Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 2010s

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2020

Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 2010s

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    The NBA has been on hiatus for a whopping four months. And though the season's reboot is looming, the league's history remains a captivating topic of conversation.

    As we barrel toward the continuation of 2019-20, let's look at the best teams the NBA has ever produced. And let's start with the most recent decade.

    The 2010s were dominated by LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Of course, plenty of other stars made their presences known, but you'll see those three names plenty of times over the next 10 slides.

    Who were the best teams of this decade? Scroll down to find out.

Methodology

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    *Takes a deep digital breath...

    The methodology for this project was fairly complex.

    First, one hard and fast rule was instituted: To qualify, teams had to make it to the NBA Finals. That eliminated a couple of regular-season powerhouses that fell apart in the playoffs, including the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Next, the following numbers for each of the remaining teams were found:

    • Playoff and regular-season winning percentage
    • Playoff and regular-season simple rating system (combination of point differential and strength of schedule)
    • Playoff and regular-season offensive rating (team's points per 100 possessions minus the league average)
    • Playoff and regular-season defensive rating (team's points allowed per 100 possessions minus the league average)
    • Playoff and regular-season net rating (points per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions)

    Points were also awarded to each team based on whether it won the title.

    With all those numbers in place, the entire group was sorted by the average of their ranks in those numbers (with extra weight given to regular and postseason winning percentage, postseason net rating and whether it was a championship team).

    That gave us a baseline. A couple judgment calls were made here and there. For the most part, though, the statistical criteria remained our guide.

    And finally, each of the 2010s teams from the exercise was separated from the group.

    (For the purposes of these articles, decades will be defined as years zero through nine, with the year in which a season ended being used for counting purposes. For example, the 2010s will be the 2009-10 season through the 2018-19 season).

    *Phew...

10. 2018-19 Toronto Raptors

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    In the future, "But Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson didn't play..." may be a common refrain when people discuss the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors.

    But this team deserves credit, not just for ending the Kevin Durant era in Golden State, but for what it did all season.

    In the preceding offseason, the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The move instantly vaulted them into title contention.

    And though Leonard would go on to miss around a quarter of the season due to "load management," he finished ninth in MVP voting. And when he shared the floor with Green and Kyle Lowry, Toronto was plus-14.0 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile).

    The Raptors displayed championship-caliber basketball throughout 2018-19, and they and their superstar ratcheted things up in the playoffs.

    Leonard averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 threes and 1.7 steals in the postseason. He had a 61.9 true shooting percentage and totaled 7.8 wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7).

    LeBron James (three times), Larry Bird and Tim Duncan are the only players in league history to pile up more wins over replacement player in a single playoffs.

    Throughout that run to the title, Kawhi was accompanied by a feeling of inevitability. Every drive and pull-up jumper seemed destined for the bottom of the net. His lockdown defense led in part to a massive postseason net rating swing of plus-15.9.

    The cold, calculated dominance led to a Terminator spot after the season.

    "He appears to be a robot built to destroy the NBA," Ben Cohen and Andrew Beaton wrote for the Wall Street Journal. "A coach once speculated that he bleeds anti-freeze."

    The 2018-19 season did little to prove otherwise.

9. 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks

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    Prior to the start of the 2011 NBA Finals, 15 of the 22 experts polled by ESPN picked LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat to beat the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks.

    This was nothing new for the Mavs. The experts were split 50/50 on whether they'd get out of the first round. And every one of them picked the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.

    That postseason, Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas teammates made a habit of surprising the competition. And they helped set a trend that would dominate the decade.

    Jump-shooting teams can win titles.

    Jason Kidd and Jason Terry were first and second in threes made during those playoffs. Peja Stojakovic, Deshawn Stevenson and Dirk were all in the top 12.

    The spacing provided by Dallas' modern pick-and-roll attack left the middle of the floor open for Tyson Chandler's dives to the rim or Nowitzki's mid-range clinics.

    In the 559 minutes those two played together in the postseason, Dallas was plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions. Nowitzki alone had a plus-10.6 net rating (Dallas was minus-9.3 when he sat).

    Ultimately, the 2011 playoffs belonged to Dirk.

    LeBron, Wade and Bosh had formed the Heatles the previous summer. They were the story all season. Then Dirk seized control of the narrative, averaging 27.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 threes while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 46.0 percent from three during the postseason.

    It was a triumph that came on the back of years of struggles.

    "If you’re in this league for 13 years and just battling in the playoffs and always coming up short, this is extra special," Nowitzki said after beating the Heat, per Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post.

    This Mavericks squad may not have been the best team of the decade, but it has an argument for the best story.

8. 2015-16 Golden State Warriors

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    The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors didn't win the title, but their 73 regular-season wins are an all-time NBA record. And they were led by Stephen Curry, who may have had the greatest individual offensive season ever.

    Curry's 10.3 offensive box plus/minus in 2015-16 is the highest mark in league history (and by a pretty comfortable margin).

    That season, he averaged 31.9 points (11th all-time), 7.1 assists and 5.4 threes (first all-time) per 75 possessions. And here's the kicker: His 66.9 true shooting percentage was a whopping 12.8 points better than the league average.

    No one has ever combined that level of volume with that level of efficiency. The only player who has come close? Curry, two years later.

    In his second consecutive MVP campaign, Curry wreaked havoc, both on and off the ball. Wherever he was, regardless of how far he was from the rim, teams had to pay attention. And that made life exponentially easier for everyone else.

    When he was on the floor, the Warriors were plus-17.5 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-3.8 when he was off. Among players with at least 500 minutes, that 21.3-point swing was topped only by... teammate Draymond Green.

    Draymond was outstanding that season, with averages of 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. His 13 triple-doubles trailed only Russell Westbrook's total that season. And he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting (not to mention seventh in MVP voting).

    Rounding out Golden State's pre-KD Big Three, of course, was Klay Thompson. That season, he averaged 22.1 points and 3.5 threes while shooting 42.5 percent from deep and often saving Curry from the hassle of defending opposing 1s.

    Those three, along with Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and the rest of the roster, put together quite possibly the greatest regular season of all time.

    And had Green been able to refrain from carrying out his infamous mid-Finals retaliation, which led to a Game 5 suspension, the Warriors would have had a much better shot at avoiding the meltdown that now mars this team's legacy.

7. 2011-12 Miami Heat

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    LeBron's first championship team, the 2011-12 Miami Heat, was buoyed by one of the 2010s more dominant playoff runs. Of the teams sampled, the Heat were in the top 10 in playoff winning percentage, relative offensive rating and net rating. And of course, they won the title.

    Fresh off its loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, Miami would not be denied in 2012. The key to reaching the next level was, perhaps, Wade and LeBron figuring out how to coexist.

    In 2012, the former explained his sacrifice to ESPN's Israel Gutierrez:

    "It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do in sports was to, in a sense, take a step back. A lot of people don't understand. They'll say, 'Why would you do that?' To me, I want more success from winning. I don't want another scoring title. I'm just trying to win.

    "I felt that it had to come from nobody but me, to say, 'Go ahead, man. You're the best player in the world. We'll follow your lead.' Once I said that, I thought he kind of exhaled a little bit."

    Behind averages of 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals, LeBron was the 2012 league MVP. Wade and Bosh did plenty of damage as the second and third options. In fact, Wade finished 10th in MVP voting. And Bosh was an All-Star.

    The 2011-12 season was also Shane Battier's first in Miami. He didn't have a huge role in the regular season, but moving him into the starting five for most of the playoffs unlocked small-ball possibilities that helped the team for the rest of the Heatles era.

    With LeBron, Battier, Bosh and Wade all on the floor, Miami was able to switch and rotate in ways that are now commonplace in today's game.

    People often try to attach asterisks to championships. This one is sometimes derided for punctuating a lockout-shortened season. But few teams across history packed a roster with as much pure talent. And this was the season that talent fused with a little chemistry.

6. 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers have a few claims to fame.

    They ended a major sports championship drought for the city that dated back to 1964, when the Browns finished at the top of the NFL.

    They pulled off a historic series comeback after falling behind 3-1, made all the more impressive by the fact that it came against a 73-win team.

    And they gave LeBron a title that he and some of his supporters point to as the one that put him over the top in the GOAT debate.

    In that Finals series, LeBron led the Cavs in every major statistical category, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks. His 13.7 box plus/minus is the third-highest Finals mark on record.

    Of course, LeBron didn't pull this off on his own. Kyrie Irving had a higher average game score than any Warrior in the series. And he hit what may have been the biggest shot of Game 7.

    Then there's Kevin Love, who was played off the floor by fast-paced Golden State on more than one occasion. But his clutch defense on Curry's late-game heave in Game 7 is one of the lasting images of the season.

    Like every other team on this list, though, the Cavs were about more than their stars. JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye all made meaningful contributions, as well.

5. 2017-18 Golden State Warriors

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    The 2017-18 Golden State Warriors were deep into the regular-season cruise-control portion of the mini-dynasty. They finished that season third in simple rating system, behind the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors.

    And that Rockets team led by Chris Paul and James Harden put a very real scare into the defending champions in the Western Conference Finals. Had CP3 not been hurt in Game 5 of that series, we may not be talking about the 2017-18 Warriors in this forum.

    But in the other three series that postseason, the Warriors were utterly dominant. Golden State went 12-2 against the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Cleveland Cavaliers, including a Finals sweep over the Cavs. In the end, this Warriors squad had the second-best postseason net rating of all the 2010s teams sampled.

    This was also the season that may have led to "KD has overtaken LeBron" takes being more common. It was the second year in a row that Durant was able to top LeBron in the Finals. And he took home Finals MVP after both series. His 12.7 box plus/minus over those nine games topped LeBron's 11.8.

4. 2012-13 Miami Heat

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    The 2012-13 Miami Heat rode the momentum of the 2012 championship into a dominant regular season that included a 27-game winning streak (the second-longest in league history within a single season).

    They finished with a league-best 66 wins, LeBron won his second straight MVP, and Wade finished 10th in MVP voting.

    All the wrinkles that needed ironing out from the first couple years of this Heat era were now smooth. And the addition of Ray Allen made the team even smoother.

    In his age-37 season, Allen averaged 10.9 points and 1.8 threes off the bench while shooting 41.9 percent from deep. And in the Finals, he hit one of the biggest and most memorable shots in league history.

    With time winding down in Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs, Allen scrambled to the corner following an offensive rebound from Chris Bosh. He got his feet back just far enough upon catching the kick-out. The ball seemed to leave his hands in the same motion as the catch. And it couldn't have gone through the rim much cleaner.

    The three effectively sent Game 6 into overtime. Miami went on to win that and Game 7, giving the Heatles their repeat championship.

    This obviously wasn't a breeze, though. Miami was pushed to the brink (and over it) on multiple occasions during this era. This particular squad was 11th among the 2010s teams sampled in playoff net rating.

    But that wasn't enough to keep them outside the top five.

3. 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs

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    On the other end of Allen's historic shot was a devastated loser. But the feelings that series planted in the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs fueled one of the NBA's greatest revenge stories.

    Grantland's Zach Lowe packed several of the themes into one paragraph:

    "The Spurs’ fifth championship symbolizes everything we’ve been bringing up all year: the triumph of the NBA’s beautiful game; the crowning achievement for three stars who took less money to stay together; a cathartic response from perhaps the most crushing defeat in NBA history; and the end point of the franchise’s evolution from pound-the-post bully ball to a fast-paced, triple-happy style of play that put them ahead of almost every other team in adapting to the NBA’s newer rules."

    The Spurs' beautiful, team-first approach led to the best record (62-20) and simple rating system (8.0) in the NBA in 2013-14.

    Near the twilight of their careers, Tony Parker (16.7) and Tim Duncan (15.1) were still the team's leading scorers. Manu Ginobili added 12.3 in 22.8 minutes off the bench. And Kawhi Leonard (12.8) was starting to emerge as the heir apparent to the Big Three.

    The hallmark of this squad may have been the balance evident in those scoring averages. The Spurs had nine players between 16.7 and 8.2 points per game. No one on the team topped 30 minutes per game. And their 25.2 assists per contest led the NBA.

    The chemistry of these Spurs was palpable. And it reached its zenith in the Finals, when they got a rematch against LeBron's Heat.

    There, San Antonio exacted revenge in about as convincing a fashion as possible. The Spurs were plus-70 in that series, the best mark in Finals history.

2. 2014-15 Golden State Warriors

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    You may be surprised to find the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors ahead of both the 2015-16 and 2017-18 versions, but they were in the top 10 of all 2010s teams sampled in all but one category (playoff relative offensive rating).

    Throughout that season, the Warriors utterly dominated their competition. And they had a couple things going for them that other Warriors teams did not.

    For one, 2014-15 was arguably the best season of Klay Thompson's career. He posted career highs in assists per game (2.9), offensive box plus/minus (4.5) and defensive box plus/minus (minus-0.1).

    And this was the campaign in which he proved himself one of the all-time heat-check guys. On January 23, 2015, he had his mind-blowing 37-point quarter against the Sacramento Kings.

    This team was also the beneficiary of one of Andrew Bogut's best seasons. He led the NBA in defensive box plus/minus, finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and averaged 4.2 assists per 75 possessions (first by a long shot among 7-footers).

    Of course, 2014-15 was also Stephen Curry's first MVP campaign. And his production looks tame in comparison to 2015-16 in part because of this squad's depth. Eight players played at least 500 minutes and had an above-average box plus/minus (12 were above replacement level).

    We were also introduced to the so-called "death lineup" during this season. Small ball took on new life thanks to Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. When those five shared the floor, Golden State was plus-27.0 points per 100 possessions (plus-16.7 in the playoffs).

    These Warriors are sort of the forgotten group when looking at the entire dynasty. Some are quick to point out the injuries suffered by other teams during their playoff run, but all the numbers indicate they utterly dominated the NBA during Steve Kerr's first season at the helm.

1. 2016-17 Golden State Warriors

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    The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors were a force unlike anything the NBA had ever seen.

    Heading into that season, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were third and fifth, respectively, in career offensive box plus/minus (they're in a virtual tie for third now).

    Having both suddenly on the same team, one that also included Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, made the word "unfair" seem woefully inadequate.

    These Warriors didn't experience the growing pains most superteams do in their first year. They cruised to 67 wins, the fourth-best simple rating system in league history and the best effective field-goal percentage (to that point).

    Seven players averaged at least 22 points and posted a 56-plus effective field-goal percentage that season. Golden State had three of them (Curry, Durant and Thompson).

    Durant's first season with the Warriors was perhaps the most seamless integration of a new superstar in NBA history.

    Everyone's games seemed to complement each other perfectly. And they peaked at the exact right moment.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 4 victory in the Finals was their only blemish in a 16-1 postseason. They were a whopping plus-230 over those 17 games, the best raw point differential for a single postseason in league history.

    From the moment Durant announced his intentions to join Golden State through the title-sealing Game 5 against Cleveland, the final result of 2016-17 felt inevitable.