The Greatest NBA Teams of All Time
There has been a little bit of chatter about the greatest NBA teams of all time lately, after John Hollinger ranked all 60 NBA Finals teams of the last 30 years (Insider, but currently a free preview), and then Bill Simmons followed up with plenty of commentary in a recent chat.
Before we throw in our .02 on the greatest teams ever, here are two other links for your reference:
• ESPN.com: Ken Shouler ranks the 10 best pre-'77 champs
• NBA.com: Rankings of all the NBA champs in reg.-season + playoffs winning pct. (through 2003)
And let's preface this whole thing by admitting that it's an exercise in complete folly. Bill Russell is considered one of the greatest centers and greatest winners of all time, yet he played at 6-9 and about 220 lbs. -- those are small-forward dimensions in this era. How can you accurately gauge teams from his era vs. today's? Well, you can't. But it's still fun to argue about, so here we go....
I believe that these four teams stand out from the crowd as the best NBA clubs ever (regular season + playoff records in parens):
- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10 + 15-3 = 87-13)
- 1986-87 L.A. Lakers (65-17 + 15-3 = 80-20)
- 1985-86 Boston Celtics (67-15 + 15-3 = 82-18)
- 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13 + 11-4 = 79-17)
WHY NO '72 LAKERS?
A lot of people instinctively put the '71-72 Lakers on the short list of the best teams ever, because of their gaudy 69-13 record (plus 12-3 in the playoffs). I think that that record is a bit misleading for a couple reasons.
1. Records at the top ends of sports leagues are often inflated during times of expansion, and the NBA was at the end of an era of massive expansion in the early '70s, having gone from nine teams in 1965-66 to 17 in 1970-71.
2. The ABA was near its peak at this time. Having guys like Erving, Barry, Issel and Gilmore, among others, in the rival league depleted talent in the NBA.
It's hard for me b/c I didn't see this team multiple times, but I find it hard to believe that this team - with Jerry West at 33 and Wilt at 35 - was even better than the Lakers team in '69 (which blew the Finals to an inferior Boston team), with those players three years younger, and Elgin Baylor still a factor as well.
'67 SIXERS COMMENT
Wilt is of course famous for his 50 ppg season in '61-62, the year when he had his 100-point game, but I've always thought that 1966-67 was his most statistically perfect season.
The Dipper posted 24 ppg, 24 rpg and 8 apg on 68% FG - how beautiful of a line is that? If that's not enough, he went 22-29-9 in the playoffs, though his shooting tailed off to a mere 58%!
This well-balanced team had three of the 50 Greatest Players - Wilt, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham - plus Chet Walker, who was just short of being a Hall of Famer.
(While we're talking Sixers, I should note that I'd probably rank the '83 "Fo'-Fo'-Fo'" Sixers as the No. 5 team all-time - seems like they get overlooked, as does big Moses.)
(While we're talking Wilt, it's also weird that one of his teams makes my elite list but Russell's Celts are absent, even though Russ out-championshipped Wilt 11-2. Go back to the link above and look at Boston's season records - even though they won 11 in 13 years, they never really had a single year where they put up a gaudy record. Though it should be noted that for most of that run, there were only 8-9 teams in the league, so the talent was really concentrated.)
'85 OR '87 LAKERS?
A lot of people seem to favor the '85 Lakers (62-20 + 15-4 = 77-24) over the '87 Lakers (80-20), and I must say it's mystifying to me. Of course, Magic was at his best in '87 (career-high 27.0 PER) - Riley fully handed him the reins of the offense and Magic scored a career-high 23.9 ppg (up from 18.3 in '85) while maintaining his averages of 6 reb and 12 ast.
But the main reason I think '87 is a no-brainer over '85 is more intangible, something I feel has been forgotten over time: the midseason acquisition of Mychal Thompson to come off the bench. It wasn't quite the boost that the Bill Walton acquisition gave the Celtics in '86 (the clear factor which elevates that Boston team over others), but it was a pretty significant adrenaline shot. Thompson was a quality player - he averaged career highs of 20.8/11.7 in '82 and gave the Lakers very solid production of 10 pts/4 reb in 21 mpg in '87. Having a big man of that caliber to come off the bench really elevated that team to the all-time greats, in my mind.
WHICH BULLS TEAM?
Simmons favors the '92 Bulls (67-15 + 15-7 = 82-22) as the best MJ team, but - as much as I loved the way that team attacked on defense with "Dobermans" Jordan, Pippen and Grant - I have to take points off for their struggles in the playoffs.
They were taken to 7 games by the Knicks in a hard-fought Conf. Semis, and then to 6 in both the Conf. Finals (CLE) and the Finals (POR). It really was a slog for that club in the postseason.
In '95-96, meanwhile, Jordan came back strong after a full summer of training and the Rodman acquisition gave them a burst of energy - they dominated the season from start to finish. They beat the Knicks in 5 in the Conf. Semis, and then crushed a 60-win team - Orlando with Shaq & Penny - in 4 games in what had been an eagerly anticipated Conf. Finals. And then they took care of a 64-win Sonics team in 6, after staking out a 3-0 series lead.
Yes, this was an expansion year, which helped inflate win totals at the top, but this was a thoroughly dominant team. It's underestimated how much Kukoc (6th man of the year; career-best 20.4 PER) came into his own that season.
I will remember this team for two of the greatest displays of basketball I've ever seen, one offensive, one defensive:
1. Game 2 vs. Orlando: Looking at the record books now and seeing that sweep, it's hard to remember that this series was still very much in doubt midway through the third quarter of Game 2, as the Magic were up 18 and looked to be heading to a split in Chicago.
Then, the Bulls turned the screws and - led by MJ and Pip of course - went to an absolutely ferocious trapping defense which ate Penny and co. alive, and turned the game. As much as anything, it was a display of the peerless MJ-led will to win which this club had, and it was exhilirating to watch.
2. Game 3 vs. Seattle: Harper was hurt, so Kukoc started and Chicago had its best offensive lineup from the get-go, with MJ-Pip-Kukoc-Rodman-Longley. The poor Sonics fans had been waiting 17 years for a Finals game, and in an instant, those five Bulls elegantly and surgically removed Seattle's heart, outscoring the Supes 34-16 in the 1st Q with gorgeous execution of the triangle offense.
Basketball at its best is like great jazz, and those five were like a classic Miles Davis quintet in that quarter. I've learned over time that the prettiest basketball seems to be played when forwards and centers who are great passers are present, and Pip/Kukoc certainly fill that bill (Rodman was an underrated passer, too).
These are the types of games that I wish made the air as "classics" every now and then -- even though they weren't famous games, I think they're more indicative of the character and soul of this team.
WHICH 2K LAKERS TEAM?
The Shaq-Kobe Lakers fall short of the upper echelon of all-time teams in my mind. Maybe if they had put it all together in one season, I'd think differently.
The 2000 squad went 67-15 in the regular season, but went just 15-8 in the postseason, escaping Portland by a whisker and also getting extended the full 5 in the 1st Round by SAC.
Meanwhile, the 2001 edition swept through the playoffs at a 15-1 clip (losing only Game 1 of the Finals of OT, when Iverson turned in the best game of his career), but meandered to a 56-26 record in the regular season, finishing just 21st in the league on D (points per possession). This team didn't really turn it on until mid-March, when Derek Fisher returned from injury, so it's hard for me to rank them with the very best, even though they did have Shaq playing nearly as physically unstoppable as any player's ever been.
Their playoff run was slightly aberrant to me, too, in that I don't know if I've ever seen a team that sustained such a hot streak from three-point land - they went 32-72 (.444) in their sweep of the Spurs (WCF), followed up by 36-75 (.480) in the Finals - .463 total for those two series, for a team that shot the 3 at just .344 over the course of the regular season. Don't get me wrong - I think they were worthy champs and a great team, but I think the insanity of their playoff record was partially because they got insanely hot.
WHO WOULD WIN THE ALL-TIME FINAL FOUR?
After all that verbiage, who would win? I don't know. I tend to think the '86 Celts are the best ever - Walton off the bench was just too much - but I think that many tend to underestimate the Bulls because their lineup of individuals might not look as impressive as the '80s Celtics or Lakers.
As Simmons voiced it: "Who's guarding Shaq on that team? Who's guarding McHale? Who's guarding Kareem? Shawn Kemp destroyed them in the Finals, what do you think those guys would have done?"
Let me first point out that a) the '96 Bulls did manage to somehow guard Shaq, sweeping a 60-win Magic team in the conference finals and b) while Kemp did hurt the Bulls, even the '86 C's managed to drop two in the Finals to a 51-win Rockets team.
And there are the two related reasons that I think the '96 Bulls get underrated compared to the '80s Celtics/Lakers:
1) PIP'S DEFENSE
The main thing I love about Simmons' incredulous questions above is that while he asks "Who guards McHale?" and "Who guards Kareem?", shouldn't the first questions be "Who guards Bird?" and "Who guards Magic?" The Bulls might have had trouble covering dominant low-post players (see the comments for a great point on how they covered for this perceived weakness with trapping and pressing), but they actually had the ideal player to guard *both* the respective superstars, in Scottie Pippen.
2) OVERALL TEAM DEFENSE
Whenever I watch games from the '80s - up to and including the Celtics-Lakers classics in the Finals - I'm always taken aback at how little defense was played compared to today's game. The Bad Boy Pistons and the Doberman Bulls changed the game for the better by bringing season-long defense to the league.
Now look at this team again: Jordan, Pippen, Rodman. Those three are in the conversation of the best of all-time at their respective positions as defenders.
Vs. Boston, I think that, coupled with Pip on Bird, Rodman could have given McHale fits inside.
Vs. the Lakers, I think that Pippen on Magic and Rodman on Worthy would have been pretty good defensive matchups for CHI as well.
Kareem would have been a tough matchup, yes, but you know, even though BOS and LAL had DJ and Coop, respectively, they might have had a little trouble containing the guy wearing no. 23 in red and black....
Again, I think that Walton's presence in '86 made that Celtics team the best ever, but I'd never bet against the '96 Bulls.