular season, this was an absolutely unstoppable squad, boasting one of the more suffocating defenses the league has ever seen and letting Derrick Rose almost single-handedly keep the offense afloat when he was healthy. This was one year after the uber-athletic point guard won MVP, and though he was limited to only 39 games played during the lockout-shortened season, he was quite the force when on the floor.
But after Chicago won 50 games in 66 attempts during the regular season, Rose tore his left ACL in the closing minutes of Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers. The opening-round contest was already in hand when he went down, which made the loss even more excruciating.
A disheartened Bulls team would lose four of its next five outings, only pulling off a 77-69 victory within the friendly confines of the United Center. The squad should've been a challenger to LeBron James' Miami Heat, but it certainly wasn't without Rose wearing his uniform.
"He's had a lot of injuries this year," Tom Thibodeau told reporters about Rose after Game 1. "It's been unfortunate. But we do have more than enough to win with. Whatever the circumstances are, we'll deal with it."
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, and Rose hasn't been the same since. Nonetheless, that unfortunate injury doesn't take away from just how good this team was, even while the former MVP was having trouble with his health during the regular season.
12. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs: 104.57
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-0 over Cleveland Cavaliers)
Putting three of NBA history's greatest champions on the same roster while they're right in the midst of their prime is already unfair.
Such was the case with the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs, as they got to combine the best efforts of Tim Duncan (30 years old), Manu Ginobili (29) and Tony Parker (24). Each member of the star-studded troika produced at least 9.6 win shares, with Duncan's 13 leading the charge.
But what's even more unfair is surrounding that triumvirate with an incredible coach (Gregg Popovich) and an impressive supporting cast.
Bruce Bowen may have been 35 years old, but he was still a defensive stopper playing with the grit and determination needed to transform the Spurs from a good point-preventing powerhouse to a historically excellent one. Plus, we can't forget about Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson, Robert Horry and Matt Bonner.
Somewhat amazingly, the 58-24 record is actually a misleadingly poor one. San Antonio's Pythagorean record—based on a combination of points scored and points allowed rather than just wins and losses, which credit a one-point victory at home just as much as a 25-point victory on the road—was a stellar 64-18.
If you saw that record up at the top of this slide, it would be even more obvious the '06-07 Spurs were one of the NBA's dozen best teams of all time.
11. 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics: 104.62
Playoff Results: Lost Western Conference opening round (3-2 to Denver Nuggets)
Again, playoff performance does not matter here. Once more, with emphasis this time: Playoff. Performance. Does. Not. Matter. Here.
If we only considered title-winning teams for this countdown, we'd be overlooking so many fantastic squads that were knocked out of consideration by a sample size of games that is much too small. Yes, the Seattle SuperSonics were the subject of one of the most famous first-round upsets the NBA has ever witnessed, but why should that completely discredit the 63 wins they put up during the regular season?
Bad matchups, hot streaks and injuries can all come into play during one postseason series. The body of work against the rest of the NBA month after month during a grueling season is much more important.
Such is the case for these Sonics, who became one of only four teams in league history to post an ORtng+ and DRtng+ that were both on the right side of 104.5. For what it's worth, the other three teams have yet to appear, and all of them are in the top six of this countdown.
Led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, this was one of the most balanced squads of all time, and the two-sided excellence allowed Seattle to take down a series of opponents.
10. 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-1 over New York Knicks)
This makes five appearances for Tim Duncan and his San Antonio Spurs. Among the top 25 teams in NBA history, only the Spurs and Chicago Bulls appear five times, but Duncan's reign of terror takes the cake for one important reason. While Chicago does indeed have the same number of representatives, only four came from the Michael Jordan era, with Derrick Rose's Bulls bringing the total the five.
Of course, this team was by no means all about Duncan.
He was a huge part of the 1998-99 squad that eventually took down the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals, but David Robinson was an integral piece as well. During the lockout-shortened season, Robinson's 8.4 win shares were an incredible total, and they only trailed Duncan's 8.7 by a small amount.
Here's the most impressive part, though.
Duncan and Robinson finished No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in win shares throughout the league. Karl Malone (9.6) and Shaquille O'Neal (9.0) were the only players ahead of them, giving San Antonio the league's premier two-man combination.
And while the Spurs didn't yet have Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker on the roster, they did have Mario Elie, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and Malik Rose, who were more than enough to get the job done.
9. 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder
Playoff Results: Lost Western Conference Semifinals (4-1 to Memphis Grizzlies)
Here comes another one of those playoff letdowns.
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't think much of parity during the 2012-13 season, as they stormed out to 60 wins and put on a nightly show with the three-man combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Not only did they lead the league in offensive rating, scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions, but only three squads put together a better defensive rating during the regular season.
Then the postseason came around.
Saddled with a first-round matchup against former Thunder shooting guard James Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets, Westbrook and his teammates stormed out to a 2-0 lead. But during Game 2, the point guard's knee collided with an aggressive Patrick Beverley, and a torn meniscus cut the superstar's season short.
Durant couldn't shoulder the load by himself, try as he might, and while OKC managed to stave off the Rockets in six games, it was overmatched against the Memphis Grizzlies in the next round. Could a full-strength squad have advanced to the NBA Finals and earned redemption for the 2012 Finals loss?
Possibly, but we'll never be able to do anything more than wonder.
8. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers: 104.77
Playoff Results: Lost Eastern Conference Finals (4-2 to Orlando Magic)
LeBron James has been on plenty of excellent teams throughout his NBA career, including the Miami Heat squads that went to four consecutive Finals and a few Cleveland Cavaliers units that advanced deep into the playoffs. But while both of his rings were earned while calling South Beach home, the best team of his career was the 2008-09 Cavs.
Though Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic took down Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, lending fuel to the inane "LeBron James isn't clutch" narrative, the Cavs won 66 games during the regular season, scoring points at will and boasting an incredible defensive ability. The Cavs actually finished only No. 4 in offensive rating and No. 3 in defensive rating, but the combination was a strong one, especially during a year in which the landscape was more spread out than clustered around the league average.
Of the four offensive factors and four defensive factors, Cleveland ranked in the league's top half in every single one.
The team was worst at generating free throws (No. 14 in free throws per field-goal attempt), grabbing offensive rebounds (No. 12 in offensive rebounding) and preventing opponents from getting to the charity stripe (No. 11 in free throws allowed per field-goal attempt), but it finished in the top 10 in every other category. That included an opponent's effective field-goal percentage that ranked No. 2.
Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and a 34-year-old Ben Wallace may not sound like too much, but the chemistry on this team allowed it to jell quite nicely and maximize the talent at its disposal.
7. 1991-92 Chicago Bulls: 105.14
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Portland Trail Blazers)
B.J. Armstrong and the rest of the supporting cast still weren't quite there yet, but improvements from Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen allowed the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls to take another stride forward, building upon the 1990-91 season that produced what now stands out as the No. 16 team of all time.
First, let's look at how Grant fared during the two seasons in question:
And now, how about Pippen?
Michael Jordan was great and all, but it was the other two stars on the team who improved dramatically and allowed this Chicago squad to push further up the leaderboard.
6. 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks: 105.26
Playoff Results: Lost Western Conference Finals (4-2 to Los Angeles Lakers)
Balance, balance, balance.
As mentioned earlier, only four squads in NBA history finished with both their ORtng+ and DRtng+ on the right side of 104.5. Interestingly enough, two of them came during the same season, and one of the pair was these 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks squad.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was absolutely sensational while anchoring the defense with his fantastic rim-protecting skills and using that sweeping sky-hook to provide points in bunches. He earned a mind-boggling 25.4 win shares, more than the next three performers combined. Seeing as those were Bob Dandridge (9.1), Oscar Robertson (8.3) and Lucius Allen (7.6), that's quite impressive.
The Bucks led the league in both effective field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage allowed, cementing its two-way dominance. And scarily enough, they could've been even better.
At 33 years old, Robertson was finally taking a major step backward. He played in only 64 games during his second go-round in Milwaukee, and it would be the last time he'd make an All-Star roster before retiring in 1974. His efficiency and involvement both declined, and though the depth of talent on the Bucks allowed them to remain remarkably dominant, more of a vintage performance from the big guard might've gotten them even higher in the standings.
5. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers: 105.52
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-1 over New York Knicks)
It's not often that we get legitimate proof outside of the formula itself—tangential as it may be—that puts one squad directly above another. If the regular-season stats aren't convincing enough, surely the playoffs will be in this case.
The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, one of two squads to top 105 in both relevant categories, posted an identical DRtng+ to the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, but their 105.31 ORtng+ was better than Milwaukee's 104.8.
However, let's move past that.
The Lakers and Bucks met in the 1972 Western Conference Finals, and it was L.A. that got the upper hand, advancing in six games to the NBA Finals, where it would go on to beat the New York Knicks in even quicker fashion. Wilt Chamberlain only averaged 10.8 points per game during that series, but Jim McMillian (22.7), Jerry West (21.8) and Gail Goodrich (19.2) more than made up for the lost production.
It's hard to compare any of these historically excellent teams in anything but hypothetical fashion (well, outside of the all-important formula, of course), but these Bucks and Lakers make for the lone exception.
4. 2007-08 Boston Celtics, 105.61
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Los Angeles Lakers)
Not enough time has passed for the 2007-08 Boston Celtics to become mythologized, making it seem as though their placement in the top five is a mistake.
While Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo were more than competent on the offensive end of the court, finishing No. 10 in offensive rating, they were flat-out destructive when settling down in their defensive stances. Boston's 108.7 DRtng+ is the No. 8 mark of all time, and it trails only the 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs during the modern era.
Though this doesn't technically affect the rank, it's even more impressive due to how quickly Doc Rivers and his ubuntu stylings got everyone to jell. After all, the C's won 24 games in 2006-07, and their TeamRtng+ of 98.26 leaves them as the No. 1,036 team in NBA history. Entering the 2014-15 campaign, there have only been 1,315 qualified squads.
Talk about a turnaround. Rising 1,032 spots in just one offseason is no easy feat.
The four aforementioned players were clearly the leaders of this team, with Garnett's 12.9 win shares pacing the team and Pierce's 12.4 not far behind. But failing to mention key players like Kendrick Perkins, James Posey, Leon Powe, Eddie House and Tony Allen just wouldn't be right.
3. 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks: 105.65
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-0 over Baltimore Bullets)
The Milwaukee Bucks' defense wasn't as finely tuned in 1970-71 as it would be the next season, though it was still quite impressive. Not having Terry Cummings while 23-year-old Lucius Allen made a minimal impact probably had something to do with that.
But the offense was just unstoppable.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 31.7 points and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 57.7 percent from the field. He'd earn 22.3 win shares that season, with 17 of them coming on the offensive end. However, this was by no means a one-man team.
Though Oscar Robertson was already starting to decline a bit, he was excellent during the first post-Cincinnati Royals season of his Hall of Fame career. Earning 12.4 win shares, he averaged 19.4 points and 8.2 assists per contest, shooting from the field at a 49.6 percent clip.
The duo just couldn't be stopped, especially because defenses also had to spread their attention to Bob Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin, Greg Smith and—to a lesser extent—Bob Boozer.
Truth be told, no one really posed a challenge throughout the season. After winning 66 games in 82 tries, the Bucks went through the playoffs losing only two games in three rounds, including a clean sweep of the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals.
2. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls: 105.71
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Utah Jazz)
I'm pretty sure this combination of talent was illegal in 13 states during the 1996-97 season. Or at least it should've been, because the rest of the NBA didn't stand a chance against Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and the rest of the Chicago Bulls.
Though the triangle offense didn't help them generate many free-throw attempts (No. 28 of 29 in free throws per field-goal attempt), they didn't need to in order to thrive. Chicago finished No. 5 in effective field-goal percentage, No. 1 in turnover percentage and No. 2 in offensive rebounding percentage.
In layman's terms, they shot the ball with extraordinary effectiveness, never coughed it up to the opposition and managed to create plenty of second-chance opportunities. First-chance opportunities are dangerous enough for a Jordan-led squad.
Though it's the Big Three that gets so much of the credit, these Bulls actually had five players earn at least a handful of win shares: Jordan (18.3), Pippen (13.1), Steve Kerr (7.5), Toni Kukoc (6.9), Rodman (6.0) and Ron Harper (5.7).
Is it any wonder the Bulls didn't have any trouble until they squared off with the Utah Jazz (ranked No. 15 in this article) in the NBA Finals?
1. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls: 106.38
Playoff Results: NBA champions (4-2 over Seattle SuperSonics)
It's just not even close.
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls still hold the NBA record for the most wins in a season, as well as the best winning percentage. But they get even more impressive when you look at TeamRtng+, simply because they were so dominant on both ends of the floor.
These Bulls boast the No. 52 DRtng+ of all time and the No. 8 ORtng+ in NBA history, which is an unsurpassed combination. In fact, the difference between this squad's TeamRtng+ and that of the 1996-97 Bulls is larger than the gap between No. 2 and No. 7 in these rankings.
However, let's keep digging. Looking at Chicago's game log makes the Bulls seem more impressive still, which isn't really supposed to be possible.
Through 12 games, the Bulls were "only" 10-2 (winning percentage of 0.833), as they lost to both the Orlando Magic and the Seattle SuperSonics. During the rest of the regular season, they went a scorching 62-8 (0.886). If you include the postseason results, they were 77-11, giving them a winning percentage of 0.875.
If your jaw hit the floor, I apologize. Rub some dirt on it and keep going on with your day.
Michael Jordan tends to induce that type of reaction, after all.