Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 2000s

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2020

Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 2000s

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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.

    First, we broke down the 2010s. Now, let's look at the 2000s.

    Two iterations of the Los Angeles Lakers dominated this era. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had the first shift. Kobe and Pau Gasol helped wrap the decade up. In between, we witnessed the rise of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, everyone's example of a "starless" championship team and a Boston Celtics season for the ages.

    To see where they all fall, scroll through the article. But first, some words on how we reached this order.

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-season and postseason winning percentage, postseason net rating and whether it was a championship team.

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

    And finally, each of the 2000s 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 2000s will be the 1999-00 season through the 2008-09 season).

    *Phew...

10. 2005-06 Miami Heat

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    Dwyane Wade's first NBA title came in just his third season, playing alongside a post-prime Shaquille O'Neal for the 2005-06 Miami Heat.

    Wade's 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game were remarkable numbers for a 24-year-old near the outset of his career. James Harden, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook are the only other players in league history to hit all four marks in a season, and LeBron was the only one to do so at a younger age.

    Wade might've been even better in the playoffs, too. He had a 7.7 box plus/minus in the regular season, an 8.6 BPM in the first three rounds of the postseason and an 11.4 BPM in the Finals.

    In that series alone, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks. He was utterly dominant as Miami won four straight games after falling down 2-0 to the Dallas Mavericks.

    "This went way beyond just passing the torch," ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote of the dynamic between Wade and Shaq after the Finals. "Holding that [Finals] MVP trophy over his head, Dwyane Wade realized he was the best player in the league."

    Wade would go on to have better individual seasons (though he never won a regular-season MVP) and win two more titles, but 2005-06 may well have been his narrative peak. On a team with a big man who had seemingly owned the league for years, Wade became "The Man."

    Elsewhere on this roster, the Heat had solid depth and experience from the likes of Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and James Posey. A 25-year-old Udonis Haslem was a key cog. And though he was in his age-33 season, Shaq still averaged 20.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

9. 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers

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    The first Shaq-and-Kobe title, won by the 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers, came in large part due to the big fella.

    In his first and only MVP season, O'Neal averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks. The Lakers were plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions with Shaq on the floor and minus-0.5 with him off.

    And he clearly wasn't satisfied with that level of regular-season production.

    In the Finals, he took it up another notch. In six games against the Indiana Pacers, O'Neal averaged 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.3 assists.

    But even if Shaq was the biggest reason the Lakers won the title in 2000, he certainly wasn't the only one.

    In his age-21 season, Kobe averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Ron Harper carried over his role from the dynastic Chicago Bulls as head coach Phil Jackson's triangle point guard. Rick Fox and Robert Horry were both growing into the roles they'd enjoy for much of the three-peat.

    That wasn't all, though. This team also featured Glen Rice, who most know as a Charlotte Hornet (understandable since his three All-Star appearances came with that team).

    L.A.'s top three-man lineup by raw plus-minus in 1999-00 featured Shaq, Harper and Rice. And in the playoffs, Rice shot 41.8 percent from three.

    Again, it's obvious why Shaq and Kobe were the faces of the early-2000s Lakers, but there were plenty of solid players around them.

8. 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs

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    The 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs were led by a dominant Tim Duncan, who averaged 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.9 blocks on the way to his second consecutive MVP. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player in league history to match or exceed all those marks in a single season.

    This was also the first season for Manu Ginobili, the last season for David Robinson and a breakout campaign for Tony Parker.

    As a rookie, Ginobili was second on the Spurs in playoff wins over replacement player. And despite his advancing years, Robinson was still a force on defense. When he was on the floor, San Antonio allowed 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions. Parker, in just his second season, was second on the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 assists during the regular season.

    But in typically Spursian fashion, this team was about more than the big names. San Antonio had nine players with at least 500 minutes and an above-replacement-level BPM, and the group's connectivity on defense led to a stifling effort in the postseason.

    Teams scored an average of 105.1 points per 100 possessions in the 2003 playoffs. San Antonio allowed just 97.7, giving it the best playoff relative defensive rating of the 2000s teams sampled.

7. 2003-04 Detroit Pistons

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    The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons are often held out as the prime example of a team winning a championship without a star, but let's examine that notion a bit further.

    While they certainly didn't have anyone on the level of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan, a handful of these Pistons played at or near a star level (even if only one, Ben Wallace, was named an All-Star).

    Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace finished the 2003-04 campaign 16th, 21st and 47th, respectively, in BPM. Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton were both in the top 75, as well.

    But there's a reason the team is talked about the way it is. It absolutely embodied the "greater than the sum of its parts" cliche.

    Over the 523 postseason minutes in which Billups, Hamilton, Prince and the two Wallaces shared the floor, Detroit was a staggering plus-14.6 points per 100 possessions. Against the Los Angeles Lakers alone, that five-man lineup was plus-41 in 121 Finals minutes.

    The Pistons dominated a team that included multiple legends.

    "We had a team and we played as a unit," Ben Wallace told ABC's Mike Lacett. "And when we came together and we all played our part, it was like a perfect song and dance.'

6. 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs

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    If this article were about the most influential teams in NBA history, the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns may well have this spot.

    The "Seven Seconds or Less" offense led by Steve Nash lit the NBA up to the tune of a league-best 62 wins, and the spread pick-and-roll principles it employed can be seen in the DNA of most current teams.

    But when Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson matched up with the 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, they were beaten handily.

    San Antonio slowed things down and held the Suns to 104.0 points per game in that series, over six points below their league-leading regular-season average (110.4). They also hummed like Phoenix previously had on the other end.

    The Spurs scored 118.6 points per 100 possessions in that series, and the Big Three was predictably stellar. Duncan averaged 27.4 points and 13.8 rebounds. Manu went for 22.2 points, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. Parker added 20.4 points and 4.2 assists per contest.

    In the Finals, San Antonio was pushed to a Game 7 against the defending champion Pistons. Detroit actually scored more points over the entire series, but the Spurs ground out the victory.

    In terms of the numbers, this team rose as high as it did because of steadiness (a hallmark of plenty of Gregg Popovich-led teams). It didn't rank first in a single category, but it also ranked no lower than 11th in any of them.

5. 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers

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    The third team of the Shaq-and-Kobe three-peat, the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers were clearly headlined by those two stars, but they received major contributions from a couple of role players in the playoffs.

    Believe it or not, Robert Horry was second to O'Neal among Lakers in postseason BPM thanks to his versatile defense at the 4 and a 38.7 three-point percentage.

    Rick Fox was key, as well. He did a little bit of everything for L.A. during those playoffs, averaging 9.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals. The Lakers were plus-8.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, compared to minus-8.1 when he was off.

    And finally, there was Derek Fisher, who ascended to his role as the Lakers' starting point guard during this postseason (he would later relinquish it in 2003-04 before returning to the Lakers in 2007-08). His 10.2 playoff points per game and timely shooting came in handy on more than one occasion.

    But again, this is about Shaq and Kobe, and they were a force in 2001-02.

    The Lakers had entered the "cruise control during the regular season" portion of the dynasty, but O'Neal (who only played 67 games) and Bryant finished the season fifth and ninth, respectively, in wins over replacement player (first and third in the playoffs).

    They combined to average 52.4 points, 16.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists, and over 60 percent of the team's regular-season wins over replacement player came from them.

    This season isn't without controversy, though. The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings are an NBA conspiracy theorist's playground.

    The Kings, who were the top seed in the West, led the series 3-2 heading into Game 6. A 40-25 disparity in free-throw attempts in the series' penultimate game raised red flags for plenty of fans. They started waving furiously in 2008 when former referee Tim Donaghy claimed that contest was fixed.

    Others pushed back in an oral history on Grantland.

    "My background is well documented, and I've been dealing with criminals for a long time," said Bob Delaney, who officiated Game 6 and was a police officer prior to his career with the league. "Criminals will step on anybody's head to get out of the water, to get out of the pool ... It didn't surprise me or quite honestly concern me, because I know my own character, I know who I am—my resume is more than a little bit stronger than Tim Donaghy's."

    Regardless of what happened in Game 6, the Kings had another shot to end the Lakers' dynasty in Sacramento during Game 7. They came up short. And the numbers deployed for this exercise peg the 2001-02 Lakers as one of the decade's best teams.

4. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs

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    The 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs featured the legendary Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker at or near the peak of their powers.

    Duncan averaged 20.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 blocks. Tony Parker added 18.6 points and 5.5 assists per game, and Manu Ginobili provided 16.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 threes per contest off the bench while leading the team in BPM.

    There was a Jedi-like balance between those three throughout the season and into the playoffs. Across all regular-season and postseason minutes, San Antonio was plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions when all three were on the floor.

    But in typical form for Gregg Popovich-coached teams, there was plenty of support for the stars, too.

    Bruce Bowen was a first-team All-Defensive selection and shot 38.4 percent from three. Michael Finley averaged 9.0 points off the bench. Brent Barry had an all-time-great shooting season.

    Among the 1,294 individual seasons in which a player has taken at least as many threes as Barry's 287, the San Antonio wing's 62.6 effective field-goal percentage is tied for seventh all-time.

    With the three stars jelling and the role players more than living up to their end of the bargain, the Spurs cruised to a 16-4 record in the playoffs (including a sweep in the Finals).

    Like the Lakers' 2001-02 playoff run, though, this one wasn't as squeaky-clean as the record might suggest.

    In Game 4 of San Antonio's second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, Robert Horry hit Steve Nash with a "hockey-style" check that drew Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw off the bench to defend their point guard.

    Both forwards, who were first and sixth, respectively, in scoring for the Suns that season, were suspended for Game 5. The Spurs won the last two games of the series before cruising through the rest of the postseason.

3. 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers

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    This is another placement that may be somewhat difficult to believe. How can the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe and Pau Gasol, be better than any of the Shaq-and-Kobe squads?

    Well, let's examine.

    For one, they had a better version of Kobe. His 5.9 BPM this season was better than any mark he put up during the three-peat, and his 50.2 effective field-goal percentage was tied for the third-highest mark of his career (barely trailing his 2012-13 and 2007-08 campaigns).

    Then, in the playoffs, Kobe was even better. In fact, the 2009 postseason may have been the best of his career. 

    He put up postseason career bests in offensive box plus/minus, defensive box plus/minus and turnover percentage thanks to averages of 30.2 points, 5.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.6 turnovers and 1.7 steals. During those playoffs, L.A. was plus-9.7 points per 100 possessions with Kobe on the floor and minus-2.7 with him off.

    But this team was much more than prime Kobe. With Pau, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher and others, it was perhaps deeper than any of the three-peat Lakers teams. The 2008-09 squad had eight players with 500-plus minutes and an above-average BPM. L.A. averaged six such players from 1999-00 to 2001-02.

    On a less mathematical level, it's worth pointing out how good Odom and Ariza were during this era. Both had skill sets that were ahead of their time. Odom was a playmaking 4 who could dominate the glass, and Ariza was the kind of switch three-and-D combo forward teams are constantly after these days.

    Timely contributions from other names you likely remember, like Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar, helped the stars at the top of this roster push through a relatively comfortable postseason. They faced a Game 7 in the second round, but their 7.9 playoff net rating is the third-best of the 2000s teams sampled here.

2. 2007-08 Boston Celtics

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    Few superteams across NBA history came together as seamlessly as the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.

    The previous offseason was filled with fireworks for the Celtics.

    On June 28, 2007, Boston made a draft-night deal that sent Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and a second-round pick to the Seattle Supersonics for Glen Davis and Ray Allen, the latter of whom was coming off an age-31 season in which he averaged 26.4 points and 3.0 threes while shooting 37.2 percent from deep.

    But Boston wasn't done there. Just over a month later, it traded Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and two first-round picks for Kevin Garnett. The 2003-04 MVP had just averaged 22.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 blocks for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    "I couldn't ask for a better situation," Garnett said after the trade. "I asked for veterans, I didn't expect to get a seven-time All-Star or a [10-time] All-Star. This is a dream come true. I feel like a rookie again."

    The 10-time All-Star he was referring to, of course, was Paul Pierce, the longtime Celtic he and Allen would be joining in Boston. From the outset, all three seemed to fit together perfectly.

    Boston went 66-16 during the 2007-08 season. Among the 2000s teams sampled for this exercise, the Celtics finished first in simple rating system, net rating and relative defensive rating, and it's that last number that really sets this team apart.

    These Celtics were a defensive juggernaut. The 1963-64 and 1964-65 Celtics, the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs are the only teams in league history with better relative defensive ratings.

    When KG was on the floor, Boston's opponents scored 97.6 points per 100 possessions and had a 45.0 effective field-goal percentage. The league averages for those marks in 2007-08 were 107.5 and 49.7, respectively.

    Seemingly every rotation was made perfectly. KG was the vocal middle linebacker who managed everything, and everyone on the roster appeared committed to their assignments. Leon Powe was the only player with at least 500 minutes and a below-average defensive box plus/minus.

    On the other end, the Celtics weren't quite as dominant, but the three superstars and second-year point guard Rajon Rondo did more than enough to carry the offense. When all four were on the floor, Boston scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions.

    With a star-studded starting five and a deep and dedicated defense, Boston ran roughshod through the NBA and capped a championship season with a 4-2 win over Kobe, Pau and the Lakers in the Finals.

1. 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers

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    Fresh off their first NBA title together, Shaq and Kobe led a 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers squad that seemed to ease off the gas a bit during the regular season.

    Among the 2000s teams sampled for this exercise, this one ranks 20th or worse in regular-season win percentage, simple rating system, relative defensive rating and net rating. They didn't even have the top record in the West when the 2000-01 campaign wrapped.

    But none of that mattered in the playoffs when the Lakers authored one of the most dominant postseason runs in NBA history.

    L.A. destroyed every team in its path, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and top-seeded San Antonio Spurs on a run through the West. In Game 1 of the Finals, Allen Iverson scored 48 points in a Philadelphia 76ers win, but the Lakers quickly got back on track, winning the next four games by an average of 10 points.

    In the Finals, Shaq averaged 33.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.4 blocks. (Over the course of the three-peat, he averaged 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.9 blocks in 15 Finals games.)

    This season could also be pointed to as the one in which Kobe reached true superstar status.

    In 1999-00, he was 12th in the league in BPM, but his 22.5 points per game suggested he was a clear No. 2 to Shaq. In 2000-01, his average jumped all the way to 28.5 points, just two-tenths of a point shy of O'Neal's. He also finished in the top 10 of MVP voting for the first of what would eventually be 12 times.

    Shaq and Kobe were clearly dynamic together on their way to championship No. 1. But they really started to stake their claim as one of the best duos of all time in 2000-01.

          

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comPBPStats.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.